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One teacher's experience of the 52nd International IATEFL Conference in Brighton 🤓

Updated: May 3, 2019

This post is in English only for reasons you might realise as you continue scrolling down 😝

There aren't many events that get me as excited as the IATEFL conference and there are two reasons for that. The first of those reasons is that I get to travel to various British cities: last year it was Glasgow, this year Brighton, and next year Liverpool. The second reason is that I get to spend 4 days surrounded by thousands of English teachers from all over the world and some of the world's leading ELT experts.

I wasn't taking part in the pre-conference event this year so the whole things started for me on Tuesday. I did, however, arrive in Brighton on Monday to register and to explore the city a little bit before the conference. At registration I got my conference guide. I had the conference app installed on my phone ages ago but I never got round to actually planning what I want to see and what talks and workshops I want to attend. Trust me, you need to plan this! There are over 20!! talks and workshops happening at each time slot 😲 It can get a bit overwhelming having to chose just one out of 24 things 9 times for each day (I feel tired just writing this 😅). To be honest with you, I have 3 time slots filled with 3 or 4 different talks for Tuesday (it is Monday evening now as I'm writing this for you). I decided not to decide until the very last moment. They all sound very good and interesting and I wish I could be in 4 places at the same time!!

Tuesday - day 1

So the first day of the conference was a mixed bag, to be honest. It started well with a plenary session by Lourdes Ortega. Ortega is a professor at the Georgetown University and her area of expertise is Second Language Acquisition. So to put it simply: she knows her stuff when it comes to language learning. Her lecture was all about the relationship between language teaching and language research and how teachers can benefit from actually reading and applying the finding of the research into their practise. She stated very clearly that it is each teacher's individual decision, though. Why am I emphasising that? Because she said something that made the whole room gasp. She said ..... drum roll please .... that "the earlier the better" approach to language teaching is a myth and that there is an extensive body of research that proves that it makes no difference to the learners' eventual language level. I am writing this with the expectation of making a lot of Polish teachers gasp as well because it's been quite a popular topic of discussion recently. I am not able to quote the research itself but it's definitely something I want to read about!!

My next session was by Tom Veryzer and dealt with student engagement in the classroom. It was a very lively workshop where I got to scream, dance, move around, and fake laugh (I was told to do so). Normally, it wouldn't be my cup of tea but I enjoyed it. The thing I'm going to definitely use from it is starting the lesson talking quietly to get students' attention and get them to start listening.

After that I chose Ken Beatty's talk on motivating the teenage brain. An interesting piece of information I got from it was that "teenager" is not someone ager 13 to 19. For girls it's 11 to 20 and for boys 12 to 25! Beatty listed some facts about teenage brain, out of which I found the following most interesting:

  • Teenage brain has difficulty interpreting other people's emotions.

  • Teenage brain struggles with cause-effect reasoning.

  • Teenage brain experiments with emotions and its subjects are parents and teachers.

  • Teenage brain takes a lot of time to develop empathy.

  • Teenage brain needs a lot of sleep.

My last session before lunch was on professional development and self-evaluation. Simon Brewster discussed his school's policies on that topic. This talk was the last peace missing for me to start recording my lessons and watch them back to see what I should work on.

All the sessions before lunch time were interesting and informative. After lunch time I made some bad decisions I guess. This was the time I wrote about earlier: one time slot 4 sessions. Sadly, I regret some of my choices.

The first talk was by Mike Shreeve. The title: "Hight Performance Learning". The description of the session promised a talk on "mindset work, coaching, focusing on potential, (...) and educating parents and other role models". Sadly, it was dealt with very briefly and he basically said "yeah, do those". I was quite disappointed with this one.

Next, a sesion on using music in the classroom. Chris Walklett had some interesting ideas about extending song usage in lessons to more than gap-fill activities. He talked about supplementing the song lyrics with other listening, reading and speaking activities connected somehow with the song theme itself.

My one but last session, dealt with "developing preteens' positive attitude to learning English. Out of the 30 minute long talk, the last sentence was on topic. The rest of it was a description of what preteens are like. Again, a bit disappointed.

My 16:55 session was cancelled so I had a break. What I did with it is a true testament to my workaholism. I was hungry so it was a choice between blogging and eating. You're reading the blog post now, so you know how this one turned out 😆

The last talk of the day, "Vocabulary review in fun ways" was by Oksana Dzyuban. I must admit, by that time I was knackered ... and hungry ... so I was a bit sceptical about this one. I though that I'd be tired and the session too boring. I was very wrong!! Dzyuban offered a selections of very practical activities which I could use in my lessons tomorrow ... if I were at school doing lessons, which I'm not cause I'm at IATEFL!! whoop whoop!! 🎉🎉

But coming back to the session, one of the activities was giving students a list of words to divide into three groups: I know this word; I think I know this word; I don't remember this word. After grouping the words, students compare and contrast. Another cool activity she mentioned was putting words in a word cloud, displaying it to students and then asking them questions. Her example was a word cloud with the word "skyscraper" (among others) and the question she asked was "what do you call a very tall building". It was a very useful and well paced session.

Also, check out the goodies I bought today:

Wednesday - day 2

Off to a good start!! The plenary today was done by Dorothy Zemach: EFL teacher with 25 years of experience, teacher trainer, and author. Her talk was about textbooks and how they are made. I thought her session might be quite boring for me because I'm not that interested in textbook writing ... not yet anyway. I couldn't be more wrong. Zemach is a GREAT public speaker and her talk was extremely informative! She made the whole room burst out laughing a couple of times, at the same time exposing some of the more worrying aspects of ELT publishing. Do watch her session on line if you're thinking about becoming an author. The session is available here.

Session number two was about professional development. Lizzie Pinard concentrated on British Council's Framework for Continuing Professional Development. I did hear about it before but I never got round to actually reading about it, not to mention implementing it in my work. Well that's gonna change! It's a great tool for teacher self-assessment as well as managerial assessment of teachers. Take a look at this lovely graphic representation of the whole thing:

If you click on the graphic it will send you straight to Lizzie's blog where you can read about the session in more detail.

My next session was about creating and maintaining your school's brand. Ben Butler from The London School of English talked about creating "magic moments" that distinguish your school from all the others. He talked about all the little details that make your school stand out. I already send all my notes to my headmistress 😅

My last session before lunch was a workshop on enhancing effective learning and teaching by Anna Hasper. I attended one of her talks last year so I was expecting this one to be good. And it was. Anna talked about one of my favourite topics: neuroscience in teaching. I do know a little bit about this topic already so some of the things reinforced my believes and opinions about the learning process. Some of it, however, was very new and interesting for me. I think what surprised me the most was the fact that words studied in lexical groups take up to 97% more repetition time to learn than words in random groups, not related to each other. That seems counterintuitive and is definitely not taken into consideration by most textbook publishers (I am very careful not to say textbook authors after this morning's plenary), however, the research is there to support it. Anna also talked about the "power of forgetting": you want your student to forget a bit of what they learnt so they can kind of relearn it. This apparently helps to strengthen the memory and create stronger connections between neurons.

So far so good! All the pre-lunch sessions were good and I learnt a lot. Hopefully post-lunch sessions will not disappoint.

OK, so the first one of the post-lunch sessions was about a piece of software called Sonocent Notetaker. The software might be used by students with special educational needs. It basically records lectures and lets the user work with the recorded text in various ways. It was interesting but it's not something I'd like to use with primary school children. It might be useful for older learners, especially university students.

Next session was on making students more efficient readers. I had hight hopes for this one because planning interesting reading lessons is something I often struggle with. Sergio Monteiro's speech turned out to be more of a refresher talk on different reading strategies, like top-down and bottom-up, and a mix of both of them together with context. I kind of did need it because I keep forgetting which is which 😅 He did talk about one activity that I might use: you give students a handout with questions for the text they'll be reading before showing them the text itself; you stick the answers to the questions on the walls and ask students to match them up. It doesn't matter if they do it correctly. Once they're done you ask them if they'd like to know if they did it correctly. They will most probably answer "yes" and this is the moment when you ask them to read the text. It creates an interest in reading the text and also makes students not concentrate on every single word.

It seems that the universe is trying to tell me something because my next session was done by Richard McNeff who also works at The London School of English mentioned before. I seem to be drawn to this institution ... it does, after all, have London in its name 😝 I found the title, "Opportunity and the Unexpected in the Classroom", quite intriguing. The talk was exactly what one might have expected from it: unexpected situations in classes, like students crying or having emotional reactions; students getting excited about something and taking over the lesson with off topic conversations. The general message was to turn those situations into learning opportunities. Obviously you can't do it with all of them but it is doable with many. You take the topic students want to talk about and try your best to incorporate it into what you want to teach. A nice new word for me here: affordance - to provide or supply an opportunity. McNeff also used a video clip in his talk that made me laugh like crazy because it's just soooo me: forever correcting people's grammar 😅

And it's on to the next session: "Making writing feedback more meaningful using video capture software" by Sean Hodson. A GAME CHANGER ALLERT! This was the best session of the day because it gave me something very practical to use in my teaching. I hate, I repeat, hate handwriting feedback. Hodson suggests recording it! 😃 How, you ask? Well, you either ask your students to type their work on a computer and e-mail the assignment to you or you scan the handwritten one. Then you do a video capture of your desktop and you give feedback of their work highlighting parts of it! Brilliant! You can also mix it with normal pen corrections and then record yourself explaining why you marked certain things as wrong. I love it! Think how much time this might save. Instead of talking to each student you send each one of them their own individual short feedback video with your voice. There is so much potential in this simple tool that it probably deserves its own separate blog post and it might just get it!

Finally, the last session of the day was on exploring the growth zone model. Tilly Harrison talked about three zones: comfort zone, growth zone, and anxiety zone. Some students stay in comfort zone all the time, but this means that they are not learning new things. Being in the comfort zone means doing what you already know how to do and not taking the risk of learning something new. In this zone you do not improve your skill set. Then there are some students who go straight into the anxiety zone in lessons: they spend the whole lesson in fear of being asked a question or performing a task. In this zone the learning does not take place. This is because being in the anxiety zone activates you amygdalae. Say what? Well, you've got those two little things inside each of your brain's hemispheres called amygdalae. Those two almond-shaped thingies are the primitive parts of your brain that protect you from danger. You know: you see a tiger so you run for your life. Amygdalae "turn off" your prefrontal cortex - the part you need to function normally and perform tasks. This is why when you feel stressed you can't learn anything: you do not retain any knowledge, your brain only cares about running from danger. The answer is to find the sweet spot between the comfort zone and the anxiety zone, which is the growth zone. As teachers we need to create a comfort zone atmosphere in our lessons, where students might feel a bit uncomfortable with a new task, skill or a piece of knowledge but at he same time safe enough to have a go. This is where confidence to do new things develops.

A great day I must say! Really enjoyed this one. Hopefully tomorrow will be even better!! 😁

Thursday - day 3

The day started again with a plenary session this time by Brita Fernandez, She talked about access to education for marginalised women. It was very informative and moving for many attendees judging by reactions and comments I heard after it was finished. Fernandez got a standing ovations.

After the plenary I went to a talk by Thomas Strasser on using smartphones to facilitate learning. Great talk!! Strasser made a good point about differentiating between the use of technology and technology integration. Use of the technology, or as he called it NIKE methodology of "just do it" has no actual methodological background. Technology integration, on the other hand, improves language performance because it is supported by a lesson plan which integrates it into the learning process like a sort of amplifier. Stresser also pointed out that smartphones are great for planned learning scenarios outside the classroom. He gave a lot of great examples of apps which may be used for that purpose. You can read all about them on his blog Also check out this Pencil Metaphor by Lindy Orwin about teachers using technology:

The third session of the day dealt with peer assessment. Agnieszka Luczak talked about the advantages of peer assessment and gave some practical ideas of how to use it in the classroom. There were two ideas which I liked particularly. The first involves teacher nominating "an expert", then the expert nominates a student to answer a question. If the expert agrees with the answer they ring a bell (or do something of that sort); if they disagree with the answer they have to explain why. The second idea was about homework checking. The students check their answers in a group, one of the students has an envelope with all the right answers BUT they can't look at the answer unless they disagree about their own answers. They have to discuss why they think their answer is the correct one. Only then can they consult the answers sheet.

My next session was on professional development. I think you can see by my session choices that professional development is something I care about. That's why I'm here 😅 Dalia Elhawary gave a great speech about professional learning communities of teachers take control of their professional development. It gave me some great ideas which I am going to discuss with my headmistress. All the ideas I got at this years IATEFL conference which I would like to implement at my school might make the other teachers hate me 😂 But I do think that professional development is of great importance.

The last session before lunch was conducted by John Craft, the author of "Mind the App". The session dealt with gamification. The session itself was done in a form of a game and used Game of Thrones as the theme 😃 Extremely entertaining and very professionally done at the same time. Craft listed, among other things, steps to implement gamification in the classroom:

define - what do I want to change in my learners by introducing the system - list, define, justify

delineate - target behaviour, what do you want students to do and how will you measure it

describe - your players’ game player types, what will motivate them

devise - activity loops, what’s are the activities + give feedback which creates motivation that leads to a new action or activity; add random acts of rewards

don’t forget - fun, will they find it fun and engaging, what games do they like , will they do it voluntarily

deploy - pick the game mechanics and implement it.

For a gamification noob like me 😜 it was a pretty good session.

Next came a very informative session on special educational needs by Kate Middleton (no, not this one 😂). She started off with pointing out that it is not teachers' responsibility or place to diagnose SEN (Special Educational Needs). By the same logic, it should not be expected of teachers to deliver special lessons to students with SEN. It is, however, out responsibility to be aware of signs of various learning difficulties, it is our responsibility to support SEN students, and it is out responsibility to seek further help with specialists. Middleton then moved on to discuss ways of supporting SEN students. She gave it a handy abbreviation:

Reduce the processing load

Overlearning and recycling - loads of chances to learn the same thing

Achievable tasks

Multi-sensory teaching

She also supplied her audience with 10 strategies to use with SEN students:

culture of pauses- extra time to respond, more pauses in teacher talk

staged instructions - in small chunks and logical order

multi sensory teaching - tap into all the senses

repetition - loads of recycling

small goals - short and achievable; make them feel good, increase confidence and success

movement - incorporate movement and allow loads of mini breaks; recharge their batteries

safe space - make an extra effort to make them feel valued and supported

self-help - encourage use of strategies

reduce board copying - give handouts or allow photos

visuals - explain tasks, concept, lexis using pictures, symbols, words; visual timetable!

Hearing that reducing board copying time is beneficial for SEN students made me very happy. I was already doing that and it's always nice to have your instincts validated by a specialist 😊 But what is even more important is that some teachers at my school are against taking photos of the board and now I can tell them that there's value in that (yes, I'm happy I was right 😜) Check out Kate's website:

I had three more sessions that day. The first one was on teacher mindfulness. It was an interesting talk. I already knew a little bit about mindfulness and how helpful it might be but this talk gave me more of a scientific background about it. Patricia Mendonca and Ana Scandiuzzi said that as teachers we can get stressed and overwhelmed by our jobs pretty easily. When we are stressed we tend to overreact to situations in the classroom which is terrible for our students because we should be promoting a positive learning environment. Why do we overreact? A bit of neuroscience here again: it's because of our beloved primitive amygdalae and their "fight or flight" reactions. When we practise mindfulness our amygdalae have less density and our hippocampus (the part of our brain that regulates amygdalae) has more density. Also our grey matter (which regulates emotions and wise decision making) gets more active. What we get out of this fancy brain action are more conscious response options and less unconscious emotional reactions to things happening around us. We become less reactive and more empathetic; less critical and more collaborative. We become more compassionate to ourselves and others. All of this lovely mindful goodness creates a calmer teacher who is more aware of their students' needs.

After that I attended two more sessions but I'm going to write about only one of them. The one but last session was rather disappointing. The last session, by Judit Feher, was on not being afraid of and embracing the "I don't know" moments. I thought that the talk would be about the students not knowing the answers but it turned out to be about teachers. I don't have a problem with telling my students that I don't know something and have to check it. I even sometimes tell them I don't know things to force them to check those things themselves. In my opinion, the "I don't know moment" is the first step to actually knowing. So to put it simply: embrace your I-don't-knowness 😄

Today was the last day of the exhibition part of the conference so I decided to take a short video of it to show how big it is. Trust me, a lot of money can be spend there 😅

The time has come to plan Friday (the last day 😭) so stay tuned ...

Friday - day 4

The beginning of the end 😭 I love this event! You feel so exhausted and energised at the same tame. Friday is the shortest conference day. I only have four sessions today and then the conference is finished.

The plenary today was by Barry O'Sullivan, Head of Assessment Research & Development at the British Council, so it's no wonder that it dealt with the topic of testing. Again, it was one of those plenaries where I thought "most probably gonna be boring". Boy was I wrong again! Who would have thought that a lecture on the history of language testing could be that entertaining and enjoyable, due to both content and the lovely Irish accent of the presenter 😍 The best bit out of it was finding out that the Chinese did not only invent standardised testing but also standardised cheating 😂 You can listen to the talk yourself here.

This is a photo of an exhibit which can be found in Shanghai Jiading Museum. The waistcoat is covered in material from, if I remember correctly, four or five books. It took probably over a year to create and was in the family of its creator for generations! So, as Barry said, today we deal with industrialised cheating 😂 And a great quote from the lecture: "reliable [testing] doesn't necessarily mean good, it means consistent ... it can be reliably crap".

My second session was about the teenage brain. Anna Osborn gave a great talk on how to tailor our lessons to suit the adolescent brain. Brain, brain it's all about the brain with me! 😅

Human brain continues to develop throughout adolescence and the part that fully develops at the very end is the prefrontal context (our brain develops from the back). Prefrontal context is responsible for self-awareness, the ability to concentrate on one task, social interaction and empathy, complex decision making, planning and organising. Adolescent brain is work in progress. Teens' prefrontal cortex is very mailable and adaptable. So can we shape their brains? Yes! We get a unique and very small window of opportunity to help develop their brains not only teach the language. How?

Help students to become more self-aware:

  • tap into their likes and dislikes

  • get them to share their opinions

  • use personalised activities

  • use role play (it's easier to voice your opinion when you're pretending to be someone else)

  • don't force students to do activities which make them feel uncomfortable

Help students to improve their concentration skills:

  • keep your lessons varied

  • have clear, achievable outcomes

  • make your lessons relevant

  • use technology

  • make lessons fun (age appropriate fun of course)

Help students to improve social skills and become more empathetic:

  • model good social behaviour

  • use a variety of activities that practise different types of social interaction

  • expose students to the lives of people of different cultures, backgrounds, and ages

Help students to develop decision making skills:

  • provide plenty of critical thinking activities

  • use a guided discovery approach to language learning

  • use carefully scaffolded activities

  • encourage students to make decisions in the classroom

Help students to improve planning and organisational skills

  • teach and practise study skills

  • build planning strategies into students' written and project work

  • get students to think and talk about their own future

Next session titled "Look out! Grammar" by Bruno Leys concentrated on using authentic material around us to teach grammar. It's probably easier to do if you teach English as a Second Language because you live in a place where you and your students are surrounded by sign and news in English. It is still doable in other contexts as well, though. Leys gave his 13 reasons why (made me laugh, hope you get the reference) we should use the language around us and demonstrated some of the real life examples which he collects and posts on his Instagram account (bruno.leys). One which I liked best was a picture of a collection of signs signalling what you aren't allowed to do on the beach. The language taught here is "to be allowed + infinitive" and the task for students is to come up with a similar set of pictures and rules but for their homes ("what signs would your parent hang up around the house").

Last session (😭) was on teaching listening instead of just testing listening skills. It was a nice refresher about things like intrussion, assimilation, ellison, and weak forms and how we should train our students to consciously notice those processes and learn to spot and understand them. Adrian Peel, who conducted the workshop, talked about the importance of using pre-listening planning, organisation of ideas, monitoring of the task in progress, and evaluating success, or lack thereof, following completion of the listening task. He gave some ideas on how to do it which you can look at in the handout below

And that is it! 2018 IATEFL conference is now officially finished. I am already dreaming about Liverpool next year. I learned so many things, got inspired by some many people and I'm coming back home with a head full of ideas. I can now also say that I like Brighton and I'm gonna miss this lovely city ... even if it smells of weed everywhere 😂

Have fun attending conferences 😜

Ewa :)

PS. Have you worked out why it's in one language only? Because it's so freakishly long, that's why 😅

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