TESOL Rome 2014: a moment of sharing and meeting.


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

The Advantages of Physically Attending a Conference

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

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

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

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

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

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

Key Themes


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

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

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

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

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

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

Creativity and Mindfulness

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

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

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

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

Making Assessment Relevant to the Learners

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

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

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

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

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

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


imageFinal thoughts

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









My thoughts on Digital Literacy


I’ve recently been thinking quite a lot about digital literacy and not only because we are studying the concept at the moment on my MA course but what it means to my learners too. So I thought I’d share my conclusions with you. This is a bit more academic than usual but I hope you’ll bear with me.


What digital literacy means to me

I was initially very impressed with Bax’s notions of normalisation, when I heard them in 2010 at the Iatefl conference in Harrogate, and I think this tied in with what Scott Thornbury was saying at the same event where he concentrated on ‘the need to ensure that the technological tail does not wag the pedagogical dog’. What this means to me is that digital literacy is: being able to use online spaces and digital tools to communicate, work, learn and create in a ‘normal’ way so that the tools and competences required are part of everyday life. This, of course, includes all the various key elements of digital literacy that are mentioned in the literature, such as knowing how to use technology to create content which is appropriate for the target online (or otherwise) context, with an awareness of copyright and plagiarism notions and knowing how to publish or share that content safely. It means knowing how to search for and find information, involving filtering skills and critical thinking, and knowing when to switch off and go for a walk instead. Finally, it also means network literacy, including cultural understanding of what sort of environment you are in and what is appropriate behaviour, as well as the implications of what you publish and the digital imprint you are creating for yourself. This is a broad summary of some of the ideas explored in (Hockly, H.( 2012), Dudeney, G. (2012), Poore, M (2013), Payton, S. & Hague, C. (2010)


Implications for Teachers and The Learning Process

Student Facebook page(Click on the image to access the Facebook Page)


To come back to the idea of normalisation and Thornbury’s metaphorical technology dog, it is inevitable to some extent that the ‘wow factor’ has a negative impact when teachers (or learners) use technology simply because it is a novelty but without sound pedagogical principles behind that use, and although this does happen, it is also true that there are many teachers who integrate technological tools systemically into their teaching.

Introducing social media, for example, in a principled way is one highly effective way of doing certain things such as using the class Facebook Page to extend a discussion, which was started in class, but there was not enough time to take any further, or to work on language, to encourage learners to read and watch videos by providing sites and tasks and to provide them with an informal space to post their own content and share ideas.

Here is one example of a discussion which university students began in class on the subject of what success means to them. This was then continued outside class on their Facebook page

The initial post:

This morning we discussed “success” in the C1 lesson. What does it mean to you? Money and fame, or…?

The Comments

M C I think the happyness of having a job that you like…with a small part played by money…Unlike · Reply · 3 · 13 January at 18:09

G D After a strong involvement in a job or in a research. Unlike · Reply · 1 · 13 January at 22:30

C A I think it is about achieving your goals, being loved and appreciated for who you are and being happy  Unlike · Reply · 1 · 13 January at 20:51 · Edited

G D I consider the “success” a gratification after a strong involve Like · Reply · 13 January at 22:29

The Statistics

202 people saw this post

The fact that there were only four comments is, in my opinion, not particularly significant, as what is much more important here is the fact that 202 people saw the post and thoughts about it. Lurking, in fact, is a choice, and the fact that someone does not comments does not necessarily mean that they are not learning something from the page. The discussion has effectively been extended beyond the classroom to become a part of our ‘normal’ digital world on Facebook.


There are, however, various issues that my learners need to come to terms with which go beyond the issues of functional digital literacy (using blogs, social media to create content among other things). (Poore 2013). They need to become more aware of what it means to be part of a network and what they are actually publishing. Many learners are not aware of issues of safety and privacy. They do not know what it means to publish their photos on social media, and what rights they are giving the owners of the space by doing so. On the other hand we are living in what is increasingly becoming a ‘remix’ world, where the boundaries between what is real and what is a spoof, are getting more and more blurred every day, so learners need to know what is real and what isn’t. This however, may go beyond the remit of the ELT class. What is essential in my context of the university world, however, is the notion of plagiarism and copyright, which learners are not often aware of particularly when it comes to publishing photos they have found online. All these are areas that need to be explored.


Burning the candle at both ends
The Wow Factor

Bax recently wrote, in 2011, however, an article revisiting his view of normalisation, which he defined in 2003 as ‘the stage at which a technology is used in language education without our being consciously aware of its role as a technology, as an effective element in the language learning process (Bax, 2003)’ and in the 2011 article he examines some of the fears and expensive mistakes that are made when institutions, for instance, introduce technology because of the ‘wow’ factor, interactive whiteboards, being a blatant example of this if not support and training is also provided or only occasional access to the tool is allowed. He argues for a constructivist approach to the implementation of technology, and I would agree with this although I can remember a few years ago trying to motivate learners to use Skype to organise “spoken practice” session with a partner who lived in another town. The idea was that they should do a set task together using Skype. This was very unsuccessful, and with hindsight, it was another example of encroachment perhaps, of them not really using Skype for education, but rather for chatting to their friends. Recently, however, a group of my learners were preparing collaborative presentations using Prezi, and when I asked them to give feedback on how they had set about this, they said that they had skyped. To skype, then has become a verb, and is a normalised means of communication for these students who simply used it as the most convenient way to communicate with each other in order to  do the task they needed to. The difference is that the technology is not a novelty to them, any more than a pen would be. It is simply a means to an end, and what is perceived as important is the task they are involved in.

 Final Thoughts: the magical experience

As a final comment on digital literacy, however, I would like to add that I think true ‘digital citizens’ are in fact fascinated by technology and are curious about exploring the potential various tools can provide, precisely because they are amazed, not by the technology or the devices themselves, but by what they can enable us to do. Too much normalisation can lead to us losing the sense of wonder or the miraculous that is what makes people react to the novelty or the ‘wow factor’ of the tools in the first place. The use of the car, for instance, has been completely normalised in my socioeconomic context of Northern Italy, but sometimes to simply sit in your car and realise how powerful it is and what a wonderful thing it is to be able to travel such distances so easily, or to realise what it means to press a button and find a whole orchestra inside a little box we call a stereo, is a salutary experience. I remember the delight I first felt when I shared a photo of my day out to the seaside on Facebook, and people immediately responded to it. These tools are wonderful things precisely because they extend communication in new ways, and they are part of the miracle of life.



Bax, S. (2003) CALL – past, present and future. System 31 (1) March pp. 13-28

Bax, S. (2011)  Normalisation Revisited: The Effective Use of Technology in Language Education.  International Journal of Computer-Assisted Language Learning and Teaching 1 (2), April-June.  pp. 1-15.

Dudeney, G. (2012) Plenary at ThaiTESOL conference, slides available at http://www.dudeney.com/DigitalLiteracies.pdf

Hague, C. & Payton, S. (2010) Digital Literacy across the curriculum: a Futurelab Handbook, available at: http://www2.futurelab.org.uk/resources/documents/handbooks/digital_literacy.pdf

Hockly, N. (2012) New Technologies: Digital Literacies, ELT Journal Volume 6 (1) January, p.108-112;

Poore, M (2013) Using social media in the classroom – a best practice guide, SAGE


Summary of Harrogate 2010 Iatefl  PreConference Event  Accessed on 15th February 2014.

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

“How to Pass Exams” a distance learning course on Udemy

I haven’t actually blogged for a while, unfortunately, which is largely because I’ve been busy developing a new distance learning course entitled “How to Pass Exams” on Udemy.com.

The Reasons for this Course

I decided to develop this course for my students because we spend a lot of time concentrating on language, but not so much actually on developing study strategies or revision strategies. One of the key problems for those about to do an exam is motivation during study time. We start off feeling motivated but keeping that motivation going over a period of time is another matter, so this course also looks at ways of maintaining your level of motivation. The other killer is fear, which is our companion all the way through the course “Am I good enough?” “What will the examiner be like?” etc. etc. This reaches its peak generally in the days just before an exam so there are some tips and anecdotes here as to how to deal with these feelings.

How is the Course Organised?

The course is a type of experiment. If you know me and my work you will know that I have taught in many blended learning contexts such as WizIQ or in my university courses but this is my first experience of creating a complete distance learning course. I wanted to have something that my students could access freely and work through as and when they wanted to. The course is organised in short screen cast videos made to highlight the main points of a topic and these are followed by worksheets in the form of PDFs that learners can download to their computers, tablets, smartphones etc. and work through at their own pace. The PDFs include a series of activities and links to useful sites and references so that those who are interested in a particular topic can go into it more thoroughly. If you are interested in working on memory techniques, for instance, in the section on memory you will find useful links to further reading and study as well as some simple exercises to do straight away.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Udemy

Udemy is an excellent platform and those developing courses can upload both videos and other files easily as well as linking to material you develop on other sites such as YouTube or Vimeo. The PDFs are displayed in a reader which is highquality and allows students to scroll down the document easily as well as dowloading a copy for their own use.

The site also has a “notepad” feature where students can pause the video they are watching, for instance, and take notes. They can then download these dotes directly onto their computers too, which is a very useful feature. There is also a space for asking questions. Instructors can access the course once a week, for instance to answer questions and students can ask whatever they want to.

You can also schedule and run live classes on this site, which I have yet to do… that will be the next adventure.

There are, however, a few disadvantages as well. The main one is that it is sometimes difficult to navigate the site. If you look for a course in the “discover courses” section using tags such as “exams” or “passiing exams” or “education”, all of which I had added as tags for my course, you do not find it, and you find a whole selection of courses that are not necessarily connected to what you want to do. This is a prblem that I hope will soon be worked out as it has been mentioned to Udemy several times and they promise that they are working on it.

If you want to find my courses, the best way is simply to follow the link above (at the beginning of this article) or to search for me as a person in the Udemy search box. If you search for “Sharon Hartle” you will find my page and you can access the course from there.

Anyway, the course is up and running so now I hope that it will be useful to whole generations of students so, if you are a student, or is you are about to start preparing for an exam, or if you have students who would be interested, please join the course. It is absolutely free of charge, but I would appreciate hearing people’s comments.

Backache, large classes and HootCourse in the classroom

Burning the candle at both ends

I was reading just this morning in Brabara Hoskins Sakamoto’s lovely Teaching Village blog about how tired we teachers are all feeling at the moment, and how important it is not to burn the candle at both ends but to stay healthy and motivated.

This came at a highly appropriate moment in time, because a few weeks ago I was suffering from a pulled muscle in my back (carrying too many books around, I suspect) which was quite depressing because it meant that I had trouble getting around and doing simple things like getting dressed, or going downstairs. The idea of sitting in our classroom chairs and working at the computer or going round the classroom monitoring my students was unthinkable. Monitoring involves bending over the learners as they sit working and unfortunately that is not a movement which is designed for bad backs. Added to that I sometimes work with large classes (50-70 students is the norm for many of these) and that means that monitoring is limited to those sitting on the edges of the rows, or involves creativity… or a little help from my guardian angel. (Well OK, then, my guardian owl… who helps me to hoot away with him on Twitter via Hootsuite.

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

Introducing HootCourse

The Hootsuite team have developed HootCourse, which is a way of bringing Twitter into the classroom or the classroom onto Twitter (and to a lesser extent Facebook).

It works like a hashtag discussion on Twitter, and students can join a specific course you set up for them, and then tweet inside the HootCourse or directly from Twitter.

To explain how this works and why you might want to do it, I’ll tell you the story of my students in Verona. I set up a course for them on HootCourse. (If you want to see our space, follow this link) I then went into class and explained that I was having difficulty monitoring because of my back but wanted to see what they were doing anyway so would they mind using Twitter.

Twitter? Why shoudl I use Twitter?

This was the first hurdle, because I discovered that whilst most of my learners use Facebook all the time, very few of them actually used Twitter, in fact there were only about 4 or 5 out of 50 that said they used Twitter, and they tended to use it to follow celebrities. They were about to be launched into the Twittosphere in no uncertain terms. To help them along I prepared a document with detailed instructions which I posted in advance on the class blog. Then, in class, I grouped them into 4s and 5s where one person in each group was a representative and used a smartphone (I supplied a laptop and an ipod touch as well to groups that didn’t have mobile devices, as not so manynof my students actually have mobile devices. This will soon change, I’m sure in technophile Italy.) and they set up Twitter accounts and joined HootCourse. This particular course was an EAP course and they were doing an exercise on using academic vocabulary so I asked them to do the exercise and to tweet questions or doubts as they went.

They did this and I projected the HootCourse page on the screen. HootCourse has a useful “classroom mode” which enables you to project the tweet stream in a larger format. As their tweets were coming in I replied to them, so what was happening was actually a chat within the classroom. Rather artificial? I hear someone say. Well, maybe but they were learning how to use the tool, and there were people in the middle of this large group who normally never get the chance to ask questions etc. and they were quite happy to tweet whereas speaking out in front of the class is really much more daunting.

We then went on to use the tweet stream in different ways: the groups made their own gapped sentences, for instance with the academic vocabulary they had just been studying and the other groups had to tweet feasible answers. This was a lot of fun and worked well. The tweet stream was there for everyone to access after the lesson too, and I published the transcript with comments on the class blog page: scroll down to week seven in the second term to see this.

Visitors participated too

An unexpected efffect of this was that we had visitors from my PLN as well. Whenever you tweet something to HootCourse, in fact, your tweet can be sent to your normal Twitter timeline too (or not if you don’t want it to), and my tweets were appearing on Twitter as well as in the HootCourse. This meant that other people in my PLN were commenting on what we were saying in class, so my students had the benefit of other people’s points of view or answers to their questions as well! They were really impressed.

Taking the course out of the classroom

Once everyone had got used to the idea of tweeting in the classroom I invited them to take part in an hour long chat I was doing and asked them to prepare questions to ask about English. I wasn’t sure if anyone would take part in this, as it was in the evening, but in fact a few people did, and we had an informal chat about various English related or exam related things, and it was a fun experience for all of us.

Aren’t the tweets a bit limiting?

It is true that tweets are limiting, but in fact this has advantages. In fact, in one lesson I asked learners to write the main point of paragraphs in tweets, and condensing their thoughts to a tweet was quite an interesting exercise. The HootCourse, however, also has an essay feature which hooks up to blogs so that students can set up a blog on Blogger, for instance, and then link it to the HootCourse. Some of my students have done this and they can now write much more than they could in a tweet. These posts are then available on the course straight away both for the teacher to see and the other members of the class, which has a lot of potential when it comes to integrating learner work into the classroom. The HootCourse stream itself also has a tab for questions, where you only see the questions that have been asked, and another tab for links, where you see the links people have shared. So far, I have to say, we have found the whole platform highly motivating.


Well, yes, one or two. If you post a tweet (or a hoot, as one of my students started to call them) then you have to refresh your page before you see it. This is a bit awkward as you have to keep remembering to refresh the page, and things are slowed down a bit as a result of this. Working directly on Twitter tends to go more quickly. However, the students like the idea that they are “in a social classroom” and the course is embedded onto our blog page too so it is very easy for them to access it, so all in all refreshing the page isn’t too much of a problem.

Image retrieved from http://www.morguefile.com on 04/03/2012

It’s still quite a novelty for me and for my students, and it did feel artificial at times as I wrote the answers to questions etc. instead of just talking to people who were sitting right in front of me, but it did help my back and it opened up a whole new way of communicating for us, in fact it is very easy for us to keep in touch outside class as well, as we are only a hoot away from each other.



Christmas is approaching

Autumn colours I love autumn. I love the rich reds, oranges and browns and the carpets of leaves that furnish the pavements and provide such an amazing contrast to the black tree skeletons and the skies. Most of all, however, I love the beginning of the Christmas period with freshly lit street decorations and that feeling of expectation of good things to come. So… that’s why this year, I’ve decided to celebrate advent.

I’m not the only one either, and, in fact, I was motivated initially by Macmillan’s lovely Advent Calendar Greeting card which I was so impressed with that I decided to try to make my own using Powerpoint. This is the result:

Just click on a day to go to the activity

This is basically the first slide in the presentation and you click on the date to go to the activities.

Today, for instancThis is where the number 4 on the Advent Calendar takes youe is the 4th December, so clicking on the number 4 will take you to the page you can see in the picture below “Christmas  Landscapes”

When you want to go back to the calendar simply click on the star in the bottom righthand corner.

How to use it

There are as many ways of using this calendar as there are teachers, I’m sure but here are two simple suggestions:

1) Christmassy Warmer

Use it at the start of a lesson as a warmer.

Simply get a student to click on the calendar and then use the text as you would any text, focusing on vocabulary, the text itself, of as a springboard for discussion. This could be a quick discussion or could lead to other activities such as writing. It’s really up to you and your learners.

2) Competition

Here is an idea for a competition which departs somewhat from the traditional calendar idea but is fun anyway:

1) Divide the class into teams

2) each team pics a number out of a hat (prepare 24 numbers in advance on cards, slips of paper etc.)

3) The team answers the question and the rest of the class gives the answer a vote from 0-5. (Don’t tell them why they are voting at this stage)

4) When each team has had the chance to “play” once or twice, count up the votes and the winners are the ones with the highest score.

(In my class I have a real advent calendar at this stage and the winners get the chocolate.)

So here is the calendar:

Powerpoint Advent 2011

(ON some versions of Powerpoint not all the photos load so here is a PDF alternative (unfortunately this one doesn’t have the animations)

Advent 2011

These are just quick suggestions which I am sure can be adapted to suit all needs. I’s be really happy to hear from you if you use the calendar and come up with other ways of using it in class. If you would like to see some more Christmas activities just follow this link to the fun and games page on my wiki, and scroll down until you come to Christmas.

Merry Christmas

From Sharon and Haggis the cat

The myth of the Digital Native

After Marc Prensky told us all so convincingly that there was this mythical beast called the digital native, I certainly went along with this idea for quite some time, thinking that my university students were not quite young enough to be digital natives, and feeling sure that the up and coming younger generation would be much more au fait with digital matters, certainly more so than an antiquated dabbler like me!

Am I just feeling stressed?

The Shock

Recently however, there has been a substantial amount of debunking of this myth in articles such as this one by Terry Freedman (2010) and what they say became clear to me in my own classrooms just two weeks ago. What it means, I think, is that our young adult (19-22 year old) learners are not as tech savvy as we might think. I am teaching in the north of Italy, which is certainly one area of the globe where technology is very healthy and the sale of Smartphones quite phenomenal despite our dreadful political situation and economic crisis, and yet this, in itself, does not necessarily mean that our learners are  able to use technology as well as they might when it comes to study, and language learning. This, in turn, means that what we can do is to help them to see what is available and how to use it. So, here is a little bedtime story:

A little Anecdote

Our story began a couple of weeks ago when I noticed somewhere that CUP had a 50% sale on their English language learning Apps (Not all of them, but quite a lot)  Follow this link if you are interested. The offer is valid until 30th November 2011. So, I just put a note on my class blog to tell my students. Then, in class, I mentioned these apps in passing and, basically was met with a very lukewarm response, a few yawns and puzzled expressions etc. So, I went home and thought about this. Maybe they didn’t know what apps were? Was this possible? The next day I went bravely back into class and asked them to discuss these questions in small groups (I covered about 200 students in all):

What is an app?

Do you use mobile technology (Smartphones, iPads, iPads, tablets, iPhones mp3 players) BUT NOT computers etc.?

What do you use them for?

What is your favorite app?

The results were quite staggering. It is true that more than half of the students have Smartphones but only three or four used apps for much more than music and social networking. A few students had dictionaries, and others used them for shopping and looking for information like train times etc. One girl told us that she had a great recipe app, but these students, who knew what apps were and used them, were definitely in a minority and there was a surprisingly large group that did not even know what apps were: and this is a society which is bombarded daily with TV adverts trying to sell the technology.


I had taken my iPad into class with misgivings because when you have about a hundred students in the class the ones at the back will never be able to see, but I carried on anyway because I wanted them to see how useful these apps could be. I showed them the Cambridge Exam trainer apps for their levels and asked them what they wanted to practice. You could have heard a pin drop as the potential of the apps gradually dawned on everyone, and five minutes later at least three students had already bought the app and installed it on their iPhones.  One student, however, had an iPhone but didn’t know how to use the Apps store, which was quite surprising, so I spent some time helping her with that too.

This is all very well, I can hear someone saying… but it isn’t really language teaching is it? Well, this is the guilty thought that sneaks through my mind too. It took about 20 minutes to do this demonstration and the discussion was in English so I suppose even that might be said to be a type of CLIL, and those learners are now a lot more aware of one or two things that they can do with technology. It seems to me that this is what teachers actually need to be doing AS WELL AS teaching the language. We need to help our learners became more savvy when it comes to technology for learning because it can benefit them enormously. So my learners:

1. discovered a bit more about apps and mobile learning;

2. bought some very good apps that were great value for money;

3. learned one more way in which they can take the responsibility for their own learning into their own hands;

4. in some cases learned a little more about how to use their digital devices.

I think the point is, as I said before, they need help from the digital immigrants who are enthusiastic and savvy enough to be able to open new doors for them. I don’t intend to spend all my lessons talking about technology but it does have a place in my teaching and, I think, given the world we are living in, it will have to have a bigger and bigger place. After all, nobody would question the use of a “pen and paper” nowadays but there was a time when they were new fangled inventions too.


Halloween will soon be here

Meet the Pumpkins

The leaves turn and our thoughts go in the direction of Festivals

Autumn and Spring are the in between times and for some reason that really appeals to me. I like the crisp feeling in the air, in autumn, the fact that the sweaty August heat has finally gone and I can think and turn my thoughts in new directions, once more. As the leaves turn colour we begin to think about the darkness of the winter months, which we can eleven with the color of festivals like Bonfire Night, Halloween and Christmas. I noticed, in fact, that a lot of people seem to be reading my Halloween post from last year, so I decided tp update the wiki with new resources for this year. (Last year’s resources are still there, for those who like the idea of the Halloween Compound Noun Activities).

The picture at the top of this post is one I took recently in Yorkshire when I came across this delightful “Halloween Family”, who I named “The Pumpkins”. I decided to make a Halloween lesson around them to practice descriptive writing for my students at various levels. After all it is the task that stretches the learner, isn’t it.

I put this one and another on a Voicethread to give my learners the choice of either practising speaking or writing, and set it up for them on the wiki. I’d be very happy for other people to contribute too. The more the merrier. Just go to the fun and games page on the wiki and follow the instructions.

I also added a second activity for those who are motivated by songs, which is based on “Halloween” sung by “Aqua”, which I found on the resource Lyrics Trainer.  This is another fun resource, if you haven’t seen it before. It takes songs from YouTube and students can read the lyrics, listen to the dong and do a gap filler exercise as they go. You can choose the level you want as well. beginner, intermediate or advanced. This is both useful and fun, especially when combined with a few learning strategies to help learners along. For more on this go to the same link as before and I hope we’ll all get a lot of fun out of it.

Happy Halloween http://zaazu.com

WizIQ Distance Learning Summer Course: Chapter 2: things are looking up

Providing a structure for growth

You may remember what happened last week on my distance learning summer course, (read it here)I was keen to use a fantastic online tool ‘lights out’ and in true form, nobody could see anything! So, this week I decided to aim for simplicity, and it all went much better, so I thought I’d tell you about it.


The learners themselves choose the topics in class, by putting them into the chatbox and the one people like most wins. This is similar to the #eltchat approach to selecting topics and since it works so well for the Twitter discussion group I thought it would be good to extend it to my conversation class.

Photo credit: theirhistory posted on Flickr


I’ve written about this before, and other people do the same thing but give it a different name. Basically it reflects my idea that with distancelearning the online lesson is a discussion space that motivates learners, and gives them somewhere to experiment with the language they are learning. I do not use it for long, detailed clarifications of language, although language points do come up and the virtual classroom lends itself well to micro-teaching slots. My summer course: Activate your English, has this name because this is what I hope learners are doing, activating their English in class. But what about input? I hear someone cry. Well, that is the aducating, the leading learners to language. The classroom activities are accompanied by our Activate Your English blog where learners can before lessons to propare for class. (In this class, for instance the focus was on the learners and their countries, towns and lives) so I asked them to make sure before class that they knew the names of countries and nationali adjectives. (the level is very loosely intermediate, with an enormous range). I also gave them a reading text to piece together about me and my hometown, which we then looked at in class too, and I suggested revising comparatives and superlatives, providing activities to do this. So whe’s the learner-centred bit? I hear someone ask. This is aducating because the learners can go to the materials and do the work that they need or choose to do in preparation, and then in class they put it into practice.


I don’t really like the ideea of strict procedure but I know that we human beings find rituals and habits very reassuring so I tend to include the following ingredients in an online lesson:
1) A game or quiz (with winners, I’m afraid, so that everyone can applaud them. The names are published on the blog after the lesson). This week it was an alphabet quiz with countries. I gave them a letter and the first person to type in the country got a point. This is very simple but works well, and what is really nice is the encouraging comments people make to each other as we go.
2) Some microphone work, where learners can speak whilst the class types questions into the chatbox, or vice versa (this is very popular and interesting as we have learners from all over the world with a wealth of experience and plenty of stories to tell us.) This week I put up a map of the world and learners put a cross or a dot on their homes, then I called on various people to talk about where they were and what they were doing whilst the others asked questions in the chatbox. When they got going it was hard to stop them… Wonderful!
3) Structured skills work ( mainly because the learners like it and it provides good scaffolding). In this case I had a worksheet with a picture of me and Haggis my cat and another one of the barges on a canal in Mirfield, West Yorkshire, my home town. This was followed by a jigsaw texts which the learners put into the correct order in the usual fashion, but it, of course, had a twist. The text contained a lot of informaion that was obviously wrong.

My name is Sharon and I live in London. ( They all know that I live in Verona)

So the next stage was to read the text again and find out what was false. This was a lot of fun and helped the learners to process and understand the information in the text, in a fun, natural way, as well as provoking some discussion and vocabulary work.

4) A screen sharing phase. On Wiziq you, the teacher can share your screen with the class ( although it’s as well to keep this simple too as not everything comes out so well, and some learners cannot see things at times depending on their bandwidth.) I showed them the blog, for the new people or those who weren’t aware of it, and told them how it works. If you want to go the and see some of the things we do this is the link. Then I showed the CUP promotions page ( free grammar and exams preparation apps today and huge discounts for the rest of the week ) and finally I showed them the linoit noticeboard we had made as a back up to last week’s lesson and a new one for this week, where they can load their own photos and comments etc. ( all the links are on the blog). This activity is a follow up, and there are others too, including a focus on idioms: “worldly idioms” since we were looking at the world, for those who like them, but again it is up to the learner what they choose to do or not.

5) The hour was nearly up at this point, but we still had time for a fun final activity, which, this week was a general knowledge geography quiz (hence the need for comparatives and superlatives).

6) and finally the poll, where we chose the topic for next week. The most popular were music and stories, so I’m thinking of soing storytelling based on music, of course… Any ideas?

Back to Dogme: Stage Two…. dealing with emergent language and experimenting.

Magician and rabbit
You never know what might pop out of the hat!

Back to Dogme: Stage Two: dealing with emergent language and experimenting

It’s amazing how time flies but at the same time stands still. It seems only minutes since I was writing last week about me and my poor, tired bedraggled students, as we all braved the elements to get to our Monday evening conversation class. Well, it’s Monday again, so welcome back to part two of the exciting journey into learner centred, conversation based teaching.

Plugging us back in again

Social Networking
Emerging from the machine
Last week, as you may remember, the group told stories about recent trips they had been on, and one learner gave an impromptu presentation on marketing. I took quite a lot of notes during this and I promised I’d let you know what became of them. Well, first of all, I have to say that my teaching may well be learner centred, but in no way can it be described as unplugged. No, I must admit that I use technology all the time, and I am firmly convinced that it brings me closer to my learners and brings them closer to each other. I had written a few of the things they had said, and I selected six “utterances” to send to them by email a few days after the class:
      “We had a good travel although I had to use a lot of suncream.”
     “The traffic was absoltely dreadful….never again!”
      “I really should have checked the traffic news before I left.”
                                                                            “The worst thing was the travel by ship…it was really boring.”
                                                                            “She didn’t have to spend too long in the sun.”
                                                                            “We went for a travel in the mountains.”
I’m sure you can already see the pattern that is emerging here. But all I told my learners to do was:
a)  to decide which of these were utterances that I had been really impressed with and which ones probably needed a bit more work on the language;
b) to see if they could remember who had said which utterance and what it was connected with.
So they duly arrived with their ideas, but the first step in this lesson, as a type of warmer, was pronunciation. There were a couple of words such as “mountains” that were causing problems, and my learners love to be drilled. There seems to be something very reassuring about a bit of backchaining, and it gets us into the mood. So, that’s what we did. After that we moved on to look at their ideas about who had said what, which became both a discussion, as well as a way of reactivating the discussion we had had last week. We revised the use of “didn’t have to” as meaning “not necessary”, something which had come up recently, quite quickly. We didn’t actually spend too much time on that as they really only needed to be reminded of it and asked to give a couple more examples.

Travel Vocabulary

Then we moved on to what was to become a major focus in this lesson. It was obvious that “travel” was causing a lot of trouble, so I had decided to look at nouns relating to travel (Most of these can be verbs too, which we also pointed out, but here we were using them as nouns). The learners had to look at the following nouns, made with the traditional, but excellent, shareware Hot Potatoes authoring tools, and match them to the descriptions:
They were then asked which of these nouns is uncountable (there was only one) and we stopped to think about the uncountable or countable nature of nouns which is reflected in travel and journey. So by this time we had been doing quite a lot of reflection on this language, all of which had come out of the previous lesson. It was time to move on to do some more experimenting.

Experimenting with Emergent Language

Most of my groups are used to working with my wiki, and I’m afraid the wiki has been made private as it has some confidential information like exams results etc. on it now, but I made a little video to show you the page I made for this group and the second exercise which is one way of extending a classic cloze activity to make it into something a little more personalised and meaningful: a springboard into personalised reflection and further discussion.

And that’s where we got to this evening. Of course, the learners can now go back to the wiki page whenever they want to, print out the exercises or download them to their own computers, and they are usually motivated to do that, so who knows what next week will bring? In any case this was just one example of how the emergent language from learner discussions can be extended in a meaningful way, experimented with and then built upon. Oh, and I almost fogot, there is of course a fun element. The first person to finish the matching exercise was awarded a chocolate rabbit,

chocolate rabbit
You never know what type of rabbit you'll get.

because you never know with a learner centred approach, what sort of rabbit will emerge from the magician’s hat.