Online teaching 8 of 15: student interaction


Here’s a very inspiring article by Bindi Clements about ways to increase student interaction in the virtual classroom. It is possible to achieve quite a high level of engagement, if you know how and plan well: another myth dispelled.

So, how do you avoid ‘death by PowerPoint’? Set polls, use the chat box, use the record function, tap into your learners’ experience and, above all, plan student interaction patterns, just like you would for a face-to-face lesson, or probably more. There’s more useful advice and a link to the author’s IATEFL 2018 presentation slides (wish I had seen that!). Very, very good stuff.


An interview with Margit Szesztay

You may not have heard of Kyiv much recently, but at the end of October we hosted the English Language Teachers’ Association International Symposium with representatives from teachers’ organisations from neigbouring countries and none other than Margit Szesztay, the President of IATEFL. Quite newsworthy, I think!

I had met Margit almost 3 years ago, when she was an honoured visitor to IATEFL Ukraine and agreed to do a workshop for our Teaching Centre at the British Council. As it turned out, she is a great teacher trainer and an incredibly nice person. So, I was delighted to see her again and, since there was no time for another workshop, collected questions from our teachers, which Margit was awfully kind to answer over dinner. Here is our small impromptu interview, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

What can you say to non-native speaker teachers who want to be more confident with high-level students, but don’t know how to rely on their qualifications rather than their nationality?

First of all, there is no way of getting around the fact that language competence is very important. I think that non-native speaker teachers need to feel really confident with their language and they always need to work on improving all aspects of their language competence. But having said that, you don’t need to sound like a native speaker – I think there are excellent non-native speaker teachers. It actually would block you if you wanted to be perfect, to have perfect pronunciation. It’s going to create anxiety. So, first of all, just relax and be happy with the language competence that you have, be more courageous and use English more.

Also, make use of the fact that you can bring in so many different kinds of input like video recordings on the Internet; a lot of coursebooks have great supplementary materials these days, as well. The teacher is no longer the main source of input for the learner, there is excellent input out there. The teacher’s role is changing, and our role as non-native speaker teachers is being supporters, encouragers, organisers of classroom activities, and also being able to analyse what problems students with the same mother tongue as us have, or might have. So, helping them with that, sharing our own stories of how we became a better language learner. These are incredible pluses that we have at our disposal.

That’s what I would say: make use of all that you do have, and just feel comfortable with what you’ve got. You know, like we used to say: ‘The teacher is not a walking dictionary’, and they’re not. And the teacher doesn’t have to have perfect pronunciation – anyhow, what’s perfect pronunciation? But you do need to have good language competence, you need to be expressive, you need to feel at home in the language.

And what honest advice would you give to those teachers in particular who don’t feel confident enough to upgrade their students’ language, deal with emerging language?

My honest advice? I’ve had the privilege to observe many teachers, mostly in Hungary, but in other contexts as well. Language competence shouldn’t block you from dealing with emerging language. If someone comes up and asks you for something, and you have to think about it – it can happen to anybody! And then you can check it out, or you can ask that person to check it out. So, I think it’s got more to do with if you are a good listener, if you are interested in your students, because this is the idea behind emerging language: it’s not just ‘this is what I want to teach’, but I’ interacting with you, listening to you, and then whatever emerges, I work with that. But it’s not just a language skill, it’s a reaching-out skill, an ability to have rapport, to have curiosity, and to interact with your learners. So, I would say: do it, and be comfortable doing it.

But, having said that, I’ve also seen teachers who need to work on their language competence. There’s no way of getting round that because even though when we talk of English as an international language, English as a lingua franca, maybe a certain type of accuracy isn’t important, maybe lexical accuracy is more important than grammatical accuracy, but if you’re a teacher, it’s still very important for you to be accurate as well as fluent. You always need to learn, you always need to pay attention to your mistakes, and don’t feel bad about it, it’s part of learning. Sometimes teachers fall into this anxiety cycle, they fret: ‘Oh, I’m never going to get this perfect!’, and they are not learning because they block themselves. So, get rid of this anxiety and be a lifelong learner we all have to be, but don’t let your lack of perfect language competence block you.

You obviously speak perfect English, it’s very expressive — what would you recommend those teachers do to approach your level of competence?

It depends on what they need to work on, but I think, choose something you really enjoy. It could be learning to do something, or could be your favourite series, or watching vlogs – you can choose anything, but watch it several times – not just indiscriminately watching, watching, watching in a lazy way, because you’re watching to learn. Choose a section, watch it several times and really listen – or, if you like TED talks, choose a TED talk and listen to it, then read the transcript, then listen to it again and do this regularly. I think just watching series or films is also good, but you have to take some short cuts. You need to ask yourself, ‘What did he say?’ and then listen to it again, several times, or read the transcript, because then you would teach yourself to listen better, to pick up things that you didn’t pick up before. So, choose two days a week, depending on how much time you have, half an hour or 20 minutes: and make it your attentive listening time.

I’ve heard it called narrow listening, or narrow reading, when you read or watch the same thing again and again…

Yes, and it could be reading as well. Choose something you enjoy, and just notice how it’s organised. Sometimes my students say, “Oh, there’s nothing new in this”, but then the question is, “Would you be able to write it like this, or say it like that?” And often the answer is, “No, no way”. It’s like ‘go up to somebody’: you could say, ‘He went to him’, but it would sound strange, or you could say ‘He went up to him’. Always highlight these language chunks, put them at the bottom of the article, story, whatever you’re reading, so that you are focusing on the language as well as the content.

I think it’s good advice for all language learners, not just English teachers!

Now my next question: which do you think are the most important trends in language teaching nowadays?

Well, there are so many trends, and if I think about IATEFL’s 16 SIGs, they all represent trends in a way. I would say creativity definitely is a trend, it’s not a specific thing, but ways of being creative, helping our learners to be creative – because that also means moving away from the kind of teaching where there’s always the right answer. It means playing more around ideas, being playful and spontaneous. Actually, the emerging language you mentioned also has to do a lot with creativity. I would say that it’s fortunately a trend, and there are many articles being published with lots of creative ideas.

Then, English as a medium of instruction, EMI, and Content and language integrated learning, CLIL, is definitely a trend in the sense that it’s spreading all over the world. A lot of higher education institutions, and not just them. It’s partly to attract foreign students, and partly to make language learning effective by bringing in good content. It’s definitely a major trend around the world, and sometimes maybe pushed too hard. But it does have some benefits, so it’s worth thinking about.

And then of course there are all these trends related to the technology around us, using mobile devices for learning, and not just devices, but technology in the classroom as well. The potential is incredible, so on the one hand, I’m a fan, but on the other hand, I see the dangers because there are so many addictions to the screen and because we’re not disciplined enough to know when to stop, and also because people don’t get enough face-to-face communication. So I would say, think about using it, but in a very focused, narrow way, so that you don’t use it all the time, so that we don’t forget about face-to-face communication.

And what about all those lessons that people do on Skype online, do you think they are good or bad?

I think they’re good. When you’re using Skype to teach English to people who are actually not there, I think it’s a bridging thing. I’ve never taught through Skype, but I’ve got many friends who have, and based on what they tell me and what their learners tell me, it’s very good. You still need to plan, really carefully, sometimes even more, but if you structure the lesson, I think it can be really good. I had a lot of positive stories about it.

We’re actually experimenting with group online teaching at the moment.

I think that’s putting technology to good use, because maybe not everybody would be able to come to the location, but as I was talking about before, when you’re actually there, face-to-face, technology can stand in the way, it doesn’t always enhance the quality of learning or teaching when you use devices. I’ve still got questions about that.

Anything else you’d like to share with the readers of this interview?

Well, there are many things I’m excited about, but my big area is groups. I’ve always been fascinated by groups. Each group that I meet is like a new person, and just to see how they change, all the chemistry, and the different roles that members pick up, the dynamic, is fascinating. Also, I think, we need to learn more about how we can learn together. I’m interested in creativity and even more interested in group creativity. I’m interested in critical thinking, but I’m more interested in how a group can become critical and how you can learn more about yourself through the group, and ways of tapping into group wisdom.

One of the things I’ve been working with in the past few years is the idea of the group challenge: to motivate my groups by challenging them to work together rather than bringing in competition, which of course is a great motivator, but there’s so much of it and it has so many detrimental effects. So, for any small activity like brainstorming that you want to do, turn it into a group challenge: two minutes, can you come up with twenty ideas? Because bringing in the time dimension is a good way to get people excited, and not necessarily two teams, just the class is a team as a whole. Or, can you together as a group remember all the new words? And that’s not asking anyone individually. The group collective memory will always remember more than individual memory. Collective wisdom.

And maybe some synergy as well?

Absolutely! And I think that’s a potential that we don’t know enough about yet, and desperately need to learn. Because in order to collaborate, we need not just to use cooperative techniques, but also to know more about the group and the dynamic of the group, and ourselves, how we behave, how we can influence that. And that’s something I would like to focus on.

Then we’ll be on the lookout for your articles about it, or maybe a monograph?

Actually, I’m working on a book related to that, so one day it will be out there.

More of the same or more of a good thing?


Here is an inspirational read for those who still hesitate to submit a conference proposal, start a blog or facilitate a training session because they think they have nothing new to say. The author, Shaelynn Farnsworth, reminds everyone that there is nothing truly original about stories in general and about education in particular: we rehash old ideas, recycle somebody else’s methods, engage in ‘principled eclecticism’ – and it’s ok because each of our stories adds to the development of our profession, and our enthusiasm still fuels the enthusiasm of everyone else.

Well, I’m feeling even more inspired now, and you?

How to submit proposals


Natalia Guerreiro has recently posted this lovely text about responding to conference calls for presenters. She says that the key word is PREPARE, and then goes on to provide good advice for each of the letters: P is for ‘pick your passion‘, R is for ‘remember your audience‘, and all the way to E for ‘enlist help‘. It’s all very true!

Natalia ends her post with: “Above all, try.” Now, did you know that Tyson Seburn of the Calendar of ELT Events has a chart for proposal deadlines?

ELTons: the Oscars of ELT


Did you watch the livestream last night? Some great speakers there, and of course the nominees. If you are planning to watch the recording, watch out for Susie Dent’s introductions, her malaphors will have you in stitches! How about snackcident (when you were going to eat just one crisp but ended up eating the whole pack), texpectation (when you are waiting and waiting for that text message), or epiphanot (when you were trying to say something profound but it didn’t come out this way)?

If you’re into inspiring moments, check out Helena Gomm (her speech starts at 1.07) who introduced the lifetime achievement award for the wonderful Tessa Woodward.

And if you are looking for practical ideas for the classroom, there are loads! My all-time favourite among the winners is Tim’s Pronunciation Workshop from BBC. The learning video game Learn English with Rubi Rei looks really promising, too.

My wish list has grown by two teacher training books; in fact, all of the teacher training nominees are excellent and I can’t wait to get my hands on these resources.

What about you, any impressions to share?

My IATEFL 2018 Highlights (6 of 6): General impressions


This was my third IATEFL conference, and I finally felt less like a beginner. Weak pre-intermediate, perhaps.

Looking back now, I am sure it was worth the hassle of travelling, the expense of tickets and hotel, the nerves of getting ready to speak in front of an unknown audience.

It’s not just about the workshops and talks, even though I did my best to attend as many as I could. After all, you can watch some online, and read about many of the others.

It’s not just about another opportunity to spend time in a country I love – though who am I trying to fool? 🙂

It’s not just about discussions in the breaks and networking, and not only about seeing old friends, though very much so.

It’s about the atmosphere, the unique background against which all the rest was happening.

Ok, call me an idealist, but you are among thousands of colleagues who are keen on their jobs, open to new ideas, seeking answers to their questions. It heightens your perception, makes everything you hear more memorable and exciting, builds new neural connections. A year’s worth of professional development in one week!

So, for me IATEFL 2018 was just the same as IATEFL 2016 and 2017, or multiple local IATEFLs in Ukraine, or the Teaching Skills Forum in Jordan, or translation seminars at writers’ conventions I used to attend: absolutely amazing. And this concludes my conference series for now.


My IATEFL 2018 Highlights (5 of 6): Plenaries

‘How did you like the plenaries this year?’ asked a colleague I’d met in Glasgow in 2017.
I hesitated and didn’t answer at first.
Did I like the plenaries?
Plenary sessions are tough. If you make them too practical, they won’t be relevant for half of the audience. If they are too far removed from ELT, the other half will say that they have wasted their time. If they are done by ‘luminaries’, someone will come forward and say that there are no new voices, or no equal representation.
So – no, I didn’t like some of the plenaries, but I enjoyed the others. And, whatever my personal preference, I really liked the choices that the organisers had made.

1. What is SLA research good for, anyway? / Plenary session by Lourdes Ortega


Is there any tension between ELT practitioners (teachers) and researchers (linguists)? If there is, we need to learn to work together: linguists can make their research more accessible, and practitioners can accept that knowledge is contradictory and conclusions are never finite. Lourdes mentioned several myths that had been discredited by research but are still popular in ELT:
1) Less L1 in the classroom does not mean better L2; it’s actually the other way round
2) Earlier is NOT better
3) Error correction… wait, the jury’s still out on this one.
Something to think about.

2. Sausage and the law: how textbooks are made / Plenary session by Dorothy Zemach

I had to watch this session online because my own talk was scheduled immediately after it, and I am glad I found the time. Dorothy made it clear why so much seems wrong about materials writing and publishing, and at the same time remained very supportive of coursebooks. If we want to have better materials, we need to examine and compare them and speak openly to the publishers. And of course not to pirate copyrighted materials.
And yes, books should be written by professionals.


3. Knowledge is power: access to education for marginalised women/ Brita Fernandez Schmidt


Brita’s session was unusual and very touching. It was about the power of education and human kindness, her organisation called Women for Women, and other things which she described much better than could ever be done in a blog.

4. Living to tell the tale: a history of language testing / Plenary session by Barry O’Sullivan


A fantastic journey into the past of IELTS, the Main Suite and other beautiful instruments of torture for poor candidates. Here are two ideas that I’d like to re-post:

1) The future of testing is tech-driven, localised and personalised (not global!)
2) A test is a snapshot, so is always slightly out of focus. If possible, we need to use other kinds of evidence to supplement it.

5. Mugging de Queen’s English / Plenary session by John Agard

ScreenCapture at Tue Apr 24 20:54:22 EEST 2018

This was a fun show by a poet who had decided for some reason that we are all primary teachers, and even said so. We didn’t mind because his poems were great anyway. More literary readings, please! (I really recommend watching his recitals, e.g. here or here.)