Although I earn my money up at the university, my main job these days seems to be teaching of young learners. Two of them, boys, aged two and four. I’ve started sitting down with Ibuki everyday for ten or twenty minutes to do our ‘letters’, and both boys love being read to, but I wanted to try something a bit different for fun. So here is the first part of our family alphabet…. twenty one more letters to follow.

Step by Step

Find words for each letter of the alphabet. The boys need help with this, but older children should be able to do it. I asked them what they liked, what they play with, what they could see around the house and so on to prompt them.

It is preferable, I think, if you can keep some consistency with phonics…especially in the early stages of trying to read. But on the other hand I wanted to use words which they know and which have some meaning for them. With this in mind I was able to substitute giraffe (Satsuki’s favourite animal) for Gorillaz (Satsuki’s favourite band), but I stuck with ‘Ice Cream’ over ‘Ink’ or ‘Igloo’ just because it has more relevance for them.

I used an Edirol R-09HR digital voice recorder for the sounds, and a lo-fi video camera called a Digital Harinezumi (get one now if you can, because they will go out of production soon) for the visuals, but that’s just because I like the effects and I like playing with video. Once I had enough audio, I clipped together the parts I needed in Garageband, then trimmed the video to fit the length and edited them together in iMovie. I added the text at that stage too. I did one letter at a time, then stitched them all together and added a drum loop from Garageband to top it off. However, you could do something similar in far less time if you use a video camera with a built-in audio channel.



  1. A class alphabet. You should check, but here in Japan I think just about every family has access to rudimentary video equipment, be it a mobile phone, smartphone, a feature of a point-and-shoot digital camera, or a full-on camcorder. If you are confident that your young learners have access to the technology, get the parents involved too. Give each student a letter or two for homework, and have them record a segment and email it in to you. You can quickly stitch them together for everyone to enjoy.
  2. If you have flip video cameras or the equivalent, and your young learners are old enough, you could do the same thing in class time. Send each team out with a camera and have them look for a complete alphabet around the school. (You might want to plant a few items in preparation). If they do it sequentially, there is no editing required.
  3. Other learners might benefit from recording lexical sets. Concrete nouns are obviously easier, but cataloguing abstract nouns, adjectives and verbs will force students to be creative.
  4. Check out Barbara Sakamoto’s great use of voicethread to make class alphabet book online.



I haven’t read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, but I have heard enough about it to feel as if I have. The handy little factoid that is most quoted is the 10,000 hours rule; basically, that it takes 10,000 hours of hard practice to master achieve mastery of one’s given discipline.  What constitutes mastery, or practice for that matter, is the kind of significant detail which gets lost as original research is interpreted by popular science, and re-interpreted by the people who read popular science, and re-reinterpreted by the people who read the tweets of the people who read popular science. That’s where I come in.

Whether it’s a figure that stands up to scrutiny or not, it feels right. It’s a round number, for a start. It’s impressively big, too, but not unachievable. Worth checking to see if I qualify, I thought. It turns out, I’m some way short of being an expert. In the twelve years since I started teaching, according to my back-of-a-fag-packet calculations I have spent about 6,000 hours in the classroom. At current rates, I should become an expert sometime in 2017. Can’t wait.

One of the reasons I have been rather quiet on the blogging and tweeting front of late relates to this lack of expertise. This isn’t false modesty, and I am not fishing for compliments. I think fundamentally I can be a good teacher, and I have pieces of paper to prove it from people who have actually seen me teach 😉

But I think for me at the moment I need to spend less time talking to others and more time talking to myself. That’s why I’ve started writing a teaching journal again – actually seven of them, one fat, lined paper notebook for each class of students I currently teach. Before class, I write my lesson plans, what I’ll need, some rough timings. During class I write notes to myself, about who is quiet, who needs a poke, who needs an arm around the shoulder and about what is working and why. And after class I paste in scraps of worksheets, draw diagrams of the state of the whiteboard, and scribble critiques . It’s something I haven’t done for a long time, but it has reminded me of what a technologically mediated PLN can’t do.  

  1. It isn’t a place to be truly honest. Even now, I am selecting my words carefully, but sometimes I just want to complain about something. Constructive? No. Mature? Not really. But everyone has to let off steam from time to time. Of course, you can’t do that online. Because it’s forever, and you will probably get sacked. Whereas if I want to go off on a vitriolic rant in my journal, no harm done.
  2. It isn’t a place to discuss the minutiae of your own classroom experience. For one thing, everyone would get bored. Even if they don’t, discussion quickly moves from the local to the global, from the specific to the general. This cross-pollination of ideas is very healthy, and I am glad to learn from teachers in different contexts. But at 9:20, I am the one who has to walk into that classroom alone, and I am the only one (along with the students) who can figure out how to make it work.
  3. It doesn’t promote reflection. Too  much information, no time to think about it. “Hmmm… I wonder what I should do about.. Oh look! Another tweet!”

So this is the step back I have taken. A step back to written lesson plans, to the nuts and bolts of a lesson, to exactly how I should set up a listening exercise, and all the other mundane stuff which a real expert teacher needs to know. With a bit of an effort, I might even make it before 2017.

I am very happy to have taken up a position as book reviews editor for a new online, open-access journal based in the UK, The Journal of Second Language Teaching and Research. The first issue should be out shortly, with three excellent book review contributions sourced from my personal learning network.

Part of the remit of the journal is to offer researchers who are newer to the field an opportunity to get their work published. I will be happy to take you through writing process on early drafts of your review, so this might be a chance to get some writing on your CV. I started writing book reviews myself after I finished my MA, as a way to continue reading critically and keep up with current theory, and I really think it’s a valuable exercise.

If you are interested, I have three books at them moment which I would like to place with reviewers. Click on the links to read more about them.

Sociocultural Theory in Second Language Education
An Introduction through Narratives
Merrill Swain, Penny Kinnear, Linda Steinman

English Language Education Across Greater China
Anwei Feng

Code Choice in the Language Classroom
Glenn S. Levine

Contact me via (or twitter or facebook) and I can get a book sent directly to you from the publishers – free, of course! If you have another recently published book in mind, I am happy to take suggestions… just let me know.