First Site Guide interview

I’ve just been interviewed for a website called FirstSiteGuide designed to encourage and inspire fledging bloggers.

Some of the questions I answered include:

  • Is your blog a profession or just a hobby?
  • When did you get an idea to launch your own blog and how important is it for you be online?
  • How much time do you spend blogging?

If you’d like to read the whole interview, you can find it here.

They also have a beginner’s guide to web hosting.

What is the best way to exploit authentic materials? (#ELTchat summary)

It’s a very long time since I wrote one of these (nearly 3 years to be exact)! On Wednesday 14th January 2015 I took part in my first ELTchat for about a year, and since my topic was chosen, it’s only fair that I did the summary too ūüôā

If you’ve never come across ELTchat before, it’s a weekly hour-long conversation which takes place on Twitter (almost) every Wednesday, alternating between 12pm and 9pm UK time. At the end of the chat, one lucky person takes the transcript and summarises the discussion. All of the summaries are then added to the amazing summaries index, which goes back to October 2010. These are the people who took part in this chat (no underscores, so check the transcript for their proper Twitter handles!)

Word cloud of participants

What are authentic materials?

There were many aspects to the definition of authentic materials. There’s a bit of repetition, but you can pick and choose the parts that make up the best definition for you:

  • Anything written for any purpose other than language instruction;
  • Not designed for linguistic purposes (no input flood/specific language point);
  • Anything from the real world;
  • Might have been designed with non-natives in mind (just not for language teaching);
  • Can be audio or visual;
  • Need to contain some text (either written or spoken);
  • Provided by the students (? – perhaps more real/relevant to them);
  • Could be material for other school subjects, e.g. history.

Examples of authentic materials

This list is by no means exhaustive, but is designed to inspire you!

  • Packaging
  • Magazines
  • Newspapers
  • Menus
  • Literature
  • Conversations
  • Webpages
  • Blogs
  • Leaflets
  • Radio
  • TV
  • Text messages
  • Posters
  • Billboards
  • Stickers
  • T-shirts
  • Slogans
  • Logos
  • Tweets
  • Facebook statuses
  • DVD cases
  • Maps
  • Logic puzzles
  • Emails
  • Leaflets/pamphlets, maybe collected during a walk with your students
  • The Internet (yep, all of it)
  • Signs (ELTpics/Map of Linguistic Urban Landscape are good sources)
  • Voice mails (you can find apps to download them, such as this paid one)
  • Reviews (e.g. from TripAdvisor or Rotten Tomatoes)
  • Children’s books (although you should consider the language carefully, as well as whether the content is suitable for adult classes)
  • And if that’s not enough for you, try this list from Michael Griffin.

Things to consider when choosing authentic materials

  • The function/purpose of the text, not just the language included in it.
  • Is it interesting/motivational for your students?
  • What will they learn from it?
  • What do the learners need to be able to produce themselves? Can you find real examples of it?
  • Can the learners provide them for you?
  • With ESP (English for Specific Purposes) materials, do you need to know the jargon/terminology, or can your learners explain it to you?
  • Will the students’ knowledge of the content make it easier for them to access the text?
  • They don’t have to be perfect. Materials with mistakes can be just as useful for students as ‘perfect’ ones, particularly if they’re documents that the students may encounter, e.g. in-company documentation.
  • It’s not a magic bullet – the text and tasks still need to have relevant content and be at an appropriate level.

Ways of using authentic materials

  • Exploit¬†language to develop vocabulary, raise awareness of grammatical patterns/collocations/connected speech etc.
  • Encourage students to personalise chunks of language taken from the text.
  • Correct the mistakes/improve the text.
  • Analyse the text structure and/or style (text/genre analysis).
  • Develop skills in the same way as you would with non-authentic materials (e.g. coursebook texts).
  • To promote discussion about the content of the text.
  • As warmers for writing lessons (videos from¬†BBC Breaking¬†were particularly recommended)
  • Top-down: start from the context and move towards the language.
  • Bottom-up: start from the language and move towards the wider topic.
  • For enjoyment! Extensive reading/listening practice.

You can even use authentic materials with exam classes: Laura Plotnek uses real news with her IELTS classes. Podcasts are also an excellent resource for IELTS students, as are articles from magazines like BBC Focus magazine.


Show examples, then let students create their own.


Match pictures of food to items on the menu.

‘In a restaurant’ role play.

Text messages

Focus on the connections between the messages and the development of the conversation.

Review websites

After working with the examples, students post their own reviews on the websites.


Choose the most suitable candidate for a job.

Write a story based on the characters whose CVs you have.


Email your students with a problem you have. Get them to reply, then screenshot/print the replies and work on the language in them. They’re responding to a real text you’ve written. [Note from Sandy: I did something similar by asking friends on Twitter/facebook to tell my pre-intermediate students their problems so they could solve them – SS loved it!]

Points of debate

Should you pre-teach vocabulary?

It may be easier for students to access the text if you do, and some ‘blocking vocabulary’ (things which are vital to understanding the text) may be important so that students have an idea what’s going on in the text and don’t get too depressed.

If you don’t pre-teach, it reflects real-life conditions more and may help them to develop coping strategies. Giving students the chance to look up vocabulary might be more useful to them than pre-teaching it, as would priming them for the content/ideas in the text rather than specific vocabulary (activating schemata – alerting the students to prior knowledge they may have of the topic).

Consider your aim: are you using it primarily for the content, or as training in how to approach authentic materials?

Should you choose materials to fit your aims or just things which take your fancy?

One idea was that it’s important for¬†the teacher to be interested in the materials, otherwise it might be difficult to put together a ‘super duper’ lesson! Although our training is there to help us make boring stuff more exciting ūüėČ

We need to consider what materials students need to access outside class and base our choices on this.

Should you adapt or simplify the materials?

Adapting or simplifying the text removes the authenticity of the language. It is also time consuming. Managing to understand a text without knowing all the words is a vital skill which students need to develop. You can train students to use paralinguistic features, such as images or layout, to help them understand the text. Being able to understand unadapted materials can be very motivating for students.

On the other hand, simplifying the text can help students to access it in the first place, and you can build up to exposure to the original once they are familiar with the content. This could help beginner/elementary students in particular. If students become frustrated with the material because it’s too difficult, they may just stop trying to understand it. Audacity is a useful tool for slowing down audio through changing the tempo.

You could also choose ‘usable excerpts’ from¬†a text, rather than using all of it. Examples might be a short section of a longer video, or a couple of paragraphs from a longer article.

Is authenticity important in the tasks too?

i.e. Should the texts be used in a way which is faithful to real life?

Authentic tasks can be more motivating for the students, perhaps because the purpose of the tasks is clearer to them. However, they may require extra tasks (scaffolding) before you get to the authentic tasks though to ensure students are prepared sufficiently. There is also the argument that language work is a necessary part of what we do in the classroom in order to aid¬†learning. On the other hand, authentic texts sometimes have a ‘magic’ of their own and help to motivate the students without language work.

Using¬†materials like menus¬†in atypical ways could add an interesting twist¬†for students. Examples of tasks include using the menu to practise reading prices, rather than just for ordering food, or an information gap with different information blanked out for each student. The intended use of the text in real life doesn’t need to be paramount.

Can you use authentic materials with lower-level learners?

Yes! Grade the task, not the text. Give them achievable targets, for example, identifying the names of the main characters in a short story could train learners to notice the use of capital letters for names. Another activity could be reading a DVD case to find the length of the film and whether the actors have won any awards.

Support can also be provided in the form of pictures, pre-teaching vocabulary and/or a summary of the text beforehand. With audio materials, you can repeat it as many times as necessary. Pausing helps learners to assimilate the text, and you can discuss what SS have heard and what they think will come next.

Bear in mind, though, that sometimes the text is just too difficult for the students. Widdowson suggests that authentic materials may be too challenging for lower-level students, but those living in English-speaking environments have to deal with them, so as teachers we need to help them.

Is it worth it?

The general consensus was that when used correctly students really enjoy authentic materials, even if they don’t understand it all. You’re exposing learners to real patterns of language which they can use. Those teaching in English-speaking environments thought it was particularly important to use authentic materials with their students as this is what they encounter as soon as they leave class.

Links and further reading

Pinterest or wikis were suggested as ways to collate authentic materials.

Robert O’Neill discusses the use of authentic materials in the final section of Dogmas and Delusions in current EFL methodology.

Shona Whyte discusses authenticity in the FL classroom.

A selection of lessons based on authentic materials, organised by level.

Marjorie Rosenberg wrote regular ‘Jargon Busters‘ for Cambridge. They started with vocabulary, then an article, and ended with discussion questions.

Speakout books use BBC videos and has video podcasts. Life uses National Geographic ones.

CEFR profilers or vocabulary profilers like the Oxford Text Checker can be useful to identify potentially difficult words and to decide whether to use a text.

Picture this (IH Live Online Workshop January 2015)

Today I had the pleasure of presenting a Live Online Workshop for International House teachers around the world.

ELTpics webinar screenshot

The topic was the use of images in the classroom, including an introduction to ELTpics. This was the abstract:

Picture this: ELTpics and images in the classroom
Images are the language of the 21st century. How can we exploit them to maximise our students’ language production? This webinar will introduce you to ELTpics, a collection of nearly 25,000 images shared by teachers and other members of the ELT profession and available for you to use in the classroom. Learn how to make the most of the collection with activities to use the ELTpics images, those in your coursebooks and those your learners bring with them every day.

You can watch a recording of the session, which will take you 56 minutes:

Almost all of the activities were taken from the blogs of various wonderful people, as well as the ELTpics blog. Here are the links:

Information about how to credit ELTpics images can be found on the attribution page of the ELTpics website.

I also shared two mosaic makers. On BigHugeLabs, you can use the Flickr links or images which you have on your computer. For Fotor you need to have the images on your computer first. I think the Fotor mosaics look nicer, and you have more options for layouts on them, but you can include more images in a BigHugeLabs mosaic.

Finally, you can download the slides, which will give you a summary of all of the activities (not all of them have links above):

[I believe you need a free SlideShare account to be able to download the slides]

Life-changing sentences

Have you thought about going to Durham?

The place: The careers department of my school, which was also where all the university prospectuses were kept

The person: Mr. Scotto, the careers advisor

The background:¬†When I was trying to choose a university, I didn’t even know that Durham had one.¬†My knowledge of the north-east pretty much stopped at the fact that there was some coal mining there.

I also didn’t really know how far north it was. Before going on my open day, the furthest north I’d ever been was York when I was about 8 years old. As a child, I thought it was right on the border with Scotland, so panicked when my train arrived in York and I hadn’t got off – I thought I’d somehow missed the station, but soon realised that there’s a lot more of England to traverse before you get to the border!

Durham Cathedral
Durham Cathedral

The consequences: I fell in love with the Durham as soon as I arrived. Within a couple of hours I was already imagining what it would be like to be a student there, and I never once regretted my choice. It was also where I did my CELTA.

Graduation day
Graduation day

I loved my three years in Durham so much that when it was time to return to the UK for a while in 2011, I picked the closest place to Durham I could, and ended up spending another two years in the north-east, living in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Newcastle bridges
Newcastle bridges

Maybe you should go to Central Europe

The place: Durham University Language Department

The people: My CELTA tutors, Teti and Lesley

The background:¬†I did my CELTA part-time from October to February of my final year of university. I’d always been a forward planner, and come November I was worrying because¬†I didn’t know what I’d do or where I’d go after graduation. I started off by looking for interesting cities, my main criteria being that they should be near the sea, and preferably near the border with another country too. The first city I fixated on was Trieste, Italy, followed by Thessaloniki in Greece a month or so later. Then I remembered that I’d heard about International House¬†and fancied working for them. Scouring their recruitment list, I felt a bit overwhelmed, and nothing really jumped out at me, so at the end of the course I asked my tutors for help.


The consequences: I spent three wonderful years at IH Brno, years which gave me the foundations to become the teacher I am today. I fell in love with the city and made lots of friends. I also got to about pre-intermediate level in Czech, which helped a lot with my Russian.

There’s a huge community of ELT people on Twitter

The place: IH Brno

The person: Shaun Wilden

The background: Shaun inspected IH Brno to ensure it met the standards of International House. As part of an inspection, there is always a final meeting with the teachers to summarise what happened during the visit. He threw this sentence out at some point during the meeting, and it stuck with me.

The consequences:¬†Too many to mention! My Twitter account, learning a huge amount from ELTchat, my blog(s), co-curating ELTpics, conference visits and talks, writing work…but most importantly, contacts. Lots and lots of contacts, including some very good friends.

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

Olga’s looking for a Director of Studies. Do you know anyone who’s interested?

The place: Brno/facebook!

The person: Pavla

The background:¬†Both years I lived in Newcastle I went for a week’s holiday in Brno and ran around like crazy trying to catch up with as many friends as possible. One evening I was chatting to Pavla about what I was going to do after I finished my Delta. Later that evening, she sent me a facebook message.

IH Sevastopol
IH Sevastopol

The consequences: The next morning I sent Olga an email with my CV, and a week after that I had a Skype interview where she offered me the DoS job at IH Sevastopol.


That led to one of the most eventful years of my life (mostly not my doing), learning Russian, teaching a visually impaired student, becoming a CELTA tutor, and therefore being able to travel the world doing CELTA courses.

Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon

We’re looking for a new DoS next year

The place: The IH DoS conference 2015, Greenwich

The person: Tim

The background: I happened to sit next to Tim on the first day of the DoS conference. During one of the sessions we started chatting about the lesson planning groups at IH Bydgoszcz and the importance of professional development for new teachers. He dropped this key sentence into the conversation at some point that day. The next day he said we should talk. On day three of the conference, we did. For nearly two hours.

The consequences: It was a very productive conversation, and three weeks later I was on my way to Bydgoszcz to see the school. Two days into the visit we met with the owner of the school, and I was formally offered the job.

The post office in Bydgoszcz's beautiful neighbour, Torun
The post office in Bydgoszcz’s beautiful neighbour, Torun

That means that at the end of August this year, I’ll embark on the next stage of my career: becoming a full-time manager of a thriving school, with only a few hours of teaching. I’m very excited about this step, and also slightly scared, but I know I’ll be able to deal with it thanks to the wonderful support network I have.

Arabic students and spelling (IATEFL Harrogate 2014)

At IATEFL Harrogate I¬†watched a presentation which went a long way towards answering a question I posed on this blog a while back: How can we help Arabic learners with their huge problems with spelling in English?¬†It was given by Emina Tuzovic, and she kindly agreed to write a guest post sharing her tips for my blog. What with one thing and another, it’s been a while in coming (she finished it for me 6 months ago!) but I hope it was worth the wait!


A couple of tips on how to improve spelling in Arabic learners

Any TEFL teacher who has experience teaching Arabic learners is acquainted with the difficulties they face when it comes to spelling. I would like to share some spelling tips which helped my Arabic students improve this skill.

First of all, I would pre-teach what vowels, consonants and syllables are as well as highlight the difference between sounds and letters. This is important for Arabic learners as when they learn English, they need to deal with the following:

  • a new script;
  • numerous spelling patterns;
  • a complex and very often unpredictable system of mapping sounds onto letters (Arabic has a regular 1-1 sound-letter conversion);
  • a different reading direction (Arabic is written from right to left).

Therefore using the appropriate ‚Äėlabels‚Äô will make your explanations much clearer. Also don‚Äôt forget that a phonemic chart looks like another script for this group of learners. Therefore I tend to avoid it if I can, especially transcriptions of whole words. Instead of writing a phonemic on the board, I prefer writing another, high-frequency word with the same pronunciation of a sound in question, e.g. moon; rude (/u:/).


As you have probably noticed it is the spelling of vowels that creates most difficulties for Arabic students. One of the most effective tasks for this group is simply gapping the vowels:   e.g. _xc_pt (except)   vs   _cc_pt (accept).

‚ÄėProblematic vowels‚Äô are down to L1 interference. Firstly, in Arabic short vowels are in most cases not written down but only indicated by diacritics. For that reason, they are frequently glossed over by the students when they read in English (which consequently results in the poor spelling of vowels). Secondly, Arabic only has three long and three short vowels in comparison to English (5 vowel letters and 20 sounds!).

Therefore when I board new vocabulary (especially multi-syllable words), I mark vowels with a colour pen and break the words down into syllables which I subsequently drill in isolation. This is very important as many Arabic students will otherwise either guess the vowel or simply omit it when trying to read a new word.


Breaking down words into CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) patterns is also important as it helps students visually memorise lexical items. I try to encourage my students to practise words by writing them down, not typing them up on the computer. This will help them consolidate the visual form of the words which is absolutely vital if you want to be a good speller! (e.g. they need to see how differently words such as play and blue look like). I also try to get the students not to only copy the word but use the Look, remember, cover, write, check method. I get them to look at a word for about 20 seconds and try to memorise it before covering and then trying to recall it. In this way you know the students have used their processing skills to retain the item instead of just copying it.

Noticing patterns

As teachers, when we teach spelling, we tend to focus too much on spelling and pronunciation irregularities (e.g. plough, cough, etc.) rather than teaching spelling patterns. If you need to check these and the rules associated with them, I suggest using the guide on the Oxford Dictionaries website.¬†In relation to this, I try to get my students to notice the most common letter strings (e.g. sh, ch, spr, ure, etc.) and encourage ‚Äėactive reading‚Äô where they look for letter strings and spelling patterns. When they record vocabulary, encourage the use of spelling logs as a separate section of students‚Äô vocabulary books (based on a spelling pattern, e.g. ie vs ei, rather than just randomly recorded vocabulary).

When revising new lexis, I sometimes use magnetic letter strings (rather than only letters) which I simply ordered off Amazon! Here is the link if you’d like to buy your own¬†magnetic letters [affiliate link, so Sandy gets a few pennies if you order here!]

Magnetic letter strings

To get a closer insight into spelling games based on spelling patters, I would recommend Shemesh & Waller’s Teaching English Spelling [affiliate link].

[Note from Sandy: another good spelling book is Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners by Johanna Stirling]

Building up confidence

I have noticed that my Arabic learners are well aware of their poor spelling. In order to build up their confidence, they need to be shown that they have made progress.

I usually set up a routine: for the first or last 5 minutes of the class we revise vocabulary from the previous day (e.g. spelling bee) or I might give them a spelling test either every day or every other day. In this way they will soon get the sense of achievement.

I also try to praise my students for using a correct pattern (e.g. *reech, *shef, etc.) even though the word might not be spelled correctly.


When it comes to spelling, morphology plays a very important role, too. Highlight the root, suffixes and prefixes of a word and encourage students to create word families. Based on their L1, Arabic learners will be familiar/will be able to relate to this concept/aspect of learning the new vocabulary.


Avoid the following…

One of the common spelling activities you find in various coursebook is unjumbling letters (e.g. *fnsniuoco-confusion). However I would not advise these exercises for Arabic learners. Individual letters shuffled around might only confuse them as these exercises do not contribute to consolidating the visual form of a word.

Another exercise which particularly lower-level Arabic learners might not find useful is crosswords for the same reason as listed above (words are often presented vertically and in divided block form).

Spelling games on the computer

Students can check the following useful websites if they want to practise spelling in their own time:

This task is particularly of interest for Arabic learners as there are a lot of vowel changes between the three verb forms (e.g. drink-drank-drunk).

The first two tasks in the next group are very useful for consolidating the visual form of the word:

If students enjoy playing spelling bees, is an option. However, you need to register.

In terms of spelling software (which has to be downloaded on your computer), there is a lot to choose from. However, the vast majority is designed for native English speaking children and is therefore not the best tool for ESL learners. After having done some research into those, I‚Äôd recommend ‚ÄėSpeak n Spell‚Äô. Although there are some issues with the audio, it’s still worth having a look.

Other useful websites

This is an excellent website by Johanna Stirling which gives tips on how to improve spelling in Arabic as well as Chinese speakers.

THRASS chart (phonics chart): Although this chart is not free (from ¬£2), it’s a very useful tool to memorise phonics and consequently spelling patterns.

Thrass chart

To my knowledge not much has been published to solely cater to Arabic learners’ difficulties in spelling. In the classroom I frequently use Harrison, R. (1990; 1992) Keep Writing 1 and Keep Writing 2, published by Longman [affiliate links]. These books are specifically aimed at helping Arabic learners with their writing. At the end of each chapter you can find spelling exercises.

By incorporating the things mentioned above in my lessons, my Arabic students managed to considerably improve their spelling in a fairly short period of time. I hope you find these tips useful too! You can write to me on


About Emina

I’m currently teaching at the London School of English

I’m Delta-trained and doing my PhD in visual word recognition and recall in Arabic ESL learners at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Integrating technology into CELTA

At the IH Director of Studies conference last week Gavin Dudeney did a session about managing technology. In it, he expressed the hope that technology in the classroom will eventually become normalised. As he said, nobody talks about ‘pen-assisted language learning’, so why CALL?¬†He also wants it to¬†become an integral part of teacher training courses, rather than something special or tacked on. He mentioned me as someone who does this and, of course, immediately after the session someone approached me and asked me how, to which I had no ready answer, probably because for me it already is an integral part of my teaching and training!

I started thinking about it, and in conversation with Anthony Gaughan, we decided that we use technology when it’s necessary to solve problems. So here are some of the ways that tech is used when I’m working as a CELTA trainer:

  • For the occasional PowerPoint-based input session (thought I’d better get that out of the way!)
  • To show longer videos for observations and shorter clips as part of input sessions.
  • To help trainees find out about language by demonstrating how a corpus works (I normally use BYU BNC).
  • Getting trainees to take photos of each others’ whiteboards during TP (teaching practice).
  • Trainees also sometimes video/audio record themselves/each other, although we have to get the students’ permission first.
  • To send out relevant extra links to the trainees, particularly to my diigo bookmarks.
  • (On one course) To provide after-hours support via email – this got a bit much for me, so I only did it in emergencies on later courses.
  • (On one course) Experimenting with Edmodo as a way of giving handouts – this got a bit overwhelming for the trainees, although they still have access to it after the course. Hoping to ask them in the future whether they ever look at it.
  • Trainees show images using their own tablets or a projector, rather than printing off endless pictures.
  • Where available, trainees can use the overhead projector (old-school tech!) to display answers/texts etc.
Projector at Beamish Museum
Not quite as old-school as this one though…
  • Teaching trainees how to put images into PowerPoint, instead of spending hours formatting them in Word (not that this frustrates me at all…) – amazed at how many people, especially under 25s, are still petrified of PowerPoint and/or have never opened it in their lives!
  • I also have a 75-minute technology input session which I’m happy to pass on to anybody who needs inspiration – just message me below or on Twitter. A key part of this session is demonstrating how to use Quizlet¬†and another is introducing online professional development, if it hasn’t already been done in another input.

I don’t feel like any of this is particularly revolutionary, but maybe that’s because tech has always been normalised for me. Is there anything else you do?


I’ve just rediscovered this very comprehensive post by Marisa Constantinides showing how she integrates technology into the teacher development¬†courses at CELT Athens – lots of ideas I plan to steal! She’s also written about whether it’s worth integrating technology into CELTA.

You might also be interested in Kateryna Protsenko’s IH Journal article CELTA Gone Techy.

Blogging habits

I’ve recently discovered Zhenya Polosatova’s blog, Wednesday Seminars. She posed three questions about blogging habits which have been answered by many people. You can find links to them in her original post, along with the thinking behind the questions. Here’s my contribution:

What are your 2-3 favorite writing habits/rituals you find helpful?

If it’s in your head, get it out! Writing really helps me to formulate my ideas, especially if I know other people are going to read it (I also keep a diary for myself), and to let go of negative thoughts by pouring them on to the page/screen.

Having said that, for some posts I like to think about them for a while, so that when I finally get to writing them, it’s quite a quick process. Sometimes I don’t have a choice about this – over the last few months I’ve had lots of ideas for posts, but little to no time to do anything about them!

What are 1-2 writing habits you find less helpful, (and would like to get rid of in the new year?)

This is a difficult question. I think this is the flipside of the previous question, in that some of my posts take quite a long time to write, and while I love doing it and love the response I get, I can end up spending way too much time in front of the computer, so I need to find more of a balance.

Pacific Ocean with the sun reflected in it
More of this needed…


What is one new idea (tip, habit) you would like to start in 2015, and why?

Not sure about this one either – perhaps it’s something I started doing towards the end of last year. I began to create a draft post for each of the ideas that have been kicking around in my head, in the vain hope that when I have some time to write, I already have at least the title and perhaps a few ideas already written on the paper.

Reading Mike’s comments on Zhenya’s original post, perhaps I should also try to make some of my posts shorter, or break them into separate posts. Not sure if that’s a good idea or not though, as I find trailing through lots of different posts can get a bit annoying sometimes!

[At IATEFL 2014, Adam Simpson and I were asked a series of questions about our blogging. You can watch the video by following this link.]

IH Director of Studies Conference 2015

From the 8th-10th January 2015, I was lucky enough to attend the International House Director of Studies (DoS) conference at Devonport House, Greenwich. As with most conferences, there was a lot to think about, and the conversations between the sessions were just as useful as the sessions themselves, including many things I can build on over the next year, I hope! Watch this space ūüėČ

Here are some of my highlights from the sessions:

Maureen McGarvey – Doublespeak, Disconnect and Blah, Blah, Blah…

Maureen’s talk was focussed on the language we use as managers, how it is interpreted by teachers, and some of the particularly annoying phrases we should try to get rid of. Many of these became catchphrases of the conference, mentioned again and again, and even featuring in some of the team names for¬†the quiz. Here are some of the phrases she highlighted:

It’s developmental.

You’re the first person I thought of.

I sent you an email about this last week.

Customer journey

Managing expectations

Her advice is:

  • don’t use empty phrases, as they’re often lies (It’s not really developmental – I just can’t find anybody else to do it!);
  • make sure that what you’re saying is truly sincere, and that you’re not just saying it;
  • be precise: when we are not precise enough, anything we say can be seen as meaningless;
  • avoid patronising people – they can see through your language;
  • remember what it’s like to be a teacher! What they really want to hear is “I trust you.” and “I sincerely have confidence in you.”

Shaun Wilden and Nikki Fortova – Coming soon to a classroom near you…

Shaun and Nikki¬†showed us how to use the iMovie¬†app on an iPad to create fun trailers with your students. If you don’t have access to¬†iPads, you could also use Mozilla PopcornMaker or WeVideo on Android. Students could also use their own iPads. Shaun told us about the ‘guided access‘ function which you can use to lock the iPad on a single app if you want them to use the teacher’s one.

They suggested creating trailers as part of a task-based lesson, with the main language practice being done during the planning and collaboration stage rather than in the trailer itself. Another alternative would be to have a competition with students creating trailers to advertise the school. The Learning in Hand blog has planning templates, and links to examples of trailers made by students. I’ve also found this step-by-step guide to¬†using iMovie trailers in class.

To show us how easy it is¬†to make a trailer, we had 20 minutes to produce one for the 2016 IH DoS conference in groups of 8. My tip would be to watch the trailer structure before you start planning, as this will give you a better idea of what the final result should look like, then use the planning sheet, then come back to the app. Unfortunately, our group ran out of time, but I can certainly say there was lots of language and it was great fun! Here’s one from a group that did finish:

Alastair Grant – Keeping your teachers at the cutting edge of teacher training (and thereby keeping your teachers)

Alastair is the DoS at IH Montevideo, a school which I think I have a lot to learn from. They provide teacher training courses for schools across Uruguay, including a highly respected two-year degree¬†and academic consultancy. I’m pretty sure Alastair and other teachers at IH Montevideo would be happy to talk to you about it if you have questions ūüôā

Speed dating

This was a return to a successful format which was tried for the first time last year. This time 7 presenters, including me, gave 15-minute talks to small audiences sat around tables, one per speaker. At the end of each 15-minute slot, the speaker moved to the next table, meaning they did each presentation four times, and each audience saw 4 of the 7 presentations.

My talk was inspired by a question from Daniel Miller, the DoS at IH Quito, on the IH DoS forum. He asked us to suggest ways to help new teachers settle in. My reply was so long that I thought it was perfect for a speed dating session¬†ūüôā Here’s an 8-minute recorded version of the talk which I did the next day.

Sandy presenting at the speed dating
Sandy presenting at the speed dating

Anthony Gaughan – The Se7en Deadly Sins of ELT

This was the second time I’ve seen this talk. The first was at IATEFL Glasgow – here are my tweets from the session¬†from 2012, going in reverse order (press CMD/CTRL + F and search for ‘Gaughan’ to go straight to the relevant section).

Anthony is a very entertaining speaker, with a lot of ideas to make you think. The sins he discussed were:

  1. Drilling
  2. Translation and use of the L1
  3. Students using dictionaries in class
  4. Teacher explanations
  5. Reading texts aloud in class
  6. Telling students they are wrong
  7. Teacher talk time

He asked us what problems people have with each sin, then went on to debunk some of the myths that surround them and offer ideas for how they can make our teaching more time efficient and effective.

Michael Hoey – All in the Mind: Corpus linguistics and lexical priming

I’ve never seen anybody move quite so much while presenting as Michael Hoey! The energy he put into his talk was amazing, and, somehow, he managed to get through 289 slides in 50 minutes without it feeling rushed or dull – well done, that man!

You can watch Michael Hoey’s IATEFL 2014 plenary on a similar subject below, or by following this link.

I’ve heard the term ‘lexical priming’ being bandied about for a while, but I didn’t really understand what it meant until I heard Hoey speak about it. Essentially, it is the way that we store lexical items (words or phrases)¬†in our brain, and the information about those¬†items which we automatically store alongside them, for example:

  • collocations (‘a word against’);
  • semantic associations (knowing that it’s normally used with sending and receiving communication – ‘hear/say a word against’);
  • pragmatic associations (normally denial – ‘wouldn’t hear a word against’, and hypothetical –¬†‘wasn’t prepared to say a word against’).

This information then ‘primes’ us to use the lexical item again within similar constraints, namely with the same collocation/semantic association/pragmatic association. Repeated exposure to the item, and negative evidence about what is not acceptable (e.g. ‘drinked’ to a child or L2 learner) helps us to refine our use of each piece of lexis. That’s a lot of information for our students to learn and store, and a lot of repetition required to get there!

The theory seems to make a lot of sense to me, and is something I’d like to find out more about. I also started noticing instances of ‘priming’ around me all the time, which I’d never thought about before.

Lou McLaughlin – Managing Cognitions in the Workplace

This was a talk which I didn’t really understand from the title, then spent the whole thing¬†figuratively nodding my head, and wondering how I could apply it in my training courses!

Lou¬†used Borg’s (2003)¬†definition of cognitions as ‘beliefs, understanding and knowledge’, which I shortened in my head to ‘beliefs’, as it helped me to understand the idea, although I know Lou would probably cringe at that! Her talk was about the potential disconnect in the relationships between various people in the workplace due to their cognitions, for example:

  • teachers and DoSes: teachers might not agree with the way the DoS thinks things should be done, and vice versa;
  • front-of-house¬†and management: the ideas management have about school culture may not be fully understand by front-of-house staff, which can be a particular problem when they are selling the courses – Lou gave¬†an example of receptionists saying that YL students ‘play games and do colouring’ with no real understanding of what happened in the classes and how learning takes place there;
  • trainees and trainers: trainees can be very resistant to ideas presented by trainers, making it harder for them to meet the requirements of a course and/or making them unlikely to get anything from it¬†because of the conflict with their beliefs, so they reject it automatically.

This talk is one I think (hope!) I’ll have in the back of my head during any future training course, as well as if and when I work as a DoS again. Lou suggested mentioning the idea of cognitions explicitly on the first day of a training course, and acknowledging immediately that some of the ideas may conflict with trainees’ beliefs, but that they should still consider them and not reject them outright. I’d be interested to see whether this idea works, and have asked Lou for suggestions about how to do this. She’s also an advocate of a ‘whole-school’ approach, where admin are as much a part of CPD and training as the teachers are – I believe this is the only way to have a great school.

Andrew Walkley – Part 1: The questions we ask

Andrew’s talk at the DoS conference last year¬†was one which really got me thinking, so I was pleased that he was given the opportunity to extend on the theme in two 90-minute workshops at this year’s conference.

‘The questions we ask’ was centred on the idea of making our questioning more reflective of real life, and thereby allowing breakdowns in interaction¬†to happen, which provide an¬†opportunity for real learning to¬†take place. For example, rather than using traditional¬†CCQs¬†to check vocabulary concepts, we can ask questions that encourage students to actually¬†use the language, or respond to it in some way that would demonstrate their understanding, e.g. you’ve taught the word ‘binge’ and you ask ‘What other things can you binge on?’ If the students say ‘dancing’, they’ve probably misunderstood. This also helps them to find out about acceptable collocations, and gets them using the language in sentences immediately.

There was an analysis of¬†the input related to questions and question formation in three coursebooks, highlighting that many books include lots of examples which don’t really reflect real-life usage, but are instead focussed on manipulation of the question form. Andrew, of course, promoted Outcomes¬†[affiliate link], the series¬†he wrote with Hugh Dellar, as an example of books which have natural questions ūüėČ

Andrew discussed how we can make the questions¬†we focus on in class more useful and more relevant to real life. For example, when we¬†prepare to ask students ‘What did you do at the weekend?’, we should consider common responses and the kind of language we can teach to extend the conversation, so if they answer ‘I went shopping’, we can teach them clothes, things, compliments… Gradually, students will produce longer, more natural-sounding conversations in collaboration with each other.

He also advocated practising language with the most common associated question forms, e.g. we should spend roughly 80% of our time on present perfect questions practising the ‘Have you been…?’ construction, since it’s by far the most common.

One of the best points from the questions part of the workshop was that in real life, it’s unusual for you to get the response ‘Ask a partner’ or ‘What do¬†you think?’ when you ask a question, so we should just answer our student’s questions if it would be more natural to do this!

The end of the workshop was about questions we can ask for reflection on our lessons. I think these would make a really good post-TP (teaching practice) reflection task for CELTA trainees:

Andrew Walkley –¬†Part 2: The words we teach

Andrew and Hugh are firm believers in the lexical approach, and to start this session, Andrew gave us a simple question to make our teaching more lexically minded:

What vocabulary did you/are you going to teach today?

For me, the most striking thing from this talk was the idea of collocations of collocations, and the different ‘networks’ that can be associated with words. If we teach in lexical sets, we often focus on the words in isolation, but consider the words and phrases that you would associate¬†with ‘old car’ and ‘new car’ and how different these might be. Andrew said it’s important to teach the words around the words you’re teaching, since it can be difficult to turn a lexical set into real/natural usage, particularly because of this problem of the differing networks of words around them.¬†He¬†used a great metaphor for the way we acquire and store lexical items¬†by comparing¬†them to shoes: you¬†normally store them in one place, but you acquire them at different times in different places, and not always in a planned way.

Because coursebooks are unlikely to change, we need to learn to exploit the language they include, particularly in the texts they contain. Training ourselves and our teachers to identify the frequency of language is a good first step, as purely by discussing frequency we start to notice the language which appears around our target items. You can also think about exactly why words are more or less frequent, particularly if we think something appears more/less frequently than it actually does. He recommended three sites to help us identify frequency:

  • Phrases in English – a concordance¬†search showing frequency per million of the search item at the top of the page;
  • Red Words Game on the Macmillan Dictionary site – a game to identify frequency based on the Macmillan star system, used throughout their dictionary;
  • Compleat Lexical Tutor frequency trainer – another game to identify frequency, this time based on where it appears in a list from most to least frequent (e.g. top 2000, 3000-5000 etc).

He offered some ideas for activities you can use in the classroom to take advantage of the lexis in a text or to encourage SS to notice the networks around words:

  • Challenge students to remember the co-text around words you’ve recently taught, e.g. “____ ______ advantage ____ _____ lexis ____ ____ text”
  • Take key words or phrases out of a text, and use this as a prompt for SS to remember the whole text. SS could also select the lexis to do this themselves.
  • Create questions using the new vocabulary, e.g. How do you know when someone is¬†angry? Why else might you feel¬†exhausted? These questions can also be used as revision in the next lesson.
  • Create a gapfill, where the gaps are not the TL (target language), but other frequent words in its network, e.g. You must be really¬†pleased you ______ your driving test. They have to process the meaning of the TL correctly to know what to write in the gap.

One way to create our own lexical sets, rather than relying on lists in coursebooks, is to create our own text, then consider how the language could be edited. Andrew gave the example of a story which starts “I was robbed on holiday.” This generates a completely different, and probably far more practical and useful, set of lexis than just teaching ‘crime’ vocabulary would.

Andrew and Hugh have recently launched lexicallab, where you can find out more about their ideas and their work.

[Those two sessions should probably be a post in themselves!]

Beverly Whittall and Jenny Bartlett – DoS Survival Skills: Reflective Practice in Management

This was my final talk of the conference, and was a good place to end as it led into my post-conference reflection, of which this post is just a small part.

Beverly and Jenny recommended factoring in time to reflect on our management practices and on particular incidents in our working week, in the same way that we would encourage teachers to reflect on their teaching. One of my favourite questions from the session was:

Is this a 10-minute problem?

If we’re busy, rushing to class or trying to get things done, and a teacher comes to us with a problem that’s going to take more than 10 minutes, we can’t listen to them properly. We need to schedule a proper time to listen, and choose the correct place – in the corridor on the way to class might not be appropriate! This shows that we respect our teachers, and want to listen to them properly. By reflecting on and trying to improve our listening skills, we can act as role models, and perhaps show our teachers how to listen more effectively to their students.

We also need to notice good things that are happening in the school, and encourage teachers to share them, rather than only focussing on problem areas.

Their most important tip, though, was that we should take time for ourselves, and make sure we relax. Here’s a poster of 50 ways to take a break¬†which I really like:

50 ways to take a break poster

On that note, I’ll finish this post, and I’m looking forward to next year already!

(P. S. This was my second DoS conference – you can also read about my first DoS conference.)