A feedback loop for teaching exam writing


This article in the EFL magazine drew my attention with the magical words ‘IELTS’ and ‘online’. Then I realised that the author is none other than Christopher Pell, the founder of my favourite website for IELTS prep: ieltsadvantage.com. I’ve always wondered why there is so much free content available, and the article offers an explanation. He also writes a lot about learning management skills you need to have for a successful online teaching business. But, perhaps most important of all, he also writes about his approach to teaching writing: create a feedback loop in which the student needs to do the task based on what he/she was taught, the teacher needs to give detailed feedback and then the student needs to act on the feedback. A very useful example of best practice for marking that is so difficult to follow!

P.S. I linked to a more general post about feedback loops here. Great for a better sense of progress 🙂

Instructions in online lessons


Have you noticed how much more effort we now need to put into giving instructions? It can be because of low bandwidth, or because of the whole unfamiliarity of the medium, or simply because everyone is a bit tired and frazzled – but it seems that there’s never going to be a better time for this link: “Teaching Online: Giving Instructions in an Online Class” at Eltcampus. It’s a description of one of their workshop, done in a lively and practical way, with a lot of best practice examples. So, what do we do? Use the chat, use reformulation, have the students photograph instructions, use L1 (they have an interesting rationale for that). For more ideas, check out the original post.

By the way, it’s always good to remind ourselves of the basic rules of giving instructions in any medium.

Very, very old picture books

Here’s a useful post from Open Culture featuring The Library of Congress collection of digitised children’s books. It gives a great taster of what you can find there: yellowed pages, unusual fonts, and rather quaint (for want of a better word) illustrations. How can we use them? Well, to start with, they are all in public domain (each page has a set of references and a credit line). Why not give a special flair to a lesson flipchart, or send the learners to that collection to find an interesting illustration, a story or a poem? These photos are incredibly atmospheric: as if you are remembering a past you never had, you know?


Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division

The Peter effect


Here’s another biblically named effect in education that we also need to be aware of: the Peter effect. It was coined by Anthony and Mary Applegate in 2004 and you can read their article revisiting the original research here. The researchers write: ‘The label itself is drawn from a New Testament story of a beggar who approaches St. Peter and asks him for money. Peter responds that he “cannot give what he does not have” (Acts 3:5).” They surveyed pre-service teachers and found out that many of them were not enthusiastic about reading and concluded that they would not be able to instill the love of reading in their learners. Now, wouldn’t it be interesting if someone could research the teachers’ attitudes to online teaching and how it affects our learners?

The Matthew effect online


I’ve been thinking about the Matthew effect in education for some time: it seems that it’s applicable to many contexts. I really like how Russel T.Warne expresses it in relation to online learning: when the COVID-19 crisis struck and all the population started studying online, the more capable students benefitted a lot, whereas the ones who had struggled for any reasons before, struggled even more – and so the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ has widened. He writes,  “Online learning made my students the same as they were before, only more so.” What’s your impression, have you noticed any growing differences between your learners?

I’ve looked around a bit more and found this 2014 article by Amany Saleh and Heath Sanders ‘The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: The Matthew Effect in Online Education’. While they mostly write about asynchronous learning, does the fact that we use Zoom really help enough to mitigate Matthew? In other words, are all the learners progressing enough and getting what they need?

Hoards of board games


If you haven’t seen this collection of printable board games, do check it out: there are 11 different boards with instructions, from simple ‘Name your favourite’ to the more challenging ‘Which one would the world be better without’ (I’m going to use this one today). Each board has a different look, and the instructions are quite comprehensive and even offer examples of lower and higher-level student answers. An excellent resource!

By the way, how do you play board games online? I’m going to ask the students to use the Annotate tool (dots or squares of different colours) for game pieces, and either online dice or my big orange plush die (yes, I actually have things like that at home) that would look good on camera. I don’t often play them, but somehow it feels right at the moment 🙂

P.S. There’s an old post where I linked to Marisa Constantinides’ take on board games – really worth reading.

Never get enough of picture resources


One of the things I miss about face-to-face teaching is the ability to use all my toys, balls, dice and of course cards (yes, I do still use objects in ‘show to the camera and tell’ activities, but it’s different). So, here’s the website I used yesterday instead of Dixit: Once Upon a Picture. I asked the students (IELTS prep) to choose a picture to describe how they are feeling about the exam at the moment, and there were lots of interesting choices and, hopefully, better awareness of what concerns them and what we can do about it. (For example, it was great to find out who was already feeling empowered – ‘riding the dragon of her knowledge’ – and who felt a bit pressured by the time limits – ‘the rabbit with the watch’).  The images are friendly and slightly whimsical (in fact, some of them are also featured on Dixit cards), but not too childish. The best thing: this is not just a resource, it’s a collection of materials: you can click on the picture and find a series of questions and prompts that are downloadable in *.doc or *.pdf – a great timesaver if you need a writing prompt.

Next time I’ll choose a busy picture and try the ‘Pictures in close up’ activity from Nicky Hockly and L.Clandfield that I wrote about here. Also, there are other posts to get back to: “Pobble in the Sky”  and “Worth a thousand words”.

Team-building activities for the virtual classroom


Here is a very useful article by Caitlin Krause at Edutopia about ways to build connections between learners when you’re teaching online. She writes from 10 years’ of experience, and the advice she gives is practical and clearly well thought out. First and foremost, we have to think about our well-being as teachers (that should be a given). Then, it helps to start every synchronous session with a connection exercise and an icebreaker (there are good examples linked to in the article). To be honest, I see a few issues with this part: learners are sometimes late (yes, even when they don’t have to commute! :)), so the connection activity will probably be interrupted; also, not every teacher and learner likes this ‘touchy-feely’ mindfulness style, so we need to be careful about how this is done.

Another interesting piece of advice, however, is very close to my heart: Caitlin suggests using team roles for asynchronous learning (one student could take on the role of the ‘lexicon builder’, another a ‘curator’ etc.), which lets the learners use their own strengths and contribute to everyone’s learning. There’s more, about encouraging questions and practising the art of listening (e.g. ‘mirroring’ activities in breakout rooms), so do check out the original post.

So, do we translate or adapt?


What’s the best way to teach online? Do we try to replicate the face-to-face experience, or do we try to benefit from the new medium? I suppose many of us started out by ‘translating’ our real classroom practices into Zoom, and yet we quickly found those ‘untranslatable’ elements. As a former literary translator of many years, I can tell you that it’s perfectly normal: in any book, nothing is really translatable if you want to find 100% equivalents. Languages are different after all. And yet everything can be translated in one way or another: you come across a pun – you make another pun in your own language, or you add an endnote, or you add a joke in another place… there are lots of possibilities, all depending on the context, audience and so on. So, we can try to replicate our classroom experience in the virtual world, things will work differently, and it’s ok. Perhaps this is what we should set out to do from the start – create a new experience, adapt our teaching and stop trying to translate it? This is what today’s link is about, among other things.

How effective can online learning be?


Here’s a fresh must-read from my favourite Learning Scientists: a post where Megan Sumeracki lists six strategies for effective learning and explains how they can be realised in the virtual classroom. They can be used by teachers in lessons and by learners for self-study, and have been proved efficient by many researchers. Here’s the list, with a few suggestions from me of what it could look like in ELT, both online and offline:

1) Spacing (spread out study sessions over a week, cover one topic in several lessons)

2) Interleaving (integrating several skills in one lesson; projects that require the use of many concepts and areas of knowledge; review questions in online discussions)

3) Retrieval practice (a lot of low-stakes online quizzes, mindmapping)

4) Concrete examples (all kinds of personalisation – works exactly the same as face-to-face)

5) Elaboration (asking ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions – these could be, for example, our guided discovery activities)

6) Dual coding (use visuals, not just speech)

Megan also says that these strategies are difficult and are supposed to be difficult; the results may not be as easy to see, but they work long-term. There’s a lot more there, so do check out the original post!