Mark's IATEFL 2019 Liverpool Experience

2018 Winner Mark Van Dongen with Elliot De Roy and John Arnold

Mark Van Dongen
2018 Joris De Roy Memorial Travel Grant Winner

Mark Van Dongen, who won the 2018 Joris De Roy Memorial Travel Grant, discusses his experience at Liverpool 2019 in this blog post! Remember, you can attend BELTA Day '19 and Mark - and An Sneyers, the Belgian IATEFL Presenters Grant winner - and ask them about their experiences. At the same, you enter to win the 2020 Travel Grant! Check out BELTA Day '19 in the links above!

Here is Mark's Blog:

A Day (or 5) in the Life

Blog on the 2019 IATEFL Conference in Liverpool (April 2nd– April 6th2019) by Mark Van Dongen

Here Comes the Sun – Monday April 1st

From the day I won the prize draw at last year’s BELTA Day, I have been looking forward to coming to Liverpool for this year’s IATEFL Conference.

As a football and Beatles fanatic, I know the city isn’t going to disappoint me. That’s why I am delighted that my teaching schedule allows me to set off a day early so that I can explore the city first.

I arrive at my hotel at 12.30 pm so that I have the rest of the day to find out what Liverpool has to offer. As my hotel is in the vicinity of the Anglican Cathedral, that’s what I visit first. Wow – you can’t fail to be impressed when you see the building. It is the 5thlargest cathedral in the world and is built on top of a quarry, which makes it look even bigger.

Afterwards I go down to the waterfront to register for the conference. This is another good reason for arriving a day in advance as the conference starts at 9 am and there is usually a bit of a queue to sign in then. Once I have received my badge and my conference guide, I venture to the Museum of Liverpool and afterwards take the Mersey Ferry (together with my good colleague Mario, who literally has to run to make it on board) for a cruise on the river. It’s a great way to see the city and they actually play the song ‘Ferry ‘Cross the Mersey’ each time the ferry docks!

At 6.30 pm I attend the IATEFL Reception, where I meet up with two of my other Flemish colleagues. The reception is attended by the Lord Mayor of whichever city is hosting the conference. Apart from the free drinks (only joking!), it also gives you a chance to get acquainted with the venue.

Having been up since 5 am, I go back to the hotel. Liverpool is truly one of the most beguiling cities I have ever visited. The people are friendly and there is so much to see and do.

A Hard Day’s Night - Tuesday April 2nd

I don’t get much sleep on my first night, so I arrive at the plenary session slightly too late as I have also miscalculated how long it takes to get from my hotel to the ACC conference centre. Luckily there is quite a long introduction on the first day as the IATEFL board members are presented and the IATEFL president gives a (long) speech.

This is my 4thIATEFL conference and I thoroughly recommend going to the plenary sessions as they are usually very good. Today’s session is given by Paula Rebolledo from Chile, who talks about ‘teacher empowerment’. This happens to be one of the principles on which ‘Katholiek Onderwijs Vlaanderen’ has built its new curriculum. Paula talks about the fact that teachers are more often than not disempowered at the moment. This has to do with the conditions for empowerment not always being there: class sizes are too large, teachers don’t always get a say in which coursebook they can use, the teaching schedule is not always ideal and teachers invariably don’t have a say in curriculum design.

To achieve teacher empowerment there has to be democratic decision making, an environment where risks are allowed to be taken and where collaborative action can be taken.

Finally professional development has to be teacher-led. At the moment we as a society are obsessed with WHO is saying WHAT. Teachers are the experts and they should be heard. It is certainly a thought-provoking start to the conference!

After the plenary session, you get a choice out of a number of talks, forums and workshops. The great thing is you will always find something that interests you. This year I have decided to look for sessions that I can use to help implement the new curriculum in Flanders as I am a teacher trainer and an ELT adviser for secondary schools. As a result I do a workshop innovatively titled ‘Liquorice All Sorts: Teaching Mixed Ability Teenage Classes’. To cater for 21stcentury teens, we should make our lessons ‘Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic’. It’s nothing new, but it’s great to experience some of the activities we ask our students to do…

It’s always nice to go and support Flemish speakers at IATEFL. VIVES lecturer Bruno Leys gives a very short but interesting talk on irregular verbs. Bruno points out that we tend to ask our pupils to study irregular verbs in an illogical manner. First of all, we hardly ever provide context when giving pupils the list to study. Some irregular verbs are also more frequent than others. Indeed, some past participles occur more often than the past form: we hardly ever use ‘forgave’ for example, but nearly always ‘forgiven’ as in ‘He has never forgiven her for walking out on him’.

A good tip that I was given when I first attended an IATEFL Conference in 2016 was not to cram your itinerary full of sessions. This gives you time to absorb what you have heard and to choose your next session carefully. I therefore decide to take advantage of the temporary sunshine and pop out to go on an excellent open top bus tour of Liverpool. Again, I am in awe of the city and what it has to offer.

On my return to the ACC, Bloom’s Taxonomy is presented from a different angle. The speaker, Alan Mackenzie, suggests we shouldn’t look at Bloom in either a hierarchical or linear way. Most activities for languages have overlaps. If you want your pupils to talk about their weekend this involves remembering and understanding the rules of the past simple as well as applying the rules, for example.

Unfortunately, the next talk, ‘Exploiting technology in student-generated content’ is a bit disappointing – you can’t win ‘em all!

The final session saves the day though and is another Flemish affair: Vanessa De Wilde and Geert De Maeyer present ‘A Flying start’, Artevelde Hogeschool’s new placement test for Flemish secondary schools. Really interesting and very useful! Go to to find out more.

IATEFL offers a range of evening activities – all free. My three Flemish companions and I go off to take part in the annual IATEFL quiz. We manage to recruit 4 extra members there: 2 Swedish ladies, a German and an Italian. We start off in an optimistic fashion but end the night virtually in last place. Well, remember that it had been a Hard Day’s Night…

Imagine - Wednesday 3rdApril

Today’s plenary isn’t particularly motivational. This probably has to do with the speaker, John Gray, who delivers his talk at an electrifying pace without much humour. A pity as the topic is a ‘sexy’ one: ‘Gender and sexuality in ELT’. Oh well! It gives me the chance to go over my schedule for the day.

Luckily, I have chosen wisely for my first talk of the day. Andrew Walkley gives us ‘A very good place to start. Lessons from teaching beginners’ in which he promotes the lexical approach. He says the syllabus/coursebook often holds students back because of the way it’s usually built up. So very true! Andrew says we should be teaching grammar as words and that we should have a spiral syllabus in which we revisit (and then extend) items. There should be ‘space for those who know and support for those that don’t’.

IATEFL always has a large exhibition where you will find the world’s leading ELT publishers. I have pencilled in an hour to visit the exhibition. A little piece of advice here: it is best to do this at the END of the day as you end up with bags of promotional material and books which you then have to carry around for the rest of the day! The hour I spend here is also very productive though as I am given a personal session on the advantages of the Global Scales of English by Pearson (more information to be found on The GSE is based on the CEFR and can come in handy when choosing a coursebook for example.

My final session before lunch is by the delightful Andrew Wright. Andrew is a professional storyteller and teacher who advocates the use of stories (both fictional and non-fictional) in the classroom. Andrew shows us that a simple urban legend that takes place in the Australian outback can lead to all sorts of activities, from an introductory talk on Australia to creative writing. Andrew also refers to research showing that voluntary reading and listening is the best way to improve your English.

During our lunch break my Flemish pals and I visit the (free!) John Lennon and Yoko Ono exhibition (Double Fantasy) at the Museum of Liverpool. A great overview of their life together and well worth a visit if you’re a Beatles fan.

After lunch I am left disappointed as the session I want to attend is declared ‘full’. Another useful tip for those of you who attend IATEFL in the future: always have a back-up plan! You can’t sign up for a session as it’s first come, first served. So make sure you’re at the auditorium or room in time.

I don’t have a back-up plan, so I am left to sort through the promotional material the publishers have given me at the exhibition in the morning.

My final session of the day is ‘The best things in life are free!’ by Marie Arlie. She shows us how Collins’ new website contains a wealth of free materials and tools ( Unfortunately for Marie, she experiences quite a few technical hitches during her presentation (I feel for her as we’ve all been there)…

You’ll Never Walk Alone - Thursday 4thApril

I have the Beatles’ ‘Good Day Sunshine’ going through my head when I walk to the ACC in the morning. The sunshine isn’t going to last unfortunately...

Aleksandra Zaparucha’s plenary on CLIL (content and language integrated learning) doesn’t meet up to everyone’s expectations. Personally, I think she does a pretty good job of first explaining the difference between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ CLIL and then telling us which topics should be dealt with in CLIL.

In Flanders we have ‘hard’ CLIL: you need to be qualified as a chemistry teacher for example, to be able to teach the subject in a foreign language. ‘Soft’ CLIL refers to language teachers teaching subject content. I personally believe ‘soft’ CLIL is the only way CLIL can become widespread in our 3rdstage as we don’t have enough subject teachers who are able to teach their subject in English, French or German at the moment.

Aleksandra then goes to tell us that we should be teaching global topics such as climate change in CLIL lessons.

Next up is fellow countryman Ward Peeters who talks about his research into peer interaction. As ‘written interaction’ is part of the new curriculum I am intrigued to find out more. It appears that peer interaction works IF the teacher is not actively involved. You just need to have a closed group using a fast response medium (such as Facebook or WhatsApp).

I decide to break out of the conference at this point. There are two sessions at the end of the day that I want to attend and I know from experience that my capacity for concentration is limited to a plenary and 4 (maximum 5) talks or workshops per day. By this time, it is raining cats and dogs. I therefore hop onto a Liverpool FC Tour Bus to go and visit Anfield. The whole experience is joyous for a football nut like myself and I return to the ACC completely energised. Bring on the final 2 sessions!

First, I attend Artevelde/UGent’s Delphine Laire’s talk ‘Bringing the canon alive’ on designing literature lessons for teens. Very interesting and inspiring. Literature is definitely making a comeback in our curricula – rightly so. Delphine shows us that there are different approaches to teaching literature. By taking a reader experience approach combined with a cultural and historical approach we can get the most out of reading literature.

My final session of the day is the workshop ‘How to create interactive online tasks’ by Jill Hadfield. Jill presents seven different formats for online interaction. As with Ward Peeter’s session on peer interaction, using a fast response medium is required (Facebook, Skype, WhatsApp…) as Jill stresses that these activities involve human to human interaction. As this is a workshop you get the chance to apply the techniques (albeit on paper). A few examples of the online tasks are ‘Confetti’ where the teacher posts a stimulus (e.g. ‘Do you like dogs?’) and the students respond and interact, ‘Pass the Parcel’ in which the teacher posts a stimulus, student 1 replies and posts the next stimulus to student 2. All very interesting! More tasks can be found in Jill’s and Lindsay Clandfield’s book ‘Interaction Online’ (CUP 2017).

All Things Must Pass – Friday 5thApril

The last day of the conference, but not the last day of the UK for me. I will be heading down to London in the afternoon to see my students in action for their UK Civilisation course.

First off the final plenary session of the conference (for me anyway – I can’t stay for the closing plenary at 1pm). Lindsay Clandfield’s talk is called ‘Methodology, Mythology and the Language of Education Technology’. Lindsay tells us that making the distinction between ‘digital natives’ (someone who grew up with technology) and ‘digital immigrants’ (someone like myself!) is not helpful or relevant and that schools are not destined for the scrapheap. Well thanks, Lindsay, that really puts my mind at rest! He is referring to the fact that a.o. AI hasn’t replaced teachers yet (and never will do). On the other hand, we should embrace technology and use it properly in education. We just need to be realistic about what teachers can and can’t do with technology.

One myth Lindsay refers to is that ‘we teach too much grammar’. In Adriaan de Koster’s talk ‘Processing instruction versus traditional instruction’, the focus is on the results of a research project he carried out in a couple of Dutch vocational secondary schools. A group of children were taught the past simple in the traditional manner, while another group were taught via ‘processing instruction’. This involves focusing on the form (input) and not production (output). According to Adriaan’s findings, ‘processing instruction’ is more effective. I think the research is interesting, but I will certainly need to look into the matter in more detail. The number of pupils tested was also rather small (88).

I decide to take the long way back to the hotel to pick up by bags before I go to Lime Street Station. This way I can go through Matthew Street and see The Cavern from close by.

One thing’s for sure: ‘there are places I remember’… and Liverpool (and the 2019 IATEFL Conference) will certainly be one of them. Many thanks to BELTA for making this trip happen!