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.

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.

What is the Point in Pre-Teaching?

In an earlier post on top-down/bottom-up processing and context/co-text, I mentioned that there might well be another one on issues to do with teaching receptive skills. And here it is.

Recently I have become somewhat fatigued watching trainee teachers pre-teach vocabulary prior to receptive skills work in class. I would actually go further and say I am starting to actively hate it. A bit like other pernicious habits such as smoking or having children, it’s not something I do myself, but I see a lot of people I know doing it (they don’t post about it on Facebook though, admittedly) and so it’s always sort of just blended into the background of language teaching for me, which is always a worrying realisation. Such a worrying realisation, in fact, that I more or less blindly suggested trainees include it in receptive skills lessons for about two years before I started to wonder. A little reflection can be a dangerous thing.

What is pre-teaching?

Christine Nuttall (1982: 62) points out the suggestion that “moderate L1 readers can recognise about 50,000 words”, which does seem like a lot (maybe it’s lexemes?). Now there’s no way that most learners are going to build a lexicon of so many items they can recognise, so can they never become even ‘moderate’ readers? Teachers, then, need to find ways of helping learners cope with text and read better. One way many people employ of doing this is to pre-teach vocabulary (or “lexis”, for the sophisticates amongst you), which is part of trying to scaffold the comprehension of the text.

In a ‘standard’ reading lesson procedure, it would come before the learners read the text, but generally after there’s been some sort of lead-in and schemata activation. It tends to involve the teaching of a few (3 or 4 usually) selected items that the teacher assumes the learners will not know and which are useful when reading the text in question.  Its purpose is to facilitate the learners’ reading development by helping them not concentrate on every word or unknown item that might distract them from the reading work, most likely a immediately preceding a subskill task such as reading for gist (skimming) or specific information (scanning), amongst others.  It is particularly common with the use of authentic text, which will more likely contain more difficult lexis.

My problems with pre-teaching

Seems pretty logical, right? So why would I be thus nonplussed by this practice? Here’s my reasons (in no particular order):

  • It really can break the flow of a lesson.

  • Learners often seem to look a bit bewildered at why 4 seemingly random words are being taught.

  • I’m just not convinced it actually helps learners read better or develop strategies to deal with text.

  • Don’t think of white bears! What are you thinking of now? If you highlight some lexis before moving on reading work, is there not a risk you actually distract from this work by drawing attention to difficult items? (This can be Tolstoy or Dostoevsky’s contribution to ELT…)

  • If done badly, it’s seriously counter-productive and can lead to boredom, disengagement, etc.

  • It’s not how we read in real life – this is hugely important: just who is going to pre-teach some selected items for learners when they read in the real world?

  • Selecting the words necessarily involves assumptions about the learners. How do you know they won’t know that word? Why do you think they don’t? What if they do?

  • And it also involves assumptions about the usefulness of the items – would you pre-teach “lusophone”, for example, in Dubai?

  • It’s not appropriate for every receptive skills lesson but is often presented as such cf. when I did CELTA years ago.

  • It can distort the focus of the lesson from a reading skills development one to a lexis learning one.

  • If you’re ‘demanding high’, why not just let the learners get on with it and come back to lexis, etc., after the reading stages of the lesson (more on that below).

  • It may hinder learners’ developing “word-attack skills”, to borrow Christine Nuttall’s term (anyone else actually see a text being knifed by Nuttall there?), such as working out which words are important/can be ignored, inferring meaning, etc.

One size does not fit all

Perhaps you feel I’m being a bit harsh on the poor wee lamb to the pedagogical slaughter that is pre-teaching. Let me redress the balance a little then. Pre-teaching does, mayhap, have a place in some lessons, but not all. You may want to help learners a little bit with a few items that may be tricky, or let them know that Mariánské Lázně is a place, so they don’t worry about it upon encountering it in a text about Spas and faded European grandeur; however, this should be decided upon based on the text, the lesson, the learners, the aims, the loadsa things specific to that group and that class and not simply be a given in any skills lesson. There is, as usual, no one-size-fits-all solution.

Another argument for pre-teaching (or actually more for raising awareness of reading as strategies/skills) is that this idea can often be revelatory for trainees who have little access to professional development or training, or who have come for more ‘traditional’ teaching backgrounds, as it is a common practice to teach all (presumed) new lexis before learners read (often out-loud one at a time – heaven forfend!). This approach has precedents in older approaches such as The Reading Method recommended in the USA in the 1920s, which revolved around the text as the central component of the learning process, with each text being accompanied by a list of vocabulary which was to be taught before any reading occurred (Richards and Rodgers, 2001:50). However, this is not pre-teaching, as it aims to teach lexis, not facilitate reading development. Here, we have a text being used for language development, not to develop the learners’ skills in reading. While this distinction may seem unintuitive for some, it is an important one.

Well if you must…

So, what if you are going to pre-teach? While this isn’t the point of this post, here’s an idea or two. It makes more sense to me to work with the most frequently occurring words in the text, as these will be the ones that help the learners get the gist of a text more than “glabrous”, for example. Try using a Wordle (you just input the text and it prettifies it into the most frequently recurring words) or putting the words up on the board and getting the learners to check them in a dictionary (paper or electronic), or to predict the content of the passage from them before reading to check (efficient gist task there). There is actually research that claims that pre-teaching the most frequent words can greatly aid learners’ reading comprehension (the article itself is more concerned with vocabulary and frequency lists, but there is a brief treatment of pre-teaching near the end).

The final word

So, to conclude this ramble, the answer is to be judicious and to take a more complex approach to skills lessons. These are merely not ‘easy’ lessons for the teacher in which they can sit back, relax and let the learners get on with it and it worries me they are often treated as such. But to come back to pre-teaching, use your professional expertise and make judicious choices about whether to pre-teach and you’ll probably find that it is not as necessary as you might think and can be cut from a good number of lessons.

Once the skills work has been done, then there’s a perfectly good text there to work to exploit further. By all means, go back to it, unpack it, teach some lexis from it (or better still, try to get learners to work it out for themselves), use it as a basis for other language work or as a model for some writing/speaking work. But first, let the learners try to make sense of the text as they would in real life, help them develop their skills in reading and don’t over-scaffold by pre-teaching too much or at all. Or is it just me?


Nuttall, Christine (1982). Teaching Reading Skills in a Foreign Language. Macmillan.

Richards, J. and Rodgers, T. (2001).  Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. CUP.

On Rapport

I do Bikram Yoga. There, I admitted it. Just to get that out there before we move on. I also need to tell you that I have as much flexibility as some thin steel at absolute zero (though without the steel) and am, concomitantly, rubbish at Bikram yoga. I’ve had about 45 classes now, still can’t even touch my toes and nearly die at least once during the arduous 90-minute lock-step torture that not even the Inquisition dared employ. Ok. Confession over.

Yogi Bugbear

The reason I mention this is because there is a distinct difference between the two instructors I see most often. Let’s call them Rita and Laura. While both are technically very proficient and even gifted at what they do, know the 26 poses inside out (not an unapt expression for yoga) and offer helpful suggestions for getting a position right or improving your own practice, the classes with Rita are just much better than those with Laura. Why would this be so and what does it have to do with ELT?

The answer is: rapport. But just what is that? The MacMillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners defines rapport as “a relationship in which people like, understand and respect each other” (which suggests I failed to establish rapport with a couple of ex-girlfriends.. ). Narrowing the scope more to ELT, Jim Scrivener describes rapport as: “the quality of the relationship in the classroom: teacher – student and student – student. It is not primarily technique driven, but grows naturally when people like each other and get on together” (Classroom Management Techniques p40). So, basically, it’s about people liking each other and getting on well together, which is all very well, but how can it be achieved?

One of the problems with rapport is that some just seem to have it naturally, while others can struggle. While it’s difficult to say exactly why one teacher might have better rapport than another, there are certain behaviours that a teacher can work on to help them get there. To this end, Scrivener goes on from the above quotation to list “authenticity”,” good listening”, “showing respect and support”, and “a good sense of humour” as highly desirable in achieving a good rapport with a class. While in How to Teach English, Harmer adds “recognising students” to the list, as well as “being even handed” (pp26 & 27). So, now we have a fairly complete list, let’s see how it manifests itself in my yoga classes.

A rapport diagnostic: how to aid and hinder rapport-building

In this section, we’ll look at some of the ways that Laura manages to create a negative atmosphere at times, and some suggestions for how to remedy this.

Problem One

What the instructor does: singles late-comers out, stops the class to tell people off for being late and implies that they’re not taking the class seriously.

The problem: in a room full of adults, who are there to improve in some way, this sort of public reprimand is unhelpful, has a negative effect on the atmosphere in the room and can even be somewhat cringe-worthy.

What the instructor should do:  be understanding. Everyone coming to yoga has a job, often a high-pressure job in this part of the world, and the traffic is a nightmare.

It's hot, y'know
It’s hot, y’know

Perhaps they just got held up and couldn’t get there on time. At least they tried! Why not simply brush it off, continue and maybe after class have a quiet word, asking what the problem is and hinting that it’s not ideal to arrive late, but at least they’re making an effort to come.

Problem Two

What the instructor does: singles out only strong participants for praise

The problem: those less proficient at yoga are rarely – if ever – encouraged and can feel that they’re not up to the mark and that their efforts are futile (I know; I’m one of them!)

What the instructor should do:  Be even-handed. Distribute praise evenly throughout the group when the situation demands it. If someone has put in some extra effort, improved on a posture last week, is noticeably suffering (very common!) and needs encouragement, praise them. Don’t praise everything, or it loses its effect, but don’t just praise strong students as this can be counter-productive. Not all of us can put our foot over our head while balancing on one-leg and hold it for 25 seconds…

Problem Three

What the instructor does: reprimands people for getting things wrong or for, accordingly, “not listening”

The problem: mistakes are part of the learning process and just because someone makes one doesn’t mean they weren’t listening!

What the instructor should do:  show some respect and support. Demonstrate the posture again and highlight the part that’s gone wrong, not singling anyone in particular out. Simply deliver the ‘correction’ in a more supportive manner, telling a few students that they should continue to work on a certain part of the posture (nothing wrong with demand high yoga…). Perhaps offer some individual guidance while monitoring (yes, in yoga too) and don’t stop the class to tell people they’re not listening just because they’re not 100% perfect (I’m pretty sure this is actually some teacher insecurity hindering learning here, but that’s a blog post for another time..).

Problem Four

What the instructor does: knows the names of the stronger participants, but not the weaker ones (though oddly, she knows mine – must be a case of going long enough that she can’t not)

The problem: as with the praising, weaker students can feel discouraged or even slighted.

What the instructor should do: recognise students. It’s hard, very hard, to do, but a little more effort would go a long way. It’s particularly hard with a “drop-in” like event like this particular yoga class (an open group or rolling intake in ELT), but after a couple of weeks there really is no excuse. Even I know the names of some others I’ve barely spoken to. She could make some notes pre-class to help her remember or talk to people before they go in, asking how they are, etc. (she does this to a point, but only with the stronger ones or long-term regulars like me).

Problem Five

What the instructor does: delivers the class as if it were training session on how to kill enjoyment, rather than a collective exercise in, well, exercise.

I'm flagging at 23...
I’m flagging at 23…

The problem: there’s very little humour, or give, in her classes. They can be isolating. Sometimes it can seem monotonous, as if I have to get the most out of it for myself, without being gently nudged along by the rapport the teacher creates.

What the instructor should do:  have a sense of humour and reference the group effort. Rita has a good sense of humour and uses it well: “you’ve paid for the pain, make the most of it”, “only four postures to go before that glass of wine”, etc. I’m not saying she’s yoga’s Eddie Izzard, but in times of stress like the last third of a Bikram class, a little light banter goes a long way, helping you feel normal and part of a group. Yes, part of a group. This is exactly what Laura fails to do. And not having a sense of humour which, when used effectively can help create a group atmosphere, does not help.

Problem Six

What the instructor does: insists that postures are done by the book, regardless of individual issues with any one position in particular.

The problem: everyone is different and has different strengths and weaknesses and these should be catered for; it’s not a one-size-fits-all thing, the human body: my bad ankle is your dodgy hip. I guess it’s the yoga equivalent of learning preferences, in ELT terms.

What the instructor should do:  listen to the learners. It took about 2 months before I convinced Laura that I simply cannot do a couple of postures due to my knees. It’s not a case that I’m simply being a recalcitrant pest – that’s my knees. Rather than trying to push me to do a posture (three actually) in a certain way, help me round it by suggesting something else. I’m being slightly disingenuous here as she has now done this, but it took a while. Learners are individuals and should be treated as such.

Taking a Position

So that’s my list of ways in which rapport is not built in my yoga class, with the parallels for the ELT classroom needing no further explanation. I bet you never thought a Bikram Yoga class and, say, a pre-intermediate English class could have this in common, but they do. The same would apply to many other situations, such as group work, leadership, or even talking down the pub with your friends. If the rapport isn’t there, it’s just not going to work out as well. Of course, rapport can actually have a detrimental effect, and we’ve probably all seen those teachers who get by on it alone – the entertainers whose teaching may not be wonderful, but whose students sure have a good time in class (Scott Thornbury writes about this here). However, it’s clear that rapport is an essential element of good teaching, for me, and I enjoy my yoga classes far more with it, than without. And the same goes for my CELTA groups, my friendly games of doubles badminton, my office, my Spanish classes, my IELTS re-certification training… you name it. It really can be the rapport what makes it.

Don’t drill! Drill it! Drill it now!

Two recent related but separate occurrences inspired this blog post. Firstly, I have done a lot of observations recently and seen some very good classes, some excellent classes, but I haven’t seen much drilling; secondly, a colleague told me I drill more than he does. So, I got thinking. I looked up drilling in Penny Ur’s A Course in Language Teaching and it gets a mere perfunctory mention on page 54 (Ur 1995: 54). Why don’t teachers like drilling? This post explores this question a little before describing some drilling techniques further down.

What is Drilling?

Basically, drilling is a form of repetitive practice that has been used throughout the years to practise a various things, from grammar structures to connected speech. For anyone trained as an EFL teacher pre the 1980s, it probably conjures up images (sounds?) of grammar drills, audio-lingualism and a faint hint (smell?) of behaviourism. However, for those of us trained much later, drilling was that thing we had to do when we presented new language, which we elicited, and we weren’t allowed to do it if we’d already written the form on the board. You did chorally first, then individually and just made sure you did it as it might get you an above standard.

From my experience as a CELTA tutor and from conversations with working teachers, drilling is usually frowned upon either for the first reason outlined above – that it’s out of date – or because teachers do no feel confident having a room full of people repeating stretches of language – they feel awkward and like they’re patronising the class. However, if done well, I see no reason why this latter point should get in the way and the former point involves a link to a now discredited methodology which we can surely see past.

Repeat, but not ad nauseum Repeat, but not ad nauseum Repeat, but not ad nauseum

Anecdotally, I can tell you I like drilling. I mean, just try saying estrategicamente if you’re not a Spanish L1 speaker, and if that was easy why not try “desafortunadamente, se regocijó cuando el venezolano lo hizo estrategicamente”.. Drilling can help with ‘getting your tongue around’ a word, a chunk, or even an individual sound. In this way, it can help learners develop the muscle action of the L2 and can perhaps help them remember features of said language’s pronunciation better. Think to yourself how difficult it is to say certain things in an L2 (or 3 or 4..) the first time you encounter them. For me, I have to repeat them to myself a good few times and then I start to feel it becoming easier. Why shouldn’t the teacher help their learners with exactly this? That said, teachers have to be careful of not overdoing and forcing a learner to repeat ad nauseum a sound they find very difficult. After all, the learners have to be able to recognise that sound first and if they can’t, they won’t be saying it any time soon and prolonged repetition would be a very demoralising experience.

Returning to the Spanish sentence above, it basically means nothing (something like “unfortunately, she/he/it rejoiced when the Venezulan did it strategically”). This is another reason that drilling fell out of favour. In a communicative approach, we are supposed to ensure meaningful communication takes place in our classes and sentences chosen simply for a grammatical or phonological pattern are not encouraged as practices as they don’t involve the learner really interacting with meaning. However, that being said, I see no problem with incorporating a light form of drilling as part of a language presentation, providing that it is done within an established context and with natural sentences.


If we drill relatively briefly and with short chunks of language, drilling can be motivating and beneficial. On his blog, Scott Thornbury mentions two ways out of this: an “eight-to-ten syllables max” rule and backchaining. The former is Scott’s personal preference, and a good idea to boot, but the latter is an established technique in which “the sentence is drilled and built up from the end, gradually adding to its length. Certain parts may be drilled separately, if they present problems. Each part of the sentence is modelled by the teacher, and the students repeat” (Kelly, 2000: 24). A recent example from one of my classes is:

“a camel”

“riding a camel”

“used to”

“get used to”

“get used to riding a camel”

“have to”

“‘ll have to”

“he’ll have to”

“he’ll have to get used to riding a camel”

Notice that this involves focussing on natural chunks of language. It would be very odd to drill “to riding a camel” as this doesn’t follow a natural pattern of English chunking. This type of technique also serves to promote noticing of features of connected speech. That is to say, the learners are exposed to natural chunks modelled in a natural way and I always highlight what happens with weak forms, sentence stress and any features of linking as we go. That way, while they may not immediately improve their pronunciation, this may help them recognise fluently delivered English better. I would also probably go through this three times maximum to make sure the learners didn’t disengage or feel patronised in any way.

Other Techniques

Some other ways to go about drilling include:

Mumble /Silent Drilling – the teacher models the language and the learners repeat it to themselves, under their breath or quietly. They can also work with a partner to do this. This breaks the reliance on the choral-individual technique and may be more beneficial to certain learners as they can repeat the item as many times as they want and at a speed they’re comfortable with.

Changing Emotions – the learners repeat the teacher’s model, but after a couple of times, the teacher changes the emotion from a ‘normal’ one to, say, sad. The group then repeats as if feeling very sad. Try another one like ‘excited’, or ‘happy’, etc. This can help break any monotony associated with drilling and be a fun, engaging activity, which has the double bonus of raising awareness of different intonation patterns.

Jazz Chants – Jazz chants are an area teachers tend to shy away from in my experience (I have been no exception in my time) but which are basically drills disguised as fun. Popularised by Carolyn Graham, these should involve the repetition of “short, multi-word sequences and should have a consistent rhythm” (Thornbury 2005: 66). You can see a video of Carolyn here talking about how to create your own jazz chant ( These chants again have the benefit of raising awareness of sentence stress, intonation and connected speech. They can also reinforce grammar/functional structures (kept short) and can be used effectively with adults and YLs alike. The fact that the meaning should be clear from the context may even help make the chunks in the chant more memorable as the learners are, in a sense, interacting with the chant on a meaningful level too and the rhythm may help some learners remember the chunks better too (if you can get the tune of “First She Gave up Smoking” out of your head after doing it, you’re a better man than me…).

Substitution Drills – These are commonly associated with very restricted grammar practice and work along the lines of “there is a car” [dog] “there is a dog”, etc. The learners repeat the modelled grammar but with the new information substituted in. They do get more elaborate than my example, but that’s basically the gist. It’s important to ensure these are not mindless like the above example, but that there is some cognitive challenge. Instead of “dog”, for example, you could say “dogs” and so the learners would have to think to produce “there are some dogs”. This stops such drills becoming dull and mechanical.

Change Accents – If you’re confident about your ability to pull of a variety of different English accents in class, why not have the learners repeat after you model a different accent each time. This has the benefit of being quite good fun, but could also raise learners’ awareness of different accents. I’ve found this is especially effective with YLs, their preferred accent usually being Italian, complete with gestures.

Vary the Speed/Volume – Start the drill slowly and gradually get faster and faster and until it becomes clear the class can’t cope any more. Alternatively, do exactly the same but with the volume, gradually getting louder. Or combine the two. Again, this is very popular with YLs and can lead to some quite noisy classes!

Jim Scrivener lists a large range of different types of drills on pages 258 and 259 of Learning Teaching (2005) for those who’re really interested.

And this post’s a wrap!

Some Useful Sites

Sue Swift with some handy dos and don’ts

Scott Thornbury discusses drilling, the whys and the wherefores

Some ideas for drilling from Phillip Kerr

Jason Renshaw has some good ideas here

Printed References

Kelly, Gerard (2000) How to Teach Pronunciation, Pearson.

Thornbury, Scott (2005) How to Teach Speaking, Pearson.

Ur, Penny A (1995) A Course in Language Teaching, CUP.

Dogme Research in Costa Rica

My colleague Ben and I have recently started a Dogme research project here in Sunny Costa Rica. It’s called Pura Vida Dogme and you can get to our blog by clicking on the this link (not the picture below, which is just a picture..). The idea is basically to research learner motivation and dealing with emergent language in a 4 month project with a group of 10 local learners. We’ve been greatly assisted by the Academia Pi Mas here in San José, who have kindly let us use their classroom for free. Anyway, visit the blog and share your thoughts/ideas/suggestions/comments. All welcome!

On Being an Observer

In response to Dave Dodgson’s post which raised questions about the merits of common observation/feedback procedures in language schools, I thought I’d post one or two thoughts about the exact same thing – but from the other side of the coin, that of the observer. I don’t claim to speak for all observers here, but this is the situation as I see it. I’m also talking about observing working teachers, rather than trainees on initial CELTA, for example.

What’s the point of an observation?

A younger me after having been observed for the first time ever during my CELTA. Couldn't have been that traumatic...

Observations are there to help teachers develop. They should be carried out with this in mind and with both teacher and observer fully aware of this point. In theory, this should help reduce anxiety on the teacher’s part and help create a space for open reflection, both before and after the class.  After all, if teachers are to develop, they need to reflect, in exactly the same way that tutors on training courses should do too. The key words for me would be reflection, guidance, support and advice.

Observations of teachers are not there to tell people how to teach, to take a teacher’s lesson to bits, to criticise, to push a certain pedagogical agenda or to show off the observer’s supposed greater experience and knowledge. I know that this is how they are often perceived, but that doesn’t mean that view is right!

How should observations be organised?

If there is a supportive environment for professional development in your school, this shouldn’t be a problem. The teacher can choose the class they want to be observed on and, assuming this fits with the observer’s schedule, the observation organised for this class. This is particularly important in reducing stress for newly qualified teachers as they can choose a class they’re comfortable with. Ideally, there should be a conversation before the class between observer and teacher in which the background to the class is discussed along with any particular points the teacher wants support with.

I ask the teacher to write a lesson plan (I’d say planning is part of the reflection), with help from me if desired.  I then follow it in the class and we discuss it in feedback, thinking through the rationale for different stages, etc. It seems to me that teachers often find this quite useful in terms of thinking through why they’ve chosen certain activities or why they decided to approach the grammar in a certain way. Again, this is for reflection and development and is not critical.

There is another kind of observation, of course: the “walk in” observation, whereby the observer simply turns up to watch a teacher’s class unannounced. I have to say, I cannot stand these. I see management might think they’re important – make sure the teacher is doing everything right, etc, however this simply does not fit with the ideas I outlined above about development. This turns observations into assessments and pressures teachers to teach in a certain way – a way liked by the observer and not necessarily suited to their class, who they know. These observations can increase stress and can make a normally relaxed teacher noticeably nervous in front of their class. Not good in my book.

What should an observer look for?

In class, I have the teacher’s plan and I’ve spoken to the teacher about the group and possibly even the lesson prior to the class. What I’m looking for is successful teaching. I really don’t mind

what particular approach a teacher takes, as long as it falls within a communicative framework. And that it’s done well. If there is a good atmosphere, the learners enjoy the class, it’s as student-centred as seems possible, the presentations are clear, meaning focused on, skills work well-staged and useful and no-one leaves the room confused, I’d say we have an example of successful teaching.


I believe there should be both oral and written feedback. In many institutions, the latter is an official document that is kept in the teacher’s file, but this doesn’t mean that oral feedback is simply reeling off what’s been written down. The other reason for written feedback is so that the teacher can have a copy to keep and to refer to in the future if they want to.

Is this good teaching? Doesn't look like I'm doing much and I was being observed by a peer.

Oral feedback is, for me, the most challenging part of the observer’s job. It is paramount that this be carried out in a relaxed, supportive environment and with the teacher’s development at the very heart of the process. It also depends on the personal preferences of the teacher: some people like to be given a list of things to do, for example; others prefer space and time to reflect and open discussion about the class, approaches to teaching, etc. The observer has to play this by ear and cater to what the teacher seems to want. After all, you can’t teach every class in the same way, so why should every feedback session be exactly the same? Teachers are individuals and observers need to remember that. As an example,  I’ve conducted feedback with teachers who wanted to take DELTA and we’ve agreed to pretend the observation was the “diagnostic” DELTA observation, with feedback focusing on some really seemingly pedantic points that might well come up in DELTA (I’m not a DELTA tutor, by the way, but I do remember that particular observation well..). But again, this isn’t for everyone.

Personally, I like to start with a general discussion based on the teacher’s self-evaluation, in which points raised by the teacher are discussed in turn, with practical suggestions offered as and when it seems apposite to do so. As I said above, we’ll often talk through the lesson plan and discuss the teacher’s rationale in choosing activities or why set that particular context, etc. This helps the teacher see the lesson as a whole, rather than a set of randomly chosen activities.

And the best feedback I ever had as a teacher? It was the most direct and critical and I benefited enormously. When you walk in, sit down and the observer starts off by saying “Hi. Let’s start. Well, your instructions certainly aren’t the best thing about your teaching, are they?” you know you’re in for it… That style suits me as a teacher, but not everyone.


It doesn’t just end with feedback, of course. The observer should be available to help the teacher with any points that came up from the observation. This could involved helping with lesson planning, suggesting reading, checking language awareness if requested, etc. I know this isn’t possible in every school, particularly large ones, but if there is a good professional development structure there will be a mentor or senior teacher who can take on this role if the observer can’t. After all, how is a teacher supposed to develop with support? Out of thin air? Magic? It’s a process and takes time, reflection and practice. And some teachers need more support than others.


One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced as an observer is uncooperative, and even confrontational, teachers who simply do not want to be observed, do not see the point and take it as a threat to their abilities in the classroom. What to do with these people? My approach is to be as diplomatic as possible, listen to their concerns (rants?) and frame my feedback very much in terms of offering suggestions rather than telling people what to do. I also try to explain the point of the observation and am patient to the point of, well, I don’t know what, but very patient. While there are bad observers out there, there are also uncooperative teachers.

Then of course there are the teachers who get incredibly nervous during feedback. I admit, someone did cry once during my feedback, and I was making a positive point at the time! This is obviously a very delicate time for teachers and so, as I said above, I think it’s imperative that feedback be carried out in as supportive a manner as possible.

There are also defensive teachers who need to explain absolutely everything about the lesson in the minutest detail and tell you all about how they had to do things differently in previous jobs. Again, I understand this. Getting feedback can be traumatic if it’s handled badly and it would seem there are a lot of bad observers out there. Patience is again the key here and framing things in terms of supporting the teacher, not attacking.

Job satisfaction

The best thing about being an observer, teacher trainer or mentor, is when you see somebody teach for a second time and you see an improvement in some aspect of their teaching. It’s very very rewarding and makes the job worthwhile. It tells me that the initial observation and feedback were worthwhile after all and that the teacher has taken something positive from what was discussed. Occasionally, you even get an e-mail thanking you for your feedback or when teachers leave the institution they tell you, out of the blue, how useful their observations were and how much they feel they’ve developed as teachers.

Right, well, I hope that’s put the observer’s case and that teachers can see we’re not all evil or useless. Some of us actually care about what we do and want to help people. Anyone got any suggestions about how I can improve my observing?