Monday Morning Blog Challenge: which model?

file0001662874096June Blog Challenge

Since it’s the first Monday in June I thought I’d kick off the week with a Blog Challenge about models of English, which is something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot. Obviously, we all use English in different ways, depending on our needs, but is the model we are providing, and, above all, assessing the right one for our learners?

Which Model is right for Italian students?

I teach, as you know, in Italy, and our model tends to be Standard British English. The coursebooks used in state and private schools, and to some extent universities, are mass market globally produced books that come from the UK, on the whole. Even though there are some locally produed books, particularly for the eaching of literature, most of the books are not local, so how relevant are they to our context? Our learners, unless they are language students with a deep rooted interest in language, are motivated to study because they will use English, not to become part of a community where English is the L1 but to communicate in multilingual contexts. This begs the question of what we should teach them. If individuals with different cultural and linguistic backgrounds wish to communicate, of course they will need a model which enables them to understand each other, so, for instance, a local model which includes code switching between English and Italian or “Italian forms in English” will only work among Italian speakers, which rather defeats the purpose!

My take on this has always been to teach the standard British model, as we are in Europe, so it is arguably the closest one to us, and then to encourage creative use, such as adding local sayings, idioms and metaphors (in English) which enrich the language. So far so good. Students learn the basic model to the best of their abilities and then go off into the sunset using it as well as they can. The next problem is assessment.

What is lexical grammar?
What is lexical grammar?


When it comes to assessment I think we need to be using a different model. In recent years, with the implementation of the CEFR the move has been to recognise what individuals “can do” when they are communicating, with an emphasis on skills rather than the lexico-grammatical system, although of course the two are closely interconnected. This, however, is where beliefs and traditions die hard, and some find it very difficult to be able to change their perspective towards seeing these learners as people who are using the language to commnicate, and recognising what they can do, rather than simply focusing on the errors.

I have a lot of sympathy for examiners. It’s a complex job which involves judgments that combine the application of criteria (if that is the type of examining being done) with beliefs and traditional habits. For teachers, in classrooms, and this, in my experience is true both of NESTs and NNESTs, what we notice first tends to be error. It hits you between the eyes, if you like, and is seen as something “broken” and many see the job of the teacher as “helping learners to avoid error”. Is it realistic, however, to expect learners to achieve high, almost native speaker like, levels of competence and do they need to do this? I believe that assessment means looking at successful expression and teaching means facilitating learners so that they can develop their own voice and expression tools, to the level that is required by the use they will ultimately make of the language.

So, what about the challenge? Here it is: a few questions for you to consider about your context.

  1. What context do you teach in?
  2. What is the dominant model of English taught?
  3. What is the dominant model of English assessed?
  4. Does this meet your learners’ needs?

I’d be really interested to hear people’s thoughts 🙂


Blended learning as a Social Process, Sugata Mitra at Iatefl and the Aftermath


Blended Learning: face to face interaction with support from the digital world.

If you look at this image, you will see the essence of what I think of as learning in action. It isn’t a mill drill, it is meaningful discussion going on in the F2F component of a blended learning approach to teaching.

Learners interact with each other and with the teacher who encourages them to find their own paths and is there providing encouragement and direction where needed. I’m not going to cite all the people who advocate learning as a social phenomenon but I’d just like to mention Mike Harrison, who, in a recent blog post, reacted to Sugata Mitra’s vision of children huddled round computers interacting with machines in a wounded but dignified way and  said that the social interaction is one of the major aspects of what he thinks of as teaching, and I agree completely with this.

This is not a new idea, it is the essence of constructivist views of learning where knowledge is built socially and in my classrooms, at any rate, learners and the teacher work together to develop the process building a community which acts as a framework within which meaningful communication and learning may, hopefully, take place.

Why was there such an outcry after Mitra’s plenary?

The Plenary

The Interview

Sugata Mitra’s plenary, on Saturday 5th April at the end of the Iatefl conference, seemed to be suggesting that the teacher was an element that was no longer necessary. In his question and answer session that was held yesterday (April 19th) it seemed clearer to me that he was focusing on the learning process and was particularly concerned with areas of the world where teachers are not available, and how to promote learning in these places, rather than saying that teachers were obsolete, although his implication was that in the future the role of teachers must change. He advocates children organising their own learning with challenging question being asked that they can then answer or not, and with “granny figures” who provide support and admiration from afar. A key element, he said, was that the grannies should be amazed by what the children tell them and what they have learned. The teachers, then would become the grannies, as far as I can see, which is not too far removed from the role of “facilitator” which has already been widespread for quite some time.

Although there has been the whole gamut of emotions in the outcry to his presentation the question and answer session yesterday, which should soon be available as a video for all those who missed it, was interesting both for the answers Mitra supplied to the questions we asked him and for the discussion that went on in the chat box, which raised other issues.

I still have a few qualms about all this which I’d like to share with you. I’ve left it until now to publish as I wanted to hear what he had to say in the webinar first 🙂

Watching the Sugata Mitra video and the interview made me think that:

Do Learners need or want direction or not?

Actually, he isn’t an educator and doesn’t claim to be (although he is Professor of Educational Technology…). In the interview he said that the role of teachers was something he was thinking about. However, he compares a SOLE  (self organised learning environment) session with a ‘lecture’ and the key word here is lecture, as this seems to be his impression of what teaching is. This may be true in some contexts but not all, and there are many educators who already work with both Internet- webquests and group work.

My thoughts on Non directed Learner Autonomy

In the webinar he said that a SOLE differs from a webquest because a webquest is learners interacting alone with computers to go to specific web sites provided by teachers, but this is quite a narrow view of what a webquest is. Guidance may be provided, but there is no reason why webquests cannot be done in groups and sites provided when asked for but learners do not need to be limited to these sites. I mentioned, in the webinar, my experience with learners who, when left to their own devices, are not necessarily autonomous, and may, in fact, be directed by the materials they find.

They often, for instance, stop at the first online dictionary they find, rather than comparing different ones, and yes, I admit it, they are the ones that I suggest to them. I have quite a lot of experience of online dictionaries and can tell them what I think is good or bad about them, and then leave them to make up their own minds.

It is also, I think,  something of a utopian view to think that everyone, when provided with materials, will magically become a successful independent learner. In fact, in the ELT world we have seen after years of experiments with such things as self access centres, that most learners are NOT able to direct their own learning as successfully as Mitra implies. Learners will go into a self access centre and their learning will be determined by the materials, which is a completely different thing from using materials in the guidance of an expert teacher in a supportive classroom, where learners can experiment, ask questions and teachers can adapt the materials, tasks, topics etc. to the needs of their learners.

I realise that this is not what happens in many classrooms, unfortunately, and I feel that my own context in Italy is a long way away from the experiments in India, where there were few, or even no, teachers available, but I simply don’t think that findings from contexts like these can then lead to generalised statements about teaching. What we need to do is to ask ourselves what the components were that “worked” and how these elements can be adapted and combined with successful teaching in ELT contexts, if we are not already doing this, albeit in different ways.

What are the Key Ingredients in Mitra’s SOLEs ?

The key ingredients are directed peer learning, with challenging questions and affect both the fun the learners are having, their motivation and curiosity and the support provided in the admiration that comes from the granny figures. This all seems, dare I say it, fairly standard for the elt world, but is it standard for mainline schools? The emotive comment of “factoring out the teacher” could perhaps, and I say perhaps, because I’m trying to be objective here, mean factoring out traditional top down teaching and the cognitive focus on lower order skills, or dumming down of learners, which has been changing in our field for many years. This is not true, however, of education authorities who insist on, as Mitra says, ignoring the Internet and banning its use from the classroom.

There are, of course, reasons why this is done too, and working s a teacher who has to juggle institutional constraints, aim for good exam results and promote motivated learning as well is no easy task. The criticism, I feel, however, should be aimed more towards the ministerial programmes, the systems that look at learning as a matter of ticking the boxes, and testing systems which are archaic and do not perhaps meet the needs of learners in many parts of the world.

So… I conclude that what he is saying, as many people have protested over the past two weeks, is not particularly new, on the one hand and an emotive response driven by fear for our jobs may well make us throw up our hands in horror, when what we need to do is think about how to organise our own systems and in particular our testing systems as the washback from these inevitably affects our teaching.

Finally, I still think Mitra was speaking more as a researcher, even though he said he was ‘trying to find a way for children to learn where there would not be a teacher’ so he did not give the children in India any help, but we are educators and we can give our learners help. We, as educators can focus on how to direct their learning so that it is fun, constructive and challenging, just like the image at the top of this post, where learners experiment with different ways of learning until they find what suits them best, in a supportive, meaningful community that is created in the classroom…. I think that’s the positive message, and many of us already do this, don’t we?

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 🙂




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

Hague, C. & Payton, S. (2010) Digital Literacy across the curriculum: a Futurelab Handbook, available at:

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.

Is it an Error not to Correct?


To correct or not to correct?

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

Being corrected: how does it feel?

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

Fly away on a story
Change your perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Learner Facebook page
Our Learner Facebook page

Informal Expression Spaces for Learner Fluency

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

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

2) What do you intend to correct?

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

How important is Language Awareness?

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

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

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

3) Where will the learner go next?

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

1) a written task is set.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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




Thoughts from the Iatefl Conference on the Roles of Teacher and Learner

This piece of writing came abut as the product of a free writing exercise I did at a session on courageous teaching at today’s Iatefl. I decided to tidy it up and share it with you 🙂

The bright, shiny lights and colours all around us get to be too much, at times, for me to see which one to follow; which one is the flame of inner creativity and motivation that lights us up inside and which one is simply a gaudy neon sign that flashes on and off in my email box, distracting me for a few minutes before it fades. Yes, those lights are pretty too and can wow us all for a day, but then the novelty wears off and we are left wondering what all tthe fuss was about. They are like the icing on the cake, but if it is all icing with no cake we might very soon tire of it. What we want is a true inner light, that illuminates our tthinking, leading to a true sense of wonder and meaningful discovery in both teacher and learner.

We both need to make sense of the world and sense of the learning or teaching. My sense is not necessarily your sense and that is fine if we can walk along together for a while and I can show you my favourite tree, whilst you show me thte strtech of water beyond the forest, which beckons with the promise of adventure and new horizons.

Some claim that true exchane between teacher and learner are hampered by rigid rules of hierarchy, and that they cannot really exist, but this is not always true. Although hierarchy can be a daunting framework, in classrooms it often exists for a reason and needs to be established first until we all feel comfortable with each other, before we can go beyond it muting the barriers by the meaningful use of respect and the lsharing of ideas both in class, inforamlly and even,why not, through social media these days. By far the most important ingredient in the mix, though, is still, I think, communication whether on or offline. If we listen to each other and take care to try to understand the message each one of us is trying to get across then we are on the road towards understanding and reciprocal exchange. Where there is a lack of communication there can only be misunderstandong and stunted growth… definitely not education.

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

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 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.



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.