Reading skills for the selfie generation | Webinar summary

This OUP webinar was facilitated by Thomas Healy. He suggests that the reading skills required by the selfie generation are different than what we traditionally identify as important attributes.  He envisions this dichotomy in this way:

20th century learners  >>>> Selfie generation

Text >>>> Picture, sound, video

Single task >>>> Multi-tasking

Independent &  individual >>>> Interactive, networked

The physical world >>>> The digital world

It’s not just millenials who are selfie-obsessed. Here are some of my enthusiastic participants from a recent teacher training program. I quite dislike selfies and am grateful this one has come out a bit blurry.

Healy asserts that this presents a double challenge for our teaching because Ss are required to read both traditional print and digital text. Some of the other challenges he identified include skimming, scanning and all the other traditional skills in a digital environment, dealing with proximity issues (scrolling to find information as opposed to having it within frames in print), dealing with ‘rabbit hole’ issues (getting distracted by hyperlinks and wandering away from the text), and dealing with cognitive load.

He proposes interactive PDFs as a solution. Have you ever filled a PDF form before?  PDF forms are a type of interactive PDF. An interactive PDF allows users to do more than just read information; there might be hyperlinks, embedded audio or video clips, and text boxes to type information. When I was with Deloitte, there was a top down imperative to reduce the number of handouts used for courses and since all the employees had laptops, we created interactive PDFs. The rationale was to save paper rather than address the needs and affordances of millenials. Although there was WiFi everywhere, my colleagues and I were a little skeptical of creating activities that would have the Ss wander away from the PDF … they certainly didn’t need encouragement to multitask.

Digital reading activities 

Here are some of the ideas Healy shared for creating an engaging interactive PDF:

  • Hyperlink pictures within the text to existing YouTube videos and ask Ss to watch the video and answer questions.
  • Hyperlink to a private Facebook group and ask Ss to do a discussion activity there, for example, share some ideas about a topic. Ss are then required to report back in the interactive PDF by answering a question such as “Which of your classmates’ ideas do you agree with? Write them in the box below.”
  • Include text boxes within the PDF. Ss don’t have to write in their notebooks or in MS Word. Their responses are captured in a single PDF document which they could save and share with you.
  • Use screen capture tools like Camtasia to annotate text. Record yourself visually demonstrating to Ss the process of reading a text. Use different colours to highlight the different pieces of information a reader would typically look for and find. Upload the  instructional video to Youtube and create a link in the interactive handout. Ss watch the instruction video before they attempt the same process for the text in the PDF. I thought this was a particularly interesting idea – ties in with the popularity of ‘how to’ and encourages learner autonomy
  • Highlight structural or lexical elements in the text which could help Ss identify information such as using conjunctive adverbs or conjunctions – in contrast – to recognize contrast. This could be done through an instructional video using a screen capture tool or more simply, using an annotated image of the text.
  • Annotate to demonstrate scanning; for example, show Ss how they can quickly look for proper nouns, dates, and italics.
  • Give Ss a number of sources (URLs) on Facebook as a sort of webquest activity and ask them identify the source that would be appropriate for academic research. Ss must also explain why.
  • Share signposts such as words like ‘however’, ‘yet’, ‘on the other hand’, ‘whereas’ and punctuation marks like ‘?’ and ask Ss to use the search tool within the PDF to find information these signposts might be connected to. I thought this was a very relevant technique which genuinely considers the affordances of the digital medium.

Digital tools

Healy recommends Adobe Acrobat Pro for creating interactive PDFs and Camtasia Camtasia for making instructional videos. They’re both paid software but you can try out them for the first month for free.

Here are some free tools for creating interactive PDFs:

Copyright issues

As I was watching the webinar recording, I kept thinking about copyright issues which Healy addressed just before he concluded. Obviously, a lot of his suggestions for working with digital texts and media can only be executed if you own the copyright or if the text is in the public domain or you’ve got permission from the copyright holder.

Embedding video 

While Healy suggested adding YouTube links, I would recommend embedding the video within the PDF in order to limit reliance on external links. This shouldn’t be a problem if it’s an instructional video that you created – it’s quite easy to embed the video using Adobe Pro. The file size bloat a bit but then there are so many ways to share files these days so I don’t see that being a problem.

Have you used these or similar ideas for enhancing digital reading skills? Do you create interactive PDFs? What’s been the learner experience?


Challenging students to think critically | Webinar summary

This is a summary for a webinar by Edmund Dudley conducted several weeks ago which I never got around to finishing. I found some of the activities quite interesting. Everyone’s jumping on the critical thinking bandwagon and it looks like OUP too has included some stuff on the skill in their newer course books.  Most of the activities seem to be drawn from OUP Insight but I reckon you could use the ‘frame’ of some of these activities with your own texts and materials. The basic premise of these activities is that Ss are used to having too much information at their fingertips and tend to consume it without scrutinising it.

Activity: Mystery animal

Show Ss the following facts and ask them to guess which animal it might be. Then show Ss pictures/screenshots from the Tree Octopus website.

Lives in the temperate rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula, Washington state.

Amphibious – spends early life and mating season in the water.

Solitary cephalopod, 33-35 cm from arm-tip to mantle tip.

Can survive on land thanks to specialized skin adaptations and moistness of the rainforests.


The creature is in fact the Pacific North-west Tree Octopus and there is a website dedicated to its preservation. But and there’s a big but, if this remarkable animal is so threatened, why don’t we hear more about it?

The website on the tree octopus was actually created by educators who wanted to get people to think about the difference between information and knowledge – that just because a website exists doesn’t mean that its contents are true. Some lessons that can drawn from the tree octopus include:

  • Information is not the same as knowledge
  • Comprehending a text is not the same as understanding it
  • The key to understanding is thinking about what you read

Activity: Health facts 

Look at these 5 facts and identify which one would be the most important one for you to let your Ss know:

1. You should drink eight glasses of water a day.

2. You can treat the flu with antibiotics.

3. Chicken soup can help you when you have a cold.

4. You shouldn’t drink cold drinks when you have a cold.

5. It isn’t dangerous to go swimming immediately after a meal.

They’re in fact a combination of facts and myths. The manner in which information is presented sometimes leads us into believing things that may not be true. An activity like this could challenge Ss to think about the way they accept information.

Answers: 1.False (you get liquid from all sorts of sources including coffee and fruit) 2. False (influenza is a virus) 3. True 4. False 5. True

Activity: Steve?

Inform the Ss that you’re going to tell them about an American named Steve. He’s been selected at random:

Steve has been described by a neighbour as follows: ‘He is very shy and withdrawn, invariably helpful but with little interest in the people or in the world of reality. A meek and tidy soul, he has a need for order and structure, and a passion for detail’.

Ask Ss if they think Steve is more likely to be a librarian or a farmer? What led them to this inference?

Steve is in fact 20 times more likely to be a farmer than a librarian because there are 20 times more farmers than librarians in the US. All of the characteristics described are completely irrelevant to the decision making process – a computer would disregard these details but we are influenced by it. This activity was apparently adapted from Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnmann (and this is the second time in the recent past that Kahnmann has cropped up in an ELT webinar).

Activity: Discerning intent

Show Ss the following text and get them to respond to it.

Like most sixteen-year-old teenagers, Amar Latif loved riding his bike. He’d often fall off, but undeterred he’d always get right back on. Then one day, after yet another accident, his parents decided that enough was enough, and sold it.

Then, present the second part of the text and ask Ss to discuss how their opinions may have changed.

The reason was his eyesight. At the age of four, Amar was diagnosed with a rare degenerative eye condition. By sixteen, his eyesight had deteriorated so much that he couldn’t’ ride his bike. Today, Amar is blind – and Traveleyes organizes holidays for visually-impaired people.

What might have been the writer’s reasons for narrating the story or writing the article in this way? Elicit that the writer withheld some information that led us to think in a certain way.

Activity: Flame challenge 

Edmund asked the audience to consider the difference between comprehending something and understanding it. He challenges his Ss to take a text and go beyond merely comprehension using the principles of the Flame challenge. The Flame Challenge is a competition for scientists run by the Center for Communicating Science. The winner is someone who can explain an answer to a question such that an eleven year old can understand. The judging is also done by eleven year olds. The original challenge involved explaining a ‘flame’ to a child.

Instead of getting Ss to merely  answer some specific reading questions on a text, have them explain the main idea of the text so an intelligent child could understand it.

Activity: Critical thinking for language

Ask Ss to consider the commonly confused verbs say, speak, talk & tell and have them use dictionaries to produce flowcharts as responses to guided discovery type questions:

Which two verbs can be used to report someone else’s words?

Which verb is always followed by a noun or a pronoun?

Which verb can be used to give orders and instructions?

Which verb shows two or more people having an informal conversation?

Which verb shows that one person is communicating with a group of people in a formal situation?

Which verb collocates with the following nouns: truth, lie, story, and joke?

Untitled pictureThis flow chart only has three of the questions and I think Edmund provides partially filled versions for Ss to complete. He then challenges them to produce their own flow charts using the remaining questions.

Activity: Visuals 

Describe the picture to Ss without showing it to them (It’s a mysterious dramatic picture. I can see a man, wearing a dark coat and jeans, walking away from me on a ramp that’s going up towards a door in an object. This object is large and has four legs. It’s standing in the middle of a forest. There’s a light coming out from the open door. The man is standing half way up on the ramp. The object is kind of square and red. On the front of it is a symbol and if you look closely, it looks like the letter M) Ask Ss to think about what this object might be and what the light might be. You might want them to draw i.e., a picture dictation and compare their drawings.

Then show them the image and ask them to work in small groups to describe the photo, what the object is normally used for and how the artist has repositioned it. Ask them to discuss their thoughts on the artwork and how the artist might expect his or her audience to react. Then get Ss to decide a title for it and explain why they chose it.



This artwork is by an artist named Slinkachu (who creates startling works full of miniature people) and comes from an Insight course book for upper-intermediate learners.

Activity: Student newspaper headline  

Kenneth L. Peters, the principal of Beverly Hills High School, announced today that the entire high school faculty will travel to Sacramento next Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Among the speakers will be anthropologist Margaret Mead, college president Dr. Maynard Hutchins, and California governor Edmund “Pat” Brown.

Write the headline for this story.

Some Ss may not see through to the actual idea of the text and may come up with titles such as “New teaching methods” but others may understand its actual intent “School is ours” and “Liberty has arrived”. So this task could be used for reading comprehension but also to encourage Ss to read critically by evaluating how that information might be significant to them.

Activity: Halo effect

Ask Ss to read the following descriptions and decide what they think of Alan and Ben? Who do they prefer?

Alan: intelligent – industrious – impulsive – critical – stubborn – envious

Ben: envious – stubborn – critical – impulsive – industrious – intelligent

Alan begins on the positive end of the cline and Ben is the exact opposite but the adjectives are the same. Many Ss may prefer Alan because the first piece of evidence we are presented with may influence how we perceive something – this is called the halo effect. Edmund’s suggestion is to use an Alan-Ben type task to introduce a course book vocabulary exercise; for example get Ss to explore the personalities of Alan-Ben using the following adjectives before doing a more conventional antonym-matching exercise.

Match these adjectives to their antonyms

1. dishonest

2. extroverted

3. hard-working

4. unkind

5. mean

6. serious

7. talkative

8. cowardly

Activity: Persuasive writing

This activity from Insight Upper Intermediate has some strategies for using the language of persuasion.

Repetition: repeating key words and ideas for emphasis

Word order: put information you want to emphasize at the beginning or end of the sentence

Sentence length: shorter sentences are more emphatic. Use them for points you want to emphasize

Examples from real life: giving real examples can make your argument more compelling

Edmund suggested that not all Ss may be ready to think critically and these strategies may go over their heads. Instead, he gives them a simpler format in a sort of planning rubric which seems simple and quite handy. No. 2-4 can be actually be used as sentence stems.

1. Introduce the topic

2. What most people think

3. What most people forget

4. What you need to remember

5. What we want you to do

Activity: Paying for milk 

eye flower weeks

Show Ss these pictures (and not the line graph that accompanies them) and tell them these appeared on the door of a fridge and each week the picture would be different. The fridge was located at a university faculty building where people shared milk for their tea and they were asked to put some coins into a bowl to contribute towards the next bottle of milk. They could contribute as much or as little as they wanted or they could avoid contributing altogether. Would the pictures influence people to put money in? Ask Ss whether the eyes or the flowers would influence people to contribute more money?  The results show that in the week, when there were scary eyes, people gave more money and less money for non-scary eyes and the least for flower weeks. Ask Ss to consider whether scary eyes in other situations would compel them to behave differently.

If you want to know more about critical thinking in the ELT classroom, I highly recommend the free booklet that John Hughes has written on the topic. I know this webinar was a bit of a plug for a course book but I’m genuinely curious about Insight because my Ss will find many of these activities interesting and engaging.

Image attribution: The images in this post are sourced from the slides that were used in the Oxford Webinar Challenging Students to think Critically by Edmund Dudley. 

The teaching learning cycle

Teaching Learning Cycle

I hadn’t seen the teaching learning cycle till yesterday when I quickly flicked through a handout that OUP sent out for a webinar they’d organized last week on Genre-based Writing Instruction. It’s such a simple but elegant way of framing a writing lesson. This is essentially what I do in most of my writing lessons. I’ve never been too comfortable with all that cumbersome staging that’s generally expected when teaching writing.

Some of the suggested tasks for each stage include:


  • Analyse the genre of the model (What type of text is it? Who is the audience? What are the features of this genre?)
  • Analyse organization (How are paragraphs structured? How are ideas logically connected? How is cohesion achieved?)
  • Analyse language (How are clauses combined? What types of nouns or verbs are used? Has the writer used hedging devices?)
  • Analyse how language might differ across the sections of the text and vary by purpose.
  • Analyse vocabulary and word choice.

Joint construction 

  • Write a short text in pairs or groups
  • Rewrite a poorly written paragraph
  • Order jumbled sentences
  • Write a text from notes
  • Complete an information gap exercise
  • Participate in whole-class joint construction

Independent construction 

  • The tasks suggested here largely conform to the stages of a process writing lesson – brainstorm, plan, draft, peer review, revise etc.


  • The original source of the image is Martin, J.R. Genre and Language Learning: A Social Semiotic Perspective in Linguistics and Education, Vol. 20, Issue 1, 2009. However, I got the image and the classroom tasks from the OUP webinar handout on Genre-Based Writing Instruction, Oct 24, 2014.

A king’s ransom at a teacher’s pay scale | The pricing of methodology books

Teaching Unplugged Scott Thornbury

Several months ago, I was browsing through some online book stores to see if I could get a good deal for Scott Thornbury’s Beyond the Sentence. On one such site, I was shocked to discover Teaching Unplugged on sale at the magical discounted price of ₹154,010 (that’s $2566 for all you muggles). I suspect that this was probably an error but it got me thinking about the pricing of ELT methodology books. I have Teaching Unplugged and I bought it for  ₹250 ($4).  You see, in India, books across genres, are generally priced at a lower range than in the rest of the world. I usually think twice about buying a book which costs more than ₹500 ($8) and many of the books I’m interested in are priced for the Indian market such that they fall well within this limit. It’s something I was aware of and hadn’t paid much attention to – like the disclaimer on the backs of Cambridge Univ. Press books – ever so slightly beyond my peripheral vision.


It was only when I did my Delta Module 2 in Bangkok that I in fact realized how expensive ELT books can actually be and oddly, the catalyst  was Christine Nuttall. Nuttall’s opus, Teaching Reading Skills from Macmillan was much in demand among my peers so much so that you weren’t allowed to spend more than a night with her. And it’s quite a read. One of the other students was fed up with waiting and found a book store dedicated to ELT resources from where he promptly purchased Nuttall. That weekend, I explored the back sois of Phetchaburi in a bid to find the shop, which I did after much looking. I’d never seen anything like it before – a fairly large space that catered almost exclusively to language teaching resources and specifically to ELT. Two walls filled with dictionaries. An entire atrium of course books organized by theme. And finally a large corner shelf stacked with books for teachers. I couldn’t contain my excitement at this point and began to quickly pull out titles I wanted to buy. No prices were mentioned on the books so I took my pile over to the cashier. The cheapest book in the pile was 800 baht! And the most expensive was a whopping 4800 baht! Something was wrong. I went back to the corner shelf and took out a couple of books whose Indian prices I could guesstimate. Natural Grammar for which I’d paid $2 back home was being sold at over four times that price.  Almost nothing was less than 800 baht. Not even old, old Penny Ur books with stylized illustrations from the 1980s.

Later that week, when I was having a bit of a whinge about this to my Delta peers, I discovered that everyone else seemed habituated to paying these crazy prices. One of the other teachers who’s English and lives in Japan confessed that her ELT collection was probably among the most expensive things she owned and on her way over to Bangkok from Tokyo, she kept gems from her heavy, prized collection in her hand baggage to ensure that they wouldn’t experience anything untoward.

I can’t speak for the rest of the world but even in India despite that differential pricing that OUP and CUP practise with some of their titles and efforts by Delta to bring out some books through a local publisher, the majority of books are out of reach for most English educators. CUP India prices Listening in the Language Classroom at a reasonable ₹306 ($5). But The Language of Business Meetings, a book I’ve always wanted is listed as ₹2534 ($42). Alright, so the average English teacher probably wouldn’t invest in The Language of Business Meetings. Let’s have a look at Teaching Multilevel Classes – surely that’s a book most teachers would be interested in – ₹2219 ($37).  This one too states that it’s only meant for SAARC countries which means that this is apparently a low priced edition for South Asia. But, the price seems in line with the UK. It’s a mystery how CUP determines prices for its South Asia editions. Some are truly priced within a very reasonable range and others completely out of reach. Fairly arbitrary. I have to appreciate OUP in this regard because at least with their Resource Books for Teachers series, they seem to have consistently priced titles below ₹500.  Delta offers many of its methodology titles through Viva Books in a range between ₹120 and ₹250 ($2 – $4) although they haven’t brought out anything new through Viva since The Developing Teacher. Macmillan does not publish any of its methodology books locally and for example Amazon India lists Uncovering Grammar as an import at ₹2342 ($39).

English teachers in India who work with institutions in urban areas earn on average ₹25,000 ($417) per month before taxes. In rural areas, it’s probably around ₹15,000 or less.  A book like Uncovering Grammar works out to be 10% of the monthly income of the average English teacher in urban India. I can’t claim to know why books are priced the way they are. I do wonder how much actually ends up going to the author but I suspect it’s not that much. So, the question that’s been bugging me is … who are all of these methodology books written for? The core audience couldn’t possibly be English teachers because the vast majority of them live in the developing world where just one of these books could cost between 10 – 20% of their monthly salaries – an unreasonable demand on a person who’s chronically underpaid and must prioritize all sorts of other essential needs before accumulating intellectual wealth in activities and approaches. Which leads me to infer that these books are in fact intended for institutions, well-off private language schools, expatriate teachers and teaching professionals in the West. And yet skimming the prefaces of these books reveals that some of these authors operate under the delusion they are somehow making the world a better place by improving the professional practices of ALL teachers and making life easier for them by distilling research into implementable little chunks and techniques.

I wish that were the case. Methodology books are clearly written and priced for what is referred to in Indian English as the creamy layer. If you can’t afford to buy it, then you and your learners don’t get to profit from the insights it contains. This line of reasoning is all to familiar to me as an Indian. My ancestors used it as a guiding philosophy to run a closed system for over three thousand years, denying access to books to all but a select few. Everyone else (if you were lucky) had to be content listening to second hand sermons gleaned from libraries.

The strictures imposed by the ELT ‘Brahmins’ prop up an enormously inequitable system, one that many authors themselves are uncomfortable with. Some seem to think the answer lies with initiatives like The Round and others are taking matters into their own hands, much to the chagrin of authors.

Scott Thornbury piracy

This is my ELT bookshelf. While it’s not huge, I count my blessings that I’m fortunate enough to have the financial ability to access far more books than most teachers in my country. I hope the day is not far when fair access to knowledge at a reasonable cost makes the seminal books of our profession available to all.