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Editorial NRInglês

Interview – with Alex Warren

Troika: How did you get involved in teaching? What made you stay in this area?

Alex Warren: Like many English language teachers, I somewhat fell into the profession by chance. The seeds were sown around 20 years ago when I was trekking in the Indonesian jungle of Sumatra, where I met a guy called Mark who had been working as an English teacher in Thailand. He was now backpacking around Indonesia and going into village schools and offering to teach one-off English classes to the children. Anyway, he asked me if I wanted to go into one of the schools with him as his “classroom assistant”, and so I did. And that’s where it all began. I can still remember the children’s faces and the joyful expressions and excitement they all had, and it was wonderful. When I returned to the UK several months later, that memory really stuck with me and was the catalyst for me to go and do my CELTA. And here I am nearly 20 years later. Did I imagine that would be the case back then? Probably not. So, what made me stay in the industry? Honestly, I think it’s a result of the opportunities that I’ve been lucky enough to have that have allowed me to make a career from it, moving from teacher to senior teacher and then from academic director to teacher trainer and academic consultant. Ultimately though, I love teaching and having an impact on, initially, students’ lives, and, latterly, on teachers is something which has been so rewarding and fulfilling for me.

T: What are your main interests in English language teaching (ELT)?

AW: That’s such a tough question as I tend to talk about lots of different areas for different segments. One area that I’ve been researching and talking about more recently is the concept of visible learning, as championed by John Hattie. This also links closely to my interest in active learning and making sure that the language learning classroom is as learner-centred as possible through different pedagogies, methodologies and strategies. Ultimately, if students are involved in their learning as much as possible, they develop the kind of learning habits we want them to have and which will ultimately help them become lifelong learners.

T: How do you compare teaching English now to doing it 20 years ago? How do you think the pandemic changed ELT? Are these changes here to stay?

Aw: I think in some ways teaching has changed in the last 20 years, but in others its core principles have remained fairly constant. Back in 2004 when I started teaching, the communicative approach was very much the order of the day, and that remains the case today. It’s not changed particularly and if you look at a coursebook from then and compare it to one now, on the surface they’d be fairly similar. The changes are more nuanced and subtle. I would say that the CEFR 2018 Companion has certainly had an impact on teaching in terms of how we perceive language learning, specifically with its focus on mediation as a form of communication and the use of English as a global language.

In terms of the pandemic, while there were of course significant changes during that period, I believe there has been a gradual return to a “new normal” which in reality isn’t all that removed from what it was before. However, the key difference is that the pandemic accelerated the integration of digital content into the classroom, so whereas before it was a “nice to have”, now it is a “must-have”. Digital tools – be they classroom presentation tools, ebooks, learner management systems like NGL’s Spark, online testing or programmes like Quizlet, Padlet and Kahoot – are now vital classroom tools that don’t just enhance the learning experience but learning too. Digital has also given us greater flexibility in how we deliver our lessons and teaching online has certainly forced us all to develop our digital skills and adapt our teaching skills for online. So from that perspective I would definitely say that all teachers are better teachers than they were before the pandemic. So, I regard it more as an evolution rather than a revolution.

T: How can we, teachers, help our learners become more independent?

AW: There’s no single answer to that question, but what I really believe is that it’s a key part of our job as teachers to help our students become independent, autonomous learners. I read somewhere recently that learner autonomy is the holy grail of teaching. Is it easy to achieve? Not necessarily. Is it achievable? Absolutely. So, how can we achieve it? Here are two possible routes.

For me it starts with the role of the teacher. Are we the sage on the stage or are we the guide on the side? The American poet Mark Van Doren wrote that “the art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery,” and that’s exactly what we should be doing as much as possible, as it can be massively empowering for learners. This is why when teaching grammar we should use an inductive teaching approach, and why we should give students the strategies to infer meaning from context. Couple this with plenty of collaborative pair and group work along with opportunities for self-assessment and peer-assessment and we’re well on the road to creating the right environment and mindset for greater learner autonomy.

Another gateway to achieving learner independence is encouraging them to become more reflective learners. By encouraging learners to reflect, it helps them to identify their own strengths and weaknesses, giving them a clear picture of how they’re doing and what actions they need to take. That in turn can increase motivation and self-efficacy, and contribute to a growth mindset, all key components of autonomous learners. By using reflective learning techniques like exit tickets or learning diaries or even can do statements, we’re encouraging them to walk the path to autonomy. As Borg (2011) points out, “To become autonomous, learners need to develop the ability to evaluate their own learning.”

T: Some teachers relate fostering learners’ autonomy to the possibility of becoming less relevant for the learning process. What are your thoughts about it?

AW: First of all, no. Learner autonomy absolutely does not decrease the importance of the teacher; rather, it shifts the role of the teacher in the learning process. What it does is put an emphasis on students taking an active role in their learning. While learners become more independent, the teacher’s role evolves to that of a facilitator, guide, and mentor. We become orchestrators of learning experiences, helping students navigate the language learning landscape. Remember, the art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery! We are still there to support learning and be a reference point when they need support.

But let’s not forget all the other non-teaching roles we perform in the classroom, from helping to create a positive learning environment and offering social and emotional support to basic classroom management, record keeping and of course assessment and evaluation. And as an added point, more and more frequently I get asked if AI will replace teachers in the future. Again, the answer is no. But that’s a discussion for another time.

T: During Troika Xperience 2023, you talked about linguistic mediation and how to incorporate it into everyday teaching. What’s the importance of mediation in language learning and teaching?

AW: Again, there’s no single answer to this question as the importance of mediation is multifaceted. Firstly, it is a life skill. It is something that we do in our everyday life, and so it’s something we need to help students do. It provides practical, real-world language use and in that respect it makes language learning meaningful and hopefully more motivating for learners. Secondly, given the global society that we live in and the role of English as a lingua franca, mediation promotes effective and culturally sensitive communication across these cultural and linguistic boundaries. Thirdly, mediation can help develop our students’ critical thinking, a key 21st century skill. Furthermore, from a language skills perspective, it incorporates all skills – reading, writing, listening and speaking – so what’s not to like? And finally, mediation activities are naturally collaborative and this helps develop positive relationships and understanding in the classroom. And so it is, in many ways, a perfect fit for the communicative and learner-centred classroom that we all strive for.

T: Mediation sometimes may happen in the classroom, but it is usually something that is not actively developed during the lessons. How do you see the leap from having mediation happening in the classroom to actually developing it?

AW: So while mediation is something that happens implicitly through many of the classroom activities and practices we already do, I would agree that there does need to be a more deliberate and systematic approach if we want to develop those skills. I would say that this starts with raising students’ awareness of what it actually is, to help to demystify it and avoid any stress factors around the topic. This is something I’ve had to do many times with teachers.

Then teachers need to use tasks with specific mediation goals (making students aware of these) and which focus on the strategies needed to do it effectively. For example, comparing and summarizing texts, or explaining visual data. What I would say, is that this should also be done in discussion with students, asking them what skills they need in order to do this effectively. In other words, creating success criteria to go with the task. Using the mediation skills and strategy descriptors – amplifying/streamlining a text, breaking down complicated information etc. – can help with this. I’d also recommend providing them with specific language support through language frames to further raise awareness and provide guidance.

T: Considering the three types of mediation (mediating a text, mediating concepts, and mediating communication), which one do you see as being the most important to be dealt with in our lessons?

AW: For me, trying to classify them from most important to least important isn’t necessarily a worthwhile activity, as they are all important skills for life outside of the classroom. The one which probably lends itself most easily to classroom activities is mediating a text, which as stated earlier is something we do anyway. Think of all the jigsaw read type activities we do, the IELTS part 1 writing tasks, describing processes, reporting key information, translation, note-taking, review writing – these are all forms of mediating a text. Equally mediating concepts is something we tend to do plenty of (whether we know it or not), through the different pair and group work activities that we tend to do. For example, the classic Desert Island rank/order task is one where students have to work together, manage group dynamics, ask questions, encourage conceptual talk and make universal decisions, all of which are hugely important life skills beyond the four walls of the classroom. As for mediating communication, given the diversity of the three descriptors – mediating pluricultural space, acting as an intermediary and conflict resolution – it’s arguably the hardest one to develop, especially in monolingual classrooms.

T: Does a multicultural context change the role of mediation in language learning and teaching? Why / Why (not)?

AW: I would say that generally speaking yes, it does change the role of mediation, or at least it becomes more significant. In fact, I’d say that it becomes essential for navigating cultural nuances in this environment and so teachers need to guide learners not only in language proficiency but also in understanding cultural variations in communication. As such, mediation can help learners interpret and express messages in more culturally sensitive ways. I’d also say that it helps foster intercultural competencies by encouraging learners to explore and understand different and diverse perspectives.

T: What tips would you give to a teacher who wants to start working with mediation more consciously in their classes?

AW: The first port of call would be to definitely familiarize themselves with all aspects of mediation and the corresponding descriptors in the CEFR 2018 Companion. There are also several webinars worth watching on the NGL webinar site ( and excellent articles at the NGL In Focus blog ( Otherwise, using a coursebook like Voices, where mediation is integrated into the coursebook and with specific mediation activities in the teachers’ resources, will give teachers a real feel for what mediation looks like in the classroom.


Alex Warren

Alex is a DELTA-trained teacher trainer with over 19 years’ experience of working in ELT as a teacher, teacher trainer, and academic director. He has presented in over 50 countries throughout Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America. Alex is currently the Senior ELT Academic Consultant for National Geographic Learning.

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