This Teacher Used This One Awesome Trick When Teaching and You Won’t Believe What happened Next (or how I learned to get learners talking in fewer than ten photocopies)

There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet¹

What do The Japanese Civil War, Batman vs Superman and “Tidying Guru” Maria Kondo have in common? No, they’re not my most favouritest things (though thanks for compliment that I’m tidy) but are, in fact, some topics that I’ve learned quite a lot about recently. And not because I looked them up. So where did I learn about them? Not from New Cutting Edge or Business Result, not from meticulous lesson preparation or seriously bespoke planning, nor from the estimable onestopenglish or Reward McNuggets Intermediate  Resource Pack, but from the remarkably able source of… my students.  I was all ears. And faces.

All the World’s a Stage

In 1957, Erving Goffman published his book The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life. In it, Goffman argues that an individual presents themselves to the outside world to try shape the way they are in turn perceived. Thus, all of us have a lot of selves and we choose which one we wish those around us to see, depending on the situation we’re in. A person does this for a number of reasons, such as wanting “[an other] to think highly of him, or to think that he thinks highly of them, or to perceive how in fact he feels towards them… he may wish to ensure sufficient harmony so that the interaction can be sustained, or to defraud… or insult them.”². Or, in teaching terms, to get them to learn.


@foster_timothy, ELTPics


So who I am when I teach is not who I am when I write this, work on a CELTA or Delta or meet a new colleague for the first time. I perform a self and put on a face in each instance, one I feel is the best fit for the social context. It’s not that I’m hiding anything; I’m just presenting another self because the stage has changed and the audience is different. I can’t be Anthony if there is no Cleopatra, but I could be Bogart to your Bacall, or Superman to your Batman.

Bat what? Bat who? What’s a Gotham? Who Cares?

I have a confession to make. I concede here, in front of these witnesses, that I know very very little about Batman vs Superman because I could not care less about Batman vs Superman. I’ve tried caring less, really I have, but it is actually impossible, making the fact that there developed a forty-minute scaffolded speaking activity about the film a seeming contradiction. The learner had been to see it, loves DC Universe stuff, and brought it up. I asked who won and found that it was a little more complicated than that. The learner tried to explain, faltered, kept going. A bat sign appeared in the sky above the lesson. My help was needed.  I put on one of my invisible masks.

That Awesome Trick

There is no trick – I defrauded you using a self I’m not proud of – but there are a couple of points to make about the practicalities of the above for language teaching. As a Dogmetic teacher, I’m supposed to listen to my students and take an interest in what they have to say. Sometimes I genuinely am interested, but not when superheroes are the topic. But it’s not about me; it’s about the learner. If they want to talk about superheroes, I will do two things that some people are not comfortable with (and which are my two top tips for teaching 121s, by the way), but which are part of a teaching self of mine:

  1. feign interest
  2. pretend to be more or less completely ignorant of the topic

Of the three topics I mentioned at the start, I was a combination of those two things for each one. The Japanese Civil made me genuinely really curious and I knew a little about it already.  I knew, for example, that Kyoto had been the capital of Japan for centuries, but I did not tell the learner this; rather, I used my ‘ignorance’ to encourage his explanation.  Batman vs Superman piques no interest for me, but I knew that Ben Affleck had directed it, roughly what the plot was and that some reviews had been less than favourable. I still pretended I knew virtually nothing about it and that I would like to see it to prompt some speaking. Marie Kondo was of mild interest in terms of the concept, but I genuinely knew nothing about her. My face was still enraptured with curiosity as everything from her best-sellers to how to part with sentimental items was clarified for me. Each time, I had to act to get the learner to speak; each time, the lesson developed in this direction and they talked a lot. Each time rapport was good and each time mini emergent syllabus points, er, emerged.

Person (n)… originally “mask, false face,”*

*(that’s true³)

So how to put on that mask and get away with it, without causing offence or hinting at any suggestion that you might just be faking it, a devious actor with a learning end in mind? Here’s some ten points to bear in mind:

  1. You’ve got to mean it – you might not be interested and you might know a lot about the topic, but you need to avoid that coming across and in a non-condescending manner.
  2. In 121s especially (but all classes if possible), take clear notes about the learner (family, job, etc.), with lists of topics discussed and return to these when necessary. Read them before every class so you can refer to them where necessary.
  3. Back-channel as you would if your friend was telling you something really interesting. Lots of “huh?”, “reaaaly?”, “I seeee” and so forth.
  4. Ask questions about the content of the discussion, questions someone might actually ask if they genuinely wanted to know more.
  5. Use your face and gestures to show curiosity, fascination, learning, astonishment, surprise, disappointment, disbelief, gratitude… all at the right (but not same) time. As if you really were all those things.
  6. Vary your intonation, but keep it risingly curious often.
  7. Maintain eye contact. Don’t stare anyone out, but keep the eye contact natural.
  8. Prompt and ask for further examples/illustration by getting parts of what’s been said deliberately wrong.
  9. Try not to yawn and get good at rubbing your eyes back to wakefulness (coffee?).
  10. Rephrase points and ask for further clarification: “you mean that… xyz?”, “so that was before the…abc”.

So there you have it. All your learners are different, so make sure you leave time to prepare a face for the those different faces that you meet. And if you think me cynical, you might be right; but, why not ask the learners if they enjoyed the lessons or whether they’d prefer page 28.


1. T.S. Eliot (1920) The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: (accessed 27/7/16)

2. Erving Goffman (1956) The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life, Monograph 2, Edinburgh.

3. Definition from The Online Etymology Dictionary: (accessed 27/7/16)

One Teacher Trainer to Define Them All?

The latest edition of the International House Journal is now out. I decided to write my editorial as a think-piece this time and so I’m sharing it here too. Its basic premise is that there is more to teacher training than the globally-mobile monolingual native speaker (CELTA tutor/teacher trainer)* and that the context of the training should be given more consideration than it often is.

You can read it by visiting the IH Journal here:


There is, of course, much more in the 40th edition of the IH Journal that you might enjoy, so please do browse and share anything that catches your eye.

*Thank you to Silvana Richardson for this term, or a variation on it.

#MyTEFLstory, a Picaresque in Ten Chapters

*warning: this post contains self-indulgence*


As you can see, International House wants to hear your TEFL story and so, when Alison Sturrock of IHWO asked if I’d write my own, it seemed like a good way to relaunch the blog that I retired about a month ago (don’t ask – but thanks Sophia Kahn for the revolutionary idea to simply  change the name).

Chapter 1: CELTA, Edinburgh, Scotland

I’m one of those straight-out-of-uni-never-had-another-job ELT people. I was 21 and I did CELTA for love. Well, my then girlfriend wanted to go to France to help her with her French and I had no idea what I was going to do after finishing my post-grad, so when she said there was thing called CELTA, I signed up too (getting some training before you do something is always a good idea). I don’t imagine I’m alone in starting out that way, but I am probably in a minority who suddenly realised what they wanted to do FOREVER. I loved it. I thought my tutor, Mark Roper, to be almost superhuman and I knew right there and then I wanted his job.

Chapter 2: Gravelines, France

Chris and Chris

Following CELTA, I relocated to Gravelines, Northern France, which is famous only for having an excellent Vauban moat and a nuclear power plant. I lived in nearby Dunkerque, famous for the British escaping it rather hastily, not moving to it rather hesitantly. My classes were in an IUFM – a teacher training college – and I worked with (and learned from) the excellent Evelyne Fauquer, my job to provide English teaching and hers to train the would-be primary school teachers. I was there about 10 months, I think, though I cannot recall so well now. My twenty hours of classes were relatively informal, focusing on lexis and fluency, and had mixed level monolingual French groups. I started to learn French and realised that what students say in English is an excellent help if you’re studying their native language. Contrastive analysis, we were destined to be. It was time to stop clowning around.

Chapter 3: Edinburgh, Scotland

Basil Paterson College, the school at which I’d done my CELTA, asked me back to teach over the summer and I ended up staying there for nearly a year. Great multi-lingual groups, the Italian Army, MEPs, CEOs, my first exam classes (IELTS? That’s not a word? What?), a mad Turkish man… what a time it was! My girlfriend and I celebrated Christmas by breaking up (amicably, don’t worry yourself) and it felt time to move on. I also had to escape a stalker, but that’s a story for next time I see you in a bar. Words floated round the staffroom as I wondered aloud what to do: British Council, Bell, IH… But what was this IH? A teacher called Lorraine had been working in one of these in Milan and was full of praise. But what an odd name. These initialisms and words, the multi-generational staffroom told me, were the places everyone wanted to work, the good schools, the places to be. And then, one night, a posting for a job in IH Costa Rica.

Chapter 4: San José de Costa Rica Part I

2nd conditionals 27th sept '11

The single best decision I have ever made in my life. I didn’t speak Spanish, I’d only ever heard of Costa Rica from the Italia ‘90 World Cup National Disaster that was Scotland 0-1 Costa Rica, I didn’t know anyone there nor what I was getting myself into. My mum cried at the airport – her little 24-year old boy was going away, really away. I think I cried on the plane, probably out of terror. And then I was there in San José with men with machine guns outside shops, tropical sun on my Northern European skin, a small Caribbean town called Cahuita just a few hours away and the best staffroom I’ve ever known. International House Costa Rica was an unqualified success – a friendly, serious, laidback, fun, developmental place to work.

I made two of my best friends that year and my teaching improved enormously. This guy called Ben Naismith had something called Delta, was in charge of professional development and I liked the look of his role in the school. Bernardo Morales was going to do this Delta thing and so should I do the same? After a year in which I taught kids for the first time (and did the IHCYLT), became a Cambridge examiner, taught new levels, used new books and became a much better teacher, it was time to leave. What a sad day that was. But the Edinburgh staffroom had been right about this IH lot.

Chapter 5: Buenos Aires, Argentina

I went to Buenos Aires to try to freelance for a while. The freelancing as a business English teacher was great experience of yet another side of the industry but the visa situation was not ideal and so I only lasted a few months. That Delta thing was always on the horizon and, after securing a place and a job at IH Akcent, Prague (can you spot a theme developing?), I said hasta luego to Argentina and Latin America.

Chapter 6: Prague, Czech Republic


Fried cheese. Nakladany Hermalin. Budvar. And Delta. I was teaching full time too, I should say, and Delta was part-time every Friday for eight months. This was a great arrangement as it allowed for ideas and inspiration from Delta to come into my classes immediately. Being an IH, the tutors were excellent and I decided, again, I wanted their jobs. I experimented like a demented Einstein and probably had the most intense and intensely rewarding developmental time of my career. I seemed to teach a lot of advanced classes and a teen class so irritating that I went through three co-teachers (there’s one on the right there). I learned to love The Nature, as it’s called there, and go on cottage, at the weekend. The winter was very cold – it got down to minus seventeen and the inside of your nose froze – but the inside of my head was a hotbed of new ideas. I also discovered EnglishDroid that winter and it remains my favourite ELT publication (after Dramatic Monologues, of course) to date. Nick W would send me one line e-mails instead of doing his Delta work and hours were lost trying to think of puns.

Chapter 7: San José de Costa Rica Part II

Return to IH Costa Rica. ELT’s Ben Naismith was still there and he asked if I’d consider going back. I think he needed someone to play pool with and that was a tempting proposition, so I bit the bullet, packed my bags and said hola to Costa Rica once more. I trained as a CELTA tutor in these two years – I told you I wanted Mark’s job – and had the role that Ben, now DoS, had had before: in-house CPD, teaching and CELTA. It was a brilliant job in a great school with a wonderful, committed and fun staffroom. There were many extra-curricular evenings. I stayed two years this time and only left when the school closed and we were made redundant. If leaving Costa Rica the first time had been sad, this was a despair squared, distilled and downed in one.


       ELT’s Ben Naismith observing CELTA TP


My three years with International House in Costa Rica will probably always be the happiest professional years of my life. I learned so much, developed my career so much, presented at my first conferences, became a CELTA tutor, IHCYLT tutor, IH LAC tutor and an IELTS examiner, met so many good teachers and stole all their ideas. I passed the C1 Spanish exam (the DELE) and explored the country some more. There was gallo pinto. What more could you ask?

Chapter 8: Dubai, United Arab Emirates

And so from the laid back pura vida mañana mañana of Costa Rica, to the farcical plastic heat of the Gulf Desert. International House Dubai was as surreal as its host city. A school without students, from what I could gather, and with more sales people than actual teachers. I was full time teacher training, working on CELTA and some in-house CPD. My boss was Jamie King, with whom I’ve since done a number of CELTAs and Deltas, and the highly, er, intellectual debates across the desk rewrote The TEFL Book. Ben Naismith appeared to be DoS there, another small part of Costa Rica lost in the sand.

2013-05-21 23.10.27

This was another two years in which I learned a lot – I became a CELTA YL Ext. tutor, a Delta tutor – told you I wanted my tutors’ jobs – and head of department; I presented at IATEFL, went to the IH DoS Conference and TESOL Arabia; I became a BULATs examiner, CELTA Assessor and an online tutor for IH, Bell and Distance Delta; I wrote materials for IHWO courses and opened the IH Online Conference. I even met Scott Thornbury for the first time, a meeting he still talks about with fondness to this day. But there’s only so much blinding heat and inequality that a man can take, so after two years it was time to move on to IH Chiang Mai (yeah, there’s a lot of IH in this).

Chapter 9: Chiang Mai/Bangkok, Thailand

2015-06-24 13.31.01This was another full-time training position and my time was split 70/30 between IH Bangkok and IH Chiang Mai. I loved living in Bangkok, but less so the bubble that is Chiang Mai. Once again, it’s the people who make a place and I worked with so many good trainers, learning so much from their experience and expertise that I can only call the year I stayed there a professional success. I met ELT’s Laura Phelps and Mike Griffin, both of whom still talk about this with a sentimental fondness, as you would when tarpaulins are placed around you. In June, I got knocked off my motorbike, which didn’t change how I dressed for work.

Chapter 10: Kobe, Japan and the World

The time had come, the walrus said, to freelance (of all things). I decided to leave Thailand and move East again, this time to work for the excellent Language Resources, Kobe. The spirit of LR is very much of old skool IH – professional, dedicated to quality teaching, committed to helping their staff and all round friendly and great to work for. So much so, I went back again after my initial four months of CELTA was over. It’s time to learn Japanese and really explore that izakaya menu.

2015-10-11 18.24.34



My connection with IH continues through being the Editor of the IH Journal, writing online course materials and tutoring for the Online Teacher Training Institute. It’s been about eight years that I’ve been involved with the organisation and I hope there’s another eight to come. IH has certainly been the most prominent and important aspect of my career and if, like me in that Edinburgh staffroom, you’re just starting out in ELT and aren’t sure what to do, then look at the IH Jobs page online and then don’t look back. Then go to the BC after three years for the opportunities money.

Post-script: I would like to add here that I have been very lucky and privileged in my career. I work with teachers every day who work very hard and are remarkably talented but have not had the same opportunities that I have had. There is rife inequality in ELT: being a white ‘native speaker’ from the UK has given me immense advantages and many visas. This is to be lamented and fought against. And while this post (and blog) is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I want to make it clear that I have a great deal of respect for all the teachers I work with and the profession as a whole. We are all in this together.

Being Understood And Nothingness

A spectre is haunting Europe (and everywhere else). A new zELTgeist has been born. Everywhere I look, I see it. ELF, native and non-native speakers (NSs and NNSs), non-native English speaking teachers (NNESTs), language use… it’s all out there. The blogosphere throbs and we may be on the cusp of an Event Horizon. Laura Patsko has recently returned to the blogging world with three posts on language use and empathy; Laura Phelps (because everyone called Laura blogs) wrote recently about a similar topic; Cinzia Guerriero posted her experience of being a NNEST in Japan; ELF Pron continues apace; Damien Williams is conducting a survey of NNESTs for his IATEFL talk; Marek Kiczkowiak continues his good work on TEFL Equality Advocates; Silvana Richardson entered the fray with a webinar aimed at NNESTs and will do so again with an IATEFL plenary; I turned up in the EFL Magazine and said something; the latest TEFL Show podcast is on which pronunciation models to teach and an itinerant trainer I know in Bangkok ranted for a long time in bar.

I have nothing of any real use to add to the debates of course and I do not want to be accused of bundling the very separate issues of ELF, NSs/NNSs, NNESTs and language use together into one ‘oh bless’ package, but something positive is afoot when dominant paradigms are challenged. Things fall apart; the Centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. And we should celebrate it.

Accommodation (not that kind)

So what can I contribute? Why would I want to scrawl one more post on the internet’s vast and crowded canvas? Because I’d like to tell you a very short story about a situation in which I recently found myself and what that might or not mean; however, before I get there, here’s something neatly simple that Laura Patsko wrote on her recent blog post (see above):

“It’s quite obvious that he [a glaciologist, no less – Laura moves in high circles] chooses to phrase and deliver the same information differently according to his audience — if he actually wants to be understood, of course.”

This is a form of language grading, which in turn forms part of a larger concept of Accommodation Theory. According to the theory, you’ll either want to converge with your interlocutor to lessen the social distance between you (which will mean being understood) or diverge from your interlocutor to widen the social distance between you (which might mean not being understood), due to such issues as identity and context. To give a somewhat simplistic example, I might want to sound more Scottish to show I’m different to you in some way (divergence), or you might go on a date which goes really well and want to ‘neutralise’ some regional features of your accent to be more like your potential new beau (convergence). I might modify my choice of words, my accent, the language I’m actually speaking, the speed of speech, my mannerisms, my grammar and so forth, much of which will be unconscious (see more here). But here’s where I recently came unstuck (and to think I’ve actually advocated for native speakers to have international communication classes!).

On Causing an Awkward Situation at a Beach but not in a Phone Shop

2016-02-13 18.06.46.jpgI was enjoying a very pleasant sojourn at an idyllic spot in Thailand with three friends. Of these three, two are NSs and one is a NNS. I found this situation rather awkward at times as I was continually plagued by the fear that NNS did not understand what I was saying. Then one evening, the NNS turned to one of the NSs after I said something and asked: “what did he say?”. I feel mortified quite often, but this was a Top 5 Moment. I, an English teacher, a teacher trainer, someone who’s lived in Foreign for the last ten years, had managed to cause confusion or discomfort to such a level that rather than asking me what was said, the questioner turned to someone else. It turned out too that this question was often asked and things I’d said explained, but only when I’d left the room. Reader, I’d harried him.

The reason I describe the above scene after talking about accommodation is that I genuinely did not know how to handle this situation. I evidently got my accommodation all wrong, but why? I mean, I managed quite well earlier today when I cancelled my mobile phone contract, with exchanges like:

“Sawat di Khrap. Er, can I cancel my phone [shows phone] contract here?”

“Sorry, you can say again?” [leans forward over desk]

“Can I cancel my phone [shows phone] contract here?”

“Sorry, no understand”

“Can I finish phone contract here, thi nii, finish phone dai mai?”

“Ah, you want finish contract [kɔːntak̚ʔ]?” – [k̚ʔ] denotes an unrealised /k/

“Yes, finish [kontak̚ʔ] please, khrap”

“Ah yes dai khaaaa. [broad smile] You want finish [writes phone number on a piece of paper]”

“Yes! [smile the size of your bedroom, nodding like a Chinese lucky cat’s left paw]”


Some people will hate reading the above and perhaps accuse me of ‘Tarzan-ing’ the poor patronised member of staff, but frankly they’re wrong. There I was in a transactional situation in which I needed a given outcome and so I convergently accommodated my English (including adding some Thai words too) to accommodate as much as I possibly could to my interlocutor’s level (short of actually learning Thai in that 40 seconds) and, waddaya know, it worked. Phone contract cancelled, smiles all round. But then what had gone wrong on holiday with my friends?

Language (obt)Use, Language Barriers?

One can always spin a personal fiction to explain oneself, but I’ll keep it brief. Perhaps I fear that so much of my identity, character or humour comes from my use of language and that to accommodate it too much in mixed groups in social conversation might jeopardise this. Perhaps I was too keenly aware that if I speak in a noticeably different manner to one member of the group (as I did when the NNS and I were talking alone), I could be construed as seriously patronising.  And so perhaps I was probably somewhere in the middle, with extreme leaps towards no real grading when I got going. It’s as if I needed a third pill, an Accommodation 2.0 to manage the different necessary means of interacting. I was in this person’s (the NNS’s) country and so it is my duty to make myself understood in the lingua franca, no? But then they were with three NSs, so maybe it is their responsibility to try to understand me (asking clarification questions, etc.). Or is it both of us and a complex situation with no real easy solution? A necessary two-way accommodating process of give and take between NS and NNS in an unevenly balanced social situation?

To turn to this very post for a moment, and think again about what Laura wrote: who is my audience and why am I writing? If you’ve read this far (or this blog before), you’ll undoubtedly have come to conclusion that anyone under a B2 level of proficiency would seriously struggle and that I’m clearly writing for my own enjoyment/amusement at times. In using the language in this way, am I thus a barrier to participation in the online ELT community? Is my language use here even permissible for a blog which is supposed to inform and contribute to debate? Do I cloud the issues when what I should be doing is shedding light? Am I catering to a small (you should see the hits on this blog), highly-proficient NS and NNS elite? Is it hypocrisy to tell CELTA candidates to grade their language, when I myself can’t be understood on the beach or the internet?

Or am I just neurotic and need to chill out? It’s no big deal, just be yourself? But show a little more of Laura’s empathy.

As usual, I have no answers, and so leave you to your own opinions. Feel free to leave those in the comments.


Also, thank you very much for reading this post and this blog over the years. There has always been the real ELT Reflections (by Nathan Hall, someone able to actually type a URL properly) and so I have decided to finally sign off here on this one. Breaking down barriers, one blog at a time – I’ll be in touch if I put up another one.

Fluffy Post 1 – The Absolute Unadulterated Joy of Questioning What You Do

I don’t write blog posts very often, so regular readers will be aware don’t exist, but I’ve decided to write one this morning as I’m feeling inspired. Is it the coffee? Is it the fifth movement of Mahler’s Resurrection still bouncing and floating around the hollow space between my ears? Could it be new neural pathways created as my taste buds sent mind-altering currents to hitherto unknown parts of my brain after Tim Hughes’ astounding leftover-chicken-and-stuff-in-the-kitchen curry last night? Who knows, for what does it matter to the workings of a world that just mapped Pluto?

It matters not, but I just wanted to share some joy. Heaven forfend! Some joy in a world of torment and disaster. But there are little lights, fireflies in the dark of night, uneven pinpricks of euphoria that come at me from time to time. And I’ve had a few of these recently. It’s not been the greatest time. There have been challenges: a relationship going through a ‘difficult phase’, a motorbike accident, a decision to leave my job and move to another country (again!), CELTA number 4,762 and ultimate acceptance that I will probably never play for the Scotland national football team in a World Cup final. But all these first world problems have got one thing in common: they all make me question what I do and who I am.

Now, as this is an ELT blog, let me make at least some reference to the field. All I’ve said above can be summarised in the more academically appropriate words of Thomas Farrell:

“Over their careers teachers construct and reconstruct (usually tacitly) a conceptual sense of who they are (their self-image) and this is manifested through what they do (their professional role identity)” (link here)

What got me thinking about this was a question from a recent CELTA candidate. I was asked about the need for teaching reading subskills (skimming, scanning, detailed comprehension, etc.). I replied the jury was out and that learners may simply transfer existing comprehension skills from L1 to L2, though there seemed no harm to me on working on scanning with lower levels whose L1 has a different script to that of English (my current context is Thailand – yeah, just try scanning Thai as a beginner). But after the session, I got thinking and started to ask questions about what I do.

I thought about reading lessons I’ve taught, what I’ve done with texts in class, and how I feel as a learner of another language. I revisited Russ Mayne’s excellent post (would you expect anything else from Russ?) on Skimming and Scanning (link here), gave Christine Nuttall a ring on my special red telephone and settled down with Swan and Walter. I thought about what subskills are, whether they exist, whether it’s more effective to think about processing than subskills; I reflected on what the difference between subskills and reading strategies is, the need to “pre-teach” and what cats do in the night (though I accept that’s not totally related). I ruminated over the point of reading for gist (see this webinar for more on that), whether scanning involves comprehension and what on earth is meant by “reading for detail”; I considered whether texts should be linguistic objects, what it is that makes people group reading and listening together, rather than reading and writing, and the need to focus on discourse to improve reading. I thought a lot. I constructed and reconstructed my professional ideas and identity.

And what were my conclusions? What paradigm-changing answer did I reach? Absolutely nothing. Not a conclusion in sight. A bit of anti-climax? I think not, because the definitive answers were not the point and are ones I can never reach without moving into primary research – something that is not for me right this very second – no, the point was the process, the thinking, the critical reflection and the absolute unadulterated joy of questioning what you do.

What on earth did I write this for?  Good question – need to think about that.

Listen – the Gist is in the Detail IH Webinar

Here’s my third blog post in the last 12 months. I really do churn them out, here at the blogging factory. But I digress. Below is the video for the IH Live Online Workshop I did in December on looking at decoding, as well as comprehension, in listening lessons. The webinar goes over some background to what is involved in listening itself and then looks at some minimal preparation listening activities to work on decoding in class. The slides are below the video. Hope you find it useful.

A Tale of Two Conversations

@sandymillin, ELTPics
@sandymillin, ELTPics

It’s my second blog post in about a year! And what a post it is. Well, ok, it’s really not taken me that much time to write and is more a question or two for you, dear reader, based on the transcripts below. Here’s some information you might want before you read:

Location: Dubai

Topic: Lunch

Ordinary level: very very ordinary

So, have a read of these two dialogues and just think about the differences in them and why that may be the case, think about: grammar, phonology, accommodation, communicative competence, adjacency pairs, standard English, ELF, right, wrong, (in)accuracy, and whatever the hell else you like.

Conversation 1

[phone call]

Me: I’m the Atrium shop – that’s all I need to say

Ben: Hm, ah, well I’ll have what you’re having

Me: Dangerous words. I think I’m gonna go for the large falafel granary

Ben: Hm, shit, I had a falafel last night. Get me a tikka mayo, with the granary and all the evil things.

Me: It’s you who doesn’t like tomato, right?

Ben: No, no tomato.

Me: Ok, so tikka mayo with salad, no tomato?

Ben: Yeah. And could you see if they have one of those fresh strawberry things?

Me: aye, no bother. I’m gonna get some antioxidants for my pomegranatey self anyway. See you in a bit.

Ben: Ok, thanks very much.

Me: Bye

[hang up]

Conversation 2

Guy making sandwich (GMS): Hello sir!

Me: Hello! How are you?

GMS: Fine sir. You? Sandwich?

Me: Yes please. Chicken tikka mayo on the granary please.

GMS: Ok sir, granary? [ˈgræˈnæˈre]

Me: Yes please

GMS: All salad? (intonation rising sharply)

Me: yes, all salad. No tomato.

GMS. No tomato?

Me: No tomato.

GMS: Ok sir.

GMS: no cucumber?

Me: Yes cucumber, no tomato.

GMS Ok sir.

… [BREAK IN CONVERSATION – I order next sandwich now]

GMS (to other member of staff): How many pastrami I put?

Staff member: I think four.

Me (jocularly – nice word): Oh, I think five.

Staff member (laughing): Ok sir, yes, put five.

GMS: Ok sir, five, and this (places extra half)

Me (laughing): great! Thanks. Excellent service here.

GMS: [smiles]

GMS: Make it hot?

Me: No thank you

GMS: Want toasted?

Me: No thank you.

GMS: Ok sir. [hands over sandwich]. Thank you sir.

Me: Thank you! Have a good day. G’bye.

GMS: Have a good day sir. Good-bye.

So there you have it. That’s how I get lunch from the place down the road a coupla times a week. But, back to the conversations, there are quite a few differences between the two  on a few different levels. Feel free to leave a comment below with any of your thoughts and I might one day get round to posting my own, probably some time next year at the rate I write here these days. *shakes fist at Distance Delta* *loves it really*

And finally, having thought about all that, I would now recommend you read World Englishes by Jennifer Jenkins and Uncovering Grammar by Scott Thornbury and see if the above gives any further food for thought.

(the sandwich was good, by the way)

On Being Corrected… When You’re Right

Anthony Burgess’ Earthly Powers

There is a remarkable passage in Anthony Burgess’ brilliant novel Earthly Powers in which the protagonist, a successful English author named Kenneth Toomey, is discussing matters religious with a local person of seemingly great import called Mahaligham, who’s a Tamil speaker (the interaction takes place in what is now Malaysia though, at the time this conversation takes place, it was a British colony known as The Federation of Malaya, and Toomey is there to do research for his work). It goes as follows:

“You may say my religion is personal and electric”

“Surely you mean eclectic?”

“I mean what I mean”, he said loudly. “Because you are an Englishman does not mean you have a monopoly of the language” (1)

What is remarkable is how (the insane – you’ll see if you read the book) Mahaligham reacts to being corrected. It turns out that he did mean “eclectic” as the conversation develops (or so it seems to me) and he keeps mentioning it, but he clearly did not like being corrected. Not only that, he links this correction to a greater question of who ‘owns’ English, which in the late 1940s or early 1950s (when this was), was very probably considered by most people to be ‘the British” (whoever they are), or the English (from England, which is simply a “conspiracy of cartographers” anyway).

Now, as proponents of ELF (English as Lingua Franca) or EIL (English as an International Language), amongst others, will tell you, nobody ‘owns’ English, particularly the British (as might have been traditionally assumed: RP as prestige form and all that – perhaps my own interpretation there). Indeed, nowadays, most English interaction will take place between people for whom English is a learned language of communication, not a first language. However, even so, there is still a tendency for many learners of English to regard native speakers (don’t think too hard about that term) as somehow in command of it, experts, consultants on acceptable use, etc. As Barbara Seidlhofer describes this “paradox”:

“…on the one hand, for the majority of its users, English is a foreign language, and the vast majority of verbal exchanges in English do not involve any native speakers of the language at all. On the other hand, there is still a tendency for native speakers to be regarded as custodians over what is acceptable usage” (2)

As usual in one of my posts, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with, well, anything. So I’ll tell you. All this reminds me of a strange correction situation I was

Muscat from the B&B (run by a brilliantly mad Swede)
Muscat from the B&B (run by a brilliantly mad Swede)

recently in in Oman. My girlfriend (a celebrated ELFer no less, and Jane to my Dave Willis) and I were in a bar in Muscat, where we met one of a number of very friendly Omanis. He was particularly talkative and took a shine to Katy, so we ended up talking for about 12 minutes and 26 seconds (roughly). Our new friend, who was maybe called Khalid (well, he is now), was very well-travelled and knew the UK well (the very definition of well-travelled..), including Edinburgh (near where I’m from), as well as Katy’s neck of the woods. I’d say his English was about B1+, though my memory is fading slightly on that point. He was also speaking to two native-speaker English teachers, something he was effusively happy about, and Katy and I were doing that accommodation thing I’ve written about before (a talk here and post here). So there’s the background.

At one point in the conversation, the following dialogue took place:

Chris: “did you go to the festival [in Edinburgh]?”

Khalid: “did I went to the festival?”

Chris: “Yeah, did you go and see it?”

Khalid: “did I went? Yes, I went to it. August.” [Katy and I share a look]

What you want to read into reformulation as a correction technique is up to you, but notice who corrected who: he corrected me. I wasn’t correcting him in this interaction – I was just speaking the English I know, use and, well, speak in bars (and elsewhere, I should add) – but he was definitely correcting me. This was the first time I think I’ve ever had my English grammar ‘corrected’ by pretty much anyone, but I’ve definitely never been corrected by someone of level B1+ in a bar!

So, what does this tell us? Probably very little in the grand scheme of things (has anyone ever seen this putative ‘grand scheme’ anywhere?), but it does highlight some interesting points that  the gregarious Khalid probably didn’t know he was making. For instance, Khalid would surely be in disagreement with Tricia Hedge’s approach, were they to meet in a bar (one day it will be me..), which Li summarises as “only ‘global’ errors (those which cause communication problems) [should] be addressed, but not ‘local’ errors (those which do not)” (3). Khalid seems to be from a more Behaviourist school of error-avoidance and explicit recasts.

Coming back to the original thread of this piece (for one should), for Khalid, native speakers clearly do not own English, as Mahaligham most forcefully points out to Toomey in the quotation at the start of this post. Nor are they experts or consultants, but are simply interlocutors of equal weight (not in the BMI sense) in a conversation – after all, in the above conversation, he was telling me he was right. It seems Khalid would agree with Widdowson when he says:

“How English develops in the world is no business whatsoever of native speakers in England [surely the UK, Henry?], the United States, or anywhere else. They have no say in the matter, no right to intervene or pass judgement. They are irrelevant… [English] is not a possession which they lease out to others, while retaining the freehold. Other people actually own it” (4)

Moreover, for Khalid, so what if I’m an English teacher and teacher trainer. So what?? He had no fear in correcting me, regardless of the different ‘status’ we might be seen to have as regards whose English is ‘correct’. Because what does that even mean any more?

So, what should I have done? If we believe that successful communication is the ultimate end, then possibly I should have done what I did: nothing. However, is Khalid going to continue in his English-speaking ways to make that error, one which is clearly not a slip or mistake, but an error based on a lack of linguistic knowledge (another consideration for the Hedge)? If he does that, does it even matter? After all, he communicated fine and most of his interaction in Muscat will be with other non-native English speakers, which will make Seidlhofer happy at least. But then, does this (Khalid’s error, not Seidlhofer’s happiness) diminish ELF as a concept, ‘reducing’ it to a simplified ‘English’, a a pidgin contact language? Why would that even be a problem? Or is it potential evidence, if it were to be repeated in many different bars across the globe, of an ELF grammar developing its own internal logic? And then what?!

Or, y’know what, maybe Khalid had just had one too many bottles of Peroni and I should get out more. Or stay in. I stand to be corrected.


(1) Burgess, A. Earthly Powers. Vintage Digital; Kindle Edition. 18 Oct 2012.

(2) Seidlhofer, B. (2005). English as a Lingua Franca. ELT Journal, 59/4. October 2005.

(3) Li, S. (2013). Oral Corrective Feedback ELT Journal, 67/4. First published online 13/12/13.

(4) Widdowson, H. (1994). The Ownership of English, in Jenkins, J. (2000) The Phonology of English as an International Language. Oxford: OUP. 

Accommodating Teacher Talk

I’m sharing the link here from my talk opening the IH Online conference. It’s a wonderful event and I enjoyed presenting. The talk is this post expanded somewhat. The slides are below the video. Many thanks to Shaun Wilden for inviting me to speak. The conference continues today (30/11/13), with real teflebrities like Scott Thornbury and Jeremy Harmer. Check it out!

Reading and Listening Lesson Musts

Why are reading and listening lessons often treated as procedural, formulaic and possibly even dull? Do learners actually get a chance to develop their skills in such lessons, or are they just given opportunities to read or listen in class? If the latter, is that a valuable use of time? Is skimming always the first thing we should do with a text?

Below is a talk I gave for IHWO a few weeks ago that tries to address the above questions. I’ve shared it here so you can see the slides too, which are below, and which might be helpful as the video lags slightly at points.

Many thanks to Neil McMahon for inviting me to speak and for all the technical wizardry, as well as everyone who attended the talk over the two days.