The 28th P.A.R.K.Conference

In April 2021, I wrote up my blog post about the 3rd P.A.R.K. Online Conference. It seems like ages ago now although it’s just 18 months. Things were so different back then and by ‘different’ I mean, well, not precisely satisfying for us teachers. So before I even begin this post, I need to pause and give a moment of appreciation to the P.A.R.K. conference organizers who, even in the time of greatest despair, didn’t give up and gave us hope by keeping up the good job, albeit in a slightly different format.

But here we are – in November 2022. It seems that finally, things have got back to normal and once again, we can live, breathe, attend ‘real’ conferences and learn from people face to face. And I must say that the 28th P.A.R.K. conference has probably been the most enjoyable experience in the professional world so far. Mind you, the previous conferences there or elsewhere had been as good as this one; the line-up of presenters, the atmosphere, and the catering standards had always been top-notch. Still, this time, I felt more present and focused than ever before. So I wonder… is it my age, my experience or the fact that we have become more appreciative after having been through so much recently?

Maybe it was the enthusiasm, joy and authenticity with which the presenters delivered their talks which resonated with me so much. And to be honest, we all got an enormous boost of energy right at the start because the conference was kicked off by the amazing Hugh Dellar. I had already known Hugh from the online environment and had highly appreciated his work. But once I saw him present face-to-face, I was impressed – by his cordial personality as well as his insights on teaching. In his opening plenary, he spoke about motivation. And I need to make the long story short here because otherwise, it would be a very, very long post (and I have some other things to cover here). So, here’s a summary of the tips Hugh gave the audience on how to motivate students:

  • Listen to your students (identify their goals and needs, listen to the content of what they say, simply make the most of the people in the room).
  • Talk to your students (don’t worry about your TTT).
  • Tell your students about yourselves (show them you are a normal person).
  • Teach your students useful things (what they actually need to say or what they would say in L1).
  • Teach the class first and the coursebook second (don’t worry about the number of pages you need to cover, skip or elaborate if need be).
  • Be careful how you correct (overcorrection can destroy people’s confidence; your goal is to help students to say things in a better way).
  • Test your students (but in a less frightening way, provide positive feedback, use instant revision activities, get students to re-tell texts and re-do tasks, gap words in your board work).
  • Worry less about the topics (even the PARSNIPs, let students ‘bring’ the topics to the lessons).
  • Worry more about the language and anecdotes (sometimes it’s the language that drives the interest, not the topic; any text has language that may be useful to students).
  • Look deep into your coursebook (a good textbook has little bits of speaking often, teaches useful language, and has conversations in L2 that resemble the ones they have in L1).

All in all, Hugh’s approach seems to be very personalized, student-focused, as well as practical, which definitely resonates with me.

And then it was time for the first workshop of the day. From the plethora of outstanding presenters, I chose to see my favourite methodology teacher of all time – Nikki Fořtová. I remember as if it was just yesterday; I was applying for my master’s programme at Masaryk University in Brno and during the oral examination, she was there on the committee – as inconspicuous and humble as I have always known her since. And then, two years later, when I was taking my final exams, she was there too, sitting quietly in the back of the room, taking notes. In the meantime, we had a lot of fantastic methodology lessons with her. So it’s not surprising that I always try to see her – because of my nostalgic memories and because she is such an amazing professional.

Nikki started her workshop in an unusual manner – she didn’t just say Hello, my name is … and I’m going to talk about X and Y. No, that would be too plain for Nikki. Instead, before she even started formally, as if by the way, she bombarded us with tips from the virtual world, such as, where you can learn how to pronounce tricky expressions by listening to authentic videos which contain the word you searched for. Or, an app which enables you to write a text conversation, create a video from your story, watch your creation on the screen, and share it with your students. Then she offered a few handy classroom activities which can potentially make your coursebook more engaging. Throughout her workshop, I learned that, for instance, running dictation can be done in groups of three, not just in pairs. I learned how to erase a permanent marker from the whiteboard (by drawing over the marks you’ve made in a permanent marker with a dry-erase marker). I also discovered that according to research, you can either pre-teach vocabulary or teach it later – it doesn’t really make a difference. And learned a new word – maven. 🙂 And I’m definitely going to try the run and rip activity she demonstrated. And finally, she showed us an amazing platform called, something I had never heard of before but am eager to explore. On this website, the teacher picks a question set and a unique game mode. Then, the website generates a code that players can use to join the game on their own devices. After the game starts, the players will answer questions to help them win. 

Just before the lunch break, I saw a talk by Charles Stewart. This was a new ELT figure for me and I didn’t quite know what to expect, so I considered it a step out of my comfort zone. But you know what they say: only if you leave your comfort zone do you really start growing. Charles’s workshop was called Let’s Talk About Progression, from B1 to C2, but the main theme was speaking, namely how to achieve excellence in it. In his view, excellence entails speaking fluently, naturally, and accurately. It also means using body language appropriately, knowing what to say in a particular situation and context, and having plenty of time for planning and rehearsal. He also pointed out that it is important to balance fluency and accuracy. Although many teachers would probably suggest that fluency is far more important, we should also aim at accuracy. Teaching it doesn’t have to be a nuisance, though. He advised that we can teach language structures covertly and inconspicuously. For example, you can give your students a list of have you ever questions before you even teach the present perfect. Students will naturally deduce how to use it long before you explain how things work. Also, he stressed the importance of feedback. He believes that some of the most learning he has done was through feedback. We talked about different ways of providing feedback, e.g. sandwich feedback (positive + constructive + positive), triangle feedback (3 different things a student did well or 2 positives and 1 negative/constructive), or two stars and a wish (2 good points and one thing to improve). Apart from formal teacher feedback, he mentioned the importance of self-reflection and peer feedback. Throughout the talk, it was clear that there was this pattern emerging – the rule of three. Charles called it The 3rd Time Lucky.  

In his after-lunch workshop, Hugh Dellar talked about magic. Yes, he believes teachers can make magic in their classrooms and that’s one of the reasons he still keeps doing this job. He shared a few moving anecdotes from his own teaching career and he also recalled one of the best lessons he’d ever taught – it was one of those moments when he felt hopeless and desperate and almost wanted to give up but then, something magical happened, which, in the end, changed things completely.

After this beautiful, emotional introduction, Hugh spoke about the ways of turning a lesson into something meaningful and useful. As he already mentioned in his opening plenary, one of our primary goals as teachers is to help students say what they want to say – in better English. So, it’s a good idea to board students’ real-life stories, reformulate what they say and then encourage them to use the ‘upgraded’ version. To achieve this, the teacher should try to make space beyond controlled and free practice activities, even when they seem under pressure because they have a lot to ‘teach’. He advises us to leave space for chat, small talk, stories, and banter. He says that we should keep in mind that lexis is far more often the issue than grammar. Don’t worry about the syllabus too much. When a student needs a word, they are ready for that word. Also, accept the fact that students sometimes say things that break conventional taboos (they even bring up PARSNIPs), which can be unpleasant for the teacher to deal with. Some of the most unpleasant ideas we have to deal with in class sometimes emerge in response to the most mundane questions. In the same vein, personal responses will often emerge after fairly impersonal questions. So, all you need to do is to provide the language the student needs and then perhaps explain why you disagree. This can help you take the heat off a difficult situation and you will still be able to provide some useful language to that particular student as well as the rest of the group. Remember, though, that you only get better at turning student output into whole-class input with practice. All in all, the process of working with the language is more important than the product. So, learn to travel off map more. When something interesting pops up, be ready to ditch the plan. Learn how to enquire and explore. Even if magic doesn’t happen immediately, at least you have provided opportunities for it to potentially emerge.

And finally, here comes the closing plenary by Nikki Fořtová – the proverbial icing on the cake. You may think that one could already have enough of a presenter they saw earlier that day, but no, you can never have enough of Nikki, simply because she is amazing and she has so much to offer. So I stayed fully focused till the very end, taking notes, trying not to miss anything important she had to say. Her topic was called Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teachers from Someone Who’s Spend 21 Years Trying to Adopt Them. David Koster, the most important guy behind the scenes, had introduced the topic as a bit of a tongue-in-the-cheek one, so we were ready for some fun. And yes, it was playful indeed but quite deep at the same time.

So, what do highly effective teachers do, according to Nikki?  

  • They turn up (they stick with their students and are available for them; they show commitment).
  • They bring T.E.A. to the classroom (trust, empathy and appreciation).
  • They are organized (they clean and purge and they have a logical filing system; something to remember: according to research, students do better in tests in an organized classroom).
  • They take risks (Nikki mentioned a few memorable things here: the fixed vs. growth mindset, the quote by Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right.”, and the metaphorical journey leading from the comfort zone to growth).
  • They avoid being happiness hoovers, i.e. they avoid sucking the joy of every situation (tip: you can always flip a negative statement into a positive one, e.g. This class just can’t learn. > Every student has the potential to learn).
  • They reflect and have bouncebackability (tip: apply the ALAC model: acting > looking back > assessment of essential aspects > creating alternative methods of action > acting > … )
  • They recharge (tip: help yourself before you can help others, say “no” in a nice way, i.e. hit the pause button, use the Time Management Eisenhower Matrix (a task management tool that helps you organize and prioritize tasks by urgency and importance. Using the tool, you’ll divide your tasks into four boxes based on the tasks you’ll do first, the tasks you’ll schedule for later, the tasks you’ll delegate, and the tasks you’ll delete.)

And that was it. After the raffle, I was headed home – happy, recharged and full of optimism and new ideas to use in class. And I feel the same now that I have finished my post. 🙂

I’m proud to say that this post has also been published on the P.A.R.K. conference blog.


My 3rd P.A.R.K. ONLINE Conference notes

It was an immense pleasure to take part in the 3rd PARK Online Conference here in the Czech Republic. I was really looking forward to this event because the line-up of speakers was truly promising, as usual. I also appreciated the range of topics.

The conference kicked off with an interesting presentation called Teaching Humans by Johanna Stirling. As the title and the annotation imply, the topic of the talk was the everyday struggles of us – teachers. Johanna’s mission was to share some techniques and activities teachers can use to embrace all kinds of human foibles, whether in class or remotely.

The thing is that we teachers often have meticulously planned lessons but sometimes they just don’t work. Who or what is to blame? Sometimes it is the technology, especially these days, but very often it is the students who throw a wrench into our plans, so to speak.

Here are some of the obstacles we often come up against:

  • Students refusing to write.
  • Students refusing to do their homework.
  • Students texting under their desks.
  • Students refusing to take part the teacher’s given them in a role-play.
  • Students clowning around making the others giggle.
  • Students refusing to speak English in class.

Johanna encourages us to realize that we are all humans after all and that there are many reasons why we fail to accomplish things. It’s not always just about laziness; it may be the need for instant gratification and/or respect; our students simply want to be liked and they have delicate egos, so they don’t want to come across as awkward. What’s more, people don’t come to our classes as blank pages; they bring to class all their baggage (their own priorities, fears and emotions). Unfortunately, our education system often de-humanizes the learning experience (rows of desks).

Another problem Johanna mentioned is the abundance of distractions our students have to grapple with in class, such as smartphones and social media. So it is important that we fade the distractions and place something else in the foreground. In her lessons, for instance, she uses mini whiteboards which keep everybody busy. In an online environment, the substitutes can be breakout rooms, the chat box or the opportunity to share screen.

Johanna showed a lot of sympathy for us humans. To illustrate the point that nobody is perfect she brought up The elephant analogy. This analogy shows that there are two parts to the mind – the elephant (the unthinking, automatic part, your intuition) and the rider (the conscious rational thought which acts as a guide). The rider sitting high up guides the elephant and can see the future. A conflict arises when the rider and the elephant want different things.

Johanna went on to argue that students need to set their own targets and we teachers must customize our targets. We also need to give our students choice. For example, they can make their own questions which, in return, generate more interesting answers. We should also give our students responsibility. Here’s a specific example she used: in a group of 4, students give themselves numbers 1- 4, later on the teacher reveals what each number is for, e.g. number one takes notes, number two makes sure everyone speaks English, etc. Finally, at the end of the lesson, it’s a good idea to ask questions such as: What have you learnt in the lesson? How are you going to remember this? When will you be able to use this?

In the next talk, Carol Read spoke about the importance of teaching values in an English classroom. She argued that values are the heart and the soul of education and that values education is especially important in these volatile times.

In the first part of the presentation we got acquainted with some basic theory behind values. Aparently, there are three dimensions of values: cognitive, affective and behavioural. They overlap and influence each other. The spheres of values relate to: self (perseverance), others (control, respecting others), and the environment (recycling, kindness to animals). Children learn values through socialization, modelling, thinking and acting, and through the language of values.

Here are some simple, practical examples of how the language teacher can incorporate values education into a class:

  • Students brainstorm positive team values, then they choose one value and make a poster, they decide on a name (=value) for their team. This reinforces the sense of community.
  • Rhymes and values: “Let’s work together, let’s co-operate”, …. + clapping hands
  • Songs and values: “I can do it if I try …. Yes, yes, yes!”
  • Stories to explain what certain words mean, e.g. selfish
  • Poetry: identifying adjectives and opposites in a poem, making a list of more adjectives, …
  • Discriminations activities: letters of the alphabet – each letter = one type of food, then students circle healthy food, unhealthy, etc.
  • Card games with a values focus – adjectives with positive connotations: helpful, kind, supportive, students make sentences about themselves or people they know. What does it mean to be helpful?
  • Role-play and drama – the teacher invents a values based situation, children prepare and act out the situation. This way they also develop problem solving and critical skills.
  • Content-based learning – climate emergency: before students watch a video (environmental issues), they can predict what the video is about, then they can present the issues through mime.
  • Storytelling: teacher shows children a picture from the middle of the story, they then predict what happened before and after the point depicted in the picture, then tell the actual story, and finally, compare the story to the predictions.

Carol points out that value learning takes time and that the values need to be repeated again and again through age-appropriate activities. Also, it is important to let students discover the values for themselves. In other words, it’s not advisable to be too quick to reveal the point/moral of an activity/story. Our role is to encourage children to notice and be aware of values. We should help them understand and reflect on the values. Last but nost least, we should provide them with opportunities to put the values into practice.

In the third talk of the day, Alex Warren presented us with the concept of visible thinking routines. i.e. mini-strategies that deepen students’ thinking. The problem with thinking is that although it is key to all aspects to learning, it is invisible for the most part. So to maximize the learning outcomes and benefits (i.e. deeper understanding of content, greater motivation for learning, enthusiasm and engagement, more communicative classroom), we teachers need to make it as ‘visible’ as possible.

These are some of the examples of how we can incorporate visible thinking routines into a language class.

  • The 3 whys:

Before introducing the topic, ask:

  • Why might this topic matter to me? personal level
  • Why might this topic matter to people around me? local level
  • Why might this topic matter to the world? global level

It’s good to start with the personal because youngsters tend to be ego-centred. The global may be too distant and thus uninteresting.

The question starts

  • Why?
  • What if?
  • What if we knew?
  • What are the reasons ..?
  • Suppose that …?
  • Think, puzzle and explore
  • What do you think about the topic?
  • What questions or puzzles do you have about the topic?
  • What does the topic make you want to explore?
  • 3-2-1 bridge

What are the initial responses to the topic? (3 thoughts, 2 questions, 1 metaphor)

After reading and discussion, new responses to the topic (3 thoughts, 2 questions, 1 metaphor)

  • Think, pair, share

Thinking time decreases the pressure.

  • Words I know, think I know, don’t know (This reminded me of Nation’s Vocabulary Level Test)

Here are some post-reading topic routines:

The 4Cs – provides students with a structure

  • Connections – between the text and your life
  • Challenge – which ideas from the text you want to challenge
  • Concepts – what key concepts are the most important
  • Changes – How does the text influence you? What are the changes of attitudes?
  • 3-2-1
  • 3 things I find interesting
  • 2 things I’d like to know more about
  • 1 thing I’d like to fact check
  • Stop, think, discuss
  • Compass points (E- excited, W- worrisome, N- need to know, S- stance)
  • I used to think/Now I think (At the end of a unit, for example.)
  • I see, I think, I wonder

And finally, David Crystal. With no offence to the other presenters, it was crystal clear that this was meant to be the highlight of the conference – the proverbial icing on the cake. And I think David Crystal did live up to everybody’s expectations. Not only is he a renowned linguist but he’s also a master of storytelling. Every sentence and every word he utters is a pure gem.

He began by sharing some thoughts on why it took him so long to write the book Let’s talk: How English Conversation Works. If I got it right, it’s not easy to analyse natural conversations because a) acoustic-wise, they must be well-recorded and b) there are simply too many contexts in which people talk.  

Throughout the talk, David Crystal touched on several ELT topics. The talk was perfectly cohesive and coherent – it had both structure and flow. He went smoothly from one topic to another and I admit I sometimes lost track in an attempt to meticulously record everything he was saying. This is to say that I’m afraid I can’t translate his perfect performance into a piece of blog. So, forgive me if my notes will be somewhat random.

First of all, David Crystal mentioned the authenticity of conversations in coursebooks. The problem is that they are too structured and impeccable. This is not how people speak.

There are several myths regarding what we do in conversations:

Laughter: Why do we laugh? Because somebody said something funny? Not really. People normally give a sympathetic/empathetic laugh. I’m showing interest – I’m listening.

Interruptions (not in plays or textbooks): Interrupting is considered rude but naturally, people do it all the time. In everyday conversations people chip in because they want to add something. Chipping in is a positive thing – it triggers a new line of thought.

Talking at the same time or discussing different, unrelated things is also common in everyday speech but not reflected in coursebooks.

The structure, which is so apparent in coursebook conversations, dissipates in natural conversations.

People use filler phrases, comment clauses (mind you, trouble is, as a matter of fact, to be perfectly honest…)

You can say ‘you know’ in many different ways: at beginning, in the middle, at the end of a sentence, with different intonation > different meanings.

What about the nonsense words (the thingy, the whatsits) and hesitation noises (erm)? Shall we teach them?

Changes: coinage of new words related to corona (social distancing). “I’m having a ZOOM conversation”.

The differences between a ZOOM and real conversation:

ZOOM conversations feel artificial because there is no simultaneous feedback, you need a fast internet connection, but there’s always a lag which makes it so strange.

Online lectures are lonely and extremely tiring if you are not used to them.

The afternoon chat

Drip-drip-drip approach to learning a language, plus the aspects of natural speech should be introduced as early as possible.

The cultural aspect – in Manchester everybody talks at the same time (says Iain Saunders), giggling in Japan expresses embarrassment, silences are usually uncomfortable and we tend to fill them with speech, but in Japan it is normal to be silent.

Changes? David Crystal has recently had to watch his vocabulary due to various sensitivities in certain areas of life.

Online communication doesn’t allow for all the nuances, e.g. Twitter.

Has the internet influenced English? Vocabulary: not much. Grammar: not at all. Punctuation: some of it. Overall: a small number of changes, but they are in front of you, so that you notice them.

New families of words have emerged: blog – blogger – blogging – blogosphere

How can we keep up as non-natives? We should try to keep pace as best as we can, at least with the generation of students we are teaching.

When adults steal young people’s slang, it’s not cool anymore. 🙂

It’s very easy these days to introduce your students to varieties of the language – because of the internet.

It’s important to introduce the challenges of vulgar language, too (Ofcom).

An incorrect structure is one that NOBODY uses. Otherwise it’s inappropriate, not incorrect.

The more styles (formal, informal) you know, the better prepared you are for different situations – the wardrobe analogy.

Will English lose its position after Brexit? Context: 2018 – 2.3 billion people speaking English, the language is continuing to increase but not as rapidly as before, are we reaching a plateau? So, English will continue to be used inside the EU (the expertise would be difficult to replace in such a short time), and if the EU wants to talk with the rest of the world, it will still be useful, so it will keep its important role.

Czech English – there are not many differences between the englishes used all around the word, especially in terms of grammar. There are not that many differences between the American and British English either. You can easily handle them in the classroom. Students will figure them out.

If you are unsure about the artificiality of the grammar you are teaching, use corpora but remember that exam boards are enormously conservative 😉 Tell your students: Your way is not incorrect but inappropriate for this context.

Which rule seems the most ridiculous to you? Preposition at the end of a sentence: The prescriptivists would say even Shakespeare got it wrong. 🙂

Lower-case – misspelling is common on social media but it is important to get spelling right (job application). There is a great amount of variation in spelling (hyphenation).

CONCLUSION: Trying to control a language is like trying to leash the wind. 🙂

David Crystal’s blog: