January 25

Fortnightly Focus #10 – assessing writing

Although it is Wednesday and two weeks’ after my previous fortnightly focus post, there is definitely a large amount of procrastination going on as I write it!  We’re in exam week at Active Language and as well as a pile of marking to do, I also have three sets of reports to write…so I’ll try to make this brief and then undoubtedly look for something else to do, like the dusting!

Here are my thoughts of three different approaches we can take to marking learners’ writing and some advantages and disadvantages of each.  These are very general comments, as in each case the response of the learners to the different style of assessment will depend on many factors, such as their level, age, interest in learning English and motivation to improve.

Old-school – learner hands in text, teacher grabs a pen and marks it


  • You can do it anywhere – on your commute, in the staffroom, on the sofa
  • It’s a quick and effective way to highlight either errors (to encourage self-correction) or language used well
  • As you will probably give it back in a subsequent class, learners can immediately ask for clarification if corrections or comments are unclear
  • It’s a tangible record of progress and learners can easily refer back to previous work to improve the next time round


  • It could be a lot of work for the teacher depending on how many classes you have and how often you set written tasks
  • Less motivated learners need to be trained in appreciating the work which goes into marking – perhaps some sort of follow-up activity when the corrected text is received?

Totally techy – Learner emails word document to teacher, who replies with feedback in the form of a jing video plus returns a corrected or annotated version of the text


  • Paper-free…gotta love those trees 🙂
  • In Word, it’s easy to annotate the text using the track changes option
  • Responding using jing allows the teacher to comment on the text and point out strong or weak points whilst speaking


  • How aware will learners be of the corrections made?
  • It is perhaps less likely that they will refer to this text when working on a subsequent one

Peer assessment – learners are given a guided task to correct a classmate’s text


  • If learners are well prepared for this task, it means less marking for the teacher
  • It makes learners more aware of how texts are marked and, especially important for exam preparation classes, allows them to get inside the mind of the marker and gain a deeper understanding of what he is looking for in a good text
  • It makes learners aware of more language – a teacher would be unlikely to rephrase a correct sentence in  learner’s text but through peer assessment they will read the language their peers are using


  • The learners may still want the teacher to look at their texts as the ‘voice of authority’ on corrections
  • Learners need to be trained to be critically constructive – they may feel less comfortable receiving a low mark from a classmate
  • It needs to be seen as a valuable task for learners to take time to do it well

I’m going to leave it there for now as I would like to get some reports written before #ELTchat tonight!  So, a bit of a repeat for this fortnight’s focus as I’m going back to basics with classroom management with my tricky 10-year-olds – baby steps in each activity, with copious amounts of points…let’s see how it goes!  There are only ten of them in the class, but the range in level, motivation to participate and ability to control themselves is incredible.



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October 7

Managing expectations

This post contains some ideas and feedback from a PD session I recently gave at Active Language, including links to some articles which I read in preparation for the session.  Many thanks to all my colleagues for their input during the session – what a wonderful group of people to spend a Wednesday morning with!

To begin with, my colleagues worked together to discuss three of the activities from Scrivener’s article on Demand High Teaching.  Here are what they considered to be some of the advantages and disadvantages of each:


+ you can revisit tasks and look at the language in a different way, e.g collocations

+ the task could be revisited in a disappearing sentence activity

+ it was suggested that changing partner as well as focus would make the activity more engaging

– it can be a struggle to motivate learners to do a task once, let alone two or three times!

– there is a coursebook culture here in Spain of “Ya lo hemos hecho” (We’ve already done it)

Upgrading feedback

+ perseverance leads to longer chunks and better retention of language

+ perhaps focus on rhythm and intonation more than just speed

– does it confuse the learner? (this is where your intonation plays an important role)

– do we want to / need to be constantly pushing the goalposts?

Who confirms corrections?

+ can work well to develop group rapport, but (-) needs to be done carefully

– importance of nominating learners, so it doesn’t always become one dominant learner shouting out corrections

– work on changing your own gestures (avoid using a squiffy face when learners get something wrong, or always challenge them with “Are you sure?” even for simple questions as this creates a funny, positive learning environment)

It also felt that a lot of people do these things, or similar things, anyway and one of the reactions against Demand High has been that it perhaps assumes that what we’re doing in the classroom isn’t enough or is wrong, which should never be the way to approach teacher development.  There are some interesting responses to “What is Demand High?” from an #AusELT chat a couple of years ago and another reaction to Demand High (with useful links to others!) from Steve Brown.

After a brief chat about the “input factor” (I recommend watching this video – Teacher Expectations) and how our expectations about our learners, both linguistically and behaviourally, affect the way we treat them, I asked them to discuss the following:

task completion = learning

There were a number of interesting points raised.  For example, one of my colleagues, Jill, pointed out that for our younger Spanish learners, it is all about task completion, and that they are often given the  task of completing anything which wasn’t done during class time for homework.  She suggested that we be more transparent with our learners and explain the rationale behind the task so that they become more conscious of the thought processes going into completing it.  The idea of “mindless” activities was raised by other colleagues, who pointed out that in some cases, such as gapfills, you can often complete the task effectively with very little challenge.  Another colleague, Andy, mentioned flashcards and questioned whether his group of VYLs are actually aware of what they’re saying or have simply been conditioned to say a certain word when they see a certain image!

Finally, we considered the expectations we face as teachers: this question of whether our learners are actually learning as we face the pressure of working to a pacing schedule, with coursebooks which are more often than not full of linguistic islands.  We work with different sets of books – some of which are very complete in terms of materials (Footprints or Complete First) and others which are a little more sparse (Gold Experience) – and, in groups, we looked at a single grammatical point from a number of books to evaluate how much page space is devoted to it and consider how we could review it in later lessons.  Some ideas were:

  • pre-empt and pre-teach tricky lexis or structures by using them in routines from the start of the year.  This way, when learners are faced with ‘learning’ that particular language, they will have already been using it and will be more familiar with it
  • revisit previous grammatical points when working with texts in later units
  • extend tasks to personalise them, e.g. for a sentence completion task, ask learners to change the sentence so it’s true for them, or use it in a roleplay
  • Find someone who… is always a popular mingle activity which works well with many grammatical points or lexical sets
  • make learners in exam classes more aware of how that language is relevant to the exam.  E.g. reported speech at B1 level might be seen in Writing Part 1, or using a second conditional sentence in a B1 writing can get them a higher mark
  • make use of transcripts from listenng activities to work with the laguage more (3XP!)
  • grammar or vocab boxes to be used at the start/end of the lesson or for fast finishers were also suggested
  • verb cards can be used over and over again to practise different tenses
  • with the more complete books, identify the core material you want to use with learners – you can always go back to do other items if there is time
  • think about when you do review pages and tests (immediately at the end of the unit? at the end of the following unit? once a term?)

Once again, thanks to all the Active gang for the session 🙂

September 28

Teacher development – why wouldn’t you?

I feel very fortunate to be working in an environment where teacher development is encouraged and supported, although I can appreciate that not all teachers are as wildly excited by PD as myself.  If you’re reading this, it probably means that you are also quite keen on PD, perhaps because of or in spite of the environment you teach in. Fortunately, for those working in schools where opportunities for professional development are limited, the World Wide Web can offer incredible resources from every corner of the globe (hence the capitalization and separation of worldwide!).  But, let’s think about some of the reasons why schools wouldn’t organise or promote teacher development, especially given the current climate of concern over preliminary teaching qualifications, namely the CertTESOL and CELTA.  (To read more about that, check out this article on Teacher Training Unplugged, which links to Hugh Dellar’s original piece.)


This could perhaps be one of the main factors affecting management’s decision to provide PD.  Many teachers are currently working a significant number of extra-curricular/non-contact hours to plan lessons, prepare materials, write reports, mark exams, and so on. Also, in-house sessions require somebody to prepare them and whilst asking teachers to share their knowledge and experience by running a session is another fantastic opportunity for PD, it puts pressure on an already busy workload.


This links to a certain extent with the idea of Time – are teachers paid to attend in-house sessions?  On the one hand, school owners could argue that it’s for their own benefit that they’re providing development sessions; however, it’s worth remembering that teachers are likely to be the main contact point for students and anything which can help them to become better teachers will have a knock-on effect on the school.  Continuing the idea of in-house development, observations are another source of development, but these involve financial questions as well.  If you’re fortunate and have a dedicated Director of Studies who has the time to observe, it’s less of an issue.  But what about peer observations?  Often these are a far more rewarding and much less daunting experience for teachers – but does the school have the resources to cover teachers whilst they are observing another group?  And, thinking further afield – are teachers supported financially to attend sessions which may be held locally?


Ah, the old argument of a teacher who has 20 years’ experience (or was that 20 times one years’ experience?).  Personally, I would be concerned about teachers who were in no way interested in their professional development.  Yes, we can all be invested to varying degrees, but no matter how long you’ve been teaching, professional development is vital –  to make you more aware of changes in education, to encourage an old dog to try new tricks, or, equally as importantly, to validate what you’ve been doing all along.  PD gives you the right to defend your point of view – if you’re open to a new concept, but decide it’s not for you, at least you took the initial step of finding out more rather than dismissing it without a second glance.


A key to the solution is ensuring that PD is meaningful – is it relevant to the current teaching environment? If it’s not immediately relevant, can teachers be given a clear rationale for why it’s important? Is there a good balance of theory and practice?  For schools where there are financial constraints or limited opportunities for local professional development, it’s worth devoting some time to raising teachers’ awareness of the wealth of resources available to them at the click of a mouse (or touch of a screen) – but teachers will benefit from guidance in this area too as there is SO much on offer that it can be tricky to know where to start.  It’s also vital that PD is approached positively – management should assume that teachers are doing their jobs well and PD should not be seen as corrective; reactive and proactive, yes – but not corrective.  Another way of approaching PD is to move away from an “all or nothing” approach – development is not only professional but also personal and offering options and variety can make PD more enticing as teachers feel they are attending sessions which interest them.

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 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