Archive | January, 2016

What should Advanced materials involve?

25 Jan

I was recently asked what features I thought good C2 materials should have.  It’s quite a good question, especially because there aren’t any good GE materials at C2 level.  There are a number of books aimed at preparing students for the Cambridge English: Proficiency exam and of those, there are two that I rate highly:  Objective Proficiency and Proficiency Expert.  However there is, as far as I know, nothing for the more generally focused student and so that is an obvious, if somewhat niche, area to move into.

So what would my ideal book contain?

(1) Cognitive challenge

These are high level learners.  You don’t get to be a high level learner unless you are already pretty good at the language and unless you already have a relationship with the language that exists outside of the classroom context.  Most higher level learners engage with English by watching TED talks, films, listening to music, engaging with literature or by using English in some way for their jobs or studies.  Asking them to come into the classroom and read a text and answer some questions or to listen to a text and answer some questions is pointless – it doesn’t reflect what they do in real life and at this stage of their learning is probably of very limited use developmentally anyway.  What would be nice to see is to engage the learners in some kind of issue or problem that they can “solve” in class and where the input, text or audio, provides further food for thought or further content input (NOT solely linguistic) in relation to completing the task.


(2) Authenticity and Analysis

A shift in focus from input based language tuition to analysis and emergent language.  Again, at higher levels, the learners are probably more familiar with the standard grammatical syllabus than their teachers are (!) and they don’t really need to look at the meaning form and pronunciation of mixed conditionals for what is probably the fourth year in a row.  What they do need, is to develop meta-linguistic skills that will help them get the most benefit from their exposure to English, wherever that might come from.  So this would involve working with authentic texts/audio and then looking at these texts from an analytical perspective, possibly involving aspects of socio-linguistics, so that the learners are looking at what speakers choose to say and why.  Confrontational interviews (e.g. BBC Hardtalk) are quite good for this…  But the idea is that the learners look at what is said, try and determine the function or purpose of what is said and then look at the language patterns that emerge.

A structure that might exemplify what I mean here is something like:

  • Work in pairs. Think of five different ways of apologising to someone.
  • Feedback – T focus on intonation and pron – sounding sorry as well as saying it!
  • Input – watch Basil Fawlty apologising sarcastically to customers
  • Assess Basil’s performance – effective, why? Why not?
  • Listen again – note phrases for use.
  • Look at language patterns – modal distance / past tense distance etc
  • Analyse intonation
  • Students create some kind of apologetic role play


(3) Production and feedback

My single biggest issue with the majority of ELT materials is that there is often very little opportunity for the learners to DO anything with the language they’ve been learning in the class.  The learners may or may not choose to actually use the language from the input or analysis, but the opportunity should be there for them in every lesson.  This means a well-designed, engaging, productive task.  And it also means opportunities for feedback where the teacher is helping the students to notice what they could be saying better (or differently at least), either by using ideas from the input/analysis, or just in a more general sense (i.e. feedback doesn’t need to be limited to a focus on the lesson content).


(4) Proper topics

At this level, students should not be treated like they are imbeciles who can’t cope with the cognitive or linguistic nuances of expressing themselves on uncomfortable or controversial topics.  At this stage of their linguistic development, these are some of the few areas for them left to cope with.  Materials should move away from the “safe areas” and should embrace the real world.  There are ways of dealing with PARSNIP type topics so that they don’t cause discomfort with teachers and learners and these are aspects of our world where it can be difficult to understand alternative viewpoints.  With language and culture so tightly bound together, learners need the tools to discuss the differences between their own cultures and those around them, even if they don’t agree with the choices that other cultures make.


(5) Taking learning outside the classroom and bringing the outside world in.

Again, many higher level learners will probably do this already as this seems to be a habit they have.  Materials need to reflect the ways in which learners might engage with the language outside the classroom and where possible should bring the outside world into the class.  This represents language exposure and encounter in the real world, and the classroom is then a place to explore and analyse real world language use and a way in which the class can use real language to extend and develop their own lexical and grammatical resource.

For example:  If the materials are presented on a double page spread, the final section can be a “task for next time” which either asks learners to go off and research an aspect from that lesson’s materials which they can bring back for the start of the next lesson – OR – can be a task that asks learners to pre-explore a topic and to come back to class next time with the information and language they encountered in their research.



Shouldn’t ALL materials involve these criteria?

Answers on a postcard please!  wish you were here postcard

(Or failing that, in the comments section!)


Processes and Passives

18 Jan

This is a lesson I did with my advanced class the other day as part of a review of passive structures.  I’ve typed it all up into a full plan and procedure which you can download in pdf through this link:  teflgeek – A lesson on processes and passives

It is based around a short advert that I found on Larry Ferlazzo’s site from the company Target:

In the lesson, the learners listen to the video without watching it, and predict what they think is happening.

They then watch it and extract as much language out of it as they can, before using the vocabulary they collected to write up a description of the process.  As it is a process, there is a nice mixture of active and passive structures that can be used and the lesson also contains some input on using the passive.

They can then use these skills to describe other contraptions and processes for homework, such as the image below.

I used this mostly as a vehicle for working with the passive, but it should also work quite well as a lesson for teaching IELTS part one writing.



An Introduction to Teaching the Unteachable

4 Jan

I wonder how many people who are looking at the title of this post, and indeed the title of the upcoming webinar on this topic, are wondering what constitutes “unteachable”?  It’s a tricky concept to grasp, not least because it is so heavily context dependent.

My personal view is that nothing is unteachable and that teachers shouldn’t shy away from difficult or uncomfortable topics because they might offend.  The ability to talk about and examine our differences is what makes us able to rise above them and if we refuse to talk about them we start existing in insular little pockets of ignorance, bounded only by the things we believe and a self-destroying fear of The Other.  Now more than ever, when so much of the world is being defined by its support for and opposition to sets of beliefs or practices, we should be trying to break down some of these barriers and trying to understand each other just a little better.

In the world of ELT, topics that are considered “unteachable” are largely defined for us by other stakeholders in the process and without reference to the local context.  These are commonly known by the acronym “PARSNIP”, which stands for Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, -Isms, and Pork.  Some versions of the acronym also include another S – for Smoking.  These then are the topics that tend to be considered too controversial for the classroom and are therefore left out of most materials and coursebooks.   It is not completely clear to me why this is or when it started and I would welcome any information that sheds light on this – my instinct however, is that it comes down to economies of scale.  The costs involved in producing a coursebook are not inconsiderable and if you had to produce a series of different editions of coursebooks based on different contexts, it would increase your costs exponentially.  Imagine though, the differences that might exist between a Brazilian edition of Headway Intermediate and a Jordanian edition.  And where do you stop?  Do you differentiate between continents?  Regions?  Countries?  What about Basque, Catalan and Galician editions?  It is a lot easier from a production point of view to avoid the question entirely.

The problem then is not that these topics are “unteachable”, it is more that they get left out because leaving them out is easier to do than putting them in.  Yet as teachers, we are always choosing what to leave out and what to put in – we make language choices about what our students need (or don’t need) to focus on, we make skills focus choices and we make topic choices based on what we think our students will find interesting or not.  Hands up if you have supplemented your lesson with a TED talk or other short videos?  Decided not to bother with a page of the book?  What about a unit of the book?

We frequently carve up our coursebooks like the proverbial Christmas turkey and add lashings of side dishs to make the meal tastier and more memorable.  And of course it is traditional (in the UK at least) to serve Parsnips as well.

Sundays with BELTA

On 10th January, I’ll be hosting a webinar for BELTA on looking at ways to do just that.  For all that I believe in free and unfettered discussion of any topics in the classroom, I also believe there has to be a modicum of principle, professionalism and planning involved!  There is no point in walking into the classroom and saying “Right – today we’re going to talk about drugs.  Who here has smoked crack?  Anyone?  Anyone?”

The webinar is structured around a blend of the theory and the practical.  It looks at some of the key principles for ensuring a safe and sensible discussion of sensitive topics, approaches and techniques for dealing with contentious issues in the classroom when they come up, and will also present a few practical activities that you can take away and try with your classes.


One of the reasons that this webinar is on the topic of Parsnips is because when I was asked about taking part in the Sundays with BELTA webinar series, a few friends and I had just published a free e-book of Parsnip themed lessons.  This was about six months ago, but parsnips were very much on my mind and I thought it would be an interesting topic to explore in more depth as an aspect of teacher development.  Completely co-incidentally, the second free volume in our Parsnips series has also just been released!  I should stress, it is an accident of good timing and the webinar is not a promotion for the book or vice versa!  It’s just turned out to be a bit of a Parsnips based week!

The BELTA webinar will be on Sunday 10th January at 1600 CET –  for more information

I hope to see you all there!

To access the free e-books, follow these links to download from Smashwords:

parsnips vol 2 cover

Parsnips in ELT: Stepping out of the comfort zone (Vol. 2)

Parsnips in ELT Cover

PARSNIPS in ELT: Stepping out of the comfort zone (Vol. 1)