Monthly Archives: June, 2012

In praise of non-native speakers part five: localizing texts

So here we go with the fifth and final installment in a series of posts initially inspired by a desire to counter the appalling Open English advert – and to point out the many potential advantages that non-native speaker teachers, especially those teaching monolingual groups with whom they share a first language, possess. Following on from the last post on translation, which generated a real flurry of responses and debate, I’ve been loath to wrap this series up for fear of going out with a whimper, rather than a bang, but here goes nothing.

The final way in which non-natives (or, of course, bilingual natives who’ve lived in situ for some considerable period of time) can offer students superior value for money – certainly when compared to rabidly monolingual recent arrivals – is through the way teachers tackle texts. All too often texts are included in coursebooks to convey facts about the world outside – and are treated as little more than factual entities to be analysed, ‘comprehended’ and processed, but not really responded to or related to the local environment.

In Britain in the late 70s / early 80s, there was a school of thought dubbed Critical Pedagogy, led by people such as Norman Fairclough, which advocated encouraging students to adopt a critical approach to the teaching materials and methods they were exposed to. Whilst I am not suggesting this is a realistic – or even desirable – goal for most teachers, there are aspects of this approach that can help us bring texts to life for our students, especially in non-native / bilingual contexts.

The most fruitful way to think about the role of texts in the classroom is to see them both as vehicles for useful or interesting language, and also as points of comparison with students’ own cultures and life experiences. Sadly, however, not all globally available classroom material shares this perspective – and this is where the local teacher can step in and help to bring otherwise neutral (or possibly even alien) material to life. Often texts can be fruitfully exploited with the addition of a few simple questions along the lines of: what do you think is the same and what’s different here? / does anything in the text remind you of any stories you have heard about? – and so on. As ever, the teacher who is most aware of the local context will be able both to frame these questions in a way which may well work best with local students, whilst also being more conscious of what kind of answers students might typically come up with, and thus what kind of language would be most worth feeding in.

Let’s look at a concrete example: earlier this year, I was using Headway Pre-Intermediate with a multi-lingual group in London and one particular day, I had the slightly dubious pleasure of teaching a text called Supervolcano – about the Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming: a perfect example of the kind of factual ‘global knowledge’ texts that dominate many books nowadays and that seemingly have little point of entry for students. Whilst the book does have personalized questions leading into the text – what famous volcanoes are there in the world? How many can you name? Are they active or extinct? What do you know about them? – and out of the text – Where do you think there might be other eruptions in the future? If an eruption did happen, what do you think you could do to try and survive? – there’s nothing that relates to students’ locale.

Simply asking students what they would tell foreigners about the most famous natural features of their own countries, any extreme weathers they have to deal with and any natural disasters that have affected their hometowns or countries serves as a far more meaningful lead-in and makes students more willing to then engage with a text about somewhere that may very well be outside their realms of experience. Of course, whilst students are chatting, you can wander round, monitoring, picking up on problem areas and using their ideas as a source of board-based input during your round-up stage, thus once again helping them to word their own worlds.

These small but significant localizing twists can be added in to classes time and time again – and all help the local bilingual teacher to bring the coursebook closer to the worlds of their students AND the worlds of the students closer to being realised through English.


In praise of non-native speaker teachers part four: Translation

Used wisely, translation can be one of the best weapons in the non-native speaker teacher’s armoury. Yet whilst it may have been undergoing something of a renaissance over the last few years, translation has certainly not always a good rep in ELT. Indeed, my own path to recognizing its potential has been a long and winding one. Back in 1993, when I did my four-week CELTA course, there was certainly no mention of it, and in the two main bibles that I read at the time in order to glean ways forward – Jeremy Harmer’s PRACTICE OF ENGLISH LANGUAGE TEACHING and Jim Scrivener’s LEARNING TEACHING – there wasn’t much to get me thinking about translation either. In the latter, there was no mention of the phenomenon at all, whilst in the Harmer, I was told it was “a quick and easy way to present the meaning of words,” but then immediately warned that it was “not without problems” – it’s not always easy to translate words, and even where translation IS possible, it may make life a bit too easy for the students by discouraging them from interacting with the words.

Having not learned how to make life easy for my students, I set off to a monolingual school in Indonesia to get started on my teaching career – and quite soon I started noticing a strange thing happening. Students would ask me what a word meant, I’d go through contortions to act it, draw it and explain it and after a few minutes of killing myself, students would suddenly look pleased. I’d think “Finally. They understand what a frog is and say to each other, for example, “Oh! Kodok!”

As I was learning Indonesian myself, I learnt a lot of it from hanging out with English and American friends who had lived there longer and who spoke the language better. I’d often find myself asking them So how do you say . . . in Indonesian? and essentially teaching myself chunk by translated chunk. I also started slowly realising that a lot of the problems I was having were down to having learned a word and thinking it’d always work the same in Indonesian. I learned, for instance, how to say in Indonesian to my low-level classes OK. Let’s check the answersMari kita periksa jawabannya – and so logically assumed that the Indonesian word periksa must therefore be equivalent to the English word check. However, when Indonesian friends came round for dinner and I told them Saya akan periksa makanannyaI’ll check the food – they’d laugh and correct me and say coba makanannya – which for me meant try rather than check.

Once back in the UK, I noticed the same thing the same thing happening in reverse. In classrooms, I’d frequently be trying to elicit a missing word – say, for instance, here:

He’s got a really good job. He ………… a hundred thousand a year.

and students would shout out WINS! WINS!! and I’d end up retorting “Maybe in Portuguese, yes, but in English anyone?”

As time went by, I also started to recognise very common mistakes from certain language groups of learners, which I realised must be down to poor word-for-word translation, so my Japanese students would say I was stolen my mobile / bag, while Spanish speakers during tutorials would enthusiastically report that was a course very interesting.

So as you can see, I’d spent many years skirting round the fringes of the translation in language teaching issue, but had never really paid that much mind to it, if truth be told. What really made a convert of me was actually one little feature we wanted to include when writing OUTCOMES – a section called Language Patterns. The idea was that we somehow wanted to focus on lexico-grammatical patterns that weren’t strictly grammar, but that were definitely beyond single words – the kind of thing you can see below:

Mongolia is known as ‘the land of the horse’.

Shanghai is known as ‘the Paris of the East’.

Aubergines are also known as eggplants.

The area is known for its oysters.

The village is well known for its leather goods.

This rare species of shark is known to inhabit fresh water.

Very few details are known about this rare species.

And we wanted to encourage teachers to get students to notice them. Now, you’re all undoubtedly aware of the importance of noticing – it’s been central to theories of how language is acquired for over twenty years now. Back in 1990, Schmidt stated that while noticing does not automatically guarantee acquisition, it nevertheless remains true that features of the language cannot be learned UNLESS they are first noticed. Schmidt was talking more about structural grammar in its traditional sense, but Rod Ellis went further in 1997 and stressed the importance of drawing students’ attention to items that do not conform to expectations and that may therefore not otherwise be noticed.

Noticing is so central to learning that you could quite easily claim it is one of only four or maybe five things that needs to happen for any item or structure to be acquired. Essentially, to learn a language people need to:

• hear or see the language

• understand the meaning of what they hear or see

• pay attention to the language and notice aspects of it

• do something with that language – use it in some way

• repeat these steps for the same language repeatedly over time

The question was, though, what was the most useful way of trying to encourage noticing when space in the book was limited and when these were not the kind of core structures that teachers expected to find in the book. Was it enough to simply sort structures, show them to students and ask them to ‘notice’ the patterns? What might encouraging noticing actually involve and how could a teacher say with any degree of certainty that their students had noticed?

As we were to find out, facilitating noticing in class proved far more problematic that we’d initially anticipated. Initially, our rubric for these sections was simply Which patterns can you see in these sentences? Now, you think about how you might answer that question with particular reference to this particular set of language patterns from OUTCOMES below:

It’s hardly the same thing!

Hardly an instant solution then!

It’s hardly surprising people are concerned about it.

Hardly a day goes by without hearing one of these stories.

I hardly know anyone who agrees with it.

There’s hardly any funding available for research into it.

What WE noticed when we asked students to do this and to then share their insights in pairs or groups was that (a) they didn’t actually notice all that much and (b) it was hard to verbalise whatever awareness of underlying patterns they might’ve become aware of in this manner. Even if both of these barriers were overcome, there was then still the nagging doubt that none of this would lead to better production; that the noticing would all essentially be in vain. We then tried translation and in one particular class I had my eureka moment. Now, again, you might like to stop here and try the previous exercise, but this time with the following rubric: Write the sentences in your language. Translate them back into English. Compare your English to the original.

I had a French student in one class, who spoke very well, but often in a kind of French-in-English way, and who was also very resistant to the idea of using translation. “But I understand it all,” he would protest. “There’s no need!” “Please!” I would beg him. “Just do it for me!” “But it’s the same in French,” he would try to persuade me. “It can’t be,” I’d point out – “for starters, it’s in French! Please! Just to shut me up, try it.” So translate he did. I then kept the translations and the next class I pointed at one of his translations almost at random and asked if he could say it in English. “Of course,” he replied. “It’s Hardly a day is passing without that I hear about one of these stories.”

“Ah-ha!” I suddenly screamed. “That’s the FRENCH pattern, but you haven’t noticed the ENGLISH one!”

Translating back and forth between languages like this forces noticing in a way that nothing else does. So why, I started thinking, don’t more teachers do it? The bulk of classes around the world are monolingual with relatively bilingual teachers. And many of us who are proficient to at least some degree in two languages code switch all the time – with friends, relatives, lovers. It’s the norm rather than the exception.

Yet monolingual teaching has come to be seen as the norm, as the most desirable model! However, as Guy Cook points out in his quietly furious tome Translation In Language Teaching, the reasons behind this dominance owe far more to commercial and political imperatives than to science or pedagogy! How can this surreal state of affairs have come to pass? And how have so many teachers who could potentially benefit from a world in which their language skills were allowed fuller expression been brainwashed into believing they have to try and emulate the sad, sorry islands of monolingualism natives so often find themselves on?

In many ways, I fear, we are STILL suffering from an ongoing backlash against grammar translation, a backlash that has gone on so long and been reiterated so mindlessly that it’s become almost a subconscious knee-jerk state of mind. Grammar Translation was very much the dominant mode of language teaching right up until the tail end of the 19th century. Rooted in the teaching of Greek and Latin, with which modern languages vied for respectability, the emphasis was very firmly on writing, on grammar, on accuracy and on the ultimate aim of allowing the student to read literary classics in the language they were learning. Grammar Translation is what people often imagine either when thinking of traditional approaches to language teaching or else simply to translation in language teaching in general. As well as learners memorizing huge lists of rules and vocabulary, this method involved them translating whole literary or historic texts word for word. Unsurprisingly, new methodologies tried to improve on this. The Direct (or Natural) Method established in Germany and France around 1900 was a response to the obvious problems associated with the Grammar Translation method. In the Direct Method the teacher and learners avoided using the learners’ native language and just used the target language. Like the Direct Method, the later Audio-Lingual Method tried to teach the language directly, without using the L1 to explain new items.

The Reform Movement, which was the initial reaction against Grammar Translation, placed the primary emphasis on speech, and generally insisted on an English only approach, but still allowed some translation. These ideas were picked up and simplified – and then codified – by schools during the first great language teaching boom and Berlitz, founded at the end of the 19th century, insisted on natives only, speech only and no use of L1. Indeed, translation became a sackable offence. This led directly to the pillars of practice that haunt us to this day: monolingualism; naturalism – the idea that learning L2 can somehow mirror the ‘natural’ way we learn L1; native speakerism and absolutism – the belief (or claim) that Direct Method is the one true path!

Subsequent so-called ‘humanistic’ methodologies such as the Silent Way and Total Physical Response and communicative methodologies moved ever further away from L1, and from these arose many of the contemporary objections to translation. Sure there was the odd exception, such as Community Language Learning in the 1970s, which accepted the whole human range of approaches, including negotiation between student and counselor teacher, within which translation was seen as one tool among many, but such approaches were few and far between.

All of which brings us to our current state of play, where countless – and often groundless – fears abound: students will end up using L1 all time, when aim is use of L2; the skills involved in translation are not suitable for all learners – and may only suit those who are analytical, older or better; learners may not see the value of translation value or only see it as hard or specialised; it’s hard to set up and run in class; it requires extra motivation from students; it needs a teacher with a good knowledge of students’ L1 and culture and thus doesn’t work in multilingual classes – and on and on it goes.

At its worst, anti-TILT (Translation in Language Teaching) rhetoric is rooted in dialogue focused on monolingualism and the supression of other languages – as can be seen in the States at the moment, where folk proudly sport Speak English or Die T-shirts and where a recent airport best-seller is entitled His Panic: Why Americans fear Hispanics in the US.

Yet as I hope I have already persuaded you, there are many strong reasons in favour of using TILT. Some of the strongest are actually evidence based. For instance, in a 2008 study, Laufer and Girsai taught vocabulary to three groups using three approaches – meaning-focussed, form-focussed without translation and through contrastive analysis and translation. Both passive AND active retention was way higher with the third group.

Translation is, by its very nature, highly communicative and is a real world activity for the vast majority of students at some point in their language-using lives. On a more meta level, you could almost argue that translation makes the world go round – the UN, the EU, business, academia, and so on all rely on it.  Whether we like it or not, the process of understanding L2 by looking for L1 equivalents has always been a frequently used strategy for learners. If you accept this, then there comes a need to develop it in the right way – to hone it.

Lower-level students use translation all the time – and for higher-level learners, it’s almost by definition what it means to be good! I’d be amazed if I were to go out for dinner tonight with any of you reading this and found that you were unable to translate an L1 menu, for instance!

In terms of student-centeredness, many students – especially younger ones and those at lower levels, though perhaps not only them – look more favourably upon bilingual instruction and, therefore, translation than has previously been admitted.

Irrespective of all arguments in favour of using TILT, the bottom line is that it’s the most effective way of doing stuff that needs to be done! In many ways, as well, translation is one of the most authentic tasks that we can engage in in the classroom as it’s something we all do all the time – in the so-called real world. There’s also the very real possibility that for many students, translation will be the main – or maybe even the sole – activity connected to English that they engage in later in their lives!

In addition to everything else, it’s a time-efficient way of dealing with such time-honoured problems as false friends, it requires minimal preparation – and, let’s be honest, the recommendation that foreign-language classes be taught exclusively in the foreign language remains, shall we say, ‘aspirational’ at best!

To those of you who STILL remain sceptical, look at it this way. From L2 to L1 is less an absolute act and more just part of a spectrum. When we explain new language in simplified language or with gestures, we’re already engaging in a form of translation! Given this, surely it should not be too much of a leap to then allow the principled use of L1?!

Henry Widdowson once said that that the error of monolingual teaching is that it misunderstands how learners of English engage with their new language, and the purposes for which it is being learned. He warned that to proceed as though the learners’ own languages do not exist, attempting to induct learners into a local monolingual native-like perspective, is to profoundly misunderstand what is happening. Learners will ALWAYS relate new language to their own, even if only in their own minds, and if forbidden to do so, will nevertheless continue the practice as a means of resistance!

In short, humans teach and learn by moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar, by building new knowledge onto existing knowledge. Language learning is no – or should be no – exception!

Interestingly, the grammar-plus-words model of language that still prevails in many coursebooks works least well with TILT. What works best is collocations, chunks and patterns. Lexis, in other words. What clearly rarely works at all is single words – and, to a lesser degree, grammar, especially if we’re looking for direct equivalence, though as I said earlier, it can still be useful to understand L1 transference errors.

This does all seem to suggest, then, that if we are to get the most from TILT, then the time has come to drop the dominant model of grammar plus structures and to embrace instead an approach to language that sees grammar and vocabulary as inextricably intertwined and contextually bound.

So what kind of activities can we do that might take all of this on board? Well, to close, here are five that I have done in recent months – and that you might want to try for yourselves. I should add that I work with multilingual groups in London, and have still found these tasks work fine. I expect that many NON-natives working in monolingual contexts where students share their own L1 have plenty of other ideas on how translation might be fully exploited – and I hope to read more about these in the comments section below!

1 If you come into class and students are chatting in L1, get them to write the conversation they’re having first in L2, and then translate it. Help them with any expressions they’re not sure and maybe, if you can, round up by pooling a range of new expressions / chunks that have emerged through the process of translation on the board.

2 When students lapse in L1 during freer speaking activities, note this down and then during your round-up either give or else elicit English versions.

3 Give – or ask for – translations of single words as a STARTING point, but then show ways in which these words are NOT the same! So say, for example, the sentence I’m responsible for hiring and firing comes up, you might want to say the L1 equivalent of responsible, but then say that in English, you‘re responsible FOR doing something, not responsible of.

4 Allow students to translate things that they may have to translate in ‘the real world’. Use L1 as a resource and as a bridge to L2. As Guy Cook notes, there are countless possibilities here that lend themselves to communicative / task-based activities: a company entering negotiations with foreign partners may receive documents and communications which first need translating by bilingual staff; evidence in a court case may need translating before a judgement can me made – or, as in this exercise from OUTCOMES intermediate, a menu may need to be translated before diners can decide what they want – and don’t want – to eat.

Conversation practice

A            Write a typical menu for a restaurant in your country. Write it in your own language.

B            Work in pairs. Imagine you are in a restaurant that does not have an English menu. You are trying to decide what to eat.

Student A: you are visiting the country on holiday or on business. You do not speak the local language.

Student B: talk Student A through the menu.

Student A: reject at least two of the things on the menu. Explain why.

5 As a self-study device, make students aware of things like the Word Reference forums for bilingual learning communities and encourage them to use them.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts, questions and comments on this paper.

Conspiracy theories in the classroom

I’m entering my last week with my lovely Advanced group, the first class at this level I’ve taught for quite some time, and the whole experience has given me plenty to reflect on. One thing that’s become clearer in my mind is the fact that you really cannot progress that far beyond a certain level without a fairly broad range of interests, plenty of awareness of current affairs, topics that are generally deemed newsworthy and a desire to learn more not only about the language, but about the world itself.

If all you’re interested in is shopping and going sightseeing, say, you can pretty much do all you’ll ever need to do in those departments by the end of Intermediate; certainly by the end of Upper-Intermediate. To properly be Advanced and to take on board the kind of language you’re likely to encounter in the Cambridge Advanced exam, you need not only to delve deeper into the lexis of topics you’ve already studied but to also delve into a wider range of topics – the law, the environment, natural disasters, hair and beauty, ethics, politics, economics, globalisation, and so on. Within each topic, there’ll be high-end language more commonly found in the written language, particularly in journalism and academia, as well as lower-end language more common in speech around each subject that’s well worth focusing on. During a recent tutorial, one of my Chinese students from this group mentioned how horizon-broadening she’d found the course. She mentioned that she hadn’t really had any grounding in areas like politics and even after having had them explained, still struggled to really grasp concepts such as HOLDING A REFERENDUM and FORMING A COALITION, for obvious reasons. She’d then gone home, Googled them, read up on them on Wikipedia and had lengthy conversations with her dad about these ideas and how they compared with the system back home. Now, if that’s not education in its fullest sense then I don’t know what is.

Anyway, none of this is really anything more than an indirect lead-in to the main meat for today, which is conspiracy theories. The tenuous link with my lead-in is simply the fact that the other day we were doing a unit from OUTCOMES Advanced called HISTORY. It was a double-page spread and the heart of the lesson was a listening where four people spoke about recent historical milestones in their country – and the outro, where the students in the class spoke about things they felt were milestones in the recent history of their own countries. As a lead-in, I put students in groups of three and they discussed the following questions:

A                  Work in groups. How much do you know about the recent historical milestones below? Discuss what you think happened– and what the causes and results were.

the fall of the Berlin Wall

the September the Eleventh attacks

the Iraq conflicts

the Asian tsunami of 2004

the creation – and subsequent expansion – of the EU

the genocides in Rwanda and Sudan

Frequently, with these kinds of activities, I’m depressed and kind of appalled by how little world knowledge many of my students have – and remember, I’m mainly teaching young people who either are already graduates in their own countries or who want to do their degrees here in the UK – and wonder what they learn in subjects like History and Geography at school, but what really surprises – and depresses – me is the frequency with which conspiracy theories emerge.

Over the years, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had students from the Arab world tell me Mossad or the CIA was behind the 9/11 bombings, or students from a wide range of countries tell me that the moon landings never happened or that Princess Di was covertly taken out by the royal family and so on. I’ve almost come to expect to hear these ramblings in certain situations – and suspect many, many other teachers must also have been on the receiving end of them. In this particular instance, I was slightly taken aback because the student rolling out the theories wasn’t one I would have suspected – a young German guy, a Business Management graduate, who, having discussed the basic factual details of the collapse of the Twin Towers as a result of airplanes being flown into them, launched into the theory (laid out by Michael Moore in his fairly tedious Fahrenheit 911 doc) that it was all somehow an inside job and that it’d been arranged to create a pretext for the Iraq war. In retrospect, I could’ve seen this coming, as earlier we’d done a vocabulary exercise focusing on language that may prove useful when talking about key historical events, and including items like CALL A TRUCE, CLAIM / GAIN INDEPENDENCE, ISSUE A FORMAL APOLOGY, CARRY OUT A SERIES OF BOMBING, BE ASSASSINATED and so on. One of the practice questions was CAN YOU THINK OF ANY HIGH-PROFILE WHO HAVE BEEN ASSASSINATED? DO YOU KNOW WHY? During the speaking around this question, there’d been considerable debate from several students about the JFK murders and what the real story. I’d dealt with this basically by reformulating what I heard and ending up with a few gapped sentences up on the board, which I then elicited the missing words for. Here’s what I ended up with (I’ve italicised the words I’d initially gapped).

After the revolution, the old dictator tried to flee the country, but was caught and executed.

According to the official version, JFK was assassinated by a lone gunman, but there are lots of conspiracy theories around the killing.

He was gunned down outside his house and died instantly.

So as I say, in retrospect, perhaps it was no surprise that we would end up heading deeper into conspiracy theory territory. Two main thoughts emerged from this for me: why are these preposterous ideas still so rife . . . and what’s the best way for us as teachers and educators to deal with them when they crop up in our classes? And it’s this I’d like to move on to explore from hereon in.

The very fact that conspiracy theories have become such common currency is slightly chilling. We have a large chunk of potential new graduates who not only are ignorant about official history, but who take pride in claiming the cachet of cool that attaches itself to a proud belief in conspiracy theories.  I have students who KNOW that the moon landing never happened and that the film footage was faked, and yet they don’t actually know WHEN the supposed faked footage was from, or who the stars of the particular epic were! Forget the facts and feed the theories seems to be the modus operandi. How this then tallies with having to go on and engage in hard research, the evaluation of factual and historical data and so on is beyond me – and I’m glad I’m not the person who has to unpick the mess that must on occasion  inevitably be created as a result.

I think much of the growth of conspiracy theories is a direct result of the erosion of faith in governments and official versions of the truth, and I think it’s no coincidence that these beliefs are strongest and most common among students who come from countries where the state media is regarded with deep suspicion. Because governments lie and deny (and I’m certainly not excluding my own here, incidentally!), it leaves room for questions and doubt – and in those shadows cranks flourish.  However, to return to one of my favourite quotes, what then seems to happen is that rather than losing all faith and believing in nothing, many people instead end up believing in almost anything!

In addition to this, there’s a global fear and distrust of the CIA and their operations, a fear stoked by the teenage angst movies of Michael Moore and the parallel knee-jerk self-hating literature of the likes of Noam Chomsky and John Pilger. Being clued-up on conspiracy theories becomes part of the cool kids’ club uniform, along with Che Guevara tees and Bob Marley CDs. Knowing information that other people don’t is a kind of socially motivated desire. We know something, everyone pays attention to us, interacts with us, seeks to find out the “secret”. It is the same kind of logic by which gossip becomes a currency in offices and institutions, a way for its possessors to boost their social status. Who they tell, who they confide in, who gets to be part of the “in” and who is “out” divides the group but solidifies allies.

I think there are several other reasons why people so proudly parade their paranoias, though. Instability makes most people uncomfortable; we prefer to believe that we are living in a predictable, safe world – and conspiracy theories offer accounts of big scary events that make them feel safer and more predictable. In addition to this, we seem to be evolutionarily conditioned to connect dots that are not connected. In the same way that two animals hearing a rustling in some nearby bushes may well join the dots and conclude that a predator is close by – and therefore most likely live long enough to then teach this behavior to its offspring, so conspiracy becomes part of our psychological survival kit for trying times.

One final reason why the Muslim world in particular, I think, clings so keenly to conspiracy came to me during a recent cab ride back from Heathrow airport, where I had a Somali cab driver. he was a lovely guy and had been living in the UK for over twenty years. We talked for a long time about the situation back home now compared to when he’d left and the fortunes of Al-Shabaab, the radical Islamist group that still controls part of the country. I was struck when my cabbie claimed that Al-Shabaab were “not Muslims”, as it seemed to me to be at the very heart of what they were. After further questioning, it turned out that what he meant was that the way they acted and carried out their business was so far beyond his own – and I suspect beyond many many many normal decent peaceful Muslims’ – interpretation of Islam that he couldn’t bring himself to recognise these people are fellow believers. Their tendency towards violence placed them, in his mind, outside of the Ummah. Once you cease to believe that people carrying out horrendous acts in the name of a religion you yourself feel as part of your every atom are actually what they claim to be, it’s only a short step to believing that they could well be controlled by outside agents.

So where does all of this leave us as teachers? In a bit of a moral quandary would be my immediate reaction. Shouldn’t we be challenging this lunacy and pointing out its many flaws? Well, I’m not so sure. In a very fundamental sense, the whole point of conspiracy theories is that they can’t be disproved. Any evidence countering them can simply be taken as yet more proof of the lengths to which those REALLY behind things will go. Just as Creation Theory now claims that dinosaur skeletons don’t actually prove the world is more than 6000 years old, but rather that God has a sense of humour and placed them there to test our faith, so too the fact that Bin Laden and other al-Qaeda operatives openly boast and gloat of their killings can be interpreted as proof of the ingenuity the CIA / the Elders of Zion – and of their cunning use of film and technology. Logical argument is an impossibility in these situations.
On a more morally complex level, though, there’s also the fact that these discussions throw our OWN faith back at us. How can we tell the difference between information and disinformation? Why are we so sure that Neil Armstrong really did land on the moon? Or that Princess Diana died because of a tipsy chauffeur who wobbled whilst trying to shake off the paparazzi? On a very fundamental level, for most of these, acceptance of these truths is in itself an act of faith and very very few of us know or care enough to argue against the obsessives who resist official reality.
Given this, I’d like to think the way I handled this issue in class this week was about the best we can muster. I listened, I said “Oh, you’re one of THOSE people!” and then wrote on the board the following exchange:
There are lots / l…….. / m……….. of conspiracy theories about 9-11.
> Yes, but down that road lies m………….. .
And then elicited loads, millions and madness . . . before moving swiftly on!

A section of another coursebook-based lesson in some detail

Given that last time I tried to do this, it seemed to take me an entire evening to write – and probably took you even longer to actually read through – I’ve decided that maybe the best way forward with these sections of the blog is to feature little windows onto classes that I’ve done; allow you, as it were, to spy on a selected slice of one of my three-hour classes.

This lesson was another one with my main group this term, an Advanced class that I teach on Monday and Wednesday mornings from 09.15-12.30.  The class runs five mornings a week and they have three different teachers. It’s only a hort eight-week term this time around, so we only have two more weeks together. The nationality breakdown is seven Chinese students, a Moroccan, an Iraqi, an Italian, a Taiwanese, a German, an Austrian (born in Romania), a Japanese and a Colombian. Here they all are (apart from two of them, who were absent today!). It’s a General English class and quite a strong group. We’re using OUTCOMES Advanced, and the part I’m going to detail below too maybe an hour all in all.

We’re nearing the end of a unit called SCIENCE AND RESEARCH and are onto the last double-page spread, which is based around a listening. The main goals of this section were (a) to give students the opportunity to voice the ideas and opinions about the way scientists are perceived and portrayed in society (b) to explore and discuss what a range of different jobs within the field of science involve and (c) to give students practice in both extensive and intensive listening. My hunch was that the topic would interest students for a variety of reasons:I knew a few of the group had science backgrounds, having done either degrees or Master degrees in related areas, and this in itself would generate interest value; I also suspected that other students might at least know people who worked in related fields or else aspire to work in them themselves in future; on top of that, everyone would be able to discuss the stereotype of scientists and would be able to contribute some ideas to what different jobs might involve. Above and beyond that, though, there’s the simple fact that I knew the lessons would bring up plenty of new useful high frequency language and that, if handled in a certain way, the language itself would be of interest to the students in and of itself. In a sense, this way of looking at what happens in a class reduces the importance of topic per se, as it assumes that whatever the topic, and to whatever degree students want or are able to discuss the topic itself, there’ll also be language coming up both from the material and from what the students themselves try to say that will be worth spending time and exploring, and that the interaction that occurs during these explorations is motivating and interesting in itself.

So anyway . . . I started by saying that we were going to be talking about the way scientists were seen and portrayed in society – and the degree to which this encouraged – or discouraged – young people to enter the field. I told them they were going to read a short text about the strereotype of scientists in the UK and that it may well be different in their country. They should first just read and check they understand the text – and then they’d talk about it.

Students read the text, shown below and I monitored. A fair few students asked about several problematic bits of vocabulary – particularly homogenous, geeky, hunched, muttering and scribbling. With geeky, I simply referred them to the Native Speaker note in the book below the text, whilst with the other words I glossed them briefly – a homogenous bunch is a group of very similar people . . . if you’re hunched, you’re sitting like this (and I then mimed hunching, with shoulders hunched up) , muttering is like quietly talking to yourself, maybe in a slightly mad way and scribbling is writing things down very quickly and maybe a bit carelessly, like this (more miming). I also used the students’ reading time to get a few whole sentence parallel examples of these new words up on the board to come back to later on. Anyway, here’s the text and the Native Speaker note that follows it.


A                  Read the short text below. Then discuss the questions that follow in groups.

Scientists are often seen as a homogenous bunch of geeky men in white lab coats and protective glasses, hunched over some kind of bubbling test tube whilst muttering to themselves or frantically scribbling equations on a scrap of paper. Such stereotypes not only fail to represent the full diversity of activities that scientists (of both sexes!) engage in, but also serve to dissuade the young from contemplating a career in science. It’s time for this to change!

  • Does this text reflect your own view of scientists?
  • Do you agree that negative stereotypes of scientists may well put young people off entering the field?
  • Do you know anyone who works in the field of science? What do they do?


If we think someone is weird or boring because they’re only interested in computers / science / studying, we often call them geeky. The noun is a geek. Many people also say nerdy / a nerd to mean the same thing.

A homogenous bunch of geeky men in white lab coats.

My brother is a complete science geek.

He’s a nice guy, but he looks a bit nerdy, if you ask me!

He’s such a nerd! He’s got no social skills whatsoever.

Once the students had finished reading the text, I gave them 20 seconds to read the questions and to check they understood them. No-one asked, so to lead into the speaking I simply repeated the questions, paraphrasing things I thought might cause problems and that maybe students had simply been too shy to ask about. I said something like this:

So in a minute you’re going to discuss the degree to which the text reflects your own view of scientists. is it accurate, do you think? Or do you see things differently? Also, do you agree that negative stereotypes – the bad way in which scientists are portrayed – might put young people off entering the field? Might make them not want to become scientists? And do you know anyone who works in the field, the area, of science? If so, what do they do?

I put students in pairs with one group of three and let them talk. Whilst they talked, I monitored and listened in to discussions, chipped in with my own comments and thoughts on occasion, helped out if students were struggling to say things and – crucially, I’d argue – picked up on things that I understood, but which I knew I’d say slightly differently. At this level, there is an issue in looking for errors, because by definition Advanced students can basically say what they want to say without really making many mistakes at all. A better way to think about the teacher’s role during student speaking slots is to listen for things they could say better. By the end of six or seven minutes, I’d written a fair few gapped sentences up on the board and stopped the class by saying OK. Great. Now let’s look at how to say some of the things you were trying to say in better English. First, let’s just look at a few bits and pieces from the text itself.

On the board, I’d written the following:

a very homogenous society / group

I asked where the stress was, and having elicited it, marked it with a circle and made a couple of students repeat the word.

I then asked what the opposite was. One student said heterogeneous, which I said was fine, but sounded a bit too formal and academic and that in spoken English it was more common to say . . . ? I then wrote a d on the board and got diverse from someone. I then asked for examples of homogenous and diverse societies and was offered Japan and the UK, which worked fine. Someone then joked that the class itself was a very diverse group!

With hunched over, I simply explained it to the whole class and showed the example. Someone said “Oh, it’s like Quasimodo”. There was then some discussion about whether or not everyone in the class was familiar with the story of the hunchback of Notre dame – they weren’t of course . . . and I said Yes, he’s a hunchback in the story.

I also simply pointed out the example I’d written up about scribbling, mimed it again and asked when or why people might scribble. Students correctly said when you’re in a hurry or it;’s not something very important. I then said we’d move on to look at things they’d ben trying to say in the discussion. On the board I had the following sentences:

The average life …………………. of scientists is quite low. They work themselves to ……….. / into an early …………….. – or they just …………. out young.

It’s a very pr………………. job. They work really un…………….. hours.

I know some scientists and they (don’t) really ………………. to the stereotype.

I find the whole idea of being a scientist quite o…….-p…………… .

To elicit the missing words, I usually do a kind of paraphrasing. Here, I said, for example: Some of you were saying you don’t think being a scientist is a good job as lots of scientists die young. The average length of their lives is quite low, so they have a low average life? One students said expectation. I said this was close, but usually your parents have high expectations of you or if you get 7.5 in your IELTS test it exceeds your expectations. I then got expectancy and wrote that up. I then talked briefly about how the average life expectancy in Russia has DROPPED DRAMATICALLY since 1991. I then said that some students had been talking about how scientists work really really hard – so hard they die young, so they work themselves to? And they work themselves into an early? I managed to elicit death, but only got grave after an extra bit of glossing – the place where they put the body when you die is your? Grave. Right, so they work themselves into an early grave. I then added: Or else what happens is just that they quickly end up finished in their careers, because they have no ideas or energy left after working so hard to begin with. I asked what others careers might result in early burnout and got teaching and banking.

I then said that part of the problem was that scientists were under a lot of stress, a lot of pressure, so the job was very? One student said pressureful, which provoked much laughter and a comment about how they were inventing their own language. Eventually, I got pressurised. I added that scientists often have to work all night or from early in the morning until late in the night – according to some of the students, anyway – and so they had to work very UN hours? The first guess was unstable, and I said usually people are a bit unstable – mentally unstable, which means they may get angry or upset very easily. The next offering was unexpected. I explain you can’t work unexpected hours. News can be unexpected, or someone’s actions, but not hours you work. Next came unclear. I said often motives for crimes are unclear or you can be unclear about what you should you are supposed to do. To push things along a bit, I said that the hours made it difficult to make friends or to have a normal social life – and finally got unsocial!

We then moved on and I said sometimes you meet people and they are actually the same as the stereotype you might have had about them, so they MMMM the stereotype. Students shouted out suit, meet, fit, so I wrote a c on the board. After another few seconds, I gave up and wrote conform up.

For the final sentence, I explained that several students didn’t like the idea of being a scientist. Just thinking about it made them not want to do it, it persuaded them not to do it. They found the idea? I elicited off-putting and one student asked if it was like put you off. I said” Yes, if something puts you off, that’s the verb -0 it stops you wanting to do or try something. Maybe you find something off-putting because of the way it looks or smells or whatever. For example, the first time I went to Japan, one of my friends offered me some natto – it’s kind of fermented soya bean paste – and it really stinks. For me, anyway. And I found the smell really off-putting. It made me not want to try it. The German student, Nicolai, then wanted more detail about what exactly natto was, which one of the Japanese students provided. This all seemed to generate some discussion, so for three or four minutes students discussed in pairs any food they found off-putting and explained why. The highlight of this was one of the Chinese students saying he couldn’t understand why western people loved cheese, when basically it was just rotten cow’s milk! Anyway, here’s what the board looked like by the end of this section:

We then moved on to another speaking task that would lead directly into the listening. I told the class that in a few minutes they’d hear five different scientists talking about their jobs, but that first they should look at the ten jobs in the box and discuss what they think each job involves, what the point of each job is, and so on. Students then chatted for a few minutes, whilst I went round. Here’s the task anyway.


You are going to hear five different kinds of scientists talking about their jobs.

A                  Work in pairs. Discuss these questions.

  • What do you know about each of the different kinds of scientist below?
  • What’s the main point of each job?
  • What do you think their working lives involve on a day-to-day basis?

anthropologists                                 marine biologists

astrologer                                           military scientists

geologists                                            neurologist

hydrologists                                        sociologists

immunologists                                    zoologist

After a few minutes, I rounded up by eliciting brief summaries of what each job involved, and clarifying where there were problems or differences of opinion. There was no boardwork during this slot, but we did discuss what the difference between anthropologists and sociologists might be, and there was a fair few minutes of discussion about whether or not military scientists really existed, whether they could really be called scientists if they didn’t make the results of their research open and so on. Somehow, this ended up taking in the kind of research into how to break people down, the results of which had been used in Guantanamo – what kind of music to play how loud and for how long in order to make people crack,. how long exactly you could hold people under water before they approached death, etc . . . as well as the fact that part of the MacArthur Pact after World War II involved Japan handing over all of the military research it had conducted, including all the horrendous experiments carried out during the occupation of parts of China.

I then told the class to listen to five scientists speaking and to decide in each case what their job and what each job involved.

B                  Listen and match each speaker to one of the ten different kinds of scientist in the box. What does each job involve?

I played the CD all the way through, put students in pairs and asked to compare what they got. I monitored to help me get a feel for how much they’d grasped, what was causing problems and so on and after a couple of minutes, I elicited the answers from the group as a whole, trying wherever possible to rephrase students’ ideas using the lexis that had actually been used in the audio. So, for example, for the first job, the astrologer, one student said something like People imagine they are always spending every night watching the stars, but really it’s not like that and I say Yes, OK, so the stereotype of astrologers is that they  stay up all night glued to their telescopes, but the reality is far more mundane. This kind of re-lexicalization is important, I think, as it acknowledges that students have processed the basic meanings, but confronts them again with the actual linguistic wrapping that the meaning came encased in, thereby encouraging noticing.

I then told the class they were going to hear the speakers one more time and that this time they should decide which speaker matched each of the sentences in 1-10 from exercise C. I gave them a minute or two to read through first, in order to check they understood what they were listening for. Predictably, a few students asked about traits and I explained it meant particular qualities in someone’s personality, before drilling the word. There were also questions about drought – which again caused pron problems too, which had to be tackled after I’d explained the word. I gave students a couple of minutes to note down any ideas they may have already had about which person matched each sentence and then played it again. Here’s what they were listening for:

C                  Listen again and decide which speaker:

1                  studies the possible harm that drought could do.

2                  sometimes makes recommendations about living environments.

3                  says their line of work involves making policy recommendations.

4                  finds their job immensely satisfying.

5                  says their line of work is more boring than is commonly believed.

6                  feels the stereotype about their job is out of date.

7                  says work on family traits is a part of their field.

8                  has done research on the global spread of a particular phenomenon.

9                  notes a way in which their field is unusual.

10                  is quite secretive about what their job involves.

As students were listening, I wrote this up on the board:

But left the word RUNS out. I came back to this once we’d gone through all the answers to exercise C and quickly elicited it – third time lucky, having been offered goes and follows first!I also wrote this up as well:

and simply wrote c…….. instead of crops and left the word famine out. Again, as I finished off, after we’d gone through Exercise Cm I elicited the missing words by saying that sometimes when there’s a drought, when it doesn’t rain for ages, the plants that you grow for food die, the MMM fail – which got me crops – and that this causes people to die because of a lack of food, so it leads to? Which got me famine.

Once I’d played the five extracts through again, I out students in pairs again to compare and discuss their answers before eliciting the answers. With these kinds of exercises, I try to focus not only on simply what the answers are, but WHY the answers are the answers. Again, this often leads to a kind of paraphrasing of students’ ideas and re-use of lexis from the actual audio. So, for instance, I’d elicit the 1 was a hydrologist, and ask how students knew. They often just ay things like ‘because of drought!’ and I’d say Yeah, OK, He said he looks at potential damage to the environment in low-flow areas, so the potential environmental damage caused by drought.

Before I forget, if you’re interested, you can hear the listenings below.

Speaker One

Speaker Two

Speaker Three

Speaker Four

Speaker Five

To round off this part of the lesson, there was some speaking, looking partly at students’ responses to what they’d heard and partly expanding upon some of the themes implicit in it. Here are the questions:

D                  Work in pairs. Discuss these questions.

  • Which of the five jobs do you think sounds most interesting? Why?
  • Which do you think is likely to be best / worst paid? Why?
  • Can you think of any jobs where the stereotype may well be more glamorous than the reality? In what way?

Students chatted about this for a few minutes. The best answer for the last question was models – it may look glamorous on TV, but the reality is never getting to eat, standing around for hours on end and being leched at by slimy fashion people! We finished with a tiny bit of boardwork – the words that I elicited were mundane and rewarding – first time each one!

and that was that!


Hope this has proved interesting and not too much of a pain to read!

Please feel free to add any comments, thoughts, questions, etc.

I’m always really interested to hear what others may make of the way I teach.

In praise of non-native speaker teachers part three: modelling

It’s a wet and windy Monday night – in June (!!) – and I’m sick to the back teeth of the ridiculous Jubilee nonsense that’s all over the TV, so now seems as good a time as any to pen my third eulogy in praise of the potential powers of non-native speaker teachers. As with the two earlier posts in this little series, what I’m trying to do here to lay out ways in which non-natives working in monolingual situations, teaching students with whom they share an L1, can outshine native speakers, especially those who do NOT share the same first language as their students and / or who have only recently arrived in the country they are teaching in.

I wrote in my last post about ways in which non-natives are perhaps best able to explain and get students to practise using new lexis by rooting it firmly in local contexts and today I’d like to suggest an extension of sorts of this idea: another way NNSTs can root the language more firmly in local contexts is through modeling. Now, modeling is often described and discussed as involving simply saying target sentences – especially grammatical ones – during PPP-based presentation stages, so that students can ‘copy’ the model and repeat, supposedly with better pronunciation that before. In this sense of the word, the non-native teacher is particularly disadvantaged – or at least made conscious of any insecurities they may have – as their sole role here is to model pronunciation of a structure – weak forms, elision, assimilation and all – and to then get students to repeat what they hear.

When I talk about modeling here, I mean something rather different – taking your own turn at a speaking task before students are asked to. This might mean, for instance, that before students discuss some personalized questions about lexis just taught, the teacher could ask the class to choose one or two questions to ask them – or it could simply be the teacher explaining a speaking task of some other kind and beginning by saying “OK. For example, for me . . . ”

Now, modeling is a good thing for a number of reasons: it helps to make clear to students what you want them to do; if well graded, it exposes them to useful lexis and grammar that may both help consolidate what they have learned already and that also suggests what may be useful for the turn they themselves will shortly be making; and it also shows that you as a teacher are also a human being. These reasons alone should be sufficient reason to consistently model speaking tasks for students, but in addition to all of this, what we choose to say when we model can offer a key way of rooting the language of the classroom in a local setting, thus making it more real for students.

Let’s look at a classroom-based example here to clarify what I’m on about! A couple of terms back, I was using Cutting Edge Intermediate one day a week with a class I shared with two other teachers. One lesson, we started a unit called Life Stories, which began with a list of vocabulary like leave home, start work, retire, move house, settle down, etc. that students had to sort chronologically. Once they’d done this, there was a short speaking exercise asking them to find four things which they’d done already or were doing at the moment; four which they’d like to do one day; four they would NOT like to do and four they could do at any time in their lives – and to then compare answers with a partner. Without modeling on the part of the teacher, these kind of ‘compare your answers’ tasks can often fall flat and result in students doing just that – comparing answers – and little more!

I started by saying “OK. For example, for me . . . I went to university between 1988 and 1991. I did my degree IN English Literature At Goldsmiths College in New Cross, in south London. It’s part of the University of London. Believe it or not, I graduated with a first-class degree, but to be honest, once I’d got my degree, I didn’t really have much idea about what I wanted to do. I never went to university with a career plan in mind. I just did a degree that I found interesting. In fact, after I graduated, I started working – and my first job was making sandwiches in a factory in Plumstead, right out in Zone 5 in south-east London: I worked a twelve-hour day, doing really dull and monotonous work! The money was awful . . . and all the other people there made fun of me and called me The Professor!”

Obviously, on one level, this could be seen as simply personalizing the coursebook, and admittedly, there’s a fine line between personalizing and localizing – and in some ways it’s not a distinction that’s really worth exploring as both acts help to make the book more real to the students. However, for our purposes today, the aspect of the above that interests me is the fact that the task roots the impersonal language of the book in a geography that is familiar to the students – and if this is true for me, with my multi-lingual students in the UK, then imagine how much more true it is for a NNST with mono-lingual students, most of whom will be studying in their hometown. These kinds of stories send subliminal messages: English is not just for talking about Britain and the British; it can also be a way for us to tell each other – and thus to tell the world – about OUR realities and our lives.