Category Archives: Adult learners

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.


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.

Communicating without grammar – possible?

Last week, I blogged about the importance of networking, sharing ideas and developing professionally. Today, I’d like to share with you a few of my trains of thought that have followed some of the ideas that others have given me in the last few weeks.

I had the pleasure of attending Sonia Pritchard’s presentation in Lyon, where she described her ‘Eureka moment’, when she changed her thinking about which parts of language learning were the most important to learn and therefore to teach. She gave the  example (as I have shown above) of two sentences – one with the vocabulary missing, and one with the grammar missing. If you look at both of them, it is obvious that the meaning of the second one is much easier to understand. Okay, it’s not a ‘correct’ sentence, but the message is conveyed and this basic communication is successful.

So in light of this ‘discovery’ of the importance of the importance of such a basic level, it seems that resisting this grammar-drive (which seems to be very prominent in France) seems to be the way to go. For lower-level learners anyway, the emphasis really needs to change from accuracy to fluency.

What about advanced learners though? Do they really need accurate grammar? An afternoon Orangina-drinking session with a couple of teachers led me to believe otherwise. I, admittedly, am a stickler for the present perfect. This is the tense that the French seem to find impossible to grasp, and often use inappropriately or not at all. I seem to jump at any opportunity to give my students a little lesson, with CELTA standard diagrams and a bunch of questions about when the activity started or if it finished in the past/present . But my new Franco-American teaching guru Catrina told me that in the States, they frequently use the past simple in place of the present perfect (using phrases such as “I wanted to see this movie for weeks”), and generally reserve the present perfect to negative and question forms. And yes, all of the English speakers of the world understand them, so should I really be so fussy when an English learner gives me a sentence like that?

I have witnessed that it is perfectly possible to speak fluent, operational English without having mastered the grammar (notably the present perfect). Before I began teaching, I worked in a hotel restaurant in Wellington, New Zealand where the majority of the employees were French (as well as the maitre d’ and the chef), as well as some other international workers from countries such as Argentina. While the managers had some problems producing a ‘correct’ menu, or an email without grammar/spelling mistakes, they spoke excellently, managed their non French-speaking staff and understand every detail of what was going on in the restaurant.

Another more personal example of (almost) perfect communication without perfect English and French is my marriage. My husband, being French and having learnt English on the job, never mastered the present perfect. I (although I have studied French to a fairly high level, and continue to work on it) have not 100% mastered the French articles (le, la, les), and I probably have some grammar problems that I’m not told about. And from experience, the real problems come when the vocabulary is missing/incorrect (for example, I often misinterpret how I should be cooking and what I should be using, as I am especially lacking in kitchen vocabulary).

But I know that especially professionally, grammar, and therefore the present perfect, has its place. We need it for emails, more formal correspondance and for presentations. So I will keep my grammar teaching strategies up my sleeve, but try to keep ‘first things first’.

The reluctant learner – how to get the motivation back?

I know that feeling of dread before a language lesson, when you haven’t revised from last class, done any homework or even thought about the language since the previous lesson. A few years ago, I took weekly individual Spanish lessons during one summer. Although I loved Spanish, it just wasn’t the time for me to be making language-learning commitments. I was working fifty hours a week as a waitress, with very irregular hours that made me very tired. Needless to say, waking up early to take a bus to the University was no easy feat.

But although my work and sleep routines were not helping with my learning, I would always be relieved each time I would arrive in class and see my teacher, Carla. She was always positive, patient and even though my preparation was almost never done, she would bring me up to speed and keep moving at a good pace for me.

Recently I’ve been teaching individual classes with some professional students with uncertain futures in their work. Obviously they have a lot of things to think about besides their English homework. So when one student came to me yesterday and told me (in French) that frankly he hadn’t thought about English since last class, didn’t really feel like doing it and hadn’t brought his books along, I acknowledged his feeling and we did a textbook-free class on a more general topic. At the end of the class he thanked me for class that was interesting and not too demanding (I.e. moving at a pace that he could cope with on a particular day).

I think this is an excellent example of the philosophy of teaching the student(s) and not the lesson plan. I truly believe that this is the most important way to create the best learning environment. To finish, I would like to leave you with a video of Sir Ken Robinson talking about how teachers are like gardeners, tending to individual students needs in order to creat an environment where they can blossom.