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Spice up Your Online Teaching: 12 Savvy Tips for Better Remote Lessons

in Professional Development/Teaching

While most of us are experienced remote teachers by now, there is always room for improvement and fine-tuning. Here are twelve tips to help you step up your game when teaching English online.

1. Look at the camera

It’s tempting to look at the screen while teaching online because that’s where we see our students. Don’t give in to the urge. If you look directly at the camera, your client will feel that you are looking into their eyes and be more involved. You can move the inset video to just under the camera because then you’re actually looking at the student (or nearer to them). You can also use books to prop up your laptop and bring the camera to eye level.

2. Get a standing desk or a leg rest 

Teaching online changes your routine in some ways.

Sitting is the new smoking!

Mainly, it means that you may be glued to a chair for extended periods of time. That’s a problem in itself, because, as we know, sitting is the new smoking! It’s therefore advisable to get yourself a standing desk and just teach standing up. You can also just place a stool on your desk for an improvised standing desk. Alternatively, a leg rest will allow you to stretch your knees discreetly every now and then. Your muscles will thank you!

3. Choose a neutral background

There’s hardly anything worse than a distracting background when you teach (well, apart from a persistent hiccup maybe). You can work around this by using a plain piece of cloth as your background. Alternatively, you can buy a professional green screen and place it behind you. A third alternative is using a virtual background in Zoom. Just click the little arrow next to the video icon and pick the “virtual background” option. You can upload your own photos for the purpose. Just be aware that the background may shift and flicker when you move, so you might have to do some trial-and-error regarding the images you use.

4. Adjust your way of speaking

When teaching online, you might experience technical issues or sound problems, such as acoustic delay or breathing sounds. To facilitate listening, it’s best to speak more slowly than usual and with more pauses. Also, mute your participants while you speak and generally interrupt less than you normally would.

5. Get a good headset/mic

This is a no-brainer, but it still gets a mention here because it can fix a lot of your problems. If your headset reminds you of the tin can telephone you had when you were little, now’s the time to get a new one.

On the other hand, some integrated microphone are surprisingly good, so you might try ditching your headset for better audio quality first.

6. Manage your online classroom

In any classroom, online or not, there are some students who enjoy being in the focus and others who don’t. As an online tutor, try to target the ones that seem a bit lost without putting them on the spot. When you single out a person to engage them in your lesson, you can mute the rest of the group.

Also, be aware that some people may switch off their cameras because they feel more comfortable that way. You can use the group chat to encourage shy students to share questions and comments.

Online tools like Answergarden or Padlet are great for sparking your students’ interest. You can find out more about engaging tools for teaching English online here.

7. Provide visual input

Online learning is a very visual experience, and variety is key if you want to engage your students. You can share your screen to show slides or have your students write on the virtual whiteboard (in Zoom, enable the “annotate” function for this).

If you have a Pro account, you can also create live polls to liven things up and fuel discussion. For a quick recap of some of its helpful functions, check out this Zoom tutorial.

8. Use breakout rooms

You probably do this already: another way to add variety to your lessons is to have group work sessions, just as you would in a regular classroom. To split larger groups into smaller ones, Zoom offers breakout rooms. This tutorial will show you how it works.

9. Share handouts and files

The days of physical handouts are gone, so cloud storage services are the way to go.

Google Drive makes it easy to share files via links – the only catch is that you will need a Google account for this if you don’t have one already (and then there’s the data protection thingy…). However, it’s still one of the most efficient and popular ways to share documents, also because you can actually work on Google Docs simultaneously with the students.

Apart from that, the group chat may be helpful here for sharing links and smaller bits of information.

10. Be prepared

This is another no-brainer, but one that’s easy to forget. Before you start teaching online, make sure you have a pen, paper and water handy – you don’t want to have to fiddle around for any of these while answering questions. It’s also a good way to prepare and sort yourself out before a lesson.

11. Have a break (or two)

Allow for enough breaks from screen time. Sitting in front of a computer for hours on end is demanding, especially for young learners. Slip in a bathroom or tea break every now and then before everyone gets antsy.

12. Practise with other teachers

If you feel you need guinea-pigs to hone your online teaching skills, why not offer your colleagues a sample lesson? They may have some valuable feedback for you and learn from the way you teach as well. Plus, you can take turns, so everyone gets to be the teacher and student.

If you don’t know who to ask, no worries! Just join some social media groups for teachers and post a friendly request. You should be able to find like-minded people in no time.

Bonus tip: try this alternative to Zoom

Zoom is great, but the free version comes with a 40-minute-cap for group events (one-on-ones are not affected). After this, your conference call will be cut short and you will have to set up a new session.

BigBlueButton is a completely free, open-source alternative that offers all the features Zoom does, without limitations. Many universities and schools already use it. It may be a tad more complicated to set up, but it should be absolutely worth it.

Happy remote teaching!

For more tips for teaching English online, check out this article on the digital classroom.

Teaching English through Riddles: “Strange Attractors and the Gordian Knot” – Workshop with Nick Munby

in ELTABB/Professional Development

Riddles are intriguing and fun for learners of all ages. Kit Flemons recaps Nick Munby’s webinar on teaching English with logic puzzles and shares what he learnt about mental gymnastics and the art of asking the right questions.

I’m sure many of you readers will recall university days of waking up late, dashing to class, coffee in hand, sneaking into the back of a lecture while keeping your groggy head down and hoping to absorb whatever information is coming your way (I, naturally, have no such experience, model student that I am).

In the days of the Corona Lockdown and semi-private Zoom conferences, it may be tempting to do so again. But today’s workshop would allow no such shirking and idleness.

The brain loves to be engaged

We were introduced briefly to the idea that the brain is a machine for learning. It is drawn to seeking shapes and patterns and solving problems. What’s more, puzzles encourage speaking for a purpose – crucial for teaching English – as they offer a practical and fun application for learned language.

The brain is a machine for learning.

We then jumped straight into our breakout rooms, to stretch our Saturday-morning brains with the first logic puzzle (here is a link so that you can test your wits, with a full list of the puzzles we did at the end of the article).

Analyse your approach

Nick encouraged us not simply to solve the puzzle, but think about how we tried to do it. Did we:

  • start by whipping out our calculators and examining the numbers?
  • reach for our knowledge of ancient history (Nick’s version was set in the city of Alexandria)?
  • look for significance in the phrasing of the question itself?

After five minutes in the breakout rooms, we reconvened to compare answers and discuss the processes behind our thinking. A key concept was that we all felt we didn’t have enough information to answer the question – but we did…

Asking the right questions

The trick lay in ‘thinking around the question’ – sidestepping the obvious pathways (‘strange attractors’) our brain tries to follow and looking for more scenic routes to the conclusion.

Help came when Nick asked ‘guiding questions’ – questions that didn’t provide clues to the answer, but clues to the approach; questions that led us to ask our own, more pertinent questions, until the answer suddenly snapped into perfect focus.

Once somebody had arrived at this answer, Nick encouraged them to explain their working to the class.

It can be easier for somebody who has only just learned something to explain it to others than it is for an ‘expert’; the learner has just found their way to the solution, and the pitfalls and clues are fresher in their mind.

Backflips and brain twisters

Our second logic puzzle required us to think about how we disprove rules, rather than prove them; the brain is keen to draw patterns, making it difficult not to leap at what seems like an alluring proof when it is presented.

Explaining how one arrived at the solution to this puzzle was… more than a little tricky even in our native tongues. To do so as a learner of a foreign language would require considerable mental and linguistic gymnastics – exactly what we, as teachers are keen to encourage!

The journey is its own reward

If you can get your students communicating in this way – asking lots of questions and challenging their own preconceptions – they will be using a range of English for a purpose, and hopefully enjoying themselves too.

That’s a sure route to success in an English lesson!

The next two puzzles seemed to feature a terrifying amount of maths… But, like with most logic puzzles, you don’t need particular skills to work out the answer and cut the proverbial ‘Gordian knot’. You don’t need to be a mathematician (indeed, then you may make it worse by struggling through the calculations, rather than approaching the problem with fresh naivete).

You just need to think carefully from lots of different angles – a process facilitated by groups of people talking among each other, discussing, using their language and twisting their brains in interesting ways.

Is this actually about teaching?

It was after one more logic puzzle that my brain twisted itself in such a way and I had my own ‘Eureka!’ moment. Up to this, there was a certain sense that ‘This isn’t about English teaching! This is just having fun doing puzzles, like I do [note – “used to do”] in the pub with friends!’

It became apparent, however, that this workshop was actually helping us much more broadly than simply ‘telling us how to teach’.

The best way to encourage learning is to encourage students to work out the answer themselves.

We were being guided, as with the puzzles themselves, into arriving at our own solutions. Nick showed us that the best way to encourage learning isn’t to point out an answer, but encourage students to work out the answer themselves by offering guided questions and hints.

Final thoughts

Logic puzzles are a useful means to encourage the practical, fun use of English. The way one should present them is also very similar to how one should teach any subject. This lesson was much broader than simply ‘logic puzzles in the classroom’. It was a way to shape our entire approach to teaching.

Nick left us with one more logic puzzle to riddle out ourselves. It was testament to how enjoyable the workshop was that quite a number of us stayed until well after the end discussing possible solutions, other logic puzzles, and how the human brain works in approaching solutions.

Sometimes, the best learning doesn’t feel like learning, and that’s exactly what happened today.

List of logic puzzles mentioned:

  1. Introductory riddle
  2. Logic puzzle for disproving rules
  3. First math puzzle
  4. Second math puzzle
  5. Brain twister with eureka effect
  6. Final puzzle

If you enjoyed this article, you may also like Kit’s workshop review about creative teaching techniques.

21st Century Language Learning: 5 Reasons Why the School System Needs to Change

in Professional Development

Nearly all of us reading this article today are products of a “traditional” school system. By that we mean a system in which you had to show up each morning and attend classes for fixed periods of time to eventually pass tests and possibly graduate. The talk nowadays is whether or not this model is still serving us successfully in the 21st century.

Has the school system failed language learning?

Even as some governments and individuals have instituted reforms over the years, the fundamentals described above have not changed. They’ve been held up as the standard for well over a century.

One area in which we believe the school system has failed us is the field of language learning. In this article, we’ll be exploring the various factors behind this in more detail—introducing the five big failures of the school system with regard to foreign language teaching.

1. Lack of an immersive environment

Picture the typical language-learning classroom. A teacher stands at the front of the class, reciting words written on a blackboard/whiteboard or on the page of a textbook. Students then recite the word back to the teacher once, twice and possibly a third time before moving on to the next one. These words are then tested the following week in a vocabulary test.

What’s more, as soon as class is over the kids leave the room, return to their mother tongue and forget all about the second language. To really master a language, learners need an immersive experience where a language surrounds them, penetrates their minds and permeates their thinking. Having more subjects available in a second language would allow students to really live the language and not just recite individual words.

2. Neglect of individual needs

Schools mostly employ a “one size fits all” approach when it comes to language learning. With everyone using the same textbook, memorizing the same words, completing the same gap-fill exercises and answering the same speaking test questions, there’s really very little room for personalized learning.

As long as schools demand the same from every student, the system won’t produce great results.

Language acquisition requires progress in all language skills and systems. This happens at various rates for different students. Therefore, each student’s uniqueness should be considered in terms of existing skills and potential. As long as schools demand the same from every student, the system won’t produce great results.

3. Too little focus on speaking

In between all the word recitations, listening quizzes and reading comprehension exercises that students have to complete, there’s very little time for them to actually speak the language. Large class sizes compound this issue. In a single class, each student might barely have time to say a single sentence or two.

Speaking and using the words and sentence structures we learn is the best way to solidify them in our minds and retain them for future use. The less time students spend on speaking practice, the less of the language they’ll recall in the future.

4. A failure to make students into active learners

Language learning in the traditional school system is a hugely passive experience. You sit, you listen, you repeat, you write, you read, you answer questions and on it goes. If we want temporary learners who fulfill the testing requirements at the end of a course and then forget everything they’ve learned, then the traditional system has been a marvelous success.

In our view, however, the goal should be to create life-long learners who take the skills and knowledge they learn at school with them. This way they can use them to continue their language learning journey through their whole lives. They may even employ the study skills to add more languages to their repertoire.

5. Lack of comprehensive and current materials

When have you last seen a language learning textbook? Was the last one you saw from the early 2000s? If so, chances are that the one used back in 2001 is much the same as the ones being used in 2020, only with fewer fancy visuals. The materials we make students use at school are inadequate in the real world of language learning.

Students need modern and relevant materials with the most current vocabulary.

They usually consist of 10-20 themed units, each with a list of words and partially defunct idiomatic expressions, a central reading text, supplementary listening material (held and controlled by the teacher, usually), a token speaking question at the end and a homework task.

Students need modern and relevant materials with the most current vocabulary. The language needs to be put into a relatable context with which students can connect.

Real-life learning for real-life skills

Perhaps we are being too harsh on the school system. Oftentimes it’s a mixture of funding issues, recruitment trouble and obstruction from unions and government interests that’s hampering progress.

In one way, you could say that the woeful state of language learning in most public schools has actually spurred passionate learners to seek and even create better alternatives. Some examples include smartphone apps and online learning platforms where you can interact directly with native speakers and language learning professionals, and many more.

It’s an exciting time to be a language learner. There have never been so many resources readily available to people everywhere in the world.

In conclusion, we ought to develop a completely fresh attitude to language learning in order to support new generations of language learners and users in a world much more interconnected through the internet than ever before. This is a new age of language acquisition and a new age requires new approaches.

Interview: Sue Kay on Materials Writing, the Perfect ELT Coursebook and Incidental Dream Careers

in Professional Development

Seasoned materials writer Sue Kay tells her story of becoming an English teacher and published author, unveils what makes a compelling coursebook and shares some tried and tested writing tips.

Sandra: Hello Sue, it’s lovely to have you here for an interview with ELTABB!
We are curious about your story as an ELT author and your thoughts on materials writing, so I’d say, let’s dive right in…

How did your ELT career start and what prompted you to become a materials writer?

Sue: I’m slightly reluctant to tell the truth of how I started my career in ELT. I want to say that teaching was an ambition that was burning in me from an early age. But like a lot of people I know, I more or less fell into it by chance, with the intention of doing it for a while.

Four decades later, I feel like the luckiest person to have ‘fallen into’ the ELT world and the writing is the icing on the cake. I got the writing bug as soon as I started my CELTA training; making worksheets, flashcards, and dreaming up activities to get people talking felt like the most fun and creative job I could imagine.

My first teaching job was in France. When I came back to Oxford I had the good fortune to find work at the Lake School of English. It was a teachers’ cooperative, a really stimulating and creative atmosphere to work in. It was the mid 80s and Headway had just come out. Of course we were using it – who wasn’t? But I felt there was something missing… a communicative element. So I set about writing activities to go with each unit.

As luck would have it, a local author, Simon Greenall, was preparing to write Reward and wanted to do some class observations. I volunteered to host him in my class and afterwards showed him the communicative activities I’d written. He asked if I’d like to write the Reward Resource Packs. That’s how my ELT writing career started.

What makes a good coursebook?

The million dollar question! When I started teaching there was an unwritten rule that it was a ‘sellout’ to use a coursebook at all, unless you were doing an exam class, in which case it was okay.

I suppose I can thank that anti-coursebook attitude for forcing me to hone my writing craft. But in retrospect, I think it did the students a disservice. Because if the coursebook is useful for one thing, it’s providing a framework for both teachers and students. Moreover, it’s something for students to refer back to after the lesson.

I want my coursebook to treat the students as a valuable resource in the classroom.

But to answer the question, this is what I look for when I’m evaluating a coursebook:

1 – Does it provide space for the students to contribute their own knowledge of the language and experience of the world? I want my coursebook to treat the students as a valuable resource in the classroom, not as empty vessels to fill with coursebook knowledge. I want to see plenty of personalisation in my coursebook.

2 – Is the input material engaging? Are the texts authentic? Are they about real people doing real things in real places? If not, it’s difficult to get students to engage with the material and give genuine responses to it. Is the listening and video material good enough? Are the listening scripts interesting or bland, deja-vu and boring? Video has a way of increasing motivation, but there’s a lot of competition nowadays. Students can watch whatever they like on YouTube, so the coursebook videos need to be a cut above.

3 – Is lexis given centre stage? The lexical syllabus should be at least as important as the grammar syllabus.

How important is the editor-writer relationship?

The editor-author relationship is an important one, and when the chemistry is right, the results are amazing. I’ve been incredibly lucky with the publishers and editors I’ve worked with over the years.

When this relationship works well, it’s usually because it’s based on mutual respect. Authors tend to be a bit precious about what they’ve written (including me). It can be hard to see your carefully crafted material slashed (usually, admittedly, because it doesn’t fit the page). Building up professional trust is essential. There are times when you do have to fight your corner, but it’s important to acknowledge that writers and editors have different skills.

What tips would you give to aspiring and seasoned writers?

No hesitation – I’d point aspiring writers in the direction of ELT Teacher 2 Writer’s ‘How To Write’ titles. Karen Spiller, Karen White and I set up ELT Teacher 2 Writer because there were no training courses for materials writers. We asked experienced ELT authors to share the lessons they’ve learnt and give practical advice that new writers could immediately apply to their own work. We now have a list of 22 titles and two compendiums, with new titles in the pipeline.

You’re never too seasoned to learn new skills!

I’d consider myself to be a seasoned ELT materials writer. But when I started writing an exam-based course for Upper Secondary, I felt very much outside my comfort zone. So I consulted Roy Norris’s How To Write Exam Preparation Materials and Caroline Krantz’s How To Write Reading and Listening Activities. I now consider myself to be something of an expert in writing Multiple Choice activities.

The point I’m making is that you’re never too seasoned to learn new skills!

In the light of the current global situation, how do you adapt your writing to the needs of the digital classroom?

A couple of months ago I wouldn’t have had anything to say about this, but right now it’s the burning question! At the moment, my writing partner (Vaughan Jones) and I are writing materials as if they’re going to be taught online. So far I’d say the most important thing we’ve learnt is that it’s not that different to class teaching really.

Teaching online is mostly about getting to grips with the technology. I’ve become very au fait with Zoom and all its capabilities. You still need to provide students with engaging material. Also make sure you’re exposing them to high frequency language, common expressions and plenty of opportunities to personalise.

Nicola Galloway* talks about the “mismatch between the language presented in current ELT course books and how the language actually functions today as a global lingua franca.” Is this a fair criticism?

Nicola’s right – ideally, we should be preparing students for the context in which they’re most likely to use English: as a lingua franca with other L2 users. As Laura Patsko and Katy Simpson point out in How To Write Pronunciation Activities (published by ELT Teacher 2 Writer), the more you train your students to sound like native speakers, the less intelligible they’ll be to the other NNS.

So the important message for the materials writer is to focus on features of pronunciation that will make learners more intelligible to an international audience.

Students need to be exposed to a range of accents including non-native accents.

Another area for improvement in course books is in the audio element. Students need to be exposed to a range of accents including non-native ones. But most course books have scripted listening tasks. Publishers tend to record these scripts using actors who ‘act out’ accents. They’re often passable accents, but they’re not authentic, and this is usually obvious.

I’m pleased to say that I worked on a video element of a global course book recently, and the main character was a Spanish speaker. Ten years ago, I don’t think that would have been acceptable to publishers. So I consider this as good progress in the right direction.

*(Galloway in Routledge Handbook of ELF, 2018, p. 478).

Last question: Writing can be lonely at times. How do you keep up your motivation, focus and creativity?

I’d find it really hard to write on my own. I strongly recommend finding a writing partner you get on really well with; preferably someone who has skills that complement your own, but who shares the same learning and teaching values as you. That writing partnership is a big factor in keeping up motivation.

Focus comes from the publisher and editors – they set the deadlines, and without them, we may never get started. Then I’d say that creativity comes from being in the classroom. There’s nothing better than having a class of students to prepare a lesson for to get your creative juices flowing.

Thanks a lot Sue, for this fun and insightful Q and Kay!

Sue Kay is an experienced author and has co-written Upper Secondary and Adult courses for Macmillan and Pearson. She’s also co-founder of ELT Teacher 2 Writer, which publishes books and runs training courses for ELT writers. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter or contact her via e-mail.

Workshop Review: “Re-Thinking Gap-Fill Exercises” – Webinar with Leo Selivan

in Professional Development

In his April workshop with ELTABB, Leo Selivan presented new ways for making gap-fill exercises more meaningful in ELT. He also provided many practical and creative examples of how to use gap-fills in online teaching. Jennifer Knaeble recaps the whats, whys and hows.

What are gap-fills, anyway?

As the name suggests, gap-fills are exercises in which learners are asked to fill in blanks with missing words or phrases. They are commonly used to reinforce vocabulary or grammar points and are incorporated in placement tests, C-tests, cloze tests and, in fact, just about every kind of exercise to help learners understand and practice new words or grammar points.

As Leo explained, gap-fills first emerged in ELT in the 1980s, predominantly via game-changing textbooks such as Headway. Often regarded as boring, they are also criticised for being too focused on receptive rather than creative skills.

However, Leo referred to several reputable findings (Otavio Barros, Keith Folse, Philip Kerr). These beg to differ, arguing instead for the effectiveness of gap-fills when used heedfully in ELT.

Gap-fills provide context and meaning

Gap-fills can, for example, be more beneficial to learning than more free or imaginative exercises when teaching new vocabulary. As opposed to presenting the word in isolation, they provide correct context, collocations and what Leo called “co-text”; i.e. words surrounding the target word, thus augmenting context and helping learners grasp meaning.

So, instead of asking learners to use the word  “mortgage” in a sentence of their own making, give them a gap-fill exercise, e.g. “We went to the bank to take out a – – – – – – – – in order to buy our house”, which includes context (bank/buying a house) and highlights co-text (e.g. “take out”).

For tasks such as this one, Leo stressed the importance of first providing learners with relevant word definitions from reputable, learner-orientated dictionaries (such as Longman Learners or Cambridge) and then using meaningful, context-rich gap-fills.

Using digital resources for gap-fill exercises

Leo then showed us different types of gap-fills that he had created with the digital site Quizlet. The first, a “Red Herring” (or “distracter”) gap-fill, consisted of four correct gap-filling words and an incorrect one which we had to detect.

The next variation was “Letter Clues”, a gap-fill that uses partial letters to prompt recall of the target word, e.g. “They’ve taken out a 30-year mor – – – – –  in order to buy their house.”

We then played a “Two Blanks” gap-fill using, not Quizlet, but Zoom’s virtual whiteboard. By enabling the “annotate” function on the whiteboard we could use various options (arrows, pens, brushes, text, hearts, etc.) to complete a series of gap-fill sentences as fast as possible. Slightly more challenging as learners have two, not just one, gaps to fill per sentence, this exercise was fun, colorful and competitive.

More gap-fill types followed, such as a “No Gap-fill” (no joke!) tailored for practicing adjectives. It consisted of two lists (one with adjectives, one with full sentences and no gaps). The task was to select the correct adjective and place it in its proper position in the sentence.

The toolbar made this exercise more competitive as we madly doodled and overwrote each other’s answers in a race to see who could complete the exercises more quickly and imaginatively. It is interesting to know that Zoom’s annotate function is adaptable to gap-fills made in other formats, such as Word’s*.doc or websites formats.

DIY quizzes: trying it out for ourselves

It was then time to try our hand at creating our own gap-fill quizzes. In small groups, we gathered in Zoom breakout rooms. One person from each group was asked to log into Quizlet and share screens with the rest of their group. Following the step-by-step instructions, we started making gap-fill quizzes together.

Quizlet is quite intuitive, but I still appreciated Leo occasionally popping in and out to answer questions. He made sure we were including meaningful context and highlighting co-text.

Once finished, we shared our quizzes with the whole group. Leo pointed out that Quizlet has the great advantage of offering learners multiple modes of practicing the same exercise (flashcards, test, write, spell, gravity, etc.). Content can also be easily adapted to “offline” teaching; he shared with us his own “10 paper-and-pencil activities using Quizlet” accessible here:

Finally, we tested how well gap-fills can work well on a discourse level. For this we used the web-based platform Zeetings. Once connected to its virtual board, Leo gave us initial fragments from several conversations, e.g. “Can’t you wait? I won’t be long.” Then he asked us to fill the remaining gaps with our own responses. The host is able to tweak the competitiveness of the exercise by controlling when responses appear on the board. Though this resulted in what was more of an extended gap fill exercise, it was still very enjoyable and effective.

Final thoughts

In sum, I believe this webinar was a great success! It shed new light on traditional uses of gap-fill exercises in ELT and provided us with tips on how to make them more meaningful for learners. It also demonstrated several practical and creative ways for incorporating them – via smart digital tools –  into our online teaching.

I wish to thank Leo for sharing his time and expertise with us and I’d highly recommend checking out his book “Lexical Grammar: Activities for Teaching Chunks and Exploring Patterns” (2018), as well as his website:

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