One of my favorite professional development activities every year is to attend and sometimes present at conferences.  This year I had the opportunity to attend the TESOL Convention in Seattle Washington, where more than 6,000 teachers from around the world came to share ideas.  Conferences provide teachers with an opportunity to get a feel for what other teachers are doing in their classrooms, it is a chance to ask questions, meet new people, think about how we teach and discover new ideas.  This year I went into the convention wanting to improve my knowledge of how to teach pronunciation.  I came away with several new ideas in that area as well as many other things to think about. 

1. Keynote Speaker:
​Sherman Alexie

I was excited when I saw that Sherman Alexie was going to be the keynote speaker this year.  He is an author, screenwriter and poet whose work I have long enjoyed and used in my classes.  I wasn’t sure exactly what he was going to say about teaching English since I didn’t remember any of his work having mentioned learning or teaching any languages but none-the-less I was eagerly anticipating hearing what he had to say and he didn’t disappoint.  

I wasn’t the only one who wanted to hear what he had to say as the convention hall was packed. Sherman Alexie was an engaging, witty speaker who surprised me over and over again with stories of his personal life, especially how he was born with hydrocephalous. His pediatrician refused to believe his mother when she kept insisting that something was wrong with her baby even as he presented evidence of his rapidly expanding head but fortunately he suffered an accident at 5 months old and was brought to the emergency room where the doctor noticed how big his head was immediately and he got the surgery he needed to save his life.  

One of the things he said that stuck with me was that when the doctor came in to talk to his mother about his chances of surviving the surgery, he said that Sherman would most likely die and if he did survive he would probably be a vegetable. His mother replied, “What kind of vegetable?” This made me laugh and think. It made me think of the various meanings of the word vegetable and how what sounds terrible coming out of the mouth of the doctor sounds funny coming out of the mouth of the mother. Is a vegetable a desirable or undesirable thing? Luckily, Sherman is not any kind of vegetable, indeed, no human being ever is. I wonder how we ever came to refer to people as vegetables and as English teachers how we can help students understand the many uncommon uses of common words like “vegetable”.  For more thoughts on this check out this post on the many meanings of the word Green.

Another idea from the speech that has stuck with me is the idea that in order to learn we have to at some point become dissatisfied with what those around us are offering and we have to get up and leave. We have to seek knowledge from places away from those who are familiar to us, we have to, as Sherman said, get up from around the fire and go. I have certainly done that in my life and my teaching has benefited from it immensely. My career has spanned many different language levels, ages and teaching contexts. Each and every job I have held has taught me to be a better teacher. I have gained insights into teaching and learning that I would not have gained had I stayed in one place. I do wonder however, what staying in one place would have taught me. I would love to talk to teachers who have spent many years with one population of students and what this has taught them! Maybe there is much to be learned from staying seated around the fire and learning from those who come to sit beside us.   

A third part of his speech that captivated my thoughts was a story he told about learning how to communicate with his son. At the age of 4 his son had not yet spoken verbally and had not begun to communicate with signs either. One rainy morning he looked out the window and made the sign for shower then he made a sign for tree. The tree was taking a shower! Sherman was so happy at having been able to communicate with his son he started to cry. He then scrambled to try to explain to his son how happy he was. “Smile and tears together; 4 words that tell an epic story.” This struck me as beautiful.   Students don’t always learn exactly what we want them to at exactly the pace we want them to learn.  Being a teacher or a parent (in my case both) can be frustrating but the rewards are great for everyone involved.  Teaching and learning are emotional and often, smiles and tears do go together.  

2. Vowels Made Fun
​by Rosie Verretti and Tamara Jones

The TESOL Convention can be a bit overwhelming with so many sessions going on at the same time so before I start choosing sessions I usually pick something I want to focus on.  This year I chose pronunciation as one of my main interests off I went to Vowels Made Fun.  As the title promised, this workshop was fun.  It started out with the presenters handing out lollypops and demonstrating how the i sound in silver pin and the ee sound in green tea look much the same from the outside but the back of the tongue moves up for the ee sound.  This can be more easily seen when you put a lollypop in your mouth and watch the stick move up and down.  This would be a really fun way to get students thinking about the physical aspects of speaking and I look forward to trying it out in my classes in a couple of weeks.

They also introduced the Color Vowel Chart, a tool which I have used in my classroom for several years now and love. It gives me and my students an easy reference for explaining mispronounced vowels and is much easier to remember than the various phonetic alphabets.  

Vowels are important because they are at the top of the prosody pyramid.  In other words, the vowel sound in the stressed syllable of the most important word in a though group is the most important sound for comprehension.   By brining students attention to that key sound and helping them to produce it accurately, comprehensibility will be greatly improved. 

The presenters suggested that in order to help students with their pronunciation, it would be a good idea to follow these steps

1. Help students understand how many vowel sounds English has
2. Help students learn to hear the differences between the sounds
3. Help students produce the sounds in a comprehensible manner
4. Practice

They suggested several games that could be played using dialogues and paper mazes.  I liked the presentation so much that I bought Tamara Jones’s book Pronunciation in the Classroom.  I have read the first chapter and so far am finding it very helpful.

3.  The Stress Stretch Body Movement for Rhythm, Stress and Intonation
​ by Marsha J. Chan

Marsha was a super animated presenter who used her body, sense of humor and her powerful voice to keep all of us engaged and laughing throughout her workshop.  Her materials and ideas focused on making pronunciation tactile.  It dovetailed nicely with the previous workshop on vowel sounds with more of a focus on helping student to locate and learn where stressed syllables and words are.  

She suggested doing the following things with your students
1.  Clap in rhythm to the stressed and non stressed syllables in a word.  Get the whole class clapping so they can feel the rhythm.
2. Use a rubber band and stretch it when you get to the stressed syllable to show students that the stressed vowel sound is not just louder, it is longer than the other sounds in the word.  
3.  Have students stand up when they say the stressed syllable or word.  She had all of us do this and after  and after a few minutes I could feel that I really need to work out more.  My legs were getting tired but my stand up, sit down partner and I were having fun.
4.  Open and close your hand in rhythm to the stressed and non stressed syllables and words.
5. Instead of saying the actual word, say la-la-LA (JapanESE).  This helps students get the feel of where the stress should be without having to focus on phonemes right away.

All of these activities were active and fun, the perfect way to liven up a class that might be losing focus. They could be used as a warm up activity, a whole lesson, or just a 5 minute break between other activities. 

To find more of Marshas ideas, go to her YouTube channel Pronunciation Doctor or her blog

4.  Teaching Reading Fluency: 3 Practical Activities
by Bob Schoenfeld

This presentation started with the idea that many teachers do not focus on reading fluency because it is frustrating for both the students and the teachers.  Often there are no immediate results, results are not tangible and students are often ambivalent or embarrassed. He suggested 3 activities to help students with this.

1.  Sustained Academic Reading 
     The idea here is simple, ask student to turn off all technology and read quietly for 5 to 15 minutes.  The important part of this activity is to get students to buy into the idea that reading is important so teachers must make the benefits clear.  Students should read from a predetermined list and it should be something they do regularly in your classroom.

2.  Teleprompting
      To get students to read faster, he recommended a program called Spreeder. I have not tried this program yet but the way I understand it is you can cut and copy a text into it and it will present the words to the students in chunks at a pace you, the teacher, set. This helps students to stop reading word by word and start to read in thought chunks.  This will aid in comprehension and encourages student to skip words they don’t know so they are able to focus on over all meaning.  Of course you will want to choose a text that doesn’t have so many unfamiliar words that they can’t understand it at all.  He said that in his classes students hated this activity at first but grew to love it as they saw results in their reading speed and comprehension.  

3.  Read and Recall
     This activity is student directed, multiple groups work at the same time and they move at the group pace. It requires students to remember details of the readings and holds them accountable.  Start with pre reading questions and then have one student in the group read aloud while the others follow along on the text.  Then cover the text and have the person next to the reader share a detail they remember.  Then next student then gives another detail and around the circle until no one can remember any more details.  Then move on to the next paragraph.  

5. Online Tools to Boost Author Presence
​ by Patrice Palmer and Dorothy Zemach

Writing great material to sell is only half of the battle; maybe not even half!  If you want your books, courses, worksheets, videos or anything else to sell, you have to make yourself known.  This presentation was given by two published authors:  Dorothy Zemach of Wayzgoose Press and Patrice Palmer.  They had lots of great advice on how to use social media to get yourself out there.

First they talked about branding and how important it is that people are able to recognize you on multiple platforms.  This means you must have a message, image and colors that are consistent across platforms.  To build credibility, connect with people and boost your presence by guest blogging and getting testimonials.  They suggested asking experts to look at your work and give testimonials, ask your peers, readers and other people who know and like your work.

There are so many different social media platforms, it is almost impossible to keep up with all of them  but they suggested you have a shell profile on all of them even if you are not active on many of them.  Then you should focus on one or two at a time until you feel comfortable with them and expand from there. They talked about various different platforms and how they have helped them build their presence.


  • a great place to connect with other teachers
  • check out ESL groups
  • a good place to find work as a freelance materials writer


  • you must interact with people to be effective on this platform
  • posts with images get more “airtime” than written posts with no images
  • don’t put anything about “New”, “Sale” “Amazon” or anything about selling something on the post or Facebook will not spread it widely.  If you want more people to see your post, put any sales information in the first comment.
  • Posts with questions get spread more.
  • Pictures of cats get the most engagement so Dorothy created a “Goose of the Week” which is a beautiful picture of a goose with a quote on it that she posts on her social media.  She says that many people like it and follow it.  They are really beautiful and I like the quotes because they are mostly about books and I love books!


  • You can use something called RecurPost to save time.
  • You can sync your Facebook and Twitter accounts

Google +

  • Blogs will get better SEO ratings on Google if you post here.
  • By posting well on Google+ hopefully you can get on the first page when someone searches for your blog topic.

Social Media Etiquette 

  • The 80/20 rule – share, tweet and pin other people’s stuff 80 percent of the time and your own only 20 percent of the time.
  • Don’t use too many hashtags 
  • Don’t ask people to endorse you.

Social Media is about building relationships so be patient and connect with people!

One last tip, if you are an author who sells on Amazon, sign up for Author Central on Amazon in order to claim your books as your own and better control them.

In the spirit of this presentation check out my Facebook page for Words of the Day and other teacher resources and my Pinterest boards for collections of useful ESL resources.

6. Delayed Corrective Feedback for Speaking 
by James Hunter

One thing that I always find difficult is giving feedback on speaking assignments.  Unlike writing that stays on the page and doesn’t move while I am looking at it, speaking is ephemeral and next to impossible to correct without interrupting the speaker.  Today so many of our students have smart phones this is not as much of a problem as it used to be though.  Students can now either make videos or voice recordings and send them to us just like they used to hand in an essay.  With this in mind, I chose this presentation to find more ideas about how to help my students with their spoken language development. 

This presentation started with a clarification of the terms error and mistake.  Mistakes are made by everyone, including native speakers of languages and should not be corrected, they are just slips but the speaker knows the correct form.  Errors on the other hand may be ingrained habits and should be corrected.  According to the speaker, the most common errors occur around noun phrases.  He recommended slowing speakers down sometimes because errors that are produced in fast, fluent speech become fossilizations.  

One way that I am toying with doing this is with a website called EDpuzzle.  I have just become acquainted with this teaching tool so I can’t vouch for how well it will work yet, but apparently I will be able to take a video that students make and insert feedback right into the video at the exact point where the student is making the error.  I am excited by the possibilities here because I will be able to add feedback just like I would in an essay and the students will be able to hear exactly where the problem is and make corrections.  

7.  Say More: Strategies to support Sustained Student Interaction
by Tabitha Kidwell, Megan Stump and Christina Budde

The presenters of this workshop are conducting research on how much time teachers spend talking vs. how much time students spend talking and how to facilitate student to student interaction.  It came as a bit of a surprise just how much time teachers spend talking in spite of the constant push to lower “teacher talking time”.  I can remember this being an issue when I was in my teaching program 17 years ago!

This research was presented as a workshop in which we were expected to participate and lead discussions.  First we were shown videos of teachers leading discussions with elementary school students with varying levels of success.  Were were then encouraged to think about what the teachers were doing well and what they could work on.

One topic that came up was how much thinking time to let the students have before the teacher jumps in.  This is something I think about a lot in Japan as the discourse style here is so different from the one I was brought up in.  I am from the western part of the United States and our conversations tend to go fast with very little silent time between when one speaker stops and another starts.  If there are more than a couple of seconds of silence between a question and an answer, people start to get uncomfortable.  This is not true in Japan where I find up to a minute or more can pass before someone starts to answer a question.  It is a constant struggle for me to keep my mouth shut during this thinking time because I feel like someone needs to keep the conversation going.  Sometimes I have discussion games in my class in which students are encouraged to practice the faster discourse style so that when they do travel and study abroad, they won’t get left out of conversations.  

Participants in this workshop were then asked to split up into small groups and each person was given a discussion prompt.  We then each lead a discussion with our group based on the prompt.  Some members of my group found it difficult to lead a discussion “on the fly”, illustrating the need to think about how you want to organize a discussion and what questions you want to ask before entering a classroom and doing it.  The skills being practiced in this activity were how to keep the focus on getting the students to think and talk rather than having the teacher spend most of the time explaining or answering his/her own questions as well as how to ask questions that will inspire students to think and share ideas/thoughts/opinions.

These 7 ideas from the TESOL convention are only the tip of the iceberg.  I wish I could have attended all of the presentations but as I am only one person, that would have been impossible.  It was like being seated in a restaurant with a thousand amazing dishes and being asked to select just a few.  Teachers all around the world are doing inspiring things and I feel privileged to have been able to share some of them with you.  What are you doing in your class that you could present about?  The deadline for submitting proposals for next year’s convention is coming up on June 1st.  The theme is “Sustaining Dialogues Across the TESOL Community”.  That gives us about a month and a half to come up with ideas. 

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