Tag Archives: creative

You, the expert (2). How the project worked out

You, the expert: An experiment in constructivist, technology-enhanced teaching


So we negotiated the syllabus, planned our tasks, and started working on the different stages. As I had expected, attendance proved to be the biggest issue. Because of holidays and international projects there were a lot of absences and the project had to be extended by 2 weeks. Of the 6 students in the group, four participated, but by week 5 only 2 had finished their e-book. Despite this, everyone felt very positive about the project and they said that knowing their work would be used in the future made them more attentive to what they were doing.  I was delighted with their enthusiasm and the quality of the work they produced, having had little success with writing tasks in the past, particularly those presented in the course book. We also spent a lot of time talking about learning in a way we hadn’t done before.


For this project I chose tools I was familiar with, which require little digital expertise, but what I hadn’t considered was accessibility. When the students wanted to carry out their interviews they couldn’t access the audio recording site I had asked them to use from their laptops. The problem was easily overcome. None of the students had their phones with them, so we used the voice recorder application on mine instead. It allowed us to make the recordings, but having to use my phone instead of their laptops removed some of their control of the task. When using Vocaroo.com with other groups, I saw students listening to their recordings in class, analysing the results and in some cases, re-recording them. They discussed pronunciation, pace and delivery, as well as vocabulary and grammar, and decided on ways of improving different elements. Being in control of the tool allowed them to do this, and as a result, the process of recording themselves became an important part of the experience.

In this situation neither set of students mentioned or asked about listening to their recordings there and then. They did give each other feedback immediately after the interview, listened to the recordings when I sent them by email and spoke the following week about how useful having the recording was when editing their texts. However, I feel that one important element of the process was lost.

The situation also shows that what works in one environment may not somewhere else, and that for this type of project to succeed, teachers need to be flexible with regards changing or adapting their plans on the spot. As Harmer (2015, p201) reminds us, ‘technological malfunction’ is in itself nothing new, cd players and overhead projectors often broke down at inopportune moments, leaving teachers to improvise or revert to their backup plans. I would argue, however, that in these cases, teachers chose to simply continue with the unit in the book they were working on or wrote up the grammar explanations on the blackboard instead of displaying their pre-designed transparency. The technology was a tool the teacher controlled, in a lesson the teacher planned. The goal of this project was to hand over control to the students, from negotiating the syllabus to creating content future lessons would be based on, and technology was central to that process. If the technology breaks down, the Plan B could lead to the loss of the key characteristics of constructivist instruction. In this case, the alternative available limited reflective practice.


‘A good teacher will exploit to the fullest extent all knowledge already available in the classroom’  Clarke, 1991, p18

In the post-project interviews, students mentioned choice as being a key factor in motivating them to carry out the task.

‘I chose a topic that interested me (Iran) because of my business trip in September. I have a personal connection to the topic and this motivated me to do research and share the information with the group.’ Student M

Ryan & Deci say that ‘intrinsic motivation will occur only for activities that hold intrinsic interest for an individual—those that have the appeal of novelty, challenge, or aesthetic value for that individual’ (2000, p60) and choice and self-direction play a huge role in intrinsic motivation. This project was a classroom task set up by the teacher and therefore, involved extrinsic motivation. Ryan & Deci (2000) would, however, class this as integrated regulation. This is the form of motivation closest to intrinsic, for while the push to action comes from an external force, the students evaluate the task or action required of them, and begin to see it as compatible with their own desires or needs. However, unlike intrinsic motivation, the reason for carrying out the task is other than enjoyment in the task in itself.

M was first to perceive the personal value the task would have for him. He referred repeatedly to the fact that in carrying out this task he was simultaneously preparing himself for his upcoming business trip to Iran, a country he previously knew little about.

With participation optional to a certain extent and no grades being awarded, successful completion of the task was dependent on students’ own interest. In this project students played an important role in motivating other group members.

When J joined the class, having been absent for a number of weeks, M was presenting the first draft of his article on Doing business in Iran. J’s role was to read M’s draft, offer feedback and then interview him on the topic. She was very enthusiastic and asked many questions, referencing the nuclear agreement and future trade possibilities between Germany and Iran. After the interview, she told us that as a student she had a professor from Iran who often spoke about life before and after the Islamic Revolution.

M later said that J’s questions helped him identify background information or more detailed explanations that needed to be added. Moreover, taking on the role of editor and interviewer had a motivating effect on J, who immediately decided on the topic she would focus on. She asked if the project deadline could be extended, as although she would be away on holiday for a few weeks, she was eager to participate.

This example shows how the actions and attitudes of group members had positive effects on others. This ties in with Ryan & Deci’s (2000) notion that relatedness, the need for a sense of belonging and feeling of connected-ness, is of vital importance in the case of extrinsically motivated actions.

At the end of the 5 weeks, students returned to the CEFR descriptors they had initially chosen to discuss how they felt they had improved.  Breen & Littlejohn (2000) encourage teachers to see communication with students about learning as an essential component of the communicative classroom, and in this case, it was a positive experience, enhancing students’ feelings of competence.  In the coming school term, the students will create activities around their projects, using their course book as a model. They could create comprehension questions to accompany the recorded audio, or a follow-up writing task linked to the text. Returning to their work in this way will give them an opportunity for further reflection on their abilities while also supporting their competence.


While the promise of collaboration and deeper learning is appealing, incorporating constructivist practices into the classroom can be daunting. It requires a complete change of role for teachers, less about providing information and more about creating an environment that supports students in exploration and meaning-making. Despite any difficulties, the outcomes of this project have definitely encouraged me to continue on the constructivist path.

Example e-book, Iran – Chance or Change or both?  (shared with student’s permission)



Breen, M.P. and Littlejohn, A., 2000. The practicalities of negotiation. Classroom decision-making: Negotiation and process syllabuses in practice, pp.272-295.

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

Harmer J. The practice of English language teaching. Fifth ed. Harlow: Pearson Longman; 2015.

Ryan, R.M. and Deci, E.L., 2000. Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American psychologist, 55(1), p.68.

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. https://youtu.be/QBa2JtDRxZY

Eaquals Bank of Descriptions as Levels https://www.eaquals.org/resources/revision-and-refinement-of-cefr-descriptors/

The CEFR handbook


Learning to appreciate Quizlet Flashcards

Adaptive Tutoring Systems – Quizlet  

I’m busy being a student again and now half way through the first year of an MA in Technology and Education with the University of Leeds. As part of the module ‘Learning with Digital Technologies’ MA, I had to reflect on my experiences with different tools and learning theories. So I thought I’d share my thoughts on the flashcard tool Quizlet.

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Quizlet allows you to create flashcards, games and quizzes which can be used to learn vocabulary, definitions, historic dates and so on. Progress is assessed automatically, giving students feedback as they make their way through the activities.

After logging in for the first time, I typed ‘English’ in the search function and found numerous flashcard sets, created and shared by users.  Many consisted of image and word combinations suitable for lower ability levels. Others sets such as ‘Junior College English Vocab’ contained words like nebulous, fetters and truculent, which would be too advanced for most ESL (English as a Second Language) students. Many sets were simply titled English and, although hovering over the title presents a view of the contents, it was often unclear what the connection between the words was. Without proper naming or tagging conventions to clearly identify the target group and type of the vocab, finding suitable sets to practice with is time-consuming and I feel this reduces the value of the set sharing function.

However, when I started practicing with a flashcard set I found the tool to be very engaging and was impressed by clever additions such as the option to listen to the words, the choice of displaying either the term or the definition first and also the fact that tests can be printed. The games are timed and once your score is revealed, you are encouraged to repeat the activity to beat your time and improve your position on the score board. Motivating messages, such as ‘Yipee, you beat your previous record’, are also given.

Having assessed Quizlet from a learner’s standpoint, I followed the steps to create a set of flashcards on English financial terms with definitions. This was very easy and, as the tool gives you the option of importing your own lists, very quick.

Quizlet does not ‘teach’ the user, being limited to simple repetition of words to help memorise spelling and meaning. However, I feel the key to its appeal is the individualisation aspect, as students can choose the type of activity they want to try and can repeat it as many times as they want, therefore defining the pace of the progress.

I had heard of Quizlet prior to this, but had assumed it would not be suitable for advanced-level adult learners. I worried they would see it as game-like or frivolous, and I also felt that prescribing lists of words for students to learn goes against the type of student-centred learning I try to practice. Having to try out different tools as part of the MA course has made me aware of the need to reflect on my own bias or preference regarding learning strategies, and now having tried Quizlet, I feel that, ironically, the tool I dismissed as being too teacher-centred could have great potential in a constructivist classroom. Allowing students to choose the vocabulary and definitions they want to practice or encouraging them to create sets themselves, which they could then share with classmates, would give them a central role in the learning process.

Aim high with your e-portfolio

Sometimes I get the feeling my students don’t feel as enthusiastic and passionate about English as I do!! For my students pursuing degrees in Marketing and Media, or Tourism and Event Management, English is a compulsory course. Some, while acknowledging that it is the language of business or travel, don’t see the immediate relevance for them and being first years, have yet to shake off the bad studying habits they may have picked up at school, i.e. do enough to get by and cram before the test. The language levels within the groups can range from those who say they’re not very talented at languages to those who’ve spent a year backpacking around Australia or have an English-speaking parent or two. This mix of abilities can have advantages as well as disadvantages, and of course, mirrors more accurately the situation they may end up working in once they have left university. In most cases, graduates in Germany applying for office jobs are expected to speak English regardless of the position they are interested in, and some companies,  particularly those with international teams, insist that formal meetings and presentations are carried out in English rather than German. This means English is likely to become an important part of their day to day working lives. How do we prepare these students for this reality? How can we make their English course more relevant, more engaging? How do we help weaker students while still challenging those with advanced or near native skills? Oh, and while I’m at it, I might as well throw another challenge into the mix. How do we encourage students to take ownership of their work, to ensure that what they do in class is the best quality they can produce, rather than something thrown together in order to just get the task done? After mulling it over, I am going to give something new a try: An electronic portfolio. A space that allows students to record their achievements, display the work they have created or co-created and document their development. This e-portfolio can be shared with family and friends or kept private, but could also be used later when applying for jobs where English is essential, as a means of proving language skills by showcasing their original work.

Created using Pathbrite
Created using Pathbrite

I think students will be more conscientious if they see that, rather than just a text or task to be handed in, corrected and forgotten about, the work they do in class can be part of something that shows their language ability, allows them express their creativity and actually says something about who they are. (Am I being wildly optimistic here?!) I spent an hour playing around with Pathbrite and think it could work well for what I plan. It didn’t take long to figure out how to use it,  adding different types of media was easy, and I’m happy with the end result. I think it looks good, and can image my students feeling quite proud of their work when presented so stylishly. It will motivate many to take that extra step, be it one final edit or spell-check, having a classmate take a quick look over it and give feedback, or adding a nice concluding paragraph before submitting a text. At least that’s the hope… let’s see how it works in practice! If anyone has experience using e-portfolios with EFL students, I’d love to hear about it. We create podcasts and infographics, digital posters and presentations as well as writing various types of texts. The e-portfolio can link these things together and serve as a record of the hard work and effort the students put into their work. www.pathbrite.com

Read the signs! Add your own text to signs.

Unbelievably simple, yet incredibly entertaining: this sign generator from redkid.net is my favourite. There are other sites, but I found them a bit trickier to use – not as classroom-friendly.  Here, you have a choice of 55 signs or images. You just type in your text, press generate and your new image appears! Some images allow for only a word or two, while others can fit a bit more. You can then save the image to your computer. Give it a try – it really is that simple!


My students have used it to create mock book covers to illustrate the ideas or themes covered in their creative writing pieces, titles to upload with their audio boo podcasts, and personalised images to introduce projects. We are all so used to seeing these types of signs in our day to day lives. It’s fun putting your own personal stamp on them.

awesome apps

It’s not just fun, however. Students have to come up with a good title for their stories or podcasts and try to pick a picture that is somehow connected to the title or that they feel fits their work. Deciding what title or message to use takes a bit of thought and if the words don’t fit, students have to start looking for synonyms.


I’m sure there are lots of other ways of using it in class. Let me know how you get on!

Share thoughts in poster form with Muzy

I have been looking at ways of using images in class, in particular, easy-to-use tools to give students the chance to create a visual representation of what they are learning. One idea is to create a poster with a summary of the main arguments or ideas introduced in a text or article. This idea could also be used for a pop song or students could  choose their favourite quotes from a book or short story they are reading in class.

There are many benefits to such an activity – as well as developing creative thinking and encouraging learner autonomy, the task is visual and hands-on, so accommodates different learning styles and task preferences. The resulting posters can be used as visual aids for communication and presentation activities, and if you’ve asked the students to include specific vocabulary in their sentences, the posters can be helpful when revising for tests.


no right to be up
‘Dad, just cause you are retired now, doesn’t mean you can rub it in by texting me daily to say that you got up at 10.30 am while I’ve been up since 6!’

Muzy was one tool I thought looked interesting, and while it was really easy to use, and to post to Facebook or twitter, it did take me a while to figure out how to save or print the image. I’m adding pictures and instructions here for anyone who fancies trying it out.

Click to enlarge images and scroll through for details.

Have fun!