Number one for English language teachers

Diary from London: Go with the flow

Type: Article

In his fourteenth diary entry, David Foster explains how a weekend conference by the River Thames helped him to get his students’ conversations flowing.


A Saturday morning in early February. And rather than having a lie in or enjoying a lazy breakfast, I find myself on my way to a conference in central London. I am teaching an FCE class this term so when a conference came up on that topic I knew I had to haul myself out of bed and get my exam teaching up-to-date.

It was definitely worth the effort. Turning up at the conference, we were treated to a pleasant surprise. The view from the 10th floor conference room was a dramatic panorama of the River Thames and the city all around. If only the view from my classroom were this inspiring!

The conference divided itself into two halves. In the morning Amanda Bell and Jan Thomas gave advice on developing students’ speaking skills. In the afternoon Carole Allsop focused on problem areas in the challenging Use of English test. Both parts of the conference were full of practical ideas that were classroom ready. On top of this, it was great to hear practical suggestions from other teachers who were experienced in teaching the exam. To give you my personal perspective on the conference I’ll tell you about one idea that I’ve put into action already.

The morning session on the FCE speaking exam included plenty of guidance on building students’ interactive communication skills. In one of the most difficult sections of the test students must work together to discuss a group of photos, then make a decision. For example, they must chat about photos of money, family, food and romance then decide which is the most important for happiness. Even for native speakers, being able to talk and make a decision in a short time on such a topic can be really tricky.

To be fair, my students are actually pretty good at interaction in everyday conversation. Set them off on an interesting question in pairs and they will agree or disagree freely. However, when I gave them a mock test the interaction faltered a little. Rather than talking to each other, they stopped listening and responding naturally to each other’s opinions. I worry that on exam day the same thing might happen, and in just a few minutes students would lose vital marks.

All I can do as a teacher to prepare the students for the exam is give them realistic practice and understanding of the exam requirements. One suggestion we were given at the conference is to create peer feedback cards that will allow students to help each other with their exam performance. So to improve interactive communication the cards would look something like this:

Do the students … ?Yes / No
Ask questions 
Speak for equal amounts of time 
Listen to each other 
Disagree politely 






I found that this type of peer feedback recreated the exam pressure better for students as there was another student listening to and commenting on their performance at the end. It provided a little bit of pressure that made classroom conversation more like exam practice. The idea worked well because the feedback questions were straightforward but created a good springboard for discussion and reflection on performance.

The last question is particularly interesting as it gets students to think about the importance of disagreeing in real speaking situations. Disagreeing politely is a high level skill. If students can do this they will show the examiner not just they are listening to their partners’ opinions and really processing what the other person is saying but that they are still able to accommodate their ideas politely. This is what I wanted my highest level students to be able to do well.

I think these questions could be used to generate feedback on speaking in a variety of different situations – any task which involves making decisions. So I will certainly use it in general English classes in the future. This was just one of the many useful tips I got from the conference, it was really nice to spend the day being a learner, sharing experiences with others and taking a bit of time off from being the teacher.

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