Category Archives: Lessons in detail

You’re not listening! I didn’t hear!!

Having watched a fair few classes over the summer – both trainees finishing off an introductory course we’ve been running part-time for the last year and also teachers working on our summer school at University of Westminster, one thing I’ve realised with ever greater clarity is just how hard it is to actually help students get better at listening. Just running listenings in coursebooks well is an incredibly tricky – and very under-discussed, I feel – area of teaching, and one I’m going to return to in a follow-up post. What I’d like to blog about here, though, is much more to do with the fundamentals of what it is we think we’re doing in class when we DO listening. Here goes . . .

Many years ago, I went to watch a colleague of mine teach. He had been at the university quite a long time and had managed to claim the large 1960s-styled language lab as his own private domain! In the lesson I saw, students worked on their own and listened to some sentences on a tape (which I think came from MEANINGS INTO WORDS). They had to write each sentence down 100% correctly before they were allowed to move on to the next. One poor student must have listened to his first sentence about 30 times and was clearly really struggling. The teacher pointed out that his transcription was wrong and kept telling him to listen harder. So he played the sentence yet again – and again – and again! I put the headphones on myself so I could hear what he was trying to write down. On a word, muffled tape, a voice repeated over and over again:

Tie a knot in your handkerchief in case you forget.

No context, no glossary, no explanation, just that one isolated sentence.
In the end, the student called the teacher over again and asked “What does tyre notting mean?” to which the teacher replied “You’re not listening!” – again.
At this point, the student snapped and screamed out: “I AM listening! I just can’t hear!”

Now, this experience got me thinking about what kind of problems students have when they listen in English – and I have come to the conclusion that the problems are usually much more to do with HEARING (and KNOWING the language they hear) than they are with LISTENING. Our students, to give them their due, generally do actually listen and pay attention to CDs / cassettes in class as best they can, but fail for a number of reasons:
1  They can’t hear words simply because they don’t know them!
2  They can’t hear the correct words because they can’t distinguish sounds.
3  They can hear words, but often only individual ones – and can’t (always) group them appropriately.
4  They can hear words – even chunks and expressions – but can’t process the meaning of what they are hearing quickly enough.

So there are serious issues to do with being able to process the ‘acoustic blur’ of speech as students listen to it. And yet what actually happens in classrooms when we think we’re helping students get better at listening?

I once had a teacher on a teacher training course who already had quite a lot of experience, but who was still struggling a bit. She said it would be all sorted the next day – she was going to “do a listening”. When I pushed her and asked what the aim of the lesson – or what the language focus – would be, she looked at me like I was mad and stated that the aim would obviously be to do a listening! I think that all too often we DO listenings – and our students endure them – because this is what is to be done, because they’re in the coursebook and because, well, we have the idea we should do them, but perhaps we don’t always think why we do them. What are they actually for, from a pedagogical point of view?

There are, of course, those who would say that when we do listenings, we are teaching listening skills. But what are these skills and how do we teach them?

Believers in the concept of ‘skills’ might point to the following, taken from the Common European Framework:

The CEFR claims that learners at a certain level should be able to demonstrate ability of the following ‘sub-skills’:
• listening for gist
• listening for specific information
• listening for detailed understanding
• listening for implications
• listening as a member of a live audience
• listening to audio media

But what actually are these ‘skills’? How do we do them? How do we improve our ability to do them? How do we teach them? Is doing a gist task or doing a task where students listen for specific information enough? Do they somehow learn transferable skills of ‘listening for gist’ or ‘listening for specific information’ through the process of doing listenings in class – and can they take these skills away and thus deal with other listenings better in future?

The dominant way of thinking about all of this has long been SCHEMA THEORY, which stresses what’s called top-down processing. This emphasises students’ prior knowledge and predictions / expectations about what will be said. Often this means that before we ‘do’ our listening in class, we get students to predict content from pictures, context, etc. Now, this is all well and good, but read deeper in the literature on the field and problems soon start emerging, as the following quote makes clear:

“For complex social and psychological reasons, [learners] are less sure they have grasped the topic being spoken of, the opinion being expressed about it, and the reasons for the speaker wanting to talk about it. They are less sure of the relevance of their own experience in helping them to arrive at an interpretation. On top of all that they are less sure of the forms of the language… for all these reasons learners are less able to bring to bear top down processing in forming an interpretation and hence are more reliant on bottom up processing.”
(Brown quoted in Jenkins, 2001 OUP)

What Brown focuses on is the idea of BOTTOM-UP PROCESSING. In short, this says that what is important is HEARING individual sounds, decoding words, decoding chunks, decoding sentences and so on, and that it is through the process of doing this that learners build up a mental picture of what is being discussed.
If you accept this – and I do – there would seem to be some profound implications for teaching listening:

Firstly, simply getting students to predict or use their previous knowledge – so-called ‘activating schemata’ – isn’t necessary. There might be masses of information we have previous knowledge of when we sit and listen to a conversation and yet there may not be anything at all which comes up that we have predicted or which relates to our ‘schema’. Classroom listenings are obviously designed to include more predictability, but in the real world, language in use can be very unpredictable indeed – and the only way to deal with this is to listen to it all and understand it all.

Another point to make here is that students often hear words even when they don’t make sense to them. Failure may occur when they don’t know the words they’re hearing (or, as I’ve said, when they simply can’t can’t hear the words to begin with). On top of all this, words which students may know will often get bunched up in the stream of speech, making them harder to hear. This, in turn, can lead to difficulties for students hearing new words, because they can’t distinguish them from the general mass of sound around them.

So let’s go back to the ‘sub-skills’ outlined by the CEFR earlier. What is really happening when we do these things? Well, firstly, when we perform any of these skills in the real world, we’re paying attention. It’s not that we don’t hear things we’re not listening for. Imagine that your plane is delayed and you have to listen to a long announcement to find out what’s going on. You process and understand everything that precedes the information that is relevant to you, but then afterwards you just choose to forget it. In the same way, after watching a film, you report the gist to friends – not the detail. This is NOT because you weren’t paying attention to or enjoying all the detail. It’s much more to do with what we are able to – or choose to – remember after the event.

Given this, task is of vital importance in the classroom. If you want students to remember specific details, you have to make this crystal clear to them before playing the audio. Listening involves a lot of processing: students have to hear all the words, remember what the words mean and then decide whether or not they will need to remember them. This is a big ask! Clear tasks make this process a little bit easier.

In addition, as well as doing listenings in class, we also need to think more about how to teach what Mike McCarthy has called LISTENERSHIP. One point to bear in mind about listening in class is that in several crucial ways it’s easier than listening outside of the class. For one thing, it’s often better graded and is usually recorded clearly without too much background noise. Most importantly, though, outside class, listening is often connected to conversation, which means learners have to listen, process AND think of what to say themselves. In class, they don’t have this pressure. Listenings in class therefore leave more time and space for students to react as they don’t need to participate and add. As such, it’s easier to learn language from listenings in class. It also means that if students are to cope outside of class, they need language to engage in listenership, which means teaching lots of predictable, typical chunks of language, all of which will both help them process what they hear quicker, as well as also becoming more able to control the conversations they find themselves in. This means learning expressions / chunks to help them manage their discourse. On a basic level, it means things like:

Sorry. Can you say that again?

Sorry, Can you speak slower?

whilst at a higher level, it means things like:

So going back to what you were saying earlier . . .

So what? Are you saying that you think that . . . ?

and so on.

To start to fully appreciate the importance of using listenings in class as a vehicle for bringing useful language to students,  look at what it is that good listeners actually do.

Good listeners:

– know nearly all – if not all – of the words that they hear.

– hear the words when they listen to them.

– process sound in chunks.

– understand words / chunks automatically due to repeated OVER-LEARNING in class.

So from this perspective, how can we help students get better at listening?

Well, firstly, I think we have a duty to simply teach as much typical language as we can – both as part of listening-based lessons and also at as many other times as we can. Secondly, we need to ensure we always teach language – both vocabulary AND grammar – in natural contexts and we need to say / model the things that we’re teaching, so our students get used to hearing them in context and can recognise them when they hear them again. We need to mark on the board the main stresseses of the words that we teach, and to show linking between words. We also need to do lots and lots of drilling.

Generally, we ought to be paying a lot more attention to pronunciation in class – especially pronunciation related to connected speech (elision, assimilation, weak forms, linking sounds, etc.) We maybe need to accept that while it’s nice if our efforts to improve our students’ pronunciation work, the REAL goal of these slots in class is an improved ability to HEAR natural spoken language. As such, we need to help students with problem sounds. Teach the sounds and how to say them, repeat new words with the sounds in them, and then show how these words say within sentences, so students get to hear – and get to practise saying – the way the words change how they sound once they’re within sentences. For instance, with low levels, you may well often work from sound to work to sentence. Last month with a Chinese group, they had problems saying the word WEIRD, so I drilled like this:







and so on.

Other good things to do include doing a listening once for gist, then letting students compare answers / ideas; round up their ideas and see what the class as a whole have; then set a more language-focused task and play the listening again; let students compare ideas again, before rounding up. Finally, play the listening a third tie, but this time let students read the audioscript. This way, they – and you – can see which parts they couldn’t hear because of HEARING problems and which parts were down to LANGUAGE problems. If they read the whole audioscript and understand everything, but didn’t get it when they listened, that’s a hearing problem and the real issue is that they need to read and listen more and get more used to the blur of sound that is spoken language. However, if they read and STILL don’t understand things, that’s a language problem and means you need to teach that new language. Reading and listening at the same time helps bridge the gap between the nice, tidy way language looks written down and the messy, fast way it sounds spoken.

It’s also good to ask students to read conversations they’ve listened to aloud – especially if the conversations are full of useful, everyday language. Let them read in pairs and go round whilst they’re reading aloud and correct and re-model pronunciation for them..

It’s great if you can do gap-filed listenings, where the first listening is for gist; then the students listen again and try to fill in the gaps in an audioscript. They compare their ideas in pairs and you play the listening a third time, pausing after each gap and eliciting the missing words. This works best if the gaps are more than one word. When you elicit the answers, write them up on the board and drill them with the whole group and some individual students.

Here’s a conversation from INNOVATIONS Pre-Intermediate that works like this:


A   You are going to listen to a conversation between Martin and Alex.

They meet while they are abroad.

As you listen, cover the tapescript below and decide:

1.           Why are they abroad?

2.           How long are they going to stay?

B   Listen again and fill in the gaps.

Martin:  What do you do back home?

Alex:      Well, I was working in a car factory, but it (1) . . . . . . . . . That’s why I’m here, really. I got some money when I lost my job and I decided to go travelling (2) . . . . . . . .  to think about what to do next.

Martin:  And what are you going to do?

Alex:      I still haven’t decided. The economy’s in (3) . . . . . . . . at the moment. There’s a lot of unemployment and people aren’t spending much money, so it’s going to be difficult to find a new job. I might try to re-train and do (4) . . . . . . . . .

Martin:  Have you got any idea what you want to do?

Alex:      Not really. Maybe something with computers. I might try to find a job abroad for a while, before I do that. What about your country? Is it easy to find work there?

Martin:  Yes. A few years ago it was quite bad, but the economy’s (5) . . . . . . . . at the moment. I think unemployment is about four per cent, so finding a job isn’t really a problem. The problem is (6) . . . . . . . . . Prices have gone up a lot over the last few years. Everything is more expensive, so the money you earn goes really quickly.

Alex:      Right.

Martin:  Sometimes I think I should move to somewhere like here. I’m sure people don’t get paid very much, but the cost of living is so low, and there’s a better (7) . . . . . . . . . People don’t work as hard; life is more relaxed; the food’s great; the weather’s great; it’s just very nice.

Alex:    Yes, maybe, but don’t forget that you are on holiday. Maybe it’s (8) . . . . . . . . for the people who live here.

Martin:  No, maybe not.

Alex:      So anyway, how long are you going to stay here?

Martin:  Just till Friday. I have to get back to work. What about you? How long are you staying?

Alex:      Till I get bored or I (9) . . . . . . . . money. I don’t have any plans.


As I’m eliciting the answers fro the group and writing things like (9) run out of on the board, I’ll draw the links between RUN and OUT and OF and drill RU-NOW-TOV with the group.

Dictations are also good, especially at lower levels when learners are still developing their ear. Here’s one we built into OUTCOMES Elementary.

A         Listen. Write the questions you hear.

B          Listen again and repeat what you hear.

C          Work in pairs. Ask and answer the questions.


1          What are you studying?

2          What year are you in?

3          Are you enjoying it?

4          How are you?

5          Are you hungry?

6          Are you good at English?

7          Where are you from?

8          Where are you staying?

One other kind of exercises that focus explicitly on HEARING is this, from OUTCOMES Intermediate:

B          Decide which words you heard. Then listen and check.

1          I’m involved in/on designing what you see on the screen.

2          How did you getting/get into that?

3          Vodafone were recruiting people so I applied/replied and I got a job.

4          It’s like any job. It has its boring moments/minutes.

5          It depends if we have a deadline to complete/meet.

6          I do something/anything like fifty or sixty hours a week.

7          That must be stressed/stressful.

8          I sometimes work better under/in pressure.

9          They said I would get a permanent/payment contract, but then it never happened.

Finally, I think, we just need to ensure that we recycle words, chunks, exchanges and conversations over different classes and across different levels, thus ensuring not only language development, but also massively increased opportunities for hearing.

That’s all for now. In my next post on teaching listening, I’ll go into more detail about some of the problems I think we often bring upon ourselves when doing listening in class, and we might begin to rectify things. In the meantime, I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts, questions and ideas.

Ambient vocabulary: Bringing the background to the fore

Have you ever wondered how new terms come into use within ELT? I know I have. My sneaking suspicion has always been that they probably start out a bit like football chants: three mates in a pub after a game drunkenly hit upon a great rhyming couplet and vow to try their new invention out on the terraces the next home game; if the chant is any good, it gets taken up by others around them and eventually takes on a life of its own, maybe even passing into history as one of the club’s all-time greatest songs. I’m sure, for instance, that I can’t be the only in the part of London who, on hearing even the faintest hint of Andy Williams doing You’re Just Too Good To Be True, starts having flashbacks and grins a simple idiot joy of remembering Freddie Ljungberg’s many, many Arsenal goals!

Anyway, I digress. My point is simply that terms must surely come into being by first someone spotting a gap in the conceptual market and then floating a phrase to define it and seeing if it sticks. I’ve always thought it must be great to have come up, say, the phrase lexical priming or sound chunking (Michael Hoey and David Brazil respectively)! My first stab at introducing a new term into the field is far less grand, but does nevertheless represent something I’ve been thinking long and hard about whilst pondering the whole slippery nature of level of late. Ladies and gentlemen, I give to you ambient vocabulary.

My Macmillan Advanced Learners’ dictionary advises me that ambient is a technical word meaning ‘existing or present around you – as in ambient sound, whilst ambient temperature is the temperature of surrounding air. Many of you may also be familiar with the concept of ambient music: evolving both from the kind of muzak you might hear whilst trundling your shopping trolley around your local supermarket and out of avant-garde experiments in early electronica, ambient music blossomed in the early-to-mid 1970s, with its dominant artists perhaps being former Roxy Music man Brian Eno, who released his seminal Ambient 1: Music for Airports set in 1978, thus giving life to the term. Eno himself stated that ambient music can be either “actively listened to with attention or as easily ignored, depending on the choice of the listener”, and based his term on the Latin term ambire, meaning to surround.

Now, you’re probably wondering where on earth I’m going with all this, aren’t you? Well, fear not. The sense in which I’ve become interested in in the concept of ambient vocabulary runs parallel to Eno’s notions.  I’m interested in vocabulary that can be actively brought to the attention of students – or just as easily ignored, depending on the choices made by the teacher . . . and I’d like to suggest that generally we’d all be better off bringing more ambient vocabulary to the fore rather than leaving it in the background, especially if we’re keen to up the level of the input we’re providing for our learners.

Ambient vocabulary is language that’s there in the background of any given exercise or text, but which doesn’t necessarily need to be focused on in order for students – and teacher – to complete the task. Let’s look at a concrete example to illustrate what I mean here. Here’s an exercise I watched one of my trainees deal with last week. It’s taken from a writing spread that looks at making requests and enquiries and originally comes from INNOVATIONS Advanced.

2            Stating your purpose

When we write e-mails to people we know relatively well, the language we use is very similar to everyday spoken English. Formal letters to people we know less well are much more likely to be more formal.

Choose the words in italics which are more appropriate for the context.

a  Hi Jamir. You couldn’t just quickly send / forward me a note saying you’ve received that cheque, could you?

b  I am writing to request / ask for a complimentary copy of ‘Practising English Writing’, as advertised in your sales brochure.

c  I am writing to inform you of the fact / tell you that in a recent statement I was overcharged by thirty pounds / ripped off.

d  I am writing to request that you reimburse / give me back in full the amount sent with my recent order from your company.

e  Hi Mike. Just a quick one to ask if you could let me know / inform me how much you think the tickets will be.

f  I am writing to request further information regarding / more info about the current situation in Sierra Leone and to see / determine whether the Home Office is currently telling people not to / advising against travel to the country.

I would be most grateful if you could / Can you forward me details of your course fees and dates for the next academic year.

h  I am writing to enquire about the chances / possibility of acquiring / getting hold of a replica of my birth certificate.

In essence, the bare minimum a teacher would need to check in order to ensure students that had successfully completed this exercise is the language in italics. On a basic level, a teacher could simply explain the task to students, let them get on with it, put them in pairs to compare ideas and then elicit answers by simply saying “OK. A? Right. It should be SEND. Is it more formal or informal? Right. Informal. Because it starts quite informally – Hi Jamir. And B? OK. Request. It’s more formal, right. Writing to someone you don’t know.” – and so on. Doing this is better than nothing, but not by much. In essence, this approach posits the teacher as little more than a glorified human answer key.

A touch more sophisticated would be an approach would tackled not only the correct answers, but which checked and extended upon wrong answers. In this approach, the teacher may well run through the answers more like this: “OK, so A? Right. Send. How do you know? OK, but what tells you it’s informal? Right. The writer says Hi. The writer uses first names – Jamir – instead of something like Mr. Ali or whatever. Anything else? Yeah, the use of just to make the request seem small and actually the whole chunk – You couldn’t just – could you – is pretty informal too. Well spotted. And forward is a more formal way of saying send, so you might write something like I would be most grateful if you could forward me your price list (writes this on the board) or I would really appreciate it if you could forward me details of training programmes and so on. OK. B? Yeah. Request. How do you know it’s formal? Yes, there are no first names. And they’re clearly writing to someone they don’t now, asking for something for free, so formal is better. And you might say stuff like (writes on board) I am writing to request . . . further information about . . . / a quote for . . . / permission to . . . / copies of . . . and so on. Ask for is usually with friends or people you know, so you might email a friend / colleague and write something like I just wanted to ask for your thoughts on something or I just wanted to ask for a bit of advice. OK. C?” This approach gives the answers PLUS and involves some real teaching, but still doesn’t really tackle the ambient vocabulary lurking behind the scenes in the exercise above.

So what exactly might this ambient vocabulary be and how might teachers alert students to its existence? Well, it’s basically anything there in the sentences that’s NOT central to the answers and that wouldn’t necessarily need to be covered when going through the answers, but which might still be new for students and which they might benefit from being exposed to. It’s language which will up the level of the input students get around the exercise and which will make even those who’ve raced through the exercise and who’ve got all the answers correct that they’re still going away from the class having been pushed and having learned something new. It’s language a sharp, lexically-minded teacher can focus on in addition to doing the great things involved in checking and processing the answers that I’ve outlined above.

In the exercise above, I’d suggest it means the following items: a complimentary copy, sales brochure, statement, (reimburse me) in full, the current situation, course fees and replica. Now, I’m not suggesting that I’d cover all of these items every time I rounded up the answers to these sentences, or that I’d do much more with some of them than check students have noticed them, gloss them, maybe ask one extra question about them. With the more useful words that perhaps have broader applicability (or, if you’d prefer higher surrender value) such as brochure and fees, I’d probably also get some extra examples of usage up on the board as well.

Here’s how I might bring the backgrounded ambient to the fore in just one sentence – B – above.

As I was going through the answers, I’d perhaps say something like the following:

“OK. B? Yeah. Request. How do you know it’s formal? Yes, there are no first names. And they’re clearly writing to someone they don’t now, asking for something for free, so formal is better. And you might say stuff like (writes on board) I am writing to request . . . further information about . . . / a quote for . . . / permission to . . . / copies of . . . and so on. Ask for is usually with friends or people you know, so you might email a friend / colleague and write something like I just wanted to ask for your thoughts on something or I just wanted to ask for a bit of advice. And did you notice here the writer requests a complimentary copy. What do you think it means here? Right. It’s like a free copy. In the same way, sometimes at big parties, like launch parties for products or whatever, all guests maybe receive complimentary samples or a complimentary drink, and sometimes frequent flyers get a complimentary upgrade to Business Class. OK, and did you notice here, the sales brochure. How many pages usually? Just one or more than one? Yeah, right. It’s usually like a small magazine, and it’s always for some kind of goods or services that a company provides, so you get (write on board) hotel brochures, travel brochures, holiday brochures, school or university brochures, and the expensively-produced ones are usually (write on board) glossy full-colour brochures. And if you just look quickly though one, you (write on board) flick through – or leaf through – it.

More Teacher Talking Time for sure, but that’s what teaching is, folks! I’ve never yet had a student complain that their teachers were trying to explain things in too much depth or giving too many examples! As the old adage has it, you learn language FROM language – and if we really want our students to feel challenged, and we want to make the most of the language that surrounds them then perhaps it’s time we started ensuring we focus more keenly on bringing ambient vocabulary to the fore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3  What skills do you need to be a doctor?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5  She’s against the use of traditional medicine.

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

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

1    She was always good ……. Science subjects.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The exercise started as follows:

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

1  paediatrician     paramedic

2  patient                surgeon

3  nurse                  midwife

4  ward                   operating theatre

5  bandage             plaster

6  self-diagnosis   self-medication

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

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

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

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

Work in pairs. Discuss the questions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The opening exercise was this one:

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

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

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

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

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

B Answer the questions about the sentences in 1A

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

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

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

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

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

A  Used to

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

+ I ……………. to live in Paris.

– I didn’t use to speak French.

? Did you ……….. to eat out a lot?

Yes, I did. / No, I didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1  something you used to believe as a child.

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

3  something you’ll never get used to.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Read the short extract below. Then discuss the questions.

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

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

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

– business

– living with a group of other people

– survival or dealing with difficult situations

– music or dance

– romance and dating

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


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

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

B  Now listen and answer these questions.

1  What is the programme?

2  Why is it important there?

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

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

1  The show was originally devised in Britain.

2  The Afghan economy has not been sustaining itself.

3  Most people in Afghanistan work for the state.

4  More people need to learn about aspects of business.

5  Faisulhaq Moshkani has an electricity company.

6  His company is unique in Afghanistan.

7  There are two reality TV shows on Afghan TV.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3  What skills do you need to be a doctor?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The exercise started as follows:

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

1  paediatrician     paramedic

2  patient                surgeon

3  nurse                  midwife

4  ward                   operating theatre

5  bandage             plaster

6  self-diagnosis   self-medication

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B Answer the questions about the sentences in 1A

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

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

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

A  Used to

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

+ I ……………. to live in Paris.

– I didn’t use to speak French.

? Did you ……….. to eat out a lot?

Yes, I did. / No, I didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

1  something you used to believe as a child.

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

3  something you’ll never get used to.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hi Zarina,

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The student can . . .

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

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

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

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

A section of another coursebook-based lesson in some detail

Given that last time I tried to do this, it seemed to take me an entire evening to write – and probably took you even longer to actually read through – I’ve decided that maybe the best way forward with these sections of the blog is to feature little windows onto classes that I’ve done; allow you, as it were, to spy on a selected slice of one of my three-hour classes.

This lesson was another one with my main group this term, an Advanced class that I teach on Monday and Wednesday mornings from 09.15-12.30.  The class runs five mornings a week and they have three different teachers. It’s only a hort eight-week term this time around, so we only have two more weeks together. The nationality breakdown is seven Chinese students, a Moroccan, an Iraqi, an Italian, a Taiwanese, a German, an Austrian (born in Romania), a Japanese and a Colombian. Here they all are (apart from two of them, who were absent today!). It’s a General English class and quite a strong group. We’re using OUTCOMES Advanced, and the part I’m going to detail below too maybe an hour all in all.

We’re nearing the end of a unit called SCIENCE AND RESEARCH and are onto the last double-page spread, which is based around a listening. The main goals of this section were (a) to give students the opportunity to voice the ideas and opinions about the way scientists are perceived and portrayed in society (b) to explore and discuss what a range of different jobs within the field of science involve and (c) to give students practice in both extensive and intensive listening. My hunch was that the topic would interest students for a variety of reasons:I knew a few of the group had science backgrounds, having done either degrees or Master degrees in related areas, and this in itself would generate interest value; I also suspected that other students might at least know people who worked in related fields or else aspire to work in them themselves in future; on top of that, everyone would be able to discuss the stereotype of scientists and would be able to contribute some ideas to what different jobs might involve. Above and beyond that, though, there’s the simple fact that I knew the lessons would bring up plenty of new useful high frequency language and that, if handled in a certain way, the language itself would be of interest to the students in and of itself. In a sense, this way of looking at what happens in a class reduces the importance of topic per se, as it assumes that whatever the topic, and to whatever degree students want or are able to discuss the topic itself, there’ll also be language coming up both from the material and from what the students themselves try to say that will be worth spending time and exploring, and that the interaction that occurs during these explorations is motivating and interesting in itself.

So anyway . . . I started by saying that we were going to be talking about the way scientists were seen and portrayed in society – and the degree to which this encouraged – or discouraged – young people to enter the field. I told them they were going to read a short text about the strereotype of scientists in the UK and that it may well be different in their country. They should first just read and check they understand the text – and then they’d talk about it.

Students read the text, shown below and I monitored. A fair few students asked about several problematic bits of vocabulary – particularly homogenous, geeky, hunched, muttering and scribbling. With geeky, I simply referred them to the Native Speaker note in the book below the text, whilst with the other words I glossed them briefly – a homogenous bunch is a group of very similar people . . . if you’re hunched, you’re sitting like this (and I then mimed hunching, with shoulders hunched up) , muttering is like quietly talking to yourself, maybe in a slightly mad way and scribbling is writing things down very quickly and maybe a bit carelessly, like this (more miming). I also used the students’ reading time to get a few whole sentence parallel examples of these new words up on the board to come back to later on. Anyway, here’s the text and the Native Speaker note that follows it.


A                  Read the short text below. Then discuss the questions that follow in groups.

Scientists are often seen as a homogenous bunch of geeky men in white lab coats and protective glasses, hunched over some kind of bubbling test tube whilst muttering to themselves or frantically scribbling equations on a scrap of paper. Such stereotypes not only fail to represent the full diversity of activities that scientists (of both sexes!) engage in, but also serve to dissuade the young from contemplating a career in science. It’s time for this to change!

  • Does this text reflect your own view of scientists?
  • Do you agree that negative stereotypes of scientists may well put young people off entering the field?
  • Do you know anyone who works in the field of science? What do they do?


If we think someone is weird or boring because they’re only interested in computers / science / studying, we often call them geeky. The noun is a geek. Many people also say nerdy / a nerd to mean the same thing.

A homogenous bunch of geeky men in white lab coats.

My brother is a complete science geek.

He’s a nice guy, but he looks a bit nerdy, if you ask me!

He’s such a nerd! He’s got no social skills whatsoever.

Once the students had finished reading the text, I gave them 20 seconds to read the questions and to check they understood them. No-one asked, so to lead into the speaking I simply repeated the questions, paraphrasing things I thought might cause problems and that maybe students had simply been too shy to ask about. I said something like this:

So in a minute you’re going to discuss the degree to which the text reflects your own view of scientists. is it accurate, do you think? Or do you see things differently? Also, do you agree that negative stereotypes – the bad way in which scientists are portrayed – might put young people off entering the field? Might make them not want to become scientists? And do you know anyone who works in the field, the area, of science? If so, what do they do?

I put students in pairs with one group of three and let them talk. Whilst they talked, I monitored and listened in to discussions, chipped in with my own comments and thoughts on occasion, helped out if students were struggling to say things and – crucially, I’d argue – picked up on things that I understood, but which I knew I’d say slightly differently. At this level, there is an issue in looking for errors, because by definition Advanced students can basically say what they want to say without really making many mistakes at all. A better way to think about the teacher’s role during student speaking slots is to listen for things they could say better. By the end of six or seven minutes, I’d written a fair few gapped sentences up on the board and stopped the class by saying OK. Great. Now let’s look at how to say some of the things you were trying to say in better English. First, let’s just look at a few bits and pieces from the text itself.

On the board, I’d written the following:

a very homogenous society / group

I asked where the stress was, and having elicited it, marked it with a circle and made a couple of students repeat the word.

I then asked what the opposite was. One student said heterogeneous, which I said was fine, but sounded a bit too formal and academic and that in spoken English it was more common to say . . . ? I then wrote a d on the board and got diverse from someone. I then asked for examples of homogenous and diverse societies and was offered Japan and the UK, which worked fine. Someone then joked that the class itself was a very diverse group!

With hunched over, I simply explained it to the whole class and showed the example. Someone said “Oh, it’s like Quasimodo”. There was then some discussion about whether or not everyone in the class was familiar with the story of the hunchback of Notre dame – they weren’t of course . . . and I said Yes, he’s a hunchback in the story.

I also simply pointed out the example I’d written up about scribbling, mimed it again and asked when or why people might scribble. Students correctly said when you’re in a hurry or it;’s not something very important. I then said we’d move on to look at things they’d ben trying to say in the discussion. On the board I had the following sentences:

The average life …………………. of scientists is quite low. They work themselves to ……….. / into an early …………….. – or they just …………. out young.

It’s a very pr………………. job. They work really un…………….. hours.

I know some scientists and they (don’t) really ………………. to the stereotype.

I find the whole idea of being a scientist quite o…….-p…………… .

To elicit the missing words, I usually do a kind of paraphrasing. Here, I said, for example: Some of you were saying you don’t think being a scientist is a good job as lots of scientists die young. The average length of their lives is quite low, so they have a low average life? One students said expectation. I said this was close, but usually your parents have high expectations of you or if you get 7.5 in your IELTS test it exceeds your expectations. I then got expectancy and wrote that up. I then talked briefly about how the average life expectancy in Russia has DROPPED DRAMATICALLY since 1991. I then said that some students had been talking about how scientists work really really hard – so hard they die young, so they work themselves to? And they work themselves into an early? I managed to elicit death, but only got grave after an extra bit of glossing – the place where they put the body when you die is your? Grave. Right, so they work themselves into an early grave. I then added: Or else what happens is just that they quickly end up finished in their careers, because they have no ideas or energy left after working so hard to begin with. I asked what others careers might result in early burnout and got teaching and banking.

I then said that part of the problem was that scientists were under a lot of stress, a lot of pressure, so the job was very? One student said pressureful, which provoked much laughter and a comment about how they were inventing their own language. Eventually, I got pressurised. I added that scientists often have to work all night or from early in the morning until late in the night – according to some of the students, anyway – and so they had to work very UN hours? The first guess was unstable, and I said usually people are a bit unstable – mentally unstable, which means they may get angry or upset very easily. The next offering was unexpected. I explain you can’t work unexpected hours. News can be unexpected, or someone’s actions, but not hours you work. Next came unclear. I said often motives for crimes are unclear or you can be unclear about what you should you are supposed to do. To push things along a bit, I said that the hours made it difficult to make friends or to have a normal social life – and finally got unsocial!

We then moved on and I said sometimes you meet people and they are actually the same as the stereotype you might have had about them, so they MMMM the stereotype. Students shouted out suit, meet, fit, so I wrote a c on the board. After another few seconds, I gave up and wrote conform up.

For the final sentence, I explained that several students didn’t like the idea of being a scientist. Just thinking about it made them not want to do it, it persuaded them not to do it. They found the idea? I elicited off-putting and one student asked if it was like put you off. I said” Yes, if something puts you off, that’s the verb -0 it stops you wanting to do or try something. Maybe you find something off-putting because of the way it looks or smells or whatever. For example, the first time I went to Japan, one of my friends offered me some natto – it’s kind of fermented soya bean paste – and it really stinks. For me, anyway. And I found the smell really off-putting. It made me not want to try it. The German student, Nicolai, then wanted more detail about what exactly natto was, which one of the Japanese students provided. This all seemed to generate some discussion, so for three or four minutes students discussed in pairs any food they found off-putting and explained why. The highlight of this was one of the Chinese students saying he couldn’t understand why western people loved cheese, when basically it was just rotten cow’s milk! Anyway, here’s what the board looked like by the end of this section:

We then moved on to another speaking task that would lead directly into the listening. I told the class that in a few minutes they’d hear five different scientists talking about their jobs, but that first they should look at the ten jobs in the box and discuss what they think each job involves, what the point of each job is, and so on. Students then chatted for a few minutes, whilst I went round. Here’s the task anyway.


You are going to hear five different kinds of scientists talking about their jobs.

A                  Work in pairs. Discuss these questions.

  • What do you know about each of the different kinds of scientist below?
  • What’s the main point of each job?
  • What do you think their working lives involve on a day-to-day basis?

anthropologists                                 marine biologists

astrologer                                           military scientists

geologists                                            neurologist

hydrologists                                        sociologists

immunologists                                    zoologist

After a few minutes, I rounded up by eliciting brief summaries of what each job involved, and clarifying where there were problems or differences of opinion. There was no boardwork during this slot, but we did discuss what the difference between anthropologists and sociologists might be, and there was a fair few minutes of discussion about whether or not military scientists really existed, whether they could really be called scientists if they didn’t make the results of their research open and so on. Somehow, this ended up taking in the kind of research into how to break people down, the results of which had been used in Guantanamo – what kind of music to play how loud and for how long in order to make people crack,. how long exactly you could hold people under water before they approached death, etc . . . as well as the fact that part of the MacArthur Pact after World War II involved Japan handing over all of the military research it had conducted, including all the horrendous experiments carried out during the occupation of parts of China.

I then told the class to listen to five scientists speaking and to decide in each case what their job and what each job involved.

B                  Listen and match each speaker to one of the ten different kinds of scientist in the box. What does each job involve?

I played the CD all the way through, put students in pairs and asked to compare what they got. I monitored to help me get a feel for how much they’d grasped, what was causing problems and so on and after a couple of minutes, I elicited the answers from the group as a whole, trying wherever possible to rephrase students’ ideas using the lexis that had actually been used in the audio. So, for example, for the first job, the astrologer, one student said something like People imagine they are always spending every night watching the stars, but really it’s not like that and I say Yes, OK, so the stereotype of astrologers is that they  stay up all night glued to their telescopes, but the reality is far more mundane. This kind of re-lexicalization is important, I think, as it acknowledges that students have processed the basic meanings, but confronts them again with the actual linguistic wrapping that the meaning came encased in, thereby encouraging noticing.

I then told the class they were going to hear the speakers one more time and that this time they should decide which speaker matched each of the sentences in 1-10 from exercise C. I gave them a minute or two to read through first, in order to check they understood what they were listening for. Predictably, a few students asked about traits and I explained it meant particular qualities in someone’s personality, before drilling the word. There were also questions about drought – which again caused pron problems too, which had to be tackled after I’d explained the word. I gave students a couple of minutes to note down any ideas they may have already had about which person matched each sentence and then played it again. Here’s what they were listening for:

C                  Listen again and decide which speaker:

1                  studies the possible harm that drought could do.

2                  sometimes makes recommendations about living environments.

3                  says their line of work involves making policy recommendations.

4                  finds their job immensely satisfying.

5                  says their line of work is more boring than is commonly believed.

6                  feels the stereotype about their job is out of date.

7                  says work on family traits is a part of their field.

8                  has done research on the global spread of a particular phenomenon.

9                  notes a way in which their field is unusual.

10                  is quite secretive about what their job involves.

As students were listening, I wrote this up on the board:

But left the word RUNS out. I came back to this once we’d gone through all the answers to exercise C and quickly elicited it – third time lucky, having been offered goes and follows first!I also wrote this up as well:

and simply wrote c…….. instead of crops and left the word famine out. Again, as I finished off, after we’d gone through Exercise Cm I elicited the missing words by saying that sometimes when there’s a drought, when it doesn’t rain for ages, the plants that you grow for food die, the MMM fail – which got me crops – and that this causes people to die because of a lack of food, so it leads to? Which got me famine.

Once I’d played the five extracts through again, I out students in pairs again to compare and discuss their answers before eliciting the answers. With these kinds of exercises, I try to focus not only on simply what the answers are, but WHY the answers are the answers. Again, this often leads to a kind of paraphrasing of students’ ideas and re-use of lexis from the actual audio. So, for instance, I’d elicit the 1 was a hydrologist, and ask how students knew. They often just ay things like ‘because of drought!’ and I’d say Yeah, OK, He said he looks at potential damage to the environment in low-flow areas, so the potential environmental damage caused by drought.

Before I forget, if you’re interested, you can hear the listenings below.

Speaker One

Speaker Two

Speaker Three

Speaker Four

Speaker Five

To round off this part of the lesson, there was some speaking, looking partly at students’ responses to what they’d heard and partly expanding upon some of the themes implicit in it. Here are the questions:

D                  Work in pairs. Discuss these questions.

  • Which of the five jobs do you think sounds most interesting? Why?
  • Which do you think is likely to be best / worst paid? Why?
  • Can you think of any jobs where the stereotype may well be more glamorous than the reality? In what way?

Students chatted about this for a few minutes. The best answer for the last question was models – it may look glamorous on TV, but the reality is never getting to eat, standing around for hours on end and being leched at by slimy fashion people! We finished with a tiny bit of boardwork – the words that I elicited were mundane and rewarding – first time each one!

and that was that!


Hope this has proved interesting and not too much of a pain to read!

Please feel free to add any comments, thoughts, questions, etc.

I’m always really interested to hear what others may make of the way I teach.

Dissing Dogme brief respite: The coursebook (writer) strikes back

Well, you’ve got Phil Wade to blame – or thank, I guess, depending on your point of view – for what follows. Phil has been a keen contributor to this blog so far and via Twitter suggested that I detail what I do in my own classrooms – with my own coursebooks! This really follows on from Chia Suan Song’s Teach-Off series and my own series of rants about Dogme. What I’m hoping to do is once a week explore and explain a class that I’ve taught in as much detail as I can manage with the limited time I have available for these things.

I realise I’m an atypical teacher in many ways: I also write coursebooks, and generally (though not exclusively) teach from my own coursebooks. In addition, I generally work from A to Z or 1 to 10 or top left to bottom right (take your pick) when teaching coursebooks – especially my own! I also work in London, teaching (mainly) multilingual classes of adults (which can mean anything from 19 to 80). Having got all of that out of the way, I’ll fill you in on my lovely main class this term.

I’m teaching an Advanced group two mornings a week – Mondays and Wednesdays. Classes run from 09.15 to 12.30 and the students are all doing five mornings a week, with three different teachers. The class have been together for three weeks already – this is the fourth – and will be together for four more weeks. There’s one more intake next Monday, a large Japanese group, and some of them may possibly be joining. Many of the students have been with us since last September, some since January and some only since April. The nationality breakdown is seven Chinese students, a Moroccan, an Iraqi, an Italian, a Taiwanese, a German, an Austrian (born in Romania), a Japanese and a Colombian. Here they all are (apart from two of them, who were absent today!)

So anyway, it’s a General English class and the reasons for the students being here are many and varied. Most of the Chinese lot are government exchange people, and many work in international offices in Chinese universities; we have university students taking a year out to come and study English; people getting ready to do degrees and Master’s; people just here for a few months to brush up their English for possible future use and so on. They’re quite a strong group, with at least half of them probably able to aim for CAE in June, even though none of them are actually planning to take the exam. We’re using OUTCOMES Advanced, and students get a free copy as part of their fees. The class I’m going to detail below was two hours from 9.15 to 11.15 and was followed by a fifteen-minute break and an hour-long progress test, which I won’t bother detailing here as not much happened apart from students doing their progress test!

Today we started a unit called CONFLICT. Why? Well, conflict is in the news all the time; lots of high frequency lexis crops up when discussing it; we’d previously done Unit 5, which was called NIGHT OUT, NIGHT IN and so this unit provided a slightly more serious counter-balance (light and shade, as my editors always told me!) . . . oh, and also because one of my students had had a huge row with her boyfriend the day before and the class really wanted to know more about this particular conflict.

Nah, just kidding! I made that last bit up . . . but if you want Dogme motivations, I can invent them at will. As if that would’ve made my decisions or the topic any more or less valid.

I began, though, as I usually began – with some revision of what I know the teacher yesterday looked at. I like to ensure there’s some kind of thread from one to the next so that, even though the class have different teachers, they can feel a sense of continuity. Also, knowing that you’re going to be (soft) tested keeps them on their toes, encourages them to actually spend time looking through their notes once they get home every day and also creates a sense of progress. I usually get to class early and sit and chat with the early arrivals anyway, but once we had six students (at quarter past nine  . . we have a cut-off point of fifteen minutes grace for latecomers. After that, they’re excluded till the break) we started the revision sheet. The first exercise was as follows:


Complete the sentences with the best missing words.

1   It’s a really weird book. I couldn’t really follow the …………………….. .

2   It’s a book about the author’s mum and her …………………….. to overcome alcoholism.

3   The …………………….. in the book is quite minimal, but also very funny and it feels very natural.

4   It’s laugh-out-loud …………………….. in places!

5   The story …………………….. around the lives of ten women.

6   The book …………………….. issues such as domestic violence,. drug abuse and rape.

7   It’s a ……………………..-read book! It’s amazing! You have to try it. Honestly!

8   It’s just a really great book. I can’t …………………….. it enough.

9   It’s a novel, but it’s …………………….. on a true story.

10  It’s …………………….. in the seventeenth century.

11  It’s mainly about the impact of the …………………….. rights in the 60s and 70s.

12  The book …………………….. with themes of loss and longing.

Students spent maybe five or six minutes trying to fill the gaps in themselves, in pairs. There was a fair bit of head scratching and wryly amused comments along the lines of “This is from yesterday?” I monitored, wandering around and seeing how students were doing, saying when things were right or wrong and then rounded up the answers. I elicited by reading out the sentences and stopping at each gap, taking answers from the class as a whole – and then writing the correct answers up on the board.

As I was doing this, I was ‘working the language’ – adding, paraphrasing, explaining, exemplifying. Here’s a taste of the kind of thing I’d say:

(1) Yeah, plot. The plot of the book is the story of the book. It’s the same word for films as well and here . . . (pointing to a sentence I’d written on the board that read: The plot was full of t……… and t……….. . It was really hard to follow) . . . if the plot keeps changing and it’s hard to follow and you don’t understand what’s going on from one minute to to the next (said whilst moving my arms in a snake-like manner!) it’s? Yeah, full of twists and turns (I then wrote this in to the gaps). It’s always twists and turns, never turns and twists.

(2) Anyone? yeah, struggle. And we often talk about someone’s struggle to overcome something, so their struggle to overcome addiction or depression or their struggle to overcome alcoholism. Like their fight to beat this problem.

(3) Yes, the dialogue. How do you pronounce it? Where’s the stress? yes, OK. DI-a-logue. Everyone. Again, Juanita. Good. And it’s the same for films as well – the speaking, the talking is called the DI-a-logue.

(4) It’s laugh-out-loud funny, you know, like when you’re reading something on the tube and you suddenly burst out laughing (a chunk I taught them on Monday, by the way) like this (I acted this) and people look at you like you’re crazy, you know?

(5) The story? Yes, reVOLVed around (circling my hands) the lives of ten women, so they’\re the main focus, the story is basically about them.

(6) Anyone? yes, it tackles these issues. It’s often for controversial topics or issues so maybe the film tackles the issue of mental illness or the book tackles the issues of racism, violence and poverty.

(7) It’s a? Yes, MUST-read book. You now, you MUST rad it. It’s amazing. In the same way, a film can be a MUST-SEE FILM.

(8) And 8? I can’t? recommend it enough. yeah. Where’s the stress? re-co-MEND. Again? OK. Better. So yeah, I really really recommend it. I can’t re-co-MEND it enough.

(9) This one they often use for Hollywood movies. It’s fiction, but it’s? Yeah, BASED on a true story. Sometimes very loosely based on a true story.

At this point, a student asked me to write that up on the board, so I wrote: It’s based on a true story – very loosely based on one anyway!

(10) And if you’re talking about the place or the time when the action in the book – or the film – happens? It’s? Yeah, SET IN. so you know, it’s set in Algeria, in the 1950s. OK?

(11) It’s mainly about the impact of the? Oh, yes, OK. It could be women’s rights. I hadn’t thought of that. or, if you’re talking about the broader fight for equal rights for black people, for women, for gay people? yeah, the civil rights movements. I guess it’s particularly associated with the US in the 60s, but you can still talk about protecting civil rights, and so on.

(12) And 12? Yeah, deal with these themes, so it explores them, talks about them. Can be the same word for films as well, again.

One student asked what loss and longing meant.

I said it’s when you lose someone – or something – the noun is loss, so we say sorry for your loss when someone close to you dies. And longing is like a strong feeling of wanting someone or something.

Next up, we moved onto the second part of the revision sheet, which you can see below. For five minutes or so, students discussed their ideas in pairs and again I went round, helped out, clarified if things were totally wrong.I also got a few gapped sentences up on the board, based on things students were trying to say, which I used during my round-up, as we shall see.

Now discuss these questions with a partner.

– Why might someone be feeling a bit rough?

– When might someone be in bits?

– Where do you go if you want to strut your stuff?

– What happens in a meat market?

– What do you do if you take the mickey out of someone?

– Why might someone hassle you?

– What do you do if you cause a scene in a restaurant?

– What’s the problem if you’re smashed?

– Say three things you could take up.

After a few minutes, I went through the answers with the class. I think of these kinds of questions as questions about language that generate language. Whilst I generally mostly know the answers that’ll come up, there are always some curve balls.I also ask these kinds of questions a lot whilst going through answers tio vocabulary lessons, and students absorb this and often ask ME similar questions in return!

For feeling rough, the class said maybe because you were drunk last night or because you were maybe starting to have a cold. I tried to elicit the words COMING and TO DRINK in the sentences on the board, but got GOING and ALCOHOL, so ended up providing the missing words myself and completing the examples on the board. For IN BITS, students said “When you’re devastated”, to which I responded, OK, but WHEN might you be in bits, WHEN might you be devastated. We then established it was maybe when someone close to you died or if you lost your house and all your possessions. One of my Chinese students, Ryan (it’s his ‘English’ name – his choice, not mine, I hasten to add!) took perverse delight in mentioning this and had a couple of other ideas here as well! For strutting your stuff, some of the Chinese students shouted out ‘on a stage’ and ‘in a ballroom’. I explained that if you’re on a stage, it’s usually because you’re performing, and that a ballroom is more old-fashioned, like maybe if you’re learning to waltz or something. Someone else shouted out ‘a club’ and I asked which part of the club? The bar area? No, the students said, the area where you dance. Which is called? I asked – and elicited dancefloor, which i wrote into the gapped sentence on the board. When I asked what happens in a meat market, there was much laughter and one of my Chinese students said “Buy meat!”. Someone else said “No! Buy a girl.” I said it doesn’t usually imply that you’re BUYING sex. You’re just LOOKING FOR it. Maybe you buy the person a drink or something, but you don’t buy – or even hire (!) – them. I then elicited PULL and PICK UP and wrote these up on the board.With hassle, the students laughed and said their other teacher Glenn hassled them because they hadn’t done their homework! WE also established bosses can hassle you for work, street sellers hassle you or drunk guys hassle women in bars – the common theme being they all want something from you! With smashed, three students asked if it was because you’re tired. I said no, that’s shattered. We then established smashed was when you’re blind drunk, so drunk you can hardly stand up! Finally, with take up, one students said A CHAIR. I asked what he meant and he replied “Like in an interview”. “No, that’s HI. COME IN, HAVE A SEAT. So, anything you can take up, like when you start doing a new hobby?” I got three answers from the class and added them to my example on the board, so by the end of all of this the board looked like this:

This all took maybe the first twenty-five minutes. I now had a full class and we were ready to roll with Unit 6 – Conflict. I led in by saying something like What we’re looking at over the next few days is conflict – interpersonal conflicts, arguments, rows, conflict between nations, conflict resolution, that kind of thing. Today we’re going to be looking at what people do during and after arguments, OK? I asked the class to turn to page 42 and to look at the SPEAKING exercise A. In pairs, they discussed briefly what they thought the words in bold meant:


A      Check you understand the words in bold. Then tell a partner which of the things below you sometimes do.

  • lose your temper and scream and shout
  • storm off and slam the door behind you
  • throw things across the room – or at someone
  • have a big sulk
  • hold a grudge against someone after an argument
  • apologise first and try to make up

I went round to see what words were causing most problems and got a few gapped sentences up on the board while I was doing so. After a couple of minutes, I stopped the class and clarified the words. I said something like the following: OK, so maybe you lose your temper – you get angry – and you scream and shot . . . you go mental, go ballistic (we’d had these two expressions the other day). A student shouted out You flip your lid and blow your top (which we’d also had) and I said yes. And if you storm out? Students: You leave quickly. Me: Yes. Quickly and? Student: angrily. I then acted out storming off / storming out of the room and  asked students what you do if you slam the door. They acted this and I pointed out on the board that you could also slam the phone down. One of the Chinese students laughed and said this was a very useful expression! After I asked, one student did a great acting out of sulking, complete with bottom lip stuck out and there was much banter about it being just like various students’ wives. I then elicited immature / childish onto the board, having glossed it and given the first two letters of each word. I asked what you do if you hold a grudge and then asked what the opposite was, pointing to the board for support, where the class could see F…….. and f……… . I then elicited forgive and forget. One student said they were good at forgiving, but not forgetting to much laughter. Here’s the board after all of this:

After checking they knew what make up meant, I explained that when I got into arguments, I was prone to lose my temper and flip out a bit. Not so much now, but when I was younger I might also have sometimes punched the wall or the door or something. BUT I never sulked. I always got things out! They then chatted for several minutes about which of these things they did when they had rows. I wandered round and picked up on some things they were trying to say, but couldn’t quite and got more gapped sentences on the board. Here’s what the board looked like after the round-up here:

On reflection, self-contained – which was the first thing a student shouted out – when I was explaining that quite a few students said they never lost their tempers and never really got angry or lost their tempers – wasn’t the best answer and self-controlled would’ve worked better here, but I took that offering and let it go. The second sentence involved retelling a story I’d heard Xiao Xi tell about throwing things at her husband and was greeted with both incredulity and much laughter. The third one – I tried to elicit system, but got heart / body / mind and so just gave it to them – and then managed to get bottle – led into a good five minutes of discussion among the whole class. One student said bottling things up was bad because eventually you explode. O then said “Yes, like the US high school massacres.” One student asked if anything like that ever happened here. There then followed a discussion that took in the Cumbrian killings, Dunblane, recent Chinese kindergarten machete murders, a Japanese high school killing involving a dead boy’s head on a spike outside a school and Anders Brevik. There was much heated debate about whether or not the Norway scenario was the same or not. I said I felt it was different, because he saw it as politically and racially motivated. And we moved on!

Next, students looked at exercise B and discussed how each of these things could lead to arguments.

B                  Look at the list of things people often argue about in the box below.

With a partner, discuss how each might lead to arguments – and which you think cause the worst.


time spent together



silly annoyances

household chores



stress and tiredness






They took to this topic with great gusto and it went on for maybe ten minutes. Plenty of personal examples emerged and there was much laughter. I went round listening to different pairs. helping out when they asked how to say particular things or wanted things checked and – as ever – writing things on the board. As things slowly started to wane, and before they started to drag to a half, I stopped and just went through a few things I’d heard, eliciting missing words onto the board to complete gapped sentences.To elicit, I basically retold stories I’d heard, using the students’ names and paraphrasing the stories, glossing the meanings of the missing words and seeing if students knew what I was looking for. This way, I got STEER in steer clear of, EYE TO EYE, want me to (although FIRST I got WANT THAT I, and we discussed the different patterns from Romance languages to English here) and WAGES. I ended up giving up and giving them an allowance and pressurizing. The last sentence you can see below was what a Chinese student, Xuesong, had said happens with her and her husband and this was their way of avoiding arguments about money. Juanita, the Colombian woman, laughed and said it was like giving him pocket money, while Nicolai, the German guy looked distinctly unsettled by such a prospect! Here’s the board after this slot:

I felt we’d done enough on all of this and wanted to move on, so decided to skip exercise C:

C                  Which of the things above do you argue about most often? Who with? How do the arguments usually end?

I then said they were going to hear two conversations involving conflicts between people and that they should listen to find out what the relationship was, what the conflicts were about and how they ended.


You are going to hear two conversations in which conflicts occur.

A                  Ω Listen and answer these questions about each conversation.

1                  What’s the relationship between the people?

2                  What are the conflicts about?

3                  What happens in the end?

I played the CD once and put students together in pairs to compare ideas, before eliciting answers.

You can hear the first conversation here . . . and the second one here.

They’d basically got the whole idea after one listen, though there was some discussion about whether or not the first conversation was flatmates or a mother, father and son. In the end, one student pointed out, in families it’s unlikely a son would borrow money to pay the gas bill and that they sounded too equal to be parents and a kid. I asked if the class wanted the conversations again, but they seemed quite happy to move on.

I pointed them to the NATIVE SPEAKER note which they read:

Native Speaker English

I hasten to add

To clarify or comment on a previous statement, we can use I hasten to add. It can be used either formally or jokingly.

A:                  No. I do understand I made a mistake.

B:                  And not for the first time, I hasten to add.

I was absolutely furious about it  – not that I’m normally an angry person, I should hasten to add!

And I then gave one more example: my co-author Andrew had been reminiscing to some friends in the pub about an early conference we both did where we had to share a room and had said ONLY A ROOM – NOT A BED, I HASTEN TO ADD! This seemed to garner a few chuckles and we moved on.

I explained that next we were going to be looking at ways of giving negative or private information. The students read the explanation box and then looked through 1-6 in exercise A.

Developing conversations

Giving negative / private information

When we give negative or private information, we often use sentence starters that warn the listener about what’s to come

To be frank with you, I’m really not sure there’s a future for you here at all.

A                  Work in pairs. Imagine the sentence starters below were all used in an office over the space of a week. Complete each one in a humorous or serious way.

1                  I don’t mean to be rude, but …………………………………………………………………………………… .

2                  To be brutally honest, …………………………………………………………………………………… .

3                  With all due respect, …………………………………………………………………………………… .

4                  To put it bluntly, …………………………………………………………………………………… .

5                  If you want my honest opinion, …………………………………………………………………………………… .

6                  Between you and me, and this shouldn’t go any further, …………………………………………………………………………………… .

Some students asked about brutally and I explained that if you’re brutally honest, you’re so honest it might hurt the person you’re talking to, in the same way of putting things bluntly might, and added that if someone is beaten up, it can be a brutal attack – and that you can use a blunt instrument like a hammer or something to attack people. Students then discussed in pairs possible things that might be said in an office using these sentence starters. There were plenty of very very funny ideas, and after a few minutes I rounded up a few. This led to much inter-class banter. Xuesong shouted out I don’t mean to be rude, Ryan, but your shirt is so old-fashioned. Here’s the offending (lilac) shirt:

There was a little ‘cross cultural’ interlude where I joked with Nicolai that even though the stereotype of the Germans here is of a blunt, direct people, all you needed to do was signpost clearly that this was what was coming by saying To put it bluntly and then you could then be as rude as you liked! He joked that we must obviously be a bit thick if we need to told this, but this was fine by him. With the final sentence starter, the gossipy one, another student suggested Between you and me, and this shouldn’t go any further, Ryan is married. When I asked why this needed to be so secret, it was suggested that it was because he had not told his secretary, who was the recipient of this piece of gossip. Nicolai then added Between you and me, and this shouldn’t go any further, I saw Ryan in the street with . . . and said the name of a colleague who’s fairly openly gay. A couple of students sniggered, some rolled their eyes, but most looked bemused and wondered what the comment implied. Time to move swiftly on, I felt, so we skipped exercise B and hit the grammar.

Wish comes up a lot in conflict conversations, particularly I wish you would . . . / I wish you wouldn’t . . . but this exercise includes this within a more general overview and consolidation of the structure. I told the students we’d be doing a bit of work on wish and that they’d heard several examples in the conversations. They were instructed to sort the sentences in exercise A into three groups of two sentences and then told to compare their ideas and explain the differences in form and function.

Grammar I wish

A                  Divide the sentences below into three groups of two – according to the time the sentences focus on.

1                  I just wish you were a bit less selfish, to be honest!

2                  I wish I’d never started this conversation.

3                  I wish I didn’t have such a short temper!

4                  I wish he’d understand that people do have exes!

5                  I wish I’d told him what I thought of him earlier, to be honest!

6                  I wish you wouldn’t always make fun of me in front of all my friends.

B                  Compare your ideas with a partner and explain the different uses of wish.

I elicited the answers. There was considerable debate about the answers and we ended up checking the form and function for each one, much like this:

Me: So it’s 1 and 3. When’s it talking about? Now or the past?

Student: The past. past simple.

Me: Yeah, but it’s about now, or generally, always.

Student: So it’s like a second conditional.

Me: Yes, kind of. And what’s the form? I wish plus?

Student: Past simple

Me: OK, and it’s 2 and?

Student: 4.

Me: yeah? What do you think the ‘d is in 4?

Student: Had.

me: yeah, but then it’d be had understood, not ‘d understand.

student: so 4 is would?

me: yeah, so it’s 2 and 5. Talking about now or the past?

Student: past.

Me: yeah, it’s regrets about things you did – or didn’t do – in the past. And what’s the form? I wish plus?

Student: past perfect.

Me: OK, so 4 and 6 go together. What’s the context in 4? Why would someone say this?

Student: Maybe someone’s boyfriend is angry that she’s still in touch with her ex boyfriends . .

Student: And finds her chatting on facebook!

Me: Are you talking from experience here? (laughter) So anyway, 4 and 6, yeah. I wish he would understand . . . I wish you wouldn’t make fun of me. WE use this one to talk about annoying habits that other people have that we want them to change, but suspect they won’t! It’s always when we’re annoyed with people, this one.

Here’s my fairly poor boardwork that emerged from this. Not wonderfully revealing, but sufficient in the circumstances as the book’s examples carried the weight, really.

Students then tried exercise C, which was a controlled practice of this.

C                  Complete the sentences below by adding the correct forms of the verbs in the box.

be                  can                  have                  leave                                    sent                  think

1                  I wish I ………………………. longer to stop and talk, but I’m afraid I’m actually in a bit of rush.

2                  I wish I ………………………. her that email! It just made everything worse.

3                  I wish you ………………………. your things lying around all over the place all the time. It’s so annoying!

4                  I just wish I ………………………. turn back time and start again.

5                  You always talk such rubbish! I wish you ………………………. sometimes before you open your mouth!

6                  It’s the fact that you lied to me that really hurts. I just wish you ………………………. more honest with me!

They tried on their own for a few minutes and then discussed in pairs, talking particularly about any differences. When I rounded up. I elicited the answers, wrote them up and again concept checked everything. Like this:

So . . . number 1? I wish I? yeah, HAD longer – talking about when? OK. Now. Good. And 2? HAD sent or HADN’T, then? OK, HADN’T. So what really happened? Yeah, I sent her the email and it exacerbated the situation, made things worse. And 3? WOULDN’T LEAVE. Right. So you have this annoying habit of always leaving your things lying around all over the place and I wish you wouldn’t do it.

Finally, I told students to look at exercise D, the personalised practice and said they’d be writing their own examples in a minute, but first I’d give a few examples of my own.

D                  Write down five things you wish using the patterns below. Explain your sentences to a partner.

1                  I wish I’d never …………………………………………………….. .

2                  I wish I wasn’t …………………………………………………….. .

3                  I sometimes wish I could …………………………………………………….. .

4                  I wish my …………………….. wouldn’t …………………………………………………….. .

5                  I wish my ……………………….. would sometimes ……………………………………………………..

I then told brief anecdotes about how I wish I’d never started smoking, how I wished I could speak more languages and how I wished my wife wouldn’t always nag me about all the things she wishes I would stop doing! I gave students a few minutes to write and went round helping out as best I could. This was hard as there are 13 students each writing five sentences. I then got students up and asked them to find a new partner and explain as much as they could about their regrets. Several key problem areas soon emerged – the perennial confusion between wish and hope (I wish me and my husband wouldn’t get divorced!), the over-extension of would to talk about yourself (I wish I wouldn’t be so fat), tense confusion for different times . . . and just general uncertainty about how to say particular things. I monitored and wrote a load of sentences up[, with the grammar parts missing. I stopped students and re-told various wishes, paraphrasing and using student’s names as I did so. I elicited and double-checked the grammar and we ended up with this:

I pointed out that fact SO is often used in negative wishes – I wish it didn’t get so cold in the winter, I wish I wasn’t so bad with money, etc.

This had now been two hours straight, so we took a break.

After the break I told them it was time for the progress test.

Quick as anything, one student shot back: I wish we didn’t have to do it!

And that, folks, is that. I didn’t quite finish the double-page spread, which was all leading towards a couple of conflict situation role-plays, which one of my colleagues will start off with tomorrow. The homework was more work on WISH and to prepare what they want to say for the role-play, thinking about incorporating as much of the language from today as they can.

Hope this has proved interesting.

It’s nearly killed me writing it.

Looking forward to seeing your comments and questions!

Activating memory in the language classroom

Or testing, in other words!

After my last couple of posts, I have a horrible feeling that I’ve probably painted myself as some loveless, joyless evil testing freak whose students do little else apart from get made to feel inadequate about failing to fully recall all the meaningless nonsense they’re forced to parrot-learn for the endless assessments. Nothing could be further from the truth (I hope!)

For me, when I think – and blog – about testing, it’s far more to do with the endless number of ways we as teachers bring back taught language and check the degree to which it has been retained. This is something I spoke in detail about at IATEFL Brighton 2011, and I thought it worth reproducing the talk in full here, so that folk can get a clearer idea of what kind of (soft) testing I’m suggesting we ought to be doing if we’re really going to help our students learn language better. Here goes . . .

How many of you are familiar with the musical CATS? And how many of you have seen it? OK, how many of you are familiar with the song MEMORY, one of the highlights of the show, apparently? Now . . . how many of you have heard that song more than once? More than twice? More than ten times? Yeah, me too – more than a hundred perhaps, and that’s despite me hating the song and having never seen the show! Final question – how many of you can remember the lyrics?

Me neither. Apart from “Memory / All alone in the moonlight” – and that’s the case for the vast majority of folk, apart from perhaps the odd Andrew Lloyd Webber fanatic here and there. Yet presumably most of us here understand the bulk of the words when we hear them – and we’ve clearly all heard them many, many times!

So what’s going on here? I’m reminded of something one of my Chinese students very perceptively observed a couple of years ago. “Understanding English,” she said “is very easy, but remembering it,” she continued, “is very hard.” And ain’t that the truth!

Hearing – or reading – something and understanding it is obviously a prerequisite for learning to occur, but by the same measure, it’s clearly not enough! For things to move anywhere our long-term memories clearly something else has to occur. What that something else might be seems to have something to do with NOTICING – and then to do with repeat exposure (and repeat re-noticing).

On discovering that my main foreign language is Indonesian, my students often ask me if it was a hard language to learn – to which I reply that learning it fifteen years or so ago was easy, but keeping it fresh in the memory is the killer. It seems to me that we do not place enough stress of memorizing in class – and we do not talk enough about the sheer memory load that studying a foreign language places on the learner, or about what we can do as teachers to ease this burden on our students.

The amount of language a student needs to come to terms with if they are to become even relatively proficient is terrifying. To get close to B2 / C1, you need something like three or four thousand of the most high frequency words as well as a whole slew of other less frequent items as well. With around 15,000 words you should be able to understand around 98% of all texts you encounter – though of course it’s far more complicated than simply knowing the words; you need to know the multiplicity of different ways in which those words interact with other words. An educated native speaker, though, is estimated to have acquired considerable information about the various uses of around 20,000 words by the time they leave college. In classroom terms, most coursebooks have between 12 and 20 units. Let’s say they have an average of 15. That must mean we need to aim for FIFTY new items per unit at the very minimum – and that even if we achieve that target, we’ve still only covered 3000 by the time students enter Advanced!

And really we need to do more than simply REMEMBER the language we meet – we need to internalize it and proceduralise it and make it part of our automatic behaviour. In much the same way as when we drive a car, we’re not really REMEMBERING what to do – we’re simply doing what we’ve trained ourselves to do automatically over many many repetitive encounters with car and road, so with language we need to move it from new and understood to noticed and then to learned and patterned behaviour.

I’m sure all of you will be familiar with the sinking feeling you get when you encounter words or phrases that have a familiar feel to them, but whose meaning seems to have escaped you! As teachers, I believe we have a responsibility to intervene in this process of forgetting. Research seems to suggests that the bulk of any forgetting we do happens soon after any learning session, and after that first major loss any subsequent losses occur more slowly. However, spending time on encouraging memory and getting students to ‘perform’ memorization in class, which is really the main area I’m interested in exploring here, is complicated by the fact that memorization has almost become a dirty word in ELT. Little stress is placed on it during training courses and concepts such as learning things by heart are becoming ever more unfashionable – and this is despite the fact that the ability to remember and access language under the pressures of real-time communication is clearly at the heart of what makes good language learners good!

Where memory IS discussed in ELT circles it is mainly with regard to ways we can encourage students to remember language outside of the classroom – tips about approaches to learning vocabulary studied of the ‘put Post-It notes with new words on different thins in your house’ / ‘Re-write your classroom notes every day in a new vocabulary notebook and re-order the language in a way that best suits you’ variety – and I’m not saying these are not useful things for us to suggest students do. Indeed, in a week or so I may even post up the ten top tips we give our students at University of Westminster to encourage them to take a bit more responsibility when it comes to trying to shoulder the burden of remembering.

Perhaps the other common way we’re encouraged to think about memory is via revision and recycling games that we might begin classes with: the one step back that we take in the first fifteen or twenty minutes of our classes before pushing on with the two steps forward. Again, I’m not saying these activities are wrong either. They’re clearly a central part of teaching and anyone who doesn’t do at least some of these kinds of activities is inadvertently committing what they have previously taught to the dustbins of memory.

However, neither or these areas are really what I want to focus on today as I think they’re at least occasionally discussed within ELT circles. What I want to explore instead is ways of activating memory in class – or, if you prefer, ways of encouraging students to demonstrate – or perform – what they’ve already learned, in non-threatening, fun, motivating, affirming kinds of ways, but also in ways that send the message to students that noticing and remembering is central to what learning a language is all about.

So, the first area I want to look at today is what we do as teachers when we are leading students into – and then rounding up from – speaking tasks that our students do.

Have a look at this SPEAKING practice activity that comes from OUTCOMES Intermediate. It follows on from some work on reported speech and a subsequent presentation of and exploration of the patterns that often follow common reporting verbs – and is designed as a personalised practice of the language just studied.

C            Work in pairs. Discuss these questions. When was the last time someone you know:

  • offered to do something for you?
  • promised to do something?
  • insisted on doing something?
  • persuaded you to do something?
  • told you (not) to do something?

Now spend a couple of minutes thinking about how YOU would set this up if you were in teaching it to one of your Intermediate-level classes.

OK, I’m now going to try something I’ve never done before and which I hope doesn’t come across as arrogant in any way as I’m certainly not suggesting this is the only one in to this exercise – or even that I’d always do it in the exact same way every time I was teaching – but here’s a little clip of me with my class last autumn doing this exact exercise. I just felt that it was slightly odd that we spend so much time discussing classroom practice and yet so rarely actually ever get to see any occurring online (or in conference talks, for that matter), so here we go:

Now I’m guessing many of you also had the idea of not only setting the task up, but of also modeling it – and if you did, then it’s always nice to hear your own ideas validated by someone else; but I think that modeling is actually one of the great unheralded arts of teaching – and also that it lays a central role in activating memory in class.

The model I gave here was based on something one of my Japanese students in the class, Take, had mentioned much earlier on, at the start of the lesson, when students were chatting about their weekends, so there was already some recycling there, as well as some obvious expansion. It seems simple on first inspection, but is actually achieving three or four ends, I think: firstly, it’s giving students a clear idea of exactly what kind of turn you want them to now take when they attempt to relate tales from their own lives – and it’s validating a culture of story-telling and anecdote-sharing within the group. Secondly, and more pertinently for the purposes of this post, it’s exposing them to plenty of useful lexis and grammar, both language that I know they’ll have encountered before, and also language that they might now be more able to use themselves in their own Student Talking Time.

As you get more experienced at doing these things, you use your voice more consciously to draw attention to language, and you become more adept at ensuring the language is not only graded correctly, but also contains plenty you’ve already taught before, thus forcing it back into students’ consciousness, and this is what I’m doing when I’m saying:

He needed to buy a ticket to get into town

He had no idea how to work the machine

The couple behind him asked him if he spoke German

They offered to help him, they offered to buy the ticket for him

It’s a kind of verbal prompt to notice, to pay attention, to remember, to listen, to process.

I’m sure many of you are aware of Stephen Krashen’s acquisition hypothesis, where he puts forward the theory that students need to be fairly consistently be exposed to what he terms i + 1. Well, cunningly, he never really goes into much detail about what the i might involve. I’d like to suggest that this kind of modelling – where you take language just studied and explored and then use it to tell an anecdote of a very similar kind to the one you’re then asking students to tell – might well constitute something approaching this formulation.

So, this is one, perhaps relatively indirect, way of bringing taught language back to students’ minds. As we’ll see, what I’m going to suggest should be done FOLLOWING on from student talking time is a more interactive way of doing something similar.

Again, to lead in to the clip I’d like to show, just think about how you usually round up speaking slots: what you say to end things, what kind of round up you usually conduct, whether or not you use the board, if so – what for, etc.

OK, you’re going to see a brief two-minute round-up that followed on from a speaking students did in response to a little speaking activity from the same unit of OUTCOMES. Students had studied some vocabulary for describing accidents and then had to choose one of four cartoons showing various accidents occurring. They pretended they were one of the people depicted and explained their accidents to each other in pairs. Here’s the round-up that followed:

Now, this way of rounding up by focusing NOT on errors as such, but rather on providing better ways of saying things the students had been trying to say  – and on how the conversations may actually develop in terms of responses and follow-up comments not only brings the focus of the classroom back to the teacher and back to language after a speaking slot, but also it’s a chance for students to show what they’ve learned already, and for this learning to be validated by the teacher. With the second piece here, the thing about having stitches and sympathising by saying You poor thing and showing your scar, this is all language I know we’d previously looked at in an earlier class and that students could come up with up here, thus consolidating their knowledge. At the same time, it allowed covert recycling of HAD TO and I KNOW – an important response phrase for my Japanese students who tend to translate I THINK SO directly from Japanese.

The first piece here, the beehive, came directly from something students had been trying to say and so was something I perceived as an immediate need in this context – as opposed to something I’d been consciously planning to teach. In this instance, it wasn’t something students knew, though without asking, I couldn’t have known that of course, but by taking them to the place where it was needed, it’s still satisfying to then be able to provide it for them – whilst also getting to covertly recycle MUST’VE and SOMEHOW – as well as CHASE and STING in my talk around these examples.

Obviously, this kind of language-focused whole-sentence / extracts from conversation round-up doesn’t have to ONLY occur after speaking slots; it can also happen as we’re going through the answers to exercises the students have been working on. The teacher elicits answers from the class and, through the judicious use of questions, both explores and expands upon the language that’s been studied. Here’s a quick example of what I’m talking about, where as a teacher you provide MORE THAN just the answers.

Here’s a short round-up after an exercise where students were practicing language for describing cause and effect in relation to diseases and illnesses – and had been talking about the following:

C            Work in pairs. Use the patterns in exercise B to talk about what you think are the causes/results of these medical problems:

asthma                                    migraines                                    diabetes                                    rash                                    malaria

sneezing                                    insomnia                                    stress                                    HIV                                    upset stomach

Again, it’s EXPLICIT revision of things like transmit and run down that had come up earlier in the course, as well as covert revision of the present simple passive and the present perfect continuous.

With this kind of round-up, you basically win on both fronts: either students know the language and feel good about being seen to remember it – and you get to use the democratic, open access process of asking the whole class for language – and using the stronger students to feed the weaker ones, in a kind of Robin Hood style, whilst also giving them whole sentence, fully grammaticalised input that has covert revision purposes as well – or else you create the need for the language and create a feeling of completion by then providing it.

Obviously, to get good at doing this takes time and needs practice. Working out which language to focus on – and being able to choose words which are the only plausible answers – is hard. When I look back at some of my early attempts to do this, I can sadly recall such gems as the following:

I’m lucky, because I’ve got a really ……………. job.

I have quite a lot of ……………., which is great.

so I’m not saying this is easy – and I’m not saying it means students automatically remember everything, but research into how memory works does seem to back up these kinds of approaches.

Research into how we remember things best seems to suggests several things:

– things that are stored together tend to be retrieved together, so the mind tends to automatically ‘chunk’ memories in terms of relationships

– distributed practice – exposure over time interspersed among other items – tends to result in more effective memory retention that massed practice – numerous consecutive exposure to an item

– sentences are easier to learn if the student meets them in a meaningful context, possibly because such contexts require more complex processing and therefore greater engagement with the items in question

– we seem to learn best when there’s not only meaningful engagement, but also a strong personal stake

One thing you might want to try and do, if this kind of reformulation is not something that’s part and parcel of your everyday teaching yet, is CHEAT! The way you do this is BEFORE you get students doing a speaking task in class, you sit at home – or in the staff room – and predict what students might say in response to the task. Actually say – or write – what you imagine might be said. Then select some choice vocabulary – or grammar you want to just briefly go over again – from all of this and SCRIPT your boardwork in advance. You then lead into this by simply saying OK. STOP THERE. THAT WAS GREAT. LET’S LOOK AT HOW TO SAY SOME OF WHAT YOU WERE TRYING TO SAY BETTER. I HEARD SOMEONE SAY . . .

So let’s move on to consider another way in which we can encourage the remembering and repetition / performance of chunks and wholes – TEST AND REMEMBER. This is something we’ve tried hard to build into the classroom material we’ve written for both the OUTCOMES series and also for INNOVATIONS, but is, I suppose, something that could be adapted and used with any material, though I think it does work best if you’re asking students to try to recall whole sentences / responses.

Basically, all that happens is students do an exercise in a coursebook that involves maybe matching questions and answers or statements and possible responses . . . or else perhaps the beginning of sentences with the endings or verbs and possible collocations, or matching descriptions of an event or thing or crime, say, to the actual names of the things. The teacher then goes through the answers, working on any language that’s caused any problems, asking questions about it, providing extra examples and maybe writing up some extra boardwork to consolidate all of this. Then, quite simply, give students a minute (or two minutes) to remember the language from the exercise; then put students in pairs – As and Bs – and tell B to close their books. A reads out their sentences, B tries to say the correct responses – and A corrects them if needs be. After a couple of minutes, stop the students and change the pairs round, so this time B is testing and A is trying to remember.

There are several advantages to this kind of activity: firstly, it helps you deal with mixed-level classes in that in every pair, you can always make the stronger student of the two Student B – the one that closes their book FIRST – meaning Student A gets more time / support before they’re out on the spot. It’s also something students can test themselves on at home – and that can easily be recycled the following lesson, either in pairs again or simply with the teacher playing the role of Student A and the whole class shouting out the responses that B said the lesson before.  Finally, yet again, it sends subliminal messages to the students that it’s not enough to DO exercises, practise them in class and move on: they have to notice and try to remember the language, and this process can extend over time.

One final thing I often do in class is probably worth mentioning here is re-eliciting texts that students have read – or listened to. It’s often a nice way of rounding off one section of a lesson – or a lesson itself – and is yet another language-focused hassle-free way of allowing students to show you what they can remember. All you do is basically put students in pairs and tell them to compare what they remember about the last text you did in class . . . and then elicit the thing from the whole class, but insisting on correct lexis and grammar, so for instance, in the class you’ve watched extracts from, the class heard a conversation about an accident that happened during a cycling holiday. At the end of the class, I run through the stages already outlined and then start to elicit, targeting things I want to go over again, so for example:

Ss: They went round a corner

T: Yeah, OK. so the accident when they were going round a . . .  not a corner, but a ….? A BEND, yeah, and if it’s the kind of bend you can’t see round, it’s a very MMMMM bend – TIGHT BEND. OK, so they were going round a tight bend and then what?

Ss: The guy went from the road and to the bush.

T: OK, yeah. He went OFF the road and INTO some bushes and HURT HIMSELF pretty badly.

This kind of group re-telling essentially attempts to disrupt the students’ interlanguage and bring it face to face with language a step up from there; it removes them from the comfort zone of being able to report things understood in language already learned – and instead pushes them to start to try and take on some of the new language and appropriate it fro their own purposes.

Once you do this kind of thing a fair few times, students start to realize that not only do you want them to pay attention to and try to recall CONTENT, but that you want the language as well . . . and students generally get much better at reflecting upon and then resurrecting this in the classroom, much to everyone’s satisfaction.

One final point to make here about the nature of memory is the fact that research seems to back up the notion that not only can people learn more language from our classes at a faster rate than perhaps more conservative commentators have previously suggested, but that teachers beliefs about how much – and how well – learners are capable of learning also seems to have a fairly sizeable impact upon how well they do. In short, if we believe that our students are capable of doing the kinds of things I’ve been talking about, then they may well become so. If, on the other hand, we don’t, then we may well be damning them with our low expectations.