Posted in Spanish learners

10 problems Spanish learners have when speaking English

Sometimes it feels as if you’re banging your head against a brick wall. No matter how many times you tell your Spanish students to say: “She has blue eyes” they continue to say “She has eyes blues.

cats eyes
Blue eyes or eyes blues?

What’s their problem?

Are they lazy?

Are they stupid?

Do they not listen to you?

Before you start blaming THEM, think about your own second language learning history for a minute.

Are there any mistakes you make over and over again?

If your answer is NO, I’m not convinced you are being 100% honest.

The truth is that we all make mistakes when using our second language.

It’s entirely natural to do so because our use of our second language is always influenced by our native tongue.

In this blog, I’m going to point out 10 reasons why Spanish speakers make certain errors. Knowing about these problems may help you and your students find ways to resolve them.

1. How many vowel sounds are there in Spanish? How many in English?

Spanish has 5 vowel sounds and English has….12. The other problem is that the length of the vowel sound is not an important feature which leads to classic misunderstandings such as: In Spain, there are many hot bitches!

2. Consonants also cause problems for Spanish speakers. Some English phonemes have equivalents in Spanish but others are distinctive sounds.

Ζ /∫ / ð / ν / ʤ / ʒ /  h have no real match in Spanish.

How many consonant clusters can you spot?
How many consonant clusters can you spot?

3. Consonant Clusters are far more common in English than in Spanish. A simple word (for native English speakers) like ‘breakfast’ is tough for Spaniards who will often pronounce it ‘brefas’ and omit the ‘f’ and the final ‘t’ because they are attached to another consonant. They also need a run-up to manage names like ‘Stephen’ and insert a vowel sound before the first cluster of s / t and will often say ‘Estephen’.

4. The relationship in English between pronunciation and orthography (sound and spelling) is a nightmare for Spanish speakers because these two aspects are joined at the hip in their language. Words sound as they are spelled and are spelled like they sound. This is clearly not the case in English.

5. Whereas English is generally categorised as a stress-timed language, Spanish is usually considered to be a syllable-timed language. In English, we would put the beat on the content syllables in this sentence:

The Beatles were bigger than Elvis.

A Spanish speaker might pronounce each syllable equally and this might sound robotic to English speaker ears and we might struggle to identify the key content.

The / Beat / les / were / big / ger / than / El / vis.

6. The Spanish language doesn’t really have contracted forms in the same way as English. This means they can’t always hear them (I’ll see you tomorrow: Yes, I see you tomorrow) or they misuse them (Are you Pedro? Yes, I’m).

El gato black

7. In English, an adjective comes before a noun (black cat) but the noun generally comes before the adjective in Spanish (cat black). The other problem is that we talk about ‘black cats’ in English but ‘gatos negros’ in Spanish. In other words, the adjective has a plural form which it doesn’t in English.

8. Asking questions with auxiliary verbs is a minefield for Spanish speakers. They often omit them and just use an affirmative form:

You are happy?

Sometimes they remember the auxiliary but put the main verb in the past tense to make sure they are understood:

Did you went to the party?

Question tags are also problematic due to the fact that there is a one-size fits all tag in Spanish (You are hungry, no?) unlike English which is far more structurally complex.

9. Subject personal pronouns (I, You, She, He, We, It, They) are often unnecessary in Spanish as the form of the main verb identifies the subject. This is why you’ll hear Spanish speakers say things like:

Is Bob here?’  ‘Yes, is here.’

It is possible to pass the exam?’  ‘Yes. is possible.’

dog and cat
Friends for real?

10. False friends. Your Spanish students may surprise you with the depth and complexity of their vocabulary. However, these words are often cognates (similar words in two languages such as intelligent and inteligente) and derive from Latin. This can be beneficial to Spanish students who can often understand complex authentic texts in English. On the other hand, just as English speakers often change English suffixes to Spanish ones to form words (apparently to apparentemente), Spanish speakers often try to use a Spanish word only to find that it has a very different meaning in English.

This is a topic I’ll be returning to in a future post but I’ll leave you with one of my favourite excuses for missing a lesson:

Pedro: ‘Sorry professor, I couldn’t assist the class because of my strong constipation.’

So, next time, you groan inwardly or outwardly about a repeated error made by your Spanish students, cut them some slack but explain why they are wrong.

Bibliography:  Swan, M & Smith, B. Learner English. Cambridge. 2001.

Are there any other major differences between Spanish and English which cause problems?

Posted in Games and activities

Last minute Love Lessons

Whoops! You’ve completely forgotten that Valentine’s Day is tomorrow and haven’t planned anything with a romantic theme for your classes.


Don’t panic – Here are 3 last-minute love lessons / activities for you to try with very little preparation needed.

TIP: Talking about relationships can be uncomfortable for students who don’t want to discuss their personal lives. In order not to invade their privacy, encourage them to create imaginary characters.


  • Briefly introduce the concept of ‘speed dating’. It may be unfamiliar to some cultures.
  • Divide the students into men and women. If you have an unequal number, just ask some of the students to play a member of the opposite sex.
  • Arrange the seats in two lines facing each other, one line for the women and the other for the men.
  • Give each student a photo of a single man or a single woman (you could ask them to draw a face) and create a profile for their portrait (age, name, job, interests, favourite movies or music etc.).
  • Tell them they are single people looking for a partner and their aim is to find somebody who wants to go on a date with them.
  • Let them show the portrait/ picture to their partner.
  • Do a trial run by asking the students to chat to the person sitting opposite them for 2/3 minutes and try to charm them.
  • Then, ask the men to stand up and move one seat to the right. Give them they 2/3 minutes to chat to their new partner.
  • Continue the activity until all the men and all the women have had a 2/3 minute chat.
  • To finish, ask the students to write down their first and second choice for a date.
  • Collect the slips of paper and see if any if any of the choices corresponded, if a man choose a woman as her number 1 and she also choose him as her favourite.

Great for: 2nd conditionals “If you were to go out with me, you’d have the night of your life.”


2. Round-robin romantic story

  • Create a simple handout on an A4 sheet of paper. Draw a picture of a man and woman at the top. Write the following questions on the page. Leave enough space after each question so that students can write their answers. Tip: fold the sheet 3 times and you’ll have enough space for 8 questions.

Who was the man?

Who was the woman?

Where were they were they met?

What was he doing when they met? What was she doing?

What did they say to each other?

What did they think of each other?

What did they do after they met?

What happened in the end?

  • Hand a sheet to each student and ask them to write their name at the top of the sheet and an answer to the first question.
  • Wait for all students to finish, ask them to fold the sheet below their answer. Tell them to pass the sheet to the person to their left. The next person can see the second question but not the first answer.
  • Ask your students to answer the second question, fold, pass the sheet to the next person.
  • Continue until all of the questions have been answered.Collect all the sheets and then hand them back to the person whose name is at the top.
  • Finally, let the students read the stories. Some of them will be nonsense but a few are bound to make sense.
  • Ask them to correct any errors.

Great for: Practising narrative tenses.

  • Love is in the air

3. Dating Coach role-plays

  • Give each student a portrait photo. Tell them that the person in the photo is single and ask them to create a profile for the person in the photo.
  • Then, ask them to write down 3 reasons why this person is single (they have poor dress sense, terrible personal hygiene, embarrassing habits etc.)
  • Put the students in small groups of 3 (make sure the groups are mixed in terms of gender) and ask them to discuss a series of dating-related questions such as

What should people do to find a partner?

Where should they go on a first date?

What should men/women wear on a first date?

What topics should / shouldn’t they talk about on a first date?

What behavioural habits turn people off on a first date?

Who should pay the bill?

  • Get some whole class feedback and then move onto the role play.
  • Assign a role to each member of the group of 3: Man on a first date, woman on a first date, and dating coach.
  • Rearrange the chairs/desks to make the classroom resemble a restaurant/bar/cafe and play some romantic music to get the students in the mood.
  • Ask the men and the women to act out the blind date (remind them that they should behave according to the profile they created) and tell the dating coach to observe the date and make notes about how each participant performed.
  • Give a time limit (I find between 5 and 10 minutes is fine for Intermediate level learners) Stress that they are to assess their dating performance not their English speaking ability: Were they polite? Did they listen attentively to their partner? Were the conversation topics appropriate?
  • When the ‘date’ ends, ask the dating coaches to provide feedback on the participants’ performance.
  • Change roles / groups and repeat the role play.
  • The teacher can monitor and note down errors and examples of good language which could benefit the whole class.

Great for: Modal verbs to give advice in the past and present.

glass wine


Love is in the air…do dee do dee do dee dee…

Have a great Valentine’s Day.

Posted in Odds and ends

Free gift: A Short Guide to TEFL (90 pages)

As a special gift for followers of this blog:

I have written an e-book for people who are:

  • thinking of becoming TEFL teachers
  • people who are currently doing the course
  • newly-qualified teachers.

It is currently for sale as an e-book for Amazon Kindle readers – at $2.99, it’s the price of a cup of coffee.

A Short Guide to TEFL
A Short Guide to TEFL

The good news is that I am offering it as a free pdf document for followers of this blog until Tuesday 12 February.

I only have one small favour to ask:

If you like the book, please write a complimentary review on Amazon UK.

smile-16134 or 5 stars would be great!!!

So, for your free copy become a follower of this blog and I’ll send you the e-book next week.

Thanks for your time,

Dylan Gates

Posted in Spanish learners

Lost in Translation: The answers to last week’s quiz

Here they are…..the answers to last week’s quiz about Spanish titles of famous English language movies.


1. Casarse esta en Griego – My Big Fat Greek Wedding
I think you’ll agree that the Spanish title is far less likely to offend than the original.

2. Milagros inesperados – The Green Mile
‘Unexpected Miracles’ is probably a better title than the original. I saw the film a few months ago and can’t remember seeing a mile…and it certainly wasn’t green!

English classes
My poor little angel

3. Mi pobre Angelito – Home Alone
The Spanish title sounds far too latino for a film starring Macauley Caulkin, probably the palest actor ever to grace the silver screen.

4. Experto en Diversion – Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
I’m sensing a theme here. The Spanish titles are bland and far more literal than their Anglo-American counterparts.

5.  Secreto en la Montana – Brokeback Mountain.
There’s a mountain and it’s got a secret.

It's got a secret!!
It’s got a secret!!

6. Que paso ayer – The Hangover
‘What happened yesterday?’ is a succinct plot summary if nothing else. Somewhat lacking in inspiration these Spanish titles, don’t you think?

7. Vaselina – Grease

All together now, sing along with me:

Vaselina is the word

Vaselina is the word, that you heard

It’s got groove it’s got meaning

Vaselina is the time, is the place is the motion

Vaselina is the way we are feeling

8. Muertos de risa – Shaun of the Dead
It’s a comedy about dead people. Mmm, well it does what it says on the tin, I suppose.

old man laughing
He died laughing you know!

9. Amor y Desafio – Jerry MacGuire
As neither Jerry nor MacGuire are familiar names to the Spanish, I understand the change. Why not call it something like Jose Martinez though?

10. Perdidos en Tokio – Lost in Translation
A sensible choice, marketing the film directly at the many Japophiles in Spain.

So, how many did you get right? If you know any other amusing film titles in Spanish or English titles of Spanish movies, I’d love to hear them.

Posted in Spanish learners

Lost in Translation


The other day, my Spanish ‘suegra’ starting talking to me about one of her favourite musical called ‘Sonrisas y Lagrimas’ (smiles and tears). I hadn’t heard of the film but she insisted that it was a Hollywood classic. Finally, she started to hum a tune from the movie and it became clear that she was talking about:‘The Sound of Music.’ crying-smiley-thumb12030139

As well as dubbing films into Spanish, the Spanish film distributors also feel the need to modify or completely change the titles of movies. Here are a few, translate them into English and then see if you can work out the original English titles

(Feel free to comment and I’ll reveal the answers in my next post)

question mark

1. Casarse esta en Griego

2. Milagros inesperados

3. Mi pobre Angleito

4. Experto en Diversion

5.  Secreto en la Montana

6. Que paso ayer

7. Vaselina

8. Muertos de risa

9. Amor y Desafio

10. Perdidos en Tokio

Watching movies is an excellent way to learn a language. Cinema is primarily a visual medium: we can understand much of what is happening by focusing on the moving images and the facial expressions and gestures of the actors.

This leaves us with plenty of cognitive energy to deal with interpreting what is being said……

brain thinking

In Spain these days, our students have easy access to English listening material just by choosing to watch films in their original language.

However, many of my Spanish students don’t do that, claiming it to be too difficult. I always mention they have a range of options:

Watching a film in Spanish with English subtitles  will help them compare and analyse lexical and structural similarities and differences in English and Spanish with a focus on the written form

Watching a film in English with Spanish subtitles will help them compare and analyse lexical and structural similarities and differences in English and Spanish with a focus on the spoken form

Watching a film in English with English subtitles will help them compare and analyse the written and spoken forms of individual words, phrases and grammatical structures in English

Watching a film in English with no subtitles will help them deal with listening in real time when the listener has little choice but to interpret the utterances of the speaker based on their understanding of the context and situation, their reading of the paralinguistic clues being offered, and their functional knowledge of linguistic forms being used.

So, next time a student tells you that watching movies in the original language is too difficult, why not discuss this range of options with them? Mention that they can turn subtitles on and off and switch languages throughout the film depending on their cognitive energy levels.

Use the analogy of training for a marathon: at the beginning, people do lots of walking and brief bursts of runing but the ratio changes as running becomes habitual until finally they don’t need to walk to finish the race.


By training themselves to watch films in English, our students will progressively improve their listening skills and before long they will be able to understand individual scenes and eventually entire films with little or no recourse to Spanish subtitles.

Don’t forget to guess the titles of the original films. Some of them are as ridiculous as the American version of Abre los Ojos. What does Vanilla Sky mean anyway?

Posted in English language

Bad English

I’ve recently participated in an online discussion about “corruptions in the English language”. Here are a few of the “corruptions” which raise the ire of some of the contributors and some from discussions I’ve had with teachers over the years:


“should of” instead of “should have”

the insertion of “like” into every utterance

the word “irregardless”

confusion over less and fewer

I’m loving it

saying advertisement rather than advertisement

gotten instead of got

angry man
Incorrect English drives me crazy

Now, I don’t consider myself a complete linguistic libertarian but I am surprised when:

Some people (mainly Brits, talk about some of the disgusting Americanisms that have entered our wonderful rich English (belongs to the English right!) tongue.

Some people work themselves into a frenzy about the heinous use of less when  fewer must be used. I wonder if communication has ever broken down because of this confusion?

Some people mutter darkly about how young people are degrading the language with their new expressions and how this is symptomatic of the end of Western civilization as we know it. I’m sure these people never used expressions like “cool” or “groovy” or “hip” when they were young. It would be scandalous of me to suggest that they spoke anything other than the Queen’s English when they were spotty, hormonally imbalanced teenagers.

Excuse the heavy-handed sarcasm. It’s just that I get worked up by other people getting so worked up about the way other people choose to express themselves.

business man with laptop over head - mad
10 items or less….aaarrrggghhhh!!!

In his fascinating read The Unfolding of Language, Guy Deutscher talks about how language change results from three tendencies:

economy  – the tendency to save effort

expressiveness  – our tendency to strive towards achieving greater effect and meaning for our utterances

analogy – our craving for order and regularity in the language.

Teacher Pointing at Map of World
English is an International Language

So, if we look at the corruptions mentioned earlier, we might be able to discover why they are used:

‘Innit’ seems to me to represent an attempt to be economical. Many languages have simple equivalents to question tag such as ‘yes’ or ‘no’. How much easier is it to say ‘You will come to my party, yeah?” than “You will come to my party, won’t you?”

‘Should of’ instead of ‘should have’ in spoken English surely derives from our tendency towards phonological economy. Pronouncing the ‘h’ in ‘have’ after the modal verb ‘should’ requires a lot more effort than eliding it (I do agree that it’s absolutely wrong, if understandable, to use ‘should of’ in written communication).

Using ‘like’ probably derives from our attempt to be more expressive: to engage the listener and prepare them for our next utterance  A discourse marker used to inform the listener that we are about to say something of importance.

It was… like… absolutely awesome, bro’.

Irregardless, a blend of irrespective and regardless, probably results from analogy. The fact that this word is so frequently used suggests that the two original terms are semantically similar and we are not always sure about which one to use. We hedge our bets by using ‘irregardless’. It’s better to be partially wrong and partially right than fully wrong.

I wonder if the confusion over ‘less’ and ‘fewer‘ is also a result of our tendency towards analogy. I’ve been teaching countable and uncountable nouns to English language students and trainee teachers for years and nobody ever fully gets it. He eats less chocolate than his brother but his brother ate fewer chocolates last night. Using one word (less) and keeping the other (fewer) in the last century is an option I would seriously consider.

‘I’m loving it’, a phrase which irritates the hell out of me , does offer a more immediate and dynamic option than the present simple stative form. A classic case of expressiveness.

Advertisement and advertisement is probably a combination of economy and analogy. I’d imagine that the verb ‘advertise’ has grown in popularity in the last few decades and this has influenced our pronunciation of the noun form. Not to mention the influence of those pesky Americans and their economical use of English.

union jack
British English
USA flag
American English

The final item, ‘gotten’ instead of’ got’, often gets up the noses of us Brits and we fume about how our cousins over the pond have corrupted our language. Well, most linguists agree that English had two past participle forms of the verb ‘to get’ and the American kept both and the Brits discarded the gotten form. So, it appears that we ‘corrupted’ the language due to our tendency to economise (or is it economize) it.

Well, that brings me to the end of this post. I’m the same as everybody else and get irritated when people use English in a way I think it should not be used. I do think that we have to be alert to the use of corruptions in the language if meaning is not conveyed successfully. On the other hand, non-standard forms are used among members of different social-linguistic groups for reasons we may not be aware of.

Young people can’t speak English these days!

As Henry Hitchings writes in ‘The Language Wars’:

People who use standard English allege that those who fail to do so lack linguistic ability, but in reality people using stigmatized forms of English may have complex abilities as speakers – incomprehensible to many observers but powerful among their peers.

Please send me your ‘favourite’ corruptions.

Posted in English language, Spanish learners

5 reasons why Spanish are (or could be) good at learning English – according to an English teacher

As ’tis the season to be jolly‘, I’d like to begin this post on a positive note:

Actually, Spanish are or should be good at learning English for the following reasons:

Roots of English
Roots of English

Firstly, many words in English and Spanish share etymological roots. In other words, there are masses of Spanish and English cognates (maybe 40%). Spaniards have a fairly good chance of correctly guessing the meaning of a new lexical item for this reason. Sure, there are lots of false friends but they are not as numerous as the number of cognates or near cognates. Grammatical structures in the two languages – such as time and aspect – are not as dissimilar as between, for example, Hungarian and Thai, so communicative breakdown due to incorrect or inaccurate grammar can generally be resolved through reformulation.

Jobs for English speakers
Jobs for English speakers

Secondly, Spanish need to learn English. They are highly motivated (instrumental and increasingly integrative) and not only to pass exams. Young Spanish do not see their short-term future in Spain and are increasingly looking to go abroad to find work. In order to do so, they realise a good level of English is a major advantage and are opting to gain internationally recognised qualifications such as the FCE or CAE in favour of local exams which are not acknowledged abroad. Furthermore, in order to study at universities in Spain, it is now necessary to have a B1/B2 level in English. More money for the Cambridge coffers! The other point to mention here is that – perhaps for the first time ever – lots of Spanish speakers are able to communicate effectively in a second language from outside the Iberian peninsula. Positive role models are everywhere!

tv spanish learning english

Thirdly, Spanish can now watch TV shows in the original language. OK, this is not really an intrinsic quality that Spaniards possess but their love of ‘the idiot box’ means they can use it to improve their English. Lower level learners can listen to English and read Spanish subtitles if they wish and advanced students can challenge themselves and listen without a safety net. Constant exposure to the sound of English can only have a positive effect on speaking and listening skills, areas which were -until recently  – neglected in the teaching of English in Spain. Online or on TV, English is everywhere. As mentioned in a previous post, many Latin Americans have a better phonological awareness of English than most Spaniards. Well, watch this space – Spanish will catch up in no time.

Spain - still number 1 destination for Brits abroad
Spain – still number 1 destination for Brits abroad

Next reason, Spain is still an extremely attractive location for native English speakers. The country is full of Brits living it up in the sun and Americans living out their Hemingway fantasies. There are lots of English speakers in the big cities, a smattering in smaller towns, and, due to books such as ‘Driving over Lemons’, lots of older Brits living in the country. So finding teachers or language exchange partners is fairly easy. It’s a lot easier to have a beer with a Brit in Alicante than Algiers.


Finally, Spanish love to talk. Quickly, loudly, enthusiastically, forcefully. Once they have overcome their fear of embarrassment (el miedo al ridiculo), they love to converse in English. Remember the tertulia (a social gathering to discuss anything and everything) is an important feature in Spanish social and cultural life (just watch TV in the morning) and Spanish students, in my experience, really enjoy discussion activities, role-plays and giving presentations. You’ll find the most challenging part of setting up a speaking task will be ending it! Buy a Klaxon.

Can you think of any other reasons why Spanish should actually be successful learners of English?

Posted in English language, Spanish learners

5 reasons why Spanish are bad at learning English (according to some Spanish friends)

There I was, having a copa (Rum and Coke) on Sunday evening with some Spanish friends and a chap from Chile. There were a couple of smokers in the group so we huddled around a table with a heater when one of them asked me how to say ‘Bufanda‘ in English.


Before I could respond, the Chilean calmly uttered the word ‘scarf‘. His pronunciation was clear, there was no attempt to insert an ‘e’ sound before the ‘f’ and, unlike most Granadinos, he managed to form the consonant cluster ‘rf’ at the end of the word. The locals laughed and, buoyed  by the alcohol in their bloodstream, attempted to say this new word in English.

After 2 long and painful minutes of listening to repeated versions of ‘escar’, I had to stop them, write the word on a serviette and teach them how to say it. They gave up immediately and reverted to Spanish but used the incident as a launchpad for an extended conversation about the reasons why Spanish are bad at English.

According to most studies, there are fewer English speakers in Spain than in most other European countries. This survey suggests only 18% of Spanish speak 2 languages (compared to the EU average of 25% but better than us Brits with 14%)

Reason 1: Most of their English classes were taught in Spanish by Spanish speakers. A few of them had attended classes taught by native speakers and groaned about how difficult it was to be immersed in an English speaking environment. However, they all agreed being forced to communicate in English was a good thing to improve their speaking and listening skills but didn’t remember doing much, if any, unscripted conversation in class.

Reason 2: Native speaker teachers couldn’t answer their grammar questions. Learning about the finer points of English grammar was considered essential by a couple of people around the table. One was adamant that English grammar had to be explained by comparing and contrasting it with Spanish grammar. She really didn’t see how it could be learned any other way. When I mentioned (in Spanish of course) that people learn languages without formal grammar tuition, she looked at me as if I had suggested that we finish our drinks and go off and smoke some crack. Then again, I know some native speaker English teachers here who think a relative clause is Father Christmas’s aunt!

Reason 3: El miedo al ridiculo. After the next round of drinks arrived, my Spanish friends started to get a bit maudlin. They were ashamed of their poor English and didn’t want to look foolish in front of their peers. They identified this as a uniquely Spanish psychological trait. I got to thinking about the Spanish people I know who profess to have excellent English and wondered why they rarely speak to me in English. Indeed, they generally ask for tips about improving it but always speak in Spanish.

Reason 4: The ‘Oposiciones’ mentality. We were all now starting to shed our inhibitions. One of the group started to rage about oposiciones (public exams you need to pass to work for the state) and how the Spanish educational system encourages rote learning and memorisation of factual knowledge at the expense of developing critical thinking skills. She said that the main obstacle was getting Spanish people to see English as a tool for life and not just something to be used in order to increase your chances of being a funcionario (civil servants but this includes state school teachers, nurses and judges).

Reason 5: Version original (V.O). Remember the Chilean chap with the excellent English. Well, I asked him how things had changed in Chile because I went there in 2001 and don’t recall meeting any English speakers. He informed us that although Chileans studied English at kindergarten, he felt the main reason why Chileans spoke better English than Spanish was that films and TV shows were subtitled but not dubbed in Chile. He had grown up hearing English. The intonation, phonemes and stress patterns in the language were not unfamiliar to him. Unlike Spanish political leaders from Franco onwards…

All of us were fairly drunk by now, cheered by the beers and copas and the festive spirit in the air. Surprisingly, when I wished them ‘Feliz Navidad’, they were all happy to respond in English.

OK, they said ‘Merry Chrimas’ and avoided the ‘st’ consonant cluster, but at least they tried.

So, what do you think? It would be good to hear from you.

What other reasons might there be for Spanish struggling with English?

Are Spanish poor at English or is this a myth?

Posted in Thoughts about TEFL Teaching

5 best books for TEFL teachers

A former trainee asked me which TEFL books she should buy to improve her teaching. Naturally, I admonished her for not having bought my best-selling ebook A Short Guide to TEFL (shameless plug) but she promised me that she would and I dutifully went home and inspected my bookcase.

Over the years, I’ve amassed about 150 TEFL books. Before you think I’m some sort of TEFL geek – that is if you don’t already – I must tell you that I had to buy about 30 books to do my DELTA Diploma and another 30 for my MA. The other point in my defence is that a week after beginning my MA, I walked past a charity shop in my home town and saw a table bending under the weight of a mountain of old TEFL tomes dating back to the 80s and 90s, a time when some of you weren’t even twinkles. Anyway, I bought the lot for about £5 and about 25% were really informative and the others were gainfully employed to prop up table legs, to help me reach a can of baked beans on the top shelf, or as a sleeping aid.

So, in today’s post, I’d like to tell you about my 5 favourite TEFL books.

At number 5, we have Teaching Unplugged by Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings. As you may have guessed from previous posts, the whole Dogme / Unplugged approach really interests me and this book explains the methodology and has a collection of lesson ideas and activities for teaching who want to live in the moment in the classroom.

Teaching Unplugged by Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings

Number 4 is Learning Teaching by Jim Scrivener. This is a guide for new teachers but old hands will learn lots too. There’s some easy-to-digest methodology and a plethora of teaching ideas and and activities. This book really helps the reflective teacher who wants to develop their skills.

Learning Teaching by Jim Scrivener

My 3rd favourite TEFL book is written by our old friend Scott Thornbury, appearing for the second time on the list. An A-Z of ELT is perfect for those teachers who are bamboozled by all the jargon in TEFL teaching. The book consists of short entries for key topics and terms in ELT, just the thing to help you remember the difference between inductive or deductive learning or which order the different stages in the PPP model come in.

An A – Z of ELT by Scott Thornbury

At number 2, I finally, after much soul searching, decided to plump for 700 Classroom Activities by David Seymour and Maria Popova. I love this book because it gives you ideas for lessons based around grammar items or vocabulary topics. So, if you’re stumped and can’t think of an activity to get your students using the Past Continuous, you’ll find ideas in this book. Great for those days when you have to plan your class in five minutes.

700 Classroom Activities

So, here’s what you’ve been waiting for. Wait for drum roll. I’m opening the envelope and about to announce the winner.

And, without further ado, my favourite TEFL book is:

Practical English Usage by Michael Swan. This book is – to quote the blurb on the back – the indispensable reference book on language problems in English for teachers and higher -level learners. Before buying this book, I used to wake up in a cold sweat because I had to teach the Past Perfect Continuous or indirect speech to a group of grammar obsessed Advanced level students. This book always saved my bacon. It’s easy to navigate and the grammar explanations are practical and pedagogically sound. Of all the books mentioned, this one helped me develop the confidence to teach some fairly complex linguistic items.

Practical English Usage by Michael Swan

So, what about you? What books would you recommend for aspiring or practising TEFL teachers? Are you looking for a type of book but don’t know how to find it? Let me know.

Posted in Thoughts about TEFL Teaching

Talking ’bout a Revolution Part 3 of 3: Teaching Unplugged

In the previous two posts in this mini-series, we looked at movements in music and cinema which attempted to challenge the hegemonic (dominant) power in these two fields.

A similar movement sprang up in the world of English Language Teaching about a decade ago. Taking its name from the Danish collective, the Dogme approach – inspired by an article by Scott Thornbury – posed a challenge to prevailing trends in ELT which extolled the virtues of using increasingly sophisticated materials and resources.


This approach, also known as Teaching Unplugged, has 3 core values:

  1. Dogme is about teaching that is conversation-driven
  2. Dogme is about teaching that is materials-light
  3. Dogme is about teaching that focuses on emergent language

Some common questions or fears from teachers include:

How can teachers work without a course book?

Where will the materials for the lesson come from?

What happens if the conversation stream runs dry?

A possible answer to these questions might result from a change of mindset.

Do you think that course books are the repositories of knowledge and that learning occurs in the transference of information from the course book to the learner?

Brains and knowledge

What about the notion that the learners are the repositories of knowledge and what we should do as teachers is help our studies convey their own ideas to others?

Our learners need to use English to communicate with people who do not speak their first language. They need to develop communicative strategies (paraphrasing, substitution, paralinguistic gestures, language switching, coining new words) in order to express ideas and opinions and share their experiences with the listener. By focusing on their emergent language, teachers can directly address their linguistic issues, problems with grammatical form, lexical choice or phonological difficulties.

This is not to say that course books are not able to address our learners’ needs. Publishing companies clearly spend time on money researching learner needs and developing activities to meet them. However, it is the teacher who is at the coal face, directly engaged in the operations of language learning and is required to respond to the needs of learners in the lesson, between lessons and during a course of study.

Think of ‘unplugged’ teachers as stealth units, able to deal quickly and with surgical precision with any issues that arise in the classroom.

Now, I am aware that as a teacher trainer, I could be accused of living in an ‘ivory tower’ and that unplugged teaching doesn’t work with Spanish learners.

So, please let me know what you think? Can this approach work in Spanish academies? Have you tried it? How did the learners respond?

If you are interested in finding out some more about Teaching Unplugged and Dogme, listen to the man himself, Scott Thornbury, discussing the approach: