Sunday, January 26, 2014


When I woke up this morning at 6, the temperature outside was 12 F (-11 C). Do you think there's anything that could get me out of a warm bed so early on a Sunday morning? Yes!

Propped up by a mug of hot green tea and citrus, I was sitting at the computer by 6:45 getting ready to join the latest iTDi webinar with more than 100 other ELT professionals from around the world.  It was so nice to see so many familiar names and great to have a chance to interact live if only a tiny bit.(There was the webinar to attend to, you know!)

The webinar was great. Each of the presenters made great points that I'll be mulling over for some time, and all three complemented each other.

Decidedly NOT high-tech. (From Wikipedia.)
Scott Thornbury examined the role that digital technology can play (or not) in the language classroom. The bottom line, which I wholeheartedly agree with, is that the teacher needs to evaluate possible uses of technology critically.  What value does it bring to the language learning experience? If it's something we can already do, why bring technology in?  An example (mine, not his) is polling. Teachers can project a poll question, learners can use their mobile phones to submit responses, and the results get tallied on the screen in real time.  Nifty, but what does it add to the language learning experience?  Isn't more language used if learners walk around, ask each other, note the responses they get, and tally the results themselves?  Maybe each learner could ask a different question and then the group could put it all together and discuss.  Screens do take our eyes away from each other.  On the other hand, I love using Google Images to support discussion about a new vocabulary word.  A learner once asked "What's a showdown?" It was nice to cap off the negotiation of meaning with a picture of two cowboys facing off!  Scott pointed out that this is technology's biggest strength: giving us access to data.

Penny Ur discussed several topics, but I especially appreciated her comments on vocabulary.  She noted that vocabulary knowledge is:

- the major determiner of level of proficiency
- the major determiner of students' ability to understand a text
- FAR MORE IMPORTANT than grammar (those are her capital letters!)

Given my nascent learning about how grammar and vocabulary are deeply intertwined, this makes sense to me.  Thoroughly studying a word and its collocations in a specific context brings grammar out.

Penny's bottom line on vocabulary was: probably about one-third of our teaching time needs to be devoted to vocabulary-focused activity.  Although I have recently learned that vocabulary needs to play a bigger role in lessons than it typically does,  I was a bit fuzzy about how much bigger.  Now here's something to work with!  I'm really tempted to buy Penny's book, which includes many suggestions for vocabulary review activities.

John Fanselow built on both Penny and Scott's comments.  Regarding technology, he strongly recommended the use of recording devices in the classroom.  Like Scott, he supported technology kept simple (no more than is needed).  He also supported the learning of vocabulary in context and demonstrated how learners can develop personal symbols for the brick and mortar words (function and content words) and then map sentence patterns out using the symbols.  Again, grammar and vocabulary are meshed together: every time a learner uses a symbol, they're productively recalling the word in the context of a sentence.  At the same time, they're discovering the patterns that are grammar.  I can see using flashcards with a symbol string on one side and a sentence on the other.

I haven't done justice to all that was said, which is why it's worth checking the webinar out for yourself!  Go to, they'll be posting a link there. Also: these and other great teachers are scheduled to teach courses via iTDi in the near future.  I probably can't take all of them, so now I've got the tough task of narrowing it down!

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