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?

Including LGBT issues in the ELT classroom.

Intimate migrations_family (2)Image Courtesy of Intimate Migrations

My first experience of discussing LGBT issues in the ESOL classroom was not a positive one. It became a ‘critical incident’ in my ELT teaching career.  It all started with the film Life in a Day which shows a snapshot of many different film-makers across the globe going about their lives on the 24th of July 2010.  The film has a scene with a same sex couple which got my students ‘talking’ after watching.  When I say talking, I mean screaming that it was ‘an abomination’ accompanied by the beating fists on the table.  The lesson ended with me simply drawing attention to the 2010 Equality Act’s nine protected characteristics and asking students to be aware that in the UK everyone has the right to equal treatment and respect.

This incident really made me reflect on my student’s backgrounds.  The students involved were very religious, and from countries that have severe punishments for being gay.  Of course they’d be shocked at the idea of same sex couples.  That was everything they’d experienced for most of their lives; just like all I’d been taught for my entire life was tolerance and that homosexuality is completely natural.  Was it really my place to try to change their minds?  Was that imposing my beliefs?  But then I also have the duty to promote the Equality Act as part of my role as ESOL Lecturer.  I had some staff room chats and we came to the conclusion that we could make students aware of all the protected characteristics and encourage students to treat each other with respect.

Since then I’ve been finding more creative ways to cover these topics and introduce equality and diversity issues. Mostly, I like ‘drip-feeding’ by mentioning briefly in passing at any available opportunity that relationships can be same-sex.  The first time I do this, I’m often met with shocked looks or sniggers.  The second time with slightly less shock and after a while with just an eye-roll and a ‘Yes, teacher, we know, let’s go back to the lesson!’

Although sex is a ‘parsnip‘ (aka taboo) subject in most ELT coursebooks and published materials, I am thankful that my own Publisher, Academic Study Kit, are forward thinking and allowed the inclusion of equality and diversity within my book.  D is for Diversity is one of my favourite lessons for introducing the protected characteristics.  It gives an example of each and encourages students to discuss how each might face discrimination. F is for Forms doesn’t hold back on the equalities monitoring and allows teachers to introduce diversity from starter level.

I always think that Equality and Diversity should be integrated throughout the teaching programme so I was delighted that Intimate Migrations now also have an ESOL resource pack for promoting LGBT awareness. I have used it in the classroom and can safely say that it was a hit with the students.  I did the lesson on protected characteristics (first using my D for Diversity lesson from the A-Z of ESOL as a warmer) then followed up with Nadya and Marta‘s story.  Introducing the protected characteristics first was a great way to get them interacting with equality issues in general, seeing the bigger picture and reflecting on their own experiences.

Nadya and Marta’s story is a true story of a same sex couple that moved from Poland to Scotland so that they could have the legal right to get married and have children (with both their names on the birth certificate).  The story raised a lot of discussion points, including having the freedom to live as you wish to live, and how same sex couples can become parents (new vocabulary: IVF, adoption, surrogacy).  I then asked students to write about one protected characteristic of their choice and compare how people with that characteristic are treated in their home country and in Scotland.  Interestingly, the majority chose LGBT rights.  The responses were reflective and respectful and at emotional.

If you’d like more ideas on integrating LGBT rights into the ELT curriculum then Laila El Metoui and Derek Philip-Xu have great blogs to check out.

I hope these teaching ideas have inspired you. Do you know of any other ways to teach LGBT issues in the classroom?  What experiences have you had?

Literally Speaking!

Emily and CathyDoes students’ spoken communication leave you at a loss for words? Sometimes it can be difficult to get that quiet student talking and sometimes it can be to harder to get that fluent but inaccurate student to think before they speak!  How do you deal with those situations?  What speaking activities really work in the classroom?

These are some of the questions I’ll be addressing with the wonderful Cathy Glover on the 13th of June at the City of Glasgow College ESOL Conference.  We’ll be ‘Literally Speaking‘ about speaking.  Also on the fabulous line-up are James Simpson, Judy Kirsch, Phil Dexter, Laila El Metoui, Paul Dummett and Nicholas Northall.  It would be great to see you there.




IATEFL 2018 – five things I will do before IATEFL 2019!

head exploding

Every time I go to IATEFL, I leave with a head so full of ideas that I genuinely fear it may burst!  I have so many ideas that they mostly fall by the wayside. Not this time! This time I have my trusty blog – and a list of five things I promise to do before the conference in Liverpool next year!

1. Allow students planning time before a speaking activity. 

Jon Hird spoke about how giving students time to plan before a speaking task really bridges the divide between accuracy and fluency.  He shared some research that showed that students who planned before a speaking task paused less during the interaction and were 11% more accurate than those that did not plan.  My students will be getting more planning time in their speaking classes from now on! You can download Jon’s handout here.

2. Promote the BBC Learn English website with my Eritrean students.

I’m always looking for useful websites that students can use at home.  I often find that it’s really easy to signpost lower level learners that speak Arabic, Chinese or Spanish to online learning platforms (e.g. Babbel).  However, my Eritrean students often miss out.  Not any more!  It turns out that the BBC Learn English Website is also in Tigrinya!  Happy days!

3. Be (more) mindful!

Rachael Roberts, as usual, left me bursting with ideas for the classroom.  In this case, she also left me bursting with ideas for life!  I do endeavor to be mindful.  I really do, but sometimes I can’t turn off what Rachael calls the ‘lizard brain’.  That’s all the negative thoughts ‘Why will anyone want to read my blog?’ and ‘That activity was rubbish.’ are common ones. Just being aware that everyone has a lizard that must be quietened or silenced so we can get on with the fun, happy thoughts is a step in the right direction.  Buddhify and Headspace are apps that Rachael recommended in her talk.


She also recommended getting the class in the right mood for learning.  Starting the class with a calming conversation or a fun puzzle; doing a quick breathing exercise or asking your students to close their eyes for a minute and listen to the sounds to relax them; fostering an atmosphere of positivity… and of course breaking up the lesson with a random fun video of a baby laughing!  Everyone loves a laughing baby video!

4. Appreciate resources.

I teach at a well-resourced Further Education College.  I am lucky that I can pretty much ask for any book (within reason) and it will magically appear on my desk a couple of weeks later (more or less). Dorothy Zemach‘s hard-hitting plenary (how can you mention IATEFL 2018 without mentioning that plenary) really hit home about the squeeze on all involved in ELT publishing.  Teachers want more supplementary stuff, which squeezes publishing companies, who then squeeze authors.  Everyone gets squeezed and nobody wins.  And most specifically, one size does not fit all.  Cleansing coursebooks of all taboo subjects (love, alcohol, tattoos, LGBT, etc) does not promote equality, diversity or inclusion – or indeed help an ESOL student settle effectively in the UK!

5.  Think outside the box (apologies for the cliche)

Steve Brown is a world changer.  Last year he spoke about how we have to embrace the PARSNIPs (taboo topics – Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Narcotics, -isms and Pork) in the ESOL classroom.  I couldn’t agree more.  These are important topics for my learners.  Interacting with these topics helps understand the social intricacies of the country they live in.

This year, Steve once again pushed the boundaries and got everyone thinking.  He questioned whether the activities we give our learners truly meet their needs and truly get them thinking critically about the world around them – and whether the environment in which we operate truly allows us to teach them what they need.  You can watch the full video at the British Council website. 


Were you at IATEFL Brighton?  What five things do you plan to do before IATEFL 2019?