How to write a conference proposal and abstract

The first time I wanted to go to the IATEFL conference, I applied for a first-time speaker scholarship. As part of it, I had to write a conference proposal, including an abstract and summary, but I had no idea what they actually were. Thankfully Ceri Jones came to my rescue, talking me through what I needed to do and giving me feedback on what I’d written.

In my blog post, you will find:

While I can’t give you feedback (unless you decide to book a consultancy slot with me), I can hopefully offer you some tips to help you with your own applications to any conference, not just IATEFL. I also can’t guarantee that your application will be accepted, as there are often far more applications than spots for speakers, but hopefully these tips will improve your chances. I like the idea that ‘it’s selection, not rejection’, which I heard on this podcast.

Good luck!

[Note that scholarship applications for IATEFL Harrogate 2023 will close at 16.00 (UK time) on Thursday 23 June 2022. Speaker proposals are not yet open. They general open in July and close in mid-September, though please look at the IATEFL website for details.]

General tips

Here is a 30-minute talk by Madeleine du Vivier for IATEFL on How to write an effective conference proposal, which I suggest you watch in addition to reading the information below.

I think word count is the most challenging thing about writing a conference proposal: either being concise enough, or finding enough to say! I use wordcounter.net to keep track.

Make sure you save a copy of everything you send. I normally create a document for each proposal, including the title, abstract, summary, and any technology requests I’ve made. Then when it’s time to put together my talk, I can remember what I said I was going to do!

If your proposal seems interesting to the conference committee, but not quite what would fit, they may ask to revise parts of it. This is what happened to me for the 2019 conference. This won’t give you a guaranteed acceptance though: my proposal for 2017 was turned down, even after I rewrote the abstract.

What is an abstract?

The abstract is what people attending the conference see in the programme. This is how they choose which talk to attend. It is typically around 45-60 words long, or about 3-4 sentences. The exact requirements will depend on the conference you’re applying to, so it’s important to read their guidelines carefully. You will generally be automatically removed from the selection process if your abstract is too long or too short. The guidelines for IATEFL speaker proposals are available on the conference website.

The best way to get a feel for what to write in an abstract is by reading other examples of them. On the IATEFL Past and future conferences page, you can find links to programmes from previous years. When you read enough of them, you start to spot patterns of structure and typical phrases which are used again and again. Why not read 10 different abstracts from a past programme and see what you can ‘steal’ from them?

A more technical analysis

In About Language 2nd edition [Amazon affiliate link / BEBC], Scott Thornbury analyses three examples of real conference abstracts (on p190-191) from the English UK Teachers’ Conference:

Express yourself – getting students to communicate!

Students often struggle to express themselves and may lack confidence in their own opinions and insharing them. This workshop offers easy to use activities requiring few or no materials that will build students’ confidence and language skills and will get them talking and sharing their ideas. It is a practical, fun session and teachers will leave with a range of ideas that they can immediately use in the classroom.

Chrissie Florides

‘The ear of the beholder’: helping learners understand different accents

The use of English as an international lingua franca means learners will be exposed to a wide variety of accents, both native and non-native. How can teachers prepare them to cope with such diversity? This workshop features practical tasks, informed by relevant theory, which participants could try out in their own classrooms.

Laura Patsko

Getting unstuck – stretching out of our comfort zones

Our daily teaching schedule often takes up so much of our time and energy that we don’t have the chance to take advantage of opportunities to stretch ourselves of take on challenges in other areas. This talk will explore why we keep doing what we have always done – the classes we usually teach, the style, methods and technology we are comfortable with – as a basis to work together and ‘get unstuck’.

Marjorie Rosenberg

He summarises their purpose like this in the commentary:

These texts all have the basic structure of problem – solution, hence they replicate the structure of [an] advertising text […] while not overtly advertising, they do perhaps have a persuasive as well as an informative function.

Thornbury (2017: 332)

He goes on to talk about the linguistic features of abstracts like these:

As noted, the purpose is to inform/describe the content of each session, while perhaps emphasising both its relevance and usefulness. The audience is likely to be practising teachers, who will recognise the professional terminology such as ‘English as an international lingua franca’. At the same time, the writers adopt a non-academic, neutral, even infromal, register: ‘fun session’, ‘get unstuck’. The use of first-person plural pronouns in the third text (our, we), is deliberately inclusive. The net effect is to reduce the social distance and power differential between speakers and their potential audience.

The basic structure of all three texts is, as noted, a problem-solution one: the problems are presented in negative terms (struggle, lack, cope, so much of our time…) while the solutions emphasise the practicality and usefulness of the sessions: easy to use activities; a practical, fun session; ideas that they can immediately use; practical tasks…which participants could try out; a basis to work together… etc. The transition from problem to solution is marked by the noun phrase this workshop/talk, which also identified the kind of presentation it is. The assertive use of the modal will for prediction (teachers will leave… This talk will explore…) reinforces the writers’ commitment and preparedness.

Thornbury (2017: 332-333)

What is a summary?

A summary is used by the conference committee to help them select which talks would be the best fit for the conference. They will generally be the only people who see your summary – it will not be available to the conference goers. If there are similar talks proposed by other speakers, the conference committee might ask you to speak in a forum, where three speakers cover closely related topics.

For IATEFL, the summary is 200-250 words long. You can’t repeat any information from the abstract or title. You can’t include biodata. So what could you include?

  • A breakdown of the structure of your session: list each of the main parts and what you will do in them, ensuring that they will fit the time available.
  • What the audience will be able to take away from your session: specific activities, or specific new information they will be able to use.
  • Why the session would be helpful to your specific target audience.

The easiest way to understand what a summary does is to look at examples, so I have shared my past IATEFL proposals below.

Choosing a title

This is what grabs a potential audience member’s attention, so it needs to encapsulate your talk in some way, while also engaging their interest. At IATEFL 2022, the concise paper conference programme handed out to delegates only had session titles in it, with abstracts appearing in the pdf version of the programme which was available on the website. This put even more pressure on the titles!

All in all, quite a tall order! This is why I’ve left it until last. I think it’s a good idea to know what you’re talking about before you come up with your title, and often inspiration will strike while you’re writing your abstract or summary anyway.

As with abstracts, the best way to get a feel for possible titles is by looking at other examples of them. On the IATEFL Past and future conferences page, you can find links to programmes from previous years. You’ll probably spot certain patterns:

  • Colons and dashes are very popular: ‘advertising’ first, then a short description of what it means
  • ‘Bridging the gap’ is very common – it was actually part of my first IATEFL conference talk title, a talk I’ve done many times since 🙂
  • ‘Getting students to…’ is also quite common

Sandy’s examples

These are the conference proposals I’ve submitted to IATEFL conferences since 2012. You’re welcome to use them as inspiration for your own proposals, but please respect my work and don’t plagiarise them.

IATEFL Belfast 2022: What I think I know about materials writing

Abstract:

Over the years, I’ve attended many Materials Writing talks at IATEFL. I’ve been involved in producing materials for my classroom, for publishers and for self-publishing. I’ve also recently completed the NILE MA Materials Development module, meaning I’ve been able to add more theory to my practical experience of materials writing. This session brings together what I’ve learnt in the process.

Summary:

I will begin the session with a brief explanation of how materials writing fits into my career, as well as why I decided to embark on an MA module related to materials development. I will then summarise general areas of theory which have caught my interest in my reading connected to the module. These include the evaluation of existing materials as a starting point for developing and adapting your own materials, possible frameworks for approaching materials writing, and what role different stakeholders (can) play in the materials development process. I will share top tips I’ve heard over the years for improving the quality of materials and their usefulness to students, including ideas of inclusivity and supporting learners with SEN, and some useful resources for attendees who’d like to improve their ability to develop materials. I also plan to discuss my own experience of the materials writing process, and how it has differed when working with publishers and self-publishing. Finally, attendees will consider how what I’ve learnt over the years could be applied to their own materials development. I will also briefly mention my own self-published materials. Please note: this talk is not endorsed by NILE. The MA module just provided some of the input for me to reflect on.

IATEFL Manchester 2020: What I’ve learnt about teacher training this year

Abstract:

I have recently completed the Trainer Development module of the NILE MA, meaning I’ve read a lot of theory about teacher education. In this session, I’ll summarise what I’ve learnt and how it has influenced my work as a teacher trainer and director of studies. You’ll also be able to consider how this theory might be relevant to you.

Summary:

I will begin the session with a brief explanation of how teacher training fits into my career and why I decided to embark on an MA module on trainer development. I will then summarise general areas of theory which have come up repeatedly in my reading connected to the module. These include the importance of the apprenticeship of observation, helping teachers get at their beliefs, starting from ‘where teachers are’, balancing theory and practice, incorporating effective reflection into training, linking training to the classroom to increase its impact, and evaluating the effectiveness of teacher training. Throughout the talk I will link these ideas to my work as a teacher trainer and director of studies, showing how I have incorporated each into my practice.  Examples include changing the structure of workshops in our school so that they begin with brainstorming of proper knowledge, adding explicit reflection training into our in-house PD, asking for written feedback at the end of every workshop, and including forward planning stages in training courses so trainees decide how they can implement what they have learnt. Finally, attendees will consider how these theories could be applied to their own contexts. I will also briefly mention my book of reflective tasks for teacher trainers. Please note: this talk is not endorsed by NILE. The MA module just provides the context for my reading. 

[Note: I actually gave this talk at the IATEFL Online Conference in 2021.]

IATEFL Liverpool 2019: Examining the impact of a low-level of teacher L2 proficiency

I was asked to revise the abstract: ‘The proposals committee has asked that you please rewrite your abstract (50-60 words) so it is clear how the session is relevant to an IATEFL audience .’ I changed my title at this point as well, as I felt it was clearer and better reflected the new abstract. The talk was then accepted.

Original title:

Intermediate learner, beginner teacher: implications for teaching and training

Original abstract:

I am an experienced teacher and intermediate-level speaker of Polish who has been teaching the language to beginners for 18 months. I will reflect on what my relatively low level of proficiency means for my teaching and my students’ learning, use of L1 and L2 in class, and how my experience might relate to that of low-level teachers of English.

Revised abstract:

What impact does a teacher’s low level of L2 proficiency have on their students’ learning? What strategies can low-level teachers use to maximise L2 use in class? When should they use L1? Is methodology or language development more essential for teachers? My experience teaching Polish informs my thoughts on these issues, relevant to anyone working with low-level English teachers.

Summary:

The talk will cover how and why we decided that it was appropriate for me, with my relatively low level of Polish and as a non-native speaker, to teach the beginner lessons at our school.

I aim for the lessons to include as much Polish as possible. I will talk about the extra preparation I have to do before lessons to achieve this and compensate for my level, as well as how I continue to work to improve my own knowledge of Polish, modelling this for my students. I will cover the interplay of English and Polish in lessons and how it has changed as my level has improved, and as I teach the same lesson for a second time having reflected on which classroom language I lacked the first time round. The talk will also detail some of the compensatory strategies I use in class to reduce the amount of language I have to use, while still providing as much exposure as possible to my students.

My Polish students are all English teachers at our school, and I will also include their reflections on the lessons from the perspective of both their teaching and their language learning.

Finally, I will reflect on how my experience might be similar and different to intermediate-level English speakers teaching the language, and what they and their trainers or managers might be able to learn from my experience. This will include training they may benefit from to counter gaps in their language knowledge. (=249 words)

IATEFL Glasgow 2018: Introducing ELT Playbook 1: independent professional development for new teachers

Abstract:

New teachers are often thrown in at the deep end. If they’re lucky, they are surrounded by supportive colleagues who can help them out. If they’re not, they need ELT Playbook 1. It consists of 30 tasks new teachers can use to learn to reflect on their teaching. I’ll also describe how trainers can base development programmes on the tasks.

Summary:

ELT Playbook 1 is designed to fill a gap in the market for new teachers, regardless of whether or not they have a qualification. It’s a self-published ebook, which consists of tasks in a range of categories (such as upgrading skills, examining language and health and wellbeing), each supported by a quote from methodology books and a series of reflection questions. The tasks are rounded off with four different ideas teachers can use to round up their reflection: one each for a blog, a video/audio recording, an Instagram-style post and a private journal. It is designed to be accessible, almost like having a mentor/ trainer/ Director of Studies with you, even if you are freelance or in a school with no development. The price is affordable (£5), so it should be within the reach of as many teachers as possible around the world. There is also an associated community on social media so readers can start to develop a network of peers.

In the session, I will talk about why I decided to write the book, the way it is structured (as described above, and showing a few examples of tasks), how teachers have used it and participated in the online community since it was published in Autumn 2017, and how trainers and managers could exploit the tasks and reflection questions in their own professional development programmes. I will also invite attendees to suggest topics and tasks for possible future books in what I hope will become a series.

IATEFL Glasgow 2017: Stitching together roles in ELT

I was asked to revise the abstract. I can’t remember exactly why, but in hindsight I think the whole proposal seemed quite wishy-washy – I don’t think it was clear what I was aiming to do in it. The talk was turned down.

Original abstract

There are many roles it is possible to take on in our profession, from teacher to manager, from trainer to materials writer, and so much more besides. It can be difficult to know what non-teaching skills are required to move into each of these roles and how you can develop them. Fear not: I’m here to help!

Revised abstract

There are many roles it is possible to take on in our profession, from teacher to manager, from trainer to materials writer, as well as volunteering with teaching associations. Whether you are new to the profession or more experienced, this presentation aims to make you think about how you can develop the skills to move into each of these roles.

Summary

The talk will suggest some of the skills which may be required for those who would like to try different branches of the ELT profession. These should encompass how to move into different teaching contexts, become a teacher trainer, step up to management level, get involved in materials writing and feedback, and (time permitting) volunteer with teaching associations. It will be based on my own experience of all of these roles, as well as research into other people’s experiences of working in each area.

I will look at how ELT professionals can build up their skill set in general, as well as specifically for each role, and how the roles can feed in to each other as part of a portfolio career. I will also offer tips about starting out in each of the other areas once people have gained teaching experience. Examples of skills to be covered include communication (upwards, downwards and sideways), time management, working with other people effectively, building up your professional profile and reflecting on your practice.

The talk should be relevant to early career teachers who would like to know more about different career paths available to them, as well as more experienced ELT professionals who are looking to move into different areas.

IATEFL Birmingham 2016: Taking back time: how to do everything you want to

Abstract

While I can’t give you Hermione Grainger’s Time Turner so you can travel back in time, I can give you tried and tested ways of getting those things done which demand your time and attention, or which you just never quite get round to, helping you to manage yourself and others and make the most of your time.

Summary

Time management is never easy – we’re all busy people with lots of things to do, from responsibilities concerning teaching, training or management to other people demanding our attention both at work and at home. How can we ever fit in everything we want to do? Through a combination of techniques, I have been able to successfully organise a team of 20 teachers, keep up my professional development through blogs and webinars, learn new languages and maintain a healthy work-life balance. In this talk I will share examples of these techniques and offer suggestions for how you can adapt them to your own situation. They include breaking down tasks to make them more achievable and less daunting, using to do lists, tracking what I do every day and creating new habits out of the things I want to achieve. I will give examples of how I use these techniques at work and at home and why they could work for you too, as well as how to apply different strategies to different goals. This talk would be particularly useful for managers and those interested in fitting professional development in around their current schedules, but would be relevant to anybody who ever struggles with only having 24 hours in the day!

IATEFL Manchester 2015: Making the most of student journals

Abstract

I have used journal writing with students from all over the world, and have found that they are intensely rewarding for teachers and students. In this session, I’ll share ideas for how to set up a journal writing system and show examples of journals from my students and my own language learning.

Summary

Journal writing can be used in a wide variety of ways both inside and outside the classroom in order to provide regular personalised writing practice for students. In addition, they can serve many other purposes: providing a space for students to experiment with new language, encouraging them to reflect on their language learning, and helping the teacher and student to get to know each other better.

In this session, I will describe how I have interpreted journal writing with my students. I have implemented them with students aged 12-70 in both monolingual and multilingual classrooms. I have also experienced journal writing as a student of Russian and have learnt a lot from the process. This has fed back into my teaching and enabled me to experience first-hand the benefits of keeping a journal in a foreign language.

I will share the advantages of such regular writing for the teacher and student, address some of the potential problems involved in setting up and maintaining a regular journal system, including finding suitable topics to write about. I will also describe how to encourage students to join in, and give ideas for how to use the language students produce. Finally I will give you links to find out more about journal writing in other contexts.

IATEFL Harrogate 2014: Stepping into the real world: transitioning listening

Abstract

“I’ve studied English for years, but I can’t understand anyone!” This was a common complaint from my students on arrival in the UK. This workshop aims to introduce you to practical activities and materials you can use to help students transition from understanding scripted listening materials to feeling comfortable with real-world English.

Summary

Listening is the skill we use most in a second language. We have to understand speakers in many different contexts, of different ages, genders, levels of education, and with a range of accents, both native and non-native. However, this is rarely reflected in the classroom, where listening tends to be focussed on other students in class or on scripted coursebook recordings in ‘standard’ forms of English, mostly spoken by young to middle-aged adults (or overly excited children in the case of young learner materials!). Teachers also tend to focus on testing comprehension, rather than on teaching better listening skills. This results in students lacking confidence in their listening abilities and/or lacking knowledge of how to approach listening in the real world.

The aim of this workshop is to introduce and try out a range of activities and materials which you can use in your classroom to teach listening, rather than testing it. Some of the principles discussed will be based on John Field’s Listening in the Language Classroom (Cambridge 2008), as well as my own experience in the classroom and as a second language learner. The workshop will also look at how you can make the listening you use in the classroom reflect the real world as much as possible. Finally, participants will be given the chance to share activities and materials which have worked for them, as well as discussing how to apply the activities from the workshop to their own contexts.

IATEFL Liverpool 2013: Bridging the gap between the classroom and the autonomous learner

Abstract

What can we do to help students develop their autonomy? How can we encourage them to study outside class? How much input should teachers have in this? This talk will look at how these questions can be answered through the Personal Study Programme (PSP), created by International House Newcastle to support students in their learning.

Summary

It is well-known that teachers should teach learners HOW to learn, not just WHAT to learn. This is particularly true now that students have easy access to so much English online, and teachers are no longer always their first port of call for information about language. What teachers do have is knowledge of the language acquisition process and of the best way to use resources available to learners. Through this, they can help students become more effective learners. As well as learner training in the classroom, what else can we do?
The Personal Study Programme (PSP) is an alternative to the Self-Access Centre (SAC), combining elements of more traditional teaching with autonomous study. This talk will begin by looking at how PSP is similar to and different from a SAC, and how IH Newcastle has implemented and developed it. I will discuss the teachers’ role in promoting learner autonomy and delivering PSP, how it influences the way that we teach our non-PSP lessons, and how it fits into the overall structure of the school. Most importantly, I will examine what exactly students gain from participating in PSP, based on feedback gathered from students at International House Newcastle. I will also consider what changes we can make to PSP to continue improving the programme in the future.

IATEFL Glasgow 2012: Go online: getting your students to use internet resources

Abstract

What factors help or hinder students’ uptake and continued use of online materials to aid their English learning outside the classroom?

What can teachers do in class to encourage students to take advantage of available materials and help them to overcome any obstacles?

This talk will detail the results of action research done in my classes.

Summary

For the last year I have been using Edmodo (a web-based interface designed for education and similar to facebook) to share materials, online activities and other links with students to extend work done in class. However, based on a survey I did at the end of the academic year only about half of the students have taken advantage of these materials.

As a result of this, I decided to research the factors which influence students’ use of online materials, as well as experimenting with activities and strategies which can be used in class to increase this usage.

In the session I will share the results of this research, in the following way:

  • a list of characteristics displayed by students who regularly use online materials to further their study;
  • a corresponding list for students who are more reluctant to use online materials;
  • a summary of the type of online materials which students find most useful;
  • practical ideas for teachers to use in class to encourage reluctant students to begin to exploit online materials.

By the end of the session, you should have the information and inspiration you need to encourage more students to exploit the wealth of materials available on the internet.

After you’re accepted…

Well done! I’d love to know which of these tips you found more or less useful when preparing your proposal.

You might want to watch my IATEFL talk on How to present at an international conference.

I hope to see you there!

2 thoughts on “How to write a conference proposal and abstract

  1. Thank you for sharing, Sandy.

    I am going to put these tips to good use when I apply for a speaker scholarship next year. You would be one of the first ones to know when it gets selected 🙂

    Like

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