Taboo ELT

Russ Mayne recently wrote two posts (Taboo, Taboo 2) sharing answers to a questionnaire he posted following this tweet:

Are there any opinions you hold about teaching that you wouldn't feel comfortable sharing with your colleagues/peers?

He shared the ideas without judgment or comment. I found them really thought-provoking, and ended up discussing with a friend which ones I agree and disagree with. My comments are in purple below, underneath the original comments which drew my attention. I encourage you to read the whole list, not just the ones I picked out, as I’m sure you’ll disagree with me too! I’d be interested to know what you think.


  • Students can learn with or without coursebooks
    Just like they can learn with or without teachers, classrooms, websites…it depends on their motivation.
  • Textbooks are a good idea. Somebody took the time to plan a course not just so that you don’t need to but because you couldn’t do a better job AND teach at the same time.
    And it’s that time factor which makes a huge difference – I’d love to teach courses that are highly specific to my students’ needs, but I have no idea how I’d ever find the time!
  • The majority of teaching (75%) in ELT is below standard.
    I’m not sure where the percentage came from, but I think that’s fairly true. However, this is mostly because of lack of time, training, funding, support, motivation, not because of a lack of effort on the part of many of the teachers.
  • We can’t really “teach” anything
    We can just create the conditions for learning
  • […] The debunking of learning styles/multiple intelligences has not really reached many of the teachers around me
    It’s a slow process, and is by no means complete.
  • Ain’t just the one way. There are so many ways to learn a language, like there are different ways to learn a musical instrument. And they *all* work to some extent – because learners are meaning-makers.
    Because *humans* are meaning-makers and we want to communicate.
  • Tired of endless arguments about methods. Grammar translation works for some students. TBLT seems hopelessly confusing and unsystematic to some students. Some students hate group work.
    Horses for courses. But we should also try different things out and see what works for our students and our teaching style, not just assume that something will or won’t work because we do or don’t like it.
  • Memorize vocabulary using word cards, lists, or vocab apps
    At some point, you’ve just got to sit down and learn it. However, this alone will not be enough – it needs to be combined with other learning strategies and context, context, context.
  • We aren’t saving the world!
    We’re teaching English! (Oh, and confidence, self-esteem, the ability to make mistakes and be OK with that, interactive communication…all that personal stuff)
  • You might be living the dream teaching now. But the lack of a pension will fuck you up in your golden years.
    Though I don’t think that’s just in our profession. It’s something I wrote about a while back.
  • ‘Listen and repeat’ is no good for practising pron. You have to get physical.
    What’s happening in your mouth? Without knowing that, it’s difficult to imitate it.
  • […] This requirement [to have a degree] is a big barrier preventing people with potential but have no degree from entering the profession.
    I have had the pleasure of working with quite a few people who have no degree but are excellent teachers nonetheless.
  • We don’t all teach EFL as a means of living in the Far East while we decide what we want to do in life. Some of us do the job in English-speaking countries as a profession.
    Not just in English-speaking countries, but yes! This is a common misconception outside the profession, and, sadly, sometimes inside it too.
  • I don’t like every student.
    Just like I don’t like every person I come across. I try to hide that dislike in the classroom though as I’m sure not every student likes me!
  • Some of the top academics often have trouble translating their amazing knowledge into practical application. They need to get their asses into a classroom again (or for the first time).
    Also some of the trainers and conference speakers. It’s all well and good telling us to do something, but unless you’ve tried it yourself or make it very clear that this is just an idea/thought not a recipe, then please don’t tell me I have to do it or try to make me feel guilty for not doing it.

Partially agree

  • Textbooks represent a lot of research and a great understanding of students’ needs. They are an excellent resource to guide students through their English learning journey.
    A lot of textbooks do, but not all, and they still need a good mediator to be used successfully.
  • Monolingual English native speaking teachers who’ve never learned another language to a decent level of proficiency (let’s say B2) lack credibility as English language teachers
    I think any kind of level is fine, as long as they’re trying – we really need to understand how it feels to learn another language.
  • Linguists teach best. If you’ve learned a foreign language as an English native speaker, you’ve got to have a lot to contribute.
    First-hand experience of learning a language certainly helps, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you ‘teach best’.
  • *Some* non native speaker teachers have accents that are difficult to understand, make countless errors, and really shouldn’t be teaching.
    The same is true of some native-speaker teachers.
  • The students improve because they are living in this English speaking country and interacting on a daily basis, not because of our courses
    That depends on the student, the course and the teacher. Some students only socialise with people who speak their own language outside the lessons, and never speak a word of English. Some are so motivated by being abroad that they learn loads more. But the course is a factor, and it’s potentially what got them to the country in the first place.
  • Within the private academies, student progression is based on customer retention and ensuring they layout out payment for the next semester. Should you raise this issue, goodbye teaching job.
    This may be true within a lot of private academies, but it’s certainly not true where I work now. 
  • That qualified & experienced EFL teachers are more knowledgable & hardworking than PGCE qualified teachers. EFL teachers never get to set work and do marking in class, EFL teachers have to satisfy a wide array of paying students and I’ve seen a lot of mainstream teachers on Twitter go crazy over the simplest of ideas that are the mainstays of EFL work. EFL teachers should be better paid and recognised as ‘proper teachers’.
    I definitely agree with the final sentence, though the money has to come from somewhere. We also have a hell of a lot to learn from PGCE-qualified teachers, and I don’t think oneupmanship helps anyone.
  • Standardised testing is overrated
    It can be useful as a guideline if the tests are reliable and valid, but we need to teach a lot more assessment literacy – an area I want to learn a lot more about myself.
  • […] pretty much every test is meaningless and all the international language exams are essentially a scam.
    Many tests are meaningless, because teachers haven’t been taught how to create effective tests and they’re not set up properly. See also my previous comment. International language exams can be hugely motivating to the students and result in real jumps in their progress, but as with any exam, they are a mixed blessing.
  • We spend 80% of our energy on the 20% who cheat, lie, and laze about.
    Though I wouldn’t phrase it anywhere near that harshly, we do spend a lot of our energy on the students who are disruptive in our classes. What we don’t necessarily do is go deeper and find out why that is happening. Is it too easy? Too difficult? Do they have other stuff going on outside that is affecting what’s happening in the classroom?
  • Teaching the IPA is a waste of time and energy for all concerned.
    We should teach the bits that students will actually need e.g. the pairs of sounds that are challenging for students with a particular first language. Having a visual reference can really help some students. There’s no need to teach all of it unless the students are interested and motivated to learn it.
  • “Everyone learns differently,” I’m not sure they do. People may have different learning habits and different strengths and weaknesses, but I’ve seen no evidence that the process of learning isn’t basically the same for everyone. I think it’s often just lip service to seeing students as individuals……before giving them all the same task to do anyway.
    I think the underlying process is the same, but the ways to get there are different for different people, and the point at which something ‘clicks’ is different too.
  • While communication is key, treating mistakes that don’t impede communication as silly and acceptable accidents so nobody’s feelings get hurt is lazy teaching and in the long run is far worse for students regardless of how or where they will use their English
    Not lazy teaching, but it takes a certain level of confidence from a teacher to be able to do this. We’re working with our newly-qualified teachers to help them decide when and how much to correct, and particularly to encourage them to do a lot more hot/on-the-spot/point-of-need correction, rather than leaving it all until afterwards…or never! Teachers also need to internalise the fact that correcting something once doesn’t solve the problem – it takes time to assimilate new knowledge.
  • The “subject knowledge” that English teachers are supposed to be experts in is LANGUAGE. So many teachers know jack shit about language as a system, linguistics, phonology/phonetics and it’s embarrassing. If I hear another teacher respond “Oh, it’s an exception! That’s just the way it is! Isn’t English wild and wacky?!!!” in response to a question about some aspect of language that is completely systematic, rule-governed and explainable, I will go crazy! It’s not an “exception”! You just don’t know enough about the subject area you’re supposed to be an “expert” in.
    First, read the article by Michael Swan that Russ has linked to in ‘language’ – it’s excellent (thanks Russ!) I don’t think we should go about calling ourselves ‘experts’ in language, especially at the beginning of our careers. However, we should know about the area of language that we’re teaching that day, and about how it actually works. We should also be aware that if the language was made of exceptions, nobody would be able to learn it, not even children. There have to be a certain amount of rules for it to be a system of communication.
  • The lack of professionalism within the ELT industry.
    Sometimes, yes, but it depends entirely on the context. I’m privileged to work in an exceedingly professional school.
  • That ultimately the private language school model is useless. Teachers have very little effect on the learners and they’d be much better off watching tv and reading books in English. The results we produce are typically down to the students own motivation/talent. For that reason it’s fine to use coursebooks as it will have the same effect as not using them.
    Again, it entirely depends on the private language school. Occasionally we have a student in a satellite school who has to skip a year because we don’t have a class available. The difference in their progress in the following years is huge because of having missed that one year, and while we do whatever we can to ensure they can catch up, it’s never the same as having completed that year. For me, that proves that we must be doing something right. And yes, they might be better of watching TV and reading books in English, but at some point they need some explicit input and the requirement to produce the language. Motivation and talent clearly have a part to play, but so do teachers, including trained teachers in private language schools who have the support of their school to support their students.
  • ‘Management’ in ELT is just a euphemism for manipulation – how to get underpaid overworked teachers to do the job without having a nervous breakdown. All talk of ‘teacher motivation’ to me is thus senseless – pay them more and give them fewer hours- it’s as simple as that, instead of spending money on plastic red buses and gadgets like IWBs that nobody needs. To become Delta qualified is a massively costly and stressful exercise, but in London the going rate of pay at this level is only 20 quid a teaching hour gross. This is, quite frankly, very insulting and the main reason why I hope never to have to work for a language school again.
    An incredibly despressing view, and I’m sorry for this person that this is their experience of the profession. It’s true that rates of pay don’t always reflect qualifications, but this is not completely the fault of schools. Students and potential students don’t understand the difference between teachers who are and aren’t qualified, and they don’t understand the difference experienced teachers can make to them either, so why should they pay more when they can pay less? This results in competing on price, meaning less money is available to pay teachers. But yes, spend the money where it should be spent, on training and support, including for those aforementioned managers, who very often have had zero training in how to do an incredibly challenging job and then take the flack when things don’t work out. 
  • Native speaker teachers (with TEFL+ observed teaching practice/CELTA ) are better than their NNS counterparts in some contexts because a) high school teachers in (eg) Italy usually have NO didactic training, neither are they observed or given feedback. Just having a degree in English is enough to be an English teacher. […]
    I don’t think the word ‘better’ is helpful here, but it’s certainly true that in some cases people can complete a teaching degree and never have set foot in a classroom, much less been given feedback on their teaching. A friend of mine in the Czech Republic trained as a French and Spanish secondary teacher – in a two-year degree, she had 12 hours in the classroom right at the end of the course, and that was only because she was teaching 2 languages. Otherwise she would have had six. Her course was entirely theory-based, and some of the theory was tenuous, to say the least.
  • We are fooling ourselves and our students in the process into believing that it is possible to learn language structures or concepts that native speakers learn over the course of their lives and have the ideal environment in which they can test their hypotheses about what they are learning.
    I’m not sure about the phrase ‘fooling ourselves’, but we certainly need to be careful in what we say to students about the learning process. We need to make sure they realise it takes a long time, and they will never be perfect (whatever that is), nor do they need to be.
  • Racism is a much bigger problem in ELT than Native Speakerism.
    I can’t comment on the comparative scale of these two issues, but it’s certainly something which is not discussed much and should be.


  • I don’t believe that learning in a group is of any worth to anyone. If you really want to learn a language then doing so by yourself and having a one-to-one teacher is by far the best method. I don’t believe that attending a private academy/institution/language school is the best way to spend your money.
    That’s me out of a job then. Having a private teacher is potentially quite expensive. Having a good teacher is the important thing, regardless of whether you’re in a group or studying individually. Being in a group provides so many more things that just learning the language – the chance to socialise, the motivational benefits of being in a group, the accountability of needing to show up, wanting to see how your classmates are progressing year on year. It can also take the pressure off you to perform as a student all the time – being in an individual lesson is tiring!
  • ELT teachers should not be allowed to teach YLs. It is simply a babysitting service. Most teachers don’t have the skills, passion or knowledge to teach and deal with YLs. You should only be allowed to teach YLs if you have done exactly the same qualifications as someone who teaches YLs in a state school for example. Degree, PGCE and possibly a masters in specialising in YLs.
    We’d have no teachers! But they definitely need a lot more support and training, something which is definitely lacking in large parts of the private language school sector.
  • Some adolescent students are not temperamentally predisposed to language learning and therefore it is a complete waste of time teaching them. Their presence in the classroom is disruptive and counterproductive. Experienced teachers will know who these individuals are in the class within the first 10 minutes of a lesson. Exceptions will occur from time to time, but it would serve every one’s interests if these students were quickly moved into other subjects.
    And therefore we will deprive them of the joy of learning another language and seeing through other eyes. We will close off the world for them. We label them as disruptive and unable to learn, and don’t give them a chance to notice little bits of progress and build their confidence. Because that’s what we’re there for: confidence. English is a by-product.
  • A CELTA does not make you a qualified teacher.
    I’m out of a job again! It does make you a qualified teacher, within a given definition of qualified (having an initial certificate which involved being observed and getting feedback on it, and learning about a few techniques which can help you in the classroom) and teacher (for adults in private language schools). What CELTA does is give you the basic building blocks which your first jobs should help you build on. Sadly in about 90% (maybe more) of cases, this does not happen. That’s one of the reasons I wrote ELT Playbook 1, as a little step towards building on an initial qualification.

ELT Playbook 1 cover and topic areas: back to basics, examining language, upgrading skills, being creative, exploring your context, teacher health and wellbeing

  • There are teachers/trainees that will never be effective classroom practitioners because they don’t have the people skills (and such skills can’t be learnt/take too long to develop).
    The key word I disagree with here is *never* – anybody can do it if they want to, and people skills can most definitely be learnt. After all, infants don’t have them, and they learn them over time. However, the teacher/trainee may not want to put in that effort, and it may put some students off, so it’s a tightrope of whether it’s worth doing or not.
  • The majority of teachers, especially at private language schools, are really just washed up has beens and life’s rejects, this always being the elephant in the room when issues of exploitation, unfair treatment and teacher’s rights are brought up. In other words, there may well be reasons for management at institutions, etc., treating teaching staff as interchangeable, expendable revenue generators, their attitude being that the ‘teachers’ (whom they tend to think of in inverted commas like that) wouldn’t be at their mercy without having seriously fucked up in life in one way or another (‘take it or leave it’, basically). There are indeed teachers who are passionate and go the extra mile, along with all the incompetent dross, but the rather awkward question of how most ended up long-term in what regular society regards as a silly sort of gap year job remains.
    How exceedingly depressing. While the first statement may be true of some people, I’m lucky that I have come across very few of these people. Maybe I’m just lucky with where I’ve worked? And why does regular society still regard it as a silly sort of gap year job? Is it because they don’t have many foreign language schools in their own monolingual countries and don’t realise how much it can open the door for some students? What is ‘regular society’ anyway?  

Tell me more

  • The field caters to middle aged white ladies far too much and this robs it of racial literacy
  • I get to choose – pretty much – what I teach, but I do feel more and more uncomfortable with many of the ‘traditional’ theories of SLA. They are so monolingual and anglocentric in their view of how people use language, assuming that people speak and are educated in the same language they use at home and that a ‘second’ language is an add-on.

I’d love to know more about what people were thinking when they wrote those two comments.

As I said at the top, do read both posts (Taboo, Taboo 2) – what do you think are the talking points here?

Hollywood meets an old people’s home

In a collaborative planning meeting today, we came up with a plan for a speaking lesson based around a single activity from Speakout Intermediate called ‘My life in film’. The image below is taken from the 1st edition, and we were working with the 2nd edition.

A film strip with five boxes: Early days, then, later, a big decision, now

The groups we were planning for have a mix of ages from 16 to 60+, so we thought of a tweak to level the playing field and make sure everybody was starting from the same point. Here’s how the lesson goes:

Guided visualisation

Students close their eyes, and the teacher says something along these lines, pausing at appropriate points for students to think:

You’re 80 years old and you’re in an old people’s home. Look around you. What can you see? How do you feel right now? Go out of the room and down the corridor. Where are you going? Who is walking past you? Where are you going?

It’s time for lunch. What are you eating? What can you smell? What can you hear?

You get some visitors. Who are they? How do you know them? How long have you known them for? What do you talk about? How do you feel about their visit?

After a suitable pause, students tell a partner what they experienced in the old people’s home. As feedback, elicit a couple of general impressions from the visualisation – don’t ask students to repeat whole chunks of what they experienced, as the pace will probably drop and others won’t be particularly interested.

Setting up the situation

Tell students that a film director has come to the old people’s home. They want to choose somebody’s story to turn into a film.

Display the film strip from Speakout and elicit ideas for how to complete it for you (the teacher) – demonstrate just taking notes.

Planning time

Give students about 5 minutes to make notes in their own film strips, including asking you for extra vocabulary. They can be as true or as creative as they like.

Getting into role

As a class, brainstorm one or two ideas of questions/comments directors could use to find out more from the old people in the home and to respond to the stories they hear. For example: ‘That can’t be true!’ ‘What happened after that?’ Students think of more ideas in pairs. As feedback, get them to (simultaneously) write the ideas on the board or use something like mentimeter to submit them electronically.

Pitching ideas

Arrange students into a ladder, with two lines of chairs facing each other. One line will be the directors, the other the old people.

The old people have 3-5 minutes to talk about their lives, while the directors listen and ask questions to find out more.

After each turn, directors move along one seat. The old people stay seated as it’s harder for them to be mobile!

The teacher sits either beyond one row or at the end of the ladder and takes notes on what they are – we are using this activity as a speaking assessment, and this gives the teacher lots of chances/time to listen to the students.

Making a choice

The directors listen to three old people, then choose the person whose story they’d most like to film and write their name on a piece of paper in secret.

Directors and old people switch roles and the pitches and choice stages are repeated.

Off to Hollywood!

Students discuss in new pairs which stories they particularly enjoyed listening to and why. Meanwhile, the teacher looks at all of the names, then declares whose stories will be filmed as a way of feeding back on the content of what the students have said.

For language feedback, the teacher can share some of the great language they heard, and/or highlight some problem areas for students to work on.

If you try this activity out, I’d love to know whether your students get into it. It’s always fun to plan things like this, but I don’t get to use them myself very often!