what I don’t do – part 1 of 1


May 12, 2013 by Willy Cardoso

Here’s a very short series about methodology. So short it has only one part.

Since it’s impossible to determine one way, or a set of ways, that could be described as ‘the best’ approach to language teaching, I decided this time to think not from a DO, but from a DON’T starting point. Starting with a negative statement, with something I do not do, makes the text less authoritative and more… well I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter.

What I don’t do:

I don’t subscribe to a grammatical syllabus.

  • Even if the coursebook I’m given does (I think they all do!).
  • Instead, focus on form in my lessons tend to happen when myself and/or students perceive a gap in their language skills when trying to communicate something.
  • This something tends to have a motivation that often has communicative value, i.e. the message is purposeful and the student is engaged in a dialogue (spoken or written), as opposed to an utterance given only to answer a display question.
  • Otherwise, focus on form(s) happens in less communicative ways when:

a) students present recurrent mistakes, hence requiring me to actually pause ‘more authentic communication’ and draw his/her attention to the linguistic feature in question (this, nonetheless, emerges from more authentic communication anyway);

b) for strategic reasons, i.e. when a certain grammatical feature can ‘add value’ to the message, e.g. a negative question to sound more suggestive, a passive form to create a distance or separation from the object, etc. In this case, the choice of language input is mine, but since the message being delivered is not, my intention is mainly to suggest the alternative form elucidating the meaning it carries. By suggesting, as opposed to correcting, I feel this is some sort of soft-teaching, which rather pleases me.

c) when for a lack of accuracy the message is misunderstood, or would be potentially misunderstood in a different setting.

d) students bring to the lessons questions aroused while doing homework or in out-of-lesson situations.

So, I don’t select grammatical items when planning a lesson. Apart from the situations mentioned above, which are not the majority, I never walk into a lesson thinking “today I’ll teach the second conditional”.

Instead, my lessons are:

inquiry-based | task-based | project-based | skills-based

Some questions I’m asked about this approach, that is, the approach of not following a grammatical syllabus:

–          The teacher needs a lot of experience to do this.

Answer: Not necessarily. The teacher needs confidence and knowledge about the language more than teaching experience. One may inform the other but are not exclusive to the other. This leads to the next question.

(besides, many very experienced teachers do exactly the opposite of what I said here; hence, making it more a matter of attitude and style than one of experience)

–          The teacher needs to know a lot about grammar to be able to address it this way.

Questions about grammar are bound to happen whether or not you pre-select a grammar item. The advantage of pre-selecting is that if a question comes up about something else, the teacher can say it’s not the moment and that they’ll look at it in the future. However, this is an advantage to the teacher only, and in my opinion a poor excuse. In any case, if a teacher doesn’t know the answer to a question it’s better to say s/he isn’t sure about it and will research, and bring the answer in the following lesson. Moreover, the teacher can perfectly take a grammar guide to lessons and consult it as needed.

–          Why bother if the book tells you what grammar to teach.

This is not usually a question I’m motivated to discuss. If one is happy doing it and can see positive results, there’s little to be said. But in short, I’d say this way I’m proposing here is more attuned to what I have studied in theory and practice which makes me believe that language acquisition doesn’t happen exactly by seeing discrete items of grammar prior to communicative needs, nor does it happen in the linear anti-holistic fashion which most learning/teaching materials are presented to us.

Okay, so this is what I don’t do – part 1 of 1.

Stay tuned for part 2 – and, as usual, feel free to leave a comment.



21 thoughts on “what I don’t do – part 1 of 1

  1. “The advantage of pre-selecting is that if a question comes up about something else, the teacher can say it’s not the moment and that they’ll look at it in the future. However, this is an advantage to the teacher only, and in my opinion a poor excuse”.

    Nicely put, Willy. As a learner (of anything) I want answers to my questions NOW. (While I perfectly accept the teacher’s right to say: Well, let’s leave that one for later, because (a) I need to check it or (b) it’s not entirely relevant to the here-and-now. But if the excuse is: It’s not on the syllabus, my response might be, well, change – or ditch – the syllabus! 😉 )

    • My private French teacher was dismissed because she insisted I needed to master the past simple before she could teach me the present perfect. I said, “no, I don’t, I’m a language teacher, a fast language learner (in theory) and I want to know it now. Teach me and if I don’t understand it, for whatever reason, then I’ll see what I’ll do”. She didn’t teach me, so I let her go. 🙂
      Still haven’t learnt French, but that’s another story.

  2. “I don’t subscribe to a grammatical syllabus… Even if the coursebook I’m given does (I think they all do!)”

    Sorry Willy, they most decidedly do *not* all subscribe to a grammatical syllabus. But I won’t try to send you a copy of Widgets a third time… (“I don’t have an address” was a pretty awesome dodge, I must admit 😛 )

    • ohhh Marcos, I’m sorry mate! — I really need a disclaimer saying first that all opinions in this blog are *not* my own 😉 and second that when I talk about coursebooks I mean coursebooks I’ve used or analysed. So apologies for the generalisation!
      And you will be the first one to have my address once I find one!

      Nice to meet you at iatefl btw!

      • Ha, no worries. I get a bit prickly on this subject sometimes, as I actually got into textbook writing *because* I didn’t like textbooks and wanted to “right” them rather than “write” them! I’ve softened my position a bit–mostly from meeting the generally very smart and concerned people in educational publishing–but in principle I do agree with everything you write above.

        Regarding grammar syllabuses, nearly all textbooks do follow one for a very practical reason: they are a useful organizing feature. Unfortunately they’re better at organizing *books* than language learning, but that’s another story. It’s a bit like that old joke posted on the office wall: “Notice: The bureaucracy has been re-organized in order to better meet the growing needs of the bureaucracy.” 😉

        But to be fair, a grammar sequence isn’t terrible at very low levels, when one can quite reasonably cover, say, present simple, present continuous, and past simple in order, since the students know very little anyway, and a sequence of important basic “rules” is helpful. It’s once you get past those basics that progression can’t be strictly linear (and certainly the possibility to engage with emergent language should always be allowed for even at those lowest levels).

        The real question that should be asked, though, is: If not a grammar syllabus, what’s an alternative organizing sequence that makes sense? To me that’s answered by focusing on interesting content first, and allowing that to inform language progression, and–most important–using a sequence of well-selected and meaningful tasks of increasing complexity. My book Widgets (which I’m not plugging, by the way–and in fact, please *don’t* try to buy it, as I’m currently hoping to get it to go out of print!) does this by being organized into a series of authentic unit-level projects, which are broken down into a series of smaller sub-tasks, all of which are designed to be open-ended and communicative. While there are no set language points to cover, there is still a very clear sequence of lessons and assessment opportunities to organize a syllabus around. It’s not quite a completely open-ended unplugged approach, but it’s a close as you can get, I think, while still maintaining some kind of pre-set structure. Like following a loose, themed narrative structure or a very minimal extended role-play, perhaps.

        Alas, as I like to jokingly lament when I present about this stuff, I write textbooks for teachers who don’t like textbooks–which is a very lucrative business model, as you can imagine! The very teachers who can appreciate my approach are the very ones who avoid textbooks like the plague… but anyway, if anyone here wants to get a sense of what a course that doesn’t follow a grammar syllabus can look like, here you go: http://www.widgets-inc.com/teacher/course.php

        Cheers, Willy. It was great to meet at IATEFL–and I look forward to seeing you here in Japan at some point too!

  3. Hi Willy,

    I agree with you that it isn’t a good idea to follow a grammatical syllabus. it is so much more fun and relevant to deal with language needs as and when they ariserather than trusting to some unknown writer.

    However, If you don’t follow a grammatical syllabus, and most/all books do have a grammatical syllabus, then why use a coursebook at all? Is it because of the institution you work at? Because students expect to use a book? Something else?

    • Hi Stephen

      Not sure whether your questions were rhetorical, but in my case, the institution gave a coursebook to every student joining a group class regardless of length of stay, level, etc. The reasons are many, and as a past director of studies I actually understand that it is sometimes unavoidable for managerial reasons (e.g. if you have many new teachers and if classes keep changing, etc), but the biggest downside for the students was perhaps when someone came to study only for a week and in that week the teacher did Unit 4, present perfect!

      Regarding students’ expectations, I think the majority will expect a coursebook. But if you don’t use one and the lessons are engaging, meaningful, have a sense of progression, etc, they will soon forget they expected a book and carry on.

  4. Leo Gomes says:

    Really everything you wrote, Willy.
    I also don’t follow a textbook and don’t force the teachers I work with to do so.
    One of the things that has worked for me (especially because in our school students purchase a textbook and are expecting to use them) is to go to the classroom and let the lesson happen. It usually takes us somewhere; a topic, a task, a natural conversation. Then, what I normally do is try to link that lesson and all the language/grammar that has emerged from the lesson to a textbook unit. I don’t teach the book, but I show the students where everything we talked about can be found with extra activities for the to practice at home. So, yeah, no textbook in the classroom. Only natural conversation with my students. Towards the end of the lesson I show them where in the book they can extend and practice more and that’s their homework!
    Another thing that has worked for me is to let the students find the language and/or grammar that we talked about in class in the textbook. We take up the answers the next day. Winners get to choose the next topic! 🙂

    • That is a very good approach if your students have coursebooks. I’ve done it too with a good level of success (I think!).
      What I’ve found though is that it can get messy. In one occasion, two summers ago, it felt like there were three or four (grammar) courses running at the same time – with the same class – which was good, but demanded much more from me to keep track of everything. What also made it nice was that each group had to present their Grammar McNugget to the whole class at the end of the week – these were grammar junkie students btw.

      Thanks for dropping by, Leo!

  5. Leo Gomes says:

    *liked … everything you wrote,

  6. cmiller112 says:

    Engaging post, you clearly laid out your views on the subject. Though, i’m not sure why “focus on form” takes so much heat. It would be an interesting research question to tease out what are the consequences of focus on form when motivation is high. I have gained a high degree of communicative competency in two foreign languages and I can say that a heavy (though far from exclusive) focus on form can pay off, provided it is quite intense, distributed, and consistent.

    • Yes, focus on form can pay off as you said. High for some, low for others, depending on learning styles, etc, but in general it is a good idea, and it is supported by research. However, research also suggests that a bit by bit, discrete, linear, pre-selected focus on form (what Scott Thornbury coined Grammar McNuggets) has little to do with second language acquisition. Sorry I don’t have the references at the moment, but if I’m not mistaken, Michael Long has done a literature review on studies of interlanguage and this is more or less the conclusion.
      Thanks for your comment!

  7. Great stuff, Willy. I totally agree with your statement about being more comfortable with more ‘free-form’ teaching being a matter of attitude rather than amount of experience. It’s what I try to do, but I’m conscious that at times I still need to investigate language a little bit more than I do (and have time for, thanks to institutional commitments) in response to what comes up from classroom interaction. I certainly need to read a bit more about certain features of language (there is always more to learn, right, even if you have a diploma!)

  8. laurapatsko says:

    I liked reading this, and tend to agree with you. But I think the situation we have (you had) in London is something of a rare luxury, in terms of the worldwide ELT industry. Having books but not being forced to follow them in any order, or at all, and essentially being allowed (even encouraged) to do other stuff as we see fit, providing we’re addressing the students’ needs? Yay! I love having this freedom as a teacher, even if it means a bit more work for me (e.g. later researching questions that arose in class about obscure language points or whatever).

    But as I say, I don’t think that’s a typical school situation. And if you do have to use a coursebook (whether you like it or not) and have to follow a grammatical syllabus (assuming the book has one), you have to think about what options you have for freeing yourself and your students from it, if that’s your desire. In which case, I really like what Leo Gomes suggested above about starting from the lesson and moving into the appropriate section of the book (maybe for homework), rather than the other way round.

    This to me seems the sort of ‘flipped classroom’ approach that can achieve the best of both worlds (book + reality), rather than all that video ‘flipping’ stuff everyone goes on about at conferences. It would also work nicely within a continuous enrolment context (again, like ours in London) — I’ve never thought the idea of doing Unit 1 this week, Unit 2 next week, etc. made sense when students kept coming and going. Following any kind of strict linear syllabus with students who will be definition be present only for parts of it doesn’t make sense to me.

    Anyway, nice to see you blogging again, Willy. 🙂

    • Hi Laura. Thanks for the little nudge about blogging, it worked!

      I also think what we’ve got is “something of a rare luxury” and that is exactly why I think there shouldn’t be any coursebooks, i.e. in private language schools, continuous enrolment programme, in an English-speaking country where 98% of teachers are qualified native-speakers.
      Students use coursebooks all their lives in their home countries and if they arrive here at a ‘pre-intermediate/intermediate’ level, I have reasons to suppose another coursebook/grammar-driven course won’t help them much.

  9. Glennie says:

    A colleague commented thus when I sent him this blog entry:

    “Also, and I always ask this: in a group of 32 students, who is “the student” that Willy Cardoso refers to? What if student A makes a communicative error which nobody else in the class would make? Do I spend class time working with that student individually?”

    He would seem to have a point.

    • Hi Glennie

      I think the point your colleague is trying to make is about teaching large groups, and not exactly about the pros and cons of a grammatical syllabus and what to do if there are too many cons. I haven’t taught groups of 32, so I would like to hear from your colleague what he does in this case, how he does it and why. I’m sure there are some criteria he follows, it’s impossible to correct all mistakes, even in a class of 10, and it is impossible to ignore a student’s question, even in a class of 40. However, if a student has an area to improve that is very different from the other ones, I’d talk to him individually after class and try to direct him/her to some self-study material. Also, if it is something, as your colleague puts, “nobody else… would make”, we could think about:
      – why is this student in this group? Is there a more appropriate group in which the teacher could address this student’s needs?
      – why do I (the teacher) think all or most students should present the same difficulties/doubts/deficiencies once in the same group? Is this possible?
      – how can I be sure this communicative error is something nobody else in class would make? In a class of 32, do I know everything each student ‘can’ make?

      Like I said, this is about teaching large groups. But in any case, I don’t think students in a large group will learn better if the teacher follows a grammar syllabus – the fact that it’s easier for the teacher ‘to control’ the class doesn’t make it better for students ‘to learn’.

  10. What a great post and follow-up thread with pertinent questions/comments and great responses from you Willy. I also tend to agree with everything you said, but especially with regard to the ESL classroom (in an English speaking country, with qualified, language-proficient teachers). I know I’m covering ground that’s already been touched-on here… but the reality of language schools in Brazil, as you well know, especially the large ones where there are frequently new recruits requiring guidance and a need for standardisation (yuk!) across branches etc is that a coursebook (admittedly often grammar-based and therefore, almost inevitably, linear) is expected by Ss and makes life much easier for the T and DoS. Having said that, I think what you propose is precisely the kind of reflection and redefining of paradigms and beliefs about language learning which needs to be focused-on in teacher development programmes. More and more, in the institution where I work, we are guiding Ts towards letting go of the textbook at appropriate intervals throughout the class (and the same goes for the IWB).. to just teach those teachable moments in an unplugged fashion, catering for emergent language (which naturally includes bridging gaps in grammatical knowledge to help Ss express themselves in verb forms they won’t have seen in the back as yet).

    I really admire your reflections… so please do keep up the good work! I’ve recently become a novice ELT blogger myself (at http://graemespot.blogspot.com), so maybe one day, when I grow up… I’ll be as good at it as you are! Hope to see you again soon.. IATEFL was hectic as always so we barely chatted there!

    • Hi Graeme
      I know there are many advantages, and demands, to the adoption of coursebooks, some of which you mentioned here. My contention is that teachers can benefit greatly from taking a critical look at the approaches and materials available, and then make informed, and locally relevant, decisions. If after that the best strategy is found to be using one coursebook or another, then fine. But I often think that teachers are not included in such decisions, and I think since they’re the ones getting the hands dirty, they should. And of course, the students should also be listened to.
      I really don’t think that the approach I propose above should be taken up by everyone. It is what works for me at the moment, and no doubt I hope to develop it further.

      Welcome to the blogsphere! I read your first couple of posts with interest a little while ago, good stuff! I’m way behind on my blog reading at the moment, but will get back there again.

      Thanks for your comment, and the kind words.
      See you around

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

receive new posts by email.

Join 485 other followers


Events 2015

IATEFL Manchester, UK
10 April, 2014
TDSIG PCE: Challenges and Rewards
More info

IATEFL Manchester, UK
12 April, 2015
Talk: Initial teacher training: challenges and innovations in course design

23 March, 2015 - Kragujevac
28 March, 2015 - Belgrade
Theme: Assessment: who is it for?
More info



%d bloggers like this: