How important is vocab in ESL?

by Marcus A.K.A The Slacker on May 23, 2014

Marcus deals with student’s flaggin enthusiasm for the vocab strategy in his ESL classroom…

As an English teacher you have to deal with a lot of nonsense. The funniest thing I’ve ever heard, though, was a student who said he was giving up the course because there was too much vocabulary. To give up a language course because there’s too much vocab is like giving up a Maths course because there’s too many numbers.

Language consists of words, and if you don’t know those words then you don’t know the language. Despite this, however, students simply don’t realise that their problem with English is intimately related with their limited vocabulary. This lack of realisation is because contemporary education has over complicated the learning process and become obsessed with the experience learners have while they’re learning. This erroneous trend means that everyone believes they must following method x or y, or playing, or being interactive or whatever. No one wants to believe that it is simply a question of lack of data – in this case, vocabulary – and that all they need to do is to memorise words to input that data.

• Listening exercises are good – but the biggest problem caused with listening is that you simply don’t know a percentage of the words you’re listening to.

• Speaking exercises are good – but if you simply don’t know the words for what you want to say then you will never speak well.

• Telephoning in another language is always difficult but no amount of telephone classes will help you if you don’t understand a certain percentage of the words you hear or know the words for what you want to say.

There are many important aspects to learning a language – fluency, reading, listening etc… but you will find again and again that these seemingly complex problems are simply caused by a lack of vocabulary.

When arriving at a new company or school, we make vocabulary our absolute top priority. It is both an academic issue and a matter of conscience. I am passionate about the career and future of my students and that’s why I can not let them (students who need English for their career) lead their professional lives without the minimum vocabulary requirement for operational efficiency in English. That minimum is 2000 words, and if I know you don’t have that vocabulary level but I start introducing games and random activities into the classes to make them ‘fun’, then I am not doing my job properly. My job is to advance your career and assist you in functioning more efficiently in linguistic situations. If you want fun – then go to the fuc*ing zoo! Work hard – play hard: fun is a privilege for those that reach the required level.

I’m not obsessed with vocab and I’m not a ball breaker. And that is the irony. I love fun. Once I know my students have reached the 2000 word level (and have mastered the tenses) then the nature of the classes fundamentally changes. We can do multi-media classes, we can do role-play, we can do anything the students want. Therefore, I humbly ask you – if you are bored or frustrated – to stick with the program, reach the required level and then you can direct the course.

Big hug,


ESL class – Breaking bad – Using series in class

by Marcus A.K.A The Slacker on October 11, 2013

Life’s all about caring and sharing (apparently)… so I thought I’d share my slide from an ESL class on Breaking bad. It is designed for a HD screen so it wil look weird on a mobile or diddy computer. Enjoy.

bitch breaking

A crazy but effective method for ESL error correction! Sonic punishment!

by Marcus A.K.A The Slacker on April 17, 2013

How and why this crazy idea occurred to me I don’t know, but it was probably the sheer frustration of hearing the same student errors repeated again and again.

So I decided to sing.

That’s right… when my favourite student eliminated the pronoun I suddenly decided to sing in a mock opera voice… “You have eliminated the pronoun again… this is an error… please put the pronoun back in.”

I have an awful voice (all the better for this novel ESL error correction technique) and the effect was immediate. The student looked at me in horror and immediately put his hands over his ears. He was in some kind of TEFL nightmare. After performing the same error correcting trick a few times, the student developed such a mortal fear of my singing that he was soon inserting the pronoun.

Just to clarify the methodology of the ESL correction trick… you must give them the explanation in song. Singing a random song – while punishing – doesn’t quite have that surreal, brainwashing edge.

Calculating how long it takes language students to reach fluency

by Lynch AKA The Regulator on March 11, 2012

Face the reality – the mathematical facts of the road to fluency

As mentioned above, the PQE helps the student to face the reality of what lies ahead. However, that’s not sufficient. You must make your students understand a few home truths. It’s not enough to say ‘you must study… classes aren’t sufficient’ you have to demonstrate it to them in a way that it’s anchored in their brain. You yourself as a teacher must also come to understand the absolute pointlessness of classes without a study programme.

Achieve both these goals by taking on board the following yourself and then communicating this to your students.

Total time to reach a basic level of fluency – 450 hours
Student has 2 * 1 ½ clases a week – total 3 hours a week
450 / 3 = 150 weeks + holiday breaks brings you to 3 years.

While this is a long time, many students would feel satisfied with this to a certain ex. However, there is one huge problem with this: IT DOESN’T TAKE INTO ACCOUNT THE SIEVE FACTOR. WHICH IS namely, that almost as soon as you eneter some linguistic knowledge . and definitely if it’s half baked, it starts to slip away unless it’s constantly reinforced. This measn that the longer there are between classes, periods of study and the start – end date of your 450 hours the greater chance you begin forgetting what you learnt. In other words, people who learn over a short time can use the building block analogy. Each item they learn goes on top of the next to build a house of fluency. When you start elongating the learning time, however, it’s like a house of sand and the knowledge base starts dissolving away.


The wrong PQE plan is one that would follow the Cambridge model without the necessary interlinking. The Cambridge model says that language consists of speaking, writing, reading, listening – therefore that’s what we have to teach them.

In actual fact, this approach could work fine if the material they were using was interlinked and allowed certain common phrases and vocab to be repeated … but it never is. The result is that students are soon put on a merryground of lots of different exercises wich haven’t been weaved together skillfully resulting in an information overload. Then, in a sincere effort to teach them the language teachers start throwing shit loads of grammar often spending no more than half a class on it and move onto the next theme.

This begins a cycle which you must be aware of to understand why so many students fail. It is a cycle of information overload that can be summarized in the following way…

Students are given loads of units to pass through. First they do unit 1 then they move onto unit 2 but they never truly assimilated what was in unit 1. This process then continues through all subsequent units. The result at the end is a whole suite of underdeveloped skills, words not memorized correctly and half assimilated grammar. The course has failed.

Every unit you do whether it’s grammar, vocab whatever, ask yourself the TAQ “did they assimilate that information.” And just for the record assimilate means.

That they can use the word, grammatical form etc.. without having to pause for a long time.
It is the common error of Information Overload that dictates and shapes what goes in the PQE. Basically, you must follow one simple guideline

– put in as little as possible.

It is better your students achieve total assimilation of a small number of language items that a mountain of wooly half baked words, forms and skills. You must therefore prioritiose and how to judge this priority is expounded in the next chapter.


What grammar should I teach in an ESL class? Why prioritiation is important.

March 11, 2012

Don’t insist they learn every single grammar unit relevant to their unit. There are dozens of grammar units that seem terribly important but in fact their not – all they do is cause an information overload and enter students into the half-baked cycle above. Who are you to say what’s important or not? How can […]

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What materials does every language student need?

March 11, 2012

The status of materials is often downgraded. One of the main reasons is that language is a spoken phenomenon and text books seem artificial, formal and too rigid. They are all of those things but they are also something else: ABSOLOUTELY ESSENTIAL! If you are in the country of the language you are trying to […]

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ESL Student Feedback – The Student’s warped perception

February 28, 2011

I’m hoping that you’ll all be hearing from Tom the Traveller soon as he writes us a description of his latest audio product. In the meantime, though, I would like to tell you about something very interesting he said the other day (well, interesting if you’re a TEFL nerd like me). Tom and I have […]

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Ingles con la musica – ESL students using movies and music in English

September 21, 2010

Este articulo se trata del tema ‘cómo aprender inglés con la música’. Recomendamos a cualquier estudiante leyendo este articulo Aprender inglés a través de la música. This article is about helping students to consume media (songs, movies and series) in English. This is something we know about because we’ve been researching it for the past […]

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Should ESL students translate? 1

April 4, 2010

Most of my blog posts these days are inspired by my battles with my difficult (but much loved) pupils in my day job. This week, the ongoing debate has been about translation as I’ve been making them translate sheets of sentences. Their objections to these exercises vary, but the fundamental academic objection derives from one […]

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