Readability tools as a way to improve writing

While reminiscing about the good old days at university, for some unknown reason I felt a sudden urge to rummage through my PC files containing stuff related to my studies. Thus I stumbled upon my lengthy MA thesis and I realized how remote and distant the work appeared – almost as if written by somebody else. I caught myself judging the writing style, which seemed so terribly alien. I remembered all the rules they had told us to stick to when writing a piece of academic text and I also recalled how desperate I had sometimes felt when looking for the suitable synonym or a linking word.

The aim of my thesis was to analyze a short story by Ernest Hemingway called Cat in the Rain through the lens of an EFL teacher. Long story short, apart from other things, I had used several online readability tools to see whether the story was suitable for an intermediate English learner. When scanning the paper, I couldn’t help revisiting some of the links to online tools I had been once looking at from the perspective of a teacher when it occurred to me that they might well be used by language learners. I’d like to show that apart from being able to test one’s writing quality, online readability tools can also help to improve it.

Just for the sake of fun I pasted a few samples of my blog posts to see the reading and grade level of the texts (see Figure 1). I chose the Text Readability Consensus Calculator which uses 7 popular readability formulas to calculate the average grade level, reading age, and text difficulty of my sample text.

Figure 1

Figure 2 shows that the Flesch Reading Ease score of the sample reads 63.1, and this is labelled as standard (or average). According to the authors of the website, anything between 60 and 70 is considered an acceptably demanding piece of text. However, my text was scored as “hard to read” By Gunning Fog. A fog index of 12 requires the reading level of a U.S. high school senior student (of about 18 years old). A text which scores above 12 is simply too hard for most people to read. The Flesh-Kincaid Grade Level shows that the text can be easily read by an average U.S student in 9th grade.

Enough of numbers. Now on to the practical part; how can this knowledge help me improve my writing? What first comes to mind is the question: Who am I actually writing for? Am I writing for kids, for like-minded people, for a general audience, for the academic audience, etc? This should determine where the readability scores should fall. One thing I learnt about Ernest Hemingway was that his style was, at first sight, fairly plain – he produced short words and sentences, and he used a lot of lexical and grammatical repetition. His writing style felt like the one of a child, even though he was clearly writing for an adult audience. That’s why his way of writing was sometimes criticized, but it was also appreciated for its simplicity and uniqueness. One thing is certain, it undoubtedly met his aim. Does my own writing exhibit the same effectiveness and focus? If not, I should probably start working on changes.

Figure 2

As Figure 3 shows, there are other tools embedded in the Text Readability Consensus Calculator which can help me analyze my text. I can look at the Word Statistics overview, which reveals several things that I deem very important. To put it simply, the statistic shows 1) how many unique words I used, 2) how many and what words I used repeatedly and 3) how long the words were. Again, if I’m writing for kids, I’m not going to use twenty 4-syllable words per sentence. On the other hand, my academic sample should undoubtedly look a bit more ‘sophisticated’.

Figure 3

When back at school, I remember we were discouraged from repeating the same words again and again in our written assignments. I can’t say I disagree; learners should be motivated to look for synonyms and other alternative ways of expressing the same idea, which ultimately helps them enlarge their vocabulary. However, repetition is often beneficial and vital if we want our text to sound cohesive. This doesn’t mean repeating the same noun or adjective whenever we refer to the same thing but occasional repetition can serve our purpose. For example, writers should be trained to refer to something they have already said but also to what they are planning to say later. This helps to make their production well-structured and thus more readable, but also, in case of L2 learners, it can demonstrate the necessity of planning one’s writing.

Figure 5

All the aforementioned encourages me to believe that students should keep a record of their written assignments. Blogs and online journals seem ideal for this purpose. They enable comparison of what they wrote some time ago with what they’ve just produced. Students can see how much progress they have made, which automatically increases their motivation. They can also compare their writing with somebody else’s piece of work of the same genre and look at the differences. Also, when you are a non-native speaker of the language constantly working on your vocabulary, the statistic generator is a great tool for revising words which you once used – perhaps in order to sound more ‘native-like’ – but which you’ve forgotten since. But more importantly, and no matter whether you are a native or non-native speaker of the language, the tool can draw attention to words which you tend to overuse. We all have our favourites which we can’t get rid of, don’t we?

Although this seems as a post aimed at a fairly advanced learners of L2, I believe it could work with lower levels as well. Measuring readability scores of written assignments produced by pre-intermediate students, for example, can clearly demonstrate that it takes little to spice up one’s writing. By extending short sentences, adding adjectives and adverbs where they were previously missing, we can show our students how to make their writing more ‘advanced’ and/or native-like, in case this is their aim.

Finally, don’t read my post as an attempt to promote the idea that writing is only about readability scores. Hemingway proved the opposite, after all. Not everything is measurable. Writing is primarily about expressing one’s ideas, which can be done in a very simple way as well as in a more complicated manner. It all depends on the writer’s preferences (and skills), but in the end it is the reader who is the ultimate judge of readability. 

"Teaching is measurable."

“Teaching is measurable” was originally published as a guest post on Mike Griffin‘s blog ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections.

The other day somebody said to me that “teaching is measurable”. It’s not really important who said it and why; X simply needed some argument to support his viewpoint and thus paraphrased what somebody else believed. Anyway, this post is not an attempt at an academic piece of writing – I’m just one of those inquisitive teachers – so I hope the reader will excuse the impudent lack of references. In short, the main aim of this post is to share some of the reasoning that went on in my head after X cited Y’s assertion that we can measure whether a teacher’s instruction is good or bad.

The very first thing which occurred to me was that one way of measuring the quality of our teaching is doing it vicariously, i.e. through the lens of our students’ learning. In other words, if there are satisfactory learning outcomes, we can assume that our teaching is/was good. Here pops up a problem that worries me though; how do we reliably measure someone’s learning outcomes? Obviously, what immediately springs to mind is testing, quizzing, exams and the like. We can, for example, count the number of words Student A remembers on a Monday morning. We can say with certainty that Student B can produce such and such number of language structures correctly. We can contentedly conclude that Student C can write a decent formal letter. So far so good. However, even if I accept the idea that we can measure somebody’s learning via tangible results, I can’t come to terms with the idea that learning is just about that. There are kids who always mess up tests, write clumsily and speak terribly, yet I’m convinced that some learning happens to them. And the other way around, there are learners who excel in taking tests, yet this may only prove they are good test takers.

Allow me to elaborate. Did a student with an excellent score learn more than just a few correct answers to more or less challenging problems? Is it demonstrable that this particular student learned more than the one with a low score? Only time will tell. The point is that there are some very important ‘side effects’ related to learning, or rather, to what one expects to be the only, ultimate learning outcome, e. g. the correct answer in a multiple-choice test or a well-written essay on global warming. What about all sorts of useful learning strategies acquired throughout the learning process, what about internal motivation stemming from participation in engaging lessons, critical thinking skills a student learns while working with thought-provoking material, what about the valuable learning experience itself? These are equally important outcomes which, I suspect, we are prone to overlook when judging the quality of our students’ overall performance. The irony is that they could provide clear evidence of the effectiveness of our teaching.

At the beginning I said that I believed that one way of measuring the quality of our teaching is by observing what our students can do. Now I should add that I think it’s quite possible that we can be wonderful teachers even if our students are hopeless. Poor performance and lows scores of weak students are not hard pieces of evidence proving that our teaching is bad. And conversely, if we are lucky enough and teach exceptionally talented and motivated students, whose results are equally exceptional, does that say that we are exceptional teachers? How can we measure the quality of our teaching if we end up in an environment where the real nature of our teaching can’t manifest itself to the full; where nobody really cares about our great teaching abilities or, by contrast, where we can easily get away with very poor teaching skills?

What’s left then? What are some other measurable criteria which define the quality of our teaching? I’ve been observed several times by the administrators and their conclusions were generally very positive: “you are a born teacher, you can make a great lesson out of nothing, your classroom management skills are amazing”, etc. Does that make my teaching good? Does what somebody else thinks about my lessons turn me into a good teacher? What if that person is not exactly demanding? What if she knows nothing about the recent SLA research? What if her goals are different from mine?

Finally, what is it that makes us attempt to measure the immeasurable? Is it fear or a lack of confidence? Is it the need to label things and thus make them acceptable/unacceptable? My guess is that it’s the natural human desire to feel safe. The trouble is that teaching is fluid; at one point we’re doing great and in a matter of seconds the lesson goes south. As teaching is a multi-layered venture and there’s so much we can’t grasp and control, we tend to stick to anything that looks like concrete evidence, and we reject the intangible and seemingly insecure, perhaps in order to keep our balance as teachers and human beings.


Only a couple of days ago I learnt about this wonderful movement initiated by Ann Loseva in tandem with Mike Griffin called #FlashmobELT. The whole idea is very simple; ELTs from all over the world are invited to post a description of an activity on this Lino board. Ideally, it should be an activity which was piloted and worked well in their class. Nothing new under the sun so far, right? However, as I’ll demonstrate later on, this is more than a mere collection of activities.

First of all, the purpose of this project is not to collect stuff we normally find in teacher’s books. The thing is that before posting an activity, the teacher should bear a few rules in mind; most importantly, the activities should be generalized, adaptable, materials free/light, and easily modelled and used with students. The metaphorical icing on the cake is the fact that once a teacher tries out an activity, they are encouraged to blog about their experience.

I have to confess that, like Mike Griffin, I’m not a keen activity collector and I’m not really interested in workshops or webinars primarily focused on sharing all sorts of classroom activities. Ironically, and to my amazement, whenever I attend a conference, I always find myself in an advantage because the workshops I’m NOT interested in are usually the most popular and thus totally full. On a few occasions I was told that unlike me, EFL teachers are generally keen on practical ideas and tips. I should stress though I’m not against sharing of any kind. However, I have a slightly different perspective on sharing activities.

Let me elaborate on this. During their presentation for iTDi Summer MOOC For English Teachers Mike and Anna asked where we teachers mostly find ready-made activities. The influx of links coming from the participants was simply overwhelming. I couldn’t quickly recall any of my favourite websites, which was probably due to the fact that I actually make up most of the activities myself. I admit though that the activities I invent are usually inspired by something I heard or saw at some point of my teaching career. I would describe my approach as a combination of inspiration and invention.

Anyway, I believe that he #FlashmobELT project is ideal for both teachers like me and those unlike me. While reading through the activities I catch myself visualizing them ‘in action’ and at the same time mentally adjusting them to my teaching context. I catch myself assembling bits and pieces, storing those in my memory, and ditching parts which are too complicated or context-bound. Having the activities in one place in an online environment is a great idea, but given the nature of the project (especially the fact that the activities should be easily and quickly accessible), I think it would be handy for me to print them out, classify them and have them stored on separate paper cards somewhere on my desk, so that I could flip through them if need be.

All in all, this is a truly practical and useful project which can help us spice up our teaching. However, there’s one more thing I find fascinating. As each sticky note activity is signed by the author, I can see what people in different parts of the work like doing. Thus I can peek in their spaces and get to know their mindsets. By doing so I realize that we are actually sitting in a huge global staffroom and there are things which work/don’t work the same way everywhere. Also, I find it exciting that someone might well try out my activity some day and I will be able read about it in a blog post. I believe that apart from the fact that this is an amazing form of communication with like-minded people, it’s also a great way of refining things which already worked well for us. We discover that by adjusting and tweaking stuff based on somebody else’s suggestions, we can make an activity even more effective and meaningful. Isn’t this actually a kind of Action research? Don’t we experiment, report and replicate and thus turn subjective assumptions into valid and objective data? One way or another, I think it’s cool to be connected.

On fluidity of language teaching

Although it happened almost twenty years ago, I remember this language situation as if it happened yesterday. I asked a native speaker of English, a young guy from South Africa teaching EFL at the local grammar school, if he could help me write up my curriculum vitae. I wasn’t exactly a proficient writer at that time and I needed it to sound perfect and professional since the CV was part of an official grant proposal. Long story short, he actually wrote up the whole thing for me. And it was perfect and professional. While reviewing it contentedly, I came across a structure which struck me: I am attending an artistic school in my village and I have been since 1983.

At first I thought he must have made an error. I mean, I knew the present perfect continuous structure like the back of my hand: I have been + verb-ing + since/for/etc. So I asked him tentatively about the missing verb-ing form. He retorted that everything was perfectly all right with the sentence; nothing was missing. I wasn’t 100% convinced so asked why he had used such an odd structure and not the one everyone (= coursebooks) used. I remember he shrugged his shoulders and said something along these lines: Well, I don’t know. We simply do so. We normally use this in formal correspondence, for example. It’s absolutely correct.

I gave in. I surrendered. I doubtfully acknowledged the correctness of the sentence and went on living my life. Until it sank in many years later. I don’t remember when and under what circumstances but it suddenly dawned on me. I accepted it and made it part of my active L2 inventory. The thing is that within the slot between not understanding and sinking in I never used the structure because I felt it wasn’t safe. Nobody had explained it to me sufficiently; hence I couldn’t use it properly.

I remember I had the same feeling of helplessness when I was introduced to may/might/could well. You can try the shop but it may well be closed now. I really struggled to get it right. Sometimes I feel I still use it incorrectly, or rather excessively, and I think I know why… because when I first came across this bit I was enrolled in an English course based on pure communicative language teaching. This meant NO translation. NEVER. Even nowadays I can visualize the room, the coursebooks, and the fantastic NNS teacher/trainer who did her best to teach us some English grammar along with a few basic communicative language teaching principles. Rule number one was, obviously, NO Czech in the lessons. She simply left us to our own devices and I don’t doubt she thought she was doing the right thing; she wanted to make us search and explore whenever we struggled with a difficult language point. But for some reason, back then, it was hard for me to find the meaning of a whole chunk in a dictionary (mind you, I didn’t know what internet was at that time!). Yes, I could find individual words and their direct translations but longer phrases were tricky.

The story has some implications for my professional life, i.e. professional life of a language teacher. When I think about it now, a little bit of linguistic knowledge on the part of the NS would have been beneficial. Back then, I needed a simple, rational explanation, which, unfortunately, the teacher wasn’t able to provide. In the second situation, all I needed was the direct translation and, unlike a NS, the NNS was capable of providing it on the spot. I often think of these two situations when teaching my own English classes. The point is that it’s not necessary to stick to the rules of the mainstream/fashionable language teaching at all costs. The priority is our students’ needs. It’s also good if teachers are willing to go into metalinguistic discussions now and then, especially if they feel it is the only and ultimate option which will help the students to fully grasp a language point.

On trickiness of hard evidence in ELT

Recently, there’s been a lot of debate about the need of evidence, method and research in ELT. I confess I’m truly fascinated by the topic. I enjoy delving into the debates as well as reading articles describing various experiments. I also love to experiment myself. However, I often catch myself having doubts, especially concerning the process, but also interpretation and implementation of the results. The other day I came across this interesting article called How Tests Make us Smarter, where Henry L. Roediger III discusses the benefits of regular quizzing:
“When my colleagues and I took our research out of the lab and into a Columbia, Ill., middle school class, we found that students earned an average grade of A- on material that had been presented in class once and subsequently quizzed three times, compared with a C+ on material that had been presented in the same way and reviewed three times but not quizzed. The benefit of quizzing remained in a follow-up test eight months later”.

This is my concern: I suppose the author is talking about two different texts (material) and one group of students. The thing is that I’m not convinced that it’s possible to get reliable results with two different pieces of material. Who can guarantee that they were of exactly the same level of difficulty; that they included comparably demanding content? We have some scientific methods and tools that can measure readability scores, for example, but there are so many factors at play as far as the difficulty of texts is concerned. Nevertheless, a similar situation would occur if the researcher used the same text but two different groups: there would be no guarantee that the groups (or individual students) had the same ability, intelligence, aptitude, etc. 

I think that the problem is the attempt to turn ELT into rigorous science. We call for research and concrete evidence but in any research of this type, there are people involved who react to stimuli, interact, respond, have different character features, etc.; they simply behave differently and unpredictably in different situations and under different circumstances. Then there is the learning content: texts, images, equations, vocabulary, graphs, you name it. The former is undoubtedly a very unstable element but also, the material is not a constant either because the perception of difficulty of a piece of material is highly dependent on the one who’s perceiving – it’s not merely a property of the material itself. 

I remember conducting an experiment (as part of my MA studies) with a group of intermediate students (the same age, approximately the same level). It was based on I.S.P. Nation’s belief that we need to be familiar with 98% of the words in a text to be able to understand it sufficiently. First, I gave my students a paper version Nation’s Vocabulary Levels Test (which can be easily accessed online) to assess their vocabulary knowledge. My intention was to find out to what extent the result corresponded with the readability score of the text they were going to read. Then I gave them a simple authentic short story by Ernest Hemingway and asked them to underline all the unknown vocabulary while reading. To make the results more precise, I asked them to use two different markers: one for words they don’t know at all and can’t infer from the surrounding context, the other for those whose meaning they don’t know but think they can guess it from the context and co-text. Then I asked them some comprehension questions to see the correlation between the unknown words and the ability to understand the story. Finally, in a random manner, I tested if they really knew the words they hadn’t underlined. I got all sorts of interesting results, such as 1) some students had ‘cheated’ and underlined less than they should have 2) one of the best students in the class had underlined the most unknown words, which, however, hadn’t prevented him from understanding the most important message of the story, 3) some students had underlined some vocabulary only to realize later that they actually knew them, 4) another very good student hadn’t underlined many words but his comprehesion was rather weak, etc. Overall, I got a lot of hard evidence of how distorted the results can be if human factor is involved. I don’t intend to go into further detail here. The point is that all students got the same text, fairly easy one from the linguistic point of view, but because the story was a literary text with lots of implicit and hidden messages and meanings, and each student  came from a different background, with different experience and schemata, the level of comprehension didn’t and couldn’t correlate with the actual language knowledge. 

All in all, I believe that it’s the human factor what complicates ELT research and the validity of any evidence. No matter how much we want to experiment, some of the data we get from our experiments will often be pretty unreliable and irreplicable. If I say something worked for my students and I even prove it, any educator or researcher can disprove my claims quite easily if they conduct the research at a different time, in a different environment, with different students and different material. No wonder that to some ELT research may appear a waste of time; they prefer taking all sorts of feeble arguments for granted and they simply try what others have tried before without challenging their assumptions. 

Writing micro-stories in tandem

The following restless-teacher-on-holiday idea was inspired by my six-year-old son who collects various small objects, such as plastic cartoon characters, cards, pictures and stickers offered by supermarkets in campaigns aimed at attracting new customers and/or making the regular ones spend more money. Needless to say, this is a good business move because the kids don’t want to stop until they have the complete collection. Most of these collections are cute but pretty useless and they eventually end up deep in a drawer (in the better case). At the moment the supermarket where we do most of the shopping gives out free stickers for each purchase exceeding a certain amount of money. This sticker is then put into a special book (sold by the same shop) containing texts about the world, the universe, nature and the like. Obviously, it’s not in the customer’s power to influence what stickers they get; that’s the ‘magic’ of the game after all. So if my son gets the same sticker again, the second one becomes redundant. Instead of exchanging those spare stickers with other kids, he started to put them into a blank notepad. At first I didn’t understand his approach but later I was just amazed by his creativity – he decided to create a micro-story around each of the images.

As he can’t write fluently (he hasn’t started school yet), he decided to dictate the stories and I was appointed to record them into the notepad next to the picture. His style is clearly influenced by the style of bedtime stories he hears every night but his own  language is still somewhat clumsy. So I automatically changed some tiny bits while recording his words. I didn’t do it to make his story 100% perfect but to make it sound more natural. So I inconspicuously

  • added more interesting and/or appropriate adjectives and adverbs
  • avoided repeating the same words again and again
  • changed the word order slightly to convey the right meaning
  • added some linking words to make to text more cohesive

Otherwise, I tried not to interfere too. I occasionally asked some questions to check if I understood what he intended to express. I also suggested a couple of basic rules, such as that each story needs an appropriate beginning and an ending. When my son asked me to read the stories aloud for him, he obviously noticed that I had changed some things. To my surprise, he acknowledged them without further ado. What immediately caught my attention was that by applying the tips he had previously learnt he got better and better with every new story. He gradually grew fond of certain words or chunks of language I had suggested, such as once upon a time, they lived happily ever after, till the end of time, all of a sudden and he started using them naturally.

You may ask why I’m describing what I do with my son in my free time when this is an ELT-related blog. Well, I believe that this activity is perfect for an EFL lesson. I imagine that it may be used in one-to-one lessons (teacher scaffolding the student) as well as with mixed-ability classes (students working in pairs – the writer and the editor – swapping roles). Based on my ELT experience and observations of my son’s learning outcomes, I believe that the students will benefit for several reasons:

They will cooperate and rely on each other. This kind of synergie will bring better and/or more interesting results.
They will practise peer correction.
The weaker student can learn from the stronger one.
The stronger one will learn by helping the weaker one (I did learn myself).
They will learn new language and forms of expression from each other.
They will practise speaking as well as writing (spelling, vocabulary, linking words).
They will practise forming phrases, sentences as well as shaping longer stretches of text.
They will practise giving feedback and justifying their ideas.
They will learn in an engaging way – they will work with visual aids using their imagination and fantasy.
They will only be restricted by space and several basic rules. They will be able to include as much ‘art’ as they wish to, which will motivate them.
They will be in charge of the content as well as their own learning.
They will be challenged but not discouraged by an unpopular or difficult task, which writing longer piece of text sometimes is.
If the same/similar format is practised over and over again, some specific language areas will gradually sink in and the learner will improve significantly.

I find the magic of these micro-stories in the fact that they don’t need an amazing twist. They just flow naturally from point A to point B. Simplicity is what makes them lovely and interesting. As they don’t need to be gripping or too elaborated, they can be written on the spot, at one go. Thus the language doesn’t need to be too complex or advanced either (but it can be, of course). All the writer needs is inspiration and some basic rules of decent writing to follow.

It seems that, for the first time ever, the stickers won’t end up in the dust bin. The bonus is that they are all related to holiday time so they’ll come handy in September when the semester starts. Here’s a tip for those who don’t have passionate sticker collectors at home: you can use old postcards, magazine pictures, Pelmanism cards or simply go to Eltpics resource.

Rewinding and reviewing

My blog will soon celebrate its first birthday. It means it’s still a toddler, learning to find his way around, but I dare say he’s a very active one; he won’t let me sleep at night and rest in the day, and he needs constant care and nourishment (ideas, reflections, insights and the like). But every mother loves her baby and enjoys looking after him so that he thrives. And then she has a reason to be proud.

The truth is that no mother has full control over her child. He lives his own life, even though she does everything in her power to influence him in the best way. There are other children, friends of different ages, who he meets and interacts with as he grows up, and those also shape him profoundly. And as time passes, the mother becomes wiser and more experienced and this has an impact on the way she brings up her child. There are other parents too. The mother observes the parents and the way they handle their kids. She admires some and looks with suspicion at others, but every encounter is a piece of new experience. She learns from more experienced parents and gets inspired by the passionate newbies, but she still wants to do it her way, though she may sometimes suspect it’s not the best way. She’s determined to follow her hunch. And she is over the moon when, occasionally, she hears words of praise and encouragement which boosts her confidence.

Enough of metaphors. Accept my apologies if I sounded a bit pathetic. Forgive me my choice of gender, pronouns and the fact that this is a single-parent family metaphor. I wanted to keep things clear and simple.

It’s been almost a year since I started writing this blog and it’s been one of the most enjoyable and creative periods in my life. While blogging I’ve met people who I have the courage to call friends. Thanks to them I’ve learnt to accept and provide support and feedback. No, blogging is not a lonely job. At each and every stage of writing a post I have my potential readers in mind. I know some will stop by and read my words right after I hit the publish button. Some will share the post and/or comment and thus turn the monologue into a dialogue.

By using the wacky metaphor above I attempted to imply that the way a blog looks, the way it is shaped and perceived is not just the result of the blogger’s effort. There are many other factors which influence the blog’s fate. No matter how one writes, there will eventually be no blogging if the blogger isn’t lucky enough to find the right readership and those who are kind enough to promote the blog. Yes, they say you should keep writing even if nobody reads your blog but, well, hmmm, I’m not convinced …

There are times when I write because I feel I have something pressing to say. I come home from work and I pour out my heart. But sometimes I have nothing really interesting up my sleeve and I still feel the need to write. There’s this intangible pressure that needs to be released. It may sound odd and daring to say that the best posts were motivated by the latter case; they were born out of the urge to create and produce – out of the need to communicate, to send some energy out there into the blogosphere and, perhaps, to get something in return.

So, what have I blogged about so far? Generally, my posts have been reflective. But some of them were quite practical; they primarily aimed to help other teachers. I did my best not to sound too serious; I’m a humorous person after all. I loved writing about social media and their role in a teacher’s life. I never avoided sharing my personal and professional failures. Quite a few posts were meant to inspire and motivate others to achieve goals. For example, I was the inspire leader for the #30GoalsEdu Challenge. I think I came up with some really passionate posts. Sometimes I was passionately critical of the education system but I also expressed my awe and gratitude in all sorts of ways. I loved to look at things in retrospect but I also looked ahead and created action plans. There’s a little bit of pseudo-science on my blog as well. I’m extremely proud to have been invited to write a guest post for the BELTA blog and I wrote two summaries for #ELTchat. I enthusiastically took part in several chain-post challenges. I expressed my gratitude for being part of an online community and I thanked my PLN for being there with me all the time. I took videos of my classes to see if I teach communicatively and didn’t hesitate to share my observations. I wrote about who I am as a teacher and where I’m headed. I touched upon technology and its place in the classroom. I was childish and crazy at times but never ashamed. I shared some of the hardships I experienced as an L2 learner. I wrote about more general issues and questions that trouble me as an educator. I expressed sympathy and compassion. There are a few rants on my blog too. Finally, I nevet tried to hide my disappointment I experienced in the classroom, and I didn’t conceal my worries regarding my future prospects as an EFL teacher because sharing those tormenting feelings on my blog always helped me to cheer up, especially when I got heartfelt comments from the fellow bloggers.

Correct me if I’m wrong but blogging is a passion and it can even become an obsession; one way or another, it’s not a mundane task. I think the worst thing for me would be to feel guilty for not having blogged for a long time – not due to a lack of time but because of a loss of inspiration and interest. Luckily, this hasn’t happened yet. On the contrary, I feel even more enthusiastic and excited and I hope this feeling will last. So, please, wish me luck and stay with me …..

Has ELT become the dieting & weight-loss business?

I’m having some free time on my hands now that I’m on holiday so I read, take photos, relax and browse the web a lot. And I must make a confession: it drives me crazy when I see advertisements inviting me to ‘learn English without [certain attributes]’, such as without taking classescramming, commitment, effort, conscious studying, translating, pressure, stress, coursebooks, boring grammar and vocabulary, etc.

I’m willing to admit that people can learn a language without cramming, under some circumstances. I also think it’s highly probable that people will learn an L2 without coursebooks. Why shouldn’t they? I believe in the dogme approach after all. They might even learn English without taking traditional classes or classes in general. Although pressure and stress can be helpful for some, I don’t suppose they are vital aspects of successful learning so I’m fine with that too. Translating is rather tricky. Gone are the days when translation in ELT was a taboo subject. On the contrary, nowadays translation is seen as beneficial. So what’s the point in making classes without translation special or groundbreaking? So far so good. I can understand, to a certain extent, the train of thought of those who made up those ads. But how on earth can anyone learn something properly without conscious effort or commitment? And what I can’t get at all is the conviction that a language can be learnt without studying ‘boring’ grammar and vocabulary. It’s like claiming that it’s possible to satisfy your hunger without eating.

The English language has apparently become a huge business and we (English teachers and business owners) have to slog away to find our places in the sun. I understand we need to differentiate from each other to attract customers and that’s why we give our businesses and courses all kinds of weird attributes, which will unfortunately deter rather than allure. Well, they may eventually attract those who have no knowledge of how languages are learnt but …. isn’t it simply short-sighted? Doesn’t it discredit the business or the individual at once?

I can’t help feeling that the business of ELT strongly resembles the dieting & weight-loss business. Like losing weight, learning English has become an obsession. Although we all know it takes time and effort to slim down permanently, we long for quicker, brand-new methods and we even believe they will work. I suppose it’s the same with learning a language, English in particular. That’s why we (customers = learners) are so susceptible and trusting. We long for courses and methods which will help us master the language without taking classes, cramming, commitment, effort, conscious studying, translating, pressure, stress, coursebooks, boring grammar and vocabulary, etc. Unsurprisingly, we usually end up disappointed and deceived.

The only attribute I accept (though reluctantly) with ‘learning/teaching English’ or any other foreign language is effectively. Anything else is, if not deception, just a complement, addition, embellishment and redundancy. I know it’s cunning because the term effectively can cover almost anything. But I’m not going to withdraw my claim because I truly believe that one can learn English in all sorts of ways and environments, e.g. outdoors, indoors, in Japan or England, night or day, with one teacher or twenty teachers, alone or in class, but never without effort and conscious learning. And I suspect one will need some vocabulary and a bit of grammar to be able to communicate.

More hardships (and joys) of an advanced L2 learner

My students and friends often ask me if I could give them some tips on how to improve their English, vocabulary in particular. I always say it’s dead simple and that there’s no better time than holidays when one has plenty of free time on their hands.

In one of my previous posts I described some of the pitfalls I experience as an advanced L2 learner. Over time I’ve come to realize that no matter how much I’ve learned there are still some areas I constantly need to work on, such as my L2 vocabulary. First of all, I need to keep pace with my students who never cease to surprise me with their immense knowledge of specialized vocabulary. Also, I feel that the more proficient I become, the more lexical, as opposed to grammatical, the nature of my learning becomes.

Once I finally acknowledged the inevitability of digital technologies, I started to spend more and more time reading things online. It drives me crazy when I stare at a word which I’ve seen several times before, in plenty of different contexts, and I can’t recall its meaning. It’s irritating but not surprising; I can’t retrieve it from my memory because it’s actually never been there. In other words, I never really strove to make the word become part of my active vocabulary, which is why even the passive knowledge is so feeble. So I keep telling my students that in order to truly master a word, they need to learn it consciously and systematically, since a cursory glance at the word, even if on a multiple basis, is not enough.

Like back in the olden days, I still use a traditional notepad to record new words when I read a paper book. I usually have one separate notepad for each book I read. But when reading stuff online, this ‘old-fashioned’ method of recording vocabulary items is rather slow and tiresome. That’s why I’ve developed a new, systematic (and quick) method of vocabulary note-taking – via Quizlet. I usually introduce my students to Quizlet at very early stages of learning English. Young learners in particular love playing the games it offers but it’s a great tool for learners of all levels – especially if they are left to their own devices, i.e. responsible for their own instruction, and/or if like me, they spend lots of time online. Yes, I use Quizlet myself but I’d like to stress that this post is not primarily about Quizlet; I’m not going to glorify this fairly popular online tool. What I wish to do is to let the readers peek inside my mental processes regarding learning vocabulary. If the readers happen to be L2 learners themselves, the better. Basically, this is what I do:

Let’s say I’m reading this intriguing article called Why Grammar Lessons Should be Renamed ‘Understanding Language‘. This is something that really interests me – the first prerequisite of successful learning. I anticipate that I’ll come across a few words which I’ll want to note down, either because I haven’t encountered them before, but more probably because I feel I only have a passive knowledge of them and I want them to enter my active inventory. That’s why I open Quizlet. I usually create a new vocabulary set for each day – no matter how big it’s going to be (I actually never know in advance; it can be just a couple of words or thirty items depending on how much I’ve read that day). Here’s an example: first, I give the set a name and I add a short description, i.e. the title of the article. If I read more articles that day, I later edit the description box by adding another title/link or whatever. This kind of tagging helps me contextualize the vocabulary.

 While reading, I come across an unfamiliar word, say, ’eminent’.

As I use the Chrome browser, all I need to do is to click a word for a direct L1 translation or double-click for a definition. I check the pronunciation if necessary and I also scan the synonyms. Then I add the vocabulary item to the set I created on Quizlet.

I sometimes add the L1 alternative along with the definition in the English section on the right. Sometimes I type in a synonym in the left-hand column and in some cases I add the most frequent collocation or a short example sentence. This helps me to learn the word with all the nuances (at least the meaning I encountered in that particular context). Although I do this seemingly tedious procedure for all the unknown words from the article, it’s pretty quick and it doesn’t spoil the joy of reading the text itself.

When I come back to the words later on, I first use the Flashcards tool because I can listen to the pronunciation, click to flip the cards and the best thing is that I can do so in a random order, which is beneficial for learning.

Honestly, I don’t really play with Quizlet very much. I’m familiar with most of its functions but I find the majority of them quite useless for my purposes. I know, for example, that it’s possible to print out the sets in all sorts of cool formats and I imagine it can come handy in some situations, but I never use this option for my own language development. 
What I find more interesting about Quizlet is the fact that as a learner I can easily keep track of how much I’ve learned over a specific period of time. I know where I was at a certain point of time and where I’m now, which I find highly motivating. Also, I can tell which days or months were the most prolific and when I was pretty idle. This is good if I want to manage my time more effectively and create an action plan. In addition, I can see how much time and how many repetitions it’s taken me to learn a word. I can identify which aspects of the word I still need to practise; sometimes it’s just the spelling I tend to mess up, sometimes I’m only not sure about the pronunciation, etc. So this particular method of recording new vocabulary is not just a learning technique but it’s also a useful monitoring device which helps me (and my students) become fully autonomous language learners.

On creativity, law & order

I often hear that a good teacher should be, apart from other things, creative. Without intention to sound conceited, I’ve always considered myself to be a creative person, i.e. someone having an ability to make new things and think of new ideas. However, the question I often catch myself pondering is to what extent it is good to be creative in the classroom. The thing is NOT that being a creative person also means being someone characterized by sophisticated bending of the rules or conventions – in other words, someone who manages to get around legal or conventional limits. The thing is that I can’t help associating creativity with frequent change and chaos.

I can proudly announce that, despite (or because of) being a creative teacher, over time I’ve developed some very effective, systematic teaching strategies. I must confess, though, that some of them are results of my inclination to sophistically bend the teaching rules and conventions. I’ve discovered this cool method of peer correction, for example, something none of my colleagues ever dares to apply. To cut a long story short, after finishing a five-minute vocabulary test (always at the same time, of the same format: 12 random L1 words from the previous lessons which the students are required to translate into L2), I ask the students to swap their tests and correct them. I’m aware of the fact that this is a dangerous method – for one simple reason: students can cheat. That’s why my colleagues never use it for official purposes (at least they claim so). Also, it’s a delicate subject to talk about publicly; if somebody wanted to discredit this method of correction, they easily could. If a student was unhappy with the final mark, for example, they might blame me and the method and I’m not sure whether the administrators would stand by me in such a case. It may be cold comfort that students can actually come up with all sorts of accusations if they wish to. 
Nevertheless, I’m convinced there are more pros than cons regarding this method. As I’ve practised it for quite some time, it’s ceased to be a mere experiment; it’s proved to be useful, time-saving and highly efficient. To give one example, I have plenty of grades – one of the prerequisites of being deemed a good teacher here where I teach. I remember just two cases of cheating, which I managed to nip in the bud anyway. Basically, two friends sitting next to each other agreed beforehand to correct the partner’s potential mistakes pretending the original author had written them correctly. Unfortunately, they used a different pencil so the cheat was evident at first sight. To eradicate (or at least eliminate) this type of swindle, the students never know in advance who is going to correct their tests – it can be either their neighbour or anybody in the class. Moreover, I always have a clear view of all the students, all the time (due to the horseshoe arrangement and my brilliant eyesight). 
The good thing is that practice makes perfect so my students know exactly what to do; they know what counts as a major mistake and what is just a minor mistake. They know exactly how many points to subtract and what mark eventually comes out of the score. I randomly look at some of the corrected tests to make sure everybody understands what to do. Obviously, there are types of tests that can’t be corrected and assessed this way but there are many that can. I described another method of peer correction for longer written assignments on the BELTA blog
Back to my point: the method I described in this post was born out of creativity. But over time it’s developed into a systematic procedure – and it’s the opposite of what one could call creative. I’m implying that being creative is a great thing, even if it encompasses a drift towards some kind of revolt against the rules, but developing dubious experiments into systematic, well-established routines is vital and useful because the classroom should primarily be a safe place where everybody knows what to do.