Teaching Academic Content through English: University of Bordeaux course

Last week I had the privilege of observing an English Medium Instruction (EMI) teacher education course run by the Department of Language and Culture (DLC) as part of the Défi international at Bordeaux University.


Official end-of-course group portrait with instructors and participants

Course overview

The course involved 14 academics from a range of disciplines (e.g., biology, sociology, material science) and 9 instructors (ESP teachers). It was organised over 3 consecutive days (Wednesday to Friday), 2 sessions per half-day (approximately 9-12h, 13-16h), with coffee breaks and lunch together and in English.

The team had the following broad course objectives:

  1. raise awareness of opportunities and challenges of EMI with respect to individual teachers, specific student populations, particular disciplinary content, pedagogical traditions, and institutional constraints;
  2. develop fluency, confidence, and motivation in the area of spoken English, and encourage participants to recognise their own strengths in mobilising existing competence for interaction in academic English, as well as offer avenues for future development;
  3. open debate on pedagogical practice in higher education and promote positive views of innovation and transformation.

Choices of resources and activities are motivated by research in various areas of applied linguistics and educational science:

  • Language (English) for Specific Purposes (LSP, ESP), EMI
  • Communicative language teaching (CLT) and task-based language teaching (TBLT)
  • Phonology and English as a lingua franca (ELF)
  • discourse analysis (scientific articles)
  • internationalisation and intercultural competence.

The pedagogical format involves the orchestration of numerous activities for pair, group, and whole-class work in planned sequences which are common to each session:

  • warm-up activities
  • introductory activities
  • core activities
  • plenary summaries (task outcome), and
  • group reflection (meta-analysis).

The 18-hour course was organised in 12 sessions, two per half-day, and tackling four main strands. Components of EMI instruction were addressed in the sessions on academic reading, understanding lectures, and asking/answering questions: three key components of university teaching and learning. Only one course unit directly addressed language skills (two sessions on pronunciation). The flipped classroom and student outcome sessions, in contrast, focused on pedagogical issues from teacher and learner perspectives respectively. The final teaching task involved microteaching, which participants prepared over two preceding sessions. The last session was the only one where they took the role of teacher.

This course on English Medium Instruction for higher education instructors in international programmes is built on a strong local tradition of LSP teaching and research at Bordeaux, and it has already attracted well-deserved attention at national and European level. For me, its key strengths are these:

1. Course design

The course is well-designed at macro, meso, and micro levels. The overall objectives are clear and appear to be achieved (to varying degrees) for all participants. Each session is appropriate for course goals and well-constructed, generally using a common template which helps participants understand and anticipate goals and requirements and so benefit fully from each, but also incorporating enough variety to reduce the risk of fatigue and disengagement. Particular activities are also well-crafted to allow opportunities for interaction, reflection, and more extended presentations in a range of class situations (pair and group work; whole-class work as student or as teacher).

2. Course materials

The propositional content of most teaching and learning materials (such as video of an academic lecture and a sample academic publication) were oriented to relevant specific purpose contexts (often hard sciences) or LSP/EMI pedagogy. This helped with face validity for participants, allowing many to make links with their own practice, but also experience comprehension difficulties with unfamiliar topics, as of course their students are likely to do.

3. L2 immersion environment

English was used almost exclusively by both instructors and participants. This was achieved by

  • using contiguous rooms for teaching and breaks,
  • a low participant to teacher ratio,
  • a very experienced instructional team, and
  • (one imagines) careful pre-sessional preparation.

4. Course delivery

It is a very well-oiled machine – the instructors appear to enjoy the sessions, collaborate and communicative effectively with one another, and share a common vision of course objectives and means to attain them. The atmosphere is unfailingly good humoured and relaxed, with a good balance between a) structured activities with substantive input and clear objectives, on one hand, and b) time and space for participants to express their own views, reflect on task content and pedagogical issues, and also focus on their English (personal and disciplinary) needs on the other.

5. Orchestration of group work

The instructors are particularly skilled in launching and facilitating group activities, both in practical terms, and with respect to interpersonal factors. All were adept at

  • organising participants efficiently into teams, mixing and matching according to language level, disciplinary background, and even temperament;
  • providing clear instructions and effective input, creating a relaxed atmosphere conducive to risk-taking and creative thinking, and
  • avoiding or defusing incipient interpersonal conflict or emotional difficulties, and generally reducing stress for all participants.

At a time when pedagogical innovation often involves blended learning and heavy use of classroom technology, the low-tech approach involving coloured cards, paper slips, and A3 grids used by the instructional team seems particularly attractive. It certainly proved effective in maintaining attention levels, and an L2 immersion environment, even among participants who were professional colleagues with low English proficiency and presumably well-established L1 interactional habits. 

6. Time for reflection and meta-analysis

These periods seemed especially valuable for encouraging participants to make the most of the opportunities for exchanging ideas and developing particularly oral/aural skills. Debriefing sessions where participants seemed unforthcoming were counter-balanced by insightful reflections in other sessions, suggesting that frequent encouragement to analyse and reflect on pedagogical issues created a “slow-burn” effect which is perhaps conducive to deeper learning.

I had some questions regarding various aspects of the course, including the team’s treatment of these dimensions.

  1. language proficiency (little or no explicit language teaching)
  2. applied linguistics theory (some discourse analysis, phonology terms)
  3. the pedagogical model used (task-based, but not completely)
  4. language feedback (little or none)
  5. participant agency (participants were generally students, and offered few options)
  6. overall course structure (content and order of course components).

I have to say, however, that this is one of the best EMI teacher education courses I have seen in French higher education. I’m encouraging the team to share their practice as widely as possible and to consider how it can be maintained and perhaps extended, given the current emphasis on internationalisation in our universities.

Indeed, the course seems particularly well-designed for its target audience and also very well implemented in all aspects. It covers an ambitious and wide-ranging programme in only 18 hours, and succeeds in establishing a highly effective and supportive immersion context for colleagues in a variety of disciplines and with a range of English proficiency profiles. Its particular strengths include active learning, language practice, and pedagogical reflection, which expose participants to many different examples of teaching practice and interactional styles and allow the team to address a number of issues, often in the course of a single session. The team is to be congratulated on the high quality of activity design, materials development, pedagogical collaboration, as well as on the sheer teaching craft and flexibility which are necessary to produce such a polished teacher education experience for all participants.


Some references that came up in discussion with the team.


Birch-Bécaas, S., & Hoskins, L. (2017). Designing and implementing ESP courses in French higher education: a case study. In Sarré, C., & Whyte, S. (Eds). New developments in ESP teaching and learning research, Research-publishing.net

Erlam, R. (2015). ‘I’m still not sure what a task is’: Teachers designing language tasks. Language Teaching Research.

Erlam, R. (2013). Listing and comparing tasks in the language classroom: Examples of Willis and Willis’s (2007) taxonomy in practice. The New Zealand Language Teacher, 39,7-14.

Jenkins, Jennifer (2000) The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jenkins, Jennifer (2002) A sociolinguistically based, empirically researched pronunciation syllabus for EIL. Applied Linguistics 23/1, 83-103.

Lightbown, P. M. (2003). SLA research in the classroom/SLA research for the classroom. Language Learning Journal, 28(1), 4-13.


Hancock, M. (1995). Pronunciation games. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Web links

ELF pronunciation: https://elfpron.wordpress.com/blog-including-resources

UEFAP (Andy Gillet) http://www.uefap.net/

  • language functions (e.g., Spoken English functions)
  • language features (e.g., Hedging in Academic Writing)



And a seriously unflattering shot of me in seminar mode (see my talk)


Research and language teaching: practitioner access to studies of instructed SLA

A topical and somewhat controversial theme arising in language teaching and language research circles concerns the relationship between research conducted on second language acquisition and learning and the practical concerns of language teachers. Just two examples from the past week:

Many teachers and teacher educators are concerned about access to academic research – see for example ELT research bites.

This post reports on another take on this issue, from a recent article in the Modern Language Journal by Emma Marsden and Rowena Kasprowicz (2017). It refers not to English language teaching (ELT) but rather modern foreign languages (MFL) in the UK, particularly French, German, and Spanish. (I am unaware of similar research in ELT circles, and of course delimiting a population of teachers and teacher educators is no doubt more complicated.)

samuel-zeller-358865Samuel Zeller

Foreign language (FL) educators’ exposure to research

The authors begin with a caveat that the goal of their paper is not to address teacher participation in research via action research, for example, but rather to investigate “the extent and manner in which research may reach FL educators in the first place” (p. 615). Conducted from the University of York, the study surveyed UK FL practitioners in schools and universities using two online questionnaires which attracted 183 and 391 respondents, and which the authors judged elicited responses from a large proportion of (particularly university-based) practitioners. The researchers found that

  • respondents accessed research via professional association newsletters and reports rather than academic journals or conferences;
  • school-based practitioners were much less likely to read about research than their university-based colleagues;
  • even university-based practitioners reported low engagement with research;
  • reasons given for lack of engagement with research included
    • lack of time
    • problems physically accessing publications
    • difficulty in understanding research.

The article contains a great deal of detail on the instruments and analysis which produced these conclusions as befits this kind of peer-reviewed international academic publication. The authors find their results “unsurprising,” though valuable as “the first evidence about the scale and nature of the (lack of) interface with research for non-English FL educators” (p. 624).

Indirect exposure to ISLA research

In the second part of the study, the authors examined indirect exposure to research through the practitioner-oriented publications most frequently cited in the surveys:

They note that over half the respondents (51.37%) did not mention any of these publications, so we’re looking at homeopathic doses in many cases. Nevertheless, the authors examined articles in these 7 publications which referred to research, and calculated the proportion of references to academic research on instructed second language acquisition (ISLA), compared to books, for example, or other types of publication.

Journals were selected if their Aims included the following terms: (a) (foreign OR second) language (learning OR acquisition) AND (b) (pedagogy OR practice OR instruction OR teaching OR school OR applied linguistics).

Marsden & Kasprowicz, 2017: 625

These are the ISLA journals thus identified. I have added links to home pages and copied relevant portions of their aims and scope, with the link to teaching in the third column. The authors also acknowledge that many of these journals include EFL/ESL research, not only other languages. (I suppose the inclusion of ESP journal and ELT research is a bit of a reach in this respect, though for those of us in ELT it does round out a very useful list.)

Applied Linguistics Applied Linguistics publishes research into language with relevance to real-world problems. first and additional language learning, teaching, and use … language assessment; language planning and policies; language for special purposes
Applied Psycholinguistics Applied Psycholinguistics publishes original research papers on the psychological processes involved in language. a variety of disciplines including education
Canadian Modern Language Review The Canadian Modern Language Review publishes peer-reviewed articles on second language learning and teaching. serving researchers and language teaching professionals interested in the learning and teaching of English and French as second languages (Canada’s two official languages), as well as the range of modern, indigenous, heritage, and community languages taught and learned across Canada
English for Specific Purposes topics relevant to the teaching and learning of discourse for specific communities: academic, occupational, or otherwise specialized teaching and testing techniques, the effectiveness of various approaches to language learning and language teaching, and the training or retraining of teachers for the teaching of ESP
Foreign Language Annals Foreign Language Annals (FLA) is the official refereed, scholarly journal of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). Dedicated to the advancement of language teaching and learning, the journal seeks to serve the professional interests of classroom instructors, researchers, and administrators who are concerned with the learning and teaching of languages, particularly languages other than English at all levels of instruction.
Intercultural Pragmatics Intercultural Pragmatics is a fully peer-reviewed forum for theoretical and applied pragmatics research. The goal of the journal is to promote the development and understanding of pragmatic theory and intercultural competence applied linguistics … second language acquisition
Language and Intercultural Communication Language & Intercultural Communication promotes an interdisciplinary understanding of the interplay between language and intercultural communication. The journal is alert to the implications for education, especially higher education, and for language learning and teaching
Language Awareness Language Awareness encourages and disseminates work which explores the following: the role of explicit knowledge about language in the process of language learning; the role that such explicit knowledge about language plays in language teaching and how such knowledge can best be mediated by teachers; the role of explicit knowledge about language in language use: e.g. sensitivity to bias in language, manipulative aspects of language, literary use of language. the role that explicit knowledge about language plays in language teaching and how such knowledge can best be mediated by teachers
Language Learning We seek proposals that address a theme or research methodology that will be of interest and relevance to the journal’s international readership of language learning scholars second, and foreign language acquisition, language education,
* Language Learning and Technology LLT disseminates research to foreign and second language educators worldwide on issues related to technology and language education. language education
Language Teaching Language Teaching is the essential research resource for language professionals providing a rich and expert overview of research in the field of second-language teaching and learning. second language teaching and learning
The Modern Language Journal The editorial mission of The Modern Language Journal is to publish “research and discussion about the learning and teaching of foreign and second languages.” promoting scholarly exchange among researchers and teachers of all modern foreign languages and English as a second language
* Porta Linguarum Porta Linguarum is an interdepartmental and interuniversity journal that was born in 2004 and specializes in foreign language didactics and bilingual education, articles will be more practical and their orientation will be more related to the L2 teaching and learning process in classroom settings
Pragmatics and Society Pragmatics and Society puts the spotlight on societal aspects of language use, while incorporating many other facets of society-oriented pragmatic studies. how language use and social normativity influence and shape each other, for instance, in education (the teaching and acquisition of first and second languages)
ReCALL ReCALL is the journal of the European Association for Computer Assisted Language Learning (EUROCALL). It seeks to … promote the use of foreign languages within Europe and beyond, providing an international focus for the promulgation of innovative research in the area of computer-assisted language learning and technology-enhanced language learning in education and training. education and training
RELA/Spanish Journal of Applied Linguistics The Revista Española de Lingüística Aplicada/Spanish Journal of Applied Linguistics (RESLA/SJAL) is the biannual journal of the Spanish Association of Applied Linguistics (AESLA, http://www.aesla.org.es). language teaching, LSP
Studies in Second Language Acquisition Studies in Second Language Acquisition is a refereed journal of international scope devoted to the scientific discussion of acquisition or use of non-native and heritage languages. the interface of acquisition and use with pedagogy
System This international journal is devoted to the applications of educational technology and applied linguistics to problems of foreign language teaching and learning. Attention is paid to all languages and to problems associated with the study and teaching of English as a second or foreign language
TESOL Quarterly TESOL Quarterly, a professional, refereed journal, was first published in 1967. The Quarterly encourages submission of previously unpublished articles on topics of significance to individuals concerned with English language teaching and learning and standard English as a second dialect. psychology and sociology of language learning and teaching … testing and evaluation, professional preparation, curriculum design and development, instructional methods, materials, and techniques
Vial–Vigo Vigo International Journal of Applied Linguistics aims at covering the different areas of study in the field of applied linguistics. foreign language teaching and learning, LSP
Computer Assisted Language Learning all matters associated with the use of computers in language learning (L1 and L2), teaching and testing Language Learning and Teaching Methods, four skills,
Annual Review of Applied Linguistics The Annual Review of Applied Linguistics publishes research on key topics in the broad field of applied linguistics. Each issue is thematic, providing a variety of perspectives on the topic through research summaries, critical overviews, position papers and empirical studies. language learning and pedagogy … language assessment
Applied Linguistics Review Applied Linguistics Review (ALR) is an international, peer-reviewed journal that bridges the gap between linguistics and applied areas such as education, psychology and human development, sociology and politics. first or second language acquisition
ELT Journal ELT Journal is a quarterly publication for all those involved in English Language Teaching (ELT), whether as a second, additional, or foreign language, or as an international Lingua Franca The Journal links the everyday concerns of practitioners with insights gained from relevant academic disciplines such as applied linguistics, education, psychology, and sociology.
IRAL in Language Teaching International Review of Applied Linguistics in Language Teaching (IRAL) is devoted to problems of general and applied linguistics Contributions are welcome on naturalistic and instructed language learning, … language for specific purposes, language technology,
Journal of French Language Studies Journal of French Language Studies, sponsored by the Association for French Language Studies, encourages and promotes theoretical, descriptive and applied studies of all aspects of the French language. Studies of the acquisition of the French language, where these take due account of current theory in linguistics and applied linguistics, are also published
Language, Culture and Curriculum Language, Culture and Curriculum is a well-established journal that seeks to enhance the understanding of the relations between the three dimensions of its title. It welcomes work dealing with a wide range of languages (mother tongues, global English, foreign, minority, immigrant, heritage, or endangered languages) in the context of bilingual and multilingual education and first, second or additional language learning. The journal also includes studies of language instruction, teacher training, teaching methods and language-in-education policy
Language Teaching Research Language Teaching Research is a peer-reviewed academic journal that publishes papers in the fields of education and linguistics related to the teaching of any second language The journal is a venue for studies that demonstrate sound research methods and which report findings that have clear pedagogical implications
Language Testing Language Testing is a peer-reviewed academic journal that publishes papers relating to language testing and assessment. research into the washback and impact of language test use, and ground-breaking uses of assessments for learning
 The study found a very low incidence of reference to ISLA journals in the professional publications: “on average a reference to any one of the ISLA journals occurred in approximately one out of every six professional articles.” The strongest links were between North American publications: the NECTL review cited FLA and MLJ articles more frequently than other professional publications and other ISLA journals. The authors consider this “a surprisingly and worryingly low proportion” (p. 629).

Lay summaries of ISLA research

What I like about the paper is that instead of handwringing, the authors finish the article with a strong call for action and detailed proposal for doing so. They firmly reject an interpretation whereby school-based practitioners should read research in the 29 ISLA journals listed, or conversely, that these journals should change their research aims. Instead, they suggest the introduction of journal-initiated lay summaries whereby journals and/or authors “reframe their academic publications into summary formats that are both physically and conceptually accessible to practitioners” (p. 630). Organisations like AILA and repositories like IRIS could play a role. The authors suggest that journals need to take the lead and cite the example of eLife plain language digests.
The authors are also careful to avoid suggesting unilateral influence of research on practice, suggesting that increasing practitioner exposure to research through a centralised access point to lay summaries can be helpful in a variety of ways.

If any potential pedagogical relevance is claimed (by authors or editorial mission statements), the research could better find its way into practitioners’ communities of practice, for evaluation by them. Looking even further ahead, it is possible that improvements in this dimension could, in turn, produce a kind of ‘washback’ that affects the aims, construction, and design of ISLA research itself.

And the reference to the original article, open access (at least for now).


MARSDEN, E. and KASPROWICZ, R. (2017), Foreign Language Educators’ Exposure to Research: Reported Experiences, Exposure Via Citations, and a Proposal for Action. The Modern Language Journal, 101: 613–642.

ITILT mini-guides for language teaching with technology


These three guides are for language teachers working in technology-mediated task-based approaches to second/foreign language teaching and learning. Download them from the project website or directly here:

They were prepared during the Erasmus+ project ITILT, on Interactive Teaching in Languages with Technology, involving teachers and learners of 4 different EU languages in 5 countries: English in Belgium, France, Germany, French in Belgium, Turkish in Turkey, and Welsh in the UK.

We worked with novice and experienced classroom teachers at primary, secondary, and university level to collect practice examples of task-based teaching with different technologies: tablets (iPads), mobile phones, and video communication. The website gives an video overview of each task, plus a series of short clips to highlight different activities in the task sequence. Teacher and learner commentary then give participant perspectives on the tasks.

The project also aimed to develop an online community of practice bringing together ITILT teachers in different countries to share tips and experiences. This proved challenging to implement, since teachers in different countries were filmed at different points over the 3-year lifetime of the project, and demands on their time to prepare tasks, film activities, and discuss outcomes were quite heavy.

Nevertheless the project did bring to light a great many interesting ideas, resources, tools, and practices from our participating teachers in their different contexts, and we have selected a range of these to present in the three ITILT mini-guides. In keeping with our collaborative action-research approach to the project, these guides each offer

  1. an introduction to the theme – resources, tools, or networks,
  2. a key illustration which is situated in language education theory,
  3. discussion of a range of examples of classroom tasks from the project, and
  4. links and references for further reading.

We trust the guides will be useful to teachers interested in technology-mediated task-based language teaching, and both novice and experienced practitioners. For those new to technology in the language classroom, our 12 plus one tools may be worth a look.

The task of teaching

I was at the American University of Paris yesterday on a beautiful day in a beautiful part of the city.

FullSizeRender 49

I was invited to talk about pedagogical innovation by integrating technology in the language class; AUP is a liberal arts college with an international study body and students learn French as the host language and academic English for their studies.

I ran a workshop in French taking an OER perspective on task-based language teaching with technologies, with activities focusing on both specific teaching ideas and particular digital tools.

More interesting for me were subsequent discussions with AUP and visiting faculty on more general issues concerning pedagogy and the changing roles of teachers and students in university teaching. Two themes emerged for me: motivation for learning, and general objectives for teaching.

Delayed gratification?

Who is responsible for student motivation and learning?

Some faculty feel quite strongly that it is up to students to find a way into the course content that is presented to them. The consensus among those discussing this yesterday was that instructors have some responsibility in this both in the way they present material and the assignments they set their students.

I was reminded of A.N. Whitehead’s three-stage model of learning, where he recommends teachers try to keep three balls in the air at all times: a “romantic” or big-picture reminder of what a class is trying to achieve and why it matters, “precision” or practice activities that help students develop essential skills and understanding, and a “generalisation” phrase where their attention is drawn to how these new skills are already bringing them closer to their big-picture goals.

I have applied this model to language teaching in a talk on “digital pencil sharpening” (see slides 20 through 36 for the section on general teaching and learning). I believe Whitehead was on to something when he complained that too much teaching spends too long on low-level information, skills and practice, and does so in isolation from what we might term pre- and post-practice reflection, which would help learners make sense of the drudgery.

Other university educators have taken a similar stance. The mathematician Paul Halmos provided the pencil-sharpening metaphor to refer to our tendency to procrastinate in order to avoid intellectually challenging work. I think this also applies to classroom contexts when we fill our syllabus with basic texts and boilerplate assignments to provide “background” which we see as an essential preliminary to the “real” content. But the “good stuff” keeps receding over the horizon.

Screen Shot 2017-04-13 at 08.25.32

Robert Duke makes this point in his excellent 2008 talk Why Students Don’t Learn What We Think We Teach. He is especially good on conflicting student/instructor agendas and agrees with Whitehead on the importance of the “here and now,” as this little extract shows:

I wrote about this in a paper on technology and learner autonomy in language education. The more I discuss pedagogy with teachers of subjects other than languages, the more I feel task-based language teaching has a lot to offer the wider educational community.

A second area of my discussions with AUP colleagues is perhaps more related to education in its broader sense than to the specifics of what happens at the chalkface.

What role do we in humanities or liberal arts play in teaching students to think?

Thinking about things that matter

Perhaps inevitably in the current political context, our discussions turned to some of the bigger issues of our times: climate change, immigration policy, electoral discourse. How should we address these with our students?

In the run-up to the US presidential campaign I came across the work of cognitive linguist George Lakoff on political discourse.  Lakoff uses frame theory and metaphor to explain how political thought is shaped (and thus manipulated).

He applies this theory to the Trump campaign on his website, and you can read more here for example. I decided to take this theme as our topic for an undergraduate translation course in our media and communication strand: the science of framing political debate. While we need to be careful about political bias in our teaching, I feel we also have some responsibility to take on issues like these when relevant to our classes.

Here’s my take on Lakoff’s contrast between strict father and nurturing family frames in a presentation I prepared for my students:

Screen Shot 2017-04-13 at 09.55.12


Translation classes, perhaps more than other foreign language classes, allow discussion of issues in a somewhat impartial and unemotional manner. It’s a good opportunity to tackle the meaning and implications of texts in a neutral way: does this expression in language A mean that same as that one in language B? Why did the writer use this particular expression, and how can we render it faithfully yet idiomatically? We’re not discussing what we think about a particular argument or line of thinking. We’re focusing on what the intended meaning seems to be, and how different translations render different aspects of that meaning salient.

The framing comes, of course, from our selection of texts to translate.

What do I take from all this?

Perhaps that it’s stimulating to talk about teaching and learning with colleagues in other disciplines in different university contexts.

Perhaps that language education might have some approaches and ideas for addressing pedagogical issues that are relevant to other university disciplines.

Or simply that the “here and now” can shift depending on both the focus of your attention and your vantage point.


Duke, R. (2008). «Why Students Don’t Learn What We Think We Teach» [lecture; online]. http://www.cornell.edu/video/?VideoID=225 (2013-06-01).

Halmos, P. (1985). I Want to Be a Mathematician. New York: Springer Verlag.

Halmos, P. (1975). «The Problem of Learning to Teach». American Mathematical Monthly, 82, pp. 466-476.

Whitehead, A.N. ([1917] 1932). «The Aims of Education». In: Whitehead, A.N. The Aims of Education and Other Essays. London: Ernest Benn.

Whyte, S. (2014). Digital pencil sharpening: technology integration and language learning autonomy. EL.LE, 3(1): 31-53. Università Ca’ Foscari, Venezia. [PDF]


Is task-based language teaching just a variation on presentation-practice-production?

Many language teachers are interested in the question of what makes a task a task. Pre-service teachers are often under pressure to conform to some see as the hegemony of task-based language teaching (TBLT) which they feel is imposed on teachers by the Common European Reference framework (CER). They want to know whether their textbook which claim to follow CER principles offer genuinely task-based teaching activities. Or they wonder how the demands of “authentic” language use associated with TBLT can be squared with the seemingly artificial language used in the foreign language classroom where everyone shares a native language.

Teacher educators, too, struggle with strong versions of a task-based approach, as opposed to weaker, task-supported incarnations, which often seem to overlap with the production phase of the PPP approach, where structures are Presented and Practiced with the teacher before learners are encourage to Produce their own contributions. Does this seem a reasonable compromise, or does it mean abandoning the principles of TBLT?

In the slides above I summarise two articles, one by Jason Anderson in defence of PPP, and another by Rod Ellis, one of the main proponents of TBLT. Anderson argues that PPP has admirably stood the test of time and is suited to a wider range of teaching contexts than TBLT. Ellis, on the other hand, defends TBLT against a number of misconceptions about this approach, and to my mind invalidates many of Anderson’s points. My own view is that TBLT is quite different from PPP, and that there are good reasons, related to how languages are learned, to favour TBLT (see Jordan for instance).

Update January 2019: For further critiques of PPP see also How do you like your syllabus? and posts by other ELT teachers and trainers Geoff Jordan Does PPP really make perfect sense? and Neil McMillan Why PPP is a political issue.


Anderson, J. (2016). Why practice makes perfect sense: the past, present and potential future of the PPP paradigm in language teacher education. Practice, 19.

Ellis, R. (2013). Task-based language teaching: Responding to the critics. University of Sydney Papers in TESOL, 8(1), 1-27.

Jordan, G. (2018). Does PPP really make perfect sense? applingtesol.wordpress.com

McMillan, N. (2019). Why PPP is a political issue. animalisingelt.wordpress.com

Resources, tools, and training: Open educational practices for language teaching

Open educational practice: taking care in the design and creation of digital materials with a view to future sharing and repurposing, working towards a goal of sustainable development for (language) teachers.

I ran a workshop for language teachers at the University of Limerick covering a range of resources, tools, and networks to try and answer some of these questions.
  • How can teachers best select teaching and learning materials and adapt them to their own particular needs?
  • Which digital tools are most versatile, and how can they be integrated into learning activities?
  • And what can teachers do as their careers progress to try and keep up with technological innovation?

From open resources to open practices

We talked about the Paris Declaration on Open Educational Resources, and how open resources lead to open practices. My own epiphany about openness came when teaching a course on technology in language education to a group of teachers of several European languages. The course encouraged participants to share teaching resources publicly, and some of my students’ selections – for languages I don’t speak – were picked up by colleagues at other universities.

work that would otherwise be invisible or lost to the wider community once a course assignment is completed here can be recovered and exploited by others

Read the full paper

I used Google forms for a background questionnaire to gauge participants’ interests and knowledge, then we used Padlet to share open resources collected by myself and others using the curation platform Scoop.it. (See the resources.)

One of the difficulties in supporting language teachers in integrating technology is the vast array of digital tools at our disposal. Conventional wisdom suggests focusing on pedagogical objectives rather than the affordances of tools, so we looked at a task I used with one of my undergraduate EFL students: a story slam based on the Moth format.

A storytelling task

In my university EFL class, I used the open resources from the Moth website to set the task and provide examples for my students. I think this makes a decent task because it meets most of the criteria for task-based language teaching: it’s a real-world activity (target language speakers do it), there’s a clear outcome (a story that meets certain pre-determined standards), and learners have freedom in the language they choose to use.

There are also opportunities for reflection and collaboration, because the Moth also has a transcription system where volunteers can check and correct automatic transcriptions of existing stories. Students used the audio platform SoundCloud and Google forms to allow students to record their own stories as they performed in class, upload and safeguard their recordings, and share with the teacher. I used the canned response gadget in the Labs section of Gmail to provide individual feedback to students, together with a link to a blogpost with ideas for work on pronunciation. I tried to encourage reflection with a post-task activity where students were asked to react to this feedback.

Incidentally, as I prepared my introductory lesson for my students using a specific Moth story, I cleaned up the machine transcription of the story so that my students could analyse the storyteller’s technique and language. In so doing, I made my own small contribution to the Moth project by leaving a full, correct transcription for others to use (either native-speaking storytellers or L2 learners). This provides an argument for openness in itself, and one which also suggests another type of task where learners perform this transcription checking task themselves, to work on listening and writing skills.

Most of the links to the activities and tools for this storytelling task are here.

Playing safe and playing fair

Of course, open education also imposes some particular requirements on teachers and learners. It’s important to respect learners’ privacy and make sure we have permission to share their work. With adults this can often be done simply using the following suggestions:

  • ask learners to create their own accounts on free platforms
  • allow learners to choose pseudonyms if work is shared publicly
  • offer the chance to share only with specific individuals (e.g., the teacher) or a restricted group of learners
  • remind learners to hide or remove files, or delete their accounts once the course is completed.

Similarly, both teachers and learners need to respect the intellectual property of others. Gosia Kurek and Anna Skowron produced a very useful guide to help language teachers understand what can be shared and how, as part of the LangOER project. This guide also has up-to-date references to places to find images that can be used freely without attribution, for example.

Going further for language teachers

The last section of my presentation (see slides above) includes telecollaborative platforms and some reflection on my experience in teacher education in this area. We didn’t get that far in Limerick, but in the interests of openness it’s still there.

It was great to hear about work in languages at the University of Limerick with Catherine Jeanneau, including a French-language debating team (another real-world task) and a very active Facebook page.

And as a quick coda to the session, we looked at Plickers, a paper-based clicker app that allows learners to respond to multiple choice questions by holding up QR codes which the teacher records using the app on their phone. Results can be displayed in a browser at plickers.com and projected for the class to see. I like this tool for myself because I don’t always have internet access in class. For the secondary school teachers I train, it can be used in schools where pupils are not allowed to use phones in class. In Limerick, however, the teachers were working with adult learners who all had smartphones with wifi access: they showed me Kahoot, which offers similar opportunities for their teaching context.


Kurek, M. & Skowron, A. (2015). Going open with LangOER. PDF

Paris Declaration on Open Educational Resources PDF

Whyte, S. (2014). Bridging gaps : Using social media to develop techno-pedagogical competences in pre-service language teacher education. Recherche et pratiques pédagogiques en langues de spécialité – Cahiers de l’APLIUT, 33(2):143-169.


Top tools for learning 2016

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I recently responded to an online poll of educators’ tools for learning and saved my responses to kick off a class on learning technologies for language teachers.

These are my picks; here’s why. (They are all free.)

Getting started


LastPass is a password manager that saves your passwords online and lets you access them from one master password (the *last pass*word you’ll need from now on). It can generate secure passwords, but I don’t risk this (if you have connectivity problems you can’t retrieve these from memory). Instead I create my own passwords with a keyword system and save them to LastPass.

I suggest this as my first tool for learning because it’s the obvious first hurdle to using almost any platform, tool, or application and I find until students or trainees are confident logging in and out of multiple sites it’s difficult to build up confidence or expertise.

An associated tool is Xmarks, which lets you synchronise bookmarks across browsers and devices, which I also find useful for moving between machines, though if you share computers it might not be so relevant.

Google apps

Once you have your password manager set up, my next recommendation is Google Drive, where you have e-mail (Gmail), online storage (Google Drive), online wordprocessing (Google Docs) and spreadsheets (Google Sheets), as well as Calendar, Slides, and Forms (for online surveys, questionnaires, and tests). Also worth a look are Sites for building your own websites or getting learners to do so, and Communities for working with groups.

I find these work well for planning my teaching, administration (attendance, grades), giving feedback on student writing (Docs), or collecting links to sound files, for example (Forms). We have run telecollaborative projects on G-Drive, using a private folder to save student-teacher video selfies, with sub-folders for class tandems to share their learners’ productions and prepare collaborative papers and presentations.

If you have multiple Google accounts it’s worth associating one account with one browser (work gmail on Firefox, home gmail on Chrome, for example) to avoid problems signing in and out. I have never found the offline functionality anything close to effective, so only for use with good internet connectivity.

Writing and feedback

Google Docs

As noted, Google docs is useful for your own writing, but also for use with learners. They can edit their own documents, prepare translations in groups, or submit work for evaluation and you can set access to private (sign-in), public (no sign-in) or an intermediate option with files accessible via link (no sign-in).

I find the Docs interface (there is also one for Sheets, etc) less easily navigable than Drive. Also be aware that you need a computer for full functionality – on smartphones and tablets comments are not accessible, for example.


Evernote is very useful for taking notes offline and saving all sorts of bits and pieces which you can tag and sort into Notebooks or leave unorganised to search. The search function is great and it works offline. There’s an app for your phone but the free version limits the number of devices you can connect.

Collaboration and sharing


After Google apps perhaps the single most useful tool, Dropbox lets you save files and synchronise across devices. I use it to save teaching materials (slides, handouts) but also for collaborative research writing with colleagues in other countries. Accessible offline, syncs in the background, usable like a drive or folder on your own computer.

One thing to be careful about: the default drag and drop which copies a file from one drive to another in other circumstances moves the file on Dropbox. So if you download a file from a shared folder you delete that file for others. Doesn’t work well on an external drive; you must save your local version on your local hard drive.


This free website platform lets you make your own website with images, media, and other links very easily and intuitively. It has the advantages over Google sites of a) letting you create classes with your students’ names and e-mails, and b) making comments on pages easy to see.

Audio and video


For language teachers, you need the digital audio player VLC, which plays any format you can imagine.


This open platform is a good place to share audio files, which you or your learners can upload and save privately, share to a select audience, or open to the world. With adult learners you can outsource the recording (smartphones), uploading (SoundCloud), and sharing (Google Forms) so you can focus on the feedback.

Social media


I use the microblogging site to find and communicate useful resources for teaching (educator blogs, tools, pedagogical resources) and research (conference and journal calls for papers, new publications).


I save the references in my tweets to curated sites to help keep track, though the service for the free version of Scoop.it has fallen off and it may not be worth starting there now.

Low-tech classroom teaching

Finally, special mention for technology you can use in class without technology: with Plickers, learners hold up paper cards to answer pre-set or spontaneous multiple choice quizzes, and the teacher records them via smartphone.