Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Abstract: This informative and entertaining presentation will use activities, stories and videos to explore the qualities of great teachers, Robert’s unusual personal and professional experiences as an English language instructor, and the important things he has learned to make the classroom a better learning environment for students.

At the beginning of his talk Robert asked the audience the following question:

What makes a teacher great?

Robert then shared a few quotes from a book by Joseph P. Batory, Philadelphia Public Schools Superintendent (retired), which he finds very enlightening:

Great teachers are somehow able to effect positive change in all students who come to them, no matter what problems or lack of skills they bring with them.

Great teachers foster growth and inspire self-confidence in the students who have been written off, the ones no one else wants

Great teachers don’t squash dreams, they build them!

We also watched a video that teachers wrote to themselves on their first day teaching:

Robert went on to share his own teaching story:

He didn’t like school, especially high school. He hated his English grammar and literature classes the most – later he realized that that was because of the way they were taught. He never EVER considered teaching as a career. His first love is weather, and his first degree was in meteorology. Before teaching he worked as a scientist on a tiny island in Polynesia in a facility that destroys WWII weapons.

Then he came to Japan and there he was told, ‘You’re perfect to be a English teacher because you speak English AND you’re an America’. There wasn’t even an interview.

In 1995 Robert quit his job and moved to Miami, where hardly anyone spoke English but everyone needed to learn it. He volunteered at a farm workers’ migrant camp, where he taught basic literacy and numeracy – he was using their L1 (French and Spanish). He enjoyed that so much that he decided to get some formal training and applied to a master’s degree program.

He was told:

You don’t have the right background in linguistics, language education, or even English, but we’ll let you in as a probationary student. You have one semester to prove yourself.’

He applied to teach in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, one of the larges, most diverse and poorest school districts in the USA – again, on probation! He had one semester to prove himself and he needed a plan. He asked his students: who are your best teachers and why? He visited those teachers and asked to observe them teaching (and when they asked ‘why me’, he said, ‘because the students told me you’re the best’. And then he asked asked them, ‘why did you do that? He videotaped himself and discovered that he was standing in one particular zone of the class and tended to focus on the students at the front of the class. He also read Reflective Teaching in Second Language Classrooms by Richards & Lockhart and answered every single reflective question there.

At the end of that semester he handed all of that in – the journals, the videos and what students thought about him.

The reply he got was very moving:.


Reading that, he realized that his only resource he’d drawn on to get there wasn’t even part of his MA programme – and this is a source that he has never underestimated ever since. 

Over time, his role changed significantly:

cote roles.jpg

And here are some key things that he learned on the way:

lessons learn

outside the box

In terms of the essay contests, first there was low uptake and little excitement, but an idea that really worked was to publish the essays they produced – having your abstract published in a book that you can show when you go home provided extra motivation.

Robert finished his talk with another inspirational video:

Finally, he asked us to reflect on a few things throughout the conference:



This was a talk that really put me in a contemplative mood and inspired me to think more about what I’ve learnt over the years. I think his experience of learning from great teachers and from the learners is very inspiring – I agree that this is invaluable resource, but Robert’s experience inspires to dip into it even more. 

After Robert’s talk, Svetlana Ter-Minasova made a comment that, for her, the key for teaching is love: love for the subject and love for the students. When he talks about teaching, Robert’s love shines through. 

Hello everyone!

This Saturday I’m doing a workshop for IATEFL BESIG on using YouTube as a corpus of spoken English. 

Below is the abstract – if the topic seems interesting, you’re very welcome to take part! You’ll find the link to access the workshop on the BESIG website here.


Abstract. YouTube is a vast source of subtitled spoken English ranging from general to business to ESP, and it has long been an extremely valuable source of authentic video in the business English classroom. Moreover, as technology develops, there appear new ways of using this resource for language learning, and so its pedagogic value keeps growing.

In particular, recently there have started to appear tools that, to a certain extent, allow to access YouTube as a corpus, i.e. find examples of use of specific lexical expressions and grammar. In this workshop I will overview some of these tools and then look more closely at, a free corpus tool and quiz maker. We will look at a variety of classroom activities and teaching techniques that this technology has made possible, concentrating on two areas:

(1) exploring lexis, grammar and discourse in business-related and specialist channels, and
(2) finding, analyzing and exploiting subtitled authentic models in the business English classroom.

I love mind mapping, so I couldn’t wait to hear what Ron has to share with us! Here are the notes from his workshop.


The work is based on eight years on research into mind-mapping and how they influence second language learning. The focus is on B1-B2-C1 Business English classroom.

Ron Morrain maintains that, if we are to be great teachers, we need to (1) attempt to integrate the 4 Cs: critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity, (2)  Task-based Language Teaching and (3) understand Project-based learning.


Ron starts a lot of his classes immediately with a mind-map to win the learners over – in his experience, using them half-way won’t work. Here are some mindmaps that his learners do – notice two things:

  • They’re based around questions, e.g. What do I expect from this course? It’s crucial to find out the learners’ expectations and beliefs from the outset.
  • His mind maps have this ‘personal touch’ – they don’t have the feel that they were ‘produced in a Word document’. He draws them on A3 paper and laminates them.
  • All of his bubbles are always numbered (to guide the learners / see the structure and logic – see also examples below.


In Ron’s school, they make no paper copies. In class, he passes his laminated copy around the class, the learners are responsible for getting a record – taking a picture, and then they navigate through the mind map using their own technology: tablets or smart phones, which makes it a ‘living object’ that they know where to find after the lesson. Also, it is the students who share the picture of the  their electronic management system and it is their pictures that Ron uses when he projects them. Basically, this is part of

Another example, at the beginning of the course: these are the speaking topics that we’ll be dealing it:

Here are the writing topics:

Ron mostly uses mind maps to guide the learners to produce a product (and the product will always be based on a skill) – below is an mind map that guides the learners to produce a 200 word restaurant review that’s going to be posted online.


Again, notice how numbers highlight the structure of the review. The questions in the bubble prompt the learners to start researching on the internet (which takes care of input) – putting the learners in control of their learning. The learners must be result-oriented, and it is the them who choose what they’re going to read.

We moved on to discuss the ‘how’ of using the mind maps based on this mind map:


First, how does the use of mind maps encourages the use of the 4Cs and a range of other questions.

E.g. to introduce Critical Thinking he introduces bubble #4: thinking critically about their area.

What happens afterwards? The learners’ product is assessed (and all teachers in Ron’s school are paid to become examiners so that they’re skilled as assessing learning).
When the mind map is used for speaking (e.g. CV mind-map below, where the learners present themselves for their partner): they have to listen pro-actively and take notes. When he asks them, ‘Did your partner make any mistakes’? they can’t answer ‘I don’t know’.

More examples – there are more business-oriented.

Product for the mind map below: a presentation, leading to writing (a 200 word essay). Again, notice how the questions prompt the learners to go out, do their research and take their learning in their hands.




The company profile – the product here is not only a presentation but a Pecha Cucha. There are 10 bubbles, and they are only allowed 3 minutes to present their company. This is a great challenge for the learners and they love it.


So, to round up, here are some of the reasons to use this approach.


  • reduces text-heavy materials
  • promotes storytelling as the people are going to be talking about themselves
  • promotes online learning
  • removes ‘talk and chalk’
  • incorporated different teaching approaches, e.g. TBL
  • a wonderful way to elicit target language in a natural way

One participant (Kirsten Waechter’s) take-away: I should learn to trust my learners more and ‘let go’.

You can find an example of a lesson plan that uses a mind map that Ron created for Shanthi Cumaraswamy Streat.

And there’s a new title coming!


I was blown away by this session. I am an avid mind-mapper already, but as they say, the devil is in the detail, and what I particularly liked was the look and feel of Ron’s maps – amazing! – and his ‘demand high’ attitude and determination to really push his learners to go and grab responsibility of their teaching. I find this to be one of the biggest challenges – and necessities – working in company, and it’s great to see a very consistent approach to driving learner autonomous work. And of course I loved the amazing mind maps that he created and shared. Can’t wait for the book to come out! 

Here are my notes from one more talk at the BESIG 2016 annual conference. Akos Gerold and Justine Arena were focusing on CBI, the type of job interview that they’ve been helping clients with.


At the beginning the audience brainstormed some traditional interview questions:

  • Tell us about your weakness
  • If you were an animal, what animal would you be?
  • Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?

Most of them have been around for a long time and the answers to them might not be that informative because they can be rehearsed and, what’s more important, it’s pretty easy to simply say what the interviewer wants to hear rather than the truth. Also, they do not measure how well the interviewee will do specific tasks. As an alternative, HRs have come up with CPI – competency-based interview.

What is CBI and what is the difference between CBI questions and traditional interviews?

CBI interview is about learning about the past to predict the future. Focusing on the situations that the applicant found themselves in that are similar to the situations in which they’re expected to perform. As they focus on situations and behavior that the applicants displayed, they’re also called situation interviews or behaviour interviews.

In contrast, in the ‘traditional’ interviews the aim is to form a general picture and the panel is trying to establish if the applicant meets a set of criteria.

Typical CBI questions:


  • Describe a specific situation when you..
  • Tell us about a time when you…
  • In the past, have you ever…


  • What did you do?
  • how did you approach it? what was you role?


  • What was the outcome?
  • What did you learn?
  • Have you applied what you learned?


Competency: communicating with impact.
Achievement oriented question: Describe a situation in the past when you were able to persuade someone who was difficult to persuade to agree with you way of thinking on a substantive issue.
Adversity oriented question
Describe a situation in the past when you were not able to persuade someone who was difficult to persuade to agree with you way of thinking on a substantive issue.

How they are conducted:

Part 1: Traditional-type questions: tell me about yourself; why did you apply for this job – to build towards CBI questions and to put the applicants at ease.
Part 2: CBI questions – the same for each applicant, to be able to compare the answers across all applicants.

Preparation: questions

If you’re preparing a client – how do you know which questions they will be asked?

Job description >> isolate key tasks of the job and core values of the company >> turn them into open-ended CBI questions.

Example. Client: regional manger, apple customer experience
Primary responsibility: developing and maintaining a group
Some of the possible tasks and the corresponding CBI questions:

  • coaching them to overcome challenges and difficulties >> Tell us about a time when you coached a team to overcome challenges and difficulties?
  • dealing with interpersonal issues >> Describe a situation when you had to help a team deal with interpersonal issues?
  • building team atmosphere >> Have you ever built team atmosphere?
  • motivating team members >> Tell us about a situation when you had to motivate team members.

But note that we also need to balance achievement oriented and adversity oriented questions.

Preparation: answers

  • Come up with situations from your past that best exemplify your competences – you don’t want to think about that under the pressure during the interview.
  • Apply STAR motel (situation / task / action / result)
  • Even if the question sounds like a closed question, it’s a trick – they still expect an extended answer.

I found this a very useful session. The type of interview that Justine and Akos talked about resembles quite closely the soft-skill part of the interview that some of my learners need to pass, and it is very nice to have a very clear framework for preparing towards this type of interview. I think I’ll be referring both my colleagues and people who need to prepare for the interview to this write-up. 


If you attended my session, please leave your feedback! 

Excel templates: 20 cards out of questions; Randomizer (20 cards out of a long list of questions)

Links to all board games are in the slides (view below or download .pptx from here): – file sharing – the template by Tekhnologic for gamifying discussions – ready-made card sets, interactive games
If you have any questions, please email me at:


Just a quick post spreading the word about an online CPD event taking place this coming Sunday (20 March). A group of teachers in Russia is organizing a one-day online conference focusing on Technologies in teaching English, as well as a range of ELT topics. The abstracts look very exciting, and I’m really looking forward to the event (also very happy to have been invited to give a workshop). Check out the abstracts at the conference website (below is a quick overview of the sessions). If you find something that’s of interest to you, see you there!


Time /Stream Technologies in teaching English

09:00 – 09:15 Msk time (06:00-06:15 GMT)


09:15 – 09:55 (06:15-06:55 GMT)

Nik Peachey “Tools for exploiting digital video”

10:00 – 10:40 (7:00 – 7:40 GMT)

Russell Stannard «What role can the flipped classroom play in teaching English»

10:40 – 11:15

Coffee Break

11:15 – 11:55  (8:15 – 8:55 GMT)

Sara Emin E-assessment: How technology can reshape our assessment practices

12:00 – 12:40 ( 9:00-9:40 GMT)

Mike Harrison “Six-second stories: deconstructing and understanding narratives in short form video”

12:40 – 13:15

Coffee Break

13:15 – 13:55 (10:15 – 10:55  GMT)

Sylvia Guinan “Engaging Young learner online”

14:00 – 14:40 (11:00 – 11:40  GMT)

Vanja Fazinic “Learning Language through creative process of filmmaking”

14:45 – 15:00 (11:45 – 12:00  GMT)

Yulia Belonog: Vimbox ecosystem for online language teaching

15:00 – 15:30

Coffee Break

15:30 – 16:10 (12:30 – 13:10  GMT)

Angelos Bollas «Speaking Homework using VoiceThread for Intermediate Students»

16:10 – 16:50  (13:10 – 13:50 GMT)

Olya Sergeeva “Creating games with technology – a real time saver”

17:00 – 17:15

Thank you
Time/Stream ESOL

9:45 – 10:15 Moscow time (6:45 – 7:15  GMT)

Tatiana Odintsova «Russian State Exam (EGE) speaking: effective preparation strategies»

10:20 – 10:50 (7:20 – 7:50  GMT)

Natalia Kachan “Dogme: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats”

10:55 – 11:25 (7:55 – 8:25  GMT)

Elena Peresada How to Gamify your English Class

11:25 – 11:45

Coffee Break

11:45 – 12:15 (8:25 – 9:15  GMT)

James Egerton «Examining obsessions: Exam preparation classes, their effects on the individual and society, and what we can do to reduce the negatives»

12:20 – 12:50 (9:20 – 9:50  GMT)

Marina Kladova “Designing Creative Tasks to Develop Language Proficiency within the TBLT Framework”

12:55 – 13:20 (9:55 – 10:20  GMT)

Anna Pochepaeva “Last-minute solutions for successful preparation for Russian National Exam”

13:20 – 13:40

Coffee Break

13:40 – 14:10 (10:40 – 11:10  GMT)

Mike Astbury “Grammar Games: practice and production of the target language”

14:15 – 14:45 (11:15 – 11:45  GMT)

Lizzie Pinard “Developing learner autonomy”

14:50 – 15:20 (11:50 – 12:20 GMT)

Valeriya Meshcheryakova “How to speak English to a 3-year-old.” Talk in Russian!

15:25 – 15:55 (12:25 – 12:55 GMT)

Duda Costa “A Taste of Dogme for Young Learners”

16:00 – 16:15 (13:00 – 13:15  GMT)

Zoltán Rozgonyi “Why do learners _________ exams?”

This blog was nominated for Macmillan Dictionary Love English Awards, which came as a very pleasant surprise! Thank you to all of you who nominated my blog! If you like this blog and want to vote (or if you’d like to find some really interesting blogs to read), follow this link.

vote for us_love english2


Just a ‘yay!’ post

Posted: September 26, 2014 in Uncategorized

My colleague Adam Howell and I have just finished a teacher training course (the first ever for me!) It was a 5 day long intensive in-service course with daily input sessions and observed teaching practice – we said the final good-byes an hour ago and I’m bursting with pleasure. =)

It was an overwhelming week – I don’t know of anything, really, that creates the atmosphere of care and support better than those crazily intensive courses, and experiencing that as a trainer was not in the least less overwhelming than experiencing it as a trainee. But even today in the morning I wasn’t really sure whether any of it worked. However after seeing the last observed lessons today and reading the list of ‘take-aways’ that the trainees compiled I think it did.

Yesterday Adam and I compiled a session that was based entirely on the issues that arose from observed TP. Since it’s rooted so much in our particular situation I’m not sure it could be of any use to anyone, but I thought I’d put it up here for future reference – and also as a reminder to myself of the kinds of issues that less experienced teachers might be struggling with, because for me it was very challenging to know what to expect while I was preparing for the course.

We organized the session as a series of ‘case studies’. I especially liked the way the last case study on boardwork worked – owing a debt of thanks to Jonny Ingham for his wonderful sample of board work in his post on tweaking error correction.

Case 1:

Situation: Ss were asked to use phrases (for discussing problems/possible solutions in a meeting) to discuss problems. Ss were not given examples or problems to work with.

Issue: Ss had two tasks hidden as one – in addition to using the target language, they had to do the creative work of figuring out what to talk about.

Possible solution:

Other possible solutions:

Case 2:

Situation: Ss were asked to do a role play of a decision-making meeting, using polite phrases for agreeing/disagreeing. Role play was for directors of a kitchen appliances company considering outsourcing production from the expensive UK.

Issue: Ss ended up reading arguments from the card rather than their own utterances, due to a) irrelevance of the subject to Ss and/or b) no familiarity with vocab/concepts on the cards themselves.

Possible solution:

Other possible solutions:

Case 3. Exploiting opportunities for communication  

Situation 1: In a lesson on future forms, students write 5 sentences about their future plans. The task is to try out the following expressions: I’m going to.. I’d like to.. I will… Present simple for timetables. After the activity, each student reads out their sentences and the group moves on to the next activity.

Issue: The students are a bit bored.

Task: Devise a follow-up task to give the students the chance to communicate. 

Case 4. Listening

Situation: A group (A2) listens for the first time to the opening of a presentation that will be used to mine for job interview expressions. The teacher assigns a gist task (4 simple question). After the first listen he asks ‘What is the answer to number 1?’ etc. The same student gives answers to all the questions.

Issue: Only one student understood the listening text. The rest of the students are unlikely to understand target language from the text because they didn’t understand the text.


Other possible solutions:

Case 5. Feedback to pair work

Situation: Students get a list of personal traits and qualifications and are asked to sort them into the ones necessary for a TV presenter, for a sales director or for both, and then come up with a job description. They do the task in pairs. For feedback, one person from each pair reads out their job description.

Issue: While one person is reading their description, the remaining students aren’t listening.

Task 1: Devise a specific task that will make it necessary for everyone to listen.
Task 2: Devise a specific communicative task that will encourage the students to share the results of their work.

Case 6: Personalizing the language


Lesson aim: Students will be able to answer questions in a job interview.
Situation: The students do a vocabulary matching task, in which they match 12 personality traits with their definitions (e.g. ambitious – really want to achieve a lot). The students cope with the task well and move on to read a text about 3 people who have some of those traits.
Issue: In the task at the end of the lesson, the students don’t use new vocabulary.


Other possible solutions:

Case 7. Giving feedback.

Lesson aim: Students will be able to speak about qualities and requirements for different types of jobs as well as describe what necessary, preferable, mandatory, prohibited for different jobs.

Lesson focuses on 4 modals of obligation (should/shouldn’t, have to, must/mustn’t)

At the end of the lesson the students produced:

S2: Applicant must be workaholic, he must good for studying, he must interest in new technologies and he must have a high degree in engineering academy and he must have five year experience in IT sphere.

S3: Applicants must be experienced in management, have fluent in English , have strong negotiation skills and have strong record in selling.

Task: think what delayed correction you’d give. Decide:

  • what to focus on
  • organize boardwork – refer to this sample of boardwork:

This awesome sample of boardwork was created by Jonny Ingham – see the post here:


















That’s us trying ideas out – we went from board to board, pointing out really effective elements and suggesting improvement – and in the end the teachers redesigned the boards taking this feedback into account.

2014-09-25 17.21.18

Today we revisited that session on case studies and formulated a few ‘tips for a successful lesson’ that came out of those cases.

After that, the teachers went off to spend a few hours coming up with a full list of tips that had come out of teaching feedback sessions that they had started incorporating into their teaching. Somehow it was a pleasure for me to read, so this being a ‘yay’ post, I’m including the list. =) Capture



I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my tortuous path in learning German. It seems to be a showcase of  non-mainstream techniques and absolutely none of it was ‘traditional communicative classroom’ learning. I owe a large proportion of non-standard techniques and little tweaks that I use in my teaching to that experience. However, I also probably owe it a bunch of teaching insecurities and a lot of my own bias against some (possibly, effective) techniques. I was going through some of my German notes recently, and what I noticed there prompted me to write this post.

Period 1. ‘Grammar-translation’. I studied German for 3 years in secondary school (grades 5, 6 and 7). I don’t remember much about the lessons but I do remember we did some grammar exercises, some coursebook reading and some dictations. I remember lexical notebooks with lists of words with translations (the reason I remember that particular notebook is that there was a ‘cartoon’: if your flipped through the pages fast enough you could see a figure ski down a slope). The only lesson I remember was our teacher inviting a native speaker to give us a dictation. The whole group was in a state of shock: we couldn’t understand a single word. He read the 3-sentence text once or twice (totally incomprehensibly), and then our teacher read it again and it was crystal-clear. The second thing I remember was a poetry reading contest. I spend several days memorizing a 3-stance poem (it went ‘Der Sommer ist die schönste Zeit.. and then something else).

The outcome? During summer vacation after the seventh grade I made friends with a boy who was Russian but looked distinctively foreign. He told me that he knew English and that, whenever someone was criticizing him on the bus, he’d reply in English and pretend not to understand. This aroused my curiosity about foreign languages and I started reviewing what I myself could say. With English (which I had been studying since 2nd grade), it turned out I knew something like 100 words, could use only present simple, and also I was unsure how vocabulary was to be spellt (e.g. ‘cup’ or ‘cap’?) With German, the only thing I could say was ‘Ich heiße Olga’ (My name is Olga). So much for 3 years of studying.

Lessons learnt. As a teacher, this experience made me painfully aware of just how inefficient some teaching methods can be. In particular, it made me very wary of teaching anything that’s not perceived as relevant by the students. It also made me very wary of doing anything that didn’t comply with my teaching beliefs, which came from my subsequent successful English-learning experience and went along ‘language should be used for communication and students should be encouraged to think in English’. As a result, in my first years of teaching very often I just couldn’t bring myself to doing a sequence from the coursebook, in part because some of that content was seemingly irrelevant to my students, and in part because in my opinion some of those exercises didn’t make methodological sense. It wasn’t arrogance of any sort – more like I mistrusted the materials so much that I felt my students would sense that and I just wouldn’t be able to pull it off.

Period 2. Grammar-translation + motivation + a bit of audio input. The second time I attempted to learn German was when I made a German friend at a student school. I knew I’d meet him again in 6 months so I decided to learn some German while we chatted online in English (ironically, I suspect that it was these 6 months of chats that really boosted my English from B2 to around C1-C2). What I did was read a bit (this proved very effective for learning the initial stock of around 300 words in no time), take around 10 hours of lessons with a private tutor (grammar-translation type of lessons again – and despite the 3 years at school we had to start from scratch), attempt to work with some grammar books and memorize vocabulary. I also listened to an audiocourse for German learners based around funny sketches (called Wie so nicht?) and ‘spoke’ to myself in German quite a lot.

The outcome. When I went to the second student school to Germany after six months of studies, I didn’t feel that I’d progressed enough to communicate. I did try to speak once (not with the friend who inspired the learning, though) and apparently I could say something but my grammar was atrocious.

Period 3. Input flood + some grammar awareness. I gave German up for a few years and when I took it up again, I listened to a few ‘stage 1’ graded readers, loved them and then just found a Harry Potter audiobook that I knew almost by heart in English and tried to listen to it over and over again. Initially, when I played a random file I could only roughly guess which scene it was. I kept listening to it on my way to and from work, 2 or 3 hours a day and bit by bit I understood more and more. It was a like one big puzzle: I suddenly understood what this or that expression must mean and then understood it later on, which would give me enough context to guess what something else meant. By the end I was more or less able to understand every sentence, and I started listening to other unabridged audiobooks created for German children. The only productive practice I had during that period was predicting the next sentence in the audiobook and doing an acclaimed audio course by Michelle Thomas (I absolutely loved that course. It’s mainly based on oral translation exercises). I also tried to learn some vocabulary, in particular word genders, using Super Memo (spaced repetition) software, but it wasn’t that successful.

The outcome? A few months of listening to audiobooks boosted my passive vocabulary (although it was incredibly difficult to recall words when I wanted to say something and I was never sure how to conjugate verbs or gender the nouns where). This also brought my Listening (and Reading) skills to around B1 (I coped easily with graded audiobooks at that level). Moreover, in contrast with my previous attempts to learn the language, the skills seemed to stay with me and I still could understand German speech after another long break in studies.

Lessons learnt: One of the biggest challenges of teaching in a monolingual environment is that very often students don’t come in contact with any English between classes. Moreover, when they come to private language schools they expect the class itself to be mainly based around speaking activities, so they do not encounter long texts or listening passages in class either.  I spent months reading ELT literature trying to find proof that extensive input was a pre-requisite for successful language learning. Most researchers just write something along these lines: ‘It’s widely accepted that learners need a rich and meaningful exposure to language in use’ but ‘widely accepted’ isn’t convincing enough to persuade my super-busy Business English learners to find time for reading and watching videos in English. The consideration that does work for them is that that the parts of the brain involved in grammatical processing are not the same parts of the brain where ‘grammar rules’ are stored and, as it turns out, acquisition of grammar requires extensive input, as grammar processing is in part developed by a ‘pattern recognition’ mechanism which feeds on input and requires noticing language in input. This is an argument they buy – and once they do, I suggest a few specific strategies for them, which are outlined in this post.

With my secondary school students, I just established an ‘extensive reading programme’: I bought some 30 graded readers and around 15 unabridged books and I ask them to pick a book at least three times a year, read it and give it a rating and/or write a short review.

Lessons not learnt: I absolutely loved Michel Tomas’s course, and it showed me that oral translation exercises of incremental difficulty are both useful and enjoyable. I felt that three aspects of the course were extremely significant: first, I was formulating full sentences, not just conjugated the verb to fill a gap. Second, I translated orally. Third, I got immediate feedback. Fourth, I was able to control the pace and replay/redo some lessons if I felt I hadn’t mastered the topic. However, for some reason (mainly because I’m not sure how to implement that working in a group) I haven’t incorporated translation or the other principles into my teaching. Initially I was very enthusiastic about creating an adaptive learning environment for my students, but I never figured out how to approach this.

Period 4. Community language learning + the keyword technique In the summer of 2012 I attended a fascinating workshop on the Keyword technique, which is a vocabulary learning technique based on visual associations. The trainer , who’d developed his own variation of the technique, made a claim that was quite difficult to believe, saying that using the technique it was possible to memorize around 100 words an hour and, with the right approach to revision, retain most of that vocabulary for a long time. By that time I’d started teaching English so I decided to revive my German  in order to experiment with the technique and maybe teach it to my students.

To do that I found a native speaker to talk with over skype. Because my primary goal was to test the vocabulary learning technique, what I was trying to achieve was have a (longish) list of vocabulary to learn after each lesson. What we decided to do was to talk and, as soon as I needed an expression, I’d ask for it and Sevi would write up a German equivalent in a Google document. If I wasn’t sure how to use the expression, I’d try it out in my own examples/ask Sevi to give me some more examples. Then I’d learn that vocabulary.

Here’s what this typically looked like:

+Ich mache alles auf den letzten Drücker.= at the last minute
+Ich brauche diesen Zeitdruck
+der Zeitdruck= pressure of time
+Das ist kein Thema. that’s ok
+etwas verschieben put off
+auf einen späteren Zeitpunkt verlegen
+Wegen des Regens, …
+es is Sehr lange her way back
+die Handlung plot
+Es ist lange her, dass der Film gedreht wurde.
+Der Film wurde in XXX gedreht.
+das dauert 5 bis 10 Minuten je nachdem, ob ich …
+befassen sich mit (deal with)
+Fachbereich – факультет
+ich studiere in Fachbereich A
+im Allgemeinen in general
Here’s the rest of the file: Deutsch with Sevi

The outcome. The outcome was exhilarating. Before the first lesson I was terrified because that was the second time ever I’d try to speak to a person and I didn’t really think I’d be able to say anything. Within five or six 60-minute lesson I started to feel quite confident talking. It was pretty easy to memorize the expressions using the technique (I never sped up to 100 words/hour, more like 65 expressions/90 minutes, but then those were full expressions and not separate words). There were three interesting things I noticed. First, in the second and third lessons almost every single sentence I was trying to say contained a bit learnt in the first lesson. Secondly, sometimes there were expressions that I couldn’t remember but as soon as Sevi told me I realized that I knew them. Initially I told her not to add those to the file. Soon though it became apparent that I’d need for such an expression to come up five or more time to stop forgetting it, whereas the ones that I’d memorized and revised I was able to retrieve. So deciding not to learn & revise a word because you ‘kind of know’ it is really counterproductive. The same went for correction: she would correct the same mistake over and over again, and the way for me to progress was to write an expression down and learn it.

Also, in my search for vocabulary to learn, I tried to look for some interesting vocabulary in films / the first Harry Potter book. I brought those to lessons and we would discuss how to use those expressions. In general, I’d say that that was much less efficient and that language was definitely much less memorable and more confusing than language that came out of our conversations.

Lessons learnt. Around that time I was teaching a Business course in-company and attendance hit a record low, with only one student attending for 3 or 4 classes. That particular students had severe problems with accuracy (which was below the level of the group and I hadn’t been able to address that previously very well when there were other people attending). So I seized the opportunity to do a lot of mistake correction with  him and capture his output in a Microsoft Word document, along with ideas how to upgrade his language, in a similar way to how Sevi was capturing mine. This resulted in a mini-miracle: the student started to speak much more confidently and more accurately in a matter of several classes and he was extremely happy and enthusiastic about getting this kind of feedback. So when another three course participants finally started attending I had no other choice but to keep doing the same thing with the group.

Since then I’ve started capturing learner output with all my adult groups, and I’d say this is one most important tweak I’ve done to my teaching as a result of my own language learning experience. I was a bit wary of doing that because typing something on a laptop while students are talking would look a bit odd, but as soon as it’s clear for them what I’m doing they start to expect me to type the feedback an not slack off :). Here’s what typical output looks like:
It’s used at the end of the lesson as a bit of review and at the start of the next lesson as a mini test – a routine that the students respond very well to. What impressed me the most was that, while my adult students consistently refuse to do any homework from coursebooks, most of them do find the time to revise this personalized feedback and do cope with the mini tests/reuse this language in speech.

Lessons learnt only partially. Learning that much vocabulary relevant for me in a matter of weeks was only made possible because I constantly code-switched (switched to English to explain what expression I was looking for). I do allow my students to code-switch occasionally, making sure that that language makes it to the file with feedback, but for my students lessons have never turned into what my German lessons were for me: actively using communication to identify as many gaps in my knowledge as possible and immediately getting feedback on how to fill those gaps.

Lessons not learnt. Recently I was looking through the notes of my first ever lesson with Sevi and this was the first time I analyzed what language came up in her feedback. There are several clear groups of expressions.

Apart from ‘topic-specific’ lexis (we were talking about my job teaching teens) there was

  • language to talk about feelings/evaluating experiences (it was ok/worst of all was that../it was terrible/ it was challenging )
  • along the same lines, some sentence adverbs: (unfortunately/ luckily/mostly / also / at least)
  • a lot of meta-language to clarify the use of some expressions and manage the lesson (informal/this isn’t used like that/irregular comparative forms/I’ll delete that/cross that out)
  • a lot of expressions to compensate for lack of vocabulary (this is something like…/the opposite of…/I can’t think of a good English equivalent-word/there’s no equivalent in English)

In my own courses, out of these four groups only meta-language (‘classroom language’) features early on in the syllabus. Compensatory strategies feature too (students play ‘taboo’ and other guessing games), but the range of expressions usually taught is somewhat more restricted.

Summary. My experience learning German was so long and non-uniform that it’s really difficult to draw any conclusions. Regarding methodology, I can see that a lot of what I do in class is still at odds with my learning experience – the fact that pushes me to dig further into methodology books looking for some definitive answers. Where I find that I was proved right by research I immediately let my students know (in particular, I spend the entire first 90-minute lesson nowadays discussing the mechanics of how languages are acquired and the value of revision and input – TED talks made by successful language learners are of immense help here; I also spend 90 minutes practicing the keyword technique in class). In general I’d say that quite a lot of my own intuitions are borne out by research – e.g. a while ago I found this fascinating presentation by Magnus Coney called ‘How we learn’ in which he surveys some 20+ articles and quite a lot of what he found resonated with me: Still, after writing so much on ‘lessons not learnt’ here I’ll probably soon be experimenting again..