Supporting Learners with Specific Learning Difficulties: learn how I teach or teach how I learn?

Follow this link to the Cambridge University Press World of Better Learning website to read my article looking at what Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs) are and how we identify them. The article also explores the effect of SpLDs on language learning, and how we, as teachers, can support learners with SpLDs.


Reflective Practice in English Language Teaching

I recently contributed to a couple of chapters in Steve Mann and Steve Walsh’s new book, Reflective Practice in English Language Teaching. I was very flattered to be a part of it, as it’s a great book with some incredibly useful insights. Highly recommended reading for teachers who value and are passionate about their professional development. My contribution includes some writing about different types of mind mapping and an interview with ELT materials and media lecturer Paul Slater, in which we discuss the ways in which mind maps offer a fluidity for reflection that is often more dynamic than in linear text.
You can find the book here. Happy reading; happy reflection!

Thoughts on the Visual Arts and Global Issues in ELT

Last month I was honoured to be speaking at The Image Conference in Lisbon, and was really enthused and inspired by so much of what was being talked about.  There are some very exciting things happening at the moment.  The conference and many of the discussions at the event centered around what I consider to be vital issues in contemporary ELT, not only on themes such as such as visual literacy and critical thinking, but also wider social and global issues – inspired by Kieran Donaghy’s sessions – such as addressing values and fostering empathy in an increasingly hostile world.  These are dialogues that need to be had, and ideas that need to be shared, but that are rarely given the attention they deserve at other events. That the conference addressed two areas that I feel so passionate about really made me feel at home, and comforted to finally be surrounded by people with similar passions in the ELT world.  I’ve since become more involved with The Visual Arts Circle, a community of practice made up of language teaching professionals, teachers, teacher trainers, writers, editors, researchers, designers, illustrators, artists, photographers, and filmmakers, all with a shared belief in the value of visual arts in language education. The Visual Arts Circle believe that incorporating visual arts is an extremely effective way of improving the quality of teaching and learning, particularly in the field of language teaching. Through the process of sharing information and experiences with the group, members learn from each other, and have an opportunity to develop personally and professionally.

At next year’s IATEFL Conference, The Global Issues SIG and The Visual Arts Circle are delivering a joint pre-conference event on Social Justice and ELT through the Visual Arts, and I’m honoured to have been invited to speak. I’ll be delivering a workshop session which explores a combination of teacher-drawing and learner-drawing tasks to explore issues of social justice and human rights. 
All of this got me thinking about how it is that the Visual Arts and Global Issues marry together so well.  Here are my thoughts so far. 

Thoughts on the Visual Arts and Global Issues in ELT

The artist Maurizio Cattelan once said:

“Whatever comes after you’ve done your work, it doesn’t belong to you. You can’t control it.”

For me, this is the power of the visual arts, that the viewer’s response becomes as legitimate as the artist’s intention. And I think it’s this great equalising relationship between artist and viewer – and between one viewer and another, because there’s no right and wrong when it comes to interpretation, every perception is valid – I think it’s this equality that makes visual art such an invigorating launch pad for dialogues.

In terms of the English language classroom, a context in which we’re essentially ‘growing’ a shared language, I think these dialogues, this communication, is so important. At its simplest, a visual can be a prompt for simple vocabulary or lexical items, but this is almost denying their potential, because beyond this the visual arts also have immense power to trigger deeper discussion and engagement with themes such as social justice and human rights – themes which we need, as global citizens, to be talking about more. And if what we’re doing as teachers is helping to grow a shared language, a lingua franca, then these themes are all the more relevant as topics for discussion.


This post is largely about different types of mind maps and their value to both their creator and reader.  Mind mapping has played a large part in the diploma journey for me this past year, and I’d like to just outline some of what I understand mind maps to be, and their value for learners.

Revision Mapping

At their simplest, mind maps are a means of organising information, and I first started using them solely for this purpose, during my pre-course reading for my diploma course.

Language Acquisition (Lightbown & Spada, How Languages are Learned)

Language Acquisition
(Lightbown & Spada, How Languages are Learned)

Initially I used them to summarise and organise what I was reading into a more visual form to enable me to refer back and quickly locate information.  What I found was that the process of organising the information also served as a form of revision, both in re-presenting the information, and in that the tie spent colouring/shading allowed me to further process and consider the information in a relaxed state.  Let’s call this form of mind mapping ‘revision mapping’.


Reflective Mapping

Taking this a step further, as opposed to just summarising and organising what other people were writing, I then started using mind maps as a means of answering questions and brainstorming.

What influences the way we teach? Pre-course notes, Jade Blue

What influences the way we teach?
Pre-course notes, Jade Blue

This is a particularly interesting process for me, in that the nature of writing in this medium seems to allow more of a stream of consciousness than formatted text, which I believe places a (subconscious?) pressure the writer to craft the text into something more clearly (and traditionally) structured.

Mind mapping, on the other hand seems to express an internal dialogue, and the writing within it is very much a process, one thought leading to another.  As this form of mind mapping begins with a question or a point for consideration / exploration, and is very much concerned with one’s own reflections, let’s call it ‘reflective mapping’.

This approach is something that I found particularly suited me in reflecting on my observed lessons during my diploma course.  The format allowed me the freedom to explore my thoughts in response to the lesson at the same time as illustrate the connections and relationships between various aspects of what I was discussing.

Observed Lesson 3: Reflections. Jade Blue 2016

But the freedom from traditional structural restraints that this medium allows, raises important questions about the relationship between writer (or creator) and reader.  How lucid are reflective mind maps for the reader?  Is the written text less opaque?

The gravity of the answers to these questions entirely depends upon who the mind maps are created for.  Are they created for the reader in order to communicate and/or explain a concept?  Or are they solely for the purpose of the creator, as a process in themselves, and/or to serve as a visual and written record of an experience?

I would say that the reflective mind maps I’ve created during the course – especially those that follow observed lessons – are for both myself and the reader.  They are simultaneously a means of reflecting on a process and experience for my own development, and a means of communicating those reflections to the observer. My identification of the reader – the observer – is an important point.  While primarily my reflections are to support and record my own development (be they in the form of mind maps or solely written text), there is always some awareness – no matter how small – that they will be read by one of my tutors.  Thus, my reflective mind maps for my observed lessons assume that the reader, having observed that lesson, has more understanding of the points I discuss than an outsider might.

Reflection is about consideration; it’s about thinking deeply; it’s about revealing the nature of something.  My reflective blog in its entirety is both a record of my journey and a part of the journey itself.

Thought Mapping

Returning to mind mapping, the third type I want to identify are created for the creator – not as a finished product (although the aesthetic can often be quite pleasing), but as a practice in themselves. A journey of discovery.

Nick Sousanis (2015:70) said ‘we draw not to transcribe ideas from our heads but to generate them in search of greater understanding’.  This, for me, has perhaps been the most poignant element of the diploma course.  Beginning with my investigations into the impact of metaphors on elements of teaching, and moving on to the use of graphic frameworks in the classroom, my journey has largely been concerned with how metaphors (text based or visual) can trigger, influence and reveal concepts and ideas in learning.

For the materials module I decided to keep a ‘map’, as opposed to a notebook, and as the module went on my notes became more and more visual.  The space that the paper allowed enabled me to illustrate connections and links between different areas and aspects of what I was thinking.  The note making process in itself is interesting – different people choose to record different words for different reasons.  But more interesting, for me, is the visual element.


Parts of this (I call it my ‘materials map’) began with a doodle, an unfocused, diffuse thinking, pen to paper activity.  But the doodles in themselves then triggered further thoughts, or questions, in relation to the topic.

As a mind map this may be interesting for a reader, but is arguably far less transparent than written text.  It presents options about where to begin, and thoughts often articulated so briefly that they may be open to interpretation.  But for me this is far more representative of the inner workings of my mind than the more readable reflective mind maps above – and certainly more representative that the revision mind maps.  Let’s call this type ‘thought mapping’.  Despite the potential lack of lucidity in thinking maps, I include this one here in more detail, for a number of reasons.

  • Parts of it may be of interest to the reader – and more comprehensible to those that know me.
  • Some of the detail demonstrates more clearly the point I make about doodles and drawing serving to reveal and trigger further thought.
  • It’s a part of my process, and thus a part of my blog

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Each of the three types of mind maps I’ve identified: revision, reflective and thought mapping – has a value to the creator and the reader, in varying ways.

The use of visuals in ELT is something I’ve been interested in for a long time, and at the beginning of the diploma course was an area I identified as wanting to explore further.  I couldn’t have predicted the direction my thoughts and explorations would take, and it’s both exciting and rewarding to observe how my own learning processes have informed my specialised interests in teaching methodologies and techniques.

The most exciting thing that’s emerged for me during this process has been my interest in the use of learner generated visuals as a means of exploration and discovery, and thought mapping plays a large part in this.  Learner generated visuals and ways in which we can support learners in conceptualising language is an area I’m keen to explore further.

Encouraging learners to create their own, personalised, visual representations can be a powerful way to explore and evaluate language, enhancing interest and motivation as well as aiding retention, processing and comprehension.  I’m in the process of putting together a workshop session on this topic, which will explore a variety of practical activities for helping learners to conceptualise language through visual representations, from graphic frameworks to visual metaphors, using a range of media.  I also want the session to address learner inhibitions, demonstrating that artistic skill is not a prerequisite for exploring the non-verbal background of language.

Sousanis, N. (2015)  Unflattening.  London: Harvard University Press.  p70.