The Secret DOS

The Little Emperor Strikes Back

How to teach

A bit of a polemic today, to mark the fact that I have woken up at some sort of ridiculous hour and now need to keep my brain occupied while waiting for the rest of the family to stir. The backstory: I am currently teaching a class that ranges from complete beginner to…well…to what exactly? I couldn’t possibly begin to tell you and I have been doing this job for over twenty years. Some of the students at the higher end of the ability scale are capable of talking, of joking, of communicating, but cannot spell, write, read or understand spoken English with any degree of accuracy. What placement test will ever be able to label them with certitude? At least one of the students in my class says absolutely nothing. When she is asked a question, she folds in on herself and tries to do that sort of physical corporeal origami that will see her disappear from this plane of existence. She has been in the UK for two weeks and has one week left before she goes home and rues the waste of money. How on earth am I supposed to teach this class?

Well…according to one website that I have visited, I am supposed to find the time to grade the materials. I am supposed to start off the lesson with a bit of a plenary then divide the class into different parts. The weaker group gets my attention and my input; the stronger group gets to work autonomously on ready prepared handouts – perhaps a reading or a listening, apparently. I then bring the class back together and we go through some exercises to make sure that we have a shared understanding and then I pat myself on the back and we all go home.

Needless to say, the example given on the website is a grammatical example based around the verb tenses. I choose the next tense on the curriculum and we all work to try to understand when the English speakers use the past simple and then I contrast that with another tense – why not the present perfect? 

And twenty odd years on down the line, I think, “What a load of bollocks.” Oh, woe is me! That I should till find myself stuck in a business where new teachers are being exhorted to divide the language into nonsensical chunks of time-oriented grammar! Oh, woe is me! That I eke my living in this field where students’ learning tends to be structured according to some sort of mysterious hierarchy of grammar that has been endorsed by publishing houses! Oh, woe is me! That I should be told that for three shillings and tuppence ha’penny and no decent holidays in the year whatsoever, I am to sacrifice my life in order to design differentiated lessons in order to support students in their quest to integrate this grammar in the prescribed fashion! Once again, I say, “Bollocks to that!”

The Secret DoS believes that language is learnt when people want to communicate with each other. Communication is pretty much inevitable in human society. Generally speaking, people need to share their ideas, their feelings and their experiences. The world of work leads many to conclude that these days you need to be able to communicate with people who don’t speak the same language as you and so, to get ahead you need to get a lingua franca. Currently, the lingua franca is the lingua imperium: English. 

So, when you have a classroom full of people who speak Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Turkish, Korean, Japanese…in order for an experience to be shared, English comes in handy. The secret of teaching, it seems to me, is to create an environment wherein people want to share that experience. I have a headstart because at least some of the people sat in front of me have already paid hundreds of pounds in order to have this experience. My next question is whether or not the coursebook is going to hinder or help me in creating this environment.

I look at it and see a collection of short, vacuous texts about random items. If I type out one of the texts, it comes to no more than four or five sentences, each repetitive and featuring a grammatical construction that is trying to sneak into people’s consciousness via osmosis. O the other side of the scale, I have fifteen individuals’ hopes, dreams, experiences, opinions, questions and frustrations. I lean towards these rather than the book.

So now I have to talk to the students about their hopes, dreams etc. Yesterday was Monday, so I began by asking them what they had got up to over the weekend. This threw up a small range of experiences: they watched TV, they read books, went shopping, slept long hours, got drunk, went to a party. This was all done in plenary and a lot of the target language I needed to supply. With that done, the next step is to focus on memorisation. There is a body of research that I am too lazy to have read which suggests that memory training is crucial to language learning. So, now I ask students to write down what they remember about everybody’s weekend: Juan went to the cinema, Jodie went shopping in town etc. Of course, virtually any time we ask a student to create an intended utterance, they are going to make a mistake somewhere. And when they don’t make any mistakes, they are going to create an utterance that can always be expanded upon or otherwise improved. So the next step is to refine their language.

With some of their newly-minted sentences on the whiteboard, I tell them that I can see at least X mistakes, or that in this sentence there is a better way of saying it (perhaps giving them the initial letters of the words I have in mind). Students now work together to try and find the mistakes or the improvements. Once this is done, we now have some accurately constructed sentences that we can drill for pronunciation. We can also start playing around with them by introducing new elements: turn them into questions, make them negative, change the stress patterns, add adverbs, tag on another clause.

Having exhausted this route, I move on. Some of my students are interested in doing an exam whose name shall go unreported here. As part of that exam, they have to do a piece of discursive writing. So I introduce a bold statement: everyone in the world should be schooled in English. If we do this, I ask, what might happen? If we school everybody in English, students might end up speaking perfect English, suggests someone. And if students end up speaking perfect English, what might happen? I ask. If students speak perfect English, they won’t have to come to the UK, somebody suggests. If students don’t have to come to the UK, what might happen? I ask again. We go on until we have five sentences up on the board. 

And because there is a body of research that I am too lazy to have read which suggests that memory training is crucial to language learning, the next step is to focus on memorisation. So, now I ask students to write down what they remember about the sentences. With that done, we can compare what they have written with what I had written previously. They are encouraged to ask any questions about the differences that they don’t understand. Some do, most don’t.

So now I write a different provocative statement up on the whiteboard and I ask the students to work together to write five sentences that follow our pattern. They do and I take the register and write up my record of work. Once the time is up, the students write their sentences on the whiteboard and, once again, we identify errors or areas for improvement and we do something about them. 

It’s getting near to the end of the lesson, so we recap some of our sentences and I expand upon some of the vocabulary. We talked about students who sit in the front row of the class and I try to get students to identify other front rows, leading to a short plenary on how to spell cinema, theatre and the pronouns that are frequently associated with these places and also the phrase on the bus. Somebody asks if row is the same as a line of people waiting and we look at the word queue and its crazy spelling. And now somebody says something that ends up getting reformulated to say that In my country, it is good manners to give up your place in the queue to a pregnant woman. We discuss manners and the youth of today.We discuss parenting styles…I say we discuss…I mean…I lecture. Other examples of polite behaviour are noted and I shoehorn in some revision of recent lexical items: the elderlypolite, impolite, this sort of thing. 

I promise to write up my memory of the class onto our blog which I do late in the afternoon. Students are still in class with my co-teacher. By the time they have finished, the blog has been written and for those who subscribe to it, the summary of the lesson is waiting in their email. All of the language that we covered is included within a narrative framework. According to lextutor, I have used 733 words. Of those, 87% are from the most frequent 1K wordlist; another 5.5% are from the most frequent 2K list. Words include furniture, pregnant, definitely, accountancy, rude, respectful. In contrast, the reading text from the book contains half as many words, although almost double the percentage of words from the 2K list. The difference is, I suppose, that my text is much more linguistically rich, has a shared context for the students to be able to relate back to, and is one of five texts that I will produce this week. 

To prepare my class, I needed next to no time. Just as well, because I had meeting after meeting after meeting. Each meeting was interspersed with interruptions. 

There was no order or structure to what we studied. We looked at what came up as it came up. When things were flagging, I introduced a new focus. 

I knew that it could seem a bit chaotic so I used the last five minutes of the class to review what we had done. This is akin to historical revisionism: we live in the moment and we “need” historians to tell us the significant changes of our past. Who controls the past controls the present. So, I buy validity by telling students that this mishmash of chat and writing was actually studying grammar X, vocab Y, pronunciation Z. They go away with a handle to hang the experience on.  then write the text and they can read this and hopefully make sesne of those moments where things seemed to be rushing by somewhat chaotically. The point being that by controlling the interpretation of the past, I get to impose sense and structure upon it. 

In yesterday’s class, for the grammar addicts, we looked at conditional constructions and modal verbs. Students were encouraged to think about hedging their predictions about the future by using might instead of will. We looked at past tenses; we looked at the modal verb should

Students were given an opportunity to develop their abilities to talk about their opinions. They also practised talking about their weekends and cultural norms from their countries. They also got to listen to each other and to talk to each other. 

it was, I think, a linguistically rich environment with plenty of opportunities for learning. The rest of the week will see us revisiting a lot of the language that we looked at yesterday and building upon it. By the end of the week, I hope that students will feel confident to write a conclusion for The Exam Essay. The conclusion will follow a set pattern: a universal summary sentence that they will learn off by heart. This to be followed by a sentence that will feature should and this, in turn, to be followed by an if sentence eg:

For all of the above reasons, I remain convinced that teaching mixed levels is not as demanding as some websites would have us believe. Teachers should concentrate more on creating a linguistically rich environment based upon the lives of the people in the room. If they do this, they will always have sufficient material to work with.


11 Feb 2014 - Posted by | Rants and ramblings


  1. Sounds like a pretty well balanced lesson to me. However, I still feel that mixed level classes are a nightmare for both teacher and student. Entry level oral interviews go some way to sorting the wheat from the chaff. I know within a state school system,mixed level language classes are the norm, but in a private paying institute they are to be frowned upon by all concerned…….. Any experienced teacher with any “nouse” can get round the myriad of problems a mixed level class throws at them but really shouldn´t have to. The policy of as many bums on seats as possible, regardless of their ability and as much cash in the bank as this misguided policy permits will be the death of our profession.

    Comment by Connie OGrady | 11 Feb 2014 | Reply

  2. I pretty much agree with everything you write, Connie. My bilingual children sit through their “foreign language” class at school. But the lessons are 30-45 minutes long a couple of times a week. That’s fairly easy to manage. We teach in four hour blocks!

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with mixed ability classes per se. The problems arise from students’ expectations. Invariably, students don’t like being in mixed level classes (although I suspect that there is evidence out there which suggests that there is more learning potential from working with someone who is closer to your level than from working with someone who has an unattainable level). If learners enjoyed working alongside weaker students and helping them construct their understanding, then this would be the rebirth of our profession. However, the bums on seats policy is the predominant approach and is a slow lingering death!

    Comment by thesecretdos | 11 Feb 2014 | Reply

  3. Reblogged this on Five against one: Teaching against the odds..

    Comment by bealer81 | 12 Feb 2014 | Reply

  4. A lesson and approach after my own heart – the only way to ‘teach’ a language. Who was it who said we communicate for one reason and one reason only – to say the things we want to say, the way we want to say them, to the people we want to say them to. No more and no less. And trying to make it different is – as the previous comment suggests – a slow, lingering and pretty painful death.

    Comment by Candy | 12 Feb 2014 | Reply

    • As often, Occam’s razor provides a useful heuristic: the easiest explanation is probably the most useful one. More on this soon!

      Comment by thesecretdos | 14 Feb 2014 | Reply

  5. Sounds like my favourite type if class to me)well-balanced,all the issues and problems adressed…it’s a pity thiugh that in my situation (long courses, classes 2times a week for business adults) such classes are not often possible..what I can afford is to include such “linguistically rich” moments into my usual lessons..

    Comment by Svetlana Urisman (Englishteachingnotes) | 13 Feb 2014 | Reply

    • It is a pity, isn’t it? One of the biggest obstacles to teaching this way is student expectations! Along with teacher training, ministerial decrees, administrative pressure…the list goes on!

      Comment by thesecretdos | 14 Feb 2014 | Reply

  6. Dealing with student resistance to a kind of teaching that they don’t expect is key. If we don’t deal with their resistance, it kills us every time.

    Comment by Kate Nonesuch | 15 Feb 2014 | Reply

  7. You mentioned teacher training which I think is a key point too. Imagine teaching the type of lesson outlined in the blog for a DELTA assessed lesson!! One would be hung, drawn and quartered by the assessor before the lesson had even finished.

    Comment by paulsimonduffy | 15 Feb 2014 | Reply

  8. Reblogged this on TESOL Thoughts and commented:
    A thought-provoking post by @TheSecretDoS that reminded me of Dogme language teaching. Language originating from Ss -not books #mustread

    Comment by laurasoracco | 24 Feb 2014 | Reply

  9. A great and thought-provoking read! I am joyed by the fact the lesson responded to the learners’ needs, made use of them as people (and their knowledge) and showed them how their output was ultimately their input with some guidance from the teacher.

    I wrote my entry on this topic, largely designed for my colleagues, to try to encourage them to go into a classroom with the aim to respond to their learners and extract language from them, rather than going in there with a plan which they cling on to as though life depended on it!

    If you’re interested, you can read it here:

    Comment by ashowski | 02 Apr 2014 | Reply

  10. Amen……

    Comment by Candy van Olst | 15 Sep 2014 | Reply

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