Searching the Cambridge CELTA syllabus for ‘culture’, I discover the following.

Unit 1 – Learners and teachers and the teaching and learning context

1.1 Cultural, linguistic and educational backgrounds

Demonstrate an understanding of the range of backgrounds and experiences that adult learners bring to their classes

A quick scoot around the Trinity CertTESOL site yields similar results….

Learning objectives

Successful trainees will be able to demonstrate the following on completion of the course:

b. awareness of the learning needs of individuals or groups of learners, and of the motivation of learners in a variety of cultures and environments

These organisations are the prominent international providers of entry level TEFL qualifications, and many of the trainees on these courses will go on to their first teaching jobs after receiving their certificates. A fairly large number, I would predict, would be NEST’s , and a lot of them would be going on to their first extended forays into foreign cultures.

I am at the preliminary stages of work on a paper at the moment, and I wonder if I could draw on the expertise of teacher trainers and trainees out there. Some questions, to help me get a feel for the topic.

  1. If you train NESTs on either the Cambridge or Trinity certificate, how do you interpret the excerpts reproduced above? What kind of input sessions do you give on ‘culture’, and how do you assess whether trainees have gained cultural understanding?
  2. It would appear, from the syllabi, that cross-cultural training focuses on what happens in the classroom. How well are trainees prepared for life / work abroad? (Or is that beyond the remit of a four-week course)?
  3. If you are a NEST who has taken an initial training course before travelling to a teaching job abroad, did you feel sufficiently well prepared?

These questions are very broad but any feedback is welcome. If you would like to answer but would rather not respond in a public forum, please feel free to contact me directly at Any response will be confidential and identities will be protected. If you want to forward this to colleagues who are not active in the blogosphere, please do so.

Thanks in advance and your help is much appreciated!

(hatsuhinode – the first sunrise of the new year)

The Winter holiday is a time above all to reflect on what has been and plan for what might be. Aside from what goes on in the classroom, I have a few things coming up in the year ahead.

  1. On the evening of January 14th I’ll be giving my first Pecha Kucha, with a bunch of very talented and interesting PKers thanks to Chuck Sandy. I’m drawing the pictures now. Is it cheating to use animation?
  2. Two days later I’m going to Yokohama to present on technology for Yo JALT! I love that city so I hope I get a chance to look around too. Please come and see one or both if you are in Japan!
  3. I have taken up a post as book reviews editor at a new journal based at the University of Central Lancashire, The Journal of Second Language Teaching and Research. There is a very strong editorial board involved, the journal is open to all, and the intention to offer early career researchers publishing opportunities is admirable. If you would like to review a book published within the last two years, or you have a book you would like to offer for review, please contact me at
  4. I am planning a new content course on ‘Digital Literacy’ for university students, which is a departure. I’m learning a lot myself in preparation.
  5. I am especially excited to be involved in a new book coming out in autumn, initiated by the JALT Learner Development SIG but taken up by a quality UK publisher with additional chapters by some very well-known writers in the field. I am also working on a conference to launch the book here in Nagoya, with some international speakers, which will (fingers crossed) take place in October.
  6. The blog is a going concern, and I hope I might have more chances to meet interesting people coming through Japan as well as a few possible skype interviews.

If you want to know more, or want to offer any advice, please let me know ; D

On top of all this, and most importantly, I can’t wait to meet the new students and keep tweaking the courses I am already teaching on to make them the best they can be!

I enjoyed 2010…. Here’s to a productive and happy 2011!

Now Lindsay is retiring his blog, we can safely plunder its fantastic format. I suppose it would be more respectful to wait until after the official date, but frankly I’ve been sitting on this one for a while and it’s Friday afternoon…. I feel like starting a meme. Here is my ‘something for the weekend’, in a slightly TEFLtastic vein. Six things…..

“Sorry about the noise, they got quite excitable today”

What you are actually saying is “My class was fun and engaging, and the happy laughter and lively English conversation may have disturbed the pedestrian and turgid activities your slug-like students were working on”. The truth – your students have no respect for you and you left the classroom to get your hip flask.

“Haven’t you handed those in yet?”

The modern school is heaving under a mountain of paperwork. The trick is never to be the last one to hand it in. As you turn in your overdue exam results, scour the room to find that cringing worm who still hasn’t finished. Say this loudly in front of the admin assistants (or, even better, the school owner).

“No, I haven’t seen it…sorry”

That’s because it’s locked in your desk drawer, under a stack of unmarked writing compositions. The trouble with shared resources is that you will walk into the classroom, pull out the photocopies you cobbled together three minutes before the lesson, only to be greeted with blank-faced stares and a lone groan of “We done already” from a Belgian teenager at the back of the room. Prevent that happening to YOU by “managing” the school materials.

“Got anything good for first class?”

On the other hand, why not tap into the knowledge of your fellow professionals? Best uttered as the bell rings.

“I didn’t have any trouble with them last year….”

Like number one, this is a double whammy. It implies that you are a Super-Teacher and your colleague is hopeless. Actually, they locked you in a store cupboard but that is beside the point. Again, drop this in front of the DoS.

“Oh yeah, I’ve been doing that for a while”

Don’t you hate those keen types with their methodology, their technology, their research and their experimentation? Next time young Thompson starts piping up about his student podblog or his dogears (or whatever the damn thing is), hit him with this. In reality there’s nothing wrong with the lesson plans you perfected in 1987, but it helps to look like you are on the “Cutting Edge” (second edition).

Any key phrases you like to drop? And do you have a ‘Six Things’ of your own?

neon jesus

(My contribution to the #dogmeme, with advance apologies to Karenne Sylvester)

Teachers have a lot of people telling them what to teach, and how to teach it. Governments looking for cheap votes. Parents who want to abdicate themselves from the responsibility of raising their own children. Administrators who need to hit targets, meet budgets and check boxes. Publishers with units to shift. That is exactly why I engage in my own self-initiated professional development. When I visit conferences, talk to other teachers, blog, tweet, and do all that other stuff I want to hear what I could do. Or what I might do. Or what may, perhaps be worth thinking about. Sure, tell me what works for you…. but let me think about it and see if it works for me, please.

I am broadly sympathetic to the basic concepts of dogme. I certainly agree that coursebooks and pre-planned curricula built around grammar mcnuggets can be very restrictive, and that teachers should exploit emergent language, teaching affordances and other human unpredictables as best they can. I am not sure that this in itself constitutes a method, however… it is at best an approach. And if you are talking about the more rigorous, chaste versions of Dogme that might be called a method, then I am not really interested. I want to plug things in and interact with ideas from outside the classroom. I see it as equally restrictive to tie oneself to or deny yourself materials. This is the religious fervour to which I refer.

And as for the evangelism?  I believe that classroom methods are a negotiation (implicit or explicit) between the teacher, the learner (s), the context and the moment. For that reason, I believe that unplugged teaching has a very important role at the right time, with the right participants, in the right situation…. but it is not the only way. If I were teaching advanced adult learners in small classes in Europe, I imagine a techno-dogme hybrid would be fantastic. But actually, very, very few teachers, in the wider world of English Language Education, are teaching in such a context. In fact, very, very few know what Dogme is, or ever will. And we bloggers and tweeters, we conference goers, the movers and shakers, sometimes need to remind ourselves that we are not typical, that we are lucky to have some choice about how and what we teach. Teachers can be afraid, tired, confused, or just plain uneducated. Like students, they need nurturing, not hectoring. So let’s not assume that anyone who doesn’t teach Dogme is too self-interested, too stupid or too lazy to try it.

Is ignorance always a sin?

George Siemens’ recent post on this topic was a thought provoking one. I am not a man who holds particularly firm convictions (if you were feeling uncharitable you might call me a flip-flopper, but I prefer to say I am open minded). I don’t think Siemens is suggesting that these questions should be locked away and never re-examined, but it seems useful to take a step back and figure out what you have learnt. As I write, I am pretty sure about the following things.

  1. Teachers need to find a personal voice. There are many ways, but not all of them work for all teachers. Your own style must be congruent with your (sub-concious) beliefs.
  2. Students also need to reflect frequently on what they are doing and why. Indeed, it is their primary responsibility.
  3. You try it first, then I’ll help you fix it. I’m not going to tell you how to do it from the beginning.
  4. I would rather tailor my classes to allow the most enthusiastic students to flourish. Setting passing criteria drags everyone down. If you ask students to read five books, they will all read about five. If you ask them to read as many as they can, some of them will read twenty five.
  5. Education is a very dangerous treadmill, because students and teachers alike quickly forget why they are on it. Tests, textbooks and syllabi are supposed to serve learning, not the other way round.
  6. Technology is providing teachers and learners with all manner of marvellous opportunities, too fast for large institutions like publishing houses, universities and governments to keep up with. Too bad for them.
  7. English doesn’t belong to native speakers. I still don’t get how regional native varieties are considered ‘correct’ yet non-native varieties need to be fixed. If you can be clearly understood, your English is correct.
  8. Even the best teachers have bad days.

Now I am halfway through the second semester and I figured the students should know me pretty well. I put together this Teacher Beliefs discussion activity for some of my more advanced classes to find out. It was quite pleasing to find out that, generally, they do… and that in most regards we were in agreement.

Is there anything that you truly believe? Are you and your students aware of one another’s beliefs? Don’t take anything for granted…..

(Written as a NEST, working in a foreign country, but hopefully of interest to all)

How did you learn cultural awareness? Assuming you did, of course….

For an industry which pitches different cultures together with such force and frequency as ELT, there is very little teacher training devoted to cross-cultural communication. On the CELTA? Sorry, to busy cutting up cards to practice the past perfect. DELTA? Well, can we do it after I’ve transcribed this into phonemic script.  Masters? Perhaps, but who knows what people get up to on those things. No, most of us have to figure it out for ourselves…. new job, new country, new people, new language… well, here goes nothing!

Of course, for many of us that is part of what makes teaching exciting. For others, it may be what forces them out of the profession early on. Is there more that we could do for new teachers in training to prepare them for life abroad? Especially if we have no idea where they are going, or might go in the future? Can we give any better advice than “Look, listen and learn?”

Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions

Geert Hofstede’s research has been taken up as a business tool, but it has applications to the ELT classroom. He assesses five aspects of culture; Power Distance, Individualism, Masculinity, Uncertainty Avoidance and Long-Term Orientation.

Here is a comparison of my home culture, and my host culture. I should expect to come up against a greater reliance on rules than I am used to (Japan is an uncertainty avoiding culture), and I am also likely to notice a greater gap between gender roles (based on the masculinity index).

It is an interesting starting point, but rather simplistic. There is little mention of how the different dimensions play against each other, and the categorisation into national cultures attributes homogeneity where there may be none. Even a country like Japan, not generally considered diverse, has enough difference to be significant. Perhaps the iPhone app (Cultural GPS) advertised on the site gives us a hint – this is a handy tool for the business person flying in and out, but maybe not much more.

Culture Bumps

Carol Archer first coined this term for the unexpected outcomes, foiled expectations or unpleasant surprises which are not uncommon in cross-cultural encounters. The idea is not dissimilar to that of Critical Incident Technique theories. Unlike Hofstede’s model, these techniques suggest that we extrapolate backwards from what has actually happened to reveal something about a particular culture, group or individual, rather than make an assumption based on research about what might happen in real life.

Contrast Culture Method

As opposed to the previous two methods, CCM is very precise in how its sessions are conducted. Two players perform a role play based on an incident – one acts as a reference player, supposed to be closer to the audience’s own culture. The other is the contrast player, who reacts against them. After the role play, each player is interviewed by a facilitator, still in character, while the other player waits outside. Both players then return, and come out of character to discuss what has transpired. There are similarities to Critical Incident Analysis, but in this case players are at great pains not to identify as any particular nationality or culture, rather as a pair in reaction to one another.

I have been loosely affiliated to the CCM Special Interest Group of SEITAR Japan (Society for Intercultural Training, Teaching and Research) for a while, and have taken part in a few sessions. Here you can see an edit of our workshop at the JALT PanSIG in Osaka in May…

CCM Long from darren elliott on Vimeo.

(There is a short version here)


Which of these models, if any, do you think would be most useful for the novice teacher preparing for their first overseas posting? Have you ever received any training? Was it any good? Do you have any epiphanies to share, of culture bumps that taught you something you needed to learn?

Further Reading

Carol Archer’s website offers free downloadable materials for English language classes, as well as further information. This article on handling culture bumps from the ELT Journal by Wenying Jiang is freely available with a bit of googling…. and this one from the APA explains CIT from in earliest incarnation.

Cultural differences are a mainstay of ELT coursebooks, but this one does it with a bit more style and depth. Joseph Shaules, one of the authors, is also a member of the CCM SIG, but I haven’t met him yet.

Geert Hofstede’s ideas can be explored on the cultural dimensions website here.

You can learn more about CCM in this great reader.

Presented at the Chubu Junior and Senior High School Seminar 2010

First of all, a guide to the five kinds of digital camera I discussed. The ‘traditional’ camcorder, the pocket camcorder, the mobile phone, the digital camera, and the webcam.

A Field Guide to Digital Video from darren elliott on Vimeo.

Then a digital video checklist of things to consider when choosing a camera for a job.



Transcriptions can be a simple way of noticing errors, reflecting on strategies, checking gaps in knowledge and reviewing language. Here is an example video transcription worksheet to give you an idea. Students can transcribe conversations, role plays or even monologues, although I think they should be unscripted initially. Research suggests (see Lynch, below) that transcription can be beneficial as part of a task process.

You may prefer to put the students behind the camera too, in which case you will need to train them in the use of equipment. If all your students have video facilities on their mobile phones, you could have them record short videos over the weekend to discuss in class on Monday – playback through the phones themselves makes this a fairly simple job for the teacher. These could be project or topic related, or you could give the students free reign to express themselves.

If you would like to be even more ambitious, you could release the students to make and edit documentaries, interviews, skits or commercials. You could exchange video messages with students in other countries, remake scenes from movies shot for shot, make news reports or create weekly soap operas. With the tools and the time, let your imagination run wild!

Recording and watching your own classes, or those of colleagues, can also be useful. Check Ruth Wajnryb’s excellent ‘Classroom Observation Tasks’ for ideas.


Vimeo is the video hosting service I use. The pro service is cheap, has a massive 5GB weekly upload limit, can be password protected, and looks great. It is also free of the awful commentary one comes across on youtube, with a great community of artists, animators and film makers. Students can visit the site directly and watch the video just by typing in a pre-agreed password. No registration or log-in required.

Dropbox provides free online storage, back-up, and synching between computers. Premium services are available, but if you can get your friends to sign up to the free package you get free bonus storage. Your students don’t have to sign up to anything, you can upload video files and send students a download link by email. Very simple.

WordPress is a great blogging platform (this blog is a wordpress blog) to which you can directly upload video, as long as it not too large. Some services allow you to post by email. Each of the four student blogs I am administrating this semester has a unique email address. I give this email out to the students and they can post text, photos or videos to the communal blog to share. A great way to collaborate on projects, and to stay in touch over the long summer holiday.

There are absolutely hundreds of digital video formats available, some rare, some very common. This list helps you figure them out, and free software like Any Video Converter will help you convert them if necessary.

I have bookmarked a lot of stuff which turned up during online research here at diigo … have a look around!

Further Reading

Allan, M. (1985). Teaching English with Video. Harlow, UK: Longman

Geddes, M. & Sturtridge, G. (Eds.) (1982). Video in the Language Classroom. London: Heinemann.

McGovern, J. (Ed.)(1983). Video Applications in English Language Teaching. Oxford: Pergamon.

(Three fantastic books. Not only are many of the ideas and activities still relevant today, but issues such as format incompatibility and teacher techno-fear seem to have quite a history….)

Brewster, M. (2009). Lights, Camera, Action. English Teaching Professional, 64 (September), 59 – 62.

(Some really great practical activities, highly recommended)

Shrosbree, M. (2008). Digital Video in the Language Classroom. The JALT CALL Journal, 4/1, 75 – 84.

(Slightly more technical, also practical)

Grayson, K. (2010). Flippin’ Out. Technological Horizons in Education Journal, March, 35 – 38.

(Useful overview of a number of handheld ‘pocket’ camcorders, although already dating fast!)

Lynch, T. (2007). Learning from the transcripts of an oral communication task. English Language Teaching Journal, 61/4, 311 – 319

Stillwell. C., Curabba, B., Alexander, K., Kidd, A., Kim, E., Stone, P. & Wyle, C. (2010). Students transcribing tasks: noticing fluency, accuracy, and complexity. English Language Teaching Journal, 64/4, 445 – 455.

(Two of many articles exploring the value of transcription)

If you were at the event on Sunday and are coming to look for the supplements on my presentation about digital video, please hold tight! I’m hoping to upload the checklist, some activities, worksheets, link, videos and a bibliography in the next couple of days. While you are here, if this is your first visit, have a look around! This might be a good place to start ; D

In the meantime, I just want to say what a pleasure it was to attend such a great little conference, and the evening pecha kuchas were amzing – the first session in the world to be held in a karaoke box? It’s great to see people getting together and organising these events (I wish I’d been able to attend the equinox too, which appears to have been a series of absolute belters)

Big shouts to @chucksandy @lesleyito @GifuStocks @m_yam @StevenHerder @barbsaka and all the other great non-tweeters who will hopefully become tweeters soon!

I’m not talking about how to get a laugh (although it’s always a pleasure). No, but I’ve been listening to some great interviews with comedians recently, and what struck me was the way in which they talk about honing their craft, succeeding, failing and getting better. They could easily be talking about teaching. I particularly recommend this series of interviews from Marsha Shandur.

A few quotes.

“It takes ages to learn how to do stand-up, because you can only practice on stage…you can try to imagine it, and write it, but the business of getting your stage legs takes ages.”

Dan Antolpolksi

“You can’t fake talent, but you can gain experience. You just can’t fake those first thousand gigs. You have to do ’em. ….and then after that you start to become more like you are off-stage than on ”

Russell Kane

This came up time and again, through all the interviews, along with the idea that the first few gigs were great and then things suddenly came crashing down. We can find exactly the same ideas in the literature surrounding teachers’ career pathways; expertise is transitory, one can reach a plateau, or start to go backwards. Like teachers, most of the comedians talk about their work as a craft, something which needs to be polished and developed through practice, yet the craft can only be practised through the act itself… something which takes a thick skin and enormous self-confidence.

“If I’m playing the wrong crowd now I can go to absolute silence, whereas other times… a sort of hysteria is created in the room.”

Stuart Lee

Even an acclaimed, successful and talented comedian can fall flat on his face from time to time – and it might not even be his fault. He may simply have taken the wrong gig. Teachers, too, may occasionally come up against a class with which they can do nothing right.

Another common theme is diversification. Comedians seem to come to comedy from all over the place, and once they get there take on any number of roles to make a living. I get the sense that, as with EFL teachers, comedians change things up because they have to and because they like to. In my own research I found many instances of teachers who had chucked it all in to move to a new school, a new country, a new ‘gig’… to keep things fresh. Clearly ELT is an unstable career, change is often forced upon teachers who have to follow the work with the students and the seasons. I wish that there were more security, and I could plan my life with a little more certainty. But I think many of us secretly like it that unpredictability too.

So, what we can learn from stand-up comedians is that professional development is not unique to teaching. That those professionals who reach a level of succcess in their careers (and I am not talking about the superstars, but just those who make a decent living, do what they do well, and find happiness – my definition of professional success), have something in common. Confidence in their own ability, resilience in the face of knockbacks, flexibility, and a love of the job.

A final word from Dan Antolposki….

About a week ago I wrote about an experiment in silence with a class, and promised to come back with a report on the students’ reactions. It really was quite enlightening. This is what we all learnt.

1. A particular result may not mean what you think it means
Looking back through the many comments on my previous post (which was one of the most commented upon I have posted) it is interesting to see that we, as teachers, slightly misread the whole situation. As professionals, committed to our students, caring about them deeply, we all assumed that the end result (constant discussion in L1) springs from the joy of freedom, the taking up of responsibility and other positive emotions. Actually, according to the students, they were terrified.

“We actually thought that you were angry at us and abandoned us because we use too much Japanese in class.”

“I took it for granted that you were angry and you didn’t want to give our class.”

I don’t know where this leaves Krashen. Despite the cause being the negative emotion of fear, the result was very positive.

“To do task without your help was difficult for me. However, I were able to hear much English. And I could speak more in English than usual!”

“…if we have no teachers, we must think how we should study. However,this situation is very important to us too I think. Actually we try to look for the answer more harder than usual. I spoke in English more ,moreover I heared more opinions of them than usual. Though we had much difficulties, it was very interesting to me.”

Of course, anyone who has met me in real life will find this fear highly amusing. Teaching teenagers we do sometimes need to wield a big stick. However, I don’t want this to be the dominant motivating force in my classroom, which leads us onto our next point.

2. Although mystery can be effective, we must ultimately provide transparency

When the students realised what I was trying to do, they were very happy. This was a vital step in the experiment – revealing the mystery.

“But I read your comment , you tried to see our class from all kinds of directions.”

“After reading this article, I noticed you care about us more than I expected. So I’m happy that you are our teacher!”

“We were so puzzled! Me, K., M.,and M. were discussing about ゙what’s happening!?゙ through out the whole class.
K. and I were even talking about it the rest of the day!”

So had I left the class cold, with no feedback or no discussion of what had happened, the positives of confusion may have caused longer-term damage to the rapport we have been building. I kept the next class very light, and the students kept up their good habits from the previous class.

3. Perceived teacher beliefs do not always reflect actual classroom practice

If you had asked me before this class if I believed in learner autonomy and a hands-off teaching approach, I would have given you an emphatic yes. But what I was actually doing in the class belied this. It was only by removing myself completely from the lesson that I could see how students had been relying on me to prompt them, feed them and cajole them into using the language. In the last week, I have given many of my classes similar opportunities and they have all surprised me by speaking fluently in English for as longer than I expected.  Had I been unwittingly restricting learner autonomy by doing too much, by jumping in too soon, by shutting down an activity simply because I was ready to go on to the next one?

This is why I think reflective practice has never been done properly in mainstream ELT literature. The questions we are prompted to ask ourselves are always the same, and we end up giving the answers we think we should. What was good and bad about that lesson? Why did that activity succeed or fail? We will never really know unless we break the mirror and try to rearrange the pieces.

An invitation to experiment, then. This weekends homework – choose a class and do something you never usually do. Then report back and tell us how it went and what it revealed.