Wednesday, 24 December 2014

End of the year ramble/book review

As a teacher, there is often a temptation to spend all your time thinking up ways to help other people exercise their brains, while neglecting your own. I noticed last year, when I was teaching students from a certain country, that I was always banging on about the importance of reading, while at the same time doing very little myself. If Einstein was right when he said example is the only way to teach, then it is no wonder that so few paid attention to my bumptious ramblings.

This year, I think I have fared a little better. I managed to get through, and enjoy, a few more books than last year:

Hellhound on His Trail is about the assassination of Martin Luther King and the hunt for James Earl Ray. It's essentially written like a thriller but because it's historical, you feel a bit smarter than if you read a Michael Connolly book.

The Beatles Tune In is about the minutiae of the Beatles' lives up until 1962. The amount of detail is overwhelming at times. You get the impression that if Paul McCartney ever wanted to find out what happened to that pair of argyle socks he lost in 1959, all he'd have to do is check out the index, look under socks; then socks owned by Paul McCartney; then go to the subheading socks lost and once he'd found the year, hey presto. Enjoyable, if daunting; the 400 pages or so that span Stuart Sutcliffe's life are worth the price alone.

The Black Dahlia is a fictionalised account of a famous murder that took place in Los Angeles in the 1940s. The book has an incredible amount of energy and is almost pugilistic.

Various books by Denis Lehane. Gone, Baby, Gone and Mystic River are staggeringly good; Moonlight Mile a little less so.

I mention all of this for two reasons. The first is that I am on Christmas holidays now and so my thoughts on teaching are more ponderous than practical.

Secondly, I think making the effort to read a lot more has benefitted my students. I have absolutely no evidence for this but I'd put a very small amount of money on it being true. It may be because I am more alert and zen if I spend my lunch break reading rather than playing Blastbilliards. Or perhaps it is because my time away from the class feels longer, richer, from stepping into a book for twenty minutes and forgetting about correcting. At the very least, I can delude myself into thinking that the sight of me reading a book somewhere on campus might be the thing to push a student over the edge and into a library.

I would be very curious to hear how other teachers keep their brains ticking over.

Happy Christmas and all the best for 2015.

Thursday, 18 December 2014

The old school Interactive Whiteboard

The title of this post is a bit misleading. I've never used a proper interactive whiteboard. I was in a room with one before, but it was switched off. So really, my interaction with it didn't go much further than this. I've heard loads of wonderful things about them but I've done most of my teaching on this kind of whiteboard.

You can write on both sides, you can move it anywhere you like, you can stand on the side bit to make yourself taller, you can hide behind it. I absolutely adore these beauties and thought it might be interesting to share a few ways in which we use them in class so that the students can interact with them a bit more.

1. Vocabulary revision

To do this, you would need a whiteboard on wheels, lots of board pens and vocabulary to revise. I split the class into two groups and set the board up in the middle of the room so there is one group either side, each student with a pen. They then have 10 minutes to write vocabulary we have studied that week up on the board. The catch is that each word/phrase has to be in a sentence.

After the ten minutes, they then have 5 minutes to check the grammar/spelling for their group's sentences. Then I turn the board around and they check each other's work. If they decide the word was used correctly, they tick it. If they decide it was used incorrectly, they mark it with an X. By the end, we have a total score.

Finally, both groups can argue the score the other group has given them. If they believe a sentence marked incorrect is actually correct, then they can argue and try to get it changed. It tends to get chaotic (and the board ends up looking a bit manic) but is very enjoyable.

2. Writing

If I've asked the students to do a short writing in class, say a paragraph on a particular topic, I can duck behind the board and write up a sample while they're working away. Because they can't see what I'm writing, they don't get distracted. Later on I can use that sample as a dictogloss, a running dictation, a way to demonstrate a particular structure/technique or just let the students mine it for language (inevitably they will take a photo of it).

3. Listening

Students who are taking an IELTS exam will probably have to write down some numbers or spell somebody's name in part 1 of the listening test. I sometimes duck behind the board, write up some numbers/awkward names and read them/spell them out for the students to jot down. Because they can't see my mouth it makes it a bit trickier. Because I can't see them, I am less likely to change my pace to accommodate them. Then I can turn the board around and let them see how they did.

4. Graphs

Sorry, this is another IELTS example. It's really just a variation on something that I came across in John Marks' IELTS Resource Pack. In that book, there is an activity where one student has to describe an IELTS Writing Part 1 style graph to their partner, who then draws it. With the whiteboard you can divide the class into two groups, one group either side. One person from each group stands at the board with a pen while their colleagues describe the graph to them (don't let them use body language). After a certain amount of time, you can flip the board around and see whose graph is closest to the original.

If your whiteboard is attached to the wall, you probably haven't read this far. If you're lucky enough to have a state of the art interactive whiteboard, then please let me know what I'm missing out on. But if you have a whiteboard on wheels and legs, I hope there was something of use for you in this post.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014


I came across this website today, (via The Oxford ELT Daily) in which Larry Ferlazzo shares some interesting posts on homework. They are mostly geared towards teaching children, but I think the topic might be of interest in EAP or general ELT classes with mature students.

Generally speaking, I think we would agree that asking students to do some work outside of class is a good thing. They can reinforce what they've learned, dig into things a bit deeper, get ready for the next lesson. However, I've run into quite a few practical problems with homework over the years, so I thought it might be of interest to share how I have dealt with them.

(Note: The word homework can come with a bit of baggage so feel free to refer to it in a way that sounds more appealing.)

1. Most of the students don't do the homework.

If I'm in a playful mood, I might ask the two sets of students to interview each other. The non-homework group might ask questions to find out what the homework was, how long it took, what they learned, whether it was interesting or boring. The homework group might ask questions to find out why they didn't do it, what they did instead, what their plans for future homework are.

2. Most of the students don't do the homework.

If I'm in a grumpy teacher mood, I might ask the students who didn't do homework to sit together and work on it while the rest of us correct/discuss. I used to not correct if the majority hadn't done it, but I think it is more important to establish, and stick to, the expectations you have for the class (you could do something at the start of the course to make those expectations clear  - some sort of negotiation/contract that they can all contribute to and agree on). In some very awkward situations, I've corrected homework when only 1 student did it. But my experience has been that this number goes up if you are clear that you expect homework every day.

3. Most of the students don't do the homework.

If I'm in a reflective mood, I might take the blame and apologise for the quality of the homework. Again, speaking only from experience, I have seen a direct correlation between the amount of thought I put into setting the homework and the pick up from students. This point has been made in other places, like here, but it bears repeating. My rule of thumb is that I set homework that I would like to do myself. I like reading articles on topics that I find interesting. I like learning new vocabulary if I know someone is going to quiz me the next day. I like writing something that I have an opinion on, especially if I know someone will read it. I like watching or listening to stuff and talking about it. And I keep an eye out for the homework that really sparks. For instance, this video always goes over like gangbusters when I have asked students to watch it.

Click here for a PDF homework lesson for Benjamin Zander Ted Talk

4. Most of the students don't do the homework.

If this is a recurring problem, I will make time for the students and find out how I can help. My students tend to be between 18 and 25 and for a few of them, time management is the thing. Just chatting to them, showing an interest and concern, can help them find a way to meet the expectations of the class. For instance, they may be trying to do their homework at a time of the day when they're tired. Encouraging them to experiment with different times can be helpful (e.g. coming to class 30 minutes earlier when they're fresh might be more productive than trying to do their work at 10pm after a heavy dinner).

5. Most of the students don't do the homework.

If this has been going on for a while, and nothing is working, then I may be asking too much. I still want them to do something but if they are overloaded, we can renegotiate and find a better balance.

Would be curious to hear other teachers' thoughts on homework.


I came across this video via a post by Jennifer MacDonald on the #tleap discussion forum. Essentially, the video is a warning against overuse of nominalisation. Fair point. Overuse of most things is generally a bad thing. However, in her blog, Jennifer MacDonald makes the point that nominalisation is a feature of academic writing, and as such, should be something we look at with students. Stan Carey also discusses the point here.

I think I may have missed the point when watching the video. Rather than be horrified by nominalisation, I found myself thinking that there could be a good lesson in this. The students that I work with at the moment, tend to start every sentence with an agent (e.g. Many people think.....The Government should.....You need to.....etc.) so a bit of nominalisation might be no bad thing (in fairness to the video, I think it is aimed at proficient writers of English who might get bogged down in a waffly style of writing).

With this lesson, the idea was to introduce nominalisation in a very gentle way, guiding the students to figure it out themselves rather than overload them with rules.

I also thought it might be nice to direct students towards the debate that started me off on this post. It occurs to me that in EAP teachers' blogs, there is a lot that would be of interest to students, as much as to teachers, and it would, therefore, be nice to invite them into the discussion. So, the homework part of this lesson tries to do just that.

Once you've introduced the idea of nominalisation to students, you can do lots of nice things afterwards. Give them a text and ask them to find examples of nominalisations. Peer correct writing and find opportunities to use nominalisation (in fact, it could become part of your feedback - Nom. as shorthand for "you could use a bit of nominalisation here"). Ask them to find texts in their areas and look for nominalisation.

If you have any comments or suggestions, please do let me know.

Click here for the Lesson PDF

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Twitter and Summarising

I wanted to write a post on using Twitter in the classroom. I think I should preface it first by saying that I am hopelessly behind when it comes to using any form of technology in teaching. I've really only started using Twitter in the last couple of weeks and am struggling with the etiquette (should you email someone to ask if you can follow them?), the fear of missing something interesting if I don't check in hourly and the surge of joy when I get a new follower (up to 7 at the time of writing!).

There are plenty of other blogs with very interesting things to say on technology. Eltmakespace has some nice stuff on using Google Maps and pronunciation. 4C in ELT is always worth a visit. And I've only skimmed their webpage, but TheConsultants-E have a nice resource bank of technology based lesson plans.

So in saying all of that, I've tried to approach this post on Twitter with two things in mind. First, that there might be other teachers like me who wouldn't really be all that tech-savvy, but who might want to try something new. Second, to see if Twitter could offer anything of value in the EAP classroom.

I should mention that I was inspired in putting this lesson together by my colleague who teaches Mathematics - he uses the approach I am going to suggest, but with sums.

Recently, my students have been working on a project that involves them listening to a 20 minute lecture and performing various tasks. One of these is to write a summary of the lecture. In fact, so many of the tasks that they are required to do involve summarising. This is something that many students struggle with; the default setting being to include an excessive amount of detail so that the summary ends up not really being a summary. As a result, they may miss out on the global sense, the main idea that the text is trying to convey, seeing it instead as a long list of facts that they cannot engage with. Essentially, they get bogged down in the details.

Perhaps this is where Twitter could come in. The limitation of 140 characters makes it ideal for summarising.

Possible lesson

1. Provide students with the text that you are working with that day.
2. Their goal is to read the text and tweet a summary of it in as few characters as possible.
3. They use a hashtag that you create (e.g. #'textname'sum). That way, you can see all the summaries on your feed. Also, the students can see each other's.
4. To make it competitive, they have to click favourite of the summary that they think is best. The one with the most favourites, wins.

This could be done in class or as a homework assignment.

Potential problems (and some get arounds)

1. Some students may not be on Twitter. Might be worth checking out if they are before rolling in with this lesson. If some people are not, then perhaps it could be a group exercise and the one with the Twitter account tweets her group's summary.

2. Difficult to define what a "best summary" looks like. Perhaps if there is a section of your lesson on the features of a good summary, they might feel better placed to judge each other's work. Also, if you gave them specific instructions for the summary, the "favouriting" would be less subjective (e.g. avoids repeating phrases/language chunks from the text; is most concise; is clearest....)

3. You would have to have wireless in the classroom. Bit harsh to expect students to use up their data when they're already paying to be there. If no wireless, set it as a homework to be completed in the vicinity of a ubiquitous coffee shop.

4. The student voted the best may want something, other than the satisfaction of writing a good summary and the admiration of their peers. A bag of Maltesers should do the trick.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014


My post today is a shameless declaration of love for the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary

Like many teachers, I have a notion that using monolingual dictionaries is better than the bilingual ones. I did a bit of googling to see if I could find some evidence to back me up but the only articles I came across were either a bit suspect or blocked by pay-walls (if you have come across any, I'd love to read them).  

So despite the fact that when learning languages myself, I tend to use bilingual dictionaries (or Google translate), I will persist with the intuition that mono is best. 

If you accept that premise, then the best, and freest, monolingual dictionary is the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary (I won't link again in case it looks like I am fishing). 

This is why:

1. The definitions are much clearer. Compare these three definitions of the word fundamental serving as, or being an essential part of, a foundation or basis; basic; underlying
Merriam Webster: forming or relating to the most important part of something
Oxford Learner's: serious and very important; affecting the most central and important parts of something

I think if your level was such that you had to look up the word fundamental, the first one would be overwhelming. The second one is alright, but the Oxford one, I feel, trumps it by starting off with a very clear, simple definition. (In fairness to the other two dictionaries, they are not aimed at second language learners, but they seem to be the ones my students tend to gravitate towards)

2. They give you lovely extra stuff.

Nice Collocations: fundamental difference; fundamental change
Nice Examples: Hard work is fundamental to success
Nice clickables: British and US pronunciation; Academic Word List; Word Families; Share on social media (not sure why anyone would ever feel the need, but still, nice to be hip)

3. The page is clean and unfussy. Compare Merriam Webster and Oxford.

One thing they don't do (which Merriam Webster does) is include a clickable citation button for those students who like to start essays by saying Merriam Webster defines globalisation as.....

Apart from that, it is a really good, free resource.

With that in mind, here is a little lesson (taking a recent article from the Irish Times which will be of interest to students from outside Europe and living in Ireland) that involves some dictionary usage.

It is a really interesting article so I am kind of throwing it away as the only thing they do is dictionary related. My goal with the lesson was just to get students on to the dictionary website, play around with it, see the different elements and see what they make of it, but you could do more interesting stuff like vocab predictions, discussions, debates.....

Also, the article isn't the most EAPy but I think getting students onto the monolingual dictionary is; and one of the questions in the lesson relates to the Academic Word List which is no bad thing to mention to students.

A nice companion for this website might be the British Council Word Book App that students can download to their phones and use as a kind of a personal vocab builder (you can put in definitions, examples, pictures, recordings - very cool and recommended by Gavin Dudeney at the recent Digital ELT Ireland conference)

Click here for the PDF lesson plan

Monday, 8 December 2014


Nowadays, the issue of _______________ is extremely controversial. It is a double-edged sword with both positive and negative sides. In this essay, I will examine this subject and offer my own opinion.

If you have ever taught an IELTS class, then you've probably seen an introduction that looks somewhat similar to the one above. I know introductions are not all that important really, but there is something depressing about these copy and paste style introductions.  

I have done some small experiments in class where I give students two introductions and ask them to choose the one they think is best. Below are two samples in response to a question about whether rich nations should be obliged to help developing countries (just to mention, I wrote both in case it seems like I was trying to shame a particular student):
  1. Nowadays, rich nations should be required to share wealth is a controversial issue. This is a double edged sword and has both positive and negative aspects. This essay will look at both sides of this controversial issue.
  2. Many countries have more money than other countries. In rich countries, people worry about mobile phones while in other countries, there is not enough food. In this essay, I will argue that rich countries have to help poor countries. 
Invariably, the majority of the students will say that (1) is better. There are no obvious grammar or vocabulary problems. They like the double edged sword phrase. And it starts with nowadays. Nowadays. :( 

There is some resistance to the idea that (2) is better. The language is more simple, less academic. Even the ideas seem simple. But I think this is the key - the ideas may be simple, but at least there are ideas. In (1), there are no ideas whatsoever. There is no interaction with the question, no evidence of any sort of thought. It is a collection of memorised phrases with the topic shoehorned in. 

I understand why students like these introductions. They make it easy to get started. They offer a form that you can rely on, that you know is correct. But I have a worry that if there is so little thinking going on in the introduction, then there may be a similar lack throughout the rest of the essay. 

One thing I have started doing is to build planning time into in-class exams. I work with Biology, Physics and Chemistry teachers. I noticed that in their exams (which are more UK style), the students are given 10 minutes at the start to read the questions. They cannot start writing until that ten minutes is up. Now, when we do in-class writing exams, ten minutes for planning is built into the exam. They can think, plan, muse - whatever, just as long as there is a delay that might stop them charging into a copy/paste intro.

I know they can't do this in the IELTS exam, but it seems to work better than just recommending that they plan. I should know in a few months how successful it has been and will repost on the topic. 

For now, here is a short little class, the main focus of which is a question analysis, trying to think a good bit before writing. Again, it is very IELTSy, but this time writing part 2. 

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Peer Correction

I recently asked a class of students to write a short paragraph and then email me the finished work. The only catch was that they had to receive feedback from 3 people in their class before sending it to me. The hope was that this would lead to a more polished piece of work before it reached me. Needless to say, this somewhat lazy, unstructured approach to peer correction didn't really work out. There were glaringly obvious problems that I knew other students would have spotted, yet they were still there. With many students, I think, there is a certain discomfort (whether personal, cultural or social) with giving opinions on the work of their peers.

I was reading around on peer correction recently. The British Council give a short little piece on peer correction and manage to point out a way of doing it, the benefits and possible problems, all in a very short piece. If you haven't come across it, the BALEAP website is quite good. They are especially generous in putting up slides and notes from conferences for free. I found this one  (by Mary Martala-Lockett & Claire Weetman) and this one (by Jane Sjoberg)which deal specifically with peer correction and make some very good points.

I also found this lesson plan (by Ania Rolinska) which talks about peer correction using Wikis. She uses a really clever colour coding system (highlight green for grammar, yellow for vocabulary, etc.) which is ideal for students working with computers, either inside or outside the class.

For those who are working in an IELTS preparation class, I have put together this peer correction lesson. The idea is to ask students to peer correct with very specific goals. It is based on a part 1, graph writing task that I took from Writefix and uses the Public IELTS Writing Band Descriptors.

Click here for a PDF of the Lesson

A follow up could be to ask students to rewrite the task, bearing in mind peer feedback, and submit to teacher.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

In-text referencing

To carry on from the previous lesson which introduced the idea of Harvard referencing and recognising the elements in the bibliography, this is a short little lesson which acts as an introduction to in-text referencing (According to Smith (1990, p. 5), blah, blah, blah, blah).

I think a lot of students struggle with this concept and can end up inadvertently plagiarising because they may not really get the why and the how of using references. I think there is scope for a nice general, introductory, discussion based lesson on referencing - the purpose or need for it - which I might do later. And actually, that kind of lesson would be really suitable at the start of a course; to get students to buy into the concept of referencing and to see the need for it.

Unfortunately, this lesson isn't that kind of lesson (I will do up something on that lesson in a later post and put a link to it here). Instead, this lesson focuses on the nuts and bolts of in-text referencing.

It should take about 30 minutes and gives students a chance to practise creating accurate, Harvard style, in text references. Please let me know if you have any thoughts or suggestions.

Click here for a PDF of the lesson 

Monday, 1 December 2014

Introduction to Referencing - Harvard Style

There are some amazing tools out there, like Zotero, that can really cut the drudge out of referencing. However, I think there is still an argument for a few lessons on referencing with students. It's important for them to understand the basic idea of referencing - that it exists for a reason, not just to make their life difficult. And maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I also think it is worth knowing where all the words, numbers, commas and full stops go, just in case this whole computer malarkey doesn't work out.

I put together this short lesson as an introduction to two things for students. First of all, it introduces them to the wonderful Anglia Ruskin referencing webpage and gets them to explore it a little bit. It really is such a helpful webpage and answers almost every referencing question you can think of.

The second part of the lesson breaks down a typical book reference and gets students to recognise the little bits and bobs and then try to do one themselves.

The lesson is only one page and might take about 20 - 30 minutes. If you have any comments or suggestions, please let me know.

Click here for the lesson PDF