10 presentation tips for students in the form of a letter

Dear students,

I am writing this letter after watching last semester’s students do their presentations. Overall, I was quite disappointed with their presentations. You are reading this because I don’t want you to make the same mistakes. Paying attention to this letter should lead to a  higher grade for you, so please take a minute to read it.

Your predecessors (last semester’s students) made one big mistake. They did not read the scoring system, or the presentation rules. The scoring system and the rules help me to give you a grade, but they also help you to do a good presentation. However, many students ignored the rules and the system, did poor presentations, and so got low scores.

As a teacher, I feel responsible for this. Maybe I didn’t explain clearly why the scoring system is like that, so I will do it here. My beliefs about presentations are:

  • YOU are the most important part of your presentation. We want to know what YOU know; what YOU feel; what YOU think. The best presentations this year were things that people were passionate about or were very personal. We also want to hear YOUR ENGLISH.
  • THE AUDIENCE is very important too. They want to learn something from you, and be entertained or interested by you. Also, they want you to communicate with them.
  • Your presentation needs presentation skills that you can use again and again at university and in your career. Almost everyone will have to present something at some time. These skills are very important, and very different from normal speaking. If you don’t learn these skills, you will find this presentation difficult, and many other things difficult.

Based on these thoughts, here are some practical tips for you:

  1. Choose a topic that is personal to you. It can be a personal story, an interest or a theory. Also, think about if the audience will be interested. Don’t just look up something on the internet that you don’t know and don’t really care about.
  2. Structure your presentation carefully. Think about an introduction, a conclusion and two or three key points. If you try to do more than this, your presentation will not have enough detail.
  3. When you design your slides, the information on them should add to what you are saying. Instead of writing your three key points on a slide, find pictures to represent them. If you have difficult words or numbers, you should write these on your slides to help the audience understand.
  4. DON’T WRITE A SPEECH! Presenting is not the same as reading. Speaking and writing are quite different.  Also, memorizing your speech is very difficult. If you write a five minute speech, and try to memorize it, it will take you at least two hours. In that time, you could just practice explaining twenty times! If you do this, your presentation could be twenty times better!
  5. Ideally, you should not look at your notes during your presentation. They are there to help you if you forget. Your notes should be key points, words and one or two sentences only. You should never read more than one sentence from them.
  6. Your English does NOT have to be perfect. Your English does NOT have to be very complicated. Your English HAS to be understandable. This means that you should not look up too many words in a dictionary, or copy writing from the internet. It also means that you should check your pronunciation of difficult words carefully (especially if they are in the title). It also means that you should speak slowly and simply, and check that the audience is understanding.
  7. There should be NO KOREAN in your presentation. The challenge here is to make yourself understood in English, with help from pictures and gestures. You should imagine that your audience is from Thailand, and cannot speak Korean or read Hangeul.
  8. Keep to the time limit. You should practice your presentation before and check that it lasts five minutes. During the presentation, don’t be afraid to cut things so that you finish in time. Have something extra planned in case you finish early too.
  9. Presenting is about communicating with your audience. Look at them, smile at them, talk to them, check that they understand. Ask them questions. Tell them a joke. Surprise or shock them. There are many ways to keep them interested. Keep them in your mind at all times during planning and presenting.
  10. Lastly, and most importantly, PRACTICE. Presenting is about standing up, speaking loudly and slowly, changing slides, and talking to people. So, you should practice like this. Imagine you are really presenting. Go home and present to your parents, grandparents or your younger brother. Presenting always feels strange the first time, and then less strange each time after.  It’s better to feel strange in front of them than your teacher, your friends and the girl/boy you are secretly in love with.

Finally, let me share some of this semester’s best presentations. Notice that most of them are very personal.

  • The rules of basketball
  • Working in an Izakaya
  • Dates I would like to go on
  • UFO sightings
  • Unknown webtoons
  • My first love story
  • The end of Inception
  • Three restaurant special events
  • Three ways to measure your height

Thank you for reading, and best of luck with your presentations.



TBV’s Notes

As you can see from the letter, I wrote this as a way to turn what was a reasonably negative and frustrating experience into what will, I hope, be a more positive one next time. This is also a way to spread information to students in one useful lump, rather than feeding it in piecemeal as I did this time. In general, this project was very rushed and I think that next time this will help me to think about what is important, and the things that I need to do in order to structure the project better and give students the best chance of success. What I would like to do next time is do the practice in class if possible, and get students to develop their presentation from a fairly casual explanation to a friend, into something more formal in small groups and finally into an actual presentation.

Looking back over the tips, the “NO KOREAN” sticks out. I feel like I should (defensively) mention that in general I am fairly pro-L1 in class in the right context, but I also think that students tend to use it as a crutch when things get difficult in English.

I am undecided whether to actually give this letter to students next semester, but I’m leaning towards it. It is, at least, a useful reminder for me of what to concentrate on next time. Feel free to share it with your students, and do let me know if there’s anything that you’d change or add.



PS I feel like I have lifted this posting style quite shamelessly from Mr. Michael Griffin. You can check out his blog here.


The thoughts of a lonely academic writer

I’m on one of my non-posting streaks again, which is usually a good indication that I’m writing something elsewhere. In this case it’s a journal article. One of the pieces of research I did during my MA got recommended for publication, albeit with a major rewrite, and I finished the course with noble intentions of getting straight to work on it and finishing within a couple of months. Five months of flimming and flamming followed, and only over the winter break did I manage to sit down and get a fair amount of the article written. The problem now is that it still doesn’t feel like something that would be published. In order to improve it, I have bought myself a copy of “Writing your journal article in twelve weeks” by Wendy Laura Belcher. It’s essentially a workbook for academic writing, and contains a number of tasks, some of which I’m going to tackle in this post.

Time and place

Belcher has a lot of very sensible and resonant things to say about where and when we can write. I say ‘can’ here because the big point of the first chapter is that successful academic writers write every day, even for just 15 minutes, rather than ‘binge writing’ for hours at a time. This is something I’m certainly guilty of. I’ll block out three hours of time for a long writing session and after two hours of it be entirely distracted and not really achieve much for the last hour or so. She also quotes her colleague, Chon A. Noriega, who points out that we tend to get better at what we do regularly, and so by NOT writing regularly, we get better at NOT writing, and develop our skills in dreaming up stuff to do instead of writing. Establishing a decent writing site is also important. I already have this – a quiet corner of the local Starbucks; I get extremely huffy if someone gets there before me. However, being flexible is important too, especially in carving out 15 minute writing spaces. To prove this, I wrote the introduction to this post whilst lying on my bed before going to football, which felt a lot less onerous than fastening myself into a chair for a five hour writing odyssey. Again, in the past I’ve been guilty of saying to myself “I don’t have enough time for a trip to the coffee shop to be worthwhile so I just won’t do anything.” In the spirit of all this, dear readers, I promise you that I am going to spend at least 30 minutes working on my article each day (I have a reminder in my to-do list app now) wherever I may be. Anyone who wishes to check up on my progress is most welcome to.

Feelings about writing

Another element of the first chapter of Belcher’s book is exploring your feelings about writing. On the whole my feelings are not particularly positive about the academic writing experience. Before writing, weariness prevails at the thought of trudging to the coffee shop and staying there for a number of hours, and at the thought of producing a kind of writing that I am both inexperienced with, and far from sure of the conventions. During the actual writing, this transforms itself into a strong feeling of inadequacy that I’m not a part of the community that really knows this stuff, and so I’m left with the overwhelming sense that I’m an impostor and charlatan dressing up some ropey old ideas in language cribbed from proper scholars’ articles in the hope that I can sneak it past a bunch of reviewers. A lot of these fears can be rationalized. I know that the articles that I read and compare my work to are written by people with years of experience, qualifications and craft-honing, and are still the results of endless revisions rather than a first draft like mine, yet still the worry persists that whatever I write, it will never sound as smart and strident as the rest of “the literature”.

None of this, according to Belcher, is particularly unusual. She cites plenty of responses from students and faculty members saying similar things. Her contention is that most people’s negative feelings are actually connected to not writing, and positive experiences come when you start getting something done. I don’t find a massive amount of personal truth in this. I’m actually better at getting myself in a position to write than I am at sustaining that motivation through three hours of over-informal phrasings, words hiding just beyond the tip of my pencil and appalling overuse of commas. What I do recognize is that it’s when things do get tough that I tend to find other things to do, treading an odd boundary between reading the Guardian and feeling like I’ll never finish, and wasting more time fantasizing about what I will do when it’s all over. I’m hoping that as I improve as an academic writer, all this will become easier, but for now I want to concentrate on finding more productive ways to get through the tough parts, perhaps by working on other parts of the article rather than crafting Facebook statuses that I never actually bother posting. Honestly, I could probably just do with being a little bit less of a mopey git about the whole thing.

It’s better when we do it together

The final point that I want to share is Belcher’s idea that we write better socially, as we have support, accountability and an audience. This does make a lot of sense, and so this post is also going to function as an appeal to anyone else out there who is writing something and would prefer it not to be such a solitary slog. If anyone out there wants to talk about writing, read my writing or have theirs read (my paper is on pronunciation testing, but it’s really not that important what you are writing about), or just wants to sympathize, my Twitter and email are over there at the side. Otherwise leave me a comment and I will get straight back to you. All the best for any and all your writing.



Different approaches to writing: Reflecting on feedback

I’ve finally reached the end of the writing course that I have been teaching for the last four and a half weeks, about which you can read more here and here.  It turned out that I was so busy with the course that I didn’t have much time for blogging, something which I’m trying to make up for now. The course was a bit of an experiment, and thus to go some way towards collecting some experimental evidence, I gave myself 5 areas that I wanted to reflect on during the course. This post attempts to summarize some of what I think I found out about feedback.

I’m going to start by simply listing the kinds of feedback that were given over a typical week of the course, and who gave them to whom, along with any extra notes. Small group refers to a group of three or four students in which students work throughout the week, and English Cafe refers to a 10 minute optional one on one writing clinic style meeting.

  • Feedback on small group analysis of writing and linguistic characteristics of sample piece: Teacher > Whole Class. Chalk and talk style.
  • Feedback on essay plans: Small group > Student. We started this as a very structured event, but it ended up in the form of a brief informal chat about ideas only. Teacher > Student. Usually given as part of a five minute meeting to review plan and early writing in class. Further feedback available in English Cafe.
  • Feedback on first drafts: Small group > Student. Feeding back on elements of writing that we studied based on rubric and peer assessment sheet. Teacher > Student. In English Cafe, verbal.
  • Feedback on errors: Teacher > Student. Delivered via a system of error codes, with opportunities for further help. Small Group > Student. Peer-correction via error codes but scrapped after one week due to student feedback and course restructuring. Teacher > Whole Class. Feedback on common errors in the form of short presentations (also available as screencasts).
  • Feedback on final drafts: Teacher > Student. Given as a set of scores for the final piece based on a rubric for that week.

And here are some observations about the results of this feedback from my reflective journal.

  • Students really seemed to absorb the five paragraph essay structure in the first week. This was an explicit and lengthy focus of the first textual analysis, plus extra focus in small groups and one on one feedback. In the second week, structure was mentioned as part of the analysis, but not focused on. Some students struggled to clearly state an opinion and keep topics to one paragraph in the second week.
  • Other writing techniques that we focused one such as parallel grammatical structures don’t seem to be taken up. However, I do notice other phrases from my pieces that I had not highlighted  popping up in students’ pieces.
  • I do a lot of feeding back on plans, and shifting ideas around, asking questions etc. It seems like students generally find this helpful. I then do a lot more shuffling around of ideas at the writing stage with students who come to see me in English Cafe. These students are often the same ones whose plans I’ve shuffled around.
  • Students are surprisingly willing to rewrite paragraphs and even entire essays. Much more willing than I would have been on a foreign language course. Either that, or they are incredibly good at putting a brave face on it. When they do rewrite these paragraphs they often incorporate the ideas that we discussed and it does usually make for much better essays.
  • Much of the feedback on writing that I gave was useful for that week, but rather useless for following weeks as it wasn’t relevant to a different genre.
  • The amount of time that we had for working with errors was extremely limited, and explicit focus on grammar errors in class or group situations took up less than 10% of class time. Nevertheless students’ accuracy seemed to improve significantly over the course.
  • Students really struggled with punctuation. I suspect this is something that was new for many of them. After I made a brief presentation about conjunctions and periods not going together (usually) errors of this kind disappeared almost entirely. One student, having emailed me her essay, ran into my office in the morning in order to correct an error of this kind that she knew she had missed. Another student specifically mentioned this as being especially useful in the end of course survey.
  • In the same survey, students rated my advice on first drafts and error codes as the most important parts of the writing process for helping them to write good pieces. In general small group peer feedback tended to be rated least important, but very little was rated as not useful.
  • Students seemed to be fairly clearly divided between those who wanted feedback, and would seek it out, and those who didn’t want it and in some cases would try to avoid it. One student suggested that I make English Cafe a mandatory part of the course. To add to this, the student with the best English on the course was less than keen to seek my feedback.

So what does all of this mean in terms of my refelctive questions which I posed at the start of the course. First up, “What is the best way to deliver feedback?” Results from the two feedback surveys that I gave during the course both highlighted the importance of individual feedback from the teacher, and this meshes with my view of trying to deal with what we might call “learner syllabuses” on an individual level rather than as a group, as each “syllabus” will be at a different stage and so teaching discrete grammar items, and to some extent writing skills too, will either be wasted on those who already have them, or lost on those who are not ready. The error codes system does exactly this and I would consider it one of the most successful elements of the course (survey responses suggest that students feel the same). Furthermore, given the range of topics and ideas in the essays most writing problems have to be dealt with on an individual level. This was the kind of approach I set out to try at the beginning of the course and overall it seems to have been successful.

It is therefore tempting to suggest that what is required is an even more individualized approach, with a minimum of small group or class work. However, as far as I can see there are two major problems here. Firstly, individual feedback does not suit everyone, especially when a lot of it requires the student to seek it out. I felt that the student who suggested that I make the optional feedback mandatory was lacking initiative, but looking at it another way it could be seen as a request for help. There are a multitude of personal and cultural reasons which could prevent students from actively seeking out feedback, and I would be as well to remember that I wouldn’t have been too motivated to get help while I was at university. The flipside is that making it mandatory is totally not my style and risks making students opposed to the process, which is not a good mindset in which to receive feedback. The answer I think is to identify those students who I think might benefit from feedback but not seek it out, and encourage/push them a bit more. This is something I can do better as a teacher in general – it’s always nice when students want help, but sometimes the job is to help those who don’t want it or are just too shy or lazy to seek it out.

The second major point is that almost all of the whole class feedback that I gave seemed to be taken up effectively. The key here was that this kind of feedback was based on errors that emerged from the essays, which suggested that the bulk of students were ready for it. Clearly this could be delivered individually, but the workload in teaching a course like this is already high, and so delivering it to the whole class is much more efficient.

My second question was, “How can I make sure that feedback is taken on board?” In general, feedback that I gave to individuals and the whole class about their writing made it into their final essays. This was pleasing as I worked very hard on structuring the course in order to allow for the maximum amount of feedback and revision. Instead of teaching the writing process, we just did the writing process (and I had good feedback as to its usefulness). The error codes also attempted to get students to think for themselves about errors, rather than simply get corrections. As I said, all of this seemed to be reasonably successful, but as I didn’t have a control group, there’s nothing to draw a comparison with. Still, I feel like this approach is something that I would do again.

Finally, I wanted to tackle the role of conscious learning in this process. I was quite surprised at how little we were able to do as a class; I had sort of imagined that common errors would form the basis of quite a lot of grammar teaching. In the end I think I “taught” only one or two grammar points to the whole class. I also thought that errors might point the way to wider rules of language, which was the case a few times, but a lot of the times the errors were specific lexical ones related to word class or verb patterns, slips which students had momentarily forgotten the rule for, or sentences so awkward that they could not easily be fixed by the application of one or two grammatical or lexical tweaks. So really, traditional, structural teaching of grammar was almost absent from my class. Nevertheless, I seemed to be using a lot less error codes at the end of the course than I did at the beginning, so something must have been happening.

I’d like to suggest that this may have been more a case of attitude than of conscious learning. Although the activities where we worked with errors took up a minimal amount of class time, they were designed to raise awareness of errors. I have already talked about the error codes, but a further part of the teaching cycle was to have students analyze and present an error to a small group, focusing on why they made the error, how they could fix it, what they could learn from it, and how they could prevent it in future. It seems that, for this group of learners at least, general awareness raising may be the most important part of error correction, rather than any specific grammatical or lexical gains. However, it’s notable that the focus was on specific items of grammar and lexis, rather than a general “focus on accuracy”, but this seems to have led to much wider gains in the area of accuracy. Again though, there’s no control here for comparison.

In conclusion, I think that some form of individual feedback is necessary and I strongly believe, despite the lack of evidence, that it has to be given in a situation where it can be used immediately to maximize the chances of being taken up. It’s also necessary to remember that students may be resistant or uninterested in this kind of feedback, and it is up to the teacher to ensure that this feedback reaches these students, as they may be the ones who need it most. The real eye-opener from this post, however, is the role of error correction and language work in setting general attitudes, and the possible overall accuracy gains that can be achieved with even a small amount of specific items. What this might mean for future courses is students taking even more responsibility for finding their own errors and sharing them, but for now I’m way over my word limit and very hungry, so I’m calling it here.




Different approaches to writing: some course content and reflections.

In my previous post I introduced the writing course that I’m teaching for this year’s winter camp, and outlined some of the principles that underpin it, such as experiential learning, a genre approach and an attempt to examine each student’s English systematically through the lens of their writing errors. This post starts to examine how this is working out in practice by sharing some of the course content from this week and some of my thoughts on it.

Those of you up on your deductive science may have noticed that week one’s reflections seem to have got lost in space. Well, week one largely featured introductions and my explaining the principles of the course. This wasn’t a great success, as it led to me talking a lot to/at the students. It came from a good and bad place. Good in the sense that I wanted to make sure that students’ expectations and mine were more or less matched, and bad in the sense that my anal-retentive side came out in the planning stages and organized all of the writing stages into neat little one week parcels. Next time I’m just going to get on with it (as I’m doing quite successfully in other areas of this course) and explain as we go along.

Week two’s doings make for much more interesting reflection, so that’s what the bulk of this post will focus on. Each week focuses on one piece of my writing in which I try to include certain generic, structural and linguistic features. Conversely, I also try to write it fairly naturally in order that other features that I wouldn’t consider consciously can emerge in the piece, meaning that we get some less taught features like the role of pronouns in rhetoric. This week’s piece, an explanatory, how-to piece, emerged like this:

How To Speak English More Naturally.

Having expressed doubts about the five-paragraph essay last week, I naturally went ahead and wrote a five paragraph essay as a model for this week. Why? Mostly because it’s an easy format to write, copy and explain and makes a good starting point for students new to organizing a piece. I’m going to try to push beyond this a little as we go through the course, and also be flexible with students who want to adapt it a little. Also, my objection was more to the piecemeal approach to teaching that starts by writing thesis statements, moves on to topic sentences and finishes by, in my experience, boring the living crap out of everybody present rather than to the essay format itself.

Having hopefully defended myself to the baying mob (myself), here’s roughly what the instructions for week 2 looked like..

  • Monday – Read the piece, discuss in peer groups and feedback to class on topic, audience, structure and role of each paragraph,  and introduction techniques. Write a short journal entry about perceived characteristics of the genre. Then in groups discuss ideas for your own article, how you might introduce it, and how you might explain it. Create a paragraph plan for homework.
  • Tuesday – Present your plan to peer group and get feedback. Write a journal entry based on this. Then discuss with your peer groups linguistic/grammatical features of the piece for organization, cohesion and linking ideas, and finally those used in establishing the style of the piece. Journal again and add ideas for language you can use to your plan.
  • Wednesday – Start to write first draft. During the class, have a five minute consultation with the teacher about your plan and any writing. For homework, write a journal entry processing this feedback and applying it to your writing and yourself as a writer.
  • Thursday – Present your writing so far to peer group. Guided peer feedback and journalling. Finish final draft with opportunities for further teacher feedback.
  • Friday – Peer and teacher proofreading of first drafts. Write final draft, using writing tools (corpus, thesaurus, learner dictionary) to fix errors. Catalog errors on a Google sheet for whole class reflection. Reflect on how to eliminate errors and learn new language skills based on errors made.

It’s worth pointing out that this is a lot to get through in a week. At this stage it feels like I might be spending a bit too much time journalling and not enough time on the errors, which I’d pinpointed as an important source of learning. However, the journalling might well prove to be an important part of information processing- sadly I don’t really know because I haven’t had a chance to look at them yet because they’re always in use! This concerns me as I wonder exactly how effectively they are being used, especially if I’m not reading them. It would be totally understandable in an intensive program if the part that the teacher doesn’t read got neglected. Still, the balance of activities is something that I want to play with and get feedback on.

Another slight problem I encountered this week with the lowest level class (who are still at least B1 and much higher than that in terms of reading) was that they struggled to move their analysis from the level of the text in front of them to the level of the generic. However, this may just have been a case of not quite understanding the instructions. I made sure with the other two classes to make this clear, so I’m not sure whether it was the level of the class or the clearer instructions that made the difference, but something certainly did. (Update: I just did the same thing this week and it went much better, so maybe it was the instructions.) A bigger problem came with the odd student not realizing (or perhaps willfully forgetting) that the aim was a generic how-to piece. Sods law also meant that one of them couldn’t fit an interview into Wednesday’s class, so I didn’t catch it until Thursday afternoon. Again, it seems I could have been clearer in my aims, and this is also another good reason why the week 1 information dump didn’t work well, because by the time Monday came around it had all been forgotten again. Another reason to get over my love of neat week-long teaching cycles.

Aside from this I’d say that things are running fairly smoothly. Every student has managed to write upwards of two-hundred words, which is pretty impressive given that some had never written an extended piece in English before, and possibly not in Korean either. The process-based nature of the course is working really well too – presenting stages of the writing process as class activities means that there is less temptation to skip them. One of the ways I’m trying to keep students following the process is to have them write their first draft by hand, and only type it up when it comes to final drafts. While this isn’t really how people work these days, it does force them to take a proper second look at their writing and gives them another chance to improve it. I’ve been surprised at how happy students are to rewrite sections by hand too, far happier than I would be in fact. They’ve also spent a good deal of time planning, aided by this very simple but rather nifty essay mapping tool. There’s also a lot of desire to get feedback, but a willingness to find things out for oneself in this group of students. All in all, it’s been a very positive week.

To conclude, I’d like to mention one other thing that’s been a big success this week. The nature of writing class means there’s quite a lot of studious silence and scribbling of pens – an atmosphere which can sometimes feel a little intense. I’ve experimented a bit this week with playing music in class. Students can DJ themselves from their phones, or play the Britpop/Snoop Dogg/Drill ‘n’Bass lottery that is my mp3 collection. Surprisingly they’ve often opted for the latter, which has meant I’ve been able to introduce them to Nick Drake, Vampire Weekend and RJD2 over the past week, which has been a pretty cool experience all in all.

I’d made a bunch of notes about the reflective questions in my last post to write about here, but as I’m climbing towards 1,400 words I’m going to leave those for another post. I hope that in reading this you might have found a few things to steal for your own writing teaching, or something that made you think a little differently. If you did, I’d love to know what it was in the comments below.



A different way to approach teaching writing

Camp. Possibly for you this word conjures up images of canvas, burnt sausages and trench foot. These days, it brings to mind the five week winter intensive program run by my university, called “winter camp” despite the fact that it would be possible to conduct the whole thing without ever going outside, let alone sleeping there. Nevertheless, it’s often the chance for a change of teaching scenery in that we can teach a specialist subject* for those five weeks. This year I’m teaching a writing course, and in this post I will outline what I’m going to do, and set up the kind of reflections I will be trying to collect and blog about over the next 5 weeks.

The Background

Here’s the big confession: I haven’t taught writing for four years, which is a big reason why I’m keen to do it now. The last time I did was teaching Korean students in Guatemala (yes, you read that right), who were mostly preparing for the American SAT exam. That meant a heavy focus on the five paragraph essay, topic sentences, body paragraphs, quotes, examples and the like. Looking back at previous courses that were taught at our institution, a similar approach seems to have been followed: descriptive paragraphs, use of the passive, concluding sentences. If fact, a perfectly sensible, traditional writing course.

The biggest problem here is that, in my own estimation, I am neither traditional nor sensible. I also have concerns about a traditional composition approach. The first is that, as far as my teaching in Guatemala went, what I was essentially teaching was a formula for writing. A useful one, but a formula nonetheless, and one which is designed to underpin Western academic writing, which I find it difficult to believe that students on this course will ever come into contact with. The second problem is that pre-teaching techniques and language leads to students forcing them into their work, rather than a need being created for them. It’s asking students to work with our language system, rather then their own. The third more practical problem is that there are a number of repeat students from the summer camp, and I don’t want to end up going over the same ground. Thus, I wanted to look at a different kind of writing course.


I wanted to teach a course that reflected the kind of principles that I try to take into the classroom. I tend to like to do things first, sort them out afterwards,  then do them again, which might also be roughly what an experiential learning cycle tries to do. My version of experiential learning tries to promote autonomy, confidence and personal involvement, and I felt that this might not be best achieved by spoon feeding learners elements of an essay.

The second principle was hinted at above, and relates to a view of language and learning that has been developing in my head over the past couple of years. What students bring to class (and I’m specifically talking about Korean students here) is a system for dealing with encounters in English. Given that rather than being born communicating in English, many Korean students have it thrust forcibly upon them and so the system might well be adapted to coping as opposed to pushing linguistic boundaries. Furthermore, the L1 is an extremely important influence on many students’ English systems because of the preponderance of word for word translation in Korean English education. Finally, given the relative lack of success that I’ve had teaching discrete items of grammar to students, I would also claim it’s a system that is quite resistant to change in this area. The idea then is to get into this system in other ways, and writing may offer a good way to do this. More than speaking, writing allows us to get the results of the system down on paper, where we can see where coping strategies lead to not fully expressing something; where L1 interference threatens intelligibility, and where breaks in the system might allow us to restructure it using new knowledge. I say we, but flipping back to the paragraph above, what I really mean by “we” is “the student”.

The third and final principle is to take a very weak genre approach to writing. In practice, this will involve taking apart pieces of writing typical of a genre, trying to understand some of their structural and linguistic workings, and the using these to create new genre pieces. This comes from the belief that deconstructing and reconstructing is a much more generalizable skill than being able to construct a five paragraph essay, and recognizes that often writing is a process of borrowing and adapting.

The course

Every course needs a peg to hang its curriculum on. Traditionally the camp writing course is displayed in a blog or a magazine, but the content bears little connection to the genre. Building on the genre approach mentioned above, I will ask students to write three extended pieces typical of the magazine genre. This is not because I believe that my students are budding magazine journalists, but because it’s a useful setting for longer pieces of writing and a genre that students may not be familiar with. These are important because they test both the language system and the analytical abilities of the students.

The course is four and a half weeks long, and so the three pieces cover the middle three weeks, with a week for introduction and a few days of production at the end. This allows me to structure the week as a writing process (more doing rather than preaching) starting with analysis and planning, through a first draft and ending with something like the original example piece.

The writing process requires support in order to ensure that learning takes place and hopefully gets transferred both to subsequent weeks and other contexts, such as other camp courses. The first element of this support process will be people. Feedback will come from self-reflection, peer groups and me. This will be turned into knowledge and intention through journalling, and executed through the three pieces. I’m also introducing other support systems to help students write more autonomously like corpus tools, learner dictionaries and thesauruses. This set-up should allow me to play more of a guiding role in each individual student’s writing process and deal with teaching and learning on a more individual basis.

Reflective goals

This course is experimental in nature, and therefore I have certain things that I would like to think about and measure throughout the course. They are, in no particular order:

  • What is the best way to deliver feedback? How can I be sure it is taken on board? Does experiential learning extend to knowledge processing? What part does cognition and conscious learning play?
  • How can I help students learn the less obvious parts of writing, such as getting sentences to link to one another. How can I encourage them to write in a more complex manner?
  • Can journalling be a useful tool for developing students? How do students use their journals?
  • Are errors a good opportunity for language learning, especially of grammar? Do students enjoy this approach? Can (/should) errors be sufficiently generalized to form useful language learning? Is this approach more effective than teaching grammar items more arbitrarily?
  • Are students able to write long pieces straight off the bat with sufficient support? How much do they learn from a genre approach? How easy is it for them to analyze articles?

Answers to these questions, and other reflections on and information about the course are coming. I hope that you stick around to hear them.



* In previous camps I’ve taught a specialist pronunciation course, which you can read about here and here.

Eleven things that I’m not too hungover to write about

I’ve been a bit wary about joining the “eleven things” blog thingy that’s been floating about recently. It has more than a whiff of the chain emails I used to get. The ones that ordered you to “send this to 900 of your friends in the next minute or bad men will come to your house and murder your pets (with a chainsaw).” I hoity-toitishly considered myself above those and possibly above this too, but I find myself with spare time on a Boxing Day evening with my brain still partly addled by my colleague’s super-strength eggnog, so not in any condition to write coherently about teaching*. I am also extremely fond of the three people who nominated me, @kevchanwow, @annehendler and @laurasoracco, and I am obviously not far above them (quite the reverse in fact). Here, therefore, are some answers to a compilation of their questions and some other gubbins about me.

1. Ocean or mountains?

“Why not both?” I ask greedily. Most of the north-east coast of Korea, which I was fortunately to live very close to for two years, features mountains sweeping down almost to the beach. My favourite area might be the city of Sokcho, where one can chill out on the beach in the morning, grab a quick bowl of seafood noodle soup for lunch and my clambering up through steepling sandstone gorges in the Seoraksan National Park before you’ve even halfway digested it. One of my favourite places in the world.

2. Three phrases you think people need to know in any language?

“Hello.” “Thank-you.” “I don’t understand.” One that you probably don’t, “My postillion has been struck by lightning.”

3. Happiness = x + y; where x=? and y=?

x = Stuff that intrigues you to do, y= the time to do it

4. What game did you like to play as a child?  Why?

When on a car journey, I would try to blink once and once only during every unbroken stretch of kerb that we passed. If the kerb was interrupted by a driveway or sidestreet, I’d then have to blink again. Challenges included leaving a long enough gap before blinking to avoid discomfort on long stretches, and fitting blinks in where driveways were closer together. Why did I play it? I’ll leave questions of my sanity to you, dear reader.

5. What would you hope your students remember you for?

Being kind to them, remembering all of their names and making them feel more confident. In truth they probably remember me for weekly quizzes, embarassing attempts to speak Korean and obsessively sending them performance statistics.

6. If you were given a paid semester off to do whatever you wanted, what would you do? 

On reading this I immediately thought about finishing a journal article I’m (supposed to be) writing and working on a TBL curriculum for my workplace. Then I wondered if I’d have time to learn a bit of internet-stylee programming (CSS, html, java) or learn to play the banjo. I strongly suspect, however, that the reality would involve quite a lot more sitting around on my arse than nay of the above scenarios, except at those times when I’m scratching it.

7. Do you listen to music while grading? If so, what do you listen to? If not, why not?

I listen to music when planning, grading, reflecting, writing and many other times too. What I listen to varies with time. At the moment I’m attempting to drown out shitty Christmas songs with aggressive breakbeats (Aphex Twin, Venetian Snares). At other times I like to be all indie and wet (The Antlers, Okkervil River). The one constant in my listening since the age of 18 is 2001 by Dr. Dre. Without a shred of irony, I consider this one of the best albums of the past 15 years.

8. Who has influenced your teaching?

I have been lucky enough to meet people over the last two years or so who have not so much influenced me as a teacher as allowed me to start doing anything vaguely useful in a classroom. These people would certainly include #keltchat colleagues @michaelegriffin, @annehendler, @johnpfordresher and @alexswalsh as well as @josettelb. The theorists who have influenced me most are probaly Scott Thornbury, Leo van Lier and Jennifer Jenkins.

9. What was your very first job?

I cleaned up the garden of the landlord of my local pub when I was about 14. This involved lots of cutting and digging, and enveloping our village in clouds of smoke from burning completely green hedge clippings. In return I received three pounds fifty an hour as well as a pint of lager, in complete defiance of licensing laws. Halcyon days indeed.

10. The correct number of hours of sleep is ______ in 24.

Six and a half, with a lie-in as long as you want on Sunday.

11. What is something you do that has absolutely no connection to TESOL?

I play football in the Seoul foreigners football league. I play in central midfield and bring a lot of energy and no skill whatsoever to the role. My knees are on the point of collapse, and my team was relegated this year. Travelling to and from games can take me upwards of 4 hours. Still I dutifully pull on the pale blue of Seoul Inter Soccer Club every Saturday during the season.

Eleven random facts about me

  1. My infant brother once dropped a full can of baked beans from the second-floor landing into the hall of our house. My head intervened in it’s descent, and I still have a lump there today.
  2. I sort of speak Korean, but not very well. Improving it is a project that I need to stop putting off.
  3. I have never owned a house or a car.
  4. I am the holder of an i-to-i 40 hour TEFL certificate.
  5. I have lived about one-sixth of my life in countries other than that which I was born in. I’m interested to know how this compares to other people.
  6. I think the name of my blog is a bit rubbish, but cool at the same time.
  7. I was much better at maths and physics than English at school.
  8. I was also the athlete of the year at school aged 17. I won the 200m, the 1500m, the long jump and the triple jump.
  9. I’ve never been sent off playing football, but I was dismissed once in a rugby match.
  10. I’m still not sure whether teaching is incredibly simple, incredibly complex or a mix of the two.
  11. I would like to do a PhD one day.

Eleven people I would like to know stuff about:

  • @alexswalsh
  • @bryanteacher
  • @daylemajor
  • @tomtesol
  • @GemL1
  • @thewangjangnim
  • @esltasks
  • @kheironschool
  • @languagebubble
  • @chriswcollins
  • @sophiakhan4

The stuff I want to know:

  1. What’s your mantra?
  2. Is teaching incredibly simple or incredibly complex?
  3. Are you good at making friends now you’re older? Why or why not?
  4. Music or literature?
  5. What would your ideal coursebook look like?
  6. What’s the worst cocktail you’ve ever tried?
  7. Have you ever eaten dog? If not, would you?
  8. What’s your favourite student error ever?
  9. What’s the most important thing that you try to convey to students?
  10. What’s your favourite gangsta rap tune?
  11. What one law would you abolish or introduce to your current country of residence?

That’s more or less that, I think.



* I will of course accept the accusation that I am rarely to be found writing coherently about teaching.

Reflecting on my speaking exams

This is the third and final part of my short series reflecting on my mid-term exams. Timely too, seeing as I’m writing the final exams this week. If you’re interested, you can read about my reflections on my written exams here, and the feedback I collected on my exams here. In general I’m much happier with my skills as a speaking examiner, but in the student feedback that I collected there was still room for improvement. This post takes a bit of an experiential direction, beginning by looking at what I do, then what I think/thought about it, and finishing my trying to make some changes for this round of exams.

What did I do last time?

I’m going to deal with this in two parts, my method and my scoring system. In fact, I’m mostly concentrating on the scoring system, as it seems the most appropriate tool for helping generate the performances that I would like from my students. Nevertheless, I’ll start with my method.

My mid-term speaking exams were 20 minute conversations between groups of four people. These groups were randomly selected a few days before the exam. Students could choose any or all of the four topics that we had studied in the half semester, and could prepare what they wanted to say, although they were discouraged from memorizing long passages of text.    

You can read my full scoring system on the second page of the document below. The language used is necessarily simplistic in order that students can understand it, but this is perhaps a problem when it comes to judging fine-grained differences in performance.

Midterm – Speaking Exam (Level 2.2)

My scoring system scores students on five traits, each scored from one to five (yes, students get a full 20% just for showing up). A score of three represents a pass in each trait. Half marks are possible. The five traits are as follows:

  • Difficulty & Interest
  • Participation
  • Fluency
  • Understanding
  • Effort.

Difficulty and interest requires the student to use more complex language and to talk about interesting things within the topic. Participation asks the student to play a full role in the conversation. Fluency requires them to speak at a comfortable speed, with no big hesitations. Understanding is that of the teacher, but more importantly their peers too. Effort is my attempt to motivate students of both higher and lower ability coming in to the course, by challenging them to exceed my expectations. 

What do/did I think about it?

The slash in the title above refers to the fact that I scribbled down a few reflections during my speaking exams last time. Other insights are coming from thinking about the exams as I write this. My method, I think, is fairly suitable. It gives enough freedom to students to express themselves and is in keeping with the fairly fluency based nature of the class. Also, a four way conversation is a more challenging proposition than one between two people, and students have to work a little harder to stay involved and follow what is going on. There is also the efficiency saving of only explaining to five groups per class, rather than ten if I did it in pairs. As time is limited, this is a very practical reason to test in larger groups.

All this means that there is fairly little that I want to change. The only thing that I wonder about is changing the number of topics, and their specificity. Four topics, between four people in a twenty minute exam leaves about one minute 15 seconds per person, per topic. In general, testing in class aimed toward being able to speak for a two and a half minutes per person, per topic. Thus one change that I would like to make is to limit groups to two topics, and also to make them more specific. Last time I had very loose topic prompts (eg. Favourite foods, shopping style and stories). This time I’d like to tighten them up a little bit, for example: “My ambition and what I have done to achieve it” for the personal background module. I’d also like to increase the spontaneity a bit by selecting a topic randomly. This might also require a change to the scoring system to reflect this.

Thinking about scoring systems, it’s clear to me that mine needs a bit of work. The main thing is that it perhaps doesn’t reflect clearly exactly what kind of performance I was looking for. This is due to the lack of a clearly defined construct, a project which I never quite got around to finishing properly. Nevertheless, I have tried to briefly outline a construct below. These are the kind of things that students should perhaps be able to do in their exams. This is based largely on grading notes from my last exam.

Students should be able to talk in a reasonable amount of detail about 2 topics as part of a twenty minute conversation, making the conversation interesting through a variety of opinions (backed up if possible), personal stories and unusual information/facts. Students should be able to organize the conversation into short turns rather than long monologues, and be able to both claim and relinquish the floor when appropriate. The conversation should be relatively spontaneous. All speech should be understandable (to both peers and teacher) and fluent (defined as a steady rate of speech with minimal hesitation and restarts). Accuracy in grammar, word choice, syntax and pronunciation is not important unless it hinders understanding, but errors that were explicitly discussed in class should be avoided. Some attempt to (correctly) use language from class is preferable, but long memorized passages are not. No Korean language, aside from names, is permitted.

Looking at the scoring system linked above, I can see several places in which it does not match the construct and needs to be changed. The first is the slightly odd category of difficulty and interest. This is a bit counter-intuitive because, as anyone who’s ever attended one of my conference presentations will tell you, it’s perfectly possible to say something very boring using difficult language, and of course the other way around. Clearly this needs to be split out. Looking back at my notes, my way of judging difficulty seems to be to note instances of target language use. Therefore, it makes sense to split this out into its own category (more on this later). This leaves us with the rather subjective category of “interest”. Again, I went back to my notes on this one, and found that the performances I scored highly tended to contain interesting stories, unusual information and strong opinions. This goes some way to making things less subjective, but much more importantly, gives the students a guide to how they can score top marks.

Another category that requires a little tweaking is participation. I’d like to include turn length, questions, turn management and amount said into a slightly updated rubric. The idea behind this is to make the conversations a bit more spontaneous and conversation-like, and avoid a problem I encountered occasionally last time of students essentially going round the table delivering monologues.

The fluency and understanding categories are largely fine as they are, though I want to add restarts into the fluency section. That just leaves me with the final section, effort. I like this section, as it gives the lower level speakers in my class something to aim for. I don’t like grading on ability only, as despite level testing it can vary quite widely in my classes. Again though, I’d like to be able to give students a little more guidance on how they might do it. This is a place where attempts to use target language can be recognized, along with not memorizing long pieces of language and speaking spontaneously. I could also try to recognize humour here. Finally, some recognition of shy students participating confidently would be good, as this is something that I have tried to encourage throughout the semester.

This just leaves a further section for penalty points. Given this is an English exam, speaking Korean except for names is not allowed and must be made clear. Also, long diversions from the topic should also be penalized as I am trying to get students to show what they learned in class. Finally, I think I want to punish errors that we have talked about in class, as these too are evidence of (not) learning.

What am I going to do about it?

When I make my exam guide on Wednesday, I’m going to do the following things:

  • Allow students to choose one topic in advance for the exam, and give them one of the other three in the exam.
  • Make the topics much more specific and relevant to class content.
  • Make the first category interest, defined as opinions, stories and interesting facts.
  • Add questions, turn management and turn length into the participation section.
  • Add restarts into the fluency section.
  • Write some notes in the “Effort” section, explaining to students how they can get better scores through spontaneous speech, humour and confidence.
  • Explain clearly the penalty points system.

These exam reflections have been pretty long, so thanks for reading this far. I’m interested in any ways which you think I could further improve this system, and also in how you do your own speaking exams. If you want to read more you might even want to check out @alexswalsh‘s post on his speaking exams.