Everything, Anything, Something, Nothing

Everything, Anything, Something, Nothing


“If you can’t do everything, do something.”

In the words of Mother Theresa of Calcutta, who has been recently declared a saint, minimal goals are better than no goals. Sometimes, when we think we cannot achieve everything, we do nothing. Mother Theresa devoted her life to feeding the poor on the streets of Calcutta, India. As she said on another occasion:

“If you can’t feed one hundred people, feed one, then another, then another.”

How does this relate to English language teaching? Should we attempt to teach everything? If we can’t teach everything, what should we teach? Does every learner of English as a foreign language aspire to achieve native speaker equivalency? Of course not.

How can we define the slices of English which are most useful for our students to learn?

Dr. Michael West[1]

In Britain’s colonial past, teachers were sent overseas in order to teach local people to become clerical workers, post office workers and minor colonial administrators. A knowledge of English, alongside their fluency in the local language was seen to be essential for these rôles.

In 1919, Michael West joined the Indian Education Service and was appointed to the province of Bengal (now Bangladesh). On arrival, West examined the educational materials, the teaching and the results. He found that the school lessons were not effective and that many students abandoned their courses before reaching Matriculation stage.

The lessons consisted of a number of reading texts often about British Kings and Queens or taken from English literature. Students were asked to ‘prepare’ at text using help from an elder brother before the lesson. During the lesson students would be asked to read long passages aloud, before the teacher would ‘go through’ the text explaining difficult words. At that time, the English-only Direct Method was in fashion. English teachers from Britain would attempt to coax their students through these reading texts before translating or answering comprehension questions. Then students could move to a higher level and another reading text.

Many students would abandon their studies before Matriculation because they could not pay for the lessons, because of changes in family circumstances, because they wanted to get married, or because the lessons were neither interesting nor useful. Too many students failed to reach Matriculation level and West felt that without achieving this level, their earlier efforts were wasted and useless.

From the world of business, West introduced the idea of “surrender value”. If a student only achieved level 2, what was the student able to accomplish with that language? Significantly, what more was the student able to accomplish after achieving level 3 or 4?

Michael West’s research led to the publication of the New Method English Readers[2] series which contained fables, animal stories, fairy tales and other simple stories. Although these were popular and were re-published by Longman around the world, Michael West wished that the texts had more practical value with titles such as ‘How to repair a plough’, ‘Fertilise your land’, ‘Crop rotation’ or ‘How to stay healthy’.

Michael West’s later work included the first dictionary[3] for learners of English and his involvement in The General Service List of English Words [4]which listed the 2,000 most frequent words in English.

Surrender value

Considering the period and context of Michael West’s work, surrender value should be considered amongst his most influential achievements. If you cannot teach everything, then teach something and that ‘something’ should be of practical value for the learner.

Common European Framework of Reference

Moving forward to the creation of the European Community, one of the Community’s key aims was the free movement of labour. This required the harmonisation of professional qualifications and definitions of language competence.

By this time, we had overcome the confusion of competence with knowledge. Teaching syllabi were less grammar based and more functional and through functionalism, our focus moved from knowledge to communicative competence. But early functional texts were hindered by their complex meta language. There are two tables in the room became ‘describing the existence of objects within a defined space’. The Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR), with its inventory of ‘can do’ statements, replaced the vague terms Beginner, Elementary and Intermediate with six clearly defined levels of competence. It became easier to describe the ‘something’ which learners might achieve.

Of course, the CEFR is not a magic bullet. It was designed to describe the language competence of working adults; it was not written as a teaching syllabus. The CEFR was created for the national boards creating language exams. It was for testers, not teachers.

The beauty of the CEFR and the ‘can do’ statements is that the levels and statements can be applied to English, French, Flemish, Hungarian or any other language because they describe human activity rather than language knowledge.


Returning to our original theme, we know that we cannot teach the entirety of the English language, but the small part which we can teach, should of practical use to our learners.

[1] See Warwick University ELT Archive

[2] New Method English Readers Longman Calcutta 1927

[3] West Endicott, New Method English Dictionary Longman 1936

[4] The General Service List of English Words, Longman 1953




Plastic brains and the bilingual child

Plastic brains and the bilingual child


Babies are born with unformed, plastic brains. Their brains are ‘formed’ by their environment. A baby with a blind father, will grow up with all the skills to accommodate this situation. A baby who grows up in a family in which two different languages are used will also develop to match this environment.

Compared with adults, babies are extremely fortunate to have this mental flexibility. When adults try to learn a foreign language, they struggle to accommodate this new language in brains which have been formed and fixed by the lexical and grammatical systems of their mother tongue. Adults have difficulty in learning foreign languages because their brains are inflexible and not plastic.

‘Normal’ is the pattern we experienced as children, so using a foreign language is abnormal and feels unnatural. For the bilingual child, the use of more than one language is normal and natural.

Developing and ageing brains

Childhood exploration and discovery, combined with early education, form the young child’s brain into a configuration which is suitable for their environment. As the child grows into adolescence, adulthood and old age their brains become less plastic and less able to adapt to new environments.

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

This proverbial saying is a recognition of this loss of plasticity. The dog may be highly intelligent and may have learnt a variety of complex skills, but as the dog gets older it becomes more difficult to learn new patterns of behaviour.

As we grow older, we become ‘set in our ways’, our brains are more solid and less capable of adapting to new situations. In the film 2001, a space odyssey, the super computer HAL reverts to infancy as its processing circuits are gradually disconnected. In a poignant moment, the voice of HAL begins to sing: “Daisy, Daisy, Give me you answer, do” – the first song, which the computer had learned to sing after its construction.

“A sapling will bend in the wind, but an adult tree will be felled by a gale.”

As Herbert Puchta has said, babies are born with enormous potential computing power, but with no software and no instructions. Everyone who has tried to comfort a crying child, wishes that the child was fitted with a switch to reboot the child’s system software, in order to eliminate the problem.

Education and teaching

Educators are all software engineers. In schools, we attempt to install calculators and word processing programs in each child’s brain. We may also install maps, databases, security software and other programs which extend the potential of the child’s super computer. We help to create the child’s educational identity. But, with each new software programme we install, the child’s brain becomes more solid, but also less flexible.

Teachers teach what is possible, but also teach what is impossible. By being taught that certain things are impossible, we contribute to the destruction of the child’s creativity. By teaching that seven plus six does not equal twelve, we create limits on the child’s thinking. By teaching that giraffe exist but unicorns do not, we make the child’s brain more solid, less flexible and less elastic.


In Better English Pronunciation, J. D. O’Connor suggested that English children’s brains contained about forty-four ‘boxes’ representing forty-four distinct phonemes in English – so there in a box for /b/, a box for /ch/ and a box for /tch/ and so on. Connor suggested that when English people hear the sounds of a foreign language, they try to fit the sounds they into the forty-four boxes which they already know.

Many languages do not contain the two ‘th’ sounds heard in “That thing” so we will frequently hear learners saying “Zat sing” or “Dat ting”. They cannot find the appropriate phoneme from their mother tongue and so they use the nearest equivalent sound. Bilinguals do not have this problem and their accents mirror native speakers in all their languages.

Bilingual children and pronunciation

If you listen to the noises which babies make, in the babbling stage, before they can speak, you may notice that they create all the noises from all the languages in the world. At the babbling stage, the babies are experimenting with the capabilities of their lips, tongues, teeth and vocal chords. Babies can create all the phonemes required for all the languages in the world but, as they begin to learn their mother tongue, they forget most of this potential and start to create the phonemic boxes for their mother tongue.

Comfortable trilingualism

I recently spent a day with my great nephews, aged 8 and 10. They have an English-speaking mother and a French-speaking father. They live in Germany, where the boys are attending normal state primary school. The boys function happily in three languages and code-switch with ease. I was amazed by their fluency, accuracy and creativity in English. The boys had just returned from a summer break with their French cousins, where they had played and interacted with no hesitation or sense of language barrier. I gather that they are also progressing well at their German primary school.

This experience reminded me of the amazing power, flexibility and plasticity of young minds.

These boys will not only have the advantage of three languages, they will benefit from closeness to three cultures, each with a great literary heritage, musical catalogue and political history.

And now the good news

Recent research into ageing and Alzheimer’s disease has shown that brains which operate in more than one language retain cognitive functions for longer and are least likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s.

Declaration of interest

I am not a parent but I have had a life-long interest in child language development. The anecdotal evidence used in this article has been supplied by my relatives and friends who have bilingual children, and supported by my own observations. On hearing that I was preparing an article about language development in children, my consultant neurologist, Dr Jane Anderson said “Ah, plastic brains!”

Nick Dawson 2016


What’s so bad about the EU?


Individually, we are all weak. We gain strength by being members of groups. Some groups we join by inheritance, some are imposed on us, and some are joined by choice. We may like some groups but hate being members of others.

In each group we make contributions and also receive support from the group. The balance between contributions and support is the main influence on how much we value the group. But this balance is a perception. It cannot be calculated. Are we ‘good’ group members? Do we place a high value on the group?

First groups

Our first group is our family. We cannot choose our families; our parents, our siblings or our offspring. We cannot select our position in the family, whether we are the first born, second born or the youngest. We cannot choose our gender. Each family member will have different strengths, weaknesses, interests and phobias. By growing up in a family, we learn to accept and exploit these differences. Our next group is a gang which may include siblings, but more usually, individuals of a similar age. Gangs have leaders, inspirers, creators and pawns. Each gang member has a role within the gang. As the gang matures, the individuals who occupy each role may change, but we are, at least subconsciously, aware of our role within the gang. When we begin formal schooling, we are placed in a class, a larger group of individuals. Each class will contain fast learners, slower learners, leaders, plodders, comedians, musicians, and storytellers. As we grow into the class structure, we each find our role. When we get involved in organised sports, we may become a member of a team. Every team contains individuals who have different roles; the fast runners become the wings, the more muscular and aggressive players become the forwards, the quieter, more static team members become defenders.

Fitting in

From birth, we each learn how to fit in with groups. As a member of a group, we have to sacrifice some degree of individual choice, in order to survive within the group. This sacrifice is not made without problems. If you are the first born child, you are the centre of your parents’ attention for a year or so. When the second child arrives, the first born often resents the attention given to the new child. The first born feels not only starved of attention but jealous of the new born intruder, who has ‘stolen’ so much parental attention and love. The first born may attack the new sibling or treat the baby as a pet or new plastic toy.

The experience of growing up within a family strengthens each individual’s personality by teaching us to accept a new role and ‘fit in’ with the group. Infant school teachers will have noticed that children from large families are much better at fitting in with the class dynamic. They know how to sacrifice their individual choice, how to accept their role, they know how to share, accept responsibility and care for others.

Sports coaches often use the phrase, “There’s no ‘I’ in team.” This is not spelling advice. It is an instruction to each player that they must sacrifice their individuality for the benefit of the team. Teams play together, not to make individuals into ‘stars’, they play for the overall success of the team.


When we get a job, we become employees. Every business will have some form of hierarchy. Many boys’ first employment involves delivering newspapers. They do not write or edit the newspapers, they do not collect money from the people who buy the newspapers. Customers will not blame the paper boy for the headline which offends their opinions. The owner of the newspaper shop will not blame the paper boy for a customer’s failure to pay their weekly bill. This is not part of a paper boy’s role.

A newspaper boy’s role involves punctuality and reliability. A boy, who is often late or only arrives for work occasionally, gets into trouble. When a boy accepts the role of paper boy, he sacrifices the freedom to work only when he chooses. Each role involves both benefits and responsibilities. If we want to enjoy the benefits of being a group member, we each need to sacrifice a degree of individual choice.

What is the connection between all this and the European Union? Like a family, a gang, a school class or a business, the European Union includes countries with different characteristics. They have different dimensions, locations, landscapes and histories. As a members of the European Union, we share scientific research, cultural experience and concepts of human rights. Our member benefits come in the form of strength through numbers. Without paying any tariffs, we can buy goods from other members and sell goods to other members. The European Union is a very powerful economic group.

So why isn’t the European Union a happy family?

Who is unhappy?

Many governments, political parties and individual voters are unhappy as members of the European Union. They do not want to accept the EU rules. They do not feel that these rules are operating to their individual advantage. Like players in a sports team, who think they should be individual ‘stars’, they are less interested in the team’s success than their personal glory and fame.

There are tensions in all families. According to the rules of the European Union, all member nations are equal but, like the ruling pigs in Animal Farm, some groups feel that some nations should be more equal than others.


Like many member nations of the European Union, Britain is divided into many administrative counties. If you remove the letter ‘R’ from country, you get county. In many ways, the organisation of counties in Britain is very similar to the organisation of nations in the European Union. Counties differ, some are largely rural, earning their money from agriculture; some counties are predominately urban, earning their money from factories and offices. Some counties are densely populated but others are more sparsely populated. British counties differ in their wealth and their need for financial support — just like the different nations of the European Union.

In Britain, we enjoy free movement of labour between counties. Workers from Derbyshire can find work in Essex and people from Kent can exploit the lower house prices in Cumbria. These county migrants may initially feel slightly alien in their new homes, but very quickly, they are accepted and integrate with the local community.

European union

The European Union should operate together with the same flexibility as the counties of Britain. Since Britain joined the European Union in 1963, it has repeatedly attempted to claim special status, asking for rebates on contributions or non-compliance with community laws and decisions.

The EU was started by France and Germany to avoid a repeat of the death and destruction of two world wars. Winston Churchill felt that Britain and the British Empire did not need European friends. After the European Community had started and many British colonies had become independent, there was renewed interest in Britain joining the community. The charismatic President of France, General de Gaulle, resisted British entry. He felt that Britain was too close to the United States and was not ‘truly European’. He was always suspicious of the power of the Anglo-Saxon nations and in talks about British entry to the European Community, de Gaulle always said Non!

After de Gaulle’s retirement, the new British PM, Edward Heath, began negotiations for entry. Unusually the British Government held a referendum to ask voters if they were in favour of entry. A large majority voted in favour and Britain joined the European Community in 1967. But many people in Britain felt that the nation had lost national sovereignty because new laws and trade conditions were decided by the members of the European Community and not by the politicians in Westminster. There was the feeling that rules concerning agriculture favoured the small, ‘inefficient’ French farms and damaged the larger, ‘more efficient’ British farms. There were complaints that Spanish fishermen were fishing for ‘our fish’ in the North Sea. People believed that some European regulations were illogical. Some said that European regulation only permitted the sale of only straight bananas.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, many ex-communist countries have become members of the European Union. Romania does not have the same economic strength as Germany. The European Union needs to help some new members, but they have always supported the weaker members. We have lost sight of the fact the purpose of the Union was to avoid war.

We all know about selfish, whining children who will not comply with family conventions. They are fussy eaters. They want to control the TV remote and decide when they should go to bed. Members of the European Community began to feel that Britain was rather like these selfish, whining children. If we review the behaviour of British governments since 1967, we would have to agree that these members are correct.


Britain is a small, wet island in the North Sea on the edge of the European continent. We are an island nation, many people think we are not part of from continental Europe. The people who want to leave the European Union seem to imagine that Britain is still the ‘great’ nation that it was in the middle of the 19th century when Queen Victoria ruled nearly 25% of the world. The country was then immensely rich and powerful, the British navy ruled the waves. After the industrial revolution, British industries were renowned for their quality but the industrial revolution was only possible because industries were able to sell their products across the enormous British Empire.

The world has changed, the British navy has few ships. Although Britain has nuclear weapons, it cannot afford the aeroplanes, submarines or missiles to deliver them. British manufacturing industry has collapsed. Germans, Japanese and Koreans build much better motor cars than can be built in Britain. For a few years, the British economy benefitted from the discovery of oil and gas in the North Sea but that resource is now running out. Britain is a small country, we NEED friends.

Nick Dawson 2016


TESTING: The Great Dilemma

TESTING – the great dilemma


It is generally agreed that testing is a necessary and valuable part of any educational process, but it should be recognized that testing is only an administrative process. Testing may create educational benefits, but these are just spin-offs from the administrative process. Testing, followed by remedial teaching can identify and solve learning problems, but the main purpose of testing is administration. Testing may also reveal limitations in the teaching process, but this is not their purpose, the purpose is administrative – plain and simple.

Why do administrators like tests? – Because tests convert the complex learning process into simple numbers which can be written in a book or loaded on to a computer. Administrators like tests because they ‘separate the sheep from the goats’, they allow administrators to apply labels to learners and sort them into groups.


Achievement tests frequently have pass grades, which allows administrators to label learners as ‘successes’ or ‘failures’. Once these labels are written in books or recorded on computers, they can have devastating effects on a learner’s motivation for future learning and future progress. The labels also influence teachers. If a learner is labelled as a failure, that learner will not be asked challenging questions or given challenging work assignments. In a class context, the teacher will always tend to direct challenging questions to learners who have been labelled as ‘successes’. The ‘failures’ will sit quietly at the back of the classroom and make little progress.

The ‘failure’ label is a guarantee of future failure.

Tests are dangerous weapons

Many hours of valuable learning time are devoted to preparing for tests. Tests interrupt the learning process and should be used sparingly. A livestock farmer remarked:

You do not fatten a pig by weighing it every day.”

Time which is devoted to testing or preparing for tests, is time which is often lost from learning. Educational administrators and schools are encouraging teachers to test more and more frequently, but, as the farmer would say, “This does not fatten the pig.”

Of course, educating a child is not the same as fattening a pig. When we educate a child, we do not just attempt to fill the child’s head with knowledge. It’s true that instilling knowledge is part of the educational process, but training and inspiring the child to use and exploit that knowledge in new and original ways, is equally important.

Education is not filling a jug, but lighting a fire.”

Early testing

The British Ministry of Education wants to test children at the age of 3 or 4, before they start school. The aim of this may be to identify potential educational problems, before the child starts school. These ‘educational problems’ may take many different forms. English may not be the main language of the home which means that the child will be at a disadvantage compared with others in the class. The home may be unstimulating, so that the child entering school may be unfamiliar with conversation with adults or unfamiliar with books or other learning materials. The child may be an only child who has not encountered and played with other children and this social deprivation will have educational consequences in the early years.

Identifying these potential educational problems is a very good idea, which most teachers would support, but the early tests carry the danger that children will become labelled as ‘failures,’ before they have even started school.

This trend towards early testing is also taking place in the U.S.A. On his Facebook page, Professor Stephen Krashen has written frequently about these dangers. The pattern of early testing is being followed in many other countries. Everywhere, learners are being asked to do more and more tests. Teachers are spending more of their limited teaching hours on preparing for, and administering, these tests. The tests create stress for teachers, parents and learners, but who benefits from these tests?

What can we learn from tests?

The results of these tests usually confirm what the teacher already knows. The good teacher, who has been working with the child, and monitoring her/his progress already knows each child’s capability and potential. The only test results which really matter, are the unexpected test results.

An unexpected test result is a warning alarm for the teacher.

Learners produce unexpected test results when:

  1. The learner is distressed, distracted or unwell on the day of the test [so the test result is not a true reflection of the learner’s usual ability.]
  2. The learner has copied from another learner [so the test result is inaccurate.]
  3. The test instructions (rubrics) are too difficult for the learner to understand [so the test result is inaccurate.]
  4. The learner has not been given enough time to complete the test [so the test result is inaccurate.]
  5. The test does not reflect the style or content of previous teaching [so the test result is inaccurate.]

In five out of six cases, the unexpected result has been created by failures in the test or administration, rather than failures by the learner.


Testing is part of the process of constant monitoring of each learner’s learning progress. This monitoring involves many different activities:

  1. Noting the learner’s responses to questions from the teacher.
  2. Noting the learner’s responses to questions from other learners.
  3. Noting the learner’s questions addressed to the teacher.
  4. Noting the learner’s questions addressed to other learners.
  5. Grading the learner’s performance in role-play, games and other activities.
  6. Noting the learner’s eye-contact and body language during lessons.
  7. Noting and grading the learner’s performance in writing, drawing and other paper-based activities.
  8. Noting and grading the learner’s performance and involvement in both intensive and extensive listening, reading and viewing.
  9. Noting the learner’s social development and linguistic behaviour in class.
  10. Noting and grading the learner’s general motivation, progress and willingness to learn from mistakes.

All of these factors should inform the teacher’s assessment of a learner’s learning progress. No test can attempt to measure all these factors, so, in general, always believe the teacher rather than the test.

Testing and then…?

A lot of words have been devoted to preparation for tests, administration of tests, writing and grading of tests, but very little has been said about the important work which should follow on from a test.

For all their limitations, good tests can often reveal weaknesses in language skills, failures to understand and failures to remember. The most valuable part of a test is the remedial teaching and learning which should follow any test.

The same again, or something different?

Weaknesses or failures in the learning process indicate that the earlier teaching procedures have failed. Remedial learners do not need a repetition of these unsuccessful teaching procedures.

Hang on, my teaching procedures are excellent! It’s just that the students are lazy!

Your teaching procedures may be superb, but the test results suggest that the learners have not learnt as a result of your teaching. Maybe your teaching was too fast for the learners. Maybe your teaching tasks were too challenging. Maybe the topic you chose for your teaching was uninteresting for the learners. Whatever the cause, your remedial learners need something different – not a repetition of the same lessons.

Something different

There are many different ways to learn and the tests show that your remedial learners have acquired a partial, but incomplete, understanding of the skill, concept or body of knowledge which you were trying to teach. So they have some basic understanding or knowledge from which you can build. You are not starting from zero. You might try some of these alternatives:

  1. Present the material in a different medium – as a mime or a role play game, as a video, computer game, picture, song, rhyme or listening activity.
  2. Let the learners have greater participation in the learning process by involving them in graded creative activities.
  3. Prompt learners to compare the English language task with parallel tasks in their own language. Draw attention to similarities and differences.
  4. Since you have a class of learners with different levels of understanding, try peer-to-peer (student to student) teaching and learning in groups or with learning buddies.
  5. Invite remedial learners to become ‘monitors’ observing and listening to other learners working on communication tasks or practice activities.
  6. Invite individuals or groups to prepare lessons followed by informal quizzes.

Who needs remedial work?

Teachers often avoid doing remedial work by saying that they do not have time to provide individual instruction. As we can see above, remedial work can involve the whole class. Experience shows that learners often learn more successfully from their peers than from the teacher – so give yourself a break and let the students do the work!

The test results indicate that some learners in the class clearly need remedial work. In fact, all the learners would benefit from some remedial work. The learners have each achieved a different level of perfection but they can all improve with more exposure to language. Even in peer-to-peer teaching, the student adopting the role of the ‘teacher’ learns and develops as much as the ‘student’. As we know from our own work, nothing requires a greater understanding of a topic or skill than the need to teach it to someone else!


Politicians like to demonstrate that they are interested in education, they do this, not by supporting the teachers, but by imposing more tests on the learners. Most tests are a waste of the teachers’ and learners’ time. Careful monitoring and good record keeping give the teacher much more information than any test. However, tests provide punctuation marks in the learning programme and are a useful change from day-to-day teaching. Tests are only punctuation marks, but, on their own, punctuation marks have no meaning.

Nick Dawson 2015


Learning and Changing

Learning and Changing


We live in an ever changing world. Everything which happens changes the world and every experience we have, changes us as people. If we eat an apple, we are changed by the healthy vitamins and the sugars contained in the flesh. But, if it takes three minutes to eat the apple, we will also be three minutes older after eating the apple. We are constantly changing and developing. Each time we listen to a new piece of music, we become a different person because that piece of music will no longer be ‘new’. Each time we learn a new piece of information, we are slightly changed by that information because the next time we hear that piece of the information, it will no longer be ‘new’.

Safety and exploration

As humans, we are driven by two conflicting impulses: the first is to remain in a place of safety and the second is to explore. On one hand we like to feel comfortable, on the other we like to discover new things. We resist change and seek change. For the learner of English as a foreign language, there is the impulse to remain in the familiarity of the mother tongue and, in contrast, the desire to discover new sounds and ideas in a foreign language. Conservative learners will hold tight to the comfort of the native language, risk-taking learners will be eager to experiment with the resources of a different language.

In understanding the psychology of learners of English as a foreign language, teachers should be aware of these two conflicting impulses. Over a period of eight years or more, learners have been developing their skills and vocabulary in using their mother tongue. Eight year old children have usually developed considerable fluency in their mother tongue. They understand most of the language they hear, they can communicate in speech in a variety of contexts and they have started to learn to read and write the written forms of their mother tongue.

The mother tongue is part of the child’s identity. The mother tongue is a safe place. It is the language of their family and of their friends. The children have invested an enormous amount of learning power in developing their mother tongue language skills. Although children are eager to explore the sounds and patterns of a foreign language, they are also apprehensive about using the foreign language in communication.

The experience of education changes and develops the person who is educated. The process of learning English as a foreign language is a process of becoming a different person by adding English to your communicative repertoire. You will not lose your identity as a speaker of your mother tongue but you will add an extra language to your ability communicate.

Will it be difficult to learn English?

“I can walk, hop, run, dance and climb in my mother tongue, but I can also swim in English.”

The comparison between your ability to walk, run and swim provides useful insights into the process of learning English as a foreign language. When we learn to swim, we have to learn how to function in a new environment: water. You will be unlikely to learn to swim as fast as you can walk or run. When learning to swim, you will have to learn a new and different pattern of movements from those which you use in your mother tongue. After the first few lessons, you will only be a very basic swimmer. You will not be able to swim very fast or very far. You will be able to swim in calm water but not in a fast moving river or in the sea if there are big waves or a strong current. Water will always be a dangerous environment, so you will have to be careful while you are swimming.

Walking and running are natural activities but swimming requires learning new skills to be able to function in this new environment. In the unusual environment of the water, you will initially feel uncomfortable and you will lack confidence. However, if you spend more time in the water, you will improve your swimming and gain confidence. Gradually, you will learn special swimming skills such as swimming on your back or swimming under water. You will gain confidence and you will learn to swim in more hostile environments.

Do you really want to learn how to swim or learn English?

Swimming is not an essential skill in most people’s lives. Many people live their whole lives on land and without needing to learn how to survive and move in water. Most people in the world cannot speak English but billions of people around the world use English, every day, every week, or every month either as their first or as an extra language.

Learning English, like swimming, requires training and effort from the learner. Learners need to be highly motivated, if they want to reach a high standard. If learners do not enjoy their lessons, they are unlikely to make progress. If they do not experience success during their early lessons, they will lose enthusiasm for English and will become demotivated.

After learning to float and swim for short distances some swimmers stop making progress. They have achieved as much as they want to achieve and they are not interested in learning other skills. Learners of English sometimes abandon their lessons when they have achieved basic comprehension and communication. Swimming teachers often use movies, which have been filmed underwater, to motivate their learners to try to swim underwater. They may throw money or heavy objects into swimming pools so that their learners can learn how to dive down from the surface of the water to collect objects from floor of the pool.

Swimming races can help learners to improve their speed. Team games, such as water polo, can help learners to develop their agility in the water. Supplementary skills like diving, life-saving or synchronised swimming can help trainee swimmers to extend their swimming skills.

Why do learners resist change?

As we can see, there are many parallels between learning to swim and learning a foreign language. Both involve moving from a familiar environment into a different environment. This different environment is, initially, very challenging. Learners must learn new skills in order to survive and function in this new environment. Learners will resist this learning a foreign language because the change involves:

  • moving from a safe place to an unsafe place.
  • leaving the safety and security of the mother tongue.
  • risking the loss of personal identity and perhaps family and friends by communicating in a foreign language.

Growing new limbs for communication and locomotion in a foreign language.

The first time you tried ice skates, roller skates or skis, you quickly discovered that the normal skills of locomotion were unsuitable when your feet had been adapted with this equipment. Survival and locomotion will require learning a new set of skills. At first, you will attempt to move but you will fall down. With training and practice, you will begin to make your first hesitant movements. Gradually, your movements will become more fluid until you become as confident when skating or skiing as you are when walking or running.

When we ask students to start learning a foreign language, we should imagine that we are fitting skates or skis to their feet. At first, they will make a lot of mistakes and frequently, they will fall over. As they learn more and get more practice, the number of mistakes will reduce and they will learn to communicate more fluently. They will continue to make occasional mistakes but only when attempting a slalom or trying to dance.

As children, we learn to use our arms and legs, but when learning a foreign language we must learn to control and use an extra set of limbs.

Is change better?

Young people enjoy stories about superheroes who have unusual extra powers. Superman can fly, Batman can climb the exterior of a tall building and Spiderman spins webs to capture his enemies. Other superheroes may have other super powers; they may be able to become invisible or squeeze through small spaces. By learning English, your students are becoming superheroes who can exchange information and ideas, make friends and do business with billions of people around the world.

Your students are already strong in their mother tongue, but they will become many times stronger when they learn to communicate in English.

Nick Dawson 2015


Plastic Brains

Plastic brains

                From birth to old age, we can see and measure the physical changes to our bodies. The changes to our brains are less obvious. Physical changes take place in stages and mental changes also follow the same pattern. The most powerful influence is chronological age. We can estimate a person’s chronological age by their height and weight but also more subtle features such as greying hair or wrinkled skin.

Our physical features are influenced by our chronological age but also by our diet and level of physical activity. Mental development is influenced by age and also by the tasks we ask our brains to perform. Learning develops and changes the brain. Research on adult London taxi drivers has shown that as they learn ‘the knowledge’, the pattern of London streets, there are observable changes to the parts of the brain which record spatial awareness. In Colombian prisons, research has been done on the brains of adult prisoners who have been taught to read whilst in jail. Brain scans have shown development in the areas of the brain which cope with language and comprehension.

Our brains are plastic. Age and mental activity change the shape of our brains and also change the ways in which our brains function.


We are accustomed to the physical changes in babies during their first two years of life. They become taller and stronger, their body shape changes, they learn new skills such as walking and develop listening and speaking skills in their home language. These developments take place naturally, not as a result of formal teaching. The babies develop by discovering the world around them.

Early childhood

Learning to crawl, walk and climb allows the child to explore and discover more and more about their environment. When they encounter a new object, they will be eager to experiment and learn about the new object; is it hard or soft, heavy or light, hot or cold, smooth or rough, tasty or horrible? Young children explore and learn about the physical nature of objects around them, but also, following clues from adults, learn an emotional response to each object. Is it good or bad, safe or dangerous, welcome or unwelcome?

In babyhood and early childhood, we learn about the physical world and also learn to develop social skills. For many children, social skills may start through interaction with pets, household animals. Initially, babies will often treat pets in the same way that they treat their dolls and other toys. Following instruction from parents or other adults, they learn not to pull the tail of the pet or poke their fingers into the pet’s eyes.

When babies have brothers, sisters or other child friends, they will learn similar codes of behaviour for interacting with these young friends. At about the age of two or three, there are changes in the amygdala and frontal cortex of the brain. These parts of the brain control behaviour.

New born babies are entirely selfish. They cry when they are hungry, thirsty, frightened, lonely or uncomfortable. They do not care if their mother has an important appointment in the morning and will happily cry through the night. They will happily kick, pull hair and vomit over your favourite jacket without caring about the consequences. Their lives are not governed by rules or standard patterns of behaviour. Gradually, in households which are governed by routines, babies begin to learn these routines and begin to expect these routines to be followed. If diapers are always changed and the baby is washed before being put to sleep, the baby will come to expect this sequence of actions.

If, when Daddy comes home, he always kisses Mummy before playing with the baby, the baby will learn to expect this pattern of behaviour. In the same way, the baby learns patterns of good behaviour for social interaction. Babies grab anything they want. Anything which they don’t want is quickly rejected or thrown on the floor.

Young children learn to share. They learn to take turns. They learn to be kind to animals and to their friends. This is learnt in two ways: first, they learn the difference between good and bad behaviour and second, they learn to care about other people and animals.

Learning to care about others involves learning that one is not the only person on the planet. There are other people and their feelings are important.

Social skills

A young child learns social skills through regular and frequent contacts and interactions with other children. Children who are deprived of this social contact often start school without these basic social skills. As an ex-primary school teacher, I often observed that children from large families were better behaved than single children. Children from large families had had regular contact with children both older and younger. They had learnt good behaviour from their elder siblings and may have been given more responsibility to help in the house.

Children from large families were not always more intelligent than others, but they were always more self-controlled. They did not whine or get angry when life was not perfect, they accepted the disappointment and got on with the job.

Studies of brain development

The years of babyhood and early childhood are so important in individual development, brain development during this period has been extensively researched and studied. Later brain development in adolescents and teenagers has been largely ignored. We all know that both girls and boys display many physical changes as they progress through puberty. We notice changes in personality and social skills but these are often dismissed as ‘hormonal’.

Recent studies by Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, professor of cognitive neuroscience at London University, have shown considerable changes in brain structure and function during adolescence which explains typical teenage behaviour and provides useful insights for both parents and teachers.

Typical behaviours during adolescence include:

  1. Heightened self-consciousness
  2. Feeling of embarrassment when with parents or others
  3. Risk taking
  4. Importance of peer influence.

Young children want to please, impress and be loved by their parents, teachers and other adults but teenagers want to impress and be loved by their same-age friends.

This can be seen in teenage diaries. Here’s an entry for 20th July 1969.

  • Went to Arts Centre by myself in yellow cords and a blouse.
  • Ian was there, but he didn’t speak to me.
  • Got rhyme put in my handbag from someone who fancies me – probably Thomas — Ugh!
  • Man landed on the moon.

For this teenage girl, the important things in life are what she is wearing, who she likes and doesn’t like. The fact that Neil Armstrong has landed on the moon is relatively unimportant.

Teenagers need to go through this stage of self-examination of their taste in fashion, of music, of politics and social group. Teenagers need to escape from their childlike role of being attached to parents and family, so that they can find their own personality and role in life. They need to rebel against their parents and traditional authority figures which previously defined their identity. Teenagers are going through an identity crisis, escaping from their child identity and searching for a new identity.

This search for a new identity is not simple. Teenagers are often changeable. As one writer said, they are constantly trying on different hats until they find one which fits.

Teenage brain development

It was previously thought that brain development takes place largely in the first few years of life, but recent studies have shown that teenage brains are also changing and developing. Brain scans have shown many changes in the pre-frontal cortex, the identity centres which control behaviour and sense of identity – the super-ego in Freudian terms.

Girls and Boys

The physical, emotional, educational and social changes, which take place during puberty, start earlier in girls than boys. At the end of Primary school, the boys are large children but the girls have become young women. They are taller, more responsible, more reliable, more ‘serious’. In the playground, girls and boys rarely play together because they have developed different interests. Boys will be running, fighting and playing games. Girls will be in small groups exchanging stories and ‘secrets’ about their most recent passions.

This separation of genders is a prelude to a more drastic separation, the separation of the child from his/ her parents. This child/parent separation may take a number of years but is essential for the young person to develop an independent identity.

Changes in learning patterns

Babies and children learn through exploration and discovery. They learn by looking, touching and hearing. Piaget called this phase concrete operations. Teenagers start to learn through abstract thought. We know that traditional study of grammar is of little value to children but teenagers can begin to handle these abstract concepts. As learners develop through puberty, their ability to think in abstract terms develops, so our teaching style should gradually change.


Each time we get a pair of new shoes, we need a few months of use before the new shoes become comfortable. Put your hand into a pair of new shoes. Compare the surface of the inner sole with the surface of the inner sole in a pair of shoes you have worn for months or years. You will notice that, in your old shoes, the inner sole is indented by the shape and weight of your foot. Old shoes are ‘your’ shoes. New shoes will require a few months of use before they become ‘your’ shoes.

In most countries, children move from Primary school to Secondary school at about the age of 11 or 12. At Secondary school, they are faced with a new style of teaching. Rather than a single Class teacher teaching most parts of the curriculum, learners are faced with a different teacher for each subject. This requires developing a teacher/student relationship with many unfamiliar adults. Each will demand different styles of discipline and each will have different teaching habits.

At the same time, the learner may have been uprooted from their familiar circle of friends and may need to find their place amongst a new group of classmates. Learners have also lost their ‘status’: at primary school they were the senior, most experienced, most responsible students, in Secondary school they become the youngest ‘babies’ again.

In the first year of Secondary school, learners are likely to be bewildered, confused or unhappy. There is usually a short-term reduction in the quality of their school work and there may some behaviour problems. Transition is a difficult time and learners deserve all our sympathy and support.

Many Secondary school teachers are very ignorant of the valuable learning which takes place at Primary school. They may dismiss Primary school learning as ‘colours, rhymes and numbers’ in contrast to the ‘real learning’ in Secondary school. They undervalue the development of skills and concepts in the Primary curriculum. They do not recognise the effort which learners need in Primary lessons, and this lack of recognition leads to a lack of respect for the learners.

Secondary school teachers adopt a more ‘adult’ organised approach to their teaching subject. Often the learners, particularly boys, are not ready for this new approach. They would prefer a more activity-based, less intellectual approach to the subject. This explains the temporary regression in the quality of their school work. The learners will need time to adapt to the new teaching style.

Peer pressure

Young adolescents are very tribal. Their tribe is populated by adolescents of the same age. As in most tribes, there will be leaders and followers. Amongst the followers, there will be specialists; the sports stars, the joke tellers, the artists, the musicians, the collectors. Each tribe member will have a rôle. Part of the adolescent’s search for identity is the search for a rôle within the tribe.

Young children like to impress their teachers and parents. They want to generate praise and affection from their teachers and parents. Adolescents are more concerned with impressing their tribe. Teacher and parental praise is less valuable, tribal praise is the ideal. Tribal praise may be achieved by being impressively naughty. This explains the frequent bad behaviour of adolescents.

The adolescent tribe is living in an unexplored jungle. Tribal praise may also be achieved by daring acts of physical achievement, body art, clothing or sexual transgression. This explains the ever-changing hairstyles, clothing fashions and behaviour patterns displayed by teenagers.

Teachers need to understand this change in the source of praise. Excessive teacher praise may lower an individual’s status within the adolescent tribe which is distinct from the parent / teacher / adult tribe which is seen as the enemy of all adolescents.

Plastic adult brains

As adults gain new skills and widen their cultural horizons, their brains can either continue to be plastic or they can ossify and fossilise. Brains remain plastic if they are constantly confronted with new challenges. Brains ossify when they believe that know everything and have done everything. These brains are unwilling to change. They resist learning anything new.

As we get older, our limbs become less mobile and we develop arthritis in our joints. We can also get arthritis in our brains. We lose the ability to adapt to new technology. We fear confronting new situations. Like a physical athlete, an elderly brain requires regular exercise to keep it nimble.

Learning a new language and making new friends are very good ways to maintain a good level of plasticity in the elderly brain.

Nick Dawson 2015


Better and better

Better and Better

The lesson starts, the students stand and recite, in chorus, the following mantra:

Every day,

In every way,

I’m getting

Better and better!

As the students learn to understand the words of the mantra, the teacher encourages them to recite the mantra with greater passion and commitment.


In the early stages of learning English, students can often get depressed and feel that the language is too difficult for them. The purpose of the mantra is to encourage self-belief in improvement. If students believe that they are capable of improvement and that they are improving then they will no longer be inhibited by a lack of self-belief and self-confidence.

I have taught this mantra to teachers of all levels in many different countries and, although some may be initially sceptical, those which learn and use this mantra report, when I see the teachers a year later, that their students have made remarkable and rapid progress.

Teaching better and better

The ‘better and better’ philosophy applies, not only to students and self-belief but is also fundamental to the teacher’s methodology. Learning aims are not set to specific achievement targets but are ‘directional aims’ –aimed at improvement. When the teacher grades the results of progress tests, the students who get the greatest praise are those who have made the greatest individual improvement. Tests are still competitive but, students are not competing to be best in the class but better than they were one month before.

Directional goals are more achievable than specific achievement goals.

“I cannot run a marathon, but each time I run; I get stronger, I can run further and I can run faster.”

Understanding failure

Failure, (making a mistake), is not a crime, but merely a learning step towards success. A mistake is a learning opportunity, an opportunity for personal improvement, an opportunity for ‘better and better’. This attitude towards mistakes should not only be adopted by the teacher but also instilled in the students. They should welcome failures as opportunities to learn, opportunities to be ‘better and better’.

Speaking Activities

During speaking activities, you will hear students stumble, pause, and self-correct. Each example of self-correction should prompt an approving and encouraging gesture from the teacher. The student has not only noticed the error, they have self-corrected successfully.

Today, teachers and students have the technology to record and replay their speaking activities. Encourage them to listen to the recordings, think about their errors and then repeat the activity. Although the repetition uses valuable lesson time, it gives the students an opportunity to improve their performance. Although students may not have this opportunity for repetition in everyday situations, the classroom should be used as a language gymnasium where students can repeat and improve.

Each time my music teacher gives me a new piece to play, I usually start by playing very slowly and I often make mistakes. I need to play a new piece several times before I’m satisfied with my performance.”

Noticing progress

By looking back at written work produced during early lessons, students can notice the progress they have made. Invite students to build up a collection of recordings of early speaking activities so that they can listen to their early attempts and notice their progress. If students notice their recent progress, they will build their confidence and make them confident that they can make further progress in future months.

When students are about half-way through their learning course, invite them to look back at Lesson One. Teach the lesson again. Read the reading passages, play the recordings and do the activities. Students should be able to complete the lesson very quickly. This is not time wasted. It will have a considerable value in building self-confidence.

Do it, then do it again

If students have already done an activity once, they should be quicker, more accurate and more fluent when they are asked to repeat it. The first attempt may have been a struggle, but repeated attempts are easier. Of course, we do not want to bore the students with endless repetitions of the same task so invite the students to use their acting skills. If the students first completed the activity as themselves, invite them to adopt different roles when doing the repetition; invite them to become Dustin Hoffman, Judi Dench or another star, invite them to change their nationality or personality, invite them to become shy or angry, invite them to sing, whisper or shout the language exchange.

Roleplay and Roleplays

If students are roleplaying ordering food in a restaurant, first allow them to make their own choices from the menu. In the repetition, let them adopt the character of Rambo, Lady Macbeth or any other character and make their choices from the menu. If they are reporting the loss of a piece of airline baggage, let them roleplay the loss of a kangaroo or a box of ancient pottery, or a signed photograph of the President.

The student playing the waiter or airline official can be friendly, very tired, suffering from a bad cold or in a hurry to finish work and go home. We can vary many different elements in a roleplay to add freshness to the repetition.

Writing Activities

In most communicative writing activities, the person represented by I (the first person singular) is the student writer. But does this always need to be the case? Why can’t the letter / text message / email be from Marcus (a character in a recent video)? Why shouldn’t it be addressed to the manager of the local supermarket where Marcus lost his wallet?

Repetition in writing

Students hate rewriting one of their own texts with corrections but if they adopt a new personality, they will be happy to rewrite a similar text with a slightly different communicative message. Since their original text will have been composed on a computer, students can re-open that text and make any changes necessary. This is much easier than it was with handwritten texts. With keyed texts, repetition is not boring or arduous.

Positive grading

The main purpose of grading written work is an opportunity for the teacher to congratulate the student and celebrate everything she/he has got right. Motivate your learners by celebrating their success. Do not fill the graded text with negative comments about failures. Identifying errors is a lesser purpose. It is important, but learners will only value your advice if you show that you have valued their effort. (You will also feel better if you write positive comments!)

Computer-based practise activities

Computer based practise activities will often highlight any mistakes and prompt the student to ‘try again’. Students should welcome and exploit this opportunity to ‘try again’ until they can they can produce a perfect answer. This is NOT cheating! The student is learning with each fresh attempt to produce the perfect answer. Tools like ‘Spellcheck’ and ‘Grammar check’ are real world applications. Students should be taught to use and exploit them.

The best musicians, artists and athletes need to practice every day. If they have three days without practice, they can feel that their skill has diminished. Everyone needs to practice.”

Get better, feel better

The ‘Every day in every way’ mantra was invented by a Belgian pharmacist called Coué. He discovered that his cures and medications were most effective if his patients believed that they would get better. From this experience, Coué developed “the positive power of self-belief.” The mantra is just a set of words, but if your learners repeat it and believe it, I promise you that it will produce good results. Your learners will feel better and their learning will get better.

Nick Dawson 2015