Review: Learn English with Ricky Gervais

Ricky Gervais and Karl Pilkington are known mainly for their acting work. What many people don’t know is that these two gentlemen are also accomplished English teachers. This blog post highlights the methods, approaches, and assumptions about language learning used in their showcase lesson. I recommend that you watch the following video before reading my analysis.

At the beginning of the lesson, Gervais sets out his methodological stall:

Learn English with Ricky Gervais

It is clear that he is a proponent of the direct method, which is based on using only the target language so that the students learn how to think in it (Larsen-Freeman 2000). This method became popular as a result of ‘the increased numbers of monolingual native speakers who started, in the twentieth century, to travel the world teaching English’ (Harmer 2007:64). Its opponents say that the direct method is just an excuse for not bothering to learn the language of the country where you work, but Gervais has pretty good reasons for choosing it. He is aware of the fact that his lesson is aimed at a multilingual audience, so he simply has to rely on English.

Gervais then introduces his co-teacher and highlights one of his prominent physical features. Pilkington disagrees with that approach:

Karl Pilkington in Learn English with Ricky Gervais

He is undoubtedly referring to the work of Michal Lewis. Pilkington is familiar with the lexical approach and the idea that ‘a principal role for the syllabus is to provide principled ways of including only maximally useful items’ (Lewis 1993:106). He correctly suggests teaching the learners how to ask for bread or milk.

Pilkington then gets distracted by thinking about the smell of milk and starts providing convoluted examples without paying attention to grammatical accuracy. Gervais needs to intervene:

Learn English with Ricky Gervais

This is something that needs to be emphasised. When we provide models of language that are too simplified, we run the risk of alienating the students. As Thornbury (2013:16) says, ‘it’s not just a question of making mistakes, it’s the ‘infantilization’ associated with speaking in a second language – the sense that one’s identity is threatened because of an inability to manage and finetune one’s communicative intentions’. Gervais’s solution is simple: Always speak proper English!

Pilkington responds by speaking proper English:

Karl Pilkington in Learn English with Ricky Gervais

Those of you familiar with the Delta Module One exam (Paper 2, Task 2) know that material creators work with assumptions about language learning. Pilkington believes that it is valuable for learners to be exposed to idiomatic expressions, and that’s why he uses go up to instead of approach. He also skilfully explains how the word smell can be both positive and negative. Well done!

What is really impressive about the lesson is how it deals with emergent language:

Learn English with Ricky Gervais

The main idea behind this is to ‘show learners that you value their output’ (Meddings & Thornbury 2009:20). Gervais is great at spotting the right moment for focusing on linguistic items that have emerged during the course of the conversation. Of course, the Dogme approach isn’t for inexperienced teachers, and you need someone confident in their abilities. Pilkington is one of those people, so he is always happy to provide concise explanations. When someone thumps you is a great example of that.

Both teachers then act out a few real-life scenarios:

Learn English with Ricky Gervais

Gervais and Pilkington don’t believe in pre-teaching lexis. They prefer Nation’s (2013:348) premise that ‘incidental learning from context is the most important of all the sources of vocabulary learning’. They empower the learners to work out the meaning of the words from context. I have to say that Gervais and Pilkington are masters of using schemata, which are ‘a means of representing that background knowledge which we all use, when we produce and interpret discourse’ (Brown & Yule 1983:250).

The authors also recognise the importance of explicit teaching:

Karl Pilkington in Learn English with Ricky Gervais

Pilkington uses /weə/ to highlight an issue that many English learners struggle with. Homophones certainly make the learning process complicated. Fortunately, his extraordinarily good examples I’m wearing a jumper and Where’ve you been? make the distinction between the two meanings perfectly clear. Great stuff!

As we known, it is very important to conduct a needs analysis at the beginning of the course. Let’s take a look at this crucial stage of the lesson:

Learn English with Ricky Gervais

According to Long (2015:88), ‘millions of adult learners around the world pay with their own time and money to acquire the very different functional language abilities they need, often urgently, to achieve their equally different educational or career goals or to meet immediate social survival needs in a new country, whether as tourists or newly arrived immigrants.’ Gervais and Pilkington show how a pedagogic task (a role play in a safe environment) can prepare learners for satisfying their needs (such as an urgent cosmetic procedure) in the real world. They also realistically point out that not all people involved in customer service are pleasant and helpful.

At the end of the lesson, Gervais reminds the learners of the main lesson goal:

Learn English with Ricky Gervais

Did they manage to achieve it? I believe they did. The lesson provides students with everything they need when visiting England. Co-teaching is never easy, but in this case both teachers complement each other and put their expertise to a good use. I believe that the lesson is a great example of principled eclecticism. Gervais and Pilkington do what Larsen-Freeman (2000:183) calls ‘creating their own method by blending aspects of others in a principled manner’. The research process must have been very long and thorough, which helped the authors reach the pinnacle of their teaching careers. I don’t think it’s possible to create a better lesson, so it is no wonder that both protagonists decided to retire from ELT after publishing this valuable material.

• Brown, G., & Yule, G. (1983). Discourse Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
• Harmer, J. (2007). The Practice of English Language Teaching. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.
• Larsen-Freeman, D. (2000). Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
• Lewis, M. (1993). The Lexical Approach. Hove: Language Teaching Publications.
• Long, M. (2015). Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
• Meddings, L., & Thornbury, S. (2009). Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching. Peaslake: Delta Publishing.
• Nation, I. S. P. (2013). Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
• Thornbury, S. (2013). Big Questions in ELT. Smashwords: the round.

My issue with the one-size-fits-all approach

I have spent most of my teaching career working in the private sector. When I received an opportunity to get involved in a programme aimed at Colombian public schools students, I decided to give it a go and try something new. It proved to be a good decision because I was given a chance to work with some brilliant teenagers who are full of ideas and enthusiasm. It was also my first experience with being asked to deliver pre-planned lessons.

My issue with the one-size-fits-all approach

From what I understand, all teachers participating in the programme were given the same materials. What sounds like a convenient solution that is meant to save time on lesson planning can actually lead to some issues. I mean, you can’t do exactly the same things with all groups of learners. For example, activities that are appropriate for students with a high English level most likely won’t work well with beginners, which is just common sense.

Even though my lessons were pre-planned, I was glad to hear from the trainers that there was room for adaptation. There were some pretty cool activities the students were asked to do, such as building an eco-friendly house in Minecraft and creating a TikTok video, and each lesson was built around a main goal. I liked those tasks, so I kept them in my lesson plans, but of course I couldn’t resist supplementing the lessons with my own ideas and activities while abandoning those that I didn’t consider beneficial for my group of learners. The students’ reactions were very positive, so I believe that everything worked out perfectly fine.

When I started my teaching career, I quickly realised that I find it very difficult to follow lesson plans designed by someone who has never seen my group of students. The idea of going through pre-planned activities makes me feel like I’m in a straitjacket. I have a similar reaction to those coursebooks that expect me to follow the PPP lesson framework. Good morning! Our topic today is the second conditional. The second conditional is used for hypothetical situations. Its structure is if + past simple… Maybe it’s just some trauma caused by being taught foreign languages using this framework at school, but I really can’t think of a more boring way to deliver an English lesson. If I were a student attending such a course, I’d rather save my money and watch funny videos on YouTube instead of signing up for more lessons.

I understand that throwing away the coursebook isn’t a viable option for many teachers. In fact, some of the books actually have useful stuff in them and learners enjoy doing those activities. It’s also necessary to consider the fact that the students have paid money for the coursebook and expect to use it. I just don’t see following the book to the letter as an ideal teaching approach. When I plan my lessons, I always look for opportunities for tweaking the coursebook activities or completely skipping them and doing something more meaningful.

Speaking of the second conditional, I believe that nothing bad will happen to the learners if they aren’t told explicit grammar rules at the beginning of the lesson. I prefer it when the students have a real conversation about what they would do in case of winning a lottery, and then we focus on form and deal with grammar structures that come up. There are also other options such as the test-teach-test framework or using relevant authentic texts to analyse the language. I know that PPP lessons are easy to deliver, but I feel that my students deserve to be taught in a more stimulating way even if it means I have to spend much more time planning my lessons.

I have already mentioned on this blog that I can’t imagine myself working for a ‘method school’. In short, the teacher’s role in those institutions is to follow a script and deliver pre-planned lessons. Well, I’d rather change my profession than work like that. I presume that students learn English because they want to use it in the real world, so it makes sense to make the classroom a place where interesting things happen. Also, the teacher should be allowed to have some fun as well. Mindlessly going through a lesson plan following the same lesson structure again and again with no possibility of making any detours at all? Nah, you’re alright.

There are some really good websites with useful lessons plans, so it’s very easy to find inspiration for your own lessons. However, I think that it’s always necessary to remember that there is more to teaching than just using high-quality materials. First and foremost, we always work with real people who have their own lives outside the classroom, so it’s a good idea to find out why they study English, what their hobbies and interests are, which activities they enjoy doing, etc. Following a random syllabus imposed from the outside seems like a missed opportunity to me. I believe that building rapport with the learners and personalising the course content will lead to a generally more pleasant experience for everybody involved. Showing your students that you care about them and take them seriously is much more important than if you use the materials provided to you by the institution or not.