Making Work For Yourself

Well, first a famine and then a feast, that is, if self-indulgent nonsense is at all a signifier of a festival atmosphere. 3 posts in 36 hours!

Sometimes I think of expertise in teaching as the intuition that being time served gives to you. It’s not the sleepwalking through a class but that you can do everything through habit and stay alert to the novelties of the day. Other times I think of it as the way that you can get through a lesson without needing to plan a rationale with a 3000-word literature review and a methodology section. You already have the skills to pay the bills, as it were.


However, comfort zones are made to be broken out of. This year I am teaching a listening module (yay!) with endless amounts of faff for the resources (no way!) but which I chose to do myself (ey?) in the name of pedagogical thoroughness (hmmm!). Where do we draw the line between martyring oneself to The Absolutely Correct Way Based on Proper Scientists of Learning and being a heretic to the cult of Maybe This Is Good Enough and The Students Will Never Bloody Notice?

“It’s why they pay us the big bucks,” said a person (this very week) that would be unlikely to read this blog. Except, I feel that part of me in the standardised parts of my job feels very frustrated that some of what I do is not The Absolute Correct Way but is definitely only Maybe Good Enough. The bits of my job where I have designed the syllabus and where I have lots of independence make me really happy, although for a few of those there were some marathon reading sessions on good practice for reading and writing pedagogy.

“That book basically teaches itself,” said someone in a staff room this week. I didn’t even have a small aneurysm. I sat on my hands and did nothing; no arguing, not even a grumble. I just disagreed, felt that I understood the time pressures but wondered why they even had a Master’s degree if they enjoyed being deskilled so much.

Anyway, there’s assessment as well. Not being much of one for exams, them being a single event that might not be representative of learning development, I sort of eschewed them as much as possible until this year going with portfolios and ongoing assessment. Unfortunately, I don’t think portfolio assessment is the way to go unless you are teaching a light load and have plenty of time for painstaking assessment necessary. My portfolio assessments make up a much smaller proportion of grades this year, but I do have exams to give but they are smaller, less stressful affairs. I would much rather be able to conduct task-based tests more often, but 30 in some classes and I teach 30 hours a week at different places and with different systems. The Absolute Correct Way is toast again.

Am I a bit sorry? Well, I have the flail out, yes. Is there any way around it? Well, probably not until I start a Patreon or something (joke).

So, what can be done? Well, at best, I can probably plan my time a bit better, which should be easier now I cancelled Netflix. I could do a bit more assessment in down time and use time at home as down time instead. I also have a lot of repeating classes next semester, so that is a small mercy and I won’t need to mess about with video editing software on a crappy Linux computer with insufficient RAM at midnight next autumn or winter.



Here be (Dungeons and) Dragons – Redux

You are in a classroom. There is a dais with a desk, behind which there is a blackboard. In front of you there are eight novices awaiting instruction.

I choose to engage the novices.

Go ahead.

Today, I have a plan. However, I am interested to know if you have a different plan. My plan can be for another day. Please imagine different situations that you and Rob or Vanessa (our regular Non-Player Characters) might be in. Use last week’s lesson as a planning guide. If you need help, please ask me.

Roll D10>3 and D4<4 for successful engagement and +1 courage.


D4 falls off desk… =1.

It went really well, actually. The students planned in two groups of 4. One group decided on explaining a road relay (and did very well indeed), and the other planned to teach how to make miso soup, which they underestimated the complexity of, but I see this as a good learning experience. I also think that by giving my students a metaphorical look behind the curtain that they can understand the success criteria for the tasks I create a bit better. I would still like a bit more linguistic complexity in their output, but today I am going to take this as a success.

XP +D6


Read Here be (Dungeons and) Dragons previous ‘chapters’: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.

Pronunciation: a ragbag of activities, methods and ways to teach it

This post, ironically, is something I’ve put off writing for ages and ages, less because the topic is daunting but more because it’s dauntingly large and I could easily get carried away. However, Kamila, whose blog you should definitely follow, asked me to write something about pronunciation and so I will.



Focus on FormS (i.e. pre-selected) or Focus on Form (i.e. reactive)?

I ago for the Focus on Form every time. If something needs to be taught, you’re going to have your students realise more easily if you can show them what they haven’t been able to do yet, get them to be able to do it afterwards, consider the difference, and go about their communication again.



Whenever I am giving feedback on phonology, I tend to use an IPA phonemic transcription, usually contrasting an error (i.e. improbable intelligibility) with a standard example (i.e. easily intelligible). Why? You can show that at the phonemic level that two sounds are different. This works, in my experience, with segmental phonology such as single phonemes, phonotactics (basically combinations of phonemes, and a clear example would be consonant clusters in standard English versus epenthesised consonants produced by L1 Japanese and Korean students, and also when looking at suprasegmental features like connected speech and also even intonation. Huh? Why?

I don’t really spend any time being explicit about learning IPA characters out of context. Mostly the characters make the sounds my students expect, with only a few exceptions among the vowels. Because it’s always there, it usually sinks in fairly well and fairly quickly. Also, nothing goes on the board with modelling and practice.

Sagittal diagrams and mouth shapes

Sagittal diagrams really have worked well. I normally draw sagittals up on the board whenever I need them instead of having a set of sagittals on PowerPoint like I feel I should. It’s second nature to me now but I do remember the steep learning curve.

For some sounds, you really need to show the mouth shape, too. I have used chalk drawings, photographs of my own mouth, and paused video in VLC to show the way people’s mouths look when they are articulating particular phonemes. The video one is particularly useful because you can show how the mouth moves from one sound to another smoothly, which is beneficial for making sounds more salient (easy to perceive) when listening (Hardison, 2018).

I usually give feedback on mouth shapes and point of articulation in really simple terms like “lips more spread”, “put your tongue in the place for /g/ but hold it and let the sound come through your nose” and such.

Stress and Rhythm

“English is a stress-timed language” chorused everyone on my DipTESOL during phonology brainwashing input sessions. I often demonstrate it by writing a short passage on the board (with transcription) and then have students mark the stresses, and check by speaking it and clapping. To make it more visually salient, I might flash open palms (thanks ELFPron – I can’t find that post I took your idea from) or stretch a brightly coloured (bunch of) rubber band(s). Depending on class size and space in my bag, I might also bring a triangle and beat it muted for unstressed syllables and open for stressed syllables and semi-muted for secondary stress. This might be easier for some than others.


I know exaggerating intonation is really tempting but I don’t do it now because the mimickry makes me realise I sound like a dick when I do it. What I do instead is just mark it on the board and/or use gesture to make it more salient. I was, at one point, going to do a lot of classroom research on intonation teaching but I was really busy and it never happened but I could add it to the endless list of things I feel driven enough to add to a list but not driven enough to carry out.


Hardison, D. M. (2018) Effects of Contextual and Visual Cues on Spoken Language Processing: Enhancing L2 Perceptual Salience Through Focused Training, in Gass, S. M, Spinner, P. & Behney, J. (2018) Salience in Second Language Acquisition.

Other blogs

Hit the comments if you want to give other tips. Also, obviously, check out ELFPron and Pronunciation Bites.

Manipulation or Motivation?

I will probably flesh this out in a few weeks with more references and make it longer so if this interests you, maybe bookmark this.

Motivation and Anxiety

Today, Zoltán Dörnyei presented at the TESOL conference in Chicago and he presented about engagement. Now, engagement is one of those words that everyone knows the meaning of but when asked to define it they define it differently than the next person. I don’t know how Prof. Dörnyei operationalises engagement so I am not going to put words in his mouth. What I am going to do is situate his talk in a wider context regarding affective factors in language teaching.

Motivation and engagement are positive words. They signify positive affect toward an act, and when used to talk about teaching and learning, they are used to support the idea that being on task and wanting to be on task is good. It’s an obvious good thing because in our minds, being on task means that language gets acquired.

Consequently, foreign language anxiety, as put forward by Elaine Horizont and her colleagues (1986) is the extreme negative effect of using and learning a foreign language. Obviously engagement and motivation are good and anxiety is bad. However, what we do to foster increased motivation and engagement and lower anxiety are not just commonsense, value-neutral acts.

A Dilemma

I have some great colleagues dotted around the various places I work at. At one, there is a colleague – let’s call him Bob, because I don’t know how comfortable he would be with me sharing this conversation and actually attributing it to him. Bob was at a conference when an attendee or presenter talked about “tricking” his students into being motivated to participate in tasks or activities. Bob was aghast. Bob thinks that this is manipulation. Manipulation is not usually considered good. Manipulation to be motivated is bad, then. But being motivated is good, so how does one reconcile this?

We are human and therefore we all have the right to make our own decisions. Students sign up for classes* and therefore are motivated enough to attend lessons, and another reason to sign up may be to have accountability for language learning behaviour like doing homework, reading, listening to podcasts, etc. Nobody signs up for classes to be subjected to manipulation. Yet this is what we do if we are trying to exercise control of other people, however noble our intentions.

So, what is our solution here? People will make irrational choices. In language teaching, what is often comfortable is not always the same as what is supported by evidence from research. People like this because they have a fixed idea of what ‘studying’ and therefore, learning looks like, because they may be equated to one another due to the near synonymy. Do we manipulate our students into our way of doing things? I’d say this is too patrician and also reduces the opportunity to foster learner autonomy.

If students are not given information to base their learning choices upon, and the teacher simply dictates what happens, they will either go along with things or they will reject the teaching through disengagement or non-attendance. If teachers trick students into participation, no choice is occurring, thus limiting the opportunity to decide upon participation, and reducing the likelihood of voluntary participation in future activities. It doesn’t matter how engaged the students may be; the fact is that there was no choice and if students feel lied to or manipulated then trust in the teacher (or even, in extreme cases, all teachers) is reduced. However, if we explain why we plan the activities we include in lessons, students can hear our rationale and if they don’t agree they can either voice an opinion or choose to participate or do neither. We can inform students about more fruitful ways to study than they may be used to. Therefore, when trust is established, then information is reliable and taken on board and acted upon.


*At least the adult ones do, and I include university students in this even though they may have been strongarmed into deciding to go to university and they could always drop out by choice.


HORWITZ, E. K., HORWITZ, M. B. and COPE, J. (1986), Foreign Language Classroom Anxiety. The Modern Language Journal, 70: 125-132. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4781.1986.tb05256.x

The fabled 40-hour week

When I worked in a language school, I worked my contracted 30 hours a week. In exchange I got a decent starting salary. What nobody tells you from the company is that the salary only goes up a tiny bit and there’s rarely any real career progression.

That’s why I don’t work for language schools anymore. I went with agency work teaching business English and a junior high school. The agency also sent me to teach at a university. I was teaching PPP lessons, mostly with no planning to speak of (being able to wing it through a double-page coursebook spread is not very demanding). I was working about 35 hours a week, not including travelling between several workplaces in a day.

I did my DipTESOL, had my eyes opened to second language acquisition (SLA) and task-based language teaching (TBLT). This is language teaching and learning with purpose and evidence-based foundations, I thought. My planning time went up. It was a bit of a learning curve. My working hours went up to about 45 hours a week, not including travel between jobs.

Between my DipTESOL and my MA, I started working direct hire for universities and reduced my agency work as the agencies seemed to be reducing hourly rates and only get contracts in inconvenient places. With more university work and more ideas about how to support learners, I decided on portfolio assessments. I gave myself tons of marking. I decided to eschew coursebooks. I made my own materials because I couldn’t find anything decent or just what I needed. My working hours went up to about 50 hours a week, not including travel between jobs. Sometimes it’s more.

This new year, I decided to work less. Work what I need to do. I’m not compromising my principles by using stupid materials or going back to only PPP. I may change the portfolio assessments to something less demanding for me, so I am aiming for working about 40 hours a week, not including travelling about between jobs. Other professions do it, so why not us?

If you liked this, you will probably find TAWSIG interesting, too.

Teaching Strategy Chains for Listening (or not)

This is a small research project I did for my MA. It was my lowest mark on the course and I totally tried to do more than was feasible. I will address the limitations below.

Teaching strategies

An approach to using strategies in listening isn’t new, although there is more to it than the advice given to new TOEIC teachers of “Get them to predict based on what they hear and then think about the gist.” What interested me was whether the strategy chains that learners build up, according to Rebecca Oxford (2011) could be instructed.

I put together a class at the local community hall for 6 weeks, with 7 women. The first class let me see the strategies that the learners were already using and give a questionnaire (the MALQ by Vandergrift et al., 2006). The last class involved no instruction of the strategy chain but allowed me to see whether it was being used. Most used a few simple strategies. I derived a chain of potentially useful strategies based upon learners’ answers to the MALQ. The class was a massive mix of levels, from A1 to B2 on the CEFR. I used a mix of authentic texts (reality television) and inauthentic texts (from First I used one text to teach the strategy chain. Learners listened twice and transcribed what they understood from the text in English or Japanese. They wrote what strategies they used in English or Japanese.

The chain

I derived the following chain for instruction: schema activation (through focused thought or speaking to other learners about the topic), plan how to listen based upon their schema activation, relax in order to reduce cognitive load issues and regain focus when attention has been lost. The reasons for this particular chain was that the learners reported little use of these strategies in their listening yet I believed that the learners would benefit from them, particularly the relaxing and refocusing.

So, what happened?

Well, all the learners went along happily with the teaching and said they used the strategy chain in weeks 2-5. In week 6, the assessment week, not a single learner reported use of the chain.

Now, this is not the end of the world. It showed me that teaching is just teaching. Whether learners decide to do something in a classroom is another thing entirely. You cannot force a way of working onto someone. It also comes down to comfort and experience. For some of the learners, they were quite proficient in communication but claimed to be uncomfortable with listening. I used schema activation in the chain and perhaps this was something that they did unconsciously. For the lower-proficiency learners, perhaps the relaxing and refocusing needed more time to be practiced effectively. Whatever the case, strategies are used, in tandem with one another, but perhaps rely more upon learner evaluation of the strategies’ value in combination than teacher evaluation.

Another aspect of the course was that it was 6 weeks which was all the time fast was feasible for me after handing out leaflets on the street and asking friends to share on Facebook (when I was on there). Potentially, with a longer course it might have resulted in learners using this chain in the assessment week. It might not have, and I am going to say that it appears unlikely. Still, it’s good to know what is unlikely to work, isn’t it?

In all likelihood it appears that teaching strategies helps learners, but the chain of strategies used depends entirely on the individual learner. It might be useful to carry out the MALQ in class, see what isn’t being used and teaching successful use of particular strategies.


Oxford, R (2011) Teaching and Researching Language Learning Strategies. London: Routledge.

Vandergrift, L, Goh, CCM, Mareschal, CJ, & Tafaghodtari, MH (2006) “The Metacognitive Awareness Listening Questionnaire: Development and Validation” Language Learning 56:3 September 2006, pages 431-462.

Bottoms up! Decoding in listening

Last post I wrote about the priority of making materials pretty as opposed to suitable for purpose and why it leads to a lack of bottom-up skills teaching. I was also asked very nicely for a part 2 on bottom-up activities. Unless otherwise stated this is just what I do or have done. You know what will probably work with your students.


Edit your text, simply. What items do you have in the text that learners will probably find problematic? Copy your mp3 file, edit it (using Audacity or Ocen Audio; I prefer Ocen Audio) so the item is in isolation, add a second or two of silence each side and copy the audio and paste it a couple of times. You should have a file with the same word/chunk/tone unit/whatever three times. Do the same with any other items you want to focus on. This sounds time consuming, but it only takes about ten minutes or so when you get used to it.


Well, apparently we carry auditory prototypes of lexis about in our memories. While we don’t expect to hear the actual prototype, we have wider tolerance the more variations we hear.

Are you embarrassed by ridiculous voices? Well, I have no shame. I will utterly mug it up in the classroom, pronouncing target lexis in bizarre, but still generally decodable, pronunciation affectation. Overly high pitch, lisping, stammering, changing vowel quality. With my mouth hidden so as to avoid being lip read. Something I plan to use in some classrooms with internet access is Youglish. You could also use a subtitle downloader, video downloader and Grep if you have coding skills or a ton of time.


The oldie but goodie. Use a short text or read a short text, twice or so. Have learners identify the stressed word in each tone unit and take notes. Learners then regrammar the text based on what they heard and grammar knowledge.

You can vary this by asking learners to also note the words prior to and following the stressed word. This is useful for function word awareness, especially with the weak form of ‘can’ /kən/.

Cut ups

Another activity for identifying target items and working with preceding/following items is to cut up and reorder a text *as a group*. I do this with a class I teach through songs. It is a success in having learners think about what they hear following a line of song. It has also worked with short dialogues with a lot of backchannelling that would not be easily sequenced by discourse adjacency awareness (appropriate response awareness) alone.

The line

Hada Litim told me about an activity where the teacher draws a line on the board, and then learners listen, placing stressed words above the line and unstressed words below. I shall steal this at my earliest opportunity.

Listening bingo

There is a great post somewhere, I think, on listening bingo on Richard Cauldwell’s site. Unfortunately, I can’t find it. He suggests writing some word or phrase pairs, actual and likely error, in order of appearance in the text and have learners identify which they hear. It’s good for connected speech and words out of dictionary citation form.

If you have other ideas of activities, feel free to share in the comments!