Pruning Criminal Vocabulary and Other Reflections

When I first started teaching EFL back in the who knows when, a favourite lesson of mine was the vocabulary of crime and punishment. I would link it in to narrative tenses, perhaps, or describing people, using the context of witness statements (and on one rather naff occasion, wanted posters). It never occurred to me at the time that, with the exception of crime in the news, it’s a pretty specialist lexical field. Nevertheless, I did it with the classes I taught, and relevance be damned, because a) it was fun, b) everyone needs to know the difference between robber and burglar, and c) we could almost always end up talking about movies.

When I started to teach ESOL to immigrant students, however, I started to become much more fussy about the vocabulary taught and the topics used – taking into account more of the context of students’ lives, maintaining relevance to learner experiences, and blah di blah di righteous, worthy and well-meaning blah. In more recent years, particularly but not exclusively with higher level groups, my approach to topics and vocabulary has become much less rigid all round. We don’t “do” vocabulary any more, I rarely go into lessons with a neat menu of vocabulary items, and my lexical learning outcomes are suitably non-specific. Instead, vocabulary tends to appear as and when it needs to, making it both more interesting and more useful to students, thus ticking both boxes of challenging and relevant.

Take today, for example. The class are doing a mini-qualification in Living & Working in the UK as a part of their wider study. In one section, students have to write down their free time activities and who they do them with, before finding out about where in the community they can do them (there was a lot of “ignore coronavirus” at this stage). One little discussion from this linked into gardening as a pastime, and the need arose in the discussion for “prune” “cut back” and (my favourite) the verb “deadhead” – all terms of extreme relevance in any discussion of gardens in the UK in November. The words thus supplied, the students could then continue to explain what they were doing in the garden at the moment.

Later on, I’d developed a powerpoint made up of pictures to prompt a discussion about rights and responsibilities – different types of families, elections, health, that sort of fairly predictable thing. The first slide featured a photo of a couple of police officers, one of a PCSO, and a photo of a court – aiming to stimulate the concepts of the right to a fair trial, and a responsibility to be generally law-abiding. It was entirely successful in this, but only after a barrage of discussions, questions and answers which developed into this somewhat scruffy collection of vocab (what can I say, it started well with lawyer/barrister/solicitor and went downhill from there)….

The key here, though, was that almost all of this language was developed out of reforming and rephrasing what students were struggling to say with their current language – “settle out of court” for example, came from a question about whether it was possible to do this in a criminal case (I said “no”, which I hope was right). So I made sure the student in question used the expression, and then we followed through with the discussion. At least two other students deployed the term after that, which is a small win.

It is exactly this kind of conversation which is hard to reproduce online. Not impossible, by any measure; such things could develop in a well managed video based lesson, or through asynchronous online chat, although it would take significantly longer to get to this volume and (in places) complexity.

And it is exactly this kind of conversation which I would like to use to build an entire course – emergent, relevant and needed language, some of which may arise purely in one context, never to be seen again, and some to return again and again and again. “Torrential rain” came up in a lesson on collocations, and has returned several times, much like the rain which inspired it in the first place, but its collocationally restricted companion, “rancid butter”, has been significant in its absence (due, I think, to refrigerators and low fat spread). This is the challenge and the joy of working with emergent language – rather like throwing mud at a wall, some language will stick, and other language will slide down into an ignominious lexical slurry to be forgotten. I don’t believe for a second, however, that careful pre-selection by the teacher, is likely to be any more effective, and while convenient lexical grouping might provide a framework on which to hang the language, it’s not in any way essential. Instead, I think it’s the emergence of language, the student noticing that language, and it’s ability to fill a gap in the students’ need to communicate which causes the “sticking”.

All of which is very unscientific, and based on observations, hunches, and vague memories of long-ago read articles, rather than any kind of sound principle. But it feels right, as much as that is anything to go by, and is worth exploring not only as an off-chance in a one-off lesson, but also considering how to take emergent language and language learning opportunities like this and turn them into some form of solid, manageable course which intrigues me. Luckily I will have the chance to explore this in the next couple of years, and get a little academic recognition in the form of an MPhil, about which I am abundantly excited.

“Well,” he said, “I’m back.”

So, how’s it going with you? I’ve been teaching in a classroom now for almost a full half term. That’s right, back in actual classrooms with actual students doing actual lessons. Well, sort of. The model we’re using is a fifty-fifty model: recruit a given class to full capacity (ish), divide it into two cohorts (bubbles?) and then each cohort gets the same lesson face to face, and then the rest of the work is remote study.

What have I picked up from this so far, then?

The classroom itself is weird. Each room I am in has been laid out with strict reminders about social distancing, don’t move the tables, etc. There is sanitiser in each room, and a large, if depressingly plastic, tub of wipes (one of the most depressing side effects of this last six months has been the rise in bloody plastic bags and containers, and morons dropping non biodegradable face masks quite literally everywhere). This has created new routines – for example, wiping down tables at the beginning and end of lessons. More dramatically, however, it’s created a change in the way that whole swathes of student-student and teacher-student interactions take place: students can’t move together to work, and I can’t walk around giving careful comments on work. So I am restricted to staying at the front of the room, or walking at a distance occasionally. Powerpoint has become a much more vital tool than it had been, as it’s easier to manage from a fixed position, and the animations and other features mean you can create a more interactive process.

My first concern was, however, how the hell am I going to manage speaking and listening. It was, of all my concerns, the biggest, but as it turned out, the most unnecessary. Because yes, a group of 15-20 who are talking at a 2 metre distance might sound like living hell, the reality is that the groups are half that or less, meaning that a group of 10 is quite easy to manage and 6-8 is a piece of cake: interactions are more muted anyway, and with some judicious positioning you can often even listen to them talk. Even when I can’t have them move at all, I get the students to sit in different positions each week so I at least get some verbal feedback on speaking done.

That said, however, classroom interactions have become very much more teacher led. Gone are “check/discuss/compare with your partner” and instead we have extension tasks, self assessment and whole group feedback. None of which are wrong, as such, but it’s beginning to grate. Just today, for example, during a reading based lesson, it felt like an exam, not a lesson, as students worked their way through the reading tasks.

Another thing which is beginning to grate is the repetition. I am lucky/unlucky enough to teach the same level all week. On the plus side, there is plenty of time for planning – after all, one set of resources scanned and printed for all 50 or so students I’m teaching across the week is not a great challenge, and there is the pleasing way that explanations, discussions and whiteboard work develops across the week. And sometimes the first lesson is the zinger, with everything falling into place and then all the subsequent ones feeling a little, well, stale. Hopefully not for the students, but you do sometimes feel that you’ve exhausted the materials.

And this is probably the thing I am finding the toughest. The design of the course means that in theory at least, each pair of groups is in some way the same group, and therefore need to follow the same route. Now, if you’re not in ESOL, or not into this sort of thing, you’d probably be chuffed to bits:”‘Kin ‘ell, mate, planning one lesson a week and posting work online for the other one? Dream, innit.” And it is nice when your energy is a bit low and you just need to get to the end of the day. But I can already sense groups drifting in slightly different directions, with slightly different priorities and different focuses. They are also bonding as groups – certainly they don’t think of themselves as half a group.

What’s working, then? An initial foray into plickers has been fun, but the edge has come off a bit, and I’m more relying on mini whiteboards, or simply (if the group is small enough) using answers one by one. On Monday, for example, I had students write descriptive sentences about pictures, and the process of feeding them back one by one proved immensely productive in terms of emergent language learning opportunities. But this was only possibly because of the smaller group size – a group of 18 or so and it would have been laborious and deadly slow-paced. So what is happening is that the smaller group size is paying off with better individual feedback on this kind of thing, rather than the “quick tick & check with your partner”.

Even simply showing the answers on the board has been more productive due to the smaller classes. Students clearly feel more comfortable contributing in these environments, with a number of students who had been quite reticent in whole class discussions (which I didn’t rely on as a result) becoming much more confident in their larger group interactions.

But what about the online? Honestly? It’s not been a roaring success. We’ve had hiccups with access for a lot of students due to some technical issues, meaning that access was limited. But also we’ve gone weirdly old school and started basing the language input stuff on a course book which the students have bought, and its this which has been a roaring success.

I lay the blame for tech at the door of mobile phones. Students consistently report not enjoying or being able to do reading on a phone. This is partly a formatting issue, and partly a digital skills issue – to read a text and answer questions requires multi-window work on a computer, and on a phone this is real pain in the backside. Listening is better, thanks to those amazing people at the British Council’s LearnEnglish site meaning that these can work quite well for remote learning by phone. Reading now is often given at the end of the previous lesson, as well as on Teams, so that I know all the students can access it, but the online element is fast becoming the back up and the extension, and not the essential element that it perhaps is meant to be.

But to be honest I don’t actually care. I want my students to engage with learning in the classroom and at home, and if books and paper is the way to do this then I couldn’t give a damn. This engagement is infinitely more important than using technology for the sake of it.

Anyway, this is a post which has taken me most of the half term to write, and which has grown and mutated as we have gone along. So apologies if it’s a bit long, but well done for getting to the end, and even more well done for making it to the end of your half term!

Hanging up one hat, picking up another?

Funny thing. I started writing these posts back in the early part of the last decade, not long after starting as an advanced practitioner at college. For those who don’t know, an advanced practitioner in colleges is a kind of senior teacher role focussed on supporting, training and developing others. There’s a really useful summary of the role and it’s importance in a college here . I find it odd, then, that while I’ve written plenty which is pertinent to the role, I’ve never written about the role itself and what it’s like.

Let me start with a straight up affirmation – it is always, always, a really interesting job. During the last ten or so years, I’ve been lucky enough to meet and work with people from more or less every part of FE; foundation learning, vocational, academic, English and maths, and adult and community learning. I’ve learned so much about the breadth of post-16 learning and its importance for individuals, their communities and for society as a whole. One of the best, indeed, the core challenge of the role has been supporting groups and individuals with their own practice and seeing what they have gone on to become.

I’ve worked closely with a team of fellow advanced practitioners; as amazing a group of people as I’ve been lucky enough to meet, and with a range of managers, all of whom have been dedicated and focussed, and as diverse as the subjects they lead. Piggybacking from the role within college as well, it has encouraged me to look beyond the boundaries of the institution and connect with people across the country, firstly through the LSIS (now ETF) Research Development Fellowship in 2011, and since then through a whole range of activities, research led and sometimes more community led, culminating these last two years in the APConnect project, all of which has been not only a huge learning curve, but also a dynamic and exciting one.

It’s not been without it’s more difficult times, of course, but these have, at the same time, been a part of the joy. Supporting staff struggling with a grade 4 lesson, and unpicking the emotional fallout from bruised professional confidence that this grading caused is one of the things which has been with me all the way, but which meant it was a real pleasure to be involved in groups discussing how to get rid of this damaging system. And watching, no, helping, teachers move from a position of reduced confidence to being able to kick ass in the future is part of that. It’s been an exciting challenge as well standing ground against systems designed for the FE mainstream, and constructively (mostly) coming up with ways to make these more appropriate for the departments I’ve been supporting.

But all things must pass, as they say, and the time has come for me to hang up my coaching hat. The reasons are various, but at the very top is that I want to have the time to myself to refocus for a time on my own practices as a teacher – be professionally selfish, if you like, and reconsider some development opportunities based in my first love, my subject specialism. None of which is to say I won’t want to do the advanced practitioner role again, only that I have a chance right now for a little introspection, reflection and focus.

You’ve done a great job.


I don’t know your name, or where you are, but you’ve probably been trying to teach online for the last few months, and having varying degrees of success.

Perhaps your students engaged with every lesson, desperate to learn, able to set aside a few hours each week for your lessons, and you’ve loved online learning with buzzing online chats, focussed video presentations, breakout rooms, online whiteboards, padlets, wakelets, kahoot, quizziz, and every other bell and whistle.

Perhaps you had to cobble together what you could from your phone and that old laptop in the attic, downloading worksheets for students, sending them via WhatsApp, or running up a huge printing and postage bill, and both you and your students were squeezing in your lesson around children who won’t or can’t concentrate on their homeschool, plus day to day chores, feeding and caring for family members, trying to make Eid or birthdays as special as possible, not to mention personal tragedies, illnesses, and sheer bloody exhaustion and mental drain of holding it together in a poky flat on the 9th floor of a tower block.

Maybe you’re worried because your colleagues have spent the last couple of months sharing some amazing things, and you think what you’ve been doing is really pedestrian. Perhaps you’ve seem some sort of amazing online activity shared on social media, or one of those photos of a class full of students on their blankety blank grid in Zoom.

The thing is, whatever point you’re at, you’ve done a great job, even if you don’t think so. Comparisons, as Dogberry said, are odorous, if not downright unhealthy (especially through social media), and the reality is we have all been doing the best we can based on a huge learning curve and a profound lack of preparedness. You’ve probably learned masses, even if you don’t think you have, because in many ways you’ve been involved in the biggest educational action research project in the history of ever. You’ve identified a problem, come up with a solution, tried that solution, evaluated its effectiveness, and improved on it, before moving up and on to the next challenge.

Don’t do yourself down. Whatever you’ve done, whatever you’ve achieved, all of it is amazing. Actually, no, YOU are amazing. It’s been hard work, working in this new way, and you, you bloody marvel, have stuck at it. You have been challenged, and you’ve done a damn fine job of rising to that challenge. If you must compare yourself, compare the teacher you are now with the teacher you were in March. Think about that journey and be proud.

Whatever happens in September, we’ll at least be prepared for it, and, even better, be able to apply what we’ve learned properly. And when I think of all the teachers I’ve worked with, stolen ideas from, spoken to, supported, and been supported by, I can only think of how utterly utterly awesome you are.

So thank you, and bloody well done. If you’re getting a break now, go and take it with gusto.


Lockdown Learning 3: What I’ve worked out so far

This post started life as an internal bit of guidance for colegaues, but I’ve polished and expanded it to include on here as well. It’s meant as a bit of an antidote to my last post’s more melancholy reflections!

Sharing resources

 One challenge I faced to begin with was that students couldn’t download or access resources, and what I’ve learned from that is to always assume, as a starting point, that students are accessing their resources through a phone. This means that unless they download the Microsoft office apps (which they can) any word, PowerPoint or similar document is likely to lose any formatting and images will go all over the place. Therefore it’s absolutely imperative that you export Word and PowerPoint files as PDF or JPG files. It’s quite easy to do this. Under the File tab, there’s an option to Export. Go here, then click “Export to PDF/XPS.”

In Powerpoint you can simply use the Save As or Save a Copy function, and select *.jpg as the file type to save the presentation as an image or series of images. If you want PowerPoint to work as a slideshow, export it as a video using the same method. You will need to set timings first, but if you don’t the default is about five seconds per slide. You can also record audio to go with each slide, which makes for a nice touch!

I know that many of us through our organisations have got access to online MS Office, or GSuite, or similar, and that there are open source and free app equivalents, but installing, using and manipulating things like this on a phone are not always that easy or accessible.


Despite its importance, marking is rarely an exhilarating experience, so you need to think carefully about how you are managing this, otherwise you could end up marking every single true or false/mulitple choice task for every student. In class, for example, we can check as a whole class, show the answers on the board, and so on. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t take every piece of work home and mark every question.

  • When selecting resources, consider using pre-made online resources which do the marking for you – ESOL teachers  have no excuse for not using these as there are hundreds of websites offering gap fill / sentence ordering type activities which also then give the students feedback
  • Only extensively mark extended or open- ended tasks, like a piece of writing.
  • Use screencasting software to record yourself speaking over a student’s work, rather than marking by hand or in Word.
  • For closed questions, or clearly answerable questions, simply share the answers with the students.
  • On Teams, you can simply share the answers once the work has been done. You could do this as suggested above, or simply use the snipping tool to screenshot the answers.
  • If you are physically posting work, put the answer sheet in behind the questions (fold it if you want to hide it)
  • If you are posing questions in a presentation video, simply leave the questions on one slide, then tell the students to pause the video while they answer the questions, then add a slide after that with the answers.


 Video Lessons

I’ve tried a few video lessons, with varying degrees of success – partly because of student availability, but also because of dubious connections, interruptions and various other issues. A couple of things which I’ve found to be helpful are:

  • Flip the lessons – have the students do the work, read the text, watch an explainer video, answer the questions, etc., before the lesson and then discuss issues, questions and challenges in the spoken element of the video chat.
  • Start and/or finish with a positive note or social chat – share good news stories, etc.
  • Give students time to get used to the systems
  • Keep online lessons relatively short – it’s a draining hour for you, and also for the students
  • Consider running several shorter lessons with smaller groups of less able or less confident students, and consider breakout rooms for higher levels (see Kate for ideas).
  • When starting the meeting, tell all students to mute their microphones and turn off video. This will free up bandwidth for everyone, and make interactions easier to manage, not to mention hide disruptions from children, dogs, tortoises, etc.
  • Be more teacher-led – control who is contributing, rather than allowing for suggestions “from the floor”
  • Use the chat function in Teams/Zoom to get quick confirmation from students, and for students to ask questions during the lesson in that, rather than disrupting the flow, or disturbing each other while talking.

Lockdown Learning, part 2

So, last time was all the thinking about what to do and how to do it, not to mention a bit of hand-wringing and despairing at not being able to see students in the classroom, so I thought I’d follow up with a quick summary of things I’ve tried and which have worked well. So far it’s been asynchronous, text based learning, for all the reasons I mentioned in my last post, which has had an influence on what I’ve been using.

Email Nudges

One big improvement this week in attendance has been brought about by an email reminder to all students on their personal email accounts to come online and engage. I also laid out the “attendance” rules, as a “please”, and it’s worked out well. As we’re about to go into Easter, and things are likely to go on pause for a bit, I’ll do the same at the end of the break, just to get folk back on.

Sentence starters.

This was a great activity, based on a fairly big standard lesson activity. Basically I’ve been posting (on Teams) the beginning of a sentence “I would have gone to the market if….” and then students have finished. It’s been useful because I can give feedback, and because the students can see what each other have been doing, all of which is good.


I actually did this at first as a means of making videos to show colleagues how to do things on Teams, but have since started making videos of PowerPoint presentations with voice over, including some slides with tasks for students, which I introduce with “read this, then pause the video to do the task”. It’s worked out well, and the feedback from students has been good.

Video feedback on written texts

I did this off the back of the screen casting, and it was so easy. I did it when I had a piece of handwritten work emailed to me, so I opened it as a picture, zoomed in to a nice clear size, fired up Screencast-o-Matic and recorded myself commenting live on the text, rather than using written annotations. This is definitely something I will use again in future, because it was so quick and easy. (And yes, I know this is an idea which has been knocking around for ages, but only now have I realised the benefits!)

Feedback on posts.

Today in “class” we had an online discussion in Teams. I wanted to reply to each individual student on errors in their posts, like I would in a face to face class, but because they were replying to my first post, I couldn’t nest further replies to their replies. So the first thing I did was add a “crying” emoji next to those responses which had mistakes. Then, while the students were doing this, I copied all of them into a word document, and wrote a quick comment on each one. I then screen shotted the text and uploaded it as an image (for easier download on phones, etc.)

Bringing the outside in

We’ve been lessons on the theme of technology and innovations, so to create a discussion, like I would in a face to face lesson, I needed some stimuli. Pictures, I figured, are always more fun that words, so I went round the house taking photos of technology and posted these to provoke a discussion. One of them was of my oven, in which I was baking a loaf of bread, and I posted, by way of a close, a picture of the finished loaf. This led to a request for a recipe and method, which was fun, and gave them some inadvertent reading practice!

Easter Break

Normally, in the holidays, students will be off doing things with their families. I’d normally leave them to it, but I think this time I might just say “I’ll be online for a check in” at least once a week, so that students can stay in touch, and feel a bit more engaged with the world outside their homes!

Live Lesson

I’m going to bite the bullet, and before we do go off, I’ve invited all my students from all my classes to come to a live video lesson. I’m not expecting big numbers, hence why I’m inviting them all to one slot, but who knows. I’m toying with Zoom rather than Teams, but I’m going to set aside some time tomorrow to plan some ideas, and see which platform works best. It’ll be a very simple lesson – everyone come on, say hello, introduce yourself quickly to the rest (because they may not know everyone in the lesson) and then tell each other about what they will do in the break to stay sane! Something like that anyway, but I’ll flesh out the details tomorrow.

So there you go. Some things I’ve been trying, and some thoughts about going forward! Hopefully it’ll help someone too.

Lockdown Learning

Due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, college has been closed for nearly two weeks, and I’m still adjusting to the new way of working – meeting, sharing, and, of course, teaching online. It’s been an interesting learning curve, indeed, quite a steep one at times, even for someone who’s pretty comfy with the technology.

Because this is the time for technology: cometh the hour, cometh the gadget. We have now got a reasonably stringent lockdown in place, meaning that any kind of face to face teaching is going to be impossible for some weeks ahead. So I thought I’d try and organise my feelings and reflections so far.

Multiplatforming Sucks.

Or rather “singleplatforming is awesome”. A few years ago, had I been where I am now, I’d have had the students emailing me via Microsoft, or their own email, accessing online resources via Moodle, engaging with interactive stuff via Linoit or Padlet or one of the various online versions of etherpad, perhaps sharing links through Delicious, images on Pinterest, using some form of messenger app for text based messaging, and so on, all with either no log in (and therefore potential data & safeguarding risks) or with separate passwords and usernams. All well and good, in its way, but you have to hand it to the big boys of tech, Microsoft, Google & Apple, as they have (no doubt through some fairly aggressive acquisitions and recruitment)  pretty much managed to tie these things up into one place. Where I work we are all paid up to Microsoft, so I have been using Teams for online classrooms, and for collaborating with colleagues. This ties (as you would expect) with Office 365, easily the most well known and therefore most familiar set of office software, with the advantage that cloud based sharing means i can see and work with  students on specific tasks. There are also other elements and tools. I’ve used Forms to develop quizzes and surveys, as well as noticing tools like Stream, which offers an integrated video option, rather than using links to YouTube. Add to this the ability within PowerPoint to do videos of presentations with a voiceover, something I want to try shortly, and there’s a lot to explore.

Now, I should add at this point that other services are available – and I’m pretty agnostic about which is which; I use Apple for mobile devices, Google for home based work, and Microsoft at work, all of which is absolutely fine. For me, personally, the change of platform makes for a useful change of location, so to speak, especially when working from home – I’m on Google, I must be at home, etc.

However, the single big benefit of the single platform is the ease of access. My technical agnosticism is pretty easy going and I honestly don’t mind overmuch which platform, because I don’t care how it works as much as how easy it is for students to access. The main issue is reducing the barriers to access for students, and this is where single platform wins hands down – I know it probably doesn’t sound like much but really it does make all the difference for engagement. I’d rather have 90% of students engaging with a more limited range of stuff, than 10% of students engaging with a wider range of bells and whistles.

So, anyway, I’m using Teams, because, simply, students can download the app, log in once using their normal college log in, and that’s it. Now, I know I’ll have Moodle fans shouting one thing, Google fans shouting another, and even Apple fans shouting from the other side of their beautiful yet expensive screens, that their platform is the best. However, we’re a Microsoft college, all paid up, so I’m not going to faff around with other stuff because I can’t be bothered. And if I’m honest, I am genuinely quite impressed so far. Documents open in the Teams app, with limited functionality, the Office apps are largely free to download to mobile devices and if they have a full laptop or desktop, then they can also download time restricted (i.e. while they are students) copies of Office 365, as well as use the online version.  Again, once that’s all set up, they can indeed access everything without fannying about with passwords and usernames.

Single platforming is also easier for me. I can post and upload and share stuff knowing that students can access it more easily, and I don’t have to worry about interoperability or formats – stuff just works, mostly. Plus, like most of us, I have used Word since the hazy days of typing “winword” into MS-DOS, and my digital literacy has grown up speaking Microsoft since my first home PC running Windows 3.1 in the 1990s. Sure, as a language teacher, I understand the richness and value of being multilingual, but it’s sure as hell easier to work in a digital language you know. Again, this is about ease, not the best tools for the job. So what if Google has feature X, or Apple has feature Y? I don’t care, and never have, that you can do interactive quizzes that track student performance in Moodle because they were, and still are, an non-intuitive mess that I hated from day one and was replacing with Google Forms from a very early stage.

Who’s coming?

I know attendance is rarely the sexiest of subjects, but with any online learning, it is really useful as a teacher (never mind from an administrative perspective) to know that the work you are putting in is for a purpose. Now, it’s a funny thing, because obviously with a lot of VLE systems (like moodle) you can track who is accessing what and when, which is a really helpful system, but when your VLE is hard to access for students, and, crucially, hard to set up (Moodle quizzes, I mean you), then your student engagement is likely to drop off, and in which case, you end up tracking little or nothing.

In Teams there is a broad strokes analysis- for example, on Monday morning, 16 out of 22 users accessed the Team; pretty good by any measure, but even better when you consider that 4 of those people have completed and left, and that two of them were pending withdrawal for non attendance anyway, but I can’t see who. However, it gives me a sense of how many people are logging in and what they are doing. You can also hover everyone’s name in your class, and see when they were last online, which is as low, perhaps, but at least it gives you a more expanded sense of who hasn’t engaged at all.

The other thing I have been trying to do is to ask everyone who logs in to “like” the first post I put, so that I can use this to give me a clue as to who is and isn’t checking in. Obviously I can’t force people to do the work, although I have used task completion as evidence of attendance, for example, when college has been closed temporarily, but this will at least tell me who is looking in.

The What and the How

This is the other tricky one, what to teach and how to teach it. I’m trying to sort of follow my course plan for the year, although that’s been disrupted quite a lot of late. However, I have a plan, and a list of things to cover for the foreseeable future. So that’s not too bad, although the question of how makes things more complex.

I’ve done two types of lesson so far. The first one was an attempt at being more interactive. We started with a quiz about technology use, based on Forms. I gave the students access to the feedback as well, so they could compare their answers, much as they would in a speaking warmer. Then, using MS forms again, I did a matching activity for vocabulary, which led into a reading and listening based on a video. Then we had a follow up based on the topic, which was to collaborate on a document, listing the pros and cons of mobile phones, before then setting them a writing task.

The second lesson was simpler. Based on a reading task from the LearnEnglish business website, I simply set that, then devised a follow up using a simple PowerPoint exported as a video, and links to work on discourse markers, along with the reminder to try and use these in the writing task. In one class, I followed this with a sentence stems activity, where I posted starters like “I went to the cinema even though….” This task worked well, and had a few students clicking and responding.

I liked both and I think there is room to improve. I’d like to experiment with audio in the video, and maybe even a series of short explainer videos on key language areas. I have a thing about other people’s videos, just as I do with published materials, in that they never quite fit with what I want to say or do – it might be a video covering, say, two uses of the present perfect, but not really any of the others, and I want a video which covers them all. The other difficulty is the interactivity. Because they have other commitments (of which more later), they can’t all access at the same time. This makes live speaking tricky, for example, because this will exclude those who can’t “attend.” That’s not to say I won’t try it, at some point, and I realise that those students can watch a video of the lesson, but that’s still not getting the speaking practice, necessarily. I think as well, I need to consider a different way round, so for example, setting a reading task outside of this class time, but then having the discussion and analysis in the class session.

There are also technological challenges. The Teams structure is pleasantly chronological, but with a flaw: when someone posts a reply to a post, that post is immediately promoted to the “most recent” position. I’ve got round this by listing the key tasks with numbers as a reference point, but that’s not ideal. This is something to address, I think, because it’s making it hard to follow some things. I do wonder if there is a feature where you can turn this off, perhaps, which is something to explore. I’m considering using the files, rather than the posts to structure the “input” element, labelling each document as Task 1, Task 2, etc. There are some flaws to this, however, in particular that students are very likely to access materials via their phones or a tablet, and not all of them will be equipped with the appropriate software. So I’m thinking pdfs rather than Word documents, and streamed videos of slideshows, not PowerPoint.

The how is also influenced by the next question, which, for me, is probably the biggest challenge of all….

When & How Long?

There is a trite answer to this – you teach online, or supply materials for independent study which will take roughly the same amount of time as it would if they came to class. You expect your students to be online when their normal class starts, and for all, or at least a significant part of their normal taught day.

This is, of course, bollocks. This would be true, perhaps, if you were teaching a course which was advertised as an online course, requiring X number of hours per week, and attendance at “live” sessions as a mandatory element of the course. But we’re not. We’re using online learning to compensate for the fact that we can’t do physical, face to face teaching, and that as well as trying to keep up with their work, for a large proportion, in fact nearly all, of my students are juggling childcare and home-schooling themselves. And believe me when I say that I get that. Because juggling is the word, especially if you have younger, up to early primary age children, for whom interaction with others is more or less essential (unlike say, teenage children who are likely to be overjoyed that they are now legally required not to leave the house, or indeed their room). My own children, at the time of writing, are 9 and 12, and therefore fairly capable of working on their own school work independently, although my youngest gets fed up after a bit, or needs some support now and then, meaning that I can’t predict how long I might have. I’ve been lucky as hell so far, as my other half had annual leave booked for significant chunks of this week and next, meaning I can take a bit of a back seat, but yesterday (day 4) I purposefully designed the day so I could balance working from home around my children and their needs by having “interruptible” tasks. All well and good, though; I still get paid, after all.

For my students with families, then, things are going to be tricky. I can’t, and won’t, expect them to do the equivalent number of hours self study each week. I am enabling it, if they want it, by supplying general links for undirected self study (grammar websites, and so on), but I am planning roughly the equivalent of two lessons a week for each class. I’m also designing things with minimal live interaction, and designing things to allow for asynchronous engagement; students can access at their own leisure. I am going online live at the beginning time of every lesson for at least thirty minutes, often more, and have made this clear to the students, so that we have a short informal time at the start of each lesson.

The other interesting thing, however, is that if you remove the live element, this strips the lesson back to activities. Sure, students can post a comment, but the response to that comment may or may not come, and if it does, it may be some time before it is seen or replied to. As a result, while a typical pre-teach vocab > read/listen for gist > read/listen for detail > follow up activity structure may work quite well in an online setting, in a live class, you also have the giving instructions, peer checking & sharing of ideas, discussions and so on, which expand the 40 minutes or so of core activities into an hour or more of fairly vigorous class work. It’s something you see a lot in CELTA lessons – trainees think about how long the activity itself will take, but not about the added time of setting it up, managing it, supporting students and checking answers, or indeed dealing with tangents. Plus you don’t have the surprise interactions and the tangents, or at least not as much, because there are time gaps between these interactions.

As I say, I’ve yet to explore a live video lesson, and many of my students haven’t been enthusiastic about this because they know that they are likely to have distractions, Asynchronous works for these students, and, as I said above, ease and comfort of access is of paramount importance. I guess, though, that what we are looking at here is the way in which


Let’s be clear, an ESOL classroom is not just a learning space, but also a social space. In a classroom, students interact with one another, and with the teacher. So, like I do when I’m in class, I share stuff with my students which I think might be interesting or useful. They’ve had links to the PE with Joe (Wicks) YouTube channel, because I know they have an interest in health and looking after their children, as well as some resources on maintain good mental health. The English teacher in me knows that these things are all in English, so it’s useful in that way too. Win win. And these things have gone down well, so far, as they do when we share these things in class.

The social space has been interesting to watch and be part of as well because the online class space has already developed and expanded to include the sense of community which has developed in the lessons – offers of help, of support, and a general sharing of loveliness, which wouldn’t have happened otherwise. So the online space, just like the offline classroom, is a place for community and sharing as much as it is for learning, and that’s a lovely lovely feeling.

And finally…

This is an opportunity to spend time doing new things online, of course it is, and I will start exploring those things, bit by bit. After all, I will literally never have the luxury of time and energy to dedicate to developing these things every again, because no college in the country would ever allow their teachers this much openness and freedom to explore under any other circumstances.

But let’s not go bananas, shall we? As I have said already, this is not an online course, advertised and delivered as such. This is a sticking plaster of a process, trying to hold together some semblance of a course in an emergency situation, and therefore it’s not going to go smoothly. I can try stuff out, but first I have to get students engaged in their comfort zones: text chat based classes, for example, sharing links, and prompting. Of my three classes, the group I have had best engagement with is the group that I managed to see before we shut down, and so give fair warning to about my plans to be online at the start of the lesson time. Where this hasn’t happened, engagement has been lower, and will take time to grow more.

But let me also be clear, I don’t do my job because I like sitting behind a screen. I haven’t made my career out of online, tech-based learning. To be honest, it’s far more draining than face to face, and infinitely less satisfying. And while I do this job because I want to improve students’ lives and enrich their experiences, all that, I also do it because I enjoy the human, face to face, spontaneous interactions. I do it because I get to meet and talk to all sorts of interesting people, listen to their stories, and even get to play a small part in those stories. While the online learning we are doing now satisfies the opportunity to support students and develop their learning, I still profoundly, horribly, miss the face to face human contact. I’m doing my best with the online learning, taking the opportunity to do some different things, to experiment, but, like most of us, I can’t wait for this all to be over.

“English at the required level” and other problems with the UK’s new Immigration Policy.

So this story is in the news this week, that now we “have control” of our borders back, the government has reviewed its immigration policy and set up a points style system, coming into effect in about 10 months. As a result, employers have been told that rather than relying on foreign labour, they should be training up and developing the skills needed amongst people already resident in the UK.

Now, as an ESOL teacher working in an FE college, this creates all sorts of questions. My initial reaction was that this is basically just a chance for the government to pander to its right wing members and the small-c conservatives of the left, and give the impression of “doing something about the immigration problem” which will likely be so complex and hole ridden that it’s unlikely to have any grand effect. Indeed, this is sort of what I hope, and that the eventual system will be much more flaccid than is being suggested now. After all, at this stage, it’s only a ten page outline, not a detailed plan.

But there are other problems. For one, the question of language. The proposal simply states that “the required level of English” will gain 10 points. And that’s it. Now this could go the way of the language requirement of indefinite leave to remain or full citizenship, which asks for a minimum of B1 on the CEFR, but make it too high and inevitable conflict will arise when someone meets loads of the other criteria but not the required language one, and no Tory government is going to go around blocking wealthy foreigners. As ever, the government are being especially clueless about adult language ability and learning , but given that there are bits of government that ought to know but would appear not to (hi, Department for Education) my expectations of the heartless bean counters at the Home Office are particularly low.

But it’s also the FE setting which complicates things for me. I see plenty of young people and their teachers through my work as an advanced practitioner in college, and this gives me a bit of an insight into the unrealistic targets the government have set here. The obvious place, for example, to develop and deliver the necessary skills development, and to support and work with employers to do this, is the FE sector. I’m going to leave aside, for the moment, the year on year cutting of funding to post-16 and especially post-19 education in further education, and concentrate instead on the idea of a 10 month turnaround on migrants being replaced by current residents in various calacities across the country. Let’s imagine a scenario where all immigrants with, say, Level 2 or above skills in various vocational areas (hospitality, engineering, construction, etc.) are removed in one go from the workforce. Do we have the capacity to get that level of experience and skill into place in 10 months? Seems hardly likely, even with the best efforts of my amazing colleagues who teach those areas.

And then there’s the question of “economically inactive” people starting to work to replace those people leaving. Again, this is not so much blue sky, out of the box thinking, but rather some very basic and barely planned, back of a fag packet maths. “Ok, so if we’ve got X million people likely to leave as a result of these changes, and we’ve also got X million people on benefits who could be working, then those people can just magically replace those leaving migrants. Simples.” Of course, it isn’t that simple, it can’t be, because there may be many reasons for that “economic inactivity”. This might include a lack of skills or training, or ability to access training, because there isn’t any nearby, or simply that they would have to pay for the courses, which, of course, they can’t, because they’re on a pittance of benefits from which they have to feed, clothe and house themselves and their families. It is just a whole lot more complicated than that.

So even leaving aside my instinctive feelings borne out of being an ESOL teacher working with wonderful, exciting, brilliant, immigrants of all backgrounds, this is just daft. For me, the country can’t cope, because we don’t have the time to prepare. There are answers, of course. We could phase things through more carefully, incentivise employers to train and work with current residents, rather than pulling in cheap labour from abroad, and support FE colleges in doing this or only for young people, but also for adults moving sideways from one career to another. It could be done, over time, and done in such a way that we can also maximise the wide range of skills and experience of those from outside the UK; not just the fetishisation of the university education which is clearly present in the rules, but also making the most of the the practical, vocational, skills and experiences of migrant workers, both as workers, and as trainers, passers-on of knowledge and skills.

But this is a government intent on playing to the nastier, red-faced end of the English mindset, because that’s what got Brexit done, and that’s how they got in. This isn’t a government interested in improving the lot of the country, which they could be doing with this, but rather in cementing its hold on that power, courting the flag-waving racists and their more genteel cousins, the I’m-not-racist-buts to do it.

Alright, mate?

On Monday, as part of a discussion on knighthoods and the use of the honorific “sir” I found myself doubting what I was saying, and raising lots of questions, around the terms of address used by men and women, and crucially, if and when and how students should use them.

Essentially it started with “sir”. Now, to my mind, sir is only really used if said person is indeed a knight, as part of a standard formal letter (Dear Sir/Madam) or, crucially, in a service provider to customer context (shops, restaurants, hotels), as in Good afternoon, sir, how can I help you? And even in that latter, it seems to fading, except in a more formal retail exchange. Then one of my students asked if we would use it, as her husband, also an ESOL learner, did, to ask for information in the street, like directions: Excuse me sir, do you know the way to the station? My response was that it would be a bit odd sounding, because we generally don’t use any kind of honorific in that setting, Almost immediately came the question What about “love” or “mate”?

A little context for you. We’re working in urban West Yorkshire, where even my own experience is that love is a fairly common term of address from women to men, men to women, or women to women, as is mate in a male to male setting. Generally speaking, that is! My male neighbour used to call me love and I’ve known plenty of women call each other mate. So anyway, these terms are pretty commonplace where my students live and work. (Someone once pointed out a peculiar Huddersfield pronunciation of love where it rhymes with of rather than glove which, once noticed, is hard not to hear).

My advice to my students, however, was to be very careful when using them, because the potential for things going wrong as a result of mis-using them was too high. I cited, from my own experience, an unconscious bridling when a student’s husband once phoned college and started his conversation with “all right, mate?” or the spivvy besuited sky tv/broadband/gas/electricity sales guys in the town centre near college who seem to be under the impression that calling me mate is likely to make me want to buy whatever it is they’re selling. I also mentioned, on balance, the washing machine delivery man at the weekend who called me mate but without me reacting negatively. Now what this could be, I’m not sure. It may have been to do with the context (amongst other things, I was already a customer, rather than a prospective customer, and I was also feeling a bit guilty because my washing machine needed to go round the back of the house and down a flight of stairs…)

Anyway, the whole exchange with my students had me thinking. After all, this is my perception, all of it, and the use or non-use of such terms of address is informed by all sorts of things: social class, regional background, personal habits, negative experiences, and more. My own habit is to use nothing at all, generally, unless it’s terms of affection, or ironic. And while my own experiences around love have been fairly ambivalent (hello, male privilege), my more memorable experiences of being called mate have revolved around aggressive confrontations, rather than cheery friendliness: Have you got a problem, mate? Indeed, my primary use of mate is often road-based: What the f@#% do you think you’re doing, mate? Get your f@#%ing Range Rover off the cycle lane!

So what to tell students? Was I being over-cautious? I don’t know, but I’d rather err on the side of caution on something so loaded. What it does highlight is that issues like this, for my international ELT colleagues, exists as a curiosity, a discussion for those higher level classes, or for teacher training. But for a UK based ESOL class for immigrants, the cultural loading of language is a much more acute issue with immediate personal, social and even economic impact (turning up at a job interview with a cheery “y’alright, love?” isn’t a great start). So surely advising caution is better than trying to teach the ins and outs of some of these terms, particularly when I don’t really have a full understanding myself, and only my sense of what is and what isn’t acceptable to draw on.

So that’s what I did. I made it clear that most of the prejudices and assumptions were mine and mine alone, and that it was for this reason I suggested caution. This being a Level 2 class, they could also understand the gist of what I was saying, up to the point that one student was able to tease me about it at the end of the lesson “see you, love!” I dread to think what an external observer would have made of such an exchange, but both me and the students all understood the context and the meaning. And that, I guess is the main learning here for me and for the students: that language changes and twists in contexts, and what might be appropriate in context A could very easily be deeply inappropriate in context B.

Technology: with or without you?

In March, I am delivering a workshop to the NATECLA Y&H Spring Conference on the theme of maximising resources, Earlier this week, while talking about this, the folllowing interesting question came up around the use of educational technology.


i started to reply, by by the time I got to about the 6th tweet in a thread, I figured this would be quicker to just do as a blog post, and so here it is. First things first, I genuinely agree that educational technology can indeed enable all of these things. Technology can enable easier access for some students, more comfortable and efficient access in and out of the classroom, and in many ways it can democratise the learning out of the teacher’s hands and into that of the students, as they explore things outside of the immediate confines of the classroom. Take my lesson on Wednesday, for instance, on body parts & health at Level 2 (B2/C1) where I had students labelling a blank body outline. Because the students are more advanced, they started digging online and were able to come up with words like pancreas, thyroid and (my favourite) pituitary gland. In subsequent tasks, they discovered terms like sprain, inoculate and immunise and even a little bit of a discussion about the MMR vaccine 

Literally none of this would have happened without technology, and in this case very basic, everyday use of technology to translate and look up words, and to explore the web beyond. The technology here was a great enabler of learner autonomy and made the lesson and the learning much richer. The body outlines have been photographed using Microsoft Office Lens and then uploaded to Microsoft Teams to be shared with the students. I’ll also use technology next lesson to expand and practice this – we did some work on phrasal verbs so I might use Kahoot as a recap. In short, digital technology was all over the lesson: not shoe horned, but used as an enabler and as a support, not the centre of the lesson. Crucially the presence of the technology made for a better, richer learning experience, but didn’t dominate the interactions.

While the lesson was enriched and in many respects enabled by the technology, it still required me to have an understanding of structure, managing and moderating a lesson, and really this is the point. Any resource, be it paper based or technological, is only as good as the person using it. So all of those things which can be enabled by technology are not necessarily enabled by the technology alone (the “magic bullet let’s throw money at it and wonder why it achieved nothing” school of educational technology) but rather by the teacher understanding what they are doing and why, and having the skills to apply that understanding in practice.

Imagine, by way of a metaphor, me and Chris Froome (for example) having a cycle race. If I’m on a custom built £8K carbon fibre dream machine with electronic shifting, and he’s on a functional yet unremarkable steel hybrid from a superstore, he’s still going to win, because he’s a pro cyclist who trains hard to develop the fitness and techniques needed to ride a bike really really fast, while I’m an optimistic yet sturdily built gentleman with a disastrous addiction to chocolate and cheese, not to mention ten extra years under (or perhaps behind) his belt. The absence of technology will lead to a comparatively (to me) minor disadvantage, and, by the same token, the presence of technology is going to have only a minor impact on my performance. To make the best use of technology, I need to learn how to maximise those benefits, of course, but more importantly, I need to get a whole lot fitter through training and diet, whereas a pro cyclist is likely to be bloody fast on any bike at all. This is what it is for a teacher: you need that understanding and those skills in order to make best use of the resources available, whatever they may be. One could almost say that if you can be brilliant with flip chart paper and two ropy boardmarkers, how good could you be with all the bells and whistles?

Where technology really comes into its own, I think, is actually not in the classroom. If the interface is smooth, with minimal faff for students, then there are plenty of things which can extend the learning beyond the classroom: bring the inside out, as it were, as well as bringing the outside in. That’s a big big IF in that sentence, after years of Moodle, which is diesngagingly faffy for students, not to mention tedious agony for teachers, moving onto something like Google Classrooms or Microsoft Teams has been a revelation. Once students have the app, access to course materials is so much easier, and the social element has been a godsend on many occasions. Sure these are not as complete as a full VLE, with the option to build in bespoke quizzes and games using the system, track usage and monitor performance, but not every teacher has the time, never mind the skills, to develop such things. As a result, the vast majority of teachers used it as a place to upload resources, either for self study or for in class sharing, if at all. More modern systems like Teams or Classroom, do these elements infinitely better. I’ve been using Teams this year, and while I’ve only really scraped the surface of some of the functions, like the assignments, or the notebook functions, the base level stuff has already had far higher engagement from students than Moodle ever did. Crucially, while this engagement has been partly during class time, it’s also been outside of the classroom, meaning that the students are accessing learning materials, following links, and engaging with each other for more than their allotted few hours a week of class time, which can only be a good thing.

So on balance, there are lots and lots of possibilities enabled by technological resources, both inside, and out of the classroom, and in particular technologipy’s ability to bridge these two places in a way which paper homework books and learner diaries could never quite achieve. However, this comes with a massive caveat, particularly when we are talking about in class learning, In class, the resources, (digital or otherwise) should not dictate the intention of the learning, but rather should be developed or selected to fit it, whether that’s based on teacher set learning outcomes or on a more emergent learning approach. If you have to completely reimagine the shape and structure of your lesson in order to incorporate a particular technology, for example, then, I think, you’re doing something wrong. The danger comes from edtech evangelism; misplaced blind faith in the power of digital technology to transform learning. When we develop as teachers, we need to develop an understanding of how technology fits into (and influences) the processes of learning and teaching. While technology has a place, it’s not essential, and this is the hill I will die on, as they say. Great teaching, learning and assessment is all possible without technological support, and can even be better sometimes, because you’re forced to think really really hard about what you’re going to do.