May Street Stories from Urban Lyrebirds


Carmel Davies from Urban Lyrebirds is one of the founding members of our ‘teacher to writer and publisher’ group, ESL-SPIN. I interviewed her about her latest books, ‘May Street Stories’.

Carmel, congratulations on your new reading series

Thanks! It’s taken a while, but I’m really happy with the books. 

What are the titles?

At the Park, The Lost Key, Broken Computer, Underpaid!, Where’s my Bike? and Fire! Fire!

They sound very topical.

Yes, they’re all loosely based on experiences my students and friends have had over the years.

And the May Street connection?

The characters in the books include teenagers, refugees, international students and retirees. They live in the same block of flats in May Street, and get to know each other better through the events of each story.

The illustrations are very evocative of students I’ve met. 

Yes, I was very happy with the illustrator we worked with, Veronica Dixon. You can also see how the cover design of each book incorporates visual elements from the culture of the main character, and that’s carried on throughout the pages of the books.

I noticed that! What’s in the books?

Each book has a problem-resolution story of about 400-500 words, and two pages of activities and conversation questions. The stories are aimed at strong beginner to post-beginner learners (adult or young adult).

There’s audio, but we decided not to go down the CD route as so many people no longer have CD players. Instead the audio will be available for free download from our website – no codes to enter, as we want it to be simple for learners.

I see that Urban Lyrebirds is now distributing through Bookery…

Yes, that’s been a great experience for us, after doing our own distribution initially. They’ve been very patient and supportive. They were the ones who told us how keen the libraries were to find new Australian readers. 

So our books are still available through all the other language bookshops and library suppliers, but we don’t have to organise that any more.

What advice would you give other would-be writers?

Write stories about characters that students will care about, in situations grounded in reality, that reflect their lives. Humour is good, as well as relevance, and authentic characters. Universal themes, interesting stories expressed simply…

I notice how much students love to discuss moral predicaments and dilemmas – those ‘What should he/she do now?’ questions. Even beginners are eager to participate in the discussion when they feel strongly about an issue.

What else is coming from Urban Lyrebirds?

Sharon (Duff) and I are also working on some more readers, to accompany the Sing With Me! songs. She’s illustrating them too, which is very impressive.

We’re also planning to work on an unfinished book by our wonderful friend and business partner Maggie Power, who sadly passed away last year. She asked us if we’d finish her Preliminary level Passages to English, and we’re going to do that with her daughter.

That will be so valuable – and a great tribute to her.

Yes, she’s sorely missed, as a friend and a creative collaborator.

Just to finish up, if you ran the ESL world…?

I’d like to see more engaging PD for teachers, and more engaging activities for students, with meetings, social events, volunteers in the classroom and opportunities to build community – and only relevant assessment! 

And what would you create if money was no object?

I’d love to make short 3-minute videos. Or a mini-series – remember the 2006 ABC series, English: Have a Go!  There’s been nothing like it since…

My second dream venture would be a small travelling theatre company, taking live drama based on students’ life experiences out to learners across the country. I had this idea 20 years ago and got funding to do a one-off. It worked so well that the idea is still with me. So any interested funding bodies out there – do get in touch!

Good luck!

On the road with ESL-SPIN


Here’s an update from ESL-SPIN members Sharon and Carmel, from Urban Lyrebirds, who’ve been on the road, presenting on singing in the classroom, and promoting ESL-SPIN: 

In May, we flew to Brisbane to present workshops on Song in the ESL Classroom for QCAL and QATESOL.

At the first workshop in Brisbane we met an enthusiastic group of QCAL teachers at Musgrave Park, an important meeting place for local Murri people who held corrobborees there and demonstrated culture. A privilege for us to sing here and enthuse teachers under the Moreton Bay figs… they really got into the warm-up at sunset on the deck!

Next stop was the Townsville QATESOL PD DAY at St Saviour’s College, for the Plenary Session on English Through Song.

Close to 100 teachers ordered lyrics, sang “Open Our Hearts” (from Sing with me! 3), flopped on their chairs to “Too much technology is driving me crazy – I’m sitting in my chair and I’m feeling pretty lazy” and were fully engaged for over an hour at the end of the day! A testimony to the power of song.

We heard from teachers who are using Sing with me! songs across the region in primary schools. One teacher was preparing a concert the following week, with songs from Sing with me! 1. Very exciting.

Jennifer Wills gave an excellent presentation on Secret English – discussing the latest research into successful literacy practices for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students.

We also had a table and display of ESL-SPIN resources – and interest from teachers on how self-publishing works.

Thanks to Hazel Davidson for a great job organizing and inviting Urban Lyrebirds to present, and to the friendly teachers from QCAL /QTESOL.


Later in May, we presented Multiple literacies through Song at the 2016 VALBEC Conference at William Angliss Institute in Melbourne (and showcased ESL-SPIN resources between sessions, with great interest in how to develop resources).

5 things that made it a great conference:

  1. Chris Falk launched the Conference with songs by Glenroy Harmonisers from the Glenroy Neighbourhood Learning centre – another reminder of the power of singing to bring people together and break down barriers of social isolation.
  2. Tony Dreise from ACER talked about literacy being about far more than job preparation. Emotional literacy, cultural literacy, developing entrepreneurial mindsets, supporting personal agency and fostering creativity must also be central to any program.
  3. Public libraries are developing partnerships with other literacy providers to support adult literacy. A project with Urban Lyrebirds is in the pipeline! Very exciting for us.
  4. Prisoners in Tasmania are making leaps and bounds in their literacy with a new approach using direct instruction in phonological awareness. The program was piloted by Rosalie Martin, a speech pathologist with expertise in literacy acquisition disorders.
  5. The food at William Angliss is excellent – we really enjoyed the lunch and morning tea and the healthy choices – all made by trainee students. Well done!




ESL-SPIN at the ACTA/ACAL Conference


photoA Just a quick update as so much has been happening: this was the ESL-SPIN table at the ACTA/ACAL conference in Perth last month – a huge thank you to the organisers! We (that’s Clare and Karen) had a great location, just around the corner from the Language Centre Bookshop’s stall, and were able to chat to so many teachers about resources and publishing ideas. We don’t sell anything at our tables, just talk about what we all do, what ages and levels the resources might suit, noting down suggestions… it’s a very fun way to spend a day.

It was also exciting to realise that there are other ESOL/EAL teachers ‘out there’ writing and self-publishing. We met up with Pauline Bunce, who has just produced a resource for biscriptal learners – you can see sample pages on her website, and Clare has also interviewed her.

Then in the photo, Clare is holding a brand-new, ‘arrived in the post yesterday’ Australian grammar book from Helga Burry, Let’s Connect. 

Next we’ll report from Queensland, so watch this space…




At the CamTESOL conference

At our poster session at the conference

Although ESL-SPIN is a group of Australian teachers turned publishers, the first ESL-SPIN event took place far away, at the CamTESOL conference in Cambodia, where Sharon Duff and Carmel Davies (Urban Lyrebirds) and Clare Harris (The Book Next Door) represented the network. Here, Carmel talks about her impressions of the trip:

Carmel, the ESL-SPIN team come from around Australia. How did you plan for the event?

We’d been doing a lot of phone discussions, but Sharon, Clare and I decided to meet up and finalise our planning in Siem Reap, in the north west of Cambodia. Of course we didn’t just work – we visited the world heritage temples around Angkor Wat and got a taste for Khmer language and culture before catching the bus to Phnom Penh for the CAMTESOL Conference.

So what did you actually do at CamTESOL?

We presented a poster session on our newly formed ESL-SPIN group. As in Australia, we could see the big publishers were out in full force with hundreds of books for the ELT market.

So what sets us apart? Well, we wanted to let people know that our materials are tailored to the needs of our students and have been developed from our experiences in teaching and the gaps we have seen in available resources. We met a lot of teachers who came to look at our resources and ask about self-publishing.

You also ran workshops. What was the response to the idea of teaching through song?

Amazing! Sharon and I did a workshop each on Teaching Grammar through Song and Teaching Pronunciation through Song. Over a hundred teachers attended the first workshop and word evidently spread, as there were nearly 120 at the second workshop the next day.

People loved the song approach and really appreciated our hands-on activities. A teacher from Malaysia told us she was going to try the activities the very next day with her students back in Malacca. I’ll also mention a email we got recently from the US, saying ‘Just want you to know that you ladies made the CamTESOL conference for me!’

What a lovely response! So who else did you meet?

There were over a thousand teachers there, mainly from SE Asia, and although I obviously didn’t meet them all, I met a lot. In spite of the size, the event was really well organized, with 40 workshops at any one time and all went smoothly and efficiently.

It was particularly inspiring to see so many young Cambodian teachers from rural schools, often without any resources or electricity – but with masses of enthusiasm. Conference delegates had been asked to sponsor a Cambodian teacher, so that meant plenty were able to attend.

We also met teachers from the US and Britain, some working in Cambodia and Thailand, and some working with undocumented people in the US.

What did you learn?

I was surprised at the huge industry that English teaching is in Cambodia, and the many companies and schools involved.

A workshop I found interesting in this context was by a Filipino teacher, who spoke about an education policy for the maintenance of Indigenous languages, where instruction must be in local language for the first 3 years of primary education.

Sharon said that she was impressed by Professor Oxford from the University of Maryland in the USA, who spoke about learner autonomy, motivation, confidence and resilience, while I think Clare was most struck by the very clear, slightly slowed-down, but never condescending, presentation by one of the keynote speakers, which seemed really thoughtful as a model of ‘International English’.

Any other highlights?

The cultural dancing at the event dinner gave us a chance to see dances from rural areas and songs from the pre-Khmer Rouge period. Huge efforts are being made to revive these songs and dances, which were almost wiped out during the Pol Pot period.

After our very rural bus ride to Phnom Penh, we also had the contrast of an eye-opening cyclo tour of the city, where golden palaces sit beside mega high-rise buildings and people sleep at the roundabouts in the shadow of 5-star hotels.

A more personal highlight was on the final day, when a group of young teachers came up to us singing, “Are you busy?” (from Sing With Me book 1). They told us how much they’d loved our workshops and asked for a photo with us, which you can see here.

Would you recommend the conference?

Yes, most definitely. It’s always good to see teaching in different contexts and meet teachers from other countries; there were lots of interesting workshops and opportunities to talk to people and exchange ideas.

CamTESOL was a buzz!





See you at CamTESOL?

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Cambodia blog picThree of us are going to be at CamTESOL in Phnom Penh in February 2016. We’ll be talking about self-publishing the books we want to use, and about our network. Look out for us if you’re there: Carmel Davies and Sharon Duff from Urban Lyrebirds, and Clare Harris (that’s me, writing this post) from The Book Next Door.

(A personal note: Carmel and I met in the 1980s, when we were working together in a refugee camp in Thailand, and we’ve only just re-connected – both of us now, to our surprise, involved in writing and publishing. I have Cambodian friends here in Perth from those days, and they’ve been asking me forever, ‘When are you going to visit Cambodia?’ Finally I can tell them – it’s happening!)