Tag Archives: Grammar

TBVGBTS: Teaching Grammar/Lexical Chunks

A word of warning: if you’re looking for clear and definite answers about whether we should teach discrete items of grammar and/or lexis in this post – or anywhere for that matter – I both fear for your sanity, and suspect you will be disappointed. However, if you’re interested in a few anecdotal experiences from the Korean class I took recently (see below for links to other posts), read on.

Let’s first be clear about what we’re discussing here. It’s been pointed out, quite rightly in my opinion, that the line between grammar (more often than not meaning verb morphology) and lexis (meaning words and phrases) is a thin and blurry one. The theory goes that when teaching polite offers, it is probably easier to define the underlined part “Would you like to go to dinner with me?” as a whole chunk of language, rather than breaking it down into a modal plus a main verb with infinitive complement (if those are even the right terms). However it is defined and taught though, this is what I want to discuss in this post: a pre-selected, discrete item  presented for learning by the teacher or the syllabus, the kind of which makes up the majority of general English courses. For the moment I’m going to leave aside single words and very short phrases – those are for a future post.

My Korean course seemed to be organised around topic and text; judging by the somewhat scattergun approach, discrete items seemed to be selected based on their appearance in the texts rather than any linguistic developmental theories. Items were presented in the book as a kind of gloss below the reading with a formula (interestingly using English word classes – something like “N을 통해” /”Through [noun]”) and a couple of example sentences in Korean, which I often found fairly unhelpful is ascertaining the function of the item.

If the items were selected on the basis of appearance in texts, there would seem to be one major disadvantage: items will tend to appear more in writing than speaking. In a general course this leads to a serious imbalance between written and spoken registers, and for a learner like me who is much more focused on speaking, there is an inevitable switching off when the teacher says “written grammar”, leading to a serious lack of will to try to use it, not to mention a similar lack of opportunity. However, I do notice one of my classmates trying to use this grammar in speech, and I presume she is doing it for practice purposes and not because she doesn’t realise, and I wonder how helpful this might be.

One thing that I found unhelpful with the presentation of grammar functions was when they were presented in terms of a simpler function. Female teacher was very fond of presenting items like this: “you can say this easily as [something that we already know]”. She’s trying to be helpful and connect us to existing knowledge, but at this point my brain says something like: “if I can say it easily like that, why should I bother to learn to say it in a more difficult way?” (Wait, I’m just a rubbish language learner, aren’t I?) Maybe not, because for me there needs to be a comparison between the simple form and the complex form and their subtle differences, but this is not forthcoming. I will refrain from being too critical of the teacher here though, as I can think of times where I have done similar, for example presenting three different ways of expressing the same function at the same time, without pointing out how they might be different or considering that learning one might be enough for that class.

The teaching of grammar and chunks on my course could best be described as PP (the P that’s missing is produce), but there’s not even much presentation going on. Female teacher (sorry to keep picking on you, but you were the worst offender here) vaguely directs our attention to the example sentences and expects us to guess from context, but I am frequently unaware of the fact that I was even supposed to be looking in the first place. Even if I was, two example sentences with no explanation is simply not enough to grasp the concept, especially when there may be unknown vocabulary in those sentences, and the sentences are essentially decontextualised anyway (with hindsight, I realise I could just have looked back at the text to see the sentence in context, but it didn’t occur to me at the time). The result of all this is that while I’m still trying to grasp the basic meaning of the sentence, the class has moved on to the controlled practice stage.

Practice is facilitated by the workbook. We are given parts of sentences, and sometimes have to complete a matching exercise to establish the semantics. Then the task is to write out the sentence including the language item we are practising. Except it isn’t, because every teacher asks us to speak our answers immediately. Now, I like to think I’m ok at grammatical manipulation, but when the presentation stage has left me with such a thin grasp of the concept, this seems rather unfair, and I wish for some time to sit down and figure out quietly just what is going on. A further grievance is that of the half-personalisation that forces you to start a sentence that you really don’t want to complete. To return to my previously published diary extract:

“There’s a horrible moment where as a personalization thing I have to create an example of the difference between Korean and English girls. I struggle for something inoffensive, fail and settle for a fat/thin distinction. The girl opposite me sighs.”

Again, I can remember more than one occasion where I have asked students to do an exercise first orally, and I’m sure I’ve set similar half-personalisation exercises too. In future I’m at least going to consider the difficulty and newness of an item while deciding how best it might be practised, and also give students the opportunity to change or completely rewrite practice sentences.

It’s after the controlled practice stage that the teaching process ends. Just like that. This is partly because there are three or four short grammar points to cover from each unit, and so we rush on to the next one in order to fit them all in. On reflection, I don’t think the grammar was that important to the course designer; it’s only there to facilitate understanding of the texts. Ironically, I have often not even noticed the grammar/chunk when reading the text and have instead just skipped over it. This might explain some of my lack of interest in the grammar we are being taught – it doesn’t have enough semantic or functional weight to be worth learning. Here, I think, I’ve come to the point. There is very little recognition that the language that we are being taught could or will ever be used to do anything, nor that production of a feature is in any way important for understanding it or incorporating it into my Korean. This is partly the fault of the book, but some blame must also lie with the teachers. All the things that I might associate with this kind of language work –  goals, planning time, feedback, contextualized examples – are missing. In short, there is no teaching.

It is no surprise, then, that I can’t think of a single discrete item that we were taught on the course that has subsequently appeared in my spoken Korean. However, I have found myself using several features that I encountered in reading and listening texts; features that I was previously dimly aware of. Perhaps this tells us that language acquisition is a gradual process of becoming aware, noticing and finally using. Maybe the production stage of a PPP lesson and its various equivalents are superfluous. Still, I would like to have been given the opportunity to find out; I feel strangely cheated by not getting the chance to experience a single lesson with a grammar focus and clear output goals, even though I don’t believe that’s a particularly effective way of teaching.

I want to finish with a note on my teachers, who I have been fairly critical of in this post. All of them seemed to me to be to be friendly, patient, enthusiastic and wholehearted people with excellent content knowledge, and I was very happy to be taught by them. I am very much unaware of the forces in operation outside the classroom such as time or institutional pressure. I’m also aware that I see the classroom very much through Western eyes and there are all kinds of lurking prejudices that colour my perceptions. Thus, I hope you read this post in the spirit of honest enquiry, and I will leave you with some questions to ponder.

  • Is teaching like this enjoyable for the teacher? (How) do they think they are helping the students?
  • How representative is my classroom of other language teaching contexts in Korea? I am thinking in particular of English taught in schools.
  • I know that two of these teachers have MAs in foreign language teaching. I presume that they must have come across communicative approaches, PPP and the like? What stops this filtering into their practice?
  • Am I just being unnecessarily critical here?



Links to to other posts about this Korean course


A(nother) beginner’s guide to English as a lingua franca!

A while ago while starting my MA dissertation I wrote a series of posts detailing my early incursions into the world of ELF (1, 2, 3, & 4). Now, I’m writing another one (sigh). But with good reason (yay)! I’m going to be presenting on ELF at the KOTESOL International Conference at Sookmyung Women’s University in Seoul, South Korea sometime on the 12th or 13th October.* If you’re in Korea, or even further afield, you should certainly come and watch.

I feel as if ELF still leaves people with a lot of unanswered questions, and so I’m taking the brave/foolish step of having the question and answer session right in the middle of the session, so there’s a lot of time and space to explore. Not wanting to be caught out too much, this post is a preview & practice run in which I answer eight of the questions I anticipate getting. It’s also a chance to solicit a few questions from people reading this (see later). In order to keep things short, I’ll try to keep my answers to 80 words or less.

What’s the difference between ELF and English as a native language (ENL)?

ENL is dependent on external norms and standardness for understanding, ELF, however, draws standards and norms from users language systems during each interaction. This means that ENL users try to conform to the linguistic traditions they have experienced since being born. ELF is more pragmatic, seeking only what is needed to communicate between the interlocutor language systems present. This can mean that ELF shows more lexico-grammatical flexibility and variability than ENL.

What would an ELF syllabus look like? 

The variability mentioned above means that a traditional syllabus sequenced by forms would be unlikely, especially those forms with little communicative value (eg third person -s). Collocations would also have a smaller role to play, as would idiomatic language. In the place of these, we’d expect more focus on pragmatic skills such as rephrasing and signalling misunderstanding. We might even expect to see a place for extra-linguistic communication. Drawing up a syllabus would be a tricky job.

Why is ELF necessary?

Great question! It may not be so much a case of necessity as inevitability. It’s claimed that there are more interactions in English featuring no native speakers than there are featuring native speakers. ENL then is increasingly becoming a very specific and rare end point for English learners, as well as being extremely difficult to reach. In Korea, we are much more likely preparing learners for ELF environments.

Do students want to learn ELF? 

In my experience students in Korea don’t really know about ELF. However, there’s certainly a desire to not continue to spend their educations slavishly following exact native speaker forms. The growth in confidence that I see over the course of my classes where grammatical accuracy is de-emphasized shows what can be achieved. I think that sociolinguistic education is necessary in English classes in Korea, if only to stop students apologising to me when they think they make a grammar mistake.

Isn’t this just encouraging low quality English?

This depends on your definition of quality. From a native speaker point of view this could be seen as deficient in terms of conformity to NS norms, but given that native speakers are generally not involved much in ELF, their point of view actually doesn’t matter too much. An ELF view takes communicative success as a quality measure, and research actually shows that it’s native speakers who have greater trouble in ELF or multilingual environments. 

Where does culture exist in ELF?

Clearly the conception of culture as being intrinsically linked to a native language cannot apply to ELF, as the native cultures and languages in any interaction will be different. Thus ELF becomes less about learning culture, and more about negotiating culture. Preparing students for ELF environments requires more focus on open-mindedness, curiosity and comity. This has fascinating but perhaps underdeveloped implications for language teaching.

What are the downsides? When might it not be appropriate?

There are downsides to ELF. Two relate to the end point of learning. For learners looking to integrate into native speaker communities completely it’s not relevant. The other significant area is for those preparing for proficiency tests which use an ENL model. I would argue that it is time for the tests to better reflect linguistic realities though. Finally, it could be seen as increasing the risk of fossilization, but again this depends on the desired end point of learning.

Do I need to think about it? I have so many other things to consider? 

Unhelpfully, this is something that you need to consider for yourself. Your learners are a good starting point. Mine are future engineers and scientists, and are likely to need English for very practical and pragmatic uses, rather than academic or poetic ones. If you’re in a similar position, the good news is that the change is more one of re-orientation than complete overhaul.

Thanks very much for reading this far. I hope you found that informative. If you found yourself with any further questions about ELF, I’d really love to hear them and answer them in a further blog post. Please do leave them as a comment below, or tweet them to me at @breathyvowel. The more obscure or uncomfortable the better!



* I will edit in the date and time when they are confirmed.

Reflections and Questions

The sharp-eyed, quick-witted and bushy-tailed amongst you will have noticed that this little corner of the blog-o-sphere(tm) has been rather quiet for the last few months. My MA dissertation, as dissertations are wont to do, ended up taking almost all of my spare time leaving none for blogging or, much more upsettingly, football. However, it is now done and handed in and a semblance of normality can return to my life and there’s time for some reflecting. In this post I’m going over last semester’s classes for anything that might help me with this one.

I have to say that last semester’s classes felt good to teach. The atmosphere was generally very pleasant, we had a lot of laughs, there was tonnes of enthusiasm on display and some very good conversations. Both informal and formal feedback was decent and I wouldn’t hesitate to call it my most successful semester ever. Before accusations of own-trumpet tooting start to fly, this success was born of the students more than anything I did. I had the pleasure of teaching three articulate, motivated and intelligent groups who really deserved the success that they achieved.

Nevertheless, there were some things that I tried to do or found myself doing that may have helped this atmosphere to develop. Taking my cue from the Willis & Willis realization of TBLT, I made doing things a priority, and generally eased back on preparation for doing those things, at least in the traditional sense of lexis and grammar. Where I did focus on language, it tended to be much more holistic (think dictogloss) than piecemeal. I managed to increase the amount of conversation a lot, mostly through a large amount of repetition, and this might be the most important difference between this semester and last. Given the Korean context, I tend to be wary of drilling as I assume that students have been drilled to death in school, but thinking about it as I write this it may well not be the case. From talking to my students they were lucky if they got to speak at all, especially post-elementary school. Also, better writers than I have pointed out that drilling does not necessarily have to be dull, so this might be something to work with a little more this semester. My repetition, however, tended to happen more on the task-level than the sentence level. This was helped by the seating plan: the horseshoe for ease of movement,  the onion/speed-dating for speaking tasks and lots and lots of jigsawing. I can’t stress how much of a difference it makes mixing students up and changing places and partners regularly. I also think getting students out from behind desks is important. It takes away a big barrier to movement and engagement, as well as removing a convenient shield for smartphones or anything else that students might get distracted by. I’ll definitely be continuing down this path, and would happily take suggestions for other innovative seating arrangements.

Another small change I made was to take a step back from students doing a task. This was partly born of the fact that I am unbelievably bad at monitoring activities (improving this is a PD project for this semester) but also the fact that students seemed to perform noticeably worse when they thought I was listening. I found that when I went and sat in the corner much more English got spoken.  This still means monitoring with your eyes for students off-task or needing help, but this is very different to standing over students who are already self-conscious about making mistakes. There are also other ways to elicit language for correction, such as having students record and transcribe their conversations which I tried at times, and would like to do more often. My problem is that while this is useful, it tends to be quickly forgotten and perhaps not worked on in later lessons. I wonder if anyone else does anything similar and how you go about working it?

The successes I talked about above tended to be in terms of confidence and willingness to carry out a conversation, which actually was what I set out to achieve with the class. My final speaking tests took the form of four way conversations and saw lots of co-operation, some strident opinions and even some jokes, all carried out in understandable English. I feel that this reflected the more holistic approach that I took really well. However, it does leave me wondering whether I could have done more on the discrete item learning side, but also wondering why I wonder that. Has the not-very-communicative approach that I learned GCSE* French through, and which I started out using in my own teaching when I didn’t know any better, still got it’s tendrils clinging on making me feel guilty for not doing gap-fill exercises on the past perfect? Why doesn’t helping students to have short, understandable and enjoyable conversations feel much like teaching? I think that perhaps the answer to this might lie in the fact that I didn’t feel as if I helped students to understand the language very much, which feels like an important part of my definition of what a teacher is. But there again, is it necessary to really understand language you use? How many of those “a-ha!” moments does anybody really get in the language classroom? All things that I want to consider this semester.

It is certainly necessary to have some discrete item teaching of some kind within my program, not least because it is mandated that 50% of the examination is in written form. This is an area where I have consistently failed over the course of my job. Writing a written exam that reflects the learning that I expect to have taken place on the course has so far mostly eluded me. Last semester’s attempt to write a task-based written exam was far too difficult. Other exams I struggle to write questions that really differentiate the students who can from the students who can’t. I think that the written exams need to test knowledge rather than skills, and so it’s a question of what this knowledge is.

Along with drilling, I tend to steer away from teaching grammar. Students don’t enjoy it, and generally have heard all the explanations before. I’m not really convinced that teaching it works anyway – I spent a whole lesson practicing modal verbs of probability last semester, only to set students a sleuthing task, and have them not use a single one, even when I offered bonus points. I sat down at the end of the activity and we talked about why they didn’t use them, and the students kindly and patiently explained that it simply never crossed their minds, and that if they weren’t sure of something they would just use “maybe”. Seemed fair enough to me.  So if not grammar, then what? I think lexical chunks and formulaic language might be the answer. It’s easily testable, and could probably be tied into a pragmatic skills framework. I’m talking about things like “Could you repeat that?”. Again, if anyone has any suggestions or activities for this kind of thing I’d be really glad to hear it.

I’m going to tie this post up here now as it’s getting long. In conclusion, I do want to try to develop a similar atmosphere and approach to last semester classes in this semester’s classes, but with a little more work on drilling, lexical chunks and pragmatic skills. Looking at it now, these dovetail quite well (introduce chunk, drill, use throughout class, examine). Hopefully this will not only make setting exams easier, it should push the students on to greater conversational heights too.



* GSCEs are national exams taken by 16 year olds in England (and possibly the rest of the UK but I’m not totally sure) in a range of subjects.

What does (an) ELF look like?

This post is essentially part two of my beginner’s guide to ELF. The beginner referred to here may be someone with a newly minted interest in the field, but also refers to me as someone just dipping their toes into the cool pond of ELF. If you’re in a position of expertise, please feel free to correct me on any of my half-baked ideas.

In the previous post I talked of the difficulty of defining ELF as a concept. Any degree of conceptualization requires a commensurate degree of reduction, and it is this reduction that robs ELF of the plurality, variation and contextuality that characterizes it in practice. Cogo & Dewey (2006) make a claim for the E of ELF to be interpreted as Englishes, rather than just English (and you thought the title was an elf joke, shame on you). Nevertheless, in this post  I’m going to try to define what an ELF, or some elves (OK that was an elf joke, with a hat tip to @languagebubble), might look like in the areas of phonology, pragmatics and lexico-grammar.


The earliest serious attempt at identifying and codifying features of ELF communication was Jenkins’s (2000) The Phonology of English as an International Language. A self-confessedly prescriptive document, it attempted to outline the most important phonological features of English for intelligibility in international contexts, and recommended that these be taught first. It’s my feeling that it is misreadings of this book contribute to the “plot” view of ELF that I talked about last time. In fact, Jenkins only recommended that these features should be taught first, rather than exclusively, in order to make a more efficient use of limited time. However, given the boldness of her claims, including that the /θ/ & /ð/ (th) sounds made no difference to intelligibility, it’s not surprising that they drew some criticism. Jenkins’ other recommendations included not teaching allophones of /l/, fully aspirating fortis (unvoiced) consonants all the time, and where necessary even adding consonant sounds where confusion may arise. All of these are quite radical alterations to a NS model.

While she considered “teachability” of features in the core, most of Jenkins’ empirical data came from intelligibility studies, and her suggestions are based on  making speakers maximally intelligible to other L2 speakers of English. Perhaps the key theory in her work is that of accommodation, and she found that students would vary their pronunciation towards NS norms in order to aid intelligibility of their speech to a speaker of a different L1. In a dyad with a speaker of the same or similar L1, less variation of this kind was observed. This then is the defining feature of ELF – instead of orienting to norms, it orients to people. Therefore rather than examining the phonemes that speakers produce in terms of whether it meets an externally imposed standard, ELF research examines them in terms of the contribution they make to situational meaning making.


Accommodation, in terms of aligning oneself with one’s interlocutor, also features heavily in the study of ELF pragmatics.  In general speakers will orient towards each other’s language, in a type of accommodation often known as convergence.  Studies such as Cogo & Dewey (2006) show one way in which this happens is through repetition. Chunks of language will be repeated, along with their variations. One Chinese speaker who generally uses a third person ‘s’ repeats a chunk including a third person ‘0’, seemingly in order to positively align her speech with her interlocutor’s.

ELF conversations seem to contain a high degree of mutual co-operation, using other pragmatic strategies such as utterance completions and latching (one utterance following directly on from another). While these are demonstrably features of ELF communication, what this study fails to do is demonstrate that this is significantly different to what NSs do. It reminds me of studies of gender differences in styles of talk, in which women were shown to be far more co-operative communicators, as evidenced by the same kinds of features mentioned above (see Coates 1993: 135-139 for a review of these).

Where ELF does certainly does differ is in it’s greater acceptance of pluralingualism and pluraculturalism. Again, this is shown in Cogo and Dewey’s study, where speakers of different L1s shared idioms from their own first languages when they found the English adjective “cheesy” didn’t communicate the exact meaning that they required. Idiom works differently in ELF seemingly, as it is unbound from culture. This allows for a much greater use of invention and adaptation in use of idiom, as well as the use of L1 culturally bound idioms in English.  I suspect, however, that this kind of communication happens more between European ELF speakers whose L1s are more similar than ELF speakers in Asia, as the L1 terms in the example above were “fleur bleue” from French and “kitchig” from German. Both of these are intelligible to me as an English speaker with little knowledge of French or German.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the exchange described above, is the way that “fleur bleue” is introduced into the conversation. The speaker alerts his audience to the fact that there is a potential for misunderstanding approaching by saying “We say….”. This again shows the interlocutor orientation of ELF and may also lead to the fact that most studies find very little evidence of misunderstanding in ELF (eg Mauranen 2006).


The final area that ELF research tends to look at is that of lexico-grammar. Cogo and Dewey (yep, them again) make the point that this is still strongly linked to pragmatics and accommodation, as in the example above where a variation such as using a zero article is repeated by a speaker who would ordinarily use an article. Nevertheless, there would seem to be some fairly systematic features common to most ELFs. The classic hypothesis of ELF variants was proposed by Seidlhofer (2004):

  • Use of 3rd person zero form (not adding an s)
  • Use of which as a relative pronoun to describe people.
  • Article deletion or insertion
  • Fixed or “ungrammatical” (by NS standards) question tags
  • Innovative verb-pronoun collocation
  • Higher frequency of semantically general verbs (take, have)
  • Preference for the infinitive over the gerund form
  • Explicitness (“black colour” as opposed to just “black”)

These tend to be the areas in which research is concentrated. However, it’s important to note that the above is in no way a grammatical core for ELF. Firstly, while the above all feature, they usually feature alongside the NS standard variant (see Breiteneder 2009). Secondly, the focus of ELF study tends to be more about how ELF communicators make use of the linguistic resources available to them in the process of building a discourse. For instance, Jenkins (2011:21) points to the greater use of progressive forms in ELF as a way of drawing attention to a past point in time, possibly to make the structure of the discourse clearer. In other words, it’s not so much the feature themselves that are of interest, but the reasons for using them. In this way lexico-grammatical studies in ELF are often really pragmatic studies anyway.

The great question then is whether the features and variants mentioned above are really part of a linguistic system or whether they are “errors”. Given ELF’s critical stance towards NS models of English, but the lack of an ELF model in its stead, it’s hard to label anything as an error with reference to any standard. Nevertheless, there is little doubt in my mind that sometimes variations stem from a lack of language control; performance problems if you will, and these should not be counted in ELF data. Dewey (2007) suggest four criteria for ELF variants:

  • They must be systematic (according to corpus studies)
  • Occur frequently and with speakers of different linguacultural backgrounds.
  • They are communicatively effective (perhaps more so than an equivalent NS from)
  • Considered a variant, not an error, when contrasted with an ENL form (but no mention of who is doing the considering).

If non-standard forms meet these standards, rather than being seen as errors, or deficient, they become what Cogo & Dewey would see as “innovative forms”.


While the variations above are in some ways systematic, they are often bound by geographical context and different speakers. The call for plurality in ELF is no doubt driven by the fact that research in ELF is very much concentrated in two different fields: Europe and Asia, and evidence suggests that  the kinds of English used in these areas are quite distinct. I believe this makes it unlikely that an ELF core could ever be produced; I also think that such a core would go somewhat against the kind of principles that ELF research tends to espouse.

This comes back to the point I made in my previous piece, that in dealing with a phenomenon as unprecedented as ELF, traditional frameworks and nomenclature may not be sufficient for the needs of ELF researchers or English teachers. What the above should show though, is that there is a collection of somethings that we can refer to as ELF communication, and that it may be a good idea to prepare our students for this kind of communication. In next week’s post, I will try to examine some of the ways that we as teachers can do this.




Breiteneder, A. (2009). English as a lingua franca in Europe: An empirical perspective. World Englishes, 28.2, 256–269.

Coates, J. (1993). Women, men, and language: A sociolinguistic account of gender differences in language.

Cogo, A., & Dewey, M. (2006). Efficiency in ELF communication: from pragmatic motives to lexico-grammatical innovation. Nordic Journal of English Studies5.2, 59-93.

Dewey, M. (2007). English as a lingua franca: An empirical study of innovation in lexis and grammar. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, King’s College London.

Jenkins, J. (2000). The phonology of English as an international language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jenkins, J., Cogo, A., & Dewey, M. (2011). Review of Developments in Research into English as a Lingua Franca. Language Teaching44.3, 281-315.

Mauranen, A. (2006). Signalling and preventingmisunderstanding in ELF communication. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 177, 123–150.

Seidlhofer, B. (2004). Research perspectives on teaching English as a Lingua Franca. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 24, 209–239.

Ambitions: A Lesson Plan/Review (Part 2)

“I never use doors no mores. I never use stairs, just trees.”

This is the second part of my lesson plan to help students come up with, develop plans for, and talk about their ambitions. I wrote about the first half of the plan here, which looked at an expert speaker performing the task* and then asked students to break down both his language and thinking about ambitions, and begin to think about their own. This lesson looks at developing those ideas further into real plans.

Questions for planning

We had a lot to get through, so we started without warmer, and got straight down to reminding ourselves about what Samir from Sweden had said yesterday about his ambitions (giving the students a fourth exposure to the listening). Together we made a brief list of his six ambitions on the board, and then worked on some questions to help Samir achieve his plan to travel the world (“Where do you want to go?”, “How will you afford it?”). This was done with a bit of prompting from me (it may help to write question words on the board at this stage). Once we had four or five good questions on the board to serve as models, I divided the class into 5 groups to work on questions to help Samir develop his other ambitions.

Once this was completed I played the role of Samir and had the groups ask their questions. This was done with a fairly loose instruction to students to note down any language that I used that they thought might be useful for them. It strikes me here that to reinforce this, I could get students to rehearse what I’d said to each other in order to try to fix the language a little more, but I didn’t actually do this in the lesson.

The final stage of the lesson was the one where I cast the students loose and let them try to develop each other’s ambitions. Students found someone that they wanted to talk to, and they told each other their  ambitions from the other lesson. The other party then tried to ask questions in order to help that person develop a clear plan for achieving that ambition. After each ambition we changed partners in order to get some different ideas and listen to some different voices and communication styles.

After this, I wanted (well actually I didn’t want, I had) to assess students. I did this through a Kakao Talk speaking assignment (hat-tip @languagebubble). Students had to record a one minute voice note detailing two ambitions, and another talking about their plans to achieve them. This being a vaguely task-based assignment, the focus of the assessment was on how realistic and detailed the ambition and how practical the plans to achieve them.

In the end I didn’t have time to do the reflective part of the lesson, but I would very much like to have done. I think that the tendency of my learners is to do the tasks using whatever language that they have, and not to push themselves to learn anything new. Thus, I hoped to tie back in to the future language by asking learners to write a short piece detailing whether they had used the future forms, and if not, why not? As I said, we didn’t have time to do this, and I feel it may be slightly unfair to ask students to wrote this kind of thing in English. However, I am really interested in self-assessment and would like to know more about how it could be incorporated in class if anyone out there is into it.

And that is the end of my ambitions lesson. I hope you enjoyed it, and if you think it might be doable in your classroom please feel free to use it. If you do, I’d love to hear about how it went, and if there are any improvements you made. I’m sure many are necessary!



* The reference to tasks here is deliberate. While this lesson is not strictly task-based, it is at least inspired by my readings about task-based learning.

Ambitions: A Lesson Plan/Review (Part 1)


This being a family blog, you”ll have to imagine a youtube vide embedded above around the theme of “naked ambition”.

I started this blog as a space to share the lesson plans that I was making for my high school classes. Since moving to university I’ve stopped making (shareable) lesson plans as the course is taught from a book. However, having got a bit frustrated with the materials on offer over the past few weeks, I felt like having a go myself again. The following lesson plan was what I came up with – please excuse any rough edges – I’m a bit out of practice.

The previous lesson we’d done some quite heavily language focused work on “going to…”, “hope to…”, “maybe…” and definite and indefinite times for plans. The problem with the book (I feel), is that it doesn’t give sufficient practice opportunities, especially for students whose productive skills are much lower than their receptive ones. I also think that many coursebooks have a tendency to just throw in a listening or reading, but then do nothing with the text except check comprehension. Seems like a wasted opportunity to me. Also, the final activity in the previous lesson was to talk about ambitions. This fell completely flat not because the students lacked the language, but because they lacked ambitions! Direct action was needed!


Some people aren’t the biggest fans, and I don’t always use them, but a class just after dinner time needs to move about a bit I feel, otherwise they all try to go to sleep. We started the lesson with a quick guessing game – make two plans, one certain and one uncertain, and write the times that you will do them ONLY on a piece of paper (ie. you will have “in 2 hours” and “sooner or later” written down). Students then mingle and have to guess each other’s plans. Encourage them to use “Are you going to…” and “Do you plan to…”.


I took the listening material from ELLLO.org. A quick search for ambitions turned up Samir from Sweden talking about some of his life goals. This turned out to be a really good text to use, because it has a nice easy to follow structure, and Samir’s speech is not too complex or quick, but his (slight) Swedish accent provides an interesting extra problem. It’s also not too rehearsed, which means that there are some false starts in there, and it doesn’t conform strictly to the rules of written grammar.

I confess to not having much of an activation stage. I just told the students they were going to hear a young guy from Sweden talking about his ambitions. I guess that we could have done some predicting here, but we didn’t, and I don’t think it made a whole lot of difference. Anyway, the first task was simple. Listen to the recording, and write down his six ambitions, then share and compare with your partner. I largely stayed out of discussions at this point, unless specifically asked to help. Students largely got most of the ambitions anyway.

I’m a big believer in multiple listenings (actually I think doing many things multiple times is a good idea), and so I set a second task, which was to listen again, and this time make notes in more detail about 3 of the ambitions, and then try to tell your partner about them using language as close to the original as possible. Sort of like a dictogloss but no quite so accuracy focused. I then threw in one further listening with the tapescript, and asked students to reflect on where their retellings had differed with their partner. At this stage I patrolled a bit more threateningly (not really) to try and pick out any misunderstandings as teaching points. The major problem seemed to be ‘exotic’, so we did some board work about what countries might be exotic (consensus, hot and weird ones!).

Tapescript for Ambitions Lesson

Thinking and Speaking

I then wanted students to do a bit more thinking, so in pairs I had them discuss what kind of categories we might be able to place the ambitions in. We worked through the first ambition together as an example (everyone was pretty unanimous on “travel”) and then they set out to categorize the others. You may need to encourage students to be specific, one group of mine had a few too many wafty categories like “experience” and “leisure”. However, the same group, with a little prompting, came up with “self-improvement” which I thought was pretty cool. I then asked them to think individually about what categories of ambition were most important to them, and rank them from most to least.

Then, of course, it was time to actually come up with ambitions in the most important categories. As a bit extra speaking practice, I had students write the top four categories on a sheet of paper, and then mingle again. When they met someone they wanted to talk to, they would ask the student about each ambition, and write down what they said on that student’s sheet.

This took us about an hour and fifteen minutes to do, and seemed to go pretty well. The students did a lot of speaking, seemed to be fairly interested and looked at a text in depth. There was also a nice diversion about native and non-native speech, and whether something Samir said was grammatically correct (answer, no it isn’t written grammar, but it is something I say all the time). There is a part two to this lesson, coming soon, in which we develop the ideas a little and conduct a final speaking assessment. Until then, if you have any comments, suggestions, questions or that sort of stuff, leave me a note below.



Lesson Plan: 6 Word Stories 2!

Writing Letters

The desired effect – photo by SPangborn on Flickr.

This is an added post to my original 6 word stories lesson plan, which is by far the most popular post on this blog. The lesson was such a  success, and is such a brilliant low-prep activity, that I repeated when time and motivation were in short supply towards the end of last semester. It’s designed for large Korean school classes, but with a little adaptation would be suitable for any context.

Here’s the Powerpoint I made for the activity:

And here’s the downloadable file:

6 Word Stories 2

The instructions are very simple:

  • Run through the instructions and the examples on the Powerpoint.
  • Show students picture number 1. You could brainstorm vocabulary at this point, or just feed it in as they write. Give the students a set amount of time to create a story using exactly six words.
  • As students finish stories, have them type them into the writeable area on the slide following the big picture.
  • Students vote for the story they like best (not their own). For each vote, the story gains one point.
  • When voting is finished, students can then try to correct mistakes in each other’s stories. If they find a mistake and correct it, they steal a point from the writer and add it to their own score. You can encourage them to look at spelling, grammar, word choice etc, but also to the choice of tense, which always makes for a nice talking point. Plurals and article use is usually a hot topic of debate too.
  • The student or group with the most points at the end is the winner.

Simple really.