Category Archives: Teaching Tips

Teaching with video conferencing tools

How do we teach when teaching online: webinar 1.7.2020

This is the video of a webinar I gave based for telc at the start of July, which was based on my contribution to the Global Get-Together, an online conference run by IATEFL. The focus was on rethinking our teaching methods when moving our classes online and starting out with video conferencing tools.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I found it easy to find video tutorials and blog posts on different video conferencing tools available to teachers and I was grateful. I, too, had to quickly get to grips with tools the organisations I was working for chose to use. Those ‘How-to’ tutorials saved me a lot of time and heartache!

However, I found that while there was lots of information about how to use tools, there was not as much info on how to actually teach with these tools. At the same time, friends and colleagues were getting in touch saying ‘I did everything right, but still…’

The problem…

If we don’t recognise that teaching via video conferencing tools requires different strategies, then we end up disappointed, frustrated, and doubting ourselves. It’s sad to hear teachers say that teaching online is something they just have to suffer through. Having lessons online opens up learning to those who may not have the opportunity otherwise. It frees us from geographical limitations, allows us to learn whatever we want, wherever we are. Of course, we teachers are still just human and getting used to new ideas, technologies and teaching methods can’t happen over night. Effective change takes time. There will be highs and lows, and it’ll be hard to maintain momentum.

A solution…

That’s where my talk comes in. It might point out some underlying issues you hadn’t considered, give you some concepts to think about, or provide some tasks for you to try in class. It may even just serve as an affirmation that you got this teaching online thing under control.

I also wrote a guest blog post for Sandy Millin after the IATEFL online conference. If you want to read rather than watch, that’s an option too.

So here it is…

You can also check out my post on podcasting Listening to the Experts. If you need a new challenge and want to keep the tech exploration momentum going, audio recording might be just what you’re looking for.

Fossilisation, Reflection and Learning Strategies – my ELT Ireland talk

Background to my talk at ELT Ireland on Fossilisation 

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been living in Germany for 13 years. On the one hand, I think of all the milestones that have passed and yes, 13 years makes sense. On the other hand, I think of my progress as a language learner and I feel a bit ashamed. Surely by now, it should be a lot better.

At the ELT Ireland conference last weekend, I talked about the verb ‘erinnern’ (remember).  I could not for the longest time get it into my head that it was reflexive, despite it coming up regularly at school, in conversations, on TV, etc. If you told me it was reflexive, I’d agree, but when I had to use it, I inevitably got it wrong.

My students, all adults at C1 or C2 level, have similar problems. For them, despite all the written and spoken input they get at work, English is just a tool used to get the job done, and as a result, they tend to focus on fluency over accuracy.

With their stubborn errors and the many examples of my own stalled development, fossilisation became a bit of an obsession.

Fossilisation, ‘the long term persistence of plateaus of non-target-like structures in the interlanguage of non-native speakers’ (Selinker and Lakshmanan, 1992, p.197) refers to the idea that a learner’s interlanguage system reaches a point where the development of some or all of their interlanguage forms ceases, without having reached a native-like state.  Han clarifies it by saying that despite ‘abundant exposure to input, adequate motivation to learn, and plentiful opportunity for communicative practice’ (2013, p.137) acquisition stops before the learner reaches target language mastery.

That describes me perfectly, and many of my students too. Most of our exposure to the language is in real world settings, outside the classroom environment. We want to communicate, we enjoy it, but we still keep making the same mistakes.

It seems reassuring on one hand to think ‘hey, it’s not me – it’s fossilisation!’ According to Selinker, ‘about 95% of the learners would never learn a target language regardless of age, instructions, input or learners’ will’ (Lee, 2009).

When I thought about it further, I realised it’s actually kinda depressing. The term fossilisation implies the end state when no further progress in that particular area or interlanguage subsystem will occur.  That means that my example of ‘erinnern’ wasn’t actually fossilisation. It took a while, but I did eventually figure out that it was reflexive. So the idea of just accepting that something has reached the end state raised all these questions.

Luckily when I dug deeper I found various people voicing the same concerns.

Questions about fossilisation

So conflicted!

Han (2013) says that some teachers embrace the concept, but falsely assign fossilisation to errors that are in fact not fossilised, while others refuse to believe that it exists, as this would imply a situation where no learning is happening. Understanding fossilisation would ‘lead to efforts to maximize learning while entertaining realistic expectations about the learning outcome, whereas ignorance would lead to use of non-differentiated strategies, which diminishes rather than enhances learning’  (Han, 2011, p.480)

I decided to side with the scholars who were suggesting that a more neutral term such as ‘stabilisation’ should be used (Mitchell et al., 2013), as it does not imply a permanent cessation of development, while keeping Han’s comment about differentiated strategies in mind.

First off, I looked at reasons why progress stalls, be it permanently (fossilisation) or temporarily (stabilisation).

In other words, the causes are age, attitude, motivation and acculturation.

This idea of learners resisting the process of acculturation, becoming part of the native speaker community, struck a chord with me. I had never really considered that learners might prefer to retain their ‘other’ identity, as learner or foreigner, which is ironic because … Lightbulb moment … that is exactly what I had been doing. Being an English speaker is a huge part of my identity. It has allowed me live in different countries, it influences my social life (my closest friends are all English speakers) and my home life (raising a bilingual child). I realise that, for me, it’s a serious barrier to progression. I wanted to be fluent, but at the same time retain my ‘other-ness’. No wonder I didn’t care about eliminating certain errors in grammar or pronunciation. Now I’ve figured out that to take action against fossilisation, I need to get everyone reflecting.

Why reflect?

But I discovered quickly that you can’t just tell people to stop and REFLECT. Reflection is very personal, not everyone is open to the idea immediately, and many will ask ’What am I supposed to do? How do I reflect?’ You need to give guidance.


There are a lot of resources online to help get you started. I found‘s 40 Reflection Questions a good place to start.

I found that introducing reflection takes time, regardless of the questions or prompts you decide to use. You can’t assume students will know what you want, or be confident or comfortable with it, but you can build up to it, and make it part of every lesson. You could just add a question for the class on what tasks they enjoyed most, or get them in pairs to talk about the things they found hard or difficult during the lesson or that week. As time goes on, and they get used to it, you can set more difficult questions, about their own learning and their feelings about their progress. We often gauge our own performance by comparing ourselves to others around us so not everyone might be comfortable talking about this in front of class. But the main goal of reflection is to get us thinking about our learning, and what works for us, what doesn’t and why that could be.

You could also encourage your students to keep a learning notebook. There are also journalling apps or websites. I tried Penzu on my phone, but I prefer paper and coloured pens! Old school!

What I use for my German evolved from a vocab notebook into something more like a diary where I write down random thoughts, questions about language, things I heard in passing, my goals, things that frustrate me. I find it useful to be able to look back and reflect on previous reflections. Despite being a C1/ C2 in German, I write in English. Anything else seems too much like homework and for me the focus is reflecting on my learning, not the reflecting being the learning. As a result, I think students should be able to choose which language they want to write in, and whether it is something they keep private or share with you. It will completely depend on who your students are, of course. If they write in English, you can offer to correct it for them, every now and again.

Once students are reflecting on the tasks they enjoy, their progress, where they are having difficulties, the next step is working out how to increase their success.

Strategies, the steps learners take to process, store and acquire the knowledge they are presented with, appear to be the key to success at learning. How successful a particular strategy is will depend on the learner and the situation, but Gass and Selinker say that helping learners identify which strategies work best for them gives them a sense of autonomy, which helps maintain motivation.

Despite all my interest in the idea of strategy training, I procrastinated for ages, reading a lot on the topic but not really doing anything about it in class, until I came across the book Modern Languages and Learning Strategies (1999, Grenfell and Harris). There was a task where you ask students to collaboratively translate a Dutch poem. I used it in my talk as I think it is ideal for demonstrating the benefits of strategy training, and also how easy it can be.

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There is also a lot of information on learning strategies online:

Helping learners learn:exploring strategy instruction in language classrooms across Europe, Vee Harris

An inventory of useful learning strategies.

Language Learning Strategies: Theory and Research, Carol Griffiths

Sometimes learning is not transparent for students. I can’t tell you how many times adult students have said to me, ‘I had English at school but I never learned much – my teacher wasn’t very good.’ They see their success or lack of success as being the responsibility of the teacher. I think reflection and strategy training makes learning more manageable and success more achievable. I’ve decided 2018 is now the Year of Reflection, for me with my German, for my C1 groups and later on in the year, I’m going to try it out with some university students – so I will post about the experiment. Stay tuned! 😉

Gass, S.M. and Selinker, L., 2008. Second Language Acquisition: An Introductory Course. Routledge.

Grenfell, M. and Harris, V., 1999. Modern languages and learning strategies: In theory and practice. Psychology Press.

Han, Z., 2013. Forty years later: Updating the fossilization hypothesis. Language Teaching, 46(2), pp.133-171.

Han, Z., 2011. Fossilization: A classic concern of SLA research. The Routledge handbook of second language acquisition, pp.476-490.

Lee, E., 2009. Issues in fossilization and stabilization. Linguistic Research, 26(2), pp.151-166.

Mezirow, J., 1990. How critical reflection triggers transformative learning. Fostering critical reflection in adulthood, 1, pp.20.

Mitchell, R., Myles, F. and Marsden, E., 2013. Second language learning theories. Routledge.

Selinker, L. and Lakshmanan, U. 1992. Language transfer and fossilization: The multiple effects principle. Language transfer in language learning, pp.197-216.


You, the expert: my experiment in constructivist, tech-enhanced learning. Part 1

Blogging has taken a backseat in the last year as I’ve been focusing on being a student again myself. Today my post is an outline of my last assignment, which actually came about through my interest in blogging and the role it can play in learning English.

The project, called ‘You, the expert’, was designed to help students develop their writing skills by producing a short e-book. Different digital tools were used for support during the writing process and to create finished texts which could be used as resources for later lessons. The group I worked with consisted of 6 students at level B2 to C1, consultants in the energy industry. They have weekly lessons of 90 minutes at their office, but attendance is irregular, with 2 or 3 students present each week.

Unable to find a course book linked to their business field, the students had been choosing news articles relevant to their jobs, which we read and discussed in class. To help them develop a wider variety of skills, we decided to use the ‘can do’ statements from the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), to discuss their strengths, weaknesses, and needs. They then chose a number of C1 descriptors to work on, identifying the types of real life activities that they were likely to engage in. In one example, the students linked the descriptor ‘Interviewing and being interviewed’ to situations where they are required to advise international colleagues on topics related to the German energy market. For ‘Turntaking’, one student mentioned an upcoming project with the European Commission and the types of meetings he would be taking part in. The result was a list of descriptors, tasks and situations suggested by the students. In this way, we created a type of negotiated syllabus.

One advantage of the negotiated syllabus approach, as mentioned by Nation and Macalister (2009), is that when students have greater control over decisions about what and how they learn, their motivation, satisfaction and commitment to the course is enhanced.

We planned a 3-week project where each student would write a report on a topic of their choice related to their job or industry, be interviewed on this topic by a classmate, and finally use the text and audio recording of their interview to create a short e-book. The multimedia materials they created would be presented to the group at the end of the project and used as content in future lessons.

Digital Tools

1., a corpus tool useful for checking collocations and how specific vocabulary is used. Students could refer to this site to find out how to use some of the language they discover when doing their research. Chambers (2005), in a study on the training of language learners in corpus consultation, notes that students reacted positively to concordancing tools, believing that discovering lexical or grammatical patterns by themselves could be more effective for retention that explicit teaching in traditional textbooks.

2. Students could use this simple voice recorder to record themselves and save recordings as mp3 files. Students can listen to the recorded interview to help them produce their final draft, and can later add the recording to their ebook.

3. Students would use Atavist to create a simple e-book or long journalistic essay, integrating their audio and images. To find images, students could use (or similar sites). This website has thousands of images free to use for educational purposes. The terms of use are read and discussed in class to ensure that everyone is clear on correct usage.

Every stage of the project is carried out in English, including any training in the use of tools. Students read guidelines and FAQs on the websites, watch video tutorials if needed, ask the teacher or classmates questions, and give each other feedback. This focus throughout is on the process rather than the end product, with students learning new skills as they go along.

Project Design

The type of course I describe does not fulfil all the requirements of a negotiated syllabus as set out by Breen (1987). Clarke (1989) admits that in most teaching situations achieving a fully negotiated syllabus may be impractical. However, he asks educators not to reject the concept entirely, but instead to consider introducing an element of negotiation into each stage of course design.

One disadvantage of the Negotiated Syllabus is that without guidelines as to which types of skills or tasks are available, students’ choices may be restrictive from a learning perspective (Nation and Macalister, 2009). As Clarke says ‘few learners, indeed, would have any clear awareness of what they need or want to learn, let alone how they would wish to go about it.’ (1991, p19)  This is particularly a danger when working with adults returning to education after a longer absence, as their knowledge of activities derives from language learning experiences in their own school days, and methods may have changed since then. I believe the CEFR level descriptors can alleviate these problems as they clearly set out competencies in different skill areas (e.g. addressing audiences or sustained monologue) and also include descriptions of the strategies language users can utilise to achieve these tasks, such as planning, compensating, and monitoring and repair. With this information at hand, negotiating a syllabus becomes a less daunting and more satisfying process.

Nation and Macalister (2009) mention a major obstacle to implementing a negotiated syllabus from the teacher’s standpoint, that is the fact that creating individualised lesson plans and resources requires a greater investment of the teacher’s time than if a course book was used. Clarke (1991) also discusses the difficulty in finding sufficient materials, stating that it would only be possible if there was a large selection of local resources available combined with ‘ideas books’ of ready-made modules that could be used as required.

These authors focus on the challenges a teacher faces in creating or locating adequate materials. However, if we take a constructivist approach or the constructionist approach advocated by Papert & Harel (1991) which links making or developing a product to deeper learning, then the problem of insufficient materials is eliminated as students create their own. The act of creating something becomes part of learning and the process, rather than the end product, takes the spotlight.

Having read about the benefits blogging has on language learning (Sun & Chang, 2013; Bloch 2007; Sun, 2009), I wondered if a similar type of task would be possible with this group. Would producing and publishing shorter stand-alone texts be feasible and if so, would this have the same effects on learner motivation and language development as blogging?

Although previously this group had shown little interest in writing tasks, writing ‘reports and essays’ was something they identified as requiring attention. Bloch (2007) says that instead of wondering what we can do with blogs, we should consider what problem might blogging be the solution for. With this in mind, I hoped that a writing project involving research and peer feedback, with a published product at the end, might encourage student participation and perhaps even have a positive effect on attendance.

What happened? Well, there were highs and there were lows, but I’ll have to wait for another post to fill you in on all that.

To be continued…


Bloch, J. 2007. Abdullah’s blogging: A generation 1.5 student enters the blogosphere. Language Learning and Technology. 11(2), pp.128-141.

Breen, M., 1987. Learner contributions to task design. Language learning tasks, 7, pp.23-46.

Chambers, A. 2005. Integrating corpus consultation in language studies. Language Learning and Technology, 9(2), 111–125.

Clarke, D.F., 1991. The negotiated syllabus: what is it and how is it likely to work?. Applied Linguistics, 12(1), pp.13-28.

Nation, I.S.P. and Macalister, J., 2009. Language curriculum design. Routledge.

Papert, S. and Harel, I., 1991. Situating constructionism. Constructionism, 36, pp.1-11.

Sun, Y.C., 2009. Voice blog: An exploratory study of language learning. Language Learning & Technology, 13(2), pp.88-103.

Sun, Y.-C. and Chang, Y.-J. 2012. Blogging to learn: Becoming EFL academic writers through collaborative dialogues. Language Learning and Technology. 16(1), pp.43-61.

The Gap between Classroom and Online Learning – Closing the Circle

I’m back from an inspirational few days at the IATEFL Conference in Birmingham and ready to report on my own workshop ‘The Gap between Classroom and Online Learning – Closing the Circle’ which took place on Saturday, the final day.    

The workshop looked at the Common European Framework of Reference and ways in which its descriptors can be used to link online activities to classroom tasks. The topics that interest me most at the moment, as well as all things tech, are task-based learning and communicative language teaching. The latter has been keeping me awake at night since I heard Bill Vanpatten say (controversially) that most language programmes ‘may claim to be communicative, but they really aren’t, and they never have been.’ (SLA Podcast: Tea with BVP, episode 1)  

Vanpatten says that without a valid definition of communication we can’t understand what communication is. His preferred definition is  ‘communication is the expression, interpretation, and negotiation of meaning in a given context.’  What I took away from that podcast was that not all pairwork is necessarily communicative, and communicative tasks should always have a purpose. This led me to analyse what I was doing with authentic materials in class and I realised that I was relying heavily on comprehension questions or tasks that involved students sharing their opinions, but not a lot else.

So I turned to the CEFR, or rather returned, as we have an on-again, off-again love affair. From giving training courses on the CEFR, I know that many teachers are not really familiar with the descriptors. They may know the global scale or the self-assessment grid, but not much else. So my goal was to get people thinking about how they could take advantage of the CEFR to create their own lessons, particularly tasks built around online materials.

I used modules from telc’s English Practice Material Online B1-B2 to create a variety of communicative tasks.

So here’s my summary…

When it comes to using blended learning or self-study materials as homework, many teachers worry that students won’t actually do the activities.  If this happens, it can be very de-motivating and can disrupt the entire lesson plan. If it happens a few times, the teacher might soon decide that the ‘tech’ experiment just isn’t worth the effort.

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To ensure that students carry out the online work we set them, we need to create a stronger link between online activities and the classroom. Instead of ending our lesson with the instruction to go online and do task X for homework, we need to take the process full circle. To do this we can add a pre-task to spark interest and motivation and then follow-up tasks to build on what was done online.  This shows students that online homework is not just ‘busy work’ but essential to progress. If they don’t complete the tasks, they are at a disadvantage in the face to face lesson.

You might think this is obvious, but because online learning materials are created for self-study, giving immediate feedback, we tend to think ‘they did the task, we can move on’. But then we miss out on an opportunity to really knit the course together. We want to make sure that students see it as one course, rather than two parallel streams that are loosely linked, with the second stream being less important, or possibly optional.

We could take the online material and check comprehension or vocabulary, ask for opinions or predictions, but these are things we already do. The CEFR, with its action-oriented, communicative approach, can help us come up with creative tasks that are communicative, personalised and appropriate.

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In the workshop, we looked at modules from telc’s English Practice Material Online B1-B2. Here is what we did with a module from the unit Gratitude, involving a radio show where listeners rang in and spoke about the people who made a difference to their lives. To create some follow-up tasks, we first used the descriptors for Correspondence.

B2  Can write letters conveying degrees of emotion and highlighting the personal significance of events and experiences and commenting on the correspondent’s news and views.
B1 Can write personal letters giving news and expressing thoughts about abstract or cultural topics such as music, films. Can write personal letters describing experiences, feelings and events in some detail.

Using these and the idea of Gratitude, International Thank You Day (the topic of the listening activity) and the person you are grateful to, you could come up with a task like this:

‘It’s International Thank You Day, the day we are reminded to thank those who’ve helped us and made a difference in our lives.’

Who would you like to say a special thanks to? Why? Take a minute to think about your answer, then tell your partner. Write an email to a special person for International Thank You Day.

‘Happy International Thank You Day!  I’m sending you this email to say thank you.’

Explain why you want to thank them. You can write about some experiences you’ve shared, where you both first met, or how you felt when they helped you out or supported you.

I have highlighted the words that link directly back to the CEFR descriptor, to show that the task really focuses on what the CEFR says students at those levels should be doing.

What can you do with the finished emails? Note the descriptor for B2 mentions commenting on the correspondent’s news and views. B2 students could be given a new email at random, and asked to read and respond in character.

Other ideas participants came up with included composing letters to thank specific people, designing thank you cards for family and friends, writing facebook posts and even a song about gratitude.

But to be honest, that one was kind of easy, so I decided to try something more challenging. I asked the participants to match the topic of gratitude to two other descriptors that were not as obvious as perhaps correspondence was.

B2 Can give clear, detailed descriptions on a wide range of subjects related to his field of interest. B2 Can take an active part in informal discussion… commenting, putting point of view clearly, evaluating alternative proposals and making and responding to hypotheses.
B1 Can reasonably fluently relate a straightforward narrative or description as a linear sequence of points. Can give detailed accounts of experiences, describing feelings and reactions. B1 Can make his/her opinions and reactions understood as regards solutions to problems or practical questions of where to go, what to do, how to organise an event (e.g. an outing).

What would you come up with?

For Sustained Monologue, I suggested a task based on a speech at your best friend’s wedding or birthday party and for Informal Discussion, a task that focuses on planning a surprise party for your best friend.

Other ideas for Sustained Monologue from the participants included having students create their own radio show talking about people who were special to them at different points in their lives, giving a thank you speech at an award ceremony, and presenting a Pecha Kucha on the topic of gratitude. For Informal Discussion, the radio show idea again, but this time as a dialogue or interview, a discussion about who to award a prize to, or which song expressing gratitude you would choose as you theme tune. Other ideas were informal discussions to decide on the best birthday gift for a mutual friend, or to plan a day out for a friend who’s feeling a bit down. I was delighted by the participants’ enthusiasm. Their suggestions were really creative and would definitely make exciting communicative lessons.

We looked at other modules and came up with lots of great ideas and hopefully I achieved my goal of sharing my love of the CEFR. Not only can it help students assess their abilities, it can also be used by teachers as a tool for planning a course, creating lessons and as in the case here, designing communicative tasks to use with online materials.

What should we do with these descriptors? I ended with my workshop with a challenge…

  • Look at the descriptors with students in class to identify some key areas students wish to work on. Use those descriptors when planning your lessons.
  • Assign descriptor/s at random to each of the units in your coursebook. Try to integrate these descriptors when planning.
  • Find interesting content online. Use the CEFR descriptors to design action-oriented tasks to link the online material to classroom learning.

What will you do?

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How to use telc English Practice Material Online : watch this youtube video.

Eaquals Bank of Descriptions as Levels

The CEFR handbook

Why I’m using Chat tools in face-to-face ELT

Online tutorials are a weekly fixture on the distance learning MA  I’m currently doing. Contrary to my expectations, these are not carried out in a video conferencing setting to replicate a face-to-face environment. Instead, a synchronous chat tool is used. Students and tutor are online at the same time, in a ‘meeting room’ where they discuss a topic by typing out their comments to each other.

My initial feelings towards chat were very mixed.  The approach is very student-centred and I was at times frustrated by the slow pace of discussion and the tendency of the participants to go, as I felt, off topic. I enjoyed the interaction and felt it was a nice way of getting to know classmates, but was sceptical about how beneficial it would be for me from a learning standpoint.

I quickly noticed that my class mates didn’t feel as I did. Some of the benefits they mentioned were

  • there’s a written record/transcript of the tutorial (useful if a student is called away)
  • the transcript can be used for revision or to help you catch up if you missed a discussion
  • non-native speakers of English may feel more confident about participating in writing
  • multiple people can ‘talk’ at the same time

Within a few sessions, I’d completely changed my mind. Two factors I found particularly impressive were increased participation and inclusion. Because communication is being carried out via text, participants don’t have to wait for their turn to respond. So there’s no real limit to the number of comments they can make within the hour-long tutorial. As more people are commenting simultaneously, participation is higher than it would be in face-to-face tutorials.

Many students mentioned that they feel more confident making a written contribution to the discussion, as they have time to formulate their comments and reflect on grammar and vocabulary choice. As a result, chat tutorials are more inclusive than tutorials where spoken communication is required. This was really something I had never thought about and it encouraged me to assess how I facilitate communication in my own classes, with the realisation that, be it through the context I work in or an unconscious bias based on learning styles or preferences, oral communication is prioritised over written communication. So my new goal is to try to introduce text-based communication to some of my lessons to see if it could help increase participation and ensure all students have a voice.

Of course from using chat weekly, I see that there are some disadvantages. Due to the fast pace of participation, there are often spelling and grammar mistakes, from native-speakers as well as non-native speakers. As many people are communicating simultaneously without the presence of turn-taking conventions typical in face to face communication, the discussion can be hard to follow.

This means the tutorial scripts can be confusing, particularly to those who didn’t take part.  However, I think that errors in syntax and spelling, and confusion arising from comment overlap can become valuable learning opportunities, especially as students are analysing their own mistakes. So this main disadvantage is actually a benefit in a language learning context.

After some research, I have found the site a free site that allows you create ‘rooms’ for chat comments and discussions.

So far I’ve used it with a group of six B2-C1 business students in an advertising agency, as a backchannel for comments and questions while we watched a TED talk (I paused at regular intervals to allow them to read and comment on what the others had written).

I also tried it with a group of 20 university students (mixed levels B1- C1) studying tourism. I created 4 rooms, assigned 5 students to each room and with the students scattered around the room, gave them a problem to solve. No speaking, just typing. Of course, the silence was broken by occasional laughs, but all in all, I was very impressed with how they got stuck in. With the adults, on the other hand, all aged between 30 and 50, a few had to be ‘disciplined’ for messing around (which I admit was funny in itself, especially their expressions when I gave them homework as ‘punishment’. They had to write up a summary of the discussion using the transcript, which surprisingly for this group, most of them did!)

I intend to do more experimenting with this tool now that I have realised the benefits chat can have and plan to write up some lesson ideas soon. In the meantime, if anyone tries or has tried this out, please let me know how you got on.

I know the link is weak, but it’s about chat communication too! 😉

Emotions and the CEFR – Great communication tasks

Using Emotions and the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) to create communication tasks focusing on practical skills.

(Notes from talk at Inter-Pädagogica 2015, Linz, Austria)

When it came to creating lesson plans for my business students, I generally used to focus on grammar or vocabulary, scanning authentic texts for difficult vocab or recurring grammar. Although the content was related to the different industries my students work in, I found myself explaining idioms and expressions that, while useful for bringing colour to sometimes dry topics, were not really helpful on a day to day basis.

Like many people, I was familiar with the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), but really only referenced it to talk about what level students were at. I hadn’t actually thought of using  it myself to create lesson plans. Then I started working on print and online materials for A2 – B2 levels and suddenly the CEFR became the starting point of everything I did. And it turned out to be exactly what I needed! In my own classes, when using different business articles, the focus now tends to be on what skill we can practice and I think lessons are more rewarding for all involved.

Lately, I’ve been having a lot of fun working with groups of teachers to come up with different ways of incorporating the CEFR into their lesson planning and material creation.

I plan to write up a proper post soon based on these experiences. In the meantime, here are some useful CEFR links.

Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment

Eaquals bank of descriptors- as levels. (Great for using needs analysis  with adult students.)


Notes from workshop  at Inter-Pädegogica 

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UsingEmotionstostimulateConversationHandout   Click to download.






The Game Show: notes for Iatefl Poland workshop

At the upcoming IATEFL Poland conference, I’m giving a workshop on games that can be used in class to introduce students to online materials. In this case I’m using telc’s (free) English Practice Material online, as I was part of the team behind it. This post is primarily created for the workshop attendees.

workshop objectives

Occasionally, when talking with EFL teachers about using technology with adult students, I’ve heard things like ‘well, I told them about a great website and suggested that they do the tasks there, but I don’t think they’re interested’, or ‘There’s a CD-rom with the coursebook, but they don’t seem to want to use it.’ In fact, I’m probably guilty of saying the same thing myself at some point.

When it comes to online materials, there’s a huge amount of stuff out there. We know what’s available, we may even be enthusiastic about the resource, but just directing the student to it usually isn’t enough. If we decide to use these online materials or tools, we should ensure that we treat them not simply as some add-on, but as part of the course. This means devoting some time to properly introduce and demonstrate the material before setting it as homework, and then expanding or referencing the content in the next lesson to show that we take the work seriously, value the time our students put into it and believe it to be really useful. Online tools for grammar and vocab practice or tasks on the cd-rom generally give automatic feedback, so it’s easy to think that once we’ve assigned the task, students do it and we all move on. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that, and students pick up the message that this is optional, you can get by without it. Which is a pity. If you’ve got this great material, why not get the most out of it!

Participant notes Poland iatefl

I’m adding a pdf with some of the activities and modules discussed in the workshop. Get in touch if you have any comments  or questions.

Video ‘How to use telc English Practice Material online’

This video explains where to go to sign up for access to the online materials and can also be used to help your students get logged on.

applause Have fun!

Business skills and cultural awareness:

Have you discovered the fantastic website yet?

If you are teaching Business English, or want to add something about cultural awareness to a general English class, you’ll find this to be an invaluable source of information.

Aimed at businesses wishing to do more business internationally, or students considering spending time abroad for work or study purposes, the site offers business culture guides on 31 European countries, in 9 languages. Each guide includes a short video with interesting facts about the country in question, as well as extensive information on business topics such as culture, etiquette, communication and social media.

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I built a 2-week intensive course around this resource, with students divided into regions, and each student taking a country within their region as their own area of expertise. Every day, as well as covering business skills, vocab and grammar, students used to research their country and then created or presented something.

Here are some of the tasks:

Presentation Skills. A mini Pecha Kucha presentation on their chosen country. (Instead of 20 slides with each shown for 20 seconds, they had 10 slides.) They were to include some general information (size, location, language etc), something about the economy, and something they thought really interesting about the country. Each slide was an image and if they really wanted to add text, they were limited to 5 words per slide. They presented these to the students in their regional group.

Report writing. Our ‘company’ is interested in doing business in country x, and the student has been asked to write a report on business etiquette and culture to help us understand our potential business partners better.

After learning about the concept of Nation Branding, and watching some example videos from different countries on youtube, students researched information about what makes their country attractive for business and investment.  Create a short video/ narrated slideshow.

Business Meetings.  Emailing / Interviews. The website gives a list of questions to be considered before organising or attending a business meeting. Students imagined they were on a business trip to their country and wrote an email to ‘colleagues’ at home telling them some things they noticed about how meetings are run there.

With another group, they created radio reports / podcasts where an ‘expert’ (student) was interviewed by the presenter on the topic of business meetings in Country X.

  • What are the local attitudes to business meetings?
  • How should you go about organising a meeting?
  • How do you greet people at meetings?
  • How should you run a meeting?
  • What do you need to think about when conducting negotiations?
  • What should you do after a meeting?

Other tasks, which involved looking beyond this site for information, included creating a flyer/ itinerary for a 3 day sightseeing tour of a region or city in the country, and researching a national product or brand and creating an infographic mapping out its history. The website always mentions something about the economy, and I found it helpful for students to begin there.

‘Cyprus exports primarily to European countries and, in particular, the UK, Greece and Germany. The main exports are manufactured goods like clothing, pharmaceutical products, wine, cement, furniture and agricultural products.’

It proved to be more fruitful to search online for ‘ Cypriot wine’ rather than a more general ‘products from Cyprus’.

Finally, to bring it all together, we held a ‘European Business Networking’ Trade Fair. The class was divided into 3 groups, and we had three 20 – 30 minute sessions. We had the use of a spare classroom and the first group had 10 minutes to set up. I gave them large sheets of paper and markers, and told them to set up their stands. Then the other students came in and went around from stand to stand, introducing themselves and using the language we had practiced in class to find out about the different countries. Afterwards, they had a few minutes to take down some notes about who they met and what they learned. Then we had the next session.

Later they wrote follow-up emails to 3 of the people they met to make suggestions for future collaboration and arrange meetings.

The trade fair idea worked far better than I could have ever imagined, and the students put more effort into it then they would have done with a standard role play. They actually were the experts, and were enthusiastic about sharing their research and creations (flyers, videos etc) with their classmates.

There are countless other lesson plan ideas that you could come up with using It is definitely a resource I find myself going back to time after time.

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Are you encouraging students to be late?

Evening classes with adult learners can be a real joy. Unburdened by the pressure of exams or a set curriculum, students and teachers are free to explore topics of current relevance or of interest to the individuals in the group. Class sizes range from 4 to 8 students, motivation is high and students share their own experiences adding relevance and life to the lessons.

There are, of course, some challenges. One common problem here is punctuality. As students are coming to class straight from the office, a meeting that overran, a last minute conference call or an accident on the motorway all cause delays. Teachers often start these classes off by asking students how their weekend was, if they are busy at work or what plans they have for the coming weekend. The logic is that it gives students a chance to warm up and settle in, while allowing time for late-comers to arrive before the real business of grammar or vocabulary begins. You go around the class and ask each of the 4 or 5 students present for their contribution. It might only take a few minutes, but it might also throw up some interesting vocabulary or grammar review opportunities.

I’ve seen the ‘How was your weekend’ Warm-up in numerous lesson observations and experienced it as a student in evening classes for Spanish. I do it myself from time to time. But if punctuality is an issue, you might have to reassess the impact this low-key, relaxed intro is having on your class. What message does this type of warm-up activity give?

Starting the lesson with general chit-chat can signal to students that it is OK to arrive late. If the actual ‘teaching’ does not start for 10 or 15 minutes, they may feel that being a little late will not hinder their progress. After all, they are not missing much.

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To counteract this, we should ensure that the content of the class is just too important to miss.

I read somewhere about a study in America which showed that introducing some type of mental warm-up at the beginning of every class increased the number of students arriving on time. An example would be a question or dilemma for them to work out alone or in pairs. This ‘Welcome – Get Working’ intro has more of an impact.

Here is a selection of easy tasks to get students working as soon as they sit down. They can be done as 5 minute writing activities or pair work discussions. Adapt them to suit your lesson objectives. If you choose the pair work option, assign students partners as they come in. ‘Hi Stefan, nice to see you. You’re going to work with Tina today.

This prevents them from all sitting in exactly the same seats every week,  working with the same partner and rolling their eyes in despair if you ask them to try out a different seat/vantage point sometime. (Do all adults do this or is it just a local phenomenon?)

1. What’s the question?

Students come up with inventive ideas for questions that can be answered with the word given. Write 3 ‘answers’ on the board, or give them one ‘answer’ and ask them to come up with 3 questions. The answer is ‘often’. What’s the question?

The answer is ‘before you go’. What’s the question?

The answer is ‘with a monkey’. What is the question?    

Suggested solutions: Have you ever tried kangaroo meat? When should you apply for a visa to visit China? How did the man get the coconuts down from the tall tree?

2. Dilemmas

Jot down some ideas and then discuss with your partner.

Would you rather be good-looking or rich?

Which is better: the power to read minds or the power to be invisible?


3. Brain teaser

There are a lot of sites dedicated to these online. Look for brain teasers, riddles etc.

What 5-letter word becomes shorter when you add two letters to it?

The more you take, the more you leave behind. What are they?

It’s a stormy night and a plane takes off from JFK airport in New York. The storm quickly worsens and the plane crashes – half of it lands in the United States and the other half lands in Canada. In which country do you bury the survivors?

(Answers are at the bottom of the post.)

4. Review of last lesson

List three things you remember from the last lesson/ 3 key words from the last lesson. Share with your partner and explain why you think they are important.

5. Ideas for introducing the topic.

Pairs. Put 20 words on the board, somehow related to topic or taken from text you are going to read together. Students make as many pairs as they can in 2 minutes. Must be able to justify each pair. Justifications can be simple (both start with an s) or more complex. They then try to guess what the topic is.

Topic Test. A word or phrase related to the lesson on the board. Students have one minute to write down words related to the topic or facts they already know about it.

Missing letter note. Ask students to rewrite a note/sentence without using a particular letter. Example:

Rewrite ‘Your dinner is in the dog’ without using the letter ‘d’.

Rewrite ‘Don’t dare touch my pint‘ without using the letter ‘t’.

Suggestions: Your evening meal has been eaten by our canine pet. Rover, our animal pal, was scoffing your lovely supper.

Laying a finger on my lager would be a serious error. Hands off my beer.


These type of intros grab people’s attention, get them immediately interested and active, and show students that by being late they are missing out.

What kind of intro or warm-up do you do?

Post a comment to add to the list.

Punctuality never goes out of fashion.
Punctuality never goes out of fashion.


While I’m at it, here are some activities to end the lesson with. Continue reading Are you encouraging students to be late?

How to: Facebook groups EFL. Videos

How to: Facebook groups for EFL/EAP.

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post on EAP 2014 at the University of Potsdam and my Facebook groups for EAP presentation, here are 2 videos to give details of how to actually go about setting it all up. This first tutorial outlines the steps you take to create a Facebook group to use with your English students. The focus is on creating a space for sharing and collaborating, while encouraging students to use English outside of the classroom using a tool that they are familiar with. All this is possible without teachers or students needing to ‘friend’ anyone.

This second tutorial gives you some quick ideas for getting started. You can post pictures, questions and tasks, create polls or add a document.

Here is the presentation as a PDF. I have included a number of suggestions that I found helped the project really get off the ground. Copy FBshort

Good luck!