4 areas of my teaching I’d like to work on this year

1. Effective drilling

Well . . . mostly the part that comes after the drilling, where I want the learners to practice the words/phrases in pairs. The idea is that they listen to each other and give feedback, but I’ve never really set this up properly (including giving them language for feedback)–and I need to do more modelling of feedback on pronunciation during the choral drilling as well.

2. Effective group work and pair work

There seems to be a vast amount of literature out there on theories of cooperative learning (CL), including how it pertains to language development in ELT. At the end of the day, I need to be clearer in my own mind and my own planning about why I’m asking students to work in pairs or groups–and obviously students themselves would be curious about the why as well. Also, effective collaboration requires scaffolding and training, especially for learners whose academic backgrounds may not have featured a lot of group or pair work. Can’t just be throwing students together because it’s “best practice”: there needs to be a reason for it.

3. Autonomous learning strategies

Again, there’s bound to be a wealth of information on helping students develop autonomous learning skills, particularly in EAP. Learning portfolios, reflective journals, vocabulary banks: all great tools that I’d like to know how to use more effectively. Finding a free digital platform for hosting a learning portfolio would be helpful too.

4. Differentiation

I saw a great presentation on this recently at PDWest which included a long list of differentiation techniques, and I can’t wait for the slides to be published (the presenter ran out of time and had to rush through many of them). But one of the key takeaways was that student variance is not just a question of language level: other aspects of a student’s background play into it. Really keen to explore this further.

Exploring new vocabulary with Google: update

I tried out this activity this afternoon as a way of introducing students to a vocabulary bank they will need to maintain. 

The students were divided into groups, with each group given a vocabulary item from the bank. They had to enter the item into Google News Search and note down at least 3 different collocations/uses. They then presented their findings to the class. 

It was good to see students highlighting that certain collocations are more common than others: something they could only really have picked up by looking at numerous authentic examples. 

Ideas I haven’t tried out yet #2: Story circles

campfireSource: GIPHY

This idea for a closer was shared with me by Marlon Schoep of Curtin University. He used it every day on a bridging course, and what I love about it is that it reminds those of our learners in tough, high-stakes courses that they’re part of a community and that they’re, you know, human.

And it’s very simple. At the end of the class, have all of the students stand in a circle. One student (a different student each time) tells a story about themselves.

A variation of this idea that my colleague suggested as a warmer is to have a different student each day give a 5-minute presentation (about themselves, about whatever topic is being studied that week, about whatever they have on their minds).

Ideas I haven’t tried out yet #1: Exploring new vocabulary with Google

This idea was suggested to me by Simon Cosgriff of Curtin University.

Take the word proximity. Have the learner do a Google search of, say, “proximity CNN.” They then look at the first six articles and note down as many collocations with proximity as possible.

A screenshot of the first three results alone yields close proximity, proximity to and proximity of X to:

Google and the Google logo are registered trademarks of Google Inc., used with permission.


The learner could then try and formulate their own sentences using the collocations.




TTT: The art of knowing when to shut up

shut up

Source: GIPHY

Something I’ve been encouraged by observers to work on in my lessons is cutting down on teacher talking time (TTT), particularly the tendency for TTT to increase as the lesson progresses. As Sam Shepherd points out in a great post on TTT, we should strive to minimise TTT not for its own sake but in order to create as many opportunities as possible for our students to speak. Teacher talk, then, is something we ought to use sparingly, skilfully and strategically–to support rather than stifle learning.

Shepherd identifies three main areas where teacher talk gets out of hand–giving explanations, giving instructions, and filling silences in speaking tasks; for each case he suggests why excessive teacher talk is occurring and how we can fix it. (Read his post for the details.) I would add that, were we to think deeply about what we’re doing as teachers throughout a normal lesson, we’d be able to identify many more opportunities where we could yield the floor to students. Here are just a few examples:

  • Error correction: rather than correcting on-the-spot during a speaking activity, collect errors (and samples of good usage) that you hear and whiteboard them, then have students work in pairs or groups to correct them.
  • Setting up a task: rather than giving step-by-step instructions, demonstrate what to do with the first exercise (and get the class to help you). This works especially well with controlled-practice activities, but you can try using it with just about any task.
  • Student-centered feedback on content. This is something I most commonly use with conversation-line or speaking-circle activities: in the last rotation I’ll have the students share with their new partner the information they learned about their previous two speaking partners. That way I only need to deal with errors.
  • Grammar presentations: have students in groups work out the positive, negative and question forms of a model sentence, and then present this to the class.
  • Wait time: after posing a question to the class or an individual student, give them time to process the question and compose an answer. Let them fill the awkward silences!

Where else would you suggest we can turn TTT into STT in our lessons?

How to run a workshop (OUP ELT Global)


Source: GIPHY

One of the aspects of my current role that I enjoy the most is that I get to run regular 15-minute workshops for my colleagues, chiefly on topics related to e-learning. While I am growing more confident the more I run these mini-PDs, I still have a lot of learning to do; so I was very happy to come across Martyn Clarke’s post (on OUP ELT Global) on what to consider when running a workshop. This may be summarised as follows, though I encourage you to read his post in full:

  1. Identify the purpose of your workshop.
  2. Have a clear structure to guide the learning process (he suggests Input – Task – Output).
  3. Think about logistical matters such as timing, schedule conflicts, teaching space, materials, etc.
  4. Prepare a follow-up task (“homework”) to help teachers make use of what they have learned.
  5. Have your colleagues evaluate your workshop, and consider what you will do with their feedback.

While I do tick most of these boxes in the way I deliver workshops, Clarke’s post has helped me to think about it a bit more systematically. I realise that most of my workshops hitherto would be classified as “awareness-raising”–introducing my colleagues to a new app or a new way to use Google Slides or Blackboard for blended learning, for instance–and I could probably explore other models (such as skills-development). As for process, I often include a hands-on task if I’m demo-ing an app using a set of iPads; otherwise I adopt the tried-and-true method of gathering participants’ ideas on a new concept (e.g. how they might apply what I’m teaching in their own lessons) before adding my own.

I also like to give participants a “takeaway”, such as a one or two-page set of instructions on how to use a particular app or tool. But I certainly need to be more pro-active in encouraging workshop participants to incorporate what they’ve learned into their own teaching. I imagine there’s a lot of great PD in language centres across the world that disappears down the memory hole as busy teachers, initially very enthusiastic about a new idea or approach they’ve encountered, struggle to find an immediate place for it in their programmes, and soon forget it.

Alliterative adjectives for first lessons

wordle--alliterative adjectives

This activity, which has worked wonderfully for me as a GTKY activity with students from Pre-Intermediate upwards, is aimed at helping you and your students learn and remember each others’ names. It also endows each member of the class with an “identity” from day one. All you’ll need is an object that can be tossed among students without causing injury: a ball or plush toy would do the trick, but I usually use a scrunched-up piece of paper.

First, do a whole-class brainstorm of adjectives for describing people, writing them on the board as they are called out. Encourage positive personality adjectives to keep things light, and steer clear of appearance adjectives. You may need to suggest a few items of your own if you are teaching a low-level class. Drill and concept-check where necessary (but remember that this isn’t a vocabulary lesson).

Next, stand in a circle with your students. Demonstrate the activity by pointing to yourself and calling out your first name and an adjective to describe yourself with the same first letter or initial consonant sound, e.g. “Modest Matt.” Get the students to repeat this, then toss the ball to a student; that student then announces their chosen adjective and first name to the circle, the other students repeat what they’ve heard, and the ball is passed to another student, and so on until the ball returns to you.

At this point, pass the ball back to the student who tossed it to you, saying their adjective and first name. That student then tosses the ball to the student who had previously tossed it to them, repeating the latter student’s name and adjective, and so on until the ball finally comes back to you.

There’s nothing groundbreaking about this activity: all I’ve really done is combine two common icebreakers. But it’s a simple technique for building rapport and a sense of community in your classroom, especially if you keep using the adjective-name combinations when addressing students throughout the course. People like to feel acknowledged as more than just a face in the crowd.


Quizlet vs. Memrise



(Don’t let the title fool you: I’ve only tried out one of these tools so far.)

Marek Kiczkowiak’s post in defense of Memrise as a teaching tool inspired me to create Memrise decks for my own students. Following Kiczkowiak’s suggestions, my decks were designed to supplement coursebook material with grammar as well as vocabulary practice. The results were mixed (in case you were wondering): those of my students who used the decks appreciated them, but I think mixing grammar and vocabulary flashcards made the exercise less challenging than it should have been.
Jennifer Wicks’ post on Quizlet as a vocabulary learning tool is more of an overview of its main features, and is light-on for ideas about how to incorporate it into lessons, but it has motivated me to try it out with my students. I’ll let you know how it goes.