Ten Things I Think I Know (Part 1)

I think I might annoy some people with this blogpost, so to get myself psyched up for it – I’ve imagined that I’m being interviewed by the BBC’s arch-interrogator, Jeremy Paxman.

Jeremy Paxman interviews Michael Howard. “Did you threaten to overrule him?

If you don’t know anything about Jeremy Paxman, watch this 1997 interview with the then recently-deposed Home Secretary Michael Howard: http://tinyurl.com/ywf588 Count the times Paxman asks: “Did you threaten to overrule him?”

My imaginary interview with Paxo:

Paxo: So what’s this blog-post about, then?

YHB: Well, Jeremy, it’s a series of generalisations about classroom realities – what I think is really happening in English classes round the world.

Paxo: (Sniffily) And how have you arrived at these … generalisations?

YHB: They’re based on my observation of about 300 classes in 20-odd different countries during the Nineties and the Noughties.

Paxo: So no academic support?

YHB:   No Jeremy. No support at all. Unless we’re talking about Marks and Spencer underwear again.  (See note at end if you don’t understand this reference)

Paxo: (Drily) I’ll make the sarcastic remarks, if you don’t mind.

YHB: (Ignoring threat) It’s also about what I believe to be a widening gap between the contents of most course material – certainly the expensive stuff aimed at the international market – and those classroom realities.

Paxman: What EXACTLY do you mean by ‘widening gap’?

 YHB: Well, Jeremy, the perceived wisdom is that international course material designed and produced by UK and US publishers is superior to locally-produced material in any given country. In many ways it is – the material has been carefully researched, written and edited and the artwork and general design are usually far superior.

I think, however, that some international material is being used in places where it isn’t suitable. If it was only being used in classrooms where some or all of the private school (PLS) features I described in the pre-blog apply, that would be fine. But it isn’t.

I know that Headway has its critics (although most of the criticisms seem to be that it’s still being used) but I’ve always thought it was a good challenging book for late teens/adults. When I saw it being used with 12-year-olds in Slovakia, I was aware that both teacher and pupils were struggling.

That was one of the first moments when I thought – something isn’t quite right here. Locally-produced published English teaching material has its faults, as well, of course. But the thing that worries me is that certain accepted beliefs about realities in the world of ELT are just plain wrong.

Paxo: What do you mean by ‘realities’?

YHB:  In my view, there are three main realities that we should take into consideration when we produce material, and also when we train teachers. Firstly, linguistic realities – basically, how the learners will deal with learning  the new language, and how their first language may affect that. Then classroom realities and social realities.

By and large, modern teaching materials deal with the first of these very well. I’m not sure that enough attention is paid to the second and third, social and classroom realities.

Paxo:  An example?

YHB: Lots of examples coming up, dear boy. But the one that always gets me going is student motivation – or what people believe are factors which will definitely motivate people to learn English.

Paxo:  So your message in a sentence?

YHB:   Teaching English worldwide is not a level playing field. The teaching and learning circumstances of most teacher and pupils are very challenging.

Paxo: So, let me get this straight —

YHB: Sorry, Jeremy, I haven’t finished. Another thing that has exercised me a bit of late is teacher training, or more specifically, the kind of methodology that is presented as new, ground-breaking and (this is the problem) right for every English teaching situation. I’m thinking mainly about the sort of thing you hear in conference talks and workshops and the stuff churned out by touring authors and trainers doing one-off presentations.

Paxo: I suppose you’re going to take a cheap shot at the DELTA course as well, are you?

YHB: Oh, most definitely not. I’m not including any training courses in these general comments. Over a period of time, trainers usually find out enough about their trainees to focus on the realities of their daily working lives. So these thoughts are not meant to be a criticism of DELTA or other in-service training. But that’s partly because I don’t know for sure what goes in behind the closed doors of those sessions.

Paxo: Well, that’s all we have time for…

YHB: Sorry again, Jeremy, but I’ve started so I’ll finish. Here are the first five things that I THINK are true.

1       Most English students are there because they have to be.

I’ve searched in vain for statistics about this – but the fact is that the majority of students who file into English classes worldwide are in state (public) education. They are there for the same reason they are in the maths and geography classes. Because they have to be. Note to self: keep this in mind when you’re talking about student motivation. The only motivation these students DEFINITELY have is the desire to stay out of trouble with the authorities by being a visible bum on a seat.

I remember watching a plenary speaker at a conference somewhere in Central Europe listing ways to motivate students. His first point was to give statistics about the number of people who speak English. He provided the usual visual of Kachru’s rings for them.

Most of the people reading this will be ELT professionals and will know what I’m talking about, but for those who don’t know, Kachru’s rings relate to where English is spoken and by whom. Here’s a simple visualisation. (Warning: don’t learn it by heart, other models are taking over from it almost on a daily basis).

Back to the Central European plenary speaker. “Just tell your students that the language they are learning is spoken by nine hundred million people,” he said. “They will understand the importance of communicating with all those people. In English!”

Oh no they won’t, chum. Not if they live in the middle of nowhere and are acutely aware of their limited chances of going anywhere else. Or if they also speak a world language like Spanish or Arabic or Putonghua. If I was a native speaker of one of those languages, I think I would wonder why English speakers weren’t falling over themselves to learn MY language too.

Note to self: Never make a big deal about how many people learn English and pretend this is some kind of carrot for learners. It isn’t. Telling a group of 12-year-olds that English is important because a lot of people speak it cuts NO ICE AT ALL in most parts of the world.

2 Most English classes are monolingual.

Not only are most classes monolingual, but the students live in the same community. A lot of course books seem to forget this rather inconvenient fact, especially when devising pair and group work.

Note to self as author: Avoid pair work activities which say, for example: Ask your partner about his/her local transportation system/favourite fast food outlet/nearest mountain range etc etc It’s going to be the same answer for both of them.

3 Most English teachers aren’t native speakers.

The only statistic I have about this is one I heard in a workshop, an unverifiable one. But the statistic was this: more than 95% of English teachers are non-native speakers of English. And most of them are doing a brilliant job, making sense of this language that they learned and passing it on to people who speak the same language that they do.

There are LOTS of non-NESTs who not only behave (linguistically) like native speakers, effortlessly changing register as regularly as they … er … TAKE registers, but who also relish and enjoy finding out about new coinages or trying out exciting new classroom methods handed down by the experts. I know a lot of them, and they are astonishing people.

But there are still a lot of very good non-NEST teachers out there who struggle with the material they are being asked to teach and the information they are being asked to deliver. An awful lot of material presumes an intimate awareness of cultural norms in the English-speaking world which some teachers simply don’t have. And, like most people, they don’t have a lot of awareness of other parts of the world, either.

Note to self: always give lots of support for non-native speaker teachers when writing a Teacher’s Guide. Especially about cultural background information about the material, whether it’s about York, New York, New Zealand or New Order.

4 Most teachers have to use a book.

Note that this says most teachers HAVE to use a book, not WANT to use a book, although that is probably also true.

I love dogme and related ideas, I really do. There’s nothing I like better than facing a group of students with nothing but a basic idea of what I want to do. In fact, I try to make this happen as often as I can. When I observe lessons whilst researching a book, I tell the teacher that I’m happy and willing to take over at any point, should she want me to. This has resulted in being invited to take a class for a whole 45-minute lesson, completely unprepared. Brilliant seat-of-the-pants experience. But not something that most teachers would want to try, and certainly not what they would plan to do.

Anyway, back in the real world, most teachers have no choice but to use a book. The system requires it. They can go off-book any time they want, but if they abandon the book completely, all it takes is one student to complain to the DOS, or even worse to her parents, and the teacher is in hot water.

5 Most English courses are exam or test-directed.

This is an obvious corollary of point one. Most pupils are in state schools, most state schools have end of term/semester/year exams, therefore the whole system is geared towards exams.

Experienced state-school teachers have a very clear idea of the time it takes to reach the rather artificial exam-oriented goals. And they also know there is no time for frippery en route. To get through all the exam-related material usually means following the book religiously.

That’s five things I think I know. There are another five, but that’s enough reading for one post. More soon!

Have a great week.

If you are unfamiliar with the Jeremy Paxman/Marks and Spencer underwear story, you can read about it here – http://tinyurl.com/yfjexwt

53 thoughts on “Ten Things I Think I Know (Part 1)

  1. Hi Ken,

    Great post and really well written. I think you’ve done an outstanding job of demonstrating a deep awareness of limitations and some “essential truths,” and this is certainly reassuring for teachers when they see it come from a globally recognised coursebook writer, but… (is it bad form to approach the band and request a song on someone else’s blog?)

    … but I don’t think there are really any major surprises here for the teachers that read this (without insinuating that were trying to surprise anyone), and what I look forward to – if possible – is your take on how to make the most of these limitations and real-world parameters, what it really *should* mean for future materials design, and where and how we can find cracks in the rather unyielding firmament that has become global ELT (not to mention its “glocal” layering) to plant healthy things that can grow.

    Okay, that’s not exactly a song request – more like a presumptious (and possibly selfish) request for a small symphony! But if you are at all willing to cater to it, once we know that you know what we (all) know and know that it’s a tough old landscape for teaching English out there (and once the stream of comments here from people saying “so true, so true!” has exhausted itself, I for one will be all ears to hear what you think can and ought to be done about it. 🙂

    I say this not to be critical or a party-pooper, but because I think English language teachers need hope and inspiration, and these are two very prominent characteristics I find synonymous with Mr. Ken Wilson!

    1. Jason,

      thank you as ever for the kind words. The toughness of the teaching landscape wasn’t really the nexus of this post – but it’s an important one. Another aspect of conference talks is the presenter reminding everyone what an exciting and progressive business ELT is. Which it is.

      It’s also exhausting and badly paid – but that kind of takes away the warm bath aspect of the talk, eh?

      1. Well, it is a great post in many ways, Ken. I am actually curious how you got away with the “most students are learning English because they HAVE to” point without getting lambasted in some way (as I did when I asserted this in a blog post last year – I was called “negative” and “pessimistic”). Then again, you’ve approached the issue more sensitively than I did, with more explanation – so I think there’s something here for me to learn about how to broach and discuss these sorts of issues. Thanks! 🙂

        “It’s also exhausting and badly paid” – I shall here lead the chorus of “so true! so true!”

  2. Before the stream of comments that Jason mentions (of people saying “so true, so true”) can exhaust itself, it has to get started, so if you don’t mind, allow me:

    So true, so true!

  3. Ken,

    This is one of my favorite interviews! I am kind of hoping Lindsay drops by so he can do a proper video showcasing your interview! Thank you for sharing these experiences and observations. I will keep them in mind when presenting this year and try to consider my audience and their challenges.

  4. I noticed a bit of a typo. Sorry, I’m not sleeping a lot these days so it seems I’ve been doing this quite a bit. I meant to say this is definitely one of my favorite posts. I love all your posts, but I really enjoyed reading this one.

    I think when we prepare presentations sometimes we get so caught up in our own minds that we forget the audience and how they will be able to use the material we are sharing.

    1. Thanks. Shelly. It would be great if conference speakers everywhere exhibited an awareness of the classroom realities in the particular country they are presenting.

  5. That was a great read, and certainly lots of food for thought.

    What I’d like to add (though maybe stepping away from the general picture…) is that even in multilingual classes you often get students from the same country or who speak the same language forming groups. That can be a nightmare, not only from the point of view of getting them to speak in English, but also if they are from countries with a bit of history between them, shall we say. Luckily this hasn’t happened in any of my classes, but I have heard of it.

    An interesting insight in number 4 “When I visit a classroom, I tell the teacher that I’m happy and willing to take over at any point, should she want me to.” Do you only visit female teachers’ classes? 🙂



    1. Hi Mike … well, what a hornets’ nest you raise with the thought of people from warring countries being in the same class. I also remember a discussion class of three students at International House comprising a German, and Italian and a Japanese. When they had introduced themselves to each other, the German remarked: “Hey! Good! The Axis is all here!”

  6. Hi Ken!
    Super post as always!
    I agree with you on the fact that telling the students (no matter how old they are) that they have to learn English because it is spoken by a large number of people is not motivating at all. Like you, I once heard a teacher tell her students something similar along the lines of “You will learn English because it is one of the most widely spoken languages of the world. Period!” I must have been standing there with my jaw hanging for quite a while! Especially if the students know they have slim chances of actually using English in a real-life context!
    Most of the teachers I know are non-NESTS and the way they approach the English language is astounding! Their use of idioms and vocabulary can be of a much better level than that of NESTS. Most of the ones I know have blogs and their use of the English language is fantastic, I admire them very much for the way they express themselves!
    Working in Greece for ten years (which is extremely exam-oriented to the point of no return!) the simple idea of not using a book can mean parents withdrawing their kids from your school! We had so many ideas to utilize but almost always crashed into the “textbook wall” (as I call it). Fortunately sometimes we got parents who wanted their kids to learn English for the fun of it or adults who wanted to have such lessons and we could apply dogme to our heart’s content! But, the sweeping majority of times, we went by the book.
    And yeah, I couldn’t agree more that publishers should take into account non-NESTS when they write teachers’ books – it’s not like they are supposed to know every cultural aspect of a country!
    Thank you Ken (and your rendition of the interview was fantastic!)!

    1. Hi Vicky,

      if we need an argument against the ‘Let’s stop using textbooks’ argument, you have it in one sentence: “The simple idea of not using a book can mean parents withdrawing their kids from your school”

      It’s a powerful argument!

      1. What would be the argument in favour of NOT using textbooks in the classroom?

        To be specific: I think the use of textbooks is not a matter of choice, not in this part of the world! The Romanian government had to adhere to the European policies, implement an educational reform which has been going on for twenty years now and adapt the educational system to match the international levels. The Ministry of Education did more than they were actually whole-heartedly willing to do: approved alternative textbooks! So, since there are alternatives, teachers can choose, but they can’t choose NOT to use textbooks…

        Just like you, Ken, I am also very comfortable with taking over at any moment during a class, nothing prepared beforehand. (Tempted to say “we’re both Leos”, I realised this would be the most hilarious explanation to why we feel so confident about our teaching.) I often feel I’d do a much better job without textbooks, although I liked the Prospects series very much and I simply love the Straighforward series…

        So what’s the one argument in favour of NOT using textbooks?

        And since I’m here, congratulations on this new amazing post, I adore reading you, I love your writing style and I always feel you stir me (should have said ‘inspire me’…) to dig deeper into my teaching, my methods, my way of looking at the profession and to write about everything. Thank you!


  7. Thank you for this post! I teach to monolingual groups of college students who have to be there and who have to take an exam at the end of their course of study. Although I’m not surprised to hear that the majority of English teachers are in these situations, when one frequents the blogosphere and Twitter, that’s not the impression one gets.

    Of course most business course books are totally inappropriate to my pre-employee level students (“Describe one of your company’s managers/your company’s facilities…”) but fortunately I’m not forced to use one.

    My TOEIC-prep classes do have Target Score, but I use it more as an out-of-class resource than in-class. I truly think the students are reassured by having the book even if it only takes up about 10% of my class time.

    Well off to work now, feeling a little less alone.

    1. Hi Betty,

      that is SUCH a nice comment to end on – feeling it a little less alone. Makes blogging worthwhile.

  8. Wonderful blog, as ever, Ken.

    I’ll just respond to one point here…

    MOTIVATION: “Most English students are there because they have to be.”

    Some people (including teachers here) hold a belief that students in Asia WANT to learn English as a way of becoming more ‘western’ and follow western music, TV etc etc. As I have mentioned to you elsewhere, the ONLY western music ‘icon’ recognised in my school here in Hanoi is Michael Jackson. Very many of the hip young things in Vietnam look towards Korea for their dose of music, fashion, tv and film culture. From my experience in Korea and Vietnam this is OUT OF CHOICE.

    There is no more reason to expect Vietnamese students to warm to western English speaking culture than there is to expect a bunch of guys in Hartlepool to want to sit and eat pho and sing along to Big Bang. Many of my students study English purely because that’s what the big joint venture companies want them to do.

    The vast majority of my students are never going to travel abroad and those who will often don’t WANT to go to English-speaking countries. So yes, as you say, they are learning English because they HAVE to.

    Even as adults it is something which they sometimes feel has been imposed upon them. Many do not have a great desire to learn English for any other reason than to be able to get a better job. They are actuaries, economists, food scientists and businessmen. It hardly seems fair, then, that job prospects depend on an entirely different field – language learning. This does lead to some resentment. And I can see why. If my success in the field of woodturning was based on my ability to speak Vietnamese, I’d be stuffed!

    Thus the job of classroom motivation is an incredibly sensitive area and one which needs to be handled by teachers and coursebook writers, alike, with great care. And that includes being ruthless when it comes to teaching from ‘the book’.

    My rant about culturally ludicrous Cambridge tests will follow after I’ve had my DELTA assessed 😉

    1. Brillliant stuff, Laura. But you raise an interesting problem for young teachers like you making your way in the business, and worried who might read what you have to say in a social media forum like this, as compared to people of my generation who really don’t care what anyone thinks about my ideas.

      I think you might have nailed your colours to the mast with the expression ‘culturally ludicrous Cambridge tests’! 😛

      1. “Young”! I love ya! I’m old enough to be most of my colleagues’ mother!! Seriously…plenty of grey! Just on my 3rd life…law and woodturning having been the first two! (Mental note: small twitter profile photos are fab!)

    2. Age is awfully relative, Laura … and you are one of the few people who can pinpoint my age because of our small world connections! 😛

  9. Laura’s comment above was excellent. I must admit I somehow thought Asian students were more motivated to learn English than my students in France — not because of the cultural idea you mentioned, maybe just because of a stereotype that Asian students are motivated in general, which is of course a totally ludicrous idea to have.

    Thank you for your insight. I have a feeling this post is going to be a great platform for discussion. It’s taken me off Twitter for a few days, at any rate!

    1. Thank you Betty and Ken. Students here often ARE motivated but not, initially at least, for the reasons often ascribed to them. A major role for me as a teacher here is to nurture intrinsic motivational factors in a culturally sensitive way. And that really doesn’t include even more pictures of the flipping London Eye and Big Ben!! 😉

    1. Thanks!

      Part 2 will come just as soon as there is time in the work-window … I know everyone claims to be too busy, but there are certain weeks in my current writing program which are busier than others.

      I just visited your blog and it’s great – some really wonderful stuff there. I will add it to my expanding blogroll if you tell me your name. If you prefer to remain anonymous for whatever reason, let me know and I will work round that.

      1. Thanks for the kind words Ken – I’m glad you liked the blog. Unfortunately, I promised my employer not to use my real name in case there’s stuff that upsets students or parents (although I can’t imagine what). I guess I could have used a pseudonym with a greater degree of verisimilitude than Sputnik but I didn’t wish to mislead people.

  10. Reading the point made above by Laura deflating the kind of stereotype of the super-motivated Asian EFL student, I was reminded of a quote from the legendary English Teacher X, which I reproduce here (as quoted before at TEFLtastic):

    “Most students have rather complex feelings about English. Very love-hate.
    I offer this metaphor.

    Imagine you are a 30ish American businessman with a wife and kids. You’re living relatively happily in some large American city.

    Then Imagine that suddenly Kenya or Pakistan becomes the most powerful country in the world.

    Every film in the local multiplex is from Kenya or Pakistan. Your children listen to nothing except music from Kenya or Pakistan. You suddenly find your job is in danger because you don’t have a good grasp of Swahili or Urdu. The traditions and values of your country are beginning to be replaced by those of Pakistan and Kenya. Most people wear traditional Pakistani or Kenyan clothes. If you don’t, you feel stupid.

    Now are you going to go to your Swahili or Urdu lessons smiling happily? ”

    (Sorry for the convoluted citation above and the excessive quoting, but it was something that has stuck with me for a long time, and bears repeating I think!)

    1. I love this kind of reverse metaphor! It works just as well about political and military decisions. Imagine if the Libyan or North Korean governments’ thoughts about how the UK and US go about their business were aired constantly on our media – how would we feel about that.

      I can just imagine middle-England or middle-America sitting in front of their TV saying: “Hm… family breakdown not good. You know those Libyans have a point there.”

  11. Hi Ken,
    great post as usual, and getting that other Jeremy involved is clearly a masterstroke. You and your connections!

    I am only slightly unsure about whether I would agree with you that ‘most groups are monolingual’. Well I guess numerically MOST are, but in a large number of capital cities in Europe, but not exclusively Europe, this is no longer the case. In the countryside, yes, perhaps, but in big cities with big immigrant communities?
    It’s a bit like Kachru’s circles, perhaps. They had a lot to teach us, perhaps, in 1985, but things are moving so fast that they look a bit antiquated now.

    But on one point we agree entirely, namely that some of the ‘given truths’ that you and I grew up on as English language teachers no longer hold true. As you have heard me say before, I think times are realy exciting and everything is in flux and we are really lucky to be living it!

    Paxman: and are you REALLY telling me there are only 5 things you know?
    Ken: No, I am just –
    Paxman: only 5?
    Ken: No. I’m trying to –
    Paxman: you can’t really expect us to take this seriously!
    Ken: All I’m trying – oh, what’s the point?!

    1. What ho and bom dia, JH! Willkommen an Bord.

      I agree that the Kachru model is a hoary old beastie, though certainly not cow’rin’ or tim’rous (sorry, but it WAS Robbie Burns night last night), but the fact is you see it being trotted out everywhere. TESOL Paris last November, for example.

      But I DO take issue with your comment about monolingual classes. Let’s take a couple of examples from places that I know a bit about because of writing projects:

      China – more than 600 million pupils in state education learning English – rather tips the balance, don’t you think? Indonesia – 230 million people, 85% live in the countryside, many language groups, but all teaching done in official language Bahasa – and the huge Chinese population OK about this, apparently.

      Don’t have statistics about other countries, and I agree that urban English classes probably have rich multi-ethnic mix in lots of places. However, the language of instruction is usually the official language of the country (and the teacher speaks her own language a lot in these classes, let’s not pretend otherwise). The multi-ethnic/multilingual mix may have an effect in that kind of class, but not the one it has in a private language school in London or San Francisco.

      Do come back for another round if you have time.

      1. Hmm…hello again Ken (and Jason),

        we don’t really disagree. I did say that you were numerically right. Of course. And your China comment makes that clear. But I promise you that if you go into classes in European capital cities like Vienna, for example, there is absolutely no guarantee that all your students will have german as a first language – or even as a really functioning language. At least that is what is reported by Austrian secondary teachers. Turkish, Yoruba maybe..etc

        My comment was simply to say that things are changing faster than u can imagine. But I also said that in rural areas, in non-capital cities etc things are as you describe.

        As to the implied challenge to people like me and Scott? My defence? Go to You Tube and search for’ Jeremy Harmer en Chile’ – a filmed presentations dealing with exactly thr issue of how to deal with large monolingual classes in a talk offered to the Chilean ministerio de educacion.

        Well we do TRY, don’t we?!!!


      2. I think a better “defense” (as Jeremy puts it) in response to the implied challenge, is to consider the importance of what the ‘gurus’ do on paper and at conferences and put it in perspective. Jeremy is a motivator and facilitator above and beyond anything else – I can recall when first reading PELT how it wasn’t an in-your-face “I’m an expert and this is how you SHOULD be teaching English!”; it was more or less a collection of informative ideas and ways a lot of different teachers go (or could go) about their business in a classroom, alongside a variety of pros and cons, and then the decisions and actions are really left up to the reader. As I’ve mentioned below – our field needs these sort of people. They are very much spread thinly around (look at Jeremy’s travel schedule!), so the limitations in terms of going beyond this role are self-evident.

        Other defenses I would mention are the facts that J and S have actually spent a lot of time in the classroom in various contexts, and are exceptional listeners. I’ve worked with a lot of so-called experts and gurus in a tertiary context responsible for training teachers of teenagers and children, and some of them had never even set foot in a primary or secondary school classroom (not beyond being there as a child, anyway!).

        On the other hand, I do wonder if there aren’t a lot of experts who shy away from the challenge of getting “in there” and doing some real teaching. I recall when I volunteered to teach real classes, my publisher’s marketing staff were really taken aback. The idea had evidently been floated before, but there was a resounding “no thank you!” from the writers concerned. I’ve always wondered why (if it isn’t a time/availability issue).

        Which publisher was it (UK-based) that required its senior editors and marketing people to start teaching real classes of volunteer students? Sterling initiative in my opinion!

      3. Well, if the post did nothing else, it wound up the old master himself. As I said to you during the circle activity at TESOL Spain, it’s a great honour to have you here, Mr Harmer.

  12. Sorry Jeremy – Ken’s 100% right on this one. 🙂

    It would be interesting to note how many ESL/EAL learners there are as opposed to EFL learners, but clearly now there are more people learning English than there are people speaking it as a first language. When you count Asia alone (especially China, India and Indonesia – not to mention Korea, Japan, and Taiwan), those are some stupendous numbers in terms of monolingual classrooms.

    By way of covering my posterior on this issue, however, I know Jeremy almost never makes statements/claims without having some sort of richer perspective (than I do), so I’d be interested to see how he explains his doubt about the prevalence of the monolingual classroom dominance globally…

    1. Thanks, Jason…

      I love it when the comments move the central arguments around a bit – this democracy lark is surely the best thing about blogs.

      I’m just wondering if I blurred some of the issues which were bothering me – and in this case, it’s a recognition that we don’t all teach in the same way and in the same circumstances. It’s wonderfully aspirational for teachers to want to embrace the things they see a Harmer or a Thornbury doing so effortlessly at a conference, but maybe what we really need is to see a video of Jeremy or Scott facing a class of 70 Chinese students in a small city (say 10 million people) somewhere in Inner Mongolia, or a sullen bunch of Central European 17-year-old boys in a Technical School at 8.30am on a Monday morning.

      The fact is – J and S would be brilliant with these classes – but it would be great to see how they MANAGE to be brilliant!

      1. “J and S would be brilliant with these classes – but it would be great to see how they MANAGE to be brilliant!”

        Can’t agree more!

        I’m nowhere near J and S’s levels or reputation, but as a coursebook writer, the most powerful promotion I ever did for my books was go into large schools in Korea, hand them out brand new to a class of students I’d never laid eyes on, let them choose which unit they wanted to try, and just teach (with a group of teachers down the back of the classroom observing)! No prep – just teacher and learners doing their thing.

        Powerful… because (1) teachers/schools saw the genuine “how”, and (2) I saw and managed and learned to appreciate more this genuine “how”…

        ELT writers and celebrities need to do more of this sort of thing. I know they do great things for a lot of teachers through conferences and workshops and what-not, but it’s far too abstract – too ‘white coat researcher’ sort of thing (despite any down-to-earthedness or charisma). Teachers like/want that side of the celebrities, but what they really want to see and will benefit more from is examples set by experts in real classroom settings – warts and all.

      2. Ken,

        Nails and heads, etc., and something I was thinking about last night whilst doing the washing up.

        It’s all very well for someone famous and very experienced to wash up in a class of 400 Chinese (say) learners and claim x approach works because they just did a forty-minute class and everyone was enthralled (I’m thinking so-called ‘communicative’ approaches, DOGME, etc.), but quite a different thing to implement x approach daily with many groups and in the face of other pressures such as managers, etc.

        As I’ve noted elsewhere, going into a country and doing a few days is not exactly the same as working in the system. For all we (any of us) think we know about teaching, we don’t know much about teaching in any context other than one we have actually taught in for quite some time.

        The rest is anecdotal, based on a quick hit and not the reality of the people trying to emulate us, or use the materials we produce.


    2. Need to start a campaign, eh? Gurus In Real Teaching Situations – GIRTS! Or would it look better as Gurus In Real LEARNING Situations??

      1. GIRTS… love it! I’ll have to remember that one, and borrow it from you into my terminology the same way I did “any Tom, Dick or Haarkon”!

        (and can see why GIRLS could be problematic 🙂

      2. Gavin,

        yes, yes, yes!

        And yet… I have this ongoing argument with a great and good author who refuses to do ANY foreign visits on the grounds that he doesn’t want to FIFO of a place and talk to teachers whose working circumstances he knows nothing about. And I always say, well, they may just want to LISTEN to you.

        I still have this impression that the engine and the front carriage are so far away from the rest, that they may as well be working in a different business.

        I prefer to write ‘away from’ rather than ‘ahead of’ so as not to give the impression that purveyors and users of modern methods aren’t somehow a more advanced species.

      3. Gavin’s point is good (as I’ve mentioned elsewhere), BUT:

        1. If you’re ‘qualified’ enough to write materials for – and hence profit directly from – a given context (unwittingly or not), why aren’t you ‘qualified’ enough to teach a few classes there and see things as they are at grassroots level?

        2. Ken mentioned that teachers in these contexts may actually want to listen to the visiting expert, and while this can be true, (more importantly) I see this as a prime opportunity for the writer/expert to listen to the teachers. Let them tell him/her what they thought of his lesson in their context, why it may have worked or not worked so well, etc.

  13. Ken,

    You got me working on a textbook that isn’t a textbook, as we speak (or as I write and you….).

    Great points, concrete and helpful. My own focus of late is on Student Created Content and along with this the necessity to learn language through the local culture/world. This speaks to at least 3 of your points.

    I know publishers are coming around to making really “local” content (before it was very cursory – I’m thinking of OUP’s Smart Choice) but I think it is little too late. We believe that contextualization is very important in SLA but do we really create the proper conditions for this?

    I find it amazing that I’ll be speaking at a conference next month on “Korean content for Korean students”. Kind of like talking about the “round” earth theory.

    Thanks for the read and work put into this post.


    1. Thanks David…

      er… I guess you don’t know that I’m actually the author of Smart Choice, repository of the cursory local content of which you speak! 😛

      1. Ken,

        Didn’t mean “Smart Choice” was cursory but many textbooks before… I guess I better brush up on my use of commas 🙂

        Sorry I didn’t know you were behind it — I’m just good with ideas (mostly opposing), not all the who’s who and all that….
        I look forward along with others to the next 5 things you think know (and does that mean, you might exist?).

      2. Thank you David for the clarification. Commas can be the very devil can’t, they? 😛

        There is no question that the arrival of more locally-relevant materials is long overdue, and I look forward to finding out more about your Student Created Content.

        SCC is a fantastic notion – but still have sullen Central European Technical School boys in mind… would have to think hard about how to get them to create anything at all.

    2. Agreed. So much of my time these days is taken up creating lessons for my local context or helping my teachers do the same. This has the added bonus of moving away from the book.

      I’ll be workshopping the topics a couple places this year as well.

      1. Look forward to seeing you put your ideas into practice somwhere, Nick. Harrogate, perhaps?

  14. I’m weighing in very late on this one I know, but on the ‘Most classes are monolingual’ point, I’d say “most classes are taught as if the students shared a common L1”

    In China, for example, state school classes are increasingly made up of kids who speak a wide diversity of languages at home (Chinese ‘dialects’ can have less mutual intelligibility than Icelandic and Tirolean). Teaching tends not to take this linguistic diversity into account: instruction mostly takes place in standard Mandarin (putonghua/普通话), sometimes with intervention in the dominant local dialect, especially if it enjoys a certain prestige, such as Cantonese and Minnan. The knowledge imparted and tested consists of English words and their mandarin translation, metalanguage describing English in Mandarin and grammar rules expressed as formulae.

    I’m using China as an example, but basically I feel the important point is not whether classes are monolingual or not, it’s that most classes are taught as if they were monolingual.

    Once the teacher/system assumes monolingual classes, that has a profound effect on methodology – vocabulary is translated rather than explained, instructions are often repeated or checked in translation etc. The assumption also affects materials, which usually contain bilingual glossaries.

    1. Thanks, Dave. I think my point was meant to be monolingual, or might-as-well-be-monolingual, as you describe.

      Once again, the more cogent and articulate point appears in the comments 🙂

  15. Lovely post and much food for thought. Great discussion thread too. I’m working on a project for India and had my wrists slapped today for not being India-focussed enough so, still smarting, I found many of your comments quite pertinent. I’ve still much to learn – even after all my years at this! Thank you

    1. Thanks, Berni… I’m beginning to get a bit agitated about not providing the second half of this post, which I think will cause a few raised eyebrows (considering what appears to be general consensus in the discussion thread of the first five). Problem is I’m not doing my ‘real’ writing projects fast enough these days, and each working day ends so late, I’m not putting in the thinking time to get the next points right.

      However, points 6-10 – coming soon to a computer near you! 🙂

  16. I enjoyed your list, especially #1, #4, and #5. Sad but true! I’ve had pretty good luck with ‘converting’ most students were forced to come to class into active participants. I think the key for me was to find out what motivated them individually and relate it to English and communication rather than ‘studying.’

    #4 and #5 have plagued me in most of my short 6 years as an ESL/EFL teacher. #4 may be a necessary evil for some aspects of teaching English, but I would love to rely entirely on authentic English-language material prepared by individual teachers.

    I plan to become a full-time freelance teacher this spring and be done with #5 completely. I plan to focus on coaching students with speaking English for communication rather than teach to a test like TOEIC, which is so heavily focused on here in South Korea.

    1. Thanks for that, Neil. And best of luck with your freelance career. Someone with your experience and attitude will be a great bonus for students looking for something a bit different.

      The fact is that, as a sought-after native speaker teacher, you are in a strong position to make those career choices. Again, going back to the first couple of points, most of our colleagues world-wide are stuck in the system.

      Best of luck with your future projects.

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