Friday, 30 November 2012



Hello! Is there anybody out there?

Ask any adult student why he or she is studying English, and you’ll be told. “I want to be able to talk to foreigners.” “I want to converse in English.” “I want to be able to communicate with our foreign customers on the phone.” “I want to learn how to hold a conversation in English.”

Free conversation is the Holy Grail of language learners. With conversation skills they’ll hold the key to international communication, be able to conduct business in English, be able to fraternize with Westerners, perhaps even form a romantic liason with one. So teach me how to talk! Who cares if my reading and grammar skills don’t amount to much? I can do without that kind of stuff. I just want to be able to talk in English.


Well, as you or I know, without grammar, any conversation you enter into is going to sound like a dog’s breakfast. And without reading, you aren’t going to expand your vocabulary. And with a crap vocabulary you aren’t going to be able to…. I won’t go on. You know it; I know it, but our dear students don’t.


If your school is offering Free Conversation classes, those will be the ones most in demand. Those are the classes that will be bursting with eager, hopeful students waiting for you to impart oral fluency to them in a matter of six weeks or so.  Yeah right. Their grammar is still at the pre-intermediate level, they know a total of 40 words in English between them, and their listening skills are abysmal. But don’t worry about that, just go in there and make them fluent.


It’s a near-impossible task of course, but it’s what you’re getting paid to do, so if you want those pay checks to keep coming, go in there and make the best of it. And how to do that?


First off, the class may be named ‘Free Conversation Class’, but there’s no such thing as free conversation for students at lower levels. Memorized conversations, yes. Guided conversation, yes. Free conversation, sorry, but no. So what you’ve got to do is a bunch of repetition drills, substitution drills, and memorization drills, all of them under the guise of ‘free conversation’. Here’s some ideas:


Forget about naming a topic (let’s say ‘eating out’) then saying “Right, discuss that”. It’s a surefire cue for a deafening silence. Instead, write on the whiteboard ‘Last night I went to _______ restaurant. I had ________ . It cost $___. It was ________.’ Drill the sentences a few times; “Last night I went to Beachside Restaurant. I had chicken. It cost $6. It was delicious.” Then get them saying the sentences using their own input to fill the gaps. Have some of the stronger students do it individually, then assign it as pair work. Once that’s done, you could get each pair to change partners, and do it over. Or you could change the pair work exercise into a milling session, where one student tries to say the routine to as many others as possible. You could also change a few words in the sentence patterns. “Last week me and my family went to X Restaurant. We had X. It was horrible.” (Anything negative).


Next, a change of topic, but retaining the same sentence patterns. “Two weeks ago me and my boyfriend went to the beach. We swam for three hours. It was lovely.” (Yes, yes, I know it should be ‘my boyfriend and I’, but I don’t speak like that, and unless you’re a professor of grammar, neither do you probably.) Make sure that the partner listening to the utterance responds in some way. A non-responsive listener leaves any conversation dead in the water.  “Really, uh huh, oh yeah, did you?”


Once they’ve practiced the shit out of these patterns, you could try extending them. “Uh huh. I’ve never been to X Restaurant. Where is it? How far is it from your house? Will you go there again?”

Next, a memorization drill. Write a short conversation on the board.

A: Hello?

B: Hi. This is Jack.

A: Hi Jack. How are you?

B: Good. What are you doing right now?

A: I’m watching TV.

B: Oh yeah. What are you watching?

A: Who Wants to be a Millionaire on HBO channel.

B: Is it good?

A: Yes, very good.


Drill the conversation until they’ve committed it to memory. I do this by the erase and repeat method. They say a line. You erase the lettering of the first four words apart from the initial letter of each word. They repeat. You erase some more letters. They repeat. And so on until they’ve got the whole conversation off pat. Then they practice it in pairs. (You can insist that while speaking they must look their partner in the eye.) Then you get some selected couples to say it in front of the class.


All pretty predictable and hum-drum, huh? No-one has been asked to contribute a new idea or an opinion. Their input is limited to substituting nouns and verbs in set sentences. But if you’ve presented it at a fast pace, your students might just think “Hey, we’re having conversations!”


Now if your students are ever going to conduct actual free conversations any time in the future, you’ll need to upgrade their listening skills. The most effective way I know of doing this is by rapid dictation. As the name implies, you speak rapidly, at the same rate of speech you’d use with a friend or family member. But with rapid dictation, you repeat the sentence over and over. How many times will vary depending on the class. Keep gabbling out the sentence until 90% of your students have got it 90% right. While you’re dictating, wander around the room looking at their papers. Make marks on their papers indicating where mistakes occur, but not the nature of those mistakes. It’s not a race, so don’t congratulate or hug the first student to get it right, just turn his or her paper face down and continue with your repetitions. Once the sentence has been satisfactorily dealt with, get the students to repeat it a few times, introduce an appropriate response, and have them practice it in pairs. Rapid dictation is good value. You’ll see marked improvements in the students’ listening skills if you do it regularly. I do eight to ten sentences of it almost every single lesson. And here’s another plus with rapid dictation: the students seem to enjoy it.


Apart from the dictation session (where talking is forbidden) you must keep one thing uppermost in your mind: student talking time must occupy 90-95% of the session. Anything less than that, you may get students thinking “Hang on, this ain’t free conversation! This is just yet another English lesson.” And that’s one thought you definitely don’t want crossing their minds.


Sunday, 25 November 2012



Huh? Wott’s he mean by that? Bad for the health? Well, wot ‘e means by that, my good reader, is that teaching English is not conducive to good health.

 Take teaching schedules, for starters. I’m talking about private language schools here – the field in which most of us are employed. You start, what time? Five-ish in the evening, right?  You finish, what time? Nine, or nine thirty. Then, whaddaya do? You eat. And then what? You sleep. On a full stomach. Now, any nutritionist, doctor, or Old Wife will tell you that’s unwise. A sleeping stomach that’s also coping with the task of digesting one plate of spaghetti bolognaise and two bread rolls is not a happy sleeping tummy. It’s feeling aggrieved that you’re not awake and moving around; the better to shake the bolognaise down into the digesting part of the stomach. (No, I’m not a doctor, but thanks for the compliment.)

Some teachers are not content to finish work, then eat, then sleep. Some, the impetuous fools, feel they’d like to fit a little relaxation and socializing into their days. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, and we don’t want any dull teachers in our classrooms, now do we? That would never do. So, our pleasure-bent teacher follows up the spaghetti with a couple of cans of beer, then a couple more, then Maria and Orlando turn up so you order six more, n then shix more pleeshe, n then….

Now I don’t want to preach here, but a sleeping stomach trying to digest one plate of spaghetti bolognaise, two bread rolls, and six litres of beer is a very unhappy tummy indeed. And sleep doesn’t come easy either, what with you getting up every half hour to take a leak.

So, what’s the solution? The solution, Dear Friend, is to leave EFL and take up a normal teaching job. That, or take up beach-combing.

OK, so work schedules are one health hazard. Hazard number two: air-borne diseases. Think about it. Here you are Mr Teacher, locked in an air-sealed, air-conditioned room along with 14 children and Tommy. Now I’ve got nothing against Tommy; he’s a lovely kid. Overweight, spoilt, and a trifle thick, but lovely all the same. However today Tommy has a cold. A wet, sniffly, runny-nosed cold that has him sneezing once every four minutes. And Tommy, true to Asian form, does not cover his mouth when he sneezes. Oh no. He throws his head back, opens his mouth wide, and gives a full-throated, microbe-laden blaargh!!! When the cloud of bacteria droplets clears, you see Tommy wiping his dripping nose with the back of his hand, then wiping his hand either on his text book or the neighboring boy’s shirt.

After ten or twelve of Tommy’s sneezes, students, books and classroom furniture are all coated with a fine film of snot. Hanging from the ceiling are little stalactites of mucous. And next morning you wake up with a cold. Thanks Tommy.

No, like I say: bad for the health, teaching is.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Asia, Asia, Asia...


Asia. I love the place! It charms me.  It fascinates me. Whenever I’m away from it, I miss it like a heroin addict going cold turkey. But I’ve met plenty of people who couldn’t agree less. They find the heat oppressive, the traffic the stuff of nightmares, the food unpalatable, and the people plain obnoxious.

 I remember reading a parable about traveling long ago. A traveler approaches a town on foot. On the outskirts of town he spies a wise old man. (Every parable has its obligatory wise old man hanging around the edge of town waiting to give sage advice to passers-by.)

“Say, Wise Old Man, how is this town I’m about to enter?”

“Well,” says the WOM  (rather pleased that he’s been asked for his sage advice on what has hitherto been a quiet day), “how did you find the last town you passed through?”

“Oh, just great! Nice town, friendly people!”

“Well, I think you’ll find this town exactly the same.”

The WOM then sits back on his heels to await the inevitable next traveler. Sure enough, another guy turns up six and a half minutes later.

“Say, Wise Old Man, how is this town I’m about to enter?”

“Well,” says the WOM, “how did you find the last town you passed through?”

“Oh, bloody awful. Arse-hole of the world, crap people.”

“Well, I think you’ll find this town exactly the same.”

And that, Dear Reader, teaches us one thing. Which is… um…I don’t know really. Perhaps it teaches us that wherever you go; there you are. Or perhaps not. Shit, I think I’m losing track of this blog somewhat.

Where the hell was I? Oh yes – Asia. I love the place.

Where else could you sit at a seaside restaurant viewing the sweeping vista of a bay, and get sloshed on Tiger Beer at one dollar a can? Where else could you be the target of admiring glances from a passing parade of sensational-looking girls? Where else could you stuff your gob with fresh seafood and pay a measly six dollars for the meal? Where else could you fire an M-60 machine gun at a paper target on a hillside? Where else could you sit down at a restaurant table to be joined by two waitresses and the cook determined to delve into every personal aspect of your life?

So, if you happen to be reading this, Wise Old Man, good on ya. Keep on dispensing that sage advice of yours.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012


Why your students can't (or won't) speak

Here’s a funny thing. When you learn your first language, speaking is the first skill you acquire, which would suggest that it’s the easiest of the four skills to master. But when you learn a second language, speaking is very likely the last skill you acquire, as you find it the most taxing. The reason is not all that difficult to fathom. Listening and reading require no output from you. You hear the words, you listen to the words, and either you understand them or you don’t. If you don’t, there’s no embarrassment or shame involved – it’s just one of those things. Writing, of course, does require your output, but you do have recourse to a dictionary and Google in the process, (or you can ask your big sister for help), and once the writing’s done you can go over it as many times as you want, checking, revising and rewriting.

But speaking is a different story. For one thing, once it’s said, it’s said. You have no chance to review and correct your words. (Of course you can resay your words, but that’s all a bit embarrassing.) You’ve produced some oral language, and there’s an expected result – namely the listener understands or doesn’t understand what you have said. If he or she doesn’t understand, here’s where the embarrassment factor comes into the equation. You’ll be met with a blank stare, or a ‘huh?’ or a ‘pardon?’ and then you’ve got to go through the whole thing again, with no guarantee of success this time round, or the next. Ooh, the shame of it all! I wish I’d never opened my mouth in the first place!

Think about when you learned a foreign language; about how difficult it was to say your first dozen or so utterances. It required a great deal of courage, didn’t it? And what a setback and confidence shatterer it was when no-one understood. And that’s exactly how it is with our students. EFL text books nowadays expect students to speak 30% to 45% of class time. Speaking to a partner is difficult enough, but when you are required to speak out in front of the whole class, God almighty! Am I going to stuff it up? Will my efforts be met with sniggers, or hysterical laughter even? Oh Lord, let the ground swallow me up!

I’ve experienced the same feeling myself. In a teachers’ workshop, someone drilled us in beginner-level Mandarin, then asked the ‘students’ to say a simple sentence one by one. When my turn came around I was a dry-mouthed bag of nerves.

Which is why, as a teacher, you’ve got to get your students involved in unison repetitions from day one. Unison drilling allows the students to get their mouths around the target language in near anonymity. If they stuff up, there’s no embarrassment involved; no-one’s gonna know. Some people call it choral drilling, some call it unison drilling. Whatever you call it, there’s no substitute for it.

Monday, 5 November 2012




Kids’ classes are the answer to a school manager’s prayer come true. First of all, kids don’t drop out, no matter how much they’d like to. The kids are there because their parents have decided they need to learn English – no other reason. The kids themselves would far rather be at home playing video games. Second, kids stay for the long-haul. The parents keep on sending them, term after term, year after year. Third, kids don’t complain. They don’t complain about the crowded classrooms (20-25 per class), the teaching quality, or the sub-standard school management. They accept it all without question. And the parents pay good money for the tuition, looking on it as an investment in their children’s future. Fourth, the classes can be conducted in the mornings and afternoons, in time-slots that are difficult or nigh-on impossible to fill with adult classes.

Weekends are the prime time for children’s classes, from early morning until late afternoon. Thus, weekends are the big money-earners for teachers. And earn their money they do. Teaching children is hard, hard work. It tries the patience, saps the energy, and in many cases drives the teachers to near distraction. Two hours in a kids’ class is the equivalent of four or more hours in an adult class.

Let us now take a minute or two to examine exactly why kids’ classes are just so damn grueling. Firstly, misbehavior rules the day. One misbehaving child is unbearable enough, but get 20 children together in one room for two hours, and the increase in misbehavior is exponential. The kids feed off each other, they egg each other on, they compete to outdo each other in the misbehavior stakes. So Johnny’s naughty and loud? Fair enough, I’ll be naughtier and louder. Freddy pulled Jane’s hair? OK, two can play at that game. I’ll pull Lisa’s and Sally’s and Emma’s hair. Jack’s showing off his karate moves? Right, I’ll show him some moves I bet he doesn’t know.

Meantime, the harried teacher is trying to establish a semblance of order in the class, trying to keep the noise level down to less than that of an Airbus at takeoff, and trying to stop Jack and Sam kicking each other unconscious. The class will have a local Teaching Assistant (unless the girl didn’t turn up today, or the school is too stingy to pay for one). The Assistant’s role is to keep the children in order. It’s a tall order. Some classes will comply to a degree; others will run wild regardless of the TA’s best efforts. Oh yes, there’s one other thing. The teacher is expected to teach the kids some English in the chaotic two hours.

Back in the West you probably looked forward to the weekend. Here you dread its arrival, and breath a long sigh of relief when it’s over.

One Sunday evening at 9:30, I was wearily packing my things ready to go home. In the past two days I’d taught 17.5 hours, 14 of them in children’s classes. As I trudged toward the door, a staff member said to me, “Have a good weekend, Mr Don.”

“What? Oh, um, thanks. You too.” She wasn’t being ironic. She wasn’t trying to be funny. She just thought it was a nice thing to say, that’s all.

Have a good weekend, You-all.