The Secret DOS

The Little Emperor Strikes Back

Just believe and you can’t go wrong.

It’s been a long time since I rock and rolled, 
It’s been a long time since I did the Stroll. 
Ooh, let me get it back, let me get it back, 
Let me get it back, baby, where I come from. 
It’s been a long time, been a long time, 
Been a long lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time. Yes it has. 

Thank you, The Zep. You said it all much more beautifully than I ever could have. My apologies to anyone who was expecting (quite rightfully) that subscribing to a blog would allow them to receive regular updates. I have been away from my secret desk pursuing other interests. But, ooh, let me get it back, let me get it back, let me get it back, baby.

I’m back in the classroom. Conscious of the fact that my employers think I should be teaching a fair whack of hours over the year, I have timetabled myself to teach a lower level class over this teaching period. This means, of course, that I now have insufficient time to devote to management and insufficient time to devote to teaching. However, my masters say that this is possible and my masters are honourable men and women.

So it’s been restless days and sleepless nights as I try to escape the sensation that my teaching is woeful. I’d hate to be observed right now, I think, especially by me. And I plan activities…no, I don’t…I plan lessons that to an objective eye might look highly questionable. Then I rationalise my choices, all the time cursing my knowledge of the effects of cognitive dissonance and self-serving bias on the brain. Just believe and you can’t go wrong? Quite!

Luckily, I have this blog to help me. So today’s return is a confession of sorts and you are invited to “observe” me. Be merciless. This then is karma.

The objective reality

Yesterday’s lesson consisted of the following stages:

1. New student was introduced to all members of the class. Jokes were made about each individual to help the new student anchor names into his consciousness.

2. As is routine, the students saw the IWB page with diagrammatic representations of the rules. They were asked to work in groups of three to translate these diagrams into words.

3. The students sentences were put onto the IWB and used for error correction.

4. The students were asked to turn to page 24 of the coursebook. They were set the assignment of reading the text and doing exercises 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. They were asked to work in groups of three to do the exercises. The reading text they were asked to read without dictionaries and to understand “enough”. As they were doing this, a timer was put on the IWB and they were asked to measure how long it had taken them to read the text. They were to make a note of this time next to the text.

5. Students worked in small groups to complete the exercises. I circulated the groups answering questions and peeping at their work. I joked with each group, chided the more recalcitrant, googled images to help them with their uestions (What’s cricket? What’s rugby? What’s a referee?)

6. Students finished the exercises. I highlighted the lexical areas that I thought were pertinent. They took photos of my IWB. Tomorrow we will use these lexical areas to try and define certain sports.

The lesson lasted two hours. 

Subjective reality – self-serving bias

The students worked on the texts and used the coursebook to unpick the lexical and grammatical features deemed important by the coursebook writers. They also unpicked the areas of language that they considered important – either by using their dictionaries (secretly) or by overtly asking. I got a sense of the language that was causing them difficulties and will be able to revisit this tomorrow. Some was interesting (you don’t know what win means? Seriously?)

I consciously eschewed the communicative activities because I didn’t see that there was much to be gained from focussing too heavily on a text that was no more than pap. The focus of the text was unusual competitions. If it had been a well written text of intrinsic interest to the students, conversation would have emerged from reading it (have you ever heard anything quite as absurd? No! These westerners are crazy!). As it was, they clearly recognised it for what it was: a vehicle for lexicogrammatical input. We dealt with it as such.

Students in a conventional class would have been making up equally weird competitions and using the target language to explain the rules: You have to perform as many irregaular verbs as you can within a fixed time limit. Prizes are awarded for ingenuity, indecency and inventiveness. Again, this was eschewed with the rationale: look – they’re going to be using English to talk about the coursebook exercises; they don’t need to be given some activity that is more in keeping with school-age students. They don’t need to invent weird competitions to speak English. They can speak English deciding on the differences between referee and judge.

The affective filter would be lowered by my touring the groups and joshing them along. Have you got your head on the desk again, Jeremy? Tomorrow I’m a gonna bring my axe and chop that head right offa your shoulders. Yes I am. Sweet Jesus, yes I am. Aha! Mohamed – this man is the cleverest man I have ever come across. How many have you done? Three? And you’re working well with the group? You are? HOW?! TELEPATHICALLY?!?! USE YOUR MOUTH TO TALK! Lots of ridiculously OTT miming illustrated vocabulary queries. 

What did the students learn? I have no idea. Yet. But they talked to each other throughout the class. English was the language of choice. They had a clear target and they achieved it. A common body of knowledge was poked and prodded and the next day this body of knowledge will be tested to see if any has been retained. It was almost like flipping a classroom, except instead of getting them to do the work at home, I got them to do it in the classroom where they would do it by talking to one another or asking questions. They work on the exercises and then they ask questions about what they don’t understand. The follow up lesson will explore to see if they have learnt any of the language that the coursebook writers consider salient: the language of sports and the modals for rule-making. They will be asked to memorise various lexical chunks and then asked to regurgitate these chunks in texts that describe sports or sporting competitions that they are interested in. There will be very little communicative make-up applied: the focus will be on regurgitation: I asked you to try and memorise these chunks. Now I want you to try and use them to describe Champions League football to a martian.

Subjective reality – self-hating bias

What?! So, essentially you said to them, Turn to pages 24-25 and do the exercises. Way to roll, cavedweller! Will you be giving them a refund?

 The challenge I lay before you, dear reader(s), is to opine upon which subjective view you more incline towards. The self-serving view is the one I like most (no?! really?!) because it allows me to think that I can still teach without the need to cut up loads of slips of paper or to think of ways in which I can incorporate TV quiz shows into my lessons. It is almost postmodernly retro: yah! I like follow the coursebook, ya get me? But I do so in a knowingly ironic sort of a manner, yeah? It is built around a witheringly patronising view of contemporary ELT practice: I don’t try to disguise the learning with activities, I try to disguise the activity with learning. It is predicated upon a belief that adult students don’t need to be jollied into language study by being hoodwinked into playing games; it is enough to help them enjoy an otherwise rather dull endeavour by making jokes and managing the dynamic. It boldly refuses to say what students have learned and implies that any teacher who claims that they “know” what students learn in a class is delusional. It provides a solid body of input that can be tested and amplified throughout the week – but rests upon the beliefs that the actual language is irrelevant and that the value is to be gleaned from the activities that are employed to review and expand upon the language; that is, I don’t really care whether or not the students learn the lexis and grammar to describe sporting competitions; I care that they reflect on how regular review of the language makes the lexis and grammar more memorable; I care that they understand that trying to use this knowledge to create and understand texts results in incidental and incremental advances in their ability to use English.  I care that their new knowledge of the lexical and grammatical features used to talk about competitions may make other lacunae in their English more evident to them and lead them to asking questions about these. And so the journey continues. 

Who’s kidding who? My stroll is done.



22 Jan 2014 - Posted by | Rants and ramblings


  1. I’ve changed my mind several times while writing this comment (as I often seem to do after reading one of your posts!) One of my first reactions was that two hours on a text that was no more than pap seems a lot. I think, however, that my judgment was being hampered by an emotional reaction to the instruction to turn to page 24. But having thought about it, I agree that there’s a lot of value in your self-serving view.

    Apart from Jeremy with his head on the desk, the students seemed to be engaged in the activity “they talked to each other throughout the class. English was the language of choice.” They discussed the language, asked questions and “poked and prodded” a body of knowledge. You chose to have them communicate about language rather than what was suggested in the course book and it does seem a good thing that they “speak English deciding on the differences between referee and judge.” In the follow up lesson, they’ll get the chance to use the language to talk about something they are interested in. I’m assuming they know that’s what they’re going to do and have a reason for memorizing and rehearsing the lexical items that were considered salient by the coursebook writers and pertinent by you (and that you will have sufficient martians available for them to talk to.By Skype, perhaps?)

    Your reasons for preferring the self-serving view also make a lot of sense. You write that you care that they reflect on how regular review of language makes the lexis and grammar more memorable. You didn’t describe this in your objective account but I’d be interested in hearing how you do this. As well as highlighting pertinent language, do you highlight and ask students to reflect on their learning processes? Do they get to question your dictionary ban? When they use dictionaries (secretly) do you ask them why? How does it help them? Do they have a good reason for using them? Do you have a good reason for them not using them? Do they know why they’re timing themselves reading “a vehicle for lexicogrammatical input”? Are they encouraged to read and listen extensively outside of the classroom for greater exposure and opportunities to review the language in other contexts?

    So that’s my opinion (and some questions). Well that’s my opinion at 12.32 on Friday 24th January!

    Comment by Carol Goodey | 24 Jan 2014 | Reply

    • I dream of comments like this! I’ve got The Zepp on YouTube in another window. And here’s my reply…

      My regular review is really just going back to them and saying, “Do you remember when I said that doing this was important? Why did I say this? How does it help you?” Later on, this progresses to, “What can you do to help yourselves?” It’s a technique built around the idea that if you repeat something enough times, people will finally believe you.

      I don’t often ask learners to reflect on their learning processes. Especially at this level. Not because I correlate level with ability to reflect, but because after so many years of language study, still being at this level suggests (perhaps unfairly) to me that their learning processes have withered and died, choked by the weeds of disinterest and apathy. At higher levels, I share my learning processes with learners and exhort them to give ’em a whirl before rejecting them. Some do; most don’t. The biggest challenge for an ELT teacher, it often seems to me, is not discovering how people acquire languages, but in discovering how to make a well-watered horse drink. This is a reflection of my teaching context. I know that many of you who work in ESOL, for example, will work with students who are both dehydrated and thirsty.

      Students do flout the dictionary ban and I feign fury and disillusionment. I frequently feign disbelief as well. But it’s not up for negotiation. Instead, I try to make them complicit in their subservience to my diktats. “Why,” I purr, “do I not want you using dictionaries?” It takes some time, but eventually most students will parrot back to me that they should be asking, rather than looking; that a tolerance for ambiguity is the target rather than a quest for full clarity; that it is better practice to go home and review the lesson, with dictionary in hand if that is their wont. I rule the classroom like a benevolent/malevolent dictator, so my good reason for prohibiting dictionary use is typically “because I have said don’t use the dictionary”.

      Even I do not know why they are reading the pap in the coursebook, short of it being a quick and easy way to start the lesson rolling! In this, the coursebook was purely my friend. It was a pretext to get them working in groups and dissecting texts in order to uncover features that might otherwise have escaped them. In my head, the internal dialogue probably went something like this:
      -What shall I do today?
      -Have a look at the coursebook?
      -Oh Christ. Has it come to this?
      -What’s there to lose? They’ve paid for the bloody thing.
      -Well, I suppose I could just get them to read this crappy little text as if it was a real one.
      -Yep. And then use the exercises to get them looking at the language.
      -What about pulling some potentially productive chunks out of the text (even though the coursebook writers clearly tuned that option down)?
      -Yeah! Do that too.
      -Oh. Wait a minute. There are no potentially productive chunks. It’s all just glued together grammar. FFS!
      -OK. Move away from the text as a reading experience as quickly as possible. Why not use it to reinforce the idea that they can be thinking about how long it takes them to read a short text?
      -Yes! I’ll get them to time themselves. And if I do this often, and they keep a record, I will hopefull ybe able to prove to them that their reading is getting quicker. I can use this as a way of selling them the idea that they are reading in chunks rather than in words.

      I probably swore a LOT more in the real dialogue.

      Comment by thesecretdos | 25 Jan 2014 | Reply

      • Thanks for this reply – as enjoyable as the original post, even without the swearing!

        I understand your reasons for the dictionary ban and can see the value in asking, rather than looking. But might that make them more dependent on you than if they used their dictionaries – provided they use their (good) dictionaries well? Why is a tolerance for ambiguity the target? Couldn’t a quest for clarity be seen as motivating? Will they go back to it at home after spending hours in a classroom?

        Sorry, more questions. You don’t have to answer them. My main reason for questioning the do-it-this-way-because-I-said-so approach is that while what you say is probably good for many of the students there could be individuals in your groups for whom it’s not as helpful and so allowing them to do it their way – IF they have good reasons for doing it that way other than ‘it’s quicker’ or ‘it’s easier’ – might help them.

        One thing that has really struck me when listening to the stories of adult numeracy learners is that in school they were told that they had to do things in a particular way. There was a right way of doing the calculation, of working something out, of processing information. They were not allowed to find their own way and they found it difficult to learn. When they came back to learning later, getting to approach the work in ways that made sense to them helped them to make progress and to be more confident about their learning. I know that this is numbers and not language but it is still learning and I am always wary about telling learners that they must do something this way or that. So while I do like (and use) your technique built around the idea that if you repeat something enough times, people will finally believe you, I think there should be a bit of space for differences (or even, although unlikely, for us not being right! 😉 )

        I did work in a context similar to yours for a few years. I know that it can take a lot of energy on the part of the teacher to deal with the weeds of disinterest and apathy and I found a course book to be very useful in that context, until about chapter 5 when I’d start getting bored! Your approach to it seems very sensible!

        Comment by Carol Goodey | 30 Jan 2014

  2. I like your post. Thanks for your honesty and reflectiveness. I think you made the right call. For me, teaching is never a totally rational thing, so it’s very difficult for me to stick to one approach or methodology. When I’m in the classroom, I just feel what is going to work and go from there. Not to be all about me, but I guess my point is that you made your choice based on what you felt would reach them best, and that’s more important than any pedagogic theory. As for the pap reading, well everything’s grist for our mill. If they got something productive out of it, then its intrinsic merit doesn’t really matter.

    Comment by joannalw | 25 Jan 2014 | Reply

    • I cannot, in all good conscience, bring myself ever to disagree with somebody who tells me that they think I made the right call! However, over at Mike’s place, I managed to convince myself that I don’t do what I think is best for them anymore…I do whatever I think is least likely to hinder their learning. It’s the same thing, really, but the focus is slightly askew and reflects the humbling realisation that after too many years doing this job, I now have absolutely no idea about how to successfully teach somebody something! You are years ahead of me in realising this, I sense. You already know that it’s what the students can eke out of a text that makes it useful (not what the teacher/writers/publishers jam into it)! I think you too make many good calls in this short comment!

      Comment by thesecretdos | 25 Jan 2014 | Reply

  3. Welcome to Coursebooks Anonymous. My name is Sandy and I use coursebooks more than I’ve been told I should. Thank you for writing this and making me feel less guilty! Having just finished my Delta, and reading a lot of other blogs about all the flashy amazing things people seem to do with projects and personalising materials and…, I am in full guilt mode whenever I ask the students to open the book to page X and do exercises Y and Z.
    But I know they’re learning from the lessons, because they remember things from one week to the next, although how much of that is thanks to me, I have no idea. They’re getting more comfortable with talking to each other in English. Dammit, they’re talking to each other in English, which didn’t always happen when they arrived. Some of them are experimenting with different ways to learn the vocabulary from the coursebook, like playing on Quizlet, or writing the words in their notebooks with pictures next to them instead of translations. Some of them have even started watching more TV in English or listening to podcasts or reading the occasional article I post on Edmodo for them related to the lesson topic chosen by the coursebook. Each of these little victories means that something good must be happening in the classroom. And yes, I could probably make it happen faster or more efficiently, but I could also have time to do some of the 18,000 other things calling for my attention outside class, like, you know, sleep at night.
    Thanks again for letting me know there are other people out there like me!

    Comment by Sandy Millin | 28 Jan 2014 | Reply

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