Personally, speaking

I received an excellent question via email about a month ago and it made me sit, think and try to work out how to give a reply worthy of the value in the q'. There's nothing harder than having to analyze the very nature of your teaching style, which I'm sure you know too!

Anyway, while drafting up my response, I got to thinking that instead of just replying to my emailer, it'd be best to share it with all of you...

This was her letter:

Dear Karenne

I’d like to thank–you for running such a great teacher training session on promoting fluency/ speaking skills. I’ve been thinking about student-centred learning (again) and have been re-evaluating my teaching techniques (again).

I have a Cambridge CELTA- so my techniques are fairly student-centred.

What REALLY impressed me was the way in which you got the teachers to do the work/learning, through a series of stages that built upon an initial task. I know the power of this type of teaching. I learnt through “doing/ self discovery” as opposed to being “told.”

There is a saying that goes something like this: Tell me and I will forget. Let me do it for myself and I will remember.

I’d love to move closer to this style of teaching and also to be able to write/adapt classroom materials that include more student-centered techniques. I was wondering if you have any advice and suggestions for reading material?

Kind regards,
S.F, Stuttgart

I'm going to go way, way out on a limb here and confess that chiefly "my style" of teaching and creating student-centered lessons actually comes from business guru style books rather than pedagogical/ teacher training manuals!

Yeah, Gods, I expect I'll be shot by the ELT teaching community for that comment!

You know the books I mean?

Pop psychology, basically.

Covey's 7 Habits, Stumbling on Happiness, Wisdom of the Crowds - that sort of thing.

Also, of course, my teaching has also been heavily influenced from traveling and the people I've met globally.

Way back in High School (in the US), when everyone was focused and organized or getting there, figuring out what they were going to be: doctors, lawyers, engineers etc, I only knew that what I most wanted out of life was to see the world.

I come from a teenie-weenie island in the middle of nowhere (sorry, Grenada) and have always found people and culture fascinating.

mountbromoThis doesn't mean I didn't like work - I'm often accused of being a work-a-holic - but it does mean that I didn't study to be a doctor or a lawyer.

Instead, in the beginning of my 20's I thought what I'd most love to become was a wine importer and exotically travel the vineyards of the world on glorious shopping trips.

Yeah, okay, right. But I did study to do this.

And, in an odd sort of way, it was the pursuit of this daydream that kinda, sorta led me to leave London for Australia even though I eventually got waylaid in Thailand on the way.

I was sitting on a beach in Java one late afternoon, after having been backpacking solo for about six months and a man came over and sat down next to me.

I don't have to tell you that initially I was pretty suspicious of his intentions.

kidBut, pretty soon, following behind him tottered over two of his kids. They were adorable darlings and looked at me with wide beautiful brown eyes.

The man began to talk to me.

I tried to explain that my Malay was pretty basic (I had a book I was learning from to pass time on buses - Malay is very similar to Indonesian) - it was definitely not enough to manage conversation.

Part of me just wished he'd go on his merry way so that I could just chill out and watch the sunset. But he continued rambling on and I found myself listening.

A very, very strange thing started to happen.

I knew what he was talking about.

He was telling me about his life, his wishes and his dreams.

He used the sand to describe where he lived, what his house looked like but it was much more than just the scribbles on the sand, there was something magical in his very intent to communicate his experience to me and in my willingness to concentrate.

What can I still tell you about that 2hr conversation with an ageing Javan dressed in a colorful man-skirt, over 15 years ago?

Yes, I still do remember most of it.

I don't remember the small-small-talk about the fine evening, have a vagueish memory that the sky drifted off into deep oranges and purples but I do clearly remember that he was married and had 5 children.

His dreams were to give his kids a good education so that they wouldn't end up having to work the land like he does. He was puzzled by politicians and the future of his country, was Buddhist and thought that the world would be a better place if everyone just loved and talked to each other.

His wife was a good woman who argued with him often (about money) and one of his children was sick.

He wanted to know who I was, who my family were - why I was traveling alone, wasn't I afraid that someone would hurt me?

He was actually quite worried about my safety and he wouldn't like for one of his daughters to grow up to be like me! ;-(

I learned then, right there on that beach, that we are all passionate about ourselves.

This sounds kind of "selfish" but it's not really.

I mean that what we think matters to us.

And what we think about what we think is of great importance.

Sometimes we will share these very deepest beliefs with an absolute stranger, they are that important to us.

Recognizing this intrinsic human quality and applying it to language teaching simply makes sense to me.

Our students want to talk about themselves.

They are learning English in order to discuss their company, absolutely, however actually they want to discuss their relationship to their company. Their job, their project, their colleagues.

hurricaneThey are learning English to discuss the weather appropriately but more than likely they want to talk about their own experience and feelings about sunshine vs. cloudy days. They are learning English to tell their personal stories.

Textbooks all too often are passive, dry and safe.

They are designed to specifically cater for the highest percentage of student ratio: across age, education, occupation and experience. They are designed to be commercially successful and they are produced in a set framework, the publisher's style, (or whom else's that they deem most popular over the last x years - no matter the faults) and the author's frame of reference.

They specifically aim not to offend and in that very lack of risk, they fall flat and don't live up to our students' communicative needs.

Yes, there are exceptions -I'll blog my praise of them later- and no, I'm not dismissing published textbooks nor their value in general. I also acknowledge the enormous quantity of work that goes into producing them.

However our role as EFL educators is to make sure that our tools and materials (even when we're using a course book) successfully elicit student response. We are there to improve their communicative skills.

How do we do that?

By making our students the first aim, the first objective of any lesson plan.

We must put their actual interests way up on the list of priorities. We can not follow a set index, - unit 4, page 32 - we must start with what do you need to learn?

Followed by what do you want to learn? (And sometimes vice versa).

And when we do this, when we get them to buy in to learning, they will learn - even if it's yet another textbook/case-study on advertising.

phoneBecause instead of discussing the merits of some random BT (British Telecom) ad from about 5 years ago that almost none of them has ever seen (as it was shown on the telly in the UK, not in Germany or Ecuador or Hong Kong and none of these students even know what British Telecom is, nor do they care!)

Ranting sorry...

But instead, as language coaches, we can turn that case study on its head and ask what ads are on the television currently in their countries and which of these ads are interesting to them.

Then we can encourage them to take charge of the lesson's material, change the case study themselves into something that they are interested in watching and discussing: a product that they are or not buying and while they are passionately engaged in their own experience, we can slide that new vocabulary and lexical chunks in like a nice new shoe and they'll adopt it: because they really need it in that moment, it has tangible value.

And with that last sentence, I'm brought nicely full circle to Stephen Covey's book, the 7 habits of highly successful people.

One of his major habits is "Begin with the end in mind."

What is the "end" we are teaching to? Our students' fluency.

Begin with your students' interests,
start with what they need to say.

Questions, comments?

Don't hesitate to add your thoughts, opinions. Let's make this a conversation about conversation!


p.s. I've put a brainstorming sheet on my website which you can download and use to help determine a plan for your conversations lessons. Change it, adapt it, make it better & send me a copy... it's creative commons. Click here.

6 Responses to “Personally, speaking”

  • Chris Roland says:
    November 22, 2008



    "We are all passionate about ourselves."

    Just been on the Dogme website where I picked up the link you left.

    Good stuff.

    Posted a few practical Dogme style activities. See what you think.

    Al the best,

    Chris Roland

    November 23, 2008

    Thanks Chris,

    Will do!

  • Anonymous says:
    November 29, 2008

    I enjoyed reading the post and after my own long day of stressing this point while training teachers -- nice to read someone who said it much better than I did! Well stated....

    I think this is really the green fuse that lights the flower of language learning.....



    I also added your fine blog to a rss of many EFL / ESL blogs at

    November 30, 2008

    Thanks David!

    That's a really cool page you've got.


  • Anonymous says:
    December 02, 2008

    I love the way you explain your encounter with that man (almost like "the encounter with the third type"!)descovering something of such importance for teaching languages!! this is like a suspense story! yes, we are passionate about ourselves but the most extraordinary thing is : YOU ACTUALLY UNDERSTOOD HIM without knowing his language! you understood almost everything he said! and why? surely because he was "passionate about himself" but mainly because his speech was directed to *you* he wanted to make himself understood to *you* the ofreign woman, walking alone!this was a tremendous motivation! to me this says another important thing about language : there must be a *reason* to speak, and the reason is always ANOTHER human being. Thanks for sharing your experience! I'll carry on digging into your blog!


    December 02, 2008

    Hi Marianne,

    Absolutely! That didn't really occur to me "there must be a *reason* to speak" but I wonder if there are studies about this, I can't remember reading anything in SLA but am going to go revisit my books.

    I think you've hit the nail on the head!



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