Comment on Scott Thornbury’s blog post ‘G is for Gist’

30 11 2011
mcneilmahon (02:57:04) :

Hi all,
Fascinating reading throughout and I find particular resonance in Wily, Simon and Rob’s posts.

The related question that I’ve been meaning to explore recently and haven’t got around to yet, which is part of Patrick’s question, is whether training our CELTA trainees or asking our own students ourselves to approach texts through gist and then detailed tasks (as I do everyday at the moment) is a valid way of teaching reading.

I have long advocated authentic tasks as being more important and relevant than ‘authentic’ texts, but would like to question further how authentic gist tasks are/can be and ditto detailed reading tasks. Shouldn’t we be encouraging our trainees and students to be approaching texts in the way we do in our L1s? And how practical is this within the confines of a course book driven syllabus or a pre-service training course.

Reading the first paragraph of a course book article to decide whether or not we want to read the whole thing would be an authentic gist task (but what do we do when the answer is no?). But reading an article and choosing which is the best title for it wouldn’t be.

The problem with authenticity seems to be the lack of text quantity and therefore choice in course books, which surely leads to the need for more student-selected texts – i.e. they do the gist reading before they come to class, through choosing texts they want to read as a class and deciding what to do with them. This just leaves the other students in the class with an authentic task to do to engage with that text once it’s been selected. But it also creates many problems for training courses such as CELTA. Can anyone help me with my conundrum?


Scott Thornbury (08:36:55) :

Hi Neil, don’t start me on coursebooks (!) but one reason why skimming and scanning tasks are so favoured may be that the texts in textbooks are NOT self-selected, and hence the only way to make them accessible and/or palatable is to treat them in a fairly superficial manner. And, after all, since many coursebook texts are superficial in terms of their content, the most logical approach to them might be that of the reader of the inflight magazine (to which coursebook texts bear an uncanny resemblance), i.e. the most cursory skim and flick.

As for your final question – maybe I’ll leave that one to the many pre-service trainers more experienced than I am who read this blog.

Ways of Varying Feedback

22 11 2011

Ways of Varying Feedback

This is a handout that I originally used as part of my Feedback Fiesta talks, which then got distilled into the fourteen ways of varying feedback which are in the new version of Feedback Fiesta for 2011:

1.T reads out passage and stops before answers for SS to give answer.
2.SS nominate each other to answer.
3.T reads text with answers, SS listen with books closed. SS then open books and check answers with P, asking T about ones can’t remember or not sure of.
4.T only checks answers to ‘difficult’ questions.
5.SS check answers in pairs and if have different answers ask T/SS check with answers on board.
6.T gives SS answers with the homework. Ss do homework, check it themselves and bring questions to class.
7.T gives each SS one correct answer and SS mill to check all.
8.T chooses SS to write answer on board.
9.T calls out Q numbers randomly and SS race to board to write correct answers.
10.T gives half answers to one half of class and half to other, SS swap answers across class in shouting dictation.
11.T gives answers to one SS who corrects homework and then passes on to next SS. If someone hasn’t seen answers by end of class they have to ask another SS for homework.
12.T nominates SS to play T and get feedback from rest of class in any way they like.
13.T emails answers to SS between classes for them to self correct. SS email T with Qs before next class.
14.SS have laminated A4 sheet on which to write answer. T calls out Q and each group holds up answer on sheet.
These all come in useful when giving feedback on language or receptive skills tasks.  Do you have any other variations you use that you can add to the list?

Very Professionally Developing

4 11 2011

Click here for slides IHBsAsProfessionallyDeveloping

I was asked to give a workshop today for the teachers at International House Recoleta and Belgrano based on the talk I did at the ABS Conference for Coordinators back in August.  Since I was confident they are already doing lots of the development ideas I addressed in the original talk, I wanted to attempt to make it a more personal and specific experience by adding in more interactive tasks and giving them summaries of the different tools on a plate, so to speak.

I enjoyed the journey they took me on and a lot of interesting ideas came out of it.  Hopefully some of them will go on to discover Suggestopedia in an experimental practice lesson or do some Action Research to improve their FCE learners listening skills.  Or at the very least they’ll come and comment on my blog.

Enjoy the slides and the handouts and I hope they help you to decide where to take your own Continuous Professional Develoment next.

Click here for the handouts  Professionally Developing

Professionally Developing

26 08 2011

Here are the slides from the workshop I’ve just given at the ABS Conference for Coordinators and Directors of Studies in Buenos Aires.  It’s an overview of different things teachers can do, or coordinators can encourage their teachers to do, in order to continue to develop either individually or as a school, incrementally or taking giant steps, face2face or online.

Enjoy the ideas and please share your favourite ways of continuing your professional development and let us know how you get on with putting some of these ideas into practice.

And a special thanks to all those who tweeted us from home and abroad during the session!

B2 / C1 Scrabble reading lesson – the history, the rules, the scoring

25 08 2011

C1 Reading lesson – The History of Scrabble

C1 Reading lesson – The Rules of Scrabble

C1 Reading lesson – The Scoring of Scrabble

After the Facebook episode I’ve been looking at different ways of using Facebook with my students and one suggestion from Rosie that I’ve taken on board in a big way is playing Scrabble with the students.  At the moment I’m in eight different games with different combinations of the class and it’s great to be able to add an example sentence of the words I use to help the students learn new vocab.  Even though most of them are losing to me badly (I just can’t help it, i’m not really trying to win, honest) they’re still super keen to play and are learning lots of idiomatic (and a few useless) words as they go.

To celebrate this new phenomenon I decided to do a Scrabble lesson with them, which also went down well.  For the History, we did a jigsaw reading, the rules they had to put in order and then compare with other groups and discuss the best order (there isn’t really a correct order) and for scoring they had to make up questions for the other teams to answer.  It ended up in lots of reading, some useful gaming vocab and even more enthusiasm to play Scrabble and increased their vocab.  Hope you have as much success using the materials with your classes!


C2 Lesson Plan – London Riots

10 08 2011

C2 Reading London Riots Independent article

Read this great article after a twitter recommendation from @harrisonmike and immediately thought it would make for a better lesson for my Prof Twos this evening than what Proficiency Gold had in store for them.

It’s a reading lesson, that leads into further reading, summary writing and then full-blown article writing.  It’s in first draft mode at the moment, will update it after the lesson and following on from your comments.

Just a worksheet for now, reflective lesson plan to follow tomorrow hopefully after the lesson.  I realise there’s no vocab focus in a lexically rich text, but I only taught this class twice so not got much of a grip on what they’ll know or not, so will let them lead me on that – opening that can of worms I always tell my Celtees to leave on the shelf.

Wish me luck with the lesson and I hope it’s helpful to some of you too.

Post Lesson Update

A stimulating lesson – the students hadn’t heard much about the riots and were surprised such things were happening in the land of five o’clock tea.  They have much more experience of this type of thing happening much closer to home.  

In the lesson we did Task 4 before Task 3 – when creating the worksheet I was thinking the paragraph exercise was more gisty than the detailed task, but before class I decided they needed to understand the text in detail to be able to do this task justice and that was borne out in the lesson.

They were surprisingly critical of the article and the paragraph summary led to the realisation that the author was narrowing down the argument to promote her charity (paragraph three got particular criticism – mentioning social media just to sound trendy and cool?).  Having said that, it was interesting to see the students tended to summarise the paragraphs rather than discuss what their purpose was.  This will definitely lead in to a writing lesson where they try and emulate the paragraph model.

My worries about the vocab challenge of the text ended up being unfounded, they didn’t have problems with it all.  There were a couple of phrases (e.g. insidious flourishing) they didn’t quite get but nothing that detracted from their understanding of the article.

Am looking forward to their summaries – getting into the mind of the mob mentality was the follow up article they chose.  What about your students? Which article did they chose?

C1 Lesson Plan – Reading: Facebook, more harm than good

9 08 2011

C1 Reading lesson – Facebook, more harm than good

I’m on a roll today – another tweet (can’t remember who from I’n afraid – if you know, let me know) tipped me off to this article on facebook so I’n gonna use it as a springboard to discuss how to use Facebook with my Advanced One class.

Another reading lesson with the detailed task focussing on the opinions put forward in the article and a follow up speaking that encourages critical thinking and has built in preparation time. 

Unlike the C2 reading on the London riots, this lesson does also have a vocab focus – will be interesting to see if it works – will let you know.  Looks like Scrabble will have to wait for homework.

Post-Lesson Update:

I was very pleased with how these materials went in the class.  The students are bright and demanding fifteen year old kids and thankfully they found the topic engaging.  Obviously they didn’t agree with the premise of Rosen’s study but they were able to come up with a long list of possible harm that Facebook can cause (although none of them seem to happen to any of them or their friends, of course) which meant the gist task was effective.  

The detailed task also worked well, since there were some disagreements about a few of the questions, so they really had to go back to the text and give evidence for their answers.  And then they were able to use the vocab phrases successfully on the whole, although they did need some cajoling to go back and try and use the context to think of a further example.  It was interesting to see that ‘feeds in to’ caused lots of problems, not least for me to think of other possible uses off the top of my head (I could only think of the Argentine President feeding in to the country’s love of football and using it to win her election campaign) – has anyone got any other suggestions.  

We didn’t have time for the discussion section, which was a shame, since that was the task I most wanted to see if it worked – next time round.  Homework was to use the vocab phrases in a connected paragraph and post them to the Facebook group page, oh, and start playing Scrabble on Facebook too.  

Would love to hear from anyone else who’s used the materials.  Sorry for the typos btw, will fix them when I get to work.  More lesson materials coming soon…

CEF Activity Packs: Can Doing Around The IH World

17 07 2011

This was an article I wrote for the IH Journal in 2009 to promote the CEF activity packs which I had edited the previous year for IHWO in my role as Academic Coordinator for DoS Support.  The CEF Activity Packs are available to IH teachers on the affiliate site of


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