Category Archives: Teaching lexis

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

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

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

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

Justin Bieber Sighting In London - February 25, 2013

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


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

And that was that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What have corpora ever done for us?

Following a conversation over on the facebook page I use for talking about teaching and language, I’ve decided to post a talk I did at IATEFL many moons ago. I do remember, with a faint smile, that Dave Wills himself came along to watch this one, but at some point became overcome with either rage or tedium and flounced out, thus allowing me to make the cheap jibe about Elvis having left the building before carrying on. Were this post to generate even a tenth of that heady level of excitement, I’d be delighted!

Written maybe ten years ago, at the height of the corpora promo boom, it was intended as a partially tongue-in-cheek critical overview of corpora linguistics. And yes, for those of you that were wondering, the title WAS inspired by this rather splendid Monty Python sketch:

With that in place, here goes nothing . . .

The use of computers to store and help analyse language has obviously revolutionised many aspects of language teaching, and corpora linguists have become an ever-present feature at IATEFL and other similar conferences. Obviously, much good has come from this. We have had a whole new generation of much-improved dictionaries, all of which contain better information about usage, collocation and frequency; superb new reference books such as the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English have been made possible, and, perhaps inadvertently, corpora linguistics helped to launch the Lexical Approach and to thus help to move language at least some way back towards the centre of language teaching. Nevertheless, it seems to me that despite all these advances, corpora linguistics has also had several negative side-effects on the way teachers perceive their roles, and that they have actually enslaved us in ways which are not entirely healthy. I would like to move on to consider the ways in which I feel this has occurred.

The fallacy of frequency

Corpora linguists repeatedly promote their products with often highly-detailed reference to frequency counts and the idea that frequency is central has become a common one. However, should a Pre-Intermediate learner wish to be passed the salt over dinner, simply knowing the infrequent item ‘Salt’ will facilitate this in a way that knowing the far more frequent ‘Could’, ‘you’, ‘pass’, ‘the’ and ‘please’ would not. Generally, it’s not the most common words which carry core meanings; rather, it’s the far rarer items that do. Simply knowing the 800 most common words in the language makes you only able to say a lot about not very much. In the same way, failure to learn word which may well be low-frequency generally, but which are possibly much higher frequency within specific types of conversations condemns you to not being able to say very much about a lot!! Frequency tells us nothing more than what is frequent. It cannot tell us what’s useful, what’s necessary or even what’s teachable.

There are deeper problems here to do with the way in which frequency is actually calculated. Corpora remains word-obsessed and the process of lemmatisation compounds this. Hence, an idiom like ‘You’re a dark horse’ is entered not as a two-word idiom, but rather as one example of ‘dark’ and another of ‘horse, thus defaulting on two fronts.  Similarly, plural nouns are currently counted as other examples of singular ones, which is a rather major oversight. Is, for instance, the singular of ‘Many Happy Returns’ ‘A Happy Return’? ‘Meetings’ is not simply  the plural of ‘meeting’, and it collocates with different words. Finally, knowing that, say, ‘get’ is a very common word does little to help teachers know whether ‘get on with it’ is more frequent that’ Let’s get down to business’. Sadly, until corpora start sorting by chunk they will remain of limited relevance.

The fallibility of human endeavour.

That corpora need to be approached cautiously and with one’s intuition fully tuned is made apparent by a cursory glance at the word ‘thaw’ on several published CDs. Should one access the word, wishing to know whether snow melts or thaws, one would be surprised to learn that a far more frequent example of the word, and thus – if we follow the logic of corpora linguists – a more useful collocate for our students is actually John, as in John Thaw, the late, great British actor.

Similarly, I once saw a Jane Willis talk wherein she suggested that one of the most common three-word lexical items in the English language was ‘Princess of Wales’. It was only when pushed during questioning that she actually admitted that the corpora she had taken this data from was based almost exclusively on a couple of radio phone-in programmes. In the same, way, the actual construction of corpora-based materials – dictionaries and the like – also inevitably involve a degree of hammering out by researchers, often by means of a vote or a fudge. Corpora are by necessity human constructs based on limited samples of data, are easily skewed by input and thus are best viewed sceptically.

The limitations of what corpora can offer

While spoken language, conversation, may well form the basis – even the majority – of many corpora, what corpora can’t show us is what typical conversations look like. It’s not possible, for instance, to access ten typical conversations had by people talking about what they did last night or to look at the 20 most common ways of answering the question “So what do you do for a living, then?”. As such, if we want to present our students with models of the kinds of conversations they themselves might actually want to have, we are forced to fall back on our (actually ample) experience of such conversations in order to script them. However, I would argue that it is precisely because we have got such broad experience of such conversations that we do tend to know how they work and sound and look.

For teaching purposes. we need to be able to script conversations that aren’t so culturally and spatially bound as to exclude students; we need to ensure the conversations students are exposed to still somehow facilitate intra-class bonding. Input needs to be proto-typical and to include items which are easy for us to systematise and for learners to appropriate and assimilate. Corpora cannot do this for us.

Corpora and the non-native speaker teacher

It is often claimed – mainly by those who are employed to make, package and sell corpora – that corpora are an invaluable aid for the non-native speaker teacher. I would personally argue that the opposite is far too often true and that as they stand, corpora massively favour native speakers.

One understandable reaction many teachers, both native and non-native, have to the notion that they should teach more spoken English is the ‘but I’d never say this or that bit of language” response when faced with a spoken text. Ironically, written texts never elicit a similar “But I’d never write that myself” response, and there are several reasons for this, I feel. There is possibly an assumption that writing is a more creative realm where anything goes; there’s also the fact that the grammar and the lexis of the written language have already been codified and disseminated and are thus more familiar to teachers; thirdly, I think, there’s the fact that we pin our identities on our speech – our idiolect, our regional, class-based, age-oriented, in-group, gender-based grasp of lexis and grammar – far more profoundly than we do on what we write. We are so aware of differences in the way we speak that we usually fail to notice the massive similarities. A good example of this is the fact that every EFL book which focuses on the UK / US divide fails to note that the vast majority of the language used in both countries is remarkably similar, and instead frets over the present perfect, sidewalks versus pavements and the correct pronunciation of aluminium. Yet for every “It can out of the blue” / “It came out of left-field’ divergence, there must surely be ten other idioms we all have in common.

Given this, I personally feel it doesn’t take much to persuade non-native speaker teachers to stick to the already familiar, tried-and-tested formula of written texts and comprehension questions and structural grammar. By spending so much time pointing out relatively obscure quirks and neologisms, such as the fact that ‘like’ is being increasingly used to report speech (as in “He was like ‘Hi’ so I was like ‘Bye’) , corpora linguists are inadvertently making spoken English more of a foreign language for non-native speaker teachers than is perhaps wise for people who claim to believe – as I do – that spoken English should become much more a part of General English than is currently the case. Too relentless a focus on the new, the odd, the interesting, the different obscures the wealth of English that unites us all.

I also feel that it is not only many non-native speaker teachers who would never use ‘like’ in this way, but also many native speakers too. The vast majority of language teachers do NOT need corpora to tell us that this is a relatively unuseful piece of lexis, so long as it remains still relatively unused. Indeed, my own rule of thumb would be that if YOU don’t say it, don’t TEACH it. English as a foreign language is NOT English as the corpora knows it. If you believe, as I do, that the kind of model conversations coursebooks provide for teaching purposes should be better modelled on the information provided by corpora than is currently the case, then I find it hard to see how you couldn’t also support the idea that corpora specialists should concentrate more on insights which will be of direct use to coursebook writers and teachers alike. Indeed, given the problematic status of spoken language within the classroom at present, I’d go so far as to say assert that failure to do anything less serves to sabotage attempts to spread a methodology based on spoken language (and here, of course, I’m compelled to acknowledge my own interest in this area as a coursebook writer).

I find it particularly interesting to note that the constructors of corpora – or at least their backers – seem as yet very reluctant to work on a corpus of English as used by non-native speakers. Obviously, this would be in essence the same corpus, but with much left out. This is precisely the point : that which is left out by competent non-native speakers has no real place in most – and especially most pre-Advanced – teaching materials.

Animal Farm (or Beware of the oppressive tendencies of those who come claiming to liberate us!!)

It would be churlish to deny that corpora have provided us with some useful insights into such features of language as the fact that would is three times more common when talking about past habits than used to is, but at the same time it must also be added that the way in which corpora have been presented has all-too often intimidated us into pretending that we didn’t already know much – if not most – of what they confirm. For example, Mike McCarthy, at IATEFL Brighton 2001 spent half an hour blinding us with the statistics that showed – entirely unsurprisingly – that ‘take the mickey’ is far more common than ‘mickey-taker’ or ‘mickey-taking’. Surely any fluent speaker of the language could have guessed this (dubiously relevant) fact themselves, based on their own intuitions about the language.

The relentless emphasis on the finality of corporal truth no only denies the reality of the classroom practitioner who has to get in there each and every day and try to give their students information about the language being studied, but also refuses to acknowledge the fact that we all have heard and read millions and millions more words than any corpus will ever hold and thus have good hunches about words as a result. Sure, hunches about language can be wrong, but more often than not, they aren’t. I personally really resent the notion that not only are corpora useful for showing us the errors of our ways, but also for confirming when we’re right. The implication is that we are not right UNTIL we’ve checked! This way lies madness – and the deskilling of us all!!


Obviously, it is important that teachers do keep themselves up-to-date with corpora findings and adapt their understanding of the way language works accordingly. Here I totally agree with Ron Carter that one thing corpora has helped us become more aware of is the fact that grammar is much broader than sentence-based / tense-based grammar would seem to suggest. Words have their own micro-grammar and so lexis needs to continuously be grammaticalised in typical ways. Nevertheless, it is also vital that teachers are encouraged to believe that they can tap into and trust their own inner corpora.

If Carter and McCarthy can proclaim that the more students are encouraged and trained to notice, the more they actually will notice, then the same much surely be true for us as teachers. Indeed, the true sign of corpora-work well done is its own eventual redundancy. This really brings me to my final point – one of the great ironies of corpora is that they have actually unwittingly made teachers more intuitive, not less. What corpora have done is to place language back at the centre of classrooms and, as such, we all now have to think much more about how we actually use language.

To a degree, corpora and teachers exist in a parent-child relationship, and many teachers are now ready to leave home. Thanks Mum and Dad – you’ve done a great job, we may be back to visit every now and then, but we’ve basically already got the message!

However, lest we forget, corpora are bank-rolled by major publishing houses and have endless spin-off publications derived from them in an effort to recoup much of this investment. As such, maybe I’m expecting too much by asking those in receipt of the publisher’s pound to loose the reins on much of their power and place it back where it rightly belongs – back in the hands of the humble classroom practitioners!!!

Technology and principles in language teaching

Over the coming months, I’m going to try and start blogging about a whole range of different websites and technologies that I’ve been looking at and experimenting with in the classroom, and to offer up a critical eye on their usefulness.

To get started on this particular strand, though, here’s a guest post by my co-author on the OUTCOMES And INNOVATIONS series, Andrew Walkley, which draws heavily on a talk he did at Glasgow IATEFL this year and which frames where I think we both feel the whole discussion about technology in teaching should be headed.

Here goes:

“Technology won’t replace teachers, but teachers who use technology will replace those that don’t!” At least that’s what I was reliably informed by a rather stern and serious ex-colleague of mine about ten years ago. Now many of you reading this may well share her evangelical faith, whilst perhaps some may even believe tech WILL ultimately replace us all. We live in an era in which teachers are regularly pigeonholed as digital non-natives or as digitally illiterate, whilst British Council inspectors visiting schools in the UK often comment negatively on the lack of technology being used both within and outside of the classroom.

The aim of this post is to question these ideas – not out of any inherently anti-technology tendencies, but as a way to consider general principles of teaching – both WITH technology and without – and also to support good low-tech teachers, of whom there are many.

I’m going to be making six main points: using tech in and of itself means neither good nor bad teaching – and in a sense the discussion about the rise of technology has detracted from any wider discussion of principles; technology has created a burgeoning cult of the amateur – and the pseudo-democratic rhetoric that has facilitated this has the potential to ultimately backfire on us all; tech has ushered in a glut of so-called authentic texts – videos, websites, newspaper articles and so on – and I’ll be arguing that this isn’t necessarily a good thing; fourthly, I’ll ponder the problem of price. Even if you believe that tech and content CAN be welded together well, the issue of who pays – and how – is a huge one. Next up, I’ll be suggesting that technology isn’t INHERENTLY motivating. Any of you believing it to be so may well be better off developing other, broader, approaches to motivating your students! Nor, sadly, is technology any kind of magic bullet. It will not cure all our students’ ills – and can never hide the harsh reality that there are NO short-cuts in language learning and teaching! Finally, I’ll be suggesting that while we clearly DO need to find ways of increasing interactivity, Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs) are often NOT the solution. I then hope to round off with an overview of some principles that can aid and assist our pursuit of hi-tech classes, but which can also be used to justify the NON use of tech as well.

So let’s begin at the beginning and state that simply using tech does NOT mean good teaching – and, similarly, NOT using it does not mean bad! Bad teachers can be tech users! The tech-obsessed teacher that provided me with my opening quote was on more than one occasion described as ‘cruel’ – an astounding adjective for a teacher to be labelled with, if you stop and think about it! I’ve seen classes suffer slow death by Powerpoint and plenty of examples of students interacting with technology, but NOT with each other! Positive interactivity is in no way tech dependent! Indeed, tech can even get in its way!

The bottom line is that we are LANGUAGE teachers and should, by definition, ensure that first and foremost it is language we are teaching! We shouldn’t be teaching digital literacy because it’s a life skill any more than we should teach cooking. Teaching LANGUAGE to help students use facebook or to send texts in English IS our role, but there’s no essential need for use to be using to technology any more than students have to make dinner in order to learn language for talking about cooking.

Part of the problem is that the vast bulk of new technologies for ELT are based on OLD – and I would argue discredited – theories of language. Many of the sites recommended by gatekeepers such as Russell Stannard and Nik Peachey focus very much on grammar rules and lists of single words and their meanings. Now, whether it’s intentional or otherwise, there are hints of a theoretical approach to language implicit in such sites: grammar and vocabulary are generally seen as being separate; usage is relatively unimportant; lexical sets abound; skills are at least as important as language itself; learning should be ‘fun’! There’s a very restricted view of language and usage inherent in these sites, often predicated on a desire for – and a focus on – creativity. Technology fits this well. It also falls into the trap of believing that more means better: here are fifty-six vocabulary exercises for my students to do online. They’re fun! They’re free. Surely if they do them all, they’ll get better, won’t they? Well, not necessarily.

Part of the problem of course is that ANYONE can write stuff and stick it online. Indeed, it is the two-way relationship, this reciprocity, which is at the heart of Web 2.0’s appeal. Web 2.0 blurs the boundary between user and creator. As a result, all manner of material is written, uploaded and then downloaded and used. Even sites that we tend to see as more reliable feature material that’s clearly been neither edited nor critiqued.

This creeping amateurism is infecting all areas of our profession. Now, of course, you may well believe that none of this matters; that the benefit of this natural abundance is that the cream will float to the top. However, such a view is naive. At best, what this all leads to is a lack of course coherence, an absence of in-built grading and recycling, a bitty-ness, a poverty of materials: all in pursuit of a magical dream, the dream of a free coursebook infinitely malleable and tailored to each individual teacher’s and student’s needs. But let’s get real. A book with the staying power and influence of, say, HEADWAY will NEVER be free. There’s too much labour and craft and research and investment that goes into any coursebook for it to ever be gifted away – and perhaps we would all do well to be more appreciative of what we have, whilst we still have it!

Similarly, as dictionary sales continue to plummet year on year and more and more if us are happy to rely on online amateur knock-offs based on plagiarism and Wikis, we run the very real risk of inadvertently killing off real lexicography for good! To sum up, whilst dictionaries, corpora and – to some extent – coursebooks focus on the most frequent words and collocations in the language, and on how these items are used, web sources are inevitably ungraded, whilst vocabulary tools either give no indication of frequency or else lead students to learn vocabulary extremely inappropriate to their level. Furthermore, pressure for ‘currency’ means template-written exercises rather than crafted materials for learning. Limited training often means unfocused use of web sources and bad learning. So, in short, the cult of the amateur can undermine: expertise, the publishing process, course coherence AND language and learning principles!

The focus on grammar rules + words + skills is not new, of course, and it’s not too far-fetched to suggest that this is one of the reasons why the Web has been embraced. When you focus on rules, interesting contexts and ‘variety’ become more important than possible usage. When skills are separated from language, any text deemed ‘interesting’ will do, irrespective of language. practising the skills become the goal, but as Jim Scrivener pointed out recently, doing things is NOT the same as teaching. The Web is just an infinite range of stuff to do!

One final point to make here is that just because a text is taken from the Web it’s not necessarily any more useful, real, motivating or ‘authentic’ than a text written specifically for language learners. Henry Widdowson and Guy Cook, among a great many others, have questioned the still dominant view of authenticity that exists within ELT. A specially written text that supports language learning and promotes discussion, such as those often found in coursebooks, can be at least as authentic to learners are something sourced online before tomorrow morning’s class! Rather than thinking about texts as authentic or inauthentic, we’d be better off thinking about how we intend to get the class we’re teaching to authenticate texts we are using: using texts to teach language is, in a language classroom, an authentic use; we also need to consider the degree to which the language we are focusing on is relevant – both in terms of its frequency and in terms of the outcomes we are trying to achieve; do students get the chance to exchange ideas and feelings around the text and does it encourage them to relate to culture and / or diversity – and finally, do they get the chance to authenticate (or personalise) the language taught via the text. If so, then all is well and good.

Now, let’s move on to consider time and cost. Sadly, all too often, the time invested in learning about new sites that could be used, in setting things up on them and then running them – which may well involve also training students how to use them – is very much the teacher’s own. I saw a presentation by a young teacher at Spain TESOL last year in which she talked about her blog projects with classes. When questioned, she admitted she only found time to do all of this astounding work by sitting up late into the night and by working weekends. Now, it may well be that these Herculean efforts were met with enthusiasm and gratitude from students, but they nevertheless set all manner of unhealthy precedents: schools take it for granted that motivated teachers will do this stuff in their own time; teachers set themselves high standards they will have to continue to match time-wise to gain repeat satisfaction, and colleagues who DON’T want to invest these hours in tech are made to look bad in comparison – or, even more insultingly, are labelled technologically illiterate!

We need to be clear and vocal about the fact that in order to use tech, teachers need to be trained and need to practise. Writing good materials takes time and expertise. Extending learning outside the classroom often leads to an extension of the teachers’ working day! Advocates of tech often appear to be more or less workaholics, happy to do this for free. Are we really saying that a ‘good’ teacher is only one who is prepared to work overtime for free? On top of all that, there’s the issue of the use of classroom time. Time is often needed to set students up and get them running with tech. Tech breaks down and takes time to fix. These issues are often underplayed in discussions about the use of tech in teaching – and I would argue that we need to be asking whether this precious time could not be put to better use!

Next, I’d like to consider the suggestion that tech motivates. We’re frequently told we’re teaching screenagers, but our students are only screenagers when using facebook to sort out a meet-up with friends or to post comments on recently uploaded photos. They’re NOT screenagers twenty-seven / 365. Indeed, some recent research has questioned even our most basic assumptions about the so-called Net generation. In a report funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, Dr Christopher Jones from The Open University, claimed – and I quote – that “there is no clear link between the use of technologies for social and leisure purposes, and the ability to use them for educational purposes. Neither is there a clear link between using universal technological services, and the ability to use the particular services that students are required to engage with at university. Essentially, being able to use Facebook does not necessarily mean that you’ll be able to effectively search for a journal article. Things that students might do in their social lives do not easily translate into an educational context.”

Some argue that the use of tech is motivating in itself, but the fact that many students simply won’t use a tool or learn online unless it’s assessed suggests otherwise. There’s obviously also no evidence to suggest that students who make use of tech wouldn’t have been motivated to use non-tech solutions to learn in previous lives! Motivated students are motivated full stop.

Regardless of any of this, students do still need to make time to study if they are to learn. And we have a responsibility to ensure they are aware of this. Learning words from a notebook is no more or less easy than accessing them on a mobile. The choice still needs to be made to sit and learn as opposed to doing something more pleasurable or urgent to the person concerned. We might also ask why students come to class at all if technology is really so motivating. Why not just skip class and stay at home and use tech? I’d suggest it’s because they want to set time aside to learn, to have guidance to learning useful things and to have the opportunity to exchange ideas and feelings in English!

Disturbingly, plenty of recent research seems to be suggesting that our increased use of the Internet is actually hindering our attempts to learn better.  In a 2011 paper, Betsy Sparrow from Columbia University claimed Google is altering the way our memories work as we increasingly tend to recall location rather than content. Whilst there may be advantages to this in some fields, in language learning it’s clearly a definite downside! In a similar way, DeStefano and Lefevre, in a 2005 study into reading and recall found that students reading articles online or via Kindle-type devices scored significantly worse than those reading old-fashioned paper versions, both in terms of recall of content and also in terms of noticing of language. They argued that this may well be down to the fact that hypertext serves as a distractor and increases cognitive load. In short, we need to be very wary of assuming fun and easy = better and more effective!

Finally, there’s the myth that somehow technology makes our classrooms more interactive. The great hope has been that the optimistically entitled Interactive whiteboards will facilitate greater interactivity. yet far too often, in classes I observe, IWBs are simply used as giant held-up coursebooks, as another form of crowd control. Interactivity in the classroom has to happen between teacher and students – and among students themselves – not through technology! Partly we can achieve through asking interactive questions!

So there we go. This seems to be where we currently are – and if you’re happy with the status quo, then that’s fine. However, things don’t have to be this way. I’d like to move on to suggest that rather than worrying about tech or non-tech per se, we’d do well to first consider what our basic principles as language teachers are – and to use tech (or, of course, reject it) accordingly.

The Common European Framework suggests some eminently sensible core principles for language teaching, as you can see here. We need to teach towards the business of everyday life, to help students exchange ideas and feelings – and to understand other cultures better. In addition, we need to define worthwhile and realistic objectives, base teaching and learning on the needs, characteristics and resources of learners and develop appropriate methods and materials.

When it comes to principles for learning, I’d suggest there are essentially only five steps that are compulsory: you need to understand meaning, you need to notice language – both form and usage, you need to hear new language, you need to do something with it and then you need to repeat these first four steps!

This leads us on to some core principles for thinking about vocabulary: real usage is important; grammar and vocabulary are inter-dependent; vocabulary is ultimately more important than grammar; better skills come from a better knowledge of language; students’ wants, needs and current abilities should determine level, not a canon of grammar; and frequency and thought about outcomes should determine vocabulary input, rather than just convenient ‘sets’!

Out of all of this, we can extract some kind of mission statement about teaching. At University of Westminster, our ethos is as follows: we need to ensure our classrooms are language rich; that this language is useful; we try to use our students as resources; we encourage the exchange of ideas and feelings; we help students recognise and understand diversity and we make links to continued learning.

And finally, we have some principles for the use – or non-use – of technology: focus first on language and on outcomes; leave space for students; explore tech options, but always ask yourself if the results really merit the time spent on them and if a non-tech approach might not just as effective, if not more so – and don’t let workaholics be our role models.

There is, whether you realise it or not, more to life than teaching!

Horizontal and vertical expansion of lexis

After my first effort at introducing new jargon into a field that, let’s face it, isn’t exactly crying out for more new terminology, you’ll be delighted to know that what follows is my second attempt at introducing new lexical items, nay new CONCEPTS even, into ELT!

As I’m sure you are all aware, for students to truly be able to say they’ve learned a new word to the point where they may actually start being able to use it, they need to know a whole host of things. To mention but a few, there’s pronunciation and / or spelling; word class (is it a noun, an adjective, a verb or what); collocations – the words with which it frequently co-occurs; register – the kind of contexts or genres or situations in which it’ll be most commonly used; related derivations – for instance, knowing that photographer is a derivative of photograph (or vice versa, of course, depending on how you look at things) and so on. However, perhaps the core elements of new lexis that students most need to have clarified for them are meaning – and more particularly the contextual meaning – and the contexts and co-texts of use. This means that whenever we are tackling lexis in class, which is surely in every single class the vast majority of us teach, we have a responsibility to ensure not only that students understand what words mean in the contexts they’re being presented / met, but also that they get to see the contexts in which this new language might be used along with language that may typically occur in these contexts. Exposure to the new lexis in these kind of embedded contexts helps to prime or condition students to expect the lexical items to work if not in exactly the same ways in future then at least in some kind of similar way, in a way that simply learning basic meanings never can.

So far, so obvious, I’m imagining, right? Well, the problem for teachers (and thus, by default, for students) is that the vast majority of coursebooks and classroom materials DON’T actually provide that much in the way  of support with any of these key concerns, and particularly suffer from a lack of attention to (or interest in) common usage. Which is where my concepts for the day come in! Vertical and horizontal expansion of lexis is part of the added value that teachers can bring and part of what students can benefit from in their study of new language.

Let’s explore how this might work in the classroom. I’ve just picked a coursebook at random from the shelves behind and have come up with Just Right Intermediate, published by Marshall Cavendish. Unit 5 is entitled Home and contains a Vocabulary exercise called homes and houses. The exercise requires students see which of a set of words in a box match pictures, and features items like basement, block of flats, bungalow, cottage, fence, flat, first floor, garage, terraced house and studio flat. Once the matching has been done, students discuss which of the pictures is most like where they live and what differences there might be before explaining / writing which of the homes they’d most like to live in and why. An example is given: I’d like to live in the cottage because it’s pretty.

You may well wonder whether or not Intermediate students really need the word bungalow or the degree to which the example sentence really represents how students may actually use the word cottage – or even hear it used, but for better or worse here’s a set of lexis that requires teaching, if you’re using this particular book. Horizontal expansion lies in thinking about what’s said after – or sometimes possible before – by the speaker using the word, so take the word basement. Having lived in a basement flat myself for many years, the sentences around the word which immediately spring to mind are along the following lines:

I live in a basement flat. It’s OK, but it’s a bit dark.

We’re renting a basement flat. It’s quite nice, but the upstairs neighbours make a LOT of noise.

I don’t really get a mobile signal at home because I’m in the basement.

Vertical expansion is to do with thinking about what might be said before or after a sentence containing the lexical item by another speaker. In other words, thinking about how the conversation around this word might develop. So to stick with the same word – basement – I’d expect things like the following:

What’s the rent like?

> It’s not bad, actually. It’s a basement flat, so it’s a bit cheaper than it might otherwise be.

Well, that’s good, then.

I can’t hear you. You keep breaking up.

> Yeah, sorry. I’m in the basement and reception’s really bad here.

Now, once you start thinking about lexis in this way, you not only have a way of expanding upon what’s provided for in the material you’re using, but also of starting to create exercises yourself. In classroom terms, what it might mean is that whilst students are trying a task, you monitor, see which words they’re having problems with and get either horizontally or vertically expanded examples up on the board – ideally, with gaps – so that when you’re rounding up you can use these to both consolidate and expand upon what students know about the words being studied –  and how to use them. For instance, whilst rounding up, I might say something like this:

So some of you weren’t sure about basement. Anyone? yeah, right. It’s the bottom floor of the house and it’s always a little bit or completely below ground level. (Turning to the board) Often, if you’re in a basement, because it’s petty much underground, you don’t get much light, so it can be a bit? yeah, that’s right. (write in the word dark to the sentence above). And if you’ve ever lived in a basement, you’ll know it can be hard to talk on a mobile down there because you don’t really get a signal, because the reception’s bad, so when you’re talking to friends, they might tell you that you keep MMM-MMM up. Anyone? No? You keep breaking up, so they can hear you, then they can’t, then they can, then they can’t. OK. I’ll give you a minute to write now.

In the same way, a better vocabulary exercise could be constructed, using the lexis mentioned above from Just Right, simply by operating on the same principles. Instead of simply having the lexical set and seeing which nouns were depicted, you could for instance, ask students which place was most probably being described in sentences such as these:

1 It’s a nice flat, but it’s pretty dark down there. We don’t get that much natural light.

2 Now he has problems with his legs, it’s much better for him because he doesn’t have to go up and down the stairs all day long.

and so on.

More words on the page, of course, but also far more support for students, and far more chance of them being primed not only in common usage, but also in terms of exposure to co-text and, of course, covert exposure to a wide range of grammar in action, which teachers can choose to draw attention to and comment on, or not.

The curse of creativity

In this post I intend to attempt a TEFL exorcism and to remove the curse of creativity that’s affecting our profession! Some of you of a less superstitious nature may doubt – or even refuse to believe – that such a curse exists, so I’d like to begin with three examples of the evils that ensue when people are gripped by the curse.

On a CELTA course I was running some years ago, one of our trainees was down to do a twenty-minute assessed teaching practice. She was following on from a presentation of USED TO and was scheduled to do the speaking practice slot. The coursebook had a perfectly sensible activity, involving students writing down and then talking about things they used to do when they were kids, but this wasn’t deemed sufficiently interesting  by the trainee so instead we were treated to a (possibly Taliban-inspired) twist wherein students were asked to imagine they were in the year 2020 and women’s sports had been banned and then asked to talk about the things they used to do. They struggled through, telling each other they used to play tennis and women’s volleyball before the thing ground to a halt. Lost in all the time travel, obviously! Afterwards, when grilled, the trainee (who, incidentally, does know she’s in this paper and has OK-ed her presence!) said she thought the students would’ve already talked about the things suggested by the book and wanted to give things a new, creative twist. In her defence, she quoted pre-course reading she’d done which advocated an adapt, reject, select (or ARSE as I like to call it!) approach to coursebooks.

The second sinister occurrence happened in a class I observed last year. It was a Friday and the teacher warmed students up by getting them to talk about what they were doing that weekend. One Brazilian guy said ‘I – whistle – Milan’. The teacher said “Oh yes, I like that. I – whistle – Milan’ and much laughter ensued. At the end, I asked why the teacher hadn’t corrected or reformulated this. “Well”, they told me, “I didn’t want to stop his creativity. It’s good to encourage that kind of confidence and fluency”.

The third occurrence happened many years ago at a talk I gave in Cambridge. I was discussing the centrality of collocation and fixed / semi-fixed expressions to fluency and thus to language learning content. At the end, I asked if there were any questions and was harangued by this gem: “How can you justify straight-jacketing your students like this? You’re suffocating their creativity!”

The notion of creativity and being creative is a powerful and seductive one and EFL as a profession is still very much in thrall to a romanticized 1960s notion of creativity. Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) was founded by those who’d grown up in an era obsessed with the untutored genus of Jimi Hendrix – he couldn’t read music, you know, and so was ‘free’ to take the guitar out into the stratosphere!

Coupled with this was the lingering influence of the Romantic poets like Keats, Coleridge, Byron and Shelley – the 19th century writers who used the gilded wings of poesy to fly off on liberating flights of fancy! That our concepts of what it means to be creative have such romantic roots shouldn’t surprise us. After all, we live in an age when the self-proclaimed ‘lateral thinker’ Edward De Bono has earned vast sums working as a consultant to Number 10 Downing Street, where he thought ‘outside of the box’ – that truly clichéd tag for a supposedly creative act! This is the same Edward De Bono who once stated that there is no doubt that creativity is the most important human resource of all. Without creativity, there would be no progress and we would be forever repeating the same patterns.

Now, this all sounds grand and progressive, but my fear is that language teaching and, as a result, the way we think about language learning has been so suckered by such statements that we’ve skipped the starters and main course altogether and rushed straight for the desserts, forcing untutoredness upon our learners way before they’ve ever even had the chance to engage in a little bit of repetition of the same patterns! And lest we forget, repeating the same patterns – and words and collocations and expressions and idioms – is actually the KEY to progress for language learners, not an obstacle to it. For students to begin to remember lexical items, they need repeated exposure to them over time; for students to get good at having the kinds of conversations they’re going to want to be able to have outside of the classroom, they need to have them time and time again and to get better at the ways of combining lexis and grammar within them.

In the same way, the key to good teaching lies in teachers learning how to do the same things over and over again, but getting better at doing them with time.

As such, I feel we need to seriously reconsider just what we mean by ‘creative’. When we talk about a person being creative, we often mean they paint and draw – and so have learned techniques, perspective, etc. Perhaps they play a musical instrument – and so have learned scales and chords. Maybe they act – and so learn lines. Often none of this means they’re doing anything particularly ‘creative’ in the sense of ‘original’ or different to what’s been done before. Most ‘creative’ people are actually incredibly generic and derivative. And in fact, in Japan – a country that many of the most innovative and creative ideas of the last fifty years have emerged from – this is clearly recognized. The Japanese have a concept called shu-ha-ri, which is the process apprentices go through on the road to mastery. SHU means the precise imitation of a master; HA is the coming to an understanding of why the master acts the way he does by means of testing the limits and by experimenting with the ‘rules’, whilst ‘RI’ is finally breaking away and doing your own thing, but in such a way that every expression embodies the very essence of what you have learned. In Japan, ordinary people who toil for years to master the correct way of doing a tea ceremony or writing beautifully are admired, not ridiculed.

And for the vast majority of students – and, perhaps, teachers – getting to the HA stage of the process is an achievement in itself! Interestingly, too, many of those with real claims to being truly creative recognize the debt that they owe to mimicry and the fixed. Bruce Lee, for example, claimed that the essence of his own creativity lay in the ability to “observe what IS what undivided attention”, whilst the jazz great Charlie Mingus believed that making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creative.

What I want to do next is to explore the alarming degree to which we’ve developed a tendency to make the simple complicated – and to suggest some ways in which we can reverse this and start to make things simple again!

So, let’s return to my CELTA trainee and her attempts to get all creative! Let’s face it, it’s a place many of us have been to. How many of you could honestly say you’ve never done something similar? For me, my first brush with the notion of creativity came on my CTEFLA course back in 1992. One of the older trainees, an ex-designer, made an elaborate twenty-six-page cartoon-based presentation of the past simple and past continuous which involved endless flipchart drawings of UFOs and the like. The lesson was praised to the skies by the trainer and we were all told how important it was to keep our creative spark in front off the class. Having been in a band and done an English Literature degree before all this, this was like music to my ears, so my first two or three years of teaching consisted of basically doing stupid things with varying degrees of competence: I’d chop up texts and get students to reassemble them; I’d do TPR-oriented practices of prepositions where I’d lead my bemused classes of Indonesian businessmen UNDER the tables and THROUGH the doors, ALONG the corridor and ONTO some desks! I’d invent deranged fictions to do PPP lessons on various structures and would bring bags full of oranges, onions and dead hedgehogs for students to feel and tell me WELL, IT FEELS LIKE . . . In subsequent classes, they’d get to tell me that soy sauce TASTED LIKE soy sauce and that pepper made them sneeze! And I won’t even mention what the teenage boys’ class thought various ink splodges and blots LOOKED LIKE.

From my perspective now, it seems to me we waste a lot of time and – as trainers – potential by bothering with these kinds of activities. I now believe that teacher training and development courses should focus NOT on getting teachers to do bad things well, but rather on doing good things BADLY – to begin with! Rather than go down the path I’ve been through myself, where I moved from doing daft things badly to doing daft things well and then – and only then – onto doing sensible things not very well, before coming good on these, I’d much rather see more inexperienced teachers simply bypass the first two steps and go straight into the core components of teaching.

Being able to explain new language well, to give examples of how this new language is generally used and to use the class to add to these examples or to personalise them are fundamental skills and ones we need to spend more time looking at. Developing linguistic awareness takes time and needs support and peers also willing to talk about how they think words and structures are used. I fear that perhaps we spend so much time talking about recipes and survival techniques that on far to many occasions we forget our actual job description – LANGUAGE teachers!

Being able to set tasks clearly and simply is equally central, as is the ability to listen when students are talking – either in pairs or simply in front of the class – and to reformulate their utterances into better – but still intelligible – English.

So much for creative teaching, then! John Updike, the novelist, once said that: “Creativity is merely a plus name for regular activity . . . any activity becomes creative when the doer cares about doing it right, or better”. I think we need to work far more towards this kind of definition of creativity and concentrate less on reinventing the wheel and more on caring about doing regular activities as well as we possibly can!

A further area in which the curse of creativity is much in evidence is in coursebooks. Of course, coursebook writers generally tend to be good, competent teachers who’ve had a lucky break or two, but often who’ve also bought into the whole construct of creativity as it currently stands. As a result, blurbs on the back of new books boast of the new and creative contexts in which they will present and ask students to practise grammar. Part of the problem is the fact that the vast majority of coursebooks have a very similar atomistic grammar syllabus at their core – the one we all know like the back of our hands – Present Simple in Unit 1, Present Simple AND Continuous in Unit 2, the Present Perfect Simple in Unit 5 or 6 and then in Unit 14 perhaps the Passive or a Conditional. If you follow this syllabus, then what can you do to make your product distinctive? Well, there are texts – which I’ll come to later – and there’s grammar. One well-known global coursebook recently had an initial presentation and practice of Can you . . . ? questions in its Elementary book which involved students having to ask each other things like Can you . . . do the splits? Touch your nose with your tongue? Walk backwards in a straight line? And so on. Creative? Most certainly! Fun to do in the class? I’d imagine so. Useful? Likely to ever be said or heard by the students again? Recycled within the series of coursebooks? Most probably not. And of course, whilst students are busy learning these examples, where do they get hold of the things they might actually want to say – or might hear? Things like Can you play the tape again? Can you close the door? Can you say it again? Well, to be honest, they DON’T! And this is the real problem with creative grammar contexts – not only do they misrepresent the way the grammar is actually used, but they also mean students are far less likely to see TYPICAL examples. Of course, the same is true every time we do a fancy self-made PPP lesson too!

A further area in which coursebooks writers have traditionally tried to make their products distinctive is in the texts they sometimes choose. Units that aren’t structured around a particular piece of grammar are invariably structured around a text. The text controls the language that is to be looked at within the unit and often this means a shocking disregard for any concept of grading. I had the misfortune last year of watching a CELTA trainee teach a text from a well-known Intermediate book and have to explain what ‘stripy curtains more or less in shreds’, ‘the green darkness’, ‘a deliciously cool but dusty house’, ‘depressing inspections of grim flats’, ‘antiquated equipment’, ‘peeling shutters’ and ‘an open fireplace that hinted at open fires’ meant!

Now obviously, this particular text was an extract from a novel – an example of a creative piece of writing, but it’s not only novels that get space in our coursebooks. Poems sneak in too and again, Intermediate learners have to deal with such lexical gems as ‘start bare-footed earlier in the spring’, ‘play hooky’, ‘pick daisies’ and ‘live prophylactically’. In case you were wondering, this last item is glossed . . . as ‘live carefully’!

One final way in which the notion of creativity being important casts a long and malevolent shadow over EFL materials is in the continuing use of songs in coursebooks – and I say this not just out a deep personal dislike of Eric Clapton’s Wonderful Tonight and Chris DeBurgh’s Lady in Red! To contextualise my dislike of songs for language teaching purposes, let me introduce Thorsten, a German guitarist I met way back when I used to be in a band. Thorsten learned a lot of his English from rote-learning Beatles songs and was genuinely incredulous when we laughed as he told us he’d had a hard day’s night or that he had been working eight days a week. “But John Lennon sang this”, he countered.  Lest we forget, he also sang “I am the eggman, I am the walrus. Goo Goo Ga-Joob!” and “Yellow matter custard crawling up the Eiffel Tower!”

Songs are generally BAD examples of language quite simply because they are where we go to get away from the rules – and they work on this level because WE – unlike our students – know the rules they bend and break! How many of us have inflicted Suzanne Vega’s twisting of the present continuous on our learners? “I am sitting in the morning in a café by the station. I am drinking up my coffee and waiting for my train”. English for the self-narrating and mad! And how many of us have puzzled long and hard over the immortal Carly Simon lines ‘Your hat strategically dipped below one eye / Your scarf it was apricot / You had one eye in the mirror as you watched yourself gavotte’ – a dance so obscure it was only chosen because it rhymes with apricot, which isn’t a word I often use to describe colours personally, anyway?  Too many, I fear!

The backwash effect of many such texts are varied, but include:

– students generally becoming obsessed with accumulating ever more obscure decontextualised single words. One of the more depressing notebooks I’ve encountered recently was a Pre-Intermediate student who had the following noted down and translated: tact, taciturn, tactical and tacky.

– an over-intellectualisation of content, especially when it comes to speaking activities around texts. We seem unable to grasp the fact that a high level of spoken English does not always mean a high IQ and that many Advanced students have no interest in discussing semantics, stylistics, the moral agenda of Oscar Wilde or the reasons for the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe! Why oh why are we forced by coursebooks to ask our students such ‘deep and meaningful’ questions as ‘What are brands for?’, ‘What makes a good story-teller?’, ‘Has TV numbed our curiosity about the world?’ and my all-time favourite – ‘In what ways is life like a jigsaw?’.

Tasks that require too much creativity on the parts of our learners are bad tests of learning. Creative tasks depend on learners being ‘creative’ people! Many of the tasks we are asked to tell students to do we couldn’t do ourselves in our own L1, let alone in a foreign language. When we play guessing games with language – make assumptions about your partner using five different future forms, for example – or when we ask students to write ghost stories or to discuss what aspects of a writer’s style contribute to a sense of tension in a text, we are falling into the trap of punishing quite possibly fairly competent language users for not being able to in English what they’d never dream of doing in their own first language!

I know the main argument in favour of songs and poems and bits of novels has always been that students find them motivating. Well, all I have to say about that old saw is that if this is the best way we can think of to motivate, we’re in big trouble! Motivation and fun should come from our everyday interaction in the classroom and from stories and anecdotes and jokes and banter that emerges and is exploited as we try to pin the language we’re teaching onto the worlds of our students. It should come as standard, not be an add-on extra bonus only reserved for slow Friday afternoons! It’s a sad world where we’re told when to laugh and kick back and where the rest of the time is by definition, deadly dull!

Some of you may know Guy Cook’s book of a few years ago – Language Learning, Language Play – where he argued very entertaingly in support of MORE language play in the language learning process on the grounds that it’s a natural part of language use. Well, natural it may be, but pretty infrequent too, I’d venture. For most of us, language play forms only a tiny percentage of our language using time and as I’ve already suggested, we often only recognize it as play because it contrasts so strongly with the codes and rules we otherwise operate under. As such, if we really want our students to ever have much chance of truly playing, we’d better make damn sure we expose them to as much of what’s normal and fixed as we can!

The more astute amongst you by now have started thinking there’s a glaring contradiction in my argument – surely, I hear you mutter, if you don’t like coursebooks, you have to believe we need to use them creatively! Well, to twist a fixed expression (something I’ll come to in more detail later, by the way) – If it’s broke, don’t waste time trying to fix it. Get a new, improved version!

Of course, the swathe of creatively focused language and exercises and texts in coursebooks wreak havoc on what often happens in the classroom. One area in which it has a particularly damaging influence is in the way we think about correction. Now, part of this is due to the fact that so often students get asked to do ‘creative writing’. How, for instance, does one go about ‘correcting’ a poem? It almost seems a contradiction in terms. It’s actually much harder than correcting a conversation between two old friends who’ve bumped into each other in the street. So task is one issue, but a think a further problem lies simply in the fact that some teachers actually revel in the kind of interlanguage students come up with in much the same way as some parents endlessly retell the (supposedly) hilarious things their kids come up with! In two different classes I’ve seen recently, teachers let things go that to me were screaming out to be reworked, reformulated into better English and my gut-feeling is that much this reluctance when it comes to correcting off-the-cuff spoken utterances comes from a well-meaning but misguided desire not to impinge on the learners’ attempts to be creative.

In one class, a Spanish student said she liked animals TOO MUCH – an idea which sounded distinctly dubious to me! – whilst in another a Colombian student, talking about his boss, waved his hand up and down and said ‘Oh! My boss is HEAVY, REALLY heavy!’ Neither of these utterances – made to the teacher in front of the whole class – were corrected at all. Now, of course, you could argue that these students made their meanings clear, they were very ‘communicative’! Fair enough, but where in the midst of all this garbled ‘communication’ is the language teacher teaching language?

I wrote an email to an Indonesian friend of mine recently in my OK but not particularly fluent Indonesian and got a reply informing me that I sounded ‘cute’ in Indonesian! This annoyed me no end as cuteness had not been a goal of my writing! I think most students most often feel a similar frustration. Whether we like it or not, they are generally NOT trying to be creative. They are trying to sound normal. They want to say things like ‘I really like animals’ or ‘I find my boss a bit dull, to be honest.’ Most students just want the most normal, typical way we can think of of saying what they want to say and their ‘creativity’ and ‘fluency’ is a by-product of their not having learned these things yet!

As I’ve already mentioned, I think we’ve also been conned into believing that repetition and rote-learning are somehow anti-fluency and anti-creative. This is particularly bizarre as in the outside world, repetition is part-and-parcel of our everyday lives. We all repeat conversations and anecdotes and comments and questions endlessly and I’d like to think that we get better and better at telling things the more we do it. Repetition leads to fluency, we embellish and layer as we do things again and students need the chance not only to have repeated exposure to lexis over different levels and in different ways, but also to practise having similar conversations again and to get better at them.

My CELTA trainee who baulked at the idea of getting students to talk yet again about what they used to do when they were young missed the point. It’s who we’re talking to and what they tell us that keeps things interesting. We get the chance to tell our stories better second time around. The teacher gets the chance to feed in useful language to help us do so after the first time we practise and the fact of talking to different people and hearing different stories keeps us motivated and keen. As such, surely it makes more sense for Advanced level books to contain more repetition of topics and layering of conversations already encountered than to skip endlessly from the new to the newer, the intellectual to the philosophical.

In the same way, rote-learning is a major part of fluency outside of English language learning. Musicians rote-learn chords and scales and whole songs; actors can only really start to bring their own personalities to their roles once they’ve rote-learned a whole play! And in the same way, students who rote-learn large numbers of chunks and fixed expressions have at their disposal a far broader linguistic palate than those who are forced to put everything together from scratch every time they speak!

The idea that creativity can only ever come from the bottom-up is perhaps at the root of all of the problems I’ve been ranting about thus far! And this notion is rooted very much in the old Chomskyan concept of grammar + words allowing unbridled creativity and talk. The notion of giving students these supposed basic building blocks and then leaving them free to say absolutely anything they may wish to still runs deep and yet the idea that creativity can only ever come from bottom-up processing is mad! Have you ever seen any of those twists on the Mona Lisa? The one where she has a moustache or is smiling more broadly or is a bloke in drag? There are dozens of them and all examples of top-down creativity. Artists take a whole and play around with it, reference it, ironically rewrite it, quote it.

Language learners too are always taking chunks and breaking them down, then putting them together in other ways, testing the limits of where they can take things. In an Intermediate class I taught a while ago, we did a bit of work on asking and responding to Do you fancy doing something later-type questions. Students got the meaning – Do you want to? – and noticed the grammatical differences. They then wrote invitation questions of their own and walked around asking each other them. One student asked ‘Do you fancy going to see LORD OF THE RINGS?’, to which another replied ‘Oh yes. It’s a long time I want to see that’. During the round-up, I reformulated this onto the board as ‘Oh yes. I’ve been wanting to see that for ages’. Almost immediately, a student asked ‘So can I say ‘I’ve been fancying seeing that for ages?’ as well?’

Great question! And surely only one that’s possible because the student has taken one chunk – Do you fancy going to see a movie tonight?– broken it down and tried to reconstruct it. Of course, in this particular instance, the student hit a dead-end for the answer is NO! A similar testing of boundaries often occurs with kids who FIRST learn the fixed chunk – We went there the other day – then start noticing a lot of other verbs about the other day have an -ed ending and so opt for We wented there. When this fails to win parental approval, they often take a detour via We goed there before ending up back at the fixed, non-generated-by-grammar chunk that they started with!

In fact, much of what is most creative in day-to-day language use comes directly from this knowledge of fixed-ness and the formulaic and the subsequent ability to play around within these limits. How can anyone understand what the following mean if not for a comprehensive knowledge of the fixed?

– You wouldn’t want to be around when the sticky brown stuff hits the ventilation system.

– He possesses an unenviable gift of cutting short stories very long indeed.

– I had my Indian summer in Pakistan.

– Super Cally Go Ballistic ‘cos Celtic are atrocious!

– Go ahead. Mac my day!

– You’re treading dangerous water there.

– I’ve got 3 words for you: pot, kettle, black!

To appreciate and ‘get’ any of these we need to know the norms against which they’re kicking. What corpora linguistics has done over the last twenty years is to insist on the fixed, the predictable, the routine and to thus increase teachers’ awareness of the importance of fixed blocks of language, be they collocations, sentence frames, idioms or whatever. And it is just such language that students need repeated exposure to if we ever want them to stand a chance of being creative. I should also add that actually a lot of this kind of ‘creativity’ is generally the preserve of tabloid headline writers and ad men, rather than English language students (or even teachers)!

The reality is that the stickle-brick concept of how languages are learned, work, stored and developed is looking ever more unlikely. Michael Hoey – in one of the few EFL books you’ll hear me rave about from the last few years – has put forward a rater seductive alternative that he calls Lexical Priming. In short, this means that we acquire lexical items AND our internal construct of grammar through our repeated encounters with words and the other words they keep company with and that each encounter with an item adds to – or occasionally detracts from – the degree to which we come to expect certain collocations, grammatical patterns, semantic associations and so on to attach themselves to said item. Hoey claims that whole clauses are frequently made up of interlocking collocations to such a degree that the sentences themselves can be said to be reproductions – with variations on occasion – of earlier sentences. This is the degree to which we remember and re-use wholes!

Hoey also makes the rather damning point that if as a kid, you have a word primed to function in a particular way and are then told that it’s incorrectly primed outside of home, the result can well bee long-term linguistic uncertainty! Given this, I think we really need to spend much more thinking about just what kind of primings we are creating in our students and to what degree these primings match the kind of primings educated fluent speakers come to conversations and letters with! Failure to take this issue seriously leads to our learners living in a kind of semi-permanent linguistic limbo!

Hoey suggests that fluency comes from conformity to the socially-normal primings, whilst creativity comes from switching them off (a metaphor which assumes we know where they are in the first place!). A twist on this same theme is made in a novel by the great American writer Anne Tyler. Describing the linguistic life of an elderly character, we learn that: sometimes he catches himself saying ‘This tastes ridiculous’ or ‘Why don’t you sit and rest while I put the dishes in the computer’. He wonders, she writes, “if his mind was going – every old person’s nightmare. Or maybe it was just that he had said those identical sentences so many hundreds and thousands of times, his tongue had begun rebelling against the sheer monotony’. A woman who makes her living as a creative writer is basically telling us that acute deviation from normal primings isn’t big or clever – it’s the onset of senility!

To try to counter all of this, as a writer and as a teacher I’ve very consciously tried to reclaim some of the less creative areas of our profession and put them to good use. In material such as OUTCOMES that I’ve co-authored, for instance, we sometimes get students to read aloud – it helps them develop their ability to chunk blocks of lexis, which in turn helps their listening; we encourage rote-learning and provide students with a Vocabulary Builder in each book where they can translate and then memorise key expressions from each and every unit of the book; we encourage whole chunk translation and the judicious use of L1; we place great stress on teaching typical replies to common questions and giving students standard primings for common words; we encourage the repetition of tasks within books and the recycling of conversations and topics across levels.

And yet ironically, it is out of all of this emphasis on teaching what is typically said that much of the most creative and funniest moments in class emerge. When asking questions to explore the limits of collocations, students frequently respond humorously. In an Elementary class recently, I’d taught I broke my arm and was asking what else you could break. My leg, students shouted out. A bone in my hand. A cup. A window. So far, so good. Finally, my Turkmenistani student, a guy in his mid-50s and usually wearing a perpetually exhausted look on his face, shouted out ‘My brain’!”

In an Intermediate class a couple of years ago, a very glam, very rich Taiwanese student was boasting one day that she loved shopping in Harrods. One student said ‘I don’t surprise that’ and I reformulated this on the board as ‘You DO surprise me’! and drilled it. From that moment on, this became a class catchphrase. In the same way, last week one of my students – a Japanese doctor – revealed after a question about what comedy meant that she found Mr. Bean attractive! Much disbelief followed and we ended up with this on the board:

Mr. Bean’s really good-looking, don’t you think?

> NO! You must be blind! You’re sick in the head!

At which point another student shouted out ‘That’s why become a doctor! Need help herself!’. This is where the real motivation, fun and creativity of language teaching surely lies! In the ad-libbing around the mundane.

The attempts to mess with the mundane sadly remind me all too often of American attempts to make ‘soccer’ more exciting by awarding three goals for a goal scored outside the area! Sheer madness that’ll never catch on! Many of the most powerful, wonderful things in life – football, cooking, eating, chatting and so on – never ever get that boring and attempts to make them more creative usually reek of desperation and end in tears! Let’s add teaching and learning to this list and – to give the final word to an old TEFL guru who has come to renounce many of his earlier ideas on creativity – take to heart Noam Chomsky’s observation that ‘creativity is the ability to be puzzled by the simplest of things’.

To return to a favourite phrase – If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

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.