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.

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12 responses

  1. Monika Sobejko | Reply

    Hugh, thank you for another thought-provoking post. I think that to transform one’s approach is not so simple. Often it’s not only the question of the influence of the past methodology courses or teacher-training courses we might have taken. My own teaching assumptions and beliefs have been evolving for quite some time – partly because I could see that relying on a grammmar-oriented syllabus simply doesn’t work. I’ve been looking for something that really leaves the mark on my students’ English (or how to ‘make it stick’). And with one or two hours of classroom teaching, with the rest of their time in the L1 environment, it’s not easy.
    Another problem is that some of my students come with their own expectations as to what good teaching (and learning) ought to look like. And I’ve been openly asked by some of them to ‘do more grammar’. That’s how they used to be taught in the past and that’s what some of them recognize as the hallmark of a good language lesson – I’m talking here about young adults or even elderly adults I teach. And it’s not easy to persuade them that doing another set of Murphy-style exercises (or learning a list of low-frequency words or even their collocations – by the way, how frequent actually is the word ‘palaver’???) will NOT take them to a higher level.
    Also, our syllabi are often not something we choose or design ourselves, but they are imposed by the administrators, and when you’re required to teach ‘for the exam’ you can’t just pretend the syllabus is not there.
    Last but not least, how many coursebooks take you straight down this grammar-oriented path? Just learn how to steer clear of those books 🙂
    By the way, that’s a great expression – a ‘lexically light’ coursebook 😉
    Well, I’m genuinely curious to learn about ‘something far more rigorous’ that you have in mind.

    1. Hi Monika –
      Thanks for the kind words and for finding time to respond to me.

      I couldn’t agree more than transforming oneself is no easy matter.

      I’ve often joked that I spent the first few years of my teaching career doing stupid things badly, then learned to do them well, before I then learned how to do sensible things, but could only do them badly to begin with until after about ten years in the game, I finally managed to start doing them well.

      I’ve often wished I could’ve just skipped the first six years and instead been trained from the off in how to do sensible things and only sensible things. CELTA has a lot to blame for in this respect, I feel, at least in the format it was delivered to me!

      I was interested to see that you feel your own approach really started changing as your own sense of how language actually works developed and that this journey forced you into critiquing the materials you were using and the way you were teaching. This has also very much been the way things have developed for me: a deeper understanding of the nature of language and of the findings of SLA research led me to head off in search of pastures new and to re-think what I was placing emphasis on in the classroom.

      Of course, the whole issue of making language stick is never easy, even when students are in a native-speaking environment.
      That said, it is one of THE main challenges we face, and thus one of our main responsibilities.
      We’d be deluding ourselves if we believed everything we taught stuck, but some ways of doing things just MUST increase the likelihood of language being retained, honed, developed, expanded.

      As for students having expectations, I know exactly what you mean, but the comparison I like to make is with doctors and patients who self-diagnose.
      Part of what we have to do is to tell students that what they feel might benefit them most isn’t necessarily what really will help.
      Only a bad doctor gives out medicine they don’t really think will help simply because a patient demands it.

      That said, there are ways – tricks, if you prefer – we can ensure students feel even very lexical teaching is still sufficiently grammatical – an area I’ll maybe touch on more sometime later as I blog ever onwards!

      What else? Oh, PALAVER – it won’t surprise you to hear – does not get any stars in any dictionaries!
      Certainly not in the top 7500 words.
      “A palaver” gets 124,000 Google hits.
      To put that in perspective, the possibly even more useless synonym “a kerfuffle” gets 165,000!

      In terms of having to teach certain material because it’s been imposed you, I hear you loud and clear.
      I’d certainly never willingly choose to teach the material I describe from THE BIG PICTURE again.
      But I do think that whatever material you’re landed with, there are things you can do as you work through that make ‘stickability’ more (or, of course, less) likely . . . which is what I’ll talk about next post, I guess.

      In an ideal world, of course, teachers would see the light, abandon books that insist on placing structural grammar at the absolute core of the syllabus and buy more of our books instead, but I fear that day may yet be quite some way off!

      In the meantime, I’m lobbying OUP to have them issue ‘Lexically Light’ stickers on the cover of every copy of ENGLISH FILE sold. 🙂

      1. Monika Sobejko

        Hugh, yes, it’s true that students’ attitudes can be influenced – up to a point. Particularly, when they see after a while that what we’re doing in class really works in the longer term. After all, that’s my (and hopefully their) primary objective – to make what I teach more “stickable”, whatever materials I’m using. It’s more the question of how I’m using those materials.
        I didn’t want to make it so explicit, but actually, when I read the phrase ‘lexically light’ English File was the first title that came to my mind… They definitely deserve the label 😉

        amanda, this is so true – using translation together with the lexical approach is what seems to work for my students, as well. And I also feel staggered (is that the right word here?) or overwhelmed by the task of teaching the L2 – chunk by chunk… And I’m also wondering why it’s taking so long for certain ideas to filter all the way down to the classroom – Michael Lewis published his book in 1995, quite some time ago. Michael Hoey’s “Lexical Priming” was a couple of years later, I think… And still Headway and its ‘clones’ are so popular.
        Looking forward to the fascinating discussion that’s developing here.

      2. Hi again Monika –
        I’ve always found that so long as students feel they’re learning plenty of new language that they see as useful, they’re getting both corrected on basic grammar mistakes they make but also listened to and shown reformulated versions of what they try to say (sometimes) and get to do plenty of speaking, they’re generally happy. For the real grammar freaks, you can always use whole-sentence lexically oriented input as grammar too. Say, for instance, a student says I want see that film a long time and you write on the board I’ve been wanting to see that for ages, you can then ask what tense it is – and why – and then briefly explain it’s the present perfect continuous, used from the past to now . . . I wanted to see it but didn’t, I wanted to see it but didn’t, I still want to see, but haven’t yet – I’ve been wanting to see it for ages. That often does the job.

        In terms of chunk by chunk, yes it can seem daunting, but it’s the way it is.
        It’s also the way students can measure their own sense of progress.
        Am I learning new language? And I learning how to do more with what I already have?

  2. A most entertaining post!!! I am sure that I am not the only person reading this who also recognized an earlier version of themselves in this description of a “typical” English lesson.
    I am so glad that I heard about Michael Lewis’ book, “The Lexical Approach” back in 1995, because I am sure the quality of my teaching improved almost overnight! At the same time, even though I’ve been trying to incorporate a strong lexical element into my teaching since then, I still feel overwhelmed by the lexical element of teaching English to speakers of other languages; it often seems such a huge and daunting task!!!
    That said, I feel somewhat more relaxed now that I have just read the Guy Cook book about using translation in the language classroom as using translation more consciously has made me realize how much using translation can simplify things – for the teacher and the learner.
    Firstly, translation lends itself very well to the concept of lexical chunks – at least, it does for German and seems to make life easier for my students. If I tell them that “Have you ever been to…?” is the English equivalent of “Warst Du schon einmal in…?”, (which, literally translated is, “Were you already once in…?), then they accept it, don’t have conniptions about the usage of “been” to mean “travelled” to and can move on. Accepting Lexical Chunk in L2 as Lexical Chunk in L1 seems to be no problem for them.
    Secondly, translation makes life a lot easier when you have to deal with grammar, too. I have been experimenting on my school students and they seem a lot happier with getting to grips with grammar when I go through a step-by-step translation process with them. The translation process seems to make the English constructions a lot more transparent to them and they – so far – have responded well to this method.
    I’m looking forward to reading the next part of this series and what you understand by being more “rigorous.”

  3. Anthony Gaughan | Reply

    I’m not familiar with the coursebook you are basing your critique on here, but I certainly recognise the template underpinning the lesson your “earlier self” managed. At play is a general conflation of activity with productivity, which is insidious and toxic.

    Your reference to Penny Ur reminded me of her classic aphorism: “effective teaching is a function of the use of time in the classroom”. my problem is that this evokes efficiency rather than richness. Therefore, I like your idea (as I see it emerging here) of focusing on less to do more with it; heavy weight, low reps. Ties in well with your counter-experience in your post on when more is less, as well.

    I’m certainly looking forward to your “current self” version of this.

    1. Sadly, in this instance, as in so many others, the template is essentially the HEADWAY blueprint that most publishers have been too terrified to deviate from since its runaway success in the 80s, and which continues to screw up language teaching! Given the endless mini-me imitators, is it any wonder HEADWAY continues to sell? They might as well put something like ‘The original and best’ on the front!

      Yes, the conflation was very much activity = productivity with me for many years – and I suspect this is the case for large numbers of other teachers too.
      When I talk to teachers I’m going to observe about what they’re planning to do – or even about what they aim to achieve – I’m generally given a string of activities, so this mode of thought is alive and kicking to this day.

      I like Penny Ur’s quote, obviously, though of course it could mean a million and one things to a million and one people, and without knowing what she means by efficient teaching, it’s hard to really go anywhere much with it. I do think we need to the limited and finite nature of classroom time very seriously though. We don’t have long with our students and thus have a responsibility to ensure they are exposed to – and interact with – a rich seam of input.

      On a Zen note, to end the day with, it’s all a bit like life, really, isn’t it?
      Once you accept and get your head round the fact our days are most definitely finite, then the use of our time becomes more pressing, more serious, more intense and we demand more from the minutes that we pass through.

      As they never will return.

  4. I can relate only too well to your description of meetings with students. I would definitely agree that a lack of lexical focus is a big part of why students can’t progress to a truly advanced level, but it seems to me that the issue is not only what is included in most coursebooks, but the levels themselves of the books.

    Why is it that students are often given two ‘coursebook levels’ to get through B1 on the CEF (Pre-Int and Int), but then are somehow expected to get through B2 in only one book (upper-int). It seems to me that if there was a real general English B2+ level (after upper-int, but before advanced), then it would help a lot of people get over that plateau. Call it pre-advanced or whatever you like, but there’s no quick fix.

    Maybe this is because publishers can’t justify recycling the same few grammar points again, but if there was a greater balance of lexis and grammar, this wouldn’t be such an problem now would it…

    I think that all this being a DoS has clearly warped my mind – I don’t even necessarily like using coursebooks but have spent far too long thinking about this (although we do use ‘outcomes’ with our celtees)

    1. Hi Ben –
      Thanks for the comments.

      Not totally sure I agree with your definitions of the CEFR, though.
      To my mind, the real issue with regard to levels of books is whether you’re talking about where the books start from or where they take you to, so for me a book labelled Pre-Intermediate should be aimed at students who are around A2 level and take them towards B1, whilst an Intermediate level book then starts with students around B1 and moves them towards B2. Upper-Intermediate should be for those who’ve achieved level B1 and want to move towards C1, and so on. That’s how we’ve labelled OUTCOMES and how I think of it, anyway.

      Whatever, what’s obvious is that getting from Intermediate to Advanced is a monumental achievement and one that can only really be achieved by taking on board a hell of a lot of extra language.
      And by that, I really don’t mean grammar. Interestingly, even the CEFR basically states that what really changes grammatically from B1 to C2 is much more to do with simply developing a keener sense of your own errors and getting better at self-correction of things pretty much mostly already studied. Do global overviews, fine; correct and point out common errors, fine too; even do short slots looking at more obscure structures in very specific contexts, but for God’s sake, don’t make grammar the bulk of your language input time at these levels.

      As for not using coursebooks . . . I can understand where that frustration and feeling might come from, but I still almost all teachers would be better off using even a mediocre coursebook WELL – and really nailing the language that IS there – than doing their own thing with a random self-generated bunch of activities and exercises.

      Good to hear you’re using OUTCOMES on training courses, by the way!!
      Thank you.

      Always keen to hear how things like that are going.

  5. […] 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 […]

  6. This post made me laugh hysterically and cheered me up no end after a day spent in front of a Delta Module 2 lesson plan. Very insightful too. Thank you!

    1. Hi Jamie –
      Pleased to have been able to brighten up a long day.
      Glad it struck a chord with you.

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