Helpful advice from my CELTA tutors

I have already highlighted some benefits of getting a CELTA in this post about teaching qualifications. You can also read my tips for passing the course with a good grade. I did my CELTA at CELT Athens and it was an amazing experience. The feedback I received was really valuable because I’d had no teaching experience prior to the course. Several years have passed since then, but I still remember my tutors’ advice. Let me share a few important principles that I follow to this day.

Helpful advice from my CELTA tutors

You have to grade your language
I felt really satisfied with the first English lesson of my life; everything went well and I was proud of my performance. Then my tutor told me that showing off is not a good strategy in the classroom. I was talking too fast and using words way above my learners’ level. I remember that I said, ‘Technically, that’s right’ at one point of the lesson. When I came home, I checked the word ‘technically’ in a dictionary and found out that it’s supposed to be used at C2 level. I taught pre-intermediate students that day.

Speaking fast and using fancy words is fine when presenting at a conference, but talking to your students requires you to adapt your language to their current level of English. They need to be exposed to comprehensible input, so slowing down your speech and adjusting your language is certainly a step in the right direction.

You are talking to human beings
At first I thought that this comment was rather amusing, but then I realised the tutor was referring to building rapport with students. They are more than just an item on the attendance list. I know that talking to complete strangers can be a daunting experience, and that’s why a bit of small talk before or after a lesson is extremely helpful. My lessons are more engaging when I know my students’ professions, hobbies, academic background, etc. That knowledge allows me to personalise the lessons and focus on what the learners find relevant.

Another important word here is humility. I believe that my students have amazing talents and abilities that can range from mathematics to sports, music, etc. They can’t express themselves perfectly in a foreign language, but that doesn’t detract anything from what they can do in other areas. I always ask my students to talk about what they are professionally or academically involved in, and I have actually learnt a lot of new things in the process. I love what Hugh Dellar said in this video:

“First and foremost, good teachers care about the people that they’re in the room with. They care about them on a human level. They care about their feelings, their emotions, their lives, their well-being. Because of that, they care about how well they’re progressing academically. They care about what might be stopping them from progressing well academically. They care about their presence. They care about their involvement in the class. They care about their interactions with other students and with themselves.”

You are not talking to grammarians
Grammar knowledge definitely plays an important role in language learning. That said, I don’t think it’s necessary to expect the learners to memorise all kinds of technical terms. Knowing metalanguage can be useful, but I’ve met students who could identify past participles, complements and adverbials without having the ability to string a few sentences together in their spoken production. I think it makes more sense to focus on performance and successful communication with other people.

I spent a few months tutoring a teenager who was struggling with English at school. Her vocabulary was limited and she didn’t know how to produce complex sentences. When she asked me for help with her homework, I was shocked to see that she was expected to pass a test full of complicated verb forms, including the future perfect progressive! Who in their right mind would think that kind of crap is appropriate for a pre-intermediate learner? How exactly was she supposed to benefit from that? No wonder many students end up hating English when they have to memorise unnecessary rules instead of doing something useful.

Just let them talk
Working with people who are naturally talkative in their native language is good fun. If you live in Colombia and speak Spanish, you will inevitably participate in long conversations on all kinds of topics. Of course, it’s not always easy to take advantage of that trait and make the students speak as much as possible in English. The problem is when the teacher is the most talkative person in the room because you may then witness something like this: 

Teacher: Good morning, how are you? Good? That’s great. How was your weekend? What did you do? Nothing? Really?
Student 1: Sleeping.
Teacher: Sleeping? Yes, me too. I also went to the cinema to see The Avengers. I thought it was amazing. Did you like it?
Student 2: Yes.
Teacher: Yes, that’s great. I loved the part when…

You get the picture. The learners can barely get a word in because the lesson is dominated by a teacher with superior language skills. If I were a student in that classroom, I would decide to save my money and watch videos on YouTube instead. I might actually learn English faster that way.

My point is that students should be the ones who talk a lot in the classroom. Sometimes it’s appropriate to simply shut up and let the learners do most of the talking. I’m sure they’re going to enjoy it more than listening to rambling monologues. You don’t need to go full Dogme and make all your classes based on conversation, but I definitely recommend asking a lot information questions to get people to speak. Just don’t forget to give them enough time to answer!

Michael Lewis: The English Verb

We are used to having access to all kinds of information on the internet, so it’s quite surprising to see that finding something about one of the most fascinating people in ELT isn’t an easy task. Michael Lewis doesn’t have a Wikipedia page and you can’t watch his talks on YouTube. All we have online are a few snippets from blog posts and comments made by people who knew him.

Let me share my favourite discoveries: Lewis was called an ‘ELT recluse’ and a ‘fashionably dressed beat poet’ (here); he was fuming at Scott Thornbury because of what the latter wrote in his book (here); he enjoyed scolding people for irrelevant questions and also managed to ‘send Italian academic gurus into rage’ (here). After his death in March 2019, The TEFLology Podcast compiled all known biographical information on Lewis on this page.

Michael Lewis: The English Verb

Not only did Michael Lewis lead an eventful life, but he was also a brilliant author. His most famous book is The Lexical Approach, which was first published in 1993. Lewis tackles various topics in it and provides valid criticism of coursebooks and the traditional grammar syllabus. English learners are expected to know the rules of reported speech and conditionals in order to pass exams, but when they travel to English-speaking countries, they are surprised to hear the locals use ‘incorrect’ expressions that don’t conform to the rules stated in coursebooks. Lewis also makes some really important observations about pre-service teacher training courses like the CELTA in The Lexical Approach.

Interestingly, the man who promoted prioritising lexis in language teaching had previously written a book on grammar. It may all sound like a contradiction, but let me tell you that The English Verb is anything but a typical grammar reference book. In fact, it’s one of the most thought-provoking ELT titles I have ever read. Its premise is simple: English grammar is taught incorrectly and there is a better way. Michael Lewis certainly didn’t shy away from making strong statements.

The English Verb isn’t just a rant about the state of English teaching. Lewis provides clear examples of what’s wrong and proposes solutions. One of his pet peeves was unhelpful terminology. For example, why do we keep talking about ‘past participles’ when they can be used to talk about the present and the future? That’s unnecessarily confusing for students, and Lewis suggests that it would be more helpful to refer to them as ‘compound forms’.

Lewis also mentions the fact that learners are sometimes taught incorrect rules. He uses ‘some’ and ‘any’ as an example. It’s common to see a coursebook claim that ‘some’ is used just in positive sentences, and that ‘any’ appears only in questions and negative sentences. Students are taught that rule even though it’s blatantly untrue. According to Lewis, teachers often provide unhelpful explanations and write off deviations from the norm as ‘exceptions’, which makes students think that learning English is an extremely difficult task.

The main portion of the book deals with verbs. Lewis wasn’t a fan of approaches that list different uses of each verb form, so he decided to create explanations that cover all the uses. Why do we use present progressive to talk about actions happening right now and also for future arrangements? Lewis came up with some mind-blowing ideas to describe why that happens. I was really impressed by his analysis, which helped me understand English grammar a little more. It’s very important to emphasise that The English Verb isn’t a book for students; it is aimed at open-minded teachers who wish to improve their language awareness.

There are also a few glimpses of ideas that would be later developed in The Lexical Approach. For example, Lewis wasn’t impressed by describing ‘let’s’ as part of “the imperative” and suggested dealing with it as a lexical item. By the way, when Merriam-Webster selected ‘they’ as Word of the Year 2019, I immediately remembered The English Verb because Michael Lewis promoted using the singular ‘they’ more than 30 years before that. He was an innovative thinker who didn’t like seeing language restricted by unnecessary rules.

Even though The English Verb focuses on a serious topic, it’s an entertaining read. Lewis was an outspoken person and he was more than happy to express his disdain when he didn’t like something. Nowadays, you can see Twitter spats between academics on just about any topic, but I think it’s too easy to call somebody a fool online. Lewis was at the peak of his powers before the internet, so he had to settle scores the old school way. His book is full of digs at other writers, and it’s obvious that Lewis enjoyed tearing their work apart. ELT literature doesn’t always provide a lot of excitement, so it’s always great to encounter little gems like The English Verb that are both informative and entertaining.