Monthly Archives: July, 2012

Further thoughts on level, material and how to make things stick

A week or so ago, after having to go in and cover one of our summer school general English classes, I wrote a lengthy piece following some reflections on how a much younger version of myself might have handled the material I had to work with. The main drift of my last post was that the way I was trained to teach – the way and many, many others like me were similarly trained – resulted in a tendency to see materials in terms of activities / stages rather than in terms of language to be taught; it relied on a fairly mindless notion of supplementing, one very reliant on photocopied pages of grammar books, games, fun, idioms and overly colloquial lexical items, and – most seriously – it exacerbated the problems of helping students to move from one level to another that are brought about by the way the vast majority of coursebooks are structured and the emphasis THEY place on what students should do to progress.

Today what I want to do is to fast forward to the actual lesson I ended up delivering, try to unpick the way I approach these kinds of classes nowadays and consider the ways in which I feel my approach now is more likely to make language stick. Now when I’m planning – and in this instance I had literally five or six minutes to ‘plan’ – I basically copy the material I’ll be teaching and scan through it, looking at the SPEAKING tasks and predicting what might be said during them (I’ll often note down a few whole-sentence utterances on the photocopy), looking at what vocabulary is there and seeing how much attention the material pays to collocation and usage (again, I’ll jot down notes on common usage in the margins, and ready myself to explore things as we get onto them) and just generally making sure I’m on top of the answers and so won’t have to faff around worrying about that, and will thus be slightly freer to actually really focus on what comes out from the students. With my severely annotated photocopy in hand, I rush off and start the class.

When covering, one trick I’ve learned to buy myself a few minutes breathing space at the start of the class is to ask students to jot down five things they’ve learned in the last week. They then walk around explaining the items they’ve written and try to elicit them from their various partners. I go round, help out with the explanations, clarify / correct if anyone’s misunderstood what they’ve jotted down, and then get some boardwork up that looks at the language around the language being explained, and that gives me something concrete to round up with. It also gives me a chance to see what kind of language students have been learning and to gauge its utility. In this particular instance, I’d been told by the normal class teacher that the group had been finding the material easy and were maybe an Advanced group. The language they jotted down reflected the way of supplementing with random seemingly ‘high-level’ vocabulary I discussed in my first post. This was a group who, as I realised whilst I sat and chatted with them as they slowly filtered into class in the morning, were clearly nowhere near Advanced. I asked the first student to arrive if she’d ever been to England before and was told Yes, I’ve been in England two years before! This same student then jotted down – among other things – to let the cat out of the back, dog days and  to play gooseberry!! And we wonder why students struggle with levels. I rest my case.

Anyway, once we’d whizzed through this revision slot, and once the class had filled up sufficiently, I moved onto the coursebook material. As I said in my earlier post, we’re experimenting with Richmond’s new series, THE BIG PICTURE, this summer and I’d been given a couple of pages entitled A CAREER IN MEDICINE to teach. The spread began with some speaking. Students were told to work in groups and to discuss these questions:

1  Look at the images. What aspects of medicine does each one show?

2  Are any of your classmates doctors, or training to be doctors? If yes, what’s his / her specialisation?

3  What skills do you need to be a doctor?

Above were four images – these, I suppose, are the ‘big pictures’ the book’s title alludes to – an open Internet page with the words Trusted advice emblazoned across it, a paediatrics nurse holding a stethoscope on a young boy’s chest, some young doctors in some kind of training situation and some kind of traditional healer

Now, my gut feeling on seeing this was that it wouldn’t go far in class: the vast majority of students would answer negatively to the second question, the first seemed fairly obvious and lent itself to one-line responses and the final question necessitated only a few lines more! Part of the problem is that there simply isn’t much to say about these questions. I’d struggle to find more than five minutes to say about them myself, and I have a big mouth! There’s also the fact that they’re asking students to discuss in L2 things they’ve probably never had to discuss in L1, which always seems optimistic to me. Finally, the questions are clearly not written with any sense of what kind of conversations people commonly have around topics like medicine – or even around careers in medicine; rather, they’re sort of pseudo-intellectual, perhaps designed to do what a sales rep might claim is develop ‘critical thinking’ or foster visual literacy or some such spurious skills! Given that I suspect this might not generate much speaking, I simply set the thing up by telling students to read through the questions and to look at the pictures, to ask if there’s anything they’re not sure of and then to chat in pairs. I monitor, listen in, help out and after maybe four or five minutes say Stop there! Let’s look at how to say some of the things you were trying to say better! Here’s what I wrote on the board – and note that – vitally, I feel – all this was got onto the board WHILE STUDENTS WERE TALKING, as this means we cut seamlessly from student speaking time into a focus on new language / better ways of expressing yourself. Sometimes, what I end up with on the board, gapped, will all be based on what students themselves have actually tried to say; in this particular instance, only three things were. For question 1, I heard one student say People now look more to the Internet for to find information about their health, which resulted in me writing up More and more people are t………… to the Internet in ………….. of medical advice; another pair were talking abut the pictures and clearly didn’t know the word paeditrician – but still got by on mutual understanding and the use of visuals – so I wrote up My sister is a p……………….; and finally for question 3, one students said doctors need to be sure to make nervous people not nervous, resulting in Doctors need to ……………….. to s……….. people’s nerves. The other sentences I just added in myself as examples of things I could’ve heard, or would’ve maybe said myself if I’d been answering the questions.

As I rounded up, I dealt both with the boardwork and some other general ideas. Here’s roughly what I said:

OK, so some of you were talking about the first picture and saying it shows the way people nowadays are more likely to use the Internet to look for advice or information about their illnesses – and be careful Italian and Spanish speakers, advice and information are uncountable in English, so it’s NOT advices and informations. So yeah, you said that more and more people are starting to look at the Internet, they’re moving away from doctors and books and they’re going to the Internet, so they’re? Anyone? No? They’re turning to the Internet because they’re looking for information, so they’re in? Yeah, that’s right. In search of advice. OK, in the second picture, you were talking about this kind of doctor, a doctor who specializes in working with kids. This kind of doctor is called a? Anyone? Yeah, OK, that must be the Spanish for it. It’s very similar in English. It’s a paediatrician. Where’s the stress? Yeah, the main stress is on the /pi:/ and then there’s a second stress on the /trI/, so everyone paediatrician. Again. Good. And in this picture, someone was saying maybe the little boy is just going to have his body looked at, to make sure he’s in good condition, so he’s going for? That’s right. A check-up. And if you have one every year it’s an? Yeah, an annual check-up. And notice – you HAVE an annual check-up. In the third picture, you were saying the doctors are getting training, right? You can also say it like this – We GET trained up / They’ll train us up ON THE JOB. It’s the same meaning. And what about the fourth picture? Yeah, it looks like some kind of traditional healer, like a traditional doctor, or something, doesn’t it? I don’t think any of you said Yes for the second one, did you? Nope. OK. So the third one, the qualities that doctors need. Some of you were saying doctors need to be good with their hands, especially if they’re like surgeons or whatever, as if they slip, it can be disastrous, so they need to have a? No, not stable hand. Stable is usually used to describe the economic situation, or like a stable relationship with someone or if someone’s very ill in hospital, but isn’t going to die, they often say they’re in a critical but stable condition, so not stable here. usually Yeah, a STEADY hand. Good. And you were saying they need to be able to see blood. You know, some people if they see blood, they can’t stand it, they faint or maybe throw up, but doctor’s need to have a? Yeah, a strong what? No-one? A strong stomach. Someone was also saying doctors need to be good at talking to you when you’re ill and lying there in bed, they need to be good at talking to you and making you feel things are OK. They have a nice relaxing manner, they have a good? Yeah, manner is the second word. And the first one? No-one? a nice or a good bedside manner. Finally, you were saying that they need to be good at making nervous people feel better, so they need to be? Yeah. be able to what? No, not solve. Or sort out. Usually you solve or sort out problems, but you soothe people’s nerves. In the same way, you can talk about soothing music or soothing colours.

And after all that, here’s what we ended up with on the board.

There are many advantages to doing thins this way. Firstly, it doesn’t really matter if the speaking takes off or not. In a sense, the students aren’t speaking for the sake of speaking; they’re speaking partly to lead them in to the rest of the spread, partly to practise, but also partly to lead in to input, so there’s a language-based focus to what they attempt; using the whole class to elicit the missing words allows the truly strong students – and not just the chatty ones who love the sounds of their own voices – the chance to show what they know and to have their learning recognized and validated; everyone feels that there must’ve been plenty going on the class if this is what the round-up is like and thus, by extension, other students must be pretty good . . . and finally, old language gets revisited, new language gets fed in, and students get primed further in their understanding of how words work with other words.

Next came the listening. The first task asked students to listen to an interview with Laura, a Mexican doctor, as she talks about her medical career. Students had to number the four ‘big pictures’ according to the order she talked about them.This seemed easy to the point of being banal to me, and given that the second task included in the book – listening again and ticking the topics she mentioned: her home life and family, her medical training and specialisation, the role of traditional healers in the community, the most common illnesses that she treats, changes in the information patients can access nowadays, and her favourite and least favourite aspects of being a doctor, was also essentially a gist task, I put these two together and told the students to listen, find out which pictures they heard mentioned in which order AND to listen for which topics she talked about – and what she said about them. After playing the CD once, students compared ideas in pairs and I then elicited ideas from the whole class. I’m going to do a whole other post sometime son abut what teachers do when they round-up after first listenings, but I think the main point is that checking the answers is never enough; there has to also be some collective attempt to establish why the answers were the answers – what the students heard that helped that get the right answers (those who did!). In a sense, what now occurred was a kind of teacher-directed / filtered collective retelling. We clarified that first she talked her BASIC TRAINING, when she GOT TRAINED UP; then she talked about the year she spent in a REMOTE VILLAGE, where plenty of local people PUT MORE FAITH IN  traditional healers than in modern doctors; she then returned to Mexico City, where she SPECIALIZED AS A PAEDIATRICIAN. Finally, she talked about the number of people TURNING TO the Internet for advice and coming to her SURGERY ARMED WITH  loads of info. We then went through which topics she’d been talking about, and what they’d heard about each one, with me winkling out – or adding in – exact language she’d used about each topic, correcting – and rejecting – student ideas where necessary and writing up a few bits and bobs that emerged from this. I neglected to photograph the board at this stage, so can’t be sure of what ended up there, sadly.

Next, before the second listening, I told students to discuss in pairs whether they thought the 6 sentences below were true or false – and why. I didn’t really check ideas at this stage – simply said they should listen once more and check their ideas, and try to find out what the speakers said that showed the sentences were true or false.

1  Laura decided to become a doctor mainly because she liked Science subjects at school.

2  To qualify as a paediatrician, she did a four-year degree, a year of social service and a year of residency.

3  She did her social service in an isolated rural area.

4  Local people used the clinic a lot when they had medical problems.

5  She’s against the use of traditional medicine.

6  The parents of her patients often think they know more about the problem than she does.

After the second listen, students chatted in pairs, and compared their ideas, whilst I busied myself writing on the board. After a couple of minutes, my board looked something like this:

1    She was always good ……. Science subjects.

2    On …….. of all that, she then did a four-year s……….. to train as a paediatrician.

3    It was very isolated, very r………….. – very ……… off from the rest of the country.

4    Most people o…………….. for the traditional healer first.

5    She’s not ……………………. to it, especially if it’s used in c……………. with other forms of medicine.

6    She doesn’t say this directly, but she i……………. it.

I then elicited the answers and tried to elicit the words that were missing from my sentences, most of which were actually used in the listening, but a couple of which – a four-year STINT, in CONJUNCTION with – I’d added in myself to bump the level up slightly. I’d elicit the answers from the whole class and see if I could get the missing words by paraphrasing, so for example:

Right, so number 1. True or false. yes, true. Why? yeah, OK, so when she was at school, she was always good MMM Science subjects. Not IN. GOOD AT.

OK, and number two. yeah, it’s false, because FIRST she did a four-year degree, a year of social service and a year of residency. Then, in addition, as well as that, she did four more years, so ON? Yeah, ON TOP OF ALL THAT, she did a four-year? No-one? A four-year period of time working, so a four-year STINT. We can talk about people DOING A STINT IN THE ARMY or DOING A BRIEF STINT AS A WAITER IN NEW YORK.

And 3? Yes, it’s true. She said the area was very isolated. How do you pronounce it again? No, not isoLAted. Listen Isolated. Everyojne. Again, Good. So, it was very isolated, very? Yeah, remote. Where’s the stress. Good. reMOTE. Which means it was very MMM off from the rest of the country? No, not broken off. Anyone? Cut off.

And so on. Again, what this does is move beyond just ‘doing a listening’ for the sake of ‘doing a listening’ and recognizes that the main factor that affects listening ‘skills’ is knowledge of the language. It turns the listening in on itself and focuses the class on the actual words used to convey the meanings they’ve been processing. And again it ensures students get the chance to show what they know, and if they DON’T know, they get the chance to learn something new, in context, with meanings clear, and with co-text made clear.

So next we were onto the vocabulary section, which began like this:

The exercise started as follows:

1 a  Look at transcript 2.2 on page 162. Which of these words can you find?

1  paediatrician     paramedic

2  patient                surgeon

3  nurse                  midwife

4  ward                   operating theatre

5  bandage             plaster

6  self-diagnosis   self-medication

I decided to skip the part where students had to find these words and instead simply moved on to exercise B, where students had to discuss the difference between the pairs of words. I gave them five or six minutes to compare ideas in pairs, went round and listened in and helped out, and used this time to get my boardwork up. At this juncture, I should make it clear that I really hate these kinds of exercises. They covertly encourage a single-word focus, they are written wit little thought to how students’ communicative competence will develop as a result of doing them, they are hard to know what to do with in the classroom for most inexperienced teachers and even if meanings are successfully tackled (and they’re often NOT for the desire to be ‘student-centred’ kinds of reasons I explained last post around!), then students glean little or nothing about how to actually use these words themselves. If I have to do these kinds of exercises, it’s the last issue that I try to make my main focus: fine, tackle meanings and ensure that’s clear, but above and beyond that, ensure that usage is clarified and exemplified.

Whilst eliciting ideas on meaning from the whole class, I’m obviously getting meanings, but also seeing if they know co-text, words connected to the words being looked at, and feeding new items in where necessary, eliciting others and writing them up. Here’s more or less what I said whilst rounding up student ideas:

OK, so what’s the difference between a paediatrician and a paramedic? Well, we’ve talked already about paediatricians, haven’t we? They’re doctors that specialise in kids, they work mainly with babies. And a paramedic? yeah, OK. a bit like a travelling doctor, yeah. They’re like doctors trained to give care to people at the scene of an accident, so they often travel inside ambulances, they’re part of the ambulance team of people, so part of the ambulance? yeah, good. CREW (write this in to the gap). And patient and surgeon? Yeah, right, so the patient is the person who’s receiving the medical treatment, while the surgeon is a special kind of doctor who – not DOES operations, but – anyone? Yeah, performs (write in gap on board). And three different kind of surgeons. OK, yes, heart and brain. OK. Yes, can also have neuro-surgeons. I forgot about that one. Surgeons who deal with the nervous system, yeah. And? The ones who do like correction or reconstruction of various parts of the body? Yes, plastic surgeons. (I wrote all these up as I was eliciting). OK. Next. Nurses you’ve all already talked about, but midwives? Right, they’re nurses who look after women when they’re having babies, so they MMM babies? Anyone? No. Deliver (write it up), yeah, that’s right. Like for letters. The same verb! Sorry, what was your question. Can men be midwives? Yeah, of course they can. It’s not very common, but it happens. No, they’re not called mid-husbands, but I can see your logic there. I guess they’re just called male midwives. They’re can’t be that many, though. So what about ward and operating theatre? No? Well, a ward is one particular part of the hospital, so when women are giving birth they go to the? No, not the mother’s ward. Anyone? The maternity ward (wrote this up). And you also have – if people have severe mental health problems, maybe they go to the? Not psychiatrist ward. They might to SEE a psychiatrist, but they go to the psychiatric ward. And old people sometimes go to? No? The geriatric ward. And the verb? When you arrive at hospital and they say Hi and sent you to these wards, you are? Yeah, that’s right. Admitted to a ward.  (wrote all this up). An the operating theatre? It’s where the surgeon performs the operations. And if someone is taken into hospital and very quickly taken to the operating theatre, we often say they were MMM to it. No, not run – rushed to the operating theatre (which I then wrote up). OK, so what about bandage and plaster? Right. A bandage is a thin piece of cloth that you wrap round a part of your body that’s hurt or injured, so maybe after you get a tattoo you have to wear a bandage over it, and like some people wear bandages for support when they’re jogging, round their knee joints or whatever. And plaster . . . plaster has two meanings. One is when you cut yourself – like a small cut – you have to put a plaster on. Yeah, Band-Aid is the same. It’s just the brand name. It’s more common in American English, but I know what you mean. And if you break your arm or your leg, you have to have it IN PLASTER for a few weeks. Like here, in this example (pointed to the board). And finally, self-diagnosis, like you said it’s when you decide yourself what you think is wrong with you, maybe after reading about the symptoms on the Internet, and self-medication? Yeah, it’s when you give yourself – or order for yourself – the medicine you think you need, so you bypass the doctor. Increasingly now, you can order what used to be prescription-only drugs online. And the verbs from these nouns? Right. Self-diagnose and self-medicate (which I wrote up) people sometimes say you self-medicate if you drink really heavily or take LOTS of drugs, like you’re trying to calm your brain or control you mind or whatever with these ‘medicines’. OK. Anything from here you’re not sure of? No? Right. I’ll give you a minute or two to copy down the boardwork.

Next, we moved on to some speaking, designed I guess to encourage practice and personalization of some of this new language. The questions were fairly weird, yet again, and certainly not things I’ve ever discussed myself in English or indeed any other language, and so I had low expectations of how much speaking they might generate. You might like to consider for yourself what you’d have to say about these:

Work in pairs. Discuss the questions.

– Are you a good patient? Why/Why not?

– Which would you prefer to be, a midwife or a surgeon? Why?

– What are the advantages and disadvantages of self-diagnosis and self-medication?

As per usual with these little speaking slots, I gave the class a minute or two to read through and check they understood the questions and then gave a model of sorts from my own perspective, which ran something like this:

OK, for example, for me . . . I’m a pretty bad patient. I really hate going to the doctor’s or dentist’s and try to PUT IT OFF for as long as possible. I mean, I’ll only go for a check-up if I absolutely have to. I don’t like having injections, I don’t like people prodding and poking me (which I acted out whilst saying them), I don’t like the smell of hospitals. Basically, I’m maybe fairly typical in that I’ll avoid being a patient unless it’s really urgent. Now you guys try. Two, two, two, two, three.

Students then chatted in pairs / groups and I went round, asking questions, chipping in, correcting pron errors, pointing out small grammar slips and – crucially, I’d argue (and have many times before, I know!) – getting gapped sentences up on the board so that after five or six minutes I could stop the group and say we were going to look at how to say some of the things they were trying to say in better English.

You can see the boardwork we ended up with following this section below. The words I chose to gap – though I’d usually give the first letter, and would sometimes add in the second if students were struggling – were being, slip and well-paid in the first example; wimp, incision and layer in the next couple. The sentence that followed cast an interesting light on level in itself. Whilst my younger self may well have felt the speed at which the class raced through the material was a sign of their being a higher level than the book, my current self is far more attuned to student output and the many, many glitches within it. The sentence follows stemmed from a student discussing surgeon or midwife and saying I don’t want both of jobs! The words I gapped here were wouldn’t and either – which I (eventually!) managed to elicit, and which resulted in a brief discussion of the sentence being hypothetical or imaginary and a reminder that not . . . either means not this one or that one. Finally, I recycled rewarding, which was successfully elicited.

Next we were onto the dread grammar. As I stated in my first post on this lesson, for me any book that is stupid enough to lump be used to, get used to and used to all together does not deserve to be ordered, but needs must in this particular instance.

The opening exercise was this one:

1A  Work in pairs. Read sentences a-d. Underline all the examples of used to.

a  I used to work as an assistant to a paramedic.

b  I wasn’t used to living in such a small community.

c  In the beginning it was frustrating, but now I’m getting used to it.

d  Doctors are more used to dealing with this situation these days.

B Answer the questions about the sentences in 1A

1  Which sentences talk about a) the present? b) the past?

2 Which sentences talk about a) a past habit, state or situation? b) a situation that is becoming normal? c) a situation that was strange or unfamiliar in the past?

I decided the first exercise – the underlining – was too basic and asked the class instead to start with the matching in B. Students raced through this individually, then compared in pairs, before I ran through the answers with the whole group as follows:

So which ones are about the past? OK, yes. A – I used to work as an assistant. In the past I worked as an assistant, but now I don’t. And? Yeah, B. When Laura first moved that remote village – in the past – she WASNT USED TO livING in such a small community, but then it became normal for her, she GOT USED TO it. And which are about the present? Yep. C – At first, Laura found it frustrating when patients came to see her armed with loads of info from Wikipedia, but now it’s becoming more normal for her, she’S GETTING USED TO it. And D, yeah. Doctors today find this fairly normal, they ARE more USED TO dealING with it. OK. And which one is past habit or state or situation? Yeah, A. This was her work state in the past, but not now. We also often use another structure in conjunction with USED TO as well, like in this example here. I used to have really long hair. I MMM only get it cut once or twice a year. Any ideas? No, not COULD. That’s more for ability. No-one? I’d – I would. Here’s another example: I used to work in a restaurant. I’d wait tables and serve drinks and stuff. So we use USED TO to introduce the story and then give details of common past actions / habits using WOULD. Right. A situation which is becoming normal? Yeah, C. In the beginning, patients coming to her with loads of info from the web was annoying, frustrating, but now it’s becoming normal. She’S GETTING USED TO it. OK. And c? yeah, the one about how she WASN’T USED TO livING in a small community. It was weird for her and IT TOOK A WHILE FOR HER TO GET USED TO it. OK, let’s move on and do a quick practice of making the form, then we’ll do some talking, OK?

We then skipped all the exercises in the book asking students to complete the grammar reference section with various missing words – the kind of things shown below:

A  Used to

We use used to + the …………… to talk about situations, habits or repeated actions in the past. often they are things which we no longer do.

+ I ……………. to live in Paris.

– I didn’t use to speak French.

? Did you ……….. to eat out a lot?

Yes, I did. / No, I didn’t.

There seemed little point given that they’d successfully identified both meaning and form already and were about to do a form-focused exercise anyway, where any issues with form / meaning would get flagged up anyway. This was what we moved onto instead – a form-focused exercise, where students had to complete sentences with the correct used to expression and the verbs in brackets. Here’s a taster of what the book provides:

1  I’m still not ……………. to …………….. spicy food. (eat)

2  I’m ……………. to ……………… my shoes off in people’s houses, but I still forget sometimes. (take)

3  When I first arrived I ………….. to …………….. friends so late at night, but now it seems normal. (meet)

4  I didn’t …………… to …………… by waterbus when I lived there. (travel)

5  I’ll never …………… to …………… on the wrong side of the road. (drive)

I gave the students a few minutes to try on their own; went round and pointed out where things were wrong; got students to compare ideas in pairs and – where they had different answers – to try and work out who was wrong; and then ran through the answers very much as follows:

So, number 1? Right, I’m still not used to eating spicy food (I wrote the answer on the board.) What do you think the situation is here? Who might be speaking where? yeah, OK. Maybe a foreign person living in India. Or Mexico, yeah, and they find the food there, which is really spicy, difficult and strange. OK. Number 2? Right. I’m used to taking my shoes off, so it’s normal for me now to do this. Who’s speaking where? Yeah, OK. Maybe an English person living in Japan. Could be, yes. It’s normal for them, biut sometimes they still forget to do it. Old English habits die hard. And 3? No, not I didn’t use to meet. That means the speaker never did that. The meaning here is they did it, but it was weird for them, so? Right. I wasn’t used to meeting. It was strange for them, but now it seems normal. Who’s speaking where? Yeah, OK. Maybe an English person living in Spain, where friends often meet for dinner much much later than here in the UK, like maybe at 10 or 11! And 4? Right. I didn’t use to travel. No -d on use to. So in the past, when they lived in this place, it wasn’t their habit to take the waterbus. Maybe they used to walk or cycle instead. Any idea who’s taking about where? No, me neither really. Someone who used to live – in the past – somewhere where they had a waterbus! And 5? I’ll never? Right. Get used to driving. So driving on the wrong side of the road is weird for me now – and will always feel weird for me. I’ll never get used to it. It will never become normal. Who’s speaking where? yeah, OK. It could be a foreign person living in London (laughter) . . . or of course a British person living in Spain or China! (more laughter)

I was about to move onto the practice, but quickly asked if anyone had any problems – and at this juncture, one student asked one of the classic Grammar Anxiety questions these kinds of exercises seem to promote: “I’m still not sure of the difference between not being used to doing something, getting used to doing and being used to doing!” I pointed out they were often part of a process – the change from things feeling weird to things becoming normal slowly to then being totally normal, and there were common time phrases used with them. I wrote up on the board: AT FIRST / TO BEGIN WITH, I WASN’T USED TO LIVING IN A BIG CITY, BUT NOW I’M USED TO IT / BUT I’M SLOWLY GETTING USED TO IT – and explained this may be similar to this particular student’s own experience of moving to London – from a small town in Japan – and asked which of the two possible asnwers best described his feelings now.

Finally, we moved on to some speaking. In the book, students were told to write true sentences for each of the following situations:

1  something you used to believe as a child.

2  something you’re getting used to, but it’s still difficult.

3  something you’ll never get used to.

4  something you weren’t used to at one time, but now it’s fine.

5  something you’ve slowly got used to over the years.

I gave students a minute or two to read through and gather thoughts, then gave my own model answer which took in slowly getting used to having grey hair, after a few years in my mid-30s of dyeing it; how when I was a kid I used to believe that the tress from the graveyard I grew up opposite had dead people’s fingers in them and that when the wind brushed them against my window, it meant they wanted to get in – and get me; and how years ago when I first started eating Japanese food, I wasn’t used to natto – fermented soya bean – but now I love it. Students then chatted a bit – struggling with most questions after 1, in all honesty, as it’s often hard to come up with these things on the spur of the moment – and some great stories emerged about how one student used to believe there were ghosts behind the curtain, another used to believe that if she stepped on money dead soldiers would come in the night and rip her fingers off, and so on! There then followed some reformulation, some retelling and much laughter and banter. This was one of the boards we ended up with, but I seem to also recall some other bits and bobs emerging that I forgot to take snaps of. You get the gist though.

So there you have it. How I survived my morning of cover; how I’ve changed in the way I push the material that’s available to me and how I insist on a whole-language focus; how I try to compensate for coursebook’s relentless single-word focus; how I use the board to ensure students go away with plenty of new – and reworked – language noted down and available for them to revise from; and how upping the level to me now means NOT supplementing, but digging deeper, working language and asking questions.

Not the best material I’ve ever used by any stretch of the imagination, nor the best lesson I’ve ever done, BUT one from which students went away having learned new language and having shown they’d remember plenty of previously taught language; having done lots of speaking and feeling that they’d been pushed. Not one complaint about level ensued – and there was not a single idiom in sight!

The road to hell is paved with good intentions (or Much Ado About Nothing?)

As a teacher and as a coursebook writer, one of the (many) things I’ve always been interested in is trying to present a broader and more nuanced view of the world to students than is often attempted. As I’m sure you’ll all be aware, publishers often have fairly strict guidelines on what can – and cannot – be included in material aimed for a global mass market. In essence, what this far too frequently means is that potential Middle Eastern sales – and the sensitivities of the region (both real and imagined by overly-sensitive EFL editors!) dictate what the whole world gets to read about. One common acronym often used for describing what remains taboo is parsnips, standing for politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, isms (such as communism or atheism), and pork. Given these strictures, what then all too often occurs is writers themselves want an easy life, want to maximize sales and don’t want to rock the boat in order to get repeat commissions and so the cloyingly bland little world of ELT materials repeats itself ad infinitum.

For many teachers, this prompts a lurch away from published materials towards so-called ‘authentic’ materials, a move I’ve argued against elsewhere. For me as a writer, it presents its own kind of challenge. How can I get interesting and relevant issues in through the back door? How can I leave space for potentially interesting debate and discussion to emerge? And how can my material affect or impact upon students – and perhaps alter or modify their ways of thinking? Obviously, this is a vast area and one out of which many, many posts could emerge. However, this particular thought piece is based on watching a class yesterday which used a subversively-intentioned text I’ve long been quite proud of – and the depression and shock which ensued from seeing what the class did with it! As the title has it, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

This was a listening-based lesson from OUTCOMES UPPER-INTERMEDIATE Unit 16 – Business. The basic gist is that it revolved around reality TV shows and in particular a radio programme about two new Afghan reality TV shows: an Afghan version of Dragon’s Den and Afghan Idol! The hope was that it might afford students a more sophisticated and complex view of a country that’s not exactly had a great press in recent years. The lead-in is based on a short text about the boom in reality TV and some discussion of shows students have seen (see below).


Read the short extract below. Then discuss the questions.

Dragon’s Den is a popular reality TV programme in Britain. Each week, would-be entrepreneurs who want to set up their own businesses present their plans to a panel of five successful business people, with the aim of persuading the five to invest a certain amount of their own money in exchange for a stake in any new company the entrepreneurs are then able to start. After the entrepreneurs have pitched their ideas, they are then subjected to questioning from the panel, as a result of which each of the business people either offer to give the money the entrepreneur has asked for or declare that they are not interested. There is no negotiation on the amount that is invested, but the entrepreneurs and business people can negotiate what percentage of the new company the business people will end up owning.

1  Does a programme like  Dragon’s Den exist in your country? Is it a programme you would watch? Why? / Why not?

2  Discuss other reality TV shows you know in the following areas. What do they involve? Do you like any of them? Why? / Why not?

– business

– living with a group of other people

– survival or dealing with difficult situations

– music or dance

– romance and dating

It then moved onto the following exercises, which were predominantly based on the listening embedded here.


You are going to hear a radio report about a reality TV programme in Afghanistan.

A  Before you listen, work in groups. Discuss what you know about Afghanistan.

B  Now listen and answer these questions.

1  What is the programme?

2  Why is it important there?

3  What is different about the programme compared to its British equivalent?

B  Listen again and decide if the following statements are true or false. Then compare your answers with a partner.

1  The show was originally devised in Britain.

2  The Afghan economy has not been sustaining itself.

3  Most people in Afghanistan work for the state.

4  More people need to learn about aspects of business.

5  Faisulhaq Moshkani has an electricity company.

6  His company is unique in Afghanistan.

7  There are two reality TV shows on Afghan TV.

8  In Afghanistan, women weren’t allowed to have paid jobs in the past.

The group was a small one and the teacher decided to conduct the discussion of the first question – exercise A above – with the whole group. This was the cue for a Ukrainian student to launch into a rant about how everything that Afghanistan had was a result of Russia having provided it for them, that the main field of work there was drug-production and drug-dealing, and that essentially all Afghans were violent and barbaric Taliban wanna-bes who treated all women worse than dogs. These comments completely threw the (admittedly relatively inexperienced) teacher and went unchallenged by other students. Indeed, one other student – a young Romanian lad – simply chuckled along at the outpouring. The teacher did try to say that maybe it was a bit harsh and that you couldn’t really say a whole country was violent, just that people were violent. This well-intentioned attempt at encouraging personalisation and discouraging sweeping generalisations resulted in the response: “Yes, the people are very violent!”

Then whilst the teacher was rounding up the answers to the true or false questions that accompanied the second listening, the same student replied that number 8 must be true – not because of anything that had been heard, but because ‘They are all Muslims, and that’s how they are. They don’t let women do nothing. So of course it’s true.’

Now, were I teaching this class myself, I’d pick up on this, challenge it, explore it, complicate it, explain what I felt was wrong with such outbursts, but in this instance I was merely an observer. And the experience raised some complicated questions: does any of the above really actually matter is perhaps the hardest question. Is it simply that as a well-intentioned left-of-centre bleeding-heart British liberal, I expect the world to be a better place than it clearly is, and that the reality is that many many of our students hold views I perceive to be odious and unsavoury and yet which, when aired in multi-lingual classes, often go unchallenged or get agreed with – possibly even by other teachers themselves? Also, by making material which raises these issues, albeit in a discrete way, am I inadvertently facilitating such bile? Or is it better that it exists and can thus be used as a springboard by some teachers to challenge, explore and complicate – and that others who don’t, with students who think similarly to the student described above, remain essentially unchanged and continue as they would have anyway? In other words, is the feeling of discomfort I experienced essentially a luxury, an irrelevance?

I’ve always felt that as teachers we have two responsibilities that pull against each other at times like these: on the one hand, we have a responsibility to help our students express themselves better in English – even if we find their opinions repellent. After all, they have paid us to help them learn better English! At the same time, I also feel all teachers have a right – perhaps even a duty – to challenge on a personal level opinions they find disgusting. I’ve never really felt these were mutually exclusive desires, and have long managed to more or less balance them.

However, by sending material that opens the world up the classes out there into the classrooms of others, I suppose I simply have to accept that material can be used to challenge, but can also end up simply reaffirming, prejudices and biases that students come with. In saying this, I start to feel like an NRA gun freak claiming that it’s not guns that kill, it’s people, but fear that in this instance (though NOT, of course, when it comes to guns!), that’s just the way it has to be. Maybe we just have to accept that bigots and racists have a right to their viewpoint and that in the end, even being challenged or critiqued may well do very little to dent their world views. While conversation CAN be transformative, it can also simply be a reaffirmation of previously held beliefs, whatever our political inclinations. And that my angst is ultimately much ado about nothing very much.

Some thoughts on level, material and the difficulty of making things stick.

Our eight-week summer school is now in full swing and I can almost guarantee that at some point in the next day or two, at least one student will come to me and ask to move because they feel they should be in a higher level. Often, these requests are in such painfully slow and stilted English that I’m astounded they’re even in the level they’ve been placed in, let alone that they have the cojones to believe they should be a level higher. The number of students we place at Intermediate or Upper-Intermediate who then come and inform us that they last course they did was Advanced or – my recent favourite – that they have ‘always’ been Upper-Intermediate is staggering – and it does beg the question as to how this state of affairs could’ve ever possibly come to pass. Obviously, insisting that students stay at the level we feel they actually belong in is a tough choice to make: there’s the ever-present risk that students will take offence at this and simply take their business elsewhere, and as we all know, students can always find a place that will put them into whatever level they demand, so long as they first pay and then moan long and hard enough. There’s also, of course, always the risk – and the fear – that students may still not actually end up getting enough of what they need from the classes to ensure that they really do learn new things and thus get some sense of making progress.

For many students in many institutions, level is often a matter of time spent in classrooms, pure and simple. Students pay to do an eighty-hour course, say, and they then ‘complete’ it and thus move up to the next ‘level’. Following this trajectory, students who’d not stand a hope of passing FCE wind up being labelled Advanced. The flip-side of this is the (often fairly well-off and often fairly pushy) shall we say ‘strongly motivated’ student, who essentially blags their way into a higher level through persistent and relentless whining and moaning and threats. One of the perennial ironies involved in interactions with these students is that whilst they are always keen to point out the students in their current class who seem weaker to them than they believe themselves to be, when the fact that they may well become just like these students – at the lower end of the class spectrum if they were to be moved – is pointed out, they counter by saying that THEY would relish this and would rise to challenge, soaking up knowledge from those around so quickly they’d soon surpass them! Ultimately, we do no-one any favours by moving students up either simply because they demand it or because they’ve been around a fair old while. The students who get moved learn less than they would in a class pitched at their level; the quite possibly stronger – but shyer / nicer / less assertive – students in the group they get moved from lose out as their talents go unrewarded and unrecognised AND the students in the class above have the level of their class skewed downwards by a newcomer, and often a newcomer with a chippy attitude and a lack of desire to do the grunt work and put the hours in before getting the  prize! In the same way, we also do not really solve the problem of level by taking a class who’ve been tested and placed at, say, Intermediate, and then re-designating them as Upper-Intermediate simply because they claim to be finding things too easy. Follow this logic and after another term a class that’d realistically be Upper-Int at best, and still a fair way off FCE, are suddenly being given Advanced books and struggling to cope! To my mind, Advanced means post-FCE and unless you’ve take the exam and passed – which means you’ve already acquired a good grasp of both the meanings and common usages of some 2500+ words – then you’re still essentially Upper-Intermediate.

However, of course, both coursebooks and teaching play into this perennial problem. All too often, coursebooks simply don’t have enough new language in them – they’re lexically light. And where they do have vocabulary, it’s usually presented predominantly as single words, with the main focus being on meaning and little if any attention being paid to usage / collocation and so on. The vast majority of coursebooks simply do not seem to really treat lexis as the core stumbling block to proficiency or as the main way in which students – particularly those at Intermediate level and above, who’ve already studied structural grammar in pure mechanical form-manipulation ways for many years dating right back to high school – develop linguistically and are able to measure their own progress. Even where lexis is made difficult, it’s often by sheer dint of being obscure and unusual, rather than by being an expansion upon the dominant single-word paradigm. The core driver of syllabus, and thus the main way in which generation after generation of teacher is conditioned to think about level, remains grammar, and the higher up coursebooks go, the more likely they are to try to make grammar difficult, even when – or perhaps ESPECIALLY WHEN – it really needn’t be.

Much teaching then exacerbates this by simply being procedural: speaking tasks are set up, students are listened to and are then asked to repeat to the group what they’ve said to each other already in pairs, whilst the teacher nods, smiles and does little else; exercises are set up and run through and answers are elicited without meanings really being nailed or usage really being explored; and level is all too often thought of in terms of grammar, simply because “they’re still making loads of mistakes” – and thus pages of Murphy’s ENGLISH GRAMMAR IN USE are photocopied and given as homework, thus reinforcing students’ sense of frustration at simply retreading old ground for little clear communicative end result.

To consider this in more detail, let’s turn to the book we’re experimenting with on our summer school this year, the new Richmond course THE BIG PICTURE. I had to cover an Upper-Intermediate class this week and was given a couple of pages entitled A CAREER IN MEDICINE to teach. Whilst quickly sifting through the double-page spread I was about to go and teach and noting down language I wanted to pick up on and exploit, I had a sudden flashback through time to myself as a far younger teacher and suddenly realised how far I’d come and how much the earlier version of myself would’ve contributed to exactly the kind of issues surrounding level I’ve outlined above.

The spread begins with some speaking. Students are told to work in groups and to discuss these questions:

1  Look at the images. What aspects of medicine does each one show?

2  Are any of your classmates doctors, or training top be doctors? If yes, what’s his / her specialisation?

3  What skills do you need to be a doctor?

Above are four images – these, I suppose, are the ‘big pictures’ the book’s title alludes to – an open Internet page with the words Trusted advice emblazoned across it, a paediatrics nurse holding a stethoscope on a young boy’s chest, some young doctors in some kind of training situation and some kind of traditional healer

In my earlier incarnation, I would simply have told the students to work in pairs or groups and discuss these questions, and then fretted slightly about the fact that students weren’t saying much about them, probably not realising that there is actually very little say about such questions, and instead taking this as a sign of their poor speaking. I may have managed to monitor, and maybe during this time I might perhaps have even explained some of the potentially new vocab such as aspect and specialisation, though perhaps not necessarily with reference to medicine. I may even have also corrected on the spot a few basic surface errors, usually of a simple grammatical type. There then would have been a whole class round-up where either individual students or the whole group would’ve been asked for ideas (which in this case, at least with the first question above, basically means ‘the correct answers’ actually) and I’d then have said “OK, yes,people look at the Internet for trusted advice, and some doctors have a specialisation. They work with children. They usually have training, yes, and this one shows some kind of traditional doctor or something. Good.” Ten or fifteen minutes could easily have passed already – without any real teaching taking place yet.

Next came a listening. The first task asked students to listen to an interview with Laura, a Mexican doctor, as she talks about her medical career. Students had to number the four ‘big pictures’ according to the order she talked about them. I’d play the CD – or cassette as it would’ve been back then – and put students in pairs to compare before eliciting the (fairly basic!) answers: “Yes, first was about her training, then yes she talked about traditional healers. She said when she worked in a village, there was one there, didn’t she. Then it was about her specialisation – working with kids. Then finally she talked about people looking for advice online. Great. Well done.”

The next task tells students to listen again and tick the topics she mentioned: her home life and family, her medical training and specialisation, the role of traditional healers in the community, the most common illnesses that she treats, changes in the information patients can access nowadays – and her favourite and least favourite aspects of being a doctor. Again, I’d have played the tape, put students in pairs and then elicited the answers. More often than not, this would have been in a fairly cursory manner: “Right, so did she talk about her home life or family? No, that’s right. Not really. What about her medical training? yes, there was quite a bit about that, wasn’t there?” By this point, I might have been feeling that because students had got all the answers so far, they were finding the material ‘easy’ and that as a result, I’d best rush on to something ‘more difficult’ (a concept I’ll return to in a while). Finally, there’s a THIRD task – students have to read six sentences and say if they’re true or false, and correct false sentences. I’d often play the tape a third time, more out of ignorance than any particular intentions . . . perhaps hoping it might help them to finally ‘get’ everything, or at worst just hoping it’d fill the time up a bit and help students develop their listening ‘skills’. I’d run through the answers again, with little or nothing being made to stick: “So Number 1? Yes, it’s true. She said she was good at science at school, didn’t she? And 2? It’s false. She did a four-year degree, a year of social service, a year of residency AND THEN another four years on paediatrics.”

This would all take maybe twenty or twenty-five minutes of precious class time . . . and by the end of this section, STILL no real teaching would have taken place

Next up came a vocabulary exercise.Ah ha, you’re thinking. Even a novice must have have to teach something here.

Well, yes and no, in truth, if my earlier self is anything to go by.

The exercise started as follows:

1 a  Look at transcript 2.2 on page 162. Which of these words can you find?

1  paediatrician     paramedic

2  patient                surgeon

3  nurse                  midwife

4  ward                   operating theatre

5  bandage             plaster

6  self-diagnosis   self-medication

Once students had looked at the transcript of the listening and found the relevant words and I’d performed the fairly banal task of saying “OK, yes, good, the word paediatrician is in there, and so is paramedic. Well done. Good,” I would then have moved on to the next task – Work in pairs. Explain the difference between the pairs of words in 1A. Use a dictionary to help you – and would’ve let students spend a few minutes looking up words in dictionaries (an action I used to believe somehow fostered learner autonomy or developed self-sufficiency of some similar nonsense!) before then getting students to compare ideas in pairs. Eventually, I would’ve elicited basic ideas from the class, and in a bid to be what I understood ‘student-centered’ to mean at this time, I may well have asked students to explain any words folk seemed unsure of. Usually what would then happen is the more confident and vocal students (in many instances, this often meant European or Latin American students) would give vague, rambling, semi-unintelligible responses, which I’d often feel uncertain about ‘correcting’ and so would end up validating by saying “Yes, OK. That’s right. So did we all get that?” to which the other students, who maybe hadn’t understood the rambling explanations, or who had been unable to hear them (and who had, by this point,  already looked the words up anyway), would simply nod, either feeling that they were being kept back by the slow verbose students and wondering why they couldn’t be pushed forward and given more challenging input a bit more or else feeling intimidated by these students ‘fluency’ and thus more insecure about their own (often more accurate) output. At best, I might’ve managed to add a layer of basic semantic gloss and would’ve said, for instance, “Yes, OK, so a paediatrician is a kids’ doctor and a paramedic is maybe a doctor for emergencies. As you said, maybe with ambulances. And a patient? Yes, it’s the person in the hospital, the sick person, the ill one. And the surgeon? yes, the special doctor for operations.” On it would go, with little more being added to the students’ knowledge of the words and with no discernible improvement to their communicative abilities resulting. Another fifteen or minutes would’ve drifted by, never to be recaptured, with still no real attempt to force language to stick!

Next comes a short bit of speaking, where students were asked to discuss whether or not they were a good patient – and why; which they’d prefer to be – a midwife or surgeon – and what the pros and cons of self-diagnosis and self-medication are. Usually with these sections, students would’ve ended up chatting quite happily for a good few minutes, comparing ideas and experiences, while I would listen in, smile, chat a bit and then stopp by asking each pair what they’d been saying to each other. This may well have gone on for several more minutes, with – predictably – the chattier, more confident (some might even say ‘cockier’) European / Latin American students doing most of the talking – and making plenty of mistakes in the process, none of which would’ve got picked up on as my focus at this juncture would’ve been very much just on the message, or the ‘whole person’ if you prefer!! Consequently, these students would’ve got yet another chance to gabble on – and to end up with an inflated sense of own their own capabilities as a result!

Finally, there was a grammar section. As with so many books, I find it hard to look at the randomly selected single words and the subsequent grammar focus and see how they in any way add up to a coherent whole, or how they help students become better able to either discuss or – God forbid – pursue a career in medicine, but perhaps that’s a rant for another day. The grammar that has been selected to (rather randomly!) emerge from the listening mentioned earlier is be used to / get used to / used to do. Now personally, the very fact the book tries to cover all these in one go is reason enough to never use it again. To my mind, get used / be used to is far more lexical chunk than generative grammar, and why on earth books feel the need to confuse students by throwing these forms in alongside used to + verb, which has a completely different form and function is beyond me. Except, of course, I know that really it’s done because this is the way books – and thus teachers – tend to perceive level. Let’s make grammar harder for students than it ought to be, make them feel they still have issues with it and then supplement the hell out of them with further controlled / semi-controlled practice activities. Anyway, first students got this exercise:

1A  Work in pairs. Read sentences a-d. Underline all the examples of used to.

a  I used to work as an assistant to a paramedic.

b  I wasn’t used to living in such a small community.

c  In the beginning it was frustrating, but now I’m getting used to it.

d  Doctors are more used to dealing with this situation these days.

B Answer the questions about the sentences in 1A

1  Which sentences talk about a) the present? b) the past?

2 Which sentences talk about a) a past habit, state or situation? b) a situation that is becoming normal? c) a situation that was strange or unfamiliar in the past?

In the past, these kinds of sections usually went one of two ways. Often, I’d simply elicit answers and dash through the exercise at breakneck speed: “Right, so in the first one. Right. Used to work. The second? wasn’t used to living. Good . . . and which ones are about the present? Good, c and d . . . and what about a situation that was strange or unfamiliar in the past? great, b. Well done.” However, if students started to seem perplexed, as well they might with exercises like this which seem designed to make simple things more difficult than they need to be, then I’d panic and launch into that great pitfall of the young and inexperienced teacher: the full-blown grammar lecture. I’d regurgitate everything about the structures I’d managed to memorize from the back of the book, write up countless (often fairly mad and unrealistic) examples and then, as eyes were well and truly glazing over, maybe finally move on to the controlled form-focused practice that followed. Students are asked to complete a grammar reference section that starts like this:

A  Used to

We use used to + the …………… to talk about situations, habits or repeated actions in the past. often they are things which we no longer do.

+ I ……………. to live in Paris.

– I didn’t use to speak French.

? Did you ……….. to eat out a lot?

Yes, I did. / No, I didn’t.

I’d run through these, eliciting answers and perhaps extending yet further the explanations given, before moving on to a form-focused exercise, where students had to complete sentences with the correct used to expression and the verbs in brackets. Here’s a taster of what the book provides:

1  I’m still not ……………. to …………….. spicy food.

2  I’m ……………. to ……………… my shoes off in people’s houses, but I still forget sometimes.

3  When I first arrived I ………….. to …………….. friends so late at night, but now it seems normal.

I’d let students try on their own, get them to compare in pairs and then elicit the answers, generally knowing that from someone in the class I’d get the answers I expected. Then finally came the free practice section, where students had to write true sentences for each of the following situations:

1  something you used to believe as a child.

2  something you’re getting used to, but it;’s still difficult.

3  something you’ll never get used to.

4  something you weren’t used to at one time, but now it’s fine.

5  something you’ve slowly got used to over the years.

Perhaps I may have given students a few minutes to write, during which time I’d have gone round and maybe corrected a few surface errors. They would then have been out into pairs or groups to talk, and I suspect the talking wouldn’t have gone that far beyond students basically reading out what they’d written. I’d maybe have rounded up by getting students to repeat to the whole class what they’d written again, and the aforementioned schism between chatty and quieter students would’ve been made that little bit bigger again. 

By now, I could easily have been a good hour and a half into the class and you’d hard-pushed to say what exactly I had taught or what new language students would leave the class having understood and having been shown how to use. Being able to clearly state in what ways their level had been upped or their communicative competence had been developed would’ve been nigh-on impossible. Of course, some learning would’ve occurred indirectly in such classes: students may have looked up the odd new word, and may even have got examples of usage in their dictionaries; I may have managed to gloss and expand upon one or two of the explanations offered by students . . . but essentially material would’ve been moved through without anything much being made to stick.

Having watched students successfully race through the material I’d been assigned for the day, I would then panic that they were finding it too easy and head straight for the Pandora’s Box entitled SUPPLEMENT. The main way I used to think about this was in terms of activities, things to do that might ‘get students talking’ and generate some discussion. If they could also be made to ensure some kind of revision of the grammar I believed students still hadn’t ‘got’ yet. Cue any amount of (frequently fairly demented) fun and games. Two particular sources of inspiration at this time were Friederike Klippel’s Keep Talking and Penny Ur’s Grammar Practice Activities. My poor students would be forced in teams to discuss the relative merits of Paris versus pizza, say, whilst I’d jump on errors with comparatives, or they’d do a balloon debate about what to take to a desert island or they’d walk around asking Haven’t I seen you before somewhere? in an attempt to both work out where the imaginary character they were playing might supposedly have met all other imaginary characters and also to use the present perfect simple six hundred and thirty-two times in twelve minutes. When I wasn’t going for the speaking supplement pills, I’d reach either for the heavy-handed grammar punishment photocopies from, yes, you guessed it. Hello Raymond. Or else I’d overload them with what I believed to be ‘high level’ vocabulary at the time: endless idioms and colloquialisms. The end result? My so-called Upper-Intermediate students who still answered Have you ever been to London before? by saying Yes, I have ever been in Cambridge two years before and who, when asked what their hometown was like would reply that yes, they did actually like, thank you very much for asking, these poor kids would be deluded into believing that if only they could get to grips with what a palaver actually was, when they might want to tell someone they were over the moon and how to use Cockney rhyming slang then they’d somehow be at a ‘higher level’.

Sadly, I fear that this earlier version of myself, rather than being simply a sad and sorry reflection on my own early struggles as I stumbled blindly towards something resembling real teaching is actually in many many ways absolutely emblematic of much post-CELTA teaching both in the UK and elsewhere. It’s not generally an unpleasant experience to be in these classes: fun may be had, information about the world gleaned, laughter heard, friendships made even . . . but we’re deluding ourselves if we believe that a hundred hours of this takes students to a higher level.

For THAT to occur, something far more rigorous has to be going on . . . and that’s what I’ll blog about in the next part of this mini-series later on in the week.

Now, though, I have to go to talk to another student who’s come up during their break time to inform me they should be in Advanced.

The perils of striving for an input-rich class: when more is less!

Two fundamental beliefs I’ve long held about language teaching are that input in the classroom is more important than output – and that language teachers have a responsibility to teach language, which means ensuring the classroom is a language-rich environment, in which new items are explored in a meaningful, interactive, involving and – perhaps above all – useful way. Implicit in this is that we need to be aware of what you might call ‘ambient vocabulary’ – vocabulary which is available to be taught in the material we’re using, but which isn’t the focus of the exercise and which the material doesn’t DEMAND a focus on. Often this ambient vocabulary may be embedded in a grammar exercise, or a model written text students are looking or, or a tapescript, and so on.

Once I’ve become aware of the fact that students have underlined these words, or when I notice them looking the words up whilst processing the larger task at hand, I always try to find time to get an example or two up on the board – whilst students are busy doing whatever it is they’re doing – so that it can be returned to at a later point and clarified and expanded upon. The problem comes with knowing how far to push the examples, and being aware of what aspects of the words are worth bothering with at this juncture – and with this level – and which aren’t. If anything, this is the one main area within which I most frequently retrospectively critique my own teaching: I’ll look back and wonder whether I gave too little, or – as in the instance I’ll go on to describe – too much; and think about how I might’ve handled the word differently (and, as such, how I might handle it better next time it comes up).

Yesterday, I was doing a writing lesson with an Intermediate class, and we were looking at ways of making requests – things like I was wondering if you could possibly . . . ? / Do you think you could . . . ? / Is there any way you could . . . ? / Could you do me a favour and . . . ? We had looked at these sentence stems / starters and were working on four short emails, some more formal and business-related, others less formal and more personal. Students had to read them, add what they felt were the best  missing words to three gaps in each email and consider whether they felt the requests made in each email were reasonable, and whether they’d ask them themselves. One email was as follows:

Hi Zarina,

Just a quick one to ……………….. thanks for the email. I love the photos! is there any ……………….. you could print them out, though, as my printer isn’t very good and I’d ……………….. to frame the photos and put them on my wall?


As students were filling the gaps, I noticed a few students underlining frame and decided it was worth focusing on once we’d finished going through the tasks. Students completed the task, compared gapped words in pairs, and discussed how they felt about each request. I then rounded up by eliciting missing words, clarifying why they were the answers, pointing out extra examples such as Just a quick one to say congratulations on passing your exam / Just a quick one to let you know I can’t make tonight and so on. We then discussed the requests before finally rounding up by exploring some of the ambient language.

I explained what frame meant in the context students had encountered it, drew a little picture and pointed to the example in the middle below. I said it could also be a verb and that it’s often used in the passive, as in the example at the bottom. Then, in a moment of wild optimism, I launched into a detailed explanation of the top sentences and tried to convey the idea of the police framing people – and was met with utter bemusement and confusion. Clutching at straws, I tried suggesting that the police needed a face that matched the crime, so they put anyone they could into ‘the frame’ and photographed them and said they were guilty. I was on one of those rolls that are so hard to get off once you’re on them, despite the fact that within thirty seconds of embarking on them you know in your gut that you have to exit stage left pretty pronto!

Here’s the board my poor, baffled weak Intermediate students were left with afterwards.

On reflection after class, it sank in that not only was this clearly a bridge too far, a classic case of more being less from the students’ point of view, but also in a sense a missed opportunity, as other far saner examples could’ve been focused on. Frame is a two-star noun and a one-star verb in the Macmillan dictionary, meaning that as a noun it’s among the 5000 most common words in the language, and as a verb among the most common 7500. Clearly this makes it worth a moment of attention.

However, it’d make most sense to focus on FIRST the word as it’s found in the context it’s encountered it, then maybe the verb – and the fact it’s frequently passive, as above – so I could maybe have added We had it framed in this shop near our house or something similar. It may well have been wise just to stop there, quit while the going was good, but if expansion was worth doing, then parallel meanings less oblique than being framed by the police would’ve worked better. I could’ve pointed to a window frame, mentioned the IKEA bed frames you have to put together yourself, talked about bike frames or choosing the best frames for a pair of glasses. All of these retain a basic and transparent conceptual similarity with the word taught, in a way that other minefields I could also have stumbled into – frame by frame, a shiver shook her small frame, frame a proposal, frame a question – really don’t.

Of course, had there been any super bright students who’d asked if you can also say frame a person, it might’ve been worth dealing with it. As things stood, though, rather than spiraling ever outwards, perhaps drilling deeper and staying closer to home may well have been best practice.

A Dogme approach to coursebooks part one: Driven by conversation 1

Now the series of posts I want to move on to next may well come as a bit of a surprise to many of you out there, given the fact that I devoted a significant amount of my early energies on this blog to exploring the myriad ways in which I feel the whole Dogme movement, such as it is, has gone slightly awry. However, as I stated many times during those early rants, one of the things that most got my goat was the notion that somehow the concepts behind Dogme necessitated an anti-coursebook stance. Now, of course, this may not be a dominant position among the majority of those who see themselves as following Dogme principles and I may simply have been reacting badly to the explicitly divisive rhetoric behind Chia Suan Chongs’ dogme versus coursebook teach-off series, but it seems to me that many of the guiding principles behind the amorphous beast that Dogme has become are actually incredibly useful ways of thinking about classroom material – and especially when it comes to designing and using coursebooks effectively. As such, what I plan to do over the coming weeks is attempt the perhaps heretical task of showing how false the dichotomy behind the teach-off is and outline the ways in which I believe Dogme and coursebooks can mutually complement each other.

To begin, I’ll explore the way in which I feel the three main precepts of Dogme can work when it comes to coursebooks. Let’s begin with  the notion of conversation-driven teaching. Below is the way the Wikipedia entry on Dogme frames the central importance of conversation to Dogme:

Conversation is seen as central to language learning within the Dogme framework, because it is the “fundamental and universal form of language” and so is considered to be “language at work”. Since real life conversation is more interactional than it is transactional, Dogme places more value on communication that promotes social interaction. Dogme also places more emphasis on a discourse-level (rather than sentence-level) approach to language, as it is considered to better prepare learners for real-life communication, where the entire conversation is more relevant than the analysis of specific utterances. Dogme considers that the learning of a skill is co-constructed within the interaction between the learner and the teacher. In this sense, teaching is a conversation between the two parties. As such, Dogme is seen to reflect Tharp’s view that “to most truly teach, one must converse; to truly converse is to teach”.

Now obviously, there are holes that are easily picked in s0me of the above. One could easily argue that there is no particular reason why conversation is any more an example of “language at work” than written discourses such as emails, Messaging, etc. There’s also a real issue about whether the co-constructed nature of conversation means it has to be mediated by student AND TEACHER. Could it not also be between student and student or student and text? And just because true teaching must involve conversing, does that automatically mean that the opposite is also true? Is all conversing automatically some kind of teaching? Surely not. Is teaching ONLY ‘a conversation between two parties’? And so on . . . and on . . . and on.

However, the goal here is NOT to nitpick (believe it or not), but to acknowledge some kind of fundamental truth in the concept of good teaching (of English as a Foreign Language, at any rate!) being conversationally rooted. You might want to claim a slightly larger slice of the spoken pie for TRANSACTIONAL / GETTING THINGS DONE type conversations than the quote above seems to allow, but surely few teachers would argue that perhaps the ultimate goal of a General English course is to develop and extend students’ ability to speak (and listen to) English. The way we usually conceptualize ability in a foreign language is very much rooted in the notion of the primacy of speech. We’ve all met – and possibly moaned about – students who perform well on paper tests, but who are unable to really function in class as they fail to keep up with the predominantly spoken nature of lessons. This is, perhaps, reflective of the fact that the classroom is first and foremost a social space and that speaking is the one skill that is hardest to practise outside of its confines. Students WANT to talk to each other and when speaking is banned or discouraged in a classroom,. it is simply driven underground, resulting in whispering, note-passing and texting!

However, just accepting that we want our classes to be driven – at least by and large – by conversation is only the starting point. Out of this pour a whole host of questions that need serious consideration: what’s the difference between conversation and talking / speaking? If we are to place conversation at the heart of our teaching, then what kind of conversations should be helping our students to have, and what should guide us in making decisions about this? And if we are to be DRIVEN by conversation, then how exactly will this driving occur? What does it imply in terms of the way we structure and conceptualise our teaching?

So, the first of these questions: is conversation different from just speaking and if so, how? Well, in ELT terms, students ‘doing some speaking’ can involve – at its most banal – the kind of monotonous structural drilling that Callan specialise in, and that nervous students from educational backgrounds that have prioritized a very limited notion of grammatical accuracy over any kind of communicative competence are often suckered into believing may help them improve fluency; you know the type of thing: Is this a pen? / No, it’s a bucket. Is this a pen? / No, it’s a mindfuck. And so on. Close cousins to such drills, though perhaps not quite as inbred and possessed of scary monobrows are the kind of essentially grammar drill oriented spoken practice activities that books like Headway and English File have spread across the known world – and possibly even beyond it. These are perhaps best epitomized by the Have you ever . . . slept in a cave? / been to Paris? / tried Thai food? / been asked a more ridiculous question? type of exercises that are predicated on the somewhat optimistic belief that if only students could master the use of individual structures one at a time then out of this conversational competence will somehow emerge. At the other end of the spectrum is that rare beast, the naturally emergent fully participational whole class conversation, where everyone suddenly gets swept along by a tide of enthusiasm and all struggle to voice the ideas in emergent English – or interlanguage, as it used to be called (!!). This, it seems t me, is the sort of idealised state that at least Dogme proponents would like us to believe exist at all times, perhaps with a little shaking and stirring, in their classsrooms, and I’ve already blogged at some length explaining why I feel this is something of a myth.

However, I think it’s a mistake to see these two approaches as stark black and white dichotomies. Instead, I’d argue that speaking in the classroom actually exists much more along a spectrum, running the gamut from semi-nonsensical drills to fairly rigid controlled practice at one end to free flowing unplanned chat at the other – and that it’s actually the middle area that should be of most interest to teachers. In this interzone lie the kind of everyday conversations around relatively generic themes, some more interactional, some more functional, that are to a degree predictable and yet which also always have space for twists and adaptation. In the same way as good musicians learn the songs of others first, before working out how to write with their own voice, so too many learners who acquire language outside of the classroom develop a repertoire of a limited number of conversations, often based around recurring question prompts, and build on their fluency from there. In a sense, this is an inversion of the aforementioned Headway / English File model, where you learn the grammar first and then hope conversational competence will somehow emerge; here, you learn the conversation first – albeit WITH the grammar and lexis necessary to allow it to run smoothly – and then slowly watch grammatical accuracy emerge as you broaden your range.

Note that this does not mean completely doing away with the occasional more artificial drill using only one structure in isolation (especially at very low levels) – and nor does it mean stamping on any more naturally emerging conversations that may occur either. What it does mean, though, is that a major change of mindset is needed on the part of many teachers in order to see the presentation and practice of certain kinds of conversation as being one of the most crucial parts of a General English teacher’s job.

So, if you accept this, the next question is really what kinds of conversations should we be encouraging our students to get better at having. The Common European Framework provides a useful sounding board for any ideas about this that we may have, and has the added benefit of offering some kind of common frames of reference through which we can all understand level, and within which we can place our students. Through its can-do statements, it also covertly subverts the traditional notion of grammar in and of itself being the driving force behind a syllabus. The way competence is defined within the CEFR is (predominantly) conversation driven. The statements are NOT ‘I  CAN . . . do exercises manipulating the present perfect simple’ but rather, for instance, ‘I CAN . . . talk about travel experiences’. A subtle shift, perhaps, but one that, as we shall see, has serious implications.

One problem with the CEFR is the fact that the descriptors for each level describe what students should already be able to do in order to be placed at said level, which means that the things that students are supposed to be able to do at one level should actually play a significant role in determining tasks and input at the level below. Let’s consider what used to be universally known as Intermediate, but which is now slowly being re-branded as B1. Here’s a list of the competencies explicitly expected for students at the level above:


The student can . . .

  • take an active part in discussions on a wide range of subjects related to their interests
  • explain their viewpoint on a topical issue, giving the advantages and disadvantages of various positions
  • construct a chain of reasoned argument
  • describe experiences, events, hopes, dreams and ambitions
  • narrate a story
  • relate the plot of a book / film and describe their reactions to it
  • deal well with situations likely to arise while travelling
  • communicate well on matters pertinent to everyday life (family, friends, hobbies, work, travel, current events, etc.)
  • explain problems – and describe why they are problems
  • describe symptoms to a doctor
  • summarise and give opinions on talks, discussions, documentaries, articles and short stories
  • describe how to do something, giving detailed instructions
  • highlight the personal significance of events and experiences
  • convey degrees of emotion
  • speculate about causes, consequences and hypothetical situations
  • use stock phrases to gain time and keep their turn, while formulating what to say
  • give announcements on most general topics with a degree of clarity, fluency and spontaneity which cause no strain or inconvenience to the listener
  • give a clear, prepared presentation in support of – or against – a particular notion
  • take and give follow up questions with a degree of fluency and spontaneity
  • correct slips and errors if they become conscious of them
  • use circumlocution and paraphrase to cover gaps in vocabulary and structure
  • invite others to join in, say what they think, etc.
  • take initiatives in an interview, expand and develop ideas with little help from the interviewer
  • intervene appropriately in discussion, using a range of stock phrases
  • can ask follow up questions to check understanding
  • speak with clear, natural pronunciation and intonation

Several interesting points emerge from the above: the centrality of stock phrases, the fixed, the general; the importance of the personal; the focus on the negative – and the acceptance of the fact that there’s much more to say about problems than about their absence; the need to think about more than just grammar and lexis, and to take on board the flow of conversation, the way we add follow-up questions, the way we intervene, manage discourse, and so on. However, what also emerges is a slight haze and fog surrounding content. Some of the above seems to suggest a focus on explicit kinds of conversations / exchanges (describing symptoms to a doctor, say, or dealing with situations that may arise while travelling), whilst much else is bitty, incidental, embedded.

In content terms, what this means is some of the above will need to be covered within the broader framework of a focus on commonly recurrent conversational types, so, for instance, whilst helping students to be better able to narrate the plot of a film or book and to give their reactions to it, you may also want to focus on some follow-up questions, teach a few stock phrases and do some pronunciation work.

HOW this may pan within one particular class, or across classes and levels, is obviously the next question to address – but one that, given the unruly length this post has already attained, will have to wait until the next post!