Tag Archives: Teacher Training

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: http://ihjournal.com/blog 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.

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!

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!

Material-light Reading Tasks

2 Jul

As with the last post, this one is intended to become an article for a local journal that focuses on reading and has sections intended for teachers, students, and parents.  Before submitting it to them, I thought I would see what  people visiting the blog think.  All constructive criticism is greatly appreciated.


Not another gapfill!

As teachers, we’ve all created matching exercises, crafted carefully worded comprehension questions, or cut up the paragraphs of a text.  These are the things, we are told, that dedicated teachers do to help their students develop their reading skills.

But is there no other way?  While the traditional assortment of reading activities are all tried and tested, there are often situations or contexts when they are not a viable option.  What happens if there is no photocopier or materials available? Or a student brings an interesting article to class that you know would be of immediate interest and relevance?

Below I would like to share a few ideas that have worked for me in such situations and that might be of use to others as well.  Keep in mind that these are just reading activities in isolation – the contexts, lead-ins, and post-reading tasks are not included, but are of course an essential part of any reading lesson.

On to the activities…

Authentic texts are often more interesting and relevant for the learners, but don’t come with any handy accompanying tasks.  Here are a few which can be used at a moment’s notice, divided according to reading sub-skill.

Gist tasks – tasks to help the learners get the main idea of the text

  • Learners quickly read the article and write possible titles.  During feedback they can choose their favourite one.
  • Read the first paragraph of the text at normal speed and learners take notes.  Then in groups they reconstruct the text in full sentences and compare it to the original text (sometimes called dictogloss).
  • Prediction tasks where the learners are given the title, first sentence, etc. and they must guess what comes next.  They then read to check their predictions.
  • Write a list of possible topics on the board and the learners read quickly to decide which ones were mentioned.
  • Students read different sections of a text and summarize to their partners.

Reading for specific information – tasks to help the learners practice scanning

  • Learners create their own questions about contents of the text (short answer, true or false, multiple choice, etc.) for the other learners to answer.
  • Provide ‘answers’ and ask the learners to make the questions
  • Write words or numbers from the text on the board and the learners scan the text to find their significance

Detailed reading – tasks to help the learners develop a more in-depth comprehension of the text

  • As appropriate, learners create charts, diagrams, maps, or time-lines based on the information in the text
  • Learners create summaries of the texts which deliberately contain factual errors.  Their peers must then try to find the errors and correct them.

Inferring meaning – tasks to help learners read between the lines and work with context

  • Each learner chooses one unfamiliar word and the class tries to work out the meaning from context.  They can then check with the teacher or a dictionary to confirm their predictions.
  • Learners deduce and discuss the emotions of characters, the opinion of the author, etc. (any questions in which the answer is not explicitly stated).

Engaging with the text – tasks to help the learners interact with the text and express their own opinions

  • Don’t give the ending of the text and learners write their own, which they can compare to the original later.
  • Hold a debate or discussion about issues raised in the text.
  • Rewrite the text in a different genre, e.g. short story to newspaper article.

Other considerations

One text – On occasion, it may not even be possible to get multiple copies of the text.   True, this will make reading practice difficult, but the one text can be used as excellent stimulus for speaking practice.

  • If one student brings in an article which they have read, designate that student as the ‘expert’.  The rest of the class can then write questions to ask the expert, who tries to answer them, referring to the text if necessary.
  • Bring in a local newspaper and have them predict possible stories for the day.  Then, divide up the paper and have groups check their predictions before reconvening to compile their answers.  Following on from this stage, each pair can choose the article they found most interesting and give a report to the class.  The rest of the students then ask ‘the experts’ more specific questions.

Using student compositions – Sometimes, the best text to use is the one that students have created themselves!  Naturally, these texts won’t provide the same richness of language that an authentic text would, but on the other hand, the language will definitely be graded sufficiently.  Should the teacher choose to use student-made texts for reading comprehension, many of the aforementioned activities can still be adopted, and many students thoroughly enjoy creating comprehension tasks about their own writing for their peers.

Young learners – For teachers of young learners, many of the activities described here can also be adapted in order to incorporate an element of fun, for example, competitions, board races, treasure hunts, etc.

Further reading

Hopefully, the ideas presented here can be of use to anyone interested in developing learners’ reading skills.  As always in language teaching and learning, there is no one right way to do something, so it certainly helps to have as many teaching tools as possible at one’s disposal.  For many teachers, coming equipped with stacks of resources provides a sense of security, but sometimes it’s just not possible, and who knows, maybe going green and using the students themselves as a resource will in fact liven up the lessons.  It can’t hurt to try!

Trainee See, Trainee Do?

11 May

After only a cursory glance online at initial teacher training courses, one recurring selling point immediately stands out: “Learn by doing!”  As one website succinctly put it,

[Because] CELTA training is based on experiential learning, or “learning by doing”, teaching practice (TP) is at the heart of the course.[1]

And who am I to argue?  As a CELTA trainer myself, I have witnessed firsthand the value of teaching practice and reflection.  Lately however, I have been pondering the experiential learning of the trainees, not when they are actually teaching, but when they are receiving input sessions from the trainers.

So ingrained in ELT is the value of experiential learning that, as trainers, we are constantly demonstrating activities, employing ELT classroom management strategies, and in general getting our trainees to ‘be the students’.  And I get this.  ELT trainers are first and foremost EFL teachers, so it is only natural that we transfer our skills.  But have we taken this too far?  I suspect that many of us, myself included, may have.  Accordingly, in an attempt to be more conscious of my own training practices, I have compiled a few factors for consideration on future teacher training courses:

BalanceWhen is ELT modelling most useful?

Right off the bat I suspect.  Thrown in at the deep end, new trainees with no teaching experience need something tangible to latch onto.  At the outset, observing how the trainer gives instructions or elicits lexis can be invaluable and immediately applicable to teaching practice.  Certainly, it’s important that they consider the rationale for giving succinct instructions, but more important still is that they mimic their trainer and actually give succinct instructions right from the very first lesson.  At this point, the how is as, if not more, important than the why.

As a training course progresses however, and the trainees have (one hopes) acquired some survival skills, the need to see their trainer task check instructions wanes.  In fact, once the trainees get the point, is there any reason to be doing this?

The trainees Who benefits most from explicit ELT modelling?

Tied in with the previous consideration, it seems that trainers sometimes forget to suit their training methods to the participants.  Many courses stress the need for the trainees to cater to the individual learning styles, preferences and needs of their learners, yet this mandate is not heeded by the trainers themselves!

Likewise, there are, or at least should be, significant differences between a pre-service course for new teachers, and a group of experienced teachers taking an in-service course or other form of continued professional development.  Considering that seasoned teachers already have extensive experience to draw upon, would they not be better served analyzing and reflecting, rather than being flooded with more demonstrations of activities?

ReflectionWhat is the point of experiential learning anyway?

Sometimes it seems we get caught up in the most obvious aspect of experiential learning – the experience.  And yet this is only one of the steps of the Experiential Learning Cycle.  According to David Kolb’s model (1984), there are in actuality four stages:

  • Experience
  • Critical Reflection
  • Abstract Conceptualization
  • Active experimentation

Thus, for our trainees, the experience stage could be both their own teaching practice and their experiences in the input sessions.  Likewise, the final active experimentation stage is also their teaching practice, where they can put into practice their newfound knowledge gained from feedback and reflection.

It is the other two stages, critical reflection and abstract conceptualization, which are sometimes given short thrift in our eagerness to always be moving forward to something new.  Describing these steps in his summation of Kolb’s theory, Kelly writes that,

[w]hereas in the Critical Reflection stage we ask questions about the experience in terms of previous experiences, in the Abstract Conceptualization stage, we try to find the answers. We make generalizations, draw conclusions and form hypotheses about the experience.[3]

To my mind, it is in reality this crucial process of self-questioning and answering which is at the core of a teacher’s formation.  While there are obviously benefits to be gained from accumulating teaching experience, these gains are multiplied exponentially when accompanied by serious reflection.  All too often I observe experienced teachers whose lessons are brimming with wonderful activities drawn from a variety of sources, and yet their lessons lack any coherence or logic.  In contrast to these activity-driven lessons, there is always a palpable difference when watching a teacher who has really considered why they are doing what they are doing.


Teacher training optionsHow can we usefully promote experiential learning during input?

When trying to capture the benefits of both experiential input and reflection in teacher training, three techniques spring to mind; all have long been mainstays of teacher education, and with good reason:

Loop input

Pioneered by Tessa Woodward (1986), in a 2003 article she describes it as “a specific type of experiential teacher training process that involves an alignment of the process and content of learning.”[5]  Examples of loop input could include doing a dictogloss (the process) about dictogloss (the content), a series of reading tasks (the process) about teaching reading lessons (the content), etc.

So how is this different from the usual workshop activities?  Not only does this save time, but different trainees will derive greater benefit depending upon their learning preferences, either from doing the activity, receiving explicit input, or just from the reinforcement that this style of integrated input entails.  It is important to remember, however, that a post-task reflection stage is imperative in order to give trainees a chance to digest what they have just participated in.

Micro teaching

Having trainees teach mini-lessons or language points to their peers might seem a little stilted or unnatural, but in moderation it does have some unique advantages.  As with loop input, micro teaching allows for two simultaneous processes to take place. On the one hand, the trainee experiences semi-authentic teaching conditions and gains useful experiential practice.  Equally, it is possible for the trainer or other trainees to interrupt the ‘lesson’ and give real-time feedback rather than the typical post-lesson variety.  As Thornbury points out,

The trainer’s role, as silent, impassive observer, noting every move, and delivering the feedback retrospectively, seems to run counter to what we now understand about skill acquisition. Cognitive learning theory has long recognised that feedback in ‘real operating conditions’—i.e. while you’re actually engaged in a task —is generally more powerful and more durable than feedback delivered after the event.[6]

Handled in a sensitive manner, this process allows for immediate reflection and a chance to reattempt parts of the lessons (something most teachers have wished they could do at one point or another).  As a result, all four of Kolb’s stages of experiential learning can in reality take place within a single session.


Taking a slightly different tack, another experiential training technique is to demonstrate what not to do.  At first glance this may not seem to differ from a good demo in many regards, but I would argue that there is an appreciable distinction.  In addition to horrible demos usually being both highly memorable and entertaining, they also necessarily stimulate a far greater degree of reflection.  While it is possible after a good demo for trainees to perhaps pick up what the trainer was doing, memorize the stages, or intuit the rationale, this is by no means a given.  Conversely, following a bad demo, trainees are compelled to analyze why it was a terrible experience and how it could have been improved.  Based upon previous post-course feedback, it seems that these lessons learned about what not to do often leave the most lasting impression.

Final thoughts

In the end, the degree to which a trainer wants to model ELT in their training sessions is a personal choice.  For most, this will continue to be a balancing act between behaviourist learning theory (demonstrating and repeating the ‘correct’ way of doing things) and cognitive learning theory (contemplating and reflecting upon the process).  And of course to a great extent, the approach adopted should depend on the needs preferences of the specific trainees.  Whatever the decision though, it does raise the question, posed here by Anthony Gaughan:

Is it really as easy as all that to make such a close correlation between learning a language and learning to teach, and teaching to teach? [7]


Davies, Clara.  Learning cycle image.  University of Leeds.  Last downloaded May 2012 from http://www.ldu.leeds.ac.uk/ldu/sddu_multimedia/kolb/static_version.php

English Canada. Teacher Training: About CELTA.  Last downloaded May 2012 from www.englishcanada.org/teacher-training/index.php?topic=aboutcelta

Gaughan, Anthony.  2012.  Comments on Jemma Gardner’s blog: Lead by Example.  Unplugged Reflections.  Last downloaded May 2012 from


Kelly, Curtis.  David Kolb, The Theory of Experiential Learning and ESL. The Internet TESL Journal.  Last downloaded May 2012 from http://iteslj.org/Articles/Kelly-Experiential

Kurzweil, Joshua.  2007. Experiential Learning And Reflective Practice In Teacher Education. AYMAT Individual Thesis/ SMAT IPP Collection. Paper 5. Last downloaded May 2012 from http://digitalcollections.sit.edu/ipp_collection/5

Smith, M. K. 2001. David A. Kolb on experiential learning. The Encyclopedia of Informal Education. Last downloaded May 2012 from http://www.infed.org/b-explrn.htm

Thornbury, Scott.  2011.  P is for Practicum.  An A-Z of ELT.  Last downloaded May 2012 from http://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2011/07/10/p-is-for-practicum

Woodward, Tessa.  Key Concepts in ELT: Loop Input ELT Journal Volume 57/3 July 2003 OUP.  Last downloaded May 2012 from: http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/content/57/3/301.full.pdf

[1] English Canada

[2] It can be argued that almost all new teachers already have experience in the language classroom, albeit as learners.  Although this previous experience is undoubtedly useful, it is highly improbable that many language learners are consciously analyzing their teachers’ pedagogical practices.

[3] Curtis 1997

[4] Davies 2012

[5] Woodward 2003:301

[6] Thornbury 2011 – It should be noted that Thornbury actually advocates this form of feedback during authentic teaching rather than as part of micro-teaching.

[7] Gaughan 2012

Board with Aims

2 Dec

I just came back from a surprisingly interesting workshop about using the whiteboard effectively.  While I never did learn how to write in a straight line while facing the class, there was an interesting discussion about whether or not teachers should write up the aims of their lessons on the board.

I have to say, I’m pretty vehemently against it for a number of reasons but maybe I’m overstating the case and should just relax.  Anyways, here are my reasons against pre-boarding lesson aims and stages, and I’d love to know what other teachers think, especially those who find the practice useful.

  • Breathing space – I think most teachers would agree that lessons should be dynamic, have some degree of freedom/learner autonomy, and that lesson plans should be flexible (for many teachers this is putting it mildly!).  If this is the case, then why needlessly constrain yourself?  What happens if it’s more useful to spend longer on something at the start of class or to change the language focus?
  • Student reactions at the start – The other day I walked into my Spanish class and saw that we were going to be looking at Part 2 of the Reading Paper for my DELE exam.  Great.  This definitely dampened my enthusiasm right off the bat, even though I know that it’s necessary practice.  Would it have hurt to have led into it gradually?  A little mystery isn’t such a bad thing after all…
  • Student reactions at the end – Assuming you’re not a militant with a stopwatch and don’t quite make it to where you had expected, how are the students meant to feel?  They can see that there was something else planned and might well feel like they’re missing some crucial course content that never got covered (one of their grammar mcnuggets is missing from the box!).  I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer to avoid that scenario if at all possible.

I suppose the argument is that some students like to know in advance what’s being covered in class as it helps to organize their own notes and study habits.  Fair enough, but isn’t it possible instead of writing up the lesson contents and aims at the start to write them after having completed the stages?  This way whatever you decide to focus on is fine and the learners still end up with a written record of what went on.

So teachers, what do you do and why?  And what should I tell my trainees?

If you say so…

8 Aug

I love new teachers-in-training. The enthusiasm, the motivation, the energy, the willingness to actually listen to me – it’s all good. And although I sometimes despair, I also love their creative use of ELT terminology.

With that in mind, I thought I would share a few of my favourite quotations from CELTA courses over the last four years, from lesson plans, self-evaluations, assignments, etc. This is in no way intended to be disparaging, but is a celebration of creative ELT language. If other trainers have any more hidden gems to add, please leave a comment.

From written assignments

• Here I give you the greatest opening sentence for a CELTA written assignment ever produced:

To begin, a special thanks to the learning style of adults.

Yeah! Give it up to our individual learning differences! Kinaesthesia rocks!

• And from an assignment analyzing the learners:

Mistakes are committed when using their receptive skills.

I tried imagining this then gave up.

From lesson plans

• After seeing an endless parade of personal aims focused on ‘giving clear instructions’ or ‘reducing TTT’, this following aim was like a breath of fresh air. A convoluted, incomprehensible breath of fresh air:

Have an overall plan to make an initial starting point for all other facets attached for teaching delivery system. Having trouble keeping up to get finished in time enough to deal with what I have created.

• Some of my all time favourite collocations come from the trainees stage aims and procedure. Here are just a few classics:

Drill the concept
Repeat after me ‘The present simple is used for routine actions’, ‘The present simple is used for routine actions’

Drill for fluency
I suppose they could have meant drilling language chunks in order to increase automaticity thereby leading to greater fluency – but I somehow doubt it…

Setting the concept

The little past continuous was walking along, when suddenly the big bad past simple pounced!

Discuss for accuracy
I really wish I could do this in Spanish.

Identify meaning through sound

Listen in pairs
Hey, what did I say about listening alone? This is an interactive class!

Vigorous mouth postures
No comment.


• I love a crazy task check, and these are just a few of my favourites:

Will you read alone?

While holding up an article: Are you going to listen to the text?

• There have been some classic CCQ’s as well but my all-time favourite had to be this check for the word ‘exhausted’:

Is she happy?

I couldn’t help but giggle when a student quipped that it depends on why she’s exhausted.

And finally…

Something off of a self-evaluation that I think we can all relate to:

This lesson was like an out of body experience watching myself suck.

Could you have said it any better?

Here’s a blog post about task checking.

26 Jul

Now are you going to read this blog post or lick the screen?

If you’re anything like me, I doubt you bothered to deign this question with an answer.  And yet, this is exactly the type of task check/instruction check question (ICQ) that I often hear when observing teachers.  Some of my other all-time favourites include:

Are you going to listen alone or in pairs?

Now I want you to tell your partner about your weekend.  Are you going to speak?

Please listen and fill in the gaps.  Where are you going to write your answers?

And of course, the classic:

Do you understand?

The list goes on…

So why does this happen?  Most of the teachers I observe are intelligent, capable educators with good people skills, and yet they often admittedly have serious issues when checking tasks.  Having spoken to many new and experienced teachers, it seems that they frequently feel that they have only two options:

1) Ask obvious ICQs, feel silly, patronize the students

2) Don’t ask ICQs, hope for the best

Everyone I’ve spoken to also seems to agree that making sure students understand the instructions is important, especially at lower levels where there is more chance of a communication breakdown.  So I thought maybe I’d look at a few viable options that have worked for me, to help clarify my own thoughts on the topic, and maybe help out anyone else having similar issues.

When is instruction checking appropriate?

First it is important to recognize that obsessive instruction checking is a real teaching disorder.  Luckily there is a simple remedy: remember that your students are intelligent adults.  If something is patently obvious even without spoken instructions, there is no need to check it!  After all, it is the language the learners have trouble with, not simple concepts like what to do with a gap-fill or which skill involves using a pencil.

On the other hand, some tasks are more complicated and might require an ICQ if they include

  • multiple stages
  • different roles for different students
  • necessarily tricky language in the instructions
  • things that it is critical that students do/don’t do (e.g. not look at each other’s paper during and info gap activity)

Regularly, it is possible to anticipate when ICQs are likely to be needed during the planning stage, assuming you’re into planning activities beforehand.  And of course, if after giving instructions a sea of puzzled faces are staring up at you, it might not be a bad idea either!

What are some alternatives to ICQs?

Naturally, ICQs should not be thought of as the only, or even the most effective way to make sure learners understand a task.  In fact, the majority of the time, I feel the following typical ways of checking understanding are just as valid and often more comfortable for the teacher and learners:

1)   Do the first question/activity/example as a class

2)   Get students to demonstrate the activity (possibly with teacher guidance)

3)   Elicit the instructions from the students

After all, if the learners can show you or tell you what they need to do, chances are they understand!  Also, don’t worry if not everyone understands absolutely everything – it might just be that they weren’t paying attention.  Usually a little monitoring after setting the task can take care of the rest.

One more thought…

Sometimes it does seem to me that a more hard-line approach to checking everything is preached on teacher training courses.  While it may work for some, it also appears that many other teachers are turned off from the practice of ICQs altogether.  Maybe with a bit more reflection about when and where to ask ICQs in the first place, more teachers could find a comfortable balance between the linguistic needs of the students as language learners and the affective needs of the students (and teacher!) as people.

Do you know what I mean? Ok? Is that clear?  Innit?  Get my drift? Know what I’m sayin?  Right?