Successful Language Teaching



  • We must take into account that each learner has individual strengths and weaknesses.
  • We should focus on helping students to use English in the context of their own lives.
  • We should use real world connections and cultural interest to motivate learners.
  • The classroom should be an enjoyable, happy and stimulating place.
  • Students should be given opportunities to use the target language in ways linked to the world beyond the classroom.
  • Technology and social media have the power to transform the learning experience.
  • High quality learning materials lie at the heart of high quality learning.
  • Language learning should be ‘linked’.
  • Young people already possess the right instincts to be good language learners. We must work in harmony with those instincts.
  • The best learning satisfies children’s natural curiosity, being full of playfulness, surprise and wonder.
  • Language ability develops along channels of communication. We are most successful when we create these channels.
  • Good teaching is a creative process.
  • Teachers should build a community in and beyond the classroom that nurtures children’s friendly nature and builds a supportive environment for learning.
  • The best teachers encourage fun and excitement, both for its own sake but also because they understand that that’s the best way for children to learn about the world around them.


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I believe that…

Feeling the Flow

“English lessons should be emotionally, intellectually and physically stimulating and rewarding. Young learners respond best to lessons that appeal to their hearts, their minds and their bodies. All three of these zones need to be engaged in order for children to have a positive experience of language learning. We need to harness their wonderful energy and music is the most powerful tool at our disposal as it has the potential to stimulate and reward every learner.”

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Linked Language Learning

I think that all language teachers should think about ways to enrich their teaching through linking. It’s all about the connections we make.

1. The links between teacher and student.

Do I have mutually respectful relationships with my students and do I devote time and energy to developing these relationships?

2. The links between students.

Are my students communicating without anxiety, working together well and supporting each other? Do students have plenty of opportunity and encouragement to develop these relationships?

3. The links between teachers.

Am I connected to an active community of teachers? Does this community enrich my teaching and support my development? Is it easy for me to seek the help of more experienced teachers? Am I engaged in helping less-experienced teachers than myself?

4. The links to the world outside the classroom.

Are students being given opportunities to use the target language in a real and relevant way, linked to the world beyond the classroom? Is the language being learnt through such links? Am I giving students space and time to use this language in the context of their own lives?

5. The links between the known and the new.

Is new language being introduced in a way that makes connections with language students have already mastered. Am I helping my students to find and use these connections?

6. The ‘M’ link.

Do I use a wide variety of materials, methods and media linked in a way that students will find memorable and motivating?

[This post first appeared in Lindsay Clandfield’ Six Things blog]

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Tips from Chips


I went from being a waiter at an all-night café in Dublin owned by members of the rock band U2 to an English teacher in Japan. Like most things in my life, it was a h
appy accident. 16 years later, I still work in ELT. I’ve been lucky. Do I have any tips for the next generation of young waiters setting out into the world of language teaching or authoring?

[Busy readers need only read the words in bold.]

Firstly, find a reasonable teaching position in a pleasant school with good conditions and supportive management. I’m not just talking about salary, but a working environment that allows you to develop both creatively and professionally.

I was lucky to have been thrown together with Rie Kimura, a keen amateur illustrator who also worked at the school. She made everything I scribbled look good and that inspired me. It’s important to build creative relationships (with people who are better at stuff than you are).

We just made a start with no inhibitions and few preconceptions, producing worksheets, books, calendars, workbooks and a newsletter. Some of them were good. Some of them were terrible but all of them were ours.

‘Don’t stop’ was our motto. Making the most of a few jealously guarded hours a week, we began to make more and more materials. Photocopies stapled together at first, and then on one epic day, a trip to the printers. After that, with proper covers and a print run of 200, we really felt like the real thing. We had been published! That was April 2000.

Potato Pals
We used the materials we had made in lessons with our students
. This was fun and allowed us to see what worked and what didn’t. There are no better reviewers than real kids in real classrooms.


Things might have stayed small (and that would have been fine) had we not decided to show people around us what we were doing. In our case, it was my sister who enthused about our little books and encouraged us to send them off to a publisher. She even helped us to identify the right contact people. That advice made us dream big.

Making a formal proposal to OUP really forced us to take a good look at what we had created up to that point. The key phrase from that proposal that I have re-used again and again is ‘helping children to tell the story of their own lives’. As I put the proposal in the post box, I said a prayer and within a week we had a reply from New York asking us to meet their editors. I look forward to finding out if it was the prayer, the proposal, or both that did the trick.

Working with OUP opened up a new world. Getting real feedback, from publishing professionals was totally different to anything Rie or I had ever experienced. We also had a chance to show our ideas to other teachers, helping us to shape our vision.

Keep it simple. Keep it positive.

Keep it simple. Keep it positive.

We really got into it then, making enormous charts, laying out the whole scope of the project all over the walls of one room of my apartment. I wrote endless lists of all the words that we would squeeze into the art. We drafted and redrafted, polishing all the way. We removed the story where potatoes eat other potatoes in the kitchen. That one was deemed unsuitable for the younger reader.

Both of our editors were musical and suggested that a song could be commissioned for each reader. Did I know a songwriter that I would like to work with? Yes! I knew Brian Cullen, Nagoya’s resident Irish musician and a man of infinite talents. We spent many afternoons in the park together, being very silly and singing fledgling potato songs. We are still good, good, good friends. Tracks recorded by Brian and his friends in Japan were sent to New York to be rerecorded with American children’s’ voices. Combining resources and talents across media and between continents seemed like such a magical and powerful thing to happen. It still does.


With books in hand we hit the highways and by-ways, spreading the word and celebrating whenever we found out that a classroom or individual learner somewhere in the world had started using the materials. Nowadays, that whole process has been transformed by social media. I have thoroughly enjoyed the ride; going to conferences, on author tours, riding bullet trains in potato suits and getting involved in further projects. Meanwhile, although still a minor series of supplementary readers, the Potato Pals continued to grow in popularity and I was commissioned to co-author Everybody Up, a more substantial 7-Level course.

It was in April 2010 that the iPad was released and I knew immediately that this was exactly the platform that the simple art and concept of Potato Pals had been waiting for. In fact, we had really written an app ten years before they existed. Two years later another creative partnership was formed with Benson Loo, an app developer from Singapore. I won’t spoil it by telling you all the incredible things this app can do (you can download a free sample story and try it out for yourself) but one thing is for sure; it will unlock your inner potato in ways you never thought possible. Enjoy it. We have.2013-05-23_2122

[The Potato Pals 1 app for iPads is available in the App Store]





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The Potato Pals App is Coming to Town


Young learners of English will enjoy this app, which introduces them to the 6 Potato Pals. With one free story, and the option to buy 6 more, the app is a fun and exciting way for young learners of English to practice developing their language skills.

• Learn the words – this section contains over 150 useful words to help children talk about their day. Audio and illustrations help children with pronunciation and meaning.
• Watch and Read – all the words from the ‘Learn the words’ section are presented in context, with charming animations to bring stories to life.
• Tell the Story – make the reader the star of the show! Children, or parents, can make their own version of the story, with their faces appearing in the illustrations.
• Sing a song – each story contains a song that covers all the phrases the children have learned. Children can listen to the songs and then record a karaoke version of themselves singing.

These stories are a great way for young learners of English to see language in use, in context, and enjoy story time, whilst improving their English.


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Everybody Up Global Singalong

The Everybody Up Global Singalong continues to get entries from all over the world.

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Thank you, Cevre!

A fabulous day. MANY thanks!Presenting at the 9th Cevre ELT Conference in Is

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A Bit of Butter

In which I learn the drawbacks of a posh English accent.

On one occasion, aged about 7 or 8, I was sent down to the shop next to the pub to buy a pound of butter. This in itself was a very unusual thing. In fact I have no other memory of being out by myself at that age. Beyond the wall. The shop was very small and dark, with a wooden counter.


“Please can I have a pound of butter?”

Both the teenage girl and the young man just sniggered at first. Then they called a woman who came out from the back.

“Get him to say it again.”
“Please can I have a pound of butter?
“Please can I have a pound of butter?”
“What do you want?”
“A pound of BUTTER please.”

They all had a good old laugh and got me the butter.

“There you go, pet.”

I paid and left, deeply ashamed.

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A Missed Opportunity

In which my horticultural efforts are belittled by a priest.

I was about 10 years younger than my brother and sister who were away at boarding school in England. After the accident it was just my mum, my grandmother and a series of Danish au pairs. We didn’t mix with local kids in the area and I spent quite a lot of time playing by myself in a walled garden next to our house. Sometimes suitable friends (children of my mother’s friends) would be brought over to play for the afternoon.

There was a ginkgo tree, a greenhouse and a sandpit in the corner. There was also a small boxed-in area, about three yards by two. This was my own little patch where I could grow things. I only grew flowers though: French marigolds, snapdragons and pansies.


The property next to ours over the wall was owned by the Marist Fathers. Occasionally Father Crawley would visit us. I have no idea why. One day my mother brought him in to see me working in my garden. I was excited, expecting him to praise my efforts. He towering above me as I kneeled in my bed, looking up.

“Why don’t you grow something you can eat? Cabbages or something.”

He laughed and they went off, leaving me there, burning with anger.


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In which I resist my family’s attempts to encourage my French.

“Pat. Here you are. Now Say ‘Merci’!”

A Choco BN

A Choco BN

I was five. We were in Brittany on a camping holiday. It may have been my father’s last summer with us before the accident. It was baking hot. I had probably just been given a sandy Choco BN biscuit. They were one of the special things you got in France, like Orangina, pain au chocolat, and pommes frites with every meal.

“Say ‘Merci’!”

Everyone was looking at me. My teenage brother and sister probably didn’t think much of this forced merci-saying but I don’t remember anyone sticking up for me. Nope. This wasn’t going to have a happy ending.

“Say ‘Merci’! We’re in France now. You have to speak French.”

I knew we were in France. I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to say “Merci’. Why should I? I wasn’t French. We weren’t French.

“Oh go on. Just say it!”

Probably at this stage there was a perceptible change in the atmosphere. I don’t remember.

“Why won’t you say it? Come on! Just say it. It’s only one word!”

I wouldn’t. One word or the whole French dictionary. I would sound funny and it wasn’t going to happen. I wasn’t going to say “Merci”. They could smash my head in with a rock and leave me there. What exactly would they do anyway?

“If you don’t say ‘Merci’ you’re going back to the car.”

The brown Triumph, was miles away up the beach. So were they really going to put a five year-old child in a car on a day with the temperature in the 80s? Really?

“Say ‘Merci’. Now. Do what you’re told. If you don’t you will go back to the car.”


Presumably my father, Davis Cup player and Chairman of the Federation of Irish Industries then said “Right. That’s it!” We set off together up the beach, me grasped horizontally, two feet above the ground, crying, screaming and kicking. There must have been considerable friction between our hot sandy bodies.

Eventually we got to the car but he’d forgotten the keys. We had to walk all the way back to the family group. I had won. Happy days.

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Going With The Flow

As part of a recent talk to teachers of young learners in Taiwan I asked participants to complete the following sentence: ‘Children are…’ The idea was to identify some natural characteristics of children which we might consider to bring out the best in students. My overall goal was to explore ideas around the topic of making teaching more real and relevant.

So, what would you have written had you been there? ‘Children are…’

In Taiwan the most popular answers were ‘energetic’, ‘curious’, ‘creative’, ‘friendly’ and ‘playful’. To be totally honest, there was also a smattering of ‘cute’, ‘lovely’, ‘naughty’ and ‘monsters’ but I think that’s the subject of another post.

Feeling the Flow

So does this help us at all? Does the best language teaching take into account the nature of children? Do good lessons for young learners mirror these characteristics?

Good language teachers certainly harness children’s boundless energy by including plenty of movement and action through songs, TPR activities, games and role plays. They also build connections to the wider world and to school subjects, thereby satisfying children’s natural curiosity. Their lessons are full of surprise and wonder. It’s not just about English but ways to use English. Good teachers allow space for creativity, giving students plenty of chance to contribute in a personalised way. They build a community in and beyond the classroom that nurtures children’s friendly nature and they build a supportive environment for learning. This can be done through stories and a values program that models the thoughtful behaviour we seek. Finally, the best teachers allow for playfulness, both for the sake of fun but also because they understand that that’s the best way for children to learn about the world around them.

In nature, most things that are fun are fun for a very good reason.

When I looked again at these lists of adjectives something else struck me. The characteristics of children are also the characteristics of good language teachers. Think of some language teachers you really admire. Are they energetic? Curious? Creative and friendly? Playful? I thought so! And while we’re at it, wouldn’t the list be good advice for anyone who wants to be a successful language learner?

As with most things, we are best to look for our inspiration right in front of us and, as is usually the case, one’s best ideas are old news. Here are two quotes from educational pioneer Maria Montessori, written over 100 years ago.

“The school must permit the free natural manifestations of the child.”

“From the child itself the teacher will learn how to perfect himself as an educator.”

Not surprising really that there are so many Montessori schools called ‘Follow the Child’. It’s something we would all be well to remember.

This all brings us back to the fact that children are built to learn. For better or for worse, that’s how humans managed to dominate the planet. The best ‘methods’ take into account the simple fact that children already possess the right instincts to be wonderful learners. More than with any other age group the art of teaching young learners is to work in harmony with those instincts.

[This post first appeared on the Oxford University Press Blog]

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