Random ideas for ELT people, plus guest blogs & travel notes

I was at the Wired In or Out conference at Yildiz Technical University Istanbul the first weekend of December. Işıl Boy, the organiser, was one of the Young Turks I featured in a blog earlier this year. I guess inviting me to her techy conference was her way of saying ‘thank you’ for featuring her! 🙂

I told Işıl when she contacted me that I didn’t think I had anything of value to say to people attending a tech-based conference, and she said that I could be the anti-tech guy. I said I didn’t want to be the anti-tech guy because I’m not anti-tech. We discussed it and decided I would be the NO-tech guy.

After thinking about what I would do, I came up with three other ideas…

(1) I would be the no-BOOKS guy, too

(2) I would present some engaging classroom activities that can only be done using bits of paper – sometimes for the student to write something, sometimes for them to read something

(3)      I would call the talk Put Out The Lights – and put out all the lights in the room when it took place

What on earth made me think of (3)??

The Oyster Band

The Oyster Band

A couple of years ago, I saw an electric folk band called The Oyster Band. Their music sounds quite Irish but they are actually from Canterbury in Kent. They became associated with the coastal town of Whitstable, famous for its oysters, which is how they got their name.

They ended their set, as I gather they often do, with a song called Put Out The Lights. They turned out most of the lights in the auditorium, and turned off their electric equipment, including microphones. Vocalist John Jones sang the song to the accompaniment of acoustic instruments.

The audience peered through the darkness and I think some of them struggled with the reduced sound. However, for most people, me included, it was an intense and enjoyable experience.

So, I sent off the abstract for my talk at Wired In or Out. When I read it again the next day, I realised I was committed to a no-tech, lights-off talk, but also one where I would be asking people to do a lot of reading and writing. In the dark. D’oh!

Had I made a monumental error of judgment? Well, in for a penny, in for a Turkish lira – it was there in black and white now, so I had to prepare for it.

When you’re choosing material for a conference workshop presentation, you have to think about the possible number of people who will be attending. If there are a hundred people in the room, and you’re doing an activity which only involves one or two, will the other ninety-odd find it interesting to watch? This is of course a consideration in the classroom, too, but the problem is exacerbated by the sometimes large numbers of people in a conference workshop, plus the fact that they don’t know each other in the way that students in a class do.

I had a rummage through my twentieth-century drama and music files to come up with activities for a paper-based presentation along these lines. I have to say this part of the preparation was a lot of fun.

And so the day came.

With Isil trying to get a wifi connection, which was surprisingly difficult, given the name of the conference!

When the participants started filing in, they all looked a bit surprised that the room was in semi-darkness. Several of them asked if I wanted them to turn on the lights, and I said no. The early ones engaged in quiet conversation.

Participants sitting in the dark waiting for the workshop to start

Ann Loseva, a teacher who had come from Russia for the conference, tweeted this:

Anna tweet

By the time we started, the darkness wasn’t important.

One of my activities that is always a surefire hit at any drama workshop (I know, it will probably bomb next time now that I’ve said that) is called Actions and Locations, and it goes like this.

 1         Everyone writes a LOCATION on a piece of paper – eg on the table. I encourage the students to be more imaginative than that, and to think of some other location words they know – under, between, behind etc.

2         The teacher collects all the pieces of paper and puts them in a box marked with the letter L.

3         Everyone now writes an ACTION on another piece of paper – eg I’m eating spaghetti. A now action starting with ‘I’.

4         The teacher collects all the pieces of paper and puts them in a box marked with the letter A.

5         The teacher asks for two volunteers and gives them an old mobile phone each. This is to prevent them using their own – it’s possible that one of them has a much fancier phone than the other, and in my experience, this puts the less fancy phone-owner off.

6         The two students have a conversation, which culminates in them asking each other first ‘Where are you?‘ and then ‘What are you doing?’

7         When they are asked these questions, they take a piece of paper from the appropriate box and read the contents. The juxtaposition of the place and the action is usually quite funny.

8         Continue for as long as you want! The only problem with this activity is that the class don’t want it to end until both boxes are empty.

I don’t think this activity can be done without using bits of paper that people have written things on. And it completely works as a spectator event for the rest of the class.

But the activity which really brought the house down was a song-based activity which I call Line by Line.

Giving instructions at the start of the activity

Giving instructions at the start of the activity

It works like this:

1         Choose a song, or a part of a song, with (about) as many lines as there are students in the class.

2         Print out the words of the song and cut it into individual lines and give each student a line.

3         Ask the students to read out their lines. If possible, put them in a circle when they do this.

4         After hearing the lines in a random fashion, ask the class what they think the song is about. Tell them not to worry if they can’t see a strong theme, and that it doesn’t matter if they get it completely wrong.

5         Let the class mingle and try to decide if there are lines which they think connect with theirs. Then ask the whole class to form a line or circle that they think is the right order of the words. Remind them that at this stage it DOESN’T MATTER if it isn’t the right order.

6         Play the song. Ask the students to get into the right order. Caution: there will be running about, collisions and a lot of laughter at this point.

7         Play the song again. Ask the students to wave their piece of paper if they’re in the right order.

Final playing of the song, and the dancing starts..

Final playing of the song, and the dancing starts..

When I did this in Istanbul, something rather wonderful happened. As the teachers waved their pieces of paper during the second playing of the song, some of them danced. The dancing got more ambitious as the song moved from line to line. Turks are great dancers, and this made it a wonderful spectacle for the 60-odd people who had been watching this activity unfold.

None of the activities in the workshop could be done without little bits of paper and some of them also involved writing.

So what’s the message? Whatever the level of technology we have, I think it’s good to occasionally get back to basics in class. The most basic thing you can do is switch off all the machinery (and the lights) and just talk. And the second most basic thing you can do is ask people to write things down on paper, which then form the basis of an activity that engages and amuses the whole class. Or to provide them with a piece of paper that starts off an activity. 

You can see a video of the Oyster Band singing Put Out The Lights here: http://youtu.be/3zTYBTWiTbI


I’m not blogging as much as I would like to at the moment, but thankfully lots of other people are. Today I present for your edification six bloggers that I think deserve a wider audience. They are all ELT professionals, a Russian, an American, a Brazilian, a Francophone Canadian, a Greek and a token Brit. They all live in different countries and only two of them currently live in their native country, so a nice eclectic mix. 

Some of them are already making waves in the world of ELT, so you may already know their names. But I think you will find out something new, even about the ones you know.

By the way, I asked them to write three sentences:

(1) to say who they are

(2) to say why they blog

(3) to recommend one other blog that they like.

Note I said THREE sentences. Some teachers never listen to instructions. I haven’t edited down the ones who didn’t or couldn’t follow the rules. Despite or possibly because of the verbosity of some of them, they are all fresh and interesting reads.

Anna Loseva (Анна Лосева)  http://annloseva.posterous.com/ 

I teach English to the students of Physics at Moscow State University, give in-company classes of Business English, help design materials for our English course at the department and dream about making a difference in my profession, some day.

The three reasons for my blogging are: I like challenge (which blogging currently is for me), I want to contribute what I can to the ELT community online, and finally, I need a place to share my thoughts/ideas/reflections/fears and be supported and/or criticised in order to develop.

There are lots of blogs that I unsystematically read, but the one I pick to share with you is 4C in ELT by Tyson Seburn – it’s fresh, professional, honest and unconventional. http://fourc.ca/

Brad Patterson  www.edulang.com/blog/

I’m a language-learning addict and passionate English teacher now living in France and working with an English language publisher called Edulang.  

I help with their social media so I blog about ELT, in addition to my fascinations with language, etymology and of course the great materials that my team and I have written.  

I love Phil Wade’s blog(s) and am blown away by the frequency with which he posts, just as I am by the uncanny creativity with which he explores the world of ELT. http://eflthoughtsandreflections.wordpress.com/

James Taylor   http://www.theteacherjames.blogspot.com/

I’m a freelance teacher of English to adults, teaching mainly business English in a very tech-friendly unplugged kind of way (no, that’s not a contradiction!), currently based in Brussels, Belgium.

I started blogging because I felt that there were things that I needed to get off my chest, whether anyone read it or not (luckily they did!) and I continue to blog because I think it’s my responsibility as a teacher to share my ideas, experiences and opinions with others in my profession, and a blog is the perfect place to do that.

There are so many wonderful blogs out there (including this one!), it’s hard to choose, but I’m going to go back to the source and say Jason Renshaw’s English Raven blog as it’s the first ELT blog I started to read regularly and his ideas had a great influence on my teaching at a time when I really needed guidance. He doesn’t write so much about ELT anymore (ELT’s loss is VCAL’s gain), but it’s well worth perusing his archive for some of the most inspiring and practical articles on ELT I’ve had the pleasure to read.

Willie Cardoso  http://authenticteaching.wordpress.com

Apart from being an iconoclast (in a positive sense, right, Ken?), I’m a strong supporter of self-directed teacher development and of less conventional attitudes toward language learning and teaching, e.g. complexity theory, social semiotics, and philosophy of education.

I blog in order to open dialogues about taken-for-granted teaching stuff (e.g. beliefs, techniques, qualifications); and to reflect on my practice in general.  

I absolutely love the classroom materials that Cristina Milos and her young learners generate; the topics they examine and their output seem to me as truly educational experiences. http://ateacherswonderings.posterous.com/

Josette LeBlanc Throwing Back Tokens http://tokenteach.wordpress.com/

As a teacher trainer in the in-service training program at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea, I have two main roles: I teach writing skills and I also help teachers see teaching and learning through a new lens. It can be a challenging balance at times, but the end reward is worth it. When I get feedback from teachers telling me that I helped them be a little bolder when they got back to their teaching contexts, I realize once again that I’m in the right place.

I started blogging because I wanted a space where I could reflect about my teaching in a way that was less isolating than writing in a journal. I liked the idea of the teaching community a blog might connect me to, and I haven’t been disappointed in that aspiration. By sharing my experiences in a blog I’m able to discuss and explore ideas that would remain lonely in my notebook. I’m so excited about blogging that I presented about it last year at the KOTESOL National Conference: http://tokenteach.wordpress.com/presentations/blogging-creative-interaction/ 

My blogging community is so dear to me. It’s hard to choose just one blog to share. I’ll share this one because I think this blogger has grown so much over the last year: Observing the Class by John Pfordresher. John is an enthusiastic, creative teacher who isn’t afraid to push his boundaries. I highly recommend reading his About page to find out what innovative work he’s up to in his teaching communities. http://observingtheclass.wordpress.com/about/

Christina Martidou  http://christinamartidou.edublogs.org/

I have been working as an English teacher for the past eleven years. I currently work freelance as a private tutor and part-time for the British Council in Thessaloniki, Greece. My students vary from young learners to teenagers. I mainly prepare learners for the Cambridge ESOL exams, develop my own technology-based materials and love writing on my new blog. My motto as an educator is ‘Teach for the future’.

I decided to become a blogger because I want to share my knowledge and experiences with other EFL teachers, extend my PLN as well as show how teachers can enrich lessons with the embracement of technology to make teaching and learning relevant to their students’ out-of-school reality.

Connecting and learning from other colleagues on the blogosphere is really valuable for me! Two blogs I follow systematically are Özge Karaoğlu’s and Edmund Dudley’s. Özge’s blog is interesting, regularly updated and provides great resources for edtech lovers! Edmund Dudley’s blog is straightforward, enjoyable to read with some cool teaching ideas for English language teachers.



I’m writing this at the end of a two-week author visit to Japan and Korea that has seen me do seventeen presentations of one kind or another.

I started with a speech that no one could hear at the rather raucous OUP party at the JALT conference in Hamamatsu, Japan, and finished with a drama workshop for some students from Korea Christian University, in what they tell me is a haunted house hidden in a wood on the outskirts of Seoul.

The highlight, for me at least, was my ‘Glad To Be Grey’ Pecha Kucha at KOTESOL, even though my attempt to interest the audience in a Gangnam Style dance routine was an utter failure.  

Saluting the talent of my all-time hero Albert Einstein during my Pecha Kucha

Before I came to Korea this time, I read that the Korean government wants education to be paper-free by 2015. They plan to spend $2.4 billion to buy a tablet for every student and digitize the curriculum content across all subjects. It will be introduced in elementary schools in 2014 and across the entire education system the following year. A totally book-free and paper-free system.

The tablets will probably be provided by Korean electronics manufacturer Samsung, but no one is sure about that. And with an election coming up this December, this could of course all change.

But what I found rather surprising was that hardly any of the university teachers I spoke to, almost all native speakers, had heard anything about this. One who had heard about it, an American in his forties, said: ‘It’s just for middle school, not us.’

I fear he may be wrong.

I’m really not the best person to comment on the value of digital-only education, partly because I have no idea of the relative value of books, no books or a blended system, and partly of course because I write books.

I love the classroom possibilities that new technology brings, and I’m aware of the massive impact phones, tablets or whatever can have on the ability of students to continue their studies outside the classroom in a manner they feel comfortable with.

But completely book and paper-free?

The fact is that Korea is not the only country which has looked at this possibility – Spain and Malaysia have also been talking about it, and when Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor of California, he wanted to introduce it there. One of the reasons he quoted at the time was the large number of law suits brought against Californian schools because of supposed back injuries suffered by children who had to carry too many books to school. Um, yee-es…

In all cases, the governments are driven by a desire to reduce the amount of money they spend on education as much as any belief that paper-free is a positive educational reform.

But I have always had a nagging doubt about the move to paper-free. I attended a talk by Brendan Wightman at a conference in Turkey earlier this year, and I thought he articulated the problem quite clearly.

Brendan Wightman in the middle of one of his energetic and dynamic presentations

Brendan pointed out that if a government gives out, say, 300,000 free tablets, you can be sure that every year some of them will be stolen, lost or damaged in some way. Let’s say a conservative estimate of 2%. That’s 6,000 tablets.

Will the government have a cupboard full of spare tablets for people who lose the one they were given? Just a thought.

Here’s a totally gratuitous photograph of my one-year-old grandson Maurice.

Maurice with his favourite toy – I have high hopes for this boy!

Well, not QUITE totally gratuitous.

His mother, my daughter Anya, took the photo with her iPhone after she’d retrieved it from the toilet where Maurice had dropped it. He had picked up the phone and quite deliberately chucked it down the hopper, as my grandmother-in-law Gladys would have said.

Here’s a thought – how many kids will turn up at school with a damaged tablet and blame their little brothers and sisters for the damage?

Actually, I’m reminded that Anya had a similar problem with some school material when she was at secondary school. She had a tough little budgie called Minty who walked along the bookshelf in her room, picked up one of her exercise books in his beak, took two steps along the shelf and deposited it in a fish tank.

The book survived, but the exercise material that Anya had carefully written with a ballpoint pen was unreadable. Not surprisingly, her teacher was a little sceptical that a budgie was responsible.

But imagine if it’s your tablet that finishes up in the fish tank.

If anyone has any inside knowledge about Plan B for damaged tablets, I’d be really interested to hear.

And finally, the best pop culture discovery of this visit – King of K-pop Psy and his Gangnam Style video, the Youtube sensation of the decade. This boy can teach us all about how to work an audience.  http://youtu.be/rX372ZwXOEM

Hamamatsu skyline from my room on the 38th floor of the hotel…

I’m in Tokyo after an inspiring weekend at the JALT (Japan Association of Language Teaching –  thanks, Cory!) conference in Hamamatsu. It was my fourth visit to JALT and certainly the one that I enjoyed the most.

Participants at one of my JALT talks this year

When I discovered the conference would be in Hamamatsu, I asked an ELT colleague and friend who works in Japan what he knew about the place. He said it was in the middle of nowhere, which is a bit unfair. It’s a smart, well-heeled sort of place, but it’s certainly off the beaten track.

As far as I’m concerned, this is perfect for a conference venue. Conferences SHOULD take place in the middle of nowhere or, even better, in the middle of a forest.

I was disappointed that I had to leave the conference before it finished because of commitments elsewhere in Japan. When I got back to Tokyo and switched on Facebook, I saw this update from Roehl Sybing:

I’ve only been to four JALTs, but I certainly felt the atmosphere was brighter, more enthusiastic than I remember.

I attended my first JALT conference in 2007 at the National Olympics Memorial Youth Center in Tokyo, and there were a number of things that struck me as unusual. First of all, the vast majority of participants were not Japanese. They were native speakers, mainly from North America. And mainly men.

For someone like me who mainly visits conferences in Europe and Latin America, this was really strange. I had never been to a conference where the local non-NEST (non-native speaker teacher) community was so under-represented. More recently, I’ve been to TESOL France, where the demographic is similarly skewed. At the time, JALT was a real surprise from this point of view.

The second thing I noticed about JALT was the predominance of talks, both plenary and regular, which were simply renditions of people’s research. And clearly people seemed to be getting their rocks off on some pretty low-frequency stuff!

Now, I’m going to fess up to something here. Whilst I’m very partial to a well-written magazine article with the findings of some research into an ELT-related topic, I don’t generally find it wildly stimulating to sit in a large conference hall and listen to someone droning on about their research for an hour. Especially if they don’t move away from the podium and/or have a voice which shows no particular enthusiasm for what they’re saying.

And – shoot me down in flames – but I find it really hard to look at a series of powerpoint slides containing nothing but quotes from other people in the same field as the presenter, and which all end with a series of names and a date. This sort of thing:

Authority is a necessary evil, and every bit as evil as it is necessary. (Unman, Wittering, Zigo: 1958)

I did two talks at JALT 2007, one was called Turning Passive Students Into Active Learners and the other was a more commercially-oriented talk on my book Smart Choice.

I thought Passive Students was a pretty good title, and the talk had gone OK everywhere else in the world.

Between you and me, and I’d be grateful if you don’t pass this information on to any conference organizers, I’m not very good at giving a proper talk – ie standing in front of an audience and speaking non-stop for an hour. I’ve always found it better to break up the event with some activities. And with a title like Passive Students, it seemed an eminently sensible thing to do.

At JALT 2007, things didn’t quite go as planned. It seemed to cause great puzzlement when I asked people to do a task which involved getting up and mingling. The session ended with relief all round. I later discovered that someone had written in feedback

We had fun but that was all.

Oh dear. I’d always thought fun was an OK sort of thing to happen in a presentation!

I’m nothing if not dogged. It’s my middle name. Yes, I got teased mercilessly about it at school. That’s doggED, by the way – adjective, meaning ‘stubborn’. Not the past tense of the verb ‘to dog’, which has several meanings, one of which it’s best not to go into here.

No, really…. I thought (doggedly), I have to get to grips with this, and if I come back to Japan, I will up the serious part of any presentation I do.

Oxford University Press invited me back the following year, and I brought a talk called Engage Your Students’ Curiosity. It was still activity-based, but I devoted the last ten minutes to some sage chin-scratching about the educational value of what we had been doing.

It was a much livelier session than 2007 and I enjoyed it a lot. But someone STILL wrote on the OUP feedback form that the talk ‘wasn’t very serious.’

What to do? I’d tried to give the talk a more academic feel and it still wasn’t serious enough, at least for one person in the group. Maybe the problem was that all the chin-scratching thoughts were my own, with no names at the end. Maybe I should have written ‘Emerson, Lake and Palmer’ in brackets and seen if anyone noticed!

I left Japan thinking that I was never going to crack this particular nut, but I wasn’t going to beat myself up about it. And, surprise, surprise, I didn’t get invited back to the next two conferences.

But then in 2011, the second edition of Smart Choice came out and OUP asked me to come to Japan again. To my horror, they put my name forward to the JALT committee to do a plenary – and it was accepted!

I wrote to OUP Japan saying they couldn’t be serious. I didn’t do the kind of plenaries that the JALT crowd clearly liked. Oxford said not to worry.

But I did. For most of 2011, if I woke up with one of those nagging ‘what is it I’m supposed to be worrying about?’ feelings, it was usually the prospect of doing the plenary at JALT. It didn’t help when I discovered that one of the other plenary speakers was Interchange author Jack Richards, doyen of the American ELT writers’ community.

But then something rather nice happened. I started getting emails from Steve Cornwell and other members of the JALT committee. Not only were these missives friendly, there was positive enthusiasm at the prospect of yours truly, Kenneth DoggED Wilson, mounting the podium at the National Olympics Memorial Youth Center and entertaining the troops with my downhome Garrison Keillor musings.

But I was still very apprehensive.

The week of JALT 2011 came. I flew into Tokyo, hooked up with the OUP team and we arranged to go to the conference opening party. In the hotel foyer, I met Laurel Kamada, one of the other plenary speakers. She asked me which university I was with, and I said I wasn’t with any. She asked me what my doctorate thesis was on, and I said I didn’t have a doctorate to attach a thesis to.


‘Will you be talking about your research?’



Laurel told me that her plenary was based on her research into something or other, and my mind kind of wandered. I got even more anxious about what was about to happen. 

So, here’s what happened.

First of all, I attended Laurel’s plenary. I sat on the front row. It dealt with her research into the language development of mixed nationality Japanese teenage girls. And it was riveting.

Laurel is a fluent Japanese speaker. The girls she had interviewed for her research had code-switched constantly. She transcribed what they had said, we saw it on the screen, and Lauren herself code-switched as she read it out.

It was mightily impressive. A plenary based on research, the kind of thing I run a mile from usually. And it was brilliant.

Of course, this just served to make me even more nervous.

But the big day came and – it was OK. Even though I did some odd stuff, running up and down the aisles for example, or asking the 650 attendees to put themselves in teams of five – it was an exciting and memorable experience for me.

And as far as I know, no one wrote ‘We had fun but that was all’ in their feedback notes.

Oh, and I didn’t even mention the great people I met who live and work in Japan, almost all North Americans, who I now consider to be firm conference chums. When I saw them this year, I threw myself upon them and hugged them heartily, one and all.

I finally feel like part of the JALT furniture.

Some of the fabulously helpful and friendly JALT volunteers

PS I hope someone understood the Unman Wittering and Zigo quote.

Ken Wilson's Blog

I am very excited to have Özge Karaoğlu as my guest-blogger today. If you’re on twitter, you probably know Özge – she’s the one who fires off about 20 links a day – she’s a one-person PLN, capable of providing you with enough reading and links to write a thesis on teaching English. 🙂

I met Özge in Istanbul in September, and I can tell you that the enthusiasm she shows for her work is absolutely infectious.

Özge won the MEDEA Award for Creativity and Innovation this year for Daisy and Drago, the series of animated films she made with her kindergarten pupils. Below, she describes the process that she and her pupils follow to make the films.

I’m an EFL teacher and a teacher trainer in Istanbul,Turkey. I’m also the educational coordinator, script and screenplay writer of “Yes,I Speak English” DVD series in America.

Visit my blog: http://ozgekaraoglu.edublogs.org/ or…

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Ken Wilson's Blog

Steve Frost, Richard Vranch and Lee Simpson doing Experts onstage at the Comedy Store. I'm afraid I don't know the name of the woman in the middle. Can anyone help?

I blogged earlier about my first visit to the Comedy Store in Central London in the early 1990s, which was also my first opportunity to see the Comedy Store Players in action.

Even though I was gob-smacked by the inventiveness of the CSP on stage, I thought it might be possible to adapt some of their activities to the ELT classroom, so I tentatively started using them in the drama workshops and classroom demonstrations that I did in the 1990s.

By using them so much, albeit in the slightly artificial conditions of a demonstration lesson, I managed to work out which elements of the activities worked and which needed adapting. Although I think almost all of their game formats can be used, the following are the ones that work best for me.

1     Superhero, household object and location

In the CSP version, five of the performers tell a story, directed…

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Ken Wilson's Blog

Improv comedy and theatre are part of mainstream entertainment these days, but the first time I ever saw an example of it, it knocked my socks off and blew me away. When I came to my senses (and put my socks back on), I realized that I had stumbled across something of immense value in teaching – not just teaching English, teaching anything.

It was a visit to the Comedy Store in Central London that changed everything for me. Situated between Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square, the Comedy Store has shows every night. On Wednesdays and Sundays, the actor-improvisers of the Comedy Store Players take the stage.

I first went there in about 1990. The English Teaching Theatre had recently employed an actor-musician called Richard Vranch, who is also one of the Comedy Store Players. I wanted to see what he did in his other life.

Richard is an extraordinary…

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