Systemic Functional Grammar (Part 2 – The Interpersonal Metafunction)

In my last post, we looked at an overview of what Systemic Functional Grammar is. Halliday divides the way we use language into different metafunctions. This post will explore the Interpersonal Metafunction, and in Part 3, we shall look at the Experiential Metafunction, and in Part 4, we will be examining the Textual Metafunctions and I will also be suggesting some ideas as to how we could apply SFG to our language classrooms.

This post is based on research from the following books

An Introduction to Functional Grammar

The Functional Analysis of English

Using Functional Grammar: An Explorer’s Guide

We use language to enact our personal and social relationships (the interpersonal metafunction), to construe our experience of the world and our consciousness (the experiential metafunction), and to organise discourse and create continuity and flow in
our texts (the textual metafunction) (Halliday and Matthiessen, 2004).

Although the term ‘function’ was used in Halliday’s earlier work (1976) and other books on SFG (Butt et al, 2000), the term ‘metafunction’ is now preferred, to avoid potential confusion with ‘communicative functions’ in relation to Searle’s (1965) Speech Acts, and grammatical functions of words or groups (Bloor and Bloor, 2004). Each metafunction has its own systems of choices, each choice resulting in a structure. However, realisations of these 3 metafunctions occur simultaneously, allowing language to create different meanings at the same time (Eggins, 2004).

          I  must      finish      this blogpost
   Subject  Finite Predicator Complement
InterpersonalMetafunction   Mood   Residue
 ExperientialMetafunction   Actor  Process:material Goal
 Textual Metafunction   Theme                   Rheme
  Given                   …………………..  New

The Interpersonal Metafunction

Language involves interactions where we initiate or respond to the act of giving or demanding for goods-and-services or information. Thus, Halliday and Mathiessen (2004) regard this function as one of exchange. The principle grammatical system here is the MOOD network, within which is a choice between imperative and indicative. If indicative is chosen, there is a choice between declarative and interrogative. These choices are
realised by manipulating the Mood element.

1. Mood

The Mood carries the interpersonal functions of the clause and consists of Subject+Finite. The Subject is realised by a nominal group that the speaker gives responsibility to for the validity of the clause (ibid), while the Finite is realised by the first of the verbal group. The rest of the verbal group is the Predicator, which forms part of the Residue. A clause thus
consists of Mood+Residue. The Mood element can be identified in Mood tags (pedagogically, question tags).

Josh can speak English.
Subject Finite Predicator Complement
Mood Residue
Josh can speak English, can’t he?
Subject Finite Predicator Complement Finite Subject
 Mood    Residue   Mood Tag

and is also used in short answers, the Finite being the core that is bandied about in exchanges because it carries the validity of the proposition (Thompson, 2004).

Notice how the finite is used to argue the validity of the proposition in this childish exchange:

A:      You                                didn’t                           read                                my blogpost!





    Mood    Residue

B:            Yes,                                   I                                       did.

Mood Adjunct Subject Finite

A:          No,                                 you                               didn’t!

Mood Adjunct Subject Finite

B:              Did!


A:              Didn’t!



The giving of goods-and-services is labelled an offer, usually realised by Finite^Subject signalling an interrogative, but can also be non-linguistic (I present you biscuits). A command demanding goods-and-services takes the imperative, where the Mood is non-existent, although the assumed Subject ‘you’ appears in a marked imperative (see below).  Goods-and-services are tangible commodities or activities, and responses to proposals (offers and commands) can be non-linguistic and limited to either accepting or
refusing.  Language merely facilitates the success of the exchange.

An offer realised as an interrogative

Would you like some biscuits?
Finite Subject Predicator Complement
Mood Residue

 A command realised as an unmarked imperative

    Pass the biscuit.
No Subject No Finite Predicator Complement
No Mood Residue

A command realised as a marked imperative

You,   pass the biscuit!
 Subject No Finite Predicator Complement
No Mood Residue

 A statement realised as a declarative

I           made   those biscuits.
Subject ‘past’Finite ‘make’Predicator Complement
         Mood            Residue

A question realised as an interrogative

Did you make those biscuits?
Finite Subject Predicator Complement
Mood Residue

The exchange of information involves an intangible, verbal commodity and language is the end in itself. The giving of information often takes the form of a statement, a declarative denoted by Subject^Finite. The demanding of information is expressed by a question realised by an interrogative. Statements and questions (propositions) can be argued with, denied, adjusted, etc., and the response is varied and has to be linguistic, unlike proposals. The position and existence of both Subject and Finite therefore indicates whether a clause is declarative (statement), interrogative (question, offer) or imperative (command) (see above examples with ‘biscuit’).

However, declaratives andinterrogatives could also be polite requests for goods-and-services since basic commands might be considered Face Threatening Acts, and thus highly impolite (Brown and Levinson, 1987). Modals are also often used to disguise demanding proposals or soften propositions (Bloor and Bloor, 2004), but it is important that EFL students initially learn the most straightforward grammatical realisations of the
interpersonal metafunction, before shifting towards increasing interpersonal distance through less straightforward structures (Butt et al, 2000).

In ‘I made those biscuits’, the Finite appears to be missing, but is in fact fused with the Predicator ‘make’ (made = Finite: ‘did’ + ‘Predicator: ‘make’). This could help EFL beginners understand why the so-called ‘dummy’ auxiliary ‘do/does’ magically appears in some interrogatives and negatives, while not in others that contain a separate Finite. Through the Finite, the speaker can signal the primary tense, polarity (positive or negative) and modality (the extent of validity) of the clause, seen from his/her standpoint. Teachers can help students anchor such viewpoints within the Mood.

Included in the Mood is the word ‘not’, attached to the Finite to signal negative polarity. However, according to Halliday and Matthiessen (2004), this is not always the case. Consider the two possible meanings in ‘You may not go to the party.’

If we take that sentence to mean ‘you are not allowed to go’, ‘not’ would be included as part of Mood. In the second possible meaning ‘you are allowed not to go’, ‘not’ is part of the Residue. This is a useful distinction, but interestingly, if we followed the above logic, then the ‘not’ in ‘you must not go’ ought to belong to the Residue. Halliday (ibid)
lists the above ‘not’ as part of the Finite because of the existence of the contraction ‘mustn’t’. Arguably, recognising ‘not’ as the Residue in this case might be helpful to EFL students, who are often confounded with the difference between ‘You don’t have to go’ (‘not’ in Mood, therefore ‘don’t’ negates the validity of the Residue ‘have to go’)
and ‘You mustn’t go’ (in my opinion, the Finite ‘must’ validating the Residue ‘not go’).

2.    Modality

With propositions, the positive and negative poles in the Mood assert or deny what is stated in the Residue, e.g. ‘It is,’ or ‘It isn’t’. In between these certainties are degrees of probability and usuality signalled by modalization (ibid).
Modalization is expressed through the Finite showing epistemic modality (O’Halloran, 2006) e.g. ‘It might be’, or through a Modal Adjunct like ‘It probably/usually is’. Modal adjuncts are included in the Mood, and can be categorised into

(i) Mood adjuncts, e.g. ‘probably’, which occur close to the finite,

(ii) Comment adjuncts, e.g. ‘unfortunately’, which occur at any
boundary between information units.

With proposals, the positive and negative poles prescribe or proscribe e.g. ‘Do,’ or ‘Don’t’, and modulation (ibid) happens in between, showing degrees of obligation e.g. ‘You should’ for commands, and degrees of inclination e.g. ‘I should’ for offers. We can use Finites to show deontic modality (O’Halloran, 2006), or expansions of the Predicator by passive verbs like ‘I’m supposed to’, or adjectives ‘I’m anxious to’. As the assumed Subject in proposals is ‘you’, when modulated clauses implicate a third person, e.g. ‘He should know’, the proposal becomes a proposition (Halliday and Matthiessen, 2004). The distinction between proposition and proposal becomes blurred and the distinction between modalization and modulation becomes context-dependent.

Bibliography : See SFG (Part 1)

What is Systemic Functional Grammar? (Part 1)

Systemic Functional Grammar (Part 2 – The Interpersonal Metafunction)Several people I know have expressed an interest in finding out more about Systemic Functional Linguistics. Some have attempted to read Michael Halliday’s Introduction to Functional Grammar and have ‘feedbacked’ to me about it being dense and not the most accessible…So here is a summary of my research on the subject.

This post is based on research from the following books

An Introduction to Functional Grammar

The Functional Analysis of English

Using Functional Grammar: An Explorer’s Guide

I’ve found it almost impossible to do this in one blog, so I’ll be dividing my summary into 5 parts. This first part is mainly an introduction into the subject, and in Part 2, I will look at the Interpersonal Metafunction, in Part 3, the Experiential Metafunction, and in Part 4, the Textual Metafunction. The final part would also contain some applications of SFG to EFL teaching (although I’ll try to pepper the next three partts with as many EFL perspectives as possible) and some of my conclusions.

I hope I will be able to do SFG some justice with my limited knowledge and research. If you are an EFG expert, feel free to correct me or add on to what I have written. If you are an EFL professional, I’d very much appreciate it if you feel free to share your thoughts on how you use or could use SFG in your teaching.

1.    What is Systemic Functional Grammar (SFG)?

Language is used to express meanings and perform various functions in different contexts and situations of our daily lives. If grammar is ‘the way in which a language is organised’ (Butt et al, 2000), SFG attempts to explain and describe the organisation of the ‘meaning-making resources’ (Halliday and Matthiessen, 2004) we use to achieve such goals. Every linguistic choice we make is systematic, and the reason we say something in a certain way is the result of a choice, albeit unconscious. Such choices are made from a set of systems containing structures, allowing us unlimited ways of creating meaning (Bloor
and Bloor, 2004), while our experiences of the world, of text types and socially- and culturally-bounded situations, help build up our schemata of these systems. Van Djik’s (1977, in Brown and Yule 1983) Assumed Normality of the World could serve to explain how these experiences enable us to distinguish between different genres of texts (spoken or written) by their patterns of linguistic choices, and to notice when choices are inappropriate. SFG is, thus, a study of meaning construction through systems of lexicogrammatical choices that serve functions within social and cultural contexts.

To understand SFG, it is important to look at other theories of language and how they compare, after which I will briefly outline Halliday’s three basic metafunctions and how the systems of choices within each component are realised in the lexico-grammatical structures within clauses and how this could benefit teachers and students of English as a
Foreign Language. Due to space constraints, I will not be looking at theories on group- and clause-complexing, cohesion, grammatical metaphors, appraisals, or theories on genre and register.

2.       Views on Language and Language Acquisition

Often referred to as the father of modern linguistics, De Saussure (1916, in Coffin et al, 2004)  made a distinction between  paradigmatic and syntagmatic relations in
language, which closely corresponds to Halliday’s system and structure. The
paradigmatic phenomenon is one of choice.
For example, in my last sentence, I chose to make it declarative instead of interrogative, and positive instead of negative. The syntagmatic dimension refers to prescribed sequences in which elements (phonemes, morphemes, words, groups) are combined e.g. Subject^Finite^Predicator (^ means ‘followed by’). In SFG, this chain of elements is a result of paradigmatic choice (Bloor and Bloor, 2004), structures being realisations of systems.

Alongside paradigmatic and syntagmatic distinctions, De Saussure distinguished between two aspects of language: langue, the language system, and parole, the use of this system (ibid). Chomsky later developed this view, focusing on the language system (competence) and not the use of language (performance), and strived for a ‘Minimalist Programme’ in order to formulate a limited set of principles, i.e. transformational-generative rules, which govern the formation of an unlimited number of grammatically correct sentences (ibid). Although he does not deny that meaning in language is a social phenomenon, Chomsky regards grammar as autonomous from meaning. He further asserts that such transformative-generative capacity is ‘hard-wired’ into the human brian, thus explaining the universal phenomenon of language acquisition and the biological determination of how we use language (ibid). Chomsky was interested in a model of such mental grammars,
where the basic use of language is for thought and not communication (Thompson, 2004).

Halliday, conversely, took Malinowski’s view that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, i.e. by explaining natural adult language and language acquisition in terms of social functions, one can understand the evolutionary origins of language (Halliday, 1976). Like Malinowski and Firth, Halliday saw language acquisition as an interplay between nature and nurture (Bloor and Bloor, 2004), suggesting that the language acquisition process of a child and the linguistic structures he/she masters reflect the functions required to serve his/her life. Learning a language was thus ‘learning how to mean’ (Halliday, 1975). Unlike Chomsky, Halliday did not believe in a finite system of rules, and preferred a descriptive approach of examining sentences as being appropriate or inappropriate to the prescriptive approach of
labelling them ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ (Eggins, 2004). In the tradition of Malinowski, Whorf and Firth, he believed language is moulded by culture, and the world is seen through the language we speak (Kress, 1976). Meanings are determined by the texts’ relationship with the context of culture (genre) and the context of situation (register) (Eggins, 2004), and the study of sentences should, therefore, be inseparable from its social, cultural and
situational contexts, and not done in isolation. Hence, the use of authentic texts and corpus data has become the norm in the study of Systemic Functional Linguistics. SFG has been called an ‘extravagant’ grammar (Bloor and Bloor, 2004) as it is a huge area that attempts a multi-dimensional description of how language is organised, and its linguistic viewpoints are best seen through the main issues underlying Halliday’s three metafunctions of language.


Bloor, T., and M. Bloor. (2004) The Functional Analysis of English: A Hallidayan Approach, (2nd Edition), London: Arnold

Brown, P., and S. Levinson. (1987) Politeness: some universals in language use, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Butt, D., R. Fahey, S. Feez, S. Spinks, C. Yallop. (2000) Using Functional Grammar: An Explorer’s Guide, (2nd Edition), Sydney: Macquarie University.

Coffin, C. (ed.) (2006) English Grammar in Context Book 3: Getting Practical – Evaluating everyday texts (2nd Edition), Milton Keynes: The Open University.

Eggins, S. (2004) An Introduction to Systemic Functional Linguistics (2nd Edition),
London, New York: Continuum.

Halliday, M. (1975) Learning How to Mean: Explorations in the Development of Language, London: Edward Arnold.

Halliday, M. (1976) ‘The form of a functional grammar’, in Kress, G. (ed.):7-25.

Halliday, M., and C. Matthiessen. (2004) An Introduction to Functional Grammar (3rd
Edition), London: Arnold.

Kress, G. (ed.) (1976) Halliday: System and Function in Language, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Thompson, G. (2004) Introducting Functional Grammar (2nd Edition), London: Hodder Education

Why are Business English Teachers paid so badly?

What is the difference between Business English Teaching and Business Skills Consulting? Business Teachers get paid about £25, 000 a year and Business Skills Consultants get paid about £300, 000. There must be something that differentiates these two services.

I attended Pete Menzies’s closing plenary for the English UK Business English Trainers’ Conference 2011, where he addressed this question that I’ve been asking myself for quite a while. After workshopping and discussing this with several conference delegates, these are what I gathered the differences were. (The opinions on this blog are my own…so feel free to disagree with me.)

Business English Teachers have language objectives. Business Skills Consultants have business-based directed objectives.

There is the belief that teachers go into class aiming to teach the present perfect, the first conditional for negotiations, or a list of agreeing/disagreeing phrases for meetings. The overall objective is to get their students to improve their grammatical and lexical abilities. Consultants, however, try to enable better communication so as to avoid wastes incurred in businesses.

Business English Teachers correct. Business Skills Consultants troubleshoot.

Teachers mark papers and deal with grammatical, syntactical and lexical mistakes, as opposed to looking at the language used by members of a firm that is causing breakdowns in communication. Consultants are aware of the linguistic impact on interactions and how shifts in the way we use language can contribute to waste management.

Business English Teachers rely on coursebooks and materials. Business Skills Consultants use students as a resource.

The multitude of Business coursebooks available seem to perpetuate this idea that Business language learning is about moving through the chapters of a coursebook usually defined by topics such as Global Trade, Marketing, Human Resources and Finance, each featuring different grammatical and lexical areas. Global Trade teaches us the 2nd conditional and functions of negotiation, while Finance teaches us the present perfect and trend vocabulary a la IELTS Writing Task 1.  Teachers are seen to rely on a syllabus.

But our clients already work in business. In specific areas of businesses. And they are not likely to have the need for Global Trade, Crisis Management AND Human Resources in 3 successive lessons. Instead, consultants analyse the areas they work in, the way they use English and who they use English with. They look at how their use of English affects the way they communicate. They work with emergent language. Consultants focus on needs analysis.

Business English Teachers know about language. Business Skills Consultants know about businesses.

One of the maxims that has kept me sane and prevented me from being reduced to a state of panic in my business English lessons has been ‘I am not an expert in their business. I am an expert in language.’ But how much business knowledge should the business English teacher have? Can a teacher with no business experience teach Business English? Should a teacher research their clients’ business models before a lesson? Is it important for a teacher to know their client’s area of specialty? Surely, it will not be possible to know a client’s business better than they know it? So how do consultants do it?

Arguably, it is the knowledge of general best practices in business and in management that consultants draw from when analysing a client’s communication techniques and business skills. Questions like ‘What is your business objective?’ ‘How are you going about achieving those objectives?’ ‘What is your best way forward?’, coupled with some fancy mnemonics commonly seen in management textbooks, gives consulting the value-added edge that teaching lacks.

But could one claim that such best practices are really about having common sense?

Business English Teachers teach. Business Skills Consultants coach.

Teachers teach. Surely that’s logical. They go into class and tell students what is right and what is wrong, and instruct students as to what they should do or not do. We say things like ‘That’s impolite in English. It’s not what we say.’

Consultants, on the other hand, help direct their clients towards arriving at decisions about the way they use language. They say things like ‘Would you like to add value to your organisation?’, ‘What impression would you like to create?’, ‘How can you rephrase that to make the impact you want it to?’ Like life coaches and psychiatrists, they don’t make judgements. They listen and ask questions to enable clients to make the improvements needed. Sawyer, in the US TV series Lost, says that the best conman leads their victim to think that the idea was their own. (I’m in no way implying that consultants are conmen.)

But are these descriptions fair of Business English teachers? Is this really what we do? Sure, we tell teachers to define their language aims on teacher training courses like the Celta, but in Business English teaching, don’t we analyse our clients’ needs, use our clients as the main resource, and deal with emergent language? Aren’t we already aware of the use of English as a lingua franca in business environments and don’t we prioritise communication and intelligibility over the mastery of the English tenses? Don’t we understand best practices in businesses from watching countless episodes of The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den, coupled with the reading of some management books and a good dose of common sense? Aren’t we already curious about our clients’ work and business environments? Don’t we already use questions to encourage classroom interaction and to determine our clients’ issues with language?

As a Dogme practitioner, the above definitions of a consultant seem to resonate with the principles of Teaching Unplugged. The traditional idea of what a teacher does, on the other hand, seems to be precisely what Dogmeticians are trying to avoid.

Perhaps these differences are in the expectations of what a teacher, as opposed to a consultant, does. Perhaps the differences are in the associations that these two labels conjures in the lay person’s mind. Perhaps the difference is in the way we package and market our product.

So what’s the difference between a good Business English Teacher and a good Business Skills Consultant?

Nothing. Just the rhetoric and £275,000.

In Defence of Callan (and other behaviourist methodologies)

Like many TEFL teachers, I used to be an actor. And like most actors, I couldn’t get arrested and had to find a way to pay the bills. While working in a pub, one of my punters who worked for Callan School London suggested that I could make a good teacher and that one conversation propelled me into the world of TEFL.

For those unfamiliar with the Callan Method, it is not dissimilar to the Direct Method, Audiolingual Approaches or other behaviourist methodologies. Second language acquisition is seen to be similar to first language acquisition, which in turn is seen to be achieved through imitation and Skinner’s stimulus-response psychological theories. Rigorous repetition and non-stop drills dominate classroom time. I remember a sign in the classroom that said summarised the Callan Method quite perfectly :

‘Repeat Repeat Repeat.
Don’t think. Just Repeat.’

Teachers are expected to:

1. Ask set questions from the Callan book (1-7) and  nominate students to give the set answers to the questions. Each question is repeated twice.

2. Answer the questions with the students. For weaker students, the teacher would be one word ahead of the student.


Teacher: Where did you go yesterday? Where did you go yesterday?

(Teacher points her pen at the student she’s nominating)

Teacher: I…

Student: I…

Teacher: went…

Student: went…

Teacher: to…

Student: to…the shop…

Teacher: yesterday.

Student: yesterday.

At the beginning, all the student is doing is simply repeating what the teacher is feeding them. The idea is for the student to get to the point of being able to say the answers at the same time as the teacher after multiple repetition of the same question-answer set
over the next few days.

3. Speak quickly so that students get used to listening to the fast speed of speech in the real world.

4. Not try to explain grammar points. The grammar is explained through question-answer sets that are repeated.


Teacher: What’s the difference between the present perfect and the past simple?

What’s the difference between the present perfect and the past simple?

Student: We use the past simple when the action is finished and the time is finished.

We use the present perfect when the action is finished but the time is not finished.

The learning of grammar is seen to be linear and the Method prides itself in its ‘calculated and systematic’ approach to language learning. Students are taught more complicated grammar structures ‘step by step’ as they go along.

5. not explain lexis too much. Each student has a Callan book that contains translations of new words in their own language. New words are drilled on their own and then put in question-answer sets.


Teacher: Repeat ‘storey’.

Students: Storey

Teacher: If you fell from a one-storey building, would you die?

If you fell from a one-storey  building, would you die?

(Note: The teacher is also providing practice of the 2nd conditional, which they had previously learnt the rules of.)

Student: If I fell from a one-storey building, I wouldn’t die but I would be injured.

(Note: The student is also practising the word ‘injured’, which she has previously learnt)

6. Give writing practice in the form of dictations. Students check their spelling by looking at the same dictations in their books.

After one week of training, we were thrown into 8 hours of 50-minute lessons a day where we would drill the hell out of the students.  In the process, I lost my voice by the end of that week since I was asking and answering every question at break-neck speed for 8 hours every day. I worked at Callan for nearly 2 years, and was eventually roped in to do placement testing and FCE classes. I started to experiment with the lessons over time, breaking the rule of never explaining grammar points to the students and trying different ways of adapting the Callan books to enable more clarification of meaning and form to take place, but always looking over my shoulder to see if one of the directors might walk past and catch me deviating from the method. At the end of my time in Callan, I was
poached by another school, where I was allowed to explore other ways of teaching while still doing some Callan drilling for a quarter of my teaching hours.

After about 8 months, I decided that I liked teaching enough to make it a proper career, and proceeded to do the Celta course. It was then I realised that the Callan method was sneered upon and the butt of many jokes in the TEFL world. I kept my head down and tried the different approaches to teaching that were thrown my way, but all this time, never forgetting the things that Callan school had taught me.

Now looking back, I’ve realised that perhaps there is a good reason why Callan still boasts of extremely high student numbers and why schools that claim to use the Callan method as a marketing tool seem to attract agents and students from all over the world. If you don’t believe me, try standing outside the Callan school on Oxford Street in London when the school bell rings, and count the hoards of students that stream out onto the streets. And that’s just one time slot out of the 12 that the school runs every day.

Okay, some of you cynics out there might say that there are still lots of people out there in the real world who believe that language learning is simply about imitation and rote learning, and that these misguided ones fall for Callan School’s claim that they can get students learning English in a quarter of the time. But before we get up in arms about this, let us first consider some of the arguments against the Callan Method.

1.       Rote learning isn’t everything. Students need to get cognitively involved in their learning process.

 This is absolutely true. But although rote learning isn’t everything, it is still something. Alongside the cognitive processing to aid language production, motor skills need to kick in at some point. We need to get to the point when we stop thinking about how a tense or
verb pattern is formed and use it instinctively.

Perhaps the Callan Method is the Lexical Approach of the 1960s. It saw language as chunks and by repetition, these chunks are acquired.

2.       Sentences are presented without a context.

I myself preach that context is everything in determining meaning and use in my teacher training courses.  Having said that, I remember times when I’ve tried to speak a language I’m not very good at, desperately trying to translate my thoughts into the language, and wishing I had stock phrases to do that with.  Learning ‘Callan-style’ would have given me the stock phrases to use in whichever context I needed them in, for as long as I know what they meant in English, I could pick and choose the phrases to suit the context.

 3.          We would never say sentences like ‘Have you got one ear?’

There are two sets of language being learnt here.

One being ‘Have you got + noun?’ and the other, the lexis ‘ear’.

These two chunks might not occur together frequently in real life, but the repetition of the structure enables students to substitute the noun ‘ear’ with any word they need depending on the context and conversation they find themselves in.

Despite agreeing with the logic of what I like to call the ‘Substitution theory’, I would prefer to present the structure ‘Have you got…’ with a noun that is more likely to occur with that structure.

4.       The Callan Method requires students to give long answers like, ‘No, I haven’t got one ear, I’ve got two ears,’ or ‘This isn’t a pen, it’s a pencil.’ This is unnatural. We usually say ‘No, it’s a pencil.’

 One could argue that students would naturally formulate short answers when using English outside the classroom anyway. So it’s better to get them learning to use negative and affirmative forms of the structures in the drills. That said, I tend to have students use
short answers and the like in communicative activities (see 6 below).

5.       Teachers shouldn’t repeat each question twice. It’s not how language works in real life.

Interestingly, Callan justifies this by saying that questions are asked once for students to grasp the content of the question, and once for students to pay attention to the construction of the question. Since Callan questions always use words and structures that students have previously learnt, there might be something to be said for how the repetition of questions can encourage the noticing of previously learnt structures.

6.       There is no real communication happening in the classroom.

Okay. I’ll give you this one. This, to me, is one of the huge flaws of the method. But if used in a communicative classroom, in and amongst discussions and other communicative activities, this method could have its use.

I am certainly not advocating the sole use of the Callan Method in the language classroom, but when used appropriately (I love using Callan method drills when getting students to remember and use irregular past tenses or helping students get used to forming negative
sentences with the dummy auxiliary ‘do’), it can add pace and energy to a classroom, bring my shy students out of their shell (especially oriental students who have done tons of grammar exercises in their countries but just don’t have the confidence to get those sentences out of their mouths), and encourage students to notice the chunks and patterns in the language.

After all, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

10 Things Teachers Should Never Forget

My flatmate recently decided to sign up for Spanish beginner classes and his experiences on it shed light on the language learning processes that students go through, and reminded me of certain basics that perhaps might have got buried within our discussions of methodology and language teaching. Basics that might have been taken for granted in our quest to get learners communicating and using the languge in this era of
communicative approaches.

But first of all, a little learner profiling.

My flatmate (Let’s call him Rod) is British, in his 40s, and has never learnt a foreign language. Nor has he ever been taught English grammar when he was back at school. His wishes to study French in Secondary school were squashed when he was told that he was ‘too stupid to learn a foreign language’. Those words inevitably still have an effect on him,
as he continues to think that the ability to learn a language is connected to an intelligence that he didn’t think he had. Upon encountering lots of expert speakers of English as a foreign language in London, he started wondering if he too could expand his view of the world through learning a foreign language himself, and attempted to study some Spanish since it’s one of the most widely spoken modern languages in the world.

The Spanish learning experience was filled with lots of frustration and anger and by lesson 3, he decided he dreaded every classroom minute too much to contiue. I spoke to him throughout the experience, and remembered the importance of the following:

1. Meeting new classmates can be a scary experience.

We teachers know the feeling of trepidation when meeting a new class for the first time, especially back when we were new to teaching. That feeling must be a 100 times more intense for students who have never been in a language class before. While sussing out the different characters in the classroom, Rod also knew his classmates were making
judgements on him, and for someone who didn’t like performing or being the class clown, the short getting-to-know-you activities were really more about not showing up oneself as an idiot.

2. Having the teacher chat away in a foreign language is confusing and intimidating.

This myth that the teacher should never use the learners’ L1s and should only speak in the language being learnt really needs debunking. When Grammar Translation methods became the common evil, we swung so far towards the other end that we have forgotten the usefulness and inevitability of translation. Useful because it can make the understanding of language explanations and instructions so much more straightforward and clearer. Inevitable because learners (especially beginners) will translate what
they hear into their own langugage anyway, whether this takes place vocally in class or in their own minds. But most importantly, having some L1 being used makes the learner feel secure and more confident. For beginner Rod who could not even say ‘How are you?’ in Spanish, having to sit uncomfortably while the teacher yabber on in what could have been gibberish for all he cares was not at all confidence-building.

3. It can be even more difficult for people who are confident in their own language.

Perhaps it has to do with an ability to be tolerant of ambiguity. For the high-flier who has been confident in his own language and secure in his predictable surroundings for over 40 years, being plunged into an environment where everything is confusing, unpredictable and incomprehensible is a nightmare. This is compounded by the fact that he has never been in a language classroom and does not know what to expect.

4. Being nominated to answer questions is also scary.

Added to the feeling of being lost, getting pulled up to answer when you didn’t even understand the question can be extremely intimidating. Then there is a feeling that the whole class thinks you are a useless git who really shouldn’t be there slowing the class down. I understand the need for nominating students in open class stages, but there’s a fine balance between giving shy students an opportunity to speak up and putting
someone on the spot. This leads me to my next point.

5. Fostering a cohesive and friendly classroom atmosphere is crucial.

The leader of a group or manager of a department often serves as a sort of ‘energetic antenna’ for their team. They set the atmostphere and in a way, allows the forging of relationships amongst the team members. Think back to a time when you experienced a change of management and how that impacted on group morale, on how members of staff related to one another, and on the general staffroom atmostphere.

In similar ways, the teacher serves as the ‘energetic antenna’ of the class, and if your students get along marvellously, gossiping, joking, sharing personal stories, whether it be in their L1 or the L2, you should definitely take some of the credit for that. In contrast, if
students spend their classroom time sitting in silence, afraid of being judged by their fellow classmates, it’s time to put language aims aside and do some team-building.

Meanwhile, continuously encouraging students to make mistakes everyone can learn from, praising students openly for good language that everyone can imitate, asserting that students are not expected to produce new language instantly, and sharing the odd classroom in-joke could do wonders for boosting confidence and motivation.

6. Clear instructions is the first step to a successful task.

Being a beginner at Spanish and having the instructions to class and homework tasks written in Spanish and not properly clarified was nothing short of frustrating. In addition, there is also being unfamiliar with the kind of language tasks that we teachers take for granted.

Here’s a typical example: Rod was given a ‘jumbled words’ task as homework, and
although the Spanish instructions stated that he should unjumble the letters to
make words, he had never encountered such a task before, and proceeded to check
the list of words given in a dictionary. They, of course, weren’t really words as such, and when he couldn’t find ‘afec’ (cafe) or ‘uqaotn’ (quanto) after searching through all the online dictionaries and translators, he lost heart and decided that he was indeed too stupid to complete the simple task. (I never understood the point of these unjumble-the-letters exercises anyway. What is it supposed to practise?)

We stress time and again on teacher training courses that trainees should ask ICQs (instruction checking questions) and do a demo or example when setting up tasks, but some are still embarrassed when doing so, worried that they might come across condescending to learners. But such instruction checking procedures are necessary for learners who might be too shy to ask or who were momentarily distracted (it is impossible to be 100% attentive in the classroom all of the time) so that they are able to follow
what is going on. Perhaps the issue of sounding condescending has more to do with the tone of voice and the paralinguistic features used when checking those instructions.

And for beginner/elementary learners or learners new to the language classroom, what’s the harm of delivering instructions in their L1 alongside the L2 instructions?

7a. Jumping from context to context, exercise to exercise can be highly confusing.

7b. We are not here to transmit information. Pick judiciously.

Sounds almost common-sensical to us language teachers but in our attempts to ‘cover the syllabus’, ‘transmit’ as much information as possible during the short classroom time we have and justify the huge amounts of money our students are paying for the course , are we sometimes guilty of doing the above?

In Rod’s first 2-hour lesson, he was introduced to making introductions (How are you? I’m fine, thank you. What’s your name? My name is Rod. Where are you from? I’m from Britain. What’s your surname? My surname is Smith. How do you spell it? S-M-I-T-H) which led them to learning the Spanish alphabet and then the masculine and feminine singular and plural names of countries and nationalities. Rod had never encountered the concept of masculine and feminine nouns but there was simply no time for the teacher to

In Rod’s second 2-hour lesson, the teacher looked at a whole range of classroom language (How do you say it in Spanish? How do you write it in Spanish? Can you repeat it? I don’t remember. I don’t understand. Louder please. Slower please. I don’t know. – Rod made sure he remembered the last one so that he could give it as an answer whenever
nominated) before going through about 10 lexical items to do with food and drink, and then 8 useful phrases used in a waiter-customer dialogue in a cafe. The lesson ended with learning the numbers 1-20 in Spanish.

In Rod’s third lesson, the teacher plunged right into saying the numbers (1 to 100!), asking for the time (it’s quarter past, it’s half past, it’s twenty to, it’s 27 minutes past), doing some
pairwork/roleplay regarding asking for the time at a train station, learning nearly 20 verbs and how to conjugate them, then doing a guided discovery task labelling the different parts of the Spanish verb (La Raiz, La Terminacion, Verbo Infinitivo, Verbo Reflexivo, Verbo Conjugado, Verbo Regular, Verbo Irregular…) For someone who did not even know what a verb was, every second of the lesson did nothing but confirm his suspicions that he was indeed not cut out for learning a language. By the end of this lesson. Rod had lost the will
to live.

…And 7 c. We can only guide learners to discover what they are ready to discover.

8. Every learner in the class is different and some having more difficulty following does not mean they are less capable.

Rod’s class was made up of about 6 students. One was Italian, another two spoke French and another had learnt Spanish before. Having knowledge of the Romance languages had a huge influence on how easy it was to follow the grammatical explanations in class, but also the language learning experiences the other students had also helped them understand what language learning entailed. Rod’s idea of language learning had been a very bottom-up one where he needed to understand every word of a phrase before feeling
comfortable in using it. When encountering ‘Como te llamas? Me llamo Rod’ he instinctively seeked to understand which part of the phrase was ‘what’, which part was ‘are’, which part was ‘you’ and why ‘called’ was different in both phrases. The Lexical Approach may state that language is learnt in chunks and we should not encourage learners to string individual words together to create meaning, but perhaps our knowledge about Second Language Acquistion and the language learning process needs to be made explicitly clearer to learners instead of carrying on about tasks in a mysterious ’I-know-why-this-is-good-for-you-even-if-you-don’t’ sort of way.

When I tried to comfort Rod, he exclaimed, ‘Telling me the others have a headstart over me is not going to make me feel any better in class when I am stumped by the teacher’s questions. I still feel like an idiot.’

I don’t believe in pitching the class to the lowest common denominator, but a better understanding of each learners’ background and the obstacles that face them in the learning process is key to providing the ‘+1′ for every single student of the class. Although ‘acknowledging students’ previous language learning experiences’ is a phrase found in both CELTA and DELTA criterias, how much attention do we give to it on teacher training

9. Just because some of the students understand (while the others sit in silence) is not a green light for the teacher to move on.

Along the same lines as the above point, the teacher tended to ask the taboo question ‘Do you understand?’ and the Italian student would cheerily nod away and/or shout ‘yes’. The teacher took this to mean that the whole class was now ready to move on to the next
exercise/language point/context. Many might not insist the teacher spends more time clarifying because they might (a) think they understand but they don’t, or (b) are too shy/embarrassed to admit they don’t understand. Admitting such a thing requires bravery and a large dose of self-awareness, and should be met with patience and encouragement. Of course, a relaxed and non-judgemental classroom atmosphere can also lower inhibitions and allow students to voice their feelings of confusion more openly (see point number 5).

10. Repetition Repetition Repetition (Drilling is not just about pronunciation)

I’ve left this for last because I’m so passionate about this that I could dedicate a whole blog post to this point alone. We all know the importance of repetition but in practice, we sometimes worry that repeated drills could be boring for the students and too reminiscent of the Direct Method. I am unashamed to admit that I came from the Callan School of
English, where drilling was the only method of teaching. Although I am a strong believer that one single methology should not dominate one’s teaching, I have taken away lots of good drilling practices that I still use in my classroom today. I have found drilling to be necessary in helping learners get used to getting their tongues round the language and absolutely useful in terms of aiding memory and retention.

Rod’s teacher simply provided lists after lists of lexis and 1 or 2 controlled practice exercises of the language (like the jumbled-word exercise) and never offered the chance or time for the learners to actually learn them. And learners were never explicitly told that it can take up to 25 encounters with a new piece of lexis before feeling even remotely
confident in trying it out in spoken production. Repeated drills interjected throughout the lesson could have reinforced the idea that learners are not expected to remember or produce the language after just the first encounter. And to teachers who think it’s boring, I would say, it’s probably boring for you, the expert user of the language, but not for the learner. Pacey and snappy drills can be really invigorating and confidence-building.

Of course, drills are not the only way to get students repeating. Creative recycling activities like ‘Back to Board’, ‘Charades’, ‘Board Rush’, ‘Language Auction’ etc can all be used to increase the number of encounters learners have with previously taught language items. I
spend one of every three hour class I take purely on recycling activities, and the incidental language that goes up on my board every day is no longer incidental, but part of my learners’ lexicon.

I have indeed noticed that the length of this post is looking more like a dissertation than a blog and I hope Rod feels slightly more vindicated having his point of view heard and understood, albeit vicariously. But most importantly, I’d like Rod to know just this:

Language learning is less about intelligence and more about determination and perseverance.

The Best Laid Plans…

I don’t like covering other people’s classes.

Well, who does? You arrive at work and are informed that you’ve got a class to cover. You are presented with a lesson plan that you’re supposed to teach and you walk into a room with 10 pairs of eyes staring at you wondering where their teacher is. You know nothing about them, and there just isn’t time to get to know them.

I often have full intentions to follow the plan I have been given and teach what I am supposed to. But once I get into class, my instincts seem to take over and unplugging takes place. Today wasn’t so different.

The lesson plan I was given this morning was clearly meticulously prepared. A reading text had been careful copied and cut into neat pieces, ready for a jigsaw reading, and a detailed procedure was written out for me. I started to feel guilty and decided to that I should follow the plan this time.

But the students were just too interesting…damn it!

The conversation started with me asking the Pre-Advanced students what they did for a living and one of the ladies was trying to explain the fact that she owned furniture shops selling furniture that was specially aged to create an antique look that was fast becoming popular in her country. We talked about the ultra-modern, minimalistic designs so characteristic of single male households and the collocation ‘bachelor pad’ came up. One of the students mentioned ‘Bachelor’s Party’ and more lexis about bachelors went up on the board. A student wanted to know the opposite of bachelor and another student volunteered the word ‘Spinster’. I quickly clarified that ‘spinster’ had a very negative connotation, and the conversation soon became about the sexism inherent in our language.

I boarded the words ‘Master’ and ‘Mistress’ and asked for the different meanings and connotations they had, and then we looked at the words ‘Mr’ versus ‘Mrs’, ‘Miss’ and the more modern and politically correct ‘Ms’ and the reasons why these terms were considered inappropriate by some and why they were used in the past.  We started to think about the names of jobs ending with ‘man’ and found their politically correct substitutes, and decided that the words ‘doctor’  and ‘nurse’ didn’t need any changes as it was already de-gendered.

This led a student talking about the experiences he had with a male nurse and the conversation moved towards injections and vaccinations. When a student struggled to express that she had had an operation on her knee, the following sentences went up on the board:

I have had an operation on my knee.

I have had my knee operated on.

A doctor operated on my knee.

My knee was operated on several years ago.

We looked at the causative structure in the second sentence and students were reminded of the meaning and form before being given some quick practice. We then examined the rest of the sentence and I thought it was a good time to bring up the Textual Metafunction of Halliday’s Systemic Functional Grammar. The departure point (i.e. the subject) of each sentence was identified and we look at which parts of the sentences were Given and New, forming likely questions that preceeded each statement. We then started to look at separable phrasal verbs and why we would never put the pronoun ‘it’ at the end of a sentence like ‘I switched it off’ (because ‘it’ is a given piece of information and not new).

A student then asked about placing the stress in a marked position and we started looking at Contrastive Stress and how we can give information a ‘new’ position in a sentence by placing a marked intonation stress on the word. This led to us practicing intonation changes in sentences and then chunking longer sentences and playing around with prominence.

At this point, I started to feel bad about those nicely cut-up texts that were sitting in a corner and decided to use them for a chunking activity. Instead of a plain jigsaw reading, students had to read the short passages to their partners with the appropriate intonation changes while their partners took notes. The catch is they weren’t allowed to write words in their notes. They were only allowed to draw. Using their drawings, the students were then re-paired with different partners and had to re-tell what they had heard using only their drawings to help them remember.

Time was running out at this point and I had to leave the students at that point…

But I felt a bit more at peace with my guilt this time having used part of the plan given to me, albeit only a small part of it…

So who says cut-up cards were only for Tommy and Tina TEFLS and can’t be used in a Dogme class?

Reflections on IATEFL Brighton and good teaching

After a hectic 4 days at IATEFL Brighton, followed by the come-down of those post-conference blues, I started to reflect upon the talks I had attended and the same message that seemed to be stressed and repeated again and again. And when I realised that I could no longer tweet these thoughts in 140 words, I gave in to the pull of starting my own blog, suppressing previous embarrasments and worries of the seemingly ego-centric nature of the extended airing of my own views and experiences online.

The conference started with Peter Grundy striking the perfect balance between humour, practical teaching tips and academic rigour as he spoke about the importance of Sperber and Wilson’s Relevance Theory and the creation of meaning through conversational implicatures.

The message: Communication is much more than literal meanings, for meaning comes from use.

In Dave Willis’s talk, he demonstrated the use of an authentic conversation used in a task-based classroom.

The message: Learners don’t systematically build up their grammar in the linear fashion that coursebooks would have us believe in.

Fiona James spoke about the use of visualisation to tap into the students’ imagination and inner lives and in doing so, develop the students intrapersonal skills, improve their self-concept, and most importantly for the language teacher, encourage lots of speaking and emergent language.

The message: Learners’ lives and imaginations are the most valuable resource that can be tapped.

Eugene Schaefer’s talk ‘Chuck the Book! Learner-generated Roleplays’ entertained the delegates with practical ideas and energised us with an array of drama-based activities.

The message (I got out of it) : A coursebook-less lesson could be filled with excitment and fun, and doesn’t have to resemble a chat in the pub.

Chaz Pugliese talked about using creativity in the classroom to motivate learners, reminding us teachers to have fun, or we might bore the students.

The message: Real-play, as opposed to Roleplay, allows learners to bring their own identity into the classroom.

Ultimately, they all point towards one thing. That good teaching is simply about supplying structures and frameworks that allow learners to bring themselves into the language classrooms, facilitating genuine interactions that put learners at the centre of their learning process, and providing opportunities for learners to encounter language in use. It is certainly not about letting coursebooks dictate which grammar point one needs to learn next, diverting learners away from what they truly want to talk about in favour of the perfect lesson plan we have created, or playing audio recordings of John and Jane Doe that learners do not care about in an attempt to enforce some listening practice. Ultimately, they all point towards a Dogme approach to teaching.

My conference experience was wrapped up appropriately by the Dogme Symposium, in which Luke Meddings, Anthony Gaughan, Candy Van Olst, Howard Vickers and Scott Thornbury talked about this conversation-driven, materials-light, and student-focussed approach to teaching. Amongst lots of laughter as we watched Luke drill us to say ‘Dogme’ in the Danish way and Anthony sing to get pairwork to stop, Candy hit the nail on the head when she said that we should let learners talk about what is meaningful to them as we learn to be the listener of stories rather than the storyteller. Why do we spend time contextualising our lessons, when the context is right there in front of our eyes? In Anthony’s words, why import interest into the classroom when we have real stories of people’s lives in the room?

During the gruelling Q&A session, less-convinced delegates started to question the effectiveness of Dogme in Business English classrooms especially for newly-qualified teachers, claiming that the teacher needed to plan the technical jargon that they were going to teach, and couldn’t afford to be caught out during the lesson. It took me a lot of effort to stop myself from yelling ‘In all my years of Business English teaching, I have never been asked by any of my students to teach them jargon!’ Most of my students know more business jargon than I do, and I see no shame in getting them to explain the concepts of their specialization to me. The most important lesson I had learnt when I completed my LCCI CERT TEB (a Celta-like qualification for Business English teachers) years ago was this: I am an expert in using English for business communication. I am not an expert in their business areas. Living by this motto has allowed me to humbly ask questions and listen to my Business English students tell me about their work and specialities. And in the process, I have learnt more about finance, marketing, human resources, sales, architecture, trade, law, politics, etc. than I could ever glean from a coursebook.

Ironically, Dogme is not a dogmatic methodology, as some might think, and as Luke Meddings said in his talk, isn’t new to teaching. Business teachers, for example, have been approaching their lessons in ways I have heard termed ‘Authentic Participation’ for ages. But the moment Scott Thornbury gave it the ‘Dogme’ label, it enabled us to start thinking about teaching in a different way. As Vygotsky would say, labels help us to process thought and concepts.

The message: Whether you call it Dogme or any other name (I will resist quoting the trite Juliet to Romeo speech here), it is simply about good teaching.