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How to deliver a killer presentation

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The dust has finally settled after a very busy week of conferencing.  In the week that followed IATEFL, I had the opportunity to reflect on the content of some of the really useful talks I attended, (some of which have provided inspiration for future blog posts) and on the challenges that the presenters faced and overcame.  Presenting at IATEFL is a nerve-wracking experience.  It’s not just the potential for the technology to go wrong or for a well-informed member of the audience to ask you a difficult question, there’s also the challenge of compressing a great deal of detailed information into a short period of time and conveying it in an interesting, clear and innovative way. You’d think that talking for fifteen minutes would be easy – a far less intimidating prospect than giving an hour long presentation, as I’ve done several times in the past.  But actually, I found it more challenging.  For one thing, summarizing the action research ‘journey’ and reporting key findings in a quarter of an hour is tricky.  You want to give a sense of depth to your research, even if you are only skimming the surface in your talk.  For example, I wanted to talk about the impact of graded extensive reading on language acquisition.  It was tempting to talk about Krashen’s comprehensible input theory, but there wasn’t time and arguably, it wouldn’t have made the explanations of my research findings any clearer.  Another challenge is that a short talk forces you to be succinct.  This is all very well in writing (even though I naturally have a tendency to use two words when one would do) but in speaking, particularly when one is trying to remember what the next point is, or is trying to calm one’s nerves, a certain amount of fillers and paraphrasing creeps in. Luckily, a well-read colleague pointed me towards a piece in the Harvard Business Review written by Chris Anderson, curator of TED, that helped enormously.  The key takeaways from the article are listed below. 1 Frame your talk as a journey ‘We all know that humans are wired to listen to stories, and metaphors abound for the narrative structures that work best to engage people. When I think about compelling presentations, I think about taking an audience on a journey. A successful talk is a little miracle—people see the world differently afterward.’ 2 But don’t spend too much time going into detail at the start “The most engaging speakers do a superb job of very quickly introducing the topic, explaining why they care so deeply about it, and convincing the audience members that they should, too.” 3 Don’t try to cover too much ground 4 Don’t over-explain or painstakingly draw out all of the implications of the talk.  Remember that the people in the audience are intelligent and can draw their own conclusions. 5 Tell a ‘detective story’ that has an ‘aha’ moment. 6 Don’t read the talk directly off a script or a teleprompter: it’s too distancing 7 Memorize your talk, but only if you have sufficient time to do so.  Many of the best talks have been memorized word for word, but it’s dangerous to underestimate the amount of time and energy required to do this.  There’s a predictable learning curve, starting with the ‘valley of awkwardness’:  that point when you haven’t quite memorized the talk.  If you give the talk when stuck in the valley, your words will sound recited.  This creates a distance between the presenter and the audience. 8 No time to memorize the talk sufficiently?  Go with bulleted points on...

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Action Research update: some conclusions

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This week, I’m delighted to have had the opportunity to present some findings of my Action Research project on Extensive Reading  at IATEFL.  I’ve uploaded my presentation ‘slides’ and the transcript here in case a) attendees want to take a second look OR b) you couldn’t make the presentation.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.   Prezi presentation transcript shortest, edited...

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Discovering hidden depths in digital collaboration

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In the last week, I’ve been lucky enough to attend the MaWSIG conference with the theme of New Ways of Working and a webinar delivered by Nick Robinson of ELTjam about LX Design.  At MaWSIG, Antonia Clare talked about the potential threat that working in a digital space posed to the development of good relationships, and the negative affect that this might have on collaboration.  Nick also spoke about collaboration, identifying a need for interaction for learning to be facilitated.    Ten years ago, when I was working in-house as a publisher at Pearson, it was commonplace to hold two-day-long author and editor meetings in the London offices to go through each draft of the manuscript, and then to work through the early proof stages.  I remember these meetings as being fruitful, but also exhausting.  Not only did everyone involved have to come up with solutions to content issues on the spot, but they also had to employ negotiation skills which hopefully persuaded other parties to ‘buy in’ to their suggestions.  Then there was another layer of difficulty introduced by the need to read my colleagues’ body language, pay attention to their tone of voice and to decide how to react.  As any editor or author who has attended this sort of meeting will attest, the stamina needed to process all of the information at these meetings and to ensure that one’s language and behaviour remains calm and measured for eight hours is considerable. Fast-forward a decade to freelance life and I now very rarely need to attend such meetings; most of the ‘discussions’ I have about content change is done via email, track changes in word and sometimes on Skype.  This has many benefits; I have the luxury of time to mull over a content issue and to come back to it if I’m stuck.  I can also avoid wasting time travelling to and from meetings.  However, virtual collaboration comes with its own set of challenges.  There have been a couple of memorable occasions when I’ve been forced to question whether working purely in a digital space  really allows for the sort of understanding and trust required for real collaboration to take place. For instance, recently an author I had worked with expressed relief that we had worked well together and produced material he was happy with despite the fact that our working relationship had taken place entirely online and in writing.  Up until then, I hadn’t really questioned our way of working –it was just our modus operandi – but his comment made me wonder whether he might have preferred more real discussion. These small, but significant exchanges came to the forefront of my mind last weekend, while I listened to Antonia Clare speaking about ‘Working in a digital space’ at the excellent MaWSIG conference. Working in a digital space Antonia quoted from an article from the Harvard Business Review entitled The Subtle Ways Our Screens are Pushing us Apart in order to explain that working in a digital space can drive a wedge between would-be collaborators.  Digital working threatens to create ‘Affinity distance’- it only allows for a shallow understanding of our co-workers; their emotional depths are hidden from us: ‘Today’s keyboard-tapping workers have very little context around who their counterparts are, how they feel about things, or what they hope for — in other words, what motivates them.’ This, in turn, creates a culture in which data is merely passed back and forth in order to create ‘a non-descript deliverable that can be as forgettable as the interactions themselves’.  Not only this, but a lack of...

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Three trends at BETT

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My first impressions of BETT? 1) It’s huge.  Given the fact that it’s billed as the ‘world’s largest education technology event’, this should not have come as a surprise, but the sheer number of new educational technology products and startup companies present was astounding.  2) Unlike ELT-specific conferences such as IATEFL, there’s very little actual product on display.  It’s all on the cloud or on a device.  So, I actually had to talk to lots of people, which meant that it took me an entire four hours to travel down one aisle.  The below, then, should perhaps be viewed as a sample of the trends I observed at the conference, rather than a representation of the big picture of BETT. User generated content and interactivity Promethean It was difficult to ignore this stand–banners advertising Promethean stretched all along the arrival corridor.  The product itself seemed to live up to all the hype, however.  Most teachers will be familiar with Promethean interactive whiteboards, but Promethean is now offering Classflow: cloud-based software which allows the teacher to interact with her students via their hand-held device.  For example, the teacher can send a multiple choice question out to students to check their opinion of something, their comprehension of a listening task or a piece of vocabulary.  She can then view the response on a whiteboard, either in the form of a graph or broken down by student.  There’s also scope for the teacher to set a test for students and for granular results to be sent back to the teacher.  The whole thing looked very slick when demonstrated and I can see how it would be advantageous for large classes in particular.  It even links up with Google Drive so that you can upload your students’ work.  One major advantage of the product is that it’s FREE to use … for now.   One disadvantage?  This depends on your perspective.  The interactive exercises are provided by Promethean, but the content is entirely generated by teachers, for other teachers.  For now, at least, there doesn’t seem to be quality control of content in the form of an editor, or an expert author.  It seems that Promethean are trying to cut out the middle-man, or the publisher.  Teachers can make their own decisions whether to use others’ content. MUV Interactive Bird The basic premise of this product is that it makes any content interactive.  The product is a small ‘bird’-like device that sits on a teacher’s or student’s finger and brings to life print and digital products so that they can be projected onto any surface and manipulated.  I can imagine it having a real ‘wow’ factor in the classroom but whether schools would see it being useful enough to justify the cost is another matter. Assessment and granular feedback BKSB Winner of the BETT 2016 award for ICT company of the year, BKSB offers a complete testing package for schools.  Their products include Diagnostic adaptive assessments that identify gaps in students’ knowledge, learning resources that help to fill the aforementioned gaps and exam practice.  Interestingly for ELT specialists, they also provide IELTS tests. There were countless other stands with products devoted to providing adaptive, individualised tests for students.  Most also offered teacher-friendly ways of collating and analysing the granular feedback from tests.  I can see why this sort of product would sell well into secondary schools, where there is continuous formal monitoring of students’ progress.  I plan to investigate whether it provides a sufficient level of detailed feedback in order to work as a formative assessment tool. Accelerated Reader Those of you who have...

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Keepin’ it real: what can we do about language change?

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As an editor and writer of English language materials, I’d like to think that I never make grammar or spelling mistakes.  However, the other day, a colleague of mine kindly pointed out an error in one of my blog posts.  I had unwittingly erred by writing ‘with regards to‘.  She went on to explain that we either said ‘with regard to‘ or ‘as regards + noun’.  Indeed, the Macmillan Dictionary, Cambridge Dictionary Online and Oxford English Dictionary corroborated her explanation.  The result? I resolved to correct my blog posts.   However, this piece of well-meant feedback did raise a question in my mind.  Am I alone in making this mistake?  It seems not. There are 56 examples of ‘with regards to’ occurring in spoken and written English cited by the British National Corpus and a quick search of Google yielded 278,000 hits on Google News and over 600,000 on Google Books.  The incidence of the correct form is far higher, but I wonder whether this will be the case in a few years’ time.  How often does a non-standard form of English have to be used in order to find its way into dictionaries and grammar guides? Linguistic traditionalists would like to think that grammar rules are immutable, but as Jennifer Jenkins observes,’Language is of its nature unstable. It is essentially protean in nature, adapting its shape to suit changing circumstances’1. It follows that descriptive grammars of English have to change with it.  As widely-recognised authorities on the English language become more and more willing to include non-standard English variations, it is perhaps inevitable that the division between what is judged to be standard English and what is not becomes indistinct.  Here’s an example of this blurring in action – Scott Thornbury describes the acceptability of the form ‘comprised of‘ in the passive voice. [pullquote] ‘Language is of its nature unstable. It is essentially protean in nature, adapting its shape to suit changing circumstances'[/pullquote] What do teachers and learners of English do with this information?  Can IELTS students around the world safely start to use ‘comprised of‘ in their Task 1 graph descriptions?  There is a danger in their doing so, perhaps.  Published grammar guides warn against using non-standard English forms in exams.  For example, English Grammar Today points out that both didn’t use to and didn’t used to are common, but we shouldn’t use the latter spelling in exams.  As far as exams go, at least, it is better to play on the safe side. This leads me to draw the conclusion that our choices about the language we use needs to be determined, at least in part, by the expectations of our audience and the context in which we are operating.  If I apply this to my EAL learners, the majority of whom want to study alongside native English speakers at prestigious universities in the UK, I could presume that I would be doing them a disservice by allowing them to use non-standard English forms, however pervasive these forms might have become. The importance of context has implications for coursebooks as well.  As coursebooks have to cater for learners who want to use English for a wide range of purposes (one of which is likely to be speaking to other non-native speakers) should they continue to teach standard forms only, or should they be including descriptions of commonly  used non-standard forms?  ELF proponents would, I think, argue for the inclusion of non-standard forms.  However, would this be helpful for a pre-intermediate student, for instance, who is trying to get their head around the basics of the English grammatical system? Should, then, information on non-standard forms just be reserved for...

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How to bring life to IELTS materials

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The IELTS exam is a bit of a paradox.  It deals with real life topics, so you’d expect it to be thought-provoking and current.  Yet materials that we use to teach IELTS can feel inauthentic and dull. The reasons behind this are clear to editors and writers of exam materials: Texts need to be ‘future-proof’ i.e. not feel out of date for the duration of the product’s shelf life. (This is a particularly relevant concern for IELTS materials that are primarily delivered in the form of a print book. New editions of digital books are easier to release – more about this below.) Authentic materials are expensive – the cost of buying the rights to use a Guardian newspaper article or a video of a speech from a Climate Change summit, for example, are generally very high. Real life texts can be too long, or too difficult, or too contentious, or too UK-centric for inclusion in published materials. Because of these constraints, it’s easier for teachers to bring the outside world into the IELTS classroom than it is for publishers to do so, though, as you’ll see from the below, I think there are possible solutions for publishers too. 3 ways teachers can bring IELTS to life 1 Use video TED.com has long been the IELTS teacher’s friend, but for those who are looking for an alternative, and who don’t want to spend hours trawling through YouTube for suitable content,  Russell Stannard’s recent teacher training video newsletter is a must watch.  It introduces five websites that have curated and presented CLIL video content – teachers just have to click on the relevant subject.  Ways that I’ve used video in my IELTS classes: Prediction – I’ve taken a still from a video documentary, edited it (using Snag It) so that only outlines of shapes are visible and asked students to guess what the video is about.  Here’s one I made earlier from a video on flooding in the UK. Planning and structuring – I’ve used a problem/solution presentation about traffic congestion.  Students listen to the video and complete a T-chart.  Here’s an example: Using quotes– I’ve given students half of a famous quote and asked them to listen to video extracts in order to complete them.  They can then use the quotes in their essays. 2 Re-order the coursebook Students can sometimes be reluctant to keep in touch with world events, so it’s necessary for the teacher to bring these to their attention.  When a piece of news dominates the media, it makes sense to choose a relevant IELTS unit to teach, and to bring articles into class.  This works even better if each student reads an article from a different perspective – it promotes lively discussion. 3 Flip the classroom As I’ve written in another blog post, learning the technical aspects of writing can be a dull (but necessary) task.  I’ve made Prezi videos that teach cohesion techniques, grammatical structures and academic vocabulary.  Students watch these for homework, complete follow-up exercises and come to the class primed to use these in their writing and speaking.  For those who haven’t done the homework, it’s possible to make time in class for them to catch up quickly. 3 Ways that publishers could bring IELTS to life 1 Use the flipped learning approach As above, this would allow a lot of the technical and Academic writing input to happen outside class – Collins’ Get Ready for IELTS, available in January, appears to offer just this. 2 Create a flexible course with granular content Wouldn’t it be great if teachers could select sections...

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