Six (non ELT) books I read this summer

Well, this summer I took a much-needed break from blogging and tweeting and all things ELT. Well, this isn’t entirely true as I still had a million little things to do on the next two levels of Global that are due out in 2011. But… I did spend a lot of time relaxing it’s true. And I finally did some reading that was not linked directly to the world of language teaching. It was nice to get lost in a book, well in six books actually. I thought I’d share them here with you.

1. Race of a Lifetime, by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin

Who says the blurb on the cover of a book doesn’t make people buy it? This one read “Welcome to the meat grinder, flash incinerator race to become the 44th President of the United States” and it’s a journalistic account of the 2008-2009 campaigns. I remember reading Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing and enjoying it so I thought I’d give this genre a try again. It read a bit like a thriller and contained lots of tidbits and gossip and anecdotes about the candidates and on the whole was quite well-written. The stuff about Sarah Palin really just makes the mind boggle. A good summer choice.

2. Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell

I’ve just heard too much about this guy now to ignore him. There have been several references to Blink and the Tipping Point on blogs I’ve read and I think I know what people are talking about but I thought I’d read it myself to make sure. Gladwell is also from my alma mater, the University of Toronto. I enjoy the popular science genre (err… I am a coursebook writer after all so have used quite a bit from this genre in the past) and this was no exception. The style reminded me of Freakonomics, so in the words of Amazon “if you liked Freakonomics, you’ll like Blink”.

3. Twilight, by Stephanie Meyer

Sometimes you just have to know what all the fuss is about. And this WAS summer after all! But I confess that while reading this on the beach I did try and conceal the cover from prying eyes. When a friend expressed incredulity at seeing it in my bag (“what’s a middle-aged man who makes a big deal about including high literature and no celebrities in his textbooks doing with that?”) I had to mumble something about research. I haven’t seen the movies (and probably won’t) but I confess that I got quite caught up in the story by the end. But a part of me was a bit alarmed at the glorification of being thin, pale-skinned and moody.

4. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

After Twilight I felt I really should up the literary ante as it were so I jumped in with both feet to Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, which won the Man Booker Award in 2009. Wolf Hall is set in Tudor England during the reign of Henry VIII (of the six wives fame) and is told from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell: “lowborn boy, charmer, bully, master of deadly intrigue and, finally, most powerful of Henry VIII’s courtiers”. If I had to write two words to sum up this 650 page volume they would be “luxurious prose”. A real gem of a book you can completely get immersed in although it’s a bit heavy going to keep track of all the names (fortunately there is a cast of characters list at the beginning that I kept flipping back to).

5. Pandemonium by Christopher Brookmyre.

The Guardian newspaper says of this book: ‘Smart, funny, big-hearted and blood-splattered. What’s not to love?’ What’s not indeed, and after the weight of Wolf Hall I needed a nice light bit of pulp noir to aid digestion. I’ve read several of Brookmyre’s books, he was originally recommended to me by a Scottish mate of mine. It isn’t exactly high fiction, but I always enjoy it for the bits of informal Scottish that I pick up (try, for example, to decipher the following: “Of course she wouldnae” or “Get yerselves tae fuck.”). On reflection though, I think it was a bit more blood-splattered than big-hearted.

6. Slow Death by Rubber Duck – The Secret Danger of Everyday things, by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie

After that good dose of fiction I felt I needed to get back to the real world. This book was a Christmas gift I had never got around to reading. What a great title for a book! It’s all about PCBs and other horrendous toxins in everyday objects around the home. While it focuses more on the American and Canadian situation (Europe being slightly ahead on legislating against harmful chemicals in household products) it still made for sombre reading. The problem with these non-fiction books is that after reading them you’re primed to notice the phenomenon everywhere. After I finished Blink everything I experienced seemed to be about split-second choices (fish or chicken for dinner? Ummm… fish!). After Slow Death, everything I saw was full of deadly chemicals (don’t use that pan for the fish!). I highly recommend it though.

Right. I fully realise that this was a self-indulgent post and a bit like those awful reading lists of prime ministers and so forth but I honest-to-god did read all these books and I haven’t tried to pose by including something really high-brow, like War and Peace (ok, so Wolf Hall was an exception). What about you? What non-ELT books did you read this summer that you could tell me about? I have a couple of long-haul flights coming up this fall and could use some recommendations. Post a comment, and welcome back!

Published in: | on September 1st, 2010 | 15 Comments »

Part of my bookshelf of teacher's resource books, there are four more shelves full!

Note: This blogpost originally appeared as part of a series of articles I was invited to contribute to in honour of Mario Rinvolucri’s 70th birthday. The post below and other articles about Mario’s influence in the world of ELT appeared in the last issue of Humanizing Language Teaching, one of the first online magazines for ELT that I know of that is still going. See the issue here.

The first resource book for teachers I ever owned was Mario Rinvolucri’s Grammar Games. After fifteen years of teaching and having several books of my own published I still enjoy opening the battered green cover and leafing through it (you can see it on my shelf, above). Much of the book still feels as fresh today in 2010 as it felt when I first opened it. It’s the sign of truly good and practical classroom activities, something that I know Mario has always striven for in his work.

Since my early teaching days I have slowly collected resource books for teachers. They occupy around eight shelves in my office now. Many of them are Mario’s and I’m happy to say that with every new book there is still always some good stuff in there.

I know that some teachers and writers like to make fun of the more “experimental” activities that Mario has suggested over the years, certainly many of these to do with Multiple Intelligence theory or NLP. But that overlooks the great amount of practical, doable and sensible activities and ideas that Mario has contributed to our profession. I thought I’d share half a dozen “Mario activities” that any language teacher, new or experienced, should have up their sleeve.

Note: I call these Mario activities because I discovered them in his books. Mario is very honest about where his activities come from, citing the source wherever possible. I know he would not want me to attribute a whole idea or activity to him if it weren’t his, so the proviso here is that all of these activities have been shared by Mario even if not created by him.

1 Causes and Consequences

This collection of ideas and activities are all stimulating, even though the photos in it now look extremely old-fashioned. My favourite activities here were ones that did not depend on photos. Causes and consequences was a simple activity where students were given a statement and had to brainstorm all the causes and consequences of that statement. Brilliant, and worked as a critical thinking activity for me many a time.

taken from: Challenge to Think, written with Christine Frank, published by OUP (1982)

2 Present Perfect Poem

One of my all time favourites as a teacher. The students are given a series of words which they have to make into as many different sentences as possible. They put these together to make a poem, which will be very close to an actual poem by Robin Truscott. Sample sentence: We have seen the face of the enemy and it works.

Probably one of the most meaningful exercises I’ve done with learners.

taken from: Grammar Games, published by CUP (1984)

3 The Marienbad game

I still use this activity with almost every group from Elementary level upwards. You write a poem on the board and the students have to take words away one or two at a time until a group cannot take any more words away. So simple and elegant as an activity. And very grammatical.

taken from: Grammar Games, published by CUP (1984)

4 The Coke Machine Round the Corner

My first ever activity I did with movement and mime, the Coke Machine dictation involves students miming a series of actions to get a soft drink from a machine and drink it. The “burp!” at the end often yielded hilarious results.

taken from: Dictation, written with Paul Davis, published by CUP (1988)

5  The Optimist and the Pessimist

I love the way Mario is able to generate a mass of communication and meaning from a simple sentence. In this activity students are given a sentence and each have to write a reaction to it beginning either with “Fortunately…” (for the optimists) or “Unfortunately…” (for the pessimists).

taken from: Humanising your Coursebook, published by Delta Publishing 2002

6 Time is of the essence

Given my long relationship with Mario’s writing as a teacher and a teacher trainer, it was an amazing opportunity for me to be able to actually work as an editor on his latest work, Culture in our Classrooms (written with Gilly Johnson). Mario’s passion for culture really shone through here, and even though we hotly debated some of the material and how it should appear I think his eye for practical activities that appeal to the students’ affective needs is as good as ever. One of my favourites in this book is Time is of the Essence, where students read a sentence relating to time and have to determine what time they would put. For example: She got to work early that morning. (students say what time that would be in their culture). Even more of a honour was that Mario asked me to supply the Canadian times as an example for the activity!

taken from: Culture in our Classrooms, written with Gill Johnson, published by Delta (2010)

There you have them. Only six, from an overall collection of probably more than six hundred. Apologies if I have missed your favourites, but you are welcome as ever to leave a comment. And if you don’t know any of these, then I recommend you get to a library or bookshop pretty quickly! Your teaching repertoire will be much improved for it!


Six things all language teachers should know about tasks

Another guest post here at Six Things, this time from none other than Marcos Benevides. Marcos is a fellow author and blogger based in Japan. He is the man behind Whodunit, the world’s first free-to-share ELT reader textbook as well as Widgets, a task based course from Longman. He is also one of the guys behind a blog called Task-Based Language Teaching. Are you detecting a pattern here? Can you guess what his list will be about? Please welcome him, and pay good attention! :-)

Hello class, my name is Mr. Benevides, and I’ll be substituting for Mr. Clandfield today. It seems he is recovering from a nasty champagne-on-a-concorde bug that seems to be going around.

For today’s lesson, I’d like you to close your textbooks. We are learning Six things all language teachers should know about tasks:

1. Tasks must be authentic

All right. Now, everyone please repeat after me, “Not everything you do in the classroom is a task. Not everything you do in the classroom is a task. Not everything you do in the classroom is a task.” Okay, good.

Any questions? Yes, you in the back there.

Ah, yes—the word task does literally mean “an assigned piece of work”. Good point. But in ELT, it means a specific kind of activity which, among other criteria, is somehow connected with, or analogous to, or modeled on something that people actually do in the real world. This gives the task a more intrinsically motivating communicative aspect beyond simply the practicing of a language form for the sake of learning it.

So, let’s say, Filling in a job application is a task. Filling in the blanks on a cloze worksheet from a textbook reading is not. Got it?

Pardon me?

Hm, another good point—yes, any classroom task will always be somewhat inauthentic (or even contrived if you prefer) by the simple virtue of it being performed in a classroom context. But look, there are degrees of authenticity, and perhaps we can agree that the more authentic, the better. It’s true, asking your students to imagine that they are castaways on a desert island who must Look at the map and discuss the best location to build a shelter may not seem especially realistic, but it does have a connection with the kinds of things we can easily imagine happening in the real world.

On the other hand, when was the last time your boss came into your office and said, “Brian! This paragraph has been cut into ten sentences! I’m going to tape each sentence up around your office, and then you must collect them and put them in order for me before the big meeting. Got it? I’m counting on you, Brian!”

So I think it’s fair to say that some classroom activities are always going to be more contrived than others because they lack any reasonable real world application.

But please mind one caveat: Inauthentic does not necessarily equal ineffective; putting together jumbled sentences may indeed be a very useful activity to do in the classroom. It just isn’t especially, well, tasky, that’s all.

Okay, next point.

2. Tasks must be goal-oriented

Right, goals. Everything has a goal.

But the task must have an end goal which is not simply linguistic, or not primarily pedagogical, in nature. If you are asking students to Tell a story about how you and your best friend first met, the important outcome is not for the student to use the simple past tense or logical connectors, although it’s clear that they might; it is for them to Tell a story about how they and their best friend first met. It is for a story to be told, and for the audience to feel reasonably satisfied that a story has been told. That’s it.

Everybody following? I see some blank looks.

Look, of course there are linguistic considerations, but these are secondary. If you have selected appropriate tasks, then you can be pretty confident that there will be a natural focus on certain forms when the student attempts them. Indeed, it might be impossible to perform the tasks without using those forms. In that case, if the student does manage to perform a task appropriately, we can confidently assume that they are proficient in the use of those forms. Even if we focus only on the end goal.

Okay. For example, to order a pizza by telephone, one needs to be able to relate one’s address in an acceptable format. One needs to anticipate and answer questions such as “Would you like ~ with that?” One needs to know certain vocabulary items. One even needs to be aware of social and pragmatics conventions so as not to inadvertently sound rude and get disconnected. So, if after the student performs the task successfully—if we can image that the pizza would arrive, with all the correct toppings—we can then also safely assume that the student is proficient enough in using those specific language forms. Because she couldn’t have ordered a pizza otherwise.

Good? Okay, let’s move on.

3. Tasks must be meaningful

At this point you should be noticing that these items are all closely related. The more authentic the task, the easier it is to connect it to a clear, non-pedagogical end goal, and the more likely that it will be meaningful.

No, I’m not repeating myself. You can see me after class, young man. Renshaw, is it? You’ve got troublemaker written all over you.

Right, where were we?

Ah yes. It bears emphasizing that tasks must prioritize the negotiation of meaning over the practice of language forms. It is commonplace to think of forms and meaning as two opposite directions from which to approach instruction, either of which can lead to some secondary focus on the other. So teaching a grammar point can lead up to a speaking activity that uses that grammar point, just like starting with a meaningful task can lead up to focusing on the language that emerges from it.

There is one crucial problem with this parallel, however: Meaning is always clearly dependent on some kind of grammar, whereas grammar is not often dependent on meaning. A case in point is Chomsky’s famously grammatical but meaningless sentence, Colorless green ideas dream furiously. To my mind, there is a fundamental problem with starting with grammar and attempting to move ‘up’ towards meaning in coursebooks or in the classroom; it is never going to work as elegantly as going the other way: starting with meaning and then attempting to draw out relevant grammar forms.

After all, one doesn’t often enter into a communicative situation by thinking, “Okay, I need to use the past tense correctly now…” but rather by thinking of the meaning one wants to get across. By imagining how we might construct meaning, we may wander into grammar territory; by practicing grammar, on the other hand, we seldom wander into engaging, meaningful content. In fact, in a classroom context, students tend to get stuck exclusively on grammar forms, especially when it’s clear that it’s their accurate use that’s going to be assessed.

That’s also exactly what happens when students are presented forms before attempting a task. So, in order to better simulate real world (-like) conditions, the student needs to attempt the task first, at which point they might realize their need for a particular form in order to achieve the task; then they can be presented relevant forms by the teacher, either during or immediately following the task phase.

Ideally, they would then go on to perform a related task next, implicitly and organically reinforcing the language form, even as the student is once again focused on a non-linguistic goal.

Everyone with me?

4. Tasks must be assessed in a valid manner

Right, now this is the biggie, and the one that often gets forgotten by teachers in the day-to-day of the classroom. Students must be assessed first according to how well they achieved the goal of the task. If the task was to give a five minute slideshow presentation about their family, then by God that’s what we should be judging them on!

Would a reasonable audience member have understood what they said? Would an audience have been satisfied by the depth and/or breadth of the information? The length of the presentation? The mode of delivery? The demeanor and attitude of the presenter?

Yes? Then it’s a pass. No? Then it’s a fail.

Everything else, including language accuracy, is secondary. Upon first deciding pass or fail, then the teacher can then target other items. Was it a borderline pass because pronunciation difficulties made parts of the presentation hard to understand? Or maybe it was a lack of appropriate vocabulary? Or a critical, recurring grammar issue? Okay, then target those in the feedback to students. But decide pass or fail based on achievement of the goal—and above all, make it clear to students that that is where the bar is set.

One useful way to correlate task types with leveling criteria for assessment is by reference to a language descriptor system such as the Common European Framework of Reference or the Canadian Language Benchmarks. I personally find the latter to be more useful because it includes more specific can-do items, but some teachers actually find it more subjective for the same reason. Either way, both provide a good path toward valid task-based assessment. (And excellent face validity for students and parents too, I might add.) However, please bear in mind that the CEFR or the CLB are not assessment tools themselves—they are simply suggestive of how assessment ought to work.

So to recap—yes, please write this down—assess them first on whether they completed the task appropriately. Yes or no? Then consider how high of a pass or how low of a fail based on other, including linguistic, criteria.

5. Tasks must be adaptive

Okay, we’re almost there, I promise.

Teachers sometimes talk about whether tasks are focused or unfocused (on language forms). Clearly, certain tasks suggest specific language forms better than others, and some tasks, especially at higher proficiency levels, can be achieved by using a wide variety of language forms. But as a general rule, the task-based syllabus must be adaptive to emergent language, and not be overly language-prescriptive. Telling a story about What did you do last weekend? clearly suggests—focuses on—the simple past tense. And it would be perfectly fine for the teacher to expect to teach the simple past in that lesson.

However, because real meaning-making is a messy, chaotic, unpredictable affair, the teacher should also be prepared to target other forms that may arise in the course of students attempting to tell their own individual stories. Actually, this is why it is so difficult to design a ‘strong’ task-based coursebook, and why a grammar-driven or functions-driven syllabus almost always becomes the default fallback position: How can a textbook written a thousand miles and several years away, for a wide range of student types, possibly provide an authentic, meaningful task while also predicting the full range of language forms that Student X might want to employ right now? It can’t, that’s how. It can only try to restrict the forms that can be selected and pretend that it’s preseting them as meaningfully as can be expected under the circumstances. For task-based practitioners, that’s not enough.

TBLT tries to simulate a real world operating environment wherein people are not restricted to using a particular language form, but must employ a variety of strategies and draw upon background knowledge to get things done. When a learner decides to use a certain language form, or even better, realizes that she doesn’t quite know how to frame what she wants to say and asks the teacher for help, then that language can be said to be emerging from the task. It is at this point that the teacher—who unlike the textbook writer happens to be there in the room!—can target the language form and instruct the learner most effectively. By contrast, the dominant pattern of instruction would see the teacher targeting, say, relative pronouns today simply because it’s Relative Pronoun Day on the syllabus, and creating a contrived need to use relative pronouns through a ‘communicative’ activity.

So no, not even a balanced PPP approach using otherwise authentic, meaningful tasks can be completely adaptive to emergent language.

A question? Yes, you can write that down too. Mr. Clandfield would be glad to elaborate on that next week.

6. Tasks must be themed

Okay, okay, no need to look at me funny. You’re right, this isn’t actually a crucial requirement. But I think it’s important.

By a theme, I mean something that connects a set of units according to a recurring topic or subject. A course on Love and Dating, for example, where students read a romance graded reader, watch a movie like Bridget Jones’ Diary, write an anonymous advice column for a school paper, and present on dating customs in different cultures. Or a course with the end-of-semester goal of putting together a website about the city in which the students live. Or a reading course in which students focus on one specific genre, for instance detective stories. Themes have a variety of language learning benefits I won’t go into here, but perhaps most importantly, they tie tasks together in a coherent progression. So for instance, within a Workplace related theme, students might Fill out a job application, then Participate in a hiring interview, then Meet co-workers, then Listen to instructions on how to serve a customer, then Call in sick, and so on.

When tasks are connected thematically then there are a variety of benefits that feed back on the five requirements I list above: heightened authenticity; facilitated selection of tasks; contextualized meaning-making; improved face validity of assessment; and a better organized sequence of instruction that does not lapse into language form prescriptivism.

Okay, that’s it. Any questions? Anything at all? Yes, the gentleman taking furious notes in the front row there. How does TBLT relate to dog- what? dog-ma?

Um, class dismissed.

http://mrg.bz/nlVPkp
Published in: | on June 25th, 2010 | 14 Comments »

Six communist textbooks to learn English

I’m excited about this post, it’s a little side project I’ve been doing while traveling. Inspired by Scott Thornbury‘s old collection of English language textbooks I wanted to collect a series of covers of old English textbooks from former communist countries. I’ve had the opportunity to visit many countries of the former Soviet Block and have lots of contacts who were kind enough to help me in my search. Here they are. six little pieces of history.

1. Starkov English Textbooks and Readers (Russia, 1980s)

This from my colleague at the British Council in Moscow, Olga Barnashova. She told me that when someone brought these in the other day everyone got really excited as they recognise their childhood. Check out the exercise too.

 

2. English 7 ( Georgia 1984)

This one courtesy of Scott Thornbury’s collection. A striking design, and another course that just goes by numbers (like Starkov above). I don’t know how high these courses go actually. Line from a dialogue in English 7 Hello Gia. I’ve got a fine picture of Lenin which, as Scott remarked dryly, makes a nice change from I’ve got a pen.

3. My English Book (Poland)

I quite like the retro image of the children on this book, as well as how the yellow ribbon in the girl’s hair is echoed in the yellow cover.

4 We learn English (Poland)

Great collectivist title. And such a minimalist cover design too. I would love to do a new version of this, but keep the same artist. This and My English Book both come courtesy of my Polish friend and fantatstic teacher trainer Grzegorz Spiewak.

5. English for the Small (Hungary)

My absolute FAVOURITE title for a child’s book to learn English. My good friend Tamas Lorincz sent me the cover and pages from this book. The insdie cover says “English for the small. Rhymes and games, for them all.” Priceless! It also has a great picture of Lenin on the inside page too. In fact this was all so good I’m including a few pages here.  Click on the image to see a bigger version of the scan – it’s worth it.

6 Armed Forces English Broadcast (Republic of China 1965)

This one is a little different from the others, but what a treat. Published by Republic of China Military Foreign Language school, I came across this one online. It was found by a travel blogger called Roy Berman outside the Taiwan National History Museum (Roy’s blog is called Mutantfrog Travelogue, a very original title for a blog!). I was especially fascinated by the table of contents. Unit 2… Cabbage Soup? Is that some kind of military term for food in the barracks? Curiouser and curiouser…

(note: according to one of my commentators below this is not a Chinese book after all, but from Taiwan! see comment below)

 

So, have any of my readers studied with one of these books? Does anyone have any other gems of old English textbooks they could share? And the big question… are contemporary books really that much better?

 

Published in: | on June 21st, 2010 | 22 Comments »

Six things to know about an e-workbook

Well everyone it’s that time again on Six Things when I give a little commercial for Global. OK, actually a big commercial for Global. I’ve been quiet about it for six months (on this blog at least). But I had promised (threatened?) to tell you about the digital component of the course in a little more detail and now I can. Here are six features of the much talked-about e-workbook, the latest in self-study from my course Global.

1 It’s not a simple CDROM.

The e-workbook comes on a disc, it’s true. But it is unlike the recent CDROMs in a few different ways. First of all, it isn’t stuck in some little plastic envelope and glued to the back of the student’s book. We’ve found that many students don’t even touch those CDROMs, or they end up on the floor. Teachers don’t bother to show students how they work. So a little improvement has been to give the e-workbook an A4 pamphlet of its own complete with screen shots and explanations of how to use it. Like a technical manual. Also, you install the e-workbook on a computer and activate it (with an activation code). You don’t need the disc any more after that.

2 It allows different ways of working.

The e-workbook contains of course lots of interactive exercises for grammar, vocabulary, listening, reading, writing, pronunciation the lot. But we realised that not everybody wants to work on the computer all the time. So all the language practice activities are also available as downloadable pdfs, with corresponding audio files. Which means you can print and work. These pdfs aren’t screenshots, they are in fact a complete printed workbook with artwork and proper layout etc. There are more than 100 interactive activities and 80 pages of printable worksheets.

3 It has lots of extra audio, JUST audio

When I was learning German, I desperately wanted to be able to JUST LISTEN to things in German. Basically hear the words, the phrases and perhaps short little conversations. “Doing” listening exercises was helpful, but I didn’t want to do that all the time when I studied. So in the e-workbook we’ve put both. There are plenty of listening exercises (true/false, matching etc) but there are also a whole bunch of files of “just listening”. These include: word lists by category, useful phrases by function, mini conversations (to put words and phrases into context) and extracts from the literature in the book read aloud in an audiobook format. All of these have a feature that allows you to read the text on screen, with the words being highlighted as you read and listen.

4 It has an impressive video offering

We wanted to include video on the e-workbook as well. Lots of ELT video is… how to say… a bit crap. The settings look unreal, the production cost is not so high and it shows. So we decided to save on that budget and instead get great actors and a great writer to do very simple, almost improv theatre-like videos. Here’s an example of one below:

The video material for these was written by the extremely talented Robert Campbell, known for his great magazine iT’s for Teachers (check it out!). But that’s only HALF of the video material. The other half is the authentic material. For this it was like a dream come true: we managed to get the full backlist video archive of the BBC documentaries to choose from. So there is some incredibly good material on there. I’d include one here but we aren’t allowed to display them on the internet!

So in total there are 20 videos on the e-workbook. They are all short clips. Each video comes with a worksheet with comprehension and language activities for the student to do if he/she wants to. An additional bonus is that the teacher has the same 20 videos he/she can use in class, along with an extra 10 clips from the BBC (that follow on from the original documentary clips)

5 It supports mobile learning

Here’s the best part. All the video and audio can be downloaded and put onto any portable music or video playing device: an MP4 player, an ipod/pad/phone or any phone which supports audio and video files. So students can practice their English anywhere, at any time.

6 It has testing and reference tools

If all that wasn’t enough, there is a self-test machine that generates grammar and vocabulary mini tests (the student can choose a number of questions, or take a timed test). The questions will be different each time. And (running out of breath here) there is a reference section too with wordlists and definitions, grammar help, writing tips and a link to the dictionary. Oh, and for those schools big on Common European Framework there are all the language passport and dossier documents as well as self-assessment checklists too for students to build their own portfolio.

The e-workbook also keeps track of all the work done on it. You can create a pdf of your markbook, showing EXACTLY what you have done so far in any given session. This means that the teacher can ask students to email or print off a record of their work.

FINALLY… if your school is using a moodle or other virtual learning platform then the content of the e-workbook can be licensed directly from Macmillan and put onto your site (it’s SCORM compliant, which means it can work in a moodle).

Phew! Well, that’s it. And yes I KNOW this was a commercial plug but it IS my baby after all. So consider this like looking at a bunch of baby photos and making nice noises like “ooohhh” and “how beautiful”… ;-)

Published in: | on June 16th, 2010 | 9 Comments »

This week I’m joined by Emma Foers. Emma got in touch with me about doing a post for new teachers. I took a look through the past posts I had done and found that actually I had very little by way of “tried and true” activities for newcomers. So I was happy to accommodate her here.

There are many things that can go wrong in a TEFL class – too few students turn up, equipment doesn’t work, students aren’t in the mood, or some students finish activities before others and start to disrupt everyone else, to name just a few of the possible problems!  So it’s always good to have some back-up activities, especially if you’re just starting out. Here are a few I’ve used in my time…

1)     Vocabulary revision games If some students have finished an exercise before the others, you can challenge them to write down 10 items of vocabulary from a previous session (colours, days of the week, household objects).  If the class finishes early, you can ask a student to come and stand with their back to the board.  Write a previously taught word or phrase on the board and the class has to describe it to the student, who must guess the word/phrase!  There are many vocabulary revision games out there and many to make up!  One of my friends devised the ‘cup of knowledge’ – she made a cup and put vocabulary inside it from previous classes.  At the beginning/end of class she would ask students to pick a word from the cup and describe it to the rest of the class – the person to get the word first would win a point for their team!

2)      Picture Flashcards Great again to revise past vocabulary in games!  One of my favourite games (especially for kids) is Kapunk! You need different coloured card with numbers from 10 to 1,000,000 on them and some cards with Kapunk! written on them.  Put your students into teams and one student has to come to the board and compete against the others to win the chance to select a points card.  If all teams draw/complete the task they can select a card.  If they are unlucky enough to select a Kapunk! card they lose all of their points!  Tasks can range from anything from writing a correct sentence using the picture you have selected to spelling tasks using flashcards.  You may want to let two students come to the board at a time to make the game more communicative and to build confidence for weaker/shyer students.  Also you might want to develop rules such as teams not using English will be deducted 100 points. It’s also worth giving groups one chance to spot mistakes and help their team members (this keeps them interested in what their team members are doing!).

3)   Crossword Puzzles Always come in handy for when you finish early and students love them! You can either find ones online or make your own.

4)   Spot the mistakes Write up sentences on the board with things students have been taught but with common mistakes in them.  Put students into groups to find the mistakes.  Could be ‘Are you have photos?’, ‘I have much apples’ etc.

5)    Add a word The aim of this activity is for students to build a full, correct sentence one word at a time. With children you could do this asking them to sit in a line on the floor (with a pen and paper), or with adults you could do this orally.  The first student has to write/say a word, then the next student has to add a word and so on.

6)      Ball game Having a ball in the class entails endless games!  Students can ask/answer questions when they throw/catch the ball to each other.  The teacher can throw the ball and do a quick quiz.  You can give a topic and students throw to each other and say related vocabulary to the topic when they catch the ball.  Also, another game is when the word must start with a letter which is the same as the last letter of the previous word. For example, if the first word is “dog,” then the next word could be ‘golf’.

How about you guys? What’s your favourite back-up activity?

Emma Foers has actually written a whole book of activities for new teachers, called Kick-Start Your TEFL Career: 20 Classroom Activities for Elementary Learners. You can see sample pages and more activities here.

Six completely useless things students often do very well

Twirling a pen between your thumb and fingers is a skill acquired sitting through hours of boring lessons...

As many readers know, I’ve been out of the classroom for a few months now. But there are some things you never forget, and among those are some of the useless things students do in class. Each of the following six things are skills, I’m convinced, that are honed over several years of sitting in boring classes (not mine, of course not my classes). Not necessarily the skills we want them to develop in English class but skills nevertheless. Here they are.

1 Twirling a pen between two forefingers and a thumb.

2 Leaning back on a chair just far enough to avoid falling over.

3 Drawing moustaches, devil’s horns and penises on photos in a book.

4 Opening the book to the wrong page every class.

5 Balancing a pen between the upper lip and nose.

6 Clicking pens quickly and noisily..

I seem to remember coming across a similar list in a book I used to have called Essential Lists for Teachers by Duncan Grey. I wish I could find it again. In the meantime, are there any other utterly useless things that your students are very good at doing? Useless mind, not just naughty. Sending text messages or passing notes secretly is a skill, but you could argue it’s more useful than the ones I posted above. Anyway, if you want to add then please post a comment.

Published in: | on May 31st, 2010 | 32 Comments »

Six jobs before becoming a teacher

Paperboy... my first job at age 13 (not me in the photo!)

This is always a fun topic of conversation among English teachers – what did you do BEFORE you joined the front lines of the teaching profession? I read somewhere that today’s young people can expect to have more than fifteen jobs in their lives. I don’t know if I had fifteen different kinds of job before becoming an English teacher but I certainly had at least six. Here they are, not necessarily in order!

1. Aid worker

I was an aid worker first in Croatia in the early nineties. I worked in a refugee camp, organising various social events and helping run the kindergarten. Actually some of this involved a bit of English teachng, but also aerobics classes and arts and crafts afternoons. I did this for a few months (they did not let us stay too long). I then worked as a volunteer for the UNHCR (High Commission on Refugees) in Guatemala the next year, accompanying Guatemalan refugees back to their villages. Interesting work, and one felt like you were doing some real good but the pay was not good. In fact, in my case the pay was inexistent as we were mostly volunteers.

2. Video store cashier and shelf-stocker

Much less glamourous than 1, I spent some time in Montreal working for Blockbuster Videos – a truly evil company. When I think back on the staff training… shudder. But I did get a couple of free rentals a week and experienced the joy of getting screamed at by outraged customers when we charged them late fees.

3 Children’s book consultant

An amazing job that put me through university. I worked for the biggest independant children’s book store in Canada (alas it closed around ten years ago). I started working on cash and in the warehouse before getting trained to be a consultant, advising librarians, teachers and parents on suitable books for different ages of children. I discovered and rediscovered many gems of children’s literature, great picture books all of which served me very well when it came time for me to get books for my own children. I did this job on and off for over six years, the second longest “profession” I’ve had after teaching.

4 Bartender and waiter

I actually attended a course and got a certificate as a bartender, can you believe such a thing exists. For a time I knew how to make all kinds of cocktails, but all that knowledge has now been forgotten. I worked in a bar in Toronto for a summer and hated it. A few years later, I was living in the UK and I went back to the service industry as a waiter in a hotel in north Wales. And hated it again.

5 Lifeguard and swimming instructor

In my much younger days I worked every summer, and part time during the year, as a lifeguard and swimming instructor in Toronto. Those were very good times, although I feel now that we were all quite young to have such responsibility. Got good tans though.

6 Newspaper delivery boy

My first ever job. I was thirteen and got a job delivering newspapers in my neighborhood. I had to get up every morning at six o’clock to finish my round by seven-thirty. Then I came home, had breakfast and went to school. That eventually ended when the government passed a law making it illegal to hire minors to deliver papers and pay them a pittance. I guess it would be called child labour now, although it didn’t feel onerous at the time.

So, what about you lot? What are the strangest most interesting, most awful, or most glamorous jobs you have held down before opting for ELT? Leave a comment.

Actually, if you have your own blog why not do a blog post on your past trades? How about a mini blog meme on the subject? I’d be interested to read them. There, the gauntlet is thrown down!

Published in: | on May 22nd, 2010 | 43 Comments »

Jason Renshaw's Six signs that you are on the right track as a language teacher

Jason Renshaw’s Six signs that you may be on the right track as a language teacher

This week I’m extrememly happy to be joined by none other than the English Raven himself, Jason Renshaw. For those of you who don’t know him, Jason is a writer and prolific blogger based in Australia. He’s known for his coursebook series Boost, but also for creative and provocative posts on different aspects of teaching and methodology. I’ve been bugging him a long time to do a guest post, and he’s delivered the goods! Here are six signs that you may be on the right track as a language teacher. Enjoy!

1. Your classes almost never begin or end with coursebook material

This to me is a sign that a teacher is connecting with students as people, and sees their interests and daily lives as the first and final priorities. It is also a positive answer to a question I put to a lot of newer teachers: Who is actually running this class – you and your students, or a book?

2. The students in your classes talk more than you do, and speak to each other more than they speak to you

This is a skill and an important priority. It means you have started to see your role as being more along the lines of facilitator rather than leader or controller. In language learning, the students are the ones who really need the opportunities and time to talk – not you. Language learning is possibly more enhanced by talking to a range of people – not a single expert. Also, to really help students you need to be able to listen to them. If you’re doing all the talking, you’re probably doing very little listening.

3. Motivation has become the students’ responsibility

Teachers who try to overtly motivate their students either fail dismally, or become the entire source of classroom motivation (which is also a form of failure, but harder to spot and more drawn out). At some point, this responsibility for motivation and commitment to the learning process has to become an intrinsic part of the students. The earlier this begins, the better. Teachers who can let go of this perceived responsibility and find the right ways to help it blossom in students are worth their weight in gold.

4. You feel a constant need to create and apply your own material and activities

Some coursebooks are better than others, and some suit your learners better than others do. But none of them (on their own) can be perfectly ideal for your students. It is a very positive sign in a developing teacher when thoughts like the following become more frequent:

- I’ll skip this part, because it’s not all that relevant or useful to my students

- This part could be better. Here’s how…

- I can do this part better, and I will

These feelings often lead to teachers making more and more of their own material and activities, often to either supplement or replace sections of coursebooks, and more often than not they lead to more effective and relevant learning in class. They are also a positive sign of teacher self-belief and confidence.

5. There are more questions than answers

I would apply this on two fronts.

One is related to the point above about interaction in class. When students are answering a lot but not asking many questions, their passive and receptive skills are being emphasized at the expense of productive skills and creative thinking. We may also be creating situations where what students know takes priority over what they don’t know or would like to know.

On the second front, this is a good sign in teachers as well. As you become better at what you do as a teacher, you will find that answers lead to more questions, and more questions lead to more answers. It’s sort of like watching a tree grow. Teachers I’ve met who figured they had more answers than questions tended to be the sort who had started to plateau, or even backslide. They didn’t realise it (or didn’t want to realise it!), and had started to misinterpret the whole idea and role of experience.

6. There are regular surprises

Being able to predict what will happen in classes is a sign of good teaching in many respects, but in other ways it can be a sign of rot. A highly predictable lesson with predominantly predetermined use of language is rather like taking a single well-used track through a very large forest. Good teachers facilitate, expect, and embrace the unexpected. They thrive on it. Surprises in language classes not only represent what language experience is like in the real world, they also create the most effective bases for teachers to explore what the students (feel they) really need to learn about and experience more.

Published in: | on May 17th, 2010 | 26 Comments »

I had some other things planned for the blog this week, but this ash cloud business is just NOT going away from the news. So I figured why not look on the bright side and see how something like this could be exploited in class? Here are six ideas.

1 Learn about volcanoes, ash and airplanes! Create a lesson all about volcanoes and the ash cloud. One of the best sources of information I found was of course at the BBC website special page about the ash cloud. I’d happily use any of these as a reading text or live listening (i.e. you the teacher use the text as a basis for a lecture that you give).

2 Discuss what you would do! Tell the students to imagine they are stranded at an airport for an indefinite amount of time. They brainstorm what they would do to pass the time. To make this activity more local, tell them they are at their closest airport and they need to get to London. How could they do this?

3 Do a roleplay! Roleplay a “giving information/complaining” situation: Student A is at the airport and wants to know why his/her flight has been cancelled. Student B works at the information desk. To make it more interesting or give more support provide the students with more details (e.g. student B you are getting married tomorrow!)

4 Learn about Iceland! Prepare a reading or listening text about Iceland. Might be nice to learn something about this country which isn’t only ash clouds and bankrupcy… Another possibility is to make a quiz (or have students make one). Don’t just rely on Wikipedia for your information for this, why not go to the Icelandic government site? You can find the basic facts about the country here.

5 Use the Ash Cloud’s tweets! As a warm up, use some the Ash Cloud’s tweets, which you can find here (I have no idea if this is an official site or not, but it’s funny). Write some of the funnier ones on the board and explain what twitter is. Then ask the students who, or what, made these tweets. My favourites for this activity would be: “It looks like I’ll be spending my summer holidays over Europe!I was hoping for a relaxing time at home..” and “Wonderful thank you, how are you? Oh you know the usual…drifting, sorting out my particles, that sort of thing” and “I’m being pesky again-its that fresh pulse of meltwater thats caused it-awfully sorry!”

6 Fill up those last ten minutes of class…with a game of hangman using the volcano’s name Eyjafjallajokull. This will probably take some time :-) but you could argue it’s good practice of English letters. Once students have finally got it, ask them to find out three facts about the volcano in English using the net and bring these to the next class.

Finally, as an extra bonus for this post here is my latest venture into film subtitling (those of you who follow me on Twitter will have soon other similar films I’ve made like this). Now I’m trying my hand at horror. The link below will take you to a film called Ash Cloud ELT. It works best if you don’t understand Russian! Enjoy…

ASH CLOUD ELT