My IATEFL Glasgow Diary Part 5 – Anthony Gaughan on the Se7en Deadly Sins of ELT

Tuesday, 20th March 2012, Glasgow Conference Centre.


The first coffee break was spent gawking at the size of the exhibition hall this year, and greeting old friends and online friends who were not at the PCE or Karaoke event the night before (Hi @SandyMillin !). In fact, we got so caught up by it all that we had not noticed that all of us were heading in the same direction for the next talk: Anthony Gaughan’s The Se7en Deadly Sins of ELT.

The room was full by the time we got there, and many of us experienced our first conference disappointment. Thankfully, Mike (@irishmikeh) had reserved two seats and we managed to get in…I then came out two seconds later to loudly announce to James (@theteacherjames) that Mike had reserved him a seat too (it was my first ever conference lie!), thus getting him past the ‘bouncer’ who clearly had missed a huge career opportunity in riot control. This very same scary ‘bouncer’ came in several minutes before Anthony’s talk to chase out the couple of people who were sitting on the floor (What kind of TEFL conference is it when no one’s allowed to sit on the floor???) and lecture us on how we are not allowed to ‘reserve’ seats by putting our belongings on them. James, Mike and I simply kept our heads down and hoped that she wouldn’t notice that the 3 of us were sharing 2 seats…

I certainly felt like a schoolgirl, hoping, with all fingers crossed behind my back, that the discipline master wouldn’t find out that we had been eating in the classroom…

Now, back to Anthony Gaughan’s talk.

Photo by Mike Hogan

Anthony starts by telling us the 3 things he was not going to.

He was not going to tell us anything we don’t already know;

He was not going to ask why we were there;

And he was not going to get us to agree with him.

This set the relaxed mood for his entire talk, in which he skillfully went through the Se7en Deadly Sins of ELT (as shown below) and debunked each of them, always reminding us never to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Photo by Mike Hogan

1.    Repetition Drilling

Starting with espousing behaviourism and reminding us that language is much more a habit than we realize, and that we can make what we drill meaningful by utilizing substitution drills etc.

2.    Translation and the Use of L1

One common criticism is that L1 can’t be used in multilingual classes, but a quick show of hands immediately showed us that monolingual classes are in fact the majority.

Another criticism is that translation does not encourage students to think in English. Anthony goes on to question, ‘But who says your students are thinking in English anyway?’

He then goes on to suggest ways of using L1, e.g. mini-text translation, asking ‘fifth skill questions’ and using the L1 to contrast with L2.

3.    Students using dictionaries in class

Is using dictionaries time-wasting? Anthony wonders why some might feel that teaching learners to work things out for themselves is not time well-spent.

4.    Teacher explanations

There’s nothing wrong with explanations, Anthony asserts, saying that students would feel cheated if they paid you, the expert, and instead, you try to constantly elicit from them, leaving them unclear.

The issue here is the quality of the explanations. Students stop listening when the answers are unclear, too long or abstract, or when it is not answering their question. Perhaps learning to give good explanations, rather than getting rid of them completely is key.

5.    Reading texts aloud in class

Anthony’s 3 commandments for reading aloud:

  • Insert lines to show breaks and pauses in text (to help with phonological chunking)
  • Bold fonts for main stress (or nucleus)
  • Mark parts of text where students can give attention to weak forms and linking.

6.    Telling students they are wrong

Correcting mistakes upsets students? Anthony blames Krashen’s affective filter hypothesis for teachers tip-toeing around students and being afraid to correct them. He maintains that it is all in the approach (can we correct them in a supportive and gentle/friendly manner?) and that all learners want feedback.

7.    Teacher talk time

Just as there aren’t any issues with teacher explanations as long as they are good ones, there are no issues with teacher talk time as long as they are good quality ones.

Photo by Mike Hogan

All in all, one of the best talks this conference! Thought-provoking, attitude-challenging, and definitely full of great teaching ideas!

It of course didn’t hurt that these were 7 points that I totally agree with Anthony on.

Perhaps potentially 7 more Devil’s Advocate installments with Anthony that are possible here? *wink*

Click here to have a read of my Devil’s Advocate (DA) with Anthony Gaughan on teacher training.

For more updates on Day 1 of IATEFL Glasgow, watch this space…

…to be continued…

Author: Chia Suan Chong

I am a writer, communication skills trainer and a teacher trainer based in York, UK. I have been English Teaching Professional's resident blogger since 2012 and have a regular feature in their bimonthly magazine. My book Successful International Communication was published in Dec 2018.

8 thoughts on “My IATEFL Glasgow Diary Part 5 – Anthony Gaughan on the Se7en Deadly Sins of ELT”

  1. My thanks to Anthony for the session, which was one of the highlights of the conference, and to you for this excellent write-up.

    One thing that worries me about the unplugged approach is that we could be in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater in terms of abandoning practices which not only work well but can, when applied sensibly, be extremely beneficial to the learner. Anthony really showed us the way here.

    Great stuff.

    1. Anthony certainly did! People often think that unplugging means following one thing dogmatically and throwing everything else out.
      On the contrary, unplugging requires one to know about all the methods and approaches available to us and having a bag of tricks at hand so that we can pull our whichever suits our learners whenever they need it.
      Improvised Principled Eclecticism is what unplugging is to me.
      And that means never throwing the baby out with the bathwater!


    2. Thanks Adam, glad you enjoyed the talk/rant and found it useful.

      If anything, I think teaching unplugged/Dogme ELT requires that teachers actually increase their active repertoire of techniques – because they operate in a far more open space than their more coursebook delimited colleagues.

      A lesson (or series of lessons) based primarily on a coursebook or any other pre-determined set of materials restricts ( defines might be a less loaded word) to a certain extent the likelihood of certain learning needs arising, and this in turn defines to a certain extent what responsive teaching techniques get called on.

      Over time, it seems likely that teachers who work mainly through coursebook mediation may become highly skilled in exploiting a narrow range of techniques, but also fail to see the application/validity of others, understandably, due to the lack of applicable affordances in their classes.

      Do you see what I mean? I may need to write a blog post to make this clearer…

      This is not to say that unplugged teachers are better, but I suspect that they do have to bring more to the table, as it were, if they are to do a truly competent job, as they can’t afford to rely on the coursebook to pick up the slack.

      This was underscored later in the IATEFL day by Jim Scrivener, who suggested that teachers have perhaps become too accustomed to letting coursebooks (excellently designed as many are these days) to do much of the heavy lifting in class – and as with muscles, if teaching skill isn’t subjected to regular resistance training (for us teachers, in the form of real nitty-gritty teaching), it atrophies.

      In this respect, Jim’s “muscular” teaching metaphor is spot on – then it comes to raw teaching skill, it’s a case of use it or lose it!

      Right, off to the gym…

      1. Absolutely, Anthony! Absolutely spot-on! Not having a course book or lots of materials to rely on ensures that one experiments with different things that work and try different methods, different activities and different approaches…
        Of course, it all really depends on the teacher. Some teachers, even without their course books, rely on boil-in-the-bag lessons and just repeat the same lessons they always do for particular language points, regardless of the students needs, wants and interests.
        But yes, in general, unplugged teachers are forced to hone their skills and are definitely more adept to be principally eclectic.

        Really loved your session and really hope you’ll repeat it again some time soon!


  2. Makes sense Anthony. After doing a coursebook several times you memorise the activities and Teacher book ideas too and they become part of your repertoire. But throw away the book and you’ll need a lot more to fall back on. It’s like the people living in the bush compared to one in a nice flat.

    We may have been domesticated too much through training and having limits/rules/procedures drilled into us and thus lost a lot of our natural instincts and the ability to just ‘be in the room’ as opposed to running through the plan.

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