Posted by: Alastair Grant | December 15, 2013

School’s out… and so are ELT’s grand narratives

descargaHello again, world.

After a somewhat hectic year, I’ve been reflecting (hence blog title, for those of you who’ve just joined us) on what’s happened and what’s evolved in the world (to which, hello again) of ELT. I’ve been observing teachers at my institute and at a local school of English, which has been an education for me as Director of Studies and Teacher Development Manager – these local experiences therefore inform the following, feature-length, post.

Because you see, during said observations, I wondered whether there was any evidence that any new, Grand Narrative, single-approach style method can ever be THE chosen one. But then it’s funny, I was thinking, what did we talk about before Dogme came along? Quite apart from its off-the-wall approach (no coursebook?! Dammit, Carruthers, these fools should be horse-whipped etc. etc.) and perennially “mixed” reception, it at least provided something for ELT-ites to get excited about.

Demand-High? It seems too close to Dogme to even call another approach (no, Alastair, it’s just a way of teaching…) and nonetheless pitted itself against the “tired” methods of the past, seemingly to get attention like a child (of ELT) whose supermarket-weary parent (the student body. Ok, recherché, but stay with the metaphor) long lost interest in its squealing somewhere near the vegetable aisle.

We LOVE our debates in our little world, don’t we? And do said debates make a big difference to in-class practice, or are we, at the end of the day (or academic year) thinking to ourselves, “well… the students still don’t really get why we use Present Perfect, they can do 2nd conditional gapfills ‘till they’re blue in the face but get frustrated when they can’t talk about the same thing in the past because we tell them they  can’t see 3rd conditional ‘till next year, and there’s never enough coffee in the staff room… same as 2012 (11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6…), really.”

What are we doing?

We’re worrying about which methodology currently hogs the limelight whilst denouncing previous methods as being outmoded, useless, damaging. This isn’t The Communist Manifesto – we don’t need to beg constant revolution and constant overthrowing of previous methods and approaches in ELT, when a bright idea that a teacher once had in a class back in the 70s transformed the development of our students today. We don’t need no grand narratives or methodology-toppling revolutions – we need to listen to and observe our peers and our students and learn from them. This is the post-modern, post-methods era – we all teach at a local, nay, class level. Let’s not forget that.

The question is, beyond ELT’s slender and chalk-white ivory tower, what IS happening at a local level? At my school, we need to get the students through their syllabus, get them through their exams and get ourselves through the parent-teacher interviews and that’s ‘bout all we got time for, folks.

Hence, in my teaching environment, it can be common practice to march students through a stack of photocopies, which seems to be along the lines of the “throw enough mud (expletive deleted and replaced) and some of it sticks” theory. I am sure new generation ELTers would cross themselves and bring out the garlic at such a spectacle, but is this any worse than Demand High’s suggestion that students stumble through an explanation of how they got their answers to the aforementioned gapfills? (most of the time, the answer is “because it sounded right”). Is it worse? Really? How do you know?

 So five nuggets for you from in-class experiences of mine as both DoS and teacher this year, to show that we, as teachers and teacher-trainers have a lot to learn, mainly from our peers and our students, rather than dictating unilateral methods from a level that hasn’t seen the musky light of a classroom since baby velociraptors were being weaned off their fossilized errors:

1. The “Present Past”

We’re deep within exam territory in my hemisphere now, and that means revision classes. While looking at the dreaded Present Perfect (boo, hiss…), one of the students shouted with misguided vitriol, when I asked what tense it was, “Present Past!” to a chorus of hoots and catcalls from his peers. I said, “no…” and I felt that his face was saved by another student’s saying “Present Perfect” and so the class roared on, not stopping to the station of Unexplored Error. When I told my girlfriend (an English Teacher and Argentine) that evening about the experience, she said, “well, he was kinda right…” – she pointed out to my bemused face that, obviously, he had conceptually grasped the use of Present Perfect and I hadn’t Demand(ed) High enough to understand that. A student development opportunity squandered. The Present Perfect magically combines the idea of the past being present in the… present… and, of course, that’s what the poor chap had meant. He just hadn’t got his meta-language right. And frankly, who cares?

2. TPR

Hardly one of the big bogey men of ELT like the reviled spectre of PPP, but certainly not fashionable these days. But behold what happens when both a kinder and first form teacher I observed this year employed songs, dances, and actions with students with actions such as “brush your teeth” – how easy is it then to ditch the idea of cutting up language at word-level and gift students set phrases with which to grasp a concept. Speaking of grasping, I found myself doing this the other day when taking a Proficiency class when asked the meaning of “grasp” – I instinctively grasped at an invisible… stick or what have you, and the students grasped the concept. Thank you, kindergarten.

3. Grammar translation

My students were having a hell of time grasping Past Perfect until it was suggested by a colleague that I get the students to translate a simple sentence into Spanish, my students’ L1. So:

“María was tired because she hadn’t slept the night before”


María estaba cansada porque no había dormido la noche anterior”.

Even if you don’t speak Spanish, you can see the similarity between the tenses – the Past Simple and the auxiliary and main verb of the Past Perfect. Perfect. Sorted.

4. Audiolingualism:

Earlier this term I decided to do a traditional conditional transformation drill. A little old hat, I thought, but they were having trouble with the pronunciation of “would” (in Argentine Spanish, there is no /w/ phoneme). So I started with “If I won the lottery I would buy a house” (A+ for originality) and the next student had to start with, “if I bought a house, I would…” etc. Please don’t ask me how we ended the chain with, “if I died I would spank angels in heaven”, but they were transforming, getting the point and that’s what we should focus on. Not the spanking.

5. Dictagloss

An oldie but a goodie – a teacher I saw at the beginning of this year was reinforcing the narrative tenses by dictating a story three times to her students and getting them to compare notes to exchange information before trying to complete the story as fully as they could, using the aforesaid tenses. This was an adolescent class and boy, do they hate writing. But they loved this. Within twenty focused and engaged minutes they had written a 200 word story and enjoyed every minute of it.


All of the above experiences were gained from watching teachers, watching students, and learning from them. A veritable pot-purri of old tricks from old dogs. Principled eclecticism? Maybe. Call it what you like – but don’t give me that, “it’s just good teaching” line – we wouldn’t know what that was unless we’d got this “good teaching” from the old guard back in the day. And where did they get it from? An idea they had in class and then decided to base a whole methodology on it… sounds like preaching on the virtues of an all-fruit diet because you once bought a really, really scrummy apple.

Don’t get me wrong, I was delighted when I got a B for A-Level French, having been told I shouldn’t have taken the course at all (je ne parle muy bien le French, innit), but I am pretty sure that’s because I spent nights of pleasure and pain with my grammar book and wanted to beat my mate Andy in the final exam (I did, by the way. Sorry Andy if you are reading this, but it really was my only moment of true glory at the age of 17 and I’m going to bask in it, albeit twenty years late).

What I am getting it (thank the Lord, Alastair…) is this: we are forever being told that the world of ELT has evolved thanks to each new approach: Grammar Translation, Audiolingualism, the evil beast that is (apparently) PPP etc. and that there is always a new methodology that charges up the school corridors on a white horse, but have our students developed as a result? Are they getting better or… do any of the new methods we row about, far from developing our students, just posture and bicker under a different banner/brand name? The king is dead, long live the king. Where is the student-development happening? Well, it’s happening right under our noses, if we cared to take a sniff.

Come on ye gods of ELT, get yourselves out of the ivory tower and into the classroom. You can save the waffle for the pub night at the next conference. And leave it there.


  1. Nice one Alastair, happy hols!

  2. Nice post as usual Al. I often wonder how much time the great panjandrums spend teaching in real classrooms – since they seem to be at every conference going I suspect not so much (not that I’m blaming them mind). I would defend Demand High to the extent that it’s pretty upfront about NOT being a new method, but more a change in mindset or our expectations for what our students are capable of (and if I’m misinterpreting it, sorry Jim sorry Adrian but that’s how it came across to me). I guess if a teacher is attentive to the needs of the individuals in the group, has a basic competence and expertise and (perhaps the key ingredient) the “X” factor that is the ability to motivate their learners they won’t go far wrong. But we old lags do need stuff to get excited about from time to time….

    • Hi Tim – thank you for your comment. I suppose this would be my question too. The ELT gods do spend lots of time travelling the world and I often suspect that many of the ideas dreamt up have not actually been tried and tested in the classroom at all. Also, the voices of the students seem to be very absent from the edicts delivered – I sometimes wonder that no students have ever been involved nor have any classes with new teaching styles been delivered.

      I agree re. Deman High – I just think that the trend of “let’s defenestrate both baby and bath water” for the sake of getting attention is unhelpful when there is so much to pick and choose from older methods.

      It’s the basic competence and expertise you mention that is key – where does this come from? CELTA is a beautiful melting pot of methods and I think this is where we get the “just good teaching” from today.

      And yes we do need something to get our panties in a twist about, but will we be de-twisting the pedagogical panties of our students in the process? This is surely the aim. Yes, weird metaphor…

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