Focusing on the pre-selected, or: it’s hard to teach a teacher. [experiences learning Spanish]


November 2, 2012 by Willy Cardoso

Today I felt the oh-no moment I imagine many of my students have felt. The moment at the beginning of a lesson when the teacher happily announces the topic of the day. In my lesson it was:

Today we’re going to talk about fairy tales.

It turned out not to be something bad after all, but here is what I’ve puzzled over:

  • Teachers in general, myself included, tend to pick topics they know something about and/or enjoy discussing.
  • This happens more often when they don’t know much about the students, which was the case in my Spanish lesson; it was only the second lesson.
  • Or they pick topics/materials that they already used before in order to make their work more economical. This way it is easier to anticipate problems and to direct students to focus on what the teacher thinks the problem is.

For example, I didn’t know in the beginning that the whole fairy tale thing was to in fact contextualize past tenses. The teacher, of course, knew that, but didn’t say it in advance; she only led us to focus on the grammar after we read the text and were okay with the meanings in it. [this is generally good practice as far as I know]

This, on a surface level, is good and is what one could call an inductive approach, which aims at clarifying meaning before form, which aims first at some sort of communication (in this case, understanding a text), then an autonomous analysis of the grammar in question and hopefully some inference before being introduced to its formal rules.

On the other hand, the teacher had already pre-selected the grammar we were going to focus on, and was ready to show us on the screen tables on how to conjugate the past tenses in Spanish (which was useful). Now, there is nothing super bad about this, in fact, if I were a mere observer in that lesson, I would say it was a very good lesson, and as a student, I can also say it was a good lesson. If, let’s say, this was a CELTA lesson, it would be given a pass, or a good pass (even though there was no drilling of the target language!! 😉 just kidding)

Now, here comes the BUT, as you would imagine.

While, according to the activity, I was trying to spot the verbs in the past form, in the fairy tale text, and to inductively categorize them, or group them… I had some insights and started to scribble some notes, which are as follows:

After working a little on the past tenses, which I’m far from mastering, I caught myself asking the teacher about why in one sentence it was Le pregunté quién era (I asked her who she was) and in the other it was La dejé seguir su camino (I let her go/follow her way). Being both ‘her’ after a verb, why one was la and the other le. Well, it doesn’t matter here that the point was about direct and indirect objects (or not, I’m still not sure); but what it matters is that – and every teacher should expect this – my question was off-topic.

Now, was it really off-topic? For me, no it wasn’t. Because I know learning is messy and non-linear and how on earth can I give my students a text (unsurprisingly full of language!!), and expect them to microscopically pay attention to one single linguistic feature of this text, which I have chosen god knows why, and ignore the others?

In sum, from this reflection I had while the other students were doing the grammar exercise, I stated in my notepad:

Students will notice different things regardless of what the directions say. Some students will smother their curiosity for the sake of completing the task at hand, some others will not. The teacher should not make a priori judgments on those who did not complete the task, for example, by thinking either that they didn’t understand it or that they already knew it. The fact might be that other things caught their attention, and that at that moment they are ready (because they are curious) to learn something other than the pre-selected. The teacher’s difficult job now is to decide whether to engage with the student in something unexpected and singular to his/her learning or to bring him/her back to the main point, the one where supposedly everyone else is.

[sorry, I clearly did not have time to write this paragraph in the lesson, I wrote it now, two days later, but the feeling is the same; just more polished]

To credit the teacher, she did answer my doubts, albeit briefly, and said we would see the le vs la thing in another lesson. And noticing that I spent some time doing something else, she did ask me if I understood the past tenses, if I had seen them before, how difficult I thought they were, and she also gave us a website to practice them and the chance to write a composition as homework. So, again, the teacher was doing her job alright.

Well then, off I went to finish the task of highlighting the verbs in the past and matching them with their functions. Unsurprisingly though, I couldn’t finish it since I spent some time reflecting on my learning, writing about it, and answering a classmate on why I was writing in English in the middle of the Spanish lesson.

Again, I wrote some notes that went something like this:

Time on task varies greatly among students, not only because of ‘mixed-abilities’ or ‘levels’, which mostly considers output (i.e. what one can produce/say/write), but also because students’ noticing, level of analysis and engagement with the text and the language development it affords will vary greatly.

What I’m trying to say here, is that language schools, mainly, group students based on what they can say in the foreign language. Notice that this has nothing to do with how good a learner they are, how autonomous they are, how motivated they are, how much time they need to understand something new, etc.

All in all, the modern way of talking about learning and learners, i.e. autonomy and learner-centeredness (etc), has mainly given rise to an unnecessary abundance of pair-work, information-gap activities, lots of chatting in the lesson without correction, gimmicks to disguise pre-selected target language, among other communicative frills, in the expense of giving students a text to work from and… well, and that is it.

Give me a text you know well, and just sit there and wait for me to ask you questions, be resourceful to direct me to further practice, correct me when I make a mistake, ask me intelligent questions that will make me think beyond ‘scanning the text for information’. In sum, forget teaching, focus on learning. [oh, it’s been ages I haven’t used this phrase!]

I ain’t no easy student, I tell you. Wanna be my teacher?



But, we have to make sure students understand the language.

Yes and No. You don’t have to make sure they understand what you want them to understand. You have to make sure, absolutely sure, that they learn something out of it. Whatever they learn, it’s actually, and I’m sorry for the reality check, out of your control.


13 thoughts on “Focusing on the pre-selected, or: it’s hard to teach a teacher. [experiences learning Spanish]

  1. Excellent read, made me think of my own practice both as teacher and student…

    I know in the past I’ve been that teacher that squashes ‘off-topic’ inquiry with a brief explanation just for that student, suggesting we’ll revisit it in the future. I justified it then as that I knew the linear direction that was most ideal for the learners and they didn’t.

    I know in the past I’ve also been that teacher that goes with the flow and expands on inquiry with a mini-lesson for the benefit of everyone in the class, regardless of whether that inquiry comes up again in the future or not.

    I wonder too then, in both cases, whether I went into the classroom with the specific goal of a particular language point in mind or whether I aimed to be more or less open with whatever came up. The latter I believe tended to occur more when I had chosen a text for its lexical richness, which allowed for more opportunity to discuss these items that surrounded my pre-selected choices.

    I also believe that if I had a specific goal (beyond vocabulary) in mind, for example past tenses, I spent much more time selecting (or adapting) a text which I was confident had few other unknown language elements in it than the one I wanted to focus on. Sometimes it worked out, but other times I’d be surprised the questions I’d get.

    Now, however, I’d welcome “off-topic” questions from my students about a text. They’re homogenous, from an education system of blind faith in authority. This is a blessing and a curse. Maybe time will tell if they see the model of inquiry I exemplify. I’d welcome your inquisitive, analytic teacher mind in my class…

    • Hi Tyson,

      Thanks for your comment!

      I like the idea of mini one-to-one lessons within a group. And when I take the principle of ‘not everyone needs to do the same thing at the same time’, it works even better, because then there won’t be students “doing nothing” while you explain something off-topic to another. So each one works on what they judge to be worthwhile, and the teacher is there to help them find it. On the other hand, you can get really tired after as a teacher after a lesson like this. I’ve only done this with groups of up to 16 students; it would be interesting to try with 30!

      I like the idea of lexical richness having more importance than grammar when selecting texts; lately I’ve also preferred to choose texts based solely on how much conversation I think it will afford, so the language input comes more from me, based on what emerges in the conversation, than from the text. In some corners, I think they call this way of teaching Dogme. 😉
      That way it seems there can’t be any off-topic questions when it comes to language at least, since there is no pre-selected language to be covered.

  2. It’s always so interesting looking at language learning from ‘the other side’ – makes you question how far we really have our students in mind when planning lessons. My colleague, Emma Lay, is learning Hindi and makes some equally thought provoking comments:

  3. Oh, Willy. Only you could spend a lesson on fairy tales in such a way as you describe above! 😉

    I enjoyed this post. Not least of all because I actually spent the last 5 days on a ‘stories’ theme with an upper-int class, and on one day we revised some traditional fairy tales, watched some alternative-genre video versions of one (Three Little Pigs – ask me if you want links), then they made their own. Great fun. And a LOT of language arose that we had fun playing with (“chinny chin chin”, “twigs” vs. “sticks”, you name it).

    But I also enjoyed it because you make some interesting points about the many “communicative frills” I also find myself noticing – and questioning – more and more lately. Thinking about maybe doing my dissertation in this sort of area… watch this space!

    • hey Laurinha, so you’ve been teaching subverted versions of the three little pigs to young foreigners in London? Good to know 😉

      Good that you mentioned vocabulary. While teaching there, I realized students often got very motivated when presented with new ‘exotic’ words, which to be honest they’re likely to never use. This didn’t happen with my students in Brazil, for example, who were interested in knowing whether the vocabulary set we were seeing was frequent or not. Sort of a filter for selective memory, or something like that. I found the same in this fairy tales lesson I had. I appreciated that the vocabulary was not exclusive to fairy tales, there were some useful words like ‘potion’ and ‘wand’, which I can totally use with my Spanish friends when we meet at the next Harry Potter Convention in Seville. 😛 But I would’ve preferred to learn slangs for money/cash, and for beer and other going-out key words, etc.

      Keep me posted about your MA endeavors, mine is going pretty slow at the moment.

  4. […] Willy C Cardoso writes interestingly on the tension between designing lessons to focus on particular grammatical features of a text, and wha…. […]

  5. haeundaelife says:

    Hey Willy,

    This post really resonated with me, for two reasons.

    Firstly due to the environment I am in, public middle school classes, I am really pushed to “tow the line” as it were and spoon feed bits of grammar disguised, as best I can, by interesting subject matter.

    Secondly, I was brought to thinking how, whilst in language classrooms myself, I have behaved exactly as you have. Which, I believe, is only further evidence to your assertion that we are stiffing learning when when we expect students to follow our preconceived lesson “direction”. I find it immensely difficult to just forget what I am noticing in order to stay “on task”.

    However, I wonder, with the current mood of “more tests! more tests!” how we can afford to “forget teaching, focus on learning” as much as I’d LOVE to do so.

    How can we give students the space for learning while also meeting the demands of ridiculous testing regimes? This is definitely a point that I will certainly be trying to solve.

    Thank you for your thoughts, as usual, they are immensely enlightening.


    • John, I get that question all the time, and to be honest on the one hand I’m quite happy to say ‘I don’t know’, because I always taught (or chose to teach) in places/courses in which tests were not really important. On the other hand, I wish I knew how work happily in such conditions.

      In any case, my usual response is something I often quote by Claire Kramsch, which goes something like: the fact that exams prescribe what to teach, they don’t (and shouldn’t) tell the teacher how to teach.

  6. Nice article – but what a f*@king nightmare student to have in your class! I bet she’s having heart palpitations. Let’s just hope she doesn’t say classroom ‘management’ in front of you – Hell to pay!!! :)))

    Anyway, re the Spanish, Forget teaching and focus on learning the real shit

    Hope it’s all going well 4 ya in Barca!

  7. annfore says:

    Hi Willy,

    Just to let you know that we’ve shortlisted this blog post for this month’s TeachingEnglish blog award and I’ll be making a post about it on today’s TeachingEnglish facebook page, if you’d like to check there for comments.


  8. Spot on, Willy. Virtually impossible to control what gets noticed and subsequently analyzed. So how does one deal with the trade-off between the “structure of the day” and the students’ internal syllabus?
    Could it be – and this is by no means a rhetorical question – that a teacher-led presentation is, sometimes, a more straightforward and intellectually honest to highlight the “structure of the day”? That’s something I’ve been giving some thought to lately.

  9. Jimmy Astley says:

    Incredible. It really got me thinking. One never gets to that conclusion unless they are learning another language too, I guess. Which reminds me I’ve been putting off getting back to my Spanish lessons for quite a while.

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