Category: Training ideas

Posts summarising ideas for how to simplify initial teacher training courses (such as Cambridge CELTA, Trinity CertTESOL etc.)

going by the book


I think even the most rabid of coursebook critics, amongst whom I count myself, would concede that, on the whole, published course materials have been getting better over time.

New examples of unsuccessful work will always come to light, and older gems will always lead us into the fallacy that “they don’t make ’em like they used to”, but it seems quite undeniable that the range and quality of material, created by the depth of talent, available to teachers today is overwhelming.

Of course, my use of the word “overwhelming” is deliberate.  While it is wonderful to think that there is such an embarrassment of material for the modern teacher, it is also obvious that this sea of stuff requires skilled navigation.

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Unplugged Radio Episode 6 – The Whites Of Their Eyes

Hello! Welcome to Teacher Training Unplugged Radio – my name is Anthony Gaughan.

(if you can’t see the podcast player above, click this link for the audio.)

There has been quite a long gap between episodes as Christmas and New Year got in the way. I had to do something to convince Father Christmas that I had been a good boy, however, so In the run-up to Christmas, I collaborated with Phil Wade and co-authored a short eBook on 5-minute self-reflection activities for teachers, which was a lot of fun and which you can get for free.

Now that we are well past the season to be jolly, I find myself back in the Hanseatic North of Germany, doing my day-job of working on Celta courses.

I’m working with a talented, thoughtful and enthusiastic group of beginning teachers at the moment, and they are making my job very easy in lots of ways.

We have just spent the past week getting to know the language learners who have signed up to participate in the Teaching Practice classes, and over the past few days, my trainees have dreamed up, designed and delivered some great lessons.

These lessons have focused on offering the students opportunities to listen to, or read, personal stories that the trainees were willing to share.

The teachers told stories ranging from losing a bunny out of a moving vehicle on the freeway, or seeing the Real Santa Claus doing his rounds, to the exquisite suffering brought on by not heeding a culinary warning.

This prompted the students to share wonderful stories of their own, my favorite being a childhood memory of a puppy running off with the Christmas goose.

No bunnies or puppies were harmed in the making of these lessons, by the way.

Though I’m afraid a goose was.

While I was watching these lessons, and while much was going well and was enjoyable to observe, I couldn’t help but notice something very small going on that was sometimes having quite a big impact on proceedings.

When I say “I saw something going on”, what I really ought to say is “I saw something not going on”, or at least, not when it really mattered.

Things are looking up

Let me take you into an imaginary classroom to show you what I mean.

Picture this: we are observing a teacher make the transition from their lead-in or warmer stage to the first of their listening tasks. It’s a simple, classic global understanding (or “gist”) type reason for listening, and it’s written on a handout that the teacher is about to give to the students. The teacher has checked in with the students and listened to what they got out of the warm-up task, and they decide now is the time to make the move to their story.

The teacher looks to their left, checks their notes, picks up their handouts, and starts to give their instruction. To save time, they get up, and start passing round their material, doing each student the courtesy of handing it to him or her personally. While the teacher is doing this, they continue to give their instruction, taking great care to pass out one handout to each student, and negotiating the crowded back end of the room, squeezing between the class table and their observing colleagues and me.

They get to the front of the room again and settle into starting their story. There is a mild disquiet in the room, and one of the less demure of the students gets the teacher’s attention and asks “what is it we should do?”

Now, you may be thinking: “if the teacher had only given the instruction before handing out the material, this would never have happened!”

And perhaps you are right.

It’s just that I have also seen the same outcome when materials followed instructions, so there must be something even more basic going on.

Or, as I say, not going on.

What was the teacher spending most of the time not looking at?

That’s right: the students.

“Keep an eye on the class” – but not for the reason you think

Eye contact is hugely important for all kinds of reasons in the classroom. Apart from helping in relationship building, which is important in itself, what I am noticing more and more is that were eye contact is lacking, class management problems increase.

When teachers give instructions without looking their students in the eye at the outset, and without maintaining this reasonably during the instruction-giving, then it makes no difference how otherwise clear, concise, comprehensive and concise the instruction was – students often don’t understand, or their attention was elsewhere and they missed it.

When teachers give instructions after getting everyone’s attention – and after they know that they have gotten everyone’s attention because they can see the group looking back at them – then even a sub-optimal instruction can do the job.

The importance of eye contact may be so obvious to those of you listening that you might think it is bizarre for me to make such a point of it.

But it is precisely because it is so obvious that it’s worth being reminded about.

Because when you are already heavily taxed by engaging in a new activity, managing a raft of paperwork and other strange artifacts like board-pens, with half a dozen people watching your every move in silence, insufficiently hidden behind the students you are determined not to let down or embarrass yourself in front of, then your ability to look out into the world and stare it in the face diminishes very quickly.

The unavoidable self-absorption of the novice – whether it be the novice teacher or the novice driver – leads to shortsightedness of very particular kinds.

For the driver, it starts with a difficulty to see much beyond the dashboard. Over time, peripheral vision opens up and something approaching safe, observant driving can occur.

For the teacher, it starts with a difficulty to lift our eyes from our lesson plan notes or other paperwork, and look the people with whom we are working in the eye. Over time, this channel of communication opens up and something approaching genuine, open communication can occur.

But given the importance of not only seeing the other people in the room, but really looking at them, what can we do in the mean time to help speed up the developmental process?

A second’s glance

One thing we can do is do one thing at a time – literally. The observed classroom is a very pressurized environment whatever we try to do to alleviate it, but precisely for this reason we need to focus on what we are doing, not on what is going on at the back of the room with our colleagues.

One way of doing this is to become willing to pay the price in time for focus.

Accept that each single step we take in the classroom may require our total focus and then give it that focus for the moment it requires.

So if we need to consult our notes, we consult our notes.

If the notes tell us to gather our task sheets and tell the students what to do next, we gather our task sheets.

Then we look up. And we make eye contact with the class.

And we move on from there.

That’s it for now on Teacher Training Unplugged Radio. If you liked what you heard, please share it, like it and leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you. For now, this is Anthony Gaughan, saying thank you for listening, and see you next time.

Celta hamburg podcast episode 3 – practice made pointless

I took a few minutes to record some thoughts about the past week on my current Celta course for my trainees, focusing on the question of what makes good controlled practice.

I focus mainly on the problem of making controlled practice more than a mechanical exercise, and how to make it easier to check whether students really understand what they are doing.

It’s under 8 minutes long, audio only, so make yourself a cup of tea and let it run in the background.

If you find this useful, give it a thumbs up, and feel free to leave a comment.  Or just do the old fashioned thing and talk to me about it on Monday!

Mr. Gaughan goes to (IH) London

Back in September, I was honoured to be invited by Varinder Unlu to give a short talk for her colleagues at International House London about unplugging teacher training.

IH London record these sessions and so – thanks to their efforts and the magic of the internet – I can share this with you all!

Huge thanks to Varinder and all of her colleagues who showed up, took part and made me feel welcome.

You can also find the video and a short synopsis over at the IH London Blog.


dogs, disasters and dodgy grammar rules – teaching the passive

A 20-minute exploration of how conventional treatment of the”rules” for using the passive voice (as, for example, presented in coursebooks or standard student grammar books) misses the chance to introduce learners to a simpler, more elegant and more generative rule.


how to use stories and anecdotes as reading or listening practice

We listen to or read a massive amount of text every day and  – whether you believe it or not – we almost always have a reason for doing so.  The amount of times we genuinely just hear things without any kind of thought process being triggered, without any kind of expectation, evaluation, is tiny.

We meet texts with expectations – from those as mundane as “what platform is my train leaving from?” in the case of departure boards, to interpreting a cryptic message from someone we have feelings towards for any evidence of reciprocation or gentle rejection.  We process these texts with these expectations in mind and these expectations in a very real way help us to make sense of the texts we are confronted with.

This can be tested with a simple thought experiment.  Imagine you are asked to sit in on a lecture and afterwards you will be given a test of some unspecified kind.  You do not know the topic of the talk, or the kind of thing you will be expected to do in response to it as part of the subsequent test.

How comfortable will you be during the talk? How confident will you be that you are “understanding” what you hear in a useful way? How well do you think you will perform in the subsequent test? How accurate a reflection of your actual listening ability will the result be?

The chances are you will feel extremely uncomfortable, not have any faith that what you are paying attention to is really the target of the latter tests, your result on those tests will likely be low, and even if they are reasonable, this will be a result of pure chance.

It follows, therefore, that if we want our learners to have useful and realistic opportunities to become better listeners or readers in a foreign language, it will help if we give them a reason for listening.

Texts, tasks, tricks and talk

For basic receptive skills (reading and listening) work, we need to account for four things:

TEXTS.  Without these, there is nothing to read or listen to.

TASKS. These are the students’ reason for listening or reading.

TRICKS This is language in the story that the learners may need to know to do the tasks or not to get confused in general.

TALK. This is the learners’ chance to respond to the human level of the text in a personal way.

Let’s look at each of these in turn in a bit more detail.


A reading or listening text need not be long – in fact, the shorter a text is, the potentially more useful in class it may be.  Short texts can be revisited frequently, thus providing learners with repetitive exposure to language and greater opportunities to focus their reading of or listening to the text to adjust for the parts of it towards which they need more attentiveness.  In other words, shorter texts provide more bites at the cherry.

In concrete terms, a 2-3 minute oral text or a 200 word written text are often more than enough to provide a useful challenge, assuming they are stimulating and appropriately graded in terms of linguistic complexity.

What makes a stimulating text, though? Well, there are two general tips: keep it real and keep it personal.

Keeping it real means making sure the content of the text relates to real life as the learners understand it.  Look for stories affecting the learners’ lives, or touching on their interests, or related to their view of life (which is different from concording with their view of life).  Contrived texts about fictitious characters are much more difficult to care sufficiently about to pay attention to them.

Keeping it personal means – within reason – sharing stories from your own life.  Your learners are generally extremely interested in you, whether they say so or not, and leveraging this interest by sharing personal stories is a simple and effective way of showing them implicitly that language is not an academic exercise.

Note here we are talking about personal stories, not intimate ones.  An example of a personal story could be the following:

I was waiting for the train home one evening and I was feeling quite hungry, so I stopped off at an Asian takeaway and ordered some food.  The place was very busy and the person after me ordered the same thing.  I decided to eat in, so I took a seat and waited.  A few minutes later I got my food and started eating.  When I finished, I was getting ready to leave but realised that the cashier had not asked me to pay before I got my meal.  I realised that I had the opportunity – if I wanted to take it – to get away with not paying for the meal…

I gave it some thought. The place was busy and my 5 Euros were a fraction of the business coming through the doors.  On the other hand, I knew that if the cash register did not add up later, someone might have the missing sum docked from their wages.  I also felt guilt at the thought that I was even considering not paying. I had got a good meal and I should pay for it… I reached a decision, and stood up.

I left the shop without paying, saying goodbye and heading home.  I tried to make myself feel better by saying they would have kept the money if they had overcharged me, but I still slept very badly.  I was disappointed in myself, I had let myself down.  Next day, on the way to work, I went to the shop and told the cashier what had happened the day before and that I owed her money.  I paid and left, and I am sure she was very surprised.  I felt a lot better though!

Interesting story, likely to spark some interest and responses in listeners, but it isn’t useful for learning yet.  We need some reasons for listening.


Taking the story above, we could use the following as an initial listening task:

Listen to the following story and tell me:

1) Where I was when the story happened. (Answer: at a takeaway café)

2) What problem I had. (Answer: I needed to decide whether to leave without paying my bill or not)

These tasks could accompany the story up to the point “…I reached a decision, and stood up”

After these two tasks were checked, the learners could be asked to predict whether I simply left or if I paid.  They could share their ideas and try to justify them.  These predictions then become the reason for listening to the remainder of the story.

It is no good having engaging tasks if the learners can’t understand the text, however, so it is time to consider what tricks are present.


The story itself could be used with almost any level of learner, but in its current form it has a lot of lexis which may be unfamiliar: in the version above, I have highlighted a lexical set relating to commercial transactions.  I could clarify these before I told the story, or I could clarify them as I went along.  There are other sets in the story too: phrasal verb sets (stop off; eat in; take away; get away with; add up; let someone down) for example.

The point is, we need to review how we are planning to phrase the texts we use in class, so that we can prepare to help learners manage its linguistic challenge and to exploit this later for language focus.


While the story is personal to me, at its heart is a more general and universally accessible theme: the challenge of doing the right thing.  Our learners can certainly relate to that, and were probably having internal conversations with themselves while they were listening (or reading – as this could just as easily be used as a written text).  Now might be a good time to exploit this engagement by asking students to talk about this broader theme.

Here are a couple of possible speaking tasks that learners could do in connection to this theme:

  1. Role-play various situations similar to the one told in the story (two people in a cafe, one wants to sneak out without paying; the other is resistant; conversation between me and my flatmate, who can’t understand why I am feeling bad about leaving without paying)
  2. Discussion questions: a) have you ever left somewhere without paying or seen anyone else doing it? Was it accidental? How did you feel afterwards? b) do you think society is more or less selfish these days?

 Ways in, ways through and ways out

These ideas are workable, but they need to be strung together loosely to make a lesson.  So we need a way in, a way through, and a way out.

Ways in are simple starting points for your lesson to transport your learners from wherever they are mentally to the starting point of your story.  Ways through are clear and elegant segues between stages, and ways out are there to help you bring the whole thing to a rounded close.

Putting it all together

Here is a very loose framework for the lesson sketched out above, including ideas for doing each of these things:

Way in: ask students to brainstorm 5 local places to get food quickly, typical meals, prices  and when these places are most busy.

Pre-teaching lexis: While discussing these, take opportunities to clarify and check lexical items such as pay, cashier, register etc.

Transition to first listening task: tell students “I want to share a story with you that happened to me in a place like this on the way home from work last week.  I had a problem there connected with paying for my food, and I want your help.  Listen to the story and find the answer to these two questions (on board).

Task 1: tell the story, allow learners to compare answers, tell story again, collect ideas.   If disagreement, tell relevant section of story again to allow fresh “bite at the cherry”.

Transition to second task: chat about the dilemma.  Say “what do you think I did?”  ask learners to form predictions ad justify them.  Collect on board.

TASK 2: tell remainder of story. Allow learners to reflect on whose predictions were correct.

Tricks (optional): perhaps use the transcript to explore some of the trickier language in context – in other words, a language focus stage using the text as the context).

Transition to talk: Ask students “what would you have done? Do you think I did the right thing? (or any other task from above). Collect examples of language used by learners during these conversations.

Way out: Listen to learners responses to the talk tasks and explore examples of the language they used with them on the board.  Ask them to write a summary of/response to the lesson and email it to you. Thank learners and close lesson.