Conference notes: TESOL Spain Madrid 2023

Last weekend, I had the pleasure to not only attend but also present at the TESOL Spain Madrid conference. It was a massive conference, with over 140 sessions spread out over three days, and by the end of it was physically and mentally drained – but it was entirely worth it. What follows here are my conference notes and reflections.

Esther Vázquez – Empowering Students through effective assessment
and feedback techniques

Esther’s session looked Assessment for Learning, and how it should be more in focus/use than Assessment of Learning. She emphasised:

  • Good feedback needs to be timely, individual and specific.
  • Feedback should take into account different perspectives (e.g., linguistic, effort, etc.), should be actionable and constructive. She used a really nice example to demonstrate the need for both positive and constructive feedback. She spoke about a time when she blindfolded a teacher and gave him a piece of paper that he had to throw in the bin. The teacher through the piece of paper and then missed. She then said “great work!”. The effect of this was, in reality, nothing! So, we need to ensure that we combine positive feedback with constructive feedback.
  • We need to create an emotionally-supportive, or in her words, resonant classroom in which learners feel safe, motivated and engaged. This links to a common theme I am seeing more of in ELT – the importance of Social and Emotional Learning, something I wrote about in my last article notes.
  • We need to embrace the power of ‘Yet’. Esther drew on the work of Carol Dweck, and noted that it is important that feedback isn’t simply a yes or no dichotomy – Assessment for Learning needs to take on the power of yet and show learners that while they are not where they want to be YET, they can be with more work. This contrast with the more traditional pass/fail approach that education has taken on in the past, or how learners feel is we are only using Assessment of Learning (summative assessment).

Esther also gave us some nifty practical ideas:

  • Two-minute warnings: The brain likes to know when things are going to start and end, and so it’s important to give learners notice.
  • Extra innings: After assignments, tests, work, etc., the teacher might correct the work, but then give learners another attempt after they are given time to review their notes. An alternative might be to get learners to submit their work, but tell them that you won’t check it until the end of the next class, and they will have until then to review their notes – in the next class they are given their work to complete again.

Fiona Hunter – Getting Crafty: increasing language acquisition from stories

Fiona Hunter from Kids Club English delivered an amazing workshop on using stories and crafts with Young Learners – and connecting it to SLA, which as you all know is something I feel we should always be doing. Fiona spoke about how we often use stories with Young Learners, and then follow-up crafts are often seens as the ‘keep them quiet’ time. She emphasized that in reality we need to be working with these stories multiple times, and crafts are the perfect opportunity for learners to re-engage with the stories (and language) in a natural and fun manner.

She took us through some examples of crafts that she had created for one of the stories that she had created, and we had the opportunity to plan how we might use them in the post-story phase. It was quite easy to see how the use of crafts can be integrated with the re-telling of the story, movement, games, etc. For those of you interested in her work, you can check out her website, instagram or facebook.

Fiona’s session left both myself and my director with plenty of food for thought for the coming academic year. We are now thinking about how we can revamp the infant syllabi with stories and crafts.

Interestingly, I am often quite critical of conference workshops in terms of lasting impact on practice. While I do stand by my opinion when looking at conference workshops in general, there are obviously many workshops that, depending on your teaching, training or managing context, may have a very large impact on your practice. When I think back over the workshops at this conference, Fiona’s was the workshop that I feel had the greatest impact on my managing. It, in effect, showed how we might move our infant syllabi to a direction that we feel is more inline with our principles. It’s these workshops that make me love conferences!

Ethan Mansur – Developing Thinking Skills in Exam Preparation courses

Ethan, who I interviewed alongside Riccardo Chiapinni, ran a really interesting workshop that focused on developing thinking skills in exam classes. What I loved about Ethan’s workshop was how he really emphasized the learning value that exam classes can have; that is, we can move away from simply testing, and look at teaching. Moreover, he brought in one of my favourite frameworks for thinking – Bloom’s Taxonomy. The taxonomy focuses on lower-order thinking skills (LOTs) and higher-order thinking skills (HOTs).

Taken from University of Waterloo

Ethan spoke at length about the importance of trying to get both LOTs and HOTs in our exam classes; he mentioned that for the most part, many exam classes already engage learners’ LOTs – what is often missing are HOTs. This is where we can start to think about critical thinking and creativity.

Ethan took us through a number of exam tasks from the Cambridge B2 First, and asked us to think about how we might engage learners’ HOTs. There was plenty of discussion, and I feel that many of us got a lot out of these alone. Some of the suggestions Ethan presented included:

  • Rather than providing learners with a speaking task, ask them to create their own after having answered questions such as “Why do you think there are two examiners?” or “Why does the task include five topics?”.
  • Learners can be asked to create their own open cloze after having completed an analysis of the task. Again, here we should encourage learners to look past the what of the task, and focus on the why.
  • For writing, we might provide learners with the rubric and a model answer with a section missing. Learners then need to write in the missing part.

Chris Roland – Active order; Acts of chaos

If you’ve never seen Chris speak at a conference (or watched his Sponge Chat 😉 ), it is a must. His way of presenting is something that I think back on constantly when I am preparing my presentations and workshops. He captures the attention of the group easily, and talks in such a way that he makes everyone feel ‘at the table’ so to speak; he communicates complex ideas in language that everyone can understand and connect to. Anyway, that’s enough of me and my man crush – let’s get to what he was talking about!

Chris’ keynote looked at working with young learners and teens, and how teachers in effect aim to ‘do too much’ for their learners. He pointed out that very often we are running around opening doors, moving chairs, getting pieces of paper from the office, sending notes to the director, etc. He encouraged us to get learners involved, and, in effect, provide them with some resplnsbilibilty as they love having responsibility!

Chris also spoke about the idea of 2 – 3 minutes of chaos for a long period of calm/work. He emphasized that learners need a break between activities – they shouldn’t be always focused on work, work, work as humans don’t really respond well to that (at least not Young Learners and Teens!). With this in mind, Chris showed us some of this ‘chaos’ moments, some of which were:

  • Pass the box: Bring in a big box into class, and to break up activities, have learners pass the box around the classroom, but make sure they do it with one hand!
  • Rubber band wars: Place some rubber ducks, animals, etc. along the wall and have a mini shooting gallery (fingers and rubber bands). Have a challenge to see which of your learners is the greatest assassin.
  • Surprise under the desk: Before class, have tape a surprise under one of the learners’ desks. Throughout the class, they can then find the surprise. Chris mentioned that he often received free food from somewhere, and he used this as the surprise.
  • Open the box: Most of us get stuff delivered all the time. Why not get learners to open the box? You can even build a lesson around – thinking about what’s in the box, it’s use, why you bought it, etc.

Scott Thornbury – The Road Less Travelled By

Scott’s talk was extremely interesting, as usual. He spoke about different forks in the road within ELT, and how we got to where we are today. In standard Thornbury fashion, there was plenty of fascinating information, and whilst I didn’t capture everything, I did take notes on the ‘forks’. The forks, from my understanding, are moments in time when there was a more travelled path (which we generally took) and a less travelled path, hence the title. So, these forks as they appeared showed potential pathways – whether we took/take them or not, though, is up to debate.

  • Fork 1 – Experiential learning: Here Scott referred back to everybody’s favourite educational scholar, Dewey, and spoke about how all the way back in the early 1900s, Dewey pushed for more experiential learning. This was primarily to fight against the transmission model of learning that often dominated (and at times, still dominates ELT now).
  • Fork 2 – Humanism: There was a time when we looked at the learner as if they were only a ‘head’. That is, we didn’t take into account the whole person – with the main thing missing being a focus on affect (i.e., the emotional side of learning). This is still something that I feel is lacking at times with both teaching and teacher education.
  • Fork 3 – Critical pedagogy: Scott referred to the work of Paulo Freire and the idea of empowerment. Scott spoke about the idea of learners being active agents within their learning, and the idea of teachers creating conditions for this. Interestingly, this is one of the those forks that I feel many of us at the teacher level perhaps try to implement (or travel ?), but we are often limited by other factors such as curriculum and management.
  • Fork 4 – Social turn: Here Scott talked about the socio-cultural turn; in effect, where we moved away from construvisim, and looked at the importance of the social context, dialogue and interaction, and mediation. For those familiar with sociocultural theory, we are of course talking about the work of Vygotsky (and others).
  • Fork 5 – Ecological turn: Here Scott looked at the idea of socially co-constructed spaces, and viewing learning as happening within certain communities, with each of these communities having their own identity. Learners of course need to navigate their own identities within each of these learning spaces. The ecological perspective on learning is something that I am fascinated by, but I do need to read more on. If anyone has any recommendations, please let me know!
  • Fork 6 – Multilingual turn: Here, of course, Scott talked about translingual education and how multilingual competencies are being explored. Personally, I feel this is a very interesting, although dare I say dangerous fork in the road. Whilst I won’t go into my opinion about translingual education here (something for another post perhaps?), I do feel that there is a lot of work to be done in this area for this pathway to be a viable one.

I really enjoyed Scott’s talk and it really got me thinking about how many of these pathways I’ve taken, advocated or discouraged. I do, however, want to comment on the experience of the session itself. I attended the session with a number of my teachers. These teachers are, for the most part, early-career teachers, and I can remember looking over at them and seeing them completely lost. After the talk, I asked them what they thought, and they basically said that they didn’t understand anything. I came to realise that this talk, whilst very interesting, perhaps was not right for every teacher. The concept of grading language and topics with language learners is quite valid here I think – there are some topics that some teachers may not be ready to explore in such detail yet. What, then, are the implications for conference organisers, I wonder?

Nicola Prentis – Money Does Grow on Trees: pensions as professional

Nicola Prentis, whom I interviewed some time ago, spoke about something that all of us should be very, very interested in – pensions and money! I agree with Nicola in that money is often not spoken about, and pension even less so. The reality, though, is that we should be talking about these as, to a certain extent, they impact a very large part of our lives.

Here are some of my takeaways from Nicola’s session:

  • Pensions need to be part of professional development: We should be making space within our development programmes to raise teachers’ awareness of the importance of pensions, and contributing to pensions. When I look over our development programme, I see one session focused on money in induction week. This session looks at workers’ rights and understanding the pay slip. I do, however, feel that there is room to talk about pensions and the ‘long-term’ picture for teachers. This is something I’ll be looking to include in the next academic year.
  • When investing, be careful about payment fees: Nicola mentioned that there are many fees that come with investing (whether it be in private pensions, stocks, index funds, etc.). She mentioned that 1% is actually quite high, so make sure you look at the prosepctus and understand exactly how much you need to pay – and, of course, look for investments in which you pay less.
  • There is a difference between trading, investing and speculating: Trading is professional job, with high-risk, quite decisions being made by experts. Speculating is in effect gambling. Investing is making informed decisions about your money, and looking at how to put your money to work. We, then, should be looking to invest – and we shouldn’t be scared to invest. This is a good time to talk about Nicola’s course – she runs a six-week course that will give you all the necessary skills you need to start making right financial decisions.

Hazel Watling – Assessment for Learning: getting students to reflect

Hazel’s talk looks at Assessment for Learning (AfL), which was a common theme at the conference (which is excellent!). She mentioned that with AfL, there are five processes invovled:

  1. Questioning
  2. Provision of feedback to learners
  3. Learners need to understand what success looks like
  4. Learners should become more independent, and be involved in the assessment process (e.g., through peer and self-assessment).
  5. Summative assessment should be used formatively as well (as this will help learners improve)

These were some of the activities that Hazel presented:

  • Include end of session reflection questions. One that she suggested asked learners to write five bullet points from the lesson, one sentence about the lesson, and then one word from the lesson.
  • Exit tickets
  • Hand signals to show understanding (e.g., learners can show that they partially understanding by putting their thumbs horizontally in the air).
  • Progress pyramid – Learners write 3 things they know about a topic, 2 things they are not sure of, and 1 question they would like answered.
  • Mid/End of lesson quiz – the teacher conducts a quiz on the topic at hand. Learners’ answers then help guide future teaching.

Emma Gowing – Practical steps towards teacher wellbeing through mindful

Emma’s talk focused on the management side of teaching. She spoke about how academic managers can create good working conditions through taking note of the academic sphere of influence (love this term, by the way!). Emma introduced us to Seligman’s PERMA model, that focuses on five components that are intrinsically motivating and contribute to wellbeing. She then looked at how these relate to management within language teaching. Seligman’s PERMA model is very interesting, and something that I will be looking to explore further. For those interested, the components are:

  1. Positive emotions
  2. Engagement
  3. Relationships
  4. Meaning
  5. Accomplishment

Following the introduction to the PERMA model, Emma then looked at the areas that we managers can influence teacher wellbeing:

  1. Recruitment practices: Even before we bring a teacher into our team, we can support their well being by doing a number of things. One, we can ensure that they are fully aware of who we are, what our mission is, and what is expected of them. All of this means clearly linking mission and vision statements, and ensuring that job adverts include clear job descriptions, salary and benefits, etc. We should also make the process of applying for jobs as beneficial as possible. This means that we should be providing those that do apply and are not accepted with feedback – this way they will know where they might improve, or why they were not necessarily the best candidate.
  2. Orientation and onboarding: Emma spoke about the importance of understanding the difference between orientation and onboarding. The former is short-term, while the latter is long-term. So, in orientation, we provide teachers with everything they need to carry out their duties and engage as a member of the team. Onboarding, however, is the process of bringing them into the team and ethos of the organisation. Here we can thinking about the idea of socialisation – when we learn the behaviours and expectations of a certain group. This means that new teachers should work with mentors, and there should be opportunities for all teachers to bond. This is something I feel is extremely important as well.
  3. CPD and performance management: Emma advocated a more teacher-centred / bottom-up driven approach to CPD and performance management. This means ensuring we create opportunities to address needs as determined by teachers. Ways that we can do this include including peer observations, using co-constructed action points to help determine needs and potential workshops, ask teachers what workshops they feel would be most relevant to them, etc. Emma also mentioned the positives that can come from having an internal newsletter that highlights who teachers are and the positive things that they’ve done within the organisation (or their careers). Emma finished this section by emphasizing that people need to feel empowered and that they are improving; by providing them with control over their development, we create the conditions for this to occur.
  4. Teacher feedback: Emma spoke about the importance of not only providing feedback to teachers, but getting teachers to provide feedback to management! This is a vital step in the process of creating a good work environment as teachers are supposed to be active agents within the team, and this means that their thoughts, opinions and feedback matters. Now, as managers we may not be able to respond to all of their feedback in the way that they would like. However, we should highlight how we have responded, and how we plan to deal with issues that arise. It is important to be clear about what you can and cannot do – and to address feedback from teachers in some way!

Emma’s talk was hitting all the right points for me. She touched on areas that I personally feel are of extreme importance within our industry, especially when we consider the benefits of positive teacher well being – better teaching and learning, which is, of course, good for business! What was interesting, however, was that Emma had actually attended my workshop at an Innovate conference sometime ago, and I shared some of my thoughts and tools on meeting both top-down and bottom-up needs. Within her talk she referenced me and my ideas, and mentioned that my session had helped her with conceptualising how she wanted to move ahead with her organisation. I want to say three things in response to this. One, Emma’s session was very much her own – she used some of my ideas and made them better – I was furiously taking notes and thinking “Yes, that’s amazing!” – she also touched on many areas I hadn’t thought about. Two, again, this is another example of how conference workshops can have an impact – I was actually unsure about how much of impact my session had, and so I was really happy to see someone taking those ideas and implementing and adapting them to their context. Three – it was very strange to be cited like this – the first time this has happened!

Elsa O’Brien – Learning the language like a baby

Elsa’s O’Brien looked at some of the natural language learning processes that we as teachers should look to learn from and, where possible, work with in our classes, especially with Young Learners. She offered plenty of tips:

  1. Focus on suprasegmental pronunciation: While it is important for learners to produce individual sounds, our teaching efforts might be best focused on teaching the suprasegmental features of English. That is, we should look at things like connected speech, prosody, tone, intonation, etc.
  2. Be patient and recognise the learners need exposure to gain sound sensitivity: This is something that I think many teachers perhaps overlook in their classes – the impact of exposure (or better put, the lack of exposure). We often place a heavy emphasis on production, when there is a strong rationale for focuses on input and exposure with Young Learners.
  3. Recognise that errors are part of the learning process, and in fact show progress: Elsa referred to the order of acquisition here, and noted that while teachers should focus on feedback, we need to recognise the fact that many errors actually tell us that learners are indeed progressing.
  4. Understand that overregularization is normal: This ties in with the previous point – learners will implicitly learn a rule and then try to apply to it other ‘contexts’. The most common example is that of -ed verb endings and irregular verbs.
  5. Trial and error is necessary: We need to create opportunities for learners to play with language and engage with and in communication breakdowns which will necessitate negotiation of meaning.
  6. Recognise that there are silent periods: As mentioned, we place a heavy emphasis on output, but for many learners a good amount of input and getting comfortable with English is needed before they can begin to confidently produce. Elsa recommended working with this in classes by offering learners the opportunities to produce, if they like, or other ways to show their comprehension.
  7. We should replicate natural contexts where possible
  8. We need to get emotional: Elsa wasn’t referring to breaking down in front of learners; rather, she was talking about the need to create safe spaces for learners, and to make learning emotionally connected.

Silvina Paula Mascitti & Esther Vázquez – Making Learning Memorable through brain-friendly materials writing

Silvina and Esther spoke about the importance of ‘brain-friendly’ materials, both for materials writers and for teachers working with other teachers’ materials. They identified a number of areas in which we might try to make materials brain friendly:

  • Emotions: Materials need to connect to learners’ likes and wants, and they need to be engaged with the topics at hand.
  • Repetition: There should be consistency with task types and activities, as this helps learners understanding what they need to do, and more important, what they need to do in order to be successful.
  • Personalisation: Materials should have activities or tasks that allow for learners to personalise the learning that occurs.
  • Novelty: No-one likes the same thing oiver and over again. With this in mind, materials should aim to suprise and pique interest where possible. Changing topics, themes, activites, etc. is a way in which we can do this.
  • Task variety: This ties in with the previous point, but focuses more on the tasks that we choose for our materials. We should look to include a good variety of tasks within our materials so that learners don’t get bored, and so that teachers can choose which tasks they want to use in the class.
  • Choice: Where possible, learners should be involved in tasks/activities that allow for learner choice.

In their session, Silvina and Esther looked at a set of materials very similar to those produced by Silvina or her awesome site, EFL Creative Ideas. Silvina and Esther then pointed out a few things of importance:

  • Materials should have a clear flow and logical sequence between tasks; Silvina mentioned that she likes to focus on skills first, and then move into activities that focus on personalisation and language focus.
  • Materials need clear instructions. This is a no-brainer, but as many of us who have tried to write instructions know, it is harder than it seems. Silvina recommended creating an instruction bank for yourself so that you can use them again – and this ties into the next point…
  • Silvina mentioned consistency again. Instructions, activities, etc. all should have a consistent look and feel to them.
  • Accessibility is important. Here we can think of making materials appropriate for varying age groups, genders, special education needs, dyslexia, etc.
  • Be careful of visual contamination. When we have materials with too many pictures and colours, learners get distracted. This was one of the reasons that I reviewed Pete and Paul’s IELTs Academic Reading book so positively – it had great content AND it was not visually contaminated.

Esther also spoke about some neuroscience tips for working with learners in class:

  • Give time limits and stick to them as the brain likes this.
  • Remember to allows learners to work from their top-down knowledge by including activities and tasks that activate relevant background knowledge.
  • Try to move from general to specific in terms of focus.
  • Start with easier things first, and then increase challenge gradually.

This session was aimed at materials writers, but I really think that it was brilliant for teachers thinking about how to plan their lessons as well. I got a lot out of it, and really enjoyed seeing what goes on behind the scenes with Silvina’s materials writing! Also, you can check out my Sponge Chat with Silvina here 🙂

Reflections on my own session

So, I presented on Sunday morning. I was a little unsure whether or not there would be people as it was quite early, but luckily it filled up. This was the same session that I did at Innovate ELT, although modified slightly. The experience was extremely positive. I felt quite positive going into the workshop, having done a run through earlier that morning. I have been reading a lot about public speaking, and so one of the changes I made to this session was the introduction – I started with a very brief statement to teachers about tasks and Young Learners and then introduced the what of the session. In effect, I cut out the who I am as teachers kind of already know.

Even though I cut down the session, I still found that I had very little time for some of the activities – 45 minutes went so quickly! That being said, I was happy that I was able to complete:

  • An exploration of values-attitudes-and-beliefs task
  • A input-based task that introduced TBLT
  • An overview of the MERLIN acronym
  • A showing of an example task with Young Learners
  • A play around with lego tasks, which teachers really enjoyed
  • A reflection task

Overally, I was happy with how the session went, and how I felt myself presenting on the day. I would have liked to have had more time with each of the teacher groups, but time was not my friend!

Final notes

TESOL Spain was a great conference. I came away with plenty of takeaways, some of them being put into action already. It was also great because I was able to take my staff to the conference, and this was the first conference (in-person at least) for all of them! We had a really good time bonding over the weekend, and I can see many teachers implementing ideas they got from the conference already. I will say, though, that the three days took a toll – Monday was very difficult! With this in mind, I am mentally and physically preparing for IATEFL, at which I am presenting and attending for the full week.


  1. Esther says:

    Wow Jim! I loved this elaborate and detailed account of the sessions you attended and of yours as well! I deeply enjoyed reading it and learning about the content of some sessions I could not attend myself! You have proved to be very good at note-taking, by the way! 😉

    Thank you for having come to both, my individual and my joint session with Silvina!

    I feel proud and honoured to have had you as an attendee!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the kind words, Esther! Both sessions were really informative and I got a lot out of them, so I hope other teachers get something from my notes. I look forward to seeing you on the conference circuit again soon 😁


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