Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head

5 stupid things we do in ELT

Putting rubrics above exercises

Has anyone over the age of seven ever really needed to be told to write the words in the gap or to circle the words in a wordsearch? Does anyone under the age of seven even know the noun “gap” or the verb “to circle”? I

am guilty of this as a writer all the time, but only because I have no choice. The rubric I get for writing rubrics means I have to put them in. If I’m not given pre-written rubrics to take up space on the page and patronise the learner, I copy them from whatever sample exercises I have. I doubt I’ve ever written one that needed to be there since there are only a limited number of exercise types. It’s obvious at first glance what’s required for most of them, and for all of them when an example is provided. Matching, gap fill (with or without words provided), ordering, wordsearches, crosswords, True or False, multiple choice. Why are we treating learners as if they couldn’t manage to get dressed without someone telling them which holes to put their arms and legs through?

I sometimes ask myself if maybe the rubrics do indeed teach some useful language. I might concede that “Odd one out” is handy occasionally, but on that score I bet the most practical thing you could use rubrics for is to draw student’s attention to them and teach real world uses.

Match your nail varnish to your outfit. (for fashionistas)

Answer the question! (for interrogators)

Circle your prey. (for lions)

I seem to be the odd one out by not valuing rubrics. Weirdly, writers I know and respect seem to put a lot of weight on rubrics and think they’re hard to write. Honestly, just copy them from somewhere else! And if you really have to write a brand spanking new one for an exercise never before seen in ELT or anywhere else, use as few words as possible. That’s it.

Or, be bold and just drop them completely and see if the sky falls in.

Teaching learners to give really shit presentations

Most teachers have never given a presentation, let alone a business presentation, in their life, yet students who do or might very well have to are instructed on the language and style presentations should follow by teachers. The teachers are probably relying on material written by writers, many of whom have also never given a presentation in their lives.

As a teacher, I sat through some awful student presentations, even knowing I was the only person in the room who couldn’t get away with sneakily scrolling Facebook on my phone while they’re speaking wasn’t enough to keep me 100% on target through the whole excruciating thing. No wonder, since I had mostly prepared them via the pages of an EFL unit on how to give presentations. Now I no longer teach, I know a lot more than I did about speaking. Some of the more obvious advice about eye contact and body language and not reading from your notes is good, assuming the student doesn’t already know that (though I’ve been to a few talks at conferences where teacher-presenters are doing a terrible job at being interesting and could benefit from the guidance of a Pre-Intermediate Business English book as a starter.)

But I can’t see any particular reason why a business presentation has to be especially dull compared with any other time you need to make sure an audience is engaged. And if you think that’s because business just happens to be duller than the topics of TED talks, Steve Jobs was brilliantly engaging whether he was launching products or giving his famous Stanford commencement Don’t Settle speech. What we should be teaching is how to make a talk as good as a TED Talk or Steve Jobs. If you watch any of the most popular talks on TED, not one of them will say “If I can just sum up the main points …” nor will they structure the talk in a staid ‘Firstly X, then I’ll move on to Y and finally look at Z in more detail’ way. Instead they use narrative devices and personal anecdote, humour, repetition and the power of three to convey one compelling idea and they grab the attention of the audience in the first seconds, perhaps even as few as seven seconds.

Someone I made this complaint/observation to once replied that we have to start somewhere with the students, presumably giving them this tired old language and format first because TED level talks are out of their league linguistically. But I don’t buy that. They’re not necessarily going to ever make the transition, perhaps partly because they see their English lessons on presentations, backed up as they are by the authority of the coursebook and the teacher, as THE way a presentation should be done in English, especially if they have never been trained in public speaking i.e. most of them. Students will need language input, of course, but maybe it’s not some one size fits all phrasebook in how to bore people to tears but the unique phrasing of their compelling idea we should help them with.

Harder to teach, perhaps, but nowhere near as hard as sitting through all the mind-numbing talks the traditional presentation skills lesson throws out.

Forcing learners to be polite

Maybe you’ve been that teacher who once wrote swear words on the board for curious students so you looked cool, hoping your DOS didn’t walk past the classroom before you could rub them out, and think this doesn’t apply to you. But the cool teacher one-off isn’t enough for any language, let alone that as complex as cursing.

It’s a tricky one because presumably students learn best by hearing authentic language used in the appropriate context but, while teaching, you’re at work and supposed to be being professional, which is generally not the appropriate context for swearing. But that conundrum aside, assuming all learners learn the swear words in any language as soon as they can for shits and giggles, why can’t we do them a monumental fucking favour and teach them how to put them in a sentence correctly along with some kind of hierarchy of obscenity? It’s pretty crucial a Spanish speaker learns early on that “cunt” shouldn’t be thrown around with the same abandon in English as it is in Spanish (in which tongue I once heard someone use it — coño — in conversation with a ninety-something year old monk.)**

In the Speaking Skills book I wrote for Harper Collins, I have a unit on expressing annoyance and anger. I can’t remember if I thought for even a second I’d be allowed to put the essential swearing needed to express that someone is really pissing you off for fuck’s sake. (sidenote: would it now be permissible to teach the ubiquitous FFS seeing as it doesn’t actually have a swear word, it just stands for one?) But anyway, it remains a source of embarrassment that I had to put a culture note in to let readers know that “You can find listings of offensive language online and these will help you to recognise when someone is really angry!” (Other than that, it’s a top notch book, I  … swear.) Lord forbid we suggest the learners themselves might want to swear.

Whether the following is a point of parental pride or shame is for the internet at large to decide, but my three year old not only says “You what?” or the milder “What?” when he doesn’t hear something, but also occasionally “Oh bollocks!” with absolutely perfect emphasis and conviction and only ever in entirely appropriate contexts. As we live in Spain, I figure he can get away with it, but I also assume that, since he’s managed to pick this up so correctly, he’ll also absorb the cultural nuances of when and where is and isn’t appropriate according to how I model it.

I think we could credit our students with as much nous as a three year old in his first language.

Teaching learners listening without acknowledging they probably don’t know how to listen

For the sake of this point, I’m pretending that we do actually teach listening as opposed to mostly just testing it, giving the answers and then having them listen while reading the tapescript. But anyway, the four skills are mostly taught discretely, with listening as a separate thing to speaking. Sometimes this does reflect real world situations, listening to the radio/podcasts and public information announcements etc, but the real skill of listening comes during conversations in which we’re participants. And most people are really bad at that.

I used to attend a bi-monthly Open Mic in Madrid where writers would read shortish pieces of up to five minutes (though there was always some bore who thought his writing was just too precious to cut or edit down from ten minutes or longer … and yes, it was always the guys that were guilty.) I read my work sometimes but mostly I went for the experience of listening to other people’s work. But, no matter how hard I tried to concentrate, my mind would almost always wander off somewhere in the middle. Sometimes that was probably partly down to the quality of the writing or the delivery, but not always. Mostly, it was just because the art of listening is one we neglect. Yet we foist listening on our students as if they’re not handicapped by the same lack of attention we all suffer from. Fatal in an exam, not brilliant in a university lecture either so perhaps, we and then they, need to learn how to concentrate so we can listen.

And when it comes to speaking, we’re doing them a disservice too. Rather than acknowledging the near-universal trait of wanting the other person to stop speaking so we can say the brilliant thing we just thought of, we focus on the student and how they can prepare their anecdote, making them even worse listeners. We rarely touch upon how they can develop a conversation firstly by paying attention to the other person. I’ve lost count of the number of times students, in class or when I’ve spent time with them socially, have delivered lengthy monologues without asking anyone else anything. In class, students all too often chime in with their contributions regardless of what has been said by anyone else, too busy rehearsing what they were planning to say. You can’t blame them where that’s down to linguistic limitations, but you’ve got to blame us as teachers for thinking it’s only about that and not a weakness they very probably have in their own language too.

Here’s a TED talk about how to have a better conversation. Hint: it’s really about listening. This needs to be woven into everything we do in life and in class.

Ignoring what social psychology has to teach us

Unless you can’t tell, I’ve been on a bit of a TED talk binge recently. And I’ve just seen one about the power of introverts, and almost everything chimes with something that’s wrong with the way we teach EFL.

An EFL classroom is an introvert’s worst nightmare. An EFL exam can be even worse with marks riding on the ability to collaborate.

I know because I am one and the thought of role play, find someone who, any kind of mingling task, even turning to the person next to me and doing some pair work activity makes my hairline sweat.  At conferences, I choose a seat away from others if I can in case the presenter makes us discuss something and I actively avoid arriving until the last minute before a talk starts. (And, I’m not the only one who finds conferences button-pushing, see here and here.) Thank God for mobile phones which create something of an invisible forcefield preventing me from having to start up a conversation during breaks as there’s only so long you can make a trip to the loo last. I once appealed to a conference organiser to create an introverts’ room so anyone in need could find refuge from societal expectations during the lunch break and I think they should be mandatory at every event. (I’m perfectly normal and responsive should you strike a conversation up with me, though, and I somehow switch roles easily enough if I’m teaching or presenting. Don’t ask me why. I’ve not seen that TED talk yet.)

I see there’s plenty of academic research into the effect of introversion/extroversion on various facets of EFL learning, but how about overhauling the entire classroom set up to suit the introvert once in a while, or for schools to offer courses to suit both types of person? Get rid of all group and pair work, stop with the games that require any kind of acting or mime, and let some people be silent if they want to. Sue Cain, in her TED, talk cites research suggesting teachers describe extroverts as the ideal students. If even I as a teacher force my students into situations I’d run a mile from, I’m very sure, in ELT, we’re even more primed to favour extroverts and to create situations that appeal to them and not to introverts. A much more detailed post on this by Laura Patsko should be required reading on TEFL courses.



** Yes, I do know that a blog is probably not the appropriate context. Written swear words carry a weight spoken ones often don’t anymore. Useful for learners to know, right?


4 comments on “5 stupid things we do in ELT

  1. Adi Rajan
    June 2, 2018

    I agree with what you’re saying about presentations, Nicola but I don’t think TED is a good alternative in terms of finding a model for structure, language or presentation dynamics. I’ve been on the other side as a corporate employee – it’s very rare that a presentation is delivered standing up and effective presentations aren’t speeches/talks as much as they are conversations and they’re often informal. Some of the rhetorical strategies used by TED speakers – repetition, the use of anecdotal hooks, a narrative build up that uses gradual revelation etc. can be wearying and perhaps even contrived in a business context.

    • Nicola
      June 7, 2018

      You’re right and it’s funny as I am just another person with no idea how business presentations go who is advising on how to do them! I suppose I was more thinking of when you need to sell an idea to another group of people so product launches or advertising strategy meetings but what do I know really?!

  2. Frances Amrani
    June 11, 2018

    You are right about rubrics- keep it simple. I have just finished editing a book (MFL not ELT) where the author in spite of being supplied with a list of rubrics insisted on making the simple 1-liners into 3 lines adding caveats, additional clauses descriptions of the page etc. And then I had to point out that the rubric was way beyond level and unnecessary because it was fairly obvious all they had to do was “complete (the gaps) with the words from the box.” The thing to bear in mind is that often authors aren’t actually writing for the student end-user, but are more concerned about how their academic peers will view the fact they haven’t used the C2 metalanguage expected in a linguistics PhD- as if by not using it in a rubric they reveal a weakness that perhaps they don’t know it and are an academic imposter.

    • Nicola
      June 11, 2018

      That’s hilarious!

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This entry was posted on May 31, 2018 by in ELT, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , .


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