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Handout Addiction in ESL classrooms – ditch the crutches, dude!

Hi, guys, I just wanted to share this incredible ESL insight I had in my last class.

As you know, I refuse to have students sitting around doing grammar exercises from Murphy because it’s so booooooooring! That means everything we do is oral – with long lists of cool conversation questions that force them to use specific constructions. I’ve always had the illusion that this was a very useful exercise until one class I couldn’t make copies and I had to read the questions out – drill style.

Get rid of the crutches - ditch the paper, dude!!!!!!!!

This is when i realised, that the tense that seemed so rock solid was actually pebble loose. Both their ability to listen to and reproduce the tense was severely impaired.

What does this mean in ESL terms? it means that they had been heavily dependent on the sheet: reading it instead of listening, and using what they saw in the sheet to base their answer on (their visual skills rather than their linguistic skills.)

What was clear, though – when we did it without the sheet – was that it was amuch more stimulating and rewarding exercise as it forced them to use the above mentioned skills. Therefore, given that it increases the value of the exercise and the students find it stimulating, I’d like to recommend to all I-Ling teachers that they do part of such drills without letting students see the questions.

okay, thanks guys…love ya.

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I-Ling Vocabulary strategy: student feedback 1

This is a post from my day job blog – just in case anyone recognises it. This incident was of vital importance to the ILing Research network because it is the first – of what will be many – suggestions we have to deal with in our quest to introduce an ESL system for learning vocab as opposed to a random method.

In this case, we found the student’s objection to be psycological. At I-Ling we are very serious when it comes to dealing with different learning styles and we have encountered in a small group of students (1%) a learner who has a serious problem with lists of words. They simply don’t like such a regimented approach; it seems to their style… a death to spontaniety and a form of robotic learning.

We're not trying to turn you into a robot, we're trying to turn you into an advanced English speaker.

My response…

It is already a gargantuan task to get students to study and make progress because TIME IS LIMITED. The fact that time is limited means that we must think about every minute of class time and its relation to making clear, quantifiable progress on the road to the class target: moving from fluent to advanced.

As you know, vocabulary is the most important aspect in this path. Therefore, we must have a strategy for achieving vocabulary acquisition and in this case we believe the i-ling system is the best strategy. Why? Because if everytime we want to learn new vocab we have to read an article we introduce gross ineffeciencies into the system which will severely slow us down. Ineficiencies such as…

1. Words which are clearly not adaquate for the level…

If we do an article on volcanoes, for example, students will start jotting down words of a geological nature. The memory only has so much space and we want to prioritise the memorisation of useful words not obscure ones. All students are missing vitaly important words and it is these words that are our priority.

2. No clear strategy to memorise and assimilate the word…

The I-Ling system allows us to see the word, its translation, see it in context, put it in an English to English context, use it in conversation, listen to it and check it. This significantly raises the probability of deep assimlation. Jotting down the meaning of a word next to its occurence in an article is an example of superficial assimilation and an example of everything that our organisation is against.

3. Errors in translation and explanation…

With the vocab book we have a clear translation. With an article we have to hope the teacher knows the translation or can explain it clearly. If he can not, valuable classtime can be wasted on explaining words which may not be relevant to level.

4. No clear structure or progress…

With articles the vocabulary strategy is completely random and it is dificult to gauge progress. The current system offers a clear, quantifiable line of progress. We started the course at point x and now we are at point y. this motivates students, allows everyone to see where we’re going and creates a measurable system for the efficiency of the course.


While we sympathise with your position that lists seem quite mechanical we hope that you now see that it is the best way of achieving our goal. It is quite simply – much more effecient. Also, bearing in mind that we then have a class conversation with each word, we believe this to be far more fun and less robotic than reading an article and jotting down words.

Furthermore, upon conversation it seems to me that the real problem is that you have a stronger vocabulary than the rest of the class and therefore you feel you are getting less out of the book than the rest. Perhaps we should consider putting you in a different class.



ESL Salary: Five tips to earn better wages teaching English – Part 1


Is teaching English a waste of time? Is teaching ESL a low status, downwardly mobile job with a rubbish salary?

Before we start you’re going to have to ask yourself the above questions, because many teacher’s bad position and bad salary in the world of ESL are the result of a negative attitude. The problem is that only a fraction of ESL teachers want the job, while the majority are either looking on it as a ticket to travel, or find themselves abroad and it’s the only job they can get.

Because of this, they never commit themselves fully and are always thinking about the great project or job they’d rather be doing. This means the job is a question of getting by… and their work reflects that. This is a critical error, and as we shall see, the first stage in becoming a TEFL chimp.

Don't be a TEFL chimp... take control of your situation

I know many of you never wanted to be an English teacher and that really, if just a few things had been different, you would have been the Secretary general of the UN… but you’re not the secretary general of the UN. You’re an English teacher. You now have to make the choice of whether you become brilliant at it… or an ESL gimp. A TEFL chimp… or a TEFL gorilla. Decide now, because the irony is that if you want to improve your salary or even get out of teaching, then you better start becoming bloody good at it. (Impress your pupils, freinds and bosses and then all sorts of opportunities will open up. But we will explore this soon.)

So that’s my first tip: If you want more money – then be good at what you do. Teaching english is not rocket science; simply by hanging out on these pages or reading a book on language teaching (obviously, I’d recommend our forthcoming TEFL Insurgent) you can position yourself far ahead of the game. Once you become a fantastic teacher and people buzz about your classes you can approach your school and say that you’re considering leaving for a better paid job. Unless they’re bloody stupid (a possibility in the world of language schools) they’ll offer you more money. (see my future post on becoming a brilliant teacher From ESL gimp to ESL Tiger in three months. Also, more students and companies will start offering you private classes.

If you want more bucks you better buck up your ideas!

What distinguishes brilliant people is that whatever they do – wether it’s serving burgers or solving international conflicts – they do it to to the best of their ability. I suggest you do the same with teaching… your salry, oportunities and options will increase. I promise you.


Textbooks and ESL Existential dilemnas

As any of you know who read my last post, I was raring to go and give my first class speech on Monday and begin a new world order (in ESL terms). Unfortunately, the speech will have to be shelved on account of an unexpected e-mail from the office. It went something like this…

– Group 1: Headway intermediate
– Group 2: Market Leader Intermediate (new)
– Group 3: Proficiency gold

etc.. etc…

Well, it turns out that they’re already following the books given to them by the previous school… and I just have to continue were they left off.

Help - ESL existential panic!

For me, this represents a lot of what I don’t understand in the world of language teaching and learning. I was there thinking that I was being called in because the previous teacher’s classes weren’t up to scratch, and now I just have to carry on what the previous teacher was doing. Which brings me to my problem with text books and it’s resultant existential panic.

If a class is following a book then I don’t really see what my role is. The answers are in the back so they don’t need me to correct them, the exercises are in front of them so they don’t need me to bring materials, and the book is already a course so they don’t need me to create a programme. What then am I? I’m tempted to use Markus’s term – “A TEFL muppet.”

Obviously, I can see the answers to many of my questions… I’ll be a bit like the conductor of an orchestra – guiding them through the book. I’ll bring in supplementary activities. I’ll do all the stuff teachers do – counsel, motivate, advise. But there in lies the problem…

Fundamentally I don’t like text books such as Headway, Murphy etc… because they simply don’t reinforce what they’re trying to teach enough times. They don’t work. Therefore, if a course is going to be centred around a book which I don’t believe will work, then I find myself a little lost.

Has anybody got some advice on the issue?


First class ESL speech – The hard facts about company classes

I’ll be giving this little speech for a first class on monday – new corporate client…

“Hi, welcome to XX language school. Before we start I want everyone to have something clear: these classes do not exist so that you can learn English. To frame the motive of these classes in those terms is to frame the class as some kind of complete language soloution – a path that takes you from zero… and leads you to fluency. This is not the case. Why? Because that’s impossible.

Let’s take a simple example: past simple irregular verbs. A recent study has shown just how long it takes to assimilate one – little known, forgotten, or new – past simple irregular. (And remember, the key word here is ‘assimilate’, not listen to, use a couple of times, but never able to incorporate it fluidly and without thinking into your speech.) Well, it turns out that for deep assimilation of a past simple form, you need to hear it, speak it and work with it for at least – at least – 12 minutes (in some cases more in some cases less, but on average 12 minutes).

So, the rest is simple mathematics… there are 90 irregular verbs which means 90 * 12 = 1080 minutes. Which is 18 hours just to get the past simple irregulars memorized. That’s 6 weeks of classes just to get one tiny aspect of a very big language.

Now anyone who doubts this can read similar figures in our research with respect to the entire route to fluency. The fact is that if all you have are these company classes, you will be here until 2020 before you’ve done enough hours to reach fluency – and even then, the sieve factor – the fact that you soon begin to forget what you learnt weeks, months and years previously – means you’ll never reach fluency.

So, I hope we all have this clear: It is impossible to learn English by attending these classes. Which all leads to the question… what are these classes for?”

And that’s where we’ll have to leave it folks. A pretty tight confidentiality agreement on the part of I-Ling forbids me from getting to the juicy part…

bye for now.



Extract from forthcoming work – TEFL Insurgent

When an academic field is dominated by an esteemed institution like Cambridge University it’s easy to have total faith in the theory transmitted through their courses. However, one doesn’t have to stray far to find examples of esteemed, very clever institutions being not very clever. The recent financial crisis, for example, showed that the prevailing paradigm of economics (that markets can regulate themselves) was erroneous, and showed how a paradigm can permeate a generation of academics; if you were an economist who believed that free markets were inherently flawed it was difficult to gain acceptance in the world’s major universities. Another pertinent example was the belief – widely held by leading psychiatrists until the nineteen fifties – that homosexuals could be cured by electric shock therapy. Very very clever men making very very big mistakes. Such examples are vital to understand contemporary language teaching because there will always be an inclination to believe that Cambridge couldn’t possibly have it wrong; after all – it’s Cambridge.

Unfortunately, though, that’s what’s happened.

Cambridge have got it terribly wrong, and that wrongness is the source of a contagion that spreads from CELTA and DELTA into every corner of the ESL world today. And unfortunately, this contagion combines with social trends such as dumbing down to transform the simple task of learning a second language into a circus. This circus is full of bright lights, ‘fun’ and multi-media stimulation, but ultimately it is a merry go round and students just go round in circles. If you refuse to believe this then ask a teacher to speak candidly about their experience: they’ll talk about students who consistently fail to master their target language and students who are failing even though they have access to immersion, intensives, English on the internet, English on TV, English on their mobiles, and interactive English.

And this is the great irony: the more methods we invent and the more products we create, the more chaotic and difficult, learning a language has become. And I repeat ‘become’ because we must place this in a historical context. Until the second half of the twentieth century there is no mention of any particular method for learning languages, no technology to provide ‘listenings’ or multimedia, and most of all… there were no academies! Yet bi- and tri-lingualism was common for the educated classes. Another case in point are the universities. Have you ever noticed that there’s no Harvard method for learning languages or a Yale system? No, because if you need to study French or Sanskrit as part of your degree they will prescribe the sort of timeless method for learning languages which this book deals with. What they will not do is throw you into a language circus of endless courses and products.

TEFL Insurgent – Release Date – February 21


ESL Logistics: Accurate Record Keeping

Just like in novels where one moment encapsulates a wider context, I said goodbye to some students on Friday and it suddenly illuminated a very big problem. These moments are called system insights: moments were as a teacher involved in a language school you suddenly see a means to improve the school’s efficiency or ESL curriculum.

This particular insight came as a result of an unusual set up at a major corporation: 4 students who only had the right to 8 hours of English every 3 months. As I said goodbye to these students we resolved that I be their teacher next trimestra. While shaking hands, however, I knew that it was unlikely (because I would then have regular hours at another company); even worse… I suspected that the next teacher who came along would use the same ESL materials that I’d just used.

Why? Because this particular school had no record of what its students were studying class by class; a good example of bad ESL logistics in a language school.

This group was at particular risk because they always requested classes in a specific area of business: shipping. Because this area is usually quite limited I knew that the next teacher would come along and do what I’d just done.

And just in case you doubt this, I’m certain of this point because it had happened to me. In the first class, they told me they had done exactly the same last trimestra; luckily, I managed to breathe some life into the theme and they were happy. Next trimestra, however, the teacher would have to have a totally new approach if the class wasn’t going to be a total waste of time.

In the ESL context, keeping records of what every student’s done is solid logistical practice. Personally, I find it a real pain in the arse and if I can get away without doing it – that’s good by me, but it’s clear that schools should keep records. And not only should they keep records, but teachers and directors of studies must have easy access to those records. It’s not just helpful for the teacher it’s vital to measure the progress of students. If you know the student opposite you has already done the present continuous 8 times and still hasn’t got it, then you know it’s time to start asking questions – either of the student’s commitment or modus operandi, or the manner in which he is being taught.

However, I’m also aware of another strand in this position. Students themselves should become more empowered and aware of their curriculum. Too many students just sit back and let the teacher run the show and when a new teacher comes – run a different show (and then later they complain). Students should be aware of what they’ve studied and be sure, when contacting the school to make clear where they want to go.


TEFL Conversation topics: free manual

Lynch is an extraordinarily boring man (by his own admission). He’s just spent a month writing a book of 1000 conversation questions. Although the task was quite boring, however, the conversation topics aren’t, and the result can make your classes and life more interesting with this free conversation manual.

We’ve decided to divide it up and give it away in a ten page booklet each season. It’s full of interesting conversation questions which are great for debating societies, TEFl / ESL classes, and philosophy groups. With cool questions topics from celebrity nonsense to hign ground political and social questions, there’s something here for everybody.

Dudes the world over are chatting with the free I-Ling conversation manual

Apparently I inspired him. He first decided to write a book of TEFL conversation topics when he heard my comments about how I found myself always asking students the same questions… “how was your weekend? how’s your job? etc… etc…” as well as being boring I felt I really wasn’t getting to know them, and getting to know your students is one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching.

Well, Lynch seems to have solved that problem now and has started some raging debates in my classes. Download the manual here and enjoy….

tefl conversation topics

Let me know if it works for you…


ESl Curriculum. Design a course that addresses the student’s real needs

Another new year, another round of students, and another flurry of needs analysis. This year however I can save myself loads of work by nicking Lynch’s ESL Route to fluency.

For some time now, I’ve been looking at the result of my needs analysis and starting to think it was all a bit abstract. As I go through the usual list of student needs – speaking by telephone, e-mail english, fluency building, quarterly evaluations – I can’t help but think it’s bitty. There is really only one student need, and that should be the focus of the needs analysis and the ESL curriculum: to learn English. As I mull over this list of disjointed tasks which they recieve year in and year out I’m convinced that it doesn’t give them a concrete idea of where they’re going.

That’s why my ESL course plan for this year, as well as the needs analysis, is going to include a copy of Lynch’s Route to fluency. On one sheet of A4 paper it proposes a complete breakdown from level zero to fluency. As he says in his book, it is not a perfect route, and the TEFL nerds will spend a long time arguing over the details, but it makes students and teachers think about the bigger picture. I’ve had positive feedback from the students on this handout and find it gets everyone on the same page. The aim of an ESL curriculum shhould be to make students fluent in the English Language, not pass through a series of disjointed and abstract activities.

Thanks Lynch,

Download the Road Map to Fluency here Lynch’s route to fluency


ESL Fun – What to do 1.

I’ve just come back from one of the most hilarious classes I’ve ever done in my life. Inspired by my Dad’s insistence we play something called charades at Christmas (apparently it was all the rage in the 1970s) I decided to try it in the ESL classroom.

In case you don’t know what charades is – it’s basically a game where a person has to mime the name of a film, book, TV or song and everyone else has to guess what it is (in the ESL context – talking in English of course). Sometimes, though, if it’s a bit tricky… the word is split into syllables. A good example is ‘Titanic’ which one of the teams was doing in my advanced class.

At first the player was miming something floating and then miming that it sunk. His team didn’t get that so he made the sign for three syllables – 3 fingers on the arm. The fist syllable was ‘ti’ so he pretended to put a tie on. The syudents got that. Then, for the second syllable, he mimed being under the sun and getting a ‘tan’; but it was the third one that was so funny ‘ick’. This guy did the sound like sign and then proceeded to mime ‘lick’ by pretending to lick a lolipop…. Naturally the students soon understood.

Clearly, you have to play this game in the right ESL environment. A bunch of stiff executives might not be up for it, but a big class of students who like to have a laugh are sure to be enthusiastic. The major probpem, as can be seen in this video below is that many people are self concious. But, as far as I’m concerned… it’s just bad luck… as soon as they start playing they get into it.

Also, it’s very important to remember the following: don’t split the class into two teams – give each student their film, song, book and then give them ten minutes to research and think about the best way to mime it – looking for syllables in the dictionary, meanings etc… They then mime it to the whole class.

If you need further information about the rules, some charades boffin posted this… probably my dad.


So, yes… if you’re looking for some serious ESL fun … get going on the charades front.