2 myths and 1 lesson plan: proof that drawing online is quick and simple.

I recently sent out a survey (click here to take it, there’s still time) on how English Language Teachers use drawings in the classroom. I was a little surprised to discover a belief that drawings work best in live classes. I would like to lay this myth to rest.

There are a few ways you can draw online.

  1. Draw before class. Scan the image with your phone (I use Camscanner). Send to your students.
  2. Stick some A3 paper on your wall (I make paper tape less sticky by sticking it to my clothes first). Point your webcam at it.
  3. Pin a flipchart to your wall (I used two panel pins). Point your webcam at the flipchart.
  4. Buy a visualiser and display a video stream of you drawing on a notebook at your desk. Mine is an Ipevo.
A visualiser is basically what we’d once have called an overhead projector. It displays a live image on to a whiteboard, interactive whiteboard or on a shared screen in a video conferencing platform.

Another myth is that using drawings in an online class takes time. I’d argue it actually saves time by reducing preparation time.

To prove it, here’s a quick lesson I did recently. It took zero prep (well, a tiny bit of thinking time before class). It was the first week back after holidays and we were revising past tense word order in questions. The aim was to get students talking about their holidays to prepare them for writing about it at home.

Step 1: Draw some simple icons to represent each question you want them to discuss. Display the simple visual prompts. Students can later use these icons as prompts for writing.

Step 1: draw simple visual prompts

Step 2: Discuss with students what each prompt might mean. Ask students to match where, when, what and who to each icon. Once they’ve matched the more obvious icons, support them to add ‘Did’ and ‘How’.

Step 2: elicit/give vocabulary prompts

Step 3: Ask students to write a question for each icon, starting with the question words. You could ask them to write their answers in the chatroom, collaborate in a Google Doc or to work together in breakout rooms. Feedback and write up the questions as a whole class. Discuss grammatical features of past tense word order in questions.

Step 3: elicit questions

Step 4: Ask students to discuss the questions in breakout rooms. Feedback as a whole class. Discuss new vocabulary.

Step 5: Show students a model text about what someone did in their holidays (e.g. an email or social media post), or collaboratively create one using the language experience approach. Ask students to write about their holidays for homework.

This is just one of many quick and simple techniques I use to engage my learners online and build their visual vocabulary.

It’s basically four steps: visual prompts, written prompts, elicit questions, discuss questions.

You can use this technique for various topics and grammatical points simply by changing the icons. It’s a great way to stimulate learners, give visual clues and get them talking. It can be used face to face or online. I’d love to know if you use it or have ideas of other ways to use it.

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Why everyone can and should draw in their ELT Classroom

Recently I’ve become a bit obsessed with using drawings in the classroom. In this high-tech era, drawing is a back to basics approach and the perfect excuse to get away from a screen.  My drawings are quick and simple.  They are not attempting to be Takashi Murakami or Christine Clark.  They have at times drawn funny looks (pun totally intended) or initiated laughter, but that’s OK.  Students get the message and we have fun doing so. Plus, imperfect drawings teach students that it’s ok to be imperfect – and encourages them to confidently create their own imperfect drawings.

Using drawings in class is a brilliant multisensory way of adding some fun to your lessons, concept checking, get students thinking critically and as a tool for mediation. It’s also great for memory. The drawing effect refers to a 2016 study by Wammes, Meade and Fernandes which found that drawing can aid vocabulary retention. The study gave participants a list of simple words and asked them to either write the word repeatedly or draw it. The results showed that participants recalled twice as many drawn words as written.

The best bit is that drawing works well online and face to face. Hand-drawn visuals engage participants as they bring a piece of analogue into the digital world. You can prepare the visuals before class. In a live class you can point your webcam at a notebook or flipchart, treat yourself to a visualiser or use the annotate tools. Obviously your drawings won’t be as pretty using a mouse but isn’t that part of the fun? Again, it’s not about artistic magnificence, it’s about communication.

Using annotation tools with a visual template to navigate the digital swamp in a recent webinar.

There are lots of ways to use drawings and visuals in the classroom. You can check out my previous blogs posts, or this padlet where I have compiled some of my favourites from other ELT afficionados. Feel free to contact me with any others I should add.

Neil Cohn has some wonderful research into the use of drawings as a visual language. One of his papers discusses how most people lose their drawing ability in their teens, and with it their visual communication skills. He has found the use of drawings to be beneficial to interaction, motor skills, feedback, culture, motivation and emotions.

This research resonates with me. When I was about 12 or 13, I had to choose which courses to study at school. I swithered a lot between PE or Art but finally chose PE because at the time I wanted to be a personal trainer. When I broke the news to my art teacher, he looked genuinely dejected. I wish someone had told me that learning to draw is a communication skill for life while fitness comes and goes.

A quick diagram to compare my fitness and drawing skills since I was a teenager.

Many people believe that they can’t draw, and I have to admit that until I met Emer O’Leary I had started to believe this myth about myself. Her Secrets of Simple Graphics course put me back on the visual pathway and led me to signing up to go full Graphic Facilitator.

I’d love to support the ELT community to grow their visual vocabulary and add ‘visual’ to their list of lingua francas. I’m now running Online Courses to help you do this!

Why not join me and learn how to engage your learners with simple drawings? Follow this link to find out more:

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Visual templates for engaging environmental discussions

I recently read Dan Barber’s ELT Footprint blog about giving your lessons a sustainability twist. It inspired me to create some visual templates to stimulate environmental discussions in the classroom.

A visual template is a tool commonly used by graphic facilitators, such as Cara Holland or Emer O’Leary, to inspire workshop participants. It is essentially a technique which turns a plain flipchart or whiteboard into a visual prompt to guide and focus students’ attention. It uses simple iconography to represent topics and bold text to catch their eyes and imaginations. Put simply, it is far more exciting and inspiring than a boring old blank white space.

Take these templates on saving electricity or reducing plastic, for example. Students add their ideas using post-it notes, writing directly or by adding their own drawings. Prior to this activity, you could ask them to read or listen to some information on either topic.

In a face-to-face classroom, these templates can be pre-drawn and displayed around the room or passed between tables, carousel style. Students can then walk around or simply add their ideas when they have that template. The teacher can then facilitate discussions using the students’ ideas or students could use the ideas to produce some written work. The templates can be stored and re-used, or students could add their own drawings to them and the final piece be displayed on the wall.

In a digital classroom, the templates work well on a platform such as Jamboard, where students can add their own digital post-its, then discuss their ideas in a breakout room.

When using this visual template about Energy Sources, as a dynamic receptive skills comprehension task, you could ask learners to read or listen to some information, then ask them to put notes of what they learned in the relevant section. You could later ask them to add their views on the advantages and disavantages of each energy source using two different colours of post-it notes.

Visual templates are fabulous as they can be used (and re-used) for many topics. Have a look at my previous post for ways you could map out learners journeys, for example.

Would you like to learn to create hand-drawn visuals to stimulate student creativity and communication? Why not join my Online Course? Follow this link to find out more:

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Digital skills courses for ESOL learners

Even prior to the online teaching boom, I noticed that my ESOL Learners often had limited digital skills. In the good old days, I’d refer students to community libraries and educational organisations offering courses such as ‘Getting started with computers’ or the ‘European Computer Driving Licence’. These were popular with students, but have ceased during the pandemic. Now that learners need digital skills more than ever, I wanted to find free (or affordable) online digital skills courses in a variety of languages.

Through various online searches, and utilising my online network, I found these courses. Thanks to everyone who contributed (you know who you are and you are all wonderful). I’d love to hear from you if you know of any more or if you can find translated links to these in other languages:

Microsoft (available in multiple languages):


Microsoft web apps training:







Open Doors Plymouth:

Some wonderful instructional videos in various languages:


Sarah Queen’s fabulous blog post about ICT in ESOL has some great links:


Typing and mouse control skills:


The Department for Education’s Essential Digital Skills:

This programme offers courses in using devices and handling information, creating and editing, communicating, transacting, and being safe and responsible online. Suitable for A2+ learners living in the UK. 

Essential Digital Skills


Learn my way/Make it click:

Lessons such as ‘Introduction to email’ and ‘How to create a document.’. Suitable for B1+ learners.

Learn My Way – Internet Skills


Computer coding/Code your Future:

I love everything these guys do! I even cycled to IATEFL in Liverpool to raise money for them a couple of years ago! They offer free computer coding classes for refugees and disadvantaged people:

Khaled, a graduate of Code your Future created videos in Arabic about computer coding:  

Do you know any more free online digital skills courses suitable for English language learners? Or (even better) in another language? Please share them via comments or tweet me.

Love my simple drawings? Let me show you how you can use them. Join my online course.

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What digital skills do learners need for online learning?

Last year, Lloyds Bank Consumer Digital Index found that 17% of the UK population did not have full basic digital skills, while 9% had no basic digital skills. This effectively means that at least 1 or 2 learners in every adult class needs support in order to participate successfully in an online learning programme. In reality, depending on the demographic of your learners, this could be much higher. You’ll see from my previous blog posts that this is the case with my learners.

So, what skills do students need in order to learn online? Scotland’s Adult Literacies Curriculum Framework advises that students should be supported to participate in online communications such as writing text messages, emails and social media posts, or using online chats and any other technology required for their educational programme.

The UK’s Essential Digital Skills Framework Foundation skills include:

  • using available controls in a device (e.g. touchscreen to use annotate function in video conferencing)
  • using assistive technology (e.g. translation or text-to-speech tools)
  • opening and accessing an application (e.g. web 2.0 tools such as padlet)
  • connecting to the internet
  • setting up an email account
  • communicating using email or messaging apps
  • sending photos via messaging apps or email
  • using and sharing word processing documents
  • using search engines

In my experience, learners also benefit from knowing how to use translation tools, use shift to change case, click to select, open new windows, copy links, save files and use the return key to start a new line and send messages in Zoom chats.

An all important basic digital skill.

Nicky Hockly highlights the importance of ‘new literacies’ such as texting literacy, mobile literacy, search literacy and hypertext literacy. When our learning programme first moved online, it became clear that hypertext literacy was crucial. Learners needed to be able to identify and select the relevant links in order to enter their Zoom lesson or access their asynchronous learning activities. Moreover, I have found it crucial to share links as hyperlinks, because students don’t always have the skills to copy and paste link addresses in order to access them.

This week I had the joy of discovering that the college had treated all our students to e-books! Hurrah! Happy days!

But then, the sinking feeling came.

The realisation that I had to get students to do three seemingly simple things: register, sign in and add their book to their library using a 12 digit code. When your learners have limited English and limited digital skills, you’ll know that this is anything but simple.

Passwords can be a barrier to learning.

Digital skills learners need in order to sign in:

1. Knowing their email address.

2. Typing their email address correctly.

3. Using ‘shift’ to input @.

4. Using caps lock/shift to enter a capital letter or symbol in a password.

5. Typing/spelling a password correctly (twice if they need to ‘confirm password’).

5. Knowing the difference between ‘Register’ and ‘Sign in’.

I can fully understand why this is difficult. Imagine having to access a website in Vietnamese, Arabic or Kurdish Sorani, then type your login details using an unfamiliar keyboard. I’d struggle too. In fact, every time I visit my friend in Spain and borrow her laptop, I have to ask her to show me how to input @. Likewise whenever I use an Apple computer.

Just as beginner learners need to learn classroom language such as ‘open your books’, ‘use a pen’ and ‘match’ or ‘circle’, online learners also need vocabulary and skills such as how to navigate their screen (e.g. top right, middle, bottom left), submit their work (e.g. take a photo, send an email), use a video conferencing tool (e.g. mute, turn on your video, click the pen icon, use the chat) and understand the difference between ‘register’ and ‘sign in’. Some learners also may need training on confirming a password or using ReCaptcha.

ReCaptcha is great to check you’re a human. But what if your students don’t know what a ‘truck’ is?

Essentially, in order to succeed online, learners need support to gain basic digital skills. This is a process which takes time, and patience on the part of the teacher and the learner. I’ve found that drip-feeding digital skills into my online lessons really helps; introduce one skill, allow time for them to master it, then move on to the next. That, and always being prepared to take ten steps back to start at the very beginning.

What skills have your learners needed to participate online? How do you support them to acquire them? Leave your comments here, or tweet me.

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Simple drawings to support life skills.

In previous blogs posts, I’ve talked about the benefits of using simple graphics in the classroom. Working visually is a great way to promote life skills, and drawings don’t need to be masterpieces – their purpose is simply to convey a message.

One fun activity is to create a five-year plan with students. Making plans for the future is a common tool for professionals wishing to enhance their careers, and clarify their goals and plans. In fact, tonight, I embark on Emer O’Leary’s Draw Out Your Future Course to do just that (and to have some fun with marker pens).

To support learners in this way, ask them to draw a simple road map or steps (see illustrations) in their notebooks, then add visual representations of their current situation and end goals at the beginning and end points. 

Using simple graphics with students is a great way to enhance their creativity and self-expression.  The icons don’t need to be works of art, but simply to communicate visually. When I’m stuck for ideas of how to draw something, I find that looking at images of ‘icons’ online can aid inspiration.

Once students have each drawn their road map or stairs and added their start and end points, they can then discuss how to achieve their goals in pairs or small groups. This can be done in a chatroom or breakout room online. Then ask them to add stages for working towards their goal on their map (attend university, take a course, etc.). Some students may need more than five years to achieve their goal ( e.g. if they want to study medicine or architecture). Allow these students to add additional years.

Display each student’s road map around the room, or ask them to share it using a collaborative tool such as padlet or whatsapp. Ask students to comment on each others’ plans. Encourage them to focus on how realistic each goal and stage is within the time frame, and to give motivational feedback and suggestions on other ways it may be achieved. This is a great way for them to practice giving and receiving constructive feedback.

While the aim of this activity may be to identify goals and current abilities, it also allows students to practise numerous life skills, such as communication, organisation, self-awareness, planning, giving and receiving feedback and making suggestions.

It’s a great way to review mixed tenses and different ways of expressing future. (E.g. Right now I’m a delivery driver but in the future, I want to own my own business. OR I’m planning to go to university next year.). It’s also perfect for feedback expressions, such as giving advice or making suggestions (e.g. You could also do an evening class. OR You should speak to my brother, he did something similar.).

If you liked this activity and would like more ideas for how to incorporate life skills into your curriculum, you will love my book. I wrote 50 Ways to Teach Life Skills as I realised just how important it was to incorporate life skills into any comprehensive curriculum.  It is a collection of practical tips and activities to enhance students’ social, academic, critical thinking, digital, and work skills to help students become their best selves.

This guide is simple, supports all levels of learners, and many of the activities require little or no preparation or special materials. Each activity assists students to improve their speaking, reading, writing, listening, grammar, vocabulary, or pronunciation skills while also practising their broader skills for life. It is available in print and digital from Wayzgoose Press.

Online Courses

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My top recommendations: books and films about refugees

A couple of days ago, I watched an inspiring TED Talk by Ann Morgan, who read one book from every country in the world. She did it because she wanted to expand her understanding of the world. It made me think of all the books and films I’ve read over the years for very similar reasons.

Since I started teaching refugees and people seeking refuge (less humanisingly known as asylum seekers) back in 2007, I’ve always looked for books and films that teach me about their countries, culture, stories and history. I’m not the kind of person who can read fact-heavy history books to relax so I need mine in easy-reading or entertaining format.

So here are some that anyone with an interest in other cultures or refugee matters might be interested in:

Film: His House

His House is about a refugee and his wife who move to the UK and have to navigate the UK system for seeking refuge. It is a psychological thriller in which the couple are haunted by past traumas. This film really struck a chord with me as so many of my learners have mental health problems such as PTSD, depression and insomnia. When teaching daily routine, many have intimated anxiety towards bedtime, as that’s when the bad dreams come.

Pick your own ‘adventure’: Have your Passport Ready

Have your passport ready is an online video story commissioned by Knaive theatre. It follows two Syrian brothers who travel to the UK for safety. Viewers watch short video clips and make choices on how to navigate the UK asylum system, or leave their decisions to dice rolls. I got deported within two moves, see if you can make it to getting leave to remain!

Graphic novel: Meet the Somalis

Meet the Somalis is a collection of 14 illustrated stories sharing the lives of first, second and third generation Somali families in different European cities. The stories are each unique and include themes such as fleeing warzones, refugee camps, family life, making friends, work and settling in a new city. You should know by now that I’m a visuals geek and these illustrations are stunning.

Book: The Jungle by Pooja Puri

Set in the infamous ‘Jungle’ refugee camp in Calais, this story follows Mico, an ‘unaccompanied minor’ and the people he meets in the camp. It makes you consider the impact of the refugee crises on the local area as well as the displaced people themselves.

Book: The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri

I’ll be honest with you. I stayed in bed ALL DAY one day reading this book. I literally could not put it down. My husband came in to check on me because he thought I was ill! The story follows Nuri, a Syrian refugee, and his wife on their journey from their life in Syria tending bees to resettling in the UK. The journey tracks from warzone, to people smuggling, to refugee camp, to homeless hostel accommodation in the UK. The characters are so vivid and it really touched me as so many of my students have shared similar stories with me.

Books: Anything written by Asne Seierstad

Asne Seierstand is a Norwegian writer who has written many books about her experiences of living in war zones. It’s been a while since I read these, so my memory is a bit hazy, but they each opened my eyes to life in those countries at that particular point in time. Her books include: Book seller of Kabul (Afghanistan), With their backs to the world (Serbia) and 101 days (Iraq).

Book: In order to live by YeonMi Park

Human rights activist, YeonMi Park, shares her experience of growing up in North Korea, being sold into a slave marriage then arriving and resettling in South Korea. A remarkable story and an informative read. If you don’t have time to read her book, I recommend her TED Talk.

Book: I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

No list of books about refugees would be complete without Malala, the youngest ever Nobel Peace prize laureate. In her book, Malala recounts the story of being shot by the Taliban for attending school to becoming a reknowned activist for female education.

Children’s book (age 7-11): The boy at the back of the class by Onjali Q. Rauf

I bought this for my nephew’s birthday, but was so intrigued that I had to read it myself (my reading age has dropped somewhat in 2020). It’s a story of a boy called Ahmet who is a Syrian refugee. Ahmet is the new boy in class and this book tells the story of settling into a new life and making friends in an unfamiliar country.

Illegal by Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin (illustrations by Giovanni Rigano)

I was searching online for the graphic novel, Sapiens, when Amazon recommended this to me. It was a moment when I was thankful that computers stalk my buying behaviour. It shares the story of one boy’s journey from Africa, across the mediterranean to the refuge of the UK. The illustrations are fantastic and the storyline is realistic.

Have you read any good books or seen any good films about refugees? Please share them as I’d love more ideas… or perhaps for one day to say I’ve read a book from every country in the world!  

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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 /ʊ/ 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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