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Ten Things Worth Further Investigation (#04)

7 Jan

The holiday period is over and as usual, interesting posts from other people have been piling up in my inbox, or have been glanced at and put to one side for later, more detailed, examination…

(1) Arriving today, via freetech4teachers, is the “Word Tamer” site, a flash based interactive “game” for developing students’ abilities to craft a good story.  While it’s aimed more at native speakers, I would expect B2 level learners and above to be OK with the language level and it would be quite a nice way of helping teens think about what makes a successful story (possibly for FCE?).  The only criticism I have is that you can’t combine the different elements you create while on the site, you’ll have to get the students to either make notes on paper, or transfer everything into a separate document.  Check out the site here:

(2) Academic Language seems to be a hot topic at the moment:  Stephen Krashen’s denouncement of “Academic Jibberish” is doing the rounds at the moment:  is there a tendency, he asks, for academics to obfuscate their message in obtuse language in the hope that people will agree with what they can’t understand?  This is a post I’m hoping to come back to in more detail later this week, so stay tuned!

(3) Whether “jibberish” or not – learners of English often find academic discourse difficult to access:  two recent posts are here to help with that:  Cheryl Boyd Zimmerman’s post on the OUP blog (offering a taste of her upcoming webinar) looks at “Academic Language and School Success” – offering some key considerations.  Todd Finley at Edutopia has “8 Strategies for Teaching Academic Language” – including some nice analysis tasks for learners to work with.

(4) #ELTChat offers up their highlights of the year, in the form of a nice summary by @Ven_VVE.  If you are an educator on twitter – you should check out #ELTChat – a source of much support, inspiration and innovation.  It’s always nice to know you’re not the only one for whom things go wrong – and to pick up solid advice on how to make things go right!

(5) The new year is typically a time for reflection and looking back at the successes and failures of the previous year – at the end of December Geoff Jordan posted his Aplinglink Awards for 2013:  awards were given in the categories Best Book, Best Contribution to SLA, Best Article, Best Blog, Best Video, Best New Overview, and Best Contributor to ELT Methodology.  Go read his post to find out who the winners and runners up were!

(6) Just as we reflect at this time of year, we also look forwards.  At the iTDi blog, the latest issue “13 for 2014“, has Chuck Sandy, Ann Loseva, Josette LeBlanc and Kevin Stein sharing their thoughts on the year gone by and hopes and plans for the future.

(7) Two great offerings from the Digital Play blog that were doing the rounds just before Christmas: Argument Wars and Vortex Point 2.  Argument Wars is a game based on landmark civil rights cases from the USA – the learners have to find the best arguments and find logical connections to craft supporting points, in order to win their case.  Excellent for advanced (CAE) level groups.  Vortex Point 2 is a hunt and click flash game where you have to find things and do things in the right order to solve a mystery.  Lesson plans for both these games are available via the links.  Thanks to my colleague Neil for telling me about these in the first place!

(8) The teacher as researcher is, or can be, a contentious issue; with questions as to the validity, reliability and wider applicability of such studies.  Marisa Constantinides’ latest post asks the question “Can Teachers do Research?“, looks at how they can do the research, what the lessons of such research can be and who should be learning them…  (A must read article, by the way, for anyone doing their DELTA or an MA…)

(9) How much of a students’ test score is down to the teacher?  (Or in other words, can you assess the worth of a teacher based on the performance of the student?) – Apparently, about 15% or so.  Larry Ferlazzo shared the graphic on the right, taken from an ETS sponsored lecture by Dr. Edward H. Haertal.  ETS are the providers of the TOEFL exam series, and while the lecture (downloadable in pdf via Larry’s post) makes it quite clear that the research relates to an investigation of a specific teacher assessment measure used in US education – it raises yet more interesting questions to throw into the testing debate.

(10) And finally…  and more because I think it’s just a fantastic illustration of an incredibly complex issue, but an image I think should be on every staffroom wall from the always excellent and amusing - a cartoon about ADD:

#IH60 Conference: Live and Online – this weekend

25 Nov

This Friday and Saturday (29th & 30th November respectively) sees the International House 60th Anniversary Conference, featuring a host of luminaries from the world of ELT live in the flesh in London and online to all across the web.

Conference speakers

The Friday sessions are a series of webinars by current IH teachers around the world, while the Saturday sessions are a series of talks given live in London and streamed over the internet for anyone who can’t be there in person.  For more information on the speakers and their sessions, visit:

IH 60 Conference

My own session is running at 2.00pm on the Friday and it looks at small things that we can do to make our classrooms a better place and to encourage better learner behaviours and better learning behaviours.  It’s based around some of the work of behavioural economist and writer Dan Ariely and in particular, two TED talks he gave on the way we make decisions and on what motivates us to do good work.  If you want to do a little background viewing beforehand, the TED talks are given below:

Upcoming Webinar: Writing with Exam Classes

11 Nov

This Thursday (14th November 2013), I’ll be giving a webinar in conjunction with the British Council’s “Teaching English” website.

The session is going to focus on Writing with Exam Classes, but most of it is equally applicable outside an exam context, so if you’re not currently teaching an exam class, there will still be plenty you might find useful.

Writing Skills for Exam Classes

As you’ll see from the sneak preview slide – I’m thinking about common areas of difficulty that learners encounter in exam class writing, and I’ll then be looking at some practical activities that you can use with your classes in each area.

For more information on times, dates and locations – just follow the link:

Hope to see you there!

Really Learn English: Interview

5 Nov

The nice people at the Really Learn English site very kindly contacted me back in August as this site had been nominated for their annual blog awards.  Unfortunately, and owing to the arrival of “Language Acquisition Research Subject Number 3″, I wasn’t really paying much attention and by the time I did get back to them it was a bit too late!

So, even more kindly, they asked if I’d do an interview for their site….

If you’re interested in how this blog all started or what my teaching style is – head on over!  I also talk about my top tip for exam preparation, whether to go for IELTS or TOEFL, and what my favourite teaching mode is…

For all this (and more – because they also have quite a lot of cool stuff for teachers and students to check out), click on the picture below:

Really Learn English


The Reading Teacher

19 Oct

Today I gave a presentation at the APPI / British Council BritLit 10th Anniversary celebrations in Coimbra.

You can see the presentation slides below – and in due course I’m planning to do a you tube 15 minute version of the talk and I’ll post that below when I can.

The presentation is based around two main ideas:  (1) the fact that I don’t like teaching reading – at least not in coursebook contexts, (2) my contention that coursebook reading tasks, in the main, fail to develop the reading skill in learners.  Obviously, this latter point is contentious and it would depend on the text, the learner and of course – the teacher.

The presentation therefore looks at the difference between a typical coursebook treatment of a text, and how we access and react to texts in real life – it goes on to look at useful reading sub-skills and strategies and finally suggests some activities to use in class to help learners develop these sub-skills and strategies.

I know that as I post this, there’s no explanation of the activities towards the end, if anything is unclear (and it will be!) please feel free to leave a question in the comments and I’ll try and explain.  Or you can wait for the video version!


ELT Materials Writing Competition

9 Oct

Not a teflgeek competition I hasten to add, but a competition sponsored by the Disabled Access Friendly Blog.
If you are a budding materials designer / ELT writer – then this competition will be  good way to get a great start in the game!  
All the information on the competition now follows:


The Disabled Access Friendly campaign has teamed up with ELT Teacher 2 Writer and Burlington Books to bring you this opportunity to use your worksheet writing skills to inform students about issues affecting people with mobility disability.
All suitable entries will be published online on Disabled Access Friendly’s site, which is visited by ELT colleagues from over 120 countries
There will be three prizes: 
  1. 200 Euros towards the cost of professional development, such as an online writing course or participation at an ELT event (kindly sponsored by Burlington Books)
  2. 100 Euros towards the cost of professional development, such as an online writing course or participation at an ELT event (kindly sponsored by Burlington Books)
  3. A set of six ELT Teacher 2 Writer modules:
  • How To Write Vocabulary Presentations And Practice
  • How To Write Reading And Listening Activities
  • How To Write Critical Thinking Activities
  • How To Write ESP Materials
  • How To Write Graded Readers
  • How ELT Publishing Works
Disabled Access Friendly is a voluntary campaign that provides ELT teachers with online material that raises awareness about mobility disability. All this material is completely free.  The site has lesson plans, reading texts and video clips at all levels that can be used as supplementary material, for projects and examination practice.  The material allows teachers to provide insight and information about life as a person with a mobility disability, thus building pathways for caring and action.  By stepping into someone else’s shoes, the students explore their own and other people’s attitudes and become aware while learning English.

ELT Teacher 2 Writer is a database of ELT teachers who want to write. Publishers search this database when they’re looking for writers.  It is also a series of training modules designed to help teachers write better ELT materials, either for publication or to improve the quality of their self-produced classroom materials.
What are the competition guidelines?

1. You choose the mobility related topic, language area and level.   For ideas we suggest you look at  Disabled Access Friendly’s reading textsvideo clips and lesson plans, and read disability blogs and published articles.
2. Find the full writing guidelines here.
Who are the judges?
  • Adir Ferreira, teacher, teacher trainer and content writer
  • Disabled Access Friendly campaign
  • ELT Teacher 2 Writer


How to submit your entry

Entries should be submitted electronically as a word doc. attachment to:
Please save your file as follows:

Your surname, Your first name.  Title of worksheet e.g.
Smith, Susan.  My wheelchair friend



Entries to reach us by the closing date of 16th December 2013

DAF website capture

Virtual Learning Environments and Learning Management Systems – an #ELTChat Summary

1 Oct


What’s the difference between a VLE and a LMS?

Nothing – apparently.  There was some confusion over the terms and whether there was a difference between them or not, whether they might represent the difference between synchronous (live interaction) and asynchronous (delayed interaction) systems, or whether they might represent a difference in function.  @ShaunWilden linked to the “Virtual Learning Environment” Wikipedia article, which looks at what both terms mean and what the differences are (there aren’t any, it’s basically a geographical difference).

Why use a VLE / LMS?

One of the initial questions here was whether VLE/LMS is intended to replace the real or not.  While there might be more of a move towards 100% online learning (@theteacherjames) and you can use a VLE with one-to-ones or small groups in an exclusively online capacity (@cioccas), the general consensus was that a VLE serves as a complement or supplement to existing classes in the real.  It supports classroom learning (@mattellman), and can replace some aspects of it (@Marisa_C) – in other words it becomes a great example of blended learning (@idc74).

There are activities that you can do in an online environment that you can’t do in the real and vice versa (@Marisa_C), and @mattellman suggested that online is good for delivering seminars but that language learners need the face to face contact – though @Marisa_C rebutted this by saying that you can teach how you like, online or not, it’s what you do that matters.

@HanaTicha provided one of the best reasons for using a VLE – it brings teachers and students together and takes the learning process outside the classroom.

What can you do with a VLE?

@MicaelaCarey asked the question, to which @shaunwilden replied (very much in the spirit of Marlon Brando) – what do you want to do with them?

There seemed to be three main strands – administrative functions, pedagogical functions and as a feedback channel.  @Julian_LEnfant talked about using VLEs with EAP courses and Writing courses, and with teachers for course announcements, administration and documentation.

@cioccas made the point that it’s very helpful if you’ve had some training in course design – as online courses need to be as well designed and facilitated as face to face courses do

The discussions and reflections that can ensue in online courses, whether purely online or blended, were one of the things that @Marisa_C most enjoyed about Moodle courses.

How do you do it?

Many of the VLEs that are available are relatively easy to pick up and you can learn a lot by just playing around with them (@shaunwilden & @Marisa_C), though if you’d like a bit more guidance there is often plenty of help available via the internet or You Tube.  If that doesn’t work, you could always hassle people who have more experience than you do!

Or, you could follow @Ven_VVE’s example and sign up for a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) Here’s the record of the MOOC, though motivation to see a MOOC through to the bitter end can sometimes be a problem.  @Julian_LEnfant used Lynda to train up on his VLEs.  @cioccas rated Jeff Stanford’s Moodle 1.9 for Second Language Teaching as being excellent and a great source of ideas, even if slightly dated now.  @Ven_VVE mentioned Matt Bury’s page as a good source of information on Moodle

Two things to keep an eye on when using VLEs are:  numbers and motivation.  Numbers can be a big problem – the more people, the more posts, the more the tutor has to read and react to (@cioccas), and motivation can wane, especially when the delivery is asynchronous and people aren’t getting instantaneous reactions to their input (@subnuggurat).

@Marisa_C suggests a multi-platform approach – not limiting yourself to one VLE as one VLE very rarely does everything you want, but instead using different systems for different purposes:  (1) delivery (2) resources (3) communication.

While not every VLE has everything you need, it is possible to add things in.  @shaunwilden highlighted the Vocaroo widgets page, which allows you to embed vocaroo on your own webpage and @Marisa_C mentioned a free (but limited) video-conferencing website called Tokbox, which she had in one of her wikis.

What to use?

The big question…

Lots of different systems were mentioned, with varying degrees of comment, expansion and recommendation.  This next section is basically an alphabetical list, with a precis of any comments as attached:

  • Adobe Connect:  ipad app
  • Blackboard / Blackboard collaborate:
  • Canvas: free trial, then pay?
  • Edmodo:  free, good for YLs (has badges, registration, clear roles, is a closed and safe environment), not so good with very large groups, not exclusive to YLs though, a bit of a mixed bag – some bits are good / some not so much.
  • Moodle:  free to download, complicated to set up (You Tube tutorials available), includes wikis and blogs as a watered down version of themselves, need add ons for audio etc (though could embed vocaroo etc as above).
  • OLMS (Oxford Learning Management Systems):
  • PBWiki:  (editors note – this now seems to have mutated into something called pbworks…)
  • wiggio: has meetings availability, allows voice / video messages
  • Wiki Matrix – an overview of different wikis and what they can do
  • Wikipsaces: good for basic contact with students, uploading files, has some forum functionality
  • WiziQ – has a free version for teachers, ipad app,
  • Writing Skills Interactive – a software package you can use with Blackboard.

In Conclusion:

I was the one who originally suggested the chat topic, as it’s something I’m interested in experimenting with this year, and I wanted to know what #eltchatters (who are generally fairly clued up about all thing edtech) used, what they did with what they used and ultimately, what they recommended.  I think I got an answer to that question – at least I have chosen a VLE from this chat that I’m going to try mucking about with this year, so my thanks to all the chatters involved.


ELT Dissertations – A New Blog Project

19 Sep

My own dissertation experience was a particularly stressful one.  In effect I wrote two dissertations:  (a) the one I wanted to write and which I thought was going well and (b) the one my supervisor wanted me to write.  Both required an inordinate amount of time and effort, though the time and effort that went into the second one got squeezed into a much shorter time period than the first.  Neither dissertation has had a very wide readership – my wife read through the first manuscript and made some useful suggestions.  Then my supervisor read it and suggested a few more … “fundamental” changes.  I didn’t have time for my wife to read the second dissertation and in the end only I, my supervisor and the second marker know what’s in it.

Does any of that sound familiar?

The stress is probably familiar to just about every dissertation writer everywhere – a google image search for “dissertation” throws up the “related categories” of:  Hell / I Hate / Stress / Panic and… Writing.

What annoys me most though is that of the three people who have read my dissertation, only one of them is that bothered about what was actually in it.  Obviously I’m making a big assumption on the part of my supervisor and my marker – if I do them a disservice then I apologise, but I suspect that for them, my dissertation is more about the demonstration of academic acuity than it is about the research area I investigated.  Not that my dissertation was particularly ground breaking in the topic area or scope of research, but still…

Equally, research only progresses by the distribution, reading, replication and critiquing of pre-existing work.  If a large proportion of that work never gets disseminated, then how can we progress?  You can’t build anything meaningful if someone keeps hiding all the bricks.  Dogme ELT has become an area of interest for many people, I know of at least four dissertations that have been written on the subject by different people around the world – it’s fair to say there’s a degree of repetition amongst them and it’s not their fault – they were unaware of each other’s efforts and therefore were unable to build on what had gone before.

Plus, there are so many arguments about what works and what doesn’t work, that any evidence which might help throw a bit of light on why something works (or not as the case may be) is surely to be welcomed?  Yet it seems as though much of it is doomed to be ignored.

And it shouldn’t be.  The excellent “Evidence Based EFL” fights a lonely corner critiquing the fads and trends and demanding at least some form of evidence for what many in the profession take for granted.  Russell Willis in ELTNews makes a convincing case for why “We need Evidence-Based ELT“.  We are generating a substantial amount of research into ELT on an annual basis while it might not provide the big answers to the big questions, it all helps chip away at the cliff of “what we don’t know”.

So it seems sensible to suggest that there should be a resource, freely available to all, where any interested parties can find the results of academic work in ELT – in short that there should be a home for all those dissertations that might not otherwise gain the readership that they deserve.

And here it is:

I’m keen to add as many dissertations as possible, so if you have one that you would like to share, or if you know someone who would, then please tell them about the site.


Thank you!

Strategies for a New Course – an #ELTChat Summary

16 Sep

Like the cuckoo heralding spring, the first #ELTChat of the year has arrived.  As many teachers around the world are getting ready for their first lessons with new classes, this chat aimed at sharing ideas and strategies for starting things off on the right foot.

Taking part in a lively conversation were ….

eltchat participants

….. and apologies to anyone who’s been missed out!  The chat took place on Wednesday 11th September.

There were about five key themes that emerged:

  1. Getting to know you / Icebreaker activities
  2. Those first few lessons
  3. Routines & Systems
  4. Focusing on the learner(s)
  5. Tech

Getting to Know you activities / Icebreakers:

The main problem most people confessed to here was in learning and remembering everyone’s names.  Suggestions to help with this included taking a class photo / individual portraits (which could also then be used in any learning management system, e.g. edmodo), or using student generated namecards, or making notes in the register – though it was pointed out you have to be careful about what you write!

Some great “getting to know you” activities were shared:

  • Writing sentences about yourself on the board and students guessing which are true / which are false
  • Writing sentences about yourself up on the board and students guess the lie
  • Students guess what’s in your bag
  • Writing six keywords / phrases on the board around a star – students guess the importance / relevance to you.  Then they do the same activity in small groups.
  • Taking in a selection of items of personal importance (realia) and students guess the importance / significance of the items to you
  • Creating fake facebook profiles for each other
  • Giving students GPS co-ordinates to your location in the town and having them track you down with their smart phones and introduce themselves
  • Students coming up with the titles for their autobiographies and then explaining them to each other
  • Finding things in common
  • Writing their likes and dislikes down on separate slips of paper, scrunching them up, having a “snowball” fight and then having to return the slips of paper they end up with to the original owner.
  • Sticking bits of A4 to the students’ backs and having everyone go round writing adjectives on the paper that relate to the person they’re writing on.
  • The ID cards activity (SS interview each other and perform introductions) from “Keep Talking by Penny Ur” (though I think Keep Talking was by Friederike Klippel, so not sure if the activity’s in this or in one of Penny Ur’s many other books).

Links from this section:

The First (few) Lesson(s): 

There’s inevitably a bit of crossover between this and the previous section, but there was more of a focus on establishing the class and putting everything in place for a successful course.

  • Start building group dynamics (it takes 8 hours of contact to effectively build a group rapport).  Students may not be used to working collaboratively or in teams of any kind, so it’s important to establish group working principles early on.
  • Negotiate the learning goals for the class.  Find out what their expectations for the course are and help them to set achievable targets for the first week / month / term.
  • Get any Learning Management systems up and running and familiarise the students with the systems.  Tell students about any technology you’ll need them to use during the course.
  • Negotiate the classroom rules with the learners – make sure everyone quickly understands what’s acceptable or what’s not acceptable classroom behaviour as this will impact the entire academic year!  This could be done as a classroom contract to be designed and written up by the students (outlining expectations on both students AND teacher) and to be signed by all.  Or younger learners might enjoy drawing up posters that stipulate the rules that have been negotiated / imposed (!).
  • Two books were mentioned:  Jill Hadfield’s “Classroom Dynamics” and “Teaching Unplugged” by Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury.

Links from this section:

Slave to routine

Routines & Systems:

The beginning of a new course is that period where everyone is getting used to each other, working out what they can expect from each other and what is expected of them, developing the interactions and systems that define the community of practice.  As such it’s important to remember that in establishing routines and systems – IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT THE FIRST LESSON – and the key thing for any routine is maintaining it.

Once a routine has been solidly established, then it’s possible to build in more flexibility and variety within routines can be a key way of keeping students engaged and motivated.  A routine doesn’t mean doing the same thing all the time, it’s more about building a framework to operate in and to plug different activities, songs etc into.  (Editor’s note:  this didn’t come up in the chat, but Charles Rei’s post “I Only Have One Lesson Plan” is a great example of this principle).

Routines suggested during the chat seemed to fall into three categories:  (1) Behavourial – timekeeping, acceptable behaviours, classroom rules (see above) etc;  (2) Administrative – setting up tutorials and the like;  (3) Pedagogical – developing study skills, learner training, incorporating activities into the lessons (public speaking / show and tell / vocabulary revision / etc).

Focusing on the Learners:

There was a sizeable chunk of chat looking at the differences between young learner and adult classes and what the differences might mean for starting courses off on the right foot.  For example, is it more important for young learner classes to have routines than adult classes?

The consensus was that kids need routines to feel more settled and that routines are therefore very important for young learner classes, though these routines might focus more on rules and procedures, and involve more ice-breaking or more warmers.  Adults on the other hand, need to feel more part of the process and not just passive recipients of an imposed system.  Everyone however, regardless of age, likes to know what to expect and routines can provide that certainty, though it is important to try and manage these expectations so that learners’ previous experiences of education don’t impose themselves – breaking dependency on the teacher.

With adults, you can use the first lesson(s) more as a demonstration of how things might be different to their expectations and as a clear statement of how things on this course are going to be.  But don’t set yourself unsustainable standards….

Group work and project work are good ways of creating team spirit and building rapport within the class.


As mentioned briefly above, the first few lessons is also when you need to establish with the classes what, if any, technology or online components are going to be used with the course and to get the learners signed up and engaged with it all.

If there is going to be an online component, then it is also important to establish the rules and boundaries that go with that – in other words to negotiate (see also above) the netiquette.

ELTChat QR Code

One other area of tech that came up was QR codes.  If you’ve not met QR codes before, then the image on the right is an example:

Essentially a QR code is a bit like a bar code that you can generate for pretty much anything on the internet.  (The one on the right, for example, will take you to the ELT Chat homepage).  They can be read by smartphones with a QR code reader app – not sure if they can be read by anything else…

You could, for example, generate QR codes for students to find out about you from your online information / profile.  Or use them as links to your online components.

More advice here:

And Finally:

#ELTChat has talked about first lessons before…  to read Genevieve White’s summary of “First Lesson Activities” click the link.

Apologies if I missed anything or anyone off the summary – please feel free to add things in via the comments section.

60 Wishes in the Wishing Box

3 Sep

All this year, International House have been running events and competitions to celebrate their 60th anniversary – regular readers may remember the IHTOC60 (IH Teachers Online Conference) back in May and “The Tai Chi of Reading“.

During the Online Conference, IH launched a lesson plan competition – which I entered and was awarded second place!

My lesson is called “60 wishes in the wishing box” and it’s a fun way (if possibly a wee bit complex in places) of developing learners’ abilities to express wishes and predict consequences.  It’s aimed at Intermediate to Upper Intermediate level students (CEF B1 / B2) and is suitable for teen and adult classes.

To find out more about the lesson plan, as well as Dorka Brozik’s winning lesson on birthday vocabulary for VYLs and fellow runner-up, Adi Rajan’s pre-intermediate lesson on comparatives and superlatives, just follow the link:

If you have problems downloading the “60 wishes in the wishing box” lesson plan and materials, it’s also available from Scribd.


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