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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2 Responses to Text appeal: finding online inspiration

  1. Diarmuid says:

    One of the lessons that sticks in my head after more than twenty years teaching is the lesson that I asked a student if they’d had a haircut. This led into a discussion about what to ask for in the barbers/hairdressers, how to engage in small talk, cultural norms, societal taboos etc.

    Sometimes -all the time?- you don’t need anything to happen.

    But if you do, then a quick check through precisely the same blogs that you have listed in your blogroll is usually fruitful. I’d also recommend anthonyteacher.com (by @anthonyteacher) which has really impressed me.

  2. joco75 says:

    Hi Diarmuid,

    Thanks so much for popping by and commenting. As I’m wearing my teacher’s hat today, I can totally share your view that subjects which just “pop up” in classroom conversation can be incredibly fruitful. And as for being inspired by other bloggers, I’m with you on that too. I only recently came across anthonyteacher.com and wholeheartedly agree that it’s an excellent blog.

    I suppose that I’m writing many of these posts with a kind of split personality – half as a resource writer and half as a teacher. While teachers can take ideas from different blogs and seek inspiration from things that occur at the moment of teaching, this is not really an option for a resource writer.

    That said, however, my next post will be looking at how writers (not just teachers) can use blogs to inspire and inform their work.

    Thanks again for taking the time to comment!


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