Category Archives: Uncategorized

Effective and efficient techniques for giving feedback on writing


Marking written work can be incredibly time-consuming, and it’s disheartening when you see the students glance quickly at your detailed comments and put the piece of writing away in their bags never to be looked at again.

So, what can be done to a) reduce your workload as a teacher and b) encourage students to actually learn something from your feedback*?

We all know that it’s important to get students to take responsibility for their own work and many teachers use a correction code to encourage students to self-correct. This can be useful, but you still need to be selective.  Too many corrections/comments can lead to the student feeling overwhelmed and demotivated, and/or the student not knowing which of these areas are high priorities.

Be selective

  • Choose one or two areas with the whole class that you will focus on for this set of written work only. For example, if it is an opinion essay, you might choose to focus on text organisation. Or you could choose a grammatical area, such as articles, that the whole class finds difficult. Instead of the teacher choosing these areas, you could negotiate them with the class before they start or after they have written the work but before they have handed it in.
  • Ask students to individually select two areas they want you to focus on as you mark their work. They could either write these at the bottom of their work, or highlight sections that they don’t feel as confident about.
  • Focus on just one or two (anonymous) pieces of work that you look at with the whole class. Take it in turns so that everyone has this opportunity. Especially with a monolingual group, it is likely that many of the issues will be the same for most students.
  • Just correct one paragraph of each student’s work. Then ask them to self-correct anything similar in the rest of the piece.

Of course, with all these approaches it is important that the students understand that not highlighting something doesn’t automatically mean that it is correct, but that you are being selective.

Set aside time for students to respond to and act on your feedback

In the UK this has the lovely acronym DIRT (directed improvement and reflection time). If we don’t want our carefully thought through feedback to be ignored, DIRT is vital. However, it is unlikely in most contexts that you will have sufficient class time for students to sit and re-draft the whole pieces of work in class. Again, be selective.

So, if you have just marked one paragraph, students could work on that one paragraph in class, and then look at the rest at home. Or, if you have just marked errors with articles, you could write a selection of errors on the board for the class to correct, and then ask students to correct just one paragraph of their own work in class. Or if they have asked you about a particular section, give them time to work on rewriting that section in class, in response to your feedback.

Once students are familiar with the DIRT technique, you can write DIRT activities on the bottom of their written work. For example, ‘Find at least three sentences where you have used ‘and’ and ‘but’ and change them to use more complex linkers’ or ‘rewrite paragraph 3 and make sure that the tenses are used correctly.’

Extensive feedback that students do nothing with is, quite frankly, a complete waste of everyone’s time, so why not experiment with some of these ideas?


*Of course, feedback is not only about pointing out what could be better, and it is also important to point out what went well.

You can find another post on written feedback here:




Filed under classroom ideas, Correction, Uncategorized, Writing

Motivating adults with truly grown-up content


Our approach to adult learners needs to be quite different from teaching younger learners, and even teenagers. In my post for, here, I look at how we can use the life experience of adults to provide more motivating and engaging lessons.

I also recently presented at BESIG in Munich on how the principles of adult learning, or andragogy, can be applied to teaching Business English, especially as the skills required in the workplace change so rapidly.

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What mindfulness is, and is not.


My recent post about Mindfulness and Classroom Management perhaps made too many assumptions about the concept of Mindfulness. So, while it isn’t precisely ELT related, I wanted to clarify a little what I think Mindfulness is (and what it isn’t).

The video that sparked my last post, has also inspired others to blog about it. One post I read, Mindfulness?, suggests that mindfulness is being used to quieten students rather than deal with the causes of their disruptive behaviour, and that it is being used to control workers and make them less likely to complain about poor conditions. I think it is a common misperception that mindfulness is about drifting away from life in some way but, in fact, being mindful is about being super aware and awake.  This is both being aware of what is happening around you, and aware of what is happening inside you. So it’s the very opposite of shutting down and shutting up.

There is part of all of us that actively almost ‘enjoys’ getting stressed, upset, angry, fearful etc. It’s that inner voice that tells us that we aren’t good enough, or that other people will reject us and so on. The psychologist, Ronald Fairbairn called it the ‘internal saboteur’, and it’s also sometimes referred to as the ‘lizard brain’- that ancient part of the brain that is still reacting in very primitive ways to any sense of threat. It’s the lizard brain that takes over when we experience road rage, for example.

Many people do not realise that while we can’t control our negative feelings (and shouldn’t try) we do have a choice about how we respond to them. We can’t help feeling angry, but we can choose not to identify with that feeling, and instead just be fully aware of it. We don’t have to let the lizard brain take over.

This doesn’t mean that we put up with injustice, but that we don’t act from the place of fear, anger etc. On a practical level, we are likely to be much more effective if we can step back from the emotions before we decide how to act or respond. So the kids who meditate rather than have detention (mentioned in my post Mindfulness and Classroom Management) are less likely to let their anger or frustration spiral out of control. And, in the workplace, more mindful employees are probably less likely to put up with poor conditions because instead of simply feeling like angry victims, they will become more aware of their feelings and realise that they need to make changes to feel at peace. (Though it is entirely possible that the big companies encouraging mindfulness don’t anticipate this outcome!)

As well as having a choice about how we respond, we also have a choice about whether we set ourselves up in situations that we know will trigger negative feelings. For example, I have a bad habit of not leaving myself enough time to go places. If I am not mindful, I end up rushing around stressed out of my head, gathering up my stuff and running for the train. And my internal saboteur LOVES that because it provides all sorts of opportunities to confirm deeply held beliefs about how useless and disorganised I am. If I am mindful, I can choose not to put myself in this situation. And the same thing goes for planning ahead for classes.

Mindfulness is a cline. Some people are completely sleepwalking through life. They have no idea that there is any other choice than to be buffeted about by their emotions. Their lizard brain controls them completely and they don’t even realise that there is another way of being.

At the other end of the cline are those who are completely awake at all times. They are conscious of their reactions and any negative emotions that arise, but they identify themselves with the part of the mind that is observing the reaction. Often this is a result of years of meditation and mindfulness practice, though sometimes people just spontaneously ‘wake up’, often as a result of great trauma.

And the rest of us are somewhere in the middle. And that’s fine. Every single time that we manage to be mindful, rather than being led by the nose by our lizard brain, we move along the cline. The more we do it, the easier it becomes.

So, in fact, something as simple as reading a book or article, or going on a day’s workshop can make a massive difference to our lives (and by extension our teaching). It can wake us up to the possibility that we don’t have to be a slave to our negative emotions, if we’ve never even considered that, and it can help us to remember to be mindful more often if we are aware but frequently forget.

And so, while the corporate world may well be trying to take advantage of the mindfulness movement, encouraging more mindfulness can, I think, only ever be a good thing overall.

Related posts:

Mindfulness for Teachers

Mindfulness for Students (with no tibetan bells or yoga)



Filed under mindfulness, Uncategorized

A favourite speaking activity


© Copyright Zorba the Geek and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence.

A link to my latest British Council blog, with one of my favourite speaking activities. It’s a favourite because a) it’s really flexible and can be done with any level and at any stage of the course (though it works particularly well for a first lesson or a cover lesson), b) it takes very little or even no preparation if you’re good at thinking on your feet, and c) students always enjoy it.

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All about writing activities

This week has been all about writing activities, with a webinar for British Council Teaching English, and the publication of my ebook for English Language Teacher 2 Writer, on How to Write Writing Activities.

As part of publicising the webinar, the British Council shared an old post, about Process Writing, which, to be honest, I’d even forgotten I’d written. And, there’s some good stuff in there, if I do say so myself.

So, as it’s a writing activities week, I thought I’d round up all the old posts on writing and put them in one place.

Real World Writing Activities

Using a Genre Approach to Writing

Process Writing: Mixing it Up

Collaborative Writing Activities

Just Write: Short, Inspiring Activities to get Students Writing

Responding to Students’ Writing



Filed under classroom ideas, Materials development, Uncategorized, Writing



How can we motivate our students, and ourselves? In my latest blog post for British Council Teaching English, I look at what motivates me, and how that might relate to more general theories of motivation.

Read the post here.

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

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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