Surprising English Teaching Facts I Learnt Last Week – Advice From 4 Experts

Surprising English Teaching Facts I Learnt Last Week -- Advice From 4 Experts

Today I’d like to share something a little different with you.

Last weekend I went to Vilnius, Lithuania, to go to the LAKMA international conference on English teaching.

It was great. I spent most of the conference looking super focused and mostly not thinking about lunch.

I also learned a lot from some of the top English teachers IN THE UNIVERSE! Most of them were from Earth, because we have the best teachers.

So this week I’m going to summarise the conference and tell you about what I learned from 4 teaching experts.

But what about me? I’m not a teacher!

Good point.

But don’t worry. I’ll be back next week with the usual mad, informative and interesting stuff for English learners.

Meanwhile, here’s an excellent TV show -- try it out and let me know what you think in the comments.

While watching, remember your listening strategies from this post.

Good luck!

Scott Thornbury

Educational Technology: Hype or Hope?

Scott ThornburyScott Thornbury teaches on the MA TESOL program at The New School in New York but works mainly from Spain. His previous experience includes teaching and teacher training in Egypt, the UK, Spain and in his native New Zealand, and he's a frequent presenter at international conferences.

His writing credits include several award-winning books for teachers on language and methodology, including Teaching Unplugged (co-authored with Luke Meddings) and The New A to Z of ELT. He's also series editor for the Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers.

Find him online at

Quick takeaway: The teacher is usually the best technology in the classroom.

You know that feeling when you get a new laptop?

Woman with laptop

In the beginning, it’s the most exciting thing that's happened to you since you got on the wrong train and ended up at that cat circus. (That was a weird summer, wasn’t it?)

The new laptop is faster and smoother. That means that you’ll be able to do more work, right?

It means that you’ll be more productive.

Also this time, your folders will all be organised logically instead of the mad order they’re in on your old laptop.

Then you get the laptop.

And nothing changes.

You do just as much (or little) work and your folders are still completely random.

And that’s what happens EVERY TIME we get a new laptop. Or a smartboard for our classroom. Or a multimedia suite for our students.

In this presentation, Scott talked about this constant cycle of “hype, hope and disappointment” when it comes to technology.

So what’s the point?

We always hear about technology as some sort of solution. But, as Scott asks:

“What is the problem for which technology is the answer?”

In his talk, Scott went through the main problems we face as teachers and dealt with the role of technology in solving (or not solving) each of them:

The input problem

As teachers, we need to provide “input” for our learners.

We need to provide the language that our students need to improve.

How does technology help us here?

Actually, as Scott concedes, this is the one area that may actually help learners.

We’ve got access to all sorts of listening and reading resources through humanity’s newest best friend, the Internet.

There’s YouTube and TED. There’s the New York Times and the Guardian newspaper. There are films, TV shows and all sorts of ways we can access English resources.

These are all great. Outside the classroom (not so much during class time).

But there’s a problem here.

How often do you read a whole article online (even in your own language)?

How often do you watch a YouTube video all the way through without looking away?

I’m guessing your answer was “er… actually not that often.”

That’s the problem: With technology, our level of engagement is very, very low.

It’s lower than when we’re reading a book, writing a postcard or listening to our friend tell us about that weird night he had with the drunk lion.

Man, that was a strange story.

So because the level of engagement is so low when we’re using technology, it might be better to avoid it when we can.

The output problem

As well as providing our students with language input, we also need to give them the opportunity to speak, write and use the language -- to produce output.

So, how can technology help us here?

How can we use technology to provide more opportunity for speaking, for example?

Thornbury gives the example of software that attempts to provide this solution by -- wait for it -- giving them some headphone/microphones so that they can talk to each other through the computers.

When they’re in the same room.

If you think about it enough, the idea becomes quite ridiculous.

The conclusion?

All we need in order to produce language is ourselves. Our mouths and ears are enough to do the job.

The feedback problem

One of the most important things you do as a teacher to help your students improve is provide feedback (more on that later, too).

So how does technology attempt to provide feedback?

The problem with feedback through technology, says Scott, is that it’s so black and white.

Think about the last time you played Angry Birds or Candy Crush or one of those soul-destroying games that turns a minute into an hour and an hour into the rest of your 30s.

Think about how they provide feedback.

It’s either “Fantastic, you’ve won! Well done! Take a thousan… no take a million points! Yeah, yeah yeah! Next level!”

Or it’s “You lose! Try again!”

Try doing that with your students. I don’t think they’ll appreciate it that much. Apart from the million points thing. Everyone likes points, right?

The “gamification” of technology -- the way that it’s all becoming like a massive computer game -- means, Scott argued, that it can’t provide the detail that a teacher can.

A teacher will always be better at this.

A teacher knows why the mistake was made.

A teacher also knows what to say to help the student to the right answer.

The teacher knows everything!

The computer just knows how to award points.

The motivation problem

This brings us back to the point made at the beginning of the talk.

The cycle of “Hype, hope and disappointment.”

We get excited by new things. It’s great. They’re new. We want to use them, exploit them and make our lives better with them.

And this is motivating.

But then they stop being new.

And that’s the problem. After a while, they lose their novelty value, and they just don’t motivate us anymore.

So we could just keep getting some new technology every time the old one loses its charm. But that might get a bit expensive, right?

Maybe it’s better to just focus on more effective ways of motivating our students.

Russell Stannard

Blending Learning Efficiently: The Role of Flipped Learning

Russell StannardRussell Stannard is the founder of Teacher Training Videos.

He was awarded the British Council ELTons award for ‘Technology’ and the Times Higher award for ‘Outstanding Technology Innovation’.

Russell is a NILE (Norwich Institute for Language Education) associate trainer and tutor on the MA in TESOL as well as running the ‘Flipping your Classes’ course. He writes regular columns in the English Teaching Professional and Anglo Files. His website is used by thousands of teachers all over the world and offers free step by step videos to help teachers incorporate technology into their teaching and learning.

Quick takeaway: Providing rich feedback to your students with screen-capturing software can change EVERYTHING!

In this talk, Russell showed us how to use screen-capturing software to provide feedback as well as to review what happened in the lesson, to provide the students with tasks to do as homework and, perhaps more usefully, to get students to research and learn about specific topics.

OK. Let’s remember what it was like to be a student.

Remember that one essay you wrote? The one you put loads and loads of effort into?

You sat and wrote, and it was awesome.

Man writing
There you are writing that essay. That is you, isn’t it?

You wanted to do it awesomely, so you pushed yourself really far.

Then you gave it to the teacher, and two days later you got it back.

You wanted to see what went well and what went badly and whether the teacher liked the bit about the flying sandwiches.

Then you read the feedback.

There’s one note, and all it says is, “good work.”

That’s it.

Not enough, right?

You needed something more detailed, didn’t you?

While Scott’s talk above was fairly anti-tech (or as Scott said, “I’m not anti-technology; I’m just pro-conversation”) this talk showed how we can use technology to improve learning.

In his talk, Russell explained how he uses screen-capturing software to provide feedback for his students.

It’s kind of a fun process, and here it is (using an essay as an example, but it could be for anything):

  1. First of all, get hold of some screen-capturing software. Here’s a link to a free one.
  2. Read your student’s essay before you do anything.
  3. Think about what you want to say.
  4. Open the essay and turn on the screen capture.
  5. Start talking about it! Just like you would if the student was in the room.
  6. You can highlight parts of the text and even do a little editing. (It depends how much you want the student to work on themselves and how much you want to just tell them.)

The student will see and hear everything!

Why is this better? I can think of a million reasons (or at least seven).

Here are the three main ones:

  • In just 5 minutes of your time and the student’s time, you can fit in A LOT of information. Imagine writing all that down. It’d take ages, right?
  • Because the student can hear you, they know when you’re being serious, when you’re being ironic, when you’re just suggesting rather than telling -- all the nuances of speaking that you just can’t write down.
  • Also, because the student can hear you, it’s just got that human touch, which is far more comfortable and motivating.

But we can use this for more than just feedback. This is where a simple tool can become the basis of “flipping” your classroom.

“Hey wait a minute,” you might be asking me, “What’s a flipped classroom?”

Well, in the classic way of doing things, you “teach” the students during the lessons, and they “practice” it for homework.

Flipped learning is reversing that process.

Between lessons, students can watch videos of, well, the lessons.

Through videos (like the feedback video I explained above), you can explain how the present perfect works, the best adjectives to describe your friends, or what phrases to use in polite conversation or whatever your language point is.

Your students watch that video as homework and then come to the lesson already knowing the target language.

Then they get to practice it with each other. And with you there, so you can see who’s got it and who hasn’t. You can provide the support they need if they’re running into problems.

The idea is that it makes the best use of the limited classroom time you have with your students.

All from one piece of free software!

Grzegorz Śpiewak

How to Maximise Our Impact on Students' Language Learning

Grzegorz ŚpiewakGrzegorz Śpiewak, Ph.D., graduate of University of Essex (MA) and University of Warsaw (Ph.D). Teacher of English, consultant, project manager, teacher trainer, conference speaker, author. Former lecturer and deputy director for English Teaching & CLIL at Warsaw University.

Currently affiliated with Macmillan Education (Head ELT Consultant for Central & Eastern Europe), as well as with The New School, New York (tutor on MA TESOL), DOS-ELTea – an independent teacher development centre (founder & president), and deDOMO Education (project leader and head author). An Honorary President and advisory board member of IATEFL Poland.

Quick takeaway: We know what’s most effective when it comes to learning. And it’s not what you think.

This was an incredibly informative talk with all sorts of welcome surprises.

If I asked you, “What kind of things help students learn best?” I’m sure that, as a teacher, you’d have hundreds of great ideas.

I mean, as teachers we instinctively understand what works and what doesn’t.

But there are some things we “learned” from books, websites and other teachers. We believe these things work because we trust the people who told us about them.

But how do we know for sure?

Well, Grzegorz points to a massive, ongoing meta-analysis of what actually has a positive impact on learners’ improvement in the classroom.

And the results are surprising.

So I want you to take some time to think about a few things. Before you read on, think about how effective you think they are in the classroom. (Just go for low/medium/high.)

Here they are:

  • Differentiating learning styles (audio, kinaesthetic, visual, etc.)
  • E-learning
  • Relationship between students and teachers
  • Teaching towards tests
  • Class size
  • Homework
  • Clarity of teaching
  • Television
  • Feedback
  • Peer teaching (students teaching each other)
  • Teacher’s credibility

Finished thinking about them? Sure?

OK. Now let’s look at the results. (Warning: You might be surprised!)

Things that are really not important at all for effective learning:

Learning styles -- You heard about this? Some people are “visual learners,” some are “physical learners,” etc.? All rubbish. Fun to talk about, but the reality is that it’s nonsense.
E-learning -- Technology doesn’t have much (or any) impact on learning.
Television -- Using television during lessons doesn’t help. At all. You might as well watch an egg. Or a dancing gorilla. Actually, do that. It’s kind of fun.

Things that are kind of good but not much for effective learning:

Teaching towards tests -- Right! It surprised me, too. Apparently, it may be more effective to just work on your English than work on your English specifically for tests.
Class size -- Another surprising one. If you’re learning English in a class of 30 and you feel bad about it, don’t! Apparently, the effects on your learning aren’t going to be huge.
Homework -- Good news! Having and doing homework helps. But not much. You may do better working on your English in other ways. It's worth mentioning here that the low result was mostly for primary school children. Interestingly, as the students get older, the study shows that homework starts to have an impact. So as Pink Floyd suggest, "Leave those kids alone!" But you can do what you like with the teens.

Woman in graduation cap

Things that are awesome for effective learning:

Relationship between teacher and students: Having a good relationship with your teacher is something that’ll make a huge difference to your learning. When you choose your teacher (if you choose your teacher), make sure you like her (or him).
Clarity of teaching: No surprise here. If a teacher explains things clearly, then the learner learns more effectively. Who would have thought?
Feedback: Or, as Grzegorz put it -- feedforward! In order to learn, we need to be able to see what we’ve done wrong and how to improve.
Peer teaching: One of the best ways to learn is to teach. When learners help each other out, everyone wins. Especially tired teachers.
Teacher’s credibility: This was the most important factor in the presentation. The learner must trust the teacher. Trustworthy teachers are the path to success. So no stealing your student’s credit card and running off to Cuba.

Looking at these results, I can see a pattern.

It seems to me that the social side of teaching (teacher’s credibility, peer teaching, feedback and the relationship the students have with their teacher) is way more important than anything else.

We’re all human (apart from my friend Simeon -- I don’t know what he is), and part of what makes us human is our desire to learn.

It was also reassuring to see that learning styles don’t affect learning much at all. Because too many people have believed that nonsense for too long!


Gretchen Ketner

Building English Literacy Skills Through Extensive Reading Blogs

Gretchen KetnerGretchen Ketner serves as the Director of the English Language Institute at LCC International University in Klaipeda, Lithuania.

She holds an M.A. in TESL from Penn State University in the US.

In addition to teaching in the US and Lithuania, she has led teacher development seminars in Ukraine, Georgia and Central Asia.


Quick takeaway: Learners can really get into reading and writing through blogging about it

Gretchen does this awesome thing with her students.

First of all she gets them into extensive reading.

I wrote about this a looong time ago.

What is it? Basically, it’s reading for fun.

This is how I explain it:

Do you remember when you started reading in English? When you picked up that first book and you said to yourself, “I’m going to read this book, and I’m going to read ALL of it!”

You start with the first page, taking notes and learning new vocabulary.

Then the second page.

You might even make it to the third page. Or even the third chapter.

But eventually, it all becomes too stressful.

The experience becomes negative, and you end up giving up.

That’s because you’ve decided to read something too big and too heavy.

Well, this is what our students are going through now. And they should avoid it.

In order to get the most out of reading, the trick is to get our students to read easy stuff -- but a lot of it.

They should be reading just for the sake of reading. Not to learn anything new -- no new vocab or grammar (although that may well happen, too). Reading just to get comfortable and better at reading in English generally.

Woman reading on steps

OK. This isn’t particularly news in itself.

What Gretchen did with her students is the cool part.

After getting her students into extensive reading, Gretchen then asked her students to become “book bloggers.”

They all opened a WordPress or a Blogspot account, set it up, and then wrote about each book they read.

They wrote about what they liked about it, what they didn’t like about it, what they thought the author was trying to say and how it reminded them of themes and ideas from other books.

Basically, they became book critics.

Why should they bother doing this when they simply could’ve written an essay?

I saw three main benefits of getting students to blog about what they read

  1. It’s less scary -- What sounds more frightening: “Write me an essay about this book” or “Write a blog post about this book?” Blogging is fun, so the students are going to get more out of it.
  2. The students can do it in their own time -- There’s no serious deadline with blogging. They can read, then get onto their laptops and start writing when they’re ready.
  3. There’s interaction! -- This is a big one. Gretchen described how motivated the students were when they starting getting comments about their blog posts. The comments section of a blog makes the blogger want to write more. (Feel free to comment on this blog by the way. No pressure!)

With this one simple idea, Gretchen’s students got into both reading and writing in a constructive and interactive way.

So those are the 4 big things I learned from the LAKMA International 2017 conference.

Now over to you wonderful teachers:

  • Do you think technology is a good or bad idea for teaching?
  • Do you “flip” your classroom? Do you see a downside to it?
  • How do you feel about the results from the meta-study? Did you anything surprise you?
  • How do you encourage your students to read more?

I’d really love to hear what you, as a teacher (or even as a student), think about these really important issues.

So let’s get the conversation rolling and answer these questions in the comments section below.

12 thoughts on “Surprising English Teaching Facts I Learnt Last Week – Advice From 4 Experts

  1. Yay, a post for teachers….complete with snark and wit!

    Some great ideas here. I’m 100% with Scott Thornbury on technology — I’m surprisingly anti-tech for an online teacher. He was able to put words on the general unease I have about using too much and the general attitude that “less is more.” I think too many people use technology for its own sake, and it ends up complicating things.

    I’m also a lover of screencasting, but I haven’t really integrated that into my teaching. Definitely something to think about. I just downloaded the Loom chrome extension, which allows you to do them right from the browser — it takes 2 seconds to get going.

    Finally, I really like the idea of having students “blog” about things as a means to use the language for fun. Definitely going to implement that one!

    Thanks as always

    1. Thanks Chris! I aim to please!

      So yeah, I don’t think you’re particularly anti-technology simply by being wary of over-reliance on tech. As Thornbury points out in his talk, we should use tech to solve problems that exist — like being in a different country from our students — than imagining or creating problems that don’t exist in order to get to use some toy in order to solve said (non-)problem.

      Screencasting is cool and something I’d like to get into a bit more with my teaching, too. Loom sounds excellent, thanks for the suggestion!

      And yes — students blogging about their reading. Such a great idea. I think the reading/writing dichotomy kind of fuels itself much more than by focusing on those skills by themselves, hence Gretchen’s great solution.

      Thanks again for the positive feedback. Always appreciated!

  2. Thanks for a great post! Like a good, sarky pub conversation with teacher pals: all that was misding was the pals, pints and pub!

  3. Using new technology in teaching foreign language is challenging. There’s no problem when you use Interactive White Board or tablets but when it comes to talk to each other (eg. via Skype) children find it difficult because of their fear of speaking. How to overcome it?

    1. I totally agree with the Skype thing.

      I sometimes get a little awkward when talking to friends on Skype, which is weird because I’d normally feel completely comfortable with them. There’s something about not being in the same space that does that, I think. That and the pressure there is to speak when you’re both sitting in front of a computer rather than just hanging out (which normally includes comfortable silences).

      Perhaps it’s best to encourage the kids not to “talk” on Skype, but to “hang out” on Skype instead?

      It’s like those couples who are in long-distant relationships who, when they Skype, just have Skype on in the background. They’d be cooking or reading or whatever — not necessarily talking — and they’d just be hanging out. Only talking when they need to.

      So perhaps instead of putting the kids in front of the computer, they can be engaging in some sort of other task?

      I don’t know what the best solution is, but that might help?

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