Thursday, 23 February 2017

ELT Ireland Conference 2017

When I started teaching back in 2001, it seemed like there were tons of opportunities for CPD in Dublin. Every couple of weeks there'd be a talk at the Teacher's Club in Parnell Square, usually on a Friday evening so the discussion could spill over into a nearby pub. I saw talks by lots of the big names without realizing that they were big names, as well as talks by local teachers who were doing some really interesting things (Dee Doyle sticks in the memory). These talks would invariably be introduced by Jim Ferguson; whenever someone gets round to writing the history of ELT in Ireland, Jim will feature prominently and positively.

And then, I'm not sure when exactly, all that seemed to die down. Going to talks, mingling with colleagues from other schools, nabbing free books from publishers - you couldn't take that stuff for granted any more. I lost myself in exam preparation classes for years and when I looked back up the ELT landscape in Dublin seemed a bit barren, a bit fragmented. We were all still teaching, great things were still happening in classrooms but the sense of belonging to a wider teaching community wasn't there any more (at least, that's how it seemed to me at the time).

Skip forward to around 2013, I think. I was at a talk (they didn't stop altogether) and a stylishly dishevelled chap (I say that enviously as an aspiring, but ultimately failed, hipster) stood up to announce that he was part of a group that were starting an organisation for teachers called ELT Ireland. Not being the most prescient at the best of times, I shrugged and thought no more of it. That was about 3 years ago and since then ELT Ireland have gone on to do fabulous things for teachers here in Dublin, myself included.

Nabbed this photo from Laura O'Grady's Twitter feed. I'm sitting where the cool teachers sit.

Their first conference was two years ago. As well as having talks from established names, they gave a load of us teachers a chance to try our hand at presenting. In the past, I was often frustrated by talks that didn't seem to reflect the reality I teach in. Opening up a forum for teachers in Ireland means you might not get the sheen but the energy, the sense of a practitioner working through stuff and reflecting it back to us is powerful.

ELT Ireland also do an annual bulletin which is a chance for teachers to publish, they send out an email newsletter each week, run #ELTchinwag every two weeks and they host meet ups for managers. Their most recent conference was last week and covered a range of topics: non-native speaker discrimination; evidence based teaching; negotiated syllabi; CLIL; motivationtask based learning; managing your own CPD and teacher training; pronunciation (twice); questions; SEN; managing projects in a rolling enrolment environment as well as plenaries from Scott Thornbury, Silvana Richardson and Anne O'Keeffe. [Sorry there were tons of other great talks that I didn't get to see  - concurrent sessions :( .... If you like, you can check out the hashtag #ELTIrl2017 ]

If this all reads like a hagiography, that's because it is. There are about five or six people involved in ELT Ireland and they're volunteers. It's a ton of work and stress and they're not paid for any of it. Whatever madness possesses them to do this, I'm glad of it. ELT in Ireland is in a better place on account of them.

Peter Lahiff, Laura O'Grady, Lou McLaughlin, Joanne Mitten, Ben Dobbs

Monday, 5 December 2016

What's my (student's) motivation?

I know two actors. One is my former Italian flatmate who once starred alongside Charles Dance in something so obscure that neither he nor Wikipedia remembers the name. The other is my sister-in-law who recently won a best actress award for her portrayal of Jane Eyre. Around these artistic types, desperate to find some common ground, I find myself dribbling on about the parallels between teaching and the stage. I'm not a grey, drab teacher - I'm just like you; I'm an artist!

Like most people, I love a good metaphor* and to be fair (and not too cynical), I do like the actor/teacher/performer parallels, especially when elucidated in terms of positively affecting student learning as opposed to look-at-me-ism. However, my problem with the teacher metaphor is that it rarely goes far enough. Here, I go too far.

Take from
Parallel Number 1: The matinee

I don't remember who it was (maybe Patrick Stewart), but I heard a story a while back about an actor wandering through a fish market on a Saturday morning and upon seeing the vacant, lifeless eyes of rows and rows of fish, realised with a fright that he had a matinee that afternoon. Like performers in noisy pubs, we often find ourselves teaching people who don't really want to be there. In those cases, we take a deep breath, brace ourselves and whisper the mantra of (show)business.

Parallel Number 2: Stanislavski

Just like us, those actors love their methods. Apparently Robert De Niro was a big fan of drilling. Daniel Day Lewis swears by Task Based Learning. And Meryl Streep is all about audio-lingualism. And similarly, when we get too carried away with our method du jour, there'll likely be a Laurence Olivier type to arch an eyebrow and ask why we don't just try teaching.

Parallel Number 3: Remuneration

Apart from those at the very top of the pile (your Tom Cruises, your Carlos Martins), we're  not on great money, in many cases only paid for the performance/class itself and not all the work going into it (rehearsals/cutting up bits of paper). This exploitation can dampen enthusiasm somewhat but every so often a lucrative gig comes along (flogging nespressos/one year tax free teaching, flights included) to save us from going under.

Parallel Number 4: Selfies

Students regularly ask if they can take a picture with me (it's not just me, all my colleagues get the same request). It happens so frequently that I have a fixed facial expression and body stance that I default to; in every photo it is only the students (and my hairline) that changes. The parallel with actors is so obvious that I barely need to spell it out...but I will anyway. Like actors, we're all bloody gorgeous.

Acting is a good thing to do with your life. Teaching is too.

*Thanks to Michael Griffin of ELT Rants, Reviews and Reflections for sharing via Twitter.

Saturday, 29 October 2016

And your chosen subject is....

In the last few weeks, I've been trying out a slightly different way of teaching features of academic writing. I've enjoyed it a lot + nice response from students = so I thought I might share here (and also give props to Richard Ingold, Kallia Crete and Julie Moore).

Basically, it hinges on subjects (as in subject verb object; not Maths, Chemistry, Bio) and three ideas (each one ripped off from the three people named above).
Image taken from

What I was trying to do...

Many of my students have good English. But they tend to write like they speak which doesn't sound too academic. I wanted them to see the gap between their writing and more academic writing (for themselves rather than me pointing it out) - but more than that, I wanted them to understand why that gap was there so they'd be able to write in a more conventionally academic way.

Who I stole from...

Richard Ingold - in a recent post I did on abstraction, Richard gave a very detailed explanation in the comments section about how he helps his students improve their writing and understanding of academic conventions. He talked about nouns - this idea that noun groups in academic writing tend to work much harder - they carry a lot more of the sentence's meaning (e.g. (1) Research on exposure to television and movie violence suggests that playing violent video games will increase aggressive behavior). In this example, the subject of the sentence is working hard - a lot of meaning has been conveyed before you get to the verb suggests. 

Kallia Crete - in an excellent post on teaching English for Chemistry, Kallia described a lesson in which she used a magazine article on a scientific topic and the relevant journal article on the same topic to allow students to compare differences in the writing style. She also got her students to come up with rules for academic writing based on their observations of the differences between the two texts. 

At BALEAP 2015, Julie Moore talked about how useful abstracts were as resources. They are shorter than full articles but they display most of the features of academic writing. As well, if you're on the wrong side of pay walls, they're completely free. It also reminded me of something I read recently by Scott Thornbury (I think in Discourse Analysis) in which he talked about how any piece of language, even if very short, can be opened up to display many of the features of the language. 

What I did...

I took an abstract - we'd been talking about video games so this one seemed appropriate (I snipped it and stuck the image at the bottom of this post). So in class, I asked the students to:

  • Find the subject in each sentence. 
  • Say what they noticed about these subjects. They came up with stuff like:
    • The subject tends to be the research (e.g. Experimental and nonexperimental studies with males and females in laboratory and field settings support this conclusion.)
    • The subject is long
    • The subject is difficult to understand
    • The subject is a thing or an idea, not so much a person
    • The subject is really really specific
    • The subject is working hard (they didn't really say that - but I love that way of thinking about it from Richard Ingold - so I said it, and they agreed with me)
  •  Then we had a look at a writing that they had done. They noticed things like:
    • In their writing, the subject tended to be a person or 'people' (Many people think....)
    • The subject tended to be short.
    • If they mentioned research it tended to be just the word "research" - didn't really say where, when, who etc.
    • They could understand their subjects
    • The subject wasn't working too hard (in response to my leading question..)
  • I then asked them to come up with some rules. They came up with stuff like:
    • Make ideas/things/research the subject, not so much people
    • Make the subject work a bit harder
  • So then we took some sample sentences from their work and tried to "academicise" them
    • (Student version) If young people play video games, they are more likely to act aggresively

    •  (A bit more academic sounding version) Playing violent video games may increase aggressive behaviour in young people

Is that it.....?

Pretty much. 

Monday, 12 September 2016

Getting technical

A few months ago on Twitter, I asked for recommendations for interesting EAP related articles as I had just gotten access to a university library and had plans to do a ton of reading. Good intentions being what they are, I read very few. Fortunately, Richard Ingold, sensing my idleness, sent me a very enthusiastic recommendation recently. Not only was it an interesting article, in tracking it down I also discovered that I have access to a physical library that I had been completely unaware of. Buoyed by all this serendipity, I thought it might be interesting to do a write up of the article.

Martin, J.R., 1993. Technicality and abstraction: Language for the creation of specialized texts. In A. Burns and C. Coffin, eds. 2001. Analysing English in a global context: a reader. London: Routledge. Ch.13.

Who is it by?
The author is J.R. Martin - I'd not heard of him before but that says more about my ignorance than his renown. He is a professor of Linguistics at the University of Sydney, is known for his work on systemic functional linguistics (SFL) and has a Wikipedia page. I've only done a tiny bit of reading on SFL - the idea (I think) is to look at language from a social perspective; that language is shaped by (and shapes) how we see and experience the world and that by analysing the language a person uses, you can better understand their beliefs or world views. (Richard has a fascinating article here where he uses SFL to analyse a sermon by a religious group called Hillsong).

What is the main argument?
For the guts of the article, Martin analyses examples of technical writing (for example, in science but also in the humanities). He starts by talking about how we classify things - for example, children would group a cow, a horse and a dog as animals; if they come across a new creature (he gives the example of a platypus) they might then question whether they can classify that as an animal. If their parent says yes, platypus is now an animal for the child. Similarly, in science, things are classified according to a system but the logic for that system might not be obvious or intuitive to a non-expert.

He then talks about definitions of technical terms. A technical term might be defined using simple language (e.g. A chromecast is a thing you plug into your telly so you can project your phone screen on to the big screen and watch netflix). Alternatively, a technical term might be explained by placing it in a category (e.g. a chromecast is a type of media streaming device). The former takes a bit more time to write but most people should get the idea from it. The latter is obviously easier for me to write and should be easier to understand if the person knows what a media streaming device is - but it would be incomprehensible if they didn't.

In my first chromecast example above there were lots of verbs (plug, project, watch). In my second chromecast example, the only verb was "is". This leads on to the idea that technical writing features lots of nominalisation or noun phrases as opposed to verbs. For instance, science studies processes but looks at these processes as things. Respiration refers to a process but "respiration" is a noun - the process (respiring) is nominalised (respiration) to make it easier to classify and talk about. So in scientific writing, you end up with lots and lots of nouns/noun phrases. Similarly, in the humanities, you have a lot of nominalisation - when we talk about abstract ideas/concepts (e.g. beauty, environmental damage, a vast increase in taxation). As a result, technical writing can often be accused of being jargon heavy. I get the sense that he thinks this either unfair or unhelpful although he does discuss the way some writing leans heavily on nominalisation as a sign of status.

What I took from it
To be honest, the first time I read through it, I wasn't quite sure if it had relevance to my teaching. I read it again and one particular line jumped out at me - "The main point as far as education is concerned is that students need to learn to read abstract discourse if they are to be functionally literate in our culture and write abstract discourse if they are to interpret their world in a critical way". From what I understand, all this technical laguage in academic writing can be extremely challenging for students - they may understand the concept but not the terms or they may recognise the terms but not understand what they mean or how they relate to other terms. So clearly, there is a lot of work to be done there.

Also, because this aspect of academic writing (the nominalisation heaviness) is never really unpacked for them (by unpack, I mean to look at the key nouns/abstract ideas in a sentence and think about what they mean, how they relate to other concepts in the text), Martin also points out how students often end up writing as they speak. This is something I've noticed a lot with students - their writing tends to be full of personal pronouns and lots of "if" sentences; the focus of the sentence tends to be either a person (often "I") or a thing (often the government) that acts like a person.

My advice to students on this tends to be very lame - "don't use I, it's not academic". I think I've been guilty of teaching academic writing in a do/don't approach - "this is a feature of academic writing - this is not; use obtain, not get; contractions are bad, etc.". In other words, a very micro level type approach. On p.221, Martin looks at a students' writing which is very 'spoken' in style and then suggests how it can be improved - his point being that if the student frames their writing within a thesis, argument, summation model, they will need abstract language. I think I might try more of this kind of thing - take a short essay written in a spoken style and then create a more "academic" article; unpacking it for the students to highlight the abstract language, the frequent focus on ideas/nouns and their relationship to other ideas/nouns in the text.

I might also try to get more down and dirty with technical language - I often see skimming and scanning as learning goals in EAP books; perhaps unpacking as a reading skill might be of equal value?

Disclaimer: I may have completely misunderstood this article so please check comments below in the hope that some kind soul offers corrections if needed.

Monday, 25 July 2016

What do you recommend?

At various points throughout my teaching life, I've been asked by students for recommendations. As I'm a Dubliner working in Dublin, many of the things I am asked about relate to the practicalities of living in a relatively expensive city. For instance, if a student asks me where to go for a bit of food, I'll direct them towards Govindas (cheap, veggie lunches) or the student canteen in Trinity. If they're looking for nice coffee, I recommend Marks and Spencers on Grafton Street - it's not very hipster but it's got roof-space in the centre of the city with nice views and the coffee's grand. For a pint, I'd usually say The Library Bar just off George's Street and being a prematurely old fart, I'd tell them to avoid Temple Bar like the plague. And given the removal/privatisation of public facilities in our city, I always recommend the top floor of the largest department store on Grafton street for a far more serene ablution than the alternative of forking out for the privilege or sneaking into a fast food jacks.

I do occasionally get asked for recommendations of a more academic hue. Sometimes, these are very general - "How can I improve my English?"; sometimes, more specific - "Which is the best newspaper for phrasal verbs?". In each case, the student wants to do something more outside of the classroom to learn English and very kindly values my opinion on the matter. Although I'm more than happy to proffer unsolicited recommendations on TV shows, movies, music and podcasts, it is generally books that I find myself being asked to recommend.

Image taken from

I find this a bit tricky. For a start, many of the students who've asked me for a book recommendation tell me they don't have strong reading habits (that sounds a bit vague - what I mean is that they say they don't really read books for pleasure in their own language although I'm sure they do tons of online reading). Also, many of them are around the B2 level and I'm conscious that an overly challenging book might put them off reading in English. The more significant challenge is that during the academic year, I tend to read crime thrillers and very little else so I don't have a very wide range of books to choose from.

All that being said, here are some of the books that I have recommended and a short description as to why the recommendation was successful (I judge success by whether or not the student read it). In each case, the recommendation was made in the modest hope that the book would be enjoyable and lead to further book reading down the line.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
I'll start with this one as I've recommended it the most and it's had the best response. The story is engaging, the narrator uses relatively simple language, the chapters are short and mix between narrative and interesting diversions, and it is heart-warming. I recommended it (and loaned a copy, in fact) to one student - she enthused about it and the book made its way around the class. So far, nobody who has started it has given up on it (to my knowledge).

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas by John Boyne
This one was written by an Irish author so I'm guilty of a bit of nationalism there. I'm also guilty of never having actually read it. But a good few students have read it and multiple copies have moved around the class. Again, it is relatively simple, being told from a child's perspective but there is a bit of substance to it. And there's a film for follow up (or pre-reading).

Any Autobiography by Any Sportsperson
These tend to be good as the reader knows a lot about the person before they start reading which should make it a bit easier to read. Preferable to biographies which are often a bit denser and more demanding. I've seen the Pele book bouncing around a few times; Nadal and Pirlo both made appearances; Agassi's book is good for those of a certain age with an interest in tennis/overbearing parents.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
When brimming with the enthusiasm to read in English, I've seen a lot of students go for the classics. Far be it from me to discourage someone from reading James Joyce whilst living in Dublin, but I've seen a lot of students' attempts at reading in English dashed against the rocks of a €1 second hand copy of Dubliners. Hemingway's stripped down style of writing (particularly in this novel) makes it an easier read for those at the B2/C1 level, it's obviously a gorgeous story and a lot of people have already read it in their own language.

Panic by Jeff Abbot
About six years ago, I had a notion to try a book club with a class I had that were studying for the IELTS exam. The idea was that we'd all read the same book, at the same pace and there would be spin off speaking/writing activities in class. I'm not sure exactly how we landed on this book - I think it was because it was very dialogue heavy, fairly simple and had short chapters (it was also going cheap as well at the time). Anyway, the majority of students liked it, they all finished it (some read ahead) and several got the follow up - Fear (unfortunately, the author doesn't seem to have stuck to the negative noun formula and has started messing around with verbs!).

If asked, what books do you (would you) recommend to your students?

Monday, 25 April 2016

Reflections on not going to IATEFL

Taken from
If you remember the movie Forrest Gump you'll recall that Tom Hanks managed to gormlessly turn up at key moments in US history. Unlike Forrest, I have somehow contrived throughout my career to miss out on key moments in ELT's recent history (though I am frequently gormless at the standard moments that I manage to turn up for). For instance, despite going to a lot of ELT talks in Dublin at the start of my career, I managed not to go when Scott Thornbury rocked up with his Grammar McNuggets. I arrived in Trinity College to do my masters shortly after David Little of Learner Autonomy fame had moved on and I became outraged about learning styles ages after Russ Mayne's IATEFL talk.

Continuing the pattern, I missed out on IATEFL this year. Judging from the reaction on Twitter, it looks like I missed out on a good one. Silvana Richardson's talk seems to have been the standout (Marek has a good overview of the online reaction to the talk). But as well as that, I'm raging to have missed out on talks by colleagues or the chance to chat in real life to people whose height I can only guess at. Fortunately, IATEFL have a really good website where you can watch loads of the talks (and then claim it as CPD). If you squint at your monitor and spend the whole talk trying to think of a smart question, you could almost be there.

The first one I watched was Silvana's talk on discrimination against 'Non-Native' teachers and found it really moving. A lot has been said on it already but what really struck me was the description of how teachers react to this discrimination. Some pretend to be 'native' while others avoid any mention of their background. I've expressed my outrage about this topic before but watching this talk alongside a 'non-native' teacher who is far more qualified than I am (and who has endured this kind of thing), I just felt really, really sad. A good chunk of people in our industry are either treated like shit or made to feel shit. We can do better.

Last year, in one of my writing classes, we were working on a group writing project. As it was a formative assignment, the topic for the writing project was fairly arbitrary (the year before, we did something on social media in education). I decided to take this native/non-native issue and set that as the topic. I thought it would be interesting for the students and also interesting to hear their perspective. The aim of the project was to write a short essay about which type of teacher was better suited to teaching English. I took a fairly hands off approach and simply guided them in terms of coherence and developing ideas. As it was a group writing project, I got to listen to them discussing their ideas as well as reading their final essay. I expected that from the start, they'd say 'natives' were preferable but that as they read a bit more, they might adapt their position. In fact, from the start, they disagreed with the idea that a 'native' teacher was always best and continued to do so until the end. Their views were far more nuanced than I had expected.

Not a very scientific bit of research, I'll admit, but it does make me question the notion that students are as in thrall to the 'native' tag as parts of our industry are (an interesting game to play - go to the 'About' sections on the homepages of these language schools in Dublin and see how far you get before depression at how many trumpet the nativeness of their teachers sets in - I managed 4 before I gave up).

I feel a bit bad about that last bit - it's a bit sarcastic and sneery. But I've decided to leave it in because I think that here in Dublin (and elsewhere) we do need to question the casual acceptance that 'native' is best. It exists. Before I got into blogging and tweeting and reading up on this a bit, I would have been just as guilty of trumpeting my 'nativeness'. That is why a talk like this is good. But I worry that here in Dublin, I'm not the only one missing out.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Oh, absTRACT!

I went to a fabulous workshop/talk by Julie Moore at BALEAP last year in which she talked about the potential uses of abstracts in the EAP classroom. Since then, I've tried to use them more but haven't really developed a coherent pattern of use. What I've done so far is not very exciting and has primarily been 'writing' focused. The students have to write a dissertation as part of the course so we do some lessons on writing abstracts. This involves looking at sample abstracts, looking at the features common to abstracts and then trying to produce their own.

Taken from Wiki Art
Composition A XXI by László Moholy-Nagy
taken from WikiArt
But when I think about the amount of abstracts there are out there, I feel like I'm leaving money on the table - that as reading texts in and of themselves, they have tons to offer: they're free to those of us on the other side of pay walls; they're authentic; you can pick and choose depending on students' disciplines (or they can pick and choose).

As they are short in nature, I think they lend themselves to short, but hopefully rewarding reading activities.

1. Give students a hypothetical topic and three somewhat relevant abstracts. They can only choose one and so must justify their decision.

2. Give students a social sciences type abstract (ELT type ones are good for this) - remove the methodology and ask students to figure out how they would fulfil the research aim.

3. Choose a topic for a future lecture (we did antibiotic resistance recently). Ask students to find 2 or 3 abstracts related to the topic for the next class. They can discuss their choices with others under headings like background/context, research aim, methodology, conclusion. After discussing their abstracts they could then predict what they expect to be covered in the lecture. The follow up then is the lecture itself.

I realise now after writing that these suggestions are very teacher centred. With abstracts, the students have great scope to select and explore areas that they are interested in. The teacher can provide some structure to that but whenever I think about getting more student selected reading material into the classroom, I default to that wonderful suggestion from a while back about everyone (teacher included) bringing in something to read for 15 minutes in the class (wish I could remember who suggested it!). After that, everyone simply talks about what they have been reading and why they chose it. An abstract or two would seem to fit nicely into that loose structure.

The other thing about abstracts is the frustration they can lead to - how they can tantalise and then disappoint. If your students are working without full journal access then, if nothing else, abstracts can be a way to initiate a discussion open access and knowledge.

Would be nice to hear how others use abstracts in class.

Postscript: Mura also wrote on abstracts with the added benefit of linking to genre (bio/medicine) specific examples here