Don’t ‘Like’ me, help me!

                                                                                                    Photo: birgerking, under a CC License.

The other day on a teachers’ group on Facebook I read a request for some help finding research papers.  Four people had ‘liked’ it.

My gripe is not about the poster asking for help, this is an excellent way of sourcing material and getting ideas that may otherwise have passed you by.  My complaint is with those four ‘likes’ in the bottom left there. 

Nobody at this point had posted any comments to help the fellow teacher instead it was deemed sufficient to ‘like’ the post.  Everybody likes to be ‘liked’ and it is of course good to know that others have read your request but the point of support groups is to offer support in concrete terms by posting links, suggestions or engaging in discussion. 

Elsewhere on the teachers’ groups others have argued for a reduction in the number of posts that are simply self-serving, pushing their own websites or blogs and not supporting other teachers in turn.  I would like to suggest that supoorting other teachers must go beyond simply ‘liking’ the question and should offer concrete help.  Agree? or am I being a bit too precious here?

Anyway I have to go and push this post on the groups and hopefully everyone will ‘like’ it 😉

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Umming and ahhing

So after a considerable absence I’m back.  And for my first post for over a year I have decided to talk about…Me!

Last night I did something I have never done before…no, not that, something else.  I presented an online seminar using Adobe Connect.  For a lot of you this will be nothing new at all but for me it was a first step into a new world.  And it was fascinating.

The theme was using Web 2.0 as a source for material (specifically googlefight, Pinterest and Quora) and was part of a series of webinars hosted by the tireless Jürgen Wagner from the Landesinstitut für Pädagogik und Medien (LPM) in Saarbrücken to support the publication of their excellent book Web 2.0 im Fremdsprachenunterricht which has stacks of great ideas for language teachers.  Jürgern was kind enough to ask me to submit an article and long story short as part of the package I agreed to deliver a presentation on my article.

I will confess now to being more than a little terrified at the idea.  Teaching is one thing, presenting to an audience of your peers is something else, doing it online to a group of people you cannot see or hear was in a whole other category.

How did it go?  Well…okay actually, I got through to the end without any major mistakes but there were a couple of points I forgot and it was very easy to forget that the audience couldn’t see what I was doing as only my face was in shot, so cheerfully gesticulating at my slides was largely a waste of time but otherwise it wasn’t too bad.  Everybody who listened was very supportive which helped a lot and there were some great questions and comments which helped move the presentation along.

Would I do it again?  Yes, if Jürgen invites me back then I would love to have another go at it but next time I would try and eliminate the umms and ahhs.  Seriously!  You can watch the presentation here and there will be a small prize for the person who counts the total number of umm and ahhs (I gave up when I got into three figures) and for that reason alone I’m grateful to the audience for sticking with it when it must have been driving them round the bend!

I have a new-found respect for people who do this, it is not as easy as it looks and if you think it is then try it, or better yet try it anyway, audiences are patient and want to hear what you have to say and in a connected world this is an excellent way for teachers to continue to find new ideas and learn from each other especially when you cannot fly to conferences.

The next presentation in the Web 2.0 series comes from Ingrid Braband on Monday 21st January and you will find it here and you can email Jürgen ( ) beforehand to say you are coming, so hopefully I’ll see you there or when you do your webinar – there’s no need to umm and ahh about it 😉

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Pushing the Envelope


A problem I have often come across on exam courses and in course books is that of recycling or repetition.  Very often having covered a theme with a class there is very little opportunity to return to the language and reinforce it.  The pressure of time and other exam themes combine to preclude any repetition.  And yet repetition is key to learning, without it, we are unlikely to be able to transfer knowledge into short and long term memory.

One quick method I have used to try and help students recycle language regularly is to use the first fifteen or twenty minutes of a class to randomly revisit themes from previous classes.  The way I do this is by using an envelope (hence the oh so clever title of this post ;-)) and some squares of paper.

On day one, for example, we might have a go at getting students to talk about where they are from.  The following day the the envelope exercise begins, in pairs the students get an envelope and inside is a square of paper with the word ‘from’ written on it, the student who draws the paper then asks a question using the word, ‘where are you from?’ being an obvious example, and the partner replies and passes the question back, they may then draw a piece of paper with the words ‘where exactly’ and would ask something like ‘where is that exactly?’.  They are then given a few minutes to speak to each other on that theme.

The second day’s theme (whatever it is) is then added to the envelope using one or two prompt words (I prefer this rather than giving them the full question to allow for variety and emergent language).  Students also change partners every day or so to prevent boredom (he says, optimistically!).

By limiting the activity to 15 minutes or so it hopefully doesn’t intrude too much on the days activities and is a useful resource to have on students table if they finish other activities early or have a few minutes free time.  The number of prompts can build quickly and often needs to be shuffled and streamlined in a long course.

It can also work as a valuable springboard into the day’s lesson if you happen to be more dogme minded!

For those with computer access in class then @ij64 ‘s excellent html sentence generator here can be adapted to do the same activity very easily.

Hope some people find the idea interesting, as usual please let me know, all the best  for now,


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translate, übersetzen, çevirmek, traduire, traducir, переводить, 翻译(包括口、笔译)

(image: By mdid)

In addition to the excellent posts by Ceri, David and David

A recent #ELTchat on twitter discussed the role of translation in the classroom.  I don’t want to get into the methodological, pedagogical etc. debate but I have found that there is a time and place for using translation with classes, I have also found (anecdotally) that if you set aside some time to work with translation then the general use of students L1 decreases, almost as though by having an outlet for using their own language in class they don’t need to use it as much.  These are some of the ways that I use translation in class, as far as possible I try to use it in ways that students might use it outside the class.  By no means an exhaustive list and I’d love to hear if you use translation in other ways…

1. Newspapers 1 – bringing in an English newspaper article about the students country and asking them to translate it into L1 for friends and colleagues back home, a sort of ‘how does the world see us’ exercise (some caution might need to exercised in selecting articles!) -. can then feed into discussion about accuracy of original article etc.

2. Newspapers 2 – same as 1 but in reverse, ask sts to select articles in L1 about English-speaking countries and translate them into English for UK/US/Aust etc. colleagues and then discuss.

3. Notices – get sts to translate L1 notices into English for visiting tourists/business groups etc.

4. Simultaneous translating (nearly) – role play being at the doctors, police, council offices etc. where 1 st plays the English-speaking doctor, 1 plays an L1/English speaker who translates for a colleague, relation, friend etc – you can also do this the other way around of course for the English speaker visiting their country who doesn’t understand the local language.

5. Songs – okay, so not exactly an authentic exercise, but sts esp younger sts can keep more song lyrics in their heads than long lists of vocab etc. and translating them can yield some pretty good phrases and expressions and usually engages them better than CB texts.

6. Idiomatic expressions – also not totally authentic, but idiomatic language is a huge part of English and I have found it helps to find L1 equivalents as a group with sts discussing their understanding of the English phrase.

7. Bad translations – everywhere you go you meet signs badly translated into English, so working out what the sign writer was trying to say in L1 and then finding the correct or a better translation can be a good exercise (especially if you can sell the corrected version back to the hotel, town, bus company etc.!)

8. Museum etc, tours – a variation on the simultaneous translation where you go to a museum or similar with some sts and get them to take an L1 tour where they then translate for you (the dumb English tourist) and perhaps ask any questions you might have to the tour guide (best to check with the tour guides first that they’re happy to have this on their tour – most are in my experience)

9. Chinese whispers – a longish exercise but st 1 translates from L1 into English, st 2 from English into L1 and repeat as desired – the more the translations the more garbled the end result, but a good way of highlighting ambiguities/multiple meanings etc. and usually is quite fun

10. Technical translations – many of my students need English for their work which often involves reading technical language – getting them to translate passages helps them focus on precision in the language

11. Partner translations or ‘What did they say?’ – students role play being at an airport/train station etc. and hear an English announcement, they then discuss together in L1 what they think they heard/have to do etc. and then check whether they heard/interpreted correctly.

so those are my ideas, all other ideas or comments gratefully received…

A great new idea from Ingrid Braband

“What about imagining you have English speaking business partners in your company and want to go to the canteen with them? You would have to describe the German menu in English for them so that they know what they’ll get.”


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Coursebook 3.0?

There’s been a lot of chat recently on coursebooks both positive and negative.  Also a lot of people have mentioned alternatives to current coursebook models, especially Jason Renshaw at his englishraven blog (a great blog and possibly the most energetic poster in efl/esl!!).  Jason suggested inserts to coursebooks, sort of blank pages for students to write in and make notes etc.  he has also talked about handing out blank notebooks and having students ‘write’ their own coursebooks as the lessons progress.

My idea is a little different and is almost certainly not original (if you know anyone who has written about this or done it then let me know).

Basically a publisher acts as a repository for coursebook material, anything from short lessons, warmers, exercises up to entire units.  These are submitted by materials writers and teachers and uploaded and edited for format etc.

School or teacher A then logs on and selects the material that they want to have in their school based on their knowledge of local culture, needs, curricula, interests, age etc.  Space could also be made available for blank pages (note-taking), short tests or any other custom inserts.

The selected units are then put together as a coursebook and then either printed and delivered at cost X (options here could include paper quality, b/w or colour, jacket or none etc.) or delivered as a pdf for cost y to be printed at the school.

This way schools/teachers have better control over their coursebook design and content (those that are happy to have taboo subjects can and vice-versa etc.) and can return to alter it as they wish for the cost of replaced units/lessons etc.

Contributors could be paid per selection and print run so the better/more popular your material the better you are paid and you wouldn’t have to produce an entire book to get published.  Publishers could stop having to produce bland one size fits all coursebooks.

It’s just an idea, what do you think?  Anyone doing it/likely to do it or could this be an idea for a grass-roots publishing/print-on-demand company run by teachers?  As always, would love to hear from you…

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Karenne Sylvester’s Challenge – A Response

  scenic route or

direct route?

Karenne recently laid down a challenge to her readers, to answer a list of questions based around a quote from Meddings and Thornbury’s Teaching Unplugged book.  I hav attempted to answer this below – in keeping with the principal (I think) I have written this answer unplugged, without planning or referencing so apologies in advance if I get anything wrong!

The ‘scenic route’ referred to by Meddings and Thornbury is for me the core of the course book dillemma in that it keeps you occupied whilst meandering along but takes longer to reach your destination – the subtext perhaps is that it is pretty but not the point of the journey.  Their preferred route is direct and they suggest that this route is followed through interactivity – that is, by engaging directly with the learners a teacher can deliver them the language they need, not the language the coursebook says they need.  A criticism levelled at dogme on Jeremy Harmer’s fascinating blog and discussion is that this appeals to only one type of learner, sticking with the journey metaphor then perhaps this learner is the Jeremy Clarkson of the student world, extrovert and talkative.  The problem is what do you do with the other types of learners who need time to internalise, who don’t respond well to direct interaction?  A possible counter to this is that coursebooks also presuppose a learner type – possibly more restrictedly by insisting on a consecutive learning process (first present simple, then present past, then…) and in order to distract from the monotony of this process they plant pictures and graphs and cartoons and so on.

Interactivity allows a freer range of teaching, it allows a teacher to identify with the student which areas the student needs to focus on, it allows students to discuss the ‘themes’ (I am actually not sure that language breaks down into themes particularly well, but that is for another day…) that they find interesting or relavent, it gives a greater degree of flexibility.  Interactivity is also largely negotiated, a key communicative skill, the topics must be agreed upon by a class, a teacher must persuade students of their importance.  A coursebook course largely removes the need for negotiation and decision taking.  In essence the difference is perhaps between television and reading – in television little imaginitive input is required, everything is there for you from the scenery to the characters appearance and sound to the advertising breaks – with reading the reader must create mentally their own images and sounds using the cues provided and in the better books the reader is shown the feelings and character constructs not told.  In the same way a coursebook heavy course leaves little scope for student/teacher input and tells them what they ‘need’ to know whereas a dogme approach is all about teacher/student input and allows a teacher to show students the language.

Learning is generally a social and dialogic process, it happens at the level of interaction, explanation, negotiation and reformulation.  It is a question and answer process and an unplugged approach would seem to offer more scope for questions and answers that engage the student than a coursebook centred one.  Is knowledge co-constructed?  Yes, certainly, the student offers me the knowledge they have and I the teacher build on that knowledge and then offer it back, the student then modifies my construction so that they understand it and then offer it back to me again to evaluate it, I modify it and the student challenges the modification and we reach a point where the student is happy and I am happy (hopefully) and then we repeat the process.

So what does all this mean exactly?  That teaching away from coursebooks can be hugely beneficial and rewarding.  So coursebooks are useless then?  No, I don’t go that far and I wouldn’t want to – in some areas (ESP) coursebooks I think are not only beneficial but essential.  I would also like to see publishers move to a coursebook model that compliments interactive teaching and learning – perhaps one where texts are provided but then the treatment of the text is left to the teacher and students to construct but that is for another post and if you’re still reading this then I’ve probably bored you long enough!

In conclusion, for me at least, unplugged holds more advantages than disadvantages.  Is this post a bit pompous and meandering, possibly it is actually, looking back at it, for which my apologies, perhaps I took the more scenic route ;-).  Either way it would be nice to know what you think and please feel free to tell me I’m wrong (and why!)

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What’s the opposite of hot?



A couple of weeks ago I was registering on a website (that shall remain nameless) and alongside captcha it had a question to check I was a person and not a machine.  The question was

‘What is the opposite of hot?’

And I thought, hmm, that’s interesting.  I took this idea into class and this is what I did with it.

1. I told my students (intermediate level) the same story and wrote the question on the board.  I then told them that I had put in a correct answer but that the website told me I was wrong. 

2.  I asked the students to talk together and see if they could say what I had written and why the website rejected it.

3. They gave me some answers, all of which revolved around the idea that I had put in words like cool, freezing, chilly and that the website had wanted the word cold.  I told them that they were right about the website’s expected response but that I had written the word ugly in the box.  I asked the students why.

4. After some discussion they got the idea that hot can describe someone as being very attractive (usually sexually) and that in this case ugly was a possible opposite.

5. Then we explored some other meanings of hot and this is our list;

                        temperature, attractiveness, spice, trendy, dangerous, very skilled

6. After that we looked at some collocations and phrases and put them into categories;

                         hot-tap, hot food, hot plate, hot seat, hot spot/zone, scalding hot, boiling hot, hot property, hot stuff, hot topic, hot up, etc.

7. Then we took the meanings and looked at some synonyms

                      warm, boiling, roasting, melting, attractive, beautiful, brilliant, burning, eye-watering, difficult

8. and some contextual opposites

                     cool, cold, fresh, freezing, mild, boring, safe, quiet

9. We then had a look at the phrase to blow hot and cold because someone suggested run hot and cold so we had a googlefight to see which was more common (not very scientific I know, but kinda fun).

10. Students then selected the words they wanted to record and wrote them down and some linked images from google images (actually this was kind of hard as when you googled hot, the first few pages of results are nearly all images of women, shows you need to be a bit careful when using internet resources and tells you a lot about what subjects can dominate the web!) and with some example sentences which we then all had a look at and corrected or improved.

11. Students finally had a go at constructing their own questions to get an exact opposite and the challenge for the others was to give a plausible alternative opposite. This was a lot of fun.

So what does all this tell me?  One, that I can be annoyingly pedantic and two, that you get teaching ideas from the weirdest places.  I am not sure if this lesson falls into the unplugged/dogme category but it was a lot of fun to do and I think I’ll try similar approaches more often.

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