Tuesday, 27 August 2013



We’ve all had those moments, when it’s time to go into a class, switch on your cheery, enthusiastic, A-Plus personality and do a two-hour lesson, but all you really want to do is go home, have a beer, and sink gratefully into bed.

These moments don’t necessarily reflect on a lack of professionalism or dedication on the teacher’s part. No, they are more likely to be the result of an overloaded teaching schedule, the knowledge that the class you’re about to teach is a bunch of unmotivated, unresponsive dead-heads, you’re coming down with flu, or it’s your best friend’s birthday party and you’ll miss most of it. Or possibly you’ve been asked to cover for an absent teacher with just two minutes’ notice, (and you know, you just know, that the reason he’s absent is that he’s gone to your best friend’s birthday party).

But there’s a class that’s paid for two hours of tuition, and you’re the lucky teacher who is expected to deliver it. So how do you go about it? You can’t stomp into the classroom with a haggard, disgruntled, “here we go again” expression on your face; that would spell doom for the lesson from the kick-off. You’ve got to summon up all your acting skills and deliver them convincingly and memorably, leaving the students with smiles on their faces and perhaps, just perhaps, better English than they had two short hours ago. Actors regularly face the same predicament that you are now facing. The audience is expecting a convincing performance even though you’ve delivered the same lines night after night ever since Sir Laurence Olivier first took to the stage. So, you have to think show biz, performance arts, improv, edutainment. Then go in there and do the Grammy award-winning performance of your life.

Now, in these circumstances, chances are you’ve done no lesson preparation at all, but that needn’t detract from your performance. No EFL trainer worthy of the name would agree with me, but lesson preparation isn’t the make-it or break-it key to a good lesson. All the preparation you need is a bit of experience, and a good memory. And a little arsenal of hand-outs, games, and bits and pieces in your bag. Whatever the students’ level, it’s a good bet that they need to brush up their telling- the-time skills. (It’s something we teach at elementary level, then never again bring up, and most of your students will have forgotten all they ever learnt about it.) So, from your bag you produce a cardboard clock and a handout of blank clock faces. There’s a good ten or so minutes’ lesson time taken care of. Also in your bag you have some food flash cards. Ergo, you have a vocabulary exercise for elementary levels, a countable/uncountable, “some/any” exercise for intermediate levels. Remember, flash cards are not just for flashing. You’ll get far more value from them if the students have them in their hands, passing them around and asking questions about them. “Have you got any lettuce? / Yes, we’ve got some.”

When you’re tired and would prefer to be anywhere but here in the classroom, you don’t want the students’ attention to be focused 100% on you. So, make sure most of your activities are student-centered rather than teacher-centred. Which means info exchanges, role plays, pair and group work, milling exercises, and perhaps a little bit of writing thrown in. And a song. And a competitive game. Hot Seat’s good value. So too is miming, charades, and Stop the Bus. You haven’t tried Stop the Bus yet? Here’s how to do it. Issue one slip of paper to groups of three or four students. They have to write seven words on a topic you’ve nominated. Jobs, forms of transport, food, sports without a ball, or articles of clothing, for example. It’s a race, and when a group has finished they don’t say “Finished!” but “Stop the Bus!” Don’t ask me why, but this little catch-phrase immeasurably adds to their enjoyment of the game. A little bit of silliness goes a long way in an EFL class. 

If you go through the routine well, you could find yourself, mid-session, actually enjoying the lesson. And you might even get a text message from your best friend mid-lesson too, saying he’s put back the starting time of the party two hours because most of his mates are teaching.


EFL minus the B.S. is the best book I’ve ever written, and one of the best books I’ve ever read.  

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

50 SHADES OF EFL (Part Five)

50 SHADES OF EFL (Part 5)

Here’s a run-down on what you’ll get when you buy EFL minus the B.S. There’s a country-by-country breakdown on teaching in all the Asian countries, and a vaguely alarming chapter on how many hoops you need to jump through to secure work permits for those countries. There’s a chapter on living and working overseas – not all wine and roses. There are the chapters where I’ve roundly criticized school management (mostly mismanagement), language teaching theories (mostly mumbo-jumbo), and linguistics (wholly mumbo-jumbo). Plus some tips on teaching children and teenagers, and on how to fine-tune classroom dynamics. I rail on about bosses I have met (nine out of ten of them all-round ass-holes) and teachers I have met (nine out of ten good to work with, the others undeniably weird). There’s a chapter about how to start up your own school, and another about sex and the single teacher (based on extensive field-research on my part). There are no chapters on pedagogy, or the meta-cognitive paradigms of second-language acquisition. You’ll have to look elsewhere for info on those subjects. When writing the book, I didn’t overly concern myself with political correctness. Some readers have taken me to task for this, accusing me of insensitivity, chauvinism, racism, negativity, and just plain ignorance. Gulp, I’ll try and do better in the sequel.

Now here’s something not related to teaching, but something that’s been on my mind lately. Associations. No. I’m not talking of the Automobile Association or the National Rifle Association here, I’m talking about the weird associations our minds make with specific places and specific events. Associations that will stay with us until the end of our days. You with me here? No? OK, let me give you a few examples.

I’m in New Zealand, I’m in a supermarket queue, and I overhear the lady in front of me saying “Isn’t it terrible about Princess Diana?” A moment forever frozen into my memory. Another example: In New Zealand once again, but this time in a small, isolated West Coast hamlet, and I hear a customer remarking to the shop assistant “It’s sad, isn’t it? And he was the twin of Robin. I never knew that before.” My heart gave a bit of a lurch, and I hurried outside to tune into my car radio and await the news. As I had feared, Maurice Gibb of the Bee Gees had died.

I’m sure you all have similar associations. Most people can tell you the time and place where they first heard news of a beloved celebrity’s death, whether it be JFK, Lady Di, Amy Whitehouse, or Elvis Presley. 

Most of my mental associations, I’m happy to say, are not connected to the death of someone, but to music. I’m in Katmandu, I have an eye infection that’s keeping me closeted in my dingy hotel room day and night, and the guy a few rooms away is playing the Bee Gees “Tragedy” over and over and over. I’m teaching in Seoul, not enjoying it all that much, and AFKN (American Forces Korean Network) is incessantly playing Randy Vanderwarmer’s “Just When I Needed You Most”. (Great song, great voice; I wonder why he sank into oblivion immediately thereafter. Perhaps it had something to do with his choice of name.)

Whenever I hear the old Bee Gees hit “Holiday”, I’m instantly transported to a flat in Gloucester Road, London, that I shared with 14 other people. Whenever I hear Cat Stevens sing anything at all I’m back in London too. “Knights in White Satin” puts me back in the Atlanta Hotel, Bangkok. I hear Bob Marley singing “I Shot the Sheriff”, and I’m wandering down Notting Hill Road. I hear “Disco Duck” (a horrible song that enjoyed brief popularity in the mid-seventies) and I’m transported to the Kings’ Club in Itaewon, Seoul, where a hundred or so sweating, off-duty GIs are singing and quacking in unison. And whenever I hear The Eagles “Tequila Sunrise”, I’m sitting in a hostel dormitory in Jakarta with my best friend who insisted on playing the song non-stop. 

Yes, funny things, associations are.


The last time I mentioned EL James, author of  50 Shades of Grey, I referred to EL as ‘he’. But of course EL isn’t a ‘he’, she’s a ‘she’. My humble apologies.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013



The technology revolution has made itself felt everywhere, and nowhere is this more noticeable than in education. The dot.com boom of the late 1990s gave birth to ‘Computers for Education’, a far-sighted plan to “put a computer for every child in every classroom’’. No longer would bored school kids have to sit in rows and chant their times tables; instead they would be bent over their keyboards, their eyes fixed on their individual computer screens, as they toiled away at custom-made lessons, lessons tailored to their very own strengths and weaknesses.  No longer would they be fettered by the need to keep step in step with the rest of their classmates. Now they could shake off the yoke of ‘mean-age-equals-required -level-of-attainment’ thinking of old, and forge ahead by themselves, developing their own unique skills and talents as fast as their brains could soak them up.
Ed-tech would turn education on its head its proponents claimed. (No proponents said it louder than the corporations making profits from selling educational computer software.) The educationalists fell for it hook, line and sinker; the politicians fell for it, and on-line learning was written into every school curriculum post-haste. 

The haste and enthusiasm proved to be premature, if not woefully misplaced. Yes -- now there are a few computers installed in most classrooms. No -- the revolution in learning has not yet happened. What the theorists hadn’t taken into account was kids’ basic stubbornness and resistance to change. OK, it’s all very nice to have a computer to tap away at occasionally, but after half an hour or so it becomes a bore. We want to react among ourselves, not with a keyboard. I mean, you can’t poke fun at Computer C’s crossed eyes; you can’t pull Computer D’s hair and make it squeal. If only we could play Grand Theft Auto or Power Rangers III on them it would be alright, but no, the stuffed-shirt  authorities have blocked access to all fun things like that. Yikes, give me the old-fashioned chaos of classroom lessons any day of the week.

The EFL classroom was not to escape the grandiose edu-tech schemes of the 1990s. Even earlier than that, in the late 70’s in fact, Language Labs became the buzz-word of the EFL world. Any language school worthy of the name and with the necessary funds was installing one. Nowadays, unused language labs sit  gathering cob-webs, or have been broken down into individual computer modules for purposes the lab designers never intended. There are today hundreds of software programs claiming to expand vocabularies, teach and reinforce grammar points, iron out pronunciation and intonation difficulties,  perfect spelling, take the tedium out of marking tests, and prepare individual lesson plans, all at the click of a mouse. All the teacher has to do is sit at the front of the computer room and say “Start”, and then, ninety minutes later, say “Stop”. 

Goodbye teaching, hello technology-enabled language acquisition. Uh huh, and is that how things work at your school? No, mine either. 

“OK, kids, open your books at page seventeen, and everybody repeat after me: ‘What did you have for lunch today? I had rice and fish. How about you?’ And Johnny, stop pulling Sarah’s hair, would you!“


My new book, EFL minus the B.S., is now available on Amazon. If you’re looking for a weighty tome on pedagogy, and the meta-cognitive paradigms of second-language acquisition, give this book a miss. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for an entertaining dissection of the English teaching game worldwide, EFL minus the B.S. is the book for you. Order your copy today from Amazon.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013



Some students can master correct pronunciation from the kick-off, and some can’t, no matter how hard they try. The Indonesians call it “having a thick tongue.” So, in this post I’ll address the problem of handling cases of thick tongue.

I’ll start with Clarence, a student I once had. Clarence (or at least I think that’s what his name was, it was difficult to tell) could not for the like of him reproduce any sound correctly in spite of my best efforts. Unison drills by the hundreds, individual repetitions until the cows came home, breaking the words down syllable-by-syllable, rhyming drills, nothing worked with poor old Clarence. (Not all that old, by the way. He was about 30.) Now here’s a funny thing about those students whose pron is abysmal: they love to talk. You would think they’d sit in a corner with their mouths closed rather than be subjected to a succession of “Pardon? Huh? What? Say that again. Whaddaya talking about? Repeat”. But no, they’re eager to air their unintelligible utterings at the drop of a hat. “Ah, T-shirt!” “Yes, Clarence, what is it?” “Flugelhorn spligglepan zimbabwe judder titty bum-bum?” “Right, Clarence. Good question. Now let’s see… how shall I answer it? Oh, look at the time! We’ll have to come back to that question next lesson.”

It cannot be said that Clarence didn’t work hard at getting his pron up to scratch. Before he spoke, I’d see his lips silently moving as he prepared himself to say something. He threw himself into repetition drills willingly, with a determined frown on his face. But the more he tried, the thicker his tongue got. Clarence wasn’t stupid, by any means. His written work was faultless, and his reading and comprehension skills impressive; it was just that he couldn’t say the damn words right.

There are some sounds that any student will have difficulty in mastering. Sounds that don’t occur in their native language. Consonant clusters. Multisyllabic words (it means long words, Roger!) Some students will settle for an approximation of these sounds, and hope for the best. And as long as they’ve got the other sounds and words right, the listener will make sense of what they say, often by using context as a clue.

But the Clarences of this world get all the sounds wrong, leaving their listeners bewildered and at a loss how to respond.

Now here’s my theory on how to handle severe pronunciation problems. To my mind, the key is in the students’ listening skills. If they don’t hear it right, there’s not a chance in hell they’ll say it right. How do you hone students’ listening skills? With dictation. But not just ordinary old dictation – rapid dictation. You say a sentence and get them to write it down. No talking, no copying from your neighbor’s paper, just listen and write. I say the sentence at normal speaking speed (that is to say, fast), I repeat it again and again and again. As I speak, I circulate around the room and put red marks on the students’ papers indicating where a mistake occurs (but not what that mistake is). I’m constantly seeing instances of an individual making a particular mistake (e.g. a missing ‘s’ from a plural noun) that is exactly the same mistake which occurs in his or her speech. I continue repeating, repeating the sentence until 95% of the students have got it 95% right. Then I ask them to repeat it (along with a response) in unison and with a partner. Then, on to the next sentence. Try rapid dictation. If you do six to ten sentences per lesson, you’ll see a marked improvement within two weeks. A student who last week had his dictation paper dotted with a myriad of red marks, this week has only half a dozen, and next week even fewer. And you’ll hear their pronunciation becoming better and more natural, too. For my money, rapid dictation is one of the most effective, valuable tricks in the book.

Did rapid pronunciation work with Clarence? Um, no. I’ve got no explanation for that, no excuses. I’ll just repeat the opening sentence of this blog. Some students can master correct pronunciation from the kick-off, and some can’t.


My new book, EFL minus the B.S. (now available on Amazon) is my take on the English teaching game world-wide. From applying for a job, living overseas, work permits, management and mismanagement, classroom dynamics, teens’ and children’s classes, to sex and the single teacher.

Thursday, 1 August 2013


I launched my new life as an English teacher in Jakarta, Indonesia. I was as unprepared as unprepared could be. I knew just two things about Indonesia: the president was named Sukarno, and Mohammed Ali had fought Rudi Lubbers there in 1973. I was right about Mohammed Ali, but president Sukarno had long been deposed by army strong-man President Suharto.

I moved into a hotel in Jalan Jaksa, the street of travelers’ budget hotels and Western restaurants, and began job-hunting. So how do you find a job in a teeming Asian city? (I’m talking of the time when the internet had yet to be invented.) You find a copy of the Yellow Pages, look up English Schools, and, CV in hand, trudge the streets to hunt down the schools.

My hunt brought one thing home to me. Asian Yellow Pages are glaringly out-of-date. The addresses I tracked down mostly turned out to be schools that had long gone defunct. So, time for Plan B. I stopped kids I saw on the street who were clutching a textbook, and enquired where they went for English language lessons. After a day of this I had a promising lead: IEC (Intensive English Course). Wearing my one good shirt, I visited IEC and asked for an interview. The upshot: I was hired for a month’s trial as a ‘Model Native Speaker’. The role of model Native Speaker was to circulate around the classes and conduct a 15-minute “free conversation” in each, related to the students’ level and what topic they were studying at the time. Now as IEC had around 50 classrooms, the native-speaking teacher had his or her work cut out.

I began my month’s trial at a disadvantage. Unbeknown to IEC’s management, I had absolutely zero teaching experience. My early lessons were an unmitigated disaster, and my face still reddens when I think about them. But gradually, by trial and error (mostly error) I worked out just which activities worked and which didn’t. I developed techniques to get the students talking, and to shut up those who were talking too much. With a succession of 15-minute stints in the classroom, I developed an acute sense of timing. And I learnt the art of crowd control. All valuable skills which I still put to use today, almost 40 years later. By the time my first year in Jakarta was up, I had appeared on TV twice, been interviewed on my teaching methodology by a national magazine, and appointed judge of a nation-wide speaking contest. Not bad for a raw beginner who was still feeling his way in a classroom.

I discovered early on that Indonesian students are a likeable, cheerful lot, easy to teach and eager to learn. They’re not all that keen on complex grammar, punctuality, or doing their homework, but apart from that, they’re a delight. I had originally planned to spend a year in Jakarta; I ended up staying twenty years. Which in itself is a testimonial to the sheer likeability of the Indonesians.

EFL Minus the B.S. is the best book I’ve ever written, and the second-best book I’ve ever read.