Monday, 19 November 2012

How to use information from websites in your academic writing

Most international students here in the UK were accepted at their universities and colleges because they worked very hard indeed to get good grades in the IELTS examination.  It can therefore be quite a shock to realise that the techniques used in IELTS essays are not enough to get them good grades in the academic essays they are required to write for their degree courses.  For a start, IELTS essays are short, and written by hand under exam conditions, with no access to dictionaries or grammar books.  The coursework on a degree programme is much longer, and because it needs to be typed can easily be edited and corrected many times over a number of days or even weeks.  A more important difference, however, lies in the type of content which is needed.  IELTS essays are on topics of general knowledge, and although candidates think up a number of arguments and examples to support their opinions, they do not have to provide any evidence for this.  Students producing coursework at degree level, must back up the arguments in their essays by using information from reliable academic sources, and acknowledge the source of this information.  This causes three main problems: how to get information which is reliable, how to reference this information correctly, and how to integrate it into your writing.

How to find reliable information

Books from the college library and academic journals accessed through the college website are both excellent sources of information, and it is unlikely that any information you found through these sources would be considered unreliable. Sometimes, however, you will need to find additional information.  My Business students recently needed to write an economics essay about government policies designed to discourage people from smoking, and were told to look for information on the internet.  Most of them knew that they should not be using Wikipedia, for the simple reason that absolutely anyone can contribute information, even if they are not qualified to do this.  This blog is another example of information which should be regarded with caution - I know that I have got the qualifications and experience I claim to have - but do you know that?  If you are reading this because you are one of my students, I hope that you will be trusting the information I am giving, because you know that I work at a reputable college (who checked my qualifications very carefully), as part of a well qualified team of teachers, but other readers cannot be sure of that.  Try to look for websites provided by the following bodies:
  • academic institutions - in the UK, web addresses often end in
  • government organisations (often .gov)
  • reputable newspapers such as the Times, Guardian, Observer, Telegraph, Financial Times or Independent
  • well-known news organisations such as the BBC
  • non-profit organisations - the websites often end in  For example provided lots of useful information about the dangers of smoking for my students' last essay.
The ASH website is interesting because it is an example of a reputable website which is still biased - it is very much an anti-smoking website.  This is not necessarily a problem.  In this case, my students were being asked to write about government actions against smoking, and ASH provided useful facts and figures.  If, however, the essay had been about the moral or philosophical arguments about people's right to smoke if this is what they want to do, then the arguments on the ASH website could be considered to represent only one side of the story - it would be a good idea to also look at the arguments presented by the tobacco companies, perhaps on this website.

How to provide correct references

When you have found some useful information, you need to use it in a way which does not get you accused of plagiarism, which could really be summed up as 'academic stealing'.  Most academic institutions use anti-plagiarism software like Turnitin (, and work containing information which you have not referenced correctly is in danger of getting a score of zero.  In some cases, you can even be removed from your university and college.  It's a serious matter.  

Although there are a number of different ways to present information about the sources you have used, students do not get to choose which system to use.  At most UK academic institutions, students must use the Harvard Referencing System (see, for example, the information provided by the University of Manchester here), and they must present their references in exactly the right way, both in the main text of their essay and in a list of references at the end of their work.  There are some slight variations in some small details about how the references are written (for example, some people put the date of publication in brackets, some don't) but you should exactly follow the system recommended by your own academic institution.  To create references for the reference list at the end of the essay, I've been recommending my students to use this referencing tool, available free online.  Once you have generated all the references for your essay, list them in alphabetical order, by the surname of the author or the name of the organisation if you are referring to something published by an organisation as a whole rather than an individual author - this is often the case with the BBC, or a government website. 

A list at the end of your work is, however, not enough.  You must also provide what is known as 'in-text referencing', which is basically the surname of the author (or organisation) and the year, plus the page number if you are providing a direct quotation from a book or journal - I'll talk more about this in the next section.

How to integrate this information into your writing

When you decide to use information from another (reliable) source in your essay, you have to find a way to include it in your essay in such a way that it supports the point you are trying to make.  I want to say that the UK government placed some very strong restrictions on cigarette advertising, and definitely  want to quote from this article on the ASH website.  Before I go any further, I create the full reference and put it at the end of my essay, so there is no chance I will forget to do that later:  

ASH. (2012). Advertising and promotion. Available: Last accessed 19th November 2012.

Let's say that I decide to use the information contained in this section of the webpage:

Virtually all tobacco advertising is now illegal in the UK and many other countries. The Tobacco Advertising & Promotion Act 2002 was enacted in November 2002 in the UK, with most advertising ending on 14th February 2003 (eg on billboards and in printed publications) and a gradual phase out for the rest (eg direct mail and sponsorship) by July 2005.

I have two basic choices about how to do this - I can either provide a direct quotation, using quotation marks, or I can paraphrase the words of the original text.  

To insert a direct quotation into my essay, I introduce the idea in my own words (you must always talk about your quotations - never just drop it in and say nothing), then write my quotation:

One of the ways in which the UK government has attempted to discourage the population from smoking is by making  tobacco advertising illegal: "The Tobacco Advertising & Promotion Act 2002 was enacted in November 2002 in the UK, with most advertising ending on 14th February 2003 (eg on billboards and in printed publications) and a gradual phase out for the rest (eg direct mail and sponsorship) by July 2005" (ASH, 2012).

Alternatively, and this is usually the better way, I can rewrite the information using my own words:

One of the ways in which the UK government has attempted to discourage the population from smoking is by making  tobacco advertising illegal, passing the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act in 2002, which banned all forms of tobacco advertising by the middle of 2005 (ASH, 2012).

Paraphrasing (and summarising, if the information you want to include is written with lots of examples which are not absolutely essential) is much better because it shows your teacher that you have understood what you are reading, and how it relates to your topic.  Make sure you don't just change a few words - read it carefully, think about it hard, then write out the main idea without looking at the text.  Check it again, and make sure it's accurate and sufficiently different from the original.  Don't forget to reference it even if you've paraphrased - it's still someone else's ideas or information, even if it's now your own words!

If I want to emphasise the source of my information, I can do it like this:

According to ASH (2012), the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act was passed in 2002 and banned all forms of tobacco advertising by the middle of 2005.

All you need is the author (or, as here, the name of the organisation as ASH does not give the name of the actual person who wrote those words) and the year - the reader gets all the rest of the information by looking at the reference list at the end.  

What happens if you use more than one page from the same website?

This is the only tricky part of the business.  Remember that the purpose of the reference list is to enable the reader to locate the information which you used, and if you call the webpage mentioned above "ASH, 2012" but then use a different webpage from the same website and call it "ASH, 2012" again, the reader will not know exactly where to find each bit of information.  The same problem arises if an author has published two books in the same year - if you call each one "Smith, 2008", the reader will not know which one to look at.  The answer is simple: the first one you mention, call it "a" - therefore "ASH, 2012a", or "Smith, 2008a", and the second one "b", so "ASH, 2012b" or "Smith, 2008b".  Do exactly the same in the reference list at the end of your work - put a little "a" or "b" after the year.  

Now it's time for you to practise your referencing skills yourself......

Look at these links and decide which one is probably not reliable enough to use in your academic essay.  Create a reference for each of the others, and write a reference list - don't forget to put it in alphabetical order.  Finally, say how you would refer to each one of them in the text.  

Webpage 1   

I will post the answers later.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Lesson planning: back to basics

One of my former Weekend TEFL students got in touch with me the other day, stuck on a lesson planning assignment in her online TEFL course.  Now that I've been teaching for so many years, lesson planning isn't something I ever really worry about - unless I'm being observed or assessed, in which case I still don't get worried about it, I just try to make my plan more explicit so that the observer can see where it's going as the lesson progresses.  

However, in giving a bit of advice to my former student, I started to think about my current lesson planning habits, and realised that I probably need to review my own strategies and make sure that I haven't fallen into any bad habits without realising...  
  • Decide what the end result should be.  What do you want the students to be able to do by the end of this lesson?  If the topic is big and will take more than one lesson, break the topic up into the right number of chunks and allocate the chunks to the different lessons.  Can some of the topic be dealt with as homework?  How will this be checked?  Will you need to review and revise each chunk at the beginning of the next lesson?  Make sure you allow time for this, especially if it's an important part of the curriculum.
  • Work backwards.  When you have the destination clearly in your mind, it's much easier to plan the route.  If you want the students to be able to 'talk about hobbies while revising adverbs of frequency', decide on the target language before planning any of the activities.  How many hobbies?  Which adverbs of frequency?  Then decide how will you know that they have met the objective - what sort of activity will you use to allow the students to demonstrate their new skills?  How will you monitor the activity?  Will you allow some time for feedback and consolidation at the very end? 
  • How will the students get to that final activity?  Plan the rest of the lesson with the end in mind.  Use different types of activity if possible, to meet the different preferences and learning styles of the different students in the class.  Some students love spontaneous role plays whereas others prefer having time to work alone before having to 'perform'.  Some students love gap-fill activities (yes, it's true!  I absolutely love doing them myself when I'm learning a language) whereas others find them both dull and ineffective as a way to learn. 
  • Think about the interaction patterns throughout the lesson.  Plan who will be talking to whom at each stage - this is also a good way to identify excessive teacher talking time, if this is something you are prone to.  If it's a discussion in pairs, will the students be working with the people they normally sit next to, or will you try to get them talking to different people?  What will happen if there is an odd number?  If you are going to make groups, how will you manage this from a practical point of view?
  • What materials do you need?  Don't spend two hours creating beautiful resources which will only be used for five minutes, unless you are really sure that the materials can be used over and over again.  Don't re-invent the wheel - there are so many fantastic free resources which teachers can use - I particularly like this website from the British Council.   Consider limiting the number of photocopies you use - not only will you save a few trees over your career, you will also help students to value the handouts you do give them.
  • Have a Plan B up your sleeve if possible.  I always like to have something in reserve in case things don't go according to plan - if the photocopier is broken and I can't do the copying I need, or I have a headache and don't feel up to the demanding lesson I've planned.  I like to have a range of different activities which the students can do in an emergency, from the essential but dull (mock writing exam) to the challenging (preparing group presentations or a photo project), depending on the type of emergency!

What tips and strategies could you pass on to other teachers?  I'd love to know!

Friday, 10 August 2012

Improving your reading and listening skills

I am a massive fan of keeping up to date with what is happening in the world, and I always try to convince my international students of the importance of reading and listening to the news.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is the very best way of improving your English, as well as giving you lots of ideas and information for writing essays and doing various types of academic speaking.  

The problem, for many learners, is that it's just too difficult - the news articles they find are too long and complicated, and they can't see any improvement quickly enough.  They just give up.

Today, however, I've made a great discovery.  Some of my lovely INTO students have been asking me to help them do better in Listening and Reading tests, and I was delighted to stumble upon this fantastic website while I was looking for useful online resources.  You can decide which level you are at (but I think it's probably best to start the first time at Level 1) and each news story is given at all 3 levels, using more vocabulary as you move up the levels.  If there is a video clip, the words which are spoken are written down for you to see.

There's a great story here - and it's about something which happened in China, which will be interesting for my current class, most of whom are Chinese.  Have a look at the 3 different levels, and decide which one is right for you.  

If you're struggling with your reading and listening, or disappointed with your test scores, why not work through one of these stories every day?

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Still working on overcoming procrastination, or.... how to eat a frog

I'm  really, really busy at the moment.  I'm teaching IELTS and Academic Reading and Writing, and also preparing my lesson plans and materials for my first ever TEFL Weekend course.   

I'm really having trouble getting started on my stuff for the TEFL Weekend, because it seems overwhelming - I could have up to 20 students, and I need to prepare 20 hours of teaching materials.  I know what I need to teach, but it feels like I need 40 or even 60 hours to cover everything the trainees need to learn.  I'm going to have to be very focused and very creative to work out what to do and what to leave out.  The experienced teacher I observed during my training was amazing - I've got a lot to live up to!

I've written about my tendency to procrastinate before - here - and my method using a 15 minute timer to get myself started is certainly helping me to get focused on my work generally.  The problem is that while I've been doing fine focusing on my work in general, I wasn't really getting started on my biggest, scariest project - the TEFL Weekend.  I needed to learn to 'eat my frog'......

A writer called Brian Tracy has written some interesting stuff about procrastinating in general but also the difficulty of focusing on the really difficult - but really important - tasks, which he describes as being like live frogs which you are being forced to eat.  Although I'm sure there are cultures around the world where people eat cooked frogs (for example, in France frogs' legs are a great delicacy), I'm English and the thought of eating any frog, let alone a live one, is not appealing.  However, sometimes we have to do things we don't want to do, so here's how to eat that frog:

  • Eat it first. Some children, and probably some adults, when faced with a plate of food containing something they don't like but which they feel they must eat (out of politeness, or for health reasons), eat the horrible thing first, to get it out of the way.  Then they can enjoy the rest of the meal. It's the same with the horrible or difficult task - just do it, and do it now.  The rest of the day will be so much more pleasant because you won't be dreading having to deal with that frog.
  • Don't sit there looking at it for too long.  Looking at it makes it seem worse than it really is - you just need to get started.  As I mentioned in my previous blog post on this topic (see the link above), I just set the timer on my phone for 15 minutes, and really focus on getting started, even if all I do is read over what I did last time I worked on it.  Then I take a short break to do something more enjoyable.   After exactly 15 minutes, I go back to my 'frog' and give it 15 more minutes of undivided attention. After that, another break, followed by another 15 minutes of concentration on the task.  It sounds a lazy way to eat the frog, but it works for me.  If I know I have to spend a whole hour dealing with that frog, I never get started.  I'm a quick worker when I get going, and I can usually do an hour's work in 30 minutes if I really, really work hard.
  • If you have two frogs to eat, eat the ugliest one first.  Always start with the task you dread the most - after that, things can only get better! Your sense of achievement from completing the worst task will make the second frog look a whole lot more beautiful...

So, I'm off to eat my frog - in 15 minute chunks, with 15 minutes of reading my Ruth Rendell detective novel inbetween.  Later we're going out walking in the countryside, making the most of the sunshine, and I'll be able to do it with a clean conscience, knowing that I've eaten today's frog.  If you'd like to read more about procrastination and eating frog's here's the link to Brian Tracy's free e-book.

Have a great weekend!

Friday, 13 July 2012

Things I wish I'd known when I first went to study abroad

In my previous post here, I talked about my recent visit to St Johann im Pongau, the village in Austria where I spent my year abroad as part of my German degree.  It's not surprising that this visit has triggered a flood of memories not only about that time but also about other trips I made to German-speaking countries in an effort to learn German.

Although I had some wonderful experiences, and my time abroad most definitely did help me with my German, I do feel that I missed a few opportunities and that there are some things I wish I'd known, especially at the beginning of the year in St Johann.  Maybe some of these things will help you if you are studying a long way from home.
  1. Homesickness is awful, but it's a natural part of adapting to life in a new country.  It's one aspect of culture shock, and if I experienced terrible culture shock living in another European country, I can't imagine how hard it must be for people coming to the UK from China or other distant countries.  What I wish I'd know is that it would pass, and in my case it would have passed much more quickly if I had known that the cure for homesickness is to.... 
  2. Get out of your room and do things!  Even now, I still have a tendency to hide away at home if I'm feeling bad, although I know that mixing with people always makes me feel better.  When I first went to Austria several people at the school where I worked were nice and welcoming, but I was very shy and I didn't really show how much I wanted to make friends.  In those days we didn't have the Internet, and phone calls were really expensive, so I spent hours and hours and hours writing letters to friends and family at home.  It would have been a much better idea to get out and about. If you're part of a class of students, like my new group of students at INTO Manchester, make the most of any activities organised by the college.  If you're feeling great, try to notice anyone in your class who seems homesick or lonely,  and be friendly to them. Maybe you will feel homesick at some point, and a person who has already been through it and is feeling better will be happy to help you the way you helped them. 
  3. Make new friends who don't speak your language.  It's natural when you are homesick to want to spend time with people from your own culture, and I would never say that you should avoid them altogether.  However, don't spend all your time with them.  I spent nearly all my weekends visiting English people in other parts of Austria, and by doing that I missed out on opportunities to do things with Austrians, get to know them better - and practise my German. Before I went to Austria, I was one of the best students in my year at university, but when I got back I was nowhere near the top of my class, especially in Speaking.  The people who had made lots of German and Austrian friends were way, way ahead of me.  If possible, fall in love with a native speaker!  One of my Chinese classmates on my Master's degree course had a British boyfriend - her English really improved very quickly indeed.
  4. Even if you don't have much money, spend as much as you can on experiences you will never forget.  For me, I should have had skiing lessons the minute the first snow arrived.  A friend from my aerobics class tried to teach me to ski, but she wasn't a skiing teacher and she found it hard to understand why I couldn't do it!  I should have invested some money in proper lessons, and then I could have joined the other teachers at school who went skiing every weekend all through the winter. That doesn't really apply to my students in Manchester, but I would still say this: don't spend all your money on clothes and electronics - you can have all those things later in your life - spend your money on experiences - meals with friends, music concerts, films, sports and, most importantly of all, travel.  I did travel quite a lot when I lived in Austria, but not nearly enough - partly because I didn't always have someone to travel with.  I didn't realise that lots and lots of people have amazing journeys on their own - in fact, you are more likely to make new friends if you are travelling alone.  I was so happy when one of my new INTO students emailed me this week asking for advice about travelling while he is here - one of his friends had told him that he should take the opportunity to do this before he gets too busy with his studies, and this is absolutely right.  
One day you will wake up and find that you are 30, or 40, or 50 (yes, honestly, one day you will be this old...) and you will probably have so many responsibilities - a demanding job, a home to pay for and clean, children to bring up and provide for.  It would be terrible to have regrets about not having made the most of your freedom while you had it!

To my new class at INTO: you will never have a better chance to become really, really good at English.  Most of you are Chinese, and I understand how easy it is for you to stick together.  However, there are lots of people at INTO and other colleges in Manchester who are not from China, and they would love to make friends with you. Don't miss this chance to really broaden your horizons.

Have a great weekend :-)

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Back to where it all started...

The photo above is of St Johann im Pongau, the village in Austria where I spent the third year of my German degree as an English assistant working in two schools.  

Last week while I was in Munich the weather was unbearably hot for this poor Brit used to Manchester weather, so we hired a blissfully air-conditioned car and drove down into Austria (or up into the Alps) to revisit the place where my teaching career began.  I'd not been back for 28 years, so it was quite an emotional day.

Since my very first day at primary school, all I ever wanted to be was a teacher.  I couldn't imagine anything more wonderful than being able to spend all my time helping people to learn new things.  At secondary school I loved German best of all my school subjects, and I was extra ordinarily lucky to have two of the most amazing teachers for German - Mrs Burras somehow had me convinced that learning German grammar was the best fun it was possible to have, and Mrs Irving re-awoke my love for literature that had been killed off by having to read Shakespeare at the age of 11. It was a foregone conclusion that I would choose to study German at university, and my only plan was to go on to be a school teacher.

Teaching in Austria was a terrible shock.  My only training was a couple of days in Vienna with the entire group of English assistants for the whole of Austria that year, and all I can remember from that time is being in rather nice bars and restaurants being plied with food and drink at the expense of the Austrian government.  I certainly don't remember being given any idea at all how to teach English.  

English assistants are generally supposed to 'assist' the actual class teacher, but in one school I was expected to teach the whole class (with no course book to help me) while the teacher put her feet up in the staff room with a cup of coffee and a cigarette (yes, in those days the staff room was full of smoke...) and in the other school I sat in the corner of the classroom as bored as the pupils with the teacher throwing an occasional, usually very difficult, question at me.  For example, I was asked, without warning, to explain in detail the British parliamentary system of government.  I was 20 and more interested in boys than politics, and I still remember the red-faced humiliation I felt when I stumbled over my inadequate answer.  I also remember how much the students resented being made to learn English throughout their whole time at school, and how little attention they paid.

There were many wonderful things about that year in Austria, but school teaching was not one of them.  I came away absolutely certain in my conviction that I would never become a school teacher, and I never have.  I truly admire those people who are successful secondary school language teachers, but I knew it wasn't for me.

I wouldn't be sitting here writing this now had it not been for a friend I met at an aerobics class in St Johann, who taught an English evening class.  She invited me to attend her class to meet her adult students, and I fell in love.  Not with a student - but with the idea of teaching people who had chosen to be there, who were giving up their own time and money to come and study.  Some were learning English to help them in their jobs, others just for something fun and social to do, others for the sheer pleasure of learning.  The teacher had freedom in the classroom to teach in her own way, to meet the students' goals in the way that she felt most appropriate rather than being forced to follow a strict syllabus.  

So, to cut a long story short, I became a teacher of German in Further Education, quite often teaching retired people who had had a longstanding interest in Germany, Austria or Switzerland and who wanted to learn the language when they had the time.  It was a wonderful career - not well paid or secure (everything was dependent on student enrolment numbers) but incredibly enjoyable and satisfying.  I eventually moved over to teaching mainly English - alas, the British are not great lovers of language learning, and German is not so popular these days - and it all began with that one evening class in St Johann which I taught all those years ago.  

I discovered then that what I want is to teach students who want to learn, and what I need is to know what I am doing.  I admire people who can teach anyone, or who be thrown in at the deep end and begin teaching without any training or doing any lesson preparation, but I'm not like that.  Like most people I know, I needed some good teacher training - I did a one year Cert TESOL plus lots more training later on - and plenty of time for lesson preparation, particularly in the early years.  Maybe if I had been properly trained before I started teaching in St Johann, I would have gone on to become a secondary school teacher, but I can't imagine that I would have had as much pleasure in my teaching career as I have had up to now, and expect to go on having in the future.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Second language speaking out in the real world

I've just come back from a holiday in Munich.  As I've mentioned before, I'm a pretty competent speaker of German, and can express myself easily in all everyday situations.  Normally when I go on holiday to a German-speaking country I don't have to make much of an effort to make myself understood in every situation in which I find myself.  This time was a little bit different, as I was taken ill while I was there and needed to find and see a doctor.  Surprisingly, given that most educated Germans speak English to an extremely high standard, the doctor spoke no English and I felt very vulnerable having to provide some quite unusual but very important information in my second language.  I was dopey from having taken painkillers and, to be honest, a bit anxious about being so far from home and in pain.  I really struggled to describe exactly what I was experiencing, and discuss with her whether I should see a specialist in Munich or wait until I got home.  In the end we agreed on the latter, and luckily the pain subsided enough for me to enjoy the last couple of days of my holiday.  

I hope that my international students in Manchester find me sympathetic and understanding when they face illness or other difficulties during their time here, but my experience in Munich was a good reminder to me of the challenges of speaking a foreign language (not to mention dealing with a foreign health service) under pressure.  Of course all teachers know only too well how strong students sometimes perform poorly under stress in the IELTS exam, but it does us good to be reminded from time to time that students also have to live here, and negotiate all sorts of bureaucratic situations which we as native speakers might find irritating but they as second language learners find incredibly stressful.  It has definitely made me aware of the importance of a holistic attitude to teaching and learning - our students are first and foremost people rather than students, and while it is not my job to accompany them to the doctor, the town hall or the police station, it is my job to enable them to develop the linguistic strategies to cope under pressure.

More about Munich in due course!

Friday, 15 June 2012

The worst thing about being a teacher

Being a teacher has its ups and downs, but the one thing I never get used to is saying goodbye and today I've had to do it twice.  This morning I had to say goodbye to my lovely International Diploma students at INTO - I was the invigilator for their final exam, and now they are all going back to their own countries for a well-earned holiday before continuing their degree courses at various universities around the UK. Then this afternoon I had my last IELTS lesson with K, and I'll miss her so much. She's got her IELTS exam tomorrow and four gruelling A level exams next week, then she too will be moving to London to begin her degree after spending the summer with her family in China.

It's wonderful being part of students' lives for a time and helping them to achieve their goals, but I'm never prepared for the sense of sadness I feel as they move on to the next stage.  It doesn't last for long - after all, Facebook enables us to keep in touch with each other and it won't be long before I'm busy with my next groups of students - but it does remind me to enjoy and appreciate every day rather than complaining about how much marking I have to do!  My life is so enriched by the people I meet from all over the world, and I have learnt so much from the students I have taught over the years.

So, to those who I saw for the last time today: goodbye, have a wonderful summer, thank you for being my students, and I wish you the very best of luck!

Friday, 8 June 2012

Burnout - what it is and what to do about it

I can't believe it's already 8 June - and I haven't written a word on this blog since 24 May.  I've been up to my eyes in planning, marking, teaching and training, and I've hardly noticed the days passing.  I've always had trouble sleeping, but it's not been a problem during the last two weeks - in fact, I've fallen asleep relatively easily every night.  However... I've been so tired every day.  I feel like my iPhone battery - I run out of energy in no time at all.

This morning I was talking to T, one of my INTO students.  He's got an incredibly tough week of exams ahead of him next week, and he told me that the last day or two he has been completely wiped out, unable to do anything at all.  I can really relate to that, as I'm rapidly getting to the point where I'm just not able to focus on anything long enough to achieve the things I need to achieve.  I'm pretty sure that not only T and I, but also many of my other students, are suffering from the early stages of 'burnout'.

A psychologist called Maslach defines 'burnout' as a syndrome with the symptoms of exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy (that's how I'm feeling right now), and identifies 'engagement' as the opposite of this, characterised by the much more positive qualities of energy, involvement and efficacy (that's how I normally feel about my life and work).  I got this information from Wikipedia, but I'm too exhausted to give you the proper reference, and in any case it's not a reliable academic source ;-)

I think I have got this way from the sheer volume of work I'm doing at the moment, combined with possibly not taking good enough care of myself.  I've been too busy to shop for and cook good food, my apartment is a mess, and I've not been finding the time to relax and just do nothing.

I've got another two weeks before my holiday and my heavy workload is going to get even heavier next week.  From past experience I know that I'm at risk of catching a cold/flu/stomach bug and that could ruin my trip to Munich.  Many of my students have also got various types of exams and important essay deadlines over the next couple of weeks, and we all need to find ways to rediscover our energy, involvement and efficacy.

I've found a great website which gives some helpful advice about how to recover from burnout, and you can read all about it here.  If you're too tired to read it now, I'll sum it up for you: 
  1. Slow down.  Cut back whatever commitments and activities you can.  Give yourself time to rest, reflect, and heal.    I've just gone through my to-do list on my phone, and deleted quite a few things.  After I finish this, I'm going to do absolutely nothing for the rest of the evening, and only what is absolutely essential over the weekend.  Not easy when you're a perfectionist!  If you're struggling with your studies, try to focus on the essentials - throw away your revision plan if you can't cope with it and it's making you panic.  If you really can't afford to have the weekend off, use the timer on your phone to really, really focus on your studies for 15 minutes, and then do something to relax for 15 or 30 minutes.  You can do a lot in 15 minutes when you know that you can switch off your mind after that.  Repeat the 15 minutes of study if you can - and the 15 or 30 minutes of rest.  When you know that you're not taking in anything more, go for a walk, listen to music or chat to a friend - for real or online.  Get enough sleep, good food and some fresh air every day.
  2. Get support.  I'm lucky that my husband is happy to do anything he can to help when I get like this.  I always feel like I should be able to do everything, but I have to admit that I just can't.  If you're an international student away from your family and your closest friends, you may be short of people to turn to.  Try to tell somebody that you are not coping - someone you live with, or maybe one of your teachers.  Don't be afraid to admit that you need some support.  
  3. Reevaluate your goals and priorities.  I know that my most important work goal has always been to feel like I am the best teacher I can possibly be - the problem with that is that it combines with my perfectionism to make me never satisfied!  I know that I'm a much better teacher when I'm not worn out, so maybe I need to change my goal to something more like this: to be a good, happy and relaxed teacher who is still learning and not afraid to make mistakes. That feels like a kinder and more realistic goal.  If you're doing IELTS, or something equally stressful, try to remember that there are many paths through life which will bring you happiness.  You may feel like everything will fall apart if you don't get the score you need, but who knows?  Maybe Plan B will turn out to be even better than Plan A.
And now I'm off to sit next to my husband on the sofa (with the cup of coffee he has just made for me) and watch TV.

See you soon!

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Getting ready for the IELTS Speaking test

My fantastic and super-intelligent student M is worried about her forthcoming IELTS Speaking test, so today we spent three whole hours working on preparing for Part 2.  I printed out a collection of speaking tasks which I found here.  We picked out the tasks which looked most difficult and she just worked so hard, ploughing through them one after another.  

What really struck me was how much better she did when she was talking about something she felt genuinely enthusiastic about.  There's absolutely no reason why you have to tell the truth in the exam - the examiner will neither know nor care whether you really use the bus instead of your car to help the environment - but when you are inventing things which are not true for you, and doing this under extreme pressure, it's very easy for your language and ideas to be very general.  We have a great word in English to describe something which isn't absolutely terrible but is a bit bland and boring: wishy-washy.  I came to the conclusion that when you are talking about something you have no real feelings about, you can end up sounding a bit wishy-washy, and getting a wishy-washy score.

Do yourself a favour: print or write out as many examples of Part 2 tasks as you possibly can NOW, and spend as long as it takes to think up an interesting answer to every single one.  If you really have to lie, that's fine, but make it an interesting lie, complete with interesting and believable details.  Go through your vocabulary book and  your Ideas Book and make a note of  useful vocabulary for the task - in particular phrases - which will show the examiner what you are capable of.  

As always, don't forget to look at the superb free lessons provided every day by IELTS-Simon (no, he doesn't pay me to say this!) - his blog posts about speaking are here. There isn't a better IELTS resource anywhere.

The other thing you absolutely MUST do is work with a timer - on your mobile phone? - to practise making notes for a minute, then speaking for between one and two minutes (aim for two).  If you can bear it, record yourself and listen to the recording.  Can you hear any errors?  Is there any hesitation or repetition?  Try working with a friend and see if you can spot each other's mistakes.  You might think it's not much fun, but you'll be so glad you invested this effort if you get the score you need.

Of course it's always possible that you will get a Part 2 task that you couldn't possibly have anticipated, but the more you practise quick thinking and rapid planning, the better prepared you will be to cope in that situation.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

How to improve your score in the IELTS Writing test

Many of the students I work with are looking for the one key to getting a high score in the IELTS Writing exam.  The fact is, there's isn't one single factor which will guarantee you get the score you need, but there are a few do's and don'ts which are worth remembering.

While you are preparing for the exam: 
  • Do focus on making your language easy to understand.  If your teacher is always writing question marks on your essay, you are not making your meaning clear.  If the examiner does not understand what you are trying to say, you have failed to communicate your message and you cannot get the high score you are hoping for.  
  • Don't get obsessed with linking words and phrases.  Of course you do need to use these effectively in order to get a high score, but you won't get a higher score by using unusual or obscure words and phrases.  You definitely won't get a high score if you put them in the wrong place. Learn to use a small range of linking devices correctly.
  • Instead, do work on developing a really wide range of ideas and opinions about all the common IELTS topics.  Read the newspapers and your coursebooks, listen to the news, watch YouTube videos and, most important of all, make an ideas book.
  • Don't try to memorise long lists of model sentences out of an IELTS book. Of course you need a range of good vocabulary to get a high score, but it's better to find a few good phrases then use them as soon as possible in your writing until you are really familiar with them, and sure that you are using them correctly. Then repeat the process with a few more.  
On the day:
  • Do make sure you only spend 20 minutes on Task 1.  You cannot get a good mark overall if you do not spend enough time on Task 2.  
  • Don't panic if you don't fully understand the question.  It's not the end of the world.  Read the question carefully several times, and if you really, really don't understand it, don't just give up.  Make the most sensible guess that you can and take the opportunity in the introduction to clarify what you think the question means.  This will make it less confusing for the reader, who will understand where you are coming from.  You will still get some credit if you write a good essay.
  • Do jot down your ideas and make a quick plan before you start writing the essay.  A lot of the marks are for how well organised your essay is, and it's very difficult to do this as you are writing.  
  • If you do get to the end of your essay and suddenly think of a really, really good idea you should have put in the second paragraph, don't just put it in the conclusion.  Leave a space after the end of the conclusion, write down your great idea, then link it to where it should have gone in the essay by using a long arrow.  

I hope these ideas are useful - good luck with your preparation!

Thursday, 17 May 2012

How reading the news can help you to get high scores in IELTS - or just improve your English in general

If you are serious about improving your English, especially if you are preparing for a test like IELTS or one of the Cambridge ESOL exams, you need to be regularly practising your speaking and writing - what we could call output.  But you also need to make sure that you are getting enough input - that you are taking in enough  of the right sort of English, through your eyes and ears.  

Although a large part of your exam preparation should be in the form of practice tests, you need more than that. Chatting with friends, both face-to-face and on the internet, is a great way of practising your informal speaking skills, but you need more than that.  Reading about your favourite fashions or sports on websites is an excellent way to improve your reading skills and give you the vocabulary you need to talk with your friends (and the examiner) about your everyday life and the things you love. But you need more than that.

To get really high scores in exams like IELTS, and to pass exams like Cambridge Advanced, you need to know a bit about the world.  Not just your world - you need to know about what goes on in the world as a whole.  I don't mean that you need to know and remember a huge number of specific facts about current affairs.  What you do need is a general understanding of other people's lives and experiences, so that you can talk and write about things of which you have no direct experience.  

I'll give you an example.  If you are reading this, you are a literate, educated person, but to write an essay about the problems of illiteracy you need to be able to imagine what it would be like to have little or no education, to be unable to read and write. It's much easier to write about the less familiar topics if you have got into the habit of thinking about what happens outside your own family and social life. Newspapers, or news websites, are the place to find this type of information.

I'm going to make two suggestions about how to read the news to improve your English (I'll talk about listening another day):
  1. If you live in the UK, buy the newspaper called the 'i' every day.  It's only 20p, and is a shortened version of one of the high quality newspapers called the Indpendent.  I know that Metro is free, but the type of English used in Metro isn't as good as the language in the i.  The first two pages are full of very short articles (about 50 words each) on the hot topics of the day from around the world.  If you look through these and read about half of them, you will get lots of new vocabulary and ideas for essays (don't forget to add all your new ideas to your Ideas Book).  If you flick through the next 20 pages or so, you will find lots of longer news articles - and you could pick one or two a day and read them quite closely, making a record of the useful vocabulary and ideas.  After that there's pages about the day's television, fashion, technology, cars - all sorts of different 'general interest' topics.  Then come the business pages, so if you are studying for IELTS with a view to doing a Master's degree in Business, you can make sure that you are aware of all the latest developments.  Finally, there's lots about sport, and some great crosswords and other puzzles.  You don't have to read it all, but commit yourself to spending a certain amount of time on it, and do it regularly.
  2. If you don't live in the UK, or don't want to buy the i, do the same but use the internet.  You can use websites by the Guardian or the BBC, or have a look at this website which lists the top ten news websites for English language learners. Read the headlines, and choose one or two articles a day to look at more closely. I do this for my German, using the German version of Yahoo. Sometimes I don't feel like it, but I always enjoy it once I actually start, and it's a good habit which has really helped me.
The most important thing is that you develop a daily routine (or at least a routine you follow on a few set days of the week) and follow it as regularly as you clean your teeth! You can make a real difference even if you only spend half an hour a day.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Ideas for IELTS Speaking and Writing

Students complain a lot about the IELTS exam.  A lot of complaints are about how hard it is to do the Reading test in the time available, but even more people complain about how hard it is to think of ideas for some of the Writing Task 2 essay topics, and the Speaking Part 2 talk.  Without some good ideas, it is very unlikely that you could get a high enough IELTS score to be accepted onto a postgraduate course.

A really good way to overcome this problem is to begin an Ideas Book as soon as you possibly can, and add to it regularly.  You can do this on your computer, in a Word document or Excel spreadsheet, or use a folder or A4 notebook.  

It's very simple - basically, you list all the topics you can think of (especially difficult ones) in your document or spreadsheet, or allocate a whole page to every topic in your notebook or folder.  Then, over a period of time, you write down all sorts of ideas, opinions and useful vocabulary relating to that topic. 

There are lots of different places where you can get ideas.  If you go to an IELTS preparation class, you will certainly do lots of activities which can be a good source of ideas.  Your teacher will probably give you lots of handouts, and you can make a note of anything useful which you talk about in class.

Even if you're working alone, you can still find lots of good ideas, from websites or from the test practice books which you are using. For example, if you do the practice reading test called 'Nature on display in American zoos' from the IELTS Trainer (p140), don't just heave a huge sigh of relief when it's all over and forget all about it as quickly as possible - use some of the ideas from the text for your Ideas Book. In the case of this text, I would add the following to my page entitled 'animals':

Goals of zoos: recreation, education, advancement of science, protection of endangered species, captive breeding programmes.
Problems: animal welfare - some zoos in the past did not provide adequate care
Funding: public (municipal funding), private financial support, admission fees

Even this small amount of information (which took me less than five minutes to find and write down) would be enough to help me write a really good essay about whether zoos are a good thing or not.  

Your Ideas Book is also a great place to note down past IELTS questions about the various topics, and your ideas about how to answer them.  Look, for example, at IELTS-Simon's question and suggested answer about a wild animal from your country.  Write out the question and your own answer (or notes) on your 'animals' page.  

If you're studying for the IELTS exam, or any other English exam where you might have to speak or write about a range of topics, why not try an Ideas Book?  Email me if you want any help or advice about this!

Sunday, 13 May 2012

IELTS Writing Task 2 and other academic essays: what not to write...

I'm not having the best of days - we just bumped our car into a friend's car and damaged both vehicles - an expensive mistake!  I'm feeling a bit grumpy, so I'm going to blog about some of the things which I think don't sound good in academic writing.  Feel free to disagree with me, as some of them really are a matter of opinion.
  1. Don't be over-dramatic.  A lot of students use memorised phrases like 'One of the most controversial topics today is ....' or '..... is hotly debated around the world'.  This is fine for genuinely dramatic topics which really are the subject of heated debate, like perhaps global warming, but if it is something like 'is it a good idea for children to have pets?' then these phrases sound silly.  If you use phrases like this because you don't know what else to put in the introduction, follow the formula taught by IELTS-Simon, to write a fairly general sentence about the topic of the essay, and follow it with another sentence which sums up your whole answer to the question.  Good examples of his techniques are here, here and especially here.
  2. Be careful with all sentences memorised from books.  I feel a bit bad writing this, but please be extra careful with books produced by people who are not native or near-native speakers.  One of my lovely Chinese students obviously had her doubts about some Chinese IELTS books she had at home, as she brought them into class and asked me to check if they were suitable for her to study from.  I'm sorry to say that they were FULL of mistakes, and also contained an awful lot of very unusual vocabulary which you really don't need for IELTS (a long list of different precious stones, for example).  Anyway, to get back to my point about what not to write, don't memorise and write things like 'every coin has two sides'.  We just don't use this phrase - we do have the saying 'two sides of the same coin', but that really means the opposite of what people mean when they say 'every coin has two sides'.  You don't need to use phrases like this at all - you need sensible opinions, with good examples, expressed in clear, simple, accurate English, with a few basic linking devices.  That's it!  
  3. Avoid 'sweeping statements'.  These are statements where you over-generalise about things which you can't possibly be sure about, especially when they could cause offence to people (remember, examiners are people!).  Always, never and all are dangerous words!  I'm also thinking of things like 'women should stay at home with their children',  'people in the UK do not care about old people' and 'it is immoral to get divorced if you have children'.  I have read all three in essays handed in for me to mark, and they are not acceptable in academic writing.  Don't get me wrong - you are entitled to think whatever you want, but in academic writing you have to express your ideas more carefully, and in particular avoid racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination.  By the way, putting 'in my opinion' before an offensive comment doesn't make it acceptable in academic writing!  
  4. Don't use 'he' to refer to people in general.  It is no longer acceptable in academic writing to use language which excludes one half of the population.  It can sound clumsy to always write 'he or she' 'his or her', so the easiest way to avoid sexist language is to make things plural - instead of 'the teacher must encourage his or her students to read widely', just say 'teachers must encourage their students....'  
  5. Don't use abbreviations.  You all know this, but it's so easy to forget!  So no 'what's more', 'etc', and 'don't'...  It's not a big thing, but sticking to this rule shows that you understand and respect the conventions of academic writing.
  6. Try to avoid mixing up British and American spelling.  In IELTS it's fine to use either, but try to be consistent - all British or all American, rather than a mixture of both.  I must add that some tutors at university have terribly strong feelings about British v American spelling - I personally don't think it matters, as long as you are consistent - so you need to check what the 'rules' are at the university or college where you are studying.
I hope some of these pointers are helpful - you may not think that some of these things matter, but there's no point in annoying the IELTS examiner!  I'll be in a better mood next time I write....

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Useful language for IELTS Writing Task 1 - describing trends

Many students - and even some IELTS teachers :-D - find Writing Task 1 of the Academic Module very difficult.  I did too, until I discovered the brilliant IELTS-Simon's advice about how to approach it.  His method is very simple and extremely effective - you can find the relevant part of his website here.  Most other books and websites make the whole matter far too complicated.  

They also give the impression that the only way to get a high score in this part of the test is to use incredibly complicated language, and this is simply not true.  You need to have a relatively small amount of vocabulary at your fingertips - that is, ready to use without having to think too hard about it.  You need to use it in the appropriate places, and you need to use it accurately.  

Perhaps the most useful area of vocabulary to learn for IELTS Writing Task 1 is how to describe trends.  You often have to describe a line graph with several lines moving up and down over a period of time, and there are two easy ways of doing this - the 123 method, and the ABCD method.

Here's the 123 method:




The price 
The population
The number of ....

went down


went up


the same

To avoid repeating the same type of sentence over and over again, you can also add in some sentences using the ABCD method:





There was a




in price
in the population
in the number of ...

You don't even need to memorise all of this vocabulary if time is short and you are struggling - the most important thing is to learn a few of these, but learn them thoroughly.  Learn a way of saying that the numbers go up, that the numbers go down and that the numbers stay pretty much the same, plus a couple of adverbs (123 method) and adjectives (ABCD method).  

Learning a few phrases really well, so that you can use them confidently and accurately, will help you focus on the really important part of Task 1 - understanding what the data means, then identifying the most important trends in your general overview paragraph, and describing the trends in more detail in the rest of the report.  

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

What not to forget on the day of your IELTS exam...

My students at Manchester Victoria College have their IELTS exam tomorrow - good luck!  Here are some of the reminders I gave them today:
  • Make sure you know EXACTLY how to get to the IELTS test centre, and assume that the traffic is going to be very heavy (unless you're walking there!).  Plan to get there about an hour before the deadline - you can always have a cup of tea in a coffee shop if you get there quickly, and if the bus is stuck in traffic you won't be stressed.
  • Be careful in your choice of clothing - you're not allowed to wear your coat, or a top with pockets.  Wear a few layers so you will feel comfortably warm but can quickly strip off if you overheat!
  • If you're doing the whole exam in one day, bring some food and drinks - you won't know the time of your speaking exam until the day so you don't know how much time you will have to get some lunch.  
  • And while we are on the subject of food, try to have some breakfast on the day.  I know that most people don't feel like eating when they are nervous about the exam, but your brain will work better if you give it some food first :-)  If you can't face your normal breakfast, maybe you could have some fruit and yogurt when you arrive at the test centre?
  • In the Listening, don't waste time worrying about anything you miss - keep listening and try really hard to keep up with the questions, even if you can't get every answer.  Don't give up in Section 4 - yes, it's difficult, but there are always a few easier questions even in this part of the test.  At the end when you are transferring your answers, be VERY careful to check that you are putting the right answer against the right number on the sheet - I know it sounds insultingly obvious, but many students number their answers incorrectly, purely as a result of exam nerves. Don't leave any of the questions blank - you will get nothing if you write nothing, but a guess may just be right.
  • In the Reading, don't panic and start trying out new strategies at this stage - use the techniques you've been practising in class.  Don't forget that each of the three passages has a mixture of easy and difficult questions - if anyone tells you that the whole of passage three is difficult, they are mistaken.  Spend twenty minutes on each of the passages, and transfer your answers to the answer sheet as you go - you don't get any extra time for this at the end of the test.  I personally know three students who got a Reading score of less than 2.0 because they forgot about this on the day, and one of the three tried to quickly carry on writing after the time was up and got into trouble with the invigilator. Again, don't leave any blank spaces on the answer sheet, especially if the questions were multiple choice.
  • In the Writing, focus on being clear and as accurate as possible.  If the examiner doesn't understand what you are trying to say, you will not get a great mark.  Don't spend more than 20 minutes on Task 1, and don't forget that students who put in lots and lots of numbers without making comparisons and a summary/overview get low marks.  In Task 2, spend five minutes thinking and planning, and then put most of your effort into the main body paragraphs - your introduction and conclusion only need to be a couple of sentences each - if you run out of ideas try to include examples of what you are talking about.  Use the last few minutes to check for silly mistakes - like missing plurals or third person 's'.
  • In the Speaking, smile and make eye contact with the examiner - they are only human, after all!  Don't forget to include the words if and because as these words will make you use more advanced language without even thinking about it.  Don't be afraid to say 'Sorry, I didn't catch that' if you didn't understand the question, and if they ask you a really difficult question you can say 'Hmm, that's a really difficult question'!  
I really hope that the exam will go well for you but if you feel it went badly, don't despair.  Very many people need to take the exam a second or even third time to get the score they need, and if you did very much worse than you expected you could even consider taking some extra lessons... :-D

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Last minute IELTS revision

In my last post I talked about getting ready for IELTS when you still have a couple of months ahead of you.  Today I've been working with students who don't have anything like that amount of time available for revision - they are doing their tests within the next ten days.  

If time is getting short, you need to focus your attention very carefully on the most essential things.  It goes without saying that all IELTS teachers will have their own ideas about what is essential, but these are the things I think are worth doing in the last few hours of revision time.  
  1. Speaking: IELTS-Simon quite rightly says that most of your focus should be on preparing for the second part of the test, by planning ideas and language for some of the very common topics - have a look at his advice here and act on it. However, if time is getting REALLY short, and you are down to the last few hours, I suggest that you make sure you are ready for Part 1.  True, it's not where you get the most marks, but it's a good idea to make a strong and confident start to the test, and it's not difficult to work through the typical Part 1 questions and get your answers ready.  If you make a mess of the answer to 'Do you work or are you a student?' it will knock your confidence and make you even more nervous.  There's lots of videos on YouTube which will give you a really good idea of the questions you will face - have a look at this one for a start.  Whatever you do, smile at the examiner, make eye contact with him or her, and don't forget that it's ok to say 'Sorry, I didn't quite catch that.  Could you repeat the question please?'  Finally, remember the magical power of if and because!
  2. Reading: Try and find one IELTS Reading passage that you haven't seen before, or if you really can't find one have a look at the 'official' samples here (the downside of this is that the passage only has a few questions, not the normal amount).  In any case, have a go at your chosen passage - time yourself for 20 minutes if you have a proper passage with the 12 or 13 questions  (if you're using the samples don't bother timing yourself), then check your answers.  If you stop here you're wasting a massive opportunity to help yourself - as I said yesterday, the value of the practice tests is that you can learn so much from your mistakes.  What did you get wrong and why?  Is it something that can be quickly fixed - like not having read the questions carefully enough?  Compare the language in the question with the words in the text and remind yourself that the words will be related in meaning, but rarely are the same words in both.
  3. Listening: If you still have access to a Listening test you haven't done before, do it - but make sure you use the transcript afterwards to really check where you went wrong.  Otherwise, try and find something interesting to watch in English on television or the internet, using English subtitles if necessary.  It's very important to 'tune in your ear' to English, particularly if you are not living in an English-speaking country and/or are living with people who speak the same mother tongue as you.  Relaxing with a really good film in English is actually quite a good use of your time!
  4. Writing: This is where IELTS-Simon is really valuable - his advice is better than anything you'll read in a book.  Learn his Writing Task 1 four paragraph method - paraphrase the question, give an overview of the most important information, then add two paragraphs with some details.  You can find out more information about this here, where he talks you through his thinking process about how to approach a task.  For Task 2, why not think about adopting this quick and simple method for writing introductions and conclusions - a strong start and finish to an essay always make a good impression.  If you have time, read through as many of Simon's plans and sample essays as possible - they will give you lots of good ideas.
Only you can know exactly what your particular strengths and weaknesses are, so some of these things may not apply to you, but maybe some of the ideas will be helpful.  Good luck!