Archive | January, 2012

#IHPortugal Training Day: Class Management

31 Jan

This is the first in a series of posts reflecting on seminars I attended at the recent IH Portugal Training Day.


Carol Crombie

IH Viseu

We all have classes that we think of in ….  less than glowing terms.  For whatever reason these are the groups where nothing ever seems to get done, or the whole experience is like herding cats – everyone wanders off in different directions and you’re lucky if you come out of it without scratches on your arms…

Carol’s session was an excellent reminder of how to approach class management and what to expect from it.  I should point out – this post doesn’t represent complete coverage of Carol’s seminar – just those aspects of it that feel most pertinent to my own teaching situation.

I think the most refreshing idea that came out of it was the point about matching expectations to reality – refreshing in the sense of making me think “oh yeah, I’d forgotten about that” – but also in the sense of me coming out of the session feeling ready to do something about some of those cat herding classes.

For example – do you expect your learners to put their hands up before speaking?  Do you expect them to switch their phones off before the class?  Do you expect them to enter and leave the room in good order?  Carol’s list of “ideal” classroom behaviours got me thinking about the difference between “desired” and “expected” behaviours – I think it would be lovely if all my classes did all of the things on Carol’s list (not chew gum, be respectful to each other, listen to the teacher etc) – but I don’t “expect” it, because, well – that’s the question – why don’t I expect it?  Have I just been worn down by them?  Do I have a jaundiced view of teenagers?

Possibly the reason why I have trouble with my classes is because, as Carol pointed out, the first rule of classroom management is to be clear in your own mind of what you expect from the class.  By setting clear boundaries, you’re signalling to the learners that it’s alright to work within those boundaries of what’s allowed and what’s not.  Teenagers are, as was once pointed out to me, professional students.  It’s what they do all day, all week and most of the year.  But they will push, just to see what they can get.  If, like me, you’re a theoretical disciplinarian (you know how it works in theory, but the practical applications are a step too far) – what happens is that the learners don’t so much push, but nudge.  A little here and a little there and pretty soon you find yourself running the class by their rules.  Set the boundaries and guard them vigorously!

Part of the difficulty is in what Carol referred to as “signalling your authority” – or “my room – my rules”!  How do your students enter the class?  All in a jumble, still nattering, texting, i-pods a-blazing,  scattering school books everywhere? (Yes, I have a class in mind as I write this!)  Entry and exit routines can help reinforce the idea that the classroom is not just an extension of their everyday surroundings, but that it is YOUR turf, they enter on sufferance and to remain they must abide by your rules.  So, asking them to wait outside until you arrive, and then asking them a revision question before they come through the door.  Or to add a word to the vocabulary category on the board (later students will find this more difficult, thereby possibly improving punctuality?).  Equally, exit routines, where there isn’t a mad rush for the door, but a tidy up, returning furniture to it’s proper place, collecting the homework task, another “exit” question – it all helps reinforce the idea that they’re leaving “your environment”.

It is important of course, to choose your battles wisely.  There must always be a line that is not crossed – but in some ways, choosing the battles that are minor and inconsequential are the most important.  Carol gave the example of students chewing gum in class.  This, she says, is her line in the sand and she will brook no disobedience.  I think I can see the point – for the students to give in on the minor things, which ultimately don’t matter to them one way or the other, generates the idea and the habit of submission to teacher authority, so that when a bigger issue arises, the habit is already there.  Also though, as Carol mentioned, when learners craftily sneak one past you (and quietly get away with chewing gum in the corner of the room) it satisfies the rebellious instinct.

So – back to my herd of recalcitrant cats…  We’re going to have a bit of a talk.  But I’m not going to tell them off.  We’ve probably done enough of that already and it hasn’t done much good except for set us against each other.  Instead I’m going to borrow Carol’s behavioural expectation checklist and edit it a bit and I’m going to ask them to use it to assess their own behaviour.  Do they think they’re doing everything they should?  (This was another of Carol’s great ideas by the way).  And I’m going to let them set the behaviour rules they think are appropriate for the class.  I’m going to pick four that are non-negotiable, and I’m going to let them choose another six from the remaining items.  And I’m going to see what kind of enforcement policies they think would work best.  There is a danger here, that they will think absolutely none of them are suitable….  and I’m anticipating them requiring a bribe of some kind….  but we’ll see.

I’ll try and come back to this in a couple of days with some feedback on how things went – but in the meantime I’m off to sit down and work out exactly what I expect from my classes.


Do learners know what they need?

27 Jan

There is a lot of talk about learner needs, needs analysis and learner centred lesson planning and course planning.  But do learners really know what they need?  Or do they just tell us what they want?

The difference between “wants” and “needs” is neatly illustrated by the image on the right – a want is something that is desirable but unnecessary.  A need is something you have to have no matter what!  And do we always know the difference?  I know that I often say I need to go and buy something, when the truth is, I can probably do without it!

In education the reliance on needs analysis worries me, as I fear it might be misplaced.  After all, we go to our doctors and describe our symptoms but we don’t tell the doctor what to do next – why should we as language teachers rely on the input our learners give us?  Surely as a professional I am capable of spotting the problems a learner is having, communicating those problems to the learner and working out a set of solutions.

But we don’t always notice and the doctor analogy is perhaps right – the learners come to us and say “I’m having problems” before we then think about what the causes and solutions might be.  So learner input is valid – but can it be trusted?

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How much are you worth? « EFL thoughts and reflections

27 Jan

How much are you worth? « EFL thoughts and reflections.

There’s a great discussion on Phil Wade’s blog on the issues in the profession relating to qualifications and earnings.

If it doesn’t really get us anywhere, what’s the point in doing DELTAs and MAs?  And when some bugger without any prior teaching experience and qualifications can just waltz in and demand the same salary as those who’ve forked out up to a grand for their CELTA?  Is the CELTA really worth anything?

Throw your tuppence worth into the debate!

Having successfully completed her first pre-intermediate grammar lesson, Andrea decided to go down the pub.

Teaching beliefs & Teaching Style

19 Jan

Go on then – what do you truly believe when it comes down to it?  It’s quite a difficult question – and it can make a great lesson when you ask your class to challenge each others’ beliefs (see lesson plan for reason to believe).

The problem I have with the question is that I’m not sure something that is so fundamentally important as education should be left up to something as vague, wishy washy and ethereal as “belief” – educational research has quite an extensive background and language teaching research is at the forefront of this – shouldn’t we have some solid data on this by now?  Not that data always helps – belief trumps rationality every time and it is not only in education that a refusal to accept alternative suggestions is based solely on “belief”.

This blog post came out of a response to Mike J Harrison’s exploration of teaching beliefs, which was partly prompted by his Delta and partly by Brad Patterson’s blog challenge to find a quote that defines your teaching style.  Brad  quotes Khalil Gibran: “The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind.”  Tyson Seaburn suggests “Knowledge is a social construct, never absolute; it must be continually questioned and challenged if it is to continue to be valid.”

Originally, when I started thinking about this the quote that sprang to mind was B.F. Skinner’s

“Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.”

I like the way it speaks to the ephemeral nature of education and the ultimate futility of what we do as teachers, and how it reminds us not to worry too much about it – it’ll probably be alright in the long run.

That at least is a surface meaning – there is a deeper meaning when you consider who Skinner was and his position in the history of ELT.  Skinner was a behavioural psychologist and a lot of his ideas related to the “stimulus-response” theory of behviour.  For every action there is a reaction.  In this view, language is just a quesion of pushing the right button to get the correct response.  Language learning is therefore a question of making the processes automatic – teaching set formulae like “Hello, how are you?” / “Fine thanks, and you?” .  In this sense the quote actually means that what we need to do as teachers is ingrain set behaviours until such time as the production of language becomes an unconscious process.  Which is not what I believe at all and which Chomsky demonstrated was rubbish anyway.

So on further reflection the quote I’m going to go with is a Thornbury edict from way back in 2001, at the dawn of dogme, and before I started teaching:

“Slavish adherence to a method is unacceptable.”

And this one I do believe – though I have no data to back up my belief!  To only admit one possibility is to reject a wealth of alternatives – many of which may be useful and relevant.  I think we owe it to ourselves to constantly challenge our viewpoints and to admit new possibilities and above all else – to avoid ending up doing the same thing day after day.

There is also a corollary to the quote – slavish rejection of a method is also unacceptable.  Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it!  There are features of many methods in existence today – aspects of drilling for pronunciation and chunking language arose out of Skinners’ behaviourism and it’s language teaching cohort “audio-lingualism”.  Use of texts to highlight target language points has its basis in grammar translation methodology.  Asking learners to talk together in pairs or small groups is a key tenet of the communicative approach.  None of these ideas should be discounted or used to the exclusion of each other.

We are language teachers – all is grist to our mill!

Ten Things Worth Further Investigation (#02)

17 Jan

On my browser I have a folder marked “Further Investigation”.  It contains all the bookmarks to various websites and the like that I’ve spotted and intended to look into in more depth – but which I clearly didn’t.

Where remembered, the original sources are credited – apologies if you spotted this first and I’ve forgotten where I found it – let me know and I’ll update!

If you liked this post – why not take a look at “Ten Things Worth Further Investigation (#01)” ?

(1) – This is an online phonetic transcription program.  Type your text in one end and press “transcribe” and on the other side of the page your text appears with phonetic subtitles!  The only downside as far as I can tell is that the program doesn’t take into account features of connected speech, such as intrusion, elision and linking – rather it treats each word in isolation.  But definitely handy for anyone wanting to put phonetics into the lesson plans!

(2) Nothing is Forgotten – Ryan Andrews’ excellent short story uses only brilliantly drawn images – it is a “wordless comic”.  It’s also a fantastic story.  Available online or as pdf download along with teaching ideas.

(3)  ELLiE (Early Language Learning in Europe) is a British Council funded report that describes in some detail the state of language learning with young learners across Europe.  Available as a pdf download.  If you work with YLs, you should probably read this.

(4)  Free Global e-lessons from Macmillan.  Pretty straightforward – free lessons!  The intended class level varies though, to be sure to check first!

(5)  One day and all that happens in it – the different days of thousands of people around and across the planet – all recorded by the “One Day on Earth” project.  The geo-tagged video archive from the 10.10.10 event, lets you look at uploaded videos from around the world – the videos from 11.11.11 are still being uploaded.  Thanks to mythatsenglish for the original find.


(6)  Mike J Harrison has a great lesson using The Streets “It was supposed to be so easy” song.  Perfect for those older teen classes – or for those higher level classes who are proving difficult to inspire or motivate….

(7) Creating Infographics with your Students – is an excellent post by Silvia Tolisano on the Langwitches blog.  Infographics are what we all used to refer to as posters – but you do it with computers instead.  OK – that’s a simplification.  But check out Silvia’s post if you’re interested in what infographics really are, how to go about making them and where to find the technological tools to make them with.  A must for any project based lessons.

(8)  OUP Webinars:  Currently a series of three forthcoming webinars available on Test Design, Learner Autonomy & Creative Writing.  Worth checking out if you can.

(9)  Fans of eltpics may also be interested in the public domain image library “Burning Well“.  Pictures available to download, copy and use without royalties or copyright issues.  Be careful of using the search though, as “sponsored search results” appear at the bottom of the page – and these are not copyright free.

(10)  Where in the World? is a Google Earth puzzle – can you tell or do you know where the places in the pictures are?  Take a look at the original post on freetech4teachers for more information and some teaching ideas.

Using Haiku for Summary Tasks

12 Jan

Summary task woes
Unfound ideas from the texts
Lacking clarity
What is a Haiku?
Distillation of ideas
Concisely worded 
This could go quite wrong
Haiku for summary tasks?
Might be worth a try 

Learners at CPE (Proficiency) level frequently have issues with the comprehension and summary task on the Use of English paper (click here for Cambridge ESOL’s candidate guide).

Answering the comprehension questions can be difficult enough, but the summary task is enough to turn teachers and students into gibbering wrecks, sobbing in the corner of the classroom and wailing at their own percieved inadequacy.  The truth is that they aren’t inadequate in any way – they just need some training!  Using Haiku is an approach I’ve used to try and help learners access the core ideas of the texts in a simple and succinct way.

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Macmillan Dictionary Awards – teflgeek nominated!

11 Jan

Apparently teflgeek has been nominated for the best blog of 2011 in the “Macmillan Dictionary Love English Awards“!  Which was a bit of a surprise – but huge thanks to whoever put teflgeek forwards – much appreciated!

The criteria for nomination include the questions – “Where do you go to when you need information, inspiration, guidance or resources in your desire to learn more about English or to satisfy your curiosity about the language? Who do you love, who do you trust, and who do you recommend to your friends or colleagues?” – so to come under any one of those criteria is truly fantastic and has made my day!  So again – thank you.

So if you’ve been visiting the blog and you like what you see – why not vote for teflgeek?  You can do that by clicking on the links in this post – or by clicking the nice picture in the top left hand corner of the page.  Voting closes on 31st January 2011, and is limited to one vote per IP address, so be sure to tell your friends!

English teaching: A Friday request | The Economist

10 Jan

Originally spotted on Simon Thomas’ efl-resource – it appears The Economist has become aware of it’s own potential in the ELT sphere!  They’re asking their readers, ELT professionals in particular, for their thoughts in how to make best use of Economist material in the classroom and how The Economist can help us to help our learners access their material.

Even if you don’t have any strong desire to contribute to the debate – it’s probably worth taking a look at the article and the comments section underneath it – lots of ideas from people about how they use The Economist!

English teaching: A Friday request | The Economist.


All is not what it seems – The Little People Project

9 Jan

Back in December I posted on “nine pretty pictures” – ways of exploiting images with learners.

I recently came across “The Little People Project” – though unfortunately I can’t remember where – it might have been The Guardian, but I’m not sure.

I really like the images – the composition is quirky, the use of every day materials is inspired and the locations are very unexpected.  The initial images, the close ups (as above), will no doubt provoke lots of speculation amongst the learners – but in many cases other images, showing the works in their wider settings are also included.

A great collection of images that can be used for most of the purposes in the “nine pretty pictures” post – story prompts, caption competitions, role play prompts, mind-mapping & speculation tasks all spring to mind!

Featured blog of the month | TeachingEnglish | British Council | BBC

6 Jan


Huge thanks to Teaching English | British Council, who’ve just awarded this site their Featured blog of the month award!

Needless to say I’m immensely chuffed at the award, which was given for the 12 days of geekmas series – the posts of which are listed here:

12 blogs worth clutching11 tips for writing10 tricks for reading9 pretty pictures8 talks worth watching7 simple statements6 games worth playing5 favourite things4 recalling words3 board pens2 tefl lovesand a short talk on using poetry….

It is the icing on the cake that was 2011 – a busy year in many respects, personally, professionally and of course with the blog, which was only started back in February and which seems to be doing well!

Apparently, WordPress creates an annual report for all their bloggers – for anyone that’s interested you can click the links below!  It’s very pretty!

But thanks again to Ann & Rob at Teaching English | British Council – and here’s hoping 2012 proves every bit as fantastic as 2011!


The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 28,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 10 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.