Japan or bust: on the way (guest post)

This is part three of a series of posts by one of my university friends, Graham Moore. He is currently teaching English in Japan, and has agreed to write about the experience for my blog. All of the posts are available under the ‘EFL in Osaka‘ category, where you can find out more about Graham, why he wanted to go to Japan, and what he did in the UK to prepare.

Graham’s magic!

Phase 3: Screw it, I’m going to Japan anyway

If Japan wasn’t going to invite me, I was going to crash the party. A second trip to London (luckily coinciding with a friend’s wedding), a visit to the Japanese embassy and a parting of £23 allowed me to get a working holiday visa. This gave me one year to travel, live, and work in Japan. Even if I failed to get a job, I would have at least been to the country I had dreamed of for so many years.

With my passport returned, I booked a flight from London to Tokyo a mere five days before I flew. I waved goodbye to my family and friends and proceeded to travel around Japan for two months. I really cannot emphasise enough that Japan is EXACTLY how you imagine it to be…

In lieu of a picture of the shinkansen, a temple or some ramen, I decided this one better embodies Japan. (Graham’s photo)

…and that is exactly what makes it an essential destination. I could talk at even greater length of the sights I saw during my travels but that’s a story for another day; I will merely say I was able to cover Tokyo, Nikko, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Kobe, Naruto, Naoshima, Okayama, Tottori, Hiroshima, Akiyoshidai, Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Okinawa, Zamami and Ishigaki. I considered this useful research on the Japanese lifestyle, hopefully allowing me to better understand my hypothetical future students.

Then I decided it was time to settle down and start work…. no wait, actually, I travelled for another month. I flew to Malaysia to meet some friends for a crazy Chinese New Year celebration before heading north to Thailand to meet some more friends. Anyway, with 9 months left on my visa, I returned to Japan to look for lodging and work.

I had chosen Osaka as my base of operations as it is a large city with high demand for foreign workers. It is right in the middle of Honshu, the main island of Japan, with easy access to any other place I may be likely to travel to. Osaka is also famous for its food and shopping, two items likely to benefit those living in it. Plus Kyoto and Kobe are very nearby.

Phase 4: A man’s home is his castle. A gaijin’s house is a gaijin house.

I crashed at the incredibly cheap Toyo Hotel in Shin-Imamiya for a few days. I needed to relax after my three months of travelling (I maintain that if you’re not exhausted after travelling, you’re not doing it right) and I needed to find a place to live. Apartments can be tricky to rent for foreigners; landlords may not be willing to let non-Japanese speakers, or those without a current source of income, sign contracts. Also, in addition to two months’ rent in advance, tenants are also likely to have to pay high deposits, including key money. This can mean a new tenant has to pay the equivalent of 3-6 months rent up-front.

Not with gaijin houses (gaijin means ‘foreigner’, and has become a kind of community name for expats working in Japan) – gaijin houses are similar to student houses in that they offer cheap accommodation in shared houses. They are fully furnished and are only available for foreigners. Best of all, you pay rent only, no deposit or key money. It was pure luck that I was able to find the perfect place to stay on my first try. While searching for gaijin houses, I found a post about cheap gaigin houses.

I heeded this man’s praise and contacted the landlord. After viewing the accommodation, I asked if I could move in straight away. Easiest move I have ever done. The house itself is small, but ultimately this is standard for Japanese housing. I chose the Western style room over the Japanese style; it costs more but the room is slightly larger and comes with a bed (as opposed to a futon and tatami mat). The area is quiet, but there are plenty of supermarkets and restaurants nearby, and Umeda, one of the largest train stations and shopping centres in Osaka, is only 20 minutes walk away. My ¥40,000 (~£240) rent covers my room, water and internet. I only pay for the electricity that I use in my room (around ¥2,000 per month in the summer, ¥4,000 in the winter). The toilet, shower and washing machine are shared but currently I am the only one living in this two-bedroom house. It’s a little lonely but it means I can spread my stuff out into the hall. My landlord has also kindly let me borrow a bike for a mere ¥3,000 deposit, an investment that has already saved me at least as much in train fares.

Phase 5: Phoning it in and taking it to the bank

The day after I moved in to my gaijin house was one of the busiest days since coming to Japan. I wanted to start job hunting ASAP, but I needed to register my address, get a phone and open a bank account. I intended to do all three in one day.

Registering myself wasn’t too hard; once I found my ward office, I just showed my registration card, filled in some forms and asked them to write my address on the card in kanji. The next two were problematic. In Japan, you need a phone number to open a bank account….. but you need a bank account to buy a contract phone. The banks would not allow me to use my landlord’s phone, so the only option was to buy a prepaid phone.

This was my first major gripe with Japan; everywhere else I have been in the world, using a phone is a simple matter of buying a SIM card and inserting it into your phone. Japan does not use a 2G signal and my Samsung phone that had served me so well in the UK was useless here. Finding a prepaid phone was alarmingly difficult, only Softbank seemed to have them and finding a Softbank store with stock was infuriatingly hard. I eventually found one – and buying a phone in Japan is painfully bureaucratic; with no exaggeration, it is harder than opening a bank account. I know this having done one after another. I had to fill in more forms, choose my number and my PIN, I had to show my registration card and my passport, the latter of which I didn’t even need for opening a bank account!

The next phase in Graham’s adventures coming soon…

Rethinking the visual: week four

This is part of a series of blogposts about my lessons with M, a very enthusiastic nine-year-old girl. She is a pleasure to speak to, and knows a lot of English. She’s also almost completely blind. Each lesson is one hour, one-to-one, at her house.

From now on, I’ll summarise all of our lessons from each week into a single post. For the sake of clarity:


Braille was developed to enable blind people to read and write. A single ‘cell’ of braille consists of six dots. Different combinations of dots are raised from the page to denote different letters or symbols. They are numbered:

The Braille Cell
The Braille Cell (image from the American Foundation for the Blind)

For example, ‘a’ is written with only dot 1, ‘l’ is written with dots 1-2-3, and ‘x’ is written with 1-3-4-6. For a fuller explanation, go to the American Foundation for the Blind ‘Braille: deciphering the code‘ page.

Before the lesson on Tuesday, I used memrise to learn the English alphabet in braille. I’d got about half of the letters by then, and it turns out they’re quite quick to learn visually, at least to recognise the basics of what’s written on a page. [Update on Friday: after just a week of learning, I’m already able to recognise the letters A-T quite quickly whenever I see them, although some letters are easier to remember than others!]

I have a braille primer, including the alphabet to refer to during the lesson. There are two ‘grades’ of braille:

  • Grade 1: everything is written out letter-by-letter. There are also cells denoting punctuation. This is used for basic literacy.
  • Grade 2: a series of contractions are used to make reading and writing faster.

Contractions could be whole words, like ‘you’ being replaced by the same code as the letter ‘y’, ‘j’ for ‘just’, or they can be common letter combinations, like ‘sh’ or ‘gh’ being replaced by a single braille cell, instead of two. The primer I used has a list of these contractions arranged alphabetically for easy reference if you’d like to see examples.

Tuesday’s lesson

We started with M telling me the chants from the fourth lesson.

First writing

I then asked if she had paper ready to do some writing, and she was really excited 🙂

I’d prepared a list of vocabulary from our previous lessons, along with their braille transcriptions, with the help of a braille translator. Here are a few examples, with transcriptions below to help you read them:

'Cotton' in braille
'Slate and stylus' in grade 2 braille
S-L-A-T-E AND ST-Y-L-U-S (the tools you need to write in braille)
'How much do you weigh?' in grade 2 braille
Capital letter follows-H-OW MUCH (2 cells) DO (=d) YOU (=y) W-E-I-GH-?

I started by teaching her ‘slate’ and ‘stylus’ in English, as she had been using the Russian words. I asked her whether she knew any short forms in English braille, or only long ones. I don’t know when it’s normal to start learning Grade 2 braille in your first or second language, but so far M only knows grade 1.

The very first contraction I taught her was ‘and’, which she wrote in both the contracted and long forms in her notebook. We ended up with the following information in her book, with M asking for both the short and long forms, but preferring to only write out the long forms, with short forms as single cells written afterwards. I’ve written them in capitals with dashes so you get an idea of how her page is arranged:




In the end, we’d looked at six contractions: ‘and’, ‘st’, ‘sh’, ‘wh’, ‘in’ and ‘ar’. I don’t think she’ll remember what all the short forms correspond to next lesson, so we’ll talk about note-taking a bit more next time, but for now I think it’s just important that she’s written some words down.

She asked for ‘whistle’, and enjoyed reading out the words as a Russian who didn’t speak English might – spelling/sounding them out in a funny way. Then she did exactly what any fully-sighted student tends to do with unfamiliar spelling patterns in new words – she had trouble pronouncing ‘slate’ properly because of the spelling!

This whole process took about 25 minutes, with me using my braille primer to remind M of any letters she didn’t know and to introduce the contracted forms. I was really pleased to get some reading and writing into the lessons 🙂

I’m not afraid of you

One of M’s favourite mistakes is ‘I don’t afraid it’, so I wrote her a short poem to fix the correct form.

I’m not afraid of the big bad wolf


As I was walking through the woods

I met a big, bad wolf.


He looked at me,

But I didn’t flee,

How silly could I be?


No, I didn’t flee,

I didn’t flee,

Silly, silly me.


So the wolf and I were in the woods

And then I said to him:

“I’m not afraid of a big bad wolf.

No, I’m not afraid of you.

I’m not afraid, I’m not afraid,

No, I’m not afraid of you.”



We spent 20 minutes listening to it repeatedly and learning it – I had it stuck in my head for the rest of the day! I deliberately including a couple of new words: ‘flee’ and ‘boo’. When I recorded it, I accidentally hit the table when saying ‘boo’, so now M hits the table every time she says it! 🙂

In the lesson I only had the faster version, and I read it to and with M to help her when she had trouble.

I recorded a slow version afterwards, and sent both to her to listen to as homework.

Alice in Wonderland

We spent the last 15 minutes listening to chapter 2 of Alice in Wonderland. Before we listened, I asked M to tell me what had happened in chapter one. While listening, she said ‘stop’ whenever there was a word or phrase she didn’t know. This only happened twice, for the words ‘pool’, ‘tears’ and ‘shore’. She laughed out loud at the part where Alice was having trouble with geography: “London is the capital of Paris”. “No, no, London is the capital of Britain!” 🙂


We started off with reading. M read what she’d written in the previous lesson, and I then tested her on the short forms by saying the letters, and her telling me the braille code for that short form. For example, I said ‘S-H’ and she said ‘1-4-6’. She asked if she could look at her page to check, which I said was fine, but then I started picking them randomly, which confused her. I’d read (and forgotten) that reading tasks for students using braille should be in the same order as the text, as they can’t dot around the text (skim and scan) in the way that sighted students can – I need to remember this for next time.

I also did a verbal spelling test on the words we wrote on Tuesday. M had trouble with stylus, cotton, brain, whistle. I asked her to spell her name, which she wasn’t confident about in English. She likes both the Russian and (two) English variants of her name, so we wrote them all in her book, giving me the chance to introduce the notation for a capital letter. We also added three new words from the last lesson, including two new short forms: ‘ea’ and ‘con’. After 30 minutes, her page had the following writing on it, with the arrangement determined by the number of cells she had available on each line:

[Russian name – long form] [Russian name – with a contraction] [English name – variant one] P-O-O-L

[English name – variant two] T-E-A-R-S EA C-O-N-T-I-N-U-E CON

After all the reading, writing and spelling, that just left ten minutes to listen to chapter 3 of Alice in Wonderland. There were three new words for her: ‘level’, ‘creature’, and ‘thimble’. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten to read the chapter before the lesson, otherwise I would have taken a thimble with me. As it was, I explained it to her, and held her index finger to show how a thimble protects it. She understood, and said ‘It’s like a little cup. I’ve touched one!’, reemphasising the importance of tactile experiences.

M’s mum sat in on the lesson for a few minutes, and reminded M to sit up and put her chin up a few times. Posture is very important, as when left to her own devices, M often has her head down, with her chin resting on her chest, or her forehead on her arm if she’s sitting down. I always ask her to face me when she’s talking to me, as it makes a big difference to how I feel as a listener. She likes to stand up when she’s reciting or singing, and always stands up very straight when she does this.

Her mum also asked for a copy of the English braille chart, as although her parents don’t speak English, they can help her with some of the braille writing.


To start the lesson, M decided to tell me a bit of Oliver Twist again. I really ought to reread it or watch it again so I can remember what happens – the last time I experienced the story was the an amateur musical production at uni, about 7 years ago! She asked if Dickens had written any other children’s books, to which I replied that (I think), there’s only A Christmas Carol. M asked about ‘carol’, knowing it was a name, so I explained it’s a special kind of Christmas song and gave her a couple of examples. M then displayed her beautiful voice again by singing all three verses of Silent Night in Russian. I could only remember a few lines of the English version, including the word ‘Virgin’. This took us on to a discussion of the annunciation (a word which I’ve only remembered while writing this) which is celebrated by Russian Orthodox Christians on M’s birthday, which happens to be four days after mine. As she said, ‘We’re April girls!’ M finished this section of the lesson by showing me the cross she wears around her neck, and telling me about how it keeps her safe. During this discussion, one of her favourite mistakes popped up a couple of times: ‘I very like it’. This is the next mistake I’ll try to deal with.

The rest of the lesson was spent on labelling. We wrote five words, four of which have short forms, on a big piece of paper. We put each word on a new line, leaving a blank line in between so there would be space to cut them up. There are two new contractions, (ed) and (ch), and two old ones, (ar) and (sh). Here are the words:

bed b(ed)

chair (ch)air


wardrobe w(ar)drobe

shelves (sh)elves

You’ll notice that I’ve stopped transcribing in capitals as I’ve finally learnt how to indicate how words should be brailled from this excellent braille introduction, although I’m not going to go back and change how I wrote it before. I checked this introduction because I wasn’t sure about the exact rules for using contractions, as I don’t want to teach M the wrong thing, and I’d read something about syllable boundaries and pronunciation. It actually turns out to be fairly logical. For example, you use (th) to indicate ‘th’ in words like ‘(th)(ough)t’, but not in words like ‘pothole’, where two words are joined and it’s not a /th/ sound.

I was surprised when M asked if she could cut the labels out herself, although I know I shouldn’t have been as there’s no reason why M shouldn’t learn how to use scissors. This was another time when I realised just how much having my sight has influenced my learning. M held the scissors ‘upside-down’, with her thumb facing down rather than up. She also pointed them downwards/vertically, rather than across/horizontally. Finally, her hand was very close to her body, and her elbow tucked in. Taken together, this made it very difficult for her to cut the paper. I took the scissors and held them (closed!) and encouraged her to feel my hand, arm and body to feel the position of the scissors. She held them again with my help, and cut across the paper, producing a very jagged line. The second line was much straighter, as I encouraged her to move the scissors forward before closing them completely so she didn’t let go of the paper each time.

As we were cutting, M was trying to tell me about shapes she could make, and eventually got a stencil she has to show me squares, rectangles and circles. The main problem I had with understanding was that by this stage M was mostly speaking Russian. She’d been speaking more and more Russian throughout the lesson, which I think was because she was tired. This class started at 17:00, the latest one we have. The others are at 12:00 and 14:30 respectively. Although it looks like we didn’t do a lot of writing in each lesson, it’s actually quite tiring for her, as it requires a lot of concentration. The Russian made it quite hard to communicate, and for the first time I had to remind her to speak English.

While she was using the stencil to draw on some of the scrap paper, I cut out the rest of the words to make labels, and transcribed them in (Roman) letters underneath so that her parents could see what each braille cell stands for. Unfortunately I forgot to take a photo, but I’ll try to remember to do this next time. M then stuck them to the relevant pieces of furniture. Thanks to Naomi Epstein for this idea – M loved it! When I asked what she wanted to do next time, she asked for more labels. 🙂

Outside class

On a completely random note, the woman who got on the bus in front of me this morning had a three-line braille tattoo! I think it’s Russian braille, as I can’t make sense of it in English – I wanted to check it was nothing too personal, but I figure that since it’s clearly visible and this is just the first line, it’s OK to have a photo of it. I couldn’t ask her to check. What a cool idea!

Braille tattoo

Later in the day, I also saw a bit of graffiti with a skull on it, with the word ‘blind’ written underneath in English. I’m sure I would never have noticed it before!

Finally, I’ve been teaching a group of young learners (8-11 years old) this week. Our topic was spies, so what better way of reading and writing codes than using braille! Here is the code-breaking sheet:

The sentences are based on a Quizlet set I created. Can you decode them? 🙂 Students then write their name in braille at the bottom of the page. If they still have spaces in the line, they can choose an English word they know and transcribe it into braille for other students to decode. For example, if they have five spaces, they choose a five-letter word. If they enjoy this, you can give them a whole sheet of braille cells to write any codes they choose.

It’s been another fascinating week of lessons with M, and it turns out braille is a lot less scary than I thought it was to start with. If you’re working with students who use braille, or those who are interested in using it, I’d highly recommend familiarising yourself with it, as it’s quite quick and it’s made a huge difference. I can’t read braille with my fingers at all – you need to develop the sensitivity to do it through a lot of practice, but I can look and check what M has written. Another breakthrough 🙂

The big reveal (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 June 2014, all based on images taken from ELTpics, which I co-curate along with a lovely team of teachers from around the world. One of the four prompt photos is also by me 🙂 If you haven’t tried blogging before, why not give it a go? To inspire you, the associates offer their takes on the topics.

Marry Me Yes
Photo by @oyajimbo, from ELTpics, shared under a Creative Commons 2.0 licence

My contribution for June is on based on the image above, entitled ‘Marry me – yes’. Click here to read it: The Big Reveal’. It’s a tried and tested lesson structure which has served me well!

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

Japan or bust: in the UK (guest post)

This is part of a series of posts by one of my university friends, Graham Moore. He is currently teaching English in Japan, and has agreed to write about the experience for my blog. All of the posts are available under the ‘EFL in Osaka‘ category. Read phase 1 to find out more about Graham, and why he wanted to go to Japan. In phase 2 he tells us about the options for teaching in Japan which he investigated while still in the UK.

Graham’s magic!

Phase 2: Searching from the UK

Programme: JET

The most common recommendation for those wanting to teach in Japan is the Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme (JET), a government-run system that offers a lot of support to aspiring teachers. While former JETs talk fondly of their experiences (and indeed at the time of writing, I have a JET friend in Tottori who is enthusiastic about her work), ultimately I didn’t even consider it as an option for me. I wanted to teach adults and JET focuses mainly on high school students, plus it didn’t have the amount of free time I desired, having just finished a PhD, one of the few perks of which is you can generally come and go as you please.

Eikawa: GEOS

A friend of mine recalled his time in Japan teaching with GEOS and recommended them as a capable eikawa (English school). A quick Google search reveals they are now bankrupt and hence unlikely to be hiring.

Eikawa: ECC

My first real consideration was By Education, Through Communication and For Community, better known as ECC, a hybrid school and corporation with a solid reputation. I believe their pay is marginally lower than JET’s but they offer higher support for their teachers and give the opportunity to teach both adults and children. I would be expected to do both, though I could put a preference for the latter if I wished. ECC’s main selling point though, was its relatively low working hours (29.5 per week) and its high amount of holiday time (7 weeks, including national holidays). At the time, this seemed like the perfect match for me.

I just made it in time for their June recruitment, though during the application I did get asked the question I was hoping I would be able to avoid: “If you have a PhD in Chemistry, why are you looking to teach English?” Despite this, I was accepted for an interview in London, though apparently Japanese companies often do not pay accommodation or transport costs for interviews, even when in another country. Luckily I have kind friends in London.

There were sixteen interviewees in total, some already teachers, some from other walks of life. After a company talk, we were given an hour-long English test; you had to get a minimum of 70% of continue with the interview process and about half of us were anticipated to fail. It was actually pretty difficult for a non-linguist like me, though I passed and I was able to go on to the next stage. As ECC predicted, seven people failed, two of whom were actual English teachers! Worst of all, I had a quick glimpse of the papers and saw some had failed at 69%!

The remaining nine of us had to plan and perform a practice lesson for teaching simple vocabulary. Long story short, I did my best but I was not among the final five who made it to the final stage. How many were accepted I will never know. But I imagine my lack of TEFL certification and previous experience did not benefit me. I was back to square one again.

The next phase in Graham’s adventures coming soon…


Japan or bust: how I changed careers to achieve a dream (guest post)

This is the first in a series of posts by one of my university friends, Graham Moore. He is currently teaching English in Japan, and has agreed to write about the experience for my blog. All of the posts are available under the ‘EFL in Osaka’ category.

Graham’s magic!

Phase 1: I dream of Japan

Japan has fascinated me for many years. The combination of its modern image as a crazy, busy, futuristic wonderland with its traditional, almost mythical, history of shoguns, samurai and martial arts has kept it high on my list of places to visit for as long as I have wanted to travel. A high proportion of my ample collection of video games originate from Japan (Final Fantasy VII, despite its age, remains my favourite game of all time) and I diligently practised karate during my university days. The more I learned about Japanese culture…

If the trains are late by more than five minutes, you are given a note to show to your boss as a reason for your lateness.

The crime rate is so low, you can leave your bike unlocked at night and nobody will steal it!

With the exception of Monaco, Japanese people are the longest-lived people in the world!

…the more I wanted to see it first-hand. And so began a journey that would take me the best part of a decade.

Japan in one picture. Yes, even the girl in the pizza suit.
Japan in one picture. Yes, even the girl in the pizza suit.*

I am a scientist by education and I never pictured myself as anything else until recently. My dream was to work as an industrial chemist and ultimately move to Japan, hopefully working on some exciting new technology (like designing self-repairing metal for a car or a giant robot) or synthesising world-changing chemicals (like a cure for cancer that also gives you gives you Super Saiyan powers). I studied Chemistry at Durham University for my undergraduate degree, with three years of lectures and practice labs, before working a year in industry at FujiFilm Imaging Colorants, Scotland. The advantage of doing an industrial placement during the final year rather than as a penultimate sandwich year was that, upon graduation, it would be easier to make the transition into the working world.

And this situation seemed perfect – I was working for a Japanese company after all, surely it would be easy to transfer to Japan from here? But sadly this was 2008 and the economy was taking a major hit – FujiFilm IC could not afford to take on graduates and they weren’t even able to continue their industrial placement scheme the following year. Fewer places were hiring and many of my friends were laid off mere months after being hired for their first job. My time as an undergraduate finished on a low note and the future was not looking as bright as it should have. Finding funded PhD positions was easier than finding a job. I went from having no intention of doing a PhD (at least not until I was older) to having one confirmed at the University of Nottingham in a mere three weeks.

It was somewhat less abroad than what I was hoping for but financially speaking, it was stable and more than enough for my lifestyle. Having a doctorate under one’s belt can only be a good thing, plus I would extend my time as a student by 4-5 years, something I was very happy about. During my first year, I discovered a university program called BESTS (Building Experience and Skill Travel Scholarships) which allowed research students to spend part of their degree working abroad. Japan was among the countries that had allowed BESTS students to work there previously, and the research I was undertaking was also being done in Japan. I could even take a bonus module in Beginner Japanese as part of my PhD (something that FujiFilm IC had offered to previous placement students but not to my year’s). All a perfect fit, right?

Sadly, when you are a PhD student, your supervisor is your king, and unfortunately, I am quite the anti-monarchist. We were destined to have many clashes during my studies and the notion that his students may also be productive outside of his laboratory was an alien concept to him. And while the University of Nottingham gave me the best experiences of my twenties, none of them were in the Chemistry department. I’m sure the majority of people with PhDs enjoyed their research, but I didn’t. And as my second graduation approached, I was once again flustered as to where to go. Industry hadn’t worked for me and neither had academia.

The brain part is being optimistic
The brain part is being optimistic (From ‘Piled Higher and Deeper’, copyright Jorge Cham)

“Why not teach English in Asia?” multiple friends suggested. I’m not sure if this was a recommendation based on my English skills and love of Asian culture or simply as a go-to gap year-esque idea, but the thought intrigued me. I am a pedant for accuracy in English and I had experience dealing with people with beginner English skills, so why not? Plus it would be a means to my long-standing goal of getting into the land of the rising sun. May 2013, my PhD was near completion, my quest for an English school in Japan began.

Phase 2 in Graham’s adventures coming soon…

*Image credits
Temple image from ‘theswissrock’City image from nhouse.sgSushi image from PBSGirl in pizza suit image from Business Insider

How I’m learning Russian (part two)

At the start of May I wrote about my Russian lessons and what I was and wasn’t doing at home to further my learning. To finish the post, I made a commitment to study Russian for ten minutes every day and gave a list of activities I would try. So what happened?

Planning and recording

About two months ago I moved to a system of having a daily to-do list for everything. At the beginning of each week, it looks like this:

To-do list
To-do list

Each day I have a series of codes: ‘Ph’ = physio, F = feedly (blog reading to try and keep up!), R = Russian, FJ = flo-joe (FCE word bank) and, new last week because of the success of the others, W = walk. By having them on the list, I’m much more likely to make time for them every day. Other things to do are then added around them, as you can see from Monday. (On a side note, I’ve discovered this daily to-do list makes me much more efficient, as long as I’m realistic about what I put on each day based on the time I have available. Everything else is in another list at the side, and when I’ve finish the things for the day I can start on the less urgent things.)

Since I started doing this, I have very rarely missed a day of Russian. I record what I’ve done on an old calendar, along with my physio/exercise. I started using a similar system when I was trying to walk more last year, and I found that the gaping holes when  nothing was written made me feel bad, and I wanted to minimise them! This is the final result for May:

May 2014 Russian
May 2014 Russian

…and the work in progress for June:

June 2014 Russian
June 2014 Russian

As you can see, in the seven weeks since I wrote that post, I’ve only missed four days, all in May. You can also see that very often I spent considerably more than ten minutes on my Russian. It seems that once you get started, it’s easy to get sucked in and do more 😉

Towards the end of May I experimented with a trial version of Lizzie Pinard’s language learning flower, where she suggested colouring in the flower depending on what you’ve done. I didn’t realise that it should be divided into squares, and was already using the calendar, so only used it once, but it did make me realise that I was doing almost no writing.

Language learning flower
Language learning flower for May 2014


I took my own advice, and started to write a journal in Russian, which I asked my teacher to correct and reply to. Thankfully, she was happy to do that!

Russian journal
Russian journal

The mistakes I’ve made have taught me a lot, and because I’m a good language learner/very sad person/have way too much time on my hands, I rewrite every piece of writing I do into another notebook…

Colour-coded rewrites
Colour-coded rewrites

…using a colour-code to show the kind of mistakes I’ve made. I put the code into the front of my notebook so I can refer to it, and add to it if another category of mistake starts appearing.

Deciphering the rewrite code
Deciphering the rewrite code

From only three journal entries I’ve already noticed an improvement in my spelling of a few common words, and I’ve learnt new phrases from my teacher’s rewording of my sometimes clumsy production, as well as having a new page in my vocabulary notebook entirely devoted to stealing phrases from what she’s written. I’ve also put some of my favourite phrases onto the sentence cards I mentioned in my last post (more on them below).

Of course, the real reason I started to do this was nothing to do with improving my Russian. When I bought my journal, I couldn’t decide which notebook to buy, and being a stationery lover, I decided to buy both. You can’t have a notebook and not use it! 😉

Two notebooks, both alike in dignity
Which to buy? Both of course!

This may be another sign of how sad/geeky/pathetic I am, but I really feel that it’s important to have notebooks and folders you want to open, and pens/pencils/etc you want to use when you’re studying. It might seem like a minor thing, but anything that makes you smile will help.


Inspired by Lizzie Pinard (again), I bought myself a Russian book. I’d been trying to find something for a while, but everything was too expensive or seemed like it might be too difficult for a beginner/elementary student. Then I found this:

Game of Thrones in Russian
Hello Mr Bean 😉

That’s right, Game of Thrones, in Russian, with Sean Bean on the cover. What was that about having something you wanted to pick up? I already had the e-book in English, and we have a paper copy of it at school, making it the perfect choice as I wouldn’t have to buy another book to be able to compare the Russian and English versions.

Without Lizzie talking about how she’d been reading Harry Potter in Italian from the beginning, I would never have been brave enough to try GoT. Now I’ve finished the first chapter. It’s taken me about two hours in total, broken down into 10-20 minute stints, but it never felt like a chore. Instead it was a puzzle, as I compared what I could see on the page, what I could guess, and what I could remember from the story. Each page took about ten minutes, and I reread the whole thing many times, firstly in Russian more than once, then reading the English, then going back and reading the Russian, then reading both side-by-side. Each time I reread it I noticed more patterns and more words I recognised, and I really want to continue with this. I’ve also started a ‘Game of Thrones’ page in my vocabulary notebook, including such words as меч and книжал (sword and dagger), and useful phrases like Здесь что-то не так (‘Something’s wrong here’). In her post about 12 things she’s learnt about language learning, Lizzie mentioned that learning a new word is like making a new friend, and that’s exactly how it feels.

In general, I’ve always tried to read everything around me (signs, posters, packets…) Now I feel very comfortable with the Cyrillic script. My writing of it has changed over time, developing to become more natural, and requiring less conscious processing. The more I read, the faster I can pick out the words, although I still find I have to stop and go back quite a lot, especially with some of the really long words.


Back in January, I wrote about the downsides of beginning again in a new place:

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.

Going to the cinema has always been one of the motivations for me to study more Russian, helped by the political changes here which mean that all films are now in Russian, not Ukrainian. This month I’ve finally taken the plunge and started going. I saw X-Men: Days of Future Past on June 1st, and Maleficent on June 9th. I’m planning to see the second How to train your dragon film next week. Before seeing each film, I watched all the trailers I could find in English to give me an idea of the story and so I would know some of the lines. For Maleficent I watched one in Russian too and looked up the words ‘curse’, ‘evil’ and ‘witch’, all of which I promptly forgot, but recognised when I heard them in the film. This afternoon I’m going to see How to Train Your Dragon 2, and through the Dreamworks YouTube channel I’ve seen the first five minutes of the film, plus about 8 other clips, so I feel like I know the story! Having said that, I don’t want to read too much, as I still want to enjoy the story as it unrolls.

It’s amazing how good it felt to sit in the cinema again, to let the language wash over me and enjoy the experience. I probably understood about 30-40% of each film, helped by my preparation, but that was enough, and every time I go I’ll understand more. In both films I heard words and phrases which I’d picked up in the process of journal writing and reading GoT, as well as through the more ‘conventional’ language learning. I even got one or two of the language-dependent jokes, giving me a high each time.

I bought and watched Up on DVD, which I also really enjoyed. When you’re starting off, I think it’s a much better idea to revisit familiar stories in books and films, rather than try to decode something completely new. You get a lot of motivation from it, but because you already know the story/world/characters, you have more processing capacity to deal with the language.

I’ve also listened to the song ‘Happy End’ with lyrics (thanks to my Russian teacher’s excellent website, which she didn’t tell me about until recently!), a short YouTube video (my first example of Russian comedy) and the first ten minutes of the dubbed version of episode 1 of How I Met Your Mother. I didn’t get on with that at all because I couldn’t deal with being able to hear the English underneath. I’d love to find it with only the Russian as it’s one of my favourite series, and it would be a great excuse to watch it all again!

Grammar and speaking

Most of the grammar we’ve studied in my lessons has come from my questions, based on things I’ve written/read/heard. It’s often said that Russian grammar is really complicated, and there’s certainly a lot of it for a beginner to get their head around. It’s true that I have an advantage because of my other languages, but I think it could be good for a learner to at least see lots of different grammar, but without worrying too much about trying to use it. For me, knowing that the grammar exists means that I’m primed to notice it, and am even starting to use some of it in the right place at the right time.

The best example of noticing was when I asked my teacher how to express comparatives (e.g. bigger/smaller/faster than), then came home, looked out my window at a banner I’ve been ‘reading’ all year, and noticed that it’s a comparative structure!

Better prices than those of others
‘Better prices than those of others’

This week I’ve also finished the memrise Learn Basic Russian course, which I started studying again about two weeks ago after a six-month break. It was interesting to go back to as I can see some of the grammar patterns I’ve studied in the sentences that are included in the higher levels.

The fact that I don’t really care if what I say is grammatically correct or not, as long as I’m communicating, does cause the occasional problem. However, I can mostly get my message across through set phrases, vocabulary, and the basic grammar I do know, along with mime, gestures, and the patience and goodwill of the person I’m speaking to. I’ve managed to buy a bikini by myself, as well as a pair of trainers which are suitable for the warm weather (no easy feat as I have inserts in my shoes which make buying shoes very challenging!) Both processes took 20-30 minutes, and I was really tired afterwards, but I persevered and got what I wanted.

(I think) I feel like lower-level learners should be made aware of how bits of grammar work, but then should be encouraged to read and listen to see how it’s used in context. They should also rote learn set phrases which they can ‘edit’ by slotting in other key vocabulary items as needed. I’ve done very few grammar exercises as part of my Russian studies, and these were mostly connected to cases. They helped me to memorise the form a little, but I really needed to be exposed to them a LOT to actually be able to use them.

Vocabulary, set phrases and pronunciation

In my last post I said:

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.

Every time I get a seat on the bus, I go through a few of the cards. I have about ten with me at any one time, in a handy mobile phone case my friend gave me, which has a pocket on the front. The ones I don’t know are in the main pocket, and when I think I know them, I put them in the front.

Sandy's sentence card holder TM
Sandy’s sentence card holder TM

During my lesson, I check them with my teacher, who tells me whether my pronunciation is correct or not. My very first Russian lesson was a fairly comprehensive guide to Russian pronunciation, which was a lot of information to take in, but gave me an excellent grounding for everything since. We’ve returned to it many times since, and have added one or two of the more obscure pronunciation rules. Having sound-spelling relationships clear in my head has made a huge difference, but stress placement is still very difficult for me. Like English, Russian has fairly unpredictable stress patterns, and the stress should be marked on every new word.

In a week, I can generally learn about 10-15 of these sentences, and it’s getting easier to memorise them as I start to make connections between the sentences, as well as to the language I’ve been exposed to through reading and listening. It’s incredibly motivating to see the pile of sentences I know get bigger and bigger, and I’ve cleared most of the backlog. This is the situation as it stands now:

i know the ones on the left
Left = ‘known’, right = unknown

…although I should probably go through the ‘known’ cards and see whether I still remember them! By memorising sentences, I have phrases I can deploy in the situations I most commonly encounter, and I can ‘edit’ them as and when I need them. I haven’t always been able to drag them up at the appropriate time, but at least knowing that I’ve been able to memorise them once has made me more confident. As my stock of phrases builds, I’ll be more and more likely to retain them, or at least, I hope so!

This reflects something Ann Loseva wrote in her post about grammar on itdi:

  • These linguistic discoveries need to go through cycles of repetition, to be re-discovered many times before I might hope for them to sink in.
  • The more I learn, the more confirmed I become in that we desperately need vocabulary if we want to actually produce sentences. It’s the first thing to escape memory, too.

When it all went wrong

Considering the amount of times I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to speak or understand Russian, I’m lucky that I’ve only had two situations where communication has completely broken down and I haven’t been able to patch it up.

The first was at the hairdresser’s. She’d cut my hair twice previously, so i though it would be easy: I’d just go and she’d do it. At most, I’d have to say ‘Cut it like before’. Except I forgot to find out how to say that… When I sat down, she held up my hair and said something, but I only understood the word ‘short’. I took that word, added the context of the weather suddenly being a lot hotter, and thought she’d asked me ‘Do you want it shorter than before?’, so I said ‘No’. The conversation descended into complete incomprehension, as neither of us could work out what the other was saying. In the end, my Russian teacher translated for us over the phone. Later in the appointment, we continued talking, and she told me she was surprised by my response to her first question, as she couldn’t cut my hair longer! In fact, we’d she’d said was something along the lines of ‘Do you want it short here?’

The other example was on the bus. I had my headphones on, and called out the name of the next stop, where I wanted to get off. Three men were standing in the aisle, and one of them laughed and started talking to me. I took off my headphones, but couldn’t understand what he was saying, even though he rephrased it and said it many times. Just as we stepped off the bus, I realised that he’d been telling me he’d called out the name of the stop at the exact same time as me. In English, that would have prompted a quick laugh and the end of the dialogue. In Russian, we were talking for a couple of minutes and I got quite frustrated! Context, and continuing to try to make meaning from what I’d heard after the conversation was over meant I finally understood. During X-Men there was also a line which I didn’t understand when I first heard it, but there was no dialogue for a minute or so afterwards, giving me time to process it again and work out what the character said (the line about JFK) 🙂 This is why it’s important to give students processing time after they listen, and sometimes pauses while listening.

In summary

  • Make study a ten-minute habit, rather than an hour-long chore.
  • Find ways to visualise what you’ve learnt (on a calendar, a language flower, a pile of cards).
  • Give yourself processing time. You don’t have to understand things immediately, especially when you’re starting out.
  • Study and learn from your mistakes, but don’t let them stop you from trying again.
  • Do the things that interest you – ignore people if they say it’s ‘above your level’, and try new things regularly.
    (On that note, I’ve only done three, maybe four, of the ten minute activities I suggested at the end of my previous post.)
  • Build up a bank of successful experience, whether it’s reading, writing, listening, speaking, or remembering words and grammar. Focus on all of the things you’ve been able to do (not what you haven’t), and notice how much more you can do the next time round.
  • Buy pretty notebooks and comfortable pens 😉

In a happy coincidence, that list is pretty similar to an infographic showing the ‘perfect language learner’ which I saw for the first time yesterday, courtesy of St. George International school in London:

The perfect language learner (infographic)

A final word

I’ve come a long way with my Russian over the last few weeks. I feel so much more confident, and I’ve (mostly) lost the helpless feeling I have when I’m out on my own. I still can’t communicate in many situations, but I can at least try. Writing my first post was the catalyst I need to build Russian into my life properly (one of the reasons I love blogging). I’ve found a whole range of things I like using my Russian for and I feel like it’ll be much easier to continue now. Thanks to everyone who offered me ideas the first time round, and I hope that you find something you can take away from this post.

Three 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.

Of roubles and hryvnia

It’s now three months and five days since the Crimean referendum of March 16th, with the biggest change in that time being money. On June 1st, the rouble became the only currency accepted in Crimea, and it’s amazing how quickly that has become normal. I’m still getting my head around the numbers: 1 hyvrnia is about 3 roubles, so something that used to cost 60 UAH is now about 180 RUR for example. This means it feels like I’m getting through money a lot faster, which isn’t necessarily true, but is hard to work out because of the price rises that always come with a currency change. One of these price rises is a near doubling in rent on one property I know about: between now and January 2015, the rent will go from $1200 per month to $2300 in a series of incremental increases. I just hope that salaries rise in a similar way to cover the costs…

Having said that, the transition from hryvnia to rouble went a lot more smoothly than expected, considering the haste with which is was done. The week before and the week after June 1st were both quite stressful for anyone who had to deal with money. Before the changeover transactions were taking a very long time because people were trying to get rid of hryvnia or paying in a combination of both currencies. Most people only had large notes in roubles, making giving change very difficult. One evening I waited for over twenty minutes in a supermarket queue – there were two tills open, each with at least fifteen people in the queue, and every transaction took three to five minutes because of money problems.

There was also the problem of getting used to the currency itself – although there are many people who are Russian or have lived in Russia here, and have therefore used the rouble, it’s a different thing for everyone to be dealing with it on a daily basis. I saw a pharmacist and customer getting increasingly irate with each other because they couldn’t work out the correct combination of notes/coins that would enable the customer to get the right change.

Nobody wanted small change in hryvnia in the final few days, and I heard about more than one bus driver who was angry because the passengers gave them coins. One even apparently threw coins back at a woman and rudely expressed his disgust at her temerity in giving them to him. There were very few rouble coins in circulation in the first week, which added to the complications because most people seemed to be saving them for the buses (partly due to the aforementioned tempers!)

It’s hard to believe that was still the case only two weeks ago: it now feels like roubles are completely normal, and there don’t seem to any problems with the circulation of cash at all, or at least not that I can tell. Cards are still a problem, and I don’t think anywhere has got their card readers working yet, so the local economy is still entirely cash-based, but rumours are circulating about banks which are issuing Visa cards, so I imagine that will change before too long too.

Of tourists

Tourism was one of the issues I talked about when speculating on the future for Crimea in the aftermath of the referendum. The tourist season is now here, and I know that there are people visiting as I’ve seen them on the buses, and number plates from Belorussia and Lithuania, among other places, are more visible. We also have some Russian students who have come to Sevastopol to spend the summer here, as they do every year. The weather has mostly been great, and there are lots of people on the beaches.

Summer's here
Summer’s here

Simferopol airport is very busy again, although I don’t know how this compares to previous years. Flights are planned to at least five different countries in my quick scan of their schedule. Apparently a lot of the flights are already booked, and it’s difficult to find free seats. I’m not sure if that’s in both directions (i.e. into and out of Crimea), but either way I think that’s a positive thing as it means people are being able to move relatively freely.

Of an assortment of things

I know that post is getting through, as one of my students has had seven or eight postcrossing cards in the last three weeks. Unfortunately, I still haven’t had any post since the end of March, except for one postcard for my students. I’m hoping that I’ll get it all at some point, since I’m expecting (at the minimum) one letter and about 12 postcrossing cards.

Russian political parties are very much present, with many new offices having opened in Sevastopol. There’ll be an election in the autumn, I believe. Cars with loudspeakers regularly pass, at least one or two a week, with students tuning in briefly, then dismissing them with ‘politics’. There are billboards advertising all of the parties, including the Communist party, which I have to admit causes me to do a double-take every time I see one. The offices below the school are occupied by a party called Родина. They replaced the Ukrainian Батьківщина  party, and apparently the name of both parties translates to almost the same English word, the former being ‘motherland’ and the latter being ‘fatherland’!


I’ve been told that all of the universities in Sevastopol have been combined into a single organisation now, but don’t know the name or any more details about it. (Sorry!) I don’t know what that will mean for the students at the universities, and how that will affect them going forward.

Other organisations have become Russian too: the shop nearest the school, which I thought had been closed, was instead renovated and reopened as a Russian local store. As far as I know, all businesses in Crimea need to be registered in Russia by the beginning of next year, which is a complicated process because (as with most things during the changeover) nobody quite knows how to do it, and many records are being held in Kiev and not released.

Happy birthday Sevastopol
Happy birthday Sevastopol!

June 14th saw the 231st birthday of Sevastopol, two days after Russia Day, a national holiday. There were parades, concerts and fireworks for the weekend, but I was on a roll working and decided not to go. Clearly I regret that now, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. One student told me that the concert on the 14th included a choir of hundreds of children who had sung at the Sochi Opening Ceremony, bussed in from Russia specially for the birthday celebrations.

As for the people here, there are still at least two pro-Ukrainians I know who are planning to leave, but there is no sense of urgency to it – they will leave when all of their plans are in place, but are enjoying their lives in the meantime. The Tatars are just as present as they always were, as far as I can tell, with no particular changes to how they’re living their lives. We had Tatar students taking exams at the school, and one of my students is half Tatar. I think that the fears about how Tatars and Ukrainians would be treated in a Russian Crimea have so far proved unfounded, and I hope that continues to be the case.

Unless anything particularly striking happens here, I’m planning to share my next update in three months time, when six months have passed since the referendum. Watch this space…

Note: I am very much aware of what’s going on in Ukraine at the moment too, where hundreds of people have died in the fighting in the east, but feel like that’s out of the remit of my updates: they’re meant to reflect my first- and second-hand experience(s) of the changing situation in Sevastopol during the transition to becoming a full part of Russia. As I’ve said many times before, I hope the situation in Ukraine is resolved as soon as possible.

Rethinking the visual: fifth lesson

This is part of a series of blogposts about my lessons with M, a very enthusiastic nine-year-old girl. She is a pleasure to speak to, and knows a lot of English. She’s also almost completely blind. Each lesson is one hour, one-to-one, at her house.

Today we didn’t even make it into the house before the lesson started! I opened the garden gate to be greeted by M’s 3-year-old sister running towards me and M shouting “She’s found a caterpillar!” For the next 10 minutes or so, we picked up the caterpillar so M could feel it, then tried to rescue it (they were clearing the garden ready for planting), but it kept falling off the leaf. I eventually managed to put it on a bush outside, and we went in to start the lesson proper, with M telling me “I don’t afraid it” [the caterpillar] on the way.

We chatted about brothers and sisters, and I told M my brother is much taller than me. She hugged me and held up her hands to feel how tall I am, then asked me how much I weighed! I mentioned that it’s not normal to ask a woman this, but I didn’t mind telling her this time 🙂 We also discussed the difference between brothers/sisters and cousins, because the Russian words for ‘cousin’ contain ‘brother/sister’, meaning students often say they have siblings when they mean cousins. She asked about names too, and why some people have middle names.

M remembered both of the chants from the previous lesson and told me two more which she learnt at school, one of which, ‘The Spaghetti Song’, she sang in a lovely voice. At the end of the lesson, we listened to the complete first chapter of Alice in Wonderland, and she’ll be able to listen to it again for homework.


I found out that M can read and write braille in Russian, and a little in English. She said it’s very difficult to write English braille, and reading is slow. I asked her to show me how she writes, and learnt about the slate and stylus for the first time.

Slate and stylus
Slate and stylus

I didn’t realise that braille is written on the reverse of the paper, from right to left, so that when the paper is the right way up, the reader can move from left to right and feel the raised dots. M demonstrated by taking a piece of my scrap paper and writing the first part of the English alphabet for me. I’d downloaded an html file of the Braille Bug: Deciphering the Code page from the American Foundation for the Blind, so I was able to help M with some of the letters she’d forgotten (e, i, m). It turns out it’s fairly easy (I hope!) to learn the basics of the English braille code (as the symbols are called), and I’ve started using ‘Learn Basic English Braille‘ on memrise this evening so that I can at least recognise the letters. Another ‘language’ to add to the collection 😉

As a result of this conversation, I suggested to M that she have a notebook for our next lesson, and we’ll start writing down the new words and phrases that I teach her. I found a pdf of the English braille code, including many contractions, which I’ll take with me for the next lesson. I’m also going to look into touch-typing, as I think this could be really useful for M.

Good news

I was particularly happy at the end of the lesson, as M (and her dad) asked if we can schedule an extra hour of classes from next week, taking us from two to three hours, and M said “I very like our lessons” 🙂 I must be doing something right then!

It’s hard to believe it’s only been two weeks since our first lesson – I’ve already learnt so much, and I’ve got a lot more to read, thanks to the Kaizen Program in the USA, who have sent me a lot of useful information. From next week, I’ll just publish one post a week about all of our lessons, so as not to overwhelm people too much (!), but I’ll continue the reflective process.

Teaching M has made me really appreciate how I interact with the world, and just how much I rely on the visual, and how many things I’ve learnt or reinforced my knowledge of through my sight. It’s fascinating stuff!

Rethinking the visual: fourth lesson

This is part of a series of blogposts about my lessons with M, a very enthusiastic nine-year-old girl. She is a pleasure to speak to, and knows a lot of English. She’s also almost completely blind. Each lesson is one hour, one-to-one, at her house.

As soon as I walked in to M’s house, I asked her mum if she had a sheet. I’d brought one with me to show her (her parents don’t speak English, and M translates everything for them), but it was too small. Luckily, they had a white sheet the perfect size. Together we dressed M as a Roman girl, as promised. I added sandals, and some string around her hair (I didn’t get the scissors until after the photo was taken!) and her outfit was complete. As you can see, she was very happy!

M dressed as a Roman
M dressed as a Roman

We talked a little bit about the fabric and why there was such a big knot (because I didn’t have a brooch or know how to make it smaller!). She asked why it was only on one shoulder, and what they wore in the winter. I said they had a cloak to when it was colder, or at least, that’s what I thought.

We could have taken this further, but M really wanted to start the story, so I’ll save talking about clothes for a future lesson, based on Naomi’s comment on my previous post.

After the initial excitement, we moved on to a couple of chants to help M remember correct version of some of the mistakes she made in the last lesson. These are the two I’d come up with:

I shouted at her.
I shouted at her.
I shouted at her a lot.

Yesterday he went to London.
He didn’t want to go.
He’s coming back tomorrow,
But his friend doesn’t know.

Once we’d practised these a couple of times, we started the reading Alice in Wonderland (Compass Classic Readers Level 2), [Amazon affiliate link to Kindle version]. I said I wouldn’t tell her too much about Wonderland because she’d learn about it during the story, only that it’s a country. I described Alice’s costume, then started to read the first chapter myself, pausing to ask M questions about what she thought would happen next. Within three sentences she realised that she already knew the story in Russian! She told me about the ‘drink me’ and ‘eat me’ before we got to that part of the story. We were running out of time, so I played the CD for the part I’d read (about one page). I sent M the first chapter and the two chants to listen to between the lessons.

This lesson’s lightbulb moment was about correction. I often use my fingers to indicate missing words or words which need to be added to a sentence, by having one finger for each word and pointing to indicate where the error is. I realised this can still be used with M, but rather than showing my fingers and relying on sight, I used touch. I tapped M’s arm to show the changes she needed to make. For example, she said “I late”, so I tapped “I am late” with three fingers on her arm to show her the missing word.

We’ll continue with Alice in Wonderland, but I need to keep looking for a story which M doesn’t know. Unfortunately all of the suitable readers we have are based on classic stories, so she’s probably familiar with them all. I don’t have internet access in the lesson, so anything I want to use should be offline. I’m also going to ask M about her literacy again too – I don’t know how much braille she knows, and whether it’s only in Russian, or if she knows some in English too.

Rethinking the visual: third lesson

This is part of a series of blogposts about my lessons with M, a very enthusiastic nine-year-old girl. She is a pleasure to speak to, and knows a lot of English. She’s also almost completely blind. Each lesson is one hour, one-to-one, at her house.

Oliver Twist

Today’s lesson started with M telling me she’d listened to Oliver Twist again. She has an audiobook version of the story on two CDs which was given to her by her teacher in Saint Petersburg. She’s seen the film in Russian, and listened to the CDs in English. I asked her to tell me the story.

What followed was another (to me anyway!) extraordinary example of M’s capacity to retain language. She remembers a lot of her favourite sections verbatim, and enjoys acting out parts of the story. Her intonation is excellent, much better than a lot of my students of a similar level, and there was even the trace of a London accent in some of the quotes of direct speech. Her favourite character is Nancy, who “lives with the cruel, wicked man Bill Sykes. He murderous.” She repeated almost the whole dialogue between Mr Bumble and the Master in the workhouse, after Oliver Twist had asked “Can I have some more?”, with only very minor errors. I think it’s like how I would learn the lyrics of a song purely by hearing it again and again, when there are always some things that you mishear or don’t notice.

What I was worried about here was that M might be repeating the sounds without really understanding the words, so I challenged her on some of them, but she always dealt with them without a problem. One example was ‘apprentice’ – she defined it as a student, and I asked what they would learn.

M: You’re learning cook and you’ll be a cooker.
S: You’re learning to cook and you’ll be a cook. A cook is the job, a cooker is a machine.
M: [laughs!] Hah, you’ll be a machine! No, no, you’ll be a cook.

M also took the opportunity to ask me more about workhouses, and whether we still have them in the UK. I said that they disappeared about a hundred years ago, which she said was very good because they’re horrible places.

During this I made a note of some of the sentences she made mistakes with, mostly grammar mistakes which are common to Russian speakers. I’m going to try to come up with rhymes to help her remember some of them. Here they are, in case you have any suggestions:

She very shouted on him. [She shouted at him a lot.]

He don’t want lived in the workhouse. [He didn’t want to live in the workhouse.]

He went in London. [He went to London.]

It’s how porridge, but with a little bit water. [It’s like porridge, but with a little bit of water. – this use of ‘how’ for ‘like’ is one of her main mistakes, which I tried to correct during the lesson, but didn’t manage to get across]

It’s present me my teacher in Saint Petersburg. [My teacher in St. P. gave it to me.]

The Romans

We then moved on to talking about the Romans. The other audiobook which M has with her is called Visit London and includes a section about the Romans. She can repeat a short part of it.

I asked her if she knew what the Romans looked like, and she said she had a soldier and a gladiator. She fetched the models, each about 8cm tall and made of metal. We talked about the clothes they were wearing, and their weapons, and why the shield had a metal part on the front of it (the boss). I taught her ‘helmet’, ‘shield’ and ‘sword’.

She asked about normal Romans and I said that I would bring some things next time to help her find out what a normal Roman looked like. I haven’t worked out exactly how to do this yet, but I suspect we’ll dress her up in a sheet like a toga. One of my jobs for the weekend…

Out of time - image by Ian James on ELTpics
Out of time – image by Ian James on ELTpics (shared under a Creative Commons 3.0 licence)

M’s sight

I asked her more about her sight, and from what I can gather, she has always been visually impaired, although she said that her left eye used to be bad and her right eye better, but now they’ve switched.

With her soldiers, I asked M what colour they were. She needed a lot of light, taking them to the window, and holding them close to her eyes, before telling me they were light, probably white. I said they were grey, and held them next to white paper for her to see the difference. This showed me that her colour vision is very limited, although I couldn’t find out whether it used to be better – she’s definitely aware of different ideas of colour, but they’re very difficult (impossible?) for her to see now.

She asked about me too, and I showed her my glasses. I’ve had glasses since I was six, and can’t see distances or screens clearly without them, although I don’t wear them when I’m doing anything close, including during our lesson.

M enjoys watching TV, especially cartoons, her favourite being Duck Tales, which happened to be one of my favourites when I was a kid, although I don’t remember it that well (potential future lessons there…).

“Your eyes are two TV sets in your body.” She said that she doesn’t understand how you see (which reinforces what I said above), and that she’d talked to her school friends about it. “It’s how cartoons. When you can’t see, you can’t see cartoons in your head.”

Before next lesson

When we only had a few minutes left, M asked about the story, but I said she’d told me a lot today and we’d nearly run out of time so I would start it next lesson. I’d brought Sleeping Beauty, but decided during the lesson that I’ll try Alice in Wonderland with her – we have a higher level reader of that, and I think she’ll enjoy the challenge. I told her the name of the story, but failed to get across the idea of ‘Wonderland’, which is another thing for me to work out.

So in summary, I need to:

  • Work out how to dress M up as a ‘normal’ Roman;
  • Come up with sentences/chants/drills to correct some of her mistakes, particularly ‘how’ for ‘like’;
  • Think of a better way to convey the idea of Wonderland, without giving away too much of the story (from what she said, she doesn’t know it – I hope!);
  • Watch Duck Tales again!

Rethinking the visual: second lesson

This is part of a series of blogposts about my lessons with M, a very enthusiastic nine-year-old girl. She is a pleasure to speak to, and knows a lot of English. She’s also almost completely blind. Each lesson is one hour, one-to-one, at her house.

The more eagle-eyed amongst you will notice that the opening paragraph of this post has changed slightly, and that’s thanks to some of the questions that came out of my first post and some further research I’ve been doing. It may seem silly, but it hadn’t occurred to me to ask if M could see anything at all – I thought she was completely blind. Speaking to her during our second lesson today, it turns out that she can actually see light and dark, colours, and some shapes. Blue and pink are her favourite colours, and we talked about which colours are girls’ and boys’ colours, because I love blue too, but happen to hate pink!

I also asked M how she remembers new language, particularly new vocabulary, she replied that she listens and repeats it, then relaxes, then repeats it again. She does seem to have a very good memory, but I’ll be interested to see how much she retains from today’s lesson when I see her next time (either on Wednesday or Thursday).

She doesn’t use the computer, or seem to use technology much at all for her learning, although I’m not sure if she understood what I was getting at when I asked her this. She told me that they used to use the computer at school, but now they read and write on paper, learning Braille.

The lesson

Our lesson was based on ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’ from Aesop’s Fables [affiliate link to Kindle edition via Amazon]. I used the Compass Classic Readers version, which is accompanied by a CD. This is what we did.

  1. I told M we were going to listen to a story, but first I wanted to ask her a question. “Have you ever told a lie?” We talked about what a lie is, and she told me she doesn’t like lies, and the only time she’s ever told something like a lie was during a show with some of her friends, when they all pretended to change their identities.
  2. I gave her the title of the story and said that she might know it already. As expected, she knew it in Russian, but not in English. I asked her to tell me the story, and recorded her while she did so.
  3. We listened to the story (about one minute in total) and compared it to what she’d told me.
  4. I played the story again, this time pausing after each sentence. I asked her to tell me if there were any words she didn’t know. This didn’t work, as she seemed to understand everything at this point.
  5. The third time I played it, I asked M to repeat each sentence. This is when it became clear that there were some things she didn’t understand or couldn’t repeat. I made a note of these for later. We repeated each sentence a few times if necessary, with me isolating difficult bits of speech and clarifying things she didn’t get.
  6. The fourth time we listened, I played a few words, paused the CD, and asked her to tell me what came next. I tried to pause at the places where she’d had trouble in the previous exercise.
  7. I asked M to tell me the story again. I didn’t give my instructions very well, but eventually she understood that she didn’t have to repeat what she’d heard verbatim, but rather tell the story again in her own words, adding any language that she wanted to from the text we’d heard.
  8. To finish off the lesson, I played the two recordings so M could hear the difference. She didn’t know I was recording her before, but didn’t seem bothered when I played them to her. In fact, she was laughing about it!

The first version

S: What did he do?

M: He…I forgot it in English.

S: OK. That’s OK. What do you remember?

M: He has got a sheeps and he cried “Wolf! Wolf! Help please!” Mans came but…it’s was a false. Then boy again said “Wolf!”, cried “Wolf! Wolf! Help!” and man came. Not…no, not wolf. It’s…it’s a false.

S: Mmm-huh. It’s false. It’s a lie.

M: It’s a lie. Then he’s cried again and wolf ca…wolf came, and…boy…boy shouted “Wolf! Wolf! Help!” They…but mens don’t…they thought that it’s not true. But it was true, and wolf ate… all sheeps. Yes?

S: Yes! That’s exactly the story.

No wolves here
No wolves here… [my photo]

The text

Taken from pages 32-33 of Aesop’s Fables (Compass Classic Readers level 1), as retold by Ken Methold (no copyright infringement is intended – this is purely meant to show how the text I used in class fed into later production by M.)

A shepherd-boy looked after the sheep belonging to the people of the village.

One day he cried, “Wolf! Wolf!”

Hearing him, the villagers ran to help him drive away the wolf. However, when they reached him, there was no wolf to be seen. The boy thought it was very funny.

“You weren’t quick enough,” he said to them. “The wolf has run away.”

Thinking he was very clever, a few days later he shouted “Wolf!” again. Again, the villagers came to help him, and again he said, “You weren’t quick enough. The wolf has run away.” The angry villagers went back to their work in the village.

A week later the boy shouted “Wolf!” again, but the villagers did not believe him. However, this time there really was a wolf, and it killed all the sheep because no one came to drive it away.

The second version

[a few false starts]

M: A shepherd boy…[long pause]

S: It’s alright. Tell me in your own words.

M: Shepherd…a shepherd boy shepherd the sheep.

S: That’s right. That’s perfect!

M: It’s how tongue twister.

S: Yeah, it is!

M: Shepherd the sheep.

S: A shepherd boy is shepherding the sheep.

M: The long time…[long pause]

S: So tell me, don’t worry about the exact words, but tell me the story yourself and if you want to use words from the story, you can, that you heard, but you don’t have to. So, tell me the story like you did at the start. [and that was my third attempt at the instructions! Hmmm….]

M: Ahhh. The boy looked after the sheep. The shepherd boy looked after the sheep. Not far…not far away worked…worked a villagers, and he shouted “Wolf!” Villagers came…came but holever…

S: However

M: …however, it’s st…they…it’s not was [?]. Boy thought that it was…boy joked…he said with laugh: “Quick enough, the wolf is run away!”

He thought he was clever…that he was clever, and few days later he shouted “Wolf!” again. Again, villagers came to help him, but it’s no…but it wasn’t the wolf. Boy again said the life [?] “Quick enough! A wolf is run away!”

The week later, he shouted again “Wolf!” but villagers don’t…believed him. But it’s was wolf, but… however… it’s very was a wolf and it killed all sheep, because… it wasn’t…nobody came to…drive it away.

S: Well done!


From the first telling, the only specific piece of language I highlighted was 1 sheep, 2 sheep. M already knew this but had forgotten it, and added the example of 1 fish, 2 fish herself. As you can see, she used it correctly the second time round.

Language that caused problems in the text when she was repeating the sentences  (stage 4 of the lesson described above):

  • looked after: due to connected speech, M didn’t pick this up, but knew it once I’d repeated it.
  • belonging to: she couldn’t isolate this either. I’m not sure if she fully understand it, and will ask her again next lesson.
  • drive away: new vocabulary. She thought it meant ‘kill’ from the context, which is understandable.  I explained “You make it go away, but don’t kill it. You don’t want it to come back.”
  • hearing him: difficulties remembering it when repeating the text – it was at the beginning of quite a long sentence, and obviously didn’t seem to carry enough meaning for her to feel the need to remember it
  • There was no wolf to be seen. A new structure
  • You weren’t quick enough: M didn’t hear or reproduce the negative. I isolated it a few times, but she never produced it.
  • went back to: M kept saying ‘came back to’
  • in the village: no article, which is quite typical for Russian speakers

What I found particularly interesting during this was that M asked me “Why did he make a pause?”, referring to when he introduced direct speech. I don’t think many of my sighted students would have noticed that.

The second telling shows M playing with the sounds at the beginning, and forming quite a complex sentence. She’s taken some of the language from the text into her version, like ‘looked after’, ‘quick enough’ and ‘run away’. It’s a richer, more colourful version than her first telling.

However, there are a lot of grammatical errors, and this is my challenge now. How can I improve her accuracy without just having lots of repetition and memorisation? The accuracy needs to be transferable to other structures, not just the exact sentence we’re practising at that point. Grammar chants were suggested by Olga Stolbova, which I’m going to try. All other suggestions will be gratefully accepted!

My research

To finish off, here is a link to all of the resources I’ve managed to find on teaching languages to blind students. I haven’t managed to find anything which particularly helps in my current context (young learner, 121, quite high level already), but there are ideas scattered through the resources which might be useful later. A lot of links on lists of resources I found seem to be out-of-date or broken.

I also contacted the American Federation for the Blind (AFB), who replied with the first three links from a Google search (I appreciate the effort, but it seems a little pointless!), and the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB – the UK equivalent) to ask for help, but I’m not sure if I’ll get anything from there either.

I’ve pretty much exhausted my ideas for Google searches now, so think that I’ll move on to trial and error, and blogging 😉

Rethinking the visual: first lesson

On Thursday I had my first lesson with M, a very enthusiastic nine-year-old girl. She was a pleasure to speak to, and knows a lot of English. She’s also completely blind.

I’d met M a couple of days previously when she came to the school for a placement test. I knew she was coming, but wasn’t really sure how to test her, since she couldn’t do our traditional written placement test or access any of the visuals that most young learner testing relies on. I opted for asking her various questions to try and gauge her level, and concluded that she was high elementary, possibly pre-int. She spoke quite fluently and was very excited about using her English.

Before our first lesson, she and her mum took me to their house. During the five-minute walk I realised that I’d misjudged her level, and she was actually much better: quite a confident pre-intermediate. She was telling me facts about the Great Fire of London and Oliver Twist, both of which she’d listened to and remembered. She was showing off a much wider range of language than I’d been able to get from the placement test, and it was clear that what I’d planned for the first lesson would be too easy.

We ended up doing a mini test, where I described animals and she guessed what they were. I had some finger puppets from Ikea which I thought would be good as they’re very tactile. She told me that she had the same puppets at home (they’re in Sevastopol on holiday), so she knew the characters. There were only a few words I could teach her: veil, sack, firefighter, hose and tiara. We played another game, which she suggested, where I had to say the character/puppet and she had to find it from the pile as quickly as possible.

Ikea finger puppets
Image from: http://www.productreview.com.au/p/ikea-titta-finger-puppet.html

M also told me a bit about her school. She’s in a class of 10 at a specialist school for the blind, where she’s learning to read and write braille. I don’t know (yet) if braille is international or if it is written differently in different languages. This is just one of many, many questions I need to find out the answers to.

Our next lesson will be on Tuesday, and I’m slightly worried about it, because I’ve realised I’m not sure exactly how to approach teaching M, not just doing activities with her. I’m very aware of how much I rely on visual stimuli in my teaching, like pictures and writing on the board, so I’m thinking about how to do things differently. I need to come up with some kind of programme showing what I’m going to teach her so that her parents know I have a plan! It would be very easy for us to just talk or listen to CDs in our lessons, but then I would feel like I’m short-changing her. So here are my initial questions/challenges:

  • How can I help M to remember and retain new language when she doesn’t have any way of record-keeping (at least, as far as I can tell at the moment)?
  • How can I improve M’s accuracy in a more varied way than just getting her to repeat phrases back to me? (She has problems with things like ‘I don’t afraid’)
  • If I use CDs, what activities can I do with them, beyond questions and answers? The vast majority of what I do at the moment relies on visual stimuli.
  • She loves songs and has a very good memory for them. What can I do with songs beyond just getting her to memorise them and ask me about words she doesn’t know? What kind of songs could I use?
  • She told me that she likes ‘stories, especially about girls’. We have a handful of graded readers for young learners which come with CDs. I can use these CDs, but (yet again!) what kind of activities can I do? (beyond answering questions and predicting what will come next)

I have a feeling that my lessons might be quite same-y at the moment, and I don’t want her to get bored! At the same time, I’ll be teaching her for two one-hour lessons a week, and I need to make sure my planning time isn’t disproportionate!

I’ve already asked for some help on facebook, and these were the suggestions and comments so far (so I don’t lose them!):

  • Guessing games
  • Songs
  • Chants
  • Listening games
  • Bingo
  • Poetry
  • Read her part of a story and she guesses what comes next.
  • You say a sentence with a magic word and she guesses the word. Eg if the magic word is ‘monkey’. You say ‘I like reading monkeys’ and she guesses ‘book (s)’.
  • Create a story/narrative using sound effects. Guess what you are doing from the sounds you are making.
  • Check out http://thesoundbooksite.com/ byMichael Harrison
  • Enrich your storytelling with sound effects – a webinar by Dincer Demir
  • Have a look at story books to help you. There are loads of story books available and it might help. Instead of preparing a reading, prepare a listening and pre-teach vocabulary, etc.
  • Remember she’s blind, not an idiot – talk to her as you would talk to any other 10 year old girl. Ask what she wants to do. Has she listened to the audio books and what does she think about them? What software is there out there for her to be creative? Maybe have her do her “homework” in the form of audio and tactile productions (maybe do a podcast together for other girls her age?) or some form of 3D extravaganza! Find interesting fruit, vegetables, bottles, clothes etc and go through shapes, smells, tastes etc. (can she tell bottles for poison from other bottles for instance?). Talk about school, what she wants to do when she’s older, what kind of music does she like to listen to etc?
  • I second Sorcha Ogle’s comment about how to talk to her. Nonethless, be sensitive to things that she might not be able to visualise. Like a fire. Discuss scenes you’ve read/listened to so as to see how she visualises them.
  • A guide for teaching visually impaired students (although this is for those with some residual sight)
  • Touchy-feely books are amazing for these students.
  • SEN teacher (Special Educational Needs)
  • Also, just be aware of your language. If you are quite a visual person you are more likely to say things like ‘I see’, etc
  • You could collect things on a walk that she could feel & smell to talk about to learn about nature. Sounds and tactile things will be very beneficial to promote talk for learning but I suppose it also depends on the topic
  • Consider some form of cooking or gardening – so she can learn the smells, taste and English words for things like Lavender, Basil, Rosemary, Pine, TeaTree, Lemon, Citronella, Orange, Lime, Rose etc (she could grow up to be a perfumer!)

Thanks to Kylie Malinowska, Charles du Parc, Julie Raikou, Martin Sketchley, Sorcha Ogle, Naomi Epstein, Elena Lysytsia, Sue Annan and Catherine Buckby for their help!

Andrea Wade had a story which was very interesting:

I taught a blind student in Italy. I found it incredibly hard, especially in the beginning. As you say, we tend to rely on visual stimuli. For me, one of the biggest problems was not being able to rely on body language to convey a message. I would find myself making gestures and facial expressions to get my meaning across and then kick myself when I remembered he couldn’t see me! The breakthrough came for me when, one day, my student told me he could ‘hear’ me when I smiled or frowned and that he preferred it when I smiled! I suppose he could hear it in my voice, but it was a turning point for me. After that, I was my usual expressive self with gestures and expressions – I lost my self-consciousness – and, with this, came much greater understanding between us. I learnt a lot about myself through teaching him – and a lot about him, too because I found one of the best ways to teach him was through getting him to tell me about his life and his experiences.

Interestingly, I haven’t felt self-conscious or nervous at all – M is very easy to talk to – but it’s an important reminder not to bring any negativity I might be carrying with me into the classroom.

Ultimately, I want to make these lessons as useful as possible for her, and this very long post is an attempt to ask for any suggestions! I’ll be blogging more as the lessons continue, and will hopefully see some progress in my lessons over the course of the posts.

Infinite ELT Ideas is back!

My Infinite ELT Ideas blog has finally been resurrected! Hopefully I’ll be able to keep up posting on it this time, as there’ll be no Delta to eat my time!

To start you off again, here’s the latest prompt, based on the BBC World Service ’60 second idea to improve the world’. All you need to do is click on the link, read the post, and suggest ideas for how to use the podcast in class. What are you waiting for?!

60 second Idea to Improve the World

Delta conversations: Sheona

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.

Sheona Smith is a teacher and teacher trainer based in Majorca, Spain. She loves her job and discovering ways to continue her Professional Development.  Her special interests at the moment are using ICT in language teaching and CLIL. Her next project is to do an MA in ICT and EFL at some time in the not too distant future. She tweets from @eltsheona.

She was on the same Distance Delta orientation course as me, with James doing the same online course, if you’d like to compare notes.



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

I’d been reading a lot of methodology books for ages and decided that I should try to put what I was studying to some use and have clearer objectives, so I opted to do the Distance Delta Module 1 [the exam] first in March 2011. I finished the module in June 2011 with a merit. As I am based in Majorca I knew it would be difficult to find a local tutor so I did Module 3 (merit) [extended assignment] next and then Module 2 [observed teaching practice] in October 2012 when I finally found a Local Tutor [someone to observe the lessons]. I got a Distinction for this module which was a big surprise even thought I put a lot of work in, and I was lucky to have a very understanding local tutor who gave me excellent feedback and advice!

Why did you choose to do it that way?

I’m a working mum, with 3 kids and it really was the only option I could do. I was unsure for a while if I’d ever be able to actually do Module 2 with the two-week orientation course, but after doing the other two modules I was determined to finish.

What do you think you gained from doing the Delta?

Well, there’s so much to say really. I really feel I gained a lot.

  • Confidence in myself as a teacher.
  • The confirmation that teaching is learning all the time.
  • Discovering a ‘Sense of Agency’, something that I learned about in an excellent book that I’d recommend all teachers read: Psychology for Language Teachers by Williams and Burden [affiliate link]. This refers to giving students a sense of empowerment in their learning, showing them or facilitating an atmosphere of taking control of their own learning. For me that wasn’t just about helping students but a life lesson.
  • An inkling of what doing an MA might be like in terms of amount of work and commitment (that’s my next challenge when I find the money)

What were the downsides of the method you chose?

The way the Distance Delta is set up you can do any module first and individually. This means that the course materials for each module overlap, so if you’ve done Module 1 you’ll get most of same material for the other modules.  I feel this could be improved in some way.

As some people have mentioned, the course organisers could make better use of technologies available to update some aspects of the course. Much as I loved the orientation course and my stay in London, it was very expensive and logistically complicated for my family for me to be in London for 2 weeks. I felt despite being primarily an online course there was a human element which could be better enhanced through more use of digital tools like Skype, webinars etc.

What were the benefits of the method you chose?

The best thing for me about doing the Delta course at a distance was that I could carry on with ‘normal life’: that is, be at home for my kids and, of course, continue working. There is no way I could have done the intensive course.  I also learned a lot about online learning and the benefits of Blended Learning, something that I’ve become really interested in.

What tips would you give other people doing the Delta?

Tips I’d give are:

  1. Only do the Delta if you feel it’s the right time for you to do it. This might seem a bit obvious, but it is a very difficult course in terms of workload and emotional highs and lows and if you’re not determined to finish and give it everything you’ve got, I would have a rethink and wait till the time is right.
  2. Read the Delta Teacher Handbook, (you can download this free). That is the best place to see what examiners are really looking for in candidates. Mine was tattered and torn by the end of the 3 modules.
  3. Don’t over-read. Some of the background reading books are amazing and I found myself getting lost in them, which I didn’t really have time to do. Don’t feel bad if you just read the chapter you need for your assignment. If it’s a worthwhile book you’ll come back to it after the course when you can really absorb and enjoy reading it.
  4. Resign yourself to the fact that for the duration of the modules/course you will be totally absorbed by the coursework. You might as well just make the most of it. I took my course books to the beach with me and read in the car between classes. But I did block off time specifically for my family and gave myself extra free time if I managed to get an assignment ready before the deadline. I always set my deadline a day before assignments were due so that I could leave my work alone for 24 hours, relax and then come back to it with a fresh perspective before handing it in. You’d be amazed at the things you find  when reading with a fresh pair of eyes.

In retrospect, what would you have done differently?

I would probably have done the modules in the correct order: that is, 1,2, and then the third. They quite clearly follow on from each other which can only be beneficial when doing the third. I also  left a bit of a gap (10 months) between M3 and M2 and I had this niggling doubt about how much I’d remember. I felt I’d kind of lost the momentum.

How much time per week would you estimate you needed to spend working on the Delta in the format you chose?

As regards the amount of time I spent, it was definitely well above what the website suggested. But then I’ve been told I can be a bit of a perfectionist. Definitely over 10 hours a week for Module 2. What can I say, writing up the background essay and the lesson plan felt endless at times. When I look back now I don’t actually know how I managed to do it!