New series: projects for real (1 of 15)


Project methodology in English language teaching is old news, you say? Well, yes and no: on the one hand, projects are a staple in the ELT classroom. On the other hand, we often focus on the outputs (poster, web page, time capsule…) and don’t teach the learners how to work on a project. Where is the timeline and the Gantt chart? The RAG update? The health check? The manager in me squirms at the lack of accountability and the risks involved, and the teacher knows all too well how often these learner projects fail or don’t reach the learning objectives. And just think about the lost possibilities: the students could have acquired very useful workplace skills if they had been given the right professional tools!

Luckily, there is some work being done in this area by more academic people than me, and here’s the first installment in the series: a great article by Kim Liegel which outlines the most important principles of managing a project in the classroom and offers excellent worksheets and checklists. There’s more to come.


Dixit for IELTS essays


Don’t you just love showing off your students’ work? I sure do, and today I have an offering from my new IELTS prep group. To help learners understand the exam format, I sometimes have them pretend they are exam writers. This time, it was the IELTS problem-solution essay, and the task was pretty self-explanatory: pick a random Dixit card, brainstorm problems it can symbolise, write a rubric using exam paper samples. Voilร ! Four wonderfully creative essay tasks to be assigned for unique homework ๐Ÿ™‚

Here is one rubric I’ve found the most useful. Can you guess which picture it goes with? ย (Warning: it’s student work with a few errors and inaccuracies left intact!)

You should spend about 40 minutes on this task.

Write about the following topic:

Since time immemorial, adults have been taking care of the young generation. However, it is now widely believed that parents take too much care of their children, which causes lack of independence. To what extent do you agree or disagree with this opinion?

Give reasons for your answer and include any examples from your own knowledge or experience. Write at least 250 words.

You can have a look at a few more examples here.

Read more about the uses of board games in ELT, including Dixit, at the links in this post.

Homework and other hard choices


How do you feel when you see learners frantically scribbling in their workbooks five minutes before the lesson starts? Before the New Year, we reached that lowpoint with my lower secondary group. The workbook homework had become too quick and easy, and too automatic for them to even attempt doing at home. ‘What kind of homework would you prefer to do then?’ I asked, being the nice democratic teacher I am. ‘Something creative’, they said. ‘We don’t have enough to do at home’. (They are too young to be sarcastic.)

Well, a few days ago I took the great choice board created by Miguel at onthesamepageELT and had a pyramid discussion of which types of tasks they would like to do. We had criteria like ‘fun’, of course, but also ‘helps to learn English’. They quickly dispensed with all tech-related tasks like making a recording and sending it to the teacher, and selected crosswords, stories, synonyms and acrostic poems – go figure. So, each week I will bring the modified choice board up on the IWB, and we’ll choose several options for them to go through by next Monday. Exciting! I’ll let you know how things go.

What do I get from this? Differentiation of course, and a little more engagement because of student agency.ย  And, frankly, I just love watching them make their own decisions ๐Ÿ™‚

P.S. By the way,ย  here’s an inspiring article about differentiated learning: it’s one of those texts that give you the creeps first (no way am I ever going to find the time for this!), and by the end of the article you’re choosing the date to start.

P.P.S.ย Homework to fire up minds is an old post of mine about an excellent article describing homework alternatives – you might want to check it too!

Letters to future students

I finished a course last Sunday with a lovely group of teens preparing for IELTS. Sunday groups are special: they are often miserable at the start of the day (Sunday! Morning! Nooo!), so it’s an interesting challenge to make sure they learn well and have a reasonably good time doing it. For the final reflection, I asked them to write letters to the future Sunday group, and here’s what I saw:


I think it illustrates their conflicting views on the course very well ๐Ÿ™‚

“from now on you will have to do all the homework and work a lot. … I hope we inspired you to be a nice student of Kate’s class. P.S. She’s very great and informative”

“If you read this you are a victim of IELTS test… If you start this course from the beginning, never you hear NEVER allow yourself forget about homework.”

Now they are saying they should have done their homework!

“You should be concentrated…. Your lessons will not be tedious, I promise… Your teacher is a really proficient and friendly” “You’re very lucky person because you take part in effective course”

The ‘effective’ course taught them nothing about articles!

“Remember, you should write tedious vocabulary tests about graphs… Also, you’ll do worthwhile tests for for reading and listening but of course it will be funny because Kate is so friendly teacher”

Nice vocabulary, but where are my articles?

“The whole ritual of waking up early is actually worth the course. … Most of the times the more boring the task is, the more info and practice it gives you… Watch out for vocabulary tests, they are pretty annoying”

Ha, ha ๐Ÿ™‚

So, my conclusions?

  1. Next time, I need to have a better mechanism for accountability, to give them extra motivation to do their homework on time and not regret it later
  2. Do more vocabulary work so that they learn a few more words apart from ‘tedious’ – and more tasks to practise articles!
  3. Continue to annoy them with tests ๐Ÿ™‚

To get more out of it, I would also provide a bit more scaffolding for this activity. Here, for example, is a useful post by Jen Wieber with templates for younger kids that can be reworked for language learners. As it is, I had to have another reflection task to focus on the contents and tasks of the course in more depth, whereas better scaffolding might have saved the time.

And what about you, do you ever ask your students to write letters to future students? Do you give the future students the letters afterwards? I certainly will.


My update


Well, the picture kind of says it all. As of 8 January 2020, I’m a committee member of the IATEFL Leadership and Management SIG! I could list one hundred reasons why it’s so important to me, but here are my top three:

  1. IATEFL is one of the biggest and certainly the most well-known international organisation in the field of English language teaching.
  2. LAMSIG is one of 16 IATEFL special interest groups and the closest to my heart: five years ago this SIG gave me, a very new and inexperienced academic manager, a scholarship to come to the 50th anniversary conference. It made me more confident, encouraged me to reflect and develop a more academic approach to my work, and to go out and meet more like-minded people. And now I have a chance to give something back.
  3. I’m one of the 10 committee members, and the other 9 are incredibly cool. I know most of them from before because I’ve been attending their talks, reading their articles, admiring them from a distance – and now we can actually work together!

So, there you go. This also means that my blogging schedule is moving from daily to weekly, but I promise I will continue to read and share the best bits of ELT goodness ๐Ÿ™‚ Keep watching this space – and see you at the next IATEFL, maybe?


Cut the thinking pie


Here is a fantastic read about thinking skills and what modern brain science has to say about Bloom’s taxonomy. It’s an article by Dr Spencer Kagan used as a supplement to Macmillan’s Life Skills series. Dr Kagan questions some of the premises of Bloom’s pyramid and suggests other ways to ‘cut the thinking skills pie’ , in particular the information processing model. How it can be used? For teacher training sessions mostly – I can’t see even my amazing proficiency students digging through this amount of information. Very rich indeed.

P.S. If you’d like to read a bit more about Bloom’s taxonomy, its benefits and drawbacks, you can have a look at my series of posts beginning here.

The safe learning zone


Have you heard it said that in most jobs people reach their peak performance after the first two years? At least this example is used by Eduardo Briceno in hisย  local TED talk to make a point about learning, professional development and ways to avoid stagnation – and it kind of rings true to me. The idea is that we often spend too much in the performance zone and not enough in the learning zone (because of the high-stakes professional environment mostly).ย  And then Eduardo suggests several methods to compensate for this, to create a safe ‘island’ for learning in our lives: from doing more deliberate practice to getting a mentor, observing our own performance and learning from it – as well as creating these opportunities for others when we can. Very inspiring!

P.S. Compare this to an article about the zero-learning zone which talks about motivation for learning from a different angle.

A time to gather calendars


Here is a wonderfully useful post by Naomi Epstein about collecting old paper calendars and using them in the classroom. Calendars are typically quite nice-looking, and you can use their pages for classroom exhibits, folders, decorations and flashcards. And the best activity the author writes about is ‘Destroy and Enjoy!’: the learners are asked to find, cut and paste different parts of calendars, like pictures, words or simply colours, depending on the level of difficulty.

Frankly, I have used only old magazines in my work, and now I wish I had read this earlier!

Owning your teaching mistakes


Owning your mistakes – this is becoming an impromptu series! Here is a very interesting reflection by Sam Pullan which has surfaced on Twitter today (sorry for skipping the ‘via’ reference, I usually go to the original posts straight away – as I expect everyone to do when you read something on my blog :)). Anyway, he remembers how many years he didn’t call out a student who said something really wrong, why he did it and what consequences it had for his teaching.

Makes me think about how many instances like this we don’t even notice when we teach… The teachable moments that are lost forever, the indifference we sometimes demonstrate even ifย  we actually care, and care very much.

How to apologise for teaching


What a great post by Larry Ferlazzo! I’m pretty sure most of us make similar errors of judgement in the classroom when we focus on ‘covering the book’, ‘meeting the deadline’, ‘doing the Present Perfect’ instead of teaching our students. But how often do we have the courage and humility to admit the error even to ourselves? Larry describes how he prepared a solid sequence on storytelling and what exactly in his view went wrong. And what particularly awed me – he found a way to apologise to the students and to set things straight.

I’ve read it somewhere that when a service provider deals with a complaint well, it can satisfy and even delight the customer, much more than in a neutral situation. It’s similar, isn’t it? I’m sure Larry’s students were absolutely delighted.