Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

On leadership and teamwork

Zhenya has just posted her answers to the 11 questions challenge (Thanks! See mine here and here) and posed some of her own, including three which I’d like to respond to here.

Have you ever tried to lead a team of people? If yes, what are your impressions and learning? If no, would you like to (one day)?

I’ve now been working as a Director of Studies for two years in two very different schools. The first was small, with only a handful of part-time teachers and one other full-time teacher (the school Director) besides me. Most of the time I was teaching full-time as well as being the DoS. The second has about 20 teachers, including me, and I only teach for a couple of hours a week. I work in close collaboration with two ADoSes and the school Director.

I had an excellent induction, but have also learnt an incredible amount on the job, not least in the last two weeks. It has not just taught me about what it takes to manage a language school, but also about working with a team of diverse personalities, and about my own personality. It has shown me how I and my team respond to a crisis (or five!), how everybody’s personalities and characters can complement each other to complete a team and also how sometimes there are things I just don’t or can’t notice which I need other people to be willing to share with me.

It’s not an easy job, but it’s not impossible either, and the challenges it throws at me keep me interested and invigorated, if a little tired at times😉

When do you think someone is ready to be a leader of a team?

Not long after becoming a full-time DoS, I wrote some advice for people considering moving into management. It includes a series of questions you can use to help you decide whether you are ready to be a manager.

For me, it’s important for a leader to have experience of being part of a team or environment similar to the one they are managing in. That way they are much more likely to be able to empathise with their team. If they are ready to learn what it takes to be an effective leader, then they are probably ready to become a leader. If they think they know it all already, then I would probably steer clear!

What’s your best tip on working with people?


And remember that part of communicating is listening.

Listening attentively

Without good channels of communication, it’s impossible to work effectively with people. There will always be rumours, backbiting and negative comments if people don’t understand what is going on and why.

You also need to be willing to listen when members of your team have something they want to tell you, whether it’s positive or negative (and let’s face it, it’s usually negative). Don’t get defensive or be accusatory – let them talk, and find out what they need from you. Sometimes it’s just to let off steam. Sometimes they don’t know what they need, and you need to help them work towards finding out.

Another part of communication is about being open to the world around you. By learning more, you will be able to connect more easily and effectively with more people, which will hopefully benefit both you and them. By being open, team members are also more likely to be willing to share those things with you which you can’t see, as I mentioned above.

How would you answer Zhenya’s questions?

This week I have taught:

  • 3 hours with my new upper intermediate adult class (who are actually mostly older teens);
  • 3 hours of cover with a low A1 kids’ group;
  • 2 hours with a 121 who I’ve been working with over the summer;
  • 3 hours of cover repeating the same lesson with two different high A1 adult groups.

This is easily the most teaching I’ve done in a single week for over two years, since I started out as a CELTA tutor and then a DoS. It’s also probably the largest number of students I’ve had contact with in a week since I finished my Delta. While it’s been pretty tiring on top of my DoS responsibilities, it’s also been very invigorating, and has helped me to realise a few things about how my teaching has developed over the last couple of years of self-reflection and training others.

I never used to enjoy teaching kid’s classes. Despite knowing the theory of how to approach them, I could never put it into practice. I’ve now spent a year working in an environment where there is a lot of training for teaching kids and teens, with teachers who are great examples to learn from, as well as tried and tested routines and discipline systems which are used across the school. I was also the local tutor for a teacher doing the IHCYLT for teaching young learners and teens. This was useful revision, as it’s six years since I finished mine. I discovered that I now really enjoy these lessons :) It’s been a long time coming! Having the security of routines wasn’t just good for the kids: it also meant that I knew what to do at any given time in the lesson, especially for the all-important beginning and end of the lesson. It probably helped that it was a relatively small group, but I felt in control throughout the lesson, and felt that my plan was right for the level and interests of the kids. This is a huge step forward for me, and I’m even considering timetabling myself for a kids’ class next academic year, something I was very reluctant to do before (!)

Another area where I’ve noticed a massive improvement is my activity set-up and instructions. This is particularly important for lower levels, and between the four lessons I taught with them last week, I only had one activity where the students didn’t understand what I wanted them to do. This was entirely my fault, as I knew it would be a potentially complicated activity, and I hadn’t thought through the instructions carefully enough, but I managed to rescue the situation pretty quickly through a demonstration, which is what I should have done to start off with. Although I still forget them sometimes, demos have now become much more natural for me, and have led to a massive decrease in the amount of time I spend setting up activities and solving problems when the students don’t understand what to do.

With the upper intermediate group, I also set up a series of routines right from the first lesson. One of these is journal writing, and another is extensive reading, something which I already knew was useful, but now understand more of the theory behind thanks to the Coursera course I’ve just completed.

My 121 student showed me that my language awareness is now pretty comprehensive, as I was able to deal with pretty much any language question she threw at me without having to look it up. When I did need to use a reference tool, I was able to confidently access a corpus, something which I had no idea how to do a couple of years ago. I also managed to explain some of the fundamentals of grammar based on what Lewis says in The English Verb [affiliate link] using this diagram, something which I’d like to develop more in the future – this one was created on the spur of the moment!

Rough diagram based on Michael Lewis's The English Verb

The way that my own teaching has come on makes me feel much more confident about supporting all of the teachers I’m working with. We’ve got another exciting year ahead at IH Bydgoszcz, and another great team. I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes us.

I’ve just submitted my final assignment for the Coursera and University of London course entitled Teaching EFL/ESL Reading: A Task-Based Approach. For the first time while doing a MOOC, I’ve actually managed to keep up with the timing on it, and do it in the specified six weeks. It makes such a difference when you’re doing it in your holidays instead of when working full-time🙂 You can read about what I thought as I started the course. I wrote the reflections below as I was doing it.

Coursera logo

Things I liked

  • Interactive transcripts, so you can click on a line and go directly to that part of the video.
  • Tasks to think about while you’re watching each video.
  • When you’re asked to discuss something in writing, you can do it from right there in the window, without having to click through to another window to find a forum. There’s also a request for you to respond to at least two other posts, which should hopefully mean more real discussion than on FutureLearn.
  • If there is a discussion question, you have to contribute before you can read other people’s answers. This means you’re not influenced by what they’ve written, and there is less of a worry that you’re repeating what other people have said. When you submit your comment, the other responses appear automatically.
  • I’m rubbish at ‘pre-reflection’ unless I have somebody to discuss things with. I can never be bothered to write notes about something which I know I’m about to learn. If I’m feeling particularly good, I might think of it for a whole thirty seconds before I click on. Having the option to post in a forum with your ideas in parts of the course made me spend a bit more time on some of these tasks.
  • As with FutureLearn, it’s easy to see what you have and haven’t done so far. There’s a very clear blue ‘Resume’ button to help you work out what to do next when you return to the course.
  • After introducing a set of dichotomies which can be used to describe types of task, there was a poll asking you which kinds of task you use in the classroom. When you submit your results, you can see what other course participants have answered.
  • Lots of examples of tasks and reading texts are described/shown throughout to help you understand the theory.
  • The lecturers used work they had previously published, and critiqued it based on how their opinions/research has developed over the years.
  • More robust requirements than FutureLearn in order to be granted a certificate: completing assignments and peer reviewing the work of others, not just marking a certain amount of tasks complete (though that may just have been the Italian course I did)
  • The tasks we need to complete are very practical, have clear requirements and have a well-defined communicative purpose. For example, in the first week we had to create an information sheet on behalf of a Department of Educaton for L2 teachers summarising the information we’d learnt during the week (this is a short version of the rubric!) I think I’ll definitely be able to use the information sheet in future training sessions I do.
  • There are clear criteria for peer review, and it doesn’t take very long. It also encourages you to look at other people’s work, instead of skimming past it. I particularly like this reminder: “Remember, English isn’t everyone’s native language. Focus primarily on how well the work meets the grading criteria.”
  • ‘To maintain academic integrity, we check it’s you each time you upload an assignment.’ – never even occured to me, but great to know they’ve thought about this! They do it by matching typing patterns (didn’t know this was possible!) and using your webcam.

Things I didn’t like so much

  • You have to play a video to the end for it to be marked as complete. I find having to wait for people to finish talking frustrating when I can skim the transcript much faster. I ended up skipping to the end of videos and playing the last few seconds to get round this.
  • One or two of the videos don’t have transcripts😦
  • Coursera has a similar disregard for punctuation and proof reading in some of the video transcripts. Here’s an example from week 1: “Why would this activity constitute a pedagogic task. Peter general, off sited the definition of the task. Describes pedagogic tasks in terms of […]” This is also true of some key words: “You probably understand why recognizing the correspondence between a written sign, a graph theme, and sound, a phoneme, is a skill.” [grapheme!] and dates “Keith Morrow who name is strongly associated with an emergence of communicative language teaching recognized the importance of this area in 1918, as this exercise shows.” [1980!]
  • You have to scroll to the top of the page again to move on once you’ve completed each task. Perhaps the ‘previous/next lesson’ bar could be sticky, so it moves as you go down the page.
  • A certain level of background knowledge of methodology is assumed for some tasks, but I don’t remember this being mentioned before signing up. For example, this discussion task assumes you might know some of what it asks (though ‘participation is optional’):

TBLT has received much attention from researchers, practitioners, and policy makers recently. Discuss what theoretical and practical rationale(s) might underlie TBLT.

  • It’s not possible to edit forum posts if you want to add/change anything.
  • At the end of each unit, you should peer review work by three other participants. If you’re one of the first people to do the work, it says they will email you when other work is ready to be reviewed. This never happened.


I found this course fascinating and incredibly useful. It was the right amount of input versus output, and I feel like I’ve learnt a lot from it. I’m also going away from the course with a lot more questions to answer, which is exactly what I would expect from something like this: it’s motivated and inspired me. It was the MOOC equivalent of a page-turner that you can’t put down – I kept wanting to go back to do the next bit, regardless of how tired I was or how late it was! I also now have some materials ready for a potential future course I’m putting together, so it’s killed two birds with one stone. Thank you to everyone involved in creating the course for such stimulating content!

The pains of being abroad

I have been so homesick that it hurt three times in my life.

The first was in Germany when I was 18 and working in a factory for six weeks at the beginning of my gap year. I was staying with a family friend, but two weeks after I arrived, she went back to the UK for the summer, as she did every year, leaving me alone in her house. She’d introduced me to a few people in the tiny Bavarian village she lived in, but it was during the 2003 drought, absurdly hot and with only 30 minutes rain during the whole time I was there, so I didn’t really want to go outside once I got home from work. I stayed in the house as much as I could, and ended up being by myself all the time. The only way I got through the day doing the dullest job I’ve ever done was the thought that at about 6pm every evening I could watch Will and Grace, one of my favourite programmes at the time, plus occasionally being on the same job in the factory as someone my age, who unfortunately lived in a completely different place and was impossible to meet up with after work. On the last weekend I finally did a bit of exploring, visiting Regensburg by myself. I wish I’d discovered I could go off on adventures by myself earlier, but I’ve certainly never forgotten it!

The second time was a few months later, working at a jungle school in a (very) rural village for the second half of a four-month volunteering trip to Borneo. I was there with two other girls my age who had been in the jungle with me. Unfortunately I didn’t get on very well with one of them, and the second one became more and more like the first as our seven weeks in the village went on. They spent all of their time together. I only had 8 hours of teaching a day, and spent a long time planning, but once I did that I didn’t have much to do to fill my time. Instead I shut myself in my room with the fan on (when the electricity generator was working: during school hours and 7-10p.m. every night) and wrote pages and pages in my diary, consisting mostly of lists of things I would do when I got back home, and all of the things I missed. Sometimes I would use my book to try and learn some Bahasa Malay, but I spent very little time with the people in the village unless we were explicitly invited to their houses.

Jungle Tree

The third and final time (I hope) was in Paraguay. I worked there from July 2006 to June 2007 as part of my year abroad from university during my languages degree. I’d decided to go to South America and France, but also need to practise my German. I knew there were a lot of Mennonite and other Germans in Paraguay, so wanted to find a German family to live with. The first person I found fell through in November, and my (very) split shifts meant that I’d had huge trouble making friends beyond the three people I went with, who had all found their own friends by this stage. Skype was only just starting to grow, and I couldn’t really speak to my family much and the bandwidth wasn’t good enough for video. It was the year that facebook was opened out to the world, proving very important to me, but it didn’t really become popular until the end of my time in Paraguay. This was my longest ever period of homesickness, lasting about a month. I was very disillusioned by Paraguay, sad that I wouldn’t be able to go home for Christmas, and feeling incredibly lonely. So what did I do? I stayed at home, cried, and generally felt sorry for myself.

In both Borneo and Paraguay, I managed to turn it around, and ended up crying my eyes out at the end because I didn’t want to leave. In both cases, this was because I found ways to fill my time and crush my homesickness. In Borneo, this was by helping the kids and the other two English teachers at the school to create a snakes and ladders board:

Borneo kids with Snakes and Ladders board

In Paraguay it was by finally finding a German-speaking family, starting classes at the Goethe Institute, and helping to sort out the resources in the school library.

The most important thing, though, was that I had to stop wallowing in the feeling, tell people about it, and go out and do something about it. Since then I have never really felt homesick for more than a day at a time. It’s never possible to completely avoid the feeling, especially if things aren’t going well at home, and you can’t be there, but you can reduce the likelihood of it striking. Remember: you are not alone, you are not the only person who feels/has felt like this, and you are not impinging on other people if you tell them how you’re feeling. Good luck!

This post was inspired by Elly Setterfield’s post Teaching English Abroad: What if I hate it? which is full of great advice for new teachers. I highly recommend reading her blog. Thanks Elly!

A wonderful week in Aktobe

A week ago I was finishing my first experience as a freelance teacher trainer and my first visit to Kazakhstan, and what a week it was!

Aktobe collage - top left = blackboard with Sandy's name and dates of her visit, top right = teachers using Quizlet Live, bottom left = teapot and bowls, plus food, bottom right = Sheraton hotel and sculpture

Thanks to my wonderful hosts at Darina Linguo Centre in Aktobe, I was able to spend 3.5 days working with a large group of passionate teachers. We had sessions on the basics of teaching reading and listening, various aspects of classroom management, and different websites that teachers could use with their students and to improve their own English.

With 35-40 people in each session, they were by far the biggest groups I’ve ever worked with. This tested my classroom management abilities, helping me to realise how much I’ve improved in this area since I became a CELTA trainer. They were also very understanding when I inevitably started to lose my voice, and quickly went out of their way to get me a supply of honey to help it to last.

The evenings were particularly good. Every night they had arranged things for me to do so that I could get to know the city and experience real Kazakh culture. I had a tour of the city, a trip to a spa in the countryside, a meal with the directors, and best of all, an evening at a family home. That night I took part in a traditional Kazakh welcome ceremony, learnt about many other traditions (the first steps ceremony for babies, weddings, and traditional cribs) and realised how important food and drink is for the traditional Kazakh way of life.

Demonstrating how a baby can be strapped into a traditional Kazakh crib

I have never felt so welcomed as I did in Aktobe. It was quite overwhelming at times, and the memories will remain with me for many years. Thank you to everyone at Darina, and I hope I’ll return at some point soon!

How I’m learning Polish

Slowly. Without lessons. Mostly by myself. These things will hopefully all change as we move into the next academic year, but until then I’m…

Using Memrise

I started doing this as soon as I found out I’d got the job in Poland. I’ve been using a range of different sets, and spend 5-10 minutes on there every day.

Leeds University beginners’ Polish
The best Polish course I’ve found on memrise, though I didn’t find it until much later than the other sets linked here. It has a range of useful vocabulary sets, with words and phrases I’m highly likely to need. Unfortunately though, quite a few of the words don’t have any audio.

Beginner Polish
This was the first set I used, and I finished it a few months ago. It has a lot of useful vocabulary, but not so many complete phrases.

Beginner to Intermediate (no typing)
There is a lot of incredibly random vocabulary here, and I’m not sure I would describe it as beginner, though some of the words scattered through the sets are. The first 19 or so levels are quite useful, dealing with verb conjugations, but then set 20 is clause linkers, most of which I ignored. I’m about halfway through, and find that the lack of typing means words sometimes take a while to stick in my head. There are also some words which are a bit confusing because they are presented completely out of context, so it’s not always clear which meaning of the English translation they correspond to. Most of the words have audio though, which is helpful. There are times when I think ‘When am I ever going to need that?’ often shortly followed by said word being key in an article I’m skimming in the magazines left in the school kitchen, or appearing in film subtitles🙂

Days and Months
I found these two sets when I was trying to find something more useful than the Beginner to Intermediate set. They are short and quick to finish, which was motivating.

For a long time I got a bit too lazy, and memrise was the only thing I was doing for Polish. It felt like once I’d reached my daily goal, there was no need to find the time to do anything else. Some extra practice came to me, like buying things from the counters in the supermarket or reading subtitles when I went to the cinema, but it wasn’t much. About a month ago, I decided it was time to change this, and have now added a few other things, starting with:

Harry Potter

Inspired by Lizzie Pinard, I downloaded the Polish version of the Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone audiobook way back in September. I enjoyed the books the first time round, as well as the films, but haven’t read/seen them for a long time, so this is a great opportunity to revisit them and learn at the same time.

Until about a month ago, I’d only listened to the first two chapters once or twice each, but then I decided that if I was really serious about learning Polish just doing memrise wasn’t going to cut it. I put the audiobook on my iPod, and before I listened to any podcasts each day, I had to listen to some Harry Potter. I’m about 2/3 of the way through the book now, and try to listen to each chapter at least twice, and often four or five times, before moving on to the next. Every time I listen I notice more of the vocabulary, and some of that ‘When I am ever going to need this?’ vocab from the Beginner to Intermediate memrise set has actually come in quite useful here! It’s also a great way to help me pick up on the pronunciation of words I had only seen and not heard before, and to notice the case endings which are used throughout Polish.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Polish cover)

Having enjoyed puzzling through Game of Thrones in Russian previously, I decided to buy the book of Harry Potter a couple of weeks ago. I tend to read one or two pages every night before bed. I finished chapter one last night, and want to go back and listen to the audiobook chapter again as I now understand so much more of the text. This is the last thing I do each night, and I read until I can’t keep my eyes open. Before that I…

Write in my journal

Writing is often the skill which is most neglected when learning a language. My receptive skills are pretty good in Polish, around pre-intermediate level I’d guess, because of the Czech and Russian I have learnt before. Unfortunately, my productive skills are lagging far behind this. I’m reluctant to speak because I end up producing a mix of Czech, Russian and Polish, though this is getting easier as time passes. A lack of practice doesn’t help.

I’ve had previous success with journal writing in Russian, and I try to do it with my students, so on the same day I started reading Harry Potter, I also decided it was high time I started writing a journal in Polish. By writing, I’m forcing myself to produce the language, but I have none of the time pressure of being in a conversation. I tend to only write the date and two or three sentences about what I did that day or some general fact about me if the day was quite boring. I’m trying to push myself to pick out something different to write about each day, even when the days are very same-y. This is also because nobody has read or corrected my Polish writing yet, so I don’t want to compound a particular mistake too much until they do! The whole process takes a while because I’m also…

Reading a grammar book

[The image is an affiliate link…I’ll get a few pennies if you buy through it]

Of course, saying it like that makes it sound really dull, but two things make it much more interesting. The first is that Discovering Polish is very accessible, with a limited amount of metalanguage and lots of examples to support rules. The second is that every time I pick it up it’s because I’m looking for a particular bit of grammar which I need for my journal but have no idea how to use. Whenever I start reading about it, I normally end up finishing a whole section or even a whole chapter. There are a couple of bits I’ve read more than once, and I’ve already noticed that these rules are starting to sink in. By reading more about the grammar, it’s also helping me to notice grammatical features when they appear in other places, like the Harry Potter book or…

At the cinema

I’m currently living right next door to the cinema, and have an unlimited card, so have been making full use of the combination of this and my summer holidays to go to the cinema as much as possible. However, the only dubbed film I’ve made it to is The BFG, which while it looked beautiful, was way too linguistically complicated for me to understand much of what was said. This wasn’t helped by me not doing any preparation before I went, like watching trailers or clips of the film in English first to know some of the language. It’s also a very long time since I read the book so I didn’t really remember the story, though I did manage to pick the main events up well enough from the images. It’s temporarily put me off watching dubbed films, though I know it shouldn’t because I got a lot out of watching Zootropolis a few months ago.

The subtitles are quite good for picking up bits and pieces of language, but I do have a tendency to ignore them completely after a while, especially if it’s a particularly gripping film. I should definitely go and see more dubbed films, and maybe even venture to a Polish film or two.

In the future

I really want to be able to communicate confidently in Polish and understand much more so that I can:

  • go to the cinema to see any film I like without needing to prepare first
  • understand everything at my flamenco classes
  • volunteer at Guides or Scouts
  • speak to parents and low-level students without an interpreter at school
  • deal with life admin without needing an interpreter
  • socialise more easily with monolingual Poles
  • and generally have as independent a life as possible here.

To do this, I’m planning to continue with everything I’ve described above, time permitting. I have CDs of the next two Harry Potter audiobooks which I found very cheaply in a second-hand DVD store, so that’ll keep me going for a while.

I’m also hoping that we’ll have higher-level Polish classes at school from October, which I should be able to join in with. This should give me more opportunities to speak. I have a few Polish friends here, but we almost always speak English, and it’s very hard to change the language of a relationship if you’ve started in a different one. I’m hoping to get a few more friends and to start the relationship in Polish if I can🙂

I will inevitably come back to the blog at a later date to reflect on my further Polish learning, so watch this space to find out how it goes.

Why I’m doing it

This course, run by University of London and UCL Institute of Education, was recommended by Helen Legge. Having just finished a course on FutureLearn I thought it would be interesting to compare the two MOOC platforms. I won’t go into anywhere near as much depth in this post as I did on the Italian course though! I’m also interested in finding out more about Task-Based Learning, something I’ve only touched on in passing on a few courses I’ve done, and have never explicitly tried out. Finally, reading is an area I’ve been reading up on over the past year to try and balance all the research I did on listening for my Delta. Many birds, one stone🙂

Coursera logo

First impressions

As soon as you arrive on the Coursera site, it emphasises deadlines, and there are reminders of these in various places, including at the top of the to-do list. This is coupled with getting grades (“If you submit late, you might not get a grade.”), a word which I don’t remember ever being mentioned on FutureLearn.

Every Coursera task has an estimated time next to it, very useful for working out what you might be able to fit in in one sitting. Each section terminates in a peer graded assignment (due in 5 days for me) and ‘review your peers’ (due in 8 days), both of which are graded. This will potentially give more purpose to the community/discussion side of the MOOC than on FutureLearn, where it often seemed to lack purpose. There are clear links to references and further reading to enable you to take your learning further.

It’s a six-week course which I know I won’t have much time to do the second half of. You can see all of the tasks for the whole thing, including the deadlines, unlike FutureLearn which releases the tasks a week at a time. I wonder if the Coursera tutors are able to be as responsive as FutureLearn were, adapting the course based on feedback each week. Progress can apparently be carried over from one session to another, with most courses having a new session starting every few weeks. This is very different to FutureLearn, where many courses only seem to run once a year from what I’ve gathered (please correct me if I’m wrong).

These impressions are just based on skimming the interface: I’ll actually start it tomorrow. Anyone want to join me on the course?

If all goes to plan, I’ll share another post when I finish the course to reflect on what did and didn’t work. If you decide to join the course to, I’d be interested to hear what you think.

Having written a post about my first year as a full-time DoS a few days ago, it occurred to me that this time two years ago I was training up as a CELTA tutor, and that it would be interesting to write a similar post about that journey. Then I realised I’d kind of already done that by reflecting on a year of CELTA🙂 It turns out I’d already mentioned a few things that being a CELTA tutor has taught me, but here are some that I missed:

  • The mix of personalities in a TP group (the group of up to 6 teachers who observe each other and work together in teaching practice – real lessons) can make a real difference to how you need to work with them, and tutors need to learn to read this, as well as how to support the individuals and encourage them to work together as a group.
  • A lot of trees are sacrificed during a CELTA course, and many of these end up in trainees’ folders, which are often a good three or four inches (7-10cm!) thick by the end of the course.  Input session notes should therefore be as concise and easy to navigate as possible, and trainees should be encouraged (or sometimes told how!) to file them in a logical order. Sometimes it’s amazing to see how challenging organising a set of handouts can be for some people!
  • There may be a lot of right ways to do things as a teacher, but the amount of information overload on a CELTA course means that for some trainees it’s often better to give them only one option, walk them through it step-by-step, and let them see the results, before offering them other options later if they have the mental processing space with everything else they’re being asked to take in. Otherwise it can get too overwhelming. Simplify.
  • Whenever possible, showing concrete examples of things you’re suggesting is much easier for trainees to take in than abstract talk. This particularly seems to apply to requesting a more detailed lesson plan: showing trainees what to aim for tends to result in much more solid planning, and in turn, much more confidently delivered and useful lessons.
  • The CELTA is as much of a learning experience for the tutors as it is for the trainees. Through reflection and experience, we can become better tutors, but we also learn a lot from our trainees, who bring so much life experience to courses. For example, on the course I’ve just finished I learnt about daily life in South Africa, something I knew very little about before.

I’ve only done two courses over the last year, one part-time in Warsaw and one full-time in Milan.

View from the Duomo terraces

View from the Duomo terraces, Milan

I’ve also worked with a lot of teachers who are either fresh off CELTA or in their second year after the course, including doing formal observations. This has really shown the importance of the caveat (which should appear) on CELTA certificates that the candidate can ‘teach with support’. Although it seems to be forgotten sometimes, CELTA is an initial training course, and those who are newly-qualified continue to need support and development, particularly for the first year or two of their careers when they are building on what they have learnt. I’m lucky to work at a school which gives me the time and space to be able to really support our teachers in this way. An interviewer expressed surprise that one of our teachers only got a CELTA Pass when asking me for a reference for her, because she was so confident after her two years with us that the interviewer thought she must have got at least a Pass B, if not an A🙂

The combination of these factors, plus having a bit more time to ‘play’ when preparing sessions, and often having 45- or 60-minute input sessions instead of the more standard 75 also meant that for the course in Milan I tried to make my input sessions more streamlined (as well as working on my feedback) and my handouts more useful both during and after the course. I always email them to trainees as well as giving them a paper copy, as I know that a huge binder is not normally a priority in your luggage if you’re moving around from place to place! I’m hoping to share more about how I design my input sessions in a future post.

In the meantime, here’s to another few years of learning and training🙂

Week 5

I accidentally did the first five tasks of week 5 before I did week 4, so I’ve decided to combine the last parts of the course into a single post.

I watched the video about food before, and never asked for food from a deli while I was in Italy because I had no idea what to say. I should have worked through this section before I went! It’s taken me a long time to work up the courage to ask for food from counters, as it’s something I never did in the UK (and still haven’t I don’t think!) In Poland I had to learn that you ask for things in ‘deka’, or multiples of ten grams, so 200g is 20 deka. Apparently in Italy, you say ‘un etto’ for 100g, ‘due etti’ for 200g etc – interesting🙂 The communication video also introduces the names of containers (tin, bottle etc), then asks you to name some containers in the discussion, but introduces ‘glasses’ which weren’t included in the list. Always check your controlled practice only has the target language in it, and nothing else… Made me wonder if I’d missed anything, but ‘glass’ is definitely not in the video!

The first quiz makes you put words into lines of a dialogue, which works well. The second asks you to categorise items as ‘food and drinks’, ‘quantities’ or ‘containers’. This is a good idea, but the three categories are always listed in both Italian and English. Perhaps the English could be removed in later questions to increase the challenge?

The second video is Mike cooking for Anna and Lisa, so it now makes sense that food is introduced after clothes (week 4) as it leads into this video. It’s a nice context for apologising, the topic of the next section. ‘Olive’, ‘spaghetti’ and ‘vegetariana’ are the words selected for pre-teaching, which seem a bit pointless really, since they’re all the same in English, the language of the course.

It leads in to vocabulary about the order of courses in Italy, something which confused me when I first arrived: I couldn’t understand the difference between a ‘primo’ and a ‘secondo’, but later learnt that the first is normally something with carbohydrates (rice, pasta etc), and the second is normally meat or fish with salad or vegetables. Mystery solved! The two quizzes to practise make use of matching functions on Quizlet, one to match courses to pictures, and the other to match sentence halves.

The grammar focus is on using ‘mi piace’/’mi piacciono’ to express likes, clearly showing how the verb structure is different in Italian as compared to English. There’s also a friendly reminder that everything gets easy with practice. It’s nice that they’re trying to reduce the pressure, but I feel like the challenge could be upped sometimes.

The cultural notes are about a couple of common expressions: I like how these are introduced as chunks within clear contexts. In this case, there’s something a bit tantalising: “However, they can vary from region to region within Italy.” Unfortunately, they don’t follow through by telling you if the three expressions introduced are peculiar to Siena, or used elsewhere too. Skipped the discussion point task again, for the sake of finishing the course (and because I can’t be bothered at this point…)

For the final section of this week, the focus is on discussing the weather, introduced through the video and both the communication and vocabulary sections. There’s a Quizlet quiz to help you practice the phrases, again with no capital letters in either Italian or English. Later, there’s an inline quiz and a LearningApps one – it’s good that they’re mixing up the ways you can practise the new language. I’m doing all of the inline and LearningApps quizzes as I still find them motivating, but can’t be bothered with Quizlet at this point. Grammar is the prepositions ‘a’ and ‘in’, with an inline quiz, and the exploring Italian section is about ways of expressing surprise. I like that at the end of each of these sections it emphasises that the words are only used in spoken Italian.

Week 6

The final week of the course begins with describing an apartment. The variety of set-ups for the videos makes them more interesting, with this one as a Skype conversation between Mike and Anna, including her using her phone to give Mike a tour of the apartment (something I’ve done with my friends many times!) Other ones have been set in a shop, a supermarket, on the cathedral steps, in a park etc. They feel a little more authentic that way, and production standards continue to be high. I also like the fact that there are little jokes in there linking back to previous videos, strengthening the idea that it’s a story, not just isolated scenes.

The comprehension quiz on the video is really difficult. It’s asking me to remember the relative positions of the rooms at one point, something I wasn’t paying any attention to while watching. This emphasises the importance of the ‘task before text’ dictum, as learners should know what to focus on before they listen to/watch something.

In the communication video, there are links back to previous units, showing how the same language is being reused in different situations. I’ve also just realised that communication is always prioritised over vocabulary, which is prioritised over grammar: very good in my opinion, as if you stop partway through the week, you’ve done the most important things first! There’s a quizlet set to practise, again with the typical mistake of translating ‘com’è’ as ‘how’ not ‘what’ in the question ‘What is the apartment like?’

The house vocabulary set is extended in the next video, which finishes with a picture quiz where you have to unscramble the words, something which has been used occasionally earlier in the course. As before, these are extra words, and they encourage you to use a dictionary to help you. I cheated and just looked at what other people had written in the comments. I also noticed I’m not the only person still completing the course – the last comment was written four hours before I looked, and there have been two or three comments most days since the course ended. The first quiz asks you to categorise items (rooms/other areas/objects), with the same lack of a push to understand the Italian by removing the English names for the categories as the quiz progresses. The second asks you to complete dialogues in which quite a few items are recycled from earlier in the course. These are only in Italian, so you have to understand what they say to choose the correct item.

Grammar is the Italian equivalents of ‘there is/are’, contextualised through the original video in the section, then extended by showing how they could be used to describe a photo of your family. It’s useful to see it used in two different contexts like this, and is also a bit of recycling from earlier in the course. The section is rounded off with a look at the different uses of  ‘tutto’, including one which is in spoken Italian only.

The next clip is about arranging to do something in your free time, like going to the cinema. This leads into a set of functional language for making and responding to suggestions for arrangements. The first quiz only has two options for each question, so you have a 50/50 chance of getting it right by just guessing – not particularly challenging. There’s a LearningApps quiz to follow up, with a longer dialogue to complete. Again, only two options per space. It’s good that this uses the characters from the video, Mike and Lisa, so you feel like you know the characters, who you’ve built up a store of knowledge about over the course. There’s also another little joke at the end of the dialogue, raising a smile – bits of humour help.

The vocabulary video introduces more free time activities, and you’re encouraged to write a couple of the activities that you like to do in the discussion. I did bother this time😉 There’s a bit more processing required in the quiz, as you have to choose the correct word order from four different options – this is more motivating for me than choosing between two words to fill a gap. There’s also more revision, as it uses a variety of different conjugations and pronouns, testing your understanding of them. The second quiz also has some level of challenge: you read a sentence about things you can do and choose the correct location from a list of six. Much better quizzes this time round.

Grammar is negation this time round. Although this is a pretty easy grammar point which could have been introduced earlier in the course, I suspect they saved it until now to highlight other uses of the word ‘non’, like in the suggestion ‘PerchĂŠ non…’ The quiz involves putting words into the correct order, but again, frustratingly, none of sentences in the multiple choice are punctuated. There’s also a question which tests something that wasn’t covered explicitly in the video – the use of ‘non’ with a reflexive verb. Examples were given, but the rule wasn’t highlighted and I clearly didn’t take it in as I got the answer wrong. One good thing is that alternative correct answers for structures with ‘mi piace’ are offered in the comment when you submit a correct answer.

‘Allora’, another word which I heard all the time in Italy but didn’t really understand, is the subject of the article at the end of this section. Nice to have this cleared up!

I really don’t get why the discussion points are 2/3 of the way through each week: “In this step, you have a chance to practise what you have learned so far and what you will learn by the end of the week.” How can you practise something you haven’t learnt yet?! I suspect this is one of the reasons why I’ve been so reluctant to do them.

The final clip of the course is Mike finally starting the language course he came to Sienna for, though he probably doesn’t need it, since he apparently hasn’t made a mistake in any of the videos so far! It’s nice to see that Mike’s teacher is Sabrina, who’s been presenting all of the functional videos and some of the grammar ones during the course. A few of the students in the class introduce themselves and give their reasons for studying Italian: it’s good to see a range of nationalities and reasons. It’s all in open class, which is great for the sound quality on the video, but doesn’t strike me as hugely communicative! Mike’s final line is another little in-joke from previous videos.

‘Expressing motivations’ is the functional language for this section, practised through a two-option multiple choice quiz. I was rushing to finish so didn’t read all of the questions properly and got 6/7. Oops! There’s also an extra LearningApps quiz, matching sentences about motivations to pictures – nice idea. Vocabulary extends this by adding more possible reasons for studying Italian, and you’re invited to share your reasons in the discussion thread. After the inline quiz, there’s a Quizlet set requiring you to match sentence halves. It’s good to see richer sentences being used by this point in the course, testing your understanding more and pulling lots of things together. Again, I actually bothered with this, playing Scatter(my favourite function) for about five minutes, and ending up in second place on the leaderboard.🙂

The last grammar focus looks at ‘dovere’ and ‘volere’, two very important irregular verbs. There’s also some revision of ‘potere’, and all three are covered in the quiz.

The course input closes off with a focus on ways to express your likes and dislikes, but because it’s the ‘Exploring Italian’ article, there’s no practice to follow up on it, although some people have used the comments to do this. This is a shame, as it’s very useful language, arguably more so than some of the other language chosen for focuses during the course.

All of the presenter-fronted videos in this section have ended with them saying goodbye, a nice touch, and with an invitation for you to study Italian in Siena. I wonder how many students actually go from studying this online course to doing a full-time paid one at the university. It’s certainly a good advert for the city and the university, though it’s a lot of work too!

Anna and Mike in Siena

Anna and Mike in Siena

To encourage participants, there’s a discount of up to 20% on the course fees if you’ve completed the FutureLearn course, and you can register your interest through the final page. Finally, you can pay for a certificate of completion if you’ve marked at least 90% of the steps complete, or a certificate of participation if you’ve marked 50% of them complete. Needless to say, I won’t be doing this for this course, but I may consider it for another course at some point. Sorry FutureLearn!


Despite the many holes I’ve picked in this course, no MOOC is ever going to be perfect, especially considering that it’s all being offered for free (unless you want to pay for the certificate at the end).

As a taster course, I think this worked pretty well, though the lack of productive practice is frustrating. I know you can use the discussion, but there’s no real communicative purpose to this, and there’s no production at all within the controlled practice exercises. It’s good to see the creators responding to comments from students each week – they clearly read and respond the comments while the course is running.

The FutureLearn interface is very easy to find your way around and you can see your progress clearly in a variety of places, including a to do list, a progress wheel (with more of the wheel completed as you go through the course), as well as the number of the step you’re on and how many more in that week as you work through the activities. It’s definitely something I’ll do again, and I already have a management course waiting for me (though I’ve completely missed the four-week window it was run in), as well as the rest of the ‘Dyslexia and Foreign Language Teaching‘ course which I did one and a half weeks of a while ago before being overwhelmed by work, then getting distracted by this Italian course! I’d definitely recommend exploring their list of courses and registering for ones you’re interested in, even if there are no dates at the moment. They email you when the course is coming up, which is what I did with the dyslexia course – I think I was doing the third iteration of it.

And now that I’ve finished the course, I’m off to complete the post-course survey, then voglio mangiare pasta al pesto.🙂

After a couple of crazy weeks at the end of the school year, two weekends of travelling to Warsaw for CELTA and two days off sick with a bad virus (completely recovered now!), I’m now well behind with the course, as tomorrow will be the beginning of week 6 and I’m only just starting week 4. This shows the importance of having time in the evening or at weekends if you want to keep up/not spending your evenings messing about on social media when you sh/could be studying…😉

This week starts with going to the supermarket, and a dialogue at a deli counter. This was one of the things which most scared me when I first started living abroad, as in the UK I never bothered with the deli counter, and just picked up what I wanted from the shelves. I started using them in Russia, and in Poland, I use them all the time, so I think this language will come in very useful for me.

Mike at the deli counter

For some reason, the transcript is in English. I don’t really know why this is, and it definitely defeats the object of the comprehension quiz which follows! Luckily I didn’t have time to see any of the answers before I noticed.

Just managed to do steps 1-5 of 36 in this sitting, and since my friend arrives tomorrow evening, I suspect the next time I’ll get chance to study will be in at least a week, by which time the course will have finished (although I’ll still be able to access the materials) and, more importantly, I’ll be in Italy🙂

A little while later…

Or to be more precise, nearly two months later, it’s now 12th August. I spent a month in Italy, and have now been back in Poland for at least two weeks, and I’m now wondering whether it’s worth continuing with the Italian course. I stopped using the memrise course a few days before I left Italy, not helped by very irregular net access while I was there. That, coupled with an intensive CELTA, meant I definitely didn’t have the time or energy to bother continuing with the FutureLearn course while I was there. I managed to get around fairly well with my prior French/Spanish knowledge, the few words/phrases of Italian I’d managed to learn, speaking German (with the fluent speaker who looked after my flat!) and (mostly) resorting to speaking English when I needed to say something. I’m interested in Italian, but time is precious😉

But…I’ve started so I’ll finish (though I suspect nobody other than Lizzie is reading these posts!)

Continuing where I left off…

I’ve now realised that the video of the deli I watched above was actually from week 5, and I didn’t notice until now. Oops!

Week 4 actually begins with a video about habits. As always, the comprehension questions test your memory, and sometimes use phrases and vocabulary that haven’t been covered on the course at all so far, like the last question: “Anna e Lisa vanno a pranzo da Mike a mezzogiorno.” I have no idea what ‘a pranzo’ means, and I’m guessing many of the other words from Spanish/French. I’m assuming the sentence means “Anna and Lisa will go for lunch at Mike’s at midday.” but I could be wrong.

The communication video relies exclusively on translations, with each phrase written out and translated into English. This would be the perfect place to use images as extra support, with phrases like ‘goes swimming’ and ‘sleeps’ among the vocabulary. It would be an extra ‘hook’ for learners to hang the new language on.

After a short quiz, the next communication video is about days of the week. I’m continuing to be lazy and just reading the transcripts for these now because it’s faster to scan them than listen, and I don’t feel like I need to hear the pronunciation for most of these things. The discussion task for the comments section is “Which day is your favourite day of the week and why? “Il mio giorno preferito è la domenica”, because I can sleep in! Tell us in italian what your favourite day is and, if you want, you can add why in English, in the discussion below.” It’s fairly typical of these in that it doesn’t seem to have any real communicative purpose – there’s no real reason to tell anybody your favourite day of the week. How about writing which days you study this course on? Then people can compare their answers in some way, and it’s also useful information for the course writers. The quiz for days is good within the restrictions of a multiple choice: you have sets of three days and have to choose which set is in the correct order, though it works through the week in order, which helps a lot. There’s an optional quiz outside the platform to help you practise the days too.

Reflexive verbs are the first grammar point and are explained clearly, with two fully conjugated examples, and two other examples from previous lessons highlighted but not conjugated. It’s good to see links between the weeks. After the quiz, there’s an article about fillers (though they’re not called that) used in spoken Italian, with some transcripts and the chance to listen to the sentences. The sentences are from the video, but the recordings are somebody else, and the fillers seem a bit over-emphasised. On the plus side, at least you can listen to them, which you haven’t always been able to do with similar articles earlier in the course.

To finish this section, there’s a section on double consonants. They’re divided into ones which are pronounced more forcefully and those which are pronounced longer than single consonants. I thought at first that was because the person being recorded knows that these would be pronunciation examples, but listening to some of the words on forvo, I’m not so sure. To me they all sound more forceful in the audios of the words chosen – I can’t differentiate between the two groups. I’d like to be able to compare the ‘longer’ group with words with single consonants so that I can hear the difference.

The next section starts with a video of the group getting breakfast at a coffee bar. The transcript under the video is in English (maybe for all of the videos, but I didn’t notice before?) and you can download the transcript in Italian. I’d prefer the other way round so that I’m not overly reliant on the English, but can access it if I want to. I find it interesting that they chose ‘euro’ as one of the words to pre-teach, but not ‘cornetto’, which is actually a false friend (in British English at least!)

Cornetto ice cream

What ‘cornetto’ means to me

Reading the ‘communication’ transcript about how to pay the bill, I find it annoying that there seems to be a complete disregard for punctuation at times:

Let’s see what we say when we have to pay the bill for example when we go to a bar as Mike, Anna and Lisa do in the clip Let’s watch […]

I realise that some poor sod has had to type up the transcript, but it perhaps should have been proofed before being put on the site. To practise there’s a dialogue reordering activity on LearningApps (another interesting function of that site) and four Quizlet flashcards in a set (where they include ‘cornetto’), but nothing within FutureLearn.

The next step is a focus on food vocabulary, including some useful cultural notes, like when it’s acceptable to drink cappuccino. The vocabulary input here is supported by pictures, which is good. In the LearningApps quiz, you write the missing letters to complete the words. However, most of the words have a double vowel at the end, which is quite confusing :s There’s a pdf version of the quiz within FutureLearn, which doesn’t have this problem.

The grammar here is the indefinite article, and there’s a link back to the week 2 video if you want to review the definite article – again, useful to have a link between the lessons. Two quizzes test you here, first selecting the correct indefinite article, then choosing whether you need a definite or indefinite article. Useful revision.

The article at the end of this section answers a question I had throughout my time in Italy: what on earth does ‘ecco’ mean? I heard it all the time! In this case, it just means ‘Here you go/are’ when things are handed over. Again, you can listen to phrases from the video, but somebody else saying them. The discussion point is designed to get you to revise by writing a text about what you eat/do and when, but I can’t be bothered. Lazy student! I ticked ‘Mark as complete’ anyway, which highlights one of the problems with a course like this: you’re relying on self-reporting to find out whether the students have actually done activities or not.

The next day

The final section for this week of the course is about buying clothes. I find it a little odd that this is introduced before buying food, which is arguably more important, but maybe that says something about Italians versus Brits! Having said that, Lisa looks beautiful in the dress she wants to buy😉

The vocabulary video focuses on clothes and shoes, but I’m not really clear about what ‘vestito’ and ‘abito’ mean. Initially it seems like they’re ‘dress’, as in, ‘She’s wearing a beautiful red dress.’ But from the video, it looks like they actually mean ‘formal clothes’ as he says they can be used for a man or a woman, with pictures of a dress and a suit. Hmmm. This is one of the problems with using images with vocabulary, and demonstrates that you still need to check it carefully, as it may not be completely clear. The activity at the end of this video is the first one for a while with a real reason to do it: “Unfortunately in the next slide our graphic put the wrong words next to the image. Can you help us match them up correctly?” It might be obviously fake, but it’s more motivating than some of the other tasks! Two quizzes from LearningApps help you to practise the clothes and colours together. This is useful as you’re seeing the colour adjectives change form right from the start, and not internalising the masculine singular form only, though as with most of the quizzes (apart from the occasional crossword), it’s receptive only with no production.

‘Potere’ (‘can’) is introduced in the grammar video, and the conjugations are tested in order in the quiz. Mixing them up a little could provide more challenge, though I recognise that this may be too much for somebody for whom Italian is a first foreign language. I wonder if FutureLearn offers the option of randomly mixing questions in exercises?

The last input for the week is about words used to encourage/convince somebody to do something, with the first example taken from the video (again with random audio) and the other examples put into a selection of short conversations. As always, there’s no clear task other than just to look at the examples. Some people have taken it upon themselves to write encouraging phrases in the comments, but it’s noticeable that this number (200) is much lower than in the matching task from the colours/clothes video (1100).

A disclaimer

By the way, I’m aware that I’m going through the whole of this course picking holes, and just wanted to emphasise that it’s well put together and you can learn from it, but I feel the whole experience can be improved in lots of ways to make it more useful for learners. Reflecting on what does and doesn’t work for me as a learner will hopefully help me if I ever come to design a similar course in the future, and I hope anyone from FutureLearn/University of Siena or who is thinking about doing the course takes these comments in the way that they’re intended.

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