miércoles, 14 de diciembre de 2011

Spring has Sprung!

We spent September in Scotland with our son Jamie and both sets of his grandparents. And about a month after coming back something incredible happened: Jamie started speaking. 

Not just ready-made chunks, not just repeating, not just chanting and singing fragments. Real speech appropriate to its context:

Are you going to work, Pappy?
Don't want to sleep.
No me pones la chaqueta, mami.
Where the big football?
Pappy, have you got shoes?
Want to go to Santiago with you.
Blas me tiró en el charco. (Blas is a dog.)

...and my favourite -

Give me the... (pause) ... I don't know the name.


Two things stand out:

He's started asking us questions - that's completely new.

He now seems to be able to distinguish reality from imagination. He'll tell you something that sounds false, I'll say "Really?", and he'll smile and go "Nooo!"

I wonder which neurons have learned to talk to each other in his little head. Wouldn't it be amazing to spend ten minutes in his head?

I can't help using David Warr's great metaphor for language: Little bits of undifferentiated tissue have suddenly turned into stems and roots and leaves and flowers. He has flourished. 

Steven Pinker dedicates The Language Instinct to his parents, who "gave me life and language." What a gift - free to give and priceless to receive.

He still pees his pants occasionally though ;) Words come before wee, I guess.

jueves, 24 de noviembre de 2011


What day is it...? Where am I...? Are those my feet...? Is Nixon still President...? 
Is it too late to nominate favourite blogs for the Whatsisname Awards...?

Having decided not to nominate anybody (too hurtful, as Chiew Pang says), 
a couple of glasses of Ribeiro have forced me to change my mind...

I hereby nominate

for the category of 

Voice of Sanity in a World Full of Twats. 

[OK, he doesn't actually blog about teaching, but he is an ESOL teacher.]

A VOSIAWFOT performs a great public service for us all: Follow the blog and you will read all about the Mormons, the Privatisation of Little Chef, the Overbearing Husbands, the Littel Priques and much much more.

[Edit - Apparently the category of VOSIAWFOT has been removed this year. Just read the blog.]

lunes, 21 de noviembre de 2011

Do You Accept Reality Cheques?

It's one in the morning. My partner and toddler are snoozing together, and it's blog time:

I had come home tonight grumpy and depressed; I have a small group of teenage girls whom I had bawled out this evening for failing to participate in class, and I was already mentally composing my rant/moan/cry-for-help on the road home: How can I get them to apply themselves? How do other people find time to read blogs, never mind write them? Why can't I find anything about teaching YL on the net? Why is everybody on my PLN brighter and better and faster than me?

(I wish I could remember which novelist wrote something about the shiny moon-face of self-pity.)

Recently, I've only had the time to speed-read my EFL blogs, not any of the others that I follow. My mistake. But tonight while waiting for the computer to update, I finally got round to them.

While I'm moaning about a slightly scatty group of girls, other people are organising their Christmas in November because they might not still be alive a month later.

And still others are passing on timeless wisdom:

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us "Universe", a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish the delusion but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.

Guess who said that?

So thanks again, not just EFL bloggers, but to all the rest of you for the bigger picture.

Oh and Brad's pics were pretty refreshing, too.

miércoles, 2 de noviembre de 2011

Nothing Compares to U

In this post, I'll be looking at the relationship between the spelling and sound of the letter U, and trying to make sense of it.

This post is the second in the series that started with I Don't Claim to Be an A Student.

Have a look at this cross below, and the phonetic symbol in each part. Do you remember the sounds they represent?

Try to place each of the following words in the right quarter:

slum, curse, ruse, rush, cure, buck, sure, mule, curl, puny, fur, lure.

Your answers will depend on your own accent, but if we take RP (standard British English) as our model, we'll probably say:

/ʌ/ - slum, rush, buck
/uː/ - mule, puny, ruse
/ɜː/ - fur, curl, curse
/ɔː / - lure, sure, cure

Of course, life (and English spelling) are never THAT simple! Even with RP, there are two complications:

In the /ɔː/ part (with R and magic E) older speakers and northerners tend to say /uə/ rather than /ɔː/.

And in the /uː/ section (with magic E) it's by no means clear when we say /juː/ rather than simply /uː/.

But as discussed in the other post, I strongly feel that some fairly good rules with exceptions are a hell of a lot better than nothing at all :)

My classroom procedure is fairly simple:

On the board draw the cross and the 4 symbols. Elicit/check and practice the sounds on their own. For many many learners of English, all four sounds are absolute buggers to get right, so it may take some work and some patience on the part of everybody.

Write (or spell out) the above list of words, and simply ask the students in pairs to take a few minutes to try and place them in the right quarter. Of course, you may be able to add appropriate words from your own coursebook or notes: basically any word whose stressed syllable - or sole syllable - includes u.

If you do try it out, let me know how it goes. Lots of luck to U.

miércoles, 26 de octubre de 2011

How Many Words?

I think this may be the simplest grammar/listening/visualising exercise in the world...

Having discussed or studied a topic/situation, just tell your students the following:

You're going to say some phrases - they have to count the number of words you say.


"I've lost the car keys."

I - ve - lost - the - car - keys = six.

(Contractions like "I've" count as two.)

And all you need to do is make up a few phrases or sentences from the lesson, or related to it. Try to pronounce them as realisically as you can - really join up the words. Then ask everybody in class to say how many words were in the phrase.

"How many words? Six, Belen? Six, Alvaro? Marcos, five?

Yes, six. Well done. Do you remember them?..."

I find that just with a minute or so most lessons, learners are able to tune in a little faster. And of course you don't need any prep :)

                                  *    *    *    *    *

Naomi Epstein at Visualizing Ideas recently got me thinking on the subject of hearing: She mentioned here a persistent grammar problem for Hebrew speakers, in which she used the phrases "learners with perfect hearing" It took me a moment to remember that she teaches hearing-impaired learners, but the phrase was suggestive: As a serial language learner (4 attempts - 2 wins, 1 draw, 1 defeat), I've noticed that my own hearing takes a while to tune in to the rhythms of a new language.

And not only new languages. Over the last year or so, I've had the car radio on the classical station quite often. It's my first ever time at voluntarily listening to classical music. And I feel like a Martian living on Earth. Pretty disorientated at the beginning - there's this big nonsensical mass of music, and there are too many instruments, and just when you're getting the hang of a bit, it all stops and a totally different bit starts. And it goes on a bit, too.

But it's starting to make sense now: I feel more comfortable listening to classical music. I can listen to more pieces all the way through without getting lost. And I can listen to the classical station for longer.

I've noticed a couple of features of the "grammar" of classical music:

i) Instead of choruses, they sometimes have a little phrase coming back later in the piece, maybe played the same, maybe played a bit differently. But not much in the way of verse/chorus structures.

ii) The rhythm is often very understated or totally implied: I don't like losing the rhythm of a piece, and it happens a lot in classical music.

iii) You can expect much more drastic changes in tempo or sound or key than you would in any rock or pop or folk piece. I've learned not to be disorientated; things often return to more familiar territory a little later.

You can probably tell I've been reading in some depth on classical musicology ;)

But seriously, I get the feeling that, with some exposure to the new music of English, learners may pick up little details, consciously or otherwise. Does anybody else think so?

What sort of things might constitute the music of English?

If I may speculate wildly:

Maybe the way we really pronounce I'm and want to and because and plenty more;

Maybethewaywejus kinastringitaltogether;

Maybe the way the new information seems to come later in the sentence; (get that bit first and go back for the grammar if you need to).

Maybe the way we repeat y'know or ahmean or isslike, and learners can learn to mentally skip them, because they don't mean much.

Or whatever it may be. I don't have any intentions of bothering my students with a self-analysis, so I will instead invite you to check out Benny Lewis' blog Fluent in 3 Months for great insights, motivation and strategies for language learners. If you don't know him, his mission is to learn a new language fluently pretty much every three months. As I say, his is a great dynamic blog: part learner's diary, part tutorial, part reflection, always upbeat.

And of course, thanks to Naomi.

PS It's nice to be back!

martes, 19 de julio de 2011

The Magnificent Seven Ride Again

I've noticed that a post of mine, The Magnificent Seven has picked up quite a lot of views, since it was posted a couple of months back.

So, helped by my unperturbable students Lara and Fer, we've prepared a further magnificent septet for you and your class. Each of them has pronounced the same set for you. Click the link above for the in-class procedure.



Want to check? Fer has the solution:


And Lara has the instructions for your class:


miércoles, 13 de julio de 2011

I don't claim to be an A-student

Like the great Sam Cooke, I don't claim to be an A-student. But here goes anyway...

How would you pronounce the A vowel in these words:

flares, gravy, mask, amazing, star, lash, air, hammer, bark, lake, slay, tail, ram, grate, cart

Where would they go on this diagram?

I'd put them into four groups, at least in standard British English:

mask, lash, hammer, ram

lake, amazing, tail, grate, gravy, slay

star cart bark

flares, air

And here's where I'd write them on the quadrant. (I won't fill each one in.)

I've been noticing more and more recently that my students seem to be under the impression that there is no correspondence between spelling and sound; that there are no rules for spelling in English. A new word comes up in class (say "slate") and when I ask my students to guess the pronunciation, it's hit-and-miss between /sleɪt/ and /slæt/, with the occasional /slaɪt/ thrown in.

I know from my brother in the UK that my 7 year old nephew is doing phonics, and I've had a look at his classbooks. So I've been trying to formulate what I "know" as a native speaker, and get students to notice the patterns more. And after looking at a collection of samples, the quadrant helps to scaffold a bit.

Now I know that this isn't the whole story of A, but it's a good start. In fact, even getting student to grasp the top half of that quadrant is a huge improvement on guesswork. Pronouncing 'flares' as /fleirz/ or 'bark' as /bærk/ is close enough for most circumstances. The r-effect can come later, IMHO.

Do you teach letter-sound relationships? If so, how? I know the spelling guru Johanna Stirling touches on phonics, but I haven't found anything like this among her copious materials. If I've missed it, Johanna, please let me know!

I ain't doin' no phonics in class.

Trivia Corner

Standard BE is not my native accent, I hasten to add, so I still feel a bit like a learner myself when it comes to this. In Scotland, most speakers have a central /a/ and an open front /e/ replacing /ei/, not to be confused with /ɛ/.

Also there is no big r-effect, maybe because it's just a separately articulated consonant, and not a kind of diacritic.

I think most Scots would say:

BAIT:  [bet]
BET: [bɛt]
BAT: [bat]
BART: [bart]
BEARS: [berz]

Do you have a non-standard English accent? And do you teach your own pronunciation or a standard model. I'd love to know.

PS Sandy Millin has posted here a wonderful set of UK accent samples. Don't miss!

jueves, 7 de julio de 2011

Destroy the Brain

Thursday night is zombie night. So I've decided, anyway. My evening intermediate class are going to be doing Shaun of the Dead this month.

He's got an arm off!!!!
Tonight's instalment.

Warned them they wouldn't understand much, but not to worry - there wasn't going to be a test. A watch through the first 10 minutes or so of the film, without subtitles. Were they able to tell me anything about the characters or their interactions? Bugger all, really.

Scripts of scene one handed out. We read it several times, changing roles. Speaking slowly but as much acted as possible, reading for emotive content. Worked informally on linking and emphasis, especially on pronouncing phrases, not words. Developed the idea of Liz's frustration with Shaun. Then watched the relevant scene once more, again without subs.

Ditto with two more scenes.

All the scenes we read are from the first few minutes, in which the dynamics between the characters are established: Shaun is a thirtyish underachiever frittering his life away in a dead-end job. His flatmate/landlord Pete and longsuffering girlfriend Liz both berate his laziness and his attachment to the porcine, disfunctional Ed, long-term potato on their couch.

Mission accomplished? I think so far so good. When the hour was up, my protegés had made modest progress with really dense, rapid, colloquial English, both in production and reception. They had got a handle on the character dynamics, which are really the key to the comedy, at least until the shambling undead arrive.

But that will be next week.

Till then, keep those windows and doors shut.


Truth Stranger than Fiction.


Reality Stranger than Truth

EDIT: If you'd like the scripts for these scenes, join edmodo and send me a connection request. Sandy has blogged about it here.

jueves, 30 de junio de 2011

Letters of Note

Dear Reader,

This post is dedicated to you especially if, like me, you are still at work. While the rest of the world is making sandcastles, you and I are looking for a board pen that doesn't leak, or ferrying two hundred sweaty and libidinous teens around London.

I thought I'd share with you one of my absolute favourite blogs. And it's neither an EFL site nor a techy one. It's plainly and simply a collections of letters,  Letters of Note. It's a tribute to curator Shaun Usher's perseverance and dedication that he has collected such a fine corpus. I salute you, Shaun.

But it's also a testament to the power of that odd combination of ink, paper and distance as a channel, seedbed and butterfly net for human emotion. You'll find here outrage, ambition, sympathy, paranoia, sorrow, encouragement, humour, complaint, madness and pretty much every other feeling there is:

A pant-wettingly hilarious memo on bad language in 1890s baseball. John Hinkley's eerily tender stalking letter to Jodie Foster, written hours before he shot Ronald Reagan. Queen Victoria's elegant and moving letter of condolance to Abraham Lincoln's widow. Oil magnate Tiger Mike's terrifyingly vitriolic business memos.
(Use the search engine embedded in the website. Or better still, browse.)

But here is possibly my favourite - how a 6-year-old got his dream job. This also includes a video interview, by the way, but for my money the letter is the star of the show.

Must write off now. Got to go scuba-diving do some photocopying.

Wish you were here (instead of me).

Ever yours,

Alan xxx

miércoles, 22 de junio de 2011

What People Eat ...and what it's wrapped in.

I wanted to reply with a screen-capture to Sandy Millin's most recent post on her wonderful Almost Infinite EFL Ideas blog. This was in turn related to this slide show from Time.

In class with my individual adult student Jose we began simply looking slowly through the images. He instantly noticed one thing that I hadn't - the different amounts of packaging in the photos - compare the British family's food with the Bhutanese spread, for example, where there's virtually no 'future rubbish' in sight. So we re-opened a mind map that we had built up on previous occasions, and added a section on packaging, as you can see above.

Jose is one of those students who had  never seen mind maps before but took to them with a vengeance. Previously he had really taken the ball and run with it with an earlier version of this food map: He downloaded it from my Google Docs, found out mountains of vocabulary and re-uploaded his new version in time for the next class. As I blogged previously, I like to make mind maps in class, either digital or hand-made, but the curious thing is that you get all sorts of reactions to them, from familiarity to amazement to consternation to road-to-Damascus conversions.

And today, happily, lots of engagement.

lunes, 13 de junio de 2011

From Grrrrrrrrrrrrr to Hmmmmmm


 Think positive! Don't take it so seriously! It's a private class! You're allowed to make an arse of yourself in here! Instead of out there in the JUNGLE! Be cheerful! Stop worrying about getting it wrong!!!! Get it wrong! Keep getting it wrong, then you'll get it right! Haven't you figured that out yourself!! I come to your (stupid) country and make an arse of myself trying to speak your (stupid) language every day!!!! And people don't always give me a chance. I have to talk with the mumblers and the uninterested and the thick and the poorly-informed. And not with somebody who bends over backwards to create a nurturing environment for second language acquisition! I haven't had a wonderful teacher like me to give me experimenting space, and tell me about learning strategies and give me useful feedback and advice.

And that's what I screamed at my three students while shaking them back and forwards by the lapels.

In my mind, at least, that's what I screamed at them.

I had mentioned I wanted to spend a couple of lessons in which we would all plan and deliver a short talk to the class. This is something we've done before. We got talking about presentations and conferences in general. Three of my class give occasional talks in English at conferences. The fourth member is learning English specifically to attend a long session of training meetings in California, in order to become a professional motivator. (I don't know much about his plans. It's a pretty unusual job here in Galicia.)

Presentations guru Garr Reynolds
So I thought 'Great. Here we go. A spiel on how to write and prepare a prezo, and then into doing it. No pressure, lots of practice, 5 minutes each, no slides or hoo-ha, just a private show-and-tell session.'

But within seconds of me mentioning it, Pili and Ester (I'm not using real names, by the way) were complaining bitterly about how hard it is to deliver a talk in English. And pretty soon, Inès had joined them. I remember them being particularly worried about dealing with questions. They also told me (though I take this with a pinch of salt) that in their field, you don't get a second chance if you've done a poor prezo at a conference. 

While I did my mental rant I tried to be upbeat on the outside: Don't worry, you just need practice. Nobody's perfect, etc etc. Curiously, the motivator, Josè piped up, on my side: "Focus on the success, focus on the future, ...". And curiously he is both the newest member of the group and has the lowest level of English.

But I do want to use this post to think aloud about motivation and demotivation. Where could it be coming from?

From my classes?

I'll try to be objective....

Not enough structure to the course? There is a definite emphasis on conversation, speech and pronunciation, with few tangible handouts or published material. Maybe the students don't have a clear idea that they're progressing. Maybe they be more comforted with a coursebook. Maybe I throw them into the deep end too often?

Where else could a lack of motivation come from?

From students' lives elsewhere?

Maybe they enjoy their English as a getaway, a break, a mental holiday. A hobby. Maybe they come in tired or stressed from work. Maybe they've just been turned off classrooms by previous experiences. And they're just not in the mood to deal with somebody like their boss ;) Actually, not sure if that smiley there is justified....

From their own personalities?

Maybe they are quiet, studious folk; two of them certainly are. Maybe all the speech and activity are disorientating or embarrassing. Maybe they have low-self esteem. It's a terrible thing to think but maybe - whisper it, now - they're the wrong kind of people.

From not having clear reasons and goals?

Is a general desire to maintain or improve their general English not specific enough to work as motivation? It seems like a legitimate motivation to me. And common to boot.

It's revealing that Josè is the heterogenous element: studying to be a motivator, lone male (as a teacher my testicles don't count), very specific need, and also in theory, a lower level-student. But hardly a basis for sweeping generalisations.


So here we are at hmmmmmmm.

Now how do we get to 

martes, 7 de junio de 2011

Thank You

Thank you David Warr for giving us a great original idea for scaffolding language...

[PS I've just realised that Ana at the lovely imadeitso is doing a thank-you week. Coincidence...?]

lunes, 6 de junio de 2011

Guest Post from Gordon Scruton

Laydeez an Gennelmen..., 

I'd like you to give a warm welcome to my guest blogger Gordon Scruton. Gordon is a fellow Scot based in Northern Argentina, and we got in touch when we found a shared love of the Videojug website. He has joined the online EFL community quite recently, but with great energy, writing two separate blogs which I wholeheartedly recommend to you: So Where Did It Go Wrong  is mainly orientated towards fellow teachers, while Understanding How We Learn  is more directed at students of English. 

If you haven't invited a fellow blogger to guest for you, do try it. It opens various doors. Not only do you get to chat to a faraway colleague, but you'll almost certainly end up sharing influences, favourites, contacts, classroom tricks and all manner of curiosities. (It turns out we were born just across the River Clyde from each other, he in Dumbarton, I in Greenock. Which curiously makes him a Highlander and me a Lowlander...)

But over to Gordon:

Where I Like to Go on the Web

When Alan asked me about doing a guest post about my favourite websites my first reaction was “Yeah, that sounds great, there’s lots of great stuff out there!” but then my mind went blank and I thought, “Yeah, sounds great, lots of stuff… where to begin?”  So thank you, Alan, because this finally gave me a reason to go through my bookmarks, blow off the dust and cobwebs and remind myself of one or two gems that I’d forgotten about.
So what do I like on the Internet?

This is one of the oldest teaching resources on the Internet (indeed their records go back to 1995!) though with all the new websites available I wouldn’t be surprised if many of you out there had forgotten about it… I certainly had.  The conversation questions section of this site is amazing for the simple reason that it is SO extensive!
Teaching Suggestion:  If you are 15 minutes from your class and you are stuck for something to do this is an excellent resource to go to, find a list of questions, print them off and then select the ones you want and write them up to stimulate discussion or any number of other conversational activities.
Not that any of us have ever been so unprepared… ahem… moving on.

This is one of my students’ favourite sites and if they see I’ve got the laptop and projector it is difficult for me to get out of giving the last 5-10 minutes of my class over to this website.  My students obviously love it because at least a couple of them have told me they tried it over the weekend! Who can ask for more than that from a teenager?
One of the great things about this site is that the music automatically stops until the correct word is typed into the gap and there is an option to play back the last line only (just hit the backspace key).
Teaching Suggestion: I usually just give the keyboard duties to one of the students and that frees me up to make notes of any phrases/grammar/idioms/etc. that comes from the song that the students have chosen.
A big thank you goes to Russell Stannard and his brilliant website, Teacher Training Videos, for bringing this website to my attention.  I would have put Russell’s site on this list but I’m sure that everybody already knows and visits it already!

I promised myself I would limit myself to one BBC website though I do find that there is a veritable embarrassment of riches provided by the collaboration between the BBC and the British Council.
TeachingEnglish is a great resource of ideas for teachers which includes resources, tips, articles and - as is common for BBC websites - much, much more.  I have easily spent hours and I’m sure I have many more hours to come looking through this site’s content and mulling over the ideas and suggestions it provides.

By a strange coincidence, one of Alan’s recent posts was all about Mr Bean, so this recommendation simply supports that.
If you’ve got low-level learners (and especially if you’ve got young learners) I would suggest the Mr Bean animated shorts on youTube.  Mr Bean seems to be universally known so you have that on your side.  Plus, a lot of the animated videos are only 2-3 minutes long (perfect for class work) and have next to no speaking in them and are therefore perfect for emergent language work.  The one word of caution is that I’ve found some of the videos are blocked depending on where you are in the world, and not only that, there seems to be little consistency to the blocking.  I haven’t really figured this one out yet but I think that small hassle is more than worth it.
Teaching Suggestion:  Tease the students with a few pieces of vocabulary before they watch, get them to guess what might happen, work through any ideas the students might have and then give them the video at the end to compare their ideas with the video.  From this, they should already have the vocabulary to accurately retell the story.

5.Short Movies on youTube

Really, is there a better combination of inventions on this planet than youTube and HD video cameras?  I love using short movies in class and I’ve certainly found a lot of really amazing videos that I’ve had a lot of success with, but finding them takes time.
However, one channel you might be interested in is Wong Fu Productions.  These are well-produced short films (anywhere between 3-15 minutes long), the language is clean, the images are safe and the topics are usually funny and universal (boy meets girl being a common theme).

Staying with videos, one of my favourite websites for useful videos with some educational value is the ‘How-to’ video site, Videojug.
The videos are usually short, many (though not all) have good quality video and audio and a lot of the videos have subtitles of a sort (annotated notes really).  The variety of topics also means you are likely to find something for everyone here.
Note:  Some of the site’s content is definitely not suitable for everyone, so I’d become familiar with the site first before introducing it to students.
Teaching Suggestion:  Getting students to make notes and perhaps try to follow the instructions (depending on the topic) can make for a very engaging and active class.  Using this model, they could also try making their own ‘How to’ videos.

Short, quick, well-explained nuggets of real language presented with nice pictures.  For any classes at an A2/B1 level or higher, I think these are fantastic little explanations that expose students to a new phrase every day.
Teaching Suggestion:  Not much ‘teaching’, but I tend to send one of these to my students every other day or so.  Sometimes they get brought up in class, sometimes they don’t, but for some of my students they have really enjoyed looking through the site and picking up new phrases they can try out on me during lessons.

If you are dealing with large classes, or classes you don’t see very often and know they need more ‘contact’ time to progress, then might I suggest Edmodo.  It’s an easy to learn, easy to use, easy to maintain online class management system.  And it’s FREE!
What I love about Edmodo is that is has a look and general layout similar to Facebook and so, for a lot of students (and teachers) a lot of it can be understood intuitively.  There’s also a LOT of support available.  This site has been up for a couple of years now and it only seems to be growing in capability and popularity.
It’s been suggested to me that a Facebook closed group could accomplish much of what Edmodo offers and would have the benefit of not asking students and teachers to regularly check yet another website.  However, I’m not a huge fan of making myself completely available to my students and I tend to like a bit of a distance between me and them.

This might not apply to many of you out there but I’ve found this site a complete lifesaver while doing university preparation courses (AKA pre-sessional courses).  While the layout is basic, the content is detailed and there’s a lot of it.  If there is anyone out there who is doing or about to teach a pre-sessional course and doesn’t know about this site, then you should get on it now!

A wonderfully simply multiple choice vocabulary game that adapts to your level of English automatically!  For each answer you get right, FreeRice donates 10 grains of rice through the World Food Programme to help end hunger.  Education and Charity – two of the best things you could possibly use the Internet for!  This quickly grabs the attention of any class I’ve shown it to.


A lot of the websites I’ve suggested have videos for use in class (either with a laptop or a laptop and projector).  I tend to not rely on online videos but download them in advance so I am not reliant on my Internet connection in class (we won’t go into the details of the terms and conditions of use for websites like youTube in this post).
If you want this piece of mind then there are a couple of ways to do this.  I use Realplayer.  Once the free version is installed, it has a facility by which you can download almost any video you find on the Internet by hovering over it with your cursor (you’ll see what I mean).  It’s ultra-convenient.
However, for video watching (I don’t like using Realplayer for this) I’ve been using VLC Media Player for the past 6 or 7 years now.  By far and away the most versatile video player out there, I’ve found very little that it won’t play.
Alternatively, if you don’t want the hassle of downloading Realplayer, there is the website KeepVid.  Simply put the URL of the video you want and it will do the rest.  (Again, thanks to Russell Stannard for that suggestion.)

This might be such an obvious one… but it has so fundamentally changed my experience of the Web that felt I had to put it in for any of you that aren’t using this yet.  I won’t go into huge amounts of detail (this blogpost is long enough as it is!), I’ll just provide a link to the instructional video RSS in Plain English and say a big thank you to Rob Byrne and his excellent website Free Technology 4 Teachers.

This isn’t technically a website, it’s an application but a damned good one!  If you want to scramble letters in a word, jumble words in a sentence, make a gap fill out of a couple of paragraphs, create a multiple-choice cloze exercise… well if you want to make that, and more, then Teacher’s Pet is a brilliant plug-in for Microsoft Word or OpenOffice that will allow you to do just that.  Thanks to Richard Turnbull at TeflTech for recommending this at a conference in London a couple of years ago.

jueves, 26 de mayo de 2011

Three for Mike

Dear Mike,

Hope these arrive in time.

For anybody else, these are an extension of this post.


lunes, 23 de mayo de 2011

Video Grab

My group of 10-year-olds love Mr Bean.

from mrbean.co.uk (official site)
Say what you like about the rubber-faced git, but as soon as you say those two words in class a cheer goes up. I get their undivided attention for a full second or two. I can get them to stop punching each other just by dangling the mere carrot of a Mr Bean video in front of them.


How does an English teacher use a video which doesn't have any English in it?

(Well given that plenty of people in my little PLN are expert teachers of young learners, and I'm still a total newbie at it, there are probably loads of ways. But this afternoon I stumbled on one at least. So here goes...)

I found a suitable MB video on YouTube (in this case The Library). There are plenty of them there.

As I watched I made a list of some of the key actions, which I transferred to little slips of paper. Thus...

(Well, as you see, they weren't all actions)

And that's pretty much all the preparation I had to do.
In class we watched the video once. No questions, no prep - just watched.

Then I presented and drilled the cards, and practised a bit, spreading the cards out on the table.

Then I told them they had to watch the same video and grab the relevant card when the action happened, or the object appeared.

Which to my surprise worked a treat.

Kids of this age seem to be very competitive, and enjoy games, I find I have to be a very strict, very fair referee during class games. So there were penalties for grabbing more than one card, grabbing the wrong card, grabbing too early, blatant obstruction, life-threatening violence and eight million other infringements. And they all had to keep their hands below table level between grabs.

But it worked fine. So I tried it again with my 8-year-olds the lesson after. Which also worked fine, though with them I reduced the number of cards from about a dozen to nine, if memory serves me right.

And of course if you keep the cards, you can repeat weeks or months later. By the way, here is a very comprehensive post on vocabulary revision and recording by Chia Suan Chong

And I may be able to use Laurel and Hardy with them sometime in the future.

And that surely is progress.

lunes, 16 de mayo de 2011

Want A Fight?

This speaking lesson concentrates purely on arguing and debating. The material looks like this:

The original document is this pdf. [edit - this link is faulty - will sort it out ASAP. You get the general idea from the screenshot opposite :) ] Of course you may prefer to modify  them or write your own statements. Remember to express them as a single opinion which is very clearly on one side of the debate.

Cut up the document into separate cards.

This is what I say to the students:

You're going to practise disagreeing, debating and arguing. Let's get into pairs.

In a moment I'm going to give you a slip of paper with an opinion written in it. But first - did you or your partner get up earlier this morning? [Pause to find out] Okay, earlier riser is going to agree with the opinion on the paper, and late riser is going to disagree. You can't switch sides and you can't agree with each other! [Check they understand this part.]

Here is your opinion card. Five minutes to debate. You're not allowed to ask me for help - we'll do that after." 

And hand out the cards randomly one to each pair.

And then I simply monitor (which I prefer to do as unobtrusively as possible) and take notes for subsequent feedback and scaffolding.

We usually have time and energy to repeat the whole thing 2 - 4 times in a class.


I try to encourage an atmosphere of fun and games, rather than serious debate. I like to think of it as a kind of verbal table-tennis.

Also, I try to space the pairs as far apart as possible.

The feedback/scaffolding/consolidation work will depend on what the students say, of course, but often I find they are short of rhetorical devices like:


You can't be serious!    No way!    Come on!

          interrupting and resisting interruption:

Wait a minute...    Hang on a second...    Let me finish...

I've used this lesson many times, and repeatedly with the same classes, and the cards are always on hand in my classroom just in case. However, it was brought to mind again by Martin Sketchley's very informative video'd lesson here, and especially his reference in his post-lesson comments to 'devil's advocate' arguing.

STOP PRESS Having just read Sandy Millin's reflections on observe-hypothesise-experiment, an alternative model to PPP, I think lessons like this have a relevance.

miércoles, 11 de mayo de 2011

A Car Boot Conference?

Have you ever turned up at a conference, looked at the schedule, and thought...

Damn! At 11.00 I have to choose between four great-looking prezos: there's Shouting at Young Learners in room 9, Musical Farting for FCE in room 6, Twenty Pencil-Sharpening Strategies in room 3 and oh I REALLY wanted to see Spongebob for Business English in room 12. What am I to do?

Highly frustrating. Especially if, like me, you only get to conferences once in a blue moon.

In a discussion following this post, Willy Cardoso suggested one simple solution - twenty-minute prezos a la TED. Great. Only four or five simultaneously.

But here's another idea I've just heard...

Our school is right across the road from the University Medicine Research Faculty, and a fair number of our students are researchers. When a research team have finished a study, how do they share it? They make a poster. A real poster, about the same size as your standard bedroom pin-up. It includes diagrams, images, comments, statistics, whatever.

Then at the conference, lots of these teams turn up with their poster - just one copy. The poster session takes place in a big room. Each team gets a little patch and pins up. One team member stays with the poster to answer questions and the others circulate round the other posters asking questions. And then the team members swop over.

Like a car boot sale of information. 

Couldn't we take a leaf out of their book. Just imagine - you could have one big two-hour session at a conference, lay on a buffet lunch, and dozens, if not hundreds of people could 'present'. Of course, it need not be a poster. A laptop, some photos, props, handouts, whatever. And the only complication is that you'd need to present with a partner so you can both get round the room.

I don't mean to abolish proper talks or plenaries or workshops, of course. But a single poster session might well be worth it. Whaddja think?

lunes, 2 de mayo de 2011

Hearing Voices

Myself and Osama bin Laden were the only people in the universe not at Brighton, and now that he's gone, it's just me left. So I have been doing my best to follow the conference as it echoes around the blogosphere. Just last night I read Scott Thornbury's technosceptical post and its many comments and reblogs. I too feel ambivalent about technology, but have never been quite how to put my feelings into words. But I do feel glad for my modest old laptop and internet connection. Let me offer my defence of that aspect of technology at least.

I've been in this shabby business long enough to remember when the cassette recorder was the only multimedium available, and pretty much all you could play was the cassette that came with the book. (For those of you who do not know what a cassette recorder is, here  is an excellent introduction.)

All that ffwing and rewing. All that tape hiss. All that lugging the frigging stuff around on buses and tube trains. The constant risk of your tape-player turning into a plate of moaning brown spaghetti. So why did I bother?

Because it was another voice. Even a crap one. Another dimension - especially when I was doing one-to-one classes. And I think the content and quality of that third voice have improved in the days of the multi-worldwide-inter-online-blogo-tubo-sphere-net.

And does the third voice get in the way of dogme? See what you think. I've found the following kind of strategy often works - inviting the third voice to join in near the end of a conversation class.

If we've been talking about food or cooking, we might take a look at Videojug. (See the end of this blog for details about each of the sources.)

If we've been talking about just about anything from science or social science, we make a bee-line to TED.

If crime is the subject, we might try The Real Hustle on YouTube. The Real Hustle is also great for social interaction with strangers (shops, hotels, passers-by and so on).

I think there's a huge difference in emphasis between starting a class off with a video sequence (teacher-led) and allowing a third voice to chip in at the end of a student-generated conversation. Dogme? Dogmaybe.

And I notice one curious thing time after time: If the conversation has arisen from the people in the room, students tend to be able to understand the video sequence much better than if it had been brought in by me. As listeners, they seem to punch above their weight.

If you've never done this before, I would spend a little free time skimming through a few videos from each site. But in class I don't hesitate to say "Well since we're talking about what you ate on holiday in Vietnam, do you want to take a quick look at a website which has lots of recipes? Maybe we can find something Vietnamese?"

And if nothing useful turns up, so be it. We do something else with the existing voices.

So definitely a freshly-made dish, but garnished with a little multimedia. Bo proveite!

Appendix - The Sources

The Real Hustle is a TV programme which has been posted extensively on YouTube. It is a hidden-camera programme where a trio of performers demonstrate con-tricks and scams on the unsuspecting public. The English is hard - lots of untidy colloquial speech - but I usually ask my students to try to follow the dynamics, rather than the speech.

TED is a very well-known conference on various key issues featuring many leading experts. All the talks are posted on TED.com and many now feature multilingual subtitles.

Videojug features short video tutorials on how to cook, keep fit, do DIY and many other subjects. Anybody can upload to the site, but the best quality clips are those made by the Videojug people themselves. A godsend for foodies. Try this one.

miércoles, 20 de abril de 2011

The Magnificent Seven

Get hold of a pen and paper. When you play the video below, you'll hear seven words. Try to write them down with the sequence number. With students I usually repeat each one, but you're not getting it that easy, my EFL chum ;)


Compare your list with the one at the end of this post. How did you get on?

But with my class I do the following:

1. Ask them in pairs to compare.  Leave them to discuss it.

2. Draw the class back together. Elicit and produce the correct list on the board. Check meaning, usage, pronunciation, whatever.

3. Tell them they're going to produce a coherent story of a paragraph including all the seven words. They will have three minutes.

4. Put them in pairs, and remind them you want a single cooperative effort per pair, not individual efforts. And please write legibly!

(I usually say three minutes but end up being a bit flexible. But the idea of having to do something fast helps them to focus, I find.)

5. Bring everybody back together and ask each pair to pass their story to the pair on their left. This may be the hardest bit to organise ;) Ask them to read and discuss the story they now have. Whether or not you want to settle for one round of peer-reading or do another one will depend mainly on your class size. Meanwhile, circulate and help if needed.

6. After the reading, it's a good idea to take a some time to clear up questions or errors. How much time? You'll know better than me. It might also be appropriate to choose some stories for the students to read to each other. (It's not something we do much, is it? Getting students to read to each other?)

Dun dun-da-dun, dun da-da-da-dun...

Other minimal septets? See if you can find seven English words with this:

/p~t/  e.g. "pit, pet"

or with

/st~l/ e.g. "steel"

PS It's both gratifying and annoying when you find somebody else has come up with a similar idea to yours. Gratifying because it means you may be on the right track, and annoying because you thought nobody else has good ideas ;) Here you can see Johanna Stirling demonstrating a related exercise, among other things.

My septet from the video was beat, bit, bet, bat, boat, boot, bite. And do submit your story or other minimal septets. The best story wins a plateful of my mother-in-law's excellent barbecue ribs.

jueves, 7 de abril de 2011

Too much too soon

I'm new to this blogging game - I must confess there's been a temptation as a newbie to write to impress - to report high moments, successes and victories. Having read one of Michelle's recent posts, I've realised it takes more cojones to report failures, flaws and disappointment. And this is a thing which I firmly believe to be more useful, both to self and colleagues.

I have been promising Guido @europeaantje, who blogs here that I would crack the problem of how to dub students' voices onto existing video, so this is what I tried with a small adult group earlier this week.

First of all, how to do the dubbing? My ever-supportive boss Anthony came up with a great simple solution - play the video muted but with subtitles, and record it as a screencast. Why didn't I think of that?

So we tried. We rehearsed a couple of small extracts of an episode of the Simpsons on DVD. So far so good.

But during recording, the wheels came off.

Firstly, natural speech is just too fast. My people were able to read with adequately good linking and intonation during rehearsal, but just couldn't keep up with native speaker speed. It seemed like all their hard work on pronunciation  disintegrated totally at L1 speed.

Secondly, a technical problem arose: During playback, we noticed a growing delay of audio with respect to video. It may have just been a combinations of my old laptop, heavy demands on the CPU, a bug in Ubuntu or whatever.

It clearly wasn't a total disaster - after all, we had done some perfectly good work on pronunciation and colloquial vocabulary. But I was hoping for a great finished product and something - I don't know - tighter.

I'm certainly not ruling out dubbing in class for ever, but I have learnt a couple of things:

1. As with all drama, to maintain interest, you have to be careful choosing scenes. The humour (or whatever the affective value is) has to come from the words. Cartoons rely more that live shows on visual and acoustic jokes, but those don't engage actor-students.

2. Choose something with a slow-to-moderate pace of dialogue.

3. Try out the video + screencast on a good long scene, say 3 minutes, beforehand, and check for delay.

jueves, 31 de marzo de 2011

Always on my mind...

This mini-tutorial is in honour of the great visual thinkers on my PLN - Naomi Epstein, David Dodgson, Jason Renshaw, Jamie Keddie and of course David Warr . It's about making digital mind-maps using Freemind. Part One is about viewing maps, and part Two about creating and modifying them.

Viewing mind maps:

 Modifying and creating mind maps:

Freemind is available here.

A summary of basic commands in Freemind:

1. To move the map, drag the background, not the map itself.
2. To zoom in or out, Ctrl + mouse wheel.
3. Hover over an element to highlight it.
4. Hold Alt to freeze the highlighting so you can move the mouse elsewhere.
5. Highlight, then Insert to add a child node.
6. Highlight, then Enter to add a sibling node.
7. To move a branch, drag and drop to the tail of its new parent.

What you can do with them:

a) Having made a map in class on the board, make a digital version after.
b) With a little familiarity and a decent screen, you can make them live in class.

Having made a digital map you can:

c) Keep in your own archive for future classes.
d) Send to students for their records, or to modify themselves for homework.

By the way, if you want a copy of the Phrasal Verbs map, here's the link in Google Docs.

Edit: I don't think Blogger lets me post files so that viewers can download them directly from here. If somebody knows to the contrary, do let me know.