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?


One-pagers for a sense of progress


A great idea from Betsy Potash writing for the Cult of Pedagogy: have students sum up their learning in a one-pager, combining verbal and visual information. She mentions the dual coding theory to explain why this technique is so useful; if your learners are not very artistic, there is a workaround too: using graphic organisers which prompt them what to draw and what to write. (I suppose a bit more scaffolding would help too.) You can see a lot of beautiful examples in the post, as well as a link to Betsy’s templates.

In addition to the obvious fun/engagement factor, they help learners stay focused, remember the material better, develop their cognitive skills – what’s not to like?

Can we do one-pagers in the digital world? You bet 🙂 In fact, doing them digitally can solve the ‘art problem’: it’s much easier to use Canva or at the very least grab a copyright-free image on Pixabay.

P.S. Betsy has an interesting podcast, by the way. The episodes are medium-length and quite conversational, so you can listen to them while doing something about the house and still get a lovely dose of CPD 🙂

The CEFR event: my own view (4 of 4)

CEFR mix

My first attempt to use CEFR happened back in 1998, when I was in my fifth year at uni: one of the teachers brought the self-assessment grid to us, near-graduates. Of course, everyone put themselves at the top of the scale 🙂 Only six years later, on an in-service teacher training course at Moscow Linguistic University, I found out about the descriptors, the portfolio, and most importantly, about the ethos of the European Language Portfolio.

From my own (admittedly simplistic) perspective,  the Common European Framework of Reference for languages as part of The European Language Portfolio has two very important functions:

  1. It shows that people who speak very different languages want to talk about the same things.
  2. It can give a great sense of progress to learners (and teachers) of languages.

This February, more than 20 years later, imagine me sitting in the very centre of London and hearing from all these amazing  experts first-hand how CEFR has grown and evolved over time! Feeling lucky? Yes, and also happy that in spite of all the changes CEFR is still about the same: the sense of unity and the sense of progress.

The updated and improved descriptors describe what we ‘can do’ more precisely; the addition of sign language makes CEFR even more unifying and inclusive; plurilingualism and mediation finally acknowledge what a person speaking several languages actually does when communicating. And, of course, we have official CEFR updates for young learners – how cool is that?

What does that mean for an English teacher? Exciting times ahead 🙂 Now that the updates (the CEFR Companion Volume) are out, there will be more and more new coursebooks, resources, curricula and research opportunities.

CEFR future steps

That said, there is a lot we can do even now, before all these changes trickle down to classrooms:

  1.  Consider how you can foster a plurilingual atmosphere in the classroom. If students want to use L1, encourage translanguaging, mediation, exchange of different L1 (if you’re lucky to work in a multilingual environment). CEFR can help you make plurilingual skills part of your learning objectives – after all, research shows that it gives great cognitive benefits, so why should your learners miss out?
  2. When teaching pronunciation, look at the new phonology scale: isn’t it great how it acknowledges accents at all levels and encourages focus on intelligibility?
  3. If English is not your first language, check out the changes in C2 descriptors: perhaps there is something that can become your own learning goal? English means a lot to me on many levels, but it’s also my work instrument, which I like to keep sharp 🙂
  4. The whole Companion Volume is a long read at whopping 235 pages, but you can open it to any random page and find real gems. For example:
  • descriptors for online interaction p.97 are great for justifying all the time you spent on edutech 😉
  • descriptors for online collaboration p.99 can be useful for planning a professional skills course
  • descriptors for describing data p.110 can help with IELTS preparation

There’s much more of course, so let’s start using the good old CEFR in new ways! This is what it is meant to be: not a prescriptive set of requirements, but a tool to use and adapt to our contexts, learners and their needs.

P.S. You can read my previous posts in the series about this event here: 1 2 3.




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 his  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).  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.

The ABC book of progress


Making an ABC book together – what a great idea for a final project of the term or year! You can find a lot of examples and suggestions in this article at Education World. What I particularly like about ABC books is a great sense of completion they can give. After all, there are only so many letters in the alphabet. As for topics, I suppose vocabulary is the obvious choice for ELT contexts: for example, weather or free time activities could work well? And of course all of this can be digitised (or done digitally) and proudly demonstrated to parents 🙂

Student agency for final projects


Here is a really nice post by Catlin Tucker about giving students an opportunity to choose their own final project. She provides a picture of the choice board, as well as several Google doc templates that can be copied and adapted for different types of classes and classrooms. I’m all for student agency and I think Catlin has very good arguments there: “when they are challenged to make key decisions about what they do and how they do it, they must actively engage in the learning process”. I would only add that it’s important to scaffold their choice a little so that they consider the ‘why’ as well – why is a physical model or a TED-style talk, for example, the best way for them to show progress in this particular situation?

And now I’m thinking: when I suggested making an audio show instead of a live presentation and my students said ‘nooo‘, why did I simply accept it and not ask them why they still prefer the live thing? Well, there’s always a next time…

What you think you’ve learned


Here is a very interesting article highlighting perhaps the biggest issue with customer feedback: it may not always be reliable. The author quotes research which showed that university students who engaged in active learning did not see the learning as effective, even though their learning results were better. They expressed a preference for a more structured and controlled approach and couldn’t see their progress. What solutions are there? The researchers tried asking the more proficient learners, and the results were more reliable (so perhaps getting feedback from ‘champions’ and ‘early adopters’ makes even more sense!); they also recommend professors lecture about active learning and explain to the students that this method may seem less useful, but in fact works much better.

It does ring certain bells, doesn’t it?

Exit highs and lows


Here’s a very good description of several end-of-lesson reflection activities from Catlin Tucker: ‘highs and lows’ (when the learners share which tasks they feel the most positive and the most confused or frustrated about), exit tickets and other useful strategies, including sketching and tech solutions. The descriptions are very practical and can be taken into the classroom straight away – and there is a bit of theory behind it, too.

P.S. I’ll definitely add it to my collection of exit strategies! Looking forward to doing another training session on this.

Challenge or automaticity?


Here is a very useful article about the types of practice and its uses. According to Daniel T. Willingham, there are situations when just practising to the level of perfection is not enough. In fact, if you only practise for a short while, even excellent knowledge will be forgotten very quickly. For long-term results what you need is overlearning (learning what is already known) and sustained practice. Now I’m thinking: what about stretching the learners, Demand High and all that? It seems that if we keep increasing the challenge all the time, overlearning cannot happen and so the knowledge has no opportunity to sink in deeper, and the skills do not become automatic…

What do you think, is there any middle ground between achieving automaticity and giving a proper learning challenge?

Thoughts about ultralearning


Scott Young writes about this method of learning that is ‘aggressive’ and self-directed (there is a new book coming out, and his posts are advertising it – not that it reduces the value of the ideas in any way). His research shows that difficulty, direct practice and opportunity for retrieval are what can make learning more effective.

Ok, then if this is applied to more or less traditional ELT, what have we got? The communicative approach gives at least some direct practice e.g. in role-playing games and simulations – check. Opportunities for retrieval practice are there provided the teacher does review activities, mini-tests and so on. So — not always. And desirable difficulty is a big pain point, isn’t it?