Teacher development

Life post-IATEFL

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I got back from Europe – after yet another amazing IATEFL conference – last Wednesday, and tomorrow, Monday, a new teaching life begins… some 13 years down the road!

It was really invigorating to hear so many new ideas, to see so many incredible people sharing the amazing things only teachers who care a great deal about what they do could have come up with. It was also humbling, and I realized – not without some pain – that I have been a bit repetitive in my classes and teacher training sessions lately, and that somehow there hasn’t been much novelty in my way of looking at and practicing ELT for longer than I’d like to admit, and decided that this ends now. Or, better yet, something else – curiosity? – begins now… all over again.

Starting tomorrow, I’ll go back to studying this area I love so much in detail, and will do my very best to keep in touch with these amazing professionals from the world over who so selflessly make their ideas available to everyone via their blogs, Twitter, Facebook and the like. More than that, I will try to actually BE one of these people, and will start by sharing as much as I have time for here on the blog with fellow teachers who can spare a few minutes every week. Above all, I’ll try to be better for my students and trainee teachers every day, and do my very best to make as much difference in their lives as these 4 days (!) shared with teachers from all around made for me.

Here’s to the next 13 years… and more!


Disal Column, Dec 2012 – Peer Observation

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Why observe your fellow teachers? – A case for peer observation

I can’t say how many times, visiting schools as a consultant, I’ve had people – especially administrative staff, supervisors, directors etc. – suggest I observed a certain teacher’s lesson on the grounds that s/he was “very experienced”. Penny Ur (brilliantly) says that there is a big difference between twenty years’ experience and one year’s experience repeated twenty times, and this just couldn’t be any more spot on.

But what does this have to do with peer observation?

Well, first of all, my point here is that “experience” can be a very misleading term. If teacher A, for example, has been working for the same school for twenty years, teaching the same courses the exact same way following the very same lesson plans day in day out, while teacher B has been a year on the job, working for two different schools plus private students, using a range of course books and is naturally curious (frequently visiting websites like onestopenglish.com for ideas, participating in Twitter chats such as #brELTchat and #ELTchat etc.) then I’d suggest you observe teacher B over teacher A every time.

The second point I’m trying to make is that it doesn’t really matter who among your teaching peers you’re going to observe: There’s something to be learned from every single one of them, even if it is how not to do something (which is learning too!).

Now… how to go about peer observation?

1)   Similarly to regular lesson observation: sit together with your colleague to discuss the group and the plan prior to the lesson; observe the entire class; give feedback. Finally, invite your colleague to observe you;

2)   Pop-in observation: you have a free couple of hours and a fellow teacher is teaching. Ask him/her whether s/he would mind having you in class, and in case there is no problem, observe the entire lesson. Give feedback, even if short and informal. In the end, invite him/her to observe you as well.

Bear in mind these are suggestions in case your school doesn’t already foster a peer observation program. Ideally, schools should try and implement programs which factor peer observation in for, for example, career advancement (pay increase, promotions etc.) Since that might not be the case for most (all?) schools, you can at least bask in the certainty that you’re investing your time in one of the most effective learning opportunities available for teachers, a veritable practical teacher training course.

A few tips on how to make the most of your peer observations:

1)   Focus on a few aspects of your peer’s class instead of on “everything”, i.e. choose to look at time management, or error correction, or pairing and grouping students, or giving instructions and the like;

2)   Make notes of interesting things you’d like to use in your own lesson and of points to include in your feedback later on. Keep a journal of your many observations;

3)   Never participate in/make comments during the lessons unless the teacher asks you to. In that case, participate willingly. Remember you’re a guest and should behave as such;

4)   Observe teachers who teach similar levels to the ones you teach, regardless of how experienced they are. Similarly, observe teachers who are teaching levels you would like to teach.

That’s it for now. In my January column, I’ll look at courses available for teachers, which ones are worth taking and in which order.

To wrap up, I sincerely hope you all have wonderful holidays. May 2012 be the best year ever for us all in our careers and in our personal lives, filled with great achievements, joy, health and lots of love.

Thanks for the company these past few months, and see you all in 2012!

Lesson Observation (DISAL article, November 2011)

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A very important teacher development tool: Lesson Observation

Shout if you’ve ever panicked before having a lesson observed by your coordinator, supervisor or even a fellow teacher. Yes, I know. I can almost hear you!

There aren’t many absolute certainties in the world of ELT – which is probably why it is so challenging and enticing – but if there ever was one, it has got to be that the vast majority of teachers detest being observed, no matter by who, no matter what for. Why that is, and especially how to curb that, is what this article will aim at.

To be perfectly honest, the why is easy. At the risk of overgeneralizing and even of being a bit unfair (just a bit), the main reason why teachers hate being observed is that most observers have no idea what they’re doing. They observe teachers because it is part of their jobs, but they don’t really have an aim in doing so, there is no procedure, which renders the observation useless, while at the same time frustrating the teacher and deepening the widespread belief that observation is nothing but a colossal waste of time.

Another serious problem of class observation as it is done in many schools is the lack of (good) feedback. Oftentimes the observed teacher will never receive any feedback whatsoever, and in the few times they indeed do, they often feel it is lacking somehow. Either the comments made are obvious and ineffective (your TTT is too high, your class needs to be more dynamic!), or they’re just really rude and unhelpful. Whatever the case, in a recent informal survey I carried out with a few fellow teachers for a workshop on lesson observation, the rarest comment I got was for someone to actually say that they had learnt from being observed or that they were in any way happy with the observations of their lessons.

Below is a three-step suggestion for a more successful lesson observation:

1)      Pre-observation meeting: Observer and teacher meet to discuss the group which will be observed. Teacher hands in a draft of his/her lesson plan and observer comments on it. Teacher tells observer about any points s/he would like to have feedback on after the class (group is too noisy/too quiet; a particular student doesn’t participate much/seems aloof etc.)

2)      Observation: Observer arrives 5 minutes prior to class, greets students and sits at the back of the room. Observer sits in for the whole lesson (not just 10 minutes!) and makes notes as discreetly as possible, focusing on positive aspects and points where there is room for improvement. Under no circumstances is the observer going to participate in the lesson in any way, or speak unless spoken to. S/he is forbidden to weave comments of any kind during the lesson, correct students (or God forbid the teacher!) in any shape or form or make any kind of suggestions. The observer is mute. It is kind of the observer to thank the students for the opportunity and congratulate them on their performance before leaving the class. S/he should also give quick informal feedback to the teacher at their (observer’s and teacher’s) earliest convenience.

3)      Post-observation meeting: No later than a few days after the lesson, both the observer and the teacher sit together one more time. This time around, the teacher will first comment on what went well and what would be done differently if s/he were to teach that class again. The observer will then make his/her comments on the lesson, always starting from what went well and suggesting changes for future classes. At the end of the meeting, the teacher should receive comments in written form, along with an action plan to be put into practice in his/her next few classes. This action plan will guide the next lesson observation of this particular teacher.

Next month I’ll talk more about other ways of making lesson observation effective, and also about another very important teacher development tool which is closely related: peer observation.

Good luck with your end-of-year tasks, best of luck with the piles of tests to correct, and as a task for the month, comment a bit here on your personal experience with being observed!

O Mundo de Sofia (New Routes – Janeiro 2012)

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I was invited last week to write something different. Daniela Mafra, from DISAL, asked me if I wouldn’t like to contribute a suggestion of a book to their next issue of New Routes, to be published in January 2012. The biggest shock: It was supposed to be in Portuguese!

All right, all right… Portuguese IS my first language after all, but I don’t think I have ever published anything in Portuguese anywhere. Actually, I know I haven’t. I considered it a big challenge then, and decided to write about the book which single-handedly turned me from a non-reader into a bookwork, some 13 or 14 years ago, and which may have had something to do with my becoming a teacher: Sophie’s World, but the Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder.

Curiously, though, I was going to write about the book – in Portuguese – I’m reading at the moment, Jô Soares’s As Esganadas. It was someone wise beyond her years, however, who suggested I wrote about Sophie’s World, once I was always harping on about it. Have a look at the text below then, and please feel free to suggest alterations and, even more importantly, corrections, once I believe there would still be time to correct it before it appears in the magazine.


Até meus 16 ou 17 anos eu não era exatamente um grande leitor. Na verdade, eu não era leitor e ponto. Livros não eram de forma alguma um prazer para mim, e confesso que até então tinham sido poucos os títulos que havia terminado. Eu era como a grande maioria dos jovens da época, fissurado por futebol e televisão e avesso a livros.

Acredito que essa situação já tenha mudado muito e certamente segue mudando no Brasil – o que me deixa muito orgulhoso como professor! – devido a séries como Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Crepúsculo, entre outros. Na minha época pré-bruxos e pré-vampiros, no entanto, meu “Harry Potter”, o primeiro livro que li por prazer e graças à indicação de um querido professor, foi o delicioso O Mundo de Sofia.

Jostein Gaarder, professor, teólogo e filósofo norueguês, publicou o livro em 1991. O Mundo de Sofia conta a história de uma garota norueguesa que às vésperas de completar 15 anos passa a receber estranhos bilhetes em sua caixa de correio de um certo filósofo (não, nada de e-mails. A boa e velha caixa de correspondências mesmo!) convidando-a a ocupar-se das grandes questões do universo.

Os bilhetes, que chegam todos os dias e sempre de maneiras misteriosas, acabam por se revelarem um curso de filosofia, desafiando Sofia a se perguntar coisas como Quem é você?, De onde vem o mundo? e várias outras. Além dos bilhetes, Sofia passa a receber também cartões postais endereçados a uma tal Hilde, de quem ela nunca ouviu falar e com os quais não sabe o que fazer. Para nós leitores, inicia-se aí um interessantíssimo caso de mistério. Juntamente com Sofia, passamos a cursar um fascinante e acessível curso de filosofia, cobrindo do período pré-Socrático aos filósofos contemporâneos, fazendo com que a leitura do livro seja, além de divertidíssima, extremamente informativa e inspiradora.

Prova de que se trata de um livro espetacular é o fato de que, apesar do tema não costumar ter grande apelo popular, já foi traduzido para mais de 50 idiomas e virou até filme! No Brasil, foi publicado em 1995 e já teve no mundo mais de 70 reimpressões!

É isso aí! É um grande prazer poder recomendar aqui na New Routes um livro tão importante pra mim, e espero que ele tenha pra você também o efeito poderoso e inesquecível que teve em mim… e em outro milhões e milhões de leitores mundo afora!


Higor Cavalcante é professor de inglês e trabalha principalmente com treinamentos para professores, além de escrever mensalmente para, entre outros, o Blog da Disal. Higor trabalha com frequência com literatura na sala de aula, por acreditar que a leitura é, além de tudo, a melhor maneira de aprender e consolidar um idioma estrangeiro. Você pode entrar em contato através do e-mail teacher.higor@yahoo.com.br, ou visitando seu blog, www.higorcavalcante.com.br.


Learning while teaching, teaching while learning (DISAL article 2)

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In his book Learning Teaching, Jim Scrivener suggests that “there is a kind of teaching that is also a kind of learning – a ‘learning teaching’. It’s not just the students who do the learning, but you do as well. You teach and you learn – and the two things are intertwined. Outside and inside the class, you live and you learn”. He then goes on to say that this is not something you only do while you’re being trained for the first time, “when you are a ‘green’, new teacher”, and suggests that “any teacher who has stopped learning themselves has probably also stopped being useful as a teacher.”

My first column here was less than successful. It was too long, maybe. It included a task. It didn’t reach its objective (nobody did the task, for instance). I learned from it, and am now trying, the second time around, a different approach. This is not unlike what we should do after a class: think back to it and decide whether or not it was successful, whether or not the audience – for me here, you; for you in your class, every single one of your students – benefitted from it, reached their goals.

How to do that, though, you ask? I believe there are a few ways:

  • Thinking of success of a whole course, you should ask yourselves whether the students look motivated and if they have been showing up for classes. This is obviously very important. When students start getting very busy and end up disappearing from classes altogether, something is definitely wrong. If it’s one-to-one students we’re talking about, then too many canceled classes should also sound our internal alarms!
  • Thinking of an individual class, I believe the questions would be Did the students look like they were having a good time? Were they aloof and reticent, or active and participative? In the same way we can commonly tell whether a student has grasped a concept just by the look in their eyes, we can usually also tell whether we’ve made a positive difference in their learning process during – and after – each class just by judging their… non-verbal communication. Pay close attention!
  • Objectives: It is, however, my belief that the best way to gauge the success of a class is to think of your aims. Regardless of how thoroughly you plan your lessons (if you write down a detailed plan, just a few scribbled lines on post-it notes or just ‘in your head’ really), you need to have clear objectives for each and every lesson when you walk into the class. Something along the lines of after this class, my students will be better able to give directions in English, or students will make fewer mistakes with –ed past endings might be enough. Then, if by the end of the lesson you are convinced students have indeed achieved these goals (got better at something, are making fewer mistakes with something – achievable goals!), you can bask in the certainty that you have made a difference, that your class was successful.

One form of ‘learning teaching’ is thus assessing success in your lessons, not insisting again on what didn’t work before as well as repeating and sharpening/adapting ideas that were successful previously. Another way, among many others, is to observe peers teaching and have your lessons observed – but this, lesson observation, is the topic for next month!

The task for the month – a much simpler one – is to comment here on the LAST lesson you taught and why in your opinion it was(n’t) successful.

All the best and see you next month!

PS: Workshop this Friday – October 28th – on using blogs for language learning. At the DISAL Auditorium from 2 to 4 p.m.

Scott Thornbury’s post on his blog: B is for Bad Language Learner

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Following a discussion I had with Scott Thornbury via Twitter on whether or not Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York city, should address citizens in his less-than-communicative Spanish, Scott wrote the following post on his blog: http://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2011/09/25/b-is-for-bad-language-learner/

This was my reply:

Dear Scott,

First of all, two things: I’m sorry it took me a couple of days to comment here, but I wanted to do it properly =). Second, reading you say I write beautifully in English makes me self-conscious to comment here now, and might just become more important to me from now on than my CPE.

Now, in parts:

1) I do NOT agree with the mockery. You said I went so far as to blog my disagreement, but if you read my post carefully, you’ll see I have never condoned the mockery, and never would I. I’ll explain my views on Mr. Bloomberg’s use of Spanish below, but I do NOT agree with, and have NEVER condoned the mockery, not of the mayor, not of any student of any foreign language ever. (If I may be so bold, nevertheless, Mr. Bloomberg, being the mayor of New York City and a media tycoon, should take it in his stride, shouldn’t he?)

2) “(Not to mention Chinese, Greek, Yiddish and Korean either, I suppose)”. I have never said that, and I don’t think so. Spanish is the second most widely spoken language in the United States throughout the country (which, by the way, has no official language), and it seems to me a leader in New York City has the obligation to speak excellent Spanish, yes. Mr Bloomberg should, Mr Obama (obviously) should, they all should. I have never seen Mr Obama speak Spanish, though, not out of populism anyway. He doesn’t speak Spanish, so he doesn’t address the nation in Spanish. Period. If he needs to get a serious message across, he’ll do so in English, the language he speaks. He’ll leave Spanish to the interpreters, to CNN en Español.

When Barack Obama visited Brazil last year, he made a point of learning a few sentences in Portuguese to use while speaking to a million Brazilians in Rio de Janeiro. He didn’t make his speech in Portuguese, mind you, or summarized his speech in the end in Portuguese. He, in our jargon, established rapport in Portuguese, and we were flattered. My point is: when you are in a position of authority advising people on what to do on the days and in the hours leading up to a hurricane, do so in a language – whatever it is – you are comfortable with. Don’t use a moment like that to get the ‘latino’ vote (and this is an extremely prejudiced term, not to mention inaccurate.); when you’re trying to be charming, during an empty populist speech, for example, then knock yourself out in any language you see fit. My problem was never with Mr Bloomberg’s nonexistent Spanish (he was reading Spanish, not speaking Spanish. He doesn’t speak any Spanish), it was with his trying to sweep the Spanish-speaking community off their feet at a time of national crisis. Bad timing;

3) By excellent Spanish I never meant at C2 level; I meant communicative, fluent Spanish (if Bloomberg spoke Spanish like you do, Scott, then I’d be the first to tell him, “go, Mr. Mayor, Spanish it is!”);

4) I don’t think he should be penalized for trying, either, and I don’t think whoever it was that created a blog to mock him out of sheer lack of what to do should’ve done that either. I just think that, if Mr Bloomberg wants to address his Spanish-speaking constituents in their language, he should learn it, however many hours it takes him. That not being the case, he should take his cue from Barack Obama and stick to English;

5) I mentioned in my post a Brazilian soccer coach (who used to coach the South African national team) that gave an interview after a match in English beyond comprehension. He became a national joke (no, I don’t think that’s right). His interview was turned into a song, subtitled, mocked all over the country (the world) and Joel never gave an interview in English again (I suspect he never ever tried English again anywhere – here’s the interview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V5RWMxEALSA). I believe, Scott, this interview proves both my point and yours. It proves yours when it shows beyond a doubt that mockery is profoundly detrimental even for the most hard-working, courageous of students. It proves mine when I say students should, regardless of their levels, try out language in bars, restaurants, passport controls and international trips in general the world over. However, for the very few who have the chance, I’d say giving interviews and adressing nations are much more advanced functions of a foreign language, which demand a grasp of the language neither Mr. Bloomberg nor Mr. Santana are any close to attaining.

I therefore second your plea, Scott. Let’s never, ever mock our students for their well-meant attempts (and though I don’t think Mr. Bloomberg’s was well-meant, I’m not for mocking him either.). However, as a teacher – and because not everybody is – let’s try and, as much as possible, protect our students from ridicule. If any of them had been my students, I would have strongly recommended they refrain from public speaking for the time being.

Let me finish by saying it still feels a bit fantastic to be discussing something with you. =) “A-Z of ELT” (“Beyond the Sentence”, “Uncovering Grammar”…) is one of the most important books in ELT for me ever.

Best wishes,

PS: You think I’m a good language learner because you’ve never seen me in a French class!

To which Scott replied:

Thanks for coming on board, Higor. It’s admirable that you should rise to the challenge of defending – and clarifying – your original comments. The basic point you are making – that Mayor Bloomberg should learn Spanish – is well made and, I think, fairly uncontroversial. In fact, it seems that he is the first to admit this, and has been taking Spanish classes for the last seven years (see Declan Cooley’s earlier comment, in which he posted this link:http://www.matthewbennett.es/1008/bloombergs-spanish-good-enough-for-new-york-press-conferences/

Your related point – that he shouldn’t use it until he has learnt it – seems to me a little unrealistic (and maybe using it is part of the learning of it?), as does your point that his use of Spanish is opportunistic (that he is currying favour with the Hispanic community), and, furthermore, that it was inappropriate, given the severity of the occasion. I’m not sure if it’s wise to impute motives for a person’s choice of language without knowing more of the facts, but I tend to give a speaker the benefit of the doubt, and assume his/her language choices reflect his/her best understanding of the context variables currently in operation. Like most speech events, the mayor’s pronouncements in advance of the hurricane probably had a double function: to warn, and, at the same time, to build what one writer (Aston, 1988) has called ‘comity’, i.e. kindly and considerate behaviour towards others. (Aston argues that comity is a major factor in public discourse, and this would explain Obama’s use of Portuguese in his speech in Brazil). Bloomberg was doing what everyone does when they open their mouth – he was simultaneously transacting and interacting – and he was doing this in the context of a strongly multilingual and multicultural society, hence his use of Spanish.

¡Digo yo!

Interesting discussion all around. What do you think?

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: teacher.higor@yahoo.com.br.

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: www.higorcavalcante.com.