Monday Morning Blog Challenge: which model?

file0001662874096June Blog Challenge

Since it’s the first Monday in June I thought I’d kick off the week with a Blog Challenge about models of English, which is something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot. Obviously, we all use English in different ways, depending on our needs, but is the model we are providing, and, above all, assessing the right one for our learners?

Which Model is right for Italian students?

I teach, as you know, in Italy, and our model tends to be Standard British English. The coursebooks used in state and private schools, and to some extent universities, are mass market globally produced books that come from the UK, on the whole. Even though there are some locally produed books, particularly for the eaching of literature, most of the books are not local, so how relevant are they to our context? Our learners, unless they are language students with a deep rooted interest in language, are motivated to study because they will use English, not to become part of a community where English is the L1 but to communicate in multilingual contexts. This begs the question of what we should teach them. If individuals with different cultural and linguistic backgrounds wish to communicate, of course they will need a model which enables them to understand each other, so, for instance, a local model which includes code switching between English and Italian or “Italian forms in English” will only work among Italian speakers, which rather defeats the purpose!

My take on this has always been to teach the standard British model, as we are in Europe, so it is arguably the closest one to us, and then to encourage creative use, such as adding local sayings, idioms and metaphors (in English) which enrich the language. So far so good. Students learn the basic model to the best of their abilities and then go off into the sunset using it as well as they can. The next problem is assessment.

What is lexical grammar?
What is lexical grammar?


When it comes to assessment I think we need to be using a different model. In recent years, with the implementation of the CEFR the move has been to recognise what individuals “can do” when they are communicating, with an emphasis on skills rather than the lexico-grammatical system, although of course the two are closely interconnected. This, however, is where beliefs and traditions die hard, and some find it very difficult to be able to change their perspective towards seeing these learners as people who are using the language to commnicate, and recognising what they can do, rather than simply focusing on the errors.

I have a lot of sympathy for examiners. It’s a complex job which involves judgments that combine the application of criteria (if that is the type of examining being done) with beliefs and traditional habits. For teachers, in classrooms, and this, in my experience is true both of NESTs and NNESTs, what we notice first tends to be error. It hits you between the eyes, if you like, and is seen as something “broken” and many see the job of the teacher as “helping learners to avoid error”. Is it realistic, however, to expect learners to achieve high, almost native speaker like, levels of competence and do they need to do this? I believe that assessment means looking at successful expression and teaching means facilitating learners so that they can develop their own voice and expression tools, to the level that is required by the use they will ultimately make of the language.

So, what about the challenge? Here it is: a few questions for you to consider about your context.

  1. What context do you teach in?
  2. What is the dominant model of English taught?
  3. What is the dominant model of English assessed?
  4. Does this meet your learners’ needs?

I’d be really interested to hear people’s thoughts 🙂



Control versus Accuracy in Cambridge Exams

Is accuracy no longer invited to the ball?Is Accuracy no longer invited to the ball?

For years one of the criteria for assessment on Cambridge Speaking exams was accuracy of grammar and lexis at varying degrees depending on the level. Now, accuracy seems to only be welcome in the global achievement descriptor and has been upstaged in the other criteria by “Control”, but what exactly is the difference?

We have just been spending quite a lot of time discussing assessment criteria for Cambridge exams as the annual meetings are taking place at the moment where speaking examiners meet and do tests together to standardize.  One of the points that came up in my meeting last Saturday was this control vs. accuracy issue.

Looking at what candidates can do rather than what they can’t do

In recent years we have all started to think more about what candidates can do rather than what they can’t do, but many language teachers find it very hard to shift away from what is, in fact, an extremely normal reaction: to see the errors students make and try to help them stop making them.

In an exam situation though we have to be careful not be in the position of not seeing the wood for the trees. We see the errors and inaccuracies because they stand out, but we don’t see what the candidate can actually produce. This is not a new idea but it is one that is quite hard to get across or even accept. What happens for instance when someone listens to another person? Is is all too easy to miss good language production because it is easy to nderstand and to focus, rather, on the anomalies or inaccuracies.

Some, then, think that control is the same as accuracy but with a different name. In fact, I don’t think it is, and various different degrees of control are mentioned in the criteria so that a candidate would be given one mark for “sufficient control” of the grammar to be able to complete a task and a higher mark for “good control”. This might mean, that in a test like the Key English Test (A2) where candidates are asked, in Part Two, to ask each other questions, an utterance like this would show sufficient control to complete the task:

“Tickets? How many pounds they cost?”

The question form, of course, is not accurate, but there is enough control both of the lexis and the grammar to be able to get the meaning across at an elementary level. What “control” then means to me (I hope someone will correct me if I’m wrong) is a sort of half way house between not being able to communicate and being able to communicate perfectly, a goal not many of us ever reach, in fact. It means looking at the candidates discourse as a work in progress and seeing how much or little he or she can use effectively, rather than identifying a list of errors. At higher levels, of course, more control would be expected but this still means that hopefully examiners will be looking at what candidates can do and not how many errors they are making.

What about higher levels?

Here, of course, is the rub. What counts as control at one level may not be the same at a higher level where the discourse is extended, the message being communicated more complex, and therefore, there is all that much more room for lack of control, but the principle, I think is the same. Small non-impeding inaccuracies should not be over.penalized and more emphasis should be placed on the range of grammatical and lexical resources that are used. After all, I recently saw some examiners getting all hot and bothered about a candidate at a B1 level who had misused “funny”in a written test, and this made such an impression on them that they entirely missed the modal verbs the same candidate had used such as “I won’t be able to…” or “I really had to…”

So, I’m afraid I think the answer is “yes” accuracy is no longer so welcome at the ball, and should at least be accompanied by an awareness of control.


Happy New Year

Happy New Year Everyone,

These holidays, unfortunately, have not been the happiest times for me as I have been trying to cope with being the only child of an aging parent who lives in another country, which is taxing at the best of times. I only mention this because it makes me feel all the more how the years turn round and each stage brings with it a new learning experience for all of us.

Getting Back to Normal
Now it’s time to get back to normal to some extent so I thought I’d share my New Year’s activity with you. I was tired of asking my learners to make New Year’s Resolutions, because this is often met with howls of protest from some. This is despite the fact that I , personally, like taking the time at the beginning of a new year to sit down and think about what my goals are. So, when a friend of mine posted some lovely “cat photos” on Facebook (Thank you Jeremy Nicoll) I decided to make them into a simple New Year activity:

New Year’s Resolutions

1) Ask students what they think the top 10 resolutions are in their country, and give them some time to discuss this in pairs or small groups;
2) Ask them if they think this will be the same or different in the USA;
3) Show them the Powerpoint Presentation (one click at a time) This starts the countdown from the tenth most popular resolution and goes down to number one. (In each case students should look at picture and decide what resolution they think the image illustrates and then clicking on the third element will show them if they are right or not;
4) A discussion of why we make these resolutions and how hard it is to keep to them may be interesting.

Happy New Year Resolutions lesson 2012[1]

I’m doing this tonight so I’ll let you know how it goes:

The Dogme Debate and Teacher Training

20110430-124532.jpgThere has been a lot of talk about Dogme or Teaching Unplugged recently, as a follow up to the Dogme Symposium at the Brighton Iatefl 2011 Conference. I was unable to attend this myself and heard contrasting comments about Dogme afterwards but I took part in the ELTchat group on the subject on Twitter last week, and that gave me quite a lot of food for thought.


If you look at Dogme ELT on Wikipedia you will read a summary of the main ideas: basically Scott Thornbury took the name Dogme from the Dogme95 film making movement, which was an attempt to get away from the trappings of Hollywood etc. and to return to simplicity in filmmaking rather that the the side issues of big bucks and special effects, which distract some and mean that others simply cannot compete. This can be trasferred to the ELT context if we think of the wealth of tools and materials that are available these days. Scott Thornbury provides an excellent list of sources at this link:, including some well expressed reservations voiced by Simon Gill.

For those setting out on the journey of EFL teaching it may all prove to be overpowering, there is so much choice, where should you begin?


In the eighties, when I trained, doing what was then the Certificate (Now known as the Celta), there simply was not the same range of materials available for communicative language teaching, although it was beginning even then. I can remember the advent of Buidling Stratiegies by Brian Abbs and Ingrid Freebairn, which today may well seem very dated. At the time I was very excited about it because it was the first time I had seen structured listening activities, and learner centred quizzes as part of a coursebook. It was groundbreaking in a way that is hard to appreciate perhaos nowadays. Because of the lack of materials at that time, then we spent a lot of time on my training course learning how to make our own activities, and develop our own materials. This was extremely useful for me when I first started working in the private language school sector as I could use materials, but I also knew how to make my own. Nowadays the focus on Celta courses tends to be more “how to exploit the materials” as this is what teachers generally need to do when they start work in a school that sets a coursebook for them to use etc.

If you bring technology into the equation and all the other things on offer in what has become a carnival of special effects and big business, then you can see where the parallels can be drawn between tefl and the film industry.


The appea of teaching unplugged, is that you can ” get back to basics”. No one is suggesting, I think, that we should abandon all the materials but rather that we should approach them more critically. Are these materials suitable for my learners? Am I using this activity simply because it is there? If I have to use materials because of school policy etc. can I adapt them to make them more relevant to my learners or better still, can they adapt them themselves or can we adapt them together?

Of course, you may say, it is easy to say tgat when you already have a lot of experience and you alrey know how to use materials, and you would be quite right. You need to know how to use materials and tools before you can decide if they are right or not for you and your learners, and we all work in different ways, which also needs to be taken into consideration.

I am lucky in that I work in a university that provides classrooms with Internet access and projectors and I am free to use them or not, as I choose. I personally choose to use them a lot, because that is what has proved best for my learners. I have large classes ( sometimes more than a hundred students) and by providing blended learning (f2f and wiki support my wiki) If you look at the feedback page you’ll see that my learners like them too, ut not all of the students use the online component, and not all of my colleagues work in the same way. This does not mean that some are better than others, it simply means that we are different and we learn and teach in different ways.

I’m still not sure whether I understand what Dogme really is but it seems to me to reflect the way my leanguage teaching has grown over the years. To me it means listening to my learners and helping them to develop the language they need to express themselves in the way they want and need to as well as helping them to prepare for the high stakes exams they need to take.


Speaking as a Celta trainer, though, I have to add that I have some concerns too. I can see only too often how trainees become over reliant on their lesson plans, but this is natural since learning how to plan a lesson is actually quite a complex thing. I remember one Celta trainer who said to me in an aside one day “Well it’s hardly rocket science, is it?” This may have been a throw away comment uttered in a moment of irritation, but it made me think that actually no it is not rocket science. In a way it is even more complex.


When we plan lessons we need to keep so many variables in mind, learning strategies, anticipated problems, things we assume learners have already learned, learner needs, lesson pace etc. etc. the list goes on and on, so it is no surprise then that trainees find it hard to juggle all these things (which are often new to them as well) whilst also needing to have the expertise and knowledge to be able to answer the off the cuff questions that arise in the course of any lesson, whilst, of course giving clear instructions and checking comprehension… Oh yes, and they need to listen to the learners as well! In may experience ehen trainee teachers run out of time they scrap their fluency activities, which is a reflection of what in sime way must be communicating to them: fluency is not as important as “language presentation or skills work”. The conversation focused approach advocated by Dogme then is very appealing and I for one try to communicate the importance of fluency work to my trainees, suggesting that they plan it in as a major component of the lesson, not just an added on time filler at the end of the “real exercises”.

To be able to simply go into a classroom and help learners to develop their language competence in a way which is relevant to them, and which is also scaffolded and helpful is actually quite a complex thing too. My concern is that I have often seen trainees with little experience who are bombarded by questions from motivated learners. The teacher tries to answer all e questions, sometimes efficiently and sometimes not so, and occasionally gets sidètracked into his or her own memories or concerns ” telling tthem all a little story or anecdote”. The lesson loses any real direction and the time is not being optimised for the learners’ benefit.

To be able to decidee which questions to answer and how to develop the work in such a way as to make it useful and intersting for everyone needs experience. You as a teacher need to know what type of activities are available for you an how to help your learners with the areas they are having difficulty with. So, I would say yes, then, I am all in favour of traching unplugged…if you know how to do it, and to do that first of all you need to know how.