Saturday, 23 September 2017

Extensive reading

Like everything in life, too much of a good thing can turn out to be a bad thing. The same principle applies to reading for learning a language or honing your skills in your first language.
My point is that there is too much of intensive reading in course books but not enough extensive reading.

Intensive reading can help focus on grammar issues and is useful when the teacher needs to assign a number of words which will be learnt and tested and hopefully added to the learner’s active or passive vocabulary. It is also useful when the teacher tries to introduce the learner to the subtleties of different styles of writing.

However, if intensive reading is not complemented by extensive reading – to the extent that the level of the students allows – it makes teaching and learning dry, unimaginative and, what is more to the point, slows down progress in and appreciation of the language taught.

A structure or a word that has been presented in a short text must occur in different contexts and registers before it is safely stored in the learner’s long-term memory. The teacher can achieve this by exposing the students to different kinds of reading material.

The choice of the material and the goals that will be set at the end of the reading activity depends on the students’ level and interests but also on the teacher’s expectations each time s/he engages the students in reading.

Personally, I use all kinds of reading material – songs, poems, readers, extracts from novels and newspaper and magazine articles on a multitude of topics.

I know my students quite well so I choose books or topics that will stimulate and maintain their interest. I sometimes stretch the students by giving them a text that is challenging for their level of English but my expectations are lowered accordingly.
I will illustrate with an example. 

One of my favourite novels is School for Love by Olivia Manning. There is a part at the beginning of the book where the orphan boy Felix first meets the only relative left after his parents’ loss, Miss Bohun, who evidently tries to take advantage of him though he is too young to realise, but the reader does. The boy seems to instantly forge a link with the cat left there by an army officer and his wife before they left for England.

I gave this extract                  to B1- level students asking them general questions which elicit their understanding of the atmosphere and the relationships between the people.

Some of the questions I ask are:
·       Who is the boy? (someone who has lost his parents)
·       Who is the woman? (a relative who is offering accommodation but not for nothing)
·       Whose cat is it? (Miss Bohun’s – left behind by an English couple)
·       Do you think Miss Bohun buys the cat food in the Old City? (too mean for that kind of thing)
·       Is it fair for Felix to share expenses with Miss Bohun?
·       How do we know she is trying to exploit him? (She put down Telephone and Kerosene twice)

You could add questions to this list depending on your students and their response to literature.
After I had explained a few words I picked out as more important for my students and for understanding the extract, I asked them to imagine they were Felix and write a letter to a friend so as to explain how their circumstances have changed after the loss of the parents and how they feel about Miss Bohun and the cat.
Each student demonstrated a different approach to the task, which made the activity all the more rewarding.

Now for more advanced students I created a word-formation exercise and kept the number of questions down as you can see in the document below:

Friday, 15 September 2017


The moments of retirement and seclusion are to be treasured as much as those of extroversion and communication. Here is a more recent poem of mine: its title bears the seed of both voice and silence.


Με τα χρόνια μαθαίνω
Της σιωπής να διαβάζω
Τη γλώσσα
Σε λαβύρινθους σκέψης
Το νου μου ξεχνάω
Με το σώμα μου μόνο
Τη ζωή τη διαβαίνω

Μακρινό παρελθόν
Οι φωνές των ανθρώπων
Σε μιαν άλλη διάσταση
Ίσως να ηχούν
Μα εμένα τη σκέψη
Μόνο άηχα γράμματα

Υλικό είναι αυτά
Για σαθρά τεχνουργήματα
Μιας σταγόνας ξεστράτισμα
Ένα πείσμα ανέμου
Να βυθίσουν σε σκότος

Το εφήμερο φως μιας ιδέας 

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Making the most of our resources

We all search for new ideas in books and online, and there is no harm in doing so; it just proves that we take teaching seriously and are prepared to invest a lot of time in improving our materials and methods. However, quite often we find it hard to adjust content or method to our situation. Groups may be larger or smaller than they should be, devices may be slow thus rendering the activity far too lengthy and not worth trying, our students are not playful or inventive enough to appreciate the activity or game and so on—the list is endless.

Eventually we find our way around and make the right adjustments so as to make the most of the resource. In order to do this, however, rather than rushing into the activity we need to pause and think about our students’ strong intelligences, their interests, the way they respond to the input and the difficulties each of them faces. By doing so we will be reinventing a resource which was born out of particular circumstances or was provided as a guide rather than a rigid template.

This is a process which not only does justice to our students but also builds up the teacher’s experience and contributes to establishing a theoretical construct on the basis of which we adapt our teaching. The construct has no permanent shape; it is being constantly modified by the cumulation of discoveries we make over the years.

By the time we reach the end of our career each one of us will have created a different approach which will be defined and demarcated by our own specifics. All of them will be right because they will have served the purpose.

If this sounds too abstract or theoretical, let me provide an example to illustrate.

Looking for something that could interest my B1 level students, I came across an article on the British Council Learn English Teens site under the section Magazine. The title of the article is: 3D printing: the future of food production?

I knew that my pupils, though quite young, would appreciate it if only for the novelty of the idea. But there were a few words that they didn’t know and in my mind I had decided that they should be able to enjoy the article without my mediation for clarifying words.

I therefore picked out the words that I needed to present before reading and rather than providing an equivalent in their mother tongue, I made a guessing game out of them. Even the mention of “game” was enough to put the children in the right mode. This was done orally in class and was thoroughly enjoyed as such but also speeded up the reading of the article and made pauses unnecessary.

What follows is a written representation of what went on in class but schematised here. In actual fact I asked a question and if the children did not know the answer, there was a lot of language production in English assisted by a fair degree of gesticulating as for instance when I explained “limbs”. The word “revolution” only required a date to make sense, which was 1821 (the liberation of Greece from the Turks) – a well-known fact to everyone.

Ø What does the word “dimension” mean?
Anything you draw on a sheet of paper is 2-dimensional.
Real objects are 3-dimensional.
You can even watch 4-dimensional films.

Ø Limbs=arms and legs

Ø Revolution 1821

Ø Raw as opposed to cooked

Ø Select=choose

Ø Do you buy updated versions of a game that you have already played?

Ø Convert euros into dollars.
Ø Convert a flat into an art studio.

Ø You have to change the inks in a printer when they are finished.

Ø Nutrients=all the useful stuff we get from food.

Ø Farmers get good crops or poor crops if the weather has been bad, for example.

Ø Concern(n.)=worry

Ø Modify=change

The presentation of vocabulary and the reading of the article followed by some explanations took about 60 minutes, which is the length of each session.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Shadows and Dogs

Inspiration comes to me in Greek or English depending on various factors, which are more often than not hard to pin down. This time it is Greek and perhaps it is because the images of abandoned or abused dogs remains a major problem in this country.

 Σκιές και σκύλοι

Τις νύχτες μου στοιχειώνουνε
Κάτισχνοι σκύλοι
Τα μάτια τους όμοια πηγάδια
Σαν μέσα τους κυλήσεις
 Επιστροφή δεν έχει

Τα  άδεια κλουβιά τους
Μια έντονη απουσία
Σκορπίζουν τριγύρω
Σκιές, σκιές απλωμένες
Ψυχές, ψυχές χαμένες

Η άνοιξη σ’ αυτά τα μέρη
Θ’ αργήσει να φτάσει
Κι αν κάποτε έρθει
Στα μάτια ενός σκύλου
Θα τη βρείτε

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Beginning a new school year: some tips

Going back to teaching – let alone studying—can be an unsettling or even traumatic (!) experience. As teachers, we sometimes feel that there is so much we can do to acclimatize our students to classes again.

No need to despair. We can still go on in our own familiar way while giving our lessons a fresh edge. Besides there are things that your students hardly ever get bored with despite the frequency of their occurrence.

Let me provide an example of how we can present new material and at the same time sneak in some revision.

I am aware of the fact that my advanced students are keen on science; therefore, they are prepared to read up or do their own research online – if asked – on condition that the topic is science-related.

My point is:

·       Pick a text your students will appreciate.
·       Select some lexical items from this text which you have taught but suspect your students might not remember.
·       Make three columns next to the one of the selected words.
·       Name the columns: I remember well, I vaguely remember, I forget.
·       Ask the students to indicate how well they know the words by marking the right column.

I remember
I vaguely remember
I forget





This is a preliminary activity which will be supplemented by a follow-up vocabulary exercise to boost your students’ memory of already taught words.
On a small scale (words used in the table above) this is how it would go:

Fill the gaps with the right form of the words provided in the table. You may have to use some words more than once:

Plans were ………………………. for a new food store and 13 shopping units in the town.
The media ……………………. anorexia ‘the slimming disease.
Security agents have started a campaign to ………………………….. some of the government's opponents.
Silicone rubber is easily ……………………………., serving as a replacement for body parts.
If we could ………………………… stress, would we …………………………………. a lot of disease?
It is also the duty of educational institutions to …………………………..  the personality of students.

Perhaps for the first few classes of the year it would be wise to focus on practising words which have been presented once or twice but not anchored, as I have explained in a previous post.
It is important for teachers to be flexible and decide at each stage how much to teach, how much to practise and test and what to earmark for later practice. And this is something no device can do for you. Being aware of our students’ progress is something we save in our memory rather than on a device in the form of corrected tests. The overall performance of each student is, thankfully, resilient to classification.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Time against Memory

Summer is drawing to a close --at least in the northern hemisphere-- but there is still time to share some lines about its effect on many of us. Here is a poem written in the heat of the summer.

Time against memory

The scorching flesh
Under the merciless sun
The splash of waves
On the sea-chiselled pebbles
The lifeless shells
 Washed  ashore

The taste of salt
On the thirsty mouth
The time-dimmed memories
Of all bygone summers
The dazzling nothingness
Of the engulfing heat

Monday, 21 August 2017

Digital vs, non-digital

For people old enough to have had a taste of both the non-digital and digital age, many things may feel odd. Without being critical or judgemental, I'd like to share this poem I wrote a while ago:


I talk to funny people
With funny English
They make me laugh
Sometimes they make me cry

We do simple things
Like saying “hello”
Over and over again
Or taking turns
Inventing stories
Stories that never end
And never will end

We kill time together
For fear time should kill us
Oh the things we would do
If we could teleport
Or would we?

Perhaps proximity
Would take its toll
It always does
Pity, isn’t it?