Tag: summary

In one ear and out the other: does feedback work? | IATEFL 2017 session summary

Loraine Kennedy IATEFL

Having reflected loads on feedback while shadowing the CELTA, I’ve been continually pondering over its effectiveness. So I was immediately drawn to the the sub-title of this talk was ‘why bother?’

The speaker, Loraine Kennedy, suggested that we’re drowning in feedback, particularly in demands for feedback (e.g., from service organisations). Kennedy was inspired by a management article titled ‘Feedback doesn’t work’ by Jan Hills. The article references research from the 90s which apparently found that one third of feedback has a positive result, one third has no result at all, and one third has a negative result. She also referenced Deloitte, incidentally my ex-employer, who’s doing away with performance management systems in a bid to eliminate ineffective feedback.

Feedback is information provided by an agent {boss, teacher, peer, book, parent, experience) regarding aspects of one’s performance or understanding.

John Hattie & Helen Timperley

Feedback is about eliminating the discrepancy between the current standard and the goal.

Kluger and Denisi (1996)

Kennedy explained that no one was questioning whether feedback done the right way was important for development. But there’s something broken in the way we deal with feedback and it’s worth reviewing our thinking about it. However, she did reiterate a couple of times that the feedback she was referring to was targeting growth and professional development and not for teachers who are performing poorly or in pre-service training situations.

This might require us to reconsider our conventional notions about feedback. Hattie, for instance, suggests that reading books from your field and drawing on your experience are forms of feedback.  The traditional way of giving feedback using the sandwich approach is concerned with positive and constructive feedback and how much to give of each. Literature on the topic often talks about dialing up constructive feedback based on whether the teacher is novice or experienced. Kennedy, however, suggested that we need to be thinking about whether the feedback recipient has a growth or fixed mindset (receiver mentality), and what he or she wants from the feedback.

She also recommended reframing feedback with feedforward (a bit overrated in my opinion) or insights into working performance (now this is interesting) and refer to feedback meetings as coaching conversations. These coaching conversations could begin with starting questions such as ‘What aspect of your work/lesson/students’ development would you like to talk about?’ It might also be worthwhile to encourage teachers to ask questions of their peers and observers such as “What would be your one suggestion so I could tweak and make my lesson better?” which makes the feedback incremental, manageable, and solicited. This led her to discussing the importance of self-assessment which we assume that people can do automatically but that teachers need to be trained in these skills.

Coaching conversations can also be used to explore teacher beliefs about teaching and learning and what good teaching is. The focus ought to be on development as opposed to evaluation. She also suggested that collaborating on teaching behaviours & standards rather than imposing them on in a top down way. These could be structured around areas such as the following, linking them to impact on student progress and confidence:

  1. Content knowledge
  2. Quality of instruction
  3. Classroom climate
  4. Classroom management
  5. Teacher beliefs
  6. Professional behaviours

Kennedy also recommended flexibility in observation practice, using audio and video and training peer observers on giving and receiving feedback. The Sutton Report identified this as a gap; that only when peer observers are trained to give and receive feedback does it become productive.  Finally all of this needs to be validated in light of feedback from students which teachers collect very little of both formally and informally.

For a judgment about whether teaching is effective, it must be checked against the progress being made by students.

Sutton report 2014

I haven’t seen this report but it sounds really interesting. It apparently has some research to support the fact that what’s seen in one lesson is not indicative of the teacher’s ability to teacher.

Loraine Kennedy readings.png

Writing methodology texts: Bridging the research-practice gap | IATEFL 2017 Plenary summary

Scott thornbury iatefl 2017.jpg

As engaging as Scott Thornbury is, you can’t help but head into his talks with a sense of deja-vu, mostly because he’s been trotting out similar stuff on methodology for the last few years. This talk, though, was different. Perhaps even revealing, not particularly about himself but about some of the others who (whether they like it or not) make up our de facto pantheon, i.e., Messrs Harmer, Scrivener et Brown, & Mme Ur.

Thornbury started off by declaring that teachers’ don’t read research. He cited three reasons for this: irrelevance, inaccessibility (both in terms of actual access to the research and the ability to understand it), and lack of time.

‘A lack of time is the predominant reason cited [for not reading research]… A perceived lack of practical relevance was also a common hindrance, as was the inaccessibility, both physical and conceptual, of published research.’

Borg, S. 2009. ‘English language teachers conceptions of research.’ Applied Linguistics, 30/3, p. 370.

He went on to suggest that research articles don’t seem to be a good means of communicating insights to teachers.

‘Studies of teachers’ consumption of and attitudes towards academic research articles show that such articles do not seem to function well as a mechanism for communicating information for teachers.’

Bartels, N. 2003. ‘How teachers and researchers read academic articles.’ Teaching & Teacher Education, 19. p. 737.

He asserted that this trend wasn’t unique to ELT. Of the 1.5 million peer reviewed articles that appeared (I think he said last year), 82% of them never got cited in subsequent articles, and only about 20% of articles in the humanities are ever read. He added that SLA research was often inconclusive or didn’t fit teachers’ ideas of plausibility.

He then quoted Penny Ur who also believes research plays second fiddle to classroom practice.

‘For the ELT practitioner the main source of professional learning is classroom experience, enriched by discussion with colleagues, feedback from students, and – for those teachers with the time and inclination – input through reading, conferences and courses, of which research is one important component. Research is not the primary basis of ELT knowledge for the practitioner, but it is a valuable supplement.’

Ur, P. (2012) ‘How useful is Tesol academic research?’ The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2012/oct/16/teacher-tesol-academicresearch-useful

So how does the researcher communicate with the practitioner or consumer? An idea borrowed from agriculture is of a country agent who mediates by bringing news from the science establishment. In our context, methodology books take the place of the county agent. Thorbury stated that this mediation was influential therefore imbuing it with some responsibility. To explore, this he posed eight reflective questions to Ur, Harmer, Scrivener and Harmer.

Now these responses were mighty revealing. Have a look at what Scrivener has to say in response to the question ‘How important is it, do you think, to link research and classroom practice?’

JS: I’ve never found much formal “research” very helpful to my own classroom work. I am not “antiresearch” but I do carry a suspicion of many statistical studies in teaching. My teaching is not applying linguistics. Rather, it is about tuning in to people and attempting, moment by moment, to help create a space where learning can happen. I more often look at the literature to see if it can help me understand what I have already noticed myself.

And have a dekko at what Ur has to say in response to the question ‘Do you feel you have an ‘agenda’, i.e. a bias towards a particular theoretical (or a-theoretical) position? If so, do you think this matters?’

PU: I really try hard in my own writing to be as objective as possible. The problem arises when a researcher’s data seems to contradict my own experience-based opinions: so then I have to read the research very carefully, re-examine my own experience, and try to decide who is right, or how they might both be.

The responses make for a fascinating read – the presentation can be accessed and downloaded from this link.

Thornbury makes a number of conclusions but two really stood out for me:

Methodology writers have an interest in keeping abreast of developments in research, but largely as filtered through their own experience and ‘sense of plausibility’.

Methodology writers use research findings less to promote new practices than to validate existing ones.

This throws up some critical questions: how much of what we read in books that we consider seminal in our field are the products of confirmation biases and lenses with a particular world view? And what impact does this have on our practices, beliefs and development as a professional community?


Empowering teachers through CPD | IATEFL 2017 Plenary summary

Maggioli IATEFL

The full title of this talk is ‘Empowering teachers through continued professional development: frameworks, practices and promises’. The speaker, Gabriel Diaz Maggioli is from Uruguay and delivered this year’s opening plenary. 

Maggioli kicked off his talk with a quote from Dennis Sparks about professional development lacking focus/effectiveness which I suspect comes from Designing Powerful Professional Development for Teachers and Principals. He stated that he wanted to probe what had been going on in CPD in the last 20 years. He felt professional development was oscillating between individual development and the institutional development which is more about advancing the community. He perceived the former as piecemeal and the latter as more systemic. He went on to suggest that top down reforms usually don’t involve the teachers who need to be ‘fixed’ (he used this odd word often, perhaps on purpose) and as a result are not successful and that a better way to think about development and change is a learning community which is a group of individuals who come together because they have some mutual interests.

Maggioli described two diametrically different roles for teachers within professional development programmes: the teacher as a technician who just implements policy and the teacher as a transformative intellectual who propels the development of learning communities. He argued that professional development that was effective drew on targeted professional expertise (based on teacher needs), adopted structured peer support, and provided opportunities for reflecting on why something worked or didn’t work. For these reasons, professional development, he suggested, ought to be done in-house.

Professional development is inquiry oriented learning sustained over time. It requires the the use of tools and protocols that help create coherence, sustain learning and make evidence collection manageable. My favourite quotable quote was when Maggioli suggested that professional development should be done WITH teachers not TO teachers. In his own research, he discovered that teachers listed surfing the web to find ideas and free webinars as their top two professional development channels.  From the institutional perspective, there was only mandated INSETT in the list of responses but these weren’t focused on teacher needs and were often disconnected from the reality of the classroom. Respondents described INSETT as having the following faults: no follow up, too much talking very little doing, too short, a low level, and a lack of access to resources to apply this learning.

Maggioli portrayed traditional professional development as untimely and not tailored to the career stages of teachers because teachers are seen as having to perform a function which explains the manufacturing-style one size fits all approach. He spoke about he doesn’t perceive career stages as a continuum but a loop and that every time we move into a new role or context, we kick-start the loop again. He suggested that teachers need time, resources and support and that any kind of CPD in the absence of these three things was futile.

He then shared some approaches to CPD.

  • Mirror coaching – Teacher-initiated; a peer takes notes during your lesson. You are accessing your own behaviour from someone else’s eyes. Maggioli stated that this wasn’t the same as watching a recording.
  • Co-teaching: You and your co-teacher model behaviours and learn from each other. expert coach – not from  deficit perspective (easier said than done).
  • Expert coaching: The teacher is coached by someone who is acknowledged as an expert in the area that they’re getting feedback on.
  • Study group: A teacher shares something she did in class with her peers. They then ask her questions which records. The group then goes on a coffee break during which time the teacher prepares to answer questions which is what happens when everyone comes back from the break.
  • Collaborative action research: groups of teachers who plan and implement interventions.
  • Exploratory action research
  • Lesson study: This technique apparently comes from Japan.
  • Learning circles: Ad hoc professional development meetings that follow a structured process.

Learning cirlces

  • Mentoring
  • Professional portfolio

These activities sit within a simple but interesting framework for raising teacher awareness and also identifying those within the learning community who can share, coach and/or mentor:

Maggioli finally ended by exhorting the audience to commit to some actions:

While I don’t think there was anything new or revolutionary in what Maggioli was suggesting, it is I suppose food for thought given how often we talk about CPD, extol CPD frameworks and construct CPD plans. To what extent are these frameworks and activities effective and do they adopt a deficit approach to development?

Dennis Sparks’ book is available as a free download for educators from this link.


A round-up of IATEFL 2017 Pre-conference interviews


Here’s a round-up of some of the pre-conference interviews that were conducted on April 4, 2017

Jim Scrivener: Scrivener talked about a recent study he conducted in China where he observed over 50 teachers teaching English lessons and concluded that the lessons were largely teacher-led with passive students, taught in L1, and with a focus on learning definitions. This is of course nothing new. What’s interesting is that during the conference, Scrivener is going to be contrasting his ‘Western’ views about effective learning with a Chinese counterpart who will talk about the historical and cultural basis for the way teaching and learning takes place currently in China. There’s been lots of criticism of CLT particularly from Asia where I recall someone describing it as a Western ’boutique’ approach. I haven’t heard the Chinese take on this so this symposium if livecast will be worth watching. The question is whether he and the audience will truly be open to understanding an approach that contravenes the established norms of what we perceive as ‘effective learning’.

Jo Gakonga: Well-known for her CELTA videos, Gakonga is currently engaged in research into feedback and has been looking at it through the lens of Brown & Levinson politeness theories in how teachers provide feedback to other teachers particularly in mentoring relationships. Her rationale for using Brown & Levinson is that it’s a framework for thinking about how you give feedback so the recipient can take it on board.  Politeness theory has two aspects: positive and negative. Positive politeness is about making people feel wanted and a part of the group and negative politeness is about making people feel that you are not telling them what to do so you decrease the possibility of rejection. Gakonga suggested that teachers could audio-record their feedback, transcribe it, and do some discourse analysis on it in order to reflect.  This seems like a really simple technique but I have to confess I’ve never used it. She also mentioned that some people find it natural to reflect on their practice and others don’t – an observation I too made on my CELTA tutor-in-training program. My supervisor and I discussed whether this could by caused by cultural factors and differences in education systems but that’s a topic to explore in another post.

Carol Read: Read is going to be talking about values education with children during the conference. Understanding values education requires us to unpack what values are (cognitive, affective, behavioural dimensions), whose values they are, and whether we are imposing these values on children or using a model of influence where children make decisions. She spoke about a gap between a child getting an awareness of values and putting it into practice in their daily lives e.g. children may understand fairness and justice but do they apply these behaviours in the playground. Read pointed out that we are never just language teachers with children but more holistic educators. In her conference workshop, she is going to be covering life skills. She thinks the most important are the ones listed in the UN’s core skills framework: critical thinking, creative thinking, problem solving & decision making, communication, empathy, relating to people and resolving conflict. She believes that using everyday classroom activities such as stories and topics could enable teachers to encompass life skills training as well as language, potentially enriching language curriculum.

Pete Sharma: Sharma is one of the big names in terms of tech in ELT and incidentally he was interviewed by Nik Peachey, another tech evangelist. They discussed the potential virtual reality has for things like role play but suggested that it would be presumptious to say that something is definitely going to be the next big thing. There was an interesting aside on how tech evolves from its original intended use: Youtube was intended for dating videos and Twitter was a way for children to let their parents know where they were. With the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI), there’s a risk of translation devices entirely disrupting our industry. Peter argued that AI may not do away with language teaching entirely because technology may not enable you to engage with culture or literature more deeply. Peachey, however, pressed on with the question that if technology translates for you, why would you want to learn a language to which Sharma reiterated his point about both (technology and teaching) co-existing but ended with an ominous “I hope”.

Marek Kiczkowiak: Kiczkowiak is the untiring voice behind TEFL Equity. He stated that 88% of job ads in the Middle East were discriminatory. In the EU, adds now deceptive words like native-like or native-level to mask their real intent. He suggested that there was an urgent need to address these issues on pre-service courses like the CELTA. Jason Alexander who did a study with native and non-native CELTA trainees found that their needs were different. Non-native trainees often came to the course with language and teaching qualifications. He also suggested that we need to talk about the international nature of English on pre-service courses and that by not doing it, we aren’t preparing teachers for it who in turn aren’t preparing students for it. This was something I was wondering about as well while I was getting trained up on the CELTA. Kiczkowiak also touched on the lack of diversity in marketing materials which sets the wrong expectations and that there’s a need to influence the agents who are responsible for recruiting teachers and pitching courses to students.

You can catch the livecast of the IATEFL 2017 plenaries here.

Teaching English in large classes: a sociocultural approach | Webinar summary

Large classes.jpg

Many of the teachers I work with have classes of between 40 and 80 students so I reckoned this would be a useful webinar to document. Jason Alexander has worked extensively with African teachers who are frequently required to manage large classes.  I did, however, envision something more prescriptive. After having watched the webinar recording, I see Alexander’s rationale for not presenting attendees with prêt-à-porter type strategies, as well as his interesting subtext – a sociocultural approach.

Alexander suggested that the challenge was not just teaching large classes but using an imported methodology conceived for small class contexts. He went on to expand these challenges with areas sourced from Shamim & Kucha:

1. Classroom management e.g. giving instructions, maintaining control and
discipline, organising groupwork)

2. Whole class teaching (e.g. explaining new concepts, question and answer
strategies, using the chalkboard)

3. Working with mixed abilities (e.g. differentiation, getting learners to help
each other, mixed-ability groupwork)

4. Conducting summative assessment (e.g. end of term exams)

5. Limited resources (e.g. coursebooks, posters, easy readers)

6. Providing opportunities for practice (e.g. speaking
practice, using audio equipment, library for reading practice, etc.)

7. Providing feedback/formative assessment (e.g. marking written work,
correcting spoken errors, giving individual help, etc.)

Teaching large classes.png
Teaching English in Large Classes: A Sociocultural approach. Jason Alexander (2016)

Alexander’s recommendation is to seek answers from other teachers within the institution particularly from non-language teachers as well as the larger community. He suggested that the most viable solutions might come out of the social and cultural context that the classroom sits within, rather than ostensibly expert advice from elsewhere.

He went on to outline an approach, a strategy and an activity that have worked in some contexts but pointed out that he wasn’t suggesting that these would be best practices for everyone’s classrooms.

An approach: Activity based learning

This approach was conceived in the Rishi Valley in India (I did not know that) and involves each student moving at her own speed through the curriculum, completing activities and learning completion tasks. ABL is really popular in some Indian states such as Tamil Nadu where children work autonomously using special activity cards. The teacher’s role is to monitor and support learning, rather than present content.

A strategy: think pair share

This strategy comes from non-language subjects. The teacher asks a question but doesn’t immediately accept answers. Learners think silently for a few seconds and tell their partner. The teacher then nominates learners to share their answers.

An activity: Back translation

This activity is inspired by studies into translation (I think Philip Kerr covered it in his insightful talk  – the return of translation) and is potentially useful for writing classes.

  • Learners study a model text in L2.
  • Learners translate the text into L1.
  • The model text is hidden and learners translate their L1 text back into English. If the text is on the board, ask learners to turn around so they’re no longer facing the front of the class.
  • Learners compare their English text with the original model text, noting differences, self-correcting errors and assessing work.


Two free booklets on the topic. Both seem really rich and interesting:

The webinar presentation  is available online and you can have a dekko at the presentation’s references.

Finally, here’s Alexander’s article for the British Council’s Voices magazine: What to consider when teaching English in large classes

Image attribution: Classroom by GioRetti | Flickr | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Facilitating the development of a credible business-like persona | Conference talk summary


This was one of the simulcast talks from day one of the IATEFL BESIG 2016 annual conference in Munich. The speaker, Sylvie Donna, happened to headline my Delta Module 3 submission and why ever not – she’s so eminently quotable with respect to all things BE.

Her session yesterday was really rich and full of recommendations that some might frown at or find controversial. Donna argued that just as different business people have different business personas, we ought to help our learners develop an appropriate English-speaking personality. She asserted that our personalities differ when we shift between languages, providing her own example of how she exhibits varying behaviours and personality attributes in Japanese, English, German and French.

I know it seems a bit wacky but to her credit, she did support what she was saying with research. She suggested that there are prosodic differences between speakers (intonation, stress, rhythm, tone of voice, use of silence) and word choice; and that perhaps learners of English haven’t thought through how the use of these attributes in English may lead them to be perceived. Donna correlated this with what Silvana Richardson spoke about when she said that the goal was no longer near-native competence but pluralingual identity.

Some of the examples she presented of high competency learners being unaware of their persona in English included a Japanese student who spoke too directly only using simple forms such as imperatives; a German student who used ‘like’ far too frequently; and a Korean student who reckoned he’d developed an American persona but was actually completely unintelligible.

I think what Donna is proposing isn’t that learners ought to change their personality when using English. In fact, she presented research that she was horrified about where Chinese learners seemed to think that acquiring English required them to acquire a new culture and personality. She’s suggesting that learners may subconsciously project a very different persona in English as opposed to L1 and they may unaware of the unintended consequences of this persona.

In terms of how this could happen, Donna recommends a focus on the length of utterances, the use of lexis (level of formality, choice of words associated with specific socio-cultural groups) and features such as comment clauses, interjections and tag questions.

She also shared some awareness raising activities:

Activity 1: Visualisation

Visualise three people:

  1. one you think is similar to you
  2. one who is different in a good way
  3. one who is very different in a bad way

How does each person speak?

Follow up: Find an audio or video clip of each person

Activity 2: Word-association

Think of a situation for each phrase. Role play mini-dialogue for some or all the phrases:

  • perennial problem
  • absolutely wicked
  • you ain’t seen nothing yet
  • considering this from another point of view
  • I need to know
  • Would you consider

How does your accent or intonation change each time? What about other prosodic features (volume, pitch, speed of delivery)

Activity 3: Draw some pictures

  • the person you were when you were 13
  • the person you were at 21
  • the person you are now

Add some words and ideas in a mindmap of how you used to speak at these ages

Activity 4: Linguistic analysis

Record clips from a few soap operas/comedy series/films

Identify some of the key linguistic features. Look for:

  • prosodic features
  • body language
  • level of formality of the words
  • standard or non-standard forms used (slang, dialect?)
  • use of comment clauses (you know) or fillers (er, like)
  • sentence length

Activity 5: Sorry wasn’t paying attention for this one

Activity 6: Mindmap in L1

Draw a mindmap/diagram representing yourself.

  • Is there anything you would feel embarrassed to say?
  • Is there any language you would definitely not use?
  • How do you feel about swearing?
  • How do you feel about using slang or very colloquial language?
  • How do you feel about using language associated with a particular region or variety of English (not dialect)?
  • What impression do you want to make when you speak?

Activity 7: Vocabulary notebook

  • How do business associates you admire speak? (Record specific instances of remembered or observed speech)
  • How do they ‘do’ small talk?
  • How do they negotiate? Which specific phrases do they use?
  • How do they write emails? Keep some examples in a folder.
  • Review the notebook before meeting anyone or emailing.
  • Add to the notebook on an ongoing basis.

While I don’t think this concept is completely there yet, Donna is definitely on to something. Several years ago, I was asked to work with an Indian manager whose boss felt he was not very effective when presenting to and speaking with senior stakeholders from the US. Having worked with him over a few months, I knew the issue wasn’t language. It was something else that I couldn’t articulate at the time. I often found myself focusing on prosodic features while coaching him although in my mind I was thinking that this might have been snake oil because what he needed was to be perceived as more dynamic and engaging. I have experienced similar situations with others as well. I have also recommended activity 7 to my learners although I’m not sure how many of them have ever followed through on it.

Lots of food for thought in this talk. If you’re unfamiliar with Sylvie Donna, you might want to look up her seminal book on Business English.


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.