Editor’s Note: The IATEFL (the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language)  is not as well known in the United States as TESOL.  IATEFL just had its annual conference, and Jessica Mackay was graciously agreed to write about its highlights.


Jessica Mackay has taught EFL at the School of Modern Languages (EIM) at the University of Barcelona for more than 25 years. She is the organiser of the EIM Multilingual Teaching Days and ELTRIA (ELT Research in Action) conference and co-editor of the ELTRIA publication. She is also on the IATEFL Research SIG committee, co-editor of the ELT Research newsletter, and Barcelona Area Coordinator for TESOL Spain.


IATEFL (the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) was established in 1967. As a registered UK charity, supported by subscription fees, IATEFL has developed its mission to ‘link, develop and support English language teaching professionals worldwide’ by offering numerous free resources and grants as well as supporting a network of associates across the globe. One of the major events in the IATEFL calendar is the annual conference, sadly postponed last year due to the COVID crisis.

After last year’s hiatus, this year’s conference took place from June 19-21, in a virtual format for the first time in its 54-year history. The challenge, as ever, with a conference of this size (approximately 3,000 delegates from 100 different countries) is choosing between the 500+ talks and workshops. In my case, the selection was guided by my working context: EFL with adult learners, including an increasing number of older learners, teacher development and training, as well as by my professional interests: classroom research, psychology of the language learner and teacher. What follows is a highly personal selection of my key takeaways from the three days.


    1. Inclusive practices in a digital age


The opening plenary of this year’s conference was given by Professor Judit Kormos (University of Lancaster), a renowned scholar in the field of Second Language Acquisition, whose recent work has focused on learners with Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLDs). It is impossible to summarise the depth and breadth of content of Judit’s talk in a few short lines so I would highly recommend referring to her website:

Amongst so much useful information, some key takeaways for me included the principles of Universal Design, which allows learners to access information in different ways. For example, listening and reading simultaneously can compensate for limitations in short-term memory. This also meant that the shift to remote learning had certain advantages for learners with SpLDs (e.g. access to online tools, more flexibility and planning time, less social interaction, ‘pause’ function when feeling overwhelmed, etc.). Perhaps the most telling message was that rather than seeing learners with SpLDs as a problem to overcome, teachers should acknowledge that many of the behavioural characteristics they exhibit (e.g. holisitic thinking, creativity, originality, problem-solving skills and spatial knowledge) are now often described as most valued by future employers. Finally, Judit left us with some points to consider.


2. You’re never too old

On the subject of inclusive practices, there is a growing interest in learning languages among older, usually retired, learners. This is due to ageing populations and an increasing awareness of the cognitive and social benefits of learning a language later in life. A number of talks addressed some of the practical realities associated with this age group, such as visual and auditory impairment, but also emphasised the positive learning advantages: previous knowledge and experience and high levels of motivation. Sarah Curtius (freelance) referred to ‘crystallized intelligence’, which she called the senior ‘superpower’: the ability to use and build on a wealth of accumulated skills, which younger learners do not possess. In fact, it seems our biggest challenge as teachers may be to overcome older learners’ own prejudices regarding their abilities and convince our learners that they can and will succeed, in pleasing harmony with the message of the opening plenary.

3. The value of repetition

It struck me that much of the practical advice for teaching older learners could be equally applied across all age groups. One of the key messages was the need for repetition. As teachers, we are probably aware of the value of recycling vocabulary over a course or the value of repeating speaking tasks after feedback, but we would avoid repeating the same activity in future lessons because of pressure to cover the syllabus or for fear that our learners will find it boring and repetitive. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. Adult learners value the opportunity to repeat a task, but do it better, to experience a sense of progress, especially from intermediate levels onwards. Research insights also suggest that acquisition in instructed settings requires multiple exposures to the target language. In other words, the message here is: slow down, go back and repeat tasks or even whole classes taught previously in the course and draw attention to progress. Our learners will appreciate it and it may lead to more effective long-term retention.

4. Teachers as learners

A common thread running through the talks and workshops on Teacher Development that I attended was the importance of investing (both money and time) in opportunities for teachers to learn from each other. Two clear examples of this were a project led by the British Council in Azerbaijan (Sevil Aghayeva & Konul Hajiyeva), which involved organizing Teacher Activity Groups (TAGs). Trained facilitators set up regular meetings to support teachers in isolated communities by encouraging them to share examples of good practice and explore new ideas. In another workshop, Tania Horak (University of Central Lancashire), summarised a ‘role-reversal’ experiment where language teachers went back to the language classroom as beginner students (of Polish). The participants were asked to note their reflections in a shared document after each class. As an ‘older’ demographic, the teachers’ observed a need to slow down and recycle material more often. They also wished for more time to share suggestions and strategies that had worked for them. Possibly the most striking result was an increased empathy with their own students. As language learners, they described feelings of frustration, tiredness and guilt when missing class or failing to do homework, all of which could be related to their students’ experiences.

5. Empathy: The teacher’s superpower

Empathy was a topic explored in detail by Kieran Donaghy (theschoolfortraining.com) in the final plenary: ‘Embedding a culture of empathy in English language teaching’. Although empathy has been a buzzword in ELT and in teaching in general for a number of years now, this plenary showed me that there is a great deal more to this topic that I was not aware of. Kieran described how recent political and social movements have created an ‘empathy deficit’ in modern culture which needs to be redressed at a classroom level.

Empathetic behaviour can be traced along a continuum from functional to fundamental to profound. Profoundly empathetic teachers go beyond positive and affirmative behaviour and model understanding of self and others for their students. As Kieran concluded, these teachers set up the conditions for the ‘constant human dialogue’ (Cooper, 2011) needed for learning to take place. As a final message, this was both positive and self-affirming. After all, as we are reading this, our desire to become better teachers is a good indication of our level of commitment to our students, but also a springboard for self-reflection: As educators, how profoundly empathetic are we? What can we – and our institutions – do to foster greater empathy while still looking after our own wellbeing?


Cooper, B. (2011) Empathy in education: engagement, values and achievement. Continuum, London.

Konrath, S.H., O’Brien, E.H. & Hsing, C. (2011) Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time: A Meta-Analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15(2):180-98.

All presentation slides reproduced with permission of the authors.