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.


Where Lessons come from


Where Lessons come from

Generally, my decisions about what to teach result from an understanding of my learners’ language needs and personal interests.  But identifying their interests is frequently less easy than identifying their needs (particularly with young adults), and so in terms of topics I often things that interest or inspire me and which I feel my learners will engage with as human beings.  And of course there is an element of contagion at play – if I’m enthused by something I’m more likely to enthuse my learners.

So if I read an article or part of a book or a story, or watch a video clip or hear a podcast that I really like, I usually want to use it in a lesson.  Yesterday, for example, I heard a great speech in a TV series about what’s wrong with society (see below) and one of my first thoughts was ‘that’s great! How can I use it in a lesson?  The materials of my free time often become the materials I use in lessons.

Like this I’ve created and shared some fantastic lessons.  But here’s the thing – while I remember those lessons being interesting and engaging and language rich, I rarely feel enthusiastic about reusing them.  I have a bank of authentic materials I can draw on, but do so surprisingly rarely.  Somehow the material feels old, and the old is no longer new.  It loses its novelty and therefore its magic.  Why?  I think because when it was really good it belonged to a time and – more importantly – a group.  Ownership of the lesson lies with the learners (The Rap and The Parsnip Lessons are testament to that).

When I’m teaching higher level groups especially, this leaves me constantly on the look out for new material and inspiration. Which I enjoy – it’s exciting.

What do I enjoy about it?  I guess that I get to be inspired by and share other people’s ideas and creations.  Teaching allows me to share with other people something which I find interesting, and play with and examine and evaluate its language.  But it also allows me to develop lessons from a wide range of sources – so I get to be creative in manageable chunks, in ways that are less daunting in size than making a theatre show, or writing a novel, say.

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/perryolf/3414443266

Extract from episode 1 of ‘Mr Robot’ (Creator Sam Esmail, 2015).

Therapist:            What is it about Society that disappoints you so much?

Elliot:                     Oh, I dunno.  Is it that we collectively thought Steve Jobs was a great man, even when we knew he made billions off the backs of children?  Or maybe it’s that it feels like all our heroes are counterfeit?  The world itself’s just one big hoax, spamming each other with our burning commentary bullshit, masquerading this insight; our social media faking this intimacy. Or is it that we voted for this? Not with our rigged elections, but with our things, our property, our money. I’m not saying anything new, we all know why we do this, not because Hunger Games books makes us happy, but because we want to be sedated. Because it’s painful not to pretend, because we’re cowards. F*ck society.

Error Correction: Four Techniques


Error Correction: Four Techniques

Looking through some notes from earlier on in the course, I found this diagram that I’d made describing four different ways that I error correct in my classroom, with benefits and drawbacks to each approach.

A fifth approach has become far more frequent in my class (since attending Scrivener’s session on Demand High):

When a learner makes a (spoken) error, I ask anther student to repeat what they said – this usually leads to peer correction but if necessary I’ll then go on to ask more detailed questions such as:

  • How many words is it?
  • How many syllables?
  • How do you say that word?
  • How do other students say that word?

What I especially like about this approach is that the focus is on the learners and learning becomes collaborative, with students supporting each other and learning from each others’ mistakes.

The Whole is the Sum of its Parts: Complexity and the Language Classroom


The Whole is the Sum of its Parts

Complexity and the Language Classroom

In my first post ‘What I hope to get from the diploma course’ I use an image of a fractal to illustrate the relationship between complex systems and the language classroom, and in several of my posts I draw this analogy.

This page attempts illustrate some of my thinking behind this (see Illustration 1) as well as referring to the work of other practitioners who discuss complexity in relation to language structure and learning (see Illustration 2).

At this stage in my thinking I feel that this concept need to maintain some kind of elasticity, so it suits me keep these thoughts in illustrative form rather than attempting to articulate them solely through words.

In order to try and explain the fractal illustration though, I will say this: the whole is the sum of its parts. In the first illustration I try to give examples of what those parts might be comprised of.


Illustration 1: Complexity theory and the language classroom


Illustration 2: More about complexity in relation to language and teaching




WORKSHOP/SEMINAR:  Jazz and the Dark Matter of Teaching
TRAINER:  Adrian Underhill
DATE:  Sat 07/11/2015
EVENT:  English UK Teacher's Conference 2015
LOCATION:  Prospero House, London

As someone with a background in theatre, I’ve always been acutely aware of the parallels between teaching and performance, and feel my experiences as an actor have contributes to my teaching in the following ways (not an exhaustive list, just what springs to mind at present):

  • My ability to build rapport with an audience (see Statement of Relevance)
  • My creativity in designing lesson materials and activities
  • My tendency toward visual and kinaesthetic activities

While I recognise that so much of teaching is intuitive (a recurring point in my thoughts of late – see Activities for Revisiting), to my shame I had failed to make the conscious link that improvisation is at the heart of both teaching and performance (in some ways).  That is, until I attended Adrian’s seminar on Saturday.

The session was about the role of improvisation in ELT and Adrian began by asking how many of us present plan their lessons (almost everyone raised their hand) and then how many of us stick to the plan (no-one raised their hand).  This illustrated that improvisation in the classroom is inevitable, as the class becomes a ‘living interaction’.

He then went on to talk about the golden rule of improvisation which even before he’d said it I knew well from my work in theatre: always accept the offer.  This was where the parallel really struck me.  Responding to one’s audience lies at the heart of clowning and at the heart of teaching.  In many of my posts I keep returning to the same point that Peter Wilberg makes about teaching, ‘responsibility is response-ability’ (Wilberg 1987:14).

Accepting the offer means not blocking or refusing what a participant puts forward.  In the classroom the offer has many guises: questions, errors, incomprehension, frustration … in the complexity of the language classroom (again a point I keep repeating), the list is endless.

As Adrian pointed out, the role of improvisation is little discussed in ELT methodology.  But it occurred to me that methodology contributes enormously to improvisation because, just as in theatre, understanding and experience of a discipline provides us with an internal catalogue of techniques, skills and activities which we draw on intuitively as ways of responding to what’s happening.  Our beliefs inform our practice.  Methodology, hand in hand with experience, frequently informs our beliefs, consciously or otherwise.

Discipline liberates us.  In theatre, touring a show, reciting the same lines and making the same movements hundreds of times result in those lines and movements becoming such a part of us that they occur naturally.  On stage, performing my last solo show, I’ve had moments in which I’ve been at a complete loss as to what I’m supposed to say and do next – and then it just comes.  Muscles – I believe – have memory.  We speak without thinking.  Paths are formed like footsteps in the snow (see Walking in the Snow).

But knowing something so deeply doesn’t work in opposition to improvisation – it afford us the freedom to play, to respond to the people we’re working with (be it fellow performer, audience or student/s – each is a multi-directional and interactive relationship) and the ever changing nature of the classroom keeps us fresh.  This is where it comes alive.  Adrian said, we ‘co-author the present moment into existence’ – a beautiful description which for me emphasises the collaborative and democratic nature of the classroom.  But this relies on us as teachers responding – accepting the offer, because when we don’t, it denies learners their role in the process of learning.  There’s a can of beautiful, juicy worms here, which I haven’t time to open right now, but suffice to say there are inevitably connections here with learner motivation and responsibility.

In the seminar Adrian went on to demonstrate ways of ‘accepting the offer’.  I’ll describe them here just in note form.

  • The Interrupter – as a means of practising improvisation or as a game to use with learners – telling a story and incorporating the random words your partner calls out into the story.
  • Collecting all learners’ responses to a question then asking the group to examine them in detail, rather than just stating what’s ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.


  • One to one in whole class – working with one student in open class encouraging others to notice
  • Multiple improvisations – pushing each individual student further, never settling for what they give but always encouraging more (demand high)

In relation to my own practice, I hope the input from this workshop will help me to become more aware of how I’m responding to learners.  Here’s what I need to ask myself:

Capture 2


Wilberg, P.  (1987)  One to One.  Hove: Language Teaching Publications.  p14.

Activities for revisiting


Activities for revisiting

While activities like ‘back to the board’ are fun for learners, practise comprehension and their ability to define a word, each item is treated in isolation – a point wholly at odds with the way language works in the brain.  Comparison and contrast, on the other hand, not only encourage deeper and more critical thinking, but also help to build connections and networks of language in the mind.

I wonder whether it might work to use ‘back to the board’ as an activity with an extended piece of a text – a short paragraph, for example – whereby learners ‘build’ a text by defining one word or phrase at a time.  This could then be extended by examining together the vocabulary items in their more meaningful contexts, as well as looking at the overall cohesion and coherence of the text.

A note on some of the activities I currently use for re-visiting language:

  • When the whiteboard is full of language – which can be overwhelming for learners – highlighting or circling a small number of phrases to prioritise. These can be chosen by the teacher or democratically agreed by the group.
  • Asking learners individually to choose a set number of items which they want to remember, based on one or more of the following criteria:
    • something they think is important to know
    • something they think will be especially useful for them (in work or social contexts)
    • something they find interesting
    • something they like the sound of or that feels nice in the mouth
    • something containing a sound or sounds they have difficulty pronouncing and want to practise
  • Categorising lexis – I often choose a number of phrases – particularly functions – and write them on small cards (usually around 12 in total) then ask students in pairs or threes to organise them into three groups of four phrases and justify their choices. Often I’ll repeat the activity but with different sized groups – four groups of three, for example.  What I like about this activity is that there are no right or wrong answers, which encourages learners to think critically and imaginatively to justify their choices, as well as notice similarities and differences between language items.
  • Vocabulary elimination: learners (in pairs or threes) are presented with six topic-related words (or words which have recently come up in class) and have to choose which to eliminate. Again there’s no right or wrong answer, so their choice can be determined by meaning, association or form, but they have to be able to justify their choice.  This process is repeated until the list is reduced to two remaining words, which learners then compare and contrast, identifying three similarities and three differences.

I’ve recently begun thinking about and researching the use of graphic organisers in ELT, and created a visual framework to aid this activity.

In carrying out the ‘vocabulary elimination’ activity I felt that learners were significantly more engaged in the final stage of the activity than other groups had previously been when I’d carried out the activity without the graphic organiser.17. GO vocabulary elimination 2


The organiser gave learners a framework within which to organise their ideas and the blank ovals created an impetus to complete the activity.  Having ideas clearly laid out on a page also then facilitated passing round papers to compare ideas and (although I hadn’t planned to) I extended the activity by asking  the pairs to add further ideas.  This brought in a competitive element which seemed to motivate students even further.



  • Organising lexis – this is an activity I’ve used a few times as a means of reviewing language at the end of a week. It requires learners to organise words or phrases, again according to their own criteria, in a visual representation.  Here’s an example of the result of this activity which I did with a C1 class last summer:17. Tree

Doing more with less


Doing more with less

This past week, with my B2 General English class, I’ve been experimenting with two inter-related areas: making more of the course book (which with higher levels I tend not to use very much as ‘where we’re up to’ doesn’t often correlate with my learners’ needs), and ‘demand high’ (see Reflections on a workshop 1).  I was also very conscious of the need to revisit language which has come up in a lot of the reading I’ve been doing prior to and during the course.

What I’ve found is that within a week we’ve only *done* two pages of the book, and the only other materials I’ve brought into the classroom have been a handout and some flash cards I created for conversational functions (agreeing & disagreeing and giving opinions), and some copies of Monday’s Metro newspaper.

I feel I succeeded both in making more of the book and demanding more of my learners, and enjoyed using the book material – and newspaper (see 14. Noticing influences in an unplanned lesson) – as a basis for more in depth analysis, exploration and practice of the language.  Frequently ideas occurred to me during the lessons of ways in which to extend the material to achieve these goals and so the way in which I was teaching felt very responsive and intuitive.

Looking back on the week I feel like we have done a lot of intensive study and practice of a limited amount of language, although inevitably lots more language has cropped up in the process.  My students have demonstrated very clear signs of improvement in the language we have been working with and I feel confident that this has been very valuable for them, but nonetheless still feel slightly uncomfortable with having not *covered* a lot of ground.

I think this feeling of discomfort is caused by several factors:

  • Unfamiliarity – I’m used to *getting through’* more material during the course of a week
  • A linear idea of progress – a point that Barbara raised in our input session onLexis in the classroom, which made me consider the absurdity of how teachers, course book authors and institutions expect learners to ‘acquire’ one language point after another. This seems to me to work in opposition to the way information is connected and interconnected in the mind.  I’m strongly reminded here of a concept put forward in a graphic thesis I’ve recently started reading, about visual thinking in learning, in which the author/artist describes how in an ‘integrated landscape lies the potential for a more comprehensive understanding’ (Sousanis 2015:37).  I’m not sure I can yet fully articulate how this happened, but feel the activities taking place in my classroom this week required my students to think critically about the language and build inter-related connections between forms, meanings and usage.  Certainly their understanding of the language was far deeper than it would be were we not exploring the language in so many different ways.
  • Learner and institutional expectations – in fact my students fed back that they were quite happy with the week’s lesson content, but there are undoubtedly circumstances in which learners need to feel like they’ve made further progress through a book. The important point here is communication – to establish and  maintain an open and ongoing dialogue with our students to ensure that the way of working is helping and not hindering them, as well as encouraging them to be more conscious of their own learning styles (see 8. Learning to learn).
  • The impact on colleagues – something put forward in discussions with my peers on the dip course was that not *getting through* more of the book can impact negatively on teachers taking over a class. I can see how to some extent this might be problematic, but am fortunate enough to work in an institution where teachers’ individual approaches and methods are valued, and am comforted by the knowledge that it’s not every week I work in this way.  My belief that variety is important (in that it engages, stimulates and ‘reaches’ different students in different ways within the complex system of a language classroom) supports my tendency to experiment with and develop different ways of working – not only when doing the dip course.

*A note about the asterisks*

done – covered – getting through : All terms which in their contexts above strike me as so empty of real comprehension and human connection.


Sousanis, N. (2015) Unflattening. Harvard University Press. p37.