Tag Archives: Professional Development

#KELTChat Summary: Automaticity & Fluency (23rd September 2012)

This a summary of the #KELTChat that took place on Twitter on the 23rd September 2012. It is dual posted on the KELTChat Blog and my personal blog The Breathy Vowel, but feel free to only read the one version!

On Sunday night we witnessed one of the busiest #KELTChats ever, with over 200 tweets sent in an  hour on the subject of Automaticity & Fluency. Along with regular members, I’d really like to mention the great contributions by two first-timers (I believe): @bora_maren and @jankenb2. Welcome to the community 🙂

We started out chatting about how important fluency was in our classrooms. The consensus was that it is important in every context, but especially so in Korea, where the bias of school teaching (we will return to this later) is towards grammar and vocabulary, and some teachers are guilty of treating language as knowledge, rather than as a skill, especially where speaking is concerned. We also pointed to the fact that opportunities for practice outside the classroom are limited. I think this is why those of us who teach at universities, such as @languagebubble, put fluency “at the forefront” of their classes.

For @keisenhow it was not only speaking fluency, but thinking fluency in English that was important, which she tries to promote through a task based approach, with thinking time built into a pre-task stage. Combined with relevant tasks and good modelling this helps her students to access the language that they need to complete the task.

We then had some fascinating ideas about the nature and role of fluency. @jankenb2 felt that fluency helped students to free their minds to focus on meaning more (I think I may have Matricized this a little in transcription), and @tamaslorincz added that it might also help with accuracy and range. @chopedu summed this up nicely with a metaphor: “Like learning to drive, we struggle before we can relegate the mechanics to the subconscious and just focus on the journey”. I wasn’t quite sure I agreed with this view on fluency though, for me meaning should always come first, but I am in no doubt that fluency helps to deliver quicker and clearer meanings. The beauty of #KELTChat was that this was then jumped on by both @bora_maren and @chopedu, claiming that form should sometimes come before meaning, and that students could not focus  on meaning, accuracy and fluency all at once, and that performance in the other two factors would drop if students focused on just one. This thread of the discussion then moved on to the role of repetition and games in the classroom. I suggested that simple speaking tasks could be redone with different audiences, and different focuses each time, and @jankenb2 highlighted the role of games in maximizing repetitions within an environment where they are actually required (ie. not just endless drilling).

While all that was going on, another chat within a chat was taking place about the role of fluency within high school classrooms. @bryanteacher (another brilliant recent addition to the #KELTChat squad) suggested that he focused much more on fluency activities, and introduced us (well me, at least) to the concept of ‘unlocking’ what the students already know. This was heartily agreed with by @annehendler, and the point was raised that it often meets opposition from school teachers who prefer to focus on the eminently more measurable and testable quality of accuracy (@josettelb).

At this point @alexswalsh chimed in with a very good point about the fact that fluency activities were strongly tied to motivation and the reasons the student is learning English. This seemed a good point, and again goes back to the testing culture here – why bother putting in the effort to be able to produce something fluently when all you need to do is check a box on a multiple choice exam. @michaelegriffin, @languagebubble and myself all agreed that motivation is crucial in developing fluency, but that we may be able to ‘sow the seeds of motivation’ by giving enough space for fluency in our classrooms. The flip side to this argument came from @alexswalsh again, suggesting that a) students may just throw chunks of language together to finish a task, and b) that doing fluency activities with large classes is not practical because many students simply revert to the L1.

Another issue that came up for public school teachers is that of level, and teachers not trusting their students, or not thinking fluency activities were necessary at lower levels. @bryanteacher pointed out that any “low-level” middle school student has a good few years of English education behind them, and this would seem to make the case that fluency needs to be concentrated on from the very beginning, a bit like what I understood Demand High ELT was all about.

The penultimate part of the discussion stemmed from the motivation thread, and considered how we could make an atmosphere in our classrooms that was conducive to practising and building motivation to achieve fluency. We talked in terms of a “safety zone” (@languagebubble), of which features might be “thinking time” and a “friendly atmosphere” (@bora_maren), or a “social presence” (@keisenhow). “Lightheartedness and laughter” and improving student dynamics through team building are important for @languagebubble.

Actually, that wasn’t the penultimate bit of the discussion, as another thread popped up at the last (this is not the easiest #KELTChat to summarize, in case you hadn’t noticed). This brought in a bit more SLA research which says that students learn linguistic features in predictable sequences. What does this mean for fluency though, @chopedu asked @jankenb2? The response was that even when students seem to be backsliding (I assume in terms of grammar and lexis), especially in conversations, this may still be a sign of progress, and again brought us back to the separate concepts of ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’.

Finally we did get down to talking activities, which for the sake of my tired fingers I’m going to present as a list.

In terms of book recommendations @languagebubble and I also highly recommended English Firsthand for developing fluency, especially at lower levels.

And that more or less rounded off the chat for the evening. Both moderating and participating was a thrilling experience, it seems like every chat is better than the last right now, so thanks to everyone who joined in! I’m going to leave the final word to @bora_maren, in one of my favourite #KELTChat tweets ever:

“It was my first time joining.I enjoyed it a lot. It was a bit confusing and I am still dizzy but I am sure i will get better.”

Pretty much sums it all up I think.


Alex (@breathyvowel)

PS I’ve tried to be as accurate here as possible, while weaving the various threads of the chat into some kind of cohesive whole. If anyone feels that they’ve been misquoted, misrepresented or misused, please get in touch and I’ll do my best to correct it. You can also see a Storify of the important bits of the chat here:



Make Your Students The Experts: My KOTESOL National Conference Presentation 2012

As I mentioned last week, I’ve been working pretty hard recently getting ready for a presentation at KOTESOL‘s National Conference 2012 in the southern city of Busan. The conference has now been and gone and I’m still here, which is a positive. Actually, my presentation went really well (I thought) and the seven people who came were quite complimentary. I would have liked a few more people to speak to, but at least the small numbers made for a personal and constructive atmosphere.

Having been asked by at least one person, I’m going to share my presentation with you here. Unfortunately I don’t have time to write it up, but if you have time to sit down and watch/listen to it you can watch the Youtube videos below, (as filmed by the wonderful Anne Hendler (@annehendler), thanks!), or watch and listen to one of my slightly ropey practice screencasts further down the page.

If you watch the videos, you’ll need good eyes to see the projector screen, so you might want to take a look at the Prezi first.

I hope you find these useful. If you have any questions feel free to ask them in the comments section.



Youtube Videos


Part 1: http://screencast-o-matic.com/watch/clh003GfG

Part 2: http://screencast-o-matic.com/watch/clh0VzESm

Part 3: http://screencast-o-matic.com/watch/clh0VdESJ

Part 4: http://screencast-o-matic.com/watch/clh0V8ESM



A preview of my upcoming presentation

If you’ve been wondering why I haven’t written for a while, thanks. It’s nice to know I’m missed 🙂 There have been a few reasons; I hit the wall (metaphorically) two weeks ago and found myself mentally and physically struggling to do or think about anything. Thus last week was declared a mental week off – I woke up when I wanted, did nothing on my MA, no blogging and set my classes a bunch of project work to absolve myself of any lesson planning. And it worked, I’ve come back feeling much more refreshed and ready to face the teaching world again.

However, this week I’ve still found little time to blog this week as I’ve been working towards the biggest presentation of my career so far (it’s still not that big though) at the KOTESOL National Conference in Busan this Saturday. My presentation is called “Make Your Students the Experts” and will be on in room H at 1:30pm. Here’s a sneak preview of the Prezi (which won’t seem to embed):


On the way through that we’ll touch on classroom discourse, question tagging, professional development, the theory of contingency and a whole load of other stuff. If you’re going to the conference I’d be honoured if you’d come and watch. If you can’t make it though, I’ll upload the whole thing as a screencast next week.

I hope to see you on Saturday.



Citavi Tutorial #1: Setting up and importing references

A while ago I wrote a post on writing assignments for my MA. The referencing program that I use sparked a bit of interest from various people, and I had a couple of requests to make a screencast tutorial. Here is the first one of those, dealing with the basic layout of the program, and the various processes of importing references.

This was my first attempt at a screencast, and I’m not too unhappy with the result. I hope you enjoyed it and it was helpful.

The screencast was recorded using Screen-cast-o-matic and edited using Videopad.


What’s it like being a distance MA TESOL student? (Part 2)

Inspiring stuff!

In the first part of this post I had a think about what it was like going back to academia, and how I was managing to fit studying around the rest of my life. In this part I’m going to examine the differences that doing a distance MA in TESOL and Applied Linguistics has made to my life inside the classroom.

The course I am taking currently is entirely online, and is based largely around reading and reflective practice. A definite upside of this is that it helped to formalize the reflective practice that I already did, but also to increase the scope of it beyond reflecting on the success of lesson plans and classroom management into reflecting on teaching techniques and how to help students to acquire language. The reading part also essentially forces you to read some really amazing books and introduces you to the world of journals which I had not previously delved into. I’d recommend a subscription to TESOL Quarterly or ELT Journal to anyone, whether you’re pursuing academic study or not. It has occurred to me that essentially all I’m doing is reading a load of text that teachers should be reading anyway, but the MA provides a real incentive to do it (and do it fast), and to really reflect on and engage with what you read.

The downside of having no face to face time or practical help on the course is, well, exactly that. Any improvements to your teaching come entirely from yourself (more on that below). While it can be useful to try to improve your own practice, nobody has watched me teach for over two years (except for my Korean co-teachers, from whom feedback is not usually forthcoming) and I feel like I could do with a fresh set of eyes. At the end of this course I might well want to do either the CELTA or the DELTA as well to get some practical help. Of course, this may not be such a problem if you have other teachers willing to help out at your institution, but for me it’s perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the course.

Inside the classroom the things I have learnt have definitely made a difference. Where I’ve found the greatest difference is teaching small elementary classes. The situation that I’m in dictates that I never know what I’m teaching until I arrive in front of the class, and the book we use in no way takes advantage of the small class size. The techniques and theories I have learnt on the course mean that I’m much better at creating classes on the hoof, particularly out of the reading material, which is completely useless otherwise. At high school level, with unwieldy classes (full of fairly unwieldy students) things can get a little more frustrating. A lot of the techniques have learnt about on the course definitely seem more suited to keener students, and I’m frequently frustrated by my attempts to introduce more communicative techniques into the classroom. That said, some of my best lesson ideas have also come out of the time I spend studying – the wall behind my desk is covered in post-its with lesson ideas that I’ve scrawled in the middle of a study period (see photo above).

The best aspect of the course so far has been the opportunity to design and carry out some classroom research. I looked into the effect of student expertise on genuine communication, and it really opened my eyes to the processes of communication that go on in the classroom. Part of the process involved recording conversations with my students, which is the first time I’ve watched myself teach, and the 5 minute clips I gathered helped me an incredible amount. It also opened my eyes to the possibilities of referential questions in the classroom, and how they can be used to spark genuine discussion, and the knowledge I gained has produced some promising results with my high-schoolers. In general, the opportunity to analyse what you do in class in real detail is a great one.

The detail with which you can study something on an MA course is a bit of a double-edged sword. It means that while you can learn a lot about one area, many other areas are completely neglected. I found that I didn’t have time to finish all of the reading for the course as it wasn’t in my area of research. I also found that the course materials opened my eyes to all kinds of avenues for study which I didn’t have time to explore, frustratingly. I think that feeling may get worse as the course goes on, because the teaching module is now finished and we’re into the grammar and sociolinguistics modules. On reflection, I think perhaps following a straight TESOL masters may have been a better choice.

Still, I am enjoying the course, and it has definitely been useful. However, I don’t feel like I’m anywhere near finished with my teacher education, and I’m already looking at what I might do post MA to continue my academic career.

Where would you go next if you were me?


What’s it like being a distance MA TESOL student? (Part 1)

Many an hour I've spent here...

About 6 months ago I began an MA TESOL and Applied Linguistics course with a British university. I’m studying part-time and via distance learning, a route that made a lot of sense to me as I can continue working while studying, and so build experience and avoid debt. Having just finished my first module, I thought I would pen a few thoughts on my experience to help anyone considering an MA.

What’s the course like?

My course is four modules plus a dissertation, covering L2 teaching and learning; grammar, phonology and pronunciation; sociolinguistics and then two optional half-modules. The structure of the modules seems to be a number of introductory units to topics within that module, with reflective activities in each and recommendations for further reading. Assessment is in the form of one or two extended pieces of writing. In addition, there are a few group online activities aimed at encouraging students to reflect as a community on their teaching practice.

What’s it like going back to education?

I finished my undergraduate studies in 2004, and was pretty happy to be done with education for a while. I guess I always thought I’d go back eventually, but I knew that it would have to be to do something that I really wanted to study. I’d say that I originally went to university more to be able to drink cheap beer for three years than out of any overwhelming desire to educate myself about English Literature. I often think those three years would have better spent doing something else, though without a degree I wouldn’t have been able to get my current job, or in fact to join the MA course at all.

Anyway, I’d say the major difference between undergraduate and post-graduate education is that post-graduate is all about the education, particularly via distance. Given that my student union is 5,505 miles away currently, it means I have to focus on my studies rather than on the foamy, hoppy pints of amber goodness on sale at half the regular price. This is probably a good thing. What has struck me is how much better a student I am now compared to my undergraduate years. I’m more disciplined, focused and I manage my time so much better than I did when I was young. This has a lot to do with figuring out when I work best, but I’ll talk more about that in the next section. It also makes it much easier having a professional purpose, something I definitely lacked in my first stint in education.

All that has lead me to being a very autonomous learner. I guess through studying Korean I’d got a lot better before I started the course, but rest assured you have to be able to deal with working alone, motivating yourself and organising your time properly if you’re planning to do an MA. Your tutor is there to help you, but mostly with coursework, and certainly not with nagging you about deadlines.

One interesting difference that I have noted between my pre and post-graduate experiences is my writing. One of the skills that I learnt as an undergraduate was how to sweat a fully formed, final draft essay out of my red-bull and Cutter’s Choice tobacco addled brain at 4am in the morning. The essays really weren’t that bad either. Nowadays I seem to have lost this skill entirely – writing is a real effort and often involves forcing myself to put half-formed and horribly expressed ideas on the page, which are then refined over a couple of drafts. I don’t know what to put this down to – perhaps I just have higher standards these days. One theory I have is that through teaching process writing it’s now something I am comfortable with and believe in, and it makes a lot more sense for me to use it. Whatever the explanation, I do write better now than I did as an undergraduate, but it takes me a lot longer to get there.

 How does it fit in with daily life?

Last semester I taught up to 24 hours per week, across 12 grade levels and four different schools. I’d guess that in terms of school life I’m one of the busier teachers in South Korea, but I just about manage to pack all of my teaching and prep into a 40 hour week. The MA course recommends a further 10-20 hours a week of study, the lower end of which I found pretty achievable. There were two big things that helped me with this: establishing a routine and learning to work on the move.

If you’re studying around full-time work (or studying at all I suppose) it’s crucial to figure out when you’re going to do it. The biggest thing was figuring out how to work with, not against my body-clock. I discovered that I tend to have a really tired phase between about 3 and 6 in the afternoon, after which I’m fine. Initially I tried working straight after school, but found that I was either falling asleep, or thinking too much about that day’s classes. Once I changed my routine to exercising straight after school, then eating dinner and relaxing for an hour, I found I had more energy and a clearer head and studying was much easier. I found it was great to have a complete break from thinking about teaching too; with a job an MA and a blog I now probably spend a good 60-70 hours a week teaching, or thinking, writing or reading about it. Sometimes a guy just needs a little break.

The other huge difference was learning to work on the move. Before the course started I treated myself to a super-portable laptop and an Amazon Kindle. Both of these tools have meant I can work in what would otherwise be dead-times. Living in rural Korea means I spend a long time on the bus, but it’s become one of my favourite places to work. You’re stuck in your seat with no internet, no distractions and for the most part, peace and quiet. In a 2 hour journey to Seoul I can get through almost an entire unit.

The one thing in my life that has suffered is my Korean study. It was going beautifully pre-MA, and I’d got from survival to the top end of elementary in about 6 months, and could feel myself making progress almost every week. Now I’d say I’ve got to a low intermediate level, but progress is much slower. Still, I try to find half an hour each morning to improve, and slowly but surely it’s creeping up. However, this is the only major sacrifice I’ve had to make for my studies, which was probably a lot less than I was expecting.

Wow, turns out I’ve blithered on for almost 1,200 words and only said about half of what I’d like to. I think this will probably turn into a two-parter then. Check back next week for how I think the MA has affected me as a teacher, and whether I think it’s been worth it so far. In the meantime, if you have questions, or want to share MA experiences, the comments section is just below.



KOTESOL National Conference 2011

Last weekend saw me heading off to Daejeon for the KOTESOL national conference at KAIST. It was only my second ever teachers conference, and I was perhaps expecting something a little larger than the 250 or so person event that it turned out to be, but that was mostly due to my previous conference being the heaving scrum of English professionals that is the International Conference. From talking to a Daejeon chapter member I gathered that the turn-out was reasonably high, so congratulations to the Daejeon chapter for organising an interesting and useful conference.

The plenary speaker was one of the people who I most admire in ELT, Jason Renshaw, in what could be his last ever ELT related appearance. His take on where materials design is headed was not particularly new for regular readers of his blog, but the vision of fully digitised, modifiable, selectable materials where the author and publisher can be immediately questioned is certainly an enticing one. What was interesting and inspiring was his “DIY” message, that any English teacher with a small amount of technical knowledge can circumnavigate the traditional ESL apparatus of schools and publishers and go it alone. If you’re interested I suggest reading Jason’s blog for more info. Who knows, this could be something that I find myself trying sometime in the future.

I also saw a slightly disappointing presentation entitled Advancing TESOL in the 21st Century by simply doing less by Kevin Giddens. It suffered most from having an introduction which built up expectations of the presentation that it was never going to reach. Kevin showed us a video about a Japanese botanist, who created a system of farming in which nature did most of the work, yet still produced equal or greater yields. This farmer stopped flooding his rice paddies, and Kevin used this example to call for a reflection on teaching practices that we do just because they have always been done. At this point I was expecting something revolutionary, perhaps that he had stopped talking to his students entirely, or stopped writing on the board, as maybe expected of “Do nothing teaching”. What we got was three examples of teachers who had adapted their lesson plans on the fly to take advantage of learner interest, which while laudable classroom practice is nothing particularly revolutionary, and very little from Kevin himself. I’m sure there are elements of our teaching practice that could be stripped away as unnecessary, but I don’t feel that this presentation took us much closer to finding them.

The most useful presentation I went to was Julien McNulty’s on sentence building and editing. His method of building sentences from coloured blocks is something I hope to adapt for all of my classes who can actually write. Sentence structure is a huge problem for a lot of my early writers, so I look forward to several weeks of directing students to pick up red squares for nouns, and green triangles for verbs. For editing purposes, Julien’s idea was that it is rarely meaning that has to be edited, but just the number of words. Thus students are encouraged to use ‘Hemingways’, and reduce the length of sentences or utterances.

I also found some useful ways to present grammar in Maria Pinto’s presentation Grammar patterns: More conversation, less teacher talk about the QASI system and how it can be expanded to all forms of question grammar. A little way in to the presentation the basic grammar left me feeling like I was being taught to suck eggs by my granddaughter, but the key is in the presentation and I have already used this approach in a lesson this week. I also did some revision of giving instructions and content checking questions with Joanne McQuaig, which led to my instructions being (rightly) torn apart. This is something I do need to work on, though I would like to have had more strategy than examples (but perhaps I’m just bitter).

Finally, a quick shout to fellow Gangwon chapter member Andee Pollard who presented his research findings in the face of relentless questioning from a member of the audience. He may have persuaded me to submit my own attempts at writing Korean to lang-8.com .

That was all I got to see – how about you? Who did you see? What did you learn? What have you used since? Leave a comment.