Highlights from IATEFL 2017 Day 3-4

CaptureThe IATEFL annual conference is always a whirlwind of learning, discovery, meet ups and new connections.

Here are some highlights of what I saw on Days 3 and 4 of this year’s conference in Glasgow.

Jane Setter’s plenary, Where angels fear to tread: intonation in English language teaching, was the first plenary session to deal with pronunciation in IATEFL’s history. She dealt specifically with tonicity, which is an aspect of pronunciation that is important for inteligibility, teachable (with training), and learnable. It’s also part of the English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) set of core features. This was also the first IATEFL presentation I’ve been to, plenary or otherwise, that had us doing intonation-themed karaoke before noon, which gave it a grade of A+ in my books.

I usually try to catch up with as many of the Canadians at the IATEFL conference as possible. While I didn’t see everyone’s presentations, I managed to catch a few. Angelica Galante spoke on Integrating plurilingual practices in ELT in a superdiverse world, the theme of her doctoral research in multicultural and multilingual Toronto. She shared several examples of classroom activities to encourage translanguaging, code-switching, cross-cultural awareness and plurilingual identities in our students.

Another Canadian was Douglas Sewell spoke on Developing self-regulated learning skills through a restructured international foundations program,  and shared some of the practices they employ in the IFP at the University of Calgary.  An interesting aspect of their program is students not only learn about English, but they learn to use English; they not only learn about the norms of academic behaviour and expectations in the Canadian university environment, but they learn how to navigate those norms.

One of my favourite presentations of the whole conference was Alistair Roy’s talk, Small talk: supporting introversion in language learning. To be honest, this was a topic outside my usual wheelhouse, but this talk was brilliant. He gave lots of lots of practical suggestions on how to accommodate introverted learners in our classrooms, and recommended some further reading, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop, by Susan Cain.

Slides from IATEFL 2017

CaptureELT conference season has begun! I’m currently in Glasgow, taking in the 51st IATEFL Conference. I’ll have write ups on some of the sessions I’m seeing in a blog post to come.

My presentation, Diverse Approaches to Academic Writing at a Canadian University, is Wednesday, April 5, at 17:25, in the Lomond Hall. Here’s the description:

This talk details an original research project exploring L1 and L2 approaches to academic writing instruction at a Canadian university through accounts from students and instructors. Results reveal how both experience the differing epistemologies, pedagogies and language norms of these two approaches. Implications for curriculum, methodology and professional development are discussed.

Click here to download the slides from my talk.

Presentation @ IATEFL Birmingham

I’Birmingham_Logo_webm excited to be presenting at IATEFL Birmingham on the topic of EAP Pathway Program Study and Academic Success at University. My session is on  Friday 15th April at 12:30-13:00 in Executive Room 1.

My doctoral research revolves around the teaching and learning of English in the university context, and so I’m hoping some other people working and researching in this area make it out for my session so we can get a good discussion going. Unlike most of my past conference presentations, this is a research talk focusing on my and others’ research, rather than a practical talk full of immediately applicable ideas. It’s a bit of a change, but I’m looking forward to it.

IATEFL 2015 Wrap-up

man 2015 logo - website use onlyThe IATEFL conference is over for another year. In passing someone commented that at this year’s conference they hadn’t seen a bad presentation and I was obliged to agree. Despite the most strategically-selected lineup of sessions, every year there’s always one or two talks so bad I have to slink out of. But this year, everything I saw ranged from good to great.

The social side of IATEFL is one of the most fulfilling aspects of the conference. But seeing friends and acquaintances, meeting up with Twitter contacts in IRL, randomly starting conversations with teachers from around the world at the nightly events and receptions leaves little time for blogging. Now that I’m home I can put together a rundown of a select few of the presentations I saw this year:
Plenary Session: Donald Freeman
In his presentation Freeman  urged us to “unthaw” our sometimes “frozen” thinking via unpacking three big myths of ELT. The myth of direct causality ( that teaching causes learning), the myth of sole responsibility, that the teacher is solely responsible for making learning happen in the classroom, and the myth of a singular, monolithic proficiency as a goal of language learning. He had a lot of interesting anecdotes and examples for each of these points, but what I liked most is that overarching idea that there are myths in our profession that have to be recognized and questioned.

Alex Thorp: Re-thinking Assessment Roles and Potential
This talk dealt with the concept of constructive alignment and how important it is that there be coherence between assessment type, learning outcomes, and classroom teaching and learning activities. This was nothing new or revolutionary, but an engaging reminder of this concept just the same.

Adrian Underhill: Jazz and the Dark Matter of English Language Teaching
In this presentation, Underhill drew parallels between the improvisation done in theatre and jazz that which happens in the classroom. I have dabbled in jazz and theatre in past lives, and so I found this parallel spot on. But in teaching, like in jazz and on stage, improvisation and indeed be “dark matter”–hard to pin down, though you  know good improv when you see it.

David Read and Will Nash: Through the Looking Glass: Creating a video-Ready Classroom
This presentation focused on a variety of learning technologies they’ve researched and tested out in their classroom at the University of Sheffield. The coolest thing was something called  Swivl, a kind of robotic swivelling tripod that culd be used to film classes for teacher evaluations, teacher training or distance learning.

Marion Crandall: Fairness as a Consideration in Test Items
This was a great session which dealt with cognitive, emotional and physical fairness in creating assessments; very useful parameters to keep in mind but that often get forgotten. A wonderfully structured and delivered presenation.

Tyson Seburn: Academic Reading Circles
Academic Reading Circles are an EAP adaptation of the types of reading circles common with fiction where groups read the the same text and take on different to roles to work on an work out the text together. I think I’m going to include these in a PD session for our staff I’m running in a few weeks and see if it’s something they’d like to experiment with in our EAP program.

Ermina Tuzovic: Walk Before your Run: Reading Strategies for Arabic Learners
I loved this presentation. Grounded in psycholinguistic theory, it was an fascinating explanation of some of the unique difficulties Arabic L1 learners have with reading in English, as especially skimming and scanning. It was such a great balance of theory and lots of practical tips. I hope to present it to our staff, as it was very enlightening, as we have a lot of students whose L1 is Arabic.

Edward de Chazal: The Difference is Academic
Through a language-driven analysis, de Chazal showed us that academic English is really about nouns and noun phrases, whereas most traditional coursebooks and grammar books revolve around the verb and he showed us how his new EAP book targets the noun.

Pilar Aramayo Prodencio: Language Policy in Mexico
A neat talk that got much more into concepts of policy that I was expecting, but which was nonetheless a very interesting look into the role of English in educational policy in Mexico.

Russ Mayne and Nicola Prentis: Where are the women in ELT?
Despite the fact that the majority of English teachers are women, the majority of the invited plenary speakers at ELT conferences are men, and in this talk they delved into some of the reasons why: the domination of plenary spots by a select few big coursebook authors of a certain age, and the vicious cycle of visibility (those select few present frequently, and then people are more likely to request to see them). There was an interesting discussion after the presentation, too, which brought up the role big publishing houses play in maintaining this gender imbalance.

Katheleen Graves: Addressing Mismatches between Classroom Context and Coursebook 
I loved Kathleen Graves’ keynote at last year’s IATEFL, and so when I saw her name on the program, I knew I had to try to catch it. In this talk, she and co-presenter Sue Garton presented a few cases from a new book, International Perspectives on Materials in ELT. Though it’s always horrifying to see how teachers and students in so many contexts are mandated to use coursebooks that are culturally, pedagogically or linguistically inappropriate, these were tales of resistance, adaptation and the eternal creativity of educators around the world.

David Crystal Question and Answer Session
David Crystal is also a speaker who I was lucky enough to see at past IATEFLs. He’s a man after  my own heart: a linguist with a fascination for language in use. In this year’s session he took pre-submitted questions relating to all aspects of sociolinguistic variation and language change. Language in use is an aspect of language teaching that I think is crucial, and doesn’t get enough discussion at ELT conferences. At one point he talked about the “You Say Potato” book and pronunciation map he’s been working on with his son. Warning: you will lose hours on this site…

IATEFL 2015: Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay in EAP Writing

man 2015 logo - website use only

I’m off to Manchester! I’m giving a presentation entitled Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay in EAP Writing  on Sunday.

My presentation will be part of a forum on EAP writing along with Niall Lloyd (Explicit SPRE Instruction–an aid to essay Writing) and Gusztav Demeter (Integrating Simulations in a Seminar-Based approach to EAP Writing) on Sunday, April 12, from 1710-1815.

Here’s the abstract:

The five-paragraph essay is omnipresent in English for Academic Purposes (EAP) coursebooks, despite corpus-based research that shows few university students are assigned essays of this type, but rather any number of genres. This presentation will look at alternatives to the five-paragraph essay in the teaching of EAP writing and propose practical teaching ideas to bring genre into the classroom.

Click here to download the slides: Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay in EAP Writing(PDF) or Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay in EAP Writing (PPTX)

Efficiency in the Language Classroom

I recently came across Ben Sichel’s excellent response to recent public commentary over K-12 educational reform here in Nova Scotia. (I’m pretty sure similar debates over “back-to-basic” old-school methods vs. discovery methods and other newer methods used to teach L1 literacy in English as well as math are happening in many jurisdictions all over the world.)

K-12 education is not my realm, but I couldn’t help but connect some of the ideas brought up in the article to current themes in ELT; notably, the idea of ridding the educational system, and by an extension the classroom, of “inefficiencies”. This echoed Kathleen Grave’s excellent plenary talk at this year’s IATEFL conference: The efficiency of inefficiency: an ecological perspective on curriculum. (The talk isn’t available online, but here is an interview with the speaker, and here’s an excellent summary of her session.) As in the case of Nova Scotia, this push toward efficiency by many ministries of education around the world is frequently driven by politics, according to Graves.

Inefficiencies are key to real, long-term learning in many cases, as is exemplified in the cases Graves presents in her talk, and as I’m sure many of us have seen in the classroom. We need the time and to build a community of language learners, for unforeseen learning moments to arise, to give learners the opportunity to really absorb the language and notice its nuts and bolts, and for realizations to percolate through learners budding interlanguages, and for everything to start to filter through and make an appearance in learners’ speaking and writing. We can’t command lightbulbs to suddenly appear over the heads of our students one day; thse “Eureka!” moments are the culmination of hours of language input and output and scaffolded instruction.

Ministries of Education aside, some of the most difficult people to convince of the value of inefficiency in the language learning process are the students themselves. In the world of EAP, our adult students have their eyes firmly on the ball–imminent entry into their degree program–and want to get their as quickly as possible. Convincing them that sometimes things just take time can be difficult, especially in light of funder-imposed timelines on pre-program language training, some more realistic than others. (I  guess there we are, back to Ministries of Education again…)

IATEFL 2014: Debunking Pseudo-Science in ELT


EAP is probably my main area of professional interest, as it is the bread and butter of the institution where I work.  I therefore try to see as many presentations as I can based on teaching and learning English for university.

But before I talk about the EAP sessions I saw, I must talk about what I would classify as the best presentation I saw at IATEFL this year: Russ Mayne’s A Guide to Pseudo-Science in English Language Teaching.

This half-hour presentation is a tour de force that sets out to debunk four movements quite popular in ELT– learning styles, multiple intelligences, neuro-linguistic programming, and BrainGym–using research literature to support his claims that they’re all rubbish. It was a scathingly frank takedown–organizations and individuals guilty of promoting these four theories were called out directly–and no words were minced as wielded citation after citation to build his case. His overall message was that in order for our profession to be taken seriously, and to maintain its credibility, intuition and “feeling” is not enough; we must look to science for insight into what we do and how we do it.

I echo this sentiment completely; having arrived at the world of ELT armed with a bachelor’s degree in linguistics I have wanted to pull my hair out at times  when hearing teaching colleagues spout nonsense about language that wasn’t grounded in any type of theory at all. And I only wish I had more of a background in psychology and cognitive science to support my working knowledge of second language acquisition and the brain; this talk made me want to go out and read up.

But especially for those of us that teach EAP, Russ’s talk, and this idea of credibility, are very important.  We’re teaching English to scholars; at my institution at least, for every immature 17-year old undergrad we have at least 2 master’s or PhD researchers in our classes. They want to know that what and how they’re being taught EAP is scientifically grounded. I’ve certainly been challenged on this point before (by a student who was a royal pain in the arse, but nonetheless), and I was confident enough in my methods and course content to be able to put out an open invite for anyone in the class that wanted to to come to my office and see some of the literature supporting what I was doing in the course. My goal is to keep up on new developments, so that balance of literature, in combination with experience and best practices, can underpin whatever form and context my future teaching will take.

Russ is based at the University of Leicester and runs a blog entitled Evidence-based EFL, which, as the title suggests, is “dedicated to looking at language and language teaching from an evidence-based viewpoint”, which I look forward to including on my blogroll.

IATEFL 2014: Highlights in Materials and Assessment Writing


I really admire those ELT bloggers who somehow manage to find the time to blog during IATEFL. Between spotty WiFi, days jam-paced with sessions, and social events in the evening, I’ve given up trying to write anything substantial up until after the conference is over.

I gravitate toward 4 types of presentations: those in the areas of materials and assessment writing, EAP, edtech and ELT management. Over the next few posts, I’ll reflect on the highlights in each of those areas.

Materials and Assessment Writing

Writing for Digital: Challenges and Solutions.
Fiona Mackenzie and Russell Whitehead lead us through a series of activities meant to raise awareness of what is involved in writing for digital in in what ways it is similar to and different from writing for print. As we worked in teams and Fiona elicited responses from the audience, one thing became incredibly clear to me: if you actually use digital–mobile devices and apps, edtech platforms, apps for language learning–then awareness of the differences between writing for print and digital comes a lot more naturally than if you don’t. Kind of like a vegetarian preparing a steak dinner.

More than Just a Worksheet: Writing Effective Classroom Materials
I’m a big fan of Rachael Roberts‘s blog, and so I was quite interested to see her speak in person. It was a nice, informative talk that covered  a lot of the fundamentals of classroom materials writing. Her handouts can be found here. Besides her showing us the Oxford 3000 highlighter, which I wasn’t familiar with, another particular highlight was when, after putting PARSNIPS up on the screen and asking if anyone was familiar with the term the woman beside me laughed dismissively and said, “Of course! They’re a root vegetable that’s just lovely roasted.”

Test Tasks that Work and How to Write Them
I”m in awe of the data heads that work in the assessment side of ELT, developing assessments, standardized and other, that are accurate, reliable and consistent. As I’m in charge of developing and maintaining assessments at my institution, I have come to realize what a complex task it is. Jamie Dunlea and Kevin Rutherford are in that world, as they worked on developing the Aptis test for the British Council, and they shared a variety of very helpful tips, experience, web tools and references helpful to those involved in test writing and management. While Felicity O’Dell‘s How to Write a Good Task for a Test talk on Thursday focused more qualitatively on what type of text content and style is appropriate for an assessment, these two focused on the syntactic and lexical features that make a particular text appropriate for a particular level and gave us some tools to measure these features. Everything they talked about and demonstrated was grounded in research, and we all went away with a long list of works cited and essential resources, at least one of which I immediately went down to the book fair and bought.

Sugata Mitra @IATEFL: Neither outraged nor awestruck


Sugata Mitra delivered the closing plenary at IATEFL this past Saturday in Harrogate. Before the session was over, the Twittersphere started to go berserk. The reaction to his talk was very polarized; either he was being praised as an inspiring visionary or derided as a dangerous neo-liberal shill complicit in the dismantling of the public education system.

I don’t agree with either camp. First, I have to admit that I haven’t watched Mitra’s TED Talk, nor have a actually read the research articles he’s published on his projects (which should be the real basis on which to criticize/laud him; a lot can get played up or lost in a TED-style talk, even if it is dressed up as a plenary address as it was in this case).

I can’t comment on the teaching and learning of science or computer science. But in terms of language learning, what I heard him speak about in his plenary is nothing all that revolutionary. Reducing teacher talk time. Giving groups of students a task and letting them work it out with minimal interference from the teacher. Acquisition of social capital and/or instrumental motivation pushing learning. Production improving when there is a more acute sense of audience. All of his ideas are old hat in the world of ELT; they’re just tweaked and adapted to the particular contexts he described, and delivered in a breathless TED tone.

We have the same concerns about the methods Mitra described as we do when things like TBL and CLT are being applied in the language classroom: is everyone in the class learning, or are certain people dominating? Are the learners learning the right things, and at an effective rate? What happens to motivation to learn when the nature of the social capital being sought after or the instrumental motivation changes, or disappears? How and in what way can a teacher/guide/granny/whathaveyou interact to best maximize learning?

In terms of the broader picture in terms of the future of education, de-valuing and de-professionalizing of teachers, and dismantling of the public education system, everything lies in what Mitra was really proposing. He made a bunch of disparaging remarks about teachers and their usefulness. But was this simply his trying to adopt a humorous presentation style, or is he really proposing we get rid of teachers? Are his ideas simply ways to make do in under-served environments where very little learning is happening otherwise? Or is he proposing them across the board? I think we have to read his articles to find out.

I saw this talk as encouragement for teachers to think about how our role and our methodology should/must evolve in the face of developing technology, how we can best serve underserved populations, and how sometimes dire straits call for drastic measures to get ‘er done. A bit of self-reflection never hurts; nor does a little (or a lot) of debate. Mitra was actually an ideal plenary speaker in this way; better dozens of impassioned tweets than a a forgettable and nap-inducing talk, any day.