Students’ Voices: perceptions of synchronous discussions via Zoom

Are you a teacher or lecturer who currently supplements their online course delivery with Zoom or Skype meetings with adult students? Or are you thinking this is something you might want to do? Do you worry about the effectiveness of these meetings? Here’s a small piece of research that you might find useful when considering how to spend that 40-minute call.

Participants: 25 MSc students studying online

Data collection: Online questionnaires, collecting qualitative data via open-ended questions exploring: benefits, drawbacks, challenges, engagement, and improving quality of provision of supplementary (non-compulsory) module Zoom meetings. 

Key themes:

 Reluctance to join:

  • Technology problems: poor internet connection; audio; difficulty logging in

  • Time commitments: fitting in schedule; work commitments 

  • Childcare commitments: evening slots difficult 

  • Different time zones  

  • Not preferred method of communication: ‘I do not feel comfortable on video calls with other people’; ‘Skype type calls aren’t my favoured type of contact’; ‘I don’t enjoy Zoom calls at all’


Perceived Advantages:

  • Ease/accessibility/cost-effectiveness/environmentally friendly

  • Face-to-face: ‘you can see who you’ve been communicating with online and via email’; you feel like you’re in the room with the tutor’

  • Real time‘instant feedback’

  • Learning from/sharing with peers‘comparing their understanding to my own’; ‘useful for sharing ideas but I don’t think I’ve actually needed the Zoom sessions to successfully complete the modules’

  • A sense of belonging: ‘it gives me a higher sense of belonging to the University even though I’m studying online only’

  • Cultural dynamic‘having international peers in the group adds a refreshing cultural dynamic, which is an added bonus in understanding the subject matter in different contexts’


Perceived Disadvantages:  

  • Technology: problems screen sharing; camera issues; noise issues with large groups; etiquette; poor/slow internet connection ‘especially for developing countries’‘clunky with a lot of people’

  • Superficiality:‘having an allotted time to speak means you don’t have the chance to explore things in more depth’

  • Participation: ‘Reduced numbers of people who engage with zoom sessions’; ‘lack of advanced preparation by students which can compromise the session’

  • Not f2f:Not quite as nice as meeting up in person but a really good compromise’ 


Students’ suggestions for improved practice:

  • ‘Offer a ‘taster’ zoom session at the beginning’

  • ‘Ensure students know they need a suitable device for participating’

  • ‘Zooms work best with structure, a formal agenda and when focused on course content, and this is especially true with large groups’

  • ‘Encourage more people to attend by putting focus on the agenda and tangible benefits of attending’

  • ‘I see no point of attending Zooms when their only function is ‘checking in’. I want to develop my knowledge of module content, discuss key issues or critically analyse an article’ 

  • ‘Material sent in advance of a Zoom is good. Gives time to digest and reflect and ensures the following zoom session is most productive' 

  • ‘Record zoom sessions so those who miss can catch up’ 

  • ‘Use the online chat facility’ 

  • ‘Offer a variety of times’


Good practice in facilitating synchronous discussion as identified in the literature:

  • Ensure learners see the relevance of the content; this is essential for enhancing adult learning

  • Ensure learners have opportunities to engage fully with at least one of the following: the tutor; and/or the content; and/or other participants

  • Smaller groups likely to have a more positive impact on participant-tutor and participant-participant interaction, so consider dividing big groups and/or using break-out rooms

  • Ground discussions in real experiences, case studies, problems or issues, i.e. application of theory to practice, so as to be meaningful to adult learners

  • View learners as active participants - ask them to bring a problem/issue/dilemma, a journal article, a case study and/or ask them to set the agenda

  • Encourage participant-participant interaction and collaboration, i.e. group problem solving, discussion of a task/case-study

  • Support critical reflection on module content/journal articles/experience

  • Don’t assume students are familiar with/can use the technology. Their attitudes toward and their skills using technology may both require positive change and ongoing support


References and Useful Resources:

Huang, H.M. (2002). Toward constructivism for adult learners in online learning environments. British Journal of Educational Technology,33:1, 27-37.

Keengwe, J., Adjei-Boateng, E. and Diteeyont, W.  (2013). Facilitating active social presence and meaningful interactions in online learning. Education and Information Technologies. 18:4, 597-607.

Vogt, M. A. and Schaffner, B.H. (2016). Evaluating interactive technology for an evolving case study on learning and satisfaction of graduate nursing students. Nurse Education in Practice. 19, 79-83.

Yates, J. (2014). Synchronous online CPD: empirical support for the value of webinars in career settings. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 42:3, 245-260.

New Year New Class? The Essentials of Establishing Rapport

The importance of rapport

Rapport is fundamental to successful lessons.  Learning is facilitated when the teacher is able to make the students feel comfortable, relaxed and eager to participate and hindered when students feel on-edge, uncomfortable and embarrassed.  Although the students themselves play a large role in determining the classroom atmosphere, there are things the teacher can do to establish a good working relationship with his or her students.  

Get to know your students

Learning and using students’ names is a good place to start.  However, if you really want to make a connection with your students, you should do as much as possible to find out about their lives outside of the classroom. What are their interests and hobbies? Do they have part-time jobs?  Do they have children?  What religious holidays do they observe?  Find out about their countries and cultures.

 You can then use this information in the class to determine topic areas. You can also refer to something you know about individual students in the class and use their knowledge about a particular area as a learning opportunity for other students.  Likewise, give the students the chance to learn a little about you, your friends and your family.  Students are often more interested in you and each other than they are in fictionalised characters from textbooks.



Another important piece of advice is to listen to your students – not just the grammar they are producing, but the meaning they are trying to convey – and respond in a genuine and interested way.  If a student tells you that he doesn’t feel like working because his ‘grandmother at hospital’, don’t jump in with a correction - ‘you mean your grandmother is in the hospital’.  Instead, react in a sympathetic manner - ‘I’m sorry to hear that’ - and tell him that he can do some independent work if he prefers.

Put yourself in your students’ shoes

Probably, the most important thing to remember is that you don’t have to put on an act.  While some good teachers are also entertainers, you do not have to be an entertainer to be a good teacher! 

Try to think about how you would like to be treated if you were in your students’ shoes and start from there. The more experience you gain, the more comfortable you will feel and the easier it will be to determine what will and won’t work in the classroom.

Noticing Charts: the best resource I've ever used

Why get students out of the classroom?

As mentioned in my last post, there is real cultural, linguistic and sociolinguistic value in getting international students out into their local communities researching a topic of interest to them.

In my experience, the best time to do this is as soon as they arrive. This is when they are first noticing various aspects of the local culture, hearing varieties of English and making comparisons with their own cultures. This is fertile development time for them and should be capitalised upon by teachers in the classroom.

So, how do we do this? Well, there is one resource that I’ve used for almost twenty years: the Noticing Chart.

Encouraging Noticing

We know from Schmidt that conscious noticing is an important concept in language learning. Noticing Charts - as seen below on the left (Pdf available here) - give students the opportunity to record their real-world observations of culture and language and share their most interesting observations in the classroom. It’s not the teacher choosing what aspects of culture and language students should attend to; it’s the students. And this is what makes the experience so rich and so enjoyable for them.

Whole language or culture lessons can spring forth from their offerings and/or if you adapt it slightly - as seen below on the right (Pdf available here) - then you can help students turn their noticing into research questions, which, with some development, can be the starting point for their ethnographic research projects.

So, if you’ve got a new group of students starting and you’re looking for a resource that is totally student-centred and has the potential to be exploited further into explicit language focus or project-work, then look no further. I’m grateful to the colleague who introduced me to Noticing Charts all those years ago, and I hope readers here and your students will also benefit from this resource. Do let me know.

Noticing Charts

How to get international students out of their rooms and into the community

The potential of projects

It is sad but true that it is possible for international students to study at UK (and probably other) universities and never leave campus, never speak to local people in local settings and never enrich their cultural awareness and sociolinguistic competence.  

Universities are generally great at providing courses in, or extra support for, English for Academic Purposes and Study Skills and are increasingly seeking ways to embed these into students’ programmes in order to help them meet the academic demands of their modules. But, they are generally less great at developing students’ everyday communication skills in everyday settings with everyday people.  Maybe because they don’t see this as their job.

If, like me, you think this is equally important, then look no further.  I guarantee that the module I describe below is one of the most rewarding you will ever teach and one of the most useful for international students. 

It is an ethnographic research module designed for international students studying at a British university but equally valuable, I would argue, for any international student on any university campus. My evaluation of this module was based on data collected from students’ feedback on end-of-module evaluation forms and also their written reflections on the research process. As you will see below, the findings indicate a number of perceived benefits. 

This post serves a brief overview; the next few posts will give more detail about the structure and content, in case you want to adopt a similar research/project-based module yourselves. Or, do feel free to get in touch directly, if you think you might like support, advice or materials.

The module

A  20-credit, Level 4 (year one) module taught three hours a week over twelve weeks to Study Abroad students with IELTS 6.0/B2 equivalence.  The aims of the module are to develop via a small-scale ethnographic project in the local community: initial competence in ethnographic enquiry; and English language skills, cultural awareness and intercultural competence.

What is ethnography? 

It is an approach to social research typically involving participant observation in natural settings, formal and informal interviews and the collection of documents and artefacts in order to develop a deeper understanding of people’s behavioural practices and beliefs. According to Fetterman (1998: 2), ‘the ethnographer is interested in understanding and describing a social and cultural scene from the emic, or insider’s, perspective.’


The students’ projects 

Students initiate their own topics and are supported in the classroom in a step-by-step fashion with weekly tasks and plenty of formative feedback from peers and tutors on research questions, research design, interview questions, an oral presentation of their findings, data interpretation and a draft of the final report. The final report (2000 words + appendices) is the only summative piece of assessment.  Examples of past topics include:

  •       The elderly: ageing actively

  •       Volunteering: altruism or cv-enhancing?

  •       Always lost: asking for directions in the UK

  •      Terms of endearment: alright luv?

  •      Arcades: only for the lonely?

  •       Camaraderie within a boys’ basketball team


Findings: students’ voices

The joy of discovery

  •      ‘At week 8, I found that I collected a lot of data (maybe even more than I needed) due to the excitement of discovery and happiness of interacting with people.’

  •      ‘…I realize talking about a country’s culture in the ethnographic way is much more vivid and interesting because you are actually the one experiencing and interpreting what you see in that particular aspect of life in that particular time.’


  •  ‘In a nutshell, this research is meaningful for developing my abilities, regardless of the study skills or the language skill and social skills’.  

Developing English language skills, sociolinguistic and intercultural communicative competence

  • ‘… my fluency of speaking the language improved because I need to speak fluently to avoid wasting my interviewee’s time.’

  •  ‘I successfully talked to British people indeed and learned how to start a conversation better’. 

  •     ‘At the beginning of the research, I had difficulty in understanding different English of the basketball team members, not only because of different accents, but also the slang and vocabulary. But when the time goes by, gradual recognition towards their delivery pace and the expansion of my vocabulary base, help me understand much more.’


Building confidence

  • ‘Ethnography is useful in boosting confidence as it opens up my eyes and my mind. To step out of the comfort zone is uneasy, but I am proud of what I did. It actually builds my confidence and I realize that I am more capable than I thought.’


Contributing to employability skills

  •  ‘I have learned to communicate with others through this module, which is helpful to my employability skills’. 

  •  ‘It is of great value to my life and career in the future’.


Challenging preconceptions and changing perspectives

  •  ‘I have to say this project means a lot to me because …. it changes my perspective a lot and it allowed me to have a great opportunity to know something about other people. Talking to stranger is actually fun to me because they are not in my circle, which means their thoughts are very different from mine. Their feedbacks are very likely to give you new insight or inspiration and may change your perception of something.’


Ideal preparation for degree programmes

The findings indicate that students perceive the module to be positive and meaningful to them academically, socially and linguistically. They also suggest that the module does more than meet its aims; it has the potential to develop students’ confidence and employability skills, as well as facilitate different ways of viewing the world and new ways of learning (by doing).  

If you are responsible for curriculum development, then please do give consideration to a version of this module on Study Abroad, pre-sessional or in-sessional programmes.  It gives students an ideal theoretical and practical grounding in carrying out and reporting on a piece of primary research, which is ideal preparation for their degree programmes.

More to follow in my next post …


Fetterman, D.M. 1998. Ethnography: Step by Step. 2nd Ed. London: Sage Publications.

“Do Adults Get Nervous Too?”: why our students need honest answers

Years and years ago, too many to feel comfortable admitting, I wrote an essay for my Master’s degree entitled: ‘Sensitising Teacher Education: Incorporating a Focus on Affect’.   The role of affect in language learning was a topic on our syllabus, connected with the psychology of language learning and individual differences, and I was determined to develop this topic but from a different angle, one which got and probably still gets too little attention – the treatment of affect in teacher education.  

The argument I was making in this paper, based on my own experience of training as an English language teacher, and surveying a host of teacher training books and journal articles, was that teacher education was not keeping pace with wider societal trends, particularly in the workplace, where counselling, stress management, team work and negotiation had become commonplace.  Today, you can add the buzz words of mindfulness, mental wellbeing, emotional health, and resilience to the list above.  My thesis was that there was very little evidence of the ‘explicit treatment’ of affect on teacher education programmes and that this needed to change.


What is affect?

Affect’ is generally defined in terms of emotions, feelings, moods, dispositions and attitudes which shape behaviour.  And ‘explicit treatment’ for me meant that affect was dealt with on training programmes in such a way as to help trainees identify and address it in the classroom.  Despite affect being a very complicated area of research, with many interconnected variables (think about the complex relationship between anxiety, competitiveness and self-esteem, for example), and, thus, extremely difficult to measure objectively, my position was, and still is, that even initial teacher education programmes, as short as these may be, need to focus on it explicitly. 

Why? Well, I argued that trainees may be able to survive a lesson that has gone horribly wrong, but unless they realise, as the influential Earl Stevick did, that “success depends less on materials, techniques and linguistic analyses, and more on what goes on inside and between people in the classroom”, they may not know how to put it right


Understanding affect can help us improve our practice

It’s the putting it right bit that I’m concerned with.  For me this can only happen when we give learners opportunities to share their attitudes towards learning (including the materials, activities and classroom management strategies we use) in a safe and supportive environment, one in which negative affect is not stigmatised but treated as a normal human condition experienced by learners and - here’s the crux - teachers alike.

And this brings me to the title of this post.   This was the question I got asked recently by a Year 9 student during a confident communication workshop I was delivering for his class. Outwardly, this boy gave off an air of confidence. Throughout the workshop he regularly volunteered his opinions, spoke up loudly, made good eye contact and engaged his classmates. But, when it came time to give his solo final speech, he was a full of nerves and reluctance.  And, in the middle of my cajoling and encouraging, he asked: ‘do adults get nervous too?’  

This struck me as such an important question, not because it was overly profound, but because it was so genuine. He wasn’t stalling for time; he was searching my eyes for a sign of empathy, that basic human connection that tells us we are not alone in our fears.  


Giving honest answers

And, so I gave him my most honest answer; all the time.  For me, it manifests itself in a poor sleep the night before I go into a school, a death-like grip on the steering wheel as a I drive to my destination, a dry throat right before the students enter the classroom, and a racing pulse in the first few minutes, until I feel I’ve established some sense of rapport with at least a handful of the group.  

And, I’m fairly certain that most teachers - both inexperienced and experienced - have suffered from self-doubt and anxiety at some point in their careers, most commonly when they have to stand and deliver a talk in front of their peers. In fact, I was reading accounts on Twitter of teachers locking themselves in bathrooms and throwing up before presenting at staff meetings and conferences.


Building resilience

It’s these kinds of experiences that we need to share with each other on training programmes and in classrooms with our students if we want to build our own and our students’ resilience.  Students and trainees, all of us, need to understand that insecurity and failure are part of growth and development. We all need empathy and reassurance at times and we should all learn how to empathise and reassure others. If teachers and trainers pretend that we are infallible, if we don’t discuss our setbacks and our rebounds, if we don’t model the provision of empathy and reassurance, we are serving to perpetuate a classroom culture in which our learners are afraid to fail or, worse, even try. 

So, do adults get nervous? Hell, yeah, we do. We do because we care. Our learners care too. It’s our job to explore these emotions, to discuss how we can manage them, to share stories of failures and successes, to model empathy and to encourage our learners to embrace and learn from the setbacks they will invariably face.  

How do I get a Distinction for my Dissertation?

This was the question a student asked me the other day.  And, to be honest, I couldn’t answer right away, or rather I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to provide a superficial, off the cuff response that left her with the impression that grading was somehow black and white, simple, fixed and incontestable. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Sue Bloxham (HE assessment specialist) at my former university and know from her research on accountability and reliability in grading that this is far from the truth.  Here, I’ve attempted to provide the fullest and most honest answer I could.  But, I would love to hear what others would have advised, so please leave a comment below to add further to this discussion.


Grading is Complicated

What Sue’s research has shown is that many tutors have this tacit understanding of what a ‘distinction’ is in their subject area (created by being a fully-fledged member of this subject area themselves and external examiners at other universities) and, so grade in a holistic way using their past knowledge, experiences, professional judgment and, indeed even by looking at how one dissertation compares against another (i.e. normative or comparative judgment).  Some tutors even have individualised, internalised standards and ‘triggers’ that impact on their grading either positively or negatively (e.g. citing/referencing or use of punctuation). 

It’s also likely that their judgment is influenced by cultural, institutional, departmental, peer-group norms and expectations.  Universities and departments have reputations to uphold and standards they want to keep and reinforce and so they may grade according to this and in a similar way to their direct competitors. Some universities mark lower (i.e. working down from a top grade of 70 or 75); other universities are encouraged to use the full range of marks, but even that means working down from a top grade of 80 or 85, especially in social sciences or humanities subjects because there’s no such thing as a perfect mark in these subjects, unlike in maths, say.

What I'm saying, then, is grading is rather woolly and dependent on cultural, institutional and departmental norms and your tutor's professional judgment.  But I'm sure this wasn't the answer you were looking for!  So, for something a bit more helpful, please read on!


Aiming for a Distinction: Six Top Tips

1. Become a researcher.  You need to take on and live this new identity for the next 3-4 months, and this new identity may require a different way of thinking and being. As a researcher you need to: be independent, taking the lead and driving forward your own project, making appointments and setting and meeting deadlines; be meticulous in everything you do, from your research design to your research questions to your data collection to your writing up; be methodical, thinking through pros and cons of every action you take/don’t take, reporting and reflecting on your decisions; be flexible, willing to re-formulate questions, re-evaluate methods, and re-visit theory/theoretical frameworks; be motivated for the long haul, maintaining your interest in the process and investing in the product right up to point of submission.  If you’re waiting for a tutor or supervisor to feed you ideas, to move your project forward, to check up on you … well, you’ll be waiting in vain, I’m afraid.

2. Take each and every opportunity allowed to consult your tutor, taking him/her sections of your dissertation and asking for specific feedback. After all, he/she is the one marking it, so he/she will be able to (hopefully!) articulate what he/she is looking for! You need to take the initiative here and drive these tutorials so that you get out of them what you need. Make a tutorial schedule, book your appointments in advance, make sure you’ve written sections before you go, take questions you want to ask and make sure you get answers.

3. Read past dissertations that have achieved a distinction and try to replicate them. By this I mean, notice: the overall structure, the style, the academic language, the way one section or one paragraph follows from and leads on to another, the citing/referencing, the way authors are introduced, the way the literature is compared/contrasted/critically evaluated (and the language for doing this), the explanation of the methodology and methods, the level of detail, the way the findings are presented, the way the literature is used in the discussion section to support the writer’s own ideas or to develop new ideas, etc…

4. Do the above (c) with journal articles. Read, read, read… this is one of the best ways to improve your writing. 

5. Assume that a distinction means (as it often does) that the work is publishable. So, I’d suggest you go through a similar process as academics do of making it publishable, i.e. take your work to a lunchtime research group (if you have one) or to your peers or to your tutor (as suggested above), in other words, get your work peer-reviewed. Make content revisions, make language revisions, make it as publishable as you can … and, yes, for many subjects in many universities, this will mean flawless English language and referencing.

6. Try to ensure that your small-scale piece of research makes some contribution to knowledge (this might be referred to as ‘knowledge creation’ in your grade descriptors).  Most tutors are not expecting ground-breaking work at Master’s level, but it is possible to make even a small contribution if you move the research/discussion on in some way, e.g. maybe your context is a different one or maybe you're adapting or mixing methods or maybe you are applying the theoretical framework in a slightly different way or maybe your tools of analysis are slightly different. Whatever it is, you’re aiming to shed some new light on the subject, to look at it from a slightly different perspective.  


Okay, I hope this helps.  If there are any academics reading this who would like to add further to this discussion, by all means please leave comments below. 


Getting the right research questions right

If you’re a full-time, one-year MA student in the UK, no doubt your thoughts will be occupied with the dissertation you need to complete over the coming summer months. You may have already narrowed down your topic and some of you may have even nailed your research questions. If so, great! If, however, your topic is a bit fuzzy at this stage and your research questions are proving harder to formulate than you anticipated, don’t panic. We’ve all been there! Formulating the right research questions requires time and skill


Forming good research questions takes time

Most of your time will be spent reading and thinking about your topic. You’ll be accessing the literature, trying to understand key theories, but you’ll also be finding and reading journal articles, looking for previous studies that interest you in terms of their methodology and their methods.  

After having done this background work, you’ll probably end up with a good feel as to what you want to do/don’t want to do, or, indeed, what you can/can’t do given your context, time, resources and other practicalities. You’ll then formulate, evaluate and refine your question or questions (usually between 1 to 3 questions depending on the level and scope of your study), possibly multiple times. Be warned, research questions do change over time; this too is normal.


Getting them just right takes skill

The skill part involves making sure your research questions are:

  • Doable, i.e. you have time, sufficient expertise, access and ethical clearance 
  • Sufficient in depth, e.g. not too broad and not too narrow (bear in mind your word count), but also researchable over time, i.e. not something you know already or can find out easily via one web search or one question to one person
  • Contributing, even if only in a small way, to the existing body of knowledge (e.g. maybe your study is similar to a previous one but you are situating yours in a different context or using a different data collection tool or method of analysis)
  • Free from preconceived ideas and bias
  • Answerable using your methodological approach and methods
  • Unambiguous, e.g. the language should be clear, vocabulary should be precise, and terms should be defined
  • Accurate in terms of English grammar and punctuation, i.e. formulated as questions

This last bullet point seems fairly obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times students have presented research questions to me that aren’t questions at all in terms of English grammar. If you’re struggling with question-forming, here are some sites to help you:

In case you’re wondering why so much effort needs to go into research questions, the answer to that is they really do help to focus your research. They point you in the right direction in terms of your reading and your methods, and more generally, they provide an overall purpose for your study. Remember, your job as a researcher is to answer these questions via the data you collect.

For more help with and examples of research questions, here are some useful sites:


Prepare to be flexible

My final piece of advice is talk them through with your peers and/or a research group and your tutor, get advice and don’t settle on the question/s until they meet the criteria above.  Even then, as previously mentioned, be prepared to refine them as you plough deeper into your research.  

The dissertation is a journey with many twists and turns and you’ll no doubt experience highs and lows. Try to embrace these, if you can, and view them as part and parcel of being a researcher, which is what you are now!


How can we help learners overcome a fear of public speaking?

As an oracy trainer, I see inside many UK secondary schools and classrooms.  I have the wonderful opportunity of helping young people find their voices, express their opinions, tell their life stories and speak passionately on a wide range of topics, from the perils of social media to the importance of family. 

I come across pupils who enjoy speaking in front of their peers and others who loathe it. Some are so shy and so fearful that their anguish manifests itself in physical form; I’ve witnessed shaking, hair twisting, nail and lip biting and crying.  Some, who you never think will actually stand up and speak, do. Others, who you think are brimming in confidence, fake headaches, go to the nurse’s office and never return. Some reluctant students respond well to positive encouragement and cajoling, others respond better to tough love and motivational mantras.


Public speaking is viewed as something out of the norm

What they all have in common, though, is a shared understanding that public speaking is something special, something different, something out of the norm. In fact, my very presence at their school facilitating a whole day confident communication workshop reaffirms this.  It is different.  And this shouldn’t be the case. I often ask myself how we ended up in this situation.  And, then, of course, I remember, the neo-liberal, data collecting, accountability agenda pervading our education system and which may actually be doing harm, emotionally and academically, to a large number of children.

If speaking skills were valued, taught and assessed formatively and summatively from a young age, if they were embedded into every lesson, and if children knew speaking = school and school = speaking (see School 21 for a good example), then this would be the norm, just like evaluating sources in History or using a protractor in Maths or learning vocabulary in French. And this would mean that fear of speaking (or fear of failing or fear of embarrassment, as is often the case), should dissipate with exposure, modelling, structured support, sustained practice and a clear understanding that ‘this is just what we do’.


Encouraging a growth mindset

As this isn’t the case in most schools, then we need to find other ways to help children deal with their fear.  Many educators turn to the psychology literature and help to build resilient learners by endorsing a growth mindset.  I myself, when faced with reluctant pupils, use similar strategies: I ensure they have many opportunities to practise and time to prepare; I talk about my own failures and eventual successes, demonstrating that learning comes from struggle and mistakes; I remind them that the anticipation is worse than the actual act; I get other pupils to inspire them with their own talks and positive encouragement; and I make sure to add a ‘yet’ every time they say ‘I can’t do it’.

But sometimes even all this fails.  Sometimes there are still two or three children who refuse to stand and speak, and each time this happens I can’t help to feel that I’ve let them down.


Mindfulness techniques

And, so, my quest for knowledge and strategies continues.  It was in this vein that I approached my friend and colleague, a Buddhist nun and mindfulness practitioner and asked her how mindfulness techniques might help young people overcome their fear of public speaking. Here’s her advice:

1.     Create some ‘magical wishes’ for your audience before your talk, e.g. ‘I wish my talk will help them solve a problem in their own life’ or ‘I wish my talk will inspire them’ or ‘I wish my talk will help them understand this issue better’.  Repeating your wishes in your mind will help to strengthen your inner power and your confidence.

2.     Pin your anxiety onto something small and simple in order to calm your mind before your talk. It can be something you notice immediately before you go ‘on stage’, e.g. the knowing of your footstep, the taste of a mint in your mouth, or the feeling of your tight shoulder.  The knowing stays with you and is something neutral and safe to cling on to in a time of uncertainty or stress.

3.     Enjoy your talk while delivering it. Of course, it helps if you’ve prepared content that is interesting and important to you and/or to your audience.  Find the value in your own talk (again for you or your audience) and affirm this value to yourself. Remind yourself that you have something important to say that people want to hear.

4.     Shift your focus onto the audience.  Think about how they’re feeling, how they’re experiencing your talk and what they’re learning from you. This should help you forget about yourself and let go of your nerves a little.

5.     Don’t be too critical of yourself.  When you’ve finished, praise yourself for having the courage to do the talk. Only when your mind is calmer and your tension has eased, should you reflect on strengths and weaknesses.  Even then, remember it’s not black and white. Every audience member may have experienced your talk differently.


Don't be too critical

Maybe this last point is the most important one of all.  After all, what trainers and teachers might consider a small step forward might, in fact, be a huge step for a shy or unconfident student. Just like a good speaker needs to cater his/her talk to his/her audience, we need to cater our feedback to individual learners' needs. 

Developing university students’ oracy: facilitating group discussion

In my last post I wrote about the necessity of developing students’ oracy skills even at HE level. I argued that oracy is not something that can be assumed in a multicultural context, especially one in which English is used as an academic lingua franca and, thus, where intercultural communication skills are crucial for learning with and from peers.

Developing Oracy

Developing students’ oracy is not just about providing them with employability skills; it's also about ensuring that we’re preparing students properly for the assessment we design. Assessment via oral presentation, for example, is common across many university module guides. Why on earth would we want to assess students’ oral presentation skills without teaching them oral presentation skills first?

This post continues the theme of oracy development in HE by describing an intervention to help facilitate a group discussion on a taught MA course with multicultural participants.

An Oracy Intervention

The problem is likely to be a familiar one to many tutors and stemmed from my naïve assumption that post-graduate students would be able and willing to initiate and sustain a discussion with no tutor involvement. The discussion was to be based on students’ answers to a set of guided questions helping them to evaluate a research paper.  They were given two weeks’ preparation time to read and prepare their responses, knowing that a group discussion would follow. I had imagined that one person would volunteer to lead the discussion and every member of the foursome would contribute, explain, justify, challenge, and question appropriately (i.e. with regard to register and tone). 

The reality is this didn’t happen for all the reasons outlined in my previous post! The discussion didn’t get off the ground at all without my nominating a chair.  Even then, it was dominated by the most outspoken member of the group, whilst other members tried desperately not to make eye contact. Some contributions were inaudible and unintelligible. Others had value but grammar and choice of vocabulary interfered with meaning. In general, contributions tended to be limited, superficial in depth and unchallenged by other members.  In a nutshell, the students’ success criteria, which seemed to be based on how fast they could get through the list of questions (!), did not match mine at all.  We had completely different expectations as to what constituted a group discussion, let alone a successful one.

The intervention involved giving students roles, providing them with functional language and making time to evaluate the discussion afterwards with specific reference to indicators of successful intercultural communication.

a)    Giving students roles establishes expectations about what makes a good discussion, including the need for everyone to contribute for the success of the whole.  I chose to take a more inductive approach, getting students to surmise each person’s role and analyse its importance after the discussion. However, ground rules and roles can also be elicited and/or co-created before a group discussion.  In fact, giving students their roles a week before the discussion might result in better preparation and, in turn, a better discussion.  Roles can also vary according to the discussion task and/or students’ needs.  I chose here to include an intercultural communicator role to raise awareness of this important aspect of oracy in this multicultural setting.

b)   Providing functional language - it’s easy to see why this might be helpful to those students who speak English as a second language (L2). But, when it comes to being a competent intercultural communicator, students with English as a first language often also need some help, especially with regard to seeking clarification or rephrasing contributions or asking peers in an appropriate way to slow down or expand etc. Modelling the useful language and working on aspects of pronunciation, like intonation, might also be helpful, especially for L2 speakers.

c)    Making time for students to reflect on/evaluate the discussion afterwards is crucial to help them develop their metacognitive awareness, to reinforce the success criteria of group discussions in an HE context and to provide valuable feed forward for the next discussion.

Roles and useful language for group discussions

Screen Shot 2018-01-28 at 11.35.39.png

Reflecting on and Evaluating Group Discussion

Screen Shot 2018-01-28 at 11.34.46.png

Keep following this blog for more ideas on developing and assessing oracy in HE.  And, if you have any comments to make or ideas to share, please do!

Why teaching oracy is essential even at HE level

It’s easy to assume that adult students come to university with already developed oracy skills for collaborative learning. But, if you’ve ever meticulously set up a discussion task in groups and then watched it completely unravel in front of you, then you’ll know that this is not always the case, even at this level. What makes this educational setting different from many primary and secondary ones is that university students come from diverse educational, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds, all of which can contribute in interrelated ways to the failing of group discussions.

Why group discussions fail

University students may have different expectations of tutors and of lessons/lectures and group discussion may not fit in with their idea of learning.  Likewise, they may have had limited exposure to or experience of expressing opinions, negotiating, compromising or evaluating arguments (maybe because they’ve come from a banking model of education or are not used to forms of dialogic teaching). They may have different notions of what makes a good student or a good discussion, e.g. not questioning authority, avoiding any conflict or deferring to mature students or ‘native’ speakers. They may have never worked in multilingual and multicultural groups with different accents and varieties of English and may struggle understanding and making themselves understood.

Oracy in HE

Effective speaking and listening skills (i.e. oracy) should, therefore, not be taken for granted at university level. In this setting, a definition of oracy must encompass at least some of the skills, knowledge and attributes associated with intercultural communication competence, i.e. the ability to communicate effectively and appropriately with people from different cultures.

I’d argue that oracy defined in this way and in this setting is just as important, if not more important, for English students as it is for those who speak English as a second language (ESL). The reason for this is that ESL students usually have more experience communicating and, therefore, negotiating meaning, with other international students in English; in other words, they may well use or have used English as a lingua franca. In contrast, students coming from the English education system may have limited or no experience using English as an international language in order to communicate effectively with speakers of different languages.

Regardless of their levels of experience or expertise, explicitly teaching students the oracy skills required to operate accurately and appropriately within a specific subject area supported by international members, and using the academic discourse practices associated with this subject area, is, in my opinion, just good practice in terms of facilitating students’ academic and professional development.

How to develop oracy skills

My experience of and observation within the HE sector has led me to the conclusion that these two areas of research and practice - intercultural communication and oracy - are essential to good teaching and learning at this level.  In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that many lecturers could benefit from the excellent work currently happening in the field of oracy, as developed theoretically by the research of Neil Mercer and colleagues at Oracy Cambridge, and as implemented practically by Voice 21 and its associate school and partners. 

What becomes clear from this work is that the key principles of effective group discussions are the same regardless of the level of education. Productive group discussions require: a) knowledge of the ground-rules of a successful discussion (e.g. everyone participates, all contributions are valued, reasons are provided etc.); and b) sociolinguistic competence for contributing to a discussion, including the use of functional language (e.g. expressing opinions, agreeing/disagreeing, giving reasons etc.), and for maintaining a discussion or preventing it from breaking down (e.g. paraphrasing contributions or making requests to members to rephrase, explain or define). As mentioned earlier, in a university setting, where students come from different educational, cultural and linguistic backgrounds, shared expectations of a successful discussion and equivalent levels of sociolinguistic competence cannot and should not be assumed.

Thus, if we want to set up an effective group discussion at HE level, it would make sense, at the very least, to establish the ground-rules (ideally via co-creation) and to elicit, remind students to use or even provide useful language for expressing functions. Beyond this, I would say there are four more tasks worth tutor consideration: 1) having students prepare the content (i.e. do their critical reading and thinking) in advance; 2) assigning roles to students (e.g. the initiator, the facilitator, the clarifier etc. – see my next blog post for an example); 3) making sure there’s a clear, tangible outcome or product (e.g. students must reach a shared conclusion or produce a summary for other groups); 4) giving students a chance to assess their own contribution and the quality of their group’s discussion. The Oracy Framework could be adapted here for formative or summative assessment purposes.

Displaying vs Developing Oracy

Opportunities for students to display their oracy skills in HE already exist, largely due to assessment via oral presentations (either group or individual) or oral defenses (e.g. the viva).  But I would suggest that opportunities for oracy development are harder to find, as this requires time, planning, scaffolding, practice, and self, peer and tutor feedback based on valid frameworks. Ideally oracy, like academic writing development, will be embedded into the curriculum. Let’s hope that the Oracy Skills in HE Conference will ignite the flame that will see oracy given the attention it deserves.

** In my next blog post, I’ll provide an example of an intervention designed to develop MA students’ oracy and metacognitive awareness using the steps outlined above.

Taiwanese, Buddhist Nun, PhD student, educator, author, friend … the multiple identities of a truly inspirational woman

It’s not every day a Taiwanese Buddhist nun walks into your office and asks if she can study with you.  But this is exactly what happened to me six years ago.  Not only is she remarkable in every way, as you will read below, but she has this warm, calming quality about her that just makes you feel blessed to be in her presence.  I’ve chosen to feature her story on this blog to celebrate her and all the wonderful international students I’ve had the pleasure of teaching over the years. 

If you’ve ever been curious about mindfulness or about returning to education as a mature student or about studying in a second language or about doing a PhD, then read on.  This interview may just provide you with the inspiration you need to make a change in your life.


Returning to Education

What made you decide to return to education and pursue a Master’s degree in the UK?

Two reasons really. First, I really wanted to improve my English to a level that I can use the language really well across all four skills.  Secondly, I wanted to return to higher education to extend my knowledge and to see how it could help me increase my potential or create opportunities for me to impact positively on society and help me fulfill my dreams.


Did you have any initial concerns/worries returning as a mature student?

I had quite severe self-doubt and lack of confidence because it had been 10 years since I left school. 


And did any of these concerns materialize? If so, how did you overcome them?

Yes! I struggled so much with my first presentation. My lecturer encouraged us to talk instead of read from a script so I practised in front of the mirror over and over. But I remember very clearly that once I finished one slide and had to turn to another, my mind went completely blank. I couldn’t remember any content at all on the next slide. 

My essays were also difficult. I had no idea how to approach my first essay. And because the essay question was so open, that really made me feel like I didn’t know how to do it. I was used to a very specific and structured question and this openness made me feel intimidated.

But through tutor feedback, I gradually started to understand what was required and how knowledge was constructed and presented.

You know, looking back, I realise that we should never underestimate people’s potential.  Just look how far I’ve come since that first presentation. Now, I’ve given so many talks and at prestigious conferences and my last one was to an audience of around 60-70 people and it was received really well and everybody was engaged.  I spoke very confidently and even went off-script for about 50% of it. So really, I’ve improved a lot.  Now, I’m much more able to talk freely.  I feel amazed.  My presentations have undergone such a dramatic change.  And now when I see my audience and they understand me and they are engaged and ask me questions, I feel a great sense of achievement.



What is your PhD topic?

I’m exploring how mindfulness is perceived and practised in my Buddhist tradition, which is Chinese Chan Buddhism.


What sort of impact do you hope your completed thesis will have in the fields of education or religion or philosophy?

I truly believe that a lot of concepts or practice in relation to mindfulness in my tradition can be widely inspiring for many people in different fields. No matter where you come from or what your job is, we all need to deal with our manners, our minds, we all have the space to improve how we react to events, how we deal with certain phenomena and how we calm ourselves down.  After a busy day, we need to know how to recalibrate. And I think, or at least I’m hoping, my research can add some new insights or add more layers to our current understanding of mindfulness practice.


I wonder if you think that mindfulness can be useful to teachers, lecturers and students in everyday classrooms? And, if so, how can we build mindfulness into our lessons?

 Of course! First of all, I think we need a very clear target of what it is we want our students to improve.  Mindfulness is all about the quality of the mind. We believe that if we improve the quality of our minds – the concentration, the tranquility, the calmness and the clarity - we can have a real positive impact on students’ learning. 

So the first thing to do is to make it clear what our aim is and then we can design small tasks to address these aims. For example, one aim might be to boost students’ concentration or another aim might be to have students focus on their breathing in order to detach from unnecessary noises in their minds. 

Currently, I run a seminar on campus and at the start of each seminar I get students to stand up and do some tai chi. By getting them to pay attention to their breathing and focus on different movements, this shifts their attention to another level and helps them understand themselves.

Our minds are always active; by stopping this activity and increasing our level of awareness and knowing what we are doing, this is the beginning of disconnecting ourselves, temporarily, from threads of thought that consume our energy and are not really meaningful or constructive.


The learning process

A PhD is a journey. There are ups and downs and periods of self-doubt and isolation.  I wonder what you’ve learned about yourself going on this kind of journey?

I really appreciate PhD study because it not only helps me enhance my analytical, cognitive and academic skills, but it also helps me understand my limitations and shortcomings and also my emotional patterns. You know, when you encounter difficulties, you start to see how you react. Do you react by solving problems constructively or do you self-pity or do you procrastinate? It’s like good practice, monitoring how you deal with issues.  I understand myself more through this journey. It’s a little bit like a meditation retreat in a way. You constantly try to challenge the boundaries in your mind, your limitations, and you try to push yourself beyond these things.


I know that you’ve also experienced some personal tragedy, sadly, on two occasions, whilst you’ve been studying here in the UK.  I wonder if you might be able to tell us how you managed to cope with these events and to re-focus on your studies?

I think it’s down to your perception. It’s interesting you call them ‘tragedies.’ I don’t perceive them as tragedies. I perceive them as phenomena and they are expected phenomena. Death is natural and everybody will encounter it. It’s also down to my training in the past. I know that it is something inescapable; it’s just a matter of time. It’s just a natural phenomenon. When you change your perception, you don’t define it as tragedy. It’s just an event you need to deal with. Then you need to ask yourself how you can learn most from this phenomenon and how you can do your best in helping yourself and in helping others experience this event in a beautiful way.


The reason I wanted to talk to you is because you’re probably the best learner I’ve ever encountered.  You take every opportunity to learn in every aspect of your life and you’re always looking for opportunities to better yourself.  Is that fair to say?

I feel like everything in your life is a reflection of yourself; it’s a mirror for you to learn more about yourself. I just try to see everything as an opportunity to understand who I am and how I can be a better person. For me everything has meaning and value.  I want to know who I am, the meaning of being here, how to be a better person and how to benefit others.


Advice for students and lecturers

What advice would you give other international students considering post-graduate study in the UK?

I think the best advice I would give is for everyone to recognize his or her own uniqueness.  Just because you come from a different cultural or linguistic background, it doesn’t mean you are inferior. Everyone has a valuable contribution to make.  Together we can bring together our knowledge and experiences, learn from each other and contribute to a body of knowledge or even create new knowledge, new strategies and new solutions.


And finally, what advice would you give to lecturers and supervisors re: teaching/supervising learners with diverse cultural, educational and linguistic backgrounds?

I think one fundamental thing is not forgetting that ultimately we are teaching human beings.  Genuine interaction between human beings is what is important. Seeing students not as customers but as human beings with emotions, life experiences, families, dreams, etc.  Each person is dynamic and constantly evolving. It’s about seeing a person holistically. They are more than a grade or an English score.  If we can remember this and engage in genuine interaction -  one person to another person - then hopefully we can create a better quality of education.

Ya Chu Lee is a PhD candidate in Religious Studies at Lancaster University (

How to plan and deliver your first presentation

Oral presentations (given either individually or in groups) are a common form of assessment at British universities. If you're not used to them (and even if you are!), they can be a nerve-wracking experience.  Here is some simple yet effective advice to guide you through the process. Remember - the more you do the easier they become, so practise and repeat!


  • Plan the content of your talk carefully keeping in mind your audience (e.g. if your audience is not familiar with key/technical vocabulary you will need to explain it).
  • Think about the structure of your talk.  Make sure it has a clear introduction, a main body and a conclusion. Try to think of a way to grab the audience’s attention when you start and a way to keep them thinking about your content after you’ve finished (e.g. a rhetorical question or image to start and maybe a different question or piece of advice or warning to end).
  • Make your talk easy to understand and use visual aids effectively (i.e. use bullet points of main ideas only, or use simple diagrams, graphs, pictures to illustrate key points).
  • Make your talk interesting, e.g. use humour, anecdotes, metaphors, repetition, tripling, etc., as appropriate.
  • Don’t write down your talk word for word.  Use small cards with key words and phrases to help you remember.  Number the cards so that if you drop them you don’t ruin your talk.
  • Practise giving your talk in advance.  Stand in front of a mirror or video record yourself.  Notice your posture, facial expressions, gestures, pace, pausing, intonation etc.
  • Time your talk.



  • Don’t panic! If you’ve done your preparation well, you will know more about the topic than anyone else in the room.  This should give you confidence.
  • Stand tall, feet about shoulder width apart (or less), and where you can be seen by everyone. Try not to fidget.  Check you’re not blocking your visual aids.
  • Your talk should be SAID not READ. Talk around the bullet points on your visual aids, giving more details, examples and explanation.
  • Maintain eye contact with your audience. Naturally shift your gaze from one person to another around the room.
  • Try to avoid fillers (e.g. umm, ahhh, like, etc.) and overly long pauses (unless used purposely for dramatic effect).
  • Pitch your voice to the people at the back of the room and don’t talk too quickly. If you hear yourself speeding up, make a conscious effort to slow down.
  • Look as though you are enjoying what you’re doing.  Enjoyment is like measles; it’s infectious!
  • If you get nervous, a couple of deep breaths and a smile will help.  If you’ve brought a bottle of water, take a sip.
  • At the end of your presentation, ask if anyone has any questions.  Allow the audience a couple of minutes to think of some.


Fielding Questions

  • When answering questions, look at the questioner as s/he speaks, but address your response to the whole room.  Look at the questioner roughly 25% of the time; the other 75% look at the other audience members.
  • Don’t engage in a battle.  If one person tries to monopolise the questioning, give your view briefly, then thank the person and say: ‘That’s an interesting point. I wonder if anyone else would like to comment?’
  • If you’re not sure how to answer or if you’re running out of time, you can say, ‘I haven’t considered that fully. Maybe we can talk about that later, one-to-one.’


Ten tips for sustaining verb tenses in writing

Not too long ago I had an opportunity to respond to a request on the NALDIC EAL-Bilingual email list with regard to the above, i.e. how to help EAL learners sustain tenses in their writing.  Here, I've written up my response in full. I hope EAL teachers find it useful. Please let me know! 

Obviously I don’t have a clear picture of the lesson aims/teaching contexts and age groups, but here are my thoughts.

What is your aim?

First, I think I’d ask the teachers what the aim of their lesson was. If it’s to write an interesting/creative story, then tenses wouldn’t really matter, provided meaning was communicated.  If the aim, however, was to raise awareness of or produce accurate forms of a variety of tenses/aspect, then, yes, accuracy across the writing would be important.  And, linking to this aim is the marking of such work. Again, marking and feedback (in the latter case) would need to focus only on accurate use of tenses/aspect rather than other grammatical structures or content.  So, what I’m saying is that if sustaining verb tenses in writing is the issue, this needs to be addressed in the aim of the lesson and the marking of the writing.  But, I’m sure teachers already know this ... ideas … off the top of my head, I’d say the following:

The work really needs to be done at the planning (pre-writing) and editing (post-content creation) stages of the lesson. During the actual writing, learners need space to get ideas down on paper - content over form - as it’s too cognitively challenging trying to focus on both.  

At the planning stage, here are some ideas for raising awareness:

  1. Cut up and re-order similar texts, asking learners how they figured out how to put it back together with a specific focus on tenses and their connection with other linguistic devices, e.g. adverbs of time.
  2. Talk about tenses with regard to the particular genre (e.g. story telling/narration) - pick out common tenses/aspect - past simple for completed actions in past, present perfect for bringing past together with present (e.g. when past has an impact on present), past perfect (when one action happens before another - both in the past), past continuous for temporary states in the past etc.
  3. Dictogloss - read a short text that is abundant in the tenses you want to focus on. Get students to listen first, only for content (gist).  For the second listening, get them to number a piece of paper with the number of sentences in your short text. Read each one aloud at normal speed and get students to write down what they can (e.g. key words). Read only once. When finished, get students to work together (pairs or threes) to reconstruct the entire text.  Tell them they should discuss which versions might be better and why.   When feeding back, take ideas from all groups, discuss why some might be better options than others (again, in terms of tenses). Compare with the original. Continue sentence by sentence, highlighting tenses/aspect and doing some language work here in preparation for their own writing.
  4. Use graphic organisers for planning purposes - sequencing charts, for example, or timelines.  Give students time to plan.
  5. Talk about how learners indicate past, present, future in their own languages (e.g. through context or through adverbs of time etc). Compare other languages with English.

All of the above can be supported with timelines (i.e. visual representations of tenses) and with carefully planned questioning for scaffolding purposes.

At the editing stage, here are some ideas for noticing and correcting:

  1. Get learners to read their work aloud. Often we don’t notice mistakes in writing but we do when listening.  They can do this individually or in pairs.
  2. Peer editing - get learners to ask each other concept-checking questions, e.g. (Did this event happen in the past? Is it finished? Was it temporary? Did this action happen before this one? etc. Again, supported by timelines and grammar rules/books - referring back to/connecting with the raising awareness activities you did at the planning stage.)
  3. Whole class feedback - take a learner’s text (anonymous - one from a previous year even) and analyse tenses throughout asking the types of questions above.
  4. Tense Detectives’ - this is a slightly different take on School 21’s ‘Talk Detectives’ (used for checking that learners are using agreed discussion guidelines).  Nominate 2 or 3 students whose job it is to sample some of the work looking specifically at accurate use/continuity of tenses in their peers’ work and feed back to the class good examples, possible problems, questions etc.  
  5. Reformulation - rewrite a learner’s text and get learners to compare your version to the original, noticing and discussing different forms (e.g. tenses) throughout.

Feed Forward

Then, after editing, give learners an opportunity to make changes/re-write and implement feedback. Make sure learners refer to feedback on previous work before embarking on a new piece (e.g. feed forward).

I'd love to hear how you may have adopted or adapted some of these ideas and the extent to which they worked in your context, so do leave a comment.


Activating Prior Knowledge

Here is the short presentation I gave at the ELT Well Open day on 30 September for those who missed it.  It gives a variety of different ways teachers can activate prior knowledge at the pre-reading / pre-listening stage of a lesson.  If you have questions or if you would like further advice or to book a workshop, please get in touch.

ELT Well Open Day and taster sessions

In celebration of the opening of the new ELT well premises in Morecambe, Anne Margaret and colleagues (including myself) are offering a range of mini sessions aimed at supporting teachers support their learners. Please come along and discover what we can offer you, your school and your learners. I look forward to seeing you there!



Why are there not more ESL/EFL teachers working in schools? A case for collaborative professional development

Good Practice in Teaching

Years ago I was sitting in an informal training session with fellow English as a Second/Foreign Language (ESL/EFL) teachers listening to a talk on ways to support dyslexic students.  I remember thinking to myself at that time the talk should be retitled ‘Good Practice in Teaching’, for the strategies the trainer was suggesting were ones from which all students would benefit. For example, I remember her telling us that we need to make sure that we state clearly the aims of our lesson at the start, put key terminology on the board and check students’ understanding of it; and recap main points at regular intervals. 

Fifteen years on, and several dyslexia training courses later, I not only remain convinced that all students would benefit from teachers being trained in techniques to support students with specific learning differences (SpLDs), but also that language teachers, and ESL teachers in particular, have much to offer teachers across the curriculum in terms of classroom support strategies.


ESL teachers supporting classroom teaching

The reasons for this are multiple. First, ESL teachers are trained to use techniques that support meaning when understanding may be limited by linguistic and/or cultural knowledge. This means that we support what we say in the classroom with visual aids, gestures and also written instructions. We’ve also been trained to avoid asking ‘do you understand?’ in favour of concept checking questions like ‘when is the essay due? And how many words do you have to write?’ We tend to use demonstrations (e.g. two students showing the class what is required to carry out a task) and models of finished products (e.g. an essay) so that students can see clearly what is expected. 

Second, we are very conscious of the need to facilitate students’ processing. We monitor our own language very carefully, editing out, when required, slang, idioms, colloquialism, jokes and obscure cultural references. We aim to speak more slowly and clearly at times, we paraphrase, and we reformulate others’ contributions.  We understand the importance of silence; it gives students time to process information and a chance to formulate a response in a second language. We use techniques like think-pair-share or check your understanding with a partner (even in their first language) and give opportunities for students to clarify requests.

Third, we know not to introduce too many new words or grammatical items in one lesson, thus overloading students’ working memories. We also value repetition and recycling, particularly for vocabulary learning. Likewise, we break down our instructions into manageable chunks, giving information only when it is needed, one step at a time. And, again, these oral instructions are normally reinforced in multiple ways via demonstrations and written support.

Fourth, we teach skills – reading, writing, listening, speaking, organization, study, exam, proofreading, editing etc.  Skills teaching and learning is normally embedded into each and every language lesson, but it’s normal for entire courses (e.g. English for Academic Purposes (EAP)) to focus on just one skill, e.g. reading for university, in which we teach strategies like SQ3R (Survey, Question, Read, Respond, Review), again, useful for all students, not just ESL and dyslexic ones. In a similar vein, we teach note-taking and note-making skills, using abbreviations, symbols and mind-maps, equally purposeful for supporting dyslexic students’ auditory skills.

Finally, we emphasize the importance of metacognition (i.e. thinking about learning), asking students to think about how they’ve successfully approached skills-based tasks or grammar/vocabulary learning in the past and getting them to apply their knowledge and strategies to similar tasks and, ideally, sharing strategies with peers.

This list is by no means exhaustive and I have no doubt that SpLD specialists and ESL teachers have a lot to learn from each other. In fact, ESL teachers could also be of great benefit to schools supporting EAL learners (for all of the same arguments presented above and many more, not least of which is our second language acquisition knowledge), but this is probably just stating the obvious.  And don’t even get me started on oracy … I’m saving that for another post!

For so long now, though, school teachers and ESL teachers have inhabited their own worlds, drawing on the same educational theories but applying these in different contexts. But I’d argue that our worlds are becoming less distinct as our learners’ profiles change. We are both teaching more and more learners with diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds and who may also have more complex needs, including SpLDs. And as we are each constrained by limited funding, wouldn’t it make sense to pool our resources and engage in some collaborative professional development?


Collaboration is key

A good starting point for collaboration is asking in-school language teachers to offer input at training days on the type of language teaching strategies and techniques mentioned above. Sharing good practice at TeachMeets and Pedagoos would also be valuable, so too would inviting ESL specialists into schools to run workshops, ideally working alongside SpLD specialists.

And, then, of course, there is the insight that can be gained from consulting one of the rare specialists who span both spheres (SpLDs and ESL).  Colleagues like Dr Anne Margaret Smith at ELT Well offer a wealth of knowledge and also materials to support teachers in schools in identifying and teaching EAL learners with SpLDs. 

As our learners change, so must we. Recognising that we have a lot to learn from each other and engaging in collaborative professional development can only be viewed as steps in the right direction.

A comprehensive editing checklist

For those of you currently working on dissertations or theses, here's an editing checklist that you can use to in your final stages, before you send off your work to be proofread or printed.

Although it's comprehensive in nature, it's not tailor-made for you. In other words, you need to be self-aware and read your own work for the types of errors you tend to make.  

Remember also that if you're going to employ a proofreader, you need to do this in plenty of time, working back from the submission deadline and leaving enough time for the proofreader to read and for you to make the necessary changes.

Make sure you vet the proofreader properly, ideally getting a recommendation from your Department. A reputable proofreader will NOT rewrite your work for you; instead, they may do any or all of the following: ask you to clarify parts they don't understand; draw your attention to any redundancy, repetition and wordiness; suggest alternative methods of organisation or alternative vocabulary to improve structure and coherence; point out errors in grammar, spelling, punctuation, academic style or in use of academic conventions; and offer partial reformulations to improve sentence structure and coherence.  

Good proofreaders will use software like Track Changes in Word so that you can see clearly your original piece of work and the suggested changes.  When your work is returned to you, there will be a considerable amount of your own rewriting that you will have to do, so, again, make sure you plan for this and build it in to your own dissertation/thesis timeline.

With all that in mind, we hope you find the editing checklist below useful to you. Remember, if you need any help with your work, do get in touch. If you are a postgraduate student, we offer a principled proofreading service, designed to support you in developing your academic writing skills.  If you are an academic, aiming to publish a journal article, we are experienced article writers ourselves and can offer editing, proofreading and advice on approaching/responding to peer review comments. 

The Editing Checklist


  • Is all information relevant to the essay title/question?
  • Has sufficient space (or words) been given to the most important points?
  • Is the main line of argument clear throughout the entire essay?


Structure and Organization

Overall Structure:

  • Is the structure of the essay appropriate for the title/question?
  • Does the essay address all parts of the title/question?


  • Does the introduction set the context and provide enough background information for the reader?
  • Does the introduction include a thesis statement (i.e. a statement that tells the reader the purpose of the essay and possibly your position)?
  • Does the introduction include a map of the paper (i.e. does it tell the reader what to expect in the rest of the paper, usually using language like: In this essay I will firstly/first of all describe/define/discuss/examine/analyse… and then …’ or ‘This essay will first of all… and then…)

Main Body:

  • Does each paragraph begin with a clear topic sentence, indicating the (one) main idea of the paragraph?
  • Are paragraphs well developed with enough support/evidence for the main idea? (note: paragraphs that are only 2 to 3 sentences in length are usually under-developed)
  • Are connections between ideas within the paragraph made explicit to the reader (i.e. are there cohesive devices like ‘also’, ‘for example’, ‘furthermore’, ‘whereas’, ‘first’, ‘finally’, etc?)


If support in the form of paraphrases and quotations is used:

  • Have they been chosen carefully and do they indeed support/illustrate the point you want to make?
  • Has the significance/implication of the paraphrase/quote to the main argument/thesis/topic been made explicit (usually using language like: ‘Thus it can be seen that…’ / ‘It is clear, therefore, that …’ )
  • Is it clear how each paragraph links to the one before and to the one that comes after and to the essay title/question?



  • Does the conclusion summarise the key points made in the paper?
  • Does it leave the reader with some food for thought (e.g. a warning, a recommendation, an indication that further research/investigation needs to be done, etc.)?


Quotations, Paraphrases and References

Direct quotations:

  • Are they referenced accurately (with author’s last name, year of publication and page number for the Harvard Referencing system e.g. (Jones, 2010, p. 33))?  For other referencing systems, please check your Departmental handbook.
  • Are quotation marks used (‘….’)?
  • Are they introduced appropriately (e.g. As Jones (2010, p. 33) states/writes/observes/claims/points out, … or According to Jones (2010, p. 33), …)
  • Are they used sparingly (ie. only when the point being made is done so brilliantly or poignantly by the original author and only when you couldn’t have said it better yourself)?


  • Are they referenced accurately (with the author’s last name + year of publication)?
  • Are they appropriate (i.e. not too close to the original but still capture the meaning of the original)?
  • Are they introduced appropriately (e.g. In Jones’s (2010) opinion, … / Jones (2010) reports that … / As Jones (2010) points out… )?

End-of-text References:

  • Are all sources cited in the body of the text listed here in alphabetical order?
  • Are they accurate (according to your Department’s guidelines)?


Style, Clarity, Grammar and Punctuation

Style and clarity:

  • Is the essay appropriately academic in terms of style (i.e. no informal language, slang, colloquialisms or contracted forms (e.g. don’t/isn’t)?
  • Are statements tentative rather than dogmatic (e.g. It would seem that …/ It may/could be that…/perhaps/possibly…/One possibility might be … etc)?
  • Are the words used your own (apart from quotations) and are your own ideas/opinions made clear to the reader?  In other words, does your own voice come through?
  • Are sentences of reasonable length (not too long; not too short) and not overly complicated?
  • Is the text repetitive? (it shouldn’t be!)
  • Can the essay be read aloud easily? (it should be!)

Grammar and punctuation:

Are the following accurate?:

  • Articles (e.g. the UK, the financial crisis)
  • Subject-verb agreement (e.g. The financial crisis has (not have wide-ranging repercussions.)
  • Verb forms (e.g. the government has been trying to … (not the government has been try to …); This could damage … (not this could to damage …)
  • Verb tense (e.g. In 2010, the government announced new measures…(not In 2010, the government have announced…)
  • Prepositions (e.g. Big banks were interested in … (not: big banks were interested at …)
  • Parts of speech (e.g. This was a destructive measure (not: this was a destruction measure)
  • Sentence connectors (e.g. The big banks acted irresponsibly. However, it was the average family that suffered. (not: The big banks acted irresponsibly, however, it was the average family that suffered.)
  • Full stops separating sentences = a subject + main verb (e.g. The full impact of the crisis has yet to be determined. We will be feeling the effects for years to come. (not: The full impact of the crisis has yet to be determined, we will be feeling the effects for years to come.)

**Finally, check for spelling mistakes and typos.










Essay Essentials: Part 3

Language and Academic Style

This is our last post in a series of the essentials of essay writing and here we focus on language and academic style.  If you're new to producing academic essays in English, then it's a very good idea to ask your Department to let you read some former students' essays, and, of course, you'll want to read journal articles as well so that you can get a good feel for the structure and the language used.  We've dealt with the structure and academic conventions (like citing, paraphrasing and referencing) in our last posts, but now we'd like to turn our attention to the language used.  It's likely that you've noticed that the language used in academic writing is very different from the language you see and hear around you every day.  That's because the academic essay is characterised by a number of stylistic and linguistic features that set it apart as a specific genre.  It's safe to say that academic writing should:


1. Be formal

This means that, generally speaking, you should: avoid contracted forms (e.g. instead of can't use cannot; instead of don't use do not); avoid slang and colloquialisms (e.g. instead of kids use children; instead of lots use a lot or many); avoid abbreviations (e.g. instead of e.g. use for example); write in complete sentences (e.g. bullet points and note form are not normally used and neither is anything else that gives the impression of an incomplete thought, e.g  putting etc at the end of your sentence.); write full forms the first time followed by acronym in brackets and then acronym alone thereafter (e.g. the United Nations (UN) and then the UN throughout thereafter); and avoid overusing the pronoun 'I' (make sure to ask your Department about using the first person in your academic essays; they may have strong views one way or the other). 


2. Be tentative rather than dogmatic

Tentative statements are ones that show your reader you know nothing is 100% certain. Knowledge is fluid and contestable and your statements should reflect this.  So, instead of writing something like 'all international students have difficulty paraphrasing', you might write 'depending on the linguistic and educational backgrounds of international students, some may experience difficulty with paraphrasing.' Other useful phrases are: It would seem that.../It may/could be that.../perhaps/possibly .../One possibility might be.../The evidence suggests that ... 


3. Be evidence-based

Academic writing draws on and evaluates other sources of information and evidence.  You'll know this if you've seen the long list of references at the end of an essay or journal article.  Most writers read widely and use their reading to support the ideas they want to develop in their writing.  If you make a claim, you'll need to justify it (say why you believe this to be the case) and then provide the evidence to convince your writer of the validity of your claim.  Overly personal and/or emotive accounts are not normally valued in academic writing. 


4. Be explicit

In English, the onus is on the writer to give reasons and/or explanations and/or examples for ideas presented and to show clearly, through the language used, how ideas relate and connect to each other. The reader should never have to read between the lines or infer your meaning.  You can use language like: One/Another reason for this is.../As a result/thus/therefore ... /In other words .../In addition/Moreover .../ For example...


5. Be sufficiently (not overly!) complex in terms of argument and language

Academic writing is characterised by a degree of complexity, both in terms of the arguments presented and the language used.  With regard to arguments, generally speaking you'll need to show your reader that you've considered the other side (the counter-argument) and convince your reader why your argument is just as good or better. With regard to language, you'll need to vary your sentence structure (use simple, compound and complex sentences), use a wide range of vocabulary and probably use more noun forms than verb forms (e.g. The major effects of the globalisation of the economy are ...).


6. Be accurate

Accuracy is important not just in terms of the language you use, but also in terms of representing and reporting other people's ideas/work.  First, with regard to language, it's important to edit and proofread your work.  If you are aware of the types of mistakes you make in writing, read your work specifically for these mistakes and ask a friend to do the same.  One useful technique for proofreading (so that content doesn't interfere) is to start at the end of your essay and read back to the beginning sentence by sentence.  Reading your essay aloud can also alert you to mistakes you didn't pick up when reading silently.  Second, with regard to reporting other's ideas/work, you need to make sure you not only do this accurately (e.g. correct citations and references and accurate representations of others' ideas), but also faithfully (e.g. always acknowledge where your information/ideas come from). 


7. Be gender neutral

All sexist language, stereotypes and cliches should be avoided.  Referring specifically to authors is done via surnames only and referring to 3rd person should be via she/he or he/she or s/he or they.  


It's a good idea to check your own work against the list above.  If you have any questions or concerns or would like us to look at your work, then do please get in touch.  Our next post brings together all our Essay Essentials advice in a comprehensive editing checklist, so make sure to look out for this useful tool.