? vrthng. 

John F. Fanselow
John F. Fanselow
By John F. Fanselow

Sandals? You’re kidding.

I wore shoes till I lived in Nigeria. When I got athlete’s foot during hot and humid summers in Chicago, I bought off the counter ointments and they relieved the symptoms somewhat.

In Nigeria the temperature and the humidity were much higher than those I had experienced in Chicago. The off the counter ointments had very little effect.

So I went to a doctor and asked for a prescription ointment. He said there was no need for ointment. All I had to do was wear sandals. Well as I said, I had worn shoes all my life and I thought of all sorts of reasons why sandals would not be a good option. They would not support my arches well, my feet would get dirty from the dust in the places where I walked, insects would bite my toes, they seemed too casual to wear with the shirt and tie that I wore when teaching, and people would smell the odor from my feet.

The doctor refused to prescribe ointments and insisted I try his suggested alternative. So I bought a pair of sandals. None of my fears materialized.

My feet had no odors, the small amount of dust that accumulated I could shake off in a heartbeat on my doorstep. The sandals I bought had strong arch support. My students said they thought that sandals were more stylish with shorts in the tropical rainforest. They said they had thought it strange for me to wear shoes.

I continued to wear sandals after I returned to New York because my feet continued to be so healthy. When I went to buy a new pair, my wife, who is Japanese, was with me. The salesperson asked me whether I ever visited Japan. I said I often did. He said that he would like me to try on a pair of sandals without straps. He knew that the Japanese remove their shoes before entering their homes. “You won’t have to bend over or sit down each time you enter and leave to strap and unstrap your sandals with these with no straps.”

I said that the sandals would fall off. He said they would not. I said that when I drive they will not stick to my right foot and, as a result, I will not be able to brake quickly. He kept saying that there is no difference between sandals with and without straps as far as keeping them on goes. I said I found this hard to believe.

He got up abruptly and returned with a pair of sandals without straps. He gently removed my sandals with straps and put the sandals without straps on. He said, “Please walk.”

I walked. They did not fall off. They were just as secure and comfortable as those with straps.


We are all creatures of habit both inside and outside of our classrooms. We follow rules that we have unconsciously learned. We get used to doing things in a particular way that we feel comfortable with.

One result of this fact is that, just as I first resisted sandals and then sandals without straps, when people suggest alternative activities for our teaching we conjure up all sorts of reasons why the alternative activities will not work. When we feel comfortable doing what we do, we continue acting the same way.

My suggestion is for you to be as skeptical about your present practices as about the alternatives. Ask how widely advocated pre-reading activities (such as brainstorming, scaffolding, predicting what a text is about) might not only be useless but also detrimental to learning. Question the value of memorizing individual words on note cards with the first language equivalent on the back of the cards. Consider ways that asking students to define words, or use new words in sentences, repeating words in isolation, memorizing rules in either English or students’ first languages, having students in pairs talk about their favorite songs, sports or whatever might be detrimental.

A singular message

I have never seen anyone else share this message at the beginning of each class or at the beginning of workshops or presentations that teacher educators make:

But if I am true to the question I started with, ? vrthng, then you must not only not believe anything I say but anything anyone else says. Do one of your usual activities, make a small change, and compare the effects, over and over and over.

If you follow these steps you will see how much more both you and your students are capable of. You will discover that inertia can be overcome with often exhilarating effects.

The changes I suggest are small, just as changes from shoes to sandals with straps to sandals without straps are small. But the results can be very big. The changes are also easy to employ, just as changing what we wear on our feet is very easy to do.

The three biggest issues in ELT

For me, the lack of skepticism, which I just mentioned, the acceptance of prescriptions and labels is the first one of the three biggest issues in ELT. The second is our failure to analyze what we and our students actually do. All too often we discuss what we do and plan lessons using labels with positive connotations: pre-reading activities, scaffolding, positive feedback, pair work, communicative activities, re-casting, comprehension check, activation of prior knowledge, experiential learning to name ten of dozens. We use the terms the same way doctors use low density and high-density cholesterol and vitamin B12. But the terms in our field are very, very imprecise. Yet we use them to say what we do rather than record and transcribe what we do.

The third issue is the belief that doing A results in B. “Pick a few key words from the text – 7-10 is usually a good number. Have the students write a brief story using each word. This familiarizes students with the vocabulary used in the text. Not only will this help improve reading comprehension, it will improve writing skills as well.” How can the so-called key words familiarize students with the text since they have not seen the text? How can writing a story using each word, many of which they probably are not familiar with, improve their writing? Writing is not using unfamiliar words to write a story with no purpose, no audience, and no theme.

Forget terms. Forget claims about using keywords in stories to improve reading comprehension and writing. Let’s look at the reality of what we do by analyzing recordings and 20 to 30 transcribed lines of what we and our students do. Describe what was said and done by each participant without using one label. Change what is said and done a little, record and transcribe the small changes and compare the results. Over and over and over. Describe and analyze what you do without jargon and with as few preconceived notions as possible.

In our analysis we have to be skeptical — the first issue — how is what we think is useful not useful and how is what we think is not useful possibly useful? What do our students think about what we do?

I am advocating nothing more than what explorers have urged for centuries:

Sit down before what you see and hear like a little child, and be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abyss Nature leads, or you shall learn nothing.  T. Huxley


More of John’s explorations are coming early 2017 in a new book Small Changes in Teaching Big Results in Learning.

A rising tide lifts all boats

Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto
Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto
By Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto

It’s not like English language teaching has ever been a bastion of egalitarianism. There have always been Haves and Have Nots.

Haves earn enough to support a family and even save a little, with resources to support their teaching and professional development, in an environment that rewards them for improving their teaching skills.

Have Nots don’t earn enough to do more than get by, don’t have access to resources, and aren’t in an environment that rewards improvement.

Obviously, this is a broad generalization, and most teachers fall somewhere between these two extremes.

What I find worrisome is the sense that the gap between the two groups is growing, with increasing numbers of teachers who used to do okay finding it harder to get by. My evidence is mostly anecdotal, based on the teachers I work with through iTDi courses, but our community includes more than 5000 teachers from over 100 countries, and we’ve gathered data from the hundreds of teachers receiving scholarships. From my perspective, lack of access is one of the biggest issues.

Access to a living wage 

Some income gaps are longstanding. The gap in pay between different teaching contexts, and between native and non-native English speaking teachers is familiar to anyone working in ELT, particularly in countries where English is a foreign rather than second language.

Teachers are subject to the same economic forces that are challenging many around the world these days – currency devaluations and restrictions, austerity programs, and sanctions.

One change has been the growing awareness of professional development opportunities, both face-to-face and online. Thanks to online social networks, teachers have realized what they’re missing. While US $200 might be an adequate salary for an unmarried teacher in a developing country, it’s completely inadequate if that teacher wants to attend an international conference, or enroll in a TESOL certificate course, or take an online professional development course.

Teachers increasingly realize that conference participation and additional training can help them advance their careers in ways that will help them earn a living wage. To be aware of what they could do, but be unable to afford conference fees that are more than a month’s income, or certificate programs that cost more than they make in a year turns these teachers into kids looking in the ELT candy store window, unable to afford any of the treats inside. iTDi offers scholarships for our courses because we believe that these teachers matter, too. Every teacher who pays for one of our courses means we can afford to include more teachers who can’t pay.

Access to information 

Access to research articles has long been a perk for university teachers. While not all universities have equal access to research journals, they all beat the access non-university teachers have, which is none.

This wasn’t as big a deal when there were few ELT journals and most classroom ESL and EFL instructors found academic research irrelevant to their daily teaching lives. With the explosion of information available online, more classroom teachers are becoming interested in doing action research and publishing – in part because that’s also a way to advance careers and become eligible for better paying positions – but until they can access more than article abstracts on Google Scholar they will remain the kids outside the candy store, looking in.

Access to professionalism 

A great deal of English language teaching around the world happens in for-profit schools, and most schools are run by business people, not teachers. Since their bottom line focus is on attracting and retaining paying students, school owners tend to invest in what they believe students (or their parents) will pay for, and what will give them an edge over their competition. If students (or their parents) chose schools based on the professionalism of their teachers, schools would invest in training and retaining excellent teachers.

While preferred qualifications vary around the world, school owners can generally require their new teachers to have some sort of ELT certification. However, there is seldom support or reward for language school teachers who want to continue their professional growth by presenting at conferences, or writing, or taking additional teacher training courses. Why? Because teachers who make themselves more attractive professionally tend to leave language schools for better jobs (with higher income and greater access to resources), or they open their own schools.

This is one area of access where I have seen gradual improvement. The decline of big language school chains has created more opportunities for teachers to open their own schools. While they still need to turn a profit, they are often better able to meet the specific learning needs of students in their locales than a national chain. They tend to recognize the value of continued professional development – for themselves and for their teachers – in being better able to attract and retain students.

Teachers also have increased opportunities to share their professional accomplishments online, in blogposts or in social networks. In a sense, a teacher’s online profile is a living resume. Investing in whatever sort of professional development one can afford, even if not currently teaching in an environment that rewards it, is banking on being qualified and ready to take advantage of future opportunities when they do appear.

If access is the problem, what is the solution? What can we do to lessen the gap between Have and Have Not teachers?

  1. Support open, online journals, and let the publishers and researchers who choose to publish in them know that you appreciate having access. Stephen Krashen is a great example of a respected researcher who has made all his work freely accessible.
  2. If you publish articles or book chapters, consider uploading a draft of your work to an open access site, like Academia.
  3. Support professional teaching organizations that offer discounted membership fees for low-income teachers, or discounted registration fees at conferences. Let them know you appreciate both the efforts they are already making and any future efforts to increase access for all teachers.
  4. Support professional development that works to include all teachers, both the Haves with credit cards and strong currencies and the Have Nots, who have just as great a need for the continued training even if they can’t pay. If, for example, you enroll in one of iTDi’s 2017 Advanced Teaching Skills courses, part of your registration fee will support a full or partial scholarship for another teacher.
  5. Help your students (and their parents) become more savvy education consumers. Let them know how attending conferences or continuing your own training benefits them.

Improving access for all teachers increases the strength of ELT as a profession. I hope that you will add to this post with additional examples of the problems unequal access creates, and with more suggestions for reducing these gaps.

Notes From A Distant ELT Outpost

Chuck Sandy
Chuck Sandy
By Chuck Sandy

Living as I do in a quiet corner of central Japan where not much happens, I might be the last person you’d expect to see commenting on recent trends in ELT. Then add to this the very fact that it’s been a good while now since I’ve been a classroom teacher and it’s almost like I should disqualify myself from this task.  Still I do keep a social media lookout for news from the English language teaching world and further fuel my addiction to this news with daily readings from the many English Language Teaching (and education) blogs that I follow and stumble upon. It’s from this distant vantage point that I offer up the following notes and observations.

  1. It’s been a year in which ELT teacher equity has been brought to the forefront thanks to the IATEFL 2016 plenary by Silvana Richardson, the ongoing work of TEFL Equity Advocates, and the conversation which has been happening all over social media for much of the year. The fact that the profession is now beginning to move away from the native-speaker bias that’s plagued ELT for years is something worth applauding.
  1. There’s been a vigorous discussion about what it means to be an ELT teacher going on throughout the year. While at times related to the equity issues raised above, this discussion has also seen many questioning what it takes to begin work as a qualified English language teacher.  For an overview of this discussion, you might start with this post on Hugh Dellar’s Lexical Lab blog.  But don’t stop there. For a full range of the discussion and the bigger picture of the problem, do a search for TEFL or TESOL or EFL teacher qualifications and spend some time looking around.  As you do, consider for yourself what it means to be an ELT professional and what sort of qualifications new English language teachers should have upon entering the field. This is a discussion we’ll be seeing more of in the coming year.
  1. Several groups around the ELT world have begun experimenting with the notion of what a conference is and exploring the ways that ideas and initiatives can be shared. Who should be invited to speak? How long should keynote presentations be? Should there even be keynotes? Do we even need a traditional venue? What would happen if the doors were widened enough to bring in ideas from education, psychology, and business?  Although there are several groups and individuals I could mention,  Innovate ELTExcitELT, and EdYOUfest come to mind. Then there’s Laura Patsko and her Pedagogy Pop Ups on Periscope. It will be interesting to see how these start-up conferences and idea-sharing platforms develop in the coming year. Maybe you’ll be participating in one or more of these or forging ahead with new initiatives of your own.
  1. Everyone has probably noticed the slow but steady rise of the indie ELT publisher over the past couple of years. It may have all started with The Round but now there’s Atama-ii with its “choose your own adventure” books, Wayzgoose Press with a growing list of titles, and the soon to be launched The ELT Workshop.  There is also a growing series of collaboratively written books produced by Heart ELT which are beautifully done. These are well worth a look.
  1. It seems that teacherpreneur just might be the ELT word of 2016. Though I first became aware of the word some time ago while exploring the archives at the mostly K-12 Teachers Pay Teachers, it didn’t register fully until I connected with Patrice Palmer. Her website is full of interviews with teachers who have made the jump from classroom teacher to provider of hand-crafted materials, self-published books, and online lessons. If you find this intriguing and are considering making a similar jump yourself, Patrice will be leading an iTDi Advanced Course in January 2017 called Teacher To Teacherpreneur that will help you explore your options as you learn about the business end of ELT.
  1. Perhaps it’s because I live way out in the middle of nowhere as I do that I’ve been even more amazed this year by how easy it is to collaborate on projects with people in far-away places. The things I’m working on now couldn’t have been done even a few years ago. The tools which are now available to us have become that easy to use. I can hardly imagine what’s next.
  1. I’m going to go out on a limb here and call 2016 the beginning of a post-PLN (Personal Learning Network) world. What I see from where I sit is more people getting connected in more ways and yet collaborating more closely in smaller groups. My friend Michael Obrien calls these smaller groups pelotons – a word that comes from the cycling world. A peloton is a group of cyclists who work collaboratively towards the fulfillment of a common goal. Sometimes one rider takes the lead while others block the wind. Sometimes another one does. Sometimes one rider will pull ahead while others fall behind. Then that one waits for others to catch up. “You can never be faster than your peloton,” says Michael. Nor should you.  You’re all getting to the same place together and because you’re getting there together, that makes the whole experience better. Working in this way with my peloton is my goal for 2017.

And perhaps our paths will cross as I read your posts, or as we work on online projects together, or maybe we’ll even meet up out in the physical world somewhere.  Although I write to you from a distant outpost, the ELT world is a small one. To where ever you are and for whatever you do, I thank you and wish you a happy, healthy, and prosperous year ahead.