How to make conversation classes more meaningful for your students

In this article, Tory Thorkelson discusses a few of lessons and techniques that may be of use to fellow teachers wrestling with the ever present ‘conversational’ English classes.

classroom #1

Textbooks are just as tool.

Many new teachers follow the textbook religiously (through ignorance or because they feel forced to do so by the administration or because their students paid for them). While you need to teach the material in the textbook, this does not mean that you cannot supplement, modify or even replace lessons and material that does not work for your students for whatever reason. As your experience and classes evolve, you will feel more confident and comfortable about doing this and that is a good thing for both you and your students in the longer term.

A good syllabus is a lifesaver.

The syllabus allows you to map out clearly for yourself and your students what they can expect from a given course but it also serves as a way to let them know your expectations in terms of assignments, extra reading, grading system and the all-important class rules. If you take valuable class time to go over it in some detail, require them to read it (try a pop quiz the following class about key items/information) and them strongly suggest that they keep it handy in a folder or class file, they have a much smaller chance of saying that they ‘did not know what was expected of them’ later on in the class.

Grading should match both the syllabus and scope of the course.

A conversation class means that oral interviews and maybe presentations are a given to demonstrate oral communication skills. However, do you use picture stories? Role plays? Mini debates on a topic from the book? A conversation between a pair of students about a random topic from the book is a good basic approach, and saves the instructor from losing their voice after doing 100+ oral interviews over a short period. Remember to create or adapt a good checklist or rubric, and share it with the students beforehand if possible so that there is less confusion about what you are scoring and how it will be done.

Games and communicative activities.

If the point is to get the students speaking as much as possible, then games, information gaps, and running dictations offer good options for getting students actively involved. Keep the atmosphere fun and try to tone down the competition in favor of a whole-class learning experience. See this link for a book of activities two of my colleagues and I created a number of years ago based on our most successful conversation class ideas (

Pair/Group work

One of the most common complaints my students make about almost every class is that they want to speak to and get to know more of their classmates. My response is “So, why do you sit with the same people every day?”. To help avoid this problem, mix them up often using random numbers, colors, animals, favorite foods or whatever other categories you can think of. A service like https://www. might help with this. An occasional “Friends’ day” will allow them to sit with their favorite classmates, but it should not be an everyday thing.

presentation #1

Democracy in action.

I let my students pick their exam or quiz days through a class vote. Presentations and interviews are also chosen using numbers drawn at random. If they are unhappy with their day/time, they need to negotiate to exchange with another pair/group and let me know before the interview, presentation, etc. This avoids most of the problems with allowing free sign-ups for things they need to do and puts some of the responsibility for being there on time and prepared on their shoulders rather than mine.

Evaluations at midterms and finals.

While my university now has student evaluations online before midterms and at the end of term, the results are mostly numerical and the students are usually not eager to make comments, good or bad, for whatever reason. Therefore, I use my own anonymous feedback form covering just three questions:

  • What you liked.
  • What you did not like.
  • What you would add/change.

These serve as a quick measure of how the students are feeling about the course twice during the term, but allow me to tweak the course in the second half to better meet their needs. It also means that I have ways to justify course changes to my current classes based on what past students have said and – when we were required to submit reports at the end of term for the administration – I had something to base them on, other than the official evaluations that came out after the reports were due anyway.

While every educator has their own tips, tricks and ideas about teaching conversation or other classes, I hope you found some of the tips above useful for making your conversation and other classes more meaningful and entertaining for everyone involved.

Learning is a journey and it only has to be boring and predictable if you make it so.

This article was written by Tory Thorkelson and first appeared on July 9, 2018 at 

Academic Language Matters

Scott B. Freiberger faces the challenge of helping English learners get the right register

As a TESOL professional with 17+ years of language and literacy teaching, curriculum development, and school leadership experience, I sometimes encounter colleagues who comment, “I don’t get it. He’s so talkative with classmates and seems fluent in English. Why is he bombing my tests?”

Pupils take a GCSE mathematics exam at the Harris Academy South Norwood in south east London

The literature indicates that although a student may be versed in the art of colloquial communication, the same student may not be familiar with the vernacular distinct to classroom instruction, higher-level language that must be readily deciphered and utilized for academic success (Breiseth, 2014; Hill and Miller, 2013).

Academic Language Defined

Academic language is defined as “the language of school [as] it is used in textbooks, essays, assignments, class presentations, and assessments. Academic language is used at all grade levels, although its frequency increases as students get older” (Breiseth, 2014). Academic language has also been “characterized by longer, more complex sentences that contain vocabulary less frequently heard than the vocabulary in everyday spoken English” (Hill and Miller, 2013).

According to an apposite article in TESOL Quarterly, “Vocabulary knowledge is the single best predictor of second-language learners’ academic achievement across subject matter domains” (Saville-Troike, 1984). Based on what we have learned in the three decades since Saville-Troike conducted her relevant research, along with infusing rich vocabulary into the curriculum, we can now also include appropriate exposure to the grammar, syntax, and general thinking and speech patterns of a particular field to help foster academic language development and ensure classroom success.


Perhaps the most authoritative material on the subject was penned by noted scholar Dr. Jim Cummins, a researcher affiliated with the University of Toronto. In his seminal article entitled “The Cross-Lingual Dimensions of Language Proficiency: Implications for Bilingual Education and the Optimal Age Issue,” Dr. Cummins distinguishes between basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS), or social English, and cognitive academic language proficiency (CALP), or academic English. In the same article, he clarifies that “Cognitive/academic proficiencies in both L1 and L2 are manifestations of the same underlying dimension” (Cummins, 1980), meaning students who are quick to academic language improvement in their native tongue (L1) may demonstrate similar development patterns regarding cognitive/academic proficiency in the second or target language (L2).

Dr. Cummins mentions two variables that may invariably affect CALP proficiency, namely repeated instructional exposure coupled with student motivation (Cummins, 1980). Two decades later, Dr. Cummins further elaborated on academic language, considering it “the extent to which an individual has access to and command of the oral and written academic registers of schooling” (Cummins, 2000, p. 67).

BICS, also called social English or conversational language, is “the informal, chatty way of talking that students use with family and friends” (Hill and Miller, 2013). What confounds educators is when their students demonstrate mastery of BICS but fail to attain proficiency in CALP, or academic language.

This is because, according to Dr. Cummins and “corroborated in many research studies carried out during the past 30 years,” it takes most English language learners (ELLs) five to seven years “to approach grade norms in academic aspects of English (e.g., vocabulary knowledge)” (Cummins, 2008).

This is not to say that ELLs cannot progress faster than the literature indicates; however, it does provide a common-sense rationale as to why many ELLs may not be on grade-level norms with their native-English-speaking peers after only a few years. Thus, if ELLs are struggling with academic language, they may also be, ipso facto, struggling in their core content classes. As we now understand the concept, CALP is primarily utilized at school and includes professional dialogue, complex conversations, and academic text specked with key vocabulary terms.

What ELLs Need to Succeed

In every academic discipline, such as science, math, and social studies, classroom language may differ according to subject. Many educators strive to motivate their students to think like mathematicians or scientists and use metacognitive strategies for students to conceive of the thought process utilized in those fields; however, in order for students to succeed academically, they must also be introduced to and become familiar with the classroom language specific to those subjects. Educators must delve deeper than presenting an intermittent smattering of vocabulary cards; according to one recent publication, “Students should be led to recognize that [relevant academic] speech involves longer, more complex sentences and uses higher-level vocabulary than is common in everyday speech” (Hill and Miller, 2013).


Instructional Strategies

As the classroom facilitator, be prepared to enable your students to not only think but also sound like scholars. During an initial lesson, for instance, consider instructing students to listen carefully to the difference between colloquial, American-slang-infused speech, such as, “I’m hanging (or hanging out) with my friends from work,” compared with the more erudite, “I’m socializing with some colleagues.”


A simple graphic organizer may help.

Consider trying this: Use a two-column graphic organizer with the heading “Classroom Language.” In the first column, entitled “Social English,” include the terms, “I like,” “I think,” “I pick,” “But,” and “I help.” Label the opposite column “Academic English,” under which you can write, “I prefer,” “I conclude,” “I select,” “Upon further reflection,” and “I assist” (NYC DOE, 2016). The goal is for educators to entice students to use more words from the “Academic English” column than the “Social English” column.

Create a game in which students brainstorm in small groups to come up with academic English terms for everyday actions. The group with the most academic English terms wins.

Students may better fathom the specific academic language used in a subject if you show them what that language looks and sounds like. For instance, under the subject heading “Language Arts,” in the “Social English” column write, “I like this book,” while on the opposite column entitled “Academic English” write, “This story is more enticing than the first one we read together” (Breiseth, 2014). Under “Science,” the “Social English” column could read, “It worked,” while the “Academic English” column could say, “The experiment was a tremendous success” (Breiseth, 2014).

“Social Studies” could read, “They were brave” under “Social English” and “The valiant soldiers received the medals due to their unyielding courage” to illustrate “Academic English” (Breiseth, 2014). Show students the stark contrast in language employed in business communications compared with everyday personal usage. Get them thinking about academic language with professional reviews of their favorite books compared with an enthused fan’s positive review on social media or the author’s terse description on the book jacket (Breiseth, 2014).

Social English utilized on social media is another vernacular in and of itself, combining slang, acronyms, and sometimes arcane abbreviations that even college professors may have difficulty deciphering. To further enhance a lesson and engage students, consider including social media text dialogue on one side (“LOL”) with its academic equivalent, “That utterance was quite amusing,” or pair “LMAO” with “That witty comment, simultaneously chock-full of irony and pleasantly provocative, was uproariously humorous.” Or you may simply pen, “That was quite humorous.”

Academic words could also be selected according to tier level, meaning general, cross-disciplinary words that could apply across subjects (Tier Two) compared with disciplinary words specific to a field or subject (Tier Three). According to Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (2002), Tier One words “tend to be limited to specific domains (e.g., enzyme) or [are] so rare that an avid reader would likely not encounter them in a lifetime (e.g., abecedarian). Tier Two comprises wide-ranging words of high utility for literate language users” (p. 20).

While ELLs may be able to decipher Tier Two words via context clues, Tier Three words generally cannot be understood sans frontloading because there is little or no context in which to decipher meaning (Gubernatis, 2016). While it is a known best practice to frontload key vocabulary, Tier Three words should always be frontloaded, especially for ELLs (Gubernatis, 2016).

In addition to American idioms and singular American slang, ELLs also face particular challenges when they encounter words that are polysemous, unfamiliar, or normalized (Fisher, Frey, and Lapp, 2012). Consider making a graphic organizer with three columns. Title the first column “Polysemous,” the second “Unfamiliar,” and the third “Normalized.”

Then, work through a passage with students to help bring out their academic language. Show words that are polysemous (have more than one meaning), unfamiliar, or arcane verbiage, and normalized speech, such as verbs or adjectives that may become nouns, such as talk, run, or stand (NYC DOE, 2016). Be sure to use academic vocabulary repeatedly in context. “Word learning must be active [and replete with repetition], not a passive dictionary definition learning” (Stahl and Jacobson, 1986).

Wrapping It Up

Educators today must have a keen understanding of academic language and its distinct features (NYC DOE, 2016). School leaders should therefore take careful steps to ensure that educators develop an acute awareness of how standards-based instruction and tiered questioning techniques enhance academic language for their ELLs. Educators, in turn, should fathom how to carefully select academic vocabulary words to teach across subject domains. Not only does a solid foundation in academic language increase English-language communication and academic comprehension, but it also helps students to improve vocabulary knowledge, communicative competence, and verbal expression. This, in turn, should translate to multiple data sources that measure stronger academic growth levels across grades, more self-assured educators and assenting, amicable administrators, and sensational students coupled with motivated key constituents who take pride in all student accomplishments.

Continue to clarify meaning and provide authentic additional visual and verbal supports. Enabling access to academic language, the language associated with power and prestige, can help ensure that all students succeed not only in the classroom but also in college and career readiness.


Beck, I., McKeown, M. and Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction. New York: Gilford Press.
Breiseth, L. (2014). “Academic Language and ELLs: What teachers need to know.” Retrieved from
Cummins, J. (1980). “The Cross-Lingual Dimensions of Language Proficiency: Implications for bilingual education and the optimal age issue.” TESOL Quarterly, 14(2), 175–187.
Cummins, J. (2000). Language, Power and Pedagogy: Bilingual Children in the Crossfire. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.
Cummins, J. (2008). “BICS and CALP: Empirical and theoretical status of the distinction.” In B. Street and N. H. Hornberger (eds.), Encyclopedia of Language and Education, 2nd edition, Volume 2: Literacy, 71–83. New York: Springer Science.
Fisher, D., Frey, N., and Lapp, D. (2012). Teaching Students to Read Like Detectives: Comprehending, Analyzing, and Discussing Text. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
Gubernatis, B. (2016). Deconstructing the Nystce: A Teacher’s Guide to Passing the EAS and the CST. New York: Brooklyn Education Center.
Hill, J. D., and Miller, K. B. (2013). Classroom Instruction that Works with English Language Learners. Retrieved from
New York City Department of Education (2016). “D25 ELL Principal Cohort.” Prepared by Queens North Field Support Center and presented on December 22, 2016.
Saville-Troike, M. (1984). “What Really Matters in Second Language Learning for Academic Achievement?” TESOL Quarterly, 18(2), 199–219.
Stahl, S. A. and Jacobson, M. G. (1986). “Vocabulary Difficulty, Prior Knowledge, and Text Comprehension.” Journal of Reading Behavior, 18, 309–323.

Scott Freiberger is honored to be the New York State TESOL Outstanding Teacher Award 2015 recipient. He admires his industrious colleagues and esteemed administrators at P. S. 20Q John Bowne Elementary School of Global Studies in New York City and enjoys presenting professional development workshops at conferences.

This article first appeared online at on July 17, 2017

Why learning English is hard and what we can do about it

Learning a language can be tricky, challenging and sometimes frustrating. We speak to ESL teachers who explain why English is hard and what you can do to stay motivated.


The first thing Virginia Mawer will tell you is that learning a language can be difficult. She is an ESL teacher at EF Sydney.

“Learning any language is hard but if that’s what you want to do because you want to be able to communicate using this international language, then hard is OK,” Virginia says.

Ibrahim Abdullah, a senior teacher at Milner International College of English, points out that there are other languages which are more difficult to learn than English, like Portuguese or Chinese. He says he finds it funny when students from Brazil and China say English is hard to learn.

“I look at them and say: you have got to be kidding. Portuguese grammar is much more difficult than English grammar.

“The time you young people from China spent learning how to write your own language is infinitely longer than we learnt how to do A, B, C.”

Another reason why people may find learning English difficult is because they want to improve their English in a very short period of time.

Alison Foley from the University of Wollongong says some students come to Australia with the aim of learning English and think “they’re going to improve in six weeks”. She cautions that language learning is a very “time-consuming process”.

Alison also says many students often hang out with people from their own country and end up speaking their first language outside class time. This hinders their language learning.

“They think they’re using the opportunity to learn English but they can often spend, even in some cases, all of their time outside the classroom with speakers of their own language.”

Garrath Bell from the Griffith English Language Institute explains that even if learners experience the initial difficulty, they will start to notice they are getting better over time.


“Your vocabulary and your knowledge of English and your competency will grow exponentially.”

Deborah Ferris from UNSW Global says it helps to take small steps when it comes to language learning.

“Do what you can and just enjoy the process because learning a language is an adventure,” Deborah says.

This article first appeared at on April 23rd 2018

10 Interactive storytelling activities


I recently watched a webinar over at the Training Magazine Network by the celebrated learning game guru, Thiagi and his associate Tracy Tagliati on interactive storytelling in which they offered techniques for transforming the conventional approach of the facilitator narrating a story and participants listening passively to one where the facilitator sets up activities within which Ss “actively create, share, analyse, debrief, modify and roleplay stories.  Many of these ideas will be familiar to those of us in ELT but nevertheless it’s potentially useful to see them all consolidated in one place.

1. Co-constructed stories 

Ask Ss to pair up and stand facing each other. Each S contributes a few words that go towards building a c0-constructed story. Ss take turns to extend the story. Turn-taking could happen sequentially or randomly. The story could be written instead of spoken and Ss could pass a piece of paper back and forth. Ss could also be challenged to create the longest sentence through the shared story. Thiagi and Tracy derived some interesting learning from this activity. It could be used to draw Ss’ attention on how both people in each pair completely focused on each other and worked towards a common goal so they didn’t multitask or engage in one upmanship and how this may have helped achieved a better outcome. They also pointed out that the activity could be used to debrief more substantive content. For example, you teach your Ss the seven principles of customer satisfaction and then conduct the activity asking them to incorporate the seven principles into their co-constructed story.

2. Shared stories 

Apparently this activity is also called story exchange and based on an idea borrowed from Appreciative Inquiry. Ask Ss to take a couple of minutes to write the outline of a story they want to share. Now ask them to stand and pair off with someone from another part of the room. Ss should listen enthusiastically to their partner’s story and then narrate their own. Ss then find new partners and repeat the procedure. After exchanging stories with half a dozen other Ss, form groups and ask Ss in their groups to find common elements in storytelling from all the people they heard for example what made it a positive experience.

3. Unfinished story 

Ss listen to 80% of a story told by the facilitator (or another S) and then complete the story by themselves. Upon coming up with a version for completing the story, they could work in groups and come up with more alternate endings. This activity could be used to explore assumptions, stereotypes and perceptions and could also be used to challenge Ss to be creative. In fact, one of my favourite activities in the same vein also comes from Thiagi. It’s called The Sentry . You give Ss copies of this science fiction short story without the last line and ask them to try and complete it. After they share their responses, have them read the original line for a powerful ‘aha’ moment.

4. Zoom stories 

In this technique, borrowed from improv, pair off Ss. One S narrates a story while her partner, from time to time, says ‘zoom in’ or ‘zoom out’. Zoom in means the storyteller should add more details and zoom out means that she should reduce the level of detail. I really liked this activity – I see a lot of potential for application in the business classroom where professionals are often required to gauge audience and context, and adjust their level of detail in order to ensure that they convey their message effectively in meetings and presentations.

5. Roleplayed stories 

T starts recounting a narrative and stops when she gets to a critical juncture. At this point, she asks Ss to assume the roles of different characters. Ss roleplay the scenario until T stops them and introduces a new twist and then repeats the roleplay bit. Their example was that there’s been some sort of nuclear holocaust and the earth is completely irradiated. The Ss seem to be the only survivors, having found refuge in a bomb shelter. Ask them to create a plan for restarting civilization in three month’s time when the radiation clears and they’ll be able to go out into the world. Now have them role play characters in this narrative. Then introduce a twist; one of your friends is just outside the door. She’s used the intercom to tell you that she’s in a bad state and needs medical help. If you open the door to let her in, there’s a possibility that the shelter may get contaminated by radiation. Debate the issue and obtain a two-thirds majority to open the door and save her life. Ss roleplay the scenario again.

6. Analysed stories 

This is essentially the case study approach. T reads out a fairly short scenario or provides copies to Ss to read. Ss individually analyse the story before analysing it collectively in a small group and then analysing it in a larger group or as a class. Tracy had an interesting cross-cultural example for this technique. She talked about an American trainer who is sent on a secondment to an organization in South India where she trains the local trainers on interactive learning techniques which they lap up enthusiastically. Later, in a meeting, the director of the company tells the training team that trainers should be respected and that humility is most important on the part of those who attend training programs. The American trainer interrupts, openly challenging the director’s views suggesting that recent research in cognitive science demonstrates that questioning the trainer is a sign of deeper engagement with the knowledge being taught. The director however ignores her and the training team vocally support his position. When the American trainer confronts her team about what happened, they agree with her views. Some time later, her company abruptly recalls her to the US. This incident could fuel an interesting discussion about differences in cultural orientations.

7. Shrunken stories

These are really concise stories which are either read out by the T or read by the Ss individually. They can be of several types such as short-short stories, 99 word stories (Brian Remer who I’ve been subscribing to for yonks is particularly famous for these), six word stories (like Hemingway’s famous “For sale, baby shoes, never worn”), hint stories and espresso stories. Provide examples and ask Ss to write their own using the same structure and have them share it in groups.

8. Debriefed stories 

The shrunken story is immediately followed by a discussion where Ss reflect on the story and discuss their perspectives with peers.

9. Summarized stories 

Recall a famous novel or plot and condense it into a one minute summary. Alternatively, read a case study, research report or business proposal and narrate it in one minute or less. This could be really useful for business students.

10. Prompted stories 

Specify a theme or topic and provide a prompt such as pictures, comics, titles, first lines and opening paragraphs and ask Ss to incorporate it into a story that addresses the theme.

This post was written by Adi Rajan and first appeared at on October 24th, 2014.

In-Demand Degrees & Landing Top UK Jobs

“Non-EEA international students often find themselves at a disadvantage when it comes to applying for British graduate jobs”

As Brexit negotiations continue, many international students are feeling concerned about their place in the UK post-graduation, particularly those looking to work in graduate roles. Luna Williams, content writer and correspondent at Immigration Advice Service offers advice to relieve some of this concern.

As it stands, any non-EEA international graduate can take on permanent, skilled work in the UK provided they have received a job offer and a Certificate of Sponsorship (CoS) from their prospective employer. Once they have this, they will be eligible for a Tier 2 Work Visa, which will allow them to take on their desired role and remain in the UK for a further five years to fill it. For those looking to settle in the UK permanently, this route is ideal.


International students are wondering which route to take

However, before international graduates can receive either a Tier 2 job offer or a CoS, they are usually required to wait for a minimum of 28 days, while their desired job role is advertised to British and European nationals. This process is called the Resident Labour Market Test (RLMT) and is very strict, with employers who do not wait for this allotted period being severely penalised.

As a result, non-EEA international students often find themselves at a disadvantage when it comes to applying for British graduate jobs.

“An ‘in-demand’ degree refers to a degree which qualifies the student to take on a role which is officially ‘in-shortage’ in the UK”

Being placed on a lower priority to other students, their desired graduate jobs are either completely taken before they get a chance to apply, or are highly-competitive once they do.

Skills shortage

Fortunately for these students, there are certain circumstances which allow this rule to be bent – and this applies when an international student is graduating with an ‘in-demand’ degree.


In demand degrees – those short after within the UK.

An ‘in-demand’ degree refers to a degree which qualifies the student to take on a role which is officially ‘in-shortage’ in the UK. If a role is in shortage, this means that the UK government has ruled that there is not enough residential talent to fill it.

“Making up around 50 per cent of the roles on the list, engineering professionals are by far the most sought after when it comes to international talent”

A full list of these roles is published annually on a government resource called the UK Shortage Occupation List. Roles currently included in the list range from chemical engineers to paediatrics to ballet dancers.

Crucially, anyone eligible to take on a role on this list is able to automatically bypass the RLMT’s 28-day waiting period and is therefore given a level playing field when applying for their Tier 2 role.

In-demand graduate roles

Making up around 50 per cent of the roles on the list, engineering professionals are by far the most sought after when it comes to international talent. Under categories such as Civil, Mechanical, Electrical, Electronic, Process, Design and Production Engineering, there are many roles included which a degree under any of these faculties may qualify you to take on.

Also popular on the list are roles involved in the Healthcare and Medicine industries. These include roles in Psychiatry and Radiography, as well as General Practice.

As well as these main areas, there are a number of roles included in the list in areas such as Physical Science, IT, Education, Social Care, Art and Music.

With this in mind, any international students who are studying degrees in schools such as Medicine, Engineering and the Arts, may have a highly increased chance of securing a job in the UK once they have graduated and are advised to bear this in mind when considering their future plans and prospects.

This article first appeared at: on March 29th 2018

10 Ways Teaching Has Changed In The Last 10 Years


Teachers are the arbitrators of knowledge and culture.

Knowledge and culture are each dynamic, endlessly crashing and churning. This makes teaching significantly important and difficult work, and can leave teaching—as a craft—wide-eyed and nonplussed in response.

Worse, those outside the bubble of education can understandably struggle to understand the problem. What are they teaching in those schools anyway? How is it any different from when I was in school? Well, as it turns out, much of it is different from even five years ago.

Starting with literacy.

10 Ways Teaching Has Changed Since You Started Teaching

1. Data (about student achievement, for example) is more visible than content.

2. Teachers are leading everywhere.

3. Media is designed to be duplicated & shared

Here’s why this matters: Digital devices have changed everything. They promote personalization, offer direct access to everything, support the mashing of media, are interactive, and mobile. While education isn’t close to figuring out that last part, the first four are giving it plenty to work on in the meantime.

If literacy is understanding how to read and write, then anything read or written/created digitally is first and foremost about reading and writing, but with unique nuance. Socializing ideas, multimodalities, complex methods of tagging and curating, endless acronyms and initialisms, fluid transfer from one form (a tweet) to another (a YouTube video) to another (a YouTube video tweeted) to another (a shorter gif version of that video then pinned on pinterest) to another (ultimately arriving as a meme that is then shared on facebook).

This is a pretty big deal, and requires the deft hand of teachers to make the adjustments.

4. Apps have fallen in favor

Many teachers have either given up on apps, or shifted their use to something more intermittent and isolated than clean-sheet-redesign/apps-are-the-new-textbooks.

5. Mobile is first.


Information, communication, search, purchasing, identity—they’re mobile-first.

Mobile learning is also a thing. Students can get up from their desks and walk around now. In fact, in a progressive learning environment they have a need to do so, and the self-monitoring strategies to make it work on their own. They can Skype with other classrooms, engage in school-to-school collaboration for project-based learning, and participate in experiential learning in authentic local communities.

It is easy to miss what a dramatic change this represents for education.

6. Equity & identity matter to students more than ever

Equity is more and more an issue a decade and a half into the 21st century. In the 1990s, profits, corporate greed, and systematic policies were less visible—niche. The occupy wall street movement changed that, and the Millenials have taken up that mantle as a significant theme for their generation.

Access to technology, socioeconomic issues, language barriers, culturally indifferent standardized assessment, WiFi speeds, and dozens of other issues are no longer niche side-conversations, but rather central issues teachers have to confront in both curriculum, instruction, and community engagement. Content holding and distribution—if it was ever—is no longer enough.

Teachers are both diplomats of often very bad school policies, and ombudsman for students and families.

7. Students & teachers are always connected

Teachers are expected to both learn, plan, publish, share, and collaborate endlessly with other teachers, and then support their students to do the same with their own peers.

The first step here is to help students to identify potential collaborators—often in other countries that speak other languages. I didn’t teach in 1953, but I’m guessing this wasn’t common.

8. Digital games are actually useful for learning.


They’re one of the best ways to review content, for example. (Think Kahoot.)

Imagine how odd this would’ve seemed 25 years ago.

9. Technology has game-changing potential

A sleeping giant in education (well, besides parents) is adaptive software. This is the killer app for education as it struggles to make sense of a new world and new expectations.

Apps are now available that adapt to student performance in a way that teachers can’t. Yes, they can and will replace teachers for many of skill-based tasks that can be automated without losing their efficacy.

And in education that depends on curriculum as we know it, there are many of these.

10. Information is everywhere but wisdom is scarce

Try convincing a student to listen to you explain how Europeans came to America for religious freedom when they can Google that tidbit in 45 seconds, then access an entire YouTube channel dedicated to that very idea while downloading an iTunesU course from an Oxford professor on the very same thing.

In the 21st century, teachers have to respond to this while serving educational institutions that continue to operate blissfully unaware of it all. And since it’s hard to serve two masters, what do you do? Do what you’re told in the classroom, then read this kind of stuff for fun?

This article was written by first appeared at on December 18, 2017.

15 ways to stay motivated to teach

Teaching English can be a very rewarding and enjoyable job, students continuously surprise you with their progress and every class seems to challenge you more and more.  But sometimes it can seem like your students don’t like you, your school demands more and more and each class feels like a marathon.

Alex Case, the author of TEFLtastic  gives you 15 ways to stay motivated to teach.

1. Set yourself goals
One of the things that can make teachers lose motivation is the whole thing becoming a grind of lesson after lesson with no clear final aim.

2. Bring in something you enjoy
Perhaps because it reminds them of more self-indulgent teachers, serious teachers often need to be told to do something in class that they enjoy like designing a worksheet to be used with their an extract from their favourite book or video. A well designed task and the enthusiasm of the teacher for the material usually make up for any lack of previous knowledge by the students.


3. Teach your students something important
Another great demotivator is the succession of minor language points and readings on amusing but trivial topics that don’t seem to add up to much compared with the subject matter of a biology, ethics or law teacher or lecturer. It can take some effort to tie it in with language presentations and skills development, but the fact that our subject is language means that it is actually easier for us to pick and choose the big, interesting topics than it is for teachers working their way through the philosophy syllabus.

4. Learn something about/ from your students
Another thing that can turn into a blurred sequence is the procession of new students coming in and out of your classroom. One way to stop this feeling is to find out as much about them as individuals as you can, but the thing that is more likely to stick with you over the years is if you manage to learn something new about the world from them, e.g. by asking them to do projects and/ or presentations on their hometowns or hobbies.


5. Read
As the aim is to read for inspiration rather than directly for a promotion or qualification, if you don’t have the time, energy or patience for an Applied Linguistics book, try dipping into a book with more practical ideas; a TEFL magazine, website or blog; a popular science linguistics book; a popular paperback on language like “Mother Tongue” by Bill Bryson; or even a self-help book.


6. Write
Even writing a diary on how your teaching is going can make it more interesting and show you ways out of whatever hole you in, and if you can get yourself published that can give you a real buzz and a way of stretching yourself that has a clear progression from game ideas on the web to getting your name on the front page of the most popular TEFL magazines and publishing a book that can keep you going for years, if not forever…

7. Go to workshops
As useful, convenient and (sometimes) cheap as reading and writing are, if you want a sense of perspective and a little push, there is no substitute for hearing other people talk about having the same problems as you. If your temporary drop in motivation means you are likely to lack the energy for a full blown course, a workshop or two might just give you the pep you need.

8. Give workshops
As teachers, most of us learn more from teaching than studying and live off the attention of standing up there at the front and getting approval, so giving workshops can be an even better way of coming up with new ideas than going to someone else’s. An easy start is to give a 30 to 50 minute workshop on practical teaching ideas in your own school.

9. Take a break
Like sports training or anything else, sometimes a bit of a break is what you need to get the best out of yourself. If you can’t afford to take extra time off or think a break on your CV will set your career back, a little time in a management job, teacher training job, ELT publishing job or in a summer school can be almost as refreshing as a complete break from TEFL.


10. Use teaching to learn about the world
TEFL can get to seem like a small, incestuous world where the things you learn after the first couple of years take you further away from people who haven’t got a head full of specialist jargon. You can reverse this effect by using your reading and your classes to widen your horizons, e.g. by reading business and management books if you have Business English courses, expanding Applied Linguistics reading to include more general books on psychology, childhood development or neurology etc.

11. Take a qualification
Not only would I recommend taking a qualification like a Diploma or MA when you are feeling unmotivated, I would suggest leaving those qualifications until you are feeling stuck in a rut and so can really appreciate being told to do things differently. The only difficulty is getting your energy levels up, which the other tips here can help with.

12. Show yourself how far you have come
If you feel like you are treading water, it could be because you can’t see the river banks and so can’t notice how far you have come. You can show yourself this by re-reading a book you read during your teacher training or early in your career, watching a video of or observing beginner teachers, re-reading some of your old coursework or trying a lesson plan or worksheet you haven’t for ages and see how much better it goes now.


13. Peer observations
Although a good DoS or teacher trainer can sometimes give you the little pointer you need to shake your classes out of boredom for you and/ or your students, the whole build up to it, the paperwork and the fact that you might be judged on a lesson on a bad day, week, month or term for you can make you less than receptive to the whole process and the feedback. One way of getting the positives without sapping too much of your remaining energy is to swap observations with another teacher. Watching someone else’s lesson can be particularly motivating- it’s an effort-free way of picking up new ideas, and anything you see which is not so good is a great ego-booster for you.

14. Do the opposite
Humans being what they are, it can sometimes be when everything is going exactly to plan, e.g. you have finally got that all Business English schedule you’ve been asking for, is when you start to get bored. If so, what you need is a bit of cross pollination, in the form of seeing what complete beginners can teach you about teaching Advanced, what monolingual classes can teach you about pairwork in multilingual classes etc.

15. Do something you hate
If touchy-feely Humanistic language teaching (for example) is something that makes your skin creep just to think about it, make yourself try it. You’ve got nothing to lose- if it is as pants as you expect, you can feel better about what you usually do in class, and if it is okay you have another whole area of teaching to explore.

This article first appeared in March 2008.

The slippery grammar of spoken vs written English


My grammar checker and I are on a break. Due to irreconcilable differences, we are no longer on speaking terms.

It all started when it became dead set on putting commas before every single “which”. Despite all the angry underlining, “this is a habit which seems prevalent” does not need a comma before “which”. Take it from me, I am a linguist.

This is just one of many challenging cases where grammar is slippery and hard to pin down. To make matters worse, it appears that the grammar we use while speaking is slightly different to the grammar we use while writing. Speech and writing seem similar enough – so much so that for centuries, people (linguists included) were blind to the differences.

There’s issues to consider

Let me give you an example. Take sentences like “there is X” and “there are X”. You may have been taught that “there is” occurs with singular entities because “is” is the present singular form of “to be” – as in “there is milk in the fridge” or “there is a storm coming”.

Conversely, “there are” is used with plural entities: “there are twelve months in a year” or “there are lots of idiots on the road”.

What about “there’s X”? Well, “there’s” is the abbreviated version of “there is”. That makes it the verb form of choice when followed by singular entities.

Nice theory. It works for standard, written language, formal academic writing, and legal documents. But in speech, things are very different.

It turns out that spoken English favours “there is” and “there’s” over “there are”, regardless of what follows the verb: “there is five bucks on the counter” or “there’s five cars all fighting for that Number 10 spot”.

A question of planning

This is not because English is going to hell in a hand basket, nor because young people can’t speak “proper” English anymore.

Linguists Jen Hay and Daniel Schreier scrutinised examples of old recordings of New Zealand English to see what happens in cases where you might expect “there” followed by plural, (or “there are” or “there were” for past events) but where you find “there” followed by singular (“there is”, “there’s”, “there was”).

They found that the contracted form “there’s” is a go-to form which seems prevalent with both singular and plural entities. But there’s more. The greater the distance between “be” and the entity following it, the more likely speakers are to ignore the plural rule.

“There is great vast fields of corn” is likely to be produced because the plural entity “fields” comes so far down the expression, that speakers do not plan for it in advance with a plural form “are”.

Even more surprisingly, the use of the singular may not always necessarily have much to do with what follows “there is/are”. It can simply be about the timing of the event described. With past events, the singular form is even more acceptable. “There was dogs in the yard” seems to raise fewer eyebrows than “there is dogs in the yard”.

Nothing new here

The disregard for the plural form is not a new thing (darn, we can’t even blame it on texting). According to an article published last year by Norwegian linguist Dania Bonneess, the change towards the singular form “there is” has been with us in New Zealand English ever since the 19th century. Its history can be traced at least as far back as the second generation of the Ulster family of Irish emigrants.

Editors, language commissions and prescriptivists aside, everyday New Zealand speech has a life of its own, governed not so much by style guides and grammar rules, but by living and breathing individuals.

It should be no surprise that spoken language is different to written language. The most spoken-like form of speech (conversation) is very unlike the most written-like version of language (academic or other formal or technical writing) for good reason.


Speech and writing

In conversation, there is no time for planning. Expressions come out more or less off the cuff (depending on the individual), with no ability to edit, and with immediate need for processing. We hear a chunk of language and at the same time as parsing it, we are already putting together a response to it – in real time.

This speed has consequences for the kind of language we use and hear. When speaking, we rely on recycled expressions, formulae we use over and over again, and less complex structures.

For example, we are happy enough writing and reading a sentence like:

That the human brain can use language is amazing.

But in speech, we prefer:

It is amazing that the human brain can use language.

Both are grammatical, yet one is simpler and quicker for the brain to decode.

And sometimes, in speech we use grammatical crutches to help the brain get the message quicker. A phrase like “the boxes I put the files into” is readily encountered in writing, but in speech we often say and hear “the boxes I put the files into them”.

We call these seemingly unnecessary pronouns (“them” in the previous example) “shadow pronouns”. Even linguistics professors use these latter expressions no matter how much they might deny it.

Speech: a faster ride

There is another interesting difference between speech and writing: speech is not held up on the same rigid prescriptive pedestal as writing, nor is it as heavily regulated in the same way that writing is scrutinised by editors, critics, examiners and teachers.

This allows room in speech for more creativity and more language play, and with it, faster change. Speech is known to evolve faster than writing, even though writing will eventually catch up (at least for some changes).

I would guess that by now, most editors are happy enough to let the old “whom” form rest and “who” take over (“who did you give that book to?”).

This article was written by  and first appeared at on March 14, 2018



Being intelligible means that you are understood by the person you are talking to. World Englishes scholars Larry Smith and Cecil Nelson (1985) have suggested that intelligibility is made up of the following three components:

  • intelligibility, the ability of the listener to recognise individual words or utterances
  • comprehensibility, the listener’s ability to understand the meaning of the word or utterance in its given context
  • interpretability, the ability of the listener to understand the speaker’s intentions behind the word or utterance.


Most English language teachers probably assume that intelligibility is the responsibility of their learners. In contrast, the Smith and Nelson (1985) model focuses on the relative nature of intelligibility, suggesting that it is interactional between speaker and hearer, and that being intelligible means being understood by a particular listener at a particular time in a particular situation. What this means is that English users’ familiarity with any speaker’s way of talking is as important as how they are talking. In other words, the intelligibility of the English of Cormack and Bernadette you read and listened to earlier depends on how used you are to hearing their voices. Listen to them for any length of time, and they will become more intelligible (to you). The interactive nature of intelligibility is, regrettably, something so-called ‘international’ English tests ignore. How can speaking tests be valid and reliable when the examiner is (or is not) used to the test-taker’s variety of English?


Most English language teachers probably assume that ‘interference’ from their students’ first language is a major source of any communication problems. But, as Jenkins’ (2002) research on pronunciation suggests, effective international communicators use many features that differ from those of native speakers without causing communication problems. In addition to pronunciation features, there are also many grammatical and lexical features which have been shown not to hinder communication. For example:

  • non-use of the third person present tense –s: she look very sad
  • omission and addition of definite and indefinite articles
  • use of an all-purpose question tag: isn’t it? no?
  • increase in redundancy: we have to study about, black colour, how long time?
  • pluralization of nouns: informations, staffs, advices

(Seidlhofer 2004, p. 220)

(You can confirm the findings of this research yourself by looking again at the Ban Ki Moon interview used in the first unit, Thinking about English.)

Research into intelligibility by World Englishes and ELF scholars has demonstrated that, contrary to the assumptions of many English language teachers, there is no causal relationship between being a native speaker of English and being intelligible in an international context. Instead, they have suggested, it is vitally important for all speakers of English to practise listening to a wide range of varieties of English and to adjust their speech in order to be intelligible to listeners from a wide range of language backgrounds. In the words of Suresh Canagarajah (2007, pp. 923 – 924), successful English language users ‘are able to monitor each other’s language proficiency to determine mutually the appropriate grammar, lexical range and pragmatic conventions that would ensure intelligibility’.


ELF in your part of the world

How do (or might, in the future) your students use English to communicate with speakers of other languages? How important will their ability to use the forms of ‘Standard English’ be in these contexts?


Your answer will depend on your students’ age, location, access to the internet, hobbies, job, where they take their holidays, what other language(s) they speak, etc.

For example, if they have unblocked access to the internet, they may use some English on social networking sites and special interest discussion boards (like the bloggers we saw in the first unit of this course). They may use English at work for international commercial negotiations and transactions. Perhaps they sometimes holiday in a resort popular with international tourists. Or maybe they communicate in English with people from part of their own county where a different language from their own is spoken.

Only in some of these contexts will adherence to the norms of ‘Standard English’ facilitate communication, or be expected for reasons of social convention. And even where ‘Standard English’ might give users some interactional advantage or be expected from them (e.g. in formal writing), most users (NS as well as NNS) will be unable to perform with 100% accuracy.

This article first appeared at

Rethinking English as a Lingua Franca


We have all heard the facts that non-native English speakers outnumber native speakers. English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) research has looked at non-native interactions and has attempted to identify a core of important pronunciation, grammar, and pragmatic features that are common to these types of interaction. ELF has also ushered in conversation regarding English-ownership, native-speakerism (e.g. accent discrimination), accuracy, and pedagogy. However, Swan* (2017), in a comment piece for ELT Journal, throws many of the assumptions of ELF into question, arguing that ELF is nothing new, that ELF is not necessarily an expression of ownership or personal expression, and that targetlikeness may be a more appropriate focus when concerning pedagogy.

Swan’s first argument is that a non-native speaker’s need for accuracy is determined by the situation. Therefore, in some contexts, highly accurate English is required (e.g. academic contexts) whereas in others, low-accuracy should be perfectly acceptable (e.g. for travel). Sometimes accuracy is a matter of preference. As an aside, Swan acerbically states that some “may aim at and even achieve perfect NS-like competence (including all the NNS proponents of ELF I have ever met)” (p. 512).

Swan also takes into consideration some scholars’ pronouncements that ELF “norms” are an expression of personality and perhaps ownership of English. Some see English, or specifically ELF, as an idiosyncratic arena where anything goes because of this. However, Swan wonders how dropping third person -s or switching relative pronouns equates to personal expression. For most non-native speakers, it is the content, not the language, that gives rise to their personal expression.

Another of Swan’s arguments is that the assertion of “ELF” users, touted as a new reality among global English users distinct from EFL (English as a foreign language), is something of a red herring (p. 513):

very many of the world’s English learners merely seek an effective working knowledge of the language, without wanting or needing a high level of accuracy. This has nothing to do with the recent growth in the lingua franca use
of English or the implied existence of a new class of ‘ELF users’.

He argues that what is termed “ELF” is nothing more than non-native speaker English, and any “norms” in this type of speech cannot be identified. While ELF research does suggest a pronunciation core (see Jenkin’s Lingua France Core), “this is a recommendation for teaching purposes; certainly not a specification of what various NNS Englishes actually have in common, if anything. And any attempt to identify significant common grammatical features in NNS English that would make it possible to talk about ‘ELF’ as a variety rather than an activity has surely been abandoned. One of my main points is that there isn’t such a real common core (though we do need a better pedagogic core); so ‘ELF’ is just NNSE [non-native speaker English” (Swan, personal communication).


Pedagogically, the light ELF does shine on the issue of accuracy speaks to a possible need to distinguish high-accuracy language learning from what Swan calls a “general-purpose programme” (GP). In such a program, the content could not be based on ELF because such a pedagogy is impossible. Teaching students numerous non-standard alternatives for a phrase like “better than” (*better that, *better of) is “bewildering” (p. 512). In order for language to be taught, there must be some standardization to it (some set of “codified forms”). He notes: I would not continue to attend classes in, say, Spanish, if my teacher’s approach was to ‘generate location-specific, classroom-oriented innovative language models’ (Dewey ibid.: 166). I expect a Spanish teacher to teach me Spanish, not make it up.”

A GP programme, therefore, would not be based on various speaker models but on targets and what students need to master to accomplish those targets. Here, ELF research is useful in establishing what is not necessary to be taught rather than an alternative of what should be taught. Knowing what should be taught, on the other hand, is important and is at the moment under-researched in terms of to what extent deviations from native speaker norms matter. Rather than providing this, ELF seems to focus on accommodation strategies and related uses of language.

In the end, Swan does not discount ELF. He made it clear it is useful for establish what need not be taught, claims “‘ELF-aware’ teaching” is important, and praises ELF for bringing a pedagogic shift away from “over-perfectionist and ineffective teaching approaches” (p. 515). Instead, his goal was to raise the issue that an “ELF norm” (something of an oxymoron, as he points out) is nothing new, not an example of self-expression, and has limited pedagogic application.


Dewey, M. 2012. ‘Towards a post-normative approach: learning the pedagogy of ELF’. Journal of English as a Lingua Franca 1/1: 141–70.

Swan, M. (2017). EFL, ELF, and the question of accuracy. ELT Journal71(4), 511-515. Retrieved from

This post was written by Anthony Schmidt and first appeared at on February  5, 2018.