Thursday, 24 April 2014


As far as the school management is concerned, Corporate Classes are a sweet little number. On the course’s opening day, the school will be festooned with banners welcoming the course participants, and the first half hour of the class will be taken up with speeches and pomp and ceremony with the school’s bosses and company’s big-wigs all in attendance.

The classes may be conducted at the school itself, or the teacher may have to travel to the company’s premises to do them. Whatever, Corporate Classes differ from your usual classes in the following ways. For one thing, the school probably has no say in the grouping of like levels. Thus you could be landed with a group of students whose levels range from beginner to upper-intermediate. It makes no sense of course, except to the company’s bean-counters, for whom it makes very sound economic sense. So you’re already starting off at a disadvantage. For another thing, the course participants are not there of their own volition. It’s their bosses who have decided that they are in urgent need of English, not them. Consequently, the motivation factor is conspicuous by its absence with many of the students. Thirdly, all your students will have just completed an eight or ten-hour working day, and would rather be watching telly at home or in the pub than in an English classroom. So there’s three major disadvantages for starters. And, because of the importance and prestige the school attaches to this kind of course (not to mention the inflated course fees), the teacher will be expected to deliver a top-notch performance, with every student’s English going ahead in leaps and bounds, and every student deliriously satisfied with every aspect of the course. And to check this is so, midway and at the end of the course the students will be issued with feedback forms to fill in. And that, yes that’s when the heartaches begin.

If you are a student in a class where most of your classmates are of a higher level than you, and where the text book and level of language presented is far beyond your grasp, you will need to blame someone or something to explain away your inevitably poor results in the final test. You can’t blame the book of course; that would expose your low start-level. So instead, you blame the teacher for your poor performance. And then the teacher finds himself on the firing line. “John, we’re bitterly disappointed. Look at all these negative comments! We expected better of you. You’d better pull your socks up, or that’ll be the last Corporate Class we ever give you.”

Lose-lose again. Surprise, surprise.

Here’s a customer’s review of EFL minus the B.S.: “So, you have checked it all out and decided to go teaching overseas. Now listen you fool… don’t even think about it until you have read this book! I have been an ESL teacher for close on a decade and this book is about as good as it gets. Read it… then do it. See you over here.” – Sensai.

Monday, 14 April 2014



I’m sure you’ve all experienced this situation. You come home from work, plonk yourself down in front of the TV, and watch the news. Then your significant other walks in and asks, “What’s on the news today?” You reflect on it for a moment, then realize that not one word of the half-hour broadcast has registered on your brain. You heard the words, you understood the words, but your brain had not absorbed them. Your mind had switched itself off. Gone into hibernation.

It’s the same for our students, only doubly so, because it’s not their language they’re listening to.
“OK, now we’re going to do some writing, so take out your notebooks.” One third of the class does so, the rest sit motionless, staring blankly ahead. You repeat the instruction, only this time a little louder, and at the same time wave a notebook in the air. Two more students comply. If you want 100% of the class to comply, you have to stand in front of each student, say “notebook” several times, while tapping a finger on their bags. Arousing a hibernating mind doesn’t come easily.

Adult students’ minds will go blank and unreceptive from time to time, teenagers do it a lot, young children hardly ever. With adults, it’s understandable. Like you or I, they have other concerns – money worries, family issues, kids’ problems, work problems – that occupy the mind far more compellingly than a grammar lesson ever could. With teenagers, it’s even more understandable. Their preoccupations are teen angst, and school. Asian kids’ school schedules are demanding; fourteen different subjects a week, tons of stuff to be memorized. Sure, most of it’s rote-learning, but even that can tire you out.

Here’s another barrier to understanding. There are some taxi drivers, shop-keepers and students who see a white face before them, see the lips moving, and think “Oh my God. He’s speaking to me in a foreign tongue! I’m not going to understand a word!” Consequently, they don’t understand a word, even if you’re saying it in their own language, and regardless of whether it’s clear, accent-free, and fluent. Sorry, the mind’s in neutral today.

And now for something completely different. Songs. Or to be more explicit, songs and their role in language learning. Students learn language faster if it’s taught in song form, there’s no doubt about it. Kids who are currently studying “What’s this?” and “Is this a pencil?” can be taught to sing the words of songs like “Clementine” and “If you’re happy and you know it” confidently and with obvious enjoyment. Especially if they’re action songs. “This is the way I wash my face”, “Head, shoulders, knees and toes” and “Bingo” come to mind. If you can’t sing a note, buy one of the many kids’ songs CDs to present the song. Teenagers love love songs. Explain the poignant love story behind the song and they’ll appreciate it even more. “Now let me tell you about John. John is in love with Bonnie, but there’s a problem. John lives in America, but Bonnie lives in Vietnam (or Thailand, or Indonesia, or Adis Abba.) And so he sings this song to her: ‘My Bonnie lies over the ocean, my Bonnie…’. “

When I worked in Korea, my school had a series of tapes called ‘Mr Monday’. These tapes contained songs – quite catchy, many of them – each of which practiced specific vocabulary or a grammar point. One song covered days of the week, one did months or the weather, others consisted solely of present perfect sentences, or conditional clauses. Brilliant, it was. I wish I’d made a copy, as I’ve never seen ‘Mr Monday’ before or since then.

I have experimented with writing my own songs to practice certain language. It’s easier than it sounds. Take ‘Frere Jacques’ or ‘John Brown’s Body’ and put your own words to them. So far I’ve done the treatment on ‘Frere Jacques’, substituting the words: “We learn English, we learn English, yes we do, yes we do, but it isn’t easy, but it isn’t easy, no, no. no, no, no. no.” I do “John Brown” to the words: “I like ice cream and I eat it every day (X3), but my Mom says I’m gonna get fat. Mama, Mama give me ice cream (X3) I don’t care if I get fat.” Subsequent verses feature chocolate, hamburgers, and so on. Here’s another one I put to the tune ‘Frere Jacques’. “Today is Saturday, Yes that’s right, Tomorrow must be Sunday, That’s right too.” Rogers and Hammerstein it ain’t, but it does the trick, and the kids seem to enjoy it. Try doing your own song. It’s fun.

I remember one time passing by a class of eight- to ten-year olds singing the Beatles song ‘Hello, Goodbye’. I’ve heard the song many times before, but the words from the mouths of these young kids gave the song an entirely new perspective, and an entirely new meaning. The Beatles obviously wrote it as a nonsense song; the children imbued it with a depth of meaning Lennon and McCartney had never dreamed of. The purity and innocence of their voices had me choking back tears.


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.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014


(Or maybe I’m wrong...)

When you’re working in EFL, you learn something new every day. Or at least I do, anyway. My latest revelation took place over the past two weeks. I’m at a new school. It’s called Speak Naturally. I was informed on Day One that in order to speak naturally (and it must be done with an American accent, mind you – very important) you need to spend nine tenths of every lesson doing unison drilling. No games, no breaks, no light relief; no nuthin except unison drill, unison drill, unison drill. And don’t let that American accent drop for one second. The line-up of expat teachers charged with the task of teaching natural American English is two Brits, two Filippinos, one Ukranian, one guy whose accent is so bad I can’t make out where he’s from, and me. Now the expats aren’t required to actually conduct a lesson. Oh no, they are co-teachers, which means that their role consists of standing up front listening to the Vietnamese teacher doing his or her unison drilling, and, on command, saying a word or sentence here or there. Much like a performing seal. Sitting in on one of these sessions is excruciatingly boring, and time drags.

Now, being a writer engaged in writing a book about English teaching, I was very interested in this new method. It presented me with the perfect input for a chapter pouring scorn on misguided EFL methodology. Thus every night after my co-teaching stints I would hurry home to write furiously about how ineffective and unsuitable this particular method was. 

Before I continue, let me describe a typical lesson I have suffered through. This particular 90-minute session for an adult Elementary class is intended to teach 20 expressions, and train the students to say them exactly as a Milwaukee factory worker would. Some of the expressions are useful language – ‘my sister, my grandchild, my grandson, parents-in-law, brother-in-law, sister-in-law,’ and some are a trifle odd – ‘a plump boss, a weak housewife, an old actor, a strong farmer.’ No full sentences, note. The words are projected onto a screen. Cue in the expat co-teacher (that’s me, Folks) who says the words twice and has the students repeat in unison. OK, that’s my bit done for the meantime. Siddown, and let the Vietnamese teacher take control.

Word number one.
T: Sister. Repeat.
Ss: Sitter.
T: No. SiSSter.
Ss: Sister.
T: Again.
Ss: Sister.
T: Again.
Ss: Sister.
T: Again.
Ss: Sister.
T: Again.
Ss: Sister.
T: Again.

As the students speak, the teacher raps a bamboo stick against the screen in time with each syllable, and at the same time stamps his or her foot.
T: Again. Once more. Again.

By this time I am taking surreptitious looks at my watch. When in the hell is the real teaching going to begin?

T: Right, second word. Brother-in-law. Repeat. Repeat. Again. Again.
What with the tapping and stamping, the teacher is already beginning to work up a sweat.
T: Again. Once more. Again.
Once the family relationships have been taken care of, it’s time for the odd expressions.
T: A bored housewife.
Ss: A bored housewie.
T: No. HousewiFe. Repeat. Again. Again. [Tap-tap-stamp-stamp.]
By this time I’m bored out of my tree. Even more bored than the housewife in question. So too are the students, surely.

The choral repetition of the twenty expressions takes up the first hour. God, what’s next? Uh oh, it’s my turn to add a contribution to the lesson. “Mr Don, who is the housewife?” “Um… she’s a bored housewife.”
T: Yes. Everybody! Who is the housewife?
Ss: She a bored housewie.
T: No. Listen to Mr Don! Mr Don, who is the housewife?
Me: She’s a bored housewife.
T: Everybody! Who is the housewife?
Ss: She a bored housewie.
T: No! She’S. Repeat. Again. Again. HouSewife. Repeat. Again. Again.

What seems like three days later, the 90-minute comes to an end. “What do you think?” the Vietnamese teacher asks me. “Well, it’s certainly an interesting teaching method,” I say. So interesting I can’t wait to get home and record my thoughts on how not to teach.

Every rule of effective language teaching has been disregarded. For one thing, drilling for 90 minutes is tiring and stultifyingly boring for the students. The language drilled has been of doubtful usefulness. The students were not asked to speak in complete sentences. There have been no changes of focus, no periods of light relief. The language practiced was as unnatural as you could dream up. In short, a disastrous sham of a lesson.

Now I’ve often extolled the virtues of unison drilling. It allows the students to familiarize themselves with the sentence patterns, the vocab, and the pronunciation in near anonymity. Any mistakes they make will pass unnoticed, and hopefully in the next repetition they’ll get it right. But unison repetitions for 90 minutes straight? Madness.

But. And this is a big but. As I am winding up my critical, almost vitriolic condemnation of the technique I’d observed and been engaged intermittently in over the past two weeks, I cast my mind back on how the students had reacted to this madness.

Not one of them had spoken Vietnamese during any of the sessions. Not one had nodded off or lapsed into the nether-world of daydreams. All had responded promptly to the teacher’s cues, and with an obvious desire to get their utterances right. And they had given their undivided attention to every minute of the lesson. Which kind of describes the perfect class, don’tcha think?

Why is that, I wonder? Maybe because the rote learning method is one they’re familiar and comfortable with; the method by which they’ve learnt everything from maths to science at school. Maybe because they haven’t been asked to contribute their own input at any time in the past hour and a half. Maybe because they haven’t once been asked to think for themselves. Maybe….

Like I said, you learn something new every day in EFL.


Here’s a customer’s review of EFL minus the B.S.: “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.