Exploring the link between inclusion, engagement and empathy

This blog tackles what I sometimes think of as the elephant in the room in ELT publishing: the importance of considering diversity in materials development, and why we still have some way to go.

There’s a famous quotation by Whoopi Goldberg on the power of equal representation, and how children experience it:

“Well, when I was nine years old Star Trek came on… I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.”

She’s talking about seeing African-American actor Nichelle Nichols playing Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek in 1966, which was ground-breaking TV at the time.

More recently, and still on a space theme, 13-year-old Taylor Richardson started crowdfunding after she was inspired by the film ‘Hidden Figures’. The film recounts the story of three African-American NASA scientists, Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, whose work made it possible to send astronaut John Glenn into space in 1962.  With the $16,000 she raised, Taylor Richardson gave 100 more girls the opportunity to go to a screening and see the film for themselves.

You see how in both these examples, the initial story makes an impression on a child, who then goes on to make a bigger impact still on others? It’s a virtuous circle, expanding at every stage to reach more people. Let’s hold onto that thought when considering missed opportunities for inclusive content.


Source Pixabay hand-1137978_1280
Source: Pixabay


The question of ELT materials and representation

I’ve recently written a few pieces about diversity in ELT materials. Until now I’ve limited my discussions of representation to the issue of gender. Then I read this rather damning indictment in the Bookseller of the state of children’s literature in the UK . There was one quotation that particularly got to me: “It is still easier to buy a book with a dragon on the cover than it is to find one with a black child.” (Catherine Johnson, children’s author)

So those dragons must be feeling pretty empowered, right?

Many of the arguments about visibility are the same, whether it be a question of gender, race, class, orientation, culture, nationality or disability. Children won’t learn to identify and empathise with what they can’t see represented.  And it seems that at the moment, representing dragons is taking priority, in trade publishing at least.

Exam boards in the UK are regularly criticised for their focus on white male writers of the established literary canon. The debate rages over the relevance of these writers to teenagers at school today. But what about ELT materials, which, unlike the works of John Keats and Charles Dickens, are written with an international 21st century audience in mind, after all?

Skim through a typical ELT coursebook from one of the major publishers and you will undoubtedly find examples of children of a range of ethnicities. And yet …

… How often are the non-white characters the main characters, as opposed to the supporting roles with less to say?

… If you did a breakdown of all the ethnicities shown in a unit, what percentage would be white? How do you think that would that compare to a breakdown of the children using the course internationally?

… What about course book covers?

… How often are the non-white characters in stories, artwork or photos given names?

… When was the last time you saw a mixed race family in an ELT course book?

… How well would these materials stand up against accusations of tokenism?

It’s uncomfortable territory, isn’t it?

Why is it important to address this imbalance?

At Channel 4’s annual diversity lecture in March, British-Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed spoke about how a lack of diversity on British TV is alienating young people.

“Every time you see yourself in a magazine, on a billboard, on TV, Film, it’s a message that you matter… that you’re valued… If we fail to represent people in our mainstream narratives, they’ll switch off… Where are we telling these kids they can be heroes in our stories?”

He’s talking about preventing extremism, specifically, but the point about engagement is broadly true in many ELT contexts. A student who isn’t engaged isn’t learning. Which leads to the question: Who are the heroes in our stories?

We know that the stories we choose to tell make an impression on young learners. Stories can be a powerful vehicle to emphasise our common humanity. It’s a theme taken up by Maya Angelou in an interview she gave Angela Montefinise of the New York Public Library:

“Information helps you to see that you’re not alone. That there’s somebody in Mississippi and somebody in Tokyo who all have wept, who’ve all longed and lost, who’ve all been happy. So the library helps you to see, not only that you are not alone, but that you’re not really any different from everyone else. There may be details that are different, but a human being is a human being.”

B. J. Epstein, a Senior Lecturer in Literature and Public Engagement at the University of East Anglia, writes very convincingly on the way in which books serve as both a mirror and a window, reflecting our current experience and opening us up to new ideas. Like Angelou, she also talks about how experiencing ‘otherness’ through literature, or in our case through educational materials more generally, serves as a way of reducing prejudice and increasing empathy. You can read more here.

The role of the publisher

The Bookseller article above raises the question of risk. Putting non-white characters front and centre is seen as risky by trade publishers who, in an era of tightening purse strings, are less willing to publish and promote inclusive books, sticking instead to “tried and tested classics to stay afloat”.

So what about educational publishers? To what extent are they subject to the same pressures? Do financial concerns influence ELT course book developers at all when it comes to issues of inclusion?

The answer: Probably more than most would like to admit.

By way of example, I can think of a time when the inclusion of a photo of a black child in an international version of a course I was overseeing was hotly debated. An experienced freelance editor felt compelled to replace it on the basis that previous projects she’d worked on had received negative feedback in some markets because of similar content. The photo stayed, but the discussion it prompted was revealing.

Unfortunately, I think many editors would have anecdotes like this.

These projects are often collaborations with local publishers and/or education ministries, so the solution is not necessarily as clear-cut as simply saying that the international publisher should raise awareness among editors, have better checks in place, or put their foot down with co-publishers.

Do publishers have a responsibility to lead the way to more inclusion? I think most of us would say yes, absolutely, but in a highly competitive sales environment, publishers fear anything which might lose them adoptions of a course. And – crucially – a course that doesn’t sell, or loses out on a tender to a more conservative rival, isn’t going to change attitudes, is it? How do we tackle this conundrum? Unsuccessful products are probably not the answer.

So, what would make a difference? More choice in stock photo libraries (and more budget allocated to finding the right stock photos). Pressure from authors. Internal pressure from editors. Editorial training. Solidarity between publishers, pledging to work together to stamp out some of the racism that still runs rampant in parts of the global ELT industry. And above all: pressure from teachers and parents, and the clear expectation that diversity in materials is the norm, in all markets, for all students.

Too much to ask? I’d like to think not.

Ending on a positive …

I’ve heard – second hand – about an encouraging example where a publisher has taken a stand. The team in question resisted pressure from sales colleagues who felt (to their embarrassment) that a Student’s Book cover design which prominently featured a black boy’s face would deter schools from adopting the course in their fairly conservative, predominantly white markets. (It’s shocking, isn’t it, that this was even discussion point? I fear that even a decade later, though, we could be having exactly the same conversation). I’d be curious to know how sales were affected by this decision. More important, of course, is what we’ll never know: the ways in which the many students who saw that cover were influenced by its inclusion.

Materials need to inspire children regardless of background and skin colour. They need to show all students that their lived experience is recognised, and that difference is not to be feared. As Farrah Serroukh, learning programme leader at the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education is quoted as saying in the Bookseller article: “It’s not about diversifying; it’s about normalising all realities.”



Changes to the Cambridge YLE tests: Starters, Movers and Flyers

From January 2018, the Cambridge YLE tests are changing. If you are a young learners’ teacher preparing children for these tests, you need to be aware of the differences.

These include:

  • Changes to the word lists
  • Changes to some of the task types, and tweaks to others
  • Changes in the way papers are assessed and results are reported, to be more precise and more closely aligned with the CEFR and main suite exams (Key, Preliminary etc)

You can watch a webinar from Cambridge English outlining the changes in detail and the rationale behind them. You can download the new handbook here, and new sample papers are available on the YLE website too. They have also provided a useful ‘at a glance’ summary of changes by paper.

For my own part, I’ve been involved in co-authoring Teacher’s Books accompanying the lovely Cambridge Storyfun series, now launching its second edition, which is brimming with new stories and activities, and is fully revised to reflect the 2018 changes to Starters, Movers and Flyers. It provides loads of useful practice and tips for these tests. You can find sample material and extra info at the World of Fun site.

What kind of changes have been made to the YLE tests?

In response to feedback from market research, changes have been made in order to keep these tests relevant to the evolving needs of learners in the 21st century. There’s also the need to keep in line with developments in pedagogy more widely. Changes to word lists have used corpus data to reflect what going on in the real world. This means asking “What other vocabulary do students tend to know at each level?” and incorporating it.

Scaffolding has been improved, so, for example, for the Movers and Flyers speaking task where learners tell the story based on picture prompts, they are now provided with the story title and names of characters on the page (rather than having to remember what the examiner says). In another child-friendly move, drawing tasks have been removed from listening papers, as they reportedly caused anxiety among some students.

The increasing popularity of CLIL (Content and Language Integrated Learning) has been recognised to some extent, too. In the Starters Reading and Writing paper, Part 4 is now based on a factual text rather than a riddle.

Overall, Cambridge English Language Assessment describe the changes to the tests as ‘fine-tuning’ rather than being a more drastic overhaul.

Which changes do I need to focus on?

There is an increase in the vocabulary syllabus for all three papers. The changes to the wordlists reflect trends in language use, and include sensible additions to equip learners with useful expressions. For example:

  • There are more words relating to technology (eg app, laptop, e-book, tablet, wifi, file).
  • Some names are changing. At Starters, Ann and Tony have been axed in favour of the more contemporary-sounding Mark, Matt, Alice, Hugo and Eva.
  • Learners are expected to know more adjectives, adverbs and verbs.
  • More exclamations have been introduced (such as Cool!, Fantastic! and Hooray! at Starters).
  • There are more words relating to the themes of health, leisure, animals and the world around us.
  • Gender neutral terms have been introduced, for example: firefighter replaces fireman/woman, police officer replaces policeman/woman at Flyers.

Overall, the changes make the tests slightly more demanding, and require more oral and written production from students.

In terms of activity types, I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty at this point, as the info is available at the links above, and is amply covered by lots of test tips and fun test practice activities in the Storyfun series. As a heads up, though, I’d particularly direct you towards the new listening and writing tasks which learners should be familiarised with before the test:


  • Listening Part 1


  • Listening Part 3
  • Listening Part 5
  • Reading and Writing Part 6


  • Listening Part 5
  • Reading and Writing Part 7

It’s also worth noting that for Movers and Flyers Reading and Writing papers, the order in which activities appear is changing, in order to have a clearer progression towards more difficult tasks at the end of the paper.

All that remains to be said is … Good luck to your young starters, movers and flyers!

Covers reproduced with permission from Cambridge University Press.





Teaching English at pre-primary: Why incorporate free play?

English for very young learners: training and practice

In November I took part in the British Council’s ‘English in Early Childhood: Language Learning and Development’ MOOC. This training in teaching very young learners, which is free, is particularly welcome at a time when English language instruction in pre-school settings around the world is exploding, mostly in an ad hoc and unregulated way. According to a Eurydice report from 2012, over a third of the European community was due to officially implement second or foreign language teaching to children ages six and under by September 2015. This trend is reflected worldwide, and is based on a widespread perception that ‘earlier is better’ when it comes to exposing pre-school children to a foreign language. It’s a questionable assumption, since effectiveness very much depends on the quality of the provision and the type of input, and the teacher training necessary to accompany this demand for English at pre-primary is often woefully lacking.  There is still a marked tendency to allocate ‘educational’ work for older children to qualified staff , and ‘care’ for very young learners to less qualified staff (Eurydice policy brief: Early Education Childhood and Care, 2014). Even TEFL Young Learner bolt-on training courses generally don’t focus in detail on very young learners (ie, the 2–6 year-old age bracket).

The British Council MOOC is running again from March 20th, so if this blog post whets your appetite, you can sign up here. I’d certainly recommend it for young learners’ teachers, publishers and parents alike.

The course provides some great insights into how young children learn, and, particularly usefully, how the needs of pre-primary and primary learners are different. I intend to use this blog to reflect on one of the most important themes to be discussed: play.

Pre-school child at play. Photo source: Pexels

Time for play is being squeezed out

Play is an area of educational research which hit the headlines recently with the news that Lego are funding a £4m professorship at Cambridge University’s newly established Centre for Research on Play in Education, whose stated aim is to “conduct rigorous research into the importance of play and how playful learning can be used to improve students’ outcomes.” It’s an under-researched area, but there are already some finding that play improves memory, concentration and maths skills, and that there’s a link between pretend play and language development.  Hanne Rasmussen, the head of Lego’s education charity arm, has been highly critical of formal education which has increasingly de-prioritised play in favour of a knowledge-based approach, with a heavy focus on testing, even at a young age, at the expense of creativity, collaboration and problem-solving.

This clash of ideals reflects the two very different schools of thought about early childhood education. At one end of the spectrum you have a teacher-led, education-focussed approach based around the idea of school-readiness, with particular attention to numeracy and literacy. On the other side there’s a child-directed approach based on sociocultural theory, where attention is given to educational goals, play, and interactivity, and where the development of relationships is specifically seen to link to children’s social and cognitive well-being. In simple terms, this could be described as the difference between the US-favoured approach, and that most famously followed at pre-primary in Nordic countries.

What’s free play and why’s it important?

I recently attended session for pre-schoolers run by the Wildlife Trust (which was excellent, by the way). They’d set up various activities for the children around a theme of birds. Picture the scene: in one area, a big tray full of birdseed is laid out, with the idea that the children will rummage around in it looking for “worms”. The children have other ideas, and, to the alarm of their parents, who intervene, begin pouring large quantities of seed onto the floor (making a pleasing noise and an interesting new texture to stamp around in). Meanwhile, in another area, glue, feathers, colourful paper and photocopies of woodpecker pictures are provided, which children are encouraged to decorate. Like other parents there, I find myself assiduously gluing and sticking. We all cajole the children into helping us, and work fast to produce the most attractive and complete bird pictures we can before the children lose interest.

What does this scene tell us? What learning is going on? Is it the same as  what the organisers had planned? Are any learning opportunities being missed? Why? To help answer this, let’s consider different classifications of play.

Open-ended, or child-initiated play, is when learners choose resources freely, and are in control of the activity, without the guidance of an adult. ‘Through this kind of play, children learn by imitating, experimenting, making mistakes, and making their own decisions about what to do.’ says Sandie Mourão.

Adult-initiated play is defined as an activity where adults set up the resources and guide the experience. This can be a useful way to expose learners to new language, and spark curiosity about new ways of doing things. It’s also the way we introduce children to vocabulary and ideas through stories and songs (more from me on that here). However, children who are only used to following an adult’s lead are less likely learn how to think for themselves, to be creative and to develop problem-solving skills.

By allowing play to follow the child’s agenda, not the adult’s, new possibilities open up. Play is a way for children to re-enact and reflect on their own first hand experiences. It also allows them to rehearse and in some ways prepare for future scenarios, as a kind of safe ‘dress rehearsal’. While at play, children will also test out and consolidate their recent learning and skills as they become embedded. That’s why we often hear young children repeating phrases to their toys which sound hilariously grown-up, and which we may recognise as our own speech.

At the Wildlife Trust event, this tension between the children’s and the adults’ agendas was plain. In ELT contexts, too, perhaps we need to strike a better balance between child-led and adult-led activities, and resist the urge to spend every moment ‘teaching’. Child-led, opened-ended play appears to be essential for development, but is often not given any time in English lessons.

What are pre-schoolers learning through play?

All play is learning. When we stop to think about the vast array of skills and concepts young children are getting their heads around, we might consider play in a new light. Consider, for example, how playing with water, play dough, trains, puppets or building blocks might afford opportunities to develop some of the following:

  • Fine and gross motor skills
  • Hand-eye coordination
  • Pre-writing skills
  • Learning about colour
  • Learning about shape
  • Learning about texture
  • Learning about patterns
  • Learning opposites like wet/dry, clean/dirty, float/sink
  • Sensory play (how does something feel?)
  • Sound recognition (how sounds are different: loud/soft, fast/slow, high/low)
  • Learning about friction and motion
  • Learning about concepts like weight, size and height
  • Developing their imagination
  • Making sense of social relationships

And let’s not forget that cooperative play is also how children start learning to navigate the landscape of empathy. Collaborating, helping, sharing and forgiving – frankly, it’s a minefield, and I’d struggle to name more important skills that students will need the 21st century world of work.

There’s more interesting information about how play prepares a young brain for life here.

But if children are playing all the time, how are they going to learn to speak English?

This is an understandable concern, especially when there is an expectation from parents that children will come home producing English, or holding crafts that they’ve made in class under the guidance of a teacher. Sandie Mourão’s research has indicated that as long as children have been exposed to the language before, and been initially introduced to an activity by an adult, in time they will start to spontaneously use that language. She advocates creating an ‘English learning area’ for very young learners, ‘where children can engage in child-initiated play with and through English’ (my italics). This area should be full of stimulating resources like puppets, flashcard sets, games, mascots, props or puppets, story cards, picture books and so on.  Young children can roam freely around the room and interact with these resources at their own pace, directing their play as they choose.

In reality, in many settings, there will be a mix of child- and adult-led activity, and the overall approach will fall somewhere in the middle of the two schools of thought espoused at the extremes of the continuum. You could say it’s a question of balance. But for both parents and teachers of very young learners, it’s important to be reminded that carving out both time and suitable physical space for free play is important, and many would argue that this should probably be valued just as highly as teaching phonics and numeracy. Our focus needs to be on providing a range of stimulating resources and contexts for learners to explore in an open-ended way, rather than pushing learners towards a particular product or outcome.

Going back to the birdseed and the woodpecker pictures, I chose this experience to illustrate two points:
  1. We need to allow young children to direct their learning. The children’s behaviour with the birdseed may appear destructive, but in fact they are responding with curiosity to an interesting learning opportunity they have uncovered for themselves. Hurrah!
  2. The process is more important than the product. Producing a picture that looks like a woodpecker is not the point. So what is? Developing fine motor skills by using a spatula to spread glue. Exercising autonomy by choosing colourful feathers and interesting patterns. Experiencing the feel of tickly feathers and sticky glue. Sharing access to the glue pot. Taking turns. And so on, and so on. It’s so easy to get caught up with the need for a finished picture for learners to take home – we’ve all done it many times – but this is less important than the learning experiences for the child, which might not be the ones we expect.
And a third and final point: child-led learning can be messy… Did I mention that?!
Our rather adult-led woodpecker
Photo source: My own

Further reading and references

Bruce, Tina (2015), Early Childhood Education: 5th Edition Hodder Education.

Mourão, Sandie (2015), ‘English in Pre-primary: The Challenges of Getting it Right’, Teaching English to Young Learners: Critical Issues in Language Teaching with 3-12 Year Olds Janice Bland (ed), London: Bloomsbury Academic, pp 51-69.

How can I promote a growth mindset in ELT?

The concept of the ‘growth mindset’ has been sweeping through mainstream education in the US and the UK since psychologist Carol Dweck first presented her research on this seventeen years ago. It’s not without criticism, and you can read more about that here,  but its basic principles have really taken hold. I’m going to use this post to look beyond the ‘growth mindset’ buzzword and explore how these ideas might be applicable in an ELT context. In particular, I want to consider how small changes could make a big impact to young learners.


Growth mindsets vs fixed mindsets

What’s ability and where does it come from? This idea lies at the heart of the mindset question.

Dweck sees this as a spectrum. At one end we have the ‘fixed mindset’ people. These are the folk who believe that, whatever you do, successes are the result of innate ability. At the other end of the spectrum there are people who think success comes from actions, such as learning and hard work. These are the people with ‘growth mindsets’.

Why is it important? How does it relate to students and learning?

The growth mindset concept has been seized upon as a way of thinking about student achievement, and ways that it might be improved.

In an environment where the ‘fixed mindset’ idea is dominant, students think of their intelligence and talents as permanent character traits. The perception is that innate ability, or lack of it, determines how well students do at school. Not very motivating! Fixed mindset people tend to dread failure, focussing on how bad it makes them look.

In an environment where the idea of the ‘growth mindset’ is cultivated, however, students believe that effort can develop their talents. Failure for these guys is seen as a learning opportunity.

In the language classroom, students’ attitude to risk-taking makes a noticeable difference to their competence. As we all know, this is especially true when it comes to speaking skills. So, lessening the fear of failure in a broader sense could have a direct impact on student performance in this area. For a classroom atmosphere to really promote growth, students of any subject need to feel out of their comfort zone, but never vulnerable. I’d suggest that this is a difficult balancing act that language teachers are quite familiar with.

Not too surprisingly, there is research to suggest that students with a growth mindset are more motivated to learn and exert effort. Dweck’s research with Year 7 maths students shows that learners with a growth mindset are far more likely to take on more challenging work and succeed at it than those with a fixed mindset, for example.


What changes can I make?

At this point, you’re either thinking:

“Well yes, but I can’t possibly make big changes.” (Hello there, fixed mindsets! I’m one of you, much of the time, so no judging here! But it’s probably good for us all to step back and realise that’s what’s going on.)


“Tell me more!”

Five changes for a new outlook

Let’s think about some simple ways to foster growth mindsets among children.

  1. Change the narrative around success

Embracing failure needs to become part of daily life. The message we ought to be giving is that the most important thing is taking on the challenge, trying different strategies and working hard to see something through.

This runs counter to popular culture. When was the last time you saw a Facebook update where an adult admitted to a failure? Or even talked about what they’d learnt through a difficult process? In an age where our perception of reality is distorted by social media filled with carefully curated profiles giving only the positive spin on experience, it’s more important than ever that children and teens grow up with the idea that failures should be celebrated for their learning potential. In the words of James Morehead, parents around the dinner table and teachers in the classroom should perhaps be asking, ‘Who had a fabulous struggle today?!’

Embrace the power of the word ‘yet’. If a child says they can’t do something, correct them: they can’t do it yet. It’s a tiny change with an empowering message.

  1. Teacher talk and the perils of praise

Praise is a tricky business. Despite our best intentions, Dweck claims that by praising a child for being clever, we may in fact be encouraging them to develop a fixed mindset, and, in the process, limiting their learning potential. You can read more on this here.

The G word is a particular hot potato. As parents and teachers, how often do we find ourselves saying ‘Good job!’ or ‘Good girl! You ate all your vegetables!’ or ‘Father Christmas is coming. Have you been good?’. Any kind of labelling is problematic, and calling a child ‘good’ is apparently no exception. Because once a child believes they are good enough, on some subconscious level they may stop trying to be brilliant.

Avoiding these pitfalls is easier said than done, of course. The recommended alternative is to praise the PROCESS not the RESULT. By praising children for their effort, we send a clear message about valuing the way they engaged with the task.

I know that I tie myself in knots trying to avoid saying the wrong thing. With a bit of practice, however, you can train yourself to use substitute phrases:

  • I like the way you…
  • I like that you didn’t give up!
  • You listened really carefully to the instructions!
  • The way you did blah blah blah was excellent!

(Though I’m still not sure what I’m supposed to say on the rare occasions when my pre-schooler eats his broccoli. Nothing, probably.)

Find ways to encourage intrinsic motivation. The idea goes: If a child is excited about reading a book they enjoy, then don’t praise them for it – they’d read it anyway! Rather, model inquisitive behaviour, by showing an interest and a desire to understand, and by asking questions. Sounds reasonable to me.

You can read more tips on giving praise here.

  1. Build in time for reflection

Allowing time for meaningful reflection should be part of the shift to a growth mindset methodology. To be successful, reflection needs to be mindful, not formulaic.

Some ideas for questions to ask (in L1 if necessary):

  • Was I resourceful?
  • Did I collaborate well with my classmates?
  • Did I learn something new?
  • Did I accept failure and learn from it?
  • What can I do differently next time?

There are also some great ideas for exploring the growth mindset idea with older ELT students in this article by Michelle Shin.

  1. Engage the parents 

To make a real change, parents need to buy into the process. Teachers can promote understanding among parents of how failure can be beneficial, and of how to react to their children’s setbacks in a way that encourages motivation and learning.

  1. Look at your own mindset! 

We talk a lot about students’ mindsets, but it’s equally applicable to adults in all walks of life, including… yes you guessed it… teachers, teacher trainers, school managers and materials writers. Research suggests that teachers who have fixed mindsets are less likely to believe in the talents of their students, and less likely to provide students with strategies for improvement.

As educators, it’s worth asking ourselves some uncomfortable questions about our own attitudes and what we model to students:

  • How often do I get out of my own comfort zone?
  • Do my students or colleagues see me challenging myself, too? For example, do they know if I’m learning a language, what I find difficult and what strategies I employ?
  • How effectively do I reflect on my own struggles and successes?
  • How often do I ask ‘What have I learnt?’ Do I record this anywhere (for example in a journal or blog)? Do I share it?
  • Can I better support my colleagues in their growth, too? How?

I’m pretty sure we’d all say there’s always room for improvement, right?