The Future is eLearning

It’s official – my eLearning platform is alive and online:

Osborne House

I had a vision of creating courses where excursions are the foundation stones as opposed to ‘extra-curricular’ treats. I wanted to liberate the learner (and trainer) completely from the artificial shackles of the four-walled classroom. I found my solution this past Christmas in Moodle, and have been learning and experimenting with it ever since. What you see on the platform now is the product of that work – a fully blended eLearning solution.

The reading, writing and listening practice is covered through fully online activities based solely on real articles and videos from the internet. The speaking practice occurs in video conference lessons and excursions, again where materials and objectives are strictly real. In paid courses, one excursion underpins the selection of materials and activities for the rest of the course. For example, the “Cooking in English” course is based on a live cooking class with an American chef. In that course, lesson themes are all around cuisine, recipes and cultural habits, with each part focussing on vocabulary or sub-skills that will be practised and consolidated in the penultimate task – the excursion itself.

The key to this whole experiment is the approach to the online method. Up to now most online ELT platforms are essentially static stores of information and activities – the digital equivalent of just giving the learner and textbook then leaving them in a room for an hour. I’ve learned two key things from my experience of the industry of successful online learning:

  • Instructor participation at every level dramatically increases attendance and motivation.
  • Gameification, that is, adding game elements to activities, taking cues from video and board games, also has a dramatic different on learners’ motivation to progress in a course

The first point makes it sound like the learner would be better off in a classroom. Surely online learning is there to allow more independence and autonomy, not to still have the teacher peering over their shoulder? It is true that online learning can offer the student immense freedom thanks to the vastness of the internet in terms of content, and there are many apps at their disposal to engage them with online content. The problem is that leaving a student to their own devices without live trainer feedback has been shown consistently to reduce motivation and attendance dramatically within the first stages of the course.

The key is to have some regular participation from a live trainer – as simple as a short private message on your platform saying “Hey, good job on lesson 2!” or “Hey, it’s been a while since lesson 3, is everything ok?” This kind of supportive nudge keeps learners conscious that their platform is not a static resource store, but a live community which is constantly monitored. It’s as close as we can get to compensating for the loss of face-to-face interaction.

In my courses, each self-study part has at least one production task associated with it, and that only becomes available to students after completion of the self-study tasks. This not only embeds trainer interaction into every activity, but adds a gaming element to completion of the isolated study part. I believe this will drive students’ motivation to complete otherwise impersonal activities with the reward of real interaction with a trainer.

Further gameification exists on the platform in the form of badges. This simple reward system is an integrated Moodle plugin that can programme specific, pictorial awards to be given upon meeting certain conditions, for example completing an activity or course. I want this system to reinforce students’ feelings of achievement after completing a speaking activity, for example, and to make a bigger deal about overcoming live communication anxiety.

The excursion courses are only available in France at the moment, but I’m constantly seeking out new partners to supply the excursion part of future international courses. If you feel that this approach speaks to you, please get in contact and give me your ideas and feedback at

7 GENIUS ways to help your English for FREE in your ENVIRONMENT

Love it, get some English in your life!



(Photo credit:

Here are some great ideas to just add that extra something to your English learning. I thought they were genius!

  1. Label things in your house

This is such a good idea as every time you pass that label you will remember it, every time you turn on the light, you will remember the words ‘light switch’, every time you get hungry and go to the kitchen you will remember ‘fridge’ every time you put your clothes away you will remember ‘wardrobe’, and so on….

  1. Keep a notebook in every room

Every time you remember something in English or have a question, just go to the notebook and write it down. Then when you go off to school take the notebooks with you and ask your teacher or practice the words.  Don’t forget to put them back in your rooms when you get home.

View original post 309 more words

IATEFL 2015 Presentation

I gave this presentation on Sunday 12/04/2015 at IATEFL Manchester.


With only half an hour, I think I did a good job of providing a general framework to making excursion-based lessons. In this post, I’d like to give a bit more meat to each stage of lesson prep for those who were able to come, and also for those who couldn’t make it:

Pre-Excursion Lesson

This is an instructor-led stage, for example in a classroom, eLearning platform or blended approach. I personally use a mix of printed packs, eLearning and WebEx video conferences. This means my pre-excursion lesson is split into parts, with self-study, an assignment submission and feedback, as well as a video conference with the excursion group for relevant speaking practice.

These tasks have the overall aim of inspiring interest, pre-teaching vocabulary and speaking sub-skills, all with the requirements of the excursion tasks in mind. This symbiotic relationship means I need to think about pre-excursion and on-excursion tasks at the same time to be sure they nicely complement each other, and to maximise the chance of vocabulary consolidation.

On-excursion Lessons

This is a student-led stage, where the role of the teacher becomes overseer and director. I design tasks that require students to move around and interact with the excursion venue, using text, listening or simply visual resources available on site as the stimulus. The teacher explains one of these tasks, lets students loose to complete them individually or in groups, setting a regroup time to discuss and compare results. This can be repeated as long as you think students’ motivation will endure, though for me I find 2 hours enough before we need to take a coffee or lunch break.

Post-Excursion Lessons

This is an instructor-led or self-study phase where follow-up tasks are designed that consolidate the language practised in the pre- and on-excursion lessons. I use email as my preferred medium, setting the task of writing an email to their colleague or friend to describe the location they saw and what they learned. It could equally be collaborating on a shared wiki to write a newspaper article or tourist flyer on the location; the theme and activities should be adapted to the group’s learning objectives.

All three stages share an intimate connection, and should be designed in sync to ensure a coherence that will justify taking students outside on excursions. With proper pre- and post-excursion activity preparation, students will constantly feel a new level of motivation with traditional classroom or self-study activities, given that it connects to a high-pressure public display of the skills and language they’re practising.

I hope this helps. If you try this method, or are already using it, please absolutely let me know how it goes, I’d love to hear from you. Good luck out there!


What is it about having self confidence issues, social anxiety or perfectionism that makes some of us inefficient language learners? I used to think this was related to introverted or extrovertedness, but now I’m not so sure. I think the measure of how strong, clear and assertive someone is in their first language may give us clues concerning other languages.

I said in my previous post how I was perplexed by the fact that many people are extremely motivated to learn or improve another language, but can’t seem to break through that invisible barrier blocking them from engaging in the kinds of activities that would lead to strong and rapid acquisition, such as language exchanges online or face to face. I know myself that I’ve had problems with social anxiety in the past, and although my self confidence is now strong and I consider myself quite assertive, there are still communicative scenarios that cause me serious anxiety. I don’t consider myself an introvert, as I’ve always needed to bounce new ideas off others before putting them into action (hence this blog…). I’ve never been good at working on projects alone, and I’m often compelled to seek out collaborators. This may come from growing up with the aforementioned anxiety, in the sense of worrying that I was unfit to judge the quality or success of my own exploits without someone else’s reassurance. Although today I do most of my personal projects alone, I still have difficulty suppressing that little voice in my head saying, “Is this really any good?”

As a language learner, this makes me avoid situations where my language competence will be obviously lacking compared to others. I remember how long it took me to really get over this phobia with French, and how illogically resistant I was to doing any live practice in front of people whose opinions I valued. Now, however, with my level approaching fluent, I feel pride when able to demonstrate my ability, especially to others less competent than myself when they ask for my help. As good as that is, it still sounds scarily like looking to others for validation. I’m starting to wonder how much this accounts for my similar present aversion to German practice.

So I’m brought back to my own point from ‘EFL Materials,’ that there simply isn’t enough support for language learners to cope with the very specific anxiety created by live language practice. We need to develop a student’s voice, that is, the embodiment of how they express their thoughts, feelings and beliefs. As language trainers, we dare not delve into the realm of psychological evaluation, but perhaps we can focus on this one specific idea: assertiveness of the student’s ‘voice.’ We will cannot claim to provide relief from social anxiety in general, but perhaps localised relief for scenarios demanding live performance of the target language. If done through the target language, great, but it could also be done in the students first language for low level learners. With simple, clear instructions on how to identify negative beliefs related to language performance, as well as how to design activities and experiments to expose students to their fears in a controlled way, we might be able to slowly diminish their anxiety.

I’d love comments from peers on this (obviously, if you’ve been reading what I said above!) and I look forward to sharing results from my own students in this project.

My Voice

I have a question to answer – the kind of serious scientific issue that can only be answered by rambling in a blog post. My question is this: How can someone learn a foreign language which they consciously want to speak, if they cannot find the internal drive that pushes them to do so?


First, I’d like to ponder to autodidact route. Surely, if you have a real affinity for a language, you should be able to avail of the multitude of different means of self-study to achieve this goal. Just a few examples:

— Text books with carefully organised language explanation and practice, often with accompanying audio materials
— eLearning sites offering audio, video and interactive language explanation and practice
— Face-to-face group language exchanges in local bars, often low price or free.
— One-on-one language exchange partners, through webcam or live meetings
— General free material online: news sites, music, YouTube teachers, Duolingo, etc.

Apart from the first two examples, these sources are free and easy to use. So why are multilingual hopefuls all over the world not jumping up and down with joy, finally able to realise their dream? Is it as simple as laziness, or a lack of free time?

My Experience

I’ll confess something: I am one of these seemingly lazy students. I’ve grappled with this question for a long time as a language learner. I started 5 years ago when I first arrived in Paris. At first my partner (now my wife) was very supportive and helpful with the process of learning French, but I experienced an intense psychological aversion to language learning and practice — even though it was at the time essential for things like setting up bank accounts and insurance. It took me over one year in my new environment before I actually started learning and practising its language. Even then, my preference was to leave the text book and classroom lessons to one side in favour of live, intense practice with genuine conversation partners — struggling to push out simple jokes and social expressions to fit in at the dinner table or in the pub. This was where my progress rocketed, despite my persistent yet dwindling feeling of aversion.

My second, and equally long, language experience is the one which leads me to today’s blog post: my partner is German. Although we started and developed our relationship in English, I expressed interest from the beginning in learning German. I wanted to be able to communicate with her family in Berlin when we visited. I took private lessons, bought a grammar book, tried eLearning programs like Duolingo, Livemocha and Deutschewelle, audio courses like Pimsleur and Assimil, nothing inspired me beyond a handful of short practice sessions and neglegable progress.

When the time came for live practice, most of my wife Caroline’s friends and relations either spoke English, therefore negating the need to try my pidgin German, or tried one or two simple expressions out on me before of course launching into fully native conversations with the other Germans present. Again, little was actually produced on my side, and progress was minimal.

This situations has been repeated about once a year over a period of about 5 years now, and my disinterest in the learning materials persists. So, you may ask, your wife is clearly bilingual, why not practise with her? She has been kind enough to try, but anyone reading this who’s had a similar experience will know that once you’ve established which language will be used in a relationship it is very hard to switch later on. This includes platonic ones; my French neighbours for example sometimes squeeze the odd English sentence out to me, but the idea of uttering something in English to them in reply thoroughly gives me the willies.

So, the self-study route hasn’t helped, what has? Strangely, my listening comprehension in German is much better than my spoken ability. This uncountably comes from years of eavesdropping on Caroline’s conversations with her mum or dad. I experience a strange sensation where I hear linguistic hints that she’s telling them a story about our life together, and my brain deduces bits of the German terms from what I remember her saying in English. It’s a very strange phenomenon, and the more it happens the more I can suss out new conversations with words I haven’t heard before, or at least ones I couldn’t repeat if I wanted to use them myself.

Geeks and Sponges

So what does all this mean? The answer to the problem has become imperative, as we’re now expecting our first baby. This summer, therefore, my wife will be speaking to our child exclusively in German, and I in English, making my need to understand what she says immensely personal. Yet, even with such a compelling intrinsic motivation, I find myself imagining going back to the learning materials I talked about earlier and wince in boredom. So, I need to find that miracle solution, that answer to the ultimate question: how can someone disinterested by classic self study learn a language without being forced through a professionally taught language course that he doesn’t have time for?

I want to start my search by making a distinction between two types of language students: geeks and sponges. There are learners who are genuinely interested in the language itself, that is its sounds, texts and patterns, as well as how it works. These students find their voice through this empirical and methodical study method. Then, there are the learners who are interested in what can be achieved through use of the language. These students find their voice through immersion in situations where the language is ubiquitous, but accessible, and communicative successes can be realised at each level of their development to spur on their practice. I’d say this isn’t a dichotomy, more like a bell curve. The average student is as interested in the words and workings of the language itself as in its uses, forming the peak of the bell, then you get decreasing numbers of students on each side who prefer one to the other. Everyone in the curve is capable of learning and becoming a user of the language, but of course being predominantly concerned with its grammar and patterns will retard progress, as will simply throwing yourself into a group with no regard for the former at all. The ideal is probably the average — a healthy mix of the two.

So, leaving aside the geeks to another blog post, what can be done to inspire those sponge learners like myself into faster progress? Thankfully, having survived this experience with French, I have examples to draw upon. A key factor is that living in the country makes language encounters a daily occurrence whether you’re making an effort or not – even when just picking up a croissant and a coffee on your way to work. These pure-use kind of situations suited me very well as a sponge and, although my aversion to technical language study definitely slowed my progress, I’m now a master coffee-orderer — ready for anything they throw at me. I don’t have this possibility with German.

My German Voice

I could start making big promises like getting off my ass and finding a language exchange friend like I did before in French, but I know I won’t go through with it. I also know that anyone living here who speaks German probably already speaks English pretty fluently. Yes, that’s a stereotype, but it’s very often true.

Perhaps it’s the approach that’s wrong. As a sponge learner, I don’t see language production as a methodical process at all. I believe very strongly in humanity’s purely emergent language learning abilities, realised through meaningful practice (cue Dogmetists). When I speak French, it’s not a skill to me as would be dancing or typing, its another voice –coming from somewhere subconscious, basic and natural. My French voice is what I developed in speaking with real conversation partners; it represents my ability to be me in French. This may be what caused such resistance at the beginning. If my ability in French is so intimately linked to my concept of self, it was intensely uncomfortable to be able to say so little and be so frequently at a loss for words to advance the conversation. It’s like having the language part of your brain cut out and suddenly becoming powerlessly mute. This concept of voice in types of learner like myself may hold the key.

If my German voice is still muted, yet comprehension is increasing, I need to find a way to use it in a meaningful way that can confirm its value as a way to express my self, despite its limited capacity. I don’t have the answer yet, but comments would be both welcomed and appreciated.


The mere mention of the word motivation can send shivers up the spine of the most seasoned pedagogues. What the heck does it even mean? Are my students motivated? How can I find out?

A recent talk I attended at the TESOL France colloquium by Stephen-Scott Brewer renewed my interest in the concept of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, but elaborated it into a spectrum. At one end lay pure amotivation, moving through extrinsic motivation to pure intrinsic motivation. It made me realise that accessing the potential of a student’s intrinsic motivation may be related to the idea of Krashen’s affective learning filter.

Understanding motivation, for me, lies in the distinction between the definition of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic means being motivated for reasons to do exclusively with the self. This could be a desire to succeed for pure self gratification, or even simpler — the desire to survive (food, shelter, etc.). These are the purest forms of motivation; they represent our most basic desires.

Extrinsic motivation comes from factors external to purely selfish needs, for example: making progress in a job; establishing or maintaining a relationship; satisfying a social convention; etc. One key factor here, where the spectrum comes into play, is that all effective extrinsic motivation contains elements of intrinsic motivation. Being promoted through good results at work gives us greater means to satisfy our monetary desires, as well as greater self esteem. Making friends brings us opportunities for the pleasure of socialising, or even help in problem resolution.

Once we reach the other end of the spectrum, where extrinsic motivation dwarfs any intrinsic motivation, for example: a child wishing to perform well in an subject they hate simply because of parental pressure, we close in on amotivation. The less selfish gain we can achieve in something, the less motivated we are to do it.

My previous point sounds terribly misanthropic. The argument that no one does anything without some personal gain is a sore point for people who profess the power of the human spirit to do good in the world, but it is an inescapable truth. Even the most selfless, heroic act leads to feelings of righteousness or heroism, so it is partially intrinsically motivated, whether it’s intended to be or not.

So far so good, but how does this relate to language teaching? Well, surely this provides the ultimate answer to classroom activities’ effectiveness: make them entirely selfish. Throw a student into a pit of snakes until they tell you about their weekend with perfectly conjugated verbs and by God you’ll have effective language acquisition!

Though in reality this isn’t the case. Imagine the student whose passion is vintage cars, so you ask him to prepare a presentation for the class on his favourite model. These students so often produce surprisingly uninspiring work, unable to express themselves and resentful of being asked to do so. Their intrinsic motivation cannot break through their, sometimes intense, psychological issues. Krashen (2003) states that certain negative emotions, such as anxiety, self-doubt, and even boredom interfere with the effectiveness of second language acquisition.

So to access a student’s motivation, we must not only deal with how well we’re satisfying their personal needs, but also how much they are affected in learning by negative emotions. This puts the teacher in an uncomfortable position. Not that we don’t care about our students’ problems, but dealing with psychological issues is a delicate process. Perhaps, with some basic training, we could take on the responsibility of something like a counsellor as well as a trainer — like a language coach — dealing with linguistic, as well as personal, problems. I’m still developing my own views on this, and I would love some input from the blogging community in the comments.

Krashen, S. (2003). Explorations in Language Acquisition and Use. Portsmouth: Heinemann

EFL materials

I’m feeling desperate. Every year, new ESL materials are created to a serve the very unique and arguably biggest market for foreign language learning: adults and ESP. I’m trapped in a world where this decontextualised nonsense is something most of my peers see as perfectly normal, applauding the great advances in materials design as if it’s anything more than polishing an inappropriate, deceitful way to promise students improvement in their foreign language development.

The adult teaching context is, in my experience, complex compared to that of young learners. Though motivation in YLs is a key issue with no shortage of published material, they could be stereotypically described as language sponges — soaking up new language as it is presented to them. Adults, though they still in theory have the ability to soak up new language, more often have a crippling layer of difficulty in the form of inhibition. It seems to me that once YLs reach the age of their first life-defining exams (e.g. A-Levels, Baccalaureate, SATs, etc.) they’ve already been systematically brainwashed into thinking mistakes are shameful, leading to the development of perfectionist beliefs.

This, in my experience, creates a permanent layer of mistake anxiety that continues into adulthood, which affects our ability to freely and easily acquire language as YLs do. This ingrained fear manifests itself as defensiveness, frustration, depression, self-deprecation, the list goes on. These typical side-effects of perfectionist beliefs differ in severity depending on the student’s personal experiences. Error correction leads to shame. Using imagination is rejected for fear of uttering something embarrassing. The lesson becomes a dry, clinical attempt to avoid any meaningful language use. For anyone who’s studied Krashen, this is explained as the affective filter.

In a non-target-language country, this makes learning avoidance almost inevitable in a large part of the population who would otherwise like to acquire it for better job opportunities, holidays, or simply satisfying a passion. An excuse develops that learning is only affective when you spend time in the target language country. This is true, to an extent, as immersive learning helps overcome psychological hang-ups thanks to the basic need to survive and be accepted in one’s community. As most people’s time or budget constraints negate embarking on such an adventure, this becomes the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card.

So, with such a considerable, fundamental barrier to language learning existing in one of the main markets for the major textbook publishers, you’d imagine this would form a key part of their published content. There are several obvious reasons that this isn’t the case. For starters, each country has its own cultural profile, with its own unique reasons for learning avoidance, so producing country-specific books would be costly and unprofitable. Secondly, it’s much easier to cop out with the excuse that such psychological difficulties are outside the remit of poor, pedestrian, private sector language teachers. Finally, many students use existing learning materials to successfully improved their language competence, despite their neuroses. Classroom-based students often overcome such difficulties unconsciously as they engage in interesting group activities, becoming confident language users without explicit psychological intervention.

So what’s my problem, you may well ask? I’m not satisfied. It feels like if we dared to confront the issue of learning avoidance due to childhood / adult trauma regarding mistake making, there’d be a huge opportunity to extend effective, achievable language learning to those who’d otherwise avoid it, or worse — those who continue paying for frustrating courses or materials that end in an inexplicable lack of progress. I believe these two groups of potential learners can be reached; all they need is guidance and advice concerning coping techniques for the sometimes intense psychological stress of live language production and public performance.

Do I have the answer to this problem? Nope. But I’m tired of seeing the same old rehashed material in every new mainstream course-book, designed for a market of people lucky enough to learn English in an Anglophone environment or a supportive group scenario. With self-help books being all the rage these days, how can no one have written a book with such a focus on self-improvement as well as language improvement. If I’m wrong, and such books exist and have slipped through my net, please let me know in the comments. If not, let’s write one together; think of the adults!