Positive Reinforcement in Language Learning

The year 1967 saw the the USA and the USSR perform nuclear tests, the Beatles released Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane, and L.G. Alexander published what is said to be the best-selling book in ELT First Things First.

Scott Thornbury mentions the book in his 2016 Plenary at IATEFL, saying it was so popular that you could even purchase a copy at kiosks! In the plenary, he also quotes the author saying “the student should be trained to learn by making as few mistakes as possible.” good-1122969_640

An idea born out of earlier methods, such as the Direct Method and Audiolingualism, the focus on accuracy over fluency was the pinnacle of the pre-communicative era in ELT. There was a general fear of encouraging mistakes by letting them slip, and ultimately allowing them to become fossilized.

Decades later, learners are now very much encouraged to prioritize fluency, to make mistakes and to learn from them. As a result, lessons nowadays often culminate in a Delayed Error Correction stage, where learners are given corrective feedback on the mistakes they made during the lesson.

However, has this shift in focus from accuracy to fluency been a wholly positive development in English Language Teaching, or have we created a new problem by resolving another? Keep reading to find out more… Continue reading

5 Ideas for Learner Language

Language learning is often thought of in terms of individual lessons. Learners come to class to learn a specific language point, such as a grammatical tense or a lexical set. Of course, language learning is a much more complicated process: it is a cognitive challenge whose particulars, such as a tense, span far more than a single lesson. However, regardless of this fact, teachers still deliver lessons based on specific linguistic topics, like a grammatical tense, which is why so much course material comes from a grammar-based syllabus.IMG_0036

As a consequence, this often results in teachers delivering very language-heavy lessons where the materials, such as the coursebook, are the driving force in the room, rather than the learners’ language. Each learner will be at a different stage of language acquisition, and as a result when they communicate they rely on the version of the language they know. For example: one learner might know the Will-Future in English and can use it to talk about future events, whilst another might have not acquired this yet and will rely on the Present Tense and future adverbials, such as later, next year, in the future. This phenomenon is present in the mind of every language learner and is known as Interlanguageyou can read more about it here.

While it is easier to focus on a learner’s interlanguage in smaller classes, with larger groups it is a much more tedious task. In fact, striking a balance between individual attention and open class plenaries is one of the greatest challenges of a language teacher. One way of finding this balance is by taking note of the language learners produce during communicative activities, such as discussions and tasks: this way everyone completes a single task and the teacher listens in to what language the learners are using to express themselves. Continue reading

Relative Clauses: who which where

As Martin Parrott (2000: 406) points out in his outstanding language guide for teachers, the difficulty of relative-clauses is often “underestimated” by English-speaker teachers.

Learners can often understand texts which contain relative clauses but this is not because of a good grounding in this particular grammar point but rather by a process of deducing meaning.

In fact, there isn’t any overt focus on relative-clauses, which can appear very early on in language learning materials, until  “late intermediate or advanced levels” (Parrott 2000: 406).

So, this post and the attached materials have been designed with Pre-Intermediate learners in mind. Below you will find an outline of the grammar point as well as a PowerPoint and a Handout for use in class.

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Revision: Subject and Object Questions


I always find it a good idea to start a lesson with a revision of the previous lesson. This often forms a nice bridge between the previous lesson, the homework and the start of the current lesson.

Subject and Object Questions

A previous post on Subject and Object Questions, which contains a lesson plan with materials, looked at the difficulties learners have with forming questions in English, particularly with WH-Questions.

This revision task gets learners producing WH-Questions by providing them the answers. The part of the answer which is being question is underlined, as in the example below:

England won the World Cup in 1966
When did England win the World Cup?

What is particularly good about this revision worksheet is that not only does it revise Subject and Object Questions but it also gets the learners thinking about which part of the answer is required and not required in the question.


The worksheet is available below for you to copy and use in class. Alternatively, you can down download it as a Word file or as a PDF document.

Revision: Object & Subject Questions

Below are the answers, but what are the questions? Turn the underlined part into a question. For example:

 England won the World Cup in 1966
When did England win the World Cup?

  1. Saudi Arabia is in the Middle East.
  2. The Prime Minister of the UK is David Cameron.
  3. The USA has 50 states.
  4. I like jazz music.
  5. I am late today because I slept in.
  6. Brits live in the UK.

Error Correction: a Critique

For Initial Teacher Training qualifications error correction is a major topic. Both the Cambridge CELTA and the Trinity Certificate in TESOL contain criteria on dealing with errors. They encourage trainees to deal with errors in a variety of ways, such as the following, which have been taken from Learning Teaching by Scrivener (2011: 285 – 290):

  • Indicating an error has been made
  • Eliciting the correction through questions
  • Finger correction
  • Echoing
  • Opening the error up to the rest of the class

Although there is quite an extensive list of suggestions and techniques, they essentially boil down to two approaches for dealing with error:

  1. Immediate Error Correction
  2. Delayed Error Correction

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Presenting New Language

During pre-service training teachers learn how to apply the PPP formula for teaching new language: Present Practise Produce. “Language” in this sense is in the specific and narrow meaning of Target Language i.e. grammar, functional exponents, lexis etc.DELTA Series Image

As teachers progress beyond their initial teacher training qualification they might continue to employ the PPP formula or they may move on to other approaches. In fact, I have come across a number of teachers who vehemently support the application of Guided Discovery to all lessons where new language is taught, or Task-Based Learning, or others who insist on a Dogme approach.

Regardless of your preference, it seems before any discussion about the best approach can take place there needs to be some  understanding of what goes on in the background: what’s behind the language teaching approach?

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Reviewing and Demonstrating Learners’ Progress

When teachers first finish their pre-service training course, one of their first worries is to get through their lessons as successfully asScreen Shot 2014-05-04 at 15.16.59 possible. Many of them will have gone into their first teaching posts only a matter of weeks before their first formal observations. There is also the added pressure of getting their heads around the syllabus and sticking to the curriculum. The last thing on their minds will, understandably, be Learner Progression.

However, many learners leave courses and do not return to language schools because they think they did not progress during the course. Now, most teachers will be able to assure you that all their learners did indeed progress and might even be able to demonstrate this to you. This is all well and good, but it is the learners who need this evidence of progression demonstrated to them, not other teachers.

If learners need evidence of progression, then that leaves a few questions to be answered: What techniques could be used? How often should a teacher do this? What if a learner has not truly progressed?

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