Reflection from a learner’s perspective: the inspiration

One of the most interesting talks I went to at IATEFL 2015 was one that I went to to just hang out with my friends.  I was tired, there was nothing particularly inspiring, and so I thought I’d just wander into ‘Lessons Learned as a Language Learner’ by Jo-Ann Delaney and Madeleine du Vivier because basically my friends were going there, it was right next to the entrance and I couldn’t really be bothered to sort out another talk to go to.  I’m so glad I went.  I didn’t think it would be that relevant for me because it was about exploring trainer beliefs, but really I felt it could be applied to any teacher and getting them to reflect on their teaching style.  This workshop allowed me to reflect on my teacher training, but also on my own teaching, though not in the way I think was intended and probably not in the same way others who went to the workshop would have reflected at all.

Reflection as a Teacher

In this workshop we were given a set of teacher beliefs, asked to rank them as not important, important or essential, and then to discuss with people around us.  I loved this stage because it got me reflecting on why I do things in the classroom.  Then Jo-Ann and Madeleine told us about their experience as elementary Spanish learners and showed how this changed their beliefs.  So interesting.

Here’s the list they gave us to rank:

  1. Learners should engage with the meaning of a written or spoken text before they do any language work.
  2. Teacher should provide controlled practice of pronunciation through repetition and drilling.
  3. Classroom tasks and resources should be authentic.
  4. Learners should work in different pairs/groups in a lesson.
  5. Whole group questions should be asked randomly.
  6. It is good for stronger and weaker learners to work together and encourage peer teaching.
  7. Praise is important for motivation.
  8. Be aware of physical features of the learning environment.  e.g. heat, light, furniture layout
  9. It is important to always use the target language even with a monolingual group.
  10. There should be a variety of tasks and input.

And here’s what they found:

  1. Before doing their Spanish course, they both believed this to be important but not essential.  After, though, they deemed it essential.  As learners, they really wanted to engage with texts and talk about meaning, not just move on quickly to exploit the language point.
  2. This also changed from being important to essential.  They really wanted more pronunciation drilling.
  3. This shifted from essential to not important.  They didn’t care if the resources or tasks were authentic.
  4. It’s essential to change pairs because they got bored always talking to the same person.
  5. They disagreed about whether students should be randomly nominated because one of them wanted time to prepare while the other liked being put on the spot.
  6. They started thinking this was essential, but changed their mind to not important, and even suggested the idea that peer teaching benefited the stronger student was rubbish.  They wanted to work with someone of the same level.  If they were stronger, they hated having to explain to someone weaker, but they found it frustrating to be the weaker student as well.
  7. Praise is extremely motivating.  This changed from important to essential.
  8. The physical environment is so important, more than you might think.  Their beliefs went from not important to essential.
  9. They disagreed on this one as well.  One wanted only Spanish, but the other wanted more English explanations.
  10. They wanted a variety of tasks and input, changing their views from important to essential.

To sum up, they thought all teachers and trainers should do a short course in another language.  We need to be more aware of our assumptions because they can end up being prescriptive without us really understanding why we do the things we do.

Reflection as a Trainer

I really enjoyed how this session was presented and so thought back to it several times when planning workshops for other teachers at my centre.  What makes a good workshop?  Why was this one so enjoyable for me?  Two main things I think:

1.  A good workshop allows teachers to talk about their own teaching.  I mean, what teacher doesn’t like talking about their classes, students, methods, lessons, etc?

2.  A good workshop has a ‘take-away,’  something you can use in future lessons or something that makes you think about what/why/how you teach.


Reflection as a Learner

I found this talk so inspiring that I wanted to try reflecting from the learner’s perceptive.  And so I enrolled in a beginner’s Spanish course.  Actually, in all honesty, I was thinking of studying a bit of Spanish anyways, but this talk gave me a bit of the push I needed as well as more of a structure for evaluating my experience as a learner (rather than from just my own over-critical teacher’s perspective).  More to come in a future blog post 🙂

Reading, Using Ken Lackman’s prep-free approach for IELTS

A New Way to Teach Reading

In Ken Lackman‘s talk on ‘A New Way to Teach Reading’ at IATEFL 2015, he argued that the way we teach reading is no longer relevant because the classroom isn’t the only place for English–students have access to English texts all the time through the Internet.  They can practice reading whenever they want outside of class and need strategies for doing that.  There is nobody there to spoon-feed them questions to activate their schemata or check their comprehension.  Ken advocates a genre-based approach with student-led schemata activation, gist questions, comprehension questions, vocabulary learning and discussion.

He showed us this through a demo lesson of a short story, but it could work with any genre including restaurant and film reviews or even listening to things like lectures or sitcoms.  Here’s a brief summary of the stages:

1.  Students discuss:  ‘What do you expect from a short story?’

2.  Students write their own ‘comprehension questions’ or what they expect to find out in any short story such as ‘Who are the main characters?’ ‘What happens?’ ‘Was the ending expected?’ etc.

3.  They are given the title and write more questions.  In this case the title was ‘A Secret Lost in the Water’ so things like:  ‘What’s the secret?’

4.  From this list of questions, the teacher guides the students to choosing the best ‘gist’ question.

5.  Students read fast to find the answer to the gist question.  I loved the way Ken had us read fast–we all had to stand up and could sit down when we finished. It really worked to speed up our reading speed, and I’ve used it a few times successfully with students since.

6.  Then students re-read slowly to find answers to all the ‘comprehension’ questions.

7.  Students underline unknown words in text.  Teacher goes through an example of determining meaning from context to see if students can work out their unknown words or if they need to look them up.  The stages Ken suggested are:  determine part of speech, find clues based on word parts, look at adjacent words, look at sentences before and after, guess with a synonym or phrase, and put this synonym in the sentence to see if it makes sense. Students do this in pairs to help with words they know.

8.  Students choose 10 collocations they think would be useful for them from the text.

9.  Students write their own discussion questions to talk about with the class.

Using this with my IELTS class

So if this could work with any genre, could I use this framework with an IELTS reading?  Obviously, not as exam practice, but to get my students to engage more with the text.  My students are really struggling with how to improve their reading skills quickly, and although I believe the real answer lies somewhere between ‘improve your general level of English/vocabulary’ and ‘read more,’ this is not a satisfying response to my students who don’t enjoy reading but need ilets 6.5 by yesterday (sic).

I wanted first of all to detach reading from IELTS so they don’t get so hung up on it and discouraged, as well as see that what we do in class can be applied outside of class to improve their general reading abilities.

So I started by asking my students: ‘What kind of things do you read other than IELTS?’ and then from that list selected ‘articles’ and asked them:  ‘Why do we read articles?’  They came up with ‘to get information.’  I then asked, ‘So how do you know which articles you want to spend time reading’  and they said they look at the picture, title and maybe skim the first paragraph.  So then I gave them the picture, title, and a few key words from the first paragraph of an IELTS reading, and had them imagine they had chosen this article because it had interested them in a magazine or online.  In this case we were doing ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ from Ready for IELTS (McCarter 2010), p 155, obviously not an article that would have grabbed their attention but in another context it might have.

Ready for IELTS (McCarter 2010)
Ready for IELTS (McCarter 2010)

Using just that information (picture, title, a few key words) they had to write 3 ‘facts’ they thought they knew about the topic, or in other words what world knowledge they already had that got them interested in reading the article in the first place.  They came up with things like ‘Children don’t live with their parents in this village in Africa.’  Then they had to think of 3 questions they wanted this article to answer for them, or in other words why they decided to keep reading it.  They came up with factual things like ‘What roles do elders play?’ but also subjective questions like: ‘Are their families similar to families in my country?’

Then they had to read the text to find out if their ‘facts’ were true, false or not given (sound familiar?) and answer their comprehension questions (which also might be not given).

After reading, they underlined and talked about unknown words, chose 5 useful collocations, and had a discussion about the text.

We also did the actual IELTS tasks, which most of them did very quickly and accurately having spent so long engaging with the text first, although obviously not under exam conditions.

I think they found this approach useful because they could see how they could apply this (and in fact already do subconsciously) to non-IELTS readings.  Writing their own questions also helped them to see the relevance of and rationale behind True/False/Not Given and comprehension questions, as well as how they can relate to our general reading habits rather than just an IELTS task to be feared.


IATEFL 2015 Getting your students to lie

Some of the most practical ideas I got from IATEFL 2015 involved encouraging students to lie…in order to get them speaking.  Jamie Keddie presented an idea for getting students to record a video telling a personal anecdote but either telling a true story or lying so when their classmates watch, they have to guess if it’s true.  Jason Anderson presented a whole talk entitled ‘Lying is the best policy…to get students speaking’ and I’m convinced.  Jason explained that lying encourages higher-order thinking because it involves learning at the top Bloom’s taxonomy like creativity and evaluating, allowing learners to process language more deeply.  In addition to this, lying encourages imagination and gives students practice in the interactional function of using language, as opposed to functional.  The one thing I really noticed in his workshop was how motivating these activities were not just for the speaker but for the listener.  You have to listen really attentively to work out if they are lying or not.   Here are some of the ideas he presented that are also in his fabulous new book ‘Speaking Games.’

Question Taboo

Students are given a card with a question and a taboo word.  They mingle trying to answer the question without saying the secret taboo word.  They have three chances and if they answer without saying the hidden word, they get 3 points on their first attempt, 2 on their second, 1 on their third.  Obviously the goal is to collect the most points.


The teacher tells two stories, one true and one a lie.  Students have to listen and decide which one is true and which one a lie.

Secret Sentence

During a discussion activity students have to smuggle in a secret sentence and try to make it sound so natural the others don’t guess that is their secret sentence. 

Truth or Lie

Any discussion board game or list of discussion questions can be adapted to this.  Instead of answering the questions truthfully, the speaker secretly flips a coin, and if it is heads, they tell the truth, but if it is tails, they have to lie.  The listener(s) have to determine if what they are saying is the truth or a lie.  

The most common white lies

Students are given a list of the most common white lies.  They listen to each other saying them and notice intonation, facial expressions and gestures.  

Kangaroo Court

In groups of 3-4, one student is told they are caught red-handed committing a soon-to-be revealed crime and must justify their actions.  (Such as breaking into Jeremy Harmer’s hotel room and getting caught going through his underwear drawer.)  The others must interrogate and sentence them.  

Two Truths and a Lie

This is a well-known TEFL activity and one that I was inspired to use the day after IATEFL because it’s easy and requires no prep.  Students create 3 sentences, two true and one lie, and the others have to guess which one is the lie. It can be used to practise whatever grammar or vocabulary is being covered.  

IATEFL 2014, a year on

This post actually started its life as a summary of talks after IATEFL 2014 Harrogate which I never got around to posting. Do other people do this too-start a post then never post it? Last year I actually had more unposted posts that I started and never published than ones I got around to finishing!

So anyway, with this year’s IATEFL fast approaching, I thought I’d look back and see which of last year’s talks have stuck with me and had an influence on my day-to-day teaching.

There were so many amazing ideas at IATEFL Harrogate; I kept meaning to go online and watch some of the sessions I had missed, but I never seemed to have the time, let alone find time to revisit my notes and websites for the ones I attended.

The three themes that have stuck in my mind this past year and influenced the way I teach are to try to incorporate more film clips into my lessons, think about how I teach listening and pronunciation, and to use more technology to improve my students’ speaking.  Here is a summary of some of those talks and a collection of websites with useful resources from some of the ones I went to.

Using images and video clips

Probably the most practical session that I went to and one that I quite regularly incorporate into my lessons was on using short film clips from the website: by Kieran Donaghy.

This site has lots of short film clips and ready-made lessons. An absolute gem.

I always meant to try to incorporate memes into my teaching or start using readers with my classes after attending ‘Using Memes’ by Nina Jeroncic and a presentation by Black Cat on integrating film and readers, but somehow never got around to it.

Listening and pronunciation

My students often complain that listening in class is easy but as soon as they walk out of the classroom into London, they can’t understand anyone.  Why is there such a discrepancy and what can we do as teachers to help them? I went to quite a few talks that addressed helping students understand authentic listenings and different pronunciations, and although I left inspired, I’m not sure it has translated into practical lesson activities or me being a better teacher of either listening or pron. I’m looking forward to hearing more at this year’s conference and exploring this area more. Websites of my favourites:

ELF Pron by Laura Patsko and Katy Davies by Sandy Millin by Richard Cauldwell


Using technology to encourage speaking

I went to a few sessions where practicing teachers explained which technology they have used with their students to get them speaking and how well it worked.  I’m not sure if I’m inspired to use any of the websites/apps with my students, but it is always interesting to share personal teaching experiences.  This past year I have tried a few new apps but mainly relied on getting my students to record themselves in whatever built-in recorder they had on their phones. These sessions did though confirm the relevance of using technology to get students to make progress and build confidence in speaking.  More importantly, like all of IATEFL, they provided a chance to share ideas with teachers from around the world, comparing contexts and experiences, sharing expertise, and developing and redefining best practice.  Bring on IATEFL 2015!

The Monday-After Lesson

IATEFL 2014–so many brilliant ideas, so inspirational, so many great discussions about teaching, I can’t wait to get back into the classroom.  Oh wait-you mean I actually do have to get back in the classroom the Monday after conference?!  What in the world am I going to teach?!

Well, that’s where Ken Lackman‘s session was a saviour.  After last year, (see this post) I knew it would be worth sticking around for the last session on Saturday, and he didn’t disappoint.  He presented a few activities from his activity bookGetting Students to Do Your Prep‘ which were really useful and, quite importantly after a week away, required no prep whatsoever.

I did a variation of his ‘Assuming Identities’ activity the first day back.  I’d been away, so the first thing I did was get my students to brainstorm the language they learnt the previous week in 4 groups (we have 4 different coloured board pens).  Then they had a competition to run to the board and put more expressions up than the other teams.  This was easy to count because each group had their own colour.  After we had a good list of language, I gave them each a paper and they wrote their name on it.  Then I mixed up the paper, giving them one with a classmate’s name, and they had to write examples using the language on the board about that person.  Then I read them out and they had to guess who it was about and if it was true, and who wrote it.  This lead to great discussion and I was able to check their mistakes and doubts in their writing and use of new language.

I have also done his ‘Find Someone Who.’   I have spent hours of my own life writing personalised ‘find sb who’s, when really, as he said, it’s the students who need the practice contextualising the language.  So obvious and yet so simple.  At first my students had trouble understanding the task, but once they got it, they wrote some really interesting prompts (much more interesting than I could ever have come up with) which lead to very relevant discussions, both when they were finding someone who fit each prompt and questions for me about how to use the vocabulary.  When I set it up, I gave each pair two cards and told them they had to write 5 prompts for ‘find sb who’ (using our recent vocabulary and grammar, if they wanted) and also said both cards had to be identical.  I modeled an example first on the board.  Then I took their cards and mixed them up, giving them someone else’s card.  After the speaking mingle, they had to find their new partner with the same card and compare their findings.

Both these activities were so successful and really got my students talking.  I can’t wait to try his ‘Paper Strip Test’ and adapting backs-to-the-board (‘Hot Seat’) to include getting students to write whole sentences first.  Thanks Ken 🙂

Dogme Revisited

I know I promised myself I would revisit a talk from IATEFL every week, and it’s not that the inspiration from IATEFL has dwindled away, not at all;  it’s just that I didn’t realise how much time blogging took and how little time I’d actually dedicate to it.  Maybe monthly is more do-able than weekly.  Of course the math doesn’t add up as I got closer to 52 ideas than 12 from the conference, but I guess that will make me realize which ideas really have stood the test of time.One idea that has really been sticking with me and I keep revisiting in my lessons is Dogme.  I can’t believe I haven’t given it any proper attention until now.  I am not a converted dogmatist, not by any means, but I think it’s a term to describe where I was going in my teaching before I knew the word for it.

I have used Ken Lackman’s Conversation Activated Framework several times with my students and always with much success.  (See previous post.)

So I was interested to re-visit some of the other talks I went to on Dogme.

First, I looked at my notes from Luke Meddings and Burcu Akyol’s ‘Unplugged and Connected’ talk, but was a bit disappointed.  Maybe because my hopes were too high–this would be my ideal teaching scenario, integrating technology with unplugged teaching.  Everything Burcu expressed about teaching and technology I thought was spot on.  I like the idea of using technology to promote learner autonomy, interactivity and engagement.  I loved that she didn’t overwhelm us with tools, but gave us three useful ones:  Evernote, Scoop.It and Linoit.  I’ve been using for awhile, but I haven’t had time to try the other two out.  I like the idea that these tools could be a record of what we do in class rather than a coursebook because I think students do want to go aw from a course with something, even if it’s something they never look at again.

Then I looked at my notes from a talk that has been in the back of my mind because it really sums up the way that I feel about Dogme:  ‘Of course!  Using a coursebook AND engaging with emergent language’ by Rachael Roberts.  I don’t really get what the big debate is about and don’t see why it has to be all or nothing one way or the other.  Rachael brought up a good point by asking the quesiton:  who just uses a coursebook without teacher/student interaction?  I think a teacher who does that is going to be a ‘bad’ teacher, even if (and probably especially if) they follow an unplugged approach.

I absolutely loved the video she showed us, Q&A from Storycorps, and I think she’s got a point.  Materials add a richness to our lessons that student conversation alone cannot capture.  Materials can add variety and engagement, but more importantly expose students to motivating and relevant language in context.  Materials can scaffold learning and provide opportunities for noticing and practice.

Q & A from Storycorps

Rachael recommended three things to provide opportunities for emergent language:  make things engaging, encourage noticing and restructuring, and repeating and recycling.

In the question and answer session following the talk, Chia made a good point.   She said, ‘good teachers use the coursebook as a springboard for other things.’  I think the debate isn’t really about dogme versus coursebooks, but about us trying to arrive at what makes a good teacher.


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.)