Archive | March, 2015

Dear Me – to my #youngerteacherself

30 Mar

Dear David,

It’s been almost fifteen years since you started teaching.  In fact I think at this point back in 2002 you were busy trying to complete the IH London CELTA pre-course task and trying to make sure you had enough cash for the course fee.  If I remember rightly, the original plan was about five years?

Well, here we are now and it’s been a bit longer than that.  I’m writing to you because, well, it’s mostly Joanna’s fault because she started it, but you can also blame Sandy as that’s where I saw the first of these posts; retrospective letters to our past selves – tips and advice across the years of experience.

I’m tempted to say “Don’t change a thing!”  I like where I am now and what I’m doing now and all of the people that I’m with.  I worry that my advice will act as a causality loop in the space-time continuum and that when I click “publish” on this post, that this iteration of me will disappear to be replaced by one where I am either ruler of the known Teflverse, or where I gave the whole thing up and went back to the office job I started teaching to escape.  Of course that would create a paradox in which I never sent you the advice in the first place – so we’ll probably be alright…

When I think back now to the things you struggled with on that CELTA course and in those first few years of teaching, there are probably a few things I’d suggest.

1) Take your head out of the books more.  You have a tendency to focus in on the material that’s in front of you, to look at the pages of the book and spend hours figuring out how to make it work.  Remember the 50% rule (which I think Nick K. will tell you in about six months) and try not to spend more than 50% of lesson time in the planning and preparation.  Also, just try to not teach the book so much?  You can use the book as a syllabus if you want, a guide to what language to teach and in what order, but you don’t necessarily need to teach the book.  After all, you are meant to be teaching the students.

2)  It’s OK to not know and it’s OK to tell the class “we’ll come back to that later”.  (As long as you do).  Especially if you’re being observed (and yes I am thinking of one or two very specific situations you’ll come up against soon).  Ignorance is not a crime, but refusing to acknowledge your ignorance is.  If a student asks you about the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation for modality – confess you have no idea what they’re going on about!  It will at least stop the tutor at the back of the room from holding his head in his hands and weeping…

3) Get out and about more.  This will be difficult in some places because of your timetable, but you are going to spend a lot of time in some fantastic places and you will regret it later if you don’t take advantage of them.

4) Do more of the things you want to do.  You will run around a lot thinking things like “I don’t have time for this” and “I can’t do that because I need that hour for something else.”  This is foolishness.  You still think like that now, but you’re slowly getting better at not doing it.  If you mostly do the things you want to do, you will find that the things you have to do get done anyway – probably to the same standard as they would have done had you given them more time, but with less procrastination involved.

5) Start blogging.  Now.  I mean it.  OK, I’ve just checked and WordPress won’t be released for another year and you are about to disappear behind the Great Firewall of China for two years, so you’re off the hook for now, but as soon as you get to Poland, you need to start blogging.  You will discover a fantastic community of ELT teachers, thinkers and writers.  You will find that writing about it helps clarify your own thinking on a number of teaching aspects.  Basically, you’ll really enjoy it…

There’s probably more I could say, but these things are really the only things that feel important enough to write down.  So it’s off down to the inter-dimensional post office for me, and if the world hasn’t melted by the time I get back, then we’ll know that either (a) time travel doesn’t really work, (b) time travel does work, but in so doing all you really do is add another layer to the multi-verse, (c) you didn’t listen to a word of it…..

Take care  (and don’t eat the sea cucumbers!  They’re disgusting!)




Left Brain – Right Brain: This idea must die

23 Mar

The ever excellent Freakonomics podcast recently put out a podcast called “This Idea Must Die” in which they borrowed a concept from  every year asks a question and asks its contributors (high level thinkers, scientists, academics and nobel laureates) to write an essay in answer.  This year the question was “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?”

One of the contributors is Sarah Jayne Blakemore, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, and the idea that she suggested should die is that of the Left Brain / Right Brain divide.

divided brain


In simple terms, the divide does not exist.  In the podcast Blakemore states that the idea of left and right brain separation arose out of studies done in the sixties and seventies on people who had had surgery to divide their brains.  Snip.  In that scenario, the left and right hemispheres can no longer physically communicate with each other and some brain functions are inevitably degraded as a result.

For everybody else though?  No matter how analytical or creative we are being – we use both sides of our brains.  All the time.

My completely unscientific thought is that it’s probably a bit like arm-wrestling.  If you use you right hand to arm wrestle all the time then the muscles in your right arm develop more.  But this doesn’t mean you never use your left arm at all.  You use it all the time, you just don’t use it as much.  I doubt very much whether there’s much cold logical analysis that doesn’t take place without a little bit of creativity, just as pure creativity without some analysis going on in the background (even if it’s just a case of what looks better in an image – a splash of red here or there?) is unlikely.  If you do more analytical work, you probably get better at doing analytical work – if you spend all your time writing stories or painting pictures, you’ll probably get better at those too.

We shouldn’t however, be labeling people as left brain or right brain and we certainly shouldn’t be targeting our lessons at certain bits of brain.



I thoroughly recommend the Freakonomics podcast to absolutely everybody – brilliant ideas, entertainingly presented and just long enough for a commute into work.

Sarah Jayne Blakemore has also done a brilliant TED Talk on the teenage brain and all its mysteries – if you teach teenagers it helps to explain a lot!!!

There’s a reprint of a New Scientist article ‘Right Brain’ or ‘Left Brain’ – Myth or Reality? which looks at research that in 1996 strongly suggested a left brain / right brain divide based on the idea of either a local focus (detail) or a global focus.  And how further work they did and an attempt to reproduce the original results found completely the opposite effect.

And it’s worth pointing out that if the idea of brain separation is a physiological impossibility and a neurological doubt, then brain gym is still a load of rubbish.


Excellense in Englis – the decline or evolution of the language?

13 Mar

Is the language dying?  A recent column in The Economist (Johnson: A long decline) asks the question from the perspective of a steadfast native British English speaker, looking around themselves and finding that the language they think they speak is, in fact, no longer spoken by those around them.  Or rather, as this is The Economist we’re talking about, it probably is spoken by those immediately around them but not in wider society.

Johnson cites examples throughout history; Ranulph Higden in 1387, Richard Stanihurst in 1577, John Dryden in 1672, Arthur Hugh Clough in 1852 all the way through to Lynne Truss in 2003 – all of whom have decried the degradation and decline of their English.  They would all no doubt (apart from Lynne Truss) have some difficulty in following a modern conversation like those in this 2010 pre-election series of vox pops:

There is an obvious conclusion and it is one that Johnson reaches: “language is not constant. Change is—and anxiety about change is constant too.”  Pull an English teaching coursebook off the shelf and it will tell you that state verbs cannot be used in the continuous aspect.  Walk round the corner to the local McDonald’s and they will tell you they are loving it.  This doesn’t necessarily represent a decline in the language, perhaps it rather represents a change in society – where love was once thought to be constant, permanent and immutable, it is now seen as temporary and transitory.  You may love something briefly and for a short time and therefore you may need to say “I’m loving these new shoes.”  Or “I’m not liking this new phone”.  There is acknowledgement that states change.

Change also comes from the input into the language from many new users.  We all use the language as we think best, words, to paraphrase Humpty Dumpty, mean what we want them to mean and this meaning is co-curated by all of us who use these words.  New words arise to shape new ideas, or are co-opted for new purposes.  Grammar rules are bent, broken and discarded as the need arises.  We teach our students a snapshot of what the language was like at a fixed point in the past and they take it and run out into the world with their fossilised errors, misunderstandings and perceptions of irrelevance (e.g. dropped articles or missing prepositions) and they still create meaning and a greater or lesser degree of comprehension.

This does lead to some infelicity of expression, some of which is being charted on the Map of Urban Linguistic Landscape (MULL) facebook group as below:

Pizz Up Express

Image Credit: George Chilton & Map of Urban Linguistic Landscape.

But these infelicities and the language systems that our learners and all native speakers generate for themselves then feedback into the wider linguistic system.  Things that work, forms and expressions that are generated, no matter by whom or in what context, will be adopted and shared and copied and disseminated throughout the larger system.  Things that don’t work will lead only to mutual incomprehension and the (eventual) discovery of a way that does work.  Back in 1387, Ranulph Higden complained that “By commiyxtion and mellyng, furst wiþ Danes and afterward wiþ Normans, in menye þe contray longage ys apeyred and som useþ strange wlaffyng chyteryng, harryng, and garryng grisbyttyng.”

Things have evolved a lot since then.


Image credit:  George Chilton and Map of Urban Linguistic Landscape (facebook), reproduced here under a Creative Commons attribution 2.0 generic licence.




Five Fantastic Film sites for ELT

9 Mar

Using video in the classroom is a great way to engage learners in the material, either from a topic perspective or with a particular language point.  Young learners in particular seem to love the moving image and it can be a great way of providing a change of focus or as a visually supported alternative to a standard listening activity.

These sites all do a great job of making film the focus.  Here they are in no particular order:

Film English

Kieran Donaghy’s award winning site takes short, authentic films and develops lesson plans around them.  Full lesson plans and any additional materials are provided.  Searchable by theme or by level, you can usually find something to work into your lesson.  The videos tend to be quirky and thought provoking and are usually good for discussion in a wider context.  My favourite:  The Adventures of a Cardboard box – because the sheer imagination of the kid in the video is fantastic and it’s great for any age of class.




Not all of the lessons on Jamie Keddie’s site involve videos, but most do!  All the lessons on the site have plans and materials attached to them and are available for download.  Lessons are tagged by level and language point and there’s a great range of topics to work with.  These are also interesting and thought provoking videos that can stimulate some good classroom discussion.  Worth investigating.  My Favourite:  Business Cards – because of the kinetic typography video!  Which I love as a great way of using words as visuals!



EFL Classroom 2.0

This is a lot more than just a video site.  A community based site with lots of resources to share in pretty much every area, the video section is a great place to dip into for short videos (most are under the ten minute mark) related to specific language points (e.g. question tags) or topics (e.g. Kenyan marathon runners).   This site does require registration, but it is free to do so.  There’s also videos for your own development – short snippets of Chomsky and the like, or people trying to explain Chomsky and the like!

My favourite:  too many to choose from!  There is a free pdf download of “Using Video in the classroom” which has some nice recipes that you can use with any video.

13/03/15 – Update:  I’ve been told that EFL Classroom 2.0 is now behind a paywall and that attempts to access it for free via facebook logins etc were unsuccessful.  I must have joined a very long time ago, because I didn’t know that it now charged for access.  My review was based on the idea that it was a free to access but registration required site and I’m not comfortable with recommending people pay for a service without making a much more detailed examination of what you might get for the money.  It may be that my informant just had a couple of issues with login details or wait times etc – so try it and see if it works for free for you!  

using video


Simple English Videos

Vicki Hollett’s site does exactly what it says – it provides a range of short videos that focus in on simple aspects of English, like “lend or borrow” or “have something done”.  These are instructional in that as well as providing a context for the language and demonstrating use of the language, there is also explanation and clarification.  There are interactive transcripts, but you do need to find a way to incorporate them into your lesson, they aren’t a lesson in themselves.  That said, they are a really nice alternative to a traditional language presentation from a coursebook.  My favourite:  Cook, Cooker or Chef? – because it’s something my students always get wrong and now I just give them the URL for homework!

Simple English Videos


All at C

This blog has fantastic range of videos aimed at intermediate levels and above.  Teachers of Cambridge English: First and Cambridge English: Advanced classes will find a lot to work with, including some videos that are aimed directly at these exams.  The procedures are clear and straightforward to work with and any materials you need to give out are available as pdf downloads.  My favourite:  Look up – because I love using poetry with students (and do so far too infrequently) and because it neatly encapsulates my relationship with social media!  The video link on the blog has gone awry, but a quick search of You Tube for “Look Up – Gary Turk” finds alternatives you can use.

Look up