Connecting the classroom to the world outside

As you can probably imagine, a not inconsiderable number of the presentations at the recent IATEFL conference in Liverpool revolved around technology – and (less frequently!) its use in ELT. On occasion when watching some of these sessions, I did start to feel as though I’d stumbled into a fairly poor advertising hour (“Have you heard about Brainshark? Well, it’s a great sight that could have wonderful application in the language classroom”) as I’m subjected to such strident pitches for sites that I often wonder if the presenters are on commission – and if not, then why not?! At other times, you get almost comic misrepresentations or misunderstandings of what certain sites may be able to do for you and for your students (“Scoop.It – a great site that helps you publish class magazines”), but without a doubt the single biggest claim often made to support the utilization of more tech in the language classroom is that it somehow helps to “connect” your classroom to “the real world”.


Now, I’m sure that I myself have been guilty on more than one occasion in the past of talking about “the real world” as somehow existing outside of – and in contrast to – the classroom, but let’s face it, it’s a daft construct, isn’t it? The classroom is as much a part of ‘the real world’ as the police station, the football stadium, the hospital or the newsroom. Students do not cease to be ‘real people’ simply because they step into the language classroom, and teachers are no less ‘real’ there either!

I was given pause to think further about all of this last week as I was went in to teach my Upper-Intermediate class on Monday morning, the day after the Boston bombings. Like most of you out there, I suspect, I suffer from the usual slow drift of students into class, despite the fact we have an institutional lateness policy that excludes students until the break time (I teach three-hour classes – from 09:00 to midday) if they turn up more than fifteen minutes late. As such, we usually kick off with some chatting and some reformulation of student output – or, if you prefer, what a certain strain of conference attendees have started referring to as ‘Dogme moments’, a phrase guaranteed to raise hackles!). Understandably, this often involves “the real world” impinging on the classroom as students want to discuss things they’ve seen or heard about outside over the weekend, etc. I was expecting something about the bombings to come up, but as it turned out several of the students hadn’t heard anything about it, simply because they don’t really keep up with the news, or if they do, it’s L1 news mainly focused on home. The one student who did seem to be up on the story simply said “Yes! Terrible! Terrible!” when I asked if folk had seen the news about it, and all we ended up with on the board as a result was the following:

Did you see the news about the bombings in Boston?

> Yeah, it’s awful, isn’t it?

Horrendous! And no-one has admitted responsibility yet, so they’ve got no idea who did it.

> Well, let’s hope they catch the culprits soon.

The underlined words, I gave the first letter of each and then paraphrased the meaning, in order to elicit from the group. They provided all of the words except for culprit (“I know what you mean, but I don’t know this word”), which I then gave then . . . and they then carried on chatting with each other about their weekends – trips to Cambridge, a musical someone had seen, the weather, a great new Japanese restaurant, and so on! The usual mish-mash of activities that students engage in over a London weekend. Some further reformulation occurred and at 9.15, we locked the door – metaphorically speaking, in case you were wondering – and got on with the class.

if you adhere to (one of ) the tech evangelist lines, and particularly the tech-Dogme nexus that I’ve touched on before, then perhaps this might have been a moment to follow the road to “the real world” and ‘zap in’ some content from the outside world. I’ve often seen it suggested that one of the great advantages of the ‘connected’ classroom is that the teacher is able to tap into students’ supposed interests in current affairs and the like, and at the click of a button, access content online that deals with these issues.

What the teacher then actually DOES with this content is less clear, in general, but let’s for a moment roll with this idea. Let’s assume that the flicker of interest that the bombings elicited was something I decided was worth pursuing and that, on a whim, I called up a BBC news report . . .  this one, for instance . . .

What does one DO with this? Perhaps I show the class it, and tell them to take notes on what they understood. They could then compare ideas in pairs or groups, and I could then round up, picking up on things they were struggling to say. None of these things are bad per se, but there are issues particularly to do with what (a) how much the teacher – and the students – ARE actually able to notice, in terms of new language (b) whether what we notice on the first couple of listens IS actually the most useful and worthwhile language to spend time looking at and (c) what on earth one THEN does with the video after all of this.

My own feeling is that one of the great advantages of published classroom material – at least the good stuff out there – is that it’s generally well graded and that there’s usually at least SOME focus on language contained within texts and that the teacher is able to sit down before the class and have a look at exercises they’ll be teaching – and tapescripts / readings they’ll be working with – and think about the language that’s available in therm to be taught. With ‘zapped in’ material, we’re left to rely on our wits and our intuition and noticing skills, and this places a great burden on the teacher. We often simply notice what’s unusual or strange on first listen. Try it yourself with the video clip above. Listen through and note down what you think you’d pick up on and think about teaching?

The first time I did it the words and phrases I picked up on were the finish line, cordoned off, a line of copy / copy and breaking news. Now, whilst these items will almost certainly be NEW for many students at Upper-Intermediate level, you don’t need to be a linguistic genius to realise that actually these may well not be the most USEFUL items in that particular listening. Far more fruitful to explore – and far harder to be aware of and to pick up on whilst doing this kind of thing ‘live’ – would be things like THEY’RE INVESTIGATING THE EXPLOSIONS / THEY’VE LAUNCHED AN INVESTIGATION INTO THE EXPLOSIONS . . . and to then explore words around INVESTIGATION: a thorough / police INVESTIGATION; they’re still pursuing their INVESTIGATION; the INVESTIGATION has revealed that . . . and so on.

In addition to all of this, there’s then the question of what one might do AFTER viewing this zapped in content? Ask the class to comment on and discuss how they feel about? well, you may very well STILL not get much more than “Terrible! Terrible!” out of them! Ask them to speculate about who may have carried it out? Good luck with that one! Usually a recipe for all manner of prejudices and conspiracy theories to pour forth – or else simple honesty along the lines of ‘How on earth should I know!’

So, yes, of course technology CAN bring content from the web into the classroom, but there are clearly issues about whether or not this is desirable, what it leads to in terms of teaching – and whether this is the most useful thing we could be teaching at this time, the load it places on teachers, the random accumulation of language it results in, the often fairly unsatisfactory conversations that then result and so on.

However, believe it or not, none of this is really the point I wanted to make today in this post! The above is really just an exercise in thinking through how conference claims about the ability of tech to ‘connect’ us to ‘the real world’ could pan in out in reality and in specific exercises. What I really wanted to focus on today was the fact that in reality, it’s surely the TEACHER and the STUDENTS that connect classrooms to ‘the real world’ – as we all live in both that world out there and the classroom simultaneously.

In my class last Monday, the other connection to the bombings actually came whilst we were doing a reading from OUTCOMES Upper-Intermediate based around an email from someone who’d been in Venice for the carnival. One exercise that followed the reading was encouraging students to extract certain lexical items from the text and looked like this:

D                  Find words in the email that mean the same thing as the words in italics in 1-8.

1                  It was very kind of Nina to let me stay at her house for free.

2                  The city was completely full of tourists.

3                  It’s not surprising most costumes look so good.

4                  The locals generally continue with traditional costumes.

5                  The Plague Doctor costume is quite scary and threatening and evil.

6                  The food is delicious, but high in calories.

7                  Venice is completely changed in a good way during carnival.

8                  People light and explode fireworks all the time.

Students scoured the text again to find the correct words. As they were doing this, I got some extra examples onto the board to show more about how to use some of the items. As usual, I left some words gapped so that these could be elicited as we checked things. I then put them in pairs to compare their ideas before rounding up and going through the answers (which were, in case you were curious, as follows: put me up, packed with, no wonder, stick to, sinister, fattening, transformed, set off). As I elicited the answers, I explained meanings, paraphrased, gave extra examples, contextualised usage and so on. Here’s just one section of the board by the time we’d finished:


“The real world” impinges here in all manner of different ways – as it does everyday as we work our way through the class coursebook! The comment about eating biscuits was a joke on both myself and a lovely Chinese guy I’m teaching, Xuhong, who insists on bringing a large packet of custard creams to class every day, many of which I then feel compelled to eat, resulting in both of us bemoaning our expanding waistlines!


The mobile network comment was clearly a reflection of the day’s news from Boston! Perhaps ironically, this then sparked more discussion than the initial conversation at the start of the class! There was some discussion about how this actually worked, what the mechanics of this were; the fact that the Madrid bombings had been set off by mobile led to a brief explanation of what these bombings had actually been, for those unaware of them; there was then considerable talk about how hard it must be for the rest of the city to function without mobile connectivity!

And then we moved on to some speaking, with students discussing festivals / carnivals they’d been to!

So my point here is that the idea that technology automatically ensures ‘connectivity’ with the outside (‘real’) world not only needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt – and critiqued and considered thoroughly, but that it also actually fails to take into account the ways in which teachers link what’s in coursebooks to what’s going on outside throughout our working lives, day in, day out.

26 responses

  1. Good article. Really made me think. In your context, where students are living in an English-speaking country, the need for an Internet link outside of class is less relevant than my context, Japan, where connecting with people abroad is the only chance some kids have of meaningful interaction in English. (No, kids in Japan will almost never talk about “real” stuff in English unless you hold them at proverbial gunpoint.).

    Having said that, I think there are compelling reasons to use the Internet for the kind of breaking-news related content you have written about. No, it is not graded. (But most graded stuff is boring as heck and mostly irrelevant to student interests. But I digress). Where news is great is that if you really break down just one article, about 30% of the keywords needed to understand the just and specific details will be recycled in just about any other news broadcast, blog post or newspaper article students will see for the next week. This means they are seeing a highly field-specific concentration of new language in a multitude of contexts over a short period of time. Combine that with classroom discussion after students have time to really get a handle on the topic, and you have just guaranteed that they will understand news articles of that or a similar topic field in the future.

    Anyway, glad to find this post as it’s something we talk about a lot here, too. Cheers!

    1. Hi Mike –
      Thanks for reading and for taking the time to post.

      As a coursebook writer, I’d obviously beg to differ on the claim that most graded material is boring as heck.
      I’d like to think we’ve done a fairly decent job with our own texts in Outcomes – and I know from doing experiments with groups of teachers and students, that if you get them right, folk actually cannot tell if something is ‘authentic’ or written specially for the language classroom. There are countless arguments to be put forward to justify why graded texts in a book aid learning better than externally sourced material, but perhaps that’s a post for another day!

      I actually used to do something quite similar to what you’re suggesting with the news, where I’d tape the BBC radio 4 news every morning before class, play it in my lessons, get students to take notes on what they heard and then round up with a collective retelling, with new language being fed in and focused on. Having spent a fair while doing that, I’m afraid I’d context your claim of 30% recycling, though. Conceivably, if you’re JUST following ONE story across a few days, and following it via the same site / news source – e.g., the BBC – then you may possibly get a degree of repetition, but if you’re looking at different stories, or even the same story via different sources, then you’re lucky if there’s any overlap at all. Don’t believe me? Go to YouTube and type in Boston bombings and watch any of the news clips that come up. Pretty much the only words that recur across a range of videos are bombings, suspect and police. It’s actually a very poor and time-consuming way of getting to grips with the core lexis needed to understand even one story.

      I’m not claiming that this always happens, but on a good day, what classroom material can – and I’d argue SHOULD – do is to shortcut this process by having units designed around the way certain topics such as terrorism, natural disasters, murders, political scandals, and so on are both spoken about in everyday discourse and also written about in journalese and academic writing.Texts can be prototypical and allow space for personalization; vocab exercises can condense key lexis.

      And the teacher can link the relatively general into the more locally specific or contemporaneous.

      Anyway, interesting points.
      I’ll try to find time later on today to add a few more thoughts!

    2. A couple of final points on your comment, Mike, which, though small, has clearly sparked off a fair bit of activity in the old grey matter here!

      Firstly, of course the Internet can provide links OUTSIDE of class , and I can understand why in your context, say, it might seem desirable to encourage students to pursue, those.

      Again, though, I think it depends what our goals are: if students don’t have a vast amount of time to spend on English, then I honestly think the vast majority of students anywhere in the world – and especially those at pre-Advanced level (i,e; MOST students!) would be better off doing workbooks that go with the coursebook they’re using, doing further vocab development from excellent things like Chris Gough’s English Vocabulary Organiser or reading graded readers. Any of these sources provides graded input that will consolidate and expand upon what students do in class in a far more tightly focused, outcomes-oriented, input-rich way than reading / listening to random Web-based sources. And besides, you can still have ‘meaningful interaction’ with a book or a graded article, surely? It’s just that the interaction is more internal! In fact, I often feel some of my best ‘interactions’ are as a result of reading: you often have a better class of ‘conversation’ that way, no?!

      Where the Web CAN be of benefit, I think, is in terms of PRACTICE: once students have done some self-study on useful, ELT-focused material, then if they still have time free in their weeks and want to practise, then great: go online, Skype people around the world, use Facebook, post on football forums or knitting forums or music forums, or whatever your bag is. Fine.

      In a sense, though, I think we’re better off worrying more about the INPUT students get, which is something we can control and have a major influence over, than the OUTPUT they produce, which is – in the long run – very much beyond our control and very much up to the individual students to sort out.

      1. Thanks for the well thought out replies! Wow!

        Regarding the grading issue, I was thinking more of graded readers than coursebooks. I also have a coursebook series over here in Japan that’s used fairly widely in the university system over here — and so I agree that grading is, we hope, not as boring as I painted it. lol But when I said that, I think I was thinking more of the typical shite books that are produced here in Japan by local publishers — it’s abysmal stuff. More than just being graded, it is not in any way English that a person would ever think of using beyond classroom practice. Yucky stuff!

        But you are correct that for learners, there is, indeed, authenticity in reading graded materials — graded readers, in particular. To a learner, it is still a story in English. And completing something like that builds confidence and fluency in reading. I never had those when I was learning Italian (I did a year in Florence), but instead found some books that were Italian books with English on the opposite page (for Italians learning English, I imagine). That helped me read without resorting to a dictionary. But I have to say that reading non-graded stuff is still more enjoyable for me than any kind of stuff that’s made “easy” for me. When I read a book in Italian or Japanese, I think, “Look ma! I can read Japanese!” It’s challenging at times, but I think that reading non-graded stuff is a goal we should be striving for.

        I supposed that my own experiences as a learner also affect how I feel about bringing in current materials from the Internet. I remember in one of my earlier years in Japan — about 18 years ago now — the Aum Shinrikyo did their sarin gas attack in the subway near my flat. I didn’t understand the news reports on TV. So I got a newspaper and a Subway sandwich and spent the next 4 hours in the park with my dictionary figuring things out. And sure enough, most of the articles I encountered from that point on…once I understood the primary content words associated with that kind of attack…were mostly understandable without a dictionary. I still used one as I was a vocabulary geek. But I could understand more or less without one. And, significantly, it was the news reports that I could suddenly understand. And with each report I read or heard, I was reinforcing my understanding. And since everybody was talking about it, I was able to participate using the right words for the convo, rather than what most L2 learners are forced to do, which is to try to get by with Japanese at “my level.” And I still believe that this cross-pollination of authentic reports that we are bombarded with when a major event happens is one of the easiest ways to give students a taste of the real world beyond the classroom.

        And on that note, I gotta get back to…you guessed it…the next book I’m working on. lol Awesome talking with you about this stuff!

      2. Hi again Mike –
        Thanks for the extra comment and continued discussion.
        Interesting stuff – and funny what emerges out of posts that initially seemed to me to be about something slightly different!
        Blogging can be just like teaching in this respect!

        I know exactly what you mean about the demented books that students are subjected to in certain markets, and have seen plenty of those Japanese examples with my own eyes. I think the issue then becomes NOT one of abandoning all courseboks because of the bad ones, but discussing how we can make better ones!

        In terms of authenticity, there’s nothing new in what I’m saying. I think it was back in 1980 or thereabouts that Henry Widdowson first made the distinction between authentic and authenticated, and pointed out that many authentic texts may well NOT get authenticated by the students in the classroom, whereas scripted and graded texts might. IN short, it’s not to do with whether the text is authentic in a native-speaker sense or not; it’s to do with how it hits the students, what’s done with it and where it leads in terms of language learning, discussion that emerges around it and so on. Given this, I think the arguments in favour of (well-written, graded, crafted, meaty) texts written specially for classroom use far outweigh those in favour of raw, uncooked authentic texts.

        You’re right that for good students, a diet of authenticity is the ultimate aim, but as with many things in life, the destination is not the road!

        In terms of learning to talk about – and understand conversations / news reports about – for instance, terrorist attacks, I’d still argue that good materials can shortcut this process by focusing on high-frequency language in a clear, condensed kind of way and then allowing space for personalisation, wherein the teacher can add extra language needed for students to word their own world. For example, you could do something like this one that I’ve just bashed out:

        Talking about terrorism

        Complete the short stories with the words above each one:

        1 Explosion scare evacuated

        Sorry I’m late. There was a bomb ………… in the underground station and they …………………………… the place.
        > Yeah, I’ve just been reading about it on the Web. Apparently they carried out a controlled ……………………….. once everyone had left.
        Wow! Seriously? That’s crazy!

        2 Independence injured attack motive

        Some terrorist organisation carried out an ……………… in my city last year.
        > Really? That’s awful! Were there many ………………… ?
        Well, it could’ve been much worse, but five people died and maybe 100 were seriously ……………… .
        > That’s horrific! What was the ……………? Do you know?
        Yeah, they were a separatist group fighting for ……………… for their region.

        3 achieve kidnapped extremist

        I was reading in the paper about that poor guy who was ………….. and killed by that ………….. group.
        > Yeah, I know. It’s horrific, isn’t it? And so pointless. Honestly, what do they think it will ………….?
        I don’t know. I guess it’s all just publicity for them, isn’t it.

        Now tell a partner about any terrorist attacks you’ve heard of – in your country or elsewhere.
        How much do you know about who carried them out – and what their motives were?

        That kind of thing just compresses the useful input and cuts out the extraneous stuff, making it more manageable for students – and easier to teach for teachers.

        Not that it’s exactly the kind of thing you see in many coursebooks, of course, but if we all carry on fighting the good fight!

      3. That is actually a great exercise for initial vocab training. And for me, the next step would be authentic reports from the real world to make it relevant 🙂 The best of both worlds!

      4. Whereas for me, Mike, the next step would be SCRIPTED ‘fake’ news reports written to ensure they included as much of the language taught through this exercise as possible!
        I’d also like them NOT to be linked to any specific time, place or group, to retain a degree of openness, if you like.
        THEN I’d get students to talk about similar stories they’d heard, and rework their output into further board-based input as a round-up.

      5. Well, we seem to approach things in very different directions. I avoid “fake” as much as possible. I think authentic can be retooled and is much more relevant to learners. It connects language to the real world. My books are all based on a genre-based approach, and any model conversation in there was originally an unscripted recording of two (or more) people doing whatever real-life task was the foundation of the unit.

        I think you go at the things the other way. I read in your FB page somewhere that you really found the Lexical Approach to have changed the way you look at language teaching. So I think you’re more of a bottom up, discrete-point-in-linear-fashion teacher…I’m more of a top down, throw-them-in-and-teach-them-to-swim kind of teacher. lol Anyway, research is pretty clear that method doesn’t matter in terms of helping students achieve goals provided a teacher knows their method and is committed to it, which I think we both are 🙂

      6. Interesting comments. I think we may agree in a sense, and that maybe my choice of the word ‘fake’ does a disservice to what I mean.

        Once you start ‘retooling’ so-called authentic texts they automatically cease to be truly ‘authentic’ in a sense anyway, especially if the retooling involves grading and trimming of extraneous language / cultural reference. The way I think about writing ‘fake’ texts for classroom material is to rot them very much in realities of the world out there, to be informed by real news stories, anecdotes, articles, and so on, but to ensure they’re both graded appropriately for the level, so that students don’t waste time on trying to learn things of limited surrender value at this stage, but also to ensure recycling of things already covered – and pre-cycling of things that will recur later on.

        I’d also suggest – as I’ve probably said already (and if I have, forgive me my ailing memory!) – that if well written, it’s hard to tell a ‘fake’ from something ‘authentic’.
        What would you have said this one was, for example, taken from an Advanced book?

        Global efforts to tackle the spiraling problem of HIV/AIDS in Africa and the Third World are being undermined by the continual migration of doctors and other healthcare workers to developed countries. A recent report condemned Britain and other governments for their reliance on overseas doctors and nurses to cope with the increased demands on their health services as a result of aging populations in the western world.
        The report stated that while Sub-Saharan Africa currently needed one million more healthcare workers to deal with its own problems, in many countries numbers were actually going down. This was in spite of those countries increasing the number of doctors they were training.

        As for conversations, it’s obviously vital that students do get exposure to how conversations commonly work, but as soon as you’re asking folk to record conversations about particular topics, that’s already ‘faking it!
        We started out doing this years back when working on drafts of what went on to become INNOVATIONS, and in the end, we got loads of recordings based around particular themes / topics / genres – and simply mined them all to extract the most recurrent and what we hoped would prove to be useful chunks and expressions and features. Thus, the scripted ‘fake’ could actually be seen as a heightening or condensation of reality.

        One other thing to reiterate here, I suppose, is that ultimately, as I said in the original post above, the thing that always really connects language to the real world is the teacher, and what they do with what’s there in their material.

        As for The Lexical Approach, yeah, that’s very much where I come from in terms of my approach.
        It does mean that I essentially see linguistic development and competence in terms of the accumulation of items / chunks / collocations / expressions.
        Can’t see how else you can really measure progress otherwise.
        Indeed, I’d suggest that things like the Cambridge suite of exams recognize this and base their constructs of proficiency very much on testing and measuring how much language a student knows.

        My worry with throwing students in at the deep end has always been (a) they might drown! (b) even if they swim, what they acquire along the way may not as useful to them as what they COULD HAVE been learning in that same stretch of time.

      7. Well, the problem with equating linguistic development as a measure of “items / chunks / collocations / expressions” is exactly why some people score great on the TOEIC but are totally unable to communicate appropriately. There’s so much more to language than just a banked sum of parts.

      8. But surely the fact that some folk score well on proficiency tests yet remain only able to communicate in a limited manner does not mean that the converse is true: that those who score poorly are somehow BETTER able to communicate! In general, those who speak better – and, come to think of it, those who read, listen and write better to – are those who know most language.

        The fact that there are other things to be aware of and adept at – genre and register, punctuation and paragraphing in writing, say, or how words sound when said quickly, or with different accents, or bled into other words, when listening – doesn’t preclude the fact that FIRST you still need to know the language that is contained within the writing or listening in order to be able to process it.

      9. Well, let me ask you this. I’m guessing that being in Europe you’ve learned at least one other language as an adult to a high level of fluency. Aside from the starting steps of learning the basics, did you rely on graded and discrete point materials to master the language? Or did you end up figuring out a lot of it just by interacting and learning what the language threw at you as you came across it?

      10. My main foreign language is Indonesian, Mike, weirdly enough, due to the fact it was the first country I lived in once I’d started teaching . . . and it’s also where I met my wife!
        I speak at around Upper-Intermediate level, I guess, but read much more poorly, mainly due to the fact that slogging through newspapers and magazines and websites is an incredibly hard slog . . . because I keep having to look up endless words, due to the ungraded nature of the material!
        I’ve often wished that there were things like the wonderful ENGLISH VOCABULARY ORGANISER by Chris Gough available in Indonesian!
        It’d be of great use to me.
        Ditto graded readers!

        I think actually what happens is many students do what I do: avoid too much reading of authentic sources as the overload is too extreme!

      11. I think we’re never going to see eye to eye about My point is that with your Indo, it’s exactly looking up the words that provides a lot of the natural grading and lexical frequency. There is no such thing as a word that is “harder” than another. I mean, “have” provides a lot more challenges to 2nd language learners due to its multiple usage than, say, “ubiquitous” might. The former, however, would show up in context all over the place, and that frequency would guide the learning.

        As for being a hard slog, it’s getting easier now with technology. Looking up words in any language can be done in seconds with a mobile app. So you can keep everything in authentic contexts based on the things you want to read — as opposed to the bulk of graded work, which typically is prepared by a teacher or course-writer in advance and reused with a wide variety of learners.

        Let’s also keep in mind that even in a perfect world where somebody tailor made vocab lists for you, learning that stuff is still a slog. There’s no real way around that. And if you think Indo is tough, try it in a language that has a non-alphabetic script. It brings whole new meaning to the word, Slog. lol

        But it’s in these lists that lies the problem…the way kick-ass language learners go about things tends to be a combination of grammar study, immersion and vocab crunching of context based stuff.And I suspect the reason people are successful is because they do not, in fact, rely on lists. They just learn what they need, remember it, and move on. I mean, as Stevick once wrote, “If you want to forget something, put it in a list.”

        What we do in class with graded work is more geared to what makes teaching and learning more efficient — but less relevant as we are rarely able to tailor make content that totally matches what all of our learners want to read, write or speak about.

        And no, I’m not saying I have an answer to this. My own books, by definition, are meant to be applied to the masses. They are not needs driven. But I think we need to be aware that our course books are a far cry from the optimal learning environment in which people learn in authentic contexts — preferably with the help of a sympathetic bilingual who can speed up the process by giving definitions and explanations of how to do the language on the fly.

      12. You may well be right that we won’t end up seeing eye to eye, but what the hell.
        It’s always interesting to talk through where one stands, and to see if the conversation changes your position at all.
        That’s what we’re all here for, after all.

        Well, firstly, I think we’re using the word GRADED in different ways. I don’t see how looking up words I don’t understand in a text from an Indonesian newspaper article or website – and as I said, there are usually MANY such words – provides “natural grading’ – or lexical frequency! The fact that the texts are ‘authentic’ by definition means they’ve NOT been graded, which in turn means they’ve not been written for learners of the language, but for people who are already fluent users. As a result, I spend time learning words that may be of relatively low frequency within the language itself and thus not rally worth the time spent on them!

        With regard to words being equally hard – or easy – to learn, I think this also kind of misses the point.
        It’s not how hard a word is to learn; it’s how useful a word is to learn that’s important – how much surrender value one gets out of it.
        What I mean is that you’d be better off learning a word like RESTORE than, say, RESTATE.
        The former is a three-star word in the dictionary, whereas the latter is unstarred.
        Something around 80% of all spoken and written text is made up of the most commonly used 2500 words in the language, so surely these have to be given priority – what they mean and how they work with other words.
        Graded work will (at least theoretically!) ensure more focus on frequent words and more recycling of the most common language, as well as avoidance of less frequent and less useful items.
        Given that language learning IS such a slog, surely it makes sense for the effort to be focused on that which will be of most utility?

        What else? Not sure technology makes it any easier myself. I think a lot of online dictionaries are essentially knock-offs based on plagiarism of better sources and rarely offer definitions as well graded as those by legit publishers designed for learners. look at the dictionaries on things like to see what I mean! Dreadful stuff that I wouldn’t want my learners using. If you meant apps based on legitimate dictionaries, then I don’t really see these as any easier or more difficult than using a paper dictionary, to be honest, apart from their portability perhaps. The issue THEN remains which words are you spending time on and why.

        What else? well, as you said HAVE provides more challenges than a word like UBIQUITOUS precisely because it’s so much more common and collocates so much more widely.
        It’s far ’emptier’ in pure semantic terms, as its meaning depends on the words it’s used with.
        I’d suggest this means it’s far more worth spending time on – looking at how it bundles together with other words and wit grammar – than a relatively low frequency word like ubiquitous, which incidentally is NOT a starred word, so not in the 7500 most frequent!

        Anyway, have to take the kids off to the cinema, so saved by the clock!
        More later.

  2. What struck me about some of the tech-related stuff at IATEFL (which I only saw online) was how little most of it had to do with learning language. I saw one sample task which asked learners to share a photo on their mobiles, for example. Ok, interesting perhaps but there didn’t seem to be any mention of what they would learn (in terms of English) by doing that or how that is any different than simply bringing photos to class to share and discuss. The implication was that this was a useful task because it used technology and that somehow using technology is ‘the answer’, rather than being another tool to help learning.

    1. I think you’re right, sadly, Chris. We seem to be at a stage where conferences are keen to appear in tune with the technological advances going on all around us, and so heavily back talks which address tech, and yet many of them do seem to be tech for the sake of it, and to be based, as you say, on the assumption that any tasks that utilize tech must be inherently interesting and motivating, irrespective of their language aims or of how they fit into a broader programme of study.

      I’ve long felt that one of the biggest problems with ELT is that it’s still so recipe-obsessed, and that rather than attempt to implement theories of SLA and of language in a principled, thorough manner that impacts upon our practice as a whole, teachers too often tend to be far more interested in picking up new tricks to try out on a Monday morning. Tech seems to be the area that’s now providing a slew of those recipes.

      If you’re talking about the task I’m thinking of, which I also watched online, then what was particularly mad about it was that there was a time limit imposed, so that in essence it just becomes a race to see who can manage their photo gallery the fastest, supposedly to show competence in ‘mobile literacy’! Surely the whole point of something like this should be to MAXIMIZE talking, if you’re going to do it!

      Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against the use of such tech tricks per se: I just feel they HAVE TO be tied much more into a language goal, a sane outcome, and to be linked to previously taught language. For example, in OUTCOMES Pre-Intermediate, we end one double-page spread with this:

      A Either draw simple pictures of the three people or, if you have photos of them on a mobile phone, use those. Show the pictures to your partner. Your partner should start by asking: Who’s that? and should continue the conversation by asking at least four more questions about each of the three people.

      But this follows a whole load of vocabulary for describing people you know (both nouns such as neighbour, colleague and flatmate AND adjectives like clever, caring, open and creative – all two- or three-star words in the dictionary, incidentally!); there’s then a listening where students hear other people talking about friends in mobile phone photos; this is followed by basic revision of question forms and common questions like Do you get on well? / How old is she? / What does he do? and so on . . . and finally something on giving short natural answers that don’t repeat ALL the grammar of the question.

      The discussion of photos (or drawings, of course) is then a chance for students to try and put all of this into practice themselves.

      So fine to do it, but as you say, let’s see some thought paid to the bigger (language) picture, please!

      1. Agreed.It’s odd that in the state sector, from what I have seen at primary level, technology is used as a tool to aid learning, not as some kind of magic bullet. In my daughter’s class they have an IWB, for example, but only use it for certain tasks. They have tablets but again they are used when they will facilitate learning. ELT could learn a lot from this sector I feel. In our context, I have watched people spend hours making IWB flipcharts, which did not seem to have any more benefit than powerpoint or even old-fashioned boardwork. And I have watched loads of these presentations which seem to suggest that technology is the answer without any research evidence to support it.

      2. ELT has a long history of misplaced faith in magic bullets, though, doesn’t it?

        Perhaps it’s a reflection of the stark reality – languages are hard to learn and take a long time to get anywhere near mastering – but we’ve always sought short cuts: grammar is the short cut, immersion is the short cut, skills are the short cut . . . and now tech is the new salvation!
        Pure snake oil, of course, as whatever way you slice it, students still have to sit down and do some learning at some point, but tech promises fun, escapism, projects, games, flashing lights . . . all those things CELTA courses teach one to love!

        As my colleague Andrew Walkley said recently about tech use in the classroom, it’s always worth asking yourself if a NON-tech way of doing what you’re doing couldn’t be just as effective, if not more so. Not a very sexy message, though, I fear, and sexy is what conferences and marketing folk thrive on.

  3. Jonny Lewington | Reply

    I agree completely that the classroom is part of the real world, and that simply by having learners and a teacher there, you are automatically filling the room with knowledge of the real world.

    I do think that videos can stimulate debate though, but they have to be more punchy than a news report about the marathons. When you think about it, there’s really very little discussion to be had out of the bombings. Try something emotional: a crying mother, a dog being experimented on, a spoiled sixteen year old celebrating her million pound birthday party. A quick video can really stimulate emotions before a debate and make it more passionate. Good language learning opportunities are likely to result from a passionate debate!

    As to your question, my instant response to what I would do with this video would be to keep stopping it as its going, ask a comp question, let them listen again to that specific part if necessary, get their answers then carry on, going into any language which came up from this process. That way you are only going in to language which a) they don’t already know, and b) is important for understanding the text. Still, I wouldn’t use the video in a class where most students weren’t interested in the news!

    1. Hi Jonny –
      Thanks for taking the time to comment. Always appreciated – and what really makes this all worthwhile and interesting from my end!

      Glad we’re agreed that classrooms are ALREADY connected to the real world, whatever that means, irrespective of any tech that may or may not be utilized therein!

      I’m obviously not denying that videos out there CAN be zapped in and CAN create debate or discussion on occasion. That’s patently true.

      I guess I’d just return to the questions my trainees always get sick of me asking, which is “But WHY do you want to use this particular clip? What’s your LANGUAGE GOAL? What do you want the OUTCOME to be?” If you’ve got good, clear answers to those questions, zap away to your heart’s content!

      That said obviously discussion and debate can also be sparked by simple chat as the class warms up or by coursebook questions, too, so it’s certainly not something that’s the preserve of zapped-in content!

      Finally, your ideas on how to exploit or use the video text in class are patently sane, but I’d still return to my initial concerns, I suppose: is this language that’s new for them in this – or indeed any – particular ‘authentic’ text really worth spending time on? Will it recur later on in the course? If so, how? Is it high enough frequency – or does it have a high enough surrender value – to merit attention? And might there not be language therein which students DO already understand in the context they’re encountering it in, which may still be more worthy of time spent on it in order to expand upon what students can already do with it? And to close, how well will any teacher, even the highly experienced and linguistically sensitive ones, be able to deal with such complex questions when having to process the zapped in text on the spur of the moment? Very, very big ask, in my humble opinion.

      1. Jonny Lewington

        “Will it recur later on in the course? If so, how? ”

        In my lessons, it some of it would recur the next morning on the daily vocab test and some of it would recur the next Friday on the end of week progress test 🙂

        I get your point though. Surrender value is an issue. I actually wouldn’t normally focus on the language of a text without planning it, mainly for the reason that I think it looks bad on behalf of the teacher, but also because you need to think about what they need to learn. So yes, I guess we agree that zapping in authentic texts then randomly teaching language from them is not a great idea.

      2. How do you do the vocab tests Jonny?
        Do you have one set format you use?
        or do you use different things on different days?
        Would be interested in seeing how you do things.

        Obviously, explicit recycling and revision of vocabulary covered is a sensible and worthy thing.
        I begin almost all of my classes with some kind of retrospective glance like this too.

        In terms of material, though, my point would simply be that as a coursebook writer I KNOW I’ve ensured consistent grading, pre-cycling and recycling throughout the books and across the series, and so whatever any particular teacher may or may not do themselves to offer additional revision, the material itself still facilitates repeated exposure in a way that’s simply impossible with repeated use of ‘authentic’ material.

        Interesting that you’d not focus on language of a text without planning it.
        Obviously, I think that’s very sensible of you.
        The idea of anyone – even a really linguistically-sensitive teacher – having to deal with language live as it’s streaming out is just wrong, I think personally.
        Amazing to see it’s still put forward as a viable option by folk out there, though!

  4. Hi Hugh,

    A colleague of mine sent me the link to your blog and I find your article and website very interesting and engaging. I am the chief editor of a magazine aimed at teaching English as a second language trough bilingual education and am wondering if you’d be interested in writing something for the magazine. Information can be found at I look forward to your response!

    Patrick de Boer

    1. Hi Patrick –
      Many thanks for getting in touch and for finding me here.
      Glad you’ve been enjoying what you’ve found here.
      Have had a look at the website for the CLIL magazine – and very impressive it is too.
      I have to say, I still have grave doubts about the whole CLIL project, though, especially after having seen Anthony Bruton’s fairly damning overview of the current evidence and research at IATEFL last year!
      That said, I do have a piece of translation that might work for your context.
      Let me know if something along those lines might be of interest.
      Oh, and it might be easier to email me directly:
      Hope to hear word sometime soon.

  5. […] As you can probably imagine, a not inconsiderable number of the presentations at the recent IATEFL conference in Liverpool revolved around technology – and (less frequently!) its use in ELT. On occ…  […]

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