Wednesday, 30 October 2013

A Moscow river cruise

As is the case in many cities, Moscow is at its best when viewed from its river.  This is what we discovered when we made our second trip into the city a couple of weeks ago.  Unlike on our previous visit when the weather was cloudy and cold, the day was gloriously sunny.  We hadn't intended to take a river cruise, but it seemed like the best way to see the sights and enjoy the autumn sunshine.

Arbat Street
We began the day in the Arbatskaya district.  This was on a colleague's recommendation.  He had told us that it is a lively Bohemian area with lots of street performers and vendors.  I guess we were there too early because when we wandered down the main thoroughfare at just before midday, the place was practically deserted!  We'll have to go back later in the day.  Because the weather was so good, we decided to save the museums the district is famous for for another day and, instead, head across the river to Gorky Park.

Audi on a ski slope!
This famous Moscow spot is popular with Muscovites all year round.  We're looking forward to seeing it in the winter when all the paths are used by skaters.  On this occasion, though, we were happy to enjoy the autumn colours in the trees and stop for a light lunch at Mercato, an Italian style pizza and pasta restaurant.  We were also diverted for a while by a promotional activity for the winter Olympics which will be held in Soshi in February 2014.  Audi cars were being driven down ski slopes and over slalom-like obstacles.  It was while we were watching this display that the boat-trip sign caught our eye and we decided to get on board.

Peter the Great's statue
For 450 roubles each (about £9), we had a 90-minute cruise down the Moskva river and back, giving us the perfect view of all of the city's major sites.  The first of these is the massive sculpture erected in the middle of the river and dedicated to Peter the Great.  It is fashioned to look like a ship's mast with the figure of Peter standing proudly in front of it.  We have since discovered the rather interesting and amusing history of this landmark.  The story goes (although some deny it!) that the statue was originally built as a gift for America in 1992 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's first voyage and that the figure was him.  When the Americans declined the gift, Christopher's head was removed and replaced with that of Peter the Great.  The statue was then wheeled out in 1997 to mark 300 years of the Russian navy.  When the authorities in St. Petersburg, the intended destination for the statue, refused to take it, it was erected in Moscow.  Since its appearance on the city's skyline, it has not proved to be very popular, not least because it depicts Peter the Great who loathed Moscow and moved the Russian capital to St. Petersburg.  It's not only Muscovites who don't like it, though.  In 2008, tourists voted it the 10th ugliest building in the world!  I thought it was rather striking!

Moscow State University

Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer


Further along the river, we passed the magnificent Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer before sailing by the Kremlin.  We then had a wonderful view of St. Basil's Cathedral before being blown away by the gargantuan building which is Moscow State University.  There are many different architectural styles to be seen along the river, making a trip well worth the fare.  I would recommend it to any visitor to Moscow.

You can see more of my photos of the river cruise

St. Basil's Cathedral

The Kremlin


Top tips for classroom management

This is a summary of the first #eltchat on Wednesday 23rd October, 2013.  There were relatively few participants and the chat was slow to get started, mainly due to technical difficulties with Tweetdeck, but, nevertheless, some good ideas were shared.

Management versus leadership

The similarities and differences between these two roles is an age-old debate and @touqo wondered if it had any resonance with classroom management.  It was generally agreed that it did.  @Marisa_C said that she often asks teachers to think of the qualities of a good CEO or leader and ask what can be learned from them.  The teacher as a leader can set a good example for students, particularly for teens who like to have their 'idols'.  Good leaders brief, support, monitor, encourage, reward, listen, intervene when necessary - these are all good classroom management skills.

Is classroom management the same for different age groups?

This question was posed by @OUPELTGlobal.  Participants felt that the basic principles are the same across all age groups, but the methods of implementation need to be adapted.  @Marisa_C pointed out that young learners expect a firmer hand from the teacher, whereas older students can contribute to the rules and seek and accept choice.  @Shaunwilden argued that some adults prefer a firmer teacher.  This has certainly been my experience, especially with students who haven't been in a classroom for a number of years.

The first days of a course

The beginning of any course is the time to establish good classroom management.  Contracts between teachers and students are a good idea so that everyone knows what to expect.  It's important to give students as much input into the content of these contracts as possible.  The contract should be displayed on the classroom wall throughout the course as a reminder and as a way to reinforce good behaviour.

Goal setting is equally important so that students know what they should achieve, in every lesson and over the course as a whole.

The first ten minutes of a lesson

There was a consensus that the first ten minutes of any lesson are crucial in good classroom management.  This is the time when we set the tone and motivate our students to learn.  Personally, I try to make sure that I am in class before the students arrive.  That way, I invite them into the class and make sure they are speaking English from the moment they enter the room.  With young learners I use a 'password system' whereby students have to say a word or answer a question from the previous class as they come in.  As @OUPELTGlobal said, this all helps students to make the transition to English from their L1.  For the same reason, @cathmmadrid nearly always begins her lesson with a game which recycles vocabulary from the last lesson.

During the lesson

Seating is important, both in terms of the arrangement of the chairs and also where particular students sit.  It was agreed that students should move around as much as possible during a class.

@OUPELTGlobal suggested using a 'traffic light' system to reduce the use of L1 in class.

I gave the example of one of the best teachers I have ever worked with.  She had her classroom management during the lesson down to a series of small gestures and facial expressions.  It was a joy to watch!  She achieved this through establishing the rules at the beginning of every course and being consistent.  Students knew exactly what was expected of them and, as a result, teacher talk time concerning classroom management was minimal.  I regularly used this teacher as a role model for her colleagues and tried to role out her techniques across the whole department in order to create consistency - something which we all agreed is crucial to good classroom management.

The end of the lesson

Just as it is important to start well, it's vital to end the lesson on a high.  @touqo gave us the analogy of a rock band who start a concert with their second-best song to get the audience motivated and save their best until last to make people want to come back for more!  Students must leave the class with a real sense of what they have learned during it.

How much does good classroom management affect students' performance and results?

It was agreed that good classroom management is a major factor - good students' results can suffer if they are in a poorly managed class and, conversely, weak students can thrive in a well-managed environment.  Good classroom management inspires student confidence in the teacher and sets boundaries on how the learning happens.  Bad classroom management takes up all the classroom time.

Teachers often don't give classroom management the importance it deserves.  @Shaunwilden reported that he sees this on diploma courses all the time - teachers think they know it, but then often do it appallingly.  Classroom management techniques evolve over our careers as teachers and it is something we always need to keep in mind when lesson and course planning.


@Marisa_C summed up the chat very nicely by saying that good classroom management is not just about control and discipline, but also about engagement and motivation.


Friday, 11 October 2013

A cloudy day in Moscow

The ubiquitous Russian doll
Having recently relocated to Noginsk, we want to make the most of our proximity to Moscow and explore this fascinating city.  With this in mind, we made our first trip there last weekend.  Unfortunately, it was a grey and gloomy day, so the photographs are not the best, but we saw the major sights and thoroughly enjoyed our time!

The bus from Noginsk terminated at Partizanskaya metro station, from where we were able to get a direct line to Ploshchad Revolyutsii, the closest station to Red Square.  We emerged next to the Historical Museum and spent some time browsing the souvenir stalls close by before venturing into Red Square itself.  Some of the impact of this magnificent space was lost because the area was filled with a massive stage and seating area.  We couldn't, therefore, walk across the square and were restricted to the periphery, but the bonus was that we got to see the full dress rehearsal for the start of the baton relay for the winter Olympics, which was due to take place a few days later.  We'll go back to Red Square another day to take some better pictures!

Rehearsing for the start of the baton relay

After watching the entertainment for a while, we ducked into GUM, the most famous of Moscow's shopping malls and now home to all the designer names you can think of.  It's an impressive building, but, unable to justify even the price of a cup of coffee, we didn't buy anything; we just made use of the (free) toilet facilities and then made our way to St.Basil's Cathedral.  This iconic building with its colourful onion domes, was well worth the entrance fee.  The biggest surprise to me was that, unlike almost every cathedral I've ever visited anywhere in the world, St. Basil's doesn't have any large cavernous spaces.  Instead, the interior is a series of small chapels and a maze of narrow corridors, such that you find yourself retracing your steps and going back into rooms you've already seen, in your attempts not to miss anything!
St. Basil's Cathedral

From St.Basil's, we headed for the Moskva river and walked along the outer walls of the Kremlin complex.  There is an awful lot of renovation work going on in Moscow at the moment, ahead of next February's Olympic Games, and we were fascinated to see the realistic facades which had been put up in front of riverside buildings to hide the work going on behind.

The Kremlin
Our visit to the Kremlin was a highlight.  I hadn't realised how vast the complex is.  We queued for a very long time to buy our tickets.  The system seemed incredibly chaotic, but it was clear that a new ticket office is under construction so, presumably, these issues won't be a problem in the future.  Knowing exactly which ticket to buy in order to visit everything, including the armoury, was a bit of a mystery, but, eventually, with the help of a friendly Muscovite, we paid our 700 rubles each (about £14) and got our tickets.  It later transpired that we should have paid 1,050 rubles each (£21), but, by the time this came to light, we were miles from the entrance and an obliging security guard took pity on us and allowed us through (providing we remained outside and didn't venture into any of the remaining buildings!).

Furry crown!
We visited the State Armoury first as this was on a timed-ticket system.  The collection on display represents the wealth accumulated by Russian princes and tsars over many centuries and is completely overwhelming!  I don't think I've ever seen so much gold in one place before!  I was particularly taken with the furry crowns!  I know Her Majesty wears crowns which are trimmed with ermine, but these were full-blown Russian-style fur hats with a crown on top!  I'm sure it's not the desired reaction, but it made me giggle!  I also loved seeing the collection of magnificent dresses, including Catherine the Great's coronation dress.  These outfits were incredibly wide and explain the reason for the huge doorways inside buildings at the time!  The other highlight for me was the large number of ornate carriages, some of which had been turned into giant sledges to make them better able to cope with the Russian winters.

From the armoury, we walked through Cathedral Square and admired the churches there.  The cathedrals of the Archangel, the Assumption and the Annunciation are all striking buildings filled with wonderful works of art.  Another 'not-to-be-missed' sight in the Kremlin complex is the Tsar Bell.  This bell, weighing over 200 tonnes, is the largest in the world.  An 11.5 tonne piece of it broke off while it was still being made and this is now displayed beside the bell.

Police presence
After completing our visit to the Kremlin, we walked back towards Red Square through Alexander Gardens and paid our respects at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  We had a very expensive coffee and a snack before heading back to the Metro station, stopping to wonder at the vast numbers of armed police pouring into the square as we did so!  It's a pity none of them were around when my wallet was stolen a few minutes later!  A sour note to end a really good day!

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Noginsk - first impressions

Our apartment block
The title of this post is somewhat misleading!  It should probably read second, third, or, even, fourth impressions because, had I really written about our first impressions, it would have been none too favourable!  Now, with the passing of time, we are growing to really like our new home. 

We relocated to Noginsk, a town 40 minutes or so to the east of Moscow, about two weeks ago.  We flew into Moscow Domodedovo airport, landing at around midday, after a very pleasant Easyjet flight from Gatwick.  It was definitely worth paying the £8 per person surcharge in order to secure priority seats with a larger carry-on baggage allowance and the bonus of avoiding the very lengthy queues at baggage drop-off.  Descending the steps onto the tarmac, we were struck by how cold it was.  The UK was experiencing something of an Indian summer at the time, so we went from 22 degrees to only three in about three and a half hours!  Luckily, we had come prepared and were soon wrapped up in coats and scarves, something we had never had to do in our two years in Vietnam!

We were met at the airport by a representative from my new school and were driven to our accommodation in Noginsk.  The journey took far longer than I'd anticipated - about three hours - largely due to the sheer volume of traffic all along the route.  On the way, we were pleasantly surprised by the vast areas of forest we drove through - it certainly didn't feel like we were on the outskirts of a major capital city.  The snow which began to fall as we drove was not such a pleasant surprise!  Our driver assured us it was unseasonably cold and that the large quantities of lying water in the fields was the result of extraordinary amounts of rainfall in recent days and not at all the kind of weather the area should be having in late September!

Epiphany Cathedral
I think the bone-chillingly cold weather really affected our first impressions of Noginsk.  The gloomy grey skies and temperatures barely above zero, coupled with the fact that the communal heating had yet to be switched on, making our apartment feel cold, damp and uncomfortable, did nothing to sell the place to us.  In the first few days here, despite the best efforts of my super helpful and friendly colleagues, we also had problems with a broken cooker, a dodgy internet connection, a washing machine that didn't work, and a plague of flesh-eating mosquitoes!

Now, however, we have been here for a bit longer and many of the initial problems have been solved.  The temperature has risen, the heating has kicked in, and we have even had one sunny day, so I am able to be a bit more complimentary about our new home town and I am sure we will enjoy our time here. 

Some observations:
  1. Generally, people don't smile!  As someone who smiles a lot, and having come from living in a country where seemingly everyone is super friendly, this came as a bit of a shock.  Even when you catch someone's eye in the street, or hold a door open for someone, they don't return your smile.  Clearly, when you get to know them, Russian people are as friendly as any others, but this initial apparent sourness is taking some getting used to!
  2. There are trees everywhere!  Everywhere you look is green and forested - it's wonderful!  We love to walk, so having so much countryside on our doorstep is a real bonus.  Even in the town itself, there are large areas of parkland to wander through.
  3. The mosquitoes are horrendous!  When we were deciding what to bring with us to Russia, and with weight allowance being a prime concern, we discarded all of our mozzie repellents (sprays and plug-ins), deeming them unnecessary in the cold climate we were heading for.  How wrong we were!  We have never lived anywhere where we have been bitten as much as here!  When you are convinced you have killed every single flying thing in the apartment, another mozzie will buzz by your ear!  We have now bought every product we can find in our local shops, but none seem effective in our battle against them.  We are pinning our hopes on a long, hard winter to kill them off and, in the meantime, have resigned ourselves to more sleepless nights!
  4. Prices are so much higher than we anticipated.  Before coming here, we had read that Moscow was one of the most expensive cities in the world, but that the outlying areas, where we were moving to, were considerably cheaper.  We have not found this to be so, particularly with food shopping.  I know we've been spoiled by living in Vietnam where everything was very cheap, but prices here are high, even when compared with the UK.
  5. Noginsk has several striking-looking buildings.  The most attractive building in the town is undoubtedly the Epiphany Cathedral which is painted in bright blue, the same blue as the roofs of churches on Greek islands, and which is visible from many places in the town.
  6. There are a lot of beggars.  I know there are beggars in every town and city in the world.  The thing that has struck me here, though, is the number of them who are middle-aged or elderly women.  Invariably these ladies have an image of the Virgin Mary and a collection receptacle in one hand and are repeatedly making the sign of the cross with the other.  Whilst most of these women are standing on the pavement with their heads bowed muttering barely audible prayers as you walk by, there is one lady, who I pass going to and from work each day, who kneels on the ground.  She remains motionless in all weathers; on wet days you can see where the rainwater has risen up her clothing and soaked her through.  I have to say, I don't see many people giving money, but I guess some must, or else they wouldn't be there day in and day out.  There are other beggars in Noginsk, many of them younger men, most of them disabled in some way.  My Russian friends tell me that these individuals are controlled by people involved in organised crime, as is the case in so many places in the world, and on no account should you give them any money.
  7. Noginsk has a really good public transport system.  Before coming here, we did some research online about the town and were taken by a YouTube video showing quaint old trams trundling through the streets.  We were looking forward to journeys on this nostalgic form of transport.  On arrival, however, we discovered that, whilst the rails still exist, the trams themselves no longer run and have been replaced by the ubiquitous 'bendy buses'.  There is a very good network of minibuses operating in Noginsk, though.  For a flat fare of 25 roubles (about 50 pence), you can go any distance.  These marshrutka remind me of the dolmus we used to travel in when we lived in Istanbul, in that passengers pay their fare by passing coins from person to person to the driver. I have to say that, so far, I haven't used these vehicles very much as I prefer to walk to work, but when the harsh winter weather sets in, I'm sure I'll be grateful that they're there!  Public transport between Noginsk and Moscow also seems very efficient and reliable with a frequent bus service making the 50-minute journey to a Metro station on the outskirts of the city, from where you can easily access the major sites.
  8. The people of Noginsk are clearly romantics!  There is a small pedestrian suspension bridge over the River Klyazma in the centre of town that is known locally as 'the wedding bridge'.  In a similar fashion to some of the bridges in Venice, there is a tradition that local couples fix a padlock inscribed with their names onto the railings of the bridge as a sign of their enduring love.  Unlike Venice, where these padlocks are removed at regular intervals by the council, here in Noginsk they remain for many years and so children can see the padlocks placed by their parents and grandparents.
    Alpine chalet!
  9. The architecture of the houses in Noginsk is distinctive.  Many of the houses have roofs which wouldn't look out of place in Holland or in an alpine village.  I understand that these roof shapes are used so that the snow slides off them easily in winter (flatter roofs would collapse under the weight of fallen snow), but the resulting aesthetic is very pleasing!
  10. Men swigging from large bottles of coke are everywhere!  This is a common sight at all times of day and, initially, I didn't think anything of it, but then, realising that the behaviour of these guys was sometimes rather erratic, it dawned on me that the contents of the bottles was probably at least 50% vodka!  This has been confirmed by a Russian colleague.  It certainly is a drinking culture here - and a smoking one!  It's quite difficult getting used to travelling in taxis (as I have to several times a week when I go to teach at an out-of-town company) which are absolutely filled with cigarette smoke.  I generally arrive at my destination feeling distinctly unwell!
  11. Entrances to shops are decidedly awkward!  This might sound strange, but every shopping mall or individual shop seems to have two doors that you have to negotiate to enter.  These doors are never in line and when we first arrived, it seemed so unnecessary and it seemed like they'd been designed in this fashion just to frustrate me!  I realise now that their purpose is to keep out the worst of the winter weather and to keep the heat into these buildings and, as such, these doors are brilliant!!
  12. Shops generally have no window displays.  I assume that this is a leftover of pre-glasnost days when consumerism was frowned upon, but it is something else for us to get used to.  With nothing visual on the outside of a shop to give you a clue, you often end up in shops you have no business being in!  So far, we've unwittingly found ourselves in a shop selling nothing but air-conditioning units and another specialising in cosy nightwear for Russian ladies!  It makes for interesting shopping trips!
  13. There are loads of food shops in Noginsk!  There is a supermarket or specialist food shop at every turn in the town.  Once you find out what's behind the secret doors, you are overwhelmed by the sheer number of food outlets!  As I said earlier, we're finding prices very expensive, but the number and variety of shops makes for lengthy shopping excursions as we try to find the best buys.
  14. The people of Noginsk know how to enjoy themselves!  This is especially true on a sunny Sunday afternoon when everyone congregates in the main square, and the pedestrianised streets leading off it, to catch up with friends or spend time with their family and take advantage of some of the activities on offer.  These include pony rides, jaunts around the square in a horse and carriage, roller-skating, hiring fabulous electric cars for the toddlers, listening to music, or watching other street entertainment.  Another YouTube video we watched before travelling to Russia was this one, showing the people of Noginsk having a great time in the square on New Year's Eve - we're looking forward to being part the celebrations this year!

I don't want anyone to think these observations on Noginsk are criticisms - they're not!  They are simply comments on the differences we've found in our first weeks here and, as such, are the reasons we love to live in different countries and are not likely to give up our lives of teaching and travelling any time soon!

You can see more of my pictures of Noginsk here.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

The validity of automated scoring software and its application in ELT contexts

This was the title of the closing plenary at this year's VUS-TESOL conference, given by Professor Timothy L. Farnsworth.  What follows is a summary of what he had to say.

What is automated scoring?
  • Computer software that automatically assigns scores to writing or speaking samples.
  • Essays can be assigned scores instantly by computer.
  • Test takers can call a testing centre and take an oral test without speaking to a human.
  • Scores can be reported instantly.
  • Some level of feedback is given to test takers.
  • There is a variety of software available.
How does a computer grade a test?

1.  Natural Language Processing (NLP)
  • software identifies and counts linguistic features.
  • software does not attempt to gauge content in any way.
  • used for testing writing.
2.  Speech recognition
  • software compares the speech sample to a large database of samples of the same test questions.
  • faster responses are 'more fluent'.
  • used for testing speaking.
E-rater (ETS)
  • automated scoring of timed essays
  • uses NLP
  • currently used in a limited way to rate TOEFL and GRE
  • used for formative assessment (e.g. TOEFL practice online)
  • individual assessment
  • students submit essays, receive scores and re-write them as many times as they want in order to improve their score
E-rater takes an essay and counts:
  • the number of words
  • the number of sentences
  • the number of paragraphs
  • sentence length
  • the number of unique words used versus the total number of words (lexical diversity)
  • the number of low-frequency words (lexical depth)
  • the number of prompt-specific words (topic appropriateness)
The computer doesn't try to understand the essay, but it does look at grammar:
  • dependent/independent clauses
  • passive voice
  • subject-verb agreement
  • plurals
  • sequencing words
  • logical relations
  • mechanics (punctuation, for example)
What is a good essay according to E-rater?
  • It's long - longer is always better!
  • It has a standard structure.
  • It has many longer sentences with a lot of dependent clauses.
  • It has many explicit organisational words.
  • It has a lot of obscure vocabulary - for example, indubitably would score much higher than surely!
  • It has a wide range of vocabulary.
This is not necessarily a good thing!  Good English writing is often simple, clear and concise.

What does E-rater not notice?
  • Untruths
  • Grammatical errors
  • Lexical errors
  • Flawed arguments
  • Insanity!
Therefore, ETS doesn't use E-rater as the sole scorer for tests.  Rather, it is used as the second human in order to save money.  More than ten years of research hasn't solved the problems with E-rater - it's incredibly hard to get a computer to understand language!


This is an E-rater application designed for in-class use.  Students' essays are instantly scored using E-rater software.  Students are given individual scores and extra resources to refer to about their errors.


This is the first fully automated oral language test used commercially.  It is a Pearson product.  The test is taken in a computer lab or over the phone (speaking to a computer).  The computer automatically rates the speech and produces scores.  It is used widely in business and increasingly in schools.  There are many versions with multiple uses and languages - for the aviation industry, for example.

The test is fifteen minutes long and includes:
  • repeating sentences
  • scrambled sentences
  • oral multiple choice
All responses are totally scripted with only one possible right answer.  There is an optional 'free response' answer, but this is not scored.  Answers are scored on:
  • fluency
  • pronunciation
  • sentence mastery
  • vocabulary
  • grammar
Speech is captured by microphone and compared to a large database of human-scored responses.  The database includes responses from native speakers from different countries, and English learners from different countries and of all proficiency levels.  Scores are given in the range of 'most similar' to the sample.

What is a good Versant response?
  • It's fast (fluency score)
  • It's clear
  • It's accurate
  • It has native-like pronunciation
This last criteria is the most contentious.  We talk about 'global English' now and, for most of us, comprehensibility is much more important than native-like speech.

What Versant doesn't measure:
  • the range of vocabulary used
  • extended speaking
  • pragmatics - cultural awareness, for example
  • the ability to interact with others
Advantages of these systems

  • computers don't get tired
  • computers aren't biased for or against individuals
  • scores are more consistent than with human raters
  • it's less expensive than using human raters
  • scores and feedback are obtained instantly
Research shows that when test takers are 'acting in good faith', scores are roughly equivalent to those of human raters.  Even though the scores are very similar, however, they are arrived at in very different ways.


Automated tests can be 'gamed' or tricked.  Versant scores, for example, can be quickly raised by coaching.

Positive effects on teaching
  • Students can get more and faster feedback.
Negative effects on teaching
  • The form of the test can influence what happens in the classroom.
  • Teachers tend to focus on what is tested at the expense of communicative teaching.
  • There can be a decreased focus on the quality of the content.
  • There can be an increased focus on grammatical accuracy and low-frequency vocabulary.
  • There is more oral repetition in order to increase the students' speed of response.
  • There is less time spent on developing critical thinking.
  • There is a decreased focus on the pragmatic.
To conclude

Despite the obvious drawbacks, computer scored testing is in all our futures.

Power of the image: ways to use photographs in ELT

This was the title of a presentation at this year's VUS-TESOL conference, given by Paul Grainger from National Geographic Cengage.  What follows is a summary of what he had to say.

Using images as the basis for discussion
  • Show an image quickly and then hide it.  Ask the students what they remember about it.
  • Show the image for longer and pose questions - who are the people?, what are they doing?, what happened before the picture was taken?, what do you think happened next?, how does this picture make you feel?
The history of the image
  • Cave drawings
  • Printing press
  • Typewriter
  • Visual literacy
We have gone from text rich images to those where the picture is more and more important.

The power of the image

Today pictures are uploaded and shared on social media, giving them an immediacy and profound impact.  As the saying goes, 'a picture is worth a thousand words'.  As teachers, we need to exploit this, even at low levels when we can teach new vocabulary with images.  People think using images, so seeing comes before the use of words.  As Aristotle said, 'without image, thinking is impossible'.  We remember far more about texts if they are illustrated - the 'picture superiority effect'.

Images can be:
  • surprising
  • shocking
  • funny
  • sexy
  • powerful
  • disgusting
  • frightening
  • ambiguous

After 72 hours, we retain 65-70% of visual information, whereas we remember only 10% of something we've read or heard.  After a year, the retention rate remains at 65-70% for information we've seen, but drops to only 1% for written or aural information.

The best images to use in ELT are those which:
  • provoke an emotional response
  • arouse interest
  • generate discussion
Ideas for using photographs
  1. Captions - If you can make your students laugh, you can make them do anything!  Show them a photo of people or animals and ask them to imagine what they are saying.  This is a great warmer - it engages students and stimulates creativity.
  2. Creative question and answer practice - Show pictures of people and get students to work in pairs to ask and answer questions about them.  The person answering the questions pretends he knows the people in the picture and invents a whole back story for them.  For lower level students, you could limit the questions to the grammar point being studied.  You can do this activity with any picture in the coursebook - before a listening, for example.
  3. Personal photos - Tie these in with the topic of the unit.  Show your own photos before the start of the unit as an introduction.  Get students to ask questions about them.  Students can also use their photos.  This is very engaging for students as they get to know more about their teacher as well as being able to share personal stories with their classmates.
  4. Introducing a new topic or new vocabulary - Use photographs to generate interest in a new topic or to provide a visual reminder for new vocabulary. 
  5. Pre-listening/pre-reading - Get students to focus on an image before they do a reading or a listening.  This really helps with their prediction skills and can be particularly useful when helping students with exam strategies.
Advantages of using images
  • It motivates students
  • It makes the material more memorable leading to higher retention rates
  • It is a natural approach
  • You can present the usual in an unusual way
  • It's fun!

Using PowerPoint for Teaching English

This was the title of a presentation at this year's VUS-TESOL conference, given by Khau Huu Phuoc.  What follows is a summary of what he had to say.

Teaching with information communications technology (ICT)

ICT involves using:
  • mobile phones
  • computers
  • audio-visual systems
  • the internet
  • software, such as PowerPoint or Hot Potatoes
Teaching with PowerPoint

When using books, it's difficult for us as teachers to refer to a specific point nin a text.  With PowerPoint, we can:
  • Make something appear - for example, in gapfills where we can show the answer so that students are clear about what is correct (we can make words appear in any order or we can number the gaps and then fill them by clicking on the number making the exercise very easy to follow), or when teaching new vocabulary, we can click on a part of a picture to make the word appear.
  • Move something - for example, in matching sentence halves or in inserting relative clauses.  You can put in sound effects for right and wrong answers - audio feedback is very engaging for students.
  • Make something disappear - we can hide answers, which is particularly good when doing vocabulary tests.  For example, we can make words disappear as a clock ticks down to zero.
  • Use custom animations (although we must have a purpose for using animation!) - there are four types of animation available with PowerPoint - entrance, emphasis, exit, and motion path.
All of these tools can focus students' attention on what we want them to learn.  As teachers, we can highlight places in a text very easily.  It saves a lot of time writing on the board and is very engaging for students.

Flipping the classroom: using a blended learning approach to actively engage students inside and outside of class

This was the title of a presentation at this year's VUS-TESOL conference, given by Rebecca Fletcher.  What follows is a summary of what she had to say.

How have teaching and students changed in the 21st century?
  • Students take pictures of the whiteboard, rather than taking notes.
  • Students’ attention spans are getting shorter.
  • Teachers need more activities to engage students. 
  • We now have interactive whiteboards.
  • The classroom is much more student centred and collaborative.
  • We use laptops and tablets rather than paper.
21st century student
What is blended learning?
Blended learning is teaching in the classroom mixed with learning outside the class.
Flipping the classroom – how does it work?
Flipping the classroom allows the school to become a place for talking, doing group projects and getting individual help from the teacher, and lets home become a place for doing pre-learning, such as watching instructional videos, and self-study.  Flipping what the student does means that they do the work ahead of time, come to class and debrief.  Students interact with the material before they come to class.  It empowers students to direct their own learning by coming to class ‘genned up’.
Why digital?
Digital is omnipresent in all aspects of life – we need to embrace it.  Flipping the classroom supports student centred learning and helps students make connections between the real world and the classroom.
What materials can be ‘flipped’?
  • video
  • audio files
  • powerpoints
  • documents
  • images
  • links to websites
It’s important to have a wide variety of materials.
Social networks
Use social networks to:
  • support self-paced learning
  • practise new language in an engaging environment
  • maximise authentic input
  • build a learning community
Using Facebook with your students
Students will be using English outside the classroom in an authentic way.
  • Create a page for each of your classes.  Students can ‘like’ the page and comment on the links.
  • Put images on Facebook and ask students, ‘what do you think will happen next?’ or ‘what happened just before this picture was taken?’
  • Students post comments on an image and then come into class and discuss them.
  • Students can write collaborative stories on Facebook.
For security, students should create a Facebook account to use only for students.
Where can you find materials to flip?
  • You can create your own or, better still, get students to create them.
  • Use publisher-created materials.
  • Use ELT websites.
Recommended websites  
Learning Management Systems
LMSs or VLEs (Virtual Learning Environments) are software programmes which can be used to grade and monitor students.  One of the most well-known is Edmodo.  Teachers can assign work and track their students' progress.
We have progressed from PPP (present, practise, produce) to PPPP (present, practise, produce, publish).  Blogs are student-centred with student-generated content.
To conclude
Flipping the classroom saves time both inside and outside of the class.

Digital inspirations for the young and not so young: motivating learners, motivating teachers

This was the title of the opening plenary at this year's VUS-TESOL conference, presented by Heather Barikmo and Marcus Artigliere.  What follows is a summary of what they had to say.

They addressed these two questions:
  • What is motivation?
  • How can current instructional technology shape motivation for both teachers and learners?
External versus intrinsic motivation

We have to consider both external motivation (the expectations laid down by the principal resources available) and intrinsic motivation (our own sense of curiosity and willingness to try new things).

Teachers give up on new technology more quickly if they are only subject to external motivation.  The desire to use new technology has to come from within the teacher.  The presence of the technology alone is not enough to motivate us.

Constructivist education

This is the idea that learners ultimately construct their own knowledge.  It is all about situated learning - that is, learning which is context related.

As teachers, we don't often use technology to construct learning - we tend to use it just as a tool.  It is often hard for us to change the way we teach to digital natives.


How and why should we use technology?  Some examples:
  • Using i-Pads to discuss facts and opinions about animals.  For example, 'Can animals think?' - students create digital books using screenshots of PowerPoint presentations.  They personalise their learning and increase their efficacy.  It's engaging for the students because learning becomes much more self-directed.
  • Developing digital stories - another way students and teachers can develop a constructivist approach to learning.
  • Creating digital post-its of the phonetic pronunciation of new vocabulary.
  • Writing notes on an IWB over a projected image.
Projects like this increase digital literacy and learners become more self-reliant.  They are invested in their own learning and results.  Students can also help teachers when using technology in class.  They can become the teachers.  This role reversal can be highly motivating for both students and teachers.

The constructivist approach with students

1. Vocabulary on the street - students use mobile phones to take photos of words they see or make notes on words they hear.  They then e-mail these to the teacher who makes a presentation of this 'found' vocabulary to show to the rest of the class.  In this way, students create the word lists rather than them coming from coursebooks.  This is very motivating for them.

2. Blogs as a class space - class blogs can be used by the teacher to share presentations with students and extend the classroom time.  They can also be used to practise web-based reading, with a focus on hypertext where students click on links to learn more about a topic and then come back to the original text.  Students can use the comments section of the blog to give feedback on classroom material.

3. Interactive maps - use mapping software to learn more about places discussed in class.

By using these ideas, students continue to look at course content long after a course has finished.

The constructivist approach with colleagues

Faculty blogs and wikis - wikis can be password protected to turn them into filing cabinets for the faculty.  They can also be developed to serve as a textbook.  Current staff can be given author rights to post on a faculty blog and these rights can subsequently be removed when a teacher leaves.

The idea of using technology in our classrooms is a global concept which can not be ignored!