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From Can’t to Can: changing thinking about exams #iatefl2017

12 Apr

Recently I was lucky enough to run a workshop at IATEFL Glasgow on helping students in language exam classes feel more confident in their abilities.

As promised in the session, here are the slides from the session, which I re-titled as the slightly more pithy “Exam Whisperer”.  Apologies for any confusion that may have caused!


And for those that are interested, here are my notes and handouts.  I’m not sure how useful they are as I have used my own personal shorthand, but perhaps they might give a bit more information on the slides and how the whole thing hangs together…..


And finally, I used tasks from the Cambridge English: Advanced handbook for teachers during the session.  You should be able to find that in pdf download from their website:

An Overview of Learning Theories

14 Mar

This is possibly the most complete online resource I have ever come across on learning theories:

Learning Theory

I had to reduce the browser to 50% just to get the screenshot, but if you click the picture or the link below you should be taken to the original.

It’s a concept map that links thinkers and theorists with their concepts and theories and shows where they are situated in the wider academic context.  It also contains web links to further reading on both the thinkers and the thoughts.

A little light break time reading for you…

Thanks to Anthony Ash for sharing this on facebook.

A Systematic Pattern – material considerations online and off

7 Mar

Image Credit: Pixabay

A Systematic Pattern. (Image Credit: Pixabay)

In many respects, the regular occurrence of systematic features is what makes a course a course.  It is these features which tell us that we are moving from one section to another and thus that we have indeed “moved on”.  Whether anything has been learnt is another matter, but from course design perspective, the impression of progress is important.  There are pedagogical and administrative concerns as well – you select material to help you fulfill the course objectives and you then group that material into thematically linked modules – the systematic features tell us that we are at the beginning of a module, half way through the middle or approaching the end.

The advantages are then that the systematic features orientate us to our position within the module.  When we encounter a particular feature we know (a) where we are and (b) what is expected of us (at least after the initial stages).  The unfamiliar then becomes familiar and allows us to function and contribute effectively, thus adding to our own feelings of accomplishment and learning.  The disadvantages are that these features can act as a bit of a straight-jacket – they might constrain learning by not allowing for experimentation beyond the task or they might constrain the teaching by not allowing the tutor to do something innovative.  Plus, it might all get a bit boring.

This is just as true for face to face courses as it is for online – coursebooks in fact make a virtue of their systematic features (or try to).  An example of this is Cutting Edge if you find your copy of the book and flick through it, you’ll find that the format of each module is broadly similar – some variation in layout and sequence perhaps, but the sections and design of the tasks is pretty much the same throughout.  I think where F2F courses differ from the online is that the F2F teacher is freer to just throw their hands in the air and say “You know what?  Today we’re going to….” – an online teacher, I don’t think, has that liberty.  The units and materials are very often “up there” and the tutors and participants simply access them as they get to them, though obviously the tutors control the rate of access and when materials get released.

There is then, much more reliance on the course materials in the online world.  The teacher is not so much of a resource as they are in face to face and the learners, who are often pushed for time and have busy lives elsewhere, tend to prefer only to do those tasks that they feel will be of benefit to them passing the course.  Very often what happens (and here I speak from experience of both a teaching and learning perspective) is that participants log in, cut and paste their answers into the forum and log off again.  There is reluctance – but not always – to engage in anything that doesn’t meet the course requirements and building the interaction between participants is therefore more difficult in the online world than in the offline world,

But you could also argue that the lack of rigidity and possibility of variance is a weakness in face to face teaching – the students are at the mercy of the teacher and have no choice but to participate in the lessons the teacher has provided.  If the teacher doesn’t really feel up for it that day and decides to put on a movie / documentary / episode of The Simpsons and ask a bunch of content questions at the end to justify showing the thing, what else can the students do?

It seems that the course itself is a thing that needs to have a programmed rigidity, or perhaps certainty would be a better word.  Whether it is online or offline, teachers need to know what they are going to teach and students need to know what they are going to learn.  Within that though, there needs to be flexibility to deal with matters arising and the opportunity to dive off into something useful and interesting that isn’t on the original program.  This is an area where I think online courses are lacking at the moment, but perhaps this too, as the medium develops, is beginning to change?

Image Credit: Pixabay

An Unsystematic Pattern? (Image Credit: Pixabay)

Note:  I originally wrote parts of this post as part of my training to tutor online, when I did the IHCOLT in 2o13 and I had a reflective blog related to my training.  I’m now rationalising that blog and am migrating some of the content here, rather than lose it all.  Since I did the IHCOLT, I’ve been working as an online tutor with IH OTTI and I have updated this post to reflect this experience and my changing thinking.


Moral Dilemmas – Book Review

22 Feb

Imagine you are teaching a group of business people, all of whom work for the same company.  They have been told that their eligibility for the next round of promotions depends on their achieving a certain level of English.  All of them are busy and none of them have much time.  Over the course, there have been quite a few absences and not very much homework.

It’s now the end of the course and the students are doing their final evaluation tests.  As they do, you notice one of the students is referring to a piece of paper they have on their lap under the desk.

What do you do?

Does it make any difference to you what happens?  What about the student?  Is it fair to the other students?

Welcome to the world of Moral Dilemmas!


Moral Dilemmas is a new mini-ebook from Lindsay Clandfield and published by The Round that explores issues like this and more.  The example above is my own and is not from the book, but is an example of the way such ethical conundrums have to grab us, take us out of our comfort zones and force us to re-evaluate our value systems.

It is this ability that makes these situations such universal constants.  It doesn’t really matter where you are from or what belief system you have, issues like this cause us to stop and re-evaluate our relationships with the world around us.

That said, these dilemmas tend to work better in contexts where there is a more relativistic approach to morality and less absolutism.  I can see that in some contexts the dilemmas as presented may not be viewed as dilemmas at all, but more as a logical progression of “if that, then this”.  This potential problem is addressed though, with the author suggesting a more nuanced critical approach of exploring the alternatives in terms of their implications on the individuals and wider society.  In short, if the students all agree that (to take our example) cheating is wrong and the HR department should be notified within 30 seconds of presenting the problem, that the teacher draw out all of the possible courses of action and ask the students to think about what they might mean.

The dilemmas themselves are very usefully presented:  the dilemma itself is described, along with brief teaching tips on how to adjust each dilemma to a local context.  Avenues of further exploration are suggested as well as vocabulary areas that might come up in discussion.

There is also a very useful “What if…” section, which considers some of problems that might arise when using the material with a class and suggests some strategies for dealing with them.  These range from looking at relevance and appropriacy to immediate agreement, slipping into L1 and when things get too up close and personal for everybody’s comfort!


Who should buy this book?  It’s aimed at teachers working with classes of B1 ability and above, but beyond that I would think is quite a useful resource for anyone teaching English.  It’s the sort of book that would sit easily alongside titles like the Discussions A-Z series, or Friederike Klippel’s Keep Talking, on the staffroom bookshelf – something handy to dip into and find a useful activity as when is needed.  Though obviously as it’s an ebook, a more recent comparison would be the Parsnips series (see elsewhere on this blog) and we should be talking about a staffroom Kindle instead!  Definitely a keeper, I look forward to trying some of the activities with my own classes!

Moral Dilemmas” by Lindsay Clandfield is available for  £0.79 / €0.99 / $1.00 via The Round.




Parsnips in ELT: Stepping out of the Comfort Zone

10 Aug

most requested ebooks

The concept of Parsnips in ELT has always intrigued me.  These are the things that you’re not supposed to talk about with your classes, the taboo topics that might get you into trouble or which your students might protest at.  These are the topics that mainstream coursebooks leave out.

And for a very good reason – coursebooks are market dependent and they rely on economies of scale to make a profit.  A coursebook that cannot be used in an entire region of the world because it touches on political issues that might offend ruling regimes means potentially losing money in sales.  But this leads to some interesting omissions and to a one size fits all policy that essentially has us teaching to the lowest common cultural denominator. And to what someone once described as “in-flight magazines for the grammatically challenged” (Scott Thornbury I think…?).

Personally, I see no problem in touching on Parsnip topics in the classroom.  The acronym stands for Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, -Isms, Pork.  I think I’ve probably done lessons on all of these at one point or another and you can find at least two lessons on this blog involving pigs….

The key with anything like this is (a) common sense and (b) sensitivity.  If, for example, you happen to be teaching English to the highest cadre of the ruling junta in the benevolent dictatorship of wherever, then a lesson on freedom of speech and the democratic principle might not be advised (although some would argue that it was the perfect opportunity).  Equally, if you are teaching a lesson on a topic and notice the students are unusually silent, be prepared to ask them if they would prefer to do something else instead.  It is not our job to force our opinions upon our students, but we are not doing our jobs properly if we deny them the opportunity to discuss the issues of the day.

If you do enjoy spicing up your standard ELT menu with the odd root vegetable, then help is at hand in the form of a new e-book:  Parsnips in ELT: Stepping out of the Comfort Zone (vol. 1).  This ebook is free to download and is available in multiple formats (epub, mobi & pdf) and contains one lesson on each topic from a collection of authors including myself.

Parsnips in ELT Cover

Not everything in it might be to your taste and if so, you can do what my children do with their vegetables – push it to the side of your plate and leave it for someone else to deal with!  There is, however, enough in there for you to find something you like or to at least start you thinking!

The book has an accompanying blog where you can find some of the ideas from the book as well as a range of shorter ideas to stimulate discussion on the Parsnip topics with your classes:

If you try any of the lessons in the book, do let us know how they go!  We’re always keen to get feedback on the ideas!  Either leave a comment here or on the Parsnips blog.

Above all – have fun!

What are we thinking in ELT?

24 Jun

If you were about to start thinking about a dissertation or thesis in ELT, what would you write it about?

There’s a number of ways of looking at this:

  • Practicality
  • Passion
  • Previous

Practicality – what’s easiest and most practical to write about?  How are you going to find the answers to your research questions?  Is it possible to find out what you want to know?

Passion – what do you care about?  There’s no point in being pushed into writing about a topic you aren’t interested in.  If you’ve been teaching for a while, there’s probably something you enjoy doing in the classroom more than the rest.  And if you’re going to read about it, research it and write about it for anywhere between three months and a year, you need to have a topic that can sustain you throughout that time.

Previous – has it been done before?  What other research has been done in the area?  Are you going to add to the general body of knowledge in the area or are you going to duplicate existing research?  What can you find to help and inform your own research process?


It seems that a lot of ELT writing, research and conference presentation comes about because of a perceived lack in practice.  A writer or presenter has a belief about what an aspect of professional practice should be and sees that either in their own practice or in that of colleagues around them, professional practice is not as it should be.  These beliefs are therefore often highly personal and highly contextualised, but in writing about them or presenting them, the lessons learned from attempting to deal with the lack are shared with the wider ELT community.

This means that is it possible every now and again to get a snapshot of the community zeitgeist:


This word cloud (made with wordle) is from the presentation titles as given at the back of the IATEFL 2015 conference brochure.  In total, it works out at over 7000 words of text and in all honesty I’m not sure how useful it is, because the word cloud doesn’t recognise the collocations or noun phrases that are so common in session titles.  So I took the old-fashioned approach and skimmed through them to see what topic areas appeared most common.

My completely unscientific approach may well include my own personal frequency illusion bias, so interested readers are recommended to do the same thing themselves by downloading the brochure and referring to pages 249 – 270.

However, my thoughts are that in the ELT community we are mostly thinking about and writing about:

  • Action Research & Evidence based practice
  • Critical thinking in the classroom
  • Corpora research and using it in the classroom
  • The role of Coursebooks
  • Digital materials and learning technologies
  • The EdTech vs Humanistic approaches debate
  • Flipping our classrooms
  • Developing learner autonomy

Obviously, some of these are huge categories in their own right.  Learner Autonomy has something like thirty six separate talks listed in the IATEFL brochure.

Equally, some of these are perennial debates.  The role of coursebooks in the classroom, especially when contrasted with Dogme-style approaches, has been contentious since ever there were coursebooks.  Proponents of humanist approaches worry that Edtech supporters tend to lose focus on the person inside the learners, while the EdTech supporters worry that the humanists…..  actually I’m not sure what they worry about.  Possibly that humanist approaches aren’t easily replicable or applicable in wider contexts and therefore shouldn’t be taken seriously when developing larger scale policy?  Not sure.  Help me out readers – how would you characterise the debate?

Anyway – it seems to me that the community zeitgeist reflects a view of what we want our classes and our learners to be, what we try to engage with in our teaching, and that we actually have a new “standard model” in ELT:  digitally engaged, independent, thoughtful human beings who know what they want and how to go and get it.  And their teachers.


My thanks to Dr. Andrew Kerrigan at the University of York for asking me the question and thus inspiring the post – I’d be interested to hear alternative answers to Andrew’s original question:  What’s your take on some of the buzz topics in ELT writing and research these days?

First Lesson: Student generated ID card Swap

3 Oct

This was a lesson I did with a class of elementary level learners yesterday.  My class were quite young, hence some of the content below, but it is quite easily adaptable to other ages and levels.  It doesn’t need any preparation, though the students will need pens / pencils and paper.

I started by eliciting “an ID card” and then by eliciting the kind of information you typically find on an ID card. The class came up with: name, age, date of birth, Card expiry date, and address.

I then said we were going to make our own ID card – what other information could we put on it?  And elicited: likes & dislikes, abilities & skills.

We then worked together to come up with a model:

Bobo the nose monkey(And in case you were wondering (a) “nose monkey” is the Portuguese for a bogey or snot in your nose; (b) these are my reformulations of what they wanted to include on the card.)

Having done this, I got the learners to work individually for five minutes or so to create their own version – a weird and wacky ID card for whatever alien monster their imagination could come up with.  An alternative for adult learners might be to channel various celebrities – it doesn’t matter if they don’t know – they can at least imagine!

When the cards were ready, I elicited the questions they would need to ask for each but of information:  What is your name?  What do you like?  etc.  I then drilled the pronunciation of these.

Finally, the students did a mingle, introducing themselves to each other, asking and answering questions.  The twist is that after each Q&A session, they swap ID cards with their interlocutor.  So if John and Jane are talking, at the end, John walks away with Jane’s ID card and vice versa, and John therefore has to introduce himself as Jane to the next person he meets.



It worked really well as a lesson and was a nice way for me to gauge the ability of the learners in the class.  Everyone had fun and it was a nice light start to proceedings!

If anyone has any variations – let me know!


The Learning Style Debate

10 Feb

I am sceptical about learning styles.  Much is made of them, CELTA and DELTA trainees are required to learn about them and to plan their lessons taking into account activities that cater to the visual, auditory or kinaesthetic sensibilities of their students, or at least to show evidence of having intended to….  Personally, I don’t doubt that people learn in different ways or have different preferences for processing information, but what I’m not sure about and have yet to see any evidence confirming, is whether changing my teaching to cater for these various styles actually has a positive effect.  Which is why I was very interested to read Katie Lepi’s “The Myth of Learning Styles” on the Edudemic blog, which presents the arguments against.  The fantastic infographic from her piece is reproduced below.

teflgeek learning styles

The original learning styles model came from the work of David Kolb, who, in the seventies, first posited his experiential learning cycle and the subsequent learning styles that could be discerned in it.  There then followed a five year argument in the journals as to the validity of his approach with many eminent academics pointing out there was no evidence for his claims.  These days, his ideas seem fairly mainstream though I suspect the way they are viewed academically depends on which field the academic concerned ploughs for a living.

In essence, Kolb borrows from earlier work by Lewin who posits a cycle :  Abstract Conceptualization – Active Experimentation – Concrete Experience – Reflective Observation and back again.  The learning process, it is argued, follows this cycle:  you have an idea, you try it out, you get your data and you decide whether it worked or not and what to do next.

Kolb then identifies four different learning styles, which rely on aspects of these cycles for their learning, where these aspects are divided into (a) how we do things and (b) how we think about things.

  • Divergers (Concrete Experience / Reflective Observation)
  • Assimilators (Abstract Conceptualization / Reflective Observation)
  • Convergers (Abstract Conceptualization / Active Experimentation)
  • Accommodators (Concrete Experience / Active Experimentation)

On a personal note – this seems somewhat unsatisfying to me and appears to unnecessarily bracket people in certain categories, surely these are better seen as learning skills that individuals can draw on at any given point, which are underwritten by the learning concepts described in the cycle?  I write this as someone who has clearly not read much of Kolb’s original writings….

Honey & Mumford, basing their work on that of Kolb, adapted these descriptions into, for want of a better term, “plain English”.

  • Activists are Accommodators
  • Reflectors are Divergers
  • Theorists are Assimilators
  • Pragmatists are Convergers

Activists are doers – they learn by experimenting and trying things out, often without considering the consequences.  They tend to have relatively short attention spans, quickly getting bored and moving on to the next thing.

Reflectors are watchers – they learn by observing the environment, gathering as much data as they can and then drawing their own conclusions.  They tend to be more cautious and to let other people make most of the running before making their own opinions known.

Theorists are thinkers – they learn by formulating a theory and then by integrating any data they have into that theory – either proving the theory or discarding it in favour of a replacement.  They prefer objective data and tend to take a logical approach to things – they can be quite rigid and dismissive of anything that doesn’t fit their theories.

Pragmatists are, unsurprisingly, practical.  They like to see what works and what doesn’t and are keen to try new ideas out and see what happens.  They love looking for new ideas to try out and tend to be more down to earth and problem solvers.

Where I think the idea of learning styles falls down slightly, is when it gets lumped together with the idea of multiple intelligences.  Jim Wingate’s 1996 articles for ETP contain a 49 item questionnaire that is intended to help teachers and learners identify which type of intelligence is dominant with them:  linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial (visual), musical, bodily – kinaesthetic, interpersonal and intrapersonal.  Wingate’s argument is that by identifying dominant types of intelligence in students and the classroom, the teacher can select activities which appeal to the learner’s intelligence type and therefore maximise the effectiveness of the input.

There are, in my view, some problems with this.

Firstly, an intelligence type is not the same thing as a learning style – the way you think and the types of activities you like to do may, or may not correspond with the way you learn, but the automatic association is for me at least, troubling.

Secondly, there is no evidence that it makes any difference.  The key article here is Pashler et al “Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence” which concludes “there is no adequate evidence to justify incorporating learning style assessments into educational practice”.  Their article goes on to cast doubt on the rigour of some of the studies which do show a correlation and points out that in general studies with a sound methodological base tend to contradict the idea of differentiated instruction for learning styles.

Thirdly, it presents a very black and white view of the way people learn.  A preference is just that, a preference.  I have a preference for tea over coffee and chicken over fish.  But I enjoy coffee and fish when I have them and will sometimes prefer them to the tea and chicken options.  Mackenzie (in Multiple Intelligences and Instructional Technology) makes the point that (a) Everyone has all the intelligences (b) you can strengthen an intelligence (c) any such survey is only ever going to be a snapshot of that particular moment and (d) the purpose of MI theory is to help people, not label them.

I don’t doubt that learning style questionnaires and multiple intelligence assessments can be useful tools in helping learners to be more aware of their cognitive processes and in identifying educational strategies they might find more enjoyable.  Equally, I think the single most valuable contribution learning style theory may have made is in pushing the concept of variety firmly into the classroom and I will continue to include as much variety in my lessons as they (or the learners) need.  But while my learners are multiple and they are intelligent – I just don’t think they don’t need me to cater to their style.

Postscript (added 11/02/14):

Russ Mayne, who blogs at the excellent and always readable “Evidence based EFL”, shared his own post on the credibility or lack thereof of learning styles theory.  His post, “Learner styles revisited: VAK-uous teaching“, is a very well argued deconstruction of learner style theory and he makes the point that it is also a bit of a sacred cow in EFL and while criticism of the idea is allowed, you aren’t allowed to discard it entirely.  It occurs to me in this context that just as a fact is merely a theory which hasn’t been disproved yet, an unproven theory is actually only a belief.  The problem with beliefs is that they tend to require you to invest your emotional and psychological selves and it is very difficult, having committed so much of yourself to an idea, to give that idea up; as negation of the belief equates in some respects to negation of the self.  But then, this is why we do research, right?  I look forward to seeing any confirmatory evidence for learning styles in due course.

References & Further Reading:

Mackenzie, Walter, 2005 “Multiple Intelligences and Instructional Technology”, ISTE Publications.

Mobbs, Richard “Honey & Mumford” retrieved from:

Pashler et al, 2008, Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence, Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9, 3.:  retrieved from

Wingate, Jim, 1996.  “Multiple Intelligences” English Teaching Professional:  retrieved from:


IH Teachers’ Online Conference #IHTOC60

20 May

IH are running another one of their increasingly popular Online Conferences this weekend:  or at least Friday 24th May and Saturday 25th May.

It’s a slightly different premise this time however, as the speakers are being limited to ten minute slots and there’ll be 60 speakers over the two days.

It’s free to attend and is open to anyone and everyone – you don’t need to work for IH to take part!

I’m speaking at some point around 4pm on Saturday afternoon and I’ll be looking at “The Tai Chi of Reading” – a phrase which had my Tai Chi instructor twitching slightly – but essentially the session borrows some of the movements and forms from Tai Chi and Chi Gong and looks at how to use them to help learners remember and use reading strategies.

If that’s of little or no interest to you, there’s another 59 speakers who between them will be looking at pretty much everything ELT.  My personal choice list includes:  Barrie Roberts on teaching reading, Matt Kendrick on the “oomph factor”, Alex Purcell on Ipads & Edmodo, Sandy Millin on “10 blogs in 10 minutes”, Shaun Wilden on “Appetising Apps”….  and that’s just from Saturday.  I’m hoping to watch as much of Friday as possible as long as work doesn’t get in the way…..

For a full rundown of who’s talking about what and when – follow the link:

All the speaker biographies, talk abstracts, time & date information, plus any tech details can be found there.


IH teachers online conference

What really goes into your lesson plan?

21 Jan

Getting learners to think about their writing BEFORE they put pen to paper is a thankless task.  Most seem to prefer the “stream of consciousness” approach, where the words flow ceaselessly out of the brain, down the arm and out, via the pen, onto the page.  I have, in the past, spent months hammering home the point and process of planning a piece of writing – even to the point of insisting my classes include a plan with every piece of writing they submit.  No plan – no grade.

I gave up on that approach after a student came up to me at the end of one lesson and handed me his essay.  “Teacher, I’m really sorry but I didn’t have much time for my homework.  I wrote the essay for you, but is it OK if I write the plan later?”

Now, on reflection, what I think is interesting about that comment is that the learner clearly didn’t associate planning with the creation of a successful text.  The final product to be assessed was, in his view, more important than the process of getting there.

What I’m beginning to wonder is whether the same view might be more prevalent amongst teachers than it is with learners?  When it comes to lesson planning, do we practice what we preach?

Confession time.  You might find this hard to believe, but not every lesson plan I write includes aims, assumptions, anticipated problems and solutions, timetable fit, stages, stage aims, timings, procedures, interaction patterns and material references.  In fact I think the last time I did any of that was on 6th June 2007, which – not entirely uncoincidentally – was the last time I was observed.

These days, my planning process goes a bit more like this:

  1. What should the learners be better at doing by the end of the lesson?
  2. How will I know if they are better at doing it?
  3. What do they need to know to get better at it?
  4. How can I make the whole process interesting for them?

And then after I’ve spent 45 minutes swearing at the course book for not helping with any aspect of this process, I scribble about six stages down on the back of a discarded handout, do some photocopying and we’re done.  Sound familiar?

So here’s my question – am I alone?  How does everybody else do their planning?  Let me know!