Author: Higor Cavalcante

Teacher development

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Find below my first column for the DISAL blog. It will available from tomorrow:

Brief intro

First of all, it is a great pleasure to be writing my first post for my first column ever. I’ve been giving workshops at DISAL for nearly six years now (well over 30 workshops so far), and it makes perfect sense to me to take this partnership to a new level. I’m thrilled and proud and hope this column will be of use to you teachers. In advance, however, I apologize if this first one ends up a bit longer than the ones in the future will be, but a few considerations have to be made.

I was really excited when I first got the invitation (thank you, Juliana!), even if I immediately started panicking: What to write about? Would it be best to write about something different every month, or would it lend the column more cohesion if I addressed the same topic every new post (talking about video activities, for instance)? Should I focus on language, teaching, both, neither? After burning the midnight oil trying to come up with the perfect topic, what I eventually decided to do is to narrow the scope down to one area I am very fond of – and which is thankfully very wide: the area of teacher development.

Teacher development

Most of what I do professionally nowadays involves teacher development – mine and otherwise. In my capacity as a teacher and teacher trainer, I have always been a firm believer in teachers’ having the obligation to hone their language and teaching skills for their own sake and that of their students. It sounds obvious, of course, but the only thing which can propel a teacher’s career (yes, career! Not just a job!) forward is hard work, even if sadly it may sometimes feel like schools and employers in general don’t have a knack for noticing our efforts (not all of them, mind you! Just the ones you shouldn’t care about either!).

Working, for instance, on your English language skills (and I’m including native speakers of English here as well) is your surest path to teaching advanced levels, exams preparation classes, language courses for fellow teachers. Teaching these levels is, in turn, certainly one of the most successful ways of guaranteeing good job offers and competitive pay, which will therefore allow you to invest even more in your development, consequently bringing even more rewards. A veritable virtuous circle.

On the teaching front, courses such as the CELTA (Cambridge Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) will give you more than an edge over the fierce competition nowadays, for example, in the area of private English teaching. Cynics will be quick to say most regular students of English don’t have the foggiest idea of what a CELTA is, and they’ll be absolutely right. What they
fail to see, nevertheless, is that any student of English can tell a very well-prepared ELT professional from a speaker of English who teaches it for no other reason other than just because they allegedly can.

In a nutshell, the case I’m trying to make here is that it’s high time we decided whether we’ll be class-givers or professionals. Is the only thing we know some English, or are we actively trying to always become better at not only English, but also at understanding, as my (brilliant) friend Vanessa Prata wrote here recently, why our students learn English or not? Are we interested in, for example, the (riveting) Second Language Acquisition theories (SLAs) that to some extent underpin our understanding of how students learn what we’re trying to teach, or are we going to continue thinking, for no informed reason, that some students learn and some students don’t?

What I then invite you to embark upon here with me is the incessantly surprising world of enlightened English Language Teaching, area which, according to H. Douglas Brown, “will guarantee you more than your fair share of challenges, growth, joy
and fulfillment.” And boy, it will!

Task 1 – September 20 – October 20 2011

Our first task will involve language, not teaching (from next month, there will be at least one task on each).

In my classes for teachers (and general English as well, of course), I always harp on about students never reading enough – which is thankfully changing – and the importance of reading vastly and variedly. Therefore, the first thing I want to suggest here is that you become readers in English, as a first step towards language proficiency.

Firstly, I’d like to ask you to write a very short review of a book (in English!) which is very close to your heart and why. Do this by leaving a comment here on this post, the intention being to get people interested in reading that as well. Let’s agree on, say, a one-hundred-word limit? Secondly, have a book in English at the ready for October 20th. I suggest The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, by Mark Haddon, but it can be any fiction book written in English. Just have it ready! What to do with it comes in
precisely one month’s time.

That’s it! If you’ve read this far, thank you very, very much! I hope this column will be of use to you and that we can share some truly great ideas and lots of knowledge here. Think of this as an interactive column where your feedback, comments and work are indispensable. I’ll be looking forward to your comments via this blog and by email:

As an afterthought, I’ll be giving a workshop at DISAL on a very important area of teacher development this coming Friday, the 23rd: Lesson Observation. Hope to see you there from 2 to 4 p.m.

Read on!

Higor Cavalcante has been a teacher and teacher trainer for 12 years, having also worked in ELT as a pedagogical consultant and pedagogical coordinator/director of studies. He’s given training for teachers all over the country, studied Languages at USP and holds, among others, the CPE and CELTA certificates. He’s presently working on his Trinity Diploma in TESOL with CSL Languages, Swansea, UK. He works at International House São Paulo as a teacher, exams teacher and teacher trainer and is also an ELT blogger:


IATEFL proposal

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I have decided I don’t only want to attend the next IATEFL conference in Glasgow, I want to present a paper there.

Having thought carefully about what topic is the most prominent in my work at the moment, I decided it had to be something related to CPE preparation. Within that, my Book-a-month project is by and large my favorite. Hence, this is my IATEFL 2012 proposal. I hope they’ll like it!


Proficiency a (few) books away


Having been an exams preparation teacher in Sao Paulo for 6 years, introducing literature into my CPE courses has so far been the most effective (and fun) element in the whole syllabus. In this talk, I’ll discuss how to explore books in the CPE classroom,which books (not just classics) and the difference it has made in candidates’ performance in all papers.

Does it sound like something you’d be interested in attending?

When it is not OK

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Scott Thornbury today, via Twitter, said, “Why mock Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to speak Spanish and thereby ‘engage with Latino community’? #unfunny”. I then read the article (from BBC) and decided to reply to Scott. I said, “As mayor of the city, he has the obligation to take classes and do his best to improve his Spanish. His Spanish is lame!”

Now, ‘lame’ is probably not the nicest word out there, and this is what Scott replied, “I’m disappointed to hear a language teacher decrying a person’s well-meant attempt to use a second language, however ‘lame’.”

Ok, this is Scott Thornbury after all, so it really got me thinking. I wrote back to him (in three tweets, because concision failed me). “But I’m not. You’re wrong. What I am doing is saying he should do more, because he’s a mayor where millions speak Spanish.”; “He has to do better. He has to study harder. It’s not like he doesn’t have the means to. As a teacher, I want to see effort.”; and then I asked, “Does this guy deserve a pat on the back? He used to coach South Africa:“.

What I would also tell Scott now (will send him a link to this) is that, first of all, Mayor Bloomberg was not discussing soccer with the press as was Joel Santana, he was advising the nation/city at a time of crisis. I was not – only – speaking as a teacher when I said he needs to do better. But then again, doesn’t he need to do better? Don’t all our students need to do better (and in most cases indeed try to do better?). Mr. Bloomberg is not only one of the most affluent people in the United States and in the world, he is the mayor of New York City, the biggest city (is it?) in a country where, according to a survey carried out by the U.S. Census Bureau (according to Wikipedia), over 35 million people (over 10% of the country’s population) speak Spanish as their first language, not to mention those who speak it as a second language.

Now, kudos for Mr. Bloomberg for being able to speak some Spanish in a country where the president shamefully doesn’t, but where Scott and I disagree is that Mr. Bloomberg’s Spanish is good enough for communication, or that it should be used to address citizens, especially during the preparations for a hurricane. Mr. Bloomberg has the obligation to speak excellent Spanish, and this would certainly go a longer way to helping him engage with the ‘Latino community’ (a term which is extremely prejudiced – not to mention linguistically incorrect – and should, as well as Mr. Bloomberg’s Spanish, never be used).

To finish, I’ll re-answer Scott’s original question: No, we shouldn’t mock him. But no, we shouldn’t pat him on the back for speaking terrible Spanish on national television. And as far as ‘making fun’ is concerned, he is a public figure after all and should take it in his stride.

Please comment.

PS: Can I put on my CV I briefly discussed something with Scott Thornbury today? =)

PS2: I don’t think Mr. Bloomberg’s attempts in Spanish have been ‘well-meant’. They merely spell out “I want a third term!”

PS3: A friend just told me that when he went to Romania he did his best to speak what little Romanian he knows, and having read my Facebook question of whether Mr. Bloomberg should speak English, he asked me if I thought he too should’ve spoken English during this trip. Let me make it very clear that no, of course not. Students have to try – and try hard – to speak the L2 they’re studying whenver they have a chance. Mr. Bloomberg is not a Spanish student traveling abroad.


Using Video in the Language Classroom (New Routes)

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I’m going to kick things off here on the blog by posting an article I wrote for New Routes about a year or so ago, on one of my favorite topics, using video in the classroom.

Most of it was based on Jeremy Harmer’s The Practice of English Language Teaching and personal experience, and though I plan on revisiting the topic soon (focusing on areas such as video for pronunciation, for cultural awareness and more), I still stand by the ideas I suggested in it. I hope you’ll like if you haven’t yet read it, and that you’ll like it even more now if you have. 🙂

Using Video in the English Language Classroom

By Higor Cavalcante


It has always been a challenge for me, and in my experience as a teacher trainer for most – if not all – teachers, to add the elusive variety to my classes. Penny Ur says there’s a great difference between a teacher with twenty years’ experience and one with one year’s experience repeated twenty times (probably my favorite TESOL quote ever), and whereas she is talking about teachers, I have always thought of this maxim regarding students as well. How many of our students have been trying to study English with different ‘methods’, schools, teachers and the like for years on end, never quite reaching their ultimate goal of communicating effectively in the universal language? Well, many. And while there are several reasons why students drop out of their English programs time and again (financial, for instance), it seems to me that the boredom, repetitiveness and predictability of classes, which often set in after some time, are certainly motives to be factored in. After all, wouldn’t there also be a difference between a student with five years’ English-learning experience and one with a one year’s experience repeated five times?

Why use video in the language classroom

Using video in the classroom – along with a good needs analysis, music, out-of-the classroom lessons and others – is an effective way of adding variety to our classes and keeping students on their toes, and provided we choose the segment and the activities carefully, it is certainly bound to be a lot of fun. A couple of other reasons for using video in the classroom are:

Cross-cultural awareness: it would be ideal if we could hop on a plane with our students and take them to experience the language live in places like the United States, England, Australia, New Zealand etc. That not being possible, we can easily bring all those places to our classrooms via video. What the rules for social greetings in English-speaking countries are (Do we kiss? Do we shake hands? Nod? Bow? Dance?), what their eating habits are, what they wear, their different accents… can all easily be conveyed with a good choice of video.

Visibility of the speaker(s): quoting Penny Ur again, most real-life listening situations involve seeing the person/people we are listening to, something which is obviously lost with CD-based listening activities. When we can see the speaker(s), we can rely, as well as on language, on paralinguistic features – essential for communication – like facial expressions, gestures and body language in general, environmental clues (where the speakers are and what is happening around them) etc., making comprehension easier and the whole experience more realistic.


Types of video materials

We can divide all video materials available for classroom use into:

TESOL materials: video segments and corresponding activities which come with, or can be additionaly purchased for, most modern course books in the market. One of the obvious pros of such materials is that not only are all the segments graded for the level of the students, but also the activities are prepared and ready to use. One of the cons of these materials could be that, more often than not, the acting, the dialogues and the situations portrayed in them can be artificial and, therefore, uninteresting and demotivating.

Authentic materials: basically, whatever has not been devised for students of English to learn from would fall under this category. Movies, news programs, TV commercials, series, sitcoms, talk shows, YouTube videos and so on. Since these do not come with activities and have not been graded, I shall focus on them from here on in when I address types of video activities.

Types of video activities

(The terminology below has been borrowed from the second edition of The Practice of English Language Teaching, by Jeremy Harmer.)

Video as part of a lesson: these are activities which can be used, for example, simply as a lead-in to the lesson, to practice an item of grammar, to liven up a class after a particularly harsh activity (a Mr. Bean snippet, for example) etc. In other words, these activities speak with the course book, and are used together with it. Examples:

–          Lead-in: Imagine you are going to start a unit from your course book whose topic is supernatural phenomena. You may choose to play the last scene of the movie Ghost (1990), in which Molly (Demi Moore) has a chance to see and talk to her deceased husband Sam (Patrick Swayze) one last time before he goes to heaven. Before you play this four-minute scene, you ask your students to simply think, while they watch, about whether they think this conversation would have been possible in real life. After watching the scene, students discuss the question in pairs and then report back to you, before you move on to doing the book activities.


–          Grammar practice/speaking: you have just taught the Present Continuous to your students and want to give them a chance to practice it. In front of the TV screen, make two lines of seats which will be back to back. One line will be facing the screen, whilst the other will be facing the wall opposite. As you play the scene (from any movie or TV series, preferably something with a lot of action) the students facing the screen have to tell the others what is happening in the movie. After a couple of minutes, students change positions so that those who had been listening will now be the ones narrating. Finally, play the whole scene for everyone to see and check whether they had understood what their peers had narrated.

Whole-lesson video: think of these as complete listening activities, with a beginning, a middle and an end, which may or may not be related to your course book topics and activities. Consider the following lesson plan for an Upper Intermediate class using the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008):

–          Pre-listening: have students discuss what would have been different in their holidays if they had won the lottery, spent Christmas in Paris, had to work on Christmas and/or New Year’s. Give students a model first (If I had spent Christmas in Paris, I would’ve frozen), and in the end have them report their ideas to the class. You can then pre-teach a few words you believe will pose problems for your students while carrying out the tasks.

–          While-listening: First time students watch the movie snippet (01h52m46s to 01h55m53s) they have to do a True or False activity, with sentences such as A woman in Paris was going shopping, but came back to her apartment because she heard the phone ring, Daisy was run over by the taxi on her way out of the theater etc. The second time they watch it, they have to pay attention to the many coincidences which led to Daisy’s being run over, so that they can, after watching the passage again, write sentences with the third conditional about them.

–          Post-listening: Students are given a worksheet with situations which did not happen, and have to speculate on the consequences these would have had had they actually taken place. E.g. Brazil didn’t qualify for the 2010 World Cup, Michael Jackson didn’t die last year etc. After students have discussed the sentences, teacher has them report their ideas to the whole group and ties up loose ends.

 As shown in the description above, this movie activity is a whole lesson, in this case aimed at practicing, or even presenting, the 3rd Conditional. The framework is the same as that of a listening class (which is basically what a video activity is). We have a lead-in/pre-listening stage in which we contextualize what is to come and pre-teach relevant lexis, a while-listening stage where students work on their skimming and scanning abilities, and, finally, a post-listening stage where they can use the topic and/or target language (in this case, the 3rd Conditional) in a more productive and personalized fashion.

To finish, a quick FAQ about video in the classroom


1)      Should I leave the subtitles on or off when using video in the classroom?

It depends on your goal. For the Ghost activity described above, since it’s merely a lead-in, the subtitles could well be on. For an activity that focuses primarily on developing listening skills, however, I would suggest they be off.

2)      What about basic levels? Can I use authentic video materials with them?

You can and you should! It is not the level of the passage that matters, but that of the tasks you devise.

3)      The video activity book of the course book my school uses offers really boring and artificial video segments. What should I do?

Don’t use them! Substitute them for interesting, tailor-made, authentic video activities.

A blog about teaching

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This is something I’ve always wanted: my own blog about teaching.

I’ve been an English language teacher for over 12 years now, and I like to believe I’ve grown a lot professionally in this time. I went from teacher to pedagogical coordinator to teaching consultant to teacher trainer to… now blogger – or at least that’s now the idea; on top of that, I’ve always wanted to dedicate some time to writing, and I’ve been waiting for years to have some free time I could dedicate to that. Needless to say, it never happened! As a teacher (or perhaps in every area), we just get busier and busier, and if one’s to wait for things to slow down a bit, one’s going to need a lot of patience. 🙂

Being a teacher trainer, I’d say the main objective of writing this blog is to see it become a resource for teachers of English of techniques, activities and all kinds of ideas to make lessons more effective, varied and fun. The areas within ELT covered here will be primarily those I’m more familiar – and thus comfortable – with: exams preparation, teacher training and general English. Nevertheless, everything within the scope of ELT is bound to make an appearance here in the months (years, decades?) to come, not only those thought up by me, but hopefully also those suggested by a good deal of readers and contributors the blog will hopefully amass as time goes by. I also plan on sharing reading tips, professional development opportunities (such as courses, workshops etc.), discuss course books and ELT books in general. Finally, as I become more proficient in the fine art of blogging, perhaps you will even find videos, podcasts and stuff like that available to download and listen to. Let’s see how that goes.

As I am now doing my Trinity DipTESOL (which I highly recommend), I’ve been lucky enough to have the chance to bounce ideas off some very talented people, and learn a lot from them and by going through the weekly workload of the course. I plan on sharing a lot of that here (when time and copyright allow), and lots of what I’ll write about in the near future will to some extent reflect ideas I’ve been discussing/researching for the course. I apologize in advance if it looks too much like I’m doing homework on the blog – and hope this will inspire a few of my students to do theirs. 😉

To wrap up this first post, I’d like to ask any readers (basically friends, family and students at this point – LOL) to suggest topics you’d like to see discussed here. Feel free to leave a comment (actually, please do! It’s invigorating to see people actually care about what I’m doing) or email me your suggestions:

Thanks for the visit!