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#ELTchat summary: Does Feedback really help or are mistakes made by learners fossilised?

October 17, 2012

#ELTchat 17th October 2012 21:00 BST

Does Feedback really help or are mistakes made by learners fossilised?

Moderators: I’m not entirely sure who they were, but I reckon @Marisa_C, @theteacherjames and @Shaunwilden

Contributers: @antoniaclare @carlaarena @cioccas @David__Boughton @escocesa_madrid @hartle @ljp2010 @louisealix68 @MarjorieRosenbe @shaznosel @stephenburrows @steven_odonnell @SueAnnan @teacherthom @TESOL_Assn @vickyloras @Wiktor_K 

We started with the question by @teacherthom: what do we mean by fossilised?”@Shaunwilden suggested it was an error fixed in the student’s head and @SueAnnan suggested it was fixed by practice. 

@Marisa_C pondered whether it was easy to get rid of fossilized errors? @hartle suggested with appropriate feedback. @cioccas stated that it wasn’t easy, but slowly & with effort (by Ss) it was possible.

The important point of interlanguage and its relation to fossilaztion was introduced by @Wiktor_K and both @louisealix68 and @David__Boughton highlighted the importance of students becoming aware and noticing their own mistakes. @escocesa_madrid agreed that noticing and self-correcting was key to breaking the onset of fossilization. There was unanimous agreement regarding this observation. @teacherthom would later come up with the great summary that when an error stops after correction it demonstrates interlanguage. However, when when correction is followed by the repetition of the corrected error over a period of time, we are witnessing fossilisation. 

@antoniaclare believed students are aware of their fossilized errors, @stephenburrows would bring this up to and @theteacherjames quipped that the learners are probably just making the errors to annoy their teachers! But @David__Boughton thought that there were fossilized errors learners were aware of, but plenty they weren’t aware of. @theteacherjames gave a warning shot that dealing with these fozzilised errors can have negative backwash because the students think you’re nagging them and @Marisa_C would later bring up the problem of some teachers pouncing on every error and annoying their students. @escocesa_madrid suggested writing common errors on the board and @Shaunwilden suggested recording students to highlight the errors they’re making, @cioccas agreed with this and @carlaarena said she did this and it worked well. @louisealix68 suggested learners keep an “error log” and many contributers commented on the value of this which learners could refer to when undertaking a writing task. @escocesa_madrid said it’s a good idea to make learners aware of what fossilization is.

@SueAnnan brought up the point of fluency v accuracy when correcting errors, she was just happy hearing her learners speaking, @cioccas agreed. @antoniaclare was unsure whether it was worth correcting fixed errors, she said she’d been correcting the same errors her partner makes for 20 years! @Marisa_C said this is more common with adults than YLs. @stephenburrows pointed out that he makes errors all the time when writing online, it’s natural. @hartle said we need to separate communication feedback in terms of fluency and accuracy. @steven_odonnell suggested a ‘bottom up’ strategy, starting with working on the most ‘fundamental’ errors-those that grate on a native speakers’ ears. @Marisa_C and @SueAnnan pointed out pronunciation errors in adults can become easily fossilized and harm communication.

@hartle brought us back to the topic of self-correction, making it memorable and personal. @stephenburrows suggested that learner errors are a great source of classroom material. @MarjorieRosenbe said she wrote errors on the board and referred to them in class. @antoniaclare had the nice ideas of writing student errors on separate pieces of paper which she handed them at the end of class. @Marisa_C was worried that teachers focus too much on grammar errors and @Shaunwilden said we do this because they’re easier to handle @Marisa_C agreed but suggested they’re also easier to spot. @stephenburrows said that word order errors seemed more productive to pick up on than grammar errors.

There were some comments about eye contact, hand movements and so on to correct errors rather than explicit error correction. @stephenburrows pointed out that picking up on errors is a good way of showing that as a teacher you’re paying attention. @escocesa_madrid suggested chants and songs as a good way of dealing with fossilized errors with YLs, @Marisa_C agreed memorable repetition was important. 

@Marisa_C moved on to ways of giving feedback and student thoughts on it, @louisealix68 believed in peer feedback but @David__Boughton wasn’t a fan because younger students immature and older students want teacher imput, feeling cheated without teacher feedback. @shaznosel thought it was easy to give feedback for writing but more difficult with speaking in big classes. @stephenburrows suggested “donut” speaking, where students are in two rings, speaking with various partners repeating tasks while teacher has opportunity to hear all of them and make notes on errors. @hartle suggested error correction at the end of speaking activities to not interfere with communication. 

Towards the end, the issue of mixing errors with good examples of language was brought up by @hartle. @steven_odonnell suggested it’s a good idea to leave out negative words like “mistake” “error” “problem” when giving feedback on error correction. @theteacherjames emphasised that feedback was more worthwhile than correction, i.e. “try this again” not “that was wrong”.


Totally Eager Young Learners

October 14, 2012

Steve! Can you just try to harness our intense communication?

My preference as an English language teacher is to teach young learner classes. There are lots of reasons why, but the key ones would be that I enjoy the classes and the learners enjoy them too. Unlike adult learners who have a myriad of needs and complications, young learners usually come to English classes to simply learn English and have fun.

This academic year, I’m only teaching young learners. My youngest language learner is 5 years old, the oldest is 17, but in this post I’m going to reflect on intermediate learners around the age of 12 and 13. This is a great age and level, the learners are still childishly eager, keen and energetic but they are developing mature tastes and interests. For example, they can give strong opinions on music, sport, films, books, clothes, technology and many other things, so there are countless ways to generate communication in the classroom. The fact that these students have intermediate-level English means they enjoy communicating in English and grasp the opportunity when presented to them.

But this eagerness to communicate has given me something to ponder in my first few classes at this age and level. This is because my students just won’t stop communicating in English, to the point that I’m just trying to point this enthusiastic mass into the right direction. Probably dogmeticians are saying, “what’s the problem?” But I’m sort of obliged to get the learners to achieve a task/goal in my TBL focussed teaching organisation.

I’ve already identified a few reasons why I think these learners are so eager to communicate, mainly their age and their level, but other factors include:

  • The learners are keen to show off. There are big rewards in peer-status amongst young learners at this age to be not only the most confident speaker of English, but also the funniest or most inventive user.
  • The learners are comfortable in their environment and clearly comfortable with their teacher, but they’re also testing how far they can push the limits of acceptability. One young boy said, “Oh, sh*t!” half-way through our first class, something he’s heard the phrase on TV and probably even heard his parents say it. I immediately showed my disapproval and told the learner the word is unacceptable in my class and I’d have to contact his parents if he said it again. He apologised and said he wouldn’t say it again and there were no further problems, in fact, he appears to be a superb and eager student.
  • I’m insisting they always use English and never use L1 in class. I use “the bomb” technique to do this, where a cardboard bomb is handed to any student speaking in their L1. Whoever is holding the bomb at the end of the lesson has to write a 100 word composition entitled “Why I need to always speak English in class” for homework.
  • I’m listening to my students, I’m interested in what they have to say and they frequently make me laugh. I had a great maths teacher when I was about the same age as these students who is a massive inspiration for my teaching. He was a big, fat, scruffy man who could’ve easily been made the victim of ridicule by the students of my east London all-boys state school. However, he spoke to students rather than spoke down to them, he didn’t take himself too seriously and wasn’t worried about losing face, He’d laugh when genuinely funny things happened in the classroom, which was frequent because learners were allowed to talk and share opinions amongst themselves and most importantly, with the teacher. He’d pay equal attention to strong and weak students, but also gave clear praise for individual excellence.

So there are plenty of factors why my classes are reaching a communicative “flow” with the whole class engaged, focussed and enjoying

Oh no, not the language focus bit 😦

themselves. But how can I be sure I’m harnessing this and pushing the learner’s English language skills forward? As ever, it’s about picking up “emerging language” and as ever, I always doubt my ability to do this effectively and usually pick up on the communication learners are struggling with. I identify this by picking up on mistakes or the unusual, L1 influenced ways the learners are expressing things in these monolingual classes. The focus is always about three-quarters of the way through the lesson, because I like to end lessons with a game or a pop-song. The lull upon the enforced language-focus is quite noticeable  as I try desperately to get communication hungry YLs to develop their language skills and there’s usually a sigh of relief once it’s finished and volume of communication can be raised once again.

So a final thought or question about language focus based on “emerging language”. I’ve read a number of books that refer to the focus on emerging language in order to teach the particular technique the book is concentrating on. But there seem to be few if any books out there about “emerging language” itself, and I’d love to read one.

Is dogme ELT just a warmer done good?

September 15, 2012

“Did you recognise my emergent miaow, Steve?”

I participated in a British Council-organised online Facebook discussion with Dale Coulter about using a dogme approach in the classroom and it got me thinking…

I frequently teach 3 hour lessons, punctuated by a 15 minute break. During the break, you hear the usual things being said between teachers in the staff-room; “My lesson’s completely flat”, “They’re completely bonkers tonight, must be the full moon” and “Oh god, I haven’t planned enough, I need to photocopy more materials.”

But sometimes you can be involved in a statement like this:

 “I started the class with a warmer that was only supposed to last 5 minutes, but they got really into it and we were still doing it an hour later.”

 This has happened to me lots of times, especially with communicative groups (usually consisting of noisy but fun teenagers). The warmer is usually a communicative task on a syllabus-related theme with a specific aim and no materials. For example, I’ll go into class, talk about my partner making me watch a terrible TV show the previous night and try to get some feedback that indicates I have interest amongst the students. I’ll then get the learners to work in pairs to remember and sequence the main parts of my anecdote, which they then compare with another pair. Once that’s done, students think of TV programmes, films or music they’re sometimes forced to watch/listen to against their will. They then share their stories and we feedback anecdotes as a group. If such a task takes off, it’s easy to see why it would take up an hour of class time, but if there had been little interest in my initial anecdote the warmer could well have been terminated at that introductory point and I’ll move to the syllabus-specified materials.

So, if I look back at the breakdown of my warmer activity we can say it was converstation-driven and materials-light, which make up two of “the three core precepts” (Meddings & Thornbury, 2009:8) of a Dogme approach to ELT. But the other core precept is a focus on emergent language and sadly I can’t guarantee a significant-for-the-learner focus on emergent language in any of these Dogme-like warmer activities I do. What I tend to do is pick up on errors the learners are making and highlight them to give the learner a chance to rectify those mistakes after the communicative activity, when they have more time to process the accuracy of their language. My learners like this and there is value in the acitivity, but are they really developing their awareness of language through the I process I use? Dave Willis (2003) explains,

“In spontaneous language use there are conflicting priorities. The learners’ main priority is to get their message across with appropriate speed and fluency; they may also be keen to produce language which is accurate – but speed and fluency conflict with accuracy.” (pg.8)

What strikes me when I highlight errors is that learners frequently recognise them immediately. So while the process is useful, the learners are focussing on what they already know rather than recognising new language.

So, the focus on mistakes I’m using is never going to be as useful to the learner as a focus on the form of emergent language. But how can I produce useful out-of-the-box focuses on emergent language? Say if I miss the emergent language or simply can’t establish patterns of emergent language use within the window of time I have to set-up and provide a useful language focus in a dogme-like lesson? I read “Teaching Unplugged” by Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury (2009) in the hope it would help me in this area. Whilst the introductory manifesto in Part A of the book is inspiring, the majority of the book was made up of lesson ideas that shared much in principle with the communicative warmers I use with my classes in many lessons. There was little to no advice on how you get your hands dirty with the emergent languag and what you should do with it and that’s what I wanted to learn.

I guess there are naturally-gifted teachers out there who can produce highly useful out-of-the-box emergent language focuses, but I doubt my ability to do this. This was recently confirmed by colleagues of mine, who are starting the Distance DELTA, reminded me of the list of language topics they can focus on in their observed orientation-course lesson. Just looking at areas of possible focus like “used to/would”, “auxiliary verb have and main verb have” and “reflexive and reciprocal pronouns” bring me out in a cold sweat. I’ve no doubt I can focus on these areas effectively given time to prepare but doubt my ability off-the-bat, should those areas emerge unexpected in a lesson.


Meddings, L. & Thornbury, S. “Teaching Unplugged” (2009) Delta Publishing
Willis, D. “Rules, Patterns & Words” (2003) CUP

Truthful Teaching

August 30, 2012

“Are you saying you didn’t think the thank-you letter I wrote for my new scratching post was real?”

We’re always trying to create tasks and activities in the classroom which will be useful for the learner in real-life. What’s the point of learning a language unless you can use it in real life?

Some time ago, my place of employment had a training day, in which several brainstorming groups were organised to overcome common teaching problems. I attended one on trying to motivate young learners to write, which was a popular subject. There were many complaints about the standard of writing and the lack of enthusiasm for a particular YL upper-intermediate (B2) task included in a course-book module on special occasions. The task required the learner to write a letter thanking a friend or relative for a present given on a special occasion, this letter would be included in the learner’s portfolio of assessed work, so it was quite important. The main complaint teachers had was that they couldn’t motivate their students to do the task because there was little to no real-world justification. Writing such a letter is something few of us do, let a alone a 14 year old.

But I was able to get my B2 class to do the task because I was truthful to them in explaining the real world purpose for writing such a letter; it could appear as an FCE writing task. Such a confession produced gasps amongst many colleagues, our language teaching institution uses continuous assessment and is better than those that teach towards Cambridge main suite exams!

But why would such a task be included in course-book or syllabus? The only real-world use for it is a form of FCE writing task preparation, the passing of which may well have a lot of real-world usefulness for my students (all of whom gladly wrote the thank-you letter to a pretty decent standard).

When thinking about real-world tasks, I immediately associate it to the theory of mediation developed by the Israeli psychologist, Reuven Feuerstein. In particular I refer to the necessity of a “purpose beyond the here and now”

“Learners must be aware of the way in which the learning experience will have wider relevance to them beyond the immediate time and place.” (Williams & Burden, 1997:69)

So, when writing a thank-you letter, what is the purpose beyond the here and now? Is it the small chance you may one day need to write a thank-you letter in a foreign language, or you might want familiarity with this sort of text because it could be included in a language writing test? I can’t answer that question with absolute certainty, but I’d put more money on the latter.

“Pupose beyond the here and now” is one the three key-features of Feuerstein’s theory of mediation. When looking at the other two, I can see that by confessing to my class about why I wanted them to write the thank-you letter, I was not only providing a purpose beyond the here and now, but also giving the task “significance”:

“The teacher needs to make the learners aware of the significance of the learning task so that they can see the value of it to them personally, and in a broader cultural context.” (Williams & Burden, 1997:69)

The confession also provided both me and the learners with a “shared intention”:

“In presenting the task, the teacher must have a clear intention, which is understood and reciprocated by the learners.” (Williams & Burden, 1997:69)

“Keep on keepin’ on telling the truth, Steve.”

By being truthful to my learners, I believe I was (unknowingly) following the key-features of Feuerstein’s theory of mediation. Quite simply, learners can see through bullsh*t, young-learners even more so.

Many European language schools base their syllabi are based on the CEFR “can-do” statements. These statements supposedly represent real-life tasks, the B2 “can-do” writing statement is as follows:

“I can write clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects related to my interests. I can write an essay or a report, passing on information or giving reasons in support of or against a particular point of view. I can write letters highlighting the personal significance of events and experiences.”(CEF 2001: 26–27)

Maybe the part in the last sentence about writing letters should be changed to “Facebook updates” or “Tweets”. The 2001 publication of those can-do statements is becoming rapidly outdated and it’s hard to imagine any young-learner wanting to do them, even if they could do them. Perhaps CEFR should change the name of “can-do” statements to “bothered” statements, as in “can be bothered” or “can’t be bothered”.

But the all powerful FCE exam bases its content upon these archaic statements in an attempt to keep it real (man). But the exam’s writing paper is anything but real, due to the imaginary scenarios and restrictive word limits it contains. But many B2 young-learners, for one reason or another, want that certificate. Sadly, being able to write a thank-you letter in a second language gives you an edge in achieving that goal, which is as real-life a goal as most of young-learners will probably have when using English as a second language.

– Williams, M., Burden, R. L. (1997). Psychology for Language Teahers. 15th ed. Cambridge: CUP
– Council of Europe 2001, Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, Council of Europe, accessed May 8th 2012 <>

A lexical approach to pop songs

August 27, 2012

“I picked some CDs for your next lesson, Steve. Ian Drury any good?”

In April 2012, I gave a session at the Association for Portuguese English Teachers (APPI) conference in Coimbra, Portugal. The session was entitled “A Lexical Approach to Pop songs”. I received a lot of really great feedback from other teachers at the conference, so thought I’d try to publicise and share the idea a bit more on the ELT blogosphere.

I’d spent the past couple of years trying to  find a really effective way to use songs in the classroom. With Youtube and smart-phones, gaining access to any song from the classroom has become incredibly simple and it’s evident that students really like to have songs introduced into their lessons.

My major concern was how to use songs in lessons. Almost every song worksheet I’d been given by colleagues looked at songs as listening activities. Most song work-sheets consisted of gap-fills or minimal pair phoneme activities, which were not only dull but also as difficult for a native speaker as they were the second language learner. The reason why they were difficult is simple, songs are not spoken discourse, we commonly mis-hear song lyrics because they are very difficult to understand. We listen to songs for pleasure and then try to find a message in it later on, total listening comprehension isn’t mirroring what we do in real life when we listen to a song.

During a part of my APPI session, I played the attendees this famous advert from the late 1980’s:

It’s a great advert and helps prove the point that mishearing lyrics is common and doesn’t spoil our enjoyment of the song. I asked the attendees if they’d consider the man in the song a good or bad student if he were in their class. Of course, he’s a great student because he’s generating his own (at times not quite) logical output based on a song that is both difficult to comprehend and doesn’t make much literal sense in its original form. How many songs do make sense? Pop songs are rarely a comprehensible or logical narrative discourse, they’re mostly just a series of catchy chunks or phrases stuck illogically together.

So, I started to play around in class with different ways of using songs and eventually I found a series of activities that used songs as a great tool to feed new vocabulary to language learners, with the natural catchiness of pop-songs really helping the learners store newly discovered vocabulary. In each lesson learns would:

  1. Listen to the song
  2. Share their opinions of the song (scaffolded by simple questions set by the teacher)
  3. Be fed vocabulary through a matching activity
  4. Recall the vocabulary in a gap-fill activity
  5. Reuse some of the vocabulary through a series of questions

Pop songs by their very nature are rich sources of fresh, commonly used vocabulary. Scott Thornbury describes them as;

“Rich in lexical chunks…Their repetitiveness, combined with their tendency to incorporate a lot of spoken chunk-type language, make pop songs a useful source for vocabulary work”

I started to take a purely lexical approach pop songs, focussing primarily on the lyrics of the song. I discovered that if we listened to the song and discussed it purely as a song, sharing our opinions, we could engage interest. Once that interest was engaged, we could begin language work using the song’s lyrics, but without listening to the song as a reference whilst completing the task. The tune, melody and rhythm of the song had already been introduced to the learners, it was stored in their memories and they could use that along with the lyrics to help them complete the language work.

By feeding and then recalling the language, I found that students were naturally recalling the song in order to help them recall the vocabulary. This appeared infinitely more useful than the standard “listen and fill the gaps” work-sheet teachers use with songs.

I decided to start a different blog to share some of the lesson plans I created using pop songs in the classroom. I doubt they’re perfect for everyone and I’m sure many teachers will find ways to improve what I’ve done. But I do feel that it’s a really effective way to use pop songs in the classroom and I hope the lesson ideas will inspire other teachers.

Please take a look here:


“How to Teach Vocabulary”, Thornbury. S, (Pearson/Longman -2002)

Obligatory explanation of purpose in the first post

August 23, 2012
Lola on the modem

“I’ve checked the world-wide-web, Steve. It’s totally ready for you.”

A big HELLO to the two or three people who might just possibly read this, one day.

I’m starting an ELT blog because after reading a hell of a lot of ELT literature, I’ve recently turned to blogs in order to supply me with pretty much all the ELT info I need. It’s been something of a revelation, trawling through dozens of self-reflective teaching blogs this summer and realising there are a hell of a lot of teachers out there who have a lot of valuable things to share if you’re willing to read and take everything on board.

I got heavily into reading ELT lit ever since I did the DELTA three years ago. Completing the DELTA really helped me develop my teaching, but most importantly it helped me mentally accept that teaching English was now a career, something I’d be associated with for the rest of my life. Since that realisation, I’ve started to enjoy teaching a lot more and I’ve become far more passionate about it.

So, here’s another blog from another teacher reflecting on their lessons, sharing ideas and hopefully interacting with others in the almighty “blogosphere”. I can also add it to my workplace’s “learning plan” and it might get me some kudos points with management.

Anyway, some rules for my blog:

1. I will post about teaching English and only teaching English.

2. I will include no details of my private life, sparing the names of the innocent.

3, I will include a picture of my cat Lola at the beginning of every post as eye-candy.

4. I will try to post at least once a fortnight.

That’s about it then. Hope you like the first picture of Lola.