August: this month I have…

  • Been recovering from three weeks of fun and teacher training in Kyrgyzstan!
  • Started a new job in Change Management – to be covered on this blog soon.
  • Set up a lunchtime German conversation group with my colleague Rachel, in the hope of putting my language to good use.
  • Eaten some delicious meals at the Chester Arms, the Pickled Walnut, and Manos.
  • Started planning the autumn term at FELLOW.
  • Picked more blackberries than I know how to cook.
  • Met representatives from the University of Oxford to discuss an ESOL project they are planning to support local Syrian and Kurdish communities.
  • Acquired a new housemate!

I went to Kyrgyzstan (part two)

Here’s the second part of a series of blog posts about my teacher training travels in Kyrgyzstan. To read a summary of my trip, click here.

An introduction to Kyrgyzstan

I landed at Manas International airport groggy and dehydrated. Two red-eye flights in a row, plus a mad midnight dash through Istanbul Atatürk airport to avoid a missed connection, had meant little sleep. Plane travel is not my friend: I find it hard to sit still, I choke on the smell of stale coffee, and I really don’t like the food!

Luckily Andy, the volunteer coordinator for the project, was waiting to meet me at Manas International with a bottle of water and conversation to keep me awake. We waited a little while in a small café at Arrivals for one of the British undergraduate volunteers, Rosie, before piling into a taxi and heading to our hotel.

We drove around – rather than through – Bishkek to reach the hotel, so my first impressions of Kyrgyzstan were: dust, watermelons, shipping containers… and Angela Merkel. Dust flying up behind the cars in front of us, children rolling watermelons home along the roadside, shipping containers standing in empty fields, and banners featuring the smiling face of Angela Merkel because she happened to be in town at the same time as us. It was about 10am, and already 30°C.

Happily, Bishkek is a green and leafy city with those broad, open avenues and huge squares that Soviet architects loved so much. When we made it into the city centre later that day, it felt nowhere near as foreign as I had imagined.

Most of our four days in Bishkek were spent eating. Andy took us to Navat, a traditional chaikhana where we ate ridiculous quantities of meat, delicious borsok and fresh jam. We branched out to smaller restaurants where we tried manty (dumplings, often filled with pumpkin or chives) and many questionable types of dairy product. Then on our second day in Bishkek, we were taken to Supara, an ‘ethno-complex’ of yurts and traditional buildings, for our induction with representatives from the women’s NGO Erayim.

The visit to Supara was fascinating: we got to learn a lot about Erayim’s work with self-help groups (micro-financing operations), enjoy a traditional meal, and go on a guided tour of different types of yurts. There are more of these than you might think.

We also played some traditional Kyrgyz games with sheep bones, and did a few getting-to-know-you activities that I did not have to organize! Erayim did a wonderful job of setting up the day, and it was a brilliant way to introduce the volunteers to Kyrgyzstan.

You can see a few photos from the induction here (note the photo of me talking, and everyone looking uninterested!).

And here is a tunduk (the central ring of a the roof of a yurt) for good measure:


I went to Kyrgyzstan (part one)


A couple of months ago some followers of this blog very kindly donated teaching ideas in preparation for a trip I was planning to Kyrgyzstan in support of women’s charity Erayim. I came back from Bishkek last month, and I thought you might be interested to hear a bit about how it all went. What follows is an overview… more detailed thoughts to come.

In brief: it was fantastic! Kyrgyzstan is a very interesting country, and a land of contrasts: imagine a land of rugged mountains where the people are Asian and speak Russian, vodka is the tipple of choice, and you hear the call to prayer five times a day.

I spent the first four days of the trip in the capital city, Bishkek, where I met some of the British undergraduate volunteers and attended an induction day led by representatives from Erayim. As part of the induction process, I led a day of teacher training for the young British volunteers to prepare them to lead month-long summer school courses for children. We covered a few basic teaching principles, and I shared the ideas that were kindly donated. These went down very well! The volunteers also benefitted from some OUP resources books, and together we spent a couple of hours picking out activities and discussing how we could adapt them for different scenarios.

After a comfortable few days in Bishkek, I was taken to Chaek, a village of approximately 7,000 people. Chaek is the main village in the Jumgal valley, and is even considered remote by Kyrgyz standards. No taxi driver in Bishkek seemed to understand why I would end up there! This perceived remoteness will change sooner than you might think: China has invested millions of dollars in a road-building project to connect the large cities of Osh and Jalalabad (in the south-west of the country), with Issyk-Kul and the Chinese border crossings in the north-east. The road (which is shaping up very nicely), will open up new trade frontiers in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, but it will also have untold benefits for the isolated inhabitants of the Jumgal valley. The new road will bring both passing trade and tourism to the valley, which is home to the second-highest mountain lake in the world (Song-Kol), and the local people want to learn English in part to make the most of this exciting opportunity.

I led a two-week teacher training course in Chaek with the support of Andrew, a recent graduate from Leeds, and Gulzada, a local woman who currently teaches English in Bishkek. We had thirty English teachers in total, all experienced professionals working in state schools at primary or secondary level. While I led methodology classes and the occasional skills lesson, Gulzada focused on teaching grammar, and Andrew on speaking practice and games. At the end of the course, each teacher received a certificate of completion, a copy of Murphy’s English Grammar in Use, ten Anglo-Kyrgyz dictionaries, a CD and booklet of songs to use in the primary classroom, and a booklet containing all the activities that had been donated by my lovely friends and colleagues from OUP and beyond.  Feedback from the teachers emphasised how happy they were with the course content. In fact, their only major criticism seems to be that the course should have been longer!

I’m incredibly happy that I got to have this wonderful experience, and spend some time getting to know a country about which I had previously known so little. If you have a couple of weeks to spare next year and are interested in getting involved (I can’t recommend it enough!), then please get in touch and I’ll give you some more information about the project.

And, as I mentioned at the start, I’ll post in more detail about my time in Kyrgyzstan very soon.

I’m (still) here

It’s hard to believe that I haven’t updated this blog in almost seven weeks. And (surprise, surprise) it’s because I’ve been busy. Really busy!

Over the last few weeks I’ve spent a lot of time getting my head around my upcoming trip to Kyrgyzstan. I feel as if I’ve been planning it for years, and suddenly it’s only a couple of weeks away! The practical aspects of the trip are almost sorted: flights are booked, equipment has been bought, and I’m officially vaxxed to the max. There’s still quite a lot of planning and preparation to do around the teacher training course itself, and unfortunately I have recently received some bad news: two of my teacher training colleagues for the project are no longer able to fly out to Kyrgyzstan. This leaves me running the show! Thankfully, two new volunteers have stepped in to fill the gaps – and I’m so happy that they’re able to commit to the project at such short notice.

This week I’ve finished putting together my activities booklet, and I’ve also sketched out a rough plan of the methodology-oriented sessions I’m going to teach. Once at the teacher training centre, I won’t have access to a computer, printer or a photocopier, so I need to make sure that I have compiled all my materials and emailed them to the office in Bishkek before my arrival. It will be interesting to see how I survive without the internet…

June has also brought some interesting developments on the FELLOW front: we sent one of our committee members to this event in Birmingham, and I had a very productive meeting with a senior member of the University with regard to educational provision for displaced persons in Oxford. I hope that I will be able to share some exciting outcomes from that conversation soon!

Finally, I’ve also made a big professional change: from August, I’ll be taking a sabbatical from the big wide world of ELT and making my first forays into Change Management! I’m really looking forward to trying something new, and I’m hoping to take away some innovative ideas that I can employ in my teaching and training. I can feel a few more blog posts coming on…

Bilingualism and the Brain

One of the best things about living in Oxford is having access to the inner workings of one of the world’s most famous universities, although I’m ashamed to say that I don’t take advantage of this privilege very often.

Last week, however, I found the time to attend an interdisciplinary seminar called ‘Bilingualism and the Brain’. The seminar was part of a series called ‘Brain and Mind – from Concrete to Abstract’, the aim of which is to bring together academics from the sciences and the humanities to discuss approaches to a variety of different topics. ‘Bilingualism and the Brain’ took place in the beautiful surroundings of St Hilda’s College (finally: a reason for me to visit!), and involved presentations from five different academics as well as an interdisciplinary discussion panel. The real draw for me was Dr Victoria Murphy: I’ve heard her speak before, and she has done a lot of interesting research into both language acquisition and EAL (English as an Additional Language). More on that another time, though! Here are a few interesting facts I learned during the seminar:

I’m bilingual!

Or thereabouts… In her opening speech, Dr Kerstin Hoge defined a bilingual person as someone ‘who uses more than one language creatively’ (as opposed to someone who knows a range of lexical chunks, but cannot manipulate that language). I had always considered bilingualism to mean native speaker fluency in two languages, but Dr Hoge pointed out that proficiency can wax and wane (I can definitely attest to that!), and the definition of ‘bilingualism’ is the same regardless of when you start learning the second language.

After brain damage, language abilities return at different rates.

Dr Kate Watkins talked about aphasia in bilingual people following strokes. When aphasia occurs, the two languages usually recover at different rates. According to Pitres rule, the more familiar language recovers first. According to Ribot’s Law, the mother tongue recovers first. A more modern theory is that of dynamic recovery: how quickly and how well the language returns depends on a number of factors, including exposure, age of acquisition, proficiency in the language and the language of the environment in which the patient is recovering.

Bilingualism is a global norm.

Dr Themelis Karaminis conducts a lot of research into bilingual babies, and reminded the audience that bilingualism is a global norm, not an exception. I’m feeling a little less special now…

 The UK has a ‘monolingual mindset in a multilingual world’.

Dr Victoria Murphy presented an overview of EAL in UK schools. She told the audience that in 2014, 19% of primary school students and 14% of secondary school students were categorized under ‘EAL’, and these numbers increase every year. Languages in the UK are also unusually diverse: these EAL students speak over 360 different languages between them! Evidence shows that although bilingualism is a distinct advantage, the UK education system does little to support teachers with EAL students in their classroom, and little to promote and encourage bilingualism.


I think I have at least one more post in me about this seminar – mainly on EAL – so I will leave you to ponder those facts for a while. All in all, it was a fantastic seminar and I am very pleased that I made the time to attend.

If you’re in the Oxford area, it’s really worth keeping an eye out for public lectures and seminars. There are loads out there!

Last lesson at FELLOW: breaking news

Last week I taught my first FELLOW lesson of the new term, to a room of largely unfamiliar faces. Over the course of the Easter break we’ve acquired a lot of new learners, and unfortunately this has thrown the dynamic a little bit. The majority of the learners threw themselves into the warmer (a good old-fashioned race-to-the-board team game), but retreated into their shells when we moved into our groups to start the lesson proper. We were inundated with volunteers last week (two teachers and four assistants for one session!), and I’m really grateful that they were there to lend a hand and give our learners some extra support.

I taught the higher group, picking a topical news lesson from One Stop English’s collaboration with the Guardian. Current affairs materials are perfect FELLOW lesson fodder because learners are likely to be familiar with the topic already from their own reading and listening in L1. As the group includes learners of all different abilities, it helps if they already have a good grounding in the topic in their own language. Topical news lessons are also useful to take out into the real world: if we study something really up-to-date, the lesson equips learners with the language they need to make small talk in English with friends, neighbours or colleagues.

My favourite places to ‘shop’ for topical news lessons are One Stop English and Breaking News English. Both are useful, but One Stop English is certainly the gold standard: the lessons are usually fully-formed lessons (with a warmer, neatly set-up reading stages and a productive task), whereas Breaking News English contains reams of activities from which you need to evaluate and extrapolate those which are most suitable for your learners. Normally I tend towards Breaking News English, but I’m still enjoying a free trial for One Stop so I want to use everything I can!

The only flaw in the One Stop lesson plan was its level. The lesson (which you can download here if you have a OSE account) comes in three levels: Elementary/Pre-Int, Intermediate, and Advanced. Macmillan/the Guardian do not have their levelling under control – something they admit in the comments section on the page. They know this, I know this… and it’s something I try to mitigate when teaching with the material.

I chose the Intermediate lesson plan, hoping for something B1/B2. I added in an extra warmer with picture prompts to introduce the topic and make sure that learners were clear about the names and locations of the cities mentioned in the text. I spent extra time reviewing the target vocabulary, and had two assistants monitoring the learners and helping them with the written exercises.

Unfortunately the learners struggled even with this extra support. It took over 45 minutes for us to cover the new language in the text – and that was before we strayed from the suggested topical vocabulary set to explore additional unfamiliar words. We did manage to squeeze in the post-reading comprehension questions before the end of the lesson, and I was really surprised by how well the learners coped with them. That said, the vocabulary tasks were painful – for all of us! – and we needed so much time for them that we never reached the final discussion stage of the lesson. This does happen at FELLOW from time to time, but it is always a huge shame – and leaves me feeling like a terrible teacher!

This lesson wasn’t a great start to the new term: a combination of new learners and unsuitable resources is almost always a recipe for disaster! I think I’m going to have to re-evaluate my source material over the coming weeks.

April: this month I have…

  • Laid the foundations for my trip to Kyrgyzstan (read more here!).
  • Attended fascinating lectures by Levison Wood, Sir Barry Cunliffe and Dr Peter Frankopan that have only fuelled my wanderlust.
  • Started a new term at FELLOW.
  • Written an article about the language of space for Oxford Dictionaries.
  • Planned trips to Stuttgart and Barcelona to catch up with old friends.
  • Attempted to catch up on the highlights of this year’s IATEFL thanks to great blog posts here, here, and here. Thank you for filling me in!
  • Joined a French conversation group in the hope of meeting new people and getting some much-needed language practice.
  • Spent too much money on books…