Posts Tagged ‘nagging questions’

A lot of posts on this blog are listening lessons and worksheets. In this post I wanted to share a story that is related to listening, but doesn’t involve teaching any decoding skills, or actually any language teaching at all.

A while ago I was teaching an A2 group of IT professionals. One of the learners had just joined a project with a British customer, and the customer was visiting the office, giving several hours’ worth of presentations every day. We’d done a couple of lessons on authentic listening with that group, but of course the task of following several hours of presentations every day would be exceptionally challenging at A2 level and I seriously doubted that the learner would cope.

At one point I met him in the corridor and asked how he was doing. He beamed and said, ‘Thanks! It worked!’ At first I was at a complete loss what he meant, but then I remembered that I’d met him a couple of days before and he’d complained that he was getting extremely tired in those meetings and couldn’t follow at all after about 30 minutes. This was only to be expected of course, but I thought of some finger fitness exercises that I had used in order to relax while I was preparing for my Delta exam, and so I showed them to my learner on the off chance that they would help.

And apparently they did help. Actually, it’s pretty obvious that for that learner the 2 minutes that he spent learning those exercises were a lot more useful than the two 90-minute lessons on authentic listening that he’d had, and I don’t quite know what to make of this fact. I’ve taught a few courses devoted exclusively to listening, and among all the decoding and meaning-building work it had never occurred to me to teach my learners anything of the sort, although I know that a lot of them have to listen in on long meetings and that they must get extremely tired. It’s almost like, no matter how principled the approach and how comprehensive the syllabus, there will always be a gaping hole in it which I might only notice by chance. Also, one of the reasons I avoid showing these finger fitness exercises to my learners is that I fear to be thought a complete freak. I guess at least this problem is now solved, as next time I teach a group, I could simply tell them this story and let them decide for themselves if they’d like to try out ‘the freaky finger yoga’ or not..


Catherine Walter started off the second day of E-merging Forum 5 with a plenary reviewing current approaches to teaching grammar and how their efficiency is corroborated by experiments. I’m very interested in this topic, particularly in the overview of evidence, so I was really looking forward to this talk.


  • How to teach grammar? Overview of approaches
  • Why this way and not that way? Overview of evidence
  • When – before or after the task? Who chooses what to teach – the teacher beforehand or should we react to the learner’s need?
  • How much explicit grammar teaching?
  • How to teach x2: what is ‘a good rule‘? A good example? A good exercise? In what order should they appear?
  • The role of pronunciation

NB The ideas on teaching grammar outlined here are based on research applicable to middle school and above learners – not YLs.

Catherine Walter started the talk with a quiz for the audience. Grammar: True or false?

  • If people learn enough vocab, they’ll acquire the grammar of the language
  • The best way to teach grammar is to wait unteel the need for a specific grammar point emerges, and then teach it
  • The best way to teach grammar is via tasks
  • There is evidence that teaching grammar rules works

For a quick overview of the answers and the talk, here the final slide. For more detail, read on.

Catherine Walter

How to teach? Overview of approaches:

Explicit (through rules) or implicit (through exposure, examples, etc)? How to provide practice?

  • Exposure. Necessary? Sufficient?
    Just exposure is insufficient, which was clearly demonstrated by Canadian immersion programmes who were trying Krashen’s idea that comprehensible input is enough: after 12 years of all-day-long immersion the students’ spoken and written production was still non-standard.
  • Explicit teaching. Input-interaction-output model says conscious knowledge is useful – ‘crutches’ that hold you until you can walk w/o the crutches – which sounds Vygotskian!
    >>> Explicit teaching helps noticing: Example: if your L1 has only one word for ‘yes’ and L2 has more, you might not notice that. But if someone tells you about this, you’ll notice;
    >>> encourages comparison of noticed input with the learner’s output, can convert directly into unconscious knowledge and
    >>> can provide negative feedback, i.e. the knowledge of what doesn’t happen in the language (which is more difficult to get from input)
  • Tasks. When tasks appeared, they were seen as a panacea. But now it’s not clear how well they work so that’s definitely not ‘the obviously best way’. Explicit grammar instruction can be (and should be) part of task-based instruction.
  • Skills approach: the behaviourism is re-emerging in a way: we do need to practice to build our skills.

Why? Overview of the evidence

Is there any evidence that explicit grammar teaching works?

Norris & Ortega review (2000) found that explicit teaching is better than implicit

Gass & Selinker (2008) review: after early childhood, acquiring complex forms requires both meaningful input and explicit grammar focus

Spada & Tomita (2010): explicit better than implicit on simple & complex features, effects last

A possible counter-argument: if you teach them grammar rules, do they only learn grammar rules?

Spada & Lightbown (2008): form-focused input leads to conscious and unconscious knowledge over time

When to teach what?

Two options: first teach then give a task, or feed in grammar exactly when the learners needs it.
Problem with the second approach #1: different people in class will have different needs.
Problem #2: you won’t be able to always think on your feed to respond to the needs.
Relax: Spada & Tomita (2010) found that it doesn’t matter, Both isolated and integrated form-focused instruction lead to conscious and unconscious grammar knowledge; no clear advantage for either kind of form-focuses input.

How much explicit grammar teaching?

Catherine recommends checking out Paul Nation’s (2009) work. The four strands of language instruction, which according to Nation need equal time:

  • Meaning-focused input
  • Meaning-focused output
  • Language-focused learning (rules/pron/how writing works/..)
  • Fluency development (activities tat help you get faster and more automatic – activities might be quite artificial, like scales in learning to play a musical instrument).

So according to Nation, and Catherine Walter agrees, Language-focused learning (rules/pron/how writing works/..) takes up one fourth of the course.

How to teach x2. The three Es

  • Explanations (rules). However: there are different kinds of rules.
    g. ‘No cycles, whether ridden or not!’ is imposed by an authority
    ‘At sea level water boils at 100 Celsius.’ – an expression of an observed regularity.
    very often s/s think that language rules are bicycle rules, but they are boiling water rules
  • Examples
  • Exercises

The order of the 3 Es

  • Deductive: explanations > examples > exercises
  • Inductive: examples > guiding the s/s towards the rule (explanations) > exercises; useful to demonstrate to s/s that our rules are ‘boiling water’ rules + more appealing to the s/s who don’t like authority + means that they cognitively process the rule more deeply, so they might remember it better

What is ‘a good rule’? According to Swan (‘Design criteria for pedagogical rules’) a good rule should

  • be true (not like ‘The past tense refers to a DEFINITE time in the past – what about ‘Once upon a time?’)
  • clearly what are the limits on the use (a pika is a smal rodent with small ears – this definition doesn’t differentiate the pika from the mouse; ‘The present perfect continuous tense is used for an action which began in the past and is still continuing, or has only just finished – does not demarcate. ‘I’m speaking to you’ fits that ‘rule’)
  • be clear and simple without sacrificing the truth
  • (preferably) only uses the knowledge that the learners currently have (e.g. for the first teaching of ‘much and many’ – can we not use ‘countable and uncontable’?
  • be relevant: should answer the question that the learner is ‘asking’
    My sister Marie-France is hairdresser. She works in Lyon.
    My sister Olga is hairdresser. She works in Volgograd.
    The two learners who produced that have very different L1s and so they will need completely different rules here!

A good example:

  • Needs to be prototypical
  • Natural sounding & not containing irrelevant difficulties (inspired by corpora, but not necessarily from a corpus – might contain too difficult vocabulary, cultural references etc) – The oxen are stepping on my feed is not a good example =)

How many examples:

Just one-two not enough: Goldilocks principle (not too big, not too small, just right


  • Nothing wrong with exercises! Our concentration capacity is limited (which is exemplified e.g. by the fact that mobile phone use has overtaken alcohol as the biggest cause of accidents in the UK), exercises let one focus. Also, they develop fluency + there’s evidence that focusing on one or two language features is better than focusing on a range of language features.
  • A good exercise combines quality and quality to ensure deep cognitive processing (a communicative ‘have you ever’ might look like a drill but not be a drill in terms of processing)

Productive and receptive pronunciation

  • Grammar teaching should go hand in hand with teaching receptive pronunciation, because some grammar points are very difficult to hear
  • Examples of grammar points that are difficult to distinguish: Regular present simple and regular past simple (She walk to school / She walks to school);
    questions: Do you work on Sat / Did you work on Sat, etc
  • How to teach receptive pronunciation?
    Decoding activities: A or B? Same or different? Odd one out (walks, walked, walks, walks); Write the word; how many words? Sentence dictation

Back to the quiz

  • If people learn enough vocab, they’ll acquire the grammar of the language
    Yes, but they’d need to learn a huge amount of lexis and they’ll never learn enough vocabulary.
  • The best way to teach grammar is to wait until the need for a specific grammar point emerges, and then teach it
    Probably true.. but this isn’t possible in most instructed language
  • The best way to teach grammar is via tasks
  • There is evidence that teaching grammar rules works


All in all, this was a very enjoyable, informative talk and I’ll definitely be digging up some of the articles that Catherine Walter mentioned. 

Two days ago I attempted to teach my Elementary Business English students to produce extended monologues listing advantages and disadvantages, using linking devices that are considered to be ‘B1’ or even higher in typical Speaking exam marking criteria.

This is my first attempt to write a lesson from scratch at this level and it would be great if someone had a look at this – any suggestions/criticism is highly welcome. It worked well with my group, but that group was quite small and I was able to address any problems straight away, so I’m not sure what pitfalls I might still be overlooking. Also, there are some ‘nagging questions’ at the end of this post concerning adapting the course to an individual company setting – I hope to hear what other people think.

Level: elementary (my students are more like ‘low elementary’ although, as they read technical documentation, their vocabulary, especially passive vocabulary, is better than their control of grammar and their skills.)
Context: Business English (in-company, an IT company)
Time: 90 minutes
Materials:  or worksheet.pdf; it’s nice, although not essential, to have a projector connected to a laptop for the text analysis task (stage G)
Procedure: the essential stages are stages E, F, I, J, K and M, in which the students familiarize themselves with the model, look for the target language in the text, organize it, practice using it under fully controlled conditions, revise it again and then use it to produce their own monologues. Stages B, C and D pre-teach vocabulary. Stages G, H and L focus on accuracy.

A Which opinion do you agree with?
just ‘a show of hands’?

I prefer working from home.

I prefer working from home.

I prefer working in the office.

I prefer working in the office.

B Some of these sentences are about working from home and some are about working in the office. Fill the gaps.

Procedure: in a mixed ability group, allow weaker students to look at C straight away; stronger students should cover the verbs

  1. When you work from home, you _________ all the time, even at night.
  2. You _________ in social and professional isolation.
  3. You _________ money on transport.
  4. You _________ less time commuting.
  5. When something _________ wrong, you can’t ask other people to help.
  6. You _________ more time for your family.
  7. If your computer _________ down, your company doesn’t give you a new one.
  8. You _________ learn from your team.
  9. You can _________ what to do.
  10. Offices _________ extremely noisy and I just can’t _________  there.
  11. My family _________ that I’m working and _________ me all the time.

C Did you use some of these verbs?

are x2
not understand

D Look at the sentences from B again. What happens when you work from home? What happens when you work in the office? Sort them. 


E Does Olya prefer working from home or working in the office?
How many pluses of working from home does she give? How many minuses? Underline them.

meI’m a teacher I prefer teaching face-to-face for three reasons.

First of all, I work better in the company of other people. Another upside, for me, is that I actually enjoy going to and from work because I come up with a lot of ideas on my way to work. Besides, I don’t really enjoy giving lessons online because it’s very difficult to share materials on the Internet.

Of course, working ‘offline’ has its disadvantages. The main minus is that getting to and from work takes a lot of time. Also, I have to carry lots of books around.

But as I said, I think that the pluses outweigh the minuses.

F Which of these words can you see in the text? Underline them. Some of them mean ‘plus’ and some of them mean ‘minus’. Sort them:

upside                               downside                               advantage                               disadvantage

Plus: _______________, _______________
Minus:  _______________, _______________

G English sentences have a subject and a verb.
For example:
subjects verbs

Find subjects and verbs in the text.
Then complete the rule:

When we use a verbs as a subject, we use verb+ing /the dictionary form of the verb
Example from the text #1: ________________________________
Example from the text #2: ________________________________
After prefer and enjoy, we use verb+ing/the dictionary form of the verb
Example from the text #1: ________________________________
Example from the text #2: ________________________________

Procedure: during the feedback stage, I projected the text and highlighted the subjects and verbs. The result looked like this:


Also, this table was added to the document shared via dropbox where I write up everything we study with this group, and part of the homework was to repeat this task at home.

H Find mistakes in these sentences.

  1. I think that working from home it’s more efficient.
  2. For me, the main disadvantage of travelling abroad you don’t know the language.
  3. First of all, go to and from work takes time. Besides, it’s expensive.
  4. Another plus, I like talking with my team.
  5. Another plus – is that I feel more comfortable at home because it less noisy than the office.
  6. I enjoy work with other people because we share our ideas.

Procedure: again, I used a word document during the feedback stage and the students will be repeating this task at home.

I What expressions in the text make it logical?  Find them and put them on this mind map:
Talking about advantages and disadvantages_2

Procedure: students should come up with this; model on the second paragraph first; after the students have finished, elicit the map, board it and model pronunciation.

Talking about advantages and disadvantages

J Look at the mind map and retell the text.

Procedure:  first model with a stronger student, then pair the students up.

K Write the expressions again from memory:

Talking about advantages and disadvantages_2Procedure:  allow the students who are stuck to look the expressions up again in the text (not in their mind maps). 

L Find mistakes in these sentences.
a. I think the pluses of working from home outweight the minuses.
b. At first, working with new technologies is more risky. Also, it’s a lot more difficult.
c. I think that working from home is better than working in the office from the following reasons.

M Over to you: do you prefer working in the office or working from home? Plan your monologue. Tell the class.

Procedure: I did this as a whole class activity but my group is quite small.

Reflection. This lesson was quite different from the lessons I’d had before with this group. There was a lot more language analysis and a lot less ‘talking’ (even the monologues at the end didn’t serve any communicative purpose, really!) However, after they produced their own monologues at the end (they used both the reasons given in exercises B and their own reasons), I told the students that, apart from their speech speed, they sounded intermediate – and I meant it. I do think that this experience of talking at length will be quite motivating for them.

I think this was the first time I showed the students complex sentences (although we did a short focus on relative clauses in the previous lesson). Analyzing that text to find subjects and verbs had possibly been the most cognitively challenging task in that course so far. I think that this task might have contributed to their appreciation of English sentence structure (Russian doesn’t have catenative ‘be’ and they still drop it a lot when left to their own devices).

The motivation behind teaching this sort of monologue came from my own experience as a language learner. I wrote about this already in this post  (scroll down to the wordle if you’d like to have a look), but basically what happened was I just tried to speak to my teacher in German, switching to English whenever I was lacking an expression and she wrote the German equivalents of the expressions I needed in a shared file. A while ago I analyzed the language that came up during my first ever attempt to have a proper conversation in German (my receptive skills were around B1 at that point) and I noticed that some types of language featured prominently: there were a lot of sentence adverbs (unfortunately/ luckily/mostly / also / at least) and language for evaluation (it was ok/worst of all was that../it was terrible/ it was challenging). So now I want to come up with ways to teach such language as early as possible in the course to enable the student to string basic vocabulary into complex ideas.

The questions I’ll have to think about:

  • Would this procedure work with a bigger group where I wouldn’t be able to provide as much on-the-spot correction?
  • Should I have chosen a different set of linking expressions here, e.g. should I have picked a longer but more versatile ‘another reason why I prefer sth’ instead of ‘another upside’?
  • What other ‘frameworks’/speaking subskills to teach/prioritize? How to choose the potential mistakes to focus on? (the ones I used in stage H came from another group’s writing on a similar topic) How to predict what language needs to be pre-taught, especially in a Business English course targeted to a specific line of business? (right now I simply assign a task to a higher level group working in the same company, note down what language comes up, then feed that language to the ‘starters’)
  • Should I actually ask my students to brainstorm reasons between classes in Russian and then preteach that vocabulary? If yes, how to scaffold that – I tried once, they just ignored the task.
  • Am I re-inventing the wheel here? It took lots of time to come up with this material – doest the fact that I need to write that myself mean that I am misusing BE coursebooks?
  • My students need to take part meetings reporting on their progress, stoppers and future plans, write emails along the same lines etc for work. Should we really be discussing the relative benefits and disadvantages of working from home?
  • If not, how do I manage to produce materials without spending 5 hours preparing for each individual lesson, if they need that much scaffolding and language input?


Probably, to be continued. 🙂

This is the first post in series of two posts in which I review my current understanding of how grammar is mastered. In this post I’ll overview some research on grammar acquisition and in the second one I’ll give a concrete example of how some of these ideas prompted me to tweak the way I teach a particular grammar topic (the patterns used with ‘I wish’). To summarize these changes, I have

  • stepped away from the ‘pure’ PPP lesson shape with its initial ‘presentation’ stage
  • modified some of the practice activities in order to change the way the structure is retrieved from memory

What do we mean when we say ‘mastering grammar’?

  • Probably everyone who’s involved in language teaching knows the term ‘interlanguage‘. The idea is that a learner has an ‘interim’ version of the target language that’s being developed to approximate the target. I got deeper insight into the concept of inter-language having read about two types of memory/processing operating in our brain:
    general principles
    Grammatical processing belongs to the so-called implicit knowledge and operates automatically, mostly without recourse to attention, unless the person stops before formulating the utterance and rehearses it in their short-memory. This means that the students do not have access to ‘grammar rules’ while they’re speaking spontaneously. Instead, they use so-called ‘routines’ for grammatical processing, and these routines might not correspond to the rules they know.
  • It has been said that we learn the language in the same way as any other skill: awareness raising -> massed practice -> automatization and that thus Skill learning theory justifies the PPP lesson shape (Dornyei, 2009). However, I personally have found the PPP lesson shape somewhat problematic. The way I see it, the devil lies in the detail – in other words, what happens during the first two stages of PPP might fall through if they do not in fact correspond to the stages outlined by the skill learning theory.
  • The first P (‘presentation’). I’ve been experimenting with my own language learning (learning German) and intuitively I’d say that if the lesson starts with straightforward ‘presentation’ and goes on to controlled practice in which s/s practice applying the rule (whether given explicitly or induced by the s/s from input), this encourages them to start constructing a new routine, completely unrelated to the one that is currently stored in their interlanguage. ‘Eliciting’ the rule does not save the situation here, because when we elicit the rule, the students retrieve explicit knowledge of the rule, and the ‘meta-thinking’ involved does not kick in the routines the students use subconsciously. Also, even in the realm of explicit knowledge some confusion is still possible. One of my students once told me that questions in present simple are formed with ‘do/does’, only to go on and write a few questions for a partner with no auxiliary whatsoever. When I asked the guy why he was not applying the rule, he told me that he was using a different structure. Over time I got convinced that rules should be presented after production has taken place so that the students are
    1. encouraged to connect the new explicit knowledge to the knowledge they’ve already got
    2. have a chance to ‘review’ and modify the routines they are currently using (of course, ‘reviewing’ an automatic routine sounds oxymoronic 🙂 but what I mean is that the s/s will learn to monitor the right routine and ‘weaken’ connections in the brain through self-correction. See also the article by Nick Ellis in Sanz, C. and Leuw, R. ed (2011).
    I like the term ‘noticing the gap’ that Scott Thornbury uses in his books and in fact nowadays, when I’m planning my lessons, I think of the first stage not so much as a ‘presentation’ stage as a ‘noticing the gap and learning to deal with it/getting the crutches’ stage.
  • I tend to think now that it’s ok to give the students ‘rules’ (downright deductively) so long as they enable the students to understand the essence of a grammar point (e.g. through highlighting the way the choice of a structure is determined by discourse, as in the case of the passive voice, or by highlighting the contrast between  structures, e.g. ‘past simple = tied to the past, present = relevant; present perfect = relevant + there’s an element of ‘before’). The main point of the rule is to allow the students to review the language they produced at a previous stage, genuinely see a problem with it and improve it (simply noticing that it contradicts the rule given by the teacher won’t do the trick, of course, but seeing that the wrong choice of structure impacts on the message, if T highlights the contrast of structures, will). However, so far I haven’t come across any theoretical grounding of what type of rules would be most helpful and why.
  • In order for the s/s to notice the gap, some record of their use of TL is needed. I generally prefer to set a discussion question that would require the use of TL. However, such tasks are not so easy to formulate. Alternatively, there are writing activities, such as grammaring, two-way translation and dictogloss. In my opinion, grammaring can be used for any pairs or sets of structures that get confused (e.g. will/going to, the passive vs active voice, past vs present perfect), although, as the choice of form often depends on the discourse/co-text, it’s probably better to give s/s highly contextualized sentences to reconstruct. For instance, students could process a text for meaning and then get a copy of the text with several sentences tippexed out and replaced with the lexical items from these sentences.
  • As for the second P (practice), there are two sides of the coin to think about and these seem to be difficult to reconcile. On the one hand, there seems to be evidence provided by attention theory that practice has to be focused and intensive (as, trying to practice two different routines at the same time, a student wastes a considerable proportion of attention resources). On the other hand, the teacher has to be extremely careful in ensuring that the controlled practice activity really does model the way the skill is operated in the brain. I’m in no way a psycholinguist, but as far as I understand it in real production there has to be some kind of retrieval of the automatic routine and choice going on. If a students is involved, say, in a ‘have you ever’ drill (however communicative), the structure is likely to be stored in their short-term memory and thus the skill is not being practiced. I find it difficult to reconcile this with the fact that practice has to be focused in order to make full use of the s/s’ attention resources (hence ‘distracting’ the student to kick the structure out of their short-term memory is a bad idea). Hence, I think that all controlled practice has to involve a contrast of structures, so that the students are required to make constant choices.
  • In their article called Implicit and Explicit Corrective Feedback and the Acquisition of L2 Grammar in Rod Ellis et all (2009) Rod Ellis, Shawn Loewen and Rosemary Erlam present evidence that when practicing a grammar point, efficient feedback targeting the grammar point
    1. is provided on the spot
    2. identifies the mistake for the student (e.g. the teacher repeats the mistake with questioning intonation)
    3. encourages the student to make the conscious effort to retrieve the correct form
    (e.g. [T: ‘go? you need the past‘] when the student is telling a story in the past and tends not to use the past tense).

That said, it transpires from SLA literature that productive practice is actually not the only, or even the main process through which the correct automatic routines are formed. It seems that a large part is played by noticing the structure in comprehensible input. This means that unless the students are encouraged to read and listen widely, and also re-read and re-listen, directing their attention to the form,  they might get stuck with ‘incorrect’ routines despite practicing grammar in class.  

implicit knowledge_d4

81Fm895eoDL._SL1360_ 7454711386_16f2d6eb28_o 9780194421973

Sanz, C. and Leuw, R. (editors) (2011). Implicit and Explicit Language Learning: Conditions, Processes, and Knowledge in SLA and Bilingualism. Georgetown University Press

Rod Ellis et al. (2009). Implicit and Explicit Knowledge in Second Language Learning, Testing and Teaching. Multilingual Matters

Dornyei, Z. (2009) The Psychology of Second Language Acquisition. OUP

You can partially view all these books through the ‘click to look inside’ feature.

Also, I’m currently watching a fascinating series of lectures on Cognitive Science – here are the lectures on the explicit and the implicit:

And another one..


I’ve been decorating my flat with collages of nagging questions..  I wish going about reading and making sense of all that was as simple as putting it on a piece of card. There’s probably little chance of finding reading companions/starting a reading and discussion group, but you never know!