THE way?

Central Line

Photo taken from by Ian James, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial licence,

Do you ever want to just say ‘we’re not all doing it wrong!’? People are teaching and learning languages all the time in lots of different ways. There is no one way. There are lots of ways and the more we know about the different ways, the more we can make our own decisions about what is best to do with the people we work with in our particular contexts and also… what is best for us in that situation!

There is not one course or book or meme that will tell us how we should work in our particular circumstances. Our experiences, musings, conversations, the experiences of colleagues and students, stories, research, theory, books, conferences, journals (when we can access them!), initial and ongoing training and education courses – all contribute to our development and our understanding, to our expertise and our ability to be able to respond better to more situations and have a better chance of making learning happen for more people.

So, in terms of initial training programmes, we probably don’t have to worry too much about whether courses like the CELTA are the best way to train ELT practitioners. It’s four weeks long. I doubt it was ever intended to be perfect. But it has started a lot of excellent teachers and professionals on their learning and teaching journeys.

As long as it’s not seen as providing ‘the way’ to do things and that people recognise that our practice will continue to develop and change as we find out more about a wider range of students’ experiences and contexts, then it is probably quite a good start. But the tendency in some areas to see CELTA as essential, as the way to teach English might be where the problems lie with this and similar training courses. It seems that some people do sometimes think it presents how we should be doing things… for the rest of our career! Or, perhaps they think that’s what other people think we should always do. I didn’t do the CELTA but I remember being surprised when, a few years into teaching, an observer praised something I did in the class because ‘That’s what they tell us to do on the CELTA’. It struck me as strange to continue to hold that pre-service training programme as the standard to aim for rather than one to build on.

When I first sat and listened to Jim Scrivener talk about Demand High Teaching at the IATEFL conference in Glasgow in 2012, I found myself thinking ‘But don’t we do this already?’. The person sitting beside me told me that’s what she had been doing until she was told to do it differently on the CELTA. And recently on twitter, Mike Harrison wondered where Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill had observed teachers because what they described was not how he or his colleagues worked. Recently, after reading Geoff Jordan’s suggestion that Demand High Teaching was a dud product, I’ve been wondering if the people they had observed might sometimes revert to what they’ve been taught on the CELTA because that’s what they think observers want to see. I’m not sure. I think in the past that I may have had the inclination to present what I thought observers wanted to see, rather than how I usually worked. (I’m getting bolder now!) But, we do need to recognise the pre-service courses for what they are and be able to move on from them and recognise and value the ways we continue to develop professionally.

I later found out that the person sitting next to me had spent 3 years at university in Poland studying TEFL and then had to do a 4-week CELTA course as her “foreign qualifications” didn’t count. She said she was just one of many. In a blog post on Pre-Service Training, Scott Thornbury reported that in an issue of the EL Gazette, ‘One Moscow-based teacher complained that, to get work, ‘we have to change our methods because only Celta teaching is acceptable. I think Celta is fine, but it isn’t the only way to teach. It would be nice to have other options’.

I don’t think that demand high teaching is a dud product as Geoff suggests, but I am wary when people proclaim things like, ‘We do this in ELT, but we should be doing that’. When has ELT been uniform in its practice and its thinking? We don’t all do the same thing. We shouldn’t all do the same thing. We are different people, working in different places with different learners, at different times of the day and the CELTA is not going to be able to prepare us for all that we might need to deal with. It has its value but we need to recognise the value of other courses and subsequent development.

Building on the CELTA, or whatever initial course we do, with experience, conversations with learners and colleagues, reading, further study and finding new ways to do things and being able to justify why we do them, we develop our knowledge and understanding of what to do in situations particular to our context and not addressed in any ‘how to’ book. Recognising our development we should be better able to resist conforming to what we think people are looking for in observations or inspections backed up by our ongoing learning. As Stephen Kemmis and Tracey Smith write in their book Enabling Praxis, ‘Our capacity to live with, live by, interpret, extend and sometimes creatively trouble or avoid the rules of organisations is one of the things that give us our identities as educators’ (p. 5).

Graded readers in ELT: the benefits and ways of using them – an ELTchat summary

booksHaving not taken part in an ELTchat for a while, nor even having been very active on Twitter recently, I was glad that one of James Taylor’s tweets on book clubs caught my eye and drew me in to the discussion on the benefits and use of graded readers. This post is a summary of the chat.

I’ve long been a fan of extensive reading for language development. Research, personal experience and feedback from learners continue to convince me that it’s a good thing to do. Graded readers make extensive reading accessible to more learners and the benefits of using them seemed clear to those taking part in the chat. Marisa has noticed great improvement overall when she has used a class reader over a number of lessons. Hana felt that reading helped to extend vocabulary in “the most natural way.” Other participants have found that students starting at a low level of reader can progress up through the levels to ungraded texts.

Getting everyone to read, however, is not easy and some people expressed reservations about ‘forcing’ reluctant learners to read. Rather than forcing people to read though, it was suggested that teachers work to encourage and motivate people by providing choice, support and enjoyable and useful classroom activities around reading and graded readers.

Many chat participants were enthusiastic about extensive reading and using graded readers and were keen to pass this on to learners. James tweeted, “ask my students if I think that reading is important… #neverstopsmentioningit”. There’s probably a fine line between encouraging and nagging (and it’s one I often cross… apparently!) but reluctant readers can come to find reading graded readers useful and enjoyable. People who may not have read much in their first language, find that the first book they finish is a graded reader. Vedrana told us how students tell her that “they haven’t read a book since university” but that those “who get into borrowing readers regularly are often thrilled to be reading again!”

The range of abilities and interests of our students means that it’s difficult to find a book that all students find interesting. Similarly, we may often only have one copy of each book. The more choice that we can offer, the more chance there will be something that students enjoy reading and as Marisa pointed out, reading for pleasure is a great habit to encourage, referring us to Stephen Krashen’s talk on language acquisition through compelling readings. Hana’s students were enjoying a new graded reader of ghost stories, while detective stories were popular with Vedrana’s. LeedsAcademy had found interactive fiction where you choose your own ending to be very popular with students. Learners can also be directed towards short stories, articles and as well as non-graded books and texts eventually.

Many chat participants had a selection of readers – a book box or a library shelf or two. Building a collection of books was discussed. Where funding is available, students can be involved in choosing which books to buy from a brochure or online publisher catalogue. An initial personal investment in a few books, and using them for good project work, helped to persuade LeedsAcademy’s DOS in Thailand to buy 40 titles! If there is no funding available, students could agree to buy one or two books each and swap them or students could pay a small fee each time to replenish stocks. Books are increasingly available free online, including graded readers, on library sites and sites such as Project Guttenberg. Some graded readers are more interesting than others and ones written for the language learner, rather than those which are simplified and abridged versions of existing books, are perhaps more engaging. Another option mentioned was to make your own graded reader by simplifying – both challenging and time consuming.

So we can encourage and provide choice, but not all students will be motivated to read on their own and, as a couple of ELT chatters agreed, if they “leave it up to students, they won’t get much out of them”. Time in class can usefully be spent using graded readers to encourage extensive reading for pleasure and for language development. Many activities were suggested.

  • One student at the board writing new vocabulary. Other students listen and follow if there are enough copies.
  • Students can make a personal list of vocabulary and then share with a partner, each explaining items that weren’t problems for them. Then change partners a few times, ending up with a common list of new vocabulary.
  • An information gap activity: each student reads one chapter and then tells others about it.
  • Ask all students to choose a book, read chapter one in class and then tell each other whether it’s good or not.
  • Use short texts for pre-reading activities for the longer text students read at home.
  • Students read at home and come back to class with 3-4 new words to share and recycle as a class.
  • Read a chapter and predict what will happen. Invent the story as a class.
  • Read to learners, particularly young learners, as an introduction to literacy.
  • Use class readers as a springboard for discussion and writing.
  • Students write letters to or from characters, characters’ journals etc.
  • Students write a profile of their favourite character and why they like them.
  • Role play scenes from books and add missing dialogue.
  • Students write a review of a book.
  • Students make a front page of the local newspaper.
  • Students draw a character from a book before watching the film version.
  • Students compare the book and the film.
  • More advanced students compare the simplified version of a book to the original.
  • Guessing activities. Who’s the author? Male or female? Chapter titles? Ending?
  • Students suggest a continuation or a sequel to a story.
  • Stop reading at a crucial point and offer a character advice, “If I were him, I’d… “
  • Students each write a question about the book and then have a class quiz using all of their questions.
  • Graded readers can be given to learners who have finished an activity before others.

Marisa suggested starting a reading circle. Once a fortnight, learners can talk about and review what they’ve read. LeedsAcademy has found the resources available on the OUP site useful for this. These resources help to structure the reading circle. We can also, as James suggested, simply hold more relaxed informal book club sessions. This is something I’ve enjoyed doing with learners and wrote about it in an earlier post and Mike reminded us of Jez Uden’s work with EFL Reading in Cafes.

Other links that were posted during the chat:

I enjoyed my first ELTchat in a long time and will try to make them more often. Thanks to everyone who took part and shared so many ideas and resources. The transcript of the chat can be found here.

Listening for learning

Photo taken from by @mrsdkrebs, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial licence,

Photo taken from by @mrsdkrebs, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial licence,

This post is in response to Nathan Hall’s invitation to take part in an ELT Research Blog Carnival. The first topic is ‘listening’.

In a recent post, the Secret DOS asks, along with many other questions, if there is any more to language learning than memorisation, regurgitation and evaluation. I’d say there is. What that more is, though, may depend on who’s doing the learning and on what and why they want to learn. An essential element, however, must be that learners develop an understanding of how the language is used in different contexts and for different purposes by reading and listening to what and how things are written or said in that language.

But how do we cover all the many possible contexts learners will want to participate in? There isn’t enough time. There are too many learners. Their motivations, interests and goals are too diverse. Well, we don’t. Realistically, we can’t.

We can, however, help learners to apply what they do with us to what they want or need to be able to do in other areas of their lives. Some learners will do this naturally. Others will need support, guidance and encouragement.

With the limited time available to meet face-to-face in many contexts, we can try to expand the learning time by encouraging and guiding learners to take advantage of the language around them to get a feel for how language is used in a variety of contexts, to develop language skills and also to become more aware of their learning. (Even when time isn’t limited, this seems like a good thing to do!)

Jenny Kemp (2010) reports on a study of listening logs kept by students as part of a listening skills module. Essentially listening-focused learning diaries, the listening logs were used by students to record at least five listening experiences per week over the course of eight weeks. Information recorded in the logs included details of the activity – date, source and what happened – and a reflection on the experience. Learners could choose what kinds of listening they included according to their own interests, goals and lives. Any listening activity could be included – listening to songs, topping up mobile phones, a listening task found online, etc. Learners were asked to think about the types and variety of listening they do and how easy or difficult each experience was. They considered how factors such as accent, speed, background noise, interest or tiredness affected their ability to participate in the listening event. They reflected on how they responded, if they enjoyed it, if it was useful and what they would do differently when next in a similar situation.

The accounts in the listening logs showed that learners were aware of their language abilities and learning processes. Whether this awareness was developed through the listening and recording activities or whether learners already had a good understanding of this is not clear. However, having a record did seem to make it easier for them to recognise progress between instances of similar activities.

“This time it was better because I already knew what the machine was going to ask me, although I think that I can understand it much better than before.” (Learner 2)

They showed an understanding of what makes an experience more difficult and of the strategies they could employ to make it easier.  Instances where learners simply recorded their problems were opportunities for the teacher to offer feedback and advice.

One of the aims of the listening logs was that, as learners developed metacognitive awareness, they would be more able to take control, make decisions and direct their own learning and development. The entries provided evidence that learners anticipated difficulties in particular situations and took action to minimise these or that they set themselves learning challenges to move towards their goals. “Next time I’ll make my mind work harder, no subtitles” (Learner 9). Learners also recorded an awareness of the new language that they were learning from their listening activities.

Kemp found that the listening logs provide insights into students’ motivation for learning English through the situations they choose to participate in and their reflections on the experiences. The logs can also, she argues, “be instrumental in [motivation’s] generation”.

Keeping the logs seems to increase learners’ awareness of their language ability and learning processes and strategies, allowing them to use those insights to make decisions about future learning and language use.  It encourages learners to take control over their own learning and to recognise progress in areas that are relevant and important to them.

As Kemp writes in the introduction to the article:

“As language teachers, our goal should be to provide these learners not only with transferable skills but also with guidance, to raise their awareness and enable them to become independent learners who are able to exploit the potential learning situations in which they find themselves.”

Jenny Kemp’s consideration of the entries in her students’ listening logs provides us with insights into the thinking and learning processes of her learners. It contributes to our understanding of the diversity of learner motivations, preferences and experiences and were we to read similar accounts from our own learners, we would be in a better position to advise, guide and provide input related to their own particular contexts and goals.


Kemp, J. (2010). The Listening Log: motivating autonomous learning. ELT Journal, 64(4), 385-95.

Two websites. One easy way to review language.

Criss cross puzzleAs I wrote a little while ago, I like to use little pieces of paper to focus on and record the relevant language in ESOL sessions. Once focused on and recorded, that language needs to be reviewed – in class, but also, ideally, by learners between sessions.

I can do things in class at the end of a session and in future ones and language often gets recycled quite naturally too. Getting the learners to review, notice and use the language between sessions is more of a challenge and I’m currently thinking about new ways to encourage learners with busy and tiring lives to do this. The reading group has been useful but I’d like to add aspects to focus more on language they read and hear in their own time. One of the first things I’ll try is asking them to find a word, a phrase and a sentence as Anna Pires suggests in a recent post.

But more about that another time. This post is really just to share something I’ve found to be a very simple, quick and quite effective way to produce material to highlight, review and push learners to recall new lexical items as well as to add a bit of variety, with the help of two very useful websites:

Discovery Education Puzzlemaker

Macmillan Dictionary

From the Discover Education Puzzlemaker page, choose to make a Criss-cross puzzle. Then with a selection of the most useful words from previous sessions, and the clear definitions from the Macmillan Dictionary, make your puzzle and print it out.

It takes minutes to prepare but the learners usually really enjoy the challenge and the fact that it is based around words from their stories and experiences. I did it most recently with a group where I want to encourage better recording and reviewing of language. This is a first step. I also made sure that learners all had a vocabulary notebook and next week, I’ll start to discuss how learners use these and will be referring to Kathy Fagan’s recent post on vocabulary notebooks and the book she’s just finished reading.

As well as learners completing the puzzle, checking answers also provides opportunities to recall the context in which it was originally used to ensure the meaning is clear and to consider other contexts of use and other words they can be used with. (See Leo Selivan’s post on In context or with co-text?)

When published materials, as good as many of them are, just don’t quite fit the learners and language we’re working with, it’s useful to know of easy and quick ways to add variety and to review and extend language knowledge. This, I think, is one of them.

Using yes-no questions to get people talking

A quick internet search of open and closed questions suggests that open questions are considered the better option to get a fuller response from people and to keep the conversation going. That makes sense. Closed questions can be answered in a word or phrase, while open questions require people to provide a bit more detail, describe experiences, give reasons, and opinions. So, when trying to encourage more speaking in order to maximise learning opportunities, we should be asking more open questions and fewer closed questions, shouldn’t we?

Language in the inner cityBut, it may not be that straightforward. Asking yes-no questions in particular could well be a very useful way to get longer stretches of talk from our learners.

William Labov, in his study of language in the inner city in America, described some of the devices the researchers used in eliciting significant amounts of casual speech from the participants.

He writes:

In the section of our interview schedule that deals with fights, we ask “Were you ever in a fight with a guy bigger than you?” When the subject says “Yes” we pause and then ask simply, “What happened?” (Labov, 1972: 354)

In the footnotes, he elaborates:

Note that the original question calls for only one or two words; this is a “Yes-No” question. The subject first becomes committed to a narrative by a simple ‘yes’. He then becomes involved in the more detailed account of what happened as a necessary justification of  the claim made by the first response. The initial impetus provided by the Yes-No question is an important element in this procedure. Many formal interviews use questions of the form “Can you tell me something amusing (dangerous, exciting, important) that has happened to you?” Though such questions will produce some response in some listeners, they are quite unsatisfactory as a rule to both speaker and interviewer; the reasons for their inadequacy make a nice topic for discourse analysis. (Labov, 1972: 354)

Labov wrote this over 40 years ago and there will have been much discourse analysis conducted on this since then. If anyone would like to highlight any in particular, that would be very interesting. It would also be interesting to play around with this and pay attention to the difference using a yes-no question before open questions makes to the responses from learners, particularly from those learners who might be a bit more reluctant to talk.


Labov, W (1972). Language in the inner city: studies in the Black English Vernacular. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Little pieces of paper

Pieces of paperOne of my favourite ways of capturing and recording language while working with small groups of up to about six language learners is on little pieces of paper. When these pieces of paper have featured in some of my posts, people have remarked on their use and, consequently, I’ve become more aware of how I use them and thought I’d try to write about them in a bit more detail. While possibly too simple a thing to write about, I’ve found them to be a very efficient, flexible and satisfying way to work with learners and their language. So, this is a this-works-well-for-me-it-might-for-you kind of post.

A few years ago, I was meeting with a group of learners in a room without a white board. A brand new building, great facilities, but I got the room without a white board! I brought a portable flipchart with me. I used it much as I would a white board and it was fine. It wasn’t ideal, though. The pages quickly filled up. I couldn’t erase parts of phrases to replace them with alternatives. I couldn’t quickly get rid of evidence that I had made a mistake! And, recovering and reviewing earlier language meant flipping frantically back through the previous sheets. So, not very efficient and not at all flexible.

While working with the learners, we all sat around the same table – much as a group sitting down to dinner would – and when a learner asked about something, or needed a word or phrase, I jumped up to write it on the flip chart. I didn’t mind doing this, but some learners seemed to feel they were putting me out by asking a question, some saying “no, no, it’s ok, you don’t need to write”. So, not very satisfying either.

During one session, I stayed at the table more and wrote the language on paper and put it in the middle of the table so that everyone could see. This had the advantage that I wasn’t using as much paper. To add flexibility, I tore the paper into smaller pieces. I realised that this meant that I could quickly retrieve language used earlier in the session and use it in new contexts. I could also bring similar language together to allow patterns to be noticed. The flexibility meant that learning opportunities were more accessible and exploitable. What might have remained a chaotic list of words and phrases on sheets of A1 paper, became language we could move around, discard, and add to easily.

I started to bring pre-cut paper into sessions with me but when I got the chance to use a room with a white board, I took it, relieved, and started once again to use the board. My board work, however, has always tended towards the chaotic. I start with good intentions, with images of colleagues’ well-organised boards in my head, but it quickly gets out of hand. The board needs to be cleared regularly – after having taken a photo of it, if I remember – and the language at the beginning of the session exists only in memory or on my phone (and, possibly, in the notebooks of learners!)

With small groups, though, I now hardly ever use the board any more. I have my pieces of paper in every session and I use them according to what’s needed with any particular group. I first mentioned them in my first ever post writing about my Tuesday evening ESOL group. They also featured when I wrote about what I had planned, but not how I planned it.

Most recently, I used them with a beginners group of Polish learners when the topic of what they do at Easter came up. Using a version of the language experience approach – putting the learners’ ideas into English – and with the ideas on using translation from George Woolard’s recent publication in mind, we gradually built up and captured their story on the bits of paper, breaking the sentences up into phrases. We read it through and focused on pronunciation. One person was there for the first time and didn’t want to speak in English but had helped to build up the story using L1. Then, I kept the beginning of each sentence where it was and we mixed up the rest of the pieces of paper. Using Google Translate (carefully), I played a translation of a sentence (and variations) in their language for the learners to reconstruct in English using the pieces of paper. We checked the result by playing the sentence in English on Google Translate. (I could have said it myself, but it seemed to give the learners a bit of a boost to hear their sentence said by another voice.)  The new learner participated in reconstructing the sentences by helping to select and arrange the language needed, seeming more confident as the session progressed.

Having the pieces of paper in the middle of the table meant that this was a very collaborative activity, with learners having to work together or at least monitor what others were doing or saying. We were able to start with what the learners wanted to talk about and work with that and, by doing so, the meaning was clear to them from the beginning. I just needed to check that I understood properly before providing an English version for it. And, I now have the set of pieces of paper that I can bring in next week to review and expand the language we encountered.

Following this, a learner wanted to know the word for ‘daffodils’ in English. We found it and I said that this was my favourite flower. For the last 15 minutes we asked and answered questions about our favourite flower, sport, colour, etc, all with the support of a substitution table made of little pieces of paper!

So, this is what I do. I often think that what we choose to do in class is guided by our personalities and how our mind works (or doesn’t). I need to keep things simple! I’d be very interested to hear what you do – either using pieces of paper – or in dealing with chaotic white boards!

Learning Awareness

Photo by Carol Goodey available on under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial licence, want to lose weight. My son wants to gain weight. (Oh, that it were the other way around!) So far, we’ve been succeeding and awareness of that success is motivating us to keep going.  Fortunately, it’s been easy to gauge our progress using the bathroom scales!

While I’m not going to try to say that weight-loss is like language learning, success in learning is similarly motivating. It is not, however, so readily measured and recognised by those doing the learning. Tests and assessments can help but, as Scott Thornbury points out in a comment after a recent blog post O is for Outcomes, “often even informal assessment seems to focus on what the learners can’t do – i.e. their distance from the target – rather than what they can do.”

Learners (or potential learners) can easily get turned off if they don’t perceive that they’re making progress, if they feel that they’re not able, or if they don’t believe they’re ‘good language learners’. Learners are often more aware of what they can’t do (yet) – “Oh, my English is not good!”, “There are so many words I don’t know!” – rather than what they have learned and what they are able to do now that they weren’t before. We need to help them see that progress.  It’s important to be realistic about our abilities but it’s also important to know that we are improving – and indeed that we can improve – and to be aware of the difference learning is making.  Learning a language is such a long and unpredictable process that we need to be able to recognise the progress we make and the things we are able to do that we couldn’t before to keep us going.  In my experience and from my observations of and discussions with learners, doing so boosts confidence and self-esteem, as well as increasing motivation to continue learning.

We could, as is often suggested, set SMART goals with our learners. As they accomplish these specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-related goals, their progress is clear. These can be useful for some aspects of learning and can help to break down a bigger task into smaller steps. But, I’ve never much liked SMART goals for language learning in general and as John Sutter writes:

“language learning, far from being SMART, tends to be CASUAL:

C Cyclical – language isn’t learnt step by step; items and skills need continual revisiting and review.
A Asymmetrical – different skills and aspects of language may develop at different paces. ‘Spiky’ profiles, where a learner might have, for instance, advanced speaking and listening skills, but only intermediate reading, and elementary writing skills, are the norm rather than the exception.
S Social – language learning is a social process rather than a measurable set of competences.
U Unpredictable – how exactly learning takes place, and under what circumstances it occurs is still very mysterious. Learners do not all follow the same path.
A Affective – language learning involves the whole person – their emotions and identities affect and are affected by aspects of the language learning process.
L Local – language learning is highly context-bound, both in terms of what is learnt, and how it is learnt.”

(Sutter, 2009: 208-9)

Tyson Seburn recently reflected on where and how learning occurs in a very interesting post and recognised that his deepest learning comes on his own terms, and does not match expected outcomes.

So, if we accept the CASUAL and very personal nature of language learning – which I do – how do we help learners to see that they are learning and that they are making progress towards their ultimate goal of being proficient speakers of English and of being able to participate fully in the English speaking world around them?

How do we see learning? How do we know it has happened?

Tessa Woodward, during a panel discussion at this year’s IH DOS Conference, said that you know that learning has happened when “you find yourself able to do something or be something that you weren’t or didn’t before.”

Learners need to be able to recognise this. Some do, without our help. Others can overlook it, particularly those who feel less able to do things, who are less confident or easily discouraged.

As Adrian Underhill emphasised during the IH DOS panel discussion, “it’s the learning we need to look at […]. That’s what we need to track. That’s what we need to grow antennae for.  The single moving part that we’re there for is the learning and that’s what we need to see.” And, I would add, learners need to see it too. We can’t assume that they do.

In class, we can highlight when learners are able to do more than they could last week, that they are successfully using language in ways they hadn’t been doing before, that despite the look of fear that flickered across their face when writing in class was mentioned, they’ve done well with X and Y, so now need to concentrate on Z.  By providing support and advice, we can gently push them beyond “I can’t” to “I didn’t think I could but now I see I can and I’m relieved and quite chuffed!” What you do and how you do it will depend on the individual you’re working with.  In a post about one-to-one teaching within a group, Adrian Underhill talks about close-up teaching where he is able “to follow an individual learner’s subtle inner moves, or at least to recognise them and to make them visible using a variety of interventions.”

We can talk to learners about their learning, their language use and the difference learning is making for them and encourage them to reflect on it. This is something I do regularly. After being asked to think about it and report on it, learners are more aware of what they do, how they do it, and what has changed. These changes are our outcomes. Outcomes will probably vary according to learning goals and contexts. In my current context, outcomes often include feeling more able and more confident about using English in different situations and with particular people, being promoted at work to a position that requires more English use, people commenting positively on their language use, being able to understand a whole film in English or read a more demanding book.  During one recent conversation about language use and learning, a learner told us, “I know I can speak English now! I am free!”

By reflecting on and recognising their achievements in ways that are personal to them, learners become aware of how what they do helps them to learn and how that learning helps them to do and become what they aspire to do and be. By discussing it with others, they gain insights into what works for other people and what might work for them. And, by instigating and being involved in these discussions, we learn more about learning too.


Sutter, J. (2009) Planning and Assessment: Reflection, Evaluation and the Learning Cycle,  in Paton, A. and Wilkins, M. (eds) Teaching Adult ESOL: Principles and Practice. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

12 from ’12 for my 12th!

When I first read about Adam’s 12 from ’12 challenge to highlight our 12 best posts from 2012, I didn’t think it was something I’d do as I hadn’t yet written 12 blog posts. But after some lengthy calculations, I realised that if I counted my first ‘I’m here!’ post, this one would be my 12th!  However, rather than use it to say “Go on, read my posts!”, I’ll instead highlight some of the posts that I’ve enjoyed on other blogs throughout the year.

So, for my 12th post, here are 12 posts that have stood out in 2012!

One post that particuarly stood out for me is P is for Postmodern Method by Scott Thornbury which emphasises the diverse and chaotic nature of language learning and the unrealistic claims made by coursebooks. Scott outlines an approach proposed by Michael Breen in 1999 “that aims exploiting diversity rather than taming it.” This, I believe, is a reassuring read which acknowledges the real challenges faced by teachers and learners in a way that we are then more able to deal with them.

Josette LeBlanc echoes these sentiments in her post The ‘Don’t Know Mind’ and Teaching pointing out that “we use the textbook, we plan a few speaking activities so students can practise the past tense, and of course, we expect our students to be able to use it. To our surprise, the reality is usually very different.” Perhaps we should, she suggests, try entering the classroom with a “don’t know mind”. We could go in, as she quotes Gil Fronsdal, “holding what we know lightly so that we are ready for it to be different.”

That we value diversity is a key point in Genevieve White’s post, In Praise of Introverts, where she encourages us to be aware of and to value the more introverted students. (While you’re there, have a good look around the rest of the blog. There are lots of useful and interesting posts.)

Our awareness of diversity, and our approach to it, is also raised in Tyson Seburn’s post Considerations of the LGBQT in ELT materials where he looks at how LGBTQ issues are portrayed in ELT materials and classrooms and urges us all to “be aware and consider what messages we and our materials send.” An important read!

Just as our learners – their needs and experiences – are diverse, so too are the contexts we work in and some of my favourite blog posts are those that describe actual experiences with learners. I always enjoy a peek at what others are doing. There are many good examples of these and they’re a real pleasure to read but two particularly worth a mention are A Multilingual Lesson from Sam Shepherd and I don’t like bananas, but I like banana chips by Kevin Stein. These are both really nice accounts of interactions in English language learning contexts where there’s space for the learner contributions and for things to go in unexpected but fruitful (sorry!) directions.

In dealing with diversity, we have to be ready to break the ‘rules’. There have been a lot of posts about this topic and one that I really enjoyed was Michael Griffin’s Doing it the right way in the subway station and in class, particularly the pleasure he got not doing it right in the subway station!

Another blogger who has a wealth of useful and informative posts is Rachael Roberts. In her post Mindfulness for Teachers, Rachael describes being mindful in the classroom as being “totally present in the classroom (or anywhere else), time goes very quickly and we are really in a state of heightened awareness, feeling alert and alive. Communication flows easily between us and others and everyone seems to be really focused on the experience of learning.” Sounds good, eh? Her post goes on to provide more information and tips about how to develop mindfulness in the classroom as well as your daily life.

There are many other blog posts with interesting and useful insights and tips for use in the classroom. Of these, I’ve selected three that have particularly struck me and stayed with me.  Leo Selivan, in his Explaining the difference between (near-) synonyms post, reminds us that “with many near-synonyms the difference is purely collocational” a nice insight to pass on to learners to encourage them to pay attention to the company words keep.  Following Kevin Stein’s Some Notes from a Real-Time Journal, I’ve started trying to incorporate the use of a Real-Time journal. I still need practice, but so far the notes I have made have been really useful. In Word of the Week and Other Ideas for Business English, Vicky Loras describes useful and engaging activities that could be easily transferred into other contexts.

Finally, just as I love reading about the experiences of teachers in the classroom, so too do I really enjoy reading about learners’ experiences. Again, there are many good accounts in blogs, but I have to highlight Ken Wilson’s Diary of a Language Learner. Ken’s posts are such a pleasure to read that, although he is already a very well-known blogger, I had to include him in this my very first blog challenge contribution!

Thank you to all the bloggers mentioned here for the posts that have caused me to think, reflect, try new things, and smile! (By the way, if any of these bloggers are new to you, be sure to look around the rest of their blogs.) Thank you also for all the others I’ve  read throughout the year – the posts are such a great resource for practitioners around the world –  but unfortunately there are just too many to mention. And, thanks finally  to Adam for the challenge! 🙂

Adrian Underhill and the Sounds of English

Adrian Underhill's Phonemic Chart

Adrian Underhill’s British English Phonemic Chart

Adrian Underhill’s phonemic chart has been something I’ve admired for a while… from a distance. It’s something I felt I should have a better handle on and something I wanted to become more familiar with. Instead, however, I found reasons and justifications not to and, knowing a bit about ways to help learners with pronunciation, I got by without it. Or, at least, I thought I was getting by. I hadn’t realised just how wonderfully clever and useful the chart was and that although the symbols in the chart are taken from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), it is not about phonetics, it’s about phonemes – the sounds of English.

So, this weekend, thanks to SATEFL, Macmillan English and Adrian Underhill, I was enlightened. As Adrian took us through the sounds on the chart, showing us how they are organised according to how and where the sounds are made, and how the sounds relate to each other, there were ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ of realisation around the room. I won’t reproduce all that we discovered here. There are better sources for that and I’ll post a few links at the bottom. I just want to share some of what I took from the workshop: Making pronunciation physical, visible, audible!

This approach to pronunciation is an approach of awareness, helping learners (and teachers) to understand how the sounds are made physically and how aspects of that physicality distinguishes one sound from another.

Pronunciation is the physical aspect of language. If we see grammar and vocabulary as being a 2-dimensional matrix, pronunciation provides the 3rd dimension giving language body and volume. Language learners may know how a word should sound, they may hear it correctly in their head, perhaps even in their own inner voice. However, what they know about the language differs from what they can do with that language because they don’t yet know or haven’t yet mastered how to use their muscles to produce the correct sounds. We learn how to speak at a very young age, just as we learn to walk or pick things up, and these physical actions became automatised. Using the phonemic chart, as Adrian suggests, we can help learners to reconnect with the muscles used for the physical actions of producing sounds, and by doing so enable them to better engage these muscles to manipulate the sounds.

The chart serves as a map of where to find the sounds in the mouth. For instance, if we look at the consonants in the bottom half of the chart, the sounds on the left are made nearer the front of the mouth than the sounds on the right. Try it! Read the sounds from left to right while paying attention to how you physically produce the sounds and how that changes as you move from left to right. Similarly, with the vowels in the top left quarter, the higher they are in the chart, the higher the tongue is when you say the sound.

By using the chart, and by moving between sounds on it, we can help learners become aware how the muscles are used in different ways to make different sounds and help them locate what Adrian describes as the muscle buttons: the tongue, the lips, the jaw and the voice. Then, rather than simply trying to imitate what they hear using the muscles in the same way as they do to speak their first language, language learners are in a better position to be able to change how they physically produce sounds.

While I knew about the physicality of pronunciation, and how the use of tongue, lips, voice etc made the difference, I hadn’t realised just how good a resource Adrian Underhill’s Phonemic Chart is. This is something that can be introduced to learners on the first day – not to teach them the phonetic symbols but to help them to reconnect with the muscle buttons they need to be able to manipulate in order to make the sounds. As Adrian pointed out, “You can’t have a sound syllabus. You need them all now.” and also that, “You need all 12 vowels because they each define what the other isn’t.” And, here they all are, in the chart!

If you ever get the chance to see Adrian present live, go! In the meantime, there’s his blog,, which contains and links to a wealth of information and resources.

There’s quite a nifty wee Sounds app.

Onestopenglish has an interactive phonemic chart.

And, there’s also Adrian’s workshop introducing teaching pronunciation using the chart which has been made available on YouTube.

Language Use for Learning

This afternoon I was reading over one of my son’s assignments with him. I suggested an alternative way to say something, using specific subject related language. His response? “I don’t use words like that.” Essentially, “that’s not who I am”. Or, as I’d like to think, that’s not who he is yet!

This brought to mind how our tied our language use is to our sense of identity. Our perception of who we are in any interaction is reflected in how we use language and is influenced by other people’s language use. Roz Ivanič wrote about how identities are constructed through discourse:

by ‘address’ – the way we are talked to by others
by ‘attribution’ – the way we are talked about by others
by ‘affiliation’ – the way we talk like others
(Ivanič, 2005: 7; original emphasis)

The construction of a person’s identity does not simply lie with that person and the decisions they make but is also affected by others. What we feel we are capable of, what we are entitled to do, and the kind of person we are, can be influenced by others – family, friends, colleagues and teachers!

In an ethnographic study of L2 learners in a Canadian university, Naoko Morita found that the way the students were talked to and about in the classrooms influenced their sense of self and the way in which they constructed themselves as members of the classroom community. While an identity of a less competent member of the community was in part based on their actual difficulties with the language – in understanding reading materials, lectures or discussions – it was also based on how they were perceived by others. One student who, while initially acknowledging that she was a non-native speaker, understood this identity in negative terms as someone who has limitations and deficiencies in their use of the language. Over the course of the study, this student made a conscious effort to change her perception of herself and to see herself as an “English speaker in a more positive light” (Morita, 2004: 586). As the student describes in her final report “It took a long time to empower myself. Still I can’t say I’m confident… But I don’t feel comfortable calling myself a nonnative speaker anymore” (Lisa, weekly report, March 30, 2000, quoted in Morita, 2004: 586). Another student who received positive feedback for her contribution in class began to see herself as a competent and valued member which in turn “seemed to enhance her participation” (Morita, 2004: 584).

The way we talk to and about learners can have a significant impact on what they feel able to do, what they feel ready to do, and what they feel they have a right to do. This can be very subtle – ways we are not fully aware of and ways they are not fully aware of – but the way we talk to someone can communicate whether we value them as a person or not, whether we expect them to do well or not, and whether we think of them as speakers of English or not.

Unless someone feels that they are a member of a particular discourse community, they will be hesitant or resistant to using the language of that community. My son, as with many new students in an academic setting, isn’t yet comfortable using the technical language expected for his subject. I, living in and having been born in Scotland, don’t use language like a lot of the people around me because, having grown up in Ireland, that’s not who I am. My Saudi students from a few years ago could do a really good Scottish accent but chose not to use it when speaking English. ESOL Learners who can express their ideas effectively in an ESOL group shy away from doing this with neighbours and colleagues.

My son might one day see himself as someone who can talk the talk. The ESOL learners may start to see themselves as members of the wider community with something to contribute. Neither I, nor the Saudi students, will be speaking Scots any time soon. So, to what extent should we encourage and help learners to speak like others and how much should we let them be who they are and who they want to be in their new language?

In Teaching Unplugged, Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury suggest that we “make the classroom a discourse community in its own right, where each individual’s identity is validated, and where learners can easily claim the right to speak.” (Meddings & Thornbury, 2009: 11). And, as they write, a conversation mode would seem to be a good way to establish such a community.

But, to get the best out of our learners (and for our learners to get the best out of us) we may need to understand more about how conversation works, about how what we say, how we say it, the turns we take and the ones we leave open for learners affects people’s sense of identity as learners, contributors, and speakers of English and how this, ultimately, affects their learning.


Ivanič, R. (2005). Language, learning and identification. Paper presented at British Association for Applied Linguistics Conference, Literacies and Learning in Further Education. Bristol, September 2005. available at

Meddings, L. and Thornbury, S. (2009). Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teacing. Peaslake: Delta Publishing.

Morita, N. (2004). Negotiating participation and identity in second language academic communities, TESOL Quarterly, 38(4), 573-603.

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