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?

Posted by: Alastair Grant | August 26, 2011

Dear Agony Aunts…

This is hardly something I’m proud of, but then this isn’t all supposed to be about winning gold at the Teaching Olympics (if only such a competition existed…).

I wanted to share it and see if any of you have had similar worries and we can all have some kind of group therapy/wailing session.

Here goes… I’m kind of worried that one of my classes is losing the plot a bit.

Last week, we were looking at an article (student-provided 🙂 ) by “No Impact Man”. This truly heroic figure decided to spend a year using no electricity (yes, that means no TV… or fridge), water only for washing, buying locally produced food (yep, no Big Macs) – well, you get the picture. He hits criticism from just about everyone from his wife to the media, but still manages to pull it all off.

Great, right? Well, so so, actually. Really, I’m not sure if my class just weren’t in the mood or what, but I felt that they weren’t really hooked.

We read the article together (was this a good idea? I’m never sure) with us all reading a paragraph in turn, we look at difficult vocabulary and I got out of the way while they looked words up and taught each other, but… I think they just got bored. Subjects were changed, L1 speaking started and before I knew it…

So I started to panic a little and reverted to my old ways (before my Dogme conversion) of being Mr Controller, getting everyone to calm down and start speaking in English again and back on track. Fine, but my panic didn’t stop there.

Before next class, I found myself preparing an all-singing-all-dancing lesson, complete with laptop, video, little bits of CELTA-style cut up paper and it WAS a good class, but wasn’t the student-centred Dogme-fest that their course is supposed to be.

Help. I’m trying to think of new ways to get the love back – or just focus them!

Posted by: Alastair Grant | August 15, 2011

To [X] or not to [X].

My Spanish bad. It really bad.

It so bad, that no waiter ever understands a thing I say when I in a restaurant here in Buenos Aires.

I think you get the message, to be or not to be. On Saturday night, my girlfriend was watching the above gem, and I suddenly thought, “why would this guy NOT be using the verb… “to be” here?” Ok ok, I’m not SO from north London that I haven’t heard this before, but can we miss out ALL verbs in the same way? Well, it doesn’t seem to work with other verbs… let’s see…

A: “What X you X this weekend?”

B: “I X to X my girlfriend, and then we X dinner in a Chinese resturant”

Apart from sounding just plain rude, the missing verbs seem very… missing. But check these babies out:

“When we all done” (“My Chic Bad” ft. Nicki Minaj by Ludacris)

“You talkin’ to me?” (Robert de Niro in “Taxi Driver”)

“Where you going tonight?” (

“She a bad girl” (“Bad Girl” by Rihanna)

All these seem to work just fine. Can you think of any other verbs that work in this way?

Great Alastair, well done. And your point is…? Bueno, ok. Last year, Scott Thornbury posted about the Third Conditional. It’s changing, it seems. At least, he came up with plenty of examples showing that it’s being used in a “wrong” way. And (mercifully) we don’t have an “academy” of English that says what is and isn’t allowed in the language so it’s fair game, really.

And how many times have your students said to you, “why in [X] song does he/she say [insert example of blatant flouting of grammar “rule” here]?”

Intrinsic motivation explains why students WANT to know about English songs, so then we get all this stuff that flies in the face of what we teach in class. And certainly, native speakers don’t use English in the way New English File says you should.

If a native speaker is using language like this, is it wrong? Do we just classify it as “interlanguage”? Hell no. It’s a different colloquial form on English, right?

So, if we’re exposing our students to different regional accents in listenings these days instead of RP, should we show them regional grammars too? Or should we ignore this until they find it out for themselves?

And yes, this IS what I do when I’m not reflecting on teaching… I’m reflecting on language. Or sleeping. Two of my colleagues last week told me to get a life. It’s a fair cop.

Disclaimer: I have NO political quarrel with any of the opinions mentioned here! I’m also not posting this to antagonise anyone or upset anyone of any political persuasion – it’s just my opinion. Ok, if you’re still with me, read on.

I miss most trends.

Take “Twin Peaks” for example. My classmates were debating the minutiae of Laura Whatsername’s untimely demise while I was still thinking about just why it was that Bagpuss had to finish when it did. I missed the craze for 24, Lost, The West Wing and goodness knows what else besides. Don’t tell me, I don’t wanna know…

Dogme teaching debates are no exception. The other day I stumbled upon an exchange between the great and good of ELT and, apparently, Marxism.

I’ve attached the link here so that you can see what I’m on about – and it really is quite an exchange, running into scores of comments about, essentially whether or not Dogme ELT is based on fundamentally “good” principles or whether Scott and Luke simply took what they wanted from various teaching philosophers and used this to prop up their argument.

I have to say that I was quite shocked at the amount of vitriol… without wanting to intrude on a political debate about which I know little or nothing, I felt quite compelled to comment.

For me, the arguments set down here against Dogme bear little or no relation to how the approach can help students and teachers in the classroom and indeed seems an attempt to have a political row for the sake of it.

But I haven’t had a response yet… perhaps Marxism is sleeping, waiting for a firmer foe to face. Nonetheless, I wanted to share my comment and indeed the whole debate for those who didn’t see it.

Like I said, I miss most trends, so perhaps you’ll think my “bit” either misplaced, inappropriate or just plain late? See below (you’ll need to click to expand…):

Posted by: Alastair Grant | July 30, 2011

Share and Share alike

Yesterday, in a relatively inconspicuous location in Buenos Aires, there took place the best conference I’ve ever been to.

And I’ve been to a few. Don’t get me wrong; I LIKE conferences. They’re the greatest places for adults to pretend they’re still in freshers’ year and/or summer camp ever devised. And if you’re lucky, you might even learn something/get some practical ideas for your classroom, for your teachers etc., apart from a workshop on “How to Pretend you don’t have a Hangover on the Second Morning of a TEFL Conference.”

But the Share Convention 2011 had something (as it always does) that set it apart from the rest.

Picture the scene – 600 delegates, all bright, young, enthusiastic teachers completing their teaching degree (called the “profesorado” here – this is essentially an MA in Applied Linguistics but a lot more practical) who had travelled from all over this massive country to share their ideas and experiences for two days.

So why blog about it – who cares?

We should. The other day on an ELT forum, I was arguing that it was essential to pay our teachers if we expect them to come to training. But then yesterday I saw 600 teachers who were training simply because they wanted to. Because it would help them with their professional development and therefore their students’ development – 24 hours bus rides, no pay and a late Friday night finish notwithstanding.

The conference culminated in a prize-giving, with the kind of singing, dancing and laughing delight in a sense of a shared professional community that can all too often be absent from the ivory tower of institutionalised native-speaker EFL.

To have this profession of ours taken seriously, we need to start having some serious fun. Start training our teachers like it’s the essential, educative, delightful and professional career that ELT is, and we’ll start producing teachers with the same dynamism and calibre as those I saw yesterday.

Isn’t it time we started helping our teachers understand and develop the value they bring to the world by making teacher-training sessions an essential part of the job, instead of apologetically offering a 1-hour Friday afternoon drilling workshop on the staffroom whiteboard?

Posted by: Alastair Grant | July 20, 2011

Disappearing Act

The other day, I vanished from my classroom.

So there I was, with my students holding their homework in their hands, eagerly awaiting their next instruction… were we going to go through the homework together, as always, or was I going to try something else, which I was terrified was going to “epic fail”  before I’d even made it to the end of said instruction?

Background: for homework the students had looked up five words (from a text we’d been looking at) which they were unfamiliar with, and then put them into sentences.  Wow, Alastair, very clever… yes, yes, but it does get better, don’t Alt + Tab to Facebook yet.

I thought to myself – no, come on, don’t be Mr-Star-Of-The-Class-Attention-Whore again… (or I think Expert is what we TEFLers are supposed to call that role) who acts as judge, jury and executioner on every word that timidly peeps out of a student’s mouth.

I asked my students to sit in groups of three, show each other the words they had looked up and the sentences they had written… and er… that’s it. Then something weird happened.

My students started kind of… TEACHING each other. I don’t mean that in any kind of a coy way – really, it surprised me. They just did it and there I was thinking “how can I elbow myself back into this lesson?”  I shouldn’t have and I am relieved to say, I didn’t. At one point, I snuck off to get dictionaries for those students who were having trouble with explaining, and the rest they did themselves.

Believe me, it was pretty painful for me! Where were the questions? Where was the dependency? Where was the attention I normally get?! I guess for one class I’d moved from “Expert” to “Facilitator”.

At the end, we went through any still unclear meanings and I praised students who gave good examples/definitions with their words.

And they loved it. I suppose I did too – a few hours later, when the swelling on my bruised ego had started to calm down.

But is this a good way to “teach”? Was I irresponsible?

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