EnglishUK Conference 2016

On 12 November I had the pleasure of attending the English UK Conference here in London.  It was an inspiring day, opening with Laura Patsko’s insightful plenary on English as a lingua franca (ELF) in the multilingual classroom and finishing with the entertaining Ken Wilson and 10 quotes to make you think.  Here are some highlights from the day.

English as a lingua franca and the multilingual classroom–Laura Patsko

I could spend many words trying to recap Laura’s brilliant talk, but you can watch it yourself and check out the slides on her ELF Pronunciation site.  Lucky you.


two LaurasWhen I was sitting in her plenary, I was reminded how the last time I attended an English UK conference, which must have been about 5 years ago or so, I went to see someone speak about ELF (unfortunately I have forgotten who).  At the time, I was quite interested in the talk because I was doing a lot of ELF research for my MA, but was so disappointed because it wasn’t a very well-attended talk and at the end the feedback towards ELF (not the speaker) was quite negative with a heavy native-speaker bias.   It is fantastic to see how things have changed and are moving forward with ELF being featured in the plenary and many talks featuring various aspects of inclusivity in ELT.


Physicality of pronunciation–Marie Pettigrew

Marie demonstrated how to show students physically how to make the sounds on Adrian Underhill’s pronunciation chart and some practical classroom activities.  One activity that was quite useful was silent dictation using lip reading YouTube clips because students really have to notice the placement of their mouths.  Turn down the volume and have students notice which word was said.  We did our own mini-dialogues only through lip reading where we were given celebrities’ real names and had to ask our partner’s name and how to spell it.  It was hard!

One of the best moments of this session was when we imagined the sound we’d make stepping on something disgusting /ɜː/and it turns out this is not the same in all languages.  For example, in German it’s /iː/. What a beautiful teaching moment this could be using the phonemic chart.

I was really interested in attending this talk because pronunciation is an area I’d like to teach better.  When I was learning Spanish, I realised how much I really wanted someone to show me how to move my mouth to produce sounds.  I already do this with my own students, but am always looking for new techniques.  I was also intrigued because I often struggle to use the chart effectively because it does not match my own vowel sounds.  Even though I can see a lot of benefit in the chart, it perpetuates the idea that there is only one way to pronounce vowels in English.  At the pub after though, I heard about a more dynamic chart that I’m interested to explore which includes the /r/ that features after many vowel sounds in my accent.



Moving from general to academic English–Fiona Aish

Fiona, of Target English, got us thinking in this session:  What do students need to be able to do differently in an academic context compared to in a general English class?  How can I as a teacher prepare them?  She pointed out the thing I always find about my own students, that they are completely unaware of the complexity of language they will need to use when they get to university.  They tend to think that once they have IELTS, that’s enough, when it’s really only the beginning and IELTS is only the bridge to where they need to get to.  They need more precision, accuracy and subject knowledge for Academic English.

target-englishIn terms of writing, it’s important for students to stop writing about the topic and actually answer the question, a problem I find often with my own learners.  I found this slide particularly useful in getting students to notice and really understand the question.  I’ve been getting my students to notice what the topic (e.g. technology) and what the task is (e.g. give advantages and disadvantages) in their essay questions, but this takes it even deeper (topic, restriction, focus and action) and the colour-coding makes it clear, so I will definitely be stealing it to use in class.

In terms of listening, students need to be ready to listen to lectures and deal with different accents, different speaking speeds, and be ready to process a mix of fact and opinion, hedging, noun phrases, idiomatic expressions etc.  For example, if students hear ‘according to…’ they should know their lecturer is going to quote someone else.  Students need to be ready to predict what they are going to hear in a lecture based on previous lectures and background reading.

Fiona’s talk wasn’t just about students, but also for teachers on the path transitioning from teaching general English through to IELTS to more academic contexts like EAP courses, university foundation programmes, pre-sessionals, and in-sessionals.  She recommended https://www.baleap.org/ for more info and job postings.  I also noticed the blog section of her website http://www.target-english.co.uk/ has some nice writing tips.

Teaching grammar for all the right reasons–Danny Norrington-Davies

Danny started by quoting his colleague Andrea Borsato who said:

‘We try to contain the language with rules but the language keeps running away.’

I love that quote.  We should get students to really discover the reasons why somebody would use a certain grammar item in a written or spoken text, rather than give them rules which are often too abstract, hard to apply, qualified with the word ‘usually,’ confusing and at worst wrong and untrue.  Language is too dynamic to capture with rules.

grammar reasons For example, why do we say, ‘I’m loving my job’ when it doesn’t fit into our ‘rules’ about state verbs and the continuous aspect?  Well, take away rules and explore reasons, and we can easily understand why we say that.

Danny’s approach to teaching grammar is to look at a text and ask, ‘Why does the writer or speaker use this form?’  He showed us an example with restaurant reviews taken from London-eating.  First ask students if they would eat there.  Then get them to notice specific examples that include present simple, past simple and present continuous.  Ask students why the writer used those words.  His low-intermediate students were able to come up with reasons.  These reasons might be different or imprecise, but he guided them as their teacher to refine and co-construct reasons together as a class.  Students can see how tenses interact together in a text, which is much more beneficial than the isolated view of tenses usually presented in coursebooks.   Students then replicate the task by writing their own review.

grammar reasonsHe also showed us an example looking at newspaper articles, which raised awareness of relative clauses, and was followed by a transposition task of a role play.  Just a side note, he used http://www.classtools.net/ to create this fabulous slide.

By looking for reasons after understanding a text, students are really using guided discovery, not the usually coursebook version of guided discovery which is really a test or led-discovery to ‘discover’ a pre-decided rule.   This way avoids artificial simplification because students can simplify it themselves.  Students are taking ownership of the language.  Also, it can be more satisfying to come up with reasons and explore similarities, rather than be given lots of exceptions to rules.

I’m really looking forward to checking out his new book when it’s out as well as exploring a Diane Larsen-Freeman (2003) book on grammar he highly recommended.

Ten quotes to make you think–Ken Wilson

I think Ken probably had over 20 quotes from celebrities ranging from the very famous like Socrates, Einstein, Mark Twain, etc. to the not so well-known Tallulah Bankhead who said, ‘If I had to live my life again, I’d make the same mistakes…only sooner.’  It was very entertaining, but one quote that stuck with me was actually something he had said.  He asked us how long it took us to identify our best student, and then pointed out that maybe they were the best only because they responded to our way of teaching.  There are some students who don’t get the way we teach but we need to find a way to reach all of our students.  People have a very basic desire to express who they are, what they want, etc. and if we allow students to do this, it’s a good lesson.

He also presented a simple, but extremely fun warm-up activity that could be useful with students.

A:  You’re so (an adjective that begins with the letter a)!

B:  Really?

A:  Yes.

B:  Well, you’re so (an adjective that begins with the letter b)!

…and so on through the alphabet.

And at the drinks reception and pub

The problem with all these events is that there are always interesting speakers that you don’t end up seeing because their talks conflict with the ones you did see.  I was lucky enough to chat to some really interesting people, doing some interesting work.  Just to name a few and share some of their websites if you’re interested:

Adam Scott who is doing some really interesting work with synthetic phonics.  I’m looking forward to finding out more.

Marek Kiczkowiak who runs TEFL Equity Advocates to promote equality in TEFL.

The always inspiring  Jason Anderson .

Simon Dunton who talks about LGBT inclusivity.  If you ever get a chance to see him speak, I highly recommend it after attending his presentation at the last IATEFL conference.

A final thought…

Thanks everyone for all the great conversations and inspirations at English UK 2016.  Ken ended his talk by saying that there are three kinds of teachers, ones that inspire, ones that frighten and ones we don’t remember at all.  So I’ll leave you with the though, which kind of teacher do you want to be?


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.