Experimenting with Affective Reading

I’m currently taking an online course on Materials Development with NILE and can say that it has been one of the most eye-opening courses I’ve taken since COVID-19. One of the modules focussed on affective learning and, in particular, making reading more emotionally and congitively engaging. This overlapped with the plenary given by Dr. Gabriel Diaz Maggioli at IATEFL in Belfast just a couple of weeks ago. It felt really nice to compare those two as well as combine them to see a bigger picture. Well, obvisouly, I couldn’t resist the temptation to run a quick experiment 🙂

I used a text called Architect’s World from UNLOCK Reading & Writing A1. I especially like the fact that it was an interview and features images of the buildings mentioned by the interviewee.

Lesson procedure:

  1. Warm-up: I asked students to describe and compare the buildings they live in here in Bournemouth and in their home country. They were encouraged to show photos (if they had any) and share their feelings about those buildings. (It also allowed them to review comparisons.)
  2. Reading: Nothing innovative here – just good old reading. Students were encouraged to use bilingual dictionaries (I’m trying to teach them to use those instead of Google Translate) or ask each other or me for help.
  3. Post-reading: The text is followed by typical comprehension questions that don’t require actual understanding of the text, but we still did them. I then threw in some more affectively engaging comprehension questions that encouraged students to reflect on some statements in the text and share their opinions. For example,
    – How are ‘green’ houses different from any other types of houses?
    – Do you think it’s a good idea to use glass and plastic as building materials? Why (not)?
    – The architect said that ‘there have been many changes in home design in the last 30 years’. In your country, are new buildings very different from old buildings? If yes, then what makes them different? Which buildings do you like more?
  4. Images: We then worked with the images of the buildings accompanying the text. Students tried to describe them and choose the one they liked most. They had to explain their choice. We also looked at ‘green’ buildings in more detail using Google search. My students were fascinated by Singapore and its futuristic architecture. We looked at Marina Bay Hotel, Botanic Gardens and just some random ‘green’ buildings. I have a small group, so students were sharing their feelings and opinions as we went through the photos. I told them I’ve been to Singapore so they asked me some questions about my trip there. They then started remembering interesting buildings they’ve seen, for example, Petronas Towers – we googled them all, of course. They also showed me some famous buildings in their countries.
  5. Project: The final stage was the experiment itself 🙂 I asked students to draw a building they would like to live in or stay during their holiday. They had to think about the building material(s), exterior, size, shape, layout inside, etc. And, of course, they had to draw it. I told them that no one would judge their drawing skills and that it was just to make their descriptions a bit more visual.
    They then showed their buildings to their classmates and explained why they drew these particular buildings. I took some photos and am attaching them to this post (with my students’ permission, of course).
    To be honest, I didn’t think they wouldn’t be very inspired by this task, but I was wrong! They put quite a lot of imagination into their drawings and even drew the surroundings like trees, sea, lights and even birds. They talked about how many rooms there are in their houses, who lives there, etc. It felt very heart-warming and rewarding and really helped me to get to know my students even better.

Conclusion: I’ll definitely keep experimenting with readings and turning them into projects – it’s full of unexpected, and I love it! This week, we’ll be reading a text about the longest cycling tour, and I’ll ask my students to plan a road trip around their country. I’ve already printed simple maps they’ll be using for their presentations 😀


A Useful Tool for Busy Teachers

I have taught in a lot of different contexts: from language centres (or eikaiwas) to a university to an international IT company. However, the context I am immersed into right now is something unique (at least, for me). The most challenging thing was to get used to the fact that I teach the same group for 12 weeks, Monday to Friday, 3 hours a day, which makes 15 hours a week.

The amount of lesson planning I had to do seemed enormous. First week into my new job, I felt like I was snowed under with work and there was no light at the end of the tunnel. This meant that I had to find a way to optimise my lesson planning process. If not the creative part of it then the admin part at least.

This is when I came across Teachwise App.

This start-up claims to cut preparation time by 75%. To be honest, it is difficult for me to estimate the exact percentage, but from my experience, it definitely makes lesson preparation more efficient and less time-consuming.

Once you have created an account, there are three main functions available to you: Resources, Community and Lesson Planner. Now, the Lesson Planner is not a free function, but in my opinion, it is totally worth it.

Before switching to Teachwise App, I used to type my plans in MS Word or Notepad on my laptop. Since no lesson ever go exactly as planned, I had to do a lot of amendments afterwards, which meant creating new files, etc. I also had to do all the formatting to make my plans look a bit more user-friendly because during the lesson, I have to be able to quickly navigate through them.

With Teachwise, I simply click a button, and all the activities I did not finish in the previous lesson get copied into my next lesson(s).

Basically, it is like Lego. For each lesson, I have various activities typed in. I can then tick them off as completed or carry them across next several lessons. I can change the order in which they follow and edit them if necessary.

The Lesson Planner itself looks like a calendar. You create a profile for each student/group (you can add students to groups as well) and then create recurring lessons to be displayed in the calendar. You can delete or cancel single lessons, change their duration, etc. Pretty handy for a busy freelancer!

Obviously, you can do the same with your Google Calendar, and you can even attach files or write notes for each meeting there, but it will not let you rearrange the activities in your lessons easily or transfer them to the next lesson.

The Resources pool on Teachwise is also pretty cool, I have found some interesting activities for Business English. You can save the activities you like to your library or add them to your lesson plan just with a click of a button. You can also add your own activities to the resources for other teachers to use. Sharing is caring!

Finally, for those who like having a paper copy of their lesson plan, you can download any lesson plan from Teachwise as pdf and print it out. Simples!

There might be some other functions for freelance teachers I have not had a look at yet, so it is up to you to discover.

All in all, Teachwise App has definitely made the admin part of lesson preparation much less daunting for me, which means that I have more time for creativity 😊

Final Thoughts

This Friday is the last day of Autumn Term at the language school where I work. The A1+ group I’ve taught since November has gone from 8 people to 14 to 10 to 4 to 6. I’ll be teaching A2/A2+s from January and will meet some of my ex students, which makes me happy because I do miss having them in the classroom. I’ll also have one online student in my class. Hello, hybrid teaching! I’m a tad nervous about it but my new classroom is a bit better equipped for this (there’s an actual monitor on the wall, not just a whiteboard and an OHP) so I guess I’ll be fine, especially considering how supportive my colleagues are.

So, what have I learnt in the past 2 months of working at a big language school in England?

  1. Environment is the key
    I’m extremely lucky to work at a school where the main rule is that we teach students, not the coursebook. This means that the coursebook is just a springboard. However, the best thing is that I am not pressured to finish the coursebook in a certain amount of time as I had to do in some of my previous workplaces. It’s all about how what I teach matches students’ learning needs. Awesome! I eneded up teaching a mixture of coursebook-based lessons, lessons designed by other teachers, and self-designed lessons. I also had a chance to get as creative with the coursebook as I possibly could.
  2. How to get the most out of coursebooks
    The coursebook we have been using this term is Speakout Elementary. Since I had all the time in the world, I made sure to exploit each listening and reading task as much as I could in order to help my students build language skills they had problems with.
    Audio recordings in this textbook are quite natural and fast (at least in the second half of the book), so we did a lot of decoding practice with them. I especially love the DVD sections which feature authentic clips from various BBC programmes – those are even better for decoding! My students enjoyed decoding practice tremendously and got quite competitive 😀
    As for the texts, I used them to teach students how to recognise different parts of speech and analyse word order (a big problem for Arabic and Japanese students), as well as look at how familiar words are used in context. These tasks appeared to be less exciting for my students but definitely useful.
    Another great thing about Speakout is their pronunciation section. For A1 level, it’s mostly weakening, contractions and basic intonation, and I made sure we looked at all those features. The dialogues used in the FL sections are really good for working on intonation and connected speech.
    An interesting anecdote: there’s a dialogue on p.95 in which an angry passenger lashes out on a flight attendant who failed to get him a vegetarian meal. I was really unsure if I should use it with my students since this was definitely not the way I wanted them to speak to other people, but in the end I decided to give it a go and see how they react. My students said it was very rude, and one of them remembered being told off by a bus driver for using ‘What?’ instead of ‘Sorry, could you please repeat that?’. We looked at the intonation, i.e. which melody and tonality the passenger used that made him sound angry. I then asked my students to look at the transcript and rewrite the rude phrases making them more polite. This task was a bit challenging for them but they did their best.
  3. Teaching low levels is not as scary as it seems
    It’s actually quite the opposite! Working with low levels is extremely rewarding because they tend to progress faster. We have lessons 5 days a week, 3 hours a day, and I can’t express how amazing it feels when a student who could barely produce a clumsy sentence in Present Simple starts producing nicely structured sentences using the words we’ve learnt and Past Simple (and even Past Continuous) just in a month or so! We even ended up doing a bit of Dogme and just chatting about things that were important to them, e.g. education, job hunting, etc. The vocabulary that emerged was quite high-level at times but they were so eager to learn and use it. We all felt inspired.
  4. It feels a bit weird to teach students whose L1 you don’t speak at all (I only know 2 words in Arabic). I belive in the positive use of L1 so I do not prevent them from having a chat in Arabic as long as they’re doing it for the right purpose. However, because I have no idea what they’re talking about it’s hard for me to judge. They do try to briefly fill me in on what they were talking about, but still. Oh well, the drawbacks of monolingual classes. Or maybe I should find an Arabic tutor 😀

Back to Basics

After a really long, long time I’m back to teaching A1+ learners (up until recently, the lowest level I had ever taught was A2+). To make things even more interesting, I don’t know a single word in their L1 (I happen to have an almost monolingual group).

During my first week at work I was so nervous that I could hardly eat anything. I realized that I don’t really remember how to teach low levels. I spoke too fast and demanded too much from them.

After reading a bunch of articles about teaching low levels and getting observation feedback from a senior teacher, I finally felt better. I learnt to adapt my speech when needed, scaffold more and explain new words by mimicking (my mom says I could become an actress).

I also decided to try doing authentic listening with them. I had no idea how it would go and tried to choose one of the easiest videos on Tubequizard.com. And you know what? It turned awesome! All students were engaged, including those who tend to zone out most of the time. They were so surprised how simple words they knew sounded together. They were able to describe some basic processes, e.g. “he didn’t say don’t – he said doun!”. We tried saying things the same way – just for fun. I emphasized that they don’t have to speak this way, but if next time they hear doun and understand that it’s actually don’t, that’s great, that’s why we’re doing this.

Here’s a photo of my board work:

Authentic listening for A1+ learners

P.S. I know that /n/ in don’t doesn’t really turn into /m/ but there’s is certainly some lip rounding happening there. In fact, some students were uncertain if they had heard /n/ or /m/ so we ended up looking at it.

P.P.S. We actually work on connected speech and intonation a lot, and it’s so much fun! More fun than I expected because I usually do this kind of stuff with higher levels. My next challenge is to analyse texts a bit more intensively in terms of sentence structure and use retelling to develop their sense of language.

Lesson Plan: Raiche – Drive

I have never taught a lesson based on a song. Yes, for real. However, this song just got so deeply under my skin that I had no choice but to create a lesson plan for it. It is quite meaty because there is a lot to unpack and explore but it is a very engaging and inspiring lesson. At least that is what I think 😀

Lesson Details

Level: B2+-C2

Format: groups (could be adapted for 121); online / offline

Duration: 90′

Materials: access


Continue reading “Lesson Plan: Raiche – Drive”

What I Learnt from a Year of Being a Freelancer

I never wanted to be a freelance teacher, but COVID-19 did not ask me what I wanted. I was given lemons, so I had to make the best lemonade I could 🙂 This week, I am celebrating my first anniversary of being self-employed, and I figured that the best way to do this is to write a post with some useful advice for those teachers who are thinking of going freelance or have done it recently.

1. Setting Up

The first question every teacher asks when weighing their options is “How can I make sure I have enough students?” What I recommend is find some online schools to work for at the beginning. You will not be able to set your own hourly rate, but it will give you certain stability, and you can then give the remaining hours to your private students. Gradually, as you are getting more private students, you can decrease the number of hours you work for those schools.

Personally, I do not recommend teaching on platforms because the competition is really high there, so you really need to market yourself, and this is not something everyone enjoys doing. I tried several platforms and did not like any of them, but of course, it is up to you, and I do know teachers who are thriving on Preply or italki. Just not my cup of tea.

Next thing you must do is officially register as self-employed. This usually means that you have to set up your own private company. The procedure is different in different countries, so this is something you will have to figure out by yourself. Once you have set your own company (i.e. registered as a sole trader), you can start providing teaching services to both businesses and individuals. Keep in mind that as a sole trader, you will have to issue invoices to your clients, keep sales records, do accounting, submit your tax statements, etc. Make sure you understand your rights and obligations and consult with an accountant or a lawyer (or both) if there is a need for this. Know the law! For example, in Norway, you cannot issue invoices created in Excel because it is a legal requirement that they are numbered automatically, so I use PayPal Invoicing Tool.

On a positive note, as a company, you can have business expenses. This mean that if you happen to buy some textbooks or attend a conference, their cost will be deducted from your tax.

2. Finding Students

I would say go with the local websites. Post free ads and rely on the universe to help you out 🙂 You can also post in groups for English learners on Facebook, but make sure this is not against their rules. However, the best way is still the good old word of mouth.

Do not expect quick results. Typically, it takes at least a year or even a year and a half to build a solid client base.

You can invest in paid advertising if you wish so, but I would first do some quick research on its effectiveness and consult with a marketing specialist to make sure that your money is not wasted.

Finally, try to schedule a free ice-breaker call with each new student. This way, you will be able to see if you kind of click with this person, how serious they are about learning English, what their learning needs and goals are. As for terms and conditions, I am quite strict about it. No money – no lesson, so all payments have to be transferred one day before the lesson. Any cancellations or changes should also be made not later than one day prior to the lesson, otherwise, the money will not be returned. I explain these rules during the initial call and if the new student agrees to them, we sign a written agreement and schedule the lessons. I personally do not like the idea of teaching a free trial lesson because I prepare thoroughly for every lesson I teach and deserve to be paid. Students have the right to terminate our agreement at any time if they do not like the way I teach, and I make sure to tell them that it is totally okay to do so.

3. Timetable and Payments

When you are a freelancer, it is really easy to stop keeping track of your actual working hours and end up working pretty much all the time. I teach from Monday to Thursday and then I have Friday to plan lessons and do the admin stuff (mostly sending out invoices). Saturdays and Sundays (especially Sundays!) are untouchable. The only exception is the ELT Lesson Jam 😉

Do not hesitate to use paid websites that offer ready-made lesson plans. I personally love Linguahouse and ESL Brains: their lesson plans are superb, you will need just a few tweaks here and there, and you are all set. Onestopenglish and Fluentize are also great.

Another nagging problem is which payment system to use to get payments from foreign students. According to the majority of freelancers I have talked to, the best one is Wise (former TransferWise). I found it a bit confusing, to be honest, so I use PayPal. The fees are higher on PayPal, but those can also be written down as business expenses, so no problem here. Plus, their Invoicing Tool is awesome.

4. Social Media and Marketing

I have briefly touched on this in 2. Basically, in many cases, free ads and word of mouth are enough to get the ball rolling. To build a strong public profile, be active on social media. Write about your work, how your lessons go, questions your students frequently ask, etc.

If you wish to build your personal brand, you might need to hire a marketing specialist to write a content plan for you and manage the advertising. Alternatively, you can take some introductory courses to be able to do it yourself in the future, but in any case, this is something that does not come naturally and has to be learnt. Be ready to invest time and money.

It is a good idea to create your own website. You can use free website builders, such as Tilda and WordPress. I am currently working updating my website; I am using Tilda, and it is awesome although not always intuitive.

5. Community

As a freelancer, you might feel disconnected from the ELT community, but it does not have to be this way. There is an amazing group on Facebook run by Cecilia Nobre, where you can always ask a question and get plenty of support.

There are also ELT Lesson Jams organised by Freed with me, Liza Fedotova and Blanka Pawlak as hosts, where teachers from all over the world gather to share their lesson ideas (by the way, the next session is this Saturday, 14:00 CEST, hurry up and register, we are awesome!).

You will also find the recording of this Fireside Chat interesting; there were four of us and we covered pretty much all the basics of being a freelance English teacher.

So this is it. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment or contact me via Twitter or FB. And good luck!

PSLLT 2021

As some of you know, instead of attending the IATEFL conference, I ended up attending the 12th Annual Pronunciation and Second Language Learning and Teaching conference. This was not planned at all and I learnt about this conference one day after the registration had been supposedly closed, but the organisers were kind enough to let me register and attend. To make a long story short: this conference literally blew my mind, gave me an understanding of what my next CPD step should be (will be announced later), and pushed me to start planning how I am going to re-design my pronunciation course.

Below are short summaries of some of the talks I attended yesterday and the day before yesterday (I simply cannot summarise all of them!).

1) Foreign language learners’ views and attitudes towards the type of label used in perceptual training: phonetic symbols vs. keywords
If you ever wondered, which is better – phonetic symbols, keywords, or something else (e.g. pictures) – here is the answer: more students prefer phonetic symbols, so it is definitely worth teaching them. The use of keywords only will most likely confuse them and create a double cognitive load because, as we all know, letters do not equal sounds. I usually use phonetic symbols + keywords to create a stronger link. You could also try using pictures, e.g. flags, geometric shapes, etc.
Another thing to try is the Color Vowel Chart developed by Karen Taylor and Shirley Thompson. I have not used it with my students but it seems to be pretty popular among ESL/EFL teachers in the U.S. and Canada.

2) Whose input matters? The influences of various input sources in adult L2 phonetic learning
The aim of this research was to see if adult learners actually differentiate between teacher’s pronunciation and other L2 learners’ pronunciation, and which they prefer as a model.
A fake language was used. Participants were exposed to 3 models: teacher, students, and test (teacher and student). Different voices were used to ensure reliability. For the test model, they had to decide which pronunciation is better based on the knowledge of how these words sound when produced by a teacher or student.
Results: Participants showed a preference for the teacher talker pronunciation. This means that not only are they sensitive to various phonemic features (in this study, aspiration), but it also matters who produces target words. For us teachers it means that we have to be aware of what kind of pronunciation model we give to our students (does not come as a surprise, right?).
Personally, I think that aspiration, for example, is an important feature and should be practised and acquired by students as it enhances intelligibility because in fast speech, an unaspirated /p/ can sound very similar to /b/. However, as for /th/ sound, it seems that more and more people nowadays do not articulate it as clearly as they kind of should. Some speakers pronounce it as /f/ and /v/, some go for /t/ and /d/ or /s/ and /z/. As Dan Frost said, when middle-class women in their 20-s stop using these interdental consonants, we will know that /th/ is officially dead, and this might happen even earlier than we think!

3) Talks about teaching prosody: Put prosody first and Using lip synching to teach L2 prosody
These two talks introduced great ways of working on prosody which is usually the most crucial point in acquiring a more intelligible L2 pronunciation, especially if we talk about learners whose L1s are syllable-timed. One of the activities was very similar to what I do with my students, but it was using phrases instead of numbers, so I will definitely give it a try! Another activity focussed on students doing regular lip-synching exercises to better understand how rhythm in stress-timed languages works. They would start with slower songs and slowly progress towards faster ones. I have never tried anything like that with any of my students and am excited to actually try and see how it goes. These talks also made me think that I do not focus on prosody as much as I should (probably due to the fact that my students are mostly Russians, and Russian is a stress-timed language). I do have one Japanese student and several French and Italian students, so I already know who my guinea pigs are going to be 😀

4) Multiple talks about the use of visual feedback in pronunciation training
Research has shown that students are likely to improve their pronunciation faster if they can see their speech; for this, we can use software like Vowel Viewer, Audacity and Praat (I am already working on this). Unfortunately, to be able to use these tools effectively, you need some advanced knowledge and understanding of lab phonology, which is, obviously, not taught to CELTA and Delta candidates (so a degree in Linguistics/Applied Linguistics will be of great help).

I officially pronounce PSLLT conference the best conference I have attended in 2021!

Image source: https://brocku.ca/psllt-2021/

Lesson Plan: A Cooking Recipe

It’s a vocabulary and TBL lesson based on this authentic blog post: Super Creamy Vegan Mushroom Sauce Pasta. Originally, it was designed for a 121 lesson, but it can be easily adapted to a group one. It’s good for any student(s), but especially for those who LOVE cooking 🙂

Level: B1+ and higher
Objectives: to introduce a set of useful lexical items for reading (and understanding) and writing cooking recipes; to provide practice in writing cooking recipes
The ultimate goal: to write and publish a cooking recipe of student’s choice
Duration: 1.5-2 hours
Materials: The Recipe, Gap-fill

Continue reading “Lesson Plan: A Cooking Recipe”

Lesson Plan: Travel Guide – What to Do in…

This is a lesson plan based on this blog post: https://whatoliviadid.com/2016/09/how-to-spend-48-hours-in-copenhagen/.

Skills: Reading, FL, speaking

Level: B1-B2

Learning objectives – by the end of the lesson, students will have:

  • been introduced to a range of functional exponents to make travelling recommendations;
  • practised using these exponents in speaking/writing by making recommendations on what to see and do in a city they have visited in the past.

Duration: 60 minutes

Materials: This article, this vocabulary match task, and these slides.

Notes: Can be used with both groups and individual students

Lesson Procedure

Continue reading “Lesson Plan: Travel Guide – What to Do in…”

To assess, or not to assess, that is the question indeed

I’ve always had a difficult relationship with assessment.
When I was a student in Russia, I knew that it was all about scores and rankings. At university, I realised that assessment can be different and can be aimed at measuring how good you are at providing supportive arguments and structuring your assignment. However, neither in Russia nor in the UK, it was about me as a person. In Russia, schools are doing everything possible and impossible to have as few F students as they can. In the UK, the university failed to take into consideration my background and those difficulties I had to face as an international student for whom English was a second language and who was educated in a totally different environment where different criteria were cherished.
No wonder that when I became a teacher myself, assessment became my nightmare and a constant source of anxiety.

How to measure effort? Creativity? Engagement?
How to come up with criteria that will provide you with reliable data?
How to make sure each and every student in my class will be able to complete the assignment without saying that it was too easy or too difficult but just challenging enough?

Stakeholders want numbers and pie charts demonstrating that their investments have paid off. Academic managers want proof that they made the right choice when they decided to hire you. At the end of the day, assessment becomes a tool that is used to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers. Some might say that if a teacher is effective, their students make progress. True. But your effectiveness should not be the main concern when assessing students.

In most cases, what assessment lacks is the focus on learners.

As a learner myself, I know one thing: motivated or not, too harsh on yourself or not, you always know exactly how you’re doing. You know if you haven’t been studying hard enough. You know if you have tried your best. You know when you have finally mastered some structure or topic. You know what structures or topics you still have to master.

When I assess my students, I always turn to their expertise. Who, but them, know how they have been doing all that time and what, if something, has stopped them from achieving more? I don’t grade. Grades are meaningless unless there are very specific, detailed and objective criteria – which is hardly attainable. Instead, I ask my students how they feel about their learning process. Do they think they have made any progress? What do they think they should still work on and how could they do it? If they love grades then which one would they give themselves and why?

Of course, I take notes and make comments. Of course, I do not eliminate myself from the process completely. Students need our feedback, our encouragement.

Whenever I do some progress check, I always tell my students: this is not for me, this is for you. For you to evaluate your progress and see your strengths and weaknesses. For you to reconsider your learning route. Learning is by nature a solitary activity. You can have a teacher and classmates, but your learning journey is yours only and no one else’s. And it’s totally up to you where it brings you.