Guest writer for IATEFL YLT SIG blog

I am delighted to be the guest writer for the IATEFL Young Learners and Teenagers blog this month. I’ve written about materials development, and have tried to come up with a helpful checklist of things to consider when writing resources for early years and primary-aged students. You can read the post here. Comments welcome! It’s certainly not a definitive guide so I’m sure you’ll have plenty of other suggestions to add to the list.


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Photo credit: Pixabay





Graphic organisers – what’s the big deal?

You’ve probably heard a lot of buzz around graphic organisers. They’re often used in mainstream education, and this is having an influence on ELT and CLIL methodology. This post sets about answering two questions: why they are important, and how you can use them to best effect.

What is a graphic organiser, exactly?

Before we go further, I should clarify what we mean by a graphic organiser. Venn diagrams, matrices, tables, charts, bar charts, pie charts, time lines… these are all good examples. They’re also sometimes known as key visuals. A graphic organiser is a tool that uses visual symbols to express knowledge, concepts, or ideas, and the relationships between them. Why is this important? It allows us to grasp ideas very quickly, as the pictorial form serves as a kind of short-cut to meaning-making.

Sometimes this is used to great comic effect. You have to love this deceptively simple Venn diagram by Elise Towle Snow, for example.

NARWHAL UNICORN by Elise Towle Snow
Reproduced with permission from the artist Elise Towle Snow at ArgyleWhale
Another artist, Chaz Hutton, has gained a huge Instagram following through his ability to exploit the humorous potential of a concise bar chart, flow chart or Venn diagram to express some of life’s complex existential dilemmas. You can see a

selection here.

Why should I use graphic organisers for teaching English?

Put really simply, graphic organisers help us cut out the background noise, and get directly to the main points.

I was first introduced to the importance of graphic organisers while studying for a postgraduate qualification in CLIL. There’s no doubt that in CLIL teaching, the potential to overload students with new content and new language at the same time is pretty huge. Graphic organisers help us manage the amount of processing required for the students, and enable us to keep it at manageable levels. But graphic organisers aren’t only useful in CLIL contexts – they’re a useful component of any teacher’s toolbox.

Imagine writing a text describing the life cycle of a frog to an A1-level primary student. Think about the language control issues you’d encounter. How many sentences would you need, as a minimum? What structures would you need? What unfamiliar vocabulary (frogsporn, tadpole, lay, grow …)? Can you do it without using phrasal verbs like turn into? How can you convey a sense of progression and the passing of time if students don’t already know vocabulary like first, then and next? What would you need to do to support their comprehension of the text?

Tricky, right?

Now imagine showing the same learners a labelled flow chart: a picture of some frogsporn with an arrow pointing to a tadpole, and from there another arrow pointing to a frog.

It’s fairly obvious which of these scenarios is going to result in something that’s easier for students to understand.

Graphic organisers can be really empowering for students.

  • They present information visually, in a way students comprehend at a glance.
  • They can be used to by-pass difficult vocabulary and structures.
  • They can make complex concepts accessible.
  • They allow us to keep the cognitive challenge of a task high while controlling the language.
  • They give structure to critical thinking.
  • They can scaffold speaking and writing production.
How should I use graphic organisers?

There are two main ways you can use a graphic organiser:

1. As a way of analysing a text or checking comprehension

Learners read or listen to a text, then complete an organiser with the information they’ve understood.

2. As a prompt for production

Learners look at information in a graphic organiser, either text or artwork, which then forms the basis of a speaking or writing task.

How can I choose the right graphic organiser?

It’s important to select the right kind of graphic organiser for the kind of information you want to explore. Different information requires different types of graphic organiser. Imagine you are reading a story text with young learners. You might consider doing all of the following tasks. How could you present the answers generated in visual form?

  • A brainstorming task about the topic before students read the text
  • An activity analysing the personality traits of two characters. How are they the same? How are they different?
  • An activity requiring students to sequence a chain of events from the story.

Mind maps are a great tool for brainstorming, activating prior knowledge or revising content knowledge. KWL charts (What I know, What I want to know, What I learnt) are also particularly useful when starting a new topic as a way to activate prior knowledge, engaging students with the topic and require them to think about their learning process. For any comparing and contrasting task, consider using Venn diagrams or Caroll diagrams. Flow charts and timelines are useful for sequencing tasks. Remember that before students can write, these visuals can still be used – young learners can draw pictures to complete Venn diagrams and flow charts, for example.

There are tonnes of examples of graphic organisers if you search online. Here are some other quite simple ones which you might find useful.

  • The ‘diamond 9’ formation, where students have to organise cards into a diamond with the most important at the top. You or your students can write the cards here. It’s great for ranking tasks.
  • A fishbone diagram, which can be used for identifying cause and effect
  • Story maps (which come with various degrees of complexity) help students summarise a text, either in writing or with pictures.

Which graphic organisers do you use with young learners (and beyond)? I’d love to hear your ideas and favourite activities in the comments.

What is Assessment for Learning? A look at how we can use AFL in ELT

Already widely employed in the mainstream, Assessment for Learning, or AFL for short, is gradually gaining importance in ELT. We’re starting to see references to it in some primary and pre-school courses (such as Pearson’s Big Fun) and it’s begun to feature on conference programmes, too, with Sarah Priestley giving a great introduction to this topic on this as part of the IATEFL Young Learners SIG pre-conference online event in February, for example. This post will cover the basics of AFL and give ideas for how to get started, and what the benefits could be.

What does it mean? How is AFL different from self-assessment?

‘Assessment for Learning’ means encouraging learners to think actively about their learning, review their progress, and create a feedback loop which then informs the teacher’s priorities for future lessons. It’s linked to the concept of ‘formative assessment’ – the feedback both helps teachers monitor student progress and allows them to adapt their teaching to student needs, for example by identifying what has and hasn’t gone well, and then planning additional activities to plug any gaps in students’ knowledge, perhaps using a different approach. Through this process, learners themselves should become more confident in knowing what they are supposed to learn and to what standard.

In a nutshell …

  • AFL happens regularly, not just at the end of the school year or school term, like traditional forms of assessment.
  • Students are more involved in the process of learning, and begin to ‘think like teachers’.
  • Learning is made VISIBLE.
  • As well as considering how well they did, learners identify what they need to do next.
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Source: Pixabay. Reproduced under Creative Commons license.

Why do it?

At the recent ‘Future of ELT’ conference run by Regent’s College and Trinity College London, Gail Ellis from the British Council delivered an excellent plenary about the role of metacognition in helping children become more effective learners. She argued that we frequently underestimate young learners’ ability to self-assess. By giving them more credit for their metacognitive abilities, and allowing them to become commentators on their learning experiences, we respect their rights to show their preferences, give them increased autonomy and often boost their motivation along the way.

There are also some important implications for attainment. Research published by Paul Black and Dylan William shows that formative assessment has a strong positive effect on achievement (Inside The Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment, School of Education, King’s College, London, 1998).

So how can we do it?

Gail Ellis argued that reviewing, which can be carried out in L1, should be based around five reflection questions:

  • What did you do?
  • What did you learn?
  • How did you learn?
  • How well did you do?
  • What do you need to do next?

Her plenary also promoted the value of incorporating a range of multi-modal reviewing techniques, including:

  • Students drawing pictures to show what they learnt
  • Filming students during an activity and asking them to talk about what they were doing
  • Photographing students and asking them to comment on the process they followed for an activity
  • Constructing models to show understanding
  • Movement activities, such as miming a favourite story
  • Using a puppet to ask reflection questions
  • Using visual prompts as opportunities for reflection on previous work

Top tips for implementing AFL

Share success criteria with students so that they know at the beginning of the task what they are going to be assessed on. Give students a list of the things you will be looking for, or build them into the task design, and refer back to them in assessments. Examples of success criteria for a writing task could be: Include a heading, include three adjectives, include a picture, have a beginning, middle and end.

With clear success criteria in place, students can also give each other more meaningful peer feedback.

Give specific and useful feedback not just grades. In Sarah Priestley’s talk she suggests structuring feedback as two stars (two good things) and a wish (something she’d like to see next time).

Scaffold output by providing sentence starters or gapped sentences so the focus is on meaningful self-assessment, not on struggling to produce the language to talk about it. This can also be achieved by having learners answer yes/no to a series of statements about a task (eg I used paragraphs or I predicted what the story was about from the title). With lower levels, we can use of visuals like traffic lights, and happy or sad faces for students to colour according to how confident they feel about their learning.


Further reading

Sarah Priestley has very kindly made her IATEFL YL SIG talk slides available, and with her permission I’m reproducing them here: SPriestley AfL iatefl ylsig Feb2017

For more detail and a list of titles for further reading, I also recommend the British Council’s page on AFL here. Cambridge International Examinations have a useful guide here, too.


Over to you

Are there tips you’d like to share with other readers about effective Assessment for Learning? Perhaps you’ve seen the benefits of involving learners as active participants in assessment? Is AFL something you’re already familiar with or considering trying for the first time? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

How can I use Twitter to learn about what’s going on in ELT? A brief beginners’ guide for teachers, editors and publishers

Firstly, a confession… When I was working as a teacher and then in-house for a publisher, I was largely oblivious to the AMAZING information-sharing, networking and opportunities for research offered by the ELT community on Twitter and Facebook. I don’t mean the promotional stuff I knew about that, of course I mean the teachers who take it upon themselves to use social media to develop their own personal learning network (PLN), who share their ideas and best practice, and befriend strangers in order to talk about English language teaching in their free time. It was only when working freelance that I plunged into Twitter, and I’m now so completely converted that I’m going to use this blog to evangelise about everything I was missing out on before.

This post will give you some starting points which I hope you’ll find helpful if you’re new to Twitter or just weighing up its benefits.


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Source: Pixabay. Reproduced under Creative Commons license.

Getting started on Twitter

(Skip this bit if you’re already there!)

Knowing where to get started can feel quite overwhelming.  It can take time to build up a useful network (more on that later). But first, set up a profile here. Completing the “About You” section allows people interested in the same things to find you. Including a photo is important, too. (After all, who wants to have a chat with the default Twitter egg picture?) You can read more tips for getting started here. 

If you’re not convinced yet of the benefits of Twitter for teachers, the many quotes here might change your mind.

And if this post does end up inspiring you to join the ELT Twitter community for the first time, or to go from lurking to participating, then send me a tweet to say hi! (Lurking is fine, too, of course. You can learn lots from lurking.)

Twitter lists

Lists allow you to organise your twitter connections into groups. Doing this makes the bombardment of information and opinions more manageable, and has greatly improved the whole Twitter experience for me. You can create lists through your profile page. Lists can be public or private. You can take a look at my ELT lists here (and you are very welcome to plunder them for contacts, which might save you a bit of time-consuming legwork).

Twitter hashtags and participating in Twitter chats

Hashtags are just a way of tagging tweets so people can find them more easily. Chats are online get-togethers which use hashtags so others can see what’s being said. If you want to participate in a chat, just make sure you’re logged in at the scheduled time, and search for the hashtag. Don’t forget to include the hashtag in your own replies (so that people can see them). Chats usually revolve around a set topic, and involve discussion around pre-designated questions. Chats are often summarised afterwards so you can catch up if you miss them. Here are some that I’ve found useful (and I’m sure there are plenty more to explore).

#ELTchat is held every Wednesday  (though, as is the case with all of these, you can read the tweets anytime).

#eltchinwag is a bi-weekly Twitter chat on Mondays moderated and run by ELT Ireland.

If you’re into young learners, like me, then check out the new #EFLYLchat, which is already bursting with fun ideas. The chat is held on Tuesdays. Topics so far have included favourite games for young learners and favourite listening activities. IATEFL young learners SIG are also getting in on the act, with twitter chats starting in July at #iateflylt. Definitely worth watching out for.

One particularly useful function of hashtags is to bring together all the tweets from a conference, so whether you are participating as a delegate or having a quick nosy from the comfort of your sofa, you’ve a way of seeing what is being talked about. See #IATEFL17 and #TESOL17 for starters.

More general education hashtags which are useful to keep an eye on include: #edtech #edchat #ukedchat

For fun, you can also admire the boardwork on display at #ELTwhiteboard.

There are ideas worth stealing from other language teachers over at #mfltwitterati, too.

Freelance ELT editors can find useful info tagged #FreeELT.

Finally …

I’d love to hear about your recommendations for using social media for ELT professional development. Please do share any recommendations in the comments.

You can read lots more about free online training opportunities, including MOOCs, training courses, podcasts and webinars on my previous posts here and here.

You can read more from teachers about using Twitter to network and boost professional development here and here.

Happy tweeting!

My article for IH Journal on gender equality and young learners


Photo: My own


I’m delighted to feature in the 42nd edition of the IH Journal which you can read here. See me on page 62 talking about ideas for promoting gender equality with young learners (and why there’s no such thing as a ‘lady farmer’).

While you are there, check out Katy Simpson’s excellent article ‘Why we should all be (ELT) feminists’.