Long briefs, short briefs: What’s your favourite?

Writing a brief

The Oxford online dictionary defines brief as being

“concise in expression;using few words”

(http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/brief). I interpret this, in relation to writing briefs, as meaning that the brief should contain the relevant information for a project, or writing assignment and not much else. So why is it that writer’s brief are often pages long?

– I don’t have an answer to this, I’m just curious, especially as I’ve recently been tasked with writing briefs for various  jobs. Having never written writer’s briefs before, I wasn’t too sure where to start. I began by looking at the briefs I’ve had (for some odd reason I always keep them), and soon got quite bored: don’t get me wrong, they’re all interesting projects, but there was a lot of information, some of which wasn’t always pertinent to the job in hand. My first thought then was that perhaps the brief should indeed be brief (the clue is in the title after all!).

Help! How do I go about this?

Smiley, Emoticon, Question Mark, Funny

By some lucky coincidence, as I started out on the Verity Cole, author of CreatEd, wrote a post called ‘Brief encounters’ (http://elteditor.co.uk/brief-encounters/). I found it a very enlightening read and was able to glean quite a bit of useful information:

In short (haha!)briefs should be –

  • a ‘walk-through’ of the project (or task)
  • not overwhelming for the writer
  • include all the relevant information and be specific
  • accessible to all (not use language that may exclude writers or editors)
  • as up to date as possible
  • be open to questions (at least invite them)

This has led me to ask

‘What can we assume the writer knows?’

‘What can be included without sounding patronising?’

In writing the briefs I need to ensure that all the writer’s have the relevant information, but how can I know how much each of them knows? Can I assume I can use EFL terminology or should I steer clear of it? If I use it, how much should I use?

Without trying to completely confuse myself, I’ve decided to avoid EFL terminology for the more complex concepts (even though this may mean I’m less brief in places, I should be clear).

So for my writer’s brief for writing module specifications this is what I’ve gone for:

Basic general background information (the project outline and aims, a student and teacher profile (this is known as the materials are for a specific organisation)

Key definitions – for example the difference between module aims, module objective and indicative content for the given context (a minefield in itself) and how they relate to each other

Tips – on writing aims, objectives and indicative content

Samples – of all three to show how they link and sample language

Writing and editing – information on the process, so they know what to expect (some writers are newbies)

Admin – Information on how to label the files

Expectations – information on the time expected to complete the task and time allowed for the reviewing and development process

I’m pleased to say that I managed to fit this onto three pages. Hopefully it’s brief, but not too brief. The proof, as they say, will be in the eating!

With any luck, it’ll be short and sweet! Chocolates, White Chocolate, Chocolate

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Does listening improve listening?

This term I’ve been given an IELTS listening class. It’s the first time I’ve taught Listening and only listening. I’ve had many Speaking and Listening modules and often tutored writing only courses, but never Listening.  I was curious about filling four hours with Listening.

As students seemed to be struggling with IELTS Listening, we’d been advised to encourage students to widen their listening: to listen to TED talks, BBC programmes, documentaries and the like, and not just concentrate on IELTS Listening. Having not taught Listening in isolation before, I duly set up a forum with links to TED talks and the BBC homepage and planned extension listening tasks into my overall teaching plan. Encouraging students to do this, has it itself been a great challenge: I had to schedule in an extra computer lesson and take the students through the process step by step. It’s only now (11 weeks into the course) that they are beginning to engage in it.  That aside, it soon became pretty clear (before week 11!), that this alone was not going to get the students to where they needed to be.

As many of the students expressed their concerns with listening, saying it was ‘difficult’ and that they lacked confidence, I decided to see if I could pinpoint what the issues are. Rather than repeating that old chestnut of ‘You need to expand your vocabulary. You need to listen more’ (something often repeated to students struggling with listening), I started with looking at listening skills. The core coursebook deals with these in a comprehensive way: it addresses each IELTS question type and tackles the skills needed for that question type throughout the book. There isn’t really much that I can add to the skills work that is already there. Knowing the students well, I thought perhaps they might need some of the connections highlighting, so I summarised the question types and skills, created a matching exercise and had the students record the answers. Clearly, it’s not enough to do  this on one occasion: consequently I review it on a regular basis. This seems to be helping and students are slowly remembering the skills and appear to be getting better at practising them, although it’s hard to judge how they are actually employing the skills while listening.

However,  I don’t think looking at skills has fully covered the problem areas. I’ve also been doing warmers  that look at the grapheme-phoneme relationship to help students with connections between sound and speech (their spelling leaves quite a lot to be desired) and doing a few running dictions. While working on sound and spelling, I noticed that students didn’t feel confident with syllable stress and certain sounds. This led me to believe that perhaps it’s not actually listening that students struggle with, but distinguishing between sounds and words in fluent speech – in other words connected speech. I’ve subsequently, started raising awareness of features in connected speech, intonation and sentence stress. As it’s a Listening module I don’t expect production, so I’ve introduced the features through examples and simple exercises that use listening skills. For example, dictation; humming sentences and questions; using my fingers; sound bingo, as well as games from Pronunciation Games from Mark Hancock (I’ve yet to try Mark Hancock’s idea of an acoustic drill). My aim is for students to be able to recognise these features  (they don’t need to produce them for listening purposes), so they can better locate the answers and not only perform better for IELTS, but also at university. So far students have received the lessons well and have said that it’s helping. I’m yet to be convinced: I think my introduction has been very ad hoc and for students to really benefit I should create a teaching overview which introduces the aspects in a more ordered manner. Once I’m confident with this (or before), I can work towards creating a new syllabus.

As a result of teaching this module, I’ve realised that purely using listening and listening exercises isn’t enough to really improve students listening skills. Nor is telling students to expand their listening through non-EFL sources; listening is far more complex and teaching should reflect this.

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‘Altered due to…’ – moving forward

Not long back I wrote a post about how writer’s may feel when facing a heavily edited document. Since then I have spoken to writer, whose work I was working on, and they admitted that at first they were taken aback. However, they mentioned that on actually reading what was put, they felt supported and understood what had been done.  They said that the comments were very clear and the examples given (or the altered parts) demonstrated exactly what was meant.

I did breathe a sigh of relief at this, although I still felt uncomfortable with the amount of red. So on the back of someone’s suggestion I have altered my ‘editing colours’ and my edits now look less daunting (well I think so anyway!).


I have to admit that I did prepare the writer for the heavy edit, by explaining to them in an email and then talking through the document on the phone. I think this highlights the importance of good communication between editor and writer, as many people mentioned and emphasized as being vital. I also believe that it’s important to trust the person you’re working with and respect them professionally. This links into comments editing for editing’s sake: many remarked that nothing should be changed unless it was necessary. A sentiment which I entirely agree with and something I consider to be connected to professional respect. If a writer creates a teaching exercise I would never use (because it doesn’t fit my teaching style), who cares? As long as the exercise is pedagogically sound, culturally appropriate (wouldn’t want misplaced pigs!) and fits the brief, it’s all good with me. Besides, I’ve got enough on my plate without editing  perfectly good material!

One comment that did irk me a little was one about if the writer needed so much editing, then perhaps they shouldn’t have been given the job. To a certain extent this could be true, but I feel that it’s a little unfair on the writer. I think  it’s really important to support people new to a certain project and/or the writing process. A content edit is a development edit, which I interpret as an edit that develops the writer.

If new writer’s aren’t supported, then where does new talent come from? I know what it’s like to be turned down for a project because other writers ‘knew the brief and project better’. I understand this: publishers are under pressure to get books out onto the market, but image what would be possible if other writers had known the project in more detail? Would their work have been better, than the chosen authors? Who knows? But if nobody takes the time to develop new talent (however painstaking and time-consuming it may be), then where do new writers come from?

As I go through the 2nd edit of the document, there are parts which still need developing, but overall there has been an improvement. I consider this as meaning that my editing has encouraged and help the writer build on their already existing skills.


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Altered due to …

I’ve just begun work on a new project as a reviewer (or content editor) and editor. This project is, shall we say, a challenge: it’s already up and running (being taught) and is a fickle beast (as many projects are), meaning  that what was written a month ago needs ‘updating’ (aka altering!). While this is fine for me (I’m used to working for the company and the Middle east), I wonder what it must be like for new writers on the team.

Over the past week, I’ve been working on content editing detailed overviews and lesson plans and by the time I’ve finished, the documents have been a sea of red. The image below shows a snapshot of what whole edited documents look like.


It’s left me speculating how the writer will feel  when they receive the script.  I know 6-7 years ago, I’d have been devastated (this also makes me realise how much I’ve developed over this time). I’d have taken it personally and spent a good while swearing at the computer! Now I understand the process better, I’ve developed a tougher skin. However, I wonder how other writer’s experience the process, especially if they are new to it.

In the documents I’ve reviewed there is a good bit of ‘real’ content editing (altering exercises, structure, making it more culturally appropriate…), but some of the ‘red’  is due to changes in assessments and circumstances. Every alteration is explained (so many say ‘altered due to assessment change’ or ‘changes because of wifi issue’…), but this is only evident on closer reading. It doesn’t affect the overall impact of red or the number of comments.

I guess I’m also a bit apprehensive, about how my editing will be received, because of the last major project I worked on: a writer decided to ignore my content editing (I never found out why, although I have me theories), in fact they went ahead and deleted it! It was a very difficult situation to deal with. Luckily, the project manager was very supportive.  I suppose I’m dreading the possibility of having to face the same scenario again.

Ah well, I’ll soon find out!

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ring, ring, tweet, tweet: mobile nuisances


Smart Phone Icon

Mobiles, mobiles, mobiles – what to do with them?

At the start of each term, there’s the usual spiel about using mobile phones in class:

Should we be concerned if students keep checking their phones? Is it the new doodling?

I started this blog right at the beginning of term (it’s now about 10 weeks  later!), when I noticed quite a few of my new students had ‘itchy’ fingers that kept wondering over to their mobiles. I had 2-3 students who would use their mobile pretty constantly throughout the lesson.  Some students even took their mobiles for spoken group work. While I was inwardly getting quite annoyed (mildly put), I outwardly tried out a myriad of ways to deal with it.

As usual at the start of term, we’d had the usual discussion about expected classroom behaviour, part of which looked at mobile use (it’s fine for dictionaries and tasks that require online use, otherwise let them lie!), so every so often I kept on referring back to this. To try and keep things light, I’d make comments such as: ‘The answers aren’t on your mobile’; ‘You don’t need your mobile to speak’ or ‘We’re not using ebooks for this’. I was hoping  that this would act as a gentle reminder and students would stop using their mobiles (and I did check what they were being used for before I made the remarks), but I was mistaken.

I took a step back and decided to rethink how I was teaching, so I altered some of my activities: I included fewer group activities, reduced the movement (and chances for distraction) and taught in a more traditional way. After a while, I saw that even this made little difference to those that were determined tappers, so I decided to mix traditional and more recent teaching practice ideas (so that those students who were involved in learning didn’t lose out).

I tried to harness their attachment to their mobiles and included activities where they could use them. Some students reacted well and enjoyed it, however, those that I wished to reach, just carried on regardless.

All the while that I was trying out these methods, I was keeping a record of mobile use: who used them (when the activity didn’t require it), for how long and what for (where I could determine it). I noticed that all members of the class used their mobiles at some point during a lesson and there seems to be two types of user:

Type 1: those who have a quick check once they’ve finished an activity;

Type 2: those that are attached to their mobiles by some strange power and use it regardless of what’s happening around them.

I think, to answer my original question, that personal mobile use doesn’t matter (and is perhaps a new style of doodling), if (and it’s a big IF!), students have completed the work and it doesn’t distract from their learning or disturb others. As soon as mobile use starts to keep students from their own learning (especially when there are high stake outcomes) and impacts on others, then it becomes a problem.

How to deal with it? I’m still not sure – any suggestions would be most welcome!

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Using phonemic script

I was first introduced to the International Phonemic Script (IPA) at university on a module where I had to transcribe written French (it wasn’t my favourite module!) and I’ve now come to think that this affected my attitude to using the phonemic script in the classroom. I’m quite nervous about using it and have until recently avoided it.

I started teaching EFL in Europe (Germany and Austria), so teaching and using phonemic script didn’t feature much. My students never really had any problems with segmental or supra-segmental phonology: just the odd vw! Consequently, I never used it. Once I returned to the UK it seemed to be quite a different matter. I met the phonemic script again in EFL teacher training courses and my initial impression was that it was being used as the latest fad. This was partly due to the fact that I’d never really used it in teaching, but also because I couldn’t see the benefits. Seven years on and I’m still not sure!

The current trend seems to be in teaching supra-segmental phonology (tone, stress and prosody). This makes sense to me: intonation, stress and tone often carry more meaning than individual sounds. What native speaker utters each individual sound of every word (in English)?  I know I don’t (for instance, yup for ‘hey up’ (hello in my area) and slater for ‘see you later’), even when I’m in the classroom. I remember when I first moved to Austria and people kept saying ‘christie’. I kept on thinking:  ‘Who is this Christie?’. It was only after a few weeks that I realised they were saying ‘Gruss dich’! Knowing the individual sounds  wouldn’t have really helped me with this! This brings me neatly to the point of accents: many languages have different ways of pronouncing the same ‘sound’. Using the German ‘dich’ as an example: ‘dich’ can be pronounced  ‘dich’ /dIç/;’di’  /dI/; ‘dik’ /dIk/ or ‘dis’ /dIʃ/ (I’m sure there are other variations as well). If I’d known only the standard or hochdeutsch (and oft classroom taught) ‘dich’ /dIç/, it would have been more of a challenge to work out who this Christie was!

Having said all that, I still believe that in some cases teaching individual sounds and using the IPA as support is valid. Having now been back in the UK for a while and teaching a very different set of students (predominantly from the Far and Middle East), I can see the value of teaching individual sounds, using the IPA to show differences in pronunciation and to make links to students own languages (although such comparison can carry its own dangers). Certain students wish to grasp  individual sounds, while others need to practise certain ones. For example helping Far eastern students with /l/ and /r/, /θ/ and /ð/, as well as some of the vowel sounds often helps general pronunciation. Arabic speakers benefit from help with /p/ and /b/, along with the difference between long and short vowel sounds; a distinction not  clear from spelling alone and one which they find difficult (Arabic denotes short vowels with a small mark above the preceding letter in writing).

Phonetic script can also be used to show grapheme -phoneme relationships to help highlight patterns.This then helps students to work out the pronunciation of new words, although their guess may not be accurate (there are always exceptions to a pattern). Having knowledge of the IPA also enables students to use dictionaries more effectively and become less reliant on the tutor for pronunciation guidance. However, the question remains of how much of the script to teach and how it can be introduced. I remain skeptical about teaching it as a separate item for students to learn and then apply. I’ve never tried to teach it this way, but I don’t feel it would work. I think students would be overloaded (especially for those who have use a different script to the roman one and/or have never used or seen it before) and probably not appreciate the value of the phonemic script. I have found that using the script to highlight individual sounds in both standard and ‘other’ Englishes helps students with pronunciation, of the standard sound, and recognition of the non-standard. I do this as I go along though: I tend not to plan it specifically into my lessons, rather introduce it as and when I feel students need it. Slowly students are exposed to the phonemic script, without them realising it. However, I don’t think my students would fair very differently if I didn’t use it.

What I have come to believe is that the IPA offers extra guidance: it gives students additional ‘hooks’ to hang their knowledge.  I feel that it should be introduced in bite size chunks and with regards to understanding accents, recognition of sounds is the vital part, not the reproduction.

Post inspired by the article On Using the Phonemic Script in Language Teaching by Mark Hancock (http://hancockmcdonald.com/ideas/using-phonemic-script-language-teaching)


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This term I decided to email assignment feedback to students, rather than give it individually in class time. It’s something I did with a bit of reluctance, as I like to be sure students understand my comments and advice. I wasn’t sure, and I’m still not, if students read and really understood what I had written. If I’m totally honest it made my life, as a teacher, much easier: usually when I give feedback I do so during class, so I have to ensure that the other students are doing something constructive. On top of that, we have  new student intake at the time when assessment feedback is due. It’s pretty difficult to manage. In that light, sending feedback via email was brilliant. It freed up time to help new students feel welcome and settle in the group.  After students had received the results and comments, I planned in class time for responding to any questions. It seems this was appreciated, though there were very few questions. This could mean two things: either my comments were extremely clear, or nobody understood a word!

Since giving the feedback students have improved and worked on the elements I’ve highlighted. However, I still feel that something’s missing from the process. I think this is perhaps partially due to the fact that emailing results and comments is new to me, but also because I’m not sure that the feedback has been communicated effectively. I thought I’d read around to see if I could find inspiration.

Initially, I looked at giving feedback in general to ensure that I was covering all bases; that it’s given in timely fashion; that it’s focused (on what is being assessed and not feeding back on every single element); that the information is well communicated and not in complicated language (essential in my context); that comments given are constructive, and that the pointers help the students learn

While I was exploring feedback, I came across the document below which I found to offer comprehensive guidance. It’s made me think that I could provide students with more ‘official’ feedback on more of their work (and participation), rather than just the assignments. Hopefully, this will enable them to become familiar with  using feedback to learn.


Giving feedback


This does digress a little from my initial query, although it has helped me establish where the gap is: communication  (I’m not sure the have been understood).  Some of the feedback rubrics can be adapted and presented to the class as general feedback to compliment the email. One way of doing this would be to perhaps use Jing, as Julie Moore experimented with (http://lexicoblog.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/time-consuming-tech-jing-for-student.html), taking on board her experience and using it emphasize the areas  all students need to improve. Doing it in this manner, would also include new students, introducing them to how work is marked. Feeding back in this way, also allows for the feedback to be kept and added to the VLE for students to reference later, if they feel the need.

Next term then, I’ll be emailing the feedback and trying a Jing feedback session.

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Help! My students think their course book is too easy

After my musings from the other week, I find this post by Ken Wilson very enlightening. I’m kicking myself for not having thought of the idea. Unfortunately, it’s too late for this term, but I’ll try it next.

Oxford University Press

ESL course book too easyWhat can you do if some of your students find the course book you are using too easy? Ken Wilson, the main author of Smart Choice Second Edition, shares his ideas.

I recently got this message from a teacher:

Hello Ken. I was wondering if you could answer a question. How can a teacher deal with using a course book that the students find too easy? My colleague is using Smart Choice Starter (an excellent series, by the way), but some of the students think it’s too easy. What advice do you have for her? Thanks in advance!

I imagine a lot of teachers find the book they are using too easy or too difficult for their class. Or for some of the class. So here are a couple of ideas to do something about it, assuming that changing the book or moving certain students to a different…

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I’m in the class, but am I teaching?

I should perhaps also be asking if the students are learning, as well as if I’m teaching. I certainly didn’t feel that much was happening last Tuesday. I had set my students the task of reading an article (with the aim of answering some comprehension questions), and  was monitoring and facilitating. A perfectly normal classroom scenario. They were completing the exercise well, without my help, although a little quietly for the group, and didn’t seem to need much support: only one student actually asked me a question in the time I’d given. I thought perhaps they were a little tired (we’ve had 6 weeks of 20 hours a week and have just completed the first round of assessments) and I didn’t want to be too ‘in their faces’, so I kept monitoring quietly. After a while I started to feel that the students didn’t need me and I felt like I was bumbling around with no real purpose. I adapted the time for the exercise and we duly went through the answers. I thought that perhaps I’d be able to help at this stage, but no: the students had performed pretty well, with only the odd slightly wrong answer.

It left me a little bemused. Other groups of students have found the article quite challenging and it’s taken quite a while to complete the exercises (I hasten to add that the article is in a coursebook that we are following – it’s not one that I’d chosen for the students). I didn’t quite know what had gone on. In an attempt to get a better understanding of the ‘incident’, I’ve spent the last week observing the class completing other language exercises and I’ve not experienced the same feeling again. I’ve started wondering, if it was just me and a projection of how I was feeling that day.

Because of this impression, I have started reflecting more on my teaching and what I do in the classroom. I’ve been teaching for quite a while (14 years), so having to analyse what I’m doing again  has been challenging but valuable. I’ve realised that the vast majority of what I do in the classroom is automatic. Being made to consider what I do, has led me to questioning my actions and the way I behave in class and with students. I’ve gone right back to the beginning: looking at activities, questioning what the objectives are and why I’ve adapted them, or not. I’ve noticed that on occasion I’ve perhaps altered an activity, with no real reason, other than to take the lesson off the page. I haven’t actually added any pedagogical worth to the exercise. Is there anything wrong with this? I’m not sure: sometimes it seems a bit like ‘busy’ work and at other times, I think that if the student is more interested and therefore better motivated, then the adaptation has served a valuable purpose. I’ve also speculated if some of my adjustments to the coursebook act as distractors: perhaps I’ve altered the book too much because I’m so familiar with it (I’ve been using the same book for about 4 years). Moving ‘in and out’ of the book could lead to confusion, rather than clarity. Students might not know where they are or what to look at. As well as the activities I use, I’ve started to monitor the way I give instructions. Do I perhaps say too much? Should I explain the exercise in words different to those in the book? Should I just say ‘Do exercise X’?. I’m still not sure: sometimes I give short instructions and they’re understood, on other occasions I have to expand. I should perhaps also look at the actual language I use. Does simplifying the book instructions cause uncertainty? It’s clear I’ve still got a bit to reflect on.  It’s been an interesting experience (and still is).

May be I’m reading too much into a situation. Who knows? Whatever the cause of the ‘incident’, at least I’m reflecting more on the basics of teaching again.


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Bottom-up decoding: reading and listening for the future

Oxford University Press

reading process decoding Image source: http://images.cdn.fotopedia.com/flickr-281194868-hd.jpg

Mark Bartram, a teacher trainer and materials writer, explores different approaches for processing written and spoken text, and how they can be integrated into the English language classroom. 

Are you a top-downer or a bottom-upper? The debate as to the relative importance of these two approaches to understanding spoken or written text has been going on for decades. Most people would agree that both approaches are useful at different times and for different reasons. In this blog I will attempt to explain why the bottom-up approach should not be neglected.

First, some definitions.

Top-down processing starts from the reader or listener. It assumes that the learner brings to the text certain knowledge – of the world, of texts (including how certain types of conversation typically unfold), and of language. This knowledge is likely to be useful in understanding a text (whether written or spoken), but it often needs…

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