Month: November 2017


Acronyms are everywhere in English-language teaching. They describe what we do, how we do it, and to whom. But is the myriad of acronyms necessary? Can we streamline and agree on a single solution for the English-teaching sector?

As I look for social media groups to join, websites to search for jobs, and blogs to read, I never know which keywords to start from: English Teaching? Teaching English? TEFL? TESL? TESOL? ELT? ESL? EFL..?

My preference is for ELT because it includes, to my mind, everything I want to talk about: Teaching, learning, and English; and Scott Thornbury uses it!

But, alas, not for the first time most of the world doesn’t agree with me. Instead, according to Google, they favour in this order:

1. ESL
2. ELT

These acronyms are not strictly interchangeable but in reality they do not individually carry a specific meaning — each acronym is simply more popular in certain regions of the world, and ultimately are all used to talk in general about English-language teaching and learning.

Let’s have a quick look at what they stand for and where they are used.


ESL: English as a Second Language

In theory for English taught in English-speaking countries. Did you get that from the acronym or the actual words? I didn’t. And apparently neither did Dave from Dave’s ESL Cafe, who created the online jobs board and forum for English teachers abroad.

Most popular: Almost all the world, including the USA, Australia, and Canada.


EFL: English as a Foreign Language

Here the implication is that we are teaching learners in their home country, in which English is a ‘foreign’ language. Not too clear or helpful either.

Most popular: Eastern Africa, Nigeria, and Ghana.


ELT: English Language Teaching

Teaching English!

Most popular: Cambodia, Turkey, Peru, Colombia, and Ethiopia.


TEFL: Teaching English as a Foreign Language
As EFL but with ‘teaching’ in front of it. Widely used for the teaching qualification.

Most popular: China, South Africa, Ethiopia, and Ireland.


TESOL: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages
In theory all-encompassing, as with ELT. Used often for conferences.

Most popular: China and Australia


TESL: Teaching English as a Second Language
As with ESL.

Most popular: Not really popular but used mostly in Canada.


In an era of English-language teaching in which we celebrate diversity and avoid labels, could it be time to define more clearly what we mean when we say we are teaching learners who are learning English as a ‘second’ or a ‘foreign’ language?

Firstly, we cannot easily label people anymore in this way. People move, live in countries where English is used for bureaucracy, used for gaming online, they spend some time in English-speaking countries, then move, they learn on-the-go, online, and fluidly. We can not pin some down to being an ‘S’ or ‘F’ learner.

There is a further debate here because we can argue that, in fact, someone who is learning English in rural China needs to be considered in a different way from someone who is learning English while living in central London. But this of a degree not binary.

Of course the learner in China will need to be taught in a different way and will need different skills than someone who is living in London and uses English on a daily basis; but this is what teaching is about — adapting to the learner in front of us and finding strategies to facilitate effective learning.

I favour ELT because it does not walk on the increasing rickety path of differentiating between ‘types’ of English, it is clear, simple, and I understand it. But, it is not up to me, it is up to us. And we don’t have to choose one over the other, but we do need to be careful about the words we use; we are language teachers after all.

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Making Friends with Corpora

We teach what is in the course book, or we teach what we know. We draw upon our own highly personal experience and assume that we are teaching English as it is used every day. What if it isn’t? What if we are teaching  grammar structures or lexical items which are actually not used in the way we are telling students they are used? What if what we are teaching doesn’t accurately reflect the English of the ‘real world’?

I recently wrote about ‘The Latest Trends in ELT‘ and ‘The Future of English-language Teaching and Learning‘ and among the hyperbolic and prophetic statements I mentioned the use of language corpora in aiding English-language teaching.

The problem, I realised, is that very few of us really understand the possible impact language corpora and concordancers might have on ELT and additionally, most of us are unable to use them!

A Corpus

A language corpus (corpora as a plural) is a collection of samples of real-world language. Usually they contain millions of examples and may be from spoken or written sources, or a combination of both. The corpus serves as the basis for analysis of how language is used.

A Concordancer

A concordancer is a computer program tool, which can be accessed online. It is used in conjunction with a language corpus to analyse the language examples. Essentially, the corpus is the data (language samples) and the concordancer is the tool used to analsye that data.

International House Journal has a good article here on how teachers can use corpora and concordancers, and the British Council has a good post here on concordancers.

Corpus Linguistics

Khojasteh and Shokrpour (2014) wrote about the wider implications for teaching and learning from the field of Corpus Linguistics, which is the academic field which employs language corpora for research.

The literature review threw up some startling insights. For example, although we often teach that any is usually used for negative statements or for questions, it was found that in fact in between 42 – 51% of cases it is actually used in positive structures.

The paper offered several other examples of instances when what appears in text books and what we teach are not faithful descriptions of how language is really used.

What We Do Now

Corpus Linguistics is concerned about the inconsistencies in how language is used and what we teach.

According to the research paper traditional course books are ‘often largely based on the personal judgements of the materials writers’, while Scott Thornbury said that many course book creators are ‘still largely base content selection on intuition and they neglect the important and frequent features of the language spoken or written by real language users’ (Thornbury, 2004).

Although materials creators are usually skilled, experienced, and dedicated to what they do, they are not supercomputers or all-knowing beings, and so their  ‘personal judgements’ are not going to accurately reflect authentic English usage. Because of this many researchers have recommended ‘the use of corpus-based findings to inform material writers’.

It makes sense that the people who create books are basing the content on something other than their intuition.

Would we be so forgiving if our doctor, dentist, or electrician relied entirely on his or her intuition when carrying out his or her daily tasks?

Science-free Zone

When we consider that over 1,000,000,000 people are currently learning English it is quite shocking to think we are basing the education of these 1 billion people on what a handful of predominantly Western men and women think English is.

It has been accepted that course creators and textbook writers use their intuition rather than actual data when deciding what content to create because previously there was nothing else to go on.

The Four Insights

There are four areas in which corpora can help us [to become better teachers] – Khojasteh and Shokrpour, 2014


Using a corpus we can see how often words occur in relation to others. Research suggests (for example Kennedy, 1998, Conad, 2000) that teaching words which occur more frequently is advantageous for the language learner. It allows the learner to learn first the words which are central to the language, and helps the teacher decide which words to put more emphasis on when teaching.

For example, when you teach modal verbs, which do you teach first? Which do you put most emphasis on? According to four English language corpora the most commonly occurring modal verbs in descending order are:

will, would, can, and could

Will knowing this drastically change the way you approach teaching modals in the future? Probably not. But for the people who write course books it can be a valuable insight which can help them to decide which modal verbs to give greater importance to when creating the content.

Register Variation

In linguistics the type of English which is used in any given situation is called the register. As English teachers, we often draw our student’s attention to the register in terms of formal or informal, or speaking or writing. These factors influence the grammatical structures employed, the vocabulary, and even the pronunciation. These are, no doubt, all things we are aware of as teachers.

By using a corpus it is possible to see accurately what type of English is used in a given situation. It can tell us how often the connectives however and therefore are used in academic writing compared to but and so, for example; and shed light on the appropriacy of certain words and grammatical constructions in certain instances. This could make English for Specific Purposes and Academic English teaching much more effective.

Reliability and Scope

Corpora can be used to help us see how generalisable a word is and how much scope it has. In this sense, scope is ‘the amount of times a rule is applied’.

An example of this is our use of ‘s‘ to form a plural. It is a very reliable rule and has a large scope for application.

This information can be useful because we can prioritise the learning of rules which have a broad scope. This will enable our learners to gather momentum faster and will get them interacting in English quicker. Of course there is a time for rules which throw up a lot of irregularities, but these can be presented after those with strong reliability and broad scope.


To my mind, this is where corpora and the concordancers come into their own and can offer a practical use for learners and teachers. Collocations are the words which are most often used with other words.

If you see: ____ a deal you will probably mentally fill in the blank with make. This is a strong collocation. Language corpora can help us out with identifying some of the most regular collocations but also serving as a reliable source when asked by a student (or even another teacher!) questions such as: Do you have or take a shower? 

Of course we can use either of those but with a corpus to hand we can give a definitive answer as to which is the more commonly used.


I might sound like I am selling English-language corpora for a living. In fact, I find them difficult to use, and I have doubts about whether we should be teaching just the highest frequency words because then words become self-perpetuating and fads become mainstream for longer.

Imagine a slang word that might be highly used and therefore is taught to students more often. Instead of being a funny word which passes through the language after a year it gets taught, memorised, used, and passed on; inadvertently cementing the funny slang word in the language for years to come. Sick.

In conclusion, corpus linguistics and the tools it uses are a way we can refine our teaching to better reflect the way in which English is used. It can provide us with a more realistic and reliable source of how language is used. It can provide shortcuts for learners and teachers. But, for this to happen, language corpora and concordancers need to be adapted so they can be easily accessed and effectively employed.

If, as they are for me, these ideas and the tools associated with corpus linguistics are tricky then that should not stop us trying to understand their relevance and application in language teaching. This a relatively new area of linguistics and an unfolding aspect of teaching. But to start, materials creators have a responsibility to consult with language corpora before designing courses and text books for our learners, who ultimately deserve to be taught with considered, effective, and authentic teaching resources. For our learners we need to make friends with the corpora.

The full research paper which I drew the majority of this information from is freely available here.

Plato’s iPad: The Latest Trends in ELT

The DoS Within: Being a Director of Studies

The Future of English-language Teaching and Learning

Is There a Need for Course Books in ELT?

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Posted by in Challenges for ELT, Corpus Linguistics, ELT, Teaching Practice, technology

Plato’s iPad: The Latest Trends in ELT

Teaching is a timeless profession; the Greeks were doing it, Jesus was apt, and even Einstein wanted a piece of the action, but it’s difficult to see at first what has fundamentally changed in the way we teach since Plato was expounding his theory of Forms. 

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But Plato didn’t have an iPad. Or Twitter. And he didn’t have access to an online language corpora with millions examples of language to compare. So what advantage do we really have now compared to our sandaled friends?

There are four aspects to this: the school, the methods, the teacher, and the student.

The School

The trend with English-language schools is towards the personalised and the informal.

In general, they are moving towards creating more of an environment which replicates the environment in which language is used outside. In other words: out with the rows of plastic and metal chairs in lines and in with bright comfy armchairs arranged in casual circles. Not only does this make the language school a more appealing place to go to learn and provide an a more realistic setting, but the informal decor helps lower students affective filter, putting the students at ease and therefore facilitating language use.

The Method

Although an ancient Greek philosopher might be at home with a communicative approach to learning he or she might not be quite as at home with task-based and project-based learning.

Although these methodologies are yet to be brought wholesale into our schools and classrooms they are undoubtedly making waves in various areas of education and there is a lot to be said for them. Essentially, these approaches advocate for a personalised and participatory approach to learning, which fits well with a communicative approach.

Task-based and project-based teaching and learning rely on the teacher carefully planning tasks and projects for students which will bring the learner into contact with language. One example might be setting a project for a group of students to work together designing a new city. It will require the students to negotiate (in English), become emotionally involved and invested in the outcome, and allow them choice over the final results. It gives power to the learners and increases engagement.

The Teacher

Today’s English-language teacher has a lot of resources to hand to help him or her in being the best teacher he or she can be.

There are plenty of online resources especially created for the busy teacher, as well as online courses and platforms for English teachers to chat and share ideas about teaching. One significant resource that some English teachers are starting to use is an English language corpus. The power of the internet has enabled us to collect and make available millions of examples of authentic English-language usage searchable. This sounds like a small thing but it is not just a collection of words and sentences.

By using a concordancer in concert with language corpura we can see which words commonly collocate or how often a word or phrased it used. This is bringing science to English-language teaching in the best possible way. It means we can actually check how often people say ‘It’s raining cats and dogs’ before teaching it as required English, or which qualifier usually precedes exodus. We can show students examples from real texts from written or spoken sources. Using these tools is not easy, and just how to make the best of them so they don’t slow us down completely is still to be seen, but their potential for aiding the teaching of English is great.

The Student

Arguably though, the technological advancements we have made in the last few decades favour the language learner even more than the language teacher.

First of all there are all the (free!) resources available to students as increasingly companies find themselves giving away content that they used to charge for, for instance English File and Headway. As for teachers, there are plenty of chat rooms, Facebook groups, and Youtube videos for learners. Additionally there are also ways to connect directly with learners through sites like italki and Verbling and apps such as Hellotalk. These offer cheap or free interaction with English teachers, directly from the learner’s phone or computer.

All this technology means nothing if it is not being put to good effect but this is not just technology for technology’s sake; it actually provides something much more valuable than grammar exercises or access to an English teacher. It provides the freedom for the learner to learn when and how she or he wants. It empowers learners to reflect on their learning and ultimately it promotes independent and lifelong learning. This technology provides the degree of personalisation that has often been missing for anyone involved in education. If Plato could see us now, I think he’d be pretty chuffed.

The Future of English-language Teaching and Learning

The DoS Within

Is There a Need for Coursebooks in ELT?

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The DoS Within

This blog post looks at the Director of Studies role, what it’s about, who is suited to it, and how it could be a great way for a teacher to gain a new perspective of the school he or she works in.

It is commonly claimed that teachers are born; not made, but can the same be said of a Director of Studies?

Another common claim is that often those who get into managerial positions are the ones least suited to them. That may be because the people who get supervisory roles are more motivated to find ways to achieve a promotion rather than being the best candidate for the position. Of course there are some ambitious people in the TEFL industry; those who see themselves as managers, but I think you’ll agree that most English-language teachers are happiest working alongside others in a team, and do not by nature seek authority over others or have large appetites for administrative work.

So, why do teachers become Directors of Studies, how, and what makes a good DoS?

The role of the DoS depends on the centre’s size, ethos, and overall objectives but we can broadly say that a DoS is charged with maintaining or even improving the quality levels within the school. The role often involves recruiting teachers, delivering training sessions, observing teachers and delivering feedback, reporting to a centre manager, and the role may include aspects of business promotion and strategy.

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As is suggested in the introduction the role of DoS is a supervisory role, usually filled by someone who wants to progress in the the field of teaching. But there is something inherently paradoxical about a teacher steping into the position since inevitably a DoS will have less opportunity to teach, as his or her time is filled with other obligations.

Add to this the implicit responsibility of the job, as well as the creation of spreadsheets and the administration and organisational tasks, and you can see why at first glance the role might hold little appeal to a dyed-in-the-wool teacher.

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On the contrary, the role of the DoS utilises many of the skills we develop as teachers.

It is based on building rapport by implementing strong communication skills. Of course the presonell change but the task is the same — give clear instructions, listen to others, and communicate openly. Working with others in a team is essential for DoS just as it is for a teacher. A school is the sum of its parts, and each of those parts need to work in unison.  One of the clearest similarities between the Director of Studies and the teaching role is the in central tenet of educating and inspiring those around you. Educating teachers might seem condescending but if we see this through the lens of contemporary teaching as: facilitating others to reach their goals, then we can see how similar they are.

And so a teacher can reap a lot of satisfaction from applying these skills in a new context. Of course there are new skills to develop that may not be standard for TEFL teachers such as leadership and managerial skills, planning and learning how to balance many different needs such including those of the business, those of the the students, and those of the teachers. These skills are all useful skills to develop and if necessary are transferable to other parts of life or other jobs.

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A good DoS will need to be analytical and organised, as part of the job can be anaylsing data and statistics. Planning and preparation go hand-in-hand and are fundamental to being a DoS. This will include planning any events that the school puts on and planning in regards to the staff.  It’s necessary to anticipate busy times of the year and ensure you have recruited the right people at the right time. As with teaching you will need to think on you feet and deal with problems as they arise. Always have two solutions to every problem is a phrase I have heard a lot recently. Most of all being a team player and getting the best out of people will determine your success in the job. People around you will expect you to lead from the front, to be worthy of trust, and to be a great communicator. So much of the job is, again like with teaching, getting people to move forward with you.

Teachers who show they have the potential to develop these skills will be in contention to become a DoS, but I would add to that that becoming a DoS is also a progression in your own education. It is an opportunity to see the school as a whole and this can feed back into one’s teaching and one’s overall professional development.

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The position requires dedication and flexibility. It requires you to wear many hats in a short space of time. A DoS needs to be comfortable creating spreadsheets one minute, covering for a sick teacher the next, while the next leading a meeting with a sales team. But as with teaching the most important and consistent thing is that you are dealing with people. The ability to work well with and get the best out of people is what made you a good teacher and what will stand you in good stead to be an excellent DoS too.

There are many people who simply love teaching and the idea of doing anything else doesn’t hold any attraction, and then for others becoming a DoS is a great way to grow and to experience the school in a different way.

To return to our first two generalisations: are teachers and DoSes born; not made? The answer is: neither; it is a choice we make to improve ourselves and the lives of others. Are those who become DoSes simply ambitious authoritarians? May be, but if so they will need to learn to change their expectations of the role because the power in a school is always with the students and the teachers, and both of these groups famously give short shrift to dictators.

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If you are interested in growing professionally and experiencing the school in a fuller way, then I would wholeheartedly recommend applying yourself to becoming a Director of Studies, and likewise if your ambition lies in being a great teacher then that is an equally noble ambition.

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Read: The Future of English-language Teaching

Read: Is There a Need for Coursebooks in ELT?

Read: Teaching Pronunciation

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The Future of English Language Teaching and Learning?

Technology is everywhere. It simultaneously infests and beautifies our lives. It serves as a daily necessity and a diversion, and it has both liberated and enslaved. Education is still struggling to adapt and equip students for life to this technological society, but what is the future of English-language teaching in this new world?
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We are now used to a web experience in which we can integrate images, user-generated and personalised content, as well as the freedom to browse and search for precisely what we want. It is easy to see that this pattern of activity has not yet become part of our approach to language learning, especially if we think about the traditional school setting. Although many schools are now moving towards incorporating contemporary learning styles into their architecture, it is often not so evident in the syllabus which can remain prescriptive. There is a challenge now to create an environment in which learners can determine what, how, and when they learn. 

From our involvement with the world-wide web we have developed critical thinking skills and we are now more used to the ideas of lifelong and independent learning. The near future should allow learners to create their own learning paths, as well as interacting easily across existing boundaries of space and time. Learning will therefore become more personlised, efficient, and absolutely student-led. We will rely less on generic course books, and learning itself will continue to shift in its meaning to describe the act of mindfully doing something with the intent to improve, rather than receiving given information and memorising it.  

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As English teachers become more connected to English learners around the world and the technology which facilitates learning at a distance become more adapted to the specific task of improving language and communication skills, students will have the freedom to have lessons when they want, as at any one time there will be an English teacher available somewhere in the world. Teachers will need to adapt to regularly working with students from all over the world and be more conscious of varying learning needs.

In regards to the teacher, there is the likelihood that the function of a teacher of offering knowledge and guidance will become redundant as the internet will, if it hasn’t already, surpassed the knowledge and ability to correct that any one teacher has. The teacher will continue to move to where they offer value, in the subtleties of the language which are as yet untouched by technology and for conversation practice. This will mean a shift towards the position of an English language consultant rather than a teacher as we know it now, to be more often used as a reference for interview preparation, advising on romantic chatting in English, or helping a small company prepare for a business presentation.

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Arguably, technology is the least important consideration for a profession which is in essence about people, behaviours, brains, encouragement, human interaction, and empathy; but it is also difficult to envisage a future of learning that is not progressively more dominated by technology. 

Many of us may be dismayed by these prospects but I suggest the important thing is how we react to the inevitable move towards the learner-driven personalised content which is the now of language use and therefore the future of language teaching and learning. 

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Is There a Need for Coursebooks in ELT?

Coursebooks are the standard in ESL and EFL classrooms across the world. As a teacher, do they light your fire, or do you think they should they be used to start one?

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The use of course books for teaching English is a rather divisive issue. Some school insist upon their use while other educational organisations insist that teachers utilise only their wits and the students in front of them as the means to teach. Dogme language teaching famously advocated for ‘teaching without published textbooks and focusing instead on conversational communication among learners and teacher‘. And yet, for someone who is new to ELT, or simply for a school or teacher who want to work from a tried-and-tested text book, they can offer guidance, inspiration, and a ready-made solution to the problem of what and how to teach. 

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It is worth thinking about what the purpose of learning materials is in the classroom, or to the independent learner. It is important to consider that learning materials need to be used, interpreted, and delivered. Anything we read or use to teach or learn exists and works only in the way we use it and interact with it. A creative and imaginative teacher can make the best of bad resources, just as easily as a lesser teacher can make good resources dull or impenetrable.

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Coursebooks sell by the millions per year and are informed by the aggregated knowledge and experience of the whole history of teaching language and the professionals who work in the field. They provide the structure and cohesion that many students and teachers crave. Nowadays, they employ a multimedia approach, are colourful, and the content is more relevant than it was. Coursebooks can be relied on to provide a level-appropriate syllabus which delineate a clear route from one level to another.

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Except, levels only exist in the abstract. All our learners are individuals with different skills, strengths, learning preferences, histories, and personalities. The most severe, and arguably the most valid criticism we can cast on a complete reliance on a text book for teaching is that they assume all English learners in the world are the same. There are currently over 1,000,000,000 people learning English. As soon as we think of these 1 billion individuals, from every corner of the Earth as one homogeneous group with one goal and one approach we have clearly made a wrong turn.

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The truth is that coursebooks need to be as generic as possible so that they can sell as many units as possible. In other words, it is in the interest of a publisher to consider these learners as all the same, and this often makes for bland content that is difficult to relate to. If English-language teaching and education has learnt one thing over the last few decades it is that to be successful we need to start from the learner and build out, not imposing prescriptive content. We have learnt that learner-produced content increases engagement and therefore increases learning. Added to this, all too often, schools, teachers, and students mistake completing exercises in a book with learning a language. Undoubtedly doing exercises helps some learners learn, but we have come to accept that learning is best consdiered as and judged by doing.

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Perhaps it is wise, however, not to be too dismissive of coursebooks. They have aided countless people to reach their learning objectives and have served a necessary function for a long time. It is easy to see, though, that their time might be up. As more and more people have access to often free online resources and are more comfortable and confident about treading an independent learning route, there is seemingly less call for prescriptive learning resources. Perhaps their challenge is, as it is ours as language teachersto adapt to the realm of free content and ease of connection between learners and the learner and teacher that we find ourselves in today.  

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The best coursebooks stimulate authentic interaction and provide a clear syllabus as well as fulfilling an emotional need for structure and cohesion. Like the gods of yesteryear — they still have a place in today’s world if we trust and believe in them but as Lindsay Clandfield said, if we need to use coursebooks and if we are going to keep making them, ‘make better ones’.

Read about The Future of English-language Teaching and Learning

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Teaching Pronunciation

Pronunciation is often a neglected area for English-language learners, both seemingly by the teacher and the learner. A kind of complicity takes place that both parties strike a deal that the teacher won’t get hung up on the different ways to pronounce ‘th’, as long as the learner doesn’t mention it either.

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Teachers can find pronunciation to be a difficult aspect of the language to deal with and consequently can avoid it altogether. The difficulty perhaps stems from hearing an ‘error’ but not being able to immediately isolate exactly what is happening to cause the mispronunciation and being able to correct it. If you are not familiar with the phonemic alphabet then it is a useful tool for both the teacher and learner. There is an online one here from the British Council.

A colleague recently gave a fascinating training session on pronunciation. She went through the anatomical aspects of it  — what goes where when we make each sound, and the differences between voiced, unvoiced plosive and implosive sounds. It’s a lot to remember and perhaps only appeals to some but there is no doubt that an  understanding of physiological element of speaking will aid teaching and correcting pronunciation. She then showed us some minimal pairs and asked us, in pairs ;), to identify what our mouths were doing when we created the different sounds.

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The next part, however, was more practical, and we were asked to come up with examples of common errors we hear here in Italy. These are mostly the ‘th’, ‘r’ ‘s’, and some vowel sounds. Our trainer then moved on to look at how to correct: silently forming the shape with the mouth, verbally modelling, peer elicitation, drilling, and for more advanced levels explaining what’s going on in the mouth when we make a given sound.

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We made ridiculous faces, we looked into each others’ mouths, creating a slightly too intimate situation for the Brits among us, but it was a thoroughly beneficial training session. The key to improving pronunciation is firstly in identifying what is going wrong, isolating the problem sound or phoneme, modelling physically and verbally, and drilling. It should be added that to learn we need to do, and it is imperative that as teachers we don’t only show but we allow ample opportunity to practice, make mistakes, and to improve.

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