Four “must have” activities for digital teachers!

24 Nov

The title of this post is an example of Clickbait – something that is designed to get you clicking the link to look at the seemingly impossible / brilliant / hilarious story behind the headline.  Something eye-catching that makes you feel as though you’re going to miss out by not looking at it.

Clickbait headlines are a far cry from the traditional news headlines that you see in more traditional newspapers and magazines, though some would argue the trend in the less serious press has always been headed in that direction, and these are the sorts of things that people have to navigate their way through everyday.  Recognising this kind of vague salacious enticement, and knowing how to deal with it, is becoming a core skill in navigating our way through information to find things that we actually need.

In a recent post for the British Council Teaching English blog, Gavin Dudeney offers up a “Digital Literacy Primer” that talks us through the four core digital literacies of focusing on connections, language, (re)design and information.  It is an excellent overview of what these concepts mean in theory and practice and at the end of the article he argues that teachers should be incorporating these ideas into teaching as a way of helping students, particularly younger students, develop these skills.

In my recent post for the British Council Teaching English blog, I present activities and a lesson plan for teachers to do just that.  In Clickbait, Memes and Sharing the Truth – activities for digital literacies, I offer activities that look at building skills in each of the areas that Gavin Dudeney outlines.  Four areas, four activities – you see, my clickbait headline wasn’t lying at least!

In brief:

  • Language –  looks at reworking “traditional” headlines into clickbait speak
  • Remix /Redesign – looks at using meme generators to practice language points or explore an idea
  • Connections – presents a downloadable handout to engage learners with texts and web content, thinking about how they react to texts and what they do with the information afterwards
  • Information – presents a lesson plan for introducing students to the Pacific Northwestern Tree Octopus.  I’ll say no more at this stage, you’ll have to read the post!

I’d be really interested to get feedback from people working with these activities, you can do that either by leaving a comment here, or at the original blog post on the Teaching English site.

Let me know how it goes!



IELTS Writing Part 1 – The Happiness Graph!

19 Nov

How happy have you been over the last week?  Has it been a good or a bad week?  This is (broadly speaking) what my week looked like:
Happiness Graph


The Happiness Graph is a warmer that you can use with any class and which can, with the tiniest bit of adaptation, be used as a student generated IELTS task.


As a warmer, you draw the X and Y axes on the board as shown in the image above.  As you draw the line graph, talk the learners through your week and your reasons why.  For example:  “Monday is the start of the working week and is never a good day for me, but work went well on Tuesday and Wednesday and I was feeling pretty good.  When I woke up on Thursday morning I wasn’t feeling very well and this, as well as a lot of work to do on Friday, left me feeling a bit tired and stressed.  But I recovered well on Saturday, and on Sunday my family and I all went to the beach and had a really nice time, before going back to work on Monday!”

The learners then draw their own version of the happiness graph.  When they’re done, they share and compare their graphs with each other, explaining the peaks and troughs and hopefully asking follow up questions of each other.


In the IELTS writing part one, learners are asked to write about a chart, diagram or graph, so I adapted the happiness graph for this purpose.  This lesson requires no real preparation as the materials come from the learners, though you might want to supplement the language input slightly with additional verbs that describe trends.

Begin in the same way as the warmer, by drawing your version of the graph on the board and describing what happened to you during the previous seven days.

Ask learners to draw their own versions of the graph, but not to show it to anyone.

Refer learners back to the board and your happiness graph.  Ask learners for expressions they can use to describe the level of happiness over the week.  Write up their suggestions on the board and input additional verbs that describe trends (e.g. rise, fall, drop, increase etc) and adverbials of degree (e.g. slightly, massively, a lot, a little etc) as necessary.  In pairs, ask the students to write a brief description of your happiness graph.  Monitor and provide feedback as necessary.  At this stage, depending on your class, you could do some additional input work.  There is a nice task at the back of Scott Thornbury’s “Uncovering Grammar” (page 106), but many IELTS and Business English course books have sections on this area that you could use.

Ask learners to work with a new partner, preferably someone who is seated on the opposite side of the room.  Learners then do a dictadraw activity, where learner A describes their happiness graph and learner B listens and draws a version of it.  Learners then come together to share their drawing, compare what they drew, and explain why the level of happiness moved up and down as it did.  Learners then draw their partner’s happiness level onto the same graph as they drew their original happiness graph, so that there are now TWO different (and accurate) happiness lines on their graph.

Finally, learners write a short (!) 150 word description that compares and contrasts the two lines on their graph.  As a final analysis learners can compare what they wrote and look at why any differences occurred – and can correct any errors spotted!

I would set an authentic IELTS part one writing task as homework from this.



Acknowledgement:  The happiness graph as a warmer was shown to me at International House Katowice by David Magalhaes in 2005 (or so).  I think.  Apologies if I’ve got that wrong, do let me know!

The case for and against RP

19 Oct

“Since being in hospital, the only people I have heard speaking in the UK prestige model of “received pronunciation” are some of the consultants and surgeons.  Everyone else in the hospital is from everywhere else.”

In a recent post, about the need for native speakers to be trained in how to speak to non-native speakers, I made the point that very few of the non-native speakers will have encountered anything like the variety of dialect and accent that exists in the UK, let alone all of the variations of standard English that exist around the world.

The 2015 Ethnologue entry for English gives population figures of 335,000,000 L1 speakers of English worldwide, and 515,000,000 L2 speakers.  Yet estimates of received pronunciation speakers in the UK suggest only about 2% of the population, or just over 1.25 million people, actually use this form.  In other words, 0.15% of the global English speaking community uses RP.  Which begs the question of why we bother teaching it?

Proportion of RP Speakers

It is a staggeringly small proportion and the prominence of RP as a model owes a lot to historical views in the UK relating to class and status, as well as the historical nature of the education system and the dominance of the public schools (the term used in the UK to refer to private, fee paying establishments).

Unlike every other variety or dialect of English, RP does not relate to where you were born or where you grew up.  RP is a class and status marker and became desirable partly because of that, and partly because of its adoption by the BBC as a broadcasting standard.  There is an excellent and accessible piece by the British Library on RP, which goes into the history and evolution of RP in more detail.

It is the reasons why RP was chosen by the first general manager, Lord Reith, as the standard for the BBC that gives us our clue as to why it is so widespread in ELT:  “Reith believed Standard English, spoken with an RP accent, would be the most widely understood variety of English, both here in the UK and overseas. He was also conscious that choosing a regional accent might run the risk of alienating some listeners.” (British Library).  In other words, Reith wanted the BBC to be understandable and accessible to the broadest possible audience and was concerned that using dialect would make programmes accessible only to certain speech communities.  RP, with it’s relatively unmarked patterns, fit the bill.

Ultimately, shouldn’t this also be what our students should want?  To be understood by the broadest possible audience?  I have encountered negative attitudes to non-RP accents and speech in the classroom, including one student who flatly refused to do a listening activity with an African English accent on the grounds that he was never going to go to Africa and it wasn’t a useful model for him.  Fair enough, but this does miss the point slightly.

In Sound Foundations, Adrian Underhill distinguishes between Rapid Colloquial Speech (RCS) and Careful Colloquial Speech (CCS), where an example of RCS would be two native speakers talking informally to each other (for an example, see the transcript and audio via the link) and where CCS is a slowed down, clearer and, well, careful version of the language.  “An internationally available example of careful colloquial RP,” he says, “is that of newscasters and announcers on the BBC World Service.”  Just to be clear, Underhill does not say that CCS is the same thing as RP.  Features of CCS are that the speaker slows down, enunciates clearly, and makes sure that word boundaries are discernible; these are not features of accent.

CCS then, is a productive target.  As with the BBC, we want to be understood by as many people as possible, and so we should adopt a form of speech that carries the greatest degree of intelligibility, or what might also be the lowest common denominator.  As an example of that, RP is a useful productive model.

For RCS though, Underhill suggests “that this style of pronunciation is useful as a target for learners to aim at in their listening skill.”  Which begs the question, why isn’t it used for such?


Without the benefit of asking coursebook authors, editors and publishers; I suspect the answer is probably pragmatic.  Firstly,  the listening tasks don’t only function to develop listening skills, they also function as pronunciation models so that students can consistently link the way they hear a word to the way they say a word.  Secondly, if you do decide to feature alternative dialects and accents, which do you choose?  How would you determine which are most useful to the learners?  Thirdly, what additional input is needed?

The Dialect Blog, which looks at the way English is spoken everywhere, has some great input on Jamaican English and was the source for the You Tube video below, which is the story of “The Night before Christmas” read in the Jamaican patois.  Watch it and then think about what you would need to teach for that to be comprehensible to a group of learners.  Or alternatively, if you have a group of over confident higher level students, play it for them and ask them to transcribe it…..

It is probably going to have to be up to the teachers, responding to the needs of their learners, who decide when and how to incorporate non-RP speech into their classrooms.  The British Library, which has been previously referred to, hosts a collection of 71 sound recordings from around the UK with notes on the dialect.  Some great examples include:

These are all interviews, some have dialect notes, some have transcripts, some have neither.  The sound quality can vary, particularly with the older recordings.  Most are about five minutes long.

As an instant, no preparation procedure, I would suggest a three listening strategy:

  • First listening:  tell the students who they will hear and what they will be talking about.  Ask them to find one interesting “fact”.  Feedback on any content the students manage to uncover, but then move the conversation to process feedback – how difficult was it to listen to?  What did you understand and where did you have problems?  How much was accent and how much was vocabulary?  If the recording has dialect notes, you may be able to provide some vocabulary items at this stage.
  • Second listening:  Ask the students to take notes.  After the second listening, ask the students to work in small groups to try and reconstruct a version of what the speaker said.  This obviously doesn’t have to be a verbatim transcript, but should broadly reflect the content and attitude of the speaker.
  • Third listening:  Students check their reconstruction.  If you have a transcript for the recording, students could listen and follow the transcript at the same time.

I would then recommend some form of content follow up.  For example, Nicola from Plymouth (as above) talks about life as a teenager.  How is her life different to teenagers in your country?

A further possibility might be for learners to record their own interviews, using their mobile phones.


Another way to find authentic speakers talking about pretty much any topic is to search for videos including the phrase VOX POP and your topic.  e.g. Environment vox pop, christmas shopping vox pop.  A vox pop is an on the street interview between a reporter and member of the public.  They are usually quite short and may feature two or three people giving their opinions on the same topic.  The search term “street interview” also brings up similar results.  You could develop these into listening exercises as above, but as they are quite short, you could just use them as a lead in to your topic, asking students if they agree with the opinions.  While this is a primarily content led way of using the videos, it does also serve to expose and familiarise students to non-RP voices.

Finally, here’s the Night before Christmas.





16 Oct

t’s nt lwys tht sy t rd txts tht hv hd ll th vwls tkn t f thm.  Whch f crs s wht mks t sch gd ctvty fr th lngg clssrm.*

Taking the vowels out of words is not a particularly new thing.  I though I was being quite clever with the title of this post, only to find the verb “dismevowel” has been in use since 2005 (Macmillan Dictionary) to talk about the process in text messaging, though I suspect language teachers have probably been doing it for much longer than that!

Disemvoweling is a nice way to focus students on the written form of words and to think about spelling (though it isn’t always the vowels that cause the spelling problems).

It’s also a nice way to review vocabulary items from previous lessons, though as it doesn’t really focus on meaning, you might want to do some kind of follow up activity that involves using the target items.

As a warmer, I pre-prepare my target words, minus the vowels, on pieces of scrap paper (flashcard style).  I put the students into teams and get them to come up with their buzzer noise (so for example, on team has to cluck like a chicken, another has to make a car alarm noise and so on).  Then you just show the words and the fastest team to correctly spell the target item gets the point.  An alternative for young learner classes where you need to use up some of their energy, is to do the same, but ask them to run to the board and write the word correctly.

I had thought that a more challenging version of this for higher level learners would be to leave the vowels in and to take all the other letters out, which presumably would mean they were “inconsonant” (the words, not the learners), u o eeion i ie e a oo aei, ee o oeioa! **

So perhaps some fun could be had with letter frequency charts and statistics?

English Letter Frequency Graph

You could choose to remove single letters, like the letter “T”, from a short text and ask learners to put them back in again.  Or challenge learners to write a ten word sentence without using the letters “e”, “t” or “a”.

Or…….  o oul emov h irs n as etter ro ac or n e f h tudent a u he ac gai.***


If you try any of these ideas, let me know how they work out – or if you have any related activities, do share!

Hv fn!


*It’s not always that easy to read texts that have had all the vowels taken out of them.  Which of course is what makes it such a good activity for the language classroom.

** but on reflection it strikes me as too challenging, even for professionals!

*** you could remove the first and last letters from each word and see if the students can put them back again.

Collocation Connections

13 Oct

Here’s a little test for you to see how good you are at spotting collocations.  The words in the grid below can be put into four collocation groups.  Can you figure out (a) what the groups are?  (b) which word(s) collocate with the groups?

Collocation Connections

For example, if you had found the words “a distinction  /  attention to  /  a line  /  up plans” in the grid, then you would have the four words for your group and you would (of course) have correctly identified “draw” as the word that collocates with them.

Obviously, in some instances more than one answer is possible and words might be able to fit into more than one group, but that is all part of the fun!

How long do you need?  Two minutes?  Five?

It’s ok – you can take your time!  Answers at the bottom of the page!

This is an activity I thought of after watching the popular UK quiz show “Only Connect“, which has a round called “the wall” where contestants have to find four categories and describe the connections.  If you visit the website, you can play for yourself – but be warned – they aren’t easy!

You can easily adapt it for different ages and abilities and it is is nice way of reviewing vocabulary.  Two ways you could use it in class:

  1. Have one grid displayed (or written) on the board and the students are in teams, trying to be first to find the correct answers.
  2. Have the students in teams with different grids competing against the clock (three minutes?).  Then they can swap and try each other’s.

Try it and let me know how it goes!


  • Heavy:  going  /  smoker  /  traffic  /  rain
  • Do:  something  /  business  /  me a favour  /  your best
  • Time:  extra  /  waste  /  spend  /  spare
  • A pack of:  cigarettes  /  wolves  /  lies  /  cards


Instructions: Don’t blame Maria, blame Sharon and Tracy

1 Oct

By day seven of a recent hospitalisation, I had identified four of the non-native speakers who worked on the nursing team.  Apparently there are seven in total, but the ward is large and I may never get to meet the others.  I know there are seven because I overheard a senior nurse commenting on it.  And not positively.   Communication, it seems is something of an issue on ward B5.

Of the four NNS nurses I’ve met, two are Italian and two are Portuguese.  I would estimate that the Portugese are solid B2 level speakers – there are frequent mistakes but these don’t often impede communication and when they do, the speakers are able to correct.  The Italians are lower level – one of the Italians is a solid B1 and the other, who is also older, is somewhere between A2 and B1; listening to her I can see how she might have passed Cambridge English Preliminary exam but her slips and errors are probably more common slightly below that.

And it was this lady, who I shall call Maria, that had to deal with this little burst of language the other day.  If you can, imagine the nurse speaking with a broad south London accent, all run together and rapid with random glottal stops thrown in here and there:

NURSE: “Right.  Maria, so bed 3’s jus come back from her colonoscopy so we know that means she can only have four things, black tea, water, apple juice and jelly.  But not the red jelly cos it’s got that stuff in it she can have the orange jelly though so she’d better have a tea and an orange jelly but it don’t matter cos we ain’t got any jelly anyway and the kitchen’s sending some up so that’ll take a while so it’s probably best if you wayer first and that’ll give the kitchen time to send it up, alright?”

MARIA:  Tea and jelly.  Ok.  I do this now?

NURSE: She’s going the wrong way.  Maria luv?  You’re going the wrong way!  She’s over there.  Go wayer.  WAYer.  Weigh her.

MARIA: ah! I weigh her and then tea and jelly.

NURSE:  Yeah go on luv off you pop.  (Exeunt Maria) it’s so difficult when they don’t understand English innit?


I’ve tried to reproduce this verbally in this recording – it’s the best approximation I can manage of the speed and speech patterns! Click the vocaroo link to listen.

Source: Vocaroo Voice Message


I later overheard a senior nurse tell the Italians they could leave an hour early the following day to attend English lessons being run elsewhere in the hospital.

Maria could probably use some English lessons, this is true – I wonder though, whether they will be the right kind of language lessons.  Since being in hospital, the only people I have heard speaking in the UK prestige model of “received pronunciation” are some of the consultants and the surgeons.  Everyone else in the hospital is from everywhere else.  This being south London, there is a broad mix of Britain’s colonial and cultural heritage in the accents: West Indian, Jamaican, Indian, Pakistani, Nigerian, Ugandan.  And of course the famous “estuary English” common to the South East of the UK.

Course book accents tend to be clearer, tinged slightly with regionalism here and there as a nod to the existence of other forms of speech and as a way of helping learners tell the speakers apart during the listening exercise.  This is an understandable part of grading the materials to the level of the learner – listening materials need to be accessible after all, but I wonder if, in grading the language our learners hear, we could do more to include a greater variety of dialect and accent.  That perhaps, is a topic for another blogpost though.

The big issue for Maria is the one that probably every teacher picked up on when reading or listening to the above conversation.  It isn’t that Maria doesn’t understand, in fact if you consider the length and content of the initial utterance, Maria has done quite well to pull “tea and jelly” out of it and to use contextual knowledge to figure out that she has to go and get some for bed 3.

The problem isn’t just that the non-native speaker doesn’t understand, the problem is that the native speaker doesn’t have the best communication skills for speaking to a non-native speaker.


The nurse is delivering the utterance at relatively high speed and in an informal mode as is suitable between colleagues who don’t want to make an issue of any power relationships.  She pre-justifies the instruction by giving background information that supports the instruction and then gets lost in her own thinking as she clarifies which kind of jelly and what the best sequence of activities is.  The speed of speech, and in particular the south London speech patterns of catenation, elision and assimilation, make it very difficult to identify the word boundaries.  Likewise, because this is delivered at speed, the stress patterns are not as obvious.

In short, it is a wonder that anybody understood anything.

It might be a bit too much to expect the nurse to grade her language appropriately as this is something that teachers get better at through repeated exposure to multiple levels of ability and understanding what language patterns and lexis are generally comprehensible at those levels.  There are though, some simple things that our nurse could do to make life easier on the ward:

  • Use fewer words. Don’t use three words where one will do.
  • Separate out instructions into single imperative sentences. Don’t front them with polite phrases – keep it simple.  So not “Please, if you wouldn’t mind, could you go and wash bed 8 and get them ready for X-ray?”  But:  “Wash bed 8.  Get them ready for x-ray.”
  • Enunciate more clearly and make sure key words are separated.
  • Speak slower.
  • Try and give stress to key words in the sentence, in particular actions to be taken and names or other key nouns.

I also have a theory, based on limited observation and not borne out by any reading or research (not that I found any research on this, so who knows?), that when native speakers try to simplify their language for non-native speakers, they do so in the same way that they might simplify their language for a child.  This can be characterised by using more “informal” language, which includes more use of phrasal verbs.  Phrasal verbs though, are notoriously tricky for non-native speakers to acquire and differentiate between.  Certainly speakers of Latin based languages might have more luck with slightly more formal vocabulary where there are more cognates.  So in the example instruction “Get them ready for x-ray”, a better instruction might be “prepare them for x-ray”.  But this is only a personal theory…

So there is my free business idea for any teacher in the UK looking to drum up a bit more business – don’t only target the language learners, but look for opportunities in areas where the native and the non-native speaker work together or interact more regularly.  Sell the courses in communication skills to Sharon and Tracy (or their boss in HR), and make sure it isn’t only Maria that gets the blame.


Parsnips in ELT: Stepping out of the Comfort Zone

10 Aug

most requested ebooks

The concept of Parsnips in ELT has always intrigued me.  These are the things that you’re not supposed to talk about with your classes, the taboo topics that might get you into trouble or which your students might protest at.  These are the topics that mainstream coursebooks leave out.

And for a very good reason – coursebooks are market dependent and they rely on economies of scale to make a profit.  A coursebook that cannot be used in an entire region of the world because it touches on political issues that might offend ruling regimes means potentially losing money in sales.  But this leads to some interesting omissions and to a one size fits all policy that essentially has us teaching to the lowest common cultural denominator. And to what someone once described as “in-flight magazines for the grammatically challenged” (Scott Thornbury I think…?).

Personally, I see no problem in touching on Parsnip topics in the classroom.  The acronym stands for Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, -Isms, Pork.  I think I’ve probably done lessons on all of these at one point or another and you can find at least two lessons on this blog involving pigs….

The key with anything like this is (a) common sense and (b) sensitivity.  If, for example, you happen to be teaching English to the highest cadre of the ruling junta in the benevolent dictatorship of wherever, then a lesson on freedom of speech and the democratic principle might not be advised (although some would argue that it was the perfect opportunity).  Equally, if you are teaching a lesson on a topic and notice the students are unusually silent, be prepared to ask them if they would prefer to do something else instead.  It is not our job to force our opinions upon our students, but we are not doing our jobs properly if we deny them the opportunity to discuss the issues of the day.

If you do enjoy spicing up your standard ELT menu with the odd root vegetable, then help is at hand in the form of a new e-book:  Parsnips in ELT: Stepping out of the Comfort Zone (vol. 1).  This ebook is free to download and is available in multiple formats (epub, mobi & pdf) and contains one lesson on each topic from a collection of authors including myself.

Parsnips in ELT Cover

Not everything in it might be to your taste and if so, you can do what my children do with their vegetables – push it to the side of your plate and leave it for someone else to deal with!  There is, however, enough in there for you to find something you like or to at least start you thinking!

The book has an accompanying blog where you can find some of the ideas from the book as well as a range of shorter ideas to stimulate discussion on the Parsnip topics with your classes:

If you try any of the lessons in the book, do let us know how they go!  We’re always keen to get feedback on the ideas!  Either leave a comment here or on the Parsnips blog.

Above all – have fun!

What are we thinking in ELT?

24 Jun

If you were about to start thinking about a dissertation or thesis in ELT, what would you write it about?

There’s a number of ways of looking at this:

  • Practicality
  • Passion
  • Previous

Practicality – what’s easiest and most practical to write about?  How are you going to find the answers to your research questions?  Is it possible to find out what you want to know?

Passion – what do you care about?  There’s no point in being pushed into writing about a topic you aren’t interested in.  If you’ve been teaching for a while, there’s probably something you enjoy doing in the classroom more than the rest.  And if you’re going to read about it, research it and write about it for anywhere between three months and a year, you need to have a topic that can sustain you throughout that time.

Previous – has it been done before?  What other research has been done in the area?  Are you going to add to the general body of knowledge in the area or are you going to duplicate existing research?  What can you find to help and inform your own research process?


It seems that a lot of ELT writing, research and conference presentation comes about because of a perceived lack in practice.  A writer or presenter has a belief about what an aspect of professional practice should be and sees that either in their own practice or in that of colleagues around them, professional practice is not as it should be.  These beliefs are therefore often highly personal and highly contextualised, but in writing about them or presenting them, the lessons learned from attempting to deal with the lack are shared with the wider ELT community.

This means that is it possible every now and again to get a snapshot of the community zeitgeist:


This word cloud (made with wordle) is from the presentation titles as given at the back of the IATEFL 2015 conference brochure.  In total, it works out at over 7000 words of text and in all honesty I’m not sure how useful it is, because the word cloud doesn’t recognise the collocations or noun phrases that are so common in session titles.  So I took the old-fashioned approach and skimmed through them to see what topic areas appeared most common.

My completely unscientific approach may well include my own personal frequency illusion bias, so interested readers are recommended to do the same thing themselves by downloading the brochure and referring to pages 249 – 270.

However, my thoughts are that in the ELT community we are mostly thinking about and writing about:

  • Action Research & Evidence based practice
  • Critical thinking in the classroom
  • Corpora research and using it in the classroom
  • The role of Coursebooks
  • Digital materials and learning technologies
  • The EdTech vs Humanistic approaches debate
  • Flipping our classrooms
  • Developing learner autonomy

Obviously, some of these are huge categories in their own right.  Learner Autonomy has something like thirty six separate talks listed in the IATEFL brochure.

Equally, some of these are perennial debates.  The role of coursebooks in the classroom, especially when contrasted with Dogme-style approaches, has been contentious since ever there were coursebooks.  Proponents of humanist approaches worry that Edtech supporters tend to lose focus on the person inside the learners, while the EdTech supporters worry that the humanists…..  actually I’m not sure what they worry about.  Possibly that humanist approaches aren’t easily replicable or applicable in wider contexts and therefore shouldn’t be taken seriously when developing larger scale policy?  Not sure.  Help me out readers – how would you characterise the debate?

Anyway – it seems to me that the community zeitgeist reflects a view of what we want our classes and our learners to be, what we try to engage with in our teaching, and that we actually have a new “standard model” in ELT:  digitally engaged, independent, thoughtful human beings who know what they want and how to go and get it.  And their teachers.


My thanks to Dr. Andrew Kerrigan at the University of York for asking me the question and thus inspiring the post – I’d be interested to hear alternative answers to Andrew’s original question:  What’s your take on some of the buzz topics in ELT writing and research these days?

Personalised Learning – IATEFL BESIG Workshop

8 Jun

Here are the slides from the BESIG weekend workshop I gave on the 7th June 2015.  I was very honoured to have been asked to run the workshop, particularly as I noticed it was the 50th such workshop that BESIG have run.

In the talk we touched on some of the evidence that exists to suggest a personalised learning approach is more effective – it is an instinctive thought and one most of us would recognise, but there is actual research data out there as well.

We looked at the importance of needs analysis and ways in which we can use Google forms as both a data gathering tool and for analysis purposes.

We also thought about course design and moving towards an iterative, cyclical, learner led process that is based initially on learner needs, but also on a feedback cycle going forwards.

Finally I presented three activities that use the students as the content creators within a teacher provided framework, as a way of modelling an approach to using the students as resource in the BE classroom.


My huge thanks to the IATEFL BESIG team for inviting me to run the workshop, and to Justine Arena for looking after me on the day and for all her hard work in organising the technical side of things so that I didn’t have to!

If you are a member of IATEFL and of BESIG, you should be able to view a recording of the workshop on the BESIG website.


PechaFlickr – exam speaking practice

4 Jun

One of the common complaints students have about exam speaking is that they never know what to say.  In practice sessions, I’ve had students dry up completely and embarrassedly freeze half way through a sentence, I’ve had other students refuse to talk about the topic saying that they know nothing about it!

About a month ago, Richard Byrne shared a post about PechaFlickr that I think can help with this.


PechaFlickr is a web based app that displays 20 random images for 20 seconds each.  As the name suggests, the images all come from Flickr and are selected based on how they’ve been tagged – this adds the element of randomness that makes it such a great tool as you can never be entirely sure what you’re going to get.  I tried it with the topic “school” and got a a child crying in front of some ruins, a grinning child staring at the camera, what looked like a teachers meeting, a somewhat inappropriately dressed Japanese lady (but dressed enough for the sake of propriety), and some people holding a candlelit vigil.  I gave up at that point…!

In the advanced settings you can change the number of slides shown and the length of time they are displayed for, so you could easily adapt it to practice Cambridge English: First & Advanced speaking tasks, though it doesn’t practice the exam tasks in the sense that the tasks require comparison and contrast of two photos.

What it does help practice is thinking about what pictures represent and what they could represent, finding connections between images and topics and perhaps more importantly . quick thinking.

I think this could be a great warmer for any class with an interactive whiteboard and it could also be a great tool for students to practice at home – especially if they record and review their own performance.

Another alternative is to play a “Just a Minute” type game, possibly setting timing on each photo to slightly longer and adding more  pictures (depending on how long you want things to take), where as soon as the speaker falters or fails, they stop and another one has to take their place.

Any other suggestions?

Try it out here:




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