Tag Archives: memory

Probably the best blog post in the world . . .

I’ve outlined my (many!) thoughts about the relationship – or lack thereof – between language and culture several times on this very blog, as many of you will already know. What may be less well known is that some time ago, over on a site run by the always provocative Chia Suan Chong, I engaged in a lengthy debate about the degree to which teaching EFL (in particular) also involved teaching culture. My answer to this oft-asked question was a fairly resounding NO! and I still very much stand by that view. Whilst language can on occasion obviously be used to express culture, or a whole host of cultures to be more accurate, these kinds of uses do not, in my opinion, belong in the EFL classroom, where the primary focus should be on helping students to use as high a level of language as they can across a range of situations, with speakers from all manner of backgrounds, both native and – increasingly often – non-native.

However, I’ve spent the last week working with a lovely group of incredibly fluent Russian teachers of English in St. Petersburg (one of my very favourite cities in the world!).

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Among the many issues we covered were literature, changes to English and the use of L1 in the classroom. Now, all of this started me thinking about two areas of language use which even incredibly fluent non-natives simply wouldn’t be able to grasp without actually having lived in a particular country – or perhaps its truer to say, without having been immersed in particular aspects of what occurs there (and I should say at this juncture that it is conceivably possible that, for instance, a TV addict would actually ‘get’ some of the references I’ll go on to describe even if they’d never visited a particular ‘host’ country).

As someone steeped in the Lexical Approach, I have long been interested in the way in which the kinds of fixed and semi-fixed expressions that are so common in spoken language embed themselves in our heads and in the pragmatic functions they serve as we converse with others. However, a less obvious source of fixed expressions is the advertising industry, and it’s perhaps sobering to sit and contemplate quite how many sentences you have echoing around the dark corners of your mind that come from the evil art of the advertiser. There are hundreds, possibly even thousands. Just off the top of my head and without even trying, here are some of the first ones that spring to mind as I ponder this.

Have a break. Have a Kit-Kat.

A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play.

Anytime, any place, anywhere.

The man from Del Monte. He says Yes!

For mash get Smash!

Go to work on an egg.

You know when you’ve been Tangoed.

This is your brain. And this is your brain on drugs!

Beanz meanz Heinz (a memory that automatically triggers the predictable follow-up of Beanz meanz fartz as well!)

Every little helps.

It’s finger-lickin’ good

Refreshes the parts that other beers cannot reach!

It’s got our name on it.

The best a man can get!

As you may have realised by now, I could go on for hours. Indeed, whilst putting this post together, I discovered that the web contains a whole range of games designed to test your knowledge of obscure and sometimes fairly dated advertising slogans and got very entertainingly sidetracked for quite time as a result! How many of the ones above are familiar to you? For all I know, some of them may trigger a whole stream of Proustian memories and associations in the minds of some of you readers out there, sending you flashing back to long-forgotten outings to KFC or camping trips where the baked bean suppers had disastrous consequences as you and your brother were forced to share a small tent!

Interestingly, and this is a testament to the whole art of the advertising agency,  with almost all of the slogans above, I not only remember the exact words, but I also retain the phonological envelope they were delivered to me in. I can sing the jingles in my head, or say them exactly as they were said on the original adverts. Just as with telephone numbers, we record and retain and reuse them in a particular way (oh-seven-seven-nine two //pause// three -five six //pause// double six three, for instance) and they exist as a combination of sound and language (and frequently music too).

Now, for the most part, this mass of cultural detritus simply sits in my head, taking up space, serving only as background or colour to particular memories that come bubbling up from what I’ve learned the Russians delightfully term ‘the undermind’! In other words, it’s not used or referred to (except perhaps in the odd book here and there, or maybe in a particularly random pub conversation). However, many of the catchiest slogans take on lives of their own and become part of common parlance. My colleague Andrew Walkley has written about the way the concept of something being a Marmite thing has become part and parcel of the language in the UK, all on the back of their genius advertising campaign that accepted – and celebrated – the polarising effects of God’s own spread.

However, Marmite is but the tip of a much larger iceberg. According to a Daily Telegraph survey of a few years ago, 45% of Britons use – or have used – the Guinness tagline Good things come to those who wait in their daily speech. Ronseal, a British wood stain and preservative manufacturer, are responsible for the “Does exactly what it says on the tin” phrase, created by the HHCL agency, and much used in their adverts:

It’s no surprise that such a clever, pithy, direct slogan has become so widely used in other contexts. Here are just a few examles coured from the Internet of the way the phrase has worked its way into the language:

Martin Amis appears to be taking the Ronseal approach to book titles with his next novel, State of England: Lionel Asbo, Lotto Lout, which is said to feature a “ferocious” antihero who gets his first anti-social behaviour order at the age of three.

Gordon Brown is the very opposite of a Ronseal prime minister.

I was once in a final salary pension scheme and it seemed to pass the Ronseal Test – a pension that kept pace with my earnings and grew each year I worked for the company.

You get the picture. And here’s the thing! there are tons of these mind worms, as the Germans call them, that pass into day-to-day use and both bemuse those in the know and bemuse those on the outside listening in. When I hear teenagers on the bus singing I’m Lovin’ It to friends down the phone in response to a question about a course they may be doing, I cannot but help envisage the Golden Arches of Mickey D’s lair; every time a L’Oreal advert airs, another ten people suddenly start saying Because I’m worth it every tome they splash out on something they probably shouldn’t be buying; every time someone trips over something or fails to see something somewhere, a nearby wag will comment that they should’ve gone to Specsavers.

Perhaps the most bizarre instance of this phenomenon I can remember happened a few years ago when I was waiting anxiously to see if the fix-it man was going to get the staffroom photocopier up and running in time for me to use it before class. he closed it, patted it and gave it a quick test run. I thanked him profusely and he replied, casually: Oh well, you know. Vorsprung durch Technik . . . as they say in Germany! What even the most proficient foreign student not au fait with recent British TV advertising trends would’ve made of this bizarre exchange is beyond me. The fact that a piece of German passed into the lexicon of even the most foreign language-phobic Brit is nothing short of a minor miracle, but pass it most certainly did. The story of this remarkable feat is relayed here, for those interested.

Nevertheless, as the world we live in becomes ever more interlinked and globalised, and ever more in thrall to mass market consumerism, perhaps access to such intertextual nuancing and subtle comedy also becomes globalised itself. The other week in class, one of my Japanese students was saying he expected to get 7.0 in his forthcoming IELTS test. other students were mocking his lofty ambitions and saying it was impossible, whereupon he suddenly looked deadly serious, stood up, put his hand across his heart and uttered the immortal line Impossible is nothing – to much laughter!


That said, there are clearly some issues when it comes to advertising around the world – and we may well never see the day when slogans are used – or useable – universally. A Dutch friend of mine works for an ad agency here in London, specialising in researching the degree to which adverts from one country work in another. She’s been working on ad advert for Bjorn Borg’s kids’ underwear recently, and apparently in Sweden they sell using a phrase that says something like Lucky ducks. She asked me if such a phrase would work in English and if not, what the nearest equivalent would be. I replied that I found the whole concept of calling kids lucky because they had one particular brand of underwear rather than other very very weird in itself, and that if you wanted to say lucky something in English, it’d be something like lucky git or lucky bastard, neither of which really lent themselves  to selling kids’ pants!

Oh, perhaps by this stage you’re wondering where the profoundly out-of-character boasting in the title of this blog post comes from, aren’t you? Well, simples, as the really annoying meerkat in the compare the market dot com advert always put it, it’s from here:


Right, I know at the start of this post, I said that I wanted to write about TWO areas of language use that even fluent non-natives simply wouldn’t be able to grasp without actually having lived in a particular country – and the astute observers among you will have noticed I’ve only really tackled one.

That’s because all this talk is making me thirsty, so I’m going to sign off for now, grab a cold beer from the fridge and come back to the second part of this later on in the week.

Activating memory in the language classroom

Or testing, in other words!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He needed to buy a ticket to get into town

He had no idea how to work the machine

The couple behind him asked him if he spoke German

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

asthma                                    migraines                                    diabetes                                    rash                                    malaria

sneezing                                    insomnia                                    stress                                    HIV                                    upset stomach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ss: They went round a corner

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

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

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

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

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

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

The force of focus . . . and the terror of tests!

Last week my university – University of Westminster in Regent Street, in the centre of London – had its inaugural session for what we hope will become a series of teacher development talks by various TEFL celebs. Jeremy Harmer came down from Cambridge and did a session called The Myth of Multi-Tasking and the Force of Focus. Knowing – and liking – Jeremy from the conference circuit, I was both amused and intrigued to see he’d chosen such a title, as one of my abiding images of him is as a man singularly unable to focus firmly on a talk, preferring instead to tweet, retweet and so on throughout, a trend which seems to blight almost every talk I ever go to these days. Whatever happened to the good old days, you hear me asking, when none of this used to happen, and we all just whispered bitchy comments into the ears of whoever had the misfortune to be sat next to us?!

Anyway, after a fairly rambling first half-hour (or ‘discursive’, if you’d rather), the talk really got going and Jeremy started connecting his theme to the language classroom. He did something which I found very interesting: showed three teachers from different backgrounds and working in different contexts either teaching or talking and teaching and posed some key questions about one.

I’ll come to these questions in a moment, but first the three teachers: there was a young Irish guy working with (presumably – and, let’s face it, hopefully (!!)) an Elementary class of multilingual students. He got the students up and stood them in front of the class, and then gave each one a piece of paper with a word on it, a word the class could see but they could not. The words were Marianne’s / was / wedding / Yesterday / anniversary. The class has to shout out instructions to move the five students around until they stood in such a way that the sentence was complete. First they went for Marianne’s wedding anniversary was Yesterday – but then the teacher pointed out that Yesterday had a capital letter. After a lot more faffing around, they finally got into the correct positions and the sentence read Yesterday was Marianne’s wedding anniversary.

Next up was a very bouncy young Mexican teacher who talked about a web quest she’d been doing with her class. She asked the class to imagine they were going on holiday to Europe for a week and asked them to use the web to research where they wanted to go, and what they wanted to see and do while they were there. They had to find out where they’d stay, how they’d get about, and schedule each day’s sightseeing and activities. They also had to try and sort everything out on a very tight budget. They did all this at home and then next class, had a big discussion based on what they’d found out.

Finally, there was a German teacher who simply said that every week she gave her students four pages of vocabulary to learn and then every Thursday there was a test. The test might involve writing examples or definitions, giving synonyms or antonyms, or even giving translations.

The first thing Jeremy asked for was a show of hands for who really liked each idea, who quite liked and who didn’t like it. The first exercise got a fair few really likes and likes, and I was in the minority for not liking it. The second one proved the most popular, and I was very much in the minority for not really liking it very much. The third and final one was the part that stunned me though. Jeremy asked who like it and – in a room of over one hundred people – I was literally the only person who raised their hand!

We’ll come to the train of thought that this weird moment set in motion in a few minutes, but what was most interesting for me was the next question Jeremy asked: Now think about focus. Which of the lessons do you think was most FOCUSED. Tell a partner.

Now clearly, the first lesson had some kind of focus – syntax and possible options for word order in simple sentences. Watching it was fairly painful though, and brought back bad memories of the way one-month CELTA courses taught me to come up with long-winded and slightly infantilising ways of doing basically pretty simple things, all in the desperate name of FUN (in big screamy neon capital letters!) The second had a communicative goal, sure, but in terms of focus ON LANGUAGE, there was nothing transparent in anything the teacher had said to suggest this occurred. The third one, however, was surely by far and away the most focused in terms of language and goals and outcomes. Students were given a clear target, fixed times by which they were expected to have learned this by and a regular routine to provide a sense of progress. Now, I mean quibble about the exact nature of the tests used, especially with what sounded like an over-emphasis on single words / word lists and on the use of synonyms, etc. but as a general principle, it’s one I like and am down with.

What followed was a fascinating, but ultimately fairly depressing, exchange of thoughts around the audience. What seemed to emerge was two things: (1) a general belief that ‘fun’ is motivating and that tests, by definition, could never be and (2) a sense that progress in a language was better measured by simply being able to DO things, being able to achieve some kind of communicative task (no matter how badly!) than by acquiring new items. In fact, several comments seemed to almost suggest that learning for tests was a bad thing. “just because you can reproduce something in a test,” went one response, “it doesn’t mean you can use it in practice.” now obviously this is true, but as I pointed out, it also doesn’t mean you definitely CAN’T. And I’d bet the student that remembers the language for a test is more likely to later to be able to use that language than the student that fails to remember and reproduce it under test conditions.

I was reminded of a not-uncommon response I had to a talk I did last year called Activating memory in the language classroom (or, in the soft sense of the word, testing!) Anyway, I was talking about a technique I’ve been doing for years, where I get students in pairs to re-tell texts we did in previous classes and then elicit the texts from the whole class. Usually students remember content but forget language and what I try to do is interrupt this process of forgetting by forcing them face to face again with the actual language the meaning came wrapped in. I told a story about an amazing Chinese student I once had who became known as The Memory Queen in my class as she had a remarkable ability to remember texts almost word for word.

When I told this tale, there were always folk in the audience who saw this not as something to be admired, but somehow dangerous. “Just because she could parrot learn” they opined, “it doesn’t mean anything.”

Well, except of course that it does!

It means she’s not afraid of – and actually embraces even – the one hardest, truest and most unpalatable fact of learning a foreign language: progress is achieved word by word, collocation by collocation, chunk by chunk . . . and given this, surely one of the teacher’s main responsibilities is to make students aware of this harsh reality and to (first TEACH them and then) test them (in both a soft and a harder way) day after day after day to ensure progress is attained.

Over the ritual post-talk pint  I had a lengthy and sometimes quite heated discussion about all of this with an old friend of mine, Simon Kent, whose coursebooks (Market Leader and Language Leader) both feature double-page spreads which are loosely task-based and in which the communicative goal takes precedence over a focus on specific linguistic items in every unit. Simon seemed appalled – and shocked – that I was advocating testing, and seemed to somehow see such notions as authoritarian, controlling, anti-student even.

I was left wondering where we have gone so wrong – and when and how did testing (and the structured continual acquisition of discrete pieces of knowledge it implies) become so despised.

This seems plenty long enough for a first real post, so I’ll leave it here for now. In coming posts, I’ll write more about how I think the current state of affairs came into being – and about signs of a slow sea change that I think are appearing. I’ll also post about ways in which I try to activate / test memory in my day-to-day teaching as well.

In the meantime, I’d really like to read your thoughts on anything I’ve written here.