IATEFL: yes, that massive collection of language teaching industry talks and professionals from across the globe, just concluded last Tuesday after five days of awesomeness. If you weren’t able to attend, there’s no realistic chance of replicating almost any part of it for you. Sorry. Believe me, this was my first time in person and while the streaming videos and live tweets were great in previous years, they do not compare to the live experience. The IATEFL bug has bitten.

I’ve wondered how I would meaningfully capture anything from the conference on my blog and it’s taken until this jetlagged zombie-in-daylight day to attempt to do so. I suppose I could summarise each valuable/enjoyed session, but honestly I’d be blogging for days (or like a madman–ask any of the roving IATEFL reporters). Instead, I elect to give bite-sized takeaways of sorts. Enjoy!

  1. IMG_0815The SIG PCE is worth it.  For me, attending the special interest group PCE (a one-day event tagged on the day before main conference or preconference event) as my gentle toes-in-the-water to IATEFL was an amazing experience. First, the talks in the Teacher Development SIG were spot on to at least one of my main interests (speaking of content summary posts: see my “problematizing for teacher development“). Second, you bond with and deeply explore topics with a group of people who, by default of selecting this SIG, share your interests–an excellent method for PLN expansion, btw. Between the speakers and the event organisers, four of my favourite (and oldest) PLN were represented: Mike Harrison, Willy Cardoso, Divya Madhavan, and Fiona Mauchline. Plus, I’m thrilled to have connected with Sinéad Laffar and Higor Cavalcante here.
  2. IMG_086730-minute talks are a good length for me.  Perhaps for the interactivity of a full-fledged workshop, additional time might be useful, but 30 minutes appealed to the attention deficit syndrome that living in the 21st century has caused. It made sitting through a talk that wasn’t going so well bearable. Finally, it’s not so daunting when you’re leading your own talk (NB: building further connections between these two subpoints is not encouraged). Overall, they pack a strong punch when used efficiently, plus you can go to so many more. On that note…
  3. IMG_0838Aim to see lots, but give yourself a break if you miss some. Attendee mistake 101: go to every talk you wanted to and burn out by the end of Day 2. Of course I wanted to see as many as I could. I diligently circled sessions in my program the night before. In many cases, I even agonised about choosing one of the three or four conflicting talks I’d end up seeing (NB for organisers: sometimes too much choice is a curse). Like so many before me, I quickly accepted this was an impossible task, and that breaks were needed to decompress… and mingle…
  4. IMG_0935It’s about the spontaneous as much as the planned. Scenario: you’ve just left one talk and have 15 minutes to go to the bathroom, get a coffee, and jaunt to the next talk circled on your list across the way. During this time, however, you run into an awesome PLN member, but who isn’t on quite the mission you are. Do you: a) say a quick hi and hug but that you’re heading for a talk you don’t want to miss? b) connect with them and have conversation, accepting you’ll just have to miss that talk? Ultimately for me, the talks are great, but it became obvious early on that this was my chance to spend time with people in person that I loved connecting with online. Plus, it’s these discussions that often matched the stimulation and learning that came from the talk I missed. Speaking of the people…
  5. IMG_0842Go with the flow in the evenings. Yes, the conference venue, talks, and exhibits were grand–above my expectation. No, they weren’t what I’ll remember most. It’s joining PLN for dinner, the talks unrelated to ELT, the surroundings where we spent time together. It can be exhausting after a full day of inspiration to go out for the evening as well, but it’s absolutely worth every minute. Even though I’ve known most of these people for years online and met many of them at least once offline, like any friendships, quality time develops them the most.

So this is what bite-sized looks like today. I might have another IATEFL post or two in me; we’ll see. :)

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English is crazy? Grammar police? I look at both concepts with a similar disbelief. If you do too, this post may not be for you. You’re the choir, so to speak, but feel free to read along with a collective nod. That kind of agreement comes up again a little later in this post.

In one part of my life, I get emails or Facebook shares with funny language tidbits which, to anyone but teachers, indeed make English look stupid. See this famous vocabulary poem and this pronunciation poem as examples. Harmless, but not as funny as they might think.

Elsewhere, near these poetic forays into our language landscape comes a seedier claim: there is one correct unchanging version of our language. You don’t see that claim so clearly stated out loud, but it’s evident when the self-proclaimed language police quickly (selectively) point out broken rules. Doing so suggests a belief that shifts in usage occur at a distance, not within our lifetimes, as though everything that conflicts with ‘hard and fast’ language rules are temporary, bastardized, or both.

Is it? Grammar police in misguided action.

The truth of the matter is that somewhere above a basic foundational use distinguishing English from gibberish (though check out old English or middle English sometime), the rest of our neat rules are up for grabs. Change may be gradual (e.g. colonial power struggles, loan words) or quite abrupt (e.g.social media crossovers). Marek Kiczkowiak points out that had early definitions persisted, some common expressions would involve entirely different meanings now. I’ll be bizarre in the face of language purists by suggesting that correctness should be dependant on the agreement of a majority who use it in a particular context, not a stubborn minority who teach it or cherish a childhood rule. To borrow a phrase coined by Stephen Colbert (though mockingly), there is a wikiality to our language in these times of connectedness.

Yes, there are examples of carelessness that irk me too: would of instead of would have; your instead of you’re; and others like them. Rationally considered, however, a few start to persuade me of their value. For example, I’ve noticed a marked increase in the deletion of apostrophes in social media texts. Initially I cringed, but youre is the product of efficiency. Would it be so terrible if those pesky apostrophes simply became part of the past? Then the idiocy of the it’s/its rule would disappear too. That cant be bad… Then there’s that reductive because + noun. If it can be named word of the year, who am I to resist?

I’m not arguing we throw complete caution to the wind and abandon everything that helps learners be able to communicate, but as language teachers, our challenge comes in accepting that what we think we know is actually not so absolute. We must face the available evidence (check out Google’s nGram Viewer, various corpora, or just the world around us really) and recognise our expertise involves flexibility. Otherwise, we become irrelevant records of the past.

PS – Having said all this, I still want to maintain linguistic differences between Canada and the States. Read more here.

PPS – For your interest, if you haven’t seen this dandy 10-minute animation, check it out. It’s not comprehensive, but gives a useful glimpse.

PPPS – Believe it or not, Anna Loseva, this is a terribly failed attempt at #paragraphblogging. I’ll try again next time.


Google docs works well to model the writing process with EAP students, who are navigating the expectations and mechanics of an undergrad research paper.

The assignment

Suppose you’ve given an assignment to your students with the steps something like these:

  1. Basic exploratory research
  2. Narrow focus and create research question(s).
  3. Research, organise and outline
  4. Annotate bibliography
  5. Draft paper & revise

Naturally, class time is spent explaining instructions, understanding readings, and working on language appropriate for introducing argument, supporting with evidence and the like. Individual feedback, if time permits, may touch on grammar, clarity and academic style. All this is wonderful, but regardless, I’ve realised students struggle with time management, know the writing process in theory only, and lack exposure to desired final products. They crave exemplars: they want something to compare themselves to before submitting; they need to see the real writing process in action. This gap between theory and practice led me to experiment with showing my students how I write; I did so through Google docs, particularly focusing on the transition from Step 4 to 5 (above).

In this assignment, Toronto was the very broad topic all students began with in Step 1. They narrowed this down to individual topics through Steps 2-3 and by Step 4, had a working understanding of topical background information, an argument to prove, and a general sense of the direction their paper was heading.

I did everything too

I did the assignment alongside them on my own focussed topic: bike lanes in downtown Toronto. Until this point, however, their access to my version was limited to class presentations explaining instructions clearly and activities practising relevant language: not good enough. So I uploaded my exemplar annotated bibliography and began a new shared Google doc, where I’d demonstrate how to write an introduction section from writing already completed in Step 4.

If you’re looking at the second link from above, you’ll see on Page 1 just a review of existing information from Step 4 (first link). On Page 2, you’ll see the bulk of my writing process, where I’ve revised these two paragraphs to lead to my thesis as an introductory section of the final paper. On Page 3, you’ll see the final product, colour coded to relate lessons from class to the introduction I composed here.

Let’s look more closely at Page 2 though, to see exactly how Google docs is magical for modeling my process to students.

Suggesting mode & revision history as process

Screen Shot 2015-01-24 at 2.56.24 PM

Google docs currently has three viewing modes: Editing (approved users can make changes that automatically update the document), Suggesting (approved users can make changes that appear similarly to “track changes” in Microsoft word i.e. different coloured text appears for edits made, strikethrough text for deletions, etc.), Viewing (approved users can only see, but not edit, the document at its current state). Through Suggesting mode, students are able to see all my edits to rework the original paragraphs into an introduction with my thesis. This affords a visual to emphasise the first draft is not where things end.

The two green arrows above indicate a second useful feature here: revision history. By choosing this option from the File menu tab, the right sidebar appears with many dates in chronological order. Clicking on one of these dates highlights the exact change made to the document. You can see from above that on October 23 at 12:28, I made the changes that appear in green on the document. Other changes are greyed out. This feature enables students to see these revisions as an actual process over a series of days and times instead of in one sitting.

Audio comments to explain process

These features alone prove Google docs’ utility, but students could only see what I had revised, not why I had done so: not good enough. I decided to highlight each change I’d made and explain why I did so using audio comment.

Screen Shot 2015-01-24 at 2.51.34 PM

The purple arrows indicate the Commenting function. When you highlight text within a Google doc, you can leave users a comment by pressing that icon. This results in the sidebar boxes on the right where you can have threaded conversations about the highlighted text. Clicking on any of these comments highlights this text. While explaining through written text could suffice, reading explanations while reading the text itself could be reading exhaustion. So I used a simple online recording tool, Vocaroo, to provide audio links of these explanations for students. You can hear an example Vocaroo link mentioned in the first comment on the Google doc itself or by clicking on the play button here:

(Aside: Yes, it lacks some enthusiastic, but I was aiming for clarity above entertainment.Normally I’m sound more interesting. I swear.)

Yes, there are apps/plugins that you can add to Google docs, like Kazeina, that also allow audio comments, but the learning curve was something I wanted to avoid, while keeping the interaction as intuitive for students as possible.

Going forward into the next term’s research project, I’ve elected to try this throughout all steps and encourage students to write their papers on Google docs so we can engage with their writing in real-time over a longer duration.

So there you have it. With 1 point from the last post, now it’s Google docs 2, pen & paper 0. ;)

If interested and you can get something from static slides, I recently led a session about this assignment at #realize15.