Think! – Learning From Carl Sagan

Back at the end of 2012, I had a bright idea for a new blog. Taking inspiration from culture and the sciences, I would write about the intersection of these areas with language teaching and learning. I posted a few times, but as happens in life other things come along and the project drifted away.

However, I wasn’t happy to let these few articles drift away into lonely isolation, so I’ve dusted them off and resurrected them here on my regular blog, where hopefully a few more people will actually read them! The first post talks about how my main inspiration as a teacher is my favourite scientist, Carl Sagan.


Starseeds © Jon Lomberg – Inspired by Carl Sagan’s Cosmos

One of the joys I have found in my new interest in science is that it has brought me into what was a previously unknown world of inspiration, enlightenment and influence. As I am exposed to the likes of Neil Degrasse Tyson, Richard Feynman, and Richard Dawkins, I’m gratified that I have been able to bring their wisdom and intelligence into my life, and hopefully just a little bit will rub off somewhere. But one name sticks out above all others. In the last few months, I have been watching the finest television series I have ever seen, a source of wonder and learning for me which I cannot believe took so long to become part of my life. This series is Cosmos, presented by the legendary Carl Sagan.

I’m still struggling to comprehend how I wasn’t aware of the show before now. I’m a culturally aware person, but somehow it passed me by. I guess jokes like this just went over my head:

In each programme he leads us on a personal voyage through the history of scientific discovery  and the universe, known and unknown. The show is aimed at viewers without a scientific background and not only explains the cosmos around us, but also the achievements of the great thinkers of the past, such as Copernicus, Brahe and Kepler.

So as a result of watching the show my knowledge of the universe is increasing, but I’m no cosmologist and I can’t claim to understand everything. But there’s a lot we can learn from a programme like this even if we don’t understand particle physics or string theory. Essentially, in the show, Carl Sagan is a teacher and we are his pupils. Watch the video below to see what I mean. As you watch, you can try and learn about Flatland if you like, but mostly I want you to pay attention to what you can learn from him as a teacher.

If you were one of my students, it is at this point I’d ask you compare your observations with a peer. This time however, we are both learners, so you can compare your notes with mine:

  • He’s explaining a difficult concept, something many of the viewers will be unfamiliar with. Despite this he isn’t at all patronising, treating the audience with intelligence as he diligently and precisely explains the concept.
  • He displays an in-depth knowledge and is not shy about you knowing that he is an authority figure when it comes to this subject. In other words, he is clearly the teacher and we are definitely the learners.
  • While he treats the subject seriously, he is not without humour. He is very effective at breaking up the moments of seriousness with moments of levity. He handles the tone of the discourse beautifully.
  • He is clearly spoken and precise in his language. His ability to deliver a complicated concept in an economical way makes it easier to comprehend.
  • He uses practical and clear demonstrations to illustrate his point, again making the idea easier to understand. He’s not afraid of being very explicit in explaining what his point is.
  • His use of language is particularly interesting. He speaks beautifully and yet you never feel that he is talking ‘over you’. In fact, I love the mixture of registers he uses, ranging from “the universe is finite but unbounded” to “the only conclusion is that he’s gone bonkers”.
  • His body language is open and inviting. He frequently smiles, and you feel more like you’re being led on a journey of discovery by a wise uncle then bewildered by overly serious academic.
  • He occasionally uses aphorisms, for example “If you want to know what it’s like inside a black hole, look around”. They act as a form of punctuation, summarising the key points that he has just stated or asking the main questions that need to be emphasised. Phrases like this are memorable for the learners, and will enable them to recall key concepts at a later date.

It is vital that we, not just as language teachers but as educators in general, are prepared to look outside of our immediate circle to find influences and heroes. We have much to learn from Sagan and his like and we should not be cowed by his intellectual might and obvious gifts. Rather we should look to his example and and attempt to his follow in his footsteps with a ready heart and an open mind, although, as Sagan himself famously said (or did he?):


To read about more ‘outside influences’, head over to the iTDi blog:



Why Is ELT Politics Free?

P - Pizzeria

On a recent trip back to the UK, I met up with an old friend of mine who works as a lecturer at a university training new primary school teachers. I asked him about learning styles and its place in the current training of teachers, and what struck me about the conversation was not so much his thoughts on the subject, but rather how politically he viewed it.

When I say politically, I mean Politics with a big P. His discourse on the the subject was framed within the context of what the current and previous Education Minister was in favour of, government education policy and the current political climate. As someone who works in an education system that is constantly having to reflect, deal with, resist and manage these things, this is quite understandable. For me, as someone who works in a very different educational setting, it was fascinating to observe.

Rarely in the world of ELT do we have to face up to these things, it seems. Some of us definitely like to talk and write about what you can call small p politics, whether that’s the topics we can discuss in the classroom, such as the environment, homelessness, consumerism etc*, or the issues that affect our profession, including the situation for non-native teachers, gender, and racial inequality. But from what I’ve observed, whether that’s on blogs, social media, presentations, conversations at conferences and so on, Politics seems to be almost completely absent.

The most obvious reason why this is the case is that ELT is a global industry and private language schools are generally quite disconnected from the state system. This is problematic for me because the vast majority of people learning English today are children studying in schools, firmly within a government run education system, and it seems to me that the our profession is over-represented by a minority of teachers, like me, who don’t have to engage in the big P politics. The reasons for this misrepresentation are numerous I’m sure, and I’m not in a position to speculate why, but I can’t help but feel that as a profession we need to engage more with the majority of our colleagues and learn from each other.

How this is done is another matter, and I’m not sure what the solutions are.* I’m also assuming that our state school colleagues actually want to be part of it, which may be a big misunderstanding on my part, I really don’t know. What I do know is that unless we widen the scope of our conversation, we will continue to be disconnected from the majority of our peers.

Does this sound representative to you? Obviously not every country is the same, and perhaps your situation is quite different. If so, I’d love to hear about it.

*For some excellent lesson ideas for some of those small p issues, take a look at the IATEFL Global Issues SIG website

*One possibility is for local teaching associations to make sure that local teachers are aware of them, and at BELTA we are working very hard on this. It’s easier said than done though.

*Just as I was about to post this, the most high profile example of ELT and small p politics I’ve ever seen was posted on the Guardian Facebook page.

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Click here to read more.


Thanks To Mike Harrison for pointing out the work of English For Action, who provide ESOL courses for adult migrants in communities across London.

Better Charts and Graphs

If you’ve ever trained someone for the IELTS test or had a business English class, there is a good chance that at some point you’ve had to teach the language of describing graphs. There’s also a good chance you taught it only because you really had to, and unfortunately both you and the student found it a bit boring.

Luckily the Internet is here to help you and now you can find a whole range of interesting and funny graphs to make these lessons more interesting. As you can see from the selection below, you can use graphs which describe classic literature, relationships, morality, migration, and less serious subjects like the distribution of pizza slices and how often various social networks have been mentioned in rap songs since the dawn of the Internet.

As it’s the ability to describe trends that the students need to work on, not the content, you can really use any graphs and charts you want. It should make your classes much more interesting as a result, which is good news for everyone!

The Economist – Facebook



Information is Beautiful – Facebook


informationisbeautiful1 – Facebook


The Friday Chart – Facebook


Last Week Tonight – Facebook

lastweektonight – rap stats





The Bold Italic


Reddit – Funny Charts


Truth Facts


Doghouse Diaries


PhD Comics


Google Ngrams

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Spurious Correlations

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Do you know any more interesting websites for graphs and charts? Leave a comment below and I’ll add them to the list.

To see some of my ELT graphs, click here.

Two Little Letters

It’s amazing how much of a difference two letters can make…

I love technology in my personal life and I’m open to it in the classroom too. It’s part of my principled eclecticism approach to teaching, my own personal grab bag of techniques and concepts that inform what I do in the classroom. Forgive the simplistic examples, but while I love to unplug, at the moment I use a coursebook, I love to be as communicative as possible but I’m not averse to drilling, I love to treat language lexically but sometimes will go into the grammar, and I love technology but spend most of my time getting students to use their notebooks while I use the only the whiteboard. It’s messy but then so is language learning, so its suits me, at least until I decide that I was wrong about something and try a different way, which does happen fairly regularly.

So before you read on let me emphasise something for you:

And just in case you’re still in any doubt, click here and here

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…and here and here.


Which might make you think that this infographic would be right up my street.


The infographic is based on a blog post by Carl Hooker, a US educator who describes himself as “a part of a strong educational shift with technology integration since becoming an educator”. I think it’s interesting example of how a well-intentioned teacher (and please don’t think this critique is in any way a criticism of his intentions) needs to be careful about how they promote the use of technology.

I’m writing this because there was something about the infographic, and the blog post to a lesser extent, which really got on my nerves. There are a few reasons why it set me off.

Firstly, it’s that some of them are shallow and pointless. What does it actually mean to “integrate selfies in your classroom” or “perform a lipdub video”? Are we supposed to just use whatever trendy thing our teenage students are into at the moment because memes? Did teachers in the 1980’s build a curriculum around Cabbage Patch dolls and Rubik’s Cubes? Of course they didn’t. Just because everything is now technology based and that trends exist doesn’t mean that we should use them. 


I understand that the writer is trying to get his students to engage with their learning, but I don’t believe that our students are so shallow that they require gimmicks. They can also see right through it and they know what’s going on. The medium might be different, but this is still work, and the students who don’t like to work aren’t suddenly going to become swots overnight because of augmented reality.

Perhaps the most shallow example of this is number 15, “Perform in a LipDub Video”. The description below, taken from the original blog post, has nothing to do with education and everything to do with messing about on camera and ‘going viral’. If at any point in your life your objective is to ‘go viral’, you need to have a serious talk with yourself.

This can be either a solo project or for even greater effect, tie in your parody song (#3) and have your students act out their learning throughout the video.  Don’t forget to hashtag it. Bonus points if said video goes viral.

As Cristina Milos says in response to the infographic…

And I’d like to add…

what's the point

Seriously, I think it’s great that these kids raised money for charity, but how much time went into this?:

If they did it in their free time, that’s fine, but if they didn’t, I can see no educational value in this whatsoever. But at least it went viral, right?

But I have to say that this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use these tools and ideas if we think there is a sound pedagogical reason behind them. The tools are the point of this infographic rather than the outcomes, and anytime we find ourselves thinking “how can I use Pinterest with my class?”, we are in trouble. In the accompanying blog post, the writer describes using Pinterest like this:

Pinterest is a great visible way to curate resources but why not create a class account that has a different board based on projects throughout the year. Add students as collaborators and let them post their projects to the board. You could also have a board on gathering resources and information for a topic which would be a good time to mention what is and what isn’t a valid resource?

Which isn’t a bad idea at all. If the thinking behind this is “I want to create a means by which my students can collect and share information and resources. Pinterest is a quick and easy way to do this” then I’m all in favour of it. Unfortunately, what the infographic seems to be saying to me is “Are using Pinterest? What do you mean you’re not? What’s wrong with you? I guess that means you’re not a 21st century teacher…”, which is a shame, because I don’t think that’s what he really wants to say.

I also take issue with the notion that all students are the same, which I think this infographic simplistically suggests with its “these things are guaranteed to work!” zeal. If you’d asked me to leap around my school while miming to some dreadful pop nonsense when I was teenager (which would have been the opinion of this oh so indie kid), I would have opted for the ‘drop out of school and live in a cave’ option. Not all students have the same interests and the desire to sing, dance and share everything with everyone else, and not a single one of these ‘things’ has any obvious connection to studying. You know, the kind of studying where you have to sit down and read a book in order to learn things, or is that old hat now? I think that suggesting that we need to adopt all of these gimmicks in order to connect with our students is patronising to them and to their potential.

We also have the matter of the time. The idea that a teacher has a schedule which allows for the amount of learning, training and management involved to implement these tools has got to be ridiculous. If you have the time, then I encourage you to never quit your job because you’ll never find a better one.

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There’s also the amount of digital literacy required. You can argue that teenagers already know how to use these tools, we don’t need to teach them how. But there’s so much more to digital literacy than knowing how to utilise the settings. Our students need to know what is happening to their data, who has access to it and how it can be used by the corporations that own these services. They need to know about appropriate ways of conducting themselves, something their parents might not be able to teach them. And crucially, they need to be able to know which sources of information can be trusted and which can’t, and how we find this out. All this time adds up.

And if our students are adults, it may take even longer.

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But then you might agree with Carl Hooker:

Sure, this might take more time than it’s worth academically, but the collaborative sharing and engaging aspect of producing such a thing can be a positive.

I’m sure you can work out where I stand on that.

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And then there’s the assumption that all classrooms have all these resources to hand. Imagine the vast majority of other countries in the world and how remote and disconnected from reality this infographic would appear to them. Those teachers could quite fairly ask “Is this what you think it means to be a teacher?” 

But I think more than anything, it’s the use of the word ‘should’ in the title that bothers me. It suggests that if we don’t use these tools we’re negligent and/or out of touch with modern teaching. I teach in a school with no interactive whiteboards, limited opportunities to show videos or images on a larger scale, and a flakey Internet connection. However, my students all have smart phones and reliable 3G connections. This means that there are some things I can’t do, and some things I can. I’m aware that I have access to more resources than most teachers in the world, but reading this infographic makes me feel like I live on another planet.

But wherever I teach (and I have also taught in countries and schools with considerably greater resources), I find that what I really need, more than anything, is a board and for my students to have notebooks. I don’t feel in any way disadvantaged, for me it’s always a case of adapting to the environment and the possibilities it allows. I don’t need any more than the basics to be an effective teacher, but if I’ve got it, sure I’ll try it, but only after I’ve considered its value as a pedagogic tool in helping the students to advance in their learning.

I don’t think I’m the only teacher in this situation. Globally there are many of us, but there are even more of us who have access to nothing more than a board, and maybe not even that. Try telling them that they ‘should’ be using these tools. Perhaps it would have more tactful and appropriate to suggest that teachers ‘could’ try them, and the tiny proportion who can try them all can have fun having “a “no tech day”, just for nostalgia’s sake” (number 6 on the list). 

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The trouble with infographics is that they tend to be a shallow representation of what can be a deeper issue. This can lead to the nuance and suggestion being removed, as it has to a degree in this case, where information aimed at teachers seems to have little to do with teaching and learning, and everything with trying to be the hip and trendy teacher that the students love (and seriously, is there anything more embarrassing than that?).

cool teacher

To be fair to @mrhooker, he has written his blog post with all the right intentions and he deserves praise for what is clearly a genuine attempt to engage students. Unfortunately he has fallen into the trap that many proponents of technology, and not just in education, have ended up in. I have no doubt that technology offers teachers many wonderful new opportunities to do their job, but as the best advocates know, you’ve got to back it up with a sound pedagogy. If you don’t, you risk gimmickry. 

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As I said on Facebook when I posted the infographic, I love technology and would encourage teachers to use it with their students where appropriate, but 95% of my lesson time involves pens, paper, talking and a whiteboard. I feel no need to apologise for this and start making lipdub videos.‬

If only he’d changed those two little letters, and written ‘could’ instead of ‘should’…


ELT in Graphs

The amount of time spent with published materials

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 How writing homework gets handed in

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The first activities done with a new class

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Students and their vocabulary notebooks

photo 4 Giving feedback during speaking activities

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App Update July 2014

Below are seven apps that I have recently downloaded and think have potential, either for English language teachers in the classroom, or for teachers writing lesson plans and bloggers. I hope you find them useful too.

Tiny Games

Tiny Games “is a smartphone app that enables you to play fun, social games in the real world. You tell the app where you are, who you’re with and what’s to hand, and it supplies a game to fit.” It can definitely be modified for use in the classroom and could provide some interesting and language rich contexts for your students to practice in.

The free version of the game includes one setting, ‘home’, in which you’ll find the following options:

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As an example, I chose ‘Lounge’. You then select the number of players, from 1 to 5+, so there’s lots of flexibility depending on your teaching context.

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It will then ask you a question to find out your mood. It’s up to you how seriously you take it and if you decide to share this vocabulary with your students!

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It will then start to set up the game by seeing if you meet the conditions it requires, for example:

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And then the game begins. It’s very helpful with classroom instructions!

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What I particular like about this app is that the games are very simple and easy to adapt to your classroom and students. And if the app is in the hands of your students, not only are they responsible for choosing the game, they also have to run it effectively too, freeing the teacher up to sit back and pay attention the language they produce in order to give them feedback after they have finished.

The Tiny Games app is free on iOS with paid upgrades for added environments, including ‘walk’, ‘road’, ‘queue’ and ‘pub’! At the time of writing it is only available on iOS. There is also a kids version developed for Sesame Street called Family Play:

Decide Now!

This app is designed to help you make decisions by taking it out of your hands and leaving it to the spin of a wheel. With the wheel below the students could complete the question “Should I…?” with their own language before spinning the wheel and getting their answer.

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Not only do they have to fill in the gap in the question, they will also want to respond to the answer they get, and they’ll learn some interesting vocabulary along the way (“why bother?”, “no way!”, “forget it!”, for example).

There are plenty more wheels to choose from, some more useful than others:

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Perhaps the best feature is that you can make your own wheels. Here’s a one I made for my students to practice the present continuous. They have to tell me what they are doing by using the verb that the wheel selects for them.

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Decide Now is 69p / $1 for the full version. There is also a free version, but you can’t make your own wheels. At the time of writing it is only available on iOS.

Was That You

This app is an old fashioned parlour game, 21st century style. There are instructions to follow and the game seems quite fun, but I prefer the idea of using at a way of asking unusual, interesting and possibly funny warmer questions at the beginning of a class. For example:

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Although some of them you might want to avoid…

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Was That You is available for free on iOS. As far as I can see, at the time of writing it is only available on iOS.


This creative writing app, designed to help you get over writer’s block, can give your students help with story writing. It starts by giving you the opening fragment of the first sentence of your story:

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You continue to write until inspiration dries up. You can then ask the app to help you by pressing the thunderbolt icon at the top of the screen. It will then give you a random question or statement to encourage you to think in a different way, hopefully giving you the kickstart you need to continue.

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It would be interesting to try this as a group writing activity in class. You could give all the students the same beginning sentence, and after one minute you could give them their first piece of inspiration, followed by another a couple of minutes later and so on. It would be interesting to compare how their stories develop in different ways.

Prompts is available for £1.49 on iOS. At the time of writing it is only available on iOS.

The following apps are for bloggers or teachers seeking a creative spark.


Oflow describes itself as “the only app of its kind to offer hundreds of proven creativity techniques”. It does this by giving you a variety of techniques and ideas to look at what you are creating, whether it’s a piece of writing or a lesson plan in a new way.

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Oflow is available on iOS for £1.49. At the time of writing it is only available on iOS.

Obliques Strategies

Originally created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt and first published in 1975 as a set of cards, they “are intended to help artists (particularly musicians) break creative blocks by encouraging lateral thinking.” Although at times, they are a little, well, oblique, they can also provide you with a new perspective and a moment of inspiration when you need it.

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Oblique Strategies is available for free on iOS and on Android (finally!). It’s also available online.

A special mention…

Dragon Dictation

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This app transforms your spoken words into written texts, which you can export to use however you wish. I had used it in the past, and I wasn’t particularly impressed with it, as it seemed to have great difficulty in translating my clear English teachers voice into accurate text. I was recently tempted to try it again, and it seems to have improved considerably.

I wouldn’t, however, recommend it for students. You still need to use a slightly unnatural rhythm to make it understand you, and it will still struggle if you attempt to speak naturally with words blending together and the errms and errrs that we should automatically produce. So the model of speech that the app encourages is not one that I would recommend for learners, but for writers I think it can be very useful and time-saving.

Dragon Dictation is available for free on iOS and Android.

“i’m going to italy” and other intermediate errors (Updated)

What follows is a public service announcement on behalf of all teachers who have students at intermediate and above…

Below are examples of common mistakes some of my Spanish speaking students continue to make in speaking and writing at intermediate level and above, even though these are things they should have dealt with at a lower level. They…

1) …swap the pronunciation of e and i

PIE elt efl intermediate errors

2) …incorrectly pronounce -ed words

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3) …write sentences like “i’m going to italy”, forgetting that capitalisation of some words is not an option

Italy elt efl intermediate errors.jpg

4) …and neither is spacing and the placement of punctuation

punctuation elt efl intermediate errors

5) … get more complex numbers wrong, or they need time to think about it

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6) …confuse he and she

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7) …make basic verb errors

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I understand why these happen. If we’re teaching lower levels, you have to prioritise and decide what’s important. We can’t and shouldn’t correct all their errors, it’s just not feasible and it would drive them mad if we did. My intermediates also have a lot of trouble with prepositions and phrasal verbs, which is definitely understandable. There’s no teacher in the world who can teach students to master that anarchic and messy bit of the language. So it’s okay to let them get those wrong for a bit.

However, the ones I listed above are not the kinds of mistakes that we should be letting go of, they are fundamental aspects of the ability to communicate at a higher level. If we don’t teach them now, then another teacher will have to do it later when they really shouldn’t have to. If I’m trying to work with them on the passive voice, or conditionals, or the language of polite disagreement and so on, we don’t have time to deal with these.

Of course the students also have a responsibility here. It may well be that we’ve done your bit and taught them appropriately, and they just haven’t done the work. But these are the kinds of errors that will show up repeatedly after we’ve moved on to another language point, and I think this is one of those occasions where we really need to be a bit strict, talk to them about it and make sure they correct themselves. In other words, a bit less of a ‘collaborator’ and a bit more of a ‘teacher’.

So prioritise by all means, but think carefully about what you are selecting, because they’ll have to learn it at some point and it might be you who’s having to fit it into your already busy schedule. Now I’m going to teach my beginner class, and I promise you, I’ll won’t let these mistakes slide, for your sake.