When Teacher’s Books aren’t so helpful.

How often have you been planning a lesson and found yourself staring at the relevant page of the textbook, wondering to yourself, “How am I going to lead in to that?”–only to consult the Teacher’s Book and think, “Yep! That’s perfect! Why didn’t I think of that?”

Teacher’s Books are generally full of useful suggestions for leading in to textbook activities, so why is it that–particularly (or so I’ve noticed) when it comes to “Grammar Banks” or “Grammar Boxes”–they so often do something like the following?

Skillful Listening and Speaking Teacher's Book 3, p.57.

Lockwood, Robyn and Dorothy E Zemach. Skillful Listening & Speaking Teacher’s Book. 1st ed. Oxford: Macmillan Education, 2013. Print. p.57.

Can you imagine teaching an observed grammar lesson where the above is your opening gambit?

(Not to pick on the Skillful books, by the way: they’re usually excellent.)



#tech in the classroom: two perspectives from #IATEFL 2016

For those of us in far-flung places like Perth, opportunities to attend ELT conferences are few and far between. Fortunately, there are a lot of presentations and webinars online, and I was recently able to catch a number of IATEFL 2016 talks posted by MacMillan. I’d like to highlight a couple in this post, because both presenters provide useful sets of guiding principles for incorporating technology in our lessons.

Michelle McDonnell-de Graaf’s main message is that it is easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of tech tools that are out, so how and why we’re using these tools is more important than which tool we use.

For McDonnell-de Graaf, a good tech tool . . .

  • stimulates interaction.
  • does something the teacher can’t. For example, Kahoot! does a much faster and more efficient job of maintaining a leaderboard during a class quiz than a teacher ever could.
  • allows variation in skill and content.
  • facilitates peer assessment. Collaborative online spaces such as Google Drive, Wikispaces and discussion boards are great for this.
  • stimulates creativity and depth. (McDonnell-de Graaf gives the example of a student-created Kahoot!)
  • promotes autonomy.


Tom Walton maintains in his presentation that who is using the technology is just as important as how and why, and he makes the case for placing tech as much as possible in the hands of students. This is a complete inversion of how I imagine many teachers think about technology in the classroom: we generally see ourselves as the IT gurus in the room, whereas Walton argues technology should be managed by the learners. Given that most of our learners are digital natives, and given that we want them to be more autonomous, Walton’s notion makes perfect sense.

Here are Walton’s guidelines for cultivating a learner-centered approach to technology in the classroom:

  • Start with the tech that your learners are already using (ask them).
  • Never touch the technology yourself. (This is one I’m not sure about: surely there’s scope for demonstrations/modelling–but I guess more confident or tech-savvy students could be used for this.)
  • Get your students to create things using the technology.
  • Get your students to set up a shared online space (WhatsApp, for example).
  • Make your students responsible for tech support; your responsibility is language support.
  • Tech tasks should be language-focused, not technology-focused–and should involve uncomplicated technology. (Walton provides some examples of these tech tasks, and more are available on one stop english.)
  • Your learners will probably be more tech-savvy than you . . . and you should take advantage of this.

So there are your takeaways: be discerning about the tech tools you use in your lessons, but then be ready to cede control of them to your learners.



There’s no sense in flogging a dead lesson plan

No matter how experienced a teacher you may be, there are those classes that are simply going to be a struggle to manage. Here’s what Larry Ferlazzo does when things are getting out of hand:

I will jettison my lesson plan and redirect students into some less intensive learning activity that I know they will want to do (a game, get into their book discussion groups) and then make arrangements with teachers of the most egregious offenders to pull them out for several minutes the next day during my free period so I can have a one-on-one reflective conversation with them. For example, we’ll talk about what their goals are and how their behavior is hurting or helping to achieve them — if they want to be an Ultimate Fighter, not being able to show self-control is going to create problems. We’ll revisit some of the life skill lessons we’ve done and talk about what they think might help them develop more self-control (change seats, take their work outside if they feel they are “losing it,” get a stress ball, etc.).

Working in adult ELT poses different (and doubtless less intense) classroom management challenges than working in a high school. But even adult ELT students find it difficult to maintain focus or self-control at times, and there are days–invariably afternoons in 30+ degree heat with a poorly-functioning air conditioner–when all this lack of focus reaches a critical mass. And at this point, as Ferlazzo notes, teachers are faced with a choice: punish the offenders (and presumably push on with the lesson), or adopt the more effective redirect-and-reflect strategy. With adult learners, those one-on-one discussions are great for drawing connections between their long-term academic/career/migration goals and something like classroom etiquette and homework.

[EDIT: The original post contained a reflection on a lesson gone awry, but I’ve chosen to store that elsewhere and focus in this blog on useful “takeaways.” I may include reflections at a future point when I feel more confident :)]

[Note: I’ll use the second person and imperative in the following and future”Takeaways” sections, but the primary audience is myself.]


  1. Jettison the plan if it’s not working, and do something more enjoyable/engaging–but still relevant.
  2. Get students to reflect upon their goals and what they’re doing to achieve them. This means you as a teacher need to know what your students goals are. To add a blended learning component to this, have students share their reflections on a discussion board or blog.
  3. Anticipate whether your students will find the lesson enjoyable/engaging/useful. Visualising the lesson (a method of planning suggested on the TEFL Show podcast-–I think in this episode) might help here.