Going for the jugular in the language classroom

Got blood?

Got Blood used under a Creative Commons licence from Drury Drama (Lee Radlin)

Before I get started, let me put a few things on the record.

I want the teachers I train to be bloody in tooth and claw when it comes to dealing with language.

I want the teachers I train to sink their teeth into what their learners say or write and suck on the marrow of it with relish.

I want the teachers I train to go for the jugular.

Now we have that straight, let me take you into a classroom…

A trainee teacher is competently managing a grammar focus lesson on using present continuous for describing future arrangements with a CEF A2 group.

There has been a contextualised exploration of the rules of form and use, and some controlled practice to work on manipulating the negative form of this structure has been set. The learners are then asked to report back some of their sentences.

They say:

*I go not dancing tonight.
*I not looking TV.
*I not get up late.

All of these utterances, for one reason or another, are illegitimate.

The teacher listens attentively, unobtrusively recasts the learner output into legitimate form, perhaps asks a follow up question about the content of the students’ report, and then says something encouraging like “great” or “good job“.

A part of me dies inside.

Another part of me starts to rage in anguish.

The rest of me locks these other two parts deep in the basement and maintains a neutral demeanour – I am observing, after all, and exploding with rage like some kind of werewolf would not be the done thing.

Why am I so upset by what I see?

Vampire weekend

Vampire Weekend used under a Creative Commons licence from Outcast104

The teacher clearly is aware that the learners’ output is deficient. They are also clearly aware of how it should be (hence the recasting). They are also apparently aware of the need for feedback, as they are recasting at all instead of simply letting it slide.

In other words, they clearly have a sense of needing to do something; the only problem is, they choose to do something ineffective. And I think they could and should know better.

If I am teaching a lesson with a particular language focus, whether it be lexical, grammatical, phonological or discursal, much of my attention and effort will be directed towards establishing the conditions under which the learners in my class can become more aware of the rules of form and use for the particular target language, and providing explicit, purposeful opportunities for learners to attempt use of this target language in controlled but meaningful activity.

When errors occur (as they enevitably will), I see it as my role – my reason for being there in the room – not only to notice these errors, but also to do something productive about them.

Learners can use language without me; but for clear, useful, supported feedback on that use, they need me, or someone like me.

Without this feedback, I as a teacher may as well not be there.

From day one of my initial teacher training courses, I talk about and work on the centrality of listening and feedback – in fact, it is so important to me that my last post was all about it.

My trainees watch us trainers working with their own students, see us practising what we preach, and have opportunities to rehearse doing this themselves in input as well as to attempt it throughout the course in their teaching practice.

Yet when it comes to their teaching a particular area of language to learners, it is relatively rare that this type of close attendance to form happens as the lesson goes on.

Typically, my trainees do a very good job in developing context, allowing a need for new language to arise, focusing learners on this and establishing the rules of its form and use. In these early awareness-raising or presentation stages, I have seen exceptionally good work: clear, learner-centred, communicatively oriented, efficient, effective.

Yet sometime during the practice stages, I can see the same teachers apparently missing opportunities to drive the learning home, to bite down hard on the language being produced – language that is almost, but not quite, there yet in terms of accuracy or assurance of delivery.

Reality bites…

I know that the teacher has heard the issue, and I know that they have the tools in their teaching toolkit to do the job – move to the board, write up the learner example, ask the learners to compare the example to the rules of form or use from earlier in the lesson, establish where the deviation lies, request a re-attempt, endorse the improvement, and move on.

Whether this is immediate or collectively done at a short remove of time is less important to me than that it happens at all.

I know they have the tools, but more often than not they do not do the job. I cannot help but think of the recent (but not new) discussion reignited by Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill on the need for more demand in teaching.

They are like language-teaching vampires afraid to taste first blood – hesitant to sink their teeth in and let the learning flow.

Perhaps you think I am mad.

Man bits carrot
I know: a carrot doesn’t have a jugular… but I’m a vegan language vampire…

Look at what your trainees are already doing!“, you might say. “They are already doing great work establishing meaningful opportunities to experiment with language. Have patience: their taste for learning-blood will come“.

Or perhaps you might be thinking: “you lunatic! Comparing teaching to some vampiric, carnivorous activity! And the idea that direct feedback on performance actually has any role in language acquisition – you’re not only a vampire, you’re a pedagogic dinosaur!

Perhaps you think this, and perhaps you are right. And I am sorry.

I admire and respect the work that my trainees do, especially when I consider that for most, a mere 2-3 weeks previously they had never done anything like this before.

The fact that in this time they are capable of finding ways of focusing successfully on particular language is a minor miracle, especially when I consider that they had also selected this language area as a point of need for their learners, based on their own observations, and had designed their lesson, context, presentation and practice, all from scratch without using a coursebook as a template or crutch.

In fact, I would put any one of them against any ten other teachers who qualify in the same time period anywhere in the world and be confident that they could teach them all under the table.

Yes, I am that proud of them.

And yet…

I still howl with anguish in moments like this when they stop short of what I believe they are capable of.

I can’t help it.

I want the teachers I train to be bloody in tooth and claw when it comes to dealing with language.

I want the teachers I train to sink their teeth into what their learners say or write and suck on the marrow of it with relish.

I want the teachers I train to go for the jugular.


  • Well said! Such a devoted trainer and I’m sure your trainees won’t dare not to go for the jagular! However, a question still remains… why does it happen, being aware of the importance of deaing with a deficient language and yet not willing to? Talking from my experience I sometimes discard dealing with errors not to open a can of worms, when I’m sure recognition has happened, I too would rather give it a while more so that sts will be able to have more practice on the objective of the lesson.

    • Thank you Hannah – and I think you are absolutely right. Opening Pandora’s Box is a big fear, and to be fair, I warn my trainees against it, myself. “Don’t go there or you’ll open Pandora’s box, I’ve said at least once this week.

      Maybe I should stop and instead say: “Go ahead. Open Pandora’s Box. If worst comes to worst, I’ll be there to help you get the lid back on.”

      I’ll try that next week and see what happens.

  • I like it. You should do a post about finishing moves.

    Maybe we are just scared of not knowing enough and so how totackle things. My grammr memory is terrible so I can’t just whip up every possible explanation. Then if stdts ask more questions you can end up in trouble. For this reason I think a descriptive grammar approach is better and just workkng with the examples as oppossed to going into big grammar lectures which I tend to see.

    • Thanks Phil: I agree that launching into a potted history of linguistic theory when faced with a learner error is generally unhelpful. But that is what we often feel obliged to do, isn’t it? Justify a simple correction or recast with some declarative knowledge? I suspect it’s for our own benefit, as you hint at – the fear of appearing ignorant.

  • Thanks Anthony. I agree the way you suggested to approach the learners’ learning problems is the only available option especially when our students lack the motivation required to acquire a second or a foreign language, in a digital world when social networking sucks on most of the available time.
    I wish all the ELT teachers have half the zeal which you as a trainer possess.
    I ‘ve always found your blogs catalytic; they wake me up when I drowse.

  • Thanks Anthony for this post. Two questions come to mind:

    a) Can you pls let me have some more info on the discussion of error correction possibly being out-dated (I find the whole issue most interesting and would like to read up on it – so if you could name any sources or post links I’d be most grateful)?

    b) Why not focus on your trainees? What you’re saying is that they should drive home the points they made earlier if their students are still making mistakes they shouldn’t be making. And the trainees should be able to do so. Well, I remember that I felt under a lot of pressure when I did my CELTA and I admittedly could not focus on every sentences uttered by my most valued tutors and hope to remember them. So I selected. And in the process might have skipped one or two of the more important points that were not being dealt with in a focussed lesson. Apart from that “should be able” and “do” are – as you well know – different things. As seems obvious ;-): His/her learners should’ve been able to use present progressive correctly after having been taught – but still weren’t. So whatever the reason: the teacher trainee didn’t go for the jugular – either because he didn’t chose to or because he simply wasn’t able to – after all 😉
    My point: Well, maybe, your trainees need a 30 min focus lesson on error correction. And another admission: in my CELTA I picked up the message “Gather all incorrect language you can, pick and correct” (this is not saying that the message was intended to come across like that by my tutors). And so I did – wondering whether these unfocused bits of correction would actually lead to any improvement whatsoever. However, since language feedback seemed to be an expected part of TP I did what I assumed was wanted and it seems to have been okay. Well, as you know (I think), I’m also doing that distant study DAF teacher training course and in doing so I spent a lot of time reading up on the Goethe Institute’s point of view on error correction (what, when, how, why). And this helped and helps me a lot going for the jugular and providing my students with developmental language feedback.

    • Thanks for writing, Claudia – and for questioning my tone and my beliefs here. After I wrote this post, I went back to re-read it and felt myself that I was being a) judgmental and b) presumptuous with that statement. You are of course right to question whether a third party (i.e. me) has any right to evaluate what a newcomer to teaching could or should be able to do..

      Of course, one of the problems with the job is that this is precisely what we tutors are – in part – there to do: to decide whether from an outside perspective the teaching actions of a trainee represent their operating below, at or above what could be considered reasonable in terms of acting on “input”.

      This is not always easy to reconcile with the trainee’s perspective: they naturally feel that they are operating at the limit of their capacity in one way or another, and such a course is – as you point out – a stressful and strenuous experience, and you can’t be on top of your game in all respects at all times.

      Your interpretation of the “message” in your course – “correct anything error-ridden that you hear” is, I suggest, an example of two things. Firstly, the phenomenon that what ones says is not what the other person hears (Hello Schultz von Thun and Marshall Rosenberg), and that “we all need to start somewhere”. If “the secret to having lots of good ideas is having lots of ideas”, then the ultimate secret to doing lots of really good language work is doing lots of lanague work – through which you can learn how to do more principled work later. But the first step is hearing an opportunity (which needn’t be an error) and playing around with it, and doing this regularly and often.

      The jury is still out as to whether an apparently random selection of post-task corrections has any lasting learning impact, just as the jury is still out (in some quarters) as to whether explicit focus on grammar has any impact. Equally, the jury is still out about the efficacy of correction. Give me a while to find some references.

      That said, on the topic of the point(lessness) of asking trainee teachers to deal with apparently random language in feedback, I’m given to thinking the following:

      • any selection of language to focus on taken from the same speech event has some kind of coherence and is therefore not “random”
      • in any given lesson, such language focus may appear random, but its being focused on makes it more likely that – over time – its reoccurance will be noted as par of a more systemic issue with the learners’ current state of language development
      • So for teachers to make long term appropriate decisions about what language needs focus for a particular student or group, they need to really notice it and wrestle with it briefly to see how their students respond to the error, and the approach taken to focusing on it. All of this is useful data for the teacher to then go on and plan mroe organised focus on this language as part of their syllabus or scheme of work.
      • But the above cannot happen without the teacher explicitly noting the language in action and testing out with the students where the real issue lies, instead of hearing the “error” and assuming where the problem lies.

      For this reason, on our courses, we have hours’ worth of input basically all aimed at getting trainees to listen better, analyse what is going on “under the hood” of a piece of language, develop hot feedback techniques for dealing with them, and sessions taking this noticed language and developing it into strings of lessons. Whether this is all effective is an open question that I reconsider each course.

      On top of this, there is the less intellectually valid argument that on a teacher training course, trainees need to show that they are capable of going to work on learner language, including errors, and this entails hearing them and attacking them when the opportunity arises.

      I suppose what I am letting off steam about here is my frustration at precisely this complex of issues: input does not equal uptake in any field, and yet in exam-like situations, the relation between these two needs to be clear and timely. In many other parts of my work, this is coming together – as I say in the post, I am massively impressed by much of what my trainees do – but in this one respect, the one that is the foundation for any real language development, I’m seeing little progress.

      So what needs to change?

      My expectations?

      Apologies for the lengthy and yet still fairly incoherent reply! I’m sure I’ll revisit this – if not in a comment, then in a post.

  • Thanks for the lengthy reply. And sorry should my tone make my comment sound somewhat harsh. Reading it just made me feel that you were basically doing the same thing your student did: finding fault with what your student/trainee should have been able to do. Of course, I’m sure,

    As for expectations: I just read a piece on the autonomous learner (in language learning) who decides him/herself what he/she wants to learn, when and how to go about it. I still find this very confusing and will have to think about it some more. However, in a way it is about negotiating expectations between the wants and needs of the students, of the teachers and the requirements of external curricula. And considering this: maybe your need (for the trainees to get better at correcting the forms that they teach and stop petting their students for things that are no real achievements) is just so not what the teachers trainees need or want to focus on. So, here are your choices I see: prioritize (as you suggested yourself above – only in other words – as they have to start ideas before having good ideas) and let this one go or generally lower your expectations so that this won’t bother you anymore or put more condensed focus on it by adjusting the input sessions so that not only teach it but preach it and then put more focus on it when it comes to giving your trainees feedback yourself. If they feel it is important for getting a ‘pass’ on a lesson they teach I presume they’ll make sure to put more emphasis on it.

    I’m very much looking forward to reading more about the yet un-decided points. But don’t spend too much time on looking for sources. There’s really no rush. Should you come across something, though, I’d be very happy if you sent it to me.

    • Sorry, to finish up the thought above that started with “Of course, I’m sure, you pointed it out during the group feedback session so that it offered an opportunity for learning to everybody.”

    • Don’t worry, Claudia: I wasn’t upset by your tone at all – I think you were perfectly right to pick me up on mine. I would be cautious about using the pressure of results on the course as a motivation for getting trainees to do what I would like to see; they will end up then grudgingly indulging in ritualism, which is something I dislike even more than missing language teaching opportunities!

      Oh, it’s a hard life as a caring, committed CELTA tutor…


  • Hey Anthony! This is again a very nice post. Once again I found voice to my thoughts. Once again! 🙂 You say, ” A part of me dies inside.

    Another part of me starts to rage in anguish.”

    I myself so dislike the unnecessary , unwanted and useless use of ” great” and “good job” in order to encourage the students. It doesn’t work. I have always maintained that we should avoid unnecessary compliments while teaching. Students know the difference between genuine and pretentious compliments.

    Teachers’ mind is conditioned about error correction ever since they finished doing CELTA. They are not ready to explore newer ideas about correction. I so agree with you that it has to be done and I believe that it should be done in all sincerity and not leave it at being just an act. There are no rules to error correction . Teachers have to be alert and think to find better ways to error correction.

    • Well said. However, what I am really interested in is seeing teachers get their “teeth” into all kinds of language produced by students, whether or not it includes errors. What they say well is often as learningful for their colleagues as what they have trouble saying.

      By the way, I think I just made up that word, learningful 😉

  • What do you think of Krashen’s idea of ‘Pop up grammar’ in the ELT class room?

    Secondly, as and when it comes to correction, grammar has to be addressed in one way or another whether it’s got obsolete, as some experts believe; and then in any language assessment, questions on grammar form a maximum portion of all the questions.

    • To be honest I tend to ignore Krashen most of the time, but I’ll check this out and get back to you.

      And you are absolutely right when you say that whatever some theorists might hold, reality is that precision (which as a term I prefer to accuracy) is tested and is therefore needed.

Join the conversation...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.