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Career Discombobulation

23 Oct

DISCLAIMER: If you’re looking for useful ELT content, look no further.  Seriously, stop reading now.


Stewing in the stew

Some big changes are on the horizon in my own little ELT world, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to write a blog post, have a quick self-indulgent reflection, and start thinking about the future.  First, I’d like to quickly say that this will likely be my last post on ELT Stew.  I know that this will come as a shock to the many who already assumed the blog was defunct, but for those few of you who still enjoy my bi-annual posts, thank you for reading and commenting over the past few years – joining the online ELT community here has made a huge difference to my professional development, teaching, and overall career satisfaction.  How else would I have met @Michaelegriffin, @Scott Thornbury, or learnt about intestinal-distress-based learning?

I should also say that this blog, along with many of my ELT endeavours, was a direct result chris-beer-hatof my friendship with one teacher, so it’s only fitting I mention him here.  In fact, I think it’s fair to say that my begrudging admiration for (and envy of) @ChrisOzog’s enthusiasm, motivation, and general geekery have been a driving force across a few different continents now.  Whether starting a blog, getting involved with Dogme research, or planning imaginary Panamanian schools, I’m not sure I’d be where I am without his random decision to come to Costa Rica.  In return, I taught him how to lose gracefully at pool (guided-discovery) and forced him to be a Calgary Flames fan – hardly seems a fair trade.  Yep, that’s him with his erudition on display.


Let’s blow this popsicle stand[1]

More important than leaving this neglected blog, at the end of the year I am also leaving International House where I’ve been for the last 10 years.  Although stops in Dubai and Vancouver have been great in completely different ways, the mainstay of my IH experience was at IH Costa Rica, aka the Instituto Británico.  During those 6.5 years, I went from a confused and flailing 24-year-old to a slightly less-confused 30-year-old with a wife, dogs, and amazing friends.  I couldn’t find a pithy pic that included everyone (can a pic be pithy?), so instead here is the greatest garden in the history of language schools, where I somehow met Andrea, Jon, Ana, Mark, Bernardo, Chris, Carlos, and so many others.  RIP el Instituto.  Also, a gif of me jumping into the Costa Rican abyss – seemed fitting somehow.



Back to school

So why am I leaving the comforting confines of IH considering all they have given me?  Well for one, I have been lucky so far never to have suffered from teacher burnout.  Fed up at times, sure, perplexed by humans, often, but I’ve never felt the urge to leave ELT.  And I’d like to keep it that way, before CELTA-saturation occurs (I can feel twinges already).  Also, even if I do make millions in ELT (joke), this is what 2.4 million dollars can buy you in Vancouver these days (not a joke), so it might be time for a move.

Now there are lots of directions I could go which would add some variety, including teaching more, writing more, Delta-ing more, etc.  But, given that I am a genuine geek and spend my commute reading articles about corpora and listening to podcasts about the etymology of ‘discombobulate’, I thought a bit of academia might suit me.  Plus I hear the dental benefits for professors are better than for freelance teachers.

Ten PhD applications, dozens of cringe-worthy personal essays, and several hundred dollars later, I’ve done everything I can do and am sitting patiently by my phone (an idiom that makes very little literal sense anymore).  Of course, on the highly likely chance that no reputable university jumps to give me an amazing funding package, I’ll be hitting the streets to rustle up some interesting ELT work.  Feel free to send me overly-generous offers.  Seriously.


Baby steps and Thank-yous

To distract you from the horror of the noun phrase above, I present you with my daughter doing her best impression of my new career – part curious, part nervous, and relying heavily on my wife’s support (pics of cute babies and beautiful women = blogging 101!).

Mia and Andre.jpg

As for my own first steps into the world of academia, I’m very happy to share that I have an article in an upcoming volume of English Language Teaching Journal (ELT-J)With the totally un-mysterious title of ‘Integrating Corpus Tools on Intensive CELTA Courses’, it doesn’t need much description here, but it is available online now and in print in July.  Do please check it out if you get a chance.

Since there is no space in the journal to acknowledge anyone, I’d just like to quickly say a massive thank you to everyone who contributed in some way, especially the trainees for volunteering to take part, my co-tutors Tillat Khalid and Michael Newby for taking fieldnotes, professor Nur Kurtoglu-Hooton for encouraging me to pursue this research, and my insanely talented editing team of Chris Ożóg, Nick Wimshurst, Martyn Williams, and the anonymous reviewers at ELT-J.  No financial compensation for any of you I’m afraid, but I’m happy to pay in gratitude and beer.

Ok, with all that said, the official countdown is on, so if anyone has any feedback, suggestions or general life advice for 2017, I could really use it about now (especially if you happen to be a university dean, journal editor, or wealthy linguistics-minded philanthropist).  Who knows, if I’m lucky, maybe I’ll get to start another blog about my new PhD struggles.  More likely, it will be an anonymous homage to English Droid – Rinvoludicrous lives!


[1] No connotations of disrespect intended, I just love out-of-date slang.


Material-phobic Support Group

20 Oct

Disclaimer: Material design really isn’t my thing.  I prefer material-light tasks and I’m not very creative when it comes to material ideas.  Instead, I try to just build up a large mental bank of flexible task types and activities that I can use in all kinds of situations.  There are many amazing material designers out there and I’m happy to rely on their excellent work when I need resources.

With all that said, once in a while I do make a little something.  On my CELTA courses, I like for the tutors to actually teach most of the required ‘observation of experienced teachers’ component.  This is probably a topic for another post sometime, but one consequence is that I think quite a lot about what the trainees will be seeing and what will be most useful for them at different stages of the course.  So while I often have a Dogme or TBL lesson in the latter stages to show alternative approaches/methodologies, on Day 1, I like to have some material as the basis, much like the support they’ll be able to use in their own lessons.

In any case, somehow someone (aka Chris Ożόg) put some of my rare original material up on the IH journal blog.  A big thanks to a CELTA trainee from back in the day who inspired this lesson (I told you I wasn’t creative), Rusty Wienk – I love when trainees go on to bigger and better things in ELT and could end up as my boss one day.

Here’s the link to the journal: If anyone else has any lesson ideas to add, I’m sure Chris would be grateful.

Ok, enough about worksheets.  Maybe the next post will be about CELTA Dogme demos instead.

P.S. Since I also can’t think of any creative image or video to suit this mini-post, here’s a never-ending loop of the rooster from Robin Hood whistling – enjoy!


18 Jun

So… apparently movies in the Marvel ‘Cinematic Universe’ have grossed over $3,400,745,593 dollars. That’s 3.4 b-b-b-billion for 11 movies with a whole slate of follow-up on-screen bombast en route to complete their cinematic world subjugation. Not too shabby eh?

I’d argue though that the studio masterminds have left money on the table by overlooking a key figure in their comic book source material, the 1980’s anti-hero Taskmaster!!! Intent on “[training] a large number of thugs at criminal academies”, Taskmaster was a superhero and a teacher! True, he never went much into humanistic language pedagogy, but not all super teachers can start pseudo-scientific Hungarian cults.


I’ll admit, I’d never heard of Taskmaster until I googled the word a few minutes ago, but I can relate to the idea of a task-setting obsessive. It definitely doesn’t get into any of the deeper truths about language learning, but it still amazes me that the success of a lesson can hinge on whether learners have actually understood the tasks. That’s probably why a few years ago one of my first posts ever was about ICQs, and somehow, that post still gets more hits than almost any other (which doesn’t say much for my improvement as a writer!). Back then, I was railing against pointless instruction checking questions, and a few dozen CELTA courses later I’m still not a huge fan.

A few months ago though I decided to dig a bit deeper and see what actually does work in terms of helping students to come to grips with activities. Here, the concept of ‘instructional scaffolding’ was helpful, covering all kinds of support structures like checking questions, visual support, examples and demonstrations, gestures, etc. (Applebee and Langer, 1983).

With the kind permission of my Celtees, I made a note of every instruction given, the type of scaffolding used, and whether or not teacher intervention and repair was then needed. I even recorded a few samples for good measure. Four weeks, a bunch of pretty graphs, and one excessively long paper later, I came to a couple of simple conclusions:

1)  Instructional scaffolding works:

Pretty ground-breaking stuff, I know. Basically, looking at both the numbers and transcripts, it seems that no matter how you do it, providing some kind of support for instructions leads to better comprehension. This was true even when taking into consideration the type of task and the quality of the scaffolding, e.g. clear, unchecked instructions vs. garbled, checked instructions. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this!

Types of scaffolding used and subsequent repair


Between the three most common support types, there was not much difference in either usage or apparent effectiveness in comparison to when there was no support.  However, these stats are a bit misleading as Visual support was never used in isolation.

2)  Combinations of instructional scaffolds work best

More importantly in terms of being able to help my trainees, there was pretty compelling evidence that combinations of instructional scaffolds are more likely to ensure task comprehension than any instructional scaffold used in isolation. Although just asking ICQs or doing a demo worked some of the time, when used in combinations there was a massive improvement in task understanding. In fact, although it might seem excessive, when there was a demo or example, an ICQ, and some sort of visual, the learners understood 100% of the time on the course, no matter which of the eight trainees was teaching. At the other end of the spectrum, one or no scaffolds led to repair between 70% and 100% of the time.

Combinations of Scaffolds Used and Subsequent Repair


Of course, all the usual caveats apply – specific context, small sample, only one course, etc. Still, it was interesting to put intuition to the test and to gain a little evidence that may help future teachers trying to effectively set tasks.

Like with past blog posts about projects of little interest to all but a strange few, feel free to contact me for the complete paper full of thrilling facts, methodology, and figures. As well, if anyone has had a different experience in their teaching/training context, it would be great to hear about it as there are a lot of questions still to answer – does it make a difference if they are new or experienced teachers? The length of time the teacher has had the group? The cultural context?

More importantly, when will Taskmaster be coming to a theatre near me?


Applebee, A. and J. Langer. 1983. ‘Instructional scaffolding: Reading and writing as natural language activities’. Language Arts, 60/2.

Richards, J.C. and T. Rodgers.  2001.  Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Down a reflective rinvoludicrous rabbit hole…

30 Jan

(If you haven’t read the EnglishDroid Rinvolucri interview, read that instead of this!)

Final week of another CELTA course, and not surprisingly, the ol’ mental acuity might be slipping a bit. Time for an inner-grammatical biscuit!

Cookie monsterIf you’ve ever seen a trainee after they finish their final observed lesson, you might be surprised to find out that they aren’t quite as keen to soak up detailed oral feedback from their peers or tutors as in previous lessons.[1] To combat this pandemic, some tutors get creative with the observation tasks, a common one being for the peers observing to draw a picture representing the lesson: a happy meal, something abstract, a train wreck, etc. (thanks Jamie King, Brigid Nugent).

But is this going far enough? Last year, a timid Russian candidate decided that she wasn’t into drawing and instead created her own observation task – selecting what kind of dog breed best represented each candidate’s lesson and why. We had a poodle, a German shepherd, and I think a Labrador – Inspired!

Ugly dog

So for the last couple of courses, for the final day’s lessons, I’ve let trainees create their own equally random observation tasks. To date:

– Blank verse poetry

– Feedback set to Russian lullabies and military marches

– A map

– A flow chart (exciting!)

– Deciding the type of animal the lesson represented

– Deciding the type of food the lesson represented

– Haikus

– Drawing the type of dinosaur the lesson represented

– Drawing the type of crime the lesson represented

Not a massive list, but it’s produced some great feedback. Although, some of it’s been more funny than helpful, there has also been some really aware and insightful justifications for the choices. Granted, the drawing of New Brunswick flooded by a sea of blood and pigs was a bit arbitrary, but never mind. Proof once again that specific tasks and parameters can get the creative juices flowing.

If anyone else out there is dealing with peer observations, let me know if you have any equally random or trainee generated tasks (or conversely if you just think this is a massive waste of time)! I’ll try to start scanning and uploading some of my favourites too to add to the collection.

[1] Should be pointed out, they still get detailed written feedback which I’m sure they cherish and savour later.

Blog like a boss

30 Sep

Saturday Night Live just turned 40 and I may or may not have gone down a rabbit hole of Will Ferrell amazingness  and Andy Samberg songs (the video below – NSFW!).  Although Andy probably didn’t have ELT blogging in mind when he composed it, I take inspiration from wherever I can get it, especially living in Dubai.

In any case, after spending far too many hours on an MSc paper on discourse analysis of ELT blogs, I came up with a 6500-word monstrosity (you can email me if you’re a masochistic applied linguist looking for some light holiday reading). If you just want a quick synopsis of the findings though and are curious what luminaries @thornburyscott, @hughdellar, @teflerinha, and @Harmerj have in common, then read on!

The stars of the show

First, a big thank you to Scott, Hugh, Rachael and Jeremy for (unknowingly) providing the texts for my mini-corpus – good ol’ public interwebs. In any case, I only used bloggers with sizable followings, a large number of posts, and who also have published materials in other ELT genres.

It’s a genre I tell you (ok, maybe a sub-genre)

Although much of my academic rambling had to do with specific genre features of ELT blogs, suffice to say that all these blogs have a lot in common in terms of field (context, content, etc.), tenor (discourse community), and mode, as well intertextuality and the inherent structure of blogs.

How to do it

For me, perhaps the most interesting part was the consistency of the communicative ‘moves’ of the different authors. If someone was to ask me how to write an ELT blog (hey, it could happen), this is what I’d tell them:

1) Capture their attention with the title

Whether it’s humour, alliteration, or a question to the audience, make sure the title is catchy. My personal favourite from the corpus was Harmer’s “What the Dickens!” – I’m always going to read that one.


2) Create interest using multi-media

Ok, you’ve got the reader’s attention, now time to seal the deal. No one cares about words these days, so better whack in a picture, cartoon or video to liven up the text! Rachael gets my nod of approval for her pond full of floating rubber ducks.


3) Tell a personal anecdote

Now the reader’s hooked, but you don’t want to scare them off with cold ELT talk. Better warm them up with a little story. A tangentially related personal anecdote seems to be the safest bet, but if you don’t leave your ELT cave very often, then a current event will do in a pinch. The winner for this category is Scott who combines personal travel and current events with this opening line: “As the sign suggests, with the passing of the same-sex marriage bill, it’s been a good time to be gay in New York.”


4) Provide information/opinion on topic of interest to the ELT community

There’s no more delaying it – time to hit them with the heavy stuff. Luckily for you, if you’re writing an ELT blog, there’s not much chance of a non-ELT audience ever coming across your post. Too many good ones to choose a favourite for this move – there’s a reason I read these blogs!


5) Appeal to authority

It may be a personal blog, but a little back up never hurts. References to your own/others’ published work, informal work, and corpora should all do the trick.

6) Prompt or ask a question to finish

This ain’t no stuffy article, this is a blog post godammit. If you want some interaction you need to go out and get it, preferably after you’ve finished pontificating. You can either go for the direct question, What new talks are you working on?” or the not-so-subtle hypothetical, “I’d be very interested to hear any comments…”

7) Link up to the community (this move can occur at any time)

Of course, since the internet lets you link to other ELTers’ output, you should probably crank the connections up to 11. Why not link to #ELTchat, other bloggers’ posts, or even to some new fancy app if you’re that way inclined (not that there’s anything wrong with it).

8) Interact with the ELT community

At this point all your hard work should have paid off and the comments and adulation are rolling in. Now you can just sit back, thank everyone for stopping by, and have a chat with your PLN friends. Good times.

Exception to prove the rule?

Interestingly, to start I had collected texts from Adrian Underhill’s amazing pronunciation blog and had noticed that his posts didn’t typically follow the move sequence. His texts were later cut from the research as he didn’t have enough followers (outrageous!), which brings up the question: is his blog less popular because he doesn’t follow the typical conventions? Ok, so it probably has more to do with his lack of a twitter account, but if I can’t draw dubious conclusions from my own tiny sample size, what’s the point of doing research?

Hmm… looking back at this post, it seems I’ve forgotten about move #6, so if anyone has any more ELT blog examples that confirm/refute this move sequence, please let me know below. Cheers.

Listen to who?

4 May

I love student output. Discussions, presentations, debates, stories – you name it, I’m into it (assuming it’s meaningful to the people speaking). I listen, comment, scribble notes, think of ways to extend it, all that good stuff.

Sometimes though, after a group has carefully prepared and practiced an amazing presentation for the class, it doesn’t seem like their peers are as enthralled as I am. Fair enough considering they are worrying about their own turns, can’t really hear their colleagues, or just aren’t that interested in what they have to say. Still, I’d like them to be more engaged, and since I spend quite a lot of time these days thinking about task design, you’d think I’d have some amazing, innovative ways to capture their attention. Sadly, this isn’t the case, so I’m turning to the ol’ blogosphere to see if anyone can help out.



Here are a few ideas to get the ball rolling which have worked for me, but nothing spectacular, so I’m really hoping for a comment or two (come on you TBL/Dogme aficionados, this should be right up your alley):

–          Peers write questions to ask about the presentation – my usual go-to, this one is a classic for a reason – it’s simple to set up, works with any topic, and can be managed at any level.

Downside? Pretty dull if this is only the ever peer-listening task.


–          Test the expert – nearly identical to the one above, but with a bit more of a game-like element. Instead of asking questions directly about the presentation, peers try to come up with tricky questions related to the topic to try to stump ‘the expert’.

Downside? Only works if the presenters are fairly familiar with the topic they are talking about.


–          Summary tasks – rather than asking questions, peers are asked to do some kind of summary task, anything from write a one-sentence summary, one paragraph, 3 interesting facts, etc.

Downside? Not particularly personal or interactive.


–          Artistic tasks – for the more open-minded classes, you can ask them to draw a picture of either the whole presentation or specific elements. These drawings can then be used for guessing games/explanations after the presentation.

Downside? Definitely not a task that suits everyone’s tastes.


–          Prompts – these can sometimes be a good way to get feedback on a presentation. Sentence stems for example, like I never knew that…, can help to get the learners focused and lead to a more fruitful and specific feedback session.   Other prompts cold include charts to fill in, categorization tasks, etc.

Downside? By itself it doesn’t stimulate any interaction and not all prompts are appropriate for every presentation.


–          Student-made comprehension tasks – for the more attentive groups, one option is for them to create comprehension tasks based upon what they’ve heard (true/false, questions, multiple-choice, etc.). These can then be given to other groups to complete while the presenters confirm/deny the answers.

Downside? Possibly overly challenging for some levels


–          Agree/Disagree tasks – students can write a specified number of things that they agree or disagree with the presenter about. These can then be used to stimulate discussions, debate, or can be used as part of a guessing game (who said it? Did they agree or disagree? Etc.)

Downside? Depending on the presentation, this task may not be applicable.


So, there are a few simple peer listening tasks that I’ve tried out. These are all material free and adaptable since that tends to be what I like, but I’m open to trying out all kinds of new ideas. Now, what have you got for me?



Something seems to be missing from my Applied Linguistics MSc…

16 Apr

(Hint: it’s not the linguistics)Halliday

I like to think that I’m as into linguistics and theory as much as the next geeky EFL teacher, but the last few months have seriously made me reconsider.  To start, I was super excited to begin my MSc at a well-known British university, and although I had never taken a long online course, I’ve always worked well by myself.  First module: Grammar.

Here is the ongoing conversation with my own psyche over the past few months as I tried to justify and wrap my mind around what I was doing:

Grammar to start?

So far, so good – I know my grammar. 

Wait, Systemic Functional Grammar is something completely different? 

No problem, a new perspective for looking at language – this will be great.

Ok, so this seems like a ton of new terminology, differing between authors…

Shhh brain, I’m trying to figure out if this embedded clause has a mental process of cognition with a circumstance of contingency/behalf or not.

So, um… how exactly is this going to help your teaching?

Well, greater awareness…mumblemumble…different perspectives…tell you later

Great, we’ve completed half the course!  I wonder what other grammatical perspectives we’re going to see!

Yeah, forgot to tell you, SFG is the only grammar we’re looking at.  Noam who?

Yes, final paper completed!  5000 word commentary, another 4000 words in analyses.  Time to reflect on how this is applicable to my future career.

I wouldn’t do that if I were you…

Shut up brain, I’m writing a blog post about it.

To be fair, this was only the first of several modules, so the ‘applied’ in my applied linguistics may well come later.  And I do realize that teaching/teacher training is only one of the many fields in which the knowledge can be applied.  In fact, this is one of the reasons I chose not to do an MA TESOL, as I do like theory and am interested in seeing applications of linguistics and other possible career avenues.

So, if anyone could help me out by explaining how my new-found SFG knowledge can be applied in the real world, it would honestly be much appreciated.

Next up: lexis.

TESOL Arabia 2013 Review

21 Mar

After thoroughly enjoying @michaelegriffin ‘s review of the Cambodia TESOL conference, I thought I would steal borrow his format (minus the pretty pictures) for my own conference review.

As this was my first conference in the UAE, I tried to see as much as possible, give a talk, and meet as many people as possible.  With all three goals I was somewhat successful…

Short Version:

A mixed bag.  Definite highlights and lowlights too.  Well worth it if you do your research beforehand.

Medium version:

  • Massive number of sessions across three days
  • Well organized, especially considering the logistics and sheer number of people
  • Self-realization that schmoozing is not my forte
  • Wide variety of presenters
  • Had a great time with a number of local trainers
  • Tons of publishers and stalls if you’re into that kind of thing

Long version:

Presentations I particularly enjoyed:

  • Carolyn Graham – Ok, so I know she’s given that same lecture/handout at least a 1000 times before, but it was still fun to clap and chant and get caught up in her infectious, crazy session.
  • Katie Davies @KatySDavies – A friend and colleague who gave an interesting session on increasing reading speed in academic English.  Unlike many of the talks, it was interactive, specific, and practical.
  • Some Pecha Kucha sessions – As to be expected, they weren’t all great (see below), but a couple of them, related to the free learning movement and aiding gifted learners, encapsulated exactly what I enjoy about the format: minimal text, concision, and a specific topic.

Giving a talk:

This was my first time giving a talk related to teacher training rather than ELT, and while it didn’t go exactly as planned (does it ever?), it seemed to go over pretty well.  The lack of whiteboard made me skip/adapt a couple of tasks and 40 people are a few more than I find comfortable for a workshop, but not a big deal.  A big thank you to everyone who did attend and also to those people who have since contacted me in follow-up.

Meeting people:

Overall, I didn’t get to meet as many people as I would have liked due to the format/my nature (see pet peeves below).  After my talk though a number of interesting trainers from the region came up to chat and I greatly appreciate the show of support.  As well, I did get to spend time with friends and acquaintances who I don’t get to see often enough.  I especially liked getting to know freelance trainier @AnnaHasper and hanging out with @ChrisOzog , @mickeywhist, and Irene Cruickshank.

Pet peeves:

1)      Death by powerpoint: A few sessions I saw had great titles, but upon arrival it soon became clear that the presentation meant reading huge swaths of text off of powerpoint slides.  45-minutes of this is pretty brutal, especially when the slides include a massive number of academic references and quotations.  Even the unintentional irony of Jack C Richards reading his powerpoint on ‘Creativity in Teaching’ did little to cheer me up.

2)      Vague research: I won’t say which talk it was, but if your months of research lead to the conclusion that ‘feedback for teachers is useful’, then you might want to reformulate your initial research questions.  Luckily  was there to ask hilarious/apt questions at the end (Wouldn’t it be demotivating if you received a 0 out of 5 for personality?)

3)      Number of people: Nothing to be done about this one I suppose, but with so many people, it was more difficult to meet people in the common areas than at other conferences.  It was like being in a busy train station.

4)      Rooms: The rooms in no way leant themselves to workshop style talks.  There were dimmed lights, no whiteboards, and crammed rows of sturdy chairs, making monitoring or grouping a challenge.

5)      Random Pecha Kucha’s – I like a strange topic or two, but why do a Pecha Kucha on how British banking practices and Greek drivers make you grumpy?  Really, the topic was ‘Things that make me grumpy’.  6 minutes and 40 seconds I’ll never get back…

6)      Missing the change to meet @tamaslorincz  @chucksandy  – Unfortunately I couldn’t attend the final afternoon and missed the chance to see some of my PLN in action.  A real shame.


For next year:

Do better research beforehand to decide what sessions to see, and try to see if I can do a Pecha Kucha presentation.

If you’re planning on going or have any suggestions for what to see, please let me know!

Friends, Romans, Kabayan…

25 Feb

I haven’t been blogging this year, but couldn’t resist when I saw this billboard in my metro station.  Can you guess what country this is in?  Who it’s written for?  What language it is? (Okay maybe the last one isn’t that tricky…)


If you do recognize this ad, then maybe you’ve recently been in the Dubai Marina metro station in the UAE.  And if you understood all the lexis in this ad, then you’re probably Filipino or familiar with the culture.  It turns out  that Kabayan is a Filipino term for countryman and adobo is the name of a popular Filipino dish (thanks Google).Adobo

So why did this ad make such an impression on me?

I suppose it’s because of the endless discussion and debate in ELT concerning English as a Lingua Franca, who English belongs to, what English we should be teaching, etc.  Outside of ELT, variations of this debate can be seen too, as evidenced by this recent article in the Guardian which came out about Singlish (English from Singapore).

Now, I don’t pretend to have any answers, or even particularly strong feelings on the subject, but it does seem to me that this ad does say a lot about the current state of world English.  After all,

  • it is written in English
  • it includes lexis for a specific non-native English speech community (Filipinos)
  • it is posted in a prominent spot, in an Arabic-speaking country in the Middle East

I’m not sure who English belongs to, but it certainly isn’t me (and that’s just the way I like it).

Freedom through Restriction

1 Oct

Well, I’ve had a bit of a hiatus from writing anything, and I’m not really sure why.  Hopefully this one will get me back into the habit, at least until the MSc work kicks in.  Thank you to the people who took the time to poke me and encourage me to get going again.

So what’s the funniest thing you’ve ever seen?


For most people, this question is very difficult or even impossible to answer.  Sure, we’ve seen a lot of hilarious things in our lives, but the funniest?  There’s just so much to choose from that nothing comes to mind.

Occasionally, while watching trainees teach, I suspect that something similar is happening to the learners.  In particular, it tends to be when the teachers are giving the learners ‘freer practice’ of a language point or ‘working on fluency’[1].  It’s pretty easy to see why too – the trainees, admirably, want to give the learners a chance to say whatever they want, without interference.  Intuitively, this seems like a great way to promote meaningful conversation, without any unnatural restrictions.

In reality, however, the speaking often dries up and the panic on the teacher’s face sets in as they realize that their 15 minute activity has lasted for only 3.  It’s at this point that I usually start feverishly praying (despite my agnosticism) that they don’t try to play hangman/cry/let all the students leave early/do painstakingly long feedback/ramble aimlessly until time is up.

So why does this happen?  Partly, the terminology, or at least the understanding of the terminology, may be to blame.  The word ‘free’ or ‘freer’ is often interpreted as meaning that the task itself is free, without parameters or a concrete outcome.  To my way of understanding, this is not the case.  Rather, ‘freer practice’ simply implies that there is no right or wrong answer and that the task can be completed successfully using a wide range of language.  The parameters of the task though may in fact be quite rigid and yet still allow for unlimited creativity.  To draw on examples from outside of the classroom, many genres of writing insist on strict adherence to certain forms, including haikus, sonnets, minisagas, and even tweets.  I somehow doubt that Shakespeare was not ‘free’ to write what he wished.

Looking at many classic ELT activities, this same type of built-in structure is apparent.  Take for example a desert island task where groups decide on the three most essential items from a list, or Alibi, wherein learners play specific characters, who have committed a specific crime, and must write and answer specific questions: I would argue that in such cases, not only do the guidelines not hinder the learners’ output, it actually encourages more creativity as they must wrestle with the requirements of the task using all the language at their disposal.

None of these thoughts are new of course, and truly meaningful tasks are promoted by most methodologies, but still it’s useful for trainees to be reminded now and again.  So the next time you see a plan including ‘a 20 minute discussion about pets’, maybe suggest a few tweaks.  After all, a bit more restriction might just lead to a whole lot more creative output.

[1] The inverted commas are to show my reservations about these terms!