Friday, May 30, 2014

Simple Prep iPad Activity: Creating Stories in Class

Stories help us organize and remember information and tie content together. I've already talked about the power of online storytelling and the myriad online resources available to experience such fantastic educational tool (click here to check this post).

With the advance of technology and the integration of iPads in the classroom, teachers are now able explore the power of storytelling in different ways. Some apps have been developed where students can imagine, create, and share what they make. Thus, students will be the ones creating content, putting their ideas together to tell a story using creative and engaging platforms.

Two of my favorite apps for creating stories are Scribble my Story and Creative Pad. These apps can be incorporated into your lesson plan with very simple previous preparation.

With Scribble my Story students can create their own story by picking a blank book, adding their own voice and illustrating in different ways.  There’s also the option of changing the background color, adding stickers and stamps. As a follow-up activity, students can read their stories to each other, or teachers can project students' stories and ask comprehension questions about them.

Creative Pad presents a more comprehensive platform. There are several different themes students can choose from, with different settings for every theme available.  Students can add characters, all sort of objects, animals, musical instruments, nature elements, etc. In order to create the story, students can add dialog boxes and also write captions in each of the slides. In the end, the story can be sent via email in a pdf version. I guess parents would love to receive their kids’ production. What do you think?

How would you include storytelling production in your class?

Monday, May 26, 2014

TESOL 2014 – Mousetraps for Language Teaching

Being a so called TESOLer is having an opportunity to be part of a dynamic community of professionals.  Therefore, it is always a rewarding experience to attend (and present at!) a TESOL Conference, and this year couldn’t have been different. I knew in advance that I would have a chance to attend presentations with Diane Larsen-Freeman, Douglas Brown and Penny Ur, among others. In fact, there were so many different presentations with interesting titles and renowned presenters that it was hard to choose what to attend.
However, having read, studied and used as reference Dr Douglas Brown’s books for so many years, it would be inevitable not to share his presentation here. His My “top ten” list of mousetraps presentation revolves around the “mousetraps” which work very well in our profession.

He started his presentation by asking the audience to think about the mousetraps – “principles, methods and the kind of foundation stones” - we have been engaged in during our professional lives. Dr Brown made us stop to think about the kind of methodology we rely on in our teaching when we plan our classes. After a brief review of his “Ten Commandments” (from 1990), the presenter stated that, at the time, he simply pictured everything relatively unified in some kind of Strategic Investment Mousetrap, meaning that we teachers would get our students to invest in the language we were teaching. 

Then he wondered whether or not we were right to do so at the time, however, what really mattered was that we were on the right track. From then on, Dr. Brown stated that many things have changed, for there have been lots of research for the past twenty-four years, and that there are now better mousetraps, showing the audience how our profession has progressed in many positive ways. However, before starting to talk about those “top ten” mousetraps, he made a point of telling us that things have evolved, becoming simpler, but not that the twelve principles from his well-known book Teaching by Principles (1993, 2000, 2007) don’t work anymore, for they are still great principles; it’s just that researchers have improved on them. 

That being said, the presenter made it clear that those changes encompass all the connections that researchers in the field have been making with learners, for they revolve around what makes students successful and what makes them interested in learning, not forgetting about all the global implications of teaching English worldwide.  Based on that, he compared the traditional mousetraps to the better mousetraps for language learning.  

Traditional Mousetraps
Better Mousetraps
# 10 Behavioral vs. Cognitive
         Competence vs. Performance
         Innate (acquired) vs. Learners
Dynamic Systems Theory
Emergentism (This term is used to say that language learning is like any other learning, for it emerges from the human being like other skills emerge.)
# 9 Transfer
Embodied Cognition
(According to Brown, cognition is part of a whole picture: body, mind and world connections. He states that it’s like “opening up and capturing the concept of transfer, interference and overgeneralization in a much more holistic and refreshing way for teachers”.)
# 8 Focal vs. Peripheral Attention
      Controlled vs. Automatic Processing
Form-focused Instruction (FFI): Noticing
(The idea here is to get sts to work with the pieces of language they learn and put them together with a whole form with all the communicative efforts. Students need to notice the language in order to be successful at using it.)
# 7 Strategy-based Instruction (SBI)
       Awareness -> Action
Self-regulation, Scaffolding
Mediation, ZPD
(This mousetrap is about having teachers mediate the learning process that learners are going through in the classroom and how they can work within sts’ zone of development to keep them progressing along with awareness and action.)
# 6 Intrinsic Motivation
      Meaningful (vs. Rote) Learning
Imagined Community
(This principle is important to remind teachers that the perception learners have is more important than the reality they face. As teachers, we need to help learners square their imagination to their own reality; to the community they will be using the language with.)
# 5 Personality & Cognitive Styles
      Anxiety, Risk-taking, Empathy
Communities of Practice
(According to this principle, nowadays, teachers shouldn’t look at learners as individuals who are striving to overcome their anxiety and self-esteem, but as communities of learners. We should see our classrooms as communities of practice and the future of the language in those communities of practice.)
# 4 Community Competence
      Willingness to Communicate (WTC)
Interaction,  Collaboration
Communities of Practice
(Once again, Dr Brown states that researchers’ theories and methodologies are showing that learners shouldn’t be seen as individuals working alone in the world, but people relating to other people, within communities. It’s all about the social nature of language.)
# 3  Intercultural Competence
       Cross-cultural Analysis
       Social Distance, Optimal Distance
(With the global use of English, in this mousetrap, the presenter says that the concept of crossing-cultures is changing and that the term Languaculture is being used, for it captures the notion that language and culture are intertwined.)
# 2 Language Ego
(This is an extremely important principle, for the whole notion of identity is related to the way people talk, and that is something we can’t change. There are few things you can do to improve the way people talk, because the way they talk is the way they are.)
# 1 Empowerment
(This is the concept which Dr Brown believes wraps it all up, for it reminds us that, in his own words, “our mission with our students is to help them to be agents, using the language, internalizing the language, making choices of their own, and not think of themselves as second class citizens”.) 

Before his closing remarks, Dr Brown mentioned he hopes that, in a couple of years, there will be no distinction between non-native English speakers and native English speakers, for this distinction is something from the past. He also added that non-native English speaker teachers who have learned English as their second (or third) language are the most wonderful teachers that one can have, for we are agents; we have identified ourselves in the English language.

The presenter ended his presentation with a quote from Gandhi which says that we “must be the change we want to see”. Douglas Brown thinks that we are becoming even more humane in the process of being English teachers. He is also encouraged by what has been happening in the last four decades and the directions that our profession is turning to and the methodology that has been embracing the different identities of our learners. For all of us there, he left the challenge of taking those principles and making them work in our classrooms.

As for me, I left his presentation not only feeling blessed for having the opportunity to attend it, but also with the feeling that one of my favorite authors, who has inspired me as a professional for more than twenty years, has shown that I have also been on the right track by researching and trying to adapt the mousetraps to my own teaching.

*H. Douglas Brown & Heekyeong Lee are launching the fourth edition of Teaching by Principles, in early 2015.  

Simple Prep iPad Activity - Power up Motivation in the EFL Classroom


    Have you ever been surprised by how creative our students can be? This post is about a task I asked my Teen 3 students to do that required no prep and surprised me a lot because they came out with outcomes that were way more creative than what I had imagined.

    I was teaching vocabulary to describe feelings, and I gave groups slips with some vocabulary related to the lesson. I asked students to take pictures to illustrate the words with the iPads. .
Students then had to make a short video using Educreations asking the group to guess what feelings their photos related to. We had a lot of fun, and they wanted to play the game over and over, which I did not mind at all because they got lots of personalized input.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Simple Prep iPad Activity: TELLAGAMI - Giving Life to Students´ Avatar and their Language Production

Tellagami is one of those multi-purpose free apps that will give an extra boost to your classroom activity, with lots of student production in English.

Here´s an overview of the app:

In the classroom, use Tellagami to:

  • let the avatar tell a story about a specific place (you can change the background there)
  • review a concept. Students have to summarize what they´ve just learned
  • do a follow-up activity in which students tell their own views on the topic
  • drill basic structures in a young learners´ class ( I like; I don´t like; I have; I don´t have)
  • practice physical descriptions when students are creating their avatar; then, they record about their best friend´s physical appearance
  • work on clothing by changing the avatar´s outfits; the avatar can record why he chose that specific outfit
Students can record their own voices, or even use the text to speech feature (they write the text and choose the accent of their avatar. Warning: this feature only works when there´s Internet connection).

GOING THE EXTRA MILE: there´s an editing feature on YOUTUBE that you can put your students´ Tellagami videos altogether in one single Youtube video. Here´s an example from a training session we had about high performance class. First, we used this poster as a discussion springboard.

Then, the groups created their avatars and recorded their main ideas about highly performaning classes. Finally, I edited them, using Youtube editor, after having uploaded all the gamis.

Ready to begin? We´d love t know what you´ve been doing in class with Tellagami. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Finding Motivation by Motivating Students

What do you do when your students fail their tests? Do you blame them or yourself? I used to blame myself, but I’ve learnt that the best alternative, at least for me, was to stop assigning blame and start thinking outside the box.

It’s natural to think that there are predetermined roles in the classroom and that simply by enrolling or being in the classroom, everyone will know what to do. That is exactly how I thought things were: I would go to a specific classroom in a specific time and so would students; I would teach and they would learn. It was only when I was confronted with terrible grades — only 3 out of 10 students had passing grades on their first written test — that I realized I was wasting a great opportunity.

My first reaction was to think I was a terrible teacher. After all, I am an absolute beginner, having only less than two years of experience. I spoke to several senior teachers and asked for advice. The first one I received was to check what exactly the students’ mistakes had been. Had they all made the same mistakes? If yes, I needed to check the way I had been teaching them. If not, I should check the students’  academic records to see if they had had difficulties in the previous levels. After some research, I realized two things: all students, even the ones who had good grades, made the same kinds of mistakes; and none of them had had a history of below average grades.

It’s important to note that students in the lower intermediate level get a really bad reputation. They are said to be the “weakest links”; students who didn’t do well on their replacement tests. I kept hearing that those bad grades were just what I should have expected. I felt extremely uncomfortable to just accept that these students were weak and that there was nothing I could do. In my mind, If I had been a better teacher, they would have done better. Besides, I had looked into their academic records and I could not find the proof that they were just bad students.

Another thing I was told by senior teachers was that there is a large gap between the Teens course and the Lower Intermediate course. In the latter, tests demand a lot more from students’ cognitive abilities. In fact, the one difficulty all students had was with listening and reading comprehension. It wasn’t something I had taught them; I had been too focused on teaching grammar and vocabulary.

My first step, after gathering advice I had received from several senior teachers, was to deliver the news to the students about their low performance and, at the same time, motivate them to do better on their next test. It seemed impossible! But the teachers I spoke to knew me and trusted me. They said I could do it. So I asked students how they had prepared for the test, how they thought they did, and if it had been easy or hard. I spoke to them in Portuguese and they opened up very quickly. I found out a lot from my students that day. They are under a lot of pressure from their parents, their regular schools and themselves. They also thought, same as I did, that teaching and learning were automatic processes, and all they had to do to get a good grade was to “sit down and study”. For them, given how they did on their test, it hadn’t been enough.  I thought they were being too hard on themselves, but then again, I realized I had been too hard on myself too.

I needed to take the focus out of this blame game. I asked the students to trust me and to help me help them. Thinking about it now, I noticed that what I did was to ask them to stop looking for someone to blame and start focusing on learning. I remembered something that my coach had told me on my first semester at CTJ: “We a have to teach students how to learn”. So based on that and also on the things I have been learning at the TDC - Teacher Development Course, I started changing the way I planned the lessons for that specific group.

The first thing was to teach them strategies such as scanning and skimming. I showed them how to look for information, how to look for clues in exercises, patterns in sentences, and in essence, how to develop strategies to solve the exercises. I also turned the wrap up stages of the lessons into mini projects. For example, after a lesson about the differences between past simple and past continuous, I told the students to create a story using only three sentences. They all sat down on the classroom floor to make a poster together, and it was the first time I saw them actually happy to be in class.

Basically, I started focusing on making the students feel independent and in control of their own learning. I stopped simply giving them information and started giving them the tools to get there themselves. I noticed a complete change in behavior. What I had thought was just normal teenage behavior during a class at 2pm had basically been lack of motivation. Before, they were barely present in class, mostly quiet and unresponsive. They didn’t do their homework and they didn’t answer my questions. They also spoke a lot of Portuguese. Now, they try harder to speak English, they use the language being presented, they respond faster to eliciting. And, I’m relieved to say, out of all the students, only one had a below average grade on their second test. It was not a miracle change though, — the lowest passing grade was 76 — but I’m counting my blessings!

This had been the one group I dreaded meeting every week. They made me feel like a real failure. Now that they are motivated, they are the best part of my week. I’m glad I stopped focusing on laying blame and decided to trust the advice of senior teachers: I learned that motivating my students was the best way to motivate myself.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

BRAZTESOL Conference - Different Generations: A common Goal

We, Carolina Piacenti and Evania Netto have just attended the Braz-Tesol Conference in João Pessoa, AL. It was a great conference: well organized, in a great site (Escola Internacional Cidade Viva) and in a beautiful city. Furthermore, the quality of the presentations were fantastic and there wasn´t a single talk or workshop that we didn´t like or regretted attending.

However, as the topic of our own presentation was “generations” and the way that different generations of teachers can benefit by working together, we started paying attention to the mix of generations that could be seen and heard in the event. To start with, we browsed through the program and realized we could choose from a workshop given by one of the most renowned ELT senior representatives from Brasília-Sara Walker, watch the plenary session given by the brilliant Jeremy Harmer or feel touched by the emotional session about getting older given by Jane Revell. It was not only the senior generation that made presence in the conference, though. Looking again at the program, we could easily verify that the Baby Boomers and the members of Generation X were also active, bringing innumerous contributions to the field with names such as Ben Goldstein, Paul Seligson and Jeff Stranks. 

On the other hand, if one preferred to see the newer generation of speakers, they would not be disappointed as they would be able to check CTJ world-wide technology expert Carla Arena, an academic session about gaming and gamification used in teaching and learning a second language given by Janaína Weissheimer or the fantastic J.J. Wilson talk about teacher development. Nevertheless, due to the amount and variety of choices, one would not be able to see everything and would have to choose something related to their own field of interests which would turn out not to make attendees less enthusiastic but to enhance their social networking and ability to reflect upon their careers as they could see themselves working in pairs with Scott Thurnbury, Steve Taylore-Knowles, Élcio Souza or just a novice teacher who had just graduated from college.

So, as you can see, Braz-Tesol was a fruitful and enriching professional experience where different identities met to form a mosaic of generations that by collaborating could help each other achieve the goal that the older, the middle or the younger generations of teachers  have in common - to teach English in effective ways. 

Sunday, May 04, 2014

TESOL 2014 - On Language Development and Affordance

One of the highlights of the 2014 TESOL International Conference was Diane Larsen Freeman’s plenary entitled Complexity Theory: Renewing Our Understanding of Language, Learning, and Teaching.  Complexity Theory in Second Language Acquisition is not an easy topic to digest, but Larsen-Freeman made it easy to understand by way of her outstanding presentation skills and the illustrative slides that helped visualize the actual simplicity of the theory and how much sense it makes.

My first more in-depth encounter with Larsen-Freeman’s discussion of Complexity Theory as an approach to second language acquisition, or rather, development, was through her chapter in Dwight Atkinson’s book on Alternative Approaches to Second Language Acquisition (Larsen-Freeman, 2011). I have to admit I had to read it three times to really grasp the essence of the theory and how it related to second language acquisition.

If you’re not familiar with Complexity Theory and its relationship with Second Language Acquisition, I’d like to share with you my short summary of Larsen-Freeman’s fantastic TESOL Plenary, particularly regarding the topics of language acquisition and language input.  Then, if you’re interested in more in-depth reading on Complexity Theory, I recommend Larsen-Freeman’s chapter in Atkinson’s book or this article (Larsen-Freeman, 2007).

Complexity theory seeks to explain complex, dynamic, open, adaptive, self-organizing, nonlinear systems (Larsen-Freeman, 2011, p. 52). Fractals are the signature of complex systems; as we go deeper and deeper into the structure, the same pattern occurs.

Larsen-Freeman’s main thesis in her plenary is that, within the Complexity Theory framework, we can’t really say that language is acquired, but rather, it is developed. Acquisition implies language as a commodity that you ingest somehow. Language development is the emergence of language abilities in real time. A pattern arises from the interaction of the parts; emergence is the spontaneous occurrence of something new. The edges of language are blurry; there is no end and there is no state. Acquisition suggests completion and a one-way process, while development is bidirectional.

Larsen-Freeman also finds the term input problematic because it dehumanizes the learner. For her, acceptability is interlocutor-dependent. Input is problematic because it is inert knowledge. She asks us why it is that students can do something in the classroom but then can't do it outside the classroom later on. It's because we don't teach language as dynamic. Meaningless repetition contributes to the inert knowledge problem. She points out that iteration is different from repetition. As a learner's system develops, it functions as a resource for further development.

Students need to adapt their behavior to an increasingly complex environment. This can be done through iterative activity under slightly different conditions. Input suggests a one-way action between an individual and the environment. Affordance is a better term to use in this case - providing a language-rich environment where students will find their own affordances; language develops from experience, afforded by the learner's perceptions of the environment.

This development is individual; learners define their own learning path. For this reason, we can't average out data. What should be taught is not only language but also learners. We need to design spaces with learners specifically in mind.

Above all, we transform; we don't transfer!


Larsen-Freeman, D. (2007). On the complementarity of Chaos/Complexity Theory and Dynamic Systems Theory in understanding second language acquisitin. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition 10 (1), pp. 35-37.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2011). A Complexity Theory Approach to Second Language Acquisition/Development. In D. Atkinson, Alternative Approaches to Second Language Acquisition (pp. 48-72). New York, NY: Routledge.

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