The Secret DOS

The Little Emperor Strikes Back

On the level

If there is one thing that is guaranteed to piss me off, it is when students walk into my office and demand to move up a level. Actually, that is just one of a long list of things, and to be honest, it’s not near the top of my “Things Guaranteed To Piss Me Off” compendium (perhaps this could be The Secret DoS book???). But things are OK at work at the moment and I wanted to write something because I’ve already finished reading through my twitter feed, my Feedly streams and the front page of the newspaper (in that order). Let’s see where this one goes.

The killer argument for moving up a level is that a student has “already completed X level”, more often than not in another college. Arguments that fail to kill, but certainly wind, mark or cut are: my friend is in the other level, I don’t like the timetable, I don’t like the teacher, I know all that grammar, I want it to be more challenging. Hmm. As I write, I see that my stock responses to all of these things are contradictory. Which, of course, is synonymous with hypocritical. Write to know yourself??? What kind of advice is that?

This is why, were I an utterly amoral (perhaps even immoral) type, I would stand outside the publishing houses with a flamethrower and raze them to the ground. Yes, goddammit! I believe in book burning. Don’t come over all precious with me. And don’t tell my kids either: they are used to being scolded for throwing books down the stairs. Or leaving books opened face down “to keep my place”. Or turning down the corners of pages (“to keep my place”). What’s wrong? Don’t I want them to keep their places? Sweet gods of lore, is it too much to ask the developing mind to hold a three figure number in mind overnight?

Levels: who came up with that scam, eh? Thanks for ruining language teaching AND language learning. You bastards. Because, it strikes me that if there were no “levels” (which, objectively, there are not), strong students would be sat in class struggling inventively to make themselves understood by their weaker peers and the weaker peers would be sat in class struggling inventively to make themselves understood by Die Starke. I struggle to think of a better language learning environment. 

Such is the pervasiveness of the Level Lie, that such an idea now seems an aberration! OH NO! You can’t group students together in mixed levels!!! Whatever next??? Should they sacrifice goats to the Lord of Language and copulate hermetically over the corpses of dead flies? Where on earth did levels ever get the credence that they currently enjoy? Certainly, when I was at school and The Master was trying to teach us French, we were all mixed levels. Julian was from Italy and took to French like an orange takes to duck; the students from the nice side of town went to France on holidays. The rest of us made do with eating Golden Delicious apples from time to time and didn’t look askance at the concept of Orangina, when it finally came our way. The point being that we got on with it. 

My children “study” German and Spanish at their school. The lessons are fifty minutes long. They are quasi-bilingual in Spanish by dint of Secret Other Half being Spanish. My son has left some homework on the table and he has written (amongst many other things) that when his parents stop him from going out with his friends, he is left at home feeling more bored than an oyster. In class he will sit alongside people who struggle to remember how to count past ten. 

When I lived in Spain, I rented a room from a charming Spanish couple who needed someone to share the rent with. They spoke not a jot of English and I spoke two lines of Spanish: one a Marxian aphorism and one a seductive line of poetry from the pen of Pablo Neruda. I can’t help but think that my Spanish flourished more in this get-up than it would have done if I had put an ad in the paper looking to share with someone who knew one sentence from Das Kapital and no more than two lines from Don Quixote

So…what the hell happened with teaching English as a Foreign Language? Why did we need to fragment the language learning process into all sorts of finely graded shades of shite? My suspicions are that 1 Timothy 6:10 contains the answer. And for those of you who are so lost to redemption that you think I am talking about horse-racing, let me turn to the Holy Book of Christ Ian (hosted by Google) and quote: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” You’re not fecking joking, Timmy.

And what evils are formed when one begins to piss about with many griefs? I’ll tell you: students start defining themselves wildly.

I need my certificate to say that I am B2. 

You don’t even know what that means. 

My employer needs me to be B2.

I see. And did it ever occur to you that this might have been made more likely by you actually doing some work over the last thirty weeks? 

Silent smile.

Oh, fuck it. I’ll put B1/B2 on the certificate. Anyone who reads it will know what’s going on. 

 But students are not the only fruitcakes. 

Why is Billabong in my class? She’s clearly nowhere near B1.

Fascinating. On what grounds have you come to this conclusion?

She’s no more than a low intermediate student.

Intriguing. And how did you work this out?

She’s always making mistakes in her writing.

Get away! So, Doctor, what’s your diagnosis?

She needs to be in an Elementary class. 

The more seasoned among you will understand that Billabong is also a right royal pain in the arse and nobody wants to teach her. What better excuse than she is not the right level? Let’s move her up or down or sideways, but let’s move her. 

And employers too make levels a freaking nightmare. They want to maximise profits, so students can come and go whenever they wish to. We have no way of knowing on a Monday how many students will come in, but miraculously we should be able to test them and find that they fall neatly into one of the 5 classes that we run. And if one of those classes is full, of course, we will interpret the placement test findings appropriately. Which means that classes are inevitably mixed levels. Enter Irate Teacher:

My class is a mixed level.

[Thinks silently] Fuck off. [Says publicly] I know.

How am I supposed to teach them?

[Thinks silently] That’s the easy part. How are they supposed to learn? That’s the question. [Says publicly] You just carry on doing the grrrrreat job that you do. You are the rock upon which I plan to build my tower of rocks.

But what about the book? It says Intermediate and the students are all Upper Intermediate.

[Thinks silently] Yawn. [Says publicly] That’s fucked up. Have you thought about going to the government about this?

Books. Goddam them all to hell. Aside from being dull and shite, they are the crack cocaine of levelheads. Students flourish the books like the Pistorius prosecutor: mai leffel ease knot hella-mentree, easer entermeddyut. It doesn’t matter what the teacher does in class. All students know that the class is determined by whatever level the book claims to be aimed at. It is the prohibitive cost of petrol these days that stops me doing What Needs To Be Done. 

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the educative dream.

I have a dream that one day this profession will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that no students are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day in the cheaply painted classrooms of this college, the sons of not quite advanced students and the daughters of slightly better than intermediate students will be able to sit down together on the cheap and uncomfortable plastic chairs that provide a seat for learning.

I have a dream that one day even the private language schools of the world, sweatshops sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of knowledge and communication.

I have a dream that my three little children will one day study in a language class where they will not be judged by the depth and breadth of their vocabulary  but by their contribution to the lesson.

I have a dream today!






11 Apr 2014 - Posted by | Rants and ramblings


  1. My eyes have seen the glory…… I wish I could stand up and say all of this OUT LOUD to them as think they are the movers and shakers. I shall refrain from addressing every kernel of truth that you have so eloquently laid before me and say only that I have a feeling that if those of us who feel this way could band together, we might, just MIGHT be heard. BUT, Timothy 6:10 prevails I fear and we who know, yes KNOW, that this ‘level’ nonsense is utter codswallop and tartrazine are but pissing in the wind. Tke heart though, we are out there though, trying to get it done despite…….

    Comment by dingtonia | 11 Apr 2014 | Reply

    • Codswallop and tartrazine…I like it!

      Comment by thesecretdos | 14 Apr 2014 | Reply

  2. Reblogged this on Primary Blogging.

    Comment by Tim Taylor | 11 Apr 2014 | Reply

  3. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

    Comment by teachingbattleground | 11 Apr 2014 | Reply

  4. Amen to all that!

    An anecdote about putting students in levels. In the 1980s, and 90s, a few of the teachers who worked in ESADE Idiomas, Barcelona used to go and work for Mario Rinvolucri, who ran the Pilgrims School summer courses. One teacher told me that Mario organised a garden party the day before courses started. At a certain point in the afternoon, he’d ask all the students (more than 200 of them) to go and stand somewhere along the long back wall of the garden,where every 3 yards there was a big white board with a number on it going from 1 (Beginner) to 7 (Advanced). The students went to the number that they thought corresponded to their proficiency level and carried on chatting and drinking with the people around them. If they thought the conversation they were in was too difficult, they moved down to a lower number; if they felt the conversation too “easy” they moved up. In less than an hour, all the students were happy with the “level” they’d put themselves in. I won’t bother to spell out the benefits of such a process.

    Comment by geoffjordan | 12 Apr 2014 | Reply

    • I have entertained the idea of allowing students to self-diagnose. It is very tempting! Watch this space…

      Comment by thesecretdos | 14 Apr 2014 | Reply

  5. If you do publish a book titled “Things Guaranteed to Piss Me Off” would it mean that the chimp will have overruled the human and the computer of the Secret DoS? hehe (Good book recommendation by the way! Enjoying the read).

    But back to your post…

    I think having taught a *very* mixed level group without a textbook last year in China was the greatest experience I’ve had in terms of having to think outside the box and be creative to make things work, but I was so insecure about my lessons. So full of doubt that I was not planning lessons that would engage students who struggled with the language. Other days I worried the lessons were so easy for the more advanced students that they were pretty much doing all the work for the other students. Having said this, having a textbook would have made matters worse, and I appreciated having the freedom to create my own curriculum and alter it as weeks went by. I still cling to the comfort of the referring to CEFR levels because I think it gives a starting point to identify language needs, but I realize that in the end, many people are a mix of proficiencies in all levels.

    Anyway, another great post Secret DoS 🙂

    Comment by laurasoracco | 14 Apr 2014 | Reply

    • Thanks, Laura. And I am really glad that you are enjoying The Chimp Paradox. Actually, to be fair, I don’t really mind the CEFR levels because they are so huge. You are either a basic user, a reasonable user or a great user. If we are going to have levels like this, ELT is going to be a much more pleasant place to be!

      Comment by thesecretdos | 16 Apr 2014 | Reply

  6. There is certainly a great deal to find out about
    this topic. I like all the points you’ve made.

    Comment by servidores dedicados | 07 Dec 2014 | Reply

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