Tag: Student

Review: A handbook for teaching and learning in higher education

Fry, H., S. Ketteridge & S. Marshall (eds), A handbook for teaching and learning in higher education, 4th edition (Routledge, 2015).

Thoughhandbook it is like a collection of essays each covering a different area or current debate in HE, this book neatly fits the ‘handbook’ genre, since it is easy to navigate and doesn’t need to be read cover-to-cover. It also includes practical examples and case studies of the principles explored in the chapters.  Those new to teaching in HE are the main target audience, but those with more experience will also benefit from reflecting on the issues presented. Each chapter is written by an expert in that area and is supported by references to research and relevant literature. Almost all chapters are lucidly written, avoid jargon, and explain acronyms and specialist terms with contextualised examples. There is also a reader-friendly glossary of such terms. Overall, the handbook has a very practical focus, informed by theories which are concisely explained, so as to facilitate direct application to one’s own work.

Particularly valuable are the ‘interrogating practice’ boxes, which encourage reader reflection and lead to critical thinking about one’s own work. Some of the points might be rather basic for more experienced lecturers, but may function as a welcome reminder to (re-)consider the concept of one’s teaching approach, and make these beliefs clear in one’s own mind, especially before jumping in to a new academic term.

Since the chapters are set in a UK context, some of the more detailed points may be less relevant to readers working in other countries (e.g. the effect of tuition fees) – this is especially true of Part 1, ‘The current world of teaching and learning in higher education.’  Still, most points are applicable much more widely. Indeed, this fourth edition explicitly aims to be more accessible to a wider international audience: an aim I feel has been well achieved overall.

Part 2 of the book, ‘Learning, teaching and supervising in higher education’, will likely be of most interest and use to all teachers, regardless of subject area, country of work, etc.  It guides the reader on a brief journey from theories on the psychology of learning, to practical considerations in different types of teaching set-up, and the different roles an HE lecturer might cover. The overarching aim seems to be shifting the readers’ focus from teaching to facilitating learning.

Chapter 5, ‘Describing Learning’ by Sue Matheison, is said to be the most key essay in the book; the introduction recommends reading this before moving on to later essays, though the theoretical background is probably only new to academics without any teacher training. The chapter encourages reflective teaching, for example guiding readers to address the mismatch between expected outcomes and employed teaching methodology.  Biggs’ SOLO taxonomy is presented, but the example tasks given are rather vague. The socio-cultural approach to learning is discussed in addition to constructivist ideas, and all key terms and names are clearly explained, as are very recent developments in this field.  Overall, a comprehensive introduction to how learning works. My only reservation is that the chapter presents multiple ideas which may be new to untrained academics, but there is little hedging language in the evaluations and not always concrete examples for illustration. I wonder whether this might confuse new teachers trying make their own decisions regarding teaching. Nonetheless, the overarching message rings true: We need to understand learning in order to provide good teaching.

The chapters that follow are more practical, step-by-step guides, preparing the reader for various tasks they will face in their role as an HE teacher. Chapter 6, by Chris Butcher, for example, explains how best to create a module outline or curriculum with clear learning outcomes. In chapter 7, Ruth Ayres provides tips and references to research on lecturing, working with groups, and supporting learners. The information is up-to-date, though some ideas involve technology which may not be available at all institutions. Sam Brenton’s chapter 10 provides an astute assessment of the state of online education and demonstrates how to make blended teaching most effective without an over-investment of time and energy, reminding us not to neglect set learning outcomes when choosing to integrate online components.

Chapter 8, ‘Assessing assessment’ by Sue Bloxham problematizes summative, high-stakes assessment in HE, and advises readers to find chances for learning-oriented progress-checking and feedforward. Though the concept is not particularly innovative, the chapter gives sound advice on establishing learning-oriented assessment, as well as on avoiding some common difficulties. Assessment and feedback remain areas of substantial research which no one book chapter could really ever do justice to, but Bloxham provides a sound introduction for new teachers, and does encourage further reading and discussion with experienced peers.

In Chapter 9, Camille B. Kandiko Howson focuses on using student evaluations to engage them in developing an active learning community with responsibility for their own learning. She mentions some standardised surveys which may be of interest, though these seem to only be relevant for UK institutions and such generalised feedback may be far less helpful for specific teachers. Still, the concept of autonomous learning is picked up again by Martyn Kingsbury in Chapter 12, which explores why it is effective and how teachers can facilitate it by cultivating the relevant skills, such as critical thinking or self-reflection. The suggested activities are mostly concrete examples and the chapter provides ample food for thought for new and experienced HE tutors, though the explanations are occasionally repetitive.

Stan Taylor and Margaret Kiley, in chapter 13, shift the spotlight back onto the teacher, presenting a readable assessment of the ever-changing demands on doctoral candidates, and some fairly concrete advice for lecturers in supervisory positions. Likewise, in an age of diversifying student populations, chapter 11 on ‘Enabling inclusive learning’ is worth a read. Here, Bamber and Jones include considerations from both lecturers’ and students’ points of view, and present a framework to help address potential mismatches in expectations.

To close Part 2, Chapter 14 provides an overview of significant points which must be understood if we are to facilitate maximum learning progress among our students – which is the general aim of this handbook. It draws out central aspects presented in the preceding chapters and discusses them in light of published empirical findings. At points Gibbs mentions areas in which change is necessary, but is somewhat vague on what kind of change; similarly, the Bologna Agreement is mentioned only passing. Still, the recommendations in this chapter, and indeed all of Part 2, are sound and mostly explicitly stated so as to be implementable by teachers at all stages in their careers.

Part 3 focusses on ‘Teaching and learning in the disciplines’, so I feel qualified only to comment on only one chapter: Modern Languages. Here, Michael Kelly problematizes the situation regarding language degrees today and the diverse backgrounds of students who may be learning languages at university. He highlights recent developments including a stricter separation between the study of language and culture, and a boost in linguistics and translation studies. Designing modules and materials to accommodate this increasing variety of need and interest among students is rightly highlighted as a key issue in MFL teaching, with the added point of semester-abroad requirements in university degrees. The case studies here clearly show different universities approaches to dealing with such developments, and provide the reader with some inspiration for their own practice. As well as these organisational matters, the chapter discusses pedagogical issues, whereby key language acquisition assumptions are presented in an accessibly brief manner. Kelly still mentions the concept of learning styles, though, which in EFL teaching has been largely discredited.

Overall, all the chapters of this book are interesting to read and all provide the audience with well-informed and justified advice on how to approach various aspects of teaching in HE. Despite some minor weaknesses of some individual essays, this book seems valuable to new and experienced teachers in HE; I would recommend its installation in staffrooms and libraries in all HE institutions!



Marking Writing: Feedback Strategies to Challenge the Red Pen’s Reign – IATEFL 2016

By popular demand…

My handout from my presentation held at IATEFL 2016 in Birmingham, with the above title.

Clare IATEFL 2016 presentation


This talk provides teachers with time-efficient alternatives to traditional ‘red-pen correction’, by demonstrating and evaluating several effective feedback strategies that are applicable to giving feedback on writing in diverse contexts, and presenting summaries of published research which explores their efficacy. Issues including learner autonomy, motivation, and the role of technology are also briefly discussed to underpin the practical ideas presented.

Handout can be downloaded here: IATEFL 2016 conference Clare Fielder Works Cited handout.

Clare IATEFL 2016 presentation 2

Little Rant: How to Write a Rubbish Essay

So, it’s that time of the year when people are going to be writing final essays and term papers. So here’s my helpful list of How To Write A Really Rubbish Essay:

[And, yes, it is based on my frustration at the delightful essays I have just spent my weekend (free time!?!) marking!!]

– Write about a topic that you do not understand and can’t be bothered to research properly.
– Try not to make too much sense.
– Don’t worry about referencing – if you feel like it, maybe stick in a couple of hyperlinks.
– Throw in a few fancy-sounding words to create a ‘formal register’.
– Make the same kind of grammar mistakes you would have done in school, no matter how far along your are in your studies.
– Don’t get anyone to read through your essay before submitting. Or, if you do, don’t listen to anything they say which might improve your work!
– And, just to make sure that the lecturer really understands how little effort you have put in; ignore all of their instructions for how to format and submit your essay!

Et voila – it is ready: the Really Rubbish Essay !!!

How many other ELT or EAP teachers out there are feeling this??? 😀

The Role of Wikipedia in Academic Essays

My essay class are doing their first assessed essay this week and they’re a bit nervous. They’ve got lots of questions. But one question really struck me. A student asked ‘Is it OK to cite Wikipedia?’ My standard answer is, ‘if you use it, you should cite it’ – as with any source. But this simply prompted the next question:

‘Is it OK to use Wikipedia for a university essay?’

The answer to that one is slightly longer and requires a bit more cautious language! This question, and a few blog posts I’ve read recently on the topic, inspired this post; on understanding role of Wikipedia in academic essay writing.

I’ve often heard stories of colleagues who ‘ban’ students from using Wikipedia. The argument I hear most commonly against using Wikipedia for essays is that ‘anyone can write anything they like on Wikipedia’. Well, yes, that is true, it is a community-written and community-edited resource; but really I think the number of people reading Wikipedia means that any nonsense will quickly be edited out, so actually the risk of finding incorrect information is probably comparatively low.

For me, the bigger issue that anyone (Especially students!) using Wikipedia needs to understand is that it is not an academic source. Wikipedia even says this about itself! (See ‘Wikiepdia: Academic Use’) And students (and teachers) need to understand why not:

it’s an encyclopaedia!

As far as encyclopaedias go, it’s actually probably a pretty good one; with up-to-date information and a huge variety of entries, presumably (although that in itself is of course a problem) written by people who know something about the topic. But just as we wouldn’t expect academics to cite the Encyclopaedia Britannica, because its target audience is not academics in a certain field but the general public wanting a brief introduction to a range of topics, so we rarely find academics citing from Wikipedia. There are of course some more specific encyclopaedias aimed specifically at certain academic audiences, where the question of being an ‘academic source’ has different considerations, but Wikipedia is not one of these. No matter how good, an encyclopaedia is not necessarily the best source for academic writing; it can’t substitute for reading the original research and discussion publications in the field.

–  it (usually) presents things as fact:

One of the fundamental bases of academia is that published academic sources are basically all arguments, i.e. the authors are arguing in favour of their approach/view/procedure/findings/etc. As text-books and encyclopaedias are generally expected to do, Wikipedia presents ‘neutral’ (well, ish) overviews or summaries of topics, which are often presented as fact, but which are arguably always an interpretation of the original arguments by the person who has written the overview or Wikipedia text. If an essay, or any piece of university work, is to engage in and contribute to academic discourse, it needs to demonstrate an analytical treatment of the previously published arguments, which can really only be achieved through a close, critical reading of the original sources, and not from an encyclopaedic overview.

– it lacks systematic review:

Academic publications are usually subject to some sort of editorial process or peer review by other experts in the field before they are printed or published. This is especially true of journal articles, where peer review aims to ensure that the most sound, best-quality research and scholarly inquiry is published. Now, you could argue that this quality control is given in Wikipedia, as other users edit articles to remove ‘incorrect’ information. The problem is rather that we can never be sure whether the version of the article we are reading has been written and reviewed by an expert in the field – and that is a fundamental criterion for a source to be considered as academic.

it lacks attribution:

The ides in an academic source can be attributed to certain authors, and most academics would agree that the value of uncredited information is rather dubious. Since there is no named author of a Wikipedia article, it doesn’t fulfil the criteria of an academic source. That said, most Wikipedia articles do a good job of citing their sources and linking to further reading (actually, quite an academic quality for an encyclopaedia; praise where it’s due!), and so can provide a wealth of resources that are more suitable for academic writing.

It therefore comes down to not WHETHER Wikipedia can/should be used, but HOW it should be used. People need to understand what Wikipedia IS, and then make informed decisions about how to use it for their work. In my view, a ‘ban’ does not lead to a full understanding of the points I’ve made here (and probably ineffective anyway, since students will probably continue to use Wikipedia, uncritically, despite any ban!). Wikipedia can/should be used as what it is: an encyclopaedia. Encyclopaedias, just like text-books, can function as a starting point when someone is researching a topic new to them; they can provide a good place to start finding the key debates or latest research and ideas in the field.

And yes, I think it is OK for an academic essay to cite from Wikipedia, if there is a justified reason for doing so, and if the author does so in full understanding of the points above. This may not yet be particularly common in published academic articles, but it is not unheard of. But it is important to remember, though, that Wikipedia should  not be cited as an academic source, but perhaps used for background information or a rationale for discussing the topic. Just as dictionary definitions can be used to delimit the scope or approach to a certain topic (e.g. ‘aggression’ – are we including in our definition and essay only verbal, or also physical aggression?), so Wikipedia, and perhaps more interestingly the edits, can be used to demonstrate the actuality, relevance, and/or controversial nature of the essay’s topic. The fact remains, though, that it is not an academic source in our general understanding of the term and its usage in academic work should be limited accordingly. 



This website provides a great demonstration of things to look for in an academic source before deeming it suitable for scholarly work: “Anatomy of a scholarly Article”

For more discussions on Wikipedia and other ‘myths’ surrounding EAP, see here: “20 Myths about EAP”

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!

Practising English through Reading Fiction

Those of you who’ve been following my recent posts, will notice that I’m going through a phase of thinking about how I can help students make their free-time English activities more effective for their learning. My general addage has always been: Whatever you like to do in your free-time, just do it in English! But the realisation that relaxing in front of ‘How I met your mother’ with a beer and a bag of crisps might not actually be helping improve students’ English as much as it could, has lead to me think up ideas for tasks that could further the learning that occurs through these free-time activities. Recently, I posted some ideas for practising English with news items (see here: https://clareseltcompendium.wordpress.com/2014/09/26/practising-english-with-news-items/ )  And then I asked some students what it is they do in their free time. The number one answer: Reading (fiction) books.

So here’s the next list: This time, activities that learners can do once they’ve read a book, in order to practise their productive skills in English (since reading is a passive skill). I’m sure teachers also use fiction as part of their courses and have a whole host of comprehension and discussion questions etc. These ideas could also complement those. But my main aim is to give students who are reading fiction for fun some ideas on how they can make this even more helpful for improving their English.

  • Write a short summary of the plot of the novel. You could also start a blog where you post summaries of novels you have read – other people may comment on your summaries and start a discussion.


  • Write a review of the novel. You could also discuss your review with a friend who has read the same book – or set up your own book club with friends to read and discuss novels together. Or again, post your reviews to a blog for discussion with other. Alternatively, you can slso post your reviews on sites like Amazon for others to read when they’re looking for something to read.


  • Pretend you work for the publisher, and write a blurb for the novel. You can look at blurbs for books on websites such as Amazon to see what kind of language they use and the techniques used to entice the potential reader to read the book.


  • Take on the part of a character and a) act out a scene , b) re-write a scene from that character’s perspective (using a first-person narrator).


  • Write a letter to one character explaining why you find their behavior unacceptable.


  • Watch the film adaptation of a novel, and write a review of the film comparing it to the original book version, or discuss your comparison with a friend who has also read the book and watched the film.


  • Pretend you are a teacher and  going to work on this novel with your students. Compose comprehension and/or discussion questions (and answers) based on the text. 


  • Pretend you are recording an audio version of the book and read some parts aloud. Record yourself, making sure to check the pronunciations and word-stress of any unknown vocabulary (e.g. using the online OALD). You can then listen to the recording (or play it to a friend) and check that your pronunciation and intonation are fluent and accurate. An official audio-book may be available – then you can compare your recording to that!

For more ideas on using literature to teach & learn English, please see the following websites:



Explicit Grammar Teaching: The what and how

Planting seeds may not guarantee that they will grow; but not planting them is scarcely a superior strategy. (Swan, M., 2006)

Introduction – A sense of relief

At the weekend, I attended a talk by Michael Swan entitled “Some things that matter in grammar teaching… and some that don’t” at an event hosted by ELTA Rhine in Cologne. The talk was not just interesting and informative, but gave me an enormous sense of relief. Basically because he argued in favour of explicit grammar teaching. I realise that this will not bring a sense of relief to all EFL teachers, and in some it may even incite mild panic! But let me explain. For a long time (for me it seems a long time, in actual terms its been a few decades), the explicit teaching of grammar has (had) been out of fashion, as other aspects of language have come into the focus of ELT writers and teachers. Particularly Task-Based Learning and the Lexical Approach are largely against the presentation of grammar rules. Many teachers also understand Communicative Language Teaching to have little place for the explicit teaching of grammar. In my teaching context (in the English Department at a German university), we actually teach a whole separate module called “Grammar”, more recently called “Advanced Grammar”. Yes, it’s been pretty standard in Germany for the whole time that other ELT fashions have come and gone. For most of the seven years that I’ve been working here, I’d been led to feel almost a sense of shame that we were teaching this class – seeing the horror on colleagues’ faces when I’ve mentioned it at conferences and the like. Most of their responses began with ‘but’: But what about Krashen’s theories? But that’s not very communicative! But lexis is what helps learners to create meaning! But fluency is more important!

At the start of my teaching career, I was, I suppose understandably, rather unsure of myself. Actually, a few times I probably agreed, embarrassed, with the criticisms, and extracted myself from responsibility by blaming this ‘poor’ syllabus decision on the institution; putting myself in the role of dutiful pawn in the great game of ELT. Over the years, though, I’ve grown and developed as a teacher, and my sense of confidence in my teaching decisions and practices has matured. This has occasionally meant having to defend my explicit grammar teaching to a few, what I would call, hard-core TBL, Lexical Approach or extreme Communicative Approach advocates. That’s OK: I can handle it better now than I could in my early twenties when I started teaching. Nonetheless, you can imagine my relief to hear from Michael Swan, and indeed whole host of other researchers in this area, that teaching grammar is OK: Not only OK, but actually rather effective. (See published research evidence below.) Phew! Of course I’m not, and I don’t suppose anyone is, claiming that explicit grammar teaching without any communicative practice is a good idea, nor that teaching grammar rules openly always ‘works’ 100% of the time (but then, honestly, can we really expect that of any method/approach?!). But, I wholeheartedly agree with the quote above from Michael Swan.

So that explains my sense of relief. But ‘teaching grammar’ is still a very broad term that barely brings us any closer to knowing what exactly to do in the classroom. I’m also aware that some teachers, maybe mostly the native English-speakers that have ‘fallen’ into a teaching job, may not be so relieved to hear that grammar is back on the menu. Maybe because they themselves have little formal grasp on English grammar (for this there is a simple cure; read a grammar book! See below for my recommendations), or maybe because they are unsure how to translate ‘teaching grammar’ into practical classroom activities. The rest of this post will therefore deal with the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of grammar teaching; in a bid to remove any impending sense of panic from other teachers who are less used to and less comfortable with the explicit teaching of grammar rules in the ELT (or any modern language) classroom.

What? ~ It depends.

Of course, teaching ‘all’ the rules of English grammar would, for a number of reasons beyond the scope of this post, be an impossible task; and anyway a rather ineffective approach. And so we need to select which aspects of English grammar to include in our syllabi. I believe there is no fits-all answer to the question of what to teach; it will unavoidably depend on the learners and their needs and goals. It depends. I actually don’t like this answer to questions, and I’m sure many learners don’t either. Alas all EFL classrooms and learners are different, and so it depends. But what does it depend on? Well Michael Swan suggests the following selection criteria, which do fit to my experience and understanding of our profession:

– comprehensibility

– acceptability

– frequency and scope

– teachability/learnability

Just a brief clarification here, to ensure we all understand the same things when reading these criteria. ‘Comprehensibility’ refers to the question of whether not having mastered this language point could lead to misunderstanding or lack of understanding. For example, the sentence *I start school last week* does not follow standard English grammar patterns, but is clearly comprehensible. In contrast (and I’m borrowing this example from Michael Swan), *John didn’t told about the meeting* is more difficult to de-code, as it could mean either that John WASN’T told about the meeting, or that he didn’t TELL us about it. As this mistake could lead to a lack of comprehension, it would be advisable to teach/revise the points of the passive, or the simple past in negative statements. ‘Acceptability’ looks at other people’s reactions to what a learner says. How negatively will a learner be judged who says *I start school last week*? Phrased more positively, how accepted would this non-standard form be? (Again, the answer I suggest is ‘it depends’ – on your learners’ context, goals, etc; so individual answers all around, I’m afraid!) Note that I’ve used the same example twice here, in order to highlight the discrepancies that may occur between the comprehensibility and acceptability criteria – more on that later.

Moving on, ‘frequency’ and ‘scope’ are rather self-explanatory. The frequency with which a learner is going to encounter or need to use a certain structure should help us judge whether to teach it or not. The ‘scope’ of a grammar rule describes how much of the language it helps to explain. A clear example here, again showing how these two criteria may also be in conflict, is the word ‘children’. ‘Children’ is a rather frequently used word. However, the rule of making irregular plurals with -ren does not cover many items (I can’t actually think of any other right now!), so teaching it as a rule would seem less worthwhile. And finally, teachability and learnability refer simply to how straightforward it is to teach or learn an aspect of English grammar. Again, it depends.

Clearly, if an item impairs comprehension, negatively affects acceptability, and has a high frequency and broad scope, as well as being fairly straightforward to teach, then we should go head an teach it. One thing Michael Swan didn’t touch on in his talk is how to make a decision based on these criteria when the details conflict, so I’d like to discuss that briefly here. We’ve seen that the same sentence may be perfectly comprehensible, but not particularly acceptable. And that the high frequency of an item may not mean that the rule has much scope. In this case, I would advice teachers to weight the criteria based on their knowledge of the learners’ context and goals. This will include considerations of who the learners are likely to interact with in English, what kinds of topics they are likely to speak/talk about, the format of the communication (formal written, informal spoken, etc), and the likely goals of that interaction (purely communicating information, making a high-stakes sale, etc). Teachers may also consider the kinds of input their learners are likely to be exposed to, and potential interference pitfalls caused by the learners’ L1. That said, I would say that comprehensibility has to be criteria numero uno in any case.

If we have, then, agreed that we are going to teach grammar, and have selected points of grammar to be taught, the next step is to think about what we are actually going to do in the classroom in order to teach these points.

How? ~ Just three Exes

Michael Swan said in his talk that he sees grammar teaching as consisting of “three exes”. Not to worry, he’s not talking about broken partnerships, but rather EXplanation, EXamples, and EXercises. Now, you may think this sounds suspiciously like a re-worded recipe for a PPP lesson (Presentation, Practice, Production – which was the standard lesson structure taught on most preparatory TEFL certification courses for a long time), but fear not – his clarification highlights the input of ‘examples’ and ‘explanation’ as less valuable in grammar teaching than the ‘output’ from exercises. Nonetheless, they are not unimportant, and so we should still make them as effective as possible. Note that I think the order of explanations and examples should be seen flexibly – in many cases a more inductive approach (examples first) may be more appropriate, though that is a subject for another post!

Explanations, according to Swan and I’m inclined to agree, should be economical, take one step at a time, be clear to the learner, use visual support, and possibly even the learners’ L1. I suppose only the last point there might cause discussion. To my mind, though, it is logical that a grammar explanation in English may make use of language that is above the learners’ current level and therefore be more confusing than it is helpful. If the teacher is able to speak the L1 of their learners, then this can be a simpler and more efficient way of explaining the rule. Of course, not all teachers have this luxury, but where appropriate I’d be all in favour of brief grammar explanations in the L1 for lower-level students.

There’s nothing really surprising in the characteristics Swan says good examples should have, although I find it good for us teachers to refresh these things in our minds, particularly just before embarking on a new term and a new “Advanced Grammar” course! Good examples should be realistic, memorable (perhaps through humour), in context, and taken from various topic areas/text genres. I don’t know about you, but I find looking for or inventing examples that fit all of these criteria actually rather time-consuming. And I sometimes feel that teachers neglect this part of their preparation, perhaps because of the time it takes, or perhaps other teachers are really able to spontaneously create realistic, memorable examples from various topic areas in context when they reach this point in their lesson. Lucky them! – I know I’m not! There are several potential sources of example sentences, but sometimes the examples they provide just do not fulfil these criteria satisfactorily (for example, corpora/concordances, dictionaries, grammar references or course books). I find the best examples by just going about my every day life attentively. Paying attention to the structures and language my colleagues and I use to talk to each other, to email, to make posters, to recount anecdotes, and so on – that’s realistic language in a context our students are familiar with, with a range of genres and topics, and often rather memorable due to our humour! Or what about news articles or websites you read, radio broadcasts you listen to, TV programmes you watch – all of these can be sources of interesting and effective example sentences. Maybe I can mention just a couple of lessons I’ve recently planned: A lesson on simple present/progressive – I used a blurb from a novel found on Amazon. A lesson on referring to the future – I used an episode of “Tomorrow’s Word” (BBC).

Ok, so once we’ve got our explanation neatly formulated, and our examples duly noted, we need to move on to the most important part of the lesson (I hope no disagreement here?): the output, or exercises. I have to say, Sorry Mr Swan, but I’m not keen on the term ‘exercises’ here – although it fits nicely in the “three exes” category. For me, and I checked with my colleagues that I’m not alone, the word ‘exercises’ is perhaps somewhat misleading, conjuring up images of monotonous gap-fill or sentence transformation worksheets, maybe some text-based or listening tasks if we’re lucky. This is all reminiscent of the second P in a PPP lesson; not particularly exciting, and not really the kind of thing I believe to be the most effective for learners to really make use of the new language. For me, the third P – Production – is more the output we should aim for, as it is most similar to the kinds of things learners will want and need to do in English in the future. Again, though, Michael Swan ‘saves himself’ so to speak, by describing his characteristics of a good ‘exercise’ – and if I understand correctly, he is actually using ‘exercises’ to capture both controlled practice tasks and, even more importantly, freer production and encouraged use of the target structure. His characteristics include the tasks being interesting, empowering, personalised, imaginative, and possibly involving physical activity, visual or audio elements. These tasks should also help learners to connect the grammar point to other aspects of langauge such as vocabulary, skills, pronunciation, and so on. Of course, whether a task is ‘interesting’ etc. will… you guessed it… depend on your learners!

 Conclusion – Is it worth the effort?

My assessment of all of this is that explicit grammar teaching is easier said than done. Doing it badly is probably quite straightforward, but then it’s probably not worth the effort. Bearing in mind all of the points and issues discussed here makes explicit grammar teaching a rather time-consuming and preparation-heavy thing to do. So is it worth the effort? I believe so. And I believe that there are plenty of academic studies which support this view. The way I see it, if we don’t bother with grammar teaching, then it definitely can’t work. If we give it a go, then at least it has a chance of working! As always, Michael Swan has expressed this thought slightly more eloquently than I can, so let’s close his words which I used as an opener to this post: Planting seeds may not guarantee that they will grow; but not planting them is scarcely a superior strategy. (Swan, M., 2006)



Swan, M., “Teaching Grammar – Does Grammar Teaching work?”, Modern English Teacher, 15/2, 2006.

Swan, M., “Some things that matter in grammar teaching… and some that don’t” Talk given at ELTA Rhine, Cologne, on 19th October 2014.

Recommended grammar references for teachers

Carter, R. et al, English Grammar Today: An A-Z of Spoken & Written Grammar (Cambridge: CUP, 2011)

Leech, G., Grammar and the English Verb (Longmann, 2004)

Swan, M., Practical English Usage. (Oxford: O.U.P., 2005)

Research publications on teaching grammar

Gass, S. & L. Selinker.  2008.  Second Language Acquisition: an Introductory Course (Third Edition).  New York: Routledge/Taylor.

Norris, J. M. & L. Ortega.  2000.  ‘Effectiveness of L2 instruction:  a research synthesis and quantitative meta-analysis’.  Language Learning 50/3: 417-528.

Spada, N. & Y. Tomita.  2010.  ‘Interactions between type of instruction and type of language feature:  a meta-analysis’.  Language Learning 60/2: 1-46.



This blog post waas featured in “My TESOL Daily”: http://paper.li/Stephen_Hofstee/1327126879

What we get from students

Maybe, after reading this post’s title, in your head you’re already listing some of the gifts you’ve been given by students at the end of term or end of their studies with you…. Thank-you cards, a calendar, tea, a bookmark, chocolates, wine (if you’re lucky!), and so on. Don’t get me wrong, us teachers are mere humans, and we like a present as much as anyone else (any students reading this – please do feel free to give your teacher a present at the end of term!). But I’ve been thinking recently about other ‘things’ (for want of a better word) that students have given me; perhaps unplanned, some students have gifted me with more valuable, ‘deeper’ things. And I think it is important for teachers to take a step back sometimes and notice what they have gained from their students; if nothing else, it will stop us from viewing teaching as a one-way street. So here are a couple of things that occurred to me as I reflected… please feel free to add more of your own thoughts in the comments section below.

1) Ideas for the classroom

A student came to collect her work from me the other day and we ended up having a nice little chat in my office (anything to save me from doing more marking…!). Now this student has been studying English Studies with us for five years and is very nearly finished her degree. And during the conversation, I realised just how many different classes (lectures, seminars, language courses, etc) she has completed and how many different styles of teaching and classroom activities she has seen. She started telling me about some of the trends that she has experiences… some periods where every lesson involved a different layout of the classroom furniture, phases where teachers had seemingly all discovered how to include social networks in their lessons, and so on. Since she’s fairly advanced, she was able to reflect on what had worked well for her learning, and give me feedback from a student’s perspective. One idea she mentioned struck me, as it fits well to a question I was pondering… the key word here is tag-cloud, sometimes called word-clouds. (See here for an explanation, and here to try making one; it’s easy, I promise!).


Here’s a tag-cloud of this section of the post:

word cloud

And during our conversation I was already thinking about how I could use these clouds to teach good summary writing. My idea: students read a text and note down what they think are the most important words in the text. The teacher has made a tag-cloud in advance, or does it ‘live’ on the computer if the classroom allows this, which also shows “important” words from the text – the students can then compare the cloud to their own notes and analyse why certain words are so important, etc. Maybe the cloud will highlight words they’ve missed, or they might want to argue that terms on their list are very important, although the word-cloud doesn’t display them as such. The clue, of course, is that the tag-cloud simply represents how often a certain word occurs in the text and doesn’t judge the significance of the terms for the meaning of the text; but exactly this deeper analysis is what students should do when summarising.


2) Spontaneous Praise

Most of us probably receive what I am going to call ‘prompted praise’ at the ends of terms. Most institutions and/or teachers run some form of evaluation when a course comes to an end, and usually this includes the question “What did you like about this course?”. Naturally, alongside this ‘prompted praise’ we also get ‘prompted criticism’, as most evaluations include a question on what students liked less or didn’t like much at all about the course. More often than not, I find that what some students say they liked, others say they did not like, and there is often no way of telling how much they liked or disliked something and what exactly we as teachers could do about it in the future. I’ve come to notice recently that spontaneous, meaningful praise/thanks (or criticism, though this probably occurs much less frequently, I suppose) means a lot more to me as a teacher. It is also easier to assess how seriously the comment is meant by the student, as it obviously stood out to them as particularly worthy of mentioning to me in person.

Just today as I was leaving the office, a student caught me on the stairs and made a point of stopping me to tell me that she was so grateful for the exam preparation materials we had worked through on a course of mine she took last year. She told me that she even recommended my worksheets to her friends who were preparing for the same (really quite important) exam, because she found them so accessible, and much clearer and more relevant than any published materials she had looked at. She said that using the materials reminded her exactly of the lesson in which we had covered certain points and exactly what I had said about the answers and the exam tasks. This kind of feedback is much more specific than bullet points on an end-of-course evaluation form. It meant so much to me as I’ve always hoped to be that ‘kind’ of teacher students remember (for the right reasons, of course!), and this spontaneous praise proved that I’m at least on the right track!

3) A success story

When a new term starts, it often feels like we are settling down for the long hard slog of giving, giving, giving. After a few years of ‘slogging away’, it can be easy to lose sight of why we’re even bothering. Probably, a high number of our learners go on to bigger and better things, using the skills we’ve given them to climb up the career ladder and so on. But we don’t very often hear about them, do we? And what do they say, out of sight out of mind? So we can get stuck in the rut of concentrating only on our current students, on the pressures rife at educational institutions, or on the monotony of it all. What better a lift out of this mundane slog than a reminder that what we do makes a difference?

I have two favourite success stories. One is a student who took my advice to combine their interests with their studies when considering career options. Most teachers say the same kind of thing; you are more than just your qualifications, you’ll have your job for the rest of your life so pick something you will enjoy! This student got fed up of people telling him that playing computer games was not an effective use of his time. He put his love of gaming on his CV, alongside his degree in English Studies and excellent language skills … and voila he’s now a video game translator who earns more than I do!! Another of my students was on a teaching degree programme, but was worried about the school-university-school route she would likely be forced to take. When I asked her what she would really like to do, her answer was to travel, see the world, and experience ‘real’ life in other countries. To my reaction, “well, then do it!” she  responded, “you know, I just might.” And now she’s head of department at a school in Dubai. She spent new year’s eve with a sheik, has a boyfriend who travels around the US for his job and takes her with him, and former pen-pals in Australia whose farm she sometimes helps out on during school holidays. All of this would have been very difficult to achieve without good language skills which she learnt… you guessed it… in my classes! Hows that for a success story to put a spring in your step when you next enter the classroom?!


4) Help

We all know the situation when you’re heading to class, laden with books, papers, coffee, and trying to lock the office with the key between your teeth! Colleagues are often too busy to help, but if there’s a student nearby they can almost always be commandeered into helping – they feel they can’t refuse because you’re their teacher! That’s not the kind of help I’m talking about. I also don’t mean the “helpful” students who inform you when you’ve made a spelling mistake on the board or handout! What I want us to think about is the students who, of their own accord and on their own initiative, do something that helps us teachers with a difficult task, no matter how big or small.

Small examples that come to mind are a student with a ‘useful’ friend, and an early-bird! The useful friend came in handy in a cultural studies class where we were discussing Scotland’s potential independence from the UK. This topic really got my students going, and then had questions that neither the literature nor I (from London) could answer. Luckily, a student came to the rescue who had spend her year abroad in Aberdeen and invited one of her Scottish friends to come and stay for the weekend – so the ‘lass’ from Scotland was volunteered to come along to our lesson and talk through some of the points that had been troubling us. This was all my student’s suggestion, and made the course much more authentic. Secondly, the early-bird gave me a hand every week for a whole term! It was the dreaded 8am phonetics class. Dreaded because our language labs, although well equipped, have such complex networks of computers that the individual workstations take ages to start up. This student always caught an early train to get to university on time, and volunteered (after I had stressed about wasted class time) to go straight to the lab when he arrived and turn on all of the PCs, so that when the rest of us arrived everything was ready to go. One small act for student-kind, one huge help for me as a teacher!

The latest example of student-initiated help actually provided something of an answer to a question I didn’t really know I had! I’m in charge of European university exchanges for our department, but the number of students applying has been rather low in recent years. Of course I knew that this was less than ideal … but it sure made choosing candidates easier! Then last week I received an email from a student who is heading to Kent for the next academic year. He wrote that he had decided to start a blog (inspired by mine, yay!) where he would post anecdotes and pictures of his year abroad. Apparently, this idea started as something like a personal journal, but when I happenned to be talking about it to someone else, he suggested that I could share the link to show potential exchange candidates what a year abroad is really like, and maybe encourage others who are currently abroad to do something similar. A round of applause, please, for forward-thinking, helpful student!


I have to admit, this blog post also started out as something of a personal reflection. But I do think that these students deserve recognition (albeit anonymous!) for what they have given me. And if I’ve inspired you, other teachers, to stop thinking that students just take, take, take, then posting it here has been worthwhile! 🙂

Ways to find ideas (for lessons, presentations, essays…)

As a teacher who assigns plenty of presentation and essay tasks to my student, I have long been convinced that freedom of choice is important. Very often, I let the students choose their own topic to write or present about; the theory being that if they are working on a topic that interests them, the results will be better and more interesting for me to read/listen to, and more inspiring for others, e.g. student audience for a presentation, etc.

But I often come up against ‘I don’t know what to write about’ or ‘I don’t have any ideas that are relevant’. This is rather frustrating for me as a teacher, but then also filters into my own lesson planning. And I’m sure other teachers have the same issue – what topic can I choose for a lesson? I want to be interested in it so that I am enthusiastic, but I also want to find something that will ‘grab’ the learners so that they are motivated, too.

This post is a quick list of ways anyone can find an idea … students for their essays, .. teachers for their lessons, … etc! I’m coming at this from an EGAP background, but the basic premise is that things that are around us every day would make good topics for our work, if only we weren’t too busy to notice them or to spend a minute thinking about how they would fit to the task ahead of us.

So here they are … my suggestions of ways to find ideas of topics to write/present/talk/teach about!

1) Read the TV guide. 

Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting that you should procrastinate and watch TV until an idea magically occurs to you! But trust me… look at a TV guide (magazine, online, on the TV itself), particularly looking at channels that often show documentaries, and just scan the titles of the programmes. If you find something that interests you, of course you can watch it, but even that might not be necessary. Often channels show documentaries that are related to something that is currently going on, something up-to-date. Just count the number of shows focusing on Brazil in the run-up to the World Cup!  These are often topics that lend themselves nicely to presentations, essays, lessons, etc, especially when they look at an ‘old’ topic from a new, specific perspective. I once read the programme list of N24 (A German news/documentary channel) from just one weekend, and looked for topics related to an English-speaking country (the one rule I do set my students). I found 22 different topics! They ranged from how the Titanic could have avoided sinking, to youth gangs in the USA, to how to land a jet-fighter on an aircraft-carrier, to the first prisons in Australia. With the wide variety of topics, there’s likely to be something that inspires you, gives you an idea to work on.

2) Google (Scholar) your interests

Many students seem to think that to be ‘academic’ a topic has to be somehow serious (read: boring!). But you’d often be surprised how much academic discussion is going on about topics most people would consider ‘unacademic’. For me, a topic can be academic if you approach it in an academic way – critically evaluating the evidence/support for various viewpoints, or assessing the significance of various factors, etc. I have a colleague who is just slightly obsessed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But guess what, studying literature and media proved to her that Buffy is in fact the subject of a lot of academic discussion and research. Simply stick ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, or whatever your interest is, into Google Scholar ( http://scholar.google.com/ )or a similar (academic!) search engine, and you will often be rewarded with links to articles investigating aspects of your interest from various perspectives, using different approaches, etc – et voila, an interesting idea!

3) Question Jokes

I don’t actually know whether it’s true, but we often hear that journalists approach their news items asking the ‘w-questions’: where?, when?, what?, who?, whom?, why?, (how?). If you apply these questions to jokes or other funny anecdotes, you might be able to discover an interesting topic for your lesson, essay, etc. Through my linguists’ eyes, there is an awful lot of material about! Take the books or websites that make fun of incorrect and amusing translations of signs in foreign countries – for me, the questions always arise as to who translated this and why, what led to the mistakes, what was the influence of the native language, what would they need to know about English to get it right, etc. Even jokes based on stereotypes can lead to interesting social/cultural studies investigations: why is this amusing? Where did the stereotype come from? Is the stereotype only found in some contexts (in comparison to their own context)? Is there any truth to the stereotype? And so on. One of my previous blog posts arose from a funny situation: a colleague made some odd, incorrect but very funny lexical mistakes… and this lead me to look at the organisation and workings of the mental lexicon. (See https://clareseltcompendium.wordpress.com/2014/02/21/everyday-examples-of-mental-lexicon-representations/ )

4) Argue with news headlines

Open a newspaper or news website and just skim the headlines. Now pick one that stands out to you, read the article if you like, and try (just for fun) to disagree and argue with everything you read. You might end up thinking: Why did they do that? That was a silly thing to do! That’s not the right solution! Who would support that? etc. This will prompt you to highlight controversies or debatable points made, and perhaps provide an idea that you can write/present/teach about. Just looking through the BBC News Magazine site this morning (see: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine/), I find “France’s Flaws: Why the country isn’t the democratic créme de la créme”, or “Spaniard takes time off work to watch World Cup” – I think there are plenty of points you could come up with that take a negative or critical stance here, and then you’d have the foundation for a discussion which could be used in whatever task you’re currently trying to get inspired for. Try also to find support for your arguments and criticisms – read up on some background or find other sources of information relevant to the topic, and there you have it… the good idea for your work!

5) Browse Social Networks

Facebook, Twitter, or whatever social networking platforms you use, can also be a source of inspiration. If you’re anything like me, you’ll have a couple of people on your friends list who basically to your ‘finding an idea’ ground work for you! They post videos, news excerpts, podcasts, and the like, which are interesting because they are new, funny, controversial, etc – pick any one of these and delve a bit deeper into the content, question it, critically assess it, and let it lead you to a specific idea for your work. Just recently, an ex-colleague posted http://www.vox.com/2014/6/4/5776804/note-taking-by-hand-versus-laptop in our Facebook students group and sparked a lively discussion where different students and teachers posted their views, their evidence, anecdotes, etc. Or this one, posted by a student in World-Cup-mood: http://www.slate.com/articles/sports/sports_nut/2014/06/germany_2014_world_cup_is_joachim_l_w_s_squad_too_nice_to_win_in_brazil.2.html  Many people criticise social networks as distractions and hide-outs for procrastinators; but if you use them well, they can actually inspire you for the task ahead!


So … those were a few of my ideas on how to find new ideas! I’ll stop here so that you don’t procrastinate any further by spending more time reading my blog … go forth and delve into the rich world of ideas that are all around you! Who knows… maybe my next post will have to be about ‘I have too many ideas and don’t know which one to work on’ 🙂


How to Mark Written Work Effectively – Preventing Future Errors

Most of the time when we mark pieces of written work by EFL learners, our aim is to provide feedback on their language usage which enables them to avoid repeating their errors in future writing. It is logical, then, that simply underlining and correcting errors, as is the most common marking method, may not be as effective at achieving this aim as we may hope. Here are a few different ways of marking written work and scaffolding students’ drafting, where the focus is clearly on preventing future errors.

1)      Search & Correct

–      In the margin of the line where an incorrect word/phrase has been used, an X is written by the tutor. The students are then asked to locate/identify the mistakes and correct them. This can also be done with correction symbols, which help to highlight the type of error, but no mistakes are underlined in the text, so students have to use their own judgment.Having to consider what they may have done wrong and finding a way to improve their own language helps means that learners are more likely to remember the correct version and the reasoning behind it, which should help them to avoid making the same mistake in future writing.

–      This method also saves the tutor’s time as they do not spend time correcting things that students actually are able to produce correctly but due to time pressure / lack of concentration have made mistakes with in this specific piece of work.

2)      References to Grammar Textbook or Dictionary

–      Mistakes are underlined in the text and numbered according to pages or passages in a grammar textbook or learners’ dictionary that the class is working with or the learners otherwise have access to. Students are then instructed to look up the explanations of the language structure or lexis they are attempting to use and are able to correct their own mistakes. They can then re-draft their writing, or simply use this information in their next piece of writing.

3)      Correction Table

–      The incorrect words/phrases are underlined in the text, with or without a correction symbol to denote the type of error. Students complete a table like the example below where they write out the underlined errors, and look up the correction themselves, inserting this and the related explanation into the column ‘reason & correction’, and noting the source of their information. These tables are useful for students in understanding their errors and for reference when in future writing assignments to avoid repeating mistakes. These tables allow each student to focus on their individual areas of difficulty. There’s no need for re-drafting.

Example extract from correction table:

Mistake Type of mistake Reason & Correction
1)…get used to be Verb conjugation The expression ‘used to’ is either followed by a noun or by a gerund.Correct: get used to being OALD 7, key word ‘used’, p. 1689~ to sth/to doing sth