No response

How much time does it take you to feel and know the atmosphere in a new group of students? Surely, we feel atmosphere straight in the first lesson but the real knowing comes a little later, maybe, in a couple of lessons or so.

During this time the students and the teacher are testing the waters, they get to know each other better and develop a suitable communication style. Needless to say, a teacher’s personality greatly influences the atmosphere in the classroom. However, the atmosphere largely depends on the students and their relationships within the group. So, it’s not surprising, that with some groups we, teachers, feel more comfortable than with the others. So to say, you unmistakenly know when you on the same wavelength with your students, and your communication is going smoothly.

It is always enjoyable and energising to work in such an atmosphere. However, we don’t always have groups like this. Very often, we have to invest time and energy into bridging up a communication gap with our students.

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I haven’t had any communication glitches with my students for a long while. Even so, I can’t even remember any case when I had any miscommunication with groups of students. Of course, there have always been some troublemakers, but these were certain individuals not the whole groups of students.

But last semester I came across a surprising and seemingly new to me situation. It wasn’t the lack of feedback as such. My students did respond to my questions and tasks but only if I asked them directly and personally.


The problem was that my students lacked the willingness or at least readiness to respond and participate. Whenever I ask them a question to reflect and to express their ideas on, or any other simple or challenging question, all I saw was downcast eyes, dull facial expressions and dead silence. With their body language the students cried out to me, “Not me! Not me! Don’t ask me!”

It once culminated in one of my students asking me back, “Do you want us to answer your question?”

At first I was puzzled, I didn’t understand why it was so difficult to elicit responses from my students. But one day, when I asked them just another simple question I looked up at them just to see them all ill at ease, perched at their desks like small little sparrows on a rainy day. I couldn’t help laughing at the their look! Then I explained to them why I was laughing. I told them that I could understand what was happening and described what they looked like at that moment. I assured them that I wasn’t asking questions for form’s sake and that I was truly interested in their ideas. They looked up at me, smiled and relaxed a bit. I think this was the moment when the ice broke.

I can’t say that the students became exceptionally cooperative and willing to participate in the lesson, but I can admit there was much more response from them since then.

Who or What to blame?

When I was reflecting on the causes of the situation I had a suspicion that my students didn’t like me or felt very indifferent towards me as a personality. If this was the case, there was very little I could do to change the situation and make them like me (or could I?).

But later in the semester I had a chance to clearly see that my personality or my teaching style was not the real cause of the problem.

Once a student of mine was making a presentation in front of the rest of the class. He started his presentation with a question just to see how much his listeners knew about his topic and also to grasp the attention. To his frustration he didn’t receive any answer: everybody just lowered their heads and cast their eyes down. The speaker’s frustration lasted for a couple of seconds while he was waiting for a response. Not having received any, he addressed to his fellow student by his name who confusedly mumbled something in response. Finally, on getting at least some feedback, the speaker hastily went on with his presentation never asking his audience any questions again.

This incident was enough for me to understand that I wasn’t the reason why my students refrained from cooperation as they reacted to their fellow student’s question just in the same way as they reacted to mine. Clearly, there were some other reasons for the lack of response from students.


So, Who or What is to blame, then?

A brief note: Here I am going to speak exclusively about Russian educational situation as I have no experience of any formal schooling outside Russia. However, you might find some similarities with what you have to deal with in your countries.

So once I realised that the lack of response was due to some reasons not related to my personality I tried to figure out what the real causes were.

And here is what I thought.

I believe students didn’t respond because …

1. they didn’t have anything to say. This could be blamed on the teacher who asked too complicated or irrelevant questions. But I’m sure this wasn’t the main reason as I was asking students questions of various complexity while the lack of response was almost the same in all the cases.

2. students are intimidated to speak out. This, I believe, is the main reason in my situation. My students came from the same schooling system as me, so I can easily put myself into their shoes. I know from my sometimes bitter personal experience that learners’ initiative is not welcome at schools and, even more so, is sometimes punished.

3. also, students grow to be afraid to express an opinion of their own or to give any answer it at all because they are afraid of making a mistake. And mistake is considered something shameful and unacceptable especially if it is made in public.

In this connection, I have to say that a widespread tradition to immediately give a mark to a student for whatever they say in the lesson is counter-productive and even harmful. This way learners are inhibited to think freely and imaginatively, they fear to be immediately labelled wrong and punished with a bad mark.

So, to avoid the nasty feeling of being publicly humiliated, students learn the worst lesson they can be possibly taught at school: it is better sit still and keep a low profile.

Not surprising, that we are very often baffled and alarmed at how passive, indifferent and inert our fellow citizens are. Sorry, but we all have been through school with the its carrots-and-sticks (mostly sticks, though) system.


What to do?

Below is what I think is essential to do if we really want to see more open-minded, confident and proactive people around. Of course, the list is not exhaustive and any other ideas are most welcome!

1. Friendly and welcoming atmosphere in the class where students feel comfortable and know that they matter and their voice is heard and appreciated. I am sure you don’t knew to be convinced of this: this prerequisite is self evident and fundamental to all the other measures. However, not every teacher shares this view. I remember two of my schoolteachers – the Russian language teacher and the teacher of English – who could serve as the blatant example of how teaching should not be done. They both were exceptionally stringent and unfriendly, reserved and distant, prescriptive and gloomy. The sheer thought of their lessons made me sick. Needless to say, these teachers’ lessons were all painand a complete waste of time for me: I wasn’t learning anything there except for the fear.

2. Lots of the whole class mingling and pair or small-group interactive activities that can take stress and tension away. They are also the salvation for timid and vulnerable students who are scared to be the centre of attention and speak in public.

3. Problem-solving, inventive and imaginative activities and tasks which would foster imagination, critical and creative thinking.

4. Individual and team work through which students can learn to cooperate and work together towards a common goal, share responsibility and try out various roles within a social group. Also, individual work is necessary for learners to elaborate their own opinion and style and be ready to stand up for their own viewpoint.

5. A larger set of various assessment techniques should be put into practice too. This will help to avoid the too straightforward and imperative assessment which learners fear so much. Click on the following link to find a rich collection of alternative assessment techniques you can try and use in your classroom.

I believe the alternative way of assessment and activities like the above could be incorporated in lessons on any subject: from chemistry and maths to languages and history.

All these measures may help teachers to create a comfortable and stimulating environment for learners’ creativity and initiative to flourish. This might not work every time and with every student, but this will surely help students to relax, open up and respond. So I hope that we will see much more raised hands and wideopen eyes looking straight into our eyes.

For further reading I recommend Luba Vangelova’s article which goes in line with my blog post and develops some ideas expressed here.

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Posted by on January 12, 2015 in ELT Reflections


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Once Upon a Time … (Lesson Shells) – Part 1

A lesson shell is a romantic name I give to stories and games that a teacher and their learners can create around a given grammar rule. In a grammar story or game, the main heroes and heroines are the grammar items and the general plot of the story is based on the grammar rule. Such stories and games help enormously to make grammar instruction easier and more fun for young learners and primary and secondary schoolchildren. Children start playing with the trickiest aspect of the new language thus overcoming the fear of grammar and vividly remembering the rules by associating them with the stories.

Just to give you the taste of a grammar story, here is the example of a story I created to explain why English verbs have various forms in the Past Simple. The story is called The Town of Verbs.

Once upon a time there was a town of verbs. Verbs lived happily in their beautiful town. However, they always lived in the present. There was no past for the verbs: every day was a new day in the town of verbs. But one day two little verbs – a brother and a sister – found an old trunk in their grandfathers’ house. Engraved on the lid of the trunk, there were two mysterious letters: ED. The little verbs got very curious to know what was inside of this huge trunk. So they opened it and all of the sudden, out of the trunk flew the memories about the past. They flew out of the window and spread in the air. All the verbs in the town could feel the scent and involuntary breathed it in. To their surprise, they started to recall their past! Their memories came back to them. Some verbs, like “play”, accepted their memories as part of their life and took them in their stride (played). Some verbs, like “try”, were very glad to recall their past because those memories, like a candle in a dark room, lit up their lives with warmth and happiness (tried). Some verbs, like “stop”, got very angry and frustrated at their memories (perhaps those memories were painful and unpleasant), so they tried to block them and build a wall between their memories and themselves (stopped). Some verbs, like “bring”, changed out of all recognition once they remembered their past life (brought). But some verbs, like “cut” or “let”, didn’t changed at all because they were very little kids and didn’t have memories about the past (cut, let).


As you can see the story gives the learner a clear image of various types of verb endings. Later on, you can go into more detail explaining to your learner how to identify the verbs which belong to one of the five groups, but this wouldn’t be difficult for your learners as the graphic foundation has been laid.

The idea of a grammar story or game (which I later called lesson shells) came to me absolutely accidentally. Some years ago I was teaching an 8-year-old girl – Katya – on the one-to-one basis. One day when I came to the lesson, Katya’s mother told me that the girl had got a low grade at school for the dictation on irregular verbs. She asked me to practice these verbs with Katya as she was going to have another dictation the next day. So there I was with a frustrated mother, distressed learner, my painstakingly prepared materials going down the drain and absolutely no materials to teach and practice those damn irregular verbs. What could I say to the mother in such a situation? Only what most teachers commonly say: “Yes, sure! We will do it!” The mother left, I look back at the sheepishly looking little girl, sighed at her miserable look and started talking to her. I felt so sorry for the girl that I began with expressing my sympathy for her situation and by putting all the blame on the irregular verbs. I told her that she was not guilty of that low grade, that this was totally the guilt of the verbs that (what naughty verbs!) had attacked her all of the sudden! Katya gladly agreed with me. She was already more agitated than before. Then I continued by saying that these verbs should be punished for what they had done and, as all criminals, they should be put in prison. At this point Katya was all ready to take revenge and punish those horrible verbs. This way I absolutely unknowingly won my learner’s full attention and assistance. Also, the form of the condolence I offered to my learner (the idea of the verbs-offenders) prompted the theme of the following activities we did to learn and practice the irregular verbs.

So what we did went as follows. I turned into Senior Police Officer and Katya was Junior Police Officer. Our first task in chasing and capturing the offenders was to make the composite sketches of the criminals so that it was easier for Junior Police Officer to traces them. What we did was to copy the verbs and their past forms on slips of cards. Then I collected the cards, shuffled them and spread face down all around the carpet. Next, Katya, Junior Police Officer, had to chase the verbs. All we did was the traditional matching game. But for Katya it wasn’t just another classroom game, it was the real mission! When all the verbs together with their accomplices (the infinitive + Past Simple form) had been collected, Katya reported to me, Senior Police Officer, about the successfully accomplished operation and demonstrated the verbs-offenders to me by naming them all in their pairs. Then on a piece of paper, I drew an improvised prison cells where the verbs and their accomplices were put. So basically, we made a detective story out of a simple classroom activity. The learner was much more motivated to do the activities and exercises I later prepared for the next lesson because she was not just doing familiar classroom tasks but playing a game where she had a specific role and mission. It was fun for both my learner and me.


Just by looking at the above examples of a grammar story and a grammar game you can see that such stories and games can be used both for introducing and practicing grammar. However, some rules should be followed when making up grammar stories and games. I will dwell on these rules a little longer in my next post on the lesson shells.

(To be continued)


Posted by on August 10, 2014 in Kids


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Shall we self-study?

The idea of self-study groups isn’t a novelty. This learning technique has been tried and tested for centuries (at least, I’m convinced to believe so). I also believe that few will question the really he learning potential of self-study groups.

The advantages of self-study groups are self-obvious: higher motivations of participants for learning; the increased sense of responsibility for one’s part of a task; the inspiring feeling of togetherness and being one team; the genuine interest in what participants are studying; better understanding and acquisition of the material as one has to teach it to others; and, the last but not the least, extensive practice of communicative skills. Not surprising that all these advantages may lead to better learning outcomes.


However, as it is always the case in our world, the self-study group method of learning has its drawbacks too. The most evident disadvantage is the possible lack of the general direction of studies. Also, learners in a self-study group may stray from the main topic and get lost in details not being able to see the wood for the trees.

All these aspects considered, I believe it’s relatively easy to overcome the drawbacks of self-study group learning by introducing the time limit and some general plan of studies for a given group of learners.

To see how self-study groups have been used to boost students’ motivation, you can watch this video. The video shows high school students who speak about their experience of working in self-study groups.

Unfortunately, I have never had a chance to be part of self-study group myself and, to my own surprise, I have never tried this technique within all nine years of my teaching practice. So last week I decided to give it a go and see what would happen. Below you will find my observations and reflections on my experience of self-study groups of university students.

For the past three weeks, my students and I have been working on public skills and presentations skills, in particular. We have discussed some aspects of speaking in public; we have studied some practical techniques of delivering a speech and interacting with the audience; we have watched a model presentation and my students have made presentations of their own. However, it was clear to me that I would be able to cover all the aspects of public speaking within the rigid time limit we work in (one 90-min lesson a week): I literally wouldn’t have time to actually teach, discuss and practice the techniques in the classroom. So it dawned on me to give each student an individual question related to presentation skills as part of homework and to ask students to crowd source information for these questions to share it with other students the next lesson. The result exceeded all my expectations.

First of all, each and every student was ready with their part of homework. Secondly, some of the students had brought with them not only some texts but also some visuals like graphs, pictures and slides to illustrate their question. Thirdly, after being left on their own, my students promptly overcame some confusion at the unfamiliar setting and started working together, successfully managing the order of speakers, sharing information, asking and answering each other’s questions. In fact, they were literally learning from each other. I was really amazed that when I could stand back and gave my students almost complete autonomy, they were coping pretty well and learning was happening without my actual involvement.

However, the experiment wouldn’t be a real experiment if I didn’t introduce some variations in the way the study groups worked.

In my first group of students there was no leader assigned to steer the group in a particular direction, track the order of speakers and manage the time of the session. Students were all responsible for the way their group worked. I think that the absence of a leader significantly influenced the work of the group: the session looked more discussion-like and relaxed, while the atmosphere in the group was both informal and respectful. Students were doing their best to speak and put their ideas clearly, they were listening to each other more attentively and were eager to answer any questions. This was a group of people who were truly sharing knowledge and learning from each other. However, although the work of the group was managed well, timing was a bit of a problem because there was nobody to track the time and no one thought it was necessary.

In the second group of mine, I assigned a student to be the leader. His responsibilities included: managing the time and the order of speakers. Needless to say, that this group was better managed, at least in terms of time. However, the general atmosphere in this group differed from that in the previous group. Surely, I understand that the atmosphere in a group depends largely on the people comprising it, but the way the work of the group is organized comes into play too. So when I was observing my students in the second group, I had a feeling that they subconsciously reacted to their leader as if he was a teacher or any other sort of authority. The presence of any kind of authority changes the way people feel or interact in a group, so, in many cases, I noticed that the leader was the connecting-link in the conversations, that students felt less relaxed and less willing to contribute to the discussion, and that they were reluctant to ask questions, to express their opinion, or to add any extra information and take part in the conversation. In fact, there wasn’t a discussion as such, the whole session resembled in many ways a teacher-centered (in this case, leader-centered) lesson. It looked as if students were solely anxious to tell, retell or even to read out their bit of information and call it a day.

This was the first time I had had my students work in a self-study groups setting, and it was only natural for my students to feel some discomfort and awkwardness. So there is no doubt that more observations are needed to draw up more distinct conclusions on how different settings influence the work of a self-study group.

However, what I can say with certainty is what a teacher should and shouldn’t do during the session of the self-study group. First of all, the teacher should help students learn how to cooperate and self-study: students need to feel at ease with working together. They should learn to respect and appreciate each others’ contribution and opinions. Students need to learn not to be afraid or shy to express their ideas and ask questions. Also, it would be beneficial for students to learn to feel responsible for their own learning and stop being docile consumers of whatever their teacher telling them. Students should get the feeling of being independent and active participants of the learning process. Secondly, while conducting the self-study group session, a teacher should sit somewhere at the back of the classroom or leave the classroom in order to come back later to see what result the students have come up with. I would like to note here that the latter option can be chosen only when the learners have learnt to work in a self-study group and are quite confident and willing to work on the task without teacher’s supervision. When a teacher is present at the self-study group session, they should avoid any eye-contact with the students and be solely focused on taking notes of what is happening in the classroom. The eye-contact should be avoided to make students feel that they are on their own and should speak to each other instead of constantly looking back at the teacher for feedback. This will help students to become more self-reliable and start concentrating on the discussion.

I strongly believe that introducing self-study groups in one’s teaching is beneficial both for teachers, as it brings variety in the classroom routine, and to students, as they become more autonomous learners. So far, I can say that this was a really promising and inspiring experience. I will definitely use this method of teaching in the future.

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Posted by on April 21, 2014 in General, Young Adults


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The Right for a Mistake

Even after almost nine years of teaching, I still feel somewhat frustrated when something goes wrong in the lesson.

I strongly believe that a good lesson should be informative, dynamic, engaging and very well-paced.

Unfortunately, not all of my lessons live up to my idea of a good lesson.

I feel guilty when my students are just doing the tasks I gave them without being actively involved in the task. For me this is the sign that I haven’t thought the task through thoroughly enough to make it appealing to my students, to make my students want to do it.

I love when my students are leaving the classroom brimming with enthusiasm and humming with heated discussions we started in the lesson. Whenever my students are satisfied with the way they spent their time in my lesson, I feel happy and satisfied too. I know I’ve done a good job.

But is it possible to make each and every lesson this satisfying and inspiring? What do I need to do for that?

Do I need to grow up to some certain level of professionalism to be able to design only successful lessons? Or do I need to teach myself to be more sensitive to my students’ mood? Or do I need to spend even more time getting ready for the lessons?

Or is this sort of perfection unattainable and unrealistic? Is it just a haunting dream of an inveterate perfectionist?

I know too well, mistakes are inevitable and necessary for growth. I have heard many times before people say that in each mistake there is a learning opportunity. I’m very well prepared for that. This is not actually what I’m worried about. All I just want to be sure about is whether it is possible to make fewer and fewer mistakes as you learn and develop?

Question Mark Black


Posted by on March 20, 2014 in ELT Reflections


Tag Christmas gifts and bloggers!

This is the Tag-a-Blog Challenge going around the blogosphere! A fun chain of posts which include 11 random facts about yourself, answers to 11 questions posed by another blogger who tagged you and your 11 questions to other 11 bloggers you tag in your post.

Looks like a chain letter?! Yes, why not? It’s merry Christmas time – let’s have fun!

What are the rules? They are simple:

1. Introduce the person who tagged you.

2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.

3. Answer the 11 questions posed by the blogger who tagged you.

4. List other 11 bloggers.

5. Put your 11 questions to the bloggers you nominated.

Let me start by introducing the person who tagged me:

Sophia Mavridi


Sophia is a senior EFL teacher and a Teacher Trainer.  She is a regular presenter at international EFL Conferences and is currently working on her Masters degree in EdTech & TESOL with the University of Manchester doing research on technology integration in educational contexts. Sophia is a dedicated teacher, a wonderful speaker, and a charming person.

11 random facts about myself:

1. Those who are connected with me via Facebook, know very well that astronomy is my life-long fascination. Yes, I’m deeply interested in everything concerning cosmos and space exploration. I’ve got a telescope and I adore making some amateur night sky observations.

2. My current favourite author is Arthur Clarke and I’m crazy about his book “The City and the Stars”. I’ve discovered this book only this year and have already re-read it five times! This is obviously a reading record for me!

3. My favourite drinks are tea, coffee and Coca-Cola. I know it’s not good for my health, but who said all our hobbies and habits should be healthy ones?

4. I like soft toys and whenever I see another cute fluffy thing in a shop, I can’t resist the temptation to adopt it.

5. As for computer games, there is only one I’m playing now on a regular basis, and this is the Minion Rush.

6. I like drawing. I think I’m good at it though I’ve never had any formal training. However, I haven’t drawn anything for a rather long time, which is definitely very sad.

7. I keep on struggling with learning French, but regardless of all my failures I don’t lose determination and optimism.

8. I’m re-starting my tango classes – I’ve already bought a nice dress for this purpose!

9. I’m very bad at money – once I have it, I spend it all.

10. When I was 16, I had my hair cut close to the skin. So I was bald for some time.

11. I’ve never had any pets, but I grow oaks on my window-sill.

12. (yes, number 12 – coz I like this number!) I like travelling by planes because I’m thrilled by the very moments of taking off and the touchdown.


Answers to Sophia’s questions:

1. What was the conference you enjoyed the most in 2013?

There were two – the ELTforum in Bratislava (June) and Western TESOL Greece in Preveza (October)

2. Facebook or Twitter? Why?

Facebook has become an indispensible part of my life! It’s the place where I can connect with my friends from around the world whenever I switch on my computer. And also, Facebook is the source of interesting astronomical and scientific stuff.

3. Do you know any nickname(s) your students have given you?

As far as I know, I’ve never had any nicknames. Only once some of my students called me “Sashen’ka” which is a tender short name for Alexandra.

4. Do you prefer reading on screen or on paper?

No doubt, I prefer paper books, but I feel I’ve come to terms with electronic books thanks to my iPad.

5. What’s the best blogpost you have ever written?  

I’ve got two favourite posts: one on students’ feedback and the other on a puppet theatre and drama.

6. Are you a morning or a night person?

I haven’t decided yet. But my life experience tells me I’m a late morning person.

7. Name 3-5 digital tools/apps that you use with your classes on a regular basis.

Old-fashioned as it may seem, but I haven’t used any on a regular basis. But I’m not inveterate “teach-as-our-grandfathers-taught” sort of a teacher and I’m open for opportunities and new trends. So, when I find an app that will perfectly suit my teaching, I think I’ll be using it quite regularly.

8. What was the most unusual food you have ever eaten? What was it like?

So far, it’s been a fried octopus. I tried it for the first (and so far the only) time in Preveza, Greece. It was unforgettably delicious!

9. Have you ever lived in another country other than the one you live now? Where was it?

The longest time I’ve spend living abroad was only three summer month in 2007. I lived in London, UK.

10. Imagine you won a scholarship to attend an ideal conference anywhere in the world. Where would that be?

In absolutely any place which I can have a direct flight to.

11. What’s your biggest pet peeve?

Loud noises and music, except for discos and concerts where loud music is a must.


And now the 11 bloggers I’m sending my questions to (Actually, there are only 8):

Aphro Gkiouris:
Barbara Bujtas:
Vladimira Chalyova:
Barry Jameson:
Chiew Pang:
Joel Josephson:
Mark Andrews:
Tamas Lorincz:

My 11 questions to other bloggers:

1. What is a thing or activity that you have never done in your life before but which you would like to try out?

2. If you have attended an ELT conference or a webinar this year, which talk or workshop was the most memorable? Why?

3. What are the three things or skills you have learnt this year?

4. What would you be doing if money wasn’t an issue?

5. What is your latest fad?

6. What can make you freeze in admiration?

7. What are your favourite songs of 2013?

8. What are you thankful for?

9. What books have you read in 2013 which you would recommend?

10. What will you remember the year of 2013 for?

11. If you could choose, where would you live? Why?

A big thank you to Sophia Mavridi for tagging me! It’s been a really fun Christmas flash-blog-mob! 🙂

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Posted by on December 22, 2013 in Miscellaneous


Lessons Learnt

When after my first ever talk in Bratislava at ELTforum in June, 2013, I was offered an idea of giving a plenary speech some time later, my first reaction was a mixed one: I was surprised, I was pleased, I was scared, I was excited and, at the same time, I felt very humble. But I could never imagine that I would give a plenary this soon, just a couple of months later, in Preveza.

So, up till now, I have given two speeches: a so-called concurrent talk and a plenary talk. Not so many, but enough to draw some conclusions. And here, in this post, I would like to share the lessons I have learnt from my experience as a presenter.

For some, there isn’t much difference between a concurrent talk and a plenary because in both cases you might find yourself talking to a large audience (this was my case in Bratislava) and/or your talk might be recorded. Thus, it may look like it doesn’t matter what you call your presentation – a concurrent talk or a plenary – its format might appear pretty much the same.

However, for me, there is one slight difference between these two types of speeches, a minor difference of a great importance. It is…

the availability of choice

The people who have come to your concurrent talk have chosen to listen to you, thus, they are more likely to be interested in what you have to say. But when people come to a plenary, they don’t have much choice, they more or less have to listen to your talk regardless of whether it seems relevant to them or not. (Surely, those who don’t want to go still have a choice to spend this time in a cafeteria.)

This seemingly small difference leads to substantial consequences and can greatly influence the content and form of delivery of the speech:

  • While a concurrent talk may address the needs and interests of a specific target audience, such as Business English teachers or teachers of English to young learners, to name the few,
  • a plenary talk’s content and format should appeal to people with various interests and perceptual styles.

So, it’s not surprising that a plenary speech presents the biggest challenge.  I’ve accepted it. Whether I succeeded or not – I don’t know, this is what should be decided by people who listened to me. But no matter what the outcome was, here is what I have learnt about dos and don’ts of a plenary speech.

A BIG NO in a plenary speech

A plenary should never ever look like a report to your boss on what you have accomplished.

I have got some suspicions that my plenary talk in Preveza nearly turned into a sort of report but thanks to a lucky chance that I was asked to stop 20 minutes earlier than planned, I avoided this trap.

A BIG YES in a plenary speech

A plenary should always be informative, communicative and entertaining.

To quote from Max Atkinson (link): “Speeches and presentations have a tremendous capacity for boring audiences out of their minds, and […] holding the attention of the audience is a major challenge for speakers.” So, the longer your talk is, the more difficult it is to keep your audience with you. Considering the fact that most plenary talks last for about 60 minutes, the speech should be a balanced mixture of information, communication and entertainment. The proportion in which you mix these three ingredients depends on many factors such as the topic, the settings, the purpose of the talk, the personal presentation style of the speaker etc. And this is the presenter who decides how to combine all three in his/her speech.

The point I would like to make in connection with this “rule of three ingredients” is that communication with the audience and the delivery of speech should be smooth and flawless. And both should be well thought-through and well rehearsed.

Just recently I picked up a useful tip on how to practice your speech so that, on the one hand, it was well-rehearsed and, on the other, it looked natural and was flexible enough to be adjusted to any unexpected situation that may arise during a presentation.

According to Jezra Kaye (link), most speakers practice by starting reading or delivering their speech at the beginning and plowing through the speech up to the end. This “plowing throw” might not only stiffen your delivery of speech but also make it harder for your audience to follow you and stay tuned in throughout your talk. To make things worse, the practice of rehearsing from the beginning to the end may also make you unprepared for various unexpected disruptions and changes when you are actually delivering your speech. Jezra Kaye suggests using a different approach. She says: “You’ll handle all of these less-than-ideal scenarios better if you’ve practiced your speech flexibly, section by section.” (link) She also recommends that you choose a random section of your speech and practiced it leaving other sections for other days. As your confidence grows, you may start practicing several sections together. Also, you can try rehearsing your talk backwards: from the last section back to the first one.

This way of practicing may help you “understand your speech as a series of sections, each with its own rhythm and flavor” and also “respond flexibly if you have to adjust or regroup [the sections] while presenting.” (Jezra Kaye)

I find this technique really helpful because if you treat your speech as a series of logically connected chunks you can develop a better command of your material, become more confident and less dependent on your prompts (such as slides, notes, etc), and as the result, you can focus more on the way you communicate with the audience. As Ingmar Bergman brilliantly put it, “Only he who is well prepared has any opportunity to improvise.”


The last thing I want to say in connection with delivery of a plenary speech, and in fact, any speech or presentation, is that real things around you may become real obstacles! A stage you are standing on may make you look too authoritative and distant which can disrupt your communication with your audience. A table between you and your listeners might turn into a fence. The projector may be positioned in a way that whenever you want to move around the stage you screen off the slides. And so on and so forth. These minor nuisances may haunt you like a mosquito at night, making you feel uncomfortable and diverting your attention from communication with your audience.

To sum up what has been said above, I just want to mention here what I repeatedly remind of to my students:

Any speech, talk or a presentation is just another type of human communication

And like a chat with your best friends, your presentation, be it a concurrent talk or a plenary, should be meaningful, joyful and exciting for both, you and your listeners. This simple truth should not be forgotten.


Posted by on November 3, 2013 in Presentation Skills


Oh, those storytellers!

When teaching kids on the one-to-one basis, discipline sometimes presents a rather big issue.

On the one hand, a teacher has to attend to the kid’s parents’ wishes on what material should be taught to their kid.

On the other hand, a teacher has to make the lessons interesting to the kid and not to his/her parents.

To make things even more complicated, teachers have to have the kid stay on the task but also to make regular breaks during a lesson so that the kid could have some rest.

Needless to say, it’s really hard to strike the balance.

I once gave 2-hour lessons twice a week to a 10-year-old girl. The two hours of extra study in the late afternoon after her school classes made it really hard for her (and me too) to focus on tasks. However, the girl was quite dutiful, energetic and cheerful, and we did a lot in our lessons. But (there are always some “buts”) at the same time she was extremely talkative.

She always had lots of stories to tell me. Whatever we did in class, she would come up with a new story that somehow was connected to the task at hand.

Over some time I realized that something must be done about this stream of stories, because they started to present a really big distraction. Why? Because we not only spent valuable time on the stories, but also because the girl used to tell them in her mother tongue. So no English learning occurred.

And this is what I came up with – STORY CARDS!

I made four cards of pink cardboard.


So at the beginning of each lesson, my student was reminded that she had only four story cards to use during the lesson. Whenever she wanted to tell me something in Russian, she had to ask for a Story Card. At the rest of the time, she had to speak English. However, she was never restricted on the number of stories. Yes, she could tell me only four stories in Russian, but she could tell me as many stories in English as she wanted! And she did! She started telling me stories in English. So by the end of the lesson, we sometimes had some unused Story Cards!

To make this activity even more attractive to your students, you can personalize the Story Cards by letting your students draw or write anything on the cards. They can also put some stickers or any other decorations they want.


So all you need is a colourful cardboard, a pair of scissors, colourful crayons, stickers and whatever decoration you or your student can possibly think of!

I hope you liked the idea of Story Cards!

So next time you have a kid who loves telling stories, try using Story Cards with them to gently encourage them to try to tell their stories in English.


Posted by on September 1, 2013 in Kids


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E-merging Forum-3 in Moscow: reflections

I love ELT conferences! For many reasons, in fact. One of them is that all ELT events are so different, and you never know what exactly to expect from them: everything goes as a surprise.


However, this idea had never occurred to me before E-merging Forum-3 (EMF-3) this year.

Partly, due to the resounding success of the E-merging Forum-2 last year, many attendees were rather disappointed with this year’s forum. Some delegates were upset with the speakers, some with the venue, some with the catering and others with all of the above things all together. As for me, I should admit that EMF-2 was more successfully orchestrated than EMF-3. But I also believe that it’s hard to live up to the ever-growing expectations of participants and keep up with the really high standard set up by the previous forum. I’m convinced that the organizers of the event, the British Council team in Moscow, were trying to do their best and that next year they will take into consideration the merits and setbacks of EMF-3 and will definitely surprise us all with the outstanding organization of E-merging Forum-4.

Yet there was another thought that came to my mind during the EMF-3: the outcome of a conference depends not only on what you take from the event but, to a large extent, on what you bring to it. If you go to a conference with an open mind and heart and you are ready not only to take but to give and share, you’re most likely to be rewarded with positive emotions and fruitful ideas. So, when a conference doesn’t meet your high expectations, this is you who can turn a seemingly upsetting situation into your benefit: just look around and see how many new people are around you – this is your chance to connect and discover. The main treasure of all the conferences are the people and ideas they bring.

In fact, the distinctive feature of EMF-3 was that this year saw hundreds of teachers from all over Russia and some other countries as well who were eager to socialize, share and learn from each other. And that was a really big thing about the Forum which provided the space and unique chance for teachers to meet.

So, all conferences differ, but what unites them all is the chance they give for teachers to come together and enjoy each other’s company, share ideas and savour the feeling of community.

Now, when EMF-3 is over, I just can’t wait E-merging Forum-4! I can’t wait to see here in Moscow the familiar and dear faces from my PLN. Something is telling me that next year’s forum is going to be really special. And it will be, if you all find time to come!

I’m looking forward to meeting you all in Moscow in March, 2014!

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Posted by on March 9, 2013 in ELT Conferences


Cold Day – Warm Smiles: Lindsay Clandfield in Moscow

A couple of weeks ago, Lindsay Clandfield visited Moscow, Russia, with two presentations as part of Macmillan Conference at People’s Friendship University of Russia.

The first presentation Let’s wise up, not dumb down was mainly devoted to promoting the new Andvanced level of Global coursebook. However the key idea of the talk was that modern coursebooks should provide an interesting and motivating content along with developing critical thinking in learners. As an introduction and, in fact, a leading idea to his presentation, Lindsay quoted a Japanes physicist, Sumio Iijima who said that “True education means forstering the ability to be interested in something.”

Here you can find a PDF file with Lindsay’s presentation.

In his second presentation that day, Lindsay spoke about how to connect ideas in advanced level writing. And if we take the presentation title Making the link metaphorically, it’ll become clear that the conferences like this are more than just about promoting coursebooks and sharing latest teaching techniques but are also about establishing the link between educators around the world.

This is, in fact, what Lindsay Clandfield actually did on that frosty winter day: he not only shared his knowledge and expertise with us but also gave us his shining smile that warmed our hearts and reminded us once again that whereever we went we’ll find like-minded teachers and friends in every corner of the world. And this is how the link is made.

At the end of the conference I was lucky to interview Lindsay and ask him some questions concerning  the audience, coursebooks and Lindsay’s professional plans for the near future. Below you can watch the interview and read the transcript if you find the sound too quiet.

I’m very grateful to Lindsay for finding time to aswer my questions, to Macmillan team for bringing Lindsay to Moscow and other Russian cities, and to Anna Loseva for her enormous help in recording the video.

Interview with Lindsay Clandfield


L – Lindsay Clandfield

A – Alexandra Chistyakova

A: Hello Lindsay!
L: Hello!
A: I’d like to welcome you to Moscow, Russia. We’re always glad to see you here.
L: Thank you. Very good.
A: My first question to you: how is Russian audience different from audience in other countries?
L: I don’t think it’s different, although, I would say, what I enjoy about Russian teachers, is that they are often not afraid to voice opinions although they are very respectful in the audience. When they want to say something they will say it, and it sounds very refreshing. But otherwise, my experience here has been very respectful audiences, nice teachers. They seem very professional.
A: Oh, thank you. Today you presented the new Advanced level of the Global course book by Macmillan. And it seems to comprise the latest and best techniques and achievements in teaching methodology. So, it looks very impressive. Thank you so much for your hard work!
L: Thank you. Thank you for the nice words.
A: My next question is: what is your opinion on course books? You know this ongoing discussion for and against course books. What do you think?
L: I think the discussion for and against course books is very good for our profession because it makes us think of what we do. I, personally, don’t have a problem with course books. And I think, where possible, it’s a matter of a teacher’s preference. Unfortunately for many teachers, they don’t have a choice whether or not to use course books. My feeling is course books might be very helpful in providing structure and a sense of progression throughout a course. And that even when using course books, you can still allow time for students to meaningful interaction between the students and between the students and the teachers. So I don’t necessarily have a problem with that. I think any problems that have been with course books have been with course books that are not so good as opposed to course books that I think are better. I use a lot of my competitors’ course books. I don’t always use my own. I use my competitors’ course books. I like some better than others. And that’s where the problem lies: not in the fact it’s a book itself, it’s more an execution of how things are different than what teachers are used to. So I think course books are here to stay. I think it’s worth trying to always improve on what we have to allow more voices, different stuff to happen within course books. Course books represent a tangible growth of our methodology, so you can look back on course books and see where we are in methodology, historically, and not make the same mistakes. That’s why they are useful also from a wider perspective. But I don’t think that a teacher who doesn’t teach with a course book is teaching any better or worse than one who does: it depends on an individual teacher and how they interact with their students.
A: Ok. So how do you feel when the work on the new level of Global is done? What are your feelings and emotions?
L: Immensely relieved! And usually when the work like this is finished that’s when the promotion and touring starts. So one kind of work stops and another kind of work begins. But I’m very pleased and proud of the course series as a whole. So generally satisfied.
A: Oh, great! And What’s on your professional to-do list now?
L: My professional to-do list … It seems you’ve finished a series of course they start talking about, if it’s doing well, they start a new version of this series. So professional to-do list is to start thinking about an updated version or a new version of Global, especially with technology stuff. On my professional to-do list, I’m also still working on The Round and trying to get new authors, new projects into that publishing project. And maybe a couple of other books for teachers which I’m thinking of doing myself including one on grammar for teachers. That’s keeping me busy, keeping me out of trouble.
A: Thank you very much, Lindsay, for coming! It’s been a pleasure to see you here in Moscow. Thank you very much.
L: Thank you very much! And thank you for iTDi for interviewing me!
A: Thank you!

Posted by on February 18, 2013 in ELT Conferences


The Driving Force of Personalization*

If you were invited to an evening party, which outfit would you choose: a tailored dress individually sewn for you for this particular occasion, or a dress which you bought in a shop and which might be worn by someone else at the party? I’m sure there is no second opinion about it. The same goes for other things in life, language learning including.

No doubt, we do need standards that structure our life and against which we could measure our success and growth, or whatever. However, we are all unique and perceive and react to the world in a different ways. We process and analyze information differently. That’s why standardization in education bears little fruit. So it’s not surprising that personalization and customization have become the burning issue in modern ELT discussions. The necessity of personalized learning is agreed upon by the majority of educators around the world. This means that within existing and preferably revised from time to time educational standards, teachers should strive to achieve personalization as much as possible, i.e. to make teaching meet the expectations and interests of learners.

Regardless of the seeming drawbacks of personalization such as the lack of general perspective; unclear time span of a course; blurred syllabus and lesson structures; easily lost purpose of learning and an obscure outcome; the overdependence on a particular teacher’s techniques and preferences; and, more importantly, the avalanche of online and paper resources, customization of the learning process has a lot of strong points.


Foremost, personalization addresses learners’ unique needs and expectations. Students are working on their own mistakes and weak points; they study and practice the vocabulary and functional language they need for achieving their own personal or professional goals; they read about and discuss the topics relevant to them. Moreover, learners have the opportunity to work in the way that is most appropriate and convenient to them. For example, some learners need more of grammar drills while others find drills stultifying and prefer more dynamic and creative tasks.

With the advent of technology and its integration into the classroom, personalization has become even more easily achieved. Social networking systems, podcasts, wikis, bogs, encyclopedias, online dictionaries, webinars, online English courses, various applications, to name but the few, can satisfy the most capricious and picky learners. And though the shocking number of online resources can at first intimidate a learner, this frustration can be overcome with the attentive guidance of a teacher who will give expert advice to the learner on how to steer through online ocean and find the treasure islands.

Unfortunately, this hi-tech paradise is not accessible to the majority of English learners around the globe. I regret to say that Russia is not an exception. In addition to the use of mainly out-dated and tedious course books, there is almost no personalization of the learning process neither at schools, colleges, universities nor even at language courses. But if some attempts of personalizing lessons do occur, it is solely the initiative of some individual teachers.

So here rises the question: “How can teachers personalize learning in the low-tech environments?”

Below I am going to list some solutions to the above question. These things or techniques are no way new to ELT but we just sometimes need to be reminded of some old good but long-forgotten or taken for granted techniques which can serve us a good service in solving new problems.

The first and foremost thing to do at the very beginning of a course is to carry out a rigorous needs analysis and overall general English test. It will also be beneficial to identify students’ learning styles and teaching methods they are used to. I find it very fruitful to question students about their course expectations and then hold a group discussion on this topic. The finishing touch to getting to know your students is to conduct some psychological tests to reveal what sort of personalities your students have and what kind of people you will have to deal with later.

Secondly, make sure you try out various types of activities ranging from old-fashioned dictations to modern Web 2.0 tools, if, of course, it is possible in your teaching environment. In this way you will enlarge students’ arsenal of learning techniques and will address expectations of the majority of your students. Moreover, if your students find some types of activities most useful and appropriate to them – congratulations! – you have hit the bull’s-eye. In this case, try to include these activities as much as possible in your lesson plans. This is exactly what happened to me when I was teaching an elementary group of adults at a language school. As it is always the case at most language schools, I was under pressure to cover the whole course book by deadline. So we were mainly doing the textbook exercises during our lessons with the very few extra materials of mine. Somewhere at the end of the course book there was a listening dictation exercise: students had to listen to the whole sentences and then write them down. To my surprise, all the students in the group were excited about the task and were eager to do more exercises of this kind. Unfortunately, it was almost the end of our course and we never did such exercises again. But this case taught me a good lesson: teachers are not necessarily need to run headlong after ever-growing number of countless hi-tech educational tools but rather creatively exploit some traditional yet useful techniques. The case with my elementary group also showed me that a teacher should always be mindful of their students’ preferences and needs. This is how personalization can be achieved no matter whether you have to cover a course book in a limited time period or working one-to-one, whether your classroom is hi- or low-tech.

Thirdly, there is no better tool to personalize learning than to give floor to the students, let them decide on the contents of the lessons, choose the activities they like the most, make them active participants of their own learning. This way works both for group and individual teaching.

It is no secret that to do all these is highly time- and energy-consuming. From a teacher, it requires good people and observational skills, the ability to reflect and analyze. Teachers should always be tuned in, flexible and responsive to changes in their classroom. They should be able to single out students’ linguistic problems and address them accordingly. Finally, there is one more thing, the crucial one, that makes personalization possible in any learning environment. This is a teacher’s personality: the willingness to help and surpr@ise (© Vladimira Chalyova) your students, open-mindedness, patience, love for their profession, eagerness to try out new techniques and experiment with the old ones, and a strong feeling of responsibility.

To sum up, it is teachers’ personality that personalizes learning.



*The article first appeared at

You can find other interesting articles on personalised learning at




Posted by on January 25, 2013 in General