Posts Tagged ‘promoting learner autonomy’

This is one more post in my series of posts about the EVO 2017 session on teaching listening. In this post I want to summarize one more issue that was raised during the session: the use of authentic materials with lower levels.

Below you’ll find some of the ideas and experiences that the teachers participating in the session shared:

  1. Watching short clips for fun
  2. Using songs
  3. Grading the task by using the material as a warmer or a lead in
  4. Micro listening: focus on grammar
  5. Vox pop videos for word hunt or micro listening
  6. Watching the video without the sound
  7. Some thoughts on the role of assessment and a case study: following a news story
  8. Authentic listening (and speaking) out of class

But first, let’s look at some pros and cons of using authentic materials with lower levels.

A lot of the session participants voiced concerns about using authentic materials with lower level learners, such as:

  • it takes a lot of time to find extracts that lower level learners would have any chance of coping with;
  • even with these extracts, the learners are often frustrated that they don’t understand much;
  • one often hears ‘grade the task not the text’. But what are some examples of graded tasks? And won’t it happen that we’ve graded the task, but the learners fail their ‘inner task’ of understanding more or less everything, and still feel frustrated?

So do lower level learners need to work with authentic materials at all? Here are some reasons why they do:

  • the learners might be exposed to authentic materials outside class (especially in ESL / business Engish settings, but also on the Internet and while they travel) – they need to prepare for that in the safe classroom environment;
  • coping in some way with authentic materials gives tremendous sense of achievement to lower level students
  • using authentic materials in class will give the learners the courage to try to ‘get out there’ and start practicing out of class, which is great for language acquisition. This will be especially useful if we discuss with the learners specific ideas where they might find suitable materials and what they could do with them.

Image source:

So what are some sources of lower level materials, and how can we use them in class? 

1. Watching short clips for fun

Oksana Kirsanova, an English teacher from Russia, encourages her learners simply to watch very simple funny videos like the one below.

The video could be shown in class or shared with the learners to watch at home. The learners watch for enjoyment – Oksana sets no task. If the video contains a lot of dialogue, she finds a version with Russian subs.

This is a very simple way to introduce the learners to authentic materials. You probably know a lot of good videos already (who hasn’t shown Eleven of  We’re sinking at some point in class?) but it’s worth building a bigger collection and showing/sharing the videos regularly throughout the course. One good source of such videos is funny commercials. There are lots of compilations on YouTube – if only some commercials in a compilation are appropriate, use to isolate and share only those bits you want to share (here’s an example of a clips isolated with TubeChop).

2. Using songs

This can be extremely motivating for learners, especially teens (but not only)! There are lots of songs that are suitable for lower levels because the pronunciation is very clear. Again, it’s worth building up a collection to use throughout the course (or Google some ready-made collections, like this one). There are two challenges: doable tasks and finding songs that are relevant for the learners.

Some ideas for tasks:

Svetlana Bogolepova (Russia) got her learners to listen to Yesterday by Beatles and clap every time they heard the word ‘yesterday’ – which is a very simple activity that encourages the learners to notice the words they know in songs. I think this kind of activity could be a great lead-in (or warmer / filler) to some topics dealt with at Elementary level (e.g. adverbs of time or past simple).

We got more examples of tasks to be used with songs from this article by Nik Peachey on A framework on planning a listening skills lesson (scroll to ‘Applying the framework to a song’). Some of the tasks that Nik offers are:

  • listening to the song and deciding if it’s happy or sad;
  • listening and ordering jumbled up lyrics;
  • listening and correcting mistakes in a summary of the song pre-written by a teacher.

Regarding the question of finding relevant songs, I’d predict this would be a real issue with teens, who might not be very motivated by having to listen to, say, Abba! I think the best idea with learners who feel strongly about this is to involve them in creating/maintaining a list of songs with clear pronunciation. The learners could be encouraged to maintain a board like this one curated by Teaching English – British Council.

3. Grading the task by using the material as a warmer or a lead in

One of the concerns that the participants of the EVO raised was that the learners are bound to understand little in authentic materials, which will frustrate them. One way to help learners feel more OK with the fact that they don’t understand everything is to use the material not as the main listening text in the lesson, but as a warmer, setting a task that the learners could cope with.

E.g. with the following video the learners could

  • watch the video and guess the topic of the lesson (food)
  • watch the video and note down all foods they could see
  • a word hunt activity: watch the video and note down all food-related vocabulary they heard someone say

4. Micro listening: focus on grammar

This is something I love doing with my lower level students: using video compilations that show lots of examples of just one grammar point, like this one:

I normally do this as a part of a grammar lesson, asking the learners to fill the gaps the transcript:

 1. Spider-Man ________ hero.
2. ______ ready? ______ born ready.
3. A hundred years ago, ______ one and a half billion people on Earth.
4. Exactly! ______ a worker, but now _______  war hero!
5. Oh, right! _______ my sister.
6. But ______ young and proud!

You’ll find the end of this exercise and a lot more links to such videos in this blog post.

A big issue is that these videos come with hard-coded subs. I dealt with this simply by dragging some kind of window, e.g. an open notepad document, over the subs area.

Another issue that one session participant raised was that these extracts are decontextualized. I think that that’s not much of a problem, because the visual element is so rich it provides micro context – notice how the feeling that one gets watching these videos is very different from if you were listening to the extracts.

5. Vox pop videos for word hunt or micro listening

Another source of videos that are ideal for word hunt or micro listening, because they naturally provide multiple examples of the same language feature, are so called vox pop videos (videos in which people in the street get asked the same question – normally there are two or three questions per video).

I’ve found several sources of such videos:

  • Speakout video podcasts for all levels, including Starter and Elementary, freely available on their site. For example, the learners could watch the following video and note down all family vocabulary they can hear (word hunt) or count the number of times the word ‘my’ is used (this could lead to a micro ‘pronunciation for listeners’ activity, as ‘my’ is often pronounced as ‘mu’):
  • Real English videos uses the same idea. E.g. in this video people in the streets say how old they are – the learners could listen and note down the numbers they hear
  • Vox Pop International, an authentic YouTube channel, also contains some videos suitable for lower levels. E.g. watching this video the learners could note down all adverbs of frequency they hear:
  • If you are subscribed to onestopenglish, they recently created Live from London, a great collection of such videos with worksheets and transcripts. Here’s a sample video, with ideas how it can be used with Pre-Intermediate learners and higher.

If you want to try how listening to such videos feels, why not try this video in Mandarin Chinese shared by Curt Ford, another EVO participant:

What I like about vox pop videos is that they’re so adaptable to a range of activities: while they could easily be used for a quick micro-listening activity or a ‘word hunt’ warmer as described above, they could also be used in the traditional gist – details – follow-up lesson shape:

  • Stage 1: the teacher board the two or three questions asked in the video on the board, uses tubechop to play the corresponding two or three extracts in which people answer the questions, the learners watch and match the extracts to the questions (Variation for a higher level group: the learners watch and guess the questions).
  • Stage 2: the learners do a micro-listening (fill in gaps focusing on one grammar feature) or a word hunt activity.
  • Stage 3: the questions are used for a speaking activity (either in pairs or mingling).

6. Watching the video without the sound

Heather McKay shared an activity that helps the learners to draw on the paralinguistic features in the clip (body language, context, facial expressions, etc). Before watching the clip with the sound, she plays it several times without the sound, for the learners to draft the dialogue/share their predictions with each other.

Here’s a sample clip she has used this approach with:

A useful source of such clips is Claudio Azevedo’s web sites/blogs:

7. Some thoughts on the role of assessment and a case study: following a news story

Two session participants, Tanja Debevc and Keith Murdiff, reported on their experience of what happens when authentic materials become part of the end-of-course exam. They have experienced a real positive backwash, as both the teachers and the learners want to target the type of material that the learners will be assessed with. A big challenge is, of course, designing graded exam tasks that the learners would cope with. Tanja shared a link to a book which features exam tasks for lower levels based on authentic materials.

What is more, their experience shows that the learners cope with a lot more than we assume they might cope with. In particular, Keith prepares his learners for an exam in which they need to follow a news story. This is why one of the tasks he sets to his learners is to choose a news story and listen to all news they can find related to the story (online and on the radio) over a period of time. Keith’s experience is that the learners have a lot of context (as he puts it, context is king), the learners are able to cope with, benefit from and enjoy difficult listening texts and discern a lot of detail. The learners are provided with a worksheet that focuses on story-key vocabulary, main actors and their role in the story, predictions on how the story will develop and a summary of the news. The learners use this framework to follow up on their listening in class, sharing with other class members.

8. Authentic listening (and speaking) out of class

I think that the idea for getting the learners to follow a news story outlined above exemplifies two key ingredients for encouraging listening to authentic materials out or class: the learners need specific ideas what to listen/watch and they need very specific tasks to do while they listen.

Recently I attended a webinar on encouraging learner autonomy by David Nunan in which he shared a number of case studies from a book they’d published a year ago. One of the stories he shared really brought home for me how important it is for the learners to be helped both with the ideas what to listen to and the tasks – I want to share it here albeit this story goes beyond the topics of listening and using authentic materials with lower levels. 

In one of the case studies presented by Nunan Mark Cadd, a researcher, was looking into the problem that many students who come back from a summer abroad don’t seem to have improved their language skills that much. The reason is often that they tended to spend time with other students studying a language but they weren’t interacting with the target community.

So he set up a program in which the learners were required, through 12 contact tasks, to interact with local residents and report her reflection back to the teachers.

Sample task
: attend a festival or another public event celebrated in the culture. Speak with at least two members of the culture who are present. Choose two who are quite different, e.g. young vs old, male vs female, etc. Ask why the event is important.

Reflection: Which festival, fair, public event etc did you investigate? What is its history? Did you learn anything meaningful about the culture? If so, what? Did you notice any difference between your style of communication and theirs? If so, what were they? Did you have problems understanding them? If so, what did you do about it?

Reflection needed to be posted to a website available to the teacher and other students.

Cadd found that the fact that they were required to do these tasks was initially challenging and scary for the learners, but over time they found that their anxiety lowered and their confidence, fluency and cultural sensitivity improved. Furthermore, they were able to make connections between what they learned in the classroom and the language they were using out of the classroom.

This story made me think of my recent week-long visit to Germany: I love the language but I didn’t practice it at all. I thought how much easier it would be for me to strike up conversations and take advantage of the language environment if I was on a mission to collect evidence for a project – this would not only give me ideas what to look out for and what to talk about, but also serve as a passable conversation starter, and I would feel a lot less self conscious about asking people questions. I think this idea could and should be applied to the wider issue of scaffolding the learners’ interaction with the target culture, whether they live in a country where their target language is spoken, or interact with the culture on the Internet.

If you’d like to provide your learners with a ‘menu’ of resources they could explore out of class, you could find some useful links on this list that the participants of the EVO session complied – but we didn’t work on a menu of autonomous activities.

All in all, I’m extremely grateful to the participants of the #listeningEVO for the wealth of ideas they’ve shared on this topic. There’s everything here I could wish for: from really simple activities to help introduce authentic materials and build the learners’ confidence, to evidence that it’s possible to plunge the learners at the deep end, provided they get scaffolding and that the institution supports this with higher level decisions such as the contents of the exams. Lots to think about and try out in class. 

The first week of the Electronic Village Online is in full swing! I’m co-moderating the session on teaching listening, and this week, under the guidance of Lizzie Pinard, we’ve started out with the topic of encouraging learner autonomy.

One great thing about online sessions like this one is that there are a lot of participants who share a wealth of tips about the activities and resources they use. From what I’ve read in our discussion threads, it seems that a lot of teachers encourage their learners to watch TED talks out of class, and the participants have suggested a variety of ideas for activities based on the talks.

What also often happens, however, is that the teacher recommends this resource but the learners don’t start using it – and the teacher kind of knows that they don’t, but they don’t even ask because that would be admitting failure (oh haven’t I been there a lot of times?) Below are my takeaways for how to avoid this problem and really help the learners start watching the talks out of class and get the most out of them

First of all, in her live session Lizzie offered some tips how to encourage the learners to start learning out of class in general:

  • provide the learners with a concrete ‘menu’ of things they can do out of class (a handout), because otherwise the learners will feel overwhelmed with the variety of resources out there;
  • educate the learners about the ways we learn languages (e.g. in class after we do a task, spend a few minutes discussing why it was done that way. One example is activating schemata before listening: the teacher could ask the learners to recall what the learners had done before listening, and then discuss how that task helped them to understand more). In general, the more insight the learners have into the way languages are learnt, the  more responsibility they will be able to take and the more efficiently they will be able to spend their out-of-class English time. For the same reason, in the ‘menu’ mentioned above it’s important to provide the learners with concrete ideas for activities that they can do while watching  the videos.
  • make learner autonomy a social experience: if you have lessons twice a week, devote 5 minutes every week to discussing in small groups what the learners have done out of class. At the beginning, predictably, a lot of them will be saying, ‘nothing’, but that doesn’t mean that the autonomy scheme isn’t working – the most important thing is to persevere

So, if we get back to TED talks, this means that

  • the learners need to try out a range of activities that they can use while watching TED talks;
  • they need opportunities to reflect about the effectiveness of these activities for their language learning;
  • they need the social experience of discussing the talks they’d watched out of class.

Below I outline ten ideas for tasks based on TED talks

  • Mind map the talk
  • Take notes using Cornell note-taking grid
  • Evaluate your level using a CEFR descriptor
  • Notice and learn key lexis in the talk
  • Work on your fluency using the 4-3-2 technique
  • Improve your listening and pronunciation by shadowing the speaker
  • Practice listening intensively with TubeQuizard
  • Analyze the speaker’s accent using TubeChop
  • Explore the talks on learning languages
  • Negotiate!


NB To make this list easier to use, I decided to outline sample procedures – they might be quite different from the procedures used by the teachers who suggested the activity.

Before I describe the ideas themselves, here are some tips that work with all these ideas:

  • Introduce the activities over a period of time, one at a time
  • Always model the activity in class before assigning it for homework
  • After you model the activity get the learners to recall what they just did and discuss how this procedure helps them to learn the language. The more the learners understand about the way languages are learnt, the more responsibility they will be able to take for their learning.
  • When you assign the activity for homework, provide the learners with written instructions (e.g. a handout or instructions posted in the learners’ online space).
  • The easiest way to follow up on the activities done out of class is to get the learners to
    (1) retell the talk they’d watched to a partner (if the activity involved producing notes, they can use their notes while they’re retelling) and
    (2) get the learners to discuss what they felt while doing the activity and whether they feel it has learning value for them.
  • When the learners have tried out quite a few activities, reduce the amount of scaffolding to encourage autonomy: let them choose for themselves which tasks they’re going to do while watching the talks (and maybe negotiate with the group how often they’re going to report back to the class, etc).

Mind map the talk

Svetlana Bogolepova from Russia asks her students to analyze the structure of the TED talks they’ve watched and create a mind map of the talk.

Intro lesson:

Choose a (short) TED talk.

Do a topic-related warmer, and then tell the learners that they’re going to watch and analyze the structure of the talk. Tell them a one-sentence summary (e.g. ‘In this talk the person speaks about his experience doing something new for 30 days’) and ask the learners to predict what sub-topics the speaker is going to mention, e.g. why he did this? what things did he do for 30 days? 

The learners watch to check their predictions and then discuss in pairs. As a follow-up, the teacher boards their suggestions in the form of a mind map. The learners copy the mind map.

The learners watch again and add details to the mind map, compare their mind maps in pairs and report back to the whole class.

Finally, the learners

  • recall the procedure of the task (predicting the content, watching the talk once to identify the main points and putting them in writing, watching the talk a second time to note down details)
  • brainstorm the benefits of each step (e.g. predicting the content will allow you to ‘activate’ topic vocabulary).

A sample mind-map:


At home

The learners find an interesting talk and create a mind map that reflects the structure of the talk.
Optionally, they upload a picture of the mind map to the group’s online space.


In pairs, the learners retell the content of the talk they’ve seen to a partner who hasn’t seen the talks (using their mind map), and discuss the talks.

Take notes using Cornell note-taking grid

This idea was shared by Jennifer Rueda from the United States. She gets her learners to reflect on the talks they watch by using the Cornell note-taking technique.

Intro lesson

  • Ask the learners how they usually take notes. How useful are their notes? Do they ever re-read them?
  • Tell the learners that they’ll try a new method called Cornell note-taking. Elicit what they know already about the method. Then give them an article that explains the method, e.g. this one. Get the learners to read the article and, in pairs, (1) compare how they understood the article (2) brainstorm 2-4 advantages and 1-2 disadvantages of the system.
  • Get the learners to draw the Cornell grid, watch a short TED talk and write their notes in the right-hand column. The learners compare in pairs and then fill out the rest of the grid. In new pairs, the learners compare their grids and discuss if they think this method is useful

At home (instructions for the learners):

Choose a TED talk, watch it and complete a Cornell grid.
[Optionally] upload a picture of their grid to the group’s online space

Follow-up lesson

In pairs, the learners show each other their grids, briefly retell the summary of the article and discuss whether they would like to continue using this note-taking method.

Evaluate your level using a CEFR descriptor

Sidney Martin Mota from Tarragona offers a variety of listening tasks for his learners to do autonomously (suggesting they watch news and TV shows, as well as TED talks), and links each task to the appropriate CEFR descriptor for the learners’ target level, e.g. a B2 descriptor for TED talks will be ‘I can follow the essentials of lectures, talks and report and other forms of complex academic or professional presentation in my field’.

At home 

The learners watch the talk and rate their performance of the descriptor on the scale of 1 to 5.

Follow-up lesson

  • The learners briefly share what their talk was about,
  • The learners report on how well they understood the talk
  • The teacher elicits and boards what kinds of problems prevented the learners from understanding the talk (e.g. insufficient vocabulary, etc)
  • In small groups, the learners discuss what activities they can do to work on overcoming the problems

Notice and learn key lexis in the talk

Pomilla Agarwal from India suggested a task in which the learners note down key expressions from the talk and then retell the talk using the expressions.

Intro lesson

  • Choose a short TED talk. Do a warmer, then set a gist task (e.g. the learners predict the content of the talk based on the title and then watch to check their predictions)
  • Open the interactive transcript (either on TED or on Youtube). Choose a collocation that is key to the talk (e.g. ‘do a challenge’). Board the sentence containing the collocation with some parts of the expression gapped out. Ask the learners what’s in the gap, then play the line for the learners to check. Play the line a few more times for them to notice the pronunciation of the expression and practice saying it together with the speaker.
  • Refer the learners to the transcript and ask them two find 5-10 more expressions that are key to the text. Monitor to encourage them to notice more than one word (e.g. if they choose a noun, prompt them to look for the verb that goes with the noun).
  • Board the expressions that the learners have chosen. If there are too many, the learners choose which ones to wipe out.
  • Find the expressions in the interactive transcript to analyze and copy pronunciation.
  • Get the learners to summarize the talk using the expressions on the board (step 1: in writing; step 2: orally).

At home (instructions for the learners):

Find an interesting TED talk and watch it.
Look through the transcript and find 5-10 expressions that will help you summarize the talk. Try to look for multi-word expressions that you already understand but don’t use.
Use the interactive transcript to play the expressions; try to speak with the speaker to copy the pronunciation.
Practice giving a summary of the talk using the expressions.

Follow-up lesson 

The learners briefly report on the talk they’ve seen using the expressions they’ve chosen.

Work on your fluency using the 4-3-2 technique

In this task, the learners retell the talk 3 times, each time speaking faster (this is an activity that I really enjoyed doing with a group of teens).

At home (instructions for the student):

This task is a great way to work on your fluency. 

  • Find a TED talk that is interesting for you, watch it and take brief notes.
  • Retell the talk in 4 minutes
  • Check that you haven’t forgotten any important ideas by briefly looking through the transcript of the talk (alternatively, you could watch the talk one more time)
  • Retell the talk one more time, this time in 3 minutes. You’re working on fluency, so your goal is to retell the talk as fully as possible, but speak faster than last time.
  • Briefly look through the transcript again, and then retell the talk one more time, this time in 2 minutes. Again, your goal is to speak even faster than last time.
  • [optionally] Record the final attempt and upload it to the group’s online space.

Follow-up lesson:

  • In pairs, the learners retell the talk they’ve seen to their partner in 2 minutes. After that, allow a few more minutes to discuss the talks.

Classroom alternative: 

The learners watch the talks at home. After that, in class, they retell the talk they’d seen to a partner in 4 minutes. They change partners and retell it one more time in 3 minutes – don’t forget to explain the goal to them and stress that they need to speak faster. Finally, they retell the talk one more time to a new partner in two minutes.

Improve your listening and pronunciation by shadowing the speaker

This was the idea suggested by Lizzie that a lot of the session participants want to try out (especially since quite a few already have, successfully, either with their learners or as language learners).

In this (challenging) task the learners listen to an extract from the talk and simultaneously speak with the speaker, trying to copy their pronunciation. Read this post for the detailed procedure.

Practice listening intensively with TubeQuizard

At home (instructions for the learners, but first demonstrate the tool in class):

  • Find a talk that has English subtitles on Youtube. The talks with subtitles are labelled ‘CC’.
    To check that the talk has English subtitles, click on ‘More’ under the video, choose ‘Transcript’ and look for ‘English’ (not ‘English – Automatic captions’).
  • Watch the first 2-3 minutes of the talk without the subtitles for general understanding to make sure the topic is interesting for you.
  • Copy the Youtube URL of the talk. Go to and insert the URL into the ‘Youtube video URL‘ field:
    Choose and do at least do 3-5 quizzes. While you’re doing a quiz, do you notice any features of the pronunciation of the grammar structure in the gaps? (E.g. how is ‘was’ pronounced in past continuous phrases? What happens to the ‘-ed’ endings of verbs in past simple?)
    Finally, watch the talk from the beginning to the end. (Click here to see the quizzes in the picture below.)



Follow-up lesson

The learners retell the talk they’d watched to a partner and discuss the talk. They also share what grammar structures they listened to and what they noticed about the pronunciation of these structures.

Analyze the speaker’s accent using TubeChop

Maren Behrend from New Zealand gets her learners to improve their listening skills by transcribing a 30-60 second extract from the video and then using the transcript to check their work and analyze the speaker’s pronunciation, e.g. the weak sounds.

At home (instructions for the learners, but first model in class!)

  • Choose a TED talk with subtitles (see screenshots above).
  • Watch the first 1-3 minutes to make sure the video is interesting
  • If you feel that you need training in understanding the speaker’s accent, transcribe 3-4 sentences and analyze the speaker’s pronunciation. This is easier to do if you can replay a very short extract from the video. In order to do that, copy Youtube URL of your video, go to TubeChop, insert the URL and click  ‘chop it’. Choose a random 5-6 second extract from the video:


Listen to the extract. If you can understand every word, choose another extract. If you can’t understand every word, click ‘chop it’ and you’ll get to the following window where you can replay any part of your 5-6 second extract (click here to try an example)


Listen to the extract 4-10 times and write exactly what you hear. Go back to youtube, open the interactive transcript and find the extract in the transcript. With a different pen, copy the words that you didn’t catch.

Listen to the extract again on Tubechop and try to hear exactly how the speaker pronounces all words (to do that, replay individual words). Listen for

  • the sounds that the speaker doesn’t pronounce
  • the sounds that change from their dictionary form
  • the sounds that the speaker adds
  • the sounds that get attached to a different word

Mark these pronunciation features on your paper:


Finally, put the words that you mark onto this grid (click here for a .pdf version or here for an editable .docx version of the grid):


Repeat with 5-10 extracts, adding new words to the grid. Finally, watch the talk – after the work you’ve done, you should understand the speaker’s accent a lot better.

Explore the talks on learning languages

Anastasiia Gubarenko from Russia suggests to her learners that they watch videos that might actually help them turn into better learners (e.g. talks on how to become self-motivated)!

Also, the learners might benefit from watching the talks about strategies for learning languages autonomously.

Intro lesson:

Follow-up lesson
The learners retell the talks in groups of three and compare:

  • What ideas did all speakers mention?
  • Did any of the speakers contradict each other?

The teacher elicits and boards the ideas. The learners discuss which ones they’d like to try out and how they’d like to try them out (e.g. what will be the completion criteria? what are the best ways to incorporate these ideas into your existing life style?)


This was an idea that Jenny Wright came up with: once the learners have been exposed to a range of strategies, they could negotiate which talk  (or a different resource) they will all watch next week and/or which combination of activities they will do. I think this is a wonderful idea because this seems to be a very natural way to get the learners to talk about the educational value of the activities.


How about you – what are your favourite tasks to do with TED talks?

Have you ever heard of EVO (Electronic Village Online)? These are five-week free professional development sessions that take place at the beginning of every year.

This year I’m extremely excited to invite you to an EVO session on Teaching listening that was developed by Lizzie Pinard, Elena Wilkinson, Jennie Wright, Sheila Thorn, Richard Cauldwell, Richard Chinn, Marina Kladova and me.


The topics we’re going to cover are:

  • encouraging autonomous listening out of class
  • the structure and the dos and don’ts of a traditional listening lesson
  • beyond the comprehension approach: critical thinking and high order thinking (HOT) listening tasks
  • classroom activities and tech tools for teaching listening decoding skills

This is going to be an very practical session and every week the participants will get the chance to

  • share and discuss their experience and tips teaching a particular aspect of listening with English teachers from around the world,
  • read articles and watch videos on the week’s topic and
  • design a listening activity informed by research, try it out and get feedback from other participants and session moderators.

Over the course of five weeks, the participants will also expand their knowledge of online resources and tech tools for teaching listening.

To read more about our syllabus, the team of moderators and for the information how to enrol, visit this page. If you’d like to connect and discuss teaching listening matters with other session participants on Facebook, feel free to join our group.

Also, check out the remaining 15 exciting EVO sessions on a variety of topics, including using QR Codes in ESL/EFL classes, experiential learning for teacher trainers, using technology for Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), teaching English to young learners, using Minecraft to teach English, conducting classroom-based research, teaching pronunciation differently, and more. 

Hope to see you at EVO 2017!

What I want to share in this post happened quite a while ago. It wasn’t anything new in terms of teaching methodology and I’m sure a lot of people reading this post will recognize what they do in the classroom. But nevertheless, the experience keeps popping up in my head and I wanted to share it, because it was one of the most positive experiences in my early years of teaching.

This happened when I was teaching in a secondary school. At some point, when my first ever group reached strong B1 level, I bought lots of graded readers, brought the better half of my personal library of English books to the school and launched an extensive reading programme, asking the students to read graded readers and unabridged books three or four times a year. As a follow-up to each round of reading, we did various activities, ranging from book fairs to informal chats, but one thing that stayed the same was that I asked the students to give the book they’d read a rating and write a short review. Another thing that stayed the same was that the majority of students hated writing those reviews.

I was taking British Council Learning Technologies for the Classroom course at the time, and so we started experimenting with some (pretty basic) technology and ended up with an approach to writing which was a whole lot more enjoyable and productive.


1. Creating the sense of audience
The first step was to migrate all writing to the class group on a social network. Instead of asking the students to hand in the reviews in handwritten form, I started creating a dedicated thread where all reviews were to be posted before the deadline (the evening before a lesson). This gave the students a sense of audience and made the activity a lot more authentic. We used a social media site (a Russian analogue of Facebook) because all students had accounts there, but as far as I know, many teachers use other free alternatives, e.g.

2. Immediate feedback
Since I now got all the reviews before the lesson, I could print them out, mark them in the morning, and then in class the students worked in pairs to edit their contributions on the group page. Apart from the satisfaction of getting feedback immediately after submitting their piece of writing, there were a number of added benefits:

  • This gave the students a good reason to submit their work on time, and in general the proportion of students who did writing assignments increased as a result. Also, in my experience with teens, the very fact that everyone in the group can see who has submitted homework encourages students to do it.
  • Since I was working with a print-out, I felt at liberty to mark the students’ work more extensively without the fear of ruining it – I now not only used error correction codes to hint at mistakes, but also highlighted all nice turns of phrase that I liked in the students’ writing – so the feedback they received looked a lot more positive.
  • Editing itself became a lot easier – no need to rewrite anything and there were no teacher’s comments in the final draft.

3. Autonomous vocabulary learning

One more important tweak was using amazon reviews as a source of language. We did this using scrible – a wonderful tool that allows the user to save any html page to an online library and then annotate it, changing font sizes, highlighting and adding notes:

A typical assignment looked like this:

_) read a book and give it a rating
a) find a book in a similar genre (google ‘top detective novels’, for instance)
b) read reviews on amazon that give that book the same rating
c) highlight relevant expressions with scrible, _save the page_ and create a permalink to share it
d) write your review using these expressions and _underscoring_ them. Post the review along with the permalink here.

In general, amazon reviews are very well written and are a pleasure to read, and the whole group ended up hunting down some great expressions. Those students who chose to use those expressions (around 75%) were able to use them very aptly in their writing. Here are a couple of samples of my students’ work (big thanks to Ivan Syrovoiskii and Danila Borovkov for allowing me to share them here):

The annotated page:
The review:

On the prowl for something interesting, I happened on Bram Stocker’s Dracula. And when I took an abridged book I actually expected that it wouldl be shortened and generally quite tame in comparison to the original. But what struck me was how they’d oversimplified the whole plot.
I guess almost everyone basicly knows the story – it starts with Jonathan Harker’s arrival to the castle of Count Dracula, the very powerful vampire who’s intimidating the whole of Transylvania. But this edition was so shortened that the whole story of how Jonathan, Arthur and Professor Van Helsing struggled to locate and destroy their nemesis turned just in several pages and the life of vampires which original plot concerns – into several plotlines written in simple English.
In general, I want to say that while I was reading this book I was imbued with the notion that I’m reading just a summary of the original Dracula. On reflection, I reckon I need to add that it might be good as a book for studying English, and it should be treated just as a textbook, without looking at plot.
My overall impression is that if you want to read something interesting – read the original book or don’t read Dracula at all – but don’t bother with abridged books, especially with intermediate level.

The annotated page:
The review:

First of all I have to thank Graham Poll for sharing “Seeing Red” with us. It’s very interesting and a times funny read for people who know something about football and you just can’t put it down.
Every day there are some news about players and managers in the media, but nothing about referees. “Seeing Red” allows you to look behind the scenes of refereeing and to look inside the game.This book shows how young boy, linesman in his father’s match, became the best, world popular referee. I’m sure you will find out something new about referees’ regime, training and how refereeing affects privacy. It also includes many details about famous football players and managers, such as John Terry or David Beckhem or David Moyes. With this book you can participate in famous football matches in many tournaments like World Cup, Premier League or Champions League. After reading I understand how much pressure referees are under, how difficult this thankless but absolutely necessary job is and I have gained a whole bunch of respect for them.

Later on we used all the scrible pages produced by the students to analyze the overall structure of a typical review and put together a google document with useful expressions for talking about characters, plot, the author and so on (a great thing about google documents is that a lot of people can edit the same document simultaneously, so the students worked in pairs, each pair researching a particular aspect of essay writing across everybody’s scribble pages).

While I’m at it, here are some ideas what other genres this approach could be used for:

Closing remarks 

As I said at the beginning of this post, a lot of what we ended up doing is standard practice in many language teaching classrooms. However, I still really wanted to share the experience, because for me and my class those tweaks made a lot of difference at the time. They transformed writing assignments from a frustrating chore that the students used to moan about to something that felt good and was a lot more authentic and enjoyable.

And on that note, I must ask: What were some rewarding, happy experiences in your early years of teaching? 

Thanks for reading!

Here’s a simple needs analysis/goal-setting warmer to do at the beginning of a new module or unit, in order to help the group personalize the topic and take ownership of their learning.

Materials: editable .docx worksheet. If you don’t have Microsoft Word, download a .pdf file from slideshare:


Think about where you might use the topic you’re going to study with the group and create a sample case study worksheet (see my example for food below). Ask the students to read the column on the left and guess the words in the column on the left.

T_ _ _ c Food
Something you’re
pl_ _ _ing to do, h_ _e for or
dr_ _m about
My boyfriend and I might stay for a week in Rome in a rented flat
Sit_ _ _ _ _ _n: Supermarket in Rome
T_ _ing to: buy food to cook breakfast (for myself and my boyfriend)
Pot_ _ _ _al
pr_ _ _ _ _s
I might not be able to find our favourite food and I won’t be able to ask the shopping assistant if I don’t know the English equivalents.
How to
pr _ _ _ re:
· Write the list of things my boyfriend and I typically eat for breakfast and learn English equivalents
· Practice a dialogue with the shopping assistant in class

(Key: Topic, Something you’re planning to do, hope for or dream about, Situation, Trying to, Potential problems, How to prepare).

Now distribute a blank worksheet and ask the students to complete it with a plan, a hope and a dream that might be connected to the topic they’re going to study. In open class, get the s/s to share their plans/hopes/dreams and brainstorm a list of places/situations that might connect them to the topic. The s/s pick some of the places/situations and complete goals and potential problems related to the situations. After that, the s/s discuss action points, either in pairs or in a mingling activity. It’s a good idea for the teacher to circulate and suggest some strategies too! Make sure the students keep the worksheets in order to reflect on the goals they’d set when they finish the module.

P.S. Here are some examples of strategies that could come up.

  • [speaking] The person I’m talking to won’t understand me.
    Strategies: use a dictionary to check the pronunciation of important words in this module; use teacher’s feedback to speaking and writing to identify one frequent grammar mistake you make and do some self-study online; learn six expressions to give examples (e.g. To give you an example,…), check that you’ve been understood (e.g. Does that make sense?), reformulate (I mean,…) and summarize what you’ve said (So, to sum up…). Use each expression five times during this module.
  • [ideas/vocabulary] I don’t know much about this topic, so I won’t be able to chat about it. Also, I don’t know vocabulary.
    Strategy: choose three interesting articles about this topic. Read them, noticing topic expressions. Organize the expressions into a mindmap (see examples here) and then practice telling other people what you’ve read about, using your mindmaps (either find someone in this class to meet with in a cafe at the end of the module, or look for a conversation partner on sites like or
  • [speaking] I will have problem giving the presentation because I speak too slowly.
    Strategy: use 4-3-2 technique to practice: deliver the same monologue three times, each time giving yourself less time to say everything. Use a timer!
  • [listening] I won’t understand the waiter.
    Strategy: revise expressions that can be used to ask to repeat / clarify (e.g. Say that again? Pardon?) and reformulate to make sure you understood (So you’re saying …, is that right?). Use those expressions 10 times in class during this module.

Also check out these great handouts with ideas for activities to do outside classroom that Lizzie Pinard shares with her students.

Abstract. It is widely acknowledged that language learning requires use of the target language outside the classroom as well as inside it. However, learner autonomy is often expected rather than fostered. This talk looks at what can be done in the classroom, to help learners harness the rich resources of language accessible outside, with greater confidence and effectiveness.

Slides and Lizzie’s own write-up will appear on her blog.

What is learner autonomy?

Problems with learners’ autonomy

  • How can we talk about giving students control over decisions of curriculum when even most teachers don’t have control over what they teach?
  • Learners lack understanding how to learn
  • Time – there’s never enough time – how to use that time? and how to help use the time outside the classroom better?

Solutions and ideas (Lizzie’s 7 top tips)

  • Find out as much as you can, as soon as you can. Then keep finding out. 
    What do they do to learn English? What do they do outside classroom already? What resources (films? books) do they use? What sites/technology – and how technologically literate are they?
    The starting point is not ‘an ideal learner in your opinion’ – it’s their current state.
  • Plant ideas. Lizzie’s context: students have to compete 10 hours of autonomous study. How do students approach that? Watch six 90-minute films! This time could be spent much better, and that could be their chance to find out what works for them. To scaffold this, Lizzie gives students ‘a menu of ideas’, with space for comments.
    There’s a range of different ideas – there’s balance of challenge (ease to complete) and skills; each idea has focus and clear goals; promoting intrinsic interest; sense of control over task process.
  • This takes time – not only for students to try things out, but also for the teacher to persuade the students to even start trying. Even if some people are not into that at the beginning that doesn’t mean that’s not worth doing. Give the students a chance to discuss (regularly, 5-10 minutes at the beginning of the class) – reluctant ones will get to see how others are benefiting. Get students to share both successes and difficulties. If that doesn’t work in the beginning, that doesn’t mean that that’s a failure and you should give up on it. 
  • Engage metacognition. In real life, they make choices. In classroom they tend to switch off. Get them to think why are we doing this activity? Often the students go ‘To improve our English, teacher!’ If there’s no reason to do an activity other than ‘because the teacher tell you to’, they won’t apply that outside classroom or make connections between what they do in class and their life. Great references: The Autonomy Approach
  • Encourage goal setting. If the students don’t know where they’re going, why would they be doing anything to get there? ‘Learn English’ is too massive. Short terms: identify what you’re going to achieve this week. The principle: (a) identify their goals (b) voice that to somebody. In a subsequent class, they can discuss that. They’ll need to figure out the right challenge – ask them to discuss how challenging that was.
  • Don’t forget about it! If you don’t bring it back to the classroom on a regular basis, that won’t last. The teacher has forgotten about it, so that’s not important, so I can forget about it. If you bring it back, it becomes a part of the course. Example: Lizzie’s students recorded their listening logs. First time half the class didn’t touch them. A month in they all were losing the log.
  • Promote sharing. (E.g. through technology – blogs etc).

I was slightly dazed after giving my own workshop earlier in the day, but Lizzie jerked me back to reality with her concise, insightful talk. I had been looking forward to her talk because recently I’ve become increasingly aware that I need to do *something* to motivate my students to do more (any?) self-study. However, I haven’t got down to researching and devising a coherent scheme – and if my previous initiatives are anything to go by, I’ll make half a dozen mistakes when it comes to putting the scheme to practice. Actually, I’ve already made some glaring mistakes – for instance, I ran a workshop on some (highly effective) vocabulary learning techniques but didn’t follow up on that, and as a result the students in my school didn’t really start using them (and this very fact probably also discredited the technique). The same thing happened when we started out a course by discussing language learning advice from polyglots. Again, there was no follow-up (largely because I saw that the students didn’t do anything, so I was discouraged to do a follow-up which would only have highlighted that the idea had failed), hence there was no chance for the students who did try some ideas out to share their experience, and hence there was very little uptake. So it was great to get this chance to hear about Lizzie Pinard’s approach, to learn what pitfalls to avoid and to get pointers to good books.

P.S. About a year ago I wrote a post with some thoughts how to help learners acquire language through extensive reading and listening – I’d love to discuss that topic with someone, so I’m adding the link to the post here in the hope that someone interested in the topic will want to swap ideas. 


Click here for an overview of all my write-ups from IATEFL 2015.

Another one in a series of fluency-related posts – more links here: contents.

One of the most widely known classroom activities that target fluency is Paul Nation’s 4-3-2 technique: students tell the same story (or do the same task) under progressively stricter time constraints. The idea is that students are pushed to perform faster and are forced to restructure the ‘routines’ they use, and so the ‘formulation’ phase of speech production speeds up.

With my B1-C2 level students I use a slightly more complex procedure. Students find interesting articles online in order to share them in class, but instead of just reading and retelling them them to their classmates using more or less what linguistic resources they currently have, they actively mine text for collocations. This tweak to the activity seems to tie in nicely with a lot of insight into fluency described in the previous post. A variation of this technique which I think really does help to teach functional language at lower levels/to students preparing for exams such as IELTS is described here.

The full version involves some homework on the part of the students and takes around 80/90 minutes of classroom time, although there are some shorter alternatives that do not require homework.

Homework stage:

  • Students choose an article on the internet
  • They mine the text for sets of related expressions (big thanks for this technique to Mark Rooney and Ewan Dinwiddie, in whose Delta Module 2 lessons I first saw it) and organize these expressions into a mindmap. For example, in this online article on education, one predictably finds lots of expressions connected to studying (e.g. ‘grant you a college degree’, ‘take a year-long course’ and ‘broaden your knowledge’) and the internet (e.g. ‘without ever leaving your computer’, ‘bring free education to the masses via the internet’ and ‘available under open licences’), but on closer look lots of other related sets emerge, e.g. ‘quality’ (‘top-notch education’, ‘featured courses’, ‘which few you might want to steer clear of’), ‘quantity (‘it can get quite overwhelming’, ‘over 22 universities in the US alone’, ‘courses on tons of subjects’) and so on.

Classroom stage:

  • Students attempt to recreate their mindmap from memory (~10 minutes) and then look through their original mindmap and, ideally, through the text to see what’s missing (~5 minutes) – they won’t remember more than 30-40% at this stage, but this ‘test’ stage primes them to benefit more fully from revising the map
  • Students practice pronouncing expressions from their mindmaps as fast and fluently as they possibly can (this can be tied in with work on connected speech, e.g. they could be asked to look for instances of linking/weak forms and practice pronouncing those)/resolve any queries regarding pronunciation with the teacher’s help (3-5 mins); I also share this resource that automatically transcribes lists of expressions, so that students can check pronunciation at home
  • In pairs, they retell their article to a partner trying to use the expressions from their mindmaps – there’s always some discussion going on, but this is primarily a monologue (6.5 minutes/each monologue for average-length articles)
  • They look at their mindmaps to see what they forgot to mention/what expressions they didn’t use and why (5 minutes)
  • In new pairs, they retell their article (5.5 minutes/monologue)
  • Having briefly looked at their mindmaps again, in new pairs they retell their articles in 4.5 minutes

For this activity students are normally seated in two circles facing each other (so at each stage those sitting in the inner circle move to the next partner). By the end of the activity those students who sit in the same circle haven’t heard each other’s stories, so they can pair up with someone from the other circle and share what they’ve heard/what they liked the most or found the most surprising (this normally takes another 10 minutes or so).

Here are a few mindmaps produced by my students. What I’ve been noticing is that over time students start producing much better quality maps in terms of expressions they notice.





In my experience, for the activity to be a success, the following factors/steps are quite essential:

  • [a shorter version] start with shorter texts or integrate this with jigsaw reading (lists of places to go to/things to do/films to see etc lend themselves to this, e.g. in a recent class, my B1 students read one tip each from 10 Things to Do in New York City, shared these tips mindmapping between changing the partners and in the end decided which of those they’d like to do the most).
  • [introducing the activity: a lesson plan] try the whole procedure out in class, training the students in sub-steps: first introduce the idea that texts contain sets of related expressions and give them practice in identifying these; then give them practice creating mindmaps; then run the whole activity (mining the text for expressions + minmapping + recreating the mindmap + retelling the text) on the same text together – I’ve used coursebooks texts and also the first two paragraphs in this text, which was more than enough material for a ninety-minute class of B2 students.
    I usually try to first draw the group’s attention to the fact that they don’t remember the expressions from the text; to do that, I ask them to close the text and shout out words and expressions that were there; I board their suggestions and then I ask them what sets of related expressions they see – this helps to introduce the idea of lexical sets and a mind mapping; I draw the draft mindmap and ask students to copy it and to complete it with more expressions from the text. Here’s the draft mindmap we created for the text on education linked to in the previous paragraph:
    After that, the students finished their mindmaps – an average one looked something like that:
    online courses final
    Having done that, they recreated them and retold the text to each other, I then split them into groups: these groups read different paragraphs from the text, repeated the cycle of mining for vocabulary/mindmapping/recreating the mindmap etc helping each other, and then they retold these paragraphs to people from another group
  • [collocations – NOT unknown vocabulary] This activity works great with collocations, but only as long as they don’t contain completely unknown words. If they do, I’d suggest using the keyword technique to learn them first.
  • [safety net] I haven’t needed this yet because my students normally do find and read the articles, but probably it’s a good idea to keep a few interesting print-outs to hand. In that case students who come unprepared can read an article to share while those who did prepare are reproducing their maps; I also ask my students to share the links to the articles they’ve found, as well as photos oftheir maps, in a dedicated thread on a class blog – so I know whether they’ve prepared or not
  • [making the activity methodologically meaningful for students] It’s important to let the student know the rationale behind the activity and explain that they need to speak faster and faster – otherwise they will just skip some parts
  • model the activity: tell the students a story based on an article, encourage them to ask questions/interact with me/clarify unknown vocabulary; share sources (e.g.,, for longer articles and lifehacker.com and for shorter/more fun articles and lists)
  • [personal experience] it was very important for me to try out the entire activity on my own first, so that I knew of the likely difficulties and was able to reassure those students who thought it was impossible to recreate the maps; it is impossible to remember more than 30-40% on the first try, but after a couple of retellings it becomes pretty easy. What I did was pretty extreme, as I tried the activity with a 3-page article from New Yorker on a ramble through the city, and although there was no real plot in the article and although there were over 60 collocations on my map, third time I tried I could retell it using a significant proportion of collocations
  • [catering for tastes] some students don’t like mind-mapping – it’s ok to be flexible, as expressions can be organized into short lists, for instance
  • [revision] encourage the students to revise their mindmaps for a few days and store them safely/upload them to a group blog

Some of the articles my students have brought to class (might be useful to get the process started):
3D printers get cheaper, faster – and more mainstream

Apple iPod creator launches intelligent smoke alarm

Dark energy A problem of cosmic proportions

‘My iPad has Netflix, Spotify, Twitter – everything’: why tablets are killing PCs

Why Do Our Best Ideas Come to Us in the Shower?

Brain-to-brain communication is not a conversation killer

Shodan: The scariest search engine on the Internet

Male brain versus female brain: How do they differ?

A few words on why I think this activity makes sense in view of fluency research

In my previous post I wrote a lengthy overview of what factors are known to influence fluency and how these are mapped to the stages an utterance undergoes before being said. To sum it up  very briefly, one needs to

  • conceptualize/macro-plan: come up with what to say and how to structure it
  • formulate: micro-plan the utterance, retrieve vocabulary in chunks (as opposed to individual words), automatize grammatical processing
  • pronounce chunks fluently
  • monitor after saying the utterance

A regular 4-3-2 activity supplemented with mind-mapping

  • promotes out-of-class reading and gives the students practice in discussing some general interest stories, which might conceivably help with coming up what to say
  • encourages students to notice vocabulary in texts, write it down, and test themselves,  and provides students with a cognitively engaging exercise of identifying lexical sets present in the text (I personally don’t feel bored after a whole hour of doing that), all of which improves retention; promotes learning vocabulary in chunks, which leads to fluency gains
  • helps students to automatize grammatical processing through pushing them to perform faster and faster
  • encourages them to pronounce chunks naturally through the pronunciation practice stage, which improves perceived fluency

In the next post I describe how I use this activity with lower levels to help them with functional language used in social encounters.

A few interesting references
To Really Learn, Quit Studying and Take a Test – on the effect recalling and subsequently re-reading a text has on retention
Nation, P. Learning Vocabulary in Lexical Sets: Dangers and Guidelines  – Learning vocabulary in lexical sets (e.g. ‘apple, pear, plum’) is counter-productive, learning thematically related words (e.g. ‘frog, pond, green, slimy, hop, croak’) produces the best results.

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..

As I mentioned in the previous post, it transpires from Second Language Acquisition (SLA) literature that learning occurs when one notices a bit of language in input that they understand. This is not only true for explicit knowledge (e.g.  the knowledge of individual lexical items or awareness of turn-taking strategies), but also for implicit knowledge (that is, noticing grammar in input helps to develop automatic grammatical processing). For the magic to happen, two ingredients have to be in place. One needs to

  • interpret the bit of language correctly in input
  • consciously notice that this bit of language was used

It might appear that ‘noticing’ goes on more or less automatically, but actually I’d say that by default it does not happen, because all attentional resources (which are extremely limited) are devoted to comprehending the message. So, if you wait a few moments after the learner has heard an utterance, for it to stop being replayed in their phonological loop, and then ask them to repeat what was said, they will probably report the message using their own lexis and employing their own grammatical processing routines and they are likely to be at a loss as to what expressions and grammar was used. For me, one striking example of this occurred when I was at school. My English teacher mostly spoke English during the lesson but occasionally said something in Russian. When I began to understand her more or less easily, I began to notice that I often could not recall whether the last sentence had been said in English or in Russian.

The implications for me as a language teacher are that, if I want my students to learn autonomously, it is not enough to motivate them to go and use English. I need to actually

  • tell them that they need to both understand and notice
  • do something in class to help them to understand + notice

In order to approach this in a more consistent way, I ask myself four questions: What steps could the students take in order to understand more?  What steps could the teacher take to help the students understand more? What could the teacher do to help students notice? What can the students do to notice language?

In my experience, the most important principle regarding promoting any strategy for autonomous learning is to try out the strategy in class at least once.  As for the principles specific to the four questions above, here are some of the techniques that I’ve come up with and tried out (but, naturally, I’d also love to hear what you do, because there are bound to be efficient approaches missing from the list).

  • What steps could the students take in order to understand more?
    1. Read and listen in L2 on familiar topics.
    2. Watch films they’ve already watched in their mother tongue (L1).
    3. Read news stories in L1 and then L2 (some news sites provide the same article in several languages, e.g.
    4. Re-read/re-watch the same text/film more than once.
    5. Fully concentrate on the message first time they listen/read/watch. Trying to pay attention to meaning and form at the same form is bound to affect comprehension. So much so that, according to some studies, students understand less if some grammatical structures have been highlighted in the text.
  • What steps could the teacher take to help the students understand more?
    1. Promote learning high-frequency vocabulary through the key-word technique.
    The students could either use a list of high frequency words to locate gaps in their knowledge – I like Longman Communication 3000 – or use a lexical profiler to find out which words in the subtitles to films they watch and the articles they read are high frequency words that are worth learning.
    2. Consistently work on pronunciation in class. If students consistently mispronounce some words, they might also fail to understand them in speech.
    3. Use authentic materials in class – as my CELTA tutor Simon Brown repeatedly told us, ‘Grade the task and not the materials’ (e.g. elementary students could listen to the news and say: how many news items did you hear? who is each item about?)
    4. Help the students to cope with natural pronunciation of high-frequency chunks and functional words. High-frequency chunks often get distorted in natural speech (no one bothers to pronounce every single sound), so to prevent the situation in which the students ‘know’ a chunk but cannot actually understand it in speech, the teacher could teach such chunks through listening passages (introducing them through a gap-fill). Incorporate the work on natural pronunciation into every single grammar focus session and provide the students with lots of samples of target grammar in natural speech. For example, there are ‘learn grammar with films’ youtube videos, which could be made into a gap-fill exercise targeting weak forms of function words. Here’s an example of a video for am/is/are (there are more links in this post):
  • What could the teacher do to help students notice?
    1. Give the s/s an overview of grammar without expecting them to produce all of these structures in their speech. Make sure they do remember the forms and the ‘rules-of-thumb’ of use and provide them with practice in identifying + interpreting the structures in textsImage
    2. Research typical problems for learners with your students’ mother tongue (L1). Learner English: A Teacher’s Guide to Interference and Other Problems by Michael Swan is a good source. Analyze what features of language the students with that particular L1 fail to acquire even at higher levels and give the students an overview of these particular features; find a good text/video that exemplifies these features and provide practice in noticing.
  • What can the students do to notice language?
    1. Most importantly – re-read/re-listen/ re-watch everything. First time you read or listen it’s almost impossible to pay attention to anything but the message.
    2. Direct their attention:
    > Consciously pick an aspect of language to notice; do not limit yourself only to grammar or only to lexis: pronunciation, the structure of a conversation, the way topic shifts, what people do to sound friendly and formal/informal etc and even body language and facial expressions are worth noticing (come to think of it, it might be a good idea to give the students a mind-map of ‘features worth noticing’ and then conduct monthly follow-up sessions in class in which s/s could report on their findings – see this post for more on how to mind map genres)
    > Pick out a high-frequency grammar structure and listen out for it for five minutes
    > Choose a scene in a film and try to figure out which grammar structures occur frequently
    > Choose a scene in a film and listen out for rising and falling intonation or stressed or unstressed words or the words that are pronounced slowly
    > Depending on the content of a scene in a film, listen out for vague language or ways to express politeness or interaction patterns, etc (warning:I’ve read that films are bad for exploring back-chanelling – characters don’t tend to ‘uh-uh’ as much as they would be expected to in real life)
    > While reading news items, look out for groups of related expressions (here’s a mindmap produced by one of my students based on a newspaper article) :
    3. Students could also compare their own production with the input:
    > On the third/fourth etc watch, predict the line and then compare it with the actual line; notice any differences
    Translate a paragraph of text/subtitles into their language, then translate it back and notice any differences.
    > A strategy that worked wonders for me when I started out learning English: regularly ask yourself ‘Is there anything in this sentence I’ve just read/heard that I myself wouldn’t be able to say?’

I’d love to hear what you think about the strategies suggested in this post – which ones have you used? which ones are, do you think, unworkable? Also, any other ideas on how else to help students notice language are highly welcome!


A mind map of this post:

input = acquisition