Is this flippin’ worth it?

ducks flipping

shared by carterse on flickr under a creative commons licence

In this post I want to look back at a series of activities I used with my beginners class last year with a couple of questions in mind.  First some back story:  this post has been languishing half-written in my drafts (and in the back of my mind) for months, never getting written, mainly I think because I’m not actually convinced it’s worth it.  But last week I joined in with the weekly twitter #eltchat discussion and the topic was flipping the classroom, or more specifically, the best use of classroom time in a flipped classroom, and these thoughts floated back to the surface (a little like the ducks in the photo will inevitably do sooner or later).

So, as I go through these activities, I’m going to be holding these two questions in mind:

Is this flipping?

Is it worth it?

Back to my class.  As a routine, after each lesson, I would send an email to the class, sharing a summary of the lesson, links to any videos we might have shared in class so they could watch them again and suggesting some possible follow-up tasks. These could be consolidation tasks, maybe writing a short text or dialogue putting the key language into context, or sometimes a link to a new video clip to watch for the next class.  I guess this is where the flipping comes in.

Let’s take a slight sidestep to reframe the first question: what is flipping?

Here’s a definition from Wikipedia:

“Flipped classroom or flip teaching is a form of blended learning  in which students teach and switch roles with teachers. They also learn content online by watching video lectures, usually at home, and what used to be homework (assigned problems) is now done in class with teachers and students discussing and solving questions more personalized guidance and interaction with students, instead of lecturing. “

And here is a link to an infographic from Knewton.  These were the two first sites that came up when I did a google search. The first is, as expected, quite wide open, the second (equally predictably) is pretty prescriptive.  Both focus on the content classroom, a classroom that is seen as being very traditional, mainly based on teachers lecturing or presenting information in class, and students applying this information at home in homework tasks or in tests.  It’s an interesting movement, with its pros and cons, its evangelists and its detractors, but I’d argue it isn’t actually directly applicable to a communicative language class. So, what does flipping look like in an ELT classroom?

Back to my class. Here are a couple of very simple “flipped” activities I tried with my students, I don’t know if they might answer the question in part.

1 Telling the time

The time came up in passing in one of our conversations. We were talking about coffee and coffee drinking habits, these were some of the key phrases I recorded in our notes:

I don’t like coffee in the evening.  I don’t have coffee after 11 o’clock. I can’t sleep if I drink coffee in the evening.  

We looked briefly at the phrase “11 o’clock” but we didn’t have time to go into time (sorry!) in detail so, as a homework task, I asked them all to look at this very simple video presentation.  (I’m sorry, embedding is disabled for this video) In the next class I showed the video on mute and asked the class to explain what they’d learned using the images to prompt them.  We paused and replayed where necessary, the students discussed and prompted and took it in turns.  They’d all watched the video at home and they could all tell the time using the clocks in the slideshow. It took about five minutes of classroom time.  We went on to weave times into the rest of the lesson adding on useful questions (What’s the time? What time is it? Do you have the time?) into situational conversations built up by the students.

So, was this flipping? I guess so, but only a very small section of the class.

Was it worth it?  I think it saved time. I think it boosted the students’ confidence in their ability to understand the video (listening comprehension was a huge hurdle for them), it boosted their confidence as independent learners and in their ability to display their learning. Each student had had time to process the information and the language in their own time, watching as many times as they wanted/needed to, pausing, replaying, generally taking control, and I think this brought added value. And the lesson got off to quite a hardworking, focused start.

2 Likes and dislikes

Prior to the coffee lesson above, we hadn’t really talked about likes or dislikes and we hadn’t looked at the use of the verb to like.  I knew that most of the students would probably be OK with it, but I also guessed that there was one student in particular who might “problematise” it if we looked too closely at the structure in class.  The verb like works differently from its Spanish counterpart, gustar.  In English the liker is the subject and the liked is the object :  I like you, but in Spanish the liker is the object and the subject is the liked :  me gustas .  This is the same in Italian with the verb piacere. In my first few months in Italy I found this verb really difficult to unpack.  Tu me piace made sense to me as You like me when actually it meant I like you. Or the opposite, Yo te piacio?   which means Do you like me?  I processed as I like you.  This lead to embarrasing silences and awkward pauses in the first encounters with my Italian boyfriend at the time!

So in order to side step this confusion and any possible contagion, I set the students a clip from the Hungry for English series on youtube on the verb like. 

There’s no overt teaching of the form, just a simple paradigm table at the end. The delivery may be stilted, but it’s very clear, as are the concepts.  In the lesson we didn’t watch the video, we mentioned it in passing (they liked this particular series of youtube lessons) but mainly we just talked about meals and food and restaurants etc we do and don’t like.  The one student I’d been worried about had very few problems. I needed to prompt her on the structures with like a couple of times, but on the whole she was just fine. Once she said, oh, yes, like the video!

So,was it flipping?  Well possibly as the presentation didn’t take up classroom time

Was it worth it?  I think so, at least for that one student. She was able to take part in the discussion tasks confidently whereas otherwise I think she’d have struggled.  They all enjoyed the video clip as it was so easy to understand (though I really worry that I problematised the whole listening issue with this class by dumbing down too much!)

So, that’s it. There are more examples of the same thing, but I won’t bore you with them!  As to the two questions, I don’t really know if it’s flipping, but I guess I’ll keep experimenting with it, ‘cos on the whole, yes, it does seem to be worth it.



Posted in #eltchat, lesson ideas, reflecting on teaching, thoughts on teaching | Tagged | 9 Comments

An autumn lesson

autumn herbst TausP

Look at the photo above (shared on flickr by TausP under a creative commons licence) and in your mind’s eye, add a person sitting on the bench.  Pay attention to what they’re doing and what they’re wearing, the expression on their face and what this tells you about them.  Now click on this link that a friend just shared with me on facebook (thanks for the reminder Nick!) and you may just find that you’ve created exactly the same character.  Or not.

The article is a few years old but it’s definitely worth dusting off and if you’ve got a B2 (+) class with a sense of humour I think it can work well in class.  Here’s a suggested lesson plan.

1 Kick off with the photo. You could start with my creative commons photo or go straight to Mr Autumn Man himself. I think I’d do the latter.  If you can, project it on a board, or if you don’t have access to a board, maybe your students can access it on their mobile phones/devices or if your class is small enough you can show it on your tablet or laptop?  If you’re photocopying in black and white you could ask the students to tell you what  colours they think are in the photo (this could be a good kick off whatever your tech context in fact).

Ask the students to work in pairs or small groups and point out and describe as much detail as possible. This can be done orally or you can ask them to write a list.

2 Field the information making sure it includes clothes as well as autumn/fall stuff.  Make a note of the details to refer to after the first reading task.

3 Students read the article (on the projector, on their phones, on paper) and see how much of their information is included in the text. 

4 At the end of the first reading ask ss to identify the purpose of the text (serious or tongue in cheek?) and ask them to identify phrases and extracts to justify their answer.  

5 On a second reading ask them to comb the text for lexical sets; clothes / freetime activities / words to describe or associated with autumn / autumn food – you could get groups/pairs working on different sets, they could use dictionaries for new words as they read, and then share the information with the rest of the class.  

6 Ask them if Mr and Mrs Autumn would be wearing the same clothes and doing the same thing in their home town(s). Use this as an opportunity to feed in any new vocabulary they might need.  

7 Optional follow-up: they write a similar text about a) autumn in their hometown b) another season (if you’re in the southern hemisphere you might want to brainstorm ideas and vocabulary for spring)  and if they can find a stock photo to go with their text, all the better!  And if you can, share the texts with other classes and other students. 

Let me know how it goes if you use it in class. I don’t have a class at the moment so I can’t try it out myself!

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Three things for a first class

three things flickr steve wall

by Steve Wall on flickr

I’d like to share a post I wrote recently for the British Council Teaching English blog site. It may be a bit late for some of you, or maybe not really relevant at this time of year, but hopefully some of you are gearing up to meeting new students over the next couple of weeks.

Three things for a first class 

For a few years now I’ve been experimenting with sharing lesson summaries with my classes and here I’d like to share a summary from a typical first class. This was an intermediate class of adult students at a private language school in Cádiz.  I’ve changed the names, but nothing else!

Going into a first class, from a selfish, teacher-centred point of view, I have three main objectives (apart from gauging the level and confidence of the students).

  1.  to learn and feel comfortable with the students’ names, and make sure that all the students know each other’s names too – I think this is really important if the group is going to gel and work well together, being able to call someone by their name really helps break the ice (I always feel so much shyer when I’m not sure of someone’s name)
  2.  to find out about the students’ language learning background, personal aims and expectations
  3.  to find out about the students’ day-to-day use of technology, what apps and tools they use and feel comfortable with, in order to be able to create some kind of online hub for each class where we can share information and to be able to direct students to resources that can help them continue to study and learn beyond the classroom


Here’s an extract from the summary I shared with my students after out first class (in three stages):

Lesson 1 14/09


We learnt each other’s names and talked about them a bit. We talked about names that run in the family (= are used a lot in the same family) and patron saints and great grandparents (both paternal and maternal). We talked about the origin of surnames and parents and families, and noticed quite a strong link between Cádiz and the North of Spain (and France in Julianne’s case), and of fathers moving south, falling in love and staying 😉

At the end of the discussion we looked at the pronunciation of the vowels in uncle, cousin and aunt (can you remember them?)

This stage took about twenty minutes. I started talking about my own name, the problems I have with people mispronouncing my first name, how it can be both a boy and a girl’s name, how my surname is really common in Wales and how there were three Ceri Joneses in my class in secondary school. I asked one of the students to talk about their name, if they liked it or not, whether it was  a family name (traditionally names run in families in Spain with daughters, mothers and grandmothers – and sons, father and grandfathers – sharing the same name across generations).  I asked them where their surname came from, if it was common locally and then the conversation took off with all the students volunteering their personal information, asking similar questions, telling tales about their parents and grandparents – as you can see from the summary above.  By the end of the activity, we were all very comfortable with each other’s names and the students were communicating and initiating conversation comfortably and confidently.

In the summary I highlighted in bold the key language that emerged from the conversation and prompted some revision of the pronunciation we’d focused on.


You interviewed each other about your past (and present) English learning experiences. I learnt that Julianne is interested in taking the First Certificate exam (Julianne, I’ll send you some links to useful websites later this week), that Javi is moving to Philadelphia at the end of September, that both María and Carlos are enrolled at EOI schools, that María uses youtube and podcasts to practise English, that Nacho has just finished his university studies and has been on holiday all summer, well, not totally on holiday – he was also a student at the summer courses in the morning with Javi and María.

We talked about the difference between primary and secondary schools (and looked at how to pronounce those two words – remember?). We also looked at the difference between job-hunting and head-hunting, and how sometimes being unemployed is good because it gives you a chance to study or travel.

In this stage we moved away from whole class discussion to pairwork which was very fluid after the initial ice-breaking stage talking about names. The students worked well and happily in pairs and reported back on their partners’ answers quickly and efficiently. The feedback session evolved into another whole group discussion where we dealt with the language points highlighted in the summary.


You found out about each other’s day-to-day use of technology like mobile phones, tablets, email, the internet, ipods/mp3 players and digital cameras. I learnt about some new apps, and Juan explained how he uses Skype with his son in Córdoba. We all use email on a regular basis and we shared email addresses. We also looked at the pronunciation of the alphabet (can you remember how to say H, J, G, I?) and how to spell out email addresses. (can you remember how to say _, @ and . ?)

In this third and final stage, we first brainstormed devices the students used on a daily basis and then the students worked in groups to find out what, how, where and when.  Juan, the oldest student in the class, was the least tech-comfy, but it was great when he got to talk about how he used Skype with his son – some of the younger students had never used Skype. They all went away feeling they’d learnt something new (how to spell out email addresses) and I had the tools I needed for the first step in creating our online learning community. (Here’s a link to our class blog where we shared the lesson summaries and interesting links from inside and outside the class)

This lesson summary comes from a class I taught four years ago, but I find these three focuses are still very useful in shaping almost all my first classes.

You can see the original post here. 

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Breaking the silence

Sometimes work just gets in the way! I have recently finished the final draft of a project which has been taking up most of my time for the last year or so and I’m hoping to make up (at least a little ) for lost time by sharing posts I’ve written for other blogs over the last couple of months.

This is one I wrote for the Richmond Share blog, a blog written by Brazilian teachers and educators.  I’ve tweaked it slightly for this blog.  (You can see the original here).

What’s in a word?

Try this little experiment. Open Google and type in the name of your home country, hit search and see what you get. I did this with Brazil just two days after the World Cup had finished (July 15) and guess what the first ten images I saw were? Oh yes, you’re so right! But I guess that by the time you’re reading this it’ll be different, and of course, thanks to our personalized algorithms it’ll be slightly (or maybe even completely) different for everyone of us.   What does the search show for your country (if it isn’t Brazil)?  Any surprises or more or less what you’d expect? Now open up  flickr site type in your home country again. What do you notice about the difference?  Why is this?  What makes the results on Google and on flickr so different?  One more step. Now choose the “creative commons only” filter. Any differences?  Any surprises?

This is what happened when I tried the same experiment with my home country. I can only share the last step, the flickr creative commons images,  for obvious reasons!

flickr Wales for close up

[thanks to The_Chauffeur, Micolo J, Stephen Curtin, RGR image collection and Berit Watkin for sharing these photos]

This is a fun exercise to share with students, and it’s also a good way in to discussing issues of bias, sources, copyright and other aspects of visual and digital literacy in our English classrooms.   I follow the steps as above, but before hitting search the first time, I ask students to predict what they’re going to see.  This can be made into a game if your students appreciate a competitive edge, with students scoring points for each correct prediction.  You can do this with a projector or an IWB as a whole class, or ask students to work in groups and use their mobile devices to search for the images. This can throw up interesting results if their images are very different.

At each step they should make a note of the kind of images they’re shown, maybe the first five or ten, and then analyse the differences.  If they’re working in groups they can compare with another group at the end. If you working as a whole class, remove the projector image after they’ve had a short time to look at it and ask the students to remember as many of the images as they can (they can do this individually or in pairs or groups) and  then check against the image on the board.

Then ask them to discuss why the images are different. If you’re working as a whole class, ask them where they think each image comes from ( a magazine, a professional photographer, an amateur) before checking the source.  In groups they can do this by themselves.  They should be able to see that the Google search throws up more commercial or corporate images, possibly more stereotypes, whereas the flickr creative commons search produces something more personal and eclectic.

You can then ask them which image is their favourite, which they’d use to accompany a text they might write about their home country.  Then ask them if they’d be allowed to share that same image online. They may already be familiar with the ins and outs of copyright laws, in which case, they’re getting a chance to talk about it.  But they may not, in which case they’re learning a little bit more about digital citizenship.

Other terms I’ve experimented with include:

  • business (interesting for working with collocations)
  • food (a scary contrast between fast food on Google and healthy veg on flickr!)
  • winter (in this case it was a question of contrast between the images of snow and the reality of winter in the south of Spain)

If you ever give it a go yourself, I’d love to hear the results of your experiment.

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looking back, looking forward

looking backYesterday was the last class of term with my beginners class.   The night before I sat at my computer and went through our lesson summaries from the last three months. I wanted to take stock of what we’d done.  As I went through I picked out the main language areas that had emerged from our conversations.  I copied and pasted the notes from the summary into a separate document and I was quite pleased with the 11-page result.  There were ten core structures and a list of “saying of the day” expressions that had started to feature as a regular slot.  I pruned and edited and printed them off, with each area forming a kind of revision card and that’s what I took to class with me the next day.


In class I set up my room, looked at my revisions cards and wondered what best to do with them.  I wanted to look back with my students over what we’d done, I wanted them to feel good about how much they’ve learned, about the progress they’ve been making and I wanted to talk about what they could do over the Easter break.  I didn’t want to make copies of my 11 pages (enough paper wasted there already!) and I didn’t want to lead, I wanted to follow, but I also wanted to share my excitement about how much ground we’ve been covering together. So I decided to cut the papers back to post-it notes, each with the heading of the topics. I set them out on the table and wondered what to do with them.


I had twelve post-its and the logical thing to do seemed to be to draw a grid with twelve numbered blocks on the board, and the message to the right, with the icons in blue for looking back and looking forward. This is what was on the board when the students walked in.  We had the usual opening chat, talking about what the students had been doing the day before ( a beautiful, sunny spring day).  It was difficult to rein them in and get down to business. I explained that the grid represented what we’d done together over the last three months and that I’d been reading back over our summaries  and I asked them to draw up a list of the main areas they could remember .  I turned my back on them and left them to it.  When I turned back to them, I fielded the list in black on the left hand side of the board.  The interesting – and of course, inevitable – thing was that their list and my post-its were pretty different.  Not completely, there was common ground, but what they remembered (and I hadn’t fished out) were specific contexts e.g. meeting a friend in a bar.  We talked briefly about each area, remembering key phrases and key conversations. Then I started to put up my post-its, starting with the common ground first: the past simple, the confusing area of do/does/did, we tied there is/are in with talking about the local area, and like/would like with role-playing taking an English-speaking friend to a bar.  And then I added the post-its that weren’t on their list and we talked about the contexts where each had emerged.  I sat down at the table with them and we went through the revision cards very quickly checking they remembered. I thought they might ask questions, want to go back over explanations, but they didn’t. On the table we sorted the “cards” into columns, the ones they felt confident about, the ones they wanted to go back and do more work on.  We took this back to the board and I started annotating each box in the grid with their comments. I added a tick if they felt happy with the underlying concept. Sometimes this was qualified, mainly with the feeling that they needed more practice, with the simple past with the frustration they felt at not remembering irregular verbs.  Others got smiley faces which meant they felt confident and autonomous using the language.  It left us with three areas to look back at and move forward with next term.


The conversation opened out, as it always does, and when I asked them which areas they found more difficult, they escaped from the limits of the grid. They talked about specific problems: pronouncing final consonants, using pronouns and possessives, getting the noun/adjective order wrong.  They also spoke about the gap between processing the language and expressing themselves and the frustrations they felt when they had to think too hard to find their words and craft an utterance. By the way, the wording on the board is theirs not mine. We then switched from difficult (below the board) to easy (above) and here the conversation became much more interesting. They talked about feeling much more confident when faced with new language. They said that the work we had done on morphemes helped them decipher words as they read (they’ve started reading graded readers outside the class), that now they know how to identify words from the same word families, and that they could see the word endings –ly, -er/or, -ing, -ed  and use them as clues.  They said they felt they were getting a feel for the bigger picture (my words now, not theirs) and they nominated the “saying of the day”:  I know what I don’t know!


Having identified weak points and strong points we looked at what they felt they needed, and again the answers surprised me.  They weren’t asking for things from me (extra homework, more video clips etc), they were thinking about the conditions they need to learn:  a strong context for meaning (and we looked at the bar conversation in particular and the language embedded in that situation); and the opportunity to practise the grammar (back to their words now!  I guess I would have said language areas or structures or patterns myself and avoided the G word!) in “normal conversation”, by which they meant our conversations in class.  I wanted to push this further and see if they could provide these conditions for themselves outside the classroom. We talked about them talking the areas they wanted to work on and writing short texts, conversations if they wanted to, that provide a rich context for meaning and then practising talking about them, or rehearsing the texts until they felt comfortable with them.  This was their task over the Easter holiday. Tomorrow I’ll send them an email with the photo of the board and a reminder of our plan and we’ll see what happens.

Posted in reflecting on teaching, thoughts on learning, thoughts on teaching | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments

100 words

Following on from the class I wrote about in the last post , I received this piece of homework from one of the students.  I’ve added the photo as it’s one of my favourite beaches too – cows and all!


2012-09-16 10.16.04

I went to Bolonia beach more or less in summer of 1985. I went with two friends: Mª Paz and Juan on her car and her dog. We went arrived at night and was more difficult because there had not  electric lights and had only light of the moon, and we had to put tents for sleeping; its more very difficult but I liked it. When I was sleeping I hear something and scared me I got up and look up….and there was a cow, I was  surprised..She was quiet and me too….At the next morning in the breakfast I told my  friends about it and they answer hear nothing ..They was sleeping

and they asked me …” You are sure that ?….


I was impressed.  This class has had approximately 30 hours of classes.  We started from scratch, although she had some basic notions from a long time ago at school. But in addition to this “proud teacher” moment I was struck by this particular piece of writing because there seemed to be a lot going on here in terms of language processing and it fascinated me.  So much so that I thought I’d look at it more carefully and see what lessons I could learn from it.  These were the things that first struck me (initially in no particular order, hopefully some kind of order will emerge!)

1 the repeated use of went  

2 the use of the preposition to with went

3 the use of the  chunk  arrived at night

4 the fact that she had embedded two new vocabulary items from the previous lesson: cow and tent.

Looking back at these four points, I realize that I’ve picked up on them because they are language items that we’ve consciously focused on, in some cases again and again, in previous lessons.  In another post I’ve focused on the simple past, here again I see evidence that some simple past tenses seem to have been assimilated and moved into automatic use (went, had, got, arrived, asked, liked) although there’s some backsliding, possibly with less frequent verbs i.e. ones we haven’t used that much in our conversations in class (hear, look, answer). And there’s also an example of the overuse of went in We went arrived which could either be  a missed edit, or an example of went being subconsciously used as some form of past marker .

I know that we’ve focused on the use of the preposition to with go time and time again. It’s somehow satisfying to see it used here. And the same goes for the preposition at.  The class has got a little obsessed with the use of at and questions have been coming up again and again since the very first lesson on the difference between in, at and on.  It’s pleasing somehow to see it being used correctly here.  And of course it’s great to see that the vocabulary items she needed in the class and that we noted in our summary are being recycled here in her story (cow and tent).  And I realize that the first things I’ve focused on are examples of successful learning – maybe it’s because it makes me feel better about myself as a teacher!

The next list of items has a lot more to do with the on-going process of learning and experimenting. These are all examples of language in flux:

1 the use of the dummy pronoun There with the verb had

Over the last month we’ve been looking at some uses of there e.g.  the two uses here in this sentence: There were a lot of people there.   We’ve looked at the use of there + be to talk about places in town, favourite restaurants and bars, giving directions, story telling.  It’s featured as a chunk in our lesson summaries where we’ve focused on the paradigm tables for present and past.  It seems to me that some assimilation is taking place but she still hasn’t mastered the form.  She’s using the dummy pronoun appropriately but with the verb have rather than be, but this is a step forward as previously she would have used it as the dummy.  I think the pronoun is beginning to be assimilated, but the chunks (there’s / there are / there was / there were) are still out of her reach.

2 the use of the past continuous

This interests me because we haven’t focused on this verb form at all in class, but I have been aware of using it when I speak, of consciously choosing not to grade it out of my teacher talk. We did once look, very, very briefly, at an example of the present continuous in one class and highlighted the use of be +-ing and compared it with estar + present participle in Spanish but we haven’t stopped to focus on it as a form as such.   The use of the past continuous here seems to be an example of hypothesis testing, extending on the be + -ing rule to great the past form.  The fact that it is a from in flux and not an automated chunk can also be seen in the use of they was rather than they were.  I’ve decided to leave these continuous forms to “grow wild” for the moment.   I recently introduced the class to graded readers which contain these structures, it’ll be interesting to see whether they start to become more apparent in our classroom conversations.

3 confusions with more and very

This is an on-going area of confusion, with very, a lot and more being used more or less interchangeably at the moment (e.g. more very difficult).  We’ve focused on the difference a couple of times in the last few lessons and I’ve made a note of it in the lesson summaries. Looking at them together rather than apart could well be clouding the issue.  Maybe it’s time I was pro-active for once and did some old-fashioned controlled practice?

There’s probably a whole lot more that I could take from this 100 word text, but I think I’ve indulged myself enough already!  Or at least tested the patience of any readers about as far as I should.  But, of course, if there’s anything else that occurs to you, I’d be delighted to hear about it!

Posted in musings, reflecting on teaching, thoughts on language, thoughts on learning, thoughts on teaching | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

What’s my role?

shared by gnuckx on flickr

shared by gnuckx on flickr

[part of an on-going series about teaching an A1.1 class using a negotiated-syllabus approach]

As soon as we’d finished our class yesterday, I sat down at the computer to write a summary – not for the class, but for myself.  We had just spent an hour and a half meandering through a number of different conversation tangents and I felt I needed to capture them and process them as soon as possible.  I’m not sure why, but I think I felt I needed to see where we’d been, what we’d done and whether it had been worth it.  At the time I was only interested in the narrative, but then, back home, having switched back to domestic mode, I was washing up and preparing lunch for the family and started to process the “story” I’d written.  I was wondering whether it would be interesting to share as a blog post, or was there really nothing much there that would interest anyone beyond our little group.  And I started to think about the nature of our conversations and the role I played – or the different roles I played – throughout the lesson.  So I’ve reading through the summary again, filtering it through the question in the title.


I went into today’s class with a couple of directions prepared and a photocopy of a page from a coursebook to consolidate one of the vocabulary areas that had cropped up in the previous lesson.  I had set some homework that I thought would offer us a good springboard for conversation and I had the summary from the last class cued on the projector.   When I walked into the classroom, the students were already deep in animated conversation … in Spanish!  


[roles: Prior to the class, taking stock of where we’re at, looking ahead to directions that might be fruitful. At the beginning of the class, leading but listening, gauging the students’ interest and mood, looking for seams to mine.]


I stood and listened and tried to tune in.  They were complaining about a tricky bit of pavement that had tripped one of them up.  I joined in asking which bit of pavement they were talking about, and the conversation switched to English … well, slowly morphed from Spanish to English, with mediation and suggestions from the ring leader and classmates.  The initial conversation usually peters out and they look to me to start the routine of the lesson: summary, questions on the last class, an extension from a past theme or a springboard to a new one.  But this time the conversation just ran and ran.  And as it did it covered a number of different topics: the colour and texture and beauty of a special kind of tile made in Seville; where it can be found in the patios and bars of the old town;  the difference between door and gate (helped along by remembering The Doors are The Doors and not The Gates – all showing our age at this point!); the use of –ful as an adjective suffix in colourful, beautiful, careful and wonderful.  The pronunciation of –ful and full lead to a question about the word fool and we discussed an old Spanish radio show called The Fool on the Hill (and the song by the same name).  We talked about how the star of the show can often be seen in town, and that he has a very unusual face, one you can’t miss. They told me about scandals in his past.  By now the board was full of new vocabulary and expressions. We paused a moment or two to process and absorb, but the impetus of the conversation was too strong.  We left our first crop of language on the main board and regrouped around the mini whiteboard we use as a centerpiece for our table-based conversations.  I left my place at the board and sat at the table with them.


[roles: multiple!  Initially participant, sharing in a story about shared experience, a conversation we could just as naturally have in English or Spanish but also a kind of catalyst (I’m not sure that’s the right word) because if I hadn’t been there, and we hadn’t been in an English class, the conversation would most definitely not have been in English!  As the topic shifted I took on new roles: the outsider who needs to know, so this time a different kind of catalyst, setting up a real and natural information gap; the language expert, supplying language explanations, pointing out patterns and structures; the note-taker, adding phrases and new vocabulary to the board.  At the end, when we paused to look at the language we had “farmed” I needed to quickly analyse what we’d got and make a decision about what to do with it. I spotted a lexical set that we could explore:  describing the interior of houses (door, floor, rug, tiles had already come up). I could easily have set up an activity to draw out more vocabulary and we could have moved on to talk about our homes, but that didn’t seem to fit the mood.  I made a mental note to come back to this next lesson. I guess maybe my role there was learning manager?]


The conversation turned from question and answer to a kind of collaborative story-telling. Our main story-teller was in full swing and his classmates aided and abetted as he told tale after tale.  The sentences were weaved with ideas from one, words from another, corrections from yet another.  I found myself able to sit back and act as scribe.  The stories were well-told and held everyone’s interest – and from one story spawned another.  First from one student, and then from another.  We travelled in distance and in time.  The main theme became stories of poachers and wild fowl, of old country lanes, of beautiful beaches and tiny villages that have developed and grown (much to everyone’s disapproval!), of camping on the beach with cows grazing around the tent, of a grandfather’s smallholding at the foot of a hill overlooking the Atlantic, where the story-teller had a favourite rock that he lay on to watch the vultures overhead.  I’d say, without having any hard data to back it up of course, that about 80% of the stories in English, with the other 20% coming from me in the form of translations or paraphrases for specific terms (poachers, seagulls, tent, quail) and a few helping structures: I’m the only person who says that, at the foot of the mountain, two months ago.  Support from classmates came in the form of corrected or prompted past tenses (in a recent post I talked about how this particular grammar area is “growing”), repetition, reframing, embellishing.  There were times when we took a tangent to consider linguistic issues: the coverage of the word birds and its equivalent(s) in Spanish; the difference between a road and a path, and the use of path in computing; highlighting the use of there (which the class focused on a few weeks ago).


[roles: it seemed that there were two interesting things going on here for me. Firstly, the students stopped making eye-contact mainly with me and started to make a lot more eye contact with each other. They were no longer referring to me as the expert, they were listening very carefully to each other and supporting each other in creating and extending the stories.  And secondly, the nature of the conversation and my role as listener/participant.  This was a combination of informed and uninformed for all of us. We all knew the places that were being talked about, we’ve all known them for a long time. I think this helped, there was no need to slow the conversations down with explanations of the background and the students could concentrate on the details and pitch in with agreement and extra details.  I chipped in too with my experiences and anecdotes.   As well as participant, I was still the language expert, the note-taker, but no longer the leader or the learning manager.  I don’t think I had ever stepped so far out of those roles, nor had the students ever before taken so much responsibility for their language use in class before.]


After well over an hour of continuous chat, I interrupted the flow to draw our attention back to all the language we had farmed.  It was difficult!  We categorized words (e.g. words for talking about birds) and then I deleted each category as we dealt with it.  We remembered the context certain phrases and expressions had appeared in and briefly summarized the respective sub-plots.  We focused on a few useful structures (the person who(that)/the thing which(that) and past expressions, the first time, the last time, twenty years ago). I finally handed out the photocopies with the exercises consolidating the vocabulary from the lesson before (parts of the body and the face) – a lot had actually cropped up already in our chat.  I had no chance to look at the sentences they’d all written for homework. But they didn’t care, they were happy enough to look at them in the next lesson.  As homework I asked them to write up one or two of the stories from the lesson. They didn’t like this idea, they wanted to tell other stories!  I explained that I wanted them to try and use the language that had come up during the lesson, so they asked if they could write new stories on similar themes.  The hour came to an end and our chat slowly morphed from English and Spanish. I wanted to tell them how impressed I was by their collaboration in creating the stories.  I did this in English but their responses came flooding back in Spanish.  They were really pleased with themselves too.  I was worried that they might not feel that they were learning, but they listed the structures they felt more comfortable with (question forms, negative forms, past forms) and they said they felt that they were understanding a lot more. They told me they were watching Spanish programmes with English subtitles, translating the titles of films and comparing the two, moving away from literal translation and noticing the English around them. 


[Roles: here I tried to step back into the role of leader and learning manager, and did to some extent. The handouts were received with nods of acceptance, their value appreciated, the homework task not so much, here they wanted to hold onto the role of managers and negotiate a task that they wanted to do.  In the few minutes after the lesson ended I’m not sure what my role was, they were talking to me as their teacher, sharing their experiences as learners, it felt like a very positive moment.]


Reading back over this, I’m not really sure what conclusion/s to draw, or if there are any conclusions to draw, or where exactly these reflections will lead!  But it was a lesson we all enjoyed and I think one of those lessons that’s going to stick in my mind.

Posted in musings, reflecting on teaching, thoughts on learning, thoughts on teaching | Tagged , | 9 Comments

exam time

shared by pdam2 on flickr

shared by pdam2 on flickr

(this is a version a post which was published on the British Council Teaching English blog)

Last month was mid-term exam and reports time.  At the meeting where we discussed the logistics and practicalities of exam-setting and report-writing, I must admit that my heart sank at the idea of having to set an exam for my A1.1 class. Test items have never been my favourite writing genre and I baulked a little at the thought.  My students’ reaction was similar.  They’re all older students and it’s been a long time since any of them has been tested on anything.  Their faces fell, they groaned, they made half-jokes about finding excuses not to be there on the day of the exam.

Going back to the meeting, we discussed why mid-term exams were held. These were our conclusions: that they helped students see the progress they were making, that it helped them feel proud of what they’d achieved, that it gave us, the teachers, a chance to take time out to talk about individual strengths and weaknesses.  So, flash forward to my class once the news had been broken.  I told my class that the point of the exam was for them to show off what they knew – not to find out what they didn’t know.  There was lots of nodding and agreeing.  They’ve all been through an assessment culture that counts the mistakes not the successes.

We looked back over the things we’d done together in class in the last two and a half months and I asked the class what kind of exam they’d like.  One of the students, the one who drives some of our more interesting conversations and profitable tangents, wanted to write a dialogue including all the areas we’d covered. Another liked the idea of preparing a short presentation.  I suggested we blend the two.  I showed them the areas I had to grade them on in my report: speaking, listening, reading, writing, vocabulary and grammar.  And we looked at how each one would be catered for.

This is what we eventually came up with, negotiated but also, I must admit, led.

Part 1:  mini presentations to last at least one minute and no more than five (to curb a certain talkative member of the class – the times came from the students not me!)  to be prepared beforehand but delivered without notes.  This would constitute the first speaking part of the exam (but would also allow me to assess grammar and vocabulary).

There was to be a listening task for the non- presenters who had to write two questions about the presentation to either a) test their classmates understanding of the presentation or b) clarify any doubts raised by the presentation.  This would constitute the listening part of the exam.  I was hoping that I would be able to gauge their success in following each others’ presentations from the questions they wrote.

 Follow-up conversations after each presentation. I would take the time to talk a little more about the topics with each student while the others compared and discussed the questions they had written. This would constitute the second speaking task in the exam and also the second listening task as they would need to understand my questions to take part in the interaction (it would also be testing the fifth skill, not on the report, of interaction).

Part 2: a short vocabulary quiz with the students being asked to write short lists of different vocabulary areas we’d covered during the course e.g. five summer fruits, three days of the week, five members of your immediate family.

Part 3:  sentences. Students were to write complete sentences in response to questions.  The questions were written to enable the students to use vocabulary items from part 2 in context e.g. What’s your favourite fruit?  What’s your favourite day of the week? Why?. The questions progressed in difficulty, the initial questions requiring a very simple response (e.g. I love watermelon) and later questions needing a longer sentence ( I like Sundays because …. ) .  This would be my main gauge of how well the students had mastered the main structures and sentence frames we’d looked at so far.

Part 4: writing. This part would require the students to write a short text on one of the topics covered so far; a job, a family member, a favourite pastime. The idea being here to let them expand on one of the answers in part 3 and show off as much as they wanted to.

And that was what we did.

And the results?  Well, some students had prepared more than others for the presentation, and it showed.  The listening task and following group discussion need quite a lot of mediation but the question writing task was a good gauge of comprehension. The vocabulary quiz and sentences were zipped through and the students had the feeling that they were easy (though not too easy). These last two parts allowed me to liberally apply big ticks all over the page.   We finished about ten minutes before the end of the class and everybody seemed happy with the experience – though I think we would all have preferred a normal, conversation-driven lesson! We spent the last ten minutes revisiting the initial presentations and that led us along a fruitful conversation tangent until the end of the lesson.

I think it worked OK but I also think we can improve on it next time.

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following a thread


shared by FraserElliot on flickr

A storm has blown up once again in the blogosphere over grammar McNuggets and it got me thinking about how I serve them up with my present class of beginners. So I decided to pick out one particular nugget and follow the thread from its first appearance to its present state.

The nugget I’ve chosen is the simple past.  On the suggested syllabus and pacing schedule supplied by the school, the simple past appears somewhere towards the end of term two.  It cropped up much earlier for us.  In the fourth week of the course (we have two classes a week of an hour and half so this was after about 10 hours of class) we looked at jobs: the lexis of jobs, the conditions and responsibilities, the qualifications and training, and of course we answered the question, What’s your job? Two of the students in the class are retired, so they needed the following language to be able to answer the question:

I’m retired.

I was a secondary school teacher.

I worked in a bank.

I gave the chunks, we used them in conversation.  We looked at “was” and identified it as the past of both am and is.   We looked at “worked” and I pointed out that the “ed” ending denoted the past.  We used worked in context in our conversations but we didn’t delve any further. This short note on morphology was the first bite of the nugget.

When I was writing up the summary of that particular lesson I decided it was time to expand on my style.  The initial summaries had simply been lists of useful language gleaned from our mini conversations. E.g.:



 Hello, good morning!

How are you?

Fine thanks / very well thank you/ OK

And you?


 What’s your name? 

My name’s …  

And you?

Pleased to meet you

You too / and you

They had evolved over time and I started to include comments and short tasks but now that the –ed nugget had emerged, I could start to use a more narrative style:

Remembering questions

Here are the questions you remembered. You know a lot of questions from only three weeks of classes!

Over the next three or four weeks, we didn’t go back to focus on the past at all, but I peppered the summaries with regular verbs and examples of was and were.  Here is the description of one of our conversations a few weeks later:

3 favourite foods

 We talked about the food we like to eat at different meals.  It was a great conversation.  We talked about a lot of different things.  Here is some of the new vocabulary we looked at:

 Tastes:  bitter, sweet, sharp.  Can you think of food for each taste? For example, coffee is bitter.

Herbs and spices: cinnamon, mint, vanilla.  Do you like them?

 Can you remember the words in bold? What do they mean?

We talked about making fresh juice in a blender and José Antonio told us a story about his grandfather who put a big watermelon on the table for the little José Antonio forty years ago.  He talked about the delicious heart of the watermelon.  We talked about the difference between grape juice and mosto and wine.  José Antonio explained that real mosto is light and thick and perfect for barbecues.   You can drink a lot of mosto but you don’t get drunk. We also talked about barrels of sherry and bottles of wine.   And then we talked about siestas. Do you have a siesta

Looking back at this, it’s clear that some at least of this conversation with José Antonio involved past verbs.  I guess we dealt with them as they cropped up.  I can remember we quickly talked about the fact that some verbs are irregular in Spanish and the cuteness of kids mastering (or not) the irregular endings. I explained that when the past was irregular, I’d give them the form they needed but that we wouldn’t start a list quite yet.  Looking back over the summaries in those three or four weeks, the following examples of the simple past cropped up again and again: looked at, talked about, described, practised, listened to, remembered, played, introduced, explained – and I started to add negative forms too: You didn’t have any questions from the last lesson.

We generally kick off the class by looking quickly at the summary of the lesson before and airing any questions or doubts. Not once did the students ask for clarification of a past verb.  I like to think that the initial explanation and the gentle drip-drip exposure meant that they were slowly acquiring the form.

In the first lesson after the Christmas break, it seemed the right time to look a little closer at the simple past.  This was more than a month after we’d first noticed the –ed ending.  Here are the notes from our summary:

In this lesson we talked about the Christmas holidays and we looked at:

 1 How to form the past simple

2 Ordinal numbers

3 How to say dates


Here are our notes for the past simple:


? questions DID + subject + verb Did you have a good holiday?
+ affirmative Verb + ED We stayed in Puerto Real.
negative DIDN’T + verb We didn’t go away.  


Remember we used the past simple to talk about jobs.

José Antonio:  I worked in a bank.

Lourdes: I was a Science teacher.  


The verb to be is irregular in the past.  Look at this table.


present Past
I amYou/We /They  are

He/She / It is

I wasYou/We/They  were

He/She/It was


Some verbs are irregular.  Here are some common irregular verbs we used in the lesson:


Present Past










The presentation part of the lesson was very short, board-based and grew out of the language that had emerged from our chat about the Christmas holidays.  During the chat I’d been using a mini whiteboard at my elbow on the shared table and I’d made notes of useful and new language with a box set aside for past verbs. The students were using past verb forms with very little prompting.  There were questions about the use of the infinitive with didn’t, but as most verbs were in the affirmative that area will need more exposure and practice I guess.

In the next lesson (which was a Monday) we talked about weekends and looked at a very small set of irregular past verbs: had, made, went, did, and commented on how much we could say with just four verbs.  We collected examples of collocations. In the summary I set them the task of thinking of more.  We looked at these again at the beginning of the next lesson.

We looked at expressions with each verb.  Can you think of more?

We had a big lunch.  We had a coffee at home. We had a beer in the sun.

I made Paella.  I made some pastries. 

I went shopping. I went for a walk.

We did some cooking.

The lesson after that we talked about the upcoming exam (more about that to come in another post) and the students asked that they not be tested on the past verbs.  I was fine with that, but actually, when it came to the speaking section of the exam, they all used various simple past forms with no problems at all.

So what?  Well, it was interesting for me to see how this particular nugget emerged. It needed a little pushing, it needed time to grow and it’s still growing. But looking back at how I had “taught” this area, there was very little classroom time devoted to teaching. I shared links to simple presentation videos on youtube that the students watched at home (3 or 4 minutes maximum and everybody did watch them) so I guess there was more “teaching” going on there as well, and I was consciously using and re-using and embedding examples in my post lesson emails and in the summaries on the blog as well as in teacher talk during class, but I was still pleased to see how painless the whole process had been. And only once did we actually focus attention on the form and on practising the form. The rest of the time it’s just come up in conversation.  Oh, and yes, we’ve looked at pronunciation, but you know, that classical –ed extra syllable sounding has hardly been a problem at all.  I think there’s a lot to be said for growing grammar slowly at this level.

At present I’m taking a back seat as I watch the present continuous slowly sprouting.  It isn’t on my suggested syllabus until the third term, but the students have already spotted the –ing ending for nouns and are slowly moving towards a natural translation of estar + present participle in Spanish. I think it’ll probably be time to acknowledge its presence very soon.

Posted in musings, reflecting on teaching, thoughts on learning, thoughts on teaching | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments

the last link ?

paperchain for blog

This post is a very late response to a blog challenge that was doing the rounds last year (well, OK, a couple of weeks ago). Apologies to Hana and Sandy who both “tagged” me just before the Christmas break, and just after I’d gone into self-imposed internet exile.


So, there are five steps to the challenge – and here are the first three:

1 Acknowledge the nominating blogger/s.

Thank you very much to both of you for including me in a not-too-good blogging year!

2 Share 11 random facts about yourself.

As it’s January 2 here are 11 random facts about 2013.

1 I like first times and 2013 had quite a few.

2 We got our first family dog. We’re all ridiculously soppy about her.

bambina for blog

3 I learnt to body surf properly for the first time (I know, but hey, it’s never too late, right?)

4 I climbed my first rock face and had my first “bouldering” experience.

5 I went back to Italy for the first time after fifteen years.  It was a huge linguistic challenge as I hadn’t spoken Italian since I was last there in the 90s.  It snowed and the train rides were beautiful.

snow in italy for blog

6 I visited Peru for the first time. Loved the ceviche!

7 I learnt an important (and I pretty obvious) lesson. Make the most of work trips. If I get another chance to visit Peru I’ll make sure I tack on enough days to see Machu Pichu!

8 I tutored on my first Trinity TESOL diploma courses, both online and face-to-face.

9  I presented at the first Image Conference in Barcelona. A great event.  Thanks Kieran et al.

10 I went up in the London Eye for the first (and probably only) time – expensive but the views at sunset are worth it.

11 After almost 16 years in Spain I cooked my first paella (well Anna did really and I was chef’s assistant- thank you Anna!)



3 Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.

These are the questions Hana asked me:

1. If you could change one thing about education in your country, what would it be?

The testing culture – and the over-emphasis on rote learning – at least in formal assessment. Along with the “worksheet” culture and mountains of mindless homework that (sometimes? often?) goes with it. To quote my youngest on her frustration with her Spanish homework: This exercise is stupid, it just tells you what to do, it doesn’t ask you to think (verbatim)

2. Have you ever thought of quitting your job as an educator? Why?

No, because my job/s have changed and morphed over the years and that’s been more than enough to keep me challenged and engaged.

3. What’s your earliest memory as an educator?

My first 30 mins in teaching practice. I was asked to “look after” a class of 30 4-year-olds while their teacher attended a meeting. It was their third week of school, for many in a language they didn’t yet speak. I was told I had to speak to them in Welsh only. It was thirty minutes of high energy chaos!

4. Is education valued where you live? If not, what is the main reason?

Yes, it’s valued in so much as it’s seen as necessary in the incredibly difficult job situation at the moment. But there’s also a lot of pessimism, education is by no means enough. It’s a tough time for everyone, but especially for our little corner of south west Spain.

5. How do you think we could help to make teaching a more prestigious job?

Big question!  On an individual basis by doing the very best we can in our own immediate context, by supporting and encouraging and when and where possible inspiring others to do the same – but to change the social-political culture of a country or region? No answer there, sorry.

6. Apart from burning-out, what’s the biggest danger for a teacher?

Possibly loss of self-esteem, the tendency to use the “just” tag: I’m just a teacher. And maybe sometimes isolation or loneliness. If you don’t work in a positive, happy staffroom, teaching can be a lonely job.

7. Did anyone try to put you off teaching in the past?

Yes, me! When I was in school it was absolutely the last thing I wanted to be! I hate to admit this but I did my PGCE so that I could get another grant-funded year at university. I enjoyed the training, but didn’t feel like a teacher until my first TEFL job in Italy the year after I finished.

8. Why do you think teaching can bring so much satisfaction but also frustration?

Because it’s a people job, because it can give you the chance to help people, to make a difference. And because sometimes the reality of the job – paperwork, tests, ministry programmes etc etc – can get in the way.

9. What makes you happy?

Spending time with people, doing things together, learning or doing something new. Above all with family and friends.
10. When did you last laugh out loud?
About half an hour ago, playing with the dog (everyone else is asleep!)

11. If your child/best friend wanted to become a teacher, what piece of advice would you give him or her?
Practical advice, I guess, if I could. Where to find out more, how to go about doing it the way they want to. I wouldn’t persuade or dissuade but discuss options I guess.

And these are Sandy’s questions:
1. What advice would you give to someone starting out in your profession?

I’ve answered this one above 😉
2. Are you a tidy person or a clean person, or both, or neither?
I have to work at organizing papers. I’m much better at organizing computer files! I clear my desk every day (mainly because it doubles up as the kitchen table!) and I like to keep my work area clear and tidy, but at the end of each working shift in front of the computer it all gets shoved into an incredibly untidy cupboard! My teaching materials are more or less the same. I try and make sure that anything that needs to be shared with anyone else (lesson notes, register etc) is clearly-marked and tidy, but stuff that’s for my eyes only is usually a mess!

3. How often do you go to the cinema?

Nowhere near as often as I’d like to. When I was living in Madrid, and before having kids, two or three times a week. There’s a great cinema culture there with films from all over the world, especially the Spanish-speaking world. I miss it a lot. Now I get by with boxed sets of TV series (usually a couple of years behind everyone else! Just starting Breaking Bad now).

4. Do you have a favourite word (in any language)?

Maybe Italian exclamations like, Magari! Mannaggia! and Boh!

5. What’s your favourite meal? Can you cook it?

I love Thai soups, vegetable curries, homemade pasta sauces. I can cook passable imitations 😉

6. What’s the phrase you constantly hear yourself saying?

Does that make sense?

7. What’s the worst job you’ve ever done?

Printing greetings on balloons.

8. What’s your favourite method of procrastination?

Ah, so many! Writing blog posts, maybe? 😉

9. Do you like classical music?

Yes, but I know nothing about it.

10. I don’t know much about poetry. Is there a particular poem you think I should read?

I’m really, really bad at choosing one example of anything! I bought this anthology – The Rattle Bag –  when I was teaching literature and it’s a great way in – I’ve been back to it again and again for poetry to use in class.

11. And, a little bit of advertising. 🙂 What’s your favourite eltpic? (You don’t have to justify it!)

eltpic 2000 by Ian James.
image by @ij64 on flickr (eltpics)


I’ve completed the first three steps,  but then I’m afraid I’m now going to break the chain. Thank you Lesley for a great example of how to do that with style! 

Here are the two steps I’m not completing:

4 List 11 bloggers.
5 Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer, and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. Don’t nominate a blogger who has nominated you.

I’m afraid I’ve always been hopeless at these chain things and I’m responding so late  most of my blogging friends have already taken up the challenge.  I must admit that the idea of drawing up a list of 11 people to tag is daunting and I really don’t want to pass that task on to anyone else.

By way of apology, here are eleven responses that have popped up over the last few weeks, including those by  Hana, Sandy and Lesley.

Hana Tichá

Sandy Millin

Lesley Cioccas

Kevin Stein

Michael Griffin

Cecilia Lemos

Ty Seburn

Marisa Constantides

Rachael Roberts

Adam Simpson

Vicky Loras





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