Getting ready for Iatefl Manchester 2015

Gearing up for the annual Iatefl Conference


Click here for Manchester Online

Hi Everyone,

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

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

So don’t miss out. Join in the fun.

My Blogging Plan for this Year’s Conference

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

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

IMG_0742The Speaker’s Viewpoint

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

The first step is the Idea

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

My second step is to create my slides

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


My third step

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

My Fourth Step

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

My Fifth Step

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

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

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

See you there.


Motivation and Teaching with technology.

Motivation and Teaching with technology.


This year I’ve been doing quite a lot of teacher training both in university language centres and in secondary schools, here in Northern Italy and the topic I’ve been working on is training teachers to use blended learning in a principled way. This may not be new for those who are interested in technology but for many teachers it is still a bit like going into a dark forest where you’re not quite sure of the dangers or of where you might lose your footing.


Motivation is a complicated thing, as we all know, and there are so many different things that come into play for teachers, but I would just like to mention a few of them, by relating them to a series of five questions about the use of technology in the classroom.

1) Intrinsic v. Extrinsic:

Do you want to use technology in class because you actually believe it enhances your teaching or is it an instituational imposition?

2) Identity

Do you see yourself as a teacher who is comfortable experimentinig with new technologies and learning how to use them?

3) Agency

Do you feel personally involved in the process of using technology with your classs, and are you investing youself in creating something meaningful for them and for you?

4) Competence

Do you feel able to use technological tools easily to help your learners?

5) Autnomy

Do you feel able to work autonomously with the tools or are you afraid that you are not using them as well as you might, or as well as some of the traditional tools you are more familiar with?

Changing your point of view

Burning the candle at both ends
The power of investing your own self into discovering new ways of working.

These are important factors, I think, that are sometimes overlooked and teachers in training courses become learners and need to approach new skills with their eyes open. Our motivation, as Zoltan Dornyei says in his theory of L2 selves, is closely bound up with our sense of who we are.

A Fixed Idea of who we are or an openness to growth?

Making the most of texts: each one a world to discover
Making the most of texts: each one a world to discover

I recently read an article which described two frames of mind, which tie in very closely I think to the idea of identity. Some people have very fixed ideas of what they are and if you tell yourself you are a “X” teacher (substitute what you like for the “X” traditional, tolerant, innovative etc. etc.) then that is what you will be.

On the other hand there is also the “growth” mentality that does not see identity as being so fixed but sees life as an exploration of potential in whatever field you may be interested in.

In a recent session I asked teachers to think about 3 stages in lesson planning:

  1. What can your learners do before the lesson?
  2. What will you and your learners be ding during the lesson?
  3. What can they do after the lesson?

The idea was to think about work that could be provided online for learners to do in advance, such as vocabulary preparation for a topic they would explore in the lesson. The “during” phase was designed to help participants think about what technological ools they could use in class such as images, polls, collaborative writing etc. etc. and the “after” phase was to think about work learners could do online after class such as discussions, writing, questionnaires.

One teacher, who was tryng to plan his online work said to me as I monitored their work:

“I don’t know how to do this. It’s not the way I work. I usually go into class and present my lesson. I wish I could do this and I’d like to see what others are doing.”

This showed me that the feeling of agency and competence were missing. This way of working, which to me seems very normal, was not at all normal to him and yet he was open to learning something new. He wanted to get to the stage where his identity was tied up with the lesson he was preparing, and that means, I think, being open to the “growth mentality”. I was quite humbled because it made me see that motivation and fear has to be taken into account much more than I had been doing.

Concluding thought

This all provided me with quite a lot of food for thought, anyway, and made me decide to talk about learners, teachers classrooms and materials in the Manchester Iatefl conference. I want to explore how technology used in a principled way can help us to  beyond our boundaries, both as learners and teachers. If you want to know more I will be speaking about this on Monday 13th at 5pm, so I hope to see you in Manchester.

An Energy Dip: approaching high demand teaching (Part One)

imageAfter all the excitement of Iatefl last week, I hit reality back in the classroom this week, and what with all the to do about Sugata Mitra’s ideas and the need to make up a whole series of lessons I suddenly found myself in a very dark professional place. I am teaching a group of learners, or rather, trying to help them, prepare for the Cambridge Advanced Exam in June this year. However, do we have an academic year to prepare for this? No, we have 7 lessons, and now, due to Easter and various national holidays we are about to have a three week break. This, as is understandable, has caused a certain amount of panic both for the students and for me. Far from following high demand teaching, something I truly believe in, we have been focusing on exam strategies and they have been doing practice tests at home, independently.

Learning or Devouring exercises?

Focusing on exam strategies! Good idea, I hear someone say. Well, yes, that is what I thought too, until I realised that what they are doing is trying to do as many tests as possible, swallowing entire volumes of tests, emptying the library and then coming back for more. They are definitely motivated, but my energy dip and depression came from the realisation that this is all very shallow, and that I really have no idea if they are actually learning anything at all. I had just finished gong painstakingly through two exercises designed to make them aware of the need not just to focus on single words but to focus on words and the other words they collocate with. It was an exercise where they had to look at sentences, which were examples of candidate errors in the Use of English exam, and decide where the preposition errors were. I went over the activity and they got the answers right with very little trouble.

I knew I was in trouble, though, when I saw someone checking “something” could it have been a train timetable? on her phone. This activity was so far away from engaging these learners that they may as well have been on the Moon.

Time to stop and Reflect

So, what did I do? Well, I said, “OK”… and they were already focusing on the next exercise, when I said “No, let’s think about this.” The smartphone was put aside for a minute. I said. “Yes, you can identify the prepositions very well but can you use these expressions? Will you remember any of them five minutes after you have walked out of this door?” This was said humorously and so greeted by  nervous laughter but I then took pity on them, smiled, and said “So how can you remember new language?” This was familiar territory and someone, with a rsigned expression said “write sentences” and I replied that yes, they could do that, but today we were going to do something different.

Mechanical study or “Meaningful” study?

Stage 1: Cognitive Study

I then asked them in two groups to take one exercise each and paraphrase the phrasal verbs and expressions( these were things like I congratulated him on getting a new job. Absolutely not memorable for these students or anyone else for that matter) I asked them to think about the context the expressions were being used in, and monitored. It soon became clear that there were several problem areas. What could you set up, for instance? Could you only set up a business or could you set up a committee as well? This led us naturally into dictionary work, and they found out how to use these expressions in a lot more depth. They then mixed the two groups and shared their findings, and by this time the questions were coming thick and fast. The smartphone was being used for the dictionary app and the train timetable was a thing of the past.

Stage Two: personalisation and experimentation: making the language your own

Then I asked them to choose five of the expressions and to make them into questions to interview someone in the other group. This was where the meaningful action came as they asked “real questions” and created content that neither I nor the traditional exercises could have predicted. “to congratulate someone on something” was transformed into “Has anyone ever congratulated you on passing your exams? Much more meaningful for these students as was the reply: “Yes, my parents have… when I deserved it.”

Before long we were involved in a discussion about Starbucks and why the concept probably wouldn’t work in Italy. This was communication and, I think, it was definitely demand high teaching.

Reflection again

At the end I asked them why we had spent 30 minutes of our precious lesson on two exercises. They answered that it had helped them to really understand this language. At that point I felt that the energy dip had passed and I was back on track. I agreed with them and warned against mechanical exam practice without going into the language in depth and sent them of with a series of things to do over the three week holiday including the idea that they should “Make the exercises they do really work for them”.

I’m quite excited to see what they bring back with them 🙂




Smilebox at Christmas 2012 and at lots of other times…

Verona XmasSmilebox makes storytelling easy and fun!

If you saw my 2011 Happy Easter post, last year, you’ll already have an idea of the way this site works. I started using it a lot at Christmas 2011 and have used it again this year because there were some lovely designs like reindeer travelling across snow covered roofs or traditional living room scenes complete with roaring open fires, mantelpieces covered in Christmas cards and all the trimmings. Here is the Christmas smilebox 2012 that I made for my class thi syear which has a gingerbread theme as the “gingerbread man” had come up in class:

Click to play this Smilebox greeting
Create your own greeting - Powered by Smilebox
Free ecard created with Smilebox

Smilebox for Storytelling

I started using this site for classroom activities in different ways last year  and decided to try it out as a storytelling tool. What makes it very useful for this is that the smileboxes (ready made storylines and layouts for you to adapt with your own images and text) are conveniently grouped into themes that cover various aspects of everyday life. This makes them very easy to relate to topics that you might be working on in class such as:

  • family;
  • special occasions;
  • travel;
  • sports;
  • pets.

You get the idea. You just need to browse the catalogue to find a topic you are interested in and then you choose the smilebox, feed in your photos or video clips and add comments.

Teaching tips

  1. Instead of text add questions then ask stds to answer them in class or at home before the lesson;
  2. Use the smilebox in class with a clear story line, stop the film and ask stds to predict the next image;
  3. Post members of your family and ask stds to guess who they are;
  4. Post memorable moments and ask stds to discuss why they are memorable (This can be done in pairs first and then as a whole group activity)

Exploring Life

Here is an example of a box I made called Exploring Life, which I intend to use with advanced level classes. They should:

  1. look at the title and predict the content of the box;
  2. then watch to see if they were correct and decide why I chose the images I did and how they are connected to exploring life;
  3. a vocaulary teaching slot may come here with common collocations and verb patterns related to hobbies and activities (take up something new, try something out, see how you like etc.)
  4. then discuss the best way to motivate yourself when you are feeling down;
  5. the follow up activity is for them to create their own motivational smileboxes, which they can then present to the  the next lesson,  with any task they choose (This may require preparation such as showing them the tool and how to use it and suggesting tasks, but it is worth it, in my opinion, as it adds an invaluable personalised investment element to the whole exercise.)

So, here is the Exploring Life Smilebox. I hope you like it 🙂

Click to play this Smilebox scrapbook
Create your own scrapbook - Powered by Smilebox
Customize your own free digital scrapbook

Lessons from My Office Hours

What is the point of Failure and what can it teach us?

From Microsoft Clipart


I know this title sounds pretty bleak but it is partly the result of an episode that happened this week during my office hours, and that I thought I’d like to share with you. Before I do so, though I need to outline our C1 exam so that you will understand how both the student and I felt:

The University of Verona Language Centre C1 Test

Our C1 exam consists of three parts, and students need to pass all three to be given the credits they need. The first part is a computer based test which focuses on Use of Language in Context, Reading and Listening. This is followed by a Written test, which at this level involves producing a text of approx. 200 – 250 words in either a narrative, descriptive or discursive style on various subjects. The final test is an oral test of about 10-15 minutes which is usually in a paired format and students have to show that they can communicate in effective English about familiar and more abstract topics. In order to pass all this they need to get a minimum of 60% over the three parts of the test, and they are allowed to score from 55% to 60% on one of the parts if this is then compensated for on one of the other parts.

What this means, then, is that a student can pass the whole test if he or she scores only 55% on the computer test but this is then compensated for if he or she goes on to score 65% on the written and then 60% on the oral test, giving a total of 60% overall.

Failing your exams … or, even worse, Almost Passing

So, to come back to the episode last week, this is what happened: a student came to my university office hours last week, clutching an enormous exercise book and communicating in an English that was perfectly comprehensible. She told me that she had tried to do our C1 written paper various times and was having trouble. She had passed the computer test but couldn’t pass the composition paper. This girl had been in my course and had religiously printed out all the work she and others had done on writing during the course. (This is available for all students on my wiki, with the questions, the students’ answers and my comments and correction code. See this example page.) She had also gone on to develop this by focusing on specific areas such as phrasal verbs etc. all lovingly colour coded in her exercise book. She had come with a few intelligent questions such as what did I mean by “effective language”. (I explained that I meant language that “did its job” of communicating the message you wanted it to, clearly and well.) All this told me that she was a student who had studied hard and thought about what she was reading. This is what we want in our students, isn’t it?

Well, then she showed me a practice essay she had written in a narrative style, using an old exam question as a model. She was convinced that this was “perfect” and yet as soon as I read the first sentence I knew that we were up against quite a few problems and I could feel a sinking feeling come over me.

What was the Problem?

The first sentence was already problematic:

“I can’t descend.” Emma said.

I asked her whether the story was informal or formal and she said that that was another thing she had not really understood. What did informal language or formal language mean. I explained and gave her examples in Italian, so that she realised that the use of “descend” here wasn’t natural. You wouldn’t say that to a friend. She said that she had been avoiding simple words like “get down” because she thought they were too easy, aren’t they more of a B1 level??? was the question. It took quite some explaining to show here that words as such can have many different levels and what is important is to know how to use them.

Coffee and mug
Coffe pot and mug the perfect collocation

Collocation, colligation and Word Choice

We all know how important collocations are in natural language use, and we spend quite a lot of time talking about this in class. Despite this, however, my student had quite a few unnatural collocations such as “It was snowing abundant” (as well as the fact that she was using aan adjective instead of an adverb). She knew what collcations were but didn’t know how to find them, check them or notice them. She said, the problem was that she did not know when something was not possible. The same was true of colligation or “grammatical collocation” as you might think of this. She had looked up the word “discesa” which in Italian means a slope but can also be used as an adjective or adverb meaning downhill. She had found the word “downhill” and was using it to mean “slope” so she produced a sentence like this: “They skied along the downhill with ease.” We have a problem here of incorrect word choice followed by inappropriate colligation as a result of this.

You can see where all this is going and I’m not going to go through the whole composition but, as I explained to her, this language was not “effective” because it did not communicate what she wanted to, because of the words she was choosing, how she was using them and also because of the register. These are all things that, at a C1 level, you need to be able to do.

Two Major Problems

By this time the poor student was nearly in tears and I was feeling very depressed too, because there were two major problems here:

1) she did not have a good monolingual dictionary, despite the fact that I had recommended several. As soon as we started looking at her “problem language” in the Longman Contemporary Dictionary of English (the online version, in fact) all these problems were clear and she began to see what I was talking about. She needed to learn how to use a dictionary well, and yet, this is something we do all the time in class, so for me, as a teacher, this means there is no guarantee that students sitting in my lessons will actually benefit from what I’m teaching them to do;

2) She chose words, which were often false friends etc. and she was convinced that they were correct. One example of this was the word “structure” which can be used in italian to mean the company or firm etc. In her case it referred to a ski resort, and she wrote “The director of the structure” which does not really work in English. When I showed her that this was unnatural and we looked at structure in the dictionary she said: “But I had no idea! How do I know when something has the right meaning or not?”

This is the crux of the matter and it is very difficult to answer. My answer is that enough exposure to a language teaches you what is appropriate and what isn’t, but I’m not sure that this is always true. This student told me that she read widely in English but she read for the ideas and didn’t really notice the language, so I suggested reading first and then taking a page or so every now and then and analysing the language. Part of me, however, wonders whether there are simply some people who are interested in the way language words and others who are not. I was watching an Austrian detective series, for example, the same day and something in my mind noticed that they used the verb “recherchieren” and without even realising it, I was thinking, “Would that be used in Germany or South Tyrol?” It comes naturally to me to question these things, but does it come naturally to everyone? If it doesn’t come naturally to you, then you simply have to train yourself to do it, but I think that many of my students who have been through a traditional style of school system do not believe in the value of these things. They think they need to do a lot of grammar exercises and practice tests and then they’ll be alright, which is rather sad in university language students.

An hour later my student was thoroughly depressed at the thought that this composition would not have passsed the test either and when I asked her what she had learned she said that she had learned not to discount simple words, and to get a better dictionary.

I felt extremely drained after this and felt the need to write about it because I feel as though I have failed her in some way. This was someone who was willing to study, who told me that she uses English every day in emails at work, but I had not been able to help her prepare for her exam. One of the most difficult things for a teacher to do is to chip away at student beliefs such as the sacrosanct nature of the grammar exercise, and all you can do is keep on going in the hope that some will understand the message.

So, what can failure and suffering teach us?

We all know the value of passing a test, but failure can teach us something too. In this case the student has failed her exam but she has learned some important lessons about how she approaches another language. In my case I failed to communicate my message to her in class, but I helped here in my office hours, and the whole episode has led me on to think about the process, so that I can use it in an exemplary way to others.

Failure inevitably leads to suffering but suffering in itself has lessons to teach us as well. ON a personal level, if I never suffer then I don’t appreciate so many of those little pieces that go together to form the amazing mosaic that is every simple moment of the day. If I never have to live without “hot water” for instance, I don’t appreciate how wonderful it is to have hot water readily available when I have a shower.

On another level suffering helps us to understand what other people are going through, and if we have never suffered ourselves then we cannot develop any real empathy. I know what it means to fail a test, so I can understand what my student is going through. Empathy is essential in a teacher, and not only, because it is by understanding what somene is going through that we can start to help them to come out of it.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, as they say, but everything begins somewhere. I don’t know if my student has really understood what she needs to do for her exam, or whether I have been able to help her, but both her and my failure have taught us something as has the suffering.

Sorry to go on at length about this but I felt the need to write it down and share it to work it through in my own mind. I’d be really interested to hear other people’s take on it too.


Grammar? Who needs it?


Not many peole in my classes really like grammar. They may think they need it, and they get a lot of satisfaction in ploughing through exercises, because we all know that when you get the answers right you feel good, and you can go home happy, can’t you?

A few years ago I taught a translation class, because my students had to do a translation exam. A the end of the course they could all do simple translations quite well and I was quite happy with them until one day someone told me that tourists had stopped them in the street asking for help and they didn’t know how to give simple directions!!

The anti grammar backlash

This, of course, is the type of realisation that caused the backlash towards the grammar translation approach in the first place, resulting in functional teaching and the Strategies Coursebooks. They may seem a bit dated nowadays, but I can safely say that “Building Strategies”, when it was first introduced was like a breath of fesh air to me. For the first time ever there were listening exèrcises in a book with sensible questions and quizzes for learners to do. These are things that we take for granted nowadays but things have changed quite a lot. The functional approach, however, was criticised too, and quite rightly, in fact, because it went too far the other way, so that much of what learners were taught was relatively “empty” language, and not always natural at that. So things began to swing back the other way again in favour of grammar, vocabulary, skills and the multistrand syllabus…

Where are we now?
Now there are those who are still using grammar and translation, others who swear by their exercises and oleplays and then there are those who reject grammar all together.
You don’t need grammar to learn how to speak, they proclaim, even going so far in some cases as to say that studying grammar interferes with learning how to speak.

Ok, I would agree that you need a lot more than simply grammar to learn how to use a language effectively whether you are speaking, writing, listening or reading. Each skill requires a whole array of sub-skills. Having said that, when I learn a new language I have to start with the grammar. Quite simply, if I don’t know how to make comparative forms, for instance, I can’t compare. I might pick it up if given enough exposure, but most adult/ young adult learners are not in that situation. How can I describe the past if I don’t know the past forms of the verbs?

This seems to me to be so fundamental that is hard to see how anyone could dispute it.

Grammar alone is not enough

What I would say, however, to come back to my original anecdote of the tourists eanting directions, is that grammar alone is not enough. It is a starting point and the only way for learners to imporve their language skills, whatever they may be, is to experiment with the language and learn from their mistakes.

The tasks learners are given are essential, and if those tasks are simply mechanical controlled practice of grammar, then of course it is not enough but a logical progression might be something like this, although the order of various steps may change. If, for instance you are focusing on emergent language the clarificatioin may grow out of a need you have seen during a previous phase. But a rough guideline might be:

1. Clarify the target language (whatever it may be, and in whatever eay you think is most appropriate to your learners;
2. Provide contexts for them to experiment with this language, play with it, shape it and make it their own;
3. Provide motivating, realistic follow up tasks so that they can begin to integrate this “new language” into their overall competence.

It isn’t a recipe and it isn’t cut and dried, because those who become expert language users need a lot of exposure to the language in various ways, of course, and not only the productive skills.

Motivation and tasks are key

The tasks we set our learners, then, are really important, but the learners themsleves have to be motivated too. You can juggle and entertain to your heart’s content in a classroom but if your learners are not motivated or have other more pressing matters on their minds, it will be to little avail, I’m afraid. You, as a teachèr, can only do your best and help your learners as well as you can. The rest, is actually up to them.

The Silence of the Audience

Conference PresentationThis is an image from the recent Iatefl Conference in Glasgow and it encapsulates one idea which we associate with conferences: the idea of the “speaker” empowered, up on his or her pedestal, dispensing wisdom to the hushed audience, in this case the audience are literally in the dark, so their role is to watch and absorb…(oh and then perhaps go to the session later on to ask questions, if it doesn’t clash with the other parallel sessions on at that time.)

I was reading Naomi Epstein’s thoughts on conferences, which you can see on her blog. She was writing about how it would be nice to have more than input sessions, which still seem to be the norm in most places, and suggested output sessions, one a day perhaps, where the dos and don’ts of various topics could be discussed, leading up to the publication of the discussion, conclusions etc. I, personally, think this is an excellent idea and leads me on to think about how conferences might change to reflect the times we are living in, using the technology available, but even more so, changing our mindsets so that we are prepared to consider doing things in different ways. We are all such creatures of habit though, and after all, don’t we all rave about how great things are anyway, without changing anything?

Oran Mor Murals
Oran Mor Murals: capturing the spirit

What happens at an English Teaching Conference at the moment?

In the English Teaching world it works like this: you go to a conference, attend a series of presentations, maybe look at book exhibitions and the like, meet friends and colleagues, make some new contacts and attend one or two events. Don’t get me wrong, doing these things is a great way to spend time and I’ve just had an amazing few days in Glasgow as I’ve said before in previous posts, I’ve learned a lot, been motivated by speakers and colleagues, and visited a bit of Glasgow including a wonderful pub called Oran Mor, where they have an amazing event called “A Play, a pie and a pint” so if you go to Glasgow I can warmly recommend it. So, I felt that it was well worth going there, and I’m already looking forward to Liverpool next year…

But… and it is a rather large “but”, there is a huge silence behind all of this and this is the silence of the audience. I remember my very first Iatefl, which was Harrogate 2005. I was thrilled to be there, and not least because I had won the Onestopenglish Methodology Prize, which enabled me to go that year. I had also been studying quite a lot of linguistics for various reasons, at that time, so it was wonderful for me to see names like Dave Willis or Mike McCarthy speak. I felt as though I was entering into a whole new world, which was charged with potential and this was further reinforced by the discussions that went on at the sessions. For the last few years though, maybe because I’ve been going to the wrong sessions, I don’t know, it seems to me that these discussions are simply not happening any more, or are greatly reduced. Most people (this includes me unfortunately) give their presentations and then the time is up, and everyone rushes on to the next thing.

Le Voyage dans la Lune from the film by Georges Méliès

Asking for the Moon

In some sessions you do group work and share ideas there, but the group work I did this year in sessions like Jane Willis’ talk or Tessa Woodward’s made me see that there was a great wealth of experience and wisdom in those audiences and wouldn’t it be nice to be able to tap into that as well. (Or am I asking for the moon here, when we are already getting so much?)

Iatefl, in fact, always ask for feedback and are constantly seeking ways to improve and expand what is becoming a bigger and bigger conference every year. This is a tall order for anyone. Two years ago, in fact, the Iatefl conference introduced the idea of the Interactive Teaching Fair, where presenters have a stand with posters, videos, worksheets, tasks etc. and at the beginning of this session present their stand for 2 minutes, like a type of intellectual bazaar. The audience decides which stands they are interested in and can then go and talk to the presenters. I had a stand on blended learning that year, and it was true that I interacted with a lot of people there, but at the end I felt that it had all been a bit too fast and furious, and I’m not sure that the people who came to my stand really had the chance to watch the video or do my guided discovery activity either. Maybe they did, or maybe it doesn’t matter if they didn’t because they may have chosen not to. But do we know whether they actually had that choice? After all, choosing not to do something when you know what is available is rather different from not doing something because you didn’t manage to get close enough to find out what you could do. The fair is a nice idea, but it needs to be honed and developed I think.

Twitter-Mosaik by wuestenigel on Flickr

The Ubiquitous fat, blue Sparrow

I liked this clever image of Twitter because it is symbolic of social networking for learning and sharing. It is true that in recent conferences audiences have been encouraged to participate in sessions by tweeting their opinions. This is one way for the audience to have a voice and in some cases, it is working well. In the Socialnetworking Symposium, for instance, the moderators had their own access to Wifi (as the Wifi provided by the conference centre, as often happens, probably couldn’t cope with such large numbers and was difficult to use during the conference itself, even though it had been working perfectly during the pre conference day). I remember the ELT Journal Debate in Brighton too, where the audience were encouraged to participate via Twitter, and that worked well too. Some people were distracted by the tweets streaming in, but that is, I think, a matter of getting used to it, and those tweets could then have been collected, collated and published leading on to even more discussion. This, then is one direction that conferences are going in, which I think is promising…

It still leaves me, however, with the feeling that we are creatures of habit, as I said before, and we take comfort from seeing things done in the way they have always been done: a presentation with the audience taking notes. (OK, We have Powerpoint and Prezi nowadays instead of simply having a speaker or a speaker with flipcharts, like the one I used in 2005… not so terribly long ago, in fact) but the focus is still on the speaker or the speaker’s content alone.

I just think it would be nice to have more space for discussion in the talks, so as to draw on the knowledge that is there in the audience, that

Captain Twitter by Christian Guthier net_efect on Flickr
Captain Twitter by Christian Guthier net_efect on Flickr

knowledge which we could share and enrichen by interacting with each other so much more. What if, I wonder.. what if the presentations were treated as springboards to discussion…, Then maybe we could all take flight…

Or maybe we can just keep blogging about it with each other, and attending #eltchat on Wednesdays. Anyway, just to give you yet another taste of Iatefl if you didn’t manage to get there this year (or, a few memories if you did ) here is my annual Iatefl Slideshow courtesy of Simply follow the link:

Make your own slideshow with music at Animoto.

Fast Forward from Iatefl Glasgow 2012

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

Fast Forward…From Glasgow back to everyday life

I’ve actually been back from Glasgow for almost a week now and as time passes your brain begins to put things into order, classifying the kaleidoscope of talks, ideas, peoples, impressions that whirled round you during what is definitely one of the highlights of my year.

All the conferences tend to have a sort of thread running through them to my mind. My thread for Harrogate 2010, for instance was stories, possibly because of the links between Harrogate and Agatha Christie, but also because that year there seemed to be a wealth of references to Whodunnit activities and stories, culminating in the incredible Jan Blake plenary which had us all in tears. No mean feat at a conference.

Connectivity and Relationships

This year, in Glasgow, there were two main themes for me. One was connectivity and relationships. As I wrote in my last post at the beginning of the conference, Adrian Underhill underlined how important relationships are in our world and how it is only really by stressing relationships, connecting with others and drawing on each other’s strengths that a group can be successful. The days of the charismatic leaders are numbered, it seems, although I can think of a few leaders who haven’t quite realised that yet.

This theme is in fact central to what I was talking about: social networking and professional developments because it is by relating to one another, and by connecting up that so many of us are developing our teaching by means of sites like Twitter and Facebook as well as so many others. Relationships, however, have always been important and this brings me on to my second theme: integrating the past into the present and going on into the future.

From the Present back to the Past and then on into the Future

We all tend to look for new things, and I am always insatiably curious, which is probably why I like technology so much, but it is also true that there is nothing new under the sun, and that we are basically reworking things that already exist in new ways. On the first day of the conference I managed to get one of the seats in Anthony Gaughan’s presentation: The Se7en Deadly Sins of ELT, where he claimed that he was not going to try to persuade us that he was right but that he was going to talk about seven techniques that have been banned or have almost disappeared from EFL classrooms, being frowned upon.

1) drilling;
2) translation/L1 use;
3) dictionary use;
4) teacher explanations;
5) reading aloud;
6) telling students they’re wrong;
7) teacher talk time.

Apart from the fact that I actually regularly do most of these things with the exception of reading aloud, which I do in drama activities, but otherwise tend to avoid, I must say that his talk was very convincing. Perhaps he was preaching to the converted, but it is worth repeating what seems to me to be the crucial point here:

It is not the technique, drilling, reading aloud etc. that is “wrong” but what you do with it, like so many techniques. If you spend your whole lesson translating texts and not doing much else (which does actually happen even now in some classrooms) then translation is something to be discouraged, or if the whole lesson is conducted in the students’ L1 rather than in English and English is only used for mechanical exercises then of course it is negative, but a constructive use of translation for critical analysis, and the use of the L1 to save lengthy contortions on the part of the teacher just to explain one “word” is simply a matter of common sense. The same is true of all these “sins”.

Blending the past and the present

It struck me forcibly however, that what was hailed as “new and good” not so many years ago, is now considered by many to be “old hat” and frowned upon, but a teacher’s box of tricks is surely a blending of everything together. In my teaching I would hope that I have taken a range of techniques such as drilling, mill drills etc. and combined them with other elements developing my own skills so that one thing grows out of another. What I mean for instance is that I might do a “mill drill” where student’s ask each other questions about what they are going to take with them on a holiday, for instance, and then they may plan the holiday with those items and finally write an email to a friend after the holiday talking about an episode that happened involving one of the things they took with them. This may then be posted on Linoit or some such noticeboard. In this way drilling becomes a task and is then developed using technology. In this way what we do today is the result of building on what we have done in the past.

So, that’s it for today, I think. Iatefl was, as ever, a great conference and I’m sure I’ll have more to say as my brain orders it all even more.

The Essence of the Lesson

Bringing that spark of magic into your lessons

Lighting the spark….I was talking

with two of my colleagues this morning about our lessons, and you might think we’d be discussing the focus we’d planned, or the materials etc. But, in fact, you’d be wrong.

What we talked about was what I call the indefinable extra something that is the essence of a good lesson: real human interaction and communication.

One colleague told me that the audio had broken down in her classroom so she’d got two boys to act out a dialogue. The only problem was that the dialogue was between “Mandy and Jane”, who were two girls gossiping about their boyfriends. The two boys, she said, rose to the occasion admirably and overacted so that they had everyone in stitches. This is what was probably memorable about the lesson, that everyone was having a good time as well as studying English.

In my B1 class the other day I had two examples of John, who was short and Michael who was very tall, a common enough example to illustrate bug differences and how to express them, with forms like, yes, you guessed it: “Michael is much taller than John.” Very dry stuff, until I mentioned “Little John” and someone asked where Robin Hood was. I said that he was somewhere in the middle but was only “a bit taller than Little John”.

In this way, what was a very banal example had been transformed into a memorable communicative interlude.

Grammar and Magic

I would just like to stay with these comparatives for a moment to show how through noticing and experimenting these B1 learners somehow managed to normalize the patterns (to some extent) so that they could make effective comparisons and prepare for their exam all at the same time.

They have to translate sentences unfortunately from Italian to English to show an awareness of various grammatical and lexical items in their written exam, so I, as their teacher, need to provide them with exam practice whilst making it meaningful and, dare I say it…magic, at the same time.

Here is the magic spell

1) Provide a series of provocative sentences for learners to translate.

Travelling by bike is by far the fastest way of getting around the city.

Women tend to be much more faithful than men.

Those who earn the most are definitely the most responsible members of society.

2) Let learners translate these (In our case from Italian to English) then check their ideas and help;

3) Then wave you magic wand and just as they think that is the end of the activity you ask them… “So, do you agree with all this then?” And suddenly these statements are no longer just a mechanical exercise but someone’s thoughts that have been expressed.

4) In pairs or small groups the learners discuss them and, as you go round monitoring you will hear some of this language being expressed absolutely naturally as they make their point.

The height of the discussion this afternoon was when someone mentioned quite a well known Italian politician as being the antithesis of the last sentence.

None of this is particularly innovative. In fact, it is actually common sense, but it shows how from humble exercises real communication can grow, and that is the true magic of the lesson. The essence is always the individuals who are sitting there in your group, and what they can express to each other. It can all be made up into heady brew….

A Voice from the Desert

A Voice in the Desert

Image taken from 04/03/ 2012

It isn’t very popular these days to like coursebooks, and I like many of my colleagues, feel that following a course book can, at times, be extremely limiting.

Often we tend to equate using the course book with “lazy” teaching. We talk about slavishly adhering to someone else’s program me, and there is the stereotype of the far from motivating teacher who goes into the classroom and says something like:

“Right, turn to page 35 and let’s see where we are up to…” Not, of course, that any of you would ever do that!

Apart from the jokes, it is difficult for course books to cater for specific needs and interests and since each group is different it would seem to be so much easier to develop content which is learner centred and addresses the needs of the specific group. We are living in a world of information, much of which is in English, so why can’t we simply take content from the Internet etc. and adapt it to our needs?

Living with our Feet on the Ground

In an ideal world we would all have enough time and energy to do this all the time but the truth is that many teachers are under stress and are teaching far too many hours every week, with the result that the course book provides them with a structure, which is more or less reliable, and they can take it as a springboard finding what is relevant and what is interesting for their learners. This doesn’t mean that the teaching is not learner centered, but it means that the learners have a collection of materials there that can be used. This seems obvious but is worth pointing out at times. Of course, some people will misuse casebooks, just like they will everything else. Video, for example is a great resource when used appropriately, but not so great when a teacher just puts on a film and leaves the students to it. This does not mean that video as a resource is any less valuable and the same, I think, may be said for many course books.

Introducing Speakout

Having said all this, I must admit that I find it hard to work with course books myself, and I am the last person, really, who ought to be writing this, as very few of my groups use them. In recent years I’ve looked at quite a few of them and rarely find much to excite me, which is why “Speakout” the new book by Pearson Longman came as such a nice surprise to me. I have been dipping into the Upper Intermediate book and have found that it is refreshingly effective and interesting, and my learners like it too. This book has been developed with BBC media, which is well done and realistic, and each student’s book comes with an active ebook, a DVD which includes all the materials, videos, audio texts etc. so it can be projected in the classroom and used at home too, but what do I like it?

Why I and my learners like it

To give you an example, I have a C1 level group that have to do a composition exam, which includes narrative writing. I noticed in our recent January exams that a lot of people were having trouble with narrative tenses, which is probably because they had studied these tenses as single items rather than looking at them as parts of discourse, and learning how to put them together. When I looked at the storytelling unit (And I know the book is a B2 level but that doesn’t really matter. They are learning from it anyway!) I saw a motivating lesson where learners read two texts, discuss the morals in the stories (the exercises were very well scaffolded too) and then analyze the tenses as parts of the narrative text:

Past continuous for interrupted past activity, yes, but also for setting the background to the story.

Past Simple for the events in the story etc.

This rang very true to me, and is what I, and many others, have been doing for years, but somehow in this book it all hangs together really well.

Image retrieved from on 04/03/2012

Another nice example is the lesson on Larks or Owls where learners listen to people being interviewed by the BBC about their habits, whether they are larks or owls. The vocabulary for this activity is pre taught in a quiz activity which is motivating and fun, and it all leads very naturally into the listening activity.




Using the book as a Springboard

Of course, as with any course book, as I said before, if it is going to be made relevant it needs to be used discerningly. Teachers need to think about what their learners need, what they need to be able to do and what the best way is to help them to do that. Having said that, though, I must say I really like this book :-).