Pushing past the teaching plateau

I just rediscovered an old Prezi I made for a group of Celta trainees to introduce them to the amount of support out here in the blogosphere and on Twitter. It was called ‘Life beyond Celta: where to look for support’ and you can access it here. It was basically what I wish I’d known when I finished my Celta but was in the dark until the lovely @sandymillin did a  similar session on Twitter at my school a few years ago.

Prezi slides

‘Pushing past the intermediate plateau’ was the title of my IATEFL talk last year, and this Prezi could have been called ‘Pushing past the teaching plateau’. Just as language learners can get stuck in a rut, I think we’ve probably all had moments when we’ve felt we’ve hit a wall as teachers. Being inspired by what others are doing via the blogosphere can equip you to climb off that plateau (and perhaps even avoid it all together). So if you’ve got colleagues who feel they’re stuck in a teaching rut, why not run a workshop on what’s out here – and please feel free to use or adapt my Prezi slides.

Job interviews – model answers

Here’s a lesson that my Pre-intermediate students said they found useful to help with job interviews. I wrote example answers to typical job interview questions, and got them to match the questions and answers. The students seemed to really appreciate having some models. It was based on a video from the British Council Learn English site.

Video of example job interview

The video actually comes with a complete lesson plan on the website, but the exercises are too difficult for my Pre-intermediate class. So I used the video, but instead followed my own plan and materials:

  1. Ask students to discuss in pairs: “Can you remember your last job interview? How did you feel? What questions did they ask you in the interview?”
  2. Write students’ examples of interview questions on the board. Students then watch the video to check if any of their questions (on the board) are used in the video.
  3. Then give students the transcript to look for any questions in the video which didn’t match their ideas.
  4. Give students the list of questions used in the video (first page of handout below). Ask them to brainstorm possible answers to the questions.
  5. Give students the list of example answers (pages 2-4 of handout below), and tell them to match the answers to the questions.
  6. Check the answers and go over any of the trickier language. The order should be: 7, 3, 5, 9, 1, 6, 8, 2, 4.
  7. Students go back to their own answers to the questions (in step 4), and revise their ideas based on any language they want to use from the examples.
  8. Students role-play a job interview.


job interviews

Lessons from Failure – an #ELTchat Blog Challenge

Lessons from Failure – an #ELTchat Blog Challenge

For the past year and a half I’ve been guilty of teaching something in a way that:

  •  isn’t based on any needs analysis and fails to take into account of my students’ local context
  •  isn’t based on any kind of systematic approach and unquestioningly follows the coursebook
  • does not acknowledge what the students are already able to do
  • disregards the students as individuals, each with their own identity
  • is potentially unachievable, no matter how much they study it
  • has the potential to raise students’ affective filters
  • may be completely unnecessary for the students to be understood …
  • … and potentially even damages their intelligibility!

You must surely agree that this qualifies as a failure, and so merits a place in the ELTchat blog challenge (inspired by IATEFL’s Failure Fest)? Yet if I had simply told you that my claim to failure was about pronunciation, I fear it may have been dismissed with reassurances such as “don’t worry, lots of teachers find pronunciation tricky”…

Yes, BUT… for the past year and a half I’ve been living in Dubai where English is the lingua franca (ELF). Nearly all my students are learning English so they can better communicate in a context where they mostly converse with other non-native speakers. There are thought to be around 150 different nationalities living in this melting pot of a city, where the local Emiratis only make up about 20% of the population. While needs analysis plays such an important role in informing all other syllabus choices, it had never crossed my mind to consider the role of ELF in my students’ lives when it comes to selecting pronunciation priorities. That seems like a major failure to my mind.

Pic courtesy of ELTpics by @sandymillin

Pic courtesy of ELTpics by @sandymillin

My eyes were opened to how badly I’ve been failing my students when I discovered Robin Walker’s book ‘Teaching the pronunciation of English as a lingua franca’, when Robin spoke at the IATEFL Pronunciation SIG day, which was all about ELF this year. It was the first I’d ever heard of Jennifer Jenkins’ Lingua Franca Core (LFC), which is a suggested list of pronunciation priorities for students in ELF contexts – like mine.

What is the Lingua Franca Core (LFC)?

There are four areas that the LFC focuses on, which are thought to be essential for students to get right if they are to remain intelligible. These are:

1)    Most consonant sounds

2)    Appropriate consonant cluster simplification

3)    Vowel length distinctions

4)    Nuclear stress

(Jenkins, 2000:132)

‘Appropriate consonant cluster simplification’ means that inserting a vowel between two consonants is preferable to deleting one of the consonants in the cluster, as the latter is more likely to impede intelligibility.

The things that we normally teach as part of a traditional syllabus (myself included – despite living in an ELF context), but which are NOT included in the LFC because they have no impact on ELF intelligibility are:

-       / ð / as in the ‘th’ in mother, / θ / as in the ‘th’ in ‘thumb’, and dark ‘l’

-       exact vowel quality (as opposed to vowel length, which is a core item)

-       pitch movement (tone)

-       word stress (although critics have queried this omission, given that nuclear stress is included in the LFC)

-       stress-timing

 (adapted from Walker, 2010:38)

Pronunciation features that we normally teach but which are not included in the LFC because they actually have a negative impact on ELF intelligibility are:

-       vowel reduction, schwa and weak forms

-       certain features of connected speech – linking, assimilation, coalescence

(adapted from Walker, 2010: 38)

It’s not to say that these non-core items are not worth teaching with the students’ listening skills in mind. Receptively, it may be useful for students to be aware of things like features of connected speech. But it makes me cringe to think that I’ve wasted time drilling these things to get students to produce them, when it might only serve to make them less intellgible in their day-to-day lives!

Teaching implications

It’s hard to explain what a life-changing lightbulb moment it was for me to learn about the LFC – it’s no exaggeration! I’ve never felt more passionate or evangelical about anything I’ve learnt so far in teaching. I was so inspired that I scrapped the work I’d done on my Masters dissertation up to that point, and changed my topic to research ELF pronunciation.

It’s already started influencing my choices in the classroom, for example by working more on accommodation when it comes to listening (Robin’s book comes with a great CD of recordings of different accents), and in a recent Business Communication course I ran, I only had time to focus on one pronunciation point, so I chose nuclear stress, based on the students’ needs and the fact that this is such an important priority in the LFC. Previously in multi-lingual classes, I never really knew where to start. It felt fantastic on that business course to actually be making an informed choice, based on empirical data, rather than some kind of native speaker intuition.

Once I’ve finished my dissertation, the next step is to start implementing an ELF approach in a much more structured way, and to get down to some serious classroom research. The reason I feel so strongly about this is because my fundamental teaching belief is that the students’ needs should be at the heart of everything we do. My failure to consider the needs of students living in an ELF context, and the implications of this for pronunciation teaching, therefore earns this the accolade of my biggest failure to date. I’m sure there will be plenty more to come as I continue to question my own practices, and gain the experience to be more critical. In the meantime, I’m going to set about spreading the word (read: annoy my colleagues) with my newfound enthusiasm for ELF pronunciation! Apologies in advance!


Jenkins, J: The Phonology of English as an International Language (OUP: 2000)

Walker,R: Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca (OUP: 2010)



The Power of Questions – #ELTchat summary

This is a summary of an #ELTchat discussion which took place on 15th May 2013.

The inspiration for this chat came from an IATEFL workshop called ‘The Power of Questions’ by Margit Szesztay who spoke about the types of questions teachers ask in class, and the effect these have on our learners. The idea was to watch this online before taking part in the discussion.

Pic courtesy of ELTpics by @ij64

Pic courtesy of ELTpics by @ij64

What did we learn from watching the workshop?

We can group questions into three categories: questions teachers ask themselves, questions they ask their students, and questions that students ask each other.

Margit suggested ‘tweaking’ normal questions by changing perspectives. For example, asking ‘why did this picture choose you’, rather than ‘why did you choose this picture’? More practical questions included asking if students want to listen to a recording again. She also encouraged us to get students the questions, rather than it always being teachers doing the asking. Of course, she also talked about the power of questions in reflecting on our own teaching, for example asking ‘how can I make my classroom more democratic’?

@theteacherjames said the workshop made him realise he’s always asking questions but probably not enough variety. So we started talking about different types of questions, moving beyond just the scope of the IATEFL workshop.

Questions that teachers ask students

- elicitation

- checking (CCQs and ICQs)

- stimulating/provoking

- philosophical questions that you can never truly answer (suggested by @sandymillin who said her students are currently hung up on the chicken and egg issue!)

- questions which stimulate students to pursue further knowledge

- questions that show interest in students as people, and create rapport

@hartle pointed out that it’s difficult to understand what’s going on in students’ heads if we don’t ask them how they feel, and @sandymillin suggested that one of our questions should always be: ‘how would I feel in your place?’

Frameworks for types of questions

@ Marisa_C said Francoise Grellet has a great typology of questions for reading in her book. One type of question is what Grellet calls a supposition question, an example of which could be to ask students what they would have done in the shoes of the main character in a story.

@hartle said Bloom’s taxonomy provides a useful model, and @jankenb2 provided a link @Marisa_C explained that Bloom indicates cognitive engagement, and so matches question types to levels of complexity, from higher to lower thinking. @hartle said it can be used to ensure a balance of questions, so not just lower order questions but moving up the scale.

@jankenb2 raised the point that using complex questions may limit the number of questions you focus on during class, but that is ok.

 More complex questions

@Marisa_C highlighted research about the connection between the types of questions and the size of responses. For example, closed – convergent thinking questions lead to shorter student responses. She shared a link to this type of research.

@jankenb2 said the paper shows that teachers tend to over-estimate the number of complex questions they ask. @jankenb2 pointed to research showing that many teachers do not even accurately identify complex questions.

@hartle identified that one of the problems with trainee teachers is that they ask too many display questions, rather than real communication questions. @hartle shared a link to an example of exam preparation questions that go beyond display.

@Marisa_C suggested recording yourself, and each time you ask a question make a note of what type of question it was, to generate a profile of yourself as a teacher.

What about students asking the questions?

@Marisa_C pointed out that where a lot of materials are lacking is that it’s usually the teacher who is asking the questions. Students don’t get to ask enough questions. There were some great suggestions of activities that get students asking questions:

-       ‘Questions Please’ game with the teacher only allowed yes/no answers for students to guess something like a story or text (@Marisa_C)

-       Getting students to remember questions they had before they arrived in their new school / new country and then answer their own questions by making a video (@sandymillin)

-       Exploratory practice with students choosing questions about the learning process such as ‘why is spelling difficult?’ and then researching it and giving a poster presentation to the class (particularly for EAP). Inspired by an IATEFL talk (@KatySDavies)

-       ‘Question Tree’ game. Pen one general question and then drill down with specific questions only. Teams create a concept map using questions instead of facts, for example ‘what is weather? What are seasons? What is winter? (@jankenb2)

-       Personal mindmaps for students to ask each other questions about their research questions (@MarjorieRosenbe)

-       Challenge students to reveal bias by asking them to generate a counter question for every question the teacher poses on a discussion topic. (@jankenb2)

-       Flipping the tables on the students may generate more questions e.g each group bring a text and test the teacher (@Marisa_C)

-       If you get students to write questions on small squares of paper before discussions, it gives them processing time, time to check grammar, and means everyone should have something to ask (@sandymillin)

-       Materials from @englishraven to get students to ask questions (@sandymillin)

Wait time

The problem…

Everyone felt that a big problem with using questions is teachers not waiting long enough for students to answer before jumping in. @shaznosel said we sometimes don’t acknowledge our students need time to think and then use the L2 to express themselves. Wait time needs to allow two-step processing of translating target language to L1 and then processing the concept, according to @jankenb2, and @ aphi_cao pointed out that timing is particularly important in multi-lingual classes to avoid quieter groups being drowned out. @theteacherjames said teachers are often scared of silence.


Count 1000,2000,3000 like a parachute jumper before intervening (@sandymillin remembering tip from @AnthonyGaughan)

Record yourself and time the wait time between a question and a student answer (@Marisa_C)

Think how long it would take you to answer the question yourself in a foreign language that you know (@shaznosel)

Teachers also often rely on one type of question and overuse one form. The trick is to plan out questions as part of an overall strategy (@jankenb2)

I suggested trying the Silent Way approach, which I did for my Delta experimental practice, as it taught me a lot about the benefit of silence.

@shaznosel said there’s less silence in YL classes because they’re less scared of taking risks. To reduce fear of taking risks, @Marisa_C said she often suggests the pair and share idea to her trainees – ask a question, let students discuss answer in pairs and then discuss publicly.

@sandymillin shared two links: a post by @yearinthelifeof (which isn’t strictly about questions but could be), and part of a six-week self-reflection from @geml1 which incorporated one week about questions and wait time

@theteacherjames concluded that he sometimes wonders if the job is really just about asking the right questions at the right times!

Links from the chat

British Council article about questions (shared by @hartle)

A study on teachers’ questions evaluated according to Bloom’s taxonomy  (shared by @Marisa_C)

Research on how teachers use questions (@Marisa_C)

@englishraven materials to get students to ask questions http://t.co/IWpktfSFn7 (shared by @sandymillin)

@hartle ‘s link to an example for exam preparation with questions that go beyond display.

Francoise Grellet’s typology of questions for reading in her book (@Marisa_C)

Bloom’s taxonomy link (@jankenb2)

a post by @yearinthelifeof (which isn’t strictly about questions but could be)

a six-week self-reflection from @geml1 which incorporated one week about questions and wait time

The IATEFL workshop that inspired the #ELTchat discussion called ‘The Power of Questions’ by Margit Szesztay

The teaching ‘intermediate plateau’?

If you’ve ever learnt another language for long enough, you might know what it feels like to hit the so-called ‘intermediate plateau’. Learning Spanish, my motivation started to dip once the novelty wore off, the frustration set in, I seemed to be studying the same grammar over again, and yet I STILL couldn’t communicate very successfully. Helping students push past this kind of ‘plateau’ was the topic of my presentation at IATEFL last month (here are my Prezi slides, and a comprehensive summary of the session by Jonathan Sayers). But what about teachers – is there an ‘intermediate plateau’ that we hit? If so, how can we push past it?

Photo courtesy of #eltpics by @thornburyscott

Photo courtesy of #eltpics by @thornburyscott

I started thinking about this as I was reading Naomi Epstein’s interesting blog post today about the need for teachers to replenish their own ‘poker chips’ by doing things like attending conferences. For me, the past year has definitely been about re-stocking on chips, but looking back now, I do feel that I hit a kind of plateau before embarking on the Delta. What did that plateau feel like?

For my IATEFL talk, I interviewed colleagues about their language learning experiences, and structured my presentation around three main points from these interviews. Here are those points, and a suggested teaching equivalent for each one:

1) LANGUAGE LEARNING: One colleague said he hit a plateau when he was learning Korean because he had enough to ‘get by’.


I knew it was the right time to enrol on the Delta course when I was starting to ‘get by’ too comfortably. I wasn’t sure how to push myself beyond that comfort zone, and it seemed like doing the Delta was the only way to break out. Now I can see there are plenty of other ways within my own school, like action research, leading workshops or ‘swapshops’, watching webinars, designing materials, blogging, commenting on blogs, collaborating with other teachers, observations, etc. It’s easier to see all those opportunities with hindsight. But the catch 22 is that if you’re feeling ‘stuck’, you’re probably not in a frame of mind where you would push yourself to do any of those things. Sometimes I think it does require a more radical move, like investing in doing Delta or going to a conference like IATEFL, which will give you the fresh perspective you need, and a sense of the industry beyond your own context.

2) LANGUAGE LEARNING: Another colleague said she knew she’d got past the intermediate plateau when she no longer felt the need to translate.


An equivalent to that kind of automaticity might be to reach a stage in your teaching when you’ve got a full ‘toolbox’ at your fingertips of warmers, feedback techniques, vocabulary recycling games, error correction techniques, personalisation activities, needs analysis, reflection tasks, etc, that you can deploy without thinking. Looking back on my own ‘intermediate plateau’, I think I’d reached a point where I had a limited toolbox, but was under the illusion it was complete because I couldn’t see any other way of doing things other than the ways I knew. I think that’s where things like peer observation are important, and connecting with other professionals outside your school, for example through webinars, the blogosphere or by joining in #eltchat on Twitter, to get fresh perspectives on how to expand that toolbox.

3) LANGUAGE LEARNING: The final point was made by a colleague who said that it was ‘real’ conversation, outside the classroom, that helped to keep her motivated.


- I think there are a lot of parallels you could draw with this. An equivalent to ‘real’ conversation could be challenging yourself to use authentic materials in creative ways. Once you’ve taught countable and uncountable nouns more times than you can count, I think there’s a danger of forgetting the connection between the language we’re teaching and the ‘real’ world, but using authentic materials can help to rebuild that connection.

- ‘Real’ conversation could be taken in the Dogme sense of using the students as a resource, and relying less on the coursebook. I think that there is a danger of responding to students less as real people once the ‘novelty’ of teaching wears off, especially if you start to feel stuck on a treadmill.

- The more experienced we get, I think there’s also a greater risk of seeing ourselves as the expert and so not involving the students in the decision-making processes enough. One way to keep it ‘real’ is to make sure you’re remaining open to honest feedback from your class, and pushing yourself out of the comfort zone by handing over more control to the students.

Finally, I would say that keeping it ‘real’ is also about empathising with our students as they experience the frustrations, dips in motivation, and ‘plateaus’ of language learning. Because even if you haven’t experienced that with languages yourself, we’re all students in the classroom, on a never-ending journey of professional development. There will inevitably be times when we feel we’ve hit a kind of plateau, and unfortunately there isn’t a simple sticky-plaster solution. Delta didn’t suddenly rocket launch me off that plateau. It mostly showed me how little I know, which felt more like falling off the plateau rather than pushing beyond it!

But it’s worth remembering what we sometimes tell our students – progress isn’t necessarily linear. You might sometimes feel like you’re taking two steps forward and one step back, especially if there’s some kind of restructuring process going on after learning something new. Hopefully if we can recognise that, and realise that we’re not alone in feeling this way, then we won’t become too demotivated if we do hit a teaching ‘plateau’. Have you ever felt this way? If so, how did you push past it?

Facing the fear: my experiences as a first-time IATEFL presenter

Facing the fear: my experiences as a first-time IATEFL presenter

Skydiving is probably the only thing I’ve done as terrifying as presenting at IATEFL for the first time. Not even my final Delta observation or driving on Dubai’s six-lane highway come close. I’d never been to IATEFL before (probably one of the reasons I applied to speak!), and I’d only ever done one other presentation before, at a much smaller event.

So I was petrified.

However, having survived to tell the tale, I can now reflect on why applying to speak at IATEFL is such a good idea, even if you’ve got little or no experience of presenting. In fact, especially if it’s your first time.

Why I enjoyed presenting at IATEFL 

1)   The mentor scheme

My mentor, Sylvie Donna, was a huge help. I really valued the time I spent with her not just for helping to improve my presentation, but also to have such an amazing opportunity to chat one-to-one with someone so much further up the ladder. I’m very grateful to Sylvie, and to IATEFL for providing this excellent scheme.

2)   Friendly faces

I was lucky enough to be able to attend the conference for the whole week, and met so many wonderful people, many of whom came along to my session. This helped to put me at ease, and made it a very different experience to the other conference I spoke at.

3)   Contacts

It was a great opportunity to meet people who share your interests. People have chosen your talk for a reason, and it was great to hear their thoughts on the topic. It also can help to ‘build your platform’ by putting yourself out there. You don’t know who might be sitting in the audience.

4)   Confidence boost

The buzz I felt after I’d finished was amazing, as is often the way when you do something scary! But once the initial euphoria had gone, I also realized how much it helped me to see myself in a new light, by making me realise that, yes, I can do this.

5)   Contributing to the conference

I felt like I got more out of the conference as a presenter because I felt more a part of it. Perhaps it was because I had a whole new respect for the TEFL giants who make it look so easy, and a newfound sympathy for presenters who looked terrfied! Also, I always had my talk in the back of my mind, so when I was listening to other people speak, I was making connections I might not have made otherwise, and making notes on their presentation style, to help inform my own talk.

6)   IATEFL is so well organised

If you’re new to presenting then I think IATEFL is a great place to start because it’s so well organized. The support was amazing in terms of the mentor scheme, the webinar beforehand on presentation skills, the ‘How to…’ session at the event, an email with advice for first time presenters, and so many emails clarifying exactly where / what / when etc. Everything was so clear. If you’re nervous, this makes a big difference. Also the venue itself was very well organised, so I didn’t worry at all about technology failing etc, as there was someone on hand to help.

7)   Once you’ve done this, nothing else is going to feel as scary!

After finishing, I felt like I could take on the world! That’s a great feeling because it means that as a result of speaking at IATEFL, I feel much more open to challenges, taking risks, putting myself out there, and of course, applying to do it all again next year!

Tips for first time presenters

 Preparing your presentation:

-       Don’t feel you have to use Powerpoint. I used Prezi instead, and found it helped me use the slides as more of a prompt, rather than a script. It helped avoid putting too much text up there.

-       Don’t make a detailed script to learn off by heart. I tried this and wasted so much time before binning it! Written and spoken language are too different. Instead make notes, and go over these enough times so that you can speak more naturally.

-       Make a handout. I found it reassuring to know that even if I messed up the delivery, or forgot to define important terms, then at least I knew it was on the handout.

-       Don’t be scared that your topic seems too ‘obvious’ or ‘basic’. My talk was on the intermediate plateau, and when I arrived at the conference and realized how experienced people were, I panicked that my topic was too ‘easy’. You’ll always have something valuable to say because you can’t possibly have had exactly the same experiences as your audience. Even if your experiences have been very similar, this will only serve to reassure them they’re not alone. My mentor helped me see that it’s more about experience sharing and question raising, rather than teaching people things. This helped me to feel less nervous.

-       Don’t be afraid to make last minute changes. I made quite late adjustments because of things I’d heard / seen in other talks.

Before the big day:

-       Take part in the mentor scheme, and watch IATEFL’s webinar about how to present.

-       Don’t be afraid to tell people you meet at IATEFL about your presentation. It feels good to see some friendly faces in the audience.

-       Make notes on good presentation styles as you’re watching other people’s sessions.

-       Make simple business cards. There were so many occasions during the week when I was exchanging details with someone and wished I had something more professional to hand over than a scrap piece of paper with my email scribbled on it!

-       Do a practice run-through by recording your talk over your slides using a tool like Brainshark, and then you have a version you can publish straight to your blog afterwards (although beware that if you use Prezi, I don’t think you can use this tool).

On the big day:

-       If people are scattered around the room, ask them to come forward to sit together.

-       Sit and chat with people as they come in. This definitely helped me to relax.

-       Try to make eye contact with a variety of people around the room. Don’t be put off if people seem to be staring blankly! I think I’m the type of person who nods along if I agree with someone, so I found it a bit disturbing to see a sea of people sitting so still. But they’re probably just trying to concentrate, and if they’re not fidgeting, it’s surely a good sign that they’re engaged.

-       Really do make sure you leave enough time for questions. It might be one of the scarier parts, but it was really valuable. Remember to repeat the questions, as people at the back might not have heard, and don’t feel you have to give a lengthy answer to every one. Most of my ‘questions’ were comments from people sharing their own experiences, which was really interesting, but didn’t require long responses.


-       Factor in that people might want to speak to you afterwards, and maybe have a plan with a friend who is going to scoop up all your things for you, so you can continue talking while also walking out of the room.

-       If you’ve got business cards, have them handy to give out if the situation arises.

-       Remember to thank people for coming and for their questions / comments.

-       Try to email anyone you do make contact with as soon as possible afterwards.

-       Finally… try not to make too many plans for the weekend straight after IATEFL! I ended up being really busy immediately afterwards, when what I really wanted to do was reflect on everything by writing blog posts, email people I’d met over the week, and catch up on talks I’d missed.

Many thanks to a supportive friend, who knows who he is, for encouraging me to apply to speak. Also, massive thanks to Sylvie Donna for her time and valuable input as my mentor, to Sandy Millin for her help, to all the friendly faces who came along to my talk, and to everyone working behind the scenes at IATEFL to make the conference such an incredible event. 

Bridge those gaps! Reflections on IATEFL 2013

Bridge those gaps! Reflections on IATEFL 2013

Maybe it’s just a powerful metaphor, or perhaps it was being on the waterfront at Liverpool’s Albert Docks, but it seemed like ‘bridging the gap’ was a popular chunk in this year’s programme. My own talk aimed to bridge the gap between intermediate students’ passive knowledge and productive ability, while the title of Sandy Millin’s presentation was ‘Bridging the gap between the classroom and the autonomous learner’, and Ceri Jones opted simply for ‘Bridging the gap’.

It got me thinking about how many other types of gaps had been tackled over the course of the conference. So here’s a bridge themed approach to my round-up of IATEFL 2013!

Bridging the gap between… advanced students and authentic language

Michael McCarthy – ‘Corpora and the advanced level: problems and prospects

Key quotes:

-       At advanced levels, grammar loses its sense of progression and tends to be a rag-bag of difficult and arcane items. Where do you go after the main structures?

-       All the vocabulary you learn after the first 2,000 words will only be encountered very infrequently (for a description of vocabulary for each CEFR level, look at the English Vocabulary Profile).

-       Higher level students often have very clear goals, such as preparing to study at university or needing negotiating skills for business, so we need to know what it is that’s going to be most useful for our students.


-       We need to help students to forge new networks of associations of vocabulary, rather than just teaching new lexis.

-       We need to teach new or not typically taught functions for known forms. For example, corpora show us that the most common usage of the future perfect is in examples such as “You’ll have heard about the terrible earthquake”, but we often present it to students in examples such as “By 2015, I’ll have finished my degree”.

-       Examiners can tolerate the odd missed article, or a mistake in an irregular past participle, but what they love are patterns that are not always entirely obvious to the naked eye (e.g corpora show us that good CVs use a high level of nominalization, but just looking at a CV, you wouldn’t necessarily notice this pattern).

-       We become fixated with what we think is the advanced grammar point. We can use corpora to bridge the gap between our own preconceptions of what advanced grammar is, and what it is that students really need to know about those forms.


Pic courtesy of ELTpics @SandyMillin

Bridging the gap between… teachers and journals

Graham Hall – How to get published in a refereed journal

Key quotes:

The process of getting published:

-       Some articles are immediately rejected because they are sent to the wrong journal. The article doesn’t match the aims of the journal at all.

-       After 30 days, peer reviews are sent back to the editor, and the editor summarises and replies to the author.

-       There are four possible responses: reject / request revision / conditional acceptance / accept.

-       Most papers go through ‘request revision’. Very rare for anything to just be accepted.

What are peer reviewers looking for?

-       Relevant and interesting to the readers of that journal. Be familiar with the journal you’re submitting to. Know the style and read the ‘aims and objectives’ part of the journal.

-       Clearly and coherently written.

-       ELTJ is looking for articles that link theory to practice. There needs to be some kind of systematic evaluation (not necessarily empirical).

-       Needs to have relevance beyond just the author’s context.

-       Needs an appropriate balance between theory and practice all the way through. It’s not just a journal of teaching tips or experimental practice.

What are they not looking for?

-       Too theoretical (not sufficiently linked to practice) e.g just experiments. Where’s the classroom?

-       Too little theoretical underpinning provided to justify or clarify the work.

-       Lack of awareness of other work in the field. Reinventing the wheel.

-       Too much concerned with the specifics of a local situation.

-       Interesting idea, but not developed sufficiently. Need to evaluate limitations or evaluate why it was a success.


-       Write with a specific journal in mind.

-       ELTJ = 3500 to 4000 words and 15 references max.

-       Get the author guidelines. On the website, there’s a link to instructions for authors.

-       Maybe start small. It doesn’t have to be revolutionary. Professions edge forward. It can be quantitative or qualitative research, and it can be based on case studies, or broad surveys, or action research, etc.



Pic courtesy of ELTpics @SandyMillin

Bridging the gap between… publishers and teachers

It seems to me that one of the main gaps bridged by the conference as a whole is the gap between publishers and teachers. I felt like there was really constructive dialogue in presentations, debates, in the exhibition hall, and at networking events, and I felt that I came away with a much better understanding of the publishing industry. Here’s one of the presentations that taught me a lot:

Nick Robinson – ‘What’s next in my career as a teacher?’

Key quotes:

- There are lots of similarities between cookbooks and coursebooks, including the fact that they both have small groups of big names writing them, and it’s hard to break into that group.

- You need to be thick-skinned to go into writing, and be prepared for lots of rejections.

- It’s not necessarily that your idea is bad, but it might just be that it’s not the way the publisher wants to go.

- “Being a good writer is 3% talent, and 97% not being distracted by the internet”

- You need to be the type of teacher who uses coursebooks and adapts them. It’s no good saying you want to be a coursebook writer if you never use them!


- Don’t sell a book to a publisher, sell an author. You need to sell yourself, so build a platform by doing things like speaking at IATEFL, blogging, being active on Twitter.

- If you have a fan base already online, then the publisher knows people will come when you’re promoting their materials.

- Look at yourself as a potential content creator, because the future of publishing isn’t necessarily books. The most frequent question that Nick is asked is ‘have you got anyone who can write for digital?’

- Try and work with an editor. It will improve your content no end.

- If you’re self-publishing, then think about marketing. ‘Small Epic’ is an open space for teachers to sell materials.

- It’s hard to be creative under time pressure, so try the Pomodoro Technique: set a timer for 25min and after the timer starts you can’t do anything else except work. When the timer goes off, set it again for 5min and at that point you can do anything. Then set it for another 25min and get back to work.

- “The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas” so make sure you collect all your ideas, however random, in a notebook, because you never know when they might come in handy.

- If you want Nick to consider representing you, send your CV and a short paragraph about why you want to write and why you think you’d be good at it. See his website for more information.


Pic courtesy of ELTpics @aClilToClimb

Bridging the gap between… accuracy and fluency

Jason Anderson – Accuracy and fluency: practical ideas for achieving both simultaneously

Key quotes:

- The dichotomy between spoken fluency and accuracy is often too simplistic.

- Trainees sometimes feel they can’t correct their students because the class is focusing on fluency, not accuracy.

- Materials are often too polarized. At one end of the cline, you often find very free, fast activities with a focus on meaning, like debates and personalisation tasks, aimed at developing fluency. At the other end, we find much slower, form-focused activities like multiple choice or gap fills, to develop accuracy. But what about the middle ground?


Jason got us to try out some great activities that are fast, yet focus on form, and slow, yet focus on meaning, to try and bridge that gap. Here is the link to Jason’s detailed instructions on how to play the games, but here are a few comments on the activities:

‘Question poker’

- Because students write answers first, there’s a focus on accuracy, and because they have to recall the answers, it helps them to hold the language in chunks, and so promote fluency.

‘Whose line is it anyway’

- The advantage is that seeing other people’s ideas makes students more willing to take part in the discussion.

‘Verb conjugation cards’

- Our group had so much fun playing this that we played two rounds and protested loudly when Jason made us stop because time was up!


Pic courtesy of ELTpics @aClilToClimb

Bridging the gap between… the coursebook and emergent language

Rachael Roberts – “Of course! Using a coursebook AND engaging with emergent language”

Key quotes:

Important ‘ingredients’ in the classroom:

-       Exposing students to motivating and relevant language in context.

-       Providing opportunities to ‘notice’ language.

-       Scaffolding these ‘affordances’ so students can ‘notice the gap’.

-       Providing opportunities to use the language in motivating and relevant materals.

-       Engaging + noticing and restructuring + repeating and recycling = if you do these things, language will emerge no matter what.


-       Use the comprehension questions to get students to predict what the story is about before they read. Get students to invest in the story.

-       Give students real reasons to write (e.g write letters to Amnesty).

-       Translate a text into their own language, and then a week later translate it back again and compare it to the original.

-       Extract chunks from a listening text and use these chunks to move onto emergent language.

-       Students can record themselves and make transcripts of themselves. You can help them to reformulate it and give it back. Or you could select a sample to do, if it’s a big class.

-       Textivate.com allows you to revisit a text by looking at it in different ways.


Pic courtesy of ELTpics @HarmerJ

Bridging the gap between… playing and learning

Sandie Mourao – Priniciples of early childhood education and VYLs

Key quotes:

-       Children need play, and language is a part of that play. Child-initiated play is best, but in low exposure contexts, there’s little time for that.

-        We don’t acknowledge how important peers are in the learning process for very young learners (VYLs).


-       Children participate in directed play (formal instruction) where they are interacting with educators and peers. There is whole-class interaction and clear roles / scripts / sequences. Then there is free play (informal instruction), where they’re interacting only with peers in groups / pairs. They imitate the teacher, taking on the roles / scripts / sequences they saw in the directed play. In this way, they can freely explore and investigate

-       Create ‘learning areas’ for children to play with self-chosen tasks that they can explore if and when they want to. It could be an area like a play ‘hospital’, where children pretend to be doctors and nurses. Or it could be much simpler, like just a box of materials and games that children can take out whenever they want.

Carol Read – How to survive and thrive with very young learners

Key quotes:

-       It’s more effective when learning the language is not an end in itself.

-       Paradox 1: The more we address the whole child, the more language they learn (more than in a language-driven approach).

-       Paradox 2: The more control, the greater the freedom.

-       Paradox 3: The more the teacher leads, the more child-centered learning becomes. With VYLs, you are not a facilitator, you are a teacher. They’re copying, imitating, and you’re leading until they become autonomous. Your energy and enthusiasm encourages them to take part and gives them confidence, and helps them on their way to becoming autonomous.


Think about space, time, activity patterns, and routines:

-       Space: where do you put the coats / crayons. Where do you read stories? Don’t underestimate the challenge of orientation and visual space.

-       Time: VYLs have a shorter attention span. Sitting for five minutes for a three year old is a real challenge.

-       Activity patterns: For example, at storytime, the children always sit down in a circle, cross their legs, and draw a circle around them to mark their space. The repetition in the way it’s done means they know it’s storytime.

-       Routines: the safety and security of routines allow for internalization. For example, using flashcards with pictures of weather and going to the window and asking ‘what’s the weather like? Is it raining?’, can later be reduced to ‘what’s the weather like?’, and then reduced to no picture cards, and just actions.

Carol suggested a generic / flexible framework to organize learning for VYLs:

-       On the carpet (all together time) for the key input at the beginning. Get out the class puppet as a visual signal that English is going to start now.

-       Transition from carpet to desks. Think about how to do this to avoid chaos. For example, they get up and come up to you one by one and tell you their favourite colour and then sit down at the desk. Or they march to the desk in pairs pretending to be gorillas.

-       At our desks. Individual work. Need to build autonomy.

-       Make sure you end on a good feeling. Children need to take ownership of the lesson.


Pic courtesy of ELTpics @SandyMillin

Bridging the gap between… the syllabus and the students

Ceri Jones – ‘Bridging the gap’

Key quotes:

-       Can the coursebook bridge the gap between the student and the syllabus?

-       It can be a useful route into the syllabus.

Five main strategies:

-       Use high impact images.

-       Make the familiar unfamiliar.

-       Seek out current contexts.

-       Put students’ texts first.

-       Look for the big picture.


-       Use a mosaic of images, for example images of hobbies, but choose more unusual situations, like chess being played in a swimming pool.

-       When you’re doing something like shop vocabulary, think about the fact that nowadays it’s more about malls, not the butcher and baker. Malls are not just about buying things, but also about entertainment.

-       Set an image homework between one class and the next.


Me at IATEFL 2013 outside the arena in Liverpool

For me, the whole experience of IATEFL felt less like a bridge and more like a pier under construction. I was plunged out of the comfort zone and into the unknown, as the pier ploughed its way out to sea. With every passing day at the conference, the pier got longer, my perspective broadened, and I felt I could look back with increasing clarity at where I’d come from, even if it wasn’t so evident where it would all take me. I hope this sense of exploration will help me continue to push myself further from the mainland, even as the docks of Liverpool fade beyond the horizon.