The ICELT Diaries: Out of Context

Oh god, more grammar. – Every student ever.

“Hello, how are you? It’s so typical of me to talk about myself. I’m sorry.”

It would be fair to say that I was, until recently, a ‘context’ skeptic. It’s not that I didn’t see the value of establishing an overarching narrative or theme when teaching grammar or vocabulary or what-have-you. It’s just that I didn’t feel it was necessary. My worry has been that doing so will tend to encourage students to focus on that story or song or video clip or cluster of realia, perhaps at the expense of the target grammar or vocabulary. Or, if the learners do grok the objectives, then they may associate with the context of that lesson rather than seeing how it applies universally. Moreover, the way they will be expected to use it come assessment time will generally be devoid of context, even if there is some contextualization on the test – our listening assessment and writing assessment are complimentary topics, for instance – that context will almost never be the same one in which they studied the material.

What I’ve learned in ICELT, however, challenges my preconception about context. According to our instructors, establishing and staying within a context anchors the learners in a (hopefully) familiar frame of reference, allowing for the all-important activation of background schemata. Without such a framework, it can be difficult for the learners to understand the utility of the target language. As our tutor said, absent context, it’s all just random words and sentences. This is why coursebooks always have themes around which their vocabulary and grammar are centered. It is also why, perhaps, so many students buy texts like English Grammar in Use and never get more than a few pages into it. All those cloze exercises and transformations are devoid of any familiar meaning.

I still believe that there should be activities that provide more test-prep and universalized practice, but I am now more amenable to using context for my grammar and vocabulary lessons in the future. If only I’d come to that realization before I had my assessed observation.

A couple of weeks ago, I had 2nd teaching observation, the first one that would actually be assessed. The objective of the lesson was a notoriously difficult one, in my experience: infinitives of purpose, such that, so that, such…that, and so…that; an annoying cluster of grammar and functional language that only sort of go together. In the run up to the lesson, I spent a crazy amount of time on the lesson plan. Hours and hours. I wrote up stages, made materials, scraped the stages, and archived the materials. Why? I don’t know. It was not a pleasant experience, but it was an educational one, though mostly in hindsight.

Structurally, I opted for a PPP framework: presentation, practice, production. A solid choice, I felt; going for a task-based learning approach would have worked too, but it’s a style that I’m not as comfortable with, so not what I wanted to do for an assessed lesson. One of the things we’d studied in our ICELT course is the value of elicitation. Instead of just having the teacher show the learners the target grammar or vocabulary, it’s better to get the students to produce as much of it as possible and then nudge them in the right direction. Thus, I included a stage for elicitation of the target grammar.

But first, I wanted to do something a little fun and interesting. You know, lower those pesky affective filters. For the lead-in to the lesson, we listened to Adele’s Hello while students filled in the missing words in the lyrics on a worksheet I prepared. That stage of the lesson worked well, though there was a little technical glitch at the beginning of the lesson. I then used the lyrics to move into the first main grammar point, the infinitive of purpose.

Where I think I screwed up is in the next stage. The Adele song was a good, fun way to ease into the topic; unfortunately, I didn’t continue to use the song as we moved on to the next stages. Instead, I used a series of interesting but random pictures for elicitation of the other grammar structures – such that, so that, such…that, so…that – and unconnected sentences for a series of rewrite activities. The song should have been the context of the entire lesson. Had I started the hour off with some predictive activities and/or lead-in questions, then played the song and done the gap fill, then the target language presentation, and elicitation using elements from the song and the story the song presents, it would have been a far more cohesive, grounded lesson. Context, man.

The rewrite activities were another thing that was not as effective as they could have been, mainly because there were too many of them, and too frequent throughout the assessed part of the 2-block lesson. My thinking was that the students often do poorly on rewrites during the mid-term and final test, so the more practice the better, since the final was just a week away. My intentions were the best, but the lesson was not the better for them.

Does he ever stop talking?!

Another unfortunate part of my lesson was the amount of TTT: teacher talk time. When I was designing and redesigning my lesson plan, I thought I had minimized TTT. In practice, though, I found that the class was actually much more teacher-centric than I realized. In retrospect, some of the activities that I scraped, such as a running dictation, would have centered the class much more on student-student interaction. The main culprit was the PowerPoint I used. I know some teachers are totally against PPTs. I think that they are useful, it used correctly. In this case, I used it for highlighting text from the Adele song, for paper-reduction, for showing photos, and similar things. The PPT itself wasn’t bad; there was just too many stages that utilized it. Have a variety of different kinds of activities would have mitigated this issue.

In the end, the lesson was fine; I passed the assessment. Though the students learned the grammar points pretty well, I felt disappointed that the lesson didn’t live up to my expectations. Thankfully, though, I was able to recognize the mistakes I made in it and will be better able to avoid them in the future. “At least I can say that I’ve tried.”

The ICELT Diaries: What Has Come Before

Part of my professional development plan for this school year is, for the first time, to learn how to teach.

I kid, I kid. When I first arrived in Korea in 2004, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at the tender age of 27, I attended a specialized training program at a university, which was actually pretty useful for me. Up to that point, I had been teaching web scripting, database design, and software like Office and Photoshop for several years, and although I got good student and client evaluations, I had just cobbled together a theory of pedagogy. Luckily, between those university-sponsored workshops and a very good, highly experienced supervisor at my first hakwon, I learned how to teach more systematically. By the time I left my joyous, wonderful, so-so-awesome university gig in 2012, I felt pretty confident in my teaching acumen.

Jump to 2014. I’m a newbie in a university English prep program in Istanbul. Nearly all of my coworkers have, at the least, a CELTA. A good number sport DELTAs or MAs in related fields. I’d never been around so many eminently qualified professionals. While I never doubted that I could teach, and teach effectively, I realized that I could benefit from more education on education. Plus, having more qualifications would enhance my résumé. Never neglect your résumé.

Initially, I considered working on a CELTA. As chance would have it, though, our director of development offered a few of us the chance to do the ICELT – Cambridge’s In-Service Certificate of English Language Teaching – at my university, for a pleasantly reduced cost. Did I consider the various pros and cons, weighed the alternatives, investigated the curriculum, evaluated the training providers, or any sort of due diligence?


The ICELT is not nearly as well-known as its siblings, the CELTA and the DELTA. It’s purpose is a little different, naturally. The underlying idea is that teachers who are currently established in their career will take the course to learn new skills and practices, and gain deeper understanding of the theories underpinning their pedagogy. It places a heavy focus on self-reflection and peer observation. CELTA, by contrast, is aimed more at new language teachers, while DELTA is for experienced teachers who will assume roles of greater responsibility within their department, teacher trainers, or those who want more prestigious positions without getting an MA.

Over the coming weeks and months, I will share some of the insights I glean from the program. Next week, I’ll talk a little about task-based learning and presentatio-practice-production. Later, we’ll look at lesson planning, the role of observations, and much more. Stay tuned!

My Gamification Project, Episode 1: The Intrinsic Menace

raisinghandsMotivation…or students’ lack there-of, the great scourge, the destroyer of many a teacher. This can be especially true for ESL instructors faced with a room of students who are required to take your class. They did not necessarily want to be in your class, studying past perfect progressive in a language they couldn’t give two flips about (at current exchange rates, 1 flip is worth about 0.65 rat’s asses). Looking out over a sea of glossy eyes or smartphone-illuminated faces hour after hour is enough to drive a teacher to drink. Drink more, anyway.

There is an age component to the motivation problem, in my experience. As long as you keep the lessons well-paced and active, little kids have boundless energies for almost any task, whether they really care about it or not. They’re like empathetic sponges, so if you’re excited about gerunds, they’ll be excited too. This effect diminishes as the learners get older. If you walk into a room of middle school students with a writing lesson after lunch, you can have an unlicensed proton pack of excitement strapped to your back and it won’t matter one whit. But what do you expect? They’re walking bags of rapidly-changing hormones, in a society and at an age where standing out can be social suicide. I thought that intrinsic lack of motivation was a phase. I was wrong. Oh, so wrong.

quotes_motivationWhen I started teaching at a university in Seoul, it was not my first time teaching older learners. I’d had many private lesson students, and I had taught community classes for a vocational school south of the metropolis. I had, I thought, a fair idea of what to expect in terms of motivation. The adults I’d been teaching for the past few years had all been enthusiastic. So imagine my surprise when, during my first lessons, getting my 18-20 year-old students to answer “How are you?” was like asking them to pull their own teeth out with a spoon. I should have realised the key difference between my university students and my adult learners. The adults I’d taught had chosen of their own free will to take my class. The freshmen at the university, by contrast, were required to get 4 credits worth of English in order to graduate. For the most part, students who were already good at English – i.e. the ones who wanted to learn the language – had long before mastered it, gotten high scores on standardized tests, and were thus exempted from the mandatory classes. Those who remained were decidedly uninterested in English, though many of them recognized that they did actually need it, if only to get a decent job at Samsung or Hyundai. But knowing you need to learn something doesn’t make you want to learn it. Necessity isn’t the mother of motivation.

One afternoon, I stumbled across a TEDx talk on something the speaker was referring to as ‘game level theory’. The talk wasn’t actually that good, and as memory serves, I believe he made have made some rather dubious claims, but at its core, there was something exciting and potentially revolutionary. He opined on the possibility of using elements from games – earning points, winning badges, leveling up – as a way of motivating people to do things that we – teachers, bosses, governments – want them to do but that they might not be interested in doing on their own. Of course, he what he was referring to was “gamification”. Put simply, gamification is the application of game-like features to non-game tasks in order to spur motivation.

An early version of my participation  level sheet.

As someone who’d grown up with D&D and video games, this was immediately fascinating to me. I set about that evening to create some sort of ‘level system’ for my classes based on participation. At first, I had some fanciful ideas about awarding points which students could use to buy armor and weapons and somehow compete in a fantasy world (see my D&D comment above). That I rejected as being far too complicated and potentially unappealing to many students. Not that there aren’t viable ways of doing just that. Instead, what I settled on was a rather simple system of 6 levels – our freshman program mandated that 30% of students’ grades be based on participation, so each of my levels was worth 5% of their overall grade. Each level had a number of little dots that had to be filled in if the student wanted to ‘level up’. They could fill in a dot every time they answered a question (regardless of accuracy), asked a relevant question (“what does this mean?” yes, “teach-uh, bath-uh-room?” not so much), did extra homework, and the like.

The system solved a few problems from the very first day I introduced it. One, students went from rarely raising their hands to fighting for my attention whenever I asked a question. Extra bits of homework, which weren’t factored into their grades, used to be ignored by nearly every student; once I introduced my level system, not only did they almost always complete the work, they would actually ask me for more. No one ever forget their books, as not having your material would cost you some dots. The students also no longer complained about their participation scores. If they only got a 15 out of 30, they knew why; they only had to look at their sad, half-undotted level sheets to see why.

In short, it felt like a great success.

But, was it? We’ll discuss that next time.

Thinking out loud about Storytelling

telling stories clip artBecause I have an allergy to anything being too simple in my life, I have two vocational passions: teaching and creative writing. Arguably, I am much more successful in the former than the latter, if you go by evidence… These are two fields that require a dedication of time, effort, and mental bandwidth. And it’s a bit of a zero-sum game; time devoted to professional developmental as an educator is necessarily deducted from time I could be writing. Given that my landlord likes me to give him money at least semi-regularly, education wins more often than creative writing.

Yet, must they be mutually exclusive?

I saw this presentation on Prezi a few days ago, and it got me thinking about how we might use storytelling in the classroom more. Certainly using storytelling could be implemented in certain subjects – history, for one -with little effort, but I am not certain how one would go about it in the academic ESL context so easily. Using storytelling in the young learner classroom seems like a good fit; not just using storybooks, as most of us who’ve taught at that level have done, but interactive, drama-and-play infused activities, could be a powerful way to drive interest and meaningful learning. Back in the day, teaching kindergarten and elementary ESL in Seoul, I loved lessons that let us break out the finger puppets and get the kids to make up stories and performances.

 This post on Edutopia has some good points to consider.

The Many Benefits to Storytelling

When you tell your first story, there is a magical moment. The children sit enthralled, mouths open, eyes wide. If that isn’t enough reason, then consider that storytelling:

  • Inspires purposeful talking, and not just about the story — there are many games you can play.
  • Raises the enthusiasm for reading texts to find stories, reread them, etc.
  • Initiates writing because children will quickly want to write stories and tell them.
  • Enhances the community in the room.
  • Improves listening skills.
  • Really engages the boys who love the acting.
  • Is enjoyed by children from kindergarten to the end of elementary school.
  • Gives a motivating reason for English-language learners to speak and write English.

There’s also this article with several interesting points to consider. It’s a bit longer, so read it at your leisure. Quiz on Friday.

If you have any experience integrating storytelling into your lessons, especially in an ESL environment, please share!


The Learning Style Myth

Ask many teachers and parents, and you’ll likely find a great deal of belief in learning styles, or more accurately, learning preferences. It’s an appealing, intuitive idea: when learning some new material, different students will respond better to differentiated lesson styles. Yet, the evidence for this is surprisingly thin. In fact, a number of studies have found quite the opposite.

Most relevant studies show that while students may indicate that they have a learning preference (audio, visual, kinesthetic), that preference has little relation to their learning outcomes. In fact, most people benefit for a variety of different lesson modalities; retention is much better when more than one method is used to reinforce a lesson’s objectives.

This week’s episode of the Skeptics Guide the Universe discusses some of the issues in the topic, in their “Spot the Logical Fallacy” segment. Of particular interest here is how so many trained educators are willing to ignore observational-based research in favor of their own anecdotal evidence, which unfortunately is subject to confirmation bias.


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