My very first plenary presentation | Reflections


Last week I co-presented a talk with a colleague at the Learning for a Sustainable Future – Teacher Conference in Delhi. It was my very first plenary presentation and there were hundreds of attendees. We were presenting our initial findings from piloting a new assessment approach (with behaviour libraries within a smartphone app) in a project we are working on in the south of India.

Here are some quick reflections with presenting to a large audience in this format for the first time.

WWW (What went well)

  • We went after someone who did a fairly high-level talk on the assessment approach  we were piloting. This really helped our presentation because many of the attendees came to me later and said that it wasn’t till they heard our experiences from the field that it all made sense to them.
  • We incorporated a task for the teachers to try their hand at crafting their own criteria, which helped make the session a bit more engaging.
  • We’d done a shorter version of the same presentation for a group of policymakers the previous day which helped us anticipate questions.
  • We constructed our presentation in a way that was of value to both teachers who are familiar with approaches to assessing non-academic skills as well as those who were completely new to the topic.

EBI (Even better if) 

  • We made it less impersonal. I reckon we kept it a bit business-like. We could have throw in some humour and perhaps taken advantage of the fact there were two of us on stage and engaged in a more natural dialogue rather than “you take this slide, I’ll take this one.”
  • We expanded on our experiences and shared more anecdotes because the audience seemed to respond to stories far more than factual information.
  • We made it even more relevant to the audience who were mostly K12 teachers. This was a bit challenging because we were merely reporting from our project which looks at assessment from the perspective of project outcomes rather than tracking progress of individual learners (which is of course what teachers are interested in). It may have been worth exploring how the teachers could have used the same assessment approach with their own learners.

During a subsequent talk, I noticed that the erudite looking woman sitting in front of me had dropped her notepad. When I was passing it back to her, she suddenly realized that I looked familiar and she said “great presentation” and then added “I shouldn’t say this, I’m a teacher after all, but you have a sexy voice.” Nonetheless, I’m dreading the prospect of watching myself (uggggghhhh) whenever the video gets uploaded to YouTube.

Nik Peachey’s Talk on Online Learning at the LTSIG OLLReN Conference | Summary

Nik Peachey.jpg

This is a summary of Nik Peachey‘s talk titled “Learning a language online – How we can ensure quality?” where he focused on the challenges of learning and teaching online for the IATEFL LTSIG OLLReN web conference on Oct 7, 2016. The conference presented research into how teachers use technology.

Online learning and teaching are topics that often get discussed in terms of the challenges they pose. However, rarely do we get to hear robust solutions that respond to these challenges. In his talk on ensuring quality in online language learning, Nik Peachey presented challenges both from the perspectives of teachers and students and followed them up with some ways of mitigating them by sharing initiatives that he has supported or led at English Up, a 100% online school.

With online learning, students face a range of challenges, including the double-edge of experience where poor previous online learning experience can affect their perception of the course they are taking and those who are completely new to this mode of learning may lack the technical knowhow to navigate the course. Staying focused and motivated over a longer term may be challenging for students who believe the online format translates to quick results.  Lastly, the online environment can be very isolating.

It’s interesting how the challenges faced by teachers mirror those of their learners, pivoting on the very same double-edged sword of experience. Teachers who are often used to working within a larger physical space with the freedom to walk up to their learners, may feel constricted by the fact that they have to do all that and more seated in a chair.  Rapport and paralinguistic behaviours operate differently in the online environment. Teachers may also lack the technical toolset to be successful online and like their learners, feel cut off from their both students and other teaching professionals.

Nik placed the human element firmly at the heart of his solutions (Nik called this ‘human on board’). He suggested that early and direct teacher-student contact, learner training, and structured support through goal setting and period reviews could motivate learners to stay focused. He highlighted the first three months as a critical period for these pastoral conversations when students are most likely to drop out. For teachers, he proposed mentoring and peer support, regular sharing of anonymised student feedback, group action points derived from video observations, facilitating an online community for teachers, and providing training and development using the very same online platforms.

Using clean, simple, elegant slides Nik compellingly made the case for building a cohesive online learning community of teachers and students. These genuinely seem to be practical solutions because they leverage the affordances of the online environment, rather than resist them.

TEC15 Day 3 | How to write papers for publication | Talk summary

This is the last of my TEC summaries and it’s from a session facilitated by the hugely entertaining George Pickering who’s worked extensively with IATEFL and is currently involved with the Leadership & Management SIG (LamSIG).

George shared some practical advice for people who want to write a paper, particularly for those who’ve never written one before.

George Pickering

There was only standing room during this talk. It seemed like George’s reputation had preceded him or perhaps word had gotten out that he was going to distribute some chocolates. 


1. Write about something you’re passionate about.

2. Source information for your paper from your own research as much as possible. Quotations are illustrative not demonstrative and you shouldn’t get carried away with merely rehashing the comments of others.

3. Garbage research, garbage paper – action research is the best possible approach for Ts.

4. Find out about publications you can write for like the IATEFL SIG Newsletters, English Teaching Professional, ELTAI Journal, ELT Journal, IATEFL Voices and the TEC15 publication.

5. Research the specific requirements or guidelines of the publications you’d like to target such as word count, referencing conventions, format etc. One way to do this is to read papers from that publication.

6.  Plan & start your article as early as possible. The creativity cycle takes time (i.e., decision, opening the file, incubation, illumination, implementation & evaluation). Break down your writing into specific objectives and tasks, use a check list.

7. Audience before content. Put yourself in the shoes of the reader.

8. Structure your article properly.


9. Use appropriate language. Be formal but not overly so. Don’t overuse the first person. Use tentative language when describing the implications of your research.

10. Include all the references you need to include.

11. Find yourself a critical friend to look over your draft. Someone who’s honest.

12. There is no failure, only feedback. If you are asked to rewrite your paper, pay close attention to any comments .

13. Don’t plagiarise.

14. Celebrate your successes.

It was somewhat unfortunate that George threw in a couple of NLP references into what was otherwise a fabulous talk. I was also puzzled by the reference to ‘Mehrabian, A. and Weiner, M. (1967) Decoding on inconsistent communications. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology 6: 109-14′ which he used to support tip no.2 on making “sure whatever you write is evidence-based, not based on unsubstantiated rumour or hearsay”. Surely, the irony of quoting the infamous Mehrabian in an exhortation of writing evidence-based pieces couldn’t have been lost on someone conducting a session on writing papers for publication!

So, I fear I must add an additional piece of advice.

15. Don’t succumb to the logical fallacy of appeals to alleged experts by referencing discredited and dated academics. 

TEC15 Day 3 | Why is English so difficult? | Talk summary

The subtitle of this talk – Empowering teachers through a better understanding of the history of the English language – was also ostensibly its objective.  This talk was also by Dr. Elaine Higgleton, who by then had become our favourite speaker at TEC15.

Elaine Higgleton TEC

She explained that her talk was drawn from the questions that were asked of her in workshops across India. English is different based on geography, generation and context and she pointed out that the language couldn’t be placed in a box for the purpose of claiming that there’s one definable entity called English.

Silent letters

  • Chaucer and Shakespeare pronounced the K in words such as knee, knight and knife, the last of which was pronounced /kni:f/ in Old English. The GH that we see in words such as rough was originally a sound from the back of the throat which became /f/ through contact with old Norse in words such as tough, and became silent in a purely native development in a word like through.

Spelling reformers 

  • These folks added letters to up the prestige quotient of words. For example, the word doubt was originally spelt ‘dout’ and pronounced /du:t/ mirroring French spelling and pronunciation where it was borrowed from. However, they added a B to make it look as if it was directly borrowed from the Latin ‘dubitum’.
  • The spelling reformers added the apostrophe to show the genitive because they felt ‘book s’ would be confused with ‘book is’ and thus added an apostrophe to fill the space in between ‘book’s’.

The great vowel shift

  • A phenomenon that affected words that were already present in English before 1400 and altered the pronunciation of long vowels. For example, /hwi:l/ in Old English become while /wɑɪl/ and /hwi:t/ became /wɑɪt/ as well as /u:/ to /ɑʊ/ as in doubt.  Interestingly, the vowel shift affected words that were a part of English before 1400 so words like ‘soup’ which were borrowed from French in the 1700s were not affected.
  • In Northern English, good and flood rhyme. In Scotland, good and food rhyme. Shakespeare, on the other hand, would have rhymed good, food and flood using /u:/ for all three.
  • Meat and meet are homophones today but in Shakespeare’s time, they were pronounced /meɪt/ and /miːt/. In the 18th century, the ea and ee words started to assimilate in pronunciation except words such as break and great due to phonesthesia (which Dr. Higgleton pointed out was somewhat controversial).
  • Similarly, yea has retained its pronunciation despite its spelling due to its association with nay (as is yea and nay in Parliament).

The Norman Conquest

  • One of the reasons English is challenging is its wide vocabulary which it borrows from other languages. English has had this acquisitive quality for yonks. In 1066, the Norman Conquest brought Norman French to England. Some French words completely replaced Old English ones such as fruit instead of wæstm. Other French words allowed English speakers to make semantic distinctions that they couldn’t make before. For example, at the table, the Norman aristocracy would ask for boef, porc and mouton and their servers who were probably English came to associate these words with the meat as opposed to the animal. So, before Norman Conquest both the animal and the meat were called cow. However, after the Conquest, the following distinctions emerged: cow-beef, pig-pork and sheep-mutton.
  • We also have many word pairs where the original English word has been retained such as begin and commence. However, the words that have come from French often have a different meaning, register or prestige. In the case of begin and commence, the former is neutral and the latter formal. With stop and arrest (from the French arreter), arrest has evolved a special meaning which is different from stop.
  • Phrasal verbs are often perceived as difficult because of the grammar that accompanies them. However, we often fail to realize that the alternative to a phrasal verb is usually a French/Latin equivalent which completely changes the register. Using ‘extinguish’ or ‘eliminate’ in place of ‘put out’ or ‘take out’ can make Ss sound inappropriately formal depending on the context.

 Residual plurals

  • Some residual plural forms go back to Old English. Boc-bec (book-books) fell out of use but we retain tooth-teeth.  Old English used mous-mys for mouse and mice where mys was pronounced very differently. This sound, i-umlaut, comes from proto-Germanic and according to Dr. Higgleton, this  /i/ back vowel in inflections caused vowels in preceding syllables to be fronted. Mys then become meece in early Middle English which ultimately transformed into mice after the vowel shift. The i-umlaut is also a contributing fact to the man-men change.


  • This is a really intriguing one.  The British English past tense of the verb dive – dived was formed through the merging of two Old English verbs: dufan (a strong verb that meant to dive) and dyfan ( a weak verb that meant to dip) with a weak verb ending (-ed). However, in American English, the past tense of dive is dove. This emerged by analogy with drive-drove and its first documented use was seen in Hiawatha (Longfellow, 1855).

An understanding of residualisms may enable teachers to talk with more confidence in the classroom. Dr. Elaine Higgleton

I learnt a lot of things that I’d never known before in this hour long talk. Whether you agree with what the speaker said about how this knowledge will make Ts more confident, the evolution of English is definitely intriguing stuff. Here are Dr. Higgleton’s suggestions for further reading:

  • Andre Martinet, Economies de changements linguistique (1955)
  • M L Samuels, Linguistic evolution with special reference to English (1973)
  • J Aitchison, Language change: progress or decay? (1986)
  • JJ Smith, An historical study of English: function, form and change (1966)
  • JJ Smith, Old English: a linguistic introduction (2009)
  • C Barber, J Beal, P Shaw, The English language: a historical introduction (2nd ed 2009)

TEC15 Day 2 | Video cameras in English language teaching | A quick summary

This talk was by Jamie Keddie who’s the author of Images (OUP, 2009) and Bringing Online Video into the Classroom (OUP, 2014). He is also the founder of two sites: Videotelling and LessonstreamJamie Keddie

Jamie spoke about how we are moving from video exploitation to video creation in English language teaching. So his suggestions for design tasks using videos seemed to end with productive stages that involve Ss creating their own videos.

He pointed out that Ts commonly assume that videos are only for listening but in fact videos are better used as vehicles for exploring language. Jamie illustrated this through an example. He played a mystery video i.e., a video played sans video and asked us to imagine what it might be. It sounded like someone walking on gravel with a bird-like shriek at the end. He recommended getting Ss to construct narratives around it. If Ss don’t have adequate language to talk about the clip, you could film your colleagues discussing the mystery clip and have Ss explore language in these clips.

Jamie’s mystery video happened to be the famous sneezing panda, which is the most popular video on YouTube with over 200 million views.

He then went on to talk about using video for teacher development, playing a video of his own lesson with two students in Barcelona. He asked the audience to review it and give him feedback. Using actual excerpts from the video, he suggested that as a T watching your own video, you become aware of little misses and opportunities. However, he also underscored the importance of the meta-information present in these recorded lessons which ought to be complemented by interviews with Ts talking about their videos.

His other suggestion included getting Ss to make in-video type commentary videos in the vein of PewDiePie to practise language. Jamie also seems to be inspired by an Indian YouTube director named Wilbur Sargunaraj who has some quirky videos on his channel. Lastly, he recommended using jump cuts to make video selfies by dropping the video into any video editor and editing out mistakes and bits you don’t want. The result won’t be one smooth flow but it’s got a certain appeal to it.

By the way, Jamie is doing a webinar over at IATEFL on Storytelling in the classroom on Mar 15, 2015 at 1500 GMT.

TEC15 Day 2 | Using the Collins Dictionary Corpus | Talk summary

This talk was by Dr. Elaine Higgleton who besides being measured, articulate and erudite, had whet everyone’s appetite with a quiz the preceding evening on Old and Middle English spellings and pronunciation along with lexis borrowed from around the world. Her talk was not so much an introduction to corpora as it was a look at how a corpus can help us understand shifts in language use and whether this language change matters to Ts and T educators.

She started off by asking for the different senses of the word “club” both noun and verb.  She elicited two responses for the verb form: to batter someone and to gather together. She then explained to us that the use of the verb club without “together” in the sense we clubbed money to buy him a present is only seen in Indian English whereas the British equivalent would generally be we clubbed together money …  A corpus that includes a wide variety of ‘Englishes’ from around the world could potentially help us recognize this variation.

Dr Elaine Higgleton corpus

While a concordance view can show us what’s around the target word, Dr. Higgleton suggested that it’s not actually very helpful and that a word sketch view (I think this might be an exclusive feature of the Collins corpus) can help us understand which words the word that we are looking at frequently collocates with. In the case of club, it most frequently collocates with “join” so we might prioritize “to join a club” for teaching depending on the level of the Ss.


In the next exercise, she had us looking at the distinction between trip and journey. The denotative meanings she elicited largely distinguished between the two seemingly synonymous words in terms of duration. However, the corpus suggests that connotations of trip are far more neutral than journey (e.g., arduous journey).

Dr Elaine Higgleton corpus 2

A corpus can also give us other insights about a word. For instance, when we consider adjectives used to describe “footfall”, we’d think of “heavy footfall” in the sense of “… increasingly heavy footfall at the Taj Mahal”. But, what is the opposite of heavy? Light? Not in this case as the corpus tells us that the opposite of heavy footfall is in fact soft footfall and in the middle somewhere is average footfall.

Corpora can also indicate language change such as the tendency to use the progressive -ing form in utterances such as:

But hang on a tick, I’m forgetting my manners.

Nobody is imagining that the Conservatives can win.

I’m wanting the film to be deliberately old-fashioned

Or “and I was like” (be like) as a reporting structure in examples such as:

We saw that and we were like ‘Oh my god!’

At first, I was like, no, what are you talking about?

They look at you like you’re mental and it’s like, “Chill out, what’s your problem?”


The corpus also tells us the use of the be like structure is more prevalent in US English and in conjunction with the first person. The other example Dr. Higgleton picked up was “mouse” whose dominant sense has changed in the corpus from rodent to computer hardware. Cloud has also undergone a similar change.

Dr. Higgleton, however, cautions against the taking these inferences at face value alone and demonstrated why we might need a lexicographer to help us analyse this information. She used a sketch difference view to suggest that clever and intelligent, despite being near-synonyms reveal something else on closer analysis. Clever tends to be used with adverbs that have a negative connotation and being clever has increasingly become a negative quality.

She saved the best for last though. A quick audience poll proved that nearly everyone was taught and currently teach the following rule:

I shall

you shall

you/he/she will

She explained that this was an 18th century rule that had long since fallen out of use but was regrettably fossilized in Wren & Martin. Wren & Martin or to use its actual title – High School English Grammar & Composition is a book that millions of Indians swear by and is used by a large number … perhaps even a majority of English teachers in India. It largely retains the same prescriptive rules that it contained when it was first published in 1935 and is still among the top selling books, year after year. Dr. Higgleton’s advice was to stack up our Wren & Martins and burn ’em. This obviously deeply traumatised one woman (who I discovered later in the conference guide under the list of organizers as serving on the teacher-training boards of two Indian states) who stood up shook a trembling fist at the speaker and proclaimed that no evil corpus would dictate circumstances that would cause language to change before she managed to teach it to students (no she didn’t say these words but I sense this is what she wanted to say). The fact that the corpus Dr. Higgleton was referring to had a large set of Indian English data made little difference to this woman.

I threw out or gave away my Wren & Martin when I was in my early teens. A pity because this low pressure system and unseasonal chill would have lent itself to some nice prescriptive grammar book burning.

Wren & Martin


TEC15 Day 1 | The ingredients of quality in teacher education | A quick summary

The opening keynote address to TEC15 was by Rod Bolitho who is the academic director of the Norwich Institute of Language Education (NILE) and was the co-editor of a recent publication from the British Council titled CPD – Lessons from India.

Rod Bolitho

Bolitho stated that there were essentially two curriculum issues when it came to teacher education: subject knowledge and pedagogical know-how. He suggested that the definition of subject matter knowledge in ELT is all too often knowledge about language, instead of language. His specific examples alluded to teachers in India who could quote from Shakespeare but without the ability to speak the language, as well from the former Soviet Union, where immersion in philology produces teachers who are well versed in the structure and meta-language of English with barely any communicative proficiency.

Bolitho underscored the criticality of English teacher education by suggesting that the scope of English teachers is far more than meets the eye because the status of English in the curriculum is perceived as tantamount to literacy in the mother tongue. English provides a window on to the world and teachers, therefore have to take responsibility for cross-curricular dimensions.

He went to state that in the face of disruptive changes we are experiencing, learning takes place beyond the boundaries of the classroom and the teacher cannot set these constraints any longer. They are required to think both outside and inside the box if the box is their classroom. As a result, CPD is a multidimensional enterprise struggling in the face of institutional management styles that seek to maintain control.

Attrition rates are apparently startling and in Australia, 50% of young teachers leave the profession within the first 5 years. Bolitho then remarked that the qualifications ladder is set up such that it takes the best teachers out of the classroom and into administrative roles. This really struck a chord with me – because I’ve struggled with how I’ve been disincentivised from spending more time in the classroom as I’ve progressed in my career.

He then revisited the issue of quality – extorting the audience to question everything. I was elated to hear him mention the dodginess of Multiple Intelligences and how we’ve all subscribed to it without thinking it through critically. He concluded by telling us that his goal was to infect everyone with the quality bug.

Some of his questions to teacher-educators and trainers included:

  • How do you take care of your own professional development?
  • How do you relate to your students?
  • What part does student feedback play in your teaching/training?
  • How often do you share ideas with colleagues?
  • What steps can you take to combat isolation and stagnation?

His questions to providers included:

  • How do you vet the quality of entrants to initial teacher education courses?
  • How do you select teacher educator/trainers?
  • Is there coherence between the values and beliefs underlying your course and the way the curriculum is designed and delivered?
  • Is your curriculum up to date and fit for purpose?
  • Is there a clear connection between theory and practice in your programme?
  • How are assessment standards set and maintained?
  • How do you provide for CPD for your educators/trainers?
  • What internal provision do you have evaluating quality?
  • Is your institution developing or standing still?

That last question is truly food for thought.