Learner-centred observations of teachers (Guest Post)

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This style of evaluative observation is not only outdated but also ill-conceived.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.


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

IATEFL Birmingham 2016: Supporting students

This post brings together talks on a variety of topics which I have loosely grouped under the heading ‘supporting students’. It covers SEN (Special Educational Needs), dyslexia, students who find English scary, and other areas of inclusivity.

If this is an area that you’re interested in, you should consider joining IATEFL’s proposed new Special Interest Group (SIG) on Inclusive Practice and SEN. They need fifty people to sign up to be able to found the SIG.

Forum on special educational needs

Phil Dexter, Sharon Noseley and Sophie Farag presented in the forum on SEN. Phil gave a general overview of what SEN are, Sharon focussed on SEN in British universities (EAP – English for Academic Purposes) and Sophie suggested ways for teachers to adapt their lessons, not just to help students with SEN, but to help all students. You can watch the whole session here:

Impairments are not identities, but they can affect access.
– Phil Dexter

This makes me think of two recent podcasts I’ve listened to: Sign Language on Martha’s Vineyard from Stuff You Missed in History Class and Why I’m not just blind from BBC World Service’s The Why Factor – both podcasts I would highly recommend. The sign language episode talks about how it was normalised on Martha’s Vineyard, and everybody could use it regardless of whether they were deaf or not. The Why Factor talks about how blindness can come to define the identity of many people with little or no sight, and about society’s reactions to them.

Phil also showed us a clip from Rosie’s story My autism and me, where a girl with autism takes us into her world, and explains what makes her unique. 1 in every 100 children has some form of autism, but medical labelling can sometimes cause more problems than it solves since so many conditions co-occur or are on a spectrum.

Sharon has severely dyslexic family members, and has seen how dyslexia can affect their lives. She works with university students in the UK, and says that some of the problems her students have may be down to SEN, rather than cultural differences or a lack of English. For example, her son has trouble with telling the time and sequencing events, so how easily could he write an academic essay with correct cohesive devices?

Dyslexia can affect short-term memory and fine motor skills, and can therefore make note-taking in lectures very challenging. It can affect 1 in 5 learners. Some international students studying in the UK are not entitled to support as it comes out of the budget for home students.

English is a dyslexic language…[which]…actually causes more dyslexia than other languages.
– Schwartz (1999)

Sharon gave examples of three students she has worked with:

  • A student from Kuwait, diagnosed with dyslexia at 39 after comments from her English teacher. She was given a report in Kuwait, came to the UK, but it was noticed too late and she had to go home as she couldn’t cope with the pressure.
  • A Chinese student who was always late, handed in work late, and seemed to have no interest in the course. After Sharon spoke to her, it turned out she had trouble telling the time, was depressed because of the lack of support, and had no idea about SpLDs (Specific Learning Difficulties). She was diagnosed at Sharon’s university: “This report is my medicine and you are my nurse.”
  • A Cypriot student found out at 22 she is dyslexic, dyspraxic, and has ADD, after struggling to take the IELTS exam. She was supported through her MA and ended up passing with a merit, having created an app to help dyslexic children tell the time.

Sophie suggested using open-ended tasks in the classroom where possible, as there is no single, right answer, and students can work at their own speed. This benefits all students, not just those with SEN. It gives them the freedom to express themselves in the way that suits them best. Some examples of tasks might be journals, diaries, reflection or response tasks or making posters.

By using a dark font on a pale, non-white background, you can help your students to read slides more easily.

Activities can be differentiated in a variety of ways:

  • by outcome: let students choose whether to make a video, do a presentation or draw a comic strip in response to a prompt.
  • by resource: e.g. longer, more complex texts for higher-level students, for example through Newsela.
  • by task: having different activities for different students, or having a worksheet with tasks which get harder as students progress through it. Have extensions for students who finish first. If students want to work alone, let them, unless there is a key reason why they should work together.
    Listening/reading differentiation example: A writes notes/summary on blank paper; B has gapped summary; C has multiple-choice.
    Writing differentiation example: A has no support, B has guiding questions; C has outline/incomplete text to complete.

Some tools which might be useful:

  • Voicethread: learners can choose whether to respond by writing, recording an audio comment, or recording a video comment. They can also doodle while recording.
  • Quizlet: students can play the games which suit them. It is multi-sensory, you can print a list or cards with the vocabulary, and you can hear the words. [See my student guide to Quizlet]
  • Newsela: up-to-date news articles presented at five different reading levels. You can annotate articles, and many of them have a little quiz.
  • My Study Bar: a toolbar which can be downloaded onto a USB stick and used on any computer. Designed to help dyslexic students read and write more easily on computers.

Other tips that came out of the talks were to recycle more and revise more to help students build on their short-term memory, to use as many different ways of encountering the language as possible (see it, hear it, have a picture etc), and to consider what other ways tests can be administered in, as giving extra time often isn’t sufficient. One audience member suggested using stop-start-continue as a way of getting feedback from students on if/how they want you to change the lessons to suit them better.

Teaching English to students with SEN: Challenges and opportunities (Marie Delaney)

I bought Marie’s book Special Educational Needs – Into the Classroom [affiliate link] just before the talk (and reviewed it later), so I couldn’t miss seeing her in action 🙂 At first glance, it looks like a very practical book, broken into sections with tips for teachers about various different Special Educational Needs, including dyslexia and ADD.

Marie started off by telling us that many boys in the UK would prefer to be thought of as naughty than ‘labelled’ as having SEN. Behavioural difficulties isn’t just about being ‘naughty’ though – these students need more support. Every school should have a register of children with medical conditions of any kind, including epilepsy or allergies, not just SEN.

One of the main problems is that the definition of SEN is quite woolly:

Students have special educational needs if they have significantly greater difficulty [how much?] in learning than the majority of students of the same age and special educational provision [what?] has to be made for them.

Marie’s general message is that it is possible for anyone to support their students, and that we shouldn’t expect to just magically know how to do this. As with any skill, it is a question of exposure, experience, and asking for help when you need it. Remember to ask students and parents, as they probably have a lot more experience of dealing with the day-to-day realities of SEN than you do. They should be able to tell you something about what works for them. Here are some typical teacher concerns:

  • I am not qualified to teach these learners.
  • Other children’s learning will suffer if we include children with SEN.
  • Other parents/carers will complain.
  • It takes a lot of extra planning and different types of activities.
  • These children cannot become independent learners.

Most of the tips are about ‘good solid teaching strategies’ and will therefore benefit all of our learners.

  • You might be able to get away with poor instructions with many students, but a student with problems with their short-term memory will need you to give instructions in the order you want them performed, and one at a time so that they don’t forget them.
  • Focus on what they are good at too, not just what they can’t do.
  • To counter parents’ concerns (while still acknowledging them), remind them that there are benefits to inclusion: their children will learn empathy and will get a broader, more diverse view of the world. Research shows that children benefit from this.
  • When talking to parents, focus on the fact that you want to help all of the students to learn as much as possible, rather than focussing on the SEN.
  • Think about how you react if a child says ‘He’s your favourite.’ Children do understand who needs help: ‘I don’t know why you’re upset. I know you’re a kind person and you know that everybody needs more help sometimes.’
  • If you’re planning for hours for something you’ll only use for a few minutes, think again about your planning! [Also generally true of many first-year teachers!]
  • Measure progress, not attainment. Be encouraging and supportive, and don’t focus on marks. Don’t focus too much on behaviour either, as some children may then become disengaged from learning. (Marie told a story of a boy who was proud because he’d sat still throughout a lesson, but when questioned had no idea what subject it was!)
  • Don’t speak to the teaching assistant or talk down to the child. Speak to them in the same way you would any other member of the group.
  • Get students with anxiety to tell you about the feelings they are having. It’s OK to be anxious.
  • Use Find Someone Who… or finish the story type tasks to develop empathy between all of the students.
  • Ask students to show fingers based on how fit they are for learning: 10 is excellent, 1 is I’m not listening [Or ‘give me the prosecco’ in this case! We got an average of five, in the last session of day 3 of the conference!]
  • Edit the language you use. Rather than ‘You’re not listening. Listen.’ which can lead to a defensive response, try ‘I need you to listen.’
  • Separate your description of the behaviour from what you think it means.
  • Get students to share the thought processes behind how they do activities. ‘You’re good at pelmanism/pairs. How do you remember which card it is?’
  • Acknowledge behaviour: ‘I understand you think it is unfair, but I still need you to do it.’
  • Give ‘naughty’ children a job straight away. They are more likely to fight to keep a job than to try to behave in the way you request in order to be rewarded with it.
  • Some children with ADD are hyper-alert and always on the lookout for danger. Ask them where they NEED to sit, e.g. by the door for easy escape, or at the back so they can see everything.

Marie left us with the point that a lot of our approaches imply that the child should change, but what about school systems? If somebody’s wearing glasses, you wouldn’t assume that you know how to help them, so why do we do it if somebody with autism is in our class? Labels mean we might assume that all of our learners are the same. This is not true at all.

We cannot solve the problems of today with the same level of thinking which created them.
– Einstein

Marie’s blog has a lot more information and links to her other books.


I didn’t attend Jon Hird‘s talk on helping students with dyslexia at IATEFL, as I went to it at the DoS conference. I found it incredibly useful, and would recommend looking at his tips for adapting and creating materials.

How to help students who find English scary (Ken Wilson)

Ken started by saying that the problem with good and bad teaching is that we often know what not to do, but it’s not always easy to say what we should do instead. He also pointed out that none of us in the room were scary, because scary teachers don’t go to conferences 🙂

Question 1: Are they scared, or are they just bored?

Sometimes it’s hard to tell! Students get bored when they sit for too long, when the teacher talks too much, when it’s all talk and no action, when things are too complicated or too easy for them, when they can’t relate to the material, when they’re tired, when the lesson is boring… They might also be suffering from tech withdrawal, so try to include at least one activity where they can use their technology! (Sandy: Kahoot is great for this)

Ken asked his facebook friends what they used to dread about going to class. Here are some of the themes from the answers:

  • The teacher shaming the students
  • The teacher telling them off
  • Reading aloud in front of the class

So, things not to do:

  • DON’T single out a student for criticism.
  • DON’T reprimand students who are already having problems.
  • DON’T grimace!
  • DON’T ask students to do something that you haven’t trained them to do.
  • DON’T ask students to read aloud.

But that’s a lot of ‘don’ts’, so what should we do? Ken has five tips:

  1. Don’t teach grammar!
    Or at least, don’t introduce it as such. ‘Today we’re going to do the present perfect.’
    Instead, teach the language in chunks wherever you can. Have a conversation, tell a story, draw a cartoon, use a diagram, do a role play. Introduce it in context first, and make it fun whenever you can. And most importantly: don’t look like you’ve had an electric shock when you have to correct grammar 🙂

    Shocked man
    Image from Pixabay.com (free use)
  2. Devolve responsibility
    In a class of 25-30, how long is it before you know which students respond best to your teaching method? Pick the ten ‘best’ students in class, ask them to see you after the lesson, then get them to help you support the ‘weaker’ students. ‘When I say get into groups, I want you all to work in different groups, not together. I need you to help me to help everyone.’
    Work with group dynamics and build confidence to help them get to know each other. What makes us different? Get all students to stand up, share statements about yourself (the teacher) and ask them to sit down if the statement is not true. By the end you should find out who is most similar to you 🙂 They can repeat this in groups.
  3. Find out what they already know
    Use this to help you personalise the experience of using coursebooks. At the beginning of the year/book, give students a list of some of the topics in the book, e.g. moon landings, sharks, fashion. Get them to write one fact each on post-it notes, then give them to another student. Don’t read them yourself! Student’s read each others notes, then stick them into their coursebook on the relevant page. When you get to that unit, ask them to tell you what they know about X as a warmer.
  4. Flip the lesson.
    Do the homework before the lesson rather than afterwards to increase their confidence. Anticipate the following lesson. For example, give them the name of a person you will read about. Showing them a picture and ask them to make predictions. Tell them to find another picture of that person at home and send it to the teacher. This will raise their interest.
  5. Mystery tip! Unfortunately Ken ran out of time! Hopefully he’ll share it in the comments for this post 😉

Tweets from other talks

Throughout the conference, I retweet anything which I think is interesting from other tweeters. These tweets are all related to supporting students in some way.

Other areas

Inclusivity was also visible in a few other areas at this conference, from a higher prominence of LGBT issues, to talks on adapting lessons for visually impaired learners and adapting exams for deaf/blind students. [See also my posts about teaching a visually impaired student and my links on integrating every student.]

To finish, here is Thorsten Merse talking about a training course in acknowledging sexual and gender diversity in their work.

I am *super* impressed! (guest post)

This post appeared in my facebook news feed yesterday, and I immediately asked if Tereza would let me share it on my blog. In it, she questions the value of positive feedback.

Today I received my evaluation of the final project in my sports class and it motivated me for a little contemplation on one of the differences between American and Czech (or even European in this respect) culture. The task was to create my own workout and lead my classmates for the fraction of the lecture. Eventually, due to time reasons, it was ONLY 5 MINUTES. So basically, all I did was I came up with 6 exercises, explained and demonstrated them to my classmates and then we performed them for 40s each with 5s break in between. The whole time I commented into the microphone like ’15 seconds, almost there, you can do it!’ because that was one of the requirements. You can see my evaluation below. My teacher was SUPER impressed, I looked like a professional, I should be an instructor.

Tereza's feedback
Tereza’s feedback

And here comes my point – really? I did not do anything impressive, I have never led a sport lecture before so I definitely have no motivation or other techniques developed and yet, based on 5 mins of doing stuff we have been doing in almost every class this semester, I should be an instructor! Americans are just always mega super trooper supportive to students, to kids, to each other, to everyone. Whatever you do, no matter how good or bad, it’s amazing. If you ask a question, however dumb one, teachers always start their answer with ‘That was an excellent question! I’m so glad you’re asking that.’ Whatever you do, it’s awesome, whatever you say, it’s so smart, whatever you wear, it looks cute and wonderful on you. One might think that there is everything perfect in America and everybody is talented and smart here. And that’s exactly mine (and not just mine) observation – people here really do think that. People are convinced that they are all brilliant at everything they do and look great in everything they wear. This might be a too big generalization, I admit. However, I can see evidence that it is mostly true every day.

My boyfriend teaches a calculus class at university in Missouri and his students, all future engineers by the way, are used to being praised their whole lives, getting excellent grades for everything and being told they can do everything and they are the best and the like as you could see on my evaluation. So those students are all shocked when they don’t get partial credit for accidentally guessing the right result, they are all surprised that there is someone who wants them to work hard for excellent grades and does not tell them ‘great job’ if the job is actually not that great. Instead of feeling ashamed they did not learn something or did not do the homework and therefore could not solve some exam problems, they go to him to complain, to accuse him that it is actually his fault they could not solve it and beg for extra points because they are used to always do great. Some time ago I posted here a ‘proof’ which one of my classmates did in a graduate-level math class. It almost made me cry, in short, she factored ‘x’ out of the integral which depended on ‘x’, they would not have let me finish high school if I had done that in the Czech Republic. So this girl still happily attends the class and I got the honor to read one of her papers we had to turn it. It was a complete disaster, she copied every single thing from the paper which it was based on, she not just copied it but also made a lot of mistakes in copying it, her sentences did not make sense, you could not call her proofs ‘proofs’ even if you were drunk and for all that she got 15 points out of 20. I wouldn’t give her even 10. However, that might probably touch her self-esteem and that’s not desired here.

I am not saying that being supportive and appreciating someone is bad. Especially with kids you should do that a lot. However, here it is led to extreme and moreover, college students are not kids anymore. Or at least they should not be. I have already lost the sense of what is meant honestly and what is just ‘American-like’. I basically have no measure whether I did well or bad because I always get a perfect evaluation. You have no idea whether people like you or how high they think of you because they always say you did a fantastic job. At the beginning, it makes you feel good, like you are really special, you do really so well. But with time, you get tired of that because you already see through it. Again, don’t get me wrong, I do not think teachers should be harsh on students, it is good to give someone encouragement and ‘push’ but not the fake one. In the Czech Republic or Germany where I got a chance to study, or even in my family, we do not flatter each other all the time. I know my parents love me and are proud of me but they do not tell me how amazing and talented and extraordinary I am every time I do something. Therefore, when they do tell me that, when they appreciate something I achieved or succeeded in, I can be sure they mean it and I value it very much then.

Tereza Eliášová is from the Czech Republic, and is currently studying for a semester in the United States. She was one of my students in Brno


All the good people

One of my favourite things about being an English teacher in a private language school is the huge range of people I am privileged to meet. The richness of their experience of the world has taught me a lot, and makes my job a continuous pleasure. The word cloud below includes all of the jobs I can remember, but I’m sure there were more (click to see a bigger version):

Jobs word cloud

And that’s not included the pre-teaching lives of the people I work with! Now, what other job gives you the chance to meet such a diverse range of people?

Questions students have

About two months ago, my intermediate class put together a video to help students coming to International House Newcastle, by answering some of the questions they thought new students might have. This was the result:

To get to the final product, this is what happened:

  • The students talked to each other about what questions they had before they came to the school and in the first couple of weeks, as well as how they tried to find out the answers.
  • They wrote their questions on small pieces of paper – one question per piece of paper – and stuck them to two whiteboards.
  • I divided the class in half. Each group had one whiteboard. They had to divide the questions into categories of their own choosing.
  • They then compared the categories they had with the other group, merged any which were the same, and moved round any which were different.
  • This resulted, quite conveniently, in 5 categories, which was exactly how many pairs there were.
  • With their partner, students selected the most important/interesting questions from their category, so that they had 3-4 questions per pair.
  • They came up with possible answers themselves, supplemented with information from the internet and from me. They decided how they would turn their questions/answers into video form.
  • The pairs took turns going into an empty classroom with my digital camera and mini tripod to make their section of the video. After each, we transferred it to my computer so I could start editing while the next pair filmed.
  • By the end of a two-hour lesson every pair had finished filming. As each pair finished, they came and told me what they wanted me to do in terms of the editing. They also found any pictures that they wanted to add to the video.
  • At home, I spent quite a few hours editing the video, then sent it to my students for approval and to see if there was anything else that needed changing. I made the necessary changes and then reuploaded it to vimeo, which I think is a lot better than YouTube for things like this because it feels more intuitive, and the advertising is more subtle.
  • Hopefully it will appear on the school website somewhere soon 😉

Getting to know you with key words

I came up with an easy to prepare getting to know you activity today, which took about 30 minutes with 12 upper intermediate students.

Divide A4 pieces of paper into quarters – as many as you need for one quarter per student.

Students fold their piece of paper in half.

They draw a picture of themselves on one half, then write key words related to their lives on the other half – as many or as few as they choose.

The final step is a mingle where they show their pictures and key words to other students in the class, and use these as prompts for conversation.

I put the names of all of the students on the board to help them too.

This was my paper:

ImageWhen I first tried to end the activity the students all said ‘No, I’ve still got to speak to…’.


Go online: getting your students to use Internet resources (IATEFL 2012)

In August 2011, I was lucky enough to get one of two International House John Haycraft classroom exploration scholarships for IATEFL Glasgow 2012. As part of the scholarship, I needed to do some action research and present it at the conference.

I chose to research ways to encourage students to use the Internet and other technology resources to improve their English.

The resulting 30-minute presentation can be seen and heard here:

It was originally recorded using mybrainshark, which unfortunately no longer exists.

Apologies for the buzz of the fan on the first two slides – this goes away later. There’s a slide at the end of the recording added just before my presentation, so don’t stop after the thanks! 

It was originally presented on 21st March 2012 at IATEFL Glasgow.

The presentation: a written version


I chose to focus on student use of online resources after using Edmodo, a closed social network similar to facebook but specifically designed for education, for over a year with all of my classes. I observed that only some of the students engaged with the materials and tools I posted on the network and I wondered what I could do to improve their take-up of the resources.


As part of my research I did made observations related to two of my classes, did questionnaires with the students in those groups and created a survey which I publicised via Twitter for students around the world to complete, with a total of 74 responses. Everything which appears in quotation marks below is taken word for word from the surveys I did. If you would like to see the original data, please let me know.

Students who already use online materials

From my research I identified four key characteristics of students who already use the Internet and other technology for their English. They are:

  • motivated; they will use anything available to them to improve their English.
  • competitive; they want their English to be better than that of others or than their own is now.
  • connected; they already have easy access to the internet, normally via smart phones or tablet computers.
  • knowledgable about English resources; either their teacher has already introduced them to useful sites or they have been motivated enough to go out and find the sites for themselves.

What do students already use computers for?

The key words which students used in their answers to this question in the survey were:

  • work;
  • free time;
  • friends;
  • family;
  • Google;
  • emails;
  • facebook.

English only appeared as a medium for chatting on facebook and Skype. Therefore computers are only used to socialise in English rather than to explicitly study, or at least studying in English was not important enough to be mentioned as an answer to this question.

In my view, the main reason for this is that students are not aware of the range of materials which are available to help them with their English. I believe it is one of our responsibilities to show them these resources, so that students can decide whether they want to use them or not.

Problems and solutions

“If I turn on my computer to use websites, I started to log in facebook.”

“Sometimes, I just want to go on facebook and I forget why I went on my computer.”

Use something fun

Quizlet is a website enabling you to easily make and find flashcards covering a wide range of subjects. There are currently over 10 million sets on the site, and this is growing all the time.


For students, the many different functions of Quizlet give them a lot of exposure to the language in a variety of different forms, including being able to listen to computer-generated American pronunciation (this is about 90% correct by my reckoning, with some problems with stress placement). Games allow them to learn the words in a more motivating, fun way than traditional vocabulary lists. There is a speller function, meaning they can practise a side of vocabulary which is not often explicitly studied and track their progress. For students who prefer to use paper, the vocabulary can easily be printed in a variety of forms, including as a list or as two different sizes of flashcards, so they still have access to the same vocabulary as those using the computer-based activities. If they are logged in, students can see their progress through game scores/times and tracking of words studied in the learn and speller mode, as well as by completing the test function.

The site caters to different learning styles, with some activities based on visual cues, others on audio cues, and still others on moving information around on the screen.

It is very easy to personalise the vocabulary students are studying on the site, and they can make as many of their own sets as they please. There is a competitive element, with the highest scores for the space race, the fastest times for the scatter game and the names of students who have completed the learn mode appearing on the set page. Students are encouraged to beat their own highest scores and fastest times. Students can connect through facebook and see what sets their friends have been using, adding a social element. Peer reviews are generally more successful then teacher endorsements, since we are always telling our students what to do! Finally, there are many mobile apps which can be used to see the flashcards on the move, although none of these incorporate games as far as I know.

Overall, the variety of activities available to students on Quizlet could sometimes be more fun and more challenging than facebook, although you will probably have to sell it to the students!

“I didn’t want to create a user name.”

Use sites with no login

Quizlet allows students to access everything on the site without requiring a login, although they do need one if they want to track their progress or appear on any high score boards.

Other sites which don’t need a login are Lyrics Training and English Central.

Lyrics Training gets students to watch YouTube music videos and complete the lyrics. There are three levels available: beginner, with only a few words removed; intermediate, with about half of the words gone; and advanced, with all of the words missing.

Lyrics training

The site is fun, and because students can chose the videos they watch, it (hopefully!) caters to their choice in music and allows them to personalise their learning experience. It is relevant, since many students enjoy learning to help them understand more music. It also adapts something which they may well already do into a more productive task, something which may encourage students to use it without too much hesitation. Students who choose to create a username can make their own video tasks, as in the one I made above, although this is quite complicated.

English Central is another video-based site. In this case, learners watch videos and read the subtitles, then record themselves saying the dialogue from the video. The system then analyses their pronunciation and compares it to the original version. They can click on any word to see a definition and example sentence and hear the pronunciation.

English Central

In addition to being fun and personal in the same way as Lyrics Training, English Central has the added benefit of allowing students to practise their pronunciation in a (fairly) natural way without needing a teacher, something which can be hard to do. Although users don’t need to log in, if they do, the site has a progress bar which allows them to see how much they have done as they move through the levels. I have written a step-by-step guide introducing students to English Central on my Independent English blog.

Another solution to the problem of students reluctant to create another user name is to create a generic class login which everyone in the class can use.

I wanted exam practice.

Make it relevant

While this advice applies to any task we give our students, it is particularly true of students preparing for an exam, often with a limited time available to them.

To this end, I encouraged students preparing for the Cambridge FCE exam to take advantage of voice recorders on their phones and on the Internet, such as audioBoo and Vocaroo. As part of the FCE exam, candidates have one minute to compare and contrast two photos and answer a short question about them. This is ideal as a recorded task as it promotes self-reflection (How could I improve? What did I do well?) and also makes students really think about what they are saying (knowing that they are being recorded makes students more careful).

Audioboo and Vocaroo

Out of 11 students only 2 recorded themselves regularly, but by the week before the speaking exam every student had sent me a recording of either the task described above or the collaborative task, which involves discussing a variety of pictures and solving a problem in pairs. I highlighted the fact that some students recorded themselves and encouraged them to talk about it in class, attempting to promote a culture of ‘me too’ – students wanting to be recognised in the same way – while avoiding having a teacher’s pet.

Most importantly, regular voice recording allows students to track their progress in speaking. As one student said in answer to the question “For you, what did you find most useful about recording your voice?” “To hear how I improved during the weeks. It was amazing to hear me in September and December. It was a big difference.”

“I don’t really like to study on my computer.”

Bring it to class

With the same FCE class described above, I introduced the flo-joe word bank as a 20-minute introduction to every class. Every day, the website posts one question each based on phrasal verbs, word formation and collocations to help the students prepare for the Use of English exam.


I was lucky enough to have an interactive whiteboard, but it would be easy enough to print the pages or even write the questions on the board as they are quite short. By making students aware that this resource exists and that you value it enough to dedicate class time to it, they are more likely to visit the site themselves and find out what else is there.

In fact, this was the case with one of my students, who started to complete the weekly writing tasks posted on the site under his own steam.

Show them non-computer sources

An alternative for students who want to access extra resources but don’t want to use the computer is to give them ideas based on non-computer sources. Voice recording via mobile phones is one example.

Another is podcasts, which are now easily available and cover (almost!) every possible topic. Students can choose topics and styles of presentation which suit them, and podcasts easily fit into their lives, since the majority of students now have an mp3 player of some kind. Here is a step-by-step guide introducing students to podcasts and showing them how to use them.


I need translations.

Give them the tools

On being greeted by a sea of English on most of the websites mentioned already, students may feel put off by the amount of language they ‘need’ to access the materials. As teachers then, it is important for us to give them the tools they need to make full use of the resources available.

An online dictionary helps them to understand new vocabulary, while (normally) providing the pronunciation of words, key collocations, notes about how to use the lexis and additional reading practice. This is much richer than a simple translation, which while useful at times, should not be the students first recourse in my opinion. Any student with internet access on their mobile phones can get a variety of dictionaries at the touch of a button.


In addition, I encourage my students to use these dictionaries in class, allowing me to help them find their way around at first. By consistently helping students to find meanings themselves, they are more prepared for life outside the classroom when a teacher won’t always be around to help them.

Here is my step-by-step guide to online dictionaries.

Everyone else understands but I don’t.

Extra support

For students who are not comfortable with technology/computers or who feel their English level is too low, accessing online materials can be quite daunting. If possible, one-to-one attention allows the teacher to focus on a student’s problems, which as well as making the student feel valued, helps the teacher the next time they introduce a tool by highlighting possible problem areas for new users. If it is not possible for the teacher to do this, or if their peers are already confident with a tool, students could be paired up with a ‘buddy’ who can help them.

It is also important for teachers to ‘share the love’ when it comes to new technology: by showing other willing teachers how to use the tools you are introducing, you give the students more possible helpers. If your school has a self access centre, you could also demonstrate the tools to those who work in it, so that students can ask for help and get extra support there too.

“You gave us too many websites so it was a bit hard to use everything.”

Remember it can be overload

Of course, not everything which inhibits learners from taking advantage of Internet resources is student-generated! The above is a direct quote which echoed what a few of my FCE students said in the first class where I did this research. I took two things from this into my second group:

  • Avoid showing them too much, too fast: introduce tools one a time, and when students are comfortable add another one if necessary.
  • Once is never enough: just because students have seen a tool once, it doesn’t mean they can use it again. It’s worth repeating introductions to tools more than once, allowing students to take the lead with explanations after the first time. Being systematic and introducing only one tool at a time also helps here.

After the course

Via Edmodo and facebook, I asked my students to tell me whether they still used any of the tools I had shown them after they left my class. Here are the four responses I got:

After the course quotes


Here are all of the key words mentioned above:

IATEFL 2012 mindmap

Ultimately, we shouldn’t force our students to use technology if they don’t really want to. It doesn’t suit everyone. However, if we at least show them what’s out there and give them the chance to experiment with it, students can make their own decisions about whether or not to use the tools.

I hope that these suggestions prove useful to you. If you have other solutions, please do add them to the comments. I would also be interested to hear about the tools which your students find most useful. Finally, if you any questions please post them in the comments.

Thanks to:

  • IATEFL and International House for the scholarship.
  • My students for putting up with me and my endless requests during the research!
  • My Twitter colleagues for sharing the survey and supporting me in my research, as well as introducing me to the tools mentioned in this presentation and many ideas for using them.
  • Ceri Jones for helping me out with my scholarship application.
  • Jane Harding da Rosa for helping me to conduct the research.
  • Jenny Pugsley for giving me feedback on the final presentation.

Update: I have written a step-by-step guide introducing students to Quizlet and podcasts (including for IELTS) on my Independent English blog.

My new blog: Independent English

As if two blogs weren’t enough 😉

I set up ‘Independent English‘ for students, with the aim of giving them ideas to help them practise English at home. I plan to post roughly once a week, with each post being a step-by-step guide which they can work through alone or with a teacher. If I have time, I will also record myself reading the post so that students can listen to it if they are not confident readers. It is probably best for B1/Intermediate and higher at the moment, although some posts may be suitable for lower levels later.

The first entry is about podcasts, including a list of links to (in my opinion) good podcasts for learners and native speakers to listen to.

There is also a facebook page for you to ‘like’.

Please feel free to pass the link on to your students, and/or to give me feedback on how to improve the site. Hope you find it useful!

And now, it’s time for the news

This post has been a very long time coming. Back in July, my students spend a week on a news project. Every afternoon they worked in groups with the aim of producing a news bulletin to ‘broadcast’ on Friday afternoon. We did some brainstorming based on what was in the news on Monday, and after that they went their own ways. These were the results, and I think you’ll agree, they’re excellent!

I particularly like the weather at the end of this one.

I don’t know how they kept a straight face!

After a five minute tutorial on how to use iMovie, this was the result.

Well done guys, and sorry it took me so long to publish them!


I love Edmodo! I discovered it via Twitter the day before my first class of the 2010-2011 academic year, and I can honestly say it has revolutionised the way that I interact with my students both inside and outside class.

If you’ve never heard of it, here’s a quick intro. I describe it as ‘facebook for education’. Here’s a screenshot of my homepage at the moment:


For anyone who has used facebook, the interface should be instantly familiar, and for anyone who hasn’t it is very easy to pick up. Here’s a video to show you how it works:

Their user guide is very comprehensive, but if you get stuck, feel free to ask for help!

As a teacher, it has meant I can easily:

  • share materials
  • make sure absent students know what they’ve missed
  • offer students help
  • collect and mark assignments
  • provide a varied diet of homework (not just workbook pages)
  • share links and videos to make English more fun
  • motivate students to find out more about various aspects of English-speaking culture
  • chat with my students outside class
  • and much much more…

I’ve received a lot more homework from my students, including returned second drafts of writing (almost unheard of before!), felt a difference in rapport with my students, had great fun discussing various youtube clips, and generally seen a much higher level of engagement and motivation both inside and outside the classroom.

But don’t just take my word for it’s usefulness. 27 of the 45 students I used Edmodo with last year responded to a survey I created to find out what they thought of it, and this is what they had to say:

So as you can see, Edmodo has made a real difference to the English-teaching and -learning experience in my classes over the past year, and it’s definitely something I will use again.

I hope this has persuaded you to try it out (and no, I’m not being paid for this!) 🙂


Teaching Metaphors

During the #eltchat about coursebooks on Wednesday 11th May 2011 a few metaphors for teaching were mentioned. Lizzie Pinard quoted them in her excellent summary of the chat:

@Chucksandy summed this up beautifully: “Good cooks know what can be left out of or put into a recipe, or added as a side dish. Good teachers using course books know the same thing.” Or, as @OUPELTglobal put it, the course book should be used like a map with the route and pace being set by the students and the teacher.

This is not the first time metaphors like this have been used in the chats, but this time it got me thinking about how we describe the processes of teaching and learning languages to our students.

I’ve already posted about the ‘high’ I get when I can successfully communicate in a foreign language. I created my other favourite language-related metaphor when responding to students complaints about learning grammar, although I think it can be used to describe the process of learning languages in general too. Please note, it’s only meant to give an image to my students, without being completely factually accurate! It goes a little something like this:

  • Everybody wants grammar to look like New York. Nice straight lines, turn left here, turn right there…
  • In fact, it looks a lot more like London, with random twists and turns, a few bits that might resemble where you’re from, but many others which are completely unfamiliar.
  • And although London might seem scary at first, especially if you’re dumped in the middle of it with no map, you CAN get to know it. All you need to do is spend time there. And the more time you spend there, the easier it is to find your way around. You’ll even get to the stage where you can go places automatically, without thinking about which way to go.
  • In exactly the same way, the more time you spend with grammar / a language, the easier it is to use. You can find your way around, make educated guesses, and eventually use it without thinking about it. But you’ll never know how to do all of the this unless you make an effort and ‘wander round’.

This way of thinking about language seems to have really helped some of my students, and has even meant that a couple of them have started putting in slightly more work!

So what metaphors do you use with your students? Or when thinking about your teaching?

Podcasts for extra listening practice

One way to get your SS listening to English outside class is to encourage them to use podcasts. They don’t need an iPod or mp3 player – all they need is a computer with an internet connection. Some places to download podcasts from:

There are podcasts about everything you could possibly imagine. Here is a selection of the ones that I listen to:

  • BBC History Magazine
  • BBC Focus Magazine (Science, includes some natural discussion and some reports)
  • Digital Planet
  • Science in Action
  • Stuff you Missed in History Class
  • In Our Time (assorted topics, discussion)
  • Thinking Allowed (sociology)
  • Reduced Shakespeare Company (this is the podcast which is most like natural speech – lots of conversations)
  • Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s film reviews
  • Great Lives
  • Best of Natural History Radio
  • The Film Programme
  • Excess Baggage (travel)
  • Material World (Science)
  • Friday Night Comedy
  • Front Row Highlights (some interviews, some monologues)
  • World Book Club

There are also many podcasts specifically designed for English learners, including:

  • 6 Minute English (BBC) – a discussion programme including explanations of new vocabulary
  • Talk About English (BBC) – lots of grammar focus, as well as in-depth looks at individual items of vocabulary.

It’s important that the SS know they don’t need to understand every word, but that the more they listen to English as ‘background noise’, the easier it will become for their brains to tune into it.


Update: I have created a complete beginner’s guide to podcasts, designed for teachers or pre-int and above students.

Invite them in (30goals)

This is my contribution for this week’s 30 goals challenge, set by Shell Terrell.

Goal 6: Invite them in

The first challenge of the week was to invite colleagues and those around us in to see what we do in our classrooms. I always have the door open at school, or the blinds open on the meeting room windows at company classes. I’ve always enjoyed having other teachers come into the room, and peeking into my colleagues’ rooms when their doors are open too.

But what I’ve not been doing is sharing my students’ work outside the room – it’s always been for myself and them only. So for the last couple of weeks I’ve been trying to encourage students to (allow me to) share what they’ve been doing. The result is a new blog with work from as many of my students as possible. This has been positive for them, allowing them to see that there is a wider audience for their work, and for myself too, allowing me to get feedback from both teachers and students on what we’ve been doing.

One little email

I came into school at 7:15 this morning, having woken up an hour before my alarm at 5:15. I wasn’t in the best of moods, and although I knew I would be fine once I was in the classroom, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to my longest teaching day of the week.

Then, I checked my email, and found this message:

Hi Sandy,

You are a best super special teacher! You are stir to me learning!  (I thing that is bad order, but, you are teacher I understand my English attempt.)

Today I was a proudly to your teachers achievements. Your pupil (I) had today meeting with European RND (detail network development). This gentleman are British, and spoke nice British English. Wonderful! I spoke more than one hour, and he underwood me. I underwood too, but 50 – 70%, not all.

Again, you are a good teacher and I bad pupil, but but but….. I am in progress.

Many thanks

(if I read this, I thing, we‘ll must training writing, Word order, tenses, spelling, atd………………………



I went into class with a huge smile on my face 🙂

K was the first person I ever taught in Brno, and I have now taught him once a week since September 2007. He’s a businessman in his early fifties who owns a car showroom. When I first started teaching him, I was newly-qualified and often felt like tearing my hair out. I regularly got very frustrated (after class, not in it!) and felt like we really weren’t making any progress. He had been studying for two years, and had managed to get through one and a half books without really remembering any of the grammar.

It took a lot of learner training to get him to the stage where he would do an exercise without looking at me for approval after every question. It took at least four months to persuade him to open his book between classes, much less do homework. By the end of the first year, after revising the first half of the book, we’d managed to get through 2 more units, and I’d just about got used to teaching him.

Since then, I’ve started to really look forward to my lessons with K. We chat about all kinds of things, and he now works really hard. He’s just started an Intermediate-level book, and the amount of progress I’ve seen over the last 2.5 years has been amazing. He often calls me a ‘brutal’ teacher, but always in a jokey way. Knowing what kind of activities he enjoys and hates means my plans have become much more suited to his style and the amount of laughter has increased exponentially.

Feedback like this really encapsulates why I love my job. Thank you K!