So you want to pass the TESOL diploma?


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May 2014
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New Blog – Decentralised Teaching and Learning!

Hi all Dippers,

Hope that everything is going well for you all. I’m writing to tell you about my new blog, which focuses on the concept of Decentralisation as applied to ELT.

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My main idea behind this blog is to explore my own teaching and learning (most teachers are avid learners of languages) and to bring power back down to the learner.



Sounds interesting?  Well, just click here, take a look – subscribe and spread the ‘Decentralised’ word!


Goodbye and Farewell

Hi all Dippers!

First of all, a word of apology. The blog has been somewhat inactive for a while as all three of us have been busy-busy-busy doing interesting things. And sadly, this post will be (teardrops falling onto keyboard…) the final post on this blog. The fact is that since passing our diplomas myself, Theresa and Fiona have all gone in different directions,  so the time has come to say goodbye to ‘So you want to pass the TESOL Diploma?’. The project has been fascinating to work on, and the kind responses from working teachers and struggling/ succeeding dippers have always been heartening and encouraging. We had hoped for more engagement and positive response from the wider EFL community but that, as they say, is a different story.


clockWhat I want to focus on in this last post is Time Management. I’ve just finished my Master’s thesis, as part of an M.A. in East European Studies at the Freie University Berlin. It ended up being 16,000 words – and pressing the ‘Send’ button on that felt fantastic. So I thought I’d share with you some tips that will help you plan, draft and most importantly finish your projects. 

So, in time-honoured fashion, let’s go back…way back, to the Trinity Syllabus, which if you’ve read previous posts should always be your starting point. In Unit 2, the Coursework Portfolio, there are three sections:  

1) Observation Instrument

2) Developmental Record and

3) Independent Research Project

The word limit for each is 2,700 to 3,300, and there is a penalty deduction of 5% if you go over or under the limit (you have been warned…). The main weighting for all three projects is Evaluation, which is 40% of your final grade (see pages 43 to 45 of the Syllabus).

So, here are three quick tips that will help you with your projects, and deal with the stress, worry and angst (now my favourite German word) along the way.

The 3-layered HELP sandwich


1) Plan backwards

First , write down all the main tasks you need to do for one project. For example, for the Observation Instrument some of the initial tasks might be:

  • Research or compile a list of teachers I might want to observe
  • Write to teachers/ institutions asking about the possibility of observations
  • Research classroom observations/ do background reading
  • Draft observation instrument and rationale (1)
  • Get feedback on draft observation instrument from peers
  • Arrange first observation
  • Do first observation, using  observation instrument
  • After observation, write down ‘hot’ notes, putting my impressions on the lesson into words
  • Reflect on observation, think of three ways to revise instrument

This list would continue with more tasks until you’ve got all tasks down on paper. Ok, now you need to buy a calendar, preferably one which shows a whole month at a time, and that can be fixed somewhere prominent. Next, find out the due date of your assignment. That is, the due date, the no-holds-barred absolute final date you can hand this thing in. Next, subtract a week or two (you’ll need this to do final edits, get rid of typos, chase up references, chill out…). This is your D-day, the one you’re going to aim for. Then estimate how long you think each task will take – but be realistic (doing this with another person is a good idea). Then working backwards from your D-day (which is a week or two before the final deadline remember) to now, add each task into your calendar, so you have a visual reminder of what happens when. Hint: A clear Rationale is essential for all three sections, and Evaluation counts for the largest portion of your final mark, so you might want to give these areas priority.

When you have completed your plan, I guarantee you’ll feel better! Your brain can stop worrying about things in the abstract, and start concentrating on the concrete tasks head. If you can do this for all of the three separate projects, you’ll have a working plan for the whole of Unit 2. Of course, you can adapt this in many ways – use different markers for different projects and so on.  Personalising your plan is a really good idea – putting a picture of something you’re going to buy for yourself on there, or a holiday you’d like to take when you’ve finished the Dip is also motivating.

2) Pomodoro technique

Invented by Francesco Cirillo this technique really helped my finish my Masters thesis, and I wished I’d known about it when I was doing the Dip. The idea is simple. Your brain works more effectively in small chunks of time then it needs a break. I also found that this technique was ideal in situations when I didn’t  want to write. And that’s what successful writers do – they write when they don’t want to.  So, find a kitchen timer, the one you use when you boil eggs. Set it for 25 minutes, then work until it rings. Do it again. And again. Every four ‘pomodoros’ take a longer break of half an hour.

This technique is really simple, yet it works. I’ve even taught this technique in Business English classes, though I encountered  a surprising amount of resistance. Interestingly, the way people handle time is quite ‘sticky’ and resistant to change. The most common question has been “What if my task takes longer then 25 minutes?” Well, the key point to remember is that the tecnnique is designed to raise productivity, not just help task completion. If you work on something for longer and longer, you’re just not that productive anymore. If you’ve ever slaved away over an essay at three in the morning, then you know what I’m talking about. This technique is especially good at raising productivity doing difficult tasks, as you can say to yourself, “ok, I only have to do this *#&* for 25  minutes, then I get a break!”. This includes things like literature reviews, where you have to do multiple tasks at the same time, which takes up more energy. Of course, after doing a few ‘pomodoros’ I sometimes just become really productive and then don’t need to use the timer, but this is rare. Try it – I was a reluctant convert myself!

3) Drafting and Outlining

First of all a confession. My Research Project was ‘borderline’ when I thought I’d finished. It was quite well written but the design wasn’t clear. What I learnt from doing the diploma, and a Masters,  is that clarity is essential to good writing. So, I  re-did a few sections, tightened up the rationale and analysis and I passed. So bear in mind, there will be several drafts of each of your projects and this is completely normal.

The moral here is : If you think you’ve finished then you probably haven’t

When you’ve been beavering away over a text for a long time, you become so close to it, and to the finish line, that you’re not impartial. One tip is to give your observation instrument, developmental record or independent research project to someone impartial, and ask them for their feedback. Rather than asking for their opinion, ask them – is it clear? Is there anything you don’t understand? Are there any changes you would make? This will be really useful.

Outlining is a powerful technique for structuring your thoughts and arguments. It’s just setting out clearly the skeleton of what you want to write, in titles, short phrases or bubbles with words inside. I find it most useful when writing complicated parts of a text, like an analysis or a comparison, where you have to bring together different bits and string them together. Or when you’re just stuck. Before you start writing, write down the main ideas you want to include in the next section. You can also include sub-ideas or supporting ideas inbetween the bigger ideas. I use a mind-map for broader, longer sections and just lists of main ideas and sub-ideas for smaller parts. Sometimes  five minutes of outlining will save you an hour of staring out of the window and will clarify your thoughts enough for you to get that next section done! Remember: a good piece of writing is a finished piece of writing.


Ok, that’s me for the final time. Using the three techniques given here: Planning backwards, using Pomodoro and Drafting and Outlining will hopefully save you time, energy and worry. For me the Trinity Diploma is a journey where you’re constantly transforming information (your previous and current teaching practice) into insight – through reflection and learning. Something which is worthwhile.

Final pleas

Trinity – Could you update your syllabus and make it more user-friendly please? As a learning tool, the syllabus is not fit for purpose.  I’ve spoken to quite a few Diploma grads, and they often say that they “wished they had read the syllabus more”, but that it was too unwieldy, and definitely not learner-centred! An easy start would just be to separate the pdf syllabus as it is now into two syllabi, one for TESOL candidates, and one for language schools – which would make it easier to navigate and clearer for all concerned

Jobs – If anyone has any interesting offers of employment, or interesting projects for either myself, Theresa or Fiona then please get in touch. Blogging, writing, working with ICT, training and teaching are all strings to our bow!

Finally, good luck to past, present and future dippers in all your future endeavours!

Bye for now,

Paul Walsh

paul pic


Interview with an effective, autonomous language learner


This is the story of Ed Tanguay and his goal of reaching conversational fluency in 5 languages in 5 years.

“102 more days to conversational fluency in Spanish…”was Ed’s sign-off on an online forum for area language teachers. It intrigued me both as a language teacher and as a learner with a disappointing history of language learning. Can he really do that? How? If he can, then my learners and I can, too. I needed to know more so I asked to interview him and he graciously accepted. What follows is my interview with Ed and some ideas to reflect on at the end.


Theresa: How did your exploration of effective language learning come about?

Ed: The idea is this: in 2016 I will turn 50, and turning 50 can be a sad part of your life: you realize you are a half a century old, you are not in the best of shape anymore, and many people at 50 haven’t learned anything new for years or even decades, and you realize that the doors of opportunity in your life are beginning to close. In 2011, I decided to completely reverse that process by spending the last 5 years before I turn fifty learning 5 languages and running 5 marathons in 5 different foreign countries and be conversationally fluent in the language of the country where I run by the day of the race. In 2012, I completed the Paris Marathon and was quite satisfied with my level of French during my weekend in Paris talking with shop owners, the hotel receptionist, and fellow runners.  Here is my full marathon schedule:

2012 Paris – French

2013 Madrid – Spanish

2014 Rome – Italian

2015 St. Petersburg – Russian

2016 ???


Theresa: So what are the 3 main ingredients for effective language learning?

There are different kinds of learners and different reasons people learn languages so the following ingredients may not be the best for everyone in every context, but these are the main ingredients that I have found for me in order to learn languages with the goal of deep, pragmatic fluency in a culture, e.g. getting and holding a job and living in the target language/culture.

  • inundate yourself regularly with large amounts of audio/written comprehensible input (e.g., read a novel in both target and native language one line at a time alternately)
  • regularly create flashcards at the “useful phrase” level, (not at the word level), from situations you experience and from your reading, and review them regularly
  • use the language for real purposes as early and as often as possible. E.g., write to real people and real businesses about real issues. I use to learn how to use new software in French and Spanish.

BONUS INGREDIENT: to speed your learning: early in your learning, work through a comprehensive grammar book quickly, not with the goal of mastering or even understanding all the rules but with the goal of at least seeing all the rules and peculiarities of the language once so that you are aware of them and can recognize them as you inundate yourself with the language.

Strategies and techniques

Theresa: I love your Float First method! From your website:

The Float First method is based on mastering three situations (1) I don’t understand, (2) I want to learn, and (3) I need to know some language basics, the most frequently occurring situations you will be in while learning a new language.

It gives low-level learners a simple and practical way to start interacting meaningfully in the target language in a way that can help them learn and build confidence. Can you say something about how your independent learning has evolved, and maybe some milestones you’ve had along the way?

Ed: In 1989 I was studying philosophy in the States and wanted to read philosophical texts in their original German, so I took a year off and worked in the conference center kitchen in Hannover, Germany. I had never had German instruction but during the summer before I left for Germany, I learned about 20 phrases that I thought I would need right when I got there, mostly “meta language” phrases to help me get through the two situations “I don’t understand” and “I want to learn”, since I knew that I would probably be in these two situations for the most part of every day while I was there.

When I arrived I told everyone, in German, that I was not going to speak English for a year and to speak to me in German. I soon had enough phrases to keep little conversations mostly about language going, asking people what this word and that word meant and how to spell words, etc. I would write everything down in a notebook that I had in my back pocket at all times, and so I was very quickly able to “float” in many common situations in the German culture, hence the name of the method “Float First”. Another method…

Theresa: More recently, Internet communication technologies, (ICTs), seem to be integral to your language learning. How important would you say ICT tools are for effective, autonomous language learning?

Ed: I think the holy grail resource for language learning is large amounts of authentic audio with full text transcription so you can follow along and connect the sound of the language to its written form right from the beginning, i.e. see what parts are marked, what parts are not marked, stressing, cadence, accents, and what words and sounds are left out or spoken differently by different speakers.

Back in the 90s I could find a few cassette tapes and CDs with audio situations and listen to them repeatedly, as well as sporadic unabridged audio books which you could find and were interesting. But today with Internet services such as Yabla for the “price of a hamburger per month”, you can watch a selection of over 500 videos in your target language which have transcriptions of the audio in two languages, a loop button to repeat each sentence, a button to control the speed, any word you click on you get the definition, and you can play a cloze game at the end of each video. This is an autonomous learner’s dream world, and if you watch a couple videos a day, your ability to understand authentic language will increase tremendously in comparison to other methods. Mobile technology…

Implications for teachers


Theresa: Traditionally, the roles assigned to language learners in the classroom have often been passive and teacher-directed. But when using online learning environments, language learners can be conceptualized as “agents” or “designers”, and the learning process as a “process of design”, according to two applied linguists. (Hampel and Hauck, 2006) Does this idea resonate with you? In what other ways do you see your role as a language learner?

Ed: Yes, at least for my language learner needs, yes, I feel I am an “agent” who “designs” my own learning methods and chooses the tools I need. This has particularly become easier with new technology which has developed in the past 10 years. For example, I currently use my subscription on my home computer, my ThinkSpanish subscription as a magazine or mp3 while commuting and running, my grammar book, my Spanish/English dual novels, online resources like Google Translate, Linguee, verb conjugators, and language forums, and my tandem partners and Berlin Spanish meetup groups where I can practice my Spanish.

Theresa: Have you ever taken traditional language classes? How would you compare that experience with your experience of being an autonomous learner?

Ed: I took two years of Spanish in high school 1982 and 1983 and when started learning Spanish again in 2012, I had a 30-year retention of about four words, I remember the class as basically an hour twice a week for my friends and I to goof around, but that was high school. :-) Then there were two semesters of French in college which were mostly painful grammar lessons and tests. I also took a semester of German in college after I came back from Germany to get an easy credit, a class in which the American teacher spoke in English with a German accent. Because I had been in Germany for a year, it was easy but pedagogically unimpressive. So, in summary, my traditional language classes have been largely unhelpful, and my autonomous learning, especially since the advent of the resources on the Internet in the last ten years, has been extremely effective.

Theresa:  Based on what you’ve learned about effective language learning, what advice would you give teachers who want to help their students become more effective and autonomous learners?

Ed: I would show them how to use all of the tools I’ve mentioned above, and as far as possible adapt it to their learning style. If there is one piece of advice I would give is that students should look for phrases they want to learn in authentic situations and in texts they read, record them as flashcards, and practice them daily.

Theresa: What makes a good teacher? And are they born or made?

Ed: A good teacher can present a body of knowledge in a way that it is easy and motivating to consume for the learners, which means that you have to know your individual students and contextualize the instruction.

A good teacher today and into the future, in addition, has good skills of recording their lessons on video and organizing them into a MOOC-type course (MOOC stands for massive open online course) in a way that is easy and motivating for hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands of learner to consume and learn from.

This is the future of education, where there are a few “star teachers” and “star professors” such as Salmon Khan and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong who are both experts in their field as well as organized and entertaining and pleasant to listen to. Today these teachers teach 100,000s of students with their MOOCs and in five or ten years it will be millions.

So a good teacher today needs…


Stages of language learning


Theresa: The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages identifies 3 general stages in learning a language: Basic user, Independent user and Proficient user. Do these correspond to your personal stages in language learning. Can you say something about the particular stages and milestones you’ve experienced?

Ed: Yes, I can identify with having three general levels of proficiency during the process of learning a language. I definitely experience “waves of learning” which I notice every once in awhile, e.g. when listening to a French news podcast all of a sudden I’ll realize that I’m not only understanding 20% of the words and concepts but suddenly whole sentences and more complex thoughts. That’s a particular joy of mine and one reason why I’m passionate about learning languages. It’s like falling in love, suddenly “everything’s different”.

Questions for reflection

Ed’s story gives language teachers a lot to think about. Here are a few of the questions that it has brought up for me.

1. Ed mentioned to me that in the past he has worked as a language teacher, and he also holds a Master’s in Education in TESOL. He has obviously put his expertise to good use in his own learning. But to look at it in a different way, is it possible to be effective language teachers without pushing ourselves to be effective language learners?

2. Ed’s story seems to suggest that traditional language teachers are becoming obsolete. What is your reaction to Ed’s vision of the future of education, in which a few “star teachers” use video presentations and MOOCs to teach hundreds of thousands of students? Will there come a time when it will be impossible to teach without information and communication technologies?

3. One of the factors in Ed’s language learning success has been persistent effort toward do-able and personally rewarding goals. What has been your experience of helping learners to develop and pursue their own language learning goals? How might this be incorporated into a course?

4. Reflecting on the teacher training you have experienced, to what extent has it fostered your autonomy as a learner-teacher? In what ways has it helped you develop the skills to foster autonomy in your learners?

Independent Research Project video 1

Happy New Year Dippers!

I thought I’d start the new year off with a post about Unit 2 – the coursework portfolio, as it’s something that I found quite difficult at times!  I’ve made a screencast which gives you some general tips on how to approach Section 3 – the Independent Research Project. In the screencast I give some general advice on how to approach this part of the coursework portfolio, as it’s sometimes hard to know where to start.

There’s also a link to a Word doc below which should help you choose your intial puzzle or problem. It’s better to have a list of possibilities, then to decide on the most ‘do-able’ research topic.

Creating the screencast nearly killed my poor netbook, so as a result,  it looks better on a smaller screen, as I couldn’t use maximum resolution. But I hope that you find it useful, if you have any questions about your coursework or general comments please get in touch.



Trinity IRP exercise


Recommended books

Becoming a Teacher through Action Research by Donna Kalmbach Phillips and Kevin Carr (Taylor and Francis, 2012 – google preview here)


*all pictures in screencast are in public domain