What's a Word Processor, Teacher?

Come check out my awesome presentation orienting students to basic skills such as typing and text-formatting. Not all our students grew up as wired and even students who are great on computers in their own languages get bogged down by the American keyboard and shortcut keysYou can’t get students excited about blogging and making wikis if it still takes them ten minutes to find the letter A. If you’ve got 25 minutes, I’ll introduce some of the websites and activities I do with students.

These are all things I’ve done in computer labs and let students do independently, too: What’s a Word Processor, Teacher?

World Clock: Sun 12pm GMT, 1pm London, 2pm Paris, 9pm Tokyo, 8am New York


While technology has opened up new worlds of learning for ELLs, some students may be sitting down at a computer for the first time in your classroom. I’ve had students who typed essays in their email and who didn’t know that you could save documents on a computer! Before students can really take advantage of the world wide web, it’s nice for them to know how to open an attachment or bold some text. In this presentation, I will share some activities and games I use to let students learn basic computer skills such as saving and opening files, practice typing, and to teach text formatting. A lot of these skills are transferable to other programs, such as blogs and chat forums, as text formatting symbols are becoming more universal. The techniques I will present could also be adapted to teach HTML or other more complex computer skills.


I’ve taught English in Vanuatu, Kazakhstan, and Connecticut.My students have been Russian oil executives, Afghan high school students and Saudi princes. I currently write ESL materials and keep a blog at



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My guinea pig died with its legs crossed

Note that I wrote this post while trying to design a syllabus for an entire course, an enterprise that was so daunting it made me feel like a total idiot who knows nothing about teaching at all. Or an egotistical madman. In the process of some research, I found this quote that hits exactly why I sometimes find teaching a language to be such an arrogant profession:

And what, then, is communication and what are its preconditions? This is what Dakin says:

“Communication is essentially personal, the expression of personal needs, feelings, experiences and knowledge, in situations that are never quite the same. And though we may often repeat ourselves, much of our conversation about even the most mundane matters is to some degree novel. We hear or produce utterances that we have never heard or produced before in quite the same form, and which, in consequence, cannot be practised [sic]  by the teacher or previously learnt by the learner. ‘My guinea pig died with its legs crossed’ said one eight-year old girl in a tape-recorded interview. No teacher is going to present such an utterance as serious material for drilling in the classroom or laboratory.” (pages 6-7)*
Whether more than one child will ever want to talk about its guinea pig dying with its legs crossed, uncrossed, or with little boots on, is not important. Very little of what we may want to say will be this striking. But almost all of it will be equally novel. Ask a language class of six adults “What did you do last night?”. If you are seriously interested in the answer, and actually wait for it, you will find perhaps that one watched TV, the other went to a brothel, the third had a strange religious experience, the fourth had a disgusting and overpriced meal, the fifth witnessed an accident and the sixth spent the evening playing whist. It would clearly be impossible for you as the teacher to have predicted what each learner will want to say or to have given them before the language necessary in that form. So either you should never have asked the question at all, or have included in your teaching a strong element of something else.

From: The limits of functional / notional approaches

I think we’ve all had guinea pig moments where a student is trying to really communicate with us but hasn’t learned the language to go beyond “in the classroom” or “home, sweet home”. We assume we know what needs our students have. Or we say to ourselves, “OK, maybe the students want to talk about a movie, but it’s more important to teach them how to take the bus to work first,” when we ourselves live for the time we get to chat about TV with our co-workers.

To be fair, the alternative is to teach everything, which is impossible. And you could go quite mad trying to teach six adults how to talk about a TV show, a brothel, a religious experience, a bad meal, an accident and a game of whist (who plays whist anymore?) Not to mention that while you’re dealing with the one adult, the other five are going to be bored. And who is this lucky teacher with only SIX students in class?

On the other hand, I do think we have to admit that CLT has its limits and we often are not really teaching students how to communicate very profoundly. We are not THAT far away from audio-lingualism in some respects. We’ve made memorizing language chunks and scripts a lot more fun, but we haven’t necessarily always evolved beyond it.

* ‘My guinea pig died with its legs crossed’ [Julian Dakin 1973 & Robert O’Neill 1977 – Editor

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Creating Custom Style Sets in Word

As I’ve been exploring the materials writer world more and more, I’ve learned a lot about a wide range of things from task design to publishing services to textbook company expectations. One area that I haven’t seen as much information on is actual document or visual design. I think that’s something that is very important. If you’re a teacher, the design of the handouts or worksheets can help students understand the information better and it also shows that you care, that you took time to make something nice for them. If you’re putting your materials out there online, a nice design makes it look professional.

One workshop I went to, Enhance Teacher-Made Materials Through Visual Consistency, with Tammy Jones and Gabriela Kleckova was on the importance of visual consistency. In other words, all your tests should look more or less the same. All your worksheets should have similar features. And one great way to do that, if you use Microsoft Word, is to create a style set. So here’s a little tutorial on how to make your own style set and then call it up every time you make a new quiz or worksheet or whatever.

I hope that it’s a useful resource and please feel free to leave questions, comments or critiques in the comments section or shoot me an email.

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Let's Kill Some Babies

A nice activity, or maybe just a thought experiment, from Nick Robinson at ELT Jam taken from the Pareto Principle. Apparently, the Pareto Principle says “for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes”. So here’s Nick’s challenge:

Grab the nearest ELT coursebook. Open up a lesson and look at the lesson objectives. Bearing those lesson objectives in mind, read through the lesson and start crossing out (in pencil, of course!) anything that you don’t consider 100% essential to helping the student achieve that objective. Nice warmer activity? Sure, but we could probably skip it if need be. Hm, interesting text used as vehicle for the grammar point? What if we just showed a few examples in individual sentences instead? Ah, sweet, some video input! Shiny. Actually, though, it’s not really adding anything that I couldn’t supply with some good old-fashioned acting at the front of the class. Keep going and see if you can get rid of 80% of the content. If you think you could get the learner 80% towards the lesson objective, using only 20% of the content, then that’s a win for Pareto!

I would say try this with your own materials and writing as well. Someone somewhere once said writing is all about killing babies, meaning editing out all the fancy doodads and trills and frills and clever allusions that pretty things up but don’t actually help the reader at all.

I think when it comes to teaching that there does need to be some entertainment and engagement. But I suspect that too often we let the fun get in the way of the teaching and learning. 80% may be too harsh. Or maybe we need to realize that engaging learners is a key objective, essential to helping the student. But I’m sure that a large percentage of what happens on the page or in the classroom is not vital to teaching students.

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Get Them in Groups

Putting students in groups is something teachers do all the time. It’s something that preferably happens quickly and seamlessly without interrupting class too much. Alternatively, there are methods of putting students into groups that also teach or at least provide practice. I’ve been working on my e-book about cooperative or collaborative learning, so I’ve also been collecting methods of grouping and pairing. Feel free to add more in the comments.
1. Counting off: The easiest way to do it. Give each student a number from 1 to however many groups you want (for four groups, number from 1 to 4, for example). Students with number 1 are one group. Students with number 2 are a different group and so on. It makes for random groups, but you can also asset some control by counting off all the female students first, then the male students for example.

2. English Dinner Party: A good way to make quick pairs. Students turn to the person to their left (or right or in front or behind). This is a good way to give students many partners quickly as for part one they can turn to their left and for part two they can turn to their right. I named this after the convention in English dinner parties that you talk to the person to your right for the first half of dinner and the person on your left during the second half.

3. Animal Noises: Prepare bits of paper with names of animals on them. Hand them out to students. Students have to make the noise of the animal on their paper and then find the others making the same noise.

4. Two parts of a sentence: Take a series of sentences and cut them in half at some logical point—perhaps to highlight a grammar point you are covering. Give each student one half. Students have to find the person or persons with the other half of their sentence.

5. Q and A: A variation where some students have a question and others have an answer or answers to that question.

6. Synonyms: Write a word for each group, and a number of synonyms of each word, for the number of people in each group. Students have to find the people with the synonyms of their word.

7. Line Up: A fun game in its own right. Ask students to line up according to some principle. Lining up by height or age is fairly easy. Lining up by preference for coffee or tea, or by love of broccoli can be more challenging. Once students are lined up you could count them off, or have the students at the extremes group up and the students in the middle group up.

8. Let them do it: You can always tell your students to form groups of 3 or 4 all by themselves. Yes, friends will end up with friends but at least no one will complain. And let’s face it, in the adult world most people do choose who they interact and work with.

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30 Goals: Share a Page of Your Future Textbook

by Walton Burns from Branford, CT, USA.

The Writing Master by Thomas Eakins

30 Goals Challenge for Educators: Make a Difference is on a world tour and I am happy to be your Inspire Leader for this part of the journey. So where in the world is the 30 goals? We are visiting Branford, CT  I invite you to accomplish the following goal- Share a Page of Your Future Textbook.

To accomplish this goal:

  •  Pick a page from your textbook that you think could be improved and rewrite it to match your needs.OR
  • Think about a textbook only you could create. What is your big idea about the best way to teach English? Create one page of that textbook. OR
  • Take a lesson or activity that works well with students and re-imagine it as a part of a published book.
  • Like any professional textbook, you might want to include any combination of discussion questions, a reading, a listening, pictures, grammar, vocabulary, cultural notes, speaking activities as well as design elements like titles, subtitles, diagrams, a color scheme and decorations.

Your students can:

  • Rewrite a page of the textbook that they think could be better.
  • Take a text and prepare a worksheet or presentation teaching this text to the class.
  • Prepare their own practice worksheet to help students review a grammar point or vocabulary.
  • I would also encourage them to think about the design and look of their products so that they end up with something professional looking.

 My Reflection

This all started with a challenge from Jason Renshaw to create a unit of class material. It got me to thinking about why more teachers don’t create their own materials.

I can’t tell you how many times I have stayed up late googling “present perfect grammar practice”, trying to find the perfect worksheet for my students. And they are rarely exactly what I want so I give them to students with caveats: “Don’t do #5, we haven’t covered that usage yet. I don’t agree with #6 I think present simple works here too. Just conjugate the verbs, don’t do the other part.”

It would be so much easier (and satisfying) to just make my own worksheet to give my students. Obviously time is a big limitation but it would sometimes be faster to do something myself rather than search and search and then adapt. And then it would be exactly what my students want. And presenting my students with a nice well-thought out lesson or worksheet, maybe something with a bit of color and a clip art to make it look as nice as the textbook, might impress them. It would show the students how much time I put into prepping lessons for them. That might make a difference in how they perceive me and my class, and even how they perceive their own learning.

As I’ve been moving from teaching to writing, I’ve discovered that most of the coursebook writers are in fact teachers. And that some of the materials and ideas shared with me by my fellow teachers are just as good as those I’ve found in textbooks. So I challenge you to tap into your creative side and create just one page–although you may want to take it further and do a whole unit or even a whole book.

The teacher job gets a bad rap sometimes: teaching is more than babysitting and it’s more than just being fun in the classroom and kind outside it. Teachers know their material. Teachers are inventive and resourceful. Teachers know how to teach well and how to write well. I encourage you to not only see how well you can develop a page of activities and materials but also to make it look professional and well-laid out and attractive to learners, just like a professionally published textbook. It might change how you look at yourself, your job, and how you look at the textbook. Who knows, it might lead to a new career as an author!


About Branford, CT

Branford is not one of the more famous places in Connecticut and Connecticut is not one of the more famous states. But Branford was once the Strawberry Capital of Connecticut and our strawberries, raspberries and blueberries are excellent. It’s also home to the Lobster Shack which serves Connecticut style lobster rolls–no lettuce or mayo, just chunks of lobster sautéed in butter on a roll. The dossant (much better than a cronut) was invented here. Beyond food, this is where Yale University was founded  and home of the famous Thimble Islands. So we may be a small town in a small state but we have our pride!

Thank you for dropping by! I hope you enjoyed your visit.

Find out more about The 30 Goals Challenge for Educators at 30Goals.comand join our 30 Goals Facebook community

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Letting Them Be Experts

This is my reflection on the latest 30 goals challenge: Let Them Be Stars proposed by Cristina Monteiro Silva.

I remember a colleague once saying that we almost watch our students grow up as they go from level to level. When they start out in the beginner and elementary levels, their language skills are so low, they seem like children. As their language improves, they “grow older and older”. At the time, I thought there was some truth in that, but later as I reflected on it, I thought about how condescending that sounded. How hard it is not to condescend to someone who doesn’t speak your native language as well as you do. Why are we teachers shocked when we learn that Habib who can’t conjugate the verb “to be” is speaks Arabic, Chinese, French and German, has a PhD in engineering, and runs his own company? Would you want to be treated like a child if you went to Russia to learn Russian? I think Cristina came up with a lot of great ways we as teachers can remember that our students may not speak fluent English (or be the ideal student) but they are still often accomplished people.

My favorite method was #4:

#4 With older students I have another suggestion:  Assess their speaking skills and simultaneously let them be the STARS. For 10m they can talk about anything they want. They prepare their presentation at home and can use whatever multimedia they wish (powerpoint, prezi) if they wish. As they choose themes they’re usually good at they feel more motivated and at the same time impress their peers with the knowledge they have about a specific subject.

I once did something like this in the framework of an activity called The Expert Game with high school students in Kazakhstan. It was truly amazing to listen to them talk. Even at the age of 16, some of them had accomplished so much. One girl was a competitive ballroom dancer. Another was a model. One guy did hip hop dancing. I had artists, singers, academic competition champions sitting in that classroom and not even known it. Of course, some of them talked about playing video games or their favorite movie, which is ok too. It was surprising how much they knew about their hobbies. For nine months I had struggled and fought with them to pay attention and do their homework (this was an extracurricular class in high school that parents paid for separately and I couldn’t give them grades so there was little motivation to pay attention).

I do think that letting them open up and tell me about their lives showed them that I was interested in them as human beings. Certainly they loved talking about themselves and I really did enjoy getting past that teacher-student conflict that seemed never-ending! So I think letting students share their talents in one way or another really does build strong rapport and let you get to the teaching part of your job.

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30 Goals: e-Encouraging e-to e-Read

Having ensconced myself in eBooks recently, I thought this reflection on eReading for the 30 Goals Challenge was particularly appropriate. I also tried out a new tech toy which is bare bones–Vocaroo. We’ll see how it goes and how it looks.

While you listen, feel free to stare at the covers of the two eBooks in my life right now:

The edition I read many years ago.
I’m reading this on my iPhone right now!
My Very Own Unfinished eBook
My very own eBook under construction!












Press Play to listen:
Featured Image from Wikimedia:
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Who ordered the McNuggets?

Scott Thornbury throws down about the textbook publishing industry with a lot of good points. I think he’s a bit mean about writers, but there’s a lot to think about here, including how much books (and teachers as well) over-simplify when we teach:

The commodification of education, including the reduction of content to the level of testable ‘bytes of information’, along with the relentless devaluing, de-skilling and disempowering of teachers that such commodification entails, should be resisted at all costs. And writers, like other vulnerable stakeholders, have not been slow in voicing their opposition.

Who ordered the McNuggets?

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7 Ways to Make Sure They Don't Peek

One of the things I’ve been very interested in lately is collaborative group work. Research shows that collaboration really can lead to students learning from each other. However, sometimes we give students tasks to do in groups that are not necessarily actually collaborative. That is, the students are not actually required to work together and both contribute in order to successfully complete the task. For example, when we tell students to check their homework in groups, they may be working together to puzzle out a problem with shared knowledge. Or the student who forgot to do it may be copying from one student while the others who did it well are chatting about last night’s football game.

One thing that forces students to work together, or creates a collaboration, is that each student has knowledge the others need to do the task. We sometimes create this situation somewhat artificially with cloze or information gap exercises or by giving students different parts of a reading or a two versions of the same paragraph or picture that they have to compare. Each student has some information the other needs. But students often sabotage our efforts by peeking. I can’t tell you how many times I catch them just looking at each other’s sheets instead of talking!

So with that in mind, I’ve collected some simple ways you can get students not to peek! Some of them are a bit extreme but that can actually be fun for students!

  1.  Put them back to back—this is one of the easiest ones. If they can’t see each other, they can’t peek without conspicuously craning their necks.
  2.  Put them in separate corners and have them call or text each other—This is a fun way to incorporate technology although you have to monitor them closely and also make sure they have unlimited calling and/or are on the same plan. I’ve only done this successfully once and it was a very big room!
  3. Have them chat online with each other–if you’re in a computer lab you can use Google+ or Yahoo Chat or some other chat program and have students type each other! This is also a great way to have them do it for homework. And if they are in separate buildings, they can’t do much peeking.
  4. Have them prerecord the task–Depending on the task, they might be able to go home and prerecord their answer on an MP3 file or through a service like Voicethread or Voki.
  5. Put bits of cardboard between the desks–set up barriers like they’re playing battleship or taking a standardized test!
  6. Blindfold them–this works if they are doing something that doesn’t require them to read constantly. For example, they might be doing a role play. Blindfold them after they’ve read and memorized their role. This is a great way to get them to actually improvise instead of just reading their role.
  7. Turn the lights off or at least down low–Like blindfolding them, if they can’t see they can’t peek. Even if you dim the lights, it’ll be hard for them to see their partner’s paper making any peeking attempts difficult.
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