Archive | July, 2014

Book Review: Punctuation..? (and a competition!)

25 Jul

Punctuation..? by User Design is a svelte and elegant illustrated guide for the rest of us.

As you might have guessed from the title, it gives an overview of 21 different punctuation marks from the everyday comma to the more esoteric pilcrow.  Do you know what a pilcrow is?  I didn’t.  Apparently it’s the backwards filled in P that I usually see when I click the wrong thing in my word documents…

Punctuation Graphic

The layout is simple and straightforward:  each punctuation mark under examination is given a description and its uses are supported by explanations and examples – and simple, yet effective line drawings at the top of each page.

It is a visually appealing book that seems very accessible and clearly lays out all of the rules of punctuation that most of us think we have an instinctive command of and which most of us are probably wrong about.  According to the book I have committed at least one punctuation crime in this piece – there are probably others I don’t know about!  There you go – an impromptu quiz:  Provide a list of all the punctuation mistakes you can find in this blog post and put them in the comments section below.  The winner will get a free copy of the book!  Not that the winner of a competition like this will probably need a book like this, but I bet even they don’t know what a pilcrow is…!

This is a prescriptive grammar of punctuation.  It declares the rules in no uncertain terms and seems to borrow its authority from its chief reference source, Oxford dictionaries, and I wonder how much of it is designed to appeal to the pedants and those who view themselves as the last bastions of defence against the corruption and decay that has seeped into the language (there is a somewhat plaintive note in the apostrophe section to the effect that it “has largely vanished from company names and other commercial uses”).  The questions I ask myself are (a) does it matter? and (b) is it useful?

Yes.  I think it probably does matter.  I spent approximately six hours marking “academic” essays yesterday and at least three of those hours railing at my students inability to punctuate properly.  Proper punctuation is more than the written equivalent of verbal pause, though it is seldom used otherwise; it helps determine the relationships between clauses and between sentences, helps to signify the writer’s intent and to package information in such a way that makes meaning accessible to the reader.  In short, our students need to know these rules.  Once they do, they can flout them with impunity like the rest of us – but at least then it would be a principled choice.

So who is it useful for?

I’m not sure that it is a book for students itself, at least not for language learners.  Most native speaker students would probably benefit from a copy, certainly by the time they go to university, if not before.  I think though, that language learners at any level under B2 would find it difficult to access and certainly difficult to apply.  B2 students would need help with some of it and C1 (advanced) would probably be alright with it.  Obviously there’s a lot in it that isn’t really relevant to language learner needs – though the book is not intended as such and it is unfair to judge it on those terms.  I do think it would be a useful addition to most teachers’ rooms though.  Punctuation is often a neglected aspect of language teaching and as I think now I can only recall an overt section on punctuation in one book – somewhere in Advanced Expert – which makes me wonder how much punctuation knowledge us teachers really have!

So if you can’t tell your hyphen from your dash or your interpunct from your guillemets – this is the book for you.  Punctuation..? is available from the User Design website and probably other places as well, but I couldn’t tell you where.



I mentioned a competition earlier – so here are the rules:

I am the ultimate arbiter of the competition and what I say goes.  You have no legal recourse or anything like that if you don’t like my decision.  I will try to judge as objectively as possible, but I will be reviewing any and all entries and choosing what I think is the best and most complete one.

If you don’t like your first entry, you can enter more than once – but I’ll stop reading after the third attempt.

Deadline for entries is the end of August (Sunday August 31st 2014).  Any entries submitted after that will be ignored.

I will announce the winner both by putting a comment under this section and in a separate blog post in the first week of September (2014).

Good luck!


Shoot me now… #ObservationCalamities

16 Jul

It was just one of those lessons.  Sometimes you can judge within about three minutes how an observed lesson is going to go – it’s about how present the teacher is, how at home they are with the class, the material and the plan.  And you can tell when something is about to go wrong…

In this case, the following went wrong:

(a)    The technology screwed up:  In attempting to import powerpoint slides into IWB notebook files, all of the nice fonts and formatting were lost, as well as some of the text from the text boxes.  Which went un-noticed for five minutes or so until the teacher asked the students to answer a question that hadn’t been displayed.

(b)   A lack of language confidence:  the language focus of the lesson was noun phrases, in particular that type of complex noun phrase that is a feature of more formal academic discursive prose.  The aim of the material was mostly to see how familiar the students were with the concept, to expose them to the idea of noun phrases being embedded within each other as part of more complex phrases; and to try and help them access noun phrases from the outside – to help the learners identify the focus of a noun phrase and thereby build some of the their text access skills.  In other words it was a mostly structural look at the constituent parts of complex noun phrases and some practice in sequencing those constituents correctly.  Not that you would have known any of that from watching the first half an hour of the lesson…

(c)    General discombobulation.  This was, in part I think due to the fact that the tech went south early on and as a consequence, so did the lesson plan.  Stages got randomly dropped, other bits of the material that had previously been dropped made a comeback; and for the first 20 minutes or so, none of the interaction patterns described on the plan got followed, which meant that all the lovely student interaction and peer teaching got replaced by some slightly confused teacher fronted presentation instead.

(d)   Not being completely prepared.  When the teacher is still cutting up bits of paper with a pair of scissors a third of the way into the class?  Not good.

In other words, it was probably slightly messy before anyone walked into the classroom, but once they had, it got messier fast.  Now I’ve observed quite a lot of classes over the years and while it’s not like I rank them in order of brilliance, but this one was probably down there at the bottom of the pile.

It’s a bit of a shame that I was the one teaching it then.


There is an automatic tendency for any teacher, in any observation situation, to walk out of the lesson thinking “Well that was a bit shit then.”  We are our own harshest critics and I think it is that tendency which makes good teachers good.  After all, if you think you have nothing left to learn?  That is a sure sign of arrogance and imminent stagnation and decay.  Which is partly my way of cheering myself up and partly an acknowledgement that it wasn’t all bad.

About halfway through the lesson we got to what was the big input stage: I had all the learners on the floor in groups of three with red bits of card labelled with the parts of speech you can find in noun phrases and yellow bits of card with the words from an extended noun phrase on them.  Together we built up the extended noun phrase from its smaller constituent noun phrases and looked at how they shifted position and took on different grammatical functions as they moved.  Some of the learners got it quite quickly, some of them needed a bit more help.  But we then moved onto a sequencing task where they did the practice activities on the whiteboard in teams.

Were my aims achieved?  Well the aims of the material were explicitly stated as:

  • To introduce students to the concepts of “noun phrase” and “head noun”
  • To introduce students to the basic grammatical structure of noun phrases
  • To have the students practice structuring and creating some noun phrases

Did we do all this?  Yes.  Did the students learn anything?  Maybe.  They were certainly doing quite well with the practice activity at the end, but this may have been because one of the students had worked out where the material had come from and was referencing the original article the practice tasks had been taken from….  On balance though I think most of the students now have a better idea of noun phrases than they did before.  I know I do.

My aims were slightly different.  Bearing in mind that these are teaching aims rather than learning aims, my aims were to present the material in an engaging and interactive fashion –taking what are really quite dry teacher led materials off the page and to try and bring them into the classroom in a way that the students can access, interrogate and interact with.  I felt it was quite important for the learners to be able to physically manipulate the language, though I couldn’t tell you why that is.  Instinct I suppose.  Did I achieve these aims?  Sort of.  I think I felt on slightly safer ground once we were sat there on the floor playing with pieces of paper….

What would I do differently?  Good question.  I think next time round I would drop all the fancy bits with the technology at the beginning of the lesson, not because of the technology per se, but because in hindsight they weren’t very necessary to the lesson.  Instead of that I would do a bit more work on the different parts of speech – eliciting examples of quantifiers, determiners, adverbs, prepositional phrases etc – onto the whiteboard so that the students knew more about what these things were before they encountered the categorisation task.

Then I would have done pretty much the rest of it as I did – but maybe getting them to come up with their own noun phrases, weird and wacky perhaps, from the parts of speech we elicited at the start; which would be a nice way to link back to the beginning again.

Right.  Enough self-recrimination and introspection for one day!  Feedback with the observer tomorrow!  Watch this space!

Guest Post: Living and Working with Diabetes

14 Jul

Being ill is never nice.  Being ill in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language and maybe don’t know how to ask for help is really, really tough.  For all those language teachers around the world who have medical conditions that need constant managing, Lily-Anne Young recounts her own experiences and offers her advice for those who, like her, are

Living and Working with Diabetes


Around 8 years ago I was getting really tired and missed a few classes. I put it down to being an idiot and alcohol. (I was living in Poland after all). Several years later there came a time when I was throwing up regularly and feeling exhausted.

By that time I was in the Czech Republic – another country which loves alcohol. After 1 month of drinking 10 litres of water per day and one final morning of not being able to get out of bed I was forced to go to the doctor.

He sent me straight to hospital and they kept me in for 10 days. I was furious until they pointed out that I would have died if I hadn’t been treated.

It turned out I was diabetic. In my innocence I thought it wasn’t a problem until, as mentioned above, they warned me again that I would die very soon if couldn’t control it.

My control now is not perfect but it’s good. I know that a lot of advice is superfluous or seems obvious but here are some simple things. (For the diabetics too).

All diabetics should admit it. We have to live with it but at the same time we can help educate others as well as ourselves. I had a very steep learning curve.

All diabetics should carry sugar or some form of glucose for emergencies. Our staffroom has emergency sugar supplies and all our teachers have had a little training session on how to recognise and deal with hypoglycemic fits. Therefore they know (hopefully) how to react.

One of the biggest questions is whether to tell your students. After all, I am there to help them. Why should they have to help me?

The very simple answer to this is that you must tell your students. If a teacher has a hypo (low sugar) in class the students have to know why and how to help. As well as being bad for the teacher it can really damage your own reputation and whichever school/company you work at. I could suggest that the teacher should control their sugar better but, unfortunately it doesn’t work that way.

Personally, I have used my diabetes to help educate my students (and myself) while, at the same time practising listening, vocab, comprehension skills. All of my students are aware that I have to eat in class sometimes or check my sugar. It’s pretty amazing how quickly they become used to me stabbing my finger and grabbing sweets when necessary. J

On a more serious note – healthcare for diabetics is generally lacking in most countries. Working in TEFL can be stressful and that means more volatile sugar levels. I am lucky in that the Czech doctors are providing me with excellent care. Check the healthcare system before you go to a country if you are a diabetic. It is one of the main reasons that I am reluctant to move country.


Lily Anne Young Profile PicLily-Anne Young is a teacher and teacher trainer who has been working in ELT for 13 years.  After doing her CELTA in Budapest, she moved to China and taught in private schools and universities.  After that she moved to Katowice in Poland, and is currently based in Brno, Czech Republic where she does freelance teaching and teacher training, mainly connected with IH ILC Brno.
She was diagnosed as a diabetic type 1 while working in Brno and, after considerable thought decided to publish her experiences with diabetes to try and help raise awareness of what it means for those living and working with the condition.

The 250th Post: A reflection

10 Jul

teflgeek 250

This is the 250th blog post I’ve written.  That’s quite a lot, in fact, you know that novel that everyone’s got hiding inside them?  I could probably have written mine by now.  And possibly even a sequel!

I wrote my first ever blog post on Wednesday February 2nd 2011 and it was all about using authentic listening tasks with Proficiency classes.  It’s just a brief description of something I did with one of my classes that I thought I’d share.  But I didn’t actually share it immediately, I think I wrote and published about ten posts before I actually told anyone I had a blog!  There’s some interesting stuff in those first ten posts – two of my favourite lessons / activities are in there:  “Reason to believe?” (a student generated opposition debate that takes over an hour if done right) and The Domination Game (which was originally designed for a FCE Use of English paper but which I now use with any large page of grammar practice activities from any coursebook).  There’s also a lesson based around a TED talk on “The many uses of the pig” which is an absolutely fascinating video that you should all watch even if you don’t bother using the lesson…

I can’t quite remember why I started the blog.  I know it wasn’t that long ago, but quite a lot of things have happened since then and, as is the way with life, priorities have shifted, goals and ambitions changed.  I think originally I saw the blog as fulfilling three main functions (a) a chance to share ideas and put it all out there to see what happens, (b) a way of moving the notes and plans from my old files and folders online and into the cloud, (c) an opportunity to engage with a wider audience.  Not that my colleagues are anything less than supportive, but there’s only so many times you can bend people’s ears about the relative merits of a guided discovery approach before their eyes glaze over…  As it turned out, most of my notes are still very firmly stuck in their files and folders.  I’ll get round to it eventually!  Promise…

But the mere act of blogging forces you to go and find that audience.  The adage from Field of Dreams that “if you build it, they will come” does not hold water in cyberspace – you also have to tell people about it!  There are some very successful bloggers out there who write something, share it and then get it re-tweeted a million times instantly.  For most of us though, I think you quickly find that finding an audience doesn’t mean endlessly publicising your work in facebook groups – rather it means introducing yourself to, engaging with and becoming part of a wider community that already exists online.  There are, it seems, quite a lot of language teachers out there in the world and almost all of them want to engage and build a dialogue with each other; I think this is partly sharing ideas, partly finding ideas and new ways to do things, but I think there is also quite a strong element of knowing that YOU ARE NOT ALONE.  And you aren’t.  Truly.

So here I am now.  It’s been 1255 days since my first post, (or three years, five months, a week and two days if you prefer) – which is about one post every five days.  I would have got there sooner, but things like the job and the birth of my children kept intervening…

What has also been interesting, is looking back at which posts have proved most popular – and comparing those to the posts I am proudest of writing.  Or at least those posts I enjoyed writing most….

The top six most popular posts (as calculated by wordpress stats) are:

Which is interesting because it diverges somewhat from the posts that I’ve enjoyed writing most (in no particular order):

I guess the posts I enjoy writing are those that allow me to investigate a particular issue, think about something in more detail than usual or those that just let me have fun with something.  And I can understand if people prefer the practical, because that sort of reflection is quite a personal thing, no matter how objective you try to be…

But hopefully as we go forwards into the next 250 posts I can carry on managing the marriage between demand and desire, giving people what they want and writing the things I like writing most.  Be sure to let me know if not!

And above all – thanks for reading.  There wouldn’t be much point in any of this if you didn’t, so thanks!

teflgeek thank you


Motivating students – teacher talk video

4 Jul

So this is the first in a series of videos being put together by the Teaching English (British Council | BBC) website where some of the blogging team on the site talk about a particular topic or issue.

Myself,  Adam Simpson, Lizzie Pinard, Chia Suan Chong, Anthony Gaughan, David Dodgson and Rachael Roberts all offer our insights into aspects of classroom motivation like goal-setting, the purpose of activities, variety and choice.

The video won’t currently embed, so the image below is a screenshot – if you click on it (or the link at the top of the post), it should take you through to where you can watch the thing.  It’s only three and a half minutes long, so perfect for your coffee break!

Video Snip