Monthly Archives: June 2012

Language drills – why I love them

drilling means listening to a model, provided by the teacher, or a tape or another student, and repeating what is heard

Drilling is something that I first encountered during my teacher training, which is quite surprising in retrospect, as I have been learning languages since I was a kid. Since then, I have become an enthustiastic language-driller, finding the most useful language that a student needs on a particular topic, and having them learn and retain the correct intonation and pronunciation of the utterance.

A lesson that I recently taught centred on exchanging contact details. This was for business English students, at a pre-intermediate level.

Stage 1 – Email symbols, alphabet

  • Ensure student(s) are familiar with @, . , – and _ , and that they don’t have any problems with the alphabet (often French students have problems with ‘i’ and ‘e’, and ‘j’ and ‘g’).

If you find that students are having real difficulties understanding/saying letters, it can be a good idea to teach them the spelling alphabet.

Stage 2 – Elicit vocabulary

  • Tell students that they would like the email address of a colleague, that you are that colleague and that they will need to ask you some questions in order to get this information.
  • Elicit ‘Can I please have your email address?’
  • Now give them an example email address (without spelling any words)
  • Elicit ‘Can you please repeat that?’
  • Now, ask them how you could help them to understand.
  • Elicit ‘Can you please spell that?’
  • Spell the address to the student(s) very quickly.
  • Elicit ‘Can you please say that again more slowly?’
  • Repeat more slowly.
  • Now tell the students that they will have to check the information, as the email address is incorrect the email won’t go through.
  • Elicit ‘So, that’s……’

Stage 3 – Drill the questions that you’ve elicited

Stage 4 – Put the students in pairs, and have them exchange email addresses using the above questions (or if you have one student, give them another email address and then have them give you theirs).


So why is drilling great for skills like exchanging details?

  1. Drilling focusses on accuracy, which is very important for the exchange of specific information.
  2. This drilling will get the students used to hearing these particular phrases, which are routinely used in this particular context.
  3. Students are given ample opportunity to practise their pronunciation and intonation of the utterances, to prepare themselves for the following activity and the real-life situation.
  4. It gives the teacher the opportunity to correct any errors before they can be learned.
  5. Students seem to remember things better when they have been drilled.
  6. My students (especially lower level learners) love drilling. When they are speaking spontaneously, they often have to search for their vocabulary, and are unsure about their grammar and pronunciation. Drilling gives them an opportunity to follow a speaking model and develop their confidence speaking.


How can I get rid of my accent? Or Is it really necessary? – Some thoughts

In my second year of university, I was lucky enough to win a scholarship to spend my summer studying French at the University of New Caledonia. The trip was great, but the teaching and learning wasn’t. At the time, I felt completely uninspired by what was happening in the classroom. We were in such a culturally rich and vibrant country, and we were spending far too much time in the classroom, doing lessons on translation, (of nineteenth century English texts that I didn’t understand, into French of course), watching long lectures on various subjects and – my worst experience – the speaking class.

Highlights of the class (taught in two-hour sessions, in a classroom filled with hot computers, and no air-conditioning) included learning the the phonetic alphabet, reading tongue-twisters such as the one I photographed below and looking at diagrams of where our tongue should be when making sounds.


So what did I learn from this class? At the time, not very much. I could already pronounce all the sounds the teacher asked us to when we began. I struggled with phonetics when I started, and I struggled equally as much when I was tested on it at the end. I simply was not invested in the class. In retrospect, however, it gives me an image of how I don’t want to teach. I learnt that it is not very interesting to learning pronunciation in isolation. The fact that there is no context also means that students find anything they might learn more difficult to remember. I also learnt that, like in all things, not all language learners are created equal.

I have met very few people who have absolutely no accent when they speak a second language. Sometimes people can get away with saying short utterances without being noticed, but after awhile something usually gives them up. But obviously, some find it easier than others. A student of mine has shared the theory with me that people’s ability to produce native-like pronunciation in a second language, follows their ability to learn music. For more information on this, check out Lorraine Gilleece’s thesis on the correlation between attitudes for music and foreign languages here.

As well as being unable to hear the different sounds produced in a second language, I believe that a fear of sounding ridiculous while producing unfamiliar sounds prevents students from having a more native-sounding pronunciation. While I’m not sure that this was the case when I was teaching multilingual groups in New Zealand, (made up of Chinese and Spanish speakers), I feel that this is definitely the case in France. This suspicion increased when I heard some of my students doing ‘Speedlingua ‘ lessons (online individual learning, focussing on natural pronunciation and intonation. Their pronunciation sounded much more natural than it did in class, and they were speaking louder than they usually would. Perhaps this was because they thought nobody was watching.

But at the end of the day, is accent really that important? Yes and no. Yes, because people need to understand you. Language is a means of communication, so it is useless to speak a language if others can’t understand you. As an English language speaker, (and I’m sure that others out there feel the same), I find it much easier to listen to someone who has less of an accent. So there could also be some interest in ‘improving’ your accent if you’d like people to be more attentive when you’re speaking. However, variety is the spice of life. Our accents are showcases of where we’re from, and give us a bit of individuality. They make us interesting, and give us a talking point when someone asks us where we’re from (I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard “Vous avez un petit accent mademoiselle. Vous êtes de quelle origine?‘. So to ahead and do some pronunciation work, but don’t get in a pickle because it’s not the end of the world if you still have an accent!

The Best Job in the World – Lesson plan

Today I taught a lesson inspired by Designer Lesson‘s ‘Best Job in the World’ lesson plan, which can be found here. In a nutshell, it is centered on a promotion run by Tourism Queensland in 2009, where candidates competed for the position of ‘caretaker’ on Hamilton Island, off the Great Barrier Reef. The successful candidate would be paid $150,000 for the contract.

This promotion is especially interesting from an English teaching perspective. It gives students the opportunity to express their opinion on what the best job in the world would be, to practise listening for key information and to explain who they think is the best candidate. From a business-English point of view, this also gives excellent opportunity for discussion about the marketing side, and why the promotion was so successful on a limited budget.

Also, being from that part of the world, it’s always a pleasure to have students discover the treasures of the Pacific.

Bribe ’em once – and it might not work the second time.

Larry Ferlazzo has blogged on a study, which found that people were unlikely to donate to a charity for a second time if the said charity threw in a sweetener for their first donation. The post can be found here.

I think that this behavior is definitely reflected in the classroom. Once last year I gave away a tote-bag as a prize, and during my CELTA, I tested a little bit of bribery with a chocolate fish. Both of these lessons worked just fine, and the students were very motivated. Although the tote-bag lesson was a one-off, I had the interesting experience of sitting in on some lessons with the class that had been competing for the chocolate fish. They were disappointed with other teachers that weren’t offering prizes, and were even more disappointed when I arrived the next day to teach them empty-handed.

So, in my experience, bringing one chocolate fish to class means setting a precedent, and making a commitment to bringing one every lesson from then on. It would be interesting to hear if any other teachers have had any different experiences.

Total Language Immersion – What does that mean?

I spent my weekend in the beautiful Burgundian village called ‘Pommard’ where my husband is from, and where his family lives. This weekend it was a time for a family reunion, celebrating a new addition to the family and a milestone birthday. Needless to say, there was excellent wine, a lot of delicious food and – the inspiration for my post today – endless amounts of conversation. Relatives and friends, people who are very close and care about one another, get together and speak as much and for as long as they can. Topics can range from the weather, to politics, to the latest tractor breakdown – always with a lot of humour mixed in. And admittedly, I didn’t understand everything.

But this is what I would call ‘complete immersion’. I would like to mention that just because you live in a country, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you will be immersed in its language sufficiently for you to learn it. Unfortunately for my language skills, my new living arrangements mean that I don’t have to speak French all the time. I no longer have to speak only French at home, as my husband understands if I speak to him in English. Also, being an English teacher rather than working in a restaurant with French colleagues and customers, I speak a lot of English at work. And being in Dijon, a city, I’ve been able to find English-speaking friends who I spend more time with than the French.

Admittedly, if I really wanted to ‘integrate’ more into French society I could. But I believe that human beings are linguistically lazy, and will (consciously and subconsciously) try to speak their mother tongue whenever I could. I first noticed this with the French community in Wellington, New Zealand. Many of them would share a flat with a group of other French people, work in a French restaurant with French managers and colleagues and only go out with other French speakers. As a result, some of those who had been there the longest didn’t necessarily have very high levels of English.

Another eye-opener was teaching some of the elementary-level students in Wellington, at the Campbell Institute during my CELTA course. The majority came either from Chile or from China, and had been in New Zealand for different lengths of time (from 6 months to 10 years) and were aged from 23 to 72. I was initially surprised that some of the students had such a basic knowledge of English, but when I got to know particularly two Chilean students, I had a much clearer picture of why they had effectively avoided learning English. Similarly to the French ex-patriates that I spoke about, these Chilean students were very established in the Wellington Latino community. Neither had yet found work, so they spent all of their time with their Chilean flatmates and socializing with other Spanish speakers.

So how can we maximise these opportunities for total language immersion, such as my social family weekend? I think it’s important to make friends who speak the language, and who ideally won’t speak your mother tongue. And the more the better – don’t just make one friend, but make lots of friends and have them speak to each other at a natural pace while you try to follow. This is the principle. But my English-speaking bubble is very comfortable, so it will take some motivation to put the plan into action.