Demand High and Dogme – brothers in arms or distant cousins?

This post is a summary of the ELTChat of January 16 2013 :


So what there is to be up in arms about?

Why DH

The ethos behind it is that ELT has become too lightweight, too frivolous and not rigorous enough, as I understand it. @theteacherjames

By emphasizing personalization, DHT is a critique of the ‘environment-building’ ethos of communicative language teaching @baanderson

Teachers doing just for the sake of doing @rosemerebard

In this video, part of a set of materials for a reflective seminar created by Scrivener and Underhill you hear Adrian give his ‘why’ : 

Clip 2

And although #ELTChat could cite many examples where this was not the case, it was agreed that :

having seen lessons on 4 continents last years albeit mainly PLSes rather than mainstream I’ll stand by my ‘I agree’ @Shaunwilden

and further that

Maybe in many places teaching IS about students getting their msg across, even in poor language. DH is reaction to it @Natashetta

and even more

I’d say there’s a culture in FE that militates against Demand High: instead it requires Just Enough @pjgallantry

WHat is DH?

ELTChat’s reflections included:

It seems to me it’s about asking more from your students, pushing them further & asking them to work harder @theteacherjames

DHT is just probing a bit more and exploiting opportunities for deeper learning & LA @Marisa_C

And importantly it is method agnostic, it is a practice that can be applied however you choose to teach:

it’s about demanding “a better quality” no matter what approach or method you choose @natashetta

DH is “not anti any method, not anti-Communicative Approach, not anti-dogme, not anti-Task Based Learning.” @natashetta

Confirmation that is not a methodology, an approach or a procedure, from the Godfather of DH itself, Jim Scrivener:

DH isn’t a “method”. It’s a small (but possibly needed) course correction. A tweak. @jimscriv

a correction of what?

its an anti plateau device – its pushing that bit harder, driving the learning forward @KerrCarolyn

wag dog

It’s anti letting the tail wag the dog in my opinion @dalecoulter

What does Demand High look like in practice?  According to #ELTChat:

I would say the DHT comes alive mostly in feedback or exploitation not while Ss are collaborating Marisa_C

actually, my take is that DHELT means interrupting the Ss collaboration to make it more worthwhile @Imadruid

Feedback (not unearned praise) and intervention seem central to Scrivener’s view of DHT @idc74

I think its more like turning a group lesson into 121, with a focus on each individual @KerrCarolyn

What is Dogme?

Dogme – materials light, free from course-book driven learning, focus on emergent language and conversation driven, in brief @DaleCoulter

letting it all come from the learner and exploiting opportunities for learning as they arise @Marisa_C

Shared Ground

exploiting opportunities as thy arise seems to be where the 2 have something in  common – utilising  ‘online’ teaching skills @dalecoulter

Breaking free of routine and automated teaching @idc74

For some they are inseparable:

Can opener and can

Dogme without DHELT is like Pedigree Chum without the can opener @Imadruid

for others not so

can a lesson be #Dogme and not #DHElt ..yup. can it be #DHElt and not #Dogme…yup @MrChrisJWilson

the same?

One of the ‘greyer’ areas seems to around ‘learner or learning’ centric:

@jimscriv would say that DHELT is more learnING centred than learnER centred? @Imadruid

and indeed, he confirmed:

Being learning centred means you try to find just what is learner doing to do the task. You then help on to next step @jimscriv

So a kind of +1 zone approach? and personalised to that learner? @KerrCarolyn

Yes very much so. The demand is a DOABLE demand for that individual at that moment ie a focused challenge @jimscriv

doable…with help? Similar to Vygotsky’s ZPD – apprentice and expert navigate the waters of learning? @Imadruid

yes and the teacher does not abdicate his/her duty to facilitate learning @jimscriv

And hence the ‘learning’ centeredness? ‘Facilitating Learning’ is the driving force? – Spot on! @jimscriv

The ‘Dogmeticians’ of this world could now jump in and say: ‘yes but this is exactly what the ‘scaffolding’ of Dogme is all about’, and they’d be right, but the fundamental difference is a ‘material’ one:

Getting away from a slight over concern about task, material, fun etc and focussing on the learning @jimscriv

Indeed, the ‘material’ question of ‘To coursebook or not to coursebook’ is key:

The quote put a perspective that coursebook is not the problem,but how how we use coursebook. from what I read, they are in favor of it, just there is more to it @rosemerebard

Material difference

Well, no. And not just because Dogme isn’t entirely anti- coursebooks, as per Dogme and the Coursebook. There are also structural differences : Dogme has a method, and techniques (as described in Teaching Unplugged  and in the book of the same name). Demand High, however, is not a method. In fact, you can easily argue that ‘Demand High’ is both method and subject agnostic: it could be applied to the teaching of any subject or skill: An engineering professor or high school physics teacher could ask themselves the four key questions of Demand High

Are our learners capable of more, much more?

Have the tasks and techniques we use in class become rituals and ends in themselves?

How can we stop “covering material” and start focusing on the potential for deep learning?

What small tweaks and adjustments can we make to shift the whole focus of our teaching towards getting that engine of learning going?

And aim towards the Demand high outcomes. This is possible precisely because it is method agnostic: it is a way of reflecting that encourages reflection on and adjustment of the techniques already being used by that particular teacher.

Common lineage

Dogme sits in the evolutionary line of Second Language Acquisition, it’s techniques could be applied to the Acquisition of any language. For me it’s immediate evolutionary predecessor was Community Language Learning and that family of methods, where the learners’ experience of the langauge is at the core.

Demand  High sits in the evolutionary line of Modern Educational theory, it’s predecessors are Reflective Practice  and stretch back to the thinking of John Dewey.

So if we take CLL as being the mother of Dogme, who is the father ? Well it can’t be Scott Thornbury, since he had taken a ‘vow of chastity’, but he is clearly the Godfather, guiding Dogme to adulthood. But Scott does give us the clue to its genealogy by referring back to an article which fundamentally influenced his thinking, an article on working in a materials light classroom.

The author of this important article? None other than Adrian Underhill.

Suddenly the family resemblance becomes clearer. Whether directly or indirectly, Adrian Underhill is the common denominator.

@Mk_elt #eltpics - who's been running naked in the woods?

@Mk_elt #eltpics – who’s been running naked in the woods?

It makes me wonder who exactly was ‘running naked in the woods’ and what exactly they were up to? (I can’t help but wonder if this famous ‘tongue in cheek’  quote was referring to ‘nakedness’ as an antidote to ‘chastity’)  In any case the offspring are two different but enriching ideas that are pushing Education and Language Acquisition forward:

In my opinion DHT is as valuable as Dogme or any other approach that can enhance learning effectively @toulasklavou


On reading (2): reading in colour

How can reading in colour make it both easier and harder to focus?

In the last post, I looked at reading in terms of human evolution and the brain. The question that has to be asked is ‘so what?’

–       So what if reading is a subset of speaking?

–       So what if you can’t read without hearing the words spoken in your head?

–       So what if you activate the ‘sound production’ brain area when you read silently?

I asked myself these questions in the context of young learners. What does all this mean for ‘reading’ for them? I tend to wait until my young learners are literate in their L1 before I start on readers. Usually after their first year of primary education. So upwards of the age of 7.

Why? Well, so as not to interfere with the tricky process of learning to read. In neurological terms ‘learning to read’ is such a key process: once taught it cannot be untaught or forgotten (except for those unlucky enough to suffer a brain trauma). After learning to read, reading becomes automatic. Something which cannot be switched off.

Proof of this lies in the Stroop test.  The test shows the interference of ‘reading’ in a colour identification activity. All you need to do is look at the words below and identify the ‘ink’ colour of each of the words.

The Stroop Test

The Stroop Test

I’ve tried this on my nieces and nephews and it does show that the older children who are literate find the task harder then the pre-literate children. They can’t just focus on the colour of the ‘ink’ because they are automatically reading the words. For the 3 year olds the task is easy: there is nothing interfering with their ability to identify the colours.

You can try it with adults using an alphabet and language they know and one they don’t. You’ll notice the same interference.

Stroop in Urdu

Stroop in Urdu

Again so what? Well, when I think about my younger learners, I realise that when they see words in English, they are also trying to read them automatically. But they are using their L1 decoding system, with its associated sounds. Without the knowledge of what they words sound like, they quickly become discouraged.

The answer? Books with audio. Easy. My seven and eight year olds are happy to ‘read and listen’ to the stories. I am happy that they are getting extensive comprehensible input and that they are hearing the words they see. (I use the OUP Classic Tales an let YL’s choose their own story).

OUP Classic Tales readers with Audio

OUP Classic Tales readers with Audio

But is that enough? I don’t think so. From what I read about the brain, reading also activates the sound formation area: it’s as though as we read we’re preparing to say the words. So is the answer reading aloud?

For me no, (and for some reasons why not and some great insights take a look at this post Is reading allowed, aloud?). I’m a firm believer in the benefits of extensive reading, as described by Krashen in his recent talk at Wired In Wired out (see my ELTChat ‘Homework’ post for links). So I’m interested in helping my young learners become confident and enthusiastic readers and my focus here is on the brain processes they need to read for themselves, not yet in the skills associated with reading aloud.

So if you don’t want to read aloud, but you do want to help with the necessary activation of the ‘sound formation area’ what’s the alternative?

Well, I’ve been trying ‘colour vowels’ and the YLs have really taken to it as a pre-reading activity. We focus on the key story words: nouns, verbs, adjectives and prepositions and we group them into the  the ‘colour’ of the vowel sound.

Let me explain. One of the first things that children learn and retain are colours. They tend to be able to remember them and pronounce them correctly. This means that they have the ability to produce the sounds that make up those words. The chart below shows 11 colours and their vowel sounds:

11 English Vowels

11 English Vowels

It’s not all the vowel sounds, but I’ve found its sufficient to start off with. If you map the ‘colour’ vowels onto the Phonemic Chart (this is an adaptation of Adrian Underhill’s British English chart) , you can see that you have enough range to make nearly all the vowel sounds including dipthongs if you combine sounds and legnthen or shorten them. To see this being done in practice watch Adrian Underhill teaching.

The Phonemic Chart overlaid with colour vowels

The Phonemic Chart overlaid with colour vowels

I came across this colour vowel idea through a British Council presentation by Simon Shepherd (skip forward to 21 minutes for the start)  He gives a really good overview and suggestions for other pronunciation work. The YLs I teach are able to group the words and from there we can play with them in terms of pronuciation and things like rhyming. We play pelamnism both for pairs and sound pairs.

All very nice, but does this help them read? Well it certainly seems to have made them more enthusiastic about it. I sought feedback from the parents to see if doing ‘sound formation’ work had helped with their reading. The parents confirmed that the YL’s seemed more motivated to ‘read and listen’ to their stories, asking for them regumarmy, with an average of around 5 listens per week. I’ve noticed a big improvement in their recall of the language too.

It’s hard to know if it is just the fact that they are able to say the words that is helping them with reading, or making them keener to read, but anything which encourages extensive reading outside of the classroom gets a big multicoloured star in my book.

I will be giving a demonstration of ‘Colour Vowels’ at the TESOL France Workshop on January 19 2013

On reading: how do you read?

How are you reading this? This is not a question of environment or media. Whether you are reading this on a tablet, laptop or smartphone makes no difference to how your brain is processing pixels into words with meanings.

As you are reading try to become aware of what is going on as you process pixels. How fast are you reading? Are you reading whole words or are there any, such as perspicacious, where you look again at the cluster of letters to work out the sounds, to get it clear in your mind?
Another question: ask yourself,

Can I hear my own voice saying the words in my head as I read this?

I’m willing to wager that you can hear your own voice. In fact, I’m willing to wager that you cannot read without hearing the words. Unless you have had a severe hearing impairment since birth it is unlikely that you are capable of reading without hearing.

Why is that? There is a short answer and a longer answer. Historians can provide us with the short answer – it’s because we’ve been speaking for far longer. Reading is a subordinate activity to speaking. Although some people argue that Homo Sapiens has always been able to ‘communicate using sounds’, which would date the capacity to speak as appearing around a million years ago, most historians and linguists put the age of syntactic speech at between forty and sixty thousand years.


Ebih-il Nu Banda, c2340 BCE, Louvre Paris

And what about writing? You can argue that the process of putting pen to paper, or reed to rock, goes back 30 000 to the cave paintings of Southern Europe. But ‘true writing’, a system of coding utterances so that they can be reconstructed as speech by someone else first appeared around 5000 years ago in Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq. It also appeared independently in China and Mesoamerica, modern day Mexico.


Ebih-il Nu Banda, c 2340 BCE, Louvre, Paris

On the shoulder you can see an example of ‘proto- writing’ – a step from ‘true writing’ where logographs are used to convey words. The next step is to translate the speech sounds, rather than words, to symbols. The earliest form of this is cuneiform, which was originally written by pressing reeds into wet clay to make small angular marks. In this example these are scratches in stone:

cunieform 1

Cuneiform Script, c 1500 BCE, Louvre Paris

When symbols represent speech sounds, they can of course be used to code and reconstruct different languages. The example above shows writing in Acadian. Below you can see an early bilingual Acadian Sumerian dictionary, with the two languages both being written using the cuneiform script:


Bilingual Dictionary, c 2000 BCE, Louvre Paris

Cuneiform uses a syllabary: the symbols represent syllables: ba bo bi , ta to ti and so on. Some modern languages still use a syllabary, including Japanese, which uses two. The English language, of course, does not use syllabaries, it uses an alphabet. The next step towards what you are reading here can be seen in the Phoenician alphabet, where the symbols represent consonants, rather than syllables.


1st Millenium BCE, Louvre Paris

It’s easy for us to see the links between Phoenician characters and ours. What looks like a 4 in the middle of this piece of writing will be transformed into A – try looking sideways.

The addition of vowels is the last step to an alphabet. Even if you don’t read Ancient Greek, it’s hard not to pick out the name of the Greek god at the end of this inscription:

Louvre, Paris, Dedication to Dionysus

Louvre, Paris, Dedication to Dionysus

This brings us back to the present day, to here and now, to the fact that you are ‘hearing’ what you read. For this is what reading is: the reconstruction of scratches, squiggles or pixels into speech sounds, to form words that we understand through hearing them inside our head.

The other development in the ‘hear’ and now is that neuroscientists are able to demonstrate this quite clearly. The technology exists to look inside your head and see what parts of the brain are involved in the reading process. And what it shows is that whether you read aloud or silently you always activate the part of your brain that makes articulated language. It is if you are preparing to say the words that you are reading.

But this has been known for longer than functional MRI scanning has existed. The area of the brain that lights up at the front of the brain is known as Broca’s area, after the work of Paul Broca, the French scientist, active in the middle of the 19th century.


The other areas that are active are Wernicke’s area, which is involved in the decoding of language and the angular gyrus, which connects sounds to letters, as well as performing many other functions related to language, memory, numbers and so on.

The last area is at the bottom, known as the visual word form area. This area has been researched by many, including Stanilas Dehaene. This is an area that is believed to relate the form of words to their sound. What is fascinating is that this area is very active when reading in English, a language that cannot be ‘spoken as it is seen’. For those words who do not sound as they look, the shape and memory of the word is more important than the processing of the letters into sounds.

The area lights up      L’area illumine

By contrast, in languages where you do pronounce words as you see them, such as Italian, the ‘sound to letter translation’ area is more active. This experiment was conducted by a team including Uta Frith. It, along with the results of other experiments, is described in her book , ‘The learning brain’.

So what consequences does this have for language teaching? In my last post, which sprang from an ELTChat summary, I looked at what Krashen has to say about the role of reading in second language learning. What, if anything, does this information about how the brain reads tell us about our learners and their reading?  And what about the ‘reading aloud’ taboo?

Over the next few posts I plan to share some ways in which I’ve tried to adjust my approach to reading with different types of learners based on this information. If you’d like to comment or share any of your own experiences, I’d be more than happy to read and, of course, to ‘hear’them.

Sorry for handing my homework in late … ?

This post is a summary of an ELT Chat on the topic of homework which took place on December 12 2012 at 1300 CET.

The chat participants:


Having both suggested the topic and volunteered to write up the notes, I thought I’d better do some extra homework on homework. I decided to check out the links and watch presentations recommended during the chat. To be frank, I got quite carried away. At one point I was even learning so my about homework that I actually forgot why I was doing it…

So to focus on the task at hand : ‘What are the pro’s and cons of homework’

What are the con’s:

The unavoidable issue is that of ‘homework for homework’s sake’:

I often feel quite conflicted about homework.  Half the time I only set it because I feel it’s required of me. I think left to my own devices I would set homework about 10% of the time that I currently do @teflgeek

teachers often have to assign HW they dont reallly approve of – a major issue @Marisa_C

and parents expect it too @Marisa_C

It’s part of the educational culture @NailiahRokic

Sometimes parents see HW as a way also to follow what’s going on in class and sometimes test teachers @NailiahRokic

and the converse issue, where homework becomes necessary because:

contact time set is often insufficient to cover all important aspects of course @esolcourses

or the opposite reaction:

To those who teach kids in the school system: Don’t they already study enough? Isn’t it too much to ask them to do it at home too? @theteacherjames

a lot of parents in Canada are starting to revolt against HW. Ruining precious family time. Parents getting frustrated with stressed out kids @David_Boughton

and the con’s don’t stop at homework for kids. Homework and adults don’t mix well either.

Teaching adults means I can’t exactly lay down the law, it’s up to them if they do it or not @theteacherjames

that’s my current struggle with busy professionals. Barely time to show up to class @David_Boughton

So we’d expect an analysis of the tweets be mostly negative?

ELT Chat Wordle

(Un)surprisingly not. As @esolcourses put it:

homework is as good (or bad) as the teacher who sets it. Needs to be targeted & purposeful

So how can we best relate homework types to learners and class? I read Marisa Constantinides presentation on Homework vs Busywork. It has lots of great insights and also a really useful framework, which I’ve used here to organise the comments:

ELTChat Grid

Why do we do all of this homework?

I think HW has extremely good benefits when well planned and justified though. @theteacherjames

Makes adult learners more autonomous @SophiaKhan4

Pre-reading and post lesson activities really help to consolidate work covered in class @esolcourses

I do believe in HW, if it complements/improves whats being taught in class, but that also doesnt work if T doesn’t get s interested @NailahRokic


I always set optional extra work to do out of class, & in my experience (with adults and teens) s’s who do it tend to make better progress @esolcourses

And what about those SS who tend ‘not’ to do their Homework? How can we deal with ‘preparation’ homework that only some learners took time to do?

you put learners who haven’t watched it into groups with the students who have, to discuss @David_Boughton

Can you predict the content? Can you interview other SS who saw it and find out?@KerrCarolyn

perhaps an idea might be for class to do something else while indiv Students report to T in tutorial mode @Marisa_C

I sometimes do a quick multiple choice quiz on homework as a warm-up, in groups @esolcourses

How can technology help? Here are some comments on using technology as part of homework:

Tech can often make it more useful/meaningful, as it allows for instant feedback & collaboration @esolcourses

That’s where computer game-like homework can be fun? @FrancesEales

can have an LMS packed with busywork too  – true also.  Important to be discerning @esolcourses

social media can create a useful platform for sharing content between the sts @theteacherjames

I’ve also set up voxopop group topics or vocaroo speaking tasks which sts practise and then record and send to me. @FrancesEales

Should homework focus on more than lessons?

“As a language teacher one cannot escape the feeling that language lessons in and of themselves are not sufficient to bring language learning about and to lead to eventual proficiency” (van Lier 1996, p. 42).

I was curious to find out what people thought about ‘language exposure’ and the role of homework in that so I asked:

I think exposure to English outside the classroom is very important and homework is one way – but is it a good way?

@Marisa_C Immediately responded to this with a link to Steven Krashen’s talk from the Wired In Wired Out conference in Instanbul.


 As part of my homework I watched the video, which was both interesting and entertaining, and well worth the effort. A summary for those of you who haven’t had the chance to see it:

As many of you will know, Krashen is linguist and award winning professor emeritus at the University of Southern California. He is an influencial figure to say the least! He is known for the introduction of the ‘acquisition-learning hyposthesis’. To sum this theory up in a couple of words:

Acquisition is a subconcious process (think of effortless absorbtion) and learning is a concious process (think of working something out step by step). According to his beliefs, activities which are focused on meaning rather than form, for example reading or listening to ‘comprehensible input’, are far more effective in developing second language ability than any other method.

In his talk he discusses reading for pleasure as a fundamentally important activity for language acquisition. The benefits he states are:

–      improved reading skills

–      better writing skills

–      increased ability to handle complex grammar

–      increased vocabulary

–      better spelling


ELTPics @AriannaBasaric

ELTPics @AriannaBasaric



All those who commented on reading agreed with Krashen:

 I always set readers (e.g. for a week) and we have a feedback sess in class. @FrancesEales

I’ve used the ‘book box’ too and extensive reading does indeed help @Marisa_C

@theteacherjames I try to encourage all my students to read as much as possible. Find out what they like, lend them books etc.

Put newspapers in the kitchen and lounge and they are always reading them @David__Boughton

@theteacherjames also provided us with a link to a set of reading circle materials from OUP


But it is not a matter of just setting reading as homework. As @Marisa_C says

may work if motivating pre-reading done in class to whet ss’ appetite and stimulate curiosity

In my experience, reading (and listening) for pleasure is fundamental to progress in language. For my young learners I let them choose from a selection of storybooks with audio and they listen to them for fun in the evenings. I never fail to be impressed at just how quickly these kids progress.

I was greatly interested in what Krashen had to say about adults:

“good readers are narrow readers they stick to one genre at a time, one author at a time and gradually extend it as they go”

I’ve recently started taking Agatha Christie books along to my adult  business learners and am getting a lot of traction with them. Most adults here read them as children and now find them really enjoyable to read in English. One of my learners was enjoying her reading activity so much she literally could not put the book down, and here’s the proof

Agatha investigates


I’m glad I did my extra homework, I’m glad I clicked on all the links, and even though I handed my homework in late, I enjoyed doing it and it is nice to know that the great and the good of linguistics (Krashen et al) agree with ELTChat.

“Those who really engage with the L2 in and out of class will do better. We have no right to force people, but the obligation to encourage them.”

What’s more I’m also glad I got carried away with my homework, I’m glad I spent too much time watching presentations and clicking links to potential homework topics (I watched a TV presenter having a type of stroke). In doing this I proved one of Krashen and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s main theories : that a person learns most when they are so absorbed in what they are doing that they forget why they are doing it. Some people call this ‘flow’: it felt like ‘fun’ to me.

Further reading -Guest post by Rob Haines in Oregon (USA)

Choice words

Lexical Leo challenged the notion of the synonym in his presentation at TESOL France’s conference. Are any two words the same? And of two ‘close’ words, which is the best to choose?

You can take Paul Valéry’s advice:

 Of two possible words, choose the lesser

Which is not bad advice for some learners. I recently taught a group of French adult learners on a two day intensive writing workshop. A common problem for French learners is a prefererence for words which closely resemble their own. The problem with that is that English has often added its own twist to the meaning. In this example:

‘I read a good book concerning Wall Street’,

the choice of ‘concerning’ over the lesser word ‘about’, makes this sentence sound rather strange.

Leo demonstrated that there are four distinguishing features between these near synonyms:

Leo Selivan

And for our sentence here, ‘register’ is one of the problems. ‘Concerning’ is more formal in English than ‘about’. You could look at this in terms of collocation too, for example:

‘we read about this every day’

‘I read a book about that’

I could go on, but to be fair you’ll get a lot more from reading Leo’s presentation yourself. What you might find interesting is how Leo’s ideas work when applied in a Business English classroom.

I had test driven Mark Hancock’s Listening lesson with great success the previous week I thought I would try out what Leo had talked about in my advanced writing class. I made use of Leo’s ‘word pairs’ activity but I created a warm up exercise. I always like to agree the objectives for a class with the learners, but as ‘improve my vocabulary’ is a pretty safe bet,I was able to prepare a good bit of material in advance

I started with the common mistakes like ‘concerning’ and ‘about’. I put up a list of Old French and Latinate words and asked the learners if they could come up with the Old English or Germanic equivalents. It was not much of a challenge for the learners to find equivalents.  But then I asked Leo’s question:

Are they the same? Does  ‘Introduce = bring in’

and the result:

Words 1 copy

This was done using examples and the learners own knowledge alone. Once we had exhausted what we knew, we looked at the Cambridge Business English Dictionary Online.

This set up the next activity which was to research the differences between common and close words used in business. We had three teams and each looked at one word pair:

     benefit      advantage

          feature      functionality

problem      issue

Each team had to look at differences in meaning, register and use, and come up with some examples that were relevant for their own use in a business context. I directed the learners towards the Cambridge Business English Dictionary Online a free resource that I enjoy using as it gives examples in a business context. It also has a built in link to a visual thesaurus.

This did meet with quite a bit of resistance at first. The learners were not comfortable with being asked to ‘research’ and there was a good bit of coaxing that needed to be done. I certainly hit the expectation barrier, where the learner wants you to ‘tell’ them the answer and does not expect to be asked to find it for themselves.  I felt really quite under pressure, and did wonder if this was an appropriate activity for an in company Business English class?

I think what saved it was the fact that the research was online, it was fast and it was interesting. As soon as the learners discovered the visual thesaurus they  were much happier. When they fed back to the group one of the presentations used the online thesaurus visuals to help explain:

Words 2

The team that had offered the most resistance actually produced the most detailed presentation:

Slide 2

The set up, research and feedback for this activity took a little over 1.5 hours, including the opener with the Old English vs. Latinate words. It took longer than I had planned, but I did not see any value in rushing the learners through the activity.

On the second day of the course I asked the learners to use the online tools to improve their own texts. I had compiled a list of lexical errors from their own writing and asked them to review their word choices. This time the activity was fast and furious. The teams tore through the list and pulled together presentations to explain their new choices to the group. They also began to cherry pick other lexis, so a search on reserve and book brought up ‘to reserve judgement’, a phrase which the learners liked and wanted to start to use!

So did it work? Well the feedback from the learners said that it did. All of the learners said that one of the top three things they had learned from the session was how to use the tools to help them ‘choose their words’. They all commented that they now felt they could stop translating from French into English as their main way to choose their words. The improvement in their lexical range was marked, even though it was a short course, and the same goes for their accuracy. Using whole sentences as models was a big help here I believe.

I was happy with the outcome for the learners, I’m keen to avoid that tired ‘give a man a fish’ analogy, but it would be kind of fitting…

So what did I conclude? I was happy to see that the learners were not tempted to just follow Paul Valéry’s advice and plump for the lesser word. And I was really pleased to see the comment about translation. Why? Well, so much gets lost in translation, you see what Paul Valéry said was:

Entre deux mots il faut choisir le moindre

Which is an aphorism: ‘Mots’ sounds like ‘maux’, giving you:

 Of two possible evils, choose the lesser

In my lesson I had to chose: feel unconformable for a bit and risk the learners rejecting the activity, or give in and let the learning opportunity go by.  I think I chose by far the lesser of two evils.

Cracking the code

Alan Turing would have celebrated his 100th birthday this year.  Turing is mostly remembered for his work on cracking the Enigma code. For some learners authentic material in English is just that:  an enigma. At best difficult to understand, at worst an impenetrable mystery.  After hearing Mark Hancock speak at TESOL France’s Annual Conference I felt inspired to try some of Mark’s recommendations to help learners decode authentic material.

Many people believed Apple’s logo to be a tribute to Alan Turing

Mark Hancock’s presentation, which you can access here, looked at the reasons why some learners find authentic speech difficult to follow, and what can be done to facilitate listening with more ease. In his presentation Mark talked about two main roadblocks for listeners. Firstly, the problem of connected speech (where does one word stop and the next start?) and secondly the  sheer variety of accents, and the resulting variation in pronunciation. For some learners, there is a third problem, and that is within the word itself. Some learners are not able to distinguish between certain sounds, making it impossible to know if a speaker is talking about ‘some flowers‘ or ‘sunflowers’, for example.

I designed the lesson to focus on these three areas. I was interested in helping learners to raise their  awareness of these barriers. I also wanted to provide some helpful and comprehensible input  that would add to their corpus of language. My aim was to facilitate the development of ‘mental pathways’, routes for ‘information’ to follow as it journeys from ear to brain, where it can connect with an appropriate meaning.


The learners were a group of seven adult women attending a one day course aimed at improving listening skills. They all worked at the same company but none of them knew each other. They were intermediate learners, whose exposure to English ranged from working in an international team with English as the Lingua Franca, to using English once or twice a week on the telephone. They all had French as L1 and none of them were bilingual in another language.

I won’t give you a blow by blow account of the lesson, but some of the things I observed may be of interest to you:


I played the Beatles #1 album as background music and handed out sheets of A4 paper each with a different question on them. The learners read the question, wrote their answer and then passed the question to the next person. This enabled the learners to express their objectives, list the types of accents they found difficult and give examples of listening they were exposed to each week (both for pleasure and work). To do this they did not have to decode any sound, the inputs and outputs were silent.

I had been playing ‘Yesterday’ during the opener. I then followed Mark Hancock’s lesson plan for his ‘Wrong Lyrics’ lesson.

Here are my observations from this part of the lesson:

The activity allowed the learners to notice some of the challenges to listening. They identified linking, elision and assimilation.

By correcting the print out of the wrong lyrics they could see and repair the language.

The visuals from the video provided a powerful hook to link the problem and the effect, for example later in the lesson the learners would comment that there was a ‘chateau’ problem in the audio.

It was very entertaining, learners realised that anyone can mishear and it lightened the  weight of the ‘ listening problem’

Using their observations we went to work on other sentences with examples of elision, linking and assimilation. The learners were able to identify what was happening to the words as they were used in connected speech. We worked on a whiteboard and annotated the chunks to show what was happening to the sounds. Although the focus of the lesson was ‘listening’ all of the learners automatically produced the speech as part of the learning process. In Mark’s words:

“there is no better way for a learner to become aware of something receptively than attempting to actually produce it”.


There’s a chateau hanging over me

Early in the lesson I had suggested that we do a listening ‘test’ to find out if any sounds were particularly hard for them to differentiate. All of the learners agreed to this. For this I used the first test from Ann Baker’s book, Ship or Sheep.

Although there was a wide range of responses certain sounds emerged as common problem areas:

/n/  – all of the learners – ‘some flowers’ – ‘sun flowers’

/ʤ/ – five of the learners – ‘jeep’ – ‘cheap’

/ɑ:/ – five of the learners –  ‘hat’ – ‘heart’

/h/ – five of the learners – ‘ill’ – ‘hill’

We worked on these phonemes at various points during the lesson, listening to minimal pairs and using ‘acoustic drilling’ style exercises. I deliberately spread these throughout the day, so as not to overload the learners. The learners were enthusiastic about these exercises and expressed relief at being able to correctly identify the sounds. The learners were able to see their own results and several learners were interested in self-study in this area after the course.

If anyone has any insights or observations around these clusters of problem sounds in terms of sound reception I’d be very glad to hear about it! They seem to be ‘typical’ problem sounds for French speakers but I’d love to know more if anyone has any ideas.


Ship or Sheep, Ann Baker, Cambridge 

The afternoon part of the lesson was focussed on listening materials using accents they had identified  as difficult to understand in the morning session. The most frequently encountered accents were Indian and South African.

I had expected Indian to appear, and had previously prepared some micro-listening based on the Collins English for Business Listening book by Ian Badger. I used Audacity to make very small and repetitive clips of ‘vulnerable’ sounds in action.  Some of the words I had chosen were:

Corporate – vulnerable /r/ is dropped, sounds like ‘coprit’

Rural  – middle /r/ has a ‘w’ quality

Think – /θ/ changed to a ‘t’ – sounds like ‘tink’, even ‘dink’ depending on speaker

Difference – /ɪ/ changes to /i:/ – dee -fer -ents

I used three of the audio files from the Collins listening book, and one video from on the rise of cricket


The learners were able to ‘pick out’ the words that were different to their expectations on the first or second listen.

The learners were able to identify what was happening to the words and transcribe this using their observations from the earlier part of the lesson.

After the micro-listening, the learners were not only able to recognise similar patterns in subsequent audio inputs, they were also able to mimic the sounds. (This occurred spontaneously, and seemed key for the learners to try to make the sound in order to connect with it).

The learners were then able to recall other words which they thought had sounded different to their expectations. One was ‘solution’ which they described as having an extra ‘y’ ‘sol -iyu-shun’.

To cover off the South African accent I used another listening from Collins. I had not anticipated this accent, but I was able to generate a sort of micro listening by repeating the same stretch of sound over and over. The learners picked out the changes in vowels and noticed the similarities in what was happening with /θ/ and /r/ between the Indian and South African speakers. (We repeated a chunk which mentioned the time ‘four thirty’)


Throughout the lesson I had asked the learners how they felt about the audio. I asked them to rate the difficult on a scale of 0 – 10, where 0 was no problem and 10 was extremely difficult. As the lesson progressed the first listen descended from being around 8 for most learners, to being around 4 or less by the end of the lesson.

The learners were also asked  to fill in a feedback form and to write down three things they had learned during the day and two things they thought they would do differently when listening in the future.

All of the learners reported that they felt ‘more at ease’ or ‘much more at ease’ with the subject

6 of the learners gave the lesson 5/5 for quality of teaching and 5/5 usefulness of the materials and content used. (The other learner rated the lesson 4 and 4, commenting that she would have like to have covered the Chinese accent)

The comments that came back from the learnings were around listening to the key words, understanding better what was ‘happening’ to words in connected speech and realising that accents were not as big a problem as they thought.

When I reflected on the lesson afterwards, I was quite happy in general with the outcome for the learners. Obviously there were things I thought I could have improved on, but I was happy to have taken the risk and tried something new.

One of the things that bothered me was about ‘systems’ and ‘skills’. I remember being taught that listening is a ‘skills’ lesson. But this to me felt much more like a ‘systems’ lesson. In fact it felt like teaching pronunciation in reverse. I wasn’t hoping for an improvement in production or sounds but in ‘reception’ of sounds. When I looked back on the lesson, it had more of a ‘systems’ structure to it than anything I had taught before in a skills lesson.

I would be delighted to hear your observations or experiences in teaching in this area. Please leave me a comment if you have a moment to spare. If you are interested in listening and this type of approach there is a fascinating article by Sheila Thorn on this subject.

There were lots of comments from the learnings feedback. One learner commented that she felt that Indian accents had become less of a mystery, and she felt she could now follow speakers more easily. I was pleased that she had cracked part of the code, and thought back to Alan Turing. Although he was brought up in England, his parents met in India, and Turing’s ancestors can be found in India as early as 1700. Fitting somehow that this was the accent the learners decoded in the lesson.