Bad teaching

A ramble from last year. Just came across it again. Ha! When I re-read it I thought, ‘actually Pete, it was pretty bad teaching! What were you on about?!’ Meh. I don’t just post the good. Enjoy.

I’m such a bad teacher sometimes. I’m prone to slack/lazy practice. I mean, take this list of things not to do when teaching vocab (shared on twitter by @bwileducate)

Now consider this dialogue in my class over the weekend…

Me: Right, those words in the box. These were in the video we just watched, but, you know, they might be challenging. I mean, maybe. So, do you know what they mean? Ask your partner if you’re not sure.

(1 minute of discussion, I’ve listened)

Me: Alright, so some of you weren’t sure about conscience *drills*. Can anyone explain that?

Student A: I think it’s like… right and wrong. Like, you know what right and wrong is.

Me: Ah, like morals, you mean?

Student A: Yes!

Me: So how do we know what’s right or wrong?

Student B: We just… do.

Me: Student A is that true?

Student A: Er… yeah. Like.. we just say it, like, ‘this is bad’ or something

Me: alright, so we all have an inner voice that tells us what we do, or might do, is right or wrong. Or… do we?

Students:  *nod*

Me: Do we? All of us?

Students: *less nodding*

Me: Discuss – does everyone have a conscience? What about murderers?

(Few minutes later, some emergent language taught).

Me: Alright. Anything you wanna share or discuss together… ahem, sorry. What questions do you have? … None? Okay. The other one some of you looked confused about was ‘conscious’ *drills*, what does it mean to be conscious?

Student B: Awake?

Me: Yeah it can do, like awake or alert. Anything other meanings? … Okay, it’s like… if you’re conscious then you’re aware that you exist – you know that you are a living, thinking thing. Am I conscious? Do I have ‘consciousness’?

Students: Yeah

Me: Glad you said that… Are you conscious?

Students: Yeah

Me: This table?

Students: No

Me: This glass?

Students: No

Me: The water in the glass?

Students: …. No

Me: Are you sure?

Students: Yes/No

Me: Bacteria

Students: …

Me: Discuss – is water conscious? What about bacteria? Are they aware that they exist… If you’re still not sure what it means, google it.

(no-one did btw, but they sometimes do. Actually we kinda scrapped the lesson after this because the whole ‘conscious’ thing was interesting. Went down a P4C type route. Was alright, I think they got quite a bit from it)

Well, let’s put it this way, I’m not winning any prizes for teacher of the year. I give wordy definitions, I ask students what things mean (come on, that’s a schoolboy error, surely). If my line manager was observing me then I’d get called up on both of those things for sure. I’m the last person you’d want modelling a CELTA lesson given the type of classroom dialogue I just described (hmm, CCQs aside). I’m also not even sure the kids ‘get’ those words, and who would given my descriptions?!

Then again, I know my context, I know my learners, and I reckon this works. When I see lists like Kate Kinsella’s Top 10, I sink down in my seat and think ‘how the hell do I have ten years teaching experience?’ I instantly feel like a fraud and I have that ‘I’m really thick compared to these people who talk at conferences’ feeling. Then I’m like… wait a second.

I’m teaching B2 level teens, aged about 15. They’re great kids, they’re inquisitive, they’re honest too. If they don’t know what something means, they usually just ask. I trained them a bit at the start of the year in the old Brain, (Book), Buddy, Boss method but they didn’t really need it. They absorb new vocab, and most of all they just want to use it. Giving them a ‘match the word to meaning’ or gap-fill task seems to annoy them sometimes – they’ve probably seen around 15,000 of these during their English learning career to date. An anecdote for context helps sometimes. Mainly though, we just get the words into play with a bit of drilling and maybe explore the other forms, if they don’t get it then they’ll just say (or it’s clear on their face!). Questions about the vocab serve as the context. In fact, I prefer to just give them questions including the new words for them to discuss, and they’ll seek clarification if they’re not sure.

I’ve just been reading an article that mentions the expertise reversal effect. I reckon this is true with my B2 teen class, in the sense that the more scaffolding or support I provide for them (as I would for more novice learners), the more this seems to get in their way! Not true for all skills of course, but definitely when it comes to picking up new words.

What’s my point? Well, yeah, it’s a bit of a rant about that Kinsella list and stating the obvious really. But don’t take things like ‘asking what a word means is a BIG NO-NO’ as gospel. Just teach the learners, relative to level and what works for them. I’m hardly going to teach like this when I’m introducing vocab to my 6-year-old A1s!

Oh, a disclaimer. Under no circumstances apply this rule during a lesson observation. The golden rule in that context is to ignore what seems to suit the learners and pretend that you can actually teach.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Categories: General, reflections

Tags: , , , , , , ,

7 replies

  1. I totally get this and am the same, using “do you understand?” with students that I know are able to say “no”, “what does this word mean?” and very often “give me a quick translation” because we usually share the same language. I don’t like CCQs. One thing I love though, but often get blank stares as a reaction, lol, is exploring one word from a multitude of angles, word forms, different meanings, collocations, prepositions etc. Words need to be understood, drilled or practised enough, and revised. Word forms, especially with Czech, need to be looked at. Also the distinction between active and passive knowledge matters – some words are just not worth the effort imho. You’re not the only lazy teacher, Pete:) Cheers, you’ve made me laugh.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha I was on the urge of deleting this post as I thought it’s too honest… So glad you got me!
      I’m with you on the word form one. I don’t go overboard but I always do this whole routine, like ‘we are rarely learning ONE new word, it’s always more. This is noun, but is there a verb? Is there an adjective? What words often go together with this one…?’ Etc
      Passive and active knowledge – 100%
      Important to pick and choose/ prioritize, etc.
      Thanks so much for commenting! 🙂


  2. You are who you are and your candid account of things in the class is to be recogised and applauded. I wish everyone could also do this.

    Check this out
    Let me know if you’d like the whole book 🙂

    BTW the expertise reversal effect is a fascinating idea. Never heard of it before. Can’t wait to find out more about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha cheers for your positive take on things 🙂

      That book looks really good, I’ll deffo grab a copy!

      As I wrote this a while ago I’m not sure where I first read about expertise reversal, will see if I can dig out an article on it.

      Have a great weekend!


  3. I’ve never really got what is so naughty about just giving a quick definition of a new word. Unlike CCQs, I’ve found this approach tends to be met with a nod and a look of ‘yeah, I got it’, which we tend to treasure in other classroom situations 🙂

    If it’s important in this lesson, sure, practise it a bit to make sure they really did get the meaning; otherwise, it’s likely to come up again later on and usually they’ll recognise it, ‘oh, we did this’, even if they don’t quite recall what the meaning was.

    On the other hand, I do like that Kate Kinsella calls these things ‘unreliable’ rather than hallmarks of bad teaching. Maybe in recognition of the fact that the more basic alternatives to death by CCQ can actually work some of the time.

    Whether CCQs can be considered ‘reliable’ is an interesting question…


    • Yeah good point about them being ‘unreliable’ – I’ve distorted the message there.
      Know what you mean about CCQs and reliability. I was observed recently and the feedback was that I ask all the right questions about new language – it left me thinking a) how do we really know that they were the right questions, and b) did I even need to ask them?!


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