FCE Speaking part 3 and the L1

My FCE students sounded really stilted when they tried to do this speaking part 3 in class today (taken from the FCE Gold Plus student’s book, page 87). If you don’t know FCE, this part involves looking at 5-8 pictures and answering a question about them, then coming to some kind of decision.

There were three of them, and despite having phrases for turn-taking and ideas on the topic, they struggled to talk for three minutes, and sounded incredibly unnatural, with long pauses while they tried to work out what to say.
I described interactive communication and how people work together to come to a decision, and suggested they watch out for it in the next film/TV show they watch in English. Then we talked about how they do it in Russian. I then had a brainwave: why not get them to do the task in Russian first?
So that’s what they did, and wow! What a difference! They were talking over each other, finishing each other’s sentences, asking for opinions, and most importantly moving from one picture to the next quickly and efficiently. (Although I don’t speak Russian, a lot of the words for the electrical appliances they were discussing were similar enough to English for me to notice that!) In English, they’d taken a minute to discuss a single picture, and they should have done about three in that time!
We talked about how they had spoken in Russian, and I mentioned how they had helped each other to build the conversation. We then repeated the task one final time in English, and it was a huge improvement on their first attempt, with them carrying over a lot of the interaction from their Russian conversation. Of course, it helped that it was the third time they’d done the task too!
Definitely something I’ll try again.

Teaching essay writing

Today I presented a seminar with ideas about teaching essay writing, with a particular focus on FCE and IELTS exam tasks. It’s part of the monthly seminar series at International House Sevastopol.

The slides from the presentation and all of the resources can be found below. You can download everything from slideshare, for which you will need to create a free account. The links in the presentation are clickable. You’ll find full details of all of the activities in the notes which accompany each slide, which you’ll be able to see when you download the presentation.

Three different types of IELTS essay question (adapted from DC IELTS):

IELTS questions to classify by type (adapted from DC IELTS):

Potato talks from Thinking in the EFL Class by Tessa Woodward (published by Heibling Languages – affiliate link)

FCE essay to put in order (via Pavla Milerski):

Essay structure (via Pavla Milerski):

Photo from ELTpics by @yearinthelifeof, under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial license

I’d like to thank Olga Stolbova from IH Sevastopol and Pavla Milerski from IH Brno for helping me to put the seminar together.

The next one in the series will take place on February 22nd 2014, on the theme of teaching stress patterns in pronunciation. Olga will present it. If you’re in the area, we’d love to see you there!


10 years ago today I got on a plane for the first big adventure of my life: 4 months in the jungle, in 3 stages: Danum Valley for 6 weeks, Sepilok Orangutan Centre for a week, and Long Napir village school for two months. The school was my first experience of teaching English, and I fell in love with it.
I shared links and photos from my trip a few years ago in my Returning from Borneo post. The picture at the bottom of the post shows a tree with an observation platform to look across the top of the jungle canopy. I borrowed the photo from one of my friends.
The trip gave me really good friends, experiences I will never forget, a profession I love, and a taste for adventure.
Thank you Trekforce!


Beginning again


Sevastopol is great.

I love the city, and can’t get enough of seeing the sea all the time.

The people I work with are friendly and supportive, the students are enthusiastic, and the school itself is a pleasure to be in, self-contained with bright, colourful classrooms and good facilities.

My job is exactly what I needed and wanted at this point in my career.

I love learning languages, and the challenge of learning Russian is stimulating. I want to learn it. I really do.

I don’t regret my decision to leave the UK and to move here.

But beginning again is always difficult. And every time I do it, I block out this period, so I’m writing about it now to remember how it feels later.

Because the lack of Russian means I often feel like a child.

I can’t communicate anything beyond my most basic needs, and sometimes not even that. I can understand a fair amount, but I can’t reply. I can’t tell people which bits I understood and which bits I didn’t. I can see their frustration when I don’t understand. Some are patient, and try again, or rephrase what they said, and if they’re lucky, I understand. I’m totally dependent on others, and any English skill they might have, for anything beyond the basics.

I can’t do some of the things I enjoy, like going to the cinema and switching off. I can still go, but I have to think, not least because a lot of the films here are in Ukrainian, which I don’t speak at all. Watching a film at home is good, but it’s not the same.

I want to go out and make friends, but I’ve never been good at doing that in a foreign language, however easy I may find it in English. Most of my friends are from being in a new situation at the same time, like going to the jungle (!), or from working with them, and despite having studied three languages to high levels and lived in many other countries, I have almost no friends who I communicate with in a foreign language. And the English-speaking community here is tiny. The people at school are great, but I need to make a real effort to meet more people. I don’t drink, and don’t like being in pubs when I don’t already know people there. I can’t join a class or chat to random people yet, unless they want to hear about where I’m from and who is in my family ad nauseum, or talk and talk and not care that I can’t respond.

I’m a very confident person, but lacking the language strips me of my confidence when I leave my English bubble.

I know I could visit lots of places around Crimea, and I really want to, but I don’t know how to get to any of those places, or what would happen if I got stuck there. When I ask bus drivers to get off at the next stop (which you have to do on public transport here), at least one person looks at me every time, because it’s clear I’m a foreigner. This is compounded by being a woman and choosing to wear trainers and a rucksack to get to and from work, something no self-respecting Ukrainian woman would ever do, and another reason why people stare at me at times. But the handbag and heels look has never worked for me, so I won’t be blending in any time soon. Most of the time I can switch off the stares, but sometimes they niggle, and sometimes they build up.

I know the theories about language learning, about getting out there and speaking to people, but you need a certain level of basic sentences to do that, or a certain level of alcohol, which I will never have. I know I should study a bit each day, but honestly I can’t be bothered. I know I should immerse myself in the language if I want to improve, and since I’m surrounded by Russian, that should be easy to do. I don’t shy away from encounters with Russian, and I’m constantly listening and reading. But I don’t actively seek them out either.

I think I’ll be here for a while.

Three months in, the novelty is wearing off, and this is always when it gets difficult. It did in Malaysia. It did in Paraguay. I didn’t have the benefit of social media in either of those places, and I remember how homesick I was then. I can’t imagine living this life without the internet now. It got difficult in Newcastle too, despite being in the UK. I avoided it in Brno because I developed a group of good friends in the same situation as me very quickly. And I know I’ll look back at this time with the benefit of hindsight, a good level of Russian, a group of friends, and a whole host of new experiences, and I won’t really remember this feeling of slight helplessness.

So right now I have to make a few promises to myself, and I have to stick to them:

  1. Saturday is Russian day, with at least two hours of study, plus my lesson
  2. Sunday is a relaxation day, including a day trip whenever possible
  3. I will not spend any weekend entirely in my flat, regardless of how bad the weather is
  4. Before June, I will have joined a class of some kind, maybe dance, maybe a language I already speak, maybe something completely new so I can meet new people

I’m a sucker for punishment. Constant new beginnings don’t make for an easy life, but I know that, and I still choose to begin again. It will be worth it in the end. And if I tell you my promises, I have to stick to them, right?

My first DoS conference

Every January International House organises a conference for Directors of Studies (DoS) from across the IH network. I’d heard about it, followed the tweet stream and watched videos from previous conferences, but this year, I finally got the chance to go, and it was worth the wait!

The conference took place from 9th-11th January 2014 at Devonport House, Greenwich, London, a beautiful venue right next to Greenwich Park. It was a flying visit to London, so the only photo I managed to take in the area was of the ship in a bottle outside, so you’ll have to take my word about the location.

Ship in a bottle - Greenwich ParkThe conference was kicked off by Lucy Horsefield and Monica Green talking about how to show students their progress. There was a lot of discussion of different ideas from DoSes around the world. One area I’d like to think more about is how to help general English students to see their progress, as I often feel we neglect them somewhat in favour of young learners and business students, where we have to be accountable to the people paying for the course, or exam students who are working towards a clearly defined goal. What do you do at your schools for these students?

Chris Ozog did a session about ‘Teacher Development and the DoS’ which I talked about for the IH World YouTube channel. (Sorry for mispronouncing your surname Chris!)

Other speakers from the first day included Peter Medgyes on native and non-native speaker teachers, Nick Kiley entertaining us with anecdotes and lessons about management from his experience of being managed, and the team from ELT Teacher2Writer introducing their training courses and their database of teachers interested in doing writing work, which I’ve now signed up for.

Jane Harding da Rosa finished off the day with a great talk on fostering learner autonomy. I particularly liked her emphasis on demonstrating the tasks you want students to do in their own time by dedicating class time to them. We can’t expect students to take responsibility for their own learning if they don’t know how to do it. She also drew a couple of neurons and showed how everything a student does in English strengthens the connection between them, by drawing a line, then another on top, then another on top, until there was a very thick line linking the two. Simple, but very effective (and better when you see it than when you read about it!) – definitely one I’ll be using with my classes.

Day two was reserved for guest speakers. Hugh Dellar told us twenty things he’d learnt in twenty years of teaching, which was very entertaining, and fed nicely into Andrew Walkley’s session of later in the day. This was the one which I think I took the most away from. Andrew discussed  language-focussed teacher development, and how we should emphasise language awareness more in our teacher training. He showed us examples of language awareness tasks like ranking words in order of their frequency, and writing example sentences with language we might teach. The latter was particularly interesting; for example, ‘beard’ is much more likely to be used in a sentence like ‘Have you seen that guy with the beard?’ than ‘He has a beard’, and yet we’re much more likely to teach the second sentence. Andrew pointed out that when we think quickly we tend to come up with the easiest possible example (‘He has a beard’) because it’s easily accessible. If we focus on language and examples during our planning, we’re more likely to give students chunks and sentences which they will actually need and encounter. He advocated a change in emphasis in both teacher training and school culture in general, from activities and grammar towards language. One point which particularly resonated with me was that in (preparation for) observations we tend to focus on procedure rather than the language which we expect students might produce, or which we could introduce to them. This related back to Hugh’s recent blog posts about exploiting lexical self-study material (part one, two, three). It is important to remind ourselves that ultimately we are language teachers, and language should be at the heart of what we do, something which we often forget in our quest to find the ‘best’ activities or adopt the ‘most suitable’ methodology. They have inspired me to try and find out more about the lexical approach, and to try and incorporate more language awareness into our fledgling teacher training at IH Sevastopol.

Patsy M. Lightbown, Maureen McGarvey and Fiona Dunlop also gave sessions on day two. I realised I really need to read ‘How Languages are Learned’ (no idea how I got through Delta without it!)

The IH World Quiz Night finished off the second day, and was a great example of how a conference social event should be run (thanks Shaun, Nick and Mike!). I was on a team with representatives from IH Bristol, IH Manchester, IH Newcastle, IH Brno, and IH World, and I really enjoyed it, even though we didn’t win.

On day three, Robin Walker gave us a three-hour workshop on priorities and practice for teaching pronunciation, the slides for which are available on his blog. It was an interesting comparison of the differing pronunciation requirements for students who are going to be speaking mostly to natives, and mostly to non-natives. It also links nicely to the ideas of English as a Lingua Franca and the ELFpron blog of Katy Davies and Laura Patsko, who was sitting next to me during the workshop.

The final afternoon of the conference was ‘speed dating’, a very entertaining, highly-paced event, full of great ideas. It involved about 22 presenters, divided into three sessions of 7-8 presenters each, giving 10-minute presentations five or six times over the course of an hour. My presentation, about online professional development, is available on my blog. Here is the video I recorded to introduce it (YouTube could have chosen a better still for it!):

The whole conference was a very enjoyable experience, but as always with conferences, the best thing about it was being able to connect with passionate teachers from around the world, like Chris Ozog, Kylie Malinowska and Laura Patsko in the photo below.

Sandy, Chris, Kylie and LauraRoll on 2015!


A brief introduction to online professional development (IH DoS conference 2014)

I’ve just returned from my first International House Director of Studies conference, which I will hopefully write about later this week.

I did a ten-minute session as part of a ‘speed-dating’ format, where I presented the same idea five or six times – I lost count! Here are my slides, along with the associated links, with a commentary aimed at Directors of Studies, but which will hopefully be useful to anyone who reads it.

Shelly Terrell

Shelly Terrell

This is Shelly Terrell, one of the most prolific sharers of content online. Her blog is Teacher Reboot Camp, where she has a lot of information about using technology in class, along with other areas of teaching, as well as the 30 Goals Challenge. She also does webinars every Friday for the American TESOL institute. I chose this picture to start my presentation because it sums up why I love online CPD – great people, a caring community, and lots of ideas.


This is where my online professional development started. I like Twitter because it’s completely open – you can follow anyone, anyone can follow you. Although I use it less now than I used to, I still look at it briefly every day, and use it a lot during conferences.

A tweet is 140 characters, the same length as a text message. Here’s an example:


‘@’ introduces someone’s Twitter name (or ‘handle’). When it is blue, you can click on it and choose to follow that person or organisation, so that you can read what they are writing about. In this example @KatySDavies and @BCseminars are clickable.

‘#’ introduces a topic on Twitter (or ‘hashtag’). You can click on it to read everything people are saying about that topic. This example includes the hashtag #eltchat, which is one of the most popular hashtags for the English teaching community.

ELTchat tweet stream

ELTchat summaries index word cloud

Every Wednesday, at 12pm and 9pm UK time a one-hour conversation takes place using the #eltchat hashtag. The topic for each chat is announced beforehand, and anyone can join in simply by including the hashtag in their tweets. At the end of the chat, one participant summarises the conversation and turns it into a blogpost. The blogposts are collected in the #eltchat summaries index, one of the most useful resources on the web. #eltchat started in October 2010, and previous chats have covered an incredibly wide range of topics. Some chats that might be particularly relevant for Directors of Studies include:

For a more in-depth introduction to using Twitter, take a look at my beginner’s guide.


There are a lot of pages on facebook which are aimed at English teachers. Some are location-specific (e.g. Czech Republic, Turkey), some are by authors (e.g. Hugh Dellar and Andrew Walkley) and others are by publishers (e.g. Richmond ELT).

As far as I’m concerned, the most useful page is Teaching English – British Council, which has nearly 1.5 million likes as I write this. Ann Foreman, who runs it, posts a whole range of links, starts discussions, and shares ideas. It’s a thriving community.

Teaching English British Council

For many teachers, facebook is probably the easiest way of accessing online professional development, as if you already use facebook, it’s a simple matter of clicking ‘like’ on a couple of pages.


Since I started blogging about three years ago, I have changed dramatically as a teacher. While a lot of this is due to the fact I started using social media professionally at the same time and have now done my Delta, blogging has made me more reflective, and forced me to up my game in terms of the materials I produce, knowing they will be used by other people.

There are a huge range of English teaching blogs out there. You can find some of the ones I follow in my blogroll on the right of this page. I also have a Blog Starter List – if you think you should be on there, let me know!

Feedly blogs

To keep track of the blogs I follow I use a ‘reader’ called Feedly. It’s available online and as a free app. There are many readers out there, and this is just one example. You put the addresses of the blogs you follow into the reader, and it then becomes a one-stop shop, by automatically including all new posts from those blogs, meaning you don’t get a full email inbox, and you don’t have to remember to look at each blog individually on the off-chance there’s a new post. The image above shows you my list of posts to be read at the moment.

Two blogs which are particularly good for Directors of Studies are Be The DOS by Josh Round at St. George International, and The Secret DOS, which is incredibly funny, particularly his post about timetabling.


A webinar is an online seminar, normally videoed, which you watch from the comfort of your own home. A lot of organisations provide webinars, including OUP, Cambridge, Macmillan, Pearson and British Council. My favourite ones so far were the 10-minute webinars at the International House 60th anniversary online conference. Click on the picture below to see them all.

IH TOC 60 webinars


There are now webinars on an incredibly wide range of different topics, so if you have one or two teachers who need input on a particularly topic, but not enough to warrant a full CPD session, you could refer them to a webinar, which you can then discuss with them afterwards. If you want to find a webinar on a particular topic, use the #eltchat hashtag on Twitter or one of the facebook pages mentioned above to ask people to point you in the right direction.


The most important thing about social media is how supportive the ELT community is. If you have any questions about anything mentioned in this post, please don’t hesitate to ask. Good luck!


Ten years and one week ago I joined Bookcrossing, a site where you register books then pass them on to other people, following their journey around the world. It was my first experience of the social side of the internet, and was the first way I met people face-to-face who I’d originally been in contact with online. These are my current stats on the site:

That doesn’t tell you everything though. It’s also led to some great long-lasting friendships, as well as broadening the kind of books I have read – many I picked up by chance at Bookcrossing conventions or local meet-ups, that I would never have chosen to read in a bookshop. I’ve also seen my books travel across continents, and around the world, and received parcels in various countries from bookcrossing friends. Take a look at my profile for examples of some of these. It also introduced me to postcrossing. Although I don’t do it so actively now, I hope I’ll still be Bookcrossing for many years to come!

2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 120,000 times in 2013. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 5 days for that many people to see it. [I find this truly incredible – thank you to everyone who has supported/read/followed my blog over the last year. Happy New Year!]

Click here to see the complete report.