May 25

Reflecting on a new direction


I feel like I’ve learnt a lot about myself this year and perhaps one of the most important things I’ve learnt is that it’s OK to say no.  I’ve found in the past that I’ve often said yes to things because something needed doing or somebody suggested I do something, without really thinking it through, which frequently leads to me taking on more than I should (plus the fact that I’m atrocious at delegating and a bit of a control-freak!).

So, in my new “me” mode, I decided to give up my role as academic coordinator, a position which I’ve held for a number of years.  My decision to give up my role as academic coordinator in my current school is a very selfish one, motivated by own needs rather than as a response to the job I’m doing. There are aspects of the role which I really enjoy, which are funnily enough the things which other people turn their noses up at: I love timetabling – it can be a bit of a headache, but I like the way things slot together; I’m happy slogging away on the computer sending emails, curating our online staffroom or creating videos for Youtube. In fact, the aspect of my role which I have most difficulty with is the human factor – despite being a bubbly, friendly, chatty person I don’t actually enjoy having long conversations with people that much, especially when they’re tricky conversations, and I don’t feel I’m particularly good at them either.

Also, as another selfish streak shines through, I really want to focus my time and energy on MY teaching. The school where I currently work is an incredible environment for professional development – I’m surrounded by people who are actively working to become better teachers, who are enthusiastic about sharing ideas and who, generally speaking, are long-term ELTers who love what they do.  I’m also back on twitter after a few years’ absence and it’s another great place to connect with teachers from around the world, pick up new ideas and share experiences.  There are so many fantastic resources which crop up there on a daily basis, ideas which come out of Active’s fortnightly professional development meetings and tips which pop up in conversations by the photocopier which I would LOVE to have more time to engage with.  I’m certainly not overworked in my current role, but I have a terrible sense of guilt when I know other people are working and I’m not (even though it’s my scheduled time off) and so I know I work more than I should as I’m also not very good at dividing my time clearly or switching off from “academic coordinator” mode – so I’ll often have my email open when I’m doing other things on the computer (I think I also inherited a gossipy streak from my maternal grandmother so I always worry I’m missing out on something!).

I think as well, that when I first became a teacher, it seemed like “up” was the natural direction things moved – I imagined that I would be a teacher, then a DoS, then open my own school and it was only when I’d been teaching for a couple of years that I realised I didn’t want to own my own school.   Returning to being “just” a teacher for me is certainly no step backwards, rather I see it as the opportunity to step sideways in many different directions as I have more space and time to focus my energies on my development.  Here are just a few of the things I’m looking forward to experimenting with…

  • Building a bank of observation tasks for speaking activities
  • Working on reading skills with YLs
  • Developing some Gouin series for VYLs
  • A fortnightly focus for my own PD, similar to Mike Harrisons notelts

I’m feeling incredibly excited, motivated and energised by the change and hopefully, I’ll also be blogging more so you’ll get to hear all about it!





April 23

Pronunciation – the Cinderella of Language Teaching

A little anecdote to start this off, as my head is trying to work out exactly where this post is going…

I’ve been teaching Trinity preparation courses for a couple of years in a centre where I’m also the coordinator of the classes, so I know quite a lot of the learners (who are all adults and teachers themselves) either through having taught them, or having spoken to them about exams or popped into their classes to talk to their teachers.  This year, one of the classes is being taught by an American and (seriously) a couple of the learners asked me whether they would have problems in their exam (i.e. be marked down) if they spoke with an American accent!

One of the ideas behind the native=best idea is that native speakers are better placed to model the language being taught and, more often than not, this boils down to accent.  But what is a “native” speaker accent?  Think about how the RP pronunciation of ‘bus’ differs to how someone from Yorkshire might say the word, or how someone from Glasgow might say ‘book’, or how a Texan might say ‘twenty’.  There’s a number of fabulous videos on Youtube in which people speak with different regional accents and although most online dictionaries limit phonetic spellings to RP or a standard American accent, Pearson continue to produce revised editions of their Pronunciation Dictionary which gives the most frequently used alternatives.

An aspect of teaching different accents is the use of the phonemic chart as, whilst versions of the chart exist, the one most commonly used in Europe contains the sounds associated with an RP accent, meaning that some teachers struggle to transcribe their own variations of words.  Another aspect of the chart which often scares teachers is that their learners will be more familiar with it than they are!  This is almost certainly true for teachers whose mother tongue is English, as they will have learnt to identify different vowels sounds through practice and, although have probably noticed the weird squiggly letters in the dictionary, have never needed to engage with phonetics.

I recommend reading Adrian Underhill’s article on the Humanising Language Teaching blog, Pronunciation: the Cinderella of Language Teaching and have a listen to The TEFL Show’s podcasts, hosted by Marek Kiczkowiak and Robert McCaul, on teaching vowel and consonant sounds as well as the episode “Which pronunciation model should we teach?”

April 15

Nomination Cards

On a couple of occasions this year, I’ve found myself talking to colleagues about using a random name generator in their classes.  This has often been in response to queries over how to deal with more dominant learners and ensure that our attention is given equally to all learners when nominating.

There are a number of ways for random nomination to work in the classroom.  You can use an online name generator, such as the one on Barry Fun English, though you need to set up an account in order to edit the class list and pay for full access.  Alternatively, good old slips of paper with names on in a hat are a free, non-tech option!

However, one of the problems with randomly picking a learner is exactly that – it’s random.  As teachers, we can identify the stronger and weaker learners in our classes and can nominate suitably, allowing weaker learners the chance to answer when we feel more confident that they have the correct answer (and with effective monitoring, we’ll know for sure if they have the right answer!).  Similarly, we might ask a quieter learner to answer when the required response is longer.

It is very easy though for our classes and our attention to be focussed more on dominant learners when nominating as they often clearly have their hand up (and may even be straining out of their seats in their eagerness to answer) or make a vocal demonstration of their desire to respond.  This is where nomination cards can come in handy.

You may choose to use a very basic technique – simply give every learner three coloured pieces of card and each time they respond during the lesson, take one card away.  This will restrict stronger learners, allowing weaker learners the opportunity to be more involved.  However, what happens when your stronger learners have used up their three cards and the quieter or weaker learners are left with theirs?  Similarly to a random name generator, this could put pressure on those learners if they feel they are being forced to respond, or cause conflict if a dominant learner then challenges them on their ability to respond.

Tekhnologic posted this idea on using nomination cards which give learners more autonomy when discussing topics in groups.  The idea behind the cards is that teachers can often become too involved in discussions as they try to involve all learners and so by passing the impetus of maintaining the conversation onto the learners and with the help of the prompts on the cards, the teacher can take a secondary position and feel confident that all group members will speak.

I think you could easily adapt these cards to be used as nomination cards during whole group activities in the classroom, both when conducting feedback on an activity and in other situations.  You could combine the basic idea of having some cards which allow the holder to answer, but then also add in extra cards similar to those tekhnologic created, thereby allowing learners the opportunity to nominate another learner if they feel unable to answer.

April 10

Thoughts on self-observation

In the third term at Active Language, our teachers can choose which type of observation they would like to have: a traditional observation with an academic co-ordinator sitting in; a Diploma-style observation, which is similar to the traditional observation though gives the observee a taste of the workload for the Teaching Practice element of the Diploma; or a self-observation.

One of the wonderful things about self-observation is that it can be a less stressful experience for the observee and provide a more realisitic view of the lesson itself.  As Wragg says, “the very presence of an additional adult who is not normally present may itself influence what happens” (1999:15) and I’ve often found during traditional observations that aspects of the lesson I had been asked to focus on were less apparent because of my presence in the room.  Most recently, I observed a colleague who was working with a challenging group of adolescents who frequently used L1 during lessons.  Throughout my observation, their use of L1 was minimal and, in fact, I was amazed at the amount of English they were producing, both in response to tasks set by the teacher and in their interactions.  In our post-observation feedback, we joked about how that was an incredibly atypical lesson, though I suggested that the teacher comment on it to the learners, to show them that they are capable of minimal L1 use.  She did, and their response was, “We were only doing it for your benefit because we knew she’d come to watch you teach.”

Another benefit of self-observation is that it doesn’t need to be timetabled in beforehand, as a traditional observation often is.  For example, you may be thinking of focussing on a particular learner within a group and, inevitably, when a traditional observation is scheduled, that learner doesn’t come to class that day.  And, speaking of focus, a self-observation gives you the opportunity to concentrate on a particular stage in the lesson – as though it’s useful to view the lesson as a whole, you may be more interested in looking at how effective your instructions were for a specific activity, how the learners interacted during a communicative task or how clear your boardwork was after presenting a grammar point.

The Developing Teacher, p.19

The Developing Teacher, p.19

In The Developing Teacher, Foord shows us the five circles of development and states that a good reason for focussing on ‘you’ may be that you work alone, in which case self-observation is perhaps the only option available to you.  However, whatever your working environment, he recommends using self-observation as a development tool as part of your routine and provides a wonderful starting point with “Mirror, mirror” (2009:32).

Richard Whiteside, a former colleague, wrote a post on self-observation prior to our school’s implementation of them a number of years ago and he makes a good point that self-observation can be done at any point during the year.  We all generally reflect on our classes at the end of the day, but by ‘formalising the process’ we add further weight to it and teachers will gain benefit from it in a different way.  Talking through a lesson with a ‘critical friend’ either before or after the event will allow you space to reflect on stages, activities, interactions and many other features of the lesson and will perhaps bring up questions which you would not have thought of if reflecting alone.


Foord, D. (2009) The Developing Teacher Delta Publishing

Whiteside, R. (2012) Teacher Observation: Could you benefit from self-observation? St George International

Wragg, E.C. (1999) An Introduction to Classroom Observation (second edition) Routledge

April 8

FCE Practice with EDpuzzle

We’re starting to look into blended learning at Active Language and whilst chatting about it the other day, I remembered a colleague, John, mentioning EDpuzzle.  This site allows you to add questions and comments to YouTube videos (and perhaps does other things though I haven’t explored it fully yet!).  Here’s my first attempt at using it – unfortunately you do need to sign up to use it, although you can log in with your Google account.  In fact, part of the reason for embedding it here was to see if it could be accessed by the class without needing to create an account – I don’t like obliging people to sign up to things.