Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher

Following on from the excellent MaWSIG pre-conference event, I ended up going to quite a few more talks related to materials writing during the conference. Here are summaries of said talks.

Designing materials: from theory to practice? – Sonia Munro and Susan Sheehan

Sonia and Susan work on the MA TESOL at the University of Huddersfield. The course originally had only a traditional dissertation at the end of it, but they have now added the option of a more practical materials design project rather than a dissertation. Students have to create 15 hours worth of classroom materials for a specific context and do a 30-minute viva. The only course participants who now do a dissertation are those who are required to do so by external forces, such as those who are being funded by a Ministry of Education. All others opt for materials design.

Why did they choose to offer this alternative? Feedback on the dissertation module was not as positive as for other modules on the MA, with participants complaining that they couldn’t collect the necessary data from their students over the summer. Materials design doesn’t just help those who are creating materials; it also helps teachers to be more critical when choosing materials for their students.

The viva allows participants to show the theoretical underpinnings of their materials, but Sonia and Susan noticed that there was a huge range in the ability of course participants to do this. Tomlinson (2003) mentions that many established writers start with intuition based on their own experience in the classroom, but MA students don’t have that luxury and must demonstrate that they have clear reasons for their materials design. In the viva, they have to present their materials and demonstrate the theory behind them, then participate in a discussion building on this. Some participants could do this easily, but others were unable to demonstrate any awareness of theory at all. To be successful, they need to:

  • Draw on a wide range of sources, not just readings suggested by tutors;
  • Demonstrate critical engagement with theories and sources;
  • Show a clear relationship between theory and practice, demonstrating they understand this;
  • Analyse materials that are typically used in their context and use these as a springboard for their own materials;
  • Notice the good points and limitations of the materials they use as a reference;
  • Show an awareness of their context: What are the constraints? Are these materials appropriate?

These are the main problems their MA students had in the viva:

  • Only citing a narrow range of authors.
  • Not referring to SLA (second language acquisition) theorists.
  • Sticking to authors writing about materials design only.
  • Not referring to authors specific to their context (e.g. EAP).
  • Not mentioning issues like Global English or English as a Lingua Franca.
  • Conflating literature and theory and not going deeply enough into the theory.
  • Not demonstrating enough criticality: for example by comparing authors or mentioning the weaknesses of the research. Being quite superficial.

To increase the students’ engagement with theory, Susan and Sonia would like to:

  • Make the use of theory more explicit and show students how to find theory more usefully.
  • Emphasise that theory is the core of the module.
  • Stop students from getting lost in the aesthetics of the materials – they tend to spend too long on this and not enough time on the theory.
  • Train students to do better literature searches.

I haven’t done an MA yet, but would like to at some point in the future, so I think this will come in very useful when I get to that stage.

Frameworks for creativity in materials design – Jill Hadfield

I’ve been connected to Jill on facebook for a while, and she’s been able to help me out a couple of times, so I went to this talk to be able to meet her in person for the first time. It gave me lots of ideas for potential workshops in the future, and furthered my understanding of some of the principles behind materials design, following on from the talk above. It’s also encouraged me to consider in more depth the principles I believe in/follow/use (What’s the right verb?!) when designing materials, teaching, and training.

When Jill was writing her latest book, Motivating Learning [affiliate link], with Zoltan Dörnyei, she started keeping a reflective journal to help her uncover the principles behind her own writing. She then analysed her journal and categorised her comments to try to find underlying patterns. She was motivated to do this by theorists who posited that materials writers tend to rely on intuition rather than theory, but as she said “We do have principles, but we’re too busy writing materials!”

Jill divided up the principles from her journal into two areas: framing principles and core energies. Framing principles ask questions like ‘What makes good materials?’ Here are some of Jill’s examples:

They are a kind of limit, and you shouldn’t include anything which does not adhere to one or more of these principles. In contrast, core energies suffuse your work. They are the underlying themes of your materials, which resurface again and again, but may not be obvious in every activity. In Jill’s journal, these were Affect, Creativity and Play. The example Jill gave to show the difference between the two types of principle was that she believes all activities should be communicative (framing principle), but that there are times when activities should be cognitive, logical or serious depending on the aim (which could be seen as contradicting some of her core energies).

In analysing her journal, Jill realised that she wrote most when she was dealing with problems, and very little when the writing was going smoothly. She seemed to have a lot of tacit principles underlying her writing. Here are some of them:

  • Does this activity fulfil the aim in the best possible way?
  • Is the staging in the best logical sequence?
  • Does staging scaffold the students by providing achievable steps?
  • Are the groupings appropriate to the task and do they provide variety and balance of interaction?

She also noticed a system of checks and balances that stopped her forward progress at times. These included trying out the materials by putting herself in the position of the teacher (imagining), the student (trying out), or the writer explaining the materials to the teacher (dialoguing). Through this process, she sometimes discovered that her activities didn’t do what she wanted them to, which meant she had to rethink them.

Once she has finished writing, Jill uses checklists based on questions formulated from her principles. These help her to ensure quality, coverage (a range of activity types/interaction patterns etc) and analyse covert syllabuses (a hidden agenda). Covert syllabuses can be positive, for example by promoting rapport within the group through activities focussing on dynamics and groupwork, or negative, such as those implied by the kind of images that might be chosen to illustrate a course book (see Ben Goldstein and Ceri Jones’ talk at the MaWSIG PCE).

Jill shared lots of possible tasks which you could do to examine your own priniciples, or which could be used as the basis for workshops. Here are just a few examples:

  • Pyramid discussion, where participants first detail their own principles relating to materials design, then compare them with others.
  • Look at the principles you have related to classroom practice and consider them in more depth. Which of them are supported by research? Which of them do not seem to have theoretical support? Why do you think this is?
  • Give participants a range of different activities from published materials, chosen to demonstrate a range of writing styles. Analyse how much they like doing the activity, how often they create similar activities and how much they like creating that kind of activity.
  • Analyse the principles you have come up with in more depth. What are the potential advantages and drawbacks of having these as principles? Can these principles be justified by theory and classroom practice? What questions should you ask yourself about being driven by personal preference in your writing?
  • Dialoguing: participants work in pairs, with one as the classroom teacher and the other as the materials writer. The writer must justify their design decisions to the teacher. Record the conversation, play it back, and see if there are any decisions the writer wants to rethink.
  • Imagining: go through the activity step-by-step, as if you’re using it in class. Record yourself talking through the process, then listen back and analyse it critically. Is there anything you would change?
  • Trying out: put yourself in the students’ shoes. Record your interactions. Listen back and ask yourself questions. For example: Did the activity produce the language required? Did it produce enough of it? Was it engaging? Did everyone have equal turns?
  • Spoken protocols: participants design an activity and verbalise their decisions as they make them. Record this and listen back, with participants trying to verbalise what unspoken design principles are influencing these decisions.
  • Take an activity you have designed and try altering one element, for example, changing it from a pair to a group task. What effect does this have?
  • Develop your own checklists based on the principles you have uncovered. Use them!

Uncovering culture – Ben Goldstein and Ceri Jones

When Ben and Ceri started teaching, cultural content in coursebooks looked very different. It tended to reflect and/or reinforce cultural stereotypes, drawing on students’ prior knowledge of the world. There was a lot of pop anthropology or negative etiquette, ‘othering’ the cultures discussed by distancing students from it: ‘They do it like this, not like you do.’ It also reinforced the idea that everyone in a country acts in the same way: ‘Americans eat fast food’. Subliminal cultural content was also common, for example in the choice of images used.

Ceri and Ben wanted to move from this global, stereotypical image of culture, making it more relevant to the students’ lives, combining the global and the local to make it ‘glocal’. For example, rather than an article describing food of the world, including McDonalds as the food of the USA, you could:

  • Compare menus served by McDonalds in different countries.
  • Question what junk and healthy food really is.
  • Look at the designs of McDonalds restaurants, and how they differ around the world, for example the McCafé.
  • Find local news articles featuring McDonalds.

Continuing the food theme, try exploiting these food flags, designed for the Sydney Food Festival. Each image showcases food typical of that country. Students can identify the food, then decide whether they think it really does represent the country. Finally, they create a flag for their own country and other students discuss whether it’s truly representative.

Food-Flags

Image from peacechild.org

‘Breaking’ stereotypes in this way can be a very productive exercise in the classroom. Something similar can be done with postcards too: do they reflect true experiences of what it is like to be in the country?

Ben and Ceri have written various course books together. The most recent are the Eyes Open series, written for secondary school students and published by Cambridge University Press. They have used ideas to exploit culture throughout, and showed examples like this one during their presentation.

There is a move away from stereotypes, showing a more multicultural view of Britain. Texts also have links to the outside world, so that the restaurant mentioned is a real place which students can visit the website of if they want to.

You need to build a bridge between the materials on the page and the lives of the students. One way to do this is to have the voices of ‘insiders’, rather than ‘outsiders’, talking about their own cultures. The example Ben and Ceri gave was a video about dabbawallas in India, leading on to a discussion of whether this system would work in the students’ own countries: What kind of food would they include in the boxes? Who would cook it?

Another avenue for uncovering culture is to emphasise the trans-cultural flow of ideas, rather than separating out cultures artificially. One way to do this is through YouTube videos and the associated comments, like those by Bethany Mota, who often shares videos about food. The ‘unboxing‘ meme is a productive one, and this video of an American opening a pizza in Korea gives lots of language students could draw on to make their own video, making the connection to their own lives and culture.

Here is an abridged version of Ben and Ceri’s slides.

Can a picture tell a thousand words? – Hugh Dellar

You might think that this metaphor is as old as the hills, but according to Hugh’s research, it was actually coined about a century ago by an advertiser in the USA trying to sell advertising space on the side of trams! Hugh decided to continue this theme by advertising too, in this case the new edition of Outcomes, which he co-wrote with Andrew Walkley. :)

Hugh’s attitude to the use of images in materials has developed over his writing career. Originally he thought they were just a way of breaking up the page, and that the focus should be on language, because this is what students learn from. When his publisher changed and he was asked to incorporate more National Geographic content into his materials he was initially reluctant, associating them with doctors’ and dentists’ waiting rooms and pain! He also highlighted the fact that although many of their images are beautiful, they aren’t necessarily great for generating language. They say 1000 words, so you don’t have to. Instead, he finds images which have the potential to ‘bring 1000 words into being’ much more useful.

So what are the functions of the image in the ELT classroom?

  • To illustrate the meaning of lexis. Learners can label things, but it’s not great for longer phrases.
  • To test whether students have remembered lexis. This is great for nouns, but not so good for things which are more abstract.
  • Decoration.
  • Prompts for grammar drills. Hugh mentioned ‘English for voyeurs’, which is true whenever you use images to practise the present continuous!
  • To check receptive understanding (e.g. choose the picture which shows…)
  • To set the scene.
  • To generate language and ideas.
  • To generate discussion, stories, opinions, etc.

The last three are the ones which are the most fruitful, but they require a certain type of image, preferably with some kind of ambiguity or something unstated.

In Outcomes, the picture above is used to introduce a unit on business. One of the discussion points is why there are no women shown. It then leads on to a unit about business, including making phone calls.

The same principles which apply to images could also be used for videos. Again, just because it’s on YouTube, doesn’t make it interesting. There is no guarantee that the language in the video is intelligible, appropriate for the level of your students, or will ever be used by them again. Once you’ve found a suitable video, you still have to write the materials to go with it too! This is where video content accompanying coursebooks comes in. In Outcomes, video is exploited in a variety of ways, not just for traditional comprehension tasks. It’s also a way of improving students listening skills by analysing small chunks of language, and then attempting to reproduce them to experiment with their pronunciation.

You can watch the whole 30-minute presentation on YouTube.

MAWSIG Open Forum

The Materials Writing SIG has gone from strength to strength since it started a couple of years ago. At the open forum, they updated us on what has been happening over the last year and their plans for the next year, including MaWSIG May, a series of webinars which happened very successfully last year and which they would like to repeat. They also held a raffle, and this happened :)

In summary

All of these talks have given me a strong incentive to examine the principles behind materials design in more depth, which is something I hope to do if and when I ever get round to doing an MA! I really like the idea of the Anglia Ruskin course, which focuses heavily on materials design, but unfortunately it’s only available face-to-face and I can’t afford it at the moment. One day…

This was my first IATEFL since I became a CELTA tutor, so I had a whole new set of talks to discover. Here are the three I went to, all of which made me think about how I approach CELTA tutoring and what an ‘ideal’ course would look like.

Strictly Come CELTA: An analogy and some thoughts on feedback – Jo Gakonga

I’ve found Jo’s CELTA training videos very useful and enjoyed a meal with her and a few other CELTA and Delta trainers at the beginning of the conference, so was looking forward to hearing her speak, and I wasn’t disappointed.

Jo compared the role of CELTA tutors to that of judges on the BBC programme Strictly Come Dancing. Each of them has a distinctive personality and gives feedback in different ways, which reflects our roles as CELTA tutors. She asked us to consider which of the judges we are similar to, and how this may change throughout the course or with different trainees.

She also talked about differentiated grading scales (compared to ‘To Standard’ and ‘Not To Standard’ from Cambridge), and how this can create standardisation issues. On SCD, there is a 10-point scale, but only one of the four judges really grades like this. One of them only really uses a five-point scale, because she never gives lower than 5. In 12 series, one judge has given 113 ’10s’, another 146 and another 35, but they’re all supposed to be grading on the same scale. She used this to encourage us to think about whether differentiated grading is useful or not.

Here are Jo’s slides.

The development of cognitions and beliefs on CELTA courses – Karla Leal Castañeda

I first learnt about the concept of teacher cognitions (what teachers know, believe and think) at the IH DoS conference in January this year. I believe it has a big effect on participants in CELTA courses and how receptive they are to the training they receive. I chose to go to this talk in the hope of finding out more.

In a nutshell, Karla’s research was to investigate what the trainees believed coming on to the course, whether this changed through the course, and how it influenced their performance. She did a combination of interviews and observations with 8 trainees from 3 different courses.

Most of them had unrealistically high expectations of what they might be able to learn on a four-week course, including ‘grammar’, a formula for how to be a good teacher, or a completely new way of approaching teaching. By the end of the course, they recognised that it was impossible to cover all of this within the time constraints, but still found the learning experience to be ‘rich and far from disappointing’. As they said, CELTA can only give them an insight of what teaching is and experience will give them the rest.

They highlighted the importance of planning in their post-lesson reflections, as they realised that problems in the lesson often stemmed from a lack of preparation. Based on negative experiences they had had in lessons, trainees had aspects of teaching they would prefer to avoid after the course, for example, CCQs (concept-checking questions). Despite this, they recognised that they needed to give techniques a fair trial before discarding them categorically, and that a four-week course was not enough time to say that a particular technique would or wouldn’t work.

Coming on to the course, most of the trainees talked about their own previous negative experiences learning languages and expressed that language learning needed to be fun to be effective, with a good rapport between teacher and students. This led to them prioritising fun in their own evaluations of their lessons, often disregarding what the trainer had to say about the lesson in terms of how successful it was if they (the trainees) thought that it wasn’t fun. There was a belief that language teachers need to be different to teachers of other subjects, since language teaching cannot be as teacher-centred as other subjects: interaction is crucial. By the end of the course, classroom management was added to the list of desirable teacher characteristics, in addition to subject knowledge and good rapport with students.

During the courses, there was shift towards a more student-centred approach to teaching. However, trainees stated that when teaching more student-centred lessons they felt less professional, and less ‘teachery’, which echoes my own informal observations of the need for trainees to adopt ‘teacher position‘ to feel like they are being effective and useful to the students. There is a continuous struggle against deeply rooted previously ‘learned’ behaviour, either from their own experience in the classroom or from the ‘apprenticeship of observation‘: what they have learnt from being a student and observing their own teachers.

In the Q&A session at the end, a trainer in the audience highlighted that sometimes we are not very good at managing expectations during the CELTA course, and that perhaps we need to revisit them more often. Another trainer suggested including regular slots in input sessions where you encourage trainees to compare what they have learnt about teaching with their own beliefs about how to teach. This is definitely an area which warrants further research, and one in which I will watch developments with interest.

The natural CELTA – a farewell to language? – Joanna Stansfield and Emma Meade-Flynn

This was the final talk I went to at IATEFL this year, and was a great note to finish on as it inspired me to consider a completely different approach to putting together a CELTA course by rethinking it from the ground up, rather than basing it on more traditional structures.

Joanna and Emma wanted to remove as much of the stress from the CELTA course as they could and make sure that their trainees were as prepared for real-world teaching as possible. To do this, they decided to get rid of language instruction from the timetable, since this is the most stressful area for most trainees.

Temporary bookshelf (binders and a pile of grammar books)

Image taken from ELTpics by Mary Sousa, under a Creative Commons 3.0 license

They also tried to integrate the course as much as possible, so everything fed into the teaching trainees would do and nothing felt like extra work, since many trainees find it difficult to prioritise when juggling assignments and TP (lessons). They still had to meet the criteria set by Cambridge though, and demonstrate that their trainees could be effective language teachers. To do this, they changed the course in the following ways:

  • Replacing language analysis sheets with task analysis, focussing on the specific activities that trainees were planning to use. Different sheets were used for receptive and productive tasks. This had many effects on the trainees, for example realising that lexis is important for listening tasks. Trainees also created more meaningful productive tasks as a result.
  • Basing the language skills assignment around task analysis sheets which had been used in previous TPs, with trainees reflecting on what problems the students had with the language and re-planning the lesson in light of this. This is instead of the over-analysis and the added stress of a more traditional assignment, which can create an atomised view of language. It can also mean trainees over-explain to students because they try to give them all of the knowledge they have instead of just what is relevant.
  • Teaching a model lesson at the beginning of the course in the same way and using the same materials that they expected their trainees to use, then incorporating more explicit reflection on the model lesson throughout the first week of input, unpacking the techniques used in it. Trainees were noticeably better at lesson cohesion after this.
  • Adding a 20-minute slot at the end of TP where trainees could speak to students about what happened in the lesson without trainers in the room. This was recorded, and fed in to the Focus on the Learner assignment. Trainees were more aware of their students as people and of their needs, and better able to understand their accents. There was also higher student retention because of this, and this reflects the real world, since student retention is something we all need to be aware of.
  • Encouraging trainees to note questions they wanted to ask the students and their co-teachers while observing.
  • Learning more about students meant TP points weren’t needed after week one, as lessons were based around student needs, although a course book was still used.
  • Changing the layout of the lesson plan, including a column for self-evaluation. Before seeing trainer comments, trainees had to fill in a stage-by-stage reflection, rather than only reflecting on the lesson in general.
  • Integrating assignment 3 with trainees designing materials they would then go on to use (I think – my tweets aren’t very clear at this point!)

They got very positive feedback from their trainees on this course. They developed their language awareness naturally, in a similar way to how teachers do in the real world, and language became much less scary as a result. They also realised how important lexis was and were much better at teaching it because they had built up a good rapport with the students through the 20-minute conversations. Students weren’t afraid to ask how new lexis should be used. Trainees were also much more self-critical and reflective as a result.

This is definitely a course structure I would like to find out more about, and I think it will influence my own course design when I finally put together a CELTA course myself as a Main Course Tutor (I’m an Assistant Course Tutor at the moment).

This was the first IATEFL where I saw talks which mentioned Africa at all. I know there must have been related talks at the previous conferences I was at, but they didn’t cross my radar. This year I had no choice but to notice them, as the Monday and Tuesday plenaries were both about the continent, and what a perfect choice that was.

The justice and imperative of girls’ secondary school education – a model of action – Ann Cotton

Ann Cotton’s plenary was truly inspiring and got a well-deserved standing ovation at the end. She described the evolution of the organisation which was to become Camfed, the Campaign for Female Education.

Camfed logo

Back in the early 1990s, Ann was doing university research which involved her visiting a Tonga village in Zimbabwe to find out why girls’ educational attainment was so low. What she saw there surprised her. Contrary to the standard belief that girls weren’t sent to school for cultural reasons, she actually discovered that poverty is the main barrier to girls’ education. The people in the village she visited had been moved there by the government when a dam was built, away from the river they depended on for their livelihood and to land which was not suitable for resettlement. To force people into the cash economy, the government also imposed many different taxes, like a hut tax, a dog tax, and a requirement for a fishing license if they wanted to use the nearby lake for food. There was food aid for the first two years, but after that the people were on their own. In order to meet the economic needs of their families, boys needed to be educated as a priority because they were likely to be able to earn more money later. When Ann arrived, there were seven boys for every one girl at the school. Although Zimbabwe had made huge strides in its education system after desegregation, there was still a long way to go to achieve true equality. It wasn’t that the Tonga people did not want to educate girls, but that they were forced to prioritise boys’ education because of the local economic situation.

They were making the only decisions they could on the basis of economics and survival.

When girls are poorly educated, it has many knock-on effects, including high infant mortality and the exclusion of women from the economy and decision-making. If a girl leaves school young, she will probably marry very soon afterwards because her family will struggle to sustain her financially. Both her and their security depends on her finding a husband. This means she’s likely to become pregnant while still a teenager, and in the villages Ann visited, she would be far away from medical services. If she had trouble during labour, she would be taken to a hospital two hours away for free medical treatment. However, if she died, the family would have to pay for the return of her body, leading to some incredibly difficult decisions. Some families chose not to let their daughters go to the hospital because they wouldn’t be able to get the body back afterwards if anything happened. The people at the clinic thought this meant families didn’t care about their daughters, but again poverty was the true underlying cause.

You have to make the decision that makes the best economic sense.

In all of the research she had done, she had never met the idea that poverty was a potential reason for girls not being sent to school. In fact, there was a huge desire for education, and this inspired Ann to try to do something about it. She felt completely out of her depth, but she knew it needed wider consideration. She abandoned her studies, and started to go to organisations to explain what she’d found, but she met repeated resistance and minds closed to the idea that there might be another explanation for educational and health issues.

When Ann returned to the Tonga village, the chief was very surprised to see her. They called a meeting about how to get more girls in school, and Ann was amazed when hundreds of people turned up. The chief sent out the word to local villages, and when the people came it proved that they really wanted their daughters to be educated. The chief provides the bridge between the traditional world and the modern world, and is trusted by the tribe. They built a committee to decide how to progress, including the chief, educators, people from the health system and the mothers’ support group, ensuring that women were represented in the decision-making too. The Camfed model endeavours to understand the girls’ lives both inside and outside school to make the system fit the child.

The child is at the centre of everything.

They draw on the social capital of the people in the tribe and of the girls who have been educated thanks to Camfed to strengthen their model. For example, there have recently been severe floods in Malawi which is likely to lead to severe problems with food as the year goes on. Camfed has been providing food which local mothers distribute. They are all illiterate or semi-literate, but can decide who needs extra food based on observing the way the children eat, without needing any tests or scientific basis for their decisions. Ann also mentioned learning a lot from James Rebanks in the book The Shepherd’s Life [affiliate link], where he talked about how much he has learnt from talking to semi-literate people. These are examples of ‘knowledge capital’ and show us that a lack of literacy does not mean a lack of intelligence, and that in fact some knowledge can be lost as the world becomes more literate.

There is an intense arrogance in seeing poor people as potential data points.

It’s important for us to gather information about the situation related to girls’ education. However, we need to be sensitive in how we do this and ensure that the data is returned to the community so that it can be used fully: often it goes up the system and the community never have access to it. Ann gave examples of the power of data to acknowledge and change behaviour. By demonstrating to families how the changes they had made in their approach to girls’ education had impacted on their lives, the communities felt hugely positive and were more likely to continue with these changes.

From a small start, they have grown and grown. In 1991, they supported 32 girls to get an education. In 2014, it was 1.2 million. There is now also a sister organisation called ‘CAMA’ made up of the alumni of Camfed, who are supporting more girls in their turn: 63,274 so far. The organisation spread to Ghana, and now works in five different countries, including Muslim communities where people said the system wouldn’t work. On the contrary: everyone wants their children to be educated!

Camfed has also worked to provide role models. Because nobody from the local tribes had got through the education system, none of the teachers spoke the tribal language. At secondary school, English was the language of education, and the children had had no exposure to it outside the classroom. One of the first things Camfed did was work to reduce the entry requirements for Tonga people to go to teacher training college. As well as the language barrier, there’s also a barrier in the metaphors and examples the children are expected to understand. In collaboration with women from CAMA and Pearson, they are working on materials to reflect the children’s experience more closely, to reduce the feeling of detachment and remoteness of the educational environment the children were entering. ‘Learner Guides’ are the bridge between these two areas. They are young secondary school graduates who work with teachers, bridging the gap between the ‘imported’ teacher and the local children. Because the learner guides are from the local community, they can help with the language, dealing with large class sizes, moderating materials, and providing a friendly face for the children when they come to the school. Parents can see their daughters progressing and earning respect in the local community, with teacher training college being considered the next step.

Ann gave some inspiring examples of some of the girls who have come through the Camfed system, entrepreneurs, doctors, and even a member of a UN advisory committee. Because of their backgrounds, they understand poverty in a way nobody else can, and they are more able to make changes because there is a bridge to their communities. Their communities celebrate them and are proud of them: they are not trying to hold them back at all.

They emerge as extraordinary global leaders who are fighting for change for others like them. What a loss to the world if they had not been educated!

Ann finished with these words:

When everyone thinks the way you do, it’s time to think differently.

Mark Twain

Ann’s slides and handout are available along with the session details on the IATEFL online site here. I would strongly recommend watching her plenary, because my summary does not do justice to it at all:

You can also read a summary by Lizzie Pinard.

ELT in difficult circumstances: Challenges, possibilities and future directions – Harry Kuchah

Apart from a brief stint volunteering at my old primary school when I was 18, and two months at a primary school in Borneo, all of my teaching has been at private language schools, where the largest classes had 16 students. More than half of the classes I’ve taught have had fewer than six students. The majority of the reading I do about ELT deals with similar situations, with the occasional diversion into primary or secondary contexts with up to forty students. I always knew that this was not the reality for many teachers and thought it must be very difficult to teach huge classes, with little chance of seeing progress in your students. Until Harry Kuchah’s plenary on the final day of IATEFL, I never really understood how teachers managed in this situation. He had an inspiring and positive message, and one which I hope to see more of at future conferences.

Harry was the recipient of a Hornby scholarship to study an MA in the UK in 2006. He learnt a lot, but it wasn’t always easy to apply to his context. Even the ‘difficult circumstances’ described in the literature he read were a far cry from his context. He’s from Cameroon, a country with 258 languages and tribes, where French and English are the mediums of instruction. As well as being a teacher, he works for the Ministry of Education as an inspector. The average teacher to pupil ratio is 1:72. It used to be 1:125! This doesn’t take into account the fact that subject teachers teach consecutively, not concurrently, so the maths teacher and the English teacher count as two teachers in the ratio, even though they will actually teach classes that are twice the size (125 each, not 63) one after the other. Many teachers also prefer to stay in urban areas, so rural classes are larger too. Seven or eight students share a single textbook, and three or four sit at a desk designed for two. The ‘Education for All’ movement has led to an increase in the number of pupils at schools, but no corresponding increase in the infrastructure available to educate them. Other initiatives from the ministry, mainly due to the offer of finance from interested third parties, have meant that teachers are constantly required to change their methodology: there have been 12 required changes in pedagogy since 2000, almost entirely influenced by Western pedagogy. It’s impossible to keep up with this rate of change. Teachers are constantly told that they need new training, but there is little or no acknowledgement of the effort they put in. There is severe danger of burnout.

In Harry’s classroom he had 235 teens in a classroom designed for 60. Temperatures regularly reached 46 degrees. Through a process of negotiation with his students, they decided to move outside, and started to have lessons under the trees. They decided that the best thing would be if all of them became teachers, and they worked collaboratively to help each other. His children didn’t have books, so they found texts and produced their own materials. As the teacher, Harry’s role was to check that the texts students brought to him were relevant to the syllabus. You can find examples of the materials he used and his students created on the IATEFL site, for example, a poem they wrote based on Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. I’d highly recommend looking at them: in most cases, the first text is the sample, and the second is what the students produced in response to it, often with much longer and more complex language as they enriched their texts. Another idea was to take pictures students drew in response to a text in one class into another class, with the second class writing original texts based on the pictures. During the plenary, Harry showed us a video of one of his students telling a story based on these pictures: as well as the complexity of the language the child produced, what particularly struck me was the noise of the class. I find it hard to imagine being able to concentrate, having come from the luxury of quiet environments. The materials the students created served as a diagnostic tool for ‘accuracy therapy’ (I love this metaphor!) Harry published his story with Richard Smith in 2011.

English is the life-giving language for many people in the world.

Learners are partners. We can share the burden of low resources with the students, no matter how young they are.

Based on his own experience and the lack of correlation with what he had studied on the MA, Harry decided to do more research. The changes in pedagogy which teachers had imposed on them were confusing and often irrelevant to their context.

Context-appropriate pedagogy needs to be developed across the world.

Harry defines this as:

  1. The aspects of practice which are considered good by teachers (and students, I think – didn’t have that in my tweet!)
  2. Doable within that context
  3. Worth doing within that context

In order to facilitate the development of a pedagogy which is appropriate to the situation in Cameroon, Harry asked teachers and students for their opinions about good/appropriate practice within their context. He conducted interviews with teachers and students, observed classes, and videoed lessons which teachers felt were successful. As a follow-up, he watched the videos in workshop groups with 30 teachers, and fed in information from his interviews with students too. It was the first time this kind of discussion of learning had taken place for any of these teachers or students, and it had a very positive effect, since it emerged that teachers and students didn’t always agree about what was ‘good’. This was an eye-opener for some of the teachers, and led to changes in their approach. For example, one teacher believed that group-work would be too chaotic in his class of 87, then saw a video of it happening in a class of 120, with the children saying how much they got out of it, and was inspired to try it out. Another teacher said they used to underestimate their pupils, but realised they could do more than they thought because of the workshops.

Many of these practices also contrasted with what was recommended by the Ministry of Education, and Harry saw a huge difference between the lesson plans he was given before the class and what unfolded in front of him. Teachers told him that they write the plans to satisfy requirements by following the model they are told to use, but this is rarely what they do in class. The challenges they faced and the huge rate of change meant that many of them employ ‘survival teaching strategies’, which often do not respect the recommendations of the ministry.

Harry believes that teachers are more likely to accept pedagogic innovation when it is seen to come from their colleagues and/or their context, rather than being imposed from above. As a result of this, he is now working with the teachers of the Cameroon teaching association, CAMELTA, to do ‘teaching association research’. After a plenary, 170 teachers wrote three possible research questions each. Working with the IATEFL Research Special Interest Group (RESIG), a questionnaire was created on the basis of these questions and sent out to teachers in CAMELTA, asking for one problem the teachers face in their classroom, solutions they have tried, and whether they work. The idea is to build a bank of knowledge specific to the context which other teachers can draw on. This is still in progress, but they already have 504 responses, with more coming in all the time. The teachers involved feel a sense of ownership, and are participating in research and building knowledge in a way that they wouldn’t have time to do as individuals.

In conclusion, we need to:

  • Create an enabling environment, rather than just telling teachers what to do and how to do it;
  • Incorporate the perspectives of both teachers and students;
  • Negotiate the divergence between these perspectives through critical reflection;
  • …and last, but not least: Focus on the positives and appreciate teachers’ efforts.

Harry’s slides and handout are available along with the session details on the IATEFL online site here. Again, I would highly recommend watching his plenary yourself:

Talk English: from CELTA to volunteer ESOL in South Africa – Julie Douglas

The third talk I went to connected to Africa was about a volunteer teaching project helping .

Julie and one of her colleagues did the CELTA at IH Durban in 2005. At the end of the course, they discovered that many of the students who were coming to the free teaching practice classes wouldn’t be able to continue studying English because they couldn’t afford it. With the support of IH Durban, they started offering free classes to anyone who wants them, particularly refugees who need English to start their new lives in Durban. This has developed into a project called Talk English, which has gone from strength to strength, but still needs the support of as many volunteers and financial backers as possible. You can find out more and donate through their website.

Taken together

These three talks have changed my vision of how English teaching is done in Africa. I wish all three of the speakers continued luck with their projects. I fully intend for my future Kiva loans to go to Camfed projects. I would like teaching association research to take off as context-specific methodology is sorely needed in so many places. Finally, I hope that Talk English finds the permanent location it is searching for and the money to fund it.

Before IATEFL 2015 I said I’d try to publish at the end of each day of the conference. I should have learnt by now that there’s no way that will ever happen because I don’t have time to think, much less blog during the conference! Instead I decided to group my posts by themes I found in the talks I chose to see. The first two plenaries didn’t really fit any of these, hence this post. The other posts will hopefully appear over the next few days…

Frozen in thought? How we think and what we do in ELT – Donald Freeman

In the opening plenary of the conference, Freeman examined three myths of teaching and ELT:

  • ‘direct’ causality: teaching causes learning
  • ‘sole’ responsibility: as teachers, we’re the ones responsible for what happens in our classroom
  • ‘proficiency’ as the goal of our teaching

I liked the metaphor of a suitcase sculpture called Partir from Florence for how we think about how the language teaching we do in the classroom corresponds to how the students use the language outside the classroom:

Funny things happen to language when it goes to school.

In order to teach language, we have to give it attributes it doesn’t have, like grammar, levels and a division between the four skills. These create the ‘suitcase’ of the metaphor, and lead to ‘The Suitcase Problem’, divorcing language from the kind of settings it will be used in.

Rather than aiming for general proficiency, we need to ‘bound’ the language we are teaching to help the students know what they’re aiming for, and link to the settings it will be used in as much as possible [adding clear contexts].  Based on a research project with teachers learning English for classroom use in Vietnam, for example, Freeman observed that having a clear target setting motivated lower level teachers to improve at a faster rate than their higher-level counterparts when they could choose what to study and when.

You can read more details, get the slides and watch the full plenary:

Lizzie Pinard and Joanna Malefaki have written summaries of the talk.

Engagement principles and practice in classroom learning, language and technology – Joy Egbert

For the second plenary of the conference, Joy Egbert discussed the principles of student engagement and how this applies to the use of technology in the classroom. Her message was that unless students are engaged with the topics we choose and the materials and tools we use to present them, little learning will happen.

She described her own experiences of second language learning with the use of technology, and showed that many students fail to learn languages because of demotivation, boredom and frustration, as well as ineffective teaching and learning. This is something I’ve heard from many people who’ve failed to learn languages, particularly due to negative experiences at (mostly secondary) school.

When students are doing an engaging task, they pay more attention and have a greater chance of success, both linguistically and in the task itself. These are the ‘engagement principles’ she shared for creating such tasks:

  • Include authentic tasks (ones which are perceived as important by the learners, not necessarily reflecting things they would have to do in real life);
  • Integrate connections to the students’ lives;
  • Provide social interaction or deep individual focus. In group activities, allocate roles and gives students a clear reason to listen to each other;
  • Offer practice and feedback;
  • Have a good balance between the level of challenge and the skills the students have (not too easy/hard).

Joy advocated using technology to fulfil some of these criteria, but emphasised that you should only use it if it adds to the task, not for the sake of it. She gave various examples of how this might be possible and emphasised the importance of getting to know your students to ensure that the tools and materials are as relevant to them as possible.

I’m not sure how much of this talk was actually new or thought-provoking to the audience – a lot of it seems like common sense – but it did remind me of the importance of getting to know your students.

You can read more details, get the slides and watch the full plenary:

Lizzie Pinard and Joanna Malefaki have written summaries of the talk.

Two months in Thailand

Since I arrived in Thailand at the end of January I’ve learnt a lot about this fascinating country. Now that I’m leaving, I thought I’d share some of the highlights, and a couple of the downs too. (I wrote this at the airport and added photos later, so apologies for the mix of tenses!)

Slash and burn agriculture is alive and well

Throughout February the skies were clear, with not a drop of rain. The weather was beautiful. On the 1st March, the smog appeared, and stayed for the next three weeks or so, making breathing much harder and meaning I wore a face mask for the first time in my life. Visibility was sometimes only a few hundred metres. I was told it’s from the crop burning which takes place to ready the fields for the following year’s rice to be planted.

Disappearing mountain

Disappearing mountain

Road safety is optional

There are often no seatbelts in the back of cars, and although it says that helmets are obligatory on motorbikes, many people don’t wear them. You regularly see people riding along with the helmet hanging off the handlebars where it will be really useful if anything happens to them! Apparently Thailand has one of the worst road safety records in the world :( Having said that, I saw fewer accidents there than I did in Sevastopol.

U-turn

That’s it for the downs…

Scooters and motorbikes are the way to go

Going to a shopping centre or supermarket, you will always find a huge car park full of motorbikes and scooters. As in stereotypes of Asia, you see whole families on a single bike, or they’re piled high with things to sell. There are also all kinds of variants on the bikes, my favourite of which are the food carts which you see everywhere, woth a kind of sidecar on them which doubles as a stall. With the good weather, it’s a great form of transport. I have no idea what it’s like in the rain as it’s only rained three times while I’ve been here, all in the same week!

Scooters at Central Airport Plaza

It feels very safe

People don’t seem to worry about having things stolen and will, for example, leave their helmets on their bikes in car parks. I’ve always felt safe while I’ve been in Thailand, even at night by myself. Cycling along rural roads between the rice paddies was one of my greatest pleasures despite what I said about road safety above (that mostly applies to main roads) The fact that this was how I commuted to work was wonderful – such a peaceful way to start and end the day :)

Part of my walk to work

There’s no point cooking unless you have to

You can buy good quality, cheap food everywhere without a problem. My favourite restaurant in Chiang Mai was Taste from Heaven, a vegetarian restaurant near the Thapae Gate. They made me pumpkin, carrot and potato in coconut milk, served with white rice. Delicious!

Meal from Taste from Heaven

Wats are infinite in their variety

One of my favourite things to do in Thailand is exploring and wandering in to every wat I come across. Each one is unique, whether it’s the style of the paintings on the walls, the kind of statuary in the grounds, the location, the materials it’s made of, or the architectural style. Here’s just a selection of some of my photos (click on the collages to see them in more detail).

Wats

Wats

Wats

Wats

Wats

Wats

Thai massage deserves its reputation

Whether it’s an hour of relaxation with an oil massage, or getting rid of all of the knots with a traditional Thai massage, it’s definitely worth it! If you’re in Chiang Mai, I’d recommend Mandara – beautiful surroundings and a little off the beaten track, but still close to the Thapae Gate, so very easy to get to.

Chiang Mai night markets are bad for your purse

There are so many beautiful hand-made items for sale, it was impossible not to buy something every time I went. Most of the things I bought had elephants on them! :) It’s probably a good job I left when I did…

Purchases from the night market, all with elephants!

The Royal Family

Their pictures are everywhere. The National Anthem is played before every film at the cinema, and it’s also played at 8am and 6pm on loudspeakers in public places and government buildings, like the Walking Street in Chiang Mai and the visa office. When it’s on, everyone stops what they are doing and stands still as a sign of respect.

Shrine to the King and Queen in a wat

Thais know how to dress

There were so many beautiful clothes on show all the time. Every Friday in the north (as far as I know) schools have a day where everyone wears traditional clothes, so you got to see all of the Lanna and other tribal patterns every week. The Chiang Mai Flower Festival in February was a particularly great example of this, with some amazing costumes.

Amazing costume at the Chiang Mai flower festival (woman in flowery dress with a hand-painted cream parasol with pink flowers)

A tale of two cities

Bangkok is incredibly hectic, and a lot more built up than I was expecting. There are skyscrapers all over the place, and more shopping centres than you can shake a stick at, including CentralWorld, which is one of the largest in the world. I was also surprised at how easy it was to get hold of international products in Chiang Mai. Whatever you want, you can get. I can see why people come here and never leave!

Elephant Tower, Bangkok

Elephant Tower, Bangkok

I had a really good time in Thailand, and I’m sorry that I’ve ended up leaving earlier than planned. I’ve got an itinerary for a two-week holiday travelling around the country which I won’t get to use on this trip, so I hope I’ll be back one day!

The Materials Writing Special Interest Group is the newest IATEFL SIG, and very active. They have a blog, a facebook page, and a Twitter account.

MaWSIG logo

Each SIG has a pre-conference event (PCE) with a specific theme. The MaWSIG theme this year was The Materials Writer’s Essential Toolkit and featured a whole range of speakers with huge amounts of experience between them. I’ve done a little materials writing myself, and thought this would be a very useful way to find out more about how to develop in this area, even if none of my materials end up being published. I’m very happy I chose to go to this PCE as it turned out to be incredibly useful, with lots of tips that I can start using straight away, and hopefully build on if and when I get more writing work.

How to write multiple-choice activities – Sue Kay

This was a very practical way to start the day. Sue offered us these tips:

  • Keep options of a similar length and style, preferably short and avoiding linkers – students should be spending time processing the text, not the question;
  • Keep distractors plausible – avoid humorous or silly options because they’re obviously wrong;
  • Don’t have any obviously incorrect answers;
  • Avoid any overlap between options;
  • Make sure questions can’t be answered using world knowledge or common sense;
  • If using an unfinished sentence as the stem, divide it in a logical place (e.g. not in the middle of a fixed expression).

Sue also advises writing the text and the multiple-choice items at the same time whenever possible, unless you have a text which you’re required to base your items on. It’s much more natural than writing the text first, then trying to shoehorn distractors in.

When writing distractors, here are a few techniques you can use:

  • Change the period of time using phrases like I used to…but now I… or Normally…but this time…
  • Compare the desire/hope/intention of the speaker to what actually happened: We planned to…, We thought about…
  • Use unreal past in conditionals or after ‘wish': If the boss had given me a raise, I’d have stayed.
  • Use negatives or near negatives, especially less common ones: It’s not as if we’re desperate for a car park. or It’s hardly my idea of fun.

To find out more, Sue recommended two ELT Teacher2Writer books: How to Write Reading and Listening Activities by Caroline Krantz and How to Write Exam Practice Materials by Roy Norris.

The role of the image in materials design – Ben Goldstein and Ceri Jones

Ben and Ceri shared lots of image banks and showed how the same search of ‘beach’ can yield very different results depending on where you search and the filters you use. Panos seemed particularly interesting. It’s a collection of photojournalism, often accompanied by short texts. Even if you don’t end up using the images themselves, they can provide inspiration for your writing as they are a lot more generative than stock photos. Other image banks are:

Unsplash is a Creative Commons image bank where you can use the images for any purpose, including commercial. They share 10 free images a week. Another option is Death to the Stock Photo. For non-commercial use, there is of course ELTpics, and there are lots of ideas for how to use those images on the Take A Photo And… blog.

On Alamy you can set filters to look for certain kinds of image. For example, if you choose ‘square’ you’ll end up with Instagam influenced shots. As a materials writer, you may have to write an artwork brief to tell publishers what to put with your materials. By experimenting with filters, and telling publishers what you DON’T want, the image is much more likely to be what you’re looking for. Don’t get your heart set an image though, and remember that there is a budget.

Other tips for writing an artwork brief:

  • Consider including sample images you’ve sourced – this can be clearer than describing the image;
  • Explain how the image will be work/be used in the materials, not just what it looks like;
  • If you know what you want, but can’t find an example, describe it in as much detail as you can to make it more likely that the final result is what you envisaged.

We may also need to move away from the traditional image and consider modern types of image such as the selfie, infographics, dronies (new to me!), panodash, Dear Photograph, Draw My Life, memes and kinetic typography. With these, they may be hard to sell to publishers, and they may go out of fashion. To stay up-to-date with images, try these ideas:

  • look out for images being used in adverts, etc;
  • subscribe to adweek for the top 5 commercials every week;
  • follow accounts like @nytimesphoto on Twitter;
  • subscribe to Unsplash for weekly emails with taster images;
  • [my addition: download the Guardian app for images from Eyewitness]

Images have four roles in materials:

  • scene-setting
  • illustrative
  • decorative
  • driving force

When choosing your image, consider which role it will play and choose accordingly. For example, CAE images tend to be mid-shot (rather than close up) so you can see the surroundings too.

Find out more at Ben Goldstein’s blog and Ceri Jones’ blog.

A technological toolkit for Materials Writers – Nick Tims

I learnt  a lot of useful tips here!

  • Use multiple monitors so you don’t have to flick between screens too much. (I’m doing this for the first time as a I finish this blogpost!)
  • Get browser extensions to save you time and reduce clicks.
  • Link shorteners (like bit.ly) make huge links to Google Images (for those artwork briefs!) much more manageable.
  • Use ‘Grab’ for Mac or ‘Snipping tool’ on Windows to take partial screen shots instead of copying and pasting things into Paint or other cropping tools.
  • Create custom search engines in Chrome. Go to any site with a search box, right click the search box, add as search engine, create a keyword and you can use that search that site directly from the address bar. It took me about 10 seconds when I just tried it – amazing!
  • Use Evernote to archive texts you find for future materials writing. It appears in Google searches you do later too. (I use diigo which does something similar, although Evernote is more elegant and has a much better app)
  • Macros are ways of using one click to do a series of actions. You can download a whole set of macros from Teacher’s Pet to do things like automatically create matching activites, making activity and worksheet creation much faster. This got a round of applause and a collective gasp from the audience! (Unfortunately there are only versions for Microsoft for Windows and Open Office, but no Mac version – it’s a work in progress according the developer.)
  • StayFocusd is a browser extension you can use to limit the time you spend on particular sites in a single day. Don’t be over-enthusiatic though, because you really can’t get round it!
  • The Pomodoro technique can make you manage distractions. It involves 25 minutes of work, followed by 5 minutes of ‘reward’. That’s also good for getting you to move around. You can download browser extensions to help you with the timing.
  • RescueTime sends you a report at the end of each week telling you how much time you spent on useful/distracting websites. Can be a bit depressing, and Nick says he never gets more than 70% productivity ;)

Nick says that you need to experiment with these tools, and you may need to ‘kiss a few frogs’ in the process of finding what works for you.

Writing ELT audio and video scripts – John Hughes

John showed us ways of improving our scripts to make them more interesting and add a little drama to them.

To add authenticity, you can record people in real situations. Interesting bits of language come up in this way that you might never consider if you are trying to write things yourself. However, this can be time consuming: from half a day of recording, John only got five minutes of usable audio.

You can also add features such as fillers, false starts, contracted forms, slang and more. This may depend on the publisher and the purpose of the materials (developing language or developing listening skills?), as some markets are resistant to this and prefer the more ‘polished’ nature of traditonal coursebook audio. One audience member mentioned the difference between spoken and written grammar, and there was some discussion of the fact that spoken grammar has only recently started to appear in published materials.

Target language needs to be balanced with incidental language.

Increase the amount of turn-taking to make audio more manageable for students, particularly at lower levels.

Stick to a limited number of speakers, and differentiate them through accent, gender and use of names to help SS follow the turn-taking.

Video helps you to show context, whereas you need to set up the situation more clearly if you’re writing an audio script. With video, don’t state the obvious. Show, don’t tell.

To add drama to your scripts, we can learn from Kurt Vonnegut. He said that in a good story you need to have a clear central character who wants something. You can then add drama by applying the ‘try it three times’ rule. The first two times the character fails to get what they want, but on the third attempt they succeed. This can give you more opportunities to showcase the target language, and in a more natural way than a short two or three line dialogue might. It also gives you the opportunity to add characterisation.

The final idea was to video the same scene twice, once running smoothly, and the second with the ‘try it three times’ rule. Students can watch both and compare the difference.

John has many ideas for writing materials on his blog, and has written a book about writing audio and video scripts for ELT Teacher2Writer. Here are his slides from the presentation.

Writing ELT activites for authentic video and film – Kieran Donaghy and Anna Whitcher

Kieran is the man behind the very successful Film English website on which the majority of the videos have little or no dialogue. He’s particularly interested in exploiting images used in film. Anna is an ELT film-maker, and her opening quote was that there is an increased demand for authors who can write for video, film-makers and script-writers, so this is definitely an area to develop your skills in if you want to get into materials writing. Together they’ve written a book for ELT Teacher2Writer including many more ideas than those below.

Videos need to be consciously integrated into course material, rather than used as an add-on or as glorified listening comprehension. It particularly needs to match the topic, with a language fit as secondary. To aid comprehension, follow these guidelines:

  • Use dialogue which is clearly enunciated and not too fast.
  • Include a high degree of visual support.
  • Ensure the soundtrack is not too loud or distracting.
  • Have only one person or character speaking at a time.
  • Include supporting, titles, subtitles or graphics.
  • Reduce the number of dialects and/or strong regional accents.
  • Use a slow, clear voiceover or narration.

Keep videos to 2-5 minutes to hold the attention, and make repeat viewings easier to fit in. Try to use different activities for each viewing. When choosing a video, consider the relevance and interest of the topic, the cultural backgrounds of your students, and their experience of the world. You can also ask your students about the kinds of videos they enjoy watching. Vimeo Staff Picks, Future Shorts, BBC Earth and National Geographic are good places to look for videos.

Once you’ve chosen one, follow a three-step approach to exploit it. Editors often recommend the structure and/or the kind of activities they would like you to use, and you should ask if they don’t.

  1. Pre-viewing
    e.g. Look at the stills and have a discussion/complete the sentences with the missing words. (could be used to pre-teach vocabulary)
    Match collocations.
    Complete a summary/review.
  2. While viewing
    Don’t overload the students at this stage – stick to short answer tasks like true/false or ‘Number the sentences in the order you hear them’. The answers should be from the video, not from their knowledge of the world. Ask questions in the same order as they are in the video, and spread them evenly throughout.
  3. Post viewing
    Draw out the key concepts of the video in some way, for example through a discussion or a longer project. Students could also make their own version of the video or a follow-up to it.

Does a corpus have the answer? Corpus tools for ELT writers – Julie Moore

Julie started by telling us that she can’t imagine writing materials without a corpus, and once she told us the range of things she uses it for, I’m not surprised!

  • Ask questions like ‘How do we use…?’ ‘Do we say…?’ ‘Which is the most common…?’ ‘What’s the difference between…?’
  • Find natural examples.
  • Get inspiration for the context you introduce language in.
  • Search for collocations. Once you’ve found that a collocate exists, click through to read examples.
  • Expand the range of words which you collocate with a key word.
  • Check your intuitions.
  • Find phrases and chunks of language.
  • Do a ‘context search’ to find words around the key word, accounting for variable collocations or ones which might have other words in the middle of them.
  • Examine British/American/global English variations.

Corpora can’t do everything though. They’re not good for:

  • Searching for language features that don’t involve specific language chunks, e.g. present continuous to talk about the future.
  • Getting longer stretches of complete texts – these are still subject to copyright. This also makes it difficult to use corpus examples for things like discourse markers which require longer texts.

SketchEngine is a good tool for searching within corpora. Know your corpus! Think about British v. American English, the kind of texts used to build the corpus (e.g. newspapers, stories, academic journals…), spoken v. written language, expert v. student writers… Choose a corpus based on the text types your students will have to produce. Here are some ways you can access a corpus:

Ways of accessing a corpus

Other useful tools you can use to analyse language are Vocab Kitchen (breaks down the language in a text by level), Google NGram Viewer (showing changes in language use over time) and the Macmillan Online Dictionary. Dictionaries with CD-ROMs in them are particularly useful because of the advanced search tools which are often available on them. Julie has put more information about using these tools on her blog.

Finally, don’t accept everything the corpus tells you blindly. If it looks like a strange result, question it. Go deeper by clicking on the results to see the longer text, and look carefully at where the examples are taken from.

Tailor-making materials from an ESP perspective – Evan Frendo

Evan works mainly in the corporate sector, and has spent many years developing materials specific to his clients.

Corporate culture can influence the materials you make as you need to fit them into the training culture of the organisation. The needs of the business take priority over the needs of the individual students, and the focus is more on training than education. Materials tend to have a short shelf-life and may need to be frequently updated depending on the market. When creating tailor-made materials, you don’t need to worry so much about PARSNIPs (the topics which are often avoided in more commercial materials) providing the people you are creating the materials for are happy for them to be included. However, sometimes even in ESP they can cause problems. Evan was asked to use the longer term not the shorter term in some materials for oil workers (see photo below), even though ‘pig’ is a very generative term and is in common usage across the industry, including in the Middle East: Have you pigged the pipeline? Is the pipeline piggable?

When designing your own materials in these situations, you need to find the gap between ‘where they are now’ and ‘where they need to be’, then create materials to move the students from the first point to(wards) the second. This involves in-depth needs analysis which can be done through:

  • Analysing real texts that the students will need to be able to read/write. Tools like WordSmith can be useful here.
  • Finding out about the specific terminology students need, and what they are aware of already. Many of these may be well above their ‘level’ if they were in a traditional EFL environment.
  • Interviews with various stakeholders, not just the students and their managers.
  • Recordings (e.g. of meetings, telephone conversations).
  • Field notes (e.g. a day in the life of…, collected by shadowing somebody using the target language/doing the target job).

The materials you put together need to reflect the target discourse, which is why such in-depth research is vital. It shouldn’t be about what we as outsiders perceive to be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but rather what is required within the organisation/industry you are creating the materials for. Genre is a key focus, including how to handle different/international understandings of those genres. For example, presentations may be done differently in different cultures, and there may be varying requirements for the amount of information included on slides depending on what they will be used for after the presentation. Use experts to tell you what counts as “successful communication”.

Communication style can be as important, if not more so, as lexis and grammar. Many learners don’t care about accuracy in the traditional sense, they care about meaning. They are often not aiming or a native speaker model, with English as a Lingua Franca becoming instead.

Ultimately, the materials you create must be evidence-led, not intuition-led.

Adventures in self-publishing – Christien Lee

What should you self-publish?

Something which fills a gap in the market, has good sales potential and where there is limited competition. Do your research! Christien decided to publish a print self-study guide for an English test in Canada, with an online component.

Print or e-book?

What are your audience likely to respond better to? Print can be considered more trustworthy, and for some people they prefer it because they’re more familiar with it. It can reduce the ease of pirate copies being distributed. Cost is also a factor here, as you need to spend more money up-front if you choose print.

Why self-publish?

Traditional publishers offer more cachet, better production values, no up-front costs, and you should get either commission or royalties. However, there is no guarantee of publication, it takes a long time to get products to market, you get less money and there is a delay in payment. Sales might also be quite low depending on how much the publishers choose to promote it.

Self-publishing means guaranteed publication, a short publication process and returns of up to 70% of sales. The disadvantages of it are that there is no guarantee of a return on your investment, and you may lose money due to upfront costs. There is also more work pre- and post-publication if you choose to self-publish.

How do you go about it?

You can use crowdsourcing, freelancers, friendsourcing (my favourite new word of the day!) or go it completely alone. The latter option is difficult as you need to deal with editing, layout, audio (maybe) and many other options, so it’s a good idea to look for specialists to avoid too much work for you. VoiceBunny is a tool you can use for audio: post a project on the site, and people can audition to be allowed to record for it.

Where should you publish it?

Amazon has a system called CreateSpace which is a print-on-demand service. You could also use book distribution systems like Draft2Digital, Lulu or Smashwords. Wayzgoose Press is a publisher which is somewhere between a traditional publisher and self-publishing. The Round is specifically aimed at ELT authors looking to publish something a little different from what traditional publishers offer.

Ensuring quality

Christien was putting together a test preparation book. When putting together something like this, it’s particularly important to provide a quality product. Questions need to match the original test for length, genre, register, topic, difficulty, distractor patterns and more. Here are some tools you can use to check that your material is at the right level:

Developing online content

If you decide to create online content to accompany your book, WordPress with premium options is a good choice as you can get features like a login-only area and a shopping cart. Articulate is a versatile tool for creating professional-looking online courses. Christien described it as ‘like PowerPoint on steroids’!

Problems with self-publishing

It’s easy to underestimate the amount of time, money and work involved in self-publishing. Be prepared for everything to take longer than you expect!

Other summaries of the day

Lizzie Pinard wrote four blogposts covering two talks in each:

Olga Sergeeva has summarised the whole day in one post.

Christina Rebuffet-Broadus writes beautiful SketchNotes of the talks she goes to, and the MaWSIG PCE was no different:

Finally, if you want to follow the day as it unfolded, Sophie O’Rourke, part of the MaWSIG team, put together a Storify with tweets from the whole event.

In this presentation I spoke about writing journals with students in a variety of different contexts, including both monolingual and multilingual classrooms. I also talked about my own experience of using a journlal for my Russian learning.

I find journal writing to be a very rewarding process for the students, and I learnt a lot from going through the process myself, including improving my spelling, increasing my vocabulary, and learning more about my teacher. As a teacher, reading my students’ journals was a great way to learn more about them, including their needs as language learners. I’d highly recommend trying it out. 

Here are the slides, including information about what exactly I mean by journal writing and tips on how to set it up. All of the links in the slides are clickable.

There is no commentary on the slides as there is a recorded version of the same talk available from the TOBELTA online conference from August 2014, which you can read more about and watch via this link.

At the start of my presentation

(thanks to David Petrie for taking the photo)

Follow IATEFL 2015

I’m about to leave for the IATEFL 2015 conference in Manchester, where I’ll be going to the Materials Writing Special Interest Group pre-conference event today, The Materials Writer’s Essential Toolkit. If I can connect to the wifi, I should be tweeting throughout on the #IATEFL hashtag on Twitter. You can also follow the online coverage, including some live-streamed and recorded sessions (not mine), and interviews throughout the conference:

IATEFL online Manchester 2015

I’m hoping to publish a summary at the end of each day, but that will depend on how motivated I’m feeling and how tired I am ;) There will inevitably be a plethora of blog posts from lots of people throughout the conference. After it’s finished, I’ll tidy up my posts and add links so you can find them. I hope to see some of you there, and if you’re not, to be able to share as much of this experience with you as possible!

TEFL.net Site Award

I’m very pleased to announce that my blog has been awarded a TEFL.net Site Award as site of the month. Thank you very much, and thank you to Tara Benwell for letting me know! The TEFL.net awards are a wonderful way to find out about a wide range of different resources covering many different areas of teaching, from teacher training to resources you can use in your computer lab.

TEFL site of the month

Out of the window

A very simple activity, which works very well as a filler, as revision, or as the prompt for a whole lesson. All you need is a window with something going on outside.

The view from our classroom

The view from our classroom at IH Sevastopol

Ask the students to look out of the window and tell each other/you what they can see. With my elementary students I encouraged them to use a few structures they’d recently studied:

  • There is/are…
  • Present continuous
  • NOT: I can see… I can see… I can see… (which is what they started with!)

Feed in any vocabulary and structures that they might need, and make a note of them on the board. The students should focus on speaking as much as possible for now, rather than note-taking. Give them time and space to think of ideas – it took my students time to warm up, but then they came up with lots of ideas.

When they’ve run out of steam (after about ten minutes for my group of four elementary students), let the students make notes based on what you put on the board, as well as ask more questions about language.

I repeated the activity a week later, and the students managed to remember about half of the new vocabulary they’d used the first time, as well as adding adjectives and more description without any prompting from me at all. They had resorted to ‘I can see…’ again, but after a reminder from me started to use ‘There is/are…’ and present continuous again.

I’ve read many times about this kind of activity, but this is the first time I’d used it, and it definitely won’t be the last!

[I wrote this post nearly a year ago, but never pressed publish. Better late than never!]

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