Working exercises hard

Last weekend at University of Westminster, we held our first one-day Lexical Conference. This will hopefully now become an annual event, and we were greatly encouraged by the fact that it sold out and also by the wonderful speakers we had. Alongside myself and Andrew Walkley, we had Leo Selivan, Philip Kerr, Nick Bilbrough, Luke Fletcher, Richard Paterson and Katie Mansfield, Muralee Navaratnam and as special guests of honour Michael Hoey and Michael Lewis.

I did two sessions – a plenary entitled Teaching Grammar Lexically – and a workshop called Working Exercises Hard. I had a couple of folk email me to ask if I had an online version of the sessions, which I didn’t, but due to popular request (well, ONE request at least!), I’ve trained myself how to use a great site that allows you to upload Powerpoints and narrate them and below is the fruits of my labour.

Thought it’d make a change as a blog post and if it is well received, it may be something I try and do again.

Hope you enjoy watching this and look forward to your comments and questions.


35 responses

  1. […] Hugh Dellar has done a Brainshark version of his talk Working Exercises Hard […]

  2. Another load of ironing out of the way, Hugh!!! Thanks for the entertaining and thought-provoking talk. I shall certainly look at the last remaining units of my Headway Elementary 3rd Edition in a new light now. I had already incorporated some of your other tips, but I shall most definitely be trying to get the best lexical bang for my Headway bucks over the next couple of weeks!
    I especially like the idea of also incorporating the “ambient” vocabulary which is so important, yet which students so often overlook and *don’t* take on board because they understand it in the context. Because this vocabulary doesn’t have any meaning by itself, I think they gloss over it and don’t pick up on its usefulness. That is why they have teachers, though, to spot those things for them and to push them towards noticing similar vocabulary in future.

    1. Hi Amanda –
      Glad you enjoyed that.
      It’s a different kind of post at any rate!

      Getting the best lexical bang for your bucks has to be the goal, I guess, whatever course you may happen to find yourself using.
      As I said, though, some material makes the whole process easier than others.
      The more single-word focused an exercise is, the more work the teacher actually has to do to ensure any kind of real priming / exposure.

      I think the other reason lexis that’s floating there in exercises – well, at least in SOME exercises – but which the task itself doesn’t require / force any particular focus onto is simply to up the level. Students then feel they’re really getting a lot of what they’re doing, get pushed more, get encouraged to notice more, get more input and thus more to study at home and to try and revise from, and so on.

      It’s a win-win-win situation.

  3. Good presentation Hugh! Good to see Michael Hoey get “exposure”. Have you ever seen Hoey give a presentation? He’s the most entertaining brilliant academic of the lot, IMHO.

    I think your basic principles are a bit too strongly expressed as imperatives. Just for example, pre-teaching vocabulary is not, IMHO, always a waste of time.

    1. Hi Geoff –
      Yeah, I’ve seen Michael Hoey a fair few times now, and he was our first choice for opening plenary at the conference we did last Saturday, where I saw him again. I really try hard not to use this word as a rule, but he truly is a genius. The fact that Chomsky is still taught as standard, whilst Hoey’s work remains largely overlooked in ELT is perhaps the single greatest injustice there is in our field! The whole Lexical Priming theory has been rigorously researched and constructed, is utterly revolutionary, blows Chomsky out of the water and really should be the basic model of how language learning works that all teacher education is based on, but so it goes!

      Agree that he’s a great speaker. A very very humble, self-deprecating man, a fact all the more remarkable when you consider his skills set! And as you say, very entertaining, very witty, great rapport, the works. A true hero of mine, and it’s not often I get to say that in ELT!

      As for pre-teaching of vocabulary, I hope I made it clear I wasn’t suggesting NEVER pre-teaching under any circumstances.
      For example, before doing some readings or listenings, pre-teaching may well make perfect sense.
      I’d just argue that pre-teaching before students do a VOCAB exercise is just plain wrong as the whole point of such exercises is that they serve as a test and they afford the teacher the chance to see what’s known already and to work from thereon in.

      1. I actually disagree my friend! I think you can for example ask students to give a mark 1-3 (1-4 or whatever) as to how familiar a word is where 1 is the word is completely new. Nation suggests such a process before texts and you can see similar things in Schmidt’s Focus on vocabulary. You might pre-teach the 1s or ask students to use a dictionary in the first instance. Seems a reasonable procedure to me, though not always necessary to formalise as in essence students will use dictionaries or other students’ knowledge to check words they don’t know as they do the exercise.

      2. Yes, I hear you. I thought I’d made it fairly clear that pre-teaching before texts makes much more sense to me than pre-teaching before vocab exercises.
        I have no issue at all with the procedure Nation suggests, and were I teaching lower-level classes more at present may well have ended up doing it more.
        Agree with you, though, that the basic fact of the matter is that generally students simply use dictionaries whilst doing exercises themselves in order to look up things they’re not sure of.
        Or they ask.
        Or guess.
        Or leave gaps and go through a process of negative deduction.
        Whichever way round, they still need to have their ideas checked, possibly corrected, clarified and expanded upon during the round-up, as I’m sure you’d agree.

  4. sophie isidoro | Reply

    Thanks Hugh. I really appreciated your detailed explanations and visuals. You said that you use the Macmillan Advanced Dictionary when planning….do you use a collocations dictionary as well and is there one available free online? Two days ago a copy of Outcomes Elementary landed on my mat and I’m looking forward to having a look at it!

    1. Hi Sophie –
      Thanks for taking the time to write. Yeah, the big Macmillan Advanced is my favourite, without a doubt, and their new Collocations Dictionary for learners of English is also incredibly good – far better than the OUP one, which predates it by a fair few years.

      I use both when planning, yeas, and when writing materials as well. I’d recommend them to all teachers and any learner at Intermediate or above, and I’m honestly not on commission on anything. Sadly!

      The Collocations dictionary is so good you really should be buying it and supporting the work their great lexicographers do! However, Macmillan do have a great site online for their dictionary in general, which is here:\\

      I’m also a big fan of the accompanying blog:

      By the way, great to hear you finally got a copy of OUTCOMES.
      Really hope you and your students enjoy it.
      Look forward to further feedback on it and to hearing how it goes.
      Feel free to use our facebook page ( to ask questions, make comments, pass on feedback, etc.

  5. I am now sicker with envy. Can’t you persuade Michael Hoey to get in front of a web camera and share HIS plenary talk too!

    Oh to be in London when the next Lexicon is there!

    1. I know! We’ve had a fair few people ask if his talk was videod. Sadly not.
      However, on our official departmental blog, there is more on his talk, so check it out here:

      The Lexical Conference will hopefully now become an annual event, and I’ll keep you all posted.

      Where are you based now?

  6. Regarding your preference for students actually *writing* things down -as opposed to merely taking photos of the boardwork- I think that there is something in this that may be an example of what embodied cognition (EC) signifies for us. In case you’re not sure what I’m on about, EC is the theory that cognition does not reside in the brain but is a result of the brain interacting (or mediating) with the environment within which it finds itself. It may be thatin order for something to become embedded within our cognition, some sort of bodily response is required: we can see this in the use of gesture, the silent mouthing of conversations that we plan to have; and…in the physical noting down of details.
    That said, it may be that we cling on to the tried and tested ways of noting down things. After all, taking a picture is as much of a physical act as writing something down…I don’t really believe this, but thought it should be conceded in the interests of balance!

    1. The claim of EC is that “states of the body modify states of the mind.” Not many would object to this. But EC wants to claim that cognition is best seen as spanning the brain, body, and the environment, and that the whole of cognitive science is barking up the wrong tree. Now how can one take such a claim seriously? The big debate in cognitive science at the moment is to what extent the “modular mind” is a good construct with which to start (as Fodor argues, and now Chomsky seems not so happy with) and to what extent an empirical view of he brain can do the job. I have seen nothing in the research literature to make me think that EC is more than another long-winded attempt to confuse the issue by bringing in as many poorly-defined constructs as possible in order to build a theory which appeals to a non-scientific community of social constructivists and which is incapable of being empirically tested.

      1. Right-o. That’s one corner of the field I don’t need to waste much time digging deeper into then!

      2. Hi Hugh,

        There’s an important distinction to be made between the mind and the brain – but let’s not go there now.

        To say that we forge neural pathways by doing things enough times is to say almost nothing. There are theories, like connectionism, the Competition Model, and emergentism, which suggest that the connection between nodes in the brain can be seen as paths and that the most frequently “trodden” paths lead to stronger connections between these nodes, and that these connections can help to explain learning. Such theories are very poorly-developed so far and are the subject of lots of criticism. Considering how many nodes are supposed to reside in the brain, and how many “neural pathways” might exist (trillions doesn’t get near it), we need to develop our understanding of these connections rather more, don’t you think? Behaviourism, after all, was based on a crude model of what you’ve suggested, and that theory has rightly been thrown into the dustbin of history. See my post on Emergentism in the SLA section of my blog for a discussion of the issues.

        To extrapolate from the vague statement that we forge neural pathways by doing things enough times to the argument that writing things down helps us to acquire parts of language is a non sequitur. You can write things down 100 times and not remember them, and you can hear a certain bit of language once and never forget it.

        As a practical teaching suggestion, yours isn’t bad at all, but if you want to back it up with theoretical underpinnings which rely on how the brain (better “mind”, in my opinion) works, then, as they say, more work is needed. 🙂

      3. Hi Geoff –
        Hope it’s OK with you, but I’ve added your blog to my blogroll list on the main front page.
        It looks to good to be passed over.

        It’s post like yours that make me realise quite far removed from real academia I actually am, despite my best attempts top try and keep up and stay informed!
        In the end, apart from a light smattering of theory, I essentially only have experience, rhetoric and common sense as my guides, which really isn’t worth a huge amount, I accept.

        I bow and fully defer to your clearly far superior knowledge of the issues surrounding things like connectionism, emergentism and the like.

        As I (hope I) said before, the feeling that students would be better off writing things down from the board rather than simply taking photos of the board is pure hunch, coupled with a knowledge of the students that I’ve seen doing this and the subsequent tests scores, etc that they’ve achieved.

        Have YOU ever encountered any serious research, out of interest, that tackles the issue of writing things down versus snapping them?
        If not, it’d seem like a ripe and very pertinent area for someone to do some proper research on!

      4. Hi Hugh,

        Thanks very much for putting me on your blog roll list – I’m honoured.

        I find your blog extremely interesting, informative, and enjoyable reading. You and I both know that academic work into SLA has done far less to push forward ELT than the insights, intuitions, and reflections of teachers. The problem with SLA research is that it’s often impossible to isolate the bit we want to study from everything else – and that goes for research into the effects of taking notes. What’s the topic? What’s the setting? What’s the note-taking procedure? What’s the follow-up? And on and on. I haven’t heard of research done on taking photos versus taking notes of things on a whiteboard, but I agree: if you could work out a good experiment, it would be fascinating.

      5. Hi Geoff –
        I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that it was only about a week ago that I finally put two and two together and realised you’re the guy I saw do the great talk on SLA at Spain TESOL in 2011.
        As I’m sure I said at the time, I thoroughly enjoyed that talk and agreed pretty much 100% with what seemed to be the implications for the classroom.
        Hope more folk drift towards your blog as a result of my humble mention of it here. You deserve it.

        By the way, after posting about notes versus photos the other day, I did stop and think about whether or not any plausible research might be possible, and very quickly saw that there would always just be way too many variables to be able to prove anything with any degree of conclusiveness. I guess it’s because of the problematic nature of such work that we do end up back in a situation where hunch, observation, the application of a kind of amateur logic and intuition all feed into ELT practice to a greater degree than theory does.

        By the way, don’t suppose you fancy writing a guest post based on that Spain TESOL from two years ago, do you?
        It’d be a fascinating and thought-provoking piece.

      6. Hi Geoff and Hugh
        I think EC goes beyond just saying that we learn things by doing. What it seems to be trying to do is explain just why it is that we might learn things by doing. And it seems to point to the conclusion that doing things may actually BE learning. That is, it is not the path towards learning, but learning itself.

        Geoff is right to point out that EC cannot be regarded as anything more than an emerging theory and has yet to be proven or disproven. He is also right to suggest that we exercise caution when looking to apply the work of neuroscientists to the field of language education. However, with the greatest respect, I think he may be wrong when he says that not many people would object to the idea that the body modifies the mind. This is quite a bold claim and one that we would do well to pay some attention to.

        Personally, I find the concept that our “minds” may not be located within our heads to be quite a challenging concept and one that would logically have some important implications for a profession that has for years laboured under the metaphors of transmission and computing. If for no reason other than ongoing professional development, I think that there is something useful to be gleaned from EC.

      7. Hi again,

        I think there’s a distinction between the brain and the mind. The brain is the organ responsible for our ability to think, sense, and process information, but we use the construct of mind to talk about how we think, process feelings, etc. So the brain is the organ where the activity of the mind takes place.

        To that extent, what happens to our body will have an effect on the activity of the mind, that’s all I meant, and I don’t think that’s very controversial. I find the concept that our “minds” may not be located within our heads to be mystic or religous and unlikely to help us understand SLA.

      8. I’m tempted to say I’m keeping out of this one, as I’m in no position to really know whether or not the body can modify the mind or where exactly the mind resides, and how, etc.

        I see where you’re going with the path towards learning being the actual learning itself, though, but I’m not totally sure I see how the concept works with regard to language learning, where I think explicit learning is still much underrated and maligned, especially in a post-bloody Krashen landscape.

        Incidentally, I’ve just finished a great book that’s nothing really to do with ELT called THE AGE OF ABSURDITY: WHY MODERN LIFE MAKES IT HARD TO BE HAPPY – by Michael Foley – and he talks quite a lot about the way in which it is the striving for happiness that actually provides happiness in and of itself rather than leading to a final permanent destination called HAPPYVILLE. Loosely connected, I know, and obviously impossible to really verify or quantify, but feeling true to me at least. The getting there, not the arriving and all that.

        You might enjoy that one, anyway.

      9. I’ve read THE AGE OF ABSURDITY: WHY MODERN LIFE MAKES IT HARD TO BE HAPPY – by Michael Foley. Not my kind of thing at all, but a friend left it at my place and I must say that there were bits – parts of Chapters 7 & 8, for example – that made sensitive points very well. As you say, master, it’s the getting there which deserves our attention.

        I’m off now to mix my vodka with some green tea and consider the effect I have on students when I don’t turn up for class. 🙂

      10. Vodka and green tea? Interesting, but slightly scary combination. Cold or hot green tea?
        Personally, I prefer my vodka cold and straight, and ideally in Russia, accompanied by such platters of delight as the Tsar’s plate, which usually contains cold meats and cheeses along with pickled garlic, tomatoes and so on. Perfect.
        For home drinking these days, I’m more of a Bombay Sapphire and tonic man.

        Nice to see someone else who’s read the Foley book.
        I bought it at an airport en route to somewhere or other, as one does, and enjoyed it immensely.
        It covers a lot of ground and saves one from having to read Spinoza (which I have) and Seneca (whom I don’t think I ever have!).
        I also broadly agree with his prescriptions for happiness and his analysis of why modern life makes this pursuit more complicated.
        Anyone who advocates the pleasures of realism and the acceptance of the long hard slog is alright by me.\

        Now to get my students to understand this potted digest!

      11. Hi Geoff
        Embodied cognition is certainly more than your gloss might suggest. Far from being the preserve of the NLPers and the homeopaths, it is the field of very hard science and is to be found in evolutionary neuroscience, biology, linguistics, robotics, computing, psychology. It problematises your assertion that “the brain is the organ responsible for our ability to think, sense, and process information” and pretty much does away with the input-output hypothesis.

        If we restrict ourselves to what happens inside our heads and look to explain how people learn languages by reference to a closed system, I suspect that we are even less likely to ever reach a useful understanding. However, I think you are right to imply that the onus is really upon EC to come up with a more convincing model than cognitive/computational models have managed so far. It is still early days and we will have to wait to find out whether or not this is some sort of mystical Gedankenexperiment. Nevertheless, I think you may be wrong to suggest that it cannot be empirically tested. Through work in AI and other contexts, I think the EC scientists are empirically testing it / exploring it as we type!

      12. Hi – it seems a bit odd to say “Hi Thesecretdos” 🙂 I suppose “dos” refers to your position, not to 2 Spanish twins / friends / ….

        Anyway, you obviously know more about EC than I do, and I’m not in a position to argue the pros and cons of it with you. I have very little time for NLP, by the way, and base my own view of cognition on the history of Western philosophy (starting, more or less with Bacon) and the present position of Chomsky, Fodor, and Hacking, to mention a few.

        Fdor (1983) lists nine features of the mind that interest him. In original order of presentation, they are:
        1.Domain specificity
        2.Mandatory operation
        3.Limited central accessibility
        4.Fast processing
        5.Informational encapsulation
        6.‘Shallow’ outputs
        7.Fixed neural architecture
        8.Characteristic and specific breakdown patterns
        9.Characteristic ontogenetic pace and sequencing

        For more, see

        But I’ll go back and take a closer look at EC, and maybe get back to you.



    2. Hi there –
      Thanks for this. It’s always fascinating how you start out blogging about one thing and end up[ getting into a discussion about something completely different.
      Like a good pub conversation!

      I’m certainly no expert on Embodied Cognition, but I do know enough about the brain works to know that we forge neural pathways by doing things enough times, and this would seem to suggest that if we write things down and both visually and physically process them, there must surely be more chance of them being retained than if we merely photograph them! The common sense part of me has also noticed that it’s generally the lazier students who do this, the ones least likely to do homework, the ones who score lower in progress tests and so on. Can’t just be a coincidence, I feel.

      I guess you could argue that it saves classroom time, and that for some students, for whom the Roman alphabet isn’t their first script, the writing down of words on the board can be arduous and time-consuming. I’d counter that by saying it’s time well spent, and if writing is hard for you and you struggle with it, that’s not a reason for doing LESS in class; it’s a reason for doing more.

      Oh, and you can take a picture of something without even remotely processing it or paying much attention to it at all, can’t you.
      I know because my four-year-old does this every time she gets hold of a camera!

  7. Katarzyna Lis | Reply

    Great presentation, very similar to what I think and how I teach.

    Sadly, every teacher I had pre-taught the vocabulary from exercices, and this was the reason why I hated coursebooks – I found them boring. However, I didn’t realise that maybe we shouldn’t blame the book (at least not always), but the way we work with it.

    The idea of treating these vocab exercises as tests is totally new to me and I will certainly try it out because it seems much more exciting and memorable.

    You pointed out that recycling vocabulary is very important – I always use quizlet, i.e. after we do an exercise my students and I create a list using quizlet (we pick the most interesting items or take all of them, depending on the amount of them) and later on, at home, the may play with it or print it out to learn. It’s also very useful for me because I can efortlessly prepare a test or a revision task.

    Hope you’ll use brainshark again to present how to teach gramar lexically, can’t wait to see it 🙂

    1. Hi there –
      Many thanks for taking the time to respond to this post.

      Really glad you enjoyed it – and it’s good to know it’s very similar to how you’d approach the material yourself.
      It’s always good to see your own practice validated by someone else!

      The pre-teaching of vocab from vocab exercises is, as you say, sadly still quite common – and totally mad! Pre-teaching the odd bit of vocab from a reading or listening text makes sense, but the whole point of vocab exercises, as I said, is that they’re tests and that you can only find out how much students already know by letting them grapple with the exercise!

      In the same way, classrooms would way less boring if teachers just let students try grammar exercises earlier rather than boring them into submission first with endless explanations!

      As for coursebooks versus no coursebooks, I’m very much in the former camp and obviously as a writer myself, as well as a teacher, I’m going to tell that some books work better than others, but that’s for each teacher to make their own mind up about, of course.

      I’m interested to hear more about exactly what you do with Quizlet, by the way.
      Anything that can help teachers help students revise and recycle specific bits of vocab must be a good thing.

      Oh, and yes, I will be trying to find time to do another Brainshark-type thing to do my Teaching Grammar Lexically presentation.

      1. Katarzyna Lis

        I tried to describe how I use quizlet, if something is unclear, just let me know 🙂
        The vast part of it is not esentially about quizlet, but I just wanted to showsome other things.

        I teach exam groups in Poland, and sadly, the vocabulary lists in the books which are supposed to be a help usually consist of single items and are THEMATIC – it usually precludes phrases like “at all” or “by no means”. Imagine students spending hours on this “wordbanks”, learning single items and not being able to say “my choice of faculty depends on how well I’ll do in the exam” (e.g. when talking about school), because they do not know either depend on or do in the exam.
        I decided not to use these wordbanks in class, and instead work on past exam papers . This is how I’d approach the vocab when doing a listening task.
        1. Students do an exercise and I write up on the board the most useful/interesting collocations (e.g. it eats up you time or I have mixed feelings about shopping).
        2. Before we check the answers, I show the vocabulary to them and make them predict/tell the meaning in groups. Then, we discuss it together and they write down the vocab with definitions in their vocabulary notebooks. I usually give them some time to revise it (e.g. 2 minutes).
        3. Then, they listen to the recording once more and write WHY the answers are correct [using some of the vocabulary from the board – I always tell them to use it].
        4. We check the answers and give the reasons.

        I do use the board, because the students prefer to copy the vocab from the board – maybe it is clearer, a bit more interesting or they can concentrate better, I don’t know.

        And after these four steps, quizlet comes into play 🙂 There are several reasons why I use it in class:

        • I can control what exactly I taught without checking the listening script again (which is time-consuming) or trying to recall the vocab (which might not be very efficient);
        • I can easily prepare a test, which is a kind of a revision at the beginning of every class (usually 10 items, chosen at random, the students check their tests in pairs and share their results );
        • The students who missed a class can easily catch it up;
        • The students can revise it in a funny (games) or demanding (tests) way – in my experience, students who were reluctant to vocabulary lists were usually eager to use quizlet instead;
        • The students might check how a particular word is pronounced (more or less).

        How do I go about it?

        Every student picks a vocabulary item which he or she finds useful / wants to remember, says it aloud (and I correct the pronunciation if it’s necessary). I put it on the list (and I don’t try to include everything) using IWB. Then, the students say the meanings of the collocations and I fill the definitions in. I encourage them to revise at home, testing themselves from Polish to English, which is more difficult but activates the collocations, I guess.

        Generally, whenever I feel we should write some vocabulary in quizlet, we just do it, in the way I described above.
        The title I give to the lists includes date and sometimes topic (27 May 2013 – Relationships)

  8. Late entry – hi Hugh,

    Really great post and great video. I feel inspired because in my context I work in house where department heads ask met to teach their people how to write reports or write effective emails. Sometimes I forget the basic principles of language teaching – the stuff I used to do years ago but somehow forgot along the way. Your video reminds me of some things I can do with those example reports next week to teach things like vocabulary and common collocations as well as how to list out the key findings or where to place the recommendations.

    Thanks for the inspiration.


    1. Hi Chris –
      Thanks for the kind words. Glad I’ve provided some small spark of inspiration!

      Teaching folk how to write reports and emails sounds quite interesting to me.
      It can be nice to work within quite narrow parameters and have fairly clear goals to work towards.
      Provide relevant models graded slightly above students’ current level, work with them as a whole, break them down and look at how the lexis and grammar combine within them, look at genre conventions, get students to try and rebuild them themselves. Sorted.

      By the way, if you haven’t read it already , then you simply must read Genre Analysis by Swales.
      Taught me much of what I now know about teaching writing!

  9. […] week or so ago, I posted up my first experiment with narrating Powerpoint presentations, as i tried to run through a talk I did at our inaugural University of Westminster Lexical […]

  10. […] Last weekend at University of Westminster, we held our first one-day Lexical Conference. This will hopefully now become an annual event, and we were greatly encouraged by the fact that it sold out …  […]

  11. This has been a huge help. Our school uses English Unlimited and tomorrow I have to teach the same unit that the exercise you focused on comes from. I certainly know how I’ll go about it now 🙂

    1. Obviously disappointed in your school’s choice of coursebooks, Matt, but very glad to have been of assistance!
      Hope these ideas help you and that you have a great lesson.
      Oh, and should you ever think about moving on from English Unlimited, there’s always this:

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