‘How to join communicative pressure and cooperation in a speaking or writing activity’ by Paolo Torresan

This has got to be the most interactive and fun session I attended at TESOL Italy 2015. It was sponsored by Pilgrims and Paolo mentioned that there will be a course on improvisation in EFL run both in July and in August 2016, at Pilgrims, in Canterbury, by Peter Dyer (more info here).

But back to the workshop. There was no ppt. No lecturing or the audience listening with hidden yawns. Instead, there was a lot of practice, and as the title suggests, communication and cooperation in speaking and writing activities.

I came in slightly late, so missed the instructions to the first activity, but the other teacher I was paired up with explained that we had to improvise and pretend we were giving a gift to each other. One person gives the present, without saying what it is. The person receiving it has to accept it, thank for it, and choose what the gift is, i.e. improvise (Paolo is grateful to Peter Dyer, who developed this activity). Then we swapped roles.

Very simple, but very effective at the same time. The whole room seemed very engaged, and I could see it working very well with real students too. It was fun, involved creativity, a bit of acting, and plenty of opportunity for students to practice some functional language.

After the activity, Paolo explained the basic framework that we would also use in the following demos. The underlying pattern looks like this:

  • Yessing, or accepting your partner’s contribution
  • Adding, adding some info in order to let the action/dialogue take place, and go on, for example:
    • Yes and…
  • Paolo pointed out we should avoid contradicting, i.e. patterns such as ‘Yes, but/however’, because it works as a blocking device, and can lead to ‘conversation paralysis’

So the next demo was called ‘One word at a time’ and was adapted from a book by Keith Johnstone, Impro. Improvisation for the Theatre, published in 1981 by Bloomsbury, London. We were put in pairs with a different teacher and had to imagine we were now one person having an internal dialogue. We can only say one word at a time and we can’t contradict our partner. Paolo demoed the activity with a volunteer:



We were then asked to choose a context, and for one reason or another somebody shouted out ‘desert!’, so we ended up having to construct an internal dialogue while being in the middle of a desert… It went kind of like this:

A: We…

B: …are…

A: …looking…

B: …for…

A: …well…

B: …because…

I can’t remember the rest exactly, but it involved finding a gold fish and eating it for dinner – I know, English teachers can have bizarre ideas sometimes.

Again, everyone was very engaged and active. And as with the previous activity, I can see it work really well with students. Lots of room for individual creativity, but at the same time quite demanding linguistically, to be honest. A possible follow up could be to retell the dialogue to a new partner, or even write it down, or record it at home.

The next activity was dynamic storytelling developed by Peter Dyer. One volunteer had to come to the front to start the story by saying a sentence. Again, it was left purely up to us what the context would be, and if I remember right, it was: Once upon a time there was a wolf. Perhaps not terribly imaginative, but it did the trick: starting the story off. The next volunteer would come to the front and say another sentence. But the sentence could be from anywhere in the story: right after the first one, the middle, or the end. The person would stand in a line either close to the first volunteer, or far away, depending on where in the story their sentence would come. And off we went. Again, it was fun, engaging, with lots of language practice. There was a lot of repetition, as you had to remember your sentence and the ones around you to make sure the story would flow. There was definitely plenty of room for peer correction too. As with the previous ones, the creative aspect had us all very much engaged.

In the second part of the workshop we looked at improvisation and creativity for writing activities. Again, they were surprisingly simple, but at the same time very effective and engaging.

Among several that we saw, I will describe the first one, which was group picture activity. It starts with an empty white board. The first volunteer draws the first picture. It can be anything. I think in our case it was a palm tree. The next person adds another picture or element to it, and so on (this activity comes from Sion C., 2000, Creating Conversation in Class, Delta, Peaslake). Once there are quite a few things drawn, Paolo explained that there are several ways in which the pictures could be used as a springboard for writing activities. For example:

  • Write the names of the objects
  • Create a dialogue between the people in the pictures
  • Create an sms (or perhaps in our modern times Whatsapp or FB) chat
  • Write a story connecting the pictures
  • Fill in the empty parts of the board with a story

I imagine this would lend itself nicely to a speaking activity too, either before or instead of the writing phase. I’d imagine the students being quite engaged in the writing, because it’s their story, rather than one imposed by the teacher. A scaffold is developed by the students and for the students, and there is plenty of room for individual creativity.

I would have certainly enjoyed doing these activities in a language class.

My other summaries from TESOL Italy 2015 sessions can be found here:

  1. ELF and TESOL: a change of subject? plenary by Henry Widdowson
  2. Learning to teach listening: students’ and teachers’ perceptions. by Chiara Bruzzano

Meu instantâneo 15 [3677412]Paolo Torresan obtained his PhD in Linguistics and Romance Philology at Ca’ Foscari University, in Venice. He has carried out research at Complutense University, Autonoma University, in Madrid, and at Lancaster University. He has taught at Rio de Janeiro State University and Santa Monica College, Santa Monica, CA. He is Editor-in-chief for the following journals: Officina.it and Bollettino Itals. Among his books we mention: The Multiple Intelligence Theory and Language Teaching (Perugia 2010). He’s also studied improvisation at the Groundlings school, in LA. You can get in touch with Paolo through his profile on academia.edu here.

“Learning to teach listening: students’ and teachers’ perceptions” summary of Chiara Bruzzano’s talk

This is the second summary from the TESOL Italy 2016 talks that I saw. The first one was Henry Widdowson’s plenary ‘ELF and TESOL: a change of subject?’, and you can read it here.

Chiara’s talk starts off with a short video. Two people are having breakfast and chatting away. A third one arrives and joins the chat.

The language sounds vaguely familiar, but doesn’t seem to be making much sense. In fact, Chiara tells us after we’ve watched it that it’s made up of different lines from different song lyrics jumbled together.

And this is exactly how English might sound to our students’ ears. Difficult to understand. Confusing. The likely outcome is that they’ll feel frustrated. And perhaps this is one of the reasons why teaching listening is important. But not the only one, of course. Some other that Chiara lists are:

  • Low English proficiency of students in Italy
  • English is becoming more and more important in everyday life
  • It’s the Cinderella skill
  • Students’ perceptions need to be taken into account for curriculum development
  • Most of the time listening is tested rather than taught in class

The two most common theories which inform how we teach listening are bottom-up and top-down processing. However, rather than choosing between one or the other, it is important we adopt a more integrated approach; that is, helping our learners develop and use both top-down and bottom-up skills.

The rest of the talk is informed by a research Chiara carried out. The sample was made up of 121 Italian students of English aged 16 to 19 and 5 Italian English teachers. To gather data she used questionnaires, interviews with teachers and classroom observations.

The research focused on the appreciation of students for listening activities, the materials and sources used in the classroom, the importance of the skill and the students’ difficulties.

The two main findings that Chiara drew on to provide her practical suggestions were a general good level of appreciation of the students for listening skills and the problems that they highlighted. Most of them referred to perception and parsing problems as being prominent, and their teachers seemed to show a good level of awareness regarding this.

So, it seems that in this particular study students are motivated, enjoy listening and see it as important. The question is then, how can we capitalise on these positive perceptions to improve students’ listening?

First, we should stop just testing listening, and focus on teaching it. I wrote more about this in this post.

As far as bottom-up skills go, we can for example focus on connected speech, weak forms or variations in pronunciation of individual sounds.


Some ways in which we can attempt to help students improve top down skills are:

  • Inferring missing information
  • Continue listening despite difficulties
  • Predicting unfinished utterances.
  • Taking notes of content words.
  • Paying attention to discourse markers, visuals, body language.

In the next part of the talk we were provided with a very useful list of listening Dos and Don’ts.





Then, we had to put them into practice to assess the listening activity you can see below. What do you think is wrong with it and how could it be improved?


Some things that were wrong with it can be seen on this slide:


Finally, there are several ways in which we can try to make our listening lessons more interesting, and more focused on teaching rather than testing listening, which Chiara called listening with a twist:

  • Use a wordcloud as a prelistening: www.worditout.com
  • Students watch part of a TV series as an extensive listening and imagine how they would have acted in the situations shown
  • Instead of questions, students can be given a drawing, a map or a table to fill
  • Play chunks of language and ask students to identify how many words they can hear, and then which words
  • Let the students choose their favourite songs or video clips to listen to in class

You can find more tips for teaching listening in some of the previous posts from this blog as well as in the listening section here:

  1. Let’s bring back the TAPES
  2. Teaching listening: tweaking the CELTA approach
  3. Planning a listening lesson: 15 tips
  4. Teaching listening: example lesson plan and reflection
  5. The real deal – authentic materials or authentic tasks?

256331_3965102298242_285721285_o (1) [1661836]Chiara is an English teacher and translator based in Milan. She has taught English as a second language in England, Spain and Italy. She has a BA in Interpreting and Translation (University of Bologna) and an MA in TESOL and Translation Studies (Aston University, Birmingham). Her main interests in the TESOL field are pronunciation, comparative grammar, the teaching of listening skills and communicative language teaching applied to business contexts.

‘ELF and TESOL: A change of subject?’ summary of Prof. Widdowson’s plenary

Finally, I managed to get my act together and write another blog post. It’s been too long! But the PhD in TESOL I started recently has swallowed up what had previously been called free time. You might also have noticed a flurry of activity around The TEFL Show podcasts, which I co-author, and which you can find now on their brand new website here. So, I was delighted when last weekend I managed to get away for a weekend to go to TESOL Italy convention in Rome. So for the next couple of posts I’ll be writing up summaries of some of the sessions I’ve seen. We’ll start it off not with the first talk, but with perhaps the one I’d been looking forward to most: Prof. Henry Widdowson’s plenary at the end of Day 1. NB: this summary has been edited following Prof. Widdowson’s suggestions and feedback.

The third plenary session that I saw during TESOL Italy 2016 was given by Prof. Henry Widdowson. Having read many of his books and papers I was really looking forward to finally seeing him live giving a talk. As you can see from the photo below, I wasn’t the only one looking forward to this opportunity – the room was absolutely packed (you might be able to see Barbara Seidlhofer and Diane Larsen-Freeman sitting in the first row). I actually had to ‘borrow’ a chair from the terrace area and sneak in right beside the podium to be able to see the talk.


As the title suggests, the talk proposed that the Teaching of English as a Second/Foreign Language needs to undergo a paradigm shift from teaching English as a language ‘belonging’ to and ‘owned’ by Native English Speakers (NES), to teaching English as a Lingua Franca (ELF). This issue has been widely discussed recently in academic publications, and was explored in-depth in two books Defining issues in ELT by Widdowson himself and in Understanding ELF by Barbara Seidlhofer.

The talk started with a historical overview of the shift away from a Structural Language Teaching (SLT) to Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) which took place in ELT starting in the late 70s and early 80s. Many might think of this change as a profound paradigm shift from a structure, grammar and correctness oriented approach to a focus on productive skills, communication and interaction. However, Prof. Widdowson points out here that in fact very little changed. The subject being taught remained essentially the same. So did the basic assumptions behind teaching.

In fact, in certain basic respects we haven’t moved on at all. The (idealised) NES competence was the subject of SLT and still is that of CLT. The two approaches might seem radically different at the surface, but they’re underlying assumptions remain exactly the same. And as a result of these assumptions, learners are only labelled as successful provided they conform with the NES models.

It is true that in SLT the focus of teaching was slightly different as the emphasis was placed on linguistic terms. In addition, English was thought of as radically different from students’ L1, which made it seem really difficult to learn. Students had to internalise this foreign and alien code. A lot of SLT also focused on differences in form between L1 and L2.

The introduction of CLT was said to lead to a radical shift in how English was to be taught, and what aspects of it. Radical at face value only, however. For example, it is true that communicative competence, as opposed to the linguistic or structural one, started to be viewed as paramount. Communicating meaning in interactions was emphasised over ‘dry’ grammar. All of this reflected a similar change in linguistics. However, it is not true that language taught through SLT was decontextualized. SLT DID focus on meaning too. The difference was that in SLT the context was subservient to the code or the linguistic structure. On the other hand, in CLT the linguistic structure is viewed as subservient to the context.

But if we examine the underlying assumptions of the subject matter (English language) to be taught and the context in which it is to be presented, it becomes clear that actually no shift had taken place. After all, it was still the (idealised) NES norms of language use which were to reign supreme and had to be abided by if a NNES was ever to be deemed a successful learner. While CLT focused on context and SLT on linguistic structure, they were both underscored by the same assumption: there was to be only one correct context or structure, of course that of a NES. And it is an orthodoxy that is still followed. The C in CLT is highly misleading, because the method is not concerned with communication per se, but rather with communication in conformity with NES norms. It seems then that CLT was not a radical shift at all, but rather a quick and somewhat superficial make over.

If we then examine the acronym TESOL/TEFL, it becomes self-evident that the E can only mean one thing. English of NES, that of Inner Circle speakers. So the only correct English belongs to NES, and the communicative competence so cherished by CLT is of course that of a NES too. That is, a successful learner in CLT has to conform with how English is used in communicative situations by NES. We could say then that what CLT has done is to have doubled the difficulty faced by learners: they now not only need to use English correctly, i.e. conform with the NES linguistic code; but also appropriately, i.e. conform with the NES communicative and interactional rules. For, as Prof. Widdowson put it, it was believed that “Otherwise you’re communicatively disabled”.

The real radical shift in ELT might come from ELF, which aims to change the paradigm of dependence on NES norms, of viewing learners as constant failures.  For what the use of ELF shows is how the resources of the language can be strategically exploited in non-conformist ways to achieve communication as appropriate to different contexts and purposes. Such non-conformist uses correspond in many ways to so-called learner ‘error’, which can also be seen as attempts to make the language being taught communicatively real and in correspondence  with the learners experience of their own language. From the learning perspective, the E of TESOL/TEFL/ELT would then become the E of ELF, not the E of NES. Hence, the proposed change of subject.


You might wonder, though, why we should be looking forward to the ELF shift. Hasn’t CLT been successful enough? On the superficial level, perhaps yes. However, when we look at the underlying native speakeristic assumptions behind SLT and CLT, the picture becomes much less optimistic.

The first corrosive effect of relying on NES norms is that learners are doomed to failure from the very beginning. They are made to conform with communicative norms and structural rules of native- speaker English, and their performance is constantly being evaluated in terms of their inability to conform with these norms and rules. In other words, learners remain forever locked in a state of linguistic and communicative disability. Hence, as Prof. Widdowson summarised it, ELT methodologies “have amounted to a pedagogy of failure”.

Perhaps we should ask ourselves why students do not conform, where the errors come from. Learners will have the pragmatic awareness from their L1 and learning will always involve transfer from L1 experience. However, there is no valid reason why it should be seen as a negative interference. Functionally, then, these errors could be seen as communicative transfer. The student focuses on what is communicatively important or salient, and filters out what has little pragmatic value. Yet, teachers spend hours trying to correct these ‘errors’, to eradicate the interference which at the end of the day has little communicative importance. As a result, the natural learning of communicative capability  is hindered by teacher’s insistence on conformity with the NES norm.

On the other hand, ELF relates English more closely to the learners. From a foreign and alien tongue impossible to master, English becomes more familiar and real, a language that is actually learnable, that can be appropriated by the learner, made their own. ELF removes the necessity to conform with NES norms which dooms all learners to a painful and demotivating failure. It moves the focus to pragmatic and communicative capability  per se, rather than the NES communicative competence of CLT.

Prof. Widdowson concludes the talk by highlighting that the insistence on conformity with NES norms actually hinders the development of learner autonomy, a concept which we as teachers supposedly go into great pains to develop. After all, the student is faced with an irresolvable dilemma: practising the newly learned language outside the class (i.e. learner autonomy) will inevitably lead to making errors, and hence failure. What this creates is that just as employers have employees, teachers have teachees, who must conform with the rules set by the teacher, and are not allowed to experiment with the new language. However, students should be allowed to develop communicatively. We need to cease to judge learners success or failure in view of the errors they make. Instead of this ‘pedagogy of failure’, ELF focuses on the positive, on the “development of the potential to use English” ie of a communicative capability.

As teachers, we need to change how we think of English as a subject. Why teach a competence that so few learners can achieve?

Why not instead teach a more realistic model. Set realistic objectives, which reflect learning, not failure. Objectives which are achievable.

If we continue with the pedagogy of the NES ideal, we teach learners to fail. We stigmatise them as incompetent, forever communicatively disabled.

However, if we accept the reality of the English language, which is no longer the sum of NES norms, the purpose of teaching becomes the development of students’ capability to use English with whichever linguistic resources at hand, whether conforming to NES norms or not.

Henry Widdowson is an authority in the field of applied linguistics and language teaching, specifically English language learning and teaching. Widdowson is perhaps best known for his contribution to communicative language teaching. However, he has also published on other related subjects such as discourse analysis and critical discourse analysis, the global spread of English, English for Special Purposes and stylistics. The Routledge Encyclopedia of Language Teaching and Learning calls him “probably the most influential philosopher of the late twentieth century for international ESOL” (674). Widdowson is Emeritus Professor of Education, University of London, and has also been Professor of Applied Linguistics at the University of Essex and Professor of English Linguistics at the University of Vienna. He is the Applied Linguistics adviser to Oxford University Press and series adviser of Oxford Bookworms Collection. Widdowson is co-editor of Language Teaching: A Scheme for Teacher Education. He is the series editor of Oxford Introductions to Language Study and the author of Linguistics (1996) in the same series. He has also published Defining Issues in English Language Teaching (2002), and Practical Stylistics: An Approach to Poetry (1992). His most recent book is Text, Context, Pretext. Critical Issues in Discourse Analysis (2004), published by Blackwell’s (from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Widdowson).

Some thoughts on the Language Show Live 2015

logo newIn this podcast we chat about Language Show Live, one of the biggest language fairs in Europe which we attended at the weekend. The event is not only attended by English teachers, but also those who teach other languages, are translators, interpreters, or simply love learning languages.

All The TEFL Show podcasts can be found in this playlist on Soundcloud and in the iTunes Store here. You can subscribe to the show there, download the podcasts to listen to later and share them on social media. And if you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please rate it on iTunes and do comment below. We’d love to hear from you 🙂

The podcast music theme is under Creative Commons ShareAlike 3.0 International License and was downloaded from this website.

Observations in ELT: a quality control tool

LOGO FINALIn this podcast we talk about being observed. In our own experience observations have mostly been used for quality control purposes and as teachers we have benefited little from many of them. As a result, we suggest how we think observations could be made more useful for teachers in terms of professional development.

All The TEFL Show podcasts can be found in this playlist on Soundcloud and in the iTunes Store here. You can subscribe to the show there, download the podcasts to listen to later and share them on social media. And if you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please rate it on iTunes and do comment below. We’d love to hear from you 🙂

The podcast music theme is under Creative Commons ShareAlike 3.0 International License and was downloaded from this website.