Principled Washback: Improving Writing with Formulaic Language

(This post is the fourth in a series of posts on “principled washback,” which I introduced here.)

A: How are you?
B: I’m fine, thank you. And you?

Just to get it out of the way, this is not the type of formulaic language I’m talking about.

This term has been particularly interesting because I am working with students who are under extreme pressure to achieve a certain TOEFL/IELTS score or risk losing their scholarships and hence their ability to attend a university in the US. What’s more, they have been here for a year and many have hit a plateau, or more like they are sliding back down the mountain as pressure and stress have actually made their scores decrease.

I am the writing teacher for some of these students and I noticed a major problem in their writing. Despite several terms of writing instruction, they still struggle with clear and concise writing. For example, one of my students has a very large vocabulary and very advanced grammar skills. This seems to actually be a detriment to his writing, as he tries to utilize these skills at the expense of clarity. (My mantra with him this term has been “Be direct, short, and simple.”) Eventually, this lack of clarity moves from just affecting the meaning of a sentence to negatively affecting the entire paragraph or essay.

How can a student like this be expected to succeed academically, let alone score high on the iBT or IELTS? The problem I identified, which is occurring with other students as well, is too much language play. Play is a great thing – especially with language, but sometimes structure is needed. And in writing, the structure needed here was formulaic language.

By formulaic language, I mean the phrases, chunks, and patterns that our language is made up of – those that we naturally use when we are speaking or writing. For example, formulaic language includes phrases like “in terms of,” “the extent to which,” “as a result of,” and so on. There has been much research about formulaic language running the gamut of ELT – from corpus linguistics, to SLA, to pedagogy – with as many perspectives on it. To my surprise, there is actually a lot of research against the use of formulaic language in writing. One reason is because, while a great deal of our native language use is formulaic (meaning phrase- or pattern-based), the there is still a great deal that is based on “language play” (Bell, 2012). For instance, Schenck and Choi (2015) found that “learners’ use of formulaic language reveals academic writing that is only mechanically proficient.” Native speakers, it turns out, are less formulaic than it seems.

This brings to mind several questions:

  • Does mechanical proficiency precede a more pragmatic, discourse-based proficiency?
  • Can you teach pragmatic academic writing without teaching formulaic expressions?
  • If students haven’t even reached mechanical proficiency, does it become a valid goal?
  • As Swan (2006) points out, should we expect learners to meet a “native-like” target, or should we be happy with clear and understandable communication?

There are a lot of things that can be discussed here. My focus will be on the last two points. Based on my experience, I believe that certain types of formulaic language in writing can have benefits for students and therefore should be incorporated into EAP writing instruction. These benefits include:

  • increasing clarity in writing for academic and testing purposes
  • improving organization in writing for academic and testing purposes
  • time management in writing for testing purposes

Which Formulas?

(Those with access to journal databases can find an Academic Formulas List (AFL) here or here. The formulas I am considering, however, are more systematic than the AFL )

I am talking about two kinds of formulas. One concerns short academic phrases that serve certain discourse functions. These are usually subordinating conjunctions, prepositions phrases, or adverbial connectors such as:

Contrast However,
On the other hand,
In contrast to
Result As a consequence,
Explanation That is,
In other words,
, which means

See more examples here.

The other types of formulas I am talking about pertain both to language and organization. These include ways to write thesis statements, topic sentences, and even conclusions. Here are a few examples.

Argumentative thesis statement  

There are three reasons why ________ should/should not ….
There are several reasons why _______ should/should not …
________ should/should not ________ because ….

Topic Sentence One reason why _______ is because …
One reason _______ is that…
The main reason that ____ is …
Topic Sentences with Transitions In addition to ______, another reason for ______ is ….
Besides _____, a further reason why ______ is …


Formulaic expressions can help students clearly express their ideas. Each phrase denotes a special function. By considering the function of the phrase, they can organize their sentence in a way that expresses their meaning clearly, especially in relation to other ideas. Embedded within these formulas are grammatical clues that can help students maintain grammatical accuracy to aid in their clarity.


It is not rare that I find a paragraph that has absolutely no point to it, either as a paragraph on its own or in terms of unity with a larger piece of writing. One reason this usually happens is that the writer forgets to include a topic sentence. By learning the more organization formulaic sentences above, students are much more likely to employ them. Hence, they are more likely to include essential elements that are required to organize their writing and convey meaning. These formulas give students an easy plug-and-play rule for writing thesis statements, topic sentences, and transitions. With practice using various structures, students will eventually move from sounding “mechanical” (but clear!) to varied and more natural.

Time Management

Writing a timed essay as a native speaker is a challenging task. Imagine how our students feel. They have to comprehend and then analyze the task, organize their ideas, figure out how to express these ideas in another language, and write these these ideas to include the writing conventions expected in this other language. This isn’t even including stress, fatigue, slow typing skills, lack of comprehension of the prompt, or lack of ideas. The writing practice in the classroom should be geared to dealing with many of these, but we rarely put our students under such time constraints. So, this is where formulaic language, especially organizational formulaic language, can come in handy. By having these chunks and plug-and-play sentences ready, students have to spend less time thinking about organization and conveying their main ideas. They have these ready-made sentences that they know how and where to employ. This will not only help them organize and write their essays faster, but it can help ensure they have some of the vital elements necessary for a high score. It’s a clear advantage to teach formulaic language in order to better prepare students for writing exams. This skill can also be extended outside of TOEFL/IELTS into university classes that employ in-class essay tests. Professors are going to be more focused on the content than the ideas. By using formulaic language, it could allow less cognitive resources to be spent on organization and the basic mechanics of an essay and instead allow more time to focus on explaining content.

How Principled is this Washback?

Formulaic language is clearly useful for testing, but, what about for the academic classroom? Some research finds it useful, and some does not, so the answer to this question is currently contentious. If students understand where, how, and why to use these phrases, as well as their accompanying grammar, I don’t see a major issue. If students are entering the sciences, mechanical writing might actually be more preferred. If not, I feel that once students grasp the use of this kind of formulaic language, they can start to compare their work to the works of others (through readings) and begin develop new styles of writing. Could they do this without going the formulaic route? Possibly, but this assumes they have a good grasp of structure, organization, and pragmatics. If they don’t understand that, they won’t understand the more preferred styles of writing.

So the main idea here is to teach direct, clear, and concise writing skills using formulaic expressions. This could be helpful for students for both academic and testing success.


Bell, N. (2012). Formulaic language, creativity, and language play in a second language. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 32, 189-205. Retrieved from here.


Extensive Reading and English for Academic Purposes

IEP – Intensive English Program | EAP – English for Academic Purposes | ER – Extensive Reading

Some may argue that extensive reading does not have an appropriate place in an IEP, especially one that focuses on EAP. ER is based on easy texts that don’t demand the rigor and intensiveness that academic reading entails. However, ER can play in building reading skills. Research has shown that it builds reading speed, proficiency and motivation. It fosters fluency skills, makes reading an enjoyable habit, can act like a bridge to more complicated texts, and is a breath of fresh air in a sea of difficult texts.

Yes, ER does have a place in IEPs/EAP. However, envisioning how it fits in is not an easy thing. A number of questions come to mind: What will students read? Should it be authentic? How much class time will it take? Will it overwhelm students when they also must read intensively for homework and in class? Will there be clear benefits?

I have written about these questions before, and I have been interested in ER for some time, even though I have never tried to implement a program at my IEP (yet). So, it was with great pleasure that I attended a presentation at SETESOL in New Orleands called “Can extensive reading be effectively used in EAP programs?” presented by Matthew Peel and Jarrod Borne of the University of New Orleans. (Click these links to download the powerpoint and presentation handout.)

During this presentation, they discussed the principles of ER and how these principles can be applied to IEPs/EAP. What’s more, they also showed practical and real examples of how they had implemented ER at their university. This was the most intriguing part – to see how such a program works on a day-to-day basis. The takeaway was that it can be implemented, and it can be implemented without taking away much from the intensive reading classroom experience. They also offered hands-on experience with several ER reading activities and explained what they do in their classes. This post will offer a summary and discussion of their ideas, intermixed with my own thoughts and feelings.

Principles of Extensive Reading
(based on Day and Bamford/Extensive Reading Foundation)

The principles presented below are all used to help students to mimic the natural act of reading in an L1. For each one, imagine a student curled up with a book, reading uninterrupted – as many of us do.

  1. The reading material should be easy.
  2. There should be books on a variety of topics.
  3. Learners should choose their own material.
  4. Learners should read as much as possible.
  5. The purpose of reading is for pleasure, information, and general understanding.
  6. Reading should be its own reward.
  7. Reading speed should be fast.
  8. Reading is individual and silent.
  9. Teachers should guide their students.
  10. The teacher should be a model.

Implementing Extensive Reading in EAP/IEPs

Let’s take a look at some of the principles above and see how they can work in EAP.

Principle 1 – The reading material should be easy.

Reading material should be easy to aid in reading fluency. Most teachers follow the five-finger rule: if there are more than five unknown vocabulary words on a page, then the book is too hard. How do you solve this problem when you are expecting students to read authentic or semi-authentic texts? Graded readers. While not authentic, they offer engaging content at a variety of levels suited for students.

Some may argue that the effort is not worth it unless the material is authentic. Why? Just because it isn’t authentic doesn’t mean it is not useful or enjoyable. Being able to read authentic texts requires a large breadth of vocabulary and grammar, and well as cultural knowledge. This is best left for intensive study. You don’t want your students curled up with a book only to stop every few sentences and check dictionaries or scrunch up their faces in confusion.

Principle 3 – Learners should choose their own material.

It’s important to have a wide range of materials so that you can find a book that suits each student’s interests. A “home run” book that hooks the student on reading. This has as much to do with skillful teacher guidance as it has with library building (see below).

An alternative, which somewhat breaks this principle, is to assign the same book to everyone. This can serve to scaffold and guide the ER experience, especially in the beginning. In addition, it builds a stronger sense of classroom community if students are reading the same book. More choices and free choice can come at later stages when students are more comfortable with ER.

Principle 5 – The purpose of reading is for pleasure, information, and general understanding

Unlike intensive reading, their are no vocabulary exercises, comprehension questions, or quizzes. The goal of reading is to read and enjoy it. When we read for pleasure, it is rare that someone will come up to us and test our comprehension of the material. If the material is at the right level of the student (i.e. it is easy), then they should have no problems understanding it anyway.

Some teachers (including me) may be worried about accountability: how can you insure students are actually reading the material. While their are no tests involved, the presenters explained a number of reading activities they do that serve to check accountability, progress, and even appropriateness of the text.

One example was the gallery activity. In this activity, students completed a small worksheet that asked students to write new words, their favorite line, explain their feelings or opinion, and then draw a picture of what they read. This is displayed around the room and students are encouraged to peruse the work in a art-gallery fashion. The purpose of this activity it get students to reflect on their reading as well as see what others are reading. If students are reading the same book, it can build a strong reading community and makes the activity more interesting.

The presenters recommended the book “Extensive reading activities for teaching language” by Bamford (2004) for a wealth of activities.

Principle 8 – Reading is individual and silent.

In incorporating ER into an EAP classroom, we may be tempted to have students read together or read aloud. However, keeping in line with trying to mimic natural reading, ER should be individual and quiet. The presenters giving students 10-15 minutes of DEAR a few times a week. DEAR means “drop everything and read”. This ensures that students are reading while provides a practical preface to using reading activities. It also gets students ready for class by providing them with an easy and meaningful (if the principles have been followed) reading task. DEAR need not take up a majority of class time, and it needn’t be everyday. As will be explained below, DEAR may be heavy at first (1-2 hours a week for the first few weeks) but light towards the end of a term (30 mins a week).

Principle 10 – The teacher should be a model.

What does the teacher do during DEAR? No grading. No facebooking. No daydreaming. The teacher, like the students, should also be reading. The teacher serves as a model reader and should help inspire students and know that you are serious about reading. If you are doing something else in class, it may send the wrong message or that this is just quiet busy work. So, model the behavior and enjoy the free time!

Examples and Explanations

Matthew Peel was nice enough to allow me to share his presentation on this blog. The presenters explained two different approaches to actually organizing ER in their IEP/EAP classes. Below are the two examples. The point of these example schedules is to show one possible configuration that can incorporate ER without eating up too much instructional time. They serve as good examples.

Extensive Reading SETESOL2Extensive Reading SETESOL

While some class time was utilized for either DEAR or reading activities, in general most of the class time was still dedicated to intensive reading work. In fact, intensive reading was solely done in the classroom while extensive reading and vocabulary work was mostly done for homework.


I’ll conclude this post with Matthew’s own words, which sum up quite well the point of his presentation and this post: “My biggest takeaway from this project – one that I use to “sell” the idea to skeptical teachers – is that ER can be incorporated into an existing reading program with minimal impact on teacher preparation and use of classroom time while still realizing benefits.”


Web Resources

Blog Posts/Online Articles

Books and Articles

  • Bamford, J. (2004). Extensive reading activities for teaching language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Carrell, P. L., & Carson, J. G. (1997). Extensive and intensive reading in an EAP setting. English for Specific Purposes, 16(1), 47-60.
  • Day, R. (2011). Bringing extensive reading into the classroom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Day, R., & Bamford, J. (1998). Extensive reading in the second language classroom. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  • Jacobs, G., & Farrell, T. (2012). Teachers sourcebook for extensive reading. Charlotte, N.C.: Information Age Pub.
  • Krashen, S. (2011). Free voluntary reading. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Libraries Unlimited.
  • Krashen, S. (2004). The power of reading: Insights from the research (Revised/Expanded ed.). Westport, Conn.: Libraries Unlimited.
  • Macalister, J. (2008). Implementing extensive reading in an EAP programme.ELT journal, 62(3), 248-256.
  • Nakanishi, T. (2015). A Meta‐Analysis of Extensive Reading Research. TESOL Quarterly, 49(1), 6-37.
  • Peel, M (2015). Implementing an extensive reading program in an intensive university EAP curriculum. MA TESOL Collection. Paper 706. Retrieved from
  • Soliman, N. A. (2012). Integrating extensive reading and reading circles in ESL.International Journal of Global Education, 1(1). Retrieved from
  • Wang, G. H., & Wang, S. D. (2013). Extensive Reading in the Korean EAP University Context: A Reconsideration of Its Goals. Journal of Arts and Humanities, 2(10), 1-7. Retrieved from
  • Waring, R., & McLean, S. (2015). Exploration of the core and variable dimensions of extensive reading research and pedagogy. Reading in a Foreign Language 27(1), 160-167. Retrieved from here.

Research Bites: Explicit vs Implicit Grammar Instruction

Grammar is a divisive word. If you admit you teach grammar, you could be shunned in certain ELT circles. And even for those circles that do accept grammar, the debate still rages about whether it should be taught directly (explicitly) as it has in the past, or indirectly (implicitly), more in line with more modern or “post-modern” methods.

While the debate won’t easily be put to rest, a lot of evidence has come out against implicit grammar instruction as ineffective or less effective than explicit instruction. If you are still on the fence, this 2010 meta-analysis by Nina Spada and Yasuyo Tomita should help you make up your mind.


Spada, N., & Tomita, Y. (2010). Interactions between type of instruction and type of language feature: A Meta‐Analysis. Language learning, 60(2), 263-308.

Twitter Summary

Explicit more effective than implicit grammar instruction #ResearchBites

Introduction and Definitions

Spada and Tomita analyzed a total of 41 separate studies (in 30 publications) between 1990 and 2006. 63% of these studies were based on implicit grammar instruction. The authors calculated effect sizes for each study and compared each group’s average effect size to come to a conclusion about which type of instruction was more effective, on what type of linguistic features, and for how long. The authors categorized studied by instruction type, complexity, and type of knowledge based on the following definitions:

  • Instruction Type
    • Explicit instruction was defined as any instruction that involved rule explanation, language contrasting, and metalinguistic feedback.
    • Implicit instruction was defined as instruction that did not involve rules or attending to any form.
  • Complexity
    • There are numerous ways to measure complexity. The authors chose linguistic complexity based on the number of transformations a particular form had to go through.
    • Simple language features were those forms that included one transformation rule and one or two transformations.
      • An example would be article usage, tenses, plurals, etc.
    • Complex language features were those that involved multiple transformations.
      • Question formation, passive voice
  • Outcome Measures
    • Declarative knowledge, i.e. knowledge of rules, is knowledge measured by controlled tasks such as metalinguistic judgments (judging whether a sentence is correct or not), multiple-choice tests, scrambled sentences, and “constrained constructed responses” that ask learners to produce an utterance.
    • Implicit knowledge, i.e. the spontaneous ability to use a grammatical form, was measured by free writing, oral picture descriptions, information gaps.


The results indicated that explicit instruction had was more effective for both simple and complex language features. In addition, explicit instruction led to both greater declarative and implicit knowledge. Finally, explicit instruction was also more effective in the long term (as measured by delayed post tests). One result that surprised the authors: the largest effect size in this study was of explicit instruction of complex language features on implicit knowledge (measured by “free constructed response” tasks). Implicit instruction only showed a medium effect size (some effectiveness) for simple language features on free tasks.


The authors point to a few caveats about their findings:

  • It is hard to tell if measures of implicit knowledge are really measuring spontaneous production or automatized declarative knowledge.
  • If they had looked at complexity in a different way (e.g. pedagogical complexity – how difficult it is to teach a feature), the results may have turned out differently
  • The number of studies they included that had delayed post tests were low. More research needs to use delayed post tests.
  • As Geoff Jordan pointed out in the comments, the study does not take into consideration the context of the explicit feedback, meaning whether it was included as part of a typical coursebook’s presentation and practice exercises or done in some other way.

Practical Implications

This article matches quite nicely the post I made a few weeks back about the power of being explicit. Being explicit about learning and language is clearly more beneficial than hoping learners will discover these things on their own. And just because grammar is taught explicitly doesn’t mean it is support for grammar translation, rule lectures, or grammar McNuggets. Rule explanation can come up quite organically in any class, from PPP to Dogme. And, any type of grammar can be made meaningful or fun. Implicit grammar instruction takes longer than explicit instruction to have even a medium effect. So, in my view, don’t beat around the bush. Get straight to the rules and then move on to what’s really important: using the language.


Principled Washback – A TOEFL Review Game…with music!

(This post is the third in a series of posts on “principled washback,” which I introduced here.)

This post will deviate a little from my principled washback theme as it is not really focusing on an integrated activity that can be used for both academic study and test prep. However, it is introducing a unique way to do some test review in an extremely fun manner: a TOEFL game…with music!

This is a PowerPoint game I have been using for several years, modified every eight weeks or so. It is easily modified and adapted to suit learner level, class time, skill focus, music preferences, etc. Each game focuses on a specific skill, though it could easily be a mixed skills game. The listening game offers one listening track (or one lecture and one question) and a group of answer choices per slide. The reading game offers one question per slide along with a sentence, paragraph, or grammar problem.


Materials Needed

  • Computer with projector (or smartboard)
  • PowerPoint
  • Optional: mini whiteboards


  1. Set-up
    1. Form groups of three or four and have students decide on team names.
    2. Write these team names on the board in a way in which you can keep score (note: one of the PPT versions has a score keeper on it, but I recommend writing down points – just in case).
  2. Game Play
    1. Students will see numbers.
    2. Each number is a question.
    3. One group will choose a number.
    4. All groups will have 20 seconds to 1 minute (it varies by question) to discuss the question and decide on an answer.
      1. Press the space bar to start the timer.
    5. The answers are multiple choice: 1, 2, 3, 4 or A, B, C, D
    6. When the time is up, all students should either show their answer by holding up fingers (1/A, 2/B, 3/C, 4/D) or by writing it on a mini whiteboard.
    7. Play goes counterclockwise, with one group at a time choosing, but all groups may answer.
  3. Music
    1. If students get a question with a music image, all groups will hear a 30-second song clip.
      1. The first group to guess the name of the song and the artist(s) will get 2 points.
      2. Press the space bar to remove the music icon after the clip has been played.
      3. I try to keep the music clips updated based on what is popular at the moment. I typically use only American music, though I have used Korean music when I used this game in Korea.
        1. If you want to make your own clips, I use the site Clip Converter.
      4. If I realize none of the students know the music, I will let them “cheat” by using music recognition apps. Whoever find the answer first is the winner!
  4. Point Deductions
    1. If students see a specific icon (in the versions below, they may see a zombie or broken heart) they lose a point.
  5. Game Time
    1. Each game lasts about 40 minutes.
    2. If we finish early, I make sure to review all questions.
    3. Sometimes I have students write down the numbers of the difficult questions while playing and review the specific questions afterwards.

The game is pretty simple to play and very fun for students. It gives them direct practice with the TOEFL material, but it does so in a way that involves communication and negotiation while discussing the answer, and it does so in a way that is fun. In my experience, this game definitely lowers affective filters and students get very into it. The game really loses whatever “TOEFLness” it may have and it becomes a meaningful language game instead.



Principled Washback – Academic Reading and TOEFL

(This post is the second in a series of several posts on “principled washback” which I introduced here.)

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” – George R. R. Martin, Dance with Dragons

Reading is an important feature of civilization, and literature is considered one of the cornerstones of a “civilized” society. Reading is also the basis around which many of our daily activities occur, and academic reading is certainly the staple of our academic careers. It is safe to say that reading forms an important part of any EAP program. This might include out-of-class extensive reading or more intensive readings that challenge students with unfamiliar subjects, new vocabulary, and strange grammatical structures or turns of phrase – as it would in the “real world.”

There are many ways to assess students’ comprehension, but the typical way is to use reading tests that ask students to apply skills they have been practicing to a brand new text, perhaps in the same genre or with the same theme, and that is also perhaps peppered with the vocabulary they have been studying. There are many different types of questions that can be asked and it seems that, as teachers, the question possibilities are endless. Unless we have some strategy for question writing, we may be doing our students a disservice. Questions on a reading comprehension test should be balanced and test different skills. One way in which we can help our students is to follow a strategy of designing questions following TOEFL or IELTS question types. Now, before I go on, I am not advocating designing a TOEFL/IELTS style test, but rather incorporating their common question types among other questions we would typically ask (especially short answer and essay responses). In this way, students are not only having their comprehension and reading skills checked, but they are also getting valuable test-taking experiences.

TOEFL Reading Question Types

Because I am only familiar with TOEFL’s two main iterations (the PBT and the iBT), I cannot really write about IELTS reading question types. However, I’m sure the same concept can be applied. The following slide show contains a great overview of the question types on the TOEFL, including examples:

Question Type Skill Assessed
Factual information Ability to find details in a text, skimming and scanning
Negative factual information Ability to find details in a text, skimming and scanning
Inference Ability to infer a meaning not explicitly stated
Rhetorical purpose Ability to understand the main idea and purpose of a text
Vocabulary Vocabulary knowledge, especially synonyms, or understanding words from context
Reference Ability to understand the noun references of pronouns and determiners
Sentence simplification Ability to understand the meaning or main idea of a sentence or passage
Insert text Ability to understand structure and logical organization, main ideas
Prose summary Ability to understand main idea
Fill-in table Ability to organize details and main ideas
Despite the fact that these are from the TOEFL, they are still valid question constructions. The slide show and table above can give you some ideas that can both assess specific skills you are teaching while giving students important test-taking practice.
TOEFL Reading Ideas
These constructs can be applied to coursebook texts, texts taken from the internet (for example, sites such as [incidentally, this site offers quite rigorous quizzes for its reading]), journal articles, or any other source. I use these questions on two different types of text types:
  • Simple English US history texts which are written with a limited vocabulary and structure but are long and contain completely new information for students, and
    • These texts are available here and are based on the “Making of a Nation” VOA radio series.
  • Semi-academic/semi-scientific articles about interesting, funny, and unique topics that are written at a high but accessible level.

Be Explicit: The Power of Teaching about How to Learn

I’m still trying to process all the wonderful information picked up from sessions at this year’s Southeast TESOL conference in New Orleans. As I think about my experiences and look over my notes (summary blog posts coming soon), I am struck by a common theme I noticed in a number of sessions I attended. This theme wasn’t the main focus of any of the sessions, nor do I think the presenters were necessarily emphasizing this particular idea, but it is one I have seemed to synthesize from the talks, discussions, research, pedagogy, and experiences that filled the air: be explicit.

Now, I’m not talking about explicit grammar teaching (the jury is still out on that one). I’m talking about explicitly teaching students about learning – how they learn and the best ways the learn.

Teach the Brain

The most interesting and exciting session I went to was by educational neuroscientist Janet Zadina, “Empowering English Language Learners: Insights from Neuroscience”. This was a fascinating talk – one which I plan on dissecting more of when I have the time. Besides dispelling numerous neuromyths and explaining how learning works in the brain, Dr. Zadina mentioned a curious idea: teach students how the brain learns. Now, I cannot find the reference she gave for this information. However, she stated that teaching students how their brains learn and the best strategies to utilize for learning has been shown to actually improve learning!

Dr. Zadina briefly spells it out in this talk: Teaching students how the brain works includes teaching them that the brain can change, they learn through neural networks, and how to strengthen neural networks when they are having difficulties. A quick glance at Dr. Zadina’s book chapter titles give even more information on what can be taught to students about their own brains.  For even more resources, Larry Ferlazzo has a great post on this. And check out this great post on Edutopia.

Teach the Mind

Zadina’s research no doubt has a connection to Carol Dweck. Dweck was brought up several times this week, including during Carol Read’s wonderful presentation. Dweck, for years, has been researching the concept of the fixed and growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence is fixed. They react negatively to mistakes and errors and don’t use them as opportunities to improve because they don’t believe they can. Growth-minded people believe one’s intelligence can grow. They put the effort into learning (and learning from mistakes) because they understand learning is a process that requires work. Read, echoing Dweck, calls for teachers to explain to students these mindsets and help them switch to a growth mindset where students value the process of learning, not just the end result. These calls are also supported by much of Dweck’s research, which shows that switching to this mindset contributes to actual gains in learning.

Teach the Language

There was a speaker from the Defense Language Institute English Language Institute who discussed learning strategies to promote communication in the classroom. Learning strategies are a heavily researched field within ELT and both quantitative and qualitative research have shown that strategy instruction is valuable in the language classroom. There are many strategies that can be taught, and many ways to teach them, but much of the literature reinforces what the speaker stated: be explicit. Naming the strategies was among the different parts of the framework the speaker was discussing. Students should not only learn that there are strategies, and why/how they should use them, but they should be able to refer to these strategies as well. This can facilitate planning, monitoring, and evaluating strategy usage, which in turn facilitates language learning.

The National Capitol Language Resource Center has a great free online book called “Developing Autonomy in Language Learning” which deals heavily with language learning strategies, including how to teach them.

Teach the Mouth

I also attended a workshop called “Speech Conditioning for the Second Language Learner”. It focused on a framework for teaching pronunciation starting with rhythm, then vowel work, and then intonation – all with the goal of increasing intelligibility, not accent reduction. The framework that was introduced follows ideas of muscle training in any sport. Pronunciation involves a re-learning of the many muscles of the mouth. To assist in this muscle work, the speaker explicitly taught students about how pronunciation works. She starts her classes with discussions of this Wikipedia article on isochrony, helping students understand the difference between syllable-, mora-, and stress-timed languages and where they fall in this categorization. This allows students to notice, first, that these differences even exist, and second, what kind of speaking pattern English has. In addition to rhythm work, she teaching mouth shapes and tongue positions to assist in learning vowels. This type of explicit instruction is not done everyday. Rather, it is frontloaded in the course so that students have this metalinguistic foundational knowledge to base their future practice on.

Explicit pronunciation teaching is nothing new. I watched a very interesting IATEFL presentation about a very similar idea called “What to teach before you teach pronunciation.” Piers Messum, the speaker, takes a similar, explicit approach in helping learners understand the muscles involved in speaking English. Knowledge of consciousness of these is said to lead to better and clearer speech. I know that as a learner of French, Korean, and Polish, explicit knowledge of the articulatory processes did help me understand pronunciation more, and extending this knowledge into practice does seem to help better cement the tricky tongue work and mouth movements needed to master a foreign language.

Warning: Explicit Language

So, the take away: be explicit in order to empower students. This explicit knowledge is like a flashlight. Students who have this kind of knowledge of the underlying processes of learning and language have a great advantage to those who are stumbling in the darkness that is the complex phenomenon of learning. Anything to help illuminate the path will be beneficial.

Principled Washback – Critical Thinking, Infographics, and IELTS Task 1

(This post is the first in a series of several posts on “principled washback” which I introduced here.)

IELTS Task 1 is all about data analysis: bar graphs, pie charts, tables, and other visual representations of information. Understanding these types of data is important – we are exposed to a lot of visual information, especially on the internet, and we need to make sense of it. Furthermore, being able to understand and analyze/interpret this data requires a special kind of literacy separate from traditional literacy. It can’t be assumed that our students could just pick up this visual literacy no more than it could be assumed they could pick up any other type of reading. However, I have not seen much visual information in student coursebooks* or course materials (EFL, ESL, or EAP) despite the fact that visual information is so very common.

Therefore, it makes sense for students to get more practice with visual information presented in English. This will help them both on the IELTS and, more importantly, in their academic careers. In addition, teaching visual literacy is a natural extension of teaching critical thinking, as interpreting visual data requires many critical thinking skills.

Teaching visual literacy is relatively simple. It is easy to find interesting graphs and charts that can be tied in to any unit or topic being covered. However, this type of information is a bit old fashioned. What is more common now, and more interesting, are infographics. Infographics typically contain traditional pie charts and bar graphs, but they are embedded in a far more exciting medium that contains both rich visual and textual information. Inforgraphics are also usually longer and more informative. While they will not be found in many academic textbooks or journal articles, they will be found more on the web. Understanding traditional charts or infographics require the same skill sets.

In this blog post, I will discuss the different types of skills students must have in order to become visually literate. Then, I will show examples of how one can integrate visual data into speaking and writing activities while preparing students for IELTS Task 1.

One of the infographics I used most recently to extend a unit on “strange phenomena” was this one:infographic_ufos_2012

(full infographic here)

Skill 1: Understanding the data

At the most basic level, students need to understand the raw facts of the visual data. They need to find and understand the topic of the chart, which is usually explicitly defined in the title. They need to understand the basic purpose of the chart type. For example, they should understand that bar graphs show amounts, line charts usually show changes over, and pie charts show relative percentages. If there is data on x and y axes, students need to understand how these axes interact in terms of the data presented.

Luckily, they will probably have had some experience reading these charts in their native language. If not, teaching them to understand the charts is relatively easy and usually only requires some new vocabulary or basic explanation.

Chart 1
Topic: How many Americans believe in UFOs (in 2012)
Chart: pie chart

Chart 2
Topic: Number of UFO sightings reported
Chart: bar graph
X-axis: years
Y-axis: number of reportings

Skill 2: Analyzing the data

This skill is a bit more demanding. It requires students to look for relationships among the data and not at the data in isolation. Analyzing data requires students to compare and contrast and spot overall trends and patterns. They need to see increases, decreases, unvariedness. repetition, divergence, etc. There might be numerous different comparisons to make, but it is important for students to be able to pick out the overall or most common trend.

Chart 2
Major trend: UFO sightings have rapidly increased since 2005.
Minor trends: The last few years have seen extremely high numbers of UFO reportings (compared to the year 2000). There was a small decline in reportings in 2010 and 2011. UFO reportings seem to increase each year for four or five years, followed by a short year or two of decreased reportings.

Skill 3: Evaluate and synthesize the data

This skill is the most difficult but also arguably the most interesting. While it is a skill that is required for any analysis of data, academic or otherwise, it is not a skill that is required on the IELTS. Evaluation and synthesis require students to try to find some explanation for the trends in the data. What makes this more difficult is that there are usually no set or clear answers. What students must do is look at the data and try to discern what other events (historical, social, political, economic, technological) could account for increases, decreases, and other patterns. This work may require synthesizing what they have learned in other courses and through their life experiences, or it may require building background knowledge through research and discussion.

Chart 2

  • Possible Explanation 1: UFO reportings began to rise steadily in the year 2005. The internet had become ubiquitous by then, and mobile technology was becoming more prevalent. Increased access to technology likely led to easier ability to either report more UFOs or easier ability to command an audience for UFO sightings.
  • Possible Explanation 2: With an economic downturn in the US economy and perpetual war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans needed a distraction, or perhaps gazed more serenely at the stars, hoping for answers finding instead UFOs.

Explanations can get more interesting than this if you want to push your learners to be more creative.

  • In 2010 and 2011, there was an marked decrease in UFO sightings. This is likely due to the cancellation of the show Heroes. With no more mystical powers emanating from eclipses, Americans had little reason to look up at the stars.
  • Americans made the largest amount of reportings in 2012, bouncing back from the Great 2010-2011 UFO Lull. This is likely due to 2012 marking the year the world was supposed to end. With apocalyptic anxiety taking over the nation, any star or weather balloon likely registered as a UFO and people were more than happy to make reportings if it may stave off The End for a while longer.

Skill 4: Language skills

There are two important language skills students need for any written or spoken understanding, analysis, evaluation, and synthesis of data: summarizing skills and academic vocabulary. Students need to be able to summarize (and paraphrase) the main idea of the charts, discuss the major trends, and summarize key data that supports those trends.

This will require certain academic vocabulary:

  • Adverbial connectors: overall, however, therefore, likewise, similarly, conversely, on the other hand
  • Subordinating conjunctions: while, though, although, even though
  • Word families: increase, decrease, rise, fall, decline, climb, trend, pattern
  • Adjectives: sharp, marked, rapid, significant, drastic, approximately

This is just a sampling of academic vocabulary needed to discuss visual data. As you can see, it is data that can and must be used in a number of different genres and is therefore useful to teach or reinforce through visual literacy.


I prefer infographics to more standard charts because they are more interesting, more visually satisfying, and are actually more complex – requiring greater cognitive effort to not only understand the individual data presentations but the infographic as a whole. Bearing in mind the three types of skills that must be taught and activated, infographics are quite easy to integrate into class and course work.

  • Writing – This is the most obvious integration, especially if you are going to give your students specific IELTS practice. IELTS Task 1 is pretty simple in terms of structure, especially at only 150 words. It basically uses the first two skills above plus summarizing skills. This means it also serves as a good tool for practicing summarizing, an important skill in EAP. The brevity of the task/summary also makes it ideal for an “easy” homework assignment that entails only brief feedback and 1 or two drafts. Going beyond Task 1, students can also work to include charts or chart analysis in their other writing assignments, summarizing these sources to make claims or support arguments.
  • Anchors – Infographics can be used to anchor units or topics, serving as starting points that can activate or build background knowledge and generate discussions that can lead into numerous areas of language work. Basically, they make good warm ups. They also serve as a great way to front load critical thinking when beginning a new topic. By starting the critical thinking process off early, it is more likely that momentum will be carried through.
  • Extensions – Conversely, they can be used to extend units and topics, rounding out  lessons with writing or discussion.
  • Projects – Students can utilize charts and chart analysis for presentations and other similar projects. Taking this idea one step further, students can actually do their own research (collecting their own data or finding data on the web) and make their own infographics with sites like Piktochart, Infogram, or just using PowerPoint


I tried to show how using infographics (and charts) is part of visual literacy, which is an important and universal skill we constantly employ. It requires the teaching or activation of important key skills, including critical thinking. It is easy to integrate into course work and serves as a useful tool for both general EAP as well as IELTS test preparation.

So, have you used infographics or data charts in your teaching? I’d love to hear the hows and whys and pick up some new ideas on their usage. Please let me know in the comments!

Here is another great IELTS Task 1 idea from TEFLGeek!


*I have seen data as part of warm-ups in Q: Speaking and Listening as well as part of every unit in Well Read 3. 


I wrote a children’s book! “Molly’s Midnight Run”

coverA few years ago, at the height of my interests in all things zombie, I wrote a short story involving my daughter and some of the undead. A few months later, my wife hand drew images to accompany the text and we spent the next few months digitizing and coloring them in our free time. More months went by and we assembled them into several differently-formatted books, learning new software along the way. The book was sent out to numerous publishers with not even a rejection notice. So, I researched and test-printed numerous drafts of the book with numerous self-publishers, finally getting the formula right with Amazon’s Createspace.

Now, I’m a proud self-published author of a children’s zombie book! This book represents many things: my love of the undead, my wife’s unique artistic style, my daughter’s ability to survive the zombie apocalypse (it’s not a scary book, I swear), and much effort formatting pages and tweaking bleed margins.

The story is short, colorful, and cute. It makes a perfect bedtime read that will not induce nightmares but may inspire some self-reliance skills! Please check it out on Amazon. It would make a perfect gift for Halloween!

At right is the cover and below are the first two pages of the story:

Pages from MMR_Page_1 Pages from MMR_Page_2

Research Bites: Watch Out Washback!

High-stakes testing policies, such as those in the USA related to No Child Left Behind and the Common Core, have left a stale taste in the mouths of many educators, parents, and students. The problem here is that there has been a educational shift to “teaching to the test.” In educational literature, especially applied linguistics, this is called “washback.” It used to be called “backwash,” but that was probably too bold a word to call something that was becoming an everyday occurrence in classrooms around the world. It was probably best to stick to a more palatable word.

I’m writing about washback because I have been thinking about my students’ needs lately. In particular, a special group of students in my program have been struggling to pass requirements to enter graduate school within a certain period of time before funding runs out. They constantly spoke to me about wanting more TOEFL or IELTS practice, or they lamented about our program not preparing them for the tests.

My argument was that we are not a test-prep program; we are preparing students for the academic rigors of university studies, and, the skills we are teaching are by extension applicable for their tests. They weren’t buying it. And after a while, I wasn’t sure about it either because they had seemed to hit a testing ceiling. I was (and still am to some degree) not entirely sure about the best ways to help them.

However, in terms of their complaints about the focus of our program, it turned out my logic was dead on. The conclusion from the study summarized below states that, whether students are in a general EAP course, an IELTS test-prep course, or a mixed course, all students will gain and there are no significant differences between course types. In addition, there are other predictive factors that need to be taken into account.

Twitter Summary

Study shows that students gain the same whether in test-prep or EAP courses. #researchbites


Green, A. (2007). Washback to learning outcomes: a comparative study of IELTS preparation and university pre‐sessional language courses. Assessment in Education, 14(1), 75-97.

Study Design

  • Participants
    • UK-based
    • Type 1 Course: IELTS prep courses at 7 institutions totaling 85 students
    • Type 2 Course: “pre-sessional EAP” courses at 3 institutions totalling 331 students (Type 2)
    • Type 3 course: combined IELTS/EAP courses at 5 institutions with 60 students total
    • all courses were 8-9 weeks, between 21-24 hours per week
  • Main Instruments
    • Pre/Post IELTS writing tasks 1 and 2
    • Questionnaire to collect “participant variables” such as nationality, motivation, etc before taking the test
    • Questionnaire to collect “process variables” such as learning strategies, use of English outside of class, self-assessed gains, etc.
  • Analyses
    • T-Tests were used to check for gains within groups
    • MANOVA was used to check for differences between groups
    • neural network analysis was used to analyze the correlations between the participant and process variables, as well as to create an interactive predictive model based on these variables
  • Major Findings
    • Students had significant gains in all three course types.
    • There were no significant differences between the course types.
    • The average gain was 0.2 of a band.
    • Those who began with lower levels made the greatest gains.
      • Conversely, those starting with higher levels made lower gains, which indicates a possible test ceiling or plateau effect.
    • Participant variables tend to predict more success than process variables
      • Participant variables accounted for 45% of the variance of scores
      • Process variables only accounted for 31%
    • Variables that contribute most to prediction include:
      • low initial writing and grammar scores
      • longer courses
      • educated beyond secondary level
      • believed that they were good at learning to write in English
    • Variables that contributed somewhat (but perhaps not in any meaningful way) include:
      • positive orientation to host culture
      • test-taking strategies


In 1993, a seminal study on testing and teaching asked “Does washback exist?” (Alderson & Wall). The research has been very clear that it does, and that there are both positive and negative types of washback. Green’s research asked something akin to “Does incorporating washback create greater gains?” The answer: yes BUT no more than other courses that prepare students for academic success. This finding is also not unique: Perrone (2010; cited in Cheng, Sun, & Ma, 2015) had the same results with students studying for the FCE.

What does this mean in the classroom? Well, for one, I can’t print Green’s article and make them dry their tears with it. That won’t do any good. I could explain the research, but would it convince them? I don’t think so. What I can do, is keep working on building strong academic skills. IELTS tests such a narrow range of skills and these skills are by nature covered in EAP courses (e.g. data analysis [task 1], argumentative writing [task 2]) – or, at least should be.

Nevertheless, student needs, perceived or real, are something that must be addressed in the classroom. From Green’s research, here is a situation where I am neither damned if I do nor damned if I don’t. This leads me to believe it is OK to satisfice: to keep providing EAP while integrating more test-focused practice so long as it is principled, that is, is meant to bolster proficiency not test scores. Following this choice is a detriment to no one and allows students to feel better prepared for their exams.

And so, this begins the introduction to a series of posts I’m going to call “Principled Washback” wherein I will introduce an activity or idea that can be used to integrate ELT and test-focused practice.


Alderson, J. C., & Wall, D. (1993). Does washback exist?. Applied linguistics,14(2), 115-129. Retrieved from

Cheng, L. Sun, Y., and Ma, J. (2015). Review of washback research literature within Kane’s argument-based validation framework. Language Teaching 48(4), 436-470. [$link]

Perrone, M. (2010). The impact of the First Certificate of English (FCE) on the EFL classroom: A washback study. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Teachers College, Columbia University. [$link]

Riding the ARC: Experiences with Academic Reading Circles

My colleague and I recently had the pleasure of trying Academic Reading Circles (ARCs) for the past 8 weeks in our advanced reading classes. After six ARCs (six for me, three for him), we have a much better understanding of not only how to implement such a reading project but the purposes behind it. In addition, with minor modifications, we have become very confident in implementing it and will continue to use it in upcoming terms. This post will briefly explain the principles behind ARC, offer some general thoughts and ideas based on our experiences, and finally summarize my students’ perspectives on ARC. Continue reading