Wednesday, 10 April 2013

#IATEFL13 - From my beginnings… (Part 2)

As I mentioned in my earlier post, Jim Scrivener is a name always associated with my early days in TEFL as I used to clutch to his Learning Teaching book when in need of help (as I often was in those days!)

Jim’s talk given yesterday was about ‘Demand High’ teaching - that is pushing the boundaries or what we expect from our students to make language learning more challenging for them. I have checked out the blog he created on the topic together with Adrian Underhill a couple of times but this was the first time I had the chance to see a talk about it.

If you can’t see the video, click on this link to view the session.

My reflections and thoughts were typed ‘live’ as I watched the recording so they may appear to be in a ‘tweet’ style. I would welcome your thoughts on the talk and my reflections through the comments section below. :)

  • The session started by looking at typical student complaints. While I have encountered the “it’s boring” and “I want more grammar” phrases many times during my career, I find the claims to want more advanced language and study at a higher level are often misplaced with students believing this will automatically make them better…
  • I liked the way ‘Demand High’ was situated as ‘an idea with mileage’ rather than a methodology.
  • It interested me how Jim explained the idea was born out of observing teachers ‘covering material’ in superfluous manner - much like Scott Thornbury’s comments about the origins of dogme.
  • The discussion around checking answers from a simple coursebook activity was an interesting reminder that there are almost unlimited ways to approach and utilise a task in the classroom.
  • Avoiding ‘rubberstamping’ - this is something I’ve been trying to work on recently. Too many times I find myself saying ‘good’ after a student has given an answer and only asking something like ‘is that right?’ or ‘any other answers?’ if it is wrong. I need to use other ways to get the students to rubberstamp answers themselves and think about why an answer is right as well as why one is wrong.
  • Playing “devil’s advocate” - I sometimes deliberately give wrong answers or dispute an obvious one (although this is usually born from my sense of humour). I fin this does push the learners to explain their answers in more detail. However, it also becomes routine and expected quite quickly, a lot like ‘rubberstamping’.
  • The ideas about mistakes were interesting - asking students to recall their mistakes or highlight their favourite mistake could provide a good way to get them involved in self-analysis by reflecting on their language use.
  • Adding elements of role-play (different ways to say a sentence, using facial expression, etc.) is a good way to demonstrate to students how language really works and how things like word stress, intonation and body language can affect meaning.
  • While I agree that allowing processing time when drilling or working on pronunciation is important, I’m not sure that repeating the sound in your head is that useful. I tried it myself during the talk and with some Turkish phrases I could hear at home and I didn’t feel I particularly gained anything from it. Maybe the EFL teacher in me automatically wants some kind of verbal confirmation!
  • Fully agree with the point that we should avoid just ‘fixing’ errors in the classroom. Getting students to do the repairs themselves is a much better idea!

A few final thoughts

There are, of course, ways we can demand more from our students and get more use out of the activities we do in class, even a dry coursebook gap-fill. The session also reinforced my belief that one of the biggest problems in ELT today is teachers following the coursebook to the letter, allowing it to be the central dictating focus of the lesson rather than something to be referred to when needed.

However, one issue kept bugging me throughout this session, something that stems from the high demands that are often placed on teachers - time. Sure, it would be more productive and beneficial for our students to put them through their paces as we check answers to activities but if I were to spend a whole lesson on one small activity like that, I would probably only be up to the start of November in the yearly plan by the time the summer holidays came around! With the school, parents and other stakeholders demanding ‘more’, it would be difficult to justify having spent this much time on this much material…

Before we start to think about demanding more, we need to look at lightening the burden placed on teachers and students alike. If the sheer volume of ‘stuff’ we are expected to cover is reduced (I’m obviously referring heavily to my own context here), then we can spend more quality time exploring and building on the materials and tasks we have to work with. So, I guess what I’m saying is we need to work with less to free up the time and space to demand ‘more’.

You can follow the IATEFL conference online at:

#IATEFL13 - From my beginning… (Part 1)

Two names that are forever associated with my first steps towards becoming a language teacher, made 13 years ago, are Duncan Foord and Jim Scrivener: Duncan because I did my Trinity Cert. in TESOL under his guidance at Oxford House Barcelona; and Jim Scrivener because his Learning Teaching was one of the main titles we referred to during the course. Indeed, I remember my course mates dubbing Jim Scrivener ‘The Man’ when it came to the ins and outs of our assessed teaching practice.

And so, I thought where better to start my reflections on IATEFL 2013 Online than with those two names? First, an interview with Duncan Foord about the concept of Open Space and his work with the TDSIG (I will reflect on Jim Scrivener’s session on ‘Demand High’ in my next post):

If you can’t see the video, you can watch it here
Open Space is a concept that has interested me for some time but I've always been a little uncertain about how to implement it. Hearing Duncan discuss how to set it up, starting with the brainstorming of questions and then people naturally dividing themselves into groups to discuss the issues that interest them, was very useful and it is something I am going to push for at my place of work when we enter our 'seminar period' at the end of the teaching year. I think this would be a great way to approach the issue of classroom management. Over recent times, we have had a few workshops and talks (or 'workshops' given as talks) on this matter but there has always been the feeling that the speaker doesn't really know our context and the issues we face. Having an open space session in which everyone discusses strategies that have worked and that haven't worked, all situated within our own context, would be much more productive.

The discussion about the difference between teacher training and teacher development was also enlightening. I feel that too much of what goes on in many schools around Turkey is based on the training model. While that is useful, it needs to complemented by some development - that is the teacher pursuing his or her own agenda and identifying areas of their teaching they would like to work on. Perhaps open space would be a good lead in...

I also liked the analogy comparing teaching from a coursebook to playing cover songs in a band. As Duncan says, the important thing is not so much what you do and what materials you do or don't use, but rather how well you do it.

You can follow the IATEFL conference online at:

Friday, 5 April 2013

Always Look on the Bright Side of ELT

One of my favourite posts of recent times (from one of my favourite blogs of recent times - ELT Rants, Reviews and Reflections from the incomparable Michael Griffin), is The Dude Abides, in which Mike uses quotes from The Big Lebowski to explain various aspects of working in ELT. That got me thinking about doing something similar and now, 3 months on, I’ve finally got my act together to present you with a post linking the often parallel worlds of ELT and Monty Python, all thanks to that classic of controversial cinema:

Warnings: Spoiler alerts ahead! (If there can be ‘spoilers’ for a film released in 1979)
Controversial ideas and naughty language ahead!
Ripping off of other people’s blogging ideas ahead!

[… having trouble hearing the Sermon on the Mount.]
Man: I think it was, "Blessed are the cheese makers"!
Gregory's wife: What's so special about the cheese makers?
Gregory: Well, obviously it's not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturer of dairy products.
Often we the best intentions, teachers and teacher trainers talk of not taking things so literally, not following the coursebook or syllabus so literally and expanding on themes that come up to involve our students as much as possible. Unfortunately, much like Gregory here, we often miss the point. A talk I saw at a conference a couple of years ago springs to mind. The theme of the event was personalising the language learning experience and a well-known coursebook writer was on the stage. Showing us an example of one of his pages, he said “Look! The question asks ‘Have you ever been to Moscow?’ You can’t get much more personalised than that!” For truly personalised learning, we need to go much further beyond those manufacturers of dairy products.
Brian: Look, you've got it all wrong! You don't need to follow me. You don't need to follow anybody! You've got to think for yourselves! You're all individuals!
Crowd: [in unison] Yes! We're all individuals!
Brian: You're all different!
Crowd: [in unison] Yes, we are all different!
Man in crowd: I'm not...
Crowd: Shhh!

Often as teachers we strive to help our learners become free-thinking, creative, critical individuals. We want them to engage in self-assessment activities, plan their own learning and pursue their own interests. However, we are often encountered with students looking at self-assessment papers blankly before asking “What new words did I learn this week teacher?” Or when presented with a question like “What is your opinion about….?” they slyly try to copy from their neighbour. Or sometimes, they act completely lost when given the option of a project or assignment on the topic of their choice… We shouldn’t forget that while our learners are individuals, a lot of what goes on in a school environment, whether it is a standard coursebook, tests, rules or uniforms, nullifies that and training and guidance is needed to ensure they truly work and think independently.
Nisus Wettus: Crucifixion?
Mr Cheeky: Ah, no. Freedom.
Nisus Wettus: What?
Mr Cheeky: Eh, freedom for me. They said I hadn't done anything, so I can go free and live on an island somewhere.
Nisus Wettus: Oh, oh that´s jolly good well. Off you go then.
Mr Cheeky: No, I'm only pulling your leg, it's crucifixion really!
Nisus Wettus: [laughing] Oh, I see, very good. Well...
Mr Cheeky: Yes I know, out the door, one cross each, line on the left.

However, despite our desire for individual expression and students who break from the norm, we often end up taken aback when it comes!
The next one is more of a scene than a quote so I decided to use the (official) video clip from YouTube:

The classic case of obsessing so much with grammar that we overlook the meaning of what the student is trying to communicate - this is the equivalent of a student sadly saying “My grandmother… she die” only to be corrected “She die? Present or past time? She died…” While grammar instruction and correction is no doubt necessary, we should be careful not to impede communication or fluency on the part of the learner and not to incite fear when correcting as our centurion does above.
Reg: All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
Teachers like to complain. We complain about our students, our school administration and, of course, those poor publishers of ELT materials. But we shouldn’t forget that however much we get annoyed by such things, the are always positives as well. Take the publishers - sure, an overloaded generic coursebook can be restrictive but a readily-available bank of materials can also be a life-saver when asked to cover a class at short notice. They also do a lot to make sure seminars and conferences happen thus contributing to our professional development. The same goes for admin - sure, at times they seem out-of-touch and unreasonable but they also try to make life easier for us foreigners in a foreign land (for example at my school, extra days off at Christmas, furnished accommodation, flight tickets home and letting us get away with radical things in class that other teachers are not allowed to do like moving desks about and doing loud speaking activities).
Hermit: I hadn’t said a word for eighteen years before he came along!
Followers: [in unison] A miracle! He is the messiah!
I do not work miracles. I am often faced with high expectations from stakeholders whether they be the school admin, parents or the students themselves. Students don’t learn foreign languages overnight and can’t be expected to communicate readily and fluently at a young age (an expectation I have witnessed many times when bumping into students with their families outside school). Nor am I the messiah. I am just a very silly teacher!

Another clip:

While it can be entertaining, amusing and engaging, modern technology, if used with no clear purpose or context, can be completely baffling.

Lead Singer Crucifee: Some things in life are bad.
They can really make you mad.
Other things just make you swear and curse.
When you're chewing on life's gristle,
Don't grumble. Give a whistle.
And this'll help things turn out for the best. And...
Always look on the bright side of life.

Be positive. Teaching can be a stressful job but there are plenty of worse things you could be doing. When we do our job well and approach it with a positive outlook, we can make a significant contribution to our learners’ lives. Oh, and we get to go home at 4 o’clock with long summer holidays as well.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

IATEFL 2013 Registered Blogger

As I slowly attempt to get back into the blogging swing of things, I was glad to be offered the chance to be a registered blogger for the upcoming IATEFL 2013 Conference in Liverpool.


You can also follow the action at

For someone in my position, far-removed from the ELT conference ‘hubs’ (while Turkey does have its fair share of events, the majority of them are in Istanbul - not that close to Ankara at all) and lacking an employer or sponsor willing to foot the costs of travel, accommodation and registration (and it seems charging non-keynote speakers to attend is still rife as shown by the one major ELT event to be held in Ankara this year asking for a significant fee from presenters even if it’s just for one day), attending an event like IATEFL remains a distant dream.

However, we can experience a taste of the event thanks to IATEFL and the British Council’s comprehensive online streaming of talks, interviews and other sessions. Over the past couple of years, I’ve enjoyed some great sessions this way and I’ll be looking forward to doing the same this year with the added bonus of being a registered blogger.

I’m aiming (perhaps somewhat ambitiously) to review one session and/or interview per day with the option of catching up on archived footage later on likely to be exercised as well.

So if you are not going to IATEFL, why not join me in watching and discussing online? If you are going, why not suggest a few enticing sounding sessions for me to focus on? :)