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A Call to Arms for ELT.

March 27, 2012

On Sunday I wrote about a couple of the themes which emerged over the course of the week at IATEFL. Here I will continue!

Demand More, Be More! 

How much do you challenge your students? Do you get them to think in class? Like, really think?

When you have been a learner of something, be it a language, an instrument, a dance move, what gave you more motivation and made you more excited about what you were learning –

  • a) doing something easy and boring? 
  • b) doing something challenging that pushed your abilities? 

And which of these taught you more?

I would hazard a guess that b) is the answer.

This was the call to arms which Jim Scrivener set out in his talk on Demand High ELT, a concept he and Adrian Underhill have been discussing for a while. The belief behind this is that teachers have become too “nice”, too “Well done, Maria! Fabulous, Muhammed! Brilliant, Marcus!” when doing so-called “feedback” on tasks.

I say “feedback” because this isn’t really giving them any information except that their teacher seems to have some form of extreme-adjective-Tourette’s, is it? How is it helping them grow if we just accept answers and move on to the next one? What about exploiting the opportunity to use what language is already in the room to push the learners’ thought processes more? Make them think, make them all think,  not just the ones who always answer the questions, but the whole class?

Questions lead to answers lead to learning.

So, how should we do this? Jim gave us a few suggestions of what you could do with a sentence from a typical course book exercise of “Correct these sentences.”. Here’s the picture I took of his slide (Sorry for the poor quality!):


These ideas ask the students to engage with the language more, rather than just rushing through the tasks in the book. Now, some of you may be thinking “I do this already!”, but I reckon there are probably quite a lot of missed opportunities in a lot of our classrooms to get the students to think more and engage more with the language, thereby learning more.

Being a Dogmematician myself, I feel very strongly about dealing with emerging language and issues, and how this can help students to focus on aspects of the language which are present in the classroom at the time. I can’t imagine anything more boring and undemanding than working through a coursebook simply by “do number one, get the answers, do number two, get the answers, etc…”. It goes against everything I have come to believe as a teacher and a learner.

The Curse of the Coursebook?

For me, the argument for Demand High ELT, which I think is a brilliant concept, is actually a response to how teachers use coursebooks as a basis for the whole lesson, rather than removing the ideas from the page and making the students get the language to work harder? So is the problem here that teacher training revolves too heavily around the use of coursebooks, that schools are set up to promote the use of them, that students come to expect them, and that teachers don’t actually know how to use them? Over the course of the week at IATEFL, I spoke to quite a few teachers about using coursebooks in class. There were many comments about the fact that their students have been given the book, or that they expect to use it, so the teacher feels obliged to do so.

So how can we rectify this? Well, for a start we can begin to use less of the coursebook page in class. I often see on teachers’ record of work that they have done pages 34 – 38 in class in one 90 minute lesson. Without setting up a super-sonic treadmill in the classroom, I have no idea how that is even possible!

Here’s Jim’s list of ideas for making our students work harder –


And here’s some of my own ideas on how to stop rushing through coursebook pages at an inhumane pace. (I wrote these in about two minutes over breakfast before my first cup of tea of the day. If I can do this that quickly, surely we can all come up with many ways to exploit what we take into class, eh?)

  • Select smaller parts from the book and think about how to exploit them.
  • Take the idea from the book off the page and get the students to make the language themselves by asking them to discuss the topic in the book, noting down what they say, focusing on some of the examples that came up, feeding in some of your own (or the ones originally in the book), ask the students to write their own examples, then let them have the conversation again with a new partner. Perhaps ask them to work in threes and the third student notes down uses of the language, then they discuss this together after the task is complete.
  • Photocopy texts, cut them up, get the students to put them back together in the right order then create questions for the text to give to other students or answer questions you have prepared dealing with discourse/genre features.
  • Create an information gap activity by dividing the class in two, dividing the material in two (be it a text, a grammar explanation, a gapfill, etc…) and get the students to work together to gather the knowledge their partner has.
  • Use guided discovery approaches, either orally or on paper to get the students engaging with the language more.
  • Be ready to ask questions about the material yourself but also –
  • Create a culture of questioning in your classroom to develop the students’ ability to question both you and each other. Let them talk on their own about things, don’t be a part of every second of the lesson, they are adults, they can do it!

The key quote I took away from Jim’s talk was –

“We need to get our hands dirty.”

So come on guys, let’s throw away the wishy-washy soap, and let’s get down to some hard graft, or better – let’s get our learners down to some hard graft! What are we afraid of?

I’d love to hear any of your ideas about how you make the language, material or students in your lessons work harder, so please feel free to comment below.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. March 27, 2012 9:04 am

    By not giving them too much. That’s why I like non-verbal stimuli (images, sound effects, body language, noises, etc.) because in a way it forces the students to fill the gaps with language. If they’re not sure exactly what they’re doing, I ask them what they think we’re doing. With these things, rather than a dry coursebook reading or listening, there is no right answer, so there’s discussion and negotiation. Any language input I can introduce as it is demanded 😉

    Yesterday I properly tried out a task – students putting together a text from a story with no language input at the beginning – and the result? Students communicating, largely accurately, in English. Space for me to correct and advise as necessary.

    I think that’s most important – space for students to talk, communicate, be… Space for me to look, listen and jump in when I’m needed. Doesn’t work all the time, but more often than not it does 🙂

    • March 28, 2012 2:29 pm

      Hi Mike,

      Thanks for your comment.

      Space – exactly! So important to leave time for reflection and discussion, thinking and digestion. By standing back and letting the students lead the lesson they get to develop their thoughts, knowledge and ideas more than if we, as teachers, do the work.

      Would love to hear about how you did that lesson. Could you share? When you aren’t in Delta mode, that is!


  2. March 27, 2012 9:16 am

    Should we just abandon all the EFLy things we do as we are just being too nice and some of them, like cutting up and handing out bits of paper, don’t always appear serious/challenging?

    • March 28, 2012 2:33 pm

      I think “handing out bits of paper” can actually be stimulating. Depends how it’s done though. I often get my students to do genre analysis, especially for exam texts, by putting texts back together and then analysing them.

      In my lesson today with my ielts class, they were given an example of a thesis led and evidence led approach to part 2 writing and had to analyse these in groups, each group getting one approach, then they had to share this structure with the other group in pairs. Then decide which approach would work best for what questions. The discussion which ensued was totally student led, with me just feeding in questions to get them to think more about what they were saying. Although, often the students did this themselves by disagreeing with each other.

      I think that students need the change of pace/focus that “bits of paper” provide.

      Have to go to class, will write more later… !


  3. March 27, 2012 3:44 pm

    How about letting one group of learners design the alternative exercises and give them to another group? So, the learners get to creatively think up some EFLy things (with prompts from teacher, if needed), cut out the bits of paper, give the instructions and check the results. For example, if they decide to make a fill in the blank, ask them to consider why they chose the words they did. Should they include a word bank? Why or why not? What will their choices highlight for the people who do the exercise? They can also reflect on the success of their design later. In addition to authentic communicative practice and focus on form, they may look more closely at canned activities in the future (why am I being asked to do this?). What do you think?

  4. March 27, 2012 3:48 pm

    Oh, and they have to do the exercise from the other group and give them feedback too!

    • April 4, 2012 8:15 am

      Hi Kathy,

      Thanks for your replies, and I apologise for taking so long to get back to you.

      I love doing the type of exercise you describe and I often use it with exam classes, getting them to design reading questions for each other. They find it hard work, but it improves their understanding of how to find the answers to the questions in the texts for the exam.

      I think asking them to evaluate the material/exercises is a great idea. I often ask my groups for feedback at the end of the week, but I rarely explicitly ask for feedback on the material, assuming they will say that in the package of feedback they give.

      In fact, yesterday, some of my IELTS group, completely unprovoked by me, asked if we could make things more complicated in the lessons. Now, I have a class which is not all the same level, so I have to be careful about how I approach certain things, and those which asked this are not exactly finding it easy at the moment. However, they’ve asked, so I will make sure I respond. This could be hard, as I already think I push them in the way I expect them to work in class, but the problem they have is with the material in the coursebook they have been assigned. We had just done a listening from the book and it is far easier than those in the exam, which they have a taster of in the enforced weekly practice tests they do (but that’s for another blog post…). I see their point, so will do my best not to use the book from now on when it comes to those listenings. Will let you know how it goes!


      • April 4, 2012 7:51 pm

        “my IELTS group, completely unprovoked by me, asked if we could make things more complicated in the lessons”

        Wow, that must be a motivated bunch!! I think it would be motivating to me too (as opposed to passive Ss who just take whatever comes their way).

        I’d really like to know how it goes … I learn so much vicariously through your blog and others.

      • April 10, 2012 11:14 am

        Hi Kathy,

        Thanks for your comment. They sure are a motivated bunch. And it’s going to be interesting making sure I live up to their demands. I will be writing about this, no doubt!

        Thanks for reading, Kathy, your comments and blog are also a great source of information. I am just sorry that I don’t comment more on your posts. I will change that…!


  5. March 28, 2012 6:00 pm

    Oh! I particularly relate to “being unhelpful”!
    That WORKS!

    • April 4, 2012 8:40 am

      Hi Naomi,

      Thanks for your reply! Sorry for the delay in mine. Being unhelpful, or vague, or just not giving any sign of whether an answer is right or not really does spark debate in most groups. I think the group has to feel comfortable together first though, otherwise they won’t challenge each other.

      But on the other hand, perhaps if we expect them to do this from the start, and explain to them why it’s important, they will?

      What do you think?


  6. April 14, 2012 9:30 pm

    Re:Bits of paper for IELTS

    Do you think we need copies or books for IELTS writing or can it be totally student-led ie no examples and building from them up?

    Most band 5/6 students follow the standard 4 paragraph style with bland intros,concs and blatant linkers. Whereas, band 7+ may have some spark of originality similar to CPE. With exam fees so high and pressure to ‘get the band’ too are students are happy to space time analysing and doing guided activities with content in mind? Or would most just opt for a quick formula to get high marks?


    My last class complained because I was going too far and it was too hard. My response was that it was a weekly 1 hour class over 10 weeks so had to be intensive. Their reply was that we should only do one skill per lesson and slowly. I’d always taught intensively and done cramming with extra HW because my students needed good marks but this class knew they could pass and just wanted a doss.In this situation I had to cave otherwise face complaints. I wasn’t happy but the ‘student is god’ in some places.

  7. April 15, 2012 8:56 am

    Like Naomi, I also like “being unhelpful” and practise it quite a lot.

    As regards your list, information gap activities are definitely my fave. What I can add is revisiting the material covered in previous lessons – when you actually get students to go back and find a particular chunk, language pattern, expression that appeared in the text. It makes them pay attention to the language instead of just whizzing through tasks. Or give them a list of chunks and ask them to reconstruct the text.

    Although it’s not directly relevant to the present discussion, I would like to hear more about evidence-led vs thesis-led approach to writing Task 2 you mentioned above. Or perhaps another blog post, Jemma? 🙂 Wouldn’t the choice depend on the task itself?


  8. April 15, 2012 11:26 am

    I think we should make balance betxeen tasks we give the student during class time and hearing their opinins and arguements about the content of becoming noisey and they didn’t give you chance to discuss p.In this case give them task.Kids sometimes become quite in that period of time you could discuss with them and hear their view of points .I hope thst works with you.

  9. June 5, 2012 8:32 pm

    I have always maintained that the too “nice” teacher who goes on using those really extreme adjectives to encourage the students is actually trying to get past the lesson without having to offer more than he/she prepared for the lesson.. Look into that teacher’s eyes who mouths these adjectives and you will see that he/she is just paying lip service. I try to avoid unnecessary compliments to students while teaching. Students know the difference between genuine and fake compliments.


  1. #eltchat on Demand-High ELT (28/3/2012) | Demand High ELT
  2. A Call to Arms for ELT. | English learning in Our World
  3. A Call to Arms for ELT. | datenglish-news and teacher development material |
  4. Scott Thornbury on Scrivener's Questions lead to Answers lead to Learning! (Demand high ELT) | Learning, Thinking, Becoming |
  5. A Call to Arms for ELT. | Teacher Training & Development |
  6. A Call to Arms for ELT. | ELT Digest |
  7. A Call to Arms for ELT. | its me |

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