Tag Archives: Scott Thornbury

5 Things to Remember when……..Covering a Class at the Last Minute

If you missed last month’s post, the first in this series, you can read our reflection on 5 things to remember when listening to your colleagues complain right here. This month, we turn to that dreaded moment….the one that happens to the all of us:
It’s 8:55, you’re nervously watching the clock thinking I’m almost there….five more minutes and my morning will be free (and I can finally get around to culling all those friends of mine on Facebook)….and in walks your DOS, silently, slinking in the morning shadows cast by shelves and shelves of dusty copies of Practical English Usage. She clears her throat and nervously taps you on the shoulder, your index finger quivering with excitement over the left mouse button as you feel time ticking down with a certain sense of cruel, twisted fate….happy Monday!!!

1) Stop, don’t retaliate and listen!

Cover happens to everyone – we’ve all had to do it, or better yet, drop someone in it at some point as a result of a bad oyster, broken leg, bike accident or torn skirt.  There is certainly something to be said for the reciprocal, karmic nature of the way teachers handle their contractual obligations in relation to covering classes….and if nothing else, we really need to remember that one day it will be you calling in sick and in need of help.
Talking about cover to some friends the other day, we noted that the stress teachers typically feel in response to the proverbial tap on the shoulder and nervous smile from the DOS is inversely proportional to the amount of time remaining before you need to walk into the classroom; When you’re asked to cover with two weeks’ notice most teachers barely notice, but when that tap on the shoulder comes at five minutes to the hour, there are some of us who need to change their socks, others of us who manage to fit a surprising number of cigarettes into the morning, and others of us whose profane vocabulary comes into its own.
That being said, we also feel that once the clock ticks past the hour, the students are settled, and pleasantries have been exchanged, things becomes eerily familiar (unless of course you happen to be covering for a teacher who did all the cutting a prep for you….and then you realise that they’ve cut up the materials for the wrong class……….which has NEVER happened to us or anyone we know…..ever….).
So, when the tap comes, and it will come at some point, is there really any purpose in complaining, doing your best Napoleon Dynamite impression or burning your way through a pack of cigarettes?  Stop, don’t retaliate, and get the basic information you need: When is the class? What room is it in? Which book are they using? Is there a plan or any notes? Do you have time for a quick visit to the loo? (Hey, there are some luxuries even the most pressed teachers need….) Is there someone around who can help you for five minutes to quickly do some printing and cutting up or bring it to you in ten minutes? Are your shoes done up, your pants on the right way and this morning’s spinach omelet safely removed from between your teeth?
Remember, even if there is a serial offender in your office, be frustrated with them – don’t take it out on the messenger, or the students.  A smile goes a long, long way.

2) Taking opportunities to develop – earning your stripes

There is a a lot to be said for aiming to be the most professional teacher you can be – especially in an industry that isn’t necessarily internationally associated with fiercely competitive entry requirements and performance review standards.  The TEFL world grew largely from the spread of John Haycraft’s CELTA-style short courses which championed the reality of teachers learning and developing practical skills in front of students, and figuring out what seems right, intuitively, in from moment to moment, and from class to class.
There is arguably no better way than to get back to this fundamental alignment of variables (I mean, really, have you ever been as nervous, or felt under as much pressure in front of a class as on your first observed lesson on your pre-service course?) than being put in front of a class at the last minute, and seeing what happens.
In fact many would argue that this is teaching in its purest form – when you have no security blanket of a lesson plan, there is no choice but to listen to your students and respond to them – and some of our best lessons and most insightful moments have come from those moments when we felt under the most pressure.
So, business needs aside, we would argue that the issue of cover, and its associated stresses are not only important and something everyone needs to share, but an essential part of continuing professional development.  Teaching, as an art form, is centred around the notion of teachers thinking on their feet and responding, from moment to moment in the classroom.  Our industry was founded on this belief, and what better way to earn your stripes than by spending more time on the front line, at the chalkface, in the spotlight…hmm, out of metaphors…

3) What really matters?

There are two types of teachers – those who fill in their registers, and those who don’t.  If you’re lucky enough to cover a teacher from the first of these two groups, well done.  If not, and frustrating as it may seem in the moment, you will probably gain significant perspective on life’s important things as a direct result of covering a teacher from the second of these two groups.
At the end of the day, your shoulder-tapping DOS simply needs a teacher in front of the class – that is the ultimate reason they have asked you to help out.  If there is no plan, and no reference to the last page they’ve covered, and you’ve still got 250 friends to cull from your list of Facebook friends…..chin up.  Given the other benefits, most of which will have a direct positive result on your professional development (and not necessarily on your sweat glands) life at this very moment could certainly be a lot worse.
So what really matters? Only that you remember to stay positive, keep a smile (even it it’s a slight grimace) on your face, and a professional attitude the moment you step into the classroom.

4) Contingency plans

Not wanting to sound like your mother-cum-CELTA trainer-cum-director (and what a complicated relationship that would be…) teachers really need to be ready.  We know everyone always says you need to have something ready for fast finishers, and we all pretend that we do, but having a reserve of flexible, portable, instant lessons really can make the difference between a one-cheeky-cigarette-kinda-day, and a 2-pairs-of-undies-kinda-day.
We’d like to share some of our all-time greatest last minute lessons, for your reading (and teaching) pleasure (can you spot the odd one out?). Keep in mind, these are not necessarily our lessons, but lessons we know work most of the time, with most ages, levels and abilities.  Credit for these ideas and references are listed below.
a) Guess what’s inside my head
If you’ve never done this with a class, you’ve never lived.
Teacher: Can you guess what I’m thinking of?
Students: Is it a carrot?
Teacher: No! Guess again!
Students: Is it a chameleon?
Teacher: No! Guess again!
Students: Is it the eternal struggle of ethnic minorities in former British colonies who have since gained independence from the oppression of White colonial expansion?
Teacher: Very close, keep guessing!
Thanks to Claire Steele for this one!
b) Dialogue Building
A very flexible lesson, with minimal preparation needed that features loads of repetition, writing practice and a role play.  We got this one from Scott Thornbury’s article on OneStopEnglish here.
c) Sentence Relays

Just when you thought running dictations couldn’t get any better…..Students line up in groups facing the board.  The teacher reads a sentence clearly twice for students to memorise. When you say GO! students race to the board to write the sentence, one word per student at a time, in a relay.  If you have 4 or 5 sentences ready to go, the students then write down all of the sentences they remember at the end of the activity.  This can then lead into question writing and speaking, a jazz chant, or if you’re feeling up for it, a cheeky game of guess what’s inside my head!

d) Dictaphone Stories

If there was one thing we learned from our DELTA, it was how to use a dictaphone in class.  And we mean, really use a dictaphone.  This lesson is actually adapted from Teaching Unplugged (Thornbury & Meddings), but you can find a short description here (Disclaimer: this is a link to James’ blog).  It is a speaking/listening and materials-light lesson that will challenge even the most annoying of students.

5) Enjoy the limelight

Collectively, we flog the catch phrase student-centred learning to death.  Should there be a time and a place for teacher-centred teaching?  Is it ok to be the centre of attention, add a sprinkling of funny remarks, those old favourite jokes (the ones that every class loves, even if you’ve been telling them for 20 years) and a little anecdote here and there?
Yes, of course it is, despite what your conscience might tell you.  There is a voice inside the heads of many teachers (not ours! not anymore!) that questions any move to take the spotlight, and any conscious decision to “play up a bit” in class.  Is it a CELTA remnant? No TTT! TTT is bad! Teachers talking in class ROB STUDENTS OF THEIR BASIC HUMAN RIGHTS! Pish. While we use this phrase very cautiously, what we are really talking about is the immeasurable notion of teacher-student rapport.  This is arguably one of the strongest factors to influence student motivation, which in turn is the single biggest challenge to overcome for any teacher or student. So have a chat, tell a story, make them laugh, get them onside.
Students typically enjoy the novelty of a new face, a new voice, a new rhythm in class and this deserves to be indulged.  In reality, the students might appreciate their cover teacher all the more, simply from the novelty of having a change.  So, while that dreaded tap on the shoulder at 8:55 on Monday morning might fill you with a sense of endless and unrequited social media errands, you may very well be delighted and surprised to find yourself in the spotlight of an interested, curious and interactive group of students – and this really is what most of us live for.

* By James Pengelley and Jane Pyper (Hong Kong), purveyors of Australian wit and bathers tans.

The views expressed in this post are our own and not those of #AusELT as a whole, or of English Australia

‘Hype, hope, and what are we actually meant to do with it all???’ Attitudes to edtech.  Part 2 of the #AusELT chat summary ‘The mouse that roared? Issues with edtech in ELT’ (6 Feb, 2014)

Photo: Victoria Boobyer @eltpics

Photo: Victoria Boobyer @eltpics

This is the second in a series on 4 blog posts summarising the many issues that were raised in the recent #AusELT chat with Scott Thornbury on the subject of edtech in ELT. The title quote is a comment made by @eslkazzyb during the beginning of the discussion. References or links have been included as far as possible but let us know if we need to make corrections or additions.


@Eslkazzyb gave us a neat summary of the different attitudes towards the use of edtech in our #AusELT community. The ‘hype’ is the technoevangelism – the idea that you have to use tech in ELT because it is ‘better’ and that means, whether you like it or not, you should embrace it and incorporate its use in your lesson planning. This is definitely an idea that has frustrated and annoyed a lot of teachers.

Then there’s the ‘hope’. Edtech has its supporters too – some are approaching it cautiously, beginning to see benefits where before they saw none, gradually coming around to the idea that there might be some scope for the inclusion of tech in the language learning classroom.

Others (the technovores!) are the early-adopters. Not necessarily technoevangelists, they are the daily users, those who have fully integrated edtech into their daily teaching, manage to get the right blend for their blended learning and appreciate the advantages that it brings, while acknowledging that there can sometimes be a downside. These people already have an idea of ‘what we are actually meant to do with it all’.


There is a push to use edtech but it isn’t necessarily coming from educators. There were suggestions that blended learning is driven by publishers and corporate training/e-learning (@ElkySmith), by sales and marketing (@tamzenarmer, @Penultimate_K), and that there is a perception that this is something that the learners want – students are meant to be motivated by tech so we’ll sell them tech!


@thornburyscott stated that ‘we need to be suspicious of technology when it is being co-opted by multinationals to commodify education for profit, as in the US.’ This need for suspicion extends to directives that we ‘must use tech’ or ‘tech improves teaching/learning’ with @harrisonmike making the point that we should show the quote below to anyone who tells us this is so:


@Penultimate_K mentioned that it seems that often the choices we are meant to be making when it involves tech have been curated for us and there are ‘so many lists of what we’re meant to do/need.’ You don’t need to look very far to find ‘The Top 10 Apps to Use in Class’ or ‘7 Effective Ways to Teach Language with iPads’ and, of course, this leads to a ‘race for money’ (@trylingual) by the developers of those apps and the makers of those iPads, and along the way the need for those tech tools to be pedagogically sound is lost.

@thornburyscott supported this idea as tech being the driver rather than the tool with this 2003 quote from Diane Laurillard:

“Technological innovation is driven by many factors, but not one of them concerns a pedagogical imperative.”

And the results of the hype? Confusion and frustration. The decision to use edtech or not, to believe in its advantages or not, can divide teachers (@Eslkazzyb). Both @ChristineMulla and @roboloughlin mentioned the sense of demoralisation that teachers experience when you don’t live up to the expectations to use tech. In some cases, teachers can even be penalised for not including tech with @harrisonmike commenting that Ofsted (the UK Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills) will not grade a teacher as ‘outstanding’ if tech is not used. This also brings us back to the problem of where the expectations are coming from: from accrediting bodies such as Ofsted, from students, from managers, or from sales? If you don’t make the effort to use tech, then who exactly are you disappointing? @thornburyscott commented that ‘teachers are often blamed for not instituting tech, but maybe they don’t see the need?’ and too often this blame is coming from technoevangelists who ‘lose sight of the learners and the learning’ (@ElkySmith) and who may not even be teachers.

The pressure to use tech can often be seen in institutions with blended learning courses, where teachers feel an obligation to use, for example, the Interactive Whiteboard, just because it is there or just because content has been developed for it. This can result in reduced teaching quality when the focus becomes ‘having to use the IWB’ rather than the learning objectives. There can also be avoidance, ‘When we got IWBs, teachers wanted to use them just for effect. Many just avoided them and used the WB’ (@MerMac) and use that has no real pedagogical benefit, ‘often only use IWB to display IWB notebooks of Word documents – and to project the Internet.’


‘It is easy to feel that the edtech tide is going out and you’re getting stranded’ (@ElkySmith) but there is hope for those who are feeling somewhat left behind. @trylingual asked ‘Can teachers change this? Are we responsible?’ and the answers seem to be ‘yes’ and ‘yes’.

If we take @ElkySmith’s view and consider technology ‘equal alongside all [the] other methodological technologies’ then it becomes a slightly less daunting prospect. It isn’t ‘a silver bullet’ (@Shaunwilden) but another tool to add to a teacher’s repertoire. The fact is that rarely do teachers use edtech wholesale.

While the plethora of edtech (the tools, the apps, the sites, the techniques) can be daunting, the majority of teachers are working to get past this and see the potential. It’s the difference between not writing off IWBs because you’ve been pushed into using them but also not writing off IWBs because you don’t know how to use them effectively (@SophiaKhan4 and @thesmylers).

And let’s not forget the students in all this. @thesmylers asked about what the students expect and @Eslkazzyb commented that she hadn’t seen the demand for the use of edtech that she had anticipated, which made her wonder about how much impact its use has on engagement and motivation. If this demand has been exaggerated, then the onus is off teachers to provide tech-centred lessons all day every day, and return to a pedagogically-focused class with tech as just one tool among many at the teacher’s disposal.


@mattellman pointed out that yes, there might be hype and hope, but there is no actual evidence of disappointment and that learners have a lot more access to English now via edtech. Technofundamentalism is not restricted to the sphere of ELT – it ‘pervades all sectors of society’ (@english_safari) and there are many who feel there are benefits to be gained from it while maintaining a balanced perspective.

The teachers who feel the most hope seem to be those who have been able to harness the tech as a tool rather than a driver and who perceive the use of tech in ELT as augmented learning rather than blended learning (@Innov8rEduc8r & @forstersensei)

Augmented learning can be implemented either by teachers or tech developers or a combination of the two. The teachers will look for pedagogically sound applications (@ElkySmith) and the developers will create ‘tech specifically designed for ed rather than tech which could be used for ed’ (@Penultimate_K) or as @forstersensei put it, ‘don’t sell tech, sell education and let tech be incorporated.’

@lukeealexander pointed out the liberating effect of using free tools (‘if you know where to look’) and also commented that he perceived tech ‘as a site of contestation rather than (a) monolithic force for neoliberalism.’ Tech can be time-saving or let you expedite the exposition stage, freeing teachers up to engage more with students. Tech can bring breadth to your lesson content.

@innov8torEduc8tor summed up the balanced approach best with this idea:




Coffield, F. & Edward, S. (2009). Rolling out ‘good’, ‘best’, and ‘excellent’ practice. What next? Perfect practice? British Educational Research Journal, 35 (3), June, pp. 371-390. Retrieved from http://teambath.bath.ac.uk/education/documents/seminars/ORE_Reading_Group_01.07.13.pdf

Laurillard, D. (2002). Rethinking University Teaching: A Conversational Framework for the Effective Use of Learning Technologies (2nd ed). London: Routledge/Falmer.

McCann, U. (2008). Universal McCann Social Media Tracker Wave 3. Universal McCann, New York. Retrieved from http://www.universalmccann.com/Assets/2413%20-%20Wave%203%20complete%20document%20AW%203_20080418124523.pdf

Postman, N. (1993).Of Luddites, Learning, and Life. Technos Quarterly, 2(4). Retrieved from http://www.ait.net/technos/tq_02/4postman.php


This summary by @Penultimate_K

“What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?” Part 1 of the #AusELT chat summary: ‘The mouse that roared? Issues with edtech in ELT’ (6 Feb, 2014)

Question Mark Key on Computer KeyboardThis is the first in a series on 4 blog posts summarising the many issues that were raised in the recent #AusELT chat with Scott Thornbury on the subject of edtech in ELT. The title quote is drawn from Neil Postman. References or links have been included as far as possible but let us know if we need to make corrections or additions.


Scott (‪@thornburyscott) started by outlining his position based on his recent #AusELT blog post:

‘The framing of digital technology as a generally “good thing” has become an orthodoxy within education thinking’ (Selwyn, 2011). Yet history of edtech has been one of endless cycles of ‘hype, hope and disappointment’ (Selwyn, 2011, p. 59). Witness: radio, TV, films, microcomputers, language labs, IWBs. Now mobiles, tablets, one laptop per child.

Techno-fundamentalism: an uncritical faith in the inevitable benefits of technology. Does it pervade ELT? I argue that it does. Typically it takes the form ‘101 things you can do with Blogster/Wordle, etc.’ Is this the way to make pedagogically sound choices?

Better to ask ‘What is the problem for which this tool/aid/app is the solution?’ (after Neil Postman)

So what problems have you encountered for which some technology has provided a solution? Specifically:  1 input, 2 output 3 interaction 4 feedback 5 motivation and (possibly) 6 data. How does technology solve these?

This summary looks at what the chat participants had to say on those 6 areas (NB: some of the areas have been collapsed together, not because they don’t deserve individual attention, but because the issues are related and ran together in the chat).


No one would disagree with ‪@lukeealexander that “tech provides sts in TEFL contexts far more authentic material/input than 10-15 years ago.”

Participants were also quick to point out that “tech allows more universal access to corpora, from Google all the way to Corpus of Contemporary American Eng for example” (@ElkySmith) and that “explaining vocab, particularly abstract ideas, is much easier via images online.” (@forstersensei)

‪@thornburyscott stirred the pot again, suggesting that while digital media may offer massive input, it is at a low level of engagement:

“The Web is a technology of forgetfulness” (Nicholas Carr)

@sophiakhan4 agreed and suggested that it also often offers a low level of language development: “Lots of beginner and elem stuff – tapers off noticeably above intermediate level.”


I thought people might have a bit more to say about the extent to which edtech really helped their learners produce meaningful language in meaningful contexts, but it was a fast moving chat and it seemed to fall by the wayside somewhat – although some of the issues return in the section on FEEDBACK (below).

Several participants were positive about the the role tech can play in promoting interaction:

  • “Found tech wonderful for real-world communication tasks – real-meaningful-purposeful tasks” (@Innov8rEduc8r)
  • “interaction . . . learning beyond the classroom is a big plus. Apps, social media (when used properly) & online tools” (@forstersensei)
  • “Have just set up a wall for an exam class to link and add to. Faster comm from me to them, them to each other (I hope) . . . I find it great to allow SS to come together and solve problems. Fosters autonomy and builds a team.” (‪@ChristineMulla)
  • “I love to use pages and walls for exam classes – they use them to share photos, ideas and chat using target language.” (@PeloKaren)

@MeredithMacAul1 agreed with this, having experimented with Moodle forums to get students adding comments on a topic, but she added that it was “difficult to get everyone to participate.”  @Eslkazzyb agreed and commented that students “really have to see value very explicitly to participate.”

@trylingual took a neutral position: “Tech has brought the real world into my classroom. But it does not solve everything and often creates more issues.”


Participants were quick to pick up the connection between output, interaction and feedback. Arguably, in terms of language learning, output and interaction always requires feedback of some kind, whether that comes from the teacher, the software, a friend, or some other source.

  • “Feedback is the big Q for me. St seem to like using authentic tools, e.g Facebook, but less interested in feedback loop . . .” (‪@Eslkazzyb)
  • “Computers aren’t ready to respond to real output. Still need people” (@SophiaKhan4)
  • “Feedback is an issue for tech with a closed design. i.e. Only one correct answer.” (‪@trylingual)

‪@thornburyscott, as ever, had a quote to hand:

“Conclusion: CALL products ‘are not yet able to offer an alternative to human support or interaction’ (Nielson 2011).”

However, chatters were keen not to throw the baby out with the bathwater:

  • “Agreed.. but they can assist. Socrative is a great example of a tool that can be programmed w/ feedback.” (@forstersensei)
  • “How [else] to collect audio samples from all Ss in one short lesson so you can give individual feedback, individually? (@cioccas)
  • “Tech can b used 2 facilitate feedback between sts eg mobile phones to record and send speaking task, other st gives fb” (@lukeealexander)

‪@thornburyscott agreed that recording students output seemed to be at least one positive use of mobile phones for example, though @GwendaAtkinson queried the wisdom of winding up with 100 recordings to grade at home. @cioccas, however, thought that “recordings used like taking home papers to check” was a good idea and noted that we can provide audio feedback instead of written.

‪@thornburyscott was also quick to jump on the fact that tech doesn’t correct writing, “nor give-at-the-point-of-need feedback on meaning.” @ElkySmith proposed that this was just a matter of time, though @cioccas was less optimistic: “I’ve seen tech that tries & if that’s the future I’m worried.” @forstersensei felt that edtech could still assist, nonetheless, and suggested trying Kaizena for providing oral feedback on writing (according to  @trylingual there is a plug-in for Google Docs that does the same).

@IH_Barcelona also suggested that if the problem is getting feedback from learners, then Google forms is a “brilliant, easy, useful” solution.


I’m not sure motivation and engagement are the same thing but for the purposes of this Twitter chat, they were certainly closely intertwined.

Tech is engaging – but where’s the evidence?

@Shaunwilden started off with: “I’m not sure if it is a problem per se but [tech] definitely helps engage sts.” @Innov8rEduc8r agreed: “Engagement was sky high with tech for my sts. And desire to improve pronunciation, grammar was also high.”

@thornburyscott wasn’t willing to take this as evidence: “If technology engages learners, where is the proof? Questionnaires (Do you like using mobiles in class?) are unreliable . . . Better to assess motivation by degree of attention, time-on-task. Evidence is not good . . . I’d just love to see some evidence that students are more engaged.”

There were many responses:

  • “My proof would be watching lessons before and after” (@Shaunwilden)

Where’s the evidence that ANY tool is engaging?

@TomTesol set the cat among the pigeons by drawing an analogy with textbooks: “Where’s the proof that textbooks engage learners?“

‪@thornburyscott was quick to respond: “Textbooks don’t engage learners either. Other learners do. And teachers.”

@Eslkazzyb thought the analogy was very valid: “The skill is in the T using the book and tech to suit their learners’ needs & interests.” ‪@SophiaKhan4 agreed that whether textbook or tech, “life has to come off the page/screen. They can help but not alone.”

As a final word on this topic,  @forstersensei implied that the combination of textbook and tech might be the best of both worlds: “digital textbooks can be much more engaging than photocopies . . . add interactive content” – however, the jury was definitely out on the whole area of this kind of blended learning tool (more on this in Part 2!)

Whether tech is engaging or not depends on . . .?

Returning to the problem of motivation/engagement, participants were clearly divided on whether they saw tech as essential or not.

Admitted technophile@Innov8rEduc8r was all in favour: “Engagement was never really an issue if I designed projects that catered to their interests and needs . . . My students were more engaged – more attuned to their English skills – and where they needed to improve – and had a sense of agency.”

On the other hand, admitted Luddite @Eslkazzyb wrote: “Interestingly I don’t see as much drive from Sts as expected. They seem to prefer solid lessons with or w/o tech . . . Tech did not necessarily add to levels of engagement for my classes . . . Seems some of the most simple ‘low tech’ ideas are often most effective.” ‪@Penultimate_K agreed, putting it in a nutshell: “I’ve never had a student come to me & complain that they don’t use enough edtech.”

@Innov8rEduc8r wrote: “Wonder if our approach is affected by our own engagements with tech. Me: I love tech” and @tamzenarmer thought there was definitely truth in this: “The teachers in my institution who love tech most can get Ss to engage.”  @PeloKaren summed it up: “It’s like any topic/idea: if the teacher is engaged in it the students will be more engaged – but it has to be balanced.”

Is there evidence that tech is NOT engaging?

‪@thornburyscott then widened the scope of the discussion by equating motivation to attention and arguing that the internet as a whole may be contributing to reduced attentiveness: “Motivation = attention. But Internet fosters ‘continuous partial attention’ and reading online is typically ‘shallow.’”

@trylingual didn’t take this as read, asking: “Can we install better habits? Have these phenomena been verified to be present in all st populations?”

‪@thornburyscott  referred to a study that tracked more than 100 very motivated students using online self-study software. The study found that only 5 of those students completed the course. This rang bells for several chat participants. @cioccas said: “I’m not surprised given most self-study courses I’ve seen. Still need humans for real support, FB, etc.” and @SophiaKhan4 felt that it was “easy to enroll [on an online course]/buy a package. But w/o real-life feedback [it] is meaningless in long term . . . much easier  to enroll & feel like that is an achievement than do the work & finish.”

However, the quality of the self-study package that the study evaluated was questioned, with @IH_Barcelona asking “Was the fault with the course design or the technology itself? . . . Was the online experience primarily a technological one? Or a social one? Social way more likely to ‘work.’” @forstersensei asked: “Was there a concrete outcome in the course? ie. a degree? If not, why do it?” and he also added “Tech can’t be the sole medium . . . better as a support.”

And there you have it. If you have some more ideas in response to Scott’s 6 questions, please let us know in the comments. Part 2 looks at attitudes to edtech in more detail, including ‘technofundamentalism’ and how teachers really feel about the implementation of blended learning programs.


Postman, N. 1993. Of Luddites, Learning, and Life. Technos Quarterly, 2(4). Retrieved from http://www.ait.net/technos/tq_02/4postman.php

Selwyn, N. 2011. Education and Technology: Key Issues and Debates. London: Continuum.

This summary by @SophiaKhan4

Update on the #AusELT chat with Scott Thornbury (6 Feb 2014)

For the first #AusELT chat of 2014, we were lucky enough to be joined by the wonderful Scott Thornbury to debate the role of edtech in ELT, and it was certainly a great start to the year. There were around 40 active participants from Australia and around the world – both old hands and new – and an intimidating 1000+ tweets were counted in the transcript (excluding RTs and MTs!)

It quickly became apparent that we would need more than a single blog post to fairly address the many issues that were raised.

Just sorting through a few tweets. Won't be long.

Just sorting through a few tweets. Won’t be long.

So over the next few weeks you will see FOUR summary posts appearing, each taking a different angle. The following links will become active as the posts appear.

1. “What is the problem for which this technology is the solution?”
2. “Hype, hope, and what are we actually meant to do with it all???” Attitudes to edtech
3. Edtech – in or out of class?
4. The future of educational technology – is resistance futile?

Thanks for your patience!


Ed Tech: The Mouse that Roared? by Scott Thornbury

EAJ 28.2_CT_10 questions_Scott Thornbury IMAGE#AusELT is privileged and delighted to be able to welcome Scott Thornbury as our first Twitter chat guest of the Year of the Horse. One of Scott’s current research interests is the “ed tech” phenomenon that has dominated ELT in recent years, and exploring what this means in practical terms. He will be joining us on Thurs 6th Feb at 8.30pm Sydney time [click here to check the time elsewhere in the world] to discuss some of the questions he raises below – we’ll see you there for what promises to be a very thought-provoking discussion.

As long ago as 1966, Pit Corder warned that ‘the use of mechanical aids in the classroom is justified only if they can do something which the teacher unaided cannot do, or can do less effectively’ (1966, p. 69). Nevertheless, the craze for newer, better gadgetry has continued unabated, creating what one writer called ‘the caravan effect’: ‘a metaphor in which the travellers (technology enthusiasts) stop for a while to drink from the waterhole (the latest technology) until they have had their fill; then they move on to the next waterhole to drink again’ (Levy 2009, p. 779). Moreover, each innovation arrives garlanded with claims that are seldom if ever realised, such that the history of educational technology in the 20th century has been characterised as a continuous cycle of ‘hype, hope, and disappointment’ (Selwyn 2011, p. 59). Why is this? One reason (adduced by Selwyn) is that the power of technology is often enlisted in order to solve problems that are non-technological in nature, language learning being a prime example. If we accept the ecological view that language is a complex dynamic system, subject to multiple and interconnected influences, social, psychological and environmental, the idea that change can be effected by a quick technological fix is ingenuous, to say the least. The history of the social sciences is littered with the unintended consequences of such interventions. Beware of geeks bearing gifts!

In order to guard against the hype, any recommendation for integrating a learning technology into our current practice should be countered with Neil Postman’s oft-cited riposte: What is the problem for which this technology is the solution? To which might be added a second question, based on Pit Corder’s aforementioned warning: Can the technology do it better/more effectively than the teacher unaided?

What, then, are the problems that technology might solve? To answer this question, it’s useful to draw on the current state of research to remind ourselves as to the necessary conditions for learning a second language, which, for the purposes of the argument, I’ll frame as problems:

1. The input problem, i.e. how does the learner obtain sufficient (comprehensible) input?

2. The output problem, i.e. how is the learner provided with opportunities for (pushed) output?

3. The interaction problem, i.e. how does the learner engage in (scaffolded) interaction?

4. The feedback problem, i.e. how does the learner get optimal feedback at the point of need?

5. The motivation problem, i.e. what motivates the learner to make best use of these input, output, interaction and feedback opportunities?

To which might be added (because it’s debatable as to whether it’s necessary)

6. The data problem, i.e. how does the learner readily access useable information about the target language?

It’s my contention that technology (meaning here ‘digital technology’, and especially that which is available online) has made significant advances in terms of helping solve at least some of these problems, such as the input problem and especially the data problem, where it easily outperforms the unaided teacher. But it has some way to go in terms of the output, interaction and feedback problems, while the evidence with regard to motivation is inconclusive.

I would go further, though, and add that one of the unintended consequences of an uncritical commitment to educational technology might be the effective disempowering of teachers in the interests of servicing the neoliberal ‘knowledge economy’. As Lin (2013) warns: ‘Language teaching is increasingly prepackaged and delivered as if it were a standardised, marketable product […] This commodifying ideology of language teaching and learning has gradually penetrated into school practices, turning teachers into ‘service providers.’ The invisible consequence is that language learning and teaching has become a transaction of teachers passing on a marketable set of standardised knowledge items and skills to students.’ This commodification process is, of course, massively expedited by digital technologies.

Cover of The Mouse That Roared by Ray Jones (Piccolo) - unknown illustrator

Cover of The Mouse That Roared by Ray Jones (Piccolo) – unknown illustrator

In the early 19th century a group of English textile artisans aggressively resisted the threat to their jobs and lifestyles posed by the development of new technologies. They were known as Luddites. Ever since, the term has been used to disparage anyone who questions the assumption that technological innovation is always beneficial. But were the Luddites so wrong?


Levy, M. 2009. Technologies in use for second language learning. The Modern Language Journal, Focus Issue: Technology in the Service of Language Learning.

Lin, A. 2013. Toward paradigmatic change in TESOL methodologies: Building plurilingual pedagogies from the ground up. TESOL Quarterly, 47, 3.

Pit Corder, S. 1966. The Visual Element in Language Teaching. London: Longman.

Selwyn, N. 2011, Education and Technology: Key Issues and Debates. London: Continuum.

#AusELT chat summary: Follow up to Scott Thornbury’s workshop – ‘Why are we still teaching the wrong grammar the wrong way?’ (7 November, 2013)

EAJ 28.2_CT_10 questions_Scott Thornbury IMAGEThe illustrious Scott Thornbury (ST) was recently in Australia presenting at the English Australia Conference in Perth as well as presenting workshops at other locations around Australia.  As Thornbury has quite a large fan base among the AusELT members-many of whom had the opportunity to attend the workshops and to meet the man himself, it’s no surprise that we voted to devote November’s Twitter chat to a discussion about Scott’s workshop and our musings about what works and doesn’t work in the classroom in terms of teaching grammar.

The chat was comprised of both members who attended the workshops and those who were not able to go. Although there was some recapping of Scott’s workshop, most of the participants already knew the gist and agreed with his views. The chat started out slowly, perhaps due Daylight’s Saving, noted by @sophiakhan4, but picked up in the last 30 minutes with quite a few ideas being shared.

@sophiakhan4, who attended Scott’s workshop, moderated the chat and structured it around the two main parts of his workshop.

What’s wrong with the way grammar is commonly taught/approached by textbooks today?

@sophiakhan4 drew on Scott Thornbury’s workshop to start the ball rolling, ‘ 12 tenses, 12 units in a CB?!? We make them do the same pre-selected stuff over & over.’

The group was in agreement with ST that the grammar taught in textbooks is too linear with grammar as the ultimate goal. Even though today’s textbooks contextualise the grammar, noted by @kathywa29798411, the texts are often artificial and controlled. ‘Nothing could challenge the “rule”‘ comments  @sophiakhan4, and @michaelegriffin notes that these rules are often ‘questionable.’ Even when the tasks are communicative, they revolve around the limited grammar selections.

@MeredithMacAul1 notes that the grammar taught in the texts is not what students need as they put equal emphasis on all the tenses, e.g., future perfect and past perfect.

Scott Thornbury also pointed out that grammar books ignore things like verb patterns and collocations.

A vicious cycle?

The group noted that perhaps students’ attitudes towards grammar and what it means to ‘know’ it are a reflection of the way it is taught.  @michaelegriffin points out that ‘grasping grammar’ often is equated to being able to ‘spout off,’ the rules, often of the tenses, but students are often not able to use structures in context. Many of us agreed that there is a lot of pressure from students to emphasise grammar in the classroom at the expense of other content.

What did ST suggest we think about? Supplementing or a whole new approach? @kathywa29798411

Scott Thornbury emphasised ‘demystifying’ the tenses, as @sophiakhan4  puts it, and a large portion of the Sydney workshop was spent doing this for teachers (See his slides from his workshop)

He also seemed to suggest a text-based approach with more authentic models.  @MeredithMacAul1 enjoyed the phrases he used, e.g., ‘Ninja grammar’ which involves awareness raising activities with language so that students don’t really realise they are ‘doing’ grammar. In other words, the students will never know it’s coming…

What grammar should we teach? How?

@ElkySmith succinctly pointed out ‘teach what is salient in the context, teach what Ss need to know really about it.’ The group agreed that that students should be exposed to the type of texts they want to produce, either spoken or written. For example, students in Academic English have different needs than those in a Business class.

@lukeealexander pointed out that students must be taught how text and context dictate grammar, which seemed to be one the underlying points made by ST.

It seems that most of those involved in the chat already teach this way, addressing the needs of the individual class or course. For example, @MeredithMacAul1 pointed out that in the EAP syllabus she teaches with, grammar is drawn from academic texts and this has been successful @cioccas agreed that at TAFE where she teaches, this is also done to some extent.

@sophiakhan4  notes that using authentic texts is desirable but could be difficult for newer, less experienced teachers. Students could also be reluctant to accept a different way learning grammar but @ElkySmith points out that students are willing to try new approaches from a teacher they respect.

@sophiakhan4  asked about the ‘invisible non-tense grammar,’ that ST mentioned. It was pointed out that this is tricky to teach especially in a short intense course but the members of this group seem to have tricks to addresses such points.

@SophiaKhan4 went back to ST’s workshop: ‘ST proposes lang learning is really about FEEDBACK (not T presentation). Sts need massive exposure + problematisation + use/feedback’

This prompted many ideas about what teachers do in their classroom along these lines, based on the language needs of the students and class.

How can we integrate these feedback/problematisation aspects into our teaching?

@cioccas says most of her grammar lesson this semester are based on her students’ errors.

@MeredithMacAul1 also uses a lot of error correction and workshopping of student writing to correct errors but also to identify what grammar students ‘need.’

@sophiakhan4 reiterated Scott’s point that we need to focus more on feedback, awareness-raising, and restructuring of sts’ ‘internal grammar’.

Ideas for feedback, restructuring and awareness-raising raised in the chat included:

  • Mini-grammar lessons based on what students need
  • Grammar auction
  • Text mining activities-making students aware of ‘small’ grammar and setting discovery tasks based on texts in class, e.g., Give a list of words in text and sts find surrounding word patterns. Sts match to meaning.
  • Make a cloze with a text students previously read
  • Sts make their own word ‘webs’ with corpora/collocation dictionary with words from the text & teach other sts  @lukeealexander
  • Ask students to highlight ‘grammar’ in peers’ writing-eg. pres simp, passive, complex sentence-Is it used correctly? @ MeredithMacAul1
  • Dictogloss or grammar dictation – good for providing feedback to groups or whole class, identify grammar which requires revision @cioccas
  • ST suggested learning thru song/putting common expressions to song=exposure/awareness-raising
  • ‘Grass skirt’ with error correction@MeredithMacAul1
  • ‘Error correction maze – sts turn left or right depending on whether they think a sentence is right or wrong. You can only get out if you identify the right sentences as right/wrong’ @SophiaKhan4

In summary, among the teachers in this chat, the best approach is an individualised one and one in which ‘emergent grammar,’ often takes precedence over what is planned. It is acknowledged that perhaps this comes with experience and would be difficult for newer teachers to carry out.

I’ll leave you with two quotes:

@cioccas ‘Most of what we’ve been chatting about comes down to working with whatever comes up with class – works for written & spoken.’

‘YES with what the students want/need to do with English and coming at it from that end, not our end.’@SophiaKhan4

In the last few minutes, two books were mentioned for follow-up. See references.


Teaching Unplugged by Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings available on e-book via http://www.amazon.co.uk/Teaching-Unplugged-Luke-Meddings/dp/1905085192, recommended by @ElkySmith

The English Verb: An exploration of Structure and Meaning by Michael Lewis: http://www.amazon.com/The-English-Verb-Exploration-Structure/dp/090671740X, recommended by@SophiaKhan4 and @kathywa29798411

Movie Segments to Assess Grammar Goals: http://moviesegmentstoassessgrammargoals.blogspot.com.au/ recommended by @cioccas

Slides from Scott Thornbury’s Workshop at the English Australia Conference  http://www.englishaustralia.com.au/visageimages/about_us/conference/2013_Conference/2013_Thornbury_PCW.pdf

Scott Thornbury’s official website: http://thornburyscott.com/  and Twitter handle @thornburyscott

Thanks everyone for an enjoyable chat!

This summary was written by Meredith MacAulay @MeredithMacAul1