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

I’m very proud to be one of the TeachingEnglish associates, a group of wonderful English teachers from around the world. Each month a series of topics is posted on the blogs section of the British Council TeachingEnglish site, which everyone is invited to write about, including you! Anyone is welcome to join in. If you haven’t tried blogging before, why not give it a go? To inspire you, the associates offer their takes on the topics.

Teaching English Associates names word cloud

My most recent contribution is about combining being part of the online community (if you want to) and reflecting on what’s happening in your classroom. What do you think? Is it key to be part of an online community to develop professionally as a teacher nowadays?

This is part of a series of posts showing you all the different ways you can approach the Cambridge Delta. They are designed to help you find out more about the course and what it involves, as well as helping you to choose the right way to do it for you, your lifestyle and the time you have available. If you’ve done the Delta (or any other similar higher-level teaching course, including a Masters), and you’d like to join in, let me know by leaving me a comment or contacting me via Twitter @sandymillin.

Jenni started teaching in Poland in 2014 following a CELTA from British Council Krakow. She moved back to the UK two years later as she found love during her Christmas holiday back home. She then spent time teaching in language schools and summer schools in the UK. In 2018, she completed her Delta and currently works as an online tutor and course developer. She enjoys an #eltwhiteboard and tweets @jennifoggteach.

Jenni Fogg

How did you do your Delta? How did you arrange the modules?

I did an ‘intensive’ Delta, where the course runs over 15 weeks and the modules are completed concurrently. At Leeds Beckett (formerly Leeds Metropolitan) University, you work towards completing an internal qualification – a Postgraduate Certificate in English Language Teaching and Professional Practice, which prepares you for your Delta and counts towards it (the internal LSAs are part of both qualifications).

You prepare for the Module 1 exam through a series of workshops and homework tasks as well as taking a full Delta-style exam in exam conditions. This counts towards your PG Cert. and acts as a Delta mock.

The module 2 preparation included weekly sessions with advice on writing LSAs and background essays. The work you submit becomes part of your portfolio for both Leeds Beckett and Cambridge.

In module 3, there were deadlines throughout the semester for each section, with the view that the whole piece of work is completed within 15 weeks. We then gave a 15-minute presentation on our specialism. This was interesting as we got to learn about other specialisms and could see how people approached them in different ways.

Why did you choose to do it that way?

I really wanted to do a course quickly as I found that teaching positions in the UK were generally low-paid and there was little chance of promotion without a Delta. I was already living in Leeds, within walking distance of the university, and was teaching part-time in a local language school, which meant I could teach my own class for the LSAs. It made sense to take this route. I also found the PG Cert. attractive, as it meant I could put this on my CV while I was still waiting for the results of the Delta.

What do you think you gained from doing the Delta?

I really enjoyed reading more about SLA [Second Language Acquisition] and feel I benefited from the further reading in general; this is something I couldn’t find time to do before the course. It also made me a more reflective teacher and I now take time to consider why I have planned and structured a lesson in a certain way. I also really enjoyed all the opportunities to observe my peers and teachers online. This was a great way to discover effective new ways to teach.

The intensive nature of the course meant that we bonded quickly as a class and I made several close friends. It also gave me confidence to become more present in the ELT community on Twitter.

What were the downsides of the method you chose?

It was absolutely exhausting. Doing the course in 15 weeks whilst teaching at the same time was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It meant very early starts and late nights with every waking minute focused on reading, writing or lesson planning. The deadlines across different modules often fell on the same day too. It required insane organisation!

Also, because I wasn’t working full-time, I didn’t earn a lot of money throughout the course. I had to manage my money carefully (but really didn’t have much opportunity to spend it!).

What were the benefits of the method you chose?

From starting the course to achieving all three module certificates took 11 months. The course took place from the end of September to the start of January. We sat the exam and submitted Module 3 in June and then had to wait for the results. As we received our PG Cert. soon after the start of the year, we could put this on our CV in the meantime, which meant I managed to get a Director of Studies job in time for the summer, despite not having my Delta results yet.

What tips would you give other people doing the Delta?

If you choose to do the Delta this way, you will need to become an organisation master. I used Evernote for general to-do lists, storing my notes, saving useful websites and making sure each notepad was correctly-titled and saved in the right place. I also printed an A3 calendar where I wrote all my deadlines down and what work I needed to do each day. Deadlines tended to creep up on me so I needed an easy reference to see where I was up to.

I tried to use my weekends effectively, spending most of one day in the library, and spending the other day relaxing, cleaning, seeing family and doing some bulk cooking for the week. Thankfully, my lovely boyfriend cooked a lot during the course, which stopped me from getting scurvy.

I would also recommend doing as much work as possible before the course starts, both doing some preliminary reading from a Delta reading list (there are lots online) as well as reading about how other people approached it – this is a good place to start!

How much time per week would you estimate you needed to spend working on the Delta in the format you chose?

In this intensive course, it was a lot. I turned on my laptop to start working between 6-7am and finished around 10-11pm. We had lessons at the university from 12-5pm on Mondays and Fridays and I taught in the afternoons on the other three days of the week. I don’t want to work the number of hours out!

Today I taught two low-intermediate teen classes at the same level, covering for another teacher. The first half of the lesson was a test. The topic of one of the recent units they’ve done is travel, so I finally got the chance to try out Mike Astbury’s lost luggage activity, which I’ve been meaning to do for ages. The basic idea of Mike’s materials is that students role-play travellers who’ve lost their luggage and airport workers who take the details. Here’s what I did with it.

Setting the scene

You’re going on holiday. You’ve just arrived at the airport. Your luggage didn’t arrive. What’s missing?/What was in your suitcase? How do you feel about it?

I said this and students discussed it in pairs or small groups, then I took a general poll of feelings for feedback. This also served to generate some ideas for later in the lesson.

Describing luggage

I projected the second page of Mike’s handouts with 8 images of different items of luggage. Students had two minutes to describe what they could see using the language they had available. I didn’t really do any feedback for the first group. In the second we talked about Polish ‘It has green colour.’ versus English ‘It’s green.’ which came up for most groups.

I’d prepared pieces of paper with Mike’s descriptions of the luggage which I laid out on the floor. They had to discuss which description matched which item. Feedback was them using magnets to stick them to the board.

We checked them as a class, and I pulled out items of vocabulary to check the meaning. Examples were ‘buckle’, ‘handle’, ‘strap’ and ‘lock’.

They then described the cases again, with me gradually removing the descriptions.

Preparing their luggage

On the board, I showed students what I wanted them to write on the back of their luggage cards.

I handed out one luggage picture per person at random. They had 90 seconds to write a few items that were in their luggage and to make up their address. They then put their luggage under their chairs for later.

Working out questions

I organised students into pairs or small groups, with one notebook and pen shared between them. I displayed the lost luggage form (page 4 of the handouts) on the board and elicited a couple of example questions – a simple one (What’s your name?) and a more challenging one (What time did you land/arrive?)

In their groups, students had to write a question for each part of the form. I told them that flight details are things like the airline (Lufthansa) and the flight number (ZX 123). I monitored closely and did a lot of on-the-spot error correction, aiming for grammatically correct questions by the end of the exercise.

As soon as a pair/group had a full set of questions, they had to test each other by saying e.g. ‘flight details’ with the reply ‘What are your flight details?’ or ‘What was the airline?’ Each group had different questions. All groups had a couple of minutes to try and memorise the questions.

At the airport

Half of the students had time to look at their luggage cards again, then had to hand them to me. That way they were remembering the information, probably imperfectly – I don’t know about you, but I can never remember exactly what’s in my case or the finer details of what it looks like!

The other half lined up their chairs and stood behind them, as if it was an airport counter. They each had a pen and a lost luggage form. They had to ask questions and complete the form as accurately as possible. Then they put their completed form under the chairs and switched roles. When there were three students in a group, first one person had to collect information from both of them, then two of them had to collect the same information from one person. One student in the second group got particularly into it and kept bothering the airport worker by trying to rush them and asking ‘When will I get my luggage back?’ 🙂

Finding their luggage

I laid out all of the luggage on a ‘carousel’ on the floor. Once everybody had performed both roles, they used their forms to try to identify the luggage. They had to give it back to the owner asking ‘Is this your luggage?’

To round it all off, I asked them to put their hands up if they didn’t get their luggage back, and told they how successful our airport is. In both groups about a third didn’t get it, which I suspect reflects real life nicely!

In sum

The activity worked really well with this group of students, although we were a bit rushed at the end. I allocated 45 minutes, but I think 50 would have been enough, and 60 ideal.

I completely forgot to give them tickets from page 3 of Mike’s handouts, even though I’d prepared them, but this didn’t matter as most students seemed to enjoy making up this information. One student got a bit flustered about it though, and definitely would have benefitted from having something to draw on, although she managed to work around it in the end. The rush at that stage probably didn’t help either!

They were a bit confused by the way that we arranged the room for the role play at first, but as soon as they worked out what was going on they seemed to appreciate it.

They were definitely trying to use some of the new language to describe luggage, and I didn’t hear any ‘green colours’ in the second group during the role play 🙂

All in all, I’m really glad I finally got a chance to try out this activity from Mike’s blog. The students were engaged and it generated a lot of language and helped to further practice travel vocabulary and past tense question formation (which some of them had struggled with in the test). It worked well as a task-based lesson, which is something I’m trying to experiment with more, with students pushing themselves to speak as much as possible. Thanks for sharing these materials with us Mike, and I would encourage everyone to take a look at the materials on his blog!

A black cat sitting on a half-packed suitcase

Ironically, I’ve lost my picture of my lost luggage after it was returned to me, so instead here’s a picture of Poppy the cat (not) helping me to pack

Here is a list of some of the things I have noticed students doing since I arrived in Poland three years ago. Caveats:

  • My numbers here are based on impressions – there is no formal research to back it up! If you want more scientific and in-depth information about problems which Polish learners have with English, look at pages 162-178 of Learner English: A teacher’s guide to interference and other problems edited by Michael Swan and Bernard Smith [affiliate link]. 
  • I realise that some of the things I’m correcting might not be in line with English as Lingua Franca, but they should be useful if you have students who want to take exams like Cambridge Proficiency. They’re often things which teachers don’t notice in my experience.
  • Having said that, I’ve skipped /th/ (who cares?!) and features of connected speech like weak forms because everyone has trouble with those things in English!

Please feel free to add to the list, or correct anything which you think I’ve got wrong!

Grammar

The following do not exist in Polish (or, indeed, any Slavic language) so students tend to avoid them initially, then over-use them for a long time before they get them right:

  • Perfect tenses
  • Continuous tenses
  • Articles

By my estimate, they tend to start getting them right at around high upper-intermediate (B2) level, and are normally pretty consistent by advanced. Articles are the last things to stick – I think at C1 they get about 90% of them correct, and C2 is when they’re 99% correct.

In Polish, conditional sentences are marked in both clauses. When producing English conditionals, Polish learners often use would or will in the ‘if’ clause: *If it will rain, I won’t go.

Nouns are gendered in Polish. When replaced by a pronoun, masculine nouns become on (which is ‘he’ or ‘it’ in English), and feminine nouns become ona (‘she’ or ‘it’). At low levels, students sometimes therefore use ‘he’ and ‘she’ in English.

Vocabulary

As in many languages, a single Polish word can be used for each of the following groups of English words:

  • make, do
  • say, tell, speak
  • borrow, lend
  • teach, learn, study
  • fingers, toes

come and go are also very confusing, though there are many, many different translations for these verbs. On that note, in Slavic languages ships and boats ‘swim’, rather than ‘float’ or ‘go’.

In Polish, you ‘make a photo’, rather than take a photo.

The preposition with is often added after verbs like contact and telephone, by analogy with Polish: *I need to contact with his parents. *I’ll telephone with Mark tomorrow.

My new favourite mistranslation is ‘guarantee guard’ instead of security guard 🙂

Ordinal numbers are used in Polish in places where cardinal numbers are normally used in English. The main time I hear this is when students are referring to exercises or questions, so they say ‘first’, ‘second’, ‘third’, where I would say ‘Question 1’, ‘Exercise 2’, or ‘Number 3’.

The nouns ‘colour’ and ‘shape’ are often used when they are unnecessary in English. For example, *It has green colour. rather than It’s green. or *It has square shape. not It’s square.

Pronunciation

Stress almost always falls on the penultimate syllable in Polish words, so students do this by extension in English too. For example, I heard students saying /viOlin/ in a recent observation. Not necessarily super important for international communication, but useful to know about when predicting problems.

The intonation range of Polish is much narrower than in English, so students often sound pretty bored or robotic. I find this is less common if students watch/listen to a lot of English (so teens!). Students need to be really encouraged to be expressive in English and push themselves to use intonation to carry/emphasise meaning.

Sound-spelling relationships are very transparent in Polish, in contrast to English. Some spelling combinations in Polish cause confusion when encountered in English words, particularly for low-level students. For example, ‘ci’ in Polish is pronounced like ‘ch’ in English, but ‘c’ alone is pronounced like ‘ts’ in English. The word specialist particularly confused one group I had – some pronounced it with ‘ch’ in the middle /spe-cha-list/, and others with ‘ts’ and an extra syllable /spe-tsy-a-list/.

The most confusing vowel minimal pair for Polish/Slavic learners is /æ/ and /ʌ/, which is important for me as I often get called Sunday 🙂 This causes confusion with pairs like cap/cup, hat/hut and began/begun.

I tend to group problematic letters together when teaching the alphabet, rather than using an alphabet song. Here are the groups I use, ranked by my opinion on the most to least confusing for Poles:

  • a, e, i, y
  • g, h, j
  • c, s
  • k, q
  • u, v, w
  • x, z
  • r
  • o
  • f, l, m, n
  • b, d, p, t

I don’t normally include the final two groups apart from for beginners, as these letters are pretty similar in Polish I think (though I haven’t learnt the Polish alphabet properly myself yet – oops!) Here are some alternative groupings:

  • f, v, w
  • i, j, y
  • g, k, q

Punctuation

In Polish, the equivalents to ‘you’ (Wy, Pan, Pani…) are capitalised when they are polite, and ‘I’ (ja) is only capitalised at the start of a sentence. Look out for sentences like this: *He helped me so i understood. *What are You doing? Some of my upper intermediate students still did this – I guess nobody had ever pointed it out to them that our capitalisation rules are different!

Months and days start with lower-case in Polish, not capitals as in English.

Clauses introduced by ‘that’ (że) take commas in Polish, so learners produce sentences like *I know, that he is famous. In general, commas are used much more often in Polish than they are in English, and with a much wider range of conjunctions.

As in most European languages, dots and commas in numbers are the opposite way round in English to Polish, so Polish 0,5 would be English 0.5 (nought point five) and Polish 1.234 would be English 1,234 (one thousand, two hundred and thirty-four).

Slackline games, Bydgoszcz

Another challenging thing I’ve seen in Bydgoszcz!

I’ve always preferred teaching adults to teens and young learners, though just occasionally being able to run a good teen/YL class can be a great boost to my confidence. Erica Napoli Rottstock’s post has some useful tips that could make a real difference next time I head into the teen classroom!

I am pretty sure that on seeing the heading to this article you will have immediately and unconsciously nodded your head and maybe added a decisive ‘no way’. As a matter of fact, teenagers are often seen as moody and undisciplined and their lack of motivation can be a ‘nightmare’ if we are teachers.

However, taking a break to teach teens can be a real boost for demotivated teachers, an unexpectedly refreshing experience that ripples through to the rest of your EFL praxis.

I think everyone has experienced times when things don’t go as we assume; maybe you have felt tired and demotivated. The first thing to do is to find the real reason why you have lost your enthusiasm. If you think you need more fun and you strongly believe that connecting with people can help you, in this case a change is as good as a rest. Taking time out to work outside of one’s comfort zone may bring new inspiration to routine, in this case take also some time to watch this inspiring TED talk. Based on my personal experience, one year teaching in a teen class could be your solution.

The first thing to consider is that the so-called moody, undisciplined teens’ behaviour is strongly influenced by how teens’ brains are wired, ruled by the limbic system, since the frontal lobe, specifically responsible for controlling emotions, takes significantly longer to develop. This may be the reason for their short attention span, their laziness or lack of interest, but on the other hand teens are ready to get involved very easily. A trustworthy teacher with an engaging topic will soon spot ways of driving and channelling such traits.

Secondly, allow for flexibility. We can be less like control freaks and thus much more likely to enjoy the lesson. Even if we have a syllabus to follow, we can still be flexible. Interestingly enough, by releasing control, we gain students’ trust and attention. Surprisingly, if you listen to them, you get their attention and you feel less tired! I would suggest you enter the class with a multiple-option lesson plan – say a plan where you let your students decide how to develop it. I have noticed that if you start your lesson with a sort of declaration of intent, teen students are happy to follow you and are extremely pro-active. This environment is stimulating for their learning and also a boost for ‘tired teachers’. Even classroom management can become less stressful if you can let students move freely in their class, choose their peers for their activities and decide when they need a break. By respecting their pace you can have less stress indeed.

The third thing to consider is that teens are very curious, so when you teach them you can make your lesson very personal and arouse their interest. Clearly, this doesn’t mean sharing one’s closest personal issues. You can simply offer up your point of view, your personal opinions, bringing an element of humanity and showing we are far from being superheroes. I can assure you that this is not only very conducive to learning but also very positive for your well-being.

Last but not least, the environment of your class will become more relaxed and you can simply work on emergent language without wasting any opportunity for learning. Besides, you will notice that students themselves will ask you to practise more if they become aware of their limits. Teaching teens becomes a real boost, if you consider a more autonomous learner approach. You can foster students’ autonomy by developing their awareness with self-assessment, you may guide students to be aware of their own weaknesses and strengths, with a reduction of your workload or at least less time-consuming ways to evaluate your students.

Also, I recommend stimulating learning beyond the class, so that you can build a deeper rapport with your students, as you can understand their needs and interests better. In my experience, WhatsApp was extremely useful, not only in terms of conducting on-going class service communication and light conversations outside the classroom, but also when it came to assigning/performing and giving feedback on written, oral and aural homework (short writing/speaking tasks performed via voice and video recordings and text messages). This particular means of communication provides the added value of reduced practitioner workload in terms of evaluating learner performance on a day-to-day basis. We ask parents’ permission to have WhatsApp groups with students when they join the school.

To sum up, if you want to feel regenerated, go for a teen class; they have an extremely positive attitude provided one is prepared to embrace flexibility and promote autonomy.

If this is still not enough to boost you, then perhaps a good long holiday is actually in order! 🙂

About the author

Erica Napoli

Erica is a DELTA-qualified teacher with an MA in foreign literature. She has been teaching English for more than 15 years, but she likes to be considered as a life-long learner herself. Previously DoS and founder of a little private language school in Milan, she then decided to become a full-time teacher at high school and she’s currently engaged teaching teens at Istituto Europeo Leopardi in Milan. This article is based on her talk from IATEFL Brighton in April 2018.

Christian Tiplady asked me if he could share his ideas for shifting the focus of official observations with the readers of this blog. I think you’ll agree that they are minor tweaks that could make a big difference.

Why do we focus on the behaviour of teachers during ‘official’ classroom observations? Is there an alternative way that is more in line with current thinking on learner-centred approaches?

So many institutions, including ones where I have worked, still cling to the idea that teachers need to be evaluated for quality assurance and that the best way to do this is with a formal observation, often compartmentalised and homogenised, taking the form of an hour-long observation by a senior member of staff. The observer uses a standardised feedback form with variables by which the teacher’s lesson is graded, and then leads feedback analysing what went well or badly. Oftentimes this observation takes place only infrequently, perhaps once a year, and there is often no follow-up to assess observation outcomes.

This style of evaluative observation is not only outdated but also ill-conceived. It assumes that the activity of ‘teaching’ can be rated, and that this can be done with the kind of standardised grading to which we have grown accustomed. In order to have much value at all any assessment of teaching needs to be thought through carefully. It needs to be done over a longer period with more frequent observations to avoid a ‘snapshot’ view and therefore the danger of misguided evaluation. Feedback needs to be cyclical and iterative in nature and co-constructed with the teacher as part of a reflective process to ensure that the teacher is on board with continuing development.

But there is a much more important point to be made here, which is that to focus on what the teacher is or isn’t doing in a classroom (and to rate that) is surely at best irrelevant and at worst dangerous if this is without explicit reference to the world of the learner. My contention is that we still do this way out of pure habit, and that at least in part, this undoubtedly comes from vestiges of ingrained beliefs that still linger, even if as teachers we know these things to be untrue.

Firstly, the status quo derives from the mistaken belief that teaching equals learning. However in reality we know that the teaching is only part of the equation and that learners will learn in their own way and at their own rate. As Freeman reminds us “teachers are influential in classroom learning but that does not mean they cause it to happen.” (Freeman, 2006; 254). Indeed we can teach what we might consider to be the best lesson, only to note that in terms of the learning it did not have the impact that was desired. Or conversely we can teach a lesson which at first sight did not go to plan or very ‘well’ in practice, but where there was nonetheless significant learning.

Secondly it comes from the implicit assumption that teaching behaviours can be classified and evaluated and that ‘more’ or ‘less’ of that thing is better. For example, typically ‘student talking time’ is inevitably valued within today’s language teaching, where a premium is placed on communication, and ‘teacher talking time’ should be reduced at all costs. In reality, purposeful teacher talk can be very useful as part of the learning process and in some lessons it may be vital.

Another example is the use of the English in the classroom versus the use of the student’s L1. The former has conventionally been highly valued (probably to encourage an element of immersion), whilst the latter i.e. the use of L1, has been relegated to the fringes with infrequent activities such as ‘translate these sentences into your own language’ given for homework, but with little real acknowledgement that use of L1 in the learning process can be extremely useful.

Although such thinking has increasingly been challenged over recent years, it still tends to be pervasive in the realm of teacher observations. We continue to focus on what the teacher should and should not do in the classroom (theories on this will likely come and go), and judge things by our own semi-conscious ideas of what is right and wrong. More importantly, by taking our eyes off the ball, we often miss the real action i.e. we neglect the impact (or lack of it) of the lesson on the learner. A typical example might be the types of praise given for a communicative speaking activity, which a teacher organised well and the learners dutifully performed with high levels of talking time, but which had little intrinsic value in terms of developing the learners or engaging them in meaningful expression.

By focusing on the behaviours of teachers in the classroom, we are also reinforcing a model that is teacher-centred and are thus potentially affecting teachers’ beliefs and behaviour. If we (learners, teachers, teacher trainers, managers etc.) desire lessons to be learner-centred then surely we need to promote that in everything we do, including the observations of teachers. Evidently, the main thing that is useful to focus on is learning and the learning process for the learner. In short, we need to rethink our observations of teachers to refocus on how teachers may best facilitate this learning.

So how do we do this? Assuming we still have to follow an institutionalised system of official observations, (which I still think can be reclaimed for the good), these can be redesigned with an onus on the learners with surprisingly minor structural adjustments, but with a fairly radical shift in our philosophy.

First of all, the usual observation template can be changed to make all criteria more learner-centred. Criteria such as ‘relevant learner outcomes established in conjunction with the learners’ and ‘lesson managed in a way that promoted achievement of lesson outcomes’ can be included to promote learner-centredness. The emphasis of wording is all-important; thus a criterion such as ‘use of English in the classroom’ can be amended to ‘English/L1 used appropriately for learner needs’ and ‘teacher talking time’ can be amended to ‘learner talking time suitable for learner needs’. These changes may seem somewhat pedantic, but in my experience such small adjustments can promote a major shift in the thinking of both the observer and the observed teacher alike. For instance, the phrasing of the latter criterion on learner talking time intrinsically leads both parties to ask themselves questions such as: ‘What was witnessed in terms of learner talking time?’ ‘Was the learner talking time appropriate in amount, form and quality at various stages of the lesson, as well as overall in the lesson? If not, why not?’ ‘Did the amount, form and quality of learner talking time mean the aims of the lesson were achieved for the learner? If not, why not?Clearly this change of emphasis might necessitate some ongoing training for both teachers and observers of lessons, but is nonetheless quite possible.

Secondly, the observer needs to truly focus on the learner – on their reactions, behaviour and likely learning – during the observed lesson. Often the observer sits at the back of the classroom to watch the teacher but cannot see the students’ faces or reactions. What the teacher does in terms of facilitation is important, but how the learner responds and whether they demonstrate that they are learning is of ultimate importance. Therefore the observer should try to ‘climb into the learners’ skin’ and see it from their perspective. The simplest act of the observer positioning their chair to the side of the classroom, to see the learners’ faces, how they react, and what they are doing, can make a huge difference to the observer’s understanding of the effects of the lesson on the learners and their learning.

Thirdly, the information gathered by the observer should ideally be backed up with further evidence to reduce subjectivity, preferably in the form of a video recording. Silvana Richardson (2014) has done some interesting work in this area, which she calls ‘evidence-based observation’. Software is also available which allows the observer to annotate the recorded video with questions and comments for the teacher, thereby facilitating a feedback process focusing on the learner, though it’s not always particularly easy to access.

Finally, however much the observer and the observed teacher try to adopt the mindset of the learner, and back it up with evidence, they can never claim to know the thoughts of the learner. The learners’ voice therefore needs to be included within observation feedback for any lesson or series of lessons. Thus the observation process should seek to include feedback from the learners, for example, their assessment of how engaging the lesson has been and how successful they think the lesson has been in terms of their learning. This can be factored into evaluative feedback as long as the process is handled sensitively.

Any additional comments learners have on the lesson(s) are also vitally important to inform the feedback process and can change the evaluation of a lesson significantly if they happen to disagree with what the observer and/or the teacher believe. When experimenting with this approach, I observed a lesson where I thought the learner might have been overloaded with the amount of topics that she was asked to speak about. However, in her feedback the learner maintained that that the amount of topics was at about the optimum level for her. This first-hand vantage point significantly changed my perception of the lesson.

In most institutions, how often does the observer of a lesson really solicit the opinions of the learners as part of the observation process? I would suggest very seldom. By contrast, including the learners’ voice in the observation feedback implicitly encourages the teacher to engage with learner feedback in the same way. Reframing the observation in terms of the learners not only allows a more relevant learner-centred perspective but also models good practice for the teacher as part of wider classroom culture.

Can this focus on the learner be equally beneficial as a basis for peer observations? Absolutely, yes! In fact gathering information on the learners provides an excellent focus and helps to avoid any evaluative critique of teaching, which many teachers may have come to habitually expect as the ‘default model’. So whilst evaluative observations look set to stay, let’s at least focus on what matters, namely the learners.

References

Freeman, D. Teaching and Learning in Gieve S. and Miller, I. (2006) ‘The Age of Reformin Understanding the Language Classroom. Basingstoke: Pelgrave-Macmillan.

Richardson, S. (2014). Evidence-based observation – tips and tools. British Council webinar: http://britishcouncil.adobeconnect.com/p8slnclkd8e/

About the author

Christian Tiplady

Christian Tiplady
BSc (Hons), Trinity Cert. TESOL, PGDip TESOL, MA TESOL

Christian is a freelance teacher trainer based in the UK. He has worked in both EFL and Modern Foreign Languages (MFLs) sectors for over 25 years, teaching, teacher training and managing in private language schools, NGOs and government organisations. Most recently he served as Pedagogy Manager at the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office organising CPD for tutors who teach MFLs to diplomatic staff. He has set up TrinityTESOL and Cambridge CELTA courses and is currently a CELTA tutor and assessor. He specialises in the creation of CPD programmes, developmental observations and feedback. Christian currently produces the teachers’ podcast Developod for the IATEFL Teacher Development Special Interest Group (TDSIG).

Contact Christian at: christian.tiplady@outlook.com

Geoff Jordan recently relaunched his blog with a new tagline:

Screen shot of the tag line of Geoff's blog: What do you think you're doing? A critique of ELT teacher trainers

At the end of the post ‘Teacher Trainers in ELT‘, he posed the following five questions:

  1. What is your view of the English language? How do you transmit this view to teachers?
  2. How do you think people learn an L2? How do you explain language learning to teachers?
  3. What types of syllabus do you discuss with teachers? Which type do you recommend to them?
  4. What materials do you recommend?
  5. What methodological principles do you discuss with teachers? Which do you recommend to them?

In this blog post I am going to attempt to answer these questions.

The learning process

I have recently started to visualise the learning process using the fingers on one hand, like this:

(thumb) 1. You don’t know it exists. (index finger) 2. You know it exists, but you don’t really understand it. You can use/do it successfully 10-20% of the time, but you need a lot of support/input. (middle finger) 3. You have a 50/50 chance of being able to use/do it successfully. You still need help and support at times, or to be reminded of it, but you’re improving. (ring finger) 4. You have an 80-90% chance of using/doing it successfully. Most problems are slips, and if somebody reminds you, you can correct yourself. (little finger) 5. It’s automatic. You don’t have to think about it any more. It can be hard to believe that you ever didn’t know this.

I think the learning process is the same regardless of what skill it is you’re learning, whether that be English, how to teach, or how to tie your shoelaces. Sometimes you can skip through stages 2-4 pretty quickly, and sometimes you get stuck at one of those stages for a long time without feeling any progress. However, with perseverance, motivation, practice and time you can get to stage 5 with anything you truly want to learn. Support, guidance and input can help you get there faster, but none of them are essential, not even for getting from stage 1 to 2: if you pay attention to the world around you, you can notice the existence of things yourself.

Of course ‘English’ and ‘how to teach’ are both huge concepts, and should be broken down into many smaller concepts. The degree to which you break them down when using this metaphor is entirely up to you, dependent on who you are talking to and why. Below are a few examples.

Learning how to teach

On a CELTA course, you are working with a truly pre-service trainee, somebody who has never been in a classroom before. You have four weeks/120 hours to introduce them to the basics of being an English language teacher. By the end of the course, here are some of the areas I would expect a straight Pass candidate to be at stage 3 in:

  • Giving clear instructions.
  • Monitoring for task completion, and adjusting tasks accordingly.
  • Including peer checks consistently between individual and open class work.
  • Clarifying the meaning of new vocabulary/terminology efficiently and concisely.

In contrast, I would expect a teacher with some prior experience before the course to be at at least stage 2 in all of the above areas when they join the course, or even stage 3, and at stage 4 by the end of the course. Realistically, on a pre-service course with only six hours of teaching, six of observation, and 120 of input, I think it’s very difficult to reach stage 5 in any of these areas if you’re starting from scratch, though some Pass A candidates may manage it in some areas.

Working with early career teachers over the course or a year or two, as I do most of the time in my Director of Studies role, it is possible to break things down more and focus on components that could make up each area above. Take ‘giving clear instructions’ for example. Individual components might be:

  • Getting and maintaining attention while giving instructions.
  • Showing the materials to be worked with to help students follow what you’re saying/doing.
  • Working through an example for unfamiliar task types.
  • Getting a student/pair/group to work through an example in open class.
  • Checking instructions.

By the end of their first year, I would expect teachers at our school to be at stage 4 or 5 in all of the above areas.

There are also areas which they are unlikely to have come across or which were only mentioned in passing on their pre-service course, and I would expect them to be at stage 2 or 3 after their first year with us, and 3 or 4 after their second. These might include:

  • Teaching 121 students in a way that differs from their approach to group classes.
  • Conducting a needs analysis and acting on it.
  • Managing a classroom of teen students.
  • Assessing learner progress within levels that they are familiar with.
  • Varying the pacing of a young learner lesson to keep students engaged throughout.

As far as I’m concerned, all of the examples above are connected to the skill of teaching in general, and would be equally applicable to an EFL teacher, a Maths teacher and a History teacher.

Learning a language

When it comes to learning any language, I think the five stages are the same. As I learn other languages and notice my own learning process, I can feel myself going through the stages for different aspects of the language.

Here are some examples of elements from English grammar:

  • Knowing when to use third person -s.
  • Choosing between the present simple and the present continuous.
  • Selecting the correct article in a given context.

And from Polish grammar:

  • Knowing whether a noun is masculine (animate or inanimate), feminine or neutral.
  • Associating case endings with prepositions.
  • Deciding whether an action is seen as complete or incomplete (perfective or imperfective), and choosing the correct verb form.

But of course, a language is not just grammar. Learning and retaining lexical chunks is a 5-step process too, and skills and learning techniques can also be broken down:

  • Understanding the relationship between yourself and your interlocutor, and choosing appropriate forms of address or vocabulary to reflect that.
  • Not worrying about whether you understand everything in an informal conversation, but joining in when and where you can.
  • Letting yourself read for reading’s sake in your L2, not just to list the vocabulary that you encounter.

By showing teachers my breakdown of the learning process, and by encouraging them to learn languages and experience it themselves, I try to help them see that regardless of what they do in the classroom, students still need to go through the stages at their own pace. Classroom learning can speed it up in some cases, by providing input, guidance, a supportive environment, opportunities for practice and a time and space for language use, but ultimately, nobody can learn faster for their students – they have to do it themselves. This is true of any subject, not just English or languages.

Materials and more

We use coursebooks for most of the classes at out school. We aim to maximise the amount of speaking that students do through careful lesson planning, and the coursebooks we use help us to keep the range of input high across the school, by ensuring that a certain amount of content is touched on every year. I do not see a coursebook as a ‘chain‘ to be freed from, but rather as a skeleton structure to base our teaching on which forms part, though not all, of the students’ learning.

A large majority of our students join groups at the school as near or total beginners, and progress through 8 years of study culminating in them successfully passing the Cambridge First (B2) exam. A handful of them get there a little slower, repeating a level or two if they’ve really struggled. Some of them get there faster, through increased exposure outside the classroom, particularly if they are teenagers who watch a lot of English-language films/series/YouTube videos or play a lot of computer games. That’s not to say that students couldn’t all reach that level of English much more quickly and efficiently, but that requires a level of motivation, self-discipline and exposure to the language that few people have. Despite being highly motivated to learn languages myself, I have sometimes found in the past that attending regular classes was necessary to make sure that I studied in between – I didn’t need to learn much in the classes, but I did need somebody to be accountable to for my learning, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

For one-to-one and company classes, I point out to both teachers and students that despite having a coursebook, they are under no obligation to go through it from cover to cover. In fact, one of the first things we suggest teachers do with a new student/closed group is to take the contents page of the coursebook and ask students what they do and don’t want to look at, and what else they would like to do that isn’t in the book.

I regularly remind teachers that there are certain grammar points that it’s not worth getting het up about, as students will internalise them (get to stage 5) much later, even if they’re ‘taught’ much earlier by coursebooks. For Polish learners of English, all three of the grammar points I selected above fall into that category as there is no corresponding structure in Polish. It’s important for everyone to remember that teaching does not necessarily equal learning, and you never know exactly what a student will take away from a given lesson. Having said that, they should always take something away from the lesson, otherwise there was no point to them attending!

As Geoff said in another post:

[…] students don’t learn a second or foreign language by being led through the units of a coursebook like this – language learning simply doesn’t work like that.

We know that two 90-minute lessons a week alone does not create high-level users of English, and we show teachers as many ways as possible to encourage students to practise and use the language outside class. Some of these ideas include borrowing books from the school library for extensive reading, listening to podcasts for extensive listening, using websites like Quizlet and Memrise to increase vocabulary, and doing something in English for 5 minutes every day, regardless of what it is. We also encourage teachers to share their own experiences of what has and hasn’t worked for them as language learners.

Through a strong culture of professional development and a very supportive environment, I believe that we are able to provide a level of quality in lessons that would not be consistently achievable without coursebooks, as teachers are able to focus on adapting the materials for their students, rather than on finding suitable materials in the first place. They are also free to omit or replace anything in a coursebook that they feel is inappropriate or unnecessary for their students – there is absolutely no obligation to do every exercise on every page. That is more than enough challenge for early-career teachers with anywhere between 40 and 65 students on their registers covering 4 to 7 different levels, levels that they perhaps can’t confidently differentiate between until they’ve completed a year or two of teaching. (And that’s without all of the other things that first year teachers in a foreign country need to get their heads around!)

Working with teachers year-round

I endeavour to remember to remind teachers (I’d say I’m at stage 3 for this!) that if they have chosen to ‘cover’ a particular grammar point, range of vocabulary items, aspect of a skill, or language learning technique, at any given time they will probably have students at all five stages of the learning process for that thing. They need to adapt the lesson accordingly, and remember not to get frustrated if they have students at stage 1, even if they ‘did this last year’ and at stage 5, who don’t really need more input on it. This is still something I sometimes find challenging as a teacher.

Working with the same teachers consistently in collaborative planning meetings at our school, I try to put this into practice. I encourage teachers to get students to show them what they know first, rather than automatically assuming that an item needs to be presented/covered at this particular level. Examples of ways students can show their knowledge include doing a gapfill for homework before the lesson, saying all of the words in a vocabulary set as quickly as possible with their partner or completing a task at the start of the lesson. I then show teachers how to notice problems students are having and how to deal with them. I have found that monitoring for language output is an especially difficult skill for new teachers, particularly when all of the students are speaking at once and it can be a challenge to tune in to individual voices. In our collaborative planning meetings, we come up with ‘monitoring tasks’ to help the teacher direct their focus, and we anticipate areas which students might have trouble with.

Here’s an example from one of last week’s meetings, working with pre-intermediate students from English File Pre-Intermediate 3rd edition. I’m trying to learn more about task-based learning, and share this with teachers (again, I’m at stage 3 of this!) – this is an example of how I’ve interpreted it, using the task in the coursebook to provide scaffolding and examples of language which a teacher might listen out for during the initial attempt at the task.

Holiday speaking from English File Pre-Intermediate 3rd ed SB p13

This activity was chosen as the first speaking assessment of the year for these students. Holiday vocabulary was introduced and practised in the previous lesson. The 70-minute lesson plan that I sketched out with the teachers included the following steps (roughly!):

  • Students do tasks 6a, 6b and 6c. Monitoring task: listen for use of the past simple and whether students are actively showing interest in what their partner is saying. Make notes on a Word document.
  • If students had few problems with the past simple, display the Word document on the board, elicit corrections and reasons for why that language was incorrect/unsuitable, and supply any language students were lacking. Complete a story-based exercise from the book where they choose which form is correct. Write ten key words from the story and retell it. Monitoring task: notice problems with the past simple forms from the story (this is easier than in task 6, as there is a more limited range of forms which may come up, so teachers are more likely to spot them).
  • If students had lots of problems with the past simple, read about two people’s holidays and complete the associated tasks from the book. Use the examples taken from the text to notice the grammar rules. Complete one or both of the controlled practice exercises, depending on the students’ needs and how much they seem to understand. Work on the pronunciation of -ed endings using the coursebook, if necessary. Display the Word document, as above.
  • If students were showing interest in what their partner said without any trouble, fine. If not, introduce and drill the phrases from the green box shown above. Elicit a few other follow-up questions that could be asked or statements that could be made.
  • All students repeat task 6 as the final stage in the lesson, this time as an assessment – in theory, they should all be better this time round. I told the teachers what aspects of speaking to assess here, and gave them tips on how to assess 12 students simultaneously over the course of about 10 minutes.

This lesson plan is not perfect (no plan is). However, I am confident that the teachers will be able to teach it, and that all of the students in the classroom will learn something from the lesson. The aim of the lesson is not to ‘teach the past simple’, or talk about it, but rather to improve students’ ability to ask and answer questions about holidays they have had.

My own development

I would say that I am an intermediate to upper intermediate level teacher (if you take language levels as a guide), and a pre-intermediate to intermediate trainer (thank you to Geoff for stating that I am a ‘top teacher trainer’, but I certainly don’t believe this!), and that I still have plenty to learn. The day that I feel that I’m ‘finished’ as a teacher or a trainer is the day that I leave this career.

Even after ten years of teaching, I still don’t always feel that my students have learnt as much as they could have done in a non-coursebook lesson – both of my groups this year are non-coursebook-based, to push myself to develop in this area. I certainly know that having used coursebooks over a number of years, I have a much clearer idea of what to expect of students at different levels, and what is often far beyond their abilities. That doesn’t mean I won’t try to teach them some of those ‘higher-level’ things – that might push students from stage 1 to 2 after all, or provide the i + 1 that Krashen proposes, or help them get into Vygotsky’s ZPD, if my understanding of those concepts is correct. Rather, I don’t agonise over something ‘above their level’ if they haven’t managed to pick it up by the end of the lesson or remembered it next lesson.

Looking back at Geoff’s questions, I know next to nothing about different types of syllabus, despite having read Syllabus Design [affiliate link] as part of my Delta, and having to justify the kind of syllabus I came up with for my extended assignment. I’m not sure there is an ideal kind of syllabus anyway as learners can only learn what they’re ready to learn, and I’m unlikely to be in a position where I create an entire syllabus any time soon. I don’t feel in any way qualified to recommend a particular type of syllabus to another teacher, as I feel that teaching should be at the point of need wherever possible, despite what I said about coursebooks above.

I’m not entirely sure which methodological principles I discuss with teachers either. I’m not sure I necessarily recommend any in particular either, though you may be able to spot some that I can’t in what I’ve written above.

I know a little about second language acquisition, through theoretical modules during my university language study, reading How Languages Are Learned [affiliate link], and many many hours spent learning a range of languages myself to a greater or lesser degree of success using a wide range of techniques. I try to take that into the classroom and the training room, partly by reminding students and teachers that learning will happen when you’re ready for it, but that we can try to create the conditions for it, for example by providing more ‘hooks’ to help it stick for longer. As I mentioned above, patience, time, practice and motivation are the key ingredients.

Everything that I have written here is based on my own experience as a teacher, trainer and language learner, and my (all too limited) reading. Limited as I’ve only been teaching for ten years, always in private language schools, and the resources I have access to are those at the schools I’ve worked at, those online, and those I have paid for myself. I am grateful to all of those people who are trying to share teaching research more widely, making it more accessible for people like me. At some point in the future I will probably do an MA, but that requires time and money which I don’t have at the moment. I look forward to being able to access and evaluate more of this research myself.

What I teach

I strongly believe that the most important thing I can do in a classroom is provide a supportive space for students to learn, regardless of whether they are learning a language or learning to teach.

When training on pre-service courses, my focus is on reflection: being balanced in your assessment of your own teaching, identifying areas you can continue to work on and thinking about how, and areas which are already fine that you can endeavour to repeat and build on.

When in the English classroom, my focus is on experimenting with producing and understanding the language, trying things out, and ironing out problems.

Whatever they’re learning, I try to help trainees/students to see the gaps in their knowledge, and improve their confidence with what they know. I hope that what I share with the teaching community reflects the ideas I have described here.

I would never pretend that I am teaching them teaching or teaching them English, but rather that I am one small piece in the puzzle that can help them reach their final goal. Ultimately, what they take away from my lessons is entirely dependent on what stage they are at in their learning and is up to them.

Geoff, I hope that goes some way towards answering your questions.

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