Designing CoachBot: can robots be language coaches?

We’re lucky enough to welcome to the blog Alex Strick, a writer, researcher and expert language learner as well as a language coach. Here he talks about hCall out Alex Strick 2is approach to learning and how it meshes with From English Teacher to Learner Coach, his background in learning languages, his move to coaching others in languages, not to mention a wonderful tool that he has built for learners: CoachBot. Imagine that our book was an app; well, this would be it! I’ll leave Alex to explain…

I read From English Teacher to Learner Coach only recently. I received a glowing recommendation from a fellow language coach, Lýdia Machová, and the more I read, the more enthusiastic I became. The methods described in the book mesh pretty well with those I developed through my own studies of various languages. This was an approach suited not only to those learning English, but rather something that could (and should!) be adopted by the thousands of native English-speakers who struggle to learn a second language each year.

Indeed, the general message of the book – one I interpreted as ‘we don’t have to wait to be taught; we can learn for ourselves’ – is something that I believe has important implications for how we go about education in the coming decades. (I was especially pleased to learn a new word – heutagogy – for this somewhat hard-to-define practice of self-education). Seth Godin has written about the demise of the system of factory education and others are tackling this from various angles.

I come at language learning from the perspective of almost thirty years of non-native language learning and self-study in foreign languages. I was lucky enough to be exposed to a number of countries and the different languages that were spoken there while as I grew up, and that stimulated my desire to learn further. I was lucky to havCall out Alex Strick 3e parents who studied the language spoken in whatever new country we moved to, and this gave me the lived experience and confidence that learning languages was something that could be done.

Like many in the United Kingdom, I studied a mix of European and classical languages at primary and secondary school, but none of these stuck in a particularly profound way. After I left school, I continued to study languages on the side, eventually shifting into a bachelor’s degree in Arabic and Persian/Farsi. After university, I worked on various research and writing projects that saw me living in Afghanistan. I had to tackle languages like Pashto, for which few materials existed at the time. I grew interested in materials tackling the meta-skills involved in learning languages and self-directed learning in general.

My own personal struggles with language learning seem to revolve on finding ways to keep the process interesting, to vary the kinds of materials I’m using and consuming. I also often find it difficult to get started in my studies, so removing barriers to study is important for me.

I also work as a language coach. I had done this informally for a few years and I noticed that I would often get similar kinds of questions from friends Call out Alex Strick 1and acquaintances. Many (if not most) of the questions, had nothing to do with points of grammar or syntax, but were rather connected to things like motivation and accountability.

This was especially true for students at the stage of the much-feared intermediate plateau. The problems that beginners face are, in some ways, much more predictable and mundane. There are some unavoidable hoops that everyone needs to jump through in the early days of learning a language – learning some basic grammar, phrases and vocabulary as a structure on which you can then build and expand further.

It was thus gratifying to read From English Teacher to Learner Coach make such on-point observations about precisely these struggles.

To bring all of this full-circle: I emerged after these years of studying languages and self-study methods with a strong sense of some techniques and approaches that would really benefit a learner working on their own to master a second language. I had been teaching myself how to code and thought I could combine a need to make a practical ‘experiment’ or prototype with my interest in language learning.

CoachBot is a free tool I designed to deal with this problem. I have personal experience of the paralysis that can come at the intermediate level: there are too many options and you just need someone to tell you what to study and for how long.

If you don’t want to do a particular task, just click to get a new one.

Initial feedback has been positive, though the numbers using the service remain relatively small. I spoke with one student working on his French who had spent a whole month only doing exercises suggested by the CoachBot tool.

My dream is to make this much more fully-functional and fleshed-out as a guide and language coach. Users will be able to store records of their previous study and the CoachBot will make recommendations depending on various parameters like whether they have been studying only one skill and neglecting others, for example. I continue to add tasks to the database on the back-end. I also use the tool in my own language studies. I’m currently refreshing my Dari and Pashto skills and the shorter exercises offer a great way to reacquaint myself with grammatical structures without feeling that I’m ‘studying’.

Alex Strick is a writer, researcher and language coach. Visit to read his blog and to learn more about working with him to improve your own language skills.

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BBELT 2016

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Business English Coaching with Phil Wade

I’m pleased to introduce Phil Wade. Phil is an English teacher and coach specialising in business English. He’s also authored e-books on business English and is an active online member of the BE coaching community. In our first interview, he talks about his experiences teaching business English and how his approach has shifted into coaching.
Phil, what’s your teaching background and how does coaching fit in?

Hi Dan. Well, I started out tutoring university students and then worked for several language schools as a teacher and course manager, a few universities, some online organisations and I also sidestepped into examining, teacher training and e-learning. Eventually I felt like the skills I had from the CELTA, DELTA and the MA TESOL weren’t fitting in with what business clients wanted and several asked me for coaching. I was actually working at a coaching centre when I decided to sign up for an Executive Coaching course that then led me to the ILM in Coaching and Mentoring. Both have been valuable as they not only help me deliver what clients want but how too, they also provide me with a new perspective on all my teaching.

You describe your career trajectory from teaching to coaching as an answer to a problem. What was it about traditional ELT that wasn’t working? And how did coaching solve the issues?…

Phil Wade quoteMany things. I taught in summer schools and in schools with refugee kids before doing the CELTA so I knew what I needed. The CELTA helped give me that knowledge and essential skills. It also helped me get through the PGCE as we were never taught pedagogy and trained in teaching as a skill. When I worked in language schools, I found that CLIL, CBI, business English and ESP were becoming popular and fit my style better but my TEFL skills, born of teaching fun lessons to teens, didn’t fit. Thus, I had to adapt and I think the coaching seeds were set there. When I set up and ran an MA course, taught foundation and pre-MBA courses at a language school, I wasn’t doing TEFL anymore as students didn’t want it. By the time I’d moved into full-time business English client teaching, the whole ‘cultural trainer and ‘intercultural skills’ thing had been around awhile and teachers who had already rebranded as ‘business English skills trainers’ were starting to call themselves ‘coaches’. Due to the popularity of coaching, more and more business clients were exposed to it so it was no surprise that they expected language training with a coaching style.

After I trained in Executive Coaching, I felt better able to fulfil what clients wanted and started to set up sessions like coaching ones and focus more on the client, talk less, extract more information from them, and just let them lead the session as they always had. I’d go so far as to say that all the managers and directors felt better in a coaching style situation than a TEFL one with copies, grammar, vocab and roleplays, basically, with ‘teaching’. Personally, I think it is because we’ve never had a business English method. Instead, countless people have said that any TEFLer can teach business English. They can’t, in my opinion.

I think the key for me was that coaching gave me a different perspective, an analytical one in which I had time to interpret what and how people spoke, to figure out what they meant, to interpret information and work towards real personal goals to do with behaviour. Yes, grammar and vocab could be addressed but in a student-led way with the client thinking about how they learn, what their problems are and pushing through issues. After all, like me, clients had been learning languages for decades. They had problems that were holding them back and needed help with. Fossilised errors for instance. When they went to some other teachers, they just learned and learned and practised. This didn’t work. It’s like having a hole in a car tyre, no amount of new air or driving the car will repair it. You need to fix the hole and move on.

I’d like to move on to specifics. For teachers who may not be aware of what a coaching approach in BE is, could you describe one or two specific techniques or coaching tools that you employ with your clients?

Well, I generally structure each session following the typical GROW /TGROW model beginning which really is almost DOGME, i.e. I ask the clients what they want to work on or recap and then agree on objectives for that session and maybe future ones. I started off using the SMART goals tool but soon got bored of them as everyone knew them and I wasn’t offering anything new. I then came across CLEAR goals (see here and here) which I found far more useful. I’ve found that goals change a lot so instead of deleting them and building new ones and then not completing others, CLEAR goals take into consideration that clients are part of teams and often their progress involves others around them. It also helps you discuss emotions and how they feel about where they are and want to be. My favourite parts, though, are that they are designed to break down the big goals into smaller and smaller ones. This is the key for me. There’s no point having 3 goals for 30 sessions. You need weekly or daily ones so people see achievement and improvement. Lastly, as I mentioned earlier, CLEAR goals are made to change, and change they do. As I see it, the modern executive is a change agent and so needs flexibility.

Finally, what would you say are the key elements to get right in a coaching session?

Firstly, progress. The same as in business English sessions. Where the latter is often based on language, skills development and confidence, coaching, for me, is more about feelings and that sense that the person has made internal progress which is deeper than at the surface level. In other words, a client who has the typical “I’m stressed and burnt” feeling can be helped reorganise their approach and develop some strategies but that is just dealing with the symptoms. The ‘why’ it happened and keeps happening will get you to personality and habits. If you can uncover those, encourage realisations, change those negative traits, then you will make a massive change in that person’s life. Otherwise, you’re just plugging holes in a dam with your fingers.
Another big thing is listening and silence. It may sound ‘anti-coaching’ but I hate questions. In EFL communication classes, I’ve used books that just had 10 or 20 questions for pairs to ask each other. It sometimes feels like an interrogation, especially with introverts. It took me many months of dedication to change from asking lots of pre-prepared questions and from constantly filling the silence or jumping in before clients had the chance to create answers. Now, I understand the need to create challenging questions, statements or situations and know when I have hit something and clients go silent. Those are the golden moments and result in real answers and progress. This is the same as in class when you ask a very engaging question and students say “that’s a hard question to answer” then go silent.
Finally is the whole idea of homework, which I see similar to the Flipped Classroom. To me, the sessions are just checking in time to find out what has happened since the last one and to address anything that has come up and then to adapt goals for next time. It is like the pit stop in Formula 1. This is why I quite like the online software or activities some company coaches use where clients fill in forms to book sessions, have them either F2F, on the phone or even by email and then fill in more after. That is something I would love to work on but I think my clients enjoy the F2F aspect more.

I love the ‘pit stop’ analogy! Thanks, Phil. If we want to find out more about your approach, where can we look?

All my e-books have a coaching approach. You can check them out on Smashwords:
You’re also invited to join the Business English Coaching Facebook group. It’s a collective of like-minded professionals, many of whom mentored me through my studies:

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Duncan and I were fortunate enough to meet Jaime Miller at the Innovate conference back in April. Jaime runs the online English Success Academy which gets learners better prepared for TOEFL. Jaime invited us to talk about coaching in an interview for her website. In the interview, we define learner coaching as well as discuss some of the issues of coaching methodology and practice. Here’s the interview in full:

Go on, stick it on in the background while you check facebook.

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Are we coaches?

There’s some interesting chat going on on the blog, though it’s hidden away in the ‘About’ page comments. You can read it here. It started with a reader, Phil, asking whether we knew any coaching courses to recommend and became a chat about whether what we do should really be called coaching. If people that work as coaches get upset at our use of the title (Duncan’s met at least one), I don’t think we need to worry too much – after all, it’s not as if we’re affiliated to any organizations from which we could be struck off.

It reminds me that there are lots of types of coach out there, from life coaches to sports coaches, all with their own methods and ways of doing things. We coined the term ‘learner coach’ for our own ends, to describe a way of encouraging teachers to look outside the classroom at what learners are doing, or could do, when we’re not around, and in that respect, we don’t need to conform to any established models of coaching. (By the way, I have no idea whether we first coined ‘learner coach’, but we weren’t copying)

Helen Waldron, on her terrific blog, has posted a very favourable review of our book , From English Teacher to Learner Coach – a must read for anyone who wrote the book. In it, she mentions her ‘absolute fabby moment’ was our comparison of language classes and Weight Watchers group sessions. As she succinctly summarizes: ‘Nobody joins Weight Watchers and expects to lose weight by attending the meetings alone’. I like that bit, too, Helen. In the same way, the progress that learners make in their English takes place in and out of the classroom, and we all see the greatest progress in learners who live a rich and varied English language life away from their teacher. The ‘meeting leader’ of a WeightWatchers group still strikes me as perhaps the closest role to what Duncan and I are trying to encourage. Yet most leaders in Weight Watchers meetings probably don’t think of themselves as coaches. So what qualifies them?

Interestingly, there are no formal qualifications needed to be a Weight Watchers leader, and certainly no coaching qualifications. On the British recruitment site, the thing at the top of the list is that leaders be role models:

It’s really important to us that our Members learn to be successful with their weight loss from someone who has been successful at losing with Weight Watchers and has learnt to maintain that weight loss. Our Leaders are role models for members to learn from.

That makes perfect sense for Weight Watchers, and I think it also makes a lot of sense from the point of view of a language teacher. A good teacher is a model that learners can look at and say: ‘I want to learn languages like he has.’ Unfortunately for me, I’m a rather lazy learner of Spanish, which makes me the kind of meeting leader who’s showing a bit of flab out of the bottom of my shirt, but I know there are millions of teachers who actively learn languages and use this experience to help their learners better. I should also say that this for me is why non-native speaker teachers have an inherent head start over native speaker teachers in their qualification to teach English.

Recently I have had a small group of three advanced learners who I’ve been coaching (you can see two of them here and here). The classes we held we ended up calling ‘meetings’; I didn’t plan as such but I did write an ‘agenda’. I emphasised that I was there for them at any time if they wanted to talk and we set up a WhatsApp group to communicate throughout the week. It seemed to work.

So I’ve decided that from now on I will call myself a ‘meeting leader’ and be done with coach for ever (well, until the next post anyway).

This was a post by Daniel

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A lesson in coaching

At its heart coaching is about helping students realise their own power; power to make choices about where, when and how they learn.

Where before the challenge for students was finding access to ways of learning, the challenge now is one of choice. Twenty years ago a learner would have been hard pushed to find any decent listening material on her own; she had to rely to a large extent on her teacher. Today, that same student may be bewildered by the millions of listening opportunities available to her. Is she any better off now?

Unless teachers are active English learners themselves (many are), we are probably not best placed to help learners through this maze of possibilities. Their classmates might be, though; they do have all sorts of techniques, websites, mental activities, apps and tools to share. One thing we can do is give students space in class to tell each other the things they do to learn and practise English.


Here is a lesson that does just that. I demonstrated it at this weekend’s InnovateELT conference in Barcelona. If you missed it and happen to be in the Cadiz area on the 30th May, I’ll be doing so again, minus the students this time, at the TEFL del Sur mini-conference.

1 The teacher shows the class a simple technique for practising language. This could be something you do in your head to practise a language you are learning, a dictionary app you use on your phone or a TV series you enjoy in that language.

2 Students watch two learners, Elena and Juan Antonio, talking about things they do to practise English. They answer the questions:

  • What is the technique or tool they are describing?
  • How does it help their English?
  • Would you try it? Why? Why not?

3 Students prepare to talk about a technique or tool of their choosing, using the questions in 2 to guide them.

4 In groups, students share their learning practices. They are asked to choose at least one technique from what they hear to try out in the near future. Ideas from students so far have included:

  • reading daily news articles about familiar stories
  • listening to song lyrics and watching TV series with subtitles
  • going to ‘Meet Up’ language exchanges
  • talking to yourself! (Come on, admit it  – you do it, too!)

5 Whole class round-up. Students report the learning practice(s) they plan to try out and why.

But how do we know if these learning practices are any good? How can we evaluate ways of learning English?

At the Innovate conference, there weren’t just students and me in the class; some teachers attending the conference observed, and I got them participating in the last ten minutes. They worked with the students to evaluate the effectiveness of the learning technique. Scott Thornbury recently compiled a list of criteria shown to matter in learning languages. Based on this list, I designed an evaluation form learners can use to identify what’s good about their learning techniques. Here’s the form: Evaluate learning techniques.

Thanks to Elena and Juan Antonio for being pioneers in this project! Thanks also to Simon for letting me try the lesson out at Active Language. And to Dan and his students for welcoming me into their class. Thanks also to Scott Thornbury for making research into SLA so accessible. And a big thank you to OxfordTEFL and ELT Jam for making the Innovate conference so enjoyable!

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The Talking Cure revisited

There’s been some excellent quality criticism of some of the forces at work in language teaching from big business and edtech on the eltjam site recently. This week Scott Thornbury wrote a powerful piece about intersubjectivity, a phenomenon unique to genuine human communication which happens when in communicating with each other we don’t just exchange information but ‘get into the mind’ of our interlocutors. It describes the psychological relationship we have and emphasizes the social nature of our very selves. In short, no man is an island.
Scott’s point is that until a computer can not just mimic human interaction convincingly but really understand what its interlocutor is trying to say and therefore enter into the other person’s struggle to express themselves, then technology won’t be able to replace teachers or language exchange partners effectively.
So in the meantime, we need to make sure that we exploit those interactions as best we can. The role for teachers in class is clear: full engagement with learners’ communicative attempts in order to pick them up when they stumble. The role for learner coaches is also clear: we need to help them learn to do the same when we aren’t around, in language exchanges. A good language exchange partner is one who knows how to support, guide and correct you.
So three posts to get us thinking about what coaches can do about language exchanges, or intercambios:
First, a suggested framework for broaching the subject with your students from our blog.
Second, Scott’s account of a worthwhile intercambio that he took part in to improve his Spanish, what he called his ‘Talking Cure’. The description for me affords us a glimpse into what best practice might look like.
Finally, some great variations on language exchange from the website. I suggest learners are encouraged to experiment with those that they find interesting, compare and recommend in class. My thanks to Alex Case for pointing this one out.

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