Category Archives: Twenty things in twenty years

Twenty things in twenty years part ten: the main point of focusing on pronunciation in class isn’t to improve pronunciation!

Pronunciation is quite possibly the most neglected area of language teaching. In many of the classes I’ve observed over the years, I’ve seen little or no attempt to work on pronunciation and where it IS focused on it’s often instinctive attempts at correcting mispronounced discrete phonemes of the kind we’re all so familiar with due to the phenomenal success of certain books that hone in one these areas.


Part of the problem, of course, is that after a certain (very formative) point, time spent on pronunciation reaps very scant reward, especially when compared to other areas of language that one could work on. Imagine the degree to which you might expect your communicative competence to be boosted if you were to spend a hundred hours studying, developing and revising vocabulary – and then compare and contrast to what you might expect to gain in communicative terms if you were spend those hundred hours working on your pronunciation. In all but a few rare cases, there’d be no comparison.

Partly this is because – unlike other areas of language skill (with the possible, arguable exception of writing, of course), pronunciation is essentially a motor skill, and ultimately develops as a result of practice, practice and practice. And then some more practice after that – in much the same way as a musician learns a song by going over and over and over the fingering and the strumming and the chords and the notes, drilling them into the muscle memory until they become second nature.

When it comes to discrete phonemes, there is often little we can really do in the limited time that we inevitably have with. If students are struggling, say, to produce a /v/ instead of a /b/ or a /r/ instead of a /l/ we can stop them when they err; point out what they’re saying and show with our own mouths and voices how we would do it differently. We can explain and demonstrate that a /v/ sound is voiced and requires the bottom lip to raise up and touch against the two front upper teeth, for instance, and we can encourage students to practise, pointing out when they’re still doing it wrong – and once they nail it, telling them and encouraging them to remember the feel in the mouth the sound makes and to practise it at home. We can correct it again next time we here it, but really after that they’re pretty much on their own.

Some people seem to have a much better ear for the degree to which what they’re producing resembles the output or models they’re exposed to, and there’s also surely some kind of sociocultural / psychological element involved which must affect the degree to which many speakers try – and deliberately don’t try – to accommodate themselves to particular kinds of native-speaker norms. I’ve often pondered how it is that the manager of my beloved football club, Arsene Wenger, can have lived in London for almost two decades and can have learned English to such a remarkable degree and yet all the while has clung to more or less exactly the same kind of French-inflected accent he first arrived with.

Well, part of the problems seems to be the fact that accents stick very early on, and once we’ve passed a certain point, changing this is incredibly hard to do. Research findings on this obviously vary, but there does seem to be a considerable body of evidence to suggest that we start being primed in our own first language from our very earliest moments here on earth, and this priming seems to last. This, coupled with the kind of lingering class-bound prejudices and perceptions that once led George Bernard Shaw to observe that “it is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him”, might explain the proliferation of accent reduction courses that prey on the insecurities and fears of NATIVE speakers. Obviously, if your priming in L1 has led to the production of sounds radically different to English, then you may well have problems unless quite an intense focus on pronunciation is made a central part of your early experience of learning the language. Debate rages on about whether or not there actually is a cut-off point beyond which it’s all-but impossible to acquire native-like pronunciation, but there does seem to be a fair amount of evidence to suggest that by the early twenties accents in a foreign language are already pretty fixed. All of this may well go some way towards explaining why I’ve met only perhaps three or four non-natives who didn’t live in a native-speaking country until they were adults who could nevertheless be mistaken for natives (as well as why the vast majority of non-natives I know who do live in native English-speaking environments are easily identifiable as non-native – often to their great annoyance – despite speaking amazingly good English). It also accounts for the Chinese and Thai students I somehow teach whose learning thus far has been both almost entirely based on written sources and also very much in vain as the English they have acquired is rendered unintelligible by their accents, which are rooted very strongly in the tonalties of their mother tongues.

To add a further level of complexity to these obvious issues, recent discourse about ELF – and particular the work of Jennifer Jenkins, who has written at length about what she sees a phonological core of ELF that allows communication unimpeded by lapses in intelligibility without forcing strict adherence to the native-speaker RP construct (as she sees it) – has (and I’ll be gracious here and add unintentionally) led to a furthering of the Why bother? attitude to pronunciation. The vast majority of discrete phoneme mistakes don’t affect intelligibility; natives can’t even agree on how to pronounce grass and castle, while the Irish (allegedly!) say TREE TREES to describe these things:


We’ve all got accents, even native speakers . . . so what if my students sound French or Russian or what-have-you? That’s because they are. I can understand them all, why bother? And so the self-justification continues. Given all of this, you may yourself by now be thinking why bother. What’s the point of slogging on with something so unrewarding and that offers so few noticeable signs of improvement in return for such hard work on your part?

Well, on one level, the point is that even incredibly fluent students, like the Finnish woman Hanna who I recently taught on a Pronunciation & Presentation Skills course, still fret (in what may, to many native speakers seem like an unnecessary manner, but this does not detract from the reality of these emotions) about their accents and feel they could be improved – often by moving closer to some perceived idealised native speaker mode, which often means RP. Interestingly, actually, non-natives seem far more concerned about the finer details of pron than most natives for whom a diversity of options is a norm. I’ve lost count of the number of times after a talk I’ve done a non-native teacher has asked me whether I say ofTen or off-en, for instance.

So there’s that, but even this argument about student desires, persuasive though it may be, still actually misses the point.

Because the main issue here is that the REAL reason for persisting with pronunciation is NOT because it has that much of an impact on students’ own pronunciation.

It’s because it’s help students LISTEN better.

For students, listening is hard for one of two reasons: either they’re hearing language that’s simply unknown to them, and thus they fail to understand it in the same way as they would if they were to see it written down – or else they’re hearing language that they’d be able to deal with if they saw it written down, but cannot grasp as it comes out in the acoustic blur of normal speed speech. This is often because their main exposure to language has been the written form; and because listening – and more crucially the inter-relationship between listening and pronunciation – has been neglected during the early stages of their language learning experience.


If students cannot hear language that they are able to process when written down, it is rarely if ever because of issues with discrete phonemes. If it’s outside of the classroom, it may perhaps be because of a particularly unfamiliar or strong accent, though inside the classroom such accents are generally filtered out. This means that it’s down to what happens when we speak at speed: the use of weak forms, the elision of sounds at the beginning or end of words, the way words ending in consonants are linked to following words if they begin with vowels, the way we add in /w/ and /j/ sounds to link between vowels across words (as in the /j/ English or go /w/ ahead) and so on.

What this means is every time you take your time when modelling and drilling (both chorally and individually) the weak forms and linking and so on in a phrase like IT’S A BIT OF A NIGHTMARE or HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO KNOW, you’re helping the students get that little bit more used to how words sound when run together and said consecutively.

And while your efforts may or not impact positively on their own actual pronunciation, the chances are they’ll slowly contribute to your students being better able to distinguish language they have already studied when it comes at them think and fast in future listenings.

Twenty things in twenty years part nine: the vast majority of mistakes really aren’t to do with grammar!

The world used to be so tidy. Back in the misty morning of my youth, I seriously did naively believe that the root cause of student error was essentially grammatical. If only students could somehow have the ‘rules’ for the use of specific grammatical structures drilled into their heads through repeated mini-lectures, homeworks, pages of English Grammar In Use, concept questions and so on, and if only they could correctly memorize and internalize the forms of all the structures we’d ‘done’ in class, then all would well, the occasional lexical slip notwithstanding.

It took me quite some time to realise that if the errors students are making are within the confines of tasks that only focus on and require the production of one or two grammatical structures, such as the old Harrap’s Communication Games classic Haven’t we met somewhere before? (wherein students got role-play cards detailing where they’d been at what times in their life and had to work out where and when exactly they’d met everyone else in the room, a task which inevitably forced errors along the lines of Yes, I’ve been in Australia in 1984), then the odds that these errors will essentially involve structural glitches are fairly high. The task creates and forces the mistakes it is designed to focus on. This is its purpose.

There may, of course, be a place for such a focus, though today I feel that the place really ought to be a far smaller one than that which I used to allow to exist. However, to extrapolate out from such experiences and to then believe that mistakes are mostly down to grammar is a fallacy of the highest order, albeit a fallacy I – and many many other teachers – have been suckered by, and that is still (implicitly, perhaps) propagated by The System.

If you want to become more aware of the real issues that students face when attempting to put their slow accumulation of knowledge into practice then a change of tack is needed – as is a focus on tasks which require the production of language outside the narrow confines of what are essentially grammar drills of varying kinds. Of course, one way of doing this is to listen to students as they speak and to pick up on things they struggle with or make mistakes with. This is all well and good and to be encouraged, I think, though I have a residual suspicion that what most teachers actually pick up during freer slots is grammar. This is what we’re most trained to focus on, and the way most of us are still trained to perceive error, and old habits die hard. In addition, of course, in the flow and flux of everyday conversation, with maybe 8 or 9 pairs of students all talking at once in class, it’s hard to notice much at all, let alone to notice it, think of decent ways of reformulating it, note this down somewhere or get it on the board somehow in a way that might later lead to you being able to do something interactive with it! No wonder we fall back into noticing what we’ve already been primed to notice. Even when we break through the filter of grammar and start seeing language in a broader sense, we all still come to the correction / recasting of student speech with our own schema, our own repertoires and bags of tricks that we know we can spin out into something of possible value, and all of this hampers us in our efforts to truly hear clearly and reformulate cogently and thoroughly.

Which brings us to an innovation I picked up from my co-author and colleague, Andrew Walkley. Both of us teach at University of Westminster and we both use the coursebooks we’ve co-authored, OUTCOMES. A few terms back, Andrew started using Vocaroo, about which I’ll say more in a future Talking Tech post, to help students get to grips with the weight of new lexis they encoutered in class. These were students studying 15 hours a week, and at the end of every week we record fifty chunks / collocations onto Vocaroo and send the link to all the students. They then write them down as best they can, like a dictation; we send the original list and students then write examples of how they think they might actually use each item – or hear each being used. These are emailed over and we correct them, comment on them, etc.

On one level, it’s a very sobering experience because words that you felt you’d explained well, given extra examples of, nailed as it were, come back at you half digested, or garbled, or in utterly alien contexts with bizarre co-text. Of course, what’s really going on is the new language is somehow slowly getting welded awkwardly onto the old; meanings in the broadest sense are largely understood, but contexts of use not yet clearly grasped. Grammar mistakes of a far more complex and unwieldy kind than I’ve been to Australia in 1992 rear their ugly heads, mistakes far less amenable to communication games; meanings are expressed clumsily and yet more fluent ways of expressing them are elusive or many, making cogent feedback hard to frame in places.

This should not surprise, of course. The fact that students have encountered new items in class, seen them once or twice or even three times in some kind of context, possibly translated them and more or less grasped their meanings is simply evidence of the fact that they’ve not yet been primed anywhere near sufficiently. For fluent users who’ve grasped new items, there’s been encounter after encounter after encounter, with item and with co-text in context; for learners, this process has only just begun, and as a result the odds of priming from L1 being brought over when it comes to using the new items creatively is very high indeed.

It also tempers the expectation one should have of the power and value of correction. I’m under no illusion that the detailed comments and extensive correction / recasting I carry out on student efforts (see below) will result in correct and fluent use henceforth. Rather, I see my work here simply as further efforts to prime and to draw attention to glitches, misconceptions, perennial misuses and so on; in short, I am merely a condensed and rather more focused part of the priming process.

What else you realise is the sheer futility of trying to explain much error through the filter of grammar. Take the first sentence shown below – The area has been deserted after a huge flooding 3 years ago. What’s a dogged grammar hound to do here? Point out that if we’re using AFTER when talking about something that happened three years ago,m we’d generally use the past simple, so if we want to use the present perfect, it’d be better to use SINCE? If we’re talking about flooding, it’s usually uncountable and thus kill the A? Even if you were to do this, you’d still be left with: The area has been deserted since huge flooding three years ago, which still sounds very stilted and forced. Often, the only real solution to the morass of oddness these sentences throw one into is rather severe reworking, with options sometimes given, questions sometimes asked, and explanations often proffered.




Now, of course, you could very well argue that the task here has created the errors, and to a degree that’d obviously be true. However, the range of issues students have with each item varies immensely depending on L1, how much they read in English, what they’re actually trying to say and so on, so the range of problems is also massively expanded in comparison to what emerges from controlled grammar practice activities!

As well as casting a fairly glaring light onto the complexity of fluent language use and the long convoluted process of attempting to integrate the new with the old, it all also suggests that when we’re teaching new vocabulary, we need to pay more attention and thought to how well we’re priming students. The more we insist on – and write up – single ways or short ungrammaticalised chunks / collocations – the less chance our students have of really coming to terms with the ways in which new items are typically used with previously learned grammar and vocabuklary, or the kinds of (often fairly limited) contexts in which items are used.

Any of you who ever have to deal with student writing as they prepare to do degrees or Master’s in English, where all the kinds of issues seen above are compounded with serious discoursal and structural issues, spelling problems, paragraphing anomalies, and so on will know what I mean when I claim that prevention is infinitely desirable to cure.

And that the medicine needed really isn’t all that much to do with grammar as we know it!

Twenty things in twenty years part eight: there’s nothing as practical as a good theory

In the early years of my career, I was at one with many in my profession in that I suffered from an insatiable hunger for recipes. I devoured the resource books that were available in the staff rooms of the schools I was teaching in, and spent much of my hard-earned cash on investing in further similar tomes. I rushed through all manner of tricks, techniques, activities and games like a demented fusion food fanatic. The words “And here’s something you might want to try in your class on Monday morning” were music to my ears – and I prided myself on being an innovative, progressive teacher. The only problem was, of course, that I had little – or no – idea as to what all this endless innovation was actually FOR, apart from to pave a road to who knew where, to facilitate what I saw back then as ‘development’, and to ensure my classes were filled with ‘fun stuff’ for my students to do, ideally – as previously stated – stuff that kept students on a potentially endless riff of speaking.

Now, it may seem odd – willfully perverse even – for someone who’s co-authored a series called Innovations to question the value of innovation. After all, there I was just a few weeks back, gratefully quaffing the British Council’s free booze and hobnobbing with the great and the good at the annual ELTONs awards night, wherein the BC “recognises and celebrate innovation in the field of English language teaching”. Wasn’t griping then, was I, eh! Well, it’s not that innovation per se is necessarily a bad thing. It’s just that it’s also not necessarily a GOOD thing, despite the way the notion of innovation is almost invariably used to describe positive developments in English – and despite the fact that its dictionary definition is simply ‘a new idea, definition or piece of equipment’. Nevertheless, the fact remains that for many of us the very idea of innovation suggests the thrill of the new and conjures up images such as these:


In classroom reality, though (and of course this is only something that has become clear with the benefit of hindsight), most of my early innovations had far more in common with the kinds of madness depicted below – familiar and yet twisted, entertaining and yet utterly pointless, transitory, fleeting, once tried and soon forgotten.


And I’d dare to venture that the vast majority of recipe-driven teaching out there falls into the same trap, sadly. Method ends up being valued over knowledge of the very thing we’re supposed to be teaching – language! The harsh fact of the matter is that unless it’s rooted in a theoretical view of both language and learning then innovation is simply change for the sake of change and is destined to result in teaching that’s of (often severely) limited practical utility to learners ninety-nine times out of a hundred. There’s an inverse correlation here that’s maybe less discussed too, though, and it’s that once you do have a theory of language and of learning that informs and feeds into your teaching, you will almost inevitably becomes LESS experimental, less driven by the need to find new things to do in class, and perhaps more static, more fixed. Yet out of this solidity can emerge the real wonder of the craft. It’s almost as if the disciplines you impose on your practice create something semi-routinised and thus then allow the mind to pick up on and notice what’s happening on the peripheries: the students’ interlanguage, the content of their output, the problems they encounter with the material they’re using – and the reasons for these problems, etc.

For me as a teacher and – later – as a writer and trainer, the thing that really allowed me to forge forwards and focus my classroom practice clearly and with precision was  getting my head round the findings emerging from corpora research that suggested that language was often more fixed than we’d perhaps previously realised, that collocation was a key factor in fluent usage, that grammar and vocabulary existed in a complex intertwining, that co-text was at least as important as situation or context. Later, my ideas of what was important to be doing in the classroom were consolidated and further clarified by grasping the idea that competent usage emerges not – or at least only rarely – from a study of grammar rules and forms and of single words, but rather from having one’s knowledge, whether that be implicit or explicit, expanded via encounters with language in use, each and every one of which prime us to expect language to operate in certain ways again.

Which brings me more or less to where I am today: in a place where I believe that the main job of the language teacher is NOT to search out The Five Main Reasons To Use YouTube In Class or to feel somehow inadequate if you’re unable to recite in order The 12 Ways That Technology Can Enhance Your Teaching, but instead to continue first and foremost to learn and to think about language and the way it works and is used – in order to then be better able to teach students at least some of these insights. Our role is class is primarily to ensure students meet, whether through reading or listening, language that may be of use to them (and we do need to have thought about why – and, indeed, whether – what we’re teaching may be useful), to make sure it’s intelligible to them (explaining and exemplifying where necessary), to help them notice salient features of whatever language it is that comes up and to then ensure they use it in some way – and get to revise as much of it as possible at a later date as possible.

Of course, you can do all of these things and still try out new techniques and technologies.

But at the same time, you really don’t have to.

And if you don’t, you may well still be an excellent teacher who gets good results from their students.

Maybe this seems obvious to you. If so, it may simply be because the very fact that you’re hearing reading yet another post on my blog means you are by definition one of the converted. I’m preaching to the choir, as our American cousins would have it.

However, it may also be the case that by now you’re actually feeling guilty about the irrepressible desire you still harbour yourself for recipes. You may be starting to question where that thirst leads you and what function it serves. You may even be asking if the uses you’re making of your precious and limited free time are actually the best if you’re seeking to really facilitate advancement.

My suspicion remains that many teachers – though, of course perhaps not those that find their way here – will fall into the latter camp quite simply because so little emphasis is placed on language development in TD circles. When was the last time you saw a conference talk or a journal paper that focused primarily on language, and in particular on language as seen from the point of view of a language teacher having to deal with the kinds of questions language students ask as they process and digest what they’re given? Never could well be a safe wager!

Why bother with such deeply unfashionable notions when there are new gimmicks to flog, new hoops to get teachers to jump through, and new recipes to fill yet more ELT cookbooks up with?

Jumping Through Hoops

Twenty things in twenty years part seven: input is more important than output

To say that the CTEFLA that was my gateway into the world of English Language Teaching encouraged me to be output-focused would be an understatement. Like many teachers who’ve come through the British ELT system, with its roots firmly in that bare minimum of twenty days of training, and teaching practice from day two of your course, I had bred into me a deep fear of Teacher Talking Time (I can’t be the only one, for example, that was intimidated with lunatic Mathematics along the lines of ‘70% of the talk time should be theirs, leaving you with only 30%!’). This quite naturally engendered a desire to ensure that my students were kept talking at any cost. Indeed, so desperate was I to ensure that I managed to keep my students talking that for at least a year early on, this particular tome was my Bible:


It’s basically a recipe book full of activities designed to do what it says on the tin – keep student talking – and until tonight, I’d not looked at if for at least fifteen years. However, dusting my dog-eared copy down from the shelves, I see that I’ve highlighted several old favourites. There’s the aptly named MAD DISCUSSION for starters, which I believe I used to know as pizza or Paris, and which involves splitting the class into two teams, asking one member from each team to come forward and then have them talk about why their topic – picked at random from a bag – is better than that of their opponent. Pizzas or Paris, plastic spoons or zips, the wheel or detective novels, and so on. Then there was MAGIC SHOP, which involved each student getting three slips of paper, every one containing a different positive human quality (honesty, health, humility, adaptability, and so on). Students decide which qualities to keep and which to barter with others. They then get ten minutes’ bartering time before reporting back on which qualities they’ve ended up with and how happy this has made them! I could go on, but the urge to invent a time machine and go back and inflict serious damage on my younger self would start to become overwhelming.

Now, given the fact that a four-week course is never going to teach even the most remarkable trainee to really be able to do anything other than fake it, I suspect that much of the reason behind the relentless emphasis on STUDENT talking time is simply a fear that the novice teacher will start spouting rubbish given half a chance. I know for sure that I did, repeatedly, and I’ve seen plenty of other young teachers do the same, if not worse!

Instead, far better, the logic runs, to train the teacher to be some kind of all-singing, all-dancing entertainer who can magic fun out of anything available and who may not know much about language, but who sure knows how to get the party started. And once it starts ebbing, how to rekindle it and keep it burning all lesson long!


However, in reality, the fact that novices may well spout nonsense is actually an argument for introducing longer, more comprehensive and more language-focused teacher training courses for those entering the profession, or – at the very minimum – an argument for more serious discussion of what KINDS of teacher talk may be valid and what be more problematic, and why – rather than an argument in favour of endless activities and talking for its own sake.

Another argument put forward in support of an output-dominated pedagogy is the notion that if not here, then where? In other words, if students don’t practise in class, then where will they ever get the chance to do so? Interestingly, even more recent critiques of the state of affairs we’ve gotten ourselves into such as the Demand High idea propagated by Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill still seems more focused on methodology and on what we as teachers can do in terms of classroom techniques to encourage our students to produce more and to stretch and expand their output.

The result has long been, continues to be and sadly will probably continue to be, for as long as CELTAs are still regarded as serious gateways into the profession, classrooms full of clowns with their bags of tricks, recipes, fun in large neon lights, and loads of hot air. Signifying very little indeed.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way at all, you know! It took me a while to work this out, but once I did, the blinding obviousness of the revelation almost . . . um . . . well, blinded me, I suppose. Anyway, here’s the secret. It’s this: students don’t actually learn language by chatting away using the language they already have, now matter how much fun they may have in the process. They actually learn language from language. Not images. Not blank spaces in coursebooks left in to lighten the visual load on a page. Not from running round the classroom in a  frenzy. But from language.

Whilst it’s possible that some of the interaction students engage in with other students during a lesson may expose them to new input or encourage them to produce for themselves things that had hitherto remained stuck in the receptive parts of the brain, we need to accept that it also may NOT. This isn’t to say that there are no good reasons for still doing pair work: there are obviously plenty. It’s simply to state that linguistic development and enrichment are NOT among the activity’s prime functions!

To really get over the Intermediate hump and to progress anywhere near to Advanced level, students not only to practise again saying what they’ve already learned to say. They need to take on board large amounts – huge amounts even – of new language. They need to tighten up on their ability to use grammar, sure, but basically they need a ton of lexis: collocations, chunks, fixed and semi-fixed expressions, and so on. They need to meet these things repeatedly, they need to have certain salient features of them brought to their attention somehow and they need to do something – possibly, actually, they need to do almost anything – with them. Given that the teacher alone cannot be expected – or, of course, in most cases (my own included, I hasten to add!) be trusted – to provide sufficient relevant input themselves, via correction and teacher talk, then the issue of INPUT becomes perhaps the most pressing one that teachers have to think about.

Given that we seem to be living through the days of increasingly shrill rhetoric about flipped classrooms and that we’re constantly being told that technology now facilities exposure to English 24-7-365, many might argue that now more than ever the classroom should be output focused, but I would turn this on its head – or flip it, if you prefer (see what I did there!) – and ask if not in class, then where – and, more crucially, when?! The fact remains that for the vast majority of students, class is the one place where they have a hope of getting input pitched roughly at their level, which can then be mediated, explained, expanded upon, explored and revised by a professional – that’s us, kids – and that’s because most students who wind up in EFL classes, especially those who come as adults, are essentially failures in varying degrees. The lucky few, those who can learn a foreign language via interaction, are skipping class in favour of going out there and learning language through interaction! The rest of us miserable wretches all know what we ought to do if we really want to learn a foreign language well, but Lord knows that doing right is the hardest work there is on God’s own earth – and that it ain’t nowhere near as much fun as doing wrong.

If you’re honest, you know that most students don’t do much outside of class to push on from where they’re at. They do what we all do – take easy options and short cuts. They may well do some interactive stuff online, which is fine, but it’s not tackling new input; they may well try and tackle some insanely optimistically graded text of some kind – The Guardian, perhaps, or a two-hour movie that contains accents and language even native-speakers may well struggle with in places; but what all but the most motivated and focused few won’t do is read graded readers, do an hour (or even half an hour) a day from decent self-study vocabulary books, and so on. It’s too much like hard work.

And the fact that we not only have such an expression in English, but that it’s such common currency says much about the age in which we live, I fear!

Anyway, to wrap up for tonight, this is where the choice of material becomes crucial. Material we select for classroom use needs to take the weight of all these issues on its shoulders. It needs to amuse and entertain, for sure, but also it needs to push and stretch as well. On top of that, it needs to guide and shape awareness both of how language works and also of what needs to be done to get to the next rung on the ladder of linguistic competence. It needs, in short, to demand more of its users. And if we as teachers are serious about demanding high, then making sure our classes are focused first and foremost on input rather than output is not simply an option, but a must.

Twenty things in twenty years Part Six: resistance is futile – but still remarkably widespread

When I was in my mid-20s living in Jakarta and trying to learn Indonesian, I reached a point where I felt I had to start reading more about Islam. Partly this was because so many of my students were – to varying degrees – Muslim; partly it was because the practising of the religion was so deep-rooted in the day-to-day life of so much of the country; and partly it was simply because I found it interesting to try and get my head round a worldview so incredibly different to the one I’d grown up with myself. Concepts and ideas from Islam were also obviously widespread in Indonesian itself, with the words for many more abstract ideas being derived from Arabic.


One of the more fascinating notions I grappled with was the idea that the word Islam itself originally means submission or surrender in Arabic, a fact more recently made more complicated and controversial by the Ayaan Hirsi Ali film Submission, and its subsequent enthusiastic promotion by those on the right. The root of the word Islam, though, is salaam, from which can also be derived the words for peace and safety. Now, many religions have a concept of surrender to God. In Jewish history, the ancient Hebrews had a long period of prosperity and stability when they obeyed God’s commands; in Christianity, surrendering to God is a way of putting your life into more capable hands. In this sense, the idea of obeying the commands and logic of a higher power and trusting in a wisdom that may not always be apparent to one can actually be a way of bringing about peace.

Now, you’re probably wondering where I’m going with all of this, aren’t you? Bear with me, OK. Despite the fact that any discussion of submission and resistance feels decidedly dodgy in a post Jimmy Saville / post-Operation Yewtree world, where every week another of the creepy celebs that were all over the TV of childhood like a bad rash is arrested and charged with some form or other of unsavoury retrospective sexual coercion, these two concepts are actually at heart of language learning!

To this day, I can still remember the almost physical sense of relief and the easing off of tension once I finally just stopped fighting it, stopped trying to impose my own pre-programmed system onto it and simply gave in to Indonesian and its own weird internal logic. For maybe the first year or so of my time in the country, I’d been unconsciously bridling at what seemed to me to be the peculiar sentence construction, the language’s stubborn refusal to express itself in ways I expected it to, the different ways in which divided up the world, the three different versions of I and You, the way we-but-not-you was one word, kami, and we-including-you another – kita, and so on. And then one day, suddenly, luckily, the fight just fell away and I realised that there was no way i was ever going to be able to change the way things were and that either I’d have to ship on out of the kitchen or else simply embrace things as they stood, submit, surrender. And in doing so came a kind of peace. And considerably faster and less stressful progress.

Now, I see signs of this resistance all the time in my classes – and I’m sure you do too, whether you’re conscious of it or not. The questions are never-ending:

“But why is it a football PITCH? Why not football field? I mean, you call the position midfield, don’t you? Not midpitch. In my language, we use one word for these two ideas.”

“Why do you say my wife and my NEW son? This is so stupid. So if I have two sons, do I say my NEW son and my OLD son? No! You see! Stupid!”

“But it’s the same: It’s a long time I haven’t seen you and I haven’t see you for ages. Why I need to change it?”

” You mean I can’t say Alex Ferguson is A FLAG? Like a FLAG of Manchester United? No? But that’s crazy. In my language we say it like this!”


And on and on it goes. These ones are just from the last few days with my Upper-Intermediate group and so are fresh in my mind, but you’ll recognise the genre no doubt. And the stiffer the resistance, the less learning takes place, as the students are constantly waging war against an implacable, uncaring enemy that will never bend even an inch to their own futile requirements. There will only ever be one loser in this war of wills, and it won’t be the language, for sure!

As language teachers, we have a key role to play in this ongoing struggle, as our students rub up against the different, the unexpected, the inexplicable, the frustrating, the downright weird and simply wrong (to their minds). Our job is to provide the oil, to smooth the lurching uphill journey towards greater noticing, more acquisition, more (linguistic) assimilation, more acceptance of norms – and to lessen resistance at every turn. Our job is to smile and say:

“There’s no reason why we have two different words where you have one. It’s just the way it is, OK. We say MIDFIELDER, but we play on a PITCH. That’s just the way it is. We also say PITCH for cricket and rugby as well. yeah, yeah. I know! You think cricket’s crazy too. There you go. What can I say?”

“Because maybe in this context the son is very young, so he’s new to the world. How do you say this idea in your language? How would you express this concept? OK, so it’s different, but that’s how it is in English. You can also say my new job, my new girlfriend, my new flat and so on. Don’t you use NEW in these contexts? It’s the same idea.”

“Of course people will understand you if you say It’s a long time I haven’t seen you. They’d probably understand you if you say It’s a long time I didn’t see you! But it’s not English. Not really. It just sounds like you’re translating, like you’ve not learned how to say I haven’t seen you for ages. I thought you were here to learn how to say things better? Yeah? Right. So this one’s better, OK!”

“I don’t know if you’d noticed, but English isn’t Italian! Sorry to tell you, but that’s a sad fact of life. I know what you mean, though. You mean like he’s a symbol of the club or something, right? We just don’t use the word flag like that. It sounds funny!”

It never ends, and it’s essentially a million ones of saying “I know! It’s different! Ha ha. Crazy English! Who knows why? To make life hard for you – and to keep me in employment!”

Which, mercifully, it HAS managed to do thus far.




Twenty things in twenty years Part Five: there really is no need for Needs Analysis!

One of the more ridiculous notions instilled in me on my month-long CELTA course taken twenty years ago was the idea that via a scribbled sheet of paper containing a few topics and some grammar structures I might somehow be able to discern the ‘needs’ of my subsequent classes. In retrospect, it now seems almost as mad to me as a novice medical student with a few weeks’ study under their belt asking a patient what THEY think the root of their medical condition is – and then treating them in accordance with this self-diagnosis. I dread to think what would’ve happened to me when I first slipped a disc in my early 20s after a particularly heavy session in the gym and yet only became aware of the issue due to a throbbing pain behind my knee (which I now realise was the result of inflammation of the sciatic nerve, the root of which had been trapped beneath the lapsed spinal disc). Might I have been given knee strengthening exercises to do? Told to run more? God only knows, but one thing you can be sure of is that I would not have been well diagnosed and that the treatment I would’ve received would almost certainly have done more harm than good.

It’s not just my CELTA course that tried to foist Needs Analysis onto me, though. The edition of Jeremy Harmer’s THE PRACTICE OF ENGLISH LANGUAGE TEACHING that I read as part of the course also includes a section on the subject, albeit within the context of evaluating material that might be useful / relevant to students. We’re told to ‘describe’ our students by noting down their age, sex, social / cultural backgrounds, occupations, motivation/attitude, educational background, English level, world knowledge, and their interests and beliefs – and to then use these findings to draw conclusions about what material might best work. We’re then encouraged to get students to write the contexts and situations students will probably use English in at some future date, the order of priority for use of different language skills – and the percentage of classroom time that should be spent on each skill. Once you’ve collated all this information, you presumably do the maths – add up all the different percentages from all the different students in the class, divide by whatever number you have in the class and then divvy up your week’s plan accordingly!

Having spent at least the first few years of my teaching career engaging in this kind of deranged activity, I can officially report one thing with certainty: most students want to do more grammar! Even the really good ones who hardly ever make grammar mistakes still think they need to do more grammar. The endless study of structures – their forms and their meanings / uses – is still very widely seen as the yardstick by which students measure their own sense of progress. In addition to this, I can confirm that most students – and here I’m talking particularly about GENERAL ENGLISH students – have either very little idea of when and where they might end up needing to use their English, if indeed they ever will; or else simply know they’ll need to use it in their lives and that this could include any manner of contexts and conversations. As if this wasn’t already complex and confusing enough, there’s the fact that needs and wants may often be two very different beasts. A student may only NEED English in a very limited context – to read academic papers connected to dentistry, say – but their WANTS may include reading 19th century literature, chatting to foreigners they meet in the bar near where they live in Alicante, surfing websites connected to the Moorish influence on Spanish culture and understanding recipes in English! Take the overlapping, conflicting complexity of one individual and multiply it fifteen times and you have a normal class: one that it’s nigh-on impossible to assess or analyse the ‘needs’ of using any of these approaches!

Of course, if you’re teaching one-to-one or doing a very niche ESP or Business class, then maybe this approach works better. I still recall being sent out to teach in a factory  in Tanggerang – in the sprawling industrial suburbs of Jakarta – armed with my CEC English Course, which we slogged through for a few weeks before my students plucked up enough courage to tell me that really this wasn’t what they needed and that actually the only reason they needed English was to understand the vast Suzuki manual they had to plough through in order to do their jobs properly!


Knowing this in advance would have saved us all time and stress, no doubt. Interestingly, in the edition of Jim Scrivener’s LEARNING TEACHING that I read as a novice, Needs Analysis is ONLY mentioned within the confines of a discussion about teaching Business English, which does make sense.

More recently, the concept of meeting students’ needs has formed a central part of the discourse around Dogme, as though simply doing enough talking with our students and plugging the gaps that emerge is somehow sufficient provision of language for all subsequent needs (as opposed to simply being an immediate finger-in-dyke-wall type operation)! The talking around any given task is in itself apparently the analysis and the recasting or reformulation of output, the meeting of the needs thus exposed!

Whilst there’s obviously much to be said for working from what students say and helping them to say it better, the claim that this meets needs seems to me only marginally less spurious than the idea that asking students which topics they wish to whizz through during their four-week stay at a private language school that has continuous enrollment – and which structures they most want to go over yet again in order to increase ever further their anxiety about them – helps us do the same.

My own teaching – and hopefully also my students’ learning – benefited greatly from  abandoning questionnaires of the kind outlined above (and of the kind still to be found all over the web as well!) – and finally recognising that one of the things students pay for is a more expert analysis of what they need to do in order to get to where they might want to get to – which, let’s face it, often just means to the next level up! As previously mentioned, students themselves, as a result of their own learning experiences and notions about language, tend to see progress very much in terms of grammar. I can count on maybe one hand the number of students I’ve met over the years who, in tutorials or just whilst chatting, have been astute enough to recognise that the main thing stopping them from moving up past Intermediate, say, is their lack of lexis! It’s a rare learner indeed who perceives that it’s only the drudgery of taking on board another one or two or three thousand collocations, chunks, expressions, words is at the heart of what will push them on to FCE and beyond! And that’s where we come in!

Because REALLY what your General English students need MOST is this:

– repeated exposure to as many of the most frequent words in the language, the two- and three-star words in Learner Dictionaries, as can be managed in the time you have with them.

– greater understanding of how these words work with other words, and how they work with grammar.

– advice on how best to shoulder the huge burden of having to learn this much language

– to put this advice into practice and to take some responsibility for this learning at home, whether it be by reading graded readers, making revision cards, doing vocabulary self-study books or whatever

– to read and to listen to appropriately graded texts across a wide range of social, academic and work-related topics

– to have space to discuss their own responses to these texts – and to tell stories / anecdotes using the lexis studied – in class . . . AND then to have the teacher help them say these things better

– to become more aware (via repeated work on this) of how language sounds when spoken: the linking, the elision, the assimilation, the weak forms, and so on . . . and to get the chance to hear a broad range of accents, both native and non-native.

– to sometimes be corrected when they do make mistakes with language (including grammar) previously taught and to be made aware of why what they said / wrote was wrong

– to spend some time either consolidating or extending what they know about how structural grammar works, but less time than they spend on lexis, as lexis is far more at the root of communicative competence than structural grammar is

– to have a teacher confident enough to explain these needs to them, to explain why what they think they need may not actually be what’s best for them, and to guide them towards ways of more fruitfully using the little time they have available for the study of English in more fruitful ways

And THAT is never going to happen if we continue to send inexperienced teachers out there into the big wide world armed with photocopied lists of unit titles and topic headings from Murphy’s English Grammar In Use, is it?!




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B: I’m going to go to Florida.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll have finished by tomorrow.

I should’ve done it by nine.

I’ll have left by then.

I’ll have been here ten years next month.

He’ll have forgotten all about it by tomorrow.

You won’t have heard of it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work in pairs. Discuss the difference between these sentences.

1a Jim only spoke to Jane.

1b Only Jim spoke to Jane

2a Mike didn’t really enjoy the party.

2b Mike really didn’t enjoy the party

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

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

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

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

The phone rang while I had a bath.

The phone was ringing while I had a bath.

The phone rang while I was having a bath


The phone was ringing while I was having a bath.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long may it continue to do so.

Twenty Things In Twenty Years Part One: Falling Into A Me-Shaped Hole

In much the same way as I once found it inconceivable that I’d ever suffer the indignity of reaching the terrifying age of 30, so it seems preposterous that this year marks the twentieth anniversary of my career in English Language Teaching! In acknowledgement and commemoration of this rather momentous life event, I’ve decided that over the course of the next twelve months I shall attempt to blog twenty pearls of wisdom I’ve gleaned during my years at the chalk face . . . and in publishing and on the conference circuit.

In April 1993, I stumbled onto my one-month CTEFLA course at Westminster College, having spent the previous two years (since graduating in 1991) doing everything from building site labouring to making sandwiches in a factory canteen, from demonstrating ‘the ancient Chinese game of Jenga’ (TM) in Hamley’s the Toy Shop to buying and selling old records in the legendary and indeed infamous Music and Video Exchange empire, all the while trying my darndest to enjoy the many and varied delights, shall we say, that London’s nightlife had to offer. I was 24 and reaching some kind of burnout point. A change I was most definitely ready for!

jenga image

As with many native-speaker teachers, a career in education was certainly never something I’d planned on. In fact, it was a fateful conversation in a pub in Soho with an old friend, the splendidly named Julian Savage, that pushed me on down the road I’ve been exploring ever since. A few years older than me, I’d first encountered Julian in Our Price Hastings and our initial bond was to do with the fact we both sported bowl cuts and loved The Byrds and The 13th Floor Elevators. Julian had himself wandered into TEFL a few years earlier as a way to facilitate his wanderlust and peripatetic lifestyle. Anyway, he was briefly back from a sojourn in Iran. Or was it Ethiopia? Or Indonesia? Anyway, we retired to a watering hole to catch up and shoot the breeze. At some point, I mentioned I was in need of a change of scene and was contemplating heading off round the works in search of thrills and pastures new – at which juncture a CTEFLA was suggested. “Why would I want to be a teacher?” I asked incredulously. “I hated most of my teachers at school!” “Well,” Julian countered, “that’s as good a reason as any for becoming a teacher! Look on it as a firm of revenge.” And thus my fate was sealed!

With a full set of negative role models to kick against, I stashed two grand away during a gruelling six-month stint working bars seven nights a week and embarked on a whole new adventure. Now, here’s the thing: almost as soon as I’d finished my first twenty-minute teaching practice, I had a strange and most singular feeling – here was some kind of work for which being me was not only no longer a profound disadvantage, but where it may actually be an advantage! In every other form of paid employment I’ve ever had, with the possible exception of second-hand record store work, at some point or other being me caused problems. I struggled to confine myself to the (often stark) parameters of the work; I struggled to keep my big mouth shut when confronted with idiotic rules and jobsworths; I struggled not to give in to the overwhelming desire to gouge my own mind out in frustration at the sheer tedium of so much of it!

In many ways, teaching didn’t feel – and to some extent never really has felt – like real work at al, certainly not when compared to trying to prevent the local apes from ripping each other’s faces off on a Friday night’s pub crawl down the Old Kent Road! As such, it’s probably worth considering why that might be the case.

Obviously, much of the early appeal, apart from (and let’s be honest here) the thrill of being in close proximity to so many beautiful and interesting young people from all over the world, was down to the space teaching allowed for whatever kind of demented (albeit well-intentioned) attempts to create my own lessons I could muster. It took me probably far too long to realise that not only were my students not massively interested in lessons based around David Bowie‘s God Knows I’m Good or A Clockwork Orange, but also – more crucially – that they weren’t teaching much of real utility.


I was also slow to grasp that stumbling into class pretending to be drunk really wasn’t the best way of teaching the present perfect continuous, but I was still intoxicated by the freedom allowed me and by the plaudits of being ‘dynamic’ that students rained on me.

In retrospect I can see that a lot of poor teaching is excused – or possibly even validated – by a kind of pedagogical relativity, where we persuade ourselves that we teach as we wish to be taught, as though this justifies all, or where rampant experimentation is not only tolerated but actively encouraged. the point is, though, that teaching is a broad church and one that allows you to explore and work through all of this and more. Which is why becoming an English language teacher felt to me – and I’m sure to many many others – like falling into a me-shaped hole.

I later learned, of course, that the Subud quote on the back of one of the early Funkadelic LPs about freedom being free of the need to be free is profoundly true when it comes to teaching, and that it’s perfectly possible to still be both completely yourself in class and yet operate within clearly thought-out and even fairly narrow parameters.

But that, perhaps, is an area best left for another day!