Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Moses Supposes his Toeses are Roses

I discovered this silly rhyme in my daughter's book of nursery rhymes - it's said to be traditional, but was made famous in the film "singing in the rain" with Gene Kelly.

For those of you that have a good level in English, or are teaching English, this
is a very good pronunciation exercise for the diphthong:
It's also a good way to demonstrate stress patterns in English, in this rhyme it is the "o" sound that is stressed, which is normal, for dipthongs are hard to contract, or swallow as my students prefer to say.
Here is the ryhme in full:
Moses supposes his toeses are roses
But Moses supposes erroneously
for nobody's toeses are posies of roses
As Moses supposes his toeses to be.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Throw away your English cassettes

If you want to hear real people speaking real English, use the net to find MP3 or other sound files to download. I've been told that a lot of people have trouble downloading clips from the BBC, that's too bad because there are loads of good video and audio clips. Try CNN for American English.

If you want to hear what my Birmingham accent sounds like, I found this interview with one of Birmaingham's most famous sons, Ozzy Osbourne. Yes Brum is the capital of heavy metal, with Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin coming from the region. This will be hard work to understand but give it a try. Click on the link:
Ozzy Osbourne interview

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Getting used to the right accent

If you are attending a class that uses a course like Headway, English File or any other for that matter, the listening material generally uses speakers of British English. Not only British English, but a particular accent called "RP" - "received pronunciation". I'm not sure about the history of the name "received pronunciation" but it certainly isn't the most common accent in Britain - it reflects more a social class - that of the middle to upper class living in the Oxford/Cambridge/London triangle. For me, it reminds me of the BBC announcers from the thirties and forties. Who speaks like that these days?

Even more disturbing is the lack of material for American English. I don't know if it's different in the States, but the only courses that are based on American English I've seen are produced by Oxford University Press! Even if I don't like to admit it, American English is the English that dominates the international community.

The English phonemes that are given in the international Phonetic alphabet seem to based on received pronunciation too. I believe this because of the discussions I've had with American colleagues who pronounce a lot of sounds differently to me and agree that some of their sounds are not represented in the IPA.

Admittedly, Headway Intermediate does have a "guess my accent" exercise, where six people describe their capital city. As a native speaker, though, I can tell you that I couldn't recognise the Australian accent, the Irish speaker speaks so slowly it sounds nothing like the Irish people I know, the Scotsman has an incredibly posh Edinburgh accent that wouldn't be understood in Glasgow, and the Londoner has a RP accent that makes him sound more like Tony Blair than a "real" Londoner. I know that Cockney isn't the only London accent, but it would be worth using it in listening materials.

There is a good book for American English called "Great Ideas". Unfortunately it is 25 years old and sounds and looks a little dated. I use the cassette on its own just for listening practice.

Ask your students where they will be using their English skills and you will get a variety of answers. Among the people I'm currently working with, I hear the need to communicate in English with Arabs from the middle east, to attend meetings with Italian colleagues, to negotiate contract with Russians, in fact, just about every nationality except native British or Americans!

Have a look on the net for interviews in MP3 format that you can burn to CD and play to your students. If you can think of a famous person with an accent that your students will need to understand, you should be able to find something to download.
I'll do some research myself and post any useful links to the blog.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Things we should teach our students but don't

Here is an invitation to anyone who might happen to be reading: send me your suggestions for things that we really should be teaching our students, but somehow they just never come up in the syllabus. "Ay up me duck" is certainly one of them if you are considering visiting Nottinghamshire.
On a more serious note, I've never seen the expression, "I could do with..." in a coursebook. Try translating that word for word into your students' language!
Regional variations can also cause problems: The English use the word "uncanny" to describe something unexplainable, "an uncanny knack" or "an uncanny resemblance". But in Scotland and the North East, the opposite "canny" means "good", "pretty", "nice" or just about anything positive.
I have at times caught myself explaining things that really shouldn't be explained, like why we say "once", "twice" but "three times". I've wasted time telling them that in the past people used to say "thrice". Worse still, how about killing a few seconds by telling them that O'clock means "of the clock" or that "you" is a formal address, like "vous" in French and that the intimate form, like "tu" was "thou". Now that's something they are going to use everyday! Maybe this pretentious nonsense comes from being fed up with correcting "I live in Marseille since ten years".

Going back to "ay up me duck" (my Brummy equivalent is "alright our kid?"), "me" is in fact "my". Students really ought to be able to understand crucial survival phrases like, "where's me tea?"

"Tea" is another good example. Only the rich had time on their hands for "teatime", whilst for most working class families "tea" means "evening meal" or "dinner". When I was at school, the women who served the food at lunch time were called "dinner ladies". I bet there isn't a region in Britain that calls them "lunch ladies"!

any more suggestions?

Sunday, November 19, 2006

We're teaching, but are you learning?

I'm always asking questions without really providing any answers, and here's yet another one: a child's acquistion of language is not rapid - he or she spends 18 months only listening, then another couple of years mastering the sounds required, then another 6 to 8 years building a respectable vocabulary. Wouldn't it better for any adult wishing to learn a new language to do the same, rather than joining a language class straight away? Why not set a goal to learn 10 words a day for a year, listen to the radio every day for one hour or more, and start reading children's books in your chosen language? When you eventually did start your lessons, you would already have a "feel" for the language, your ears would be tuned in, and your success more assured, even if you are unlucky enough to get a crap teacher like me!

Personally, I don't really like being treated like a walking dictionary. What job satisfaction do I get from telling people how to say a word in English? If my learners already had a reasonable vocabulary, I could then help them to get their structure right. My own language learning experience backs this up, although we all learn differently. I hated going to class, and hated even more doing grammar exercises from the book I had bought. But I liked watching TV, and I liked reading my daughter's books, and I liked chatting to people I met. And you know what? The biggest compliment I know is when people say to me: "if I could speak English as well you speak French, I would be really happy". I must be doing something right, then...

Friday, November 17, 2006

teaching "real" English

In class, do you slow down your speech and try to articulate a little more precisely than you do when talking to other native speakers? I do, because I know that otherwise my students will have trouble following me. After all, I reason, if they don’t understand anything, they will have accomplished nothing as far as learning is concerned.

By doing this, your students are going to have a big shock if eventually they get to try out their English in real-world situations, that is, outside the classroom. For English speakers who are not EFL professionals are not so considerate toward non-native speakers. They will continue at their normal pace and expect everyone to keep up. So if your students are used to y o u ...s p e a k i n g ...s l o w l y... a n d ... d e l i b e r a t e l y ... l i k e ... t h i s...they won’t have a cat-in-hell’s chance of understanding the New York taxi driver or the Scottish barman they meet on their travels.

So is it better to babble on in your normal voice? I thought about this when a student of mine had a fairly typical grammar problem with the “to” infinitive. She would regularly say, “*I want go”, forgetting the particle. I decided that since corrections didn’t seem to work, I would show her what it sounds in “real” English: “I wanna go”. In the real world, native speakers don’t pay any attention to the fact that the little word “to” belongs to the following verb, and routinely attach it to “want” so it becomes “wanna”. If you taught your students “wanna” first, they would simply add the verb they want and forget about the grammar rules. The advantage of this is that they will at the same time be practising spoken English the way natives use it.

I have the advantage as a language teacher to have two small children who are learning my language, English, and their mother’s, French. It is nothing short of miraculous that my daughter can understand, at the age of three, when I say “what are you going to do?”; because what actually comes out of my mouth is more like “watcha gonna do?” Only when she learns to read will she realise that there are actually six words in the question and not three. But that’s of little importance to her while she’s mastering the spoken word, and it should be the same for your students.

Only rarely do adults say that they need writing skills more than speaking, and yet we still put too much emphasis on the written word. It’s time for language teachers to teach English in a way that is best going to serve their students in life, and not treat language as a purely academic exercise.

The All-Blacks are in France

After giving the English a good hiding, the All-Blacks have come to France to demonstrate their current superiority in the Rugby world. I like Rugby, but don't spend a lot of time watching sport,and have no intention of starting writing about it. I did, however, hear an interesting story about how the New Zealand team got the nickname "the All-Blacks". That's easy, you may answer, it's because they always wear black. Not so.

Yes, they are the only team to wear black and so never have to wear away colours, but that's not where the name comes from. Apparently, when they first visited England in the nineteen thirties, everybody thought that this bunch of sheep farmers were going to get slaughtered by the UK teams. To everyone's surprise, they inflicted a humiliating defeat on the English(serves 'em right!).

A journalist for one of the major British newspapers wrote about the match with the headline, "All Backs", meaning that the whole team were "backs", the position that requires all the skills needed in Rugby. Of course, when the article went to be typeset, the person responsible concluded that it must have been an error and inserted an "l" to make it "All-Blacks". And thus the legend was born.

I have no idea if this story is true or not, but a little research on the net should yield either a confirmation or a denial, but whatever the case, it's interesting to see how new words and phrases can develop unintentionally, sometimes just because of a simple typing mistake.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

What's your learner style?

Everybody has their own style when it comes to learning. At the most basic level, there are three categories: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Here is a quick summary:

Images are really important to the visual learner. These learners have trouble paying attention to someone talking - they would rather see a picture or a diagram. If this is you, invest in some coloured pens for note taking and devise a system that works for you. Perhaps negatives in red, questions in blue etc. Mind maps are the ideal way for you to record information. Have a look at my mind map pages to see some examples.

Of course, your ears are the most important asset in language learning, and so everyone needs to cultivate their auditory learning capacities. If you prefer listening to reading, love music and are generally sensitive to the sounds around you, then you are an auditory learner. Get as much listening material as you can, radio, films, CD's etc. The internet is a good source of listening - just look for Radio stations in the language you are learning.


Are you a "touchy-feely" person? Do you like to touch people when you are talking to them? Do you fiddle with objects while talking or thinking, eg, pens, paper, twisting paper clips etc? Then you are probably a kinesthetic learner. Your world is more tactile than others, you like doing things more than talking about them. You would be advised to have some flashcards that you can handle while revising vocabulary, and playing board games in your target language would be useful.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Using the internet

I'm a fan of Google, as I've said before. Their search engine almost always pulls up the results I'm looking for. The internet is a fantastic resource for language learning, as you can find free courses, dictionaries, chat-rooms to help you.

When learning vocabulary and expressions, though, a single dictionary definition can be a bit limited. Here's what I do when I want to fully understand a word or phrase that I've come across, but am little uncertain as to its use:

Simple type the word or phrase into google in speech marks (guillemets ""). Google will pull up not only dictionary definitions but examples of the word or phrase in various contexts - something that is essential in language acqisition. Have a look a five or more of these references and you will have a good idea of how a native speaker uses it.

Try it out: do a search for "brown nosing"; "takes the biscuit" "parrot-fashion" and see what results you get!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

English people learning French

Yesterday I got hold of the BBC series "excuse my French" on DVD. It's a kind of reality TV programme about three "celebrities" (a shamed ex-football manager sacked from his TV job for racist comments, a has-been TV presenter and a young comedian struggling to be actually funny) who have come to France in order to learn French.

It's quite entertaining to watch these people humiliate themselves for the television, while not making any real progress in French. Their attitude is typically English: this is hard, I don't want to do it, why can't everybody just speak English, my teachers are going about it the wrong way, etc.

The football manager was starting as a complete beginner and found it really hard to get to grips with his pronunciation and remembering new vocabulary. In the programme, however, his teacher was quite hard on him for not putting together complete sentences. She keeps telling him to use verbs! On this point, I'm afraid I have to take sides with Big Ron, the football manager. In one scene he attends a local football match to help the team with their tactics. Using the limited vocabulary he has, he succeeds in getting his ideas across, the team adopts his tactics and score a goal.

Big Ron has achieved the ultimate goal in language learning - communicating ideas. He didn't use any verbs, and he didn't make a coherent sentence, but he succeeded nevertheless. As 90% of communication is non-verbal - facial expressions, gestures, body language, intonation - producing a well-formed sentence is of little importance, while a good vocabulary is essential.

Monday, November 13, 2006

The English Only Rule in the Classroom

A new teacher started at the company I work for (for whom I work, if you prefer), and she asked me about the English-only rule that is insisted on here. Her concern was that as she had a class of very low elementary students, how would it be possible to do everything in English?

This is something that has caused me a lot of concern, too. English-only is the ideal, to be sure, but is it really possible? More importantly, is it really beneficial for the students? If your intention is to use a communicative approach in your lessons, how long will you be able to keep up the English-only rule when you have a group of beginners or low elementaries in front of you? I'm afraid that in a lot of classes the English-only rule is only maintained by avoiding real communication and replacing it with grammar exercises or other activities that involve giving the students handouts and telling them to read the instructions. It's a very brave teacher indeed who can go empty-handed into an elementary lesson and try to facilitate learning in a natural, communicative way.

Personally, I believe that translations are necessary and useful for adult learners. while child-like learning has many advantages, there is no risk of first language(L1) interference, it's drawbacks are also numerous:
It's very slow: a lot of time can be spent defining a new word, when a one-word translation would have been sufficient
It could insult your learner's intelligence: I have often drawn pictures, gesticulated wildy, played all kinds of games in order to avoid translating, only to be asked, "so what is it in French?" If the students know you can speak their language, it's hard to pretend that you don't.

If you have a class for an hour and half once a week, it's unrealistic to expect to do everything in English, students need quick, clear explanations before moving on. On the contrary, if you are teaching in an English-speaking country, not only will you have international classes where translation is impossible, but also your learners have the opportunity to put into practice every day new language they acquire, thus accelerating the assimilation process. In no way is it necessary to use L1 in those circumstances.

Sunday, November 12, 2006


I used to visit the website to get free materials for my lessons, except recently it has become subscription only at a cost of 24GBP (about 34€). OK, so people like me were downloading the free worksheets without ever for one moment considering actually buying anything from Macmillan publications, but surely that's what the net is for isn't it? If I have to spend that kind of money on materials, I would rather go and buy a nice book from my local English bookshop. Publishing houses like Macmillan have probably lost a lot of money in missed sales by giving away half the content of their books -too bad for them - nobody refuses freebies like that.

If you are a teacher or a learner of English I strongly advise you NOT to pay for anything on the net. The net is all about sharing information - freely. Some of the worksheets on onestop were quite good, but some of them absolutely appalling. Why on Earth would I want to pay for a worksheet that asks students to write in the spaces the past simple of half a dozen irregular verbs. Is that teaching? Why not tell your students to invest in a half-decent dictionary or grammar book, so that you can concentrate on helping them to learn something. I did actually spend money on a site called and was hugely disappointed with the shabby worksheets produced by lovers of Microsoft clip art.

The best feature on onestop English was probably the Guardian Weekly reading lessons. Here again, the net is chock-full of articles that you can use in class. It doesn't take a genius to prepare a reading article like the ones found on You simply choose a few words from your chosen text that you think your students might not be familiar with, write a definition for each one and instruct your learners to match them up. Then ask a few comprehension questions and finish off with a discussion about the rights and wrongs of this particular subjet.

The communication technology available nowadays means that virtually all artificial language teaching resources are obsolete. We now have the marvelous opportunity to use materials that come from the real world and might actually be of interest to our students, unlike the total crap found in bestsellers like "Headway".

More thoughts on teaching the present progressive

When teaching the present progressive, or continuous, tense, we often concentrate on structure: you have a subject, followed by the auxiliary, “be” followed by the “-ing” form of the verb. A lot of teachers have started calling this verb “the –ing verb”, and rightly so, as I am convinced that virtually nobody can say for sure what the correct term for it is.

Would you call it the gerund? No, because the gerund is the noun derived from a verb, not a verb itself. Here we have a completely different discussion, and another lesson to prepare. You probably do a free time/interests lesson where you ask the question “what do you like doing?”. Your students have the opportunity to practise real gerunds, as in sentences like, “I like playing football, going skiing, painting, reading, shopping...”

You, of course, as a serious ESL professional, know that in a sentence like “I am having a shower”, the “-ing” verb is actually the present participle. How sure are you about that?

participles or adjectives?
If I say, “I am tired”, I know that “am” is the verb and that “tired” is obviously an adjective, given that “to be” is a verb of state, and an adjective is used to add detail to a noun, in this case a pronoun, “I”. But tired is also the past participle of the verb “to tire”. Just as past participles can be used as adjectives, so can present participles: The match was tiring, this film is boring” etc. Expressions like “running water” or “travelling salesman” contain “-ing” adjectives.
When saying “I am” we are invariably talking about a present state, so what’s the difference between “I am tired”, and “I am working”? To say “I am working” also indicates my present state, even if technically speaking “working” is the present participle, not an adjective. Interestingly, in French there is no present progressive tense, they use an adjectival phrase which translates, “I am in the process of to work”. A fine line indeed between adjectives and participles!

All these thoughts have led me to believe that they should not discussed with your students, being indeed pointless grammatical debate that will not help them one little bit to communicate more effectively. Instead of trying to have your students build sentences from pre-defined parts, i.e. aux + verb+ing = present progressive = something happening now why not make a mind map of all the possible things we could say starting with “I am”. After all, “I am English” is a present, just like “I am working”. You could brainstorm emotions, physical condition, nationalities, age, jobs, and what is happening now. This way, rather than focussing on meaningless grammatical structure, you are giving your students functional language that they can use outside the classroom.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

teaching using cartoon storyboards

A great way to get students talking to each other is to give them a cartoon storyboard and have them tell the story. Put students in pairs to discuss what they think is happening, one of them writes it down, and finally we compare stories to see which one is closest to real story. It doesn't matter if you can't draw, bad drawings encourage more use of the imagination!

My favourite story is "the choking doberman". It is a very popular urban legend that you can find all over the net. I draw the scenes of the girl finding her dog choking up till the burglar being arrested, with his hand bleeding. It's fun seeing whether the students can guess what happened to the burglar.

You can tell your students to use only present tenses, which are good for storytelling, or in the past as a grammar review. You will find at the end that they will probably need to use difficult grammar like the past perfect, "in the end, the vet realised that the dog had bitten two of the burglar's fingers off"

Look for other urban legends on the net for story ideas.

teaching present tenses

When teaching low level students, we generally try to progressively introduce grammar points as and when we feel that previous points have been mastered. So a typical programme for beginners is to start with the present simple tense, I am, I go, I do, then add adverbs of frequency, I always go shopping on Saturday, I am sometimes late, I never do my homework. Next comes the tricky part: explaining to your students that there are two present tenses, the second one being the progressive tense, for actions happening now, or for fairly certain future events. How do you introduce it?

Perhaps you begin with a miming game: “can you guess what I am doing?” After miming the action, you elicit the form, “I am drinking a cup of tea”. This type of activity is generally a very good way to present this new tense.

My problem, however, is the “modelling” part of the lesson. As we were taught in our ESL training, a good lesson should be structured according using the formula “elicit, model and drill”. I can’t help feeling that as I was never taught that the present progressive is formed using the auxiliary, be, with verb plus –ing ending when I was a child, then there’s really no point in teaching it to adult learners of English.

Once you have started trying to explain structure, you will find yourself getting deeper and deeper into meaningless discussions about grammar. Most of your learners will already have some knowledge of English grammar, not all of it correct, from their school years. As their teachers were probably non-native English speakers, the information given was probably at best incomplete, if not totally misleading. Perhaps the word “gerund” may enter the discussion. As an English teaching professional, do you really know what a gerund is? What is the best way of explaining it to your students? If your lesson is on the present progressive tense, then you have let yourself get way off track, for the –ing verb is not a gerund, it’s the present participle.

As I’ve already said, when I was three years old and getting to grips with my mother tongue, English, I had no idea what a gerund or a present participle was. I just used them. So teachers, give your students a healthy amount of active communication, and keep the grammar as a necessary, but not overwhelming, sideline to your lessons.