Category Archives: Lessons in detail

Ways of exploiting lexical self-study material in the classroom part two: some things we can get students to do

In the first part of this post, I explored some of the things that you can do as teacher – both in terms of preparation / planning and in terms of actual classroom practice – to help to take lexical self-study material off the page and to bring it to life and make it more real for the students. In this post, I’m going to assume that that message has already been absorbed and am going to move on to talk about what you might do next. Once you’ve given students time to go through an exercise, you’ve out them in pairs to check their answers, you’ve elicited answers from the whole class and, as you did so, you’ve explored the language in the sentences and expanded upon both the items there and connected bits and pieces. You have a board full of great, connected, whole-sentence fully grammaticalised input . . . and then what?

In case you’ve forgotten – or never read the first post to begin with – here again is the exercise I’m describing, and thinking about how to exploit:

Collocations exercise

Well, the most obvious thing is to get students talking about their own ideas, experiences and opinions using the language they’ve just looked at. The way I’d usually do it is to prepare some questions based on what’s there. Take, for instance, the first item – address an issue. You could just ask What are the main issues in your country? Do you think the government is doing enough to address them? Those aren’t bad questions, but to support students more, and give them more ideas of what to talk abut, I’d probably twist this slightly to something like this:

Decide which three of the issues below are the biggest problems in your country.

Mark them from 1 (=most serious problem) to 3.


Domestic violence

Drug abuse


Illegal immigration

Non-payment of taxes

A growing wealth gap

Digital connectivity


Public and private debt

Now tell a partner which three issues you chose.

Explain why you think they are such big issues, what is being done to address them – and anything else you think could be done to improve the situation.

Just this on its own would be quite sufficient for a good fifteen-minute speaking slot in class. I’d give students a few minutes to read through and to ask about any vocabulary they weren’t sure of – there’s bound to be some in the list above. I might then model the task by explaining which of the above I think is the biggest issue in the UK (they’re all contenders, if truth be told, but personally I’d opt for the growing wealth gap!), why and what’s being done about it. Once I’d stopped foaming at the mouth about the fact my prime minister is currently at an EU meeting to lobby for the right to ignore Europe-wide restrictions on bankers’ pay whilst more and more of the people he’s supposed to be looking after are increasingly reliant on food banks, I’d then put students in small groups of two and three and get them to discuss their own ideas.


As students talk, I’d go round, listen in, correct any pronunciation errors I might hear, ask questions and chip in with the discussion and – most crucially – try to find things students were trying to say, but couldn’t quite . . . or things they were saying that I would say in a slightly different (and better!) way. I’d zap backwards and forwards to the board and write up whole sentences, with the odd word here and there gapped. Once things were slowing down and some pairs / groups had almost finished, I’d stop the whole class and say OK, that was great. let’s just quickly look at how to say what you were trying to say better. I might have something like the following on the board:

A lot of men are frustrated with their l………… in life and then drink and end up t……………… it out on their wives.
A lot of women f…………….. their homes and end up in r……………… for battered wives.
Unemployment has r………………… over the last couple of years. Loads of people are moving abroad in s………… of work.
We’re being f…………….. / s…………… with immigrants. It’s causing serious f………………. in lots of areas.

To elicit the missing words, I’d basically paraphrase / retell the things I’d heard by saying things like this: A lot of people are unhappy with where they are in life they’re unhappy with their position, with what they’ve achieved, so they’re unhappy with their MMM in life. Anyone? No? They’re unhappy with their lot in life. And they drink and get angry and come home frustrated and they’re angry at the world, but they hurt their wives instead. They feel angry and frustrated, but don\’t know what to do with that anger, so they MMM it out on the ones they love. Yeah, right. They TAKE it out on them. And as a result, some women escape from the family home, like people MMM a disaster or MMM a war. Anyone? Yes, good. They FLEE and they end up in special buildings where women who have been beaten up – battered women – can hide and be safe from danger. These places are called? No, not refugees. Refugees are people who have to flee their own countries. The places are called REFUGES. Where’s the stress? yeah, REFuge, but ReFUgee. Good.


Other questions connected to the vocabulary in the exercise that I might ask students to discuss could include the following:

  • Can you think of a time when law and order completely broke down in your country? What sparked it? How long did it last?
  • Why do you think some people might not agree with aid agencies providing emergency relief? What do YOU think about it?
  • Can you remember any news stories from the last few months about an area needing emergency relief? Why? What happened?
  • Can you think of anyone who’s been arrested for inciting violence or racial hatred? What happened?
  • Would you like to be a social worker? Why? / Why not?

With any of these, again I’d give them a minute or two to read through and ask questions about. I’d model and I’d then listen in and find things to rework, before ending up by reformulating student output on the board. If you’re not sure of your ability to hear things in the moment and to think of better ways of saying things, you can always cheat by doing exactly what I did above and plan in advance things you think students MIGHT or COULD say, decide the best words to gap, and then simply write these up whilst monitoring. You can begin by saying OK, here are some things I heard some of you saying. Fools them every time!

In the third and final post in this little series, I’ll outline some other things you could get students to do with an exercise like this.

Cheers for now.


Ways of exploiting lexical self-study material in the classroom part one: what the teacher can do

This post is essentially a response to a request by one the blog’s readers, Patrick Gallagher, who emailed me recently and asked for ideas on using material that’s essentially written for self-study in the classroom.

Now, initially I was struck by this because, naturally, as a coursebook writer, my immediate reaction is simply to ask why on earth you’d need to bring this kind of material into the classroom when there are already great lexically-rich materials out there written specifically for everyday classroom use.



However, as I thought about it more, it occurred to me that there’s actually a fair bit more decent lexically-oriented material geared towards self-study than there is geared towards explicit classroom study, and maybe this fact shouldn’t surprise. The Headway / English File atomistic structural grammar syllabus still dominates and within this framework, vocabulary is not only treated very much as second best, but is also all too often limited to a focus on single words or, at best, collocations. The harsh reality is that it’s hard to get lexically-rooted material into class as the main focus, so I guess many teachers out there get round being shackled with a coursebook they may not particularly believe in or have much philosophical affinity with by bringing photocopied extracts from self-study material in.

And there IS plenty of good stuff out there: my own personal favourite and the one I recommend to all my students is ENGLISH VOCABULARY ORGANISER by Chris Gough, but then there’s also the ENGLISH COLLOCATIONS IN USE series by CUP, the PHRASAL VERBS ORGANISER and IDIOMS ORGANISER published by National Geographic Learning, George Woolard’s KEY WORDS FOR FLUENCY series and so on.

So what might teachers do with this stuff if we do decide to bring it into the class? One of the problems with doing this is obviously the fact that this stuff is all written to be done and home, checked and gotten on with. I was never designed with the classroom in mind and so fails to leap off the page in any kind of obvious way. As a little thought experiment, I’ve picked one exercise from ENGLISH COLLOCATIONS IN USE Advanced and imagined what I might do with it were I to use it to supplement a class, in the hope that it might provide some food for thought and fresh ideas for some of you. So here goes.

The exercise I’ve chosen is on social issues, which I’ve selected simply because this week with my Intermediate class we were doing some work on describing changes and this came up (Unemployment has gone down a bit over recent months / The divorce rate has risen dramatically over the last few years, and so on.) Here it is.

Collocations exercise

Well, the first thing I’d do is look long and hard at what language is there to be exploited so that when I was going through the answers, eliciting them from the whole class, I’d know what I wanted to focus, what I could ask the class about, what extra examples I might want to give and so on. I think it’s important that the teacher leads the class through this process BEFORE asking students to anything more personal or creative with what’s there.

In class, I’d tell students we were going to look at a bit more language to help them talk better about social issues, give them the exercise and tell them to fill in the gaps with the best missing words. As students are working their way though, I usually go round and check what’s right and wrong. If they have wrong answers, I might just say something semi non-verbal and negative like ‘Uh-uh!’ and point at the offending item. If students ask about a particular item, I may give a quick contextually-relevant answer too. In between doing all this, I’d also be writing sentences up on the board, with gaps in them, to expand on what’s there on page in a minute or two. These sentences are just things I either plan in advance or come up on the spur of the moment and they’re all things that might be said / heard around the language that’s being tested.

Once maybe 60-70% of the class have finished, I stop the whole class and put them in pairs, tell them to compare and then round up once I can see a few pairs have basically checked and agreed.

The round-up / checking is the first way the teacher can bring some of this language to life. What’s vital is we do more than simply get the answers and write them up. Here’s how I might run through this part myself:

So, number 1? Yeah, right. ADDRESS. Where’s the stress? Good. ADDRESS. The second syllable. And what how could a government, say, ADDRESS an issue like alcohol abuse? What might happen? What might they do? Well, for example, they might MMM street drinking. They might make it illegal. Right, so they might BAN it. Good. Another thing they might do is to make it more expensive to buy alcohol, so they might MM-MM taxes on alcohol, they might make them go up, so? yeah, INCREASE. And one last thing they might do is they might make it harder for companies to advertise alcohol, so they might not ban it completely, but they’ll MM-MM it. Anyone? No? The first letter is R. No? RESTRICT it.

On the board, by now, I’d have added the three words I elicited – or tried to elicit – to the sentences I wrote up earlier, so I’d already have something like this:

Last year they banned people from drinking on the street. It’s totally illegal now.
They’ve increased taxes on alcohol again.
They really ought to restrict alcohol advertising, so that kids aren’t exposed to it as much.

I’d then ask if anyone else had any other ideas on how the issue of alcohol abuse could be tackled – and would either accept students’ offerings, or else rephrase / reword them, maybe writing up extra sentences, depending on what came back from the class. I might also ask what other kinds of issues governments might sometimes need to address – and would hopefully get back one or two ideas from the class.

Teenagers drinking alcohol

For number 2, I’d again elicit the answer and probably write it up on the board. I’d then ask if they could think a famous example of an aid agency (Oxfam, ActionAid, the WHO, etc.) and would ask what kind of things they might provide as emergency relief – and when. Again, I might add some of their ideas to an already-prepared sentence on the board. Perhaps something like this:

The provision of emergency aid / supplies / relief in the wake of the earthquake / flooding / tsunami / volcanic eruption saved thousands of lives.

Next, I’d elicit the answer to 3, and ask what happens when law and order completely breaks down. Again, I’d have already got a couple of sentences prepared to help narrow the focus and hone the input. As such, I’d ask something like this: So one thing that often happens when law and order breaks down is large groups of people go into the streets and fight the police or the army. They maybe throw petrol bombs or rocks at them, they might burn cars, that kind of thing. This is called a? Right, a RIOT. And RIOT can be a noun or it can be a verb, so here it’s a noun. OK. And another thing that often happens is people go into shops – large groups of people often, and maybe when the shops are closed, you know, they break in and then they steal loads of stuff, so they MM the shop. Anyone? Begins with L. No? They LOOT the shops. And what kind of thing might make all this happen? Why might people start rioting and looting? Yeah, right. It’s often when people are angry at the police because of something the police have done. And this makes the riots happen. It MM the riots. Anyone? Like a match, when you light a match, sometimes little MM fly off. Yeah, right. SPARKS. And it can be a verb too, you can SPARK riots or SPARK public anger. On the board, I’d then have this.

A man died in police custody and it sparked three days of rioting and looting. The police totally lost control of the whole area.


For number 4, after eliciting the answer, I’d check what the group thinks social workers do. I’d then ask what it means in this context, breaking the cycle of abuse, and check they understand that it means kids who are physically abused themselves are more likely to abuse their own kids – or other people’s – later in life. It’s a vicious cycle. I might have a sentence like this up on the board:

Kids who are abused are more likely to abuse others in later life. It’s a vicious circle that’s hard to break.

I might also add that in lots of regional conflicts around the world, it can be very very hard to break the cycle of violence. One side kills someone, the other side seeks revenge. There’s then revenge for THAT attack, and then yet more revenge and so it goes on. It’s really hard to step out of that.

I’d then elicit number 5 and point out that both tenses are possible, depending on whether it’s connected to something happening now or not. I’d add that you can also make a plea for peace or for calm. I’d ask when someone might make this kind of plea (after a murder, after a terrorist attack, after a terrible crime, etc.) and why (they don’t want things to turn violent) – and I might also add that charities can make a plea for help or for donations at times of real need. I might end up with something like this on the board:

The father of the murdered boys has called for peace / has made a plea for peace amidst fears that the tensions could explode into violence.

I might then tell the amazing story of Tariq Jahan, whose two sons were killed during the Birmingham riots of 2011, but who almost single-handedly prevented an ugly situation getting much worse through his calm, his compassion and his charisma.


Finally, I’d elicit the answer to number 6 and I’d ask how you might INCITE violence. I might add that Tariq Jahan could easily have incited anger and hatred after the death of his sons, and could easily have persuaded others to go out and seek revenge, but chose not to. I might then add that there are relatively new Hate Speech laws in place in the UK that outlaw hateful, threatening, abusive, or insulting communication that targets people on account of skin colour, race, disability, nationality, ethnic or national origin, religion, or sexual orientation. It’s not uncommon for extremists to go on trial accused of inciting racial hatred, for example. I might add / complete one final sentence on the board, perhaps something like this:

He’s some kind of neo-Nazi. He’s on trial at the moment. He’s accused of inciting racial hatred via his website and his online publications.

Hopefully, this will give some pointers as to how the teacher can bring a fairly dry self-study piece of material to life in the classroom and use it to revise and recycle language students already know, to allow exposure to plenty of fully grammaticalised sentences, to connect the classroom material to the wider world outside and to provide space for students’ own ideas, theories and questions.

In the next part of the post, I’ll go into some more detail about how teachers can next get students to do a range of interesting things with any kind of self-study material they might happen to bring in. Until then, I look forward to your comments and questions.

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.

Connecting the classroom to the world outside

As you can probably imagine, a not inconsiderable number of the presentations at the recent IATEFL conference in Liverpool revolved around technology – and (less frequently!) its use in ELT. On occasion when watching some of these sessions, I did start to feel as though I’d stumbled into a fairly poor advertising hour (“Have you heard about Brainshark? Well, it’s a great sight that could have wonderful application in the language classroom”) as I’m subjected to such strident pitches for sites that I often wonder if the presenters are on commission – and if not, then why not?! At other times, you get almost comic misrepresentations or misunderstandings of what certain sites may be able to do for you and for your students (“Scoop.It – a great site that helps you publish class magazines”), but without a doubt the single biggest claim often made to support the utilization of more tech in the language classroom is that it somehow helps to “connect” your classroom to “the real world”.


Now, I’m sure that I myself have been guilty on more than one occasion in the past of talking about “the real world” as somehow existing outside of – and in contrast to – the classroom, but let’s face it, it’s a daft construct, isn’t it? The classroom is as much a part of ‘the real world’ as the police station, the football stadium, the hospital or the newsroom. Students do not cease to be ‘real people’ simply because they step into the language classroom, and teachers are no less ‘real’ there either!

I was given pause to think further about all of this last week as I was went in to teach my Upper-Intermediate class on Monday morning, the day after the Boston bombings. Like most of you out there, I suspect, I suffer from the usual slow drift of students into class, despite the fact we have an institutional lateness policy that excludes students until the break time (I teach three-hour classes – from 09:00 to midday) if they turn up more than fifteen minutes late. As such, we usually kick off with some chatting and some reformulation of student output – or, if you prefer, what a certain strain of conference attendees have started referring to as ‘Dogme moments’, a phrase guaranteed to raise hackles!). Understandably, this often involves “the real world” impinging on the classroom as students want to discuss things they’ve seen or heard about outside over the weekend, etc. I was expecting something about the bombings to come up, but as it turned out several of the students hadn’t heard anything about it, simply because they don’t really keep up with the news, or if they do, it’s L1 news mainly focused on home. The one student who did seem to be up on the story simply said “Yes! Terrible! Terrible!” when I asked if folk had seen the news about it, and all we ended up with on the board as a result was the following:

Did you see the news about the bombings in Boston?

> Yeah, it’s awful, isn’t it?

Horrendous! And no-one has admitted responsibility yet, so they’ve got no idea who did it.

> Well, let’s hope they catch the culprits soon.

The underlined words, I gave the first letter of each and then paraphrased the meaning, in order to elicit from the group. They provided all of the words except for culprit (“I know what you mean, but I don’t know this word”), which I then gave then . . . and they then carried on chatting with each other about their weekends – trips to Cambridge, a musical someone had seen, the weather, a great new Japanese restaurant, and so on! The usual mish-mash of activities that students engage in over a London weekend. Some further reformulation occurred and at 9.15, we locked the door – metaphorically speaking, in case you were wondering – and got on with the class.

if you adhere to (one of ) the tech evangelist lines, and particularly the tech-Dogme nexus that I’ve touched on before, then perhaps this might have been a moment to follow the road to “the real world” and ‘zap in’ some content from the outside world. I’ve often seen it suggested that one of the great advantages of the ‘connected’ classroom is that the teacher is able to tap into students’ supposed interests in current affairs and the like, and at the click of a button, access content online that deals with these issues.

What the teacher then actually DOES with this content is less clear, in general, but let’s for a moment roll with this idea. Let’s assume that the flicker of interest that the bombings elicited was something I decided was worth pursuing and that, on a whim, I called up a BBC news report . . .  this one, for instance . . .

What does one DO with this? Perhaps I show the class it, and tell them to take notes on what they understood. They could then compare ideas in pairs or groups, and I could then round up, picking up on things they were struggling to say. None of these things are bad per se, but there are issues particularly to do with what (a) how much the teacher – and the students – ARE actually able to notice, in terms of new language (b) whether what we notice on the first couple of listens IS actually the most useful and worthwhile language to spend time looking at and (c) what on earth one THEN does with the video after all of this.

My own feeling is that one of the great advantages of published classroom material – at least the good stuff out there – is that it’s generally well graded and that there’s usually at least SOME focus on language contained within texts and that the teacher is able to sit down before the class and have a look at exercises they’ll be teaching – and tapescripts / readings they’ll be working with – and think about the language that’s available in therm to be taught. With ‘zapped in’ material, we’re left to rely on our wits and our intuition and noticing skills, and this places a great burden on the teacher. We often simply notice what’s unusual or strange on first listen. Try it yourself with the video clip above. Listen through and note down what you think you’d pick up on and think about teaching?

The first time I did it the words and phrases I picked up on were the finish line, cordoned off, a line of copy / copy and breaking news. Now, whilst these items will almost certainly be NEW for many students at Upper-Intermediate level, you don’t need to be a linguistic genius to realise that actually these may well not be the most USEFUL items in that particular listening. Far more fruitful to explore – and far harder to be aware of and to pick up on whilst doing this kind of thing ‘live’ – would be things like THEY’RE INVESTIGATING THE EXPLOSIONS / THEY’VE LAUNCHED AN INVESTIGATION INTO THE EXPLOSIONS . . . and to then explore words around INVESTIGATION: a thorough / police INVESTIGATION; they’re still pursuing their INVESTIGATION; the INVESTIGATION has revealed that . . . and so on.

In addition to all of this, there’s then the question of what one might do AFTER viewing this zapped in content? Ask the class to comment on and discuss how they feel about? well, you may very well STILL not get much more than “Terrible! Terrible!” out of them! Ask them to speculate about who may have carried it out? Good luck with that one! Usually a recipe for all manner of prejudices and conspiracy theories to pour forth – or else simple honesty along the lines of ‘How on earth should I know!’

So, yes, of course technology CAN bring content from the web into the classroom, but there are clearly issues about whether or not this is desirable, what it leads to in terms of teaching – and whether this is the most useful thing we could be teaching at this time, the load it places on teachers, the random accumulation of language it results in, the often fairly unsatisfactory conversations that then result and so on.

However, believe it or not, none of this is really the point I wanted to make today in this post! The above is really just an exercise in thinking through how conference claims about the ability of tech to ‘connect’ us to ‘the real world’ could pan in out in reality and in specific exercises. What I really wanted to focus on today was the fact that in reality, it’s surely the TEACHER and the STUDENTS that connect classrooms to ‘the real world’ – as we all live in both that world out there and the classroom simultaneously.

In my class last Monday, the other connection to the bombings actually came whilst we were doing a reading from OUTCOMES Upper-Intermediate based around an email from someone who’d been in Venice for the carnival. One exercise that followed the reading was encouraging students to extract certain lexical items from the text and looked like this:

D                  Find words in the email that mean the same thing as the words in italics in 1-8.

1                  It was very kind of Nina to let me stay at her house for free.

2                  The city was completely full of tourists.

3                  It’s not surprising most costumes look so good.

4                  The locals generally continue with traditional costumes.

5                  The Plague Doctor costume is quite scary and threatening and evil.

6                  The food is delicious, but high in calories.

7                  Venice is completely changed in a good way during carnival.

8                  People light and explode fireworks all the time.

Students scoured the text again to find the correct words. As they were doing this, I got some extra examples onto the board to show more about how to use some of the items. As usual, I left some words gapped so that these could be elicited as we checked things. I then put them in pairs to compare their ideas before rounding up and going through the answers (which were, in case you were curious, as follows: put me up, packed with, no wonder, stick to, sinister, fattening, transformed, set off). As I elicited the answers, I explained meanings, paraphrased, gave extra examples, contextualised usage and so on. Here’s just one section of the board by the time we’d finished:


“The real world” impinges here in all manner of different ways – as it does everyday as we work our way through the class coursebook! The comment about eating biscuits was a joke on both myself and a lovely Chinese guy I’m teaching, Xuhong, who insists on bringing a large packet of custard creams to class every day, many of which I then feel compelled to eat, resulting in both of us bemoaning our expanding waistlines!


The mobile network comment was clearly a reflection of the day’s news from Boston! Perhaps ironically, this then sparked more discussion than the initial conversation at the start of the class! There was some discussion about how this actually worked, what the mechanics of this were; the fact that the Madrid bombings had been set off by mobile led to a brief explanation of what these bombings had actually been, for those unaware of them; there was then considerable talk about how hard it must be for the rest of the city to function without mobile connectivity!

And then we moved on to some speaking, with students discussing festivals / carnivals they’d been to!

So my point here is that the idea that technology automatically ensures ‘connectivity’ with the outside (‘real’) world not only needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt – and critiqued and considered thoroughly, but that it also actually fails to take into account the ways in which teachers link what’s in coursebooks to what’s going on outside throughout our working lives, day in, day out.

A Dogme approach to coursebooks: Part Two

In the first part of this two-piece post, I basically ran through the talk I gave at IATEFL Liverpool this year, in which I explored some of the ways in which the original ideas behind Dogme can be used to better exploit classroom material. Here, I want to move on to consider how else some of the ideas put forward might Dogme contribute to good practice when it comes to utilizing coursebooks?

Well, the first two commandments of Dogme are interactivity – the belief that the most direct route to learning is to be found in the interactivity between teachers and students and among the students themselves – and dialogic processes, the idea that learning is social and dialogic, and that knowledge is co-constructed.

In a hardcore Dogme approach, these ideas are thrust forward to support the notion of a speaking-activity-and-reformulation-only kind of approach, yet there’s surely no reason why interaction and dialogue can’t be part of how we use coursebooks. Indeed, I’d go so far as to suggest that you can’t really use a coursebook well unless you do so interactively and unless there’s dialogue involved in the checking of answers, in the exploitation of texts and so on. Let’s consider another example. Let’s look at how it’s possible to run the listening that follows the speaking about social issues that I showed and considered in the first part of this post.

Imagine for a minute that you’re a student in one of my classes. You know that you’re going to hear five news extracts and that your task, first time around, is to match each one to one of the social issues previously discussed in this Speaking slot below.


Now, I’ve yet to work out if it’s actually possible to embed sound files into WordPress blog posts, so until then I’m going to have simply include links.

Play the first two extracts here and match them to the relevant topics above, OK?

Listening text 1

Listening text 2

Once you’d listened (to all five extracts, obviously, in a real classroom situation), I’d then put you in pairs and ask you to discuss with your partner which issues they were discussing – and how you knew. While you were doing this, I’d be writing on the board gapped sentences containing relevant bits of lexis from the extracts themselves that I wanted to focus on whilst rounding up the answers, to see how much language you’d noticed whilst processing the listening texts for gist. The board may well end up looking something like this.


They’ve launched a new i………. aimed at ending homelessness.

There’s growing c………… about the number of people sleeping r……….. .

Homeless people often end up v………. to drugs and violence.

She took her employers to c…….. and won her c………. .

She was d………. promotion because she was pregnant.

She was a…………… €487,000 compensation.

I’d then stop you and round up by asking “OK, so number 1. Which issue were they talking about? Yeah, OK. Homelessness. How do you know?” and then from what students told me – with some prompting of my own, I’d paraphrase the gaps above and elicit – or try to – the missing words (initiative, concern, rough, vulnerable, court, case, denied and awarded – just in case you were wondering). So, for instance, to elicit the first gap, I might say something like “Yeah, the government – or the local council – is starting – launching – this new plan of action to try and tackle the problem of homelessness, so they’re launching an? Right. An initiative. Where’s the stress? Good. INItiative. Everyone. Again. Good!”

Once we’d finished with the listening text, I’d then ask students to tell each other about any similar stories they’d heard – and to explain how they feel about each one.

Now, it seems to me that even this tiny little snippet of classroom practice involves plenty of interactivity: you’d be interacting with the listening text and then with other students; I’d then interact with the whole class as a group, AND with the language from the text AND with the board. Out of the dialogue we’d engage in, we’d reach a mutual understanding of – and deeper appreciation of – the texts and this two-way dialogue would ensure that the strongest and most confident among the group were called upon to provide language for the weaker and less confident members. The teacher may lead, but the input would be co-constructed and mediated.

Finally, by then discussing with each other similar stories students had heard about, we’d address three final commandments from the Dogme Big Ten: voice – the learners’ voices are given recognition, along with your beliefs and knowledge; relevance – the relevance of the materials to the students’ lives is explored and opened up, and through doing this there’s a kind of critical use that comes into play as well. Dogme suggests that teachers and students should use published material and coursebooks in a critical way that recognizes their cultural and ideological biases. Well, by ensuring students have the opportunity to relate content to their own experiences, worldviews, cultures and countries, the material facilitates exactly this. It encourages the students to localize content and language – and to word their own worlds, having first been scaffolded and supported en route. And if that’s not Dogme, then I don’t know what is!

So there you have it. What I’ve tried to do with these two posts is to help shunt Dogme away from the posturing and pseudo-revolutionary communes it’s been in danger of moving permanently into and dragged it back towards something approaching the middle ground. And I’ve possibly also helped – albeit in some tiny little way, natch – to reframe the debate around what is and isn’t Dogme.

Perhaps rather than setting things up as coursebook versus teaching unplugged, we can now start to consider how some of the basic precepts behind the original manifesto can guide and inform both the utilization and the construction of more worthwhile coursebook material.

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.


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!


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:


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!


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.

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.


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


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.


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.

Twenty things in twenty years – Part Two: troubling trouble when trouble troubles you!

There are plenty of things that you generally don’t learn on a four-week CELTA course: how bizarre many of the staff rooms you’ll later find yourself in will be; how rife the illegal photocopying of published material is around the world; how you’ll probably end up inventing Dogme by accident one morning as you stumble into class having not slept a wink and quite possibly with either an illegal or at least a severely impaired bloodstream; how sooner or later you’ll find yourself subjected to threats / bribes / tears / offers of sexual favours as students desperately try and blag attendance certificates or better test results or placement in a level they absolutely don’t deserve to enter. I could obviously go on and on here! However, the one thing that perhaps more attention should be paid to on initial training courses is the subject of today’s reflective post wherein I look back over what’s now twenty years of teaching and try to work out what the hell I’ve learned about the trade: the kind of trouble that can erupt – or fester – in EFL classes and how we as teachers might best tackle them. In other words, how to trouble trouble before trouble troubles you – and the class you’re teaching!

The moment that I came to realise the importance of developing strategies for doing this came unpleasantly early in my teaching career. I’m somehow managed to blag my first real paid teaching job at St. Giles Central in London and had a lovely Intermediate-level class that I was doing every morning. They were predominantly Asian, with students from a wide range of different countries. The first week or so went really well and then the evil effects of continuous enrollment reared their head the following Monday when the door opened fifteen minutes into class and in walked a medallion-wearing living breathing stereotypical Italian male, complete with unbuttoned shirt and such a copious amount of hair on display that I’m prepared to believe it may well have been a chest wig. “Francesco Celotto from Milano”  he announced, as though this in itself merited a round of applause. “Come in” I smiled, before adding “You’re late!” He then surveyed the room a couple of times with a look of increasing unease before uttering the immortal lines “Ma dai! But it is all the Japanese in here” It was at this point I realised we had what could only be termed a situation. It was one of those moments where you suddenly sense just how much is riding on what you decide to do next. Say nothing, and you’re essentially colluding with this ignorance. Come down heavy and you’ve got one very pissed-off new student who’s lost face and who now hates you. What to do? What to do?

In the end, I smiled and said “Not quite Francesco. This is Dilokpol. He’s from Thailand. And this is Henu, from Indonesia. This is Lily from Vietnam, and this is Chen Chen from Hong Kong. This is Agnes from The Philippines, this is Nan-Joo from South Korea and oh, this is Kenzo, who actually IS from Japan, so one out of seven. Not bad, not bad. And which part of Spain were you from again?” – a question which caused Francesco to look incredulous and to insist on his Italian origins. “Exactly”, I pointed out. “Where you’re from is important to you, right? And it’s the same for everyone else in the class, OK?” Firm but friendly smile tinged with just a tiny touch of menace. Move on.

I’m not sure how I knew to do this or what led me to make the choices I made in this instance. As I’ve already said, it certainly wasn’t anything my initial – and let’s face it. most CELTAs are VERY initial – training had prepared me for. There’d been no suggestion there that TEFL was going to be anything other than a constant holiday camp roller-coaster ride of great big neon FUN. I suppose I’d just developed – unconsciously up until this juncture – conflict resolution or deflation skills the way that most of us – by living! Life, whether we like it or not, comes with conflict in-built and whether it had been avoiding school bullies, recognising who not to stare at too long at football matches, working as a bouncer in dodgy London pubs whilst at uni or going through relationship break-ups, I’d somehow gotten to the stage where I was able to defuse this potential bomb in such a way as to show the Asian students in my class that I’d noticed the affront and wasn’t prepared to accept it, whilst also somehow keeping Francesco onside with a kind of firm humour.

This was one of the most crucial lessons I learned early o in my teaching career and, having survived this baptism by fire, I was set to be able to survive similarly testing encounters over the years to come. Now, I’m not suggesting that this was the only way of dealing with this situation, but it worked for me and the combination of stern / serious and kind / inclusive has stood me in good stead. Obviously, failure to develop ways of ensuring parity and equality in class; of ensuring students are not allowed to offend or abuse each other – or at least do not get to do so without being aware of the fact that this is what they’ve done; of ensuring that you as a teacher are in charge of the class and are able to meld its disparate elements into something resembling a cohesive whole can all lead to disaster . . . to lessons slipping out of your control; the factions developing; to outright mutiny; the upset and anger; to complaints and possible even dismissal. All of which ought really to suggest that we start taking our innate conflict-handling abilities a bit more seriously on initial training courses and at least allowing space for some discussion of how and when they might best be implemented.

As the years have gone by, I’d like to think I’ve honed the way I deal with conflict into an even more effective technique, which is essentially two-fold and involves (a) diffusing tension by turning arguments inwards towards new linguistic input and (b) if I think something is particularly wrong or offensive, politely saying that I disagree and explaining why. To wrap up this post, one quick example. A year or so ago, I was teaching a multilingual Upper-Intermediate group here in London. The word DISCRIMINATION came up in an exercise we were doing and one student asked if it was like racism. I explained it was kind of similar, though mainly limited to unfair treatment – rather than abuse or violence – and also mainly limited to the ability to get jobs, promotion, housing, and so on. I then said that in some ways it was also sort of bigger than racism as you could face discrimination if you were black or Asian, but that you could also FACE DISCRIMINATION or BE DISCRIMINATED AGAINST ON THE GROUNDS OF gender, so it’s harder for women to get some jobs; on the grounds of sexual orientation, so it’s harder to get work or housing if you’re openly gay and so on. At this point, a student said “Gay is like homosexual?” to which I replied “yes, but homosexual is quite old-fashioned and most homosexuals usually prefer to be called GAY”. The student then said something along the lines of “I hate the gays. They must die” – to generally fairly stunned / bemused / upset silence in class.

“Well, you’re entitled to think what you think, and I’m not here to change your mind”, I began, “but personally I think you’re wrong. I have plenty of gay friends and it’s not nice to think you want them dead. There may even be gay people in this class, for all you know. Anyway, you can think what you think. It’s up to you. In the university, though, if you say things like that can get you kicked out. You can be thrown off courses if you make HOMOPHOBIC COMMENTS.” I then explained the concept and wrote up on the board the following:

You can be kicked out of the university for making racist / sexist / homophobic / anti-Semitic / Islamophobic comments.

There followed a brief discussion of each of the concepts and a discussion about whether nor not similar rules applied in higher education institutions in their countries. Interestingly, and I’m certainly not claiming that this kind of thing happens all the time, at the end of the class this particular student came up and apologised and said he’d never had a discussion about any of these issues before and had never met anybody ‘who knows the gays’. We then had a further talk which took in things like ‘why the gays like men’ and the like – and no further comments of this nature were ever heard in my class again.

This defusing of potential heat by turning it inwards towards the teaching of new language has worked for me thus far.

Long may it continue to do so.