I’m a conference addict. Ask anyone who knows me and they will attest to the fact that I love going to ELT conferences. 

You get to catch up with old friends, meet people you’ve chatted to countless times on social media, welcome those that are new to the conference circuit, reflect upon your own practice, and in the evenings, you get to hang out with like-minded people and talk all night about what you are most passionate about. What’s there not to love?

But the one thing that brings us all together in one place is the conference programme. We’re there for the main event: the conference talks. And there are so many different types of conference talks. Before we even arrive at the conference venue, we pore over the conference programme trying to decide which talks to go to. We look for topics that interest us, speakers that might be exciting, and sessions that could inspire us.


After attending many conference talks, I have come to the conclusion that there are essentially ten different types. 

-The theoretical one  

The theoretical conference talk looks at the basis of what we do. What attitudes and beliefs underpin the decisions we make in the classroom? What does our use of pairwork and teamwork say about us? Why do we explicitly choose to focus on pronunciation? How much of language is really collocations and colligations? What type of syllabus do you subscribe to? What about just dealing with emergent language? A good theoretical talk does not put you to sleep. Instead, it keeps you on your toes and reflecting on the way you see or do things.

-The revolutionary one 

This is the conference talk that is not afraid to step on a few toes to make a point and incite some change. This is the talk that challenges the status quo in our industry. This could be in the form of questioning how coursebooks are written, the way the national curriculum is put together, the effectiveness of our existing assessment system, or how much we teachers are paid.  This is the daring talk that packs the room and leaves everyone with a feeling that we can all make a change.

-The reassuring one

This is the ELT equivalent of a Hollywood feel-good chick flick. It is the talk that tells you what you already know and makes you feel like you have been on the right track all along. You relate to all the anecdotes that are being told, you smile and nod furiously through most of it and you feel relieved that there are others who do or feel the same as you. And in the process, you might find one or two useful quotes that will help justify what you do and solidify your position to your employers, your colleagues, your students and/or their parents.


-The practical one  

Many of us are raring to participate in the classroom tasks and games that we mead out to our students. Here is our chance. Sometimes labelled ‘workshops’, these conference talks are the kind that introduces lots of activities, gets the audience participating in the demonstrations and allows you to get to know the people sitting near you. You leave with plenty of lesson ideas and you can’t stop thinking about how you can use your Monday morning students as guinea pigs for some of those activities. 

-The funny one  

We all love to be entertained. And sometimes, in a long day of multiple conference talks, we find ourselves needing a boost of energy. This is the kind of talk you need to balance out your day and lighten up your mood. The funny conference talk is filled with insider industry jokes that make you laugh, and anecdotes that make you giggle, and although the charming bubbly presenter looks like someone who must have had a master class in standup comedy, they are also someone you’d love to have dinner with in the evenings by the end of their talk. And when you think back to this talk, the only thing you can remember is how much fun you had.

-The sharing one  

This presenter has a very specific teaching circumstance and scenario and is here to share it with you. It might be about volunteering in North Africa, teaching refugees in Berlin, dealing with a class of prisoners, managing teachers who have a low level of proficiency in English, or starting a school in the rural villages of Mongolia. There might be parts of it that some of us might relate to, there would be a lesson in there for many of us, but sometimes it’s just nice to learn more about what other teachers experience. In our diverse world of ELT, there is always some camaraderie amongst fellow ELTers who will respect and show interest in what we do.


- The tech one 

This has become a popular type of talk in recent years. It might be a talk about the use of a new tool, device or software, or one that lists the apps that teachers could introduce to their classrooms. It could be a talk that explores the functions and usability of a new software or one that gives you new ideas as to how you can make you use existing social media like Facebook, Twitter, or Google Plus. Whatever the tech, you can be sure your room is going to be packed.

-The book plug 

Before you groan, a sponsored talk isn’t always just about marketing a new book. A good book-plug talk actually goes beyond simply explaining the ethos underpinning the book and a few examples of the new publication. It is a theoretical talk, a revolutionary talk, a practical talk and even a funny talk (see above) all rolled into one. And you come away feeling like you have benefitted from it. And that doesn’t include the free complimentary book you just might receive.

- The controversial one  

No conference is ever complete without attending at least one controversial talk. This is the talk where some of the attendees end up fuming and seething in their seats with anger and outrage. This is the talk where debate ensues sometimes during and sometimes immediately after the talk ends. This is the talk that sometimes incites a tirade of blogposts after the event. When the very basis of our beliefs, our methods and our livelihood have been shaken, it is hard not to react. And we do it with passion. And what a valuable experience that is, for the reflection that comes out of such experiences (intentional or otherwise) cannot be replicated in any other way.

- The short one  

Sometimes the best talks are the ones that get to their point very quickly. After attending many 30-60-minute-long conference talks, some more inspiring than others, we feel almost out of breath. And we might perhaps find ourselves yawning and our minds drifting as we approach the end of the day. There are now many formats that are geared to capture our attention by keeping the talk short and sweet. The Pecha Kucha (20 slides of 20 seconds each), the 10-min plenaries (see Innovate ELT 2016), Ignite (5 minutes, 20 slides) and the famous TED talks all have this in common. They are fast-paced, concise, succinct and they get our adrenaline pumping. 


Before you interject, let me just say that these ten are very much based on what I have experienced and are only of my opinion and my opinion alone. These ten types are also not mutually exclusive. And what might be one type of talk for you might be a different type for another person. For example, you might think that the theoretical talk is a reassuring one for you, but to someone else, it might be the revolutionary one.

But I think we can agree that the best kind of conference talk is one where we end up going back to work the following week filled with ideas and fresh energy for the classroom, and the fond memories from the conference we have attended only serves to fuel our passion for our job.




Chia Suan Chong is a General English and Business English teacher and teacher trainer, with a degree in Communication Studies (Broadcast and Electronic Media) and an MA in Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching from King’s College London. 

Fascinated by the interplay between culture, language and thought, Chia is also an intercultural skills trainer and materials developer, and is now based in York.

She is also the voice of @ETprofessional on Twitter. You can find out more about her on her blogsite