The SM Debate

Wow, this Hole-in-the-Wall lark is DULL!!  Image from ELTpics, but currently anonymous.

Wow, this Hole-in-the-Wall lark is DULL!! Image from ELTpics, but currently anonymous.

Since Sugata Mitra’s rumble-n-thunder-inspiring plenary at last week’s IATEFL 2014 conference in Harrogate, there has been a considerable amount of online debate about his stance on learning, on teachers et al. I have to say I think that he was an odd choice of speaker for a language teaching conference (despite the positive connotations of provoking such a passionate reaction from various corners) – the previous two years saw wordsmiths take to the lectern, which made sense – as, as teachers, I feel we should be encouraging our charges to increase the amount of face-to-face, quality human communication they indulge in, not reduce it via yet more screen-mediated transmission (whilst children do not have the same amount of XBox / whatsapp exposure in New Delhi as they do in, say, Paris, they certainly do in Mitra’s current hometown of Newcastle upon Tyne). If you look at ‘world internet access geography’, our planet is loosely divided into ‘little internet coverage plus minimal access to any kind of technology or even (reliable) electricity’ versus ‘overexposure to all things screen, and not enough personal, face-to-face, human voice interaction’. In parts of the world, the whatsapp text-based chat has replaced the (stretched-out-curly-cable) phone conversations of (some of) our youth, facebook is taking over from chats over coffee or hanging out in the town square and online, headphones-&-mic Play Station is replacing inviting pals over for the afternoon / evening; as LANGUAGE teachers in these areas, I feel we should be supporting the learning of a basic life skill – genuine, human interaction, y’know, that stuff called communication (written and spoken, and regardless of what language it’s in). In the other areas, replacing teachers with computers is a bit daft anyway in practical, electrical, electronic terms, let’s face it, and is simply exposing yet another part of the topography to banal advertising (for it will surely come…), as has happened to any other ‘free access’ resource online (check out the cr** adorning your FB page or the bottom of your blog, on occasion), and reducing even more young people’s human connections. As LANGUAGE teachers in these areas, I feel we should be supporting the learning of a basic life skill etc etc etc.

All that said, I wrote about Sugata Mitra’s hole-in-the-wall experiments back in 2011, giving my take on what we language imparters CAN take away and use from them and there are a few things. The article is here on Henrick Oprea’s great blog, and I also expressed (and techno-drew) my take on the need to up the amount of human interaction in classrooms and down the amount of technology here in macappella. If you’re interested. And if you’re not, well, I hope to be back n blogging ‘properly’ in the next few days. Bring it on.


Filed under Uncategorized

A teenage kicks diversion

Image courtesy of Chiew Pang aka @aClilToClimb at #eltpics

Image courtesy of Chiew Pang aka @aClilToClimb at #eltpics

Just as a brief hiatus in the midst of this Confidence flow, I’d like to post a couple of links to ‘stuff’ I’ve done recently – hope you don’t mind. Hopefully, you’ll find the things interesting.

In November 2012 (or maybe it was October?), I gave a webinar for the British Council, having been invited by Paul Braddock. The topic – or rather title was Teenage kicks (for grown-ups) and it was a kind of on-line workshop on how to make your coursebook more learner-centred ( or at least how to TRY to…). If you’re at all interested, the webinar is to be found here.

There were some interesting questions in the chatbox, but, if you’ve ever done a webinar, you’ll know that, at least at novice stage as I was, it’s quite hard to keep an eye on your slides, a smile on your face, address your invisible audience somehow directly and watch out for questions all at the same time. SO Paul and I decided that we’d pull the questions out of the box, after finishing the webinar, and I’d answer them as a blog post for the British Council’s TeachingEnglish web. And then the holidays got in the way.

So finally, we uploaded the answers to the ‘questions from the floor’ today. If you’d like to have a look, they’re here and comments would be more than welcome, as I’ve decided to start blogging on the topic as soon as I’ve finished the ‘Confidence Suite’, the next post of which is due tomorrow some time. The questions I answered (my opinions, obviously, not oracle-like empirical answers) were as follows, if you fancy having a ponder yourself:

1. Do you encourage the use of colloquialism and idioms etc. with teens?

2. Any tips for teaching online?

3. Do you take the coursebook as the basis for your lesson or do you use other materials?

4. How do you feel about using online corpora to help sts with language?

Back very soon with the remaining Confidence posts, and on to pastures new…. Oh, and a Happy New Year to you!


Filed under Uncategorized

A Matter of Confidence: The quest continues…

Light and growth

I said in the first of these posts that learning and confidence are like chicken and egg, though perhaps they’re more like light and growth, the one not happening without the other, though whether confidence or learning is the sunlight is impossible to say. In order to boost confidence we have to boost learning and vice versa. Factors such as environment, integration within the group, rapport on the part of the teacher, self-confidence and self-image all contribute to confidence, of course – and I optimistically hope to be able to blog on them at some point in the future – but for now, and for this series of posts, the aides-memoires I’m looking at, if you’ll pardon the slight distortion of the term, are personalising, emotional response, repetition and ‘Complete learning’. For my rationale, take a look at the introductory post to the series.

Emotional response: or “I want you, I need you, but there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you”.

Life is not all about loving or hating annoying Brazilian ditties (see earlier post), catchy earworms which get stuck on our mind’s turntable, repeating themselves over and over as we have subconsciously absorbed every tooth-sensitising note. And although psychologists say that emotional response heightens learning, we don’t need to have read their work to know that that’s true. We all have our own personal examples of learning ‘via’ emotion, language or otherwise.

Here are some of my moments, but as you read, you may like to reach into your own memory-bag and rummage around for some of your own, based on the same emotions mentioned and marked in bold.

Of course, in true ELT teacher-awareness workshop fashion, you could then track down a partner and compare your experiences, but see a couple of posts ago for the risks of ‘personalisation’

Identifying naffness… Image by Diarmuid Fogarty at #ELTpics

1 When I was young(er), there was a song in the charts that I loathed. It was called D.I.S.C.O. As a ‘rather cool kid’ (yeah, right) I thought this song was utter guff and somehow vaguely insulting, as if the ‘she’ in question was a sports team, her redeeming features being spelt out à la Gimme a D “D”, Gimme an I “I”…., or as in the Mickey Mouse Club song. (One of Madonna’s recent hits has just popped into my mind… they never grow tired of the cheerleader thing, do they?) I hated the singers’ clothes, the girl’s ‘flying saucer’ hairdo, seeing them on Top of the Pops was just too embarrassing… this was 1979! Post Punk, the era of XTC, the Damned, Blondie, John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John… Anyway. I can still remember each adjective, every syllable of the excruciating chorus and it haunts me whenever I try to remember who sang ‘Goin’ back to my roots‘.. (the groups have names which my memory has unwisely decided to store in the same place).

2 When I was a first year student at university, there was a song I used to listen to before going out ‘on the toon’ (Newcastle). I didn’t love or hate it, but it made me feel happy, put me in the mood, got me ready for dancin‘. It was All night long by Lionel Ritchie, and I still remember every word.

3 There’s a song that reminds me of my dearest friend (for whatever reason..), and so gives me a warm ‘mmm’ feeling. I can remember every nuance of every note, as well as the words, because I associate the song with him. It’s a song by Norah Jones.

Poignant                                                              Image by @sandymillin at #ELTpics

4 Around the time my mother passed away, there was an ‘annoying’ little song that I had heard a million times without paying much attention. But then suddenly, every word, every syllable stuck almost overnight, as I associated it with my – and my family’s – loss. I still well up if it comes on the radio, and sing it in my mind occasionally, when I’m remembering… “You’re beautiful, you’re beautiful, you’re beautiful it’s true…. and I don’t know what to do, ’cause I’ll never be with you”. Repetition alone was not enough, it was just another of those 20 or so songs played all day long on commercial radio, but then emotion – sadness and loss – came along. As did new meaning.

From music – an easy example of us learning words – to language-learning.

5 My favourite words in Catalan are mandonguilles and saltimbanqui. I love the way they sound and feel in my mouth. They were instantly memorable to me, and I still love them. They mean meatballs and acrobat…..

6 I used to embarrass myself by confusing cojín, cajón, and cojón in Spanish (cushion, drawer and – erm – testicle respectively). I once told my (ex)mother-in-law that she’d find the kitchen scissors in the top bollock. And thus ended my confusion…instantly. And probably any chance of us ever becoming close.

7 Again in Catalan, I learned that the word for bed in Spanish means something different in Catalan, when, on being introduced by my boyfriend of the time to a friend of his, my jaw nearly hit the floor with surprise/shock – and then with hilarity. The conversation went something like this.

Juan: Jaume, this is my new girlfriend, Fiona.

Jaume: Hi Fiona. So, Juan, how’s ‘la cama’?

(Me, thinking in Spanish, aghast at such a direct question in front of other people… ).

Juan: Oh, not bad. Getting better.

(Me even more aghast… ‘not bad’??!!) Jaume departs. I turn to Juan:

Me: What on earth…? Why…? How could you….?

Juan (puzzled): What’s up?

Me: He just asked how our sex life is going!

Juan: Ey?

Me: ¿Qué tal la cama?

Juan: Ahhhhhhhhhh. Cama means leg in Catalan. When I broke my leg, he was in the next bed to me in hospital. Qué tal la cama? It means How’s your leg

Me: Ah……

So cama means legin Catalan. I’ll never forget it. Believe me.

How is it going? ……                   Images by @hartle and @Senicko at #ELTpics

Dislike, happiness, warmth and affection, nostalgia, pain and sadness, liking and pleasure, embarrassment, hilarity…. All emotional responses that help us learn. Sometimes quite fast. The way songs enter our memory-bag (I’ll always remember Since you’ve been gone by Rainbow more easily than Adele’s Someone like you…emotion is what it is…) is similar to the way language does, as we memorise items, chunks or whole texts. I could never learn quotes for school exams but could always learn lines for plays, as the adrenalin and emotion of acting, the fear in fact, was far ‘superior’ to that of an English literature exam. How do you learn your students’ names on the first day – surely the names of the students you ‘react to’ in some way are more easily recalled? I still remember David-would-you-please-get-off-the-table’s name, but have forgotten his cute little cousin’s (they were 3 years old, not adults..).

Given the amount of information we encounter in a lifetime, it makes utter sense that we are simply not going to remember totally random items or moments (and there’s another path through nostalgia you could take – the most memorable moments in your life – probably not the first time you bought a bag of frozen peas, but it could be the first time you ate snails or tripe … disgust or pleasure), but we make space for those things that have some emotional, and of course intensely personal value attached – emotional value, not just practical value. I have little need for Catalan acrobats and their legs and meatballs in my day-to-day, but the words are still there.

I’m having lunch with an acrobat….                                                 Image by @seburnt for #ELTpics

SO. If you’ve got this far, what does this emotional response awareness mean for your classroom? Make your students hate English? No, perhaps not. But there are implications. Always there are implications.

‘Make your classes fun’ is the obvious answer, but entertainment alone is not enough to get students engaging with language – a class can be fun ‘despite’ the language work, as well as because of it, which is something to bear in mind. The students might then remember the framework the language was met in, but not the language itself. And it’s the language they need to engage with.

Dislike, happiness, warmth and affection, nostalgia, pain and sadness, liking and pleasure, embarrassment, hilarity- these were the words I used above, and can be used as the basis of topics to deal with with students. Teen students, remember. Ask them what words they don’t like in their own language (think about it in yours – there are bound to be some: moist, thigh, flesh, regurgitate, muffler, sprats, bollard…Leo Selivan’s toes curl at the word washroom), get them to think about and discuss them in small groups, then allow them to find the translation in English and discuss if the words are equally as horrendous, worse, better, squishier, cuddlier… Ask them what it is about the sounds they don’t like in their language and discuss words with similar sounds in English. They can then write a simple poem using, say, six words they really like and six they hate the sound of. I have used Spike Milligan’s version of Twinkle twinkle little star with students to discuss how we react to certain sounds, the semiotics of poetry… Teens are NOT too young for that. If you show an interest, so will they. They may start slowly, but they’ll warm up. The language that comes out will be very ‘emergent’, to overuse a word, but it will be real to them, words they can associate with something and then use – in their poem or rap. Or life.

Visualisation is also a great way of reaching emotions via sensory stimuli. I’ve already blogged about the power of the voice and visualisation, but every time I do this in class, I am… oh, I can’t think of a ‘cool’ word, but ‘enchanted’ comes close to the feeling – enchanted by what my students come out with. They relax, they feel, and the language ‘happens’. It happens in L1 first, usually, but when they’ve found the translation and spoken about what they saw and felt, then written about it, the language is gelling, and the whole visualisation exercise is intensely memorable.

In all classes, we sometimes keep our mouths clamped shut (clamped – there’s a word I dislike) and try to avoid choking on our laughter when some errors slip out, but it could actually be worth compiling a list of them and, at some future date, perhaps as an end of term thing, producing the list and working on ‘why these things were funny’. You know the sort of error – ‘He came all over me’ rather than ‘He came over to me’, or ‘he got off with his car’ rather than ‘he went off in his car’. There’s no need to embarrass the student at the time, but you can have a laugh later on.

Your place or mine?                                                                           Image by @cgoodey at #ELTpics

My students at the moment are actually in their early 20s and I’ve noticed that ‘Questions for chatting someone up at a party’ are far more successfully learned than ‘Safe questions for a first class’, so I get students to write down questions they’d like to ask someone they’ve just met (in any context), we work on how to say them, we work on sentence stress, and off they go, role-playing: “Do you fancy a last drink back at my place?” is as valid an intro to the Present Simple as Do you like swimming? or whatever. It sticks better too, as they have to make more of an effort to say it, and overcoming frustration is a useful emotional challenge.

The role-play is memorable too….

The bottom line, of course, is this: indifference is the greatest enemy of learning. So weep, wail, blush, laugh, groan, struggle, gasp or smile, but prod your students’ emotional responses one way or another. And hopefully they’ll return the favour by learning.


Filed under Uncategorized

A Matter of Confidence: a brief example of ‘personalising’.

I’ve just been answering comments made on A Matter of Confidence: Personalising, and an example came to mind (thanks, Dina and Shahram). The distinction I make between personalisation and personalising is my own, not coined by someone wiser than me, it’s personal and non-scientific, but an example involving adults like yourselves would be as follows.

Imagine you’re learning a foreign language, and you’ve just been focusing on the equivalents of this lexis: salary, wage, tax, debt, bonus, earn, win, owe, spend, waste, invest, lose, buy, sell, borrow, lend, pay, pay for, cash, loan, overdraft, mortgage, rent, bills, credit card…..

Apparently, it makes the world go round…..  Image by Chiew Pang for eltpics

Got that? Now choose one of these activities to do with a partner or three:

A (Personalisation) Take it in turns to find out how much your partner earns and how they spend their money. What is the most expensive thing they have been able to buy themselves recently? Report back to the class about your partner.

B (Personalising) Look at the words above and choose five to comment on. What do those five words make you think of? Are they happy associations or not? Think for a few minutes and take notes if you wish. When you are ready, discuss your associations with your (three) partner(s). Write a summary of your discussion.

Which one would you choose? I’m talking about you in a class as a learner with, say, 24 other learners (or 34 or…), not all of whom are your best friends…  What do you think? Which are you more comfortable with? Do you think you’d learn the lexis more effectively? Why (not)?

More soon.


Filed under Uncategorized

A Matter of Confidence: Personalising


Personalising. I’m avoiding the word ‘personalisation’ as, for me at least, it has connotations of activities of the “Now tell your partner about your last holiday / Describe your house / Write five sentences about your brother‘ type and that is not what I think personalising language input for learning means – at least not for teens. Let me explain (sudden memory of Basil Fawlty sticking his finger in Manuel’s eye…).

Describe your house....... Image by Sandy Millin at eltpics

In the intro post above (or rather ‘below’, this being a blog), I gave the example of the ‘Ay se eu te pego’ (or earworms in general) effect and how many non-Portuguese speaking people have picked up this dotty ditty. Part of the reason, and initially the most obvious one, is that it’s everywhere, it’s part of life in early 2012. You hear it in the supermarket, on TV, on the car radio, people spontaneously start singing it (in my role as basketball mom, I was hugely relieved to be supporting a team whose mothers were not joyfully shrieking it at their sporting offspring last weekend..). Because it’s unavoidable, it has relevance in your (one’s) life. Later on down the line, many of us will be able to recall the year in which it came out, as it will have coincided with some event or stage in our life, it will become embedded in our mental soundtrack and serve as a labeller. I heard the song ‘I promised myself’ (Nick Kamen) on the radio this morning. I was instantly transported back to a particular place and time, so, without Googling it, I’d say 1990 or 1991. I’m fairly sure I know most of the words too, but have never attempted to learn them and would rather not express an opinion on that particular number. We memorise things simply by ‘attaching’ them to our life. This can happen accidentally, as with these songs, but it can also be ‘helped’. Of course, if information or language has a direct use or relevance in our life (eg Spanish basketball terminology in mine), we also learn it. And to me, this is the meaning of ‘personalising': finding a place, a relevance, a context in our lives for language; a place, relevance or context that we have chosen. We form our associations following the twists and turns of our life-route – Michel Telo at a basketball match in Plasencia, Nick Kamen with a group of friends in a bar in Granada – voluntarily and personally. We also decide what’s relevant, what we need in order to express our lives (flowering plants, car parts, first aid techniques…), and what isn’t. In an ESL context, this aspect is marginally easier, but most teenage English language learners in the world are in an EFL classroom, where relevance is in shorter supply.

Never to burst. Image by Sandy Millin at eltpics

In the teen classroom, this type of personalising is wildly different from what passes for ‘personalisation‘. “What do teens talk about? They talk about themselves” has long been the justification for a lot of what goes on in the EFL classroom, but to what extent is it true? Listen to teenagers talking to each other. Or slip back in time in your own recalled life to when you were 13, 14, 15. On the whole, teens talk about what they want (‘need’), what they’re going to do, school, sports, what they feel confident about or proud of. They function as a tribe (apart from a few exceptions, obviously), they’re competitive in terrain where they feel they can compete and they talk about each other. Want. Like. Need. Going to. Last weekend. He was pathetic. It was awesome. You nerd! She’s a … Hopes, dreams, whims, aims, feelings for each other, rivalries. The world as one big oyster, an ironclad bubble that will never be burst. But what they are willing to talk about is only the flip side of what they are not willing to talk about, a smoke screen for the poppable part of that bubble. When would a teenager describe his/her house to friends? They may describe a new house – if it’s ‘amazing’, to the whole tribe; if it’s a dive compared to the previous one, to parents (criticism) or intimate friends (confidential complaint) – but do they ever sit around, describing where they’ve always lived? Do they even think about it? Is it even a place they want to think about? Is home-life all sweetness and light when you’re 14? And what about ‘Tell your partner about your brother/sister’? “I hate him; he steals my socks, reads my text messages and leaves old food in our room.” Then there’s Complete the sentence so it’s true for you: At the moment, my father is…. missing / in prison / with his other family‘. My own sons hate talking about aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins…. as they’re all so far away and most of them have never visited, don’t even send a birthday card, making my kids ‘really different from the tribe’.

This whole area is the area I call The Twilight Zone. Activities that require students to think about what they have – ‘Compare your mobile phone with a partner’, ‘Find out how much pocket money your partner gets and what he/she spends it on‘ are ‘personalisation’ exercises I’ve seen in coursebooks. Are these examples of personalising or are they invitations to consider how others may be better (or worse) off? Do they rub salt into carefully concealed wounds? Then there’s the Describe your last holiday / birthday party / weekend sort. Some of my students go on holiday with their parents to New York, Disneyland… they spend a month in Dublin learning English; others go to their grandmother’s house maybe 15km down the road. Rather than helping learning or boosting confidence which, in turn, then helps learning, these activities can crush self-esteem, cause stigmata to seep, start resentment brewing, breed envy, cause divide rather than create community. Students may close down rather than open up. So. Beware the Twilight Zone.

Confidence leads to learning, learning comes from experimenting with language, using it, observing reactions to using it, using it again, feeling it, attaching it to your own life, like a sticky, silky earworm. Confidence comes from doing all that effectively, but also from being in an environment which is personally unthreatening and is supportive. So students should be allowed to make their own connections between their life and new language. Confidence and experimenting intertwined.

Behold the Twilight Zone.... Image by Chiew Pang for eltpics

In a dogme lesson, this happens naturally, as the content leads to the language, but most classrooms are more traditional and work the other way round. The language drives the syllabus and is decided before the lesson let alone before the content. In this context, allowing students to be creative rather than making them feel they have to be honest and therefore vulnerable is important. Allow them to use language to tell or weave stories, to talk about dreams and about what they’re going to do/have etc. Rather than Describe your house, try What house are you going to have when you’re older? or Describe your dream house (in my experience going to for boys, dream house for girls, though not always). Instead of describing a sibling that bugs the heck out of them, ask them to choose a famous person they’d like to have as a sibling and then describe that person and explain why they’ve chosen them. Or get them to describe their own qualities as a good sibling and a less good sibling (whether they have brothers and sisters or not). They do like thinking about themselves, and focusing on ‘good and less good’, rather than ‘bad’, is an exercise in self-esteem support/generation. And besides, they are very much the centre of their own universe and, in their eyes, let’s face it, of their siblings’ universe too.

The guided visualisation activity in Place of Greater Safety (see link above) is ‘safe’ personalising – you are creating students’ own images to describe, feeding in the vocabulary they need for those images, and building the activity stage by stage. It doesn’t ask students to describe an experience they haven’t had or didn’t enjoy, or a place they haven’t visited or don’t like.

You can also personalise the language from, say, a story or other reading text before reading the story (text), as the typical Do you know what these words mean? (vocab box) Now find them in the story and check your answers thing doesn’t attach that language to anything relevant to the student, the student never connects with it, so unless the story is amazing, disgusting etc (‘Emotional Response’ is still to come… soon), those words will then quietly lose themselves, possibly forever. The story may be remembered, but the language…. unlikely. If, of course, that language then reappears in a test, as it may, wham-o, confidence will be thoroughly bashed as the teacher growls to him/herself ‘but we did this...’. Did you indeed? But to do is not to learn. It is our job to not only provide language input but to motivate and to build confidence and learning – so why do so few teachers do it? You can encourage language associations, personalising, cause language to engrave a pathway in memories in various ways. Here’s one, but there will be more in the final Question of Confidence post. If all goes well.

Make a word cloud using your story or text.

What's the story....?

As a class, invite students to guess what the story is about, and to suggest some ideas using the words from the cloud. They’ll inevitably ask you the meaning of unfamiliar words, so you’ll start building their comprehension and reduce puzzlement later on. You can then put them in smaller groups to come up with more ideas – then share them as a class. Write some of the ideas on the board, if you wish, then ask students to work individually to write down what THEY think happens in the story – they can confer with a partner. This way you are supporting their language practice, helping them attach their own contexts or meanings to the language, the activity is dynamic and productive, prior to a more passive, internal reading session, they work as a class, group, pair and individually, and when they come to actually reading the story, they’ll have fewer fuzzy areas, zero puzzlement is more achievable and they have more motivation to read than that offered by a selection of comprehension questions afterwards. It takes more time, obviously, but one reading well-done beats scratching the surface of three texts.

If you’d like to read the story that goes with the wordcloud above, click here. (And thanks to Alan Tait and others for making this activity a fun experience in Bilbao).

2 Emotional Response or ‘Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens’ (coming soon…)


Filed under Uncategorized

A Matter of Confidence

"Don't think you can do it, know you can do it." Morpheus, The Matrix.

Time for a ponderous post, I feel. I’m pinging around Spain this year giving workshops on the importance (of the utter sort) of confidence in the teen classroom and, although I don’t usually do this, I’ve decided to write the theoretical part down (up?), as teachers’ reactions to the sessions and the ensuing discussions suggest to me that this is an area well worth taking a contemplative stroll through.

Teen motivation has been My Thing for years now – in some ways probably ever since I was a demotivated teen and certainly since I realised that that experience could be put to good use in my own classroom – but this more recent focus on confidence and self-belief has given me food for thought. It’s the Obama Approach – ‘We can‘ and therefore ‘We do‘. It’s the 2010 World Cup Technique. Spain’s performance in the 2010 World Cup was backed up by a ‘Podemos‘ campaign, the nation and its TV jingles singing ‘We can‘ at their heroes, who then went on to prove that indeed we could. Of course, it’s not simply a case of believing you can – effort and a guiding hand (a discreet but totally efficient coach) also have their place. And if your students still aren’t convinced, send them home to watch Invictus – or Kung Fu Panda.

Confidence certainly crosses over into the same realms as my teen motivation pyramid, but it also deserves a spotlight of its own. The time has come.

The Chicken and the Egg

Images from eltpics by Victoria Boobyer and Scott Thornbury.

Where does a learner’s confidence come from? The role of (pre-conceived) expectations and how they subconsciously affect the way we teach is well-known and I’m not going to go into that area here, but there’s more to it than that anyway. Teens are incredibly vulnerable creatures and self-esteem is up there with eggshells on the fragility scale, but even assuming total social integration, high teacher expectations and a safe environment, if learners don’t learn, they don’t feel confident. (If footballers don’t win matches…..) But of course, they also need to feel confident to learn.

So. Where can we find clues to help with how they learn ‘easily’? I found the answer to that in an odd place, perhaps, reading an article on songs that get stuck on the brain (“earworms”). As I read, two words jumped out at me – personal and emotional. And then that Brazilian song I can’t stand popped into my head and that was it.

Do you know that song? Every time I’ve done the workshop recently, I’ve asked if anyone in the room is familiar with Ay se eu te pego, and invariably some of the audience start to sing it and one or two do the gestures. I then ask if anyone speaks Portuguese, and the answer so far has been No. But they can all sing it. Other songs come to mind. Obladi-oblada. Ging gang goolie. The wonderful Minnie the Moocher. My sons singing along to Je veux qu’on danse. These songs and their unfamiliar lyrics are learnt without attaching meaning to them, for the most part, but as a starting point for thinking about confident language production in terms of ‘sound-shape’, earworms seemed like a good base to build on.

Common sense, singing, experience as a language learner and reflection tell me that these extended language chunks are not only internalised thanks to personalising and emotional response: repetition and ‘complete learning’ (my term; I’ll explain it in detail below) are also key. Obviously. How many times have you heard Ay se eu te pego (or an equivalent)? How many times has it clanged around inside your head as you wash the dishes? Or any song that gets stuck. Or that you sing in the shower? Consider which songs you learn, deliberately or inadvertently, and why.

What will follow is a series of four short posts, maybe five, on these factors in learning and implications for teen classrooms and then hopefully some sort of ‘ideas’ post to draw it all together. The initial posts will be headed Personalising, Emotional Response, Repetition, and Complete Learning. And I’ll try to avoid annoying tunes. Try. No promises, though.

1 Personalising or ‘Got to get you into my life’. (coming soon…..)


Filed under Uncategorized

What it’s all about….

What it's all about....

Here’s the word game. Click on the word cloud and see how many sentences and phrases you can make that apply to your teaching. You’ll need to add in grammar words, but you may not add any lexical words. (This, by the way, is an activity I do a lot with students – not using my blog as the text source, of course. I often copy some of their written pieces into wordle – so they are the text source. See below.)

Wordles and dogme elt

You often hear (read) the questions levelled at dogme eltYes, but how do you review the language? How do you ensure it gets recycled?”; word clouds can go a long way towards providing answers. Typically the teacher in a dogme lesson takes copious notes (on paper or as an audio recording), and the board may be covered in vocabulary items by the end. What’s more, for a dogme class to stand solid, the final stage of the lesson should see some kind of written consolidation: students writing their own summarising notes outlining the salient language points that have emerged, or (far more effective, especially with teens) actually writing a summary of the conversation, incorporating the new language they have used. This summary writing reworks language, but also gives more introverted or passive students – the type who listen but don’t speak much – time to use the language. You can also ask students to add their own opinions to their summary, as they may not have expressed them in front of their peers. Particularly with teens, opinions are often part of The Twilight Zone.

Taking the language on the board (use a camera – much quicker than copying it all down), your own notes and students’ summaries, you have plenty of text to feed into wordle (the summaries are particularly useful as student-generated texts are highly motivating as a source for language activities – it somehow says ‘your work is as valid as the stuff in coursebooks’). You can then use the resulting word cloud at the start of the next class, putting students in pairs or threes (or working individually – you know your class) and asking them to come up with as many sentences as possible using words from the cloud, much as you did above. (You didn’t? Well go on then! What are you waiting for? ;) ). They may add ‘grammar words’ but no lexical items. Discussion will often develop at the feedback stage – go with it :).


Filed under Uncategorized

The ‘m’ word.

M is for..... Image by @gemmateaches at eltpics

Multi-tasking. As a word, we either love it or hate it.

In response to a blog post on Jeremy Harmer’s blog, back in November, I wrote a long response, which I revisited yesterday. Having waded through my own words (dismayingly opaque, but too quickly written – always a good excuse) I decided to add blog to the top of my To Do list – a list which theoretically keeps me from multi-tasking too much and maintains my focus (haha, does it ‘eck).

Essentially Jeremy’s post (and some of the comments) suggests that we can’t multitask efficiently, and that maybe this has implications for the classroom. He had written his post after finding himself “listening to Shaun Wilden talking at the IHWO online conference at the same time as … trying to create a handwritten sample for a new book…. The news was on too, and (he) was also tweeting about the conference and other things. (He) was MULTI-TASKING! … The thing is, (he) wasn’t doing any of it very well or very efficiently…
The question Jeremy then posed, quoting Rodney Batstone was: “do tasks which require simultaneous processing of form and meaning ‘overload the learners’ system, leading to less intake rather than more’? (‘Key concepts’ section of ELT Journal 50/3, 1996)” and he went on to wonder “Perhaps if … language learning is focused, uni-directional and uncluttered, then it will be more successful. Perhaps by restricting the input we would give (kids) a better start, a better chance – and perhaps many of the more exciting and excitable activities that we all love so much may actually get in the way. … MAYBE …..maybe we should simplify things down? Back to substitution dialogues? Restrict rather than amplify? Get kids on-task, one task at a time. Only one.

Cut to the chase.
Having read Jeremy’s post, my initial reaction screamed at me “Too simplified!”, though I couldn’t put my finger on why. It took an hour or so of cooking while washing dishes, answering sons’ questions, listening to a running commentary on a basketball match (also from sons), and humming along to the Good Morning, Vietnam soundtrack all at the same time to provide me with some perspective on the matter. Some perspective and three key issues: automaticity, control, and similarity of tasks (ie that require a similar type of processing).

By this, I mean familiarity with a task.

On the road to automaticity?... Image by @klizbarker at eltpics

When you learn something new, like reversing a car, playing a musical instument, salsa dancing, or (in my case) spinning (trying to listen to instructions, copy what others are doing, work out how the bike works and do everything in time to music), none of the tasks involved are familiar, so the intense feeling of pressure and the chances of making a mess of things are high. But with time and practice, it all becomes automatic and – well, like riding a bike (a perfect case of multi-tasking).

An example of seemingly impossible multi-tasking activities becoming doable is simultaneous translation. Interpreting. At first, it is nigh-on impossible to do, but with training and practice, it’s a doddle. Almost. It is, of course, tiring, and one thing you can’t do while interpreting is think your own thoughts, but the rest becomes automatic. When I studied interpreting, British sports presenter Desmond Lynam was the example we were given of someone who could efficiently concentrate on four or five things (auto-cue, earphone, in-coming results on the teleprinter, self,..) at a time and still be ‘in control’.
The bottom line is we can’t do several new things at the same time efficiently, as none of them are ‘automatic’ yet and all need ‘full’ focus and processing. You can listen to the news while making an omelette, can’t you? And maybe even tweet as you beat. But if you listen to the news and a conference talk at the same time, both imply newness, new and totally unrelated information; concentrating on both at the same time is virtually impossible and would require that intense, stress/mess-inducing effort.

Focusing on form and meaning in language, on the other hand, is something we do at least since birth, and probably before as far as suprasegmental pron features are concerned. It’s second nature, particularly for children, who are closer to that Total Learning stage, or where the alphabet used is familiar. (Adult or post-writing learners from a culture with a different writing system will need to separate form at some stage.) Also, in language learning, newness of  form and meaning can be interrelated, you can use the one to support the other via mnemonics or similar. In some languages, separating form and meaning is a meaningless task anyway; where much of the grammar is carried by morphemes, you have to process form and meaning simultaneously.

Ultimately, for children to have meaning and form separated, or to meet form and meaning independently of any other activity is to underload, not the opposite. Learning language while busy with something else is just part of life, whether discovering the world around them (eg we all learn the term primary colours while learning what they are and how we can mix them – imagine teaching a child the ‘sound shape’ first, drilling it, THEN letting them discover what it means?) or later, through video games, superhero names, buzzwords, or, say, experiments like Sugata Mitra’s (imagine how that would’ve gone if he’d attempted to focus on language forms, then meaning, then let the kids loose with the computers). Adults might feel they need the language first (though I’ve only ever once had a student state that she ‘needed all the words‘ before she could speak) but that is related to self-esteem, image of inner selves issues etc, not because of any other type of limitation. When learning a language, at least through choice, first comes the desire to speak, surely, then the words fall in naturally. With children (tho not teens) first comes the desire to speak whether learning a language or not. Communicating experience. Making sense of the world.
(This is why I struggle with pre-teaching vocab, sometimes – it’s disembodied blah until the students have encountered the context. It seems to assume they can’t focus on forms while focusing on meaning, that they need to go from the little picture to the big, not vice versa. But that’s a different thread. Back to multi-tasking.)

Look, listen, play, read music....and hopefully all at the same time! Image by @CliveSir on eltpics

I can ponder blog posts, rehearse talks, sing, listen to the radio or hold entire conversations in my head while driving, but it’s statistically proven that we’re not good at arguing behind the wheel.  When I’m holding my internal conversations, I can tell myself to shut up when I need to increase concentration in heavy traffic, bad weather conditions etc. but in an argument, you have no control over the other speaker and it takes sang froid to be able to suddenly blank it all out and just drive. When listening to a conference speaker and a newsreader, you can’t ask either of them to be quiet a mo so you can focus fully on the other. Control over information intake and processing affects our capacity for multi-tasking. The Woah, sssh, lemme think a minute factor. Think of those activities which require students to listen to a CD and do something else at the same time; they can get lost in the comprehension activity, and consequently lost re the (non-stopping) recording – it’s worth thinking hard about the execution of listening tasks and how much control students would need to multi-task efficiently.
In processing language, if given enough ‘time-space’, we can focus on the aspect (form or meaning) we feel we need to focus on, we can note the form first then the meaning or vice versa; it’s in our own mind, so we control the focus. I guess what happens isn’t strictly multi-tasking, as we probably do shift focus, but those shifts may take micro-seconds, and from the teacher’s point of view – and the learner’s – it’s as good as doing the two things simultaneously. But we do need that ‘time-space’, to be allowed to process at our own pace, to find our own meaning from context. To attach our own ‘story’ to the piece of language so that it finds its own retrievable place in our mind. Of course, if you’re in a class and your teacher is determined to get to the end of his/her plan by the end of the lesson and rushes you…. Well, that’s another story. That’s not teaching, that’s following a plan with blinkers on. So control is another key factor and interrelated to the time available to achieve the tasks in hand. And both are vital to carrying out multi-processing tasks in the language classroom. The arguments for why this multi-processing needn’t be in isolation from other activities are the same as above. We can process while playing a game or learning our part for a play or… any number of things.

Similarity of task
Obviously, although I can think about blog posts while I drive/cook, I can’t write them down. Both tasks require the use of both hands. You can sing in the shower, but can you clean the bathroom window while you soap yourself? It’s like that trick of patting your head while rotating your other hand over your paunch / abs. And see if your average teen can watch TV, do homework and listen to a parent all at the same time (efficiently or not….). Of course they can’t.

Ever sent an sms to the wrong person? Image by @sandymillin at eltpics

Ever sent an email/text message to the wrong person because you were thinking about them while writing to someone else? If we multi-task, trying to use the same part of the brain for each task isn’t going to work, whether it’s the part that operates our hands, the part that we use to process aural input, the one that thinks of people’s names, the one for oral output or visual input,… can we react to two completely different danger signals at once? No, we tend to prioritise. I once cracked my spine trying not to smash a pile of plates belonging to my ex-mother-in-law….

Listening to and processing the news and a talk obviously both use the same parts of the brain, they’re both about making sense of aural input. Focusing on form and meaning at the same time is a different case: the processing may seem similar, but form is (obviously) ‘shape’ either sound or sight, whilst meaning is conceptual, they’re stored in different places in your brain (recall slips and stroke sufferers’ language recall difficulties show this), though if your teacher decided to teach you a word in Japanese and a totally different word in Thai at the same time, you’d probably not be at your most efficient when trying to learn them. Too much going on.

Some of those listening activities that involve filling in text boxes while you listen to a recording are examples of potentially inefficient multi-tasking activities for language learners, as students have to process meaning, and focus on both ‘shape’ forms at the same time. The argument is that they replicate taking notes in, say, a university class – but I studied in two ‘foreign’ countries, and took notes phonetically when words were unfamiliar, as I could process them or look them up later. Not the case in your average language learning class – and misspelt words are not acceptable…. However, if you take the time to think about what you expect your kids (or adults) to do, no problems. Songs with familiar gestures and TPR with younger kids, using images, picture dictations, drama, projects especially designing something or reading then going from information input to output (eg in CLIL classes), writing journals (I hate all this ‘follow a template’ writing stuff that abounds in coursebooks, nowadays, where students are required to memorise some fixed text structure as well as the language, so the check list in the wretched exam is far too long – as an ‘as well as’, maybe, and for older teens, but not an instead of), blogs, unplugged classes, no complex use of faffy games etc.
So. Much longer response than the original post! I reckon we all multi-task sometimes, and efficiency has to do with the tasks and what they require of us as individuals; paring your classes down to substitution drills and the likes is not efficiency – it’s not THAT simple.


Filed under Uncategorized

Quote unquote

If you want a tree, plant a seed, let it take root, give it time..... Image by @cgoodey at eltpics

Brad Patterson, aka @brad5patterson, asked people to choose a quote that best fits their teaching philosophy. After no small amount of pondering, and hoping that Erich Fromm would come up with the goods, here are a few wise quotations that apply to mine (alas, no Fromm). You may think I’m being greedy choosing more than one, but that’s just it, truth (if it exists) is the sum of many factors…….

1  Man, the living creature, the creating individual, is always more important than any established style or system.   Bruce Lee.
This is the top of my list. In order to allow your students to express themselves or, in flowery terms, to become their English-speaking selves as they perceive in their mind’s eye, THEY should be priority, not the methodology (or coursebook or exam or set of I can statements or…). Whether you’re a dogme teacher like me, an audiolinguist, a PPP chap, a Silent Method practitioner…… whatever……. you should never lose sight of your student and his/her person. Be prepared to be flexible; in fact, be water my friend…

2  Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.   Ralph Waldo Emerson
The worst thing in a classroom is complacency, especially from a teacher. If you don’t love what you do, don’t enjoy your lessons, don’t believe in your students and in yourself, how can you expect your students to? Enthusiasm doesn’t necessarily mean being totally Wacky-do, but it should be almost tangible in your ‘aura’. When you lose your enthusiasm, start thinking about taking a course, trying something new or maybe a career change.

3  I’d rather be hated for who I am, than loved for who I am not.   Kurt Cobain
Authenticity. Be true to yourself, be honest to your students. Rapport, belonging, connection, presence – they have so much to do with being fair and honest. And anyway, teaching is not a popularity contest; teens in particular are not looking for a friend in their teacher, but a model, an adult who won’t let them down, make them feel stupid or ‘less’ than others and who’s sincere.

4  A wise old owl lived in an oak
The more he saw the less he spoke
The less he spoke the more he heard.
Why can’t we all be like that wise old bird?   Traditional

If you shut up and listen, students are more likely to try to speak. If you shut up and observe, you’re more likely to ‘read’ your students. Particularly teenagers. Show you are listening, that you have time for them, that you noticed, that you’re interested, don’t turn the classroom into The Teacher Show. Give them writing journals and/or blogs and respond to content not to language errors. Allow them to ask questions, while you listen and think – you don’t need to stuff them with info; after all, education means bringing out, not putting in……

5  Stop, look, yes, listen to your heart
    Hear what it’s sayin’    Written by Bell & Creed, sung by Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye

Be informed. Think about why you do things the way you do them, don’t just jump on bandwagons or follow the herd/school policy/teachers notes without thinking – whether in using things or criticising their use. Be true to yourself and your values; be true to your students; know why you’re doing what you do or why you’re using what you’re using, whether photocopies, technology, an approach, a coursebook, your own voice rather than your students’. Be wise.

6  What a swell party this is.   Cole Porter
Speaks for itself :-)


Filed under Uncategorized

ESP: imagination & ideas through images

.... I love Paris in the Fall....

I met a teacher called Karen at the weekend.

I’d just given a session at TESOL France (great audience, by the way) on helping students overcome some of the ‘issues’ involved in doing writing skills activities in the classroom, including supposed lack of imagination and opinion, or a shyness about sharing the aspects of their personal world that I call The Twilight Zone. I had had some techno-problems at the start of my session, so had lost a few minutes of my precious hour, and this resulted in my not getting to the section on using images. We had a lot of fun with the sections on ‘the people in the room’ and ‘music’ though…

After the session, Karen said to me that she thought her students, as fairly wealthy higher education students of technological subjects like engineering, would feel that using music to access their imaginations was ‘frivolous’, not serious… I know what she meant. Sometimes, students in their late twenties and above are more open to ‘teen’ activities than those in the ‘tween adolescent ‘teen’ and real adult’ years. When you start living Real Life, hey, you realise it’s worth having some fun from time to time, but students who can almost touch the end of their teen years if they stretch out as far as they can (either ahead or behind), whose hormones are settling and have not long left the really yeuchy teenage years behind can be loathe to associate with those years (just as young teens hate doing stuff they think children might do).

After chatting to Karen for a few minutes, we came to the conclusion that images would make a better ‘sensorial’ launchpad for these university-age (ie late teens/ early 20s), serious types, and I then spent some time pondering some ideas, with an eye on ESP in particular.

So here are a few teaching ideas for (budding) civil engineers and architects in particular (mainly because I teach and have taught a lot of them) and which can also be adapted to general courses, both with older teens and adults.

All images are from the eltpics photographic resource for teachers.

1 BRIDGES (this section has also been published on the eltpics blog, Take a photo and…. but you can scroll down to part 2, if you prefer…)

(Civil engineering)


Show learners a selection of photos of bridges, or ask each student in the class to bring one photograph to the lesson and allow the group to look at all the images. I’ve made a mosaic of some of the images from the eltpics Bridges set, using the mosaic maker.

@pacogascon (x2), @mkofab / @shaunwilden, @mkofab, @pacogascon / @arzuteacher, @escocesa_madrid , @vickyloras

Vocabulary and reading for vocabulary

Students work in pairs to make notes about vocabulary they would need to give a presentation on the structure and particular features of the bridges. Brainstorm the words they want on the board, then divide the vocab search task up between the students. Quite often, as general EFL/ESL teachers rather than engineers, we won’t know all the terminology, but if you have internet access, allow students to find words from pages such as Wikipedia (try here or here) or technical pages describing bridges in English, like this.

Remember that even if you don’t have access, the chances of some of your learners having iPhones, Blackberrys etc is fairly high. ‘Use whatever’s in the room’ is a dogme ‘rule’, however plugged or unplugged that may seem.

Speaking and preparing to write

Once the group has all the vocabulary they need, they are ready to prepare their presentations. Put students in small groups or pairs. In a 1-2-1 class, this activity will still work, but you’ll need to help with the planning or it could be intimidating. Ask each group to choose two or three bridges from the selection and decide what information will interest their audience eg where the bridges are, when they were built, what technique was used, how the technique works, why that particular type of bridge may have been chosen rather than another type, technical details such as measurements and materials used in the chosen bridges etc. You may choose to ask them to imagine they are giving the presentation as a bid for a contract to modify, improve or provide a second bridge next to the existing one, although an information presentation is probably enough. Students plan their presentations in pairs, and find other images or information, as they need.


Students write their presentations. This can either mean writing text to add to powerpoint (or similar) slides, or it may mean writing a script for an orally delivered presentation. This will depend on your students and what they prefer.

Final stage (reading, or speaking and listening)

Set a simple task, such as What do you think is the most interesting aspect of the bridges chosen? Ask students to read all the class presentations, if they are the text type, or ask each group to give their presentation, after rehearsal time. Readers / Listeners answer the question set and think of at least one question to ask each group. Allow question and answer time. Again, questions can be written or oral. If written, provide a piece of paper for each group’s presentation, and ask each reader to write their questions on the correct sheet. Allow time for answering in both cases.

If you decide to get students to give an oral presentation, it’s always worth working on posture, body language and eye contact as real life skills, rather than just focusing on pronunciation etc.



(Engineering / architecture)

Show students images of contrasting landscapes. These are taken from eltpics set Landscape features. Again, you can also ask them to bring photos to class, but it’s a good idea to make a mosaic as back-up, just in case.

Images by @worldteacher (x2), @ij64, @cherry_mp, @pysproblem81(click on image for a better view)

Tell them they have to design an environmentally friendly house which will not spoil the landscape in any way. Give them time to work with a partner to choose ONE of the landscapes and to work out not only what they will build and why, but HOW.

The rest of the activity is essentially the same as 1, and you may choose to get students to choose their landscape AFTER they have researched vocabulary, as that is when they will know which they find easiest/most challenging etc.

During the final stage, ask listeners / readers to ask at least two questions, including one beginning What if…..? Encourage as much debate as possible.


(Architecture / (engineering) / general English)

Show students several photos of contrasting buildings such as this mosaic (images taken from eltpics Contrasts and Urban sets).

Images by @mkofab, @sandymillin / @jocelynlpayne, @sandymillin / @fionamau (me!), @mkofab

Put the students in pairs and give each pair a set of questions with space for them to add two or three more of their own. The questions can be as technical or as untechnical as you like, like these:

Allow students to add two or three questions for another pair to choose from, if they want.

Students read the questions and together choose between four and six to answer. This way, they themselves decide how technical or general their work will be. If you find that, in a pair, one really prefers the technical questions, and the other prefers the more imaginative ones, get students to change partners so they are with someone with similar interests.

Students then answer their chosen questions SEPARATELY. If they need, they can write words in their L1 and look them up afterwards. This is preferable than them simply trying to express only what they know how to say.

Before they speak to their partner and compare their answers, allow them a vocabulary ‘moment’, either using technical web pages as above, dictionaries or you, as appropriate.

Students then compare their answers to the questions they chose and discuss any differences.

Finally, ask students to combine their answers and their partner’s to write a text or a presentation. Allow them to choose the text type and title they want, with the proviso that it must be about at least one of the buildings in the images and should use as much of their new language as possible. Tell them they can write a story, a powerpoint presentation and script, an information page like a wikipedia entry, an advertisement, a project outline for alterations or a business proposal. Whatever they like.

Encourage students to exchange their texts from time to time, to help each other edit and correct.

Organise a ‘show of work’ as appropriate to the texts written, and encourage readers / listeners to ask questions.

And that’s it! For now at least. There will be more posts inspired by TESOL France coming very soon, though…… See you then, I hope.

Oh, and if you spot any of your photos in this post, please do tell me the story behind them in the comments bit :-)


Filed under Uncategorized