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

Tuesday, 20th March 2012, Glasgow Conference Centre.


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

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

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

Now, back to Anthony Gaughan’s talk.

Photo by Mike Hogan

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

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

He was not going to ask why we were there;

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

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

Photo by Mike Hogan

1.    Repetition Drilling

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

2.    Translation and the Use of L1

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

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

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

3.    Students using dictionaries in class

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

4.    Teacher explanations

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

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

5.    Reading texts aloud in class

Anthony’s 3 commandments for reading aloud:

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

6.    Telling students they are wrong

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

7.    Teacher talk time

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

Photo by Mike Hogan

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

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

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

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

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

…to be continued…


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.