Tag Archives: Outcomes

But of course, you couldn’t do that in Japan! Part One

An old post of mine about the thorny issue of how and why teachers may want – or need – to tackle issues surrounding diversity in the classroom was recently quoted in a very interesting post on similar issues, but from a Belgian perspective. In a piece on the excellent BELTA website, Eef Lenaers wrote about the frustration she sometimes experiences when her students come up with gross over-generalisations about other cultures and what can be done about this. Now, all of this got me thinking about an old talk I used to do on the conference circuit ten or so years ago, which tried to address similar issues, and I figured that as I’ve been utterly useless at blogging of late, amidst various madness that’s been visited upon me, it might be a good idea to dig that old talk up and turn it into a post. Better than nothing, eh? So here goes . . .

Frequently after classes, my students will come up to me and ask “But where are you from? You’re not very English!” Over the years, I’ve learned to delude myself into taking this as a compliment: it must be down to my warm, out-going personality, I assure myself; or perhaps it’s the fact I’m not that bad with languages, that I’m chatty, and possessed of a lust for life. These moments help me stave off the sad fact that really I’m scruffy, prone to mumbles and rants, and somehow inherently shabby in the way that only those reared on bacon sandwiches and milky tea can ever truly be!


At home, however, it’s often a totally different story. I have a non-British partner, and the last line of attack, the riposte to which there is no return, is always “God! You’re so bloody ENGLISH!” This can mean anything from you’re the kind of sad, repressed person who walks out of the room to break wind to why on earth can’t you phone someone just because it’s after 10 in the evening! It could be quiet rage at my not wanting to talk about sex – or even really talk at all very much full stop, or else anger at my refusal to ever admit to feeling down or pissed off when the brown stuff starts hitting the ventilation. Whatever, it still comes as really quite confusing. I am English by birth and by upbringing. I feel intensely connected to certain aspects of life in Britain, repelled and appalled by others. And yet in the eyes of the outside observer, I seem to flit back and forth across a line of some supposed cultural finality.

The first point to make here is that both national identity and the notion of culture that it is so frequently associated with are far more complex than the simple retorts above suggest. However, it still tends to be the trite and the simplistic which prevails within EFL. Culture in English Language Teaching materials is a simple black and white affair; or rather, it is all too often simply white: antiseptic, anodyne, bleached and sanitised and bland. As a teacher trainer, this becomes most apparent when watching trainees use widespread EFL materials. Trainees generally come to the classroom with little or no experience and thus view the coursebook as an expert source of knowledge and as somehow implicitly right. The notion of culture as propagated in coursebooks tends to either revolve around the presentation of literature as a vehicle for culture, so the old Headway Pre-Intermediate, which I once used on a CELTA course, had, for instance, an extract from Dickens which includes such choice lines as “The mild Mr. Chillip sidled into the parlour and said to my aunt in the meekest manner ‘Well, ma’am, I’m happy to congratulate you’”. The many hours of fun to be had by watching trainees on their second teaching practice slot trying to explain to bemused students what a parlour is or how exactly you sidle is tempered only by an awareness that this is singularly useless vocabulary for learners of this level to be learning!


Another angle on the culture issue crops up in a text in an Upper-intermediate book called ‘Soho: My favourite Place”. I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with the wonderful mess that is Soho, but the last time I looked, it was still as full of drug dealers, gay bars, meat-head bouncers policing dubious late-night binge-drinking establishments, transvestites and menacing-looking characters lurking in shadows as it has ever been. Not in Headway, though, of course! Oh no! The nearest any of this comes to impinging on the antiseptic world of the coursebook is the admission that “the place is a bit of a mess”, whilst readers are coyly told that there are “surprises around every corner”. Those of you familiar with a bit of classical mythology may also be surprised to learn that Eros apparently celebrates “the freedom and friendship of youth”! This is culture as a kind of white-washed national tourist board ad.


All of this is then compounded by a persistent triteness which reduces people from other countries down to their crudest stereotypes, as in yet another text from a well-known coursebook that looks at ‘Minding your Manners Around The World’. Here, trainees get to inform students that if they are expecting the arrival of foreign business colleagues, they can be sure that Germans will be bang on time, Americans will probably be fifteen minutes early, Brits will be fifteen minutes late and as for the Italians! Well, you’d best allow them anything up to an hour! The supposed veracity of these gross, offensive stereotypes is not even challenged by the methodology. The kinds of questions students are asked to discuss after reading the text are almost always simply comprehension-based, so they are forced into uncovering ‘Which nationalities are the most and least punctual’, for example.

It seems to me that three broad issues arise from all this: the basic question of what exactly culture is, how trainees can be made more aware of it, and how a broader notion of culture leads to methodological changes. I strongly believe that even initial preparatory courses such as CELTA should be addressing these sensitive areas. Here, though, I’ll just try to outline some basic notions of what culture might actually involve – and look briefly at how this could impact on initial training.

The title of this particular post comes from a comment made to me early on in my teaching career. It was, presumably, intended as useful guidance to a rookie teacher and also perhaps as some strange form of protection for any mono-cultural Japanese classes that might later be encountered. The myth of the difference and uniqueness of the mono-lingual, mono-cultural context is a very damaging one in that it insists on speakers of one foreign language somehow all being equal participants in a shared, mutually agreed upon culture. Those still clinging on to such an idea might like to discuss the following exercise (later adapted for OUTCOMES Advanced) which we frequently used to do with CELTA trainees on our courses.


1. Are the following part of British culture? In what way?

2. Do any of them mean anything to you personally? What?

3. Have you seen any of them mentioned in EFL materials? In what capacity?

God Save the Queen                      

bacon and eggs

Balti curries                                      



the Costa del Sol

a week in Provence                          


the Proms                                                   


Old Labour                                                  

Conceptual Art

The Beautiful Game                        

The Environment

bowler hats                                        

Notting Hill                          

French art-house films                 

Irvine Welsh

Cockney rhyming slang               



Sunday school



Direct Action                                     


car boot sales                                            

St. Patrick’s Day

kebab shops                                     


Chinese New Year                                   

ackee and salt fish

ackee 5

My own take on this is that all of the above form part of the complex fabric of modern British life in one way or another and that the degree to which each is relevant to any individual with any connection to British culture depends on the webs of micro-cultures we each weave for ourselves. As such, there is very clearly no such thing as ‘British culture’ in any monolithic sense – it is rather, as the axiom has it, horses for courses, and the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. You also cannot make assumptions that, say, reggae and marijuana will always overlap or that Islam should somehow exclude fish and chips! It should also be added that not only will the same intense involvement in a wide variety of micro-cultures be the case for all foreign learners, but that often – as moneyed, globally-oriented beings – many of our students will  frequently participate enthusiastically in exactly the same globalised micro-cultures as many native-speakers. This is where non-native speaker teachers, working in the countries of their origin, have a huge advantage over native-speaker teacher imports. The local teachers will almost always know far more about the macro-culture of the country they are teaching in and can thus use all of this knowledge to hook new language onto in ways that are pertinent and meaningful to their students. Once you accept that mono-lingual certainly does NOT mean mono-cultural, at least when one is thinking of culture in terms of micro-cultures, then the gap that then remains can be envisaged less as cultural and far more helpfully as a purely linguistic one, with any attitudinal differences that each participant in any micro-cultural discourse might feel then being acknowledged and negotiated through language. Such an understanding of the way we all contain and negotiate a vast variety of cultures within our day-to-day lives will hopefully result in the end of essentialising comments about what ‘Arab’ or ‘Muslim’ or ‘Chinese’ or ‘Turkish’ students can and can’t somehow cope with in classes, and will lead instead to a classroom culture in which students in ANY context are given the time, space and language to be first and foremost their own complex selves.

I’ll leave it there for now, but be warned: there’s a part two to all of this and maybe even a part three waiting in the wings.

I’ll see what comes back in response to this one first and take it from there.

Ways of exploiting lexical self-study material in the classroom part one: what the teacher can do

This post is essentially a response to a request by one the blog’s readers, Patrick Gallagher, who emailed me recently and asked for ideas on using material that’s essentially written for self-study in the classroom.

Now, initially I was struck by this because, naturally, as a coursebook writer, my immediate reaction is simply to ask why on earth you’d need to bring this kind of material into the classroom when there are already great lexically-rich materials out there written specifically for everyday classroom use.



However, as I thought about it more, it occurred to me that there’s actually a fair bit more decent lexically-oriented material geared towards self-study than there is geared towards explicit classroom study, and maybe this fact shouldn’t surprise. The Headway / English File atomistic structural grammar syllabus still dominates and within this framework, vocabulary is not only treated very much as second best, but is also all too often limited to a focus on single words or, at best, collocations. The harsh reality is that it’s hard to get lexically-rooted material into class as the main focus, so I guess many teachers out there get round being shackled with a coursebook they may not particularly believe in or have much philosophical affinity with by bringing photocopied extracts from self-study material in.

And there IS plenty of good stuff out there: my own personal favourite and the one I recommend to all my students is ENGLISH VOCABULARY ORGANISER by Chris Gough, but then there’s also the ENGLISH COLLOCATIONS IN USE series by CUP, the PHRASAL VERBS ORGANISER and IDIOMS ORGANISER published by National Geographic Learning, George Woolard’s KEY WORDS FOR FLUENCY series and so on.

So what might teachers do with this stuff if we do decide to bring it into the class? One of the problems with doing this is obviously the fact that this stuff is all written to be done and home, checked and gotten on with. I was never designed with the classroom in mind and so fails to leap off the page in any kind of obvious way. As a little thought experiment, I’ve picked one exercise from ENGLISH COLLOCATIONS IN USE Advanced and imagined what I might do with it were I to use it to supplement a class, in the hope that it might provide some food for thought and fresh ideas for some of you. So here goes.

The exercise I’ve chosen is on social issues, which I’ve selected simply because this week with my Intermediate class we were doing some work on describing changes and this came up (Unemployment has gone down a bit over recent months / The divorce rate has risen dramatically over the last few years, and so on.) Here it is.

Collocations exercise

Well, the first thing I’d do is look long and hard at what language is there to be exploited so that when I was going through the answers, eliciting them from the whole class, I’d know what I wanted to focus, what I could ask the class about, what extra examples I might want to give and so on. I think it’s important that the teacher leads the class through this process BEFORE asking students to anything more personal or creative with what’s there.

In class, I’d tell students we were going to look at a bit more language to help them talk better about social issues, give them the exercise and tell them to fill in the gaps with the best missing words. As students are working their way though, I usually go round and check what’s right and wrong. If they have wrong answers, I might just say something semi non-verbal and negative like ‘Uh-uh!’ and point at the offending item. If students ask about a particular item, I may give a quick contextually-relevant answer too. In between doing all this, I’d also be writing sentences up on the board, with gaps in them, to expand on what’s there on page in a minute or two. These sentences are just things I either plan in advance or come up on the spur of the moment and they’re all things that might be said / heard around the language that’s being tested.

Once maybe 60-70% of the class have finished, I stop the whole class and put them in pairs, tell them to compare and then round up once I can see a few pairs have basically checked and agreed.

The round-up / checking is the first way the teacher can bring some of this language to life. What’s vital is we do more than simply get the answers and write them up. Here’s how I might run through this part myself:

So, number 1? Yeah, right. ADDRESS. Where’s the stress? Good. ADDRESS. The second syllable. And what how could a government, say, ADDRESS an issue like alcohol abuse? What might happen? What might they do? Well, for example, they might MMM street drinking. They might make it illegal. Right, so they might BAN it. Good. Another thing they might do is to make it more expensive to buy alcohol, so they might MM-MM taxes on alcohol, they might make them go up, so? yeah, INCREASE. And one last thing they might do is they might make it harder for companies to advertise alcohol, so they might not ban it completely, but they’ll MM-MM it. Anyone? No? The first letter is R. No? RESTRICT it.

On the board, by now, I’d have added the three words I elicited – or tried to elicit – to the sentences I wrote up earlier, so I’d already have something like this:

Last year they banned people from drinking on the street. It’s totally illegal now.
They’ve increased taxes on alcohol again.
They really ought to restrict alcohol advertising, so that kids aren’t exposed to it as much.

I’d then ask if anyone else had any other ideas on how the issue of alcohol abuse could be tackled – and would either accept students’ offerings, or else rephrase / reword them, maybe writing up extra sentences, depending on what came back from the class. I might also ask what other kinds of issues governments might sometimes need to address – and would hopefully get back one or two ideas from the class.

Teenagers drinking alcohol

For number 2, I’d again elicit the answer and probably write it up on the board. I’d then ask if they could think a famous example of an aid agency (Oxfam, ActionAid, the WHO, etc.) and would ask what kind of things they might provide as emergency relief – and when. Again, I might add some of their ideas to an already-prepared sentence on the board. Perhaps something like this:

The provision of emergency aid / supplies / relief in the wake of the earthquake / flooding / tsunami / volcanic eruption saved thousands of lives.

Next, I’d elicit the answer to 3, and ask what happens when law and order completely breaks down. Again, I’d have already got a couple of sentences prepared to help narrow the focus and hone the input. As such, I’d ask something like this: So one thing that often happens when law and order breaks down is large groups of people go into the streets and fight the police or the army. They maybe throw petrol bombs or rocks at them, they might burn cars, that kind of thing. This is called a? Right, a RIOT. And RIOT can be a noun or it can be a verb, so here it’s a noun. OK. And another thing that often happens is people go into shops – large groups of people often, and maybe when the shops are closed, you know, they break in and then they steal loads of stuff, so they MM the shop. Anyone? Begins with L. No? They LOOT the shops. And what kind of thing might make all this happen? Why might people start rioting and looting? Yeah, right. It’s often when people are angry at the police because of something the police have done. And this makes the riots happen. It MM the riots. Anyone? Like a match, when you light a match, sometimes little MM fly off. Yeah, right. SPARKS. And it can be a verb too, you can SPARK riots or SPARK public anger. On the board, I’d then have this.

A man died in police custody and it sparked three days of rioting and looting. The police totally lost control of the whole area.


For number 4, after eliciting the answer, I’d check what the group thinks social workers do. I’d then ask what it means in this context, breaking the cycle of abuse, and check they understand that it means kids who are physically abused themselves are more likely to abuse their own kids – or other people’s – later in life. It’s a vicious cycle. I might have a sentence like this up on the board:

Kids who are abused are more likely to abuse others in later life. It’s a vicious circle that’s hard to break.

I might also add that in lots of regional conflicts around the world, it can be very very hard to break the cycle of violence. One side kills someone, the other side seeks revenge. There’s then revenge for THAT attack, and then yet more revenge and so it goes on. It’s really hard to step out of that.

I’d then elicit number 5 and point out that both tenses are possible, depending on whether it’s connected to something happening now or not. I’d add that you can also make a plea for peace or for calm. I’d ask when someone might make this kind of plea (after a murder, after a terrorist attack, after a terrible crime, etc.) and why (they don’t want things to turn violent) – and I might also add that charities can make a plea for help or for donations at times of real need. I might end up with something like this on the board:

The father of the murdered boys has called for peace / has made a plea for peace amidst fears that the tensions could explode into violence.

I might then tell the amazing story of Tariq Jahan, whose two sons were killed during the Birmingham riots of 2011, but who almost single-handedly prevented an ugly situation getting much worse through his calm, his compassion and his charisma.


Finally, I’d elicit the answer to number 6 and I’d ask how you might INCITE violence. I might add that Tariq Jahan could easily have incited anger and hatred after the death of his sons, and could easily have persuaded others to go out and seek revenge, but chose not to. I might then add that there are relatively new Hate Speech laws in place in the UK that outlaw hateful, threatening, abusive, or insulting communication that targets people on account of skin colour, race, disability, nationality, ethnic or national origin, religion, or sexual orientation. It’s not uncommon for extremists to go on trial accused of inciting racial hatred, for example. I might add / complete one final sentence on the board, perhaps something like this:

He’s some kind of neo-Nazi. He’s on trial at the moment. He’s accused of inciting racial hatred via his website and his online publications.

Hopefully, this will give some pointers as to how the teacher can bring a fairly dry self-study piece of material to life in the classroom and use it to revise and recycle language students already know, to allow exposure to plenty of fully grammaticalised sentences, to connect the classroom material to the wider world outside and to provide space for students’ own ideas, theories and questions.

In the next part of the post, I’ll go into some more detail about how teachers can next get students to do a range of interesting things with any kind of self-study material they might happen to bring in. Until then, I look forward to your comments and questions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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

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

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

You’re not listening! I didn’t hear!!

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

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

Tie a knot in your handkerchief in case you forget.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorry. Can you say that again?

Sorry, Can you speak slower?

whilst at a higher level, it means things like:

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

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

and so on.

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

Good listeners:

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

– hear the words when they listen to them.

– process sound in chunks.

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

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

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

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







and so on.

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

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

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

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


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

They meet while they are abroad.

As you listen, cover the tapescript below and decide:

1.           Why are they abroad?

2.           How long are they going to stay?

B   Listen again and fill in the gaps.

Martin:  What do you do back home?

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

Martin:  And what are you going to do?

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

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

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

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

Alex:      Right.

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

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

Martin:  No, maybe not.

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

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

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


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

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

A         Listen. Write the questions you hear.

B          Listen again and repeat what you hear.

C          Work in pairs. Ask and answer the questions.


1          What are you studying?

2          What year are you in?

3          Are you enjoying it?

4          How are you?

5          Are you hungry?

6          Are you good at English?

7          Where are you from?

8          Where are you staying?

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

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

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

2          How did you getting/get into that?

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

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

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

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

7          That must be stressed/stressful.

8          I sometimes work better under/in pressure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Read the short extract below. Then discuss the questions.

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

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

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

– business

– living with a group of other people

– survival or dealing with difficult situations

– music or dance

– romance and dating

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


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

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

B  Now listen and answer these questions.

1  What is the programme?

2  Why is it important there?

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

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

1  The show was originally devised in Britain.

2  The Afghan economy has not been sustaining itself.

3  Most people in Afghanistan work for the state.

4  More people need to learn about aspects of business.

5  Faisulhaq Moshkani has an electricity company.

6  His company is unique in Afghanistan.

7  There are two reality TV shows on Afghan TV.

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

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

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

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

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

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

In praise of non-native speaker teachers part four: Translation

Used wisely, translation can be one of the best weapons in the non-native speaker teacher’s armoury. Yet whilst it may have been undergoing something of a renaissance over the last few years, translation has certainly not always a good rep in ELT. Indeed, my own path to recognizing its potential has been a long and winding one. Back in 1993, when I did my four-week CELTA course, there was certainly no mention of it, and in the two main bibles that I read at the time in order to glean ways forward – Jeremy Harmer’s PRACTICE OF ENGLISH LANGUAGE TEACHING and Jim Scrivener’s LEARNING TEACHING – there wasn’t much to get me thinking about translation either. In the latter, there was no mention of the phenomenon at all, whilst in the Harmer, I was told it was “a quick and easy way to present the meaning of words,” but then immediately warned that it was “not without problems” – it’s not always easy to translate words, and even where translation IS possible, it may make life a bit too easy for the students by discouraging them from interacting with the words.

Having not learned how to make life easy for my students, I set off to a monolingual school in Indonesia to get started on my teaching career – and quite soon I started noticing a strange thing happening. Students would ask me what a word meant, I’d go through contortions to act it, draw it and explain it and after a few minutes of killing myself, students would suddenly look pleased. I’d think “Finally. They understand what a frog is and say to each other, for example, “Oh! Kodok!”

As I was learning Indonesian myself, I learnt a lot of it from hanging out with English and American friends who had lived there longer and who spoke the language better. I’d often find myself asking them So how do you say . . . in Indonesian? and essentially teaching myself chunk by translated chunk. I also started slowly realising that a lot of the problems I was having were down to having learned a word and thinking it’d always work the same in Indonesian. I learned, for instance, how to say in Indonesian to my low-level classes OK. Let’s check the answersMari kita periksa jawabannya – and so logically assumed that the Indonesian word periksa must therefore be equivalent to the English word check. However, when Indonesian friends came round for dinner and I told them Saya akan periksa makanannyaI’ll check the food – they’d laugh and correct me and say coba makanannya – which for me meant try rather than check.

Once back in the UK, I noticed the same thing the same thing happening in reverse. In classrooms, I’d frequently be trying to elicit a missing word – say, for instance, here:

He’s got a really good job. He ………… a hundred thousand a year.

and students would shout out WINS! WINS!! and I’d end up retorting “Maybe in Portuguese, yes, but in English anyone?”

As time went by, I also started to recognise very common mistakes from certain language groups of learners, which I realised must be down to poor word-for-word translation, so my Japanese students would say I was stolen my mobile / bag, while Spanish speakers during tutorials would enthusiastically report that was a course very interesting.

So as you can see, I’d spent many years skirting round the fringes of the translation in language teaching issue, but had never really paid that much mind to it, if truth be told. What really made a convert of me was actually one little feature we wanted to include when writing OUTCOMES – a section called Language Patterns. The idea was that we somehow wanted to focus on lexico-grammatical patterns that weren’t strictly grammar, but that were definitely beyond single words – the kind of thing you can see below:

Mongolia is known as ‘the land of the horse’.

Shanghai is known as ‘the Paris of the East’.

Aubergines are also known as eggplants.

The area is known for its oysters.

The village is well known for its leather goods.

This rare species of shark is known to inhabit fresh water.

Very few details are known about this rare species.

And we wanted to encourage teachers to get students to notice them. Now, you’re all undoubtedly aware of the importance of noticing – it’s been central to theories of how language is acquired for over twenty years now. Back in 1990, Schmidt stated that while noticing does not automatically guarantee acquisition, it nevertheless remains true that features of the language cannot be learned UNLESS they are first noticed. Schmidt was talking more about structural grammar in its traditional sense, but Rod Ellis went further in 1997 and stressed the importance of drawing students’ attention to items that do not conform to expectations and that may therefore not otherwise be noticed.

Noticing is so central to learning that you could quite easily claim it is one of only four or maybe five things that needs to happen for any item or structure to be acquired. Essentially, to learn a language people need to:

• hear or see the language

• understand the meaning of what they hear or see

• pay attention to the language and notice aspects of it

• do something with that language – use it in some way

• repeat these steps for the same language repeatedly over time

The question was, though, what was the most useful way of trying to encourage noticing when space in the book was limited and when these were not the kind of core structures that teachers expected to find in the book. Was it enough to simply sort structures, show them to students and ask them to ‘notice’ the patterns? What might encouraging noticing actually involve and how could a teacher say with any degree of certainty that their students had noticed?

As we were to find out, facilitating noticing in class proved far more problematic that we’d initially anticipated. Initially, our rubric for these sections was simply Which patterns can you see in these sentences? Now, you think about how you might answer that question with particular reference to this particular set of language patterns from OUTCOMES below:

It’s hardly the same thing!

Hardly an instant solution then!

It’s hardly surprising people are concerned about it.

Hardly a day goes by without hearing one of these stories.

I hardly know anyone who agrees with it.

There’s hardly any funding available for research into it.

What WE noticed when we asked students to do this and to then share their insights in pairs or groups was that (a) they didn’t actually notice all that much and (b) it was hard to verbalise whatever awareness of underlying patterns they might’ve become aware of in this manner. Even if both of these barriers were overcome, there was then still the nagging doubt that none of this would lead to better production; that the noticing would all essentially be in vain. We then tried translation and in one particular class I had my eureka moment. Now, again, you might like to stop here and try the previous exercise, but this time with the following rubric: Write the sentences in your language. Translate them back into English. Compare your English to the original.

I had a French student in one class, who spoke very well, but often in a kind of French-in-English way, and who was also very resistant to the idea of using translation. “But I understand it all,” he would protest. “There’s no need!” “Please!” I would beg him. “Just do it for me!” “But it’s the same in French,” he would try to persuade me. “It can’t be,” I’d point out – “for starters, it’s in French! Please! Just to shut me up, try it.” So translate he did. I then kept the translations and the next class I pointed at one of his translations almost at random and asked if he could say it in English. “Of course,” he replied. “It’s Hardly a day is passing without that I hear about one of these stories.”

“Ah-ha!” I suddenly screamed. “That’s the FRENCH pattern, but you haven’t noticed the ENGLISH one!”

Translating back and forth between languages like this forces noticing in a way that nothing else does. So why, I started thinking, don’t more teachers do it? The bulk of classes around the world are monolingual with relatively bilingual teachers. And many of us who are proficient to at least some degree in two languages code switch all the time – with friends, relatives, lovers. It’s the norm rather than the exception.

Yet monolingual teaching has come to be seen as the norm, as the most desirable model! However, as Guy Cook points out in his quietly furious tome Translation In Language Teaching, the reasons behind this dominance owe far more to commercial and political imperatives than to science or pedagogy! How can this surreal state of affairs have come to pass? And how have so many teachers who could potentially benefit from a world in which their language skills were allowed fuller expression been brainwashed into believing they have to try and emulate the sad, sorry islands of monolingualism natives so often find themselves on?

In many ways, I fear, we are STILL suffering from an ongoing backlash against grammar translation, a backlash that has gone on so long and been reiterated so mindlessly that it’s become almost a subconscious knee-jerk state of mind. Grammar Translation was very much the dominant mode of language teaching right up until the tail end of the 19th century. Rooted in the teaching of Greek and Latin, with which modern languages vied for respectability, the emphasis was very firmly on writing, on grammar, on accuracy and on the ultimate aim of allowing the student to read literary classics in the language they were learning. Grammar Translation is what people often imagine either when thinking of traditional approaches to language teaching or else simply to translation in language teaching in general. As well as learners memorizing huge lists of rules and vocabulary, this method involved them translating whole literary or historic texts word for word. Unsurprisingly, new methodologies tried to improve on this. The Direct (or Natural) Method established in Germany and France around 1900 was a response to the obvious problems associated with the Grammar Translation method. In the Direct Method the teacher and learners avoided using the learners’ native language and just used the target language. Like the Direct Method, the later Audio-Lingual Method tried to teach the language directly, without using the L1 to explain new items.

The Reform Movement, which was the initial reaction against Grammar Translation, placed the primary emphasis on speech, and generally insisted on an English only approach, but still allowed some translation. These ideas were picked up and simplified – and then codified – by schools during the first great language teaching boom and Berlitz, founded at the end of the 19th century, insisted on natives only, speech only and no use of L1. Indeed, translation became a sackable offence. This led directly to the pillars of practice that haunt us to this day: monolingualism; naturalism – the idea that learning L2 can somehow mirror the ‘natural’ way we learn L1; native speakerism and absolutism – the belief (or claim) that Direct Method is the one true path!

Subsequent so-called ‘humanistic’ methodologies such as the Silent Way and Total Physical Response and communicative methodologies moved ever further away from L1, and from these arose many of the contemporary objections to translation. Sure there was the odd exception, such as Community Language Learning in the 1970s, which accepted the whole human range of approaches, including negotiation between student and counselor teacher, within which translation was seen as one tool among many, but such approaches were few and far between.

All of which brings us to our current state of play, where countless – and often groundless – fears abound: students will end up using L1 all time, when aim is use of L2; the skills involved in translation are not suitable for all learners – and may only suit those who are analytical, older or better; learners may not see the value of translation value or only see it as hard or specialised; it’s hard to set up and run in class; it requires extra motivation from students; it needs a teacher with a good knowledge of students’ L1 and culture and thus doesn’t work in multilingual classes – and on and on it goes.

At its worst, anti-TILT (Translation in Language Teaching) rhetoric is rooted in dialogue focused on monolingualism and the supression of other languages – as can be seen in the States at the moment, where folk proudly sport Speak English or Die T-shirts and where a recent airport best-seller is entitled His Panic: Why Americans fear Hispanics in the US.

Yet as I hope I have already persuaded you, there are many strong reasons in favour of using TILT. Some of the strongest are actually evidence based. For instance, in a 2008 study, Laufer and Girsai taught vocabulary to three groups using three approaches – meaning-focussed, form-focussed without translation and through contrastive analysis and translation. Both passive AND active retention was way higher with the third group.

Translation is, by its very nature, highly communicative and is a real world activity for the vast majority of students at some point in their language-using lives. On a more meta level, you could almost argue that translation makes the world go round – the UN, the EU, business, academia, and so on all rely on it.  Whether we like it or not, the process of understanding L2 by looking for L1 equivalents has always been a frequently used strategy for learners. If you accept this, then there comes a need to develop it in the right way – to hone it.

Lower-level students use translation all the time – and for higher-level learners, it’s almost by definition what it means to be good! I’d be amazed if I were to go out for dinner tonight with any of you reading this and found that you were unable to translate an L1 menu, for instance!

In terms of student-centeredness, many students – especially younger ones and those at lower levels, though perhaps not only them – look more favourably upon bilingual instruction and, therefore, translation than has previously been admitted.

Irrespective of all arguments in favour of using TILT, the bottom line is that it’s the most effective way of doing stuff that needs to be done! In many ways, as well, translation is one of the most authentic tasks that we can engage in in the classroom as it’s something we all do all the time – in the so-called real world. There’s also the very real possibility that for many students, translation will be the main – or maybe even the sole – activity connected to English that they engage in later in their lives!

In addition to everything else, it’s a time-efficient way of dealing with such time-honoured problems as false friends, it requires minimal preparation – and, let’s be honest, the recommendation that foreign-language classes be taught exclusively in the foreign language remains, shall we say, ‘aspirational’ at best!

To those of you who STILL remain sceptical, look at it this way. From L2 to L1 is less an absolute act and more just part of a spectrum. When we explain new language in simplified language or with gestures, we’re already engaging in a form of translation! Given this, surely it should not be too much of a leap to then allow the principled use of L1?!

Henry Widdowson once said that that the error of monolingual teaching is that it misunderstands how learners of English engage with their new language, and the purposes for which it is being learned. He warned that to proceed as though the learners’ own languages do not exist, attempting to induct learners into a local monolingual native-like perspective, is to profoundly misunderstand what is happening. Learners will ALWAYS relate new language to their own, even if only in their own minds, and if forbidden to do so, will nevertheless continue the practice as a means of resistance!

In short, humans teach and learn by moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar, by building new knowledge onto existing knowledge. Language learning is no – or should be no – exception!

Interestingly, the grammar-plus-words model of language that still prevails in many coursebooks works least well with TILT. What works best is collocations, chunks and patterns. Lexis, in other words. What clearly rarely works at all is single words – and, to a lesser degree, grammar, especially if we’re looking for direct equivalence, though as I said earlier, it can still be useful to understand L1 transference errors.

This does all seem to suggest, then, that if we are to get the most from TILT, then the time has come to drop the dominant model of grammar plus structures and to embrace instead an approach to language that sees grammar and vocabulary as inextricably intertwined and contextually bound.

So what kind of activities can we do that might take all of this on board? Well, to close, here are five that I have done in recent months – and that you might want to try for yourselves. I should add that I work with multilingual groups in London, and have still found these tasks work fine. I expect that many NON-natives working in monolingual contexts where students share their own L1 have plenty of other ideas on how translation might be fully exploited – and I hope to read more about these in the comments section below!

1 If you come into class and students are chatting in L1, get them to write the conversation they’re having first in L2, and then translate it. Help them with any expressions they’re not sure and maybe, if you can, round up by pooling a range of new expressions / chunks that have emerged through the process of translation on the board.

2 When students lapse in L1 during freer speaking activities, note this down and then during your round-up either give or else elicit English versions.

3 Give – or ask for – translations of single words as a STARTING point, but then show ways in which these words are NOT the same! So say, for example, the sentence I’m responsible for hiring and firing comes up, you might want to say the L1 equivalent of responsible, but then say that in English, you‘re responsible FOR doing something, not responsible of.

4 Allow students to translate things that they may have to translate in ‘the real world’. Use L1 as a resource and as a bridge to L2. As Guy Cook notes, there are countless possibilities here that lend themselves to communicative / task-based activities: a company entering negotiations with foreign partners may receive documents and communications which first need translating by bilingual staff; evidence in a court case may need translating before a judgement can me made – or, as in this exercise from OUTCOMES intermediate, a menu may need to be translated before diners can decide what they want – and don’t want – to eat.

Conversation practice

A            Write a typical menu for a restaurant in your country. Write it in your own language.

B            Work in pairs. Imagine you are in a restaurant that does not have an English menu. You are trying to decide what to eat.

Student A: you are visiting the country on holiday or on business. You do not speak the local language.

Student B: talk Student A through the menu.

Student A: reject at least two of the things on the menu. Explain why.

5 As a self-study device, make students aware of things like the Word Reference forums for bilingual learning communities and encourage them to use them.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts, questions and comments on this paper.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Complete the sentences with the best missing words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One student asked what loss and longing meant.

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

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

Now discuss these questions with a partner.

– Why might someone be feeling a bit rough?

– When might someone be in bits?

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

– What happens in a meat market?

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

– Why might someone hassle you?

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

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

– Say three things you could take up.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


time spent together



silly annoyances

household chores



stress and tiredness






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

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

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

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


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

A                  Ω Listen and answer these questions about each conversation.

1                  What’s the relationship between the people?

2                  What are the conflicts about?

3                  What happens in the end?

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

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

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

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

Native Speaker English

I hasten to add

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

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

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

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

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

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

Developing conversations

Giving negative / private information

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grammar I wish

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

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

2                  I wish I’d never started this conversation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Student: The past. past simple.

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

Student: So it’s like a second conditional.

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

Student: Past simple

Me: OK, and it’s 2 and?

Student: 4.

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

Student: Had.

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

student: so 4 is would?

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

Student: past.

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

Student: past perfect.

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

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

Student: And finds her chatting on facebook!

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

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

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

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

be                  can                  have                  leave                                    sent                  think

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope this has proved interesting.

It’s nearly killed me writing it.

Looking forward to seeing your comments and questions!

Dissing Dogme Round Three: the implausibility of certain core language emerging via conversation.

I recently had to cover an Upper-Intermediate class at work, at very short notice. I literally picked the book up, went straight in to class and started teaching.

The class is doing OUTCOMES (hey, if you can’t use your own coursebooks at your own place of work, where can you use them, eh?!) and were on Unit Three – Things You Need. The goal of the opening double-page spread is to help students talk better about a wide range of objects and to describe what the objects are for. If any of you have used this book, you’ll perhaps have spotted a fair few typos in the first edition, which escaped the copy editor’s clutches. Beneath the obvious typos, though, lies another level of glitch: things that we as writers know have been missed out, but which may not be apparent to the casual observer! Typically, this lesson began with one of just such mistakes. The first exercise is vocabulary-focused and has students looking at a whole page of pictures at the back of the book and discussing some questions in relation to these. Students discuss if there are any things there that they have never used (and if not, why not); which objects they use all the time / regularly /now and again / hardly ever; whether or not they have any of these things on them now – and which they have at home . . . and, finally, which they did not know in English before. Now, here’s the catch. The pictures at the back were supposed to be labelled, like a picture dictionary, but somehow the labels went AWOL. The pictures show things like a hammer, a drill, a saw, a torch, a stepladder, a nail, a screw, glue, rope, wire, a plastic bowl, a cloth, a dustpan and brush, a mop and bucket, washing-up liquid, a corkscrew, a tin opener, a lighter, a rubber, correction fluid, staples and a stapler, scissors, clips, sticky tape, a charger, an adaptor, string, a needle and thread, an iron, (clothes) pegs, a plaster and a bandage. Obviously, not having the names of these objects isn’t a disaster because as a teacher you simply begin by asking students to work in pairs (or groups) and to see how many things they know the names of. You then round up and teach the gaps, drill any new words, write them up on the board (possibly with extra collocations / examples of use added in, so things like HAVE YOU GOT A CORKSCREW? I NEED TO OPEN THIS BOTTLE OF WINE or HAVE YOU GOT A STAPLER? I NEED TO STAPLE THESE BITS OF PAPER TOGETHER.) and THEN get students to do the speaking afterwards.That’s what I did and it all worked fine.

Now, quite possibly, you’re wondering why I’m telling you all of this in what’s billed as being another bash at hardcore Dogme, right? Well, afterwards, I was discussing the class with a colleague and we were discussing how hard it’d be to access and teach such language through a Dogme approach. There is a whole slew of language that’s useful for students that simply doesn’t come up in everyday conversation and is unlikely to appear in a conversation-driven class unless the teacher really goes out of their way to guide the conversation towards it in some cunning way. I was reminded of something I heard Willie Cardoso say at Spain TESOL this year. He claimed that essentially language only exists in the here and now, and only comes into being – or becomes relevant to students – through communication and as a result of communicative needs. At the time, this struck me as a short-sighted thing to say as clearly all manner of language exists all around us. Even when we’re sitting silently, not engaged in communication at all, language is everywhere: in books, on posters, in newspapers, on the web, in the conversations of others and so on. Much of this language – and actually much high frequency lexis – occurs far more commonly in written language than spoken, and actually in specific kinds of written language, chiefly journalese or the language of academia. Much other language that may well be high-frequency in certain contexts only occurs in those particular contexts and is unlikely to be needed in general chat.

If you doubt the frequency of some of the words above, think on this: in the MACMILLAN ADVANCED LEARNERS’ DICTIONARY, string is a three star word; ladder is a two star word, as are cloth, needle, rubber, rope and nail. I could go on, but the basic point here is that almost all of these words are relatively high frequency and thus deserve to be taught. I’m obviously not saying frequency is everything, but at the same time it’s not nothing either. What’s important here is to have some kind of principled approach to what we teach across a series of lessons, or across a course as a whole, and to ensure that we pay heed to such crucial factors as word frequency.

Now of course, I’m sure that the more skilful Dogmeticians could come up with contexts in which some of the language mentioned above could be introduced (though I have to say, could is certainly not the same as do – and I’d bet good money that most actually don’t!). You could perhaps ask students to brainstorm problems around the house and reformulate their ideas onto the board; you could then ask them to discuss all the tools they’d need to deal with these problems – and maybe encourage to walk around explaining things they don’t know the words for to see if anyone else in the class knows the English words. It’s obviously not impossible for at least some of these tools above to thus emerge and get taught, but it’s not strictly conversation-driven to approach a class this way and the emergence of these words depends on the teacher choosing tasks with a specific language goal in mind. Which, when you stop and think about it, is basically what materials often do, isn’t it! And there’s the rub.

Perhaps a truly skilled Dogme teacher, who’s incredibly well informed linguistically, could even manage to ensure conversations veer in all manner of different directions over a period of time and thus ensure coverage of a large number of high frequency words more commonly found in written English. I have nothing but admiration for the one in a thousand teachers who may be able to manage this. I simply ask them whether or not well thought-out materials might not be able to bring those words to the students in a faster, more focused and more efficient manner?

As a coursebook writer, one of the major changes I’ve made is to shift from the colloquial, informal spoken style of INNOVATIONS to the more complex, broader range of language contained within OUTCOMES. Now you could easily argue that for many students, the former is more what they require. That’s fine. I fear, though, that for many more, they also require (either now or in the future – the great forgotten time by Dogmeticians, for the need then has by definition yet to appear!) language used in more niche kinds of speech (presentations, business, academic discussions, etc.) and also in writing (and its close cousin reading). One of the things we obsessed over with OUTCOMES was ensuring coverage of as much core lexis as possible. The Macmillan stars proved an invaluable guide and helped us countless times to decide on which words to include – and which to not bother with yet. And such decisions are at the heart of what we do as language teachers. Written well, coursebook material is far better placed to bring this kind of language to the students – and to test how much of it they know already and to then give opportunities to practise it – than Dogme is.

Dogmeticiains will argue that their approach somehow creates ‘a real need’ in students for the language, yet actually whether the task is brainstorming tools required or trying to name tools in unlabelled pictures, both tasks are an artifice, a kind of game, and in neither situation do students REALLY need these tools. By starting our planning with a goal in mind – a place you want students to have got to by the end of the class – you’re far more able to introduce such language, though, than you are if your goal is go with the flow and see what comes up.

The only time a student in a true Dogme class may actually REALLY need to ask for a hammer is when they reach boiling point and flip out in frustration at their teacher, who has no clear notion of where the minutes are leading or of what they intend to teach – and a blow to the head with a blunt instrument seems to be the only possible way to end such tedious torture.

Bridging the culture gap in the classroom

Just a brief look at how English is used is enough to suggest that CULTURE seems to permeate the way we process the world in a wide range of ways. We talk about arts and culture; we have the Department for Culture, Media and Sport; we discuss company cultures and youth culture and subcultures; we make generalizations about French or Spanish or Polish culture; we fret about high and low culture, popular culture and celebrity culture; we are told – at least in England, we are – that there’s a culture of yobbishness and violence on our streets and that we live in a culture of greed and self-interest. We talk about things being part of – or not being part of – our culture. We debate cultural values, our cultural needs, cultural shifts and the cultural dominance of the USA.

And, of course, culture seems to have started permeating the way we think about our job as teachers of English as well. We’re constantly told at conferences that we need to be thinking about culture when teaching language – and that without intercultural competence, whatever communicative competence students may develop is basically meaningless. Here are just some of the preposterous claims about the relationship between language and culture that I’ve heard being made at conferences over the last couple of years:

  • Language without culture is like a finger without a body.
  • Culture and language are intimately related. They go hand in hand during the teaching-learning process.
  • Language and culture are not separate, but are acquired together, with each providing support for the development of the other.
  • The person who learns language without learning culture risks becoming a fluent fool.

Now, I often feel with culture that the nearer we get to it, the more we look at it, the more elusive it becomes and the more it slips away from our grasp. I freely admit to finding much of the discourse around culture in language teaching both confused and confusing, and if I feel like that, as a native speaker supposedly steeped in the culture of the language and who teaches multi-lingual students in the UK, whatever that may mean, then how much more confusing must all of this be for the countless non-native teachers around the world, teaching predominantly monolingual groups who may well be using their English far more frequently with other non-natives than with natives?

What I want to do in this session is to explore a few key questions and suggest a few tentative answers. Firstly, I’d like to ask what is it we actually mean by culture anyway. In general, I think there are two main ways we can consider culture. One is culture as PRODUCT, where culture equals the arts – music, painting, the theatre, and so on – along with history, cuisine, festivals, etc. Seen from this view, here are a few images that one might see associated with English culture.

This is essentially a STATIC view of culture.

Then there’s thinking about culture as a PROCESS, with culture as social practices and processes. Culture in this light is a site of change and conflict and revolves around the variety of languages operating within a society – the language of gesture, of clothes, of sexuality, of race, of gender and so on – and the ways in which reality is represented or constructed through a range of communication divides. In this definition, of course, you can take PRODUCTS – a skinhead haircut, football, mobile phones, a crown, a cross – and read meanings into them through an analysis of their relationships with other products, with social participants and with the products themselves in past incarnations. Looked at this way, jokes, newspaper articles, myths, archetypes, TV shows, advertising, films, street art and so on all give you windows into a culture – none of them representing a REAL culture, but all of them driven by particular cultural agendas – the writer or teller’s desire to perpetuate stereotypes in order to maintain order – as with woman driver jokes, etc. – to raise social consciousness, to whip up patriotism, to challenge long-held attitudes or stereotypes and so on. Seen this way, perhaps THESE images tell us something interesting about England:

Given all of this, some core points about culture surely emerge:

1          Culture is not static. It is fluid and dynamic.

2          Culture can basically mean almost anything and everything.

3          The notion of unified national cultures is a myth. Everything is in dispute.

4          With English, this is of course complicated by its status as global lingua franca

Now, before anyone here has an attack of rage, I should add that culture is clearly located geographically and nationally IN SOME WAYS, yet within that we’d do well to bear in mind the fact that we are all unique and we all participate in globalised cultures and orient ourselves to all of this as individuals in our own way. Ultimately, developing ourselves as inter-culturally competent and globally oriented people surely has to involve being able to word our own worlds – and being open to learning about the worlds of others – and of course this latter may involve rethinking our own assumptions, withholding judgments and becoming aware of the fact that the view contains the viewer. Realizing that we are all different, but we are also all the same.

I’ll move on to consider what this might mean in the classroom in a while, but first I want to explore one more common assumption – that teaching English must automatically mean somehow also teaching the CULTURE of England or the UK or the US – or of the people for whom English is a mother tongue.

I’ve gathered together a sample of linguistic items from a variety of big-selling global English coursebooks – Upper-Intermediate and Advanced level – and just consider to what degree you feel they are CULTURALLY rooted; in other words, to what degree would they need to be explained with reference to specific cultural phenomenon of the UK – or US.

She wanted the ground to open up and swallow her.

I can’t stand being the centre of attention.

I think I’m quite a level-headed sort of person.

Compulsory military service should be abolished.

I spent a lot of the holidays just roaming around the countryside, exploring.

She has no qualms about giving her child a head start.

That film has had a lot of hype.

They fell on hard times.

The kidnappers released him after his family agreed to pay a ransom of $100,000.

He swore under oath that he’d spent the evening at home.

Hold your breath and count to ten.

I had an interview for the job, but I blew it.

Now unless I’m missing something, there’s absolutely no cultural baggage attached to these sentences and they can be explained with reference to wherever your students happen to be – or nowhere at all. This isn’t to say that nothing in English ever requires cultural background information. Clearly to deal with any of these sentences here –

Shoom span a Balearic mix of Detroit techno, New York garage and Chicago house.

Nationalist murals started springing up in areas like the Falls Road when IRA inmates of the Maze prison began a hunger strike.

The NUT has long been run by hardcore members of the Loony Left.

– you’d need to know a fair bit of unusual cultural information – but these ARE not – and should never be – EFL material, in much the same way as students don’t need to know about presidents of the USA or the kings and queens of England.

Language can obviously be used to represent culture and sometimes certain phrases may even encode certain things that are more dominant in certain circumstances than others. Take for instance the phrase EVEN IF I SAY SO MYSELF and its close cousin EVEN IF YOU SAY SO YOURSELF. These are both relatively fixed expressions used to undercut oneself – or someone else – when you think there’s some slightly big-headed boasting going on, and this may or may not be a ‘cultural phenomenon’. Whilst these expressions may be interesting, they’re really not what most students need to get better as speakers of English as a medium for international communication.

The main point here, though, is that while language can represent culture (and particularly personal culture), it does NOT encode it. There is NO culturally correct way of doing things within English itself. Norms vary, in linguistic behaviour as in any other kind of behaviour!

So what does all this mean for what we can – or should – be doing in our classrooms?

Well, it’s pretty clear that the traditional concept of culture in English language teaching, which far too frequently involved facts and figures about Britain – though in reality this usually meant England, and a rarified upper-middle class slice of English cultural life at that – is no longer valid! The world has moved on from a time in which students could be sold visions of Windsor Castle and Bath, Stratford-upon-Avon and Stonehenge and perhaps given the occasional extract from Dickens or Shakespeare.

I think that for culture to work in the classroom, it has to be done with some basic principles in mind. It has to:

1          be a two-way process

2          be global in perspective

3          include language

4          allow space for the personal

Students are now in a situation where they are likely to travel and met people from many different corners of the world; they’re also in a globalised world where they may be eating Japanese food, watching Mexican movies, listening to Swedish music, reading Danish novelists and so on. As such, the UK – or US – should receive no higher priority than anywhere else, though I guess we do always have to bear in mind the expectation of SOME students – and, perhaps, some parents and even teachers as well – that learning English WILL involve a focus on ‘the homes’ of the language.

In addition to this, though, is the more complex reality that the vast bulk of students around the world will nevertheless be learning their English in classes that are monolingual. I hesitate to add ‘and mono-cultural’ because the simple fact of sharing a nationality doesn’t mean that students will necessarily share any particular thoughts or experiences or opinions. Students will operate across a range of micro-cultural worlds – or sub-cultures – unique to themselves. Indeed, in many ways, I think it’s important for students to realize and to recognize the diversity and complexity of their own local and national cultures before they can hope to understand similar issues with regard to other nations and cultures.

That notwithstanding, it still remains the case that the real way students get to develop intercultural competence is to travel, meet people, build friendships and relationships with people from more radically different backgrounds to themselves than their classmates. Given this, if students are to get the chance to think about how they would represent their own realities to others from around the world, then the materials used in the classroom have a responsibility to bring the world to them. This means looking to use cultural products and processes from around the world partly to simply teach students about the world, but also – crucially – to provide points of comparison, to serve as a springboard for cross-cultural comparisons and evaluation. There needs to be, if you like, global input but local outcomes.

So let’s explore some ways in which all of this can work in our classes. In an ideal situation, it should be possible to combine all of the areas I’ve just mentioned into one scheme of work. Let’s look at both a reading and a listening that have cultural content from around the world, that focus on some useful language and that allow plenty of space for students to respond from both a national and an individual perspective. Both these examples are from a Pre-Intermediate book, so for A2 students moving towards B1. First up, a listening-based slot from a unit called EDUCATION.


You are going to hear an interview with an English girl, Rebecca, who has a Spanish mother and an English father. They moved to Spain when she was 11 (she’s now 13) and she now goes to a Spanish school – and so does her younger brother.

A         Before you listen, discuss in groups which of the following things you think are good about school in your country:

  • the relationships between students
  • the class sizes
  • the amount of homework
  • the subjects available
  • the resources
  • the textbooks
  • the approach to teaching
  • the parent-teacher relationship
  • the school hours
  • the holidays

Next students listen to the interview with Rebecca and process it for gist – and then process it in more detail. Finally, they hear Rebecca’s father talking and process this for gist before finally having the chance to compare what they have heard with their own realities, to give their own opinions about what the dad says – and to voice their own thoughts and feelings about their own school system. Here’s the basic material:

B          Listen and find out which things in exercise A Rebecca talks about.

C          Discuss in pairs whether you think these sentences are true or false.

Listen again to check your ideas.

1          Rebecca and her brother made friends straight away.

2          She needed help with Spanish.

3          She had to do the last year of primary school in both England and Spain.

4          There are fewer years of secondary school in Spain.

5          In primary school, she had several different teachers in Spain, but not in England.

6          The approach of the teachers was different.

7          She didn’t have to do much homework in England.

8          Her friends in England seem to like school more.

9          In both England and Spain, students sometimes have to repeat a year.

D          Now listen to Rebecca’s father talking and answer the questions:

1          Which of the things in exercise A does he mention?

2          Is he positive or negative about them?

E          Read the audioscript on page 142 to check your answers.

F          Work in pairs. Discuss these questions.

  • Which system sounds more like your country?
  • Do you disagree with anything the father says? Why?
  • What would you like to be different in schools?
  • Is/was there anyone from another country in your class at school? What is/was their experience of school? ?


Finally, this all leads into some vocabulary that helps students discuss their own school experiences better next time around.

Vocabulary: students and teachers

A         Add the nouns below to the groups of words they go with.

assignment      class               school                         subject

textbook          test                  approach                        course

1          choose an optional ~ / study eight ~s / my favourite ~

2          do an ~ / set an ~ / hand in my ~ / mark some ~s

3          buy a ~ / read from the ~ / copy from the ~

4          have a ~ / study for a ~ / pass a ~ / set a ~

5          do a Maths ~ / design a ~ / fail the ~ / teach on a ~

6          give a ~ / go to ~ / pay attention in ~ / control the ~

7          leave ~ / the head of a ~ / enjoy ~ / go to a state ~

8          have a good ~ to learning / take a traditional ~ / change your ~

B          Which of the collocations above apply to teachers and which to students?

The language work can also precede culturally oriented texts, of course. Here’s the start of a lesson from a unit called Dates and History that begins with some core vocabulary for describing historical events.

Vocabulary: historical events

A         Complete the fact file about Britain with the correct form of the words in the box.

end                              become                       be defeated

invade                         gain                             be crowned

join                               rule                              be founded

*      London 1…………………. by the Romans two thousand years ago, during their occupation of Britain.

*      The Vikings first 2………………….  Britain in 786. They continued to attack the island for years and occupied half the country.

*      Britain briefly 3………………….  a republic after a civil war between Royalists (who supported the king) and Parliament. The war 4………………….  in 1649, after the Royalists 5………………….  in the Battle of Preston and the king’s execution.

*      At the height of its empire, Britain 6………………….  a quarter of the world.

*      The United States was a colony of Britain until it 7………………….  independence in 1776.

*      The longest-ruling British monarch is Queen Victoria. She 8………………….  in 1837, when she was just 18, and died 64 years later.

*      Britain didn’t 9………………….  the European Union (or EEC as it was then called) until 1973.

B          Find the nouns in the Fact File which mean:

1          a war between two groups in the same country.

2          the time a foreign power lives in and controls a country.

3          the act of killing someone for doing something wrong.

4          a short fight which is part of a longer war.

5          a royal leader such as a king or queen.

6          a large group of countries controlled by another country.

Again, the UK features, but certainly isn’t the main focus of this particular lesson. That comes next and is introduced via this short text:


You are going to read an article from a newspaper series called Around the world in 300 words.

A         Read the introduction and discuss the questions in pairs.

1          Do you know anything about the country? What?

2          Why do you think UK people don’t know much about it?

Ask most people on the streets of the UK what they know about Kazakhstan and the only thing they can say is “We played them at football.” Ask where it is, and they may mention it’s near Russia, but that’s all. Yet Kazakhstan is huge – the 9th largest country in the world and the size of Western Europe. We think it’s time people got to know it better. Oh, and yes, it is near Russia – they share a border of 6846 kilometres!

This then moves into the main comprehension questions and the text itself.

B          Read the article and answer these questions.

1          How many years have people lived there?

2          How has the Kazakh lifestyle changed?

3          When did the country finally become independent?

4          What’s the main industry?

5          What’s the most interesting information for you?

6          If you know the country (or know about it), is there anything important that isn’t mentioned? Would you change anything in the text?

C          Discuss your answers in groups.


Around the world in 300 words…


People have lived in the region since the Stone Age. The society was nomadic – Kazakh comes from a word meaning ‘free spirit’ – with different groups living off seasonal agriculture and animals such as goats, sheep and horses, that fed on the steppe grassland. For many centuries, the Silk Road trade route went through the region, which led to the founding of cities such as Talaz, now 2000 years old.

Islam was introduced by the Arabs in the 8th century, and Genghis Khan’s Mongol army invaded in 1219. Over the next 200 years, a distinct Kazakh language, culture and economy emerged, although still based on nomadic life.

This traditional lifestyle changed during the 1800s, when the country was occupied by Russia. The political and economic changes and a growing population caused by people settling in the region resulted in hunger and tension. It eventually led to fighting in 1916, followed by a civil war.

In 1920, Kazakhstan became part of the communist Soviet Union. Over the following decade, the last Kazakh nomads were forced to live on farms or work in industry. Other people within the Soviet Union, including Germans, Ukrainians and Koreans, were also sent to work there.

After gaining independence in 1991, Kazakhstan’s economy grew rapidly. It’s now the 11th largest producer of oil and gas as well as an exporter of many other natural resources.

Population: 16.4 million.

Capital: Astana (changed from Almaty in 1997)

Place to visit: The Charyn Canyon.

Big building: The Pyramid of Peace, Astana. The cultural centre aims to bring together all the great religions.

Special day: 22nd March. Nauriz celebrates Spring, friendship and unity. It was banned during Soviet rule.

Firsts: The horse was first tamed in this region.

The oldest and largest space launch site in the world is Baikonur Cosmodrome. It is leased to Russia.

Next week: Kenya

There’s then some grammar work that derives from the text –

Grammar: prepositions and nouns / -ing forms

Prepositions go before nouns. If we need a verb to follow a preposition, we use use an -ing form to make the verb into a noun.

After gaining independence in 1991, Kazakhstan’s economy grew rapidly.

Some verbs are followed by particular prepositions.

Economic changes … resulted in hunger and tension.

It eventually led to fighting in 1916 followed by civil war.

A         Match the verbs to the prepositions with nouns or preposition -ing forms.

1          lead                             a        from the Stone Age

2          result                          b        on support from the king

3          depend                       c        of corruption

4          date                             d       to a revolution

5          be accused                 e       in people leaving the country

6          be opposed                 f         for joining NATO

7          be caused                   g        to joining NATO

8          be involved                h            people from playing music

9          ban                              ij           in the independence movement

10        vote                             jl           by economic problems

B          Write five true sentences about events or people in history, using verbs and prepositions from exercise A.

and finally a task that has a local outcome again.


Work in groups. Discuss the following:

A         What you would put in Around the world in 300 words for your country?

What would be the most important events?

What places would you mention? Why?

What would go under the headings Place to Visit, Big Building, Special Day and Firsts?

With these kinds of tasks, there’s obviously a large degree of flexibility in terms of how teachers exploit them. They can just be discussions in class time, with maybe some time built in for individual planning; they can be homeworks – with web searches encouraged – that lead into presentations; they can be blog entries on a class blog, and can include pictures, videos even, and can even be shared with other schools around the world if the teacher is class-twinning in some way with other international classes.

The notion of project work is something I’ve become much more enthused about as a teacher over the last 12 months or so, and is something that the Internet makes much more manageable. Whether you’re just using something relatively simple to set up like a class blog on wordpress or blogspot or whether you’re using something more sophisticated like voicethread, which allows you to place all kinds of texts, images, videos and documents online and to have conversations based around them, these kinds of sites allow students a real opportunity to practise wording their worlds, to develop their ideas and cultural ideas in the privacy of their own homes and in their own home, and to dig deeper into issues that we simply don’t have time to explore more in class. At their best, they also allow for the beginnings of the kinds of cross-cultural interaction that would have been unimaginable in a pre-Internet age.

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.