Getting to the bottom of ELT blogging


How to keep regular?


I know. Another post where I write about writing. Well, blog about blogging to be precise. I had planned to move on from the introspection of recent posts, but my number one reader and encourager @CliveSir requested I write a post about blogging. How could I refuse?

One small thing, before we get started. Could language get an evolutionary wiggle on and find a new word to describe the act of “blogging”? I’ve always had a problem with it. Something about its onomatopoeic quality makes me think of toilet matters, which is why I can hardly restrain a shudder when someone says “I feel a blog coming on”, “just blogged” or worst of all “freshly blogged”.

Anyway. Let’s get to the bottom of this.

Why blog?

I’ve been pondering this for the last few days. Of course, loads of commonly given reasons spring to mind: you’d like to share your ideas with other teachers, you want to log successful lessons for your own future use, you hope to develop as a professional, you wish to reach out to others in the ELT community. All of these reasons can be boiled down to one main driving force for bloggers: you want your work to be read. And you want your work to be read by as many people as possible.

There’s no use pretending that this isn’t the case. I saw you having a sneaky wee peak at your stats when you thought no one was looking!

Of course, I don’t really know why you blog (do feel free to tell me in the comments though). I blog for a number of reasons. There is a discipline and freedom inherent in blogging: the discipline comes from having to sit down and write a weekly post, and I am, of course, free to write whatever I like.

I’ve found some nice work openings through blogging too: another good reason to keep the posts coming.

So the next question logically follows on from this, and it is:

How do I get people reading?

There’s a marvellous post from Ben Naismith on this subject, which is definitely worth a read if you haven’t already come across it (useful advice in the comments too).

In this post, Ben sets out a list of points for aspiring bloggers to follow, e.g.: having an attention grabbing title, creating interest with multi-media, and appealing to authority. (Ben’s advice comes from insights he has gleaned from ELT bosses  Rachael Roberts, Hugh DellarScott Thornbury and Jeremy Harmer.)

So far, so good. Yet, of all the points Ben makes, the one I most emphatically agree with is that there can (and should be) exceptions to these rules. Slavish adherence to a formula will only result in a kind of “blogging by numbers” and an outpouring of formulaic posts.

While I think Ben provides a range of generic conventions to be aware of, exceptions to these rules (if posts are well written, interesting and informative) will always be both charming and welcome.

People will visit your blog if you have a sexy title. They will visit your blog if an eye catching photograph grabs their attention. But will they read it? This is when you have to be wary of the aforementioned stats. They record visits, but they do not tell you whether or not people have actually read your words.

Top tips

  • Keep posts short. (I struggle with this, I really do). But reading long posts online can be sore on the old eyes. Edit ruthlessly.
  • No one will read you if they don’t know you. Get out there. Comment on the posts of others. Do some of the dreaded self-promotion.


What to blog about?

My first blog was aimed very much at teachers and was, first and foremost, a teaching diary although it did include some lesson ideas too. I moved blog a couple of years ago, mainly because I thought WordPress blogs looked smarter. I felt that making a fresh start would be quicker than clearing up my old hopelessly cluttered and directionless scrap book style blog.

So, I started again. My first post looked at ways of teaching the Independence referendum (admittedly this was probably not going to be all that much interest to teachers outside Scotland). Unsurprisingly perhaps, the first few posts had all the clout of a fart in an abattoir.

Since moving on to focus on matters pertaining to resource design and writing, I’ve seen a lot more blog traffic. It also seems as if readers haven’t been scared off by slightly more personal posts either: my last account of how I got into ELT writing has been my most popular yet.

Top tips

  • Keep a blogging note book with you at all times. That way, you’ll be ready to jot down ideas when inspiration strikes.
  • Experiment. Review a course book or an app. Interview a teacher or writer you admire. Respond to something another blogger has written.
  • Got a strong opinion about something? Don’t keep it to yourself. I think it was Geoff Jordan who wrote a post about how the world of ELT blogging was altogether too safe and polite. While I think Geoff went too far in the other direction, I think there is definitely room for a little more controversy in the ELT blogosphere.


How do I keep myself regular?

In the first flush of blogging euphoria you might feel tempted to trot out a blog post every couple of days. Don’t. Write the posts by all means, but squirrel them away for future use. There will be lean times ahead, and having a “here’s one I prepared earlier” post to publish when you are in the middle of a house move, meeting a deadline or having a nervous breakdown can be a sweet and wonderful thing. Of course, this rule doesn’t apply if the post written is a topical hot potato. In that case, it’s much better out than in.

Top tips

  • Set time aside for blogging: an hour or so every week. Don’t rush it.
  • Keep active. Actively engaging with the ELT world will ensure you always have something to say. Going to a webinar, attending a conference, reading blogs and books by other ELT writers should keep things moving.

Rather self-consciously now, (in light of my previous comment about blogging by numbers) I’m going to end this post with a question. Do any of you lovely bloggers out there have any other good insights or personal stories about blogging?

I really would love to hear them.






Posted in Blogging, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Getting into ELT writing: how I did it.

At conferences and on work trips away, teachers often ask me how I “broke into” materials writing. I usually only have time to give them the skimpier version of my story: I met an ELT agent, he found me work, the end. Although meeting my agent was my one huge lucky break, it’s fair to say the story doesn’t begin and end there.

You can find “how to get into ELT writing” advice aplenty on the Internet (skip to the end of this rather long winded post if you want to check out some good links) but I suppose every ELT material writer has a different take on how they came to be doing what they’re doing. I’m telling you my tale firstly because you might find it useful and secondly because writing about writing is, at the moment, a more attractive prospect than actually doing the writing work I have sitting beside me.

So here goes.

Past simpleton

It was 2012. I had fewer forehead wrinkles, and had almost completed the DELTA. I was wondering what use I could make of all the fresh knowledge and new ideas which were swirling around in my head. The last section of the course materials  mentioned ELT writing  as a possible career path for newly minted DELTEES to pursue. I liked the sound of it and decided to give it a go.

I visited publishers’ websites and fired off enthusiastic emails to all of them, asking if they needed a materials reviewer (I’d heard this was a good way to get your foot in the materials writing door). I have yet to receive a reply from any of them.

Next, I decided to enter the onestopenglish lesson share competition with  a lesson I’d just taught. To my delight, it won. I waited a decent interval of time (a month, I think) and submitted another one (it won again).

After this, I joined IATEFL. I couldn’t afford to go to the conference in Glasgow that year, but watched all the recordings on the website. As I wistfully gazed at the list of far-flung, exotic sounding employers who would be visiting the IATEFL recruitment fair, my eyes fell on two advertisements. One was from a new ELT agent, looking to hear from aspiring writers. The other was from a well-known publisher, also wanting to source new writing talent.

I got in touch with the new ELT agent (Nick Robinson, who is now well known for being the co-founder and CEO of eltjam and flovoco). We met via Skype shortly afterwards and had a chat. Nick then sent me a brief and asked me to write a sample, which I did. After a tense week or so of waiting, Nick contacted me to say he liked my work, and would be happy to represent me. I was thrilled, although Nick had made it clear that his representation alone would not guarantee work – publishers would require me to submit writing samples for each job.

Meanwhile, the well-known publishers I mentioned earlier had got in touch saying they liked the lesson idea I’d sent them. I was given a detailed brief and asked to write another sample. After submitting that, they invited me to attend a writers’ workshop. Post workshop, I’d be asked to submit a unit for a student’s book. If my unit made the grade, I’d be one of the authors on a brand new new course, travelling the world to promote it. It all sounded unbelievably glamorous and exciting!

Sadly, although I learned an incredible amount from the workshop, my unit didn’t make it. This was down to naivety and professional immaturity on my part. Did I really think that an interminable listening task from a gritty drama set in a Scottish women’s prison would delight and enthral international language learners? The feedback, however, which described my work as “quirky and a bit depressing” would prove invaluable and provide me with two lasting musts- to -avoid. Today I still meticulously check my work for signs of quirkiness or depression inducing qualities.

I was devastated that I’d thrown such a good chance away. However, I’d almost forgotten my agent, who came back to me in my darkest hour with an offer of work: writing Teacher’s notes,  tests and photocopiables for Pearson. Then came the nerve wracking bit – I had to write yet another sample. To say I took my time over this would be a complete understatement. I polished it till it shone. My hard work didn’t go unnoticed: the feedback I received commented on “the high quality” of my submission. I was offered the job. Phew.

My first proper writing job and pay cheque were in the bag and other jobs followed on their heels: some big, some small. For each job, I had to write a sample. I received many rejections (and still do, believe me!). Nick found me lots of openings, but even so, I still actively looked for work myself. I landed a couple of jobs by subscribing to the esol research forum and following up advertisements (British Council resource writing vacancies were advertised there, for example).

One more thing about the early days. I worked very hard: blogging, writing articles for newsletters and magazines and sharing lesson ideas online. When I travelled to give talks at conferences, I paid my own way. All this unpaid work led my husband to joke that I was “really putting the free into freelance”. It was a very busy and far from financially lucrative time, but I saw it as a kind of apprenticeship, and it turned out to be well worth it.

Present continuous

I’m still writing and constantly learning as I go. I don’t work for free any more and when I fly to conferences it is with all expenses paid. I feel confidence in negotiating a decent fee, terms and conditions now.

ELT writing is changing and developing all the time, and I’m aware I need to keep on top of this if I am to continue to thrive. I’ve had to adapt to writing for digital: quite a feat for someone who studiously avoids self service checkouts at the supermarket (I never get through my transaction without an alarm being sounded and a whole team of staff being deployed to sort things out).

Becoming an established ELT writer has also given me the confidence to write for other genres. Five years ago, I dreamt of “being a writer”, but never did anything all that serious about it. Now I regularly write for the local press, and I’m working on a screen play too.

Future perfect?

Who knows? As a freelance writer, you’re never quite sure what lies ahead. I have some projects in the pipeline for this year, but next year (and all the years after that) is anyone’s guess.

Top Tips and links

  • Join MaWSIG (The IATEFL special interest group for anyone with an interest in materials writing).
  • Register on the elt teacher 2 writer data base, and have a look at their courses (very good value for money and written by experts)
  • Have you just taught a blinder of a lesson? Write it down and share it as widely as you can.
  • Follow publishers on social media and keep your eyes well and truly peeled for opportunities. They are out there, believe me.
  • Offer to write articles for IATEFL’s Voices, IATEFL Sig newsletters or publications such as English Teaching Professional. This will help you establish a presence in the ELT world.
  • Learn from rejection – but don’t get hung up on it. Focus on what you’ve achieved so far and keep trying. It can be a long process.
  • Got any more good tips or links? Please share in the comments!
Posted in resource writing | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Self-promotion for wallflowers

Looking back on the last couple of posts I’ve written, I see a theme developing. I’ve been considering different aspects of my work: namely presenting and writing. These moments of reflection have been useful for me: so much so that I’ve decided to conclude this mini-series with one aspect of my work which I really struggle with. Let’s hope that I will derive some therapeutic benefit from the exercise!

The wallflower of this post’s title is, of course, myself.


I’d rather be tucked inside my shell.


In the 24/7 party which is social media, I’m not even in the kitchen. I’m in the toilet, powdering my nose for the zillionth time, and wondering when I can decently say my farewells.

“Why bother with social media at all then?” you may ask. Well, why do wallflowers go to real life parties? Why do we even bother stepping over our front doorsteps in the morning?

I suppose we go because we know, deep down, that it’s for our own good. We may be wallflowers, but we still need social contact. We don’t want to miss out on news and interactions and opportunities. Sometimes we rely on our more sociable friends to drag us along in their wake, telling us that we’ll be missing out if we don’t make a “bit of an effort”.

So we grit our teeth and we jump in to the melee.

I stuck my first toe into social media back in 2012, when I started keeping a teaching blog. I wasn’t expecting anyone to read it except my Mum, but I liked the practice of jotting down lesson reflections in a space which seemed more permanent than a scrap of paper. As time went on, I did wish that a few more readers would pop by, but I had no idea how I could make this happen.

Shortly afterwards, I took my first steps into ELT material writing with the help of my agent, who gave me the gentle shove I needed to start using Twitter and LinkedIn. I dutifully signed up: I was serious about ELT writing, and I realised that if I wanted anyone to know about my work, I’d need to declare my existence. Living in Shetland, I realised I was more cut off than most from meet-ups and face to face contact: I’d have to raise my voice above a whisper if I was to have any hope of being heard.

“I’m rubbish at this Twitter thing”, I complained one day. “What’s the point in writing anything? I don’t even have any followers!” (It hadn’t yet dawned on me that I would actually need to follow some people first.)

Well, fast forward three years, and I’m still hanging on in there. Despite my best efforts, I don’t feel completely at home. I’m a quiet and sporadic tweeter, sometimes going for days without so much as checking my feed.

However, I’ve enjoyed some lovely interactions with other teachers, met some wonderful people (some of whom I’ve gone on to meet face to face at conferences) and even managed to attract offers of work through my blog. So, fellow wallflowers who would be writers, however hard it may seem, do persist with your twittering, your linkeding or even your facebooking.

What have I learned over the years? Like many people, my strong wallflower tendencies are balanced by the steely voice of my inner pragmatist, who knows that it’s simply not practical to spend life hiding in the toilet.

Let me present you with some of my typical wallflower whinges and some pragmatic responses.

Wallflower me: “I don’t have anything interesting to say”.

In my early days of navigating Twitter, I often came across advice advising me to “be original and interesting”.

But what if I’m having the psychic equivalent of a bad hair day and feel that I could more easily eat my own face than think of an interesting or original thing to say?

The pragmatist within says: If you don’t feel like saying anything, that’s fine. It’s okay to be the strong silent type sometimes. If you want to show your followers you’re still alive, then share that interesting article you read over breakfast this morning. Or find something interesting someone else has said and retweet it. It’s probably best if you can add your own evaluative comment on it, but if even that seems too much, then settle for a simple retweet.

Wallflower me: “Thomas Hardy didn’t have to tweet about it every time he wrote a poem.”

The pragmatist within says: You’re not Thomas Hardy. Get over yourself.

Wallflower me: “I hate blowing my own trumpet. It seems so dickish.”

The pragmatist within says: You’re darn right. Blowing your own trumpet is dickish, and should be avoided at all costs. It’s the trumpet solos on social media which can make it such a depressing place at times. Here’s the rub though: you need to promote your work – that’s why you’re here in the first place!

This is what you need to do. Look out for people who are social media naturals: those who are right in the middle of the party, surfing the crowd. People who have lots of followers, get loads of retweets and have plenty of interactions. Try to suss out what they’re doing right. Are they blowing their own trumpets? I bet they’re not. Chances are they’re answering other people’s requests for help, sharing useful resources, links and articles, making the odd witticism, bigging up other people (not themselves) and being all round good guys. Try to emulate some of this (while making sure you keep your own voice and style: nobody likes a copy cat) and you’ll be moving in the right direction.

If you’re a wallflower by nature, you might never scale these giddy heights of social media popularity. But listening to the pragmatist within might just get you out of the toilet and into the party.



Posted in resource writing, Social media | 5 Comments

A day in the life

A while ago, I read A day in the life of a freelance teacher trainer, which got me thinking about what a typical day in my own working life looked like.

I’ve been a freelance ELT writer since 2013. As my writing workload has increased I’ve gradually reduced my teaching hours, and I now write considerably more than I teach. The bulk of it is ELT writing, but I supplement my income with reporting for the local press, facilitating local arts workshops and delivering talks and workshops at home and abroad.

Reflecting on “a day in the life”, I smiled fondly at my expectations of what the freelance writing life would be like before I embarked on it. Considering the gap between dreams and reality, I thought it might be useful for aspiring writers to see the reality of my working day. *


My eight year old son looks at me askance, as I pull my duffle coat on. “Why are you still wearing your pyjamas?” he asks. “Because I can.” I tell him. “And if you stick in and work hard at school, one day you might be able to stay at home in your pyjamas all day”. He brightens considerably at this prospect and we walk into the morning blizzard.

My son doesn’t really need to be accompanied to school (it’s a short walk through some playing fields) but he is still young enough to enjoy the company of his old Mum, and I like to start the day with a walk. The day he expresses a preference to walk alone, I will walk in a different direction: possibly around the coastal path near my house.

I may work from home, but in my opinion it’s still important to walk to work: to create the distance between the place I eat and sleep and the place I work.

This minute I get home from the “school run”, I get down to work. For me, this is the best and most productive part of the day. A million household tasks jostle for my attention, but I have become adept at blotting them out (some might say it’s my greatest talent). I do, however, put a load of washing on. The hum of the washing machine provides my background noise – I can’t work with music on, unfortunately.

This morning I’m writing tests to accompany a course I wrote for my Chinese publisher. The work is straightforward yet enjoyable, and I like the challenge of creating engaging reading and listening texts which contain the structures and language the students have learned.

I keep my most challenging work for the morning session, as I know that this is when I work most accurately and productively. This golden time increases during the light Shetland spring and summer when I can spring out of bed at 6am and storm through an hour or so of work before my family get up. These extra summer hours make up for my relative inertia during the long, dark Shetland winter (from which we are just beginning to surface as I write this).

I work for around three hours, only stopping now and then to refill an enormous mug with tea. I stop typing when I realise my fingers are numb and I can’t feel my feet anymore. Time to get dressed, do some stretches, wash some dishes (hand warming purposes) and raid the fridge.



A head clearing walk

Writing is totally different to doing any other work. I tend to work well in intensive bursts of no more than three hours. Then I am drained of all energy and need a long break, preferably outdoors.


It took me some time to realise that I was not being lazy by taking a lengthy break in the middle of the day. This is what I need to do. I also learned (the hard way) that sitting hunched over a laptop for hours on end was not going to do the quality of my work or the alignment of my spine any favours.

I go for a long walk. So I don’t feel like too much of a skiver, I make it a “thinking walk”, taking with me a mental list of things I need to consider. These vary from day to day, but could include questions like: What kind of activity would best teach this language point? How could I approach this theme in a fresh angle? What is my next blog post going to be about? What am I going to teach tonight? I walk fast and I think hard. Sometimes, I manage to come up with answers. Sometimes I get distracted by a face in a cloud or by patterns made by the wintry light shining on the sea…

Then I come home and work at my computer for another couple of hours. Depending on how imminent my deadlines are, I might continue my morning project. Ideally, I might dip into something else to give myself some variety. I will probably use this part of the day to have a quick sift through my inbox too, dealing with anything high priority as I do so.

A major feature of working as a freelance writer is the uncertainty of the future. I may be swamped by work this month, but be worrying about the thin looking month to follow. So if I have any time on my hands at all, then I like to spend it actively seeking work: contacting publishers, submitting proposals, updating my CV, and following up interesting looking opportunities.

If I have a Skype meeting with an editor, I will usually try to schedule this for the afternoon too so that it doesn’t cut into the intensive writing I do in the morning. I’ve also usually had a shower and brushed my hair by this stage in the day.

At around 3.30pm my two children burst in the door, full of chatter and energy, and so I down tools for several hours. For me, one of the best things about this work is being able to be home for the children after school. Although it can sometimes be frustrating having an enforced break in the middle of the day, it’s healthy too, having to get up and take my mind off things.


Another problem with being a freelancer is that you’re never really “off”. I am often working in the evening, whether teaching a night class, checking emails, writing a blog post or planning work for the following day. Tonight, however, my work is altogether more exciting: I’m rehearsing my talk and packing my bags for my forthcoming trip to Lithuania where I’ll be talking about Shakespeare in contemporary education.

The truly great thing about being a freelancer? There is no typical day (although this day is fairly representative of many of the days I work from home). The frowsy haired pyjama wearing blue fingered writer of today will next week be the power dressing, sleekly coiffed conference presenter.

Freelancing probably isn’t for everyone, but if you don’t mind uncertainty, working alone for long stretches of time, and if you are self motivated enough to be your own boss, then there are much worse ways to spend your working life. On balance, I’d recommend it.

* I’m fully aware that every writer will differ in their approach to work.


Posted in conferences, lesson ideas, resource writing, TEaching writing | Tagged | 4 Comments

The “je ne sais quoi” of ELT presentations

I’ve done it. I’ve taken what is, in my opinion, one of the naffest phrases in the English language and made it the title of my latest blog post. I may be wrong, but I don’t think French people ever use “je ne sais quoi” in  this way, do they?

Ah, yes – where was I? The “je ne sais quoi” of ELT presentations.

I couldn’t have happened across Mike Griffin’s recent blog post What elt conference attendees want at a better time.

Trawling through my favourite blogs is often a pleasant (if slightly dangerous) displacement activity for me. I can lose myself in the ELT blogosphere for hours at a time: strangely enough, the heavier my workload is, the greater the lure of my favourite blogs becomes.

Anyway, on this particular occasion, I happened upon a blog post which was totally relevant to the task I was trying to achieve (preparing two seminars, a lecture and an “inspirational speech” for a forthcoming trip to Vilnius in Lithuania later on this month), as Mike had helpfully collated responses to the question: “What makes for a quality presentation?”

The answers make fascinating reading. Here is feedback collected from the horses’ mouths – what a gift for the conference presenter.

Many of the conference attendees wishes seemed fairly straightforward to grant. “Encouraging (but not forcing participation)” seemed like a simple target to aim for when planning and delivering a session. “Relevance and preparation” also seemed like an achievable goal.

Other items on the conference attendees’ wish list seemed more elusive. “Confidence”. “Solid presentation skills”. “Wit and humour- but not at the expense of the topic”.

Tricky, tricky. After all, how can we exude confidence when we don’t feel it? Can we force ourselves to be confident? How can we be “solid” when our knees are knocking together like castanets? How can we hope to make our audience laugh (with us rather than at us) when we feel like climbing into the nearest cupboard?

I suspect answers to these questions will vary considerably from individual to individual. What’s one woman’s confidence booster is another’s downfall, after all.

Reading Mike’s post made me reflect on what I’ve learned about presenting over the past few years as well as inspiring me in my preparation for forthcoming events. Here are a few things I’ve learned with regards to ticking the aforementioned elusive boxes of confidence, solidity and wit.

Solid presentation skills

  • At the writing stage, make sure your message is clear and you presentation is focused. Can you sum up the main message of your presentation in a sentence? No? Then it’s worth asking yourself if your presentation is sufficiently focused. Enlist the services of a critical friend.
  • Cut irrelevant bits ruthlessly.
  • Keep text on slides to an absolute minimum so you won’t be tempted to read from them. Because we all know this is the cardinal sin of presenting and no one does it anymore. Do they?
  • Have notes with you but try to keep them “noteish”. If you’ve practised as much as you should have done, you’ll hardly need them anyway.
  • Pause. Let what you’re saying sink in. People need time to process all the amazing things you’ve shared with them.


  • Knowing what you are going to say inside out and back to front is crucial. Practise your talk, especially the opening chunk. Record your voice and play it back, checking for tone and emphasis. Once you’ve done that, stand in front of a mirror and watch yourself. Work on expression and gesture. Extreme? Perhaps. Worth it. Oh, yes.
  • Do you have any nervous tics? Know them and work around them. During my first few presentations, I was cursed with knees that literally knocked together in an embarrassing cartoon comedy fashion. I had to make sure I stood behind something, (i.e. a table) so that audiences didn’t get distracted. *
  • If you have friends/kind colleagues attending your talk, make sure you ask them to sit somewhere visible. If you start to feel wobbly, make eye contact with them. If they’re worth their salt, they’re sure to give you a reassuring smile and ask you an interesting yet answerable question at the end of your session. If you know no one, pick out the pleasant faces in the audience and return to them sporadically throughout your presentation. The miserable looking punter in the front row is probably suffering from trapped wind – his saturnine countenance does not reflect on the quality of your presentation. Best ignore him.
  • Get there early. I like to interact with participants as they arrive. If people are up for it, engage them in conversational niceties. Breaking the ice in this way will make you feel so much calmer.
  • Choose your clothes carefully. You should be able to bend over without showing your pants, stretch without revealing any flesh, stand in front of a window without your underwear shining through and stand sideways without everyone knowing how much you like beer. Don’t wear anything too comfortable: smart clothes will make you stand up straight and look more confident. Always dress a season’s worth colder than it really is (I read this advice in a Paul Theroux travel book and have always liked it).


We all know that the star performers of ELT are the natural comedians. How can you include wit into your presentation without making it look forced and without detracting from your content?

  • My personal feeling (and do feel free to disagree, dear reader) is that you should not write stand-up comedian style jokes into your presentation. Write an erudite talk full of insight and learning. Then deliver it with passion. If a witticism occurs to you on the day, and you are feeling bold, then throw it to the floor.
  • The exception to this comes in the form of amusing anecdotes which are specifically related to what we are talking about. I’m sure we all have a favourite teaching story. Just make sure it doesn’t contain anything inappropriate for your audience. Take your time with it, and make sure any your punch line is delivered slowly and clearly.
  • Of course, humour can also be non-verbal. Visuals, gestures and facial expressions can all generate laughter.

I hope that the above reflections will provide helpful food for thought for those with conference talks to prepare. Good luck, and may your presentations have people shaking their heads in wonder at your “je ne sais quoi”.

*Happy ending. This doesn’t happen anymore.




Posted in conferences, presentations, Uncategorized | Tagged | 4 Comments

The Listening Project

Where does the time go? Only thirty or so days ago, I was writing my list of New Year’s Resolutions, in which updating my blog regularly featured highly.

We’re now into February, and with all of my other resolutions irrevocably shattered, I thought I might just be able to salvage this one lonely promise from the wreckage. So here goes…


The Listening Project

My upper-intermediate class of learners, when asked what they’d like to do more of in class, frequently request listening. I’ve tried to meet this need, and yet I am often left with the nagging feeling that many of the course book texts we use don’t quite cut it.

In case this is starting to sound like a course book bashing post, I should add that course book texts and activities are not the sole problem. Even as a teacher with almost twenty years of experience, I still find the listening skill one of the most difficult to teach. If I had a pound for every time I’d played a recording to my class, only to find that some learners understood every word first time while other learners had only a shaky grasp of the text multiple listens later, then I’d be a wealthy woman indeed.

I came across The Listening Project a few years ago and I used it to help me design some resources for an online language learning platform I was working on at the time. I’d actually forgotten all about it until a couple of weeks ago, when I decided to use it with my upper intermediate students.

What is The Listening Project?

The Listening Project is the result of a partnership between BBC Radio 4, BBC local and national radio stations, and the British Library. It’s a collection of intimate discussions recorded by people all over the UK, and aims to “capture the nation in conversation”. By visiting the site (and searching by theme) you can listen to conversations on a world of topics, for example:

Two friends discussing their memories of fleeing the Holocaust

A mother talking to her children about her funeral arrangements

A wife talking about the challenges of living with her husband (who has Tourette’s syndrome).

Why is it worth trying out in class?

  • You can listen to texts on a wide range of topics. For PARSNIPS fans, there’s plenty to chew on.
  • As the conversations are recorded all over the UK, you can expose your learners to a wide range of regional accents.
  • The conversations you’ll hear are totally natural and spontaneous. Amusingly, my learners got quite irritated with the false starts and repetitions so characteristic of spoken English!
  • Many of the topics lend themselves well to class discussions. As many of the conversations are topical, it is relatively easy to source texts for further reading/listening work.

What can I do with it?

  • As I am lucky enough to have a computer suite in my room, I asked learners to listen individually. This meant that they could work at their own pace, listening as many times as they needed to.
  • Ask learners to listen and transcribe an extract of the text. (You might find it useful to transcribe it yourself beforehand).
  • Split learners into groups and give them different texts to listen to. Ask learners to prepare comprehension texts for another group. Then get learners to swap texts and questions.
  • Ask learners to record their own conversations, following the guidelines on the site. Learners can then choose to submit their conversations to the BBC, or they can be used as a learner generated learning activity.
  • If you have time, choose a text and prepare activities in advance. This is time consuming, but worth it. Here’s an example of a lesson I designed (feel free to use it) on a conversation about an absent father.  Absent_Father_Listening_Project
  • Ask learners to choose conversations which interest them for subsequent lessons. I tend to veer towards the darker side of life in my textual choices. When my learners were given free reign they came up with altogether sunnier topics!

I’m sure there are many useful sites to practise listening. Do you know of anything similar?


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The new breed of PARSNIP – hard to swallow?



English language teachers have been injecting PARSNIP flavoured material into their lessons for many a long year. As a fresh-faced young novice I was delighted to find inspiration in the form of Taboos and Issues: a selection of photocopiable lessons covering such conversational topics as death, prostitution, sexual harassment and animal rights.

Why PARSNIPS? Well, if we subject these taboo topics to the water cooler test they pass with flying colours. Who wants to talk about recycling and ethical shopping when you can discuss attitudes to plastic surgery and transsexuals?

What I used to like about PARSNIPS was the opportunity they offered for genuine discussion and dissent. As a teacher, I always felt it was my job to facilitate discussion and correct learners’ language. If a learner was laying down opinions using Yodish word order  – well, then I stepped in like a shot (or restrained myself until the feedback session, of course!). What I didn’t do was correct learners’ ideas.


Look out for a shiny new breed of PARSNIPS coming to a staff base near you! This should be something to celebrate, yet there is something about this new breed of root veg which has me longing for the older, earthier variety.

It seems to me that these new PARNSIPS are highly politicised. That is, they have less to do with sparking truly controversial discussions within the class and more to do with promoting the prevailing political orthodoxy.

This desire to promote a particular world view is peculiar to our current political climate. Unless you have been sleeping in your classroom cupboard for the past year then  I’m sure the debates about free speech (or current lack of it) will not have passed you by. The constant dread of saying the wrong thing and hurting people’s feelings has seeped into what was once an exciting and rather unpredictable element of English language teaching.


The appealing sounding new indie e-book PARSNIPS in ELT: Stepping out of the comfort zone (Vol 1) does not, on first inspection, promise to help me step out of mine.

The Politics lesson looks at the case of Bronwyn Bishop, the Australian speaker who got caught up in an expenses scandal (she famously chartered a helicopter to get to a charity fundraiser). Frankly, I’m not sure if anyone would find the suggestion that politicians often misuse taxpayers money to be exactly controversial. The Alcohol lesson aims to help students “reflect on possible benefits and risks of alcohol drinking”. Meanwhile, the Religion lesson shies away from mentioning the dreaded r- word altogether, preferring instead to ask learners to list their opinions and beliefs (the tooth fairy is cited as an example).

Finally, the Sex lesson. This lesson aims to “reflect on cultural/personal values towards (homo)sexuality and homophobia”. It goes on to provide learners with a few different scenarios. Learners are then asked to decide whether these incidents are homophobic or not (according to the key they are all homophobic “in different ways”).

One scenario includes a girl who “pretends not to hear” the taunts of “gay boy” and “queer” which are directed towards her best friend. According to the key, this person is practising “silent homophobia.” Really? Might she not just be ignoring bullies (sticks n’ stones and all that) or trying to protect her friend from further strife? Furthermore, can a person whose best friend is gay be slapped with the label homophobic (defined in the OED as “having dislike or prejudice against homosexual people”)?


Blandness, playing it safe and correct answers keys are well and good in glossy ELT course books. But these are not the qualities I seek in a PARSNIP lesson. So, for the record, here’s my perfect PARSNIP wish list:

  • Parsnips topics should be open-ended. They should not contain keys telling you the “correct way of thinking”. Of course, keys for language exercises will always be welcome!
  • I teach adults, and I like my lessons to reflect this. I think that atheists should be able to handle discussing other people’s belief in God and I think that believers should be able to deal with the reality that many people do not share their beliefs. I don’t think there is space for the tooth fairy in all this.
  • PARSNIPS should incite controversy in the classroom.  The topics should polarize opinions. Learners might get angry. There may even be a few hurt feelings! *
  • There should be rich language input.
  • Discussion questions should be complex and grey areas within a topic or question should be acknowledged.

I understand completely why mainstream  course books have to play it safe for global markets, but if a PARSNIPS lesson does not result in genuine debate then what can?

*Obviously we teachers know our learners. I am not for one second advocating that vulnerable learners be made to feel distressed or uncomfortable in what should be a pleasant environment. But I think that adults can (and should) be able to cope with hearing opinions which differ from their own.

photo credit: <a href=”″>Borsjtj</a&gt; via <a href=””>photopin</a&gt; <a href=””>(license)</a&gt;

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Inspiration from an ESOL needs analysis lesson

Part 1 and Part 2 of this mini series  focused on two of the places I find teaching and writing inspiration. This part looks at how needs analysis lessons can also furnish teachers (and writers) with fresh ideas and new direction.

Needs analyses forms 2014 - 2015 (UK only)

Needs analyses forms 2014 – 2015 (UK only)

I am no stranger to the needs analysis lesson. Over my seventeen years of teaching, I have earnestly distributed questionnaires and collected in papers umpteen times. I’ve always had the very best of intentions to process this data and use it to plan a term’s worth of useful lessons which cater to the range of needs and abilities within my class.

Often though, my good intentions at the start of the year have remained just that – intentions. As term goes on, I have failed to revisit the needs analyses and check that we are on track with accomplishing what the learners wanted to do. Sometimes this is due to the actual information on the needs analyses being less than useful. For example, if I ask learners the question: “What do you want to improve this year?” they (quite reasonably) write “my English”.  It’s hard to use this data in any meaningful way.

This year, I decided that I would go about constructing my needs analyses lesson in a far more methodical fashion. I compiled a list of questions. Some were open ended questions and some were statements which learners had to mark with agree, disagree or don’t know.

I won’t include my whole range of questions here, but here are a few to give an idea:

  • Why do you come to this class?
  • Do you study English out of class? If so, what do you do?
  • Do you speak English much out of class? If so, who do you speak to?
  • Are you happy with your job? If not, what would you prefer to do?

I distributed the questionnaires and asked learners to work in pairs and interview each other. I encouraged as much discussion as possible. After some time, I opened this up into a class discussion. Learners were asked to report back on their partners’ ideas. The reason for doing this was simple. If learners hear each other’s ideas and needs, they are more likely to tolerate the odd lesson which is not directly geared towards their needs. For example, if a learner has requested lots of speaking practice they might be a bit hacked off if the next lesson focuses on CV writing. However, if they hear Pascal say how he is unhappy with his present job and how he really needs to learn about CV and cover letter writing they are more likely to tolerate a lesson which does not necessarily tie in with the needs they expressed.

Discussing the learners’ needs also meant that should I mislay the completed questionnaires at any point (quite a likely scenario as I am in the process of moving house at the moment) I would have some kind of memory of what learners are wanting and needing to do.

My next step is to shape the results of the needs analysis into personalised learning plans for each learner. These plans will be distributed to the learners and discussed in December (when I hope to conduct informal progress interviews).

So, what did I glean from the needs analyses lesson?

  • Your learners can always surprise you even if you feel you know them very well. I learned that a young factory worker in my class  dreams of opening up a bar in Lerwick. He wants help with researching the local market and writing a business plan. I think there’s scope here for a really interesting series of lessons.
  • Classic ESOL topics which I have tended to avoid (because I feel they are a little boring and patronising for learners of this level (strong intermediate) scored high on the list of my learners’ priorities. Topics which were mentioned included making appointments, going to the doctors and making small talk at work. Many of these topics have been a bit “done to death” and can make dull and dry course book fodder, making me wonder (and here I have my writer’s hat on!) if there is room for fresh angles on these.
  • Pronunciation is extremely important to my learners. The need to “blend in” seems important. One learner tells me that it is not enough to pronounce the words “correctly”  – he wants to mimic the local accent and sound like a real Scot, rhotic rs and all! While I’m not sure this is a realistic aim, I’m looking forward to devising some activities around it.
  • All of the learners said they wanted to tackle a few creative projects this year and are interested in making a film together. Great news!  I’m thinking about finding a way to link this with the pronunciation aim (see above).

For some excellent needs analysis ideas see this great blog post from Alex Case.

photo credit: <a href=”″>Southland Paper mill, Kraft (chemical) pulp used in making newsprint, Lufkin, Texas  (LOC)</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a&gt; <a href=””>(license)</a&gt;

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10 minute wonders (or what manspreading and bookshelfies have in common)

A surgeon once said to me: “I could never be a teacher.”

Of course, I asked her why.

She said “When I’ve finished an operation, I can go home. I don’t need to fart around in the patient’s innards for 10 more minutes, killing time before the bell rings.”


Of course, this surgeon was absolutely right. How often does a teaching activity come to a natural conclusion which does not coincide with the official lesson end time? We all have our favourite “filler” activities, but to tell you the truth some of mine are beginning to seem just a little tired and predictable.

With this is mind, I am going to begin taking a note of any new and successful short “filler” activities I use in class and share them here.

Here’s one I used last week.

10 Minute Activity: Newly minted words

  • I wrote O.E.D. on the board and asked learners to tell me what this stood for (Oxford English Dictionary).
  • I then wrote down the following recent additions to the OED:

Mx (title)

Manspreading (noun)

Mansplain (verb)

Bookshelfie (noun)

Brainfart (noun)

  • I explained that the above words were all new additions to the OED. I then gave learners a minute or so to work in pairs to see if they could guess the meanings of these words. Listening in as I did this, I could hear one or two pretty good guesses! Overall though, learners were barking up the wrong tree.
  • After a minute, I dictated the following sentences for learners to write down.

Why are there only spaces for Mr, Mrs and Ms on this form? I’m Mx.

There’s a real issue with manspreading on the tube. I think these guys should pay for two tickets.

The mechanic helpfully mansplained the problem with my car.

Have you seen her latest profile pic? Nice bookshelfie!

Doh! I’ve just had a brainfart. What was your phone number again?

  • Learners then got back into pairs and used these sentences to help them refine their earlier guesses. This time they got a lot closer to defining the words accurately.
  • We then went through the sentences one by one, checking learners’ definitions against the definitions I’d found online. Many of these words yielded more than a little discussion and generated ever more language, e.g.: Did any of the learners have first-hand experience of having to deal with the issue of manspreading? (At this point I noticed a few of my male learners shuffle in their seats (they may have been discreetly closing their legs) while one learner remembered seeing posters on the New York subway advising men to “stop the spread”.  We also discussed what kind of people might take a bookshelfie. Academics? Writers? Posers? People who owned (but hadn’t necessarily read) the complete works of Proust?


At this stage in the proceedings, the clock struck eight. Home time. If it hadn’t, I might have asked my learners to  devise a simple story using as as many of these words as possible. I may then have asked them to mime their stories while the rest of the class watched, calling out the words as they occurred.

Watch this space over the coming weeks for more 10 minute wonders. And do feel free to share any of your own!

photo credit: <a href=”″>Maggie The Dentist ::: Tender little care</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a&gt; <a href=””>(license)</a&gt;

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Text appeal: finding online inspiration

In my last post I looked at how teachers and resource writers can find lesson inspiration from real life experiences.

What to do, however, when uneventful days and weeks pass? When nothing seems to happen, or at least nothing worthy of transforming into ELT gold happens? (Other people may experience a quite different problem. Their lives might be altogether too risky, colourful and edgy to pool workably safe resources from).

In either case, it is time to pay Mother Google a visit. Of course, the Internet is teeming with life: with texts, clips and images just crying out to be adapted to level and shaped into engaging and original activities.

Searching for ideas online is, however, fraught with danger: the greatest one being that we can get lost in all that glittering information and entertainment, only to come to our senses hours later with nothing at all to show for our wanderings (except for perhaps, a nice little frock purchased when we inadvertently stumbled upon a quirky online clothes retailer).

We need focus. The questions we need think about in order to do this are:

  • Where to start on our search?
  • What are we looking for?
  • What do we need to bear in mind?

The first two questions are relatively straightforward to answer.

Where to start on our search?

We start our search by finding all the articles we have bookmarked (either literally or virtually) over the past few months. We all do this, don’t we? I “favourite” tweets like mad, and then have splurges when I click on all these interesting sounding links, and begin the process of separating the wheat from the chaff. Often, the articles don’t live up to their promise, but I consider it a job well done if I can use one article in ten or twenty. The next step is to shape these articles into something teachable, but as this series of posts is about the sources of inspiration (rather than the blood, sweat and tears of building texts around lessons) I’ll leave this for a later post.

What are we looking for?

Have you ever worked in an office? Have you ever taken part in a round-the-water- cooler chat? These chats are part of office life and usually focus on what someone has read (usually on Facebook) or watched on TV. Such chats are designed to relieve the tedium of office life and are all the more delicious for being snatched, rather illicitly, on company time.

So you’ve found an interesting text. But is it workable? Not sure? Then subject it to the watercooler test. If a group of tired, oxygen starved, brow beaten employees could potentially get volubly excited about it, then you may just have hit EFL gold.

Don’t know what the heck I’m on about? Well, look at this nugget from the paper we all love to hate.

Too many ELT writers (in my ‘umble opinon) look to the Guardian for text inspiration.  This may well be because it is the paper beloved of us kind, liberal teachery types. It doesn’t always cut the mustard though, in terms of water cooler debate. Is “Buy Nothing Day” a good idea? Should we recycle things? Well, if you answer “no” to either of these questions you may as well buy yourself a pair of horns and/or prepare to be publically flogged.

But on the other hand, consider the question: should people who do immoral things be named and shamed? A fantastic water cooler experiment topic: ELT 24 carat gold.

What do we need to bear in mind when sourcing texts online?


In my recent course book review posts, I noted that humour iwas sadly lacking.

Some may counter this claim by saying that humour does not translate easily. This is only sometimes true. I think the course book generated humour which has gone down best in my class is visual humour (comic details in paintings and photographs), amusing stories (especially those with a funny twist in the tale) and hammily acted, over the top “dramatic” listening scripts. The teacher may cringe at these, but in my experience, learners love them.

We need humour. A class without laughs is a sad, sad place. Before I am told that humor should be down to the teacher, I think I should point out that most teachers have quite enough to do without dreaming up jokes to add to their lesson plans. Look for texts and clips which have the potential to make people laugh.

The curse of coolness

Teenage students don’t look to their ELT course books for “coolness” – they want to learn English. They want to have fun, sure, but an ELT course book which tries too hard to be cool is like a Dad dancing at a school disco.

How can I, a forty year old teacher living on a tiny Scottish island even hope to tune into the urban teenage zeitgeist? I can’t, so best not to try.

I think teenage students can learn without overly cool material. I think they can learn better when they are not distracted by having to cringe.

Future proofing

I think that if we are trying to future proof material, we need to think about questions of perennial relevance. Obviously, celebrity culture and current environmental issues do not have this kind of longevity. I would like to see more philosophy in ELT books: more art and more literature. This does not need to be at all heavy. For example, philosophical input could come in the shape of interesting “thought experiments”. 

These thought experiments are wonderful – short texts, language rich and very rich in potential for follow up tasks. In my experience, teenage learners (and adults) love them.

Any thoughts?

I would be really interested to hear where other teachers and writers find their online lesson inspiration! As ever, please feel free to agree, disagree or question any of the above.


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