Jamie Keddie’s session on Videotelling was one of the most entertaining sessions I went to.


To be honest, before the session I was a bit skeptical about videotelling.  I’ve been a big fan of his website Lesson Stream (formerly TEFL Clips) for years, but sometimes I think using videos in class is just for entertainment and doesn’t have a lot of linguistic purpose.  However, after experiencing videotelling live in action, I’ve changed my mind.  (You can watch examples on his website, but I’m not sure it has the same effect as participating in the real discussion.)

Here’s how it works:

Choose a short video clip and before you show it to students, talk them through the story.  Ask them questions, elicit descriptions–anything to engage them with the story and allow them to visualise it in their heads.  You can choose specific lexis to focus on and drill it in the context of storytelling so it doesn’t feel like drilling or do a ‘verbal gap-fill’ like with prepositions.  (e.g. She was in love hhhhmmm him.)  Basically, as a class you work together to tell the story.  This visualization helps learners remember new vocabulary better as does creating a narrative.  After, you can watch the video, and students will be really motivated to watch and see if their ideas matched the reality.

Jamie stressed that it is important to prepare and rehearse what you are going to say beforehand and really think about how you are going to get the students involved.  Their involvement is crucial as the whole activity is to collectively construct the story.   I think it is also important to make sure there is an element of surprise or disbelief.

I’ve been incorporating some of his lesson ideas from his website with my upper-intermediate students and they have really enjoyed these lessons.  For example, when we talked about wedding rituals, I used Clumsy Best Man to introduce wedding vocabulary.  It was great because not only was it entertaining but students had a visual link that I could refer them to if they forgot any key lexis in our further speaking activities.

I was so inspired by this talk that I had a go at creating my own story based on a short Cyanide and Happiness film ‘Beer Run.‘  I told the students that the experience happened to me (I think making it personal makes it more memorable and engaging), and elicited the story from them.  Then they had to retell the story to each other before watching it.  I made them guess if it were true (which of course it isn’t–you’ll see that clearly if you watch it), and because they were so involved a few of them actually thought it was true.  We focused on narrative tenses, but in a way that didn’t feel like a grammar exercise.  After, they got to tell their own stories.  (BTW I’m happy to send you the notes I used to write this story–just email me.  Sorry but since I’m new to blogging I haven’t quite figured out how to share a word document.)


Lexical Teaching Conference

Yesterday I attended the Lexical Teaching Conference at Westminster College, a day of teaching ideas inspired by Michael Lewis’s Lexical Approach.  I felt privileged to be able to hear ideas from some of my TEFL heroes like Michael Hoey, Hugh Dellar, Andrew Walkley , Luke Fletcher, Nick Bilbrough, and Michael Lewis himself.  Here are some highlights from the sessions.

Luke, Kate and Michael Lewis
Kate, Luke and Michael Lewis

The Lexical Approach and Lexical Priming–Michael Hoey

Michael Hoey presented three criticisms of the Lexical Approach and then showed why they are invalid.

Criticisms of the Lexical Approach

1.  It ignores how languages are learnt. 

Not true–there is solid psycholinguistic research, namely semantic and repetition priming, that backs up the idea that we store words as chunks.  One word helps us access a second one faster and more accurately (or slows down access).   For example, if we see the word ‘wing,’ it is harder to access ‘pig’ than ‘swan’ because words are semantically linked in our mind.

2.  There’s no theoretical underpinning.

Again, not true–his theory of lexical priming accounts for collocation and fluency.   There are lots of problems with existing theories of languages anyway.  For example, many theories assume a single language when in fact there are many variations (think dialects) masquerading as a single language.  Also, theories don’t take into account words have multiple meanings yet we know what is meant.

3.  It only applies to Indo-European languages.  

More research is needed, but his preliminary research shows that lexical priming applies also to Chinese.

His conclusion:  The Lexical Approach is safe to use.  

Lexical Priming

When we encounter a word we automatically and subconsciously notice many aspects of it.  Our experience of a word primes us to expect certain associations.

Some of the things we are primed for:

  • collocation (e.g. eyes and ears)
  • semantic association (eyes and ears are body parts)
  • pragmatic collocation (e.g. consequence is often used negatively, result positively)
  • colligation (grammatical patterns)
  • textual collocations  (Is a word likely to be repeated in a text or substituted with a pronoun?)
  • textual colligation  (Where does an expression occur in the text?)

One thing he said that really struck me was that reading primes us so it is important to read in order to learn vocabulary and subconsciously pick up all of those primings.   Learning vocabulary in turn primes us to organize text in writing.  Which leads me to remember the importance of context in teaching vocabulary.  Without context students miss out on primings.  This also makes me wonder about the ongoing debate over whether it’s better to use authentic material or graded.  Lexical priming theory makes me think there’s an argument for authentic material because it primes students for how language is really used rather than an artificial, graded priming.  This kind of priming may also contribute to the intermediate plateau.

Working Exercises Hard–Hugh Dellar

This followed nicely after Lexical Priming because it helped answer a question I had lingering in my head.

How in the world can our students pick up all the priming necessary to really know a word/expression in the short amount of  time they have in class?

Hugh’s answer was that we need to give them this extra priming by drawing their attention to chunks of language from their coursebook and through our boardwork.

Some helpful lesson tips:

  • Spend time prepping lessons, pulling out ‘ambient language’ from exercises and anticipating expressions that they may need and mapping it out beforehand.  Think of more examples of collocations to extend what is in the coursebook.
  • Don’t pre-teach vocabulary.  Instead let students get on with the exercise and spend the time in the ’round-up’ after.  The vocabulary exercise does teach the unknown words in context; otherwise it becomes just a test.
  • Students need less context setting and more meaningful language analysis.
  • Board up whole sentences, not just single words or even chunks.  Remember the longer the phrase, the more that is primed.
  • Write these sentences as a gap-fill.
  • Do vocabulary exercises as a homework so more time can be spent on the round-up.   Love it–flipped learning.  (suggestion by member of the audience)

One criticism from the audience was that the amount of vocabulary was possibly lexical overload.  I suppose it would depend on level and how much the individual students could handle.  Sometimes it might be good to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks because like Lewis said later you know what you are teaching but you can never know what they are learning.  Also, as Kerr said, if students are going to advance to the next level, they need a lot of words (from A1 to A2 400 words, and from B1 to C1 more like 700 0r 800).

Luke’s Lexical Learning 

Despite what the world sometimes expects of me, I cannot actually be in two places at once, but since I do have the good fortune of working with Luke Fletcher, I was able to attend a preview of his fabulous presentation.  It was full of useful teaching ideas and excellent IWB use.

‘Students will only start to record things in chunks if we write things in chunks.’

So true, so true.  I remember the frustration of checking my students’ notebooks only to find they had written single words after I’d told them time and time again to write expressions.  And then I looked at our IWB slides.  What had I written?  That’s right–guilty.

Students have to be trained to notice things so the teacher should highlight chunks (in bold, with a highlighter pen, a different colour pen) when they prepare boards and worksheets.

Some ideas I would like to incorporate into my own teaching:

  • Find someone who….. as a gap-fill with chunks highlighted and missing words given to the side
  • Use the screen tool to cover and reveal the second half of a chunk for vocab reveiw
  • Discussion questions involving chunks from a reading text, dictated to the class
  • Teacher tells an anecdote followed by a chunk gap-fill and retelling of the story
  • Lexical backs-to-the-board
  • Lexical noughts and crosses (tic-tac-toe)
  • Using Macmillan free online dictionary 

Translation and Learning Lexis–Philip Kerr

This was a really interesting talk for me since I did my dissertation on teachers’ attitudes to students’ own language use in the classroom.  I’m looking forward to reading Kerr’s new book when it comes out next year.  But in the meantime here’s his blog:

He also mentioned e-books for teachers who want to get into writing.

One interesting thing he said is that we need to teach less in class but facilitate learning more because the amount of vocabulary students need to progress is a lot more than what they learn in class.  The average is 4 lexical items per hour of tuition. One useful activity–flashcards.

Reverse translation

This is an old, yet effective, teaching technique where you translate a short text into another language and then back again.  So for us:

English — Learners’ own languages —English

In our mixed language classes we can pair students of the same language together or have them work individually for the first translation stage but together to put it back into English.  We can also use google translate.  Students are going to anyways and this highlights some of the issues that could arise.

One idea I really liked, and not just because it has zero prep, is to take a text we did in class and have students translate it into their language.  Then the teacher holds on to it for a few weeks/lessons and gives it back to them to translate back into English.  It’s motivating, encourages noticing and is good review.

Another one is after you do a gap-fill exercise you could dictate the eight or so sentences back to the students but instead of them writing in English, they have to write in their own language very quickly.  Then they have to translate them back to English with a partner.

(btw here’s the humorous job applicant letter he showed us)

To sum up his talk: translation is a motivating, effective way for learners to memorize chunks.

Creativity and Memorisation–Nick Bilbrough

We need to do something to make chunks stick in our minds.  We shouldn’t be creative in language production because most of what we say is made up of pre-fabricated chunks, but there is room for creativity in remembering chunks.  We need to make links between existing language and new.   Links can be through meaning but also form.

We could try linking new language to places.  We have a better memory for images than any other type of data, so if we can visualize where we put new language it helps us remember it.  One useful way is to link expressions to a route when walking.

Teaching ideas:

  • Jumbled sentences with chunks

Put jumbled sentences on board for students to unscramble.

It’s difficult to unjumble:

smokers  like  heavy  looks  jam  think  traffic

because our mind is primed to notice chunks.

  • Poems with chunks help with memory

Put a number of chunks on the board.  Students choose a number from 1-however many chunks you’ve written.  Then show chunks and students have to write a poem with the chunk corresponding to their number, in this form:

By the way

I want to say

That from today

I’m going to stay

By the way

  • Keep/Let classification activity

Teacher puts stickies of expressions around the room (e.g. fingers cross, off steam).  Students walk around and memorize them.  Then walk back to desk to record in the correct column.

(answer to jumbled sentence: Smokers think traffic looks like heavy jam.)

Teaching Grammar Lexically–Hugh Dellar

In this talk Hugh criticised a structural, PPP (present, practise, produce) approach to teaching because focusing on structures in isolation distorts the reality of how language is used in conversation.  Following this kind of syllabus where grammar and vocabulary are separate actually makes it harder for students.  Students feel just because they’ve seen it once, they’ve done it, but being able to speak about English is not the same as being able to speak in English.  They need less metalanguage and more real-life , frequently-used sentences like

How long have you been doing that?

or I’ll see you later.  

or Why did you decide to do that, then?  Well, I was thinking of…

rather than studying present perfect continuous, will versus going to, past continuous, conditionals, etc.    They need to experience how conversations develop, not look at structures in isolations.

It’s not grammar, but lexis, that makes someone’s language more advanced.

Lower levels need to learn ‘grammar-as-lexis,’  whereas higher levels need practice ‘grammaticalising’ and on rare occasions looking at more obscure structures but only in clear contexts.

He’s not saying to ignore teaching grammar but to focus more on language patterns than verb tenses and teach the lexico-grammatical chunks that go with the grammar.  For example:

Just because I’m single it doesn’t mean I’m desperately lonely!

Do you fancy going out somewhere tonight?

I agree with him but it makes me wonder how much I actually do this in my own teaching and how much I teach more traditional grammar because it’s easier–it’s what is presented in the book and how I first learned to teach.  It’s what students expect.  It gives, especially lower levels, something to build on.  It makes things more manageable for the students and like he said, gives them a feeling of progress.  I’ve never been a fan of PPP.  I have a problem with the word ‘present’ and much prefer ESA (engage, study, activate) because it puts the emphasis more on the student, getting them involved in the learning, but still I have trouble seeing these as isolated stages.  Surely the learners should be engaged and activating their language at all times in their study.  But maybe like grammar can be comfort for insecure newbie learners, PPP (or ESA) is the same for novice teachers.  Should teacher training be more lexically focused?

Q & A with Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis was truly brilliant making us all laugh.

Changes he said we should all make:

  1. get grammar out of our heads–studying structure is an inefficient way to learn language
  2. get individual words out of our heads–it’s all about chunks
  3. students should stop practising grammar to ‘get it right.’  They need to get it wrong to learn.  We don’t learn by practising what we already know.
  4. don’t ignore Teacher Talk Time–students need the correct input teachers provide
  5. stop breaking language down
  6. teach examples rather than rules
  7. if you have to teach from a structural syllabus–dump it.
  8. teach longer utterances because phrases have tunes but words don’t. It’s easier to remember a tune.
  9. teach less material but more thoroughly
  10. just because students like rules doesn’t mean it’s good for them.  We don’t go to the doctor for the doctor to say what you want to hear, but to tell you what’s wrong.

Language learning is much messier than teachers and learners want to think.  He used the analogy of watering a plant.  We have to water it for it to grow but we can’t say which leaf it is we’re watering.  We know we’re helping the plant grow, but we don’t know how.  People’s lexicons are like that.

plant in hands

Further reading:

Hoey, M.  (2005).  Lexical Priming: A new theory of Language.  London and New York:  Routledge.

Lewis, M. (1993).  The Lexical Approach. Language Teaching Publications.

Lewis, M. (1997) Implementing the Lexical Approach: Putting Theory into Practice. Language Teaching Publications.

Lewis, M. (ed.) (2000). Teaching Collocation: Further Developments in the Lexical Approach. Hove: Heinle Language Teaching Publications.

Woolard, G.  (2013).   Messaging:  Beyond a Lexical Approach in ELT.  e-book available on kindle

CAT in the Dogme

So here goes.  My first post revisiting IATEFL 2013.  The first week back after IATEFL and the first thing to be relevant is this session I went to by Ken Lackman called CAT: a Framework for Dogme.  He presented something useful, a ‘Monday’ session–you know the really practical session you go to where instead of loads of theoretical, idealized teaching scenarios, you get a ready-made lesson you can walk straight into class with on Monday morning with no prep (love those sessions!).  So of course, after a week away in Liverpool, that is exactly what I did on Monday morning.

I have to admit I’m quite late getting into Dogme.  When I first heard about it, I thought, “Yeah, that’s what I do already.  Really?  Someone thought it was worth naming and writing about?  Please.”  As well as, “Isn’t that what we all actually do anyways, especially when we’re feeling a bit too lazy to plan our lessons?  It’s just we’re not supposed to admit it.”

I thought it was a bit like modern art and this display I saw when I couldn’t get into a session and went to the TATE instead.


For those of you who don’t know about Dogme here’s a brief overview based on Teaching Unplugged by Thornbury and Meddings.

Teaching should be:

  1. conversation-driven
  2. materials-light
  3. focused on emergent language

Ken’s idea is that that is all very nice but sometimes teachers and students need a bit of structure–hence he developed his CAT, Conversation Activated Teaching, framework.   (This will be published in July in ELT Magazine.)

CAT Basic Lesson Plan:

Stage 1: Warmer

  • Students brainstorm a list of topics they want to have a conversation about.  (groups of 4, time limit, compete to get more than other groups)
  • Teacher boards up the longest list, asks if anything significant is missing from other groups.
  • Students vote (as many times as they want) for whichever topic interests them.  Topic with the most votes is chosen.

Stage 2:  Pair Conversations:

  • Pair Conversations.   In pairs, students ask questions about the chosen topic.  Student A has 3 minutes to ask Student B questions and then change.

Stage 3:  Conversation with Teacher

  • One student comes to the front of the room.  The teacher asks him/her questions and takes notes, not on mistakes, just ideas.
  • During this conversation, all the other students listen and try to write down as many questions as they can.  (another group competition)
  • Then the teacher repeats what the student says, using his/her notes, reformulating as needed to give the learners more complex language.
  • Student reproduces what the teacher says, affirming the teacher’s understanding.
  • Students listen and write down any useful expressions that they might want to use to talk about their own experiences.  (again group competition–check who won)

Stage 4:  Language Focus

  • Teacher boards up the questions and useful phrases, eliciting and asking about the language.
  • Repeat Pair Conversations (new partner) or cycle through any of the stages.

I did it with my low intermediate students and it worked really well.  I’d definitely do it again because it allowed them to speak about a topic they enjoy but also get meaningful feedback on their language.

The thing that surprised me most was that they weren’t very good at noticing. I didn’t really realize just how difficult it is to notice language and pick it out of context.  I just took for granted that they noticed new things, when actually, when they do understand something they often gloss over the details.  This was evident in the reproduction phase of the Conversation with Teacher.   The student had difficulty repeating what I said and just wanted to nod that I had it correct.  The weaker students listening couldn’t quite pull out what was useful.  I guess they need more practice.  In looking over my notes, I see that Ken recommends motioning ‘write’ with your hands when you want them to write.  I’ll definitely do that next time.

I also realized that I’m not very good at reformulating language quickly, something I would like to get better at.  (again practice, practice, practice)