Conference reporter: what’s it all about?

As some of my Facebook friends already know, I’ve recently been asked to be a reporter at one of the local conferences. I’m probably expected to say that I’m all excited. However, what I’m really experiencing is a mixture of contradictory feelings which, ironically, stem from the same source. On the one hand, it sounds exciting to me because I’ve never done anything like this before. On the other hand, exactly due to my lack of experience, it also sounds pretty daunting. I’ve always suspected that something like a roving conference reporter exists but apart from a few fleeting encounters with photographers who popped in and out of workshops to take photos of the buzz of the conference, I’ve actually never seen a real, independent conference reporter on the spot – at least at the conferences I’ve been to.


But, although I have still to learn what the job is all about, deep down I already feel I’ll handle things well. First of all, I’m confident enough to claim that I know a lot about ELT. I’ve been in the field for ages (for god’s sake!) and I’m hyperactive on social media, which is a big bonus. I’ve attended quite a few local conferences and I also took a peek behind the scenes so I kind of know what to expect. Having said that, I don’t know too much about the backstage and I have no working relationship with any of the stakeholders, which I think will help me to keep my distance and remain objective – if that’s what’s expected of me. Haha.

Anyway, I asked my PLN about their experience with this role. Here are some of their answers so far:

Don’t be shy to take pictures and look for workshops that will give follow up discussions. Famous or not famous presenters, choose diversity type of talks and take the break to talk about the conference and networking. It really worked for me! Good luck! Priscila Mateini


Well, it seems this job involves much more than I originally expected. For example, it didn’t cross my mind that I would be taking high-quality pictures, conducting interviews with some of the speakers (let alone ELT gurus), asking participants for feedback, drinking with the gurus hitting some after-conference parties, visiting stands, and talking to publishers and testing agencies. Having to tick the last two items would probably mean for me to go against the grain a bit.

Anyway, no matter how daunting all the duties appear, diversity, follow-up discussions, networking, and honesty are definitely words that sound like music to my ears.

So, we’ll see.

My selfish method of teaching


How do you choose material for your lessons? I’m not talking about coursebooks but extra reading material, for example. My guess is that you probably make choices on the basis of your students’ interests, needs, and/or their level of proficiency. Well, to be completely frank, I’m a little selfish in this respect – I mainly bring what I like (and what I think my students might like too).

The other day a friend of mine sent me an interesting story via Whatsapp. I loved it and immediately thought it would be a great idea to share it with my students. But although I’m a little egotistical, I am also professional. So, I asked myself a couple of burning questions: What shall I do with the story? (methodology?) How shall I present it? (form/technique?) What do I want my students to learn? (input/output/experience?)

Before I spoil it and explain what I did in class, I’d like to provide a little bit of thinking space for the reader. Here’s the story:

A man is driving down the road and his car breaks down near a monastery. He goes to the monastery, knocks on the door, and says, “My car broke down. Do you think I could stay the night?”

The monks graciously accept him, feed him dinner, and even fix his car. As the man tries to fall asleep, he hears a strange sound. A sound unlike anything he’s ever heard before. The Sirens that nearly seduced Odysseus into crashing his ship comes to his mind. He doesn’t sleep that night. He tosses and turns trying to figure out what could possibly be making such a seductive sound.

The next morning, he asks the monks what the sound was, but they say, “We can’t tell you. You’re not a monk.” Distraught, the man is forced to leave.


Years later, after never being able to forget that sound, the man goes back to the monastery and pleads for the answer again.

The monks reply, “We can’t tell you. You’re not a monk.”
The man says, “If the only way I can find out what is making that beautiful sound is to become a monk, then please, make me a monk.”

The monks reply, “You must travel the earth and tell us how many blades of grass there are and the exact number of grains of sand. When you find these answers, you will have become a monk.”

The man sets about his task. 


After years of searching, he returns as a gray-haired old man and knocks on the door of the monastery. A monk answers. He is taken before a gathering of all the monks.

In my quest to find what makes that beautiful sound, I traveled the earth and have found what you asked for: By design, the world is in a state of perpetual change. Only God knows what you ask. All a man can know is himself, and only then if he is honest and reflective and willing to strip away self-deception.”

The monks reply, “Congratulations. You have become a monk. We shall now show you the way to the mystery of the sacred sound.”


The monks lead the man to a wooden door, where the head monk says, “The sound is beyond that door.”

The monks give him the key, and he opens the door. Behind the wooden door is another door made of stone. The man is given the key to the stone door and he opens it, only to find a door made of ruby. And so it went that he needed keys to doors of emerald, pearl, and diamond.

Finally, they come to a door made of solid gold. The sound has become very clear and definite. The monks say, “This is the last key to the last door.”

The man is apprehensive to no end. His life’s wish is behind that door!
With trembling hands, he unlocks the door, turns the knob, and slowly pushes the door open. Falling to his knees, he is utterly amazed to discover the source of that haunting and seductive sound……………………….

But, of course, I can’t tell you what it is because you’re not a monk. 



At first, I wanted to turn the reading into a jigsaw activity. I would have put students into groups of 4 and I would have given each student a different part of the story (hence the broken lines above). Then I would have asked them to share the information and put the pieces of text in the correct order in their groups. Also, I was planning to withhold the last line and reveal it triumphantly after they all finished.

But then I considered how I felt when reading the story and I decided to change my approach completely. I thought it would be too distracting for me if the story was mixed up. As the plot evolves in a linear manner, any unnecessary interruptions and distractions would steal away the pleasure of reading. Also, one needs to get to the point rather quickly. During the jigsaw activity, the reader would gain enough time to spoil the story for themselves (by having an opportunity to discuss the plot with others an thus possibly guessing the ending too early). Although I believe prediction is a process occurring naturally when one reads any type of text, here it would be a hindrance. By the way, I’m very good at predicting endings but this time, the twist really surprised me.

Anyway, this is what I finally did:

I did cut the story into 4 parts but I handed out the first part only. Each student read silently at their own pace. After everybody had finished, I quickly checked if they understood the highlighted expressions. This was a way of providing a bit of thinking space for everybody to absorb what they had just read. I ‘served’ the second part of the story and waited for everybody to finish. Again, we briefly checked the meaning of the words in bold. Finally, after the fourth part, I triumphantly handed out the closing line. Some students frowned with disappointment, others smiled. This, based on my experience, is how the ending actually affects people in real life too. Then we discussed the story a bit more but that was it.

Would you do it differently? What did you think when you read the story? 🙂





Mind the gap fills

By writing this post I’m making a mental note to remember this: multiple choice clozes can be very useful learning materials if exploited to the fullest.


This is what I did:

Topic of the lesson: Sport

I found two multiple choice gap fills – one was a short article about the history of football (let’s call it Text A) and the other one was about yoga (Text B). Both texts contained 12 gaps. To fill in the gaps, students could choose from four options (A-D).

  1. After a brief discussion about the benefits of football vs. yoga, I handed out the gap fills. Student A got Text A and their partner got the other text. I asked them to fold the handouts back so that they couldn’t see the options below the text. First, I asked them to read the texts for a general idea of what they are about.
  2. They swapped the gap fills and read the other text too (still without looking at the options).
  3. I asked them to unfold the handout, look at the options and fill in the gap fills.
  4. Then they swapped the clozes back and each of them re-filled in the one their partner had completed before. They used a different color to indicate any changes or to fill in what their partner had left out.
  5. We checked Text A together (both students looking at it). We discussed all the options. Then we checked Text B and explained the answers.


My observations:

  • My aim was to get the students fully concentrating on the task. However, it’s not always easy to win their attention after a lively chat, for example. So, having two different texts helped them fight the temptation to cooperate with each other and thus they were less distracted during the early stages.
  • Although each student knew both texts, there was still this kind of information gap element in the activity. This made it more engaging.
  • I believe this activity is great for a mixed-ability group. I felt that once both students in the pair were strong, they inspired each other and they were competitors too – particularly when they didn’t agree on the same option. On the other hand, a weaker/slower student benefitted from the fact that they were paired up with a fast finisher. They were under less pressure, especially after Stage 3, when all the answers had been answered by the fast finisher, in most cases correctly. However, the stronger student benefitted too because they had more to do in the end (they were busy completing the missing answers or ‘correcting’ the answers given by their partner).
  • Last but not least, I saved paper by not printing both gap-fills.


The after-FCE syndrome


The after-FCE syndrome is something that has been bothering me recently. In case you are wondering what the hell I’m talking about, it’s a label for a type of mental state and/or negative behavior which is typical of a person who has recently obtained an FCE certificate but still studies with other students who haven’t (yet) been lucky/motivated enough to go for it (#newcoinage).

It’s a bit like the phenomenon called the intermediate plateau:

Learners often reach the plateau at the intermediate or advanced level. It is a time when the rapid, satisfying progress one experienced as a beginner levels off, and progress begins to feel slower and harder to come by. Learners’ communication skills are decent, but fluency still seems like a distant goal.

The after-FCE syndrome is different in that fluency is no longer a distant goal. Also, the students’ reading, listening and writing skills are pretty decent because they practiced a lot to master them at the desired level. Obviously, the victory felt sweet at first. But the rush of adrenaline they experienced before, during and shortly after the exam has gradually worn off. Now they are back amid the crowd again. Oftentimes, they end up sitting next to the ‘average’ student who trudges towards a much smaller goal – the final state exam. As the final exam in English is a level lower, motivation and enthusiasm slowly fade too. Questions like “Why do we have to take the state exam when we’ve proved already that our level of English is high enough” pop up. “Why should we bother? We have other things to do.” Boredom and tiredness start to creep in and their best friend, frustration, is knocking on the door.

Well, exams have always sucked. For many reasons. First of all, they are stressful. Sometimes they are totally unfair or useless. But most importantly, they take away one’s joy of learning. Students are either too busy studying for an exam and, after they have passed it, they suddenly feel idle. And some of them get this crazy idea that somebody should make them overcome their laziness. As a result, and quite ironically, they either blame the teacher that they are too demanding or they accuse them of being too lenient. More specifically, they either complain that they get too many tests or they want more tests. Either way, most of them have this mindset: if you don’t threaten me with tests, you won’t make me learn stuff. Mind you, they often do this indirectly and inconspicuously, by comparing you with other teachers, for example.

Not that I don’t get it. It’s all quite understandable. The pressure they once felt is long gone. Now they can take a well-deserved rest. But here comes the dilemma: I know I should celebrate their success. And I do. Still, it feels a bit frustrating for me as a teacher. I feel guilty for failing to engage them the way I used to. I rack my brains to make the lessons interesting but I know it will never be enough for them because I need to keep the others’ goals in mind too.

Apart from making the teaching more demanding, the FCE exam, or the moment when a certain number of students succeed in it, marks a divisive line in the class. It creates a certain type of dichotomy – the FCE holders versus the non-FCE holders. In other words, there are the ones who still have to work hard to achieve an external goal and those who think they needn’t or rather can’t force themselves to work hard anymore. The division is invisible yet you can sense it on many occasions.

On a more positive note, there are still those gems whose intrinsic motivation and love for languages prevent them from stagnation. These are the ones who help me keep the show on the road and who push the level and the quality of the lessons up. 🙂



This lesson


This usually happens when you are temporarily resting on your laurels. You feel absolutely safe and things seem to be under control. So, as a result, you either slacken off a bit or to the contrary, dare to go a bit too far beyond your (or your students’) comfort zones. But no, in teaching nothing can be fully under control all the time and you can’t take a nap in the middle of the day.


Rewind to yesterday. Towards the end of this lesson, I realized we still had some time left so I asked the students to read a couple of quotes at the back of the magazines we had been working with. The quotes were about race, gender, and equality so I gathered they would generate a nice discussion. Based on my experience, it’s not a potential taboo topic for my students so I felt safe on this ground. To make it easier for them during the follow-up activity, I provided an example of what I thought they could do – I expressed my view on one of the quotes.

At first, my students thought I was playing the devil’s advocate. I went out of my way to reassure them I didn’t just want to shock and that I really meant what I was saying. We had a short discussion when one student exclaimed in utter frustration: “It seemed we’ve been discussing the same topic over and over again for the past six months!” Unfortunately, at that point, the bell rang and we had to say goodbye.

In what follows, I’ll first try to defend myself and then I’ll do a bit of penitence. For one thing, I checked the class register: no, we hadn’t been doing the same topic for the past six months. It might have been mentioned here and there throughout the course but I’d call it an occasional occurrence. Also, this student is no milksop – he loves controversy and he’s never scared to come forward and ask thought-provoking questions, which, I should add bitterly, we always patiently deal with in class. So, inevitably, one of my first emotions was ……. a feeling of grievance (and embarrassment too).

But wait, my self-pitying self! You are taking things too personally here plus he may have had a point. Although there is hard evidence that I haven’t been riding my hobby-horse for the past few months, for some reason, this boy feels this way. And this must be taken into consideration. I mean, something touched a cord there. Either the topic is too sensitive for him or it just bores him to death. Add to that the fact that it was a Friday afternoon and the students are having a rough time now towards the end of the term. Also, some students tend to react emotionally once they feel they don’t understand something. This may well have been the case. Either way, it was my fault. I should have been clearer and less provocative.

I felt really bad about the whole situation. Luckily, three other students came to me after the class and kindly asked for clarification. I explained what I had meant and secretly hoped they would pass the information to the aggravated student (I may well be overreacting here – maybe he wasn’t that mad at all).

Anyway, I’m going to create a list of uncontroversial topics which I could use safely in class for conversation activities. I’m going to ask this particular group of students to help me make that list based on their likes and interests. The trouble is that controversy is inherent to almost every topic – it’s just a question of who brings up what and under what circumstances. So, in the future, I will try to monitor my students’ reactions to the potentially dangerous topics more carefully.


Report on a stolen game

spiderman-2478977_960_720This is a short report on an activity we did in class earlier today. The idea was originally shared on Svetlana’s blog and I liked it so much that I decided to give it a try first thing Monday morning.

As Svetlana had originally designed the game for learners of business English to help them learn phrasal verbs, I knew right from the start that I’d need to adapt it. I ended up with three variations, each of them adjusted to the immediate needs of a particular group.

Here’s what I did. I printed out ten copies of the game board below (I chose the empty template to which I added numbers 1-15). At this point, I knew I would be able to recycle the material.

retrieved from


Variation 1 (12-year-olds, A2+ learners): 

I asked each student to choose 15 words from the vocabulary set we needed to revise. They wrote them on a separate piece of paper and numbered them 1-15. Students worked in pairs, defining the words.

Variation 2 (18-year-olds, B2/C1 learners): 

I asked each student in the group to make 15 interesting/personal/controversial questions they’d like to ask their partner. Students worked in pairs, asking each other their questions.

Variation 3 (16-year-olds, B1/B2 learners): 

IMG_20180115_074216Each pair got the game board plus each student got a set of 15 tasks (see image on the left). Students worked in pairs, completing the tasks.

The rules:

Svetlana’s objective: The player who manages to exit the spider’s web first wins the game.

My objective: As my aim was to get students to cover as many items on the lists as possible, I had to flip the objective of the game: the player who chooses the longest route to the exit, i.e. manages to step on most numbers, wins the game.

As I flipped the objective, I had to adjust the rules too. Similar to Svetlana’s instructions, in order to make a move, the player had to make a definition/complete a task/answer a question. To be less limited by the arrows, if they landed on the spider, the students were allowed to jump to any number they hadn’t covered yet. If they reached exit too soon (without having covered all the numbers), they could go back to number 1 and try a different route. If they landed on a number they had already covered, it was their partner’s turn.

While Variation 1 was just a short warm-up, Variations 2 and 3 panned out as 30-minute speaking activities.

Thanks, Svetlana! 🙂


What to do when your students want to prove your incompetence

The other day, I joined in a very interesting conversation on Facebook. A colleague of mine started the thread by asking a question about a certain grammatical point. During the discussion, one of the participants suddenly posted this: “What do you do in case your student wants to prove you are an incompetent teacher of English?” I didn’t react because I didn’t have much to say at that point. But the question has lingered in my mind since …


Last week, a colleague of mine came to observe one of my lessons. The lesson went well and the students were brilliant. At one point, when explaining her health condition, one of the girls used the word conundrum. I didn’t know what exactly gave her the impression of me possibly not knowing the word but she noted, in a very non-threatening, casual way: “You know what conundrum is, right?” I nodded and quickly provided a synonym. Although I didn’t feel threatened in any way (I was being observed, remember?) and I was actually proud of my student’s vocabulary, deep inside I did feel I needed to prove myself (thus the synonym). However, by no means do I think she wanted to prove I was an incompetent teacher of English. But maybe, in a different situation, or if her tone of voice had been different, the poisonous idea of her trying to discredit me as a teacher might indeed have crossed my mind.

But life hasn’t always been a bed of roses. Many, many years ago, after I had just graduated from university, I had this student who liked asking me questions which I didn’t have answers to. I still remember the remark she once threw in: “Oh dear, what did they teach you at that school?!”Although I’m not faint-hearted, I felt devastated and my ego hurt. Moreover, I suspected that I couldn’t do much to prevent such situations.

Fast forward in time. Some years ago, a young colleague of mine got this challenging group of 17-year-olds. There was one boy who was particularly difficult to handle. His English was excellent (he was actually a maths genius) but he was terribly arrogant – especially towards female English teachers. I suspected that he had chosen this particular class because it was originally supposed to be taught by a native speaker. But then the NS had to leave unexpectedly and this young teacher joined our team. I met my colleague in the hall after her very first lesson with this challenging group. To my surprise, she looked very enthusiastic and told me with this triumphant tone in her voice that she had had the boy for breakfast. She said that he’d tried to convince her of something but she retorted: “Well, you know, I studied to become an English teacher for a couple of years so I think I know more than you do!.” Needless to say, this was her last victory. A war actually started that day.

I’m saying all this because I’m afraid there’s no recipe which solves the problem of challenging students. It doesn’t really matter how much you know as a teacher. Neither does it really help to have a set of ready-made responses when such a situation occurs. I’d say it all boils down to a combination of factors:

  1. the teacher’s confidence (which may or may not be relative to their age and the amount of knowledge).
  2. the teacher’s experience (which may or may not be relative to their age and the amount of knowledge).
  3. the teacher’s relationship with their students. Let’s face the fact that students sometimes know more than we do. We must simply accept this as a given and be ready to admit our error.
  4. the teacher’s enthusiasm and love for the subject/language they teach. Students can certainly sense the teacher’s enthusiasm or a lack thereof from miles away. There’s no way to deceive them. But, based on my experience, love is blinding – the light you shine will hide all your imperfections. 🙂
  5. the teacher’s knowledge. It goes without saying that it’s not enough to rely on the fact that you once studied to become an English teacher, so continuing professional development is a must. Plus, the more you know, the more confident you feel regardless of your age or experience.
  6. the teacher’s perspective. If the teacher is convinced that students are always on the lookout for their slip-ups, then, regardless of the truth, they will always perceive their students this way.


A bit of PARSNIPing, i.e. mock presidential election


The topic of the last #Eltchat was controversial topics in teaching. We discussed some of the taboos and issues that make us cringe in class and the things that we normally tend to sweep under the carpet.

Some of the topics that came up during the chat were religion and politics. In the slow-burn mode of the chat, Cathy Bowden, an English teacher based in the Czech Republic, pointed out that here in the Czech Republic, “religion is just a non-issue for most, politics elicits waves of cynicism but no one gets upset”.

I agree with Cathy that there’s not much to worry about but still – I’m always on pins and needles whenever one of the above taboos comes up in class. Ironically, the reason behind my concern is not the knowledge of my own culture but rather the notion that some people in other parts of the world may actually find the topics disturbing. In other words, if I weren’t a member of an international community of English teachers, it wouldn’t even occur to me that I may get into trouble by discussing some of the PARSNIPs in class.

Anyway, as I’m typing this post (Saturday morning), here in the CR, we’re halfway through the 2018 presidential election. Although the Czech president doesn’t really have much political power, it’s a very important event. The thing is that the current president is a very controversial figure; he’s admired by half the Czech population while hated by the other.

Thus it isn’t really surprising that it was the election which my 18-year old students brought up in class yesterday. As they only recently came of age, this is actually their very first opportunity to vote for a president. So I understand that they are really enthusiastic about it. However, I was a bit reluctant to go into the discussion simply because I didn’t want to embarrass myself. Apart from the fact that politics bores me to death, I knew next to nothing about the nine presidential candidates. In other words, I was a bit behind schedule in this respect but I was planning to study the ballots later in the day. However, my students were so keen on the debate that I finally surrendered.

What options did I have apart from making myself look like a complete ignoramus? Well, for example, I could let my students teach me what they knew. Which I did.

I googled an image showing all the nine candidates and asked my students to tell me what they knew about their backgrounds. I encouraged them to share facts, not opinions at this stage but I asked for the impossible. They were so keen on telling me who was great and who was hopeless that they almost lost it.


Image retrieved from

By coincidence, I had prepared a paper ballot box (this aid was actually used for a different activity but I suddenly found it handy). I asked each student to anonymously jot down the name of their favorite candidate on a piece of paper. Only one student refused because he hadn’t decided yet. Then we dropped the ‘ballots’ into the box. Finally, I removed all the votes and we counted the results. It was fun and I hope it was a bit educational, too.

On my way home I remembered the #Eltchat. I wondered whether as a teacher, I have the right to ask for information that is essentially personal and confidential. But since my students had asked for the topic, I concluded to myself that it was OK.

Anyway, off to the real ballot box! Catch up with you later. 🙂


Information gap activities

chess-board-2375511_960_720.jpgI’ve recently been particularly keen on information gap activities, i.e. activities which require students to communicate with each other (usually in pairs) to solve a problem or complete a task. I find IGAs highly motivating and I appreciate the fact that they require sub-skills such as clarifying meaning and re-phrasing. Most importantly, though, IGAs represent real communication and increase overall student talking time.

In this quick post, I’d like to share a couple of activities I’ve recently done with my students. I’d like to point out that these activities were elements of a larger block – they didn’t stand on their own but were followed or preceded by other stages.

You may know from this blog that I love working with inspiring quotes. I normally use these as warm-ups or as an introduction to a new topic. For example, in one of my recent lessons, we talked about health so I prepared this handout.



As you can see, Student A had the same set of quotes as Student B, but a different word was missing in each of the sentences. The students worked in pairs and their task was to exchange the information in order to complete the quotes. Although they practically only needed to define the words I had left out, I saw them reading the whole sentences in an attempt to get more context. Apart from the fact that it was a meaningful speaking activity, it spiced up an otherwise boring gap-fill.

In the next stage of the lesson, we worked with a text about trending tips on healthy eating. It was a rather long, authentic article so I decided to ease the load a bit: I decreased the amount of text by creating another IGA. Student A only got part of the text (see page 1, on the left) while the rest was in the form of headings (see page 2, on the right). Student B got a complete version of page 2 while page 1 only contained the headings.

retrieved and adapted from
retrieved and adapted from

Ss then shared the information and took notes as their partner was paraphrasing/summarising their text. Again, Ss had to communicate actively to achieve the goal – to learn about the concepts. Also, I believe it livened up an otherwise long and dull reading activity.

Your students deserve to know…

number-2038275_960_720I think your students deserve to know how much you love working with them. There are many ways you can tell them – some are less cunning than others. This is what I did:

A couple of days back I wrote this blog post, in which I describe my relationship with a group of students who I’ve been teaching for almost seven years. It’s a very appreciative article, written from the bottom of my heart. It occurred to me that if something is so positive and genuine, it’s probably worth sharing with those who it concerns.

So … I made hard copies of the blog post leaving out the title. I also deleted the image of our classroom board (they’ve been looking at this board for seven years so my concern was that it would be an obvious cue). I handed out the copies to the students telling them with a poker face that I had found an interesting article on the internet which they may find interesting too. I told them that I had accidentally forgotten to include the title and that unfortunately, I didn’t remember the author. The task for them was to read the text, invent a suitable title and guess a few things about the author: the country of origin, gender, age, and job.

Well, I guess I wouldn’t be a good poker player because they knew immediately – probably from the very first sentence. So I watched them as they were reading. It’s a pity I couldn’t take close-ups of their faces and share them here on my blog because it was an amazing view – they smiled all the way through. It was like watching a child unwrapping a Christmas present.

The ‘task’ was obviously just a feeble attempt to deceive them and I certainly didn’t want them to guess and discuss my age. When I asked about a possible title, though, they suggested something very touching; it’s hard to translate into English, but it was a pet name designating a group of people (them) who claim allegiance, belong or relate to a certain person (that person being me). My confession certainly made them very happy, which, when I think about it now, wasn’t really my primary motivation. What I really wanted was to pour out my heart no matter what.

The next day they came to me and mentioned that I’m indeed almost a doyenne to them – I’m one of two teachers at our school who’ve been with them the whole time, i.e. for seven years. That means something, doesn’t it? 🙂