Will 2020 be YOUR year???

If you’re anything like me, you will already be sick of reading all the ‘New Year, New You’ type posts that are now flooding the internet. What was so terrible about the old me? What’s suddenly changed overnight? Why should I become a different person? (on second thoughts, don’t answer, I’m not actually that bothered!)

I’m happy being me. I don’t want to change, I just want to tweak…

So this New Year, instead of making the kind of resolutions that I don’t stand a cat in hell’s chance of actually keeping, I will be tweaking. I have a pretty good idea of what I am good at and where I could do with making some improvements (both professionally and personally). So that’s what I’ll be doing, just gradually working on a few areas. No wholesale ‘new me’, just the same old me, developing gradually, as I have always done.

No public declarations of things I’m going to do in 2020, no plans for some huge shift in my personality (sorry), no crazy weight-loss projections, no determination to have a class of teenagers eating out of my hand by September. Just a quiet reflection of my strengths and weaknesses and how best to tweak them, not because it is the 1st of January, but throughout the year.

This time next year I will be looking back at the things I HAVE done, rather than stressing about the resolutions that I didn’t keep.

So happy New Year, I wish you all the best for 2020. Be you – after all, it’s what you are best at.

The art of seduction: Why connection should come before everything else

Some more wise words from André Hedlund (Edcrocks) this week. I am becoming more and more fascinated by the science of learning and how this should influence our approach to teaching (and life in general). If you too are interested in learning more – from the horse’s mouth, no less, André will be offering a webinar next month entitled – The Brain & How to Help our Learners Learn (Metacognitive Strategies according to the Science of Learning) (Link here for more info and to sign up)

What really drives people to do anything? On a molecular level, we could say it’s a very important neuromodulator, which has become quite popular not only in the scientific literature but also on TV, blogs and in magazine pieces: our beloved dopamine. The effects it has on the brain are nothing short of extraordinary. Dopamine is released when we have a sense of anticipation of something rewarding, not so much when we experience the reward itself. How does this knowledge change what I must prioritize as a teacher in the classroom? That’s exactly what I intend to discuss in my second blog post for ELT.Training.

Imagine you see an attractive person at a pub in London. You’re single and the person has made eye contact. You look back at the person and realize you’re incredibly attracted to them. What is happening in your brain is quite amazing. An incredible cocktail of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine is being released from your neurons into the synapses and being captured by other neurons. The entire process just makes you feel wonderfully well. Those who have engaged in the art of seduction know exactly what I’m talking about. But what does that have to do with your students in the classroom?

Well, let’s start with what makes people engage in the first place. When you sense a dangerous or unwanted situation, something that might make you uncomfortable, your body releases something that causes the bad type of stress. It’s called cortisol. Cortisol plays a role in memory formation, especially remembering things to avoid, but long-term cortisol release has a bunch of effects that actually impact learning negatively. You feel tense and you can’t use your prefrontal cortex, the hub in your brain where sophisticated thinking and reasoning take place. What does that all mean? It basically means that we want more dopamine and just the right amount of cortisol to get people engaged.

The oversimplification above is just to give you some grounds for what I propose next. Very much like the seduction that went on at the pub I mentioned before, we need to seduce our students. Now, please don’t get me wrong here. What I mean is that we need to seduce their brains and make them want to engage with us in class. This is so important that I believe it should be the top priority of every lesson. If you think about it, not seducing your students’ brains will likely generate disinterested students who’ll have a hard time paying attention. Reduced attention leads to reduced memory consolidation. Or even worse. Students who feel intimidated, uncomfortable or something else because they have no emotional connection with the teacher will have a hard time accessing their sophisticated thinking, reasoning and, consequently, learning skills.

What’s something that you can do then? I’d like to list a couple of very simple, yet quite effective, suggestions that you can work on to seduce your students’ brains:

1-    Show them who you are

I always take time, particularly in the very first lesson, to connect with my students. They are curious about what makes their teacher cool and interesting. A very easy way to do that is to start the lesson with a True or False about yourself. Make sure you mention the silly and amazing things you’ve done in your life

2-    Find out who your students are

This takes time but you need to establish this connection with them. I have specific activities for them to tell the class a little bit about themselves and I always take the opportunity to talk to them individually and ask questions about things they like or do. I also encourage them to share their passions and have them prepare presentations on their hobbies.

3-    Show enthusiasm

How many times have I been to a conference or classroom observation where the teacher was extremely knowledgeable and the topic was interesting but they looked like they didn’t want to be there or spoke in such a monotonous way? I lost the count. One of the things that gets us engaged straight away is passion. And passion creates enthusiasm. If you look excited to be there, you’ll be activating their mirror neuron system and that helps students get and keep engaged. Read a little more about it here.

4-    Have a classroom mascot, like my Mr. Trunk

I decided to buy a stuffed elephant to connect with my students and instill a sense of responsibility in them. It may sound silly, but it has worked wonders! Mr. Trunk, the name we gave him, has traveled with my students in Brazil and the world. The best part is that my students took him on vacation or for the weekend and integrated him into their routine. They had to bring back photos and tell us what they had done with Mr. Trunk. I found out so many interesting things I wouldn’t have because of this silly activity. You can read about his story here

5-    Be kind and understanding

Someone once told me that what we can see from someone’s life is just the tip of the iceberg. We don’t know what is going on in their homes, their other classes, with their parents, siblings, friends etc. Assuming that students might be behaving badly because that’s who they are may be incorrect. Being kind conveys an important message: “I’m here if you need to share something and I might be able to help”. With their defense system down, it’s easier to connect.

6-    Be firm and keep your promises

One of the things adults keep doing to kids is break their promises. This creates unstable relationships and mistrust. Students need to learn how to regulate their behavior and that required support. They want a role model, someone they look up to and you can be that person. If you promise a reward, do it. If you promise a punishment, do it too.

7-    Take their needs and interests into consideration

Students are humans and they get tired. Give them a break, show you care about them. They love technology and would love to use their mobiles to show you something. Set moments to do it in class. Some of them might have a particular taste in music, let them show it to the rest of the class.

8-    Keep them curious

Our brain is programmed to be drawn to novelty. It’s so strong that it’s basically inevitable. I realize that we’re busy planning lessons and that we can run out of ideas many times, but the key to long-term engagement is to constantly bring something interesting, new, different to class. Have a puzzle or a mystery that will be revealed at the end of the lesson. Answer questions that are unrelated to the content of the lesson just to kill their curiosity.I could go on and on with more tips, but I think you get the point. But if the point isn’t clear enough, here’s what you need to do from now on: In the wise words of Immordino-Yang and António Damásio, “we feel, therefore we learn”. Live by that motto and remember that your students need that dopamine rush to want to do things, to be engaged. If you become irresistible in the classroom, chances are you’ll seduce their brains and make your lessons much more memorable. That comes before any memorization technique, study strategy or student-centered activity you can think of, trust me. Give it a try and let me know. You can also read something on my blog about that might help here.

Collaborate to Innovate

OK, before we start, I’ll admit I do have a vested interest. I firmly believe that we all know something and should pass it on to help us all grow as teachers. That said, I’m not the only one…

You probably don’t know me, I’m not Scott Thornbury or Jeremy Harmer (not least because I’m a girl) but neither am I Penny Ur or Laura Patsko some other big ‘name’ in the ELT world. I’m just a teacher, like you. The thing is, I know things that you don’t know and I’ve done things that you’ve yet to try, while you know stuff that I don’t and you’ve done things I’ve not even considered or had the guts to try – yet (go on, persuade me…). But then, you probably kind of had a sneaking feeling about that before you started to read, otherwise why would you be reading a post from someone you don’t yet know?

I’ve flipped classes, I’ve built a Moodle site from scratch, I’ve created courses and started a teaching business. I’ve navigated technology that I never imagined I’d be able to and I’ve met the most wonderful teachers. You may have done some of the same things, but you may also be able to hold the attention of a room full of teenagers, you may know how to use an interactive whiteboard, you may use dogme without batting an eyelid, you may be a marketing genius, you may be able to stand in front of a roomful of expectant people at a conference and not wish the ground would open up and swallow you – please, show me how to do these things.

Please, show all of us.

Many of us collaborate on a small scale, without even realising it. When you go into the staff room after a particularly stressful lesson and rant at your colleagues and someone offers a useful suggestion – that’s collaboration. You have learned another technique and your colleague has learned what not to do with that particular group of learners. Perhaps you have spent hours trying to find the perfect video for a lesson (we’ve all done it – that internet rabbit hole is a scary place), you are so pleased with yourself, you pat yourself on the back and show a colleague. That’s collaboration. Maybe you are stuck for an activity and post a request in a Facebook group. That’s collaboration too.

Broadwell (1969) suggests that development can be construed as a move from ‘unconscious incompetence’ to ‘conscious competence’. The idea being that we may be unaware that we are doing something badly until we realise it has been made better.  It is in this movement where collaboration is most productive – someone else’s advice or guidance is so much more supportive than a ‘superior’ telling you how to ‘improve’.

If we can move past the ‘phatic communion’ (Lansley) of just moaning together and agreeing with each other, then collaboration can be a truly rewarding and, dare I say it, fun approach to learning and developing our skills. There is really nothing more thrilling than have peers thank you for your insight into something and then act on it. It is a boost to your confidence, validates your ability and experience and is great for consolidating the knowledge that you may not even realised that you had in the first place. When this tacit knowledge (Sternberg & Horvath, 1999) is realised or extracted then collaboration is the most effective approach to professional development. That penny-dropping ‘duh!’ moment, when we suddenly realise that we had the answer all along, cannot be replicated in a lecture theatre or classroom while we ‘do’ obligatory staff development – this is the stuff that we come to naturally, because we need the answer or information.

My first conscious and deliberate act of collaboration was some years ago. I’d been teaching in the UK for a year or so post-CELTA. I was getting on OK, still doing the post-CELTA thing of spending every waking moment planning lessons for a part-time job, but getting on OK and feeling like a ‘proper’ teacher.

For the B2 groups, there were just two teachers, myself and another (we’ll call her Caroline – because that’s her name). We soon realised that our learners were jumping from one class to the other and losing any course continuity. So, we decided to collaborate on creating a shared scheme of work.

We spent that year planning lessons and syllabi together and sharing our work, so that we both taught the same lesson (or variations of) each week. The benefits were myriad. Our learners could attend whichever lesson was convenient each week and not miss anything, lesson planning time nearly halved (tea and chatting did slow us down a bit) and we each learnt about new activities, approaches and techniques that we hadn’t tried before. I also learned more about teaching in that year than I had working by myself and doing the CELTA; and I made a wonderful friend. I also used the school LMS to give learners access to materials after class, something which was new to Caroline.

We all (mostly) advocate learners working out stuff for themselves as the best method of acquiring the language, the same goes for us, the teachers. In this connected world, there are so many ways of collaborating and sharing our knowledge and experience to help both ourselves and others. Work with a friend, join a SIG, co-teach, make use of any of the 1000’s of groups on social media, attend a workshop (maybe even an ELT.Training interactive online workshop) or even just take time for a cup of tea and a chat. When we get together to find the answers to questions we may not even realise we have, we can move mountains.

So, show me what you know, show all of us.


Broadwell, Martin M. (20 February 1969). “Teaching for learning (XVI)“. wordsfitlyspoken.org. The Gospel Guardian.

Lansley, C (1994) Collaborative Development: an Alternative to Phatic Discourse and the art of Co-operative Development. ELT Journal, 48 (1): 50-6

Sternberg & Horvath (1998) Tacit Knowledge in Professional Practice: Researcher and Practitioner, Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc

Ode to Technophobes

This week’s guest poster is Richard Osborne: podcaster, teacher, teacher trainer and all-round tech-savvy guru. If you struggle with integrating new technology into your teaching, he has some excellent advice, in his own inimitable style…

The global digital transformation has been on my mind these past few days. Yesterday came some of the most perfect examples.

On my way home to my sleepy little country town of Montignac from the big smoke of Perigueux, I thought to myself, “Hey, remember that new car radio you were thinking of buying for your tired old frumpy Opel Meriva, when you immediately opened your phone to look on Amazon like some sort of Mark-Zuckerberg-conditioned drone? Why don’t you take advantage of your being in the big city and go to one of those things… whatya-ma-call-it… a brick-and-mortar store, yes, that’s right.” So I quickly tapped “Norauto” (yes I actually remembered the name of a brick-and-mortar store, showing my age there) into my Waze navigation app on my phone.

Yes, ok, my anti-technology example hinged upon a bloody piece of technology. Otherwise what the hell else would I have done? Should I have wound down my window and asked some poor downtrodden serf walking the streets where the nearest Norauto was? Hoping she’d lift her head from her Instagram long enough to comprehend what I’d said. Waiting patiently for her to unfurl her grand map of Perigueux from her pocket (don’t be ridiculous, girls don’t have pockets) in the rain and start reading me out turns and road numbers? Yes, it sounds ridiculous, but even more ridiculous still is what would have actually happened in this scenario. She’d have simply typed “Norauto” into her own bloody Waze app, probably press some magical button that’d beam that information into my own phone, thus negating the whole process of asking in the first place.

Anyway, back to reality please. Where was I? Oh yes. Being guided by my wonderful Waze app, which is updated live with traffic information from other people who are also using the Waze app (and vice versa. Yes, take my personal information, take it all!), it spontaneously changes my route to avoid traffic jams, speeding towards my mysterious destination.

I was awash with excitement. Would they have the product I sought? Who knows. That’s the fun of it, isn’t it? Driving twenty minutes, spending petrol at €100 a litre, just to arrive at one of these once illustrious institutions of commercial frivolity, and finding they don’t ‘stock’ the product you seek. That state of not knowing is what makes it worth being human, ticking my brain’s anticipation sacks only to experience the full spectrum of crushing disappointment at the phrase, “Ah… sorry Sir, I’ll have to order that part in for you…”

Where was this slightly pungent employee going to order the part from, dear readers? You’ve guessed it. From the bleeding internet of course! Yes, that’s right, brick-and-mortar stores today are basically the physical click-and-collect points of the digital world. I give up. Amazon, here I come! [insert picture of Jeff Bezos laughing smoking a cigar in a tall leather chair please Tamara]

That’s not all. During this ill-advised foray into the good-old-days, I was listening to my favorite French radio station – France Info. Coincidence of all coincidences, they were talking to a representative of the police of Nice about a test the municipality conducted last year of a new facial recognition system using the city’s CCTV cameras.

The police rep couldn’t have said it better, and I paraphrase, “At first we thought this would never work, that you can’t replace a real human police officer when it comes to identifying a suspect in CCTV footage. After the test we’ve absolutely changed our minds. Furthermore, we realised that there are roles where technology can greatly alleviate the work of police officers, and areas where a human officer is absolutely irreplaceable.”

For me these are two examples show what’s happening in our world in terms of fear of technology turning to wondering how we ever did without it. I may be a self-confessed geek who runs head-first towards anything new, throwing caution and common sense to the wind, but there’s not much more to my technological prowess than that. I’ve never taken a training course in technology, I didn’t study computer programming in university. Back in my day (preach, old man) when I was in secondary school, the furthest we got was ‘word processing class’, where we sat and typed out printed texts into Microsoft Word for about 2 hours a week. It was hell, but by God did it teach me to type as fast as a German milkmaid on acid. Yes, I’ve lost you there, let’s move on and pretend that never happened.

The point that I’m very unclearly trying to make it this: Technology should be evaluated for its usefulness throughout the spectrum of human activities, but we must put measures in place to help ease people through the transition without fear leading to being left behind. Language teaching is no exception.

On that same radio show yesterday, a teenager talked about how one of the major changes in her school was that this year students at her school have no paper textbooks anymore. Not one. The state has paid for every single secondary student to have a tablet computer. All school materials are now online. If you’re the reactionary English teacher in one of those schools, clutching your copy of New English File in the supply closet, moistening its decade old pages with your tears, you must be #$%@ing bricking it.

This is why I’m writing this article. I’m looking at you, my nervous language teaching colleague, and I hear you. “I’m rubbish at technology, I’ll never be able to keep up with all these gadgets and doodads, what am I going to do?!” I can tell you, right here and now, you’re wrong. You can absolutely and easily catch up and use any technology you want. You just have to be like me – go running towards the technology head first, to hell with the consequences, to hell with people who think you’re ridiculous and mock you with such zingers as “How can she not even know how to type with all her fingers??” The hidden truth of the internet is: You’re not alone.

My job involves teaching freelance language teachers of all ages in France and abroad about how to use new technology in their language teaching. I can tell you from vast experience that a majority of language teachers, regardless of their age, don’t know how to use the same technologies you currently fear are coming to take your job. It actually surprised me how much this ratio of 5:1 – teachers who are comfortable with technology to teachers who are not – doesn’t change much based on age. I’ve met 60-year-olds who are miles more tech-savvy that some of my 20 -year-old teacher trainees.

In reality, there’s only one thing that separates them: Being able to get over the irrational fear of new things and simply go for it, try the technology out, push buttons and break things, make a mess, and slowly learn how the thing ticks.

Take Google Docs for example. I had a teacher trainee yesterday talking about Microsoft Word documents she’d created that, now she’s teaching at a distance, she’d like to share with her learners. Before she used to send them by email, asking the learners to write their answers in the document and send a copy back, to be corrected and once again sent to the learner. What she ends up with are three versions of the same document in an email chain. This is not in itself a complicated thing to manage, but once she starts doing it with 5, 10, 20 students at a time, it will become a logistical nightmare. She could, in theory, organise her email inbox into folders and be rigorous in storing students’ work in the correct place, but this would almost require as much effort as it would learning how to use Google Docs in the place of Microsoft Word.

The advantage of Google Docs is you can import your existing Word documents directly into your Google Drive and convert them without losing much formatting. Afterwards, you’ll have an original document that can be edited live by one or more of your learners. How they edit it is up to you. They can be given permission to simply ‘comment’ the document, that is to say, they can modify and add text, but the original will not be changed. The teacher can look at the modifications, give corrections in the form of comment replies, then erase them to return to the original unmodified text, ready for the next student to complete. They can equally be allowed to modify the original document as if they were they author. Even then, each modification is stored in a huge list of historical changes, each one able to be consulted and restored if necessary.

This means the teacher will now only have two version of the same document: One master version, stored safely in a private folder, and one duplicate version added to a student’s shared Google Drive folder for editing. Even if you think this is only a minor improvement on the original emailing Microsoft Word documents method, I can tell you that this basic transition into the sort of ‘neo-digital’ realm of using free, web-based software, will open up a world of possibilities for you.

For example, you can experiment with the Google Docs extension Kaizena (plugin available from the ‘Chrome Store’ in Google’s Chrome web browser). This plugin allows you and your learners to not only edit documents together, but add self-recorded spontaneous audio comments to parts of the text. Imagine the possibilities for replying to production questions that up to now could only be completed using writing skills? Suddenly, “Use the present perfect to describe a recent holiday you had,” can be answered as a speaking activity – for homework. This was an absolutely mind-blowing experience for me the first time I tried it, and now I encourage my learners to record themselves as frequently as possible in preference to writing their answers to my own homework activities.

Why not move on to experiment with Google Drawings, Google Sheets or Google Slides? These are an online whiteboard (admittedly very basic), an online Microsoft Excel and an online Microsoft Powerpoint respectively. Every application is free, and you can add links between individual documents through the ‘add link’ function which searches through your existing file from any of the other platforms. Why not branch out from Google, and experiment with Quizlet, Memrise, and Padlet? These are a flash-card quiz application, a spaced-interval vocabulary memorisation application, and a social link sharing board respectively.

I could go on, but my objective here is not to overload your brain with the possibilities of technology. I know there’s a point where I’ll scare you off. If you can even experiment with just Google Drive and Google Docs, I’ll be happy. These could be your first personal challenges of confidently charging towards new technologies, spending a good hour testing each of them, pushing all the buttons trying to make it make you a cup of coffee, to know in the end what it can and can’t do, where the bugs are, where it works well and where it doesn’t. In doing so, you’ll remove all embarrassment from future use of such technology with your students. Through one hour of simply imitating the autodidact baby smashing, chewing and throwing a new toy around to learn entirely through doing, I guarantee you’ll know more than 90% of the people you intend to use it with.

The CEFR 101 – Essentials for Teachers to Know, and What’s New!

This week’s guest post is from Tim Goodier, member of the core authoring group for the CEFR Companion Volume (among other things). Did you know that the descriptors had been updated? I didn’t! Here, he offers some useful insights into the changes and how to incorporate the ‘can do’ statements into your teaching.

Most people working in ELT will be familiar with the CEFR (in full: the Common European Framework of Reference for languages) though not necessarily in detail. You might be forgiven for thinking that it’s just a set of level labels (A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2) that are roughly equivalent to ‘beginner/elementary’, ‘pre-intermediate’, ‘intermediate’, ‘upper-intermediate’, ‘advanced’ and ‘proficiency’. However, the CEFR levels are based on a scheme for profiling language skills, using ‘can do’ statements developed with the feedback of thousands of teaching professionals. It was first published in a book 2001 and then updated in an online Companion Volume in 2018 for greater relevance for the 21st century. This recent update has created a lot of discussion, especially concerning the expanded concept of ‘mediation’ (see the note on communication modes below).

Here are 3 key points about the CEFR, and its recent update, that have some interesting implications for English language teaching (and there are popular misunderstandings that we can de-mystify here too):

  1. The CEFR is for any language – this means it is designed to describe in detail what learners can do in any given language at each level. The same can do statements apply across different languages because they focus on the outcomes of communication, not the mechanics of specific languages. The idea is to support plurilingual education, where learners build a profile of 2 or 3 (or more) languages in a portfolio and ‘language passport’, to open opportunities in an increasingly globalised / ‘glocalised’ world.

    Implications for language teachers: The CEFR therefore breaks down language ability into things we do communicatively (for example, justify a viewpoint rather than use modal verbs),and this ‘action-oriented approach’ dovetails well with communicative, task-based and project-based learning. In essence, the CEFR gives us as a reliable core menu of communicative activities and strategies to work on at each level, which are applicable to different contexts and topics. Individual can do statements can be adapted as learning aims to help us focus more on coaching learners for real world communication, rather than just teaching language forms with staged controlled interactions. Check whether your course material already provides a simplified list of CEFR linked can do statements for learners, as they can be a good focal point for incorporating more personalised and action-oriented lesson tasks.  

    Popular misunderstanding: people often think that the CEFR does not support a focus on grammar and vocabulary practice, but this is not the case. There are in fact CEFR mapping projects for English grammar, functions and vocabulary such as the British Council Eaquals Core Inventory, or English Profile. Nevertheless, grammar and vocabulary topics need not dominate course aims at the expense of meaningful skills development.  The CEFR encourages us to organise learning around acts of communication relevant to the learners, and in tandem work on the language forms that they need to succeed in them. Published teaching materials are gradually changing their approach to reflect this (and I mean gradually!), but you can also use can do statements to negotiate with learners how to customise their course and lessons with extra activities.

  2. Four modes not four skills: The CEFR views listening and reading as ‘reception’, which is a mode of communication. But it also describes modes of production (formulating the message), interaction (engaging in dialogue)and mediation (collaborating and helping others to understand things better), which can apply to either speaking or writing, or a mixture of these, reflecting how communication really happens. The recent update to the CEFR adds scales of can do statements for mediation for the first time. This goes well beyond the dictionary definition and includes a wide range of activities for achieving better understanding between people; for example, skills for collaborative team work or explaining / summarising things you have read or listened to – hence the spotlight on integrated skills.

    Implications for language teachers: Mediation can do statements now provide a detailed level-specific roadmap for areas such as presentation skills, collaborative problem-solving tasks and summarising information from different sources. This is highly relevant to the growing focus on content and language integrated learning (CLIL) in ELT. It’s something you could explore yourself by taking one mediation can do statement and thinking how to bring it to life in an authentic communicative task.

    For example, consider the B1 descriptor:

    ‘Can summarise (in Language B) a short narrative or article, a talk, discussion, interview or documentary (in Language A) and answer further questions about details.’

    Firstly, note that ‘language A’ and ‘language B’ can be different uses of English, and are not necessarily two different languages. This could for example be developed in a task to present the main points of an article or documentary on a subject chosen by the learner, researched on an English-language website, or indeed in L1.  The main point here is a focus on relaying information and ideas in a personalised way for your intended audience, not just verbatim reporting or translation, and this can create rich opportunities for exploring language use, especially at B and C levels.

    Popular misunderstanding: ‘mediation is a new theory that we have no means to teach’. Mediation can do statements are in fact very practical, and they relate to tasks that have a focus on meaning, be it helping people understand something, helping people communicate better, taking other viewpoints into account, and/or talking through ideas to find solutions. Mediation can happen at low levels too e.g. in a simple form of relaying information from a schedule or brochure. Mediation is not new – it’s a feature of all good communicative classrooms, and the person who regularly mediates the most is you the teacher!
  3. ‘Online interaction’ – a genuinely new area:  The 2018 update to the CEFR also adds scales for online interaction, which can be open-ended or goal-oriented. Online interaction activities assume an integration of skills / modes, and can involve phases of live (synchronous) and delayed (asynchronous) interaction by text or speech, with varying numbers of participants, embedded threads and use of links to media to illustrate points etc. This together means something quite unique to the 21st century that is described separately in the updated CEFR levels.

Implications for language teachers: As with mediation we now have a more detailed roadmap for what to work on at each level for online interaction. This can be translated into concrete targets for 21st century communication skills, and personalised with creative activities learners can relate to. For example, ‘Can engage in online transactions that require an extended exchange of information’ could be developed in a house swap scenario, using, email, a free messenger app or simulating with exchanged written messages. The same principle can apply of experimenting with one descriptor to start with, and thinking how it suggests personalised tasks and simulations.

This is just a brief taster of what is described in the updated CEFR, but remember it’s free to download and explore. Follow this link: https://www.coe.int/en/web/common-european-framework-reference-languages/home

On this page you can find the 2018 update titled the CEFR Companion Volume with New Descriptors (or CEFR CV) because it brings together all the scales of can do statements, original and new, in one easily navigable collection. If you’re interested to learn more, a good place to start is the introductory chapter of the CEFR CV called ‘Key aspects of the CEFR for teaching and learning’, which is rather more accessible than the original book, and is only 20 or so pages long!

10 Free Courses Starting This Week…

Foundations of Virtual Instruction

Ignite Your Everyday Creativity

Teach English Now! Technology Enhanced Teaching

Teaching Tips for Tricky English Grammar

Young People and their Mental Health

Foundations of Teaching for Learning: Curriculum

Foundations of Teaching for Learning: Planning for Teaching and Learning

Writing for Young Readers: Opening the Treasure Chest

Teach English Now! Teaching Language Online

Foundations of Teaching for Learning: Introduction to Student Assessment

Making Ourselves a Priority: Gaining Time and Motivation

And here it is – fanfare please – our first guest post!

Thank you to Olivia Price-Bates, ADOS at a school in Italy and recent participant on the 5 Day Summer Challenge (click here for details of the next one)

Time.  The greatest nemesis to all teachers and school owners. Whether it’s managing to cover all stages in your lesson plan or just lamenting there are not enough hours in the day, lack of time is often cited as being one of the most difficult aspects of our profession. Striking that perfect work-life balance to deliver great lessons and still have time to explore the wonders of the country that you’ve adopted is challenging, and seeking time-saving solutions seem to be on most teachers’ wish lists.

As an ADOS and mum of two, juggling work and family life takes its toll, especially living in Southern Italy where the concept of time is flexible and even the seemingly most simple of tasks like posting a letter can shave hours off your day.   While I’m enjoying a well earned summer break, I’m aware of the new school year creeping into view and am starting to think of how I can best be prepared for the year ahead.  I feel privileged that we teachers get to make resolutions twice a year, both in January as the new year rolls in and again in September as we set ourselves the goals and objectives we aim to achieve in the forthcoming school year.

Having raided the stationery department, I’m now sitting down to think of my personal and team goals for the school year and like all resolutions while they’re made with good intentions and an injection of energy after a well-deserved rest, it’s easy to let the day to day of school life, deadlines and family commitments become obstacles in the way of achieving our goals. So how can we and our teachers stay motivated?

Growth comes through reflection and giving ourselves the time to reflect on our experiences can pave the way for more of those magical light bulb moments occurring more and more often but we need to find ways to make time to allow these to happen so that we don’t fall back on behaviours that while gaining us time can cause our teaching to stagnate and stunt our professional growth.

   * START NOW: The initial and undoubtedly most important factor in motivation is setting out clear goals of what you want and can realistically manage to achieve. The hardest part of realising our goals is taking that first step but making that initial commitment, signing up to that course, buying that book or writing that checklist is a sure-fire way to release the dopamine which will keep us motivated to stick to our objectives.  Procrastination is always lurking so why not start NOW.  Think about 6 things you want to achieve over the next school year, either from a teaching or management perspective depending on your context.  Make sure they are specific and measurable in some way, for example instead of saying ‘I want better classroom management skills’, say ‘I want to reduce the level of L1 in my classroom by introducing multi-level activities which appeal to different learner styles’.  By breaking down objectives into small, achievable chunks which you can clearly see the extent of their success you will increase motivation whether it be intrinsic or extrinsic.

   * STICK TO A SCHEDULE – From the outset, decide how and when you are going to dedicate time to achieving your goals. We are, after all, creatures of habits and so to become successful we need to make our tasks part of our behavioural routine.  Ask yourself how you can make time work for you? My goal is to dedicate more time to reflecting on my teaching. So a small change I’m making, which will hopefully have big results, is changing my lesson plan template to include a reflection section where after the lesson I can quickly write which aspects were successful and which didn’t work.  This will help me build up a better picture overall of classes and methods which will inform all of my teaching, fingers crossed.  

Knowing exactly when you can find time in your daily schedule will make you more likely to stick to goals: perhaps your daily commute is the perfect time to dedicate to watching webinars or listening to podcasts, maybe instead of checking Instagram you can spend an hour every morning reading a book or following some key writers on Twitter.  By making it part of your daily routine, and an enjoyable part, you’re more likely to stick to it.

   *  A PROBLEM SHARED… Hands up if you’re guilty of taking on the world and not delegating or asking for help as often as you probably should.  I imagine most of us are guilty of piling our plates too high with work commitments and therefore giving ourselves more stress than we actually need.  I wax lyrical about how teaching means we ourselves are always learning, so let’s make sure that we are dedicating enough time to listen to others.

New perspectives, advice and input will all prove invaluable when it comes to achieving our own CPD objectives so make sure you take the time to go for that coffee (or glass of wine) and have a good old chat.  Developing relationships makes for a happy workplace and we all know that positivity breeds productivity; you may find that suddenly your workload reduces because of new collaborations or new ways to work on things you deemed to be time consuming.

* GOOD JOB! Recognising and celebrating effort, whether it’s yours or another member of your team’s is a great motivator.  Student, teacher or manager, we all want to be appreciated and if we work hard that effort needs to be recognised.  Recording goals and celebrating our achievements will help us to keep going when the going gets tough, which incidentally always seems to coincide with exam periods!

   * TAKE TIME OUT – Teacher burnout happens far too frequently. Nobody can work effectively when they are exhausted, so know your limitations and learn the warning signs to know when a break is needed.  Remember the process is just as important (if not more) than the end goal and every step you make shows change and growth. Recognise that everything you do towards your own development is positive and even if you don’t end up writing that book, speaking at that conference or finding that perfect way of presenting the subjunctive, you have gained purpose, confidence and furthered your passion and knowledge in your career. Be proud. And celebrate with chocolate cake.

Freedom, Shackles and the Comfort Zone

I’ve read a lot of posts and articles recently encouraging teachers to get out of their comfort zones and thought I’d start by sharing this graphic from www.teachthought.com.

And while I don’t disagree with anything suggested in this post, I wonder how aware we actually are about what is, and isn’t, within our own comfort zone? How do we define our own comfort zone? How do we take those first tentative steps out of our comfort zone? Is it even necessary?

According to The Cambridge Dictionary, comfort zone can be defined as a situation in which you feel comfortable and in which your ability and determination are not being tested

Doesn’t sound like too bad a place to be, if you ask me! But is it really the best a teacher can do for their students? If we spend a lesson testing our learners’ ability and determination, surely it is only fair that we should be put to the same test? So, how do we know, exactly, what might be in (or out of) our comfort zone?

For the purposes of this post I conducted a little (extremely unscientific) research. I asked teachers from around the world ‘How would you define your comfort zone, as a teacher?’ Firstly, yes, I phrased the question badly – I assumed that the concept of a comfort zone would be universal – turns out, it’s not! There were lots of responses involving coffee, a comfy chair, no children and even the pub. Many more responses were about the type of learners or lessons that people like to teach; C1/2, business, adults, poetry etc. What very few seemed to do, was to equate it to their methods, activities and style of teaching. Maybe defining our comfort zones by what we enjoy is no bad thing though.

My favourite answer (thank you Philip Shigeo Brown) was ‘A developmental place where we often strive to be and yet strive to grow beyond by getting out of it’. I reckon he’s pretty much hit the nail on the head there. Or at least he would have done if people were actually aware of the existence of their own comfort zone.

Senninger defined the different learning zones long these lines;

The Comfort Zone – the area in which you feel you have mastery, where you are happy, content and confident in your abilities.

The Learning Zone – where you stretch yourself, try something new, feel a little discomfort but not much in the way of stress. Looking at new ideas and thinking ‘yes, I could probably give that a go’.

The Panic Zone – does exactly what is says on the tin, new practices which genuinely scare the heebie-jeebies out of you. Stress on an unproductive level. Cold sweats, nightmares, irrational urges to go to the loo 47 times in 5 minutes, you get the idea.

On the whole, I get this explanation and I like it. I would probably make just one teensy change…

I don’t see how the lines can be defined, there must be degrees of challenge? Surely there can’t be some arbitrary tipping point at which things go from stretch to utter terror? (having said that, my first conference presentation came jolly close…). To my mind there are some ideas that I am more comfortable with trying than others; some practices I would more readily incorporate into my teaching than others; some contexts that I would find more challenging, terrifying and stressful than others, but would still give it a go (as I do, periodically, with teenagers) and some stuff that I would just never even countenance (not much – but some).

The thing is, as we stretch ourselves, the things that start off panic inducing, gradually move into our learning (or stretch) zone. As the comfort zone becomes wider, the slightly scary thing becomes the comfortable thing and the terrifying thing also moves – to become a somewhat less terrifying thing. Imagine the plughole in the bath – that big hairy spider will go down it eventually, as the water spirals round.

If you google the topic you will find loads of ‘inspirational’ graphics along these lines.

Now, I don’t know about you – but I just find this plain depressing. Is it really suggesting that unless we take some almighty leap into the unknown, we will never be any more than mediocre, with sad mediocre lives and an uninspiring outlook on life? This is just unrealistic (a bit like a celeb’s Instagram accounts – where everything is perfect, they all wake up with a full face of make-up, a kale smoothie in their hand and no-one sweats at the gym). If we used this as ‘inspiration’ we’d NEVER get to the ‘good stuff’ because it’s just too far away!

The key is to take little steps. Reflect on your teaching, see where your own comfort zone lies and then decide where and whether you should move on a little (or a lot). Find something that interests you; a question you’d like the answer to, a new activity that helps your learners, collaborate with a colleague, read, observe a colleague and copy something that you feel works well, research other approaches to a recurrent classroom problem.

Your comfort zone is just that, comfortable. It isn’t a prison but neither should it be your goal (I was going to say it isn’t a gaol but neither should it be your goal – but wasn’t sure if old English words were universal and, actually, it looks a bit naff, but hay ho).

There is nothing wrong with being comfortable in what you do (although there have been suggestions that the boredom of staying within your comfort zone may contribute to burnout) but, just for kicks, maybe add just a frisson of stretch.


Senninger, 2000 – Learning Zone Model; Abenteuer leiten – in Abenteuern lernen (Facilitating adventures – learning in adventures). Münster: Ökotopia Verlag

6 Ways to Increase Your Learners’ Vocabulary

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

Spaced repetition – once introduced, keep using the vocab so learners become familiar with it – review new vocabulary at the end of each lesson and the beginning of the next. Encourage the use of flashcards and/or apps like Quizlet and Brainscape for repetition between lessons. Typically, a word needs to be used 14 times before it is considered ‘learned’.

Teach in Context

Learners need to have somewhere to ‘put’ new vocabulary., if it is taught in context, studies have shown that they are more likely to retain it than words in isolation. Context also helps with comprehension of new vocabulary. So, if it is not relevant to the lesson – don’t introduce it yet!.


Learners need to understand 95% (Laufer) of a text to make it enjoyable and comprehensible. Reading is an excellent way to be introduced to new vocabulary in context. Try graded readers, newspapers, magazines, internet articles – anything that interests the learner (sport, music, film reviews or even whole novels).

Teach Word Formations

Introduce learners to the different affixes that, using the same word stem, give a different meaning. With a knowledge of these prefixes & suffixes, learners can rapidly increase their working vocabulary. A little basic morphology and learners can create word families of verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs all from one word.

Chunks and Collocations

Words are rarely used in isolation – teach your learners which words are commonly used together. Verbs and nouns together aid fluency. Knowing the function of a word (in action) makes it easier to understand and remember. Use Corpus based dictionaries and sites for practical examples like BNC/BYU and Just-the-Word.

Word Webs

Encourage learners to create lexical sets when learning new vocabulary. Include synonyms and antonyms and anything relevant. Writing words as a ‘web’ can make the words more memorable and connections and relationships between words easier to see than in a standard list. For an excellent example see vocabulary maps.

Fossils, Slips and the Power of Positivity

A recent question posted in a Facebook group got me thinking. The question was along the lines of “how should I deal with students’ fossilized errors?” The answers were varied, ranging from drills, games and repetition to gestures, signals and electric shocks (ok, I made that one up, but…).

Maybe the first question, rather than ‘how?’, should be ‘why?’ – Why are they making the error and why should we correct them?

Selinker coined the term ‘fossilization’ in 1972 to describe the errors made as a result of differences between a learner’s L1 and the L2 they have learned; where the L1 has a strong influence on a learner’s use of the L2. Selinker also, handily, came up with the concept of ‘interlanguage’ in order to explain the process of using the L1 as a template for learning the L2. Fossilized errors are the L2 language that stops changing despite more of the L2 being learned.

For example, pronunciation of ‘ed’ in the past simple (looked, liked, showed etc) is troublesome for even high-level French speakers – instinctively using /id/ rather than /d/ or /t/ because of the L1 need to articulate all vowels. Similarly, speakers of many nationalities often have difficulty with the third person singular –s in English because it just doesn’t exist in their L1.

The term has, however, become widely used and abused to encompass all errors repeatedly made by learners. But are all of these ‘errors’ actually errors? Are there different types of errors? At what point do they become fossilized? (and is it really such a terrible thing?).

James (1998) defined errors as ‘an unsuccessful bit of language’ (a gloriously vague definition which somehow makes perfect sense), but are there degrees of success? Should a valiant attempt to use language, with little or no effect on intelligibility, really be deemed an error? Using James’s definition, if the language is successful (in that the learner is understood) then no error has occurred.

For this reason, I wonder whether it would be helpful not to use the word ‘errors’ at all, perhaps ‘slips’ and ‘attempts’ might better describe (and serve) our learners’ language use.

Slips are very often what we mean by ‘fossilized errors’ and can often be corrected without too much trouble, but only if the learner is in on the idea. The learner knows the rule/meaning/grammar etc but their interlanguage has got in the way of internalising and acquiring the language. They use an incorrect form/meaning/grammar because it is instinctive, not because they don’t know it. Recasting, gestures, facial gestures are simple ways of prompting the learner into realising their slip and correcting themselves. If the corrections are not internalised after a period of time and the error has little effect on the intelligibility of the learner, I would be inclined to ignore it after a while rather than repeatedly denting the learner’s confidence.

Pieneman (1988) came up with the teachability hypothesis; it runs along the lines that if the learner isn’t ready to learn something – they won’t learn it. This means that all the corrections, games, drills, recasts, role-plays, gestures and electric shocks won’t make the blindest bit of difference. As a teacher this is the point at which we should consider sitting the learner down and firmly say ‘this isn’t working, perhaps we shouldn’t do it again for a bit’. It can become infuriating, and somewhat soul-destroying, for the teacher to repeatedly point out the same wretched slip lesson after lesson after lesson after lesson ad infinitum, and similarly distracting and depressing for the learner. We can facilitate learning, but we can’t force it.

Attempts, on the other hand, come from a different place entirely. These could result from language the learner has noticed (nothing can be learned unless it has already been noticed, Schmidt, 1990), possibly has been taught at some point (but not yet acquired), maybe has been heard somewhere or is a close or unsuccessful direct translation of the L1.

Attempts could also be language the learner does not yet know, has not learned, but has maybe noticed (and thus, attempted to use). This may seem contradictory; how can a learner use language they have not learned? This is often language that forms a ‘false friend’ in their interlanguage (vocabulary or structure that they think they know, but does not translate) or a genuine misunderstanding about the meaning/use of a structure or vocabulary. Either way, because the learner hasn’t already learned the language/vocabulary/grammar they can’t self-correct and need to be taught the form, meaning and pronunciation.

Attempts are ripe for teaching. This is language that is useful to the learner, that makes some degree of sense to the learner, that they have heard and are now curious about. This is the language that you can teach, this is the language that will have your learners leaving your classroom thinking ‘that was really good, I learned something useful that I understand’ – just the reaction we all really want! Attempts are what you should be using to plan your lessons, attempts are proof of the language your learners want and need to use. Attempts are good and to be encouraged because it shows you what they can and can’t do and what they want to be able to do. When people say ‘we learn from our mistakes’, in ELT, they really mean ‘we learn from our attempts’.

Attempts show us, the teacher, what our learners can and can’t do and also what they want to do with the language. Because the learner can’t self-correct, this is where things can get a bit sticky; do we really need to (indeed, should we) correct all of these errors? Perhaps it should be the consequence of this ‘unsuccessful language’ that should drive our correction technique for this type of error. It is up to us to decide whether the attempt affects the learner’s communicative intelligibility and should be corrected, or whether (for the time being) it can be left.

Errors are negative; they are the big red marks in my maths book. Errors make the learner feel they are wrong. Errors are rarely praiseworthy. Attempts are what we should be striving for. Attempts are positive. Attempts are the best bits about teaching. Attempts show effort, need and the confidence to try. Make a note of attempts in the classroom, use them. Maybe not in that lesson, maybe the next, or the one after that – but use them.

Imagine saying to your learners ‘that was a great attempt – let’s see how we can make it even better’. It sounds much more encouraging than ‘let’s correct the errors together’ (and so much better than an electric shock).

Tamara Parsons


James (1998) Errors in Language Learning and Use: Exploring Error Analysis. Harlow, Essex: Addison-Wesley Longman

Pieneman (1988) Determining the Influence of Instruction on L2 Speech Processing. AILA Review

Schmidt (1990) The Role of Consciousness in Second Language Learning. Applied Linguistics

Selinker, L. (1972) Interlanguage. International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching