Save time! Do Student Needs Analysis Online

September 9, 2009

If you are a reader of blogs by any of the more tech savvy teacher-bloggers such as Nik Peachy, then what I’m about to write may not seem that impressive. I don’t claim to be the first to use this web tool for this purpose either. That said, it’s still pretty cool and I think it’s well worth sharing.

Some background
With a new Trinity ISE prep course about to kick off at the end of the week, in an effort to save valuable class time (and prep time), I decided to use Polldaddy – the online polling and survey tool – to conduct a pre-course needs analysis (rather than using up the first hour of the first session of the course doing a paper-based one).
This was my first time using Polldaddy for anything (yes, believe it or not, my son’s name was chosen by my wife and I after I saw him in the hospital for the first time and not by asking blog visitors to choose their favourite from a shortlist of 5 or 6 possible names!) and so I wasn’t sure how it was going to work out.

Making it happen
As it happens, it worked out very well. Let me take you through it step by step.

After registering (ah yes, you do have to register first) with Polldaddy, the first stage, writing the survey, was a breeze. It’s a case of simply dragging and dropping question types into your survey (there are plenty of options including multiple choice, matrix grids and open questions, for example). I then added in question and response text as appropriate (exactly as it is on my paper-based version of the survey). Polldaddy also lets you insert links to websites and files if you so wish. The only down side here is that free account restricts you to 10 questions.

Once I’d written and saved the survey, I copied the link which Polldaddy generated and pasted it into an email which I then sent to all the course participants. When they click the link the survey opens (no need to download anything) and they see something like this:

Possibly the best thing is the way the results are presented. Responses to closed questions are presented in graphs and so I can instantly see for example, how many people can do an hour or more of homework each week, what percentages of participants are happy doing pairwork etc. Take a look:Polldaddy_Homework_hours_image

In addition to the quantitative information, I can quickly browse through qualitative data from open questions:

Happy, happy
What can I say – a great tool which is easy to use and has saved me some serious time. So good in fact that I’m going to use it to carry out in-course self-assessment surveys and a post-course student satisfaction survey.

Try it!

Looking for cohesive devices?

August 17, 2009

Apparently, according to my blog stats, a lot of people have found their way here as a result of searching the terms cohesion and cohesive devices. Well, those people must have been utterly disappointed to find only a passing reference to cohesion in a post about using songs in the classroom. I do apologise – as a fellow teacher, I’ve spent hours painstakingly rummaging through websites in search of exercises, articles, pictures etc. to use in class. Are my tags misleading? Do you feel like I’ve been wasting your time? I’m sorry.

In order make amends I have uploaded a couple of worksheets on cohesion. This one focuses on lexical cohesion. It’s based on two newspaper articles about food in New York and Mexico City.
The other focuses on grammatical cohesion – ellipsis to be precise – and is based on a recent David Letterman interview with Johnny Depp. You can watch the interview here:

Both are fairly challenging and are aimed at learners at B2 (CEFR) level learners and above. There’s also a collaborative writing activity on car safety which works on cohesion on my materials page. More exercises on cohesion to follow.

For authentic listening material, just Ask!

August 6, 2009

In a recent discussion with a group of Mexican teachers about the importance of using authentic listening texts in class, I was surprised to hear someone say that finding such material is difficult.

Surprised because it seems to me that never before has it been easier for teachers to expose learners to real language in the classroom. The availability of so many free web-based audio and video streaming, recording and editing tools combined with the popularity of all kinds of different reality TV shows means that we can easily get our hands on messy, idiomatic, ungrammatical real language or samples of different world Englishes.

“Old hat!”, I hear you say
Now, obviously I am by no means the first to write about using reality TV in classroom. Here’s an excellent article from the the Internet TESL Journal, for example. Meanwhile, Gary Denness, author of the excellent Mexile blog, was actually on Big Brother talking about teaching with Big Brother.

What I wish to bring to the attention of teachers here in Mexico and beyond, however, is this:

Jing screen shot of Ask & Record Tool Bar

Jing screen shot of Ask & Record Tool Bar

The Ask and Record tool bar. It’s great! It allows you to record live any audio that is playing from your computer.

Yeah, and..?
You may be wondering what the point is – after all, you could just play the Youtube or Dailymotion video in the classroom, right? Well, what I love about this is that you can record just the segment or snippet of the video that you want to focus on. I mean, sometimes you don’t want students to watch the whole video; perhaps only a few turns of a conversation are really of interest; perhaps students will be distracted by the visual information when you really want to work on their listening skills; perhaps there’s no internet in the classroom; perhaps you only have access to a CD player…Whatever, this is a very cool tool for teachers. You can download it here.

Over egg it, why don’t you?
Unfortunately, you may have to sit through hours of mindnumbing, crap telly in order to find something you can actually use in class. But do not fear, help is at hand – I set up a Posterous page with some snippets of real English so that you can see what I mean. Please take a look here. Feel free to use it and contribute.

The Reading Process Riddle

July 31, 2009

Yesterday, my wonderful and beautiful wife (who, incidentally, is also an amazing photographer) forwarded me an email containing the old “Count the number of F’s” brainteaser. Of course, I didn’t fall for the puzzle this time, owing to the fact that I had done it before. However, it occurred to me that the puzzle does a great job illustrating a couple of important points for language teachers about the reading process.

The Puzzle
But, before we get on to the boring teacher stuff, here’s the puzzle, in case you haven’t done it before:

Quickly count the F’s n the next text – how many are there?


Most people only count 3, failing to count the F’s in the 3 Of’s. There are actually 6 F’s (I think!).

For Language Teachers

Now, 3 reasons why I deem this to be worth blogging about:

1. It shows that when fluent readers read, they don’t process texts letter by letter, word by word – rather they take in all the letters simultaneously, recognising all the letters in the word at once. Furthermore, research suggests that we recognise related pairs of words more quickly than unrelated pairs or words.

2. It demonstrates that fluent readers don’t process all of the words in a text – according to studies, we process fewer than half of the function words (words such as of, the, and to which don’t contain lexical meaning) in a text and around 80% of the content words.

3. More generally, it highlights the inadequacy of bottom-up approaches (on their own) for explaining the reading process and provides support for the view that reading more is likely characterised by the continuous interaction between top-down and bottom-up processing skills.

As Celce-Murcia and Olshtain (2000) point out:

“Good and effective reading must…be viewed as combining both rapid and accurate recognition and decoding of letters, words, collocations, and other structural cues with sensible, global predictions related to the text as a whole”

There are obvious implications here for work that we do with written texts in the classroom.

Now, what about the one about the colour and the tool?

Teacher Development Through Songs

July 27, 2009

After apparently looking at some of the song-based activities on my materials page, a teacher that is currently taking a language awareness course with us asked me an interesting question – “How do you decide on the kinds of activities to do with a song other than filling the gaps?”

It was a question that got me thinking and then made me realise that perhaps I don’t always have learners’ needs or interests at heart when I’m planning classes!

Or, to put it another way, I have selfishly exploited songs in order to further my own teacher development without a care for the needs or interests of my learners!

Anyway, in response to the teacher’s question, after thinking for a few seconds, I made a rather bold statement: “You can do anything with a song!”

Such a statement needs to be qualified, so here goes…

Filling in the gaps
Now, as good EFL practitioner, supposedly well-read on contemporary methodology, I should stress the importance of basing decisions about content on learner needs – and that of course holds true for songs that we choose to use in class and types of task that we plan and design use with them. In an ideal world we should ask ourselves what our students are going to get out of doing these tasks with this song and how is it going to help them.

But, how many teachers working in EFL/ESL live in an ideal world?

So…first of all, let it be said that there is nothing inherently wrong with simply filling in the gaps and talking about the lyrics. That is perfectly acceptable – particularly if the song has been requested by students because they like it. Indeed, by letting students choose a song to do in class you will be making your classes more learner-centred and David Nunan will be very happy. It also gets you dogma brownie points. Filling in the gaps is okay too when the song is being used as a bit of light relief…a change from the monotony of the coursebook (the it’s Friday afternoon, let’s do a song syndrome).

Second, the lyrics of some songs naturally lend themselves to work on particular grammatical structures –I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For by U2 and Should I Stay of Should I Go by the Clash come to mind as obvious examples. Meanwhile Where The Wild Roses Grow by Nick Cave and Kylie is great for focusing on cohesive devices (although, when I did that one, a couple of my students complained to the school’s owner about the song being too depressing and I was told that I could only use songs suggested by students from then on and after being coerced into doing a class on a Savage Garden song, I stopped using songs until I changed jobs).

It’s all about me, me, me!
But for me, regardless of learner needs or interests, or indeed syllabus content, using songs has been just another way to put what methodology stuff that I’ve read into practice – a means of self-directed teacher development.

Here’s a specific example – after reading Mario Rinvolucri’s More Grammar Games I was really keen to try out some of cognitive activities inspired by Caleb Gattegno (yes, those Silent Way activities that were dismissed as pure hippy nonsense on my CertTESOL course). So what did I do? I downloaded the lyrics of The Importance of Being Idle, which at that time was one of the most played tracks on my iTunes and got to work and set about eliminating the final two words of each line of the first verse and removing the gaps between words in the chorus. The results of that particular endeavour can be found on the teaching materials page on this blog.

A similar thing happened when it occurred to me one day that I had been shamelessly neglecting to do work on diphthongs with my Mexican learners and that it was probably because I didn’t feel confident enough with my knowledge of phonology to do it. So, I chose a song that I liked, identified words in the lyrics that contained diphthongs that I perceived to be problematic for my students and before you could say tlacoquemecatl, I had a lesson ready to go.

Not very student-centred but a great way for me to a) provide some light relief and b) try out something new.

Most songs contain, to varying degrees, a variety of grammatical structures, collocations, slang, idioms, cohesive devices and most if not all English phonemes so I stand by my original assertion – you can do anything with a song!

It’s not just about the grammar!

July 17, 2009

David Nunan thinks so…Scott Thornbury too, oh, and let’s not forget Michael Lewis. Indeed, just about every contemporary ELT theorist / writer out there stresses (and has stressed for the last 30 years!) that becoming competent in a second language is more than just about learning grammar. Unfortunately the ones who really need to understand this point, our students, are the ones who need the most convincing. Over the years, on countless occasions, students have demanded more grammar in class, begged for an explanation of the rules and uses of rare tenses and antiquated forms, and, perhaps most amusingly, demanded that less time be spent having fun and that we do more exercises from Murphy and Azar. And we’ve all heard teachers being criticised for not know all the grammar rules!

Anyway, those students clearly haven’t spent enough time watching Jackie Chan who, on a recent appearance on Graham Norton’s show, was able to tell an absolutely hilarious story despite making more grammatical errors than I can possibly count. Let the video load and then watch from 5.30 for the bit that I’m talking about.

It just goes to show that communicative competence is just that…the ability to communicate!

Free English Courses

July 15, 2009

I came across a blog post today of 20 Free English Language and Literature Courses. Click here.

Now, in my honest opinion, most of the general courses seem a bit too grammar focused (see my comment above for more on that) but you may find something useful to help practice. Furthermore, the pronunciation link doesn’t work while the listening files on the American English Audio Course were, in fact, inaudible – it sounds like an American woman is talking to a washing machine.

Anyway, here are 2 (of the 20) that I think are worth checking out if you want to improve your grammar:

Grammar Workshop This is from so it’s a safe site. You register and they send you grammar practice materials each week. Grammar exercises for intermediate and advanced level students here.

Here something that I posted ages ago on another website for students about practising English for free:

There are literally thousands of websites for learners of English. Here is a short list of ones that we like:

Word Power is a website that describes itself as “a free survival guide for all who would like to perfect their spoken English language.” In the Business Word Power and you will find definitions, recordings and exercises with which you can practise business vocabulary. Many of the themes such as meetings, telephoning and socialising relate to work we do in class. And, there is also a section on football vocabulary!

Yappr – A free website which helps you learn English through videos. Highly recommended!

The British Council’s website:

And this is what the BBC has to offer:

Is this the future? Practise your English online with a native speaker for free! (after you’ve downloaded Skype):

Would you believe it? Free books online:

The Business podcast, from Macmillan, is a monthly interview focusing on working life in the UK. The Podcast offers authentic listening practice for you: