Archive | March, 2012

Earth Day – Online Teaching Resources

30 Mar

Earth Day 2012, where we consider our impact upon the planet and variously decide (a) to do something about it (b) gee that’s terrible but what can one person do? (c) It was like that when we got here – is almost upon us, falling due as it does on April 22nd of this year.

Predictably, there’s a wealth of teaching resources available to exploit with your students – here are some of the ones I’ve come across:

The Earth Day network website – has a wealth of information, of particular interest to educators might be the “Green Schools” initiative (how to make your school greener) and the “Ecological footprint calculator” – though the number of countries the calculator works for is limited.  Their educators network has downloadable lesson plans (native speaker K-12) on most environmentally related topics.

The Great Green Web Game is probably suitable for younger learners (who won’t worry about the relative lack of sophistication) of intermediate level and above.  Learners answer questions to progress around the game board.  (Spotted on CristinaSkyBox).

Another younger learner resource comes via funschool which has various “Earth Day” related resources – though the language element present here is rather limited – check them out before using them in class!

Linda Starr & Gary Hopkins have collated a great range of resources for educators at Education World – these are aimed more at native speaker learners, so might need some adaptation for English Langauge learners, but there’s a lot of interesting looking stuff there that would be suitable across age ranges – and very suitable for anyone into CLiL.

A fantastic option for adults, particularly in the business sector is the Environmental CEO game:  CEO2.  In this one you take on the role of the CEO of a major corporation, working in either the insurance, automotive, chemical or power industries.  You’re presented with certain targets, balancing the needs and wants of a number of stakeholders and given a range of decisions to make in order to achieve these.  A certain amount of text, reading and analysis is required, I’d suggest B2 level learners and above should be fine with it.  (again – thanks to CristinaSkyBox for the spot)

National Geographic have a beta version of their education site up and running at the moment – including a teaching resources section that looks promising.  I found the navigation took a little getting used to, but the content seems spot on.  Again, aimed at native speakers, so probably more useful at higher levels than lower levels and probably better with teenagers rather than the younger learners.

The Best Earth Day Sites” is Larry Ferlazzo’s collection of Earth Day resources – a list he started work on in 2009 and which he updates annually.  There’s a lot there, all of which is accessible for English language learners.

Michelle Henry’s Earth Day resources is another great collection of lesson plans, interactive games, webquests and printables relating both to Earth Day and also to wider environmental issues.

The “Go Green!” section at Teach Children ESL has fantastic downloadable pdf flashcards, worksheets and activities, including an “Earth Day Poster” lesson plan which might be nice to use in the build up to Earth Day.

If you have, or if you know of, any related resources you think should be included in this list – why not leave a comment and let me know?


#eltchat summary: Time Management for Teachers

28 Mar

A long time ago, I suggested “Time Management for Teachers” as the #ELTchat topic – this was largely because I occasionally find it difficult to balance the varying demands of the job and I was keen to find out from everyone else how they felt about their jobs and basically – how everyone copes with it all.

Predicatably, having volunteered to write up the summary, things then got a bit hectic at work and it’s only now, about a month later, that I’ve been able to find the time to get down to it.

Day, n. A period of twenty-four hours, mostly misspent.
Ambrose Bierce

So here it is – thanks to all those who took part, there were some great contributions made.   I’ve not directly attributed the ideas mentioned to the contributors as there were just so many of them…   Possibly because the concept of time management is essentially a personal issue – which is to say we all have different skills, different responsibilities and different issues with time management – there were a large number of threads that ran through the chat.  I’ve tried to weave them together into a coherent whole, but apologies if I’ve missed anything!


Social Media:

The irony of a group of educators getting together to chat for an hour on twitter about how little time they all had, was mentioned early and the amount of time that people spent using social media was definitely an issue for many.  Managing social media use effectively can be difficult – the simplest solutions are usually the best and simply “turning off” twitter or facebook might be one approach, arranging “social media free time”, taking a technology free weekend  – or limiting participation to more quality based interactions, taking advantage of the opportunities that social media afford us, rather than becoming a slave to it.  So, using Twitter more to take part in events like #ELTchat, rather than attempting to spend every waking hour on it.

Ultimately, the key to managing social media use seems to be self-control…

What takes up all our time?

The problem of faffing about, seeking lesson planning inspiration, trying to decide on lesson content, selecting and preparing materials, creating documents and handouts seemed to be one of the biggest “problem” areas.  This isn’t helped by the wealth of information and resources that are out there – both on the resource shelves in the teachers’ room or in the list of bookmarks in your web browser – and quite possibly a predilection amongst teachers to always want to try and re-invent the wheel, or to build the better mousetrap.

Another area of concern was with the administration that seems now to have become part and parcel of the teaching trade:  registers, lesson summaries, feedback, assessments, form filling, reports on students, reports on teachers (a DoS issue?), marking and providing written/writing  feedback were all mentioned here.

It occurs to me as I write this now that the biggest time consuming area of a teacher’s job seems, on the above evidence, to be the teacher’s job…  I’m not sure what we can do about that!

There are however, things that we can do to help streamline the tasks we encounter in our working lives:


Most people felt that, by and large, the important stuff got done and that the problem was therefore in deciding what was important and what was not.  What was qualified as important included the planning and preparation, marking and assessment and teacher development.  What was given as not important was “the other stuff”.  Importance probably therefore depends on your role and your context, but people suggested a number of prioritization techniques that might be useful:

  • Dividing tasks into (1) Immediate  (2)  Next Week  (3)  Life goals
  • Categorising things into “Necessary”, “Should” and “Might be nice” and then deleting everything in the third column.
  • Using a piece of A4 paper quartered into: Urgent Action,  Ongoing Projects,  As & When, Talk to /delegate
  • Daily Planning – start the day by setting out what you hope to achieve in it.
  • Sticky notes and reminders
  • Diaries
  • Google Docs / Charts / Calendars
  • Smart Phone Calendars & reminders
  • The urgency / importance matrix (see below) – categorise your tasks according to their urgency and their importance.  Anything in the top left box should be done immediately, anything in the bottom right can safely be ignored or left for the time being!


In terms of attempting to cut down on the amount of time that we spend in the lesson planning and preparation stages, as well as the marking and feedback processes – there were again a number of suggestions and techniques people shared:

Less is More – don’t try to over control things.  Try planning with a pen and a bit of paper, away from the technology and you might find things go a lot quicker.

The 50% rule – don’t spend more time planning the class than you do teaching it.  If your class lasts for 60 minutes then you should only be spending 30 minutes in the planning and preparation.  This rule was also interpreted as “only plan half the class” and let the rest of the lesson emerge naturally.

Course Planning – by sketching out a rough plan of what you hope to be doing with the class over the duration of a course, you remove a lot of the “what am I going to do with them today” element – it’s already there in the course plan.  This can be quite useful if you’re working with a course book with more lesson content than you have lessons!

Keeping hold of your old lesson plans – no class is ever the same, but lesson content frequently is – if you’ve put the time an effort into a really great lesson that’s worked well – keep it!  Then when the language point comes up with another class, you’ve got something ready to go.


Providing feedback to learners on their performance can be very time consuming, particularly when it comes to feeding back on their writing.  Top Tips for making this easier on everyone include:

Involve the learners in the process – as much as possible.  Ask them to provide the corrections on homework tasks and to assess each other’s writing.

Try and avoid distraction – find a quiet room and get down to it.

Colour Coding – differentiate between error types and colour code them.  This puts the onus on the learners to actually do the correction, you’re just guiding their thinking.  This works particularly well with e-documents, for example if your learners email you a word document to correct.

Jing – a video recording screen capture device, this allows you to record you making your corrections to your learners’ work.  Works well with the colour coding idea.

Wikis – the open editing nature of the wiki allows learners to post their content / answers on the wiki and for the whole class to be involved with the correction, as well as the teacher.

Edmodo – a free online networking tool that allows you to create groups with your learners and has an assignment annotating tool / feedback channel as well.

Pre-Planned feedback forms:  by creating a form, for example with the assessment criteria for a writing task, you can jot down quick effective notes on learner performance in specific areas.  Just print them out, fill them in (or the other way round) and hand them back with the assignments.

Tech Tools:

(NB:  These are tools that people suggested during the #eltchat – the descriptions come from the relevant websites.  If anyone has direct experience of using these tools either successfully or unsuccessfully, it would be great if you could share them in the comments section!)

Summify:   Content aggregator that helps you collate all the information coming at you from social media sources, meaning you get to spend more time on the things that matter.

Evernote:  Note-taking and clipping tool that helps you keep track of all the stuff you find interesting on the web and in the real world – also lets you synchronise across devices.

Jing:  video recording screen capture tool – takes screen shotes and records up to five minutes of video.

Edmodo:  educational network provider / online learning platform provider.

Dropbox: online file storage for free, also allows you to share your documents etc with friends.

Doodle: a meetings scheduling tool – useful if you’re trying to set up meetings with participants with differing schedules.

Remember the Milk: task management software / app that has options or versions for a variety of different platforms and has a reminder feature and a share feature.

Toodledo: another task management software / app with versions for different platforms and what looks like a handy “scheduler” task that tells you what to do when you have a free moment.

Twiddla: a sign up based synchronous collaboration tool – multiple users working on one canvas.  Described as “team whiteboarding”.

A more holistic perspective:

Procrastination is indeed the thief of time and most of us would probably get more done if only we’d “just do it”.  Perfection is an impossible target that while we might constantly aim for, we should know our limits and accept that not everything will always be achieved to best effect.

Take some thinking time – or some “fresh air breaks” to go outside and not be in the office, change your location and change your perspective, step back from things for a moment before you once again step forward.

Build time into your day for the unexpected – it’s what we don’t expect that knocks us off track and stresses us out.  Add the Unallocated Necessary Hour to your day, and use that time for whatever emergency crops up that day.

Links & Further Reading:

Cybrary Man’s Lesson Planning Pages:

Cybrary Man’s Organisation Pages:

Russell Stannard training video on using Jing:

There were a couple of other links, which unfortunately, now seem to be broken.  Apologies.


#eltchat takes place on twitter every Wednesday at 12 noon and 9.00pm London time.

Simply sign in or sign up to twitter and search for the hashtag #eltchat.

For more information, check out the website.

The quiet one in the corner of the room

26 Mar

Take a moment to think about one of your classes.  Think back to the very last lesson you had with them.  Have you got them clearly in your mind?  Are they sitting in a horseshoe or are they at desks or tables?  Who’s sitting at the front?  Who’s at the back?  OK – now take a mental snapshot of the class in 3… 2… 1… CLICK.

Freeze that frame and sketch it out on a bit of paper – drawing a rough plan of the room and who’s sitting where.  Now think back again to that last lesson and give each student a mark out of ten for the following two things:  (1)  Contribution to the class  (2)  Amount of interaction.  I’m differentiating between the two here because the interaction that takes place in a classroom doesn’t always contribute to the lesson.  There’s gossip and catching up that goes on that may be off topic and while better teachers than I might take that gossip and develop it into something  pedagogically meaningful, I often just find it distracting.  But anyway….  have you given those learners a mark yet? Good.

Did any of your learners get a pair of tens?  Did anyone get zeros?  Should anyone have been given zeros but you didn’t give them the zeros because you felt a bit sorry for them?

Not every learner feels the need to contribute  to the level that we as teachers might feel is desirable.  Conversely, a lot of teachers probably feel that it isn’t desirable for every learner to contribute!  (I joke – but I bet you had a student in mind when you read that!)  The degree of interaction or contribution that we require from our learners might well vary depending on the lesson content, participants and our experience of that classroom.  I’ve had the fortune to observe lessons where the learners might not have said very much, but where they were clearly enjoying the experience and appeared to be benefiting from it.  I’ve also observed lessons where half the class were interacting very vocally, but not contributing at all, and where the rest of the class were doing their best to learn, but to stay out of the firing line…

The reason why I’ve been thinking about this lately is because of a learner in one of my classes.  “M” joined my class earlier this year, having transferred from another school, “M” was friends with another learner in the class and they would sit together, skip class together, be late together and snatch whispered snippets of chat together.  As a substantial number of the other members of the class were brasher, more confident, less focused and generally livelier and more difficult to keep on track – “M” didn’t stand out as particularly different – just quieter and less prone to making a contribution unless directly asked a question.  It turns out, via a discovery process that I won’t go into here, that “M” accidentally skipped a level, joining a group that was approximately one academic year ahead of where she should have been placed.  It only took me two months to notice…

I guess the point is that learners may well have good reasons for keeping quiet and not putting their heads over the parapet.  But one of those reasons might well be lack of understanding.  So, in an attempt to shut the door after the horse has bolted (“M” has now switched into a more appropriate class), I’m going to try auditing my classes for Interaction and Contribution – just to see who else might be sitting quietly in the corner – and why that might be.


If you’d like to try auditing your own classes, you can download a “self observation” task handout by clicking on the pdf link here:

teflgeek – Self Observation Learner Interaction & Contributions

It includes a basic procedure and two handouts to help with data gathering and results interpretation.

Guest Post: If you look at the bottom of the screen

20 Mar

In this guest post, Dave Cosby looks at why some nationalities might be better at learning languages than others and considers the role that the pervasive influence of the international media might have to play…

If you look at the bottom of the screen…

Why are some nations better at learning languages than others? Is there something about their own national language that gives those speakers some indefinable attribute that allows them to pick up a language like you or I might pick up a newspaper?

The Dutch are amazing at this. I was once in a queue in an Amsterdam police station after being pickpocketed and was agog as I listened to the desk sergeant deal with Spanish, Italian, German, French and then me, English without batting an eyelid.

The Anglosphere  is notoriously monogolotal, even more so than the French, who I am sure secretly understand despite continual shrugging and exclamations of “Je ne comprends pas!”

But for me it’s all about attitude. If a country is open to other languages, and sees that they do indeed have a useful purpose (ie. there’s actually a point to learning them, after all, who wants to learn Dutch?), then people do actually learn them, and you don’t end up with the snails again, instead of the croque monsiuer you ordered, despite ordering it clearly and slowly with appropriate gestures.

Perhaps it’s all down to history. If the country in question is, or has been a big cheese, un grand fromage, they might consider it beneath them to bother with the double Dutch that the rest of the world is gabbling. Why bother? It’s all Greek to them. C’est comme parler chinois.

If you are, however, a policy maker, in one of these places, and you hope to encourage the learning of foreign languages in general, and of English in particular, what do you do?

The answer? Subtitle.

Get your national broadcaster to sack all the people dubbing the programmes and put up your first language (L1) in little white letters at the bottom of the page.

The American journalist and writer, Malcolm Gladwell, considers that the amount of time you need to spend to become truly expert in something is ten thousand hours. In his book, ‘Outliers’, Gladwell gives example after example of how those who really excel, those who define excellence in their particular field have practiced, and practiced. Then practiced some more. To him, practice really does make perfect and you know what? I think he’s on to something.

I would like to compare the average ability of students from two countries I have worked in and know well: Spain and Portugal. I could just as well be talking about Greece and Italy, two countries I know almost as well, but let’s stick to Iberia. In Spain students listen to Spanish music on the radio, watch Hollywood films dubbed into Spanish, surf the internet in Spanish… oh you get the idea. Then they go to three hours of English a week and expect their English level to rise from pre-intermediate to CAE/ IELTS 7.5/ C1 level in a school year and they are surprised and angry when it doesn’t.

A Spanish school year is short. Let’s start with the three month summer break. Then let’s subtract the two weeks at Easter and Christmas. We’ll add a week for Carnival (rounding up for the ‘puente’ holidays). That only leaves us 35 weeks or so. Which gives us just over a hundred hours a year in English. Not much is it?

Yet we have the same annual timetable in Portugal, or as near as makes no difference, and the chances are good that the boy or girl working at the supermarket checkout will speak English quite well, even in a non-tourist town miles from the coast. This is far less common in Spain. How?

Gladwell would look at numbers. So let us suppose that…

Perhaps our average student watches ten hours of TV. Maybe half of that is from Hollywood, shows like CSI or House. Yes, they are subtitled, but the audio booms along with the mid-Atlantic of Hugh Laurie and our student hears the cadence, the rhythm. If the language is not too far removed from English the friendly words that are close to L1 are caught easily, and reinforced with their dependent prepositions, their collocates. That’s a hundred hours of good osmotic English in a stroke. They watch because they want to watch, so they are motivated to understand, and not because they want to match the title to the paragraph but because they want to find out who the killer is, or what combination of unlikely sounding diseases are confusing the doctors this week. And it’s self-reinforcing.

Because students are used to listening to English on TV they watch films at the cinema in English too. Not because it’s art and that’s the way the artist intended, but because it’s easier. They will have passed the Tipping Point (to mention another of Gladwell’s phrases).

Their L1 no longer dominates their literate world so other media can get in on the act.

The average student may spend ten hours a week on the internet. I reckon that my average students spend far more than that, but let’s low-ball these numbers to make our point. Perhaps a third will be in English, maybe football websites or music write-ups, as well as Wikipedia for homework (my students’ favourite trick to avoid getting caught plagiarising from the internet in their L1 is to copy it from Wikipedia’s English website… and then translate it into L1. It doesn’t come up in a Google search by teacher then, or even Turnitin).

That still gives us more than a hundred hours with English right there. And students don’t stop surfing the web because they are on holiday; indeed the opposite is probably true.

The radio blasts out songs and they can sing along… all in English.

The immersion into English snowballs, as students self-select via the internet. I have Advanced and Proficiency students buying their university text books in English because they are a third the price of the translated derivatives.

In total our Portuguese learner of English is getting three times the access to English without breaking a sweat. We still don’t get close to Gladwell’s ten thousand hours, but we do get an accelerated learning… and I can get directions to the frozen food section in the language of Shakespeare, two thousand miles from home.

Dave Cosby is a teacher of more years experience than he cares to remember and has worked in a variety of countries around the world, in a variety of roles from teacher to Director of Studies to language school chain troubleshooter.  Currently he’s based in Coimbra, Portugal.

Feedback Technique: Percentage building bar charts

16 Mar

This is something I tried out with a class yesterday as a way of giving ongoing partial feedback on a set of module review questions, though I think it would work as a feedback technique on any larger exercise or activity, more those that have clear unambiguous answers though.

Basically, before the class I created an answer sheet on A4 paper in two columns:  the left column had the question reference (e.g. page 74, ex1, qu3) and the right column had a blank space for the learners to write their answers.  Then I created a teacher crib sheet where I wrote down the answers.  This was just to minimise the amount of time spent working out whether their answers were correct or not.

I divided the class into four teams and the board into four columns, with a percentage scale from 0% to 100% running up the side.  In this lesson, the teams were working with 23 CPE use of English style questions – obviously this can be adapted to your situation & task requirements.  I divided 100 by the number of questions (23), which works out at 4.3.  So when giving each team feedback, I’d just multiply the number of correct answers by 4.3 and increase the height of each team’s bar chart to the relevant level.  So if they’d got five correct answers, their bar chart column would be filled in on the board to 21.5%.

I then found they were checking their answers after making single changes, so I limited the number of times they could check their answers with me – in this instance they got four opportunities to check their answers with me.  If I was using this with a smaller number of questions, I’d reduce that to one or two opportunities.

The winning team is the one that either gets 100% correct, or the team with the highest percentage score at the end of the time limit.

Additional support – it did become clear that it was quite difficult to work out where they were getting things wrong, so I then told them how many correct answers they had in each exercise:  5 / 0 / 1 / 2.  If we’d had more time I would have given them an additional lifeline by simply marking which answers were correct and which were not – but we ran out of time and I ended up setting the rest of the exercises for homework.  We’ll come back to it next time!

This is another nice and competitive way of using those slightly dry “end of module review”  or the periodic “revision” sections that crop up in coursebooks from time to time, or as an alternative for exam practice tasks.  There are two key things to remember as the teacher – (1) take the crib sheet – it makes check answers a LOT quicker  (2) take a calculator in with you – 13 x 4.3 is beyond my mental arithmetic skills!

In defence of: The Test

13 Mar

There seems to be a lot of anti-testing sentiment prevalent in the teaching world at the moment.  There’s a particular degree of vitriol that seems to be reserved for standardised testing, but which has tapped a general anti-educational zeitgeist and spilled over, flooded even, into ELT.  In this piece I’m hoping to look at where some of these attitudes to testing might come from and think about what might be the best way forward.

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TED-Ed – ten minute lessons from TED

12 Mar

A new initiative from the TED talks team, TED-Ed works with teachers to distill a great lesson into 10 minutes, animate it and put it up on youtube.

Watch the introductory video here:

And check out the TED-Ed youtube channel, with links to all the lessons already posted,  here:



British Council Opportunities

12 Mar

The following email from the British Council just popped up in my inbox – there’s a couple of interesting testing related opportunities there:

(1)  three days work item testing for six hundred pounds

(2) being trained up to be a freelance online examiner

For more info – follow the link:

NEWSFLASH – Important Information and opportunities.

NB – read the specifications carefully, some are location dependent positions!

Web tool recommendations #eltchat summary « Sandy Millin

9 Mar

Following the #eltchat on 29th February, Sandy Millin has put together a brilliant summary of web tool recommendations for teachers:  Web tool recommendations #eltchat summary

Categories that come up include:

  • Voice Recording / Video capture
  • Bookmarking / Link Organisation
  • Ready-Made materials
  • Online activity/material creation tools
  • Learner creative tools
  • Conglomerating tools
  • Self study tools

Plus Sandy goes on to highlight the why’s and wherefore’s of using tech in the classroom.  A must read piece for any teacher that likes incorporating technology into their classes!  Here’s the link again:  Web tool recommendations #eltchat summary.

Lesson Plan: Three Little Pigs – a modern version?

1 Mar

As part of explaining their approach to “open journalism“, The Guardian has just released an advert depicting a version of the classic “three little pigs” story as it might have transpired today.

They might as well have hung a banner over the front of it saying “Exploit this with your classes!”  So I have.  The lesson plan, materials and the relevant videos are all accessible below.

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