Vietnam workshops Part 1: Story writing–a lost ELT art?

Vietnam was full of surprises, from the amazing food (see gratuitous food porn picture), to being attacked by swarms of motorised humans when attempting to cross the road!


It was actually thanks to a Twitter discussion that I’d found myself hopping onto a plane to Ho Chi Minh City a few months ago. I’d started said thread with the following tweet:

 ‘It is impossible for a (single) EFL teacher to survive financially without (e.g.) taking a second job or house sharing. Agree or disagree?’. 

I’m afraid I can’t embed the tweet here because when the replies started coming in I went on a rant about the injustices of the TEFL industry, then had an attack of what Lindsay Clandfield recently referred to as ‘techlash’ and deleted my account. But thankfully I’m over it now.

The discussion revealed some interesting stuff. On the whole, teachers or ex-teachers who responded agreed that in Europe, especially in the UK, it’s very difficult to make ends meet if you live alone. Several had given up teaching as a result. Those teaching in SE Asia, on the other hand, disagreed, claiming they had a rather comfortable life, actually. Of this part of the world apparently Vietnam is one of the best places in terms of remuneration v. cost of living. So I thought, why not check it out?

I wondered what ELT- like stuff I could do while I was there. I was going for six weeks- so not really long enough to volunteer as a teacher. I decided instead to get in contact with some schools to see if I could do some workshops, rather like the one Kyle and I did at the wonderful ETAS conference and IATEFL Glasgow.

I managed to arrange three workshops in the capital. Two would be with the teachers of Thang Long School, a vocational centre for teenagers, and one would be at the headquarters of ILA, a massive course provider in Vietnam and one which holds regular professional development sessions for local teachers. The former would consist of Vietnamese teachers with local teaching qualifications and some with Master’s degrees, whereas the latter would be an international crowd with CELTA/Delta. I would have about eight teachers at Thang Long, so a chance to do a nice personalised hands-on workshoppy- workshop. My contact at ILA, though, informed me that he had “…invited all the Academic Managers and Teacher Coordinators from HCMC”, about thirty of them apparently.

Yikes. So no pressure, then.

In my next few posts I’ll share a commentary of the workshops, outlining the discussions that arose. Comments are very welcome! 

Thang Long School Workshop 1: Teaching writing

Thang Long English Language and Vocational Training School is an NGO-sponsored centre for disadvantaged 16-23 year olds. Many of their students have parents or caregivers without a stable income or with disabilities. The school provides them with free, high quality education thus giving them a better chance for the future.


The teachers had requested that the first workshop be on teaching writing. Since I’m one of those weirdos who actually likes teaching writing, I was full of ideas. 

But I had to guess what reasons the teachers had for this request.  I came up with these:

  1. Students lack motivation. They find it difficult to come up with ideas and get started. Writing isn’t cool!
  2. Marking creates a lot of extra work for the teachers.
  3. Students don’t necessarily learn from or understand the teacher’s feedback (see Kyle’s post on this)

The Short Story


Out of all the writing genres the short story is my favourite. My interest originates in the years I spent preparing Italian teens for the PET and FCE exams. It had also been the topic of one of my Delta module 2 lessons, actually the one that I failed. I was so distraught afterwards that I told Kyle I just couldn’t face those awful post-lesson critical friend questions – or ‘THE THING’ as we named it – so we just had a few proseccos instead. But despite this, or perhaps because of it, I still love using student-generated stories in the classroom.

If you’ve read other posts on here then you may already know that Kyle and I are great advocates of students creating their own materials. This is because it results in:

  • less reliance on the course book (more potential interaction with other Ss)
  • personalised content (more cognitive engagement with language)
  • individual grading of language according to Ss’ knowledge (suitable for heterogenous classes)

And of course these points all apply to story-writing too, in fact any type of writing, but unlike other genres you have an almost endless range of possibilities to write a story about.

Some may argue that it’s not a common ‘real life’ task, perhaps the reason behind Cambridge removing it as an option in FCE writing part 2. But what about telling anecdotes? Aren’t they just stories in oral form? And learning to write a story before telling it allows more thinking and planning time, which has to be a good thing for our students.

Task 1: Collaborative writing

At the workshop the teachers agreed with my predicted problems (yay!). I managed to glean more information from them too- that most of their learners were CEFR A1- B1, and were young teenagers. Story writing thus seemed appropriate to their age, although Mario Rinvolucri recently said that he teaches even business learners through fairytales. I went ahead with the plan. I started by eliciting the following story components by drawing them on the board:

a flying carpet,  a toad, a unicorn, a wishing well, a wizard, a magic mountain

Teachers were put in pairs, chose two of these and wrote a story to include them.

Why? Supplying elements for the story provides scaffolding, as does the brainstorming involved by writing in pairs or team writing. And as I said before, the possibilities for story writing can be endless, so we need to narrow it down a little.

Why a fairytale? Bearing in mind the context, if students were asked to tell a narrative about something personal, they may feel uncomfortable.  On top of that, younger learners may be lacking in life experience and not have much to share.

After the pairs had written their stories they swapped, then gave feedback on what they liked about the other story  – only positive feedback for the moment.

Task 2: Genre focus: What makes a good story? 

Using excerpts from the teachers’ stories we discussed this question and the following three points emerged.

1. The climax

Short stories tend to follow a narrative ‘arc’ of which there are said to be five key points: exposition, conflict, rising action and denouement (see Hale, n.d.). For the very short stories written in the classroom this can be simplified of course.  Basically, some problem has to occur, which is resolved at the end in some way. Many students don’t realise this and write stories that go a little bit like: 

I got up and went to school. Then it was lunch break and I talked to my friend. After that I had two more lessons and I went home.”

The teachers’ stories were, of course, much more entertaining. I think one was about Cinderella* not having enough money to buy her groceries and having to ask for help from a talking toad! 

2. Flashback

This section of a narrative presents actions occurring before the main events and thus non-chronologically. The following silly examples are mine:

“Cinderella couldn’t buy her groceries because she’d spent all her money on beer the previous night. She’d got so drunk that she fell down the stairs and twisted her ankle. When she woke up in the morning it looked like a tree trunk. Now she was limping pathetically to the corner shop with only 5p in her pocket, hoping that someone would help her.”

This technique of course adds variety to the narrative structure and allows the introduction of information only when it is relevant to the main events.

The start of the flashback is indicated by the past perfect. The writer uses a time expression like ‘now’ to indicate going forward to the ‘present’ time of the story.

3. Dialogue

Dialogue adds depth to the characters and drama to the story. It can be represented by direct speech:

“Please help me, I have a stinking hangover,” Cinderella pleaded. 

“Serves you right,” said the toad.  

Reporting speech verbs can be used to summarise what was said:

He accused her of being an alcoholic, which she denied. 

Or the character’s words can be reported.

She asked him to buy her some more beer. He said he wouldn’t.

It has been suggested that the long and complicated ‘rules’ of transferring direct to reported speech need not be actively taught (see Lewis, 2002). But how many of you know from experience that even (especially?) the most common reporting verbs ‘said’ and ‘told’ cause problems for our students. What other way to practice them in written contextualised form but in a story?


The teachers asked a couple of questions.

  1. In a flashback scene why is the past perfect only used at the beginning? 

Using the past perfect for the whole of the scene, especially if it’s a long one, would be awkward (see Kress, 2008). Compare:

“Cinderella couldn’t buy her groceries because she’d spent all her money on beer the previous night. She’d got so drunk that she’d fallen down the stairs and had twisted her ankle. When she had woken up in the morning it had looked like a tree trunk. Now she was limping pathetically to the corner shop with only 5p in her pocket, hoping that someone would help her.”

Which one sounds better?

2. Can you use the present perfect in a story?

Hmmm. Not in the narrative, since it’s not a narrative verb form. But you can use it in direct speech, or as the ending phrase or coda, e.g.

“I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life!”

Focus on the writing process 

All writing, indeed like this blog post, needs to be revised, edited and proof-read, before being submitted/published. In the classroom, however, this is often overlooked. Learners submit work which is actually a first draft. In my experience, teenagers in particular will expect the improvement of the text to be done by the teacher. But is it useful? They seem to pay very little attention to their written work once it’s been corrected. Time elapsed between the input session, the writing of the text, handing it in, the teacher marking it, and the student reading the corrections, can also make teacher correction ineffectual, since the writing process is no longer fresh in the student’s mind. (see Hedge,2000).

The process approach to teaching writing is a potential solution. Keeping it very simple, it goes something like this (apologies for low-tech image and free advertising).


There could be more arrows here. For example, the final version might be given back to the student for revising. After revising, you may need to go back to brainstorming new ideas etc. etc. Some of the teachers at Thang Long were already familiar with these processes, so I was able to elicit the stages. However, they admitted that they did not use it in class and that the writing task was usually set as homework and handed in for marking the next lesson. They also feel pressure to correct all of the student’s mistakes. Assignments were handwritten on paper since their students don’t have access to laptops.

Elements of process writing could therefore be used to resolve the three teacher issues with teaching writing. Its collaborative nature scaffolds the task (problem 1) while also putting the onus on the students to correct their own work (problem 2).

With the advent of technology, process writing could be criticised as outdated since now there is a plethora of apps that could do the job of proofreading for you, and even correct your grammar mistakes. But as my experience at Thang Long school shows, there are still countless contexts around the world in which technology is an unattainable luxury.

Pure process writing, of course, does not take into account the genre-specific elements of task 1, since it focuses on how the learner is writing, rather than the product, or what the learner is writing. This is why I use a combination of approaches which takes into consideration the function of the text, what Badger and White (2000) call ‘Process-Genre’. 

Task 3: Collaborative correction

To deal with teacher-problem 3 my suggestion was to use a marking code. I have a Google Doc link  to my code that I share with my students which explains how it works. I had the teachers practise using it with some samples of students’ stories. 

A marking code is nothing revolutionary of course, but teachers may fear that stakeholder expectations won’t be met if students are asked to correct their own work. My aim was therefore to give the teachers confidence and tell them what I wish someone had told me when I started teaching: “It’s OK!”. That is, actually, it’s BETTER for the students to work harder to understand where they went wrong. It’s also OK for the teacher to find a way to make their workload lighter. I remember it took me years to realise that my energy would be much better spent on teaching a lesson, rather than spending hours preparing it and being exhausted before it started! 


About the correction code and the revision process. Doesn’t it create more marking? 

Actually this a good point. If a class of 20 re-submit their work, then it would appear that there is more marking to do not less. My advice is to give fewer writing tasks, spending much more time revising the same piece and do so in the lesson.

What if they don’t understand what the mistake is?

You should only use the marking code for language points that you know your student should know. These are mistakes rather than errors – features of the learners current level or stage of interlanguage. 

Should we correct everything?

No. This would be demotivating and creates more work for you. Correct the most important things such as what they’ve already studied or something that makes the text difficult to understand. You should give some positive feedback too. 

Should the students use it to correct each other’s work?

Yes, why not. But they would need training in this, and a simplified version could be used. The good thing about this of course is the language discussion that would come up. Careful though because their corrections might not be right! So you would need to monitor closely and use reference materials.

Round up – Solutions to the teachers’ problems: 

1. Scaffold the task by process stages of brainstorming ideas. Personalise the tasks. Team/pair-writing.

2. Use a correction code. Have students peer and self correct.

3. Do writing correction in the lesson. Use peer correction. Keep working at the same piece for longer.

My last thought was this: 

Remember…it is the students who should be doing most of the work to improve their writing NOT THE TEACHER! 🙂


(*Note: I did not use a picture of Cinderella since I object to the fact that she is always portrayed as white, blond, skinny, not to mention pathetic, seeing as she has to be ‘saved’ by a guy. I much prefer the idea of her going out partying and meeting talking toads in the forest.)


Badger, R., White, G. (2000). A process genre approach to teaching writing. ELT Journal, Volume 54, Issue 2, April 2000, Pages 153–160,

Hale, A. (n.d.). How to Structure a Story: The Eight Point Arc. Retrieved from:

Hedge, T. (2000). Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom. Oxford: OUP

Kress, N. (March 11, 2008) 3 tips for writing successful flashbacks. Retrieved from:

Lewis, M. (2002). The English Verb. Boston MA:Thomson Heinle





The pre-service TEFL certificate: 12 things I learned

With industry veterans like Geoff Jordan, Hugh Dellar and others out there swinging their hammers at CELTA, I thought I’d take the opportunity to defend the pre-service ELT teaching certificate. Not the CELTA, mind you, but its oft-snubbed, dubiously legitimate little brother. I’m here to defend the humble TEFL certificate.

For the record, I completed a 120-hour TEFL program with 6 hours of teaching practice at the now-defunct ITC Prague (i.e. not an internet-only certificate). The instructors were Geoff Harwood and three other guys whose names I no longer remember (Geoff’s was written on my end-of-course certificate). ITC Prague (as I found out later) eventually failed as a business, but the teaching instruction these guys gave was excellent. The TEFL has had a sort of slow-drip effect on me, and some of what I learned only really struck a chord years later.

Looking back on it from 13 years later, here are 12 things I most definitely learned on my TEFL course. Whatever pre-service course you’ve done or will do, I hope you’ll have the chance to learn some of the same.

1. What it feels like to be in your students’ shoes

Once a week during the 4-week training course we got taught a lesson in basic Czech. It was L2 only, and we learned some of the usual basics like ordering a beer, ordering a beer… and, well, whatever else you do in Prague. (Oh, that’s right, and the akusativ case as well). I still find it silly and somewhat ridiculous when Delta trainers or presenters ask you to model activities and instructions on your English-speaking colleagues who are roleplaying as students; this sort of suspension of disbelief would have been impossible to accomplish with day-0 teachers if we hadn’t had the bracing shock of our first dose of elementary Czech.

Of course, L2-only instruction has no shortage of critics now, but as a teaching model in the context of mostly monolingual native-speaker Americans (as we were) en route to who knows where, it makes a lot of sense. So much so that when I started helping with teacher training in Istanbul I also liked to demonstrate the basics in elementary Turkish.

2. Be prepared to teach in any condition

Maybe because we weren’t the silver spoon babies from the Cambridge CELTA nursery there seemed to be an emphasis on being prepared to teach in any condition. We heard stories about jobs around the world with horrid living conditions and monthly payments in cash-filled suitcases that had to be rushed to the local currency exchange before the rate plunged and four weeks’ pay turned into two. You might have a library full of resources, we were told, but it was more likely we were to have an out-of-date coursebook and a broken photocopy machine and just one color of chalk. (That’s right, I said chalk.)

As such, we learned to teach with minimal resources, like a blurry photocopy of a half-page of a coursebook (at least that’s how I remember it). Knowing how little is needed to actually teach a language ultimately both prepared me for some of the teaching experiences that followed (particularly when I spent lunches teaching two farm girls in a small village in Southern Italy with only home-made materials) and primed me to keep my head above water when confronted with the tsunami of lookalike coursebooks, CDs, DVDs, online components and apps that the profession is awash in today.

3. You may play only a small, possibly insignificant role in any learner’s EFL journey

ITC opened up their doors to the city to fill the chairs for the free trainee lessons. There was a slightly annoying, over-talkative older guy who never failed to show up in the advanced course. One evening after my lesson he button-holed me on my way out to meet up with fellow TEFLers at a bar. His English was very good, and his accent, at least to my American ears, was very British. Did he learn that much just from popping into trainee lessons? Of course not. As we walked across the Old Town Square he told me that he had learned all his English by listening emphatically, obsessively and passionately to BBC radio from the time he was a child during the war.

In other words, it was his own relentless motivation that allowed him to learn what he had. For much of his life that meant listening to the radio. At other times it might have meant studying grammar or sitting in and piping up during awkwardly delivered trainee lessons.

What’s great is that when you realize you’re only a small part of anybody’s learning journey you can stop worrying about cramming in and pounding away at every bit of grammar on the B2 syllabus. Every new teacher may secretly hope to be that one heroic, life-changing catalyst, but more likely than not there will be other classes, other teachers, other learning moments. You’re only a small stop along the way.

4. Be generous with your praise

I think one of the hardest lessons for any teacher to learn is that there’s no magic to spotting errors, and nothing is easier than criticism. Giving praise, on the other hand, is much harder, or at least harder to stay in the habit of doing day in and day out, in classroom speaking and homework marking. Fortunately I was given a great example of how to heap praise on struggling elementary students early on. The instructor was a grinning, floppy haired guy who’d mastered two dozen ways to say “great”, and he doled them fast and furiously whenever the students would talk. Amazing. Fantastic. Excellent. Awesome.

Of course, empty praise can be shallow, if not damaging, and some leading lights in ELT would probably take my instructor to task for not demanding high enough, but the thing I’ve learned to constantly remind myself of is just how much time and study it took for any student, whatever her level of interlanguage, to produce the language she has produced. When a student is stretching herself to express meaning, imperfect is no less praiseworthy.

5. Use the room

One of the best classroom techniques I ever learned was to simply back off when a student was speaking in whole-class mode. When someone timidly croaks out a few words or a sentence the natural impulse is to approach, protect and console. But outside of a major emotional breakdown by your student, this is the wrong approach. What I learned from the same grinning, floppy-haired instructor was that the best response to student production is to move to the diagonal opposite side of the room.

It forces the student to project (shouting What? while cupping your hand to your ear doesn’t hurt either), it’s a great justification for some Underhill-approved repetition, and it keeps the whole class engaged as nobody’s excluded from an unintentionally private conversation.

6. You want authentic? Tell a story

The best trainee lesson I taught on my TEFL certificate course was one where I recorded myself telling a true story about randomly ending up in a small French village to watch the home team win the final game of the 1998 World Cup, and the riotous, booze-soaked celebration that followed. Students listened to the recording then retold the story using elaborate pictures I had drawn and colored. Then they conceived, practiced and rehearsed their own anecdotes. While the stories vary, and the technology has changed (I don’t record on cassette tape anymore!) I still do variations on this lesson to this day.

What’s great about anecdote telling lessons is that they require no preparation (you can certainly do without the box of colored pencils), they’re infinitely variable and repeatable and within the timespan of one lesson they reward students with a perceptible increase in fluency. Anecdotes focus on whole texts, rather than discrete grammatical units (though of course they can serve as a vehicle for the latter) and allow both students and teacher to generate authentic texts. And best of all there’s no better way to get to know, and remember, the people in the class than by giving them the space and time to tell stories about themselves.

Humans are storytelling animals, and stories and anecdotes make for some of the best, easiest and most rewarding lessons you can create.

7. Coursebooks are lame

I don’t remember what coursebooks we were given to analyze, but I knew from the outset that they were not for me. As I wrote in an email to a friend at the end of week 3 of the course: You often have the option of working at least for structure from text/lesson books, but everyone remembers how mind-numbingly stupid those activities were. And un-cool.

I’d always romantically believed in Thomas Jefferson’s dictum that the government should be rewritten, by blood if necessary, for every generation, and thought it applied no less to my future career. I wrote: I’d like to make the first “hip” language textbook, to be tossed out, or modified, with each passing year and trend.

Though I spent later years lost in the wilderness of New English File, in the last few years I’ve been born again into my youthful ambition to rewrite the rules on what it means to teach a course. Without a coursebook.

8. Break fucking convention ― and learn from it

After getting an initial dose of what coursebooks were all about, I was itching to push back. I wanted to break the boundaries, and no doubt strike an imaginary blow at the anodyne, cookie-cutter texts I was going to be using for the foreseeable future. So I said I wanted to teach my students how to use fuck.

And in the tradition of all great educators ever, my TEFL instructor Geoff Harwood did the best thing he possibly could have: he said yes.

Geoff pointed me to an actual teacher’s book on teaching taboo topics (with an actual lesson on cursing), and let me have a go with lesson planning. So I developed, planned and taught a very legitimate pre-service trainee lesson on fuck. Why did he let me do it? I think there was something of the iconoclast in him, too, and he probably wanted to see if I could pull it off. More importantly, however, I think Geoff probably suspected what I found out in that post-session breakdown: that teaching a lesson on fuck wasn’t really as cool, or interesting, or worthwhile, as I’d hoped. I think the Czechs were amused, and mildly interested, but they hardly had the same need for rebellion that I did. And coming from another culture with its own categorically different swear words, they hardly felt the taboo-busting titillation I did.

To this day I can only remember one other time where I’ve actually sat down with the intention of teaching a student a whole litany of swear words, and that was a 1-to-1 situation, and on request. It’s not that I shy away from curses, but when they come up in authentic texts or students ask me about them I certainly deal with them in a more natural way because I’m not trying to feed my own need to break ELT taboo. I wanted to épater la bourgeoisie and by helping me get it out of my system, Geoff and the TEFL course helped me move on.

9. Lesson planning is a pain

I have my TEFL course to thank for indoctrinating me into the misery and wasted hours of lesson planning on my TEFL course. I remember spending what seemed forever thinking and rethinking, writing and rewriting, sweating bullets trying to complete all the boxes on my lesson plan.

During Delta Module 2 I came to accept that the Cambridge lesson plan format is, like other forms of academic writing, or FCE test papers, or recipes for Tiramisù, a sort of genre-writing where certain conventions must be respected. But for the pre-service teacher groping his way in the dark there seemed nothing more excruciating than vainly fiddling around trying to tick the right boxes.

What would have been much more helpful for me, I think, is writing a basic back-of-the-envelope plan followed by a one-to-one talkthrough of what I expected to happen and how to transition between blocks. And talking through what to actually do when the what-ifs came true. The post lesson feedback sessions were great, but hardly made up for all the agony that came before. Outside of professional-development hoop-jumping I’ve never written up a lesson plan in anything like as much unpleasant detail.

10. The present perfect is formed by HAVE/HAS + V3

I may have studied English Lit and fancied myself particularly fluent in my native tongue but like many native speakers I went into my pre-service course with little idea of how to identify, label, diagram or explain English verb tense and aspect, the bread and butter of your typical coursebook. Years after teaching my way through New New Headway, New English File and Speakout, the one thing that’s always stuck with me from my TEFL course (besides the diagramming lessons) is the way my instructors labeled what everybody else called the past participle: V3. It made sense to me, and I continued to label it so, despite what the coursebooks said, because the V3 (like V1 and V2) seemed such a better and more efficient label, and less confusing when dealing with issues like hypothetical conditional structures.

Michael Lewis’s The English Verb was a revelation to me when I read it years later on my Delta Module 1 prep course, particularly for his call to relabel, and reimagine, the system of tense and aspect as pertains to the English language (and not to Latin). I don’t know for sure if my instructors were inspired by Lewis in their descriptions, but I suspect they were, and I’m grateful that pre-service grammar intro planted the seeds for later understanding.

11. There’s a career to be made out of this, somehow

I remember visibly cringing when one of my instructors said he was 32 years old. 32? And still working in TEFL? OMG! Like many of my peers, when I first signed up for my TEFL course I was not in it for the long haul. I was giving myself two years before I went back to the states to do something serious. Or so I thought.

But as two years turned into three or four and friends back home stopped asking me when I was coming back (and 32 finally came and went), I realized I had to find some new role models. What came back to me, of course, were my very first models for developed, professional teachers, the instructors at ITC Prague.

They were dedicated, serious, and inquisitive (my first taste of what Richards and Rodgers call “alternative approaches and methods” was Geoff Harwood, gesticulating in his black turtleneck, as he demoed the Silent Way for us in class) and, in at least one case, by then well-rooted in the local environment. As I did go on to make a career out of it (however precarious it at times may be) I’ll always have them to thank for showing me that TEFL has a shelf-life past 32.

12. Say yes

In the end, the best thing I learned from my TEFL course was simply to say yes. Yes to late nights and the early mornings, yes to the horrible slog of lesson planning, yes to post-lesson feedback, yes to amazing, incredible, awesome, yes to diagramming tense and aspect, yes to chalk, yes to the akusativ, and to being a language student all over again, yes to fuck, fucking, fucked, yes to that pit in my stomach as I weighed up which unknown country, city and school to go to, yes to hours spent in smokey bars, and even smokier internet cafes, and yes to a 36-hour bus ride to Istanbul, to a city that had been horribly and repeatedly bombed only 4 months before, where I would spend nearly five great years and meet my future wife and fall in love and yes, even start on a real live career in ELT.


Of course, I’m not arguing that the a one-month pre-service course is necessarily the best or the only way to learn, but for now it remains the standard.

13 years ago I said yes to the TEFL certificate and I never looked back. I hope whatever pre-training certificate you do or did, you’ll end up doing the same.