Category: Training Philosophy

posts exploring why we choose to work the way we do.

Punching your weight in the language classroom

knock out

Float like a butterfly; sting like a bee

– Cassius Clay AKA Muhammad Ali –

Have you ever wondered why you sometimes fail to make a dent on your learners? Why at the end of class you felt like you’d been hitting a brick wall? You had them reeling but you couldn’t knock them out with a piledriver of a lesson?

If you have, then you might – in your darker moments – have thought that teaching might better be left to the Thornburys, the Harmers, the Scriveners – you know, the heavyweights.

But if you thought that, let me tell you that you are wrong. You have all the muscle you need to knock language sense into your learners: you just need to learn a lesson or two from boxers.

You just need to learn to punch your weight in the classroom.

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Poetry and the Art of Teaching Practice

Have you forgotten the way to my hut?

Each evening, I wait for the sound of your footsteps

But they are never there.

I heard this haiku translation (or something close to it) in Berlin several years ago during a workshop on Big Words, Small Grammar by Scott Thornbury. I am not sure why, but I fell in love with this short poem then, and was fascinated by the sheer volume of study content embodied therein: present perfect simple; question formation; possessive pronouns; time referencing; present simple; prepositional phrases; coordinating conjunctions; negation; determiners; irregular verb forms; the article system, transivity, countability, plurality…

Since then, I have only taken two opportunities to exploit it for teaching, and both times, I have found it to be a beautiful, enriching and yet confounding experience.

The first time was several years ago, shortly after getting to know the poem; the second time was two days ago, as part of an observed lesson on a CELTA course I am teaching on.

I would like to share with you what happened in this lesson, share the written outcomes by my students, and say a little about why I am surprised and invigorated by the power of poetry in ELT. Continue reading

What Makes a Lesson GREAT? – slideshow

I’ve just finished my first Webinar on what makes a lesson GREAT and I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it!

It was strange talking into thin air for almost an hour but it was lovely to see so many people there and participating through comments: thank you all for coming.  I know how busy teachers’ days are, so I truly appreciate it.

As it was my first time, I totally messed up the upload of my presentation slides, and had to work with an incomplete set – serves me right for not checking in advance!  However, here they are, in all their intended glory.  You can either play it as a slideshow (each slide is set for 10 seconds so you can read the text-heavy ones) or you can click through.

Thank you for being patient with me.

PS: Note that the URL given on the first slide is now out of date – but if you are reading this, you know that already!

What makes a lesson GREAT? Part #5

Here is the final part in a five-part series of posts inspired by Mike Harrison, who asked on the IATEFL Facebook page “what makes a lesson GREAT?” My answer was:

Group Dynamic

Relevance to learners’ lives

Emergent language



You can find my posts on the first four characteristics by clicking on them above. But all good things must come to an end, so let’s close this series on a thoughtful note…

T for Thoughtfulness

thinking / thoughtful

(credit: thanks to Ceri Jones and ELTPics for this image)

How thoughtful are you and your learners – towards each other in class? Towards your learning? Towards the task in hand, whatever it may be?

For a lesson to be truly great, I would like to suggest in closing this series that thoughtfulness, on several different levels, is essential. Continue reading

What makes a lesson GREAT? Part #3

This is the third installment in a short series of posts inspired by a question posed by Mike Harrison – you can give him your own answer on the IATEFL Facebook page. To recap, I thought the following things were likely to make a lesson GREAT:

Group dynamic
Relevance to learners’ lives
Emergent language

If you like, you can catch up on what I had to say about group dynamics and relevance, or you can jump into the middle of things right here!

E for Emergent language

A simple gloss of what emergent language might be “language that comes up in the course of a lesson”. The trouble is, in an ideal world, LOTS of language comes up in a lesson, and it would be asking a bit much of a teacher or their learners to pay close attention to all of it!

Approaches to teaching which advocate the exploitation of emergent language require a teacher to select from this large data set those items which will contribute to learning – the question is, how to choose? Continue reading

What makes a lesson GREAT? Pt. 2

This is the second instalment of a series of five posts that I have started in order to expand on a short answer I gave to Mike Harrison over on the IATEFL Facebook group page in response to the question what makes a lesson GREAT?

It was the capitalisation that gave me the idea to fit my ideas on this into the letters composing the word at issue – GREAT. The first post, on Group Dynamic, you can find here. In writing it, I noticed that far from being an answer, it threw up a whole load of questions around the idea that I had blithely posted earlier.

This is one thing I love about these short professional development exchanges on the IATEFL and IATEFL SIG facebook pages, and I encourage you all to take part here and here for starters.

But onto what I thought was the second component of a GREAT lesson…

R for Relevance to learners’ lives Continue reading

What makes a lesson GREAT? Part 1 (and a postscript)

The original question on IATEFL's Facebook pageThis was the question posed by Mike Harrison on the IATEFL facebook page  recently. Considering the space constraints of commenting on a platform like that, and given my Faible for whimsical responses to serious questions, I replied thus:

My answer to mike's question

If you are familiar with acrostics, a form of poetry where the first letters in each line (or some other regular pattern) form a message, you will see what I have done here – my response to Mike’s question is hiding in plain sight.

But afterwards, amused and satisfied as I was at my minor achievement in melding pedagogy and poetry, I felt the need to expand on this collection of ideas, as I had contributed them with more than simply the intention of showing off my (questionably) witty way with words.

So lI thought I’d look at each of my criteria for what makes a lesson great in a bit more depth over the next few days. I’ll be taking them in order so let’s begin at the beginning with G for Group DynamicContinue reading

Cooking Unplugged (or: the roaring in the oven)

Recipes for Tired Teachers by Chris Sion

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about food recently. Granted, this soon after the festive excesses of the Christmas/New Year period, the last thing you may want to read about is food, but please bear with me for a while.

Recent debate over in Chia Suan Chong’s Devil’s Advocate blog series drew my attention back once more to an analogy which links teaching and food: the idea of lesson recipes.

“First, pre-heat the oven to 220°c”

The metaphor of a recipe pervades discussion of lesson structure both at pre-service level and beyond.  There was even a highly popular book based on this analogy.

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Christmas ELT Appeal: Worst Case Scenario Survival Toolkit

Toolkit - courtesy of Wikimedia commons
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I got an email a few days ago from a teacher in Australia called Rufus. She works with teachers in parts of the world where resources that many of us take for granted can be scarce, and where others that we may occasionally get our hands on are pure pipe dream.

She asked me to contribute to some upcoming training she would be leading in Cambodia, with teachers whose local resources were limited and whose confidence in their own English proficiency may also be limited, and who may not have been fortunate enough to have received much in the way of formal teacher education in the recent past.

In particular, she asked me what I considered my essential teachers’ toolkit: what, as a teacher, I considered a bare minimum of resources with which I could imagine working effectively with groups of students more or less anywhere. Continue reading