Thursday, 25 July 2013



Alain de Botton is widely quoted as saying “You become an English teacher when your life has gone wrong”. (Gulp. I wish he hadn’t said that.) I first contemplated teaching English overseas not because my life had gone wrong, but because I felt my life could be improved considerably. Here I was in a nice, safe, secure position in the printing trade, with my life all mapped out before me. I was looking at just 35 more years as a printer, and then I could retire, collect my superannuation, and join the local bowling club. Like I say, nice, safe, and secure. The problem was that I was assailed by these nagging thoughts that my life was just too nice, too safe, too comfortable. What I needed was to get out into the big wide world, take a few risks, meet a lot of interesting foreigners, maybe fall in love with one of them, and experience life to the full.

So, how to go about it? In my case, I went about it rather foolishly. I took a plane to Indonesia, looked up the address of Jakarta’s biggest English school, presented myself at the front office and announced that I was a well-qualified, widely experienced teacher of English, and when can I start? The school took me at my word, and I started work the following week. It didn’t take long for me to realize that as a teacher I was unprepared, ill-equipped, and hopeless at the task. So then it was decision time: should I toss in the pretence that I could teach and go back to my nice, secure printing job, or should I devise some way of actually becoming an effective, successful teacher? I chose the latter option, and have spent the forty years since devising ways to teach effectively.

I had no teacher training (silly me) so I was forced to resort to trial and error in order to achieve my transformation from classroom failure to classroom whiz-kid. Lots of trial, lots of error, and the occasional eureka moment when I thought “Yes, so that’s how it should be done!”

My first school was big (80 classrooms) and not very well organized. Teachers were not observed, nor their performances monitored, so it was the ideal place for me to make a million mistakes and get away with them. There were just four native-speaking teachers among a teaching staff of 65 Indonesian teachers, and we were thinly spread around classes in order to justify the school’s claim “Every class taught by Indonesian and Native-Speaking Teachers”. My role was to go into room six, give the students 15 minutes of “free conversation” related to the topic or grammar they were studying, say goodbye, come out of room six and go into room seven and give them 15 minutes’ free conversation, then go into room eight, nine, ten…. This doesn’t give the teacher much opportunity to memorise students’ names, or to learn individual students’ strengths or weaknesses, but it does give the teacher ample opportunity to foul up a lesson, briefly analyse what went wrong, then walk into the next class and do it over, this time (hopefully) with fewer foul-ups. And it did teach me how to time a lesson, how to engage students within the first few minutes, and how to draw them out and get them speaking. And it gave me a valuable lesson in crowd control, too.

Probably the main thing I learnt in those five years of free conversation sessions was that there is no such thing as free conversation for lower level students. They don’t have the vocabularies for it, they don’t have the sentence patterns, they don’t have the confidence, and very often they don’t have the ideas. And in the developing world, they could well be actively discouraged from voicing their own opinions, anyway.

So what the teacher must do is feed the words, sentence patterns and ideas to the class, then have them regurgitate those words over and over. Boring? It could be, unless you employ a range of regurgitation methods. Unison repetition, pair work, milling exercises, games, memorization drills, more unison repetition with some changes of key words or verbs, and so on. All done at a brisk pace.

The second most important thing my initial years of teaching taught me: Shut up! It’s the students who need the speaking practice; not you. When the teacher’s mouth is open and the students’ mouths are closed, there’s not much learning taking place.

So that’s it; the essence of my first five years of trying to become a real English teacher. I’m still at it 40 years later (Hell, is it that long?) I’m still making stupid mistakes, but I think they are becoming fewer. And who knows, give me another 40 years in the classroom and I might well become The Perfect English Teacher. Here’s hoping.


In my book EFL minus the B.S. there are chapters on Teaching Methodologies, Linguistics, Students I Have Met, and Bosses I Have Met, along with teaching tips for different age levels.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

50 SHADES OF EFL (Part 4)

50 SHADES OF EFL (Part 4)

Here goes… more random ramblings. First: Living in Asia.

Now I’ve been buying lottery tickets for years. Buy one in the West, and you can watch the draw on TV. All those balls spinning around, and then one number is selected. Is it yours? Hell, yes it is. Ball number two. Hey that’s my number too! Wow, I could be on my way to untold riches! Ball number three. Shit. Better luck next week.

In the West, the draw is all very open, above board, and transparent as the politicians like to say. Here in Asia I still buy lottery tickets, but I can’t help thinking that something smells in the state of Denmark. In Vietnam, for instance, you don’t need to wait for a week to find out if you’re a new millionaire. You buy a ticket at 4:00pm and that very night you can check on your cell phone to find out if you’ve won or not. Convenient, fast, and all a trifle fishy. Consider for a moment the multitude of lottery ticket sellers. They trudge around the streets day after day, approaching anyone and everyone they see for a sale. For every 10,000 dong ticket they sell, they net 1,000 dong. Of course, unless they’re extremely lucky, at the end of the day they still have a few dozen unsold tickets. So, what do they do? In all likelihood they compare that evening’s winning numbers with the numbers they’re still holding. And then what does the seller do if he or she discovers they’re in possession of a 1,500,000,000 dong winning ticket? Cash it in of course – as anyone in their right mind would do. Goodbye daily grind, and hello la dolce vita. Perhaps that’s permissible in Asia, but it strikes me as a little bit dodgy.

As well as sellers of lottery tickets, you’ll come across street vendors every time you set foot out of your home. You’re an ideal target for a vendor; foreigners are hopeless at haggling, and willing to pay three or four times what a local would pay for a similar item. Thus you’ll be approached (hounded, often) by sellers of chewing gum, tissues, sunglasses, bangles, key rings and gee-gaws, cigarettes (often with the option of an envelope of marijuana tucked under that packet of Marlboro), shoe-shines, books, newspapers, wallets, hammocks, t-shirts, postcards, maps you name it. “Hey Mister, you buy sunglasses, special price for you, very cheap.” The vendors range from the very old to the very young. (A four-year-old girl with an impressive command of colloquial English and rapier-like bargaining skills convinced me to buy a bangle on my last visit to Saigon.) They can be able-bodied or disabled, casual or insistent. In fact vendors at places like Kuta Beach, Bali, are so numerous and persistent they can detract from the enjoyment of your holiday. But street vendors are a fact of Asian life, and add to its color. And for the single traveler, often street vendors are the only people he or she gets to chat to apart from the hotel staff.

Who are the hardest students to teach? Which nationality can almost send you up the wall with frustration? For my money, they’re Arabs, Chinese and Koreans. Arabs because of their difficulty in coming to grips with the written English alphabet (not to mention their arrogant superiority.) Chinese for their reluctance to talk in English – even just a word or two. And for their propensity to cheat in tests. Koreans for their cheating, of course, and for their driven mind-sets. Korean students have developed cheating to an advanced art-form, and are not the least perturbed if found out. That only serves to get them to switch to another cheating ploy next time round. (“Perhaps I’ll try the old ‘answers scratched onto a Perspex ruler’ next time.”) 

And which nationalities are the easiest to teach? In my book it’s Russians, with their keen minds and determination to learn. Also Indonesians, for their fun-loving, likeable natures. And Thais too, for their sense of humor and bubbling personalities.

But the irony of working in EFL is that you’re paid roughly the same hourly rates regardless of whether your students are a pleasure to teach or a nightmare to teach. The exception, of course, is in Saudi Arabia. There you’re paid top money, not because of the difficulty of teaching Saudis, but because their country is such an uninviting hell-hole for an expatriate to live in.


EFL minus the B.S. is now available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle form.  CUSTOMER REVIEW: “Excellent book. As a former EFL teacher, ten years in Vietnam and Indonesia, this book is spot on in giving the basic lay down of teaching overseas. The book is a quick read and should be read by every EFL teacher. Definitely a good read while on your flight to whatever country you are going to teach.” – J.D.

Monday, 15 July 2013



You don’t see kids bounding upstairs 3 steps at a time like you and I do on a good day. Their legs are too little. The same consideration applies to language learning. You can’t expect 6 to 11 year-olds to absorb big chunks of new language and retain it much beyond the end of the lesson. The language needs to be taught little by little, step by step. It’s something that writers of Children’s EFL text books often overlook, which places the responsibility on the teacher to break the language input up into small chunks. Think of yourself as a kitchen vitamiser, reducing the language to ever smaller, easily-digested bits.

OK, so it’s the ‘At School’ unit. The first page of the unit has a three-quarter page illustration of a school yard, and under it is a list of new vocabulary: ‘school yard, playground, soccer field, principal, swings, slides’, etc.) Now’s the time to switch on the vitamiser. There’s no rush, so take your time and do it properly. First, make sure the kids have looked at the picture in detail; not just given it a cursory glance. “Oh, look at this. A school! I can see lots of children. How many are there? Count them. They’re having fun, aren’t they! Two girls are going ‘swish’.” (Make a downward sliding gesture.) “They’re on the - - - - - - .” (Silently mouth the word ‘slide’. Those who have already checked the word-list, or those who know the word already will come out with it. “Yes, that’s right: ‘slide’. I’ll write it on the whiteboard. Uh oh, help me. Does anyone know how to spell ‘slide’? Right. Now everyone repeat. Again.” Do the same treatment for ‘swings’.
“Now, there are 14 students, but look at these two people here. They’re not students. What are they? Yes, ‘teacher’ and…. What do we call this man? The man with no hair?” Continue in this manner, eliciting as many words as possible, and writing them on the whiteboard, following up with lots of group repetition. Once you’ve got the new vocab list on the board, (write the words on the lower half of the board, for a reason that will become apparent in a moment) there are two more activities to do with it. Number one: check they’ve retained the meanings. Do this by the pointing exercise. (Do they already know the word ‘point’? If not, do an introductory exercise. “Point to your ear, your nose, the door, the teacher….”) Once that’s out of the way, move onto “Point to the slide, the principal,” etc. Number two: erase a letter from each of the words and get students to come up and fill in the gaps. When they’ve got into the swing of it, erase a couple of letters from each word. Step by step. Little by little.

Some time during the above activities, you’ll probably sense they’re getting tired or bored. That’s the time for some light relief. Try to tie this in with the unit. For example, after drilling the words ‘soccer field’, produce a balloon and let them play balloon soccer for five minutes. Then, back to the book.

Applying the vitamiser method slows up the lesson, but does achieve a superior rate of retention. And, anyway, what’s the big hurry? It’s far better to lodge the language in the children’s heads, rather than give it an airing and find that it’s forgotten by tomorrow.


If you only read one book this year, read 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James. But if you’re casting around for a second book, EFL minus the B.S. ain’t half bad.

Friday, 12 July 2013



The longer I live in Asia, the more I come to realize that Asians are… well, same-same but different. They’re same as us in that they love and spoil their kids, they’re determined to give their children a leg-up in life, and Dad works his guts out to buy a house and support the family. But I’ve noticed that there are a number of immutable differences in Asian beliefs and perspectives. Differences that no amount of persuasion from you or anyone else will ever budge.

Now most of Asia is hot – no-one will dispute that fact. A healthy sun tan is one of the beneficial side-effects of spending a few months in the region. Nice. But most Asians, especially those of the female gender, won’t agree. They hold that dark skin spells low class. Dark skin is for farmers and yokels; definitely not for any self-respecting girl of Korea, China, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam or Laos. They’ll spend countless hours applying skin-whitening cream, and refuse to go outside in the heat of the day. (The exception is Cambodian girls. They’re dark, and proud of it.)

Next, beer. Asians haven’t quite come to grips with how to handle this Western innovation. Most drink it with ice. They drink it through straws. And they haven’t a clue on how to pour it; every glass ends up as an inch of beer and three inches of froth. Which may explain why the straw comes in handy.

Refrigerators are another Western invention which is grossly misunderstood. Leave the door open for three minutes while you potter about in the kitchen? No problem, the fridge will get cold again soon enough. The fridge’s main function is to cool drinks and make ice. As for storing poultry, meat, fish and all that, leave them on the bench rather than clutter up the fridge with them. And if you’ve defrosted something, there’s no harm in refreezing it, three or four times if it takes your fancy.

Oh, and MSG is good for you, by the way.

Another thing. If you don’t shout into a telephone, the other party won’t hear you.

Then there’s the matter of Asians’ perceptions of medicines. They will usually seek medical advice from a pharmacist in preference to a doctor. Most pharmacists go for the shot-gun approach to dispensing medicines. Here’s three blue pills, five little yellow ones, four green capsules, and four red pills. Oh, while I think of it, take this big white pill too. At least one of the medications might just clear up your ailment.  And the idea that antibiotics must be taken until they’ve run out is something that has never been accepted by your average Asian. The general consensus is: Why keep taking a medicine when your symptoms have disappeared?

Family ties. Asians have warm, close relationships with their families. And I’m not just referring to immediate family – I’m talking every aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, cousin, and cousin thrice-removed. In an Asian family, the eldest son is expected to support all his siblings for the rest of his life; that’s the Asian way. And when grandma gets the first hint of the tremors, she’s not shipped off to a “home” as she would be in the West; she’s drawn even closer into the bosom of the family. Yes, family relationships are something the Asians can teach us a thing or two about.


EFL minus the B.S. is now available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle form. The book will be of interest to (a) people contemplating a job in EFL, (b) newbies wondering just what their EFL course trainers left out, and (c) battle-hardened veterans of the classroom. Buy your copy today.