Instructions: Don’t blame Maria, blame Sharon and Tracy

1 Oct

By day seven of a recent hospitalisation, I had identified four of the non-native speakers who worked on the nursing team.  Apparently there are seven in total, but the ward is large and I may never get to meet the others.  I know there are seven because I overheard a senior nurse commenting on it.  And not positively.   Communication, it seems is something of an issue on ward B5.

Of the four NNS nurses I’ve met, two are Italian and two are Portuguese.  I would estimate that the Portugese are solid B2 level speakers – there are frequent mistakes but these don’t often impede communication and when they do, the speakers are able to correct.  The Italians are lower level – one of the Italians is a solid B1 and the other, who is also older, is somewhere between A2 and B1; listening to her I can see how she might have passed Cambridge English Preliminary exam but her slips and errors are probably more common slightly below that.

And it was this lady, who I shall call Maria, that had to deal with this little burst of language the other day.  If you can, imagine the nurse speaking with a broad south London accent, all run together and rapid with random glottal stops thrown in here and there:

NURSE: “Right.  Maria, so bed 3’s jus come back from her colonoscopy so we know that means she can only have four things, black tea, water, apple juice and jelly.  But not the red jelly cos it’s got that stuff in it she can have the orange jelly though so she’d better have a tea and an orange jelly but it don’t matter cos we ain’t got any jelly anyway and the kitchen’s sending some up so that’ll take a while so it’s probably best if you wayer first and that’ll give the kitchen time to send it up, alright?”

MARIA:  Tea and jelly.  Ok.  I do this now?

NURSE: She’s going the wrong way.  Maria luv?  You’re going the wrong way!  She’s over there.  Go wayer.  WAYer.  Weigh her.

MARIA: ah! I weigh her and then tea and jelly.

NURSE:  Yeah go on luv off you pop.  (Exeunt Maria) it’s so difficult when they don’t understand English innit?


I’ve tried to reproduce this verbally in this recording – it’s the best approximation I can manage of the speed and speech patterns! Click the vocaroo link to listen.

Source: Vocaroo Voice Message


I later overheard a senior nurse tell the Italians they could leave an hour early the following day to attend English lessons being run elsewhere in the hospital.

Maria could probably use some English lessons, this is true – I wonder though, whether they will be the right kind of language lessons.  Since being in hospital, the only people I have heard speaking in the UK prestige model of “received pronunciation” are some of the consultants and the surgeons.  Everyone else in the hospital is from everywhere else.  This being south London, there is a broad mix of Britain’s colonial and cultural heritage in the accents: West Indian, Jamaican, Indian, Pakistani, Nigerian, Ugandan.  And of course the famous “estuary English” common to the South East of the UK.

Course book accents tend to be clearer, tinged slightly with regionalism here and there as a nod to the existence of other forms of speech and as a way of helping learners tell the speakers apart during the listening exercise.  This is an understandable part of grading the materials to the level of the learner – listening materials need to be accessible after all, but I wonder if, in grading the language our learners hear, we could do more to include a greater variety of dialect and accent.  That perhaps, is a topic for another blogpost though.

The big issue for Maria is the one that probably every teacher picked up on when reading or listening to the above conversation.  It isn’t that Maria doesn’t understand, in fact if you consider the length and content of the initial utterance, Maria has done quite well to pull “tea and jelly” out of it and to use contextual knowledge to figure out that she has to go and get some for bed 3.

The problem isn’t just that the non-native speaker doesn’t understand, the problem is that the native speaker doesn’t have the best communication skills for speaking to a non-native speaker.


The nurse is delivering the utterance at relatively high speed and in an informal mode as is suitable between colleagues who don’t want to make an issue of any power relationships.  She pre-justifies the instruction by giving background information that supports the instruction and then gets lost in her own thinking as she clarifies which kind of jelly and what the best sequence of activities is.  The speed of speech, and in particular the south London speech patterns of catenation, elision and assimilation, make it very difficult to identify the word boundaries.  Likewise, because this is delivered at speed, the stress patterns are not as obvious.

In short, it is a wonder that anybody understood anything.

It might be a bit too much to expect the nurse to grade her language appropriately as this is something that teachers get better at through repeated exposure to multiple levels of ability and understanding what language patterns and lexis are generally comprehensible at those levels.  There are though, some simple things that our nurse could do to make life easier on the ward:

  • Use fewer words. Don’t use three words where one will do.
  • Separate out instructions into single imperative sentences. Don’t front them with polite phrases – keep it simple.  So not “Please, if you wouldn’t mind, could you go and wash bed 8 and get them ready for X-ray?”  But:  “Wash bed 8.  Get them ready for x-ray.”
  • Enunciate more clearly and make sure key words are separated.
  • Speak slower.
  • Try and give stress to key words in the sentence, in particular actions to be taken and names or other key nouns.

I also have a theory, based on limited observation and not borne out by any reading or research (not that I found any research on this, so who knows?), that when native speakers try to simplify their language for non-native speakers, they do so in the same way that they might simplify their language for a child.  This can be characterised by using more “informal” language, which includes more use of phrasal verbs.  Phrasal verbs though, are notoriously tricky for non-native speakers to acquire and differentiate between.  Certainly speakers of Latin based languages might have more luck with slightly more formal vocabulary where there are more cognates.  So in the example instruction “Get them ready for x-ray”, a better instruction might be “prepare them for x-ray”.  But this is only a personal theory…

So there is my free business idea for any teacher in the UK looking to drum up a bit more business – don’t only target the language learners, but look for opportunities in areas where the native and the non-native speaker work together or interact more regularly.  Sell the courses in communication skills to Sharon and Tracy (or their boss in HR), and make sure it isn’t only Maria that gets the blame.


Parsnips in ELT: Stepping out of the Comfort Zone

10 Aug

most requested ebooks

The concept of Parsnips in ELT has always intrigued me.  These are the things that you’re not supposed to talk about with your classes, the taboo topics that might get you into trouble or which your students might protest at.  These are the topics that mainstream coursebooks leave out.

And for a very good reason – coursebooks are market dependent and they rely on economies of scale to make a profit.  A coursebook that cannot be used in an entire region of the world because it touches on political issues that might offend ruling regimes means potentially losing money in sales.  But this leads to some interesting omissions and to a one size fits all policy that essentially has us teaching to the lowest common cultural denominator. And to what someone once described as “in-flight magazines for the grammatically challenged” (Scott Thornbury I think…?).

Personally, I see no problem in touching on Parsnip topics in the classroom.  The acronym stands for Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, -Isms, Pork.  I think I’ve probably done lessons on all of these at one point or another and you can find at least two lessons on this blog involving pigs….

The key with anything like this is (a) common sense and (b) sensitivity.  If, for example, you happen to be teaching English to the highest cadre of the ruling junta in the benevolent dictatorship of wherever, then a lesson on freedom of speech and the democratic principle might not be advised (although some would argue that it was the perfect opportunity).  Equally, if you are teaching a lesson on a topic and notice the students are unusually silent, be prepared to ask them if they would prefer to do something else instead.  It is not our job to force our opinions upon our students, but we are not doing our jobs properly if we deny them the opportunity to discuss the issues of the day.

If you do enjoy spicing up your standard ELT menu with the odd root vegetable, then help is at hand in the form of a new e-book:  Parsnips in ELT: Stepping out of the Comfort Zone (vol. 1).  This ebook is free to download and is available in multiple formats (epub, mobi & pdf) and contains one lesson on each topic from a collection of authors including myself.

Parsnips in ELT Cover

Not everything in it might be to your taste and if so, you can do what my children do with their vegetables – push it to the side of your plate and leave it for someone else to deal with!  There is, however, enough in there for you to find something you like or to at least start you thinking!

The book has an accompanying blog where you can find some of the ideas from the book as well as a range of shorter ideas to stimulate discussion on the Parsnip topics with your classes:

If you try any of the lessons in the book, do let us know how they go!  We’re always keen to get feedback on the ideas!  Either leave a comment here or on the Parsnips blog.

Above all – have fun!

What are we thinking in ELT?

24 Jun

If you were about to start thinking about a dissertation or thesis in ELT, what would you write it about?

There’s a number of ways of looking at this:

  • Practicality
  • Passion
  • Previous

Practicality – what’s easiest and most practical to write about?  How are you going to find the answers to your research questions?  Is it possible to find out what you want to know?

Passion – what do you care about?  There’s no point in being pushed into writing about a topic you aren’t interested in.  If you’ve been teaching for a while, there’s probably something you enjoy doing in the classroom more than the rest.  And if you’re going to read about it, research it and write about it for anywhere between three months and a year, you need to have a topic that can sustain you throughout that time.

Previous – has it been done before?  What other research has been done in the area?  Are you going to add to the general body of knowledge in the area or are you going to duplicate existing research?  What can you find to help and inform your own research process?


It seems that a lot of ELT writing, research and conference presentation comes about because of a perceived lack in practice.  A writer or presenter has a belief about what an aspect of professional practice should be and sees that either in their own practice or in that of colleagues around them, professional practice is not as it should be.  These beliefs are therefore often highly personal and highly contextualised, but in writing about them or presenting them, the lessons learned from attempting to deal with the lack are shared with the wider ELT community.

This means that is it possible every now and again to get a snapshot of the community zeitgeist:


This word cloud (made with wordle) is from the presentation titles as given at the back of the IATEFL 2015 conference brochure.  In total, it works out at over 7000 words of text and in all honesty I’m not sure how useful it is, because the word cloud doesn’t recognise the collocations or noun phrases that are so common in session titles.  So I took the old-fashioned approach and skimmed through them to see what topic areas appeared most common.

My completely unscientific approach may well include my own personal frequency illusion bias, so interested readers are recommended to do the same thing themselves by downloading the brochure and referring to pages 249 – 270.

However, my thoughts are that in the ELT community we are mostly thinking about and writing about:

  • Action Research & Evidence based practice
  • Critical thinking in the classroom
  • Corpora research and using it in the classroom
  • The role of Coursebooks
  • Digital materials and learning technologies
  • The EdTech vs Humanistic approaches debate
  • Flipping our classrooms
  • Developing learner autonomy

Obviously, some of these are huge categories in their own right.  Learner Autonomy has something like thirty six separate talks listed in the IATEFL brochure.

Equally, some of these are perennial debates.  The role of coursebooks in the classroom, especially when contrasted with Dogme-style approaches, has been contentious since ever there were coursebooks.  Proponents of humanist approaches worry that Edtech supporters tend to lose focus on the person inside the learners, while the EdTech supporters worry that the humanists…..  actually I’m not sure what they worry about.  Possibly that humanist approaches aren’t easily replicable or applicable in wider contexts and therefore shouldn’t be taken seriously when developing larger scale policy?  Not sure.  Help me out readers – how would you characterise the debate?

Anyway – it seems to me that the community zeitgeist reflects a view of what we want our classes and our learners to be, what we try to engage with in our teaching, and that we actually have a new “standard model” in ELT:  digitally engaged, independent, thoughtful human beings who know what they want and how to go and get it.  And their teachers.


My thanks to Dr. Andrew Kerrigan at the University of York for asking me the question and thus inspiring the post – I’d be interested to hear alternative answers to Andrew’s original question:  What’s your take on some of the buzz topics in ELT writing and research these days?

Personalised Learning – IATEFL BESIG Workshop

8 Jun

Here are the slides from the BESIG weekend workshop I gave on the 7th June 2015.  I was very honoured to have been asked to run the workshop, particularly as I noticed it was the 50th such workshop that BESIG have run.

In the talk we touched on some of the evidence that exists to suggest a personalised learning approach is more effective – it is an instinctive thought and one most of us would recognise, but there is actual research data out there as well.

We looked at the importance of needs analysis and ways in which we can use Google forms as both a data gathering tool and for analysis purposes.

We also thought about course design and moving towards an iterative, cyclical, learner led process that is based initially on learner needs, but also on a feedback cycle going forwards.

Finally I presented three activities that use the students as the content creators within a teacher provided framework, as a way of modelling an approach to using the students as resource in the BE classroom.


My huge thanks to the IATEFL BESIG team for inviting me to run the workshop, and to Justine Arena for looking after me on the day and for all her hard work in organising the technical side of things so that I didn’t have to!

If you are a member of IATEFL and of BESIG, you should be able to view a recording of the workshop on the BESIG website.


PechaFlickr – exam speaking practice

4 Jun

One of the common complaints students have about exam speaking is that they never know what to say.  In practice sessions, I’ve had students dry up completely and embarrassedly freeze half way through a sentence, I’ve had other students refuse to talk about the topic saying that they know nothing about it!

About a month ago, Richard Byrne shared a post about PechaFlickr that I think can help with this.


PechaFlickr is a web based app that displays 20 random images for 20 seconds each.  As the name suggests, the images all come from Flickr and are selected based on how they’ve been tagged – this adds the element of randomness that makes it such a great tool as you can never be entirely sure what you’re going to get.  I tried it with the topic “school” and got a a child crying in front of some ruins, a grinning child staring at the camera, what looked like a teachers meeting, a somewhat inappropriately dressed Japanese lady (but dressed enough for the sake of propriety), and some people holding a candlelit vigil.  I gave up at that point…!

In the advanced settings you can change the number of slides shown and the length of time they are displayed for, so you could easily adapt it to practice Cambridge English: First & Advanced speaking tasks, though it doesn’t practice the exam tasks in the sense that the tasks require comparison and contrast of two photos.

What it does help practice is thinking about what pictures represent and what they could represent, finding connections between images and topics and perhaps more importantly . quick thinking.

I think this could be a great warmer for any class with an interactive whiteboard and it could also be a great tool for students to practice at home – especially if they record and review their own performance.

Another alternative is to play a “Just a Minute” type game, possibly setting timing on each photo to slightly longer and adding more  pictures (depending on how long you want things to take), where as soon as the speaker falters or fails, they stop and another one has to take their place.

Any other suggestions?

Try it out here:



Free Online #BESIG Workshop – Personalised Learning Programmes

1 Jun

It’s my very great privilege to be running a free online workshop for the IATEFL BESIG next Sunday – 7th June.

BESIG is the Business English Special Interest Group and they have been running their weekend workshop series since February 2011, when Pete Sharma gave the first one on what I think was Networking in English.  Since then 48 other fantastic speakers have also given workshops!

The workshop is running at 2pm GMT on Sunday 7th June (2015) – to find out when that is where you are just click on the world clock converter.  It is free to attend and anyone and everyone is welcome, though if you miss it, the recording is only available to BESIG members.

I’m going to be talking about the importance of personalising the learning process.  There’s been some really interesting research that has come out of North America in recent years that has looked at improving effectiveness in education and which I think has clear lessons for all of us in ELT.  I’m also going to review ideas in needs analysis and course design and to see if we can’t tweak some of these ideas with technology to make it a more streamlined, less labour intensive and more effective process, as well as looking at ways to work with the student as resource in the business English arena.

It is aimed primarily at the BE sector, which isn’t to say that non-BE teachers won’t find something to takeaway also!

To find out more – visit the BESIG website.

It has the full abstract, together with the when and where and details of how to attend.

Hope to see you there!


The Colour Coded Essay – #IHTOC7

13 May

With the introduction of a compulsory essay task in the Cambridge English: First & Advanced exams, it’s become quite important for learners to understand essay structure and organisation.

Here’s a ten minute talk I did for the International House Teacher’s Online conference:


And here are the slides for the presentation:




Check out all the other great talks in the IHTOC7 conference here:


Free Teachers’ Online Conference – Friday 8th May #IHTOC7

5 May

The annual International House Teachers Online conference is taking place over this weekend and it’s a great opportunity for teachers to drop in and take part in this free event.

On Friday 8th, 10.30 – 16.30 (GMT) there will be a series of ten minute sessions from teachers in the IH network – twenty three different sessions in all, grouped loosely together under the headings; The Big Picture, Fabulous Feedback, Rampant Resources and Culture & Nurture.

I will be giving a quick ten minute talk on essay structure for the Cambridge exams – and showing how using a colour-coded essay template can help learners to make textual connections and strengthen the organisation and structure of an exam focused essay.

Saturday 9th, 10.30 – 15.15 (GMT) focuses on teaching modern languages, with IH teachers of Russian, German, Spanish and French sharing their ideas in a series of one hour sessions.

Click here for the timetable, with information about when everything is happening.  Links to the online conference rooms will also appear here on the day.

Click here for the conference programme, with abstracts and biographies of the speakers and their sessions.

Make sure you get the timings right!  All conference times are in GMT.

Image credit: Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig. Reproduced underAttribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) Licence.


20 Apr

It is easy enough to get stuck in your classroom, and stuck in particular ways of thinking about your teaching and your learners and even of course – yourself!  Cambridge English have just launched what look like an interesting professional development programme – the #5teachingchallenges campaign.

In essence, you sign up, choose one of the options and then you get emailed short tasks to help you think about the area you chose.  Each challenge takes about five weeks and at the end of it you get a Record of Achievement for each challenge.  If you then want to do another challenge, you can.

I like that there’s a degree of personalisation in this and that you get to focus on the area that’s most important to you, as it makes a difference from imposed or pre-determined input and this can be quite liberating.

The five challenge areas are:

  1. Create a professional development plan that works for you
  2. Find new ways to motivate your learners
  3. Find new ways to identify, analyse and correct your learners’ mistakes
  4. Be more confident using digital resources
  5. Be more confident using English in class

So there should be something for everyone there!  There are additional extension tasks for more experienced teachers and each task is meant to take about one or two hours a week.



Good luck!

Reason to Read – a genre specific approach to developing reading skills

16 Apr

In my recent talk at IATEFL 2015, I argued that the standard approach to reading in ELT is ineffective and that tasks which reflect a broader range of genres and more realistic reasons for reading are preferable, and I demonstrated a few tasks which reflect this philosophy.

At the end of the talk I promised that I would post the slides and pdf versions of some of the tasks I showed – so here it all is:

Here is the first of the pdf handouts.  This is a task / process that you can use with pretty much any text, though it might need some adapting in the information extraction section, depending what kind of genre you use it with.

Teflgeek – Reaction Reading

Here is the second of the handouts.  This is a pdf of a task / process that aims to help students deconstruct the why and what of texts – why were they written and what should they do with them.  It helps students approach texts critically and with the ability to conduct a more in depth analysis.  It should work with any text type and at almost any level.

Teflgeek – Text Deconstruction Handout

Finally, a video of the presentation is available from the IATEFL Online website.  The presentation was part of a larger forum on approaches to developing reading skills and I co-presented with Peter Watkins of the University of Portsmouth and Mike Green of Kansai Gaidai University.  Peter spoke first for about 15 minutes, then I spoke for 15 minutes and finally Mike spoke for 15 minutes.  We then had about 15 minutes of Q & A, which is worth watching for some quite key follow up questions!

The link is here:

And these are the abstracts for Peter and Mike’s talks:


Peter Watkins (University of Portsmouth)

This talk starts with the premise that the teaching of reading skills has changed little over the last few years, with a fairly predictable staging sequence to most lessons. We will consider not only what we do when we teach reading, but also why we do it. Alternatives to the presumed norm are then suggested.


Michael Green (Kansai Gaidai University)

What do we mean by ‘fluent reading’ and how can we encourage it in the classroom? In this session, participants will sample a variety of simple exercises that develop the skills which form the foundation of fluent reading. These skills are applicable to all levels of L 2 readers in many different teaching contexts.


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