Good for who?

When I first started teaching I used to use an activity from “pronunciation games”. You might have used it yourself  The handout has a series of forked paths, each one ending with the name of a capital city. You choose a difficult pronunciation for your learners  in my case R/L for Japanese students, and assign one for sound for “turn left” and the other for “turn right”. You then write a series of minimal pairs on the board and have one student read them trying to direct their partner to a pre-decided capital city. The mispronunciations would usually result in students going to the wrong city and (supposedly) highlight the perils of mispronunciation. I distinctly remember saying something like “you might say you like eating ‘lice’ which is really disgusting!”

I feel quite embarrassed when I think about this for two reasons. Firstly, I’m pretty sure that anyone hearing a Japanese students say “I like eating lice” would have no problem  understanding what they were going for, but more importantly, because what I failed to notice at the time was that this activity had the effect of making precisely none of my students any better at pronouncing /r/ sounds. Despite no improvement, students enjoyed the activity and I thought it was great. This got me thinking recently; are the things we do in the classroom for the sake of the students, or for the sake the teacher?

Take the “reading skill trilogy” I’ve criticised before. Prediction, skimming and scanning and guessing from context, as I’ve noted, arguably have some very serious problems. Yet they are good for filling up reading lessons and the “aims” columns of observed lesson plans. These ‘skills’ may have limited use for students but are very useful for teachers. A teacher planning a reading course now has something to teach. We can do “prediction” on Monday, “skimming” on Tuesday, “guessing on Wednesday” and so on.

Another example of this phenomena I think is some of the language we use. For my external DELTA lesson I wrote about teaching cause and effect. In order to teach this lesson I had to find out which language items would be the most useful so I created a corpus of about 5 million words from various academic texts. I then checked off the usually course book lists of “cause and effect language” and what I found was quite surprising.

Textbooks and websites often have long lists of cause and effect language, such as:

lead to
due to
owing to
as a result of
stem from
can give rise to
as a consequence of

Interestingly the corpus data showed that while some of these phrases were used frequently, others were barely used at all. Now corpus examination like this is not without problems. However there were some very telling findings. Whereas the word ‘effect’ appeared 691 and ‘leads to’ 368, in 5 million words, ‘owing to’ was only used three times. Other words like ’cause’ were common appearing 189 times but ‘stem from’ didn’t appear once. For teachers and textbooks writers there seems to be a philosophy of “more is more”. The more terms we present to students, the more we may feel we are teaching them, (giving them value for money) when in actual fact, focusing on more commonly used phrase and making sure students have a strong grasp on those, could arguably be  better strategy. After all, isn’t presenting two phrases, seemingly as equals when one is hundreds of times more common, a tad misleading?

The same argument could be made about cohesion phrases like ‘in addition’ and ‘moreover’. In fact the argument has been made, convincingly by Crewe (1990). Throwing a big list of phrases at students might seem like a good idea, but as with cause and effect language ‘less’ is probably more. There are two reasons for this:

firstly, students are often lead to believe that these phrases are synonymous:

Words meaning ‘and’
and, too, as well (as), either, also, in addition (to), besides, furthermore, moreover,
both… and…, not only… but also…

(Eastwood 2002:324)

Call me picky but ‘moreover’ doesn’t mean ‘and’. Moreover means that the second point I’m making may be even more important that the first. Would ‘and’ convey the same meaning here?

She had noticed that there was a man sitting in the second row of the stalls to her right who was observing her, rather than watching the play. Moreover, he seemed to be smiling at her as if he recognised her (BBC)

Presenting these phrases as being ‘equal’ will (and does) lead to confusion and misuse. Here is an example (content altered) from a student essay:

Also, for example, if a Chinese man is dieting, then he has a real need to eat healthy food for a period. Moreover, it can be suggested that consumers can feel happiness when they are in process of consumption (student essay)

the use of ‘moreover’ here is plainly wrong and that there are almost four of these cohesion phrases in two sentences is worrying. The linking phrases are sprinkled on like hundreds and thousands (US sprinkles). Any one who has worked in EAP will recognise this kind of writing.

And Secondly, this approach may also lead students to being overburdened with language which they probably don’t need.  Corpus research (Hinkel 2004:323) indicates that the commonest linkers in formal academic writing are:

1. however
2. thus 
3. therefore 
4. then 
5. so

It is surely better that they can use five commonly appearing phrases well, than 10 or 15 phrases badly. It is also surely better that they are more familiar with more common phrases. It may be nice for a teacher to present students with a huge list of exotic linkers, like some kind of extravagant badge of erudition but how useful is this for students. In the case of language learning Less may well be more.

Council news

Private Eye this month reports that the British Council in Nigeria has found itself in rather hot water. Awuese Oku, won a court case meaning the council were required to pay her £21,000 in damages.

Except they didn’t.

Deputy director Amir Ramzan could now go to prison for ignoring the courts’ decision. The court has also threatened to close the Abuja offices and “seize one of its vehicles in lieu of payment” (private eye)

The Eye reports court papers noting that “the defendants would not have done what they did in their home country”. Good to see the council continuing “to build mutually beneficial cultural and educational relationships between the United Kingdom and other countries”

Happy Birthday EBEFL! (about)

On the 19th of March 2012 I tentatively started this blog with a post about the word literally not really expecting much f  reaction. One year, 41 posts 120 comments and 2,400 hits later (mostly from Swedish spam bots) and  I’m constantly surprised and incredibly grateful for the overwhelmingly positive reaction this blog has received. I want to take the opportunity to talk about why I set up EBEFL. Firstly I should say that I’m massively influenced by Ben Goldacre, and if you haven’t read his blog or his book, “bad science” then I can’t recommend it highly enough. Recently, he’s been writing about evidence in education and it’s well worth a read. 

Why Evidence-based EFL?

Life is short. The older I get the more I realize time is running out at a breath-taking pace.  A common theme in my life is investing effort into something which turns out, in the end to be a waste of time.  An example of this is martial arts.  I always loved martial arts and did them since I was a kid. I used to love martial arts movies like (based on a true story!) “bloodsport“. Finally when I moved to Japan I had the chance to do the “real” thing and took up a jiu-jitsu class.  Every week I went along and practised, and eventually got my black-belt.  My family were in awe, thinking I was some kind of dangerous killer. This was complete tosh and a strong gust of wind could have probably knocked me over, but the idea that I was an “expert” was enough to convince them and I certainly wasn’t about to deny it. I had almost completely convinced myself that this bit of coloured fabric had some actual meaning. It didn’t. 

The problem was that the martial art, like many martial arts was misguided.  It had a fixed method and it bent reality to fit with that. For example, if someone grabs your arm like X, then you twist it like so and hey-presto! Or if someone, punches you like Y, then you side-step and perform some killer move on them.  Of course, in truth, and if you ever see a real violent confrontation, no one will ever grab you like X or try to punch you like Y. By and large fights are messy affairs, and if someone is intent on doing you harm, they’ll probably do it, before you know what’s happened. People don’t hold knives out as they approach, nor do they telegraph punches. (incidentally, I recently found out that the true story bloodsport was based on was complete tosh.)  

Martial arts may seem unrelated to TEFL but exactly the same problems exist. Experts are made with qualifications (DELTA black belts!) and are often believed unquestioningly. Techniques and methods are designed and then reality is forced to fit them. In TEFL, like in martial arts (and in health care, public policy, science and pretty much any aspect of human life) a healthy dose of scepticism will almost certainly end up leaving us all better off.   

I recently read a blog post that insisted people are naturally sceptical but this isn’t quite right. People can be naturally sceptical about some things, some of the time. Sagan gives the example of buying a car:

When we buy a used car, if we are the least bit wise we will exert some residual skeptical powers — whatever our education has left to us. You could say, “Here’s an honest-looking fellow. I’ll just take whatever he offers me.” Or you might say, “Well, I’ve heard that occasionally there are small deceptions involved in the sale of a used car, perhaps inadvertent on the part of the salesperson,” and then you do something. You kick the tires, you open the doors, you look under the hood. (You might go through the motions even if you don’t know what is supposed to be under the hood, or you might bring a mechanically inclined friend.) You know that some skepticism is required, and you understand why. It’s upsetting that you might have to disagree with the used-car salesman or ask him questions that he is reluctant to answer. There is at least a small degree of interpersonal confrontation involved in the purchase of a used car and nobody claims it is especially pleasant. But there is a good reason for it — because if you don’t exercise some minimal skepticism, if you have an absolutely untrammeled credulity, there is probably some price you will have to pay later. Then you’ll wish you had made a small investment of skepticism early.(read more of this excellent piece here)

So we can be sceptical but often little tricks in our brains stop us from kicking the tires. The most powerful are perhaps confirmation bias and argument from authority. People can be fooled by “experts” or can fool themselves because they really want to believe their new method is producing great results. This self-deception is often the hardest to overcome. Scepticism is not just for debunking those things you think are wrong, it is far more important for challenging  -those things you’re sure about. 

When people read this blog and come across something lacking evidence which they believe in, they usually all have a similar reaction. They tend to shrug and say either  “well, evidence or not, I still believe this is useful and I’m going to continue to use it.” Or “well teaching isn’t science –it’s art!” or something like that. When people see something they think works cognitive dissonance kicks in and the rationalisations start. “I’m a good teacher so what I do in class must be good” or the more common one I encounter “well sure this method might not work but I’m going to keep doing it because students like it/I have no alternative/it’s good for tests etc etc.

I hope that this blog will be a home for critical thinking. I hope it will stop teachers and students wasting time and money on things which don’t or can’t work. I hope it will challenge authority and more than anything get people thinking. If you don’t agree with what I write that’s fine, but at least think about what you’re doing and don’t just accept what your CELTA tutor, the British council or a famous good-looking tanned, TEFL expert tells you. But also don’t believe yourself either and certainly don’t take my word for anything. Ask to see the evidence and if there isn’t any, why not try to make some?


I used to hear people say “don’t believe everything you read in the papers”. Now I think a better phrase might be “believe nothing at all, you read in the papers”. From completely fictional accounts of events which didn’t happen to wholly dangerous medical advice.  

The list is endless and I won’t bore you, but I do want to share a story that tickled me. This is the story of Alun Morgan who woke up from a coma suddenly able to speak a foreign language. I like this story because it’s so absolutely ridiculous I can’t get angry, I just found it almost charming. At first glance it’s an incredible story:

Alun Morgan, 81, was evacuated to Wales in World War II as a child and had never learned the language.But when he regained consciousness after the serious stroke, he was FLUENT in it.(the sun)

Wow! The guy became fluent just by having a stroke?! amazing! 

An English man woke from a stroke to discover that the only language he could speak was Welsh. Alun Morgan, 81, was forced to re-learn his native tongue, despite the fact that he had never been able to speak fluent Welsh. (Daily Mail)

OMG!  That’s incredible but didn’t you say he used to live in Wales as a child?

During his time there he was surrounded by Welsh speakers but never learned the language himself (Telegraph)

Astounding, so what you’re saying is he basically knew no Welsh,but just started speaking it! Tell me more!

An 81-year-old Englishman woke after a serious stroke to discover he could speak Welsh – despite spending only a few months there as an evacuee during the Second World War. Morgan grew up speaking English, but after his stroke, lost the ability to communicate in any language but Welsh, even though he was last there 70 years ago. (independant)

Ah so he only there for a few months and he never learnt the language but he became fluent…well in that case this really is incredible news. Unless there are some other details that you’re perhaps not telling us?

Apart from the single, short spell, the retiree has spent his life in England,

ok Go on…

although his grandmother – with whom he lived during the war – was a Welsh speaker, as is his wife.

Oh you just thought you’d drop that in there did you? So his wife is a a Welsh speaker as was his grandmother. hmmm well, still he only lived there for a few months right? So not really enough time to become fluent.

He lived in Aberaeron, in mid Wales, for four years from the age of nine (BBC)

 Huh!? So now a few months is a few years!??! And while he was a child, -y’know that time in our lives when language learning tends to be a bit less troublesome?!

Both Mr Morgan’s parents also spoke Welsh (Mail)

Srsly? are you kidding me?

 “We were London Welsh and I learned a bit of Welsh when I was in London. Then, when I was evacuated to Wales during the war, we spoke it virtually all the time because my aunt didn’t speak much English, so I had to pick it up very quickly.”(BBC)

So what you’re saying is, he was basically a Welsh speaker from a Welsh family who went to live in Wales for about four years  as a kid and became fluent and who lives with a Welsh speaking woman. For some reasons newspapers think it is somehow incredible that this person might be able to speak Welsh.  basically these stories should have been titled “Fluent Welsh speaker, from Welsh family who used to lived in Wales and is married to a Welsh woman, finds he can speak fluent Welsh.” Yeah, sure, it’s interesting that the guy seemingly couldn’t use English for a few days but he had a stroke and the brain is a complex organ as far as I can tell nothing miraculous happened here. The excellent Steve Novella of Skeptics Guide to the Universe who is a neurologist notes of a similar story of a young Croatian girl becoming magically fluent in German:

Now the interesting part is that after she woke up from the coma she could speak German a lot more fluently than before and not a word in Croatian. My guess is that Sepsis caused a brain damage in left temporal lobe. Probably mostly in Broca’s Area, thus disabling her in speaking Croatian but not damaging her knowledge of German language. At that point her brain probably switched to best alternative and her passive knowledge of German sprang to life. Without possibility to fall back to Croatian vocabulary there is no dilemma in which words to choose and how to use them so her German must have sounded a lot better to doctors and her parents. (neurologica blog)

This story like so many others is reproduced almost word for word on many thousands of websites. Who cares about the truth right? It makes a good story, and that’s all that matters.

Summary of ELTchat: is guessing from context a good thing?

So welcome to this summary of the rather lively chat we had on the subject of guessing from context (GFC). The topic had a slow start but built up to a lively climax, going on even after the final bell.

Questions questions

There were many questions asked like, is GFC a good thing? Do students need to be taught it? What is its purpose? What do we mean by context? Is it actually better that using a dictionary? Does it have a high retention rate? How do we want students to guess (L1 L2?) Answers and agreement were less forthcoming but it was a lively debate –and surely that’s a good thing.

First off @teflerinha posted a link to my recent post on the subject, here. Also a related post from @Marisa_C here and this from @englishraven.


It seemed clear that a lot of teachers, seem to use this activity such as @prese1, @englishraven, @Marisa_C and others.  @jo_cummins and @BobK99 suggested it is less about actually guessing but more about getting students to think about the text more carefully and that it was also good for getting students away from dictionaries. @michaelegriffin felt it reflected real world practice. @teflerinha suggested it was a reading, rather than a vocab strategy. @TyKendall saw it as a ‘last resort’ strategy @prese1 did it once in a blue moon and @Marisa_C does it all the time.
Many folks pointed to the fact that it is often hard to guess and that a % of words should be known before this is even possible (Nation’s 94% came up). @englishraven suggested texts to showcase this skill could end up being contrived. @ebefl suggested it was a ‘dubious’ skill and wondered whether it gave teachers something to teach rather than giving students something to learn. This was coupled with queries as to whether students even need to be taught this skill, i.e. isn’t it something that they can do, and that they already do in their L1. Many like @CotterHUE thought students need to be taught this. Some wondered if it was a skill. a subskill or a strategy. Many folks thought it was a skill. There were also questions about whether ‘ignoring’ might not be just as good a strategy.

@Marisa_C wondered if the class practice carried over into real life. There was also some suggstion that the distance of the L2 could affect ‘guessability’. @EBEFL questioned whether it was effective @Marisa_C replied that her experience suggested it was. @englishraven and @teflerinha agreed.
A few people wondered when the best time to start GFC was; beginner, advanced etc?


@BobK99 felt dictionaries slowed him down and @teflerinha agreed. @englishraven suggested that dictionaries don’t lead to vocab retention. @Marisa_C suggested using a dictionary to check guesses. @TyKendall felt retention was poor from ‘spoon-fed’ dictionary words.


@Marisa_C and others suggested morpho-analysis is potentially valuable for this;  Octopus/October etc. When talking about the evidence for effectiveness there were questions about the usefulness of research as a whole and its limited scope.  Also lots of positive comments about he usefulness of classroom observation/experience.


It seemed at times it wasn’t always clear that we were all talking about exactly the same thing (see questions questions). It is unclear that anyone changed their position as a result of the chat but it certainly left a lot of people wanting more. There were suggestions of a “round 2” though perhaps with more well defined terms and goals. Many felt there was still a lot to discuss.  If I’ve missed anything important please let me know in the comments.


@michaelegriffin makes fun of @ebefl for having to write up everyone’s praise for something he personally thinks is of limited value. -Cheers Mike 😉

If you need to explain why it’s wrong…

Do you know what the word ambivalent means?

A student of mine was very pleased to be able to catch me out with this word. I had assumed it meant “not particularly bothered”, but apparently it doesn’t. I had a hunch about this word so I asked four of the native speakers sitting with us what they thought. Three said they had no idea and one said she thought it meant something similar to what I had thought. 

This student got me thinking; when no one knows the so-called ‘correct’ meaning, how can it still be considered correct? Likewise, if a language rules exists but no one follows it, is it still a rule? If an ‘h’ is dropped in a forest and no pedant is around to hear it, is it still wrong? Unfortunately language and language usage holds a kind of power over people and it’s very easy, if you’re that way inclined, to cow others into thinking they’re getting it wrong when it’s really rather questionable that they are. 

For example, everyone knows that “Two negatives make a positive“. So saying “I aint got nothing” must mean that you have something. Another example is ‘literally‘ used to mean ‘not literally’. “literally” means something actually happened, so if you say “I literally died” what you’re saying is that you really died!  That’s impossible, because how could a dead person say that? so when someone says “the cross to Rooney was literally on a plate“, listeners wonders how tableware has found it’s way on to the pitch.

Or rather they don’t. In  fact no one ever gets confused about literally, and no one ever gets confused by double negatives; annoyed, yes, confused, no. What actually happens is some smart arse informs everyone that it is ‘wrong’ and then explains why. The redundancy of this would beggar believe if it wasn’t for the fact it happens daily.

Is there any other area of human endeavour where we so readily assent to be told that we are ‘wrong’? If you baked a cake which tasted delicious and someone told you the way you made it was wrong or, when eating soup, someone sneered at you for lacking an oyster fork or cutting the bread too thickly you would (rightly) think they were either insane or an intolerable bore. Make this kind of ridiculous comment with regards to language and everyone will nod approving and consider you to be a very sophisticated sort.

People get by using double negatives in English all the time. As with all these silly rules, they are of course countless exceptions that the pedants oddly let slide such as “not impossible” or “it’s not that I don’t…”, “it’s not like I don’t want to”. In AAVE double negatives can strengthen a statement such as “I didn’t do nothing”. They also exist in a huge number of the world’s languages and no one gets confused. I have no problem criticizing language that is clearly illogical but this is just pedantry.

If we allow people to dictate language use to us, we end up with the bizarre situation such as the one I heard the other day on “In Our Time“. The situation arose because the speaker used the word ‘decimate’ which has the prefix “dec” meaning “ten” as in December, the 10th month (blame Numa Pompilius for this) and means “destroy one in ten. Most people use it to mean “destroy” because having a word for “destroy one in ten” isn’t that useful. On the show the speaker said, something like “the Romans decimated the enemy, -they literally killed one in ten of the enemy soldiers.” Call me an old cynic but if you need to explain a word after you use it maybe it’s time to admit that the meaning has changed and get on with your life and if you need to explain why something is wrong you probably need to think carefully about your definition of ‘wrong’.