Image by Alexandra Koch from Pixabay


When my oldest son was about three, he became very interested in dinosaurs. He would watch YouTube videos and television shows, and soon he knew more about dinosaurs that I did. Granted, that wasn’t much. So, I signed up for a palaeontology course through FutureLearn and I was ready to be my son’s teacher. Except, I soon realised that palaeontology isn’t only about dinosaurs, as it also covers plants, and any other thing which exists in fossil form. I spent about three weeks reading and watching videos and soon I was so overwhelmed with information that I had no idea what was going on, and I felt like I still knew very little about dinosaurs. In other words, whilst it was extremely interesting, it was definitely not fit for our purpose. I was at a friend’s house one evening and he said, ‘Why don’t you just google dinosaur fun facts for kids?’. Which I did. And suddenly I had a wealth of interesting little titbits that would entertain my son. From that, I could google specific dinosaurs, where they lived, what they ate, when they lived, and lots of other information. That meant I could have interesting conversations with my son about when the last Woolly Mammoth died (about 3,700 years ago on an island where they became trapped after the Ice Age and not 10,000 years at the end of the Ice Age) or about when dinosaurs became extinct (about 65 million years ago and the Triceratops was probably the last living dinosaur). There is a three-metre geological zone where you cannot find dinosaur fossils, but later research indicates that there you can find Triceratops fossils in and above this three-metre zone. And so on and so forth … all starting with a simple Google search. The course I did just confused me, and I was overwhelmed with information I couldn’t process.

Do you ever feel like that when you start looking for information about teaching techniques, or certain types of activities online? Or when you start looking for what course to do next? Keep reading to This blog offers a somewhat oversimplified solution to this problem, keeping in mind that there isn’t really a one-size-fit-all solution.



Ask why

Looking at my dinosaur example, if I had kept in mind that I wanted to speak to a three-year-old child, it would have been very apparent that a palaeontology course was overkill. There was no need for it. So, ask yourself why you want to find out more about a specific area. If you need to find activities teaching present progressive tense to a group of young learners then reading Practical English Usage (Swan, 1980) is probably not going to be helping much, especially if they are only going to be using it for a very specific function.

Once you have narrowed down exactly what you are looking for, use this information to search online. Just searching for ‘How to teach the present progressive or present continuous tense’ is unlikely to give you anything useful. I remember having a discussion with a teacher preparing a lesson for his Trinity Diploma teaching practice and he mentioned that Michael Lewis in The English Verb (1986) offers excellent insight into the use of the present progressive. I pointed out that while true, it is extremely unlikely to be useful to anyone below CEFR B1 and that he should avoid that in his young learner class. But this does highlight how easy it potentially is to get carried away with some information that is not going to be helping you or your learners.


Check the source and context

A few weeks ago, I had a discussion with teachers about the use of there is and there are and whether you should use is or are in the sentence: There ____ an apple and an orange in my bag. (The answer is There is.).

When searching online, there were many opposing opinions, and each person was fairly certain that their answer was correct. I asked them to justify their answers, and then read over some of the things the teachers sent to support their decision for choosing is or are, and soon realised that they had no idea who the person online was, and that presents a problem. You can have a person on Reddit claiming to be a linguist, yet their profile says they’re an office manager, or a person with many years teaching, so the whys and wherefores of how they might be a grammar expert is not clear. Especially as the structure involves a compound subject, and things aren’t as straightforward as they appear … To clear up these rather muddy waters, we ended up referring to the Cambridge Guide to English Usage (Peters, 2004) as a trustworthy source.

The lesson from all this was that you can easily spend hours reading opposing opinions and still be left unsure. This is particularly true if you are reading about methodology or activities where it isn’t clear if the writing is aimed young learners or adults, or what the actual level of the students are.

A further little anecdote about this is from my days as a Cambridge DELTA tutor. I was reading and marking an essay where a candidate cited an article about vocabulary acquisition that seemed to support a point I disagreed with. Without too much detail, I found the article through my university library and read it. It was used to support an activity in an IELTS class, but the article was about vocabulary acquisition in a kindergarten in Korea. So, one way of making sure that you are not overwhelmed by information is to think first about who and what to read rather than just searching online.




Structured note taking

Once your focus is clear, and you have a clear ‘why’ in mind, it is always good to have a record of what you have read or watched (if it is webinars, vlogs, or YouTube videos). To structure notes, I suggest having an online document like Google docs to keep track of what you have read. Using the content of normal teacher training courses is a good way to structure this – so, have headings for grammar, lexis, phonology, discourse, function, listening, reading, writing, speaking, methodologies, assessment, and classroom management. You can add more categories as you read.

It is very likely that you will read one article where you could be adding notes to many categories. I generally number what I have read, and then either paste a link to the video or article or write down the name of the book. That means I can just write a number next to my notes and it is easy to find the article again. There are many different ways of taking notes, but I do suggest that you start out with some structure, so you can cross-reference your notes. It is also good to make notes in different colours, and if possible, adding images to your notes as it is easier to find. If you doodle or draw while you make notes, you can also take a picture of your drawings and insert it into your notes document.

If you have a Google folder, then you can also save links to courses, and perhaps PDFs from those courses in a folder and add the link to the folder in your notes. I have done this quite often when I do a free online course like those on FutureLearn or Coursera, or a formal course. A mistake I made before is to also make a folder for conferences I have attended. I find it better now to just add my conference notes to other parts of my notes, often by inserting images of my notes onto my document. Be sure to add which conference and session you notes are from, especially if you attend conferences frequently.

Once your categories become to long or there is too much information, it might be good to have a separate note-taking document for separate areas, for example a document for language skills, one for language systems, and one for teaching young learners. You can then use these notes to guide what and where to learn to keep your own development going. And remember, you can make links within a document, which makes it easy to click on a heading and go to that part of the document.




Looking forward

It can be overwhelming if you find so much information that you don’t know where to start. The three tips in here should help, so remember to ask:

  • Why do I want to learn about this?
  • Who wrote this and in which context (or who is the speaker in the video and from which context)?
  • How am I going to make notes of what I am learning?

It is unlikely that the amount of information we have access to will decrease, so having a structured approach to deciding where to start will at least help you clear the first hurdle. Happy learning!


Useful reading

Lewis, M. (1986). The English Verb: An Exploration of Structure and Meaning. Hove: L Language Teaching Publications (LTP).

Peters, P. (2004). The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Swan, M. (1980). Practical English Usage; Swan, M. (2016). Practical English Usage 4th Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.