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.

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!

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.

The Past Simple and Present Continuous Walk into a Bar. It was Tense.

This is a summary of a DELTA session I did recently introducing the notion that time and tense may not actually be the same thing. It largely follows Michael Lewis’ The English Verb, which comes highly recommended, and I touch on aspect at the end.

How Many Tenses Does English Have?

This may seem like quite a tricky question to answer, if you start counting all those coursebook tenses up: present simple, present continuous, past perfect… However, it’s actually much simpler than that. English has but a mere two tenses, which are present (or non-past) and past. This assertion may seem surprising, but should become clearer as you read on.

The reason that English is said to have two tenses is the definition of grammatical tense which, according to Lewis in The English Verb, involves “a morphological change in the base form of the verb” (p50). You can see why this limits English to two tenses if you then try to work out what morphological changes are permitted in English verbs. Take the verb say”, for example. In the present we can say “he says”, while in the past “he said”. However, for the future, we have to add something else, we can’t simply express futurity with a change to the verb and get examples such as “I’m going on holiday with Marion Cotillard next week” or “I’ll say yes when Marion proposes”.  Other languages, such as the Romance languages, have a conjugation to express futurity cf. “je dirais” in French or “yo diré” in Spanish, where there is a morphological change in the infinitives “dire” and “decir” (other ways of referencing the future can also be used).

Only 2 Tenses, But Time?

Of course, we have more than two ways of thinking about time. In the West, we’d probably say that time is conceived of in terms of the past, the present and the future (that said, Steven Pinker’s idea of our core notion of time in The Stuff of Thought is “before-or-after” and “at-the-same-time” (p 85), which is more or less the same idea, I guess, though I’m straying a bit from the point here). Thinking of past, present or future gives us three notions of time, but only two tenses, and so leads to the conclusion that time ≠ tense. After all, time is a semantic notion, whereas tense is grammatical. They can certainly correlate, as when I say “I hung out with Marion yesterday”, where I am clearly using the past tense to reference past time. However, consider the following and think about the tense being used and the time being talked about

  • “If I went for a drink with Marion Cotillard, we’d talk about the English tense system”
  • “So I go to meet Marion and she says to me ‘let’s talk tenses’”

In the first one, we have the past tense (went) but referring to a hypothetical present or future; in the second sentence, we have the present tense (go, says) referring to past time (I’m narrating a past event here). Indeed the present and the past tense can each be used to refer to past, present or future time. Another example of seemingly strange present tense referring to past time occurs in sentences like

  • “Marion Cotillard marries Chris”? [as a newspaper headline]

The event clearly happened in the past, but is referred to using a present tense.

Distance Relatives

Great, huh? It’s a total mess. Why is English so complicated? It’s ok, take a breath, breathe, there’s some underlying logic at work here. Following Lewis, this underlying logic is that of remoteness (or “distance” as Alex Tilbury labels it in IH LAC). If we look at some of our sentences from above again, this becomes clearer

  • “I hung out with Marion yesterday”
  • “If I went for a drink with Marion Cotillard”

In the first, there is temporal distance; that is to say, the past tense is used to show that the event happened at a point in past time remote from now, in this case “yesterday”. In the second sentence, the distance here is from reality: I use the past tense to show that I am not talking about reality, that I am distancing what I say from it and thus dealing in hypotheticals. Now think about the following sentence

  • “Could you pass me the claret, Marion?”

Here, “could” is seen as the past of “can” and is used to create a social distance between the speaker and the listener, which is interpreted as a more polite way of asking this question as it’s seen as less direct.

So, we can conclude that when the past tense is used, it’s because of one of the three types of distance that we wish to express, namely temporal, hypothetical or social. The present tense would be used in all other cases and for this reason is also called the “non-past” by some. This helps explain the seemingly odd “Marion marries Chris” on a newspaper headline – the present tense is employed to make the event seem less remote and more urgent now, which is what the headline writer would try to do to capture the reader’s attention. The same could be said of the present tense being used in narratives, making the events being described more urgent for the listener or reader and thus keeping them on the edge of their seats, so to speak.

What distance is being employed in the following sentences?

  1. “What was the name, please?” [said by a receptionist in a doctor’s]
  2. “Jessica got a job in Turkey the a couple of weeks ago”
  3. “I wish Marion was reading this”

The answers are that the first is social, then temporal and finally hypothetical (she isn’t reading this, is she?). The last one, though, is different in another way too as the verb form isn’t simple.

That’s only one aspect of it

Ok, so two tenses which can be used to refer to the past, present or future. But what about the present perfect or the present continuous, I hear you cry? Well, these are examples of the present tense in conjunction with another grammatical concept known as aspect. Grammatical aspect is the speaker’s use of auxiliaries, affixes, etc. in the verb phrase to indicate their interpretation of events, such as whether the event is perceived as a completed or in progress. Take our sentence from above, for example:

  • “I wish Marion was reading this”

This would be analysed as the past tense with the progressive aspect to give a verb form described as the ‘past continuous’. As another example, the ‘present continuous’ would be the present tense combined with the progressive aspect, as in

  • “Marion is enjoying my blog posts”

English has two aspects, progressive (continuous) and perfect. The perfect shows “the relationship between one state or event and a later state, event, or time” (p391), while the progressive “indicates that an action is incomplete, in progress, or developing” (p427) (both quotations from the Longmann Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics ). Scott Thornbury has a couple of good videos discussing these in more detail on his blog here

Let’s take the progressive as an illustrative example. We form this by using auxiliary be and the –ing form of the verb:

  • “Marion is enjoying my blog posts”

If the auxiliary is in the present tense (is, in the previous example), then we have the present continuous; if, on the other hand, it is in the past, as in

  • “I wish Marion was reading this”

then we have the past continuous. Here, both examples probably indicate that the events in question were in progress (enjoying, reading), and so I use the continuous to express this. Compare

  • “Marion enjoys my blog posts”

This indicates that I see this as a timeless fact, that it isn’t temporary or in progress, and so I use an unmarked simple verb form. So, if we unpack all the meaning from “I wish Marion was reading this”, we see that the past tense is used to show hypothetical distance and the progressive aspect employed to indicate an unfolding event in progress. Note that it now seems natural that the past tense would be used after “wish”, as this automatically triggers a sense of hypothetically (you could look up colligation here too, which is the grammar that certain lexis triggers i.e. past tense after wish structures)

And with that, I’m off down the pub. If Marion weren’t so hypothetical,  she’d be present too.

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?

Teacher Training Unplugged Part 2

About a month ago, I posted about a training session on teaching unplugged that I’d done (with my boss, Ben) in which we tried to recreate the conditions of the unplugged classroom – a sort of teacher training unplugged (you can read that post here). This was to be the first of two Dogme workshops at the school and the second of these, which I did a couple of weeks ago, is the subject of this post.

What was it all about?

The aim of the session was to demonstrate how unplugged techniques could be incorporated in our teaching and how we can analyse texts for language to focus on. The idea was to use a learner-generated text to stimulate discussion about language to focus on and possible things we could do with it. We would then select an area of language to work with and, after some analysis, do some activities to focus on the form. I had no idea what language would come up, so this part would be a bit of a challenge. The first hour of the workshop would be an unplugged ‘lesson’ of sorts, with the participants taking on a dual role of learner and teacher as and when each was required.

What’s this about using a text?

Borrowing an idea from Jason Renshaw, I arrived in the class and phoned a friend of mine, Colin (as it turned out, he didn’t answer. I tried someone else and, lo and behold, he was on his way to the workshop!). The teachers had to write down as much of what I said as they could. They then checked this in pairs and constructed the half of the conversation they hadn’t heard, basically writing a dialogue in which they already had one half of it. Having done this, in groups of 4, they compared their different dialogues and selected which they liked the best to write on the board. They could choose one of the dialogues as it was, or mix and match parts from each to create a final version. As the scribe wrote on the board, the others in the group helped, offering suggestions for changes, etc. When the dialogues were on the board, we compared them to look for any differences or similarities. Here we also highlighted the role of the teacher in all this, who would be monitoring, offering suggestions, checking the texts, taking part in the conversations, etc.

We then did a disappearing text exercise in which participants had to select 2 words each to remove from the other group’s boarded text. I frantically scribbled down some notes of the texts to help me remember them and we continued until almost all the text had been deleted. The groups then had to re-write them and compare with their originals, noting any differences and the implications of these in terms of focusing on form.

Looking for language and focusing on form

With the dialogues on the board again, groups then had to analyse these for language that could be focused on in the classroom. Obviously, with a group of teachers working on these dialogues, there were no areas of language which needed work or which would lend themselves well to expansion. However, this was useful in showing how rich a text is language and highlighting that teachers can analyse learners’ texts in class. Some of the diverse suggestions that groups came up with included past tenses, tag questions, substitution, ellipsis and reference, spoken discourse features and direct vs indirect question formation. All of this from a 12-ish line dialogue.

In the end, we decided to look at tag questions and, taking examples from the text, I improvised a grammar ‘presentation’, highlighting the form itself as well as intonation and so forth. This turned out to be quite good fun, as teachers debated the how tag questions are used!

You did some practice, didn’t you?

The next part of the workshop involved doing some tag question practice activities. All the practice used language from the dialogues or suggested by the participants. Afterwards, we also brainstormed other potential activities that I didn’t think of in the moment and how these could be worked in to the lesson.

The first practice we did involved using sentence stems of the sort “you like… don’t you?” which participants had to complete about other people in the room, before walking round and saying them to each other to either check or confirm their intuition about the person. They had to try using appropriate intonation and respond appropriately too. These mini conversations could then generate other language, but here we were simply focusing on a specific practice activity.

The final practice involved going back to the text and adding tag questions wherever it was possible. Here, participants discussed how this changed the meaning, if it all, or the overall effect it had on the text (you wouldn’t believe you could turn the text into an extended sexual innuendo, but one group managed to do so, which caused great hilarity). The idea here was to highlight that if learners could successfully do this activity, they would certainly have grasped the use of tag questions and that we were again working with the same learner-generated text as before.

Recreating the lesson

After the practice activities, we were at the end of the ‘lesson’. The groups then had to recreate the class from the beginning, writing the different stages and the aim of each one. I included this part to emphasise that lesson flowed, from meaning to form, using text generated by the participants. It was also to dispel the myth that Dogme is simply ‘winging it’. The lesson had a clear, logical flow and each stage had a point to it. I didn’t know what would come up during the class, but that didn’t stop the lesson having a feel of coherence. I also encouraged participants to think critically about the stages of the class and suggest any changes they would/could have made to improve it.

And then it was time for some reflection

The final activity was reflective. First in groups, then as a class, we discussed how useful or appropriate this approach to teaching is. The response was overwhelmingly positive, with a few caveats. The two most common, more negative responses were

  • I don’t feel experienced enough to do this

  • I’m not confident enough with my language awareness

We then discussed what we could do to overcome these doubts. To address the first, we said that you could start slowly, having a short section of the class unplugged before moving on to your planned lesson (or just going with the flow if it was going well). We also said that you could write down activities which worked well and start to build up a bank of unplugged exercises which worked and which you could draw on when you needed them. And, of course, have a read of Teaching Unplugged and get thee to the internet.

For the second point, we discussed how you could have an idea of what might come up in the class from certain activities that would naturally generate certain language and could thus read up on it in advance. Craig then had the great idea of taking a break before moving onto the focus on form so that he could run to the teachers’ room and quickly go over the emergent language he was going to focus on. We also said that you could use your coursebook for practice activities if the language you are focusing appears in the book.

For me personally, this stage of the class was the most rewarding and interesting. Some of the comments about unplugged teaching were really positive and the majority of people there seemed quite taken with the idea. I’m sure my demo lesson could have been better, the presentation tighter, the activities more diverse, but that was not the point of the session.

Though not as purely ‘unplugged’ as the first session, this workshop was nevertheless in the spirit of unplugged teaching and I think that this was apparent throughout. I’m now looking forward to hearing how teachers have taken some of these ideas into their classes.

Teacher Training Unplugged?

The Story

Due to popular demand here at International House Costa Rica, our professional development workshop was on the topic of Dogme (also called Teaching Unplugged here) last week. I had already done a Dogme session on a recent CELTA and so was simply going to repeat it, with a few modifications, for our teachers. However, our DoS, Ben, suggested that we try to approach the session in a fashion similar to how Dogme would work in the class.

And so, why not? After all, my own teaching certainly leans towards the unplugged direction and I’d been reading about the upcoming Unplugged Conference in Barcelona. Anthony Gaughan had blogged just the other day about unplugging staffrooms and suggested the following: “Could you offer to run workshops for colleagues who are interested but want some “training”?”. And not to forget the guest post by two participants on Jason Renshaw’s site about a recent Teaching Unplugged session he’d given at a conference in Korea.

Ben’s idea seemed to catch the mood of the Unplugged world and so, in short, it seemed like a germane moment to experiment a bit. Ben and I had a couple of planning discussions and came up with what we thought would be an appropriate structure: a warmer relating Dogme ELT to Dogme 95; a paper conversations activity ending with groups displaying their top 5 principles and then a class selection of a top 3; reflection on what had been learned. (Here it is, briefly reconstructed after the workshop. The original was a piece of A5 paper with things like ‘follow up activity’, “?” and “4 groups max?” written on it.)

This was to be the first of two sessions, and possibly and on-going series of Unplugged workshops, with the next one(s) focusing more on practical activities teachers can use. This session was to highlight the underlying principles behind an unplugged approach.

Was it an ‘unplugged’ workshop?

I would say that it had an overwhelming sense of the unplugged about it. To take the three core precepts of an unplugged approach into account, we could analyse the workshop in the following way

  • The classroom dynamic was conducive to learning, with good humour throughout and with everyone participating. The teachers worked in small groups throughout and, in response to answers from myself and Ben, discussed further questions to ask. All the questions came from these mini conversations

  • These questions were answered in the form of a conversation with those leading the session, though I should say “participating” in the session, rather than “leading”

  • The above is where the conversations were scaffolded

  • Even the warmer, the least unplugged part of the workshop perhaps, served to introduce the topic and stimulate conversations

  • In changing the pairs, these conversations served a social purpose too, helping to integrate some new teachers into the group and ensuring that everyone’s voice was heard

Materials Light
  • The only materials were the people in the room, some strips of paper, some pieces of recycled A4 paper and the big piece of paper to cover the Dogme 95 manifesto

  • The teachers took notes throughout and created the class materials through the questions and creation of the 5 key principles of Dogme

  • The whole workshop addressed teachers’ needs and interests, was directly relevant to those present

  •  The workshop was a challenge to the structure of the usual style of workshops in teacher training.

Emergent Language
  • The questions the teachers wanted to ask emerged as the session went on. Starting with the warmer to introduce the topic (a topic suggested by teachers, remember), the teachers gradually uncovered the precepts that lie behind Dogme – rather than simply being lectured –  by constantly engaging with each other and the information flying around the room

  • To this end, process took priority over product, with interaction being the fertile ground where these questions emerged

  • The feedback stages addressed further and expanded upon the ‘emergent language’ and acted as a ‘focus on form’ moment

  • The ‘teaching’ was responsive. Ben and I had only a minimal idea what would be asked, how long activities would take, where one discussion would lead, etc. and had to constantly adapt to this

What the Teachers Thought

Following the workshop, I interviewed some the participants to find out their reactions to this style of training session. Here’s a few of their responses (in no particular order).

I felt intimidated by it all. As a theory, I really like it, but as a participant in it, I felt out of my depth. Personally, I prefer structure, as I feel I can follow it better. I prefer a tangible outcome that I can see coming” (Hana)

I was sketchy about the whole idea, but we did kind of fill in each other’s gaps. I felt I was asking questions before I knew what it was all about, but then that’s the whole point I suppose, what the questions were for” (Sarah)

I thought it was great, dynamic, I really enjoyed it. It was a good way of using Dogme to demo what it’s all about, with you more or less eliciting what it was about from us. It was very practical” (Becky)

It was a new methodology, well, one I’d used in my classes, but without knowing it had a name” (Craig)

The last part was really excellent. When we came up with our own ideas, the 5 principles, and put them up on the wall and then chose a class top 3. It was an example of how we can use this in the class. We were working with our own ideas and seeing other’s. I could see myself using those things in class. For me it was good that you did it in a Dogme style; I need to see these things in action, to see how you worked the room, to visualise it in my own teaching” (Robin)

It was very ‘Zen’. It was worth a try. It was theory-based, but the activities will be memorable as we spent most time on them. I’d never been to a workshop like that before” (James)

I thought it was good because you demonstrated for everyone what it would ideally be like in the classroom. The opening activity wasn’t the best of introductions to Dogme. It wasn’t so clear for those who didn’t know so much about it as it was for me.” (Robin)

During the first activity, I couldn’t contribute much as I didn’t know anything about Dogme – my partner knew much more than me and I didn’t feel great. I worked it out through the pairwork in the paper conversations activity. It was applicable to me in that context. It was a little uncomfortable until, all of a sudden, it became clear and I could see how applicable it was”. (Craig)

I liked writing the 5 principles from our own impressions of Dogme, then condensing them into 3 by reading everyone else’s. I came out feeling much more knowledgeable and less skeptical as I could see how it would work in class. I think I use many of the ideas in my teaching already“. (Sarah)


Overall, a very well-received, enjoyable and useful workshop for the participants. The feedback was positive and the practicality of the larger part of the workshop really appreciated by all those who attended. A sense of learning was also palpable, both during the session itself and in the feedback. Those who knew very little about unplugging their teaching benefited from gaining at least an initial insight into the principles behind Dogme, while those with more knowledge saw how this knowledge could be transferred into a classroom context through the conversations activity.

As a trainer, I enjoyed the session and the unpredictability of what would come up. It was a good experiment, to take unplugged-ness from the classroom to the training room. I think this workshop also served a good basis on which to work with unplugged activities in future workshops. My sessions tend to be called things like “minimal materials activities for developing oral fluency” but now I feel I can move on and start calling them “unplugged activities”.

That said, the first activity didn’t suit everyone and consequently didn’t go down as well as I’d hoped. The reason for this seems to have been the ‘mixed ability’ of the group i.e. that some teachers already knew some principles of Dogme and other’s none. This activity worked very well in my CELTA session, but there we had a level playing field of knowledge – it was new to everyone. If I repeat this workshop, I’ll take this into account and try something different (feel free to suggest anything you like!). I’ll more than likely start with a demo activity and take it from there, discussing how and why this activity could work and move into the principles from this. Go unplugged right from the get-go.

Ben’s Reflections

Heading into the workshop I was unsure as to how it would be received and had some doubts about whether it truly was loop input, i.e. Dogme about Dogme.  Regarding the first concern, I was pleasantly surprised by how useful the participants found it in terms of knowledge gained, but also how well they responded to the style of workshop; it is very encouraging that many of them mentioned how practical they found the workshop to be.

As to the second concern, I feel that for the most part it was in the spirit of Dogme, and that the justification in terms of the three core precepts is a sound one.  Of course it was always going to be a bit of a stretch since the focus is on ‘emergent knowledge’ rather than ‘emergent language’.  Like Chris, I considered the warmer to be the least successful part of the lesson, as it did feel more like teacher input, albeit in a guided discovery manner.  I would concur that an actual Dogme speaking activity followed by participant discussion and reaction would have been a better lead-in.

One other point to consider for next time – before doing a workshop on Dogme, a workshop on TBL might be one way to accustom new teachers to many of the principles inherent in Dogme, whilst still affording them a bit more structure.

The Moral of the Story?

If you’re going to unplug training, unplug it right from the start. Keep the session as much about what the participants want to know as possible, rather than bringing something in for the warmer. Keep it practical and engaging; the learning will follow. Be on your toes. Try it yourself!