Death of ELT by PowerPoint (and other random thoughts on retiring after 35 years)

Bruce Springsteen: "When we kiss…" Not just going through the motions!

You could probably say I've had four different though overlapping careers — in language teaching, language teacher training, technology and ELT management.

The first of those I retired from (after 35+ years) a few months ago, though the number of contact hours I was doing was limited;  teacher training I'm retiring from at the end of this month; management I got fired from (to the relief of all involved!) many years ago; which leaves only another 10 or so years in technology to do (I'm only (?) 57, so it ain't over yet!).

I happened to mentioned this in a session a couple of weeks ago and someone (Mati?) asked me if, after 35+ years, I had any tips for teachers just starting out…


My #1 tip for teachers
Every class, every day, every week, every term, every year of your teaching career, try something new and never ever just stick with what you have done before! Your learners, your brain, your DoS — everyone, in fact — will thank you for it. Jump at any chance you get to do something different! A kids' class with a new book? Give it to me !

Trash all your lesson plans at the end of the year: you don't want to use them again next year, with the possible exception of the half dozen that were truly outstanding (see Engage, not entertain, below).

The worst thing that can happen to a teacher is that you end up just going through the motions, just repeating what you've done many times before. With each year that goes by, you'll have a fresh cohort of faces in front of you that, like it not, you have to teach the present perfect (etc.) to. For them it's the first time, for you the umpteenth: but teach it to them as if it was the first time for you, too.

Is there, to misquote Bruce Springsteen, still fire…?

Now it really does get random
But there's more to it than that. So, below, some random thoughts from someone who is content to have failed to learn all there is to know about teaching and learning…

You never stop learning to teach
Being a teacher is a bit like being a parent: you should be constantly asking yourself if you're a good one, are you doing everything possible for your kids, asking yourself  if you could be a better parent or teacher if you did more (or sometimes less!), if you tried something different.

If you're not worried and puzzled by that question, then you should be.

Attitude is everything

Two ways to go to conferences and workshops

Whether you're learning a language, or learning to teach a language, or trying to get your head round some piddling little technological difficulty that is driving you potty, attitude is everything.

If you go to teaching workshops and conferences (and you should!) you inevitably go to a few sessions that are a bit duff, or that just don't feel applicable to your teaching circumstances. But you can still get lots out of such sessions — if your attitude is right.

It requires a bit of lateral thinking sometimes but the attitude "This won't work with my learners because…" will get you nowhere; the attitude "This would work with my learners if…" can turn even poor ideas into great ones.

Around 20 years ago, in a workshop if I remember it rightly, a teacher suggested that her learners' attitude towards her, the teacher, and towards learning English  in general was just wrong and until that changed, there was no way forward. One of her much younger peers, whose face and exact tone of voice but not her name I recall, suggested that that was the wrong way to see things: that what really mattered was the teacher's attitude; that if that was right, the learners' attitude would fall into its desirable place.

That conversation changed how I went into young learner classrooms (as did, around the same time, reading a wonderful book by Herbert Puchta and Michael Schratz).

Best activities for technology enhanced language learning
I started out in language teaching before technology ever came along (and when it did it was at first just cassette recorders and then VCRs); but most of the activities that seem to have worked best with technology also worked without technology.

Favourite activities that technology enhanced (and if technology doesn't make the activity better, don't use it):

What they had in common:

  • They involved lots of talking and collaboration and not too much technology
  • They engaged people (see below)
  • Many involved using a shared digital space of some kind (Edmodo, Google Drive, private G+ Communities and WhatsApp have been among the most successful)
  • And — vitally — they produced lots of language practice and learning

Special mention for some of the fun things you can do with YouTube. Those of you who started out after the YouTube era began just don't know good life as a teacher is for you 😉 !

PowerPoint is WRONG for ELT!
Collaborative presentations given by learners make a fabulous activity for a language classroom, with Google Drive being a wonderful tool for that.

But at some point not so long ago, I noticed that all my peers and CELTA course trainees had suddenly started to use PowerPoint in their classes for literally everything: displaying images, explaining grammar points, exercises  — entire classes. You name it, I've seen it PowerPointed. Make that Over-PowerPointed.

That's got to be wrong! You've heard of Death by PowerPoint? Now we have Death of ELT by PowerPoint.

That's almost as bad as drowning in an avalanche of photocopies !

Whatever happened to good old chalk ?! Whatever happened to just asking learners if they'd ever been kitesurfing or whatever? When and why did it ever become necessary to PowerPoint it all?

Engage, not entertain!
No amount of technology is ever going to prove more useful than a single idea that the learners "bought" and responded to and were engaged by.

A working definition of a much overused word, "engaged": the learners willingly do the task the teacher has set and, vitally, get so "into" the task that, given they choice, they'd in fact rather being collaborating with their peers — in English, on THAT — than be on Facebook with their friends.

Here's one example, a picture of a motorbike I took in the street outside and which I showed to learners, asking them to come back to class with as many pictures they could find of different vehicles on the streets of Barcelona…

…  which they did and, a week or so later, had invented some pretty amazing "owners" of the vehicles they'd photographed (a number of whom "sold" their vehicles to other "owners").

You could have stolen all the images of the vehicles off of Google Images (and then PowerPointed them!) but they got so much more excited and engaged by their photos on their phones.

See also further examples and explanation for the same task.

A message from technical support
One from my time in technical support (TS) , in which I will be continuing for around another 10 years.

How many times have I had the following conversation or variations on it?

USER I want to be able to do this. I used to be able to do
it but it doesn't work now
TS That's no longer possible* but why don't you do this instead?
USER I don't want to do that. I want to do what I've always done!

*Possibly due to an unwanted Windows update 😉 !

We're there to help you in Technical Support, we want to help you but in the end you've got to help yourself and the best way to do that is to accept that technology moves relentlessly forward, and move forward with it. Life, they say, begins outside your comfort zone — and so does self-sufficiency in technology.

Step out of your comfort zone and you'll never have to have that same conversation with the Geeks again. We will have become unnecessary.

A message from another lifetime


On the wall of my office

And because I had half another lifetime in management, here's one thought from that time, and from my 35+ years observing what happens in schools: the worst thing a manager can do is to stand in the way of change, the next worst to do anything at all that makes the job of anyone under him/her harder in any way whatsoever.

Hanging on the wall of my office around the last 10 years there's been the photocopy you can see in the image above, an appeal for Leonard Cheshire Homes, which has a picture of a woman in a wheelchair and a sign saying "enabled" on the table.

What's the primary job of any manager (and of a teacher, and of technical support, come to think of it)? It's to enable people to do whatever.

Just one regret

If I could have my time again I'd be a teacher. I liked being a teacher. Often it was a challenge, often it was unrewarding and unappreciated, always it was underpaid but I wouldn't have swapped it for any other profession — except the crazy ideas which I once daydreamed of but could never have been (like a helicopter pilot, or a drifter in a Western, or a photographer).

Or a collector of quotations (which I was). Muhammad Ali said this; "Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth" and teaching was, for me, a life of service and that was what made it worthwhile.

My one regret was that for 35 years I primarily served organizations rather than school children, who — I realise — weren't always any more thankful to you for your efforts than your DoS or Head of Department but who needed and deserved your service so much more.

If I could start over, I'd go back to where I began — in Primary and Secondary — and serve there instead.

And after 35 years, I'm glad I'm still a little naive.

How to make people speak English with a clothes peg

The clothes peg

You know the problem, right? Your learners lapse back into their own language whenever you ask them to do pair- or groupwork, rather than the English they're supposed to be learning.

Here's a brilliant idea that Adriana left in a comment on a previous post on this same issue. Adriana suggests using a clothespeg and explains:

The first student to slip into L1 gets the clothes peg on
their clothes. Their only way of getting rid of the peg is to catch another student speaking in their L1, in which case they can stick the clothes peg on them!

We got some hilarious reactions with that — and it did the job amazingly well. You might want to do it with a class there is already a positive atmosphere in: you don't want to humiliate anyone!

What language were you speaking
Here's a second idea that works — though it's more an awareness-raising thing than anything else.

In class where you have this problem, hand out slips of paper just before starting an activity that should involve the learners speaking a lot of English. Let them get on with the activity, but stop them in the middle of it when you sense that the language being most spoken is not English.

What language were you speaking

At that point, ask them to write down what language they were speaking when you stopped them. Once they've done that, get someone to come out to the front and tally the results on the board.

I like to draw attention to the results but, while I certainly would encourage discussion of it, wouldn't make a lot of fuss about it: it's awareness-raising, as I say, not a line-up for punishment detail.

Sketchnotes for language teachers

Never heard of sketchnotes? A heads-up in a great TED talk

Here's one that I suggested in my session at the IH Barcelona ELT Conference back in February (yes, I've been kinda busy since 😉 !). I suggested sketchnoting for anyone who ever has to attend conferences and listen to presentations (etc), but also because some of the ideas behind it are of interest to presenters — and also to teachers in general.

My experience of language teaching is that as teachers we buy into the bullshit that "a picture is worth a thousand words" and assume that that means we use Google Images for everything — job done!

Wrong! Images are only worth a thousand words if you put them to work, and drawing live, in front of learners is doing that — using drawing to convey and clarify meaning and ideas and so on. And, as I suggested in my session, it's not just the teachers, but also the learners that can be doing the drawing.

In language teaching, where we're not lecturing (hopefully 😉 !), my suggestion is that we're not so much really sketchnoting as pinching the idea that drawing can be a powerful tool to aid understanding and learning.

My colleague at IH Barcelona Susana Ortiz suggested to me a couple of great examples of how sketching ideas could be used in language teaching. With trainees on pre-service courses for Spanish teachers, Susana gets them to illustrate how "communication" occurs by using circles and arrows; and with learners on Spanish courses, gets them to illustrate the difference between ser and estar with simple drawings (try the same with bring and take, if you teach English, to give you another example.)

Below, a further example, which I use when attempting to explain to trainees how we get swamped by too information on social media, and how we need to (a) "follow" fewer people and (b) "engage" with those we do follow somehow, either by actually using what we "like" or by engaging in actual dialogue with them (via tweets or blog comments, for example):


Drowning in social media

The vicious circle of find-like-forget… Because on social media you forget the minute you instantly find something else

See also this post for a further example of a simple diagram to illustrate a complex idea to pre-service teachers.

More on sketchnotes
Sunni Brown's book, The Doodle Revolution (, is one that I can recommend both for the arguments it puts forward but also because it will help you get started doodling — and sketchnoting.

And some great links:

10 tips for success with classroom drawing

By classroom drawing I mean the teacher and/or learners drawing quick, simple, not necessarily “good” or realistic doodles to illustrate activities of all kinds, and which are going to help us to convey or explain language or concepts, and which can also be used in activities that will generate lots of use and practice of language.

I repeat: and/or learners — because classroom drawing shouldn't just be about what the teacher does; nothing in a classroom should just be that! You'll see that most of the drawing activities previously proposed here on this blog have in fact been that: things that the learner, not the teacher, draws.

Success with classroom drawing
To succeed with classroom drawing (perhaps we should really call it classroom doodling), we need to be clear about what (a) what is required and (b) what our objectives are.

Classroom Drawing 101

Required for classroom drawing: practice, which gives confidence, which gives success. Not required, talent

Objectives of classroom drawing

Objectives: #1, explaining and generating language. NOT an objective: realism

Once we have those things clear in our minds, then we're already on the road to success. Once we and/or our learners have pens in our hands and we plug them into our imagination, we have a super-powerful, multi-purpose tool that offers us infinite possibilities in language teaching and learning.

After that, once you’ve set your sights artistically low but linguistically high, the following tips will take you a long way further down the road.


  1. Get yourself a set of cheap drawing pens with different nibs (I like 0.3, 0.5, 0.7 and something thicker), and use them appropriately (e.g. 0.3 or smaller for eyes, 0.7 for a very dark beard or hair, for example
  2. If you want to do flashcards, however, visible from the back of the classroom, grab paper from the recycle bin (ideally A3 size) and go for a nice thick board marker
  3. With each object you draw, know what your best possible starting point is, and build the rest of the drawing up from there
  4. Build up a repertoire of things you have practised and can confidently reproduce as and when required, including a set of standard “people” in different poses (like stick figures), animals, vehicles, places (beaches, forests, dentists' waiting rooms, dentists’ chairs
). Keep your eye out — everywhere! — for illustrations you can copy and use
  5. But never be afraid to have a go at something totally new, even in front of a class, or be scared of messing up or embarrassing yourself (if you never draw a space rocket or submarine, you won’t 😉 !) or of having people laugh at your drawings
 People laughed? Hey! You want laughter in a classroom!
  6. If necessary, go back home and find out (the Internet is a wonderful place — at times!) how you really draw (say) a crocodile, and then practise that
  7. Adding "clipart" to your search will give you lots of copiable illustrations – eg “clipart dog”; pick the simplest and if necessary, simplify those further
  8. Keep adding to your repertoire (if you think “The only thing I can draw is an elephant”, or whatever, you need to get yourself some practice doing other stuff!)
  9. At my Conference session back in February, I gave away some desk-top, page-a-day diaries that our sponsors were kind enough to let me have. A doodle a day, five minutes a day, is a brilliant way to improve your drawing skills
  10. Putting your work on a blog or Instagram (even if you share it with only a few people) is something that will make a huge difference as it will motivate you to reach higher

Practice is the key. Practice leads to improvement — as these amazing examples on Bored Panda demonstrate.

And it's vital to understand this:

It's not a question of having the ability to draw anything. Rather, it's a question of giving yourself the practice to have the courage to try to draw things that might convey and clarify meaning; convey ideas; add interest, generate language, etc.

Here you have ideas for activities that use classroom drawing and we have further activities (content in Spanish) on our Spanish teacher training blog.