Celebrating Shakespeare and our Language

william-shakespeare-62936_1280400 Years since Shakespeare’s Death



This year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death on 23rd April 1616, a day which, as Clarisse Loughrey in The Independent rightly says marked a day when ‘a man died but a legend was born.’ His legend, in fact, is still very evident in the very language we speak. He is a character who is very dear to our hearts here in Verona, so I decided to dedicate a blog post to him today.

Shakespeare and Iatefl Birmingham 2016

One of the things it was hard to miss at the recent Iatefl Conference in Birmingham was the centre stage in the middle of the exhibition area, where mini performances had been scheduled for the whole conference, an excellent idea.

One day when I was wandering around the book stalls and being handed cupcakes and sparkling wine (just thought I’d add that detail) I heard the amazing sound of Shakespeare as ‘hip-hop’. So I found out who was doing this amazing performance and it turned out that this was a group of people who, among other things, perform  educational events. They come under the name of THSC or The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company. Check them out to hear Shakespeare as you’ve never heard him before. Here is a video to see what I mean: a comparison of hip-hop with Shakespeare followed by the hip-hop version of Sonnet 18:

Shakespeare and Our Language

Whether you like the hip-hop version or not is probably a matter of taste, but one thing is clear: much of the language we speak today (and this is true not only of English but others too) has been influenced by Shakespeare, partley because so many have read his works or seen them performed, but the pervasive nature of expressions that he coined is a tribute to the poetry of the language he uses itself, I think.

Yesterday, Sian Morgan, a friend of mine on Facebook shared an image of ‘Things we say today which we owe to Shakespeare” which is a picture of a notebook page written by 20-year-old Becky in London and published in September 2011 on Tumblr (See the link above).  It was simply an image of the notes she had taken of simple expressions from everyday language that come from Shakespeare’s work, but it very quickly went viral. Sian’s post reminded me of this image, so I have decided to celebrate the Bard by giving you all a mini lesson plan. It could be used as the starter to a lesson or as a follow up activity and may be related to:








… and many more.

Here is the updated image and the original, which Becky generously gives her permission to everyone to use. (I actually prefer the original, spelling mistake and all!)



Mini Lesson Plan

  1. Project the image of the language without the heading and ask learners what the connection between these ‘chunks’ is or where they think they originate from;
  2. Ask learners to choose the chunk or saying they like best (this is best done quickly, instinctively);
  3. Ask them to write their saying on a slip of paper;
  4. Collect the slips of paper and redistribute them randomly to everyone in the class;
  5. Ask learners to ‘mill’ around the classroom and their aim is to find the ‘owner’ of the ‘saying they have been given. They can do this by asking questions or guessing but they cannot simply ask; did you write X? They could, for instance, for a saying like ‘vanish into thin air’ ask:
    1. Did you choose something about escaping/ superhuman powers?
    2. Did you choose an image related to ‘air’?
  6. Finally group learners in small groups (with their original slips of paper) and ask them to discuss why they chose their expressions with questions such as:
    1. Did you like the sound?
    2. Did you like the image?
    3. Did you like the idea?
    4. Did you like the language?
  7. Optional stages:
    1. ask them discuss what they think their choice says about the way they are feeling at the moment;
    2. ask them discuss the influence of Shakespeare on their language: do they recognise any of these expressions?
    3. ask them discuss the influence of similar literary figures from their own culture: in Italy an obvius candidate would be Dante, for instance.

I coould go on but I think that is enough for today. Any comments or more ideas would be very welcome 🙂


Can’t see the language for the errors

Welcome to my latest exam time post

IMG_2467The Idea

It’s exam time again in Verona. Well, to be honest, it is often exam time, but this is one of the big sessions. We had 2,200 enrolments for English on Monday last week for our written tests, which makes for a considerable amount of marking. Our approach to marking written work in sessions like this is threefold: 1) we use a criterion referenced approach to each level which describes in general terms what each area means so that a band 3 mark (and we allow for half marks as well) on C1 writing as far as task achievement is concerned would be awarded to a candidate who is able to produce: “an adequate answer to the question, the meaning is always clear  although some parts may require further development and where the style is generally appropriate for chosen genre.” Our learners do not have the exact grids that we use but they have their own descriptions provided in a more learner friendly way to help them develop the skills they need. Extending ideas, for instance, at C1, which is one of the requirements of the Common European Framework (CEFR) generally needs quite a lot of work as many learners are not used to developing ideas and arguments about particular ideas, and tend to list ideas or summarise their reading. That, however, is a topic for another day. Let’s get back to the examiner’s viewpoint. 2) The second step is to hold examiner meetings at each level to standardize our approach to correction where questions such as what does “adequate” actually mean, and how different is it from “good” etc. This stage is essential if our marks are to be valid. 3) Since we have so many candidates we cannot guarantee double marking of all of them so we choose random samples to double or triple mark. So far so good, you might think. This is a logical, systematic approach to the whole process which is doing its best to be a fair, valid system for the candidates taking the exams, but what is interesting, I think is what happens next. 20110924-194940.jpg Can’t see the language for the errors Once you, as an examiner, have standardized with the others it is just you and the script… or is it? No, actually, it’s you, the script, your everyday concerns, your prejudices and beliefs etc. etc. do you see what I mean? Well, let’s take the classic example or “errors”. Even in the 21st Century there are still those, who despite all the standardization in the world still count errors to come to their conclusions. In a way, it’s natural. What hits you in the face when you read a text is what is wrong with it, but actually, as most of us, in fact, know, there is a lot more going on in that text.

Errors or Mistakes?

The first point to be made here is whether examiners are looking at errors or mistakes; a distinction which is often swept under the carpet as being too technical, but which I actually think is essential. Mistakes are slips or the wrong production of something you really know and they are thought to be related to problems with retrieving information rather than not knowing something. This happens with a slip of the tongue for instance, and is often easy to correct. In fact, people often correct themselves on the spot. Mistakes may not even, then be related to your linguistic competence. I might say “I got to the airport at 8pm” instead of “I got to the station at 8pm” and they happen for all kinds of reasons such as tiredness or stress etc.

An error, on the other hand, is generally linked in our field to your knowledge or lack of it when it comes to language. This may come about because of something that you have not yet studied, so a B1 level student would probably not have studied complex rhetorical structures like “No sooner had we arrived...” If a B1 learner tries to use this and gets the word order wrong it is something that, in my opinion, should be given credit as the learner is trying to use complex language to express their thoughts. It should definitely not be penalized simply because “No sooner I arrived“, for instance is “wrong”. This would be too simplistic. Another occurrence of error is the result of not having internalised grammatical rules yet. This is related to something a learner has studied perhaps or heard, read, but cannot actually produce perfectly so a learner may have seen the expression “It’s worth fighting for freedom of speech“. (It was on the C1 question paper with reference to Charlie Hebdo, so you would hope most people read it, but that learner, then, in the composition writes womething like “Freedom of speech worths to fight.” This is an error but once again the question is should we be giving learners credit for trying to use more complex language or should we be penalizing them for “getting things wrong”? My own personal take on this is that it is a matter of common sense. If a learner is doing a C1 exam and there are so many errors, many of which occur in simple rather than complex language, then that individual is unable to express their thoughts clearly and, to go back to the descriptor “the meaning is not always clear” (although there may even be some discussion of “always” here too and “clear”. This is the problem with words 🙂 ) If, on the other hand the candidate uses generally clear language and is attempting to use more complex forms, but produces the occasional error like the example above with “worth” then that candidate should be given credit. This means that the item, in this case, worth, is now in their interlanguage and presumably, with enough exposure and use, which is crucial, will probably correct itself. The issue of exposure and use is key here too, but that again is another topic. So, when an examiner sits down with a script it is really important, I feel, to differentiate between mistakes, errors and whether they  impede meaning or not. OK, you may well be saying, but what about the language and the trees… oh, sorry I meant “errors”? Well this is my next point. Not only do we need to differentiate between mistakes and errors but we also need to look at what the learners actually can do and not just be swayed by what they can’t. This is the guiding philosophy behind the CEFR and yet how often do we really apply it?

Looking for the Language

Consider this example from a learner script: “In the long run these problems will continue to be common in the society .” What hits you on the nose about this? Yes, there is an article error “in the society”. In fact the use of articles is extremely problematic for learners and often features on error classification systems. I wonder, though, how many people notice the perfectly correct use of the article in the expression “In the long run”. This is what I mean by not seeing the language for the errors. This learner may well have acquired the correct use of the article here as part of the “phrase” in the long run, but very often we are so busy looking at the errors that we simply don’t see the correct usage. It is apparently easier, of course, to assess error and to determine which errors may correspond to, although there may well be disagreement of this too. The third person ‘s’ which is taught at an early stage but often not acquired until much later, is one common example. What, howeer, is much harder is to assess successful language use and to assign a corresponding level to it. Tools such as The Vocabulary Profile might help us, and I have personally foound it to be very useful. It is a corpus informed description of the words and sometimes phrases learners produce at different levels, but even so, this can only be considered to be a guide.

Look at the text not the sentence

Lose yourself in a good book
Lose yourself in a good book
My own final conclusions on this at the moment are that it is as always important to look at the whole text as well as simple examples of language and to assess as fairly as possible the learner’s capacity of expression over the whole stretch of a text both holistically and in more detail. Our descriptors are guidelines but the process should always include discussion, standardization and the awareness that we are not perfect. Finally there is the candidate whose personality shines through these scripts, and we need to remember that each of these answers was written by someone who is doing their best to use the language they have learned to express themselves, but that they are doing so under exam conditions and we can sometimes perhaps allow for this too.

Heaven or Hell

It all makes me think of the parable of Heaven and Hell with long spoons, which I first came across in “Dictation” by Paul Davis and Mario Rinvolucri (CUP 1995 edition p.72) It is actually a parable though and it goes like this: do you know the difference between Heaven and Hell? Well in Hell everyone has long spoons and tries to eat out of the same bowl of soup but cannot get the spoons into their mouths so they starve. In heaven everyone has long spoons and tries to eat out of the same bowl of soup but cannot get the spoons into their mouths so they feed each other. This, I think is a principle we can apply both to teaching and examining. By discussion and helping each other, and giving clear guidelines to teachers and learners we can help to take some of the stress out of the process for everyone. Tests, and all the stress they involve, both for learners and teachers, are part of our world. What we. As examoners can do is to help learners by giving credit where it is due.

Here is video of the parable produced by Caritas

Post Manchester Iatefl Reflections

Post Manchester Iatefl Reflections


My number one theme from the Conference

Two weeks have now slipped past since I came back from the Iatefl conference (How’s that for a Present Perfect?) and as time goes by certain things recur or fall into place in the somewhat fragmented jigsaw puzzle of my mind. I think the overall theme this year for me at the conference was the issue of where learning takes place, how muchof it is formal, tradional and how much, on the other hand, is informal, incidental, accidental if you like. The question that I keep asking myself is this: where does learning happen?

In fact incidental, informal learning was a theme that came up in the LTSig Pre Conference event where Agnes Kukulska-Hulme’s talked about it, describing the way some learners, who need to integrate themselves into new communities, with new languages, access the language they need for very specific contexts such as “going to a hospital appointment”. She discussed ways of encouraging this  technologically by means of various teaching apps being developed in the projects she is participating in.

The very first conference plenary also touched on this subject as Donald Freeman wondered whether we as teachers are “frozen in thought” driven by the myths of our profession, which, as he said, are not right or wrong but may be both useful in that they are th course we chart, but also limiting if we do not see that other things are going on outside that charted territory. He questioned two points related to the issue of learning in his presentation:

1) there is direct causality between teaching and learning: teaching causes learning;

2) The teacher has “sole” responsibility for the process;

Most of us would have our doubts about these, because we all see on a daily basis that what our students learn may be what we are attempting to teach, but very often is not. Most of us also subscribe to the idea of learner-centred teaching, but the point he was making is that what is taught is often chosen by the teacher, the course book, the programme or what is required to pass exams, and rarely by what the learner truly wants or needs to learn. Of course we all have to respect syllabi, and exam requirements but these could be our map and we can also keep our eyes open to see what is going on around us as we chart this course. Freeman talked about “managing what you can’t control” when you teach but perhaps we should go even further and explore what we can’t control or help the learners control what they want to.

In my Context

In my context, which is not one of learners seeking to integrate themselves into a new world, but rather one of large classes of university students doing lessons that are often held  in traditional classrooms, with a traditional syllabus and traditional expectations, I find myself increasingly asking the question I mentioned above: “Where is learning happening?”. Michael Wesch’s project in 2007 posed the same question in the YouTube video below, asking why learning was “up there” on the blackboard, rather than “down here” where the learners are actually sitting.

So much of what we do in class pays lip service to the notion of being learner centred, I think. But how learner-centred is it? Exams play a central role in the motivation and organisation of study in our university and, therefore, learning comes about often as a sort of by-product of exam preparation. In a world of continual cost cutting and shrinking course hours the focus is often on what is in the exam and what to do to prepare for it. This is almost inevitably a top-down process.

Added to this the belief in online self-access courses as a sort of general panacea and we are charting a route towards disaster rather than a real learning process. In my version of blended learning, as yoou probably already know, I believe in integrating the online work with the face to face work in what I hope is a smooth “blend”. Learners participate in the online classroom space developing online dialogues with each other and with me which help to direct our course along its charted path but without being afraid to stop and visit some fertile islands and sandy beaches along the way.

My own Beliefs

Despite the limitations of my own context I am a firm believer in learner centred classrooms and in empowering learners to help them towards autonomy, if that is what they want. One of the other things that I have brought back from the conference, for instance, is a renewed enthusiasm for the use of copora in class. My own learners often misunderstand why certain language choices just don’t work, and they will not always have their teacher there to explain things to them. To teach them how to be able to access a corpus, then, so that they can work these things out for themselves is an essential step in this journey towards autonomy and empowerment. This is easy to say but not so easy to explain so I’d now like to share one example of how we are doing this in class working on an error which is extremely widespread amony italian L1 speakers.



An example of Student/Teacher  Online Dialogue

In a recent piece of wPossibility collocations wordleork, for instance one student wrote:

” If anyone had the possibility of choosing their dream house…”

I questioned the use of “had the possibility” and this was the exchange that followed. It was an asynchronous dialogue that was developed over two weeks in the chat box function of our digital classroom, which is, in itself, a step towards more learner centred work, I think:



Possibility is the wrong choice here both because of the meaning and the verb/noun collocation . Why?

‘Chance or opportunity’ would both work better here. Check the verb patterns for these too.


I do not know why.
to have the chance to do
to have the opportunity of doing


Yes, those verb patterns work, but what about possibility?


I guess “possibility of doing” as I wrote. I cannot figure out why it is not correct.


Why is it incorrect?


Because the meaning of possibility is related to negative things that might happen. It does not collocate with the verb “have” but often with “there is” or “there might be” and intellectual or “thinking/discussing” verbs. 

The verb pattern afterwards is right: of + ing/ or a verbal phrase. So an appropriate use of “possibility” is, for example: “there is a strong possibility that it might rain this afternoon”.

Enabling Learners to Answer their own Questions


As I answered this last question I couldn’t help thinking that it would be so much more helpful if that student (and his classmates) knew how to analyse language in a corpus for themselves as all these things are quite easy to see if you examine examples of “possibility” for its meaning and usage. You need to know, however, what to look for. So that is what we did in class, integrating the need that had emerged online into classroom work that would, hopefully, empower some students to use this tool for themselves independently.

Using Concordance Lines in class

Concordance lines are the examples limited to a certain number of words on each side of the word or phrase you are analysing. They can easily be found by doing a search of the BNC or the American Corpus, both of which are freely accessible, but I actually created a worksheet based on examples from The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, which I include here:
Firstly we noticed that he had only really focused on the question of language forms and usage not on the meaning so we looked at what  “possibility” really means in English. This is a worksheet which guides learners through a series of questions to help them notice various aspects of the meanings and patternings related to “possibilty” and “possibilities” followed by the chance to make this Language their own, another crucial part of the process I think.
Some examples of the type of Language they produced after they had gone through this process were:
“There is a faint possibility that I might pass the French exam.”
“The government is considering the possibility of establishing diplomatic relations to solve …”
 “Nowadays, after recent events such as the Charlie Hebdo attacks, we can not ignore the possibility of an terrorist attacks happening everywhere.”
This is very impressive language use by any definition but what was almost more interesting was the fact that later on we were doing an activity which was not really linked to this but involved developing a questionnaire and interviewing different people in the classroom about their opinions. In this activity I noticed that quite a few people were asking questions like:
“Do you think there is a strong possibility that……….?”
It was one of those light bulb moments for me, when you think “Yes” and want to punch the air around you in triumph. I was fascinated what they were saying as it is not a pattern that these learners would normally use. I don’t know, of course, whether they were doing it intentionally because we had just studied this pattern or whether they will be able to use it this time next week, but I did feel that they had worked out their own meanings and were applying them to a common problem which had emerged from the needs of this particular group, and that the learning was swirling around the activities we were doing each person taking what they could or needed to from each part of the lesson.

Learning to Use Corpora Independently



Students in flow
The next step is to teach learners to use online corpora and to ask “their own questions” rather than mine. So we took some of their representative language problem areas from a recent discussion of social issues in our world and worked with a new site that I have already talked about in an earlier post: SkeLL, which is Sketch Engine’s latest very impressive English Language Learning site. This user-friendly site gives you 40 examples according to common meanings and provides a word sketch of common collocates (for single words) with syntax information as well. Here is the worksheet we used to learn how to use this resource:
What we found was that when it comes to understanding initial meaning dictionaries combined with the examples in the corpora are your best bet, but when it comes to looking at usage, collocations or patterns then SkeLL is a wonderful resource. We then went on to use it to look up kep words for an essay the students were going to write to find out useful language related to the register they needed as well as the lexical grammar of the single item. If you do a search for “government” for isntance you will find a completely different register to the one you would find if you search for “picturesque”.
We are in the middle of our jorney of discovery and I’m sure we’ll meet both limitations and insights along the way, but in any case it is a journey we are undetaking together as a group and in our group both the learners and the teacher are “learning” . Donald Freeman also cited George Pickering as saying “Minds work best like umbrellas, when they are open.” I hope that is what we are doing.
I still keep asking where learning is taking place but a glance at this photo of some of my students working together suggests that the learning is there with them and not up on an authoratative, scary blackboard. At any rate, I hope so 🙂

The Dark Matter, or themes at the Iatefl Conference


Post Method EFL: a theme for this year’s conference


As the sessions pass by and I go through the day at Iatefl I notice certain themes tend to emerge  within the conference, or perhaps what people say  simply reflects ideas I have somewhere in my own mind that are brought to the surface. Whatever the case it is a strange process that I notice happening every year, as one speaker takes ideas from another and weaves them into the fabric of his or her own presentation. As each day progresses I feel ideas and thoughts taking root and blossoming in the back of my mind behind any really conscious thought process. Anyway, this is starting to sound rather too esoteric so let’s get our feet back on the ground.

Going Beyond Limitations

On Friday, as I mentioned in a previous blog post, we rounded off the PCE session with a reflection on questions that may not be new but were related to our teaching practice as new technologies emerge. Diane Slaouti, whose focus was Theorising our Practice, cited Kumaravadivelu and his ideas about post method teaching and I would like to quote one idea from his 2003 publication Beyond Methods which is one of his goals to:

‘urge them [teachers] to go beyond the limited, and limiting, concept of method and consider the challenges and opportunities of an emerging postmethod era in language teaching.’ (p. 1.)

This is the idea I felt kept recurring today: the idea of going beyond limitations and exploiting opportunites. It began this morning with Donald Freeman’s plenary where he discussed the myths we believe  as teachers , and that may freeze our thinking. Our methods and beliefs, our instituational contraints our own fears, hopes and habits can all lead us to limit ourselves and the learning that might take place in our classrooms. He asked who takes responsibility for learning? Does the teacher take sole responsibility for learning? We were all thinking “Oh, no. My classes are learner centred” But how true is this? Who decides what is to be taught or focused on, when and how? How often do we think things to ourselves along the lines of: “Oh, I can’t do this. It won’t work with that class” which is a decision we are making as teachers rather than giving learning a chance to “happen”. So much of learning, which also came up several times on Friday, is informal or incidental, so it it worth asking where learning is happening and how we can leave space for it to happen in our own contexts.

Learners looking for information autonomously
What sort of question is a real question?

What Questions  do we ask?


This idea was taken up by Anrew Walkley who examined the questions we routinely ask in class, and who questioned the effectiveness of classic CCQs, in particular, both for grammar and lexis. Whilst I expressed my reservations about debunking these completely as these mechanisms grew out of a need to have feedback rather than simply asking “Do you understand?” before moving on as students smiled and nodded, even though some of them had not understood a thing! It is undeniable that when done badly CCQs or comprehention questions, as they were known initially, are worse than useless, and that they can only be used to check comprehension of a context for language use rather than focusing on the specific target language being clarified. Andrew illustrated this point very clearly with the use of nonsense language that he attempted to clarify to us. Here is my own invented example:

“Iatefl nisl Harrogate bret laa year.


Is this the past?

Is this the present?

Is this the future?

Obviously you can only answer the question if you know the negative future form. The answer, for all those who want to know is “the future” as “nisl” is a negative auxiliary and “bret” is an infinitive so the translation is ” Iatefl won’t be in Harrogate next year. If you have already studied those forms, however, these questions may form a useful, quick check of comprehension. Andrew’s man point was that by asking and focusing on naturally ocurring questions in chat situations, and expanding learners’ repertoire of such questions, chat situations, which often pass under the radar in classes as teachers greet their classes with questions such as “What did you do at the weekend?” learners can focus on “real” referential questions (rather than questions designed simply for them to display their knowledge) and can develop the language they need to talk about topics that they choose, and that are relevant to them. Once again we come back to the idea of where learning is happening. Is it the teacher who decides the content or is it the learners?

Improvisation is not only in theatre and jazz

Looking at old things in new ways
Looking at old things in new ways

Limitations also appear when we adhere too closely  to our own, safe, familiar methodology, and our lesson plan can become a straightjacket that limits both teachers and learners rather than acting as a springboard for teaching, providing learning opportunites. Adrian Underhill also talked about an aspect of this with his session on the ‘dark matter’ of teaching, of the energy that appears when teachers depart from their lesson plans and improvise, identifying the best point to leave the lesson plan and to go somewhere else, to listen to what our learners are saying or what they need and to follow their lead. Lesson plans, in this way, might be considered to be the map which points the way whilst the lesson itself is the actual journey with all its delays, smells, dialugues and unexpected events. Lessons are social events with human beings and all their interactions which is what makes them messy but what also makes them wonderful and unique as , people open up their own thoughts and worlds to each other, and invite each other in. This is the point at which, as one person, who was sitting next to me said, “the magic happens”.





Getting ready for Iatefl Manchester 2015

Gearing up for the annual Iatefl Conference


Click here for Manchester Online

Hi Everyone,

Are you going to the Iatefl  conference in Manchester this year? Well, as you probably know, it is one of the highlights of my year. I look forward to this concentrated period of time when you can absorb so much and return home energised and raring to go back to work with new teaching ideas, as well as having the chance to catch up with friend that are normally scattered all over the world, but come together for this event.

I personally find this time of year a bit daunting at work. Most people are feeling rather stressed and tired, students are all worried about the exams on the horizon so an injection of pure inspiration is exactly what I need. One of the great things about this conference, as well, is that even if you cannot attend physically so many of the sessions will be streamed and videos are made that are available for up to a year after the actual event. This is organised by the British Council every year and you can join in by going to this address

So don’t miss out. Join in the fun.

My Blogging Plan for this Year’s Conference

Last year I blogged as a registered blogger for the first time and looked at the conference from various different viewpoints. This year I’m planning to start from the viewpoint of someone who is going to speak at the conference. It’s quite a long journey preparing for a presentation, creating it and then delivering it. It can be stressful or it can be exhilerating (with some stress of course but hopefully eustress!)

I thought I’d write today, before everything begins to describe my preparation process in the hope that it will be useful for you too. So, here goes.

IMG_0742The Speaker’s Viewpoint

This year I’ve decided to blog about the conference from the point of view of a speaker, and preparation, if you are giving a presentation, begins long before the conference itself or even before your talk has been accepted. It begins with an idea, something that is playing in your mind perhaps, over and over again, like a haunting tune. It keeps coming back to you at the most unlikely moments and growing into something bigger. This idea then becomes a message that you would like to share with other people. That’s probably the point where you send in your speaker proposal. It could be something you’ve been working on for a while or simply something you feel strongly about or something that is your area of expertise. In my case it is a mixture of all these things.

The first step is the Idea

In any case the first step in the process of developing your talk is to develop your idea and then to decide which aspects to focus on, especially if the topic is broad like blended learning.

My second step is to create my slides

Some people like to write their whole presentation out at this stage as writing helps them develop their ideas, but I prefer to work on my slides next, as I don’t want to get bogged down in the written form. When I speak, I want to do just that: speak, in spoken language that “talks to the audience”. So I create my ideas in frames (usually on Prezi) and then sleep on it.


My third step

The third step is to write the proposal with the main points for Iatefl and to submit it. I won’t spend long on this because by this stage you’ve probably already done that.

My Fourth Step

A few months later I come back to the initial frames and change them being as ruthless as possible, eliminating anything that is not strictly connected to the main ideas. Then I work on timing: rehearsing the presentation to my captive audience “Haggis my pet cat” and recording a screen capture version that I can watch later to hone it down even more.

My Fifth Step

My fifth step is to produce a worksheet or a sheet with useful links etc. and contact details to give to participants at the conference. This is something I do before I leave because it’s generally easier to do photocopies etc. before you get to the conference venue itself. I also make sure that I have sceenshots of important web pages as you can’t always count on the Internet connection working and for my own peace of mind I like to be prepared. For the same reason I also make a portable prezi which can be downloaded and used offline as and when you need it.

Fly away on a story
Flying off to an enchanting time at Iatefl Manchester!

So, that’s about it. At this stage all I have to do is check in and fly!

See you there.

EFL Advent Calendar Activity 2014

Hi everyone,

A couple of years ago I made a Powerpoint Advent Calendar for my students, which would work just as well this year. You can also use the Powerpoint as a template to make your own if you’d like to. 🙂

Last year though I tried something new, although it may be rather complicated, using Smilebox (see below) and this could also be used this year, so take your pick: Powerpoint or Smilebox?

First play the smilebox, after it has loaded, which takes a couple of minutes, and you will see a classic advent calendar with windows and little animations behind each one: excellent for all those teaching young learners. It could be used as a prompt for Christmas vocabulary or a game: guess what is behind the window etc.

But there is even more….

If you click on window 24 and wait you will come to a series of 24 photos (yes, you’ve guessed: one for each day in December). Each photo has a question that can be used for multicultural discussion or even as a warmer at this time of year: so here is it the singing and dancing Advent Calendar 2012 with all its bells and whistles 🙂

Click to play this Smilebox greeting
Create your own greeting - Powered by Smilebox
A free digital ecard by Smilebox

TESOL Rome 2014: a moment of sharing and meeting.


imageThe annual TESOL Italy Conference has been going on this weekend, in Rome against a backdrop of blue skies and political agitation in an Italy characterised as ever by contrasts. Even being able to attend a conference like this is a privelege in theses times of economic crisis, and this is, I think, to some extent reflected in the quality of the content being presented and discussed here. This is a conference with a very friendly atmosphere where people felt happy to exchange their views with each other and by the end of the two days everyone seemed to know everyone else 🙂

The Advantages of Physically Attending a Conference

Online conferences and webinars are a wonderful opportunity for people to share knowledge and learn in ways that were simply not possible in the past but if I can, I still prefer to attend a conference physically, so why is this? Well, here are a few reasons:

1. firstly, you get the chance to “take time out” from your daily routine which means that you probably focus that much more on what is going on at the conference;

2. You get to see a wonderful new place like Rome and breathe in a different atmosphere;

3. You can physically see the body language of people, communicate directly both during sessions and outside by smiles, eye contact and a whole range of signals that are difficult to achieve online, although there other advantages to the online spaces, but more about that later;

4. Most of all the whole event is an adventure and this one began when I was sitting on a high speed train being whisked through a whole range of autumn colours and landscapes. I could already feel myself relaxing and I leafed through the programme reading abstracts and deciding which sessions I wanted to go to. There were some names I knew already but there were a lot of sessions being held by people I didn’t know. They were simply names on a timetable, but then I arrived and went to the sessions and over a coffee or a Prosecco I got to know some of the people behind the names, their worlds, experiences, hopes and fears and they got to know me. Our worlds for these two days began to coalesce, and now that I’m back in Verona I have this warm feeling of having made a whole new group of friends and colleagues as well as catching up with some old friends too.

However conferences are mainly a great opportunity to learn and to share knowledge so here are some of the main threads that ran through this rich tapestry.

Key Themes


One of the key themes in this conference was inclusion which extends beyond the idea of special needs to encompass all learners with their various differences, seeing each person as someone unique with something to contribute to the group. Another key theme was CLIL which actually seemed to spark a rather stormy reaction from some of the audience, perhaps, as a reaction to some of the ministery’s less popular decisions and treatment of the topic in recent times. On the other hand, there were some high school students at the conference presenting their CLIL projects in an extremely professional way related to art and design with a project that took some teenagers to Aarhus in Denmark to investigate the architecture of living spaces and to participate in a design project themselves creating a bench. Another group tackled the complex topic of thermodynamic laws and the way in which household appliances create heat, which they did in a lively. entertaining presentation that was well choreographed and performed. I, for one, will never look at my fridge in the same way!

Lifelong learning and  Professional Learning Communities were two more threads. Nowadays PLCs  inevitably include the aspect of online professional development which I mentioned above but in her plenary, Deena Boraie also warned against those who seek to “stick a plaster” over a gaping need for development by creating portals with online content but no real support in using or learning from such resources. I, as eveyone knows, am very much in favour of technology and what it can add to teaching and learning but it doesn’t mean that I am blind to the abuse of resources. Like anything else, though, I don’t believe this is necessarily connected to technology itself but to the use people make of it.

Scott Thornbury made the point that the promises made by commercial technology are nothing new and that they are often mirages designed to sell.  There is no reason to use technology just because of the “wow factor” if something else will do the job just as well. He cited Marcos Benevides’ “nightmare” experience with ebooks, when he tried to use them in class with students constantly losing their passwords or having technology problems, which makes me think of the “The dog ate my homework” syndrome to some extent and Made me smile.  Marcos himself has created incredibly high quality ereaders and is one of their advocates, so coming from him these warnings are all the more poignant. and I agree wholeheartedly with all this, having attemptd to encourage my own students to download the ebook version of their coursebook, which was extremely complicated and we wasted a lot of precious classroom time trying to sort it out. There are also aspects to ebooks that may not be abvious and things that learners, or anyone else, need to know.  When they buy an ebook, for instance, and not the paper book, they are paying for the license and not the content, which means that they will probably only be able to access that content for a certain number of years, so although just buying the ebook is cheaper it is actually probably better to get the paper book and then download the ebook as well.

These commercial concerns are real, and like anything else, a great deal of care needs to be taken with the tools we use.Technological resources are the same as any other resources, and it is always how we use them that makes the difference.

if you would like to see my Prezi on the subject follow this link

Leo Selivan and Anthony Ash also gave a great presentation of online platforms and they themselves are the embodiment of the good things about the online spaces. They had not actually met “in the flesh” until shortly before their presentation, although they knew each other well online. Despite this they gave a wonderful performance presenting their content in the form of a type of informal conversation where one seemed to be chatting to the other and asking each other questions in a seamless flow. One of the pros of online webinars which I love (never being one to hold back when it comes to commenting and asking questions, myself) is the chat stream in webinars where you can ask questions during the session itself instead of having to wait until the end when you may well have forgotten your question.

Creativity and Mindfulness

imageThese were also threads running through this conference and John Angelori’s session on the mindful classroom was a small oasis of calm in the middle of the day. Elizabeth Evans also drew on some central tenets of mindfulness such as the need for moments of stillness, which I really liked. One of the pearls of wisdom she gave us was:

“Be still until the sunlight pours through and dispels the mists. Then act with courage.” ( Ponca Chief White Eagle)

I adapted this to apply to the principled use of technology in learning and my version goes like this:

“be still until relevance dispels the wow factor mists of technological tools and then act conscientiously with insight and courage.”

Making Assessment Relevant to the Learners

Sarah Ellis kicked off on Friday morning with her interesting talk on LOA (Learner orientated assessment) which is seeking to focus on the fact that formative assessment is an ongoing ingredient in the recipe which is teaching and learning and that summative assessment has to be the dish that we eat at the end of it.

I have to add here that food was another very important thread in the conference, being mentioned by more than one presenter and being sampled by everyone, in particular at the music and wine tasting on Friday, so it definitely wasn’t all work and no play.

imageCreativity and Assessment: combining the seemingly disconnected and making exam preparation more relevant for learners

Luc Prodromou took creativity up again on Saturday morning by reminding us that exams preparation needs to be relevant and memorable to our learners and that creavity can be described as connecting the disconnected, like the surprising combination of Alberto Sordi on the wall of a building in the amazing Garbatella area where the conference was held.

Luc gave us a whole range of creative activies including old Pligrims favourites and some new ideas too. Looking at exams preparation, for instance, might mean hiding song lyrics in emails that are written as exams practice. These emails can then be used in class as learners search for the Hidden songs”.

The last session on Saturday was well worth waiting for too, as Michela Romoli stunned us with her Introduction to Prezi and the prezi she had made itself, which is an excellent example of how effective this presentation tool can be.  To see it follow this link 🙂


imageFinal thoughts

All in all, the atmosphere at the conference was very friendly and inclusive and I certainly learned a lot as well as having the chance to catch up with lots of friends and make new ones. I also discovered an area of Rome: Garbatella (see the photo above) which is very interesting and as is the name itself which comes from a young lady who ran a hostelry in this area and was both “garbata” polite and “bella” beautiful: hence: Garbatella. There are some incredible buildings in this area which I find fascinating. So thank you Tesol Italy, for a lovely two days 🙂 Hope to see you all again next year.









Gearing up for Iatefl 2014 in Harrogate…

Blogger-harrogate-300x300-bannerGetting the Most out of a Great Conference

Whether you are teaching in the UK or in New Zealand, or even a village in Umbria, you have almost certainly heard of the annual IATEFL conference, where thousands of ELT professionals gather in the UK to share their ideas, to network, browse publications, to attend the great “EFL related” evening entertainment:  ranging from cabaret acts and storytelling to music, general knowledge quizzes, Pecha Kucha ev and several parties and, of course we all go there to learn and develop professionally.

An Uplifting Moment in the Year

I’ve been attending this conference for quite a few years now and I must say that it is one of the most uplifting moments in my professional year. I always come home feeling recharged (if exhausted) with new ideas and insights to explore and put into practice. When you’ve been teaching for a while, you need this sort of event to recharge your batteries and to help you keep up your enthusiasm. The conference, as I said, is enormous though, so it is important to have some kind of game plan before you even start, otherwise the wealth of parallel sessions, not to mention the evening events will overwhelm you. So here are a few tips for a great conference. (I’m writing them for myself, by the way, but I thought I’d share them with you too.

merry go round
All the fun of the fair

Tips for a Getting the most out of the Conference

1) First of all, if you can’t come physically, don’t despair. Iatefl, together with the British Coucil, stream many of the sessions and others are videod so you can watch them at your leisure. Go to Iatefl Harrogate 2014 Online

2) Also the fact that so many sessions are videod means that you don’t need to panic if you can’t see everything. You can catch up later. So check which sessions are being filmed and if it clashes with something else, or, which sometimes happens, the room is full, don’t worry. You can see it later.

3) Use the programme well. It is an enormous publication with a wealth of information. I generally don’t carry it around with me as it’s heavy but I pull the coloured pages out from the back for each day and that is my working programme. It also helps you to see events you might otherwise miss. I noticed the “Open Spaces” event for this year, which I think looks very interesting.

4) Don’t try to do everything. I generally have several criteria I apply to the sessions I attend. (Yours may well be different but the point is you need to have some 🙂

a) I look to see who is presenting to go to talks by people I’m interested in because I’ve read their books, know their blogs etc. and I try to see new people each year;

b) I restrict my sessions to fields I’m particularly interested in, such as materials development, e-learning and technology, learner autonomy. However, I don’t reject other things that may look interesting, and every conference seems to organically create a sort of intuitive “narrative thread” for me when I get there. I remember my thread in Harrogate 2010 was “Storytelling” and I seemed to see references to this all round me. In fact, I wrote a conference review that year, and it was based on Agatha Christie’s disappearance in Harrogate… It all went on from there.

c) Remember to take time out to relax, to have coffee and chat with people and to sleep, or just to walk around the city and have fun. One of my favourite places in Harrogate is Betty’s tearooms, where their aptly named  “fat rascals” scones are wonderful as is their tea. Just don’t go at popular times otherwise you’ll be standing in a queue for hours!

Brimham Rocks: a magical place

Another venue I love in Harrogate is the Turkish Baths which have a real Victorian, Art Nouveau feel to them. Around the city there is also the wonderful countryside of the Yorkshire Dales and one of my all time favourite places to visit is Brimham Rocks, but you need transport to get there. This time out is essential as it also gives your brain time to rest and process all the input you’re getting, and you often come back with ideas you hadn’t even realised you were developing.

d) Finally I think it is in the spirit of the conference to share what strikes you with others, with your colleagues who could not attend, with others via Social Networks and with learners, who often get left out, but who, let’s face it, are pretty central to the whole process.

So, I hope you have a great conference. I’m off to pack now 🙂



A Flying Start to a New Year

file0001227161609Happy New Year! I know it’s September, but for most teachers this is the start of a brand new academic year, and here in Northern Italy the heat has abated and we can all breathe and even think again so we’re ready for it all to start up again.

This is a particularly exciting year for me as I’m starting an MA in ELT at Leeds Met with a focus on materials development and technology, so it could have been made for me. So, forgive me if I invite you along with me on this new adventure. I’ve decided to use my blog as a space for a reflective journal along the way, so it’s time to set off, all aboard the magic flying carpet…Let’s go.

Springboard or Flying carpet

“So what’s all this with the flying carpet?” I hear people muttering, and well you might, but there is a logic behind it I promise you. Our first task on the MA this week was to look at the ELTJournal debate between Scott Thornbury and Catherine Walter, which was held at the Liverpool Iatefl Conference this year. (You may remember the amazing story of how I broke both my ankles on the way to Bologna Airport and went to the conference anyway… Well my movements were rather restricted and I missed the debate at the time, but thanks to technology I can watch it on video, and it is well worth watching.

Quick Summary of the Debate: the motion was “Do commercially published course materials relect our learners’ lives and needs?”

I’m not going to tell you everything that was said but the gist was that Scott Thornbury argued convincingly against published materials reflecting learners lives, in that they are, of necessity, far too neutral to represent anyone. He did make the point, however, that it would be impossible for globally distributed materials to reflect specific groups of learners. In his own blog later, however, he went much further into the question of representation in coursebooks to say that the actual images of  a misleading world where everyone can do, afford and be anything, is actually dangerous promising things it can’t deliver, and misleading its users into seeing the world as being an anodyne, friendly place, where everyone is more or less the same. These are all criticisms that are often levelled at coursebooks, however, and Catherine Walter looked at the question from a different viewpoint. She did not argue with the fact that course materials don’t reflect learners lives but rather said that why should they, that she had wanted materials to “take herself out of herself” when she studied Spanish, and that their job is not to reflect learners but to be a starting point in teaching for teachers, who can then adapt them to reflect the learners’ interests and lives. She did argue, though that published materials reflect learner needs, which Scott Thornbury relying on corpus data said they did not. Catherine Walter disagreed saying that they provide learners with the language they need in a safe, supportive classroom environment before they go out and use it in the real world. She used an image of a motorway, and said that you wouldn’t start learning to drive by sending someone into the middle of a motorway, would you?

And the flying carpet?

DivingAh, you’re still wondering about the flying carpet. Well, I,like many others, generally like the image of a springboard, personally, when I think about materials. Good teaching materials, whether they are globally published or not, should be a springboard for the learner to leap off from into a discussion, analysis of language, discourse, pronunciation, or experimentation with language. This is, I think the role of materials in the classroom. After all, you use materials to create clothes. The materials themselves do not necessarily reflect the wearer’s live but the dress must do. In the same way teaching materials can always be adapted so that, for instance, a group of pensioners, that I was teaching, and who read about speed dating, said they would never do it themselves, but it sparked off a fascinating discussion on why people might do this, what attraction actually is and how dating has changed over the years. That was extremely relevant to them, and the language use definitely met their needs.

Oh yes, the flying carpet… well, I’ve now begun to think that I want my lessons to be even more than a sprinboatd, I want, like Catherine Walters to go into a magical, meaningful place in my classroom. We’re living in difficult times and many of my students will be hard pressed to find work when they leave university so at least in my classroom I want to leave them with something memorable that may even transform a little bit of our reality for a while. That is the way I want my materials to work and if they do then they truly are a flying carpet taking me and my learners on a voyage of discovery as we all learn from each other and create our own language as we go. (It just happens to be English)

I hope you’ll enjoy the ride with us 🙂

Is it an Error not to Correct?


To correct or not to correct?

Different teachers have different views on this question, sometimes based on well thought out theories, or observation of learning in practice, and sometimes… Well, sometimes not.

Being corrected: how does it feel?

The thinking goes that learners, being delicate hothouse plants will wither if corrected, and no longer be able to bloom. Well, actually, in fact it is true that most of us have mixed feelings about being corrected. Nobody likes to think that they have made a mistake… after all, some of us grew up with parents and teachers etc. who penalised errors at every turn, so of course, we react badly when “we make a mistake”: it is an irrational emotional reaction to something that we learned was “bad” at a very deep level. On the other hand, most of us want to be able to improve whatever it is we are learning and to become more effective so in language learning this means knowing what those errors are and learning how the language works so that we can express ourselves as well as possible. These are all reasons why the usual approach for teachers is to correct “sensitively” as generations of teacher trainees have been told, and yet this often translates, particularly for new teachers who are unsure about so many areas of teaching (after all they are learning too 🙂 ) into not correcting at all, with the justification of not “hurting students’ feelings”.

Fly away on a story
Change your perspective

How can we get away from the idea that “errors” are BAD; BAD; BAD?

I would go slightly further than saying that we need to correct sensitively and say that we need a shift in perspective, where errors are seen as an interesting side effect of the language learning process. Once they are robbed of their explosive emotional charge, we can start to look at why they occur, and how they differ from the standard usage. If, for instance, a student chooses the word “side”, saying or writing “on the one side” when what they want to say is “on the one hand” it is interesting for that learner to be able to see how the target language differs from their L1, and by analysis and further experimentation using the “correct form” they will be able to integrate it into their own personal English lexicon. This is just one example of how error analysis can be of great value to learners, once the idea of the “terrible mistake” has been banished from the equation.

The question of when and how to correct of course is also important  and there are various considerations for all of us as  teachers to bear in mind: here are three of the fundamental ones, in my view:

1) What is the aim of the task the learners are doing?
2) What and How do you intend to correct?
3) Where will the learner go next?

So let’s look at each if these questions in turn:

1) What is the aim of the task the learners are doing?

This is the first thing to think of, in my view, because if your task focuses on fluency or is a warmer at the beginning of a lesson, then it may not be so appropriate to correct learners directly or even at all, and this is true whether we are thinking about written or oral production. We all know what happens when students are in the middle of a discussion and the teacher intervenes and says: “Go?.. In the past?” trying to elicit “went” or any of the other correction techniques we all use: the students, obviously, stop thinking about the ideas they were discussing and focus on accuracy. The underlying message here is that what is important is getting it right not exchanging or communicating your ideas. Of course, there is a time for accuracy. I’d be the first person to say this, but not when we are focusing on fluency.

Our Learner Facebook page
Our Learner Facebook page

Informal Expression Spaces for Learner Fluency

This is why we have the idea of indirect correction too. You might choose to make a note of language points during a discussion, for later use in an accuracy slot, or you might
simply choose to have a space for expression and not correct at all. My own personal example of informal expression space for my learners is our learners’ Facebook page, where we often extend discussions that we have started in class, and it is an informal space where people post their ideas and “talk to each other”. This is made clear at the start of term, and the learners are happy because they can experiment there and they know at correction will be taken care of in other places. However, even here, if I see something of particular interest, or if I have noticed interesting language points in student homework or in class that I want to underline, I will post these points on the Facebook page with explanations, comments and space for experimentation. This is once again , with the idea of analysing language, drawing attention to things and building on their knowledge, rather than penalising them for something that is “wrong”. It is also helpful to point out good language use as well, things that you find particularly expressive from learners’ work as we can never have too much praise as long as it is genuine. What is also nice is that learners have naturally started asking for help in their Facebook posts too, for vocabulary etc. in a very natural way without feeling that they will be judged negatively for not knowing something.

I am very much in favour of accuracy slots in lessons, to deal with language areas that need work, and these, like everything else need to become part of the learning system. This leads us on to the second question.

2) What do you intend to correct?

When I first started teaching I was very enthusiastic and I intervened directly correcting pronunciation grammar, vocabulary choice etc. when clarifying models, and particularly when trying to provide learners with clear models to use. When my learners were doing group work I made copious notes of all their errors and then had accuracy slots where I wrote up their errors for them to correct, and did the occasional grammar auction as well as other activities. All of this, I am sure, was very helpful for my students, but looking back I think I did not really focus systematically on what I was correcting so I just wrote down the errors I heard. All this, I now think, may well have been too much input for my learners so I now try to focus on various themes. I may choose a particular pronunciation point that I hear repeated, or focus on collocations for vocabulary, or one or two particular grammar areas, such as misuse of the definite article for general plural nouns, etc. and then focus on this. I also try to find effective usage of the same points for learners to see as well. I  tend to add an experimentation phase these days, after the cognitive work involved in correcting the errors too, as I am convinced that the more learners “use the language” the more they make it their own, and noticing an error, correcting it and then using the correct form is a step towards greater mastery.

How important is Language Awareness?

Of course, language awareness is only one of the skills that a teacher needs, but let’s face it we are teaching a language, and if we are not aware of how that language works it will be extremely difficult for us to help our learners to use it. If your driving instructor did not know what the mirrors were for you wouldn’t put a lot of faith in him/her, would you?

Being aware of language for teachers also means being aware not only of the errors being made, but being aware of the process of learning and the progress learners are making too. If a learner chooses the wrong verb in a collocation, such as “the writer gives importance to…”, they are still experimenting to use that phrase so teachers should, I think, be helping them to navigate these exciting waters of lexical discovery, not getting them to walk the plank for making a mistake. This is not so easy to do as it may seem, as what tends to hit us smack on the nose is the error, rather than the process of experimentation behind it. There are those who cling to accuracy at all costs, interfering at inappropriate times, such as when learners are working on fluency or even when they are trying to read or listen to something, since they perceive “correcting errors” or “explaining unknown words” as being the major role in their job. This is not, of course, something I am advocating as I feel that recognition of a learner’s interlanguage is crucial, and giving praise for effort is essential to encourage and motivate our students.

Where next? Past, Present, Future or all three together?
Where next?

3) Where will the learner go next?

As I mentioned above, I believe that after recognising and correcting their errors learners need to be able to work with the “correct forms”. If the correction is done directly as part of the clarification of new language models then the students will presumably have the opportunity to experiment with these forms later in the lesson. If the errors come up in written language they can be dealt with in various ways. My students are all familiar with the correction code I use and our normal procedure is as follows:

1) a written task is set.

2) students post their written work on a noticeboard like linoit (Here is an example of some recent work we have been doing. Learners were asked to write descriptions of their favourite places which we were later going to publish on Tripadvisor.)

3) I correct their texts with Markin’ a great correction tool. and then publish these texts on our class blog. Scroll right down until you come to a section in the second term called Week Four “My Place” and under the “Preparing” section in red this you will see a word document called “My Place Word” this is where you will see what these texts look like.)

4) Students then come to my office hours to discuss their corrections.

5) The texts are reviewed and revised and finally published for global consumption on Tripadvisor.

Points 4) and 5) of this process are, in my view, perhaps the most interesting because the learners go back to their texts, having learned how to look more carefully at how the language works and they then publish those texts for a real reason. This is no longer an exercise in class but becomes a real communicative act in the big wide world. When other people then comment on their texts on tripadvisor the whole thing becomes even more exciting and brings it home to them that they are actually using English effectively. This is its own high!

This, of course, is merely one example of how to integrate correction in a positive way into the learning process.


Expect the unexpectedSo, I think, at the end of this little foray into language analysis we have come a long way really from the traditional idea of correction as being the righting of wrongs, and in fact it is more like a crystal sphere which learners can learn to benefit from, seeing how the language works and how to make their own expression more effective. So, let’s keep on helping our learners to improve their own English and to enjoy discovering new language and magical new ways of communicating with each other and the rest of the world. 🙂