Six lists that can greatly improve lesson planning

Right! We continue work here at Six Things by, erm, not continuing work but getting others to do it for us! Actually, I’m happy to have another repeat offender here, none other than Hall Houston a fellow teacher, blogger and author. Please check out his website and especially his book Provoking Thought, a collection of thinking activities for ELT (with some really nice ones on critical thinking). Here he shares some lesson planning ideas.

In a previous guest post by Vladimira Michalkova on the Six Things blog, the author suggested keeping multiple intelligences theory in mind when designing homework assignments in order to appeal to students with different needs and interests. As Vladimira put it, “Keep changing the style!”
This gave me the idea of assembling six lists for a similar purpose.

These lists could serve as…

* a reminder of the many things a lesson can contain
* a challenge to be more creative
* a gentle nudge to use a broader range of activities

There is some overlap between the lists, and there are probably many other lists that could be included here.

1. Four skills and Five systems
2. Three macrofunctions
3. Stimulus based teaching
4. Five senses
5. Seven (or maybe eleven) Multiple Intelligences
6. Higher order thinking skills

1. Focus on the basics – the four skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening) and the five systems (structure, lexis, phonology, function, discourse). A good place to start.

2. Focus on macrofunctions – Michael Halliday’s list of three macrofunctions. These are social (for example, exchanging thoughts, opinions, feelings), service (for example, getting information from television, public announcements, or a newspaper and using it), and aesthetic (for example,  reading a poem or creating a webpage) This list can remind teachers to involve students in a wide range of functions to maximize language use.

3. Focus on adapting stimuli – Tessa Woodward’s unbeatable list of five steps for stimulus based learning. This list is recommended for teachers who want to put a little creativity into their lesson planning. Woodward describes five ways of adapting a stimulus (an object, a text, a podcast, a picture) to encourage language practice in class. These are: meeting the stimulus (introducing the stimulus to students), analysis (breaking the stimuli down to its basic elements), personalization (asking students to relate the stimulus to themselves in some way), alteration and transfer (making a change such as reducing, expanding, creating parallels or opposites), and creation (students make something such as a poster or recording). See Woodward’s Planning Lessons and Courses (P. 56-58) for more about stimulus-based learning including some examples.

4. Focus on the senses – vision, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. The first two relate directly to language through reading and listening, and indirectly through use of images and music. The other three provide more of a challenge to incorporate into a lesson. You can bring in realia, food and beverages for students to describe, but a more economical alternative would be to get students to use their imaginations to recall things appealing or unappealing to the senses.

5. Focus on intelligences – Howard Gardner’s Multiple intelligences theory –  The seven intelligences are visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, musical- rhythmic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. In addition, there are four more intelligences that are not widely accepted , but might make for some interesting lesson ideas – naturalist intelligence, spiritual intelligence, moral intelligence and existential intelligence.

6. Focus on thinking skills – Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy (Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, Evaluation) can help with guiding students through different levels of thinking. The website has an easy to follow chart for ways to exploit Bloom’s Taxonomy in the classroom. (Bloom’s Taxonomy Wheel)

So what’s missing? What lists would you recommend for other teachers? Post them here.

Published in: on April 30, 2010 at 3:25 pm  Comments (15)  
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Special announcement – worth taking a look at…

I am making a big exception to the “rule” of this blog to participate in one of the latest ELT blog memes. It’s an initiative called ‘vale a pena ficar de olho nesse blog’ which roughly translates into English as ‘it’s worth keeping an eye on this blog’. The chosen blog should copy the image and link back to the blog that gave the blogger the award. I was chosen by fellow bloggers Valentina Dodge and Mike Harrison. The tagged blogger should then choose 10 blogs worth keeping an eye on.

But… TEN blogs? What about my sacred rule of six? Well, there has been a bit of unfortunate bad feelings in the blogosphere recently and so I thought I would spread some goodwill and share some blogs which I keep an eye on. Some of these blogs I have been told I helped to get started, which is really nice to know. So, here they are

1. Emoderation Station – Started by Nicky Hockly of the Consultants-E. Speciality is in online moderation and online methodology. I learned most of what I know about this area from Nicky.

2. Carol Read’s ABC of teaching children – An alphabet of tips, insights and good pedagogy from young learner author and expert Carol Read.

3. l_missbossy’s ELT playground – Another young learner blog, initially I think, but covers many areas and has had some great posts on language learning from different people’s point of view. Written by Anita Kwiatkowska, a Polish woman living in Turkey.

4. onefortywords – I was a fan of Luke Meddings’ writing style from his Guardian days (even if, as a coursebook writer, I did not always agree with the content!) and had the pleasure of working with as series editor on Luke’s book Teaching Unplugged (with Scott Thornbury). I’m glad to see him out here with the same style.

5. DC Blog – By the man himself, David Crystal. Just a joy to read, always full of interesting little comments on English and never afraid to put the die-hard language mavens firmly in their place.

6. ELT Musings and other tidbits – By dear friend Tamas Lorincz. Quite a philosophical blog in a way and certainly worth musing over.

(oooh, this is where is gets hard as I break my rule of SIX… I think these last four are just going to be the names, very brief descriptions and the links… sorry but I can only go so far in breaking my own rules!)

The following four are always ones that I check on regularly. I encourage others to do the same.

7. Digital Play – on video games in the ELT classroom

8. TEFLTastic with Alex Case – if you don’t know this blog already, you should. Tons of stuff here, about everything.

9. An A to Z of ELT – by Scott Thornbury

10. Seth’s Blog – the only one that isn’t ELT. It’s about motivation, persuasion and various things. Interesting and hugely popular in non-teaching circles.

Of course, these are not the only ten I read. Check out the blogroll for others!

Published in: on April 28, 2010 at 8:48 am  Comments (13)  

Six kinds of books on a language teacher’s bookshelf

After a slight hiatus while I was in Harrogate for IATEFL and Russia for Macmillan conferences, business resumes here at Six Things. This week I am joined by Paola Lizares, a teacher based in Australia and a great story that could only happen in the ELT blogosphere. Paola was reorganizing her bookshelf and she discovered that she could neatly divide her books into six categories. She then did what any sane, self-respecting teacher and reader of this blog would do. She sent me a message asking to do a post about it! 🙂 Only too happy to oblige, I present you with the results of the experiment. And an invitation to share your reading lists at the end!

I was getting irritated by how messy and disorganized my bookshelf was looking, so I decided to sort out all of the books. Lo and behold, they can be classified into six different categories! Below is a description of the types of books I own, as well as some recommendations.

1. Language

Being a language teacher, I own quite a few books on the topic of language. I won’t focus on the Macmillans, Cambridges, Oxfords, Longmans, or Heinles; I’m sure you already know them. Instead, let me recommend a gem of a book entitled An Introduction to Language. It’s by Fromkin, Rodman and Hyams. I had to read this in first-year college, and it has provided me with more-than-basic knowledge in the different fields of linguistics, from phonetics to sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics or neurolinguistics. It is easy to understand and is illustrated with real comic strips (“For Better or for Worse,” “Family Circus,” “Dennis the Menace” to name but a few.) This book is a must for anyone with even a mild interest in the languages of the world.

2. Fiction

Are there any language teachers who don’t read fiction? Where I work, most teachers are extremely well read. I’m not going to recommend any novels because it would be pretty difficult to choose only one, but I can recommend a masterpiece which, again, is a must-have for anyone interested in culture: D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. Published in 1962 by Ingrid and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire, it is an illustrated children’s book containing so much detailed information that it is an excellent way for adults to act blasé when they hear names such as Asclepius, Sisyphus or Jocasta.

This book has allowed me to explain to my students the etymology of words like ‘panic,’ ‘syringe,’ or the Bosphorus. I have also dictated passages to my students and used them as a basis to share myths and legends in a multicultural classroom setting. This video can be used in conjunction with the texts as listening practice.

3. Humor

When fiction gets too dense, it’s a good idea to liven up the classroom with some humorous texts. One funny writer is Christian Lander, who published Stuff White People Like. I have a signed copy of his book, which consists of a selection of his blog entries. Of course, you can find them on the Internet (

I’ve had my students go to the computer room to simply read as many of his blog entries as they can in twenty minutes, then I’ve had them choose their favorite three and talk to their partners about them. Then, we’ve had group feedback and we’ve discussed what exactly Lander means with the term ‘white people.’ Last of all, I’ve had my students write their own blog entry in a similar style, focusing on stuff people from their own country like. Interesting results!

4. Traveling

Most language teachers are well-traveled. This is evident in the high turnover in many language schools. I myself have lived in and traveled to quite a few countries; consequently, I have a nice collection of travel guides, my favorite ones being the Lonely Planet series.

I currently live in Brisbane, Australia, so let’s focus on The Lonely Planet Guide to Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef. I might show my students the information concerning the tourist attractions closest to Brisbane. I might get them to skim through the information and make the best travel itineraries for a group of senior citizens, a group of 20 eighteen-year-olds, a couple on their honeymoon, and a family with three kids. This activity is by no means original; still, it’s highly practical and potentially fun.

5. Cooking

Of course, all teachers must eat to survive. That’s, in fact, the main reason why we teach, right?

One of my favorite cookbooks is called 4 Ingredients, by Kim McKosker and Rachel Bermingham. It was written for beginner cooks, so it has brought me up to the pre-intermediate level of cooking. Yoohoo!

It’s a compilation of recipes involving no more than four ingredients. Published in Australia, it has some interesting recipes like Vegemite Twists. I could force my students to eat that the next time they get uncontrollable. They hate Vegemite!

6. Self-help

Yup, every once and a while a language teacher has to deal with rowdy, rude, picky, gloomy, uncooperative students. Many a situation has made me feel utterly depressed. I manage to push through by keeping a mood diary, visiting Lindsay’s website, and reading self-help books.

A book that’s been published here in Australia but that you can surely order online is the excellent Change your Thinking by Sarah Edelman. It focuses on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which, from what I understand, is a psychological school of thought which helps people overcome depression, stress, fear, or anger by challenging their core beliefs. For example, if a student gives negative feedback, an oversensitive person might believe that that means that he’s a bad teacher, ergo, a bad and stupid person. In fact, that’s nothing but irrational thinking. The book has really helped me a lot, so do add it to your library!

That’s my list. What about you? Could your books be organized in the same way? Or is there a category that you would include and that isn’t on my list?

Published in: on April 21, 2010 at 8:23 am  Comments (37)  
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Six little changes in the grammar syllabus

Umm, not sure what this has to do with grammar but I liked the image!

The Grammar Syllabus. The favourite bugbear of teachers and students of English. Many argue that it is a monolith that dominates coursebooks, exercise books and indeed language teaching. There is an element of truth in this of course, and my feeling is that many readers of this blog dislike… no, a better word would be loathe… they loathe the grammar syllabus for many reasons.

As a materials writer I’ve had to look at grammar syllabi from all kinds of coursebooks and grammar books both old and new. What I wanted to highlight here are some of the small changes I’ve noticed in the mainstream syllabus over the past twenty years.


This used to be right near the beginning in an elementary book. I’ve written elsewhere about how annoying this was to teach, especially when it was sandwiched between present simple of TO BE and present simple in general. Interesting to note then that in many recent coursebooks HAVE GOT gets pushed much further back and we get to present simple more quickly. I think this is a good thing, as students can be perfectly understood just using “have” (e.g. I have two sisters. I don’t have a car.)


For the past ten years various people have been rubbishing the idea that you can divide the conditionals neatly into 3 groups. Which is why you will see much of the new material talk more about hypothetical conditionals, or real and unreal conditionals and focus more on the meaning of would and past simple for hypothetical meaning. I know from experience that when (on a previous project I worked on) we tried to drop the words first conditional or second conditional there were howls of rage from teachers.

3. CAN for ability

Another elementary favourite: teaching CAN for ability as the first instance the learners meet it. This gives rise to all kinds of stuff like “Can you swim?”, “I can speak English”, “I can’t dance” etc. Nothing wrong with this, but I’ve started seeing CAN being presented first in the context of permission, not ability. With ability coming a lesson or two later. This comes from corpus research which suggests that can for permission (Can I sit here? You can’t use that door etc) is much more frequent.


I remember when I first taught past simple ever it was done like this. First you do the regular verbs (they are easier to explain), then negative and question forms, then the irregulars. Again, corpus work (and common sense too I think) has changed this. How to divide the past simple up over different lessons is still a huge minefield, but I am seeing more and more “first lessons” on the past simple that focus on high frequency verbs such as eat, go, see and so on. Which is more useful I think.


A little while ago a book called Rules, Patterns and Words came out. It was written by David Willis and had lots of suggestions about grammar teaching, including teaching of tenses. One of the points that I took on board, and I think many other materials writers did too judging by what’s out there, was that of time expressions. In Willis’ words: the verb phrase is the primary means of expressing time relationships, but adverbials play an important part too, and it is worth relating particular classes of adverbial to the meanings carried by the verb. (p.181). So nowadays I think you’re far more likely to see teaching present continuous accompanied by teaching expressions like for the time being, for now, just now, at present and so on.


Again, based on work done by John Sinclair, the Willis’s and more recently Scott Thornbury in Natural Grammar there has been a renewed interest in grammatical keywords and how they work. In fact, Natural Grammar is a best-seller among materials writers which is why we see more grammar sections that focus on one word, e.g. have, or would, or take and the associated patterns with them.

Have you noticed any changes in the grammar syllabus now and how it was when you started teaching? Please post a comment and share. However, please reserve any comments about how hateful, linear, boring, totalitarian, uncool and just undogme-atic the grammar syllabus is though, I’ll be trying to put together another post about this where you can do just that.

Published in: on April 13, 2010 at 7:30 am  Comments (19)  
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Andy Hockley’s Six Ways to Survive the Crisis through Professional Development

I met Andy Hockley through Twitter and he has become an important member of my PLN (Personal Learning Network). Andy’s got a fun  sense of humour and a great passion for teacher development. His blog, From Teacher to Manager is, as the title suggests, all about managing teachers and has lots of interesting readable pieces on areas such as communication, leadership and feedback. Andy’s quite an expert on this, having also written a book by the same name available from Cambridge University Press. I had been hoping for a good list on the topic of professional development during these difficult economic times. And hey presto, here it is!

I’ll skip over the long introduction as to why professional development is a good thing, and assume we can take it as read. However, when times are hard, it can be one of the first things to get dropped off the budget (as many managers of language schools are only too painfully aware being providers of PD as well). But it’s very important to keep thinking about PD and how you can offer your teachers as much as possible – and it doesn’t have to involve a huge expense.  Here then are 6 ways of developing your teachers without breaking the bank:

1. Peer observation

Peer observation serves both observer and observed. Both can learn a lot from the process and as professional development opportunities go, it is, I suspect, one of the richest.  However, I know of some managers who’ve tried to institute a peer-observation programme and then later given up on it as being unworkable or ineffective. I’d argue that this is because it wasn’t set up properly or because there was a lack of purpose behind it. Peer observation needs work.  It needs to be clear to everyone why they’re doing it, and what the benefits are.  Above all people need to know how to do it.  People are rarely trained in observing lessons and in giving useful feedback afterwards (and on the flip side people are rarely trained in receiving feedback either!) .  I’d recommend working with the teaching staff to set up a scheme that works for everyone (and is clearly perceived as being entirely developmental and not in any way judgmental), and providing effective training in using the system and in observing and giving and receiving feedback.

2. Reflective Practice

Like peer observation, I think most teachers know the value of reflective practice, but like observation, many don’t really know how to do it. Provide some training in reflective practice, and follow some other ideas I listed here.

3. Online conferences

Attending conferences (and paying for teachers to attend them) can be a very expensive option, though it is, I’d argue, an extremely valuable one. If there is an ELT conference going on nearby to you, then I’d suggest taking the chance and getting as many people to attend as you can. If however this is not possible, these days it is increasingly possible to “attend” conferences online.  This weekend just gone for example, the huge and obviously excellent ISTEK conference in Istanbul was streamed online and provided many people with the opportunity to be involved without leaving their front rooms/offices/wherever people like to sit with their laptops. This post by Mark Andrews in Budapest is a great one about the experience of being part of ISTEK from afar. There is also of course the upcoming IATEFL conference which will also have an extremely high online presence.

4. The web (twitter/PLN/etc)

Mark’s post about ISTEK above also talks a lot about twitter and other ways of being involved and keeping in touch online. Personally I have found twitter to be an invaluable tool for keeping up to date with ideas, thoughts, articles, and above all people who can all help me develop. My PLN (personal learning network) has grown hugely since I got over my skepticism and really started getting involved. You can’t force teachers to go on twitter or other online communities (nings, blogs, etc), but you can make them aware of the benefits and possibilities out there

5. Outreach

Particularly for managers in “offshore” schools (that is schools which operate in countries where the first language isn’t English), outreach is an excellent way to kill two birds with one stone – develop your teachers and be more a part of your community.  What I mean by outreach is to set up a regular ELT training session for local state sector English teachers. (Say on one or two Friday afternoons a month). The trainer is one of your teachers, and they choose what they want to train (or, better, you  come up with an arrangement whereby the local teachers specify what they’d be interested in learning about, and teachers agree to take on one of the sessions identified).  I’d go as far as to say that these sessions should be free. (The financial benefit to you is that those teachers who attend are more likely to recommend your school if a student or parent comes to them asking how they can improve their English outside class). The teachers who do the trainings get experience in doing teacher training, a very useful and marketable skill, and also through the act of preparing a session, end up really developing themselves in the area they have agreed to train. You have to be careful to ensure that there is no sense of condescending “we know better than you, let us teach you” in the advertising and training itself, but done well, this is an excellent way of getting professional development (As an aside, my first teacher training experiences were through such a programme, and I would say that it was possibly one of the most valuable forms of PD I ever got)

6. Performance management systems

That sounds a bit grandiose, so let me explain a bit. Most schools have an annual performance review/appraisal system, whereby the teacher meets with the DoS (or whoever) to  look over what they’ve achieved in the year and perhaps look forward a little (often there is a teacher observation as part of this process). It would be better to use this meeting as much more of a performance preview – allowing the teacher to talk about what they would like to learn in the upcoming year, and such that both parties can discuss options to that end. This could result in something relatively inexpensive – like that teacher taking their first business English course in the upcoming year (with support of course!) or less so – like that teacher attending a training course or international conference or doing the DELTA etc etc.  But the point is, that it is a discussion, and one in which the teacher feels valued, listened to, and like their development is important.

The 6 things limitation means I haven’t touched upon other ideas like mentoring and coaching, for example, but I think this provides a good list of ideas that you can use to get teachers developing.

The crucial thing is to get people involved in their own professional development, and make sure that they know the possibilities. It’s true you can’t make the horse that you lead to the water drink, but can you make it thirsty?

Published in: on April 4, 2010 at 10:00 am  Comments (8)