Random ideas for ELT people, plus guest blogs & travel notes

It must be a nice feeling to win something, but I wouldn’t know…

When I wrote my last blog, I had just received one of those notifications that basically said You’ve been nominated for this really exciting ELT blog award, which is actually a cover for some commercial venture – aren’t you excited?

Well, yes, I WAS excited the first time I received a nomination for one of these awards a couple of years ago. At that time, I immediately went to the site and checked out the blogs who had also been nomimated in the same category. I visited some of them for the first time. I thought some of them were great.

So the pro-blog award people are right, the system DOES mean that we get to visit blogs we might not have heard about before.

Some of the nominated bloggers were people I already followed on twitter. What happened next was that a number of them started pitching for votes on that very same social media site.

I realised that if I didn’t do the same, I would be left behind. And like anyone, I don’t like to be left behind!

So I wrote a tweet advertising the blog awards and writing a typically English self-deprecating appeal for votes for me. All in 140 characters. A model of efficient self-advertising.

I read the tweet, realised that I didn’t actually WANT to self-promote in this way, and deleted it. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t win the award. Also unsurprisingly, the winner was someone who had relentlessly and repeatedly self-promoted on twitter.

When I got nominated this time, I wrote about my misgivings about the whole idea, here, on twitter and on Facebook.

In the subsequent conversations that took place, there were a number of pro-award comments. How are people supposed to find out about blogs if their attention isn’t drawn to them in this way? The very point I made above, and one that has to be answered.

I suggested we should all promote blogs we had found that were worth a visit. Not a new idea, lots of people have already done this, but a nice bottom-up system to promote good writing, good thinking and good people.

So this is what I’m going to do in my next blog post, with a slight twist.

A lot of teacher-presenters from Turkey have been making their mark at ELT conferences in the past couple of years. Some of them have been pushing the boundaries of the use of technology in the classroom. All of them have been engaging presenters and fun people to meet on the circuit. A lot of them are bloggers. Most of them are quite young (well, from where I’m standing they’re ALL young!) and they are all very enthusiastic about their work.

I asked a few of them to write something about themselves, and to advertise their blogs, too.

So this is my way of advertising a new set of blogs that you might want to read.

The Young Turks are coming to a computer near you. Very soon!

Four of the Turkish bloggers who will feature in my next post

I just got this message from the Lexiophiles people:


The Top 100 Language Lovers 2012 competition hosted by the bab.la language portal and the Lexiophiles language blog has started and your blog has been nominated in the category language learning blogs. Congratulations! The nomination period goes until May 13th. Feel free to spread the word among other bloggers writing about languages or to suggest one blog yourself.
For further information on the Top 100 Language Lovers 2011 competition, visit


Best wishes,
Stefanie for the bab.la and Lexiophiles team

Dear Stefanie, 

I’m sure there are bloggers out there who will be excited to be nominated in your competition, and best of luck to them. Whatever turns you on. And I imagine they’re trying to put together self-deprecating tweets and Facebook updates which are aimed at garnering votes without sounding too egocentric or desperate.

I’m not one of them. Call me an old curmudgeon if you will, but I find the idea of hustling and pleading for votes a little bit embarrassing.  I’m not sure why I blog, there are probably diverse and psychologically important reasons that I should chat to my therapist * about. But I’m pretty sure that winning prizes isn’t one of them.

So thank you very much for your friendly message, and I’m sorry that it turned into the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Best wishes,


* I don’t actually have a therapist. I can’t afford one.

The story so far – your humble blogger has been persuaded to make a speech at his grammar school Old Boys’ Dinner. He has had grave second thoughts about his choice of topic, which is an ‘amusing’ categorization of teachers into three types. After a reasonable start to his speech, he finds it necessary to quieten down a noisy member of the audience. As a result, the audience is now on his side.

“Where was I?” I asked aloud. “Oh yes, I wanted to talk about some of the teachers at Salford Grammar School that I remember for different reasons.”

I was suddenly aware of the magical effect that silencing ex-Manchester City reserve midfielder Paul Calder (not his real name) had had on the audience. They were now looking at me with a mixture of surprise and admiration on their faces.

The committee chairman’s introduction had clearly made them think I was a Southern Softy – I mean, who in their right mind would leave Salford/ Manchester to go and live in LONDON, for goodness sake??? And why on earth would a Manchester City fan like me choose to be a season ticket holder at FULHAM???

The fact that I also wrote books ‘for teachers and people in China’ seemed to have confirmed my soft status.

But this Southern Softy had made the most belligerent person in the room shut up. People were clearly thinking – maybe this Wilson lad is harder than he looks.

Editor’s note – no, he isn’t.

Shutting up a heckler only buys you a small amount of time, however. I carried on, aware that I somehow had to keep their attention during the remainder of the speech.

‘A bit like inmates of a prison,’ I said, ‘you can divide teachers into three categories.’

This got a bigger laugh than I had expected.

‘Category A teachers,’ I continued, ‘are ones that you like. You walk into the classroom and you think that things are going to be OK. They won’t ask you anything that’s too difficult, and the atmosphere will be all right.’

I went on the talk about a history teacher who fell into this category. His name was Bob Watt and he was a fervent Manchester United fan. It was always painfully easy to divert him from his lesson plan to talk about football, especially on a Monday morning.

Bob would walk in and say: ‘Right, settle down. Now … the Civil War….’

Someone, usually me, would reply: ‘Talking of the Civil War, sir, were you at the City-United game on Saturday?’

This would lead to a twenty-minute diversion into the state of the First Division and United’s chances of winning it, which were usually quite good. This was, after all, the era of Best, Law and Charlton.

Goodness knows what the boys in the class who didn’t like football made of those classes.

Fortunately, Bob Watt’s other skill was an ability to predict which questions would come up in the History exam. He was always right, O-level and A-level. Despite the amount of time we spent talking about football, everyone passed History.

‘The second Category of teacher, Category B, were the ones who, let’s not beat about the bush, scared you,’ I continued. ‘When you walked into the classroom, you were a bit frightened. Category B teachers poured sarcasm on you if you made a mistake – which frankly is a dreadful way to deal with teenagers – and there was always a risk of punishment. Now … I won’t mention his name, but there was a music teacher —‘

About three people in the audience shouted out a name. It was indeed the man I was thinking of. I suppose my attempt to talk about him anonymously had been doomed to failure.

‘As I said, I won’t name him,’ I continued, trying to suppress a smile.

More people shouted out his name.

A bit of background: at the time that I was at grammar school, teachers were still allowed to administer corporal punishment to pupils. Serious punishment meant the cane, and less serious meant the slipper – usually an old gym shoe.

Bend down and think of England, lads…

Music teacher Mr Sharples (not his real name) was an enthusiastic exponent of this method of creating harmony in the classroom.

I told the Old Boys the story of my second day in his class.

On the first day, Sharples had given us all a book and told us to go home and ‘back’ it. For anyone unfamiliar with this notion, the idea was to put some brown paper on the back of the book and sellotape it carefully, thereby protecting the cover and making the book useable by the next intake of pupils.

The problem was I hadn’t heard him tell us to back the book. I was probably day-dreaming. So when he asked us if we had all backed our books, I looked puzzled. However, a quick look round the room revealed that almost everyone in the class had done as they had been told.

‘Wilson, did you back your book?’

He didn’t really need to ask that. It was clear my book wasn’t backed.

‘No, sir.’

‘Why not?’

I decided against using the day-dreaming excuse.

‘I forgot, sir.’

‘Go and stand in that corner.’

I went and stood in the corner.

Sharples’ beady eyes looked for another victim.

‘Flanagan, you don’t appear to have backed your book, either.’

Pete Flanagan (his real name) was a great guy to have in the class. He was an expert storyteller and, amongst other things, he seemed to know more about American cars than anyone apart from Henry Ford. Pete wasn’t the type to fall back on the lame ‘I forgot’ reason for having an unbacked book. He launched into a detailed explanation of the complex reasons why his book wasn’t backed.

‘Well, sir, it’s like this, sir,’ he began. “Me dad drove me home from school, and I put the book in the back of the car. The next morning, me dad off to Grimsby with me book in the back of the car, sir…..’

Pete went on at some length until Sharples eventually stopped him.

‘Go and stand in that corner.’ He indicated a different corner.

What a bloody nerve, I remember thinking. Pete Flanagan had made up a cock and bull story and he was going to get away with it.

By the time Sharples had rounded up all the guilty boys, there were five people in the ‘I forgot’ corner and two in the ‘other excuses’ corner. He went to his drawer and took out a mouldy gym shoe. He looked at the five of us with memory loss syndrome.

‘Bend down.’

He didn’t indicate whether we should all bend down at the same time, or one at a time. No one was brave enough to ask what the system was. We all turned to the wall and bent down. It must have looked hilarious to the rest of the class, but no one was laughing.

Sharples walked down the line of offered posteriors and whacked each one once. We stood up and went back to our seats, where eventually the stinging sensation went away.

He then went to the other corner, where Pete Flanagan and the other story-teller were standing. They bent down, and both received two whacks for their troubles. So much for creativity.

As I reached the end of the story, there were a lot of nodding heads in the audience of old boys and I was struck as I had been many times before by the full implications of an education system which allows teachers to physically attack pupils in this way. It’s an absolute disgrace that it should have been allowed. And for not putting a piece of brown paper on a book!

Later, when all the speeches had been made, I mingled with the assembled old boys. Lively discussions were going on everywhere. They all had stories to tell of canings and slipperings for absurdly trivial, or even non-existent, misdemeanors. Clearly the experience of this bizarre punishment ritual remained firmly entrenched in their minds. Some of them wanted to complain about fifty-year-old injustices.

Two or three of them told even more dramatic stories about Sharples, describing him in ways that I don’t wish to repeat now, whether he’s dead or alive.

This is the hornets’ nest I stirred up with a mildy amusing story about being slippered.

Is this relevant to teachers and teaching today when corporal punishment isn’t permitted? I think maybe it is.

Even without the threat of corporal punishment, there are STILL many ways that teachers can have a negative effect on vulnerable teenagers. Teachers whose modus operandi centres around victimisation, belittling, sarcasm and exerting the power of their position.

Or am I wrong? Are all teachers in the twenty-first century above such damaging ways of teaching? I hope so.

Please leave a comment one way or the other.

PS1 The third category of teachers are the ones who had no positive or negative effect on you and who you have completely forgotten.

PS2 When I told my daughter Rowan that I had been ‘slippered for not backing a book’, she replied: ‘I don’t understand any part of that sentence.’ Her Irish husband asked: ‘Is it something to do with a betting syndicate on the horses?’  

Prize Day at Salford Grammar School: Dave Starr, Dave Rimmer, Pete Britton and me

About a month ago, I made a speech at the Salford Grammar School Old Boys’ Dinner.

My two older brothers are stalwarts of the Old Boys’ Committee and have been badgering me for years to get on my hind legs and say something at the annual event. Somehow I’ve managed to avoid attending it for most of the last forty years.

There were several reasons for this. The dinner is always on a Thursday evening, and when I was a full-time teacher in London, it was more or less impossible to get to Salford on a Thursday. More recently, the dinner has often coincided with one of my spring ELT conference visits.

This year, I had no such excuse…

For those of you not familiar with the geography of this sceptred isle, this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, this other Eden – oh, sorry, got carried away with a speech from Richard II, there…. if you don’t know where the city of Salford is, it’s stuck like a limpet to the west side of Manchester. Salford used to be heavily industrial, now it isn’t. The BBC has recently re-located a sizeable part of its radio operation to a new site there. The long-running TV soap Coronation Street is set in Salford.

If you know the paintings of LS Lowry, then you may also know that Salford is the backdrop for most of his work. Below is a Lowry painting which is actually called Coronation Street.

Coronation Street, by LS Lowry

Old boys of Salford Grammar School include actor Albert Finney, film director Mike Leigh, singer Graham Nash (Crosby, Stills and Nash) and two members of Joy Division, Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner. And if you know anything about gardening, you may be a fan of Dr D G Hessayon, author of the Expert gardening books, which have sold about fifty million copies. Up there with Headway, in fact. 🙂

If you haven’t heard of Dr Hessayon, you can read about him here – http://bit.ly/IERm1q

Salford Grammar School opened in Leaf Square in the centre of the city in 1932. Salford isn’t actually that leafy. Leaf Square is in fact named after Mr J G Leaf, who financed the construction of several public buildings in the area.

In 1956, the school moved to more spacious premises opposite Buile Hill Park, one of Salford’s nicest open spaces. It was in the dining room of the museum in Buile Hill Park that I made my speech at the Old Boys’ Dinner last month. Across the road from the park, where the school I attended used to be, there is now a building site.

On the day of the Old Boys’ Dinner, I drove from London to Yorkshire to pick up my brother Graham, then we drove across the Pennines to Manchester to pick up my other brother Geoff, then into Salford, past the building site that used to be my school and into Buile Hill Park.

We were amongst the first to arrive, and as the two hundred or so Old Boys drifted in, I noticed someone who was in the same year as me. A short man, he had been an aggressive boy at school, not very interested in studying, but a very good football player. He was very confrontational and was also good at looking after himself. I remember not liking him very much and that the feeling was mutual.

I approached him. “I’m really sorry, I’ve forgotten your name,” I said.

“Paul Calder,” he replied. (I’ve changed the name, so don’t google him!)

“I remember you were a very good soccer player,” I added, courting favour madly.

“Right,” he replied. “I just didn’t have a very good attitude.”

Well, at least he seemed to have developed some self-awareness.

I was interested and a bit surprised to hear that he had been good enough to sign for Manchester City. He played for two years in their reserve team and then moved into semi-professional football. I suppose I was surprised because he wasn’t very tall. I think smaller football players have to be very good to get to the top – think of the Barcelona trio of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta.

The SGS Under 15s SGS rugby team sometime in the 60s. I think we broke all records – fewest wins, fewest points scored, most points scored against.

I digress.

We sat down and were served a very good meal by the well-trained waitstaff at the dining room. As the time approached for me to make a speech, I rather wanted to go away and find a quiet corner. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option.

The prospect of talking to a large group of men aged between 55 and 85, most of whom had consumed a fair amount of alcohol, was definitely outside my comfort zone. It didn’t help that various people had told me that both of my brothers had made brilliant speeches at the OB Dinner before. I was very aware of the fact that – for this kind of audience at least – I’m simply not in the same class as they are.

For a start, I don’t tell jokes, at least not ones that will amuse a large group of tanked-up Salfordian men. And I don’t live in the north, whereas the vast majority of the people there that evening still live within a few kilometres of where they grew up. And most of them seemed to have done pretty well for themselves.

But the thing that was worrying me most was that I had decided to talk about the only thing I really know about, which is teaching. I was having terrible second thoughts, but there wasn’t much I could do about it now…

I was the second person to make a speech. The first had been some important local cleric. I was surprised that his speech lacked a central theme, and consisted mainly of a series of rather lame jokes. There had been a certain amount of unrest in the room as he plodded on. Paul Calder was clearly bored and talked quite loudly to the people at his table, and even the ones at a neighbouring table, during the speech.

Now it was my turn. The chair of the association introduced me. “To propose the toast to the school, I’d like to welcome Ken Wilson,” he said. “Ken lives in Fulham and is a season ticket holder at Fulham Football Club, apparently.”

He paused. A mixture of boos and sympathetic laughter filled the room.

“And I’m told he’s written a lot of books. For teachers. And for people in China.”

This rather random description of my working life seemed to puzzle most of the assembled Old Boys into silence.

“Anyway, he’s the youngest of the three Wilson brothers, and he’s the last one of them to make a speech at The Dinner. And, let’s be honest, he’s going to have to be good to compare with Geoff and Graham. Gentlemen, I give you Mister Ken Wilson!”

“You can keep him!” yelled Paul Calder.

So now I was on my feet, and the microphone was in my hand.

I started with a story about taking my brother Graham to meet Albert Finney backstage at Wyndhams Theatre in London after a performance of Yasmina Reza’s play Art. Most people found it quite amusing, but Paul Calder started a noisy conversation with his neighbours.

I decided to intervene.

“Paul,” I said. “I know you were a much better football player than me, but this is my speech, so I’d be grateful if you’d just button it for a minute, OK? I’ll have a word with the committee and maybe you can make a speech next year, but this is my turn, so just pipe down.”

I had never delivered a put-down like that before. It isn’t usually required at ELT conferences, where I give most of my talks. There was a moment’s silence. And then a round of applause. The audience were on my side!

And I began to talk about teaching and different types of teacher. And what I said clearly stirred up a hornets’ nest for a lot of people there that evening…

I’ll tell you why next time….

I’ve been asked by one of my classmates at Salford Grammar School to correct the ‘rubbish’ (his word) history of the school that I wrote above – so here is his bullet-pointed correction:

  • Founded 1904 as Salford Secondary School for Boys, sharing the building of the Royal Technical Institute which had opened eight years earlier.
  • Moved to purpose-built premises of its own in Leaf Square in 1914.
  • Changed name to Salford Grammar School in 1932.  It was purely a name change for a 28-year-old school.
  • Moved to new premises at Claremont 1956.
  • Merged with Salford Technical High School in 1969 to form Salford Grammar/Technical School.
  • Abolished 1973.

    So now you know 😀

Pilsen - not just a Brazilian drink, also a conference venue…

Today is one of those days when you know that the ELT spring conference thing has kicked in, or taken off, or leapt up in front of you – whatever it is that spring conference things do.

I drove my wife Dede to Heathrow to catch a plane to Prague for the ICC Conference in Pilsen. At the airport, she bumped into Michael Carrier, who was hurrying to catch the same plane. They will meet Barry Tomalin when they get there.

I’m also aware that TESOL Arabia has started in Dubai – I followed the tweetstream about Jim Scrivener’s talk there. And this weekend, yet more of the usual suspects are gathering in Bilbao for TESOL Spain.

And looming ahead, like an iceberg in the path of the Titanic, is the big daddy conference of them all, at least here in Europe: IATEFL UK 2012, which starts in Glasgow on 19th March.

It's the Titanic that's looming here, but you get the picture…

So I have a recommendation for all those of you who are planning to do a presentation there…

But first, some background.

Last weekend I was at the ITK conference in Izmir Turkey, and the weekend before that I did the opening plenary at the Çevre conference in Istanbul. Turkey in particular seems to be very well served with spring conferences – there seems to be one just about every weekend from February to May.

In common with meet-ups in many other countries, Turkish conferences usually have a theme/title. It’s often amusing to see what speakers do to include a reference to the theme, however tenuous.

This year, Çevre had a really interesting theme – Teacher and student in harmony, the language learning duet. They also had a dynamic way of illustrating it.

The conference got off to a roaring start. When the curtains in the main auditorium opened, a rock band pounded into action. When the dust (and dry ice) had settled, one was able to see about five musicians and four singers on stage. And it was soon clear that the singers were not all the same age. In fact, two of them were teachers, English teachers as it turned out. It also transpired that the youthful piano player was a music teacher. What a great way to start a conference called Teacher and student in harmony!

On stage and ready to rumble. The start of my ITK plenary...

Then there was ITK Izmir, whose theme was Liberating the Learner. Both the other plenary speakers, Luke Prodromou and Jeremy Harmer, managed to mention the conference theme on several occasions in their talks. To my eternal shame, I didn’t mention it once.

The last time I did this one-day conference, I think two years ago, the format was all-plenary, with four presentations. Thankfully, this year the organizers had gone back to their original format of three plenaries, plus a set of concurrent workshops in the middle of the day.

I say thankfully because it’s a better format for the participants, and also because I attended one of the most electrifying drama workshops I have ever seen.

It was presented by one of the most dynamic teachers I have ever set eyes on. She was also wearing the highest heels I have ever seen on someone doing a presentation.

From the first moment, I was enraptured by the things she did and said, whilst at the same time constantly alarmed that because of the way she ran around the room, she was going to end up breaking an ankle as she tipped off the heels.

Thankfully (x3) this didn’t happen.

The aims of the presenter, let’s call her M, were manifold – firstly to show how incredibly useful and memorable drama activities are, secondly to remind us that teachers are also actors, and thirdly to make us feel that we weren’t really experiencing the joys of teaching if we didn’t throw ourselves around the room like a Hollywood movie star, or possibly a Hollywood movie director.

These were not all stated aims. These are merely the most memorable messages I came away with from the workshop.

M had eight of her students to help her with the presentation, all aged about 16. The first thing to say is that they clearly adored her, and the second thing is that they had obviously done a lot of rehearsal before the conference of what they were going to do. And part of what they did was to show a lack of interest in the whole classroom experience, so that M could sweep in like Superwoman and rescue them from terminal boredom with a drama activity.

Many of the activities involved students interpreting written dialogues. In one instance, two students stood in front of the class and lamely read out a dialogue from a book. They were doing it badly on purpose, so that she could appear like a wild demon and demonstrate how to breathe fire and brimstone into the words. This is the way to do it, she was saying, with passion and FEELING!

Two of the students acted out an end-of-love affair dialogue. ‘No, John, I don’t want to marry you, I don’t love you any more.’

M ran between them and yelled: ‘Why are you SMILING?? You don’t LOVE him any more! And STOP holding his HAND! YOU. DON’T. LOVE. HIM. ANY. MORE!!!’

At the end of this breathless performance, we gave her a big ovation, and another one for the wonderful students, who had been brave enough to perform in front of other teachers. It must have been hard for then to act badly on purpose, but they did it brilliantly.

It was all astonishing. Amazing. Soooo memorable.

And pretty well unrepeatable by any other person in that room, including me.

So when I went to talk to her afterwards, this is what I told her. You are clearly an amazing teacher, with energy and talent to burn. And you must never change the way you do things, because those kids adore you. M smiled with pleasure at these remarks, which were genuinely felt.

‘Everyone in this room will never forget the experience of watching you,’ I continued. ‘But nor will they be able to replicate what you did. And that’s the problem.’

M looked a bit disappointed by this. ‘So what should I do differently?’ she asked.

When you’re in class, don’t do anything differently,’ I said. ‘Your students love your style, and they are clearly all confident English speakers, so it’s really effective. But when you come to a conference, you have to think about teachers who..’

At this point I had to stop myself, because I was going to say ‘teachers who are less talented than you’ but this would have been unfair on the other teachers, who are all talented in different ways.

So I said … ‘You have to think about teachers who do things in a different way to you. And find ways to use these same activities, but in a less … um… theatrical way.’

I hope by the end of our conversation, M understood my message. You are amazing, your students clearly benefit from your methods, now think about how other people can use these same methods in a different way.

So, here are a couple of questions for the hundreds of presenters who are heading to Glasgow next week.

1     Are you going to use classroom activities that ‘work for you’ in your presentation? Great.

2     Is there anything that you do in these activities that might be difficult for someone who isn’t like you? For example, old-fashioned skills like singing, dancing, mime, speaking with an accent, doing quick and memorable drawings on the board? Or new-fangled stuff like switching media during the activity? Also good.

3     Do you have alternative ways of doing the activities that don’t involve using these skills in the way that you do? Can you recommend a way of doing them for people who can’t do stuff the way you do?

You don’t? It might be worth sitting down and thinking of some. 

Final message – don’t present an activity that ‘works for you’ in a way that ONLY works for you. Find ways to make it work for differently-talented teachers.

M – if you read this and want to reveal your identity in a comment, I can then post the nice photo someone took of us!

M is happy for her identity to be revealed. She tweeted this after reading the blog:

Her name is Muge Bilgili. After my talk, another teacher, Nihal Yildirim, interviewed me. Muge helped by holding the camera during the interview.  After about ten seconds, it was clear that Muge was frozen solid, so I lent her my coat while we did the filming, which meant that I was a bit cold during the interview. I think you will agree that the coat looks better on her, even though it’s a bit big.

Ken will be at IATEFL Glasgow with a new talk – Ten quotations (and a few cartoons) to make you think – in the Lomond Hall Thursday 22nd March at 5.35pm. 

You can say what you like about social media, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who is constantly amazed and impressed by the help that people offer there. I just received this extended tweet with some tips about learning German. It came from a teacher called Hannah Gurr, who’s based in Bristol.

All I can say is – I wish Hannah was my German teacher. She seems to have nailed the challenge of a language with lots of fiddly endings with some clever mnemonics and some classy use of chunks and contexts.

 Here’s what she wrote:

Great to read on your blog that you’re learning German. You’ve given me so many teaching ideas and tips that I’d like to share with you my tips for learning German as an adult. I’ll tell you the main ones, and you can accept/reject as you like.

Firstly, I’d recommend the lexical approach for mastering article endings. For example, for almost all forms of transport you can say ‘Ich bin mit dem X gefahren’ and you don’t have to worry whether it’s das Auto or der Wagen. There’s only one exception (as in English) ‘on foot’ (zu Fuß).

I think articles and adjective endings in German, are a bit like gerunds/infinitives in English: native-speakers never make mistakes with them, learners constantly do, but mistakes rarely impede communication. However, I wish I had known that it’s best to learn them in chunks rather than just learning a noun and disregarding its gender. Also, it’s confusing for a learner when you’re pretty sure it’s die Tür and then someone says ‘Er hat den Fuß in der Tür’.

You can also take a phrase you might realistically be able to frequently drop into conversation, and use that as a mnemonic. For example, if you say ‘I went there/I did that/I had dinner … with my beautiful wife’ (mit meiner schönen Frau) and learn that by heart, then you will always know how to apply the dative endings to the feminine singular article and adjective.

Ed’s note – she’s right about meine schöne Frau

Meine schöne Frau in Havana Cuba (Kuba?)

Do you have kids? Choose an appropriate epithet and you’ve got a ready-made crib for the dative plural.

Ed’s note – kids?? I have GRANDkids! Here’s a totally gratuitous picture of me with two of them…

Me and Mo and Sadie…

If I were teaching German to English speakers, I would put the articles into four case groups, on large posters on the four walls of the class. I’d also assign a colour as well as a position to the cases.

•    The first I would call ‘Group 0’ (nominative) because there are zero new things to learn, as everybody knows German has der, die, das and plural die. Used with the verb ‘be’.

•    Group 1 (accusative) so-called because there is only one change, as der becomes den. No other changes. Practice with verbs such as ‘have’ Ich habe keinen Stift and ‘know’ Ich kenne ihn gut.

•    Group 2/to (dative – remember to say dem der dem DEN! – it sounds so dramatic!) because this is used with verbs such as ‘give to’ ‘say to’ ‘bring to’.

Practise with these verbs first, then drop in ‘help’ because it’s common – although learners will just have to accept it doesn’t fit in with the ‘to’ mnemonic.

Also, during the course, add to the poster the prepositions which always take the dative: zu, mit, bei – learn useful chunks such as Herzlichen Glückwunsch zum Geburtstag! and zum Fruhstuck. It helps avoid L1 transference as in English we say ‘for breakfast’, ‘for my birthday’, whereas German uses zum not für.

•    The final group (genitive) is best remembered in chunks such as am Ende des Monats/Ende der Woche. By the time you get to this case, your learners should have already encountered it many times! Nothing new to learn! German uses the same system as English for possessives but drops the apostrophe – Kens Auto, and when in doubt, the Genitive can be avoided by using von + dative.

The preposition takes priority when choosing case, but when (as with in) there is a choice, I use the mnemonic ACtion is ACcusative, state is dative, so you know to walk ins Zimmer and to be/stand/sit im Zimmer.

You also have trouble with word order, as you say in your blog: “I’ve only ever made working visits to Länder wo spricht man Deutsch” which should be “Länder wo man Deutsch spricht”.

Ed’s note: If that’s the only mistake I’ve made in the German in these blogs, then I am WELL pleased!

As I continued to learn German I realised I was very adept at using the correct syntax in these types of sentences, as well as the use of ‘him’ and ‘her’, which are particularly tricky.

As in English, the books are organised with what has been judged to be simpler/more fundamental structures first. As I made my way through the units, learning a lot of vocabulary along the way and constantly struggling with articles and adjective endings, I would come up against these ‘advanced’ structures and realise I had mastered them way back.

Hope you weren’t bored by these ideas, and that some of them turn out to be useful for you.

All the best

Hannah Gurra TEFL teacher in Bristol

I was back at German class last week, having missed two lessons because of my trip to Brazil. I was rather pleased when the early birds in the class smiled and said ‘Guten Abend’ in a cheery fashion when I walked in. Dora the teacher gave me a particularly big smile. She also gave me back the homework I had handed in three weeks ago.

I had worked hard on the two homework tasks. The first was a letter introducing myself and the second was supposed to be a description of a holiday in a German-speaking country. I’ve only ever made working visits to Länder wo spricht man Deutsch, so my homework was about my visit to the ETAS conference in Zug, Switzerland last September – Mein Arbeitsbesuch in der Schweiz.

Dora had requested us to add photos or other visuals to the second piece of homework (nice idea), so there were photos of me talking at the conference, and hanging out with other conference-goers.

I think she knows I do teacher training now. 🙂

I was chuffed as beans* at the feedback Dora gave me about my homework. At the end of the letter, she wrote this:

Lieber Ken, vielen Dank für den interessanten Brief. Ihr Deutsch ist sehr gut! Vielen Dank für ihr Feedback. Das war sehr hilfreich. 🙂

I think most of you will be able to work out what that means. She found the feedback I gave her before the last lesson very helpful.

The smiley face is also hers, by the way.

At the end of the Arbeitsbesuch homework, she wrote:

Vorsicht (careful) mit den Artikeln der, die, das und Adjektivendungen.

Those bloody articles and endings will be the death of me.

Before I say anything else, I want to congratulate Dora on her clear and precise homework feedback notes, which include pointers to make you think about your grammar, syntax and word order mistakes. There is no doubt in my mind that what holds me back from being an effective German speaker is the trouble I have with articles and adjective endings, so I think these notes are really going to help me improve my German writing.

So – with grammar notes on my homework have I not problems. (Ed: you appear to be thinking in German here)

However, as regular readers of this blog will know – with totally grammar-dominated lessons have I GROSS problems. (Ed: see above note)

So this is the story of the rest of the class, which grammar bestrode like a Colossus. (Ed: now you’ve gone all classical – can you start writing like a normal person?)

When it comes to putting together an ELT coursebook syllabus, authors try to match grammar, function and lexical strands. An obvious example of this would be: present simple tense for habitual actions + talking about habitual actions + food, which gives us such memorably vivid lines as English people eat eggs for breakfast.

The key is to try to disguise the connections, and make the whole thing look like seamless and natural information.

Unit 11 of my German coursebook Willkommen matches health/illness vocabulary, talking about your (un)healthy lifestyle and modal verbs.

Dora started off the class by (I think) revising modal verbs – müssen, dürfen (to be allowed to) wollen (want to), sollen (should) etc.

I say ‘I think’ because I presume she did more presentation work on form and usage during the two classes I was away. As I’ve mentioned before, Dora is very good at eliciting what at least some of us already know. Sometimes, however, it’s hard to work out whether she’s taught it before, or she expects us to know it, or she’s making student prior knowledge the main plank of her teaching method.

She put us into pairs and asked us to write down the forms of the modals. I was paired with Brian, my first chance to work with one of the men in the class. Brian is mid-20s, Irish and works in a Catholic Boys School in east London. He has a nice smile and seems very friendly, but is at the same time a bit unforthcoming about himself. I haven’t yet found out why he’s learning German.

Brian is a godsend for Dora. Every so often, she explains a grammar rule in German, and then asks if anyone would like to translate it. My Irish partner for the evening always jumps at these chances.

“Müssen means ‘have to’ but the negative form is a false friend, because ich muss nicht doesn’t mean ‘I mustn’t’,” he said, echoing Dora’s explanation. “It means ‘I don’t have to’.”

He smiled with great satisfaction when Dora gave him a metaphorical pat on the back for this articulate intervention.

However, something strange happened when Brian and I worked together. We spent a few desultory minutes trading the translations of ich muss, ich muss nicht, ich darf etc. When we got to ich will (another false friend, it means ‘I want to’), I asked: “Gibt mir ein Beispeil” – give me an example.  

Brian looked at me in complete incomprehension.

“An example of what?” he asked in English.

“Put it into context,” I said.

“I don’t understand,” he said.

Was willst du am Wochenende machen, zum Beispeil?”

The notion of putting it in context, using any of this language meaningfully while we were checking the verb forms, seemed outlandish to him.

Before he could comment further, Dora brought the activity to an end in her usual idiosyncratic way by saying: ‘StoooooOOOOPPPP’ (It starts quietly and gets louder).

We then helped her create a paradigm of modal forms on the whiteboard. You can imagine I was bouncing off the walls with delight during this part of the lesson.

The board looked like this when we’d finished.

Then it was time to do something from the book. In the health/modals unit, Willkommen has a reading text which consists of four people’s personal statements about their lifestyles. All four statements cleverly integrate information about what the people do, what they aren’t allowed to do, what they should do and what they want to do.

The class had read the text during the last lesson. Now it was time for listening. As soon as the tape started playing, I realised it was simply the same as the reading texts.

We listened (and I surreptitiously read – and I don’t think I was the only one) and made notes on the page. Mine looked like this.

Then we were put in pairs for a bit of exploitation of the target language. We had to find our how healthy our partner’s lifestyle was.

 Brian immediately turned to the woman sitting on the other side and paired with her. Rather too hastily, I thought – what had I done to upset him?? This language learning is increasing my paranoia!!

So now I was paired with Elena, a lovely Spanish woman whose German is like mine – sort of confident/fluent but also faulty. I hadn’t worked with her before, but I did know that she works for a company which sends her to Germany quite often. Highly motivated person with a need for conversational practice. Like me.

Dora said we should use the examples in the book – was tun sie im Moment, was dürfen sie nicht tun (what aren’t you allowed to do – one of the examples in the book was a man with a heart condition who wasn’t allowed to jog), was sollen sie tun etc etc.

I presumed they were just guidelines, so Elena and I talked round the subject, hardly using the key modal language at all. I discovered that Elena goes to the gym twice a week, and also has zumba and yoga classes, plus she goes for long country walks at the weekend. She doesn’t drink alcohol and she drinks a lot of water. And she wants to buy a second-hand bicycle.

No wonder she looks so healthy!

When people started giving feedback, I realised that all the other pairs had worked out how to use the modals from all four columns. They all followed the list in the book scrupulously – what their partner did, what they weren’t allowed to do, what they should do and what they wanted to do. They managed to do this even when it was quite difficult to think of an example (what they weren’t allowed to do was a particular problem).

When it came to my turn, I didn’t look at the book at all. I said what I could remember from our conversation. In my confident/faulty German, it went something like this:

Elena is a very healthy Fräulein, she goes to the Fitness Studio twice a week, and she also does zumba and yoga. She likes going for long walks at the weekend and she doesn’t drink alcohol.

When I finished, everyone, including Dora, looked at me in silence. Clearly they were all expecting more.

Um… und auch trinkt sie viel Wasser,’ I added, rather lamely.

Dora looked at me. There was disappointment in her eyes.

Und was darf sie nicht tun?’ she asked.

Then I got it. I hadn’t done the task correctly. I was supposed to say something from every column. And – duh! – I hadn’t even asked Elena if there was something she wasn’t allowed to do.

Ich weiss nicht,’ I said, now totally embarrassed that I hadn’t done the task right. Then I remembered the bicycle. ‘Ah! Sie will ein Fahrrad aus zweite Hand kaufen,’ I added. It sounded a very odd addendum indeed.

Unlike the previous week, when my partner Celia and I got a big laugh for a piece of acting out we did, my pairwork led to a kind of embarrassed silence. I had not followed the rules. Feedback must contain examples of dürfen, sollen und wollen.

And you know what? It seems to me that the whole class buys into this system except me. Everyone apart from Elena was staring at me with the same accusatory look on their faces. It said: You aren’t following the RULES!

I am now officially a troublemaker.

It’s almost time for my next lesson. I don’t think I will get a cheery ‘Guten Abend’ when I walk in next time.

And I wonder if anyone will agree to be my partner….

The names have been changed.

* Note to non-Mancunians: Chuffed as beans is a northern expression meaning very happy, which may only ever have been used in a few streets near Manchester. Whatever its origins, I appear to be the only living person who still uses it, so don’t worry if you’ve never heard it before.

Tag Cloud