The Secret DOS

The Little Emperor Strikes Back

Teaching – WTF?

Yikes! How I struggle with teaching English these days. I have no more clue how to teach listening than I do how to teach reading. I have next to no idea how to teach speaking and writing is the only rock upon which I believe I can build my church. Well, that’s not strictly true. I do believe that I know how to teach. It’s just that I don’t know how to teach English. Mmm. Perhaps a public forum like the internet is not the most appropriate place for such confessions. Let’s just say that today I am writing on behalf of a friend…

Teaching writing is easy. Writing is a skill that develops with time. As you can probably guess, I am a frustrated writer anyway. How many books would I love to have written?! I can’t say the name J.K. Rowling without spitting with envy. Luckily, my students want a very specific type of writing – one they invariably call the Eyelets writing. This involves teaching them about how to churn out a short essay that purports to describe some sort of table, chart, graph or diagram; it also involves teaching them how to churn out a longer discursive essay about some rather anodyne topic.

My approach here has been to hunt down a One Size Fits All template that I drill into them and then spend the rest of the course repeating enhancing and correcting. I don’t know if it works for the students, but they buy into it with a passion that is rarely seen in my classroom.

Teaching listening always has me reaching for John Field’s book. I bought it over a year ago and have yet to read it properly, but I sense that it carries within it the formula that I need to calm my nerves and provide me with a roadmap to freedom and wisdom. For now, I reluctantly turn towards TED and try to think of inventive things to ask students to do. Inventive for me often means difficult, challenging, uninspiring, frustrating. I try to think of the types of listening that students will encounter when they progress, as is their deepest desire, to a British university. This week I delivered a lightning speed dictation of one sentence at each of them. They had to write it down and then find the other sentences that went with theirs. Once found, they had to order them and then determine what was being talked about. They were given the audioscript at the end in order to facilitate their checking. Most fell away at the second hurdle. Four students out of eleven persisted until the end. I blamed them, of course, but my inner wisdom told me that I should really be looking within for the answer.

Teaching reading is a weakness that I have always resented. I loooooooove reading. If I am passionate about anything, it is reading. Oh. And my kids. Of course, the kids are lovely too. In a fire, I would rescue the kids first. Then I’d demand that they help me by running back into the flames to rescue some of the books that I treasure. While they were doing that, I would nurse my Kindle and reassure it that everything was going to be alright. But teach reading?!?! Can it be done? I doubt it. To help me explore my thoughts on this matter, I bought The Psychology of Reading (check out that price tag!). Needless to say, like most professional books of 496 pages, it remains unread. My strategy for reading has been to force the students to do lots of it. I treat texts as vehicles of language. Language that can be stopped and stared at; that can be chopped up and bits taken away, like Lord Elgin at the Acropolis. Intuitively, I think, the students will learn something from the experience. But am I kidding myself? I certainly am not the reader in L2 that I am in L1. If books are like cake, in L1, I eat like an untamed savage – eyes constantly on my dining companions, arms shielding my plate from potential attackers. I am ready to tear out the heart of anyone who tries to stop my guzzling and I hold the empty plate up to the sky, quizzically examining it to see if it will yield any more of this delicious substance. In L2, I am capable of leaving half of the cake on the plate as I pronounce with ennui that I have had enough. Teachingwise, I suspect that the clue is to build up the mental frameworks that underpin texts so that students have a working knowledge of the route that most stories, articles, yadda yaddas plod as they meander from the beginning to the middle to the end. Students don’t tend to love this approach.

As for speaking…I have not a jot of an idea. Short of saying that I suspect that the secret is as simple as giving students opportunities to speak and then screeching at them in faux incomprehension whenever they make a mistake: WHAT DO YOU MEAN? “SHE HAVE SISTER”?!?!?! WHAT ARE YOU SAYING? DO YOU NEED A DOCTOR? DO YOU HAVE CYSTITIS? WHO IS SHEILA? Can it really be this simple? For years I have been looking for an answer to this question. Can speaking be taught?

I curse the bodkins who decided that language learning could be broken into skills. They brought down upon me wave after wave of indecision, feelings of inadequacy, frustration, and self-hate. Language is language I have come to believe. It’s not about reading, listening, speaking, writing. It’s about constructing and deconstructing meaning. No more than this. No less than this. Why don’t we teach students how to say what they mean and how to check what the others mean as well? In my syllabus, we’d have construction skills and deconstruction skills. Construction skills might include checking understanding, taking into account what the others already know, building from scratch, finding alternative ways of saying something, providing examples to help the other person etc. Deconstruction skills would include checking for miscomprehension, relating the received message to your own experience, breaking large amounts of text into manageable chunks and reassembling them.

Teaching on the other hand is simply the act of getting students to believe that you have something worth saying and something worth listening to. I used to be better at this. These days it is not uncommon to find at least one student who falls asleep in my class. I am no match for the allure of the [BLEEEEEEEP]ing touchscreen. I want to wrest their iPhones and iPads out of their hands and use them to beat the sleeping beauties to a pulp before tossing all offending parties out of the window and into the canal below. As I have a mortgage to pay, on the other hand, I restrain myself to a withering burst of sarcasm and the terrifying arch of an eyebrow. I look forward twenty years and ask myself how I will be able to compete for their attention when I am 20 years closer to the grave and they are but twenty years from the cradle. In my moments of despair, I reassure myself that English language teaching will have gone the way of the lamplighters, the beadles and the town criers by then. We will be interesting relics that children of the future will be baffled by (just as we are to the children of the present…).


13 Nov 2014 - Posted by | Rants and ramblings


  1. So glad that you are back! Been experiencing a mild version of what you’ve described above, but instead of skills alone, I also have a themeless, grammar class. Feels like doing math for the sake of it sometimes. Your point about “teaching students to say what they mean and check what others mean” made me think many of us probably need this in our L1 too.

    Comment by laurasoracco | 13 Nov 2014 | Reply

    • Thank you for the welcome back…it’s good to be here!

      Yes – I think a lot of the world’s problems are down to our assumption that we know what The Other is really saying.

      Incidentally, I think Doing Math for the Sake Of It is not always a bad thing!

      Comment by TheSecretStoic | 13 Nov 2014 | Reply

  2. The more experienced and qualified I get, and the more I read and listen to people tell me how to ‘teach’, the more I question what I do in class and whether it’s effective or the ‘right’ way to develop their skills. Then I wonder whether the students I teach now are developing any quicker or better than those I taught in the beginning when I just gave them the opportunity to practise. Not sure. Glad to hear I’m not the only one.
    And grammar. Don’t get me started on grammar.

    Comment by klloyd05 | 13 Nov 2014 | Reply

    • What’s grammar?!?! OMG…don’t tell me there’s more to this than the bloody skills!

      In all seriousness though, perhaps it is this never-ending quest for the right answer that keeps us sane and keeps us attuned to student response.

      Or perhaps that is a self-serving explanation that allows me to see myself in a heroic light?

      Comment by TheSecretStoic | 13 Nov 2014 | Reply

  3. So much to talk about here – but PLEASE get rid of this wallpaper.

    Comment by geoffjordan | 13 Nov 2014 | Reply

  4. Good to hear your voice again! 😉
    I love your syllabus suggestion.
    As literacy is right up my alley, I’ll give my 2cents.
    For me we don’t teach reading, we provoke thinking. Teach or not to teach and what is teach of reading at the end boils down to the concept of developing literacy X decoding. Just as any other skill, it’s not just the act in itself but what it can be accomplished through it.

    So ok, reading largely depends on motivation and purpose!

    And I totally agree with you when you say that the way things have been done or forced upon us (teachers/students) seems most of the time a waste of time and everyone gets frustrated with that. However, the fact that it looks that way should not discourage us. It should instead encourage us to experiment and test our own hypothesis. Have you ever read John F. Fanselow’s book Breaking Rules? or Try the opposite? Putting away the methodology books for while was really good for me. John does help us move beyond assumptions to a more concrete approach to analyse what is going on in the class/learning situations without really prescribing to anything that might make the experience static and pointless.

    A side note:
    the same happens when students are learning to read and write. A child needs to develop their oral skills inasmuch as reading, the dialogue between the two is (for me) very important for developing the ability to convey the message in written form. But that is not what usually happens in a traditional setting. Reading and writing are treated mostly in silent and the only voice you hear is the teacher. There is no time to think or make sense of anything they are doing or much opportunity for speaking it out. Listening and reading provokes one to feel, think and without the chance to react to it, the act becomes dull and meaningless. Even if one does not like what they hear or read, he or she can have something to say about it. The fact they do is important and how it is delivered is the media, the role of the teacher for me when comes to English would be to help them say it in a better and clearer way without affecting/changing their message.

    Comment by Rose Bard | 13 Nov 2014 | Reply

    • Thank you, Rosa. I will look out the book that you mention. It sounds like the book I wish I’d written!

      Comment by TheSecretDoS | 13 Nov 2014 | Reply

      • I hope you find them useful/refreshing. 🙂

        Comment by Rose Bard | 13 Nov 2014

      • I don’t know where the extraneous “a” came from in your name! Apologies!

        Comment by TheSecretDoS | 13 Nov 2014

      • I like Rosa. No apologies needed. 😀 So glad you wrote this post. You always give me thinks to think about. 🙂

        Comment by Rose Bard | 13 Nov 2014

    • ThinGs not thinKs. 😉

      Comment by Rose Bard | 13 Nov 2014 | Reply

  5. I often have the same feelins, though listening is my personal teaching rock. I teach separate skills classes and reading is my bane. Though, in all my classes, I’d say (just maybe) I incorporate the construction and deconstruction of meaning. You’re definitely not alone in your feelings

    Comment by anthonyteacher | 13 Nov 2014 | Reply

    • I’d love to hear how you approach listening some time…

      Comment by TheSecretDoS | 13 Nov 2014 | Reply

  6. Where it reads students, I meant to say “children” learning to read and write (sidenote)

    Comment by Rose Bard | 13 Nov 2014 | Reply

  7. The old wine in the old bottle. Splendiid!

    Comment by geoffjordan | 13 Nov 2014 | Reply

  8. I love the honesty of this. You have a rare ability to break things down into their component parts and look at these parts unflinchingly. I’m glad you’re back.

    Comment by joannalw | 13 Nov 2014 | Reply

    • The ability is rare in me! I think it only comes about in the early hours. Certainly, by the time I get to work it has evaporated…
      Thank you for your kind words!

      Comment by TheSecretDoS | 13 Nov 2014 | Reply

  9. Hullooo, Secret DoS. Glad to see you back and as you spit and seethe at J.K. so I at you. As I struggle to ‘teach’ students who can more or less manage, but for lack of confidence and two who have no business taking lessons in the first place, being more competent than many lazy native speakers, I wonder what the hell I think I’m doing and who the hell dreamt up this ridiculous notion of “teaching English”. Fie on’t, I say, fie.

    Comment by Candy van Olst | 13 Nov 2014 | Reply

    • There’s nothing worse for a teacher’s confidence than the Good Student! My sympathies.

      Comment by TheSecretDoS | 14 Nov 2014 | Reply

    • Presumably it comes in audiobook?

      Comment by TheSecretDoS | 14 Nov 2014 | Reply

      • Are you a fan of audiobooks too? love them! I wish books for English teachers would be produced in audio too.

        Comment by Rose Bard | 14 Nov 2014

  10. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

    Comment by teachingbattleground | 14 Nov 2014 | Reply

  11. I´ve come to the conclusion that after 40 years of teaching EFL, you can´t teach anybody anything. All you can do is set out your stall and see who wants to squeeze the fruit. There are a million metaphors one could use and all are equally useful / useless. Someone who wants to learn will do it anyway with or without you. It´s been a wonderful and fruitful !!!! life and i¨ve thoroughly enjoyed the journey but have I made any difference??? Not a jot !

    Comment by Connie OGrady | 14 Nov 2014 | Reply

    • Completely agree. You might just be able to sell the fruit to some people (the ones that give you pot sombreros and origami wotsits at course’s end) but yeah… It might have happened without you.

      Comment by vilgessuola | 15 Nov 2014 | Reply

      • And I would like to make this duo a trio. Our slogan? “It might not have been you.” Wonderful!

        Comment by TheSecretDoS | 16 Nov 2014

  12. For the last three years I have investigating in my own practice whether learners are learning something from me or not and I see that the problem does not lie in whether students learn or do not learn from me. They learn and learn a great deal if you see yourself in a different role, problem is that we are simplifying teaching to transmiting information or passing on knowledge. As a source of knowledge we compete to many other and yeah, they can get it from other places, remembering that if we are reducing it to the learning of words/grammar/culture/skills. Let’s take games, for example: they can learn from games? sure. Those who play games do learn by doing it and immitating what they hear, and they also connect actions to verbal response. They become better at understand spoken English, learn tons of vocabulary, and among other things they sharpen their critical skills. But gamers are few in our classes. If you have a teen and he gets bored easily, ask him how much he loves video games and play them! However, these kids usually aren’t as great in output situations and able to use English at all situations because they have been through a great experience with English outside the class. Their ability to express orally is not as good as it seems. Especially if they totally try to avoid other kinds of learning experiences. All we need to do to start of is start knowing our learners and we will know what they need pedagogically. I’m yet to learn how we can do that in so little time (sometimes we have just a semester with a student) and with a fixed curriculum, that is what I’m aiming to do next year, discovering how I can really cater for students need in a diversity of needs in the classroom working with a coursebook. Wish me luck!

    One more thing…
    Teaching nor learning is about transmiting information and although this seems to have become a common thing to say, in practice we’re still doing it when you present vocabulary and grammar, ask students to repeat orally or practice it first in order to use it (or at least it is expected to) accurately later or remember all the words they had been taught. If you reduce teaching to that, then yeah! no reason for even us to exist. And therefore, frustrating. But on the other hand, if you take into consideration that learning is complex, you will understand that teaching is too. I don’t teach my students words anymore. They have dictionaries for that. That was a huge change for me and also for learners. If I let the system reduce me to a source of words, it is diminishing my role. I’m more than someone who just show the way or how to say something, to correct their mistakes/errors and lead them to become proficient. If I could change the word teacher, I would change it for mediator. Mediating seems to be much more fun than teaching for me. I have a blast and so do the students.

    I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this proposition I’m making. Secret Dos, do you mind me writing a summary in my blog based on your posts and comments?

    Comment by Rose Bard | 16 Nov 2014 | Reply

    • The honour would be mine! And I would love to read some more about the role of the mediator as you see it. I’m not sure exactly what it is that we are as teachers – these days I’m tempted to see our role as similar to the coach/manager/trainer of a football team. The talent is really within the players, but we have the vision to deploy it in the most effective manner.

      Today’s lesson is a speaking lesson. Thinking of it from a training perspective, I plan to do some drills where the students will work on some of the features of connected speech (decoding sentences such as Maxi Saul way smiling or Joe Wee Yan Die Yah Ran Gree. From the drill we will move into the game with a focus on developing one particular skill (probably checking for comprehension). This will end up with some coaching feedback and then a free-for-all, followed by a cool-down and some stretching…although I’m not quite sure about the last bit…

      Comment by TheSecretDoS | 17 Nov 2014 | Reply

      • Great! Thanks! And when the student don’t seem to have the talent, the motivation or the will. What should we do? cut them from the team? Just looking at the different perpectives of the role of a coach/manager/trainer. I follow Reven Faurstein principles for mediation and I think it is more common in our field (at least in Brazil) the concept of facilitator which for me is better than the ones you mentioned above.
        However, mediation is based on intervention. In my country there is a specific specialization often taken by those who want to become specialists in literacy. That means that we will study everything related to learning (theories, case studies and research-based solutions) to read and write and be able to investigate and intervining according to the need of the students. Feuerstein work aims to equip teachers to investigate the problems in learning and act upon it. His model is complex and I don’t use it myself. But I keep the principles, simply put is the view that everyone can learn and we need to intervine if we want them to do so, he offers a series of principles for us to anchor on. However, everyone has a different need and we can’t treat them as one size fits it all (notion already accepted by most teacher in theory at least). As Feuerstein work deals with cognitive development and needs to make learning experience more productive, it does not deal with our own challenges related to learning another language. But again, knowing the why is just as important, and not so much the how as it seems when comes to learning a language. That is where I find John F. Fanselow view of alternatives and investigating what is going on with the help of learners (the doers of the process) useful. I have learned from the students more in the last 3 years that I had been in the over 10 before on my own or trying to make all the decisions on my own. I was googling to offer you some sort of idea of what mediation is in Feuerstein’s view of the concept, and found this interesting article. It is not so much explaining what mediation is but how it impacted the teachers.
        I came across Feuerstein’s theory of mediation back in 2009 through Marcos Meier lecture and later book. And I have other books based on research even with those we seemed incapable of learning by regular school traditional view of learning or even by those who thought they had been applying construtivism principles.
        In the doc above he explains the concept of mediation.
        You gave me food for thought with this discussion. I’ll try to get the post written by the end of the week.

        Comment by Rose Bard | 17 Nov 2014

  13. Forgot to mention a reading project I ran with my teens this past couple of months and I tried to follow ER principles to a great extent, I did not make any intervention on their writing or oral presentation (it was more of socialization of their stories with the group which I have recorded) unless they asked me to, or I did it in order to clarify points so everyone could follow the story being told. So, my last reading project should be very revealing (for me at least) as to whether learners do notice language and is able to self-correct themselves without teacher’s intervention or a kind of need to produce more accurate language. Very few learners I noticed are very perceptive and conscious of what is going on around them, but most of them don’t. Those few tend to learn despite of us and with us when they know how to get from you what they need. They know how to value knowledge in others. But those are so few in the class. They are not the norm as I see it.

    Comment by Rose Bard | 25 Nov 2014 | Reply

  14. I learned to love reading the summer Round Table gave away a free personal pizza for reading a book. Maybe we need to open up pizza shops instead of language schools..

    On a completely related tangent, I am leaving the profession (for accounting, eck) and put together a website of stuff that actually helped. We used videos to get our students talking. Free talk never worked since no one has anything to say when you just ask them to talk about what they are interested in. We put together a bunch of “ESL” easy to listen to videos about fun stuff like Starbucks and space robots. It gave our students a way to speak about something they understood. Hopefully it’ll give you another resource to use. It’s free. Good luck =)

    Comment by suniloneal34 | 15 Feb 2015 | Reply

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