The Secret DOS

The Little Emperor Strikes Back


I have spent this term trying to establish an approach to language learning that will allow students to feel that they have some control over their progress. Learning a language, it seems to me, is easiest when you know Sweet Fanny Adams. At this point in your career, everything is new and not a day goes by (should go by) when you don’t learn something that you didn’t know before. By the time you get past these halcyon days, it all becomes a bit of a drudge and you begin to lose interest. Or worse, you come to my office and moan about how you’re not learning anything and placing the blame for your ineffectiveness on your poor, long-suffering teacher. When I was learning my L2, I had one of the worst language teachers I have ever met. She would begin to go through the class with the question, How are you? starting in the top left hand corner and working her way methodically to the bottom right hand corner. Did I feel that she hampered my learning? No. How could she? It was my learning…it just meant that I didn’t learn much from her teaching…which is not the same as saying that I didn’t learn much from her…

This blog post comes from my recent (and yet probably mind-boggingly obvious) discovery that the best way to circumnavigate your way through the vastness of eternity is one step at a time. Huh? I know…it sounds repugnant. But bear with me and let me try to make amends.

Language learning, I would hope we can all agree, is a lifelong pursuit. When we die, it continues without us. So actually it becomes more than a lifelong pursuit. It is an eternal pursuit. If you disagree with me, you can let yourself out. Which is a politer way of finishing the sentence than originally occurred to me…if only I knew my readership…

On the roads of this eternal pursuit are us. The teachers and learners who wander from roadstop to roadstop, looking for the menu that has everything on it and prices that are within our range. At the beginning of the journey, we take a quick look at what’s on offer and buy loads of things: waffles, coffee, bacon, eggs etc. At the beinning it is hard to come away from the roadstop and not feel that we have achieved. But a bit further on down the road, progress seems to stop. We want to keep on going, but it feels like nothing ever works any more.

One step at a time comes in around this point. We are convincing ourselves that we are just marching up and down on the same spot, but that’s because we aren’t looking carefully enough at the path. Look again, Grasshopper. Now what do you see? Nothing? Oh ferchrissakes…let’s abandon this 1970s metaphor and move on to the harsh love of the 21st century…

Simply put, I am saying somthing that I expect many of you cottoned on to years ago. I am a slow learner. In the 21st century, it’s frowned upon to make fun of people like me.

The way to keep learning going is to break the eternal journey into bite-sized chunks. My suggestion is five-a-day. I don’t know where I came up with that little soundbite… What the hell am I on about? Almost there now…a Secret DoS has to try and spin the words out if the idea that they are expressing is ridiculously simple. It’s the ego…

A long time ago, I abandoned coursebooks, and the idea that language can be broken into a finite number of grammatical features which can be taught discretely and then recycled ad infinitum. I abandoned any belief in internal syllabuses (I will not use the absurdly sounding silly-bye). Lessons were just opportunities for language use and language questions. It worked for me (and for the odd student). For many students, hows-ever, it was akin to tossing them into the ocean and telling them to find a cinema ticket. If you keep looking long enough, it’s feasible, but it sure ain’t probable, baby (as I believe Einstein is supposed to have said.

And although this was a long, long time ago, I have only recently come up with a solution that sounds convincing and which sends many a student on their way with a smile on their lips and a sense of direction in this vast cosmos of interlanguagular development: Five-a-day.

What is five-a-day? Nothing more unoriginal than the instruction that every time a learner finds themself in a learning opportunity, they are not to get up from it until they have discovered five new or interesting things that they believe will be useful to them in their L2 living. So when they come to class, they should not call it a day until they have learned five things that blah-de-blah-blah-blah. If they are of the opinion that going to the cinema is helpful to their English language learning, then they need to go to the cinema primed to find five things that boop-de-bop-boo-de-boo. When they sit down with a book, when they listen to a song, when they do their homework…the same tired old thing. The learners have to claissify whatever they are doing as a learning opportunity for the behaviour to kick in, so if they do not want to take a notepad to the club with them and listen avidly to the lyrics of the latest hot tracks, then they don’t need to. But if they are sitting down to learn, they don’t stand again until the five things have been discovered.

What are these five things? Well, they can be grammatical constructions that they understand but never use; grammatical constructions that they don’t understand and therefore never use; lexical chunks that they have never noticed before; intonational patterns that they recognise are absent from their repertoire; gestures that they believe they could squeeze into their linguistic performances; facts about the world that they had never come across before; sounds of words that they would never have begun to imagine had they known how to spell the word; in short, whatever floats their boat, as I believe Mrs Noah is said to have remarked in Genesis 6-8.

What about if there aren’t five things? Well, the learners aren’t looking hard enough. Look again, sucka. Whatever you have identified s a learning iopportunity contains such a divrsity of features that you would be utterly incapable of originating yourself that you need to look until you have found those elusive five things. They will be there. Find’em.

Having identified the five things, the students are expected to note them down using whatever noting down tools they are most comfortable with. A minimum of five things is expected to be noted down on a daily basis; learners don’t need more than five-a-day, but if they have had multiple learning opportunities throughout the day, prior to saying their prayers and drifting off to sleep, they are expected to sift through the multiple lists of five and select the Top 5 that they think are most interesting and will benefit them most in their L2 living.

Upon waking, they review their five things. Then they set about accumulating a further five things. At the end end of the day (literally, here, not as some vacuous discourse marker), they now review their five from Day One and five from Day Two. Upon waking, they re-review (or chiggity-check themselves) the ten and set about the day’s target of uncovering a further five. Keep on day free for doing bugger all and use this day to take an overview of the preceding six days. In one week, a learner should have discovered 30 things about/in the L2 that they believe to be interesting and useful. Is that happening in most language classes? Rhetorical, sweetheart…

As at the end of the week, so at the end of the month. As at the end of the month, so at the end of three months. Items that are now safely ensconced in the sconce, can be left to one side for sporadic reviews and fond reminiscing. Items that have proven themselves to be not particularly useful can be ceremoniously burned in St Peter’s square, much like Giordano Bruno. If you are nowhere near San Pedro’s, hold on to them for now…

Is this do-able? YEP

Is this difficult? NOPE

Is it SMART? Fuck you, you soulless ghoul.


30 Nov 2014 - Posted by | Rants and ramblings


  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

    Comment by teachingbattleground | 30 Nov 2014 | Reply

  2. I would think that just the ‘identifying’ of the five things would be a very useful exercise for a lot of students, before they even get round to the learning of them.

    Comment by paulsimonduffy | 10 Dec 2014 | Reply

  3. I really liked this idea when I first read it and it came to mind again while on the bus to a very long lunch with a colleague. I’d really like to use this idea with the learners I work with. I’ve been looking for ways to bring different groups of learners together in new learning groups and this seems as if it might be a good way for each learner to look for and recognise learning relevant to them. It also might work for highlighting learning in a new community project we’re starting. So, if you don’t mind, I might pinch this idea (always letting people know where the idea came from, of course). It’d be interesting to hear more about how it’s been working sometime but, in the meantime, thank you!!

    Comment by Carol Goodey | 17 Jan 2015 | Reply

  4. Thanks for your blog; it’s very entertaining and thought-provoking. I love the 5-a-day idea of encouraging students to notice the learning potential of the environment outside the classroom. I’m going to suggest it to my class next week as a way of taking more responsibility for their own learning. (I’m not too optimistic about how many students will follow the advice mind you, but at least the seed will be planted!)

    Comment by Fiona | 13 May 2018 | Reply

    • It took me some time to realise (and here “some” means “a very long”) that I needed to police this a lot more. I think it’s about creating time in the class to do the same thing. Much more time than you might otherwise think because students are prone to write down five useless things because they don’t really get what they are being asked to do. As humans, they are also more likely to write down the five most recent things that come to mind. So you have to ask them follow up questions like, “Why is one of your five things the word FATHER? This is an Advanced class, after all!” So, build in time to the lesson to get them reflecting meaningfully on what they’ve just seen; if you’re out of your own language environment, perhaps lead by example; question them on their choices. Obviously, FATHER might be a reasonable choice if the student has just noticed that it can be used as a verb…in which case, plant the seed that perhaps other family nouns might also be verbs. Despite having plugged away at it for a number of years, it has yet to result in the breakthrough that I initially hoped, but that might very well be me. Let me know how you get on!

      Comment by TheSecretDoS | 15 May 2018 | Reply

  5. Thanks for the advice. My ESOL students were very interested in your idea and yesterday, they all gamely wrote down five words/phrases towards the end of our (5 hour) lesson but, as you predicted, some of the ideas were too superficial to be of great use. One example was ‘compound sentences’… On reflection, I might model it next time and write down five things I’ve learnt during our lesson, but include some non-linguistic information to encourage ss they can write anything, as long as they write five. e.g. Today I’ve learnt … Hifa is a trained beauty therapist but doesn’t like doing eyebrows! Pepa can explain the difference between ‘there is and it is’ to Ding Fu. I might insist on a period of silence to help memories surface. My most motivated student, who reads her graded reader during the lesson when she has finished a task, wrote down some vocabulary she’d found in her book, which was really encouraging.

    I also introduced your idea to my trainee teachers last week and it seemed fairly effective in helping them reflect on our input sessions, and hopefully help transfer some information into
    long-term memories. They were interested in how it could be an effective s-centred plenary and we will revisit the idea on Thursday after their TP. Thank you again for sharing and inspiring!

    Comment by Fiona | 23 May 2018 | Reply

    • Shucks…I wish I could claim more than one decent idea every 25 years!

      Comment by TheSecretDoS | 24 May 2018 | Reply

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