I'm back

I can’t believe it’s already been more than a month since my last post. Not a good start in my New Year resolutions. Oh, well.
Before I get back into my blogging mood (I’m already preparing a post for the TDSiG Web Carnival event), let me update you on a couple of things:

  • I’ve passed my Delta Module One exam (phew!). I don’t know exactly when or if I’ll be working on other modules soon, but if you know a good centre that offers online tutoring for Module Three do let me know.
  • I’m about to move house — that’s probably the most exciting news for me. In the new place I’ll have a garden, a proper living room, even some space to relax and meditate. Home décor rather than professional development is what has been occupying my mind in the last few weeks. 😀
  • I’ve bought my ticket for IATEFL 2018! I have been meaning to go to this conference for years, and finally — thanks to my school Director — I can afford to attend the whole conference, TDSiG PCE included. Let me know if you’ll be there, it would be great to meet in person!

I think I’m a bit behind in reading your blog posts too, but I’ll try to catch up in the next few days.
Thank you for reading!

2018: hopes and resolutions

First things first:

I wish a happy and peaceful 2018 to you all and to your families and colleagues. May this 2018 bring love and understanding in both your home and your classroom.

Now let me talk about blogging and resolutions. As I wrote on my previous post, I am immensely proud of my 2017 in blogging terms. But now it is time to look ahead, and set some goals for the year that just started.

1. Blogging resolution: keep writing at least once a week

The fact of having a “deadline” really helps me come up with ideas for posts. I sometimes take notes in my diary right after a lesson or after reading something interesting, so that I can go back to it when I am in front of the computer and I actually have the time to write.

2. Professional development resolution: work on Delta module 2

I am not sure this will be possible, as it does not depend entirely on me, but if it is, I plan to dive into this new experience with renewed energy and motivation. I am sure module 2 will be as (if not more) useful as module 1.

3. Teaching resolution: improve my skills lessons

I particularly need to work on teaching listening and speaking, so I think I will be concentrating on these two skills — as they are also the skills learners need and struggle with the most. There are a couple of books that I want to read to get some background knowledge and inspiration from, but I will be on the lookout for blog posts, tweets and any other input that can help me.
Thank you for stopping by and for reading this, I am ever so grateful to the colleagues and friends who read, comment and share my posts — your encouragement has kept me going for the past three years! 🙂

My wandering 2017

The end of 2017 is approaching, so it feels like a good time to stop for a moment and take stock of this blogging year. This blog has been (and hopefully will be) a great CPD tool, as well as a great place to come to when I needed to put something into writing in order to make it clear in my mind.
I feel particularly proud in that this year I successfully published a post a week — excluding a couple of summer months when I was feeling quite burnt out and needed to get away from it all — keeping my 2017 New Year resolution to do so.
This is also probably the longest I have ever had a blog, as well as the most productive blogging experience I have had so far. Here are three things I find particularly useful of blogging about ELT:

1. Discovering new points of view

This is definitely the biggest advantage. When I have a problem that seems unsolvable, I can always count on my blog and all the wonderful people who pass by to inspire me, give me a new perspective on things and find a solution where I never thought to look. Often just writing about a problem is a cathartic process that will help me solve it, or find new motivation.

2. Keeping a record

By writing about lessons that went well or not so well, of solutions and practical ideas, this blog is becoming a sort of notebook that I can refer to when I find myself in need of ideas, or when I am trying not to repeat the same mistakes.
It is also an amazing record of how I’m growing and changing as a teacher and as a person. Sometimes I go back and I can’t believe I wrote posts like this one no longer than a year and a half ago. This gives me a very tangible sense of my progress — which we all know is key to keep going forward.

3. Writing

Personally, I also find it a great writing exercise. I enjoy writing and (as you might guess) I love the English language. This little virtual space allows me to marry these two things in a wonderful, and at the same time pleasurable, writing practice.

Fighting climate change: lesson notes

Today I would like to share a very successful lesson I created for a B2 (upper-intermediate) group around the topic of climate change and this article by The Guardian. This is a very rough plan and needs fine-tuning, mainly to suit your learners needs and interests. I have used this lesson with both adults and teenagers, and it has worked well in both cases.
Aims: by the end of the lesson, students will have revised vocabulary linked to climate change and the environment, will have practised reading an authentic text and will have discussed actions to fight climate change.
Time: 60-80 minutes

Stage 1: lexis revision

Write on the board the words CLIMATE CHANGE. Ss in pairs brainstorm words related to the topic. During feedback, write words on the board for reference during the following stages and clarify meaning/pronunciation if necessary. You can add words such as blizzard, famine, endangered species, carbon footprintglobal warming and any other lexis you anticipate they might need for the following stages.
Optional lexis work: ask Ss to write 5 sentences using some of the words on the board. They then read the sentences to each other and compare ideas.

Stage 2: small group discussion

Divide your class into small groups. Explain that The Guardian has published an article detailing the most significant steps individuals can take to fight global warming. Tell Ss their job is to predict what steps might be in the article. I generally ask Ss to compile a list of the 5 actions they think are most effective in fighting global warming, as well as the reasons why they think these actions are so effective.
During this stage, you can monitor and help with language, as well as take notes on any gaps you will want to work on later on in the lesson or in the future.

Stage 3: whole class / bigger group discussion

Once all the groups have finished, depending on your class size, you can choose to pair up groups to create larger groups, or do this stage open class (in which case I make Ss sit in a circle, and I sit in a corner of the room as ‘audience’).
The groups compare their lists and have to negotiate a common 5-item list of effective actions to fight climate change. Monitor for use of specific lexis you revised in stage 1. If you find/know that some students tend to monopolise the conversation, you can set specific rules such as one person can not argue for or against more than one/two points in the list, or can not speak again until all other members of the group have expressed their opinion.

Stage 4: content feedback

When the discussion has come to an end, and the groups/class have decided on 5 actions they think are the most effective, give Ss this handout* (explaining it is the article you previously mentioned) and ask them to read it first to find out if any of the points in their lists are mentioned in the article. Have an open class discussion to see which group get most points similar to the article and/or if any of the points mentioned in the article surprised them.
Optionally, you can also ask Ss to read the article again, and now write a list of the 5 most effective actions according to the research reported in the article. They could do this individually or in pairs. During this stage I circulate and help with difficult language, trying to encourage Ss to understand from the context when possible.
When they all have finished, compare ideas open class. At this stage, I generally show the graphics from the article and collect Ss reaction to the article and to the graphics.

Stage 5: language feedback

At this point, you can put on the board any language that has come up during previous stages, such as correct or inappropriate use of the target lexis presented in stage 1, or any other language that has been focus of your previous lessons.
That’s all, I hope you find some useful ideas in this post, and if you try out the lesson please let me know how it goes and how you tweaked it.

*please note that in this handout I deleted some parts of the article to make it less intimidating for the students. 

Delta module 1 exam is over

After more than 15 months of preparation (while also working full time), I finally sat module 1 exam last Wednesday. Of course I can’t say anything about the result, as I will not know until next February, but I just wanted to note down some impressions I have had after doing the exam.

Paper one was a race against the clock

I found Paper one particularly challenging. What I don’t really get of this exam is why candidates are required to do so many things in such a short time. I would argue it is lack of construct validity (aha! I remembered that one) as I don’t really see the value in having to rush through the tasks. Is that supposed to simulate real-life conditions, where teachers don’t have much time to plan their lessons and have to think on their feet?

Definitions are tricky

It is one thing to know a term, but a completely different thing to know how to define it. I had practised definitions, but I still found that part particularly hard. If I could go back (or if I have to re-sit the exam) I’d make sure I get plenty of practice in writing concise and effective definitions.

Paper two was so much better

It is more relaxed in timing, so that you can really think about it and give reasoned answers. I also prefer to discuss methodology and principles behind coursebook choices rather than analysing adverbs and connected speech, so that is probably why I found paper two more enjoyable. I was able to make a surprising amount of points in task 3, where during mock exams I could never make more than 12-13 points.

Thank you Sue Swift

I found her blog so useful, both for the terminology and for the amazing amount of great tips she gives. Revising what each paper involves and how marks are assigned with the two quizzes she created was also very helpful, as it made me manage my time better during the exam itself.
All in all, I am satisfied with my progress as a teacher. I have learnt so much and have become more aware of many little things in my lessons. So I would say that, results aside, the experience has been a productive and successful one (even though close to the exam it felt otherwise!).

Storytelling with YLs

Last year I worked with a group of ten eight-year-olds in an afternoon, after-school class. I met the children once a week for one hour and a half, the idea behind it being to reinforce what the children were already doing at school using children’s books as a base for the lessons.
At the time I had been given a copy of the British Council free handbook on storytelling, which I read and appreciated for the ideas and practical activities it provides. So, with little experience in teaching YL and close to zero experience in storytelling, I embarked on this new adventure.
After eight months of lessons and after going through something like 5-6 storybooks, here are some considerations on the positives and negatives of this approach to teaching English to YL.

The good things

There are some main advantages to using the methodology described on the BC handbook. Some might feel apparent and obvious, others are more subtle but equally important.

  • Stories expose children to what you could consider authentic listening material. After all, storybooks are made for children whose first language is English, so in a way listening to those stories can be considered an authentic, real-life task.
  • They also allow the teacher to introduce language points as part of the story, in a fun and engaging way.
    The penguin can turn his head, can you do it? Yes, I can do it!
  • Stories create a memorable experience for children, who are more likely to retain what they have learnt in this way than in a regular, textbook-based lesson.
  • Children’s books talk to children about their world, so learners can relate to the stories and characters and feel more at ease in dealing with the L2.

The not-so-good things

Despite all these advantages, I also found some problems or things I would change in this approach.

  • You would be impressed by the number of children’s books which have animals as protagonists! This is great at the beginning, but can become a bit repetitive after a while.
  • Apart from topic repetitiveness, storybooks can rotate around the same or similar language points as well. So it is easy to teach colours, body parts or animals, but teaching daily routine or free time activities requires a bit more research in digging out the appropriate book.
  • For the same reasons, designing a long course only around stories can become a bit repetitive in the long run. At the fourth or fifth story I had children telling me: oh no, not another storybook!

All in all, this has been a great experience, which has taught me a lot and which I would recommend to anyone teaching YL.
Do you have any experience in teaching English through stories? Was/is it a positive or negative experience?

Product vs. process listening

Sometimes coincidence is just too vague a term to describe a series of seemingly unrelated events which take you in a certain direction. However, for lack of a better term, I’d say it is coincidence that made me want to read more about different approaches to teaching listening skills.


Some time ago, Marc Jones wrote on his blog the results of a research he conducted, which clearly showed how language teachers neglect listening skills in general, and bottom-up listening in particular. The article struck a chord with me, since I had always been one of those teachers myself, until something happened that made me question my practice.
For ease of discussion, I’ll report here what I wrote on Marc’s blog out of frustration at my inability to help a learner with the listening difficulties:

A 1-to-1 student at pre-intermediate level that has been studying with me for more than a year has recently complained that she’s made a lot of progress so far, but that listening is the hardest part for her. So much so that she often switches off when we are doing some listening activity, and complains that she didn’t understand anything.


In the discussion that followed, Marc suggested the book Listening in the Language Classroom by John Field as an eye-opening read for him. So I promptly worked to get my copy of the book.*
I am still reading it, but I already feel that a lot of the criticism of the so-called comprehension approach that is put forward in the book resonates with my own experience with the learner I described in Marc’s blog.
I am starting to believe that what I do in class is not really helping my students learn the skills of listening, as I am mainly working on the assumption that “learners’ listening skills improve if they are exposed over time to a large number of spoken texts in the target language” (Field, page 79). But what if they do not understand? How can I help them go from a “blur of sounds” to understanding?
I definitely need to give listening a more predominant role in my lessons, and to start adopting what Field calls a process approach to listening. I should constantly ask myself whether what I am doing is actually helping learners to become better at listening, or is merely testing their pre-existing abilities.
I might even try out some new ideas and then report back on this blog what worked and what didn’t.
How do you teach listening skills? How do you deal with learners who find this skill particularly challenging? What do you do when they “switch off”, and seem unable to understand even the simplest things?
I would really appreciate it if you would share your ideas, experiences and opinions in the comments below. It is always so useful to read your input and see things from a different perspective. Thank you!

*By the way, I will be sitting a Delta module 1 exam in a few days, and I can not believe this book was nowhere on our reading list. The only book on listening we had to read was an old (and frankly quite dry) book by Penny Ur, which says a lot about the state of this skill in ELT training courses.

Have you got OR Do you have?

This is a dilemma I often face, especially with beginner or elementary students. Do you usually teach them the form ‘have you got any brothers or sisters?’ or ‘Do you have any brothers or sisters’?
[Here’s an interesting discussion I found on this topic.]
The dilemma stems from the fact that students often get confused, and end up using ‘have’ as if it was ‘be’ in sentences such as ‘I haven’t a dog’.
I have come to the conclusion that part of the problem is due to how we Italians learn languages in schools. In Italian state schools English still tends to be taught as classical languages are taught. So, since when we study Italian grammar one of the first language items we meet are ‘essere’ (to be) and ‘avere’ (to have) — which in Italian are the two main auxiliaries — we tend to transfer this to English.
I don’t think this fully accounts for the frequent mistakes in the use of ‘have’, but I do think the expression ‘I’ve got’ tends to confuse Italian speakers, who then tend to think at ‘have’ as if it shared the same characteristics of ‘be’.
I’m not sure I’m making much sense with this, but the whole point of this post was: which form do you prefer to teach and why? I’m aware this is mainly a BrE-AmE difference, so your answer would probably depend on the variety of English you speak or are more familiar with. I tend to use ‘have got’ a lot, but feel reluctant to teaching it to beginner learners, who then feel very confused when they first encounter ‘do you have’.
I don’t think teaching them side by side would be a good idea, as it risks to confuse learners even more. So how do you go about it? Do you usually prefer to teach one form over the other or both? How do your learners react?
I’d also be curious to know how this whole questions fits within the ELF debate. I anticipate ‘do you have’ would be a preferable option in this case, being simpler and closer to how other verbs are used.
I’d appreciate it if you could share any relevant articles or blog posts on this matter, as it still puzzles every time I have to introduce a topic that requires a predominant use of ‘have’.

PS: the cover image of this post is just a tribute to one of my favourite romantic films ever, You’ve Got Mail. 😀

Re-engaging teenage students

This is a follow-up to my previous post about a student who completely switched off during my first lesson with his group. I had another (the third) lesson with the group today, and here’s what I did to improve the situation.

How I tweaked my lesson

After the first couple of lessons, during which I “studied” the learners and paid particular attention to this one, today I decided to modify my plan as follows:

  • I created the pairs and groups myself while planning, rather than letting the students sit where they felt more comfortable. I put this learner in pairs with a person I felt was more or less at his level and who I suspected would encourage him rather than dominate.
  • I planned an activity where ALL members of each group needed to have a different role, so he couldn’t let other people do the job while he sat quietly thinking about something else. He was assigned by his group the role of the shopkeeper, so he couldn’t possibly just sit there and not utter a word.
  • I got students to give each other feedback in writing rather than speaking at the end of the activity, to allow him to feel less on the spot during this delicate stage of the lesson.

The outcome

The lesson went really well. His group encouraged him, the fact of having a role made him speak and even smile! 🙂 I was pleasantly surprised and realised one more time how important and rewarding it can be to learn from your learners.

Students switching off

I have recently started a new course with a small group of 17-18-year-olds in a school. The course is aimed at supporting the work their classroom teacher is doing, with a possible outcome being to then prepare the students for a certification.
I had my first lesson last week, and as usual I prepared a short getting-to-know-each-other activity, as well as some speaking activities related to the topic of the day (family and relationships, and expressing feelings). I knew from their entry tests that some students would have been stronger and others weaker, so I tried to gauge my lesson in between, hoping to make it easy enough for the weaker students but still challenging for the stronger ones.
Everything was going great, all the students seemed engaged, when after about 30-40 minutes I started to notice that one of them was not speaking during the speaking activities, and not collaborating at all with their partner during pairwork on new vocabulary.
At first I thought it was because the student in question was in pairs with a stronger, more chatty and dominating student. So, as I usually do, I tried to gently encourage the shy student a couple of times, asking him questions and signalling to his partner to include him in the conversation.
This didn’t work. So I went on to ask him privately if something was wrong, and if he could follow the lesson. He replied “so-so”, so I tried to ask what was not OK, or if he needed some extra help, at which point the boy completely shut off and stopped talking for the remainder of the lesson.
He then left 5 minutes earlier (as he had asked me to do at the beginning), leaving me with the feeling I will never see this student again in my class.
I have been thinking about it since then, and I still can’t figure out what went wrong. Was the vocabulary being explored in class too difficult for him? Was he put off by the fact that he felt he was the weakest student in the room? Was it because I made him (and others) change pairs at one point?
I wish I knew, so as to avoid the same mistake next time.
What do you usually do when you have shy teenager in your class? Do you use any special techniques or activities to make them feel more at ease? This is actually the second time something like this happens to me. The other time was more than a year ago, not with a teenager but with an adult. How do you take each learner’s ego into consideration in your lesson?
Thank you for reading (and for sharing any thoughts or ideas on the matter).