Thursday, 6 December 2012

How I Would Test


"Good morning everyone and welcome to your English test. Please take a seat. 

Remember, cheating is absolutely forbidden. However, discussion with your peers, using Google on your smartphone and leaving early if you finish is absolutely fine and encouraged.

Let's begin. Here are your exam papers. Now, in silence, you must flick through the pages and have a look at all the questions before we start. Make sure you read them all carefully. You have 5 minutes to complete this.

Okay, time up everyone. Now get together in groups of three or four and discuss how you feel about the test. Talk about which questions you are happy to see, which one you dislike the most and any ideas you have on how you will answer the questions.

I'm now going to give you two minutes to tear one of the pages out of the test. Remember, the harder questions get more points, so choose carefully.

In yesterday's class, I asked you to write possible questions for the test. If your question has been chosen, then well done, you will receive 10 extra points on your final score.

You now have time to complete the test. You will notice that there are no multiple choice questions and no right or wrong answers. Instead I want you share your opinions on the questions asked. Remember, your grade depends on how you answer, not what you answer. If you don't have strong feelings on the subject, then you need to explain why, or lie.

Some time later...

Time's up. Now get back into your group. I want you to ask each other for advice. If there's a question that you are not happy about or think could be better, ask your colleagues for help. If you don't feel comfortable showing them what you wrote, either when asking for advice or giving it, that's fine, you can decide how much you want to share.

Okay, go back to your desk. You now have ten minutes to make changes and improvements to your test in whatever way you wish.

So now we're nearly done. The last thing I want you to do is write the score you think you'll get, then write the score you think you deserve based on the course so far, and finally I want you to mark this test on how good you think it was.

Your grades will be available in the next few days. To collect them, come and see me in my office or after class. I can also explain why I gave you the score I did, and what your strengths and weaknesses were if you’d like to know. And I'll be asking you to explain your predictions and the score you gave the test too. Thanks for coming.”
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Thursday, 22 November 2012

BELTA Webinar - An Invitation

I am very pleased to announce that on Sunday the 25th of November at 1700 CET, I will be participating in a live webinar to launch the Belgian English Language Teachers Association (BELTA). This is a project that a number of us teachers here in Belgium have been working on for some months and we are delighted to be in a postion to launch the association on Sunday.

I'll be joined by Mieke Kenis (@mkofab) and Guido van Landeghem (@europeaantje) and we'll explain why we've decided to set the association up, what we hope to achieve, and how you can help us. We hope you can make it.


You can now watch the video of the launch by going to
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Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Tesol Greece Blog Challenge: Can Technology Save The Day When Times Are Tough?


To inaugurate their new blog, TESOL Greece have invited bloggers to answer the following question:
''During an economic crisis, resources (books, budgets, infrastructure) are limited but high standards and qualifications are required so that learners can survive on the job market. Can the use of technology help learners and teachers overcome this problem? If so, how?''
The question suggests that when times are tough economically, it becomes harder for teachers to access the kinds of resources that are normally available, and this is undeniably true. However, it also suggest that this leaves a space where technology can come to the rescue.

It seems to me if you are struggling in one area, the chances are you will struggle in the other. I don't think it's possible for teachers to assume that tech will be able to step in and fill the void. To clarify, I'm not suggesting that technology doesn't offer teachers and students great learning opportunities, it’s just that I don't see how you can have one problem without the other. It may well be that you can utilise the technology that you already have, but then the same could be said for books and other resources.

One possibility, especially with adults, is the option to utilise the students own devices instead. While this will certainly be possible for some groups (adult learners in EFL tend, generally, to be people with disposable income, especially business students), I don't think this is something that can be relied on consistently. Again, we go back to the same problem, it times of need everything is in short supply.

So for me the answer to this question is not to look specifically at technology, but rather look at the resources you have at hand. If that happens to include a classroom where two or three students have a smartphone with a reliable and affordable Internet connection which they don't mind using, then by all means use them. But don't see that as your only path to salvation.

In reality teachers have numerous and affordable resources available to them at all times, it's just that we take them for granted. It could be a simple as re-evaluating the way you use your whiteboard or blackboard and looking at how it could be used in a more interesting way. We’re all impressed and tempted by incredible new websites and apps but if they are difficult to implement due to shortcomings in infrastructure, then perhaps the same aims could be met with paper and pen. Teachers shouldn’t be scared to boil things to down to their essence, decide what's really important and present it simply.

And this is no way should affect the quality of the lessons. The use of technology has absolutely no effect on the standards that we reach as teaching professionals. It is not the reason why a lesson is ever great or terrible, the cause of that lies solely with how the teacher carried the lesson out and / or how the students chose to respond. A very simple materials free lesson could be the appropriate way to teach a particular point, or equally it could be a tech reliant way that is better. It’s not the resources that make a lesson, it’s the teaching.

Most importantly, don't forget that the number one resource in your classroom is not the computer or the smartphones or the coursebooks. It's not even you. It's the students, with their lives, interests, experiences and opinions. That's where you need to focus your attention. And the good news is that this is a resource that is available as long as there are students in the classroom.

It’s not just enough for you to know that your students are a resource, however. They need to know it too. They need to be aware that their success or failure is ultimately down to them. It is their hard work that will result in increased linguistic ability. An increase in standards is only possible with a combination of positive attitudes, effort and an openness to new ideas from both the learner and the teacher.

Technology can play its part in this. It can give unrivalled self study possibilities. It can enable you to do things in the classroom that years ago were unimaginable. What it can’t do elevate standards by itself. That’s your job.

To read more entries into this blog challenge, go to
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Monday, 5 November 2012

Blog Challenge: Tell Me About Your City

Love your town? Think more people should know about it? Want to be published on one of the world’s leading travel blogs? Then read on!

Barcelona by the author
I’m one of those people who loves to travel, and due to the wonderful world of the Internet, I am part of a wonderful network of teachers that is spread literally all over the world. We are blessed to have friends both near and afar, and discover new cultures, whether in person or online. As cliched as it is, both experiences really do broaden your horizons.

Unfortunately, much as I’d love to, I can’t come and visit you all and see the fascinating places that you call home. So until the day when I can come to your town, I want you to tell me about where you live. Whether you live in one of the major metropolises of the world or live in somewhere smaller and altogether less well known, I want to know about it.

Oslo by the author
I’d like you to write a paragraph or two for me about the town where you live. Tell me why you live there, what made you choose it (if you did!), what we can find there, why we should visit or anything else you think we’d like to read. No place is too small, in fact the more obscure the better!

I’m then going to collect your paragraphs together and publish them on a fantastic travel website. Global Grasshopper is an award winning site and one of the top travel blogs in the world. They want to know about you and where you live, so they’ve asked me to collect your stories and send them to them.

You can leave your paragraphs in the comments section below or email me at I can’t wait to share your homes with the world!

It's your chance to be published on the fantastic!
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Sunday, 21 October 2012

Guest Post: Being Yourself

I'm delighted to welcome back Ania Musielak to the blog. Ania is a passionate teacher and teacher trainer from Poland who I have been lucky to see speak at international conferences. She is well known for her energetic and dynamic presentations, often speaking about her passions of drama and literature. Here she argues that in our teaching we shouldn't chase the latest trends and that our lessons must reflect our personalities and strengths.

When I was 19 I started my driving course. All my friends already had driving licenses, some even had their own cars and they said that it’s impossible to function without that little piece of paper. So I did my best at the course, and whilst doing it had two minor accidents, broke my leg and went through a mild break down as I really didn’t like driving. It felt unnatural and forced and I really sucked at it! 

But finally I finished the course, passed the theoretical part and… failed the practical exam. And I was relieved as I realized that it is something I disliked very much so I decided to “give up”. My friends and family members were surprised, they tried to persuade me to give it another go and told me that “I ain’t a quitter” and I won’t survive without a driving license!

Well, I proved them wrong – I am 34, without a driving permit and functioning pretty well ☺ I turned my weakness into my advantage – I walk a lot so I do get plenty of exercise, I plan my day well as I know that I have to get everywhere on foot, I learned who my true supporters are whenever I really need a ride and, what is more, I am no threat to the other drivers!

What’s the point of that story? Well I decided that I want to do the things I am actually good at and that I enjoy. That is why some time ago I forgot about the pretty image I had in my head about me driving, wind in my hair, looking calm and classy ;-) And the thing is – I’m not saying to give up and not try to learn something new or push yourself – just don’t do something you are uncomfortable with.  It doesn’t mean you should never “leave” your comfort zone – it just means BE YOURSELF at what you do, and do it your own unique way.
Ania, as she used to see herself, behing the wheel.
There are lots of inspirational quotes and slogans out there like “Do what you love, love what you do” or “Do more of what makes you happy”. We read them and promise ourselves that we will take them seriously, but the sad truth is – we quickly fail to recall them. 

I think that if you do something you love you cannot fail. Do not force yourself to do the things that others like or things that are popular and trendy, just do what you are passionate about. The same is true about teaching. Passion is contagious. A lesson conducted with dedication and enthusiasm will be unforgettable but if you force yourself to do something you are not at ease with – students will feel that.

For example if you feel uncomfortable with drama – don’t use drama techniques in your lesson or pick the ones you feel will work for you. If you are not a fan of drilling – stick to those forms of revision you are familiar with. All your friends teach using iPads but you cannot bring yourself to do so? Use other forms of technology that you feel contented with. 

I have a lot of passions in my life but three stand out –literature, drama and music. And I use those interest and strengths of mine in teaching.

Passion 1 - Literature

I do my best to show my students that reading does not need to be dull and tedious. I use every piece of authentic texts I can – from nursery rhymes and fairy tales to novels and plays. I pick texts that I know well and try to animate the lessons by introducing fun and up-to-date activities.

Do your students like Twilight Saga or Harry Potter? Well, why not introduce the classic Romeo and Juliet and find differences and similarities between those stories?
Do your young pupils learn poems easily? Create your own version of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or use poems as a springboard to create a collaborative class book.
Are you preparing your FCE students for the exam? Well, there are plenty of literary texts that are copious in idioms.
My theory is that if you show them that you love reading and that it can be challenging and rewarding, your students will follow suit and start reading on their own.

Passion 2 – Music

I listen to music almost all the time. And so do my students, especially the teenage ones. On English lessons we talk about our favourite bands, the bands we hate, types of music, we compare our playlists and study song lyrics. Sometimes my students “laugh” at my musical choices but they are tolerant and open minded because I do the same with the songs they pick.

Some time ago they were even willing to have a lesson on country music (one of my guilty pleasures, and I don’t mean Taylor Swift country, more like Johnny Cash) and we talked about its history, themes and artists. We looked at songs and tried to find different styles of music that deal with similar or totally different topics.

It was great as from country we moved on to blues, hip-hop and rock. Why? Because my students saw how passionate I was about the topic and how comfortable I felt having a lesson like that. If I had to talk about playing instruments or show them how it’s done - that would be a different story so I would leave it to the experts.

Passion 3 - Drama


I think that drama techniques and games are excellent for every type of lesson. They can be used for enhancing overall fluency, for practising writing, reading and listening. Lately, I have incorporated some of drama games to teach grammar as teaching sentence structure and language rules is one of my weaknesses. When I have to conduct a traditional grammar lesson I am stressed out and it always goes wrong. That is why I use drama games and my students engage in role plays that focus on specific grammatical aspects we are discussing. 

Sometimes we use miming activities to talk about various tenses. I feel comfortable teaching like that and my students learn much faster than by listening to my theoretical babble! Another thing that made me fall in love with drama is the fact that with drama you move a lot – and I am a very active person who cannot keep still. Drama is the perfect outlet for my bottled up energy and it helps with motivating my students. 

What more can I say – I really believe that by sticking to what feels right and natural to us our teaching will be memorable and what is more, effective. Just as the lyrics of the song say:

Being myself is something I do well.  Whatever you do, do it good.
Express Yourself by Labrinth

Ania Musielak lives and works in her hometown of Tarnowskie Góry, Poland after graduating from Silesian University as a Philosophy Doctor. She has worked as an English teacher, trainer and writer for 12 years, specialising in using drama and literature in teaching English.

Photo attribution:
Photo 2, Photo 3 and Photo 4 supplied by the author.

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Thursday, 11 October 2012

Shut Up!

Let's face it, one of the hardest things for us teachers to do sometimes is to shut up. We can feel the need to keep teaching all the time and somewhere deep in our subconscious  we have been led to believe that teaching means talking.

Maybe we don't realise what we are doing, or we find it hard to resist. We might be waiting for the training that makes us realise it's okay to be quiet for a while, or we might have a great story we want to share and half way through we realise we're really going on a bit too much here. 

Either way, it's surprisingly hard and many teachers, I believe, undervalue the importance of silence and quiet in the classroom. So to help you, I've made some posters which you can print and pin up in your office, teacher's room or on the back wall of your classroom* as a reminder that sometimes less is more...


And just to be provocative...

These posters were made with a poster generator to promote the new movie Shut Up and Play The Hits, documenting the farewell performance of the wonderful LCD Soundsystem, the best band of the last thirty years. You can make your own Shut Up posters here, but be warned it's not always classroom appropriate due to the language employed by other users of the site. 

If you think I missed anything, make your own poster and I'll add it to here.

Here's one from Vicky Loras:

And one from Phil Longwell:

*I should have used a different font for this.
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Thursday, 4 October 2012

Time to Think!

So summer is over. The leaves are turning brown and the nights are coming in. This can only mean one thing: it's time to start blogging again. After two months off, it's time to go back to the keyboard, dust off some of those Google docs that have been sitting in the ideas folder and get writing. And I can't wait, I've got so many things I want to share with you.

Firstly, I hope you like the new design of this blog. I decided it was time for a spring clean, so I've spruced it up with a new template and easier navigation. I'm not completely finished yet and there are still a few things I'd like to tidy up, but generally I'm pretty happy with it. If you have any suggestions or come across any problems with the layout and design, then please leave a comment below or contact me via one of those lovely new 'follow me' buttons I've added up in the top right hand corner.

I've also bought my own domain name, so you can now head over to or the snappy The old URL still works, so you don't need to update your favourites or bookmarks.

Secondly, I'm very pleased to announce my new blog, Think! The concept of the blog is to take interesting and stimulating ideas from the fields of science, psychology, sociology and the arts and look at how they can influence language teaching and learning. I hope you'll find it an interesting project, I'm very excited about it and can't wait for your reaction.

You can find it at

It won't affect this blog, I'll be writing both of them simultaneously, so be sure to continue to stop by. I truly appreciate every click, retweet, like, share and comment. And have a great autumn!
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Tuesday, 31 July 2012

A Tale Of Two Teachers

Angry Evil Face
Meet Steve...

True story...

Here’s a tale of two teachers, Steve and Bob. They both teach the same class, one after the other. After almost every lesson, Steve returns to the teachers room, sits down at his desk, lets out an audible sigh and then proceeds to moan about the students. They don’t engage, he complains, they don’t get what he’s trying to do. The atmosphere around him is negative and other teachers look at each other with a look that says “here he goes again...”. Steve then opens up his big folder of lesson plans, photocopies the materials he needs for tomorrow’s lesson and goes home early.

Bob teaches the same students. After his lesson, he comes back to the staff room full of energy, enthusiasm but with occasional and irrational pangs of self doubt. Sometimes the lesson is great, sometimes it could have been better but he rarely criticises the students, and when he does he feels bad about it later. He reflects on the lesson he has just given and thinks about how it could have been better. He then looks at his lesson plan for tomorrow, and prepares his materials, changing and adapting them from last time, trying to make them better. He leaves at the end of the working day.

Steve is a naturally gifted teacher but he has given up. He isn’t interested in becoming better and is completely incapable of self-reflection. If anything goes wrong, it’s always the students fault and he has started to resent them. The students have picked up on this and they now no longer enjoy their lessons with him. Some of them have even complained about his lessons to the administration of the school.

Happy Evil Face
...and Bob.

Bob is far more experienced than Steve, and yet when you talk to him he, he knows he still has has a lot to learn and can improve. He is grateful to the students for their patience with him, and he genuinely enjoys their company. The students pick up on this and they look forward to lessons with him. He feels that after lesson he has learned something and through interacting with these people, he is becoming not just a better teacher but a better person.

I’m going to guess that nearly everybody reading this will identify with Bob. After all, the Steves of this world don’t read blogs in their spare time like you do. So I’m not trying to convert Steves with this blog post, instead I want to remind you that you are a Bob and you should be proud of yourself. Just make sure you don’t ever let go of your inner Bobness and become a Steve.

Apologies if your name is Steve, I’m sure you’re a great Bob!

Photos taken from, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial licence,

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Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Matching Pairs

Matching activities are as old as the hills. Sometimes it seems that some coursebook writers just can't resist asking students to link a word to its definition, or to reunite two halves of a sentence, such as this example from a recently published coursebook.

As an activity, it doesn't exactly thrill me. It's very functional and helps the student to connect ideas, but it's also very rigid and doesn't give the student an opportunity to work on creating their own, more personally relevant sentences.

The problem isn't so much with the actual task, but with the idea undergirding it. Personally I'd rather see these activities used as warmers, acting as a fun quiz to engage learners in the subject. Here's an example I found in a back issue of Wired magazine recently that could make a great intro to a lesson on town and cities.

All together more engaging, don't you think?
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Thursday, 19 July 2012

52: Bailout

52 by Lindsay Clandfield and Luke Meddings is an e-book collection of subversive activities for the ELT classroom (see also the support blog Subversive Teaching 52). Each of the activities in the book attempt to engage the learner and the teacher in a challenging conversation. They are both forced to question, investigate and debate the world that we live in.

Since I like to push my students to engage critically with materials, I’m always on the lookout for interesting and demanding stimuli for my lessons. Subsequently this book was just what I was looking for.

As they say themselves at the beginning, “This book is not for everyone” and they are right. Indeed, there are activities that I wouldn’t use in there. But I would always choose to use a book that advertises itself in this way over a book that suggests that it appeals to everyone. Something that designed to be liked to everyone is going to bland and unchallenging, and I don’t want anything to do with that.

And in case you’re wondering, my students have never had a problem with it either!

I recently taught a lesson from the book and I thought I’d share it with you here. This classed was based on activity number 32 and is simply this picture below:

There is no lesson plan, no levels and no language exponents, so that’s how I taught it. No planning, no pre-set ideas of grammar that should be covered or vocabulary acquired, just an improvised lesson. (I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with planning, by the way, this time was just an experiment.)

The Setting:

A one to one business lesson, 2 hours long. The first 30 minutes was spent on conversation.

The Procedure:

I showed the image to the student and gave him a minute to look at it. We then discussed the following questions / points:

1) What’s your immediate reaction?
2) What’s it about?
3) Who is responsible for this advert? (He took another look it at this point.)
4) What does the slogan mean? (He thought it was written by the car companies.)
5) We discussed Wouldn’t referring to the past in the headline sentence. (He understandably found this confusing as the structure of the sentence is complex.)
6) Again, who is responsible for this advert? (We discussed this again, as he hadn’t yet grasped the nature of the advert. At no point did I explicitly tell him that it was a criticism, I just dropped hints as we went along.)
7) The meaning of the headline to the paragraph (“The auto bailout...”) (He was becoming more suspicious by this point, but hadn’t yet made the leap to satire.)
8) Pronunciation of precedent. (He was pronouncing it like president.)
9) Tone of the paragraph (It was here that it finally grasped that this was a satirical criticism of the car companies.)
10) What impressions does the final sentence of the paragraph give you?
11) What’s the message behind the satire?
12) You work for one of these companies, how would you respond? (His novel approach was to suggest that they should acknowledge that the advert was correct and that they will be better from now on.)
13) The final line (“We’re learning to...”)
14) Have you any experience of a company that doesn’t need to compete?
15) What happens to a company that thinks it doesn’t need to compete? (The word ‘struggle’ came up and we discussed how it can be used.)
16) I told him about Adbusters and showed him a few more examples from their website, which we discussed the meaning of in less detail.
The Homework:

I asked the student to find another advert on the Adbusters website that interested him and to bring it next week. He chose this image:

Taken from
The Next Lesson:
1) Why did you choose this ad?
2) We discussed the message.
3) Who is this aimed at? (new vocabulary included ‘preaching to the converted’, ‘activists’.)
4) Would you ever work for Philip Morris? (Interestingly, despite agreeing with most of the things in the adverts, my student would still work for them. He also told me several scandalous stories about the company that I won’t repeat for fear of libel!)
5) We reviewed new vocabulary that had come up during the discussions.

I had a quick chat with my student after we had finished to see what he thought of the lessons. He thought it was very interesting and thought provoking. It was a different experience for him to see this kind of material, in or out of the classroom, so he enjoyed the challenge. He is someone who is not afraid of expressing an opinion which is why I chose this particular image to use with him, so from the perspective of student engagement, the lesson was a success.

From my point of view, I was very happy with how it went. The student didn’t understand the tone of the advert at the beginning, but I led him towards it, pointing out key words and phrases (shitty, taking your money, corporate irresponsibility, market share loss, too big to fail) that eventually made him realise what the advert was really about. I thought it was particularly interesting to observe how, even in the face of such explicitly critical language that he understood, the format of the advert was so compellingly authentic that he dismissed the linguistic clues, instead choosing to continue to believe that this must be a real advert for this companies, because frankly it looks like one. It’s interesting to consider how often we are convinced by a text simply by the way it is presented.

To conclude, I consider the class to have been a worthwhile and successful experiment and I’ll be using both this image and other materials from 52 again.

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