Category Archives: Teaching methodology

Feedback: the most important part of any exercise?


When you’re preparing a lesson you probably give a lot of thought to the tasks and exercises you plan to include. But how much thought do you give to what happens (or should happen) between the exercises? In my latest post for the British Council Teaching English blog, I consider the importance of feedback and look at some different ways to do it.

Read the post here.

Photo Credit: <a href=””>Sean Davis</a> via <a href=””>Compfight</a&gt; <a href=””>cc</a&gt;

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Filed under classroom ideas, Differentiation, Planning, Teaching methodology, Working with groups

In praise of praise?

How much do you praise students? Are you one of those teachers who automatically responds ‘good’ to any utterance, even if it’s actually hopelessly wrong or impossible to follow? Or do you believe in only praising very infrequently if at all, so that any praise is really valued? Probably, like me, you’re somewhere in the middle.

But have you actually made conscious decisions about how much praise to give, what kind of praise to give and when?

Most people are aware that praise which is perceived as not really having been earned, could have a negative effect.  If it’s just a reflex, students will cease to really listen to it. There is also some evidence that  too much praise can ‘convey a message of low expectations’ for low achievers, and even make stronger students less willing to take risks

So praise does have to be genuine, and it’s also important to think about what and how we praise. General praise (e.g. good job, well done) is, according to many researchers (Brophy, 1981; Gable et al. 2009; Hattie & Timperley 2007; Kalis, Vannest, & Parker 2007; Lannie, & McCurdy, 2007; Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2005- cited in Burnett and Mandel) not very effective. That makes sense to me because I think we all need to know what exactly we have done well, if we are to learn from the praise.

Most researchers agree that praise aimed at the students’ work is likely to be more effective than praise aimed at the student’s ability. So, saying ‘you are very good at spelling’ is not as effective as saying, ‘You worked hard and learnt all ten spellings really well,’  One reason for this is because students may come to believe that they cannot change what they are naturally good (or not good) at. It also means that those students who are not naturally good at something are unlikely to receive much praise, which is demotivating. (That said, if a student is actually very capable but lacks self-confidence, it can be helpful to praise their ability.)

The important thing, I would suggest, is that praise is specific, and a form of feedback, rather than a way of being ‘nice’.  Geoff Petty, a UK based teacher trainer in mainstream education (not ELT) talks about ‘medal and mission’ feedback.

A ‘medal’ is specific information about what a student has done well. So, in a writing task, for example, you might say ‘You have a very clear introduction and conclusion.’. A ‘mission’  is a specific piece of feedback about something that the student needs to improve. For example, ‘you need to make sure that each paragraph has one main idea’

There is, of course, much more to ‘medal and mission’ than just praise, but thinking of praise in terms of medals for specific achievements is helpful I think.

However, and it’s a big however, some researchers have found that praise of any sort can have at best a neutral effect, and at worst a negative effect.  Various pieces of research quoted in this article concluded that praise had very little positive effect and Skipper and Douglas found that praising ability actually had a negative effect (while praising effort had no effect at all).

My gut feeling and experience (as a learner and teacher) still tells me that specific and carefully thought out praise does have a positive effect on most students. So, what do you think? Is it different for different students? Does it make a difference what kind of praise it is, or when or how it is given? Comments very welcome.


Further reading





Filed under motivation, Teaching methodology, Working with groups

Tips and techniques for correcting spoken errors


This is the third (very belated) part in a series on oral correction. In the first part, I wrote about the importance of correction, and in the second about when to correct, so in this post I’d like to concentrate on the actual process of how to correct.

Let’s start by looking at immediate correction, while the student is speaking. The pros and cons of doing this are discussed here, but assuming that you have made the decision to correct immediately (and not just reformulate), how can you best go about it?

Most teachers would agree that it is usually best to try and elicit a correction from the student. The argument is that this will involve them in deeper mental processing than if the teacher simply provides the correct language.  Some might argue that this is too difficult for the students, but I’d say that if they can’t attempt a correction even with help, then there probably isn’t much point in making the correction as it is likely to be something beyond their current level  of competence.

But no-one can correct themselves if they don’t know what the problem is. Take this (fictional) example:

Student: I want to heat it.

Teacher: No..

Student: Sorry, I want to heating it.

Teacher: No..

Student: Er, I want heat it?

Teacher: No, you want to EAT it!

So, the first thing to consider is how you are going to help the student realise where the problem  lies.

In the case above, the teacher could do a number of things:

  • Indicate where the problem is by simply saying ‘pronunciation?’
  • Ask a question to show the possible confusion- You want to make it hot?
  • Repeat the sentence, stressing ‘heat’ in a questioning way.

Depending on the error, we can use a number of prompts to help the student self correct. Using a keyword, such as ‘pronunciation’, ‘tense’, ‘article’ and so on can be useful if the student knows the metalanguage. However, gestures can also work very well for giving the student a ‘nudge’.

Here are some useful possibilities:

Third person –s  – Write an ‘S’ on the palm of your hand, so that when you open up your fingers the students can read it. In this way you can just ‘flash’ the –s whenever anyone forgets. (Be aware that in some cultures it is rude to show your palm however)

Word order– gesture with your hands swapping right over left to show that the order is different.

Missing –ly  on an adverb. (E.g. a student says ‘I walk slow’) – Make an L shape with your hand (British and American teenagers sometimes use this to mean ‘Loser’ though, so use with some caution)

Tenses– pointing backwards for past, forwards for future and down for present (though a friend of mine thought that the teacher was teaching the word for table when she pointed downwards!)

Missing word- Spell out the sentence on your fingers (from right to left so that it runs the correct way for the students) and hold the finger representing the missing word, asking what word is missing.

Wrong word- Similar to missing word. Spell out the sentence or phrase, with one word for each finger and stop at the wrong word and ask them to correct it.

Contractions or linking – Again spell out the words on your fingers, then hold two (or three) together and ask students to say it again, putting them together. For example, ‘I would not have done it’ – you could hold would, not and have together to elicit ‘wouldn’t’

Contractions or short vowels sounds– You can pinch together your thumb and index finger to show either a contraction ‘I would’ – ‘I’d’ or to elicit a shorter vowel sound ‘sheep’ to ship’

If the student just can’t self-correct, and assuming you’re not asking the impossible, you then have a choice about whether to try and encourage a peer correction. I think it’s important for students not to jump in and correct each other too quickly, but it is useful if you can build a class culture where it is acceptable for students to correct each other. As Caleb Gattegno said, ‘A mistake is a gift to the class’.  Knowing that they might be called upon, will keep students listening while you are working with an individual student to correct an error, and it’s likely that other students in the class will have similar difficulties, especially in a multi-lingual class. I would use this kind peer correction quite sparing though myself as the original student might start to feel too exposed.  It’s a judgement the teacher needs to make, depending on the student, the error, the stage of the lesson, how long the first attempts to elicit correction have taken and so on. It might be better just to give the correction and move on.

However, in post-speaking correction, peer correction can be really useful. The classic way of doing this is to note down errors (and sometimes good examples) while the students are speaking, and then write them on the board without saying who said them. Students can then work together to correct them.

Variations include turning the activity into a grammar auction, where groups of students bid for sentences they believe are correct, or asking students to decide which sentences are correct or not before correcting as a class.

Students can also take on the ‘teacher’ role if you allocate an observer to each group doing a speaking activity. The observer should note down any errors (or examples of good language) that they hear. The group can then work on the language together as a follow up to the speaking activity.

Perhaps the key thing with all of these techniques is to remember and to help students remember that mistakes are indeed a gift. They are how the teacher can evaluate what needs teaching or reviewing, and they are often the moment when a student finally ‘gets’ something that they have never quite understood.



Filed under classroom ideas, Correction, Teaching methodology

What are reading skills? –They’re not (only) what you think


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When we talk about reading skills, what usually comes to mind? Prediction, reading for gist, reading for specific information and skimming and scanning?

If you’ll forgive the clickbait style title of this post (I couldn’t resist), the fact is that there’s a lot more to the skill of reading than this.

Let’s start by looking at these commonly referred to skills, and then look at what else we could (and should) be teaching our students.


Students are very often encouraged to use the title of the text, or any accompanying pictures to make predictions about the content. There are good reasons for teaching students to do this; the idea is to activate whatever students may already know about the topic and help them to start creating a context. Without context, comprehension is much harder. Think about those moments when you turn on the radio and have no idea for a few moments what is being discussed. It only starts to make sense once you realise what the basic topic is.

Reading for gist

This doesn’t mean telling the students , ‘read the text to get a general idea of what it’s about’. That is never a very helpful task because it doesn’t give the students any reason to read, or any orientation to the topic or context. A gist question should mean that the students have to read the whole text, though not necessarily very thoroughly, in order to answer the question. For example, students might choose which title or picture most closely matches the content of the text. The idea is for students to get an overview of the text, which can help them when they return to the text to find more detailed information.

Reading for specific information

In contrast, reading for specific information means setting questions or a task which require the students to read the text much more carefully. This isn’t really a skill so much as a way of testing comprehension.

Skimming and scanning

These two words sound nice together, and make a memorable pair, but most people are a little vague about what they actually mean. Skimming has some crossover with reading for gist, because they are both about getting an overview. However, I would suggest that skimming and scanning are more properly called strategies rather than skills. They were originally both methods of speed reading. Skimming strategies are often taught as part of EAP (English for Academic Purposes) because these students have to read a great deal of content in English. So students may be taught, for example, to read just the first line of every paragraph, as this is often the topic sentence, which contains the main idea of the paragraph.

Scanning is a way of reading text quickly by only looking for specific bits of information, and not reading everything. For example, looking at the index or contents page of a book to find a specific topic you’re interested in, or picking out the figures in a text to see what the results of a piece of research were.  Again, this strategy can be particularly useful in academic contexts.

Understanding that we read different texts in different ways, using different strategies, is very important for learners. The way we read a novel on the beach is very different from the way we read a legal contract. We probably read the novel much faster, with more of a skimming/gist approach, whereas we are likely to read the contract carefully and slowly, checking that we understand the details. Students reading in a second language often fail to transfer these different ways of reading across from their first language.

Teaching reading skills

However, while looking at different ways of reading, and different reasons for reading,  is important, to what extent are these traditional reading activities actually helping students to read more effectively or fluently? Aren’t we mostly just giving them practice and/or checking their comprehension?

A reading lesson usually goes something like this:

  1. Set the scene/pre-teach vocab/elicit predictions.
  2. Read for gist (hopefully by setting a suitable gist question)
  3. Read again to answer for detailed comprehension questions.
  4. Discuss the content/focus on language in the text.

By encouraging students to predict and to read for gist first, we are perhaps helping them to develop their top-down skills- using context and their previous knowledge to make sense of what they are reading. However, there is a lot more to the reading skill than this.

According to Grabe and Stoller (2011:23) in each and every two seconds of reading fluent readers:

‘1 focus on and access 8-10 word meanings

2 parse a clause for information and form a meaning unit

3 figure out how to connect a new meaning unit into the growing text model

4 check interpretation of the information according to their purposes, feelings, attitudes and background expectations as needed

5 monitor their comprehension, make appropriate inferences, shift strategies and repair misunderstanding, as needed.

6 resolve ambiguities, address difficulties and critique text information, as needed.’

Fluent reading means that readers must be able to carry out all of these reading comprehension processes simultaneously and very quickly.  Just like driving a car, some of the processes taking place simultaneously must be automatized. If the reader is struggling to decode the words, or understand how the words fit into the sentence, or how the sentence fits into the discourse as a whole, their working memory will become overloaded, and they won’t be able to hold onto the overall meaning of the text.

So helping students to develop their reading skills must, I believe, include specific and conscious work on bottom up or decoding skills as well as top down skills, such as predicting.

Decoding skills

Whereas top down skills start from the reader and what the reader already knows or understands, bottom up or decoding skills start from the text. At the lowest level, students need to recognise alphabetic letters and then the words formed from these letters. Clearly, recognising and understanding written words is a key part of reading, even though we would usually deal with it under the heading of vocabulary. According to Paul Nation, in order to understand a written text without any assistance, students need to comprehend 98% of the words. So, if we want to work on developing reading skills (rather than using the text as a way of introducing new language) it is important that students aren’t getting stuck on too many unknown words.

Assuming that students recognise and understand enough of the vocabulary, the next layer of difficulty comes in putting those words together, understanding sentences, how those sentences fit together, and how what we are reading links with what we’ve already read. This is an area where there is huge potential to help students, and yet, outside academic reading courses, it is rarely a focus.

This is why I was so excited to work on Oxford University Press’s new series, Navigate. In this series, there is a clear syllabus and focus on these kinds of decoding skills. At lower levels, this might be understanding conjunctions or pronoun reference. At higher levels, we also focus on understanding complex sentences, ellipsis, paraphrasing and so on.

If we don’t focus on these kinds of skills, we are only teaching students part of what they need to know in order to improve their reading skills, and most of our focus is on testing comprehension rather than teaching.

Other posts on reading:

Learning vocabulary through reading

A lesson from my great-grandfather’s ELT coursebook- extensive reading and vocabulary

Developing meaning-building skills in reading

Repeated reading- some activities to build reading fluency

Listening while reading: can it actually help develop reading skills?

What kind of reading tasks might be worthwhile?

Creating effective reading tasks

Should we pre-teach vocabulary before reading, and if so how?







Filed under classroom ideas, Materials development, Reading, Teaching methodology, Uncategorized


@janetbianchi for eltpics.

@janetbianchi for eltpics.

A link to my new post for the British Council Blog, on using realia, or real, physical objects, in class. Find out why a trainee teacher brought a chicken pie and a beef pie into class…


Filed under classroom ideas, Different ways to use a coursebook, Planning, Teaching methodology

Seizing the moment: when to correct students’ spoken language

Photo Credit: [phil h] via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: [phil h] via Compfight cc

Assuming you believe that there is some value in teacher corrections (see my last post), the next question might be when to correct.

In my initial teacher training, I was taught that the teacher should correct during stages which focus on accuracy, and not interrupt while students are producing language in a ‘fluency’ stage (though you could note down errors to focus on in a group feedback stage at the end of the lesson).

Broadly speaking, I still think that’s good advice, but, as we have moved away from very rigidly PPP lessons, with clear stages which first focus on accuracy/controlled practice and then have a final fluency or free speaking stage, it has become harder to always judge exactly where the focus is at any given moment. And, anyway, is it always a ‘no-no’ to correct during a fluency stage?

I don’t pretend to have the definitive answer as to when to correct, but here are some factors I think are worth considering, in no particular order. You might have some more, or vehemently disagree. If so, please do comment.

1 Is it actually an error (something they haven’t yet properly understood or assimilated) or just a slip of the tongue? You might wait and see if it appears again.

2  Is the error quick and easy to correct, or to get the student to correct? If it will require a lot of explanation, maybe the student isn’t ready for it yet, or it might not be worth taking them and the class off topic (though see point 6).

3 Is the error something which the class is currently focusing on? If you have been looking at, say, past simple irregular endings, and the error is one of the verbs you looked at earlier, then correcting (or eliciting correction) might be useful for everyone, even if it’s in a nominally ‘fluency’ stage.

4 Is the error something that really impacts on communication? If no-one can understand what they are trying to say, or they are likely to completely misunderstand, then it probably needs dealing with- either immediately or later.

5 Is the error something that a lot of students habitually make, or are likely to make- will the correction be generally useful for the class?

6 Following on from that point, if a lot of students are making similar mistakes, it might be better not to correct them immediately and, instead, plan a new lesson around the area of difficulty, or, if you’re confident about it, change the direction of the lesson in order to focus on that point.

7 Finally, consider how this particular student is likely to react to being corrected. If they are shy or don’t usually speak out, you might decide to let something go in order not to knock their confidence.

In my next post, I’ll look more at how to correct, including who can make the correction and some different techniques for correction.


Filed under Correction, Speaking, Teaching methodology

Oral correction- insensitive or vital?

It’s a cliche, but there’s also some truth in this video. As Mark Bartram and Richard Walton point out in their seminal book,  Correction, ‘You don’t correct a mistake, you correct a person.’

If teachers always jump on every little mistake, and fail to even vaguely listen to the message that the students are trying to communicate, the emphasis in the classroom will not be on communication at all, but on producing correct forms. And, surely, language is first and foremost about communicating? The students are also likely to stop trying to take risks with language, or produce anything original, and may even stop speaking altogether. The balance of power will be weighted firmly on the side of the teacher, who appears to be the only person ‘in the know’.

Perhaps this is why so many ESOL teachers that I observed while tutoring on a Diploma in teaching ESOL were happy/proud to say that they never corrected students. They seemed to feel that there was something inherently authoritarian and negative about correction.  Incidentally, I specify ESOL teachers because, probably unsurprisingly, I’ve never found teachers who have been through the CELTA/Cert TESOL route who feel this way.

I started to wonder what it was about the way these teachers had been trained which had led to the formation of this belief. In some cases they hadn’t really been trained at all, but had got into teaching through volunteer work. Perhaps, in that case, it was, at least sometimes,  a combination of not really knowing the language systems well enough to have the confidence to correct, and the slightly patronising and protective approach to students which can occasionally come as a result of well-intentioned volunteering. [Oops, I can see some angry comments winging their way already- note how tentatively I’ve phrased that point!]

Or perhaps it was the teacher training methodology, firmly rooted in the principles of andragogy, with its emphasis on self-direction and learning from experience.

However, while adult students (and not just adults) clearly need to be self-directed and learning from their experience, that doesn’t mean, I believe, that the role of the teacher is simply to present them with input or opportunities to speak and then step back. ESOL students in particular, have plenty of daily opportunities to read, speak or listen in English, but what they don’t have is anyone to give them feedback. I remember feeling really frustrated as a learner of Polish, living in Poland, when I finally realised that I had been confidently using the wrong case ending to buy something every day for about three years..and no-one had ever corrected me.  Ultimately isn’t feedback (or judicious correction) the most important thing that we can do for our students?

In my next post, I plan to take a look at what exactly we might mean by ‘judicious correction’- when and how- but I’d be very interested in any comments on the whole idea of whether we should correct, and if I’m alone in thinking that it’s a particular issue in ESOL teaching?






Filed under Correction, Speaking, Teaching methodology