Principles and Filler

  Or ‘What can you do to separate the start of a lesson from the end without wasting everyone’s time and learners learning nothing
Before I start, I’m going to just say it: I have been a filler user. You get those days when the awesome lesson you planned seems to go awry or you or the learners just aren’t feeling it. I think the problem comes when the filler is routine or is pushing out principled, educationally beneficial activities.


Games are my bugbear because games are what popular teachers without curricular responsibilities do. It is possible to play games and have learners learn but the danger is that learners end up playing Hangman or Bingo.
I have no problem with Guess Who? when giving descriptions, Clue/Cluedo when speculating, or a quick game of Bingo to practice listening to numbers, though. Also, if games look good and have learning as part of the mechanism, great. If it looks like it was a hastily photocopied pile of crap, your learners might well be merciless.
There are tons of awesome looking RPGs here. They do need more than one lesson to play them.

Free conversation

You can listen to the TEFLology podcast about FreeCon here.
As a teacher who sometimes uses a Dogme framework, I hate FreeCon. It is the last bastion of the lazy teacher. Beginners are given hangman, intermediate upward are given free conversation, unstructured and never reflected upon. Nobody takes any notes, nobody is really given any guidance. 
“But they want conversation practice!” the FreeCon teachers say.
I’d say that’s fine, but is it what the learners want or is it what the teachers want? And how about learning happening with the practice, like giving a bit of feedback, some alternatives that are appropriate for the learners? If you’re nodding, I think you might be doing FreeCon in a principled way. If you’re scowling, I bet it’s a conversation all about you.

Reading & Listening

I love listening, and I rather like reading, and these definitely need to be taught. The problem is, they are often just ‘done’. Simple questions straight from a book, only surface engagement, purely to kill time. I’m sure this could be done at home, so unless there’s a special reason for you to be there, why does this need to be done in a lesson?

Other Pet Peeves

  • Pages from Murphy’s ‘English Grammar In Use’ (guilty of past use).
  • “Translate this letter I can’t read”, regardless of appropriacy or language resources.
  • Song lyrics gap fills when the lyrics mean sod all (One Direction).

On 'That' Annoying Benjamin Franklin Quote

Somewhere on the internet you have seen it, probably in a ‘viral’ image. It’s attributed to bad-weather kite flier and slave owner Benjamin Franklin, and goes like this:

Tell me and I forget; teach me and I remember; involve me and I learn.

“Ooh, Marc, can you please tell us why this gets on your nerves so much?”
It would be a curmudgeonly pleasure!

  1. It is used by teachers to talk about ‘learner centredness’ but dismisses teachers.

  2. While my wife may tell me to clean the bathroom and I may forget, remember that this is not a classroom situation. The classroom is a place for learning. It may be a social construct but it is one that has been reached by some kind of social consensus based on an agreed location. People go there to learn, whether by listening to teachers or watching them or whatever. This whole “Tell me and I forget” essentially negates anything said by anybody in a classroom or anywhere else.

  3. It smacks of the dreaded Learning Styles hydra that refuses to die.

  4. “Tell me and I forget” suggests that Ben Franklin was not an auditory learner. So perhaps he was a ‘naturalistic’ learner, or an ‘experiential’ learner, what with the story of the kite and the thunderstorm. Absolute rubbish! If a bloke is clever enough to wheedle his way to the top of a puritanical yet hypocritical wealth-driven society he’s clever enough to pay attention to what someone is telling him.

  5. “Teach me and I remember” tells us nothing about the method.

  6. Are we teaching through mime? Diagrams? Song? Guided instruction? Ben, someone just told you what to do. Couldn’t you have taken notes? That would definitely help you remember. While multi-modal instruction is useful to really hammer home a point, there is not always time for it.

  7. “Involve me and I learn” is just baseless.

  8. I’m all for learner-centredness and even moderate a Google Plus community about it. The thing is, you can involve learners in any activity but if it isn’t thought out in a principled way to develop emergent skills (language use or skills in reception) then learners are only learning that busy work and jumping through hoops pleases teachers. It’s why I hate unprincipled use of games in teaching. It’s pure filler!

  9. It is also a mistake in attribution and a poorly summarised translation.

  10. Like the struggle against pseudo-Einstein by Russ Mayne, the Franklin quote is likely not to come from Franklin at all. It’s just a snappy soundbite badly translated from Chinese.

So, that’s why. I must state that this is not a post to say that you are a bad person if you have shared this quote. You may have used it to support an argument about learner-centred classes versus a droning teacher and a PowerPoint. However, you’d be better of not supporting your argument with an incorrect attribution when there’s a perfectly good Chinese quote to support your view.

#BlogChallenge: What Did You Teach Today

Well, Anthony Schmidt started this challenge about what we taught today and it sounded intriguing; documenting a normal day in the life at work.
Today was the second day back at school after the summer holidays and the first day back at a company class after a week off sick. They had a substitute teacher doing textbook stuff with them last week.
8:30-9:20 3rd Grade Junior High
Prepositions of location on the syllabus but I know these kids know them. I proposed half a lesson to talk about anything they want. They chose nothing and were lethargic so they got a task to describe their partner’s room which was done but with no enthusiasm. Had to tell two students to get work done. Very unusual for this group. Like me, they were probably tired from last night’s typhoon.
9:30-10:20 3rd Grade (Different Class)
Massive difference. They chose to talk about summer holidays. The prepositions of location were fine. The holiday chat brought up problems with go and prepositions so I reviewed that and checked some pronunciation of ‘-ed’ as /t/.
10:30-11:20 2nd Grade
Occupations on the syllabus. Brainstormed jobs with given criteria in groups (outdoor jobs, jobs with uniforms, even more). Pairs discussed parent’s jobs using follow-up questions.
11:30-12:20 2nd Grade (Different Class)
As above but these students got finished really quickly so they talked about their dream jobs. A bit of scaffolding and vocabulary help here and there.
13:00-13:50 2nd Grade (Another Different Class)
Jobs again but not categorizing as these students were keen to talk about jobs from the outset. Parents jobs talked about in more detail than expected. Told the students to speak more loudly because I can’t always hear them. Last class at school for the day.
17:45-19:15 Business English/ESP
The other side of town. Two weeks ago they planned a business trip to Europe to train engineers. Today they trained each other in a highly specialized area of manufacturing. All from them; book never opened. The linguistic focuses were on hedging and emphasis. Very keen to do well; vocabulary precise but I needed to draw attention to morphology and a bit of grammar (overuse of passives). Set homework to preview socialising language in the textbook.
I am now tired and looking forward to dinner.