When /tə/ isn’t /tə/

to – one of those words that, most of the time, is unstressed and uses the schwa /ə/, right?

That’s what I thought until one of my Delta Module 2 input sessions this week when my mind was thoroughly blown. It turns out it’s dependent on what comes next.

Let’s take an example with telling the time, as last year both me and my Primary students had fun when drilling weak forms.

  1. It’s ten to two.
  2. It’s ten to eight.

In the first example, all is as expected: to is unstressed /tə/.

But in the second example other phonological rules come into play, don’t they? Schwa /ə/ is a vowel and is followed by eight which starts with the diphthong /eɪ/.

What happens with two consecutive vowels in connected speech? Why I’m glad you asked – what we get is an intrusive /j/, /r/ or /w/ depending on the sounds involved. Here it’s /w/.

In #2, I think the schwa is still there (though I am no phonology expert and could be wrong). I think that most of the time, there is still the intrusive /w/ which means it comes out as /təweɪt/. Most of the time. I’ve been saying it to myself and sometimes I’ve not heard or felt my mouth move to the /w/ position at all. But in another example such as to eat /təwiːt/, the /ə/ and /w/ are clearly there to my ear (and pronounced differently to tweet /twiːt/).

So, what does this mean for the classroom? The way we drill the sentence (or phrase) changes. It’s not quite as simple as /tə/ + /eɪt/. We naturally introduce the /w/ when speaking at full speed, but is it always there when drilling? I’m not sure. I think it’s entirely possible I’ve oversimplified it when teaching.

Going forward, I’ll be watching out for this!

Over to you: Have you thought about this aspect of the schwa before? What have you learned or been surprised by in your teaching of phonology?

Musings on lesson planning

I am a slow planner.

I had accepted this as a fact, and when I read an article a few months ago suggesting writing lesson plans on post-it notes, I was internally opposed.

Photo from http://flickr.com/eltpics by @ij64, CC 3.0

One fateful day

But then a few weeks ago I had to cover a 9am teenage class with less than 1 hour’s notice. And I was still at home when I got the call.

I was very, very stressed.

Luckily, there was an IWB flipchart for the lesson on the shared drive at work and colleagues sprung to my rescue and armed me with some supplementary resources which I quickly photocopied and dashed to class.

For the first three quarters of the lesson, I was barely a step ahead of the students. While they were doing the reading, I was scanning the grammar section of the book and the flipchart, trying to figure out what I would be doing next.

The leftover materials
The aftermath. A photocopiable, an error correction made in the break and notes I took as we went along.

I think I did overlook a couple of things and didn’t present the language as clearly or as well as I could have. However in informal feedback before and after the grammar point, students showed an increased confidence level.

In that sense I met the main lesson aim.

It was rather stressful and that’s not a feeling I would like to experience again anytime soon. And as I said, there were shortfalls in how clearly the language was presented. But sometimes there is anyway, even when I think I’ve properly planned a lesson. Sometimes even for observed lessons, where I spend hours typing the whole thing into the required template and preparing a cover sheet with anticipated problems. We’re human, we miss things.

So, what are my takeaway points from this?

Well to be honest at times this term, I’ve been so busy (particularly with the CAM course) that I’ve ended up doing something similar to the cover situation above. I’ve prepared materials or an IWB flipchart but walked into class with the stages still in my head or briefly written on a post-it note. I usually did this with a lovely class who I knew would ask me questions. If I did overlook anything, it would most likely come out. Those lessons probably weren’t my best lessons, but they also weren’t my worst.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this for every class. I’ve taught groups who were struggling at their level and needed things breaking down. I’ve taught groups who needed​ so much behaviour management that I must have a firm plan in place so that I can devote my attention appropriately. (And if I don’t, I have a hard time trying to keep the lesson going and my energy gets zapped.) I’ve also taught groups that are so chatty a whole lesson can fly by without making much progress.

And, unless you find a way to keep and organise your post-it notes, the next time you teach the same course, you’ll have to go through your thought process of (micro) planning all over again.

a lesson plan on a post-it
Hmm this is about 80% of a full plan, squashed onto a post-it. I can’t find any shorter ones right now.

But sometimes, maybe there is something to be said for walking in with materials you’ve looked at or made, and a loose plan on a post-it note.

And I can’t help thinking about what I could do with the time saved. I could give more detailed and timely feedback on some writing. I could set up a speaking task that I can use for continuous assessment. Wouldn’t my students benefit from this?

Over to you: Do you ever outline instead of plan? What do you do with the time you save?

Success of the week: Addressing emerging learning

As I’m preparing myself for a Diploma level TEFL course, one of my areas of teaching to work on is trying to maximise “emerging learning” as it happens in my classrooms. 

I included this in my CAM Action Plan written at the start of the course. So far I’ve become more aware of instances where I’ve been developing this learning as things come up in lessons. I’ve been reassured that it was sometimes happening. However, I’m also now more aware of these opportunities and actively thinking “here’s some learning or language that could be exploited” and jumping the on chance. Or at least trying to.

And then last week I had a lesson where I feel like I nailed it.

I was teaching a motivated and mature intermediate-level Lower Secondary class and actually I was teaching the reading lesson my colleague and I had prepared for our CAM Module 5 Assignment.

Emerging learning #1: Pronunciation

The students in this class have been with me for a while and as such are quite aware of the schwa, /ə/.

schwa is good
 Presented to me after a breaktime. Let’s make that very aware.

Somehow the word perfume was mentioned, which sounds similar in their native language with an ‘a’ kind of sound where the English /ɜː/ appears. As I highlighted the sound of the English word perfume, a student piped up “it’s /ə/ again”!

Time to introduce a new phoneme! We listened to the difference between /ə/ and /ɜː/ and elicited a few words that contained the latter sound before drilling perfume again and carrying on with the lesson.

Emerging learning #2: Vocabulary

Do you board new vocabulary during your lessons? Whether that’s target language of just random vocabulary​ that comes up in the lesson?

I’ve done this at times, particularly when I was teaching Academic English. Even more so when I was in one of the classrooms with a 4m long whiteboard (I think it was longer but let’s be conservative in our estimate). 

Not the best photo but you get some idea of the size of the board. I miss these boards.

If I’m perfectly honest, it never quite made it to habit status. And since moving to a centre with IWBs and precious little non-interactive whiteboard space, I’ve not been doing it of late.

However, I’m turning over a new leaf and trying to remember to do this with my Intermediate classes. To take it a step further I’m going to try my best to leave a little time at the end of my lessons for a recap. (For some reason though I started doing this with adults last summer, I never integrated it into YL classes. What an oversight!

Emerging learning #3: use of they

The final instance where the lesson plan was paused was when the students kept on calling the writer ‘he’. It was irritating on a personal level, and then I started to wonder why the students were using that pronoun and were they even aware of it. 

Trying to be as impartial as I could, I asked students if they knew the writer was male. To my surprise, they not only checked the page we were on, but decided to look for the gender of the course book authors. Even then, one student pointed out they might not have written it. 

From there I was able to introduce the idea of they as a neutral singular pronoun. I think this is fairly standard, while it may not be universal (yet), and is what I use, and have used in class, probably without students being aware.  I also added a personal anecdote that some of my IH CAM materials have used “she” to refer to the teacher, which I personally find more unnatural than they

The students seemed to follow the logic but found it a bit strange to try and use it. And try they did, but he kept slipping out. Perhaps this is also in part because their native language is gendered (ie. all nouns have genders). But English isn’t, and the language is becoming more and more neutral, even in the US

While my students may continue to use he (or she) in these situations, at least they’re more aware. And I’m still going to call them out on it.

I’m pleased with how the learning in this lesson went, and I walked away with a great feeling. However I’m aware that it’s a work in progress and this was just one lesson. With time and effort I’ll get better at recognising and seizing these opportunities and hopefully get this feeling more often.

At the same time I’m aware that the things that come up might sometimes be better noted down and worked on in a subsequent lesson. I do have some very chatty classes that could easily end up going off on a tangent which hijacks the lesson. 

Over to you: Do you address these things as they come up? Do you make a note of them and come back to them in another lesson? Alternatively, what went really well in one of your lessons last week? Share a success!

From lesson frameworks to developing as a teacher – IH CAM Modules 1-6

I’ve now completed about one third of the IH Certificate in Advanced Methodology (CAM) Online. This article looks at how it’s going so far and what I’ve been learning in the first six modules of the course. A future article will look at how it’s matching up to my expectations.

Course overview

Week One was an introduction and included the pre-reading for Module 2. Everything felt OK in this week. The calm before the storm in some ways…

Learning points from this module

  • I don’t do as much drilling as I should.
  • I take notes while monitoring less often than I used to.

Lesson Frameworks

Week Two was very busy. Two of the tasks were fairly quick to complete, but the other two were much lengthier. Task 2 was to upload a lesson plan with answers to four questions about the approach and Task 3 was to prepare a group lesson plan with 2-3 other course participants. Considering we are in different countries, nevermind have different ideas, this was no small feat.

Learning points from this module

  • I’ve started doing more guided discoveries (with structured questions on the IWB).
  • When using a teacher-led approach such as situational presentations, increase student-talk-time by involving them in the process – eg. keep recapping. I don’t use these approaches very often, but it’s still something good to keep in mind.

Receptive Skills

Both Listening and Reading are looked at in more detail later in the course, but this was an interesting starting point. In particular, considering top-down verses bottom-up approaches to texts and the development of sub-skills.

In (I think) 2015 I attended a very interesting couple of talks at TESOL Talks Vietnam where the presenters from RMIT put the case that we often test listening in class rather than teaching it. Listening exercises in the course book usually have a right and wrong answer. You either hear it or you don’t. Perhaps students check with a partner before listening again. Perhaps the teacher later shows the transcript, students find the answer (ie. they read it) and move on. Testing. Actually teaching listening involves sub-skill development, but that’s a topic for another day!

Learning points from this module

  • I want to learn more about how to diagnose what kind of Listening and Reading problems Ss are having. (So that I can choose suitable sub-skills to work on.)

Production Skills

Part of this module was focused on accuracy and fluencyI didn’t really keep good notes on what I learnt this week, but it did raise some food for thought.

  • It would be interesting to go through one of my lesson plans and see which stages are accuracy-focused and which are fluency-focused. (This was due to a realisation that lead-ins are often fluency focused.)
  • A lot of the accuracy work I do is written (eg. on mini whiteboards), not spoken.
  • Fluency activities are possibly an area where vocabulary can be exploited.
  • Remember to include “useful language” on the board as scaffolding in low-level classes in particular. (I hadn’t noticed I’ve almost stopped doing this.)


Additionally, here’s something I shared on the forum. We were discussing writing tasks as set out in course books, and the fact they’re often out-dated (eg. teens having to write a letter to a guy addicted to football).

The following is tweaked slightly to make sense out of context.

I think this module, and IATEFL YLT webinars I attended over the weekend, have helped me to focus on considering “What is the purpose of the writing task”? This has a bearing on how you teach it. If it’s focused on developing writing skills, writing ought to be done (most of the time). If the activity is language-focused (eg. using conditionals to give advice) or content-focused (eg. presenting a for-against argument), it can be good to try differentiation and offer students a choice on how they complete the task.

Does it really matter if they give advice to the football-addicted guy by speaking (eg. recording themselves giving advice) or by writing a letter, as presented in the course book? Perhaps at other times, like working on a for-against essay, the focus is providing arguments so a poster presentation outlining both sides is equally valid. And so on.

Advanced Lesson Planning

This was a light week input-wise. The Portfolio on the other hand was massively useful. My colleague and I worked on this together and developed an activity on inferring meaning from the text (reading sub-skills development).  

The Developing Teacher

Obviously we’re all taking the course to develop. This unit contained some useful self-reflection and some hows of doing that. We also looked at the varying roles of the teacher and it was interesting to realise that we can switch frequently – even within a stage.

Learning points and questions from this module

  • Some practical points on post-lesson reflection from both teachers’ and learners’ point of view. Realising I take less notes while monitoring (see Week 1) because I’m often playing the role of a Resource or Prompter instead of a Monitor.
  • Remembering that last summer I started getting my adult students to reflect at the end of the lesson, but oddly I’ve never done this with my YLs!
  • My classes are very student-centred, but is that the same as not being teacher-led?
  • I’m sure some students (and I) are aware of their progress, but how is this quantified?

That was useful for me to write out. I hope it’s useful for someone considering doing the IH CAM Online and who’s curious as to what it entails and what kind of things you’ll learn.

Over to you: What have you learnt or realised recently? What questions are you mulling over at the moment?

IH CAM online – my thoughts before starting

In February I started the IH CAM online. What is this course and why am I taking it? Read on to find out.


Since I started teaching in 2011, I’ve learnt tonnes by attending workshops and seminars but I’m at a point where I want to take my teaching to the next level.

I’ve read that the best thing to do to prepare yourself for a TEFL Diploma is to read as much as you can before you start. I have tried dipping into methodology books but I don’t really last very long without something practical to tie it to.

On the other hand, when I was tasked with teaching “Skills” to elementary level learners in July 2016, I read up on and experimented with pronunciation practices I hadn’t tried before. I wrote a teaching journal for the first time as I tried things out.

By having an actual purpose to read, my background work becomes useful and effective. (Note to self: remember this when planning reading tasks for my students!)

I am hoping the International House Certificate in Advanced Methodology (herein referred to as IH CAM) will help with this: a chance to get stuck into theory – but with relevant practical work by tying it into the classes I currently teach.

Concern #1 – Lack of information

The official website is rather brief.

Through email correspondence I’ve been able to establish that it isn’t restricted to adult classes – YL ones can be used for the experimentation that’s part of the course. Good news!

Otherwise what I’ve been able to find is an old announcement from years ago which gives some information about the course content and one blogger’s account of a face-to-face course which does imply it’s rather useful when applied to the classroom.

Beyond that, I’m not sure what to expect.

Concern #2 – Online learning

I’ve done a few MOOCs (both related to teaching and not at all) and have found 4-6 weeks to be a suitable length. Even then, there have been weeks where I’ve had the time to get ahead and weeks where I have not been able to spend any time on the course.

The IH CAM is much longer than any other online learning I’ve done. In addition I have a jam-packed term ahead and this makes me very nervous.

While I work a lot, I also fill up my non-work time with a lot of things that help keep me balanced – hiking, language learning, dancing or simply hanging out with friends. A few weeks into term I usually end up dropping one (or more) of those things. With the extra workload of the IH CAM I’m a bit worried how this is going to affect my personal life and the ever unbalanced work-life balance.

On the positive side of things…

A colleague is doing the same course at the same time. This definitely influenced my decision. She also shares some of the same reservations about online learning and we’re excited to be able to discuss what we learn as we go through the course and to keep each other accountable and motivated.

The learning! As I said in the beginning, I’m not sure what expectations I have, so if it gets me reading and experimenting pre-Delta then I’m all for it!

Let’s see how it goes.

Over to you: Have you done an online course? How did you fit it into your schedule?