Archive for April, 2014

Taking Peter Brown, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel to task. Learning is complex.

April 18, 2014

I read the Times Educational Supplement with interest today. Peter Brown, Henry Roediger and Mark McDaniel seem to have all the answers as expressed in ‘Effortless learning is a dangerous illusion’. Learning does, indeed, require effort. However, I take issue with the suggestion that ‘repeated exposure [does not burn] new knowledge into memory’ and that ‘re-reading does not get below the surface of the text’. As always, learning is a complex matter and individual students acquire knowledge differently.
While I also subscribe to the notion that effective learning comes from manipulating the knowledge one wants to acquire, I also remember as a teenage student, reading and re-reading texts in preparation for exams. I was delighted when I recalled much of the language and its underlying concepts when I was writing my answers to the exam questions. It was more than fluency that helped me write those essays – I had acquired an intuitive understanding of how the language worked and of its inherent underlying concepts. It was different to the language I used in my daily life; it was language that was more appropriate for the academic subject and I had learnt it by reading and re-reading the text.
Spaced or interleaved practice is effective, as they say, but it does not need to be as haphazard as suggested. Simply extending the time needed to hold a piece of knowledge in the working memory can help to remember it in the long term. I used this method to teach spelling to a student who was having difficulties and simply by asking her to hold a number of words and related material in her mind for a while, helped her to learn the target words more effectively and permanently. You will find more of this idea in my book ‘The Spelling Game’. I agree that recalling the learnt material at a later date would help the learning even further, but it does not have to be an anxiety-ridden experience.
I disagree with their dismissal of the idea that if learning feels easy, it is not being learnt effectively. With some students a jumble of ideas or questions simply leads to confusions. Little is learnt and the sense of failure can make a lot of difference. Some students first need to understand the material that they are learning and this understanding needs to be presented in a way that it is easy for the students to understand. Only after this can they involve themselves in the more adventurous manipulation of the knowledge and practice in recall in the way we all suggest.
I also disagree with their suggestion that we are not good judges of what we know and don’t know. If we cannot recall something, we are immediately aware that we do not know it, we have not learnt it. This is basic common sense. However, I agree whole-heartedly with the effectiveness of testing. Testing and re-testing ourselves with material that makes us approach the same subject in different ways certainly aided my learning.
You may wish to have a look at my dissertation on ‘The development of language acquisition of a Mature Learner’ available free on In this, I studied myself learning a new language and discussed in greater depth how we acquire knowledge in the form of language.
It is a complex matter that cannot be easily described in affirmative, may I suggest ‘sweeping’ statements. There is no definitive answer, for our personalities and cognitive competence vary considerably. In this area of education, one-size does not fit all.
Rosemary Westwell

Vinidicated at last – my way of writing poetry is OK see my poem: The Fenland Sky

April 5, 2014

Ely area news

I was delighted to find that I was short-listed for the position of Poet Laureate of Ely. My friends and I had a great time at the museum in Wisbech when we heard all the short-listed poets. I had never been to the Museum before and was amazed at how attractive Wisbech and its Crescent are. I found it interesting that they were showing cowrie shells and mother-of-pearl shells that reminded me of my beach-combing my youth in Tasmania.

However, back tot he Poet Laureate competition. Fortunately for Ely, I did not get the post, but it vindicated me for some of my writing friends have suggested I change my style so that I rhyme or not rhyme – not put in a mixture of sounds the way I do. I love the challenge of playing with words so that they ‘sound right’.

I entered the following poem into this competition, writing…

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Word that sound similar but are spelt differently

April 5, 2014

Ely area news

In preparation for my presentation at the IATEFL Conference in Harrogate this year (2014) I have suggested that it is helpful for students’ spelling and reading to think about how words may sound the same but are spelt differently.

Here is a suggested list to work from. Students may wish to add to this or the teacher may use this list as part of a lesson or forgames.

bed, head, said

card, bath, half

dot, watch, cough, yacht

fort, always, all, audio, caught, bought, bawl

book, full

food, two, you, rude, new, sue, who

cup, one, enough, dozen

bird, fern, rehearse

lemon, sugar, teacher, doctor, minus

rain, baby, bake, may, eight

coast, dough, host, open, snow, cope,

kite, buy, dry, height, high, lion, pie

cow, out, bough, doubt

coil, toy, buoy

ear, cheer, pier, weird

bear, bare, air, mayor

fuel, dew, music, queue,

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IATEFL Conference 2014 presentation by RJWestwell A Reason for Rhyming Summary

April 5, 2014

Ely area news

IATEFL Conference 2014 presentation by RJWestwell A Reason for Rhyming Summary

First Question: Can you correct the mistakes in these common phrases?

book the cooks

haith feals

pining your lockets

a hin in a paystack

a tace against rime


cook the books

faith heals

lining your pockets

a pin in a haystack

a race against time

Second question:

Why do we make this kind of mistake so often?

Answer: Words are stored in our memories according to sound

Third question:

Which words might our students confuse?

e.g. bat and pat

innocence and in__________

_______and an enemy

ceremony and __________

disparate and ___________


e.g. bat and pat

innocence and insolence

anemone and an enemy

ceremony and seminary

disparate and desperate

Fourth question:

How can we use this understanding?

Answer: Students or teachers create exercises that use easily-confused words.

e.g. Choose the correct word:

If you marionette/marinade the…

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Review: ‘My IATEFL 2014 experience’

April 5, 2014

My IATEFL experience this year was every bit as interesting and useful as expected. With Carol’s sparkling personality introducing and closing the event, we could not help but enjoy ourselves.

I decided to play it cool this year, to go to the sessions I could sensibly manage and still remain relatively unfazed and awake. My relaxation was perhaps a little excessive for I did not practise my own presentation as planned so that I could get the timing just right. Fortunately the few people who attended seemed to appreciate the content at least. (The content was based mainly on the idea that spelling should be taught in clusters of words that share the same pattern and students should relate to the words by inventing sentences prompted by pictures before trying to recall the target words, if they were to retain them.) However, I rattled through my presentation like an express train late for arrival and ended it rather abruptly and far too early. Next time it will be better, (I trust!).

David Graddol’s opening plenary session was erudite, smooth and interesting – all about English and its economic effect, if any. Then, much time was taken with sorting out my accommodation – no one’s ‘fault’ – just life, but I did manage to slip into to ‘Initiating students to poetry: a task-based approach’ by Hans Osterwalder which introduced me to a fantastic poem: Kid by Simon Armitage. I’ve always liked Simon Armitage’s poetry. Hans gave us a lot of ideas of how to get the students involved enough in the subject, especially the emotions of past experience, so that they were motivated to write their own poems on the theme.

I’ll gloss over my session ‘Reasons for Rhyming’, if you don’t mind (blush) and I know I visited may other sessions but I’ll just mention the ones that stood out for me. My next major port of call was Felicity O’Dell’s ‘How to write a good task for a test’. I have known Felicity for some time, so that was one major reason for supporting her – I don’t mind admitting that I am a true fan of hers – and I knew that the session would be good. Indeed, her presentation gave much insight into the pitfalls to avoid when choosing and using texts for test material. (Her timing was spot on, too, I noticed.)

I needed a dose of humour – everyone needs a dose of the stuff if you are to survive teaching, and Dave ‘n’ Luke’s ‘Hard Times for English Teachers’ had me laughing my head off. It was great – more please!

Having not really put my mind to being the freelancer I claim to be, I felt obliged to get up early on Thursday and go to ‘How to become a successful freelancer’ with Mike Hogan. He was quite right with everything he said and I was inspired to be more determined to do more about working towards my so-called freelance profession. It’s like writing; you’ve got to actually DO something if you are to succeed at all. (Hence this piece being written so soon after hearing Mike’s words.)

The rest of the day was spent skiving on a trip to Hawarth Parsonage. I’ve always wanted to go and was not disappointed, although the impression I had of the Bronte’s, their home and their family was not quite right. The parsonage was not in an inhospitable spot way out in a flat bleak moor – it nestles cosily in a charming village on a very steep hill. The graves immediately outside their front door may have been a little depressing though and I was left wondering how the scene in Wuthering Heights with the tapping of a branch on the window turning into the icy fingers of the dead Cathy could have been imagined if there were no trees near the house in their time.

The title of Michael Hoey’s ‘Old approaches, new perspectives: the implications of a corpus linguistic theory for learning the English Language’ looked quite formidable and I geared myself up to be a little bored on the subject. However, there was nothing boring about this session. I could have hugged him for endorsing one of my favourites:  Krashen, for I can still remember vividly Krashen’s little video showing him teaching new vocabulary by simply mentioning the words often in a stream of approachable identifiable language. I remember when struggling to write the theory for my PhD dissertation how I wondered why Krashen was being dismissed so readily by so many. It crossed my mind that perhaps anyone who has a bright idea or two has to be gunned down by those who are limited in ideas themselves, but I have no proof of this, of course, and did not dare say anything like that in the PhD. I must look up more about Michael Lewis.

I decided I ought to make an effort to keep up to date with exams, so I appreciated the efforts of Annie Broadhead and Jill Buggey (Cambridge English) whose presentations were immaculate.

Herbet Puchta’s ‘Remembering new language: strategies that work – and strategies that don’t’ was very interesting and stirred my rebellious soul to rise again. He was probably right when he pointed out the research showed that re-reading texts and using mnemonic devices were not the best way for teenagers to remember. However, I can remember when studying for A levels as a teenager, I found that when reading a paragraph three times and then its constituent sentences three times, a lot of the language was retained in my memory that made writing essays in the exams much easier. As a learner now (admittedly, a rather mature one) I find mnemonic devices vital if I am to retain language and I do remember using them to good effect as a teenager, too. This might be proof that there is always the individual who proves the research ‘wrong’ and just because many students learn better in a certain way, this does not mean that ALL students MUST learn better in that particular  manner.

Friday night’s entertainment was a real winner. I never miss the Pecha Kucha, and this time is was just as good as ever. It was great fun hearing so many people say all those outrageous things that we know are true about teachers’ lives but that we don’t normally express. This was followed by an amazing display of fantastically talented people at the Open Mic Night. I was transported back to my early days in London, listening to gutsy buskers in the London underground, or milling with a host of strangers in a cellar somewhere in London where folk singers and players gathered every evening to revel in the magic of music. The evening went so quickly and I was particularly impressed with the haunting Japanese flute, an amazing intuitive jazz singer, a couple of great blues guitarists and a fantastic violinist, amongst others.

Sugata Mitra’s ‘The future of Learning’ kept me spell-bound with his amazing, seemingly reckless ideas of putting a computer in a hole in the wall for children to teach themselves how to use it  completely unaided. Sugata’s sense of humour shone throughout the talk and I could not help thinking that whatever he said about leaving the children to get on with it themselves, that the children could not help but warm to his personality. If I had the time, I would willingly subscribe to being one of his granny’s for he is dead right when he says that children learn better with regular encouraging words. (I keep telling myself this when I find a student hasn’t practised at all before their piano lesson. At these times, it’s very difficult to find something to praise, but I keep searching.)

I was interested in many other sessions, but, as always, you can’t go to them all. I planned to go to Michael Ward’s ‘Lesson observation using 21st Century technology’ for I knew him from teaching and from a teacher-training session I did at his school (Embassy). I was particularly impressed with the way he encouraged the staff to have a full say in what happened in the school i.e. he knew his stuff.

The talk on a ‘language MOOC’ (massive open online courses) looked good, although I already knew about this wonderful   invention, having already completed one on Forensic Science with Strathclyde University.  Their MOOC was fantastic and I recommend this university if this course was anything to go by. A look at will reveal a host of free courses that are available.

I enjoyed Tan Bee’s ‘Creativity in ELT: from communicative to creative tasks’ and Ken Lackman’s ‘Getting students to do your prep’ was right up my street, although he could have added, that when he corrects students’ writing, he could get them to try to correct their mistakes in team games under his supervision. I have found students find this very effective for learning grammar painlessly – and, again, they are doing the work (under the teacher’s watchful eye, of course).

The coffee breaks became a major part of the day – so many FREE wicked cream cakes, coffee that you could actually get hold of and, of course, so many new people to get to know, albeit, very briefly. Food being one of my major life-interests, I eventually worked out that if you had an entrée and a side plate of salad, you could have a proper meal for lunch or dinner in the Classic Bar in the hotel for a reasonable amount of money.

Jackie Kay’s final plenary was highly entertaining and inspired me to take a special interest in poetry. Maybe I’ll try and do a presentation on poetry next year in Manchester (if I’m allowed).  After such a wonderful conference this year, I’m determined to go again – I’ll see you there!

Rosemary Westwell