Wednesday, 27 July 2016

ETAS Cyber Sessions: Teachers helping Teachers

Part 2 

Skype for CPD 

In May, I launched this pilot project with the Regional Coordinators from Central Switzerland. The  purpose was to trial Skype with ETAS (English Teachers Association Switzerland) members for the purpose of continuing professional development (CPD) and also as a means of networking. 

These sessions enabled English language teachers to experience first-hand how Skype can be used for language teaching in conjunction with other tools. It's interesting to note that although some of the participants had experience teaching via Skype, not all were familiar with the affordances of the tool and indeed, few had considered using other tools in conjunction with Skype to improve their students' learning experience. 

In my opinion, this project provided a great opportunity to exchange teaching experiences with one another in an informal atmosphere. It also provided a platform to discuss other topics that concern those of us working in online environments such as finding suitable online resources and understanding copyright. In relation to these points, I've provided a few links which you can follow up on the feedback board

I throughly enjoyed meeting other English language teachers from Switzerland's diverse regions and hope that we can engage in more of these kinds of cyber sessions for CPD.

Session summary

As promised, I'm providing you with a brief recapitulation of the content we covered. I haven't gone into depth. Instead, I've provided a summary of what we discussed and tools we experimented with  during the sessions. So feel free to pick your way through the headings and explore tools that are of relevance to you and your teaching context. If you require further assistance please get in touch.

Getting started

  • organise a zero session via Skype in order to meet your prospective student and assess the reliability of their broadband connection and level of digital literacy skills
  • carry out a needs' analysis before you commence the first lesson 
  • elicit where they intend to have their lessons. A quiet room away from any background distractions is optimal
  • recommend wearing a headphone with integrated microphone 
  • discuss your backup plan when having instruction via Skype i.e. what is the procedure if severe technical problems occur?
  • discuss your preferred payment and scheduling system. 

Backup plan

  • decide on what other tools you could use if technical issues with Skype arise e.g. Google Hangout, Facetime, Wiziq. It's worth testing at least one other tool with your students
  • ensure that you have your students' phone numbers so that you can sms or phone them if your connection crashes. Have your phone in close reach just in case! 
  • ensure that you've already arranged who is going to call who via Skype, if and when, a problem occurs with your connection.
Lesson 1

  • explore the affordances of the tool (Skype) e.g. the chat box, history and screenshare
  • experiment with links so that you can assess how your students react when they move between virtual spaces. This will give you an idea of how comfortable they feel using Skype and whether or not you'll need to take things a little slower. Remember, we don't want them to be cognitively overloaded with technical issues. The focus should be on learning English as a foreign language or as a second language.

Storing lesson material on your screen

  • keep links that you want to use during the lesson in a readily accessible place. As an example, I store links to websites in my reading list whereas I embed links to videos, podcasts and digital canvas boards in a document on my second screen. Then it's a simple task of copying and pasting relevant links into the chat box in order to share them with my students 
  • If you don't have the luxury of a second screen, keep a document with links somewhere else e.g. on your desktop or the bottom of your screen. Find a method that suits you. 

Writing Hub

Google Drive is where I join my students for writing activities. I create a folder for each of them. The content of the folders and types of documents will vary depending on each student's needs e.g. some documents are solely used as writing spaces and others provide links to diverse sites to assist them with their own learning. Some of my students also have a learning journal in this space.

Potential uses:
  • synchronous and asynchronous work 
  • collaborative and individual tasks
  • giving presentations
  • creative activities
  • storing everything you and your students have done. Hence, material is accessible at all times  for autonomous learning and revision.

I've written about this in more detail in a previous post so browse through if you're interested. If you don't need to do much written work with your students, you might find alternatives such as etherpad or primarypad more suitable.

Digital Canvas Boards

Padlet and Linoit are my preferred choices. Some of you explored the affordances of both boards during and after our sessions. Here's the Welcome Board that you used and the Feedback Board. Please feel free to add any other comments. 

Potential uses:
  • presenting material e.g. exam guidelines, links to relevant resources, extra activities
  • brainstorming and polling
  • projects
  • creative sessions
  • storing resources
If you're fortunate enough to work with other language teachers, you could share your boards and particularly if you're teaching the same level or type of English e.g. Business English, English for Academic Purposes. It's a terrific way to share resources and collaborate. It can also save you a lot of precious time.

Audio and Video Resources

As discussed during our sessions, I mainly source my audio and video material from these sites:
When you're using audio or video resources during a Skype session, I find it better when all participants where headphones. Otherwise, you'll hear the other recording which can be very distracting. I prefer to let my students have control when doing listening tasks so that they can rewind if necessary and take charge of the volume but this decision is up to you and the purpose of your task. 

As a tip, when preparing listening tasks I note down where and how often I want students to stop the recording so that we can work on whatever activity I've designed. I create a document which is readily accessible on the screen. Remember, be prepared!

Assessment Tools

At present I use, Edpuzzle and Socrative for assessment for learning.

I put these kinds of resources to use before, during and after lessons. In addition, I upload links to Edpuzzle resources to my students' Google Drive folders so that they can access the video activities for the purposes of learning and revision at their own pace.

Socrative is great for creating quizzes and exit tickets. Once again, I export all results to Google Drive so that students have an overview of what has been covered during class and what they might need to revise.

Screencast tools

I use Jing and Camtasia. The choice will depend on how professional I want the screencast to be and whether video editing is required.

Examples of potential uses:
  • audio visual feedback
  • creating brief tutorials
  • creating resources 
  • annotating images and texts
You can also encourage your students to be creative and design their own screencasts.  

Managing and Curating Resources

When working in online environments it's important to manage and curate your teaching resources effectively. This can save you an enormous amount of time.

Primarily I use, Evernote and Google Drive. However, you might also be interested in exploring Pearltrees and bookmarking tools such as Diigo.

You'll find that many of these tools have diverse sharing possibilities. What you choose will depend on your own needs. I tend to use to share curated resources publicly and for dissemination via Twitter. It's also a virtual space that I direct students and teachers who are looking for extra learning or teaching resources. In comparison, I use Evernote and Google Drive to store and manage resources that I have used or are still using with my students.

Locating Resources

Although I create many of my teaching resources not all of these are created from scratch. I modify and adapt where necessary. However, if you're going to do this take care to use Open Educational Resources (OER) i.e. resources that have a Creative Commons licence or that reside in the public domain.

 I find tips for resources through:
  • social media tools such as Twitter and Facebook
  • fellow ETAS members and members from other language teaching associations
  • OER repositories
  • curation sites such as, Pearltrees
  • workshop/conference presenters
  • specific web sites such British Council, Onestopenglish
  • general web searches 


These days, there are a number of online platforms where you can advertise your services as a language teacher. However, it was generally agreed amongst the participants who took part in these cyber sessions that it's difficult to compete with the prices that some language teachers offer from other countries. The cost of living in Switzerland is high so it seems logical to concentrate on the local market. And many of us have the advantage of speaking their first language. This is very useful in the case of lower level language learners when teaching via Skype.

Personally, I have always found word of mouth and personal connections to be very helpful when looking for further work. In Switzerland, the local papers and media channels can also be effective. Creating flyers is another method of getting your name out there, but can be costly. And of course as online teachers you can use a blog, website and social media to develop your online presence and to connect with prospective students.


I post invoices with an online payment slip as my Swiss students prefer to pay using this method. However, there are numerous online payment services available. So investigate carefully before making your choice. The platform needs to be secure for you and your students.

Virtual Worlds

As I discussed with a couple of you, I use Second Life to complement Skype sessions when I feel it's warranted. Despite the growth in virtual worlds, Second Life is still my preferred choice. I meet my students via Skype and then we teleport into a particular destination. Sometimes, I ask my students to visit this area in advance and carry out a task before we set off on a journey together.

A lot of research has already been done into the potential of virtual worlds to enhance language learning. I won't go into that here except to say that the environment is highly immersive and that social presence is heightened. So you can meet your students and do things together in the same space. Rather than talking about shopping you can do it, or instead of looking at images via Skype of people travelling you can visit these places yourselves. It's interactive.

There are specific language learning islands in Second Life, but I prefer to explore other worlds with my students depending on the purpose of the visit e.g. looking at an art exhibition, going shopping, visiting medical centres, experiencing Shakespeare and other literary pieces.

Browsing through the Second Life destination guide will give you a taste of what you can do there and the types of activities that you can design for your students to assist with their language learning.

Choosing what's best for your teaching context

Thank you to those who participated in these sessions. Although I feel very comfortable using Skype and a range of digital tools, I realise that this was quite a new experience for some of you. So well done for taking the leap and trying it out first-hand. Don't feel that you need to integrate all of the above-mentioned tools into your online teaching practice. It's taken me several years to build up my  archive of resources and to discover what tools work best for my method of teaching. I've done a lot of experimenting and playing with digital tools during that time. And I'm sure that I can still tweak things here and there to enhance the learning experience for my students. Don't be afraid to experiment.  

See you at the next round of cyber sessions!


This post is Part 1

Source Image:
CC0 Public Domain

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

ETAS Cyber Sessions: English Language Teaching via Skype

Skype as a medium for language teaching 

Part 1

Welcome everyone to this project that I'm piloting together with the ETAS (English Teachers Association Switzerland) Regional Coordinators for Central Switzerland. I was initially asked to give a talk about technology but suggested instead that we explore another medium and format for providing continuing professional development to ETAS members. I'm interested in experimenting with a format that complements and expands on the excellent services that ETAS already provides, such as the Annual Conference, Professional Development Day and diverse face-to-face workshops throughout Switzerland.

I envisage these Skype sessions as providing a platform where English language teachers can exchange skills and network. Please don't come expecting to sit back and watch a powerpoint presentation. These sessions will be informal conversations where you'll have plenty of opportunity to ask questions, share experiences and explore some tools. I'll be giving you insight into how I use Skype to teach English as a foreign language and will be introducing you to some tools that I use to improve my students' learning experience. In addition, we'll have a look at tools that I use to assist with the management, organisation and storage of my online teaching resources.

Have a browse below. I've provided information about registration as well as what you're going to need in order to participate and what I'd like you to do before and after the sessions.

How to Register

You'll be sent a mail from the ETAS Regional Coordinators for Central Switzerland with session times and dates as well as information concerning registration. You'll be asked to provide  information such as your Skype username so that we can organise group calls in advance. I anticipate a maximum of four participants per group but am also happy to accommodate pairs or individuals if desired.

What you need

You'll need to download the Skype software and open a personal account. As mentioned above, the Regional Coordinators will require your Skype username and your full name in advance so that we can create the appropriate groups. I'll send you an invitation via Skype to connect with me so please accept it.

Ensure that your device has a webcam and microphone so that you can fully participate in the conversation and activities. If you have a headset, please wear it. I'll explain why this is useful during the course of our discussion.


- If you already have a Skype account, open it up in advance and check whether it needs updating. It's better to be prepared. 

- Select a room that is quite and without distractions so that you can enjoy the session. It's amazing what webcams and microphones capture in the background!

- If you're using a wireless connection please ensure that you're sitting where the signal is strong. 

Pre-session task

I've created a public canvas board using Linoit. You can ask questions, express any anxieties that you might have about teaching via Skype, or share any teaching experiences that you've already had using Skype or any other web conferencing tool. This task will give you the opportunity to experiment with Linoit in advance and give you a chance to reflect on how it could be used with your language students. I find it extremely useful and versatile for language teaching so this is something that we can take a closer look at together.

Post-session task

I'd love to hear some feedback, so please take a moment to share your thoughts about using this kind of medium and format for continuing professional development. You can post your thoughts on this canvas board in Linoit, which will give you another chance to explore the tool. Alternatively, you can leave a comment at the end of this blog post.

Here are a couple of question prompts for you to consider:

How did you find Skype as a medium for sharing skills?

Do you feel that this medium has potential for continuing professional development?

Would you be interested in doing something similar yourself?

Would you be interested in attending more ETAS Skype events?

Once the sessions are completed, I'll be writing a reflective post and would like to include a summary of your comments and suggestions.

Looking forward to engaging with you online.

Source Image:
CC0 Public Domain


Part 2
Etas Cyber Sessions: Teachers helping Teachers

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Google Drive and ELT

It all started with my Skype students in mind

I originally stumbled across Google Drive when I was looking for a place to do some writing activities with my Skype students who are English language learners. I wasn't satisfied with the way we were together during lessons in relation to writing activities, or with having to mail documents back and forth. I'd been using PiratePad and EtherPad and although they were a good solution for the short-term, I still needed a tool that was just more than a collaborative writing space.

I'd also previously explored quite a number of whiteboards that were compatible with Skype but the few that interested me were either too expensive or weren't compatible with MAC. However on reflection, whiteboards would not have satisfied all of my needs either. After sitting down and drawing up an evaluation plan, it became clear that I was searching for a tool that would enable me to:

  • create a synchronous and asynchronous writing space
  • have a place where students could exercise their creativity 
  • manage and archive documents
  • have an environment where students could work individually and collaboratively
  • present work
  • maintain an overview of what work has been covered and that is also accessible to students at any time for review and revision
In this respect, I've found Google Drive to be invaluable. It's now a tool that has become part of my daily teaching with my Skype students and my face-to-face students.

When reflecting on the various information and communication technologies that I integrate into English language teaching, Google Drive has become a tool that I wouldn't like to be without. So what do I find so special about it and how do I use it?

Creating Folders 

Whenever I commence with a new student or a group of students, irrespective of whether they are face-to-face or Skype learners I create a folder in Google Drive for them. Within that folder I usually open four core documents headed:

  • My Writing Space (I substitute 'my' with the student's name)
  • My Learning Journal
  • Useful links for language learning
  • Collaborative Work

The document My Writing Space, is used for any type of writing task that is assigned as a pre or post class activity, or for extended writing tasks during the lesson. I monitor this work between lessons, correct where necessary and provide links for further exploration based on the requirements of each individual's needs. Students within specific groups have access to each others' work and appreciate the benefits of being able to make the most of the extra resources that I provide for each student. I find that enabling the students to see each others' work, motivates them to take more care with their writing and to self-correct, literacy skills allowing.

Over the course of time, students build up quite a portfolio and can see for themselves where improvements are being made or not. Based on the work carried out here, I can adapt lessons and realign learning objectives to suit my students' needs.

My Learning Journal is a space where students can reflect on the language learning process. I encourage them to jot down a few sentences on a daily basis as a means of getting them into the habit of writing. Although this space is intended for reflection on their language learning, I don't interfere if students choose to write about other topics. I don't explicitly correct work here, but I do keep an eye out for any errors that are consistently being made and address these in class. As with My Writing Space, I find the students' Learning Journals useful when planning lessons as they provide insight into areas of interest and activities that they enjoy as well as enabling me to identify problem areas.

Useful links for language learning is just that. This document might contain links to online dictionaries, corpus linguistic tools, audio books, videos and sites where students can engage in extra language learning activities. Therefore, these links and resources will vary for every group or individual student. Sometimes I can copy and paste links from one document to the next and then modify the text according to the students' level of English. This relates in particular to online dictionaries and corpus linguistic tools. However, in other cases links are very specific e.g. legal dictionaries, which are only of interest to specific students.

It's worth noting here that when I provide a link to a tool or a resource, I demonstrate how to use it in class and provide plenty of opportunities for students to explore these for themselves. Experience has taught me that I shouldn't assume that students know how to make the most of the affordances of digital tools for learning. It's better to explore the tools together and give students a few tasks so that they have the opportunity to show their understanding of them in class. I also ask for feedback concerning the usefulness of certain tools and whether the students have other preferences that they would like to share with the class.

The document titled Collaborative Work is a space where I work with students and where students work together. These types of tasks might take place during class, or as pre or post lesson activities. It depends on the nature and purpose of the task. Students can use this space to review what has been covered during the course of a term. Once again, this space assists me in planning for future lessons and for assessment.

Advantages of Google Drive

Despite the documents within each folder being used for different purposes, all of them serve as spaces that support and promote learning. On the whole, as a teacher I have a very good overview of the work that we have covered during a particular period of time. Through regular monitoring, I can use this information to assist with the planning of lessons, setting learning objectives and designing different types of assessment.

Not to be ignored, these spaces also serve as a record of a student's performance. For me personally, this is extremely useful when it comes to final exams and making decisions about gradings. From the feedback that I have collected from students they seem to appreciate:

  • the flexibility of being able to access documents individually and in collaboration with other learners 
  • having a clear overview of what work has been covered during term
  • being able to review work at their own pace
  • having access to extra resources so that they can take more responsibility for their own learning.

Besides the above core documents, I also upload results from quizzes so that students can review these individually and as a group. I've found Socrative to be useful for creating different types of quizzes, although Google forms can also be used for this purpose. Many tools such as Socrative, have sharing possibilities with Google Drive which I find very useful. I also use Google excel sheets to keep a record of attendance where this is required. And I  make use of Google templates for various projects and upload these to the students' folders. There are also a number of third party tools that can be added to Google Drive to help make the learning experience better for students. What each of us chooses to make use of will of course vary according to our needs and our students' requirements.

What I really enjoy about using Google Drive is that I've found a productivity tool that,
  • is simple to use 
  • syncs across all my devices
  • enables me to organise and manage my teaching material effectively
  • enables me to present and archive material
  • provides me with a space where I can work creatively with students
  • can be accessed synchronously and asynchronously
  • is compatible with quite a range of other tools
  • has a host of add ons and extras if required
In addition to the above and something that is very important for me, Google Drive has helped me to improve the learning experience for both my Skype and my face-to-face language learners. 

I'd been interested in hearing your experiences with this tool for ELT.
Drop by and leave a comment!

Extra resources

Here are a couple of resources that you might like to explore if you're interested in learning more about using this tool:

Check out Russell Stannard's Teacher Training videos on Google Docs and Google Drive.

Learn about some extra features such as Google templates, voice typing (Chrome only) and making images editable. Read this blog post from the

CC0 Public Domain

Monday, 5 October 2015

Persona Cards: a useful ELT resource

I was recently speaking to a friend who is also an English language teacher and we were discussing how much time we spend on creating resources for our language students and what we can do to be more efficient. Of course one solution is to make use of open educational resources, and I do, but this often entails adapting material to suit a specific student or class which can also take up considerable time.

During the course of our discussion, I mentioned that over the past couple of years I've taken conscious steps to create resources that I can implement for diverse language levels and teaching contexts. In particular, I've found that developing frameworks, flow charts, mind maps, word clouds and persona cards has been invaluable. These are all resources that can be created in Word or Google Docs and used as templates for numerous and varied activities. In this post I would like to chat about persona cards and how they can be useful as an English language teaching (ELT) resource.

Persona Cards

Many of you might associate the term persona cards with learning design or the IT branch and you're quite correct. Persona cards are a wonderful means of bringing different personalities to life when you're planning a course, a learning activity or a piece of software. Detailed persona cards can assist with visualising  the types of characters we're designing these particular things for and by doing so, it's easier to anticipate challenges that will need to be resolved.

However, this idea of creating detailed characters can also be repurposed for use with English language learners. When I was contemplating how to design my cards, I decided to use images to complement a detailed description of each character. The rationale being that these personas can then be used with lower level language learners as well. The provision of detailed information has enabled me to use the cards with diverse levels of language learners and for various activities. They have become one of my favourite resources and one that I always have on hand.

Below is a screenshot from a template that I developed for my persona cards. It gives you an idea of the potential of this kind of resource. As you can see, there are several headings where information can be added to build up a detailed description of each persona. Concerning the size, this template creates six cards per sheet of A4 paper. After printing my initial batch of 36 cards, I cut these down to size, laminated them for ease of use and consequently, this has converted them into a very sustainable resource. They're light, easy to carry around, you can clean them with a damp cloth and most importantly they can be used for numerous language activities.

If you're interested in using persona cards the template can be accessed here. You can make a copy and adapt it to suit your teaching contexts.

Practical uses

I mainly teach business English students, so many of my lessons revolve around financial and legal topics. I've listed a few examples which illustrate how persona cards have been useful in my teaching contexts:

  • intercultural communication: students select a card and assume this role. They compare their characters and explore the specific traits before engaging in various scenarios such as, office meetings, small talk, dinner conversation, mergers and acquisitions and so on. After each scenario the language is analysed and students reflect on how adopting a different nationality or interacting with diverse nationalities impacts on their behaviour and use of language. 
  • various legal situations: in inheritance law the cards are very useful for visualising a range of relationships and examining how Swiss inheritance law impacts on each particular situation. It's also easier for students to visualise things such as, degree of kinship and how forced heirship rights can be put into practice. Persona cards are also helpful with vocabulary in that students have the opportunity to put specific lexical items to use in a hands-on way e.g. they can be creative with relationships by developing narratives to point out who the testator is, who is the executor of the will, what degree of kinship the rest of the characters have to the deceased etc. Persona cards have proven popular with my students in instances such as these due to concepts and terminology being made visible and hence, more tangible. Additionally, I find that using the cards seems to stimulate a lot of questions and consequently they seem to act as a catalyst for interesting discussions. 
  • project management: students are given a fictitious project that needs to be managed and are required to put a team together based on the detailed descriptions on the persona cards. Once again, this type of activity seems to stimulate energetic conversation and enables students to think critically, to make use of their analytical skills and relevant vocabulary. This type of task inevitably opens up conversations about the skills of candidates, their age, gender, previous work experience, achievements and suitability etc.

Although my students are mainly intermediate to advanced language learners this doesn't mean that persona cards can't be used with lower language levels. This is where including images is helpful as the pictures can be used to practice vocabulary relevant to topics such, as families and relationships, or used to practice descriptive language. In addition, you can choose vocabulary on the cards that is suitable for their level to speak about skills for certain jobs and so on. You really just need to put your creative caps on and think about whether they can be of assistance for the tasks that you have planned. They can even act as a scaffold i. e. students can use the language on the cards as a support for speaking and writing tasks.

You could go a step further and involve your students in the process of creating the cards and keep them as a classroom resource to be shared with other groups. However, this would need some planning and guidance in order to avoid students creating similar personas and also assistance with  suitable vocabulary. When planning how to create your cards I think diversity is essential and particularly if your objective is to use them with different language levels and varied contexts. 

Searching for further design ideas and images

I hope these tips are helpful. If you're stuck for ideas concerning the design of your cards, you'll find plenty of images on Google if you enter 'persona cards images' in your search. Remember that you need to be careful about which images you can download and use in teaching contexts. If you're not quite certain about what is downloadable and what can be adapted and tweaked, then read this isdetailed post from the Harvard Law School library about using media with a creative commons licence, or media from the public domain. Numerous links for finding images and other resources are  also included.

If you decide to create a set of persona cards I'd love to hear how you've been making use of them for language learning. Have fun!


Spina. C. (2015) Harvard Law School Library [Online] Available at (Accessed 5 October 2015).

  Creative Commons License

The above template is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Teaching via Skype: the basics

Explore the tool and develop your level of confidence  

Teaching English as a foreign or second language via Skype, or a similar web conferencing tool, is certainly nothing new these days. There are plenty of educators teaching this way and it seems to me that there is a growth in websites where teachers from around the world are encouraged to sign up and advertise their services. Having said that, I only know of a couple of teachers in my personal network who teach via Skype. This makes it difficult to exchange ideas and reflections about this method of teaching as they don't do it on a regular basis. But that's another story. I seem to know more who would like to try their hand at it but are too anxious to start. From the few conversations I've had around this subject, one of the main problems that emerges is that some teachers don't feel tech-savvy enough. In my opinion, this is an issue that can be overcome with a bit of effort. Take the time to play with the web conferencing tool of your choice and experiment with fellow teachers, family or friends. For those who feel this is too big a leap i.e. downloading the necessary software and playing with the tool, then how about watching some 'how to' videos on Skype teaching and doing a bit of follow up reading to build your level of confidence?

There are quite a few You Tube videos which demonstrate how a language lesson could progress but less that introduce teachers to the basics of the tool. This is why I particularly like Russell Stannard's video, Introduction to teaching with Skypewhich covers the following areas as illustrated in the image below:

           Figure 1: Table of contents. Introduction to teaching with Skype Russell Stannard 2015

The above topics are recorded as seven short videos which means you can select what is relevant for you and dip in and out as you wish. However, if you've never used the tool before I would recommend watching all of them and reviewing as necessary. And before you commence with a lesson, I'd highly advise experimenting with someone else first and having a dry run of things that you'd like to make use of in future lessons. This is where you'll have the opportunity to see where things can get messy and what you can do to ensure that your lessons run smoothly. Speaking from experience, I can assure you that you'll feel much more at ease when it comes to teaching if you're aware of what can go wrong and what you can do to iron out mishaps or unexpected technical problems if and when they occur. Have a Plan B ready and keep your professional face on. Swearing or bashing the screen might feel good but it might also cause you to lose a student. Remember, they're watching and listening from the other side!

The title of Stannard's video might be a bit misleading to some. His video is not about pedagogies or methodologies that are relevant to teaching via Skype but rather, an introduction to the basics of the tool itself. In other words, you'll be able to get accustomed to the affordances of the tool and it's features before you actually commence with students. Teaching a language via Skype is not the same as having a conversation with a friend or group of friends through this medium. You'll inevitably want to move beyond conversing via the main screen and integrate other activities such as watching videos together, listening to podcasts, exploring images and texts and entering collaborative writing spaces or creative working spaces together, in order to assist the learner to develop their reading, writing, speaking and listening skills. As a bonus, both you and your students will most likely improve your digital literacy skills as well. And some of these newly learned skills might even be transferrable to the student's working environment or useful for other learning activities. Who wouldn't be happy about that?

Feeling confident with the basics and excited about teaching

Once you've honed your technical skills and your level of confidence is soaring high, you'll be excited about taking the plunge and teaching via Skype. In order to take you a step further I've linked my article, Using Skype to Teach English to this postIt outlines a few tools that you can integrate into your lessons and provides tips gained from my own experiences with this medium. In addition and as a bit of extra reading, here are some of my earlier posts that you might be interested in that relate to language teaching via Skype:

Sharing reflections

I'm always interested in engaging with other language teachers who  provide lessons via Skype or similar tools. It's a wonderful way to share reflections with the aim of improving our teaching practices. Feel free to leave a comment and if you have any questions I'll certainly do my best to answer them.


Introduction to teaching with Skype (2015) Teachertrainingvideos, by Russell Standard [Online]. Available at (Accessed 22 July 2015).

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Helping ELT students to help themselves. Explore online tools together!

Working together with learners to refine their online search strategies

Whenever I commence with a new group of English language students or an individual student, I always ask them what tools they're using to help them with spoken and written English in the office or at school. This includes both digital and non digital tools and resources. The reason I ask this is because it gives me insight into their preferences and enables me to see whether there is anything else that I can introduce them to that will be more effective or perhaps complement their language learning toolkit.

Irrespective of whether my students are online or face-to-face, teenagers or adults, I always open a folder for them in Google Drive which usually contains documents with the following headings or something similar:
  • Language Learning Strategies
  • Writing Space 
  • Learner's Diary
  • Useful links for Language Learning

It's the latter that I'm going to speak about in this post. I'm not deliberately promoting any particular tools here. I'm more concerned about why it's important to discover how students are putting tools to use and why it's important, that we as teachers, should take the time to explore these tools with them.

Through experience I've learned that it's never enough to just add links to a list of tools for your students, even if they're accompanied by detailed written explanations or screencasts. In my opinion, it's worthwhile sitting down with your learners and working through the process of what they actually do when they search for words or phrases. I always find working through this process extremely enlightening because the steps they take are made visible. This visualisation of the process enables the students to see for themselves what's more effective and what can they do to ensure that their searches are producing reliable results. It also provides an opportunity for them to learn from one another and the  search strategies they're implementing. And I benefit as well. I learn more about my students and what they're doing to become more autonomous as language learners. It's all too easy for them to rely on me to provide the answers.

Last year, I introduced one of my business English groups to Beforehand, the majority were relying on Leo, an online translation dictionary to assist them, but weren't completely satisfied with it. The main problem being, that not enough context is displayed in the search results and this sometimes makes it difficult for them to decide whether they can use the word or phrase in their text or not. However, this is not the case with as you can see from the example below. At the top of the site you're provided with translations and below this, the search word or phrase is contextualised.

                                               Image 1. Excerpt

It was only a couple of weeks ago that one of my business English students thanked me for introducing their group to She commented that it was of enormous assistance when writing any kind of business correspondence. But she also asked if there were any other tools that could help them check if they were using prepositions and word combinations correctly. I informed the group that the following lesson we'd look at Just The Word and SkELL (Sketch Engine for Language Learning) and also explore how they've been using

Exploring Just The Word, SkELL and 

I commenced this lesson by first discussing with my language students what steps they undertake when they need to translate a German word or phrase into English, or when they need to check that what they've written in English is in fact correct and appropriate for their requirements. The answers were interesting and diverse. seemed to be the favourite online tool. As to other strategies these included, asking someone in the office, searching through previous correspondence, searching Google for similar word usage, using gut feeling and asking me. It's worth noting that the students didn't mention dictionaries at all despite using Leo. I've noticed this with other language groups of mine. I don't know whether this is connected to earlier behaviour in other formal learning situations or whether they've become accustomed to using search engines and hence, dismiss specific tools such as dictionaries.

After this initial discussion, we delved into their search habits in more detail. I handed out part of a flowchart that I'd created and asked my students to choose between using this as a model to map out their online search strategies step for step, or commence with the prepared template and adjust it accordingly. was chosen as the first port of call for the majority, so I beamed the site up on the wall and asked my students to demonstrate how they go about searching for something. This is where I learned a lot about their search techniques and how they were using this specific tool.

This demonstration highlighted that some students:
  • only used the top part of the site (see image 1 above), and were satisfied with a decontextualised translation rather than browsing through the excerpts
  • read only the first couple of excerpts and chose what they felt was the closest result
  • used German to English translation but didn't check these results against an English to German search (This can be very revealing at times and is worth doing.)
  • didn't check these results against any other sources
  • didn't check where these excerpts were extracted from. (The primary source is always supplied as a hyperlink next to the text. I recommend that users do check these sources for reliability.)

After discussing what their search techniques revealed, I asked the group what they would do if their search in wasn't satisfactory. They reiterated the points that were raised in our earlier discussion such as, asking office friends or asking me etc. So I prompted further and asked what steps  would they take if these other options weren't fruitful. This is where the dubious answers crept in e.g. using gut feeling or taking a guess! Certainly risky options when they're dealing with legal contracts or formal business letters don't you think?

This is where I introduced them to Just The Word and SkELL. From the images below you gain a sense of the potential of these tools and how useful they can be for language learners and teachers. Both tools are helpful for collocations and they illustrate these in colour in concordance lines. I feel that this makes these tools more visually appealing and user-friendly to students in comparison to corpus tools such as The British National Corpus. Ulugbek Nurmukhamedov has created a Just The Word tutorial on YouTube if you're interested in viewing it or sharing it with your students. SkELL on the other hand is slightly different in its construction and provides users with several search options and visualisations of the results, as you can see in images 4, 5 and 6 below.

 Just The Word images

                                 Image 2. Screenshot JTW illustrating collocations

                            Image 3. Screenshot JTW illustrating concordance lines

SkELL images


                               Image 4 Screenshot SkELL. Word sketch function / collocates


                                 Image 5 Screenshot SkELL. Example function / concordance lines


                                Image 6 Screenshot SkELL. Similar word function / not only synonyms 

Getting back to the purpose of this blog post, as I  previously stated, I feel that it's not enough just to pass on links to learners. They need to try them out for themselves in order to make their own decisions about their usefulness. With this particular group, I designed a translation task (as they have to do this quite often in the office), whereby the learners once again mapped out their search process step by step. Interestingly enough, the steps varied as did the completed translations. We compared all of the results and examined the steps that each student took to achieve their final text. And together, we explored whether or not the process could have been made more efficient.

For the future, I've asked this group to try and put into practice what they've learned from this experience and to try and be more conscious of what they're doing when they undertake online searches. We're going to have a reflective discussion session on this in a couple of months time to see whether their search strategies have improved or changed in any way.


From my perspective as a language teacher, I found this experience invaluable. I learned quite a bit about my students' online search behaviour, through the discussions we had, by exploring their flowcharts which made each individual's search process visible and by observing them search online.

So if I could pass on a tip to other educators it would be, don't only share links or resources with your learners in documents or via other channels,  take the time to explore the tools and resources together.  Encourage discussion and examine the pros and cons of each tool. This will then enable them to make informed decisions about the usefulness and suitability of tools in regard to their personal learning requirements and assist them in refining their searches.

List of tools

British National Corpus

Just The Word




Just The Word: Tutorial YouTube video, added by Ulugbek Nurmukhamedov [Online].
Available at (Accessed 2 June 2015)

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Translation Tools or Online Dictionaries: What tools and resources do your ELT students use to develop their language skills?

Surprising what we learn as teachers when we ask!

Linguee, Leo and Search Engines

When commencing with a new English language class, or an individual student, one of the topics I discuss with them concerns their usage of tools or resources to assist with language learning and the development of their linguistic skills. I am interested in finding out what tools they use, whether digital or nondigital, why they use them, and the learning strategies they employ. When asking these questions, I usually have a list of anticipated responses in my head that I feel might align with the needs of any particular language level. So when I recently asked a group of advanced business English learners what tools they use as a first port of call to develop and expand their vocabulary,  their replies did not surprise me. Linguee.deLeo  and search engines such as Google and Yahoo, were the top runners.

Very briefly to these tools, searches bilingual texts for specific words or phrases that you have entered into their search box. It does this in diverse languages e.g. English-French, Chinese-English, German-English and so on. Blocks of text appear showing your searches in a range of contexts. However, despite the vocabulary being contextualised, some search results in the target language may be too difficult for students to decode, especially if they are lower level learners.

Leo on the other hand is a type of bilingual dictionary and again, diverse languages can be chosen e.g. Spanish-German and English - German. The search word will appear in several forms and in parts of sentences. It comes with audio which can be of real assistance if a student is unsure of the pronunciation. And search engines of course, will provide students with a range of results depending on how the initial search has been formulated. If it is a word they are looking for then it is possible that links to online dictionaries might show up, or a thesaurus, a wikipedia link, perhaps links to useful blog posts and then most certainly, there will be masses of links that may or may not be relevant. And these will require filtering.

What did surprise me, is that not one of them mentioned a monolingual or general purpose dictionary. These are advanced learners of English and I would have expected them to include these tools in their personal learning toolkit to complement the translation tools.

The dictionary discussion

As we discussed their personal preferences including the advantage and disadvantages of using these specific tools at work, I placed this image on the table (see below) and waited for a response. It is a selection of dictionaries that I have at home for my own usage and for use with private language students. A mixture of general purpose, monolingual and bilingual dictionaries, plus a few other  resources. These complement the online tools that I access depending on where I am and the purpose of the search.


There was a bit of chatter around the table about dictionary usage and then one student laughed and said, Dictionaries are old fashioned. 

I was not expecting to hear this response. In my opinion, dictionaries are an invaluable tool whether you are using them for language learning or not. This is where words are housed. And not just words and definitions but so much linguistic information. And so I enquired further, asking for clarification about what is old fashioned, nondigital dictionaries or dictionaries themselves? The reply from another student, All dictionaries are old fashioned.

Not everyone agreed with this, but nevertheless it started an interesting discussion about the usefulness of bilingual, monolingual and general purpose dictionaries from the perspective of this small group of  advanced language students. 

It soon became evident that nondigital dictionaries were rarely used and online dictionaries were not a first choice when searching for the meaning of a word, or to improve their vocabulary. These students prefer to rely on  translation tools such as those mentioned in the opening paragraphs. Concerning the choice of device, they said this depended on where they were, what type of connection was available and what tool they wanted to use as not all tools and resources are compatible with mobile devices.

After this discussion, I decided to show them an example of an online monolingual dictionary. The intention was not to persuade them that they should be using one, but to illustrate the usefulness of such tools for language learning. I was hoping to raise their awareness of dictionary usage by demonstrating that a monolingual dictionary is more than just a tool that provides the meaning of a word. Additionally, I wanted to show them that dictionaries are a wonderful resource when it comes to expanding and developing vocabulary and that they can be used to improve listening and speaking skills. I have listed the ten most salient points that we looked at below.

I chose the Oxford Learners' Dictionary as an example to illustrate the following points. However, there are other online monolingual dictionaries that have very similar possibilities and are qualitatively comparable.

1. You can access several wordlists from the one website as shown in the image below. So there are several language banks of words at your disposal, which is very practical. As this is a monolingual dictionary there is no need to go through the process of translation.

2.  English and American versions of words are provided. This also applies to the picture wordlist as illustrated in the screenshot above.

3. Audio is supplied. This can be of assistance for pronunciation purposes and hence is useful for practising speaking and listening skills. However, considering that English is used widely as a lingua franca, I personally feel that learners should not be given the impression that they have to sound like native speakers of English. It will depend on their needs and their usage of English.

Both British and American pronunciation varieties are accessible. I deliberately use the word, varieties,  because I feel it is important to point out to students that depending on accents, dialects and nationality, pronunciation will differ. So it is not about mimicking a particular pronunciation and embedding it to memory. It is more about being aware that depending on who they are engaging with, pronunciation may not always be what they are used to hearing. And it may not always be as intelligible as hoped for.

4. Depending on your search, detailed usage notes can be accessed. In the case below, the search for stock market brought up a number of collocations relating to the economy. This is a great opportunity for students to develop and expand their vocabulary. For teachers, these pages can also be useful for creating diverse activities.

5. Idioms and phrasal verbs can be explored. Once again, this can also be useful for language teachers who are introducing learners to idioms.

6. It has a British and American visual dictionary with a comprehensive list of entires. Synonyms are often provided as is a list of suggestions for comparative purposes. This might prompt the motivated student to explore further options.

7. Forms of each word are provided with examples for usage. In addition, synonyms and antonyms are relatively easy to find. Nevertheless, I generally recommend using a reliable thesaurus for a more comprehensive listing of synonyms and antonyms, whether it is digital or nondigital.

8. Where appropriate, countable and uncountable forms are given and contextualised. Definitions seem to be adequate and reliable, although not as comprehensive as you might find in a general purpose dictionary.

9Apart from being web-based it is accessible from mobile devices, this includes phones and tablets. This is an advantage over similar tools that are solely web-based.

10. You can source a range of options from the one site as opposed to bouncing around through links. In this sense it can be efficient and practical. 

Further discussion

After working with the tool as a group and exploring its functionality, the students agreed that this would be a tool worth considering and they were surprised at the diverse possibilities for usage. They had not considered using an online dictionary for speaking and listening activities. However, in some cases they said that they would still use their preferred translation tools as first port of call and then as a second step, check for further and appropriate context usage in an online monolingual dictionary, such as The Oxford Learners' Dictionary. This line of thinking is of course understandable. Despite being advanced language learners, they may not know what the English word is and in such cases an English language dictionary is going to be of minimal assistance. Nevertheless, I could not help feeling that it was more a habit that caused then to remain with this strategy rather than a conscious choice. I questioned this and it became apparent that most of them had had little instruction in the use of dictionaries in general and hence, viewed them solely as a tool for finding the meaning of a word.

Implications for online dictionaries and translation tools

The perceptions from this small group of business English language learners are by no means indicative of the perceptions from other foreign language learners but in the light of these observations, it would be interesting to target this for further research i.e. the behaviour and perceptions of diverse language levels use of online dictionaries and translation tools. It would also be interesting to explore what devices are being used and students' learning strategies. The results could have implications for these kinds of tools in foreign language learning in the future and also for pedagogical practice.

Further Reflection

The students' comments about having had very little, or no instruction, in the use of dictionaries to assist with language learning also surprised me. 

In relation to using tools and resources for self-regulated learning, something that I have learned over the years is that as teachers, we should avoid making assumptions about what skills a particular language level student should possess. It is better to enquire. This can often lead to interesting discussions and provide you with invaluable information that can for example, be incorporated into lessons, or be used to improve the design of lessons, and aid in the choice of tools for collaborative activities etc. Not all students have necessarily had a solid foundation in respect to language learning and and I feel that it is up to us to locate the gaps and deficits and aid them in filling these. This also includes exploring their learning strategies and tools of preference for autonomous learning.


The Oxford Learners' Dictionaries [online] Available at: (Accessed 26th November 2014)