Month: Apr 2014

How to write effective classroom materials

ImageAt IATEFL 2014 in Harrogate last week, I went to lots of interesting talks and workshops. One stood out as immediately useful, and very practical! The talk was “More than just a worksheet: how to write effective classroom materials” by Rachel Roberts. Whilst I was sitting there, I was already convinced that the things I heard in the informative but brief session would land on my blog. For people new to teaching, or for people like me who sometimes benefit from re-visiting some things learnt a while ago on training courses, the talk was excellent, and of immediate use! So, this is my summary of her talk, peppered with my own ideas, for anyone who was unable to attend or who’d like a brief reminder of things to consider when designing materials for the EFL classroom.

(P.S. Sorry for the blurry photo … this is in fact the very first photo I’ve ever taken during a talk at IATEFL, and it seems my phone’s camera is not really up to the job. Plus I was distracted, which is an issue for an enitrely separate blog post! Anyway, you get the idea!)

To start with, it is important to note that no material can be particularly effective if it is not a coherent part of a well thought-through lesson with clear and logical progression. The lesson’s topic and the input (e.g. texts) need to be relevant to the learners’ lives, so that the learners can really engage with the content and are therefore driven to learn the language and/or skills being taught or practised. If they are truly interested in a topic, it will probably also mean that they talk about it outside of class, so they will get extra practice of the points covered. Rachel calls this the ‘water cooler effect’ … which gets the points across very nicely. (Though in my own setting it would be more appropriately termed the ‘mad rush to the coffee machine in the short break between classes effect’!)

One of Rachel’s particularly helpful hints here is to try to find a new angle or a new perspective from which you can approach the topic. One example given by an audience member was the news on new 7-a day recommendations (Yes, apparently, health experts are now recommending that people eat 7 portions of fruit & veg per day, and some even say 10! This is up on the usual 5 that we’ve been hearing about for a while now, and I wonder how many of us manage?!) But the point is, instead of taking the perennial topic of ‘obesity’ and going through the same-old-same-old motions of looking at people’s poor eating habits, listening to the news on 7- (or 10!) a-day could bring in something new and therefore be more interesting and motivating for the learners. It is also good if the topic provides scope for personalised output by the learners.

Naturally, the linguistic and cognitive abilities of the learners need to be judged fairly accurately to ensure that any input used and materials designed will be appropriate to their level. Things that are too difficult or too easy will dampen motivation. Easier said than done sometimes, though! But I’m convinced that the new English Profile and English Vocabulary Profile will be of assistance here (I heard about these in another talk, and I definitely think they deserve a mention!). And, Rachel reminds us, good materials should also include both linguistic and cognitive challenges for our learners.

Regarding language input, Rachel proposes the strategy of ‘compromising’ between authentic input and teacher-composed texts. I have the feeling that the former are often lavishly praised as motivating (which may be very true, particularly when used for skills work), but there is of course the frustrating aspect of them not including much example of the target structure and sometimes being too hard for EFL /ESOL learners. Teacher-composed texts, of course, are often (if you’re anything like me!) overly full of examples of target structures, but somehow don’t have the same appeal to learners. Rachel’s suggestion, a cunning idea, is that teachers find inspiration in authentic texts, and then merge bits of various texts with the target structures and text-book texts to form a new material, which imitates the authentic input, but where we have more control over level and completeness.

And finally, Rachel reminds us the tasks learners are set should have a concrete outcome. By including some constraints, tasks can produce better output which the learners can then justify and discuss. She gives the example task “List in order of priority five things you would miss if you emigrated”. It’s clear to see that this fulfills all of the ‘criteria’ mentioned above and could lead to some lively discussions. (I have emigrated and I miss a whole lot more than just 5 things!). When composing task questions, I find that a list of good verbs can be found by looking at explanations of Bloom’s Taxonomy. (I’m adding this, although I’m sure Rachel knows it already, even if she didn’t mention it explicitly!)

File:Bloom's Taxonomy.png

In a nutshell, then, Rachel’s talk highlighted the links between the points shown on her PPT slide in the photo (Input – Content – Language – Task, if it’s too blurry for you, sorry!). It may not be a re-invention of the wheel, but having things clearly spellt out in this way seems like a nice memory jogger for all of us!

By the way, if you’re too short of time to read this whole blog post, or too short of paper to print it all out as a reminder, the phrases highlighted in bold form a very nice summary which fits on a post-it note:

Effective classroom materials should…

  • be part of a well thought-through lesson
  • be relevant to the learners’ lives,
  • take a new angle or a new perspective on a topic
  • have scope for personalised output
  • include a compromise between authentic input and teacher-composed texts
  • have a concrete outcome


Useful links

Rachel’s full handout:

More information on Bloom’s Taxonomy:


Feedback on Demand: Learner-Directed Feedback on EAP Writing

IMAG0245My presentation this week at IATEFL 2014 in Harrogate was entitled “Learner-Directed Feedback: A useful tool for developing EAP writing and academic skills?”. It was a report on a small action research study I recently conducted on what I’m (for the moment) calling ‘Learner-Directed Feedback’. I’m aware that this may be slightly misleading to some, particularly when it’s confused with peer feedback or peer review – any ideas for a better term are welcome! For now, I’ve adopted a fun term suggested by my colleague as the title of this blog post: Feedback on Demand (but don’t worry, there’s no subscription fee!)

I define Learner-Directed Feedback as follows: Learners ask to receive feedback in a certain format and on specific aspects of their written work. The feedback is given by the teacher, but the learners ‘direct’ how and on what they receive feedback comments. In order to ‘direct’ the feedback, learners can often choose between various modes of delivery (e.g. email, electronic document, audio recording, face-to-face consultation), and are usually required to pose specific questions about their language and text to which the teacher responds. More details on instructions given to students working with this method of feedback can be found here: LDF Instructions

Here are the slides – I’ve edited them to include a little more detail which was part of my speech, in case you weren’t able to be there, or didn’t take very good notes! 🙂

IATEFL 2014 Learner Directed Feedback

I would welcome any comments or questions on what I have ‘said’ – please post them below.


Other Useful Links

The conference programme:


See also:

Professional Development in the Here and Now: A quick review

The final talks of the IATEFL annual conference in Harrogate are finishing as I write. The one I was in finished early, which gives me a few minutes to write a very quick review and summary of what I heard.

The talk was by Anthony Gaughan on Continuing Professional Development (“The place is here and the time is now”).


Actually, I think the point Anthony made was a very good one, and it was a great note to finish the conference with. Nonetheless, in my view, the roundabout, pre-scripted and metaphor-heavy way of getting to the point was not really necessary. Still, the message to take away from his talk, and indeed something to think about as the conference comes to a close is this: We (teachers) should not fall into the trap of thinking that professional development is something that can only happen somewhere remote, somewhere other than in our daily teaching environment. In fact, as Anthony reminded us, we often underestimate the everyday learning experiences, seeing them as somehow inferior to formalised, planned, officially ‘accepted’ forms of development, where we are often rewarded with a certificate. In fact, there is apparently research which shows that these unplanned everyday learning experiences often lead to more definite and ongoing development than things like conferences, courses, etc. We need to remember, we can develop as teachers within our classrooms! Sometimes it may be hard to see the potential for development and learning, but Anthony has reminded us to be aware and become aware of these opportunities.


So, although I was unconvinced as I sat in a story-time-like presentation at first, the message I’m taking away to share is a valuable one. So thanks Anthony, for leaving us with this very apt conference-closing impetus to continue to develop, even once we’re back grinding our our daily grind!


Useful Links

The script for Anthony’s talk:


Today I was part of a really energising event: the Pre-Conference Event held by the Research SIG of IATEFL at the annual conference in Harrogate.  The day was especially focused on teachers’s research and set up to be “for teachers by teachers”. We heard some really interesting poster presentations, and had some interesting discussions in plenary. Here are my personal highlights.


Good ideas I learnt from poster presentations & the discussions that followed

–          “Process-folios”: Instead of assessing students on a portfolio consisting of the work they have chosen, their best pieces of work, get students to produce a portfolio which demonstrates the process through which they arrived at their final product and how they improved the product and their language/skills throughout the project. For example, if they are working on an essay, the process-folio could include reading notes, essay plan(s)/outline(s), drafts, feedback, peer review, reflections, etc, as well as the final essay. Since it’s hard to give a grade for this kind of documentation, the assessment could be a list of ‘can do’ statements, so the students have to prove through the documents included in their process-folio that they have the skills to complete the tasks listed in the statements, for example ‘I can narrow down a topic appropriately’, ‘I can read sources critically’, ‘I can incorporate feedback into my work’. These process-folios remove the pressure from students of producing one very good essay (for example) and re-focus their attention on the process of improving themselves and their work.  (Thanks to Jayne Pearson for this idea!)


–          Group peer review: Instead of having students bring copies of their written work to class and working in pairs or small groups on peer reviewing tasks, put the documents online (e.g. in a Google Group) and invite everyone in the class/group to leave comments on all the other pieces of work. Students can sign up to the group using pseudonyms, and the anonymity can help to make the feedback more honest. It will probably also mean that students receive feedback from peers who are not in their immediate friendship group (who they would probably work with if given the chance in class) and are thus likely to receive a broad range of comments and ideas. They may be exposed to new approaches to improving their writing, and receive more abundant feedback than just from one partner within the lesson time. (Thanks to Elena Oncevska for this idea!)


–          Online/Smart phone apps for improving oral fluency: Students can be encouraged to improve their own oral fluency if they are aware of where their weaknesses lie. There are a number of tools available on the internet or as smart phone apps which can make this work more motivating. For example, the IDEA (International Dialects of English Archive) provides recordings of English speakers from around the globe, who are speaking freely and naturally (not like the staged recordings often found in textbooks!). These recordings can be used to encourage students to notice what exactly it is they listen to when someone is speaking, what aspects of their speech make them sound ‘fluent’, etc. And then they can record their own speech (using smart phones, usually no special app is required) to ‘anaylse’ and compare with the IDEA samples. Other apps, such as The Ahcounter or The Hitcounter can be used by students (alone, in groups, or with/by the teacher) to measure things such as words per minute, the number of disfluent interruptions (e.g. ah, err, um) in a concrete nominal way, from which the students can set themselves targets and continue to monitor improvements in their fluency. Being allowed to use their mobiles in class will probably bring additional motivation to the task! (Thanks to Becky Steven and Jessica Cobley for this idea)


Interesting points of discussion

We didn’t really find clear answers to any of these, but I think the questions are important ones for teachers to be asking themselves and perhaps discussing with colleagues – and it would be great to read your ideas if you’d like to post them as comments below.


–          Is teacher/action research simply part of good teaching practice, or is there something more to it?

–          What is the relationship between action research and professional development?

–          Where is the boundary between teacher research and “proper” academic research?

–          How can we share and disseminate the findings of teacher research projects to reach the people who are actually in the classroom?


As you can see, an interesting and productive day … can’t wait to see what the rest of the conference holds in store!


By the way, if you’re interested in seeing/hearing more from the ReSIG PCE, here are the videos from all the poster presentations: