Emily Bryson ELT

Month: November 2020

Creating Accessible Learning Materials

Every student is different and as teachers and writers we embrace their diversity and support their learning.  The UK Equality Act 2010 has nine protected characteristics; age, race, gender, disability, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, religion or belief, sexual orientation and gender reassignment. I feel privileged to live in a country that legislates to ensure these characteristics are protected under law.  In this blog post, I will outline how to create print and digital materials which are accessible to all.

Protected charactersistics of the UK Equality Act 2010. Quick visuals by Emily Bryson.

I will start with disability, as the needs of students with Specific Learning Differences such as dyslexia or colour blindness can be met by making simple changes in regards to layout and font. 

Font choice

In terms of font choice, serif fonts, for example Times New Roman, Baskerville and Bookman, are considered less accessible as some people find them difficult to read. This is because serif fonts have little ‘flicks’ or ‘tails’ which can be distracting to readers. I apologise that this post is in a serif font! WordPress only seems to offer one option.

Sans serif fonts are more accessible.

Sans serif fonts (e.g. Arial, Calibri and Trebuchet) are generally considered the most accessible choice but you could also download dyslexia friendly fontsThe British Dyslexia Association recommends Comic Sans or Arial. If you teach adult literacy learners, you may also wish to use Comic Sans or Century Gothic as these are most similar to handwritten text, and don’t include ‘a’ and ‘g’, which can confuse learners. Sassoon font is also great for literacy learners, but you need a licence.

Choose fonts similar to handwriting when teaching literacy learners.

Font size

​As an observer for teacher training courses, I often see trainees using fonts which are too small in their presentation slides.  This is also often the case with books and published worksheets. When creating your own print materials aim for font size 12 as minimum.  For presentations, 24 point font is the minimum with 36 or 44 being the recommended size. This also helps to keep the number of words on a slide to a minimum.  No one likes a busy presentation slide – less is more!

For online learning, bear in mind that students may be accessing content on their mobiles, and they can’t always zoom in. If you present online using the editing view in powerpoint, aim to use font size 50 or above. If you make videos using powerpoint, aim for font size 40 or above.

Make sure your font size is large enough for mobile learning.

Adding emphasis

Drawing attention to certain language points, content or rubrics in an accessible way should be considered carefully. Underlining can make things harder to read, while the slope of italics can also make reading large blocks of text problematic.  BLOCK CAPITALS CAN ALSO PROVE CHALLENGING AS ALL THE LETTERS ARE THE SAME SIZE. 

Bold is by far the most accessible method of adding emphasis.  That’s not to say NEVER use block capitals, italics or underlines. These are all perfectly fine to add emphasis in short sentences, questions, headings or rubrics but should be avoided as the main body of a text. I tend to avoid using capitals for emphasis with literacy learners too, as this can confuse their understanding of capitalisation rules.

Using colour​

The number one rule of using colour is never to rely solely on colour to convey meaning.  Colour blind learners may not be able to see any difference in the colours or shades that you chose.  Instead, circle, use arrows, bold or texture – and keep it simple.

Some colour combinations are difficult to read (avoid green and red/pink). Use a light, off-white, single colour background and dark, contrasting lettering.  I tend to play safe and use minimal colours and good old dark grey or black letters.

Other protected characteristics

When it comes to being inclusive to other protected characteristics, image selection plays a huge role.  Select images which show people with protected characteristics in a positive light and represent each frequently within your materials so that they are normalised rather than sensationalised. For example, use a text about a female engineer who is a wheelchair user, a male midwife or a young boy whose parental guardians are his grandparents. Focus on the person and the story surrounding the person rather than their protected characteristic.  Their protected characteristic is not their story, nor their reason for being ‘inspiring’ . This way they are represented and included without being highlighted as different or unique.

In many countries, it can be challenging to include people who identify as LGBT+ within materials, but there are ways to do so subtly.  For example, you could have a dialogue about two men living together and leave their reason for doing so open to interpretation. In the same way, a text message conversation between two women regarding childcare arrangements could be between friends, sisters or partners. You could also consider using gender neutral names – for example Sam and Alex being in a relationship.

One important characteristic in ELT, that isn’t in the Equality Act 2010, is first language. I guess it could fit in the race characteristic but in terms of ELT I think it’s important to protect ‘non-native English speakers’ from native speakerism. Try to include opportunities within your materials to explore global English, reflect on when, where and how learners use their English and the nuances of accent choice.

Further reading

This blog post only touches the surface of accessibility.  For more information, I recommend the following:

What do you do to make sure your classes are learning materials are accessible? Do you have any favourite resources or sites? I’d love to hear from you.

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Sharing Lives, Sharing Languages: Peer Education for Language Acquisition

So I was tidying up my blog and found this post that I wrote shortly after I completed my secondment as Peer Education Project Manager at the Scottish Refugee Council way back in 2017. I guess I lined it up for posting then somehow forgot all about it. I’d like to share it with you now, as the project had a positive impact and I’m still stunned at all the amazing things we did in such a short space of time. Plus, social connections are so hard right now, it’s nice to reminisce on more sociable times.

Those of you that have read my previous posts will know how strongly I feel about getting students out and about and using their English.  Students that use their English outside the classroom at work or volunteering or socialising pick up the language more quickly than those that are socially isolated or don’t have such opportunities.  This was the inspiration for the Scottish Refugee Council‘s Sharing Lives Sharing Languages Peer Education project.

The project, was designed as a complement to ESOL provision for refugees resettling in Scotland under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons’ Resettlement Scheme.  The pilot project was funded by the Scottish Government and the advisory board included COSLA, Education Scotland, University of Glasgow and Queen Margaret University.

Peer Education is an activity based method of learning in which two equals share information and knowledge with each other. Peer educators facilitate activities which support peers to share their ideas in a group setting.  It is based on the idea that peers respond better to advice from their equals than from their superiors.  In this case, Peer Educators were English speakers who knew the local area well and wanted to help New Scots to settle.

Our peer educators came from a range of backgrounds, for example – an RE teacher, an Arabic speaking nursery worker and a Kurdish asylum seeker.   Our peers were mostly Syrian VPR refugees who wanted to improve their language skills, meet local people and increase their social connections.  Peers and peer educators shared their lives and their languages with each other.

Firstly, four organisations were identified to participate in the pilot.  These were Aberdeenshire WEA, Dundee International Women’s Centre, Midlothian Council and Renfrew YMCA.  These were chosen as a range of rural and urban communities and a range of ESOL and Community Development backgrounds.  I delivered training to a peer education coordinator from each organisation who then recruited peer educators.  The Peer Education Coordinators then trained their Peer Educators in the aims of the project, peer education, supporting refugees, communicating with English language learners and facilitation skills.

The peer education sessions focused on what peers knew about the local area and how they wanted to participate in the local community.  Group activities facilitated discussions on peers’ hobbies and interests as well as sharing their local knowledge, sharing their cultures and sharing their languages.

At the end of the programme, peer educators and peers carried out a collective action.  These involved groups doing something to engage with the local community.  These had to involve everyone, be peer-led and establish social connections and opportunities for language acquisition.

In Aberdeenshire they chose to collaborate with a local women’s group to share Syrian and Scottish recipes.  Pre-COVID, this group were still meeting for day-trips, walks and coffee although the funding for the project ended in 2017.

Cooking Collective Action
Aberdeenshire Collective Action: Syrian and Scottish women sharing their delicious recipes.

Renfrew YMCA were the only organisation involved that were not ESOL trained.  Their focus was on youth and they started a community garden.  Peers and peer educators still went to the garden, which is now run by the local council, after funding stopped.

Renfrew Collective Action: working together to turn a piece of waste ground into a community garden.

Dundee International Women’s Centre had two groups; one mixed and one women-only. The Coordinator was an ESOL Tutor.  Their collective actions involved joining up with local walking groups and visiting a community garden.  One year on, some peers were still attending courses run at the centre.

The Midlothian Council project was coordinated by one ESOL tutor.  The focus here was on mothers and children. Sessions took place at a local school with peer education sessions in one room while the children played in another.  Their collective action was a trip to the beach.

As this was a pilot project, evaluation was integrated throughout.  Lavinia Hirsu of Glasgow University was the external evaluator and she developed a range of imaginative data collection and evaluation tools that could be used as peer education activities.  The diagram below is an example of one such activity.  Peers noted their social connections at the beginning and end of the project by placing those closest to them at the centre and acquaintances towards the outer ring.

WhatsApp Image 2020-11-18 at 19.24.21
mapping social connections

The outcomes for the project were positive, with all involved increasing their social connections, local knowledge, cultural knowledge and language confidence.

Now times have changed. I can’t teach my students face to face, let alone signpost them to volunteering or local social opportunities. Since March, one of my real concerns is that social isolation amongst already marginalised groups is even worse than ever. I miss the people in my life and I can only imagine how it feels to live in an unfamiliar country with a limited number of social connections.

I’ve started to do what I can with my students; opening the zoom room early and leaving it open after class to allow them to chat to each other, encouraging discussions in our Whatsapp group and giving them ideas for local daytrips that might be marginally more exciting than their local park.

How you are supporting your learners to use their language outside the classroom or to increase their social connections in these strange times?

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Why is ELF still on the shelf?

In today’s world, 80% of communication in English occurs between speakers whose first language is not English. I live in Glasgow, Scotland, an English-speaking country and this is apparent even here. Sometimes I meet my friend at the local skate park where her kid likes to whizz around after school, and I’m always interested to hear the chatter between local mums. They speak in English, though they are from all over the world. Likewise, with the staff in most of the shops, restaurants and cafes in the area. While I was at university for the first time, I worked in a Mexican restaurant and communicated in English with people from Spain, Mexico, Brazil, Libya, France and Poland. And in class, my students communicate and make social connections with learners from Syria, Iran, China, Poland, Eritrea, El Salvador, et al.  

TEFL, or Teaching English as a Foreign Language, essentially refers to teaching English in a country where English is not the first language. It focuses on teaching English as a means to communicate with ‘native speakers’ of English and therefore uses ‘native speaker’ models in pronunciation and listening activities. It also may teach little tidbits of ‘culture’ from English speaking countries, like how everyone in Scotland eats deep fried Mars bars every day. Ok, that’s an exaggeration, but you get my point.  

TELF, or Teaching English as a Lingua Franca, is much more inclusive. Its focus is on being understood in international contexts. Rather than attempting to have students pronounce English words in a standard English or American accent, TELF embraces global English and focuses on being intelligible. It gives communication strategies for mutual understanding and considers cultures to be dynamic. The Accentricity podcast has a great episode on actors learning accents. Think of how many bad accents you’ve heard in films over the years. Learning a new accent is hard. Plus, I don’t have a standard English accent, and nor do I want one, so why should my students work so hard for something unnecessary and in many cases unattainable? TELF provides a range of model accents from around the world, supports students to explore their own pronunciation goals and aims for speakers to communicate successfully in international contexts.  

Help us get ELF off the shelf!

You may have noticed my use of quotation marks in ‘culture’ and ‘native speaker’ above. My reason for doing so is to consider what is ‘culture’ and who is a ‘native speaker’? Let’s look at culture first. When people think of culture, they may think of how a group of people do things – their beliefs, religion, music, art, food, social norms, etc. But the danger there is getting mixed up in stereotypes.  Every group, and sub-group is different and unique. For example, I am Scottish, but I don’t wear tartan, listen to bagpipes or eat haggis every day (though I do enjoy each on occasion). Culture is not merely related to nationality but also related to organisations, cities, groups of friends and families, etc.  People act differently in different situations. For example, do you behave the same way around close friends as you do colleagues? Communicating effectively with someone from another ‘culture’ is therefore a negotiation. It takes understanding, patience and adaptability from everyone involved and can’t be learned as sets of rules.

Now, let’s look at ‘native speakers’. Alan Davies defined ‘native speaker’ proficiency as early childhood acquisition, grammatical intuition, fluency, creativity in writing, ability to translate into L1 and creative communication. My Polish friend moved to Ireland when she was 16, speaks with an Irish twang, uses better grammar than her Irish other half, is fluent, creative, can translate, has completed a Master’s Degree at Belfast University and can use slang Scots, Irish and English words as she’s lived all over the UK. So, by Davies’ definition, and through her proficiency in English, she’s a native speaker. Though because she was born in Poland, many people may consider her to be a ‘non-native speaker’. 

There are five times as many ‘non-native English Speakers’ in the world as ‘native’ English speakers. By teaching ELF, we can teach our students how to communicate with all English users intelligibly. It is an inclusive way to teach as all accents and cultures are embraced.  

I speak English with a Scottish accent, and I have always felt that my accent just wasn’t ‘correct’ when it came to teaching pronunciation. Whilst doing my diploma, I’d look at transcriptions of words whilst thinking ‘This isn’t how I say it.’, but Adrian Underhill’s table is focused on RP, so doesn’t use some of the sounds I use. When I’d notice the pronunciation focus in a coursebook lesson was /u:/ or /ÊŠ/ my heart would sink and I’d think ‘Great – boot and bull. But they’re the same sound?!’ Then I’d dutifully play the audio, use my accent as a comparison, and have a class full of very confused students wondering how they’ll ever learn English ‘properly’ in Scotland.  

But since I’ve discovered the wonderful world of TELF, this is no longer the case. In TELF, vowel quality is not so important, as long as students get the vowel length right. So students should aim to say blue or shoe with a long vowel as close to /u/ as they can, and sugar and woman with a shorter vowel similar to /u/. If they say it intelligibly, that’s all that matters. Robin Walker’s book ‘Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca’ is an unbelievably helpful guide. It lays out the Lingua Franca Core, or key features of pronunciation necessary to be intelligible as focusing on consonants (except /ð/and /θ/), consonant clusters, vowel length and nuclear stress.

Overall, ELFpron coaches students to communicate successfully with others, so focuses not only on speaking clearly, but also on strategies for being understood such as rephrasing, enunciating, using explanations and non-verbal communication. It also differentiates between what students should be able to understand and what they should be able to say. For example, teaching students to produce connected speech actually hinders intelligibility, as squishing all your words together essentially makes you difficult to understand. But it can be beneficial for them in a receptive sense.

In a nutshell, ELF is gloriously global and embraces the diverse world that we live in.

So, my question is this. Why is ELF still on the shelf? If the majority of communication in English is taking place between speakers with a vast array of beautiful accents, why are we still insisting on providing ‘native speaker’ models for learners? Why haven’t we adopted the LFC? And why does EFL still dominate ELT pedagogy, methodology, teacher training courses, books and classrooms? Isn’t it time we put EFL on the shelf in preference for its forward thinking, global, intelligibility focused, inclusive alternative?  

In this blog post, I have only scratched the surface of the wonders of TELF. I plan on writing more on the topic in time, but if you’re intrigued, check out the following sites and books:  

TEFL Equity advocates 

ELFpron blog

ETProfressional – Teaching English? Or teaching English culture?

Teaching English as a Lingua Franca, Marek Kiczkowiak

Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca, Robin Walker

Successful International Communication, Chia Suan Chong 




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