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Think Translation Sounds Like a Good Side Gig? Here are Some Things to Consider

in Professional Development

Many language teachers think of translation as a way to earn extra cash, or even as a route out of teaching. In this article, I’m going to go through the discouraging and encouraging things to consider when contemplating translation work.

When I was president of the MiTiN, the Michigan chapter of the American Translators Association (pronounced “mitten”, get it?), I would often get e-mails like this:

i wanna no how i gonna get certfy like traslater i no my linguij and my englsh perfect

As is frequently repeated in the translation industry (which is larger than the music industry!) not every bilingual person can be a translator. Knowing how to drive a car doesn’t make you a mechanic, and being able to jump doesn’t make you a gymnast.

But let’s assume you are a linguistically talented person, and are looking to find out more about the encouraging and not-so-encouraging aspects of the industry.

Encouraging: there’s no shortage of words

The good news is that there is more stuff in the world that needs to be translated than there are humans capable of translating it.

The internet, increasing globalization of markets, and the growing expectation of people the world over for their media to be properly localized — not just translated — have created a great deal of demand for translation and localization, which should result in a lot of opportunity.


Discouraging: there’s no shortage of translators either

More universities and other institutions have started translation degree and certificate programs, and they’re turning out masses of fresh, temporarily optimistic translators. This is glutting the market and helping drive rates down. And many of these graduates can’t find work as translators.

A friend who owned a boutique translation agency recently told me that when he started out, he got a few applications from aspiring translators a week, and he could answer them all. Flash forward to the 2020s, and he got as many as 100 applications a day – of which he obviously couldn’t answer more than a random handful.

Encouraging: networking still works

With the market so flooded with hopeful translators, it might seem futile to look for work, but it’s not as bad as it looks. Think of how most people get their first job. It’s often not from filling out applications:

At 16, I was approached by a friend and told, “The children’s home needs maintenance crew for the summer. Wanna come?” So I did, and that was my first job. The second one came because a factory owner told a nun he needed to hire someone and she called me.

So you can put together a pretty good clientele through personal connections, by visiting trade shows (salespeople whose companies send them unreadable Germlish brochures from headquarters are particularly eager), and using other more direct approaches.

You need a subject matter specialty

When I was in my 20s, a friend’s sister graduated from a prestigious university with an English writing degree and confidently went to a job fair for writers. To her shock and dismay, nobody was interested in someone with a high-status English writing degree. They told her,

We don’t need writers; we need people who know other things and can also write.

The same thing goes in the translation industry. Language has to be about something. The language skills are just a cup, and if the cup is empty, it’s got no purpose.

Discouraging: you’ll need to learn about your target industry

This means that to do decently in a translation career, you need to know something besides how to write in another language. It means you have to know at least one field like business and economics, manufacturing, medicine, or some other high-demand subject matter.

The specialty doesn’t even have to be something for which you can get what Germans like to call “a qualification”.
I read of one man who had spent years working as a disc jockey on the Reeperbahn, and he was the only person a publisher could find who not only understood all the obscure German obscenities in a series of hit novels, but could render the text smoothly in English.

So sometimes your speciality is something you just picked up along the way, even something from your first job as a kid.

Encouraging: you can teach yourself – and it can be fun

You can train yourself in a specialty. I know a young Japanese woman who went on an all-out assault to teach herself everything there is to know about automotive engineering, and with a lot of effort, she became an expert translator for the US and Japanese car industry.

One man I know had learned scuba diving and that surprisingly became useful. Some people develop a habit of reading picture encyclopedias from DK Publishing, National Geographic and others — often in more than one language.

Sometimes you can’t predict your future specialties; they just find you, and you learn them through your own research while doing the projects.

a colorful yogurt cup
Who’d have thought you could make a career out of this?

I would never have imagined I would become the go-to guy for French yogurt packaging lines or hay balers, but that’s what I developed into. However, to get there, I already needed some kind of technical background.

The flip side of having a technical specialty is knowing the importance of turning down work that’s not in your specialty.

Do you think, “The Ford salesman conquested a Toyota intender,” is a horrid, ungrammatical sentence with misused words? Then don’t take work having to do with car retailing, because in that field it’s a perfectly grammatical way of saying a salesman convinced a customer to switch car brands.

You’ll need a lot of software

The days are gone when translators propped up an original document on their desk and looked back and forth as they typed into Word. If you want better work than just the occasional dance school certificate that happens to waft by, you’ll need to set yourself up technologically.

The most important thing you’ll need is at least one computer-assisted translation tool, or CAT tool, as they’re called. The three most popular are Trados, MemoQ and Wordfast Pro, but there are many others.

Many laypeople mistakenly think that these are automated translation programs, but they’re not. They allow you to import the document and show it to you as a two-column grid, with the source language on the left and an empty column for you to type the target language on the right.

They keep track of what you’ve already translated, so you don’t have to type it again, and they also allow recycling parts of translations that have already been done by someone else. The programs also help you keep a glossary and concordance, among many other functions.

Most of the tools are developed in Europe, Quebec or Utah.

Discouraging: CAT tools are expensive

CAT tools typically cost about $600 or $700, but that’s actually good, because they used to cost around $2500 twenty years ago. There may also be an annual fee that provides you with updates and support, but it’s worth paying.

a cat being groomed
No skimping – this won’t cut it!

Encouraging: CAT tools come in handy in all kinds of ways

Having and knowing how to use a CAT tool can greatly increase the amount of work you get, and it also improves your quality and efficiency, especially with the quality assurance tools built into them.

The tools also save you the cost of owning other expensive software. You don’t have to subscribe to Adobe Creative Cloud for big money in order to translate InDesign layouts and other files, because your CAT tool will import them easily and spit them back out perfectly formatted.

You may say, “I already do some work as a translator, and the work I get doesn’t require a CAT tool.” That’s because you don’t have a CAT tool — just as the guy with no lawnmower never gets lawn mowing jobs.

Other types of software you’ll need to have and know how to use include optical character recognition (OCR) programs, transcription software, etc. (Adobe Acrobat is terrible at OCR, so don’t try it.)

Make sure you haven’t gone too native in your non-native language

Once I berated a project manager in the Czech Republic for sending me an English document to edit that was translated by a Czech. She replied that, “She’s American, but she’s lived here a really long time.” The woman was writing strange things like “cars BMW”, “electronics Sony” and much of her syntax was odd.

It is possible to get so absorbed in your host country that you lose your feel for your native language. If you have gone native to that point, translating into your native language might not be a good idea. Meanwhile, it’s generally considered unethical to translate into your non-native language.

Isn’t AI putting translators out of business anyway?

Yes and no. Artificial intelligence is putting some translators out of business but keep in mind what I said before — there is infinitely more material needing translation than there are humans to do the job. So some technological solution to the problem is necessary and inevitable.

Discouraging: yes, it is

However, artificial intelligence is definitely putting some translators out of business.

About five or ten years ago, the machine translation industry changed its model to something called neural machine translation, where the software teaches itself, rather than humans trying to teach it. The result was such a jump in quality that all those online translation engines people used to make fun of are now doing as well as a mediocre human translator, so there’s not really work for translators who are below average.

In fact, many in the translation business wonder how new, inexperienced translators are going to get practice. If a computer can accurately come up with a translation like, “Music lovers can get their groove on at the adjacent nightclub,” the whole game has changed.

Encouraging: only the bad ones

Artificial intelligence is not very intelligent.

It makes a lot of mistakes, so there is a lot of opportunity in what’s called “post-editing”, part of which involves fixing the language. Machine translation uses “carry out” too much, and it will use the preposition “via” more times in a short document than you’re liable to see in two years reading original English writing.

It often forms “of” chains, which is also a common problem with weak human translators: “the A of the B of the X of the Y of the Z”. Also, it can’t tell who’s doing what to whom, so working from languages with ungendered possessive pronouns, like French, it makes mistakes: “The man blew its nose.”

However, as artificial intelligence comes more into use, its weaknesses are becoming more and more obvious:

Artificial intelligence can’t see

If there are visuals, AI can’t see them and can’t take them into account when translating text related to them.

Artificial intelligence can’t deal with structural ambiguity

You still don’t know which meaning of a sentence like, “He saw that gasoline can explode,” or the headline, “TEACHER STRIKES IDLE KIDS” the AI is going to deliver.

Artificial intelligence has no sense of humor

AI can’t see or interpret a sight gag in a video, for example, so it can’t translate any text related to it appropriately. And it will just translate verbal jokes literally most of the time.

Artificial intelligence has no culture

In many translations, it’s not the specifics of someone’s words that are important, but the speech act, i.e. what the utterance is doing. AI doesn’t know the difference in how an American versus a German orders a pizza. It can’t say to itself, “This guy’s ordering a pizza,” and make the cultural switch. AI doesn’t know what an American says to chase frisky teenage boys away from his niece compared to what a Frenchman would say.

One time I realized that the AI was translating a famous line from the movie “Casablanca” back into English from a foreign language. AI can’t know that, of course, so it came up with, “It is a shock, a SHOCK!” rather than the real line:

Encouraging: humans are still indispensable

All this means that companies using machine translation are realizing that post-editing doesn’t just require a warm body to edit at a fraction of the translation rate.

Rather, it often requires an experienced, seasoned translator to do the editing for real money. It also means that translators get less and less of the translation work machines can do (Swiss real estate listings and the like) and more of the work that requires human understanding and ingenuity.

This sounds like too much. Why not just become an interpreter?

Bilingual people who don’t want to sink the money and effort into becoming a translator (someone who types) often think an easier route would be to go into interpreting. That’s just talking, after all, right?

Careful! This path is also fraught with danger.

You also need a specialty, and because, as with translation, one slip-up could get someone killed, you have to know it well. One famous case involves a college basketball player whose family brought him into emergency and told the interpreter he was “intoxicado”. Based on the interpreter’s translation, the young man was treated for intoxication, and ended up a quadriplegic. “Intoxicado” in Spanish means poisoned.

Interpreters have to follow different sets of ethics for different contexts. In court, they are supposed to act as neutral translation machines, whereas in a medical setting they have to advocate for the patient if they see something starting to go wrong.

Interpreters have to be trained to deal with “vicarious trauma”, which means taking on the emotions of the person whose speech they’re interpreting. If the interpreter breaks down crying in court, or if she faints in a medical setting, she can’t do her job.

Court interpreters have to know all idioms and even all obscenities in every dialect of their two languages. Simultaneous interpreters for conferences have to know how to work the booth technology, which is getting more and more sophisticated.

Simultaneous interpreting: easier said than done

At MiTiN we had a question on the registration form that asked if the new member did simultaneous interpreting, and 99% of them answered “yes”. After all, it’s just talking, right? Then at training seminars, when we put them in the booth with the headphones on, 85% of them couldn’t do it. Their attempt would break down in 60 to 150 seconds. This is because they weren’t trained.

Simultaneous interpreting requires extensive training, particularly of one’s short-term memory. Additionally, the brain has to be divided into at least three sectors. The first sector takes in what’s being said now, the second sector says what was just heard a second ago, and the third sector takes notes. Moreover, one has to learn the skill of not dwelling on one’s momentary mistakes, because if you’re thinking about the mistake you just made, you’re not aware of what’s happening now, and you’re a dead duck.


All of these things are things you can learn. There are proven programs, often with various government approval, that will teach you all the skills necessary for interpreting in various contexts.

You can do it, but it will be work

The moral of this long bahn of blather is that if you are a language instructor, and you’re fluently bilingual, you may be able to work as a translator or interpreter. But you can’t just walk in and do it on a lark. Even if you teach yourself (which I mostly did), it helps to have mentoring, and you’ll have to learn a lot of technology, ethical codes and more.

If this article has not deterred you, one of the best books for getting oriented in the translation business is “How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator” by Corinne McKay, which has been translated into a number of languages. Corinne has also written other books helpful in the profession.


If you enjoyed this article, you might also be interested in this post on teachers’ secret side jobs.

Workshop Review: “Trends in Corporate Language Learning” with Evan Frendo

in Professional Development

In this interactive June workshop, Evan Frendo cast light on current developments in corporate language learning. He discussed the implications of these for business English teachers, and talked about possible ways of adapting to new trends and requirements.

Evan kicked off his talk by painting a picture of the typical present-day corporate workplace. His main observation was that formal learning is increasingly fading out, largely due to faster and more agile work environments. Increasing time pressure often means no time for full courses. Instead, ‘microlearning on the go’ is rapidly becoming the new normal.

From Prescribed Learning to Learning on Demand

Evan pointed out that this new type of learning means that the learner actively “pulls” whatever knowledge is needed at any given time (‘learning on demand’). Traditionally, students would attend a full course, with trainers “pushing” all sorts of knowledge on them.

This general shift of focus from teacher to learner-controlled instruction means that the learner no longer sees the trainer as an all-encompassing learning resource. Rather, the instructor is one of an abundance of resources.

As digital content allows learners access to knowledge 24/7, tech tools are no longer an optional add-on. As a part of mainstream culture they are well-nigh essential at this point. This also means that informal learning (learning outside the classroom) is very much part of the equation, and that it’s part of the teacher’s job to help students optimise it.

Curating vs. Creating

Due to learners’ needs frequently changing in agile environments, we can increasingly see the role of the teacher as a curator – not creator – of materials. Providing personalised, bite-sized bits of information at the right time is key. With performance taking precedence over proficiency, teaching is no longer about imparting linguistic knowledge and Shakespearean eloquence. It is about ensuring that the client learns whatever language is needed to get the job done.

But how does a teacher or trainer best go about offering personalised content at the right time?

The Embedded Trainer

One of the ideas that Evan presented was that of the “embedded trainer”. In order to create an immersive learning experience, it’s best for the trainer to be part of the learners’ work environment. Evan talked about his own experience teaching maritime English to an intercultural group of learners.

Instead of teaching generic lists of vocabulary online or in a physical classroom, he visited his students on a ship. On board, Evan taught them exactly which vocabulary was required in different situations. This very effectively furthered their real-time capabilities.

As good as it gets: learning by doing

Other examples of embedding include frequently asking for and implementing feedback, the “shadowing” of other teachers and learning from them, and keeping in touch with management for company-related information and resources. On the technical side, Evan recommended using Learning Content Management Systems (LCMS).


In a nutshell, LCMS are extended data repositories for learning content. Traditional Learning Management Systems (LMS) include materials and organisational information, such as course details and dates, book recommendations, seminar facilities, etc.

LCMS go beyond mere course-related information and materials. For example, an LCMS may include all work-related emails a student has written in the past year. Trainers can then use these materials in class. It may also contain information on past and current company projects and lists of people involved. So if a client starts a new project, the teacher may track down a colleague with previous experience and bring them together for an informal interview as part of the learning experience.

LCMS are thus very hands-on teaching resources, as they contain relevant contacts and realia. Of course, the trainer needs to be in touch with and working together with management in order to gain access to a company’s data repository.

To get started, Evan recommended using free training courses on the internet to practice using LCMS.

Teachers’ Thoughts

We discussed Evan’s points in breakout rooms and together in the large group. While everyone saw the benefit of a hands-on, immersive approach, most teachers reported that there wasn’t much of a possibility for them to “visit” their students in work-related contexts. Moreover, management is usually inaccessible to individual trainers. Shadowing colleagues isn’t impossible, but still requires negotiation and networking, which is why most trainers refrain from it. Evan admitted that teachers are often part of a system that creates roadblocks, and one suggestion to remedy this was to work with smaller, more flexible companies if feasible.

The group agreed that while some kind of structure is necessary, flexibility is essential. Responding to individual learners’ shifting needs is crucial for trainers. Several teachers also talked about their experience with microlearning, which turned out to be surprisingly effective. They reported that a trainer can do a lot in a straightforward thirty-minute lesson, when the student doesn’t have more time. One trainer told the story of a student who, due to personal circumstances, missed most of his class. Although he only had a ten-minute lesson, he thoroughly enjoyed those ten minutes. Feedback was another thing we all deemed essential. As one participant put it, “You can only be as good as the feedback you get”.

The Takeaway

The biggest takeaway was that corporate language training is rapidly moving from a formal course setting to a learner-centred jigsaw puzzle approach. Curating fitting materials from all sorts of different sources, listening to and adapting to learners’ needs and facilitating an interactive, realistic learner experience are the best ways to stay ahead of the game in a rapidly changing corporate environment.


If you liked this article, Evan Frendo’s take on teaching English for Specific Purposes (ESP) may interest you.

Graphic Facilitation for English Teachers: Supercharge your Classes with Simple Doodles and Sketchnotes

in Professional Development

Have you ever been to a conference or training session and taken copious notes, only to never look at them again? I certainly have! In this post, I’ll share how to use simple doodles and sketchnotes to make learning more accessible and fun.

Before I trained as a graphic facilitator and developed my sketchnoting skills, I had tons of notebooks filled with notes I never looked at again. Perhaps you’ve also filled your whiteboard with vocabulary and grammar notes, then taken a step back and realised how overwhelming it looks?

Looking back on my whiteboards from the past, they must have been quite dull for learners to look at, and to copy. I even tried taking notes digitally, but they weren’t appealing to review either. Now, each simple doodle I add makes them more meaningful, understandable and engaging.

The benefits of drawing

There are a multitude of reasons why every teacher should draw in class. I’m never sure where to begin, but one of the main benefits for me is understanding. As language teachers, our goal is to ensure that students have understood the content of our lessons. Adding simple doodles makes this a million times easier.

Take a look at image one. This was what the whiteboards in my ESOL literacy class looked like before I learned to use simple drawings. It’s just a list of words. My students would copy these into their notebooks, adding a translation in their first language.

Their notebooks then became a list of words with more words explaining the meaning.
This can be time consuming to read, and overwhelming, especially if your learners are neuro-diverse or developing their literacy skills. It’s also not particularly motivating to review.

Now take a look at image two. The doodles are certainly not works of art, but they make each word instantly more understandable. Students are also much more likely to remember each word.
A study by Wammes and Meade (see reference) found that people are more likely to remember new vocabulary if they draw it. This is called the ‘Drawing Effect’. So encouraging students to add doodles to their notes can help them remember.

I could write all day about the benefits of drawing and graphic facilitation, but I know you’d prefer to look at pictures. Here’s a sketchnote I created summarising some of the advantages:

But I ‘can’t draw’

Everyone can draw. If you can draw a circle, square and triangle, you can draw. Look at the sketchnote above. Most of the icons are made up of simple shapes. Even the alphabet and numbers consists of mostly lines and curves. Graphic facilitation isn’t about art. It’s about communicating through simple visuals. Take a look at my doodle of a foot in the whiteboard image above. There is certainly nothing artistic about it, but it gets the point across.

Drawing in class should be quick and convey meaning. Students don’t want to watch their teacher creating a masterpiece. Every one of the doodles above took me about the same amount of time to draw as writing the word itself. Some even gave students a giggle, started discussions and gave them the confidence to draw their own.

Graphic facilitation is based around international iconography. Just like learning a language, learning to communicate this way takes time and practice. It’s a visual vocabulary and once you know how to draw some basic icons, you’re flying!

Zero prep ways to use visuals in class

One of the things I love most about visual teaching strategies is that they have reduced my preparation time immensely. I now have a multitude of ready to go activities that I simply draw on the whiteboard, or display using an online interactive whiteboard or slides.

In this activity, I wanted to generate discussions and ideas sharing on study tips. I drew nine icons on the whiteboard; a notebook, a book, a laptop, a TV, a mobile phone, a face, a radio, a speech bubble and a whiteboard. You’ll notice that most of the icons use a rectangle in some way, so it was simple for students to copy them to their notebooks.

All it takes is a whiteboard and a pen.

Once students had copied each icon to their notebooks, they discussed in pairs. They used each image as a visual prompt. They could then create their own questions, e.g., “What books do you read? What advice do you have for homework?”
To facilitate sharing advice, I gave them post-it notes and asked them to add their ideas. This got them out of their seats and gave them a chance to chat about their key takeaways.

Use post-its to make it interactive!

There are various extension tasks to this activity – find someone who (wrote the post-it note), write your study plan, do a presentation on study advice, etc. It also lends itself well to various linguistic topics – future tenses (e.g. ‘I will’, ‘I plan to’), conditionals (“If I do my homework every day, I will…”), giving advice (e.g. ‘should’, ‘could’, ‘have you tried’).
Visual templates like these are not only minimal prep, but they are also extremely flexible. You can use, re-use and repurpose them in many ways.


Technically, sketchnoting is visual recording rather than visual facilitation. It involves capturing the key information in note form, supported with simple doodles. The drawing element provides an opportunity to think critically and process the information more deeply. This makes it easier to remember. It also makes notes much more fun to create and review.
Here’s a few examples I created for an online NATECLA event showcasing various action research projects for the OTLA.

In order to sketchnote, you’ll need to develop your visual vocabulary. As with learning a language, I recommend starting with high frequency icons. For me, as a language teacher, the most common ones are ones that represent reading, writing, speaking, listening and drawing. Why not get started by copying the ones in this article?


Using drawings and graphic facilitation techniques is perfect for the ELT classroom. There are so many benefits, it should wear a cape and fly.

If you’d like more information, I have tons of freebies, videos, podcasts and training courses at You can download my free sketchnoting and graphic facilitation guides there too. Follow me on socials: @EmilyBrysonELT.


Effective Teaching: How Do We Know What We Know — And How Do We Know What Works?

in Professional Development

As teachers and trainers, do we ever really know whether the techniques and tools that we use are effective? The title of my talk at the ELTABB AGM on 11 February was “A third of a century in ELT — and none the wiser”? It was meant only partly as a joke.

In fact, I could have gone back even further than a third of a century. My first teaching job — indeed my first full-time job — was teaching “A level” economics at a school in south London in 1980.

I was 21 at the time and took the job because you needed no qualifications to teach at private schools back then. This meant I didn’t need to “waste” a precious year after university getting qualified. That, I’m ashamed to admit, was how I saw it at the time.

An Unqualified Success?

I realize now what I didn’t know then — that I had no idea at all what I was doing pedagogically. To be honest, I didn’t even know such a word or area of study existed. And I also realize now that I had no idea then whether my teaching was effective.

I didn’t know that I had no idea what I was doing and whether my teaching was effective.

Most of the schoolboys I taught seemed to enjoy my lessons. And most of those studying economics got excellent grades – irrespective of whether they were taught by me or one of the other three teachers in the economics department. And this was probably because the department had produced some excellent materials to help the students pass exams.

From Economics to Teaching English

Fast forward ten years and I was in Munich, armed with a newly-acquired CELTA Certificate, and was teaching “business English” to BMW managers and other employees.

In the one-to-one lessons with executives, we made extensive use of tape recorders, recording the clients as they spoke in English, then stopping the recording, giving the clients help to reformulate what they had said, getting them to record it again, giving them more help in reformulation, getting them to re-record and so on. At the end of the lesson, we gave the executives the tape to take home with them. I think we even asked them to transcribe the final versions.

If the clients were happy, all was well.

I remember thinking at the time that I had no idea whether this iterative method of reformulation was effective in the sense of helping our clients to develop their fluency, accuracy or general communication skills. It was just the method that we used. And if the clients were happy with it, and gave good feedback to the school, all was well.

Fortunately, no client ever asked me for the scientific evidence that this method worked or even asked why we were doing this. One did, however, say: “Can we forget all this and just talk about football and motorbikes. You can put whatever you need to on your lesson report, and I’ll sign it.” Note: I know nothing about motorbikes.

A Slight Improvement: Known Unknowns

I mention these incidents to illustrate two points. In the first situation, at the private school in London, I wasn’t even aware of the fact that I didn’t know whether my teaching was effective. The question never occurred to me. In the second case, at the language school in Munich, I was at least aware of the fact that I didn’t know. Some kind of improvement in my professional development, I guess.

I was at least aware of the fact that I didn’t know.

I’m not suggesting that all (or, indeed, any) teachers are as ignorant as I was back in the 1980s and 1990s. But maybe it is worth it for all of us to stop from time to time and ask what grounds we have for believing that our teaching is effective, assuming that we do.

Where’s the Evidence?

Of all the presentations I’ve listened to at conferences over the past 30 years, few have had a greater impact on me than Russell Mayne’s short, provocative and entertaining talk at the 2014 IATEFL conference. It was titled “A guide to pseudo-science in English language teaching”

Mayne asked what the evidence was for the effectiveness of approaches such as “Learning styles”, “Multiple intelligences” and “Neuro-linguistic programming (NLP)”. And his conclusion was that the evidence was often totally lacking.

In 2021, together with Carol Lethaby and Patricia Harries, Russell Mayne authored a fascinating book called An Introduction to Evidence-Based Teaching in the English Language Classroom: Theory and Practice.

The book looks at the evidence for a whole range of ELT techniques, including the use (or not) of the learner’s first language, the effectiveness of direct and explicit feedback versus implicit and indirect feedback, and the efficacy of various vocabulary-learning strategies, such as guessing from context and the use of monolingual versus bilingual dictionaries.

A Teacher’s Duty to Check

Having spent six years studying economics — and having a particular interest in the impact of economic policies — I have huge sympathy for evidence-based, empirical approaches, as opposed to using theoretical or ideological arguments, or purely intuition.

I guess that’s why I find the evidence-based approach to ELT so appealing. But I also know how frustrating evidence-based approaches can be. That was a key reason why I gave up economics. Often, the evidence was inconclusive or even contradictory. Sometimes, one is more confused after reading the evidence than one was before, and therefore reverts to intuition or prejudice.

Beliefs can make life simpler. But is this responsible when it comes to teaching?

Having firm beliefs based on no evidence — about teaching or anything else — can certainly make life simpler. But is this a responsible approach when it comes to teaching? Don’t we at least have a duty to our clients to see if there is any evidence to support the methods we are using? Or, worse still, whether there is actually clear evidence that these methods are ineffective.

A Little Wiser Maybe

On the internet, there are numerous versions of the quote, “The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know”, variously attributed to anyone from Albert Einstein to the singer Tony Bennett.

I need to check the evidence — even if that evidence isn’t always clear.

That’s exactly how I feel. I think I’m a little bit wiser now in that I’m more aware of what I don’t know than I was when I started teaching 43 years ago, or when I started in ELT 33 years ago. And I’m more aware that I need to check the evidence for my views and beliefs — in teaching and elsewhere — even if that evidence isn’t always clear.

What You can Do as an English Teacher

Teachers and trainers, often already overworked, shouldn’t allow themselves to become paralyzed or frustrated by studying masses and masses of evidence that is sometimes inconclusive. (That’s why the book referred to is so useful.)

Nor should they ignore the evidence of their own eyes, the subjective feedback from their clients — or that of their peers — as to whether their clients’ communication skills are improving. But casting a glance at the available evidence from time to time doesn’t do any harm.


Lethaby, C., Mayne R., & Harries, P. (2021). An Introduction to Evidence-Based Teaching in the English Language Classroom: Theory and Practice. Pavilion elt.

More than Just a Funny Word: Teaching English and the Charm of the Dictogloss

in Professional Development

Have you heard of dictogloss? If your answer is no, don’t worry. In this post, I’m going to describe the procedure, list its benefits and potential pitfalls and finally show you a practical example of how I used dictogloss with a Business English class. Perhaps when you finish reading, you’ll be triggered to give it a go!


My face when asked “Why aren’t you dictogloss-ing yet?” and when told “Illustrate Dictogloss

What is dictogloss?

Also called grammar dictation, dictogloss is a task-based procedure that involves reconstruction of a dictated text while trying to capture the information content as accurately as possible (see Wajnryb, 2013). The text could be dictated twice according to the author, but I usually dictate it three times for better results.

Here is a suggested procedure:

  1. Preparation: a lead-in that activates previous knowledge and prepares learners for the listening.
  2. Dictation: the teacher reads a passage or plays a recording three times. First, learners listen for the main idea. The second time, they listen and take notes. The third time, they expand on their notes.
  3. Reconstruction: learners work in groups, compare their notes and reconstruct the text together.
  4. Analysis and correction: learners write their texts on the board and get feedback from the teacher. Alternatively, they get a copy of the original text and compare it to their version.
  5. The discovery step, added by Wilson (2003) is when learners reflect on their errors and become more aware of their linguistic gaps.

Why should I use dictogloss?

To begin with, it’s interactive and collaborative. Text reconstruction, analysis and discovery is a sequence that enables learners to notice their linguistic gaps. This means there is minimum teacher intervention, which is crucial; ideally, we want to step back and promote learner autonomy when teaching adults.

Another benefit of dictogloss is that it helps practise all four skills. Here’s how:

Listening is practised during the dictation AND when learners are interacting later. They are listening to each other and meaningfully trying to communicate, which is why we should have an English-only rule here.
• They practise note-taking (writing) when listening, as well as spelling, syntax and sentence structure when reconstructing the text.
Speaking is common when they are interacting with each other negotiating meaning and putting the text together.
• Finally, they’ll be reading a lot as they compare their own texts to the source texts.

Moreover, although it was introduced as a grammar dictation, dictogloss can help students improve their knowledge of lexis and phonology. For example, it can enable noticing and learning collocations, binomials, trinomials or other lexical chunks; furthermore, learners are likely to repeat the whole chunk as an item in the reconstruction phase. Finally, as Wilson (2003) wrote, dictogloss raises awareness of features of connected speech and other fast speech phenomena, helping learners compare the written to spoken form.

An example of dictoglossing

“Looks good on paper, but how can I actually use it??”, you might ask.

Here’s how I used it to introduce grammatical collocations for describing trends, a language point that often comes up when you’re teaching business English classes. For those who are not familiar with the terms, collocations are “predictable combinations of words” (Lewis, 2009:51), and grammatical specifies that they include both content (e.g. verbs, nouns etc) and grammar words (e.g. prepositions). In this lesson some grammatical collocations were: peaked at, dropped by, levelled off.

I chose a graph, but you can use charts, or any other visual content that might be used in presentations. Most of the time, you can find them and the relevant texts in coursebooks or authentic materials. (Or how about an infographic? Read our article here for more inspiration! – Ed.)

Just follow these simple steps…

I then followed these steps 1-5:

Step 1: As a lead-in, students tried to make sense of the graph and what it is about. Then, they did some brainstorming, e.g., think how they would describe what they see in their own words.

Step 2: I read the text that described the trends depicted in the chart. I told them it was someone’s notes when describing these trends in their presentation. Remember you can also play it as an audio clip. They followed the steps as mentioned above.

  • Listen once to get the main idea. No need to take notes.
  • Listen again and take some notes.
  • Listen one more time and expand on your notes.

Step 3: Students formed groups of 3 or 4, compared their notes and reconstructed the text together.

Step 4: Finally, I projected the text on the whiteboard. They compared it to theirs and noticed their errors. You can also give them a copy of the text if you cannot project it.

Step 5: I elicited which parts they found difficult. Some of their gaps included unfamiliarity with the content words (peak, drop), or the prepositions they collocate with (at, by, off), as well as the weak forms of the preposition in fast speech.

(Extension): Focus on form, meaning and pronunciation. I usually extend this stage with some practice activities. For example, I asked learners to copy the form of the collocations in their notebooks. Then I asked them to categorise these collocations depending on what they describe:

  • upward trend
  • downward trend
  • stability

Finally, I highlighted stress and any connected speech happening between words.

Apply and Practice

Next, I gave my students new graphs and charts, and asked them to practise using the phrases they had learned.

Things to consider:

  • Avoid using texts that are too long. I think 5-8 lines is sufficient.
  • It might be challenging (though not impossible) to use dictogloss with lower levels. I actually taught an entire A2 course using dictogloss and my students loved it. I advise you to explain the term and procedures of dictogloss in L1 the first time you set it up. Then, every time you want to use it, just say let’s do dictogloss, and they’ll know what it is.
  • In monolingual classes, students might rely on their L1 during the text reconstruction stage, so I often set an English-only rule. It’s also a great way to practice language for authentic communication like: What did you hear? What did you write in…? I heard something else. I’m not sure, etc.


Wow! Dictogloss!
(Ed’s note – this stock image model is fantastic!)

Over to you

What do you think? Will you give dictogloss a try?

Or have you used any of the other techniques in our Journal, such as Motivating Students with Rhythm and Rhyme?

Let us know in the comments!



Lewis, M., 2009.Teaching collocation. Hove: Language Teaching Publ.

Wajnryb, R., 2013. RBT: Grammar Dictation. Oxford University Press.

Wilson, J., 2008. How To Teach Listening. Harlow, Essex: Pearson Longman

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