Some thoughts on language, education and class

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I spend my working life around people (students of English for Academic Purposes) who are insecure about their language use. That means I get to think and pontificate about issues of status, ownership and standard versus non-standard forms.

I can identify with the anxieties of my students, and not just as someone who has (in the past) enjoyed learning other languages. I’ve also long been self-conscious about my command over/of English. Like some of my students(,) I’m very sensitive about being corrected, tending to take corrections as a bit of a put-down rather than a chance to learn. The ego-insecurities I experience when expressing myself in other languages are clear manifestations of anxiety about my own status as an English-speaker.

Some of that anxiety is related to having a parent for whom English is a second language, and part is related to class. My background is not exactly humble but I was the first person in my family to go to university. Working in higher education feels like an achievement, but I’m vulnerable to a certain feeling of being out-of-place. Someone who came from a similar background was the critical theorist, academic and blogger Mark Fisher (aka k-punk), who wrote this in 2013 about the response of the ‘left’ to the comedian and actor Russell Brand’s famous interview with Jeremy Paxman about the need for revolution:

I’ve long been an admirer of Brand – one of the few big-name comedians on the current scene to come from a working class background…(His) forensic take-down of Paxman was intensely moving, miraculous; I couldn’t remember the last time a person from a working class background had been given the space to so consummately destroy a class ‘superior’ using intelligence and reason. (However) Brand was quickly judged and-or questioned by at least three ex-private school people on the left…It’s alarming how many ‘leftists’ seemed to fundamentally agree with the drift behind Paxman’s question: ‘What gives this working class person the authority to speak?’ It’s also alarming, actually distressing, that they seem to think that working class people should remain in poverty, obscurity and impotence lest they lose their ‘authenticity’. Someone passed me a post written about Brand on Facebook. The whole tone was horrifyingly high-handed, as if they were a schoolteacher marking a child’s work, or a psychiatrist assessing a patient. There’s also a shocking but revealing aside where the individual casually refers to Brand’s ‘patchy education [and] the often wince-inducing vocab slips characteristic of the auto-didact’ – which, this individual generously says, ‘I have no problem with at all’ – how very good of them! This isn’t some colonial bureaucrat writing about his attempts to teach some ‘natives’ the English language in the nineteenth century, or a Victorian schoolmaster at some private institution describing a scholarship boy, it’s a ‘leftist’ writing a few weeks ago.

Fisher himself wrote movingly about an episode when his own mother confided that she didn’t want to go into a Georgian teashop in a neighbouring town for High Tea because she was worried she would “do the wrong thing”:

We know this too, really, we felt it going on to University, feel it still, my sister and I, she with her anxiety around her middle-class friends whose parents are all teachers and doctors, me with my endless writing of novels I can’t bear to do anything with as it means engaging with them, having to make them like me, listen to their opinions of my work. But for us, half clambered out of our class as we are, we don’t find a Grange tea-room existentially threatening. She said it herself, my mum, and it immediately struck me, the disavowal, “some people get nervous in tea rooms, don’t they?

These are the wounds of class, ever-present, life-long. Knowing that you’re common, not good enough, not one of the decent people.

In the case of Russell Brand, faced with mass and social media sneers at his upstart activism and the ‘sub-undergraduate dross’ of his writings about politics, he retreated. He realised that if he wanted his right to discuss his concerns to be recognised, he would have to reeducate himself. He is now doing a three-year MA in Religion and Global Politics at SOAS, and is sharing his newly-acquired knowledge via a (frankly unmissable) podcast. In the first episode, an interview with the political philosopher Brad Evans on the theme of political violence, he gave what I think is an inspiringly honest account of how he arrived at this point and how it feels to be there:

“Being briefly in the academic world, as I have been, obviously loads of it’s really really exciting but I think a lot of what I hear feels reiterative, like someone says ‘what’s a country? It’s just an agreement in our minds, and I think, I knew that, anyway, those are things I’ve come to myself. But then there are things that are so complex I can’t begin to come to terms with them, and in this field I’m having to learn about political history, critical theory, philosophy, so I’m suddenly having to learn about Foucault, Derrida and all these other names I can’t even say confidently yet. And my original impulse for doing that course was, I got really deeply involved in the political world, and (…) I realised that this was a very complex world and I didn’t have the armoury, the artillery to engage in this battle. And I’ll like our listeners to be able to embark on this journey with me, so what do you think is a good entry point for someone like me who feels disillusioned with politics but doesn’t know quite where to begin on a journey of understanding?”

One theorist who Russell would find very useful in terms of issues of language, politics and class is Pierre Bourdieu. He relates that feeling of being out of one’s depth and beyond one’s station to what he calls ‘habitus’: the attitudes, mannerisms, tastes, moral intuitions and habits that influence our life chances. This behavioural comfort zone is a manifestation of our level of cultural capital. While Brand may have a high level of objectified cultural capital in the form of fame and wealth, his attempts to acquire institutionalised cultural capital (formal educational qualifications) are hindered by accent, which is a manifestation of embodied capital. In particular fields (for example in the academic world) it can be hard for individuals from a working-class background to obtain a “feel for the game” and to feel they should be (as it were) on the pitch.

This seems to me to be related to the experiences of people from ‘foreign’ language backgrounds in higher education. ‘Foreigners’ don’t automatically have a pre-assigned rung on the social ladder, and hence struggle to find an appropriate station even when they have a sufficient mastery of the language. I’ve been thinking about a friend of mine who has an excellent command of the spoken language and who knows things and can do things in it that I certainly couldn’t. I wonder how he views Brand, and how he relates to what Brand says about his own struggle to feel like a valid participant in the academic world. My friend recently dropped out of a university course he’d long dreamed of doing because he felt his English wasn’t up to writing long essays (I encouraged him to continue and offered to help, but to an apparent avail). In fact, I’m writing this to persuade him, others like him and also to remind myself that such feelings are very common and by no means insurmountable.

From outside, manifestations of social class are hard to perceive. English people know when to question someone’s intellectual credentials as soon as we/they hear us/them speak. To people who didn’t grow up here, vocal class markers are much harder to recognise. It may seem to my friend that all ‘English’ or British’ people are equally confident in higher educational settings, that they we all feel valid and accepted.

Perceptions of these issues inevitably differ, depending partly on one’s cultural and social background. Among my (mostly well-heeled) students, I’ve found that some people have a frustratingly monolithic understanding of the relationship between language and social status. The belief persists that the speech of some is simply inadequate. There’s also widespread misunderstanding of the relationship between spoken and written language, with some assuming that the former is a poor attempt to produce the latter. Inevitably, others have explored these issues far more articulately than I ever could.

As for myself, I always feel anxious when someone makes a jibe about someone(’s?) being ‘self-taught’. Everyone is, to some extent. Luckily (after three slightly wasted undergraduate years from which I was lucky to emerge with a 2;1), I eventually had the chance to go back to university and get a Master’s degree, an experience which greatly improved my sense of confidence in what I say and write. Having lived in other countries and struggled with other languages has also helped to bolster my self-assurance, as has teaching the spoken and written language for almost twenty years and spending several years examining others on their usage. In terms of writing, the internet has also helped enormously (what’s a good synonym for self-assurance? what are the three types of cultural capital again?).

Inevitably, for everything I write here, thousands of people are studying or have studied that subject in an academic context and are far better placed to provide evidence-based theories than I am. A lot of what I present here is hearsay and guesswork, but I content myself in the knowledge that this is after all just a blog. I’d like to think of myself as a polymath, but ultimately I’m more of a dilettante, and this is an appropriate format.

The wounds of class run deep, but then, as both Lynsey Hanley and Helen Mort have articulated brilliantly, the sense of discomfort at being stranded between classes, particularly at being a working class person in the more rarified echelons of higher education, can also be uncomfortable. Then there’s the opposite: chippiness and reverse snobbery, and then the reaction to chippiness and reverse snobbery. And so on.

I still lack confidence when sending people what I’ve written with a view to getting it published. To do so you have to be fairly bullish, and being rejected or ignored is always painful. Although some things I write get a very pleasing reaction, I have little way of knowing whether or not what I write is any good in terms of what matters, which is to be accepted as more-or-less an equal by those whose writing I admire. But at the same time, most of them are professional writers and/or academics, and I’m not, so it should, by rights, remain a pipe dream.

There remains one thing I want to make clear, for the sake of my own honesty and integrity. This piece may contain what some will regard as self-pity, and I wouldn’t really have much of an answer to such a charge. I had the chance to go to university, twice, without getting into debt, in my own language. My privileges in terms of education have, in comparison with most people in the world, been immense. I’m not a victim of disadvantage in any sense that means anything on a global scale. I’ve even, despite my manifold anxieties about my credibility as an English speaker and writer, and thanks largely to a mere accident of birth, managed to make a reasonable living as a teacher of my ‘native’ language. But I know that these feelings are not exclusive, and I hope a) that reading this has made clear some connections between class, status, nationality and language that may not have occurred to you before and b) that you find this sentence an appropriate way to end a piece of writing of this nature.

That time I worked for a religious sect

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Of all the language schools I’ve worked for over the last 18 years, only one has gone on to help organise a military coup. The school in question (in North London) was part of a global network belonging to Fetullah Gülen, the Muslim sect leader accused of orchestrating the anti-Erdogan coup attempt in in Turkey July 2016.

I started working at the school in late 2007 and stayed for about nine months. At first I thought it was a normal school that just happened to be owned by Turks, but was intrigued when, upon learning who I was working for, several politically-minded Turkish people I met around that time reacted with outright revulsion. I also found out from a former student from Uzbekistan, who had been part of the group while studying in Ankara, that they had some connection with a group of terrorist fascists from the 1970s called the Grey Wolves. Turkish leftists told me that where Gülen’s movement had taken power in more remote areas they had imposed quite a strict version of Islam, and that then Mayor of Istanbul (A Gülen supporter) had recently banned beer-drinking in the street. Given that the job apparently involved potential for travel, I was quick to picture myself running round Chechnya with an AK47. It would make a refreshing change from teaching Korean design students and unemployed Italian graduates the language for sucking up to their bosses on their unpaid internships. In any case, I knew a little bit about the murkiness of Turkish politics (the Deep State, the Susurluk affair, the succession of military interventions to prevent a non-secular government being elected) and (especilaly since I’d never been to Turkey) I thought it would be a good way to learn more.

Nevertheless, rumours aside, the people I worked for all seemed very nice. They were good-natured and courteous and they plied me between classes with strong tea, sujuk, olives and overflowing fruits platters. The students (mostly men in their 40s) were also polite, attentive and motivated. They were also respectful of my role as a teacher, almost excessively so. They taught me a slightly mad Turkish proverb: ‘if you a teach me one thing, I will be your slave forever’.

As for politics, although I was on the lookout for any furtive radical inclinations, I didn’t detect any secret jihadi fervour. Their views seemed occasionally naive but certainly well-meaning. They were very excited about a conference which had just taken place in UCL on their work of their founder, with several leading academics and a number of UK parliamentarians. They talked a great deal about education, quoting Gülen himself on the need to open the minds of the young and to educate women. My boss told me that their organisation had recently been kicked out of Uzbekistan, with all the school closed down at a whim of the regime. We talked about the prospects for meaningful democracy in Central Asia (he had spent several years in Tashkent and I’d recently read Craig Murray’s book), and he said things would change once ‘our people’ were in charge. This set off a muted alarm bell, but he said it in an almost reassuring way, or at least as if he was a loyal employee of a corporation looking to expand its commercial domain.

My students (mostly from the organisation or there under its auspices) taught me a huge amount about 20th Century Turkish history. When it came to the Kurdish question they were sentimental and a little patronising, saying that the Kurds didn’t seem to understand what the Turkish State was trying to achieve, but they never seemed aggressive in their attitudes. At the same time, all of them were very enthusiastic about a  TV crime series called ‘Tek Türkiye’, which seemed to promote a quite brutal model of policing. I did recognise a strain of nationalism but it didn’t strike me as untypical or remotely fanatical.  

Where differences in our worldviews emerged, they were always conciliatory. They were sympathetic to the new Government (Erdogan’s party was then called the APK) and their apparent progressivism seemed to reflect what I was reading in the press about his more enlightened form of Sunni Islam. An article appeared in the Guardian which reported on Erdogan’s relationship with the then Spanish Prime Minister Jos’e Luis Zapatero and the Turkish PM’s mission to create “a 21st century form of Islam, fusing Muslim beliefs and tradition with European and western philosophical methods and principles”.

When it came to the classes, there was a slight clash between my expectations and those of my Academic Director, as his formal approach conflicted with my then teaching ‘style’. This involved my being attentive to whatever came up and exploiting learning affordances, or, if I was hungover, then same thing in far less high-falutin words. He asked me more than once for a complete booklet of the week’s activities in advance, which at that time was a bit like asking me to conduct the course in 13th Century Japanese. Luckily he didn’t insist.

I also taught a group of teachers from Turkey, who were among the smartest and wittiest students I’ve yet had the pleasure to teach. Another memorable student was a 14-year-old from Rotterdam. He had clearly grown up deep within a conservative Turkish immigrant milieu and, horrified at my suggestion that Turkey, like anywhere else,  had a fair share of gay people, argued back that not only did Turkey have no gay people, his adopted homeland (The Netherlands, lest we forget) didn’t have any either.

While few of them did or said anything to shock and offend me, I can’t say I was always as well-behaved. Once, given widespread confusion over the meaning of the word ‘speech’, despite my miming and trying to get them to name any famous speeches that Atatürk had made, I decided to draw upon my, well, drawing skills (which are non-existent but come in handy sometimes for comedy purposes). I drew a picture of someone who looked a bit like Mussolini (I couldn’t remember what the Father of Modern Turkey looked like), stuck a fez on his head (er…), and gave him a speech bubble reading ‘blah, blah, blah’ with a couple of umlauts and cedillas floating around in it. I thought it was an efficient means of communicating my point, and it certainly got their attention. In the mid-morning break students from other classes crowded into the room to admire my artwork. One of them, clearly awestruck at my mastery of desin, remarked with not atypical Turkish gravity, ‘In Turkey…you die’. My elevated position of Respected Knower Of All Things seemed to have stood me in good stead and my life was spared.

The bigoted Dutch/Turkish teenager wasn’t typical of the 2nd-generation immigrants I met. I also taught a pair of 13-year-old German/Turkish brothers who I would happily place in my personal top 10 of funniest-and-most-charming-people-I’ve-ever-taught. Their mother would send me daily meals of ichli kurfter and other treats. The brothers were part of a group mostly made up of 15 or so very sweet kids from Turkmenistan. I suspect that in their three weeks in the UK me and my fellow teachers were the only locals they spoke to, such were they shepherded around. They left me with enough CDs and postcards of their country to suggest they’d brought enough to go round everyone in London.

When those groups weren’t around I was just left with the local staff of the Gülen organisation. Occasionally someone who I’d been teaching for several months would disappear, and upon probing I would learn that he had been relocated overnight to Nigeria or Russia. What they were doing in London apart from gamely fielding my inquiries about Turkish politics and struggling with the present perfect continuous was a bit of a mystery. I knew that there was some sort of fundraising which involved Turkish businesses, but I let myself believe that the invitations they were making to local kebab shops to contribute to the cause weren’t too forceful. They also had some vague relationship to the movement’s (leading national) newspaper ‘Zaman’ (Time).

As it happened, my Uzbek friend had come back into contact with members of the Movement, and, down on his luck, gone to stay in one of their houses for a few weeks. This involved getting up to pray at 5am and having very lengthy debates about which food products from Lidl could be considered Halal, but no apparent talk to the need to violently overthrow the state.

The managers of the school were ambitious. They wanted me to get them up to British Council inspection standard in a few months, but with only the occasional proper class it was a forlorn hope. By the autumn of 2008 it was clear it wasn’t going to happen, at least not for the time being. Even sending people down to Oxford Street to hand out leaflets for free classes wasn’t working. The school closed soon after and the premises were given over to a company promoting educational tourism.

I’ve vaguely followed developments since then. At some point Gülen broke away from Erdogan to the point where he and his group became public enemy number 1. The coup last summer shocked me and others I know who have had contact with them in the past, but it did put me in mind of that comment made by my boss about Uzbekistan. I don’t know if Hizmet (the more recent name for the movement, meaning ‘the Service’) shares Erdogan’s evident leanings towards Isis, or at least his willingness to use them to suit his strategic ends with regard to the Kurds. I suspect not, and the circumstances of the split suggest (without wanting to be either naive or cynical) that some principles were at stake. If those pleasant, courteous and seemingly very sweet people I taught over the course of those few months are also supporters of the most brutal forms of political violence (as the Turkish state alleges), there’s clearly something about life, people and the world which I haven’t understood.

Great activity for getting to know who you’re teaching

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It’s easy to forget, but your students are never just students. They are parents, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, third cousins twice-removed, guitar players, Japanese speakers, chess players, travel bloggers and many other things besides, many of them entirely surprising*. How many times have you, towards the end of a course, found out something really interesting about one of your students and thought, I wish I’d known that sooner? I once, on the last day of an (ahem) challenging low-level ESOL course, found out that one of my students had played football for the Iraqi national team 40 years earlier and that another had eleven (count ’em) children. Silly me for not making the effort to find out such things sooner.

In order to trust you to teach them they need to know who you are and who their classmates are. This is a fun activity which helps with that process. You can do it at the start of your course or at any point afterwards and it works well with pretty much any level post-beginner.

  1. Write up on the board/screen your own version of the following (n.b. don’t just copy mine):
  2. I am a teacher, an examiner, a dad, a brother, a son, an uncle, English, half-German, a husband, an immigrant, a second-generation immigrant, a Northerner, a Sheffielder, an East Londoner, an avid reader, a music-lover, a Momus fan, a Thomas Pynchon obsessive, a blogger, a cyclist, a non-driver, an English speaker, a Philosophy graduate, a Portuguese speaker, a Spanish speaker, an Italian speaker, a language learner, a former DJ, a former part-time comedian, a former part-time actor, a former activist…
  3. Encourage your students to ask you: “so you’re a …”. Then tell them a couple of entertaining details. Do this for five minutes or so, dealing with vocabulary as it comes up.
  4. For lower levels point out the difference between where you’ve used an adjective (with no article) and where you’ve used a noun (with an article), and also the meaning of ‘former’.
  5. Get them to make their own lists. Monitor to help out if they’re stuck. Make sure they each have a decent list of things (at least eight or nine).
  6. Put them in pairs and get them to swap lists and take it in turns to ask. They don’t need to take notes. Make sure they’re asking follow-up questions (‘when?’, ‘why?’).
  7. Rotate the pairs once or twice depending on how many students you have.
  8. The third time they swap pairs, get them to film each other on their phones.
  9. At the end of the lesson, get each of them to report what the most surprising thing they found out was.
  10. Extension: If you and they like, make (or get one of them to make) a short film compiling the most interesting snippets of the interviews. This might sound challenging but there will probably be someone in the class with the technical know-how.
  11. Extra extension: You could easily incorporate a listening comprehension activity using this.

Dekiagari!

* Some of them might even be racists, but you’ll have to hope they don’t proudly announce that in the course of the activity.

Lesson plan: Getting your students to solve the world’s problems

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A lot of exams (like IELTS) quite reasonably expect candidates to be able to talk about social, environmental and economic issues. I’ve noticed over the years that some lack the basic conceptual tools. This lesson is designed to classify global problems and discuss possible solutions. It works well with B2+ classes.

  1. Match the definition with the keyword

Keywords

  1. Society
  2. The Environment
  3. The Economy

Definitions

  1. The area in which something exists or lives
  2. The system of production and distribution and consumption
  3. An extended group of people with a specific cultural and economic organization
  1. Problems

Are the following problems social, economic or environmental? (some of them fit into more than one category). Decide for yourself and then compare with a partner.

  • Unemployment
  • Climate Change
  • Violence against women
  • Racism
  • Poverty
  • Corruption
  • Inequality
  • Poor healthcare services
  • Deforestation
  • Financial collapse
  • Underemployment
  • Obesity
  • Malnutrition
  • Homelessness
  • Alcoholism
  • Illiteracy 
  1. Solutions

What possible solutions are there to each of the above problems? Can you think of any more? Discuss in small groups. Feel free to disagree!

  • Awareness-raising
  • Regulation
  • New legislation
  • Education
  • Redistribution of wealth through taxation
  • Investment
  • Subsidies
  • Aid
  • Leave it to the market
  • Revolution

Evaluating solutions

Look at the list of words for describing solutions, and look up any you don’t know in a dictionary. 

utopian      practical/impractical      equitable      viable/unviable      sufficient/insufficient      popular/unpopular      expensive      radical

4. Writing

Plan and write a paragraph (150 words) headed ‘The world’s biggest problems and what should be done about them’.

5. Reading and Speaking

Stick your paragraph up on the wall. Walk round and read what others have written. If you disagree, find the writer and tell them!

6. Homework

Bearing in mind the conversations you’ve just had, rewrite and expand your paragraph and then email it to your teacher for feedback.

Lesson plan: Talking about experiences and abilities

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Could this be one of your students?

After two months, seventy or so blog posts, 880,000 views and the arrival of one impossibly cute baby daughter, I am now back at work. This is the lesson I just did with a low B1 class. I think it’s very important in any lesson for the students to produce something they can feel proud of, so (with their consent) I have posted the recordings of their interviews at the end. You could use them as examples/models at the start of the lesson or to demonstrate the task to the students before they do their own interviews (you could also use them to highlight errors in question formation. Then do some drilling of the correct forms. I didn’t do this and it shows). The point of this lesson is to give them a chance to reflect on their English at the start of term, but you could easily use it in the middle or at the end of a course. The items in the list relate directly to what they’ll need to do in the next few months (some of them do, anyway. I’m not planning to send them to do an eye test) so obviously feel free to change them.

Worksheet:

Your experiences and abilities in English

Look at the list below and make sentences using ‘I have (never)…(past participle)’ / ‘I could (not)…(bare infinitive)’, eg ‘I have never written a 200-word essay in English’ or ‘I could write a 200-word essay in English’.

  •         Write a 200-word essay
  •         Work in a bar
  •         Read Shakespeare in the original language
  •         Order a meal in a restaurant
  •         Work as a taxi driver
  •         Give a five-minute presentation
  •         Read a short novel without a dictionary
  •         Watch a whole TV series with no subtitles
  •         Do an eye test
  •         Teach a beginner’s class
  •         Do a Master’s degree

1.

2.

3.

4.

5.

6.

7.

8.

9.

10.

Now look at your sentences and decide if you want to insert any of these expressions:

if I had to         easily                 with difficulty                when I was at school                 with a bit of practice

Now look at the list of things you couldn’t do and choose two you would really like to be able to do, eg ‘I would love to be able to…’:

1.

2.

Now think of one more thing you would love to be able to do in English:

1.

Now prepare to be interviewed about your English. Don’t worry about making mistakes. If you are the interviewer, ask questions beginning with ‘Have you ever…?’ and ‘Do you think you could…?’. Remember to choose the appropriate verb form and then ask follow-up questions: when, why, why not, etc.

Swap partners and take out your phones. This time you are going to record the interview! Once you’ve finished, listen to it and check that you’re happy with the result – if not, delete it and do it again.

(nb. I know this is not strictly speaking a lesson plan but the material sort of teaches itself so I don’t feel it’s necessary to specify the points at which you should monitor, look out of the window, do the TEFL crouch, etc.)

Polyglots/language freaks lesson plan

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This is a lesson about learning languages quickly. The input is mostly in the form of videos, so your students get to develop their listening skills. More importantly, however, it uses five examples of savants – extraordinarily gifted/freakish language learners – in order to encourage your students to think about what they could do to improve their command of English as quickly as possible. Due to the demanding level of the input I wouldn’t attempt it with anything lower than a solid Upper Intermediate group. If you use all the material it should take between 75-90 minutes.

Procedure

  • Begin by telling the students you’re going to talk about learning languages -not just English. You want to start by finding out which languages they have a command of or would like to learn.
  • Stick up a piece of A4 paper on each of the four walls of the classroom. At the top of one write ‘I’m fluent in’; another ‘I can get by in’, the third ‘I know a few words of’ and the fourth ‘I’d love to learn’. Establish that in this context ‘be fluent in’ means ‘have a full command of’. Students walk round and add their names and languages to each sheet, eg. ‘Davide – French’. Monitor to clarify what the terms mean in case of confusion.
  • Have a brief whole class discussion, drawing on what they’ve written: ‘So, Sandra, you can get by in German’, or ‘So, Yuki, you’d like to learn Chinese’, etc.
  • Elicit/introduce the word ‘polyglot’. Decide together on the basis of the discussion who in the class could be considered a polyglot. Explain you’re going to watch two short interviews with polyglots. The first one is Alex, from the UK. Their task is to write down which languages he speaks.
  • Compare lists. If there is anyone who speaks any of the languages mentioned, ask how well Alex spoke it.
  • Then ask them: if a 20-year-old can speak 11 languages, how many could a 16-year-old speak?
  • They can then repeat the previous exercise with the second video. (NB: If you prefer, there is also a listening gapfill exercise here.)
  • Ask the student how the two polyglots learned all those languages – put them in pairs to discuss.
  • Tell them you’re going to watch two more videos which present very different methods for learning languages quickly. The students’ task is to choose which method they prefer.
  • Gather ideas. This will be very subjective- some will prefer the music/radio approach, others the book-based method. That’s fine.
  • Give them 5 minutes in small groups to discuss how the videos relate to their own language-learning experiences. Get one person in each group to report back on their discussion.
  • Tell them you’re going to show them one more video. Write on the board the phrase ‘from scratch’ and ask them what it means. Once the meaning is established, ask them how fluent you could become in a week in a completely unfamiliar language if you really dedicated yourself to it.
  • Tell them to take notes on: the name of the person; the language; the challenge; how successful they think he is at it. (NB: there is also a listening comprehension exercise here.)
  • Gather responses. Give them a chance to watch some or all of the video again if they need to.
  • Put on the board the following questions, and tell the students on their own to write down their responses:

1. Which example do you find most inspiring?
2. What lessons can you learn from the five videos you’ve seen?
3. What three specific things are you going to do in the next week to improve your English as much as possible?

  • Do a 5-minute whole class stand-up mingle in relation to the third question.
  • To close, elicit some of the things they’re going to do. Make sure they’ve chosen specific things, not just ‘read a book’ or ‘listen to music’. What book? What music? Remind them that they have a week to do those things and you will dedicate time in next week’s lesson to discussing how each thing went.

Det är det!

ps. there’s an interesting dimension to this whole polyglot thing, viz. why are most of those who go online to boast about their language skills men? You could open up this question with a higher-level class, using this blog entry (and the subsequent comments) to guide you.

EFL shoes lesson

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The only two people I’ve ever met who have never worn shoes were 1. a stark-raving mad bloke I once met on a beach in Northeast Brazil and 2. my ten-day-old daughter. Everybody else wears shoes and has lots and lots of stories to tell about them. This is a speaking lesson in which students talk about their personal footwear histories: favourite pairs, fashion disasters, biggest wastes of money, etc. A good way to introduce the lesson is to show them the above painting and ask them who painted it (A: Vincent Van Gogh). Then elicit some ideas as to what kind of person the shoes belonged to, what sort of life they lived, etc. Once you’ve done that, tell them about the pair you’re wearing (think in advance of some entertaining detail to share, e.g ‘I bought these Birkenstocks because my wife objected to me buying another pair of Crocs’) and then ask them to tell their partner about the pair they’re wearing. Then they can move onto the worksheet.

Students sometimes find it a bit of an odd topic at first but when they get going they find they have lots to say, because actually it’s just a way to get them to talk about their memories, tastes, aspirations, etc in a fresh way from an unusual angle. Every five or so minutes they can change partners. Make sure they’re not just going down the list of topics from the top – they can choose whatever they want to talk about in any order. Also encourage them to ask follow-up questions and respond to what they hear, using the expressions on the worksheet. The short interview format lends itself very well to their filming the conversations on their phones, so that they have a recording of their English which they can then use for all sorts of purposes – they could write up the interviews for a ‘magazine article’ or edit them together to make an amusing short film of the whole class to stick on YouTube. Or, if you fancy politically enlivening/depressing your students, you could open up the thorny political question of who made their shoes, which country they live in, what kind of shoes they wear, etc, and then get them to research and write about that for homework. One thing that’s not a good idea is to write up the proverb ‘you shouldn’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes’, and then get them to swap shoes and walk around the school. I’ve tried to do that twice and it was not popular in the slightest. Anything that’s not that will work wonders, I promise. If it doesn’t, get in touch with me and I’ll send you a pair of genuine Made-in-Mexico fayuca Crocs.

WORKSHEET TO PRINT OUT/PUT ON BOARD:

Today you’re going to talk about shoes. Ask your partner about:

  • How many pairs of shoes they have
  • How many pairs of shoes they actually need
  • The most expensive pair they’ve ever owned
  • The cheapest pair they’ve ever owned157378
  • A pair they wore even though they hurt like hell
  • The coolest pair they’ve ever owned
  • The oldest pair they still have
  • The newest pair they bought
  • A pair of summer shoes
  • A pair of boots
  • A pair they miss
  • A pair they regret buying
  • A pair they’d love to own
  • A pair they really should throw away, but can’t for some reason
  • A pair they’ve hardly worn
  • A brand of shoe they hate (eg. Crocs)

* by the way if you really want some shoe-related idioms to ‘sell’ the lesson to the students, here are some I can think of the top of my, er, shoe: put yourself in someone’s shoes; big shoes to fill; when you greet a stranger look at his shoes; if the shoe fits, wear it; the shoe’s on the other foot; step into someone’s shoes; bossy boots; get the boot; tough as an old boot, the boot’s on the other foot, put the boot in, let sleeping Crocs lie, etc.

Lesson Plan: Features of a language (int upwards)

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In celebration of my recently having welcomed my 850,000th visitor to this site, I decided to share one of my favourite ready-made lessons. It’s one I’ve done dozens of times and it’s always worked really well. It encourages students to think carefully about the grammatical features of English and how it compares to their own language(s). In the process they have in-depth and important discussions about what the function of a particular form (eg. continuous aspects) actually is.

It’s designed for multilingual classes but it could easily be adapted for monolingual groups by simply asking each group to discuss their opinions as to whether or not their main language has such features. It could end with the students presenting their ‘ideal’ language to the whole class, followed by further discussion of why plurals are necessary in English, what the function of countable nouns is, etc. They could then write a short essay for homework reflecting on what they like and don’t like about English and why.

Features of a language

1. Does your partner’s language have all these features? Find out!

Language feature

Partner 1

Partner 2

Subject-Verb-Object eg: I love you

Articles eg: The weather is terrible! I’d like a coffee

A perfect aspect eg: I have been to China

A continuous aspect eg: I am learning English

Cases: eg: He loves her; She loves him

Prepositions eg: We are at the airport; I am going to Swansea

Auxiliary verbs eg: Does he like coffee? I didn’t go out last night

Tenses eg: I speak Spanish; We spoke Spanish when we were on holiday

Verb conjugation eg: She likes cheese

The passive eg: My bag was stolen

Countable nouns eg: I am looking for some informations

Irregular verbs eg: I am, you are, she is

Modal verbs eg: must, should, can

Capital letters in nationalities and languages eg: Austria, Chinese

Plurals: eg: dogs; cats; people

Fixed word order eg: I like very much chocolate very much

Reversed order in questions eg: You are South American; are you Brazilian?

2. Now, imagine that we were going to invent an entirely new language which was easy to learn. Which features would you need to include and which could you do without?

Language feature

An ideal language (yes/no)

Subject-Verb-Object eg: I love you

Articles eg: The weather is terrible! I’d like a coffee

A perfect aspect eg: I have been to China

A continuous aspect eg: I am learning English

Cases: eg: He loves her; She loves him

Prepositions eg: We are at the airport; I am going to Swansea

Auxiliary verbs eg: Does he like coffee? I didn’t go out last night?

Tenses eg: I speak Spanish; We spoke Spanish when we were on holiday

Verb conjugation eg: She likes cheese

The passive eg: My bag was stolen

Countable nouns eg: I am looking for some informations

Irregular verbs eg: I am, you are, she is

Modal verbs eg: must, should, can

Capital letters in nationalities and languages eg: Austria, Chinese

Plurals: eg: dogs; cats; people

Fixed word order eg: I like very much chocolate very much

Reversed order in questions eg: You are South American; Are you Brazilian?

Learning Metaphors lesson – good fun and very useful

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You’re a teacher. You’re in a classroom, and you’re teaching a class. But where do your students think they are? Do some of them feel like they’re in prison, while others are just hanging out with their mates and having fun? Is there anyone who feels like they’re in a courtroom, or that they’re being experimented upon? This is a great activity for helping your students reflect on their experiences of learning English, and also for you to find out what they really think of your classes. It should take around 30 mins. You can try it with high pre-int upwards, and as you’ll see it can easily be extended into all sorts of other activities.

Procedure

Stage 1: Briefly tell your students about a classroom language learning experience you’ve had. It could be good or bad, but make sure you compare it with something, e.g.: being in the army, being back at primary school, being on trial…put them in pairs and tell them to compare similar experiences. After 3 minutes, gather a couple of experiences, encouraging them to think about what it was like, e.g.: “sounds like being at a party!” or “sounds like a disco!”.

2. Tell your class they’re going to look at some metaphors for learning English (make sure they understand what a metaphor is). Tell them you’re going to start with a memory game: you’re going to show them some photos and you want them to try to remember all the things they see, and then write down all those they can remember.

3. Silently show them this presentation once.

4. On their own, then in pairs, students write down all those they can remember.

5. Show them this and let them write down the ones they missed.

6. Clarify any vocab issues and make sure they’ve all got them written down.

7. Write up on the board:

‘A classroom can be like a ___________ because…’

‘A classroom should be like a ___________ because…’

‘A classroom shouldn’t be like a ___________ because…’

8. Make sure they understand the difference between the three phrases. Give them one example for each. Try to use places which were not in the presentation.

9. Students in pairs write sentences. It works well if they write each one on a post-it note, if you have any. (10 mins)

10. Student stick their sentences up on the wall, walk round reading the others and ticking the ones they like. If they don’t understand one of them, they can seek out the pair who wrote it and ask them what they meant.

HW: If you and they like, they could write a paragraph or short essay on ‘the ideal classroom’, using the ideas they’ve come up with in class.

Çok kolay!

EFL Fake News lesson plan

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This is a plan for a lesson I taught a couple of times before Christmas on the very timely subject of fake news. I did it with Politics and International Relations students on University courses, but it could be very easily adapted to a more conventional EFL context. The lesson develops their reading, writing and discussion skills and is aimed at upper-int and upwards. It should take about 90 minutes. My students really enjoyed the class and produced some interesting responses and some very imaginative pieces of writing.

Procedure

  1. Write the words ‘fake news’ on the board. Get your students to give you some examples. Have a couple to hand if they can’t (if you’re in Italy, like I am, you could always show them this). (5 mins)

  2. Explain you’re going to give them a presentation in which they will look at how to tell the difference between facts and opinions.

  3. Take them through this presentation, doing the practice exercise in pairs and clearing up any confusion at the end. The final slide directs them to where they can do further practice online. (15-20 mins)

  4. Tell them you’re going to read together an article about a ‘fake news sausage factory’. Elicit ideas about what that might be (Ans: it’s a website which produces and distributes fake news stories – don’t tell them that yet). (5 mins)

  5. (If they have internet access) Direct them to the article online or (if they don’t) hand out paper copies of the article. Instruct them to skim the beginning of the article to check if their guesses were correct. Give them two minutes and then get feedback; clarify if they’re confused. (5 mins)

  6. Put these questions up on the board. Students work through them in pairs. Monitor and give the occasional mild hint to those who are struggling. With weaker upper-int students let them use (but not overuse!) a dictionary. (15 mins)

  7. Go through the factual answers, also eliciting the appropriate part of the text. (5 mins)

  8. Make sure you leave time for discussion of the more subjective questions. (5 mins)

  9. If you have time and the students are willing, you can get the students to do a short writing task. Depending on their level, get them (individually or in pairs) to write the first paragraph or more of a fake news article about someone in the news in their country. (15 mins)

  10. Students stick their articles on the wall, read the others and choose their favourite (5-10 mins).

  11. Homework: Get them to redraft and extend their writing.

  12. Additional reading for very strong students: direct them to this.

Bob’s your uncle; Nora’s your aunt :-).