IATEFL 2014 Final Day Plenary: Sugatra Mitra

It’s the final morning of IATEFL (boo hiss!) and despite the general lack of sleep this week (oh well, can catch up when I’m dead!), here I am in the auditorium ready to hear what Sugatra Mitra has to say…

 Schools in the Cloud

A few things that we know and a few things that we don’t know and need to find out…

We know it’s difficult to get good teachers in remote places. You could treat it as obvious but there is some interesting data. A small experiment: to go out of New Delhi and drive into rural India, then every time a school is encountered, administer a basic government test of English, Maths and Science. The results were plotted against the distance from New Delhi. Why would the results come down as we go more into rural India? Asked the same question at each place: “Are you happy here or would you like to work somewhere else?” In Delhi, the answer is “happy here”, even happier in suburban New Delhi. 50 miles out of Delhi, still ok. 100 miles away, Delhi is getting a bit far away but still ok. 250 miles away, “anywhere but here”. So everyone tries to get a job in Delhi and the good teachers get the jobs. How to solve the problem? Pay teachers more if they work in remote places? The teachers who were 200 miles away said, “but what would I spend it on?” So they trained the teachers to make them really good – and off they went to Delhi! It’s a social problem.

Sugatra didn’t find the same results in the UK but if you look at the GCSE results, they are not uniform. What would explain the variation for this country? He took data from North East England and tried to look for correlations. Found that the density of council housing (lower cost housing from the Government) plotted against GCSE results shows that the higher the density, the poorer the results. If you talk to the teachers in these areas, they say the children are lovely but it’s not a very safe place to live and work in.  They too want to go – to a safer place.

Remoteness in India/Delhi was geographical, in the UK socioeconomic. There are areas all over the world that are remote for different reasons. Each of these suffer from inadequate schooling.

Can we solve the problem by taking the teacher out of the equation? Sugatra tried a simple experiment. Computers work the same way wherever they are. Whether in remote India or remote Britain, they would work the same way. A computer can’t replace a teacher.But a computer, whatever it can do for children, will do it to the same extent wherever it is. The question is, what can it do?

  • Groups of children can learn to use the internet on their own: in Delhi, only rich people’s children could attend expensive courses where Sugatra worked. And it was next to an urban slum. He used to wonder how many good programmers he was missing because there was nobody to teach them? So Sugatra wanted to find out what would happen if you gave a computer to these poor children? Shouldn’t someone show them what to do? No, because we don’t have anyone to do that. Not sustainable. So just gave it to them. So how do you give a computer to a slum? Sugatra followed the example of banks and stuck it into the wall. It was running windows, had an internet connection and was all in English. The children didn’t know any English, had never seen a computer before and didn’t know what the internet was. The children came and asked what it was but Sugatra didn’t tell them as this would be a point of intervention that couldn’t be replicable over the world or not sustainable. So he said “I don’t know.” Eight hours later, colleagues reported that the children were surfing and teaching each other how to surf.
  • This was back when computers were new. He repeated the experiment 200 miles from Delhi to a village with a school but no teachers. He put the computer in the hole in the wall. Came back in a couple of months and saw the children playing games on the computer. They requested a faster processor! How did they learn these words? When asked, they replied “you’ve given us this machine which works only in English so we had to teach ourselves English in order to use it”.

What was causing this kind of self-taught English to happen?

It was happening because he/the teacher wasn’t there. Can a teacher being there stop the learning?

After that, Sugatra got some funding from the world bank and spent the next five years exploring the hole-in-the-wall computer: put them in different places and collected results for computer literacy against time. Groups of children, given access to the internet, and left unsupervised, will in a period of 9 months reach the same level of computer literacy as the average secretary in the west. This raised a few questions about training and the purpose of training…

The question in Sugatra’s mind was, “how does this happen with such completely replicable results?” He had no clue. The press called these experiments the hole-in-the-wall experiments. When you go around and see the kids doing something amazing, you ask them what you are doing, they stop and say “nothing”. An observer changes the result. A hidden video camera? Not ethical unless you tell them, and then they change their behaviour (make faces at the camera!). So cannot say “how” they are doing it, only what.

So he started asking them to do things.


Sugatra: There’s something called a quadratic equation.

Children: How do you spell it?

S: I don’t know. <goes away>

25 minutes later, the children tell him about quadratic equations.


Hyderabad, 2002. 

Children were learning English, knew English, from local teachers. The teachers had a strong accent, so the children who learnt here came up against barriers when trying to get a job, due to their strong accent. How to improve your pronunciation in the slums of Hyderabad? Sugatra gave them a computer with a speech to text programme, Dragon. It was new then. You speak into the computer and it types out what you said – if it understands you. They tried it and it produced complete nonsense. He told them he’d leave it there for 2 months and they had to make themselves understood by it. They asked how. Having perfected the pedagogical technique, he said “I don’t know!”

2 months later: Asked one of the children, “How are you?” and he replied “Fantastic!” They had downloaded the speaking Oxford dictionary. You type a word in it and the dictionary speaks it back to you. They listened to it and tried mimicking it with Dragon. The project showed that learners, if they have no choice, will invent pedagogy. (Without baggage – they don’t know who Piaget is!)

Is there anything that DOESN’T happen by itself?

Research question: Can Tamil-speaking children in a remote village learn the biotechnology of how stem cell reproduces, using a hole-in-the-wall computer?

So Sugatra inputted some data into the computer on molecular biology from a western college. The 12-year old children wondered if it was a new game. He said it wasn’t a game but an important subject. That it’s exciting and interesting but will be lost on you. I’ll be back in a couple of months to see what you can do. They said “It’s all in English and has big science words in it, how can we understand it?” Sugatra said, “I told you, you can’t.” and left.

2 months later, he went back and found that they had been looking at the material every day. And they said, well apart from “biotechnological sentence”, we haven’t understood anything else. They had got from 5% to 30% in the 2 months, from pre-test to post-test. How to get the marks up (In biotechnology and English) another 20 notches. He got someone to use the grandmother technique – stand behind them and ask them how they managed to do each thing, how wonderful it is etc. Admiration as an educational method. This went for 2 more months.

2 months later: results had gone up to 50%.

This is not learning the way we understand it. There is something else happening, a new mechanism. Sugatra published the results and got a massive response ranging from “This is very interesting” to “this is rubbish”. Then some people wanted him to try the hole-in-the-wall experiment in England. He objected – the children would freeze…

But he turned the hole-in-the-wall inside out. Take a classroom of 20 or 30 children and shut down the computers until you have one computer for every 4 or 5 children (same size of groups as clustered in India). The children would start clustering and talking to each other, so you give them something absurd to. An absurd problem.

E.g. with 12 year olds. I’m going to ask you a question that not many people know the answer to. “Why is it that most men can grow a moustache but most women cannot?”  Within 30 to 40 minutes, they have gone deep into the science behind it. It’s a big question, not a small question. The answer stretches across the curriculum. This kind of big question is what you need to trigger this.

This became known as a “Self-organised learning environments”: Sugatra looked at the whole thing through a physics lens (his background) and this is what he saw.

We know Teachers can be ‘beamed’ to other places using the Internet. Sugatra formed “The Granny Club” – volunteers who give up an hour a week to talk to children around the world. This is the current experiment.

But we don’t know if children can learn to read by themselves. Sugatra is running experiments on this currently but it’s early days…

Curricula around the world need to be revised to include the internet

Sugatra argues that this needs to happen. Pedagogy also needs to make use of the internet. Use the problem-solving method, using collaboration for problem-solving and decision-making. Bring the internet into the examination hall. Of course the exam papers will have to change and the teaching will have to change. The current system is preparing students for dead employers – it looks like olden days… The current system is obsolete. So it’s time for change.


IATEFL 2014 Pecha Kucha!

This is the first year that I’ve made it to the Pecha Kucha and I know a couple of the presenters – Sandy Millin and James Taylor: very excited to see what happens…

Pecha Kucha means talks that last for 6 minutes and 40 seconds, with slides moving on automatically and speakers needing to speed up to keep up – or slow down as the case may  be!

Speaker 0: The host models a pecha kucha and explains what it’s all about, as well as introducing speakers in a …different way…

Keep Calm and Pecha Kucha!

20 images in 20 seconds (the length of time each image is shown for…) And what wonderful images! And a talk about what teaching involves.

Speaker 1: James Taylor

The power of Yes! How James got to Pecha Kucha….

BELTA? #ELTchat? TeachingEnglish blogger? iTDi? Own blog?

Either which way, said YES! And then thought about all the people who he couldn’t have done it without: The BELTA team; the #ELTchat group; (I’m in a pic there!); the iTDi community. Lots of different people with different goals, needs, interests etc who work together as a team to get somewhere we want to be.

Everyone is saying YES to these opportunities. And that’s really powerful to be around. So James followed the model by saying yes to Pecha Kucha.

“to stop being me for a little while and to become us” [pop boffin Brian Eno]

Accept the limitations, you can’t say yes to every single thing in front of you, and you never know what is coming next…

Twitter and Larry David: The first step… James joined because people told him he should as one could follow people like Larry David (who has only ever tweeted once!)

Fantastic talk!

Speaker 2: Bita Rezaei

Enough of the hearts and flowers image of teaching out there, now for the harsh reality…

How attractive is teaching really as a career?

People apply for the job until they find what is the real job. We’re all in it for the love of it but at the end of the day, bills to pay, kids to school, no holiday going to happen!

Fame and excitement – not happening to all of us! Practice can become an eroding routine.

2013 Global Teachers Status Index: China is good for teachers!

But we have made progress – until 20th century: no support/unions etc

Keep calm and call for action! We deserve a higher status in society! We are and always will be the candle that consumes itself to produce light to others…

Speaker 3: Damian Williams

A journey that he has been on for the last year and a half. Across different countries and continents, meeting different people. Started with a book – Linguistic Landscape in the City. The study of English as it’s seen in the urban landscape.

Taking photos every time he saw English and annoyed his wife! Looking for English in the urban landscape. The landscape told him:

“Go out and get some fun!”

So he did. And noticed code-switching and symbols.

Once you start looking for English, it becomes an obsession! Time to go to another country. But there was English in the airport as well. Went to Argentina and there was English in the menus “Give little garlic a close shave” and in the toilets, put rubbish in the “basket case”.

So he went to Europe and found…yellow penguins! And the linguistic landscape became the artistic landscape. Art installations. A way of expressing things. Then the artistic landscape joined with the linguistic landscape.

Sometimes the linguistic landscape is beautiful, sometimes it is direct “Sod the sunshine come and sit in the dark” at a cinema in summer! Sometimes it just doesn’t make sense “Drugstore’s full time”. Sometimes the most simple messages are the most powerful: Keep calm and carry on…

Most importantly, as language teachers, it’s amazing because it’s everywhere! It gives the community an identity. And it’s free and available to all!

Speaker 3: Sandy Millin

19 things I’ve learnt as an English Teacher!

  • Timetables are impossible (as a DoS!): no one is ever happy! They are never right! Fact!
  • Course book trivia is amazing but doesn’t crossover with what you need to win a pub quiz! It just doesn’t!
  • Rain stops play: In Paraguay, going to work in the rain is for teachers not students!
  • Take your camera: Mr Rubber Man might appear – created by a student in class to tell a story using prepositions and Cusenaire rods
  • Look up: In cities, the ground level is boring but look up and it’s beautiful e.g. buildings
  • To learn the local language, teach kids: they shout it at you!
  • Stereotypes aren’t true: Chinese kids are not necessarily quiet…
  • Stereotypes are true: Spanish people like dancing, Slavic women are gorgeous and the weather in the UK can be pretty rubbish!
  • Absence makes the heart grow fonder: I like the UK a lot more from OUTSIDE it!
  • It’s hard to escape the bubble: When you first get there, it’s very easy to get into a comfort zone and speak to very few people…
  • When politics take over, even the kids care!
  • Life goes on! I live in Sevastopol, I’m still here.
  • Listen to people: you never know what you will learn – kids, adults – you’ll learn about language, culture, a new game, anything!
  • Reserve judgement: yours is not the only way or the only opnion. So just listen and you never know what you’ll learn!
  • There’s no point stressing! Presentations are great and all stressing does is make you nervous!
  • Share: It’s life-changing! See James Taylor and ELTchat above. If you start giving, you get! It just happens!
  • Being connected changes everything! You do so much more
  • We’re all from different places: geographically, culturally, socially, we have different opportunities but we all want the same things! Health, happiness, friendship, good food…

Everybody all over the world, this is what they want to life!!

Speaker 4: Thomas Jones

Pecha Kucha – ancient Japanese phrase for “Get on with it!”

Teaching and the horror: rigidity, structure and being strict. Prefer a class of vikings rather than bored people! You’ve all survived!

94% of people in ANY classroom do NOT want to be there! There’s a lot of romance about teaching but….! Work – a terrible imposition on time that could be spent doing better things. So at least do something you are interested in! At least one person in the class will be…!

Where would you rather be? Here! In bed! I always ask students where you’d rather be and then say “I’m sorry”… they come from the exotic to the rain and British people and bad food!

“i don’t understand why I have to go to school at all, the internet knows more than all the teachers put together” – an 8 year old. Don’t go to work on Monday if you can’t answer that!

“We don’t need no education: Yes you do. You’ve just used a double negative.”

Take yourself seriously, but never yourself! Tattoo it on your hand refer to it frequently!

Speaker 5: Cecilia Lemos

“Keep calm and go to ELT Heaven”

We deserve to go to Heaven in the end don’t you think?

But “You have sinned!” – going straight to hell. So how to redeem self?

The Ten Commandments of ELT (to get to heaven)

  • Thou shalt think of ELT before all others
  • No idolising David Crystal, Scott Thornbury, Penny Ur or Michael Lewis
  • Read thy authors: quote them wisely and don’t confuse their approaches
  • Thou shalt rest on Saturdays! (Oh yes!)
  • Do what the experts tell you: if they say “jump”, you say how high? If Luke Meddings says teach unplugged, don’t you dare plan that lesson!
  • No violence in the classroom: No matter how many times your student says “I have 35 years old”. Do not hurt them.
  • Be faithful to your teaching approach: but need to try so many different things for each different group you have… so you can’t!
  • Cite your sources! Do not steal other peoples’ work.
  • You must not say bad things about that teacher who teaches differently from you! Even if they get a lot more laughter in their class. Don’t gossip and say they don’t teach.
  • Thou shalt not envy your fellow teacher’s materials, groups or conferences!


Say 10 hail David Crystals! (And some more.) Then otherwise join us in ELT purgatory!!

Bonus speaker: Lindsay Clandfield

The history of ELT conference Pecha Kucha… and discoveries about memes…

Rage faces: used as vehicles for humourising shared experiences.

Y U No Guy: TRB – Y U No have right answers? USB: Y U no fit?

Doge: It’s based on Sheepy the dog’s internal monologue written in single words. Deliberate wrong collocations.. e.g. very workshop…so teach…many happy….

Macro image: Bad luck Brian – e.g. last slot on Saturday for talk at IATEFL

Annoying Facebook girl: Vapid status updates and attention whoring

Facepalm: a message of dismay and reaction to momentary relapse of judgement, the agony… 2000 English Teachers in Harrogate – David Cameron facepalm

I accidentally: I accidentally and leave out verb. I accidentally … the conference centre – leave people in confusion…



Says this is last PK. Signs up for last year’s event!

I love pecha kucha! I recommend you watch the recording if you weren’t here live or watching the streaming. This post is at best a nice memory of a fab hour! The standing ovation was well deserved…



ELT Teacher 2 Writer: Training teachers to be writers

Excited to be at this talk as I missed the ELT Teacher 2 Writer talk at Liverpool last year… More materials writing-related larks! 🙂 And it’s clearly going to be a good one – we have exciting task handouts on our chairs and key-rings being given out! 

Training teachers to be writers

Sue and Karen are going to talk to us about how ELT Teacher 2 Writer can help teacher materials writers.

  • the database: established writers and people interested in writing can all be in the database

Publishers can search the database when they are looking for new writers but also when they are looking for people to pilot materials/write users reports/answer questions for market research. There are a mixture of publishers national, international and independent.

  • the training modules: developed by ELT Teacher 2 Writer

Where does materials writing feature in a teacher’s professional development?

Within the British Council Framework puts it at stage six (specialist) but teachers do it from day 1, with their own learners.

ELT Teacher 2 Writer did some research into existent writing courses and tried to learn lessons from these. (All non-ELT related) e.g. journalism, creative writing… They discovered that the only common ground that all of these course had was a module that urged users to know their market/know a little bit at the industry. So they had a look at ELT materials writing to see what was involved in writing materials.

They broke it into 3 main categories:

  • core skills
  • market-specific (e.g. ESP materials)
  • component-specific (e.g. writing a teacher’s book/grammar summary/worksheets

There are now 30 titles on the website. All written by experienced authors and they share the lessons they learnt in their own process of being published. All available for download on Amazon/Smashwords (special IATEFL discount ends tomorrow!) These are relevant for people writing for developers, teachers writing for their own classrooms and teachers wanting to self-publish.

Task 1: How ELT publishing works  – time to do a task! (T/F statements about publishing)

  • True: publishers DO decide things well in advance. They have 5 year plans, which they check at intervals to make sure they still make sense. They use market research to inform this.
  • False: the best way to get published is NOT to send a complete manuscript to a publisher!
  • False: you don’t need an M.A. or a Delta to write materials. Relevant teaching experience is essential. Delta/M.A. can be positive but publishers may fear an overly academic manuscript.
  • True: lots of investment goes into publishing, it is expensive, so publishers DO want to make sure everything works and DO do a lot of market research to this end.
  • False: You *do* have to meet deadlines! In publishing, there are many people writing to the same schedule. If you don’t meet it, there is a huge negative knock-on effect.

Task 2: What makes a good rubric? (or direction line in Am. E!) i.e. instruction to the students within a piece of materials.

This is an important skill to learn and is thus included in several ELT Teacher 2 Writer modules.

Rubric checklist

  • Rubric language should be less complex than the language point being addressed.
  • Use small sets of words
  • Use the same rubric for all similar activity types
  • Be careful with staging – sometimes better to break things down into two activities rather than one.

We had to apply these criteria to some sample rubrics. We saw one that was too long and in which it wasn’t clear what was required. We saw one where the language used was too complex for the learner level aimed at – here it would be necessary to simplify the language and helpful to include examples. The third was too complex and needed breaking down. The fourth was rambling and dense, requiring major surgery to sort it out!

Task 3: How to write a graded reader?

Graded readers are great to write – they combine fiction and education! The answer to the task question? Can be found in Sue Leather’s module.

Sue (presenter) read from Sue (writer)’s module to comment on this. Here are couple of quotes:

“An idea is the story’s essence”

” It should include a vital issue that needs to be resolved one way or another”

Skills are needed for the following:

  • language and story
  • drama and premise
  • high stakes
  • conflict and choice
  • action
  • character
  • dialogue

We applied this to three story ideas, deciding that two had wheels and one was dull – the two with wheels are in fact in print! The other, not so much…

Task 4: Writing a critical thinking activity 

What is a CTA? What does a good one look like? Equally importantly, and what may shed some light on this is, what is it not?

  • It is NOT a pure comprehension question.
  • It is NOT a do you agree/disagree discussion.
  • It is NOT a T/F statements activity
  • It is not a question about the literal meaning of vocabulary in a text

In a general comprehension activity you find:

  • identify ideas
  • vocabulary meaning-related activities
  • agree/disagree discussions

In a critical thinking activity you find:

  • Why does the author present the ideas like this?
  • Why are these vocabulary items chosen?
  • Does the author support the ideas? How? What evidence is there?
photo (3)

Some critical thinking activity types

We looked at some sample activities and decided whether they were CT activities or general activities.

Finally, we learnt some more about the ELT Teacher to Writer website:

As well as the database, it includes a resource section for writers.

The Writer’s Toolkit

  • style sheet: publishers have in-house ones of these – if you are working independently, this  will help you to be more consistent.
  • template: example template for styles for rubrics/body text etc. and layout/order/structure
  • permission grid: a grid that lays out the information that is needed in order for an editor to apply for permissions to the copyright holder. It is very important to get all the permissions needed e.g. for different platforms etc.

You can find out more about ELT Teacher 2 Writer by:

Liking their Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/ELTT2W

Following them on Twitter: @ELT_T2W

My last talk for the day and like all the others I’ve attended: super-interesting and worthwhile! 🙂


Amy Brown – Reading for pleasure: a path to learner autonomy?

Well, I had to come to this – after all my reading project shenanigans, I was very interested to hear about another reading project…

Reading for pleasure: a path to learner autonomy?

Amy is a senior teacher and the coordinator of the IH Newcastle Personal Study Programme (guided self-study – 1 or 2hrs a day, timetabled, supports regular classes). The ethos of PSP is learner autonomy.

Amy starts by discussing the prickly term of learner autonomy. Not everybody has the same idea of what it is. She asked around the staffroom, getting teachers to say what they think about learner autonomy… but first we had to discuss!

What do we mean by learner autonomy?

The answers from Newcastle…

“learners learning to learn for themselves”

” having the ability to decide for themselves”

…and many more.

Key characteristics of reading for pleasure

Amy formed her own idea of what exactly this means. Three characteristics relevant for this project:

Choice, individual and at learners pace [and one more I missed!]

In the beginning…

Magazines and newspapers were available for reading and a small library of graded readers. Students couldn’t take them home, as so small, so no home reading. There were also trips to the library/bookshops, giving help in book selection (this guidance was appreciated) e.g. this is modern English so could be helpful for you to read.

They wanted more emphasis on pleasure…

This necessitated a bigger library and not only graded readers. Many books were selected, recommended or donated by teachers. Some books have been made into films. Some are for younger speakers. But authentic.

PSP Induction – conversation starter “have you ever read a book in English” (Just like I did with my project, but in the classroom!! :D)

Did many students take up the opportunity? Yes, but mostly those who were readers in their own language and the problem was, when the books came back, the enthusiasm had dipped. When they were returned a few weeks later, uncertainty as to whether they had actually finished…

Pre-check out questions: “What are you going to do when you come across new words?” – entry to a discussion on strategy. “What made you choose this book? – conversation starters.

There were also follow-up chats – how is it going? where are you up to? Also in written form through the journal system. If a couple of students were reading the same book, got them together to discuss also.

But were we getting to new readers or only established readers?

The Reader Organisation

Began in Liverpool, then moved to Newcastle. They promote literacy and wellbeing. They are commissioned from the local council, mental health associations etc. It’s always voluntary attendance, no one is forced to go. It’s a “shared reading group”. Amy mostly found examples with younger learners within ELT, rather than adult learners.

It’s low pressure. The reader (leader – trained reader) reads aloud and stops at natural breaking points, and asks questions re what might happen next and what do you think happens? It involves a lot of reading aloud. There is never any pressure to read. People who read out loud in these groups do it voluntarily and it can be a liberating experience. Amy attended a meeting, didn’t read aloud, but came away feeling really keen to read! She recommends that you google their website.

Amy also came away thinking about how to implement within the school.

How would learners react?

Within this project should be no follow-up activities. The reward should come from the reading itself.

A reader came into IH Newcastle for a 4-week collaboration. B1+ 2 weekly groups, max. 12 students led by “a Reader” (not a “teacher”) – to create an atmosphere not of class but of reading and pleasure. A mix of nationalities and genders. A teacher was also invited along. Luckily there was no asking about language points. They did a short story called “The Umbrella Man” by Roald Dahl

Lots of discussion and personalisation came up naturally and lots of prediction because it was suspenseful story. Without any visual aids.

What about the responses?

Feedback came from observing teachers – a form with prompts to complete.

  • No phone or dictionaries…the students were in the moment.
  • not rushed, not over done [a natural pace]
  • focus on overall meaning
  • lots of enthusiasm from the teachers [and their learners had told the class about it]

Feedback from students mostly came via class teacher “spies” from natural conversations where the students told their teacher about what was happening in the group.

Some of the students really loved it.

“It helps me to understand books better”

“After the group, I think – I need to keep reading” [in a focus group at the end – enthusiastic about reading when they left the group]

“It doesn’t feel like study” [important in a study-packed day!]

A lot of the students invited were IELTS students but the response:

“I need to practice more the exam” …something that needs working on! Students don’t see the benefit of non-exam focused work.

How is all this promoting learner autonomy?

We all discussed together and thought yes!

Finally Amy talked about where the project was going next…

  • more shared reading (more levels/choices)
  • silent reading groups
  • shared reading with IELTS texts? Splitting it into short stories and poetry separately.

Amy can be contacted at amy@ihnewcastle.com in relation to this project!

Cecilia Lemos – Making lesson observation a teacher’s best friend, not the enemy

Stepping from focus on teaching to focus on professional development for a spell, I decided to attend the lovely Cecilia’s talk on making lesson observations something to really benefit from rather than a threat and shudder process…

Making lesson observation a teacher’s best friend, not the enemy

Cecilia started by introducing herself – always interesting to learn more about the person behind the speaker 🙂 Ceci certainly has lots of varied experience.

Motivation, the problem, a possible solution and the different forms it could take, is the form the talk will take… Ceci’s ideas will be implemented next semester, but she has tried it with some volunteer teachers so we will hear about that.

The motivation

Ceci participated in a workshop on lesson observations. Yes, a whole day. You think it’s a long time, but there were a lot of ideas. She wanted to take it further. Additionally, the teacher training and observation she does in Brazil – formal observations (senior staff observe other staff for evaluation), peer observation programme (but teachers are told they have to observe some other teacher at some point and hand in an observation form). Ceci didn’t see much development coming from these, or feel that the teachers were taking very much from it. Finally, Ceci completed Delta module 2 last year and found that the type of observation, assessment and feedback made a real difference to her. She wanted to identify what it is that helps this progress to happen.

What is the problem?

  • The fear/pressure/terror/threat of being observed – by the manager/DoS/senior staff
  • How to make it truly a tool for professional development

Both formal and peer observation should be a tool for professional development. But however friendly the senior staff are or how good a rapport there is, you are still the monster in the room! When she came back from her month away doing the Delta, she observed each of her classes while the teacher taught the learners, just to get sense of everything before stepping back in as a teacher. But one of the teachers freaked out.

Possible solutions:

For summative observation (by management), when used as part of the teacher’s evaluation within the school.

  • pre-conference: sitting down together, teacher and senior staff observer, to have a talk before the observation happens. Shouldn’t be a serious, technical affair. Just establish a good rapport with the person, to set them at ease. Then talk shop. And let the teacher tell you what they want to take from it, e.g. looking out for a particular student etc. Establish particular goals.
  • if they are evaluative observations, then they should be serial. You cannot get a feel of a teacher from one lesson alone. You can’t say if the teacher manages the classroom well, or not, from one observation alone. A series of observations gives a more authentic, accurate representations.
  • Initial observation without an agenda, just sitting and watching the dynamics, to get the feel of a class – also for the students to get used to being observed.
  • Record (video or just audio) a lesson and give it to the observer – easier to forget the presence of a camera than it is an observer, in the classroom.
  • if possible, immediate post-observation reflection before feedback (a real game-changer for Ceci during the Delta) – take a notebook, go somewhere quiet for half an hour after the lesson and write. Put it all down, just write everything down with no criteria. That immediate reflection with everything so fresh makes you really think and relive the lesson and see how you could have done something differently or not. With Ceci, she already knew some of the feedback before she was given it, from this reflection. As soon as possible after, if not possible directly (in compressed timetables)

The “Buffet Table” approach to observation

You choose what you’re going to be observed on. We are still talking about the evaluative observation, done by senior management. They should say what area they want to focus on. But then the teacher should be able to choose the statements that the observer will complete. Ceci has been preparing lists of statements for this purpose. You can also find them in various books (references on last slide).

E.g. rapport with students

Possible statements:

The teacher addresses learners by name

The teacher gives equal opportunities to all learners.


The observer/management focuses on one or maximum two areas per semester. If you try to cover everything, you’re not going to really cover anything. So the teacher chooses 5 statements to be evaluated on, out of say about 20, for each area.

This is what Cecilia is trying to implement with her teachers for formal observation.


Her biggest challenge now is to make peer observation something really valuable that contributes to development.

“From my experience, faculty, relationships and a strong sense of community prevent them from being objective and honest” (Braskamp, 2000)

Teachers are sensitive to pointing things out to each other. So everybody’s perfect. “Oh I learnt so much from your lesson” etc. But there is always room for progress – trying something different. So that you experiment and not fall into the same routines, get stuck in a rut.

Working with one aspect and one peer per term

  • If you observe the same person throughout a semester, you get a better feel for their teaching. Find a peer who is really good at something you feel you’re lacking. E.g. instructions. Observe them through a series of lessons.
  • This type of observation is primarily for the development of the observer rather than the person being observed.
  • No box-ticking forms
  • Pre-observation discussion important

Suggestion 1 for feedback:

The ladder of feedback: clarify, value, concerns, suggest.

  • You have to use all four.

Clarify: was there anything you didn’t follow, that you would like to ask the teacher about

Value: What did you find in the class that was particularly noteworth

Concerns: What questions/issues/tensions were raised

Suggestions: What changes/new things to try can you suggest?

A teacher adapted this ladder to lesson observation:

Thanks: How has observing and giving feedback enhanced your own understanding of learning?

Suggestion 2: 

Define the criteria/statements together. (E.g. using the observation checklist from EtP that Ceci is planning to adapt) :

You agree the criteria (5) in advance together; you define the scores; you put comments on it


Questions (paraphrased)

Q: How many per semester?

A: Anything between 3 and 5


Q: A whole class or sections of a class, to avoid logistical issues

A: At least 45 mins of a lesson to get a real feel for it.


Another very interesting talk. References are available on Ceci’s blog. http://cecilialemos.com 

Sandy Millin – Stepping into the real world: transitioning listening

In the end, I chose Sandy’s session out of my three-way clash: it’s always good to learn better ways of teaching listening! Plus, I didn’t want to miss Sandy speak. 🙂 Stepping away from Academic English for a while, back into the world of regular teaching of an important skill…

Stepping into the real world: transitioning listening

Sandy’s presentation will be available on her blog, including the audio she will use AND a recording! She used a “greet three new people” to illustrate some of the difficulties in listening.

“I’ve been studying English for years but I can’t understand anyone” – quote from a student in Newcastle. (Not only Newcastlers – films too, in London…) How can we help students understand English outside of the classroom/course book?

What is the difference between listening to whats in the coursebook/classroom and what’s outside?

In the classroom

  1. What do students listen to?
  2. What type of tasks to do they do?


  • the teacher (if speaking in English – instructions, a story…)
  • – the other students
  • – recordings from the book (get longer as you go up the levels)


  • Comprehension tasks
  • picking out new language
  • testing the level
  • the next thing in the book

In real life:

1. Real people – face to face, on the phone, on the screen etc


  • For interaction
  • because they need something
  • to join the conversation
  • for information (e.g. train station)
  • because they want to (e.g. music/film)


Sandy played a recording from a course book (NEF – got lots of laughs because of course it sounded *so* natural…!) and then one from real life.

– interruptions, false starts, overlapping, pauses, fillers, you could work out what the language point was in NEF, two men rather than a man and woman (as common in course books until higher levels)

What went wrong?

  • follow up on answers, find out why they got things wrong rather than just telling them it’s wrong.

Could be:

  • speed
  • range of voice types (e.g. age, gender)
  • sound quality (or lack of sound)
  • lack of language
  • lack of confidence

Today will mostly focus on speed and voice type.

Weak forms

Pronunciation of a word changes when within a sentence. The schwas make a difference – the most important sound? With this sound, it’s difficult to draw the line between pron. and listening. “I wanna be a schwa – it’s never stressed!”

Give students some common grammar words which have strong and weak forms; ask learners to create a sentence using these words or a short story and discuss whether it’s a strong or a weak form as used in that context. Learners have to identify when the sounds will be weak or strong, then try to say them. Trying it out in sentences helps learners to be more confident when they hear it. Not expected to speak like this all the time, just a classroom game to build confidence and ability to recognise sounds.

Get students to race to say sentences as quickly as possible to win a point for their team. Weak forms come out as they try to get the sentences out as fast as they can.

Connected Speech

Apples and pears – in the word-blender – becomes:

apple zum pears

Sandy showed a worksheet with tic-tac-toe for explaining sound changes (has it moved? changed? disappeared?)

  • sol tum pepper
  • wom potato
  • frozum peas
  • a loafer slice bread   etc

from the http://hancockmcdonald.com/materials/word-blender website

Don’t need to use complicated meta-language: just “the sound moves” or “the sound disappears” is fine.

What about final consonant and initial vowel link? Sandy spent half an hour pulling things out of a sentence, using the rules she had been teaching them. This was with pre-intermediate students and they could produce it at regular speed, feel it in their mouths and understand why the listening might have been difficult if a native speaker had been saying it to them.

Transcripts: With a listening with a very difficult accent (e.g. Irish!) – after the listening, get learners to look at a transcript and identify all the consonant-vowel links. You don’t need to use the whole transcript, just a paragraph, and just look at one rule at a time.

Next, we need something to write with. I shall use this blog post!

Micro-dictations: we hear two sentences and write them down.

  1. Today we’re looking at a lot of listening activities.
  2. I’m here for a conference.

That’s a single sentence, all we had to do was write it down. Easy? For us, yes. Not for pre-int students. Students have control of a sentence recording, they have to transcribe it on the board. Teacher outside of the room so that the students don’t keep turning to him/her.

To clip audio:

  • audacity (pc/mac)
  • wavepad (ipad)
  • mp3cut.net (online)
  • safeshare.tv (youtube – online, also good for cutting out the ads.)


Consists of using bottom up skills (using small components – words) and top-down skills (using the wider context) and bringing them together to make sense.

The activities so far have been for bottom up comprehension. The next one should be top-down.

Activity: What’s next?

When I was… younger, a child, a kid, I …. used to go….to scouts/skiing swimming every Saturday

How did you know what would come next? Collocation, colligation etc If you do this activity with students, you can build up their confidence because they see how much of meaning they can construct in their heads.

A range of voices

  • Guests #eltchat “I’d really like somebody to talk about x in my classroom” – you might find someone who could do a skype into your classroom. Or you could use Facebook TeachingEnglish page. Or anybody you know who speaks English and can come into your classroom – e.g. visitors. [Sandy played a recording of when her cousin visited her and came into the classroom and the students had to try and get him to use a way of talking about the past that they might not recognise being used but had learnt about. Dan knew nothing about this] – would. Dan used it 19 times… This audio will be on Sandy’s blog if you’d like to use it with your students! Students said “Oh my God, you actually do use this!
  • Leaving the classroom: to get different voices
  • English language listening library (www.elllo.org) – lots of short recordings and you can search it by accent (how brilliant is this?!) Being added to all the time.
  • Collins English for Life – Listening: A2 pre-intermediate (Sandy got as a sample copy and uses all the time) – natural speed conversations, various accents, tasks graded rather than text. (Worth investing?!)
  • Extended listening: encourage your students to do so from early levels – you don’t need to be able to understand everything. Just getting your ears used to the rhythm of the speech that you listen to. You’d be surprised how many students don’t think about this. E.g. films, tv programmes (E.g. twenty minute sitcoms), BBC – one and two minute videos around the website but on the youtube channel there are more extended pieces (if abroad, there are some 30 min programmes on there), podcasts, TED talks.

Further reading:

Listening in the language classroom by John Field, 2008 Cambridge University Press (recommended to Sandy by me! 😀 )

….Yep! I don’t regret coming to this one!! 😀 

Julie Moore: How do Engineers say that? Encouraging academic independence in ELT (Session 1)

This is my first academic English session for the conference! I had intended to attend more, but as I have mentioned in previous posts, the best-laid plans of mice, men and conference participants… It is also the first talk of the day for the ESP SIG Day. We are shown the timetable and I realise I may  be back in this room again after the coffee break! That’ll save getting lost… 😉 Apparently they are also being recorded…

How do Engineers say that? Encouraging academic independence in ELT

Julie starts with thank-you’s and asking the audience to complete the feedback form at the end, and introduces herself.

She is going to talk to us about dealing with mixed-discipline classes and how to encourages students to be more independent. She asked us who are practising EAP teachers and most hands went up except mine – yet! She also asked about management roles and materials developers. Still not me… 😉 She acknowledges that we all want to get different things out of the day. (For me? to learn more about EAP!) She compares us to a mixed-discipline EAP class – going on to different things, with different objectives. The teacher/presenter has to (try to) keep all happy.

She shows us a wordle (word cloud) of the different subject areas of students on her courses. Some are more heavily represented than others, but there is a huge range. The course coordinator often doesn’t know till the last minute who will turn up. Institutional constraints mean they can’t be split up but must be taught in the same class, all with different needs, wanting to learn different things.

Principle no 1:

Identify key, transferable academic principles, features, skills and language: things that will be useful in any discipline. What will be useful to all of my students?

Principle no 2:

Give the students a clear rationale: explain to the students why you have chosen these things and why they are useful. This is a step that often gets missed out but is very important, as students may  not see the relevance. Materials writers should make it clear to teachers and students, teachers to their students.

Principle no 3:

Encourage students to apply general classroom ideas to their own discipline via independent study. We will see an example of how we can encourage students to do this.

E.g. 1 OUP Advanced writing module: A sequence of tasks leading to a writing task

Looking at the task of writing a critical response. Traditionally we teach essays, and essays do come up across discipline, but less common in hard sciences, but the other genre that occurs across disciplines is a critical response/critique/review. When Julie thinks of a critique she thinks of English literature, but students can critique all kinds of things, especially at advanced levels.

This activity presents students with examples (five in the book, three shown on screen), short examples of critique writing from different disciplines. Students asked to think about which discipline they are studying, topics discussed and stances taken. Within the examples, some of the language is in bold.

The first example is a science-y kind of subject. The review is a bit critical, a bit supportive – “significant uses”  but them it expresses limitations “not entirely consistent”: so this is getting students to think about how we evaluate.

So students start to see here that this style of writing occurs across disciplines. This is the very first task. You are showing them upfront that this something that all disciplines need to do. All the examples won’t be directly relevant to the student, but they can see the relevance of the activity. So this is an example of engaging the students upfront.

Identifying skills and features

Julie shows us a lesson sequence, with task headings that are focused on transferable features/skills rather than topics. This draws out skills and language, and how to use abstracts for writing and research. This may be from looking at examples not related to their discipline but then the final task is an independent research project where they are encouraged to find examples related to their discipline and focus on those abstracts. Which features studied in the lesson occur in the abstract and identify the language for describing aims.

But will they really do it? Maybe some of the conscientious ones. But the others won’t bother. Julie says that the important thing is to require students to report back. “Next class bring back what you have found, so you can report back” – that stops it being a throwaway task. (This fits right in with my thoughts/feelings/approaches re autonomy!) 

In a class of 14 students in Julie’s class, there were a total of 23 abstracts, ranging from law, business, electronic engineering, film studies, TESOL – quite a range. What they found was 12 used personal pronouns “I” and “We” – interesting as we often tell students not be personal but in this context, talking about aims, it IS common: important for reading and writing as well. 10 examples of reference to the text itself – “this article” and “this paper”. They also found some verbs for describing aims, some overlapping with what had been discussed in the above sequence from OUP and some new. E.g. examine, discuss, analyse etc

It got the students thinking about similarities and differences between theirs and other disciplines. With all these tasks, the discussion is more important than anything else, giving students time to explore their own discipline in relation to others, giving them the skills to start doing this themselves: transferable skills, helping them to move towards a more autonomous position. You help them develop the skills to explore and analyse for themselves.

(I love this!! So inline with my beliefs!)  

Five minutes for questions: (paraphrased…)

Q Are your students mostly post-graduate students? A lot of my students probably wouldn’t have that sense of their own discipline. 

A: The book we were working on was for Advanced level, so aimed more at post-grad students. You could do it a little bit. One of the reasons we focused on abstracts is that they are freely available, so even if they aren’t attached to a uni yet and don’t have access, then it’s still possible for them to start to explore a little bit. They can still explore texts from their own area.

Q: Presumably you as the teacher could bring in a pile of abstracts to help them, as they may not have the skills to find these themselves. 

A: Yes, you could absolutely.

Q: I was just reflecting on what you were saying about throw-away tasks – I think I’m guilty of this – I think a lot of that comes from nervousness thinking that we need to know about all the disciplines. I’d get nervous that I’d get all these abstracts back the next time and none of them would fit together etc. Any advice for setting up that second task?

A: I think for me it’s just about having confidence in what you do know and being perfectly happy to admit what you don’t know. E.g. this law student who brought in bizarre abstracts that I didn’t understand because of the legal language. All I could say to him was “that’s interesting” but other law students had brought more conventional ones and we explored the reason behind the differences and we came to the conclusion that it was a specific journal with a specific style. Release control, not worry too much and be able to admit that you don’t know. I don’t think you always have to have an answer. You just deal with the things you can deal with.

Audience member comment: Students enjoy explaining at a higher level what they know to students from a different background, when you put them in groups to discuss.

Students are a wonderful resource!