The price of freedom : a few thoughts on learner autonomy

How autonomous do learners actually want to be?

Is the quest for learner autonomy like reachinig for the stars or is it something that is both achievable and desirable? Is it something that should be explored purely outside the classroom or also in class perhaps together with teachers? Last week the TESOL Italy local group held a seminar in Verona on Learner Autonomy and Inclusiveness which raised one or two interesting questions related to my initial thoughts. The first one is the title of this post: what is the price of freedom? Or rather, how autonomous do learners actually want to be? The answers that were shared, even though this was largely on an anecdotal level, tend to confirm the idea that learners don’t actually know how to be autonomous and seek guidance. Jemma Prior began the afternoon by discussing negotiation in curriculum development and the way she does this in her Academic English courses at the University of Bolzano. One of the points that she underlined was Holec’s focus responsibility for learning lying completely with the learner:

“Learner autonomy is the ability to take charge of one’s own learning have, and
to hold, the responsibility for all the decisions concerning all aspects of this learning…” (Holec 1981)
Hoping for learners to take responsibility of  ‘all the decisions’ is a tall order, particularly in a world where many contraints are imposed on both teachers and learners by institions, exams and simply the reality of living in the real world. Jemma mentioned a project in Belgium where learners had been given the freedom to design and negotiate their own course, but which had actually had very negative results and which would tend to underline the fact that learners, just like all the rest of us, find it difficult to cope with complete freedom and seek guidance. After all, the thinking goes, “I am paying to do a course so I expect some expertise for my money!”. At the time that Holec was writing, however, I thought it worth mentioning, many institutions were introducing self access centres, perhaps believing that by allowing learners to ‘take responsibility for their own learning’ they could save money and provide self access rather than teaching. These self access centres were ultimately, like the project in Belgium, doomed to failure in most cases, precisely because most of us look for direction and guidance.

Autonomy or Self Instruction?

Self access centres are self instruction centres and learners need to be autonomous to want to use them but self instruction is by no means the same as learner autonomy. Autonomy could be considered a psychological quality or a behaviour but it starts with the individual rather than being a collection of resources for learners. This is also one reason why very few learners are able to follow online courses independently or the sort of self access language learning courses that used to be available as cassettes with magazines etc. Nowadays we have a wealth of self instruction materials available in the shape of online courses, sites etc. some of which are more effective than others but despite this wealth of potential sources of learning many learners still do not know where to start, or lack the motivation and knowhow to be able to use them well. The eighties s was a time when many were thinking about autonomy and what it meant, and that is even truer perhaps today, with the increased onus on learners to ‘take responsibility’ for their learning but the definition of what autonomy is is not such a simple matter and David Little in fact calls it a ‘slippery concept’. For a concise review of some of the research see Little’s description here.
In our digital age this debate is beoming even more heated and urgent in education. One noteworthy case is Sugata Mitra’s ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiments which in his case, came to the attention of TED among others, and which then led  to further investments and research.  What he did, basically, was to set up computers on street corners in under-priveleged areas of India, like our ‘hole in the wall’ cash machines. These were provided in bright colours and designed for children to be able to sit comfortably at. He then simply left them to it in attempt to remove the teacher and to prove that children learn more effectively when their learning is more self directed. In his plenary at Iatefl in 2014 this had an electrifying effect on the audience (most of whom were teachers) and the debate continued long after. If you are interested I wrote about it at the time. He seemed to be heralding self direction as something new, although it was the self direction + technology that interested him, but I wondered what had happened a few years on and the results are, unfortunately that many of the ‘holes in the wall’ have been vandalised or are being used by older youths to search for all kinds of things that are not necessarily related to education.
Mitra, in fact is more interested nowadays, it seems, in his school in the clouds, which is more about self direction within existing  educational frameworks. I have no doubt that much of what Mitra says makes sense, and many educators are already doing this, but once again providing children is not enough and it is certainly not a magic solution to the problems of failing education systems. Tom Bennet, writing for TES in 2015 bemoans the fact that so many fell for this apparently ‘easy solution’ which he describes in damning terms:
“It seems to me that the more outlandish the magic bullet  claim in education, the more someone is willing to pay to subsidise it – and the less critical people become of it. But Mitra’s work taps into zeitgeists that are very, very groovy indeed: student-guided learning, the perpetually-approaching-but-not-quite-yet tech revolution of education, and the need to replace the ossified dogma of factory-farm learning. It’s like Ken Robinson regenerated into the next Doctor and the Sonic Screwdriver became a laptop.”
Well, teachers feel threatened when self direction rears its head, but scaffolded autonomy within a specific learning framework , is, to my mind, part and parcel of respecting learners and their needs, and in fact nothing new. I have, in fact, frequently given learners a problem or a task and asked them to solve it in small groups with the use of digital resources, and this type of guided learner self direction when monitored closely but not invasively by an educator, can lead to exciting results.
Photo credit: Comfreak on pixabay


Complete resonsibility for learning, or to return to Jemma’s Academic English in Bolzano, course design, then, even if the learners did want it, is difficult to achieve as most institutions have certain expectations in the shape of standard exam requirements and standard syllabi.  Jemma, in fact, explained that much of here course is not ‘up for negotiation’ but one part that can be is the portfolio which counts for 25% of the final exam. scaffolding learner autonomythe level of task negotiation or topic choice etc. is much more realistic and ultimately rewarding both for the learners and the teachers. Learners, who are provided with clear guidelines, within an existing framework, are, in fact, often very happy to ‘take responsibility’ for certain aspects of their learning, and teachers are able to help them taking on increasingly the role of facilitators of learning rather than providers. This leads me on to the second theme that came up in our seminar, which was the need for scaffolding, which all of the speakers underlined in one way or another.
Ann Margaret Smith from Lancaster, who talked about learner autonomy and inclusive education as being two sides of the same coin, mentioned how splitting thinigs into manageable chunks can help learners, telling them that they will be working on a 3000 word essay may be daunting whereas saying that the overall aim is to write an extended essay but that for the moment they would be focusing on ‘titles’ is much more manageable for learners. Elizabeth Beck from the British Council Milan, described their experiences in deveoping ‘learning to learn’ strategies with adult learners, and once again she mentioned that she had initially been quite surprised by the lack of awareness of how to go about studying, but was encouraged by the results achieved by integrating learning strategy work in class supported by separate clinics with materials developed to help learners navigate the world of language learning. I talked about using corpora in class, and once again stressed the fact that it is not enough to simply provide learners with tools. After all, you wouldn’t give a 17 year-old a car and say here’s the key, off you go, would you? Learners need to be provided with the right questions to ask, strategies to use resources effectively and also systems about how to motivate themselves.
Scaffolding, I strongly believe,  means providing the support for our learners to indeed be able to reach for the stars and actually be able to grasp them and even create their own starry firmaments. To reach these dizzy  heights one or two things that we can do to help is to provide the means for both learners and teachers to find out how to establish:
  • goal setting techniques
  • effective/ fun learning strategies
  • an awareness of the outcomes they would like to achieve
  • the motivation to keep up with it all.
  • what useful resources are available and how to use them one step at a time


Non embedded Reference:
Holec, H. (1981), Autonomy and Foreign Language Learning.Oxford: Pergamon.

Can you use that image?

photo credit: Sharon Hartle

Well, I’m back from Iatefl, and am gradually settling back into my normal Italian life. One of the highlights of the week, last Wednesday was a lesson I did on ‘Intellectual Property’ with my advanced C2 class, who have to do presentations as part of their final exam. Many people use resources such as prezi or emaze to do this, which are public, open platforms, freely accessible by the world and his wife. As we live in a world where remix is the norm and images, video, music and other media are shared at the speed of lightening, often without much thought for ownership, it is important, I think, every now and then, to stop, take a deep breath, and question all this.

I have added a photo credit to my own image above, which I would probably not normally do,  (This is my photo, by the way, ) in a rather ironic way to make the point, but for many taking time to think about who owns ideas and content really did seem to be a wake up call, that meant looking at their practice, if not their lives, with new eyes.

What did we do?

Part One: Discussion and Reflection

The lesson began with reflection and the discussion of these two questions:

  1. “We live in times of theft, intellectual theft. When you can download just about everything and make it your own what incentive is there for artists to create any more?”
  2. “A remix is actually an original reworking of someone else’s idea, so as long as credit is given where it is due, it belongs to the remixer.”

This gave rise to various points such as the distinction between piracy and theft, which was not immediately clear to everyone. There is also a fine line between plagiarism and intellectual theft which we also explored, and it seems, at times, for some to be difficult to distinguish between expressing their own ideas and expressing someone else’s. This may seem obvious but when does an idea become so commonly accepted or shared that it is no longer necesary to cite its author? We, obviously, cannot cite everything so in our comunity, for instance, we  refer to ‘scaffolding’ because everyone knows what it means, without having to cite Vygotsky every time we do this.

Part Two: So, in practice?

So far, this was all rather theorectical, however, so the next stage reinforces what this actually means in the way we use technology. I had created a Facebook exercise for the Student Group (which is a closed group on Facebook), with an image I had created by adding special effects to my own photo of an art installation, inspired in fact by J.J. Wilson’s plenary at Glasgow Iatefl.

During this motivating plenary one of the things he asked the audience to do was to look at differnt classrooms and create ‘I wonder……’ ideas with each other. I asked my learners to do the same, (and there are  prizes for the most ‘liked’ ideas). This time, though, I asked the class to look at this video and to say whther or not they thought it was intellectual theft. (I had added a link to an article about the original installation as well, both for those who were interested in reading about it and to give credit to the author.


The class decided that this was not intellectual theft because the installation was in a public space and I was using my own photo, not claiming that the installation was mine. The power. however, of this exercise, I felt, was that it really made people think about how they use Social Media and the content they post. Some went away from that lesson looking rather worried and talking about closing accounts, a reaction that they would probably not have had from simply taking part in the discussion.

So, why is all this important?

SEC Conference centre Glasgow

Well, reflecting on what you do before you do it is a skill that often needs to be relearned in our world where everything can be shared at the speed of light, by the click of a mouse. I personally believe that respecting other people’s work, ideas and insights is etremely important and I hope that they will respect mine too. When you have experienced your own work being plagiarised or stolen in some way you will know how hurtful it can be. Why do we need to steal other people’s work when we can give them credit for it, ask them for permission to use it or…actually, even better, use our own work? Oh, and by the way, the reflection image above is my own photo taken in Glasgow, just in case you were wondering :-).



What are you ‘sinking’ about? The ELF Debate continues…

The Elf Debate

The elf debate is still at the back of my mind, as it often is and the other day, here at Glasgow Iatefl, Peter Medgyes, in a very well presented speech which supported the importance of learning English as a language in its own right, rather than learning a not very well defined ‘elf version’, quoted this video as an example of one reason why in real life situations we need to be able to speak ‘proper’ English.

There is so much wrong with the stereotyping of this ad, which is actually a Berlitz advert, that I’m not sure where to start, both as far as language learning is concerned and as far as stereotying the Germans… However, my point here is not the stereotyping in itself but how relevant this is to the question of ELF. The point being made here seems to be very much in favour of traditional English models although who, in their right mind, in a context such as this, would react in this way??

I, personally, keep thinking that there is a distinction to be made between ELF as the traditional researchers such as Jennifer Jenkins or Barbara Seidelhofer, and others, see it and Global English as described by david Crystal as the usage of English as a lingua franca on a global scale. There is no denying that English is a global language, and this means that it is in rather a different position from other languages perhaps that are studied with the express purpose of contributing to or integrating into L1 communities. This means, in my view, and as I have said before, that when it comes to assessment we need to take into consideration the notion that our learners need to aim for clear expression rather than to adhere to unreachable native speaker norms, which has to be taken into account in assessment. When it comes to teaching, however, there still needs to be a clear model to present in the classroom, and this is the closest native speaker variety to those learners, so that in Europe this will probably still be British English to a great extent. After all, I may, in a test situation, decide that using ‘informations’ as a countable form rather than the traditional, uncountable ‘information’ does not impede the message particularly (although it will affect the grammar and text references that go with it when writing, which may well hamper reader comprehension). So, when testing this may be acceptable but when teaching we are sulely doing our learners a disservice if we do not point out that even though many now use this word in a countable way it is, actually, uncountable. The model that is presented, in fact, is often just that: a model, and then each individual will, as they do in their own language, develop their own voice and means of expression. As Peter Medgyes also said in his presentation, this is actually not ELF but simply the way we use language.

What do you think?

Iatefl 2017- Exploring digital footprints and Elfies

I can’t believe we are already half way through the conference. So far, in fact, it has lived up to its reputation of being a whirlwind of events, learning, meeting old friends, working and networking. Yesterday was the first day and there were various sessions that I attended, In fact they were all inspiring. I went to an extensive reading presentation by Marcos Benvenvenides, which I liked because I have long been a fan of reading and need to remind myself from time to time of how useful just ‘reading for fun’ at a non demanding level, can be for everyone, and particularly for learners.

I also went to a lovely session on ambiguity by Jonathan Marks, talking about punctuation in the tradition of ‘Eats, shoots and leaves’ but many other aspects of language that go to create ambiguity. In the end he concluded, however, that the context of use determines the meaning and that most of us deal with ambiguity n practice with no trouble at all, no matter how funny we may find such things in jokes.

Both of these talks were  informative and fun, but I would like to write about two different sessions in more detail here.  The first of these was a session by Sophia Mavridi who was speaking about ‘Portraying Yourself Online’. This was of particular interest to me, not as a teacher who portrays herself online, although that is true as well, but rather for my undergraduate and post-graduate students who are tying to enter the world of work. Her session provided me with several interesting points that I can pass on to my students to consider:

Your Digital Footprint

Sophia talked about the digital footprint each of us leaves behind us in our daily trek through social media, what we post, how permanent it may be and how unwary posts can come back to bite in the future, Examples of this were things like:

  • posting yourself drinking alcohol
  • posting yourself in a swimming costume
  • posting unguarded thoughts and opinions

The point was also made, however, that at times others may post images of you in a swimming costume, for instance, and the nature of socila media means that this is largely beyond your immediate control.

On the other hand she also talked about the things you can do to make sure you leave a postivie digital footprint:

  • blogging
  • posting comments to other people’s posts that go beyond the ‘great post’ level and actually say something more like ‘great post! I enjoyed it because….’ so that those who read can learn something from you as well.
  • Drawing a fine line between showing off and showcasing your skills
  • Creating an eportfolio on sites like ‘linkedin’ etc.

In any case, and Sophia did not prescribe her views of what was or was not apropriate but left it for us to decide, the talk  provided food for reflection for both me and my university students.

The World of Elf

The second event that made me think, and is still making me think aday later, was the ELTJournal Debate about the motion:

“ELF is interesting for researchers but it is not important for teachers and learners.”

You can see the video of the event below:


WordPess embed

Peter Medgyes spoke for this motion saying that ELF is something that has been created by what he called ‘elfies’ who have invented their own ‘elfiology, which bears little resemblance to the English that learners aim to learn in order to express themselves in the ‘real world’. Alessia Cogo, on the other hand said that “Applying ELF in the classroom is a challenge but it is a challenge worth taking up”. The members of the audience had several comments to make on the subject including my own. I said that I feel the subject to be a complex one and three issues that come to mind are:

  1. the language you teach depends on the audience you are teaching. If, for instance, you are teaching Academic English writing to PhD students who would like their work, perhaps, to be published, you would be doing them a disservice not to teach them a model of English that is accepted in that world. I could add, that whether or not it is fais, those preparing for external certification also need to conform largely to native speaker standards in the ‘Use of English’ sections of the exams they take. Jennifer Jenkins may claim that countable or uncountable nouns ar eon the way out, but if you use ‘informations’ instead of ‘insformation’ in an exam, you will prbably still be penalised. Of course, there are other factors to take into account. (I said it was complex) and most speakers, in actual practice. will willingly accommodate to each other if they want to communicate, this is not necessarily true of assessment criteria.
  2. I said, in fact, that I think a distinction needs to be made between teaching and assessment. Whereas, I truly believe that assessment in the C21 needs to take Elf into consideration and could easily, partularly in speaking tests, take elements such as negotiation r accommodation, into account, it is more difficult when it comes to teaching. There is a danger of an ‘anything goes’ approcah being adopted at one end of the spectrum, where accuracy is not taken into consideration at all. This is also a disservice to learners, because whereas it is true that I can understand you if you do not use the third person ‘s’ in the present simple, it may be helpful for you to know that it exists, and that you may well have to understand it when it is used by others.
  3. I also mentioned the issue of non native speakers, which I know is another subject, but which I thought was worth bringing in. Here I think that many excellent non native speaker teachers are pensalised around the world for their status, which I personally consider to be both unfair and unwarranted. Many of these teachers are in a unique position to help their learners precisely because they have gone through the process of learning the language themselves, so that they know where the pitfalls may be. These teachers, however, have also started from a native speaker model and this is the model that they teach to their learners.

Ultimately, I think it is unrealistice to expect our learners to aspire to native speaker standards when they use the language, but what we teach them has to at least start from a native speaker model. I may be wrong, and, in fact, at the end of the debate the voting was even on both sides. I voted against the motion, however, this was not because I believe that ELF should be taught but because I believe that English is being spoken as a global language and this does affect the way people use it so our assessment of use must evolve to reflect this, but not perhaps the initial models that we teach.

Well, the jury is still out so what do you think?


Joy in the Classroom

Filling the learning process with “Joy”

Yesterday I talked about various elements that I want to emphasise this year in my teaching so I decided today to explore one of these in more detail and the first one was “joy”

Frequent cooccurrences with joy from SkeLL
Frequent cooccurrences with joy from SkeLL

What is Joy?

A glance at the similar words, identified by SkeLL in a search for joy as co-occurring with the noun the most frequently, show that the sensation of joy is more than happiness it is a sensation and is extreme, a synonym of delight, passion, enthusiasm, for instance. If we take a look at common collocations we can see:

tears of joy

fill with joy
sheer, pure or even unbridled joy

All this suggests that joy is a sensation that liberates us, it gives us a moment of release, where we feel such pleasure in something that it moves us to tears or laughter. The moment itself may be short but the memory of the emotion stays with us and perhaps brings a smile to our face when we think of it. How can all this translate to everyday life and the classroom in particular? Well I want to choose the elements of liberation and passion, which means going beyond the conventional, or received, breaking out into something innovative that you really believe in.

University, Exams and Breaking away from Basic Tasks

My learners are university students who are concerned with their exams and their grades, but to study just to pass your exams is missing the point. Sometimes it is important to remember what it is that drew you to this particular degree course, what it was that made you want to develop it further, and what your real motivation is. In short, where is the joy in the subject you are studying? What new heights can it take you to? These are very personal questions and the answers will differ for each one of us. I can only answer for myself.

Taking the first steps, walking and then running.

As a student I was motivated to pass my exams initially because qualifications are a key that may unlock doors in the future, but if I am honest, on some level I also craved the approval and acceptance of those I looked up to. As I have grown older I have learned that the criteria people use to evaluate students in exams is not always objective and that sometimes the most important thing is to live up to your own expectations of yourself. Those who do best or get the most out of a university course are those who go far beyond the basic requirements of a course, and who are passionate about what they are studying, the curious, the motivated, the ones who are brimming over with questions. In English exams students are often asked to write and speak and some do this as if they are following a basic recipe. Dictionaries contain guidelines for “problem/solution” essays for instance and show learners how to structure their writing. Whilst know these things is a crucial first step, it is just that, a first step. I don’t mean to belittle this first step as to know how to structure your thoughts or writing is essential, to know how to put words together to be able to express yourself wecropped-216363_10150554698405324_561635323_17737736_8234560_n.jpgll is also important, but learning is rarely a linear thing so we don’t often progress in a straight line and the fictional, structural aspects can be combined with other aims. This is when simply doing an exercise becomes transformed into the joy of a ride on the merry-go-round.

Spreading the Joy

Those who study languages supposedly want to use that language to communicate rather than simply going through the motions. Those who communicate best are the ones who speak or write because they have something to say, rather than just because they want to impress someone, or “do the exercise”. I find joy in language, for instance, when I express an idea well, or put together an utterance succinctly and clearly. I love language for the power of expression it gives me and the way it takes me to places and thoughts that I can explore like whole new worlds. I love reading other people’s thoughts too, and travelling for a while with them and then moving on, taking some of their wisdom with me on my journey and spreading it around for others as well.


Time Travel: One Example of how this works in Practice

To return to the ideas of liberation and passion, I think that liberation may well mean breaking through the confines of mechanical interpretation, particularly when it comes to classroom tasks. Passion means expressing something that is truly meaningful and relevant for you. I tell my learners, for instance, not to stop at the requirements for the exam but to set their own requirements that are even higher. So, for instance, if you are a B1 level student who is being asked to describe where you think you will be 5 years from now, close your eyes and visualise that situation with all your senses:

Where are you?
What is the situation?
Are you alone?
What can you see?
What can you hear, smell, feel etc.?
Are you talking, thinking, listening etc.?
Are you going somewhere or are you already at your destination?

By asking learners to really put themselves in the situation and to “time travel” the whole exercise goes beyond the requirements of the “exercise” and may create an experience where learners express their own “journey” in individual ways that tap into personal depths that they had not imagined possible. These learners may need help with the language they need to express these things but that is the beauty of the activity, and this is what brings an element of joy to learning. This is a classic visualisation process that may have different stages:

1) Visualise by listening to the questions and silently visualising the answers. (I don’t insist on people closing their eyes if they don’t want to.)
2) Preparation phase where learners write notes/ ask for vocabulary etc. rehearse their stories in their own minds.
3) Describe your experience to your partner(s) and ask each other questions about details.
4) Look at the exam question: in this case it was “tell your partner where you think you will be five years from now”.

I am constantly amazed by the experiences that emerge from exercises like this which are meaningful and relevant as well as taking my learners to exotic destinations in their own imaginations. Getting into the habit of wanting to express this in English is just part of the fun.


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 🙂


Using Socrative

Introducing Socrative

Since I’m doing a training session next week on using Socrative and Quizlet as part of a BYOD (Bring your own device) approach to teaching, I thought I’d share a little video with you that I made this morning just to illustrate the basics of the teacher dashboard.

Learner reflection, revision quizzes and a whole lot more

I use this tool mainly because I have large groups and it can be used in all kinds of ways. The description says that it has been designed to use quizzes, which might be tests, revision or practice etc. It can also be asked to ask questions, prompting learner reflection at the end of a lesson. I also use it a lot for writing asking, for instance, my advanced learners to summarise a text and then post it in the “Quick Question” function of Socrative, which I set up for them quickly in class. They can then read each other’s work and vote for the version they like best 🙂


Socrative, which was designed by educators for eductaors, also has an inbuilt record keeping feature. This means that any work my learners do, such as summary writing, can then be sent to me by email, or simply accessed from the site. I can look at this for further assessment, feedback or simply for my own reflection. It is a feature which I have also used to run informal impromtpu polls and surveys that can then be very helpful when designing courses, or simply lesson planning.

Sharing content

You can also share the content you create either with colleagues by sharing the number of the quiz etc. or by going to Socrative Share Garden where the community uploads content for everyone to use. You can then edit this content further to adapt it to your own needs if you want to. My colleague, for instance, created a very challenging Christmas quiz, which she then shared with me and my learners.

So, if you want a really versatile tool which is fun and lets your learners use their telephones and tablets in class, why not try it out…


The Cambridge English Profiles vocabulary and now… grammar!

IMG_0046Moving on from Lexis to look at Grammar

As you probably know I’m a great believer in the lexical dimension of language, particularly at higher levels, and I’ve posted quite a lot recently about the damage I believe an over-preoccupation with the rules of grammar can cause. ( See this post if you are interested). So it was really good today to hear Prof. Mike McCarthy talking about The English Grammar Profile and, in the trailer to this video, reassuring everyone that whilst grammar rules are important, they are important to be able to create meanings.He underlined the fact that grammar rules need to come out of a natural context and that a teaching approach to grammar should probably be cyclical, studying forms and then revisiting them in different ways.

What is the Grammar Profile?

The grammar profile is the new resource created by the Cambridge team, together with other institutions, and follows on the English Vocabulary Profile, which has been available for some time. The English Profile is, I think, a highly innovative resource which provides us with a description of what learners can do at different levels, innovative because it truly tries to put the learners at the centre of the process.When I first heard about the Vocabulary Profile in 2011, I was very excited about it and we started to use it here in Verona as a reference tool for various things such as, for instance, item writing for exams. If we were not sure whether to test a particular word at B2, we could look it up in the Vocabulary Profile and see at what level learners will use that item. If you look up the word “scramble” just to give an example, which we focused on in a text this week at C2 level, you will find that there is an example of a learner who produced that item on a Proficiency exam, so it is classified as a C2 level item:

Schermata 2015-10-16 alle 18.54.10This is what the screen shot looks like. Care has to be taken with this though as it may still be logical to test comprehension of an item like “scramble” in context in, say, a reading test at a B2 level as the English Vocabulary Profile is only describing productive skills.

One or Two Drawbacks

The project is extremely ambitious and the point is sometimes made that it only describes the language learners production, which causes problems like the one I just mentioned. To do this researchers have been analysing the Cambridge Learner Corpus, which is the language learners produce mainly during exams. This is a very large corpus with more than 50 billion items from written language and about 5 million from spoken language but the fact remains that it is still based on production in exams which may mean that the description is rather limited, and there is a big difference in size between the written and spoken compnents. Because of our own experiences and with an eye to item writing for receptive skills, in fact, I asked Prof. McCarthy if there were plans to develop a description that focused on “understanding” in a similar way and he said that there was enough data to do so, but that what was needed were funds… So, all those billionnaires out there, this is your moment!

Grammatical Polysemy

The Grammar Profile contines with its learner centred approach and describes the way learners develop an awareness and mastery of what McCarthy terms “grammatical polysemy”. He said that we usually think of lexis as being polysemous but that grammatical forms are as well, in that a grammatical form can have several meanings. I think of this as a layered process, where the more language you are exposed to the more meanings you can see being attached to different forms. In the video McCarthy mentions “imperatives” for instance, saying that initially learners use them to give commands such as “Don’t forget your ticket” or “Please come on time” but as time goes by they notice that imperatives may be used in other ways such as a compnent of conditionals, with the example “Go into any shop in Cambridge and you’ll see clothes made in China.” In this way the more you interact with the language the more meanings you will see. This reminds me of an idea that came up on a Celta course I was observing, and I’m sorry but I forget whose it was originally :-(. The ideas was that learning a language is initially like flying over the countryside at a great height, so that you only notice very prominent features (not in a linguistic sense,, I hasten to add) like mountain ranges, or in grammatical terms, the present simple to talk about general, everyday events etc. As your plane starts to descend though you notice more and more until you are no longer looking at the overall “big picture” but focusing on the details that are closer to the ground: the present simple to tell stories or jokes, for instance. I’ve always liked this idea and I’m sure it’s true of me as a language learner, anyway.

Interacting with Meaningful Texts

The key here, I think, is what I will call the idea of interacting with meaningful texts. By interacting with language directly you can come to the rules by a process of deduction, or maybe you don’t even need the rule, you just remember the form related to the meaning. Many learners spend years grappling with the vagaries of perfect tenses in English and this is definitely true of my C2 level learners. Grammar forms can be explored as chunks in texts, though in just the way that lexical chunks can and perhaps taking the time to stop and look at what is behind an utterance or a sentence will help even more than studying diembodied rules. We were looking at a text I wrote a few years ago where I explained that I had found it very hard to do an MA and the sentence was:

“I’ve been thinking about doing this MA for quite a while now, but it was hard to decide because it was expensive, I wondered whether I wasn’t too old etc.”

Once the learners had heard and understood the message we came back to the form “I’ve been thinking about doing an MA for quite a while now” and I asked them to look at it as a chunk rather than as a rule. We analysed the meaning here, that:

  1. it had not been easy to decide;
  2. it was something that I kept coming back to over a period of time;
  3. I wasn’t sure about whether I wanted to do it or not.

I then asked the learners to think about their own lives and to come up with their own examples. You may think this would be easy for them, but, in fact as I walked round quite a few were just writing notes and not examples and said things like “I can’t think of anything”. I stopped and talked to them at this point about their lives and the things they’d like to do and kept thinking about but maybe couldn’t decide to commit to, because they couldn’t afford to etc. and then the ideas started to flow:

“I’ve been thinking about travelling right round the world”

“I’ve been thinking about takinng up a third language.”

“I’ve been thinking about buying a new car”

Discussing these very real examples then in small cooperative groups made it even more real, so that instead of studying the disembodied rules or asking comprehension check questions after I’d clarified the rules to them, we deduced those concepts from the piece of language itself and then the learners themselves experimented with them, until the grammatical form became part of their own repertoire.

Of course, we will probably need to revisit this again, but I felt that we were on the way.

Goodbye to Disembodied Rules: 3 steps to meaningful development of Grammatical Competence

Burning the candle at both ends
I’ve finally decided!

It’s not the rules themselves that I object to, as rules and explanations can help us to inderstand things, but what I think is essential to understand is that the rule is only the first step, and that if we can deduce that rule from language use in context it will be all the more meaningful rather than studying things like:

“The Present Perfect is often used with “never”   followed by an example such as ” I’ve never met the Pope”  which may well be natural but is not linked in any way to a real, meaningful context.

The next step after understanding how to shape an idea, is to use it for yourself in a meaningful way, by experimenting, seeing what works and what doesn’t and by using that language yourself.

The third step is to revisit that form because the more you see something the better you will be able to remember it and use it and you can add layers to your mastery of the language. The question of whether vocabulary or grammar is more important, to my mind, misses the point: we need them both to create our own specific meanings.





On Mushrooms and Saunas

PhotoFunia-1430297325On Mushrooms and Saunas… Yes, that’s right, and no, I didn’t know what it meant either!

Not seeing the meaning for the rules

There are times when you just feel like hiding away from it all or putting your head in your hands and this week was one of those times, I’m afraid. If you cannot understand the title of this article you are in the same situation as I was on Wednesday. I had been looking over exams with students at the university with the idea that by looking at the work they had done, they would be able to see where they needed to focus their energy in preparation for the next exam, or, if they had done well, they could see what had been particularly successful. All was well for the first half hour or so, until the door opened and in came a student who had failed our B1 written exam (It was not the first time this had happened to her, of course, and we’ll see why in a minute). One of the parts of this test involves sentence translation, not to see how proficient learners are at translating but to see if they can express B1 level messages in English. I will not bore you with all of this but here is one of the sentences that was on this paper. If you speak Italian, this is your chance to stop and translate it into English for yourself:

“Non mangerei mai dei funghi raccolti nel bosco perche’ forse non sono buoni.”

You may wonder how releveant this is to the learners, but if you live in the north of Italy mushrooms do tend to figure every so often on your radar and quite a few people pick them, but,anyway, that would be another discussion. OK, so have you translated it? Well, if you have you’ve probably written something like this:  I would never eat mushrooms picked in a wood because they might not be edible/safe to eat (At a B1 level even “good” would be acceptable here.) What you would not do was to write what this student had written:

“I have never eaten it mushroom taken in sauna, no good.”

The problem, of course, is that there is no real meaning here, so there is very little communication taking place. When I asked here why she had written “I have never eaten”, instead of a conditional she replied “because ‘never’ takes the present perfect.” In fact she showed me how she had studied all the rules, and had pages and pages of sentences that she had practised with. I then asked her about the ‘sauna’ and she shrugged and said she didn’t know the word for ‘bosco’ so she’d put another one!! It soon became quite clear that she didn’t know other words either such as ‘look for’ or other quite basic items, and this was the point where I started to get a headache and felt like hiding away behind my Iatefl programme. Later on, though, two things becamse very clear to me. Firstly, she was a victim of this pervasive belief in the infallibility of basic grammar rules, that tends to be reinforced all the way through school and then even university, with a real focus on form to the detriment of meaning, and secondly, her total disregard for choosing the right lexical item was also probably the result of a system that prizes grammar rules above lexis. So, what it made me think was that in this case, and evidently many others, the we in the education system had failed our students.

imageWhat should we be able to do at different levels

The CEFR was a breath of fresh air, as far as I’m concerned, in that it moved away from this type of structural syllabus to focus on what you ‘can do’ at the various levels, and it seems to me, reading between the lines, that what we are aiming for as we move up from one level to another, at least as far as the productive skills are concerned, is more articulate, specific expression. Let me give you a quick example of what I mean (This is only an idea and not at all scientific so please feel free to tell me what you think) . Here is an utterance that might change in complexity and therefore become more ‘communicative’ the higher the level is:

A2: I like Verona.

B1: I like Verona because it’s a beautiful city.

B2: Verona impresses me because it has lovely architecture and there’s a great atmosphere in the town centre.

C1 I love the town centre atmosphere and the mix of colours and styles in the buildings, as I wander along the romantic, old, city streets of Verona.

C2 I can’t get enough of the lovely Veronese town centre, and I love soaking up its atmosphere and breathing in the unique mix of colour and light you get as you wander round the city.

Ok, do you get the idea. I think what we are aiming at is expressing ourselves as clearly and specifically as we can, and obviously the more we are exposed to language and the more specific lexis (by which I mean words and their patterns) we learn, the more articulate we become. At the A2 level an utterance such as ‘I like Verona’ does not really give us much insight into what the speaker really means or wants to communicate, but the more language we can use the more clearly we can say or write what we mean. This is what I think we need to be aiming for in our world where English is being used by so many different people from different backgrounds. If we want to be able to understand each other we have to be able to see what we mean.

So, the next time I go to the sauna, I’ll be sure not to pick any mushrooms 🙂

Colligation, patterns, rules and elf

Hugh Dellar’s Webinar:

Following the patterns: colligation and the necessity of a bottom-up approach to grammar


This Saturday I attended High Dellar’s webinar, which should be available as a video on the Iatefl site. He described the phenomenon of colligation clearly and called for more focus on patterns rather than rules in English teaching. At the same time there was an illuminating discussion going on in the chat box, where various opinions were being expressed and I was playing the devil’s advocate, questioning whether or not an over sophisticated focus on native speaker patterning was justified when so many learners do not really need it in our world. So, just in case you’re wondering: what is colligation all about?

What is Colligation?

Colligation means different things to different linguists but in teaching we often adapt the purely linguistic definitions to something this is more significant, or practical for classroom teaching. Michael Hoey, in his influential book Lexical Priming develops his theory of priming both when it comes to collocation and also in other cases, explaining, to try to put it in a nutshell, that the reason words collocate, or we feel so comfortable with certain collocations is that we are “primed” to expect them, having been exposed to them so much as native speakers. Hoey demonstrated this with a comparison of collocation that works in Bill Bryson’s writing Neither Here nor There and a similar version where the collocations are “unnatural”:

“In winter Hammerfest is a thiry-hour ride by bus from Oslo, though why anyone would want to go there in winter is a question worth considering (the original)

“Through winter, rides between Oslo and Hammerfest use thirty hours up in a bus, though why travellers would select to ride there then might be pondered.” (Hoey’s version with unnatural collocations) (Hoey, M. op cit. p.5)

Hoey explains linguistic priming as the way that we would expect certain words to follow others naturally. In his example, for instance, he says that a listener who had heard the word ‘body’ would be quicker to hear the word ‘heart’ than if the former word had been something unrelated like ‘trick’. In this way hearing one word primes you to understand another related word more easily.

So, you may wonder why I’m talking about priming and collocation when the heading of this sub section is ‘What is Colligation?’ Well, bear with me. Hoey goes on to say that priming occurs in other ways as well and one of those is colligation:

‘Every word is primed to occur in ( or avoid) certain grammatical functions; these are its colligations.’ (Hoey, M. op cit. p.13)

In a Nutshell

In ELT we have simplified all this a bit so that we think of collocations as those words that tend to co-occur, often in particular grammatical couplings like verb/noun collocations: to have a shower, to catch a train etc. and the colligations are the way specific words (with specific meanings)  co-occur with grammatical features and patterns such as:

  1. to depend + prep. ‘on’ + noun:  He depends on his car (This was included in the webinar but actually I think it’s the collocation with ‘of’ that causes trouble. In any case it is a question of patterning and so interesting for that reason 🙂 )
  2. to find + pronoun + descriptive adjective like ‘interesting’:  I find it interesting to see how the novel develops.
  3. to want + personal pronoun +to + inf. : I want you to think about this carefully.

These patterns are very obvious to native speakers, but not at all obvious if English is your L2 especially because you will have been primed to use different patterns in your first language which is why Italian speakers find it very difficult to remember not to say ‘ He depends of his car’ or ‘I find interesting to see how the novel develops’, or ‘I want that you think about this carefully’.

Some of these seem to worry teachers more than others, but they are all examples of the same phenomenon which is simply not choosing the correct colligational pattern, either because you, as a learner, have never thought about it, or, which is possibly more likely, because your own L1 colligational priming is so strong that it overrides something that feels unnatural to you in the L2.

Does this matter?

The next question, of course, is whether this all matters or not. In the discussion the question of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF)  arose, and that is only natural. In a world where as Crystal, for instance said in his book English as a Global Language,  in the early 2000s English was already being spoken by 1.5 billion people, many of them are not communicating with native speakers, or rather they may be communicating with native speakers as well as with everyone else. This means that the use being made of English does not naturally refelct native speaker norms, and basically, does it really matter whether they use the “correct preposition” or “pattern” or not? I played the devil’s advocate in this discussion, by asking whether we are justified in spending a lot of time insisting on native speaker patterns from our learners, when they will then go out into the world and survive quite happily without them. Shouldn’t we be concentrating more on negotiation or accommodation skills to help them when they are doing that?

Providing Choices

This was partly provocative but these are questions that plague me and I have often, like many others asked myself which model of English we should be teaching. Ultimately, however, and I’ve said this before, I think that not alerting students to patternings like these colligations and collocations means doing them a disservice. Learners are usually quite intelligent enough to be able to decide themselves what is important and many of them ‘want to know’ how these things work.

I think Sue Annan’s comment in the webinar discussion about it being a question of what learners need and expect (or words to that effect. Sorry, Sue, I can’t remember exactly 😦 ) hits the nail on the head. The question of models, in fact, is perhaps missing the point. Our learners need to be exposed to English of all kinds, and they will then develop their own. It is not, perhaps so important to choose a specific model as to familiarise them with the things they need to know, allowing them to read the texts that are of interest and are relevant to them, and enabling them to produce the language they will need and want to produce.

The question of ‘wanting’ is very important too. You may only ‘need’ to use a certain type of English at work, but that does not mean that you are not interested in learning other things too. Even if you don’t use those patterns, or can’t remember them, the fact of being exposed to them or alerted to their existence gives you as a learner more choices.

Being articulate means reaching out to others


The more you notice language, and this is just as true of your L1 as your L2 or L3, the more you read, listen and play with words and their patterns the more articulate you become. The more you learn to listen to others and to negotiate meaning with them or to accommodate to their language the more meanings are created and the more links are forged between people and ideas. This can only be a good thing, so instead of getting worked up about models of English I’m going to teach my learners about language, by means of my own model of English which was once Yorkshire but has now resided in Verona for so long that it may well have lost its identity. What I mean is that the model is only the starting point but the language you use and it is the meanings you create that are the power in language use.