Key takeaways from IATEFL 2019

I like to write up my reflections from conferences because I often leave overwhelmed with ideas. Blogging about it helps me focus on the main points and lets me share my experiences with people couldn’t make it along. Here goes!

Diversity and Inclusion

I couldn’t blog about IATEFL 2019 without mentioning what Chia Suan Chong identified in her ETProfessional blog as one of the three key themes of IATEFL 2019.  My conference started at the IATEFL ESOL SIG PCE, where Jenifah Abu-Hassan shared her activity ideas promoting gender equality in the ESOL classroom and Philida Schellekens shone her light on differentiating tasks in multi-level classrooms.  I spoke about Creating Accessible Learning Materials, outlining which which fonts and colours to use to meet the needs of learners with specific learning differences and how to be inclusive to all protected characteristics in the classroom.

Speaking about Creating Accessible Learning Materials
Speaking about Creating Accessible Learning Materials at the ESOL SIG PCE

The importance of including protected characteristics in ELT materials, especially LGBTQIA, seems to be gaining momentum. Jennifer McDougall and Francesca Stella spoke about their FREE LGBT resource the Intimate Migrations toolkit and Tyson Seburn shared an example of how LGBTQIA can be included and normalised within a coursebook.  His talk wowed me so much that I was inspired to tweet him as a ‘world changer’.  Here’s hoping the world changes.

Changing the world!

Multisensory learning, improv and the importance of getting people moving

One IATEFL moment that has always stuck in my head was a workshop Johanna Stirling delivered at IATEFL Brighton in 2011.  She was promoting what has long been one of my favourite ELT books, Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners.  After a long day of talks, Johanna had us all up spelling words with our bodies (full body spelling I think she calls it).  It was great fun.  And to this day it remains my favourite IATEFL workshop ever.

I was delighted to see that Johanna was speaking not only at the ESOL PCE, but also at the main conference.  At the PCE Johanna had us all standing up, and running round the room to teach us ways to break down affective barriers and help our students to spell. She also shared a highly useful site for making word shape worksheets. At the main conference, her topic was Improv, and she had us all out of our seats and out of our comfort zones using a variety of communicative activities which I’m sure my students will love.

Talks I wish I’d seen

The beauty of IATEFL is that you learn as much chatting to other delegates as you do from the workshops.  I was lucky enough to sit beside Maria Belen Albarracin Fernandez who spoke about using Virtual Reality in the classroom but whose talk I didn’t get to see.  She showed me her VR camera and the amazing resources that she’d made with it. If she speaks next year, I’ll be there!

I also wish I’d seen the one about using Lego!  I bumped into my friend and colleague, Rosie Quin, after she attended Richard Venner‘s workshop on using Lego in the classroom.  I love Lego and was inspired by the idea.  Fingers crossed the college budget can extend to a box or two!

The winning ticket!

One thing I love about IATEFL is the opportunity to win and this year I won!  The MaWSIG signature event had a prize draw and I won all these lovely SfEP resources. They’re great!

Lots of lovely books!

Free resources for Beauty Therapy

Having written a variety of vocational ESOL courses over the years, I was excited to hear about these resources for Beauty Therapists.

ESL resources for Beauty Therapy

An expected meeting!

Just before the conference my pal Maria, who works at the British Council in Valencia, said to me ‘Look out for my pals Craig and Nelson from the BC, they’re going to IATEFL’.  I agreed to do so but was sceptical of the chances of bumping into such a needle in a haystack.

Just after my very last talk, as I was about to leave the ACC for the last time, I noticed the words ‘British Council Valencia’ on a name badge.  And there they were! Some things are meant to be.  We chatted.  They were lovely and I wish I could have spent more time with them.  I guess I’ll just need to hop on over to Valencia in summer now.

BC Valencia

What were your highlights of IATEFL 2019?



EFL Talks – 10 principles of ESOL teaching

I’m delighted to now be included on the prestigious site for teachers teaching teachers, EFL Talks, alongside the likes of Dorothy Zemach, Pete Sharma, Julie Pratten, Andrew Walkley, Sue Leather, Russell Stannard and Anne Margaret-Smith!  You can access my talk  about the 10 principles of ESOL teaching here.  To complement the talk, I figured I should blog about it too.

While you read, why not see if you can spot the differences between my blog and my EFLTalk?

A principle is a basic theory or belief that influences how we do things.  Over my years as an ESOL lecturer, I’ve developed my own principles which influence how I teach.  Everyone is different and these are my own personal principles suited to my own teaching context.  I’d like to share them with you so that you can reflect on your own principles related to your own teaching context.

1. Be learner centred

ESOL learners must be at the heart of every lesson.  The social practices approach puts learners at the centre of all learning.  If a learner has a broken shower, for example, the teacher may deliver a lesson on how to arrange for a building repair.

EFL Talks screenshot
This is the Scottish adult ESOL curriculum wheel.  It places learners at the centre of all learning. 

2.  Keep it appropriate

With learners are at the heart of all learning, it is crucial that lessons are appropriate to their needs.  Traditional EFL coursebooks are not tailored to the needs of ESOL learners so teachers must adapt them or find materials that are appropriate.  Although I do use a coursebook with my classes for the essential grammar input, I like to adapt it for my learners.  For example, common nationalities in coursebooks are German, Japanese and Brazilian.  I don’t have any of these nationalities in my classes, so I tend to focus on the nationalities in the class – in my context, Eritrean, Syrian, Iranian and Chinese.

In general, I’ll skip over any lessons in the coursebook that I think don’t relate to my students.  More often than not, these are the ones with famous people (mostly white English speaking celebrities unfamiliar to my students).  I’ve found that students are much more interested in people who they are familiar with or who inspire them in their lives.  With that in mind, I’ve made classroom materials for my classes about people that my students have told me that they love.  To name but a few: Adnan Karim (Kurdish singer), Tayeb Salih (Sudanese writer), Malala Yousafzai (Pakistani activist) and Tsegai Tewelde, (British Olympic marathon runner).  Tsegai is originally from Eritrea and I had the pleasure of teaching him briefly many moons ago before he decided professional running was more exciting than my lessons!

3. Keep it real

The social practices approach focuses on equipping learners with the functional skills they need for their daily lives.  They may need to know how to read a school report or what to do in an emergency situation.  I’ve had students that told me they phoned an ambulance because they had a bad headache, or that the fire services visited them when they used a disposable barbeque on the balcony of their high rise flat.  It goes without saying that I thought it important to create a lesson on the emergency services for my book, the A-Z of ESOL.  The lesson helps students assess  which service they should call,  which number to dial and whether they even need to call.

4. Include literacy

Many ESOL students have ‘jagged profiles’.  They may be confident with speaking and listening but have minimal literacy skills.  Even at higher levels, I find myself reminding students to write in sentences, use paragaphs and not to forget their capital letters.  At lower levels, I spend a lot of time on reading, writing, phonics and spelling.

5. Include ICT

We are living in a digital world yet many of my students lack confidence with computers.  In some cases, they struggle to use ‘shift’ to add a capital letter or use a mouse.  I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve reset the Virtual Learning Environment passwords for my beginner students, but we’ll get there.  We always do. Never give up, no matter how frustrating it may be is my mantra!  If I’m in a classroom without computers, I’ll ask students to use their smartphones.  This gives them the confidence to access the VLE from home.  I also encourage them to find IT classes in the local community (often in the local library).

6. Encourage employability

To me, employability is the 5th skill.  Finding a job in an English speaking country is challenging not only because of the language barrier, but also because it can be a whole new process.  In some countries, if you want to find a job you may just ask your family and friends, or go to a local roundabout where recruiters will ask around for the skills they are looking for. The idea of selling yourself on paper, identifying skills and qualities and dressing appropriately for an interview can be very alien concepts.

I had one student who went to an interview wearing their winter coat and trainers while another learner said ‘no’ when asked if she was ‘trustworthy’ simply because she didn’t understand the word.  Now I teach important personality adjectives to my beginners using images and antonyms.  ‘Punctual’ is a pretty simple to teach to a class full of latecomers on ‘ESOL time’.  I also teach more practical jobs vocabulary; forklift driver, warehouse operative and cleaner are more useful to ESOL learners than ‘pilot’ and ‘journalist’!

7. Study skills

I often find that the students that progress quickly are the ones that have completed high school or further education in their own country.  They have the study skills to know that they are responsible for their own learning, they do their homework and they study at home.

I teach my learners how to copy notes from the whiteboard (the same as they are laid out on the board), which worksheets to keep for further reference and which ones they can use once for practice and chuck in the bin later. I encourage them to use vocabulary notebooks and encourage them to take graded readers out of the library.  I also teach them the look, say, cover, write, check method to practise their spelling at home and give them homework every lesson.

student notebook
I like to take photos of my students’ notebooks. I now have a collection that I can use in class to show students examples of how to (and how not to) take notes.

8. Intercultural communication

ESOL classes are multicultural. I can have ten or more nationalities in a room at one time so it’s essential that they understand and respect each other.  I often find that students who speak the same language or are from the same country sit together.  At the start of each lesson, I take a minute to try to split up any cliques and encourage students to sit with someone different every day.  I also get them chatting about their cultures and beliefs and take them on class trips to places of worship of religions that they may not be familiar to them.

9. Embrace taboos

Whilst coursebooks shy away from taboo subjects such as politics, religion, sex, sexual orientation, abuse and discrimination, I think it’s extremely important to include these in the ESOL classroom.  Learners need to know about the politics of the area they live in, the religious beliefs of their classmates, LGBT rights and what to do if they experience abuse or discrimination.  You may want to arrange a guest speaker to discuss these topics.  For more ideas, you can read my blog on including LGBT issues in the ESOL classroom.

10.  Create Opportunities for Language Acquisition

I’ve also blogged about this before, but ESOL students are very lucky that their local area can be their classroom.  The students that progress the most quickly are the ones that are out and about volunteering, working or attending a local club or community group. I like to use the K for Knowing local people and places lesson from my book, the A-Z of ESOL, when encouraging my learners to get involved.  Students read some examples of activities in a local area before discussing what they might like to do and what opportunities are available in their local area.

In conclusion…

These are my ten principles of ESOL teaching.  They influence how I teach and they inspired the lessons in my A-Z of ESOL. What are your principles?  I’d love to hear from you, or chat to you in person.

Upcoming events

I’ll be speaking at the IATEFL ESOL SIG Pre-conference event in Liverpool on Monday 1st of April. That’s not an April fool, I promise!  I’ll be speaking about Creating Accessible Learning Materials for the ESOL Classroom.  Hopefully see you there!

I will also be signing copies of my book at the IATEFL 2019 conference in Liverpool on Tuesday 2nd of April, at the Independent Authors and Publishers stand in the exhibition hall (booth 2). They have a great line up of authors as well as some truly excellent books.  Worth checking out!

I’ll be signing copies of my book on Tuesday 2nd April at IATEFL 2019 in Liverpool, stand 2.


Reflections from the English UK Scotland conference

I was delighted to be asked to speak at the star studded English UK Scotland conference at Mackenzie School of English in Edinburgh on Saturday 23rd February.   It was a fabulous day and I was heartened to feel a sense of community with fellow ELT professionals up here in Scotland.

Image courtesy of Jon Hird

First up was Mark Hancock, the master of pronunciation. He spoke about the 4Ms of pronunciation (Muscle, Mind, Meaning and Memory) and furnished us with an imaginative array of activities to get students to understand how to physically produce sounds, figure out the differences between sounds, understand the meaning of the words and phrases, then, ultimately, remember them. His book, Pronunciation Games, has long been a favourite of mine and the first thing I did on getting back to college after the conference was ask my line manager for a copy of his ELTon award winning PronPack for our staff room.

I got lucky with my slot as I was directly after Mark’s, leaving the rest of the day to relax and absorb everyone’s great ideas. I was Literally Speaking about speaking, a skill that is much sought after by students, employers, volunteer coordinators, potential friends and (eye roll) the Home Office!  You can read more of my thoughts on this in my previous blog post about speaking.

Next up was Emma Cresswell from International House, Aberdeen.  She gave a thoroughly engaging workshop on the vibrant and intricate history of the English language and gave us all some insights into why spelling and pronunciation of words often makes no sense whatsoever (just think of all the different ways to pronounce ‘ough’ to name but one).  Her talk ended with loads of ideas to practise spelling in the classroom and she even gave us some homework: The history of the English language in ten minutes.

Carole Anne Robinson is a Senior Trainer at Nile.  She took us on a journey exploring the usefulness of skimming, scanning and comprehension questions for reading texts then introduced us to a an inspiring selection of alternatives.  One of my favourites was Johanna Stirling‘s, ‘Reading with a pen’ idea in which learners read a text and mark the key points, then read again and mark any information that is new to them before reading one final time to rate how much they agree with it.  That’s my next reading lesson prepped!

Corinne Wales put me in the mood for digging my teeth into some research in the near future.  She has found that many DipTESOL students are hindered in their research by busy teaching commitments and that working together with schools the student and organisation can complete research which is mutually beneficial.  It made me wonder if there is scope for short, certifiable research to be carried out by post-Dip teachers who’d like to dip their toes (pun intended) back into research.  Does such a thing exist?

After a quick coffee and a leftover lunch buffet break, it was back to the main room for Adrian Doff.  He explored informal assessment in the classroom as well as the principles of learning oriented assessment and their application to the classroom.  As the closing keynote ELT focused session, his talk was engaging, informative and got us all thinking how to use ‘can-do statements’ to evaluate learners’ progress.

line up English UK Scotland

After six thought provoking sessions, I could hear my own brain whirring uncontrollably, but then Colin McGuire bounced onto the floor!  He took us through a 3 minute mindfulness session, which was exactly what my overstimulated brain needed.  He continued with a quickfire bounce and pounce activity asking us to reflect on things we are grateful for before launching into one of the most infectiously energetic poetry readings I’ve ever seen.  His poetry is poignant, funny and most definitely worth a read (or better, going to see).

Verbs and Tenses_Jon Hird small
As a little bonus to an already fantastic day, Jon Hird gave me a copy of this wonderful little pocket book.  It’ll be my desktop pal from now on!

Thanks so much to the English UK Scotland team and to all the speakers for making this such a pure dead brilliant (as we say in Scotland) day.  It was a tough call choosing which sessions to go to and I’m sad to have missed so many of the other pros.  Fingers crossed I get to see them some time in the future.

Roll on the next English UK Scotland conference.


What I learned at the NATECLA Scotland conference

I had the pleasure of attending NATECLA Scotland‘s conference on Saturday 3rd November. As usual with these events, I left brimming with ideas.   Here’s my (somewhat belated) rundown of the day!

NATECLA Scotland Conf Advert v5

Amanda Avison – I say, you say

Amanda Avison was my first port of call and I don’t say this lightly when I say that her talk was revelatory.  I wish I’d attended her talk way back at the start of my teaching career, or at least during my Diploma.

I’ve always known that my west coast of Scotland accent just didn’t cut the mustard on the Received Pronunciation IPA chart.  Myself (and most of my colleagues) were the black sheep, avoiding /u:/ and /ʊ/ when they came up in the book (food and full are absolutely the same sound) but over-dramatising the long ‘a’ in /cɑ:/ (car) before drilling students to roll their /r/s!

Amanda’s talk was so refreshing because it focused on how my accent sounds, rather than how my accent is supposed to sound. Here’s some examples:

/u:/ and /ʊ/ are the same sound /ʉ/ (e.g. food and full)

/æ/ and /ɑː/ are also the same sound /a/ (e.g. tap and staff)

/ɪər/ as in beer or ear is more of an /i:r/ in my world.

So Amanda wins the medal for inclusive practices in pronunciation teaching!  I left having experienced one of those lightbulb moments, and with my own personal phonemic chart, just for my own wee accent.  If you get a chance to see her, you too could have your own.

Rosie Quin – ESOL Literacy – Creating Accessible Resources for Adult Learners

My dear colleague, Rosie, is always inspiring to me. Having taught ESOL Literacies for years, she knows her stuff.  ESOL Literacies teachers have even fewer options for off the shelf resources than ESOL teachers, so Rosie has embraced the language experience model of teaching.

The language experience approach allows learners to connect their experiences with speaking, listening, reading and writing.  Starting with an object or an image, the class create a short text using their own language skills.  The text is then exploited to allow as much practice of the words as possible. This could be scrambled word/letter activities, gap fills of words within a text or letters within a word, circling words with certain letters or sounds or using word shapes (see image below) to assist with spelling and letter formation.

word shapes

Rosie also spoke about the importance of phonics for literacy.  The Jolly Phonics approach is widely used to teach reading in schools.  And it works.  Rosie starts off the academic year teaching her students the basic sounds that accompany letters – and that sounds and the names of letters are different. She’s strict about training students to differentiate ‘sounds’ (finger to ear) and ‘letters’ (hand on head).

The first six sounds in Jolly Phonics are s, a, t, p, n, i and students are then taught various words with these letters (e.g tap, sit, at) before moving on to the more advanced sounds and blends (e.g. ck, e, h, r, m, d > man, pack).  For more information and a list of sound sequences, visit the Jolly Phonics site.

Kenji Lamb – ESOL and technologies

Last but not least was Kenji, a super-enthusiastic speaker who raved about the use of Lego and elastic bands for teaching syllables and word stress. He also renewed my faith in speech to text technology. For those of you that have seen the Burnistoun Voice Recognition Scottish Accent comedy sketch, you’ll know the pain that us Scots have to go through and I’m sure you can imagine how successful voice to text is for us!

But in fact, Kenji demonstrated, successfully, that and GoogleDocs (Ctrl+Shift+S to activate voice typing) both actually have pretty effective voice to text functionality.  Very handy when all students can use them for free on their phones to practise their pronunciation at home, or collaborate on group projects.

Even more exciting was when he showed us how to use the captions function in GoogleSlides!  In ‘present’ mode, you can turn captions on, which will display subtitles for every word you say (as long as you have a microphone, of course)!

Kenji recommended a whole host of websites to support students’ learning.  For those students needing extra writing practice, Kenji suggested and for karaoke loving students,  For pronunciation, searches YouTube videos for specific words so that students can hear a range of pronunciations.

The Ruth Hayman Trust

I was delighted to hear about the wonderful work of the Ruth Hayman Trust.  Set up by NATECLA in honour of their first secretary, Ruth Hayman, the trust is run entirely by volunteers.  They provide ‘educational grants to people who have come to settle in the UK and whose first language is not English’.  You can find more information and donate here. 

And finally….

Thank you NATECLA Scotland for such a great and inspiring day.  It’s a shame I had to choose between so many great talks.  Participants were buzzing about Glasgow ESOL forum, Steve Brown and Berenice Hunter, but perhaps my poor little brain would have exploded if I’d heard any more good ideas!

I should mention that I also spoke about my principles of teaching ESOL.  Watch this space, as I will blog about this in the future!


Literally speaking! Ten ideas to get ELT students talking.

I spoke at the City of Glasgow ESOL conference in June.  I literally spoke about speaking.

Speaking is arguably the most important skill in English.  Without the ability to speak confidently, students can’t access social, educational and employment opportunities.

So how do we help our students improve their speaking skills?  Here’s ten ideas.

1. Engaging topics

If students want to talk about something, they’ll speak.  If students don’t want to talk about something, they won’t.  This seems simplistic but I don’t speak about things I don’t want to speak about, so why should we expect them to!?  If someone or something annoys me, I’ll talk about it.  If I don’t relate to a topic or know anything about it, I won’t talk about it.  Simple. Get them engaged.

2. Annoying topics

In short, annoy them (just a little).  Ask them about their pet hates, their least favourite words (in any language), or anything else they can moan about (including politics).  Let’s be honest, as much as we like pretending to be positive, we all love a good moan!

3. Relevant topics

When selecting relevant topics, think about what they need.  My students are much more engaged in role plays about calling the emergency services, arranging a building repair or preparing for a job interview than speaking about some famous person they’ve never heard of!  You can download a sample lesson on building repairs here.

4. Devote class time

Speaking can often be taken for granted in class. The majority of schemata activating warmers and free practice activities are spoken. This year, my college decided to trial speaking skills classes.  For one hour each week, students could attend a skills class based on whatever they needed to work on the most.  This really allowed them (and me) to focus on improving fluency, accuracy, pronunciation and register with the students that lacked confidence in their speaking abilities.

5. Give planning time

I’ve mentioned this in a previous blog post, but I’ll say it again because it’s important. Jon Hird, a lecturer at the University of Oxford, did some fabulous research and found that giving students time to plan before a speaking task significantly improves their fluency and accuracy.  Students who planned before a speaking task paused less during the interaction and were 11% more accurate than those who did not plan.  I have adopted this with my pre-intermediate+ students ever since seeing his talk.  I did, however, trial this with my beginners and was met with mostly blank stares – so when teaching beginners, scaffolding, drilling and pre-teaching vocabulary and lexical chunks is key.

6. Have a purpose


I’m a big fan of project based and task based learning.  Giving students an immersive task and getting them to work together to achieve a shared goal really gets students talking.  Think about giving them some paper and sellotape and asking them to build a bridge together, or some spaghetti and marshmallows and have them compete to build the tallest tower in the class, or get them to do each other’s hair and nails or teach each other to cook something from their country.

7. COLA: Create Opportunities for Language Acquisition

I think this is so important that I’ve already blogged about this and I’ve even created my own acronym for it. Students that are good speakers use their English outside the classroom.  They work, volunteer or get involved in social clubs and community groups.  We, as teachers, need to encourage them to get out and about.  We can do this by holding discussions about hobbies, interests and local places where they can practise their English or referring them to websites like and bringing in adverts for local opportunities.  More ideas on my previous blog post. 

8. Relaxed atmosphere

A relaxed atmosphere is crucial. If a classroom is quiet, play some music so that less confident students don’t feel anxious about others overhearing their conversation. Try some breathing exercises with the class before they start.  Smile and give encouraging feedback.  And think about your pairings; asking the weakest and strongest students in the class to work together may only result in the confident student dominating the conversation and the less confident student feeling inadequate.

9. Focus on one thing at a time

I have recently been learning how to swim front crawl more efficiently.  I know that I need to focus on my body rotation, on looking at the lane ropes when I breathe (and not the ceiling), on engaging my core, on keeping my arms wide, on a strong catch, and on my head position when I exhale.  If I think about all of this at the same time whilst swimming, I end up swimming more slowly.  When encouraging students to speak, it’s also wise to give them just one thing to focus on; their pronunciation of the recently learned vocabulary, the one single grammar point they studied that day, using only formal language, being polite, etc.

10. Variety of activities

Variety is the spice of life.  Here are some of the activities that I used with my speaking skills class this year: role plays, information gaps, presentations, dramas, discussion questions, storytelling, find someone who, drills, interviews, speed ‘dating’ conversations, immersive activities and using pictures (describing what they see, ordering events, predicting the past and future, giving the people in the picture a voice, etc).

The slides from my talk are available here now.

How do you teach speaking skills?  Any ideas you’d like to share?