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Experimental Practice: My personal Journey (by Jennie Wright)

smartphone and notebookThere is a brilliant quote about professional development which I always carry with me from Scrivener’s book Learning Teaching: “Twenty years’ experience can become no more than two years’ experience repeated ten times over” (1994, p195). It’s because of this quote that I continue to develop professionally and each journey usually begins by experimenting with something new in the classroom. In other words, experimental practice. Also known as EP, experimental practice is simply trying out something new – in your classroom and with your learners – and then evaluating what happened afterwards. Taking something fresh or different, exploring its theory and then considering if it works for me is a huge part of my life as a teacher. It not only builds my teaching repertoire but keeps things from going stale after so many years.

I’ve just finished a long-term experiment with online corpora use with my learners. Researching and writing about corpora got me interested in this area and made me think about how using corpora in the classroom could help my learners. My main objective was to see if learners could use one online corpus and then analyse its data to help them understand more about how language is used. Specifically, my goal broke down into three areas:

1. Train myself to access, navigate and evaluate the most common online corpora

2. Design a lesson plan to train my learners to use one corpus in class

3. Evaluate how useful corpora are for both me and my learners

Setting up the experiment was difficult as I had to learn how to use a variety of corpora, decide on which corpus to use and then design material to get my learners using it. In addition, I also had to make sure it met my learners’ needs, not just my own EP curiosity. I found the easiest way to do this was to use this guide to freely available corpora – http://www.corpora4learning.net/resources/corpora.html and follow these guides for using corpora – http://www.ict4lt.org/en/en_mod2-4.htm and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sCLgRTlxG0Y . Once I had a grasp of the tools, I felt confident I could train my learners – but I have to admit, it took some time and patience and without knowing the following three terms, it was really hard to understand the information I was reading:

1. Concordancer: the computer program which creates and sorts corpora results

2. Concordance lines: the lines of data which are organised and then displayed in the corpus

3. KWIC: Key Word In Context – this can be selected as you input a word or phrase into a corpus. If this is checked, your word or phrase will be formatted to appear in the middle of each concordance line so you can see words both before and after your word or phrase. This gives you a better idea of context and it’s easier to follow the data.

Carrying out the experiment was easy as they were really interested in trying out a new online tool they could use independently to learn a more about how English is used authentically. Thankfully, there were no disasters with the tool, everyone easily followed the instructions and, more often than not, it was hard to stop them from using the corpus! However, as they were not used to this type of language analysis, this took a lot more time than expected and they needed a lot more guidance than I had anticipated. Here’s the lesson plan I designed and used with over 100 learners: http://the-round.com/resource/experimental-practice-in-elt/ (scroll down to get the free pdf).

Experimental Practices in ELT

I carried out some learner feedback after the sessions to see if they were as enamoured with corpora as I was. As most of my learners had accessed a corpus on their smartphone and were happily playing with the corpus options by the end of the session, I was confident they liked the tool or at least found it easy to use. Some, however, commented that it would be better used outside of class independently because too many tools in the classroom would distract them from learning. Others thought it was quick and easy to use and could be used alongside dictionaries to support their ideas about applying new language. Overall, I’m happy to say that everyone was both fascinated with and inspired by corpora – a successful experiment!

So, lessons learnt, I created some key tips for others wanting to try out corpora in the classroom:

1. Take the time to look at the different corpora available, try them out and then decide on the corpus that meets your learners’ needs.

2. Have a backup if you plan on using an online corpus in class – I recommend printing out corpora results before class just in case something happens and you can’t access corpus data.

3. Make sure your learners understand that the data is authentic so the language samples can be unusual, exceptional or even flawed.

As a final note, experimental practice should be both enjoyable and stimulating – never a burden or taxing. And if you are interested in experimenting with corpora in the classroom, make sure you download the free lesson plan.


Jennie WrightJennie Wright is a teacher, teacher-trainer, blogger and ELT author based in Germany. With over 15 years of experience in language teaching, her blog features free professional development resources for teachers. She also co-authored Experimental Practice in ELT: Walk on the wild side which is published by www.the-round.com.

Traveling the experimental practice road (by Christina Rebuffet-Broadus)

Photo credit: Alex Brown (Flickr)

Photo credit: Alex Brown (Flickr)

There comes a point in every TEFL teacher’s life when we reach a fork in the road. We begin asking ourselves questions: Should I start looking for ‘a real job’? Where is my career going? Should I continue teaching or change careers?

If we choose to continue teaching, the road forks even further. We could just muddle through the daily grind, watching our courses steadily trickle to a stream of the same rehashed-but-reliable lessons. Or we can see the road before us as the opportunity to build ourselves into better teachers.

One simple way to enjoy the path we walk during our career is through experimental practice, or EP. This basically means testing something new with your learners then reflecting and evaluating what happened as a result of the new practice. Maybe the experiment will simply add a new tool to our ‘teaching toolbox’. Maybe it will show us that we still have lots to learn. Maybe it will strike so deep that it changes the way we teach.

This happened to me after a semester-long experiment with Dogme.

If you aren’t sure what Dogme ELT is, the nutshell definition could be: teaching that is conversation-driven, materials-light, and focuses on emergent language, (Meddings and Thornbury, 2009: 8). If you’re interested in learning more, the book Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching and Adam Beale’s “Teaching Unplugged Week” are two fantastic resources.

I learned about Dogme in 2011, soon after finding myself at that second fork in the road. I’d been teaching for 7 years, but the spark had dimmed. Wanting to embark on the path that would lead to teaching as a stimulating career, I enrolled on the Cambridge DELTA course organized by ESOL Strasbourg in France. The second module of DELTA requires candidates to carry out a highly-structured EP assignment. As Dogme was one of the hottest topics in ELT at the time, the choice seemed natural.

First, it was necessary to research Dogme. Though I was working on a formal assignment, research is the key first step in any EP project. Spend some time exploring the theory behind the practice. Watch or read about lessons already carried out by other teachers. Some online resources for researching Dogme include:

“Dogme ELT: Teaching Unplugged” video lesson by Martin Sketchley
“Doing a Dogme Lesson” video by Scott Thornbury, discussing the question “Should I do a Dogme lesson as part of my DELTA course experimental practice?”
“EFL Experiment 2: the ultimate Dogme criticisms and responses”, discussion posted on Phil Wade’s blog “EFL thoughts and reflections”
Posts in the Dogme category on my own blog

In learning about the practice in question, we can begin thinking of any specific aspects we want to explore. This helps make the most of what happens in the classroom, as you know what you hope to learn.

After doing research, decide how to implement the EP. One of the great things about EP is that it can be as formal or informal and large- or small-scale as you choose; as simple as trying a new type of listening activity or it can be as in-depth as a whole course taught using a particular method. In the latter case, dialogue with your students is crucial, as you don’t want to hijack their English course (that they may be paying lots of money to attend) for the sake of your own development.

In my case, I decided to dive in at the deep end of Dogme: a full semester, no materials, no heavy lesson planning. Of course, the students and I discussed this adventure during the first lesson—why I was doing it, what it meant for them, how it might affect their course, what would happen if they didn’t like Dogme, etc. The students agreed to the experiment and I decided how I would record my own development (by blogging about the lesson each week). These were all parts of the EP process: dialogue, deciding how to record your EP, then recording and reflecting. (If you want to know what the students thought, read the full report of this EP on Adam Beale’s blog, in a six-part guest-post series titled “Dogme through the students’ eyes”.)

If you’re thinking about experimenting with Dogme, I would offer these tips, based on my own experience:

• Talk to your students about what Dogme is and why you want to try it. Discuss your objectives for the lesson and ask them to create their own learning objectives too
• Don’t confuse Dogme with unprincipled ‘winging it.’ As you move through the lesson, know why you have chosen the activities you have. There should be method to the madness.
• At the end of the lesson, dedicate a decent amount of time to recapping, reviewing, and recording what was done. This helps learners see the method to the madness mentioned above and is also a life-saver in creating coherence across several lessons.
• Go to Experimental Practice in ELT and download the free lesson plans. It includes one for Dogme, inspired by my semester of unplugged lessons. Just don’t think you have to follow it to the letter!

Experimental Practice in ELTThanks to this EP project, I came to realize that the amount of lesson planning is not directly proportional to lesson quality. I became more comfortable with what Adrian Underhill calls “the dark matter” of teaching: the interaction, the improvisation, the here-and-now of lessons. Nowadays, I tend to base much more of my lessons on this dark matter and my students seem all the more satisfied for it. When we come to forks in the roads of our lessons, we decide together which path to taking the opportunity to build ourselves a better lesson. And I know I took the right fork in the road.



Christina Rebuffet-BroadusChristina Rebuffet-Broadus is as a freelance trainer and writer based in France. She blogs about EP, classroom ideas, and ELT issues at iLoveTEFL and has a YouTube channel for Business English learners. She recently co-authored Experimental Practice in ELT: Walk on the wild side with Jennie Wright. The book is available at the-round.com.

Getting Unstuck…10 Experiments (by Theodora Papapanagiotou)

Theodora 1 change of scenery

We have all been there! Sometimes you’re swamped with work, with personal problems and you just can’t function. As a teacher, as a person, you just go through a very non-creative phase and you actually don’t know what to do. That’s how I have been feeling lately and in an attempt to get “unstuck” I have asked Chuck and Barbara to suggest a subject for me to write on and maybe I could get over what I am feeling right now. So Barbara said: “Why don’t you write something about this? How to get unstuck!” I found this a wonderful idea and started doing a bit of research on the Internet. There is plenty of material with lots of advice. The thing is…does it actually help you to move on? So here is me experimenting…


Theodora 1 change of scenery1. Change of scenery

Maybe if you are in an unfamiliar place, your mind starts working differently. Acting like a tourist even in your own hometown helps you find out more things about the place you are in. You take photos, you meet people, you ask for new information,and you clear your head. Maybe you don’t get new ideas immediately, but it does help to just relax and not think about work and problems.

2. Accept yourself

A little self-reflection does not hurt. Look back at your actions. What happened in class today, this week? Did I achieve the goals I had in mind? What was the best moment of the week? Did I live up to my expectations?  I must have done something right. And how about my failures? Why didn’t I achieve my goal? Why did the students not understand the grammar I have been teaching? And why did my student do poorly on the test? Was it my fault or didn’t he study?

All in all…count on yourself. Maybe everything is not in order, but we are getting there….

3. Change something

Is there anything you don’t like about yourself? About your teaching? Why don’t you just change it?  You can do something irrelevant to your work. Dye your hair or get a haircut. Something that will make you feel good and confident. Change a teaching approach, or a book, or  flip an exercise. Did it work? Did you feel better? Reflect on that!

Theodora 2 try something new4. Try out new things

A different book maybe? What do you usually do in class? If you only have to use a course book, why don’t you watch a video or listen to a song? Or read a book in the last 10 minutes of your class? Do the students like it? What are the benefits of trying a new thing? Did it not work? At least you know!!!

5. Talk with somebody

Two heads are better than one. And we do feel better if we communicate with other people. Arrange to meet a friend or colleague for coffee or if it is not possible, you can Skype or chat in your comfort of your home! Find out what they have been doing and share your ideas.  Don’t be competitive, it is not a competition. We all try to do our best in our work.

6. Stay away from negative people and situations

As I mentioned before, it is not a competition. Constructive criticism is good, but there are always people who try to make you feel inferior. Believe me you are better than they think!!

7. Do something that makes you uncomfortable

Are you afraid of talking in front of an audience? Are you afraid to write an article? Do it!! Do something that scares you every week!! Get out of your comfort zone! It will be difficult, I know, but when you are done with it, you will feel so good about yourself. You will feel so strong, you will be able to do everything you have in mind after that!

Theodora 3 make lists8. Make lists

Not only lists with your everyday tasks. Make Goal-diaries. What have you always wanted to do? Collaborate with a school abroad in a project? Use a new teaching method? Go to a convention abroad? Write it down! One day you will make it! And you will feel proud!

9. Dig out old projects

What were doing, let’s say 5 years ago? Were you working on a project back then? Why don’t you try it with your new students, with some adjustments? What went well back then? What went wrong? Can you do it better this time?

10. Do things that please you.

Devote some time to yourself. You don’t always have to be a teacher. Stay home and read a good book, or watch a movie, or go out running, or cook something. Whatever you like. We cannot be teachers the whole time. We have to unwind.

I don’t really know if all this can help us create new ideas. I am still experimenting.  I’d love to hear what you think!!!



Theodora bioTheodora Papapanagiotou is a teacher of EFL and DaF (German as a foreign language) in Greece since 1992. She has worked in various language schools in her hometown, Thessaloniki and with various levels and ages. In the past few years she has been working as a freelance teacher and taking parts in conventions, webinars and online courses, trying to become a better teacher.

Reindeers on a Red Carpet (by Marco A. Brazil)

Finished reindeer

Ever since I made my first creations using recycled toilet paper (TP) rolls, I fell in love with TP rolls and have been a big TP roll recycling fan. I am amazed how creative I can be with TP rolls. With TP rolls the possibilities are endless. That’s how big a fan I am.

Toilet Paper Rolls (or Toilet Paper Tubes, if that’s what you call them) can be reused and recycled in many different ways. And if you are teaching children, they can be used in many kid’s craft activities and for playing games as well. Yes – games!


What’s your future perfect? (by Jen Brummer)

linked arms (MTSOfan)

Hi, everyone. Let’s do a quick grammar activity before you begin reading my blog post. Please answer the questions below. I will provide an example of each for you.

1) Give an example of the present perfect tense in a sentence about your professional life.

  • I have taught ESOL to children and adults.

2) Give an example of the past perfect tense in a sentence about your professional life.

  • Before I taught ESOL, I had earned a CELTA.

3) Give an example of the future perfect tense in a sentence about your professional life.

  • By the time I retire, I will have ________.


The Fallacy of Fun by Leonie Overbeek


Tackling this subject I almost feel like an atheist walking into a church and shouting ‘God is dead’. I am met with the same amount of horror and resistance. Some of the comments made about me during the recent KOTESOL National Conference, where I presented a paper on this subject, included ‘she doesn’t believe in fun’. (more…)

English only in English class by Leon Butchers


Most teachers would agree that ideally only English should be spoken in English class. However, in practice this is often more easily said than done. It’s easy to see why students struggle  – young minds whir away 24/7 in their native language, so suddenly changing into English mode is somewhat akin to a right hander being told to only use their left hand for an hour a week! For me, mastering this aspect of classroom management is still a work in progress, and one that I have to re-deal with periodically. First year students are the most challenging, but there are plenty of “hard nuts” with ingrained bad habits that will unconsciously chatter away in their native tongue seemingly no matter what you try! Looking back, I became much more effective at managing classroom chatter over the years and these days it is rarely a problem. I would like to share a few insights gleaned through my own experiences, trial and error, study and conversations with other teachers. (more…)

TEFL teaching — slavery or career path? by Leonie Overbeek


Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In the article ‘The Slavery of Teaching English.’ Sebastian Creswell-Turner wrote that ‘the job is tedious, the salary appalling and the prospects nil.’ The article was written in 2004 and recently published in the Telegraph of the 24th of May 2014. The article is set in Europe, and talks about the ‘hell’ that teachers are put through by the owners of private academies. (more…)

Teaching less, recycling more

recycling language with cubes

In an education environment that screams ‘More! More! More!’ sometimes the smart teaching move can be to teach less. If you don’t have to spend your entire class explaining new language, students can spend more time recycling, reinforcing, and expanding the language they learn. (more…)

Why I love Teachers 2014

I'm in love with teaching

A few years ago I wrote a simple little post about the reasons I love Teachers. Since then, I’ve had a chance to work with some amazing Teachers through the International Teacher Development Institute. So, I thought it was time to bring the post out,  dust it off, and update my list of reasons. (more…)