Limericks and the life of an English teacher

Stan Carey of the Sentence First blog and the MacMillan blog and sundry other lingusitic habitats is holding a limerick competition – yeah! – and there are some really great ones there, don’t miss them. Deadline: September 21st.

My contributions are a bit dour for limericks, but such is the life of an English teacher:

Krashen wrote all about acquisition
being outside the realm of tuition
which made me morose
and take a whole course
which was fine, but I’m still no magician.

There can never be any consensus
Whether German will lull English senses
Russell Smith got it right
Spoken softly by night
by a beauty it surely mends fences.

“Until Friday,” she’d said, so I queried
“You’ll be writing all week?!” I was worried.
“No, I’ll do it on Thursday,
you’ll have it on Friday.”
“By Friday, then, fine.” Out I hurried.

Finish your partner’s sentences

I was just on Facebook to Stew when I stumbled across a video… and bingo, here’s a nice task for you learners: Tell a story about something two of you did together. OK, you don’t really have to have done this, ok? You can make it up – invent it. So: It should be a long event with lots of interesting details. Put the details on cards. Sort them into the sequence they “happened in”. Then tell your story. But the rule is: You’re not allowed to complete any sentence, your partner has to pick up and finish it for you. Then he or she continues the story, and you finish the sentence, back and forth.

Watch the first minute of Kermit and Fozzie doing just that here:

Discussion: How do you feel about completing your partner’s sentences, and about your partner completing yours? Does it feel like you are interrupting each other? Do you mind it when others complete your sentences for you in real life? What does it depend on?

Handling pairwork: How do you sort things out when you are not happy with your partner’s part of the story? Language tip: “Well, what actually happened was that we…” “But then…”

You can do this exercise in writing, too, of course: You start writing a story about the two of you, and your partner has to continue.

Have fun!

Job interview

For the Trinity assessed lesson, my class did job interviews. I can warmly recommend the topic to other teachers who have to do a Trinity diploma or DELTA assessed lesson, especially if your class is as motivated as ours was, and job interviews are in fact on their agenda. It obviously helps to choose a topic your students really do want to talk about. The main content should be authentic and matter to your learners, yet be packaged playfully, so noone gets bogged down in their own immediate agenda. Thank you, dear class, for being so wonderful and lovely!!


This was the third lesson in a series on job applications. The group started by thinking about the exact definition of 12 given words that you can use to describe your strengths (and weaknesses). Since some of them are similar in Spanish, and others are very different and can easily be confused, the class spent quite some time exploring their meanings, and applying them to themselves.

  • supportive… means I am helpful when there are problems. — de apoyo!
  • friendly… means I am nice and helpful. — amistoso!
  • focused… means I am very clear about what I am doing.  — centrado!
  • flexible… means I can make changes as needed. — flexible
  • creative… means I have many ideas.  — creativo
  • organized… means I plan very carefully.  — organizado
  • responsible… means I do the right thing. — responsable
  • careful… means I think about what I am doing so I don’t do anything wrong.  — cuidadoso
  • technical… means I understand technology.  — tecnico
  • experienced… means that I have done something a lot.  — exprimentado!
  • reliable… means that I will do what you expect.  — fiable!
  • successful… means things are going very well for me. — exitoso!

One of the most important things I learned in the assessed teaching practice, through somewhat painful trial and error and very helpful feedback from Mark McKinnon, was to break down new content into individual stages. So, for example, I didn’t have the learners focus on the spoken words until they had worked out the meaning in groups. I didn’t ask them to tell or read me the answers, because that would have meant having them say the words, and I would have either let their pronunciation errors pass, or would have had to correct them, distracting everyone from the area we were focussing on. Only after everyone had the correct words and definitions lined up did we begin to work on pronunciation.

I only took this approach after having done a simlar exercise differently in a disasterous earlier lesson, where I’d had them do a gap fill and then read off answers, which lead to discussions about meaning and pronunciation drills all mixed up with questions about where we were on the page, creating a huge mess of an activity which completely tore apart a lesson which on paper had looked balanced and promising. So: these details are important!

This was fascinating to me. I learn very differently than many of my students.  I tend to set up tasks based on my natural inclination to synthesize information very quickly rather than processing it analytically, and prefer short general explanations that don’t break things down over the more extensive and particular explanations that many learners prefer, but which I find positively irritating when I am subjected to them. So following my own preferences over the years means I haven’t been giving learners with a less global/ more particular and less synthesizing/more analytical approach quite the information they needed to do their tasks well. Realizing this blind spot in my knowledge of learning preferences and exploring similar issues goes far beyond just being sure to cater to visual or kinesthetic learners. This broader approach to self-reflection on language learning styles was introduced to me by Patricia Franco using Rebecca Oxford’s Strategy Inventory for Language Learning, and it has made me turn my teaching inside out. The Strategy Inventory makes a lot of sense to me as a reflective tool and I hope to incorporate it consciously into my new courses. I’ve found a very extensive learner questionnaire by Oxford, Cohen and Chi that can be used as is to jump-start a deiscussion with learners, and help profile their preferences from the very beginning of a course: Learning Style Survey.

In a second step we did a very short review of question forms. I had anticipated that this would not work well, as this was a mixed level class with a variety of different approaches to studying grammar, so I declared this a sub-aim to the communicative aim, and wrote that I wasn’t aiming for accuracy, but for fluency. The question sorting part went well, but question formulation was something that only the more advanced learners could do on their own, and in fact a number of them did do it while the others were still working on the sorting activity. So when time ran out, I decided to drop the formulation activity and go straight to the role play. If I had to do it again, I’d declare the formulation part to be a flexible addition for the advanced learners to do on their own, and leave it at that.

The stronger learners supported the weaker ones throughout this course, which Patricia and I encouraged and relied on. The communicative activity that got the participants to speak English extensively and try out the new words and use the questions was the interview itself. I had prepared a cheat sheet with questions for them to pick and choose from, and they did really well, and interviewed away.  This setup for role play is something I learned from Heather Lyle. As for the seating arrangements, I had the learners move their chairs and sit in two formal rows facing each other, so they actually had to move physically into the role, which I think makes all the difference in getting into the mindset. After round one they switched partners and played the other role, balancing out the communicative heart of the lesson.

I had prepared a presentation anticipating a few areas I thought they’d have problems with, some of which did come up, so I could project those selected slides onto the board and we could work around the gaps and spaces to add emergent language. This is low tech, just a Powerpoint and a normal whiteboard. An IWB would be a cooler solution. In any case the projected images were a better solution than writing up all of the language that came up on the board, especially with these very visual learners. 60 minutes are such a short timespan to work with, and just understanding them when they were speaking and noting down emergent language was a challenge, let alone analyzing it and getting it onto the board in a comprehensible and didactically valuable way. It was more feasible to select and preempt areas they’d had trouble with just the lesson before, things I just knew would come up. Predicting errors and language problems in teaching learners whose L1 I don’t speak was really the hardest part of the entire course for me.  German learners I can teach on the spot, but not Catalan and Spanish speakers. GIven how lovely I found the country, I’ve decided that learning Spanish is definitely on my agenda!

The phonology bit, focussing on word stress, went fine. They had learned the notation using capital letters with Patricia the day before, and they had given us feedback that they actually really liked any and all drilling we did.  In hindsight, I should have added some work on /aɪ/ to the mix for “reliable” /rɪˈlaɪəb(ə)l/, which Spanish speakers have a great deal of trouble with.

Just to clarify: This is certainly not the way I have normally taught. I’d have poopooed this degree of scaffolding as “spoonfeeding”. Patricia and I had very interesting conversations about other kinds of lessons and learner training with analytical and deep end components that may be more effective in paving the way for greater learner autonomy over the duration of a course and in the long run. Still, I see staging in increments, followed by the communicative heart, as a very valuable teaching model because it redirects my attention towards what the learners can process on their own in a single lesson. That’s in fact very much a part of what I wanted to learn in this course. So I’ll be experimenting with it in “real life”.

Handout: Job interviews
Job interview roleplay
Presentation job interviews

Teaching practice documentation is required for each assessed lesson.

Mind Your Language

I’m revising for the phonology orals now, trying to focus on typical areas that learners with different mother tongues need to work on. Had some fun with this. I was wondering whether it was offensive, but have come down on the side of funny. As one reviewer puts it “Yes, they were stereotypes, and it was deliberate. Put believable foreigners in there and you do not have a funny show.” Anna’s trouble with /v/ and /w/ is in part 2 at 9:25.

Mr. Jeremy Brown teaches an English class to a diverse group of ten foreign adult students in London, hailing from nine different countries. From Europe come two au pairs, the flirtatious and beautiful Danielle (France) and prim and proper Anna (Germany), two young single men, Giovanni (Italy) and Max (Greece) and a laid-back middle-aged bartender, Juan (Spain), who speaks no English at all. From Asia, come a revolutionary-minded secretary from the Chinese Embassy (Su-Li), a Japanese businessman (Taro) as well as three students from the Subcontinent, a devout Sikh (Ranjeet) and an unemployed Pakistani (Ali), who are constantly at each other’s throats, and finally a Hindi-speaking housewife (Jamila) who can’t speak a word of English. The school principal, Miss Delores Courtney, nearly dismisses Mr. Brown immediately as she had requested a female teacher, but he is allowed to stay on a trial basis. Mind Your Language, TV Series 1977-1986

Varieties of English and EIL/ELF

Just revising for the exam, and know I won’t remember much. Mark had a funny acronym for this condition: CRS, can’t remember shit. Yesterday I learned quite a lot because my concentration was up, so I got some connections that I’d missed before. But this morning, I’m having trouble remembering my middle name.

This was probably my favorite essay question, one I knew was relevant from our MELTA 20th anniversary party with David Graddol, Vicki Hollett, Evan Frendo and Mark Powell’s plenary at BESIG, and one I could relate to my current experience. Evan organized a professional development session for ELTABB on the topic, which I unfortunately missed:

Essay question:

  1. Briefly outline your understanding of the term “a variety of English”.
  2. With reference to your reading on English as an international language (EIL), discuss the advantages and disadvantages of teaching a “standard” variety of English.

The variety and varieties of English

a. English is the world’s lingua franca, and we generally speak of the language in the singular. But in fact English is a vast complex of different varieties, or dissimilar versions of the language spoken by different groups. They range from local dialects such as the non-rhotic Boston accent, to international standards like BBC English, and include mixed-language varieties like Hinglish. The most influential model of the spread of English is Braj Kachru’s model of World Englishes, which he described in three concentric circles: The Inner Circle, where English is a native language (L1), the Outer Circle, where it is a second language, spread by British colonization and now used in government, law and education (L2, e.g. India, Nigeria), and the Expanding Circle, where it is a foreign language in increasingly widespread use.

Sandra Lee McKay (2002) lays out that English has become an international language in four ways:

  1. It is used as a language of wider communication internationally (global sense) and in multicultural societies (local sense).
  2. The use of English is no longer connected to the culture of the Inner Circle countries.
  3. It is embedded in the culture of the countries where it is used.
  4. Its primary function is to enable users of the language to communicate with each other.

A quarter of the world now speaks English, but the largest group is non-native speakers (NNS), who outnumber native speakers (NS) 3:1. (David Crystal 2003)
There have been initiatives to create simplified varieties (Simple English, Globish) to facilitate communication on a global scale, but NNSs appear to be able to create their own lingua franca without outside guidance. In the Vienna-Oxford International Corpus of English (VOICE), Barbara Seidlhofer has recorded some 1,250 speakers of 50 different L1s, mostly with European backgrounds, using English with each other. Her findings show that, with few NSs present to provide impulses for (self-)correction, NNSs frequently or consistently:

  • drop the -s in the present simple third person (she go)
  • leave out or add definite and indefinite articles (I enjoy the nature. She is secretary.)
  • add prepositions (We discussed about the trip)
  • rely on selected general verbs (do, have, make…)
  • use an all-purpose question tag (isn’t it?)
  • use that clauses (She want that they go on a trip)
  • do not distinguish between relative pronouns (who vs. which)
  • avoid idioms
  • do not distinguish between /θ/ and /ð/ and substitute other consonants (/s/ /z/ /d/)
  • avoid weak forms and other aspects of connected speech

As this non-standard use does not impede meaningful communication, Jennifer Jenkins suggests we should stop thinking that ELF is simply “Learner English” (Swan/ Smith 2001), a step on the way to EFL proficiency, and acknowledge it as an emergent variety. This raises the question: If ELF is a useful variety of English, is it worth teaching?

2. Before weighing the advantages or disadvantages of teaching a “standard” variety of English, I’d like to look at what the various standard and non-standard varieties of English represent to those involved in English language teaching and learning.

First of all, standards are set with a purpose in mind. The Queen’s or King’s English, institutionalized by a British minority and described by Henry Cecil Wyld some 100 years ago at the height of British colonialism as Received Standard (later Received Pronunciation (RP), BBC English), has traditionally been considered “good English”, providing the international standard in ELT. After WWII, it was challenged in the US, leading to the establishment of a double standard, American Standard English in the USA, and British Standard English elsewhere. As the written standard, it continues to assure reliable communications, playing an immensely important role e.g. for translations in the European Union.

Spoken English, however, is different. Standard English can be pronounced using a variety of accents, but RP is unique, spoken by only a tiny minority associated with class and power. While it is the institutionalized pronunciation target in many parts of the world, providing NNSs with a reliable benchmark, NSs may use it in jest to parody the upper crust. In the Internet age, a wide range of pronunciation models are available to learners, who can train their listening comprehension and select a model spoken by the population they are most likely to deal with.

The teacher’s national variety generally plays some role in which standards a learner is exposed to. Webster’s Dictionary in 1828 famously gave America a sense of national identity, and other countries have also created their national standards. But contrast that narrow view of language as something that a nation can own, with an approach that looks for similarities in worldwide speech patterns, comparing rhythm (stress-timing vs. syllable timing) and rhoticity, as described by McArthur (2001). Based on their L1s, learners may find it easier to acquire one standard over another. For instance, most NS of English use stress-timing, while most of the languages in India, Asia, Africa and the Caribbean are highly syllable-timed, which carries over when they speak English. This explains why they must put so much effort into acquiring a standard accent, and why speakers of English with Asian L1s are mutually intelligible, but very difficult to understand to unpracticed NS ears.

Home-grown, regional/ local, ethnic, socially-based dialects, like Boston English or Estuary English, are essential to the cultural identity of a given group, and are everywhere in popular culture. To young EFL learners, hits songs and “memes” are often the most engaging areas and can create a bond between people from widely ranging cultures. On the other hand, NS know the dialects to be “non-standard”, and when they would be inappropriate or most effective. These cultural aspects of language in use are highly relevant when learners are planning to spend time in that particular country or area.

However, with the exception of internationally recognizable “memes”, dialects are unhelpful for English as an international language (EIL). As a Japanese executive complained: “Dear English speakers: please drop the dialects.” (McArthur).

There seem to be two main perspectives on English as a lingua franca (ELF). One prioritizes standards. David Graddol’s summarizes: “The use of English as a global lingua franca requires intelligibility and the setting and maintaining of standards.” (Graddol 1996) By contrast, widespread, non-standard varieties such as European English (handy, beamer) prioritize ownership and agency. Phonology professor Jennifer Jenkins asks why one variety of English should be more legitimate than another. Instead, she suggests a “Lingua Franca Core” containing phonological elements that she has found speakers of any L1 need when they speak English with a NNS with another L1. The core includes some of the aspects noted by Seidelhofer, and Robin Walker (2010) has provided a set of pronunciation targets to prioritize for speakers of different L1s, based on the core.

As some of my classes are multilingual, and all of my learners deal with a wide range of other non-native speakers, this approach holds much appeal. The Lingua Franca core benchmarks can promote mutual intelligibility. As learners aspire to different standards at different times and for different purposes, it would be wrong, however, to make the Lingua Franca Core the “new standard of English”. There are core areas, weak forms and connected speech, which learners very much do need to be able to understand. In this media age they should to be able to interpret far more sounds than they can speak.

Alan Firth (2009) (thank you, Evan!) highlights the “multicompetencies” that emerge in interaction between speakers of different L1 speakers aiming to achieve an outcome, which he calls “the lingua franca factor”. This is what allows interactors to produce discourse, including strategies like “letting it pass”, and “making it normal” that level the playing field between the people communicating with each other. In business exchanges there is often a concrete need to have an exchange reach an outcome, which provides enough motivation to work towards understanding each other.

I feel the most important aspect of the discussion is the concept of ownership, which gives priority to negotiating meaning over defending form. Developing effective discourse strategies to achieve an outcome is an essential communication skill in any language. This priority is also born out by Ehrenreich’s (2010) study of a German multinational company, where Business English is used as a Lingua Franca (BELF) (again, thank you Evan!). Ehrenreich focuses on the need to improve effective communication (rather than English as such) and suggests that learning might better take place in “communities of practice” and through “learning by doing” rather than traditional English instruction. Her research showed that English proficiency was required in order to be hired, but that conformity with Standard English was in effect an irrelevant concept. When asked which varieties of English they found easiest, the people interviewed reported that it depended on how much practice they had in dealing with any particular one. Intelligibility was seen as a matter of co-construction, rather than variety. Interviewees also reported that native speakers tended to use their linguistic competence as an instrument of power, which NNSs found extremely irritating.

So, to sum up, where does this leave teaching a standard variety of English? While we need to be able to focus our learners on productive skills that are up to the standards expected in the environments they plan to inhabit, and to prepare them to handle a wide variety of relevant contexts, practice shows that they will most probably go on to use English as an instrument to get things done. Our job, then, is to know when to stop teaching the formal aspects of the language, and to give learners space and tools to develop the skills to work out meaning. Or, as Scott Thornbury has written in a related discussion on his blog (2011), “If we devoted more time and energy to teaching the learner, and less to teaching the language, we might be better off.”

  • Crystal, D. (2003). English as a Global Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Ehrenreich, S. (2010). English as a Business Lingua Franca in a German Multinational Corporation: Meeting the Challenge. Journal of Business Communication, 47, 4: 408-431.
  • Firth, A (2009) The Lingua Franca Factor. Intercultural Pragmatics 6-2, 147-170.
  • Graddol, D. (1996) The Future of English? The British Council.
  • Graddol, D (2006) English Next: Why Global English May Mean the End of English as a Foreign Language. London: British Council.
  • Jenkins, J. (2007): English as a Lingua Franca. Attitude and Identity.
  • McArthur, T. (2001) World Englishes: Trends, Tensions, Varieties, and Standards. Lang Teach. 34, 1-20
  • McKay, S.L. (2002) Teaching English as an International Language
  • Seidelhofer, B. (see VOICE)
  • Swan, M./ Smith, B. (2001) Learner English, CUP
  • Thornbury, S. (2011) A-Z: E is for ELF ( (Accessed 15 July 2011)
  • VOICE website:
  • Walker, R. (2010) Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca, OUP
  • (This topic was debated in connection with BESIG 2010, in a discussion hosted by Vicki Hollett)

PS: Got lucky! One of the exam essays was a quote from someone saying, back in 2001, that varieties of English should be play a greater role in ELT, much as gender and race had. I might have cut to the chase too quickly, not talking about gender or race, or about ELT as opposed to EFL. But there is so little time in these exams, so I just went for it.

Marlee Matlin and Jack Jason

An article by Nataly Kelly landed in my intray, and it was interesting to follow up: Jack Jason is actress Marlee Matlin‘s interpreter. Watch them interact here: Do you notice the places where she “says” nothing, but gives us this look, this fabulous body language, this space where we infer and bond and relate, and he puts that non-verbal communication into phrases marvellously, filling in the blanks, repeating what is already understood, adding warmth and stress and intonation… the way we do when we’re doing it well? With phrases like: “Guess what, girl:” “You know? I did. I really did. I had that opportunity.” What he’s doing here is definitely worth noting for learners of English. In this case, particularly female ones, though. A man interpreting a woman. He connects and accomodates just like a woman.  (Communication Accomodation Theory on Wikipedia) Do you forget that you’re hearing a man’s voice when she speaks, is it just her voice? Or are you hearing a man sounding like a woman?

Tangent time. Thinking about what this means for me when I teach men: I sound like a woman, I minimize differences between us, I converge as a part of building rapport. Do they use any aspects of my language as a model? I can’t really see that at all. If they did model anything on me, they would have to correct out the “female factor”, right? But I’d probably notice that, wouldn’t I, because I don’t really see how a learner would do that without sounding really weird. It’s more likely that they don’t apply any model of accommodation based on phrases at all. It’s far more essential than that, closer to Noam Chomsky’s universal grammar, “an innate set of linguistic principles shared by all humans”, so that the way anyone, including a learner of English, will accomodate another can only come out of a lifetime of practice, using multiskills honed in real interaction.

I’m buying into Merrill Swain’s concept of “comprehensible output“. This says that when a learner encounters a gap when speaking English, he or she becomes aware of it, and this leads him or her to want/try to modify it, providing the imulse to learn something new about the language. So there is clearly still a place to teach those phrases on an on-demand basis.

PS: Unfortunately the video has been made private. Here’s an alternative that shows the two interacting – if not quite as eloquently:

Marlene Dietrich: Falling in Love again – Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss

Marlene in English and German and then again in English, great German accent; followed by Caroline Nin singing franco-anglo-tinged German.

(Friedrich Holländer)
Marlene Dietrich

Ein rätselhafter Schimmer,
Ein “je ne sais-pas-quoi”
Liegt in den Augen immer
Bei einer schönen Frau.
Doch wenn sich meine Augen
Bei einem vis-à-vis
Ganz tief in seine saugen
Was sprechen dann sie?:

Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß
Auf Liebe eingestellt,
Denn das ist meine Welt.
Und sonst gar nichts.
Das ist, was soll ich machen,
Meine Natur,
Ich kann halt lieben nur
Und sonst gar nichts.

Männer umschwirr’n mich,
Wie Motten um das Licht.
Und wenn sie verbrennen,
Ja dafür kann ich nicht.
Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß
Auf Liebe eingestellt,
Ich kann halt lieben nur
Und sonst gar nichts.

Was bebt in meinen Händen,
In ihrem heißen Druck?
Sie möchten sich verschwenden
Sie haben nie genug.
Ihr werdet mir verzeihen,
Ihr müßt’ es halt versteh’n,
Es lockt mich stets von neuem.
Ich find’ es so schön!

Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß
Auf Liebe eingestellt,
Denn das ist meine Welt,
Und sonst gar nichts.
Das ist, was soll ich machen,
Meine Natur,
Ich kann halt lieben nur
Und sonst gar nichts.

Männer umschwirr’n mich,
Wie Motten um das Licht.
Und wenn sie verbrennen,
Ja dafür kann ich nichts.
Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß
Auf Liebe eingestellt,
Ich kann halt lieben nur
Und sonst gar nichts.

(Frederick Hollander / Sammy Lerner)

Falling in love again
Never wanted to
What am I to do?
Can’t help it

Love’s always been my game
Play it as I may
I was born that way
Can’t help it

Men flock around me
Like moths around a flame
And if their wings burn
I know I’m not to blame

Falling in love again
Never wanted to
What am I to do?
Can’t help it

Love’s always been my game
Play it as I may
I was born that way
Can’t help it

Men flock around me
Like moths around a flame
And if their wings burn
I know I’m not to blame

Also recorded by:
The Beatles; Diahann Carrol; Chas & Dave; Petula Clark;
Rosemary Clooney; Sammy Davis Jr.; Doris Day; Roy Eldridge;
Marianne Faithful; Brian Ferry; Crystal Gayle;
Benny Goodman; Billie Holiday; Nana Mouskouri;
André Prévin; Alan Price; Linda Ronstadt; Nina Simone;
Jo Stafford; The Three Degrees; Don Williams; … and others.