The 13 questions

Well, 2022 is coming to an end. It has been a good year but it’s also been unusual in many ways. And as I think it’s always useful to pause and reflect, I’ve decided to ask myself the following 13 questions, which I had come across on Melli O’Brien‘s FB page.

1.    What was the best decision you made? Not to quit blogging. I’ve learned that you don’t always have to irrecoverably say goodbye to things in your life. Just hit the metaphorical pause button and resume whenever you feel the need to. 

2.    How are you different from a year ago? I am different in many ways. At some point in 2022, my ego was shattered to pieces and I had to put them back together again. This, I believe, made me a bit stronger. 

3.    What have you learned from the hard times? Let go of things but don’t burn bridges completely. Instead, burn what’s useless in you and go on. 

4.    What did you enjoy the most this year? I enjoyed being in the classroom full-time again and travelling a bit. 

5.    What are you most proud of this year? I’m proud of my ability to trip over, fall and get up again without doing too much harm to myself or the people around me. 

6.    What did you learn about yourself? I learned that listening to friends who can be brutally honest can be very helpful but, on the other hand, appreciating those who quietly and compassionately support me through my struggles without interfering is equally valuable. 

7.    What energised you? What drained you? Travelling to places I had never been before and meeting new friends energized me a great deal. Having to handle the egoic conditioning of my mind and some of my destructive thoughts robbed me of a lot of my energy supplies. 

8.    What advice would you have given to your last-year self if you could go back and start the year again? Accept things as they are. Change what you can and let go of the rest. Sometimes things will look after themselves. Also, remember that not everybody feels the same way you do so listen and observe patiently and do not jump to conclusions – you’ll finally come to understand the other person’s point of view. 

9.    What matters most to you in the next year? My inner peace. 

10.  What are you going to continue doing? Shedding light on some of the most vulnerable and fragile aspects of my personality. 

11.  What do you want to change completely? The way I perceive reality. Fewer assumptions, and/or (unrealistic) expectations. I’d like to become more patient, too. 

12.  How do you intend to be different at the end of next year? I want to become someone who focuses on the present moment and makes the most out of it. I’d like to be someone who appreciates the little things they have and happily welcomes the ones that are about to come.  

13.  What is your highest intention for the next year? To stay calm in difficult situations. 

PS.: I believe that this can also be a very good classroom activity. I’m definitely going to try it out with my older students. 😉 


How to find the deeper meaning

The other day, I came across the concept of logotherapy. At first, I was rather confused by the fact that it was mentioned in the context of education – since it’s a term mainly used in psychotherapy – but as I further explored it, it started to make perfect sense.

So, logotherapy is a therapeutic approach that helps people find personal meaning in life. It’s a form of psychotherapy that is focused on the future and on our ability to endure hardship and suffering through a search for purpose. Logotherapy was developed by neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frank and is based on the premise that the primary motivational force of an individual is to find meaning in life. In other words, Frankl believed that humans are motivated by something called a ‘will to meaning’ – a desire to find meaning in life. Also, he believed that life can have meaning even in the most miserable of circumstances and that the motivation for living comes from finding that meaning. 

Frankl believed in three core properties on which his theory and therapy were based:

  • Each person has a healthy core.
  • One’s primary focus is to enlighten others about their internal resources and provide them with tools to use their inner core.
  • Life offers purpose and meaning but does not promise fulfilment or happiness.

Logotherapy proposes that meaning in life can be discovered in three distinct ways:

  • By creating a work or doing a deed.
  • By experiencing something or encountering someone.
  • By the attitude that we take toward unavoidable suffering.

So, what does all this have to do with teaching, ELT, education, etc.? First of all, I strongly believe that apart from teaching English, our primary goal is to enlighten our students about their internal resources and to provide them with tools to use their inner core. We, teachers, can help our students to find meaning through creativity and creation. Also, we can offer opportunities for them to experience something meaningful in the classroom as well as outside of it. Finally, we can dig deep through all the layers of what we see on the outside and find the healthy core each student has.

Second of all, logotherapy, or the realization of its basic premise of it, can help us start the healing process aimed at ourselves. We teachers also have healthy cores and we definitely have the power to realize that even though life (or our job) does not automatically promise fulfilment or happiness, it definitely offers purpose, so the only challenge is to discover it – through creativity and work. And even though we may suffer now and then, or feel unfulfilled or dissatisfied, it’s the attitude we take towards this sort of ‘hardship’.

Thirdly, there’s the question of motivation – a concept so often debated in the context of ELT and education in general. Once you find a purpose in doing something, for example learning a language, things become easier for everybody involved – for the student as well as the teacher.

From the above, it seems that having a meaning or purpose in life correlates with one’s overall health, happiness, and life satisfaction. So, through logotherapy, we teachers could kill several proverbial birds with one stone. We could simply make the classroom a happier place and our work even more meaningful. After all, once the teacher is happy, the students are too (and vice versa).

The Honeymoon (Hangover) Effect

So, you may have heard about the term honeymoon phase. It is an early part of a couple’s relationship where everything seems carefree and happy. It usually lasts from six months to two years and can be marked with lots of laughs, intimacy, and fun dates. In psychology, however, there is a term called the honeymoon effect, which gives a name to a state that happens with an increase in job satisfaction immediately following a job change and it’s followed by the honeymoon hangover effect – a decline in job satisfaction.

When I came across the said concepts, it crossed my mind that we teachers probably experience similar states – not only throughout our entire careers but even throughout the school year.

As a newbie teacher, one is obviously excited about their job and what’s in store for them. After some time, you may get a little less tipsy, so to speak, because you start to understand what the real challenges of the job are. And you gradually get less and less excited because, in a way, every day is the same. Plus, it’s not always rewarding to be a teacher. When I personally got dangerously unmotivated in the past, I subsequently and almost invariably experienced some kind of change (which came to me unexpectedly or I simply made things happen). As a consequence, a new spurt of bliss, passion and energy sprang from within.

As I said, I believe the same pattern applies to each and every school year. After the summer holidays, I am full of enthusiasm and a bottomless well of new ideas. I can multitask like a pro. This period can last up to a few months but right before Christmas, I start to feel the first signs of pressure and the hangover effect sets in. For me, the most critical months are probably January and February (and March too), which can definitely be ascribed to the chilly weather and the lack of light too. But it’s not just that.

And in the same vein, within a single day, one lesson can be an amazing success while the next one is a complete disaster. And you ask yourself: Where did I go wrong? Well, maybe you got too excited and thus too exhausted by the triumph that you couldn’t but experience the honeymoon hangover effect.

And finally, the smallest of the smallest units – the lesson itself. It was at uni where they told us that we should be careful – activities should never be too exciting. The teacher should always keep things at bay. Well, now I know why. If an activity is too invigorating, the students simply get tired or worse, they go on the rampage.

Now, negativity aside, the question is how to stay in the honeymoon phase for as long as possible. The following tips are some of the things that help me overcome the periods of honeymoon hangover.

  1. I try to be grateful for my job. As I said earlier, it’s not always rewarding but when it is, I bookmark the moment – mentally or in writing (on this blog, for example).
  2. I give myself permission to feel frustrated from time to time. It’s not always rainbows and butterflies after all. So I try to be gentle and compassionate with myself if things get a bit overwhelming.
  3. I go for every opportunity to learn and share. I go to workshops and conferences, and I read about and pay attention to everything that may be useful or uplifting.
  4. They say that change is the spice of life. So I consciously shake things up in the classroom from time to time.
  5. I constantly reflect on what I do in the classroom and how I feel about it.
  6. I try to keep in mind that change is the only constant, so I accept the fact that a period of bliss will always be followed by a period of distress and vice versa. By merely accepting this fact, things instantly get much better.

To wind up, I’d like to stress that I distinguish the honeymoon hangover effect from burnout syndrome. It is because the latter results from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed and thus is a much more serious condition that needs to be addressed differently. However, I believe that some of the tips above may, to a certain extent, help to ease the symptoms of burnout syndrome, or they may at least serve as prevention.

Too much of a good thing …

I’ve always known that there is a fine line between being too passionate about what one teaches and being excited about passing knowledge on to their students. It is generally believed that it is essential for a teacher to be enthusiastic about their subject, and whenever I discuss this with my students they always tell me that they appreciate teachers who are passionate. Of course, there are students whose primary goal is to understand and learn quickly and effectively, and they don’t really care if the teacher loves what they do or not. In other words, their intrinsic motivation is high enough for them to be distracted by the teacher’s excitement or the lack of it.

I’m saying all this because I believe I’m very passionate about my subject (English as a foreign language). It’s crossed my mind a few times though that sometimes my zeal can actually be detrimental to my students – or at least to some of them. This can happen when, for example, I’m too creative, original, artistic, inventive, or innovative. As a result, what I do is almost overkill. Too much of a good thing, as it were. So, those students who like to learn in a calm and structured environment may feel a little confused and disoriented.

I’ve come across this post by Paul Moss called LEARNED HELPLESSNESS AND THE CURSE OF KNOWLEDGE which discusses both terms in detail. My curiosity was piqued by the former concept – learned helplessness – which is a state that occurs after a person has experienced a stressful situation repeatedly. This person then comes to believe that they are unable to control or change the situation, so they do not try — even when opportunities for change become available. After seeing this video, which beautifully demonstrates how a teacher can ‘create helplessness’ in the classroom, so to speak, I realized that maybe, some of my most original and well-intended activities were quite confusing and didn’t lead to much learning. They may have been beneficial for the fast learners and/or talented students but they were useless and even frustrating for the students who performed in the mid-range and lower.

In my defence, most of my students are fast learners and talented, too. But still, I sometimes take it for granted and forget about the ones that may have had a bad day or the ones who simply don’t get the point of an activity that I consider absolutely amazing. In his post, Paul Moss offers several tips on how to design a course effectively to avoid learned helplessness and the curse of knowledge. I’d add that if an activity seems too confusing or even pointless to some students, it’s vital to explain the teacher’s reasoning behind it. In fact, I believe it’s always good to tell students why we are doing what we are doing – not just when they feel lost (which may be too late anyway).

In conclusion, I’d like to say that I still believe that passion and excitement are good things. However, their intrinsic nature is emotional so they need to be consciously controlled by reason and logic. Specifically, they need to be guided by purpose, aim and intention.

It’s important to enjoy the little things

I sometimes ponder this: What is it that makes my job so enjoyable for me. Why is it so that the longer I have been a teacher, the more I love being one? You know, it sometimes crosses my mind that I should be a little burned out … a bit worn-out after so many years of doing the same thing. But I’m not.

Don’t get me wrong; I did experience moments of despair and fatigue in the past, most of which took place at the start of my career and also quite recently – during the remote teaching period. But eventually, I learned from that experience and now I can use the newly acquired and assimilated knowledge and skills to enjoy what I do even more.

But I’m spurting big words here. Life consists of small moments which after all, create the bigger picture. The small pieces of a mosaic are what is important. But what are they?

What first comes to mind is my experience, without which I would hardly be able to fully enjoy anything related to my profession. Not that I didn’t enjoy my job when I was younger and inexperienced. I did. Those joyful moments, however, were rarely planned for. Neither were they too permanent for that matter. I mostly experienced sporadic, spontaneous moments of happiness, followed by instances of hopelessness in quick succession. Just like a rollercoaster. Ups and downs, the ebb and flow. But that was an inevitable part of my evolution as a teacher.

My age is another important factor in the interplay of light and shadow of being a teacher. It’s obviously closely related to experience. However, what I mean is that the older you get, the more easy-going, relaxed and tolerant you can become and thus, you create more space for enjoyment. Also, without trying to sound too dramatic, you realize you have less and less time left. You realize that there will be a point in the future when you won’t be able to do what you love anymore … for whatever reasons. And finally, the older you get, the more you appreciate working with children and young people in general. And the wider the gap, the more you can gain from it. ¨Some say that grandchildren may often have a better relationship with their grandparents than children have with their parents. That’s what I mean.

Related to all the above, you gradually have better relationships with your colleagues and bosses. You know your stuff so you’ve become immune to all the potential trickery and abuse. In other words, you know your worth. You can easily navigate yourself in the world of your profession – you know what to look for and what to discard and fake and useless.

And finally, the everyday moments of joy – when a student approaches you and tells you that she enjoys your lessons. Or when they come up to you and ask for help, which you can easily provide. When they beam with enthusiasm and energy in your lessons. When they tell you that you are their favourite teacher. When your effort is appreciated by your boss or a colleague who has just observed your lesson. And so on and so forth. It’s right here in your hands and has always been. It’s just that you can clearly see it now.

Let it be(e)!

One of the things I’ve always liked to have in my life is control. It sounds a bit authoritarian but I believe it’s one of the basic human desires no matter what anybody says. This has also long been one of my deep-seated convictions about teaching and classroom management. So, as a teacher, I like to have the upper hand in class, too. Not that I crave power because I like the feel of it, it just feels safer to hold the reins and be in charge. To be more precise, deep down I believe things go more smoothly and effectively, i.e. students learn more when there is an order as opposed to chaos.

When I was younger, I often lost ground when things slipped out of control in class, especially with younger kids. Consequently, I would feel really bad about myself. In my book, it was always my fault. Luckily, it’s much better now because a) I’m more experienced so I don’t often let things go out of control – simply by taking precautions, b) if it does happen, though, I have some strategies and coping mechanisms to handle the situation, and c) I’ve come to realize that after all, losing control may not always be a bad thing. I’ve learned it the hard way, though…

I’ve learned there are many situations when things can’t be controlled. And you have to accept it. When a bee flies into the classroom, there’s not much you can do to stop the disorder and confusion immediately. People feel threatened in such situations. It’s their basic instinct to start screaming and jumping around like crazy. Well, you, the one in charge, can kill the bee (which I’d rather not do) or let it out (which I always opt for), but this intervention takes time. Needless to say, by the time you handle the situation, the class has already fallen apart and you’ll need a lot of energy to restore some kind of ‘law and order’. When your student gets so sick that you need to call an ambulance in the middle of your class, you can bet your bottom dollar that you will never be able to resume the lesson. It’s so strange, you know … when the sick student is safe and in good hands of the paramedics, your teacher-self automatically wants to pick up where they left off because you feel you owe the other students. But it’s not possible and it’s actually insane to think you can simply rewind and start over. And let’s face it, it’s you who desperately needs the restoration, not the students.

It may sound too harsh but apart from being a control freak, I also like to mentally abuse myself. When I feel things have slipped out of control, I always ask myself: What would people think if they suddenly entered the classroom? What would they see? Chaos. Mayhem. Havoc. They’d simply see the opposite of what a normal lesson should look like and I’d probably have to explain myself, which automatically adds to my dissatisfaction with myself as a teacher.

But sometimes I’m kind to myself, which is happening more and more these days, so when things slip out of control (because kids are having too much fun during an activity or something has just upset them), I force myself to stop and quietly observe. In other words, I do not jump up and interfere right away as my true nature dictates to me, but I take a step back, metaphorically and literally speaking. And sometimes things settle down after a while without the slightest intervention of mine. The chaos in front of me gradually reshapes and remoulds itself into something perfectly harmonious. It’s just a bit noisier. Sometimes I realize that things are actually perfectly fine even though at first sight, they may look a bit disorganized. And oftentimes it is not chaos at all; I just see it that way because I’m such a despot.

This is not to say that I believe that all of a sudden, things can go all liberal. What I’m saying is that it’s often the teacher’s (read: me) focus and perspective that need to change. And although there has been a lot of self-flagellation in this post, I still believe I’m a good teacher and particularly my classroom management skills are my strongest suit. I just think that I could be happier and more content if I just let it be. 🙂

Better be prepared than sorry

So, we are currently finding ourselves in the post-covid situation. Well, whether it’s really post covid is a question I’d rather avoid elaborating on. One way or another, we are back at school having regular face-to-face lessons and it seems things have truly come back to normal at school. By normal I mean we are in the actual classrooms doing the things we used to do. But normal doesn’t necessarily mean the same.

Truth be told, last year around this time, we also felt things were getting back to normal. Except they weren’t. Schools were closed again. With this in mind, I can’t help constantly feeling on my toes. The other day I even caught myself looking at my timetable, drafting a potential Zoom schedule from my classes. In other words, I was considering all the possible combinations for the ever-dreaded scenario – the lockdown.

Not only that, I’ve been intentionally training my classes, especially the new ones, to navigate themselves in the online platform that we were using during the last lockdown. Ironically, although we spent quite a long period of time in the online realm, I’ve come to the conclusion that people (me included) tend to forget soon and quickly. For example, when I wanted to design a quick online activity for my classes back in September, for a moment, I was struggling to remember how things worked. For that reason, I thought students may have the same problem.

What I’m trying to say is that I decided to keep one foot in the online environment in case things went south again. So, we do tests on mobile devices rather than on paper. Some homework is online too. This blended approach has some advantages as well as disadvantages but overall, I’d say that there are more pros than cons. As always, it’s the notorious internet connection that makes our lives difficult. But so far, we’ve always figured things out. If, for instance, a student doesn’t have a phone at all (yes, there are some who don’t), they can borrow my laptop.

On a more positive note, one of the major advantages is that the feedback is instant. Also, in order to work properly, the quizzes need to be designed immaculately. So I tend to put a lot of thought into the actual design, especially into the decisions regarding what I want to test. As a result, not only do I feel more content and in control but I think the students feel the same way. The younger students told me explicitly that they actually like this approach. I mean, they are at school and they are allowed to touch their phones! Wow!

There’s one thing I’m still on the fence about – does this type of online testing allow for cheating? I obviously monitor the class all the time but I know there are ways to outsmart the teacher, so to speak. Students can make print screens and they can easily share their answers via some messaging platforms. They might google answers as well. Anyway, I’m aware of all these potentialities but I’ve actually never seen anyone cheating so far. So, fingers crossed for us.

Having said that, that doesn’t mean I’m some kind of an extremist as far as technology is concerned. I’m well aware of the fact that mobile technologies, and especially social media, can be truly damaging if not used wisely. But as I said earlier, we need to be prepared for the worst scenario. If students are stranded at home again, they will be forced to use mobile technologies no matter what we think about their negative effects. 

Store, bookmark, catalogue!

Although I like change and variety, I’m also drawn to perfection. This may seem like a great combination of personality traits, especially for a(n English) teacher, but it is a source of conflict too.

You know… I’ve always dreamt of colour-coded folders in which teaching materials would be neatly organized based on specific categories (year, level, skill, etc.). And then, before each lesson, I’d just run my finger over the spines of the files and I’d fish out the handout I needed.

Unfortunately, this strategy has never quite worked out for me. The thing is that first of all, there are simply too many categories that overlap and intersect so grouping and cataloguing become confusing. It may be feasible for someone but for me, it’s only a source of additional stress because, well, the result is never perfect. Also, I feel that maintaining such a system would be quite time-consuming since the materials go out of date too soon and if you want to move with the times, so to speak, they constantly need to be updated. And although specific types of materials, such as grammar sheets, don’t necessarily expire that quickly, the way I approach teaching grammar is constantly evolving so they may also become quite redundant at some point. However, the main reason I’ve given up on this ‘ideal’ way of storing materials is that these days, it’s simply futile to do so. Why? Because the Internet itself is a great catalogue where you can access everything quickly and easily without making too much mess on your desk.

Just think of all the fellow teachers out there who, now and then, recommend something one simply can’t resist trying out in class so there is no time (or no desire) left to keep doing the same old tricks. Also, the students will never be the same; their skills and needs are evolving too. While one group might have been quite happy with an activity handout five years ago, this year, another group at an allegedly same level may find it totally inappropriate. Plus, I sometimes feel like a cheater when introducing the same activity over and over again.

Anyway, the past couple of years have shown me that having stacks of paper folders and laminated cards is a touch obsolete and those materials I had collected over time were actually pretty useless during the pandemic. I do admit, though, that such a collection can be a source of inspiration and a backbone of your course, even during a remote teaching period, but I personally didn’t use them much, mainly because I couldn’t be bothered to bring them home from my office. 

So, as a result, instead of sticking to the safe old tricks, I had to widen my horizons. There was no other way. I had to step out of my comfort zone (oh, how I hate this phrase!) – I had to visit new websites and download new apps.

Well, times have obviously changed … but what has also changed dramatically is my attitude to teaching materials. Although the quality of the resources we use is definitely crucial, they are not (and cannot be) the part of the teaching process we spend most of our time and energy on. It’s primarily the student and our teaching skills that should take centre stage. In other words, it’s not important what kind of resources we currently own and in what form we store them, it is important to be flexible and creative when looking for suitable materials we need at a given moment. Subsequently, the same amount of creativity and flexibility will be needed when applying those materials in class. So, I believe it is the experience that we should store, catalogue or bookmark (i.e. remember), not the handouts.

Are we done with paper dictionaries?

When you enter our living space on the second floor of our family house, you’ll find yourself in the kitchen. Apart from the usual electrical appliances, there are five huge dictionaries sitting on a shelf near the window. You may be wondering why I keep them on display in the kitchen. Well, it’s because that’s where my small working space is (and because they are so big that they don’t fit in any cabinet), but also because seeing them there kind of makes me feel proud. Whenever a visitor enters the kitchen, they can immediately tell that I am someone involved in the English language. And judging by the sizes and amount of the books it’s almost certain that I am an English teacher. Add to that that on top of the pile of dictionaries there is a pair of reading glasses and I am made once and for all.

Anyway, the emotion stemming from other people’s assumptions about me owning five huge paper dictionaries tells me that it feels good to be an English teacher. Some may say that the teaching profession is not prestigious enough to feel that way but I’ve never suffered from an inferiority complex. I reckon it may be because I’m an ENGLISH teacher at a SECONDARY level of education. Or maybe it’s because I respect the ELT community myself and I simply believe we are worth it. We are good folks, we English teachers are.

So, my collection of dictionaries is, to a certain extent, a reflection of what I do but most importantly, what I like doing. The trouble is that now, they are a mere decoration and to be completely honest, I can’t even remember the last time I opened any of them.

Here’s the thing … back at uni they told us that real books were always more reliable than online sources. This was also true of dictionaries. They advised us to own at least one big monolingual dictionary to be considered proper English majors. So I own five now (two of them are bilingual dictionaries). By the way, I used to have even more of them but since some of them were duplicates, I donated them at some point.

So why is it that their primary function is to collect dust? Well, the reason is obvious. While at uni they could tell us that online resources may be second-class, the truth is they these days, they are more practical, up-to-date and quicker to work with than my ‘proper’ dictionaries. Plus, I don’t think they are deficient anyway and I have proof of that. I sometimes like to conduct a little experiment: I compare a paper dictionary entry with the entry available online (oh, that’s when and only when I actually open the dictionaries, nerdy me). Take the word putz around, for example. While it takes me a few seconds to find the meaning of the verb online, it takes me considerably more time to find it in my paper dictionaries (because even though flipping through the thin pages may feel good, it *is* simply more time-consuming). And guess what … my oldest dictionary doesn’t even list the entry. And while my more recent monolingual dictionaries do contain the expression and explain it in about the same way the online dictionary does, the amount of detail provided by the paper dictionary is obviously incomparable to the amount of information available online.

For example, what my paper dictionary doesn’t tell me is the fact that since 1800, the use of the noun putz has been on the increase. While one of the more modern dictionaries does mention what putz means in vulgar slang, the other one only says it means a stupid person. So, come to think about it, if you want to have a complete understanding of a word (and be really safe), you do need several paper dictionaries. Or you can just go online and have it all.

This brings me to a more serious matter; I have clearly demonstrated that I can make do without paper dictionaries. And so can my students. But here’s the thing … during their final state exam in English here in the Czech Republic, they are only allowed to use paper dictionaries. These are bilingual and of a small size. While the stronger students do not usually need those at all (they would probably be much better off with a more advanced, monolingual version anyway), the weaker students are totally lost when using them. For example, the Czech word svést (svézt) can either be translated into English as seduce or give a lift. So, in the worst-case scenario (and this really happened), the student may produce a sentence like: I can seduce you if you want instead of I can give you a lift if you want. My point is that the exam setting doesn’t reflect the real-life situation. In other words, students rarely use paper dictionaries (and thus can’t really work with them) but are encouraged to use them during their final exam when everything is at stake.

So, as a teacher I have several options; I can teach my students how to deal with the exam situation without a dictionary or I can prepare them for the fact that they may not be able to find what they want in the dictionary available (the latter option is, in fact, the same as the former one). So, during the production stages, I urge them to circumvent any unknown language item by using synonyms or replacing the item with what they already know. This, in my view, is a far more valuable strategy under the given circumstances than looking for a translation that may finally turn out to be totally inappropriate for a particular context.

All in all, to be able to work with a dictionary effectively, some practice, as well as experience, is needed. Also, the more advanced a student is, the more they can find out and thus the more they are likely to learn. So the growth is exponential. While a beginner will probably only mess things up when working with a dictionary, a C1 learner will learn an immense amount of information by researching just one expression.

But, back to my question … are with done with paper dictionaries? Well, it depends on who is using them; they are an invaluable source of inspiration for an ELT blogger but for a regular L2 learner, they may well be a waste of money (and time).

Extensive reading practice – thoughts and insights

The other day I watched this video I had originally come across on Russ Mayne’s blog. Actually, it was Sandy Millin who had drawn my attention to it first. Long story short, the video is an interview with Sue Leather and Jez Uden, who have a new book out on the topic of Extensive Reading and Motivation.

I should kick off by saying that before I saw the interview, I had definitely been well aware of the benefits of extensive reading in L2 learning/acquisition. I think I’d even heard about the study published by Patsy Lightbown Jez mentions in the interview which concludes that after one year, a group of students who had read extensively for 30 minutes every day without any further language instruction performed just as well as the controlled group who had only learned English with their teacher for 30 minutes a day through the audio-lingual method (the first group did equally well on all standards, except for writing, which started dipping at some point).

Now, this very notion has been a source of hope as well as anxiety for me for ages and I’ve wanted to write about it many times here on my blog; the notion that L2 learners can actually learn the language on their own, outside of the classroom, and in the light of it, our job seems to be quite redundant. Luckily, at some point, Jez dispels my nagging sense of potential redundancy by urging us, sceptics, to imagine what those students taking part in the experiment could have achieved if they’d had regular tuition in addition to their extensive reading practice. So, the answer is: we probably need both to achieve the desired effect.

Anyway, a few minutes into the video, I wonder, like many times before, why on earth is extensive reading not a regular practice in my classes. The word regular is paramount here and it in fact turns out to be the biggest problem. I mean, we can’t ask our students to read fifty pages at one go once in a while and still call this practice extensive reading, can we? By definition, extensive reading means reading large amounts of stuff and doing so pretty often. In other words, students need plenty of exposure to the language for them to become fluent readers and proficient language users. But how do you achieve this?

Luckily, halfway through the video, the interviewees have answered many of my pressing questions and addressed some of my doubts. Apparently, it’s not just me who is plagued with guilt regarding the lack of extensive reading practice in their teaching context. In fact, the reasons why teachers only dabble in extensive reading but don’t really engage with it seriously are well known. And, in all honesty, it’s comforting to know that to a great degree, these reasons overlap with my own rationale.

As Jez puts it, one of the most obvious constraints standing in the way of extensive reading practice is the cost, i.e. people have to give up something to commit themselves to extensive reading. Reading for at least 30 minutes a day is a time-consuming process. Unfortunately, teachers have to follow busy curriculums and prepare students for high-stakes exams. But it’s not only teachers who have busy schedules; students have heaps of homework to do and they have to get on with their own stuff like seeing friends or attending groups or clubs. So, they need to value reading enough to be willing to sacrifice something else. Also, teachers want to feel they want to be teaching (or want to be seen teaching) but extensive reading requires teachers to step back and allow people just to sit and read, which in fact may seem to be the opposite of teaching. Add to that the fact that extensive reading is harder to test than discrete items of grammar or vocabulary, for example. When studying grammar, students can physically see that they’ve learned a grammar point very quickly whereas, with extensive reading, they don’t see the gains that easily. It’s a much subtler process. This can be a real challenge, particularly in terms of motivation, as Sue argues. Finally, not every school or institution has enough materials for extensive reading. Obviously, there are some ways to sidestep the issue; for example, I really liked the idea mentioned by Jez of students buying graded readers (one student=one book) and then swapping them within their group.

I should be happy now, I guess. After all, we’re all in the same boat. But here’s my biggest concern, which for the most part comes from the realm of practicality. Although I do have enough graded readers at hand and I could easily start an extensive reading project right away, the truth is, I simply don’t know how to go about it. Here are some of the issues … Apart from the obvious wheres and whens, I feel like there always needs to be a follow-up stage after a certain amount of reading, e.g. a book. (This probably links to the teachers’ productivity issue mentioned above). What would this stage look like? I mean, do I ask students to read the same book each week or can everybody choose what they like? The latter option definitely sounds better but if they choose a plethora of different books, what happens next? Do we discuss them all? How? Does each student prepare a presentation of the book or a review? If so, will they present those orally or will I (we) read it? Such a phase may be quite time-consuming and, come to think about it, quite boring. You know, it’s undeniably a great experience to sit with a friend and chat about what we’ve recently read, and we could probably replicate this genuine process in the classroom. But …. the students are at different levels of proficiency, even though they are in the same class. Also, I normally choose to meet with friends who usually have similar tastes, but students may have totally different interests regarding genres.

The list of practical obstacles goes on and on. But what probably troubles me most is the fact that as a teacher, i.e. the coordinator of the extensive reading project, I should be a bookworm myself; I should be familiar with the books in question, even those the students would spontaneously bring to class. In other words, I feel like I’d have to be an expert in literature.

I could obviously decide on a less structured extensive reading course design; I could simply encourage my students to read as much as possible by offering them opportunities and suitable materials. Then I could just ask them what it was they’d read, tick a box and then we could go on to the next item. This happens in real life too: somebody tells you about a great book they’ve read and you go like “yeah, right, never heard of it”. But again, this raises a red flag regarding the teachers’ productivity and the measurability of the students’ progress.

To sum up, I’m all for extensive reading in L2. The trouble is that we are trying to take something very genuine (reading for pleasure) and place it in a somewhat artificial context (school). This is a hard nut to crack, in my mind (for me anyway).