Is My Map To Scale? by Mark Wilson

The task sequences presented here aim to provide ways of questioning the relative value of various aspects of our classroom practice - in other words, to enhance a sense of perspective and proportion. Which things are really important and which less so? Have I been overvaluing or undervaluing anything?
The tasks are intended for in-service training sessions or teacher development or discussion groups, and at a push might be adaptable to late stages of CELTA courses. I hope in any case that you feel an insatiable craving to try them out with a few colleagues.

Task Sequence 1: Teachers A & B

This sequence is designed to encourage questioning of four terms that sometimes receive too uncritical a thumbs-up:
•learner-centred (sometimes over-simplistically taken to mean "not involving the teacher" - even if that leaves students floundering)
•communicative (over-simplistically = "get 'em talking" - however hesitant or low-octane the communication)
•personalisation (over-simplistically = "get 'em talking about themselves" - even if imposed or "fictitious" material might actually be more interesting or rewarding)
•authentic (over-simplistically = "make it real" - regardless of unhelpful distractions)

In designing these tasks I've tried to avoid the trap of "setting it up to knock it down". I would hope that equal respect be extended to both of these teachers!

Task 1
You will see how two teachers go about teaching lessons which have virtually the same aims, but which are approached in different ways. Discuss the relative merits of the way teachers A and B choose to begin their lessons.

Teacher A
Vocabulary review game
T divides class into two teams. T gets a S from one team to come to front of class and sit with back to board. T writes on board a word which has cropped up recently in class. Team members have to elicit the word from the S at front through definition, explanation or "oral gapfill". When the S gets it, team get a point and play switches to other team, and so on alternately.


Teacher B
Vocabulary review
T elicits items of recently-encountered vocabulary through a variety of techniques e.g. "suspended sentences", "oral gapfill", first-letter priming, explanation, definition.
All this is done at a brisk pace with frequent recapping. T ensures that all Ss participate by alternating between group response and random individual nomination.

Should teacher B's wrist be slapped for being teacher-centred, uncommunicative, not "fun"? Perhaps you can see where I'm heading.
Consider the following task before reading how Teachers A & B continue their lessons.

Task 2

For each of the two lessons described - assuming a competent, alert, knowledgeable, sensitive teacher in both cases - indicate which of the following attributes apply, and then evaluate.

Tchr A
Tchr B
Value? (comment)


Teacher A's Gerunds & Infinitives Lesson

1. T gives out cards for an activity requiring the Ss to match up half-sentences to form complete sentences, each containing a verb which is sometimes used with the gerund and sometimes with the infinitive, e.g. stop, remember, forget, try, regret etc. Examples include:

Please remember to include / descriptions with each image.
I don't remember seeing her / on the Carol Burnett show.
I shall not easily forget meeting / several scouts who stated firmly that hiking was the best part of the adventure.

(The sentences are authentic examples collated by the teacher)
The Ss are asked to work in pairs, then the answers are checked in whole-group feedback.

2. T draws attention to, and concept-checks, the different meanings of the verbs depending on whether used with infinitive or gerund.

3. Ss are given another handout beginning:

Tell your partner about...
...someone you'll never forget meeting
...something you remember doing when you were five or six
...something you forgot to do which caused a problem. (etc)

Ss talk in pairs.


Teacher B's Gerunds & Infinitives Lesson

1. T half-tells, half-elicits a story concocted so as to contextualise verbs which take either gerund or infinitive e.g. stop, remember, forget, try, regret etc. It is a story about a disastrous car journey - somewhat unnatural and far-fetched, but nevertheless (or, indeed, consequently) easily memorable at least in outline. The story's ending typifies the ways it contextualises the target language:
Eventually he told us he was closing in five minutes, so he wouldn't be able to fix the window till the following morning. This meant staying the night in a hotel. And we had meant to arrive in Cadiz by 7 o'clock in the evening!

2. T recaps briefly every few minutes, putting key words or drawings on board as story is built up. These are used as prompts to elicit sentences about the story so far. Ss are encouraged to add detail if they like.

3. At end of story, T puts Ss in pairs to try and reconstruct story orally from key words on board. T monitors.

4. Whole-group feedback. T elicits back whole story, asking concept questions at points involving target verbs in order to clarify how infinitive or gerund give the verbs different meanings. T paraphrases these meanings in a column at one side of the board. Ss take notes.

5. T cleans board, then gives out gapped text telling story. Gaps force Ss to decide between infinitives and gerunds.


Task 3. Discuss the following, weighing up and comparing "to what extent" for the lessons given by teachers A & B, and considering what further steps might enrich the learning process:

1. Is students' memory challenged?
2. Are students engaged in buildup?
3. Might "teacher flair" be a factor here? Can the ability to "perform" influence the decision about the best approach to take?
4. Is the lesson easy to recap in future?
5. Is students' effort of an engaging nature?
6. Is student production likely to be faltering or confident?
7. Have students been empowered for future production?
8. Do students leave with a sense of satisfaction at having learnt something?
9. Does the chosen method suit both motivated and "reluctant" learners?
10. Do students leave with a useful record of something?

Task Sequence 2: Limits Of Validity

Good teaching is not just a matter of assuming there are certain "good things to do in the classroom" and then applying them uncritically. It is a question of constant watchfulness and decision-making, prioritising options for optimal effect, choosing the most appropriate next step at each point. To a large extent this can happen at the planning stage, but to a certain extent it has to happen on the spur of the moment in the classroom itself. Over time, the better I develop my instincts for such decision-making, the less meticulous I need to be in planning. These instincts can perhaps best be developed by questioning the limits of validity of any given procedure.
Here is a list of things which are often regarded as "good practice". For each of them, think of as many ways as possible of completing the following sentence, then discuss with colleagues:

......... is/are valid for ....... but not if ..............

  • brainstorming
    drawing timelines
    getting students to compare their answers
    setting tasks and activities
    getting students to predict
    getting students to read aloud
    explaining grammar
    getting students to explain language points to each other
    using dictionaries in class
    going over homework in class

Obviously the list can be extended, adapted and constantly updated. It might take several sessions to cover all of it in satisfying depth. Through such discussion, and perhaps by comparing with results obtained from previous discussion groups, teachers come not only to question their own practice but to feel part of an emerging consensus as to what is and isn't valid in their particular teaching context. And where controversy arises, that too is part of the process: simply add a rider to the framework-sentence so that it reads:

".... is/are valid for ..... but not if ......; but ..... or .....?"

Teachers then explore the controversy in their subsequent teaching.

In practice, it is of course useful for the session leader to have sketched out their own "suggested answers" in advance, and then to seek an appropriate blend of elicitation and guidance during feedback. If you would like a set of already road-tested "suggested answers", contact me on

The results of a discussion on the first item - brainstorming - might look like this:


is valid for

- getting Ss thinking about a given topic as a lead-in to a task (reading, listening or writing)
- diagnosing how much vocab they already know in a given area
- confidence-building
- reinforcing/extending what Ss come up with by adding a collocational element

but not if

- it goes on too long
- teacher doesn't clearly distinguish between diagnosis and input (i.e. assumes that what they come up with is all they need)
- not challenging enough
- teacher automatically puts everything up on board regardless of how new or useful
- teacher doesn't fix new items on board and get Ss to copy in notebooks
- T doesn't check that what is written in notebooks is in fact correct
- teacher doesn't check that all Ss understand (and hear!) the items that come up

And so on for the other listed aspects of classroom practice.

Task Sequence 3: Four Truths Of Teaching

Task 1: For each of the four statements below, discuss:
To what extent is it true? What should be done about it?

1. What you put in doesn't necessarily go in.
2. What goes in doesn't necessarily stay in.
3. What stays in doesn't necessarily come out.
4. What comes out wasn't necessarily put in.

Key concepts:

Task 2: Extend each of the four statements by adding "because..." or "unless..."


Mark Wilson is a DOS and teacher trainer at International House, San Sebastián. He previously worked in the UK, Indonesia, India and the Dominican Republic.


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