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.

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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!”

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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!

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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?!

 

 

 

Connecting the classroom to the world outside

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

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

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

Did you see the news about the bombings in Boston?

> Yeah, it’s awful, isn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2                  The city was completely full of tourists.

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

4                  The locals generally continue with traditional costumes.

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

6                  The food is delicious, but high in calories.

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

8                  People light and explode fireworks all the time.

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

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

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

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

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

A Dogme approach to coursebooks: Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listening text 1

Listening text 2

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

Boardwork:

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

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

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

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

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

She was a…………… €487,000 compensation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Dogme aproach to coursebooks: Part One

In 1995, two Danish film directors – Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg – created the Dogme 95 manifesto and said their vows of chastity. These were rules that they claimed they had introduced in order to stimulate a return to filmmaking based on traditional values of story, acting and theme. The idea was very much a rejection of the increasingly Hollywood-influenced approach that made liberal use of special effects and technology. Launched at an event in Paris intended to celebrate 100 years of cinema, the concept attracted a lot of publicity, with its insistence on a deliberate move away from post-production, from soundtracks and from visual trickery, generic predictability and so on. Dogme 95 promised nothing less than a way to reengage audiences sated and bloated by years of overproduction.

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It was, however, three more years until the first two films bearing the official Dogme seal of approval were released – Festen and The Idiots. Interestingly, neither film adhered strictly to the ten tenets suggested in the original manifesto and a mere five years later, after the 31st film was officially verified by the original board as Dogme-valid, the movement was essentially dead in the water. Today, filmmakers inspired by the original idea can submit a form online and tick a box which states they “truly believe that the film … has obeyed all Dogme 95 rules as stated in the vow of chastity”. In other words, the revolution has become merely an opt-in badge of convenience.

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You may of course be wondering what any of this has to do with ELT. Well, in 2000 Scott Thornbury launched his own attempt at revolution: Dogme Language Teaching. Initially intended as a partially tongue-in-cheek attempt to restore the communicative aspect to communicative language teaching and to reject the over-reliance on the seemingly endless material churned out by publishing houses, all of which were seen as a barrier to real communication between the social agents present in the classroom, Dogme has become the dogma that refuses to die – the methodological flag of resistance for countless teachers and the subject of much heated debate both in its defence and in opposition to its admittedly somewhat fuzzy precepts.

Scott Thornbury

Chief among these precepts are the importance of teaching being driven by conversation, the importance of a focus on emergent language and the importance of not allowing material to block the channels of communication between teacher and students. There is also a focus on interactivity, engagement and dialogue, scaffolding and what Thornbury terms ‘affordances‘.

In the 13 years since Scott’s original opening salvo, Dogme has come to mean many things to many people, perhaps unconsciously echoing the way Dogme 95 has ended up becoming an opt-in concept. Self-proclaimed dogmeticians blog furiously about so-called teach-offs where a teacher shackled by a coursebook struggles in vain against a teacher liberated from such chains and thus able to truly tap in to their students’ wants and needs. Apparently. Or is Dogme really about replacing materials with found objects and the conversations that may – or of course may not – emerge around them? Can Teaching Unplugged really involve plugging in and turning on? Are videos and Internet-sourced material allowed within a Dogme approach? If so, can some materials be deemed to be more Dogme-friendly than others? Or are all such approaches heretical and a digression from the one true path?

It has long been assumed that this approach – or group of sympathetically related approaches – is by its very nature anti-coursebook. Indeed, one of Scott’s original ten commandments insisted that “students and teachers are empowered by freeing the classroom of published materials and textbooks”, a statement that always struck me as slightly odd coming, as it did, from a man with his own name on several ELT coursebooks!

That notwithstanding, what I aim to do in this post, is not so much to pick holes in Dogmethat’s something I’ve already done in some detail earlier on this blog, after all – but rather to explore ways in which the main principles behind Dogme can actually inform both the way we use and the way we write classroom materials. I will be considering what a conversation-driven approach to teaching might potentially look like, how scaffolding might best be realized, what kind of affordances teachers might best avail themselves of, how and when we might focus on emergent language and how coursebooks can still be seen as materials light!

So let’s begin with the idea of teaching being conversation-driven. I think few people here would argue that in General English classes in particular it is the spoken language that is most desired by students and is most central in terms of placing students in the correct level. We’ve all met plenty of students whose written work or paper test scores may well be perfectly decent but who’s speaking condemns them to a lower level than maybe they’re happy with. The ability to speak and listen well is at the root of linguistic competence. However, in what might be termed a ‘pure’ Dogme approach, the conversation either emerges organically from the class and is then mediated by the teacher, who has to be incredibly alert and incredibly adept at paraphrasing, guiding, extending and so on, or else it develops in response to some kind of task – materials by default if you like – designed to get (or keep) students talking. The first strategy is risky and leaves the teacher at the mercy of the talkative or uncaring student who wants to discuss last night’s football match or engage in direct one-to-one with them; it also relies on endless reformulation and as anyone who does a lot of this knows, it’s all too easy to jump on something familiar when it comes up and then spin out a little teacher-driven section based on something we’ve taught before. The second strategy is bitty, gimmicky, recipe-driven and assumes that discussing, say, a sugar lump found on a chair is somehow more ‘authentic’ or worthwhile than discussing questions in a coursebook or a particular kind of conversation. And in both instances, the world is reduced to the here-and-now; students only get to learn how to say better things they need at the moment of communicating. There’s little going on that factors long-term needs or more abstract, less immediately pressing concerns into the picture.

None of which is to say that I don’t think we should be aiming to teach conversation. I just happen to think materials can help us do it better.  Interestingly, the Common European Framework also seems to be insisting far more of our teaching is focused directly on teaching particular kinds of communicative competences – or can-do statements – and thus provides us with a guide to what are widely deemed the most useful conversations students should learn how to produce and process at each level. When you consider that for A1 students, say (or Beginners, if you prefer) these conversations include things like ‘CAN understand straightforward explanations of the members of a host family and the layout of the house’ and ‘CAN go to a self-service or fast-food establishment and order a meal, especially where the food on offer is either visually illustrated or can be pointed to’, you realize that these conversations are highly unlikely to just develop organically, especially in classes of this level. As such, if we want our students to converse well and we want conversation to drive our teaching, material designed with these goals in mind can surely help us.

There are two choices if you want to go down the road of focusing on conversations like these: either you get students to try them first, then teach the gaps, then get them to try again – an approach some call Test-Teach-Test, that other see as Task-based Learning, but which has also been claimed as Dogme . . . or you write material – or use material that’s been written – to present core lexis and grammar that will be useful in these conversations, to present model conversations students can hear before attempting them themselves and so on. I know which one I think works better! If you believe, as Dogme‘s original tenets seem to, that scaffolded conversations are important, and that teachers and learners need to co-construct knowledge and skills, I’d argue that material can frequently offer superior scaffolding myself.

Now possibly a teacher could conceivably flip the kind of material that a coursebook can provide scaffolding with when trying to encourage conversations like this, and could build up to the final conversation through a series of teacher-led tasks that encourage students to generate language that is then reworked or reformulated, but it seems like a demanding, actually very teacher-centred way of doing things when material could carry some of the weight of this load for all concerned.

So, materials can clearly be conversationally driven and classrooms using materials can be too. However, if we’re serious about our teaching being driven by conversation, then I think we need to always be looking for opportunities to allow conversations that suggest themselves to take flight and to flourish. In a sense, we need to take on board Scott Thornbury’s sixth commandment, which he dubs affordances and describes thus: the teacher’s role is to optimize language learning affordances through directing attention to emergent language.

Now, in what you might call a classical Dogme sense, this has widely been taken to mean picking up on things students are trying to say and helping them to say it better – whether that be by immediate reformulation or via subsequent boardwork or even by noting student utterances down and later sending them individualized voice recordings or notes via email. That’s all well and good, and I’m all for teachers doing more of this kind of working from what students are trying to say when engaged in meaningful communication – and will return to this shortly. However, surely the notion of ’emergent language’ could be taken to mean NOT ONLY language – or gaps in language – that emerge as students engage with speaking activities or slots or tasks, call them what you will, but also language that ’emerges’ from materials; language that is embedded in exercises or texts that has the potential to come out and be explored and discussed if the teacher is perceptive enough and sufficiently focused on language to ensure this actually occurs. I’ve taken to calling this kind of language ‘ambient language’ because in the same way as ambient music is music that floats in the background of our lives and may only really be noticed if we force ourselves to actually pay attention to it, this is language that tasks don’t usually force a focus onto, but which can be brought to the fore should we so desire it to be.

By being aware of the ambient vocabulary that lurks within exercises, we can move towards two or three Dogme-friendly goals: we can take advantage of the opportunities to teach and explore new lexis that the material affords us, we can frequently engage the class in further speaking – speaking that relates very directly to particular items of language – AND, by ensuring that we exploit the language on the page in any particular exercise, we thereby end up doing more with less – rather than the less with more phenomenon that seems to have been one of the original things Scott was railing against, as teachers all around him found themselves drowning in a sea of supplementary materials, or else ended up hooked on an endless string of things-to-do without much aim. This, in turn, ensures that whilst our classes may be materials-light, in that we may not cover countless pages of photocopiables or even of the coursebook, we still operate in a language-heavy – or rich – environment!

Let’s just consider what all of this might mean in real practical classroom terms, then. Let’s look at a specific piece of material.

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The exercise you see here on screen is taken from an Intermediate-level coursebook, from a double-page spread that scaffolds and supports students as they learn how to better talk about their feelings. It’s exploring how we use copula verbs – like look, sound, and seem – to initiate conversations about feelings. On a very basic level, it’d be quite possible to ‘teach’ this exercise just by telling students to do it and by then eliciting answers and writing them on the board, before moving on to the practice sections in B and C. However, doing this makes us little more than glorified human answer keys and fails to take advantage of the many ‘affordances’ offered us here.

Firstly, there’s the ambient vocabulary: while the main focus of the task is clearly on the copula verbs and the adjectives used with them in 1-8, (adjectives which are all recycled from a previous vocabulary exercise) for me, when I’m planning a class, my eyes are also drawn to items like broke down, throw up, really behind with work, I don’t get, the spa, split up, upset and so on. I start thinking about what I’ll say about each one as I’m eliciting the answers from the class, whether I’ll add extra examples on the board, what I might ask students about each one – and which words might lend themselves to subsequent speaking slots.

With my current class, which is almost all female and quite well travelled and moneyed, I might, for instance, think spa is worth exploring. So I’d elicit Number 7? Right. F. I think her week in the spa in Prague really helped her. Yeah, what is it, a spa? OK, yeah, it’s like a health club where you can have beauty treatments and go swimming and that kind of thing. So, just quickly in pairs, three things you can get in a spa. Students then brainstorm ideas, which I listen to and try to reformulate onto the board, an act that in itself will recycle and refocus on grammar that’s already been touched on before, like have / get passives. As such, we might end up here with something like this on the board:

I spent the weekend in a spa. It was great.

I had a massage, which was very relaxing.

I had a body wrap. It’s supposed to make you look slimmer!

I had a body scrub to get rid of all the dead skin.

I had a facial.

I had my nails done.

The words I’ve underlined I would probably leave blank as I was writing these sentences up on the board, which I would do whilst listening to what the students were saying. After a few minutes of pooling ideas, I’d stop the group, say “OK, now let’s look at how to say a few things you were talking about better” and then run through the boardwork.

Obviously, students might also ask how to say other connected things, especially if they have experience of these places. Once we’d rounded up on all of this, I’d finish off by going through exercises B and C below and moving on. Obviously, this way of working the language that’s there takes longer and focuses on more than just the words present on the page. Its starting point is thinking about what students might want to SAY – or might heard said by others – using the words that are ‘floating free’ in the material. It works the content more deeply that simply checking answers (and maybe glossing or briefly explaining) words that crop up would do; it allows far greater recycling of grammar; it breaks the class up with lots of little bits of talking and it allows plenty of space for personalization and entertaining sidetracks, humour, anecdotes and so on to emerge.

So I’ve already talked a bit about how coursebook materials can themselves be conversation driven, and how teachers can utilize coursebook materials in a way that increases the potential for conversation in the classroom if they focus on emergent – or ambient – language in class. This latter approach will ensure that materials used in the classroom are explored more thoroughly, from a language point of view, and that the classroom becomes, therefore, relatively materials light. The language that’s already present forms the basis of subsequent exploration and exploitation, and students themselves are used as resource as a matter of course, thus minimizing the need for extra supplementary materials.

One other way in which materials can be exploited and conversation can be fore-fronted is obviously simply by the teacher using the speaking that is generated by materials as an opportunity to explore language on the periphery of what it is that students are able to say. The idea that somehow materials oppress students into silence or deculturalize them or fail to engage them in meaningful communication, and that somehow discussing found objects or photographs ensures more ‘authentic’, whatever that means, conversation in class is a pernicious one, I would suggest, and one that needs to be resisted. The questions we should be asking ourselves as teachers are much more to do with whether or not the conversations we do encourage students to have in the classroom are purposeful, interesting, related to the business of everyday life and – importantly – connected to other input they’ll receive across the course.

Take this exercise, for instance, from an Upper-Intermediate book.

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This has always led to fascinating exchanges of opinions and ideas and plenty of anecdotes, especially if I begin by modeling what I believe the answers to be for the UK. As my students talk in pairs, I pick up on things they’re trying to say, but can’t quite yet, or hear things that I think could be said better. I use their talking time to get boardwork up and we round up by looking at the boardwork, eliciting gaps, giving students time to record and ask questions about what they see. In Teaching Unplugged, Scott and Luke recommend ten strategies that teachers can use to help students engage with emergent language, especially once it’s been reworked or reformulated, and I see absolutely no reason why repeating, recording, researching, reviewing and recycling, for example, cannot happen with language that emerges in response to coursebook material. Here, incidentally, is what ended up appearing on my board the last time I did this speaking in class – and all of this then fed directly into what followed, which was a listening from the coursebook where students heard five news stories related to five of the topics they’d previously discussed.

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Much of what Dogme seems to have unleashed is a bitty, recipe-heavy smorgasbord of speaking activities and while speaking in class is all well and good, it seems to me at least to make more sense if the speaking is interspersed with other work on texts of different kinds – spoken and written, with connected language work, and if all of this can be made to cohere and hang together, both thematically and linguistically, thus ensuring greater coherence and continuity for students.

In this sense, there is clearly one of Dogme‘s original ten commandments that I find myself UNABLE to agree with or condone. The idea that students are most engaged by content they have created themselves seems spurious and unverifiable at best, and it’s hard to see how texts created by the students could be able to offer up language beyond their current level, unless they were reformulated by the teacher . . . which is exactly what students have already done here – created their own spoken texts BEFORE then hearing scripted texts slightly above their level – and, of course, they can then also be asked to record or write their own news stories or experiences later as well, which can uploaded to the Web or shared in class and so on.

Now I am one!

On the 1st of April 2012 – almost exactly a year ago – I published my first modest blog post on this site.

Which means that now I am one.

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Someone has to say it, and it might as well be me:

Happy birthday to me,

Happy birthday to me,

Happy birthday dear me,

Happy birthday  to me!

Why, thank you!

Oh look, I’ve even got myself a cake.

Very thoughtful.

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Having long avoided the blogosphere, partly out of a fear for how much more of my life it would end up sucking up, partly out of a suspicion that it pandered to the loudest and crudest ends of the lowest common denominator spectrum, and partly due to the suspicion that a platform might turn me into an even more opinionated monster (never give a fanatic a soapbox, and so on!), a drunken conversation with Jeremy Harmer in a London pub one night led me to take tentative steps and test the water.

And once in, I’ve not yet stopped swimming.

Birthdays are always a good time to look back, as well as forward, so I thought I’d take this chance to pore over a few of the weird and wonderful statistics that the Interweb makes available to you once you embark on an endeavour like blogging. Here goes:

In the last year, there have been – to date – 20,197 visits to this site, which seems a fairly respectable number, I guess. A quick bash on my calculator tells me that that’s an average of 55 visits a day, which means more than two an hour, every hour. I’m obviously not hitting – and will never hit – the kind of numbers drawn like flies to a flame to Russell Stannard’s site or  Scott Thornbury’s, but hey, for a site which is essentially little more than a place for my to let off steam, voice what’s on my mind and talk – often at great (and possibly tedious!) length – to myself, it’s no mean feat.

Somewhat disturbingly, though, my best ever day was Thursday April 5th 2012, when 336 folk swung by.

It’s been all downhill ever since!

Where are all these viewers from, I hear you ask? Well, that’s a good question. Here’s the top five: 5,482 are from the UK, 1661 from Spain, 13777 from Germany, 1196 are resident in the US of A and 912 are in Poland.

More bizarrely, though, 10 have been from Ecuador, 6 from Iraq, 6 from Palestine, 4 from Yemen, 3 only from China – the same as Azerbaijan, Sudan, Libya and Trinidad and Tobago, and then I’ve had solitary visitors from Cambodia, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Namibia, Benin, Lesotho . . . and Vatican City!

Given that the official population of Vatican City is 886, I do wonder who on earth decided to come here – and wish the stats could tell me which search query led them to me, but alas we will never know! I’m secretly hoping they were the person who entered Japanese taboos (see below) – and got me instead!

In the year to date, I’ve managed 45 posts – including this one – and have attracted 597 comments, though given that I’ve tried to reply to each and every one, at least half of those must be my own! The most commented on post has been the Technology and Principles in Language Teaching post, which I guess is very much a zeitgeist kind of issue, having attracted 66 comments.

The most viewed part of this blog – by some distance – is unsurprisingly the home page / archive, which I guess serves as the portal here. After that, though, the most viewed post – with 908 views, has been Bridging the Culture Gap in the classroom. Slightly depressingly, the least viewed is one of the posts I wrote in praise of non-native speaker teachers, which has so far only attracted 115!

The ways in which people have found me here is also fairly interesting. Search Engines are obviously the main culprits, with 3,924 people arriving via the engine of their choice, but second is Twitter, thus confirming my suspicion that one of its main functions in ELT is to serve as a space in which if we shout loudly enough, we drag people away from, whatever it was they had set out to day for the day and over to our blogs instead!

The searches people have made to bring themselves here are also both entertaining and sobering. English culture has been the most popular gateway here, with 370 searches bringing bemused folk to my door. Fourth moist popular, though, has been former Arsenal legend, Freddie Ljungberg, who I mentioned – and included a picture of – in a post wherein I contemplated how football chants AND ELT terms come into being! God only knows what the Freddi fans made of the post.

Other unusual searches that led here included: Speak English or Die (9), Marge Simpson Mona Lisa (8), You Always Talk Such Rubbish (7), Traditional German Breakfast (4), Walrus John Lennon (3), How Old is Chia Suan Chong (3), Wahey Man Geordie Slang (2), Skinhead Cross Culture (2), Friendship Muslim Britain (2), Shy to Speak English (2) . . . and with one search each, the truly bizarre end of the web: Why is there a big line on my head? / The Road To Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions Dating / response to not being in the mood to entertain someone being coy / lobster claw machine 2012 / can’t hear when not listening / debate-in the era of instant gratification values have not validity / i am really struggling to keep up with conversations help / skirt for praising the teachers / using Mexican food to bridge the cultural gap in the classroom / bathwater Dogme / Jimi Hendrix passed out / Japanese taboos.

The only real conclusion I can draw from all of this random madness is that my own search entries are positively vanilla in comparison!

So there you have it. A year in mad numbers and statistics.

Thanks to all of you out there who’ve been coming here over this time, and who’ve found my ramblings thought-provoking, amusing, entertaining or infuriating! I’m honestly flattered to know you even exist.

So what’s next? Well, over coming months, there’ll be a post on how Dogme can help us coursebooks better; more on the twenty things I’ve learned in twenty years, which will include rants abut needs analysis, more on grammar, the curse of recipes in EFL, NLP and the like; I’m going to hopefully try and embed some more clips of actual classroom practice and comment on it a bit; there may be some dissection of tech sites I’ve sen touted and possibly even a heroes and villains feature.

Before that, though, I intend to take a week off from all this frenzied work and enjoy the early Spring, spend some time with my long-suffering wife and kids and have a life away from the web.

You could always try doing the same, you know!

Taboo or not taboo: it’s all in the questions

Following on from my recent post about allowing the supposedly taboo topic of religion to emerge at the end of a class one day, a great post on Steve Brown’s blog and a discussion about taboo language over on the facebook page I run with my co-author Andrew Walkley, it felt like the time might be right to revisit a talk both Andrew and I gave a few times many years ago, and to adapt it into a post exploring the whole thorny issue of taboos in the ELT classroom.

As has probably become obvious to most of you, both Andrew and I have long had an interest in teaching spoken language and observing the things we talk about. To this end, we once ran an optional lunchtime course at our university on topics you don’t find in coursebooks – and the language that goes with them. We had classes on swearing, bitching, drinking, smoking, chatting people up – and, more importantly perhaps, telling men to get lost – pregnancy, birth, old age, suicide and death, more bitching about people (let’s face it, we don’t spend half as much time on complimenting people), sarcasm, politics, illegality and the like. The lectures regularly attracted 50-60 students – and they came from all ages and cultural backgrounds. Of course, in this instance, students were able to choose this particular course. They knew what they were getting, so you could argue that these topics shouldn’t be what is in a coursebook.

However, this does not actually counter the fact that these students we attracted came from very different cultures. Many of them did not smoke, drink, bitch, chat people up, get pregnant or commit suicide, but nevertheless, these topics were all things within their range of experience. Also, unsurprisingly when we consider these are first and foremost language students, what they were really interested in was the language.

When a student sees or hears a word it does not mean that they actually like or believe something. Nor does disagreeing with an idea mean that you can’t use certain language. The vegetarian cannot really describe himself without using the word meat, the atheist without the word God and, from a foreign learners perspective, you can’t really know what swearing is or what’s taboo without hearing or seeing the word fuck. For me, a fundamental principle is that words in themselves as things to know the meaning of are not actually rude, offensive or taboo. It is what we ask students about this language and what we require them to do with it that can cause offence or break taboos. Knowing so–called taboo words may actually be very important: take, for instance, my Iraqi student who thought nigger was a socially-acceptable way of referring to black people or my Japanese student who asked me after class one day what prick-tease meant! These students would’ve been done no favours by me being coy and skirting round the words.

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There are perfectly sound pedagogical reasons for including words like nigger, slag and spazz in, for example, an advanced textbook. An exercise might require students to sort them – along with other words like idiot and slob – into two groups: relatively socially acceptable / far more socially unacceptable. Students could then be asked if they have ever heard anyone using any of these words – and in what circumstances.

This makes far more sense than, for example, having students fill the words in in a gap fill or asking them which ones they would use and why. The former approach allows for students to say they themselves have used them, but does not assume that they have, whilst the latter operates on the assumption that they either have or would want to use them. As with much of teaching, it’s all in the questions we ask!

However, I am no longer innocent enough to believe that such exercises will ever make it into print – even in a second edition of INNOVATIONS ADVANCED, should one ever come into creation! There remain strong impulses among publishers to avoid any possibility of offence. This is something I’ve found in the process of writing our coursebooks. For example, in Innovations Intermediate, we wrote a text about making mistakes when learning a foreign language and this text featured two true stories that had been passed onto us by students whilst discussing the area of embarrassing mistakes in class – one involved an Italian student asking his English host family “Where shall I leave my shit?” – the old shit / sheet joke in action! – whilst the other happened to a Korean woman who was learning Spanish and who inadvertently asked for fried penis (polla frita) instead of fried chicken (pollo frito) on a trip to Madrid!

Neither story seems offensive or abusive to me – and both came up in class unprompted. I’m afraid, though, publishers don’t see things like this. Of course, I can understand why – and I have no interest in unselling books I’ve spent a long time writing – but the problem then is that in removing language and stories such as these from a book, the whole balance of register about what is acceptable or slang then shifts.

A similar parallel is the way the Labour Party swung violently to the right once the far-left Militant tendencies were removed at the end of the 1980s!

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As a result, things which seem perfectly anodyne, childish even, end up standing out on the extremes. Thus, we had a reworked version of the aforementioned text questioned by a different editor because it contained the word bum!

Other words we have had fights and rows over include get pregnant and get addicted to drugs (both of which stayed), It sucks! (which had to go because of its apparently possible sexual connotations – go figure!), Damn! (which also bit the dust, to be replaced with Oh no! And this was despite our argument that Damn! in itself is an already softened version of what many of us would choose to say in the circumstances), burp and fart (the burping stayed, the farting didn’t!), You idiot! (it stayed, despite fears it ‘may be offensive in Scandinavia’, where apparently, the local version is used in the same way as You mong! or You spazz! is here in the UK – not that we were teaching Swedish, of course!! Nobody ever said such editorial meetings were logical!) and on the toilet. Long gone are the days when we struggled to sneak condoms and tampax into listenings covertly!

These arguments and the snipping of the censor’s scissors come as no real surprise. An incident that occurred a while back when Andrew was doing a version of this post as a talk should help to illustrate why. He was challenged by one teacher at the end of the talk and told that “some people” wouldn’t want any language like this in a class. He mentioned several instances where his own students had been more than happy to talk about such language, but was told, “Well, in London, that’s as may be, but in some countries they wouldn’t want to”. When he asked which countries and which students these might be, his nemesis simply countered “Some students” and then said an interesting thing: “Maybe it’s OK to talk about this language, but people don’t want their noses rubbed in it, (so to speak), they don’t want to see it written down.”

My personal view on this incident is that actually she herself – the teacher – was the one who wouldn’t want to talk about it. While publishers are most certainly driven by a fairly conservative forces – and are not about to change overnight – I feel that as teachers we have to begin to be more open in our discussions about what is acceptable to be taught in the class, and as teachers we need to be much more led by our students.

One common problem, as previously alluded to, is that teachers often do not let their students talk freely or away from tightly-controlled practice activities at all, whilst on other occasions they may actually be unwilling to provide seemingly taboo language for students – even when students themselves are asking about it or trying to express it (as I felt was the case with the facebook discussion mentioned above). As such, it seems important that materials at least leave spaces in which good teachers can exploit areas and get onto taboo topics briefly – if their students wish to take up the chase.

What I’d like to do now is to broaden the discussion of taboo out into thinking more about coursebook content. To do this, I’m going to look at a text which provoked a lot of heated discussion a few years back at INNOVATIONS’ editorial meetings. I think it usefully highlights the arguments publishers will put forward for editing out – and allows me to put some counter arguments.

We were writing a text for Unit 4 of our Intermediate-level book, a unit entitled Feelings, and our first draft included the following lesson and text:

Reading

Read the following text and see how the couple met.

Do you think they will stay together? Why / why not?

The day that changed my life

When I saw Abdullah on the news – Jim, as he was called back then – I didn’t recognise him to begin with. He looked really really thin and his hair was falling out. When I heard the reporter say his name, though, I looked a bit more closely and then I realised it was him. I just burst out crying. I was really surprised, because we were never really friends when we were at school together. He could be a bit loud sometimes and we were just very different, I suppose, but to see him there, looking so lost and alone, begging on the street!! Well, it was just so upsetting. It broke my heart, it really did!

The next thing I knew, I was ringing the TV station who’d run the report. I don’t really know why – I just did it on impulse. Anyway, they gave me the address of a hostel for homeless people. I went down there the following day and it was really depressing. It was filthy and the whole place stank! Half the people there were either drunk or mad – or both! One of the workers showed me to where Jim was sleeping. What really amazed me was that he recognised me at once and said “Oh, Fatime. It’s you.” His voice sounded so sad, but, at the same time – and I can’t really explain this very well – it was like I could feel something pulling us together. I really felt like it was Allah’s will. It has really strengthened my faith, and it obviously touched Jim as well.

I’d like to say that things have been easy for us since then and that love has run its true course, but life doesn’t work like that, does it? What happened to Jim when he became homeless was incredibly painful and he’s had to really fight to overcome his addictions. At first, my parents didn’t want anything to do with him and even since he’s converted to Islam, things have still remained tense. My mother says she’s not coming to the wedding.

We’ve had a lot of support from people who’ve seen our story in the papers, but we’ve also had lots of hate mail too. Also, the media have actually put a lot of pressure on us. I know Abdullah doesn’t see it this way, but even now it still makes me angry the way the papers and the TV people treat people. I just think back to that first story. Here was this completely broken man, living on the streets. They came along and did their story on him, and do you know what they gave him? Ten pounds and a cup of tea! That’s it! And then they got back into their big cars and drove off, leaving him to go back to that awful hostel. They do these stories, but none of them really care about people. I can’t forgive them for that.

Anyway, despite all that, we’ve managed to survive together. He’s a good man, and I love him with all my heart.

Now go back and underline any expressions which are new to you. Underline only whole expressions – not single words!

Compare what you have underlined with a partner. 

2   True or false

Decide if the following statements are true or false. Why do you think so?

a  Jim was living on the streets when he first met Fatime.                  T / F

b  Fatime thought carefully before ringing the TV company.                    T / F

c  Jim changed his name to Abdullah because he became a Muslim.                 T / F

d  Some people got angry when they read about Fatime and Abdullah.      T / F

e  Abdullah and Fatime agree that the media sometimes treats people badly. T / F

3   Speaking

Is there much homelessness in your home town? Why? How do you feel about it?

Do you ever give money to people who are begging?

Do you agree with Fatime that the media sometimes exploits people?

Do you know anyone who’s found religion? What happened?

Why do you think people sent Abdullah and Fatime hate mail?

Our editors were immediately touchy about the text and warned us that describing a Muslim as homeless could be offensive. When we pointed out the very obvious fact that when Jim was homeless, he was not actually a Muslim and that after he converted, he actually got his life together, we were then told that it was best not to run the risk of any Muslims possibly finding it offensive. We countered this by pointing out we’d both done versions of the text in class with students from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia and so on and no-one had ever found it even remotely offensive. Indeed, if anything, the opposite was true. One of my Iranian students had once come up after class and said how nice it was to see a positive story about Islam in class! Nevertheless, amongst our editors, some of whom had never taught – and had possibly not even met many Muslims – the stereotype of the touchy Muslim prevailed.

We were then told the text may cause arguments in class and that whilst we, as experienced teachers, could deal with this, some younger, less experienced teachers might not be able to. That’s what photo-copiable materials were for, we were told – to allow teachers to bring touchy subjects into class if they wished to! Yet again we countered: what was there in the tasks that could possibly lead to a row? And anyway, even inexperienced teachers are skilled at dealing with conflict in their day-to-day lives outside of class. We all come to class with years and years of experience of conflict management and avoidance. On top of this, if we fail to allow the odd conflict to develop in class, we deny ourselves the opportunity of ever learning how to get better at channeling it and turning it into language-teaching opportunities in class.

As a last resort, we were told we were pushing a political agenda – as if censoring and whitewashing were somehow apolitical activities! In the end, we compromised – or sold out, if you prefer (!) – and re-wrote this text as the tale of a rich girl who falls for a poor boy from a broken home with a jailbird dad, despite her parents’ better instincts!

Does it really matter that texts such as this – and words like tampax and fart – end up being edited out of classroom material? Well, in some ways, yes, it does. If we end up with materials in which even everyday words like pregnant have to be argued over, then we run the risk of denying good teachers the chance to ask students questions like ‘Do you know anyone who’s pregnant at the moment?’ and thus denying any students who might want to ask how to say have an abortion.

Despite all of this, I do also believe that a duty lies with us as classroom teachers to get at language like this through our interaction with our students and through letting them dictate where the class goes from time to time.

Below are five examples of language either Andrew or I have ended up writing on our whiteboards, giving students the things they themselves were trying to say.

1.      We were driving home from the north of the country to the south and we got ambushed by some guerrillas. They started shooting at us. I thought I was going to die, but some soldiers came to help us and there was a big fight and then the guerrillas ran off. A friend of mine got killed.

2.      I once passed out on the train home. I’d been drinking with some friends and I got really pissed and I passed out and missed my stop and ended up in the middle of nowhere. It was the middle of the night, so I had to call out my parents to pick me up and take me home. Before they got there, I passed out again in the street and when I came round I was in the car. I was convinced I was being abducted or something and so I started screaming at the driver to let me out of the car. It took my dad a couple of minutes to convince me it was him.

3.     AIDS isn’t just a gay disease. I think straight people can get it, can’t they, if they don’t practise safe sex or have anal sex or whatever.

4.      When I go to an important meeting, I should eat onions beforehand. Then, when someone says something I don’t like, I could fart and stomp out of the room.

5.      They were shagging

None of the language in 1-5 came directly from a discussion of the taboos themselves. It is also worth noting that the students trying to express the meanings above included a Somali Muslim (1), a young Japanese woman (2) and a middle-aged Chinese female civil servant (4). What follows is a brief summary of the starting point for each and how we worked together with our students towards the production of these final statements.

1. This was an Elementary class. One Chinese student was late and tried to explain – in very broken English – that he’d had problems getting on the tube because it had been really packed, and that, once on, he thought he was going to die because it was so full! Andrew paraphrased this, and noticed the class seemed particularly taken with the phrase ‘I thought I was going to die’, so asked them to discuss a time when they’d felt like this in pairs. The Somali student volunteered this story. He was asked if he wanted it re-written and up on the board and he said Yes, as he knew he’d want to re-tell it later.

2. The word ‘passed out’ had come up in a text. I’d explained it and then just quickly asked the class in pairs to talk about any time they’d passed out or seen someone passed out. This was one of the stories that emerged.

3. A Taiwanese civil servant in his mid-forties ventured this opinion during a very heated whole class debate sparked off by one Iraqi student asking, “Aids is caught by kissing, isn’t it?” We had arrived at this point after reading a text on Health and Illness which included the word ‘infection’. One student asked what it meant and then another asked what the difference between ‘infect’ and ‘transmit’ was. This led on to, among other things, ‘sexually-transmitted diseases’, which sparked the whole thing off.

4. The class had read a text about The Anti-Onion League – a web-based organisation dedicated to the downfall of the onion!! Among the reasons listed for why onions should be avoided was the fact that they give you wind. One Chinese woman in her fifties, a senior civil servant, became quite animated at this point and produced this gem!

onionface

5. The lexical item ‘I got woken up’ had come up in an exercise, and one student asked about it. I explained it and then asked the class what kind of things they might get woken up by – the usual suspects came up: a car alarm going off, the phone ringing – before a Korean man said he’d been woken up recently by the people in the next room – they’d been shagging!

At this stage, it is important to reiterate that I am NOT advocating the kind of confrontational exercises in student-baiting so popular amongst the recently-qualified, wherein learners arrive for their morning lessons only to be assaulted with questions like “So what do you think about abortion, Chie?” or “Hussein, how do you feel about Islam’s terrible record of human rights abuses towards women?”

The key point here is that all of the taboo-breaking and boundary-pushing utterances in 1-5 arose from actually very innocuous exercises or texts and arose without any undue prompting from the teacher. Rather, they came into being simply because students wanted to say them – and, as a teacher, I was happy to help them do so.

Hopefully, this post will encourage some more of you out there to feel happy doing something similar the next time the moment arise in your own classrooms! If, that is, you’re not doing so already.

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!

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.

maldives-sharia-paradise

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

And that was that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work in pairs. Discuss the difference between these sentences.

1a Jim only spoke to Jane.

1b Only Jim spoke to Jane

2a Mike didn’t really enjoy the party.

2b Mike really didn’t enjoy the party

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

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

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

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

The phone rang while I had a bath.

The phone was ringing while I had a bath.

The phone rang while I was having a bath

and

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.