Tag Archives: Vocabulary

David Crystal’s Analogy for Grammar

Professor David Crystal (Photo from University of Salford on Flickr)

I recently attended a talk by David Crystal in Chichester – ‘Grammar Rules’.  I’d only had the pleasure of seeing Professor Crystal once before and that was online in a very engaging talk he gave a few months ago on the influence of the King James Bible on the English Language (follow this link for that talk).  So this was actually the first time I had seen him in person and the topic was grammar.

The purpose of this post isn’t to regurgitate the talk but to give voice to a somewhat random thought I had relating to an analogy Professor Crystal made.  It went more or less like this;

On the topic of grammar we should think about a car mechanic.  A good car mechanic can take a whole car apart and put it back together again.  However, this has little bearing on the mechanic’s ability to drive a car.

I thought this rather apt as it certainly fits with my current view* that covert grammar is a better pedagogic option to go for over explicit grammar in most cases.  In fact, I might go even further and say that this analogy perhaps helps us to understand many of our learners who are obsessed with grammar rules (just as much as some of us might be with teaching them) but at the end of the day are very poor producers of the language.  This is especially in the case of the spoken medium but sometimes in the written one as well: they are training to become car mechanics when they should be focusing on becoming drivers!

However, later in the talk it became very apparent that the audience was quite a mix of professions and academic interests and that lead me to consider how much this analogy could really be applied to ELT.

So I asked myself the question, ‘How does ELT work in this car analogy of Professor Crystal’s?

What assumptions are we making here?  Are we saying that native speakers are given a car whereas non-native learners have to build their own car first?  Surely a non-native learner’s L1 is a car as well… doesn’t that count for something?  Obviously, learners have to learn how to ‘drive’ their new ‘car’ in a different country and clearly language learning is a completely different monster to adapting your driving to the rules of the road of a different country.  The question really becomes, where does the car come from?  In what state is the car presented to the learner; in parts, half assembled, fully assembled?  How necessary is it for a learner to know what is ‘under the hood’?

I suppose in a way, these questions have different answers for each and every learner but where we run into a problem is when we have students who come to us wanting to know how to drive and then insist that we teach them how to become car mechanics.

I’ve already heard disagreement from one of my colleagues about how applicable this analogy is and, as one of my other colleagues in attendance pointed out, the analogy isn’t perfect and perhaps I’ve exhausted this one far beyond its usefulness.


* I say “my current view” as, having just started a Masters, I’m sure that my opinions and views are going to be thrown this way and that, turned upside down and many of them simply thrown out the window… just as it should be. 🙂

ADDITIONAL: I’ve just come upon Professor Crystal’s blog and now I know I’m going to get less sleep because he’s been blogging regularly since 2006!


Posted by on October 20, 2011 in MA Linguistics & TESOL, Reflections


Tags: , , , ,

What have I learned from a recent dry run? Creativity on demand is hard!

Recently I found a really interesting blog post about the 20 most commonly used phrasal verbs in English.*  Phrasal verbs are notorious among English learners and when I saw this I thought, ‘Cool!  How can I use this?’

I wanted to try something creative and that is where I have hit a, so far, insurmountable obstacle.  I’m going to go through what I have tried so far, not in class, just by myself.  I wanted to place myself in the role of my students.  Before I ask something creative of them, I wanted to see how I would cope with it:

1. Craft a discussion amongst 3 or 4 people that use all 20 of these phrasal verbs.

The idea being to get the students to act out this scene, switch roles, act it out again, etc.**  This was almost a non-starter as keeping 3 or 4 characters going in a story very quickly became too much of a challenge.  I’m not a professional wordwright.

2. Simplify it.  Craft a conversation between only 2 people that use all 20 of these phrasal verbs.

I thought, this should be relatively easy and it is certainly doable but the phrasal verbs seem to steer the conversation into a relatively negative story (at least they do whenever I am behind the creative wheel it seems).  Negative stories don’t help us to remember as well as feel-good or funny stories… so back to the drawing board.

3. Seek creative inspiration.  Storybird.

I haven’t used Storybird with any of my classes yet but I thought this would be a wonderful opportunity to try it out and make a story which could educate and whet my students’ appetites for trying to use this wonderful website for themselves.   Unfortunately, being stuck to these 20 phrasal verbs, which is the task I had set myself, meant that the pictures produced more restrictions than provided creative inspiration.

4. Change the objective.  Craft a story that works with only 5 or 10 of the phrasal verbs.

This works and really, it was unrealistic to believe that an activity that immediately included all 20 phrasal verbs would be of much use to learners.  I do want to find a way to make sure that the lesson provides a decent opportunity for all students to use, practise and learn all 20 of these phrasal verbs, but this has to be built up in steps.

At the moment I’m still thinking.  I’m still wondering if I can go back to an earlier story I wrote and improve it, make it funny or heart-warming or something.  The problem there is that comedy is incredibly subjective and when trying to cross a cultural divide (and an age gap of about a decade and a half), literal comedy is one of the most difficult forms to make work.

So what have I learned from this?

  • Even if I can put a decent story together, I will have spent FAR more time than I could allow my students in class.
  • The failure to produce a happy, funny or simply a well-written story with these restrictions has disappointed me.  Such disappointment for my learners would probably equate to a drop in motivation and self-esteem.
  • Working in a group might help me to produce a good story but what I’m really missing is sufficient structure and guidance.

So how has it gone?

With a couple of additions (I think ‘come on’ and ‘go well’ are just a couple of essential phrasal verbs to add to this list) I’ve covered this list with half of my classes so far but there still hasn’t been a spark.  I’m not happy with any of the stories I’ve made up and so I’m not using any of them and therefore I’m still presenting the list as just a list basically.

Well that’s not completely true, I’m actually presenting this as a memory/guessing game, a bit more interactive but my approach here has been less than inspiring for my students so far, I think.  I might throw this one over to Sandy Millin’s excellent brainstorm site, (Almost) Infinite ELT Ideas.

So that’s where things are at the moment.  Any ideas?


* Just in case you are wondering, the 20 most common phrasal verbs are apparently as follows: bring up, carry on, chase up, come across, come up with, fall apart, get along, get away with, get over, give up, go on, hold on, look after, look up, make out, pull over, put down, put off, turn up, watch out. (Click here for the original article with explanations)

**  This comes from Alan Tait’s recent idea about taking a movie scene and getting the students to act it out and, in doing so, providing plenty of repetition as well as taking some ownership of the text and playing with it.


Posted by on August 3, 2011 in Activities, Reflections


Tags: , , , , ,

‘Simple ideas aren’t always easy to come by’ a.k.a ‘Repeating a lesson isn’t cheating’

I will be honest and say that Tuesday probably isn’t my favourite day of the week.  I go from 3pm until 9:30pm seeing 4 different classes with only a 15-minute break in the whole thing.  It can be brutal and when I get home I usually don’t have much energy to do anything except eat and then sleep.  This Tuesday was different though and I’ll explain why.

So what did I want from the class?

I have an FCE exam class (more than one actually) and I haven’t really seen much of their writing – I share the class with another teacher who works more on their compositions.  However, I felt it was about time I get a better look at this very important aspect of their English.  I have already been doing some free-writing exercises with them, inspired by Claire Schadle’s article ‘I Don’t Know Why I’m Doing What I’m Doing…But I Like It’ (scroll down to page 27), but I wanted to make this writing more structured with more direction.

I’ve also been thinking recently about explicit grammar and the use of meta-language with learners (I’m not a fan) so I decided I wanted to test a theory I had about that as well.

So what did I do?

I did this with 3 of my 4 classes of the day (my first class missed out on this – sorry); two FCE classes and one PET class.  I wrote down these two sentences at the top of the board.

“Words that describe a thing / Words that describe an action”

I asked for examples. (1, see below)

I then put some letters up on the board: b, c, d, g, j, p, t, v and w.  I chose these ones because we have already been working on the pronunciation of these consonants at the start of words.

Then a simple task – please give an adjective and an adverb for each selected letter. (2)  Once this was done we reviewed the various answers.  The adverbs were definitely more difficult for the learners and there were a lot of wild guesses that, when challenged with “Can you give that to me in a sentence?”, were quickly withdrawn.

Once we had our words I asked them to choose 3 words from both columns (6 in total).  The criterion was simple – choose the words that you are most comfortable using in your writing and speaking.  Then they had the task: use these words in the following writing task.  I wrote this on the board.

Describe your favourite time of the day.

At this point a moment of inspiration struck which I hadn’t planned!  “Stop.  Before you start, what is the goal of your writing and speaking in the FC exam?”

The answer I wanted and eventually got out of them was that writing and speaking are their opportunity to show off their English and show the examiners just how much they know and can use.  I often say “The examiners can’t mark your head.  If you don’t speak it or write it, they can’t reward you for it.”  I’m sure a lot of us say the same. (3)

I suggested three grammatical structures that I knew the students were, supposedly, familiar with: relative pronouns, passives and conditionals.  We then spent a good 15-20 minutes reviewing the structure and, more importantly, the use of these different grammar points.

This was probably my favourite part of the lesson and showed again (see note 1 below) that while the students often recognize the labels of ‘relative pronouns’ or ‘passive voice’, they sometimes don’t have much of an idea about how or why they are used.  I don’t blame any previous teachers here; I think that if you are going to follow a coursebook (almost essential for an exam preparation class) you are really kind of stuck with how this grammar is presented in the book. (4)

The rest of the class went smoothly as the students completed the writing in about 10 minutes and then peer-checked each other’s texts after having gone through an example I wrote while they were writing theirs. (5)

So what did I get from the class?

I was once again saved by some quick thinking and yet more proof that less is more.  This simple idea, which I’d planned to only last about 20-30 minutes, filled the entire 90-minute lesson and the reason it did this is that I’m still bad at foreseeing how much time will be needed by my students to complete exercises, or how much scaffolding needs to be provided to get the learners ready for an activity.

I know that I’ll certainly use these activities again, probably several times but with a condensed vocabulary component at the beginning, at least for students who are already familiar with the process.

So where did it go wrong?

Well for my final class of the day, the PET preparation class, I tried to pad out the activity by giving them all the letters of the alphabet to deal with.  In hindsight this was stupid (and if you are thinking “What an idiot!” right now, I don’t blame you) but this brings me to my final point and the ‘a.k.a.’ of the title.  After having taught the same lesson twice in the same night, I felt I was just cheating if I repeated it a third time.  I tried to improvise, be creative and change a formula that was working.  D’oh!

While such a simple idea for an unplugged lesson would seem to be just that, simple or easy, I would warn you that such ideas are not always winners.  I’d like to give a word to the wise and say that when you find a lesson structure and a natural progression of activities that work, don’t be so eager to improvise around it and see what happens.  It might be a bit boring for you, but for each new class it’s fresh and that’s all that really matters.

Notes/Further Observations


Thankfully none of the classes had problems with my definition of adjectives but the second category title, the adverbs, was another story.  Many of the students were a little lost at what I was asking for and I got a few adjectives suggested.  Now, I know I’ve used the term adverb with these students before, especially when looking at Cambridge Use of English practice, but I still can’t say I’m very surprised either – they know the words, the meta-language, but they aren’t so hot when it comes to knowing what an adverb actually is and what is does.  Giving a definition of an adverb without calling it ‘an adverb’ really stumped them.

Does this suggest that we should be trying to reduce meta-language more in the lessons?  I personally think so, but that isn’t the main point of this blog post.


I have a question for you?  How often do you actually try to do some of the tasks you set your students while in class?  This activity took me a little longer than I expected.  I hadn’t prepared anything beforehand so I was working alongside my students.  Under pressure to finish first and be ready for them, I did have a couple of moments where my mind went blank.  I see this not as an indication that I should have prepared more before class, but as a reminder that students sometimes need more time than we think they do.

In general, I try to do a few activities ‘with’ the class each lesson.  I think they appreciate seeing me work through what they are working through.  A teacher standing and watching isn’t inspiring and a teacher walking around and observing can be distracting.


However, I am still dealing with some students’ attitude of “I know this and I’ll just do it on the day, don’t worry.”  I’ll let you know when (if) I find a fool-proof (or should I say teenager-proof) retort to that one.


I think the problem is more that coursebooks are notoriously bad at using an abundance of meta-language to label the various sections and exercises.


Again, when I can, I like to go through the process with the students.  This is what I wrote down in about 4 minutes – it was noticed that I actually only used two adverbs, not the three I’d asked for… no one is perfect. 🙂

My Favourite Time of the Day by Gordon

When I have had a terrible day, and my classes have gone dreadfully (we often joke about how much stress the students put me under) I like to go home, dream of being wealthy and not teaching.  This is my favourite time of the day.

If I were rich, I wouldn’t be greedy.  No, I’d be generous.  I would make sure that my money, which would be more than I need, is given carefully to good charities.


Tags: , , , ,

My Personal 1000-word Challenge: For Charity and Inspiration

I recently posted an article on my learners’ blog about learning vocabulary.  It reminded me of how I learned vocabulary for a Spanish course at university.  I thought it quite effective and I’ve got to say that as much as I enjoy the communicative approach, I certainly recognize the need for basic, almost ugly memorization when it comes to language learning and acquisition.

So what was I thinking and what was my motivation?

Yep... I wasn't a perfect student!

Well at the moment I’m in Argentina for a year.  This is not the first time I’ve lived in a Spanish-speaking country as I was in Mexico back in 2007-08.  Mexico really helped my communicative skills and finally put my vocabulary to good use.  I failed one of the Spanish modules at university, I’m sorry to say, because I had it in my head that I could simply learn lists of vocabulary and in that way I would be learning Spanish.  The results of my first exam soon set me straight there!

But now I’m in Argentina and I think my communicative skills have caught up and surpassed my vocabulary knowledge.  So I want to return to a little bit of cold, hard vocabulary work.

Of course, now I think I understand the language learning process a lot better (well at least I should do, I’m a English language teacher!) but I was curious to see how effective such memorization really is and whether I should be encouraging it in my learners more than I do.

So what am I doing?

Well, I thought back to the “30 words a day” that were required of us by the Intensive Beginners Course I took.  Could I do that again?  I like lists, I like crossing things off lists and, as far as I remember, I enjoyed the process of vocabulary memorization (no pun intended).

Okay then, I’ll try it again.

Then I thought, should I keep it to myself?  Obviously not, I’m a blogger, it’s simply not in my blood!  I think my students would like to know that I am making an effort to improve in their native tongue.  As far as they know, I have little to no Spanish.  That approach works well if you don’t want them depending on your abilities in their language but after a while, I think a teacher who doesn’t start learning the native language runs the risk of losing their potential as a role model;

“Learning a language is really difficult – my teacher lives in this country and he’s learned almost nothing!  What chance do I have?”

Okay then.  So I’ll tell my students about it.

So what do I hope my students will get from this?

There is a rather long list of things here, the main one being inspiration.  I hope that my efforts will show my students and really all the students in my school what is possible with a little bit of effort and hard work – this is an issue for these learners as they are mostly children and teenagers.

In the process of collecting 1000 words and phrases I am asking the students, whether they are in my classes or not, to help me.  They can email me or they can leave a note with a piece of Spanish and its English translation.  This way, I hope I am focussing a lot of the students on their own vocabulary.

I am asking for as many phrases as possible as I want the students to move away from a word-by-word translation which they might not yet realize doesn’t really work.  So raising awareness of language chunks is another potential benefit.

A lot of the students I’ve talked to believe that I will need an hour or more every day to learn 1000 words in 30 days.  I hope that my success (fingers crossed) will show them that less is more and that a little studying a few times a day will help them to improve enormously.  They won’t need to study and study and study for dreaded tests and the lessons and even the exams will all be much easier and perhaps even more rewarding.

Okay, I know the last one there is dream… but I can still hope.

So how does this help charity?

I’m going to be sponsored by the students – at least I hope I am.  The financial sponsoring of a person to do something for charity is a big thing in Britain (I’ve run races, worn silly clothes and had ponytails cut off to this end) but apparently it is not so much the culture down here in Argentina.  I need to explain the concept to a lot of students who are suspicious of charity that involves money and not objects.  Oh well, it’s just another aspect of their inter-cultural education.

Going on a per-correct-word basis we hope that we can raise money and awareness of a local branch of a national charity, Fundación Conin, that helps malnourished children and pregnant mothers in this area of Argentina.  Never do something for free when you can do it for charity instead!

Anyway, wish me luck!  It’s day five right now, 830 words to go. 😀

If you’ve read this far, please retweet or mention this in your blog or on Facebook.  Maybe we can start a trend of sponsored language learning challenges!  In fact I’ll go further than that, if anyone wants to join me in a similar endeavour you can comment on this blog or get the word out with the hashtag #ELLchar.

I’ll endeavour to keep you updated on how I do.  See you on the other side,



Posted by on June 5, 2011 in Activities


Tags: , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: