Tag Archives: Twitter

My Podcast Debut!

A couple of weeks ago I sat down in front of my computer to be interviewed by Brad West (@bradonomics) for the englishinasia.com podcast. We talked about the path that led me from Guatemala to Korea, what it’s like working in a tiny mountain town, and how to make the jump to teaching university. We also touched on what it’s like to study a distance MA in TESOL, and how to be a social media entrepreneur that doesn’t make any money!

If this sounds like your kind of thing, I strongly advise you to head to the link below and have a listen:




Guest post: A crash course in Korean Culture (please) by Sophia Khan

Today I think this little corner of the internet has pulled off something of a coup, a guest post by the blogless ELT person who I would most like to hear from™. That person is of course, the wonderful Sophia Khan (@sophiakhan4), who has been very generous with her comments here and on many other people’s blogs, and an always entertaining and enlightening presence on my Twitter feed. For those of to who are not familiar with Sophia, she describes herself as:

Half-Bengali Brit in Australia via France with 2 wonderful half-Canadian kids. Teacher, trainer, editor, mother, nerd, interested in stuff.

To that I would add ELT thinker, regional PLN guru, international webinar presenter and all round font of knowledge and discussion. In summary, you are strongly advised to read what she has to say here, which is…

Hi all, this is @sophiakhan4 doing a guest post for @breathyvowel…Alex kindly invited me to do a guest post on his blog a while back, and after a short but heartfelt exchange of tweets recently on “Korean conundrums” (with my fellow #AusELTer @trylingual too), he suggested that this might be a good topic.  So here we are. Thanks for inviting me, Alex 🙂

Well, I don’t know who said this but I’m sure somebody did: we don’t teach courses – we teach students. So why do I feel like I’ve been a million in-house PD sessions that focus on teachers teaching courses, without ever attending a session simply on who my students are? Of course, from an individual perspective this wouldn’t make sense – every class would be different – but from a cultural perspective, there’s definitely something to be learned. What do students of a particular culture expect? What do they respond to? What don’t they like? What’s ok to say and what isn’t? In short – how can we best reach them?

I’m based in Australia, and over here South Korean students have always been one of the dominant groups*  in my classes – sometimes even the only group. As a result, I’ve often wished fervently for a bit more understanding of Korean culture. It often seems to me that (in a multilingual context) the students’ own culture is swept under the carpet with a blasé “Well they’re here now”. But surely a better understanding of where our students are coming from leads to better teaching and learning.

So if a new teacher were to ask me for some pointers on Korean students, this is what I would say (I know it’s very generalised, and I don’t mean to stereotype, just to try and touch on some things that I wish I hadn’t had to learn the hard way – please let me know if I’m off track!):

1. Korean students have often been rigorously educated and may find it hard to accept a more “relaxed”, communicative teaching style. They are also used to a more teacher-centred, authoritarian style in class. This means it can be hard to get a true grasp of how they’re feeling about your course. They may sound very positive when they talk to you, and they may seem to be enjoying classes – but in their exit evaluations you suddenly discover that they wanted a “more strict” or “serious” teacher and “didn’t learn anything”. Some suggestions:

  • Make sure they are clear on the pedagogical value of what you are doing (e.g. by habitually outlining your aims and writing them on the board)
  • Take the time to explain why you are doing things in a certain way – for example, why you are using a task-based approach to grammar rather than a deductive, presentation-based one (this came up in a recent KELTchat on TBL).

2. If students do a placement test to determine their level and class, you can probably expect a few Korean students to complain that they need to be in a higher level than they are. Sometimes this is a genuine concern on their part (e.g., if there’s one thing many Korean students feel they “know”, it’s grammar, and 9 times out of 10 you’ll be teaching from a grammar-based coursebook). Sometimes their actual level seems irrelevant; all they want is a higher level on their certificate (this type of student may think persistence will win the day. One manager I knew had a Korean student in her office ALL AFTERNOON trying to negotiate a change of level. She left her office in the end; he stayed). Some suggestions: 

  • Acknowledge the student’s strengths but point out the reasons why they are not ready for the next level yet. Remember the idea that language classes aren’t just about grammar may be new, so explain in terms of the 4 macro skills and show the CEFR or similar descriptors if you need to (this also lends face validity to what you’re saying).
  • Ask what the learner would like to do in and out of class to help work on those areas.
  • Close the discussion firmly. Say something like “Great, we can definitely do some work on XYZ, I’m really looking forward to working on this with you. Let’s see how we go this week and talk again on Friday.” Then hope they don’t rematerialise on Friday, but if they do, rinse and repeat 🙂 

3. Korean students sometimes complain about lack of correction – some even say they want their teacher to correct everything. Some suggestions:

  • Make your correction policy clear – explain what you will correct and why (e.g., in freer speaking activities you won’t correct anything on the spot but you will take note of errors for correction later – this was touched on in a recent #AusELT chat on speaking).
  • Make sure there is a regular correction focus in your class, and explore varied ways of doing this. 

4. In your multilingual class, you might feel that your Korean students are being quite insular – living together, sticking together at school, using L1 in class, eating only Korean food and generally not taking advantage of the rich multicultural environment around them. My only suggestion:

  • Let it go. You can encourage use of English in class, encourage getting to know the local culture as way to better learn English, try to demonstrate this, but otherwise…let adults make their own choices. They’ll get there in their own time and their own way. (When I go and live in Korea, I’m sure I’ll be doing a fair amount of hanging out with other anglophones, eating sandwiches and speaking in my L1 too.) 

5. Young adult Korean students may not have experienced of the type of academic skills valued in a Western context (e.g., critical thinking, articulating and arguing your viewpoint, evaluating, etc.). Plagiarism can be an issue. Some suggestions: 

  • Sit down and talk to the student concerned – even the whole class – and make sure the issue is understood.
  • Provide strategies for proper citation and avoiding plagiarism.
  • Give them a bit of leeway at first, e.g. a ‘do-over’ rather than a formal ‘resubmit’.
  • Remember this is a process, and your job is to give practical help, not be angry.

And that’s about it. But before I go just a few general things I’ve learned:

  • I had no idea just how ‘rigorous’ Korean education could be until I read this post by @alexswalsh. I’ve since learned that South Korea has one of the highest suicide rates in the world**.
  • Be a little wary when you have Korean and Japanese students together. There’s a complicated history there. I’m ashamed to say I don’t know much about it (if anyone has a link to a non-Wikipedia potted history I’d appreciate it) but there have been tears in my class (again) on this count.
  • Maybe it’s something to do with that beautiful alien-heiroglyphic script of theirs, but I’ve found most Korean students can draw really well and make beautiful charts and posters. Exploit this!
  • Make sure you have been to a “Korean BBQ” and that you know at least what kimchi and bulgogi is. Plus you will like it and (in a multilingual context) it’s a great option for an end of course meal.
  • Don’t ever do a foreign language lesson that involves drilling the word ‘cheval’ (French for ‘horse’). I kept saying it, wondering why everyone was giggling and looking shocked instead of repeating. I suspect it is male-appendage-related in Korean. Please enlighten me 🙂

And that really is it. I’d be interested in knowing what you guys think. Have I missed something important? What do you think teachers need to know about their Korean students? How can we understand our Korean students better?

Australian Education International

** http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suicide_in_South_Korea

#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:


Integrating Technology into the Writing Process

Technology on a North Korean spy submarine (click photo for more details).

This blog has been rather quiet of late, due  to a perfect storm of a full work schedule (now happily coming to an end for the year), MA studies and some personal and professional upheaval. This is the first time I’ve really had to write for several weeks (and I even had to get up 15 minutes early to do this) but I thought it might be useful and interesting to share my first foray into teacher training and presenting.

A couple of months back I attended the annual team teaching seminar for our provinces native speaking teachers and our co-teachers. While I was there I met a teacher from the local city, who invited me to speak at the workshops that they have each semester. I was free to choose the topic, so I opted for something that was causing some heated debate at the training weekend. Korea is, not before time, changing the way that it examines English at school level. Finally there will be a writing and speaking component to English examinations here which should be fully rolled out by 2015. This is a matter of some concern to Korean teachers, who naturally enough are wondering how they are going to cope with the extra marking, and how to find time in class to practise. I believe that there is considerable scope for using technology to help them on both counts.

The theme of the workshop then, was a vision of the writing process with web 2.0 integrated at every stage to allow for ease of sharing, peer review, working in teams and working outside the classroom. I’ve posted a link to the Prezi, plus the handout that I made to go with it below. It’s probably worth tackling the two together, as the Prezi is fairly sparse, and the handout says more or less what I did in the workshop. (I’d have loved to embed the Prezi here, but I can’t seem to get it to word. I try the Gigya method but just get a message that the Prezi does not exist. I know the sharing settings are ‘public’ as I can access the Prezi when not signed in. If anyone has any ideas on what I’m doing wrong, please leave me a comment.)

Prezi here.

The above was my first attempt at a Prezi, and was probably the most interesting thing about the workshop for the attendees. There were audible gasps from some of the audience, who had never seen it used before, so much so that I had to give an impromptu ten minute Prezi workshop at the end to those interested. Not easy for someone whose skills are at best “in development” in that area.

The workshop was mostly a success, but did suffer one fairly major disaster when Twitter refused to work. Only one of the attendees was able to sign up, and the rest were denied either sign up or sign in, due to what seemed to be a problem at Twitter’s end. I’ve had this happen before too with students trying to sign up. I guess the message is be aware that things could go wrong, and have a  backup plan, especially for mass Twitter sign ups.

The backup plan was to use online noticeboards (Wallwisher in this case) which turned out to be a great success, and in fact far more efficient and effective than using Twitter (though there are still good reasons to use Twitter too). It really is a great way to get a lot of student ideas on to the board in a very short space of time, and then for everyone to be able to play around with them as they want. The best thing is the lack of chalky/inky hands, and tennis elbow for the teacher. You can have a look at the results here.

The other thing I want to point out in this post is the jigsaw writing activity. This was another real success, and given that I have never seen it done anywhere else I want to claim it for my own here. I really think that this is useful both for building cohesion skills, but also to get students to understand the structure of a successful paragraph, and what it takes to achieve it.

The only real disappointment of the workshop was not having enough time to tackle everything. In the end I only got half of what I wanted to do done. At first when I was asked to give a three hour workshop I wondered how I was going to fill all that time. It turns out I needn’t have worried, and much like teaching, presenting takes twice as long as you think it will.

I hope that you enjoy the Prezi and the handout, and find them useful. If there’s anything that you want more detail on, leave me a comment or get in touch and I’ll be happy to help you out.


The Tech Diaries #2: The Dawn Chorus

First Tweets – Dawn Chorus by karenwithak on Flickr

This is the second in a series of posts detailing my attempts to introduce some technology into my high school classroom. You can read the first post here, where I told the story of how my classroom came to be, and outlined three principles for following a more technological path in helping my learners. Having just read the #eltchat summary from last week, it seems I’m not the only one thinking and doing things like this.

My first principle for introducing technology read as follows:

1. Introduce technology in the classroom that will allow and encourage students to communicate and learn with me outside it.

The reason for this was simple. I get to see each of my high school learners for 50 minutes each week. This is barely enough time to review what we did the week before, let alone get anything done. What I have been wanting to do for a while is extend my reach into the students lives a little more, and give those who want to practice the chance to do a little more in a way that fits into their busy lives (and mine). Twitter gives me exactly this chance.

As a start,  I have used Twitter in lessons to get answers to questions from the entire group. One question asked how we could use Twitter to practice English, the other asked for opinions on a music video. Groups of two or three students worked to construct a tweet and send it to the feed on the IWB. I’d already written a blog post on the potential effects of Twitter on classroom discourseand a lot of the positive things I predicted did indeed come about, such as more student responses, self-nomination (admittedly prompted by the offer of a reward) and answers which showed some development.

I’ve been working hard recently on making the atmosphere in my classroom one in which students want to contribute to a discussion. At my school, shyness, low-levels and a degree of apathy all lead to students not always being keen to put across their point of view. Using Twitter definitely changed that and students were voluntarily contributing things. Furthermore, when asked follow-up questions to their Tweets, students seemed more willing to answer, and explain further the ideas they had tweeted. This echoes a point made by Geoff Thompson about getting students to accept a part in an interaction. He suggests asking a yes/no question followed by a follow-up wh- question (Thompson 1996). Anecdotal evidence here would suggest that an initial idea tweeted plays a similar part in accepting an interaction which can then be developed through further questioning. An additional nice point here is that it gives the teacher a little more time to come up with good follow up questions, which lead the students on through their thinking, and are appropriate for their language level.

I also noticed that students took a lot more care over crafting their tweets than they would with a solely oral answer. Oral activities with my students tend to involve them saying just enough to merit sitting down and shutting up for the rest of the lesson (often just a single word, and rarely anything grammatical). However, with time to think about their answers, they became more complex and much better structured. According to Swain’s output theory (1985) it is more through the use, not reception of language that we are forced to concentrate on the structure. Thus, perhaps, the more students focus on constructing output the better it will be for their development. Another big advantage is that grammatical problems arise before the question is answered, meaning that I can deal with them with a small group of students who need that advice, rather than with the whole class, many of whom will be at too high or low a level for it. This helps me a lot with developing a learner-centred classroom.

There would also seem to be practical advantages to using Twitter in the classroom. One is that it completely obviates the need to take notes. If answers are given in tweet form, the transcript can provide all of the data easily. In addition, tweets can be looked at, picked apart and re-sent if the meaning isn’t clear. Finally, they can be collected and analysed later in a kind of pedagogic corpus, which helps inform what needs to be taught in future lessons. Also, it saves a lot of chalk stains and sore wrists. In class, it makes it a lot easier to refer to what other people say – at no point in my class is everyone listening, so having everthing readable makes sense (this isn’t always a positive for listening skills of course).

At this point I will admit that the activity could equally have been done orally with groups, and answers prepared on paper and then delivered through speech. I don’t know (and it would be interesting to find out) whether it was the preparation time or the medium that really made the difference. Nevertheless, one of the things that I accepted in undertaking this project was that sometimes it would be necessary to use technology in the classroom where it was not strictly needed, in order to show how it worked, and try to encourage students to continue using it outside the classroom. In this respect I’ve had a little bit of success – I now have six or so students who tweet me almost daily, with a few more who enter my weekly extension competitions (link). It’s going to be a long game getting more of them involved, but for now at least, I’m going to keep trying.

I’m already up towards 1,000 words of fairly positive comment here. There have been negatives as well, which I’d like to deal with in a separate post. For now, if you have comments, or any advice, especially if you’re doing something similar, I’d be delighted if you’d leave them below.



Swain, M. (1985). ‘Communicative Competence: Some Roles of Comprehensible Input and Comprehensible Output in its Development’ in Gass, S. & Madden, C. (eds.)  Input and Second Language Acquisition. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Thompson, G. (1997). ‘Training Teachers to ask Questions’. ELT Journal, 51:2, 99-105.

Classroom Twitscourse

Tweet up

Tweet up by Toni Barros on Flickr

I spent a good half an hour today when I should have been working reading an article on CNN about a US middle school teacher using Twitter in the classroom which Jeff Thomas linked to on his Tech the Plunge blog (or there’s a direct link to CNN here). In attempting to answer Jeff’s question of whether I would be comfortable using Twitter in the classroom, I had a look at the article in terms of classroom discourse.

The video clip in the article showed the teacher asking a question and the students tweeting their answers to an interactive whiteboard, and then showing a video which the students could tweet their responses to. The great thing about this is that, as mentioned on the video, it genuinely does give students more of a voice. Firstly, students can self-nominate themselves to answer the question, which means that they are answering because they want to, not because they have to. Leo van Lier suggests that in order to learn, a person must be active. Tweeting allows the student to be involved in the lesson, and this engagement should lead to greater learning . Compare this to a teacher-nominated student, who answers because he or she has to. I would imagine that this student, while answering the question, is not nearly as ‘active’ as the tweeters, and is in fact trying to provide the minimum amount of information possible to satisfy the teacher and finish his turn.

Another aspect of this method of teaching is the bulk of answers that the teacher appears to be receiving for his questions. In a traditional classroom, once a teacher’s question has been answered, there is little scope for students to answer it again, or repeat a point that another student made. The question is closed as soon as one person has spoken. This is what Coulthard and Sinclair defined as an IRF (initiation, response, feedback) sequence. In a Twitter based classroom, everyone has the chance to answer the question, and their answers have equal value – more of an IRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRF (to be pronounced like the sound I make when I stretch in the mornings) sequence. This should be motivating for students who need a little time to think before they answer, as their answers can be added to the discourse as long as the enquiry remains open. It may also be beneficial for those who express themselves well, and who take their time to craft their tweets. Indeed the teacher in the video points out how much he likes one of the student’s phrasings.

So far, so positive. Twitter would seem to give students motivation to contribute to classroom discourse, engage them more and make the classroom more of an equal place to air their thoughts. However, what kind of discourse are they contributing to? While many students can answer, the video doesn’t show what happens to the tweets. My concern is that the “IRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRF” sequence, while allowing more responses, is still a three turn act in an exchange between teacher and student, and doesn’t exactly encourage a more dialogic approach which would suit a nuanced subject like history. For one, the time taken to construct such a dialogue, even for fast typists is far longer than doing the equivalent in speech. However, this is not to say that the tweets couldn’t be used as a springboard for further class discussion.

My other concern is the 140 character limit. While I concede that it often leads to increasing creativity in language use as people try to squeeze their thoughts into a tweetable chunk, there really is only so much that can be said in a single tweet. I find that through my own Twitter use, I have a tendency to get overly “soundbitey”, and be forced into removing a lot of the subtleties of what I want to say. Once again, I wonder whether this kind of approach is really suitable for a subject like history.

So with this in mind, would I be comfortable using Twitter in the classroom? As an EFL teacher, I welcome anything which gets my students contributing, especially those who need a little help to overcome shyness and find their voices. However, I’d want to limit its use to very specific instances, as one of my students’ best sources of speaking practice is answering questions in class. Unlike a regular school classroom, a language classroom is one where the language is both the content and the vehicle for teaching, and audio input is extremely important. In no way would I want it to replace spoken communication in the classroom. That said, for things like reactions to video or musical input, brainstorming ideas or gathering responses to questions Twitter seems to be a great tool to start discussions which could then be continued in oral work.

So, I guess my answer to Jeff’s question is a cautious “yes”, but with the reservations noted above. I’ll turn this over to you now. Do you use Twitter in the classroom? What do you use it for? If you don’t, would you be willing to give it a try? I’m interested to hear your thoughts.



– Sinclair, J. and Coulthard, R.M. (1975) Towards an Analysis of Discourse. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

– van Lier, L. (1996) Interaction in the Language Curriculum: Awareness, Autonomy and Authenticity. London: Longman.