Andrew Wright's six things from sixty years

A few posts ago I talked about my favourite Five Minute Activities, the much-loved resource book by Penny Ur and Andrew Wright. I had the honour of receiving a comment from Andrew Wright himself on the blog, partly in response to all the praise for his work. I was going to ask him to write something for me when he came out and asked if he could! It was a great pleasure to say yes, and share with you here Andrew Wright’s six things from sixty years of language learning and teaching experience.

1 I have been working in the world of language teaching for fifty years.  It has given me an opportunity to be with people and to have an interesting time and to travel to many places: about forty countries.  Furthermore, my fifty years as a teacher’s resource book writer have coincided with what are probably the last fifty years of resource books.  I feel I am very lucky to have been working during this last half century.

Sixty years?  Well, before that I was learning French at school or rather wasn’t.  Lead by Dr MacGraw, we, myopically, crawled along sentences looking up the words we didn’t know until, blinking, we came to a full stop or the abyss at the end of a paragraph.

2 Some friends told me that I have collocated with stories in the last twenty years before that I collocated with games and before that with pictures.  Stories is the big one.  I have become a story fundamentalist.  I believe that our minds are storied from top to bottom so much so that the way we eat and drink, work and die are all partly determined by the stories we have heard and which have constructed our life maps.  CNN once said something like: ‘The stories CNN bring you today make the world in which you live in tomorrow. ‘  Journalists are so open about what they are doing.  Not the news but ‘the top stories today are…’.

Of course, stories are for children but in the last year or two I have bought nine books about the use of stories in business (Internet: Business stories!).  Given that stories are so central to who we are and words are a major component in the way we story experiences then it amazes me that stories are not the main road we all take in language teaching.

3 I have always been a conference goer. I have had the good fortune to work with many brains,  feverish with creativity.  The tsunami of technology in the last twenty years is wonderful. So exciting!  But all these leading edge people and technologies represent a minute part of the world of language teaching.  Millions of language teachers never go to conferences and their only development, if any, is through the books or internet materials they use.  My belief is that the vast number of language teachers manage to teach according to their inner agenda whatever books or current philosophy they use or refer to.  A teacher I observed, in class, took the topic of sharing information about recent experiences.  Sounds very healthy and communicative.  A student told him, ‘I swim across Lake Balaton and do butterfly.’  The teacher corrected him, ‘I swam across Lake Balaton doing butterfly.’  He didn’t make a single comment or gasp and raise his eyebrows when he heard that the student had swum across the biggest lake in Central Europe!

He appeared to be a ‘modern’ teacher but he was an old fashioned grammar point obsessed teacher.  Like millions of others he teaches as he was taught.

4 The West gives great value to research and I believe research has a valuable role to play.  However, in my fifty years in language teaching I have experienced changes of value, perception and behaviour in society having far more effect on language teaching than research.  I am a creature of my times and in the late sixties I was influenced by the demand for concern for the individual (rather than global answers) out of which came the notional functional description of language by David Wilkins.  I conceived and helped to write with David Betteridge and Nicolas Hawkes, the first topic based course ever published, as far as I know: ‘Kaleidoscope’.  Macmillan.  And then, ‘What Do You Think’ with Donn Byrne, with pictures juxtaposed and no words, designed to poke thinking.  At the same time I was trying to support teachers in moves away from the rule of the text book by writing resource books, like ‘Games for Language Learning’, ‘1000 Pictures for Teachers to Copy’ and later, ‘Storytelling with Children’ and ‘Five Minute Activities’ with Penny Ur.  None of these books are based on research but on the gut feeling of a surf boarder with his feet on the driving swell of social change.

5 For fifty years I have done my best to promote the teaching of verbal languages.  But now I want to protest!  Words cannot exist unless they are seen or heard. Words are manifested by the non verbal languages of voice and writing.  The language of the voice is SO important.  How many ways can you say, ‘Yes’.  Can you say, ‘thank you’, so it doesn’t mean thank you?  Of course you can.  And consider the difference in typeface used by Rolls Royce and MacDonalds.  It’s not an accident.  Non verbal languages of voice and typography manifest words but also add their own meanings which may be harmonious or disharmonious with the words they manifest.  Its a duet and often the non-verbal instrument of voice or typography is dominant.

And then, add in the many non verbal languages which do not manifest words but accompany them.  Its a blooming orchestra: graphic design, furniture and interior design, architecture, body, clothes, car, house, film, and so on!  The world leader’s frozen hand shake and smile for the photographs.  The mock Tudor black wood struts on a million suburban houses.  The John Lennon glasses.

Now that technology allows us to readily make use of these non verbal languages at a high technological level through video recording and editing programmes on the internet, surely it should become a central part of our teaching?  We would no longer be language teachers but communication teachers and in a very different sense.

6 I can’t retire.  I have never been able to separate my work from my personal life.  If we really believe that language teaching must be about more than learning a language then how can we separate our life from our work?  It would be a contradiction to do so.  Nevertheless, after fifty years of an unbroken production of books I have stopped working on ELT books.  It is wonderful to be able to spend more time on writing my life stories.  My theme is the individuality and the universality of all of us and the situations we are in.  It is my answer to MacDonalds.  I have a wonderful time listening to and sharing such stories with my students who, these days are mainly bankers and pharmaceutical engineers….well…people.

Forgive me please for not writing six useful things for the classroom.  I have spent my life trying to do just that.  This wandering and pondering on Lindsay’s six thing site is a little self-indulgence which I do hope you will respond to, with benign tolerance.

If you would like to see my stories then please visit:

If you would like to comment on my stories, then please do: as long as I hear tapping I will know I am still alive.

Published in: | on October 31st, 2010 | 10 Comments »

Six merchandising gimmicks for Dogme ELT

The "Dogme Circle" - a very nice image but is it now time to expand to more tie-ins and collectibles?

The other day I was going through and clearning up some old folders on the computer when I came across a document called Teaching Unplugged Marketing ideas. It was a very short document, and had a few notes for marketing the well-known book by Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings. As it turned out, Delta publishing had no marketing department (or budget really) at the time and so nothing came of it. But judging from the furore around Dogme and Teaching Unplugged (for example, here) I thought it was time to unleash some more ideas. I can see that this movement has some legs, so I figure why not try and make some money off it? Here are six bits of merchandise, with suggested list prices, to help Dogme reach a much wider audience and make me a wealthy marketing guru in the process!

1. Dogme Chastity Rings

The dogme ELT movement was launched ten years ago with a Vow of Chastity regarding materials. If you have taken the vow and are a confirmed Dogmeist then why not show the world? These little rings will identify you immediately as an unplugged teacher and come in a range of attractive colours.

Suggested price: 29.99 euros

2. Doggmie bags

All that focusing on emergent language generates a certain amount of detrius in the form of hastily scribbled notes, post-its and so on. Keep it all together with these ecological Doggmie bags! Made out of 100% recycled coursebooks.

Suggested price: 1.99 euros

3. Limited edition action figures

The Limited Edition Luke Meddings doll, without glasses version

You now can have a miniature Scott Thornbury or Luke Meddings with you at all times! These customized action dolls come with two changes of clothes (formal and informal) and, when you pull the string in their backs, they will utter classic phrases like “No more grammar mcnuggets!” or “I don’t believe in learner-as-consumer methodology”

(footnote: I actually found a site (here) that will make an action figure of you, and suggested it to Luke and Scott when we were about to publish Teaching Unplugged; I am still waiting for an answer)

Suggested price: 289.00 euros (they ARE limited edition after all)

4. Collectible Dogmemon cards

The very rare Karenne Sylvester trading card - with full Dogme challenge powers!

If you have children you may have heard of the Pokemon card-collecting craze. Now unplugged teachers can collect Karenne Sylvester, Jason Renshaw, Diarmuid Fogarty, Gavin Dudeney, Vicki Samuell, Jeremy Harmer and many other beloved characters from the Dogme universe. Play with them, frame them or trade them! Each pack comes with ten cards and instructions for gameplay. I’ve got a rare Lindsay Clandfield card to trade that I just can’t seem to get rid of by the way…

Suggested price: 9.99 for the starter pack, and 1.99 for individual packs of 5 cards.

5. The Official Unplugged coursebook

This attractive blank notebook is a must for any teacher. All you really need to teach any level, any length of course or any number of students is contained inside. You can also get the special Englishraven edition with the blank pages written by Jason Renshaw himself for 2 euros extra.

(footnote: I nearly did convince DELTA publishing to do this as a marketing giveaway to coincide with the launch of Teaching Unplugged, but it never happened in the end)

Suggested price: 4.99 (6.99 for Jason Renshaw authored version)

6. Pack of “Materials light” safety matches (discontinued)

This pack of safety matches comes in an attractive box with the Vow of Chastity engraved on the back of it and instructions on how to hold a “coursebook bonfire night” inside. This item was the product of an overeager marketing department that seized on a quip about burning books. Since Thornbury and Meddings have clarified that they are not really in favour of book-burning the item was quickly shelved. However, some copies are still in existence. Only for the most die-hard extremist dogmeist.

Suggested price: 499.99 euros (only 5 left in stock)

Please place your orders in the comments box.

Published in: | on October 24th, 2010 | 27 Comments »

Adam Simpson's Six pitfalls in making your own worksheets


You may want to think of a more effective storage system...


Yes, it’s that time again… bring on the guest posts! This time I am joined by Adam Simpson, the man behind the friendly and interesting blog One Year in the life of an English Teacher. He wanted to share some of the things he’s done WRONGLY in making worksheets. And I thought a bit of reflection is always a good thing. I’ve certainly made some of these mistakes in my early days too. So pay attention, and don’t do what he has done!

I like making my own worksheets to accompany course book materials, I always have done and always will. For whatever reason, I never fully trust the coursebook to do the job of getting the teaching objective across as much as I trust myself. Plus, I like making stuff. I’ve always been meticulous in my preparation of something I intend my students to not only use in class, but also to reflect back on at a later date. Nevertheless, I’ve made so many mistakes over the years that it’s almost funny. Here is a somewhat carefully, well thought out list of things for you to think about if you also like preparing your own teaching materials.

1) Purpose What’s the point? Why are you bothering? There just might be something stuck away at the back of the teacher’s book that does exactly what you’re trying to do; stranger things have occasionally happened. Alternatively, maybe someone at school has already cobbled together something that meets the objectives you’re trying to achieve. If neither of these apply… make sure you start with a clear purpose and work towards appearance, not the other way round. Here’s an example of how I went wrong at the start of my teaching career: I still remember the weekend after my first week of teaching. I decided to wow my students with a crossword for the start of our second week. After an hour of labour I’d produced something that looked great, but actually led to about five minutes of class activity. What I’d made was a triumph of style over substance that didn’t really do anything that the book already covered adequately. I learned pretty quickly form this experience.

2) Language I’m not talking about the language of the particular teaching point, I’m thinking of the language I use to make sure that the learners know what they are supposed to do. No matter how careful I am in writing prompts – and I am very careful – sometimes I just have to reflect on the fact that what I gave to the students wasn’t clear enough. So… Ask clear and understandable questions. Match your questions to the level of the learner. Use bullet points for clarity. There probably are worse things than having handed out an absolutely killer piece of material only to be met with blank expressions and total malaise, but it’s still really depressing. Trust me: make your instructions clear.

3) Design The design of your worksheet should enhance the content rather than obscuring it. To be honest, it took me years to truly get my head round this. Indeed, I’m still a stickler for making my worksheets look as professional and attractive as possible, but like I said, this shouldn’t be to the detriment of the content. What steps do I now take to avoid this? Limit the range of fonts you use I have literally thousands of additional fonts added to my Microsoft word, but I rarely use more than two or three in my worksheets. Funky fonts that look good but are difficult to read will only serve to frustrate your learners. Limit the visual aids I still look to put my objectives and instructions into a fancy speech bubble, but that’s it. Don’t overdo it with pictures and borders and other fancy stuff, or the learners won’t be able to see the wood of the learning objective(s) for the trees of the design feature(s).

4) Product What do you want to have created in the end? Is the message clear? How can you make sure that it will appeal to as many of your learners as possible? Keep a collection of all the handouts you produce and reflect on them periodically. Here are a couple of reasons why I think this is a good thing to do. You keep making the same kind of resource again and again Try to include a range of tasks that will appeal to different types of learner (perhaps consider different learner styles if you believe in such a thing). Even the best of us do this. I remember one of my DELTA tutors driving me to despair with constant jigsaw reading tasks. She had no idea of how often she was using this kind of task until I pointed out that that was all she ever gave us. Keep a record of what you make or you’ll find you repeat yourself more often than you might imagine. You make the same kind of resource, regardless of the purpose What is it for? This will affect what kind of questions you can ask the learner. Homework / individual / group tasks will all require tailored questions. Don’t do what I once did and ask the learner to discuss a set of homework questions in groups. I found out the following day that they had spent all night phoning one another to come to a consensus over their answers.

5) Trial It isn’t going to be perfect first time. Treat your worksheet as a draft to be improved. This means trialing it in class to see what queries / confusion it raises. Take a revisable version of it into class with you to make instant notes of necessary changes. Also, make sure you follow up your revisions on the computer, or whatever method you have of maintaining the original.

6) Storage This is still my biggest fault. I can’t stress enough the importance of storing paper copies methodically for easy retrieval. Consider how you want to do this carefully, be it a filing cabinet (I hear these still exist), in-tray system, or ring binder with plastic pockets. My advice is to mark a master copy using a particular system so that you don’t lose it (I have a teachers copy with ‘Adam’s’ emblazoned across the top with a blank copy of the original stapled to it in a plastic folder separate from all other materials). Try to do the same with computer files; be as specific as you can when naming them! Go on, admit it; how many files do you gave on your computer labeled ‘grammar exercise’? Do yourself a favour and give your file a very specific name. The last file I created was called ‘L3 U1 I3 exercise to follow up on writing definitions about education’. OK, it took me ten seconds to name the file, but I’ve a pretty good idea of where to find it from the name next time I need to do a follow up exercise on writing definitions about education for the third input of Unit 1 of the Level 3 course book. I’d love to hear what other ideas you have, problems you’ve encountered and how you resolved these issues.

Published in: | on October 13th, 2010 | 5 Comments »

Six writing analysis tools


Warning: this post might seriously waste your time!


Another day idly watching my twitter stream go by… I came across one of those links that analyze your writing for you (I can’t remember where from now). It’s fun to know about your writing, and some of these might even in fact have a pedagogical use too.  This is a short little post but that could end up wasting a LOT of time :-)

1 Vocab Profiler – This is a great site of more pedagogical value. Paste in a text, and it shows you through a system of colours the frequency of the words. In their own words “Vocabulary Profilers break texts down by word frequencies in the language at large.” I used this tool quite a bit when writing low level texts or adapting texts for lower levels (I used something similar for a graded reader I wrote which never in the end saw the light of day… but that’s another story). I think this tool is a favourite of Scott Thornbury‘s too, or at least it was!

2 I write likeThis website says the following: “Check which famous writer you write like with this statistical analysis tool, which analyzes your word choice and writing style and compares them with those of the famous writers.” Then it gives you a little badge you can put on the blog. When I pasted some of my text I got the following. Cool! (or should I say ‘spiffing’?)

I write like
P. G. Wodehouse

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

3 OFaust – This site does the same as I write like, but you can also enter your blog url to analyze a larger sample. According to oFaust, I have a slight similarity to Lewis Carroll on my blog (a 22% likeness!)

4 Gender Genie - This one made the rounds a little while ago. It analyses a piece of writing and tells you if it’s more masculine or feminine. It seems to have become a bit more sophisticated recently and you can specify the genre. When I entered some of my writing I came up as Male (195 score) but a high level of female there too (105 score). I guess that’s because I have a girl’s name…

5 Text Content Analyser Getting more serious again now this site seems a bit more like a simplified Vocab Profiler (from above). It gave me the number of words according to numbers of letters which didn’t feel that useful. But it also gave information about lexical density, and something called the Gunning Fog index, which tells you what level of education (American education) your reader needs to have to understand. My writing requires a grade eight education to read which is either a testament to my clear and incisive prose or shows that I’ve been writing simplified grammar exercises and texts too long perhaps.

6 I actually write like

If all this is going to your head, then the last site brings you back down to earth hard. It also analyzes your text and lets you put a badge on your blog like the one above. Here’s what I got…


I actually write like
a moonstruck lunatic possibly actually wearing a straightjacket

I Actually Write Like Analyze your writing!

Published in: | on October 7th, 2010 | 6 Comments »

Six "hidden gems"(?) on this blog

Hello everyone!

I have never been one to turn down an opportunity for an easy blog post, and I’m a sucker for blog memes. So  I’ve decided to meet the challenge thrown down by Jason Renshaw (the English Raven himself) and show you some hidden gems here on Six Things (he suggested this idea, and shared his own gems, at this post). I think that Darren Elliot of Lives of Teachers made a similar suggestion a while back. Anyway, if you’re a regular reader you may remember some of these, but if you’re a more recent visitor to this blog then these are some fun little posts that you probably have missed!

My regular blogging will resume very shortly. Meanwhile, this should tide over anyone needing a six things fix! :-)

1 Six famous writers who used to be language teachers If you’re working on the next great novel then don’t give up hope. These six people all escaped ELT to untold riches and fame!

2 Six wildly popular lists in English language teaching. The list of lists. How many can you guess?

3 Six bits of Latin that make your English look smart . This IS a hidden gem, judging from the few hits it got. But reading it will make you sound so much more sophisticated!

4 Six very original what if questions. Tired of talking about lotteries and winning a million dollars in your conditional classes? Here are half a dozen great alternatives.

5. Six highly provocative quotes in ELT. Seeking a topic for an MA thesis? Seek no further! Any one of these would serve as a great starting point…

6. Six drinks for an English Teacher’s New Year’s party I still dream one day that someone will tell me they actually held an English teacher party with some of these drinks. How sad is that?!?

I think of them as hidden gems, but of course you may have your own favourites (or simply think these aren’t really that good!). Leave a comment if you feel inclined…

Published in: | on October 4th, 2010 | 5 Comments »

Some teachers are lucky enough to be able to dispense with grades and tests all together. I’m currently teaching a course where this is the case. But for the majority of teachers and learners around the world the test is an unfortunate fact of life. I was involved in a lively discussion on whether or not marks can ever be motivating to learners on Kalinago English (I argued they could be… but that’s another discussion!). However, I do feel that tests – many tests at least – are torture. And when I think about all the things we do in class: encouraging pairwork, comparing answers, using dictionaries etc it all can come apart when test time comes. What can the teacher do to counter this?

You may have to wait a bit until the education revolution arrives and sweeps away all tests in its wake but in the meantime here are six ideas I’ve tried on how to make tests a bit more bearable for students – by subverting the traditional test itself.

1. Open book/web test

Assign your test, but allow students to have access to books or internet for part or all of it. This could mean tweaking the test slightly to make it more challenging but it’s good real-life practice. This is not the most original idea, but it makes the test less stressful.

2. Institutionalize cheating (1)

Set the test and tell students what units/material will be covered. Tell them the day of the test they can bring one sheet of paper to the test. On that paper they can have as much written as they want (you know, like cheat notes). Have the test the normal way. I did this with a group of 11 year olds. At the end I asked them how much they referred to their notes. Not a lot, they said. That’s right, because making the cheat notes was a good way of studying. I know this from times when I made cheat notes and never had to look at them because I could remember what I had written down!

3. Collaborative marking

Give a writing test in a normal way. Then give the students the marking criteria for the writing. They mark their own writing using the criteria. Then you mark the same piece of work with the same criteria. Take an average of the two marks. That is the student’s mark.

4. Institutionalize cheating (2)

Before the test, give each student a ticket (a coloured slip of paper will do). Tell them this is good for one free answer from you on the test. If they don’t use it, they can accumulate it with another one for the next test. When a student asks you a question in the test (this happens all the time to me) tell them you can give them the right answer but it will cost them the ticket. Giving away ONE answer doesn’t affect the overall mark that much, but it does make students feel better. Interestingly enough when I did this with a group of kids they became more interested in collecting as many tickets as possible!

5 Repeat the test

Give a test in the normal way, and then correct it all together in class. When you’ve finished tell students that the test was in fact revision for the real test, which will be exactly the same and will occur the following week. Then give the same test the next week.

6. Test buddies

In a mixed ability class situation, set up groups of three or four students of different abilities. Tell them the general areas of the test and ask them to review these areas together. Explain that all the students in the group will get the same mark on the test. This mark will be the average of the group’s individual members’ marks (if I’m making this clear). This means the group has to work together to make sure they all do as well as possible. During the test the group will have ONE chance to consult with each other for a period of one or two minutes (to help clear up any doubts). This hopefully means that stronger students will be motivated to help weaker students both in the revision and test situation.

There are some other ways of course (e.g. I didn’t mention take-home tests and variants) and I should mention here that a whole bunch of these and other ideas are included in a book I wrote some years ago with a champion subversive teacher Luke Prodromou (you can see the book here).

Are you stuck with tests? Do you have control over how they are run? Obviously the above ideas won’t work for huge state-run school leaving tests but how do you help stressed out students cope? Post a comment here!

Disclaimer: this post was not sponsored or solicited by anyone! I’m blogging about one of the classic teacher resource books which happened to be one of the first ones I owned and used until the pages almost fell out.

Even though I’m doing a fair bit of travelling, I’ve managed to land some teaching hours this fall and I’m currently preparing my classes. After choosing the main texts and activities we were going to do I pulled down off the shelf my battered old copy of Five Minute Activities, the classic resource book from Cambridge University Press written by Penny Ur and Andrew Wright (the newer cover you can see on the image above).

Looking through it, I remembered when this (and Grammar Games by Mario Rinvolucri) were my only two resource books. I’ve used so many of the activities in here that they feel like old friends. There are two things about the activities in this book that I’d like to mention: 1) they are very sensible and doable in almost all teaching contexts and 2) they often last longer than five minutes. Both these are compliments, I hastily add! I love elastic activities that could be five or twenty five minutes depending on the level and interest of the students. I thought I’d share half a dozen of my favourites:

1 Adjectives and nouns

Students suggest adjective and noun combinations such as a black cat, an expert doctor. You write these up on the board and add some yourself. The students then have to use these words to suggest different combinations (e.g. a black doctor). If someone makes an usual suggestion then they have to justify it.

2 Delphic dictionary

Students suggest some typical problems, which you write on the board. A student chooses one of these problems, and then is asked to open an English-English dictionary at random and put their finger on the page. The word they indicate has to form part of the solution. I let students choose a word on the page, in case they really fall on a really hard word.

3 Match the adjectives

Another adjective activity! This time you write three words on the board e.g. important, heavy, dangerous. Students have to suggest a word that goes with all three (e.g. an army, a car, a plane…). There is a really good list of groups of adjectives to go with this. What, for example, could be small loud and fat (no nasty comments here about directors of studies please!)

4 Odd one out

Write a list of six words on the board from a lexical set. Students have to decide which one is the odd one out. They must explain this. Once they have, then challenge them to nominate another one which could be the odd one out for different reasons. Great for lateral thinking. The variation is great too, where every time they argue one is the odd word out you cross it out and they repeat the activity with the words left until there are only two words. Far, far longer than five minutes for my classes. Sample lists are provided in the book.

5 Spelling bee

This is hardly a new activity, a spelling competition. And it usually takes longer than five minutes in my experience. But my classes have had lots of fun with this, and they often consider it useful. The best part is the authors have listed a whole bunch of words that are commonly spelled wrongly at various different levels. Priceless little resource to have at hand.

6 Wrangling

I love this activity. Write a two line dialogue on the board. My favourite of the ones suggested is

A: Still, I think you’d better tell them.

B: Oh, no, they’ll kill me.

Students have to say the lines together, as an argument. They can repeat the lines as many times as they like but they cannot add anything else. They must vary stress, intonation and gesture to convince each other. After a few exchanges I’ve seen students really get heated up and in fact their delivery of the lines becomes much better. Leads on to a good discussion of what the context and who the speakers might be (again, longer now than five minutes).

There are many many more in the book that are just as good, it was hard to choose only six! A little footnote to this post: last year at the IATEFL conference Penny Ur explained a reading activity during a talk, and she used me as the subject of the activity. Wow. Call me an ELT nerd if you like (do it quietly please), but it was a bit like having your favourite singer suddenly belt out a song with your name in it during a concert. Thanks Penny!

Does anyone else have a favourite five minute activity (from this book or your own)? Go ahead and share! And if Penny Ur or Andrew Wright are reading this, I wonder what their favourite activity is?

Six villains in English language teaching


Every profession has its bad guys. For doctors, it may be the evil pharmaceutical companies. For soldiers, it’s the enemy army or the “top brass”. What about English teachers? Well, I think there are six kinds of villain that are invoked at our conferences, in our methodology books, during workshops and especially on blogs. Here they are, in no particular order.

1 The old-fashioned teacher

Curious that the first villain is actually a teacher. Now, of course I don’t mean teachers like you dear readers. Never. No, I mean the infamous “old-fashioned” teacher. The kind of teacher that bores his/her students. That punishes them for no good reason. That beats students (thankfully these teachers are not so common now one hopes). That humiliates them. That is inhuman (as opposed to the good “humanist” teachers). And even more unforgiving, the kind of teacher that uses old-fashioned methods. Recently, this villain could be the kind of teacher who refuses to incorporate technology into his/her teaching. That old-fashioned teacher is one who we love to hate or, at best, pity.

2 The backpacker teachers

Our second villain is another teacher, but this time of a different ilk. The spectre of the backpacker teacher is often raised as part of the lament of lack of professional standards in English Language Teaching. And many of us have met (or, gulp, were) backpacker teachers in the past. The worst kind of villain in this category is the teacher with no qualification, no teaching experience who will give classes for just enough money to cover beer costs. Needless to say, this kind of teacher is favoured by villain number 5 below.

3 The publishers

The ELT publishers, and especially the really big ones, are always a good target in a blogpost or general rant along the following lines: They’re commercialising education! They’re moving in on “our” social networks like Facebook and Twitter! They’re giving away too much (flooding us with junk!) They aren’t giving away enough (why can’t I have another ten sample books and CDs to pilot?)! They put on a practical workshop at a nice hotel, gave a free lunch and then had the sheer audacity to try and… sell us a book at the end of it! They ignore too much raw talent (especially true if you’ve been turned down). The publishers are sometimes viewed as bottomless pits of money, making “billions”, and really just out there to hoodwink honest-to-goodness hardworking teachers and the poor students. They are our very own version of Big Tobacco, the Arms Industry or Big Pharmaceutical. Choose your metaphor!

4 The coursebook authors

These are more a villain of the lesser kind, perhaps only lackeys to the real culprits above. The more villainous the coursebook author is tends to be in direct proportion to how successful they are. Which means that the authors of books such as Headway or Interchange are sometimes thrust in the role of arch-villain in our ELT pantomime. Their work stifles teachers’ creativity, imposes a foreign world-view on classrooms around the world, or are simply out-of-touch with students’ reality and needs.

5 The private language school owners

The small-time crooks of our profession. They are really just interested in “bums-on-seats” and make huge gobs of cash by fleecing the students and cheating teachers at every opportunity. This is combined with trying to sell fake visas (if they are based in the UK) or evading tax (if they are based anywhere in the world). Finally, they don’t really know anything at all about education and tend to neglect or exploit the raw talent that works for them (when they aren’t trying to get in bed with them).

6 The grammar syllabus and exams

Not human, these twin evils are more akin to monstrous demons that control language courses everywhere. They frog-march publishers, coursebook authors, teachers and students through their all-powerful totalitarian system and make us dance to their tune. Like death and taxes, they are the inevitables in our world. And are often loathed for it.

Now, are there any villains I’ve left out of our pantomime? Education ministers perhaps? The Common European Framework? Certain kinds of student? Post a comment!

Published in: | on September 12th, 2010 | 67 Comments »

Nicky Hockly's six favourite teaching online activities

Back to school with another guest post! I’m starting up the guest sixes here with half a dozen of the best activities for teaching online. These come from none other than one of my great mentors, Nicky Hockly. Nicky co-founded The Consultants-E, an online consultancy specialising in education and trained me as an emoderator over seven years ago. I now do the occasional course for them as a trainer, and can really say they are a great bunch to work with. Enough background already though, I’ll hand over to Nicky…

To celebrate the launch of our new book, Teaching Online (from Delta Publishing), Lindsay Clandfield and I decided to write a guest post on each other’s blogs. Our posts each describe six of our favourite teaching online activities. This way you get 12 cool online teaching ideas – 6 from me here, and 6 from Lindsay on my blog!

Here are my six favourite activities (Lindsay forced me to write six!). They are aimed at language learners, but with a bit of tweaking they can be easily made to fit other contexts, such as teacher training.

1 Sounds of me

This activity can be used at the beginning of an online course. It helps learners to get to know each other a bit. Choose four or five songs which are significant to you in some way, and add them to and online play list (Grooveshark is a good one). Provide a link to your playlist (e.g. in a forum in your online course, or in a blog). Include why you chose each of the songs, and why they are significant to you. Your learners can listen to your playlist, and then respond to your posting with comments or questions. Learners then create their own online playlists, and post a link and explanation each. They listen to and comment on each others’ choice of music. Instead of using audio, you and learners could create online video playlists e.g. in a site like You Tube. People often have strong emotional ties to certain pieces of music, so this can be quite a powerful sharing activity. I especially like the way this activity brings in other media (audio or video) – one danger in online courses is that they become too relentlessly text-based.

2 My precious…

This is another great activity to help learners in an online course get to know each other better. Get learners to take a digital photo of an important/significant object that they own. This could be a piece of jewellery, a souvenir, a talisman or good luck charm, a drawing or painting, a CD, a piece of furniture that has been in the family for generations … (If your learners don’t own digital cameras, they could find an image of a similar object on the Internet, and use that). Learners prepare a 100-word text explaining what the object is, and why it is significant. They post their photo and text to a forum in your online course, or to a blog. They then read about and comment on each other’s objects. Like ‘Sounds of me’ above, this activity enables learners to share meaningful personal information with each other, and can really help the group to ‘gel’. It also brings in another form of media – digital images – which helps add variety to course content.

3 Podcast dictations

I find that many language learners love dictations. So how about building up a bank of dictations as a series of podcasts over time, which learners can regularly listen to and transcribe? Use a free podcasting site (such as Voice Thread, or Podomatic) to record yourself dictating a short text. You could also provide a transcript as a separate text document, so that learners can check their dictations afterwards. Add one dictation a week to your podcasting page, based on course work. This is a great way to review course content, and to also give your learners plenty of practice in listening skills, and grammar. You could even get your learners to record dictations for each other!

4 Your message to the world

This activity is good for speaking practice. It gets learners to record a short speech, based on a model you provide. Record yourself speaking for a minute or two on one of the following topics:

  • What is your vision of a perfect world?
  • If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be, and why?
  • What is the most annoying thing in the world?

  • What is the best thing in the world?

  • If you could say one thing to the world, what would it be?

Upload your recording to your online course site, and get learners to listen and post comment or questions in reply. Give them the list of topics above, and ask them to record their own one or two minute speeches (e.g. using Sound Recorder on their PCs, or Simple Sound if they have a Mac). Learners then share their own recordings in a forum, and listen to and comment on each other’s. You could set a summarising task in the same forum, by asking questions such as’Who talks about world peace? Who is worried about climate change? etc, based on the recordings. Of course it’s important to remember that recording their own speech can be immensely challenging for learners, especially at lower levels. Make it clear that they don’t need to speak for a long time, and that they can rehearse and use notes to help them.

5 Web tours

This is a synchronous activity, which means you and the learners are online at the same time, in a video chat room. Your chat room needs to have shared web browsing, so that you can show each other websites in real time. We use Elluminate for our online course video chats, but there are also free platforms such as Dimdim, or WizIQ you could use. Take your learners on a tour of your favourite website in the chat room, showing a few pages, and telling them what you especially like. One of my favourites is this site of paintings of redheads in art :-) . Get each learner to then show the group their favourite website — preferably a non-language learning site! (They will need to have chosen this site before the chat, and have the URL ready to browse to). Make sure each learner doesn’t speak for more than two or three minutes. At the end of each web tour, the other learners in the group need to come up with one question about that website for the learner. To summarise the activity, provide a list of the website names and URLs for learners to take away.

6 Am I saying this correctly?

This is a listening/viewing activity that gets learners to spot the deliberate mistakes in video subtitles. Find a short video clip (e.g. a film trailer) in your learners’ native language. Using a subtitle creator site (such as Overstream), subtitle the clip and include three or four deliberate mistakes where your English translation does not match the meaning of what is being said in the learners’ native language. Upload the video to your course site, then get learners to watch it and to note down the mistakes they spot. Create a second subtitled version of the video clip with the correct subtitles, and let learners watch that. Did they spot all the mistakes?

We find that learners tend to enjoy this sort of intensive listening activity, especially when they can compare English with their native language. For lower-level learners, you can include deliberate mistakes on obvious items such as vocabulary. For higher levels, the mistakes can focus on more subtle differences in meaning.

These are just six of my favourite activities – there are plenty more in our book! If you try out any of these activities (or the six activities Lindsay has posted on my blog), let us know how it goes in the Comments section below. And if you have any favourite online teaching activities yourself, we’d love to hear about them.

Free Teaching Online Webinar 22 September

You can experience some of our teaching online activities by coming along to our free Teaching Online webinar on Wednesday 22 September 16.30h – 17.30h CET (Central European Time). Check the time in your country , and if you can make it, sign up online with your name and email. We will email you a link to the webinar room half an hour before the webinar is due to start. We will hold a raffle during the webinar to give away free copies of the book! :-)

Published in: | on September 7th, 2010 | 8 Comments »

It’s back to school time, well for many teachers it is anyway. I’m going to be taking a group for the next two months before my travel commitments pick up again and I’m preparing my first classes. One idea I often use is something I picked up from a colleague of mine in Barcelona, Mark McKinnon. It’s called a “lucky dip” and consists of a series of questions on a theme. Each question is written on a different long thin strip of paper. The papers are then all clutched together and the student picks one (the lucky dip) and answers it. I’ve used it with many one-to-one classes, and with groupwork in larger classes. Here a six different categories of questions that I’ve used for “first classes”. Maybe they’ll be helpful for a first class for you?

1 Summer holiday

Describe your summer holiday in five words or less. What did you do this summer holiday that was different to other summers? What was “typical” of this summer for you? What would you have done if you’d had an extra week of holidays? Describe in detail one thing that you bought or paid for this summer. How have summer holidays changed for you since you were a child?

2 Summer news

Can you remember three international news stories from this summer (what were they)? Did you follow the football World Cup or another sports event (what was your favourite part)? What was the strangest news item you heard about this summer? Look at these three headlines from this summer’s news (you need to supply the headlines for this): what do you know about each news story?

3 The English language

What are your favourite words in English? What is the most difficult thing for you about learning English? Who was your first English teacher and what was he/she like? Look through your English coursebook (if you are using one), find three topics you think are interesting and compare with a partner. How important is English in your country? Imagine everybody in the world spoke English; what would be some of the possible disadvantages of this situation?

4 Establishing good habits

When do you study best: morning, afternoon or night? Where do you like to study? Can you think of one good way to remember new words? How much do you aim on studying English outside class every week? Set yourself a goal. Do you know any good websites to practise your English? Share with a partner.

5 Names

Are you named after someone in your family (who)? Do you have a nickname (what is it, and who calls you this)? If you had a child (or another child) now, what would you call him/her? Do you think a person’s name determines, in a way, the kind of life they will have? If you could have any other name, what would it be? What names do you think are particularly ugly?

6 Music and film

Do you listen to different kinds of music for different moods you are in (e.g. your “happy music”, your “sad music”)? What was the latest CD/song you bought? Would you like to study a song in English class (which one)? What was the last film you saw? If they made a film of your life, who would you like to play you? Think of three great films and three absolutely awful films, then compare lists with a parnter.

As usual, I’ve tried here to steer away from the typical questions. Feel free to add more to these lists. One can never have too many questions up one’s sleeve to ask students and get them talking!