Practising what you you preach

Have you considered what your teaching beliefs are?  How do they match up with what you actually do in the classroom?  Here’s the recording of this recent workshop where you can follow the same process as I’ve done to evaluate and reflect on your own teaching:


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Online conferences

Here are the links to the online conferences I’ve done in the last year or so.  Would love to hear your feedback!

Collocation Conundrum – lexis and collocation

On One Condition – conditionals and spoken fluency

I see what you mean – visual literacy in the ELT classroom

Stay tuned for the #IHTOC60 this year as well!


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Out of thin air – bringing the whiteboard back into clear focus

As a Director of Studies, I don’t get to teach as much as I’d like to these days but this does mean that I observe a lot.  One of the definite perks of the job is that there are so many brilliant things that I’m lucky enough to see everyday – an enormous variety of activities, student-centred classes, solid language awareness and a genuine care and respect for students as individuals and human beings.  However, one thing that sometimes seems to be a bit lacking is the record that students take away from the class.  Now I admit I’m not the most adept language learner in the world but by the same token, there are very few among us who have photographic memories or can remember everything they hear.  From a teaching perspective, talking into or teaching out of thin air without anchoring to a visual or written record has its dangers.  And for the student, what do they take away from the class?  What do they have to revise, practise and consolidate their knowledge and improve their communicative language skills?

One of the ways of keeping the classroom in clear focus has to be through maintaining a clear, well-organised record of what has been studied.  Here’s a simple 5-step common sense plan to help your students make the most of this often taken for granted aspect of the classroom.

  1.  Get your tools out!  Regardless of whether you’re in a high-tech classroom or a more modest one, students need to be ready for what’s in store.  This means taking out pens, papers, books, folders, laptops, mobile devices, what have you without being asked.  This is the first stage in the learner training process.  If I don’t take my ukulele to my music class, I don’t get very far and I can’t imagine waiting for the teacher to tell me to take it out of its case!  Just like in the scouts, being prepared is the first step.
  2. The bigger picture The teacher needs to pay attention to the mode of delivery whether it is an interactive whiteboard or the good old-fashioned kind.  How will the board look at the end of the class?  That effects where I start writing, how long I’ll leave it up, when I’ll ask the learners to copy it (or photograph it or take a screenshot), when I’ll remove it and how.  If your boardwork is not brilliant, do a plan.  It’ll create a much more organised record for the students and they’ll see the rationale for step 1 above.  It will also help you to learn the skill of a good whiteboard, much as the CELTA shows you how to write a lesson plan.
  3. “I do and I understand”  This famous quote recently popularised by Kung Fu Panda says it all.  Explain why your students should record it in some way – because it is a form of doing and appropriating the material as their own.  I insist that kids, teens, adults, everyone copy down what’s written up – after all, I didn’t do it just for my own entertainment!  There’s been thought about what content to include and how to present it in the planning phase, and it could be that the simple act of writing it down will help them to remember it.  It certainly can’t hurt!  Add to this any additional touches that the student wants to make – definitions in English or L1, pictures or doodles down the sign of the page – and this record becomes something personalised and hopefully more memorable.  And if someone really can’t see the value of all this after making your rationale explicit, give the option of taking a photo with their mobiles.

4.       Monitor theory?  Check your students’ notes.  This could be during monitoring or once a given time frame to see how they getting on.  Students notoriously make copying errors even at advanced levels or use language incorrectly in context.  This personalised attention from the teacher can address these areas and also open a dialogue for communication by asking questions that might motivate the student to respond.  In my experience, regardless of their feelings about keeping notes or writing in general, learners appreciate it.  It shows we care about them and their progress.

  1. Revision rules.  Teach healthy “little and often” revision habits.  In his webinar “Word Perfect:  the importance of recycling in vocab teaching”, Dave Spencer proposes 5 steps to total recall:
  • Presentation and practice of what’s to be learnt
  • Revise for 10 minutes, 10 minutes after the lesson
  • Revise for  2 – 4 minutes, 24 hours after the lesson
  • Revise for 2 -4 minutes, 1 week after the lesson
  • Revise for 2 – 4 minutes, 1 month after the lesson

Learners should be given strategies to help them remember that are frequent and time effective, where possible linking them to their own personal experience or knowledge and allowing them to make as many mental connections with the material as possible.  Encouraging students to look at their notes after they’ve got their tools out and are waiting for the teacher is a great use of time, as is this as an activity for early finishers in actual class time.  If nothing else, we might be inadvertently able to positively influence our students’ time management skills.

Time-consuming?  Perhaps.  Simple & effective?  Almost certainly.  If you teach young learners, parents expect to see visual evidence of what their children did in class and seeing correction or comments is looked upon as a mark of care and professionalism.  Why should this be so different with older students?  It may not be all easy as waving a wand but when you walk into a classroom to find your students revising their notes with their materials out, ready to learn, now that’s magic!


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Teaching beliefs vs teaching in the real world – eltchat summary November 14th @21 GMT

Inspired by this article by Willy Cardoso, #eltchat-ters on November 14th @ 21 GMT delved into teaching beliefs vs teaching in the real world.

Kicking off with the question of when we compromise, there was a discussion of who is involved in this process –  the institute, the parent/client/sponsor, the students’ wishes, perhaps also the methodology and beliefs inherent in the coursebooks chosen.  Other of the many considerations involved included how empowered we are when we get a new job (Sue Annan) and that different corners of the globe have different realities (marisa_C).

#eltchat was praised for providing a forum for discussion.  As SophiaMav noted, “our chats are one way of empowering us to make some right choices”, which was backed up by shaznosel and cerirhiannon in that we discuss our restrictions and how to overcome them and that this helps us to think more clearly about what we do.  And whilst teachers need support and guidance, they are sometimes asked to teach/work against their beliefs.  Striking a balance between the practical and theoretical seemed to be at the heart of the issue, as it was suggested that not that many teachers actually analyse the learning theories behind what they do.  Aptly summed up by Marisa_C, “Many Ts use ideas/techniques unquestioningly – need to reflect on underlying values & beliefs of what we DO like to do too”.

After a bit of patting ourselves on the back, we considered how teaching beliefs are formed.  Though real life experience i.e. the way we were taught by our teachers and either an attempt to replicate this or react against it, was thought to be a key factor in this, theory also came up as an area which perhaps needs greater attention.  A comment on the article suggested that PD and teacher learning opportunities were often focused on practical activities for the classroom which teachers seem to think they need, but are generally a bit “light”.  There was quite a bit of agreement that agree TD could be more about questioning practices, identifying discrepancies, planning changes.  Some such discrepancies were a mismatch between what the teacher wants to do and what the students want to see happen (Sue Annan) and ljp2010 commented on how what she saw in classroom observation did not necessarily line up with the teacher’s espoused beliefs e.g. claiming student-centredness but standing at the board explaining for half the class (ljp2010).

Compromise was seen, rather pessimistically, to be an unavoidable part of adult life, as Marisa_ C noted, “We all accept the face that teachers compromise, no question, you have to keep your job, but is that the best we can do for our students?”  Finding practical ways to get round the obstacles to teaching the way you believe, rather than compromise (antoniaclare) was offered as an alternative and “If we justify what we do and it seems to work then we don’t have to overcompromise, especially if it’s well received the student/client” (Shaun Wilden )and shaznosel summed up what should always be our priority: “By joining in chats and keeping your priorities upfront- the students not the others around you”.  The importance of reflection, prioritising beliefs and choosing your battles should not be overlooked either.

So, which beliefs did we decide that we were NOT willing to compromise on?

  • teaching ss as individuals and responding to their needs – cerirhiannon
  • pushing forward with a task that I know my ss can’t cope with/dictation for dyslexics and very Yl – shaznosel i.e. keeping the level of challenge high
  • language use should be genuinely communicative + authentic, learning must be real – antoniaclaire

As for what we can do collectively the following were suggested:

  • know what your teaching beliefs are – make a list! – ljp2010
  • be there to help, mentor, support – ShaunWilden
  • be sneaky ..use dictation and grammar exercises  to enhance the lesson- make them fun! – shaznosel
  • send our bosses to conferences – naomishema
  • adapt to what you are have in front of you but be influenced by your beliefs –shaznosel
  • practise what we preach by being aware, doing things step by step, looking after the little things – cerirhiannon
  • demonstrating that ur way(s) of teaching/beliefs produce gr8 results (st feedback) & have wide recognition e.g. dogme  – antoniaclaire
  • personal experience that is discussed here and then adapting and reflecting in class – shaznozel
  • facing why things didn’t work and reflecting – Marisa_C

So all in all – teach, reflect, read, discuss.  Do what your students need and what feels right, learn from your mistakes as the wonderful learning opportunities that they are and keep tuning in for the fascinating discussions that are #eltchat!

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I see what you mean

Here’s the link to my slides and recording of my recent talk for the 3rd ih Teachers’ Online Conference.  If you try out any of the ideas here, would love to hear from you about how it went :-).

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The importance of punctuation

The importance of punctuation

I just love this so much that I wanted to share it.

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Learning something new

I’m quite a fan of taking up new hobbies.  The last few years have seen me dabbling in tai chi, meditation, flotation tanks, the Japanese dance art of butoh and running, but recently I took up a musical instrument – the thinking man’s violin, the ukelele.

I did once have a go at a musical instrument before.  I was 13 and decided to go to Ray’s School of Guitar.  Armed with my steel-stringed guitar bought largely for the engraved hummingbirds it had up the side, I got as far as doing a public performance of “Leaving on a jet Plane” at the local Police Youth Club before deciding that I was perhaps better suited to listening to music than making it.

However, a strange virtual twist of fate saw an ad for ukelele classes find its way into my email.  Taking this as a heavenly sign, I thought I’d have a crack at it.

Now what on earth could this possibly have to do with teaching or learning languages?  Quite simply, it’s about the importance of practice and repetition.  I sit and repeat my chords and strumming to varied effect until my fingers are calloused, my knuckles bleeding and the neighbours covering their ears, not so much from the sound of my playing as the obscenities issuing from from my mouth as I mess up the “down-up down tap change chord tap down down” sequence for the nth time.  If I just went to classes, then it would take approximately 12 years for me to learn a single song.

How does this relate to language learning?  We tend to practise a lot when we learn something new and as we get the basic skills, this practice tends to lessen.  Now with the ukelele, I’m getting all the parts that I’ll need to do everything within the first couple of months, but this just doesn’t happen with language.  We keep the tricky bits till later on when the students are lazier/more comfortable and don’t feel the need to practice so much but it’s precisely things like 3rd conditionals and modals for speculation in the past that require this physical manipulation and agility that really will only come with practice.

So what’s the answer?  Chuck away the syllabus and introduce the harder stuff earlier on? Do a lot more drilling in higher level classes?  Encourage students to learn something new and draw parallels with their language learning experience? 

I’m inclined to say yes to all of the above but right now I need to practise my transition from G to Bm7b5.  Get out your ear plugs….


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10 Old Chestnuts …some tough nuts to crack.

An “old chestnut” is a subject or joke that has been repeated so many times that it is no longer funny or interesting.  This is what I learnt from my Director (being from Australia, I’m lucky to even know what a chestnut is!), who wanted to discuss recurring issues that seem to plague even some of the most experienced teachers.  Looking back through past observation reports, we came to realize that we were seeing the same old problems again and again.  Essentially classroom management issues, we believe these “chestnuts” are fundamental to a good learning environment and are the foundations for good teaching practice.  How to change the “old chestnuts” into fresh, tasty treats was the challenge.  The slogans that follow are the result of a brainstorming session with the teachers of International House Buenos Aires (Recoleta), with the aim of making these points memorable for everyone involved.

  1. Voice, your choice!

Much is said about the need to simplify your language for lower level learners and this is no doubt true.  But what about those who are more advanced?  The primary source of input for students is often the language in the classroom, so this needs to be of high quality. It may require us to simplify or increase the complexity of the language we would ordinarily use. 

The way the voice is used is also important.  The voice is just another tool and needs to be trained to be effective.  For example, a slightly longer pause allows the learner value processing time.  Use a confident, clear voice – if you don’t sound sure, how can your students be?

While the idea that “students need to get used to natural speech” has its place, the place for authentic listening in the classroom is within the framework of a controlled listening lesson with proper support.  Not being conscious of the effect of your voice is just laziness.

  1. The lesson is not over until the homework is done.

Homework is not additional part of the lesson but an integral part of it.  How much is set is up to the individual institute, but is should be varied, relevant, meaningful, doable and as enjoyable as possible.  It should also be written clearly on the whiteboard so that students know exactly what they are supposed to do and can copy it down, and checked using a variety of methods. The homework may even provide the subject matter or material for the following class.

  1. All a-board!

The teacher’s number one visual tool is the whiteboard.  It is from here that students copy down a record of the class to take away for self-study, so it is vital that this be legible, logical and carefully planned.  A vocabulary column down one side and use of different colours consistently are healthy routines which allow work to stay on the board and be revisited during the class.  This can then also cross over into your learners’ notes, so scrappy, odd vocabulary scattered around willy-nilly is not allowed.

  1. What day is it?  It’s ti-day!

This one is self explanatory.  Cleaning your whiteboard, putting chairs back into place and returning any other resources to the appropriate places in the teachers’ room or library just makes everyone’s lives easier.


  1. Mind the gap!

Class dynamics are affected by the way in which the space is used.  There is a tendency for students to put their chairs in a line against the wall in a “judging panel” formation.  Instead, get them into a tight semi-circle with no gaps between them (bags and jumpers can go elsewhere) and if space allows, move away from the wall.  This lets all members of the group make eye contact, and also gives the teacher a good monitoring position behind the students.  Encourage students to fill out the seats from the middle, leaving a seat or two near the door free for latecomers.  This helps to avoid disruption. 

  1. Oi, you!

Ever been into a class halfway through the year and heard, “You know…… her”?  Obviously, the teacher needs to know and start using the students’ names as soon as possible, but it is also important to spend some time getting the students to learn them too.  This is extremely important for class dynamics, bonding and rapport.  And don’t forget those who join a little later on.  Repeat these ‘getting to know you’ activities after one week, one month, whatever is necessary to build a community of learners, and give your classes that personal touch by using their names or nicknames as much as possible.

  1. Instructions or ructions?

Give clear instructions in stages and concept check the learners’ understanding.  This is given a lot of attention on CELTA courses, and it often those teachers who are fresh out of one who do it best.  Old lazy habits can set in quickly, so we can make sure even the slowest students understand by doing an example across class, writing instructions on the board, showing the page and asking for repetition by a class member.  Pause, and think before you speak.  Keep instructions clear, short and to the point.  Check understanding by asking closed concept questions, followed by open ended ones.  And remember – ‘Is that clear?’ and ‘Does everyone understand?’ do not count!

  1. A little a day keeps the ADoS away.

Unfortunately, administrative paperwork can’t be avoided but keeping it up-to-date should stop it getting out of hand.  Whether this is absences, homework records, exam scores or your students’ frequently occurring errors, this data not only is a requisite of the job but makes you appear more professional.  Regular liaisons with the office also help to provide clear channels of communication and in turn, smoother operation of an institute from the front desk to the classroom.

  1. Cas-te-lla-no – don’t let it go.

Of course we want our students to speak as much English as possible in classes, however, there is sometimes a place for the learner’s L1 (in this case, Castellano).  If someone is upset or doesn’t know how to say something, it makes sense to use this resource if you have it at your disposal.  Make sure you give your students the classroom language they need to communicate in English during the lesson, and establish your expectations of when it is acceptable to use the L1.

  1. On your bike, again?

Finally, this cryptic crossword style clue refers to recycling.  Nation (2001) says that it’s necessary to encounter a lexical item in different contexts between 8 – 12 times to know it, and that spaced repetition with insertion into previously learnt language over time is more effective than massed into 1 or 2 exposures.  Varying your techniques to appeal to different learning styles and keeping and using vocabulary bags are a couple of principles that the teachers here have taken on board. Games, too, have a valid place and collocation work becomes increasingly important at higher levels.  Learner training also falls into this category, and it is essential to give students at all levels the tools they need to become successful language learners e.g. ways of recording vocabulary.



Since coining these slogans, the frequency of these problems in observations has reduced.  I have heard some teachers in conversation about their feedback commenting on the number of “chestnuts” they had broken, and being determined to improve upon this next time.  There is a poster on the back wall of every classroom in the institute to remind us of these good teaching practices.  Some of them are specific to our teaching context here at IH Buenos Aires (Recoleta), but the essence can be transferred to almost any situation.

When we have these basic principles in place, we have more opportunities to experiment and develop our teaching practices and methodologies.  As some wise bloke once said, “You have to know the rules before you can break them”.



Hedge, T.  (2000)  Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom.

Oxford University Press.

Nation, P.  (2001)  Learning Vocabulary in Another Language.

Cambridge University Press.

Scrivener, J.    (1998)  Learning Teaching.



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Summary of #eltchat: Differences in approaches between regular classes and those with an exam focus

Summary of #eltchat:  Differences in approaches between regular classes and those with an exam focus (FCE, CPE, IELTS…)

Wednesday, 8 February 2012 at 9pm GMT

The discussion kicked off by asking participants if they taught exam classes in a different way to other classes such as General English.  “Apart from exam skills, what is actually different?” prompted one of the moderators.  The learner objective is quite explicit so this changes our approach in some of the following ways:

  • There can also be a tendency to test rather teach.
  • Aims of exercises may need to be explicitly pointed out to sts.
  • Often a greater writing focus than with Gen Eng.
  • Just plain dull?

But who is it that thinks of them differently?  Is it the students or us as teachers who make such a big deal out of them?

There was some talk of why exams are so important for students and what motivates them beyond the mere taking of the exam, and the commonly cited reasons of university entrance, staying in a current job or improving future career prospects, migrating or studying/working abroad.  There was discussion of differences in difficulty level between exams, the lack of authenticity of tasks, and insufficient varieties of English in certain tests.   

Overall, exam English was really coming up for a bit of a slagging!  Other downsides of exam classes included:

  • too much focus on exam skills rather than actually improving overall or general English level, particularly closer to the exam date
  • short length of many preparation courses
  • a stronger focus on covering the syllabus as opposed to dealing with naturally emergent language
  • exams don’t cater for sts´ future needs and often have little practical relevance
  • student expectations are not always realistic
  • less freedom with material and themes, although this may be an institutional issue
  • quality of materials sometimes not up to scratch, irrelevant topics and the nature of many coursebooks encourages constant testing

Some excellent practical tips for exam classes were offered:

  • focus on the test format but try to keep this as communicative as possible vickyloras
  • importance of awareness raising activities as to how exams are actually constructed e.g. recognising distracters  MrChrisJWilson
  • general test familiarisation, sts should be familiar with all parts
  • try to provide lots of backup material on blogs & wikis and get students involved in projects hartle
  • for longer courses, explicit focus on the exam should be left for closer to the exam date ManosSY
  • getting sts to create their own exam exercises
  • use the same recycling activities that you would in a Gen Eng class chiasuan
  • paying attention to individual learner needs within the larger class group vbenevolofranca
  • practise working with allotted times vickyloras
  • teach sts marking criteria to bear in mind whilst writing ChristosPas
  • try to make writing tasks more realistic/authentic  e.g. write to a real person ljp2010
  • gets sts to write their own questions and compare them with the original ones MrChrisJWilson
  • ensure sts read a great deal, particularly of different genres vbenevolofranca
  • expand on practice tests with discussion, skills work, vocab development, etc  hartle
  • Reading & listening challenges for extra independent work -giv list of exam topics and have Ss find extra stuff to do in own time  Marisa_C
  • get sts to listen/record themselves in class and reflect on their performance Room2Chris
  • Use Voicethread or Voxopop for extra speaking practice Marisa_C
  • Make an exam guide booklet for your ss – how to be successful in exams – include any tips, tricks in there – get them to add stuff   Marisa_C
  • Use vocaroo after every unit to record reading progress about  once a month  Shaunwilden
  • Get Sts to collect writings of the same genre from diferent resources to identify relevant features, also looking at good and bad models   toulasklavou


And of course it wouldn’t be #eltchat without more useful links flying around than you could poke a stick at!  Here they are (feel free to explore them, have only cited each site once, not individual pages):  A handy one-stop site to find all things exam .  Test & study prep skills.  Online cloze test maker. Blogspot on exams and testing.  and flo-joe on facebook  A classic. Tips on preparing sts for FCE, CAE, CPE speaking. Cambridge phrasal verb site. Speaking activities. An example of some voxopop threads. Overview of exams + some useful links. Speaking skills for advanced learners.

So in conclusion, exam preparation involves awareness of exam strategies and practice (or as leoselivan dubbed them, the 3 Ts – Techniques, Tips & Tricks) without losing sight of General English and the overall goal of communication and communicative competence.  Apologies for any misquotes or omissions.  Too many great ideas and not enough space. 

See you all again at the next #eltchat!

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Is there anybody out there?

My first foray into the mystical land of blogs.  I feel like some intrepid pioneer exploring new frontiers.. or hang on – is it pioneeress?  Yes, this is the first of many questions that I’ll be posing and exploring.   Pointless?  Well, I’m off the opinion that no knowledge is truly useless and the only stupid question that which goes unasked.

So whack on your Indiana Jones hat, arm yourself with a spirit of investigation and prepare yourself for a lot of inane pop-culture inspired references.  I’ll probably go on about teaching English most of the time but keep an eye out for those tangents…

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