I want a native speaker

Yesterday, James Taylor wrote a post on the TEFL Equity Advocates blog entitled “Why I wish I was a Non-Native English Speaker“. It starts like this:

James Taylor
James Taylor

As someone from the UK who teaches English as a foreign language, the country of my birth is a huge advantage to me. As has been well documented on this blog, I am much more likely to get a job than someone from Japan, Algeria or Brazil, no matter how qualified or experienced they are. For some students, having a native speaker teacher has a certain cachet, as in most countries it is unusual and many of them think that it means they have a better teacher as a result. So both employers and students seem to think that because I’m English, I must be a better teacher, which has got to be good for me.

As a result, you can’t be blamed thinking that I am pleased about this situation. Without any effort on my part, I’m placed ahead of the vast majority of teachers around the world in the job market. But you’d be wrong, it offends me and I want to see it change. I’m also tallwhiteheterosexual and male and these are also a benefit to me (click on the links to find out more), but I have no desire to live in a world where nationality, size, race, sexuality and gender are the yardsticks by which our employability is measured. I would rather be judged by my ability, experience and qualifications equally against anyone else who wishes to apply for the same job. It’s not to my advantage, but that’s the world I want to live in. So if you’re a NNEST, this post is for you. There are many reasons why you have an advantage over NEST’s like me in the classroom.

I think everyone should read the whole article, along with the follow-up comments. In it James describes all of the advantages that non-native teachers have over natives. It’s a key issue in our profession, and one which frustrates me a lot. I’ve worked with many excellent non-native teachers, some of whom have had trouble getting particular jobs purely because they were unlucky enough to have the wrong passport. I’ve also shared my comment below, so you can see how I feel about the issue. If you’d like to comment too, please do it on the original article, rather than here, to try to keep the discussion in one place.

Despite being a lifelong language learner, I was never aware of the NEST/NNEST issue before I became an EFL teacher. Most of my teachers have been non-natives, and all of them have been able to speak English, so it is impossible for me to truly understand what it’s like for my students, particularly at lower levels, to be confronted by someone who has no idea how the language they are teaching compares to the students’ first language. My own language learning helps, and I can empathise, but it is impossible for me to ever know what it’s like to learn English as a Foreign Language, as James so clearly states here.

When working abroad, I’ve always worked with a mix of native and non-native teachers, and the non-natives are often the ones I’ve learnt the most from, because they can tell me where students are most likely to have problems, or what they’re most likely to be interested in. They can identify potential cultural problems too. That’s not to say that natives can’t do this, but non-natives can normally do it from day one, whereas natives need time to build up this knowledge.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the problem is principally from the teachers now – we’re preaching to the converted. The recruiters probably know deep down that experience is more important than the place on your passport too. The problem is in persuading students. As an example, we had a new student come to our school this week. She’d found us by searching for English schools with native speakers in Sevastopol, of which there are very few. When I gave her a level test, she is pre-intermediate. Why would a native speaker necessarily be any better for her? In fact, I’ve met some native speaker teachers who would actually cause her more problems at this level, especially when newly-qualified, because they don’t really understand what they’re teaching. I would have counted myself in that group too, although I hope I’ve improved since then! Yes, she would be getting exposure to a native speaker, but so what? She can do that on the internet, by watching films, and more, and she’s highly unlikely to need it much here. Instead, she’s much more likely to need to speak to other non-natives through English. She’s just heard that native speaker teachers are ‘better’ and has never really been told evidence to the contrary. I expect that if you try to pin students down on this, they might mention things like bad teachers at school, but that’s a question of training, experience, apathy, overload… rather than the mere fact of being a non-native. It’s a ‘grass is greener’ thing, especially if they’ve never had a native speaker teacher – the novelty might soon wear off.

What we need is a deep-seated culture change. Easy to say, very difficult to propagate. We’re at the start of it now. It will be a slow process, but I hope it keeps moving forward. Gradually, as a profession, we’re sharing more, we’re supporting each other more. As the generations pass, and people outside the EFL community, including students, really start to realise that English is not the property of native English speakers at all, I hope we see more of a balance. I hope we see it during our careers.

Thank you for writing this James. I’ve shared it, along with my comment, on my blog, as I think it deserves a wider audience.

Two months on

This is part of a series of posts I’ve been writing about the situation in Sevastopol/Crimea, where I currently live. I’m hoping to show what life is really like here.

Just over two months since the Crimean referendum of 16th March 2014, and Sevastopol is rapidly becoming a fully-fledged part of the Russian Federation, in some cases much more rapidly than originally expected.

On Tuesday 13th May, a week ago, in the traditional word-of-mouth way in which most news about the transition seems to be spread, I heard from two different people that the rouble would be the only currency accepted here from June 1st, 2014. This is a bit faster than originally planned – it wasn’t supposed to happen until January 1st, 2016! I haven’t seen any official announcement of this in English news sources, but having just done my first proper Google search in Russian (ever!), it was apparently announced by the speaker of the lower house of the Russian Duma (parliament) on May 12th. Gazeta.ua reports that there are now about 300 branches of Russian banks in Crimea, and that there are enough roubles in circulation to make the change.

Genbank - the first advertising for a Russian bank which I noticed
Genbank – the first advertising for a Russian bank which I noticed

However, the bus drivers obviously don’t think it will be a smooth transition, as they have stated today that June 1st will also mark a change in paying for public transport: rather than paying as you get off, you’ll have to pay before you get on. This is because they don’t think everyone knows about the switch to the rouble, and they don’t think there are enough coins in circulation yet. I’ve only seen two coins so far, so I suspect they might be right!

There have been no Ukrainian banks here since 7th May, which again I found out the next day when I was asked if I knew they’d closed. Luckily, I’d taken all of my money out of my account a few days before, but I know others who hadn’t, and now have to work out how to get their money back.

I got my first pay in roubles a week ago, although I haven’t used them to pay for anything yet. I’ve nearly used up all of my hryvnia, and a lot of people are reluctant to take them. Everyone’s trying to get rid of them, particularly small notes and coins. I’ve seen a few people paying in roubles, but not many.

My first roubles
My first roubles

Prices have been displayed in both currencies for a few weeks now, and I’ve finally got the hang of which prices are in roubles and which in hryvnia. I got the bill in a restaurant a few weeks ago and was shocked at the price, then realised it was roubles, not hryvnia – as you can see, the exchange rate is about 3RUR to 1UAH, although this varies slightly in each place you go to.

Prices in UAH and RUR
Prices in UAH and RUR

Even when you think you know the exchange rate, prices are unpredictable. This is partly because of uncertainty, partly because some places are taking advantage of the changeover to up their prices, and partly because there are sometimes supply issues. When I went to the hairdresser today, I paid in hryvnia, then asked her how much my cut would cost in roubles next time. She replied that it depends on the prices in the shops. Some places don’t bother putting prices at all, although they’re not consistent. These are from the same supermarket as the label above:

No prices on the shelves
No prices
No prices on the shelves
No prices on the shelves

Some places have told me that they only take roubles, but when you argue, they always accept hryvnia. They have no choice at the moment.

The financial uncertainty has meant that some shops have closed, which obviously doesn’t help because it leaves more people without money. Another problem is that some supplies seem not to be getting through. It’s not a question of shortages (yet?), but there are gaps on the shelves.

Quite empty shelves
Quite empty shelves

My local supermarket closed off about 1/10 of it’s floor area within a couple of weeks after the referendum, and their shelves were looking emptier and emptier. Something seems to have got through now though, as they were restocking when I went a couple of days ago. The local pharmacy has resorted to putting (what I think are) prescription medicines on their display shelves, in place of the normal tissues and cough sweets.

Card machines are still conspicuous by their absence, although some cash machines are apparently working again. A lot of them were switched off a month or so ago, and haven’t been on since. To get around the potentially thorny issue of distributing Russian currency on what many still believe is Ukrainian soil, Sberbank have come up with the ingenious solution of putting 20 cash machines onto a ferry. The ferry counts as Russian soil, so no international laws will be broken.

The non-financial side…

Post seems to be trickling through. This is a postcard from South Africa which arrived a week ago, having been sent on 24th March. I don’t know if it would have taken that long normally, but 7 weeks seems like quite a long time.

Postcard from South Africa

I went to the main post office, as I’m not sure if the small ones are working or not. The displays are mostly bare, where there used to be lots of different stamps, cards and other things you could buy, but I managed to send a parcel, covered with about 20 Russian stamps. I don’t know if/when it will ever arrive!

People are continuing to apply for their Russian passports (or ‘internal’ ID – they use the same word for both here). One student told me his company arranged for someone from the passport office to come in for a couple of days so none of them would have to queue. I bet a lot of people here wished that would happen for them too – at one point people were queueing for over three hours for passports.

The Victory Day/9th May celebrations went off without a hitch, and talking to students since I’ve discovered that they weren’t much different to normal – there’s always a party atmosphere, it’s always a big thing, and it’s always very bombastic. The only difference this year was that it was pretty much a Russian-only affair. In the past, I was told, veterans and others have attended from Poland and the UK, among others, having fought with the Soviets in the Second World War.

9th May poster on a bus
9th May poster on a bus

While waiting for the parade to start, an older woman started talking to my companions about why she was happy to see the Russian military in the parade. She described how her son had gone from being a Ukrainian soldier to a Russian one. In the Ukrainian army he had almost nothing supplied to him, just a uniform. He had had to buy pretty much everything else himself. At the weekends, he would eat at friends’ houses because the food they were given really wasn’t great. When he and his colleagues went to work for the Russian army, they took all of their equipment, and were amazed to discover that they didn’t need any of it – it was all supplied. When they went into the canteen on the first day, there were tablecloths on the tables, and a good range of food. He didn’t regret changing allegiances.

Another area in flux is the educational system. I was told about problems with the Sevastopol Banking Institute. The Institute was set up about five years ago in a beautiful new building funded by the National Bank of Ukraine, with the aim of training “highly qualified specialists for Banking and Finance system of Ukraine”. With the changeover to Russia, I was originally under the impression that it would be taken over by the Central Bank of Russia, although understandably this was a contentious issue considering where the funding had come from. Late last week, a group from the local council replaced the director of the institute, as he was said to be blocking this move. Teachers and students were asked to leave for the day. Nobody knows how they will finish their studies, or how degrees will be awarded. Yesterday students asked Putin to help resolve the situation at the Institute.

My teenage students are particularly worried about education now, as they don’t know where they will go to study, or how much they will be handicapped by having had a largely Ukrainian education if they choose to go to Russian universities, where they will have to take the same entrance exams as those who have been through the Russian system.

That’s how the situation looks after two months – some things are resolving themselves, other things are being added to the mix. It’s an interesting time to live through, and life is certainly never boring!

Conversations this week

What we’ve talked about in class this week, in no particular order:

Regatta from Park Pobedi

I think I may have taught some grammar too, but I don’t really remember. Oh, and exam practice with the FCE group.

Language is never just language.

Delta conversations: James

This is part of a series of posts showing you all the different ways you can approach the Cambridge Delta. They are designed to help you find out more about the course and what it involves, as well as helping you to choose the right way to do it for you, your lifestyle and the time you have available. If you’ve done the Delta (or any other similar higher-level teaching course, including a Masters), and you’d like to join in, let me know by leaving me a comment or contacting me via Twitter @sandymillin.

James Pengelley is a teacher at the British Council in Hong Kong. He tweets @hairychef, swims in the pool and bakes at home in his kitchen. He was on the same Distance Delta course as me, if you’d like to compare notes.

James Pengelley

How did you do your Delta? How did you arrange the modules?

I completed the Distance Delta programme (Integrated).  This basically entails attending a 2-week face-to-face orientation at your nearest centre (usually a British Council), and then completing modules 1, 2 and 3 at the same time over about 9 months.  The first two LSA’s [observed lessons – Module 2] are very close together, and then the last two are a bit more spaced out, with the written exam [Module 1] coming at the end before submission of your module 3 thesis [the extended assignment in which you put together a course proposal].

Why did you choose to do it that way?

Where I was working, the only choice I had was the Distance programme.  I had been thinking about doing the Delta for a few years, and realised I was at the low-end of teaching experience I thought would be needed to succeed (5 years ± was my estimate after speaking to lots of people and trainers, even though Cambridge recommend 2 years minimum), but given I was working as a Senior Teacher and thought it would both a) be good timing and b) improve my chances of getting a job that would provide financial support to fly me back home to Australia 🙂 I decided to go for it.

What do you think you gained from doing the Delta?

Aside from a nagging sense of paranoia whenever I walk into an observation…?  No, I’m only joking… Actually I have just completed a TYLEC [Trinity Young Learners Extension course, currently being piloted by British Council] and to be honest, I am almost certain no observation, assessed or otherwise will EVER phase me again since the Delta.

Above all, I feel significantly more confident in the decisions I make as a teacher.  I feel I am also better able to guide and support colleagues who have questions and I have really been able to pursue my own interests in classroom research.

What were the downsides of the method you chose?

There were many:

  • The Distance Integrated Programme does not offer any standardised face-to-face instruction throughout the course.  All input is either self-directed (independent reading) or via disappointingly sub-par PDF documents that are made available for each section of the course.  These are often insufficient on their own, contain errors, or are poorly formatted.
  • The tutors were, on the whole, extremely helpful.  I did feel, however, there was a significant need to standardise the way tutors were giving feedback. The way the DD programme is structured, it is normal for candidates to submit a draft of an LSA, for example, and then receive feedback from one tutor. When candidates receive feedback, they continue working (or in some cases, totally re-working) what they have done, and then submit the final draft, which is marked by a different online tutor. I found, from discussing experiences with several DD candidates who were in the same city and course as I was, that the second round of feedback (and the final mark) was often in stark contrast to what was suggested by the first tutor in the first draft. In one case, this actually involved a candidate having to totally rework their final LSA (which, if you don’t know, is the LSA that candidates are required to work on independently, with minimal tutor input and determines a huge part of your overall mark for module 2) with only 5 days notice, having worked on a draft for 4 weeks.
  • There was a lack on resources allocated to the course.  Candidates were not given access to journals (there were a limited number of articles made available on the website, but these were not enough to complete the course to any appropriate standard), and I felt quite strongly about this. A large theme that runs through the Delta is “tailoring your classes to the needs and contexts you teach in”. However, there was no attempt made to provide instruction via contemporary digital technologies (think of the possibilities: virtual classrooms, chatrooms, etc) other than a limited selection of videoed lessons and the chat forum for each group. The issue of lack of journal access was raised with the Course Co-Ordinator and as of the end of the course, the DD response was that they had financial approval to grant journal access to future candidates. However, there is a copyright issue in granting access to so many people online. This issue may take some time to resolve, though its resolution is currently in the works
  • I feel, above all, the main let-down of the course is the lack of face-to-face training.  From speaking to other colleagues who did their Deltas in a face-to-face setting, they often use words like “inspirational” or “extremely motivating” to describe their experiences.  I think with some fine-tuning, and provision of more appropriately interactive online learning platforms, or at the very least significant provision of quality model lessons (with discussion/focus questions to follow up), the course would be greatly improved.

What were the benefits of the method you chose?

Don’t get me wrong, I think the DD programme has huge potential, but in its present conception, it is an outdated and wilted product. It has, no doubt, facilitated the up-skilling of thousands of teachers in areas where face-to-face training is not an option, like me.

For those candidates who were motivated, the extended time frame of the DD programme allows you to fully explore and investigate areas of interest in your own teaching and assimilate concepts effectively. To be honest, I have no idea how people survive the 2-month intensive courses!

We were also able to work full time and study, and did not have to sacrifice our income stream in order to study, which was a bonus.

How much time did you spend per week on the course?

I was lucky in that my working hours were quite flexible during the course.  I estimate that on average I spent about 20 hours a week minimum. At peak times it was possibly in the region of 5-6 hours a day (in the lead up to LSA deadlines and pre-exam).  However, I know many many people who passed the course doing less than this.

What tips would you give other people doing the Delta?

My top tips would be:

  • Think very carefully about your preferred method of delivery.  Do you need constant pressure and face-to-face guidance to stay on task?  Do you have the time to complete the course over a longer period of time?  Do you have access to resources to do sufficient reading and investigation? Do you have access to peers and colleagues who are interested in and able to support you and act as sounding boards for your ideas? [If you need help deciding, you can read more of the Delta conversations to find out what options are available.]
  • If there are only 3 books you buy…
    Methodology in Language Teaching (Richards & Renandya)
    Beyond the Sentence (Thornbury)
    The Language Teaching Matrix (Richards)
    [affiliate links – Sandy will get a little bit of money if you buy after clicking here]
  • However you do the course, think long-term: try to think about how you will use your knowledge and ALL the work you’ve done once the course is finished.  For example, I turned one of my LSA assignments into an article for the IH Journal, part of my module 2 classroom research into a successful scholarship application for IATEFL 2014, and I have delivered a number of INSETT and training sessions based on my Delta assignments. I found some of the most rewarding results from doing the course happened after I got my certificates!

In retrospect…

I’m not sure I would do anything differently. I dearly wish I had had the freedom to attend a face-to-face course, though these are not offered widely outside Europe.  In a perfect world, I’d have take some time off and gone to the UK, but that clearly wasn’t going to happen. I am especially glad I did my Delta and didn’t opt to pursue an MA, because of the huge emphasis on practical classroom application of theory in the Delta. I wouldn’t, however, recommend the Distance programme (if that isn’t painfully obvious from what I have said above) until the major issues in delivery of content have been addressed.

Victory Day, 9th May 2014, Sevastopol

At the end of April, these stickers started to appear on public transport across the city.

9th May stickers have been on every bus since the end of April
9th May, Sevastopol

Then a couple of brand new trolley buses appeared on the streets.

9th May trolleybus
Victory, 9th May

This minibus too…

9th May minibus

All of the advertising in the city centre was replaced with images of war veterans, accompanied by their names and a paragraph about them, every poster showcasing a different person or couple.

Posters showing the veterans and describing what they did

Other posters and banners appeared too.

Victory Day signs and billboards from around Sevastopol
70 years victory / Victory Day Greetings / Honor the actions of our fathers and grandfathers / For Victory Day

Red, white and blue flags were put on every other lamppost.

Flags on lampposts

The main memorial in the centre of the city was cleaned, and the trees near it were chopped back.

The wood on the benches in the city centre was replaced, although not all of the old wood was taken away!

New wood on the benches

Even the lines on the roads were repainted.

New lines on the road

For the week leading up to 9th May the events of Victory Day were the main topic of conversation, with speculation on what exactly would happen on the big day, including whether Putin would visit. Everyone had a different idea about what time things would happen, and nobody really seemed to know exactly how the day would pan out. One thing was clear though: it would be a day that would go down in the history of the city.

On the morning of 9th May, I left my flat early. Or at least I thought I had. When I got to my bus stop there were about 50-60 people there, with more arriving all the time, and every bus going past was so full of people it just drove by. I walked back two stops, to find the same at both of those. In the end I got the bus in the opposite direction, travelling for more than 10 stops before finding a stop with few enough people to try to get into the centre from. There was more traffic than I’ve ever seen going into the city, and almost nothing going in the opposite direction. The 20-minute journey took me nearly an hour.

When I finally made it, I found a party atmosphere. There was a buzz of excitement, and the 9th May balloons were everywhere.

9th May balloons

People were standing anywhere they thought they would get a view.

Thousands of people on the stairs

Even a downpour of rain didn’t deter them.

A sea of umbrellas

At 10:15, we heard an announcement, and the first parade started. It was led by drummers, and consisted of cadets from the many military academies in the city.

The next part of the parade was a display of military hardware. People started chanting ‘Россия, Россия’ (Russia, Russia).

Then came the part of the parade everyone had been waiting for: the veterans. They came from all over Crimea, and perhaps even from further afield. Each group was led by a banner stating the unit, ship or submarine they were from. 
Veterans' parade

As they went past, people were chanting ‘Спасибо, Спасибо’ (Thank you, thank you).

Children waited with flowers to hand them to the veterans as they passed.

Children waiting to give flowers to the veterans

The veterans had huge smiles on their faces, and were grateful every time someone gave them flowers.

Veterans receiving flowers

Those who were absent were also represented in the parade.

Honouring those who were absent

The emotion was palpable, and the veterans were clearly touched by the appreciation shown to them.

There were flags everywhere.


The red star and hammer and sickle is the Soviet era naval ensign, which has been superseded by a St. Andrew’s Cross (a blue cross on a white background, the opposite colours to the Scottish flag), but which is still a very popular symbol here. The black, blue and red flag represents the Donetsk People’s Republic, an area of Ukraine which is holding a referendum as I write this. The 9th May flag shows the black and orange ribbon of St. George and the highest medal awarded to Soviet soldiers for valour in the Second World War. The ribbon was being worn by well over half of the people I saw during the day. It’s all over the city, tied to cars, bags, and even prams.

After the parade finished, the streets in the city centre were still closed for a while. People were looking at old vehicles from the Second World War and posing for pictures with those who owned them.

Just one of the reenactors

There were bands in a couple of places, with people dancing to the music. This one was next to a war memorial made from an old tank.

Band near memorial

I went to the fairground with my friends, where we went on the ferris wheel…

Ferris wheel

…visited the defences from the First Defence of Sevastopol during the Crimean War…

Crimean war defences, Sevastopol

…and walked around the park, where people were having picnics.

Picnics on Victory Day

Around the city there were many other things to see too.

Main children's library - artwork
Children’s artwork at the main children’s library in Sevastopol
Children's art school - work by pupils
A painting by a child in the window of a children’s art school
Photos of Russian military hardware
Photos of Russian military hardware
Photos of veterans
Photos of Second World War veterans
Photos of Sevastopol during World War Two, showing the destruction of the city
Sevastopol during the Second World War: veterans and ruins

After that I had a break for a couple of hours, during which President Vladimir Putin arrived in Sevastopol. This was the most controversial part of the day for the outside world, as reported by (for example) The New York Times, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian and The Washington Post.

I saw part of his speech on Russia 24 television, which had dedicated the majority of their coverage to Victory Day celebrations across the Russian-speaking world, with the only other news covered being the situation in Ukraine, mostly in Mariupol. You can read a full transcript of the speech Putin made in Sevastopol, or watch a video showing parts of the day, including the speech.

He was also on the main stage in the centre of Sevastopol a little later, although I can’t find any links to the speech he made then, and people were chanting ‘Спасибо, Спасибо’ (Thank you, thank you) again. Many people in the crowd were crying, and I know from someone in the crowd that at one point Putin had to stop speaking because he was so choked up.

The next big event was an air show, with the highlight being a joint display by the Russian Knights (the large blue planes) and the Swifts (the smaller red planes with blue stars on the bottom), two aerobatic teams from the Russian Air Force. There were also other military planes in a flypast, and examples of planes refuelling in mid-air. This article has a video showing the view of Sevastopol from the planes of the Russian Knights. What I didn’t realise was that it would be divided into two sections, so I was surprised later when the planes started displaying again. These photos are all from the first display.

In the bay, 10 warships were lined up. Before Putin’s speech, he travelled past them on a launcher for the crews to salute. I took this photo later in the day:

Ships lined up in Sevastopol bay

The day ended with a huge fireworks display. The ships in the bay were lit up, and the crowds were huge. To give you an indication of how much of a celebration Victory Day is here, the man in the picture below choose the beginning of the fireworks to propose to his girlfriend, and she accepted.

Night time on Victory Day

The next day, a feeling of celebration was still very much in the air. This huge tall ship, Kruzenshtern, apparently one of the biggest sailing ships still in operation, was visiting Sevastopol for a couple of days. I didn’t go on her because the queues were hours long, but I spent a while taking photos and absorbing the atmosphere.

Kruzenshtern - a four-masted tall ship which visited Sevastopol for Victory Day

Why is Victory Day so important?

Victory Day marks the capitulation of Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War. Over 20 million Soviets died during the Great Patriotic War, as it is known to Russians. My friend told me that this equates to about 13 people every minute, throughout the whole war. Everybody here is related to people who died, on a scale which it is difficult to comprehend as an outsider.

That means that for the Russian-speaking world:

Victory Day is Russia’s most important secular holiday and a key element of the country’s national identity, honoring the armed forces and the millions who died in World War II. 

Taken from: The NY Daily News

I first became aware of its importance late last year, when my students started telling me about it. They were surprised that we don’t celebrate it in the UK. I was told that there would be a parade of veterans and a fireworks display. After the Crimean referendum in March, the anticipation started to increase, with people telling me that this year’s Victory Day celebrations would be bigger than ever because they would be allowed to show off more of the military.

Important anniversaries

It’s 230 years since Catherine the Great ordered Grigory Potemkin to build a fort here and name it Sevastopol. 2014 also marks 70 years since the city was taken back from the Nazis after the Crimean Offensive on 9th May 1944.

70 years without war - billboards
’70 years without war’ – billboards showing various images are all over the city

7th May 1944 was the assault on Sapun-Gora, the final line of defence outside the city itself. There was a reenactment there last weekend which I also went to.

70 years - 1944-2014
A flyer dropped from a plane during the reenactment

The Nazi takeover of the city in 1941-1942 and its subsequent recapturing by Soviet forces is one of the defining events in the history of Sevastopol. During the Siege of Sevastopol over 95% of the city was destroyed. Those who died are commemorated in a monument which dominates the main square.

Memorial to the Second Defence of Sevastopol, 1941-1942

This is where Putin laid his wreath on Victory Day this year.

Flowers left near the memorial for the Second Defense of Sevastopol
Flowers left near the memorial for those who died during the Siege of Sevastopol

Victory Day 2014 was never just going to be a celebration of the veterans in Sevastopol. It was always going to be a time of celebrating freedom and appreciating the sacrifice of those who fought and died for it. I feel the Western media has missed this side of it, as exemplified by this sentence from the BBC report on Victory Day in various cities:

Victory Day is supposed to be about remembering the sacrifices of World War Two, but today in Sevastopol it became a party.

70 years without war - thank you, grandad, for victory
70 years – ‘Thank you, grandad, for victory’ – a sticker on many cars

That’s not to say that I didn’t feel conflicted at various points during the day. It’s hard not to be caught up in the atmosphere when everyone around you is cheering and excited, but it didn’t stop me feeling slightly uncomfortable during the display of military hardware, not knowing whether this was a normal part of Victory Day here, or whether it was a show of force for the outside world because of current events. However I felt, attending Victory Day in Sevastopol was a fascinating insight into a different culture, and one which I’m glad I was able to experience.

Some final thoughts

I’ve grown up in a country and a culture where I have been conditioned to mistrust Russians, through the messages that have been fed to me by popular culture. During the reenactment at Sapun-Gora I thought ‘I’m watching both of our groups of enemies’ and it felt strange, then had to remind myself that the Soviets were our allies at that point. I am here, I can speak to locals, I can get an idea about what they think and feel, and even then it’s taken a long time to change my filters. After nine months in Sevastopol, I still occasionally catch myself questioning people’s motives, the people I am surrounded by and who I know are just people, like me and you. A lot of the outside world seems to tar everyone with the same brush, the brush they were taught to use by growing up in cultures like mine, where Russians are automatically the bad guys.

What is happening now worries me a lot. The events in Crimea, the actions of Putin, the lack of dialogue and understanding between all sides, the division between families and friends, the rhetoric. It’s impossible to know what will happen over the next few days, weeks and months. Whatever it is, I sincerely hope that the events marked by Victory Day are never repeated, and that in the 21st century we can find other ways to resolve our differences than through violence.

Reading for exams

This presentation was part of the Tip-Top local conference in Sevastopol which took place on May 10th, 2014. There’s a video from the conference, with photos from my presentation from about 1:00-1:30.

I shared activities to help students prepare for the KET, PET and FCE reading exams. If you have other activities you like using, why not share them in the comments?

There is a recorded version of the presentation here:

Here is the handout with all of the reading texts referred to during the presentation:

They were taken from the official Cambridge handbooks for Key (KET), Preliminary (PET) and First (FCE), which are all free to download from the Cambridge ESOL site.

The listening book mentioned on the third slide is ‘Teaching and Learning Second Language Listening: Metacognition in Action‘ by Larry Vandergrift and Christine Goh.

The signs used for KET and PET were taken from ELTpics, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license. ELTpics is a collection of over 18,000 images (as I write this) shared by teachers and other education professionals from all over the world. They are arranged into categories, for example ‘Signs‘, ‘Rooms and Furniture‘ and ‘Every Picture Tells a Story‘. The photos used in the presentation were taken by Scott Thornbury, Victoria Boobyer, Mike Harrison, @silpico, Adam Simpson, and me!

The extra links I shared at the end of the presentation were:

  • Cambridge English‘ on facebook;
  • Hive of Activities: a blog by Emma Gore-Lloyd, where she shares activities she’s found useful in her class, particularly for FCE, CAE and CPE;
  • my diigo list of exam-related bookmarks, which I constantly add to. You can narrow it down by clicking ‘+’ next to any of the sub-categories on the left. For example, clicking ‘+’ next to ‘FCE’ will show you only my FCE links.

I’d like to thank David Dodgson, Hada Litim, Maria Theologidou, Olga Stolbova and Damian Williams for their help in putting together this presentation.

Five ways to raise your professional profile (IH TOC6)

For those who don’t know IH TOC is the regular International House Teacher’s Online Conference. This time round the conference has returned to the successful 10-minute presentation format of IHTOC60, which celebrated the 60th anniversary of IH.

My presentation offered advice on how to raise your professional profile. You can watch the video below:

Feel free to ask me questions about any of the ideas, or to ask for more advice. I’m always happy to help! You can also watch all of the other talks.

IHTOC May 2014 Raising your professional profile Sandy Millin


This is my 300th post!

I started my blog in October 2010 with a post detailing my resolutions for the new academic year, my final one working at International Brno. It was 128 words (those were the days, I hear you cry!) and could be boiled down to this:

to use more technology in my classroom

The interim 298 posts have been a voyage in professional discovery. Coupled with the many blogs that I read, the conversations that I have on social media, and the conferences I’ve been lucky enough to go to, as well as the professional support I’ve had from all of the great IH schools I’ve worked at and my Delta, my blog and the ensuing comments have encouraged me to reflect on what I do in the classroom and really think about why I do it.

Going back to my original post, I now use a lot more technology in the classroom, but I’m also much more aware of when it’s not appropriate. I’ve learnt how and when to apply it, and I’m constantly experimenting with technology, among many other things. This is just one example of how joining the online teaching community has shaped my teaching.

In addition to what happens in the classroom, my writing style has developed hugely thanks to my blog, and I’ve branched out from being purely professional-focussed into sharing other aspects of my life as a teacher, including some of the bad bits, and some of the things I am witness to thanks to living in other countries and being from the UK. I’ve also learnt a lot about putting together posts, the most important of which is to always include an image – it makes it much easier to share it, and a bit more interesting to look at. It breaks up the text a bit too!

Statistics map
This is where my readers have come from since February 25, 2012. Thank you!

When people come up to me and say they’ve read my blog, there’s always a little voice in my head saying ‘Wow, how did that happen? How did I get to this?’ When I first started writing it, I wondered what I could add to all the great blogs I’d already been reading for a few months and I thought ‘No-one will ever read mine’. I decided to write for myself, and looking back over the blog is a great record of my professional development. I still write what I want to write, when I want to, without worrying about any kind of schedule, but now I know that someone somewhere will hopefully find each post useful, and I love the discussion/comments/other posts that come out of what I write. They make me think and inspire me to keep writing.

Last week, largely thanks to the TeachingEnglish British Council facebook page, which I cannot recommend highly enough, I reached over 300,000 views on my blog. This happened at the same time as my highest single day’s views (11,011) from this guest post by Tereza Eliasova on praise and feedback, which also meant that in May so far (it’s the 6th as I write this) I already have more views than I have had in any other month in the nearly four years I’ve been writing my blog. I find this phenomonal, and slightly scary!

That first post still only has 20 views, and about a quarter of my posts have less than 100 views. At the other end of the scale, these are the all time top five posts:

  1. Useful FCE websites – 28,292 views
  2. I am *super* impressed! (guest post) – 13,415 views
  3. How I’m learning Russian – 8,395 views
  4. Key Word Transformations with Modals of Speculation/Deduction – 7,503 views
  5. Online resources for Business English teaching – 7,053 views

The second/third ones were written this week, and those views came almost exclusively from TeachingEnglish British Council on facebook. The first post is almost always the one that gets the highest number of views in any given week. I wonder how much that will change over the next 100 posts? 🙂

How does the Silent Way work in the classroom? – Roslyn Young (IATEFL Harrogate 2014)

Despite having read a bit about it for Delta, I never really got how The Silent Way worked. Roslyn Young’s IATEFL Harrogate 2014 session changed all that, and while I don’t believe it will change my teaching completely, it’s something I’d be interested in trying out with lower-level groups, particularly if I ever get to teach beginners again.

[Note: this post was written during Roslyn’s session, hence the narrative style.]

Roslyn has been using The Silent Way since 1971, so has many years of experience.

She introduces us to how Cuisenaire rods are used in The Silent Way.
She shows us a rectangle chart and teaches us some Japanese, by giving us a single sound and pointing to the rods on the image and getting us to repeat the sounds. She mouths sounds, pointing to more rectangles. By pointing rapidly, we make words. She uses a lot of gestures and mime, but no sound. There’s a lot of laughter in the room. By pointing at rods at the bottom and top of the chart, she shows us pitchs.

Roslyn teaching us Japanese using a Cuisenaire chart
Roslyn teaching us Japanese using a Cuisenaire chart

After about two minutes, we already know that Japanese has a pitch system. The rectangle also shows us the five vowels of the system.

Her job as a language teacher is to make us aware of all the problems we might have to deal with as learners of Japanese.

The chart also shows us the consonants. It’s a map of the whole sound system of Japanese.

She teaches all ages using this method.

She also has a rectangle chart for the sounds of English, including stress and reduction. The colours go from language to language, so the same sound is connected to the same colours in different languages.

The learning process according to Gattegno

There are many theories about how we learn. This is how Caleb Gattegno, creator of The Silent Way, sees it.

  1. There is something to learn. (e.g. in the Japanese chart there are two lots of vowels marked, so the learner sees there’s something to learn)
  2. We learn through awarenesses/movements of the mind. They might be things that you notice visually, audibly. They can be internal or external awarenesses. You have to be ‘present’ to what you’re doing to learn. It’s the stage of ‘exploration’.
  3. This is where things become automatic. At the start of this stage, they’re not automatic, but at the end they are.
  4. Transfer. Anything I’ve learnt in my life is available at any time that I want to use it.

Saying more

There are charts for beginners using the same colours as the rods. You can point to different words to build up sentences.

Roslyn using the word chart
Roslyn using the word chart

What should we be teaching?

Beginners’ books normally start with the same structures: Hello. I come from…, adding vocabulary…

The Silent Way is completely different. It asks what you can give the learners in the time you have them. It requires you to give them everything they might have trouble learning without you, like pronunciation and structures.

What Roslyn wants them to learn is the mindset of how to relate to people in the English language. You can do this by placing yourself in time and space. They can learn vocabulary without her. She wants to give them those things that they won’t get outside her lessons, focussing principally on pronunciation to start with. This will give them a grounding for self-study later.

The next step

She pulls out a couple of students, and they follow instructions, using the language in a ‘real’ context. This is after about five hours of language.
e.g. Take a rod. Give it to him.

A student might suggest ‘Take two rods and give it to her.’ At this point, Roslyn will hold up her hands and point out ‘Take two rods and give them to her’ on the chart. This helps students to learn the meaning of ‘it’ and ‘them’. This is how the Silent Way advances, by students taking leaps and the teacher helping them. Every time, communication has already taken place, and the Silent Way shows them how to express it correctly. The students are talking to each other the whole time. The only time Roslyn speaks is for classroom management. Silent Way is about expression.

“The person I talk to most is myself.” Language is about understanding my world in terms of what I think, what I say – you say things in different ways in your head until you work out what you want to say.

Connected speech

The chart shows different pronunciations of the same spellings, like ‘there’ and ‘there’, showing the different functions. The chart also has dots showing words which might have different pronunciations, like weak and strong ‘a’. Students learn this from the very beginning.

The initial English rectangle chart includes schwa, schwii (short /i/, like at the end of ‘happy’), and schwu (short /u/, like at the end of ‘shadow‘).


There is a similar chart to the rectangle chart, showing all of the spellings for each sound. Those written in a smaller font appear less often, and students notice this and realise they don’t have to focus on those sound patterns as much.

Silent way spellings chart
Silent Way spellings chart

The colour-coding mean that there is an immediate way into reading off new words that students have never seen before.

This still works for colour-blind students, as people work via the geography of the chart as well as the colours.

Why use The Silent Way?

You subordinate your teaching to the student’s learning. It helps the students undertake their learning in a very orderly way.

By repeatedly doing something you create experience, like an apprentice learns from a master craftsman. You then order that experience to create knowledge, like a craftsman writing a book. Somebody picks up that book, but that doesn’t give them the knowledge. They still have to build up the experiences. You can’t transmit knowledge, but you can give students experience. Silent Way gives them that experience by getting students to speak as much as possible, with the teacher acting purely as a facilitator.

If you’d like to see more examples of the Silent Way charts, try Donald Cherry’s website.

IATEFL Harrogate 2014 – a summary

[I wrote the first half of this post back in May last year, and now that it’s February 2015, I thought it was probably time to finish it! The first sentence is still true though, so I won’t change it] 🙂

IATEFL Harrogate was over a month ago now, and I’m still digesting what I learnt there. In this post I’ll attempt to summarise my conference experience and the talks I attended based on tweets and blogposts from the week.

Wednesday 2nd April

English and economic development – David Graddol’s plenary

David gave a lot of evidence about the relationship between English learning and economic development. The quotes above were the most interesting, because it questions the standards we set for school leavers, and the reasons why we require potential employees to be able to speak English. What is the point of training learners to a standard that isn’t good enough to get them a job? And/or what is the point of forcing students to learn more of the language than they’ll ever need to be employed? And is English just another piece of paper to show you’re qualified, or is it actually a necessary skill? You can watch a recording of the plenary.

Due to the dodgy wifi, I blogged the rest of the talks I went to on Wednesday:

I also liked these tweets from Hugh Dellar, because the first one summarises how I felt there too. I don’t drink though, so I’ve only experienced the second one via other people’s delicate heads! 😉

 Thursday 3rd April

It was my birthday so I decided to have a slow start! 🙂 Ela Wassell started my day off beautifully with a card which she’d got signed by lots of people there. Thanks Ela! My IATEFL 2014 birthday card I Speak Meme – Nina Jerončič How to use memes in the classroom, in the talk with the best title of the conference. She might be writing a guest post for me summarising the talk, although since I asked her a long time ago and forgot to remind her, I’m hoping that she’s still willing to do it!

How does the silent way work in the classroom – Roslyn Young ‘The Silent Way’ explained in such a way that I finally understood it!

Adam Simpson and I were interviewed by Ann Foreman and Paul Braddock from British Council Teaching English. We spoke about blogging and offered advice to those of you who(‘d like to) blog.

Mark Hancock’s talk ‘Pronouncing meaning – rhythm and stress games was full by the time I arrived, but he’s shared the materials on his site.

Practical pronunciation ideas for teaching in an ELF context – Laura Patsko and Katy Simpson Lots of things you can do to help your students deal with English as a Lingua Franca, in both multilingual and monolingual classrooms.

While I’m on pronunciation, Richard Cauldwell’s name was mentioned a few times during the day, and his book ‘Phonology for Listening‘ [affiliate link] was one of my birthday presents (thanks again Ela!). When I’ve read it, I’ll share my impressions, but until then, here’s what Hugh Dellar has to say:

Mike McCarthy ‘Collocation and the learner: wading into the depths’ was on at the same time as Laura and Katy. Luckily, Cambridge ELT were tweeting some of the highlights:

I found it particularly interesting that these mistakes could be divided by level:

I finished the day with Lizzie Pinard’s talk ‘Bridging the gap between materials and the English-speaking environment in which she described the process of putting together materials to help students take advantage of studying in an English-speaking environment. She later won a well-deserved ELTon for the same materials.

Other tweets which caught my eye on Thursday:

Friday 4th April

I had another slow start on Friday and missed a lot of sessions. The first one I went to was Emina Tuzovic’s ‘Spilling or Spelling? Why do Arabic EFL learners stand out?‘ Emina shared some very practical tips and activities for helping Arabic learners with their spelling, which was something I’d been looking for since I realised they had a particular problem not shared by any other L1 background. Emina was kind enough to write a guest post on my blog sharing ideas from her talk.

I took a break to prepare for my presentation. It’s available as a recording on my blog: ‘Stepping into the real world: transitioning listening‘. I was happy to see so many people there:

Lots of wonderful people at my IATEFL 2014 conference presentation
Lots of wonderful people at my IATEFL 2014 conference presentation

Cecilia Lemos taught us about ‘Making lesson observation a teacher’s best friend, not the enemy’, with a very interesting idea about a menu of observation tasks, which I’m looking forward to reading more about when she finds time to put it on her blog 🙂 In the meantime, you can read Lizzie Pinard’s summary of the session.

I used to work with Amy Brown at IH Newcastle, so it was a no-brainer that I would attend her talk ‘Reading for pleasure: a path to learner autonomy?’, especially because it is about extending the Personal Study Programme into a new area – PSP was my IATEFL topic in 2013. Amy discussed a project she implemented in partnership with The Reader Organisation, where trained readers came to the school to run guided reading groups. Again, Lizzie blogged about Amy’s talk.

My last ‘proper’ talk of the day was Pete Sharma introducing the Vocabulary Organizer: a new way to organize lexis’ [affiliate link to Amazon – I’ll make a few pennies if you buy via this link]. This was my only publisher talk of the conference, and I got a free copy of the organizer. 🙂 I really like the fact that there are two separate sections in it for ‘vocabulary to recognise’ and ‘vocabulary to use’. It’s specifically designed for EAP (English for Academic Purposes) students, but I think it might be useful for other students too. You can see Pete’s slides on slideshare.

That night, I was lucky enough to be one of the speakers for the Pecha Kucha evening, which was a fabulous experience. You can find out what Pecha Kucha is and watch the recording here – it’s a very entertaining hour, even if I do say so myself 🙂

Saturday 5th April

Sugata Mitra’s plenary generated a huge amount of debate, which I’m not going to get into here (as I haven’t got round to reading a lot of it yet!) Instead, I’ll give you a link to said plenary, and let you Google ‘Sugata Mitra IATEFL 2014‘ to find out what happened next…

The next talk was a reunion of sorts, since it was given by Teti Dragas, one of my CELTA tutors, who I hadn’t seen since I asked for advice a few weeks after the course finished. Her talk ‘Exploring culture in teacher education: reflections on a corpus-based study’ was based on a module done the MA TESOL at Durham University. In it, she compared Chinese attitudes to teaching and training to those in the UK, and the implications of this on the MA TESOL programme. She recommended moving away from assessed teaching practice towards a more general culture of reflective practice.

My final talk of the conference was another reunion, this time with Alex Cann, who did his Delta at IH Newcastle while I was teaching there. He was presenting on a similar topic to me, ‘Helping high-level learners understand native speaker conversations’. He shared some interesting activities to help students deal with pronunciation issues and activate their knowledge before starting to listen. He also shared my favourite video of the conference, demonstrating the importance of pronunciation and listening:

I wish I’d been able to go to this talk too:

You can see the full text of Anthony’s talk ‘The place is here and the time is now’ on his blog.

Jackie Kay, a poet, finished off the conference with a lovely selection of readings from her work and stories from her life. It was livestreamed but not recorded. Here’s an example of her reading Old Tongue, about losing her accent, so you can hear her lovely accent 🙂

Other people’s blogging

IATEFL runs a scheme where anyone can register as a blogger, regardless of whether they are at the conference or not. This creates a great picture of the conference as a whole, and promotes a lot of discussion. Here is the full list of Harrogate Online registered bloggers. It’s definitely worth taking a look – there are a lot of posts about the conference, and it’s a good place to start looking for other blogs you might want to read in general.

TeachingEnglish highlighted Lizzie Pinard’s coverage of the conference as being particularly good, and I’d second that! You might also enjoy Nicola Prentis talking about a glut of ELT celebrity encounters.

Not done yet…

As I write this [back in May!] I’m over a month behind on blog reading, and still have at least three talks I missed during the conference which I’d like to watch the videos of, with more probably being added to this list as I catch up with my reading. I still have one or two posts in my drafts which I’ll add to this summary as I publish them. I’ve also asked a few speakers to write guest posts based on their talks, which I’ll add too, so there’ll definitely be more to come from this year’s conference. Watch this space!

[February 2015 update: I think I’ve shared all of the planned posts, and I’ve caught up on my blog reading, but I still haven’t managed to watch the videos I want to, starting with Russ Mayne’s ‘Guide to pseudo-science in English language teaching‘ which I’m still hearing about regularly despite it being nearly a year since the conference. Russ, the buzz hasn’t died down at all!]

Delta conversations: Matthew

This is part of a series of posts showing you all the different ways you can approach the Cambridge Delta. They are designed to help you find out more about the course and what it involves, as well as helping you to choose the right way to do it for you, your lifestyle and the time you have available. If you’ve done the Delta (or any other similar higher-level teaching course, including a Masters), and you’d like to join in, let me know by leaving me a comment or contacting me via Twitter @sandymillin.

Matthew Ellman is a teacher and materials writer working in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He passed the Delta with double distinction in 2013, and is currently doing an MA in Applied Linguistics to fill the gaping void it left in his life. He blogs at teachertolearner.com and tweets from @mattellman.

Matt Ellman

How did you do your Delta?

I did my Delta on a face-to-face course over 8 months at International House Madrid.  I had already done quite a bit of reading when I started though  ̶  I used the course as a pretext for staying at home and sponging off my parents all summer, so it was unavoidable!  All told, then, I suppose you could say I did it over about a year.

How did you arrange the modules?

I didn’t really arrange the modules so much as blindly submit to the schedule that was given to me by my tutors. It’s a good thing I did though, because in hindsight I can’t see any better way of organising things.  We did modules 2 and 3 side-by-side, and the classes we had in preparation for our module 2 assignments doubled up as exam preparation classes, particularly as the exam drew near.

Why did you choose to do it that way?

I was working for IH at the time, so it made sense to do it there. They were able to fit it around my teaching timetable and helped ensure I had suitable classes for observations. I didn’t get a staff discount though, which still keeps me awake at night…

What do you think you gained from doing the Delta?

In the classroom, it made me more aware of the rationale behind things: things I had learnt from the CELTA without truly understanding, and things that I was using in published materials. That, in turn, made me more confident about the decisions I was making during planning and in class.

As I’ve moved into materials writing, I’ve come to appreciate the benefit of module 3, the extended assignment.  It gave me an understanding of things like assessment and course design that I hadn’t touched on before, so it was probably the module that has opened the most doors for me since I finished the course.

What were the downsides of the method you chose?

I’m not sure there was a downside, apart from having to pay for it myself! Had I been in a situation to do the Delta as part of an MA course, I might have chosen to do that, but it wasn’t an option.

What were the benefits of the method you chose?

Face-to-face instruction has enormous benefits that tend to be overlooked when it’s compared to distance or blended learning. Informal discussions in class between tasks, or in breaks, and tutors’ offhand comments about this theory or that book – all of that feeds into your understanding of the material, but you don’t get that from an online course.

Timing was another benefit.  Nine months proved to be a good balance between getting the course done on the one hand, and having the time to absorb the new information and apply it to my teaching on the other.  I marvel at how anyone can get through a full-time Delta in 8 weeks.

I was fortunate to have the help of two excellent tutors – Kate Leigh and Steven McGuire – and their advice and encouragement were crucial factors in my success. I don’t think that anything improves your teaching more than being observed by experienced tutors who can see in detail what your strengths and weaknesses are. I’ve since spoken to other Delta trainees, particularly doing the Distance Delta, that haven’t had the same level of support or insight from their tutors, and that’s a great shame. The purpose of the course is to improve your teaching, and unfortunately it seems that there are some tutors who see the whole thing as one horribly rigorous extended assessment in which their role is simply to pass judgement.

What tips would you give other people doing the Delta?

Be organised – the course is perfectly manageable if you set aside time for studying and keep on top of all the work.

Do your reading – Tricia Hedge’s Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom is an excellent place to start for just about any topic the Delta covers.

Practise your assessed lessons – if you can, try out your lesson plan on a class of guinea pigs beforehand.* Doing so reveals weaknesses that you just can’t spot by looking at it on paper.

Use your tutors – for better or worse there is an element of box-ticking when it comes to CELTA and Delta, and knowing what Cambridge expect is part of the difficulty with each assignment. Don’t be afraid to ask your tutors about anything that’s unclear; it’s their job to clarify that type of thing.


*Not real guinea pigs, obviously – they are terrible language learners. I mean “a class of normal students that don’t mind being test subjects”, but that’s not as catchy.

How I’m learning Russian

I’d hate to have me as a student.

I very rarely do homework, so much so that my teacher has given up setting it for me.

I cancel about one lesson in four, normally the one on a Saturday. I’ve recently moved it to a Thursday in the hope that I’ll be more likely to have time then. I have two 90-minute lessons a week, the other being on Monday. We’ve never managed to make up a missed lesson, and since I pay on a lesson-by-lesson basis, this must create quite a lot of financial uncertainty, which I feel bad about.

At times, I hijack the lesson and tell my teacher exactly what activities I want to do. The last example of this was after she used a bilingual Quizlet set to introduce clothes words to me at the end of our Monday lesson. In a very rare spurt of motivation, I had twenty minutes on Wednesday night, and ten minutes on Thursday morning during which I managed to play with the words and kind of learn about 70% of them. I started the lesson by drawing pictures of clothes all over the board and writing the words next to them.

Russian clothes on the board

This took about 20 minutes. I then asked my teacher to define words for me, which meant she had to teach me verbs like ‘wear’, ‘get dressed’ and ‘put on’, and prepositional phrases like ‘on your head’, ‘on your feet’. She then turned the tables and made me define words for her. This whole process took 90 minutes, and meant we had no time to do anything she had prepared. I wrote notes throughout, and listened to and spoke more Russian than I had in any other lesson throughout the year. She told me: “You’re ready for it now.”

I constantly make demands about what I want from my lessons. My main demand is to have my lessons entirely in Russian (or as entirely as possible for a beginner/elementary student), but this is difficult because of the above statement/belief, that you have to have a certain amount of language to be ‘ready’ to speak/listen to more. This is not a choice I have in the real world, where I have to deal with whatever is thrown at me, and the person who’s speaking to me often doesn’t know how to change their language to help me understand.

We’ve also got into the habit of speaking English in class. In an average 90-minute lesson my teacher probably speaks about 10 sentences of spontaneous Russian which are not read from a piece of paper and/or accompanied by an English translation. I speak less than this, and occasionally read new vocabulary/sentences from the page, although this is not consistent – I probably only say about 50% of the new language that is introduced to me during any one class. Both of us have spoken a bit more Russian in the last couple of lessons because I’ve made more of an effort, but it hasn’t lasted long. The rest of the lesson is in English, including chats and all grammar explanations. I rarely have to produce any Russian that isn’t part of a drill based on an exercise from a worksheet. I’m trying to speak a bit more Russian in class now, but I don’t have a lot of the classroom language I need unless I ask for it to be translated, because I’ve never heard it or been made to use it.

Most of the published materials my teacher uses are taken from a text-only coursebook, with lists of vocabulary and dialogues, or a slightly more ‘designed’ coursebook with some pictures and tables. Both of them are through the medium of English. I have no idea how you find published materials to learn Russian if you don’t already speak English (this is true of a lot of none-EFL materials). We have occasionally used a website with some very entertaining short videos telling the story of John, a Canadian visiting Russia, which is available in various languages. The videos are very short – less than a minute each – and accompanied by subtitles in Russian or other languages if you want to read them.

We have never listened to any ‘real’ Russian in class, like music or videos, or any audio designed for the classroom. All of my listening practice comes from life outside the classroom, very rarely with support from an English-speaker to help me, but English speakers normally do the work if they’re there, rather than me! That means that most of the time I’m trying to piece things together myself, using what skills I’ve picked up from learning other languages, and the pre-intermediate Czech that I know. This has, of course, got easier as the year has progressed.

I demand context, trying to move away from isolated vocabulary. I constantly ask for the prepositions and cases that go with the verbs/nouns, even though I know I won’t remember them at the moment. I try to get as much new language in sentences as possible. Having said that, I find the Quizlet sets useful for building up sets of vocabulary in topics like the body or clothes. I’m trying to get exposure to as much language as possible while I have access to somebody who can mediate it for me. During a lesson which isn’t based on materials, we fill a notebook with random notes. There’s a lot of Russian here, but it’s almost all written – there’s very little speaking, very little controlled practice, and almost no free(r) practice at all, unless I instigate it. The bit of text you can see in the top-left corner of the page is the second half of twenty minutes worth of writing I did at home to force myself to produce an extended stretch of Russian.

My Russian notebook

In some classes, I give my teacher English sentence after sentence I’ve tried to say in Russian during that week, but didn’t know, ask her to translate them, then fail to learn them. This week we have a week off school and I’ve finally had time to dedicate to Russian. I’ve copied out the sentences onto cards (made from A4 pieces of paper cut into 16 rectangles, yellow because it’s a happy colour!), with pictures on the other side as prompts. There’s a huge backlog, and I have no idea how long it’ll take to actually learn them.

Sentence cards

Sentence cards with pictures

My teacher has a degree in teaching Russian. She is a native speaker of the language, who also speaks very good English and knows bits of other languages, so can occasionally tell me when grammar is similar to other languages I speak. She is a lovely person to put up with me. She puts a lot of time and effort into preparing lessons and materials. Here’s an example of a summary of tenses she made:

Russian tense summary

She’s also started making Quizlet sets for me after I showed her the site and she realised that it motivated me! I copy the sets she’s made and get rid of the English if I can, trying to make things Russian only. When I got ill and was given a special diet, she translated the sheet I was given by the doctor and made me a list of all of the food in Russian and English, with pictures for things I might not know. When I found out just before a lesson that my grandad had been taken into hospital, she took me for a walk in the park and we chatted, then wouldn’t let me pay for the lesson.

The last lesson we had was at my flat, and she decided to try something different. We labelled everything in my kitchen that I didn’t know the names of already. I’d been meaning to do this for ages but hadn’t got round to it. We did this entirely in English, with me asking ‘How do you say…?’ in English. I was never forced to use Russian, and I forgot to try. I could have practised using the words in sentences and spelling them – although I can read Russian confidently now, I still have no idea how to say a lot of the letters. We could also have played a describing game again, but I didn’t think about that until I was writing this.

Russian has taken over my kitchen!

Russian has taken over my fridge!

When I have time, normally in three- to four-hour blocks about every six weeks, I transfer the language in my class notebook to a vocabulary notebook, organised by topic. This is the first time I’ve tried this approach, and I mostly use it as a dictionary. Copying the words/phrases helps me to recognise them, but I haven’t really used the notebook to learn.

My vocabulary notebook - pictures
With pictures and colours where possible…
My vocabulary notebook - English
…with English where it’s not. (or when I run out of motivation)
My vocabulary notebook - mix of pictures and English
With colour-coding to show grammar patterns

I also use index cards to write out grammar and some vocabulary sets, particularly those connected to time. I try to have as little English as possible on the cards, and use regular layout and colour-coding to help me reduce the need for English. If there is English, I often write it in tiny letters that are difficult to see – I want Russian to be the first thing I see when I look at the cards.

Russian index cards
Verb conjugation, time and reflexives
Index cards everywhere! Time time time...
Time index cards, showing colour-coding

I then blu-tack them all over my flat. (Blu-tack is the one thing that I always take with me when I move to a new place!)

Index cards everywhere!
Cards start on the cupboard I look at when I’m getting ready in the morning/doing my physio exercises
On the front door
They graduate to the inside of my front door when I think I know them. (Loosely arranged by grammar point, e.g. verbs at the top, and with the really easy stuff at the bottom)
Surrounded with postcards to be more interesting!
Surrounding them with postcards makes me more likely to look at them (maybe…)

This is what my desk looks like in the process:

My desk when I'm studying Russian


Some conclusions

  • Both the teacher and the student(s) need to have a lot of willpower to conduct the lesson entirely in the target language.
  • The student also needs to be given the classroom language they need to be able to operate in the target language.
  • The teacher needs to be flexible, to respond to the language that the student needs, the time they have available, and the mood they are in.
  • The student needs to make an effort to study what has been learnt in class.
  • Language should be introduced in context, rather than as isolated items. It should be learnt as chunks to start with, then pulled apart for grammar later.
  • Seeing language once is not enough. Students need to manipulate it, play with it, say it, use it, in class to help them remember it.
  • The student needs exposure to real language in the classroom environment to prepare them for what they will encounter outside the classroom.

Some methodological terms which I can hear you shouting at me

Comprehensible input

Lexical approach



What did I forget?

What’s next?

March and April have been pretty busy, both personally and professionally. They came not long after I’d finished Delta, and this week off has been a great opportunity to catch up and get a handle on a lot of things. Most of the things you can see in the photos in this post were written out in a one-day marathon study session. Three days later I had another whole day of study, which meant I finally finished copying everything out and caught up. This is something I want to avoid in the future!

I have therefore decided that in May I am going to try something (new) for thirty days and study Russian for 10 minutes every day. This could include any of the following activities:

  • Using my sentence cards, where I try to remember them/write them out
  • Reading my index cards out loud
  • Testing myself using my vocabulary notebook
  • Playing on Quizlet
  • Reading one of the free magazines/newspapers I’ve collected – highlighting the words I can understand
  • Watching a YouTube video in Russian, like Cheburashka or Russian Winnie the Pooh
  • Listening to a song and reading the lyrics (I need suggestions for this)
  • Writing a short text in Russian, including to Ann (who I wrote one short email to last time she suggested this!)
  • Recording myself speaking, then listening back and correcting it

Any other ten-minute activities I could try? I’ll let you know how it goes at the end of the month!

Update: here’s part two of the post, showing what I did over the following few weeks.

I’m a terrible student – motivate me! (TeachingEnglish blog associates)

I’m very proud to be one of the TeachingEnglish associates, a group of wonderful English teachers from around the world. Each month a series of topics is posted on the ‘blogs‘ section of the British Council TeachingEnglish site, which everyone is invited to write about, including you! Here are the topics for May 2014. If you haven’t tried blogging before, why not give it a go? To inspire you, the associates offer their takes on the topics.

My contribution for April is on the topic of motivating students to learn outside the classroom: ‘I’m a terrible student – motivate me!‘. I shared three things I’ve used with my students and as a language learner myself.

I would recommending reading all of the April 2014 posts, covering topics like motivating students to write, and the future of education. My favourite is by Ceri Jones: ‘The dog ate it‘.

If you do choose to join in, why not share the link here so that others can read your posts?