Maybe not abject failures, but…


Well, I have about a million things to do so that explains why I am blogging.

I had my first experience of teaching more than one person at a time online last week. Here are some of my reflections.

  • Students don’t know what to do in the first week of class and that is compounded by a modality of lesson delivery that they are just not used to. This is one the things that causes so much time to be taken up with stuff.
  • Peer review on bits of paper is far easier than using the Moodle module to do it. Could I have done it with Google Docs? Potentially, but that is going to be relatively new to students as well, and they don’t all know one another’s email addresses. Having a Moodle dropbox where it’s just dropping it in and the selection of reviewers and reviewees would be so much easier. Unfortunately, it isn’t quite as user friendly as I had imagined. It’s not useless, but I will have to get more familiar with it.
  • There are still checkboxes and settings in various software to check and it’s something that I need to sort out and be less adrenaline filled and more attentive to.


Photo by Pineapple Supply Co. on

To understand more deeply what I am going on about here, you should read Geoff Jordan’s blog post, and Mura Nava’s blog post first.

Collocations are one of the things that teachers get tasked to teach often, mainly because collocations are one of the things that appear in books often. I reckon it’s because collocations lend themselves to matching exercises and gap fills rather well. I think both the materials teams and teachers mean well.

The problem is how to get a ton of collocations in your brain to recall almost instantaneously. How do you prioritise the ones to teach and the ones to avoid? It’s the problem that underlies Geoff Jordan’s frequent criticisms of The Lexical Approach. Geoff dismisses Hoey’s work on lexical priming as poorly thought out. I don’t, but nor do I advocate a lexical approach, either. The way I understand Hoey is that words that are frequently used together give us an expectation of being together. For example, how would you finish the utterance “I fancy a ham and pineapple…”?

Nosebleed? (That was the first noun that came to mind.) Pizza? Probably the latter, because it fits due to both our experiences of the world as well as the semantics of the grammar. Lots of work by people at or from Kutas Lab (particularly Kutas & Hillyard, 1980; Bentin et al 1993; Lazlo, S. & Federmeier, 2008; Van Petten et al 1999.) has looked at these semantic expectations in reading, and some in listening, and brain scans showed that when the semantic expectation is violated, our brains produce a much larger N400 event-related potential (ERP), basically a negative electrical charge about 400ms after the stimulus, than when the expectation is met.

In a really interesting, long, quite technical article that I had to read for my MA dissertation, Nick Ellis (2006) uses psychological cueing as the foundation of his theory of learning a second language. Basically, if you see X happen shortly before Y, you associate X and Y. Cues can be stronger or weaker depending on how often them being experienced coincides for the learner. This is where I think Ellis overlaps with Hoey, and the Kutas lab work. I think it also has a lot of ramifications for teaching and learning.

Unlike Geoff, I am not quite so pessimistic about the collocation/colligation problem, or even thinking about the need for something as complex as construction grammar. Think about needs of students, think about the kinds of language experience they are likely to need, make it as understandable as possible, and cover the most commonly occurring items as often as possible – and by items I mean phonological as well as lexical and syntactical. This should help build up psychological cues.

Is it a perfect system? No, it is not. Rarely, if ever, does classroom language teaching come close to the ideal of learning a language as a child. But, the theory says it is likely to work, with some hiccups along the way. Some of the bits of language that are not salient (easily paid attention to) could fall by the wayside. There might be interventions by teachers here as when it is deemed necessary.

So, if we teach in a naturalistic way we should build up cues, no matter how long that takes, and without worrying if they are going to be anywhere near as strong as first-language cues. That, I think, is a realistic goal for language teaching.


Bentin, S., Kutas, M., and Hillyard, S. A. (1993) Electrophysiological evidence for task effects on semantic priming in auditory word processing, Psychophysiology 30(2), 161-169.

Ellis, N. (2006) Language acquisition as rational contingency learning. Applied Linguistics 27, 1-24.

Hoey, M. (2005). Lexical Priming. Routledge.

Jordan, G. (2020) Anybody seen a pineapple. What do you think you’re doing. April 21st 2020.

Kutas, M. and Hillyard, S. A. (1980) Reading Senseless Sentences: Brain Potentials Reflect Semantic Incongruity. Science, 1980 (207). 203-205.

Lazlo, S. & Federmeier, K.D. (2008) Minding the PS, queues, and PXQs: Uniformity of semantic processing across multiple stimulus types. Psychophysiology, 45 (2008), 458–466. DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-8986.2007.00636.x

Nava, M. (2020) Why the pineapple. EFL Notes. April 22nd 2020.

Van Petten, C., Coulson, S., Rubin, S., Plante, E., & Parks, M. (1999). Time course of word identification and semantic integration in spoken language. Journal Of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, And Cognition, 25(2), 394-417. doi:10.1037/0278-7393.25.2.394

How can I Teach Listening Online?

So, the last post was about how I think your employer should be paying you appropriately if you are using your own computer and internet, electricity, software, etc. Does this mean I want your lessons to be rubbish? No, it does not.

Somebody from one of my workplaces said in a group email “How can I teach listening online?”

Some people say pre-listening, while-listening, post-listening.

I am not those people.

Schema activation: maybe

If it would be normal in the situation that you are going to have your listening task/activity in to be anticipated, you might want to get your students to think about what they already know about the topic and what they would expect from a talk or conversation about the topic between the types of people involved. However, this might not always be the case. I know that the ‘normal way is brainstorm and predict’, but everyone is told this and it doesn’t exactly seem to be bringing about a world of amazing listeners, does it?

So what can we do instead?

You can throw in a bit of micro-listening (Field, 2008). This is likely to make students think about what’s coming up, or even why you chose that particular tiny clip. You do it by faffing about with the start and end bits of the YouTube clip. See below where it says iframe then the link address? Well at the end of the link is a ?start=16&end=17. This means the clip starts at 16 seconds and ends at 17 seconds. You can also mess with this in Moodle. You can even do this directly in your browser.

<iframe src="" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen"></iframe>

Then what?

Well, what do you want your students to be able to do? Do you know whether they can’t?

With TED talks, I often have students to take lecture notes and summarize. The notetaking method is basically that I have detailed here, but I check notes in class. If I am teaching online, I suppose I can only have students show me notes in breakout rooms or send me photos and I can give feedback. This is going to be a challenge, I think, but you do what you can, don’t you.


I do actually do post listening tasks. I try to get students to react to what they just listened to. Sometimes this is not very expansive because listening is a bit tiring due to the amount of attention involved.

I also always have students reflect on what was problematic/difficult in the listening and why. I try to find that part in the listening text. If it’s a YouTube video I open the transcript and search for the key word, which usually helps; if it’s a different text with a handwritten transcript, it’s longer; if it’s a video from a popular paid streaming site, which I would never recommend you use because of legal issues, you would just have to skip and estimate). You can then give feedback about how you would go about getting that bit of listening (or even whether the effort is worth the payoff).

Hopefully this is helpful. If there is anything you disagree with, leave a comment. If you have questions, leave a comment. May the odds of your students decoding listening texts forever be in your favour!


Who’s Paying?

Everyone I know seems to be teaching online right now. It’s not exactly a surprise: nobody wants to miss work, and nobody wants their students to miss out on learning.

This is all very nice because it means that we get some sense of normality. However, in among all this, have we further normalised the use of our own belongings for work? I am paid for my time, in that I am salaried, but most jobs don’t provide laptops or WiFi for their teachers. My main job has provided me with a tablet-laptop hybrid, which is – as far as I am aware – unusual for people on a teaching only contract.

Are all these institutions providing the infrastructure or equipment needed for online teaching, or just saying “Get on Zoom and teach a full timetable”?

Between the City and the Forest

I’m not self isolating, per se, but just doing my normal antisocial hermit thing in the break between autumn and spring semesters here in Japan. I was reading Deleuze & Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus for a reference in an article I have been writing, and the book kind of took over all of the other things I was supposed to be reading. I came for the rhizomes and stayed for the nomads. It’s quite hefty, and I’m not finished yet, but I have loads of ideas about it.
Huh? This isn’t the first blog post that I have written that references oblique references to French philosophers of the mid-20th Century. But we’re about to get less oblique.
One of the whole things about Deleuze & Guattari is that they are talking about society. They talk about dualism and binaries and segmentalism, but they also talk about multitudes and individuals. How do we get away from hierarchical structures? How have people got away from hierarchical structures? That was one of the things that got me interested in Relational Cultural Theory, as well.
We have our stratified, hierarchical society, typified by the State and the City. If we apply this to ELT, we can say that we have The Establishment/Big ELT (big publishers, big organisations, supporters of the status quo). We also have those outside of the City, in the Forest, which operates in a less obviously stratified, hierarchical way, but is a constant opponent of the city, though the city relies upon it for resources otherwise unavailable within the City walls. I imagine the Forest being the people working away with quietly innovative ideas. Academia, perhaps. Universities, researchers, some teacher trainers who don’t really get on with The Establishment. Innovative, perhaps oppositional, but maybe not heard so much. Because they’re in a metaphorical Forest!
The Forest basically opposes the City, because you have the City taking resources; the City opposes the Forest, because its dwellers are essentially the barbarians at the gates. Except not. Because there is a symbiosis here. The City needs the Forest for certain times and certain services, as the Forest needs the City for the things it needs but doesn’t have. And then you have those who are neither of the City or the Forest. Deleuze & Guattari call them Nomads. They have smooth space, they are non-hierarchical, they are a mass of independents, sometimes clustering, sometimes taking off out of the cluster, moving to the centre, moving to the edge. They also have need of both the Forest and the City. But both the Forest and the City need the Nomads, because they have the War Machine. This War Machine is not always a war machine – Deleuze and Guattari are highly metaphorical, which makes reading them heavy going at times – but something that the City can use to become even more powerful (or the Forest can use to usurp the City’s hegemonic position).
But who are the Nomads of ELT? I don’t know, but perhaps it’s people like SLB Coop with their Task-Based Language Teaching Course (a War Machine) and online learning resources (an array of War Machines) within a small organisation doing big things, with members moving between independent and group work; people like Paul Raine making his highly professional Apps 4 EFL (a War Machine) in his free time. I see the mid-space as full of nomad artisans.
So, what is the point of all this waffle, Marc? Well, it’s that what I have thought previously about ELT — ELT as industry/profession dichotomy, big business ELT versus ‘ordinary’ teachers — might not actually be right. It’s less a Hegelian dialectic and more of a raspberry ripple to-and-fro. When the Big ELT bunch get hold of something new from somebody out of the fold, it strengthens their position. Also, when the Forest, let’s say scholarly SLA-based, somewhat monkish ELT gets hold of something, from somebody wandering at the edge, it strengthens their position. There is no end to the City and the Forest conflict: it continues because people like it that way, and no amount of War Machines are going to change this, because for every War Machine the city gets, the Forest will get from the Nomads at its edge. There are also nomads who will settle, pointing their War Machines at either the City, or the Forest, but all this does is get them as part of the mass in either place.
Am I saying, if you can’t beat them, join them? I don’t think so, because that seems utterly defeatist. Maybe I am trying to say, if you can keep going and doing your own thing you have City dwellers and Forest dwellers both asking for your work. Can Nomads be mercenaries? Of course. They don’t have to be. But if you want to get by in ELT beyond the low pay in the City’s entry level jobs, way below the clerics at the top, you might want to be nomadic. If you want to avoid being in a situation where you’re in a less comfortable but fulfilling position in the Forest, you might want to be nomadic. You might have to think, first, what your War Machine is.
I think I have a couple, to be honest. I don’t think it’s big headed, because probably everyone has a couple. Having spent years preoccupied with listening, I reckon I have a good foundation there of something good. The stuff I am doing on Patreon, I reckon, is a decent crack at a crossover between mainstream and task-based courses. I also think my RPG ideas have plenty of go in them.
It’s not just a case of selling them to either the City or the Forest, though obviously that’s one case. But innovation happens through copying and reverse engineering and stuff. If somebody saw one of my ideas and made their own version, I might be angry, especially if I wasn’t acknowledged. But it would mean that Big ELT or Academia thought my ideas were worthwhile, and maybe took account of shortcomings that I thought they had.
What does your War Machine look like?

The interaction of training and observation in one teacher’s development – Chapter Summary

Oooh, I’m in a book. Well, not me, because a 6’4″ book would be a bit unwieldy. But I have a chapter in Daniel Hooper & Natasha Hashimoto’s book, Teacher Narratives from the Eikaiwa Classroom: Moving Beyond “McEnglish”, which is published by Candlin & Mynard as an ebook and on actual paper. I think the book is very reasonably priced and I know that several chapters are actually brill. You can buy it from Smashwords as an ebook and Jeff Bezos’ shop in your favoured territory, and probably other places.

Cover of Teacher Narratives From the Eikaiwa Classroom: Moving Beyond "McEnglish" Edited by Daniel Hooper and Natasha Hashimoto. Foreword by Ryuko Kubota


The chapter started life as an offhand comment at a conference that all in attendance were freaks who wanted to attend a conference on their day off from work. In the chapter, I puzzle about how I got from fresh off the plane English instructor at a chain language school in Tokyo, with no experience, to where I am now and pontificating at conferences, in print and on this blog.

There’s a lot of trial and error, basically due to rushed on-the-job training. The only winner here is the company owner. Teachers are stressed and students are annoyed. Eventually I learned through incidental observation through makeshift plexiglass cubicles and talking to colleagues. However, we all have basically the same training, so there’s an argument to be made that teaching in language schools is made into menial work. The incentive at the companies I worked for to have any teaching qualifications was Y5,000 per month, which is not great, especially seeing as you got it whether you had a certificate, a diploma, or a master’s degree.

Any formal guidance given in the language schools I worked at was by managers, who rarely had any teaching qualifications themselves. This was also geared more to customer satisfaction/retention than sound pedagogy. Also, due to the lack of training that the managers had, they were going off beliefs and instinct.

So, the formal observations could be less useful than the informal, incidental ones. Also, not only seeing ‘good’ lessons helps; seeing ‘bad’ helps you to take a reality check and think about whether or not something is a good idea.

The chapter goes into theory a lot more than I have done here, but hopefully this gives you a taste.


Manage projects with Bullet Journalling

This is how I use the Bullet Journal method (Carroll, 2018) for project management with the project management hierarchy from Agile Faculty (Pope-Ruark, 2017) If you want to find out more, check out the books on the author websites.

Keep it simple!

A lot of the things you see online about bullet journalling is elaborate, almost like you need a degree in graphic design to do it. You will also see a lot of expensive Moleskine and Leuchterm notebooks and washi tape. I use a cheap squared notebook, cheap Pilot eraseable ballpoint pens or whatever is to hand. My notebook does not look lovely. I am all about the speed and simplicity because it helps me to streamline things so I can mitigate my bad ADHD days.
Basically, our to-do list becomes a hierarchy of Epics, Stories that are part of the Epic, and Tasks that are part of the Story.
The spacing is mportant. I have overarching tasks, which are called Epics (Pope-Ruark, 2018) justified to the left margin, then any tasks that are part of that, called Stories, underneath that and indented. Any Tasks, basically the smallest unit of action we are working with, would come underneath the relevant Story. If you use an agile planning system like Kanban it can be similar. Basically, think of the indents as:
     . Task
The bullets are simple. For project management the only bullets necessary are:
. task
x completed task
o doing/in process
< scheduled to calendar
You can use – to add notes under the relevant task and also / if you delegate an item to somebody, which you can then change to a x when it is finished. I rarely delegate so I don’t really use the slash often.
This has helped me stay on top of a lot of projects, particularly because it’s easy to copy a project and insert more sub tasks as they come up if you don’t leave enough space for them in the first place. The journal is light and mobile, and you don’t have to worry about losing sticky notes that have come loose.
The kinds of projects you could use this for are syllabus design, needs analysis, planning a particularly complex lesson, writing a test or even overhauling your admin system.
I hope this is useful and if you have anything to add, I’d love to read about it in the comments.
I would also like to thank Ted and Kamila for helping me keep this blog ad-free and not doing advertorials and things by becoming patrons. It’s easy to do by just clicking the link to my Patreon page.

New Project: The ELT Manual or How to Teach English like a Pop Star

I have started a new project, which I hope will be as fun (more fun?) and informative as the usual Freelance Teacher Self Development posts and resources. It’s going to run over on my new Patreon page, with other resources to come available, and with FTSD content available earlier than this site because webhosting and children’s shoes are expensive.

Teach Like A Pop Star – The ELT Manual

In 1988, The KLF released a book, The Manual: How to have a number one the easy way. It reduces the way to have a number one hit single to a formula and a series of actions.

ELT can work in exactly this way. People like predictable rhythms and catchy melodies. Your students like that, too. It doesn’t matter about teaching virtuosity or musical virtuosity. Hook them with a hit, they’ll be interested in your other songs, or lessons in our case.

The ELT Manual or How to Teach English like a Pop Star will reduce the variables in lesson planning and preparation for you and give you better reviews in those student surveys.

Become a Patron and get full access to the ELT Manual posts as they become available.

Reflections on Extensive Listening Homework

I have been teaching an elective intermediate Authentic Listening class for two years at one of the universities I work at. During that time, I have had my students submit extensive listening journals as part of outside class study (something institution-wide). This is a place I am going to put down a few ideas about what has been more and less successful over the last 4 semesters.

Problematising listening

In setting the listening journal homework, I had my students log what problems they had with the authentic texts they were listening to. This allowed me to see whether there were problems with decoding, using top-down strategies, dealing with allophones/phonemic variation and more.

This has been most useful when done thoughtfully, though some students had just treated it as a proverbial hoop to jump through and logged the same problem week on week with insufficient detail.


In the first three semesters I requested students not to use subtitles with their listening. My rationale was that this was not sufficiently authentic and that all some students would do is read the subtitles and not listen sufficiently. In August 2019, though, I went to New Sounds and saw a great presentation by Natalia Wisniewska and Juan C. Mora (2019) on the use of L1 and/or L2 subtitles in listening. In her study, she stated that L1 subtitles allowed learners to gain more meaning, while L2 facilitated more accurate pronunciation.

Seeing as both types of subtitles had their benefits, I set my students to listen with a mix of L1 subtitles, L2 subtitles and no subtitles in the semester just completed. The results were rather good for the students who followed my instructions properly. It also resulted in more homework actually done than in previous semesters, although quite a few students did less listening without subtitles than I would have liked.

A balanced listening diet

TED talks are extremely popular with my students, though not my cup of tea, to be honest. Where students have used a lot of the same type of text, I tried to recommend something very different, such as dramas or bits of films for the TED enthusiasts, and some interviews on a popular video site for the Netflix addicts. Most students tried to balance their listening here, with at least two listens to something a bit different, but we all have our preferences, and sometimes it’s hard to expand a listing palate over just one semester. This is something I do want to build on, though.

These are just a few ideas that I plan to build on and reflect on over coming years and syllabi.


Wisniewska, N., & Mora, J. C. (2019) Can Watching Captioned Movies Improve L2 Pronunciation? (Presentation) August 31, 2019. New Sounds 2019 Conference, Waseda University.

Relational Cultural Theory in Language Teaching – Braindump 1

It’s almost the end of the semester in Japan, and therefore time to be considering new syllabus ideas and whatnot. Also, somewhat serendipitously, I heard the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast episode with Harriet Schwartz, where she talked about Connected Teaching and Relational Cultural Theory (RCT) . It sounded interesting, pondering how we react to the relationships we have with our students.

Basically, RCT started in psychiatry, and was a reaction to the science of treating everyone based on studies by/for white men. It is a radical theory that, boiled down, says we thrive on relationships and support rather than hyper-independence and individualism.

The outcomes of connected relationships brings about more energy (‘zest’ in the literature), clarity, sense of worth, empowerment and a desire for more connection (Hartling & Sparks, 2008). This should, in my opinion, bring about more motivation to spend time in the classroom and for autonomous study outside to prepare for deepening communication for deeper relationship building in the classroom. It also benefits teachers (or me, seeing as I am looking into it for my own classes), to have more sense of worth and purpose, and more energy, etc. That can’t be a bad thing, either.

All of this, I think, links to building/co-creating learning and Freire, and also with critical pedagogy in general. I am planning to write more on this, and will flesh out links to other concepts and applications then.


Hartling, L., & Sparks, E. (2008) Relational-Cultural Practice: Working in a Nonrelational World, Women & Therapy, 31(2-4), 165-188, DOI: