English assessment – the issues and how we might overcome obstacles | IATEFL 2018 summary

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This talk by Gaynor Evans and Jamie Dunlea is based on their research findings from Bangladesh and elsewhere. I met Gaynor at a workshop on language assessment design that I participated in last year in Dhaka. At the time, the Bangladeshi government was rolling out a speaking and listening assessment in their external board examinations for the first time and this was a topic that was often brought up and discussed by the other Bangladeshi workshop participants.

While I was curious about the impact of the new assessment in Bangladesh, the talk was less about Bangladesh and more about the gap between language learning outcomes established by policy and what actually happens. The talk was a bit rushed and I may have missed out some important details. Here’s are some of the key points I managed to note down:

  • In Bangladesh, the government is aiming to achieve communicative competence at an A2 level across all four skills for students in grade 10 but the majority of students are at A1.
  • Some of the common issues experienced in the context of implementing a speaking and listening assessment include class size, language ability and teacher pedagogic skills.
  • In a study by Dr. Rita Green (who led the workshop I attended) across 26 Bangladesh skills, teacher talk in English declined progressively from primary to higher secondary and English was rarely heard at higher levels.
  • What’s required is an an evidence based approach to planning and setting goals (this has apparently been achieved in Bangladesh).
  • There’s a lack of understanding of language learning outcomes and their interaction with the wider context and results in education reform.
  • Some of the possible approaches are apparently listed in this report – English Impact: An Evaluation of English Language Capability, and it recommends a strategy adapted from Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach originally intended in welfare economics as a way of looking at human development as ‘a concentration on freedom to achieve in general and the capabilities to function in particular.’ Here’s how the report describes its adaption to language teaching – I really don’t see how this differs from what governments have always purported to do:

This adaptation of English language capability can therefore be described in terms of the level of achievement, or proficiency, reached by a defined population; and the opportunities provided to them to achieve greater proficiency via teaching and learning practice derived from a policy or national guideline. p.9

  • Jamie spoke about a profile builder to understand the educational environment in the country – it wan’t really clear what this tool is or if it indeed is a tool. The report doesn’t mention a profile builder.
  • The CEFR is used increasingly outside its ‘home’ in Europe. However, it was never intended to be used as is but was meant to be adapted to the local context. The way it’s being applied now globally is as a very simplistic tool for setting policy goals.
  • Even in Europe, there’s a lack of correlation between learning outcomes and CEFR levels and there’s a gap between what governments want and what’s achievable. Across Europe, B2 is the goal for matriculation but in reality proficiency is far lower. For example, France is mostly below A2 in reading and listening.
  • Some countries have developed their own frameworks: CEFR-J in Japan and China Standards of English (CSE)
  • Planning & resources, goals and time horizon need to be taken into consideration to formulate an evidence based policy.

To summarise, I think the presenters are suggesting that governments need to set realistic goals which are meaningful within their educational contexts and this might require them to develop their own language proficiency frameworks, instead of arbitrarily imposing the CEFR.

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Paring back | Paragraph blogging

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I’ve been watching Civilisations, a lush BBC series about how art has shaped the human experience. In an episode on Japan, the viewer is introduced to Maruyama Okyo’s masterpiece from the late 18th century – Cracked Ice – a painted two-fold screen ostensibly intended for tea ceremonies. Its format and minimalism seem characteristically Japanese and yet elements such as the use of perspective and a vanishing point show the influence of the West. I reflected on this in the context of my teaching. I get very excited by ideas I encounter. I want to try everything but this sometimes results in overstuffed lessons and more critically, a strange pastiche that doesn’t really give learners a cohesive learning experience. As I acquire and adapt ideas and tools, I need to learn to pare back like Okyo and focus on what’s really important and let innovation emerge from what I haven’t articulated in my lesson plan, those  blank spaces I rush to fill.

Image attribution: Maruyama Okyo, Cracked ice, a 2-fold screen painting | British Museum | CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

True speech | paragraph blogging

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I’ve been trying to make a concerted effort to connect with my mother’s L1 – Tamil, a language that’s native to southern India and Sri Lanka. I’ve taught myself to read but I  can’t manage its extreme diglossia so forget literature, even newspapers are out of reach. I am building my knowledge of the language in other ways such as David Shulman’s sumptuous and erudite ‘Tamil a Biography‘. In it, he discusses a concept called ‘vāymŏḻi’ (the ḻ happens to be a retroflex approximant) or true speech which I’ve been mulling over this past week.

“One might think that truth is a universal concept not in need of further, local characterization. There is truth and there is untruth, and the difference between them is, we could imagine, clear in every culture. But in fact the notion of truth or truthfulness is always culturally determined. The Greeks called truth aletheia, a “nonforgetting” or “noninattention,” and linked it with unveiling, penetrating past the shimmering surface. Tamil conceptions of truth are quite different. They are, above all, dependent on ideas about the autonomy and integrity of the spoken, audible (musical) word that, once uttered, will always live out its life in the world independent of the speaker’s will. Thus truth is connected to sound—specifically, to the phonemes of the Tamil language—and what sound can do in, or to, a world that is itself made up of sonic forces, inaudible quivers, subtle buzzes.”

David Shulman

That’s of course fascinating, beautiful and lyrical but what got me thinking was this idea of speech becoming truth because it is spoken in a certain context. When you’re training teachers, particularly trainee teachers, I get the sense that your word as the trainer is accepted as the truth regardless of whether it is or not outside that room or platform. And when these ideas go out into the real world, they continue to evolve because they’re being implemented in some form or the other. I certainly experienced this on my initial training and acquired ideas that continue to influence my practice even today. These notions once utteredlive out their life in the world independent of the trainer’s will. That’s a proposition I find deeply unsettling.

* A big thank you to Matt Noble for prompting me to start paragraph blogging with his frigging paragraph blogging fecundity this month!

Image attribution: Jaffna, Sri Lanka by arileu | Flickr | CC BY-NC 2.0

When wo/men speak up | An evidence-based activity

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It’s international women’s day and I just happened upon some management research into the differences in impact on status and potential leadership position between men and women as a result of speaking up. This research was cited in the latest Harvard Business Review (March-April 2018, p.24) but was originally published in the Academy of Management Journal, 2017 as The Social Consequences of Voice: An Examination of Voice Type and Gender on Status and Subsequent Leader Emergence, by Elizabeth J. McClean et al. It just goes to show that while some progress has been made, we’re still very far from equity and you don’t need to look beyond the article’s title to see what I mean: Men Get Credit for Voicing Ideas, but Not Problems. Women Don’t Get Credit for Either

Here’s an activity for business professionals designed around this text/research


  • Lead in by asking learners what the phrasal verb ‘to speak up’ means and whether there is a culture of ‘speaking up’ in their organisation.
  • Ask learners to then draw this matrix in their notebooks.

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  • Get the learners to individually decide if speaking up in each of the situations helps men and women gain (+)  or lose (-) status in the team or organisation. For example, if a man points out problems, is he likely to gain (+) gain the respect of his colleagues and increase his status or lose status (-). They can also decide that there’s no impact (=).
  • Put them in small groups and have them compare their answers.
  • Ask learners to then access the article on their phones. It’s quite short and the title (Men Get Credit for Voicing Ideas, but Not Problems. Women Don’t Get Credit for Either) says it all. Encourage learners to compare their guesses to the research.
  • Have them read the article again and identify what promotive and prohibitive voice mean and which one they tend to hear in their own team interactions.
  • Finally have them read the last line of the article and discuss what this might mean in terms of team dynamics, diversity, equity, innovation and productivity.

”The researchers say that their findings highlight an impediment to objective, nongendered evaluations of team members’ contributions.”

  • As a follow-up task, learners could come up with suggestions or guidelines for working towards ensuring that everyone’s inputs are valued regardless of who they are.

Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

 

Review activities | Ideas from Twitter

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Ever since Kamila tweeted about this activity, I’ve been wanting to collect activity ideas people share on Twitter because I find that liking or a retweeting stuff like this doesn’t always translate to revisiting or using it subsequently. What I particularly love about these activities is their simplicity – the picture says it all!


And then thanks to the utterly prolific Pete Sanderson (@LessonToolbox), I found a lot of review activities shared by teachers of other subjects such as history, science and Spanish. I can easily see myself adapting some of these ideas for both my learners as well as for teacher training workshops. There are literally hundreds of tweets with activity ideas but I’ve selected a few that I thought were interesting. Don’t miss place mats for CPD – fair warning – you’ll have to scroll down quite a bit until you get to it.

This one’s not just a plain vanilla review activity, it’s also a metacognitive exercise where students have to decide what they need to focus on.


This twist on Scrabble could lend itself to vocabulary, receptive skills tasks and for reviewing content knowledge such as information about teaching approaches.

Here’s another way of presenting it:

Along with the template:

Here’s a more intensive review activity inspired by Scrabble:


I love this blob activity. It would work well for speaking but it might also be an interesting reflection exercise.

This one seems similar to tasks I’ve seen in a lot of writing worksheets but the old newspaper cutout’s given me some ideas.


Speak like a historian – this is brilliant – Speak like a global consultant, speak like a teacher, speak like a researcher, speak like someone at B2?! I’m going to be using this one a lot!

Another version of speak like a historian:

This has obviously been very popular with history teachers – here’s another:


A more intensive activity – the instructions are given at the top of the worksheet.


I think the creators of this activity intended summary pyramids to be worksheet-based but I am going to be using Cusinenaire rods to bring this to life.


Question balloons might require a lot of prep but it could also be a lot of fun.


Place mats for prompting CPD-related reflection for teachers – this one’s just amazeballs! I can’t wait to try it out.


A simple graphic organiser activity – I’m not completely sure if the learner is also required to create some kind of connection between the different pieces of information s/he writes into the squares.


This school’s Twitter account is the friggin motherload of activities. I am obsessed with verb bugs – can’t wait to try it out with English collocations.

This mingling activity seems more familiar – I like the idea of ‘stealing’ a card and I think my learners will too.

This one’s a great way of encouraging learners to take more ownership for what happens in the classroom as well as their own learning.

I haven’t done linking hexagons in ages – I’m going to try to sneak it in for some vocabulary work.

I don’t know where I’d be able to use this but it looks really neat.


🙂 Head in a hole!


Finally, a fun emoji review:

I set out to catalogue just a few but I’ve ended up with quite a lot and I’ve only been through tweets from a few accounts since the start of this year. I think I’m going to do this as a regular exercise. I’ve got a lot more practical ideas from these tweets than I have from many ELT activity books.

Image attribution: Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

Kialo for the classroom | edtech

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I hate ads on Twitter but then again I wouldn’t have got to know about Kialo were it not for their pushy advertising. You’ve probably seen them (and perhaps dismissed them as well). Kialo claims to be a civilised alternative to Twitter; its tagline is ’empowering reason’. Well that remains to be seen.

But it’s got some features that immediately lend themselves to classroom application.

This is how it works. There are a number of questions (not sure if the existing ones are supplied by the platform or by users but you can start your own discussion) which users can respond to by contributing pros and cons like this topical one on gun control in the US.

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When you click on the plus sign next to Pros or Cons, you get to enter your own claim in a box. The interesting feature here is that Kialo checks for duplicate claims that have already been introduced into this argument. Notice the strategic use of words like ‘claim’ and ‘suggest’. Kialo 2.png

You can vote on claims and also add comments. As the argument expands, users may generate pros and cons for pros and cons and as you navigate the ‘hierachy’ of the argument, it starts branching. For example, This argument on veganism has branched off into off into a related but separate topic.

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Another interesting feature is that all new discussions are private by default – so you can invite users using their Kialo usernames or email IDs to participate in the discussion. You can also, of course, make the discussion public.

I train trainers/teachers who run exam preparatory classes with a focus on IELTS – I can see some ways of using this tool for activities that introduce learners to skills required for Part 2 of the writing section. It has however broader application at the secondary and tertiary levels and may be useful in an EAP context.

Here are some ideas I noted down:

  • Set up a question as a private discussion and invite students to contribute to it as homework. Get them to respond to the claims of their peers.
  • Get learners to ask a new question as a public discussion on Kialo, observe how the argument evolves over the course of a week or two weeks, and then report back either in an oral presentation or in a written report/summary.
  • Ask learners to study the pros and cons in an existing argument on Kialo and write an argumentative essay. They could also focus on only the pros or the cons and write a persuasive piece.
  • Get learners to follow the links supplied by contributors and fact check the reliability of sources.
  • Run a mini debate, get learners to note down key points on the board and then ask them to review an existing argument on Kialo and see if these points have already been covered and what sort of counter-arguments and evidence has been suggested. This could become a speaking-to-reading-to-speaking lesson.
  • Ask learners to skim the pros and cons in an argument and report back on the prevailing view if there is one and how they came to this conclusion.
  • Get learners to make educated guesses about what claims might have been made in response to a question or a pro or con that sits under it.

The discussions currently hosted on Kialo are focused on topics relevant to the US. However as more users join, this might change.

#EdLitChat: a virtual book club for educators

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I’m a voracious reader but I often find myself shying away from books related to education, ELT, learning research and the like. Even when I have them on my Kindle or on my bookshelf, I seem to gravitate towards a travelogue or space opera rather than reading something that might build breadth and depth of knowledge across different aspects of education. I realise that books are a wonderful and frequently ignored approach to professional development and I’ve been reflecting on how I could remedy my somewhat lackadaisical attitude towards them.

#EdLitChat, obviously modeled on the great #ELTchat, is an initiative that some peers and I have started to motivate each other to read books about our field. All of us have a background in ELT but work in teacher development and education research, and see this as an opportunity to read new and seminal books on education, build our PLN, share experiences and reflect collaboratively on what we’ve read.

Each month, we’ll read one book and come together on Facebook or Twitter to discuss it on the last Sunday of the month at 4 pm India time (check what time it is where you are). I’d like to make the group as inclusive as possible so we’ll have lots of free publications (have a look at my post on where to get free books). We’re starting with one of these free books, Effective Learning in Classrooms by Chris Watkins, Eileen Carnell and Caroline Lodge.

I’d like to invite teachers and education professionals from any background to come read with us. You can stay updated with #EdLitChat through any or all of the following platforms based on whatever you tend to use:

I’ll basically be repeating the same information across the three but the wiki will also hopefully host additional content such as chat summaries and book reviews. I’d love to hear your suggestions for books we could read in upcoming months.