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

Archive for the ‘Assorted Thoughts’ Category

Pre-conference excitement

Looking through the programme.

Highlighting all the sessions I’m interested in, knowing there are far too many.

Relishing the variety of what’s on offer.

Getting messages from people who I’ll be meeting for the first time.

Looking forward to seeing people I haven’t seen for ages.

Preparing two sessions (yes, two) 😉

Travelling.

Seeing the postcards I got printed to advertise my e-book. (Thanks for the idea Rob!)

ELT Playbook 1 postcards

Trying to finish everything at work and home ready to go.

Knowing I’ll be exhausted and exhilarated in equal measure.

Anticipating all the great ideas I’ll come back with.

Can’t wait.

Excitement about the best week of my year.

#IATEFL2018

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On choosing coursebooks (badly)

In the last couple of weeks I’ve written a couple of posts about coursebooks, the first describing my requests for publishers and writers to take into account, and the second a list of questions for anybody who feels like reviewing the coursebooks they’re using so we can all make a more informed choice. I’ve also seen a few other posts that respond to our build on the points in my requests post, like this one by Julie Moore, and this one by Mura Nava. I also received a blogpost length response from Nick to those same requests. This post is partially in response to Nick’s one, and partially getting something off my chest and seeking help.

(By the way, I’d also recommend reading Nick’s post called ‘Challenging the coursebook – challenge accepted‘ and hope he’ll write part 2 at some point) 🙂

Before I continue, please remember that everything I write on this blog and in this post is not designed to reflect on my school, but only to describe my experience, one which I am pretty sure is not unique, at least in the world of private language schools.

As in my requests post, I do not intend to name specific coursebooks as I don’t believe that will help. I am sure that some of the books I am talking about work brilliantly for other teachers in other contexts, and without providing a fully contextualised review, I don’t wish to provide negative publicity for them.

A corridor between two long bookshelves filled with coursebooks

Image taken by @michaelegriffin, from ELTpics under a Creative Commons 3.0 licence

I am currently working as a Director of Studies at a private language school, and as such one of my responsibilities is to have the final say in the selection of coursebooks for our school. I inherited a system of levels with books attached to them, about half of which have stayed the same since I started three years ago, with the occasional change of edition as particular books stop being sold in Poland.

Selecting adult books hasn’t really been a problem for me: the majority of my teaching experience is with adults, I have used a very wide range of coursebooks designed for adults, and I have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn’t. I also strongly believe that there are a lot of very good quality adult coursebooks out there, many of which already meet half or more of the requests on my previous list. This means I have a wide range of books to choose from. Adult students who are studying with us are unlikely to be studying elsewhere at the same time, so I have free reign, and can choose whatever I think might be best.

I haven’t needed to choose books for our young learners (aged 7-10) because the series we use is very well thought out, and has a kind of timeless quality that doesn’t really date. The only time we need to change it is when a new edition comes out and the old one is no longer available for our students. Again, students at this age are unlikely to be studying elsewhere, so I don’t need to worry that they will have seen the book elsewhere. The one exception to this was the highest level, which seemed to throw all the challenging grammar normally found in two levels at the students: fine for a strong class, but very challenging for a weak class. When one teacher used it in my second year, we had to adapt it quite a lot and remove at least two of the grammar points. We’ve now chosen a different book to replace it, but haven’t had a group to try it out with yet, so I can’t judge that decision yet.

Teen books, however, are an entirely different question. They are the bane of my life. I can’t count the number of hours I’ve spent thinking about them, but I do know it is FAR TOO MANY. Here’s why…

In my first year at the school, we were using a series that was already 5 years old, and is now 7 years old, for four of the seven teen levels we have for 11-15 year olds. That means that somebody who became a teenager when the series came out would now be in their early 20s. As we all know, teen culture moves incredibly fast, and while there is no way that coursebooks and publishers could possibly keep up with those changes, I did feel it was time for something more modern. The series worked quite well in terms of language input, and in fact has now become the benchmark by which we judge other books we are considering. However, I don’t really remember my 13-15 year old students ever being engaged by the reading or listening texts, or the writing tasks, or possibly the speaking tasks, regardless of what I did to set them up. Of course, that may well be my fault, not the book’s, but you’d think that at least one or two things would grab them. It could also be my faulty memory, or the fact that in a group of teens nobody wants to be different by showing interest in something the others don’t seem interested in. Many possible reasons, but I don’t think an out-of-date book helped.

To help me choose a replacement, I asked around for recommendations of good series both on social media and when meeting colleagues. The most oft-repeated recommendation was used in a lot of local schools, so I couldn’t choose it. Another one wasn’t available in Poland if I remember rightly. We got sample copies of as many books as possible, and I also spent a long time at publishers’ stands at the various conferences I went to that year, asking about every book that seem relevant. With the help of my senior team, we tried to draw up a checklist of features we were looking for. I know that such lists appear in methodology books sometimes, but they all seem very general, and we wanted something that worked in our context. Here are a few of our requirements:

  • Available in Poland.
  • Age appropriate for 11-15 year olds (many are 9-12ish or 13-16ish – it’s hard to cover the full range)
  • Attractive to look at, so students actually want to open it.
  • Covering a similar range of language to the series we had previously used.
  • Providing a logical progression through the book and through the series.
  • Clear grammar explanations.
  • Including freer practice activities for new grammar (something we often had to add to the previous series).
  • With an interesting range of topics.
  • Lots of opportunities for speaking.
  • A workbook that supplements the student’s book.
  • Has a teacher’s book with extra activities if possible.

There were more, but I’m at home in the evening right now and I can’t remember them off the top of my head! By this stage, we had a very short list of books – definitely two, maybe even three. We showed them to students in class, and to teachers who’d have to work with them, and got feedback. None were particularly any better than any of the others. Quite late in the game we found out about another series, and didn’t manage to get as much feedback on that one. However, it was by the same publisher as the series we used to use, and seemed to cover most of the same ground. The video content seemed particularly interesting and engaging, and was something quite different to any of the others books. In the end, we went with that series.

So in my second year, we had a new series of books covering the same four levels, 3-6. We also had a new book from a different series covering level 2. That one worked pretty well, but about 15 lessons into the year, it was apparent that although the topics in the main series were engaging, the videos worked really well with most groups, and the language covered similar ground to the old series, it just wasn’t doing what it need to do, and was in fact going to cause us more problems than it solved.

One issue was that the lowest book, the one we were using for level 3, was actually easier than the level 2 book (from a different series) at times, and there didn’t seem to be a real level 3 book in their series: I’d made the mistake of looking at the CEFR level on the back and the language covered and thinking it was OK, without doing an in-depth analysis of it and comparing the two books carefully enough. Another was that the reading and listening texts were in general far too easy for our students, and didn’t seem to challenge them at all, while the videos were much harder. Vocabulary sets were almost completely without challenge, with students only really not knowing one or two items in any given list. These are all things we could work around, but they meant a lot of extra work for our senior staff in particular, supporting brand new teachers with adapting the book for their students to maintain the quality lessons we pride ourselves on. Another, much larger, problem was that while the books covered the same grammar points as the previous series, they actually stopped at unit 8, where the old series had had 12 units in each book, meaning a lot of key language was missing if you looked at the equivalent adult levels. This was particularly important for any of our students who might be old to change to adult groups in the following year and resulted in us having to rewrite the syllabus for the rest of the year for four levels, supplementing the book with a lot of other materials to make sure everything was covered that we needed to include. Again, this was a considerable amount of work, multiplied by four to cover all of the levels.

All of these things meant we couldn’t use this series again this year, so we went back to the drawing board, with a much longer list of criteria this time round. Some of the things we added were:

  • Long enough for a 124-hour course.
  • Doesn’t require too much supplementing.
  • Covers all of the ‘main’ grammar points at the equivalent adult level, so if students are moving into adult classes they haven’t missed anything major.
  • Challenging reading and listening texts.

Learning from our experience in the previous year, we checked the grammar points much more carefully. We also tried to be more systematic in getting feedback from students on the books, and had teachers do trial lessons with some of the books we were considering. However, as it was quite late in the year, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to do this: we were starting to wind up lessons with end-of-year revision, tests, etc. The list of books was also pretty similar to the one we’d ended up with at the end of my first year.

Part one of the resulting decision was to use more of the level 2 series for levels 3 and 4 – we’d originally decided against these as they actually felt like level 3.5 and 4.5 to us. At this point in the year, we’re now finding that is true: the harder language points are coming in, and some students are really struggling with them. Apart from that, a lack of ready-made extension activities, and a rather pointless teacher’s book (basically a glorified answer key), the series generally seems to be working quite well and we will probably continue with it next year, trying to re-pace the year to leave more time for the more challenging language in the second half of the books. Unfortunately, I can’t remember how consistent I was with checking which books were used in local secondary schools, and have discovered that a few of our students use the same book (or, worse, the book they used last year!) at school, so will have to check that again with the rep to see whether this is feasible. If too many of our students use it, we’ll have to choose something else, regardless of how good it is.

Decision part two was to use a new series for levels 5, 6 and 7. Level 7 had previously used an adult book which required a fair amount of adaptation, but was the only thing we could really find for their level, so the chance to use a teen book seemed too good to miss. The series was only published three years ago, and I am very sad to say it’s probably one of the frustrating coursebooks I’ve ever had. I’m lucky that I don’t have to teach from it, but I have had to provide a lot of support in planning from it, and listen to all of my poor staff who have had the misfortune of using it. Needless to say, we will not be using this series next year. It was the source of at least three of the requests on my list, including the first two regarding out-of-context items and exam tasks. And who’s to blame for this book selection? Ultimately, me. I am the most qualified and most experienced person on our team, and even though we looked at the books together, the final decision was mine. We chose it because the levels seemed to match up to our requirements, it covered the range of grammar points we required, the topics were interesting and varied, it was professionally presented with interesting images and engaging video content, and I am sure there were other reasons too. Listening lessons are particularly frustrating, as they are often ‘exam-style’ tasks containing 8 short extracts, only one or two of which may be related to the topic of the unit, making it very difficult to raise students’ interest in them. I somehow managed to completely miss that every last skills activity was an ‘exam task’, and the ones I did notice seemed at first glance to match up to Cambridge Main Suite exams, though it has subsequently turned out that they are in fact task types from a wide range of different exams, none of which are explicitly stated. Vocabulary pages are overwhelming for students, consisting as they do of three controlled practice exercises, each with 6-10 items and no other help beyond the questions in the exercise itself. If you’re really lucky one or two of the items may have appeared earlier in the unit or elsewhere on the page, but this is rare. Vocabulary is completely test-focussed, with no explicit input or freer practice activities. Most importantly, the amount of work it takes to put together a single lesson from it, particular anything that concerns teaching language, is completely unjustifiable in our very busy school for our busy, mostly newly-qualified teachers, and the senior team who support them. To top it all, a few students have told us they’re using the book at school, which I someone didn’t find out from the rep (more than likely, that’s my fault as I probably didn’t ask).

So now we’re starting to make decisions about the books for my fourth year, and I’m hoping these are books which stick so I don’t have to revisit this in another year (pretty please!) Here are some of the criteria I’ll be adding to the ever-growing list:

  • Presents and practises grammar and vocabulary items in a clear context.
  • Provides repeated opportunities to activate the grammar or a limited set of vocabulary items.
  • Contains skills activities which are not purely exam-focussed, and which it is possible to engage students in.
  • Is possible to consistently plan a 90-minute lesson from in less than 90 minutes, without requiring entire new sets of materials to be made.
  • Is not used in local secondary schools.

For those who’ve been wondering, I have repeatedly considered ditching coursebooks entirely, but that would create even more work, copyright concerns, and many other issues that I really do not have the time to deal with. It’s not going to happen any time soon, so instead we’re starting the selection process much earlier this year, and we’re going to be teaching multiple lessons from any book we consider. I’ll be checking with all of the reps for a full list of books used in local schools. We’ll go over all of the points in the checklist above with a fine-tooth comb. I know we won’t find anything that’s perfect, because nothing is, but if we can find something at least half-way decent, that doesn’t make me want to tear my hair out every time I look at it or hear its name, then I will be satisfied.

All recommendations and advice will be most gratefully accepted. Thank you for your patience!

Why won’t they speak?!

Following on from Monday’s lesson, I deliberately made sure that my intermediate class today would have lots of opportunities to speak, starting immediately with the first activity. I hoped this would make a difference to the atmosphere in the room, and briefly, it did. After a while though, regardless of what I tried to do to get a response, it seemed that nobody wanted to say anything. I’d done everything ‘right’: put them in pairs, given them thinking time, played music (at their request) so they weren’t speaking into silence, suggested possible answers (yes, no, maybe for some questions), given them chance to make decisions (do you want to listen to anything again, or shall we move on?) and was generally greeted with silence, increasingly so as the lesson progressed. There were only 6 students, we’ve been working together since the end of September, and they seem to be quieter and quieter rather than more confident as the year goes on. They get on well with each other, and have been happy to speak to everyone else in class when we do mingling activities. I’d spoken to each of them individually during tutorials before our winter holiday in February, and talked about reasons to speak more and what might be stopping them. I know that none of them are particularly introverted in Polish and have regularly heard them conversing without any problems, even with people they don’t know. So what was stopping them?

I decided to ‘pause’ the lesson as we didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. On the board I wrote a long list of possible reasons that could be stopping them from speaking, then stood in front of it and told them about my experience of learning Polish. I didn’t speak at all really during my first year, once I’d realised that I was mixing Czech, Russian and Polish and people couldn’t understand me. The turning point came when I went for a flamenco weekend. When people asked me conversational questions, I had two choices: ignore them and stay silent, or try to reply. Because I felt comfortable, I tried to reply, and this made me realise people could understand me, which was the kick-start I needed to start speaking. I haven’t really looked back since. I asked the students to look at the list of reasons on the board and write as many of them as necessary on paper I gave them, or any other reasons they may have for being reluctant to speak. Here are some of them (I probably had about 15 in all, but don’t remember them all now):

  • I don’t know enough words.
  • I’m worried about my grammar.
  • I’m worried about my pronunciation.
  • I’m not interested in the topics.
  • I don’t have enough time to think.
  • It’s too quiet in here.
  • Sandy scares me – she puts too much pressure on us.
  • I don’t have any ideas.

A couple of students mentioned being tired, and one said ‘Just a bad day’. Afterwards I asked them if they’d be comfortable sharing their feelings with their classmates. They agreed, so I put them in a circle and left the room, telling them they could choose whether to speak Polish or English, and suggesting they respond to each other, not just listing their ideas, telling each other whether they feel the same. They opted to have the discussion in Polish, and exchanged a little, though it was mostly monologuing. I could hear some of it from outside, but the background music and my intermediate Polish meant I couldn’t catch all of it.

When I returned to the room, I then spoke to them in my best Polish, saying something along the lines of ‘Language is communication. You’re here because you want to speak more, but if you come and sit in silence, then it’s just grammar, and you can do that at home. I’m making a lot of mistakes right now, but you can understand me, right? Grammar is not the important thing, communication is.’ I then switched into English and said that I’m tired too, and while I can try to give all 7 of us energy, it’s hard work and I need them to help me. I also explained a bit about the process of learning, going from knowing nothing to things being automatic, saying that some bits of their English are already automatic, things like using ‘I’ in the first person, or being able to spell ‘good’ or ‘bad’ without thinking about it. To help them make more things automatic, I need to be able to hear them so I can correct them if necessary, and they need to practise more.

We spent the last few minutes coming up with either/or debate topics, like cats or dogs, winter or summer, PC or PS…which they wrote all over the board. They will be the topics for a speaking assessment we’ll do next lesson, when I’ll see whether they can use the phrases for giving examples and expressing your opinion which were the actual topic of today’s lesson, as well as monitoring their interactive communication. They’ve got five days to think about what we discussed, practice the phrases and mentally prepare themselves for the assessment – I told them what it would involve and what they’d be marked on. I’ll be interested to see if any of this makes a difference…

At the end of the lesson, one of the students checked a bit of extra homework she’d done, and stayed for longer than the rest. I asked her if she thought this kind of discussion was useful, and she said she hoped it would help. She mentioned that at school, sitting in silence and listening to the teacher is considered respectful, and at uni you sit in silence because you’re taking notes, and you work out how to understand them later, so this is quite different for her now she’s an adult. As well as contained this idea to make me think, it was also the longest stretch of English I’ve heard from her all year. As I keep telling all of them, they’re much better than they think they are!

Colouful speech bubbles

Discussing it with my colleagues afterwards, one suggested that it could also be because we’re at (I hope!) the tail end of winter, a lot of students have been ill recently, it’s still dark and pretty cold, and maybe that’s tipping over into a relative lack of enthusiasm in the classroom – it’s definitely reduced as the year has progressed. Another said it could be a good idea to ask them to have discussions in Polish first, then in English, which I’m certainly going to try. I’ve only ever used that strategy once or twice, and it’s always worked before. She also suggested getting them to set goals, even if it’s just ‘I’ll answer three questions in class before Easter.’ That fits in quite nicely with the topic of our next lesson.

Do you have any other thoughts or suggestions on this? I’m not sure I’ve ever had a class quite this silent before!

Not my best lesson (paragraph blogging)

Yesterday my intermediate lesson was meh. Nobody really spoke in the first 40 minutes or so (of 90), despite my best efforts. Another teacher came in to tell the group about our school quiz on Friday and commented on how un-energetic they were. They were playing on Quizlet, using various different functions they hadn’t really explored before. I wanted them to use it in class in the hope that they would then go back to it at home. Quizlet Live normally gets them fired up, but while generally engaged, there didn’t seem to be much energy to carry over into the next activities. Levels of energy increased slightly for some students when they realised they could beat me on the ‘Match’ mode with the set we were using, and three of them even signed up for Quizlet so it would remember their score. This was revision with some vocabulary they’d struggled with last week, so when we moved onto some new vocab, they weren’t really feeling it. We did have some speaking in between which was more engaging and was a good change of pace. The last few minutes was some rushed grammar which we needed to look at (they don’t use it, and I’m trying to expand their range and awareness of what they could use), but didn’t have time to do justice to. All in all, I wasn’t that pleased with the lesson, though I know they all took something away from it. The quiet activities did benefit the more introverted students, who I try to cater for much more in my lessons now, but don’t always succeed with, but there was a general apathy throughout. At some point in the last few months, one of my colleagues mentioned that if she didn’t get her group talking in the first 5-10 minutes she found it really hard to get them talking later in the lesson, and I think this was one of the issues here. Another problem was that I taught my plan, which had too much in it because I wanted to revise from last week and add new language I know they need. There wasn’t enough breathing space in the lesson, and nowhere near enough opportunities to practise all of the new language.

I’ve written this to show that even after nearly 10 years of teaching, considerable amounts of professional development, becoming a Director of Studies, teacher trainer and materials writer, it’s still possible to teach some pretty rubbish lessons! It’s just that now I have a better idea of why they didn’t work as well as I wanted them to, and they happen much less frequently 🙂 What was the last ‘not my best lesson’ which you taught?

Four images of Sandy in class - two giving instructions, one with a hand up for silence, and one writing on the board

Not this lesson, but another one with the same group which went much better 🙂

The times they are a-changing

Over the last two days I have had the immense pleasure of watching a large number of fascinating talks by women as part of Rob Howard’s EFLtalks event ‘Inspiring Women of ELT’. He put it together to celebrate last week’s International Women’s Day.

Inspiring Women of ELT bannerEvery talk was 10 slides, presented in 10 minutes. The women who presented them came from all over the world, and all over the ELT profession. They talked about a wide range of topics, directly related to gender, like how we should be monitoring and becoming more aware of how we treat both boys and girls in the classroom (Carol Read); tangentially related, about female role models (Valeria Benevola França); and unrelated, like my own talk introducing ELT Playbook 1.  All of the recordings will be made available over the next week or so, and I’ll add links as they become available.

It was a fabulous event, and I’m hugely grateful to Rob for organising it and inviting me to be part of such a wonderful line-up.

The other talk I watched today was by the equally inspiring Phil Longwell. Following his own history with poor mental health and how it has affected his career, he is now doing research into other ELT professionals’ experiences of mental health, both positive and negative. This shows, unsurprisingly, that mental health issues are common in our profession, but he was also able to talk about solutions and coping strategies which respondents have to deal with these problems. It was the first talk in the International House Wellbeing Season. You can watch the recording here.

Both of these events show that we are starting to talk more about the issues that stop us all from progressing as a profession, and as a species. We all need to be aware of differences, and of how our actions can both help and hinder those who are different to us. We also need to know that we are more similar than we think we are.

I hope these initiatives aren’t needed soon, but while they are, well done to Rob, EFLtalks, Phil, IH, and all of the women who spoke this weekend!

Coursebook requests

This is not a post about whether coursebooks are a good idea or not.

This is a post from somebody who uses coursebooks every day.

This is a post from somebody who regular says ‘Why?! Why would they do that?’

It’s written to publishers and materials writers.

It’s a request for minor tweaks that would make using coursebooks just that tiny bit smoother.

And for occasional major changes that would make me more likely to use your coursebook (series) again and recommend it to other people.

I don’t believe many of them should cost that much extra money, just a little more thought. Do tell me which things might not work because they would be too expensive. It’s important for those of us who use your books to understand why certain things are or are not done/included.

They are borne out of both my own experience, and comments I have heard from colleagues over the years.

They are also inspired by some of the best coursebooks I’ve used, though none have ever been ‘perfect’ (what is?).

They are my opinions, and should be taken as such. No specific coursebooks will be mentioned.

(Though I completely agree with Kyle Dugan about the kind of coursebook I may want, I’m pretty sure it will never happen because I don’t believe it’s financially viable.)

Coursebooks

Image taken by Sue Annan, from ELTpics (shared under a Creative Commons 3.0 licence)

Coursebooks

Introducing 20-30 out of context new items (which may be tangentially linked to the topic of the unit if you’re lucky) on a single page is not useful. Introducing them purely and simply through putting them into three exercises is even less useful. Doing this twice in a unit, giving 50-60 new items is just far too much. It overwhelms both the students and the teacher and is basically a waste of time. Choose your items carefully, contextualise them, and provide support in understanding the meaning, or show teachers how to do this in the teacher’s book.

Exam tasks are only helpful if you know which exam they’re for. Having an entire book where all of the skills tasks are ‘exam’ tasks without a clearly labelled exam that they relate to is just plain depressing.

Check that the reading and listening tasks are at a similar level of challenge to the grammar points and writing tasks that are being introduced. Reading and listening is often much easier, and occasionally much more challenging (though this may be because of the next point…) This gives students a false idea of their ability.

Include examples of more authentic sounding listening, plus listening skills work (this is thankfully already starting to change).

Provide editable versions of tapescripts and reading texts so that teachers can adapt them for their class, for example changing the formatting for students with dyslexia or creating gapfills from tapescripts. Even better, provide dyslexia-friendly versions of them yourself (I know this does cost money).

Don’t just list linking words, ask students to categorise them by function (adding, contrasting etc. – words the students don’t necessarily know either!), and assume they will understand the words and be able to use them. They are really important, really challenging, and I don’t think I’ve yet seen a coursebook which treats them in enough depth. (Feel free to prove me wrong).

Leave a bit of space on the page. I know it costs you a bit more to print like that, but thinking space is important, and avoids students feeling overwhelmed. They’re more likely to open your book (or I would be as a student!)

Label coursebook audio as clearly as possible in the book, preferably with the CD number and track if you’re using CDs, or the track number if it’s downloadable. Format CDs so that when you use them on a computer, the files are labelled in the same way, so you don’t have to spend ages trying to work out which track(s) you need or relabelling them all.

Consider using diagrams and infographics to explain grammar instead of massive long paragraphs of text whenever possible.

Check that gender is represented fairly and equally in both text and images. The same goes for race, sexuality, disability, and any other area where discrimination is a concern. Representation matters.

Make sure that book has been near a professional editor or team thereof, with enough time to do their job properly. Then listen to what they say. That should hopefully sort out some/most/all of the above problems.

Teacher’s book

A list of answers around the outside of a copy of the student’s book is not a teacher’s book, it’s an answer key. If that’s your approach, save paper and print it in the same way as the answer key for a workbook.

Give us ideas for how to adapt the activities on the page to suit our students. Tell us what typical problems students might have with the grammar or vocabulary. Offer ideas for games to play, especially for young learners and teens, but adults need them too. If you’re feeling really adventurous, provide ideas for homework that aren’t just the page from the workbook.

Suggest how to mark writing tasks – what criteria could I use? How do I know if the students have met these criteria?

If there are extra resources, like communicative activities for the students, and you hide them on a CD or a website, put very clear links in the teacher’s book to tell us to look for them.

Remember that the main people who use teacher’s books are probably new teachers, or teachers who are new to your series/style of book. Make the books as accessible and clear as possible. Explain any jargon you use, or provide a glossary.

Supporting tests

Thank you for creating tests that I can adapt for my classroom. They do make my life easier, most of the time. But…

Please don’t use random file formats. What is .tgd anyway?

Make the formatting as simple as possible./Ensure the person formatting your tests understands how to use Word (or whatever equivalent you use) fully! Embedded tables, random tabs or spaces all over the place, tasks that only go 2/3 of the way across the page so that when I try to edit the instructions it unnecessarily goes onto the next line when there’s 1/3 of the page left (that may not make sense, but I am happy to explain to any interested publishers!)…all of these things increase my stress levels unnecessarily.

Include a worked example for every exercise at every level, but especially for beginners, elementary and children.

Make them easy to find! Sometimes they’re on the website, sometimes they’re on a CD in the back of the teacher’s book, sometimes they’re on the software (which you may have to pay extra for – very annoying!)

Software

Remember that we live in a world of intuitive design. If yours isn’t, why bother? If I can’t learn how to use your software within 5 minutes, it’s not intuitive enough. I have better things to do with my time, and more useful websites I can use.

Don’t hide stuff in menus with loads of layers. Use icons.

If you include video, make sure it can be played full-screen.

Video and audio with clickable tapescripts is amazing!

Check that if you close the video/audio, you won’t close the software completely.

Make sure that your software adds value. If it’s just a glorified .pdf, just give me a .pdf instead of a whole separate piece of software!

Remember that we don’t all have interactive whiteboards. How easy is your software to use with just a projector? Can I use it on a Mac? Thus far I believe the answer to that is always no – what about making it .html instead of as specialist software, so that I’m not left out.

Random

I guess that most schools nowadays do not need one CD for every teacher’s set, so please don’t send them unless they are requested. My office has 3 or 4 sets of CDs for many books which are still in the plastic. This is a complete waste of resources: plastic, packaging, and time (yours and mine).

Remember that schools or students may not be able to afford the latest technology. Use the lowest common denominator for as long as possible, or offer alternative formats, or use a general format, like .pdf.

If you’re going to provide extra resources for students, make them as easy and intuitive to access as possible. If it takes too long, neither students nor teachers will bother, and it’s a waste of time and resources creating them. Remember that one or two well-placed and well-designed activities on a public website, preferably generative ones, can by used by teachers again and again, providing marketing for you if they keep recommending them to students too. This is perhaps a better use of your time and money than a super-complicated website hidden behind a paywall or a code.

Your turn

What would readers add to this list?

Questions (paragraph blogging)

Inspired by Matthew (again), as well as the lessons I’ve been teaching this week…

My current favourite getting-to-know-you activity to do with new students, especially 121s, is simply to get them to write a list of questions they want to ask me. With 121s I’ll write a list of things to ask them at the same time, so it doesn’t feel so awkward watching them write, and we take it in turns to ask them. 10 questions seems to work well in 121; in groups it’s about 5 each with students then selecting the ‘best’ from their lists. Questions are inevitably an area that students need to practise, regardless of their level. Students rarely form questions themselves, and are much more likely to answer other people’s/the teacher’s questions in the average lesson [I know I’ve read blog posts about this before, but can’t remember where – all links gratefully accepted].

The lists of questions students produce in this activity tend to show up the same kind of problem areas: present simple v. continuous, present perfect (or the lack thereof), word order, common mistakes (like Where are/did you born?), articles, etc, giving you a starting point for grammar areas to focus on. They may also throw up slightly more unusual problems: one of the ones I’ve noticed this week is capitalisation of ‘you’, following the Polish pattern of politeness, e.g. Where are You from? In addition, student-generated questions demonstrate which topics students are most interested in, as they tend to ask at least one or two questions about those areas. To push higher-level students to show off their grammar, especially if they’ve picked very simple questions to ask, you can encourage them to reframe one or two things from their list as indirect questions, and talk about politeness, especially if you’ve never met the students before.

Of all the things this activity makes me consider though, I have to say the oddest thing is how often the question How old are you? comes up in a typical student list. It’s one of those things students often ask at the start of lessons without thinking twice, though I’m pretty sure they would be unlikely to ask it that quickly if they were meeting people at a party or a conference!

Have you tried this kind of activity? Do you have a similar experience of it?

Stop asking me questions!

Based on an ELTpic by @ij64 (I believe!)

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