Good for who?

When I first started teaching I used to use an activity from “pronunciation games”. You might have used it yourself  The handout has a series of forked paths, each one ending with the name of a capital city. You choose a difficult pronunciation for your learners  in my case R/L for Japanese students, and assign one for sound for “turn left” and the other for “turn right”. You then write a series of minimal pairs on the board and have one student read them trying to direct their partner to a pre-decided capital city. The mispronunciations would usually result in students going to the wrong city and (supposedly) highlight the perils of mispronunciation. I distinctly remember saying something like “you might say you like eating ‘lice’ which is really disgusting!”

I feel quite embarrassed when I think about this for two reasons. Firstly, I’m pretty sure that anyone hearing a Japanese students say “I like eating lice” would have no problem  understanding what they were going for, but more importantly, because what I failed to notice at the time was that this activity had the effect of making precisely none of my students any better at pronouncing /r/ sounds. Despite no improvement, students enjoyed the activity and I thought it was great. This got me thinking recently; are the things we do in the classroom for the sake of the students, or for the sake the teacher?

Take the “reading skill trilogy” I’ve criticised before. Prediction, skimming and scanning and guessing from context, as I’ve noted, arguably have some very serious problems. Yet they are good for filling up reading lessons and the “aims” columns of observed lesson plans. These ‘skills’ may have limited use for students but are very useful for teachers. A teacher planning a reading course now has something to teach. We can do “prediction” on Monday, “skimming” on Tuesday, “guessing on Wednesday” and so on.

Another example of this phenomena I think is some of the language we use. For my external DELTA lesson I wrote about teaching cause and effect. In order to teach this lesson I had to find out which language items would be the most useful so I created a corpus of about 5 million words from various academic texts. I then checked off the usually course book lists of “cause and effect language” and what I found was quite surprising.

Textbooks and websites often have long lists of cause and effect language, such as:

lead to
due to
owing to
as a result of
stem from
can give rise to
as a consequence of

Interestingly the corpus data showed that while some of these phrases were used frequently, others were barely used at all. Now corpus examination like this is not without problems. However there were some very telling findings. Whereas the word ‘effect’ appeared 691 and ‘leads to’ 368, in 5 million words, ‘owing to’ was only used three times. Other words like ’cause’ were common appearing 189 times but ‘stem from’ didn’t appear once. For teachers and textbooks writers there seems to be a philosophy of “more is more”. The more terms we present to students, the more we may feel we are teaching them, (giving them value for money) when in actual fact, focusing on more commonly used phrase and making sure students have a strong grasp on those, could arguably be  better strategy. After all, isn’t presenting two phrases, seemingly as equals when one is hundreds of times more common, a tad misleading?

The same argument could be made about cohesion phrases like ‘in addition’ and ‘moreover’. In fact the argument has been made, convincingly by Crewe (1990). Throwing a big list of phrases at students might seem like a good idea, but as with cause and effect language ‘less’ is probably more. There are two reasons for this:

firstly, students are often lead to believe that these phrases are synonymous:

Words meaning ‘and’
and, too, as well (as), either, also, in addition (to), besides, furthermore, moreover,
both… and…, not only… but also…

(Eastwood 2002:324)

Call me picky but ‘moreover’ doesn’t mean ‘and’. Moreover means that the second point I’m making may be even more important that the first. Would ‘and’ convey the same meaning here?

She had noticed that there was a man sitting in the second row of the stalls to her right who was observing her, rather than watching the play. Moreover, he seemed to be smiling at her as if he recognised her (BBC)

Presenting these phrases as being ‘equal’ will (and does) lead to confusion and misuse. Here is an example (content altered) from a student essay:

Also, for example, if a Chinese man is dieting, then he has a real need to eat healthy food for a period. Moreover, it can be suggested that consumers can feel happiness when they are in process of consumption (student essay)

the use of ‘moreover’ here is plainly wrong and that there are almost four of these cohesion phrases in two sentences is worrying. The linking phrases are sprinkled on like hundreds and thousands (US sprinkles). Any one who has worked in EAP will recognise this kind of writing.

And Secondly, this approach may also lead students to being overburdened with language which they probably don’t need.  Corpus research (Hinkel 2004:323) indicates that the commonest linkers in formal academic writing are:

1. however
2. thus 
3. therefore 
4. then 
5. so

It is surely better that they can use five commonly appearing phrases well, than 10 or 15 phrases badly. It is also surely better that they are more familiar with more common phrases. It may be nice for a teacher to present students with a huge list of exotic linkers, like some kind of extravagant badge of erudition but how useful is this for students. In the case of language learning Less may well be more.

12 thoughts on “Good for who?

  1. My dear mallingual, it was pure delight finding this blog! How nice to hear something so eminently sane, in amongst the general (psycho)babble!If you want evidence that teaching people things like \”'moreover' is another word for 'and'\” and \”try not to use the same discourse marker twice\” is harmful, you need only read some of the excruciating IELTS essays I see so often, ruined by confusing misapplication of linkers which are not properly understood in terms of their connotations. It happens so often that something somewhere must be wrong.I remember being at a seminar where the virtues of a learner dictionary cd-rom were being shown off. The guy had clicked on the word \”suggest\” to show how the software presented a thesaurus entry of similar words. I was thinking that without an easy way to tell the difference between these words it was going to confuse more than elucidate, when someone else piped up with \”I am surprised not to see the word 'posit' in there.. I teach all my students to use this word in their essays.\” ::facepalm:: For all the talk I hear of 'reflective practice', I wonder how many teachers out there really reflect on these things? There are a lot of sacred cows and shibboleths in EFL, it seems.Keep up the good work of pointing them out!


  2. Sir, Love the post (as usual). At the same time your first example left me with some questions. You wrote: y, because what I failed to notice at the time was that this activity had the effect of making precisely none of my students any better at pronouncing /r/ sounds. Despite no improvement, students enjoyed the activity and I thought it was great. How do you know (=what evidence do you have) that your students didn't improve their pron on those specific sounds in that short time of the lesson? How do you know (= what evidence do you have) that this was not a fantabulous starting point for your students to become aware of the differences in these sounds? How do you know that this was not valuable, safe, fun practice on something your students had been worrying about for ages?I have done similar activities in the past (and shock horror, would surely consider doing them again too). Moreover, I never thought of such an activity as a chance to highlight the perils of mispronunciation as I think it is a chance to practice getting one's ear around the sounds and to get instant feedback if your listener has heard what you intended to say. Add to this the fun aspect of something that could be drudgery and I say why not? No really. Why not? I feel like a pain talking about the starting point when I largely agree with much of what you have written! So I will stop here. Yours in cynicism, Mike


  3. I have to say my main purpose in using that activity was that it was a fun filler which looks like it has a purpose. I didn't concern myself too much with it achievig more than getting them familiar with the sounds than being able to produce them even though usually some remedial pron work and how to shape their mouth etc did seem to help at least during the lesson. Whether it sticks is like vocab, down to the student to practise outside class and the teacher to review often.There is a cool teen friendly version (I mean making the teacher look cool which is also a valid aim) where you assign the words to numbers from 0-9 and then read out the words of your phone number, or student's number, while students type in the corresponding number and the first person to successfully dial your number wins. They love it.As for linking words, completely agree. I end up teaching ones I never used in my MA essays because \”they're in the book\” and the test has to be passed.


  4. Thanks for the feedback! One of the problems is IELTS itself. If you look at the band descriptors for writing task 2 cohesion and coherence you can get a high score (possibly 6) for using linkers \”in a mechanical way\”. That is, IELTS rewards risk takers but some students and teachers exploit this and just have linkers sprinkled all over the essay. Native speaker essays very rarely create cohesion in this way.


  5. Good point Mike, I have absolutely no evidence it didn't help them. I didn't do a RCT I just didn't notice any of them being able to pronounce R/L sounds any better because of that activity. I might be being a bit harsh on myself? I guess what I'm getting at is that I try to look at things in the classroom in an economical way. What is the maximum best use of time for the students. R and L issues aren't going to give students a major problem in life, (again, no evidence, just my feeling) weird intonation seems more likely to bugger them up, or in the case of Japanese students, adding extra syllables into words which make them hard to understand. If you only have a limited amount of time (and we usually do) then it should be spent on the things that have the maximum effect on students improvement. For example you could spend weeks on \”th\” sounds and never see any (real) improvement or you might teach them a ton of vocab in the same time. Recently I've started thinking we should spend time on things we can change and quietly side-step things we can't. If you watch this video for example, Can he do r/l? would you want to work on his pron? might, but clearly he's doing fine for himself. Of course it also depends to some extent what the students want to do. Anyway, I'm rambling now so perhaps I'll just say that you're right to call those things out and perhaps I could have chosen a better example.


  6. Thanks for the thoughtful reply. (I will have to check the video later as I am not able to watch it at this moment). I have two additional thoughts I am dying to please forgive me and please don't feel compelled to respond. 1) It seems to me that perhaps we are taking a different perspective on such classroom activities. Actually that is obvious. Ha. One key difference as I see it is that you seem to be more focused on seeing the results on the day than me. So, in my view such practice producing and listening to R and L overload could (repeat: could) be time well spent and the first step along the path of improved production, speaking, confidence, life and everything. Whereas sure we could \”teach\” (I don't really know what that means….honestly) a bunch of vocab and perhaps students could recognize more vocab than they could at the start of the lesson (and we could even test/check this) but I am not convinced that this would necessarily stick. Am I suggesting that we need more evidence and research? I don't know. I don't even know who I am anymore. 🙂 2) It seems like R and L is a scary thing for Korean and Japanese students so perhaps some side-stepping is useful. At the same time (and this might be another place we have very different views) I think sometimes as teachers we can make choices that might not be the most productive in the here and now but can pay off more. quick examples. I don't really think that extensive feedback on Ss' writing from the teacher is super effective or likely to stick. HOwever, I might choose to do at times in order to prove to students that I am there to work for and with them and I think this pays off later when students are more likely to make the effort on assignments knowing they will get lots of feedback (whether I actually think it will help all that much at all). Perhaps I have mentioned this before but I think it is a good example. Another is the fun with the location game you mentioned. Perhaps the bit of fun with something that can be annoying, boring and frustrating is time well spent even if students don't show marked improvement on R/L pron in the 10 min of the activity. I am rambling and thus out of here. 🙂 3) I like your emphasis on efficiency. Nice to think about. Thanks for the exchange


  7. Hi Mike!I'll try to reply, (the video was Ban ki moon BTW)1) I think you're right. But I wonder if i had taught the R/L thing every lesson it would have made any difference? Even without R/L there are hardly any communication problems, no? 2)Have you ever managed to improve a students R/l? If you have, can you please give me some tips! (lol)Interesting idea about writing feedback. a colleague said the same thing this week, -we do writing feedback to show students we did something, whether or not it works. I find this at once persuasive and yet frightening. 3) hmm, efficiency is important I think. They are paying us after all. Thanks for commenting and I'm looking forward to your reply re the journal.


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