Self expression at IATEFL

At times I had the familiar feeling stemming from having chosen a talk from a menu: am I in the right session?   But mostly the conference was as good as ever, inspiring me until my brain was numb at 6 o’clock every day.

Paula Rebolledo’s plenary on Teacher Empowerment got the conference off to a good start, and much will have been written elsewhere about this, so I’ll just say my training takeaway is that I’ll ask teachers I train the same Paula asked us: their perceptions of empowerment.

One of the standout sessions of the week was Melissa Lamb’s on CELTA: ‘What if we took away input?’    The question arose from the premise that understanding input requires lower order thinking skills and that then processing what they’ve been told and turning it all into logically-planned lessons required HOTS.  So they need the scaffolding and support of tutors for the latter.  Input was therefore flipped and contact time used for planning workshops and teaching skills workshops.   Trainees could set their own goal for the workshop, try things out with peers, make board plans and plan the lesson together.   After TP, the written feedback would direct a trainee to a part of the input site, e.g. the monitoring section if that’s a development need.   Trainees were less stressed than usual and the assessor’s take was that all was well.

Unusually this time, I found I’d inadvertently chosen more aimed at teachers than training-focussed talks, which I’ll mention here as I see a use in the training room. There emerged a general thread around the learner learning the language s/he needs and wants for self expression:

– Neil McCutcheon, talking about TBLT, reminded us that it’s meaning first, that the student’s own language that’s at the centre and that prioritising the task not language input allows this.  Working with a recording of the task performance to encourage ss to notice language structures used is an important stage.    Jane Willis in her session echoes a point made here that language input should not be before task preparation as then that would be the student’s main focus in doing the task.

– going next to Piers Messum’s session on teachable moments continued this message and Piers told us ‘an answer is only an answer if we have the question within us, quoted Immordino-Yang “it’s impossible to think deeply about information about which you have no emotion because a healthy brain doesn’t waste energy that doesn’t matter to the individual”, there can be self expression without communication when, for example, you form inside what you want to say but don’t say it because the conversation moves on…forming that message from inside is what we want our learners to do…so teachable moments come when learners have something they want to express but they can’t find the language to communicate it’

– Adrian Underhill quoted Dὅrnyei: ‘ensure learning is meaning focussed and personally significant’ and said this is difficult in CLT because there’s not the personal significance, just because a topic’s about the learner’s life, it doesn’t mean they find it significant.   We need to allow learner to express what they’re internally moved to say and maybe when our class ‘goes well’ it’s because learners have been expressing themselves.  I think: TBL. A topic could appear as expression happens. I think: dogme, as I do also in Chaz Pugliese’s session on Breaking Rules.   Through the three sessions, I’m thinking of the reformulation I do and here Adrian mentions language upgrade as enhancing the self expression.

– Andy Jeffrey encouraged students to find their own texts and language snippets outside class.  The language/topics studied recently appear in a menu bar on a site on Slack and students posted these snippets as photos e.g. use of prepositions they’ve found on a juice carton.  To foster learner independence, he trains them to analyse language by posing questions of it: what’s a synonym? Antonym? Is it informal? What are the collocations? Etc.  Student feedback included ‘I know how to study for myself now, I’m motivated when I see colleagues working on my picture’.

– I found a link between this and Andrea Borsato’s session: ‘The Lexical Notebook as a Gateway to Autonomous Learning’.  The key here was that filling the lexical notebook happened as much outside class as in.  Following Krashen’s second best way to learn, extensive reading, Andrea shared with us the idea of mixing this with ‘lexical reading’.  His students read (or listen) and when they come to a word/chunk they like/are interested in, they underline it (or note it with the time on the recording) but importantly don’t stop, then they go back and look them up, exploring collocation and colligation in a corpus…and record it in their notebooks.  Days later, they revise the lexis and this time read/listen again purely extensively, for enjoyment.

Another great IATEFL, another sad moment leaving only lessened by the thought that I might be back next year.





An Eye on IATEFL

IATEFL’s upon us and I’m going to these key sessions on TT:

TT SIG forum on Tuesday at 5.40 on Tuesday

Jo Gakonga on Mentoring Teachers at 12.05 on Wednesday

Melissa Lamb on flipping a whole CELTA at 10.20 on Thursday

(of course mine on Future Proofing CELTA at 11.05 on Thursday)

Alastair’s on integrity in training at 3.20 on Thursday

Session on theme cards for CELTA feedback at 12.05 on Friday

March madness

As we enter March, I’m reeling from a response I heard about this week to an expression of interest in a CELTA assessment:   ‘We’re not wanting to book UK-based assessors at the moment just in case things go pear-shaped with Brexit’.  If we crash out of the EU, might this be the thin end of the wedge?


Online and out of date

Last week, I did my first ever CELTA assessment where the course was the online version.  In my meeting with the trainees, I found myself dividing my questions into two sections, relating to the online element and the face-to-face part.  The latter were the usual comments about feedback and availability of printers, but for the first time I heard that those taking this version experience problems specifically because of the tech element.  This isn’t that their skills need updating etc, but almost the reverse.  When Fronter asked them to download e.g. Flash to watch/listen to a clip, the version their computer downloaded was more up to date than that used by Cambridge (in 2011 when the course first went live?) and the resulting incompatibility led to content consistently crashing.  If this experience is replicated around the world, maybe Cambridge should act so that Centres are offering something they can feel confident promoting?


Working with and championing non-native speaker trainees on recent CELTAs, I have been left wondering when it comes to their own use of English.  I can get them to correct errors in written assignments and warn them to be more careful next time.  But what about spoken English?    It’s disconcerting when you want to give a trainee guidance with ‘When you next teach grammar…’ and thinking you’ve asked a question, they cut in with ‘tomorrow’. Or the misuse of articles, or when in supervised lesson planning and group ‘feedbacks’, they ask questions like:

How do you call…?

Why you say…?

Why you don’t…?

Can you tell me what is it?

I’m torn between maintaining the CELTA standard and thinking about English as an International language, which would surely hold that the absence of auxiliaries in object questions is now becoming standard in Kachru’s expanding circles of users of EIL.  Are my pleas on feedback sheets to ‘watch your English’ becoming pedantic in this context and rendering me hypocritical as a believer in EIL?  It could depend on:

  • whether or not the error is made in a lesson, and further, if it’s an error with something other than the target language – given that the criteria call for accurate models but make no mention of the trainee’s accuracy generally
  • the trainee’s career goals – it’s been said by a key figure at Cambridge that if they only intend to teach in their own country…
  • their future students’ learning goals, which could render EIL insufficient, if one is aiming e.g. for an IELTS 8

Regardless of anyone’s goals, we as tutors are sending them out into the world with an international qualification and surely I should see myself as a responsible tutor not a pedant?   Answers on a postcard please.






A CELTA in the Sudan

Working on a CELTA in Sudan is a humbling experience.   Teachers earn the equivalent of about £30 a month here and some of the trainees have taken out loans to meet the fee, if extended families weren’t able to pool enough.  A turn of the screw came between applications and interviews, with the government devaluing the Sudanese pound by over half. On Day 1 when I ask what they’re excited and worried about, two of them say ‘this course will change my life’ and one puts it ‘this is the beginning of a new future for me and my family’ and I can feel that these aren’t throwaway lines.   I know as I’ve never known on a CELTA before that no matter what happens, no-one’s going to withdraw, it means too much to them.  Having committed the fee, they need to devote themselves unfailingly to the workload to secure future income.  They’re allowed 24/7 access to the Centre and they’ve used this privilege – since they can’t work at home because of distractions in their extended families and lack of facilities – staying late and arriving early.  Some have even had to be warned that they can’t sleep there.   What if someone doesn’t make the grade?  I feel all we can do is support them and then hope for the best.   We’ve had to give two fail warning letters and on finding out about one of them, two of the others came to my office and asked if they could talk to me.   They’d heard their friend was struggling and had come for everyone in the group to know what they could do this weekend to help him.  I felt very moved, as they have their own workload and it shows the point-of-pride generosity of the Sudanese.  Though I’ve trained for fourteen years in different places, this has never happened to me before.

Insha’allah, they’ll pass and for those whose grades are ‘slashes’ that their dedication results in the Pass B or Pass A they deserve.  We’ll know within a week.

Decisions, decisions

You’ve asked all your questions and now it’s decision time. Is it a yes or a no?  Accept or reject?  Sometimes, you’ll know after the initial ‘Why CELTA?’ and one language awareness question.  They’re bright, keen, saying all the right sorts of things. More often, though, your mind is toggling between the two possible outcomes minute by minute.  And there’s no-one else to help, to tell you the right answer when it’s not black and white, when you have to pick your way through grey areas.  He could do that, but then he said this.

Through it all, your role as an effective interviewer is to help the probably-nervous applicant perform the best they can.  That, and the fact that applying for a pre-service course, they don’t need to know it all, don’t need an encyclopedic knowledge of English grammar, points in one direction: your approach will be to give encouraging prompts.  With your guidance, can they reach some kind of response that makes sense?  The reason for this is that your goal is to find out ‘are they trainable’?   Can they respond by thinking their way to ‘a picture’ or ‘it’s in the future’?    An interviewee struggling is not a problem, if that struggling is healthy thinking and you can guide them through.  This shows that they’ll be able to respond that way on the course during a supervised lesson planning session when they’re teaching the past perfect next day.  In the words of my Trainer in Training last month:

Given that CELTA is a pre-service course, the pre-tasks and the interview concerning language awareness may seem rather challenging for the candidates. The objective of the pre-interview tasks and the interview is to check the candidate’s fluency and accuracy and also explore the candidate’s language awareness. However, after shadowing three interviews, I realised that the tutor also takes into consideration how much a candidate can achieve with appropriate prompting and how their language awareness and perception of learning and teaching can help them. The interview also ensures that the candidate is aware of the requirements and demands of the course while the manner of the tutor is friendly and very supportive.

Beyond that, make sure by the end you know their expectations of CELTA and that their aware of CELTA’s expectations of them.  For an intensive course, check they’re not planning a weekend away and for any course, that there’s nothing about their health or homelife that’s going to affect their chances.  Tick a box to confirm you’ve asked this.

You’ve still got to decide and it’s tricky when it’s in the grey area.   Did they do enough? Another way to think of this is ‘Do they have a reasonable chance of passing?’  You’re about to assist this applicant in parting with a four-figure sum and need to be able to do that with a clear conscience.

What would another trainer say?  If I’m really deliberating and I don’t have to give the outcome there and then, I’ve occasionally gone to a colleague and given a thumbnail of the interview.  I haven’t actually needed the colleague to tell me, I can usually hear it in my voice, in what comes out and end up saying ‘I should give her a chance, shouldn’t I?’ or ‘Ahh, it’s just not enough is it?’

It’s easy to give the good news ‘I’m happy to accept you’.  If you have to reject someone, hopefully the centre will allow you to say ‘you’ll receive an email with the outcome of this interview’. Otherwise, if your reasons are to do with trainability/ professionalism/character/sanity, then rather than rely on this subjective data, stick to facts and announce your decision based on need for development of language awareness.   Applicants will find it difficult to challenge your professional take on this, but it could be inflammatory to tell an interviewee their personality doesn’t fit.  If, in spite of your best efforts to be sensitive and deliver the message carefully, the response is anger, you have the confirmation you need that ‘reject’ was a good call.

Lose literacy?

I’m running a CELTA this month and looking ahead to Week 4 and the input sessions we might include.  Literacy is there on my draft as a ‘must have’ and has been for ten years and more, since Cambridge made that compulsory.  This was to meet a requirement in the UK and other countries which welcomed refugees and asylum seekers where English classes were provided in reception centres.  It was considered important for teachers to be aware of literacy needs in an ESOL context.   Not to get too political, migration and the language need continues, but the policy on teaching provision has changed. Where does that leave us with the Literacy session? Recently, I can say that other tutors have doubted its call on precious time on a busy input timetable and have combined it with another session reducing, the time to half an hour, or not offered it at all.   Assessors, to my knowledge, have made no comment on this and I wonder – should it remain mandatory or could it be a decision handed over to the tutors?  My co-tutor and I have discussed this and decided not to include it this time.  Your experience/comments would be welcome.



Working as I have been for a few weeks this summer on in-service training courses, I keep hearing the xquestion ‘can we have a session on how to cope with burnout?’ – and it’s not just from the course participants, it’s been heard in the staffroom, too.

I sympathise, feeling grateful for weekends to catch up on myself and find enough energy to be able to give in the classroom for another week.

Could we have an IATEFL talk about this?  Or a workshop where any of who are doing more than survive, might share?


Please choose from the following options….aargh!

My mantras with trainees include ‘We need to make our lessons student-centred…they’re the most important people in the room…let’s give them a choice of what to focus on!’    Of course, for integrity, I also do these things myself when planning my training sessions.  This week, on Day 1 of a two-week in service course called Language and Methodology Refresher, I proudly showed the group of ten trainees a menu of possible sessions.  They diligently followed my instructions to discuss with their partner and write which would be most useful for them.    The expression ‘if you don’t want to know the answer, don’t ask the question’ came to mind when I saw the outcome.  No single session attracted more than five votes, and most had been chosen bZy only two or three.

As a professional wanting to provide course participants with a model of what to do in the classroom, I ploughed on, asking the two or three who had chosen these to write their names next to where I’d written the sessions on the board.   The result was 1. what you see in the photo and 2. me ending the session in despair.  My plan had seriously backfired and my breezy assurance to them that I would run parallel sessions ‘buzzing from one side of the room to another like a happy bee’ had me on the computer for most of the evening trying to work out how to combine sessions and then moaning that I’d have to plan them scrupulously so that only one group needed my attention at any one time.   I might have been tempted to pull the plug on the parallel idea, but didn’t want to take from them something I’d promised.  So here I am, summoning the energy to buzz around the room – wish me luck!