Review of Meaning-Focused Materials for Language Learning


This review appeared originally in the LINGUIST List at



Meaning-Focused Materials for Language Learning, edited by Marina Bouckaert, Monique Konings and Marjon van Winkelhof, is a collection of contributions arising from the 2017 conference of materials-development association MATSDA. The book is divided into four parts, considering materials creation, teaching interventions involving meaning-focused materials, the use of digital materials and multimedia, and critical perspectives on language learning materials and testing systems. Continue reading

How right you were


How right you were
to tell me I was frightened.
I am still finding eggshells
embedded in my feet.

How right you were
to tell me I was nothing.
I can still hear your horror –
“those who can’t, teach”.

How right you were
to tell me I was down.
I still remember mornings,
only the Snooze within reach.

How right you were
to tell me I would leave.
How right you were.
How right you were.

By Wakalani (Flickr).

Archive: Death by hobbies


Any situation from which there’s no escape can become a kind of torture, and speaking exams are no exception. It’s probably rare enough to get an incisive answer from students speaking their own language; it’s nigh on impossible when the examiners’ job is to assess just how badly prospective students can’t do the thing they’re applying to learn how to do.

The procedure is as follows: ask the same limited set of bog-standard questions that nobody in the real world ever asks (What are your hobbies? What is your favourite place in your country? What do you want to be when you grow up? etc) until the student changes their mind and goes away. At the same time you should write down comments (such as “HA!” and “PFFFF”) to enable graders to discriminate in the case of borderline candidates, before assigning grades based on a rubric that is specifically designed to be wildly unfit for purpose, as giving teachers something to rant about between interviews has been positively correlated with a higher rate of sanity retention.

Bored souvenir seller

No no, go on… (by Adam Jones, via Wikimedia Commons)

And so you ask the same twelve questions in slightly different orders until the faces stop coming and the voices in your head fade away. After the fifth interview, the highly localized front-of-head pain sets in, the one that feels like a small but persistent imp is using the space between your eyebrows as a pin cushion. After the eighth, the nameless, unquenchable hunger. Come ten, feeling is lost in the lips and tongue. Any more than twelve and the shaking sweaty fears set in. The last teacher who did fifteen had to be stretchered out.

If left in charge of timetabling their own students, teachers will frequently start strong, rally, and end on a high, leaving those they imagine will bomb to hide in the middle and hopefully ride a wave of goodwill to glory. However for those of us that are wise to these ruses, there is only one thing that can jolt us from our cynicism: epic student failure.

I recall many a surreal placement test in which a pushy parent hovered behind their genius progeny, lauding their every achievement, top of their every advanced English class, their mastery of the art of public speaking, their rhetorical genius… while I waited patiently for an answer to the question “What is your name?” My most memorable testing moments would also have to include the elaborately beautiful gothic lady who burst in spectacular tears when asked to describe a picture story, then spent over an hour telling me, in near-perfect English, how worthless her English was.

But the best ones are where you actually, in spite of the system, conspire to learn something. For surprise value, nobody can quite top the Korean student who had a massive freak-out on learning that his speaking partner often slept with the fan on in summer. Apparently Koreans believe that this can cause ‘Fan death’, the only possible explanation for why people sometimes die alone in their beds with the fan on. I had no idea, and nearly fell off my own chair, thus creating a kind of culture shock domino rally. 

From here on November 25th 2012.

Archive: Notes from the cliff face

Portrait of Ho Chi Minh

Ho Chi Minh, good at using the internet even before it was invented

Teacher: Does anyone know any older people who can use new technology?

Students (in unison): Alcohol!

Teacher: Alcohol?

Students: Yes, do you know alcohol? Alcohol is known in Vietnam, always use new technology! All Vietnam peoples are know him!

And then the penny dropped.

The moral of the story? Never underestimate Vietnamese students’ ability to turn any given conversation to Uncle Ho.

From here on October 5th 2010.

Archive: Why we should and why we don’t

A boy studying

“Hurry up and invent Google Translate, world…”

A different language is a different vision of life ~ Federico Fellini

It bothers me that we Brits are becoming more and more monolingual, almost without a second thought. Not only have we long failed to teach languages in school – my French teacher had clearly modelled her pronunciation of la belle langue on John Major – we’ve given up even trying beyond a token three years, and are now seeing the knock-on effects as universities close language departments

Why might this be? The whole world speaks English? Nothing is forever, and that’s certainly not the point. I can just run it through Google? Don’t make me laugh. Or is it, perhaps, that we don’t really like leaving our comfort zones? 

Confession time. I’m a language teacher. I always tell my students to have a go and not worry about getting it wrong. But deep down I understand how they feel, because I hate hate hate to look less clever than I am. 

However. Something I believe to be true: learning another language is a profoundly humbling, yet hugely enriching experience, because it involves questioning every facet of your understanding of the world, and redefining who you are in response to a different set of wisdoms. 

At 21 I had some right to feel pretty smug, a bright lass fresh from swanning around Oxford’s dreaming spires. Crash! Japan took me right back to zero. With time and a lot of hard graft I became a gurgling two-year-old, then learned to toddle, falling over less and less, then after a year the floodgates opened and I could hold a conversation. But then came the polishing: learning what to say, what not to, when, how. Wrestling with social levels, distance, seniority. Trying to act my age, to express myself fully, persuasively, to truly own my words.

I became someone else for a while, in that process. I cut-and-pasted so much that I lost my voice somewhat. When I tried to put it all back together, though, I felt that there was more of me, more insights and ideas, more perspectives, more understanding of the drives and desires of human beings. 

Isn’t that something we should be teaching our children?

From here on August 25th 2010.

Archive: Saying goodbye


In 2001, at the tender age of 21, I said goodbye to my friends and set sail for a small town in a rural part of Japan. It was the second time I had ever flown anywhere. I was to be a sensei, an educator, an enlightener, a bringer of English to row after row of bemused Japanese teenagers.

My two years in Sanyo did much to form who I am today. They awakened my love of language, my thrill at the challenge of life out on a limb, my addiction to culture shock. They also taught me a great deal about the kindness of strangers. A small group of kind-hearted people welcomed me warmly into their lives and homes in a way that I will never forget.

One of these people was Keiko Tsuno, town councillor and de facto head of an affectionately boisterous household of fifteen, swelled on most evenings by friends, homestay students, and wide-eyed young English teachers. She was a force of nature, always on the go from work to pickle-making to sign language to pottery to cooking for half the town most evenings, ending the day with “Any time, please come in my house!” She somehow found the time to help me beyond measure.

On October 18th 2009 my friend Keiko said goodbye, after a long battle with cancer. She will always be in my heart.

From here on October 30th 2009.

Archive: CELTA at IH Budapest – acquiring a TEFL safety net

Szechenyi Baths, Budapest

An intense four-week course, with some compensations.

I taught English for two years in Japan, what seems like a very long time ago. I’ve also taught one-to-one, on and off, for four years. So it’s true what they say – you can teach without a qualification. But there came a time when I no longer wanted to. Was I doing the right thing? Could I be better? Was I charging my students money just to hear me talk? Could I take myself in any way seriously if I was?

Some years later (the exact number a closely guarded secret), I took the plunge and headed off to Budapest to take a Cambridge CELTA teaching course. These courses are heavily focused on the practical, with the meat of the day being observed teaching practice, but also provide a way in to pedagogical theory and language analysis through afternoon input sessions. The aim is to show, in our later lessons, that we have taken these sessions on board.

The course was certainly intense, but I can’t fault the content or delivery. Expecting a month-long course to create super-teachers is a sure recipe for disappointment, but it does give trainees all the basic tools, practice and confidence needed to start out as a reasonably competent teacher of English. It also, crucially, encourages them to see their abilities objectively, as the basis for continued professional development rather than as an excuse to never stand in front of a class of students ever again.

So. Budapest, January 2009. The course begins gently, all ‘getting to know you’ and giggles. They seem like a good group from the off, and it’s nice to be among people who don’t look askance at a desire to travel and learn obscure languages. But we’re swiftly into the meat of it, planning our first 20 minute lesson for the next day. Hands are held tightly at this stage, but it’s still daunting. Will I remember the students’ names? All of which are harder for being unfamiliar. What if I run out of material (honestly, unlikely in 20 minutes)? 

The first lesson goes off without too many hitches, the students are super co-operative and seem to relish the cheap and sometimes shambolic option of studying with trainees. My previous experience comes in some kind of handy as I have no trouble grading my language for our pre-intermediate group.

That out the way, we’re on to 40-minute lessons. Hands still clasped tightly, we’re sticking mostly to skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening) lessons, or revision of already-known grammar and vocabulary. The afternoons are spent being told how we’re supposed to do it, minus hand-holding, in the weeks to come.

Week 2, and our teaching group of 5 has formed a mutually supportive group of, er, 4. With feedback to teaching practice coming from other trainees as well as trainers, it’s a shame not everyone’s taking things seriously. Comparing people’s lessons to the sinking of the Titanic is about as far not on as it’s possible to be, but we rise above and overcome. Still, with essays, planning, and the growing feeling that I want to stay on and not lose my momentum, I rather shut myself away in the 2nd and 3rd weeks, choosing CVs and flat-hunting over beer and bonding.

In the 4th week, once teaching is over, I make a concerted effort to compensate for this, turning myself into a zombie-like creature whose head seeks out any flat surface – be it horizontal or vertical – for a bit of shut-eye. Still, I succeed in jumping across the wall into the teachers’ room for the subsequent week, allowing me to make the decision to stay on without too much food-on-the-table angst. And here I still am, still enjoying it immensely.

From here on April 10th 2009.