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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:

Brainstorming – Book Review

8 Feb

The process of brainstorming in the classroom is often a rather haphazard and stilted affair.  Learners are coming into a topic area they know little about and feel uncomfortable in, they might feel that they don’t have the language to express their ideas as fluently as they would like, and when ideas do get produced – they immediately get shot down as impractical or unrealistic.  The confident and extrovert students dominate and the weaker or more introvert students sit there quietly not really saying much, so that the teacher ends up getting feedback from only a couple of the members of the group.  Fortunately, however, there is another way….

In their new mini ebook, “Brainstorming”, from The Round, Gerhard Erasmus and Hall Houston take us back to basic principles and the origins of brainstorming in the world of 1950’s advertising.  The focus here is non-judgmental idea generation – it’s not about quality, but about quantity and where all ideas have equal value and where one idea from one person sparks a thought elsewhere in the group and where participants feed off each other’s energy and creativity to generate the largest possible set of ideas in the time given.

Which you can totally see working at half past four on a Friday afternoon with a group of tired teenagers, right?

This is where the book comes into it’s own.  Erasmus and Houston run through a series of clear procedures for working with idea generation that attempt to mitigate some of the issues that might arise:  setting the stage, focusing the activity, avoiding negative feedback, guiding the discussion and remembering the objective.  It occurs to me that there are some groups where this might take some initial learner training, possibly particularly with teenagers, before they understand how the ground rules work here and what the constraints are, but where perseverance would yield huge benefits in terms of the directed creativity that the learners could then bring to the class.

I found the section on “problem statements” to be a useful way of looking at generating ideas for specific issues and the re-formulation of the “problem” into a “how can I…” question seems like it would be a great way of looking at things for students in an EAP context as well as students preparing for writing tasks in ELT exams.  Re-focusing the problem statement is essentially the same thing as refining your research question into something that you can actually answer, or it represents a useful “way in” to some of the exam writing tasks – getting students to move away from simply producing writing for you the teacher and into thinking about the purpose of their exam writing by asking questions like “How can I get the editor to publish my review?” or “How can I get the principal of the college to upgrade the sports facilities?”.  This would almost certainly lead to an improvement in their written work!

brainstorming cover

Three other activities that I particularly liked in the book – and I’m limiting myself here because otherwise I would basically be copying out the whole thing – are:

The problem skeleton:  I think this would be another one that is great for writing tasks and analysing questions, especailly in the way that it breaks larger tasks down into smaller more manageable chunks.  Writing an essay on “the environment” is quite a daunting task, but using the problem skeleton to identify sub-topics and then sub-sub-topics would be a great way of making the tasks more accessible.

Rolestorming:  a brilliant way of extending out of the typical role play scenario.  Even in the most engaging of role plays or mingle activities, there is always an element of the learners essentially reading the information off the little piece of paper in front of them and basically comparing notes as opposed to taking on the role of the person they are meant to play.  Rolestorming is a great way of getting the students to think about the background, motivations and emotions of their characters and to really give them the chance to step outside of themselves for the task.

PMI:  A great follow-up activity for working with the ideas that you have generated in an initial brainstorming task, the PMI process lets you grade and select the ideas that you want to take forwards.  In essence it is a format for critical reflection and evaluation.  Again, I can see this being excellent for writing tasks where the learners need to decide what is relevant to the question and what ideas slot together most effectively.



Who should buy this book?  I don’t see this book as having a limited audience in that way.  I think there as much in there for teachers who have been teaching longer than they care to remember as there is for teachers who are just starting out.  It is descriptive, rather than prescriptive, it gives you the tools you need to achieve a goal and in its own way, it is the spark that will lead you to you own lesson-based light bulb moment.

Brainstorming” by Gerhard Erasmus and Hall Houston is available for £0.79 / €0.99 / $1.00 via The Round.

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


Behavioural Economics and ELT: Meaning, Acknowledgement & Pride.

19 Jun

It’s that time of year again, where classes are winding down and courses are effectively finished in all but name and teachers round the world are looking for interesting things to do with their students for the last few lessons before the holidays.  Last night, the student who showed up (everyone else having presumably decided that having done the exam there was nothing left to learn…) and I ended up watching the TED talk “What makes us feel good about our work?” by the behavioural economist Dan Ariely.

Ariely has four talks up on TED at the moment, all of which are good value and are worth watching – some interesting ideas on product differentiation for the managers amongst you – but the talk on the nature of our work struck some chords, not just with memories of the life before ELT as a faceless administrative drone, but also with their applicability to an educational setting.  The talk should be embedded into this post below, or you can click on this link:  Dan Ariely – What makes us feel good about our work?

The key theme that Ariely discusses in the talk is that of motivation – specifically what motivates us to do good work.  The three main answers to that question that he identifies (or at least the three main answers I identified from his talk) are:  Meaning, Acknowledgement and Pride.  Which also makes a handy acronym…

So what does the MAP to good work look like?


People work better when they perceive that there is some meaning attached to the work they are undertaking, or that their work is applicable in a wider context even if it is no longer required for it’s original task.  The applications in ELT are fairly obvious, but worth restating:  Students work better if they understand why they are doing something. Communicating the aims and the activities of a lesson to the students allows them to do this and probably the simplest way of doing this is to write up a lesson menu on the board, which outlines this information.  In all honesty, this is a habit I have not yet fully formed – I try to remember to do this, but I don’t always succeed.

Meaning however, doesn’t just come about from lesson aims, it is the lesson’s wider applicability that can provide this.  Ariely found that even if workers knew their work was being discarded or disregarded for it’s original purpose, if they could apply their work to situations outside the original context then it didn’t matter.  Value then, is a transferable commodity and meaning is derived from perceived value.  In ELT therefore, the things we do in class, which are often taken out of context and presented in isolation, should be linked back to situations or contexts that the learners find valuable.  The obvious point to make this link (at least to me) would be as part of the language presentation.  If the teacher is clarifying use of a target form, it makes sense that the use relates to a context in which it can be used, which can be clarified with concept questions:  “Do you ever negotiate with your husband / wife / partner?  What do you negotiate about?  Do you ever argue about who does what?  Could you use this form to do that?  How?  Why?  can you give me some examples?”


Ariely’s example experiment where volunteers find pairs of letters on the page and hand them into the experimenter, who either acknowledges the work, ignores the work or simply shreds it in front of their eyes; had me thinking of an immediate parallel in the classroom:  homework.  I’ve written before on the nature of homework and making it useful for learners, but here I couldn’t escape the vision of myself conducting a conversation with some of the learners in the class while going round and collecting in completed homework tasks and not acknowledging the effort that went into the work.  Just taking it in and adding it to the pile.  Which according to Ariely is just as bad as taking a match to it and laughing maniacally as I do so.

It is a simple thing and no doubt many readers are thinking “Well duh” at this point or perhaps thinking that with homework the acknowledgment comes as part of the assessment and correction.  Ariely however, would probably differ.  Some acknowledgement of the effort at the moment of submission, it seems, would go a long way to improving the learners’ motivation to complete further tasks quickly and well.  This is presumably true with in-class effort as well as homework tasks.  I’ve recently been experimenting with classroom behaviour management software and have found that obvious acknowledgment of good behaviour (in this case through the awarding of points) AND making a point of telling the student that this is happening, has led to a drastic reduction of L1 in the class as well as generally improved behaviour (though as we reach the end of the academic year, this is starting to slip a bit now).  Praise is not only important, it is a necessary part of motivating our students to improved performance.


People are proud of the efforts they have made, even when the outcome of those efforts is not so spectacular to an external observer.  Good young learner teachers probably know this instinctively and I’m fortunate to work with some very good YL teachers.  In short, even though as teachers we might be able to turn a critical eye towards our learners’ work – at least some of the time, we probably shouldn’t.  It does of course depend on the purpose of the activity.  If for example, we’re focusing on spoken or written production of a particular form, then the focus will be primarily on accuracy and a correction or feedback stage is required.  If however, we’re just having a chat or the focus is on fluency, then maybe not.  The point is that our sense of achievement does not relate to the product we generate it relates to the time and effort we put into the process.  As teachers therefore, maybe we need to acknowledge that process and reward the effort that went into it as much as we do with the result.  After all, I know one of my personal pedagogical hates are the students who coast, or who phone in their performances.  I doubt I’m alone in not minding so much what the finished product is like if I know that the student has tried their best – it’s when I know they haven’t that I get annoyed…