Tag Archives: EFL Teaching

In the four years I’ve been teaching I’ve worked at 2 different high schools and, through various workshops and organisations, had the pleasure of meeting many native English speaking teachers around Korea. While the experience and expectations in each school are undoubtedly very different, I have noticed one common theme running through

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most people’s experiences. That is, as the native English speaking teacher, we are expected to share, and teach, the native speaker expressions, idioms and slangs our students are going to require if they are going to converse in English. Of course, at face value, this does seem to be a common sense requirement. After all, we are native speakers of English, and to communicate with us native speakers fluently, surely our students are going to need to be able to use the native lingo (0 hits)? Well, if native speakers were the people our students are likely to be communicating with, this would probably be true (I say probably because many expressions and slangs vary depending on region and time).

However, when this line of thought is scrutinized, the usefulness of the native speaker idioms/slangs/expressions we often teach becomes questionable. This is due to the fact that the vast majority of our students are actually quite unlikely to be using English to communicate with native English speakers (see Jenkins et al. 2011 or Seidlhofer 2004). Now, while I don’t want to get too deeply into the theoretical background of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) in this post (please see note at bottom of blog), the basic premise is that the majority of English speakers are now non-native speakers of English, and the majority of communication that takes place is between non-native speakers of English, thus this is the type of communication we should be preparing our students for.

This now brings me back to my original question, how useful are the native speaker expressions/slang/idioms countless hours have been spent teaching. Well, I decided to consider this question in my context using the framework laid out in the excellent book ‘About Language’ by Scott Thornbury (1997). Thornbury (1997) suggests five ways that might determine the selection of language to be taught:

1) Frequency: Is the word (and this meaning of it) common?

The only real way of knowing how common an expression is is to refer to a corpus. A fantastically easy to use ELF corpus (that includes both native speakers and non-native speakers) run by the Vienna institute can be found here. I decided to run a little test (a completely unscientific one but this is only a Friday afternoon blog post!). I googled ‘common english expressions esl’, clicked on the third link and chose the first expression for low-intermediate students and then the first idiom, which happened to be ‘off the top of your/my/his/her/their head’. I then whacked this in the corpus search engine and received… 0 hits. The second expression, ‘ring a bell’ also received… 0 hits. My third attempt, ‘from scratch’ received… 4 hits. Please bear in mind (8 hits) this was only a two minute experiment.

2) Coverage: Can you use the word in a wide range of contexts, or does it have a very narrow coverage? For example, is its meaning very specific, is it only used regionally, or is it jargon or slang?

I think this is important, how regional are the native idioms/expressions/slangs we are teaching? Again, I think the corpus can help us with this, but I would suggest that, at the very least, many of the idioms/expressions/slangs are regional to the native countries, if not regions, they originate from. I know that when I go for a few beers with my mates (1 hit) from the South of England that, by our fourth beer, a lot of the conversation becomes incomprehensible to me, a native speaker. The typical idioms/expressions/slangs they use are very different to those I use as a Yorkshire man. If this is the situation for people who live in the same native speaking country, imagine two non-native speakers trying to sound native by using various idioms/expressions/slangs.

3) Usefulness: How relevant is it to our students’ needs? (Sometimes relatively infrequent items with a narrow coverage might nevertheless be very useful.)

This factor is probably the most dependent on your context. If you’re teaching English with a specific purpose, while you may receive only one hit on the corpus search, the idiom/expression/slang may still be very useful for your student. For me, in preparing my high school students for the type of communication they are most likely to face, I must take into account the likelihood of their interlocutor, who is also likely to be a non-native speaker, being able to both recognize and interpret what I am teaching my students. Considering this, I have to accept that the good old Yorkshire expression “broke” (meaning having no money) (0 hits) probably isn’t terribly useful besides if my students ever get the privilege of watching Last of the Summer Wine at some point in their lives.

4) Use: Will the learner need only to recognize the item (i.e. while listening or reading) or will it be needed for production (speaking and writing)?

This is quite an interesting one; there is no doubt that my students love US and British TV shows, movies and music. I am actually teaching a course on ‘English through Movies’ at the moment. For understanding the movies there is definitely a case for the teaching of the native English expressions featured in the movies. However, when we come back to conversational English, both my students and, just as importantly, their non-native interlocutors, are going to need to be able to use understand the idioms/expressions/slangs. In fact, teaching idioms/expressions/slangs my students’ interlocutors are unlikely to know may actually be detrimental to my students’ ability to communicate if all it does is cause misunderstanding and confusion. With the sheer number of native idioms/expressions/slangs out there, what are the chances of both my students and their interlocutors having been taught and remembering the same ones?

5) Learnability/teachability: Is it easy to learn and remember? Is it easy to convey the meaning and form of it to learners?

To be honest, I don’t think I have too much to say about this one. If the idioms/expressions/slangs fit nicely in with the syllabus, don’t take too long to teach and are usable then, to me, there is certainly a case to be made for teaching them, if done right (something I will discuss more in my next blog post).

Overall this analysis seems to indicate that, from an ELF perspective, we need to be very careful when selecting ‘common English expressions’ to teach our students. However, if your teaching environment is anything like mine, both my school and students expect me to teach a certain number of native English expressions. If I don’t, they will probably find a teacher that will. This presents a very awkward situation as I am required to teach language that I know might not only prove to be mostly a waste of time, but could actually be detrimental to my students’ ability to communicate in English. In my next blog post I hope to share some of the strategies that I believe can be used to teach native English idioms/expressions/slangs while also preparing students for ELF communication.

Note – For further reading regarding ELF I am going to put some articles I recommend checking out at the bottom, or you can read my thesis, which I’ll be uploading any day now. Alternatively, for a detailed yet eloquently summarized discussion of ELF, I highly recommend my friend Alex Grevett’s blog posts here including the discussion in the comments.

Note 2 – I have decided that from now on, personally I will only be sharing my blog posts through the AlienTeachers facebook groupmy twitter account and email subscription.

Bibliography + Recommended Reading

Cogo, A. (2012). ‘English as a Lingua Franca: concepts, use, and implications’. ELT journal 66(1), 97–105.

Jenkins, J., Cogo, A. & Dewey, M. (2011). ‘Review of developments in research into English as a lingua franca’. Language Teaching 44(3), 281–315.

Thornbury, Scott. About language. Ernst Klett Sprachen, 1997.

Seidlhofer, B. (2004). Research perspectives on teaching English as a Lingua Franca. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 24, 209–239.


Creating a Linked Classroom – Part 2 (Teething Problems & Solutions)

The project has now been underway for a couple of weeks, however due to the nature of public schools we have only managed one session with each school. Despite this lack of time with the students, there have been a number of teething problems we have had to deal with that I hope others trying to do similar projects can learn from.

1. Choosing a Platform
There were a number of features we wanted from the platform:
– Ease of use as we want students to have a leading role in the project.
– Ability to easily share the project with others.
– Free or very cheap.
– Able to handle a number of media formats including written work, sounds files and video files.

We decided to use a web based platform called Weebly. Weebly is a free service that allows you to easily and quickly build a website. It utilizes a drag and drop system so students from all the classrooms can easily upload their files to the website, have a role in designing it and easily communicate with each other via it. So far this is the site we have put together. By the way, Weebly will also provide a free url.

2. Organisation
The fact we have three schools communicating with each other has made the organisation that bit harder. We basically decided to split our students into four groups, each group would communicate with one other group either in Japan, Korea or Brazil. We hope that then, at the end of the project, each group will be able to do a short presentation about what they learnt from about that country.

To provide an example, if group 1 in Korea is communicating with group 1 in Brazil and group 3 in Korea is communicating with group 4 in Japan, the groups will present to each other what they have learnt from Brazil and Japan respectively. It might be clearer if you look at the interview section of the website here (under construction).

3. Time Management
Obviously we all have completely different schedules so syncing everything up is basically impossible. Our solution to this has been to share our schedules and do our best to help each other out as much as possible. However, the fact we are not just doing interviews, but videos and articles, gives us some leeway. If we don’t have interviews ready, the students can simply work on videos or articles. I wouldn’t recommend doing such a project with only interviews to work with for this reason.

4. Work Load
We seriously under-estimated the amount of work involved for our students in listening to, transcribing and responding to questions. We have had to limit our students to asking only 2 questions (or 3 maximum).

5. Difficulty
Another serious under-estimation! The point of the project is for our students to experience and learn from communicating with other non-native speakers. This is something they have hardly any experience at and so are unlikely to have developed strategies to help them with this mountain of a task. We found that our students found it extremely difficult to understand some parts of what was being said. To deal with this we have created a ‘cheat sheet’! We are using a google doc that we can all edit and add to share the questions that out students have made, our students, of course, do not know about or get access to the cheat sheet, but it helps us prepare for problems the students are likely to encounter.

6. Privacy Issues
Uploading videos of our students opens us up to legal issues. Basically, we are going with the premise that if the students make the choice to upload a video of themselves to the website then that is great and there is no issue, however we wanted a space where the students could feel free to express themselves knowing only the participants in this project could see it. We chose to add a private password section to the website in order to create this space.

Well that’s about it for now, we have also had a number of very real and very awesome successes which I’m looking forward to sharing very soon!

Don’t forget you can keep updated via twitter or facebook.

Stop Blaming the Students

I’m going to try and keep this rant as objective and constructive as possible, but, I am quite riled up right now. I also think I need to make it absolutely clear that this rant is not aimed specifically at either native or non-native teachers.

I’m riled up because I am sick and tired of hearing teachers blame students for their shortcomings and lack of courage to step out, try new things and support change. Look, let’s just get something straight right off the bat, if you want to teach a teacher centered lesson, if you can’t scaffold a class properly as to encourage your students to think critically and/or creatively, if you don’t want to use an activity that puts the responsibility on the students to create the English language, if you don’t feel you have the ability or, most importantly, the training to help students understand the techniques as to how they can discuss and disagree with each other in English without upsetting the cultural status quo then that’s fine, but that is not how you want to teach do something about it, but please, don’t hide behind your students apparent lack of will/motivation/abilities if you don’t.

O.k. I’m going to concentrate on Korea here because it is the country I have the most experience with, but I think the sentiment is applicable anywhere.

This is the type of statement, that I am going to keep anonymous, that frustrates me:

“Most Korean students don’t like to be put in the spotlight because they don’t want to lose face (if they don’t know the answer) or appear arrogant (if they do know). Also, people are not likely to disagree with each other publicly so that pretty much undermines critical thinking dialogue in a class this size where people will be reluctant to speak up.” or “Korean students only ever want to know the answer, they aren’t capable of figuring answers out for themselves”. Well of course they’re not, if you keep giving them the answer.

Also, I honestly have lost count of how many times I have been told “Korean students won’t be able to do that activity” or “that is too hard for them” or “Korean students don’t enjoy that kind of activity”. I think is important to point out here these statements are not used to about a students English knowledge, but their capabilities for doing certain kinds of activities.

Well, my questions to anyone who hides behind these kinds of statements and presumptions are these; how do you know that? What are you basing those presumptions on? Where is your proof?

If your proof (in this case) is watching teacher centered lessons and admiring how smoothly it goes, that is not evidence that students can’t do anything else.

Also, observing a lesson or activity where students are put in a completely different learning environment (not just in a physical sense) to that which they are used to or asked to complete types of activities they have not done before, without the correct experience, support or scaffolding then, strangely enough, seeing it now working,

Of course it didn’t work! It is the first time the students have ever encountered that kind of teaching methodology or activity. As teachers, it is our job to provide the long term support and scaffolding students need to be able to handle such teaching methodology, not just quit, hide behind our students and say “well, that didn’t work, the students simply aren’t capable of it because of ………… (in Korea usually where they are from), now back to the PowerPoint game.”

I’m not saying as teachers we should just pick up any teaching method we’ve seen and think looks great and then chuck it at our students, if we do that we are doomed to failure. Every group of students is different, every individual student is different, every class we teach is different, and so we need to structure and support our students differently, and maybe adapt the final goals too.

The fact of the matter is it takes time, effort, energy and probably a lot of failed activities to get it right. I am absolutely not going to be able to teach exactly the same lesson to my high school students here in Korea as I would to a high school class in Spain, but that certainly does not mean my high school students here in Korea are not capable of achieving the same (or very similar) goals if the class is structured correctly.

Bringing it back to Korea, there is absolutely no reason why a Korean student cannot think creatively or critically in an English language class or why they cannot work effectively in groups, why they can’t have diverse conversations in English, why they can’t disagree with each other or speak publicly, why they can’t work autonomously, why they can’t figure out answers for themselves…..  But don’t just take my word for it:

Gan (2003:43 emphasis added) “researchers argue that the extent to which cultural values are internalised in the learning process of Asian students in general has been overstated, and the EFL students’ learning attitudes and strategies in particular have mainly to do with situation-specific factors such as language proficiency level, TEACHING METHODOLOGY and ASSESSMENT PRACTICES”

Littlewood (2001:21) has concluded:

1. Most students in all countries question the traditional authority structure of the classroom.

2. Most students in all countries would like to see themselves as active participants in the classroom learning process.

3. Most students in all countries have a positive attitude towards co-operating in groups in order to achieve common goals.

Cheng & Dornyei (2007:171) “motivational strategies are transferable across diverse cultural and ethnolinguistic contexts”

Littlewood (2000:33 emphasis added) “The stereotype of Asian students as ‘obedient listeners’ … does not reflect the role they would like to adopt in class. They do not see the teacher as an authority figure who should not be questioned; they do not want to sit in a class passively receiving knowledge … [they did not believe] the teacher should have a greater role than themselves in evaluating their learning. The results suggest that… [these claims] are more likely to be a consequence of the educational contexts that have been or are now provided for the, THAN ANY INHERENT DISPOSITION OF THE STUDENTS THEMSELVES”

Littlewood (2000:34) concludes…

“They want to explore knowledge themselves and find their own answers. Most of all, they want to do this together with their fellow students in an atmosphere which is friendly and supportive”

If a teacher doesn’t want to teach in a certain way or do certain types of activities that is absolutely fine, every teacher has their beliefs about what should and should not be taught and should or should not be happening in the classroom, but please, do not then put the blame onto the students.

I’m sorry if this came across as overly ranty, I do plan on sharing some tips from my experiences as to how we can go about bridging cultural gaps and how we can go about adapting new teaching methodology and activities to the needs of our students in the next week or so.


24/04/2013 09:40

“Where is your evidence” – I like the cut of your jib.

Jane Marshall
24/04/2013 09:49

oh yes, thank you for putting my rant out there! When I was a DOS I had a few teachers who tried to blame the students… to me, a sure-fire sign that they weren’t teaching properly! They didn;t like it when my response to their complaints was a programme of observations, workshops and being forced to look critically at what they were doing in the classroom! It’s laziness, pure and simple and I have very little patience with it. Thank you 🙂

Julia Stringwell
24/04/2013 12:36

I so agree. For similar reasons I hate it when one and all blame kids for all social and cultural degeneration in society. Children are all born with blank minds, their environment moulds them to the person they become. They didn’t ask to be born and to be raised in the way they are being. That’s my rant in condensed form!!!

24/04/2013 17:53

Great post mate – I can’t agree more… In my current school I’m trying to change the way we are expected to spoon feed the students language and ideas, but keep being greeted with “well, we’ve done this for the last few years…”

Frustrating to say the least.

Keep posts like this coming – top stuff!

11/09/2013 08:36

It is not blaming – that is the wrong conclusion – in fact, it is just telling it as it is. And, it is not the students’ fault, rather, before the foreign, Western thinker arrives on the scene, the students have been trained culturally to not question critically what figures of authority lecture about. That is not blaming the student, that is blaming the cycle of culture unique to that quadrant of the planet. Only from a foundation of understanding that fact, can a critical thinker begin to dig deep to pull out the precious gems from his students through providing an environment of opportunity for challenge with encouraging support where mistakes are not failures but merely wrinkles to iron out. I taught English in Korea, yes, but it was teaching tertiary level art and design that exposed the nature of automated Xeroxian culture of thought, which has its pros and cons as much as the critical thought culture of the West. Injection of the critical thinking but not to the stark replacement of the former will help these students break through the obstacles that foreign teachers hope to help them achieve.

30/09/2013 23:05

Love the honesty of this post – TY, Alex.

Sadly, many of us have also been brought up in a “culture of blame”. This is why I love the work of Peter Block. Rather than ask (usually first) “Who shall we blame”?…we need to ask different questions. Questions like “What is my contribution to the problem I am facing”? …are so much more productive.

I found your post because I was doing a post on this myself – take a look:


We “are” what we “do” – and the “blame game” played in so many of our institutions stops us from being so much better…our students, too 😉

Take care – TY (again) for the honest post and thunks!


Creating a Linked Classroom – Part 1 (Introducing the Project)

This week has been a very exciting one for both myself and my students. We have been presented with a fantastic opportunity to link our classroom with Kevin Stein’s high school classroom in Japan and Rose Bard’s high school classroom in Brazil.

This is a really incredible opportunity for my students (and me) that we are all very excited about. If you would like to know more about the importance of, and benefits in, creating linked classrooms, I suggest checking out an article I wrote an lingua and cultura franca here, an article from John Pfordresher on a similar topic here or some research I conducted on a linked classroom here.

As long as the project is running I plan on blogging about how we go about organising the project, problems we face, how we overcome them and some of the students’ reactions to the project as well as anything else that seems relevant!

A little bit of background in case you are new to my blog. I teach at a high school in Seoul, South Korea. I teach an after school class that consists of 16 students who are all pretty high level. The after school class runs for 8 x 1.5 hours over the course of 12 weeks, so this is the time I will be using for this project. The after school class is completely voluntary.

So without further ado, I shall get blogging about the project!

Part 1 (Introducing the Project)

I was a little bit nervous about introducing the project to my students as I was worried that, with it having nothing to do with their University Entrance Exams, they might not be interested due to the time and effort required. I also didn’t want to force the students into doing the project as that would not make for a great experience for the classrooms we will be linked with. So, I decided to outline the basis of the project, then disappear for five minutes and give them the time to discuss it as a class.

To my relief, the class decided, unanimously, that they wanted to take part in the project, with the proviso that it would all be done in class as they didn’t feel they have time to add to their schedule out of school. I think one of the main motivations was the opportunity to question the Japanese students about Dokdo and the East Sea of Japan, these are two very hot topics in Korea.

I went into a few more details with the students about the type of activities Kevin and I had thought would be realistic for our students to achieve. Our plan was to encourage communication on three fronts:

1) A delayed interview exchange via recording of questions and answers.
2) Written articles on anything they would like to share with the linked classroom. These would be shared via a website.
3) Videos, again on any subject they would like to share and uploaded to the website.

My students decided they would be most interested in videos and interviews, but that written articles would be a good opportunity to practice their writing skills. We were go on all three fronts!

In order to make the project manageable we split the class into four groups of four. The next task was for the students to brainstorm topics they would like to cover for interviews, articles and videos. They then shared their ideas (see picture below).

The students were then left (albeit with a little bit of guidance from the teacher) to decide which group would get each topic. Of course, in true Korean fashion, it came down to rock, scissors, paper!

It was then left to the students to make four interview questions they will record and send to the linked classroom and plan an outline of the first article they will write (see picture below).

And that was the end of the first lesson of the linked classroom project. Unfortunately due to exams and school trips I don’t our second lesson will be for a number of weeks, but if you would like to keep up to date with the project you can follow me on twitter here or follow AlienTeachers on facebook here.

Also, if you are interested in creating your own linked classroom I recommend checking out this facebook group.


10/04/2013 20:08

This concept is on my list for things to try next semester. I look forward to following your progress. When you say “they will record and send to the linked classroom” – will you be doing this whole thing with just a website? If you wind up trying out any other tech, I’d be interested to know what worked and what didn’t… Great stuff!

Alex (AlienTeachers)
11/04/2013 00:32

Hi Tom,

I’ve considered a couple of options, the simplest is probably to record and email, next simplest is a shared file sharing service such a dropbox, the least simple is uploading to a website. At the moment I plan on going for the latter option, the reason being that, with my students permission, I would like other people to use the recording for their classes as a means of exposure to other ESL speakers output.

I will definitely keep you updated with how it goes. Thanks for taking the time to comment 🙂

11/04/2013 00:06

Hi, I just came across your post and it is exactly what I am looking for. I tried to set up a linked classroom with a Japanese university, but it fell through. I work at a uni in Malaysia, and I teach students who will eventually go into the main foundation or degree course. They are from various countries and I would like to set up a linked classroom with them. Any advice? or could we possibly be included with your group? Thanks!!

Alex (AlienTeachers)
11/04/2013 00:36

Hi Simon,

Thanks for taking the time to read and comment? Want caused your linked project to fall through? Perhaps we can learn from it in this project!

At the moment I think university level might not suit my students, I’m worried it would make them a bit nervous with more mature students, however I highly recommend joining the following facebook groups and asking around to see if any university teachers could link their classroom with you.

Let me know if you need any more help at all,

All the best,





Alex (AlienTeachers)
11/04/2013 00:39

BTW I just had a quick look at your blog, you have some awesome ideas on there. Mind if I link it in my sidebar?

11/04/2013 04:05

Hi Simon. Mine are frosh uni students. Would love to link up. If you’re interested, please email me at tomtesol@gmail.com. Oh – I’m a mate of Alex’s in Seoul. Terrific blog, but I didn’t notice a way to connect, so here I am. Maybe I missed it. Cheers.

12/04/2013 03:56

When I see my 9th graders (14 year-old Ss) engaging in the creation of the video and taking all the steps to it by reflecting on the questions they had received, working on the video script and trying to do their best to present it, I feel even more comfortable in linking up with other classrooms. There are so much possibilities there in how to. I feel so blessed for being connected to such a wonderful community of educators.

14/04/2013 06:17

I’ve been seeing tweets and facebook updates all week and wondering what you were all up to. I’m glad I finally got a chance to read this and find out the details. 🙂 As always, your dedication at creating an authentic space for communication is inspiring.

Are you accepting additions to the linked classroom or will you try to finish the cycle created between the three of you?

Alexander Walsh
19/04/2013 01:08

Hi Josette!

Sorry for late reply, been of of those weeks! I think for now three is the logistical limit due to time constraints etc. However next semester I will be looking to replicate the project with a boys after school class so if you know of any interested parties that would be awesome!

Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!


Time to Get Real?


There is something about the way we talk about our industry that has been really bothering me of late. It seems to me that we often seem so pre-occupied with throwing whatever part of SLA (second language acquisition) theory that we deem relevant to the topic, we often forget to deal with what is really happening in our classrooms, what the real hurdles are that are stopping our students achieving both their maximum potential and the goals we have set for them.

I don’t think this is any fault of ours, anyone who has done much reading regarding the theoretical underpinnings of the EFL/ESL industry will have been swamped by SLA theory, as if it is the answer to all our problems, most academic courses and journals seem to indicate that if we apply relevant chunks of SLA to our lesson planning and activities, our students are miraculously going to start acquiring the target language at a rate of knots (o.k. this may be a slight exaggeration on my part!).

My point isn’t that we should do away with the theoretical knowledge, that it isn’t relevant or that is shouldn’t enter our discussions and influence our planning, but I believe there are fundamental, day to day issues, that we need to admit to, discuss, share and deal with before we worry about how closely our activities intertie with SLA.

I’m going to provide an example here, I am only providing this example because it is fresh in my mind, I think the point I want to make can be applied to the majority of chats, journal articles, books and so on that we engage with in the pursuit of professional development; myself and some good friends (who I know won’t mind me using this example) were discussing how we can build our students fluency (yes I know, I must be a VERY exciting person to go to the pub with!), and the chat very quickly became a SLA enthusiast’s paradise, and in part rightly so, it’s important that as professional educators we are aware of how research and theory has shown our students develop fluency. But, when we had moved and gone home, I didn’t really feel we had gained anything that would, on Monday morning, really help me deal with the issues I face in improving my students’ fluency. You see, for me, the problem was that even with all the knowledge of SLA in the world, I knew a number of my students would come into class tired, not interested or engaged in developing their own fluency. SLA was not going to help me with this, and I really think this is the real situation most teachers are facing. Maybe we don’t want to admit it, maybe we feel that admitting our students aren’t engaged in what we are doing makes us look like a bad teacher, but it is the reality.

To provide another example, I was recently involved in a chat on how we can use students feedback in our classrooms, much of the chat focused on the theoretical side (and I, by the way, was moderating/hosting the chat) of when, where and why we should use student feedback and we shared the usual theoretical reasons as to why we may not have used certain forms of student feedback (or any at all), and then one teacher admitted to the group he simply hasn’t done it because he is worried about what the students might say. Now that is a real practical problem that I am sure he is not the only teacher facing, these are problems that if we don’t admit to, share and help each other with, renders the rest of the theory useless. Thanks to that teacher’s honesty we were able to deal with this issue, offer practical advice from our experiences, and that teacher probably gained a lot more from the chat that any other. I really think discussing such practical problems needs significantly more focus, attention and respect for the teachers identifying them in their own classrooms.

Such situations, I believe, are the stark reality that most teachers face. We just don’t always have students that are going to sit and do every task we ask them exactly how we ask them to do, we all face different problems within our teaching contexts and I really think it’s time we weren’t afraid to admit that half our students come in and sleep, or they just want to play games, or they are used to different, often somewhat traditional teaching styles, or that they are just not getting it. Some of us teach public school kids that just want to get to the end of the lesson, or we teach in academies with kids whose parents are forcing them to attend, or we have business persons whose company is sending them to learn English, or we teach students from cultures that SLA just wasn’t developed on or for, and in all these situations, I’m sorry, but I just think being told the relevant part of SLA theory is often very much not what we are looking for or what we need.

A good friend suggested to me this is all well and good, but we can talk about motivation all day long, however I don’t think this is necessarily about motivation, I think every topic, every aspect of language teaching, carries with it inherent problems we face in the classroom. Motivation is just one type of problem we might face, teaching, just for example, an activity practicing listening for details, for one teacher, can carry all sorts of other practical problems besides motivation, just as developing fluency can.

I really feel it is time we started talking about what is really happening in our classrooms and institutions, the real problems we face, as it is through our shared experiences that we can really start to help each other.

SLA, textbooks, journals and research just don’t always provide the answers we need, but our shared experiences often do, so let’s not see experiences and real life problems as any less important than the theory that underpins our industry. It’s time we got real and encouraged the admission of the day to day problems ourselves and our students face, and not always respond to it with a barrage of theory that, quite honestly, is often not what we are looking for.


26/09/2012 01:18


Bang on as usual Alex! I will say this to start, I love thinking, studying and learning about SLA. I am super interested in how people acquire language. BUT! There is a long, long road between academic theory and real world application. As a young teacher, theory is all well and good, but what is better is actual, practical applications that can be used on a Monday morning when the students are still half dreaming from the night before!

I wholly agree that there needs to be more discussion about what actually happens in the real classroom. More to the point, much more openness about failures and successes and how each occurred. It’s one reason why I have latched on so strongly to the RP bandwagon here in Korea. I think we are extraordinarily lucky to have that on offer here, and it has helped me immensely.

In regards to theory vs practice, I’m now in the middle of writing a blog on dogme theory and how I am actually able to apply it to a middle school classroom; with the demands of the school, co-teachers, and students included. The end product is certainly nothing like the rosy picture painted in all the books, but hey, that’s life. Life is messy. But if we are able to have more real discussions about that mess, maybe we’ll all have just a bit better ability in organizing it. In doing so we will be able to give the gift we try so hard to bestow upon our students; retained, usable ability.

Thanks for shooting straight as per usual.

26/09/2012 01:22

One other point I forgot to mention. As a newer teacher who does not have the experience or credentials of so many in my field, it can be supremely dispiriting to constantly hear how well everything goes in someone else’s classroom. Knowing that others struggle at times too, even far more experienced teachers, truly helps! It’s what helps me be honest about my failures.

26/09/2012 01:38

HI John!

First thing I want to say mate is thank you so much for all the comments you leave, it really is appreciated and it really makes me want to keep on blogging. Thanks!

Regarding your comment, I think the work you’re doing regarding dogme in your middle school classes (which is an awesome project btw) demonstrates a great example of when theory positively influences our teaching practices, but just as you say, we often need a little bit more than theory to get through the ‘mess’.

Also, I agree we are extremely lucky here to have the likes of Mike, Josette and Manpal making RP so open and accessible to us here.

All the best mate,


26/09/2012 03:47

I’m all for keeping it real. As with a lot of theory, it’s lovely until you get to the actual classroom. As you rightly point out in the sixth paragraph, many students are intrinsically unmotivated, that is, any motivation to learn does not come from within, but from external factors – such as parents. In terms of the reality – I firmly believe that the actual context you find yourself in can not be understated. Having just finished a master’s degree which included a module on Second Language Acquisition, I am of the opinion that until you look at your actual students you can’t begin to formulate a plan of teaching. That is not to say you can’t bring this theory or that theory into play, but it starts with the learners. To a certain extent, chat forums which discussing this or that are general and, despite relevant anecdotes, provide little more than general experience and opinion. It is up to the individual teacher, not their colleagues, to make a difference and make things ‘real’ for their learners. Phil

07/10/2012 18:29

Hi Phil!

First of all please accept my apologies for how delayed this reply is, things have been a tad hectic of late!

I think you raise a very important point that as teachers it is our responsibility to take what we can learn from forums and chats and apply it to our classrooms and our students. Although I also agree it is not the responsiblity of our colleagues throughout the world to do this for us, I think we can help each other by changing how we use SLA in our conversations, in a way I believe many people in our profession over rely on and talk about SLA as a solution in itself.

Thanks for taking the time to read and extra thanks for taking the time to comment, it’s appreciated,


29/09/2012 05:23

Evening Walshy,

Lots to think about here. Firstly, I think it’s probably a good idea to draw a distinction between ELT theory and SLA theory. The first deals with teaching language, generally in classroom settings, and the second deals with the process by which someone learns a language by whatever means. I have huge problems with SLA in that it often attempts to reduce a multitude of cultures, skills, personalities and desires to a single concept of a “language learner”. However, I don’t think you can underestimate the effect that it has had on ELT methodology, especially CLT and whatever we’re doing now.

I tend to see the role of the teacher as a bit if a mediator between theory and practice. As you say, it helps to be informed and understand what may be taking place in our students, and also to recognize that at other times that it may be totally irrelevant.

I read somewhere the other day about quite what a personal space the classroom is for an educator, and how it’s often incredibly diffcult to reveal it for fear of criticism, or not looking like a ‘real’ teacher. I think a lot of theory based discussion actually discourages teachers from sharing, as it does often paint a rather rosy picture of what goes on in the classroom. I think the nature of teaching public school classes means that as a teacher you have far more pressing problems that theory. When I was a public school teacher, I felt that my blog didn’t really fit anywhere, and #eltchats were a world away from what I was doing in my class (this also applied to my MA). Now I teach in a setting that’s more akin to a classroom, and theory feels a lot more applicable. I think this perhaps explains the theoretical bent of recent online discussions 🙂 I think it also shows what an incredible job you’re doing with this blog and your work in general.

It’s increasingly my opinion that the Korean education system unwittingly sets native teachers up to fail, by not usually including them in the (examined) curriculum, and limiting contact time to once a week, which is in itself not exactly motivating for the students, as they don’t have much chance to progress even if they want to. Sorry if this is a bit negative nancy, but having a small group of students with exam pressure that I see three times a week allows for real progress, and has opened my eyes a bit about my previous role. You yourself have pointed to the fact that in general ELT teacher training (all of which is based on theory) does nothing for public school teachers. Perhaps it’s a branch of theory that you should start 🙂

However, you’re right that experience should still play the major role in our teaching, but as it is so personal and varied it’s often not particularly applicable to our own contexts, hence the general nature of chats that Phil points to above. I think that chats often provide a space in which you can reflect on your own experience, and equip yourself with a few more tools to help in your own classroom, or a new way of looking at a problem.

Anyway, this is way too long already. I hope there’s something of some use in all that.


07/10/2012 18:48


First of all thanks for your awesome comment mate!

I think you are absolutely right to draw a distinction between ELT theory and SLA theory, however I think both are often used, discussed and seen as solutions in ways they perhaps shouldn’t be.

Your point regarding the discouragement of sharing what is happening in our classroom is extremely valid, I wonder if this pressure actually increases with the more experienced we get, as if by getting more experienced our students are magically going to turn into English language angels?!

I also don’t think you’re being overly negative, NETs in the public education system are overwhelmingly set up to ‘fail’. Often they are then blamed when they do fail.

Although experiences are personal and varied I think that if we spent more time sharing our experiences we would often find common ground, that often contexts worlds apart might overlap in ways we never knew or expected, but unless we start analysing what is really happening and seeing theory as a ‘get out clause’ this will never happen.

Thanks so much for your awesome comment mate,


Assessment Part 3 – Building Assessment Preparation into a Syllabus


Over the past few days I’ve been talking about assessment. So far I’ve focussed on how we can make assessment of benefit to our students and explained the process I used in implementing my speaking test. In the final part of my assessment blogging trilogy I want to talk about how we can prepare students for speaking assessments in every lesson we do, not just for the two weeks before they take the tests. I also want to discuss how, for public school conversation teachers in Korea, the NEAT presents us with the opportunity to add a real, demonstrable value, to our jobs.

In case you haven’t read my previous two blogs I’m going to explain what the NEAT exam is. The NEAT exam is a new format of test being introduced by the Korean government; its primary aim is to assess every Korean student’s English ability before they apply for university. A wider goal is for it to replace the plethora of other English ability tests used in Korea. It is an important step because for the first time ever Korean students will have a speaking element in their national English ability tests (which provides the acronym for NEAT by the way). I believe it is basically going to be Korea’s equivalent to IELTS and TOEIC.

This is of particular importance to all the native English teachers (NETs) in Korea as previously there was often the complaint from both the NETs and the Korean community that our lessons had no real objectives or targets. Our job was to simply teach conversation. Without any real focus or goal it has always been hard to design a syllabus, to have any real long running themes guiding our conversational lesson planning as there was no target to aim for. The NEAT test changes that, and  in doing so has made me realise my lessons over the past three years could have been that bit more practically relevant by building in activities that practice the skills needed for speaking exams such as IELTS, TOEIC and now, for students in Korea at least, NEAT. I’m certainly not saying that our conversation lessons should be teaching to these tests, but that we can introduce activities the help prepare our students on a lesson by lesson basis, as opposed to the two weeks before their exam.

I don’t even think making these changes would have been a difficult thing for me to introduce to my lesson planning; in fact, it would probably have made the process a lot easier. Instead of wondering how I was going to fill that last 10 minutes, I could have created an activity similar to one the students would likely encounter in a speaking test, using the test format as a template.

I’m going to look at this more closely in relation to NEAT, identifying quick examples of the type of activities that could be inserted into lesson plans to help the students be as prepared as possible without ‘teaching to the test’. I do think such methods could be equally applicable to students around the world who might have to take IELTS, TOEIC or any other speaking proficiency exam, but are in a conversation class not specifically targeted at formal assessment.

NEAT Question Type 1 – Story Telling

–          Personally, I use a lot of short films in class to help stimulate the student’s imaginations. There are two things I could have done here; firstly, I could have given them stills from the film and either had them predict what would happen or have them write a short summary of what did happen.

–          For lower level students, I could have them make the pictures for each other, and then their partner makes the story.

NEAT Question Type 2 – Graph Description

– Students could survey each other; they make questions they would like to ask each other on the topic of that class, and from the results make a graph. They could then present their graph to the class.

– Students could predict how many class mates are wearing grey socks, blue socks, red socks, green socks, then as a class make a chart, give a very simple description and whoever had the closest prediction gets a prize.

NEAT Question Type 3 – Advice Giving

– Students could secretly write on a piece of paper problems they currently have in their life. They then make it into a paper airplane, everyone throws it to the other side of the room, they then plan the advice they would give and some are read to the class.

– For lower level students I think this is the most difficult category, but they could start off with simple statement like “the man should eat breakfast”. (Any better suggestions for this one are particularly welcome!!!)

NEAT Questions Type 4 – Conversation

–  This is the easiest to introduce, and I’d be surprised if most teachers don’t already. For high level students creating a role play where one student is a character in a film, book or one of their favourite famous people and the other an interviewer is just one of hundreds of options.

Identifying in the objectives of our lesson plans or syllabuses this relationship between the activities and the assessments our students will likely take in the future could prove to be very worthwhile. One reason for this is that it strengthens our position with our employers. If we demonstrate to our employers, whether it be the Korean government, an academy director or our students and identify the links between our lessons, the practical usefulness AND assessment they can only be happy. I really think this is true even if they are not taking classes directly towards a certain type of speaking assessment. Secondly, these exams have been designed to test certain communicative skills that are deemed important by professionals in the field, for me, this provides reassurance that the skills are likely to be transferrable to common every day communication.

In relation to Korea it’s really important we start objectifying the need for our role here. Government cuts are reducing the jobs available for native English teachers on a monthly basis, this could be one way we can turn that around.

Well that’s about all I have on assessment! The past two months planning, implementing and reflecting on the speaking tests I’ve been conducting this semester has been a massive eye opener for me regarding just how much there is to think about. Assessment isn’t a simple thing; I hated it when I was a student and so if we are going to put our students through it I think it’s important we give them all the support they need while make the process as fair and useful for them as we can.

Once all my students have finished their speaking tests I’m going to be getting feedback from them on what they thought of the design. I can’t wait to find out what I can learn from them and whether they were won over from the plan, memorize, recite tests they were used to and wanted at the beginning of the process.

If you use twitter, you can follow me on @AlexSWalsh or if not subscribe for email updates on the right.

The Confessions of a Grammarphobic ELT

I have a confession to make, I’ve been hiding it for about 3 1/3 years, but it’s time I got it off my chest, my knowledge of grammar is absolutely terrible, just awful. Yep, that’s right, I’ve been teaching EFL for over 3 years and yet my knowledge of English grammar is appalling. Just to be safe I think I should clarify exactly what I mean here, by lack of knowledge I mean that similar to most native speakers, I know what’s wrong and what’s right, I just don’t know why!  Now, before you judge let me make my excuses! To start with, I was never taught any outright grammar at school, and even if my English teacher tried (which I genuinely don’t think she did) I probably wasn’t listening, as I would have had no interest! From there I did my BSc Sociology & Criminology, all essay based, all essays were completed on a word processor that corrected my grammar for me, and beyond swearing at my computer for telling me I’d produced yet another fragment I just went with it and didn’t question it.

My first classroom based teaching job was teaching elementary level students in an academy for a year, my grammar did improve a bit over the course of that year. I then did my CELTA, again my grammar improved a fair bit, however well I tried to hide my lack of grammar knowledge (I somehow swindled only doing two assessed classes that involved teaching grammar) my tutor did pick up on it, and I was told it was the reason for being given a ‘pass B’ instead of a ‘pass A’. From there, I’ve taught high school for two years in a system where not only am I not expected to, but I am discouraged from explicitly teaching grammar. That is the job of the Korean teachers, and they do a mighty fine job of it, my god they know some incredible grammar rules I would never have even been able to guess existed! I’m now coming towards the end of my M.A TESOL, which has focused much more on methodology and issues in teaching ESL/EFL than outright grammar, as (in my opinion) we shouldn’t need an M.A course to teach us grammar.

Over the course of my education I have never been taught why we structure the English language the way we do and my career, meanwhile, has happened to allow me to hide my grammarphobia. The problem is that the longer I’ve hidden it the more fearful of it I’ve become! A teacher of one month not knowing his grammar, no big deal! A teacher of over 3 years, that is embarrassing! Now, at this point I should probably state that, despite my lack of knowledge, I’ve always tried to be as professional as I can, I will never guess a reason if a student asks me, and I will never just not give them an answer. I always reply with the same answer, “come and see me in the morning, you research it, I’ll research it, and we’ll see if we come up with the same answer.” It definitely does have some negative effects on my teaching though, for example I’m fearful of open and outright error correction, I always try to structure it in a way that avoids me having to explain complex grammar structures as I don’t want to deal with that embarrassment in front of my forty 16 year old students of having absolutely no idea why we use what might be a common structure!

So why have I decided to publicly embarrass myself by openly admitting my grammarphobia? Well, there are a number of reasons, first of all, I think grammar is important, it is something students want to be taught, need to be taught and that I absolutely want to be confident teaching them. If we are professional English language teachers we should be able to confidently explain more than just the common structures of the language. Secondly, I don’t think I’m alone, in fact, I know I’m not alone. I have met many other professionals in the EFL/ESL industry who have the same feelings towards grammar as I have. Thirdly, I’m considering changing jobs in the next year or so, well I’m considering moving countries actually. When and if I do I want to be as confident as possible in every aspect of my teaching, including grammar. But the main reason I’ve chosen to admit this now is that I have a one month holiday coming up, in which time I will have no studying towards my M.A TESOL to do, no lessons to plan, no syllabus to write and probably no blogging to do! I will have a lot of time sat on various planes, busses cars and trains though, so I want to use that time productively, I want to improve my grammar.

This brings me to the point of this blog; I would like to know how you improved your grammar knowledge? I’m sure most native teachers, when they enter the industry, have relatively poor knowledge, so how did you go about improving yours? What tips would you give me? As native speakers are there efficient ways of improving our knowledge? Do you think it’s important for us, as English language teachers, to have a good knowledge of English grammar? Can we call ourselves professionals if we don’t?

We have one month to turn this grammarphobic teacher into a grammar genius! I’m ready and willing to take on any advice you have!


22/06/2012 19:17

Hi Mike,

Thanks for the suggestion, I think that book is going to be my holiday reading!

Appreciate the advice!


Sophia Khan
21/06/2012 06:46

Hey Alex, we’ve all been there, and you also learn what you need to learn at the time. For me early on I found myself with an advanced mixed nationality class in the UK, and we were using the Headway Advanced CB (v.1). There was a FABULOUS short grammar section at the back. Not only did I read the whole thing, but before every lesson that involved grammar/patterns I checked in the back, did my research, did all the exercises and made sure I was ready to deal with any problems that came up. But if you want to get a good overview of “grammar” that involves you reading, thinking about things, looking at typical task types then the book you need is About Language by our man Scott Thornbury. It’s gold. Good luck and enjoy your holiday reading!

22/06/2012 19:24

HI Sophia!

I’m going to try and find a copy of ‘about language’ this weekend and make it my holiday reading!!

I think your absolutely right regarding English teachers learning what they need to learn at the time, unfortunately I’m in a job role now where I don’t really need to ‘know’ any grammar. Really looking forward to reading the book you suggested and appreciate the advice 🙂


22/06/2012 19:40

*You’re absolutely right :p (still feeling the Friday night beers!!!)

Sophia Khan
21/06/2012 06:48

Lol, great minds think alike!

21/06/2012 07:44

I think Sophia makes a great point when she says that we learn what we need to learn at the time. So far you probably haven’t really needed much grammar (whatever that word means) knowledge. About Language was recommended twice above and I would surely agree with that. @JosetteLB was recommending birds like Swan and Parrot the other day and I also recommended (the massive) “The Grammar Book” (by Marianne Celce-Murcia, Diane Larsen-Freeman). All good stuff. My best suggestion, however, is to think about what you actually need to know and why.

Do you need to know uses of present perfect for a job interview?
Do you need to know the differences between coordinating conjunctions, correlative conjunctions, and subordinating conjunctions? (Why?)
Do you need to know to explain why common errors are common errors?
I know you wrote that you want to be more confident..and that is surely reasonable in my view. I guess I am wondering what it is you’d need to know to be more confident.

(I love how I always answer a question with a question…sorry)

I also think that textbooks (as much as I love them) can be a good starting point. Not totally sure that I would recommend ur student’s standard school book but most textbooks are organized around grammatical points which might be a good start for you.
(Meaning check out popular books and see the grammar books than do your own research)

Hope this helps,

22/06/2012 19:35

*then do your research.

All grammar mistakes above were unintentional.

22/06/2012 19:38

Hi Mike,

Given the comments I think ‘About Language’ is going to be a must read for my holiday!

Regarding your questions I am planning on changing job roles next year and probably countries too, and you never know what might be asked in interviews. It is going to put me outside my comfort zone as I have only taught in Korea and I really want to be able to approach jobs with as much confidence as I possibly can. I remember when I did my CELTA with IH the instructor telling me that in their interviews they like to pick a certain grammar point and ask teachers how they would teach it, I think it is this kind of question I’m worried about. I have my beliefs on how grammar should be taught and could probably put together an effective lesson on the spot, but if I don’t know the grammar it could be an issue.

I appreciate the advice mate, my students have exams next week, I think I might well spend a couple of days checking out their text books!

Thanks again 🙂

Daniel Craig
21/06/2012 07:09

Hell, I’m still there. I’m nearly 15 years in, but I still struggle with grammar issues on a regular basis. This is particularly true with my writing classes. There’s nowhere to hide when writing. They problems are generally not about what is “correct” or not (of course that’s an entirely different conversation), but rather how I can describe the rules for WHY that particular structure is being used.

I feel a lot better now than I did 5 years ago (much less 15!), but I still struggle regularly to provide good rationales for grammar use. I note that 5 years ago was a turning point, though. It was around that time that I realized I didn’t have to have all of the answers. I simply began telling students that I didn’t know and asked them if they did. Often, our discussions would jar something loose and I’d be able to explain it better, or they would simple offer a good response (these days they are English Ed students). If we couldn’t come up with a good answer, I’d do one of two things. (1) Tell them to go figure it out (again, good for use with English Ed students). (2) I’d go figure it out and talk about it in the next class. 5 years ago is when I gave up being the Sage on the stage and started being another blind man feeling his way through the dark world of grammar.

Of course, I did have some really great training that I could fall back on. I had a couple of great Profs in my MA that really knew language and the issues that language learners had. I think I was lucky in that I happened upon the program (University of Illinois) at a time when there were some real superstars there at the same time and they were all at the top of their games in writing, pedagogical grammar, pragmatics, morphology, and socio-linguistics. It was a great experience. One, Ron Cowan, really rocked in the reading, writing, and pedagogical grammar. He wrote a book that I’ve heard great things about. I’d encourage you to check it out – http://www.amazon.com/The-Teachers-Grammar-English-Reference/dp/0521007550. It’s required for our students for one of the required classes. The Prof for the class swears by it and she is a top-notch linguist. It’s not just about grammar, but the problems that language learners have and how they can best grasp the usage.

I laugh at anyone who tells me they have mastered grammar (meaning an understanding of the underlying rules for constructing communication in a language). That’s a joke. Grammar shifts. It’s a changing beast. Regardless of the linguistic camp you are in, one can make the argument that grammar is predictable and consistent, but that is only in the abstract. Usage is a bitch and that is where pragmatics screws everything up so wonderfully.

Don’t be afraid of gaps in your ability to explain grammar, but also don’t be content. Keep learning and when you think you’ll learned it all reconsider what “all” means 🙂

22/06/2012 19:59

Hi Daniel!

First of all I really want to thank you for your comment, to be honest knowing someone with your qualifications and experience still struggles makes me feel a lot better about my grammarphobia!

The two responses you use with your students (asking them to figure it out or you figuring it out for next class) are also the ways I approach any questions I can’t answer, which is most at the moment! To be perfectly honest, if I did know the reasoning, I believe it would good practice to ask the students to go away and research it themselves anyway.

I will definitely be checking out the book you recommend, I’ll make sure I let you know how I find it.

Thanks for the recommendation and encouraging words mate, I appreciate it a lot.


Daniel Craig
21/06/2012 07:12

I should add that this book (http://www.amazon.com/The-Grammar-Book-Teachers-Edition/dp/0838447252/ref=sr_1_9?ie=UTF8&qid=1340287864&sr=8-9&keywords=esl+grammar) got me through grad school and I still go to it at least once a week.

21/06/2012 07:22

I’m not a native English speaker, but the international language has been taught to us since age 5 or younger. Grammar correction becomes instinctive when you’re choked with the same subject-predicate relationship rules, everyday, for the rest of your school life. With this experience, I should say that if for some reason my English teacher can not explain grammar rules, I’ll personally take legal action against him/her. In fact, I did it twice in middle school. In my mind, it’s like a doctor who doesn’t know the fundamentals of CPR. He/she knows the application but doesn’t know the reason behind each action.
But if it is not for teaching, I’d throw the rules out the door. Since I started communicating with native English speakers, I lost faith on the language. The rules have changed drastically and still changing really fast, to conform to current generations. It took years before “but” and “and” to be accepted as the beginning of a sentence. Now, changes happen in less than six months. Would you believe the proper use of “whom” is about to be discarded including the word itself?
Bottom line, if you’re professionally teaching the language, knowledge of grammar is a must. Else, I don’t even care anymore.
If ever one of my students ask me why such rules are important, I’d base my answers on this article: http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/does-grammar-matter.aspx

21/06/2012 16:21

Hi Phoenix,

First of all it’s great to have the perspective of a ‘non-native speaker’ here, so thanks for your comment.

I have a couple of questions for you about your comment, and it’s probably easier to use your analogy to make them. Now, a doctor knowing CPR, let’s just take it a little bit further and say a baby is hit by a car and needs resuscitating, if you were to ask a 65 year old gynecologist the theory behind the resuscitation technique for a baby I doubt they would be able to tell you. They’ve been practicing medicine for 35 years, just as I have been speaking English for 28 years.

I think we could also use the medical field as an example of many native speaking teachers professional expertise. Most doctors specialise in a certain field, they gain expert knowledge of the specific area in which they work, just as my Korean coteacher and I have different specialisations in teaching English, if you asked her to teach a conversational English class she wouldn’t really know where to start, but ask her to teach a lesson preparing students for a grammar exam and she would be unbeatable!

Now to stay along the medicine theme, in England we have ‘general practitioners’. These are doctors who have a general knowledge of everything, but no specialisation. Their job is to refer to you to a specialist if they feel you need it, if not to offer you medical assistance there and then. It is absolutely normal for a GP to have to look up your medical condition in a book before offering assistance, especially what treatment to prescribe, and if you were to ask the GP the theory behind how that treatment works she would certainly have to refer to a book. I think this is similar to an English teacher having to go away and look up a particular aspect of grammar before offering a student an answer. I don’t feel there is anything unprofessional about that.

I hope you’re kidding about the legal action mate!

28/07/2012 14:07

Phoenix Jackson – may I suggest you find the time to read Quirk’s short book “The Fight for English” http://books.google.fr/books/about/The_fight_for_English.html?id=EqpiAAAAMAAJ&redir_esc=y

21/06/2012 07:58

very short: my english grammar improved after i spent time studying japanese through korean… basically, comparative analysis of three languages made me understand things in more detail

22/06/2012 20:37

Hi Andee!

I think you’re absolutely right in the point you make, the little Korean I have studied definitely raised my awareness of language issues in English as well as Korean.

Thanks for the comment, always appreciated no matter how short 🙂


21/06/2012 08:10

Hey Alex,

A few book suggestions have been made already; however, I’d like to add another one if I may. My current MA course is Pedagogical Grammar and the prescribed text for it is Kennedy, G. (2003). Structure and Meaning in English. Chapters 3-7 of the book deals with English grammar; each chapter contains not only explanations but also tasks to work through and answers are at the back of the book.

You could read it during your commutes. If you’re interested, What The Book stocks it: http://www.whatthebook.com/book/9780582506329?

22/06/2012 20:39

Hi Dayle,

Thanks for the recommendation, I’m on my way down to pick up ‘about language’ now, I’ll see if the have a copy of the book you recommend and have a browse through those chapters!

Thanks again,


21/06/2012 22:21

My name is Manpal and I am a grammarphobe.

I applaud your honesty. I think many teachers are in the same boat.

Maybe the two of us should pick up some of the books others have recommended and get together regularly to help each other increase our grammar knowledge.

Of course, I think such meetings should end with chicken and beer.

22/06/2012 20:45

Manpal, welcome to my club! They say the first step is the hardest…….!!!!

I’m actually just about to go and pick up ‘about language’ and would definitely be up for some grammar get togethers (my computer is telling me that’s not a real word!), very much followed by some chicken and beer!

03/07/2012 18:40

Hey Alex,

I will ditto the previous comments. It is great to hear all you experienced teachers struggle with grammar as well. I have always resisted acquiring grammar knowledge due to a belief that proper grammar will come about of its own accord through enough use (LSRW) of the language.

After a year and a half I now realize that there is occasionally a place for grammar, and I can certainly respect the fact that many students want to know the why behind some of the language. I also believe that teachers SHOULD know the why behind it all, at least a portion of it.

You have given me some inspiration to make my own inroads into the grammar realm. I too will check out “About Language”. Perhaps we can meet after our respective summer breaks and discuss what we’ve learned…over chicken and beers of course 😉

28/07/2012 14:55

I really enjoyed reading your post, and all the comments. You may have noticed a recent upsurge of visits, sent here by @mikecorea via http://eltchat.com/?p=3654&preview=true

You know that wish-I’d-said-it-at-the-time feeling? It came to me after the #ELTchat was over so here, just for you is the “missing” tweet and a reply 🙂

#ELTchat Grammar: problem is not “exceptions to the rule”. The prob is – over precise rules do not describe reality.

@eannegrenoble good point, Elizabeth. Sticking to 100% grammar accuracy can sometimes produce language that sounds unnatural and stilted.

Enjoy your reading, and just for pleasure, try “The language Web” by Jean Aitkinson. Though, having done an MA in the subject, I’m sure you’re just doing that typically British downplaying yourself bit!

28/07/2012 22:20

Hello Alex,

Just discovered this amazing website. Kudos on you!!

I’ll get straight to the point. I believe the main reason we native speakers (at least those from the UK) struggle with grammar structures is because we studied grammar from a different angle, we learnt grammar through ‘verbal reasoning’.

I remember my primary school days and those horrid “verbal reasoning” lessons/books. They mainly consisted of different sentences (grammatically correct and incorrect) and we had to choose which one(s) were correct. However, we rarely got an explanation as to why certain grammatical structures were correct/incorrect, just a tick or cross.I believe that is why we instinctively know correct grammatical structures, without being to explain why.

It wasn’t until I studied for my TESOL certificate that I truly realized the complexity of English grammar, and how to explain the structures. Just like you I was absolutely petrified of explaining grammar, but now I’m becoming more and more confident.

27/08/2013 22:32

Hi mate,

Books like Grammar in Use were pretty useful for me when I was trying to get the basics of grammar together before I did the CELTA. I found I learnt best from seeing examples along with the rules to consolidate it in my mind. Grammar in Use also has activities and answers so you can test yourself to see if you get the idea! If you fail, maybe English isn’t your first language haha

It’s funny you mention Korean teachers and grammar. I taught there for two years and found the opposite to be kind of true. They do know their grammar, but they apply it so rigidly they’re not always right. The subtleties of grammar go completely over their head sometimes as the rules have generally been rote learned. That’s where you come in, although it sounds like you’re lucky enough to have teachers who might be more aware of this.

Good luck with it all.

27/08/2013 22:35

I should’ve added – it took me years to get confident with the basics and I’m still not comfortable with new grammar, or able to go into in-depth explanations of complex grammar. I’m confident with stuff I’ve taught before, but that’s about it.

I think if you can go through grammar in detail and explain every single thing that comes up in a lesson you’re either wrong, or are in serious need of a decent hobby!