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)

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!

So a Mexican walks into a bar…

Just back from a weekend in the Caribbean (Costa Rica has its advantages..) and I thought I’d blog about another Unplugged class I had recently, as it’s a little different to the last two I’ve written about. I set myself a challenge this bimestre (2-month long term) of not opening the coursebook before I arrived in the class (I’ll blog about this mini research project another time), and in this lesson, things were no different. The difference came in the form of a learner-generated text, which just hadn’t come up before with this group. The following is the lesson report in the usual style.

Men, women and chickens

The class began in the usual fashion, with a conversation about whatever. This class enjoys talking so much, that there’s often no need for a warmer, and so off we went for the next 50minutes, with me joining in and feeding in vocab where and when it was necessary or requested. Here’s some of the lexis

  • hormone (n)

  • loss(n) / lose (v) / “sorry for your loss”

  • Christmas Hamper (n)

This particular conversation was all over the place. I discovered the Josefinos’ (people from San José) widely held belief that in the afore-mentioned metropolis there are 10 women for ever man. It is apparently a paradise for men, though I have to say I’d never noticed this discrepancy between the numbers of each sex. But there’s more… this difference between the numbers of men and women is due, not to emigration, luck or any particular social factor, but to chicken. Yes, women apparently eat far more chicken than men and the hormones in the chicken kill off the male chromosome meaning fewer male births. You can make up your own mind about the veracity of that claim…

Cuando La Migra llega, corra hacia KFC

At this point, clearly inspired by the chicken, Claudia decided it was a germane moment to tells us a terrible joke. No-one got it until she repeated it and then explained it, as it really made little sense.

  • I decided it would be good to work with this, and so gave the pen to José Maria to write up a negotiated class version on the board. You can see it in the picture.

    The Joke
  • We then went over some language that came up, such as reporting questions, which they seemed to know quite well and so I didn’t feel that it would be best to focus exclusively on these in this class.

  • Noticing this was a short text, I asked them what other information could be included. They came up with things such as the Mexican’s age, background, appearance, feelings and reason for being there, the weather, a description of the place, etc.

  • I then asked them to re-write a fuller class version, with Claudia elected as scribe and everyone contributing to this next negotiated version. This took an incredible 40mins, but wasn’t all plain sailing as Laura complained to the others that they weren’t listening to her. We got over this hurdle and continued, with me feeding in language and contributing when called upon. This extended text, which I collected, is below.

The Mexican in question?

“Two years ago, a Mexican guy went to Miami for a week. Even though he barely spoke English, he crossed the river into Texas, looking for the American Dream. In spite of the fact that the ‘Migra’ was chasing him he realised that KFC could be a good hiding place.
Then he took a break. Meanwhile, he was in the queue. The waiter asked what he wanted to eat. He saw the menu and realised that the only two words he could understand were “coke” and “chicken”. Then he started to feel nervous. He took too long and people behind him was pushing him until he tried to order. Finally, his order was “one coke and one chicken”. The waiter asked “Alone, sir?” and the Mexican was like “Alón? No, pechugón!””

Then it was break time, later than every other class as usual.

But what to focus on next?

Before reading on, ask yourself what you would have looked at with this learner-generated text. What leaps out as lacking or in need of expansion?

At this point, I still did not know what to focus on in the next part of the class. This is unusual, as I usually pick up on something quite quickly, but not this time. The extended text they’d written seemed quite good to me for learners just beginning B2 and I really didn’t see any gaping holes. There are the usual Spanish L1 errors such as “people was”, but nothing really meaty on the grammar side. The vocab seemed well-used and there were some lovely flourishes like “Even though he barely spoke English, he crossed the river into Texas, looking for the American Dream”, which, by using “even though”, incorporated language from a previous class. In the end, it was on the level of discourse that I concluded we could do some work, specifically some inaccurate use of connectors.

That said, I still wasn’t convinced. Help! I took the text to the teachers’ room and showed it to my friend Skip. He agreed it was pretty good, but pointed out the jaw-droppingly obvious lack of any relative clauses. We then went through it and decided where they would most naturally go.

This might be interesting for those who are not so confident with their language awareness or their ability to react immediately to learner output. What’s the morale of the story? If you’re unsure, ask someone. Or something, an external source like a dictionary, grammar or the cyberwebz. You don’t need to do it all yourself in the room there and then. If you can get a learner-generated written text, you have lots to work with and lots of time to do it – after break, next lesson, lesson after that. You could even plan your next class around it in a more ‘traditional’ way, working with the emergent language from the text.

Jokes are all relative

And so, armed with this, the lesson continued into the focus on form stage…

  • While the learners were on their break, I took advantage of the time to write 4 passages from the extended joke up on the board, on the left-hand side.

  • When they came back, I congratulated them on their output, highlighting some excellent phrasing such as “barely spoke”, for example.

  • I then said that we could work with this text to improve it even more and drew their attention to the board

  • Here, in the focus on form stage of this class, I asked the group all sorts of questions about essential information, extra information and connections between clauses and we re-worded their versions into connected versions making use of non-defining relative clauses (NDRCs) and defining relative clauses (DRCs), highlighting which relative pronouns referred to which prior noun phrases (who /that – person, where – place, etc). We also ‘fixed’ any connectors on the way.

  • We re-wrote all 4 together, and they copied them down. For example, “in spite of the fact that the ‘Migra’ was chasing him he realised that KFC could be a good hiding place.” was re-worded along the lines of “Due to the fact that the ‘Migra’ was chasing him, he decided to hide in KFC, which was nearby”

  • After re-writing the examples together, the group copied them all down and I asked them to think, individually, about any other variations they could think of for the story or for the sentences we had re-worded together.

  • They then compared their ideas and helped each other out, asking me questions when they felt it necessary. We did some feedback of their variations at the board.

“9pm closes all: but something ere the end, Some work of noble note, may yet be done”

It was now 8.55pm and we finish at 9 (I clearly need to work on my timing…). As homework, I set them a unit from the coursebook that deals with relative clauses (a reading leading to a guided discovery section and then some controlled practice). Again, as in previous classes, I did this as they have bought the book and I feel I need to make at least some use of it so it seems like a worthwhile purchase. My preference would have been to set them homework of trying to write a different joke in English, in as much detail as possible, using relative clauses (are we back to the task cycle, I wonder?). I would probably still do this as revision, but regrettably today is my last class with this particular group, and so I can’t. This will, thus, be my last post for a while about what happens in my classes.

And so, to finish, here are my questions about this particular post.

  • Was there enough practice of the RCs, a sometimes complicated and difficult area for learners?

  • Would you have set the homework I did and why (not)?

  • And of course, what else would you have done different or not done at all and why (not)?

If You Were a Dogme, Would You Regret Barking?

I have finally managed to find a minute to scrawl another post about an Unplugged lesson I was recently part of here in Costa Rica. I have to say, it was one of the most enjoyable classes I can recall and one in which there was so much language floating around, it was tricky to know what to focus on. Here’s what happened, complete with tortuous html bullet points…

Class of 27th September

This was originally a class of 12 adults just starting B2, which was then split into two groups of 6 and then became more or less a group of 3 for me as 2 never showed up and there’s usually one of the remaining 4 off. This lesson had the 3 who usually attend and who are fast becoming one of my favourite ever classes.

Crack your bones and the ice

Some conversation to start a class? Whatever next…?

  • “Hello!”, at which point I was informed I am a Scottish cowboy. I never really got to the bottom of why, but it might have something to do with Scottish Highland Coos

    The Teacher
  • Discussion moved on to what we’d done earlier in the day. Played yes/no questions guessing game – to provide some impetus to the conversation – until they managed to guess I’d been to the chiropractor, which led to an interesting discussion about alternative medicine, malpractice, sleeping positions, yoga and so on. Here’s some sample lexis which came up

    • Mattress (n)

    • Spring (n) (as in the thing in your mattress)

    • Stretch (v/n)

  • We then heard about a robbery in the city of Limon, which I can’t remember how we got on to, but I think it had something to do with a related story about Tai Chi. This led to a discussion about common daily problems here in San José de Costa Rica. Some related lexis that appeared out of thin air

    • Put up with sth (v) / tolerate sth (v)

    • Mug sb (v)

    • Break in  (v)

Dog Day Afternoon… and morning… and night….

From here, it was all dogs dogs dogs. It has become a class joke the amount of moaning I do about the amount of barking the dogs in my barrio of San José, Sabanilla, do.

  • Taking the dogs as our basis, I asked individuals to come up with 5 solutions to my dog/noise problem.

  • Then, as a three, they had to discuss the merits of each problem, justifying their opinions, and selecting a group top 5.

    • This was lively 20-minute discussion in which there was loads of language flying around. In the end, I noticed that they could improve their range and accuracy of sentences such as “if he *do that, then he would to be happy” and so went for 2nd conditionals as a point of emergent language to focus on. This was cheating slightly, given that I have to follow a coursebook and that this language point comes up in unit 3 but, well, you’re only young once…

    • While this part of the lesson was a structured conversation, it shares a great deal with a TBL task cycle. The first part here was brainstorming, the second a negotiated ranking task.

  • The group then reported their top 5 solutions to me, which I wrote on the board and discussed with them as they were read out.

‘It’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.’

The board near the end

At this point, we got to the focus on form. We were 70minutes into the lesson and it had been pure conversation with lexis fed in where appropriate (sometimes the learners are surprised by how long and how much they speak in the class). This is where the ‘fight’ began. I am a firm believer that a focus on form is absolutely essential in the language classroom. Not in every class, but in many. This group had been enjoying the discussion so much that it was difficult to keep them focused on the focus. This isn’t to say that they didn’t enjoy it; as in, the problem was that they kept joking and laughing and making me laugh.

  • Using the solutions the group had agreed on, we re-wrote them as 2nd conditional sentences, highlighting the use of past simple and continuous tenses as well as the modals would, could, might + infinitive. We discussed the contractions and drilled them, as well as going over ways to start conditionals that aren’t if, such as providing that/as long as (though I have to confess some help here as Rob, who teaches next door, just walked in and sat down. The students then asked him if he’d kill a noisy dog, to which he replied out of the blue “providing that it died… etc. Bingo!), suppose/supposing/imagine, assuming that and even if. We also looked at changing the order of the clauses and removing the comma.

Imagine you were a dog, would you feel sad if you couldn’t bark?

Having taken a quick break, it was time for some practice. Speaking to people, I often find this is the area most teachers have the most trouble with in Dogme. How can we practise something without materials? Here’s an idea or two.

  • I then asked the group to take their original 5 solutions and re-write them using the language we had just discussed, with me buzzing around and helping out where they

    Jose Maria helping Laura at the board

    needed it.

  • Next, as a 3, they had to analyse these re-written sentences and decide if they were correct, as well as deciding on a favourite of each person. This led to a highly amusing feedback session that largely took care of itself as they debated the merits of each sentence. Who would have thought that 2nd conditionals could make students laugh so much?

  • They then wrote these favourite sentences on the board and we discussed each one in turn, highlighting excellent use of language such as collocations, as well as correct grammar. We also went through what parts of the sentences could be changed while keeping the same meaning i.e. replacing if with suppose in questions and writing up these options too.

    • Some collocations that came up included “sleep deeply”, “beat sth/sb to death” (I didn’t suggest it; Claudia wanted to write it…), “stop + Ving”.

  • The group then copied down these sentences with the highlighted language

  • The final practice involved me asking the group to close their eyes. I then rubbed off some select language. First of all, all the past tenses and modals. The group then opened their eyes and re-created the sentences together.

  • We then repeated this, until almost all the language had been removed. In feedback to each reconstruction, we highlighted the alternatives for if and the meanings of using different modals.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Classroom

By this stage, we had regrettably run out of time. This was a real shame as I wanted to complete the task cycle with another related task which, in the end, had to wait until the next class (not that there’s any harm in that). To finish in the last 8 minutes, I asked the group to select the lexis they wanted to keep for the vocab envelope and write these words down on the cards. Everyone went home happy, except that I gave them 2 exercises from the coursebook for homework (they have bought it after all and at $40, that’s no snip in Costa Rica).

As I hinted at in the introduction, I really enjoyed this class. You simply do not see the humour and creativity in people when you force them to work with language from a coursebook. I believe that doing things this way makes the language more memorable and the study of it more enjoyable. This lesson is now part of the class ‘folklore’ and the themes recur in almost every class and while I have no proof of it, it certainly “confirm[s] [my] own intuitions that  Dogme, if not more effective, is more engaging, more memorable, more motivating  – more fun!” (Scott Thornbury here)

So, what would you have done differently? What did(n’t) you like and why?

I’m the Responsible of this

I thought today that I should finally post again and so, rather than a long report on a training session, I’ve opted for a shorter description of something equally as successful and important: an unplugged lesson.

Out there in the interwebz, there’s a lot written about Dogme, but it often tends to be in the form of for and against posts, or theoretical debates. There’s not so much about concrete examples of classes that I know of (though English Raven is good here – he even has a couple of videos; The Dogme Diaries is worth a look for some examples of classes; and Dale Coulter has a section of Unplugged ideas). This makes sense to a certain extent: you can’t exactly write boxes of lesson plans for Dogme classes. The closest we’ve got is Teaching Unplugged, which does an excellent and much-needed job of filling a gap. Anyway, I’ll try and post reports of my classes which take this form more often to try share some ideas.

So just what happened there?

The group has 6 adults (L1 – Spanish) registered, but only 3 showed up (and one of them 25mins late). The class has just started an upper int book and so is at the beginning of B2. We started, as you might expect really, with conversation and I fed in lexis as and when it was needed. The beauty of this, for me, is the diversity of this lexis in a flowing, natural conversation. Here’s some examples

  • “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop”

  • Apatheist (n) (rare)

  • “Come to life”

  • Perfect (v), Perfect (adj), Perfection (n)

  • Identify with sb/sth/a cause

A pretty eclectic mix of lexis then. Why? It followed the conversation and what the learners wanted to express, hopefully making it all the more memorable.

It’s all work work work

As the conversation turned towards jobs and how busy everyone is, I started to notice a lack of lexical range in terms of describing the responsibilities of the their respective jobs. There were repeated utterances of chunks such as *”I the responsible of…x” or *”I’m in charge for…x”. Thinking along these lines, I then decided to focus on helping the learners expand this area.

I wrote my job on the board and asked them to guess my top 5 responsibilities. They were remarkably good at this, I have to say. I think my job – Teacher Training Coordinator – must be pretty transparent. The only one they didn’t guess was… teach English! What that says about what happens in that room is for you to decide…


After this, I asked them to write a list of their own top 5 work-related responsibilities. They then said their job and the others guessed. This was quite good fun and they got quite into it, continuing the conversation. This was repeated until we’d guessed them all or been told them if we couldn’t guess and the discussion moved on to who’s job seemed most difficult or which responsibilities were shared by everyone, etc.

Returning to the board, I wrote “I’m in charge for logistics” (a sentence I’d noted down earlier) and asked if we could improve it. Lots of prepositional guesses later and we got the correct form up – “I’m in charge of logistics”. I then asked if there were any other ways we could express this and they were able to tell me “I the responsible of logistics”, which we adapted to “I’m responsible for logistics/organising logistics”, highlighting the option of a N or a Ving after “for”.

I then fed in some other ways of expressing more or less the same meaning. These were (not written exactly like this on the board)

  • I manage/coordinate/run/organise logistics (+ N)
  • It’s me who/I’m the one who organises ( + 3rd person verb form)
  • It’s my job/responsibility to organise logistics (+inf.)
  • I have to organise logistics (+inf.)

This gave us a nice lexical set of around 10 chunks of language, which we examined for pronunciation issues too (stressed words mainly). The learners copied these down and then I asked them to write 5 sentences about their jobs, using their list of responsibilities and the new language. I asked them to focus on language that was new to them, or interesting in some way, or that they wanted to learn. They each produced 5 sentences which we shared as a class and I had only 1 correction to make, which we did together at the board.

Having done all of the above, I then moved the topic on to responsibilities at home, telling them that I don’t have very many (I do live with a chef, after all…). This had them outraged as they evidently have more. I asked them to write a top 5 list but not to say what they were. I handed out strips of paper and they had to write one sentence on each, using the new language and the domestic responsibilities they had. Once they’d done one, they handed the sentence to me for correction. I kept the strips of paper. Again, there was only one correction to be made, which surprised me.

After having collected all the slips of paper, I read them out at random (I’m the one who takes the trash out every week; it’s my responsibility to cook during the week, etc.) and we tried to guess who’d written it. This was a bit easy with only 3 learners, but fun nonetheless. We discussed each one as it came up and asked follow up questions.

Finally, I gave the sentences back and asked the learners to write them in their notebooks for future reference. This all took 90mins and we took a break. I recorded the new language to revise in a future class.


This was, in my assessment, an enjoyable and useful class for the learners. They participated fully, spoke at length and worked with some new lexical chunks expanding ways they already knew to express things they wanted to express. Sure, it wasn’t the most demanding language, but it’s applicable in more situations than described here and it was based on a topic which came up in the natural ebb and flow of conversation.

So, what do you think? Is this a good example of Unplugged Teaching? Would you have done it differently or at all? How could it be improved? Would you try it?

Did I say this would be shorter? Oops..