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.



New Ingredients for A Magical Classroom in 2017

A New Start

img_2108I was thinking that this is a new year and that I would like to start by blogging or writing in an attempt to get back into things, so I decided to look at the ingredients I would like to mix into my teaching recipe for 2017.

Survival in the Desert

Whilst we would all like to be working in supportive environments where our efforts are recognised, encouraged and we can truly flourish, this is sadly not always the case, and quite a few of us are working long, underpaid hours in difficult environments. At times it can be hard to keep the enthusiasm, energy and positive thinking up, particularly in the political, socioeconomic climate of our world, where so much is based on fear and frustration: the idea, for instance, that you should consider yourself lucky to have a job at all! Each working environment will have its own twist on this and I don’t want to dwell on it too much as what I want to do is to reflect on the way in which incredible flowers can bloom in the middle of a desert, so incredible teaching and learning can take place in the middle of negativity as

Taken from pixabay
photo credit: Particio Hurtado on Pixabay


My own environment has its ups and downs too but I do consider myself lucky to be able to do a job I love with students who mostly support what I am doing. I wanted to take a little time today though to consider the ingredients I’d like to emphasise this year to make a heady didactic brew.


My first one is joy, and by this I mean feeling happy when you get up in the morning to go to work and to be able to interact with groups of individuals who can enjoy the learning/teaching process with you. This is one that I have to remind myself about otherwise it can become a case of getting up in the morning and focusing on the six hours of straight teaching that I have to do, becfore I crawl home exhausted. It is a question of how you look at things. I find that if I think about the individuals in my groups and what we are going to be doing together, it often brings a smile to my face, and whilst six hours of teaching are still tiring it is a creative tiredness, that comes from investing energy into something worthwhile. The second aspect to joy is that it can be an indgredient in the teaching itself. If the things you are doing fill you with wonder and joy, this will probably be communicated to your learners as well. It is the difference, I think between giving feedback on an exercise by saying:

“What’s the right answer to qusetion ‘2’?”


“Yes, what’s the right answer to question ‘3’?” etc.


“What’s the right question to question ‘2’?”


“Hmm, do we all agree? Do you think this is the only answer? When would you say this? What else could you say?” etc.

Basically, by taking basic exercises, and making them meaningful and natural for your learners in their own contexts and lives, we can take the most meaningless feedback check and transform it into a classroom conversation on all kinds of levels. As soon as content is relevant then there is enjoyment or engagement and agency.


You may think this is similar to joy, but recently came up against strong prejudices against “fun” and “games”. I was in a meeting about Academic English, where someone scathingly complained that his students had been on an English course during the summer where they “never did anything” and “spent the whole time using songs”. I didn’t say anything at the time, because I neded to work through this one in my own mind. Whilst it is possible that if you are studying engineering and need certain types of language to do th

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

is, singing songs may not be appropriate, I still can’t see why there was such a strong reaction to “songs”, and even if you are studying engineering I think that songs could be used in all kinds of profitable ways. There are so many ways in which music, rhythm and rhyme can help the memory as well as being fun, or a springboard to discussion etc. that what I finally concluded is that the problem was the idea that having fun is often seen as being a waste of time or childish. It is not part of the “adult business” of studying engineering or whatever the subject is, so the accepted thinking goes, although many  may disagree. Einstein comes to mind, for instance: “Creativity is intelligence


having fun”. The prejudice against “fun” runs deep in our grey world of adulthood, but those who dare to think outside the box and  have fun doing so often achieve surprising results. Creativity is also looking at things in new ways and “playing with the accepted wisdom” questioning things and thinking critically. Our brains like to play rather than be subjected to crashing boredom, or even just the expected and routine. My lessons this year will be full of fun and laughter in a very serious way.


I rather unfairly linked ‘grey’ to bordom above, whereas, actually grey is one of my favourite colours, if it is combined with others. The problem is when everything is the same colour and this could be grey, black, red, yellow or whatever, monotony leads to boredom and ultimately disengagement. I want my lessons to include unexpected moments that dleight us all. iIwant my learners to be there on the edge of their seats waiting to see what will come next, and not just from me or from the materials we are using but from each other as well. One of the most successful activities we do is ‘presentations’ and this is initialy because they are seen to be useful but then somewhere along the way the magic is cast and they become more than just useful, they are the chance ofr learners in small groups to share their own worlds with each other and the quality of what is communicated is astonishing. Colour means variety in som many ways, but it all has to be blended in a tastelful way. Too much and it becomes disorientating, the steps in the process need to be clear, leading to destinations that we all want to reach.


We all need love in our lives and we can build this by listening to each other. We can listen to what our learners want or need, work on the topics they have chosen or the language that they want to work on as far as our syllabus allows, and we can ask them to help us build our programmes, where this is possible. This may simply be in small ways, by giving them choices, or, depending on what you can do in your context, by asking them to help build the programme itself. Love is also the love of the language you are teaching and your learners are studying, by asking them what they like about certain collocations or phrases, which words they love to pronounce etc. What new ideas English can give them and how introducing metaphors from their own languages can enrich their English, for instance. You don’t have to love English to be able to use it, but if you don’t it become a code you use and not a language you live. Love, it must be remembered is the opposite of hate, and in a world where hate seems to be so prolific, perhaps a return to kindness, tolerance and growth is no bad thing.


Looking at a beautiful landscape of image, listening to uplifting music or finding the best aspects to a difficult situation: these are all examples of what I mean by including beauty among my ingredients. We could spend a lot of time discussing problems, particularly when it comes to learner eror analysis, or university essay writing, but we can also celebrate the language that learners are proud of producing, the beautiful turn of phrase, that someone has notices when reading/ listening/viewing etc., or has used themselves. We can celebrate the best solutions to a given problem, and  masters of this are the Zanders in “The Art of Possibilty”. Benjamin Zander talks a lot about these mindsets and how positive solutions are simply a question of the way we look at things. He begins the talk about the transformative power of music in the video below with the example of two shoe representatives sent to somewhere in Africa to explore the market and one writes back saying there is no hope here as they don’t wear shoes. The other wrote back saying that there is a wonderful opportunity here as they have not seen shoes yet! To see more about the magic of classical music and other things see below:

Beauty is about transformation, I think. If you look at a sunset over the sea and feel lifted that is beauty, and the same thing can happen in the classroom when the language lifts the learners to a new level, and the teaching lifts the teacher too.


And so we come to the magic of it all. In fact, magic is not really an ingredient in the mix, it is what happens when the ingredients work together and are transformed into something totally new. This is what I want to happen in my work this year. I want to work together with my learners to produce an ongoing process which is magical. Oh, and if their English improves along the way we’ll all be happy too!

Happy New Year from Verona:



Iatefl Teasig Webinar branches out to do Facebook Discussions

IMG_0598What are the Iatefl Teasig Webinars?

If you look at the image on the left you may be forgiven for thinking that the Iatefl Teasig (Testing, Evaluation and Assessment Special Interest Group) is a bit of an informal affair, and actually you would be partly right. Testing, evaluation and assessment is often thought of as being rather dry or difficult to deal with, so why not bring a warm association of a “nice cup of tea” into the picture.? In our webinars Neil Bullock and Judith Mader, the coordinators of Teasig, with a little help from me, have tried to keep an informal but informative style, reaching out to members of the sig but also others who are interested in testing and who might, in the future, become members of our sig too. The aim of the webinars is to invite interesting speakers who have something to say about testing, evaluation or assessment, to discuss their topic in a one-hour webinar. These are held regularly every few months (For more information follow this link to the Teasig site) on Adobe Connect, and are generally well received. We have been fortunate so far in having had some excellent speakers who really reach out, embracing the medium of the webinar and include the audience in their discussions. The discussions, however, tend inevitably to be “top-down” in the traditional sense. The speaker presents his or her ideas and the audience listens, comments in the chat box and asks questions. Speakers then answer some of the questions at the end of the session, or if there is not much time they answer them in a feature in the Teasig newsletter.

This has been successful so far, but we have now decided to take the process one step further to allow for greater exploration, discussion and sharing of resources by the participants. How are we doing this?

Why use Facebook for webinar discussions?

In the C21 we actually have the chance to question things like discussions and use social media to do this in interesting new ways. In the past conferences and seminars have often been about listening to experts and asking questions, learning something new and then going home. Now we have the chance to take the discussion further to reflect and share our insights with each other drawing on the largely untapped resource of audience experience and insight.  Instead of just “going home” or rather switching off the computer and heading towards a bar for a Prosecco (in my case) this week we extended the discussion of  ‘Assessing and Marking Writing” by Clare Fielder to take things further on Facebook. Why use Facebook?

Well, Facebook is a space that many of us know and use all the time, which means that like a familiar room, we can meet there to discuss the ideas that have come up, just as we might do in a café, for instance. Being “somewhere” that we already know makes people feel comfortable and willing to post their own ideas and comments in a freer way than they might do in the actual webinar chat feed. An added adva

Looking at old things in new ways
A Space for Reflection

ntage of extending our event in this way, is that although the actually discussion itself was synchronous with me moderating it, the posts actually stay online so that all those interested in the event can go back to see them. In fact, some comments were added after the event itself, which means that a whole new asynchronous exchange starts to develop. One person, for example, Aimee Johansen, watched the recording (avaiable after the event itself)  and then commented on the Facebook Events page, that whe had found it interested and it had reminded her of some things and introduced her to other feedback methods that she would not have thought of but would like to try out. I then asked her what she would like to try in particular, so the discussion continues even a few days after the actual event.  Kent’s research about Facebook use in class discussions shows clearly that students, for instance, are happier to post on facebook than on official course discussion boards, and even though our discussions are professional and not part of a course I believe the same principle applies. As in real life there are those who like to post and others who like to follow the discussion “silently”. Whichever way you choose to use the discussion is up to you, and catering for different needs is all part of the show. For all these reasons, and particularly because Facebook is so well known, then, and many are happy using it, this was what we opted for. This was our first experience, it went well and I hope it will get even better in the future.

What happened in the Facebook Discussion?

We used the Teasig Facebook Page, which has been set up and managed by Ceyda Mutlu. Ceyda had already set up an event to advertise the webinar, as she always does and Participants were directed to this page at the end of the webinar. Some people, in fact had already accepted the invitation to attend the webinar and had posted questions and comments in advance. This meant that the discussion was already underway, in fact, before the webinar had even started!

On the evening of the webinar particpants were directed to the “Facebook Event” at the end of the webinar, and I posted the questions that had come up during the event here. Clare had been speaking about using Correction Codes to provide feedback to learners on their writing and there was a whole range of questions. I myself had quite a few including a question about how to include this kind of feedback in courses where time constraints are already an issue. Clare had outlined some of the disadvantages such as learner participation, which often comes about because learners receive a piece of written work corrected with a code that they do not understand. Time, then, must be devoted to familiarising learners both with the process and the code. I’m a big believer in learner centred teaching and developing online dialgogues with my learners, possibly becuase I tend to have very large classes, so here is a post I wrote after the 2015 Iatefl Conference which touches on developing asynchronous dialgues with learners to provide feedback and growth, so I wanted to know what Clare thought about integrating all these things into a teaching system.

We all discussed these and other ideas and shared resources and screenshots to explain what we meant, etc. This was our first “live” discussion, but which I mean that there was a moderator and participants knew that we were all “there” at that particular time, and I’m sure that things will only get better with practice, but as a first attempt it went well, so if you’r einterested go along to the discussion and have a look :-).


Free resources and guides for corpora

A very useful post for any teacher wanting to start integrating corpora into classroom teaching by Jennie Wright.


Thanks to everyone who came to my IATEFL session on making trouble-free corpus tasks in less than ten minutes. Here are the free guides and resources from the session as requested. I’ll add more later.

The ultimate guide to freely available corpora:

The most popular corpora:
The British National Corpus (BNC):
The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA):
The British Academic Written English Corpus (BAWE):
The British Academic Spoken English Corpus (BASE):

Guides for using corpora:
Lamy, M-N., & Klarskov Mortensen, H. J. (2012). ICT4LT Module 2.4: Using concordance programs in the Modern Foreign Languages classroom. In Davies G. (Ed.), Information and Communications Technology for Language Teachers. Slough: Thames Valley University. Retrieved from
TheGrammarLab. (2012, July 12).

COCA 01: Introduction to Using the Corpus of Contemporary American English. [Webcast]. Retrieved from

COCA Bites:

View original post

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 🙂


The Online Corpus Symposium, at the Virtual Round Table 6th May 2016

Lexis is More than Words

words words and more words

As most of you know, I’m a great believer in lexis rather than words and also in corpora, when they are used in a principled way for teaching, so I was very happy to be asked to join the Online Corpus Symposium with Leo Selivan, Jennie Wright and Mura Nava  the Virtual Round Table Conference last night. For anyone who wants to watch the videos of our talks here are the links:

Jennie Wright:

Sharon Hartle:

Mura Nava:

Questions and Answers:

The conference is going on today and tomorrow as well so you are still in time to take part :-).

A Quick Overview

Jennie set the ball rolling with a very entertaining, interactive introduction to COCA   showing teachers just how easy, fun and useful it is to create materials from a corpus for their class. She included worksheets on collocation work and also “guessing the key term” in a concordance search. What was good about this was that many of those in the audience said that her presentation was taking the “fear” out of corpora, and people felt very enthusiastic and keen to give it a go.

My presentation, I thought, provided a nice contrast to this because I was focusing on encouraging learners to be more independent. I introduced SkeLL, which I have written about before. SkeLL, or the Sketch Engine English Language Learning web interface, differs from many freely available online corpora in that it has been designed specifically for language learners and so it provides examples which are already filtered for different meanings and parts of speech, and it has a wonderful “word sketch” feature, which groups collocations according to grammatical categories related to the word or phrase being searched for. For instance, if you search for “rush” you can see a word sketch for the noun and a different one for the verb. I showed how I use a scaffolded approach to sensitizing my B2 learners to SkeLL to help them become more aware of features of co-text such as verb patterns and collocations, as this enables them to recognise much more quickly which answer is most appropriate in cloze tests etc.

Mura introduced the BYU Wikipedia Corpus, developed by the same Mark Davies  of Bringham Young University who developed COCA as well. This is a new corpus which gives you the chance to create your own virtual corpus using Wikipedia texts on any subject you are interested in, and I still haven’t had time to try it out, but it looks great :-).

I promised the participants that I would post my slides so here they are, together with the handout I used with my learners and talked about in my presentation.

Enjoy 🙂

Here is my Powerpoint with the screen shots for anyone who is interested 🙂

SkeLL for Use of English [2305843009213705779]

Exam practice use of English




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…


Assessment is in the air at Iatefl Birmingham 2016

Formative assessment is all around us in almost every aspect of everyday teaching. 



Time for Tea: or testing, evaluation and assessment. 

I have been lucky enough to attend the Iatefl conference for several years now, and each year I like to select various themes to the sessions I choose to go to. This year, for the first time, I have been involved in The TEASIG webinars, and so one of my main themes for this conference was assessment. At the risk of seeming pedantic I am going to explain briefly what I mean by assessment in this article. My interpretation is perhaps a little broader than the more orthodox understanding of the term in the world of education. Testing, evaluation and assessment are often used almost interchangeably when it comes to exams but there is a difference: in a nutshell, a test is the practical method we use to measure our construct, the assessment is the whole process of measuring, which may include tests or other tools and evaluation, as it is often applied, is related to judgements about something, often before we use it , so that we might evaluate a digital tool to see if it is what we need to teach our learners to engage with lexis, for instance. The focus of assessment in our field is generally learners’ knowledge, skills and performance, but one thing that struck me in this conference was that actually teachers are surrounded by assessment, especially when it is a formative part of the learning process, they breathe it in every day in almost every interaction both with learners, teaching tools and with texts. In the PCE this year we touched on both formative and summative assessment but the main focus was what teachers need to know about summative test production and application. That is why I decided then to focus rather on the formative aspect when attending other presentations during the rest of the conference and I would like to share a few impressions about this with you here.

The PCE: What teachers need to know about assessment

The Teasig Pre Conference event provided us with a wonderful opportunity to discuss what teachers really need to know about assessment. Neil Bullock asked some searching questions that gave us all food for thought such as “If learning is so important why do assessment and teaching seem to dominate?” Or “why is so little attention paid to assessment on training courses?”, which was echoed on several occasions throughout the day. Neil works in the world of aviation and he also asked who would like to fly in a plane with a pilot who could not communicate with e air traffic control tower! This definitely gives you a very practical reason to advocate effective summative assessment.

Evelina Galaczi and Nahal Khabbazbashi followed on with a rich but practical session which provided us with six key questions when designing a test: “Why, who and what am I testing?”, “How am I testing and scoring and how is my test benefitting learners?” A key concept in this was that the test you design should not only be valid but also fit for the purpose you are designing it for. A perfectly valid test, for example, if used in the wrong context for learners who need to do something that that particular test does not assess, will be worse than useless for that purpose, even though it may be fine if used for the purpose it was designed for. Their focus was speaking and, to illustrate the point above, if your learners need to give formal presentations, then a general test that assesses conversation, interacting and giving opinions, may not be the answer for you.

Assessment Literacy

Later in the afternoon Vivien Berry and Barry O’Sullivan explored the concept of assessment literacy, which they said had been mistakenly interpreted to mean “testing for literacy”. Assessment literacy, however,in basic terms, means how literate you are when it comes to assessment. It is a very wide area and few of those present considered themselves to be at all literate but after the day’s discussions we felt that we were beginning to get an idea of what we didn’t know, which is, after all, the first step. Once again the feeling was that more training is required for teachers who are often required to develop tests of various types.

How educators feel

Speaking to various people at the conference I got the same negative reaction fairly often, which confirms the initial PCE idea that there is little training done on teacher training courses and despite this everyone needs to be involved in the assessment process at some level. Tests in fact,have negative associations for many of us, possibly because of our past experiences of stress related to high stakes test-taking.Throughout the conference, however, my initial feeling that assessment is in the air we breathe every day, was confirmed albeit indirectly by many of the discussions I took part in.

What about the rest of the conference?

When it comes to formative assessment the separation between teaching and testing i is by no means so clear as it is in summative testing, where, despite washback effects, the two processes are usually conceived of as being different. Formative assessment is inherent in methodologies where tools such as test-teach-test, or contrastive analysis are used, and teachers assess learner performance on some level every time they interact with them. Everyone attends different events, with a different focus, in a conference like this and my own focus tend to be related to lexis and corpora, so here is a taste of some of my impressions.

Looking at assessment in general and formative assessment in particular

On the first day David Crystal talked about language change, which led me to think that teachers need to assess the language they choose to focus on with their learners or to consider acceptable or appropriate for their needs. If many Internet users write “who would of thought it?” Does that mean automatically that this is an acceptable form for our learners or should we simply draw their attention to the fact that such changes are underway? Obviously teachers have to assess their learners and make sensible choices, but the question is when does a language change become an acceptable norm? Should discrete elements be assessed analytically in llearner production or should discourse be looked at holistically? Perhaps the answer is “both”.

Marcel Lemmens, who comes from a translation background, advocated an interesting approach to the formative assessment of writing. He held up a standard translation that had been marked, and was covered in red ink, saying, most of his learners would not even read the painstakingly detailed corrections, but would go straight to the mark. He called for the need to familiarise learners with the assessment criteria before dong the test itself And suggested a more holistic approach to marking an email, looking at stylistic features which would help learners to write more effectively, such as cohesion, register and perhaps choosing one or two specific language areas to focus on, such as the use of articles, so that the assessment would then be recycled back into the learning process, and the corrections would actually help learners to achieve their aims. Whilst this was thought-provoking, learner expectations also need to be considered. My learners, for instance, expect their tests to be “corrected” and any change which is introduced is generally better if it is gradual. So,for instance, this term,in one group, I introduced one assignment which was “corrected” in the traditional way, with a detailed correction code, followed by individual one to one interviews where the learner could discuss their self corrections with me. I also did activities that were labelled as discussions which were rated holistically and others where a general analytical scale was used that rated, task achievement, coherence and cohesion, clarity of lexical and grammatical expression, and comments were provided as feedback in these categories rather than detailed corrections. The beauty of work like this is that it can all be reintegrated into work being done in the classroom.

Diane Larson Freeman pointed out in her plenary that aspects of learning that are becoming increasingly sgnificant at this point in time are learner agency, relationships and interactions and the patterns that emerge from such complex interactions. By integrating the aspects noticed in formative assessment and reintroducing them into the classroom we are providing our learners, I feel, with exactly the sort of multiple affordances that will lead to different learners having the opportunity to exploit this work in different ways.


Corpora and lexis are always areas that interest me so I attended several sessions on this topic and once again assessment in various shapes and forms kept rearing its head.Jenny Wright, for instance, gave an introduction to the use of The American Corpus (COCA) in the classroom focusing on such areas as adverb + adjective collocations, and providing a range of activities that teachers can produce very simply to sensitise learners to such areas and to practise them. Teachers may, for example:

1. Elicit learner intuitions abut the adjective collocate that follows various adjectives such as “bitterly”, “sincerely”or “deeply”;

2. Training can then be provided to show how to do a corpus search for colocation frequency;

3. Concordance lines can then be cut and pasted to provide a concordance line gap filler where the key word is missing.

 It is this activity which is interesting from the point of view of formative assessment as it is often seen as practice but what it is actually doing is testing comprehension or recall, particularly if it is done in a later lesson or part of a test-teach-test sequence. Activities such as this one are used in classrooms all over the world where they are considered to be practice… but they are part of assessment, in fact, since they provide tachers with knowledge about what learners can or cannot do.

To continue with the topic of corpora tools, Stephen Bax introduced his amazing tool Text Inspector, ( This tool assesses the difficulty of a text giving it a percentage score from zero to native speaker and a detailed analysis of the elements that make it so. It is freely available online and has been developed with links both to the English Vocabulary Profile which classifies lexical items with reference to the CEFR levels. It can also be used, of course, as a means of assessing learner written production, so once again, assessment enters the picture. Although Bax advised the audience to err on the side of caution, this is a tool which can be used both by teachers as an initial assessment of learners’ work and by learners who want to assess their own levels. This is an opportunity for learner oriented assessment in the purest interpretation of the term, perhaps, then, in that the individual learner can take assessment into their own hands and use it to develop their own power of expression.

Let’s not forget technology

Technology, of course, in the shape of corpora or many other tools such as the wonderful English Vocabulary and English Grammar Profiles (EVP and EGP)which are being developed to measure the level of various items with reference to the Cambridge Learner Corpus (for the EGP) and various corpora (for the EVP). This means that when developing reading tests, for instance, we now have tools to help us gauge the level of difficulty of lexical items, which in turn, can help us make mor valid and reliable tests. It is not only teachers, of course, who can use these tools but learners too and,in a world where user content reigns supreme, our learners can create their own “revision tests” or “progress tests” very easily and post them online to share with the rest of the class or even… with the rest of the world. So even though teachers do not seem to particularly warm to the notion of assessment, it seems clear to me that we are all talking about it and at Iatefl in Birmingham, assessment was definitely in the air.

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 🙂