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 3

Affect in the EFL classroom

Some more wise words from my colleague, Jill: “Lower the filter, not the bar.”

In our Professional Development Meeting on Friday, one of my colleagues, Chris, gave a fabulous session on ELT Methodologies.  The session was wonderfully presented as he modelled a number of techniques from various approaches/methods which most of us are familiar with from our own teaching experiences, although we may not be aware of where they originally come from.  We then had a brief look at some of the major approaches and methods in the area of ELT and finally looked at some statements regarding our own teaching and considered which methodologies the statements might relate to.

One of the statements got Jill and I talking about lowering the affective filter, which is often associated with Suggestopedia and we talked about how a teacher’s personality can go a long way in making learners feel comfortable, especially around making mistakes.  I praised her for her diligence in expecting and getting the most from learners and said how I felt she always managed to do so without making them feel uncomfortable and from there comes the quote of the day, “Lower the filter, not the bar.”

March 31

Vcb – th cnsnnts f lngg

This post is a bit of a mish-mash of recent thoughts and experiences, so apologies if it doesn’t quite seem to tie together.  Hopefully it will be like one of those films where it all comes together at the end…

When I became the phonology tutor on Active Language’s CertTESOL course, I observed my colleagues giving sessions and picked up ideas on how they introduced different points and I still use  Dan‘s first activity from the phonology session today.  In the first input on phonology, we look at consonant sounds and as a warmer, I write the following on the board and ask the trainees to decipher what it says:

                    Wlcm t Phnlgy n – th frst f sx sssns n th fscntng tpc f phnlgy!

They generally have little trouble figuring out what it says and I’ve tried similar sentences with my classes, most recently with a group of B1 adolescents, one of whom loves the clothing brand GRMY.

Jss tshrt md m wndr whthr y cld rd ths sntnc wtht ny vwls.

And they could!

In English, whole sentences can clearly be understood without vowels, though these will make the meaning more apparent more quickly if correct (is it on or in? of or if?).

On another note, before Easter my colleague Ceri presented a session on the work she had done with a group of beginners a couple of years ago.  At the end of the second term, she did a revision lesson with them, a photo from which you can see below.  Interestingly, the post-its were Ceri’s “interpretation” of what they had covered during the course, whereas the list on the left-hand side shows the learners’ “interpretation”.  Ceri’s boxes focus more on grammar, but if you look at the list which the learners produced, there is more emphasis on context than grammatical points.

To link these two thoughts together, I think we can see vocabulary as an equivalent to consonants – you can hash a sentence together with vocabulary and generally it will be understood; however, correct grammar (or vowels) make it clearer.  And to finish off, here are a couple of pics from my Diploma a few years ago…

Grammar is the glue that holds language together properly.

Grammar is the glue that holds language together properly.