Archive | January, 2015

What is “good speaking”?

26 Jan

We are approaching the end of the first semester in our school and this is typically a time when we review our assessments, give out our grammar and vocabulary tests and write all the reports.  Like many schools, our reports contain the categories: Grammar & Vocabulary, Listening, Reading, Speaking, Writing.  The students do three assessments in reading, listening and writing that are spread out over the semester and then a larger grammar and vocabulary test at the end of the semester.  The marks for each component get converted to a score out of twenty and the scores for all five components are added together to give a percentage, which is the student’s final grade.

The eagle-eyed amongst you may have spotted the problem here.

Assessing speaking is always difficult.  One of the biggest problems I always find is whether I am actually assessing their speaking or whether I am assessing their spoken production of grammar and vocabulary.  To what extent does personality play a part in this?  Susan Cain’s TED talk on “The Power of Introverts” reminds us that just because people aren’t saying something, doesn’t mean they can’t.

Rob Szabo and Pete Rutherford recently wrote an article arguing for a more nuanced approach.  In “Radar charts and communicative competence“, they argue that as communicative competence is a composite of many different aspects, no student can simply be described as being good or bad at speaking, but that they have strengths and weaknesses within speaking.

Szabo and Rutherford identify six aspects of communicative competence (from Celce-Murcia) and diagram them as follows:

competence 01


This is an enticing idea.  It builds up a much broader picture of speaking ability than what is often taken – a general, global impression of the student.  It also allows both the teacher and the student to focus on particular areas for improvement:  in the diagram above, student 1 needs to develop their language system, it isn’t actually “speaking” that they have the problem with.  Equally student 2 needs to build better coping strategies for when they don’t understand or when someone doesn’t understand them.  These things aren’t necessarily quick fixes, but do allow for a much clearer focus in class input and feedback than just giving students more discussion practice.

From a business perspective, which is mostly where Szabo & Rutherford’s interests lie, there is also added value here for the employer or other stakeholders.  One of the points that David Graddol was making at the 2014 IATEFL conference (click here for video of the session) was language ability rests on so many different dimensions that in certain areas (Graddol mentioned India as an example) employers may well need someone with C1 level speaking ability, but it doesn’t matter whether they can read or write beyond A2.  Graddol kept his differentiation within the bounds of the CEFR and across abilities; Szabo and Rutherford take a more micro-level approach and suggest that the level of analysis they suggest may well be useful to employers in assigning tasks and responsibilities.  Quite what the students may feel about that is another matter.

Whilst this idea has been developed in a business English context, it is a useful idea that should also make the leap from the specialist to the general, as it has clear applications in a number of areas.  In reviewing the different competences, there are cross overs to the assessment categories used in Cambridge Exams for example – where discourse management, interactive communication, pronunciation and Grammar & Vocabulary have clear corollaries.  Diagramming pre-exam performance in this way again, can help teachers and students have a clearer picture of what needs doing and can make instruction more effective.

A helpful next step for the authors might be to think about how this idea can translate into practice in the wider world.  Currently, it seems as though a mark out of ten is awarded for each competence and while this inevitably gets the teacher thinking in more detail about what exactly their student can or can’t do, no definitions are currently provided as to what a “10” or a “3” might mean.



Warmer / Filler: What are my words?

20 Jan

This vocabulary revision activity requires minimal or no preparation on the part of the teacher.  I’ve been using it with classes that found “Don’t make me say it!” too difficult or time consuming.  It’s certainly easier for lower levels!

The minimal preparation version is where you choose the words before the class.  The no preparation version is where they choose the words themselves.  This latter option is not without pitfalls as the students may choose words they don’t know the meaning of, but in this activity all that really does is make it a lot easier for their partner to win the game!

So, assuming you have chosen your twelve words, divide them up into a set of six for student A and another set of six for student B.  Give each student their words written down on a table like this one:
What are my words – where the left column has the target words and the right column is blank.

Elicit some conversational topics to the board.

The students now have to try and use their words in conversation – but without being noticed!  As the conversation progresses they also try to write down any words their partner uses which they think is on their partner’s list.

Set  five minute time limit for the conversation.

At the end of the time, students get one point for each of their words they said unnoticed and one point for each of their partner’s words they correctly identified.  The person with the most points is the winner!

Acknowledgement – again, I have a vague memory of seeing something like this in an input session at IH Katowice – I think this was either Richard Venner or James Lambie – or possibly someone else completely (in which case apologies!)


The Myth of the Good Student

15 Jan

Not so long ago I found out that two of my teenage students have been having a competition in my classes.  Apparently they’ve been trying to see who can say the word “genitais” the most in class – this means “genitals” in English.  They’ve been doing this for the last three months and it only came to light because they clearly got bored of my inability to notice and asked me if I knew what it meant.

Not, I’m sure you will agree, the behaviour of a good student.

But then what is?

The topic came up again with another class today, as part of a discussion on good study skills, so I asked them for their thoughts on what makes a good or bad student.  Now this group is younger, they’re about 13 years old, which accounts for some of the content, and I reformulated one or two suggestions (though I was impressed when they came up with “the class clowns”).

Good and Bad Students

In asking young learners what makes a good or bad student, you are always going to get a degree of polarisation and counter point.  If the good student “always does their homework” then it stands to reason that the bad student “never does their homework”.  Nonetheless three things immediately jump out at me:

  1. The utter negativity of the bad student.
  2. The impossibility of being a good student.
  3. The complete lack of a middle ground.


(1) The utter negativity of the bad student.

Bad students here are demonized.  Look at that word “rebel” in there!  It’s so true as well – if you set yourself against the system in any way, you get crushed by the teacher or at the very least you are cast in the role of the villain for the rest of the school year.  The problem is that, if as the teacher, you cast one of your students in that role, you aren’t giving them any other role to perform – what else are they expected to do?  Don’t challenge authority kids – even when it’s wrong – because that way lies destruction!

There’s the social stigmatism there as well, “are idiots and are dumb” – if we can’t control our students ourselves, then let us, as teachers, set the children against each other and let them do the dirty work for us.  We are civilized, we are emotionally in control and we don’t stoop to name calling.  But we all know why the bad students are bad students – they just aren’t as intelligent as us.  It’s got nothing to do with the background of the “bad” student, it doesn’t matter that they’re being bullied in the playground and are acting out because of it.  Bad behaviour is not seen as a sign of emotional need – it is seen as a sign of poor intelligence.

And there’s the performance angle.  Bad students get bad grades.  Yes, that’s right, the fault is with the student.  They are the one who failed to understand.  They are the one who couldn’t answer the question.  They are the one who had a bad day when it was test time and therefore they are at fault.  The failure of a student to understand is not the fault of the student, it is a failure of instruction.  I should point out that I fail at instruction all the time.  I fail at even giving instructions all the time – I see the sideways glances and hear the whispered conversations and every now and again get the question “Teacher, what is to do?”  Equally, I’m not suggesting that it is always the failure of the teacher – most of the time it is the failure of the situation surrounding the teacher – if you have a class of 30 students and you are busy dealing with three of them, you might not notice the quiet one struggling in the corner.  Or you might not realise the student who has taken his trousers down in the classroom is doing all this attention seeking behaviour precisely to divert attention away from the fact that they don’t have a clue what is going on.  But if we continue to decide whether students are good or bad based on their grades, how can we ever hope that our students place a value on things other than performance?  When will our students ever see each other as human beings?

(2) The impossibility of being a good student.

Ok.  The whole “wear glasses” thing was suggested by one of the students who just happens to wear glasses.  And so do I, so I wasn’t going to disagree…..

But let’s look at what else is there:  are quiet, pay attention, have good grades, are polite to the teacher, always do their homework, are intelligent (for a given value of intelligent, which I suspect would probably correlate strongly with “get good grades”).  Once we’d got all this on the board I asked them how many of them thought they were good students.  Actually I had asked them this before we started listing criteria and without exception, they started putting their hands up and saying “Teacher, I got 82% in history!”, “I have 90 in English.”  It was this that started our little digression into what makes a good student as when I asked them if that was the only thing that meant they were good students, some of the other criteria started emerging.

When I asked them again though, about three of them put their hands up.  The others said they didn’t always get good grades, or they weren’t always quiet, or they didn’t think they were very intelligent (how my heart goes out to them there!!!!), or they missed a couple of homework tasks.  So that works out at about 25% of the class.


Only 25% of my class think they are good students.

How messed up is a system where 75% of the students think they are automatic failures?  Where, by their own description, they are idiots?

Like most teachers, I would love to have a class full of polite, quiet, focused and attentive students who always did what I said and did the work.  What I have in most cases is a group of students who can occasionally be persuaded to do some work, but who would really prefer to be playing games of some kind.  I think the question from the teacher’s perspective is what do you expect?  Should I expect my students to be “good” all of the time?  It’s not like we get that all the time in the real world – just take a drive through the centre of your town at rush hour and see if I’m wrong!  If we continue to set our expectations so high, if we expect our students, regardless of age, to behave as though they were us, then both we and they are doomed to failure and the class is doomed to a year of demotivated learning punctuated by tantrums.

The good student doesn’t exist.  The good student is a mythical ideal generated largely for the benefit of teachers so that students, kids who crave praise and the external validation of the authority figure, know what exacting standards must be achieved and will strive to get that validation.  The myth of the good student tells students that what their teachers really want – is to be left alone.


(3) The lack of a middle ground

The discourse surrounding student identity is completely polarised.  Students, it seems, are either one thing or the other and see themselves in those terms.  You are either for or against, good or bad, successful or a failure.  There is a moral absolutism inherent in this view of classroom management that simply does not reflect the reality of the situation.  It requires the observer (teacher or otherwise) to make a value judgement about the nature of an individual based on  subjective interpretation of behaviour – according to standards that as I’ve already said, are unobtainable.

Most societies, even those that spring from more dogmatic perspectives, embrace a degree of relativism in their social and cultural attitudes.  So why is there no middle ground in this?

What disturbed me most about the conversation with my class is that even at the age of 13, they have been brainwashed into this view that they are either good or they are bad.  I know that more nuanced views develop with age, but the fact that students don’t see that they can contain elements of both is troubling.  At any given moment, in any given classroom, an otherwise great student has let their mind float off somewhere.  This is not a bad thing.

I tried to encapsulate this in a diagram – the idea is that at any moment in a lesson, students can place themselves somewhere within the diagram.

the state of the student


It’s not perfect and would probably be better as a series of bar charts.  The positives are lumped together mostly because they tend to go together.  If you’re in the right frame of mind to start with, then the rest comes easier.  And so forth and vice versa.  But it serves to visualise the series of dichotomies that students are up against.

Most students would probably put themselves somewhere in the top half of the circle.  Some in the middle and maybe a few in the lower half.  But very few would place themselves at the extremes and this is because by and large, we all occupy the middle ground.  We are rarely completely one thing or the other and if we only see ourselves in these polarised terms, then we run the risk of perpetual failure or stressed out over-achievement.  More to the point, as teachers, if we only ever expect brilliance and good behaviour from our students, we are dooming them to failure before they even start.  If you can’t be brilliant, you might as well not even try.  That’s the message it sends and we end up, inadvertently, teaching our students to be intolerant of anything less than perfection.

We are all individuals and we are all different (or at least most of us are).  As adults we accept each others’ imperfections with relative good grace and we don’t define ourselves with arbitrary labels like good and bad because we accept that we all have strengths and weaknesses, different backgrounds and different interests.  We come together in the middle ground to work together, study together, socialize and start relationships.  Perhaps finding and occupying that middle ground is what we should also be doing in the classroom.

I think the last word in this should go to Joao, who asked me a question towards the end of the lesson:

“Teacher, am I the class clown?”

“What do you think?”

“I think maybe yes.”

“OK.  Why do you think that?”

“Because I’m not quiet and I play a lot and make jokes.”

“Is that a bad thing?”

“Maybe yes.”


“Because then I can’t get good grades.”

“Well, if you can be the class clown and get good grades, then it’s not a problem.”

“Hmm.  Teacher I don’t want be bad student.”

“I don’t think you’re a bad student.”

“I try to be good student.”



Warmer: Don’t make me say it!

12 Jan

This is a vocabulary revision activity that I used as a warmer with my classes last week – from intermediate to proficiency.

I went back through the previous couple of units of the coursebook and chose 12 items (words, phrasal verbs, fixed expressions, short phrases) that I thought the class would probably know and I divided those items into two sets of six, trying to make sure there was an even balance of “difficulty” between the two lists.

I put these on a handout as follows:

IMG_20150109_153542056 (2)

The instructions are as follows:

  • Have a conversation with your partner. You can talk about any topics.
  • During the conversation, try to get them to use the words or expressions in the list below.
  • You get one point for every word they use.
  • You lose one point for every word on their list that you say.

What happened:

Predictably, very few of the words on the lists actually got said.  That doesn’t really matter because, as a vocabulary revision activity, what’s happening is the students are creating contexts for the use of the vocabulary, so even if student B doesn’t say student A’s word, they have a pretty good idea of what it is.  However, in hindsight, (and the next time I play this) I’m going to take out the rule about losing a point – it just makes everyone unnecessarily uncooperative.  That said, everyone had a lot of fun.

I also tried this with a group and let them choose their own words from previous units of the book.  This backfired spectacularly as (a) it took far too long, (b) they chose words they didn’t know the meaning of.

It needs a bit of tweaking, but I like this activity because of the way the students are creating these contexts for the items and because it’s prompting them to think about how the items are used – yes, it’s completely artificial, but it also seems to be a lot of fun, which is what you want in a warmer.

Do try it out and let me know how it goes for you – and any changes you made!

Have fun!

(Acknowledgement – I have a vague memory or being shown this or something similar in an input session at IH Katowice about ten years ago, so apologies if this is someone else’s idea!  If so it was probably Richard Venner as it seems like the sort of thing he would do!)