Understanding Discourse – Grice and Implicatures Part 1

Ever since my last blogpost about discourse, I have been receiving requests to delve a little deeper into the area of pragmatics. It reminded me that a previous BESIG interview about pragmatics and politeness had led to the same kind of requests which I had not had the time to devote to before.

This has spurred me to share some of the reading and research I had previously done on this subject here.

Here’s Part 1 (of 3) of a summary of Grice’s maxims and implicatures – often considered to be the basis of any study into the pragmatics of language.

The bibliography will follow at the end of Part 3.



1.      Introduction

 1.1    Why Grice?

A lot has been written about the work of the philosopher H. Paul Grice and his contribution to the study of pragmatics. After a long spate of linguistic study focused solely on truth conditional semantics and the grammar, syntax and semantic meanings of words controlled fully by the speaker, Grice was the first to propose a set of principles to describe the nature of conversation as a co-operation between the participants (Cook 1989), and his Co-operative Principles (CP) and maxims have been the basis for the further exploration of the nature and power of what a speaker means and implies, and how it is understood by the hearer. His notion of conversational implicature is believed to be ‘one of the single most important ideas in pragmatics’ ( Levinson 1983:97) and even his greatest critics, such as Davis (1998:1) admitted his theories to be an ‘important phenomenon’, a major achievement’ and ‘a breakthrough in linguistics’.

In order to understand Grice’s theories, it is perhaps useful to first consider J.L. Austin’s ideas on language. Austin was Grice’s teacher at Oxford University, and was reacting against his contemporaries’ views that language was full of ambiguities, imprecision and contradictions which needed to be refined and purified (Thomas 1995:29), by purporting that the way ordinary people used everyday language could shed light on how people identified the distinctions that were worth making (Austin 1962). Consider this example.


Emma: Can you find out if the tube is running?

Tom: The internet is down.

On a purely semantic level, it seems that Emma is asking about Tom’s ability to obtain the information about the London underground and Tom’s answer seems to be an irrelevant one about the internet not working. However, the mere locutionary force of the words does not help us to understand that Emma’s question was a request for help and Tom’s answer implied that he was unable to do so. Austin (1962) introduced the idea of there being an illocutionary force in such implicit perfomatives, (in this case, that of the functions request and refusal) which we use in speech to produce an effect.

Grice’s systematic study of such cases where there was a significant difference between speaker meaning and semantic meaning led him to put forward a theory that could explain how we bridge the gap between the locutionary and illocutionary force of a context-dependent utterance in order to make sense of each other. While his principles bring logic into the use of language, they also account for the hedging used in everyday language (by the way, I might be wrong but…), and provide explanations for the phenomena of metaphors, irony, tautology, and hyperbole.

1.2     Grice in the foreign language classroom

Some teachers might argue that the interpretation of an utterance is universal, and that because students can already interact and communicate in their L1, the time in the classroom should be spent on the formal skills and knowledge of pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar (Cook 1989). As a result of this assumption, the indirect communication explained by Grice’s implicatures are often not highlighted or dealt with in language coursebooks (Bouton, in Hinkel 1999).

However, if we were to consider the fact that the same utterance in the same context could be interpreted differently in different cultures (Keenan 1976, Bouton 1988 & 1994), it might explain why even fairly advanced students have trouble understanding the nuances of utterances, the intentions of the speakers, and an area of particular interest to me, English humour. This causes frequent cases of misunderstanding and confusion to the language student who lives among native speakers and/or is exposed to comedy and films through the global dominance of Hollywood. Perhaps the interpretation of utterances is not wholly transferable as previously assumed, and needs to be covered in the English language classroom. The issue of the universality of CP and its maxims will be dealt with after we look at the principles themselves.



2.      The Co-operative Principle (CP) and the Maxims

2.1     What is CP?

In his paper Logic and Conversation, Grice (1975) proposed that all talk exchanges are cooperative efforts where participants recognise a common purpose or mutually-accepted direction of the conversation. If we were to take the dialogue between Emma and Tom in (i)  at face value (i.e. the locutionary force of the utterance), the utterances seem disconnected, and thus irrational and illogical. The assumption that Emma and Tom were guided by the cooperative principle helps us to understand that Tom’s reply is indeed a relevant answer to Emma’s question. Grice’s CP is worded as follows:

Make your contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.

(Grice 1975:45)

Grice then goes on to specify how CP is followed in the form of 4 maxims.

Quantity:        1. Make your contribution as informative as is required (for the current purposes of the exchange).

2. Do not make your contribution more informative than is required.

Quality:           1. Do not say what you believe to be false.

2. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence.

Relation:          1. Be relevant

Manner:          Be perspicuous.

  1. Avoid obscurity of expression.
  2. Avoid ambiguity.
  3. Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity)
  4. Be orderly.


Despite the unfortunate name of ‘maxims’ and use of imperatives, Grice (1975) emphasises that they describe ways of people’s behaviour which they have learned from childhood, and that they are not only something we should follow but that which is rational and ‘reasonable for us to follow’. Levinson (1983) recognises them as assumptions and guidelines that help us to use language effectively and efficiently, and thus should not be considered as rules of any sort. CP is by no means idealising human beings as having an intrinsically co-operative or altruistic personality, but refers to the assumptions about communication one operates on, even when we are in an argument (Cameron, 2001).


2.2     Implicatures

The term ‘implicature’ was coined by Grice (1975) to account for what the speaker implied, suggested or meant, as opposed to the semantic meaning of the words said. The conveyance of implicature enables one to determine the meaning of an utterance via inference because of the assumption that the participants of a conversation are adhering to CP and its maxims (Yule, 1996).

In what Grice (1975) terms ‘conventional implicatures’, the conventional meaning of the words conveys what the utterance implies and is not based on CP, as the following illustrates:

(ii) He was on social welfare but was not lazy.

The above sentence implies that people on welfare are expected to be lazy since the word ‘but’ generates the implicature that what follows will contrast the presupposed expectation. Thomas (1995) lists words like ‘but’, ‘even’, ‘therefore’, ‘yet’ and ‘for’ as words that could carry conventional implicatures. As such words are not context-dependent for their interpretation, and are often covered in the formal studies of a language learner, I shall move on to a category of more interest to the pragmaticist, conversational implicatures, that which is communicated based on the assumptions about a conversation’s rational nature, as stated in CP and its maxims (Levinson, 2000).

The nature of conversational implicatures have been characterised by Grice (1975) as such. In order for the hearer to work out the implicature, the following rationalising takes place:

1)    The speaker is observing the maxims.

2)    The speaker is saying X to imply Y. In fact, he would not say X if he did not want to imply Y.

3)    The speaker knows that the listener would understand Y from X, and intends it to be so.

There has been much debate over the categorization and definitions of conversational implicatures, which has led me to sub-categorized this section in a controversial way. Grice (ibid) himself provides the sub-categories of generalised conversational implicatures (GCIs) and particularized conversational implicatures (PCIs). Levinson (1983:104), however, introduces the term standard implicatures to refer the ones expressed when a speaker is observing the maxims, while more complex implicatures are communicated through what Grice (ibid) calls the  flouting of the maxims in the form of PCIs.


2.2.1    Standard Implicatures

Although Grice (1978) indicated that he wished to withhold the term implicature from inferences that only express the maxims themselves (as opposed to flouting the maxims), I have started with this category in order to illustrate how we unconsciously abide by CP and use it to make sense of the utterances we hear. I shall use examples in my classroom to show that, sometimes, the observance of CP might be universal and transferable from my learners’ L1.




Me: How many siblings have you got?

Student: I have 5 brothers.

I can infer from common understanding of this maxim, albeit unconscious, that the student is being as informative as possible and thus implying that he has no more than 5 brothers, although semantically, the statement could imply that he has more than 5 brothers.



When the student asserts that he has 5 brothers in (ii), I believe he indeed has 5 brothers and has adequate evidence that this is so.

Consider also this question.

(iv)      Student:  What does ‘greedy’ mean?

This implicates that the student is asking this question sincerely, does not know what ‘greedy’ means, and requires this information. (Levinson, 1983)




Me: Is Claudio in school today?

Student: He’s sick.

The student’s utterance is not a non-sequitor one. It implies that Maria was not in school by giving the reason that she was ill.



(vi)      Student:  I did my homework and went to sleep.

Although the ‘and’ seems ambiguous semantically and could be taken to mean ‘also’, the meaning ‘and then’ is understood.


2.2.2    Generalized Conversational Implicatures

Although most discourse analysts tend to assume that pragmatically-inferred meaning is always dependent on the context surrounding the utterance and the observance of CP and its maxims (Carston, 2004), GCIs are those based on ‘general expectations of how language is normally used’ (Levinson 2000:22), and no special background knowledge of the context is required to make the inferences (Yule 1996). GCIs could be said to be somewhere between conventional implicatures and PCIs.

(vii)     He went out with a woman.

The sentence implicates that the woman is not his wife, family member or platonic friend (Grice 1975).


Also consider,

(viii)    I repaired a roof.

Without the use of the possessive pronoun ‘my’, one can infer that this was not the speaker’s roof.


2.2.3    Particularized Conversational Implicatures

In situations where the speaker blatantly fails to observe a maxim, he is ‘flouting’ and such flouting is used to generate PCIs, which the hearer will in turn infer from. The procedure is termed ‘exploitation’. (Grice 1975)


Exploiting the maxim of Quantity

(ix)       Sharon has recently watched a film that was hyped up in the media as sensational.

David:   How was the film?

Sharon:  Well, the costumes were nice.

Sharon is flouting the maxim of quantity by not giving enough of the information required by David’s question. David knows that Sharon has flouted the maxim but has no reason to think that Sharon is being uncooperative. He, thus, infers that Sharon is implicating that the film was awful. Such flouting is used to create what is called indirect criticism (Bouton, 1994).

Tautologies like ‘a lie is a lie’ or ‘first introduced’ could be seen as flouting this maxim by unnecessary repetition. However, the implicature generated by the former might be telling us that the speaker is unwilling to make exceptions to what might be meant as a white lie, and the later might implicate the first occasion when something was introduced (e.g. the term ‘implicature’), although it  might have been introduced by several people in different places.


Exploiting the maxim of Quality

(x)        You are an angel.  (metaphor)


(xi)       Upon seeing Shelly online every time Michael logs on, he comments,

Michael: You are always online.

Shelly: Me? Never! I never use the internet.   (irony)



Brian has just burnt his dinner.

Anna: You’re such a great cook.  (sarcasm/irony)


(xiii)     I can eat a horse.  (hyperbole)


(xiv)     Upon seeing that a wedding would cost £30,000,

Rakesh: It’s a bit expensive, isn’t it?  (understatement)

The above examples all flout the maxim of quality and both participants expect each other to realise that the utterances are not to be taken literally. They could be used as stylistic devices, to create humour, or just simply to be interesting.

Notice, however, that each of these utterances requires a different set of reasoning to work out the implicature intended. (x) requires the hearer to make comparisons between the concept of an angel and one who is kind and saves another, the semantic meanings of (xi) and (xii) are opposites of the implicated meaning, while (xii) is overstates and (xiv) understates what the speaker really means. Grice does not seem to explain how an interlocutor is to know which set of reasoning to use when such flouting is carried out.


Exploiting the maxim of Relevance


Dale accidentally mentions Steve’s ex-wife in a conversation with Steve and Rachel. Rachel quickly changes the topic.

Rachel: What do you think of the coffee here?

Rachel’s blatant flouting of the maxim is used to show Dale that he has committed a social faux pax and in danger of treading dangerous waters.


Exploiting the maxim of Manner


The parents are talking in front of their toddler.

Dad: We won’t B-U-Y the T-O-Y today.

Through being intentionally ambiguous and spelling out the words, the father is implicating that there’s something he can’t say directly and expects the mother to infer that he does not want the child to know what they are talking about.


2.2.4    Other categories of non-observance

It is not always that the non-observance of a maxim is done blatantly with the intention of creating an implicature. Grice (1975:49) mentions several ways where a maxim is not adhered to, aside from flouting: violating, violating because of a clash and opting out. He later added a fourth category: infringing; and others have purported a fifth: suspending (Thomas1995:72).

Grice has not only been criticised for not always using the terms consistently but also for failing to address the issue of how the hearer is to distinguish between the types of non-observance involved in working out the implicature intended (ibid:90). This could explain why some girls spend hours trying to work out what the voicemail message left by their date really implies. The following categories might somehow be controversial as different writers have chosen to group them in different ways.



Unlike flouting, violation is not meant to be noticed by the hearer perhaps because the speaker intends to deceive or hold back information (Cameron, 2001:78). Some speakers, such as politicians, might be intentionally ambiguous so as not to commit themselves to a proposition (ibid), hence violating a maxim.



Grice (1975) explains that sometimes a speaker cannot fulfil one maxim without violating another, and is faced with a clash. In example (xvii), the student cannot answer the question fully without being long-winded, and chooses to forgo the maxim of quality.


Teacher: What did you do this weekend?

Student:  Nothing.


Opting out

One might opt out of a maxim by clearly showing that he is unable to cooperate, perhaps due to legal or ethical reasons, or the need to protect someone else (Thomas, 1995). The speaker might say, ‘I can’t tell you that,’ or ‘I promised not to say’.



A speaker sometimes infringes a maxim because he is unable to abide by it (ibid). Infringement could take place if the speaker is not particularly eloquent, is drunk, or simply can’t speak the language well (as with a child or foreign language speaker). Here is a classroom example where my student infringes the maxims of quantity and manner due to a lack of language skills.


Teacher: How was your holiday?

Student: Nice.



Critics of Grice claim that there are language communities that do not adhere to the maxims (Gazdar, 1979), and Keenan’s (1976) example of Malagasy speakers, who often make their conversations as uninformative as possible (see section 3.2), is often used to suggest that there are occasions on which Grice’s maxims are inapplicable and need to be suspended. Alongside Gazdar and Keenan, Grice has had many critics since he first postulated the CP and its maxims.


In the next part, I will be looking at the criticisms of Grice’s theories, including the exploration of the politeness principle, the universality of the Co-operative Principle, and how English humour and irony might or might not apply in cross-cultural contexts.

The CELTA Trainer’s Diary Part 9 – Functions and Spoken Discourse

Among the four language systems – Lexis, Grammar, Pronunciation, and Discourse, Discourse is often the one that is most neglected on the CELTA.  Some tutors might do an input session on functional language a la the functional syllabuses on the 1970s, but that is inevitably presented as formulaic lexis and nothing more.

Yet, spoken discourse governs the things we say and how appropriate they are in different circumstances. It explores how we assign significance to utterances and make sense of conversations. Without the study of discourse, lexis, grammar and pronunciation would remain stagnant concepts for it is through discourse that the other language systems interact with each other in a dynamic and fluid manner to create meaning.

Perhaps because it is so fluid and dynamic, many teachers and teacher trainers fear it, and do not know where to start teaching it.

On my CELTA, I give my trainees a taster of what discourse is all about and since Güven has kindly referred to me in his blogpost about this input session, I felt inclined to give the details of the session.

The day’s session started with a roleplay.

Trainees were put into their TP groups, with 5 in each group.

5 different rolecards were given to each of them.

The scenario: You are 5 old friends who have known each other for more than 10 years. You meet once every year to catch up. Each of you have a different quirk/idiosyncrasy.


The 5 characters in brief :

a)         1 has relationship problems with their partner and loves to complain and moan about it.

b)        1 is extremely touchy feely and likes to give the impression of being kind and supportive and likes playing the comforter.

c)         1 is a doer. He/She is solution-oriented, and likes offering suggestions and advice.

d)        1 has a very short attention span, gets bored easily and likes changing the topic.

e)         1 likes to criticize but does so with tact. He/ She always sees the negative side of everything and hates wimps.

The roleplay takes a good 10-15 minutes or so, and while monitoring, the trainer transcribes sentences she hears containing semi-fixed and fixed expressions that relate to particular discourse functions.

Relating to role (a), you would find expressions like

‘You won’t believe what xxx did!’;

‘I’m don’t know what to do’;

‘That reminds me, xxx is always + -ing’


Relating to role (b), you would find expressions like

Don’t worry’;

‘That’s such a pity’;

‘I’m so sorry to hear that’;

‘It’s not the end of the world’;

‘Things are going to get better’


Relating to role (c), you would find expressions like

Why don’t you + -ing?’;

‘How about + -ing?’;

‘You could + bare infinitive’;

‘You really should + bare infinitive’


Relating to role (d), you would find expressions like

‘By the way,…’;


‘Come to think of it,….’;

‘Now that you mention it,…’


Relating to role (e), you would find expressions like

‘With all due respect,…’;

‘I don’t mean to be mean/harsh, but…’;

‘If you don’t mind me saying, …’;

‘To be honest,…’;

‘I see where you are coming from but…’


You might also find:

Hedging and softening devices like

It’s sort of…’;

‘It’s  just….’;

‘It’s not that…’


Semi-fixed expressions to focus and emphasize, like

The thing is…’;

‘At the end of the day, …’;

‘What this means is…


And typical expressions for opening and closing a conversation, such as

‘Hi, how are you?’;

‘How have things been?’;

‘How is it going?’;

‘Long time no see!’

‘I’ve got to go’;

‘I really have to make a move’;

‘It’s been nice catching up with you’;

‘See you around’


After the roleplay, trainees are made to guess what each of their team members’ quirks might be, and the trainer then boards the phrases she has transcribed on to the board.

The trainees then have to discuss and decide if the phrases are fixed or semi-fixed, and if they are semi-fixed, which part is changeable. They also have to say which character they think uttered the phrase and what function it serves.

As trainees do this, the group often comes to a natural realization that although some phrases like ‘Why don’t you + -ing?’ can be assigned the function of ‘suggestion’ or ‘advice’ quite easily, some phrases or discourse markers could have more than one purpose.

Take the discourse marker ‘Well,….’ for example.

  • It could serve as  a signpost saying ‘I disagree and I’m now going to tell you why politely.’
  • It could serve as  conversation changer, not dissimilar to ‘Anyway,’ or ‘By the way,’.
  • It could also signal the start of a long answer to a question, e.g. ‘Well, since I was a child, I blah blah blah….’

The lesson to be learnt here (aside from the fact that perhaps John Searle had wasted his life trying to categorise all utterances into functions) is that some linguistic formulae serve certain functions and could/should be taught with the relevant functions. However, interaction is dynamic and meaning is often co-constructed and negotiated through the conversation process.

Context and co-text could thus be a much bigger clue to the meaning of the utterance than any prescribed function, and we as teachers should not get carried away with teaching the functions of an utterance out of context.

Following this debrief to the roleplay, the following questions were put up on the interactive white board for students to think about.

1.  What do you say when someone says, ‘How do you do?’

What about ‘How are you?


2.  Look at the following dialogue. Who do you think Rachel is? What does Michael mean?

Rachel:          The phone is ringing.

Michael:        I’m in the bath

(Adapted from Prof. Henry Widdowsen)


3.  What do the following utterances really mean?

             Are you busy?

            It’s stuffy in here, isn’t it?

            That curry smells really good.

            I totally forgot to bring my pen.

            Will you be passing the supermarket on your way home?

            I can’t reach the top shelf.

(Adapted from Vicky Hollett’s blog)


4.  What is Sue trying to achieve here?

Brian has just burnt his dinner.

Sue (laughs): You’re such a great cook.


What is Sarah trying to do here?

Justin accidentally mentions Richard’s ex-wife in a conversation with Richard and Sarah. Sarah quickly changes the topic.

Sarah: What do you think of the coffee here?


5.  Maria starts a presentation with ‘Now, I will start.’ And ends it with ‘Okay, I finish.’ What could you tell her?


6.  The Germans and the Americans were having a business meeting. The Americans made a proposal and the Germans said, ‘The problem with that is…’  The Americans misunderstood their intentions.

What do you think happened?

(Adapted from research by Dr. Sabrina Mallon-Gerland)


7.  Discourse researcher called the discourse styles of Latin America, Italy, Spain, Portugal, etc ‘Rugby’, while those from Japan, Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan were called ‘Bowling’. Why do you think this is so?


8.  How do we know when it’s our turn to speak? What do you do to hold the floor? How do you signal to someone that you’ve finished talking?


9.  What happened here?

Kelly and Jun Sook are partners. Kelly has just returned home from work.

Kelly: You won’t believe what happened to me today!

Jun Sook stares at her and doesn’t say a word.

Kelly: Fine, if you’re not interested, then I’m not going to tell you!

Jun Sook: Huh?

10.  How do you normally interrupt a conversation? What do you say?


I will leave you with these ten questions as food for thought and look forward to your comments.

The discussion will follow on in the next blogpost.

The CELTA Trainer’s Diary Part 8 – Loop Input

The 8th Day of the CELTA was about introducing the trainees to the Lexical Approach and the idea of language existing as chunks, rather than individual pieces of vocabulary strung together to make meaning.


Trainees were getting experiential training through the use of a demo lesson of a jigsaw reading method I use to encourage learners to remember language in chunks.


Trainees, acting as learners, were divided into two groups (blues and yellows) and given different texts to read and summarise. The catch was that they were only allowed to make notes in the form of drawings to help them remember the content. This means that the learner would not be able to simply read the words off the page, but is encouraged to truly understand the meaning of the text and remember some of the chunks of language.


The trainees, now learners, are put in a carousel, with the Blues on the inside and the Yellows on the outside. The Blues then had to relay their summaries, with the help of only their drawings, to the yellows. The Yellows then moved a place to their left and had to re-tell what they had heard to their new Blue partner.


This achieves two things. It practises the very common communicative function of re-telling stories and reporting what one has heard, while allowing the new blue partner to fill in the gaps of the retold story, thus co-constructing the information learnt and reformulating the chunks of language from the text.


As Güven has very concisely summarized the lesson in his blogpost, I will refrain from describing the rest of the input session here.


What makes this input session slightly different from those with a demo lesson which employs the technique of a straight forward experiential learning/training, is that the text given to the trainees was about the Lexical Approach itself.


The Blues were given a page-long definition about the Lexical Approach from An A-Z of ELT (Thornbury, 2006) while the Yellows were given a page from the same book about lexis, lexical sets and lexical verbs.


Loop de Loop
Photo by Mike Hogan, from http://www.flickr.com/photos/irishmikeh/

Combining content (i.e. What the trainee is trying to learn: the text about the Lexical Approach) and process (i.e. How the trainee is trying to learn: the ‘drawing jigsaw reading’ which enforces the Lexical Approach), this specific style of teacher training sessions could be described as a loop input (Woodward, 1986).


Being multi-sensory, loop input allows for lots of recursion and for the reverberation of learning to take place through content (the text) and through experiencing the process (pretending to be students in the demo Lexical Approach lesson), thereby resulting in a deeper understanding and learning of the concept (Woodward, 2003).


What is perhaps most important in loop input sessions, and in fact any experiential learning process involving a demo lesson, is that trainees are given the chance to unpack (or what Woodward calls ‘decompress’) the lesson.
This means that time is given to trainees to have a detailed discussion of the main stages of the lesson they have just experienced, the aims of each stage, the content and materials used, and the participant experience of the activity (ibid).


In this loop input session for example, I asked the following questions in the unpacking stage:


What were the main stages of that lesson?

Why did I only allow you to draw and not write words?

Why did I ask you to re-tell what you had heard?

What words did you use when re-telling?

Did you remember individual words or chunks of language?

How did you remember the words you had to use to re-tell what you had heard? How did you feel as a student?


And judging from Güven’s blogpost, it seems like the trainees got the gist of the Lexical Approach.




Thornbury, S. (2006) An A-Z of ELT, Macmillan.

Woodward, T. (1986) ‘Loop Input – a process idea’ The Teacher Trainer 1: 6-7.

Woodward, T. (2003) ‘Key Concepts in ELT: Loop Input’ ELTJ 57/3: 301-304

The CELTA Trainer’s Diary Part 7 – Correcting Students’ Mistakes

Where to timetable the input session on ‘Correction and Dealing with Student Errors’ is a tricky one and often reflects the trainer’s beliefs about teacher training and teaching.

Some trainers leave it till Week 3, preferring to focus on lesson structures where the target language is presented and then practice of that target language is given.

This could be based on the belief that language lessons should take on an input-output structure where teachers aim to teach a particular pre-decided lexico-grammatical item.

Or this could be based on the belief that teacher trainees on a CELTA are not ready to handle the clarification and correction of language that emerges from student output as they are new to the profession, and are better off having the chance to research and prepare to present a language item.

Of course, there is also the fact that the CELTA criteria expects trainees to articulate the aims of the lesson (e.g. By the end of the lesson, students will have been introduced to and given practice of the use of the present perfect for life experiences in the context of talking about countries they have been to) and show through the stages and procedure of their lesson plan how they are going to go about achieving that aim.

This naturally suggests that the other CELTA criteria regarding the ability to clarify meaning, form and pronunciation of language in Teaching Practice refers mainly to the clarification of the target language stated in the lesson aims.

Hence, in order to best equip teachers to deal with Teaching Practice, the first two weeks of input are often spent understanding the input-output lesson shapes like Present-Practice-Produce and ‘Language from a Text’, and demonstrating how to systematically clarify MFP in such lessons.

Being a Dogmetician, and a believer in the importance dealing with emergent language, I decided to deliver my input session on correction on Day 6 (Week 2, Day 1). After all, if it’s going to be difficult for trainees, they might as well start getting practice of it as soon as possible.

Photo from virtualtourist.com

Let us first start by looking at some sentences spoken by my students.

Decide where the mistake lies, whether it is a problem with lexis, grammar, pronunciation or usage, and why you think this mistake was made.

How would you correct the mistake?

Here are some examples:

1)   She want some tea.

2)   He saw a dream about winning the Olympics yesterday.

3)   I am not agree with you.

4)   I lied down on my bed when I got home.

5)   He seed a film at the cinema last week.

6)   I read a new about Team GB’s gold medals this morning.

7)   If I am you, I will go home.

8)   Last month, I had seen this film.

(1) is a grammatical issue where the student has dropped the third person ‘s’ in ‘wants’. A seemingly simple grammar rule to remember, new teachers are often surprised to find fairly advanced students of English still making this mistake. This is often not because the student is unaware of the rule, but simply forgot. If repeated often, the mistake becomes habitual (or in some literature, ‘fossilized’).

Not surprisingly, the third person ‘s’ is a late acquisition item even among children who speak English as a first language. This could be due to the similarity in the pronunciation of ‘want’ and ‘wants’, and the fact that there is hardly any impact on meaning if the ‘s’ is dropped.

Although (2) is a mistake with lexis and collocation, while (3) is a grammatical mistake, they both are a result of L1 interference, i.e. translation from the student’s first language has caused the mistake. The speaker of sentence (2) is Japanese and the collocation ‘to see a dream’, instead of ‘to have a dream’ is the norm in the Japanese language. Sentence (3) is a mistakes typically made by Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and French speakers, as ‘agree’ is an adjective, as in ‘Estoy de acuerdo’, ‘Sono d’accordo’ or ‘Je suis d’accord’.

Number (4) and (5) feature the same grammatical mistake of using the regular verb past tense ending ‘-ed’ with an irregular verb.

However, the student who said (4) simply did not know the past simple of the irregular verb ‘lie’ and might have confused it with the regular verb ‘to lie’ (as in ‘not to tell the truth’).

The elementary student who said sentence (5) had been able to say ‘I saw’ previously. But when taught the rules for forming the past simple of regular verbs, the eager student over-applied the rules to the irregular verbs as well. As first glance, it might seem like the student has deteriorated. In actual fact, he/she was experimenting with a rule that was taught.

And without experimentation, there can be no language learning.

Sentence (6) also features an over-application of a rule. The student understood that plural nouns often take an ‘s’ in English, e.g. one medal, two medals. The student also knew the word ‘news’ and has assumed that it was a noun in the plural form. He then deduced that one piece of news must be ‘a new’. Very clever!

Sentence number (7) sees the first conditional, instead of the second conditional being used. This could be due to several possible reasons : (a) the student hasn’t had enough practice of the structure and isn’t ready to produce it, (b) the student forgot (c) the student has never come across this structure or hasn’t been taught it (d) the student was taught this in class but misunderstood the teacher and thought that ‘If I were you’ referred to a past time.

Sentence (8) is another example of a student experimenting with the tenses they have learnt and perhaps going a little overboard with it, and overcomplicating the sentence. The past simple would have sufficed.

Photo by @pigletruth from http://www.flickr.com/eltpics

To sum up, here’s why students make mistakes

  • They forgot.
  • It’s a habit.
  • L1 interference
  • Lack of knowledge
  • Lack of confidence
  • Lack of practice
  • Not ready to produce it
  • Misunderstanding the teacher
  • Over-application of a rule
  • Experimentation

But students want to have their mistakes pointed out and corrected. Many of them feel that this is what they are paying the teacher to do.

A director of studies once told me that the most common student complaint they got was that their teachers were not correcting them enough.

Photo by Chia Suan Chong

But can we correct every mistake we hear?

That would not only disrupt fluency to the point where real communication would be made nearly impossible, but would also affect the student’s confidence.

Instead, deal with issues that are

  • Affecting meaning and interfering with communication;
  • Recurring mistakes;
  • Mistakes made by several members of the class;
  • Mistakes made concerning the target language that you focused on in this lesson or in previous lessons.
Photo from nitawriter.wordpress.com

What are some different ways we can correct a mistake in class?


(1) Reformulation/Recasting

Student: “I go to the cinema yesterday.”

Teacher: “Oh? You went to the cinema yesterday?”

This involves the teacher simply repeating the student’s sentence back in the correct form. In some arenas, a distinction is drawn between ‘reformulation’ and ‘recasting’, with a suggestion that ‘reformulation’ is when this is done as in a delayed language feedback slot.

However, I find such terminology unhelpful to my trainees and choose to use the term ‘reformulation’ both for on-the-spot and delayed correction.

(2) Elicit by indicating there’s been an error

Student: “I go to the cinema yesterday.”

Teacher: “I go?” (with raised eyebrows and rising intonation)

This works with students who already have been exposed to the language point but have simply either forgotten or have made the mistake a habit.

If students are unable to self-correct, elicit from the other students in the class.

(3) Explicitly tell students what the mistake is

Student: “I go to the cinema yesterday.”

Teacher: “ Yesterday is the past but ‘go’ is the present tense. What’s the past tense of ‘go’?”


or even more explicitly,

Teacher: “Yesterday is the past but ‘go’ is the present tense. So we should say ‘I went to the cinema yesterday.”


Other ways of correcting include using

  • finger highlighting,
  • identifying the type of error e.g. ‘tense?’ or ‘preposition?’
  • gestures to indicate word order,
  • using the board and writing up the phonemic script,
  • clapping out the stress pattern of a word or sentence, etc.
Photo from MyFunnyWorld.net

Delayed Language Feedback (Delayed Correction)

After an activity is over and feedback on content has been conducted, language feedback can be conducted.

In one-to-one lessons, it could be helpful to have a sheet of paper divided into two section – ‘What you said’ and ‘What you could have said’. During the spoken interaction, I write on this sheet frantically. In delayed language feedback, I cover the side that says ‘What you could have said’ and get the student to self-correct. I then gradually reveal my reformulations.

In a class, I would write the sentences containing student errors on the board. I would then put students into pairs to correct the sentences. The person who made the error remains anonymous, but every so often, students giggle and admit that the sentence came from them.

After giving students ample time to discuss the sentences, I elicit the self-corrections from them in open class and we learn from the mistakes together.

If you still use OHP projectors, you could write the sentences straight onto the acetate when monitoring, and flash it up on the wall during delayed language feedback. This would save you time writing it up on the board, but this means that you have to pick the sentences you’d like to focus on as you hear them.

Photo by @pigletruth from http://www.flickr.com/eltpics

Rather than an input-output model, a focus on error correction earlier on emphasizes the fact that learning is not linear, and that some of the best learning takes place when the teacher helps the students to notice the gap in their knowledge and how it could affect communication.

It might not be easy, but just like language learning, the more one practises dealing with language errors and emergent language, the better one is bound to get at it.

After all, why do we encourage our learners to make mistakes, yet feel like we have to protect our teacher trainees from making them?

As James Joyce said, ‘Mistakes are the portals of discovery.’

The CELTA Trainer’s Diary Part 6 – Increasing Student Talking Time

In the first week of the CELTA, trainees were told to generate as much student talking time as possible by playing the role of the dinner party host or facilitator, asking genuine questions and handing over to students to work in pairs/groups as often as possible, while trainees listened and took notes of the language students produced.

After all, interaction is the key to language acquisition.

As the first session of the second week, I timetabled the second tutor to conduct a session called ‘Personalisation and Promoting Genuine Interaction’, looking further into ways trainees can get students talking.

In Güven’s weekend posts, ‘Extra Teaching Tips’ and ‘More Tips for the Weekend’, he lists some of the lessons he has learnt from the feedback given to his TP (Teaching Practice) Group’s first two Practice Lessons.

Amongst Güven’s tips are ‘Remember to sit on the chair’, ‘Be careful with the use of Powerpoint slides’, ‘Ask students genuine questions (and not just display questions) in open class discussions’, and ‘Remember to give feedback on content following pair/group speaking activities’ – and as his tutor, I must say I am absolutely over the moon that he has taken these tips seriously enough to blog about them.

As the observer of these practice lessons, it is evident how trainees applying those tips can dramatically change the atmosphere in the classroom and the behaviour of the learners. Let me explain.

‘Remember to sit on the chair’

Don’t stand on ceremony!
Photo by @acliltoclimb from http://www.flickr.com/eltpics

When teachers use the chair more, instead of standing authoritatively hovering over students, they instantly put themselves on par with the students and this changes the dynamics of their relationship.

In open class stages, teachers must remember to stay centralized (assuming students are seated in a horseshoe position) and avoid hiding behind or leaning on tables or desks that serve as a barrier between teacher and students.

When monitoring, chairs on wheels enable teachers to ‘roll’ around the classroom checking if students are on task, supporting and helping students and feeding in language they need, and taking notes of the language that emerges for a delayed language feedback stage.

The only occasion that I believe calls for the teacher to stand is when drilling students. The ‘Model – Choral Drill – Individual Drill’ sequence is more effective when the teacher is standing as it focuses the attention on the teacher when he/she is modeling the pronunciation of the target language, and it keeps the drill pacey and snappy.

Of course, the use of the chair is made easier by the fact that we have about 20 students in the classroom and not 50…

Click here to see Naomi Epstein’s response to this blogpost regarding the use of the chair and class size.

‘Be careful with the use of Powerpoint slides’

But if you use Powerpoint slides with a guitar in hand…maybe you’re okay…
Photo by Mike Hogan at http://www.flickr.com/photos/irishmikeh

An overdependence on Powerpoint can turn the lesson into a teacher-centred slide-centred presentation, rather than a student-centred class in which plenty of speaking practice and student involvement is prioritized.

Think ‘workshop’, rather than ‘speech’.

‘Ask students genuine questions (and not just display questions) in open class discussions’

Photo from allenkleinedeters.wordpress.com

A genuine question is one where the teacher shows real interest in what the student is saying and is asking a follow-up question to find out more.

Here are some examples of display questions:

Student A: I take my camera to Madam Tussauds yesterday.’

“Did you take your camera to Madam Tussauds?’

“So what is the past of ‘take’?”

“And Student B? Where did you take your camera to yesterday?”

Here are some examples of genuine questions:

Student A: I take my camera to Madam Tussauds yesterday.’

“Did you take lots of photos when you were there?”

“Really? And which celebrity did you want to take photos of?”

“Madam Tussauds? Did you like it?”

The result – the student talks more and gets more speaking practice, and because the teacher and the student is communicating real meaning, the other students are more likely to join in and respond to what is being said. Cross-classroom interaction is fostered.

‘Remember to give feedback on content following pair/group speaking activities’

After a freer speaking activity where students have talked or done a task in pairs/groups, ensure you conduct an open class feedback to the content of what was discussed or done. Say, if they were talking about their ideal job, ensure you leave time at the end of this stage to ask them questions like ‘So what was your partner’s ideal job?’ and ‘What criteria did he use to make that decision?’ in open class. React with genuine questions (see above).

Avoid jumping straight to feedback on language (also known as Delayed Correction) before focusing on content. It is feedback on content that makes the task meaningful for students, and the chance to retell what was discussed/done is invaluable speaking practice.

Allow me to add a couple more.

Make it personal, make it intimate.
Photo by @dfogarty from http://www.flickr.com/eltpics

“Personalise and make the topic/subject relevant to the students’ lives’

Ask the learners questions or give them tasks that relate to their lives and their opinions. In other words, don’t just ask them which type of holidays John and Mary in the listening text of Headway Intermediate like. Ask them which type of holidays the learners like.

But personalisation is a two-way game.

If you want learners to reveal something of themselves, it is important that you are willing to reveal something of yourself too.

Tell your learners about the type of holidays that you like and the ones that you don’t. Not only does this personalize the topic, it also acts as a model that helps clarify instructions and show learners how much depth you want them to go into.

But don’t get carried away and end up giving a 10-minute speech about your holiday.

It’s the learners that need practice of their English, not you.

“Ensure that the topic/task are engaging and can indeed generate discussion”

Sometimes, speaking activities fall flat on their faces and we teachers wonder why the students just weren’t talking.

A trainee once tried to implement a freer speaking activity that involved learners talking about the merits of Beethoven versus Mozart for 10 minutes in pairs. No one spoke because no one knew very much about or were interested in classical music.

I’m in no way trying to say that Beethoven or Mozart are not engaging. But consider the interests (and needs) of learners and be careful of creating tasks that reflect your own interests.

In another situation, the trainee asked the learners the controversial question “Do you think that the death penalty should be brought back?” and was surprised that the discussion only lasted for 1 minute or so.

It was a difficult question that when sprung on the students could only elicit responses like, ‘No. I think the death penalty is bad.’

Try out the tasks you are about to give students on your friends, colleagues or family. Ask them the questions you are going to ask students and see how easily and to what extent they would respond.

If the questions are not generating enough discussion, ask yourself if the questions need to be rephrased or supplemented with further questions that can help scaffold the thought process.

And now that Week 1 is over and the trainees have learnt to be the star facilitator, it’s time to look at how language is being covered in Teaching Practice.

The CELTA Trainer’s Diary – Why are you so distant?

Looking at verbs and language in terms of the kind of distance it conveys is not exactly a new concept, but is definitely one that not that many teachers know about.


I have always found it extremely useful to discuss this with my learners as it seems to help them ‘feel’ the language, rather than memorise a list of grammar rules that they might find hard to put into practice.


And I’m certainly glad to read that my trainee Güven, like me, has found the concept quite thrilling and helpful (only a grammar geek like me would use the word ‘thrilling’ with grammar!) and from his post, he seems to have really understood what I was trying to get across to the class perfectly well…so well that it makes me proud, and I can only hope to add some value to his post.


But let me try.



Have a look at the following sentences.

Label the verbs used and identify the meaning they convey.


(a)          Can I go with you? (Taylor Swift)

(b)          Could I have this kiss forever? (Enrique Iglesias)

(c)           If I could turn back time (Cher)

(d)          It could happen to you (Diana Krall)

(e)          If I was a rich girl, I’d have all the money in the world (Gwen Stefani)

(f)           She’s leaving on a midnight train to Georgia. (Human Nature)

(g)          I’m winning that race tomorrow! (My imaginary conversation with Usain Bolt)

(h)          Farah claims Gold Number 14 for Team GB (Evening Standard, 4th Aug 2012)

(i)            The Olympics finishes on the 12th August 2012 (Sandy Millin)


Photo by @sandymillin http://www.flickr.com/eltpics


Have you ever been stumped by students who ask you, “Is ‘could’ the past of ‘can’?”


Indeed, ‘could’ is the past of ‘can’ in sentences like ‘He couldn’t understand why”.


In the request seen in (a) and (b), some say that the use of ‘could’ in (b) makes it more polite or more formal than the use of ‘can’ in (a).


And in (c), ‘could’ signals an imaginary hypothetical situation in which the use of  ‘can’ would indicate that the situation was possible. (‘If I can turn back time’ would make no sense unless the speaker is Harry Potter or Superman)


The use of ‘could’ in (d) suggests that there is a probability of it happening, but not as probable as if ‘can’ was used.


In (e), the use of  the past tense ‘was’ in the first clause and ‘would’ in the second has nothing to do with past time. Instead they make the sentence seem improbable. We often label this the second conditional, which is often defined as indicating hypothetical or impossible situations.


In (f), the tense used is called the present continuous, but it is used to talk about future arrangements.


Yet in (g), the present continuous is used to show determination and certainty about the future.


In (h), the present simple is not used to talk about events that happen regularly, but in a newspaper headline to indicate a past event.


In (i), here the present simple is used again to talk about a future timetabled event.


So to sum up,

the past is sometimes used to be more polite,

but sometimes used to talk about imaginary or improbably situations.

Yet sometimes it’s used to talk about something probably, but not as probable as when we use a present tense.


And when we use the present continuous, we could be talking about the future.

And when we use the present simple, we could be talking about the past.

Or maybe the future.


How confusing was that?


Perhaps it’d help if we first knew this:


Long long ago, when the first English grammar book was first written, English was a language spoken by the poor and uneducated. The upper classes and the Royals spoke French, and the academics spoke Latin.


English grammar was first put down on paper most probably by a French/Latin-speaking academic. He therefore mapped Latin grammar rules onto the English language observed at that time. And the prevalence of Latin as the language of the educated over the years made it the standard by which grammar rules were formulated. Even today, rules like ‘Never split an infinitive’ originating from a strong influence of Latin grammar still exists today. (To boldly go where no one has gone before!)


Evidently, when one maps the grammar of one language onto another, it could never really match. And hence the misnomers we see above.


So let’s forget those labels for a moment.

Let’s forget that ‘teach’ is ‘present’ and ‘taught’ is ‘past’.


Let’s say that ‘teach’ is ‘near’ and ‘taught’ is ‘remote/far’.


(1) Temporal Distance

Photo by Chia Suan Chong


When I say ‘I teach English’, it is something that happens all the time and therefore ‘close’ to me.

When I say ‘I taught Julio in January’, it is a story that I tell, and in order to tell it, I have to transpose my mind to being in January; I have to model myself into the past. That is because the event is far away from my reality.


(2) Social Distance

Photo by @jinotaj http://www.flickr.com/eltpics


As with the example in (a) and (b), ‘could’, as opposed to ‘can’ is often used to indicate social distance.

This could be due to the fact that ‘could’ be more morphologically inflected than ‘can’.





Lend me £10.

Can you lend me £10?

Could you lend me £10?

Do you mind lending me £10?

Would you mind lending me £10?

I don’t suppose you could lend me £10?

I was wondering if you could possibly lend me £10?

Hmm…I was sure I had £10 in my pocket. Where did it go? I really need it… *hint hint*


It is clear that the more grammar there is and the more lexis is needed, the further the social distance.


So is that the same as saying it’s more polite or more formal?


Consider the following situation:


A husband says to his wife whom he has been married to for 50 years, ‘I was wondering if you could possibly tell whether I should turn left or right at that junction?’


More polite?

Or simply sarcastic?


How did we know it was sarcastic?


Perhaps the fact that they have been married for 50 years suggests that there shouldn’t be much of a social distance between them. The creation of social distance through such use of language is therefore seen as inappropriate and in fact, impolite.


It is therefore important that teachers and coursebook writers do not oversimplify and label what is socially remote as polite, considering the fact that politeness is a construct dependent on multiple factors.


(3) Psychological Distance

Why the long face?


The most interesting of the four, the use of verbs to indicate psychological distance can be seen everywhere around us.


  • In example (h), the ‘near’ tense is used in newspaper headlines to create excitement and to make the reader feel like the breaking story is more eminent in some way or other. However, when one continues to read the story, one is moved into the ‘remote’ tense.


Farah added a 14th gold medal to Team GB’s impressive haul.’

(Evening Standard, 4th Aug 2012)



  • When talking about an ex-boyfriend, I might use the ‘remote’ tense and say ‘He was a very jealous person’ despite the fact that he is still alive.

The use of the ‘near’ tense might indicate that he is still ‘close’ to my heart and that I might still be in love with him… (God forbid)


  • When telling jokes, we often say ‘A horse walks into a pub. The bartender says, “Why the long face?”’ in order to make the joke more exciting.


  • When reporting a conversation, we sometimes use the ‘near’ tense to create a feeling like the story is unfolding before the listener’s eyes.


There was this woman sitting on three seats.

So I say to her, “Can I sit down?”

And she goes, “No”

And I go, “Come on. I paid for a ticket too.”

And she goes, “I’m taking these seats.”

And I go, “Are you serious?”

And she goes, “Of course I am.”

And I go, “Shut up.”


(If this was a conversation in US English, substiture ‘I go’ for ‘I am like’ and ‘She goes’ with ‘She is like’.)


  • A football commentator chooses to create feelings of exhilaration by saying, ‘Rooney scores a goal!!!’ instead of ‘Rooney is scoring a goal right now’ or ‘Rooney just scored a goal.’


(4) Hypothetical Distance


If I were a rich man…Yubby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dibby dum.
http://www.flickr.com/eltpics Photo by @mk_elt

A familiar use of the ‘remote tense’, this is seen not only in the so-called 2nd conditional – Example (e)



If only I could keep up with Güven’s blogging everyday.

I wish I didn’t have to do my day job and blog at the same time…


The use of the ‘remote tense’ in the 2nd Conditional and the two sentences above signals a reduced likelihood and a hypothetical situation that is further from reality.


After having read the above, what kind of distance do you think the following is creating?


Give me a 20% discount, I’ll take 500.

If you give me a 20% discount, I’ll take 500.

If you gave me a 20% discount, I’d take 500.

If you were to give me a 20% discount, I might take 500.

Say, let’s just suppose you were to give me a 20% discount, I might consider taking 500.


The instinctive reaction is to identify with the so-called 2nd conditional and say that hypothetical distance is being created…


But is it really so?


Are we not manipulating psychological distance by playing hard-to-get?


Maybe just like everything is life, ‘near’ and ‘far’ aren’t always separate and exclusive, dichotomous constructs, but positions on a continuum…


And maybe the 1st and the 2nd conditional aren’t always that easily distinguishable either…


Or who was it that said that there were actually 32 conditionals in English?


For more about Distance and verbs, see:

R. Batstone, Grammar, OUP, 1994.

M. Lewis, The English Verb : An exploration in structure and meaning, Language Teaching Publications, 1986.

D. Willis, Rules, Patterns and Words : Grammar and Lexis in English Language Teaching, CUP, 2003.

The CELTA Trainer’s Diary Part 5 – Clarifying Meaning of Grammatical Structures

On Day 5 of the CELTA, we looked at how we can focus on language in a systematic fashion through looking at Meaning, Form and Pronunciation (and Usage too).

In and amongst some genuine interaction happening between me and the trainees about the forthcoming weekend, I got them using the present continuous to talk about their weekend plans, and added a few of my own.

I then boarded,

“My friend is coming from Manchester on Saturday.”

“I’m staying home this weekend.”

“I’m finishing Season 7 of Desperate Housewives”

I asked,

Am I talking about the present, past or future?” (future)

Am I talking about something I have already arranged? Or something I have just thought of doing right now?” (arranged)

“What tense am I using to convey this meaning of an arranged future?” (present continuous)

Future arrangements…
Photo by @sandymillin http://www.flickr.com/eltpics

After writing the form of the present continuous (to be + -ing) on the board, we then established that we had covered the meaning and then the form of the language item. I elicited that we still had pronunciation to look at, and asked what the trainees thought might be pronunciation issues for the learners.

We looked at the pronunciation of the contractions and the pronunciation of the ‘-ing’.

We then agreed that although many people seem to be obsessed with form when dealing with grammar, it was the meaning that was the most important.

I then gave trainees a handout with a dialogue containing the following grammatical structures:

(a) I wish we hadn’t argued.

(b) She’s always complaining.

(c) If I were you, (I’d call her).

(d) If only we didn’t argue all the time.


Several sample CCQs were given with structure (a) and trainees had to decide whether they were useful CCQs or not. Here’s a taster.

Structure: I wish we hadn’t argued


CCQs: (1) Who did he argue with?

            (2) Why did they argue?

            (3) What does wish mean?

            (4) Did they argue?

            (5) Did he want them to argue?


I wish we hadn’t argued…

And here are the answers:

Questions (1) and (2) are more like reading comprehension questions than CCQs. They do not clarify the concept of the use of ‘I wish + past perfect’ and therefore are irrelevant.

Question (3) features one of the ‘taboo questions’ ‘What does ~mean?

Taboo questions fall into two categories.

One includes questions like Do you understand? and Do you know ~?

Unhelpful because many students would simply nod their heads when asked  perhaps because they are afraid of seeming stupid in front of other classmates, or because they think they have understood but actually haven’t, such questions do not really check for understanding of concepts.

The second category of ‘taboo questions’ include questions like ‘What does ~mean?’ and ‘Can you explain ~to the rest of the class?’

Perhaps more student-centred than the previous category of ‘taboo questions’, these questions show a recognition for the fact that it is better for the answers to come from students than have the teacher get into wordy explanations.

If so, then why are these ‘taboo questions’?

I once saw a trainee ask a pre-intermediate learner to explain the word ‘irony’ to his classmates. The learner froze and looked confused. The trainee assumed it was because he didn’t understand the word.

There is a difference between understanding a language item and being able to explain it. Most expert users and native speakers would struggle to explain a word comprehensively and satisfactorily enough for a class of learners without some teaching experience. They end up feeling put on the spot.

At the end of the day, don’t get your learners to do your job for you.

Instead, use guided CCQs, examples, and step-by-step inductive/scaffolded questions to get learners to the final destination.

(see yesterday’s post regarding CCQs for lexical items)

For more about these ‘taboo questions’, see Anthony Gaughan’s very interesting post: Is asking ‘Do you know what ~means?’ a waste of time?

Questions (4) and (5) get to the meaning and usage of the structure ‘I wish + Past Perfect’ and are the most appropriate CCQs to ask.


Trainees now have to look at structures (b), (c) and (d), and formulate CCQs to clarify the concepts.


Here are some suggestions:

(Please note: I have included the meaning sections for the trainees and am in no way suggesting that we give our students the lengthy explanation within those sections. CCQs coupled with a few contextualized examples should suffice to clarify meaning and usage to learners.)

(b) She’s always complaining.

Meaning: The present continuous is used here not to signify an action that is happening now, but an action that happens with regularity. However, the choice to use the present continuous and not the present simple suggests that the speaker wants to show annoyance and irritation at the action.

Look at the difference between ‘He always gives me money’ and ‘He’s always giving me money’. Can you sense the irritation?

CCQs: Does she complain all the time? (Yes)

Is she complaining right now? (Not necessarily)

Is the speaker annoyed that she complains a lot? (Yes)

Would you like some cheese with that whine?
Photo by Chia Suan Chong; Food by Highlife.ie


(c) If I were you, (I’d call her).

Meaning: The tendency for some teachers is to look at this structure as a 2nd conditional. However, considering the function of the phrase, perhaps it is best to teach ‘If I were you, I’d + bare infinitive’ as a formulaic chunk used for giving advice.

CCQsIs the speaker giving advice? (Yes)

Is the speaker going to call her? (No) (Note: Students might see the ‘I’d call her’ and think it is the speaker who is going to call her.)

Who does the speaker think should call her? (The person that the speaker is speaking to…in the dialogue, this is Person B)

Who ya gonna call?
Photo by Chia Suan Chong

(d) If only we didn’t argue all the time.


Meaning: The ‘If only + subject + past simple’ is a structure used to show a wish for something that isn’t happening and might even be difficult to happen right now. Despite the use of the past tense, the structure is used to talk about the present e.g. ‘If only you were here right now’. This is one of the examples of how the ‘past simple’ is used to indicate psychological and hypothetical distance.

CCQs: Do we argue all the time? (Yes) (Note: Students might see the negative in that sentence and think the answer to this question is ‘no’)

Does the speaker want to argue all the time? (No)

Is this sentence talking about the past, present or future? (Present)

If only we didn’t argue…

After looking at the meaning, trainees then had to work in pairs noting down the form of the structures:

(b) – to be + -ing;

(c) – If I were you, + I’d + bare infinitive;

(d) – If only + subject + past simple)

…and the pronunciation:

Focus on the stressed syllables and prominence of each structure;

and also note the catenation happening with ‘If + I’ and ‘If + only’.

Now they are ready for Assignment 2 – Language Awareness.