Posted by: Alastair Grant | September 8, 2011

Violence in the classroom?

In 1962, Anthony Burgess published one of the most shocking and brutally beautiful novels in history, “A Clockwork Orange”.

And yesterday I used it in my First Certificate class.

Before going on with this story, I want to tell you that this excellent activity (as you’ll hopefully agree) was not mine, and that I am in fact forever indebted to my great friend and colleague Robin Barnes for the idea.

So… for the uninitiated, Burgess’s anti-hero Alex and his friends spend the novel on a rampage of sex and violence, marred only by the intervention of the police and society’s wish to “save” him.

Burgess wanted to have Alex narrate in a “youthspeak” slang, but knew that, should he use the jargon of the day, words like “groovy” would, as Austin Powers has so cringingly proved, date pretty damn fast. So he didn’t.

Instead, he plundered Russian, French, German and Arabic for words to be used by his main characters. Words such as “droogs” “rassoodocks” and “viddy” are absent from the OED for the simple reason that they don’t exisit.

Right…what’s the point here…?

I asked my FCE class what the hardest parts of the reading paper was and predictably “hard vocabulary” was run up the flag pole as a key issue.

I wrote up the sentence:

“I was sitting in the bar with my droogs having a drink”

The immediately identified “droogs” as meaning “friends” and I asked how they knew. From the context, came the reply… then I asked them to:

1. Look at the first two paragraphs to get the gist of what was going on.

2. Identify any unusual vocabulary.

3. Decide what parts of speech the words fell under (verb, noun, adjective, adverb).

4. In pairs, take the word I’d given them and try and work out what it means.

5. Tell me how they’d been able to understand the meaning, i.e. context and co-text (… and even I was taken aback by their perfect grasp of the lexis, I must admit!).

6. Tell me how this could help them in the exam.

This mixture of top-down and bottom-up processing was invaluable for them to see that they don’t need a teacher or a dictionary to help them decode lexis.

Another victory for learner-autonomy, O my brothers?


  1. Awesome! Thumbs up, Al! I’ll try it with my FCE boys and we can compare and contrast 😉

    • Try it! And anything involving violence etc. I’m sure the boys will olove anyway… although no one gets hurt… at least until page 2.

  2. Hello Alastair,

    Great post! I’ve never thought of using Clockwork Orange with my students for its content. But congrats on such a creative activity and so enriching for language learners, especially at FCE level. It isn’t only entertaining, but a great language practice for the FCE exam.

    Well done!


    • Hi Eduardo!

      Thanks for the comment – it did work well and I hope it’ll be useful for them! By the way, I also tried it with my CAE students who really enjoyed it too – two of them even went out and bought the book!

  3. the kinda stuff teachers need!

  4. Brilliant post for FCE related teaching, I would recommend that you look at the following blog post:

    FCE Writing Tips (part 1):

    FCE Writing Tips (part 2):

    • Thank you Martin! I’ll see how these work with my students.

  5. Great resource for a solid reading skills activity. Must try and use it next time the opportunity arises. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Thanks Gordon – and I’ve used it with various classes since and it’s worked a treat every time. Think I’ll use it again tonight too!

    Students need to know that they CAN understand words from context and co-text, even if the words themselves are unfamiliar – and this is living proof when native speakers have to do it too!

  7. I would agree. Sometimes I think it does wonders for teacher/student rapport and their motivation to see the teacher struggling through work every now and then. It’s a delicate balance though. There are a couple of examples that spring to mind. One is with teenage classes I recently had – in a freewriting exercise I tended to find that I got a lot more out of them if they saw me doing a composition of my own at the same time. In that context it gets the teacher out of the way, not hovering over shoulders and distracting but not standing in the corner obviously doing nothing.

    However, I’ve been a student in language group where the native Spanish tutor would provide a text and then proceed to not know, or at least not be able to explain, quite a few of the words – on account of the text being a poem or from the 18th/19th century. In this case, had the class been structured around contextual reading skills then that would have been fine, but it served more to annoy us (all English teachers – how terrifying!) that it obviously hadn’t been well prepared material.

    I think this case shows that we have to be very clear about the learning goals of these activities. Students will put up with a lot more providing they feel that it’s all part of a plan and that the lesson has a direction, even if not clearly obvious to the students.

  8. Gordon – that’s a great idea to do a composition with your students! I’ve done this once before when I was “learning” how to teach the CAE exam and it worked very well because (a) I was learning with them and (b) I wasn’t sat in front of the class/monitoring like a presiding judge over their every move.

    I also know what you mean about the Spanish classes and I’ve had a similar experience… without wishing to raise the topic of Dogme teaching (as I am always only too pleased to do) I think that sharing your motivations is the best way of dealing with this. It then becomes clear to them what the point is and they can give their opinion on the approach.

    Often hard when, let’s say, a student brings something into class “cold” and you’ve not seen it before – but, as you say, if they know they are doing it for contextual reading, they are happy with it and so would I be, were my Spanish teacher to do the same with me.

    Do you think they would be happy to do this with a listening too, I wonder…? I mean, if there was a snippet you were playing them and replayed a couple of times to get the meaning from the context, or does connected speech get in the way of this…?

  9. While it isn’t always easy to come up with things on the fly, I found that putting a composition together on the spot at the beginning or end of an activity would allow me to highlight grammar areas that we had covered or were going to cover (usually more revision). We’d usually get the composition directly up on the walls and have a few minutes of ‘gallery’ time.

    Obviously, most of the students wanted to read mine but providing it’s not done too often and given a purpose I found that, when released from the jail cell of their seats, they became more engaged readers of each other’s compositions as well.

    As for Dogme, I love it though I am still getting to grips with how much work it is, what the work is and where that work needs to be done. However, much as Dogme is famously debated in teaching circles, I think its alternative approach doesn’t sit well with all students, who can feel uncomfortable being removed from the lecture format, or to quote something I read from Warren Ediger “guide on the side not sage on the stage” (love that phrase!) I suppose in this respect, “poco a poco”.

    For listening, I’m not so certain. I tend to think that’s a bigger mountain and one we’re not so good at naturally. I’d say that contextual listening is more difficult, even for native speakers, because spoken English has a lot more shortcuts, more pronoun usage, sentences we start in the middle or don’t finish – all things that written English just doesn’t let us get away with. My gut feeling here is… hmmm…. need to think about this….

    Notice the ironic unfinished written sentence. 🙂

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