IH Riga ‘Teach Differently’ Conference: 7 Snippets

It was a pity to miss out on hosting the IH Young Learner conference in the vote (IH Reggio Calabria did a fantastic job of organising from what I saw and heard from afar!). Undeterred, soon after hearing the result we refocused our efforts on organising a teacher training day aimed primarily at English teachers from local state schools here in Latvia.

We share many students with local schools, after all, so why not share information and ideas on teaching too? Many locally-based teachers attend our training courses like CELTA, VYL and IHCYLT, but this was the first training day set up by IH Riga, and hopefully not the last. Before I pinpoint a few things from the talks (titles/extracts/bios here), a massive thanks to our international guest speakers for coming so far to share their knowledge and experience: Alycia from IH Budapest and Veerle and Rupert from Dusemond Study Programmes.

So here are some snippets from the day’s presentations:

1. Presentation skills = life skills

Our DoS Ian kicked things off with a presentation on teaching presentation skills, explaining its importance for young learners as future participants in Higher Education and business. With a nod towards the Cengage/National Geographic TED coursebooks he’s been trialling this year with proficiency teens (TED Ed is also great for ready-made activities), he highlighted how to teach a balance between content and style, formal and informal tone and using intonation and pronunciation features for maximal effectiveness.

2. Let students choose!

ADoS Sally presented on giving students choices in what and when they produce work, which although daunting is vital for students to take ownership of what they are doing. Choice is governed by the teacher, of course, and the worry that students just choose the easiest option doesn’t usually occur. When given responsibility, students know their level and choose accordingly.

So how can we do this? Simple adaptations to the coursebook activities: choose two difficult words to peer teach, choose which part of the text to read, choose a form of writing (article, script, interview, story), choose who you want to be when writing (Harry Potter, a dinosaur or yourself); choose how to present info (poster, novel, presentation etc.) Sally also suggested using choice boards (templates here), with two options worth 1, two worth 2 and two worth 3. Students can choose whatever they want to do but the total sum must be 6.

(I’m a big fan of giving students choice, too, and presented a few other ideas at IH Budapest’s conference in December – read the summary here)

3. Psychology + Neuroscience + Pedagogy = PROGRESS

Veerle, who had flown all the way over from Tenerife to represent Dusemond Study Programmes, presented a fascinating whistlestop tour of some key concepts of educational psychology.


Of course, each of these phrases can fill a shelf of books alone and deserve further investigation, but I’ll just breeze over a few of the ideas mentioned.

Neuroplasticity: the brain is a muscle where new neurons grow if pushed (neurogenesis), so train it!

Mirror neurons: a teacher should smile and show positivity towards students to increase the likelihood (not guarantee!) of reciprocation.

Three keys for remembering info: sleep, exercise, repetition.


Encouraging students to adopt a Growth Mindset when experiencing difficulty/failure (as long as learning strategies are appropriate) was also mentioned by Veerle and Alycia just after, which had me nodding along – one of my favourite things to explore in educational psychology, in the classroom, staff room and on this blog.

4. Teach the Teenage Brain

Having met and learned plenty from Alycia at IH Budapest in December, I was super stoked that she agreed to come up to Riga to share her psychology knowledge at our training day (and spend the rest of the weekend hanging out, of course!). She spoke about the human brain developing from back to front, meaning that teens’ frontal lobes, responsible for decision making and logic, are last to mature. So employ maximum empathy when your teenage student does something nonsensical – it’s neurological!

There’s also a tendency to take risks, which we can encourage (with safe limits) in class, and the fact that teens have more grey matter than white matter, which means that there is huge potential for cognitive development in these years, but forgetfulness is a common problem. What can we do? Constant reminders and help them plan their workload by dividing tasks into one of four categories:


5. Make pronunciation physical and visual

This was my presentation on teaching word and sentence stress, the majority of which is summarised here from a previous presentation. Thanks to my volunteers for the Stand on the Stress activity 🙂


6. Make writing creative

Kate Kazanovska hit the nail on the head: a teacher muttering the word ‘writing’ is often met by a collective groan. But it doesn’t have to be this way! By switching on our creativity, we can make writing interesting for students. For example, jazzing up a letter of complaint about a broken photocopier (yawn) by adding in some funky symptoms of it malfunctioning (spitting out butterflies). It may have to be done as part of an exam task but we can make it more fun by tweaking the details.

Another great idea was to take a TV series or film and write to one of the characters, such as writing to apply for the position of Doctor Who’s assistant (choose who you want to be, as Sally had said earlier). Lastly, taking literature we’re interested in, we can provide cross-curricular activities for students, for example analysing Animal Farm through historical research, evaluating it by comparing it to modern life and then creating material such as propoganda posters, radio news reports and speeches.

7. Projects → engagement

Kelly shared a range of interesting facts and ideas: there are (approximately) 171,476 words in the English language and research shows that we must have 10-20 meaningful encounters with a word before it’s properly learned. So with these numbers, learning is most effective when students are eliciting the selection of the 171,476 words they want and need from teachers, rather than us imposing which we think are most useful or which the coursebook chose.

Setting up a project can be daunting, but the presentation went over a simple six-step process to follow:

  1. Stimulus – Images create interest; ambiguous images create discussion.
  2. Discussion and generation of ideas – After this class, the teacher can adapt their plan to match the students’ specific emerging interests.
  3. Students decide their line of enquiry.
  4. Class debates and discussions – Opens students up to other points of view.
  5. Research – Facts, case studies, claims, examples.
  6. Product – The most practical and memorable part (see Kelly’s slide below for some suggestions).Screenshot (100).png

Thanks again to all involved in organising and participating! I hope we can all make the most of the ideas in our classrooms!




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