Monthly Archives: March, 2013

Now I am one!

On the 1st of April 2012 – almost exactly a year ago – I published my first modest blog post on this site.

Which means that now I am one.

i-am-1-badge

Someone has to say it, and it might as well be me:

Happy birthday to me,

Happy birthday to me,

Happy birthday dear me,

Happy birthday  to me!

Why, thank you!

Oh look, I’ve even got myself a cake.

Very thoughtful.

first+birthday+cake+recipes+idea

Having long avoided the blogosphere, partly out of a fear for how much more of my life it would end up sucking up, partly out of a suspicion that it pandered to the loudest and crudest ends of the lowest common denominator spectrum, and partly due to the suspicion that a platform might turn me into an even more opinionated monster (never give a fanatic a soapbox, and so on!), a drunken conversation with Jeremy Harmer in a London pub one night led me to take tentative steps and test the water.

And once in, I’ve not yet stopped swimming.

Birthdays are always a good time to look back, as well as forward, so I thought I’d take this chance to pore over a few of the weird and wonderful statistics that the Interweb makes available to you once you embark on an endeavour like blogging. Here goes:

In the last year, there have been – to date – 20,197 visits to this site, which seems a fairly respectable number, I guess. A quick bash on my calculator tells me that that’s an average of 55 visits a day, which means more than two an hour, every hour. I’m obviously not hitting – and will never hit – the kind of numbers drawn like flies to a flame to Russell Stannard’s site or  Scott Thornbury’s, but hey, for a site which is essentially little more than a place for my to let off steam, voice what’s on my mind and talk – often at great (and possibly tedious!) length – to myself, it’s no mean feat.

Somewhat disturbingly, though, my best ever day was Thursday April 5th 2012, when 336 folk swung by.

It’s been all downhill ever since!

Where are all these viewers from, I hear you ask? Well, that’s a good question. Here’s the top five: 5,482 are from the UK, 1661 from Spain, 13777 from Germany, 1196 are resident in the US of A and 912 are in Poland.

More bizarrely, though, 10 have been from Ecuador, 6 from Iraq, 6 from Palestine, 4 from Yemen, 3 only from China – the same as Azerbaijan, Sudan, Libya and Trinidad and Tobago, and then I’ve had solitary visitors from Cambodia, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Namibia, Benin, Lesotho . . . and Vatican City!

Given that the official population of Vatican City is 886, I do wonder who on earth decided to come here – and wish the stats could tell me which search query led them to me, but alas we will never know! I’m secretly hoping they were the person who entered Japanese taboos (see below) – and got me instead!

In the year to date, I’ve managed 45 posts – including this one – and have attracted 597 comments, though given that I’ve tried to reply to each and every one, at least half of those must be my own! The most commented on post has been the Technology and Principles in Language Teaching post, which I guess is very much a zeitgeist kind of issue, having attracted 66 comments.

The most viewed part of this blog – by some distance – is unsurprisingly the home page / archive, which I guess serves as the portal here. After that, though, the most viewed post – with 908 views, has been Bridging the Culture Gap in the classroom. Slightly depressingly, the least viewed is one of the posts I wrote in praise of non-native speaker teachers, which has so far only attracted 115!

The ways in which people have found me here is also fairly interesting. Search Engines are obviously the main culprits, with 3,924 people arriving via the engine of their choice, but second is Twitter, thus confirming my suspicion that one of its main functions in ELT is to serve as a space in which if we shout loudly enough, we drag people away from, whatever it was they had set out to day for the day and over to our blogs instead!

The searches people have made to bring themselves here are also both entertaining and sobering. English culture has been the most popular gateway here, with 370 searches bringing bemused folk to my door. Fourth moist popular, though, has been former Arsenal legend, Freddie Ljungberg, who I mentioned – and included a picture of – in a post wherein I contemplated how football chants AND ELT terms come into being! God only knows what the Freddi fans made of the post.

Other unusual searches that led here included: Speak English or Die (9), Marge Simpson Mona Lisa (8), You Always Talk Such Rubbish (7), Traditional German Breakfast (4), Walrus John Lennon (3), How Old is Chia Suan Chong (3), Wahey Man Geordie Slang (2), Skinhead Cross Culture (2), Friendship Muslim Britain (2), Shy to Speak English (2) . . . and with one search each, the truly bizarre end of the web: Why is there a big line on my head? / The Road To Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions Dating / response to not being in the mood to entertain someone being coy / lobster claw machine 2012 / can’t hear when not listening / debate-in the era of instant gratification values have not validity / i am really struggling to keep up with conversations help / skirt for praising the teachers / using Mexican food to bridge the cultural gap in the classroom / bathwater Dogme / Jimi Hendrix passed out / Japanese taboos.

The only real conclusion I can draw from all of this random madness is that my own search entries are positively vanilla in comparison!

So there you have it. A year in mad numbers and statistics.

Thanks to all of you out there who’ve been coming here over this time, and who’ve found my ramblings thought-provoking, amusing, entertaining or infuriating! I’m honestly flattered to know you even exist.

So what’s next? Well, over coming months, there’ll be a post on how Dogme can help us coursebooks better; more on the twenty things I’ve learned in twenty years, which will include rants abut needs analysis, more on grammar, the curse of recipes in EFL, NLP and the like; I’m going to hopefully try and embed some more clips of actual classroom practice and comment on it a bit; there may be some dissection of tech sites I’ve sen touted and possibly even a heroes and villains feature.

Before that, though, I intend to take a week off from all this frenzied work and enjoy the early Spring, spend some time with my long-suffering wife and kids and have a life away from the web.

You could always try doing the same, you know!

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Taboo or not taboo: it’s all in the questions

Following on from my recent post about allowing the supposedly taboo topic of religion to emerge at the end of a class one day, a great post on Steve Brown’s blog and a discussion about taboo language over on the facebook page I run with my co-author Andrew Walkley, it felt like the time might be right to revisit a talk both Andrew and I gave a few times many years ago, and to adapt it into a post exploring the whole thorny issue of taboos in the ELT classroom.

As has probably become obvious to most of you, both Andrew and I have long had an interest in teaching spoken language and observing the things we talk about. To this end, we once ran an optional lunchtime course at our university on topics you don’t find in coursebooks – and the language that goes with them. We had classes on swearing, bitching, drinking, smoking, chatting people up – and, more importantly perhaps, telling men to get lost – pregnancy, birth, old age, suicide and death, more bitching about people (let’s face it, we don’t spend half as much time on complimenting people), sarcasm, politics, illegality and the like. The lectures regularly attracted 50-60 students – and they came from all ages and cultural backgrounds. Of course, in this instance, students were able to choose this particular course. They knew what they were getting, so you could argue that these topics shouldn’t be what is in a coursebook.

However, this does not actually counter the fact that these students we attracted came from very different cultures. Many of them did not smoke, drink, bitch, chat people up, get pregnant or commit suicide, but nevertheless, these topics were all things within their range of experience. Also, unsurprisingly when we consider these are first and foremost language students, what they were really interested in was the language.

When a student sees or hears a word it does not mean that they actually like or believe something. Nor does disagreeing with an idea mean that you can’t use certain language. The vegetarian cannot really describe himself without using the word meat, the atheist without the word God and, from a foreign learners perspective, you can’t really know what swearing is or what’s taboo without hearing or seeing the word fuck. For me, a fundamental principle is that words in themselves as things to know the meaning of are not actually rude, offensive or taboo. It is what we ask students about this language and what we require them to do with it that can cause offence or break taboos. Knowing so–called taboo words may actually be very important: take, for instance, my Iraqi student who thought nigger was a socially-acceptable way of referring to black people or my Japanese student who asked me after class one day what prick-tease meant! These students would’ve been done no favours by me being coy and skirting round the words.

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There are perfectly sound pedagogical reasons for including words like nigger, slag and spazz in, for example, an advanced textbook. An exercise might require students to sort them – along with other words like idiot and slob – into two groups: relatively socially acceptable / far more socially unacceptable. Students could then be asked if they have ever heard anyone using any of these words – and in what circumstances.

This makes far more sense than, for example, having students fill the words in in a gap fill or asking them which ones they would use and why. The former approach allows for students to say they themselves have used them, but does not assume that they have, whilst the latter operates on the assumption that they either have or would want to use them. As with much of teaching, it’s all in the questions we ask!

However, I am no longer innocent enough to believe that such exercises will ever make it into print – even in a second edition of INNOVATIONS ADVANCED, should one ever come into creation! There remain strong impulses among publishers to avoid any possibility of offence. This is something I’ve found in the process of writing our coursebooks. For example, in Innovations Intermediate, we wrote a text about making mistakes when learning a foreign language and this text featured two true stories that had been passed onto us by students whilst discussing the area of embarrassing mistakes in class – one involved an Italian student asking his English host family “Where shall I leave my shit?” – the old shit / sheet joke in action! – whilst the other happened to a Korean woman who was learning Spanish and who inadvertently asked for fried penis (polla frita) instead of fried chicken (pollo frito) on a trip to Madrid!

Neither story seems offensive or abusive to me – and both came up in class unprompted. I’m afraid, though, publishers don’t see things like this. Of course, I can understand why – and I have no interest in unselling books I’ve spent a long time writing – but the problem then is that in removing language and stories such as these from a book, the whole balance of register about what is acceptable or slang then shifts.

A similar parallel is the way the Labour Party swung violently to the right once the far-left Militant tendencies were removed at the end of the 1980s!

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As a result, things which seem perfectly anodyne, childish even, end up standing out on the extremes. Thus, we had a reworked version of the aforementioned text questioned by a different editor because it contained the word bum!

Other words we have had fights and rows over include get pregnant and get addicted to drugs (both of which stayed), It sucks! (which had to go because of its apparently possible sexual connotations – go figure!), Damn! (which also bit the dust, to be replaced with Oh no! And this was despite our argument that Damn! in itself is an already softened version of what many of us would choose to say in the circumstances), burp and fart (the burping stayed, the farting didn’t!), You idiot! (it stayed, despite fears it ‘may be offensive in Scandinavia’, where apparently, the local version is used in the same way as You mong! or You spazz! is here in the UK – not that we were teaching Swedish, of course!! Nobody ever said such editorial meetings were logical!) and on the toilet. Long gone are the days when we struggled to sneak condoms and tampax into listenings covertly!

These arguments and the snipping of the censor’s scissors come as no real surprise. An incident that occurred a while back when Andrew was doing a version of this post as a talk should help to illustrate why. He was challenged by one teacher at the end of the talk and told that “some people” wouldn’t want any language like this in a class. He mentioned several instances where his own students had been more than happy to talk about such language, but was told, “Well, in London, that’s as may be, but in some countries they wouldn’t want to”. When he asked which countries and which students these might be, his nemesis simply countered “Some students” and then said an interesting thing: “Maybe it’s OK to talk about this language, but people don’t want their noses rubbed in it, (so to speak), they don’t want to see it written down.”

My personal view on this incident is that actually she herself – the teacher – was the one who wouldn’t want to talk about it. While publishers are most certainly driven by a fairly conservative forces – and are not about to change overnight – I feel that as teachers we have to begin to be more open in our discussions about what is acceptable to be taught in the class, and as teachers we need to be much more led by our students.

One common problem, as previously alluded to, is that teachers often do not let their students talk freely or away from tightly-controlled practice activities at all, whilst on other occasions they may actually be unwilling to provide seemingly taboo language for students – even when students themselves are asking about it or trying to express it (as I felt was the case with the facebook discussion mentioned above). As such, it seems important that materials at least leave spaces in which good teachers can exploit areas and get onto taboo topics briefly – if their students wish to take up the chase.

What I’d like to do now is to broaden the discussion of taboo out into thinking more about coursebook content. To do this, I’m going to look at a text which provoked a lot of heated discussion a few years back at INNOVATIONS’ editorial meetings. I think it usefully highlights the arguments publishers will put forward for editing out – and allows me to put some counter arguments.

We were writing a text for Unit 4 of our Intermediate-level book, a unit entitled Feelings, and our first draft included the following lesson and text:

Reading

Read the following text and see how the couple met.

Do you think they will stay together? Why / why not?

The day that changed my life

When I saw Abdullah on the news – Jim, as he was called back then – I didn’t recognise him to begin with. He looked really really thin and his hair was falling out. When I heard the reporter say his name, though, I looked a bit more closely and then I realised it was him. I just burst out crying. I was really surprised, because we were never really friends when we were at school together. He could be a bit loud sometimes and we were just very different, I suppose, but to see him there, looking so lost and alone, begging on the street!! Well, it was just so upsetting. It broke my heart, it really did!

The next thing I knew, I was ringing the TV station who’d run the report. I don’t really know why – I just did it on impulse. Anyway, they gave me the address of a hostel for homeless people. I went down there the following day and it was really depressing. It was filthy and the whole place stank! Half the people there were either drunk or mad – or both! One of the workers showed me to where Jim was sleeping. What really amazed me was that he recognised me at once and said “Oh, Fatime. It’s you.” His voice sounded so sad, but, at the same time – and I can’t really explain this very well – it was like I could feel something pulling us together. I really felt like it was Allah’s will. It has really strengthened my faith, and it obviously touched Jim as well.

I’d like to say that things have been easy for us since then and that love has run its true course, but life doesn’t work like that, does it? What happened to Jim when he became homeless was incredibly painful and he’s had to really fight to overcome his addictions. At first, my parents didn’t want anything to do with him and even since he’s converted to Islam, things have still remained tense. My mother says she’s not coming to the wedding.

We’ve had a lot of support from people who’ve seen our story in the papers, but we’ve also had lots of hate mail too. Also, the media have actually put a lot of pressure on us. I know Abdullah doesn’t see it this way, but even now it still makes me angry the way the papers and the TV people treat people. I just think back to that first story. Here was this completely broken man, living on the streets. They came along and did their story on him, and do you know what they gave him? Ten pounds and a cup of tea! That’s it! And then they got back into their big cars and drove off, leaving him to go back to that awful hostel. They do these stories, but none of them really care about people. I can’t forgive them for that.

Anyway, despite all that, we’ve managed to survive together. He’s a good man, and I love him with all my heart.

Now go back and underline any expressions which are new to you. Underline only whole expressions – not single words!

Compare what you have underlined with a partner. 

2   True or false

Decide if the following statements are true or false. Why do you think so?

a  Jim was living on the streets when he first met Fatime.                  T / F

b  Fatime thought carefully before ringing the TV company.                    T / F

c  Jim changed his name to Abdullah because he became a Muslim.                 T / F

d  Some people got angry when they read about Fatime and Abdullah.      T / F

e  Abdullah and Fatime agree that the media sometimes treats people badly. T / F

3   Speaking

Is there much homelessness in your home town? Why? How do you feel about it?

Do you ever give money to people who are begging?

Do you agree with Fatime that the media sometimes exploits people?

Do you know anyone who’s found religion? What happened?

Why do you think people sent Abdullah and Fatime hate mail?

Our editors were immediately touchy about the text and warned us that describing a Muslim as homeless could be offensive. When we pointed out the very obvious fact that when Jim was homeless, he was not actually a Muslim and that after he converted, he actually got his life together, we were then told that it was best not to run the risk of any Muslims possibly finding it offensive. We countered this by pointing out we’d both done versions of the text in class with students from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia and so on and no-one had ever found it even remotely offensive. Indeed, if anything, the opposite was true. One of my Iranian students had once come up after class and said how nice it was to see a positive story about Islam in class! Nevertheless, amongst our editors, some of whom had never taught – and had possibly not even met many Muslims – the stereotype of the touchy Muslim prevailed.

We were then told the text may cause arguments in class and that whilst we, as experienced teachers, could deal with this, some younger, less experienced teachers might not be able to. That’s what photo-copiable materials were for, we were told – to allow teachers to bring touchy subjects into class if they wished to! Yet again we countered: what was there in the tasks that could possibly lead to a row? And anyway, even inexperienced teachers are skilled at dealing with conflict in their day-to-day lives outside of class. We all come to class with years and years of experience of conflict management and avoidance. On top of this, if we fail to allow the odd conflict to develop in class, we deny ourselves the opportunity of ever learning how to get better at channeling it and turning it into language-teaching opportunities in class.

As a last resort, we were told we were pushing a political agenda – as if censoring and whitewashing were somehow apolitical activities! In the end, we compromised – or sold out, if you prefer (!) – and re-wrote this text as the tale of a rich girl who falls for a poor boy from a broken home with a jailbird dad, despite her parents’ better instincts!

Does it really matter that texts such as this – and words like tampax and fart – end up being edited out of classroom material? Well, in some ways, yes, it does. If we end up with materials in which even everyday words like pregnant have to be argued over, then we run the risk of denying good teachers the chance to ask students questions like ‘Do you know anyone who’s pregnant at the moment?’ and thus denying any students who might want to ask how to say have an abortion.

Despite all of this, I do also believe that a duty lies with us as classroom teachers to get at language like this through our interaction with our students and through letting them dictate where the class goes from time to time.

Below are five examples of language either Andrew or I have ended up writing on our whiteboards, giving students the things they themselves were trying to say.

1.      We were driving home from the north of the country to the south and we got ambushed by some guerrillas. They started shooting at us. I thought I was going to die, but some soldiers came to help us and there was a big fight and then the guerrillas ran off. A friend of mine got killed.

2.      I once passed out on the train home. I’d been drinking with some friends and I got really pissed and I passed out and missed my stop and ended up in the middle of nowhere. It was the middle of the night, so I had to call out my parents to pick me up and take me home. Before they got there, I passed out again in the street and when I came round I was in the car. I was convinced I was being abducted or something and so I started screaming at the driver to let me out of the car. It took my dad a couple of minutes to convince me it was him.

3.     AIDS isn’t just a gay disease. I think straight people can get it, can’t they, if they don’t practise safe sex or have anal sex or whatever.

4.      When I go to an important meeting, I should eat onions beforehand. Then, when someone says something I don’t like, I could fart and stomp out of the room.

5.      They were shagging

None of the language in 1-5 came directly from a discussion of the taboos themselves. It is also worth noting that the students trying to express the meanings above included a Somali Muslim (1), a young Japanese woman (2) and a middle-aged Chinese female civil servant (4). What follows is a brief summary of the starting point for each and how we worked together with our students towards the production of these final statements.

1. This was an Elementary class. One Chinese student was late and tried to explain – in very broken English – that he’d had problems getting on the tube because it had been really packed, and that, once on, he thought he was going to die because it was so full! Andrew paraphrased this, and noticed the class seemed particularly taken with the phrase ‘I thought I was going to die’, so asked them to discuss a time when they’d felt like this in pairs. The Somali student volunteered this story. He was asked if he wanted it re-written and up on the board and he said Yes, as he knew he’d want to re-tell it later.

2. The word ‘passed out’ had come up in a text. I’d explained it and then just quickly asked the class in pairs to talk about any time they’d passed out or seen someone passed out. This was one of the stories that emerged.

3. A Taiwanese civil servant in his mid-forties ventured this opinion during a very heated whole class debate sparked off by one Iraqi student asking, “Aids is caught by kissing, isn’t it?” We had arrived at this point after reading a text on Health and Illness which included the word ‘infection’. One student asked what it meant and then another asked what the difference between ‘infect’ and ‘transmit’ was. This led on to, among other things, ‘sexually-transmitted diseases’, which sparked the whole thing off.

4. The class had read a text about The Anti-Onion League – a web-based organisation dedicated to the downfall of the onion!! Among the reasons listed for why onions should be avoided was the fact that they give you wind. One Chinese woman in her fifties, a senior civil servant, became quite animated at this point and produced this gem!

onionface

5. The lexical item ‘I got woken up’ had come up in an exercise, and one student asked about it. I explained it and then asked the class what kind of things they might get woken up by – the usual suspects came up: a car alarm going off, the phone ringing – before a Korean man said he’d been woken up recently by the people in the next room – they’d been shagging!

At this stage, it is important to reiterate that I am NOT advocating the kind of confrontational exercises in student-baiting so popular amongst the recently-qualified, wherein learners arrive for their morning lessons only to be assaulted with questions like “So what do you think about abortion, Chie?” or “Hussein, how do you feel about Islam’s terrible record of human rights abuses towards women?”

The key point here is that all of the taboo-breaking and boundary-pushing utterances in 1-5 arose from actually very innocuous exercises or texts and arose without any undue prompting from the teacher. Rather, they came into being simply because students wanted to say them – and, as a teacher, I was happy to help them do so.

Hopefully, this post will encourage some more of you out there to feel happy doing something similar the next time the moment arise in your own classrooms! If, that is, you’re not doing so already.

Twenty things in twenty years Part Four: the way I was taught to teach grammar crippled my understanding of grammar!

I feel it best to warn you in advance that this is a post that could potentially spiral wildly out of control! It may also, I fear, contain themes I’ve entered into from slightly angles during other recent posts. This is down to the fact that this is a topic that’s exercised me mightily for a good number of years now, and one which shows little sign of reaching any kind of rectification or resolution in the wider ELT world as a whole, where demand for coursebooks that are based on and revolve around the presentation and subsequent unpacking of discrete grammatical structures shows little sign of abating. Indeed, where such demand remains so strong that publishers are generally reluctant to seek out and encourage those suggesting other ways in which language teaching might be conceived of and packaged. Or maybe that’s harsh. Maybe it’s simply that there just aren’t too many folk out there thinking along the same lines as me. Who knows?

Anyway, what is indisputably true is that the Murphy’s English Grammar In Use / Headway / English File template has long been – and will, I fear, continue to be – insanely popular and powerful within language teaching. The belief that mastering a language essentially remains a matter of being able to understand rules for a set of grammatical structures – predominantly tenses – that unfold in a predictable sequence, of being able to do form-focused exercises manipulating these structures, and of then learning plenty of single words to fill the empty slots in sentences generated by these structures is undoubtedly the dominant one within our profession, despite the fact it no longer has any theoretical validity and is thus deeply flawed, and in spite of other more theoretically valid approaches now being available.

The way many of us are taught to think about language is rooted in Chomsky’s ideas about Generative Grammar, perhaps best encapsulated in his meaningless – but possible – utterance Colorless green ideas sleep furiously. We are trained to see grammar as some kind of engine or machine that produces the bones or skeleton of our communication, with words being the bits we drop in to flesh things out, as it were.

Right from the very beginning of my career as a teacher, I was basically taught that what would make or break me as a teacher would be my ability to show grammar forms, explain their meanings – often in preposterously subtle (and spurious!) detail, a point I’ll return to in a later post – and compare and contrast similar but different usages. My understanding of grammar was based very much on the canon handed down to me on my CELTA and subsequently reaffirmed by the coursebooks I used, which generally saw grammar as essentially to do with tenses, with additional bits and pieces such as conditionals, passives, modals and so on tagged on. I was encouraged to base most of my grammar teaching around PPP lessons – Presenting the structure, getting students to practise it in narrow, controlled contexts (such as a Murphy’s exercise!) and then praying like hell they’d maybe be able to produce it in some slightly less controlled, but frequently still fairly contrived, speaking activity, which I’d listen to intently in the hope of hearing one or two slips with the structure so that I could round my hour off with a bit of form-focused correction. I’d then return to the staff room, talking about how we’d ‘done’ the present perfect simple, say, and gear myself to take on the present perfect continuous next lesson.

Many dialogues in many of the books I used to use were deliberately written to contain as many examples of one particular structure – in as many different shapes and forms – as possible, and far too frequently contained little if anything else. What follows is spur of the moment parody, but based on the memory of a text I’ve taught at least twice in the past:

A: So what’re you going to do for your holiday this year?

B: I’m going to go to Florida.

A: No, you’re not. You’re not going to go to Florida, because we’re going to change your holiday. We’re going to send you round the world on a cruise. You’re going to have the time of your life.

B: Wow! That’s amazing. So where am I going to go?

So where am I going with all of this? Well, the next big lesson I came to learn in ELT is that this way of teaching teachers to teach grammar is limiting, results in poor teaching and learning and cripples our understanding of how language actually works. I mean, let’s get real here: does ANYONE seriously believe any more that students actually learn how to use grammar in a wide range of different contexts by studying grammar rules and doing very narrowly-focused form manipulation exercises? And even if they do, what theories of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) is this mad idea based on? Despite all this, though, as I’ve said above, the industry continues as though this were God’s own gospel truth and that there is no deviation possible from this One True Path! And we wonder why extreme counter-reactions like Dogme have come into being?!

The bad teaching – and poor learning – that results from this approach to grammar boils down to the fact that acquisition simply doesn’t work like this. All the evidence seems to point to the fact that accuracy emerges slowly – and it comes in fits and spurts; it’s far more to do with repeated exposure to typical examples of commonly used structures in everyday use, along with the ability – or encouragement  t0 – notice and pay attention to these examples, to both the context of usage and the co-text that exists alongside the structures in question. By insisting on one big block of time spent on each particular structure, usually explored in isolation, we misunderstand – and misrepresent this harsh reality, thus making it far harder for students as they generally don’t get the chance to explore structures in use from one lesson to the next, unless we impose some of ‘communicative’ revision game on them that forces use of particularly problematic structures.  This problem is compounded by our insistence on teaching lexis as single word items – or at best without much gramaticalisation / exemplification, thus further reducing the opportunities students have to see structures in action.

The dominant paradigm also assumes that most error is somehow easily diagnosed as resulting from malfunctions with structures already presented, when the reality is far more complex. What, for instance, are we to make of errors such as these, which my students have made over the course of the last few weeks?

It is forecasted that there might be a tsunami in this area caused by the former earthquake.

The area has been deserted after a huge flooding 3 years ago.

His family is really big and there are something like twenty members in his family.

They nearly froze to death when they tried to catch the northern light in Norway.

This book is very interesting and the highlights exist in every part of it.

As if this isn’t bad enough, the way language is presented to students in dialogues such as the going to + verb parody above distorts the true nature of language, where we are perpetually asking in one tense and answering in another, or answering without really using grammar at all. Why did you decide to do that? we ask – and get told Well, I’d been thinking about it for ages, to be honest. Have you spoken to anyone about it? elicits the response Not yet, but I will. Don’t worry – and so on! None of these are freak exceptions. They are simply the way language is when we use it.

These dialogues also deny the existence of natural patterns of conversation. How can it be, for instance, that so many Elementary students learn the question Where are you from? without every learning that almost invariably the next question they’ll be asked is Whereabouts? Because one practises present simple questions, the other doesn’t . . . so their contextual closeness is avoided! In the same way, students rarely get told that one very common follow-up question to What did you do last night? may well be How long’ve you been doing that?  Again, it’s patterns of single structures that drive the car, sadly, NOT patterns of discourse / conversation!

So all of this makes us stupid and makes us make our students stupid too. But it gets worse still. The fact that we’re presented with a canon of grammar – the Murphy’s canon, if you like – means that it’s that much harder for us to think outside of the canon and to become more aware of other patterns – and other grammatical forms – that exist within the language. The list of things excluded from the canon is lengthy, so just a couple of examples will suffice here. There’s the use of SO before an adjective to introduce a cause clause, which is then followed by a result clause – perhaps the most common way of expressing cause and result in spoken English (e.g.: I was so tired I just went straight to bed as soon as I got home); there’s the marking of lateness implicit in the use of NOT . . . . UNTIL – as in He was a bit of a late starter. He didn’t have his first girlfriend until he was 21; there’s the fact we often produce long turns by talking about an action – the kind usually focused on in the canon (I went to Spain, I’m going to a conference, etc.) followed by a time phrase (last week, for a few days) and then a reason / result (to visit some old friends of mine / to give a paper). It’s grammar, Jim, but not as we know it – or certainly not as we’re TAUGHT to know it. Until training courses develop a broader perspective on how language works, the only real way to learn more about these kinds of patterns is to spend more time looking at – and thinking / talking about – real language in use.

In addition to all of this, the way we’re taught to focus on forms and basic meanings blinds us to facts about even the grammar we’re supposed to feel most comfortable working on – tenses and the like. We persist in insisting that similar forms are somehow interchangeable – all those mindless and pointless What will you do if you win the lottery? versus What would you do if you won the lottery? lessons, all those active / passive transformations that result in students coming to class and uttering lines the classic “I know the passive. I walk the dog. The dog is walked by me!” There’s also the fact that co-text is at least as important as the structures themselves if we want students to actually be able to use the language communicatively and not just fall into the grammar robot trap of answering mechanically in a kind of Have you ever been to Greece / Yes, I have been to Greece kind of way! To respond in a communicatively competent manner to such questions, students need to know items like Yeah, quite a few times, actually / Yeah, I went there last year on holiday / Yeah, I go there quite a bit for work, actually / No never, but I’d love to one day – and so on. Grammar is also far more limited by context and lexis than we care to acknowledge. Take the future perfect, for instance. Because of the fact that there really are only a small number of things we’re likely to talk about being finished by a fixed point in the future, the possible – or at least probable – utterances using it are so limited as to almost be learnable by rote:

I’ll have finished by tomorrow.

I should’ve done it by nine.

I’ll have left by then.

I’ll have been here ten years next month.

He’ll have forgotten all about it by tomorrow.

You won’t have heard of it

And not many more! The same limitations exist with many other tenses, and yet are rarely discussed or explored on training / development courses.

So there we have it. My whole training and development did little to help me deal with the complexities of the language. Outside of instilling the kind of grammar anxiety into me that I then instilled into my students for too many years, and outside of drilling in some basic grasp of form and function of a limited canon, I’ve come to see it did more harm than good. It’s based on an outdated model of both language learning and language itself and until it’s replaced en masse by something more rooted in reality, we’re doomed to repeat the circle of abuse!

What that something may be – or at least what I believe it to be – is what I’ll come on to in the next part of the ongoing series!

Opening the heavens: religion, reformulation and reasons to roll with it

So much of teaching is about the second-by-second set of decisions we make, whether consciously or unconsciously, and the decisions we make are shaped by intuition, which as we all know is the product of our cumulative experience this far – or expertise, if you prefer – rather than being some nebulous innate talent.

So anyway there I was, twenty-five minutes from the end of a class with my upper-intermediate group the other day, more or less at the end of a reading – a Chinese folk tale about money. I was just rounding up some vocabulary that students had asked about while reading, vaguely wondering if ideally wanted to rush on to the injected grammar (I wish with past perfect and past simple) or whether there might be some other more upbeat way of winding up when opportunity knocked.

One of the items that had come up was THE HEAVENS – as in He clung onto the rope and was lifted up to the heavens. I’d explained that it basically meant ‘the sky’ and had given another example – The heavens suddenly opened and it started pouring with rain – when a student asked what the difference between ‘the heavens’ and ‘the heaven’ was. I told the class we don’t use articles with heaven – or hell – and that aside from their literal meanings, they’re often used metaphorically: it’s my idea of heaven / hell.

Justin Bieber Sighting In London - February 25, 2013

There was some banter about how going to see Justin Bieber was one student’s idea of heaven, but everyone else’s idea of hell and then a Moroccan student asked “So what about paradise?” “That’s usually used to talk about a wonderful beautiful place, like maybe Bali or somewhere, that’s maybe sold as a tropical paradise” before the student then explained that for Muslims it refers to the highest part of heaven, where the prophet resides. The student then jokingly added that he wouldn’t ever reach such heights and would be lucky to reach the bottom part of heaven. Another student, a Spanish guy called Mohammed, suggested that hell was a more likely destination at which point Sosan, a Saudi woman, demanded he retract this and claimed you should never say this! I pointed out it was a common joke among friends in English and, curiosity piqued, put students in pairs to discuss whether or not they talked about heaven and hell in their own languages. Out of this the most interesting thing that emerged was a discussion about the differing concepts of angels on shoulders that seemed to exist in different cultures: the Christian notion of good angels and bad angels giving you advice – and the Muslim idea of an angel on your right shoulder recording your good actions and another on your left noting down the bad (but only after an eight-hour pause which allowed the chance of repentance and righting the wrong), all of which were to be weighed on Judgement Day. Mohammed noted that with his Spanish-Moroccan friends it was common to joke that the left-shoulder angel was compiling a library, which aroused laughter from most of the class and looks of slight shock from the more devout Saudi and Senegalese women in class.

maldives-sharia-paradise

The other thing that became apparent was that many students didn’t know how to ask ARE YOU RELIGIOUS (AT ALL?) and had gotten by thus far with their own bizarre improvised versions (“You have religion?” and the like!). For the next five minutes, students changed pairs and asked and answered this question before we rounded up with some board-based reformulation. On the board we ended up with:
She’s / he’s very devout.
He used to be Muslim / catholic, but he converted to Buddhism.
I was brought up Muslim / Buddhist / Catholic, but I don’t really practise.
All religions have lots of different branches.
I don’t really believe in God, but I do believe there’s some kind of higher power.

And that was that.

The grammar waited till the following day and students left the room still asking each other questions about each others’ beliefs.

So what, you may well be wondering? Why am I telling you all of this? Well, for a whole host of reasons, I think. Partly to illustrate how we ad teachers can take advantages of moments that present themselves – what Scott Thornbury has termed affordances – and how being alert to such moments can allow us to explore interesting , and sometimes less travelled, roads; partly to reiterate the fact that frequently the best way of doing this is via the exploration and exploitation of language that emerges from texts – what I’ve elsewhere termed ambient vocabulary. Partly also to remind the sceptics that a lexical approach to language – particularly one that takes on board the idea of working from what students TRY to say and helps them say it better, and one which reworks things in fully contextualised utterances, ensures far more exposure to – and far grater opportunities to engage with – grammar than traditional grammar-led approaches frequently do.

But maybe more controversially to demonstrate how similar people – and the languages they speak – actually are, whilst also acknowledging how fascinating the slight and subtle differences can be. Further to this, to show how different people within what are often perceived as monolithic cultural blocks (‘Muslims’) can be – and maybe most of all to suggest that supposedly taboo topics such as religion can actually be tackled in an interesting way.

Despite the almost complete absence of reference to the realm of religion in most published ELT material and despite the fact that many oublishers explicitly ban any mention if its very existence, no one died during this part of the class, no rows erupted, views were exchanged and whole sides if students’ lives not typically allowed existence within TEFL-ese were given space to emerge.

Not bad for an ad libbed, improvised closing flourish to a lesson intended to explore a totally different semantic – and lexical – realm.

Thank heavens for intuition! Where in God’s name would we be without it?

Twenty things in twenty years Part Three: kicking the grammar habit

In a sense, this post follows very hot on the heels from the one I managed to finish yesterday about teaching the probable rather than just the possible, and tackles similar issues. As such, please excuse me the repetition (though of course as anyone who’s ever graced the conference circuit will know, if a things’ worth saying, it’s worth saying again. And then again. And again after that. And eventually it may slowly start to sink in and make some small difference somewhere!). Hopefully, there’ll be enough here to make it worth your while ploughing through BOTH posts.

Anyway, on top of all that, it’s suddenly hit me that we’re already into the third month of the year and I’ve committed myself to twenty posts on pearls of wisdom I’ve gleaned in my twenty years in TEFL, so I’d better start getting a move on, and something that cannibalizes myself is better than nothing at all in such circumstances!

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned on at least a few occasions elsewhere, my induction into ELT via a four-week CELTA at Westminster College (and, indeed, my subsequent year-long part-time DELTA) left me with that very same affliction that so many of our students still find themselves stuck with a bad case of: Grammar Anxiety. The whole main thrust of the course was towards enabling us to blag our way through when we got bombarded, as we most surely would, with questions about grammar during the PPP lessons we were encouraged to perfect. Having studied English Literature at university, I was interested in language and loved using it, savouring it, playing with it, but knew little about its actual inner workings. While a degree in Literature enabled me to discuss metaphor and simile and rhetoric and the like, it did little to tutor one in the intricacies of the present perfect simple or the zero conditional. I subjected myself to the usual crash course in intensive grammar training that most novice teachers endure, which mostly meant memorizing the explanations at the back of the book and using these as a shield against anything students might throw at me during grammar classes the following day! Students seemed to expect – if not always exactly relish – grammar-based classes and as I slowly started getting my head round the basic concepts, learning my timelines and concept questions and so on, I started to almost enjoy such lessons myself.

I say almost because in fact there are only so many times any sentient human being can teach some particular exercises before the will to live starts to drain from the very fibre of your being. I don’t think I’m being overly-optimistic when I say that materials have quite possibly moved on somewhat since the early-to-mind 1990s (even if, the realist in me feels compelled to note, many teachers – and training courses – have yet to move with them!), but much of what I was given to teach with when I was starting out in the field – the old CEC English course, Headway, Intermediate and Upper Intermediate Matters and so on – was steeped in the study of mindless grammar for the sheer hell of it! The class and I would slog through exercises where the focus was on minutiae such as these half-remembered gems:

Work in pairs. Discuss the difference between these sentences.

1a Jim only spoke to Jane.

1b Only Jim spoke to Jane

2a Mike didn’t really enjoy the party.

2b Mike really didn’t enjoy the party

and so on. And on. Right up until the point of brain death.

I’d gamely get students discussing these things as if their lives depended on it, and I’d then run through the answers. “Yes, in 1a, Jim ONLY spoke to Jane, so he didn’t speak to anyone else. Just Jane. And in 1b, no-one else spoke to Jane. Just Jim” – you’ll notice that at this stage of the game, incidentally, I was blithely unaware of the fact that no two words operate as true synonyms across the board and was quite happy to treat JUST and ONLY as utterly interchangeable – “and 2a? Right, yes. he didn’t really enjoy it. It was OK, but not great. Well, not even really OK. Just not terrible. And 2b? Yes, right. It was terrible. He hated it!”

By the time I’d been teaching a couple of years and had done this exercise – or similar ones – a few times, the mind rot had started and I’d ceased to care who these imaginary characters had spoken to at which imaginary party – or whether my students grasped the subtleties of their phantom conversations! I needed a change, but had no idea how to bring one about, or in what shape or form any kind of change might manifest itself. Enter one of the most memorable students I have ever taught, and a man whose impact on me was almost certainly far greater than any minimal impact I may have had on him: Francesco, an Italian guy who was probably about the same age as me when I had my Damascene conversion – 25 or 26. He was in one of my Upper-Intermediate classes when I was doing my second stint at St. Giles Central, and was the kind of intelligent, thoughtful Italian student equipped with a disturbingly large vocabulary of grammatical meta-language that successive generations of native-speaker EFL teachers have come to fear and dread!

We were working our way through a revision exercise that focused on narrative tenses and students were busy dissecting such gems as:

The phone rang while I had a bath.

The phone was ringing while I had a bath.

The phone rang while I was having a bath

and

The phone was ringing while I was having a bath.

The discourse was riveting – “In this one, the phone rang and I had the bath at the same time. Is strange, but maybe it can happen. In this one, I don’t know. Is past continuous, so maybe the phone continued. Hmm. But in the first one too, it continued, so why here is past continuous and here is simple. I don’t sure” – and I was being propelled towards the exercise’s grim denouement by a nervous tension born of concern that I’d get my timelines mixed up, mess up my concept questions or fail to fully nail the subtle shades of meaning conveyed by these gems of TEFL-ese. I’d started on my round-up and was clarifying the fact that one sentence was emphasising the continuation, stressing the duration, whilst another was merely stating the plain facts, time-lining away and so on . . . when suddenly the look on Francesco’s face turned from engaged interest to exasperation and he blurted out something along these lines: “OK, OK. I get it. Many things are possible. Grammar is choice, Depends on perspective and intention. Fine. But . . . which one of these four should I learn? Which is most usual? Which one do YOU say?”

And in one fell swoop, I was off the grammar.

Just like that. No cold turkey to go through. No cravings. No cold sweats or dead babies crawling across the ceiling. Nothing.

In a moment, I saw the error of my ways and the path forward became clear.

“Which one would I say? Um. To be honest, none of them. Francesco. In fact, the only possible conversation about baths and phones I can think of (bear in mind, by the way, that this was in the days before most folk – certainly most EFL teachers – had mobiles they could drop in the bath!) is something like: Hey. I tried to call you yesterday, but you didn’t answer! / Yeah, sorry. I was in the bath. That’s it. Anyway, enough of all this. Let’s move on and do something more useful, shall we?!”

And from that day on, I’ve tried as far as humanly possible when teaching – and when writing material for teaching – to ensure that any grammar I look at (and I’m certainly NOT saying we shouldn’t be looking at grammar, just so we’re clear on that) is based on what it is I say, and other people say, and Francesco might want to say – or might hear said.

And not only do I feel cleaner and less soiled within myself, but you know what else? I’m happier in my teaching, my students seem to be too, the collective levels of Grammar Anxiety have plummeted AND they’re actually better at using the language to boot.

To paraphrase slightly the way that Renton puts it in a scene from Trainspotting:

Thank you, your honor. With God’s help, I conquered this terrible affliction.

Possibility, probability and (Raymond) Murphy’s Law: dodging stray grammar bullets

If Murphy’s Law didn’t already exist, it’d be the perfect name to describe the correlation between how much a teacher knows about language, how confident they are of their own grasp of grammar, and the likelihood that at some point in the lesson they’ll go off on one and start lecturing at great – and confusing – length about an obscure point they have only the most tenuous grip on. The fact is that at the first whiff of grammar, many students suddenly spark into life and start scattering the unwitting teacher with stray grammar bullets that only years of painful experience really help you dodge. Of course, the axiom that states that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong is not irrelevant here, but it’s actually more Raymond Murphy’s Law that teachers so often inadvertently bring into play in the classroom.

I know because I’ve been there! And lived to tell the tale. I was reminded of my former selves just yesterday when a brief piece of reformulation of something a student had been trying to say in response to a question in the coursebook asking what advice people would give to a guy they’d heard moaning about his new job. As students were talking, I wrote up on the board what they were trying to say and during my round-up elicited words like SHUT from HE SHOULD JUST S…….. UP AND PUT UP WITH IT,  STICK from HE SHOULD JUST STICK WITH IT and WAY from HE MIGHT BE ABLE TO WORK HIS WAY UP IN THE COMPANY. The board ended up looking like this:

Grammar Blog Post 1

As students were writing down what had ended up on the board, one student said she wasn’t sure about MIGHT BE ABLE TO. I explained that it meant maybe he can – and that it we often used it after modal verbs like MIGHT and SHOULD, so we say things like I CAN’T DO IT TODAY, BUT I SHOULD BE ABLE TO DO IT SOMETIME NEXT WEEK. This seemed to satisfy her, but then Raymond Murhpy’s Law kicked in and the questions came pouring forth:

“But be able to is also for the present, yes? That’s what my last teacher told me”

“And for the past. I wasn’t able to. I was able to.”

“Yes, And I am able to, like I am able to read.”

At which point I stopped the frenzy and said something along the lines of BE ABLE TO being possible in the present, but not really used much as CAN is much more common. You’d never tell anyone you can read, though, let alone that you were able to. The only thing you might say about reading is that someone CAN’T read – or that you couldn’t read the whole of a particular book – in the past – because it was too long or too boring. It’s much much more common to use CAN and CAN also refers to the future sometimes as well. I then wrote up on the board: I CAN’T MEET YOU TODAY OR TOMORROW, BUT I CAN DO SATURDAY. One student asked if COULD was also possible here, at which point other students shouted out “No! No! COULD is past”. I set them straight on this and said COULD was perfectly possible too, and was basically the same as CAN in this context – maybe a little less certain. One student asked if I’M ABLE TO or I WILL BE ABLE TO DO SATURDAY was OK. I said it was possible, but sounded weird and CAN / COULD were much more likely. I then wrote up an example using SHOULD BE ABLE TO as well, and we ended up with a board like this:

Grammar blog post 2

Students noted down what had gone up and we moved on.

The brief little episode did provide food for thought, though, and prompted a reflection on how earlier versions of myself might’ve handled this.

Both CELTA and DELTA instilled in me the belief that it was meanings and forms that were the most important things a teacher could make clear to students when tackling grammar. The whole trinity of meaning, form or pronunciation – or MFP for short (an acronym that for someone like me, who’s spent far too much of his life trawling second-hand record stores and charity shops, always recalled . . . with a chuckle . . . the Music For Pleasure label logo!!) – was pretty much all I considered when it came to handling anything grammatical for maybe the first six or seven years of my teaching career.

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This, coupled with the obsession with the Present-Practise-Produce approach to grammar that these courses instilled in me meant that any incident such as the one I describe above would have once sparked major anxiety. “They still don’t get be able to”, I would’ve fretted. “I’d better build in a whole hour-long slot on it tomorrow – and give them a page on it from Murphy’s as homework.” Or else I may well have simply told them that yes, it can be used in the present. And the past. And then have written a few bizarre examples up, or perhaps simply have written up WAS / WERE ABLE TO + VERB, AM / IS / ARE ABLE TO + VERB, WILL BE ABLE TO + VERB and left it at that.

The single biggest thing that has improved my grammar teaching – and quite possibly my teaching in general (certainly the vocabulary part of what I do, for sure) – is getting my head round something I first read in The Lexical Approach by Michael Lewis: teach the probable, not the possible. Sure, tons of things MIGHT be said, but are they USUALLY? Yes, of course, be able to CAN be used in the present, but certainly not in the context the students presented it to me in . . . and generally only in fairly specific kinds of genres / contexts, none of which had particular pertinence here. Narrow things down to particulars. Focus on what’s typical. Give clear, concise explanations and examples. Move on. You’ll pass this way again sooner or later anyway, and accuracy comes in dribs and drabs. It seems fairly clear, also, that it depends more on the accretional impact of examples – or on priming, if you prefer – than on any particularly sophisticated grasp of the subtleties of rules.

Knowing these things are teaching with them ever present in the mind has allowed me not only to enjoy my teaching far more, and to feel less bogged down by pointless rambling meta-linguistic waffle, but also to feel I’m actually helping more – both by giving simple, easy-to-digest examples, but also by warning students off random friendly fire, by encouraging them to lay down arms and reduce the paranoia. And by doing this Murhpy’s Law can finally be thwarted.