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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7 tips from CommitTED language learners

Learning_a_languageHere are 7 pieces of advice from some TED translators. ‘Secrets’, they call them. Ha! Most of their ideas are here in this blog. In fact, I wonder if they’ve been stealing.

Strangely, no one mentioned teachers or classes. Or coaches. That’s where we differ, I guess.

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The Motivation Meter

As teachers we can design classroom activities which we think will tap into our learners’ motivations as individuals and as a group. As coaches, we need to coach our learners in their language lives outside the classroom. We need to hand over the motivational controls so that they can tap into motivation themselves when we aren’t around. Motivation is the driving force behind effective learning, so learners need to do two things:

• recognise and understand their motivation

• maintain and boost it

This blog and our book, From English Teacher to Learner Coach, provide lesson structures, guidelines and other suggestions for establishing a greater awareness of motivation. One simple device that learners can then use to keep track of their motivation levels is the Motivation Meter. It looks like this:

Motivation Meter smallIt’s very easy to use. Just pop the Cranial Probe Sensor on your head to measure your motivation levels that day or week. You can then decide what to do with this information. Ask yourself: Why is my motivation like this today? What does this mean for what I do with my English learning?Understanding the factors that motivate or discourage you is a strength because you may be able to avoid things that lower motivation and welcome things that raise it.

Also, there are practical considerations about what to do if your motivation is low or high. If low, then maybe you should just choose something non-challenging or something you enjoy doing – watching a short film on YouTube, for example. Perhaps you could leave English altogether today and try again tomorrow. On the other hand, if your motivation is high, then maybe it0s time to tackle that tricky exam practice paper that you’ve been putting off for the last few days.

So the motivation meter is a great first step in monitoring and maintaining motivation. It accompanies the S.M.A.R.T. goals Evaluationator that we introduced last week. Next week we bring you the Language Life Convertinator!

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The SMART Goals Evaluationator

In a talk we gave at IATEFL last week, we unveiled three coaching contraptions to help teachers encourage successful learners, not just successful classes. You can see an interview about the talk we gave here. The tools illustrate aspects of the job which require a coaching twist. I’ll be showing you them over the next couple of weeks. Here’s the first:

The SMART Goal Evaluationator

The SMART Goal Evaluationator

One problem that learners have is a lack of a sense of progress because their goals are vague, undefined or too ambitious. This machine evaluates your linguistic goals and helps  you make sure that they are:




Realistic and

Time bound.

S.M.A.R.T for short

Let’s imagine my goal is to improve my pronunciation. Great, but that’s an extremely vague goal to aim for. First of all, what exactly do I want to achieve? OK, so I’m going to tighten up, i.e. make it more specific. How about ‘Improve my pronunciation of –ed words’? Ding! Green light for that one! Next, how am I going to measure it? Well, why don’t I record myself telling an anecdote now, then practise my –ed words, then record myself again, and compare the two? Ding! My teacher has corrected me many times for my incorrect pronunciation of past verbs, so I can say she would agree that the goal is appropriate for me. Ding! Also, I need to be realistic so I’m going for an improvement in getting the right number of syllables, but I’m not too worried if I don’t pronounce the ‘d’ clearly /t/ or /d/ – that’s not a priority and is very hard for me. Ding! Finally, I need a time frame (or I could still be working on it this time next year!) I’ll set myself until next Thursday to reach my goal – this will help me focus. Ding!

This is a well- known coaching tool that we’ve adapted for the language classroom. With well-defined goals such as this, your learners will have a clearer sense of progress and a much better chance of success.

If you like this idea, you can read about it in the new book we announced a couple of weeks ago.

Next week we’ll look at another ingenious contraption from our labs deep in the LearnerCoachingELT dungeons that zaps your learners’ lives and converts them into English – the Language Life Convertinator!

Mwaa – ha – ha!

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