Six original topical teaching ideas for May

Photo from Paramount Star Trek site

"The ship doesn't can take off?" Spock demonstrates a bold new approach to error correction. This month the new Star Trek film comes out.

And here they are, another half dozen little ideas that could spark off a class. It’s a bit too late for a May 1st activity (and anyhow, many teachers won’t be working that day) However, there should be something in here for everyone! 

1. Release your inner geek! The new Star Trek film opens May 7 so expect news stories about this and Trekkies around the world. I aim on doing a Science Fiction movie quiz with my students. Another possibility would be to find some stills from the film and get students to write a bit of hammy dialogue to go with it. If you really want to geek out you could look at the effect the Star Trek franchise has had on the English language. Beam me up Scotty! 

2. Listen to classical music! May 7 has a remarkable number of connections with classical music. It is the birth anniversaries of Tchaikovsky (1840) and Brahms (1833) and it also marks the premiere of  Beethoven’s famous Ninth Symphony (1824). Use classical music from one of these composers in your class. This could be as a simple background music while they do an activity or as a prompt for a writing activity. There are two ways you could do this. One is to put the music on and ask students to write whatever comes into their head while listening (freestyle). Another way would be to tell them that this music has been chosen for a new advertisement, or a new television show. Students listen and have to say what the product is/what the show is about.

3. Talk vaccines and diseases. Ok, so swine flu is the big news at the moment. You could prepare a reading with some basic facts about it, I found this site with information but I’m sure there are many others.  Or you could talk about how humans have overcome diseases in the past. May 14, for instance, is the anniversary of the discovery of the smallpox vaccine (1796). This is good material for a reading or live listening (a live listening being one in which you do the talking; giving them a live lecture in this case)

4.  Play tennis! May is Tennis month in America. Why not play a tennis-type language game? Grammar tennis (from Rinvolucri’s book Grammar Games) involves two players. One “serves” by saying the past participle of the verbforgotten. The other returns by saying the past tense forgot. The first person returns by saying the infinitive forget. Loads of fun, and could be adapted to do with vocabulary items too (e.g. one person begins with a word in a lexical set and the rally continues until someone can’t think of a word)

5. Celebrate mothers! This month contains mother’s day in many countries. Mark this event by teaching all the expressions with “mother” in English (e.g. mother-in-law, surrogate mother, mother’s boy, mother tongue, mother lode, full-time mother, Mother Earth, mother hen…). An easy activity would have students match the words to definitions (I found this list of words here). You could also mention that mother was listed as the top favourite words by language learners in a British Council survey (news story about this here). Or ask students to find compound nouns with mother and father and compare the lists both in English and their own language (e.g. Mother Earth, Father Time). Or simply ask students to write a paragraph about their mother…

6. Apologise! Teach your students various ways of apologising. You could also set up a series of mini roleplays in which one of the students has to apologise to the other. As part of the same class, explain that May 26 is Sorry Day in Australia. Sorry Day? What’s Sorry Day? your students might ask. Tell them to find out more for homework from this site and/or by watching this video.

Published in: on April 30, 2009 at 3:30 pm  Comments (1)  
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Six highly provocative quotes in ELT

In ELT, as in everything, if you want to get attention then make a controversial statement about it and kick up a fuss. Every once in awhile someone comes along and writes something that causes alarm, worry, anger or secret delight. These quotes provide fertile material as a starting point for discussion (especially in teacher education programmes) or just as food for thought. Here are six that I consider among my favourites of recent years.

1. Jenny Jenkins  “There is really no justification for doggedly persisting in referring to an item as ‘an error’ if the vast majority of the world’s L2 English speakers produce and understand it.” The Phonology of English as an International Language (Oxford University Press, 2000)

The sentence that launched a thousand MA and Diploma papers on English as a Lingua Franca (or at least I suspect so, I’ve marked a fair few myself!). The whole ELF debate seems to have calmed down a little recently, but certainly had tempers flaring at conferences. What’s correct anymore? What is an error? Is it anything goes? What place is left for the native English speaker teacher? The choice of the words “doggedly persisting” is what really stings here.

2- Scott Thornbury “Where is real communication? More often than not it is buried under an avalanche of photocopies, visual aids, transparencies, MTV clips and cuisninnaire rods. Somewhere in there we lost the plot.” A Dogma for ELT IATEFL Voices (2000).

Thornbury takes a Vow of (materials) Chastity and kick starts Dogme ELT. Firing this and other broadsides against modern coursebooks wins him no friends in the world of ELT coursebook publishing but it does garner lots of followers and fans online. Have things changed since this quote? Well, MTV hardly does music clips anymore and I haven’t seen cuisinnaire rods for ages, but otherwise I fear that Thornbury’s concern is equally valid today.

3. Mario Rinvolucri “Ambition, rage, jealousy, betrayal, destiny, greed, fear and the other Shakespearean themes are far from the soft, fudgey sub-journalistic, woman’s magaziney world of EFLese course materials.” The UK, EFLese Sub-Culture and Dialect on TEFL Farm, 1999

If Thornbury’s Vow of Chastity wasn’t provocative enough, then here Mario Rinvolucri really takes the gloves off. In a highly provocative article Rinvolucri attacks the UK EFLese subculture which includes people who are “university educated (…), white, class B (in the old system), and largely Guardian-reading.” Ouch! Say what you want about Mario, but the man has a gift with words. The TEFL Farm site was a bit… weird I thought but it had this article and, even better, the replies to it. Thornbury contributed in with “Cross Dressing and Window Dressing in the EFL sub culture” before Michael Swan and Catherine Walter weighed in with a stinging response entitled “Come off it Mario”. Fantastic reading, a real shame it’s no longer easily available online. Try Googling any one of those titles though and you should find a record somewhere. 

4. Rose Senior – “The low status of teaching in general, and of English language teaching in particular, coupled with the ease with which people can train as teachers and find jobs, is reflected in the ongoing debate about whether or not English language teaching can be described as a profession. The overwhelming consensus of opinion is that it cannot.” The Experience of Language Teaching Cambridge University Press 2006

So, there you have it. Rose Senior goes over some hard truths for language teachers but also celebrates all the great things about this profession – ahem I mean vocation. Alex Case suggested this could be the TEFL book of the decade. I found this particular quote attracted my attention (not least because she follows it with “see Clandfield and Kerr for a discussion of this issue”, a version of this discussion you can see here)

5. Robert Phillipson“…Fragmentation and marginalization are two of the four central processes in imperlialism, along with exploitation and penetration. ELT fits into the overall pattern of imperialism in every respect.” Linguistic Imperialism, Oxford University Press 1992

My parents gave me Linguistic Imperialism while I was working at a university in Mexico, two years after I had started my teaching career. When I finished it I almost chucked in the whole teaching thing right then and there. I spent several anguished nights of tequila and tobacco fuelled self-loathing (you see, I am one of those class B Guardian readers Mario talked about). This book has been heavily criticised since its original appearance, and even critical discourse analysis academics have taken issue with it. But it still makes for provocative reading and you will never see the British Council quite in the same way again. I decided to stay with English teaching though. Even worse, I wrote an international coursebook – cementing my part in the imperialist “master plan”.

David Graddol – “Although EFL has become technologised, and has been transformed over the years by communicative methods, these have led only to a modest improvement in attainment by learners. The model, in the totality of its pedagogic practices, may even have historically evolved to produce perceived failure.” English Next, British Council 2006.

It turns out that all my anxiety about coursebooks, about converting the world to English was unfounded! At best we have made merely a “modest” impact. This little book, available free online here, was most provocative when not only did it suggest that EFL was a failure but that by the year 2050 it would no longer exist as most of the world would already be speaking English. Anyone EFL teacher reading it, or attending one of Graddol’s powerpoint-rich talks was left with a very uneasy feeling about the future. If you’re like me, you did a rapid mental calculation of your age in 2050 and came to the conclusion that you would either be dead or very close to dead so perhaps it doesn’t matter. And besides, by 2050 there will be no more oil or clean water and we will be 10 billion crammed together on this planet. EFL might very well be the least of our worries.

Does anyone else want to contribute a published quote they found provocative? No rude comments or quotes please!

Published in: on April 24, 2009 at 5:22 pm  Comments (26)  
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Six tired examples for teaching grammar


Have you ever eaten sushi? for Present Perfect being one of them!

"Have you ever eaten sushi?" for Present Perfect being one of them!

On one of my earlier postings, Scott Thornbury made a comment about certain sentences reoccurring in coursebooks. He was referring to example sentences that illustrate a particular grammar point, examples that are used or overused and have become quite tired. It got me thinking, and one of the first things I asked several teachers on Twitter was for the top overused sentences for teaching grammar. The responses came thick and fast… here are six of my favourites in no particular order.

1. Look, black clouds. It’s going to rain.

Used for teaching: “going to” to talk about a future event for which we have present evidence. The sentence Thornbury suggested could be “reduced to lawn manure” along with the book that contains it (!) 

2. I can / can’t dance. 

Used for teaching: modal verb can for ability. Submitted by Jamie Keddie of along with a video from Youtube of course to illustrate it. I agree, but feel that I can/can’t sing is also pretty heavily used.

3. While I was having breakfast, the phone rang.

Used for teaching: past continuous and past simple. God, we English teachers are always doing things when the phone rings! While I was having a shower the phone rang also feels pretty frequent. Submitted by Burcu Akyol from Turkey, who also has her own EFL blog for teachers.

4.  I’ve lost my keys so I can’t get in. 

Used for teaching: present perfect to talk about something with relevance NOW.  Submitted by Peter Travis at Splendid Speaking.

5. You mustn’t walk on the grass.

Used for teaching: mustn’t for (negative) obligation. Submitted by Mark Lloyd of The Speaking Cyclist. Mark adds that after this sentence you hear the teacher’s voice say something like: Is it OK to walk on the grass? Is it possible? No? Good. A delightfully English target sentence in my opinion.

6. If I won a million dollars (or insert other currency here) I would buy a house (or other expensive thing).

Used for teaching: second conditional. This one I felt just HAD to go in there. The second conditional is so often associated with wishing for large sums of money or winning the lottery. Maybe it’s because us English teachers are always broke!

So, there you have it. Next time you need to illustrate one of these grammar points, give these poor examples a break! They’ve been at it for a good thirty years or more! Feel free to suggest others below too.

And yes, you may have noticed that I am on Twitter now. If you want to take part in this kind of scintillating debate with me and other educators around the world then follow me at

Published in: on April 21, 2009 at 1:03 pm  Comments (12)  
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Peter Watkins’ Six Advertising Slogans and their relevance to ELT

Great! The guest lists keep coming. This one is by Peter Watkins, author of Learning to Teach English (Delta publishing) and The CELTA Course (Cambridge University Press, with Scott Thornbury). Peter is a senior lecturer on ELT at the University of Portsmouth. Always on the lookout for ways to make material interesting and relevant for his MA students, here Peter has come up with six famous advertising slogans and how they might be relevant to ELT. I share them with you here… because you’re worth it (groan)!

1 “The greatest show on earth” PT Barnum coined this slogan in the late 19th century to describe his travelling show. Does it have any relevance to English language teaching? I believe it does. Teaching is to some extent a performance skill and teachers (particularly new teachers) often feel a pressure to perform. The metaphors used about teaching practice show this and often suggest a stage and performance (‘I’m on next’ and so on). However, it may be worth thinking about lessons as belonging to the learners, rather than the teacher – and not every lesson has to be a great teacher performance. Coaxing performance from learners is usually more valuable – so not every lesson has to be ‘the greatest show on earth’.

2 “A little dab’ll do ya” In the mid 20th century Brylcreem (a forerunner of modern hair gel) coined this slogan. The message (‘you only need a little bit’) could refer to many aspects of teaching. The one I tend to apply it to most at the moment is grammar. I do believe in explicit grammar teaching but in small doses and where it seems relevant to the needs of learners. This slogan is worth remembering before we launch into long grammar explanations and copious exercises!

3 “Getting there is half the fun” This was the Cunard Steamship Company’s slogan for their White Star Line in the mid 1950s. We could use it to refer to almost anything in teaching that can be separated into ‘process’ and ‘product’. Think of a process approach to writing skills, for example, where it is argued that the benefit is in the journey (planning, drafting, editing and so on) rather than the final ‘product’. We could also apply the slogan to the value attached to creating a good classroom dynamic and making learning enjoyable so that the process of learning is seen as fun, as well as the product of learning being useful. Of course, the idea that learning should be fun and enjoyable is not a notion that is necessarily shared in all cultures.

4 “It’s good to talk” This slogan was first used by the telecommunications giant BT in 1994 and it’s not hard to see the relevance to language teaching, particularly usage-based views of language acquisition that place an emphasis on learner output. Of course, ‘talk’ implies that the exchange is meaningful and relevant to the participants (so genuinely communicative) – and not just an opportunity to display language skills.

5 “Where do you want to go today?” Microsoft started using this slogan in the mid 1990s – and what could better sum up a learner-centred approach to teaching? The lesson is in the hands of the learners and the teacher is a resource they can use to help them on their language journey.

6 “What’s the worst that could happen?” The soft drinks giant Dr Pepper started using this slogan in 2004. And as far as ELT goes the message is clear – experiment! One of the great joys of our work is that really bad things are very unlikely to happen even if a lesson goes badly – compare our circumstances to those of a surgeon or an air-traffic controller, for example. This gives us a beautiful freedom to experiment and try things and as we do that so we constantly add to our repertoire of teaching techniques and our own professional development. If in two minds about trying something new in the classroom, just remember the slogan.

Have you got any slogans that could have relevance to ELT?

Published in: on April 17, 2009 at 3:44 pm  Comments (5)  
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Six things about teaching English in Libya

Tripoli, near the hotel I stayed at for my visit to the ELTEX conferenceThis year I had the amazing opportunity to go to Libya to give a plenary at a conference. While there I did a little asking around about English teaching there. This is the first of my Six Things about teaching in a particular country. I should note here that this is not intended as a guide for prospective teachers wishing to travel abroad. I am more interested in work by teachers from the country itself.  Being there for a limited time meant that I couldn’t get really in depth information, but what I could glean I share here. 

1. When is English taught? English is a mandatory subject from the 5th grade of Elementary school in Libya. The academic year in Libya begins in September and finishes in May.

2. How does one become a language teacher in Libya? To become a language teacher in Libya in the state system, one needs to study in either a teacher training college or a language college. These are four-year programmes of academic study.

3. How much do teachers make? An English language teacher who has bachelor degree and works in the public sector gets between 400-600 LD (Libyan dinars) per month. On the other hand, the estimated payment for private sector teacher is between 1500 –3000 LD per-month depending on their qualifications and experiences.  (1 euro = 1.7 dinars)

4. Where does the majority of English language teaching take place? The majority of language teaching takes place in Tripoli. However there is a growing market in Benghazi. Most of the students are employed by oil companies or are people who wish to work in the oil business. 

5. Teacher training? Teacher development programmes? There is very little by way of teacher training schemes. There are a few seminars and workshops done by Teachers Forum or by the Academy of post graduate studies. The British Council also does some teacher training for language teachers. There is an annual conference. 

6. Who are the teachers? The majority of language teachers in Libya are Libyan. However, most of the foreigners who are working in the field are English, Indian and, curiously, Iraqi.

Many thanks to Samer Hamdi, training manager at Alalameya Centre and Magda Al-Sharef Giornazi, Macmillan representative for their assistance as well as the other Libyan teachers I met who helped me with this list.

Published in: on April 15, 2009 at 3:36 pm  Comments (13)  
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