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  • Writer's pictureDamian Odom

TESOL Madrid Spain 2023

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the TESOL 46th Annual National Convention in Madrid, and it was an incredible experience! For those of you who are not familiar with TESOL, it stands for Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, and it's a professional organisation that brings together educators, researchers, and experts in the field of English language teaching from all around the world. The ELT Conference, in particular, focuses on the latest trends and innovations and theories in language learning and teaching.

As an English language teacher myself, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to attend such a prestigious event and learn from some of the brightest minds in the field. In this blog post, I will share my personal insights and takeaways from the conference, as well as some of the most interesting talks and workshops that I attended. Whether you're an English language teacher or just someone who's interested in language learning and teaching, I'm sure you'll find something of value in this post. I’m going to try and look at my notes on the convention in a similar fashion to what my Director of Studies Jim Fuller (one of the speakers later mentioned in the blog) has always shown, which is the briefcase, freezer and bin method. If I want to apply something that I heard or saw directly to my lessons then I will put that in my briefcase. If I see or hear something that I really enjoyed but don’t have a use for now then I will put that in my freezer. However if there is something that I don't see myself ever using then I will put that in the bin. I am going to apply this type of thinking to my takeaways from the conference. So, without further ado, let's dive into the world of TESOL and explore the latest trends and innovations in language education!

The first session of my time there was Michael Barter’s Low prep/No prep classroom activities. This session gave some great ideas to keep in the freezer. Nobody in any position in any industry can always have a perfect day and that certainly includes teachers. Sometimes you have days where you don't have a chance to prep for a lesson or if your lesson that you planned begins to fall a little flat then there are some activities that you can have in your back pocket that will not only be fun and generate interest, but also something that you can trust is making your students think and use a higher level of critical thinking (which we will also speak about when we discuss Ethan Mansur’s session later on). The first activity Mike presented began as something very familiar to me, in fact he heard me describing it and asked me to present to the other teachers the rules of the game. Then he started to elaborate upon the structure of the set up and how you can change and adapt the rules to apply to different levels and test different skills. It was refreshing to see the new ways of adapting older systems to keep the ideas fresh while giving the teacher that security of an activity which they know works. I enjoyed the idea of using a word scramble to help find root words and their alternatives to help B2 and C1 students with exam vocabulary prep.

Also he shared some clever ideas for games such as multi-word bingo where the teacher reads some sort of script while the students identify gapped words using a table of prepositions and using them to identify the phrasal verbs.

Teacher dialogue example:

”The student found it difficult to get ______ every week. She didn’t have enough money to eat _____. She would have to go to her mom’s to pick _____ some food or hope her mom would drop _____ something to eat.”

There were many other ideas that will be great to try out in class when the time is right. Such as the student led quiz where students watch a some sort of video and create questions out of it to test the other students. However until that time does become right then I will be keeping these great ideas in my freezer.

I left my first session with a wonderful first impression that gave me a sense of curiosity and drive to visit all the sessions I could. Next, I decided to follow Jim’s lead and see where the director goes to learn. He chose a familiar name and a familiar face. Ethan Mansur from Macmillan Publishing. His 45 min presentation was Developing Thinking Skills in Exam Preparation courses. Honestly I couldn’t wait to see what he had to say. I take a lot of pride in my understanding and student development in regards to the Cambridge exam and I tend to always look for new and better ways to help develop learner success on the exam.

Ethan focused on the importance of critical thinking not only at its lowest level but also the highest and finding the perfect balance between the two. Critical thinking was separated into six parts of thinking. There are 3 in the low and 3 in the high level. The three lowest are apply, understand and remember. While the three highest are Create, evaluate and analyze. We as teachers with traditional training tend to rely on the lower side of the spectrum, but we must remember that too long on the higher end isn’t necessarily beneficial either. We can’t honestly ask students to be creative for 45 min to an hour. So the best we can do as teachers is to find a perfect balance between those two and exercise the minds of our learners the best we can. This struck me as an excellent mindset to have when planning a lesson and something I can confidently say will be going in my briefcase of takeaways from this weekend. He followed that up with some great ideas for practising the exam that will be great to have in cold storage 😉

For example, having students create their own speaking part 3 and 4. Creating gapped texts with natural material and something more relatable for the students, because if the students don't care then they won't learn. So we as teachers need to make the lesson mean something. Another gap fill idea that Ethan provided was to have an essay with certain paragraphs missing and asking the students to fill in said paragraphs. These ideas seem to have excellent creative thinking benefits that will help students learn not only the simple structure strategies of test taking but build a muscle memory in which the mind will naturally become creative when facing these activities.

The next session was someone who I was under the impression was a wizard when it came to ELT with young learners. After the coffee break outside, Ethan convinced me to visit the Keynote speaker Chris Roland. I immediately recognized the name from a book that we have floating around the North Station Academy. His session Acts of Order, Acts of Chaos was enlightening and one of the most referenced among the teachers.

The first message that Chris had for us was to stop doing things ourselves. We have tiny little workers who are tired and eager to do something to change the monotony of the class, we should be using that to our advantage. It’s one of the best ways of relieving energy slumps. Another idea he had was to have something chaotically unrelated to English learning in your brain breaks. Have a rubber band shooting gallery, you can even have the students fill out a letter describing who they shot and why.

Next he went on to speak about a difficult subject for many teachers and students and that is discipline. It’s always been noted that reaching a troubled student on a personal level is the best way to try and minimize any negative behavior, but how do we do that in a class full of other learners. Pulling the troubled student out of the lesson to speak to them singles them out, and saying something in front of the other learners is even worse. So what do we do? Well, Chris had an excellent idea of writing the student a letter and only allowing them to see it and giving them the choice to show it to others or simply keep it to themselves. It’s an excellent way to reach the students and not make them feel isolated and speak to them almost at an “adult”-like level of discipline.

After seeing Chris Roland and realizing that the moniker “wizard” felt almost insufficient I had to stop and take a deep breath due to the bombardment of ideas. Aside from the students-do-everything-in-the-class idea that will be gently placed in my briefcase. I see that Chris has SOOO many ideas that I should have a freezer for his mind alone. I probably could write an entire blog dedicated to his sessions alone, however I will stop here and simply suggest going and reading his books or checking out his youtube channel @teachingteenagersenglish.

The next session was the biggest, most important of the weekend. A Saturday afternoon plenary hosted by one of if not the most respected name in ELT, Scott Thornbury. Now I will be completely honest…. This session wasn’t my favorite. It was a 45 minute lecture on theories and methodology and the roads less traveled of English teaching that was difficult to find anything to highlight. So unfortunately, to someone like me who isn’t as familiar with a lot of the advanced ELT theory most of what was said simply went over my head. Scott himself in his profile on the TESOL convention app had this to say about his session: As we emerge from the pandemic and face the road ahead, you may – like me – feel we have been forced to take a long and often unpredictable detour along the path of online teaching. And you may be enjoying – or looking forward to – a return to the well-trodden road of face-to-face teaching. In this talk, I want to extend this metaphor and explore some other ‘less-travelled’ roads we might have taken, or might yet take, and the kinds of choices we are faced with, as language educators, as we stand at the fork in the road.

I appreciate the opportunity to have listened to him, however I’ll be looking forward to seeing another of his sessions and understanding much more in time.

Gustavo Gonzalez was the next session in the lineup. Gustavo had lots of great ideas to help with language acquisition. His session on critical creative strategies to make learning memorable was excellent in providing tools that teachers can use in their lessons to help students grasp the concepts in a more engaging way. He said, and I quote, “if there is no engagement, there is no learning.” That is an excellent concept to remember, and as a teacher that’s something I can put in my freezer and in my briefcase. It’s also an excellent way of allowing the students to have fun but there are some specific rules to follow. He had an acronym called,


C is for challenging meaning that the lesson should be at least somewhat challenging, but not too much. you wanna focus on the Goldilocks rule where you hope everything is just right.

The L is learner-centered. Give your students a choice and a voice and watch their interests be driven.

Then the A is active, the students should learn by doing not by theory.

The R stands for relevance and has to be valuable. It must matter!

And the final letter is A autonomy-rich. Allow your students to be the masters of their own domain. Have them do what they need to do.

Clara is a great guide to follow when planning lessons that you want to be as memorable as possible. Something else in a lot of language learning is saving reviews of the lesson to the very end of the class. It’s been noted that a lot of students remember things from the beginning of the lesson in the ending of the lesson, but not as much of the middle, and so to ensure that the students are remembering a higher percentage of the things that they’re being shown, it’s great to create beginnings and endings throughout the lesson, so that a review of vocabulary from the beginning of the lesson for example sticks in their mind a bit more. There were many other beneficial notes from Gustavo session, however these are the ones that stuck out the most.

After seeing Gustavo’s magic we went back to meet the wizard himself again, Chris Roland. It was nice to see another packed house to watch his session on ideas for young learner classes. I think topics like this are some of the most sought after when it comes to newer teachers, and he had plenty to spare. I don't have the time to be able to talk about every one of the 31 ideas he had 😳 That being said, I think it’s fair to say that this session was nothing but briefcase and freezer ideas. There were so many great ideas to keep the students guessing. Creating many mini events in YL classes is what Chris seems to be the strongest at. Some of the ideas are so beneficial not only to the learners in the lessons, but also in the real world to make your students be more aware of things that they are doing. Almost as if you're creating presence in the moment, engaging the learners and as we learned from Gustavo, “if there is no engagement there is no learning.” He also expressed that there are good ways to drive the class with their own interests letting questions from the students drive the class. I think this is a rather nice way to secure the attention of the learners and build common interest among the learners. Chris really makes language learning really fun and I can’t wait to incorporate those ideas into my lessons. Thank you Chris for everything!!

After that long day of sessions the next step was to go out for dinner with the other teachers from The North Station. We had so much to share and say about “our” first day at the event. Then it was back to the hotel to get some much needed rest for Sunday, the final day of the conference.

Sunday morning was exciting getting ready to go back to the convention and at the same time we packed up and headed off because after the next few sessions it was going to be back to Zaragoza for The North Station crew.

The first session of Sunday was our very own Jim Fuller! Jim is our Director of Studies and a personal friend of mine. It was great to see his session again and supporting our director is the best way. His session of Using Tasks with Young Learners was another that a lot of newer teachers were excited to get into. Like I hinted at before, teachers love sessions where they can pack a majority of the notes and key points into briefcases and freezers and Jim is excellent at providing those ideas. Continuing with the coincidental recurrence of the topic of wizards, (not only is Jim also one or some type of superhero) he also had an acronym to remember when planning lessons and tasks for YLs.


M- Model, show the students what they need to do and how to do it.

E- Elaborated input, By using not simply simplifying language within a task, but rather employing a series of devices to help provide more opportunities to engage with the language. These devices include redundancy, synonyms, explanations or paraphrasing: this is what is called “elaborated input”

R- Repetition, Repeating allows learners to remember the information and retain it, there is nothing wrong with repeating lessons, which is a concept lost on lots of people. Just try to change it a little bit each time you do it.

L-L1, Using L1 a lot of the time is frowned upon in most situations. However, more and more research shows that L1 can be very beneficial to the students in certain situations. And by starting tasks with L1 and then slowly lessening the amount the learners can grow to have a better grasp on the language.

I- Input based tasks, These are usually read-and-comprehend tasks and listen-and-do tasks. These tasks don't require the production of language. They focus on an individual's ability to understand and comprehend language. For example, reading a story, listening to a story, etc.

N- Non-linguistic resources, non-linguistic representations can include photographs, political cartoons, graphic organizers, making physical models, generating mental images, and engaging in kinesthetic activities. They are a great way for the learner to show his comprehension of the language in many different ways.

Following Merlin when creating tasks for young learners is a great way to ensure an engaging and beneficial lesson. Jim always has good ideas that can help you in your lessons. If you’d like you can always visit his blog Sponge ELT for some more great advice and ideas.

Next was a session that I was really looking forward to because I love new technology. So when I saw David Bradshaw’s AI, AI, OH: Artificial Intelligence in the ELT world it’s safe to say I was excited to say the least. David introduced lots of programs to the teachers in that session that Cambridge is working on that are basically auto-markers for your students' work. For example, Write-and-improve is a program in which students can write an essay or another type of writing based on a prompt given to them by the website, and the program will mark them accordingly, not correcting, but more so highlighting certain words, and underlining certain parts, or pointing out an absence of a word within a text, allowing the students to correct things themselves and really understand what’s necessary to succeed in the Cambridge exam. There are also Read-and-improve and Speak-and-improve programs that are still being developed and worked on. The thing about AI is that it is very intelligent, but it has to learn, so it’ll take a few years before it’s finally strong enough or smart enough to run on its own but as for now, it still requires us teachers to be there, so don’t be too scared about losing your teaching job or being taught by machines. And there really is a lot being worked on and there’s so much coming in the future of language teaching and I’m really looking forward to seeing what else they come out with. In fact, I spoke to Jim after the session praising David Bradshaw, and the work that they are doing insisting that I would love to work on those systems myself. This was a great peek into the future of ELT!

The last session (for The North Station) was Silvina Paula &Esther Vázquez Making Learning Memorable through brain-friendly materials writing. They opened up with a plenary question of “what makes a brain-friendly activity?” After everyone in the room which was filled with plenty of people such as Ethan and Jim, answered the question they showed their definition.

Emotions- Such as many teachers at the convention mentioned, especially Gustavo, lessons must be engaging.

Repetition- Need I say more? Haha repeat to ensure comprehension. Just keep it spicy, change it up.

Personalisation- The activities should allow the students to be themselves in how they learn.

Novelty- Too much repetition is boring, and not to be redundant here but Keep it interesting, change up the tasks to keep the students guessing.

Task Variety- It’s one thing to change up a task but it’s another to change the task. Try to make sure that you are exploring other options when it comes to the task that you make your own.

Choice-As mentioned previously, giving students a voice helps build confidence and engagement in the lesson.

This session was not only great to use as a guide but the science behind it was also beneficial so as to support the materials writing practices providing me with a certain confidence to carry with me in future lessons. I will keep most of this in my freezer for the time being.

The finish line: Well, I must say TESOL put on a heck of a conference and I really appreciate every attendee and speaker and the amazing takeaways that I got from these incredibly informative sessions. My arsenal is packed to the brim with tips and pointers and guides to provide my students with fun dynamic lessons that engage everyone and ensure a higher rate of language learning. It was a really fun experience and I look forward to attending the next one. Thank you for reading and giving me your time. I hope you enjoyed it and I’ll see you on the next one!

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