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How important is vocab in ESL?

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

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!

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

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.


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 you discount essential grammar?
First of all, you have to bear in mind that much of grammar is entirely arbitrary. In other words there are many coubtries around the globe where they have a different grammar. Watch the Wire and you’ll see in Baltimore expressions like “True that” “I don’t got nothing” in Jamaica ‘I is’ and the use of will in _ireland instead of would is technically incorrect.

What does this tell us? That some mistakes or mutations don’t matter so much. The goal of language is to communicate and as long as your message is communicated that’s what’s important. So then you have to ask yourself which elements are so fundamental you would lose all meaning. The answer is, the tenses. And we move minor grammar points into the vocabulary books. The tenses are what we ficus on because the ability to place an event in time is fundamental which means we have a motto. Nail the tenses nail the language.

Now, of course this is a slightly crude assessment but we use it to keep teachers and students focused on the important aspects of grammar. We consistently find that it is much more valuable for a student to have totally assimilated five or six of the principle tenses than half baked lots of different grammar units. It forms a coherent body of knowledge that allows them to communicate which is vital because.

1. Make it more likely they stick with the course because they’ve achieved tangible results they can see for themselves.

2. Make the rest of the language easier to learn. If you have a solid base the rest tends to fall into place.

These are the principles therefore behind our standard PQE at I-Ling.

Vocabulary – because language consists of words
The tenses – because language is governed by rules – the most important of which are the tenses.
Speaking – does that actually need articulation
Listening – ditto.


What materials does every language student need?

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 learn then you can disregard text books –but if you are in your own country you can not avoid them. You need them to assimilate grammatical forms, vocabulary, and as an impetus to speak and write.

An incredible 92% of students begin and end their course without the adequate materials. Trying to learn a language without all the materials is like trying to study medicine without an anatomy book.

Even if a conscientious school ensures that a student has all the materials then we run into another problem: insufficient reinforcement. Basically, most text books do not have enough exercises for you to learn the vocabulary or grammar point they’re trying to teach you. This is a major cause of students learning English for years but never making progress: students repeatedly only ‘half’ learn things – meaning they have to go back to them again and again.

You must do lots and lots of exercises to assimilate grammar and vocabulary and you must have the adequate materials! So please, if a student is about to start a language course then make sure he or she is prepared with…

1. A vocabulary Book (with a method for learning the words)
2. Listening exercises.
3. A grammar book (with lots of exercises.)
4. Reading material (so you can see language in context.)
5. Conversation manual.

Then talk about a coursebook or classroom activity book. Please understand something. Coursebooks are not designed to take students to fluency – they are designed to briefly go through key areas of language in an interesting and informative way, but they are not designed to consolidate, repeat and push a student through the arduous journey to fluency.

Stop allowing students to do courses without the necessary materials: it’s like taking someone on a skydiving course and chucking them out of a plane with no parachute. With one key difference – the fall from the plane is at least a quick death – a course without the materials is a slow inherently flawed winding lane to failure.


ESL Student Feedback – The Student’s warped perception

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 frequent clashes over various pedagogical issues (and many other issues, God bless him). In particular, though, we have vastly different views over the usefullness of our friends incredibly succsesful website – notes from Spain. My argument is that while the transcripts of ‘real’ conversations are all well and good they are a far lower priority than a well designed program of study. Tom,for his part, would like to elevate them above all else and insists that these podcasts and transcripts are what really helped him learn Spanish.

The thing that Tom always mentions though is that he listened to them ‘while travelling around South America’. This for me represents a classic example of ESL student perception about what works and what doesn’t. You see, if we examine this from a scientific perspective we have to understand that for Tom the two events are linked – he was listening to the podcasts… and his Spanish improved.

For me, however, it’s the other event that is linked to the improvement in Spanish; the rather obvious one: travelling around South America. His listening to the podcasts and improving is what we call in the philosophy business – an illusory co-relation.

Now, Tom, will say that this isn’t the case and will tell me that he was at a school in Guatemala and he didn’t improve as much as he did when listening to the podcasts (in other words he’d already been in South America and wasn’t improving.) However, we all know that a badly run school can hinder your progress and I’d like to say to Tom it was when he was out in the field that it all came together.

Like all arguments, this could go on forever, and at the end of the day maybe Tom’s right, maybe I am, or maybe we’re both a bit right. The point is, though, that sweeping statements about what works best for the language student must always be subjected to scrutiny. What you are making is an assertion and like all assertions they must be verified. This is important to me because I’m geting bloody sick of students and teachers who base all their ideas about the best way to learn a language on their own experience. As well as the obvious pitfalls of subjectivity it’s annoying because half the time they’ve never questioned or reflected on their own assertions.

Anyway, this isn’t just a rant. It has serious implications for the ESL environment because we constantly have to deal with student’s perceptions of what really works and how that affects the way they judge your class. It’s a key part of ESL learner psycology and it affects you because so much of their feeling about you and your classes – the student feedback – (which could lead to promotion or a sacking) is based on that.

What’s the soloution? Tell your students about this example and tell them that life – and learning a language – is complicated, and they should not make black and white comments.


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

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 few months. Which should answer your question –

Where the hell have we been the last few months?

You can help the whole population of your city understand movies and songs in English by being the I-Ling representative in your area and delivering our 2 hour multimedia lecture... it's sexy, incisive and entertaining (oh, yeah, educational too) contact cool@i-ling.org

Basically, we’ve been working our ESL butts off. And it may surprise you to know that we’ve been working on a music and film project. Shock! Horror! Gasp! The sounds of amazement come from those who think of I-Ling as an organisation commited to serious study and vehemently opposed to all concepts of Mickey Mousing around.

Well, we are exacly that, but the inclusion of music in a language training system is anything but Mickey Mousing around. You see, we haven’t been working on a bunch of lyrics – blanking them out and allowing students to fill in the gap – we’ve been working on a detailed, linguistic analysis of film and music, trying to understand why the hell advanced students – despite being advanced – can’t watch movies in original version.

Clearly, we didn’t come up with a magic pill or even a magic method, but we have put together a very helpful book, lecture, and podcast series, on the topic (If you want to deliver our lecture on “English in Popular Culture” in your city, then get in touch.) Below, you’ll find a link to the main site. Amigos, es un sitio super ‘cool’ y ¿Adivina que? ahora camos a dedicarnos a investigar como se puede usar la música para aprender inglés.

We have had some really positive feedback from this product so we urge you to get on board. It’s running in Barcelona, London and Bogta… that leave one hell of a lot of cities.



Should ESL students translate? 1

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 of those many EDIs (erroneous disruptive ideas) floating around the world’s ESL classrooms and study programs. In this case, the idea that you should never get into the whole translation thing because when you can truly speak a language you don’t need to translate, and therefore anything to do with translating means you can’t truly speak the lamguage and any attempt to translate will hamper with that speaking etc etc

In my first post on this issue I want to deal with one fundamental truth. That it is entirely unrealistic to expect students not to translate if they are following a classic ESL program. A classic ESL program means that they only study three or four hours a week (or less.)

If a student is in some kind of mega intensive, hardcore immersion program then we could begin to think of drowning them in English and endlessly prompting them in English, and never giving them a chance to translate. However, if they’re studying in regular classes, a couple of hours a week, then you can just forget about them ‘not’ translating. They’ll be translating – therefore it’s better they learn to do it properly and deal with all the false friends and peculiarities of their own language which cause problems when translated into English.

Like I said, we’ll return to this topic. However, take on board my fundamental – in programs with minmum amounts of contact time you’re students will continue with translating. Therefore, help them to do it correctly instead of living in a fantasy world where you think you can get them to stop it.