Category: basic training

Unplugged Radio Episode 5 – teaching without terminology

Hello! This is Anthony Gaughan for Teacher Training Unplugged Radio. In this episode I’d like to talk about focusing on form in the language classroom, and how not to waste time on it. Let’s get started…

Quite often when people try to teach grammar, they make one or two things hard for themselves, and their students. One of these is thinking that in order adequately to analyze a grammatical structure, you need to label its component parts, particularly using jargon or technical terms.

This isn’t true.

Let’s assume that students need to know two basic things about any given new structure in order to start to use it: what it means and how it’s made (we could add how it sounds, but that’s a kind of subclass of how it’s made, so let’s leave that for now). Let’s further assume that what it means has already been clarified and understood.

The next job for a teacher is to help the students understand how to construct this structure, how to replicate it.


For many teachers, this begins with an example sentence on the board (e.g. I have been to India), which they then proceed to break into its component parts, labeling them as they go along: subject – auxiliary HAVE – past participle/3rd form verb.


The process is usually repeated for the three basic structural variations: positive utterance, negative utterance, interrogative utterance.

In a “student-centred” classroom, instead of the teacher simply declaring this information, the students may be involved in this process, with the teacher pointing at each item in the example in term, and asking “and this is (the)…?”, in the hope of eliciting these technical labels from the students.

This approach is frequently successful in eventually generating a formally accurate analysis of the target structure, but it tends to take a long time, be quite repetitive in terms of the information elicited, and crucially, it does not seem to contribute a great deal to students actually performing any better in subsequent controlled practice.

There may be many reasons for this, but for now I’d like to simply ask why it is that teachers, especially novice teachers or those on initial training courses, feel that this kind of thing is necessary at all.

Firstly, and most obviously, it is because a candidate’s ability to “clarify meaning, form and phonology to appropriate depth (criterion 2e in the Celta framework) is something they are expected to be able to do and must therefore demonstrate. But there is nothing in this criterion that demands a labeling of form, merely a “clarify(ing)” of it.

So if using jargon is unnecessary for assessment purposes and ineffectual in revealing useful patterns, what alternatives to it are there?

One is to think in terms of drop down menus, like a computer program menu bar. At each point along the utterance, imagine a drop down menu opening up wherever there is something that could be varied or exchanged for another example of the same type. So, taking our earlier example, and assuming the various personal pronouns are already strongly acquired, our attention would stop first at HAVE, and we would open up a drop-down below this to include HAS.


Thus we end up with S + HAVE/HAS

Then, when we move to the main verb, here in its past participle form, we open a drop down list and add 2-3 further examples (say climbed Mt. Everest/gone shopping in New York/eaten lobster/worked for an international company) By choosing 2 regular verbs and 2 irregular verbs, we present adequate data to suggest the underlying rule of form, which we can then check with simple questions, unless we haven’t already tacitly done so by eliciting the participle form from students by cuing with the base form, thus killing two birds with one stone.


Once the positive form has been unpacked in this way, the negative only requires those slots to be covered that are different. So in our example, we only have to establish a slot for the negation – all else remains equal so there is no point in ploughing the same furrow over and over again.


The same applies for the question form – once the inversion has been established, the work is essentially done.


In this way, an analysis of form should usually be a matter of diminishing detail, rather than increasing.

Once students have noticed the kind of thing that needs to go into any given slot, assuming they are clear about the overall meaning that the completed structure conveys, there is no need for them to know or to enunciate the technical label for it. Much like competent drivers have little to no idea what most of the technical markings on the roads are called, they are still able to respond to and interact with them perfectly safely and effectively.

(This is why road theory tests with questions asking for road features to be labelled are a total waste of time, and why it was grossly unfair that I failed my theory test first time on the basis of getting such a question wrong. But I digress…)

Apart from the relative economy and lack of need to be au fait with jargon, what other benefits are there to this approach? Well, as I see it, there are a couple:

1) instead of non-generative labels, students get more ready-to-use language
By providing 3-4 possible utterances, we are adding to students’ resources in a useful way. These utterances can be put to use in controlled practice or communicative practice later in the lesson, if well chosen, and thus serve at least a double purpose, of illustration and arsenal.

2) it emphasizes the concrete nature of language, not the abstract algorithms underneath
While I appreciate the elegance of a syntactic tree diagram as much as the next man, I’ve never found them especially useful for learning language, because they look so little like language doing its normal thing. A straightforward set of examples, with the key elements highlighted and presented so that the patterns stand out works much better for me, and I suspect for most people.

So if you are one of those teachers who, like me, sometimes feels like the focus on form stage in a lesson gets a bit too abstract for anyone’s good, then give this a try and see how it works for you. Any comments, queries, disagreements or death-threats, feel free to leave a comment below.

In the next episode, I’ll be talking a little about some of the challenges in understanding published materials, and how to overcome them.

Til next time, this is Anthony Gaughan, for Teacher Training Unplugged Radio, saying thanks for listening, and goodbye.

(Note: I will add whiteboard images to illustrate this shortly, so if anything isn’t clear from my description, check back later!)

Celta hamburg podcast episode 3 – practice made pointless

I took a few minutes to record some thoughts about the past week on my current Celta course for my trainees, focusing on the question of what makes good controlled practice.

I focus mainly on the problem of making controlled practice more than a mechanical exercise, and how to make it easier to check whether students really understand what they are doing.

It’s under 8 minutes long, audio only, so make yourself a cup of tea and let it run in the background.

If you find this useful, give it a thumbs up, and feel free to leave a comment.  Or just do the old fashioned thing and talk to me about it on Monday!

Celta Hamburg Podcast Episode 2

I just made a short podcast for my current Celta trainees up here in Hamburg, where I talk a bit about our general approach to training, teacher talk, language grading, task-setting, work management (less generally interesting unless you are on the course) and tips for passing the Focus on the Learner assignment (these tips may be generally useful for anyone).  It was recorded for a very select audience (you eight people know who you are!), but perhaps it’s interesting for anyone who likes reading my posts.

00:00 – introduction
01:27 – Using problems to drive learning
05:25 – teacher talk, keeping instructions simple, and task before text
11:50 – workload management and tips for passing the FoL first time
14:23 – closing

I’d be interested to hear what you think if you give this a listen (especially about whether you would like an audio version to accompany any future blogposts), so drop me a line if you do!

grammar for language teachers

In the following four short videos I attempt to sketch out what grammar is, and how it is variously perceived.  I then present the broad elements of phrase structure, and then explore the verb phrase in depth, discussing along the way tense and its shaky relationship to time, aspect, mood, and voice.

A second theme running through the videos is how some of these concepts may be misunderstood, misrepresented and mistreated, especially within published courseware and in orthodox advice to trainee teachers during their initial training.

Total run-time is just over half an hour.  I hope you find these videos clear and useful; I’d welcome comments and discussion so please leave a reply.

new stuff

This is just a short note to update you all on some new things you can find here now.

image showing the basic training post series BASIC TRAINING is an ongoing series at sharing in straightforward and low-tech ways how to go about teaching, simply.   The first instalment is on how to get learners talking and capitalise on what they say and the brand new second instalment is on how to use stories and anecdotes for reading or listening practice.


image showing the se7en deadly sins talk video THE SE7EN DEADLY SINS OF ELT (talk) is an old video version of the talk I gave this year at IATEFL that I know some of you wanted to attend but couldn’t because the room was full.  Although the sound quality is not optimal and my hair is a good deal longer, I thought I would share it and I hope you find it useful. You can find it here.


I’ll keep adding to the site as and when I have time, so thank you for your patience and for reading!


how to use stories and anecdotes as reading or listening practice

We listen to or read a massive amount of text every day and  – whether you believe it or not – we almost always have a reason for doing so.  The amount of times we genuinely just hear things without any kind of thought process being triggered, without any kind of expectation, evaluation, is tiny.

We meet texts with expectations – from those as mundane as “what platform is my train leaving from?” in the case of departure boards, to interpreting a cryptic message from someone we have feelings towards for any evidence of reciprocation or gentle rejection.  We process these texts with these expectations in mind and these expectations in a very real way help us to make sense of the texts we are confronted with.

This can be tested with a simple thought experiment.  Imagine you are asked to sit in on a lecture and afterwards you will be given a test of some unspecified kind.  You do not know the topic of the talk, or the kind of thing you will be expected to do in response to it as part of the subsequent test.

How comfortable will you be during the talk? How confident will you be that you are “understanding” what you hear in a useful way? How well do you think you will perform in the subsequent test? How accurate a reflection of your actual listening ability will the result be?

The chances are you will feel extremely uncomfortable, not have any faith that what you are paying attention to is really the target of the latter tests, your result on those tests will likely be low, and even if they are reasonable, this will be a result of pure chance.

It follows, therefore, that if we want our learners to have useful and realistic opportunities to become better listeners or readers in a foreign language, it will help if we give them a reason for listening.

Texts, tasks, tricks and talk

For basic receptive skills (reading and listening) work, we need to account for four things:

TEXTS.  Without these, there is nothing to read or listen to.

TASKS. These are the students’ reason for listening or reading.

TRICKS This is language in the story that the learners may need to know to do the tasks or not to get confused in general.

TALK. This is the learners’ chance to respond to the human level of the text in a personal way.

Let’s look at each of these in turn in a bit more detail.


A reading or listening text need not be long – in fact, the shorter a text is, the potentially more useful in class it may be.  Short texts can be revisited frequently, thus providing learners with repetitive exposure to language and greater opportunities to focus their reading of or listening to the text to adjust for the parts of it towards which they need more attentiveness.  In other words, shorter texts provide more bites at the cherry.

In concrete terms, a 2-3 minute oral text or a 200 word written text are often more than enough to provide a useful challenge, assuming they are stimulating and appropriately graded in terms of linguistic complexity.

What makes a stimulating text, though? Well, there are two general tips: keep it real and keep it personal.

Keeping it real means making sure the content of the text relates to real life as the learners understand it.  Look for stories affecting the learners’ lives, or touching on their interests, or related to their view of life (which is different from concording with their view of life).  Contrived texts about fictitious characters are much more difficult to care sufficiently about to pay attention to them.

Keeping it personal means – within reason – sharing stories from your own life.  Your learners are generally extremely interested in you, whether they say so or not, and leveraging this interest by sharing personal stories is a simple and effective way of showing them implicitly that language is not an academic exercise.

Note here we are talking about personal stories, not intimate ones.  An example of a personal story could be the following:

I was waiting for the train home one evening and I was feeling quite hungry, so I stopped off at an Asian takeaway and ordered some food.  The place was very busy and the person after me ordered the same thing.  I decided to eat in, so I took a seat and waited.  A few minutes later I got my food and started eating.  When I finished, I was getting ready to leave but realised that the cashier had not asked me to pay before I got my meal.  I realised that I had the opportunity – if I wanted to take it – to get away with not paying for the meal…

I gave it some thought. The place was busy and my 5 Euros were a fraction of the business coming through the doors.  On the other hand, I knew that if the cash register did not add up later, someone might have the missing sum docked from their wages.  I also felt guilt at the thought that I was even considering not paying. I had got a good meal and I should pay for it… I reached a decision, and stood up.

I left the shop without paying, saying goodbye and heading home.  I tried to make myself feel better by saying they would have kept the money if they had overcharged me, but I still slept very badly.  I was disappointed in myself, I had let myself down.  Next day, on the way to work, I went to the shop and told the cashier what had happened the day before and that I owed her money.  I paid and left, and I am sure she was very surprised.  I felt a lot better though!

Interesting story, likely to spark some interest and responses in listeners, but it isn’t useful for learning yet.  We need some reasons for listening.


Taking the story above, we could use the following as an initial listening task:

Listen to the following story and tell me:

1) Where I was when the story happened. (Answer: at a takeaway café)

2) What problem I had. (Answer: I needed to decide whether to leave without paying my bill or not)

These tasks could accompany the story up to the point “…I reached a decision, and stood up”

After these two tasks were checked, the learners could be asked to predict whether I simply left or if I paid.  They could share their ideas and try to justify them.  These predictions then become the reason for listening to the remainder of the story.

It is no good having engaging tasks if the learners can’t understand the text, however, so it is time to consider what tricks are present.


The story itself could be used with almost any level of learner, but in its current form it has a lot of lexis which may be unfamiliar: in the version above, I have highlighted a lexical set relating to commercial transactions.  I could clarify these before I told the story, or I could clarify them as I went along.  There are other sets in the story too: phrasal verb sets (stop off; eat in; take away; get away with; add up; let someone down) for example.

The point is, we need to review how we are planning to phrase the texts we use in class, so that we can prepare to help learners manage its linguistic challenge and to exploit this later for language focus.


While the story is personal to me, at its heart is a more general and universally accessible theme: the challenge of doing the right thing.  Our learners can certainly relate to that, and were probably having internal conversations with themselves while they were listening (or reading – as this could just as easily be used as a written text).  Now might be a good time to exploit this engagement by asking students to talk about this broader theme.

Here are a couple of possible speaking tasks that learners could do in connection to this theme:

  1. Role-play various situations similar to the one told in the story (two people in a cafe, one wants to sneak out without paying; the other is resistant; conversation between me and my flatmate, who can’t understand why I am feeling bad about leaving without paying)
  2. Discussion questions: a) have you ever left somewhere without paying or seen anyone else doing it? Was it accidental? How did you feel afterwards? b) do you think society is more or less selfish these days?

 Ways in, ways through and ways out

These ideas are workable, but they need to be strung together loosely to make a lesson.  So we need a way in, a way through, and a way out.

Ways in are simple starting points for your lesson to transport your learners from wherever they are mentally to the starting point of your story.  Ways through are clear and elegant segues between stages, and ways out are there to help you bring the whole thing to a rounded close.

Putting it all together

Here is a very loose framework for the lesson sketched out above, including ideas for doing each of these things:

Way in: ask students to brainstorm 5 local places to get food quickly, typical meals, prices  and when these places are most busy.

Pre-teaching lexis: While discussing these, take opportunities to clarify and check lexical items such as pay, cashier, register etc.

Transition to first listening task: tell students “I want to share a story with you that happened to me in a place like this on the way home from work last week.  I had a problem there connected with paying for my food, and I want your help.  Listen to the story and find the answer to these two questions (on board).

Task 1: tell the story, allow learners to compare answers, tell story again, collect ideas.   If disagreement, tell relevant section of story again to allow fresh “bite at the cherry”.

Transition to second task: chat about the dilemma.  Say “what do you think I did?”  ask learners to form predictions ad justify them.  Collect on board.

TASK 2: tell remainder of story. Allow learners to reflect on whose predictions were correct.

Tricks (optional): perhaps use the transcript to explore some of the trickier language in context – in other words, a language focus stage using the text as the context).

Transition to talk: Ask students “what would you have done? Do you think I did the right thing? (or any other task from above). Collect examples of language used by learners during these conversations.

Way out: Listen to learners responses to the talk tasks and explore examples of the language they used with them on the board.  Ask them to write a summary of/response to the lesson and email it to you. Thank learners and close lesson.

the se7en deadly sins of elt – talk