On being terribly non-intellectual


At first sight, it seems that I have more commonalities with my teenage students than I probably should. The thing is: I am the teacher and I should act as a role model, right? So I should go to museums and opera houses. I should listen to classical music and be a bibliophile. I should read broadsheets and watch experimental movies. Instead, I like to go shopping at the weekend, listen to mainstream pop-music, and watch TV shows on Netflix. What is more, I read little these days. I mostly read blog posts or online articles but I avoid ‘real’ literature as much as I can. Why? There’s simply no time for that given all the distractions I voluntarily cause to myself. Does it remind you of something?

There are times when I feel really bad about this. What I’m mostly worried about is the widening gap between what I used to know as a fresh graduate and what I know now as a practicing teacher. For instance, I was once proud to know a lot about the history of the English language. But most of it has been forgotten for good and I can barely remember a few basic facts. I often think that I should fill the gap with some valuable knowledge again. But it’s not easy because this gap is actually not filled with a void anymore – it has been congested with stuff I learned from YouTube videos, WordPress, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter.

Being so terribly non-intellectual clearly has some advantages if you are a foreign language teacher. For example, I know a lot about the perks and pitfalls of social media, which I can share with my students in class. I can engage in endless discussions on selfies and what goes on in one’s mind before sharing one. I know what it feels like to make something public. Also, I’m aware of the fact that coursebook English is not exactly what real English is like. I’ve recently learned lots of synonyms for words I’d never dare to utter, which, I sometimes like to believe, brings me a little closer to the teenage word. Kind of.

But then I ask myself: is it really necessary to be ‘non-intellectual’ in order to understand today’s kids? Is it possible to get to know them at all? Shouldn’t I be the scholar who they look up to (not an old weirdo who happens to have watched 13 Reasons Why?). Shouldn’t I actually try to be as far as possible in terms of intellectuality because this would give them a pointer and a clear idea of what they can achieve one day? I don’t really know. What I do know for sure is that most of the time I’m quite comfortable with the way I am as a teacher. But there are times when I feel really bad about this …


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The tipping point between challenging and overwhelming

balance-2108024_960_720.jpgI’m always pleased to overhear my students discussing the topic of the lesson on their way out of the classroom. I feel proud as a teacher when I hear them naturally switch into Czech and passionately go on convincing one another of their opinions. This, I think, happens if the topic was too interesting/controversial for the students to just let it be when the lesson’s over (which may be a good thing) and/or if the students didn’t get enough opportunities/were not confident enough to say what they had to say while in class (which is not so good a thing).

But that’s not always the case. Obviously, there are lessons after which the students snap their books shut and flee out of the room at the speed of light. This simply means they have something more important/engaging to do. Or maybe it was all too overwhelming for them to give it more thought.

I’ve recently been thinking about the emotional/intellectual load I put on my students. I think I always try to identify the tipping point between challenging my teenage students and overwhelming them. And I do try to pause and reconsider my approach before the tipping point appears on the horizon. But, regardless of the topic, you never know when exactly this will happen. It depends on many factors:

  • Is it the first/last lesson of the day? > You’ll probably need to energize your students first. But do I, the teacher, have enough energy to handle the students’ initial reluctance to participate? Not always.
  • Is it a lesson right after lunch? > You’ll need to wait a bit before they digest their food. No vigorous physical activities!
  • Is it a lesson after another mentally challenging class, such as math? > Your lesson may well go up in smoke. No more mentally challenging activities!
  • Does it happen right after their PE lesson? > Don’t expect your students to stand up and mingle. All they want is to sit and cool down.
  • Is it a lesson after art or music? > Your students may be a bit inattentive at first so they’ll need some time to start focusing again.
  • Did they have another language lesson before? German or French, for example? > They may need to switch over. Accept any strange word and grammatical hybrids before they are back on the right track.
  • Did the students write a difficult test in the previous lesson? > They may feel a bit frustrated. Nothing matters now, let alone some English lesson. There’s a trick that helps sometimes: I give them another quick test (despite their initial protests) but I make sure they will succeed. Their mood improves dramatically and for a while, they forget about their previous failure.

Having said that, being too student-friendly may sometimes backfire on you. Last week, I had prepared a series of activities based around a rather challenging topic. To give my students a bit of context first, I started with a 3-minute listening activity my students were already familiar with. I told them I was aware of the fact that they already knew the recording I was going to play, but I stressed that it was just a very short contextualizing activity. Most students accepted my plan but one student was probably not paying attention when I explained it (I don’t blame him, it was the first lesson of the day, i.e. 8:00 am) so after I finally stopped the CD, he exclaimed in a somewhat disappointed manner that they already knew the text and that they had done it “a million times” with the other teacher. I retorted, probably slightly offendedly, that I knew about that and that I had warned them after all. Anyway, I reassured the student once more that it was just a springboard for other follow-up activities.

You know, I’ve never quite figured it out whether it is wise to inform my students about my plan in an attempt to avoid a potential intellectual overload. I get the feeling that they don’t really care about your agenda. I’d say that you can even put them off by revealing your planned steps or, even worse, you may raise their expectations and then fail to fulfill them.

One way or another, there’s clearly another item on the list above. Teenage students are not into doing the same topic again and again – no matter how much benefit you see in revision. So be careful, you may spoil it all before you even start.


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How long is long?

Today I’ve been thinking about video essays and paragraph blogging.

More precisely, I’ve been considering them in terms of length.


A video essay – like a written essay – develops an argument on a defined topic, working as a kind of argument, explanation, discussion. It is a kind of persuasive storytelling, presenting a viewpoint and the evidence for it, telling a convincing story about it.

But how long is a video essay?

  • for a 1500-2000 word essay, think in terms of a video essay of 8-10 minutes in length
  • for a 2000-2500 word essay, think in terms of a video essay of 10-15 minutes in length
  • for a 4000-6000 word essay, think in terms of a video essay of 15-20 minutes in length

So the minimum would be 8 minutes and that’s what you actually get if you search the Internet for this type of stuff. But what is it that makes a video long, short or just right in terms of L2 learners’ attention? And what makes it too long for us EFL teachers? As far as the latter is concerned, based on my experience, even 8-10 minutes may turn out a bit too long for a 90-minute lesson (let alone for a typical 45-minute class!) if you want to include all the stages a language lesson should contain (warm-up, pre-listening task, the actual listening, discussion, language work, production stage, etc.). I’ve worked with a couple of video essays thus far and the main problem I faced was that I felt I needed to play the video twice to help my students to gain more from it, but it was simply infeasible. That’s why I think many teachers go for short, fast and memorable videos for language classroom purposes.

But the methodology is not the only reason why I find it a bit tricky to incorporate longer YouTube videos into a standard L2 lesson. In an L2 classroom, a 10-minute video can simply be too much for a student to follow and digest, particularly if it’s challenging language- or content-wise. Or at least we think so given the fact that our students are not used to consuming long pieces of anything containing words these days (I sometimes wonder if it’s true or a cliché). And precisely at this point, we get caught in a vicious circle. We assume it would be too much for our students so we dismiss it out of hand. And as we dismiss it, we also reject the opportunity to offer our students something a bit more challenging than what they are used to outside the classroom.

Just to give an example that it can actually work just fine, I’m attaching a video we worked on recently plus a handout with 20 questions I had made to make the content more palatable for my intermediate class. These were a springboard for a discussion and a subsequent writing activity.



To download the handout, click here

But that’s not really the point of this post. On to paragraph blogging now.

Given the fact that we teachers sometimes complain that people’s attention span is getting shorter and we seek various ways of increasing it in our classrooms, is it useful to introduce or promote shorter forms of writing? We have Facebook and Twitter after all. Shouldn’t we cherish traditional articles and blog posts?

Ironically, my students often complain that a 60-70 word limit is not enough for them to express their idea fully in writing. I tell them that that’s the challenge – to say what you need to say without being too wordy. So I sometimes get the feeling that while we want to consume more but in smaller doses, we like to produce stuff in large quantities and big portions. In a language classroom context, I think it’s probably because it’s easier to listen to a short video and then babble about it for ages than to patiently listen to a longer piece and then say something valuable in just a few words. Would you agree?

“One of the most sincere forms of respect is actually listening to what another has to say”. Bryant H. McGill

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A/the/my lack of knowledge of articles and collocation effects

If you read Mura Nava’s blog, the title above probably rings a bell. In his latest post, Mura discusses what Master (2007) says about article choices. He offers two example sentences with the phrase lack of, one of which seems incorrect at first glance but is actually a viable choice which should be accepted (or at least we should give the student a benefit of doubt in marking feedback).

The phrase *lack of* looks very basic at first sight. However, as a non-native speaker of English, I know that it can be quite tricky. The trouble is that it can be used with a, the or zero article. Here are three example sentences from online Cambridge Dictionary:

  • There is a lack of reasonably priced housing for rent.
  • One disadvantage of living in the town is the lack of safe places for the children to play.
  • Hospitals are being forced to close departments because of _ lack of money.

When writing, I always catch myself considering the a vs the article options. Have I always chosen the right one? Who knows? Wait! I have a blog. And a blog can easily turn into a mini-corpus…


It was a piece of cake to search my blog for the phrase *lack of*. I came back with 41 instances – just for starters! I saved the example sentences with a bit of co-text in a Word document. I highlighted the articles for easier reference. I’m pleased to see that now it looks a bit like the COCA corpus. 🙂


To see the whole thing click here: A_the lack (there)of

Here are some of my observations:

Most of the sentences look all right to me. However, now that I think about it, some of the examples of *the lack of* could probably be replaced with *a lack of*. A closer scrutiny reveals why they probably weren’t; they were post- or pre-modified in some way (speaking in very layman’s terms). In the following sentence, for example, I mention the lack of understanding.

Some happened due to a minor language deficit on my part while others, I believe, happened due to the LACK of understanding on the reader’s part.

At first sight, I think it would be more natural to say due to a lack of understanding on the reader’s part, but the preceding sentence goes:

Like I said, I have experienced a couple of misunderstandings here on my blog (even with some prominent ELT people).

Can a couple of misunderstandings be considered a type of pre-modification for the lack of understanding?

The following use of the definite article looks inappropriate to me:

Have you ever contemplated the reasons behind the cliché that teaching teenage classes is the most challenging job? And if so, do you think it could be the LACK of maturity connected with a certain degree of unpredictability and unstableness that is so daunting for us teachers?

I have no idea why I went for the in this example. Did I have in mind some implicit type of modification? I’m not sure. One way of the other, now I’d definitely opt for an indefinite article in this case.

Surprisingly, there’s not a single instance of _lack of on my blog. I don’t think I even knew that lack of can be used with a zero article and if I had, I doubt I’d have had the courage to go for this option anyway. It simply doesn’t seem safe to me.

I noticed I’d used this a couple of times as well as a possessive pronoun (my/their).

I, the writer, have virtually no control over any of the variables. This LACK of control is daunting as well as thrilling.

Anyway, I think I’ll definitely show a little more compassion for their initial LACK of enthusiasm this year.

I feel I need to make up for my LACK of gratitude and appreciation.

To clarify my train of thought, both this and my/their probably served as a way of emphasizing and/or as an anaphoric/cataphoric reference. They could probably be replaced with the definite article (with some minor adjustments to the sentence) but they seem all right to me like this.

To conclude, I may have a tendency to overuse the definite article with lack of but I mostly do so to indicate some kind of implicit information (known to me as well as the reader) and/or to emphasize. If it’s 100% correct, that I don’t know.

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Denied entry

passport-2642172_960_720I sometimes catch myself pondering this: To what extent can you relate to/fully understand a negative phenomenon if you’ve never actually experienced it? How valuable is knowledge gained through vicarious experience? And isn’t it deceptive of me, the teacher, to want to pass such knowledge on to my students?

For example, I have never had the first-hand experience of being discriminated against. Not even when I most expected it. Being a member of the EU, traveling around Europe is pretty easy for me. And looking the way I look, I’d probably appear totally harmless to customs officers all around the world anyway. I’m saying this because I’ve never been further questioned, searched or even looked at with suspicion. Not even 25 years ago when the precautionary measures were much tougher for a Czech who wanted to travel the UK, for example. My colleague, on the other hand, could share tons of anecdotes of how he’s been treated by the customs officers. Well, looking the way he looks (darker complexion, scruffy looking hair), he’s always the one who captures their attention. And regardless of the fact that he isn’t a drug dealer and he’d actually never hurt a fly, his luggage is often singled out to be sniffed at by detection dogs.


Yesterday, I went to a non-ELT-related seminar. The first part was about discrimination and racism. We talked about some ways of educating our students in this respect and we agreed that the best way to do so is through experience. In other words, students must feel what it is like to be ostracized to fully understand that ostracizing is something they should never inflict upon others.

We did one activity which I’d like to share here on my blog. Although I’m not sure if it’s 100% safe in all teaching contexts, I thought that it could be presented as an ESL activity ‘in disguise’. Just keep in mind that if you teach students and/or nationalities who often experience the feeling of being excluded, they should NOT be the targets of this activity.

Before the lesson, check out the list of countries which have the reputation of having the most intimidating border officials. You (the teacher) will pretend to be one of them to put the travelers (your students) on edge.

Give each student an empty passport template, such as the one below. Ask the students to complete it. They can choose from the list of countries you give them (you need to have this under control to make the point).


The students approach you one by one to show you their passports. You treat some of them nicely (based on the country they come from and/or their gender) while you will be very strict with others. Each student will have to bring their luggage too (it should be just a pencil case, not a bag!). Warn them in advance that it may be searched. Do single out some ‘luggage’ for further search. If you have rubber gloves, all the better! 🙂 You may even choose some travelers who will eventually get denied entry.

After you’ve talked to all of them, it’s time for reflection. Ask them how they felt. What was it like to be rejected? What was it like to get a free pass? Ask them if they or their parents have ever been in such a situation. What would they do if they got denied to enter a country? Is it fair/justifiable to be judged by the color of your complexion/the place of your birth/gender/age?

To take the strain off a bit, you can watch the following videos too.

Travel Tips: How To Go Through Immigration (this can be watched prior to the activity itself.)

Travel English: How to go through customs at the airport 

You can also watch/talk about the movie called The Terminal. It’s a comedy-drama, starring Tom Hanks, and it can actually dumb the whole point down but anyway. It depends on how serious you want to make it.

Let me know what you think.


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On traveling, bonding, pidgins and language development


“A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.” – Tim Cahill

Whenever I come back from a trip abroad, I feel different. At first, it’s as if somebody had torn my heart out of my chest, chopped it into little pieces and then put them back where they belong. The first moments are hard; it hurts for a while. I miss my friends and the moments we had together. But later, when things finally get back to normal, I feel inspired and energized by what I’ve experienced. And I turn into a storyteller again.

One of the stories I’d like to tell today is the story of language as a bonding device. Language… the fascinating system which clearly differentiates human beings from other living species. On the one hand, it’s a means often used so inappropriately – to hide true feelings or even to hurt others. On the other hand, it’s a powerful tool used to bring people closer together.

I find it fascinating how a group of like-minded people, who don’t share the same mother tongue and thus are compelled to use English as a means of communication, develop their own lingua franca after some time spent together (even after a few days!). I sometimes wonder what would happen if you left these people on a desert island for a few years – with no access to books, dictionaries or the internet. I wonder how their lingua franca would develop. Would it turn into a pidgin – a grammatically simplified means of communication that develops between two or more groups that do not have a language in common? And/or later into a creole, a stable natural language developed from a mixture of different languages at a fairly sudden point in time. Or would the people finally prefer to adopt a language other than English, somebody’s mother tongue, for example?

When traveling abroad, I came to a conclusion that there’s no point in using certain English words or structures if I want to make myself understood. For example, the word invoice is rarely understood by hotel employees in Western European countries. So, instead, I use some form of the word faktura (Czech), which in Dutch is factuur, in German die Faktur and in French facture. I wonder how long it would take for the word invoice to eventually disappear from the lexicon of the evolving lingua franca. And if we chose to use some form of the word *faktura*, which form would it be? Would it be a compromise or one of the existing forms?

Another personal discovery I made is that there’s no need for a 100% accuracy and/or language correctness in a situation when members of a close-knit group communicate with one another. First, we have a common subject so everybody is to a great extent familiar with the context and thus can easily make up for a potential lack of understanding. Also, there’s a special connection which gradually evolves within such a group, which results in an amazing phenomenon; the people involved virtually end up finishing one another’s sentences. Riddle me this: how come a person sitting next to you has the very same idea you are just pondering silently and expresses it in exactly the same words? I wonder if such a type of connection is crucial for the way a (new) language develops and I’d also like to know what science has to say about this because to me, it sometimes feels like telepathy.

Obviously, there’s also a downside to all this. One of the objectives of the Erasmus+ project, which I’m involved in and which enables me to do all the traveling, is for the participants to improve English and language skills in general. However, although in a way, I do gain a lot language-wise, some aspects of my English deteriorate due to the factors I describe above. In other words, although I improve my soft skills (e.g. teamwork, motivation, flexibility), I lose some of my hard skills (e.g. proficiency in a foreign language). At this point, I should say that it sucks. But it doesn’t. I still gain more than I can ever lose. Now that I think about it, ironically, I actually win because I lose…


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The 22nd P.A.R.K. Conference for English teachers (a heads-up)

international-conference-1597531_960_720As I proudly announced in one of my earlier posts, on April 7, I’ll be headed to the 22nd P.A.R.K Conference. It’s one of those events for English teachers I’ve never missed since I first discovered it a few years back. It’s always been inspiring to me as a teacher and a quick search through my blog only proves it (here, here, here, here, here and here).

What I love about this event is that it is really huge (at least from the perspective of a teacher who’s never been to an IATEFL conference, for example), but at the same time, the atmosphere feels comfortable and friendly. Not only does it offer a wide range of methodological seminars and workshops presented by experienced teacher trainers but it also gives you an opportunity to meet some old uni buddies and lots of like-minded professionals. In other words, there’s something for everybody; whether you prefer to learn from the ‘big names’ or the grassroots (or both).

The event starts with an opening plenary. Then there are two practical workshops, a seminar and a closing plenary followed by a raffle. One of the highlights is the lunch break because that’s when I have an opportunity to chill out, talk to people and spend a fortune on coffee and their indescribably delicious pastries sold in the conference cafeteria (I’m not exaggerating here!). At the end of the day, you can also meet the speakers, which, unfortunately, I have never had the opportunity to do because I usually need to catch the 16:00 trolleybus.

coffee-break-1177540_960_720Apart from the fact that the venue is a bit off the beaten track, the most difficult moment for me is when I have to pick the workshops. It’s a challenging task given the fact that there are three blocks and in each block, there are twelve workshops to choose from. The fact that there’s usually a mixture of native and non-native speaking presenters and that the topics are quite varied doesn’t make the whole thing easier for me. What I usually do is that I look at the names first to see who I’ve already seen before. Then I might either decide to see them again or not – depending on the topic and the quality/relevance of their previous presentation. My choice is to a great extent determined by the fact that I’m a secondary teacher of English so I tend to go for workshops aimed at teenagers rather than young learners, for example.

The registration is all online, which is a massive advantage, but if you are too late, you may end up with practically no choice on your hands. At this very moment, many of the workshops are already booked up. This makes me wonder whether the quality of the workshop/seminar can be judged by the current demand. Well, I’d say the number of ‘vacancies’ is definitely not the only determining factor – it could actually be distracting, even misleading. One way or another, I don’t need to despair this time. As a conference reporter, I can attend any workshop I want. What a relief!

Having said that, at this point, I’m still not sure which workshops I’ll finally choose. Normally, I wouldn’t attend a workshop titled The Joys and Troubles of Teaching 121 or the one called Principles of Business Communication, simply because I don’t teach business English or 121. But now I’m thinking that maybe, stepping out of my teaching context could actually be quite useful. One thing is certain; I’ll definitely see and report on the opening plenary given by Shaun Wilden as well as the closing plenary by Ken Beatty. What? Two male plenary speakers? That’s unacceptable! Wait! To be fair, last time the plenary speakers were both female (Fiona Mauchline and Nikki Fořtová) so no worries. 🙂

Shaun’s plenary is called Your exits are here, here and here. Such a mysterious title definitely makes me want to read the summary: This session looks at the concept of student engagement and questions the effectiveness of traditional approaches such as asking for hands-up. If such techniques do not help students engage in lessons, can we then utilise mobile devices to gain a better understanding of them? Sounds interesting. I’ve already seen Shaun present here in the Czech Republic and I know he’s a strong advocate of incorporating the use of mobile devices into an L2 classroom so we’ll see what Shaun has in store for us this time.

Ken’s plenary* is called Motivating the Teenage Brain: Making Language Matter. Although I haven’t had an opportunity to meet Ken in person, the title of his presentation looks quite straightforward to me. According to the summary, the presentation reviews the latest findings of how the teenage brain learns and the application of such findings to engage learners through meaningful language-learning tasks, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and reflective assessment. I’ve attended a couple of workshops on the same topic so I’m eager to see what’s new in the field. Plus, repetition is the mother of all learning, particularly if you ‘specialize’ in teaching teenagers. And it’s about science and research! That’s definitely some bonus points, right? 🙂

See you later.


*Update: Ken’s closing plenary is actually called Interactivity, Teaching and Learning. The presentation I mentioned above is a seminar. This means that people will have an opportunity to see Ken twice. Well, it seems there’s a lot to look forward to.




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