Category: basic training

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

I gave this talk at IATEFL 2012 as part of the TDSIG Special Programme and heard later that many people who wanted to see it could not get in to the room because it was full.

I may resurrect the talk live in some new form in the future, but in the meantime here is a recording I made of it in its original form a few years ago.

I’ve made some edits for length and privacy purposes, so sorry if there are any continuity errors.  My hair is unruly and the sound quality is not optimal, but I hope that you like it.

(Runtime: approx. 35 minutes)

how to get learners talking and capitalise on what they say

NOTE: I’ve now combined what used to be two separate pages into one here.   I’ve also removed a video for a while until I find a workaround for a loading problem it was causing.   Makes things simpler.

One of the fundamental tasks for language teachers is getting learners talking in a useful way and taking advantage of what they say for teaching purposes. Getting students talking is fundamental to teaching and learning languages because speech is primary in language – listening and speaking are what we spend most of our time doing in real life and that is generally what your adult learners will lack confidence in. At school they will likely have been exposed to a lot of grammatical input, relatively little useful vocabulary input, and may have done a lot of written text work (often translating into and out of the target language.) By the time they get to ELT teachers in the adult education sector, they generally have significant passive structural knowledge which needs to be activated and refined, and a lot of gaps in their active vocabulary, often on the level of individual words but more often than that longer phrases or “chunks” of language that fluent speakers base their speech production on (“more often than not”, “taking advantage of something” “by the time” are examples of chunks of language from the last few paragraphs that your learners are not likely to have learnt at school but which are natural and useful English; if they had tried to say the same kind of thing, they may have said something like “before/when”, “making useful”, or “usually”, which are all possible English, but sound like a learner speaking, not a competent user of the language.) Getting your students talking is the quickest way to find the outer limits of their communicative competence and to help them gain confidence in using their language actually to do what it is intended to do, which is to communicate with other people about things that matter to them. None of this is rocket science, but it requires thoughtfulness, attentiveness and some practice. Generally speaking, if you want learners to get talking in class, it pays off to:

Have something specific and interesting for them to talk about

Real, normal, human-interest is what we are looking for. However, if what you give your learners to talk about is too vague or aimless, little useful talk will come of it. “Talk to your partner about their weekend/cars/the weather…” are examples of topics which have potential but are too open-ended or ill-defined to galvanise your learners’ attention. However, by tweaking these topics a bit, by making them slightly more specific, we can eke more out of them: “tell your partner about your last weekend. Make sure you tell them a) two things you did with someone else; b) two things you wanted to do but didn’t get round to doing; c) one thing that you wish you hadn’t done” gives the learners specific targets to reach, so the task is measurable and clearly defined. This increases interest (what will my partner say about the same things?) and make the task time-manageable (you now can tell if they have finished or not by whether they have spoken about each of the points).

Have some kind of reason for them to need/want to talk to each other

Pedagogic reasons like “talk to your partner to practise the present perfect” are not likely to get the juices flowing. Some people might make something of these “conversations”, but mostly they will fizzle out very shortly or degenerate into random decontextualised examples constructed solely to fulfill the task of using the target language (“I’ve been hang-gliding on a donkey”, “Oh really? That’s interesting, I’ve never done that but I have garroted a sense of injustice before.” “Ah, that sounds fun…”.) Real conversations happen when we want to know something from another person – and we can think of dozens of reasons for conversations like this from our own lives: to see if the other person agrees with us or not; to reach a consensus or compromise on an issue; to find something in common; to find a solution to a problem etc. So, to take the present perfect example somewhere meaningful, we could ask learners instead to:

Think of an unusual thing you have eaten or drunk, an unusual place you have visited, and an unusual activity you have done in your life (note: that’s the concrete part of the task we just talked about in the last section) . Speak to everyone else in the group and try to find people who have had the same experience (note: here is the real-life-like reason for talking to each other). When you find them, find out where and when they had their experience and how they feel about it (note: here is the support to ensure the initial question can turn into a natural-sounding conversation). Be ready to tell the class later (note: here is the reason to pay attention to what other people say, thus helping train memory).

No one will be garroting any senses of justice this time around…

Show them an example of what you expect them to do

A picture paints a thousand words” meets “tell me and I forget, show me and I remember; involve me and I understand” here. Actually doing a mini-version of what you want learners to do is probably the quickest and easiest way of setting up a task, as afterwards you can often just say “OK, now do that with your partner” and let the learners start. A demonstration makes explicit what you expect them to do, and how you expect them to do it, and it also gives you a chance to give the learners a useful example of the kind of language use might help them complete the task effectively.

get out of their way while they do it

If you want learners to get better, they need to be the ones doing the heavy lifting. This means that the less you do while they are working, the better. By the time the task starts, you should have done your work, and can get out of their way. This doesn’t mean go and have a coffee break, though! As soon as learners get started, you need to move around and get a sense of whether they have got started in the right way. This should be done through observation, not through enquiry, as enquiry distracts learners from their partners and the task at hand, and focuses them on you – which is counter productive. Instead, keep a low profile, flit around the room a bit like a butterfly, staying only long enough to assure yourself that they are doing what you want, then move on. After you are satisfied that all is going to plan (after, say, about a minute of activity) grab a notepad and pencil and start writing down examples of things they say (we will get to why this is essential in a moment.) The key thing is, not to get involved in what the learners are doing if you can help it.

Be available in case they need you briefly for support

The last piece of advice doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t help learners out when they need you, however! If you are circulating frequently and listening attentively, you will notice when learners need your help to make progress with the task, or they will call on you when they need your help. By keeping mobile and dealing with such enquiries or issues quickly, you increase the amount of time that you are available for the group as a whole.

Keep an eye on time and progress so you can reserve time for feedback on their performance

Whatever happens, don’t get carried away! It is all too easy to let time slip away from you and end up finishing an activity just in time to wrap up the lesson – but doing this wastes the whole effort put into the task – we will explore the reasons for this in a moment – but for now just remember that a speaking task without post-task feedback is like a day without sunshine, so make sure you keep time in hand to look at some of the language that your learners have been using.

Give them a return on investment

Getting students talking – fundamental as it is – is actually the easy part. Anyone with a reasonable feel for what interests other people and who can make themselves clear is generally able to get a willing group of people to do what they want them to do. This is people management, and it is an important pre-condition for teaching, but it is not the same thing as teaching. If you want learners to learn from the talk that you ask them to engage in during class, it pays off to:

Listen closely to what they are saying and how they are saying it

As a language teacher, we need to pay attention to two things when our learners are talking: what they are saying and how they are saying it. The first is important to understand whether or not what they are saying makes sense in context; the second is important as it is the way that learners put their thoughts into language that they need our feedback on. If we solely pay attention to what they are saying, we will likely overlook any deficits in their language control, as human nature tends to help us overlook errors in what we see or hear in order to prioritise comprehension. On the other hand, if we solely pay attention to the form of what our learners say, then they may as well be spouting well-formed gibberish of the “I have garroted a sense of justice” variety. In practice, such obvious nonsense rarely occurs, but a teacher who focuses solely on the accuracy of their learners’ talk tends to encourage a sense that meaning-empty manipulation of form is sufficient or expected in class – where you lead, they follow.

Note down quotes from the conversations you hear

An example of notes taken during a speaking task

For us to help learners say what they want to say better than they can manage at the moment, we need to have some way of capturing accurately what they are managing at the moment – and the best way of doing this on the fly in class is by using a simple notepad and pencil. By writing down excerpts from the conversations we hear that we think the learners could benefit from revisiting post-task, we achieve several things at once:

  1. we capture usable data in a simple, retrievable manner
  2. we reduce the load on our memories, which typically are not trained to recall verbatim what we hear
  3. we present the language data on a space which replicates the classroom board, so we can immediately start to work out ways of exploiting it on this surface

Quotes are important because they are precisely what the learner said: no more, no less. By writing down fairly complete utterances, you capture both the context and the co-text, the situation in which the utterance was designed to make sense and the surrounding language around the part of the utterance which interests you as a teacher. This is massively more useful to you than noting down fragments, sentence heads or key words with ellipses (…) or paraphrases, as these mostly only tell you about your own language use, not your learners!

Think about how these quotes could be a) improved or b) exploited for the benefit of the rest of the class

Let’s imagine that you are listening to the students talking to each other and one says the following:

“Yes, I, er, wanted to talk to my friend but, er, but, but there was a time pressure and I must go”

So you write down the following:

“I wanted to talk to my friend but there was a time pressure and I must go”

After thinking about it for a few moments, you realise that a better way to express what the learner is trying to say would be: “I wanted to talk to my friend but I was pressed for time and I had to go ……………………………………………..pushed for time …………………………………………… a hurry …………………………………………… a rush So you have now identified 4-5 possible variations that the learners would benefit from knowing. That’s good – and it’s more than we generally need, but now we need find a way to get some of these to our learners’ attention.

Think of a simple way of getting the students from point A (what they said) to point B (saying it better or getting everyone to use the new useful stuff)

Continuing with the previous example, we could imagine our notepad was the classroom board and imagine it looking like this:

“I wanted to stop and talk to my friend but I was in a __________ and I _____ ___ go”

This would be one possible way of getting the students to try to recast their own utterance with a bit of focused guidance (the gaps). A way of getting to “pushed/pressed for time” could look like this:

“I wanted to stop and talk to my friend but I was __________ for time and I had to go”.

Notice here only one aspect of the original sentence is being focused on while the other part has been silently corrected. This is fine.

Get these quotes up on the board in a format that lets you work with them for the learners’ benefit

Having these ideas on your notebook is great, but the class won’t be able to see it there so you need to get it off the page and onto somewhere all the learners can see it – and what better place than on the classroom board. Hugh Dellar (teacher trainer and author of some of the more interesting coursebooks out there at the moment) is a great proponent of writing up language that you plan to focus on while learners are engaged in the task, rather than doing it bit by bit after you stop them for feedback. The saving of time and focus at this stage needs to be weighed against the potential distraction that this obvious activity may cause the group, but in general I agree that if you can get your feedback prepared on the board in the latter stages of the task, this is a useful move. To do this, simply take what you have worked out on your notepad and write it on the board. Make sure you are writing legibly and accurately. When you have done this, and when the learners have completed their task and reported their findings, it’s time to go to work on their language.

Get your learners to work with you on these examples so they learn something and have a chance to try these new versions out

Take each example one at a time. Draw the students’ attention to it and re-establish the situation in which the utterance got said (because remember: perhaps only one other person in the room heard this apart from you and the learner who said it, so it may not make sense without this context.) Then, focus them on the idea behind whatever would fill the gap and see if anyone can come up with it for you. If no one can (after allowing them reasonable thinking time), then introduce it yourself, first orally, then write it in the gaps you have left for that purpose. However the new language comes into the room, it’s worth showing the students how it sounds when spoken at normal pace in a complete utterance, and getting them to notice where the main stresses fall. Then, you can ask the students to repeat the recast utterance once or twice, to give them a chance to get their mouths round it.

Then move on to the next one and repeat this process until you have dealt with all the language you wanted to give feedback on.

Language first-aid vs. surgery

Going through these steps with language that you hear your learners trying to use is a quick and simple way of offering them to opportunity to reflect on their own language performance and – with your help and input – to acquire ways of doing it better as close as possible to the time they need it (without butting into their conversations and distracting them, that is.) This is language teaching at its most immediate, radical and – in some respects – useful. It may not suffice as the sole approach to getting new language to learners, so some more pre-meditated language input (grammar lessons or vocabulary lessons) will also be needed in a balanced course, but the content choices for such pre-meditated work should find their roots and justification in the language notes taken down by the teacher during moments in lessons like this. More on how to get from incidental language repair like this to a systematic lesson or series of lessons later in the series.