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 :).



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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.


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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 🙂


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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 🙂


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A place of greater safety

Motivation is key to learning, the carrot being better than the stick, and if the carrot is brought in by the learner themself, why, even better. Of course, motivation is a lot of things: it’s output from input (as a ratio), it’s challenge, engagement, effort, empowerment, being energised, it’s having needs met and then some. As teachers, we often think of needs in linguistic or language learning terms: he needs to be able to write business emails to engineering companies, she needs to be able to understand articles about plant genetics, he needs to pass his first year secondary school exam, she needs to improve her pronunciation as she’s difficult to understand.. and so on. But there’s more to life than language, and the classroom – if we open ourselves to it as teachers – is more than just a language box or drip, it’s a microcosm – and a good place to be.

Do you remember Maslow and his five neat layers working their way up the hierarchy of needs?

Maslow's hierarchy of needs : thanks to Cecilia Lemos

The first level is probably fairly clear, our most basic level of motivation, the most essential ‘needs’, the reason we get out of bed on a lazy Sunday – for food, drink, a ‘call of nature’. However, the second level, security, is the one that has always nagged at me. As adults, when we think of a need for security, we probably think of a safe house, with locks, secure windows, solid, non-leaky ceilings and walls, a safe house in a safe place, we think of a job with a decent contract, health insurance and enough income to cover the rent/mortgage, clothes, food… and we may think of safe (ie non-violent), familiar relationships – our world is shaken by deaths and divorces that take away that familiarity and upset our emotional security, as if we’d lost a bookend.

Now cast your mind back again to your teens days, feel yourself in your teen skin: what made you feel secure or insecure? Hm? Think about it.

Perhaps you were a happy, popular, relaxed teenager and a good student. I wasn’t, so in this particular area I have a loooot of personal experience. My background was different from most of the other girls in my class, they lived in rambling old houses with creaky floorboards, rickety old semi-hidden staircases leading to what had once been the servants’ quarters, they had swimming-pools, orchards… you get the picture. We had two growbags on the balcony and I shared a room with my sister. That feeling of being different, of being ‘less’ – less what, I don’t know, less glamorous, less Somebody – was one issue. I had my group of friends, but the rest…

The other issue that cropped up involved nasty rumours, gossip, bullying, ‘practical jokes’ – add to this certain practices such as some inspiring teachers handing back exams in order (best grade first, worst grade last, so your sense of humiliation grew as you waited for your name), and school became an unhappy place for me, I hated it, felt permanently insecure and resentful, I stopped studying, rarely did homework (except for ‘special’ teachers), scraped through exams, spent most of my breaks in detention. Security to the Teen-Me was about other people and how they made me feel about myself. It wasn’t until university (yes, I made it in the end) that I finally encountered a teacher who seemed fully aware that emotional security seriously affects academic motivation.

Anyway, it isn’t my intention to spend this blog talking about myself, but looking back at my own experience (when it finally dawned on me to do so) and then, as my curiosity had been piqued, asking many secondary school and language academy teachers over a ten year period (I exaggerate not), it became obvious to me that the atmosphere in the classroom is a key, vital factor in teen motivation. A secure atmosphere. And that by security in this context we actually mean something more like this:

macappella's hierarchy of teen needs : thanks to Cecilia Lemos

 whereby security is inextricably tangled up with social integration and self-esteem. In fact, where this fundamental tangle is missing in a class, apathy/dislike for a particular subject, lack of achievement and lack of understanding/aptitude – the usual suspects on the ‘why teens fail’ list – will tend to be symptoms rather than causes of demotivation.

Why am I banging on about this? Because it underlies everything I do when teaching teens, and it’s what brought me to unplugged teaching – dogme – after studying successful leadership models (ie approaches, not people), modes of communication, all that kind of thing. And, in conjunction with the previous (‘friendlier’) post, it’s what the rest of this blog will be about, the subcurrent, the foundations. Creating a place where teen learners are at ease, are part of a productive group, each have – and know they have – something to contribute, feel they can speak without being judged, feel they are empowered, feel and can see progress and even, on occasion, can escape the things that threaten their emotional wellbeing and simply fly. To a place of greater safety.

 If you want an idea for one activity showing how, read on. You might enjoy it.

Inner tidepools

Looking into inner tidepools: photo by Carol Goodey at #eltpics

I’d like to do a demo – I hope it works in this format!! If you want to give it a go, you need speakers or headphones (the latter is much better as it isolates you), a piece of paper and a pen (or the writing implement of your choice) – clicking in and out of a Word doc will probably distract. This is an activity I do in all my teen classes at least once or twice a term, and works well for many reasons:

  • it teaches teens that they always have something to say, that there are beautiful, interesting things hiding in the tidepools of their minds

  • it stays away from shadows of The Twilight Zone, which is what I call a teen’s sensitive area; for example, asking students to describe their house or holidays exposes them to comparison, leaving them potentially vulnerable. This is also true of discussion about the family, unless the students themselves bring the subject up. I remember one notable class of mine about ten years ago where the exercise read ‘Describe your brother or sister’, and a girl wrote a very short composition: ‘He’s dead’.

  • the language is emergent, dogme-style, though as it isn’t hardcore dogme, it may even appeal to the unplug-skeptics

  • it definitely appeals to various learner types

  • it’s relaxing

  • it’s teacher-led but learner-centred

  • it combines all four skills plus language nitty-gritty

  • it can be the launchpad for all sorts of stuff – language work, projects, audio recordings, dialogues, plays…

  • it gives students a technique they can transfer to, for example, exams

  • it’s a real feelgood activity

  • it relies on sensorial stimuli rather than external materials, and thus is so materials-lite it weighs as much as a dream

  • it’ll give you some interesting written pieces to mark, rather than the usual (yawn) stuff.

 I often do this in workshops, but if you ever coincide with me, I promise to do a slightly different one. 🙂

You’re going to close your eyes – students often giggle at the start, but stick with it, they soon stop when they discover they’re enjoying the experience – or, if you’re scared 😉 look at the ceiling (as long as it’s blank). I’m going to describe a situation and ask you some questions. I’d like you to ‘see’ the answers to the questions then open your eyes for a moment and write the answers down as simple notes. Then close your eyes again and listen to the next question. You can write your notes in any language, in English or your L1 if you prefer – the language shouldn’t break the flow. As this is a blog, you’ll need to hit the pause button between questions, but in the classroom, you’ll be able to see when students are ready for the next question. Ideally, your students will be able to switch off from ‘environment factors’ ie noise, a problem largely eliminated by this being a sound-file, though you may need to adjust your sound settings.

The title is In the garden (click for audio – but check you’ve read the instructions above and committed them to memory first!)


Finished? Got all your notes? This is a ‘place’ description, but you can ask them to ‘walk around’ and visit a place, describe a person, describe an ideal day or holiday, narrate something they ‘witness’…. all sorts. In class you would now put students together (threes is good for this one) to check vocab lagoons, and you’d monitor to help, then they’d compare ‘experiences’ ie gardens in this case. After that stage, you’d point out they all had something to say. You’d then ask them to write the description, using their notes, vocab, ideas from their partners, new ideas…. They then read each others’ texts and choose three things they really like about each. At home, they can rewrite, preferably in digital format, as that’s what they’re used to – they can illustrate, and you can upload to a blog, use as part of a poster presentation, you can record them giving their descriptions orally, use chunks of their texts as gapfills to review vocab, gapped dictations (ditto), dictoglosses, jigsaw texts etc etc etc. You can ask them to read classmates’ texts and answer comprehension questions eg categorise information under the five senses or write questions for another student to answer…. as Sandy Millin would say, an infinite number of ideas. The change from solo to small groups, then whole group if you use texts for dicto-activities also appeals, you cover all the skills, language eg it smells of/ it smells like (in this case) will ’emerge’, there’s a self-esteem kick to having something creative to say, the group dynamic is reinforced by the working together, especially if you aim for a group product like a presentation including text and image (remember #eltpics!), and, well, it feels good.

Give it a go.

Thanks go to: Nik Peachey, Shaun Wilden, Ceci Lemos, Ceri Jones and of course to Hilary Mantell whose title I have, um, borrowed. Teamwork through and through.

Next post: ‘The Fantastic Four or  I am what I am – I haven’t decided yet 😉


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Teach teens unplugged? Why on earth….?!

To unplug or not to unplug?

Do you need electricity to light the darkened room? **

When I was a teenager, if you didn’t have an encyclopaedia and you wanted to look something up, you had to go to the library. There was a lack of easy-access information in most homes. And as for gadgets and technology, well, we probably all had a radio, and access to record and cassette players in the house, we’d had a colour TV for a few years, and maybe a Kodak Instamatic camera. At 13 or 14, I got my first calculator – it’d been slide-rules all the way until then. There were no computers, videos or digital anythings in the home, and Bladerunner hadn’t even come out!

On the whole, my generation did, however, get conversation at meal tables, on car journeys etc. Our family was fairly accessible in most cases and
there was more face to face communication than now. When we spoke on the phone, conversations were perhaps longer and almost certainly
more meaningful than now, and the telephone was in a strategic place in the house, in the hall and/or kitchen; when someone phoned the teen you, you stretched the twirly cable as far as it could go, so you could sit in the loo, the hall cupboard or anywhere you might have some privacy. In fact, conversation was something personal and, enjoyable or not, it was meaningful. How much did you learn about life from conversation with friends and family when you were a teenager? Misinformation a lot of it, but we came out unscathed. Because we had conversation, we listened to stories, we told stories, we were enthused by stories, we dreamt. Many of us even read. What’s more, adults were adults, and teens were teens. We knew the difference: we had spots, bad dress sense and great music; they had jobs, mortgages, Radio 2* and respect. It wasn’t a Golden Age or
better than now, but it was different.

Teenagers nowadays live in a radically different world. Thanks to trendy TV series and teen idols (they have the Disney Brats, we had the Boomtown Rats..) and product placement, they don’t even make fashion faux pas or have dermatological issues as often as we did. They have information on tap, and oodles of Stuff, much of it often distilled into the casing of a mobile phone, but also home cinemas, netbooks, and various makes of game console, both ‘chunky’ and handheld. The number of chargers, USB jacks, memory cards and mains cables is almost ludicrous. Unlike Postman (click if you want to read my opinion of Prof. P), I don’t think all these gadgets are necessarily evil, but I do think the amount of information and gadgetry available to teens at home, in the street and through osmosis is one of the two main reasons I’m pro unplugged teaching.

The other reason is this. What teens have less of out of school now is supportive relationships. Family plays a different role; where there are two
parents, on the whole both work, where there is one, he or she is rushed off their feet. Time is short, meals are often accompanied by TV and haste, ‘family life’ is slotted in between after-school classes, activities, team sports and homework. Phones are everywhere, phonecalls are short, possibly replaced by a text message, and a crowded bus is as good a place as any for a chat. The value of conversation is dwindling – it is more functional, about problem-solving, negotiating, superficial, particularly in a world where teens have 200 social network friends, rather than a gang of between 3 and 7 or 8 pals. SMSes rather than letters, sharing and swapping individual downloads rather than albums or cassettes. Snippets and statistics rather than stories. Information rather than ideas.

So, it’s something like this:

 Then and now

As any fule kno, teens are a needy bunch, they are proto-adults, grown-ups with L-plates. They have great gulfs that a teacher can help to fill, but my attitude is why give them more of what they can get anywhere? Why not give them what they lack?

Unplugged, or dogme, teaching is about dialogue. It’s about supporting students so that they can express themselves. It’s also about listening. With adult language learners, you listen to their language and their stories, show an interest, identify needs, build a lesson, help them construct
knowledge. But with teenagers, although the process is essentially the same, it goes beyond just feeding in language to a hungry human. Through unplugged teaching, you can reach the person; you can provide the teen with an adult figure who listens, tells stories, supports them in their studies and ‘needs’, you can help them access their imagination, build their self-esteem, scaffold their need to hear ‘I can’ ringing out from their inner voice. You can use technology or gadgets or information if that’s what they bring to the classroom, but your role is to provide what YOU can bring and they can’t (which means, of course, it’s also dependent on your character/personality, not just theirs, but that’s another blog post).

That’s why I believe in Teaching Teens Unplugged. And that’s what this blog is all about. Any complaints?

** photo by Phil Bird at #eltpics

* BBC Radio 2 is the more middle-of-the-road / easy listening BBC radio station


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At the deep end

  An On-the-Spot Scrapbook

 So. My first ‘learner’ blog post. Rather than launch into a description of dogme, unplugged or materials-lite teaching as the ideal option for teen learners of pretty much any level, I thought I’d start with a little idea I had today while waiting for my son. A teen if ever there was one.

At the moment, I’m helping Sandy Millin and Carol Goodey curate eltpics, a photo resource for teachers, so I carry a camera everywhere. Just in case. Today, I had planned to try out an idea I’d read on Paul Braddock’s blog (see blogroll) and take photos every two minutes as I walked to a particular place. I was then going to try this idea on my 12-13 year olds. But it didn’t quite work that way. No. I had a different idea.

I found myself standing outside the local bull ring (this is Spain, after all), at 5pm, in bright, too-hot-for-April sunshine. My son is 13, so speed is not his forte at the moment, and I had plenty of time to ponder a class idea. Maybe even a classy class idea.

Let’s face it, most kids have a mobile phone these days and almost all have cameras – and those who don’t have one (my own sons are the perfect example) can probably borrow a mobile or a camera for homework reasons – so using them to help the kids themselves provide the input for a lesson seems like the logical, learner-centred thing to do. So I tried it for myself.

I stood fairly still and looked around at stuff. When I spotted something that put a thought in my head (‘inspired’ being a strong word for this sort of thing,’made me think of something’ doesn’t quite do it), I took a photo of it. I moved slightly, but not a lot, and took several photos in the space of about 5 minutes (if you click on the photos, you get the full, huge version).

Now, I hadn’t gone to a particular place to do this, I just happened to have this idea while standing at that spot, so took photos there. I don’t think it’d be too much to ask a 14 year-old, say, to go and stand somewhere for 5 minutes and take 6 or 7 photos of things they see that spark a thought off in their mind.

I would then suggest that, afterwards, they looked at the photos again, and in their head, rehearsed what they could say about each photograph, with a view to reducing the pictures until they’re left with 4 or 5 they can safely say something about in L2, without getting in a pickle. As I stood taking my pictures, I ‘edited’ my thoughts by disallowing any thoughts with more complex sentences along the lines of ‘Gosh, she’s wearing too much black! She must be sweltered! Far too hot for this weather’…nah, delete that photo. When students have simplified their photos, they’re ready to write. They could write a blog entry, a powerpoint presentation, copy, paste and write a regular composition with photos, a script to read while they show classmates their photos….. Here’s mine:

Picture 1: I’m standing outside the bull ring and this is the symbol for the Camino de Santiago on its wall. My town is on the Ruta de la Plata, the north-south branch of the Camino. These are two great symbols of Spain’s past: the Church and bulls. I also notice that the window above the blue and yellow ceramic shell is a similar shell shape reminding me of another typical Spanish image: the fan. What a cliché photo, haha!

Picture 2: Sol means sun. The sign on the other side says sombra. But I’m next to the Sol sign because it’s in the shade and the sombra (shade) side is in the sun. And it’s really hot and sunny today. I’m staying here.

Picture 3: The sign says Portugal 106. Portugal is only one hour away, and that’s quite near. I love Portugal and I want to learn Portuguese. I’m going to look for classes. Maybe we’ll go to Portugal for a day next week. Yes, that would be a nice way to spend Easter.

Picture 5: It’s quarter past five, it’s the first half of April, and it’s 31ºC. This isn’t normal! Where’s the nearest café? I need a cold drink. I like the poster with the women and their fans – very typical image. What’s going on in Casar? It doesn’t look like a bullfight poster. Perhaps it’s for the fair. Casar is the home of the smelliest cheese you can imagine – an incredibly popular, smelly cheese. I nearly bought a house there, but I’m allergic to cheese, so I didn’t – the irony was too great.

It’s a simple writing activity, but I think it works. Like a slightly more sophisticated ‘show and tell’ that has the beauty of being flexible – you can ask students to swap photos, choose the one they like best, use one or two to illustrate a story, a tourist guide etc etc etc.

And of course, once you have your students’ photos and texts, you can get even more flashy and use their texts as dictogloss or as gapfills. Produce the gapfills yourself blanking words in your students’ written pieces, and use the photos to provide clues.

Or convert their texts into a wordcloud and use the pictures and wordclouds later on in the course to get students to reconstruct the original text, and then perhaps improve on it, add to it.

The possibilities are endless.

Now you know what I think about – day-dream about, perhaps – while waiting around for my own personal teen.


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