Month: Apr 2015

Why don’t British students spend time abroad?

It’s been a couple of years since I took over as the Erasmus exchange coordinator for my Department (Dept. of English Studies at a university in Germany). While most of my responsibilities are to do with helping students get organised for their stay abroad and helping incoming students navigate our university’s system, another task that requires time and energy is maintaining partnerships and finding (attempting to find?!) new partner institutions.

The university I work at is in (what is said to be) Germany’s oldest city. It’s a beautiful little city steeped in history and set in a landscape of the stunning Moselle river and sloping vineyards. It’s a campus university with a good community feeling and a pretty flexible system for studying. We have classes and even degree programmes taught entirely in English (and some also in French, Spanish, etc.) We charge no tuition fees, just a small one-off payment which then provides students with free travel on busses and trains throughout the region.

So why is it so difficult to find new Erasmus exchange partners in the UK?

Lack of interest

The most common response I receive when contacting colleagues at universities in the UK is that not enough of their students make use of the opportunities to go on an exchange and study abroad for a term/year. It seems many British universities do not manage to fill the places on the exchanges they already have, so they are not really in a position to set up new agreements. This is, in a way, understandable: even if they don’t send any students abroad on an exchange agreement, they still have to accept incoming students from their exchange partners, which leads to an imbalance in their student numbers and can put a strain on their infrastructures. So the basic premise is; until more British students make use of the existing exchange programmes, British universities are reluctant to set up new ones.

Unis don’t promote it

However, it seems to me slightly unfair to push all of the blame for the situation onto the students. For many students at UK universities, spending time abroad seems to be somewhat off their radar. It doesn’t seem to even occur to them that there are options available to them which could enhance their learning experience and plenty of other skills, as well as giving their CVs a boost as graduates.

I’ve looked at a few webpages of the International Offices of British universities, and I’ve found that often the majority of the home page is often given over to sections and links providing information for (potential) incoming students. Current British students, then, could be forgiven for thinking that their International Office is mainly there for the incoming international students, and not particularly for advising them of the international opportunities open to them. This leads me to wonder, then, how many British universities really promote and advertise such opportunities, or host events where current students can find out more or get advicce on the options that might suit them. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve met some very engaged study abroad advisors in Britain, but on the whole I can’t help thinking that International Offices at UK universities could be doing more to get the ‘year abroad’ option back onto their students’ radar!

Degree schemes don’t allow it

Again, though, perhaps the International Offices are not the root of the issue. Scanning through some degrees listed in the UCAS directory and looking at some in detail shows just how few degree programmes automatically have an integrated year abroad. Most of those that do are langauge degrees, or a major subject combined with a language as a minor. What about everyone else? Wouldn’t, for example, Business students benefit from studying (or working) and living in another country? I also read through the information for potential outgoing students at the university where I completed my undergraduate degree. Their website is full of information such as “XXX University has a range of international links open to all departments that cater for study abroad.” This caught my attention and alerted me to the fact that some (many?) degrees and university departments do not even cater for students wishing to spend time abroad, and I wonder how (im)possible they actually make it for students?!

The language barrier

From some informal chats I’ve had and some formal contact with UK universities, it seems to me that a large majority of students (and possibly also lecturers ) in the UK think spending a year abroad is only something that language students should/can do. This is probably to do with the fact that it is often only an official component of degrees which include language. It seems the feeling is that it is not important for students of other subjects (I would disagree strongly…!), but also that if they can’t speak a foreign language, there would be nowhere they could go an study/live/work anyway. This may have been true a few decades ago, but nowadays the options for studying in English at foreign universities, or working for an international company based abroad are so numerous, that being a monolingual English speaker is no longer a reason not to benefit from the adventure of a semester/year abroad as a student. And who knows… you might (wonder of wonders!) even learn some of the foreign language while you’re there!!


Hurry to get finished

Even if going abroad were on students’ radar, I have the impression that many would view it as ‘wasting time’ when they should getting finished with their studies. Maybe it’s the expensive tuition fees, maybe it’s societal pressure, but students in the UK tend to view ‘doing a degree’ as a compact three-year pursuit, after which they should hurry up and get a ‘real’ job and start contributing properly to society. In other countries, where the tertiary education systems are more flexible, for example Germany, students study for longer, spend time becoming experts in their subjects and maybe taking a few seminars in related subjects voluntarily. Many of them work (in ‘real’ jobs) alongside their studies, spend some time studying/working abroad (yes, even those who don’t study languages!), and graduate in their mid-twenties having eeked every last drop of possible enriching experience out of their time as a student. Don’t get me wrong, there are downsides to this approach, too, but the point is that maybe students at British universities need to be made aware that there is anothe rpath, and that adding on just one little year to their studies is actually not the end of the world, and if they do something worthwhile during that time then it could be a real boost for their self-deevelopment and their CV as a graduate.

The aim of this post was to list reasons that have occurred to me whilst trying to explain this anti-year-abroad mentality that seems to be widespread among British students/universities. Perhaps readers have other ideas? I would be very interseted in hearing them  – please write in the comments section below! And once we’ve started to understand the reasons, I would say the next step is trying to do something about them!  How can we encourage British students to join the international academic exchange and adventure of spending time abroad?? Answers on a postcard, please!


Guided Discovery in Teaching Essay Writing


A lot of work has been done on the benefits of inductive versus deductive teaching in ELT, especially when it comes to teaching grammar points. An inductive approach basically provides learners with input, i.e. examples of the target, and requires them to find the rules for usage, that is to infer to usage of a form from examples of its use. It is inductive teaching that forms the basis for Discovery Learning, which adds in the element of ‘guidance’.


Scott Thornbury, in his blog post “G is for Guided Discovery” explores what the ‘guided’ part of ‘guided discovery’ means – mainly the teacher grading the input to suit learners’ current level of undestanding, and often formulating targetted questions to getting them thinking about the particular elements we want them to discover. He also discusses the relation to consciousness-raising activities, which are often used in teaching vocabulary and grammar points. But can Guided Discovery also be used for teaching essay writing? Since Scott Thornbury states “Guidance is typically mediated by questions, each question challenging learners to advance their understanding one further step”, I’d argue yes!


Guided Discovery is generally accepted to be effective in the long term because the learners are more actively involved in acquiring knowledge, which aids memory. As Scott Thornbury explains, the approach can be seen to fit in with a Sociocultural model of learning, where learners are encouraged to enter/work in their ‘zone of proximal development’, i.e. working on something just above their current level of understanding that enhances their natural learning curiosity and progress. It also basically assumes that we learn by making, testing and adjusting hypotheses on the basis of input – and in Guided Discovery the teacher guides the input on which learners will base their hypotheses and prompts them with questions that scaffold the testing and adjusting stages.


So here’s (a suggestion of) how to do it, focussing on teaching paragraph structure:

– Provide students with (a) good example(s) of (a) text(s) which follow(s) the structural pattern(s) you would like them to adopt and will be understandable to your students, taking account of their current level of language competence.

– Provide students with questions about the example text(s) which guide them to discover its key structural features.

– Discuss in class, or encourage students to discuss in groups, what they have discovered, and check that everyone is on the same page.

I have done this recently to introduce the concept of a paragraph by giving students an example paragraph (one that functions as a stand-alone text) and an example essay. I then simply asked them to figure out:

  • What is a paragraph?
  • Why do we use paragraphs in writing?
  • What is the typical function of a paragraph’s first sentence?

You can also do it on a more specific level, for instance looking at the structural features of a paragraph/essay with a specific function. Here’s an example of a task I gave my students, which is looking at compare/contrast writing:

There is a ‘strong’ version of the communicative approach to foreign language teaching and a ‘weak’ version, which differ because of their understandings of language acquisition. The weak version, which has become more or less standard practice in the last ten years, stresses the importance of providing learners with opportunities to use their English for communicative purposes and, characteristically, attempts to integrate such activities into a wider program of language teaching. It tends to address the conditions needed to promote second language learning, rather than the processes of language acquisition. The ‘strong’ version of communicative learning, on the other hand, advances the claim that language is acquired through communication. In contrast to the weak version, then, this version assumes that it is not merely a question of activating an existing, inert knowledge of the language, but rather of stimulating the development of the language system itself through active communication. If the former could be described as ‘learning to use’ English, the latter rather entails ‘using English to learn it’. [Adapted from: Howatt, A.P.R., A History of English Language Teaching (O.U.P.: 1984), p. 279.]
  1. What two items are the topic of the paragraph?
  2. Is the paragraph mainly a contrast (showing differences), a comparison (showing similarities), or both?
  3. How does the Topic Sentence give you the answers to questions a and b?
  4. What information is given about the first item? What information is given about the second item?
  5. What transitions are used to move between the two items, and/or between the points of analysis?
  6. Would you say that this paragraphs simply consists of two descriptions joined together? Why (not)?
  7. What information is given in the concluding sentence?

Another activity often used in teaching academic writing is giving students two or more versions of a text and asking them to discover the differences and assess which one is better and why. I often use this kind of task when teaching formal expression or hedging/cautious language. Here’s a task I’ve borrowed from Purser, E., Studienbegleiter Academic Writing Anglistik-Amerikanistik (Cornelsen, 2004), chapter III:

Order the following versions of a text from the most conversational to the most academic, and note down your reasons (e.g. features of the language that support your ordering).
1. By 1861, as many Americans lived west of the Allengheny-Appalachian mountains as east of them, largely in the valleys of the Mississippi and its tributaries or along the shores of the Great Lakes; for until the railroads came, waterways were the key to the advance of settlement and the movement of goods.
2.  Back when the American Civil War began, just as many people were living to the west of the Appalachian mountains as to the east of them, and people on the west side mostly lived near water because there weren’t any trains in those days and so people had to use the rivers and lakes to get around, so they tended to live along the Mississippi or small rivers running into it, or around the Great Lakes.        
3. Prior to the advent of rail transportation, the Mississippi and its tributary valleys, and the shores of the Great Lakes, attracted the highest concentrations of a population just as dense west of the Allegheny-Apallachian mountain chain, by 1861, as east of it.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this kind of teaching will put all the responsibility onto the students and you’ll be able to sit back and relax, though! Finding suitable “input” and composing the right questions to guide students’ discovery can be time consuming – and you also have to ‘do’ the task yourself to be prepared for questions and discussions afterwards. If you think these tasks are nothing new, and very similar to what you’re doing already, then you’re already applying this effective form of inductive teaching to your essay writing classes – but maybe now you have the terminology to give a name to how you teach! Maybe you’d like to share other Guided Discovery activities you’ve used for teaching essay writing in the comments below 🙂

Things I would tell my newly qualified self

There’ve been a host a posts recently responding to Joanna Malefaki’s #Youngerteacherself challenge. And here’s mine.

My career as an English teacher began with an initial training course; Trinity College’s TESOL Certificate. But I’m (now, at least) under no illusion that such an initial training course can teach new teachers everything they will need to know about the profession. In fact, I tend to view such training as similar to learning to drive. In your lessons, you are shown the basics of how to move a car safely along a road, and you (have to) faithfully follow these instructions in order to pass your test and get a driving licence to be able to drive all on your own! There’s no way that your driving lessons will expose you to every possible situation that can occur in traffic (even if, like me, you learn to drive in London!). And so once you’ve got your licence, you go off and drive on your own, and the driving experience you gain over the years becomes much more valuable than your driving lessons. You also come to understand  which of the basic instructions are ‘golden rules’ and which you can adapt to your own driving situation (who really puts the hand brake on at every red light in London?!). This is just like teaching. Having completed an initial training course, you’re “licensed” to drive a class safely along the textbook road. But years of experience will teach you much more than the initial training ever could.

It’s been ten years since I completed my Trinity Cert. TESOL, in which time I’ve taught in an array of settings: one-to-one, exam preparation, secondary schools, private langauge schools, summer schools, business colleges, and university. So what have I learnt? Well, that I love teaching! And that the best way to go about teaching many of the classes I have faced has only very little to how I was taught to teach 10 years ago. Here’s my sprinkling of wisdom; I hope that newly qualified teachers will find inspiration in this post, and that more experience teachers may find comfort in knowing they are not alone in having further developed their teaching from their CELTA (or similar) ‘driving’ lessons!

1) Explicit Grammar Teaching is OK

For a long time, the explicit teaching of grammar has (had) been out of fashion, as other aspects of language have come into the focus, and my own training was focussed on Communicative Language Teaching, which has little place for the explicit teaching of grammar. Over the years, though, I’ve come to realise it’s what a lot of learners want, and actually benefit from (especially adults). And I admit, I’ve basically been doing it all along! A  little while ago, I attended an event hosted by ELTA Rhine where Michael Swan  and Catherine Walters held talks on explicit grammar teaching. Their conclusion? Why not?! (Phew!) Swan has published widely on this, but you can find my summary of Michael Swan’s talk here.

2) L1 Use and Translation are OK

Although I was trained that using students’ L1 was inappropriate for the ELT classroom, this standpoint has undergone something of a revival recently. And thank goodness, I say – what a relief to know that it is not a deadly sin to utter a word in a language other than English during our teaching!! I’ve been to several conference talks by people advocating, for example, quick translation of a vocabulary item into students’ L1 where this avoids distraction from the actual task and aids the flow of the lesson – and I have the impression that most teachers agree with this rationale. Teaching through translation has also had its reputation retrieved from the gutter – again a relief for me, since most universities in Germany include translation in their curricula. Indeed, a colleague and I worked on an action research project which she presented as “Can Translation Classes Improve Students’ English Skills?” at the 2014 IATEFL Annual Conference, where we found that using translation to target specific interference errors can actually be an effective strategy! This is also argued by by Guy Cook in his book “Translation in Language Teaching” (2010). Of course, there are a number of caveats and conditions here, the most obvious being that translation can only be used if all learners speak the same L1 and the teacher can speak it too! Still, for me, this is a welcome deviation from the strict L2-only policy I was trained to employ!

3) Always plan the aims (of a course, lesson, activity)

ELT trainees are often required to include in their plans copious detail on aims, objectives, materials, activities, steps, predicted problems, background on the students and almost everything else that could possibly be relevant to the class and the lesson! In an article in The Teacher Trainer Journal (vol 28/2) from last year, I argue that considering the objectives of a course, lesson or activity in detail is not without reason trained so thoroughly on teacher training courses, as the skill is essential: the most important thing is for teachers to consider aims and objectives in lesson planning, even if we do not have the luxury of time to produce formally typed-up, step-by-step plans for each lesson. Having clear aims of our lesson and course provides the guiding map that leads us effectively through to the end of term – otherwise, we could end up teaching unconnected individual lessons that don’t move our students particularly far forward in their learning. By the way, note that I’m saying definitely plan the Aims. Be flexible with the rest of the lesson – sticking slavishly to lesson plans full of minutely timed activities will probably not be satisfying for anyone!

I’ve also learnt, through my own teaching and professional development, how useful it can be to inform our learners about the aims of lessons and activities. This increases motivation and receptivity to the material, class and teacher – discussed in more detail in my article in TTTJ. For some of my ideas and research on how to communicate the aims to your learners, please read another article I’ve recently published in ELTED (vol 17).

4) Learners are normal people, too

This sounds very simple, but is easily forgotten when you’re busy writing lesson plans for a group of learners who are (apparently) at a certain level, have certain aims, and require a certain number of credit points etc. for a course. But all of your students have a life outside of your classroom, where they are experiencing life’s ups and downs just like everyone else. A student is not only a body in your class; they may be a parent, carer, full- or part-time worker, a student of another subject, a husband/wife, and the list goes on…!

I was recently having a bit of a moan to my to a graduate tutor about how my classes are always so full, when colleagues still have spots free. What she said warmed my little heart, and made me regard my over-subscribed classes in a new light: apparently, students value that random chats I have with them about their own lives, their backgrounds, and basically anything they do when they’re not in my classroom. And I know all their names! This comes naturally to me, but until recently I didn’t realise how much students appreciated it! (In fact, I’d worried that they found it frustrating that I sometimes lose track of time [and the lesson!] whilst talking to them!) So my tip is: Don’t lose sight of the trees (individual students) for the woods!

And this also extends to other areas of teaching, such as accepting that some students simply don’t have time for homework, or can’t study for exams. Who’da thunk?! They have stuff going on in their private lives, too! (By the way, I’ve also noticed that treating each student as an individual with a real life beyond the classroom means they do the same for me, and are much more forgiving if I don’t manage to turn their assignments around as quickly as I’d like! Bonus! 🙂 )

5) You don’t have to correct every single mistake

I don’t think I need to write as much on this one – especially as there would be no way to concisely express all of the debates and publications in the area! (You can read it all for yourself – some references are below!) Suffice to say, you can be selective in targeting errors and devise an approach to correction that suits your teaching style and the different groups of learners that you face. For me, the most important thing is that you have made an informed judgement and decision about the best way to go about error correction. That doesn’t mean that you choose one method and stick to it forever – be open to professional development, even if it takes the basic form of chatting to colleagues! Then you can modify your error correction behaviour based on sound justifications, and not beat yourself up about having ‘missed’ certain errors your learners make.

6)You are a materials writer

Do you write your own worksheets and exercises for your classes? Then you are a materials writer! And the materials you produce are no less valuable than published materials! Especially as you have targeted your materials specifically to your students, their aims and abilities – something that published textbooks can never hope to do. Of course, it’s not a bad idea to use published materials, textbooks etc. for inspiration (especially to save you re-inventing the wheel!), but adapting these for your lessons or developing your own activities inspired by published works probably means your materials will be more beneficial for your learners. However, don’t get stuck on pretty formatting – I used to do this when I first qualified, which meant I was teaching from very professional-looking worksheets that distracted learners from the actual langauge learning aspect of the work! Another common mistake is spending hours making a worksheet activity that will only take students 5 minutes to complete and then not lead to any further practise/production. For some more tips on making worksheets, please see Adam Simpson’s blog post “6 Things that can go wrong when making a worksheet and how to avoid them.”


  • Cook, G., Translation in Language Teaching (Oxford: Oxford U.P., 2010)
  • Ebbert, C. “Can Translation Classes Improve Students’ English Skills?” Presentation at IATEFL Annual Conference, Harrogate, 2-5 April 2014.
  • Ferris, D.R. (2004). The “Grammar Correction” Debate in L2 Writing: Where are we, and where do we go from here? (and what do we do in the meantime . . .?). Journal of Second Language Writing, 13, 49–62
  • Fielder, C., “Are detailed objectives really necessary in lesson planning?”, The Teacher Trainer Journal, Vol 28/2, May 2014, pp. 18-20.
  • Fielder, C., “(How) Should we inform learners of lesson and activity aims? An action research project conducted with young adults studying for an English Studies degree in a German university”, ELTED, vol 17 (2014), pp. 1-4. [available here: ]
  • Simpson, A., “6 Things that can go wrong when making a worksheet and how to avoid them”,, posted 22 Feb 2014. []
  • Swan, M., “Teaching Grammar – Does Grammar Teaching work?”, Modern English Teacher, 15/2, 2006.

Further Reading

  • My other blog posts 🙂
  • Johanna Malefaki’s original #Youngerteacherself post also provides links to other bloggers’ response to the challenge.
“Boreout” – What it is and how to avoid it

“Boreout” – What it is and how to avoid it

Most media platforms nowadays are full of stories and information about how stress, trying to do too much, and spreading one’s energy too thinly among multiple tasks can lead to the condition ‘burnout’, with pretty serious physical and psychological consequences for the individual involved. But how many of us had every heard of the term ‘boreout’? This term describes the opposite state to burnout. I recently came across it in an interesting documentary about the effects of boredom on individuals’ psychological well-being. (It was in German, on 3sat.) The documentary and other research sources have recently shown that boreout – i.e. intense boredom, total under-stimulation – can also make people ill, in similar ways to burnout. It gives a whole new meaning to the saying ‘bored to death’!

Let me summarise. Depending on an individual’s personality profile, they will be stimulated and motivated by various activities, and once these activities are removed from their lives, they will start to feel various symptoms of boredom. For some, it can be as simple as limited communication with others. Other individuals are more able to occupy themselves, but if their means of doing this are removed, they too will start to feel bored. A few minutes of ‘down time’ probably won’t bring about any worrying, or even noticeable, symptoms. In fact, for those used to working under stress, it may feel a bit like a holiday, though some might have a slight guilty conscience at not having ‘done enough’. But intense boredom due to a total lack of stimulation is what can lead to ‘boreout’; in its mildest form it will mean that the individual gets nothing done, and mentally starts to ‘switch off’, but over a prolonged period it can even lead to depression and physical illness, just like burnout. Working adults may start to realise that they are suffering from ‘boreout’ if having lunch with colleagues becomes the highlight of their day. They may also sleep poorly, having trouble getting going in the morning, not be able to concentrate properly, and not be motivated to start their working day. The most common cause of ‘boreout’ is not being challenged by the activities we are set. If activities are too easy, or particularly repetitive, our brains are not stimulated and we feel no sense of reward on having completed the tasks.

But boredom is not only found in the workplace; it also rears its head also in schools and classrooms around the globe –  and this is where we as teachers come in. Here’s what we can learn from the documentary:

– Long monologues by the teacher lead to boredom.

– A lack of external stimulation leads to boredom.

– More intelligent people get bored more easily.

– Individuals need to recognise when they have completed a challenge well, so that they feel psychological reward. This can be strengthened by external recognition which leads to pride in one’s work.

– Autonomy and individual responsibility lead to more creativity, and to more psychological reward. Feeling powerless and useless leads to distancing and dejection.

– ‘Boreout’ doesn’t just occur in the classroom (or at work), but can extend to other areas of life and cause a general feeling of frustration and lethargy.

– We mustn’t let our drive for efficiency oust room for creativity.

– There is a fine line between satisfying routine which shows learning/progress more clearly, and repetitive tasks which lead to boredom.

– The combination of challenge/stimulation with down time allows people to work most effectively.

Balanced correctly, this combination leads to ‘Flow’ – the ideal balance between an individual’s ability and the challenge of the tasks set. Both ‘burnout’ and ‘boreout’ are caused by imbalances between ability and the challenge of one’s work, and both lead to similar symptoms. To avoid this, we need to aim for the situation called ‘Flow’ and experiencing a sense of meaning in what we do. When we are in ‘Flow’, we can forget everything around us and ‘lose ourselves’ in our activity, losing track of time and ignoring external distractions. And afterwards enjoying the glowing feeling of psychological (internal) reward and satisfaction caused by our happy hormones.

A colleague of mine, Dr Michaela Brohm, researches in the area of motivation and positive psychology. Her blog post on this topic can be found here (in German):  She explains that, in order to reach ‘Flow’, we (or our students) must feel a certain challenge in the tasks we do, but still feel that we are able to manage them. Flow is a psychological state, which can only be achieved within the individual, not by external rewards. It gives a sense of satisfaction when we have mastered a task, and enables us to go the course on longer tasks and projects.

Ideally, then, we as teachers would give our learners tasks to do which match their current ability. With large heterogeneous groups, though, this might be more difficult. If we target everything at the top learners, the others will be over-challenged and feel stress, but if we target activity below the top learners’ abilities, they will eventually experience boreout. Indeed, this is probably why some studies have found that learners are more likely to be bored in a larger class group than a smaller one. Michaela Brohm explains ideas (from Grenville-Cleave (2012): Introducing Positive Psychology. A Practical Guide.) for making simple tasks slightly more challenging, which we can employ to improve the chances that more students reach Flow:

– set a time limit for tasks which makes students work more quickly than usual, e.g. against the clock, before a song ends.

– get students to do tasks with their eyes closed, one hand behind their backs, etc. (i.e. add a physically challenging element)

– do tasks backwards or in a different order from usual

– remove external help (e.g. mobile phones, internet, dictionaries)

– get students to do tasks in a team, add a competitive element

– get students to show others how to do a task / explain the answers or solutions

– let students decide which tasks they wish to work on.

I’m sure we’ve all been ‘bored to death’ at some point in our lives, and this is not a state we’d like our learners to sink into during our lessons! Sadly, some studies have shown that around a third of students feel ‘more bored than average’ during school lessons. I hope that I’ve been able to draw more attention to the lesser known concept of ‘boreout’ here, and given some useful tips for how to get your lessons and students Flowing!

Further Reading

Csikzentmihalyi, M. (1990): Flow. The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Dörnyei, Z. (2001): Motivational Strategies in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grenville-Cleave, B. (2012): Introducing Positive Psychology. A Practical Guide. London: Icon Books