The Secret DOS

The Little Emperor Strikes Back

The elephant in the room

I want to begin by writing, “There is one fact that seems to me to be entirely absent from the mainstream literature on teaching English as a Foreign Language and yet which is, at the same time, a truth universally acknowledged.” The problem is, however, that I find it almost impossible to believe that nobody has highlighted this singular truth. What kind of disservice are we doing to the teachers of tomorrow if we fail to acknowledge this one vital verity? Have we universally adopted a pledge of omerta? So, before I release the hounds, let me apologise to one and all if today’s rant is far from original; or let me stand adjudged by my peers if it should be that today’s vitriol is inspired by a phenomenon which is unique to my classrooms and my experience alone. 

The counsel for the prosecution…Teachers, new and old, but especially new, it is to you that I direct myself on this lacklustre Thursday morning; it is to you that I signal the pachyderm parked in the parlour; it is to you that I raise one finger skyward and declaim this singular truth that I consider to be absent from the literature that claims to teach you how to teach; hear my words, ye wise ones; listen to me, you that are schooled. And try my words with your ears-stroke-eyes as you try meat (or soy-based substitutes) with your palate. This truth I speak, I lay before you now, that you might teach in a way that is more consistent with the ways of learning. It is this:

Most students have no interest whatsoever in learning English; their apathy towards learning English is the only thing that stops them from hating it with a passion. 

There is a corollary: To counter this apathy and undercurrent of hatred, ELT recommends Making Lessons Such Fun That Learners Forget Where They Are or What They Are Doing. 

Which in turn, gives rise to another corllary: And this is the source of all of our evils.

In short, the proposition which I seek to defend today is that ELT does teachers, students, learning and teaching a great disservice by not acknowledging that a great many of our students are in our classrooms today because they have been coerced.The younger ones may be there because their parents, governments or other authority figures have decided that they need to learn English and they will bloody well learn English whether they like it or not; the older ones may be there for the same reasons or because they “know” that they will “need” English because English is apparently a global language that everyone needs to know if they are to lead happy and fulfilled lives prior to departing from this world and moving on to the next.

When I trained, if it can be called such a thing, this simple truth seemed to be absent from the world that was presented to me as a wannabe teacher. It may be that in those days, people were desperate to learn English because they wanted to better understand the cultures, traditions and literature of this small island nation. But this is something that I doubt with as much doubt as I can muster. In my  coursebooks and lessons, there was much implication that the teacher who failed to ignite the passion of his or her students was a teacher who was worthy of vilification and in need of much introspective self-castigation. For the joys of  a student were the responsibility of their teacher. Grammar needed to be fun; lessons had to sound with laughter; communication had to be achieved through games; let music sound and songs be sung; let learning be fun though the heavens may fall, if I may paraphrase Kant and the Kants who taught me.

I was young and foolish then; I’m old and wiser now.

You see, it is my feeling that in the drive to make lessons more lively, we took our eyes off the prize. Before we knew it, we were no longer teaching people how to learn English; we had sold our soul for a few scattered smiles. Slowly, what it meant to be a teacher was eroded. We were now responsible for entertaining our charges; charged with making the short time they spent in our classrooms that little more bearable; beset with jazz chants, communicative games, listening activities, and other such artifices that were focused primarily on sweetening the spoonful of medicine that needed to go down. And, quicker than you can say homeopathy-is-a-scam-regardless-of-all-the-anecdotal-guff-that-is-spouted-in-support-of-it, we started shoving spoonfuls of sugar down people’s throats and forgetting the medicine that it was supposed to sweeten.

Teaching, it seems to me, is for many people about sharing activities that are Great! That are Fun! That Get Students Up and About! En breve, teaching is no longer about teaching. It is more like being a redcoat at Butlins. 

Learning, it seems to me, is for many people about being entertained. Do you like learning English? is often met with a bashful smile and an implicit Are you out of your freaking mind? If you push on with your investigation, you are likely to be told that the person you are waterboarding finds English a little boring

Materials, it seems to me, are for many people expected to be Engaging! Motivating! Engrossing! No longer are they primarily sought out for their educative potential; they are prized for their ability to sucker students into using them.

And I want to say that I think things need to change. I want to say that I aspire to a classroom where learning is a sufficiently motivating force in itself ; where participation is coerced through a sense of responsibility to the community that is sat, corralled behind the desks; where students engage with the subject, perhaps out of sense of duty to their classmates, perhaps out of a sense of respect for the teacher, perhaps because they can see that something worth having is worth working for.

I want to work in a profession where students are prepared to engage in rather dull and uninspiring activity that may quite easily be characterised as hard graft and where teachers are primarily focused upon delivering the rewards that come from blood, sweat, toil and tears (although the first one is intended to be most definitely metaphorical) and any entertainment is happily accidental. 

I want to see more widespread recognition of the fact that students don’t actually like learning English and that this is OK! It does not mean that we have to try and discover ever-more demanding ways of entertaining the masses; it just means that we need to be sympathetic to their plight and help them focus on the end goals. It doesn’t mean that we need to sweeten the bitter pill of learning; it means that we need to explain the benefits of hard work and celebrate the joys of the jejune.

I raise the banners in support of rote-learning; of listening to the teacher; of sweating your way through a drill; of engaging in a conversation and then picking it apart; of listening to the same audio time and time again until its familiarity renders it unfamiliar; of sitting own quietly and reading; of asking and answering questions and of listening to the questions of others. I advocate the processing of long difficult texts and the forensic examination of how they were formed; I champion the benefits of oratory, or rhetoric, of frustratingly challenging tasks that stretch learners out of shape and which are utterly at odds with the world where Boring is Bad and good is measured by how instantaneous the gratification is. Let us revel in how hard it is to learn a language and how rewarding our efforts can be! Let’s be confident that learning is its own reward and recapture a concept where English is learnt to communicate well and effectively, not to pass an exam or to serve some instrumentally mundane gate-keeping role. 

In summary, let’s be upfront about the fact that most people hate learning English and recognise that, unfortunately, this is their problem, not ours. We don’t need to alter our ways of teaching to accommodate the prejudices that other people have: they need to alter their behaviour to recognise that their prejudices might not be shared by all of the students in the class and are likely to interfere with the effective learning of the community that they have sought entry to. We should be mindful of the challenges that they have set themselves and seek to help them overcome their challenges through engaging them in learning-focused activities that are relevant and demanding; and we should always take time to praise and point out where the learning is happening. That, I think, is quite often the most respectful kind of motivation we can offer the students; and it is one, I hope, that students respect more than any other.



03 Apr 2014 - Posted by | Rants and ramblings


  1. I am now teaching in an environment where most of our students really do enjoy learning English and where we don’t need to jolly them along with gauds, conceits, knacks, trifles, nosegays – I’m see I’m luckier than I thought. It beats teaching bored teenagers.

    Comment by Steve | 03 Apr 2014 | Reply

    • I may be being slightly uncharitable, but only ever so slightly. Even those hard-working students in my class are primarily interested in higher IELTS scores than in English.

      Comment by thesecretdos | 03 Apr 2014 | Reply

  2. Wonderful post! No need for jazz hands in the classroom, just teach the thing.

    Comment by smittenness | 03 Apr 2014 | Reply

    • With the corresponding “teach teachers how to teach”, not how to perform. Which may also imply “pay them like real teachers”. Ah! There’s the rub…

      Comment by thesecretdos | 03 Apr 2014 | Reply

  3. Typing “tefl fun” into a Google search throws up 1.5 millions hits. Start clicking on some of those links and you’ll end up feeling more like Mistah Kurtz than you usually do, secret dos. But if you type “elt fun”, you get under 10,000 hits … which tells us something, I think, about tefl.
    Tefl and elt are constructs whose history has been traced by, among others, Richard Smith ( Both assume that students sit in classrooms for one reason only: they want to learn English. This is so manifestly not the case in most skool environments, where English is just another subject, but even in private language schools (after-skool schools) there are a host of reasons for students sitting in the room.
    But let’s not be too negative. Let’s celebrate the creativity of ‘What You Can Do with a Blindfold: 10 Fun ESL Games’, ‘What You Can Do with a Ball: 7 Fun ESL Games’, or ‘Fun Activities with Conditionals’.

    Comment by philipjkerr | 03 Apr 2014 | Reply

    • Worthy is what I am not, to have you under my roof! Welcome, you honour me with your presence!

      Comment by thesecretdos | 03 Apr 2014 | Reply

  4. Bite the bullet, crumble the cookie, get on with it and don´t moan too much !! No gain without pain ! Sick to death of dealing with boredom, I´m not a babysitter, clown or psychiatrist. I hate with vehemence all those “jolly” games, books and recipes for happy fulfilled learners. If you´re not prepared to shit get off the pot! What ever happened to doing a good honest job? Where are the learners who come to class because they want to learn? Since when did adolescents have to be entertained permanently ? What´s wrong with being overloaded and learning how to think? Since when was a little stress bad for you ? What´s wrong with grading and honestly explaining when a student is wasting your time and his by producing rubbish essays that he scribbled on his lap on the way to class? Go and have a massage if you want pampering, come to me if you want, really want, YOU , not your pushy parents to learn English, and if not plug in your Game Boy and stay stupid!
    Pissed Off
    Tunbridge Wells

    Comment by Connie OGrady | 03 Apr 2014 | Reply

    • Am trying to work out if it is possible that I have sleepwalked to Tunbridge Wells, typed this, and sleepwalked home again?

      O tempora, o mores!

      Comment by thesecretdos | 03 Apr 2014 | Reply

  5. I once worked with a DOS who was approached by a parent who complained that her child did not find her English class entertaining. The DOS replied that there was a tennis club down the road, take her there instead.

    Sadly though, in my experience, most DOSes are not like this. One of their main goals seems to avoid being bothered by whining parents and complaining students. They are also fearful that said parents will take their money elsewhere, and their school will gain a reputation for boring the kids. So, if a parent or student complains that lessons are boring, then the DOS asks the teacher to make them less boring. Also, teachers don’t like being complained about, especially in such a precarious industry – with such a lack of professional reputation, and so feel that if students are laughing through their lessons, there is less chance of being summoned by the DOS for a ‘chat’.

    Comment by paulsimonduffy | 03 Apr 2014 | Reply

    • of course, laughter and actually doing something useful are not incompatible. I am not opposed to entertainment as much as I am to lessons which are planned around being entertaining.

      And now I am gutted to hear that there are people who try to avoid having a chat with their DOS. It really is lonesome, slightly above the bottom.

      Comment by thesecretdos | 04 Apr 2014 | Reply

      • Not avoiding having a chat, but avoiding having a ‘chat’.

        Personally, I think just the fact of learning something new should be intrinsically entertaining. Also, the “jazz chants, communicative games, listening activities” to which you refer are often not particularly entertaining, at least in my experience, but teachers have been conditioned to think they are.

        Comment by paulsimonduffy | 04 Apr 2014

  6. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

    Comment by teachingbattleground | 06 Apr 2014 | Reply

  7. In my very sad way I was researching words which appear / don’t appear in TEFL books the other day. ‘Serious’ didn’t even appear let alone be taught in 3 out of the 5 elementary coursebooks I looked at, but of course they all taught ‘fun’. And yet serious is twice as common in terms of frequency. Our search for fun seems to even twist the language we teach!!
    Having taught a bunch of students failing to reach their IELTS 6.5 because essentially they want a degree in Business rather than to learn English or the Saudi student who wants extra classes in the afternoon, but won’t sit and read a simplified reader for ten minutes, I also have much sympathy with the idea that students may well be better off by being locked in a room and forced to learn 100 words for an hour or two rather than going to a class.

    Comment by Andrew Walkley | 14 Apr 2014 | Reply

    • A seriously sad indictment! I’ve just replied elsewhere wishing that you and Hugh would put out a book via self-publishing that was structured around a lexical approach; a book structured around memorisation would also be an invaluable addition to the canon.

      Comment by thesecretdos | 17 Apr 2014 | Reply

      • Hey, you never know as we’re in the process of setting up a new company called Lexical Lab to do materials and training. In the meantime, we’re hard at work on your bete noir – the coursebook! Got to earn a crust somehow, sorry!

        Comment by Andrew Walkley | 18 Apr 2014

      • Andrew says “we’re hard at work on your bete noir – the coursebook! I’d be very interested in more info. on this Andrew.

        Comment by geoffjordan | 18 Apr 2014

      • Sorry I highlighted the wrong bit. I’m interested in the new company. I’d like to collaborate – no money required, but I can offer some. Sorry secretdos for using your blog like this, but can’t find an email for Andrew.

        Comment by geoffjordan | 18 Apr 2014

  8. SecretDos! I couldn’t agree more with all you have written in your post. Fun is the buzz word and students are aware of it. Schools have that in their slogans (unfortunally) and we are living in a time (at least here in Brazil) where learning time (not just a language) has to be fun! It is so true that Games in Education are becoming more and more popular. Back in 2012 I took part in a collaborative course online with the same title. It was suppose to be a serious reflection, but all people did was to jump into the conclusion that games were the solution for the new generation totally forgetting that there were things we cannot skip in the process. It pissed me off to hear teachers saying that everybody enjoyed games and because of that we should use more games in education. Instead of joining the chorus, I decided to speak to my students about it. I found out that,
    -very few of them were truly gamers;
    -some of them played games occasionaly;
    – and some didn’t play at all.
    Among the ones who play games on a regular basis, the type of games varies a lot. It all depend on how the person likes to be challenged. Some of them liked silly games or games that were just entertaining in nature, and no real effort was needed.
    I asked the true gamers what they thought of education in general and if whether we could learn stuff from playing the games they played. I was amazed by their responses.
    Last year I started a series of posts where I was personally investigating ludicity and playfulness for my own entertainment. An effort to understand why it is such a need to have fun. I arrived at the conclusion that having authentic games would be a great way to put language into practice. And some of them the use of language required is very little, like guessing games for instance. A game would be good for language practice if a good amount of language would be used. Competitiveness is an aspect of games, and it is a great motivator but it can also be frustrating for some and counterproductive if you are trying to foster a learning community.
    A pity that pleasure does not come from knowing, being capable of doing it!
    I wish FUN was not leading EFL, but it is.

    Comment by Rose Bard | 23 Apr 2014 | Reply

    • Thanks Rose. What a great example of how actually asking students can reveal that teachers’ assumptions about students are not always right!

      Sometimes students really enjoy hard, dull work – especially if they can see that ot results in a shift in their ability to use the target language confidently.

      What a balm to hear that your students knew this!

      Comment by thesecretdos | 24 Apr 2014 | Reply

      • Last year when I took John F Fanselow course over iTDi in April, I told him that I didn’t think that my teens would be keen to listen and transcribe stuff. He challenged me to use something they liked the most like songs or tv series. I chose tv series. I don’t think I ever blogged about this, only shared in the course forum at the time. So I just did write one using all the ideas around from past blogposts and new ones from you and Russel Mayne.
        Thanks for always making us think and question stuff. The kind of stuff I like reading. #thought provoking

        Comment by Rose Bard | 24 Apr 2014

  9. […] was visiting The Secret Dos blog yesterday and read another of her great posts. I totally agree that entertainment has been over emphasized, and practices that would be more […]

    Pingback by Challenging Learners to listen with both ears! | ROSE BARD – Teaching Journal | 24 Apr 2014 | Reply

  10. So refreshing to know that there are people like you who can boldly announce to the world that whims and fancies garbed as new ideas aimed at understanding the students better on the basis of various nebulous theories do not serve the purpose of making the students learn the language. This post holds out the hope that teaching remains a really enjoyable and purposeful activity.

    Comment by ksrao | 27 Apr 2014 | Reply

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