Posted in Thoughts about TEFL Teaching

5 best books for TEFL teachers

A former trainee asked me which TEFL books she should buy to improve her teaching. Naturally, I admonished her for not having bought my best-selling ebook A Short Guide to TEFL (shameless plug) but she promised me that she would and I dutifully went home and inspected my bookcase.

Over the years, I’ve amassed about 150 TEFL books. Before you think I’m some sort of TEFL geek – that is if you don’t already – I must tell you that I had to buy about 30 books to do my DELTA Diploma and another 30 for my MA. The other point in my defence is that a week after beginning my MA, I walked past a charity shop in my home town and saw a table bending under the weight of a mountain of old TEFL tomes dating back to the 80s and 90s, a time when some of you weren’t even twinkles. Anyway, I bought the lot for about £5 and about 25% were really informative and the others were gainfully employed to prop up table legs, to help me reach a can of baked beans on the top shelf, or as a sleeping aid.

So, in today’s post, I’d like to tell you about my 5 favourite TEFL books.

At number 5, we have Teaching Unplugged by Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings. As you may have guessed from previous posts, the whole Dogme / Unplugged approach really interests me and this book explains the methodology and has a collection of lesson ideas and activities for teaching who want to live in the moment in the classroom.

Teaching Unplugged by Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings

Number 4 is Learning Teaching by Jim Scrivener. This is a guide for new teachers but old hands will learn lots too. There’s some easy-to-digest methodology and a plethora of teaching ideas and and activities. This book really helps the reflective teacher who wants to develop their skills.

Learning Teaching by Jim Scrivener

My 3rd favourite TEFL book is written by our old friend Scott Thornbury, appearing for the second time on the list. An A-Z of ELT is perfect for those teachers who are bamboozled by all the jargon in TEFL teaching. The book consists of short entries for key topics and terms in ELT, just the thing to help you remember the difference between inductive or deductive learning or which order the different stages in the PPP model come in.

An A – Z of ELT by Scott Thornbury

At number 2, I finally, after much soul searching, decided to plump for 700 Classroom Activities by David Seymour and Maria Popova. I love this book because it gives you ideas for lessons based around grammar items or vocabulary topics. So, if you’re stumped and can’t think of an activity to get your students using the Past Continuous, you’ll find ideas in this book. Great for those days when you have to plan your class in five minutes.

700 Classroom Activities

So, here’s what you’ve been waiting for. Wait for drum roll. I’m opening the envelope and about to announce the winner.

And, without further ado, my favourite TEFL book is:

Practical English Usage by Michael Swan. This book is – to quote the blurb on the back – the indispensable reference book on language problems in English for teachers and higher -level learners. Before buying this book, I used to wake up in a cold sweat because I had to teach the Past Perfect Continuous or indirect speech to a group of grammar obsessed Advanced level students. This book always saved my bacon. It’s easy to navigate and the grammar explanations are practical and pedagogically sound. Of all the books mentioned, this one helped me develop the confidence to teach some fairly complex linguistic items.

Practical English Usage by Michael Swan

So, what about you? What books would you recommend for aspiring or practising TEFL teachers? Are you looking for a type of book but don’t know how to find it? Let me know.

Posted in Thoughts about TEFL Teaching

Talking ’bout a Revolution Part 3 of 3: Teaching Unplugged

In the previous two posts in this mini-series, we looked at movements in music and cinema which attempted to challenge the hegemonic (dominant) power in these two fields.

A similar movement sprang up in the world of English Language Teaching about a decade ago. Taking its name from the Danish collective, the Dogme approach – inspired by an article by Scott Thornbury – posed a challenge to prevailing trends in ELT which extolled the virtues of using increasingly sophisticated materials and resources.


This approach, also known as Teaching Unplugged, has 3 core values:

  1. Dogme is about teaching that is conversation-driven
  2. Dogme is about teaching that is materials-light
  3. Dogme is about teaching that focuses on emergent language

Some common questions or fears from teachers include:

How can teachers work without a course book?

Where will the materials for the lesson come from?

What happens if the conversation stream runs dry?

A possible answer to these questions might result from a change of mindset.

Do you think that course books are the repositories of knowledge and that learning occurs in the transference of information from the course book to the learner?

Brains and knowledge

What about the notion that the learners are the repositories of knowledge and what we should do as teachers is help our studies convey their own ideas to others?

Our learners need to use English to communicate with people who do not speak their first language. They need to develop communicative strategies (paraphrasing, substitution, paralinguistic gestures, language switching, coining new words) in order to express ideas and opinions and share their experiences with the listener. By focusing on their emergent language, teachers can directly address their linguistic issues, problems with grammatical form, lexical choice or phonological difficulties.

This is not to say that course books are not able to address our learners’ needs. Publishing companies clearly spend time on money researching learner needs and developing activities to meet them. However, it is the teacher who is at the coal face, directly engaged in the operations of language learning and is required to respond to the needs of learners in the lesson, between lessons and during a course of study.

Think of ‘unplugged’ teachers as stealth units, able to deal quickly and with surgical precision with any issues that arise in the classroom.

Now, I am aware that as a teacher trainer, I could be accused of living in an ‘ivory tower’ and that unplugged teaching doesn’t work with Spanish learners.

So, please let me know what you think? Can this approach work in Spanish academies? Have you tried it? How did the learners respond?

If you are interested in finding out some more about Teaching Unplugged and Dogme, listen to the man himself, Scott Thornbury, discussing the approach:

Posted in Thoughts about TEFL Teaching

The Next Big Thing

I was recently invited by Liverpudlian artist and writer Derek Dohren to participate in ‘The Next Big Thing’, a set of chain posts from bloggers to bloggers around the world.

Derek, a former TEFL trainee of mine, has recently published The Cats of River Darro a witty account about the trials and tribulations of living in Granada. It’s a great read and I’d definitely recommend it to any TEFLers out there.

So, thanks to Derek for passing the baton to me. I’ve got a steaming mug of black coffee in front of me and am ready for whatever is thrown at me.

What is the working title of your book?

Talking in a funny lingo – The Insider’s Guide to TEFL or 50 things you should know about TEFL

Where did the idea come from for the book?

man in suitcase

Many people dream of upping sticks and heading off to foreign climes. One way to make a living and get to know members of the local community is to become an English teacher. And if you do it well, it’s good for the soul and you make a positive impact on people’s lives.

However, there is not a lot of regulation in the TEFL industry, especially here in Spain. This means that there is a good deal of misinformation (inaccurate information that is spread unintentionally) and disinformation (inaccurate information that is spread intentionally) and far too many charlatans, swindlers, shysters, con artists, confidence tricksters and snake oil salesman around!


I’ve spent 15 years working in  TEFL and have spent time, effort and a substantial amount of cash getting professional qualifications. A TEFL course is quite an investment so I’d like to think that people can read my book and be able to make an informed decision about whether it’s for them or not and what they should do during and after the course.

What genre does your book fall under?

I suppose it would fall under the ‘How to’ genre. I’ve tried to include lots of anecdotes and interactive tasks to make it more accessible to the general reader. It’s not a dry, academic text!

What other books would you compare this work to within your genre?

I’m a fan of writers such as Malcolm Gladwell and Daniel Pink. I may not agree with everything they write but their casually informative prose style makes reading their work a pleasure. I’m certainly not in their league though!

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Ha ha! I consulted a few close friends on this one about who could play me in the dramatic re-enactments of some of the classroom experiences I refer to in the book. I bought a beer for the chap who suggested a younger Al Pacino but poured a beer over the head of the wag who suggested Ronnie Corbett (bespectacled, diminutive British comedian).

Of course, I’ll need someone to do a narrative voice-over. Morgan Freeman, Sir Ian McKellen or Clint Eastwood. Someone with gravitas. Or Brian Blessed, he’d be fantastic and keep viewers awake for sure.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

50 things you should know about TEFL but were too afraid to ask in case the person you asked happens to be an insufferable egomaniac.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I’ve been collecting questions for a couple of years but the actual writing only took about a month. Unfortunately, I’m not very detailed-oriented so proofreading and editing feels like pulling teeth. Anybody fancy doing it for me in exchange for a few beers?

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Positive inspirations would include many of the trainees I’ve taught over the years. To see somebody undergo a remarkable transformation from a trembling, gibbering pupa in front of a group of students into a calm, cool and collected educational butterfly in a month is a wonderful thing.


Then there are those TEFL charlatans I mentioned earlier with their negative inspiration. Any Tom, Dick or Harry can set up a language school or teaching training centre and convince people to part with their hard-earned cash and I would love to see these opportunists go the way of the dodo!

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Well, I’m currently writing an additional part about TEFL teaching here in Spain. It will include lots of useful tips about working in this marvellous, if frustrating, country, and links to online resources and lots of other goodies.

Phew, time for another coffee. Next week, we’ll be crossing the Atlantic and hearing from a couple of young American writers.


Kellie Joyce and Brittani Mann have been best friends since they were kids in the United States. In the summer of 2012 with college freshly them, they moved to Granada, Spain to spend a year teaching English and learning about a new culture, and maybe even picking up the language along the way. Sometime while they were looking for work as teachers, they managed to hatch fledgling careers in writing, a life-long passion. Both have novels being published in January.

Posted in Thoughts about TEFL Teaching

Talking ‘Bout a Revolution – Part 2 of 3

smokeMarch 13 1995, Paris

At a conference arranged to celebrate the centenary of motion pictures, the Danish film director, Lars Von Trier, stood up to give his speech on the future of film. The intelligensia of the cine world were not prepared for what happened next.

Rather than give a glowing tribute to the technological advances made over the years and wax lyrical about the SFX glories yet to come, Von Trier and his partners-in-crime bombarded the audience with red pamphlets entitled ‘Dogme 95’.

Ever since Star Wars, Hollywood had been producing more and more expensive films with massive SFX budgets. Some of these were extraordinarily successful but others were massive flops. What many of the films had in common was that they were fantastical in nature and bore little resemblance to the daily lives of ordinary people. Moreover, those film makers without the financial muscle of the American film studios behind them were finding it increasingly difficult to find a market for their films.

A few members of the audience started to read the pamphlet. In it, there were a set of rules, known as The Vow of Chastity. The Dogme collective, as they were known, wanted to bring about a revolution in film-making. They believed that special effects, technical wizardry and all manner of post-production modifications distracted from the essence of cinema: the unfolding of the story and the performance of the actors.

Did the movement have any effect on cinema? In the 21st century, big-budget superhero movies generate more money and are seen by more people than any other genre. On the other hand, technology has evolved to be within the reach of the individual and people are using cheap and cheerful gadgets to communicate in a simple and unadorned way via social medium sites like YouTube. Today, everybody can make films.

Watch the clip below with the Danish film director. His point seems to be that the big film studios are gatekeepers who have spent generations convincing the rest of us that only they have the expertise to create movie magic. Von Trier believes otherwise, to him, it’s all “smoke and mirrors”, an attempt by the powers that be to convince us that we can’t do what they do.

What does this have to do with teaching English you might ask? All will be revealed in my final post.

Posted in Thoughts about TEFL Teaching

Talkin’ Bout a Revolution – Part 1 of 3

My next 3 posts are part of a set. Read individually, this one and the next may appear unrelated to TEFL teaching. The final post should make things clearer.

Let’s start with a quote:

Words mean more than what is set out on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning.

Maya Angelou.

June 11 1988

The concert to celebrate the 70th birthday of imprisoned South African Nelson Mandela was in full swing. 70,ooo people were inside Wembley Stadium in North London and hundreds of millions were watching on TVs all over the world.

The next act to go on stage was Stevie Wonder, the legend of American soul music. The crowd were expectant; Stevie had started his career around the same time as The Beatles and was one of the most enduring stars of the rock era. His music had changed in the 80s though – and not for the better many would say –  too synthesised, too much technology.

Minutes before he was due to go on stage, Stevie realised that the hard disc containing all the pre-recorded music for his set was missing. Bursting into tears, he told the organisers that he couldn’t play.

An up-and-coming singer songwriter was pushed on stage before she had time to refuse. It must have seemed as if half the world was watching her, one lone black woman with a guitar. She strummed her first chord and started to sing……

Tracey Chapman became a huge star in that very moment. her debut album sold 10 million copies worldwide and it is said that her performance inspired the whole “unplugged” movement.

What does all this have to do with TEFL? Read the next blog to find out.

Posted in Thoughts about TEFL Teaching

7 Deadly Sins of TEFL: Teaching the coursebook not the learners

It was Friday, I had to cover a class at the last minute but had nothing prepared. I walked into class with a coursebook under my arm and asked the students which unit they were on.

A collective groan filled the room. I though for a few seconds, hoping inspiration would strike.

“OK, close the books.

A few tentative smiles appeared on faces.

I circled the class; dividing the students into Student A and Student B.

“Ok, student A, you are me, the Director of Studies at a language school. Student B, you are students.”

“Student As, your student won’t buy the coursebook. Convince them to buy it.

Student Bs, you don’t want to buy the course book. Explain why you don’t want to buy it.

Directors, you have 3 minutes to think of reasons why you should buy it. Students, you have 3 minutes to think of reasons why you shouldn’t.”

sleeping woman

5 minutes later all of the students were lost in their roles. The classroom was filled with lively chatter and laughter. One voice broke through the general din.

Kaori was a quiet Japanese lady in her early 40s. Polite to a fault, she wasn’t a fluent speaker. She was far too concerned not to offend and to use correct grammar at all times, this meant her conversation was generally stilted. This time though, she was in the zone improvising as a student determined not to buy the book.

I hate coursebooks but almost all English teachers use them, Why? Because it is easy work for them. But they are so boring. You must to read about Madonna. Why do I want to read about Madonna? Or listen to two stupid English people who have too much money and go around the world in a yacht. What does that have to do with my life? Then, we have to talk about these people with a partner. Why? I don’t know them. I don’t like them. I want to talk about me and my life in Japan or my life in London. It’s crazy. I want to speak English for my work and to communicate with people from other countries. The books make learning English boring and useless.

By this point, all the other students had stopped talking. They were staring open-mouthed listening to the quietest student in the class ranting about her hatred for coursebooks. When she finished, a few of them applauded!

For the remainder of the lesson, we drew up a list of benefits and disadvantages of using coursebooks in class from the student’s perspective and the latter column was substantially longer than the former. We ended the class with an open discussion about coursebooks.

The students identified the following key points:

  • Gap-fill exercises in the coursebook can be done at home and don’t need to be done in the classroom.
  • Long reading texts with a British or American focus are often used to set the context or introduce new language.  We don’t know and often aren’t interested in these things. We should talk about things which interest us!
  • Why do we have to read grammar explanations from the book? I can do this at home.
  • We should do much more speaking practise and correction in class. This is what I expect from a teacher because I can do everything else at home with a book or online.

It turns out that the teacher I was covering for was the kind of teacher who walked into class, asked the students to turn to p47, do the exercises and then he would check the answers before moving onto the next exercise in the book.

money rope

As we say in English, teaching from the coursebook way is money for old rope – an easy way of making money. I’m not bashing teachers who use coursebooks – there are good economic and pedagogical reasons why they are a useful resource in the language classroom. But that is all they are, one of the many resources we can use to create stimulating lessons in the classroom but we need to adapt them to meet our learners’ needs.

Think about how to use them effectively to maximise classroom learning opportunities.

 Your students are the best resource in class, not the coursebooks.

Let me know what you think. Is there ever a case for systematically following coursebooks in class? How do your students react when you move away from the coursebook?

Posted in Games and activities, Thoughts about TEFL Teaching

Be a Benevolent Dictator in the TEFL class

Why write things on the board for the students to write in their notebooks when you can dictate them to the students?

Dictation gives your students a clear model of pronunciation and allows them to practise their listening and writing skills.

Here’s an example:

Imagine you have a few topic questions you want your students to discuss.

You could write them on the board yourself or let them read the questions on the handout or in the coursebook, but if I were you, I would……


The teacher’s words are in italics. Note the use of imperatives to instruct the learners.

“Close your books”

“Write down what I say”

“When the hell… are you bunch of fools… actually going to learn English?”

“I’ll repeat. When the hell are you bunch of fools actually going to learn English?”

(Pause while they write down what they have just heard)

“Now, discuss what you have written with your partner. Don’t show what you have written.

(Make exaggerated gesture hiding your notebook from your partner).

(Let them discuss what they have written, spelling out words out to each other if necessary)

“OK, one more time. When the hell are you bunch of fools actually going to learn English?”

(Let them make any final changes)

You have 2 options here:

Option 1

“Paco (there is one in every class here in Spain) Tell me what I said.”

Option 2

“Paco, write the question on the board.”

“Everybody, is Paco correct?”

(If Paco is correct, proceed to the next step. If he isn’t, see if the other students can produce the correct sentence)

“Everybody, repeat after me. When the hell are you bunch of fools actually going to learn English?”

(Students repeat in a choral drill)

Paco, say the sentence. Juan, your turn, Carmen, Patricia. (Ask each student or several students to do individual drilling)

Now, in your pairs, discuss the question. You have 5 minutes.

Now, you might feel a bit uncomfortable dictating at first – and I wouldn’t recommend trying it out with the question used in the example above –  but, in my opinion, it’s a very student-centred teaching strategy which allows you to identify and deal with any grammar, lexical or pronunciation issues.

  1. Dictation is an effective teaching strategy for recycling lexis or grammar structures: if they are familiar with the language, why board it?
  2. Dictation is an effective teaching strategy for introducing new language: English is often cited as being a non-phonetic language but many words actually have a strong sound and letter relationship and students can benefit from predicting spelling patterns. And if the sound / spelling relationship is weak, dictating a word, letting students attempt to spell it, and then giving them the correct form may prove to be a vivid strategy for retention.
  3. Finally, dictation helps students develop their note-taking ability. A useful skill to have in meetings, conferences, lectures etc.

Try being a benevolent dictator for a while. Do it sitting down, standing up, walking around the room (although I would draw the line at goose stepping like a Nazi).

Let me know how it goes.