Six people Darren Elliott would like to meet (and the questions he’d ask them)

Well, I have to admit I have been a bit naughty recently and not updated this blog, and with so little time left! Anyway, as promised I do have some more guest posts. This is a really nice one from Darren Elliott, a teacher based in Japan and owner of the Lives of Teachers blog. Darren has had the chance to get a great many people in ELT in front of his video recorder and asking them questions (his latest great interview was with none other than Michael Swan). But not everyone! Here are six more people he’d like to meet. Darren, over to you…

This is not a guest list for a dinner party, and I have stretched the definition of ELT people to its outer boundries. But I think each of these people would have something to contribute to our knowledge of the profession. I’ve already been lucky enough to talk to some wonderful ELTers, in person or via skype, for my website / podcast at Some of these might be a little trickier to get hold of, but you never know….

1. Rod Ellis

I don’t know what they are doing down there in New Zealand, but for such a small country it seems to produce a disproportionate number of gifted applied linguists. Like notable compatriots Paul Nation and Scott Thornbury, Professor Ellis has the ability and drive to communicate research to teachers at the chalkface. Just to throw the cat amongst the pigeons, I would like to ask him if all this SLA research has anything at all to do with what goes on in the classroom, and if he could tell me once and for all what I am supoosed to do in the classroom…..

2. Nozomu Sahashi

Mr. Sahashi was the founder and owner of NOVA, at one time the largest English conversation school (Eikaiwa) in Japan. Between the company’s formation in 1990, and bankruptcy and partial buyout in 2007, it employed thousands of teachers from North America, Australasia and Europe, many with limited experience or qualifications. Nova also had dealings with the unions over its drug-testing, health insurance, and non-fraternization policies. To be fair, many teachers in Japan got their starts with NOVA, and I have met many with fond memories of their time with the company. And although the firm finally faltered due to shaky student contract practices, hundreds of thousands of satisfied students passed through NOVA’s classrooms over the years. Sahashi-san is currently appealing against a three and a half year prison term handed down for embezzlement.

I would like to ask him how NOVA got so big, and how he sees the future for this model of national chain school. GEOS, another major chain, collapsed this year, and enrolments are down across the industry. Is this due to the return of Japanese insularity (last year there were only five Japanese at Harvard, compared to thirty-nine South Koreans)? Are students getting more savvy, more discerning, or using technology instead? Or is it just another symptom of the economic times we live in?

3.Lev Vygotsky

In the last couple of years, I think I have attended about five conference presentations in which Vygotsky and / or his Zone of Proximal Development haven’t been mentioned. That’s not to say his ideas are not valid, but it’s curious that he was the third most cited author in abstracts submitted for the 2008 Japan Association of Language Teachers National Conference*. Why such interest in a Russian psychologist, seventy years after his passing? Actually, a little more cross-pollination from other disciplines would be healthy for ELT in general. I’d like to ask him how he feels about his current popularity in English Language Teaching, along with other authors who have been imported from other disciplines and extensively referenced by ELTers, (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, for example).

4. Jean-Paul Nerriere

English is no longer something handed down by colonials to the locals, and as ever increasing numbers of non-native speakers use the language to ‘get things done’ as a lingua franca, the way it is taught has to change. M. Nerriere is not a linguist, nor a teacher, but a businessman, and he sees the world in those terms. It may not stand up to scrutiny, but his dialect ‘Globish’, based on an English lexicon of just 1500 words, is an intriguing concept. He represents all the language learners and users who have no interest in drama, dogme or dictation (the kind of stuff we teachers love) but just want to be understood as soon as possible. I would ask him what he thought I could do to help him and his peers achieve those aims.

5. Penny Ur

When I first started teaching, I thought her book ‘Grammar Practice Activities’ was the most incredible work of genius ever printed and bound. My teaching style and circumstances have changed somewhat over the years, but I still have this book, and I still look at it. I have a lot of questions for her, but most of all I’d like to say ‘Thank You!’

6. Ragsana Mammadova

I very much doubt I will ever visit Azerbaijan, and I am not too proud to say I know next to nothing about the country beyond it’s capital city and it’s approximate location on a world map. Ragsana Mammadova is the Executive Director of AzETA, IATEFL’s associate organisation in Azerbaijan, and I don’t have any particular questions for her – I’d just like to hear what she has to say about English teaching in her country. A look through the associates list in the back of the ‘Voices’ newsletter sparks my curiousity now in much the same way a world atlas did when I was a boy, and I am amazed at quite how huge and diverse our professional community is.

I could have thought of sixty or more…. so over to you, who have I missed?

* Stapleton, P. (2008) PAC7 at JALT2008: Untangling the submission process. The Language Teacher, p28 – 30, 32/09

Published in: on December 9, 2010 at 7:35 pm  Comments (7)  
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Six ways of letting unplugged teaching through the coursebook door

This week I’m joined by a repeat offender here on Six Things. The wonderful English Raven himself, Jason Renshaw, has been experimenting with ideas on unplugged teaching and coursebooks. You can see much more of this work in progress at his blog. Here though he asked me if he could share six general tips for people wanting to unplug their teaching bit by bit. Over to you Jason!

Okay, so you work in a school where coursebooks rule. Welcome to a rather large club, to put it mildly! Whether or not you like using coursebooks or think they encompass the best overall approach for your learners, perhaps you’ve begun to wonder about the potential of having a bit more “unplugged” time in the classroom. As a teacher or program manager, I would encourage you to experiment with unplugged teaching, but also remember that it can be hard to get the coursebook to shift its bulky influence over your program. Here are what I consider to be six essential rules for facilitating unplugged teaching in a context where coursebooks have – up until now, at least – tended to dominate the program from head to foot.

1. Think about how you pitch “unplugged”
If you walk into the staffroom or school owner’s office and announce you want to do “Dogme” or even “unplugged teaching” or (heaven forbid!) “learner-centred and generated dialogic learning”, in many cases you should prepare for a lukewarm or baffled reception at best, and a reaction of complete incredulity at worst.
Consider using terms like “free speaking”, “conversation class”, or “integrated speaking and writing” – terms that management and other staff are more likely to recognise and be able to relate to (but still potentially facilitate something along the lines of unplugged teaching). These are also terms/concepts that are usually only very vaguely catered to in existing coursebooks, so you could well be proposing something that helps to fill a gap your school and teachers are already aware of.

Also, try not to make this look or sound like a personal quest to overthrow a coursebook regime (even if that is your underlying motivation!). Try to show you understand and respect the current way of doing things, and just want to expand and improve it.

Finally, it’s also a good idea to show some evidence before you propose major change. Record some unplugged lessons or sequences of lessons, and copy and present some evidence from learners’ notebooks. Don’t go in with an idea or notion. Go in with something you can show, explain, and rationalise (see also rule number 6 below).

2. The schedule: Double or nothing

First work out how many lessons are required to adequately cover the existing core coursebook content, then take that number and double it. At a basic level, this creates a syllabus and schedule where there is potentially as much time for unplugged teaching as there is coursebook teaching. If this results in an overly-long or impractical schedule overall, it might be worth seeing if some coursebook units can be skipped, done in “fast forward” mode, or allocated as homework.
Other options, of course, could be to make sure the coursebook is a slim(mer) one to start with, or to abolish things like extra workbooks.
The chances of your school accepting such proposals could have a lot to do with how well you pitched unplugged teaching as per rule 1 above, but also how well you present and follow through with the other rules below.

3. Create options, not specifications
Make sure the system and schedule allow for teachers to choose between unplugged and supplementary options.
If you have doubled the available schedule as per rule 1 above, essentially what you want is a situation where a teacher can choose to go with some unplugged teaching, or use pre-provided (or teacher made) supplementary materials more specifically aimed at the coursebook content, or – probably the most attractive and feasible option – use a combination of both.

Many coursebook series now have a wealth of extra materials and supplements for their units. If a teacher doesn’t want to pursue unplugged teaching in the extra lesson time available, they might like to use these supplementary materials instead. And it is very important that they are not made to feel inferior or somehow deficient by choosing to do so.
Like any major change in teaching approach, it is more likely to appeal and spread when shown gently and by example, and without being forced. If you want teachers to respect your right to teach unplugged outside the compulsory core of the coursebook curriculum, you’ll also have to respect their right to stick to that core curriculum.

4. Provide training
Teaching unplugged is not an easy endeavour for a lot of teachers. Make sure you provide good training that is rich in practical tips and demonstrated through actual examples. Let curious teachers observe your classes or look at the videos and materials that have been generated in your unplugged lessons. Request for your school to get a book like Thornbury and Meddings’ Teaching Unplugged, which presents unplugged teaching in both a practical way and through demonstrable theories about learning. Provide links to a spreading corpus of blog posts that demonstrate actual unplugged lessons.

But again: don’t force this training or exposure onto the teachers. Let them come to unplugged teaching as a result of curiosity and their own choice, and also accept that they may never want to come to it – and if so be careful not to hold (or look like you are holding) that against them.

5. Match unplugged learning to specific learning goals

Document or create some broad learning objectives that unplugged sessions can end up targeting. Official tests are a great one to use – especially the speaking and writing sections of such tests (as I demonstrated for business English classes preparing for TOEIC here). It’s actually really feasible to manoeuvre unplugged lessons toward a variety of test task formats – and not just for speaking and writing. They’re mostly like building plans, really, and it could just be a matter of finding ways to let students decorate and furnish them according to their own tastes and interests towards the end of an unplugged lesson sequence.
Things like the CEFR specifications (and others like it – for example the framework I have to address for migrants and refugees here in Australia) are even easier to lop onto the end of unplugged lessons in a coherent way. I have generally found that doing this goes beyond making unplugged teaching acceptable in a learning context: it can actually help rationalise it and make it feel very relevant to learners and school. Dare I say it… it can even help to make unplugged teaching very popular!
6. Ensure there is evidence of learning (and teaching)
Evidence is really important in ELT in so many of the contexts in which it takes place, and it would have to be one of the most powerful rationales for using coursebooks.

All of the major changes I have achieved within school systems (and learners’, teachers’ and managements’ minds) have come about through careful attention to providing practical and accessible evidence. Even when unplugged sessions go well and appear to be enjoyable and worthwhile at the time, I have seen the approach become unravelled because there is inadequate follow up.

It is a good idea to make sure there is something organised and on (web)paper to show for any unplugged teaching. Notes should be appearing in learners’ notebooks, and we should be showing interest in them and helping the learners make their notes coherent and useful.

Given the relative lack of lesson planning notes associated with an unplugged approach, we should be providing good post-lesson reports that document what was learned and why. Creating a blog (or series of printed handouts) for students, summarizing activities, emergent language work, etc. can be a great way to rationalise and extend what you are doing in your unplugged lessons.

And of course, once your learners hit a certain level and familiarity with unplugged teaching, they could be generating most all of this evidence themselves. Just bear in mind that many contexts still want to see indications that a teacher is ‘working’ and ‘doing’ things, so you should be willing to provide the relevant follow ups that demonstrate this.

Published in: on November 11, 2010 at 9:18 am  Comments (7)  
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Six favourite five minute activities (that aren’t really five minutes)

Disclaimer: this post was not sponsored or solicited by anyone! I’m blogging about one of the classic teacher resource books which happened to be one of the first ones I owned and used until the pages almost fell out.

Even though I’m doing a fair bit of travelling, I’ve managed to land some teaching hours this fall and I’m currently preparing my classes. After choosing the main texts and activities we were going to do I pulled down off the shelf my battered old copy of Five Minute Activities, the classic resource book from Cambridge University Press written by Penny Ur and Andrew Wright (the newer cover you can see on the image above).

Looking through it, I remembered when this (and Grammar Games by Mario Rinvolucri) were my only two resource books. I’ve used so many of the activities in here that they feel like old friends. There are two things about the activities in this book that I’d like to mention: 1) they are very sensible and doable in almost all teaching contexts and 2) they often last longer than five minutes. Both these are compliments, I hastily add! I love elastic activities that could be five or twenty five minutes depending on the level and interest of the students. I thought I’d share half a dozen of my favourites:

1 Adjectives and nouns

Students suggest adjective and noun combinations such as a black cat, an expert doctor. You write these up on the board and add some yourself. The students then have to use these words to suggest different combinations (e.g. a black doctor). If someone makes an usual suggestion then they have to justify it.

2 Delphic dictionary

Students suggest some typical problems, which you write on the board. A student chooses one of these problems, and then is asked to open an English-English dictionary at random and put their finger on the page. The word they indicate has to form part of the solution. I let students choose a word on the page, in case they really fall on a really hard word.

3 Match the adjectives

Another adjective activity! This time you write three words on the board e.g. important, heavy, dangerous. Students have to suggest a word that goes with all three (e.g. an army, a car, a plane…). There is a really good list of groups of adjectives to go with this. What, for example, could be small loud and fat (no nasty comments here about directors of studies please!)

4 Odd one out

Write a list of six words on the board from a lexical set. Students have to decide which one is the odd one out. They must explain this. Once they have, then challenge them to nominate another one which could be the odd one out for different reasons. Great for lateral thinking. The variation is great too, where every time they argue one is the odd word out you cross it out and they repeat the activity with the words left until there are only two words. Far, far longer than five minutes for my classes. Sample lists are provided in the book.

5 Spelling bee

This is hardly a new activity, a spelling competition. And it usually takes longer than five minutes in my experience. But my classes have had lots of fun with this, and they often consider it useful. The best part is the authors have listed a whole bunch of words that are commonly spelled wrongly at various different levels. Priceless little resource to have at hand.

6 Wrangling

I love this activity. Write a two line dialogue on the board. My favourite of the ones suggested is

A: Still, I think you’d better tell them.

B: Oh, no, they’ll kill me.

Students have to say the lines together, as an argument. They can repeat the lines as many times as they like but they cannot add anything else. They must vary stress, intonation and gesture to convince each other. After a few exchanges I’ve seen students really get heated up and in fact their delivery of the lines becomes much better. Leads on to a good discussion of what the context and who the speakers might be (again, longer now than five minutes).

There are many many more in the book that are just as good, it was hard to choose only six! A little footnote to this post: last year at the IATEFL conference Penny Ur explained a reading activity during a talk, and she used me as the subject of the activity. Wow. Call me an ELT nerd if you like (do it quietly please), but it was a bit like having your favourite singer suddenly belt out a song with your name in it during a concert. Thanks Penny!

Does anyone else have a favourite five minute activity (from this book or your own)? Go ahead and share! And if Penny Ur or Andrew Wright are reading this, I wonder what their favourite activity is?

Published in: on September 19, 2010 at 8:34 pm  Comments (22)  
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Nicky Hockly’s six favourite teaching online activities

Back to school with another guest post! I’m starting up the guest sixes here with half a dozen of the best activities for teaching online. These come from none other than one of my great mentors, Nicky Hockly. Nicky co-founded The Consultants-E, an online consultancy specialising in education and trained me as an emoderator over seven years ago. I now do the occasional course for them as a trainer, and can really say they are a great bunch to work with. Enough background already though, I’ll hand over to Nicky…

To celebrate the launch of our new book, Teaching Online (from Delta Publishing), Lindsay Clandfield and I decided to write a guest post on each other’s blogs. Our posts each describe six of our favourite teaching online activities. This way you get 12 cool online teaching ideas – 6 from me here, and 6 from Lindsay on my blog!

Here are my six favourite activities (Lindsay forced me to write six!). They are aimed at language learners, but with a bit of tweaking they can be easily made to fit other contexts, such as teacher training.

1 Sounds of me

This activity can be used at the beginning of an online course. It helps learners to get to know each other a bit. Choose four or five songs which are significant to you in some way, and add them to and online play list (Grooveshark is a good one). Provide a link to your playlist (e.g. in a forum in your online course, or in a blog). Include why you chose each of the songs, and why they are significant to you. Your learners can listen to your playlist, and then respond to your posting with comments or questions. Learners then create their own online playlists, and post a link and explanation each. They listen to and comment on each others’ choice of music. Instead of using audio, you and learners could create online video playlists e.g. in a site like You Tube. People often have strong emotional ties to certain pieces of music, so this can be quite a powerful sharing activity. I especially like the way this activity brings in other media (audio or video) – one danger in online courses is that they become too relentlessly text-based.

2 My precious…

This is another great activity to help learners in an online course get to know each other better. Get learners to take a digital photo of an important/significant object that they own. This could be a piece of jewellery, a souvenir, a talisman or good luck charm, a drawing or painting, a CD, a piece of furniture that has been in the family for generations … (If your learners don’t own digital cameras, they could find an image of a similar object on the Internet, and use that). Learners prepare a 100-word text explaining what the object is, and why it is significant. They post their photo and text to a forum in your online course, or to a blog. They then read about and comment on each other’s objects. Like ‘Sounds of me’ above, this activity enables learners to share meaningful personal information with each other, and can really help the group to ‘gel’. It also brings in another form of media – digital images – which helps add variety to course content.

3 Podcast dictations

I find that many language learners love dictations. So how about building up a bank of dictations as a series of podcasts over time, which learners can regularly listen to and transcribe? Use a free podcasting site (such as Voice Thread, or Podomatic) to record yourself dictating a short text. You could also provide a transcript as a separate text document, so that learners can check their dictations afterwards. Add one dictation a week to your podcasting page, based on course work. This is a great way to review course content, and to also give your learners plenty of practice in listening skills, and grammar. You could even get your learners to record dictations for each other!

4 Your message to the world

This activity is good for speaking practice. It gets learners to record a short speech, based on a model you provide. Record yourself speaking for a minute or two on one of the following topics:

  • What is your vision of a perfect world?
  • If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be, and why?
  • What is the most annoying thing in the world?

  • What is the best thing in the world?

  • If you could say one thing to the world, what would it be?

Upload your recording to your online course site, and get learners to listen and post comment or questions in reply. Give them the list of topics above, and ask them to record their own one or two minute speeches (e.g. using Sound Recorder on their PCs, or Simple Sound if they have a Mac). Learners then share their own recordings in a forum, and listen to and comment on each other’s. You could set a summarising task in the same forum, by asking questions such as’Who talks about world peace? Who is worried about climate change? etc, based on the recordings. Of course it’s important to remember that recording their own speech can be immensely challenging for learners, especially at lower levels. Make it clear that they don’t need to speak for a long time, and that they can rehearse and use notes to help them.

5 Web tours

This is a synchronous activity, which means you and the learners are online at the same time, in a video chat room. Your chat room needs to have shared web browsing, so that you can show each other websites in real time. We use Elluminate for our online course video chats, but there are also free platforms such as Dimdim, or WizIQ you could use. Take your learners on a tour of your favourite website in the chat room, showing a few pages, and telling them what you especially like. One of my favourites is this site of paintings of redheads in art :-). Get each learner to then show the group their favourite website — preferably a non-language learning site! (They will need to have chosen this site before the chat, and have the URL ready to browse to). Make sure each learner doesn’t speak for more than two or three minutes. At the end of each web tour, the other learners in the group need to come up with one question about that website for the learner. To summarise the activity, provide a list of the website names and URLs for learners to take away.

6 Am I saying this correctly?

This is a listening/viewing activity that gets learners to spot the deliberate mistakes in video subtitles. Find a short video clip (e.g. a film trailer) in your learners’ native language. Using a subtitle creator site (such as Overstream), subtitle the clip and include three or four deliberate mistakes where your English translation does not match the meaning of what is being said in the learners’ native language. Upload the video to your course site, then get learners to watch it and to note down the mistakes they spot. Create a second subtitled version of the video clip with the correct subtitles, and let learners watch that. Did they spot all the mistakes?

We find that learners tend to enjoy this sort of intensive listening activity, especially when they can compare English with their native language. For lower-level learners, you can include deliberate mistakes on obvious items such as vocabulary. For higher levels, the mistakes can focus on more subtle differences in meaning.

These are just six of my favourite activities – there are plenty more in our book! If you try out any of these activities (or the six activities Lindsay has posted on my blog), let us know how it goes in the Comments section below. And if you have any favourite online teaching activities yourself, we’d love to hear about them.

Free Teaching Online Webinar 22 September

You can experience some of our teaching online activities by coming along to our free Teaching Online webinar on Wednesday 22 September 16.30h – 17.30h CET (Central European Time). Check the time in your country , and if you can make it, sign up online with your name and email. We will email you a link to the webinar room half an hour before the webinar is due to start. We will hold a raffle during the webinar to give away free copies of the book! 🙂

Published in: on September 7, 2010 at 6:03 pm  Comments (9)  
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Jason Renshaw’s Six signs that you are on the right track as a language teacher

Jason Renshaw’s Six signs that you may be on the right track as a language teacher

This week I’m extrememly happy to be joined by none other than the English Raven himself, Jason Renshaw. For those of you who don’t know him, Jason is a writer and prolific blogger based in Australia. He’s known for his coursebook series Boost, but also for creative and provocative posts on different aspects of teaching and methodology. I’ve been bugging him a long time to do a guest post, and he’s delivered the goods! Here are six signs that you may be on the right track as a language teacher. Enjoy!

1. Your classes almost never begin or end with coursebook material

This to me is a sign that a teacher is connecting with students as people, and sees their interests and daily lives as the first and final priorities. It is also a positive answer to a question I put to a lot of newer teachers: Who is actually running this class – you and your students, or a book?

2. The students in your classes talk more than you do, and speak to each other more than they speak to you

This is a skill and an important priority. It means you have started to see your role as being more along the lines of facilitator rather than leader or controller. In language learning, the students are the ones who really need the opportunities and time to talk – not you. Language learning is possibly more enhanced by talking to a range of people – not a single expert. Also, to really help students you need to be able to listen to them. If you’re doing all the talking, you’re probably doing very little listening.

3. Motivation has become the students’ responsibility

Teachers who try to overtly motivate their students either fail dismally, or become the entire source of classroom motivation (which is also a form of failure, but harder to spot and more drawn out). At some point, this responsibility for motivation and commitment to the learning process has to become an intrinsic part of the students. The earlier this begins, the better. Teachers who can let go of this perceived responsibility and find the right ways to help it blossom in students are worth their weight in gold.

4. You feel a constant need to create and apply your own material and activities

Some coursebooks are better than others, and some suit your learners better than others do. But none of them (on their own) can be perfectly ideal for your students. It is a very positive sign in a developing teacher when thoughts like the following become more frequent:

– I’ll skip this part, because it’s not all that relevant or useful to my students

– This part could be better. Here’s how…

– I can do this part better, and I will

These feelings often lead to teachers making more and more of their own material and activities, often to either supplement or replace sections of coursebooks, and more often than not they lead to more effective and relevant learning in class. They are also a positive sign of teacher self-belief and confidence.

5. There are more questions than answers

I would apply this on two fronts.

One is related to the point above about interaction in class. When students are answering a lot but not asking many questions, their passive and receptive skills are being emphasized at the expense of productive skills and creative thinking. We may also be creating situations where what students know takes priority over what they don’t know or would like to know.

On the second front, this is a good sign in teachers as well. As you become better at what you do as a teacher, you will find that answers lead to more questions, and more questions lead to more answers. It’s sort of like watching a tree grow. Teachers I’ve met who figured they had more answers than questions tended to be the sort who had started to plateau, or even backslide. They didn’t realise it (or didn’t want to realise it!), and had started to misinterpret the whole idea and role of experience.

6. There are regular surprises

Being able to predict what will happen in classes is a sign of good teaching in many respects, but in other ways it can be a sign of rot. A highly predictable lesson with predominantly predetermined use of language is rather like taking a single well-used track through a very large forest. Good teachers facilitate, expect, and embrace the unexpected. They thrive on it. Surprises in language classes not only represent what language experience is like in the real world, they also create the most effective bases for teachers to explore what the students (feel they) really need to learn about and experience more.

Published in: on May 17, 2010 at 8:42 am  Comments (25)  
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