Sustainable learning


Are you afraid of the big bad wolf?

Are you afraid of the IPA?

Does it give you butterflies in your stomach just thinking about it?  Don’t be scared, like anything, if you are familiar with what it is exactly, you can use it.  I promise!

Firstly, what is the IPA?  It stands for International Phonetic Alphabet.  But what’s that got to do with the price of tea in China?  Good question.  Let’s take the key word:


Ok, sorry that was sneaky.  I’ll admit it.  But how did you do?  Can you read it?  That’s right, ‘phonetic’.  Let’s compare them side by side.

(1) /fəˈnetɪk/

(2) phonetic

So what do you notice?  (1) Well, the first one tells us exactly how to say the word (leaving aside the question of dialectal accent variation for a moment).  It gives us all the vowel sounds.  This is usually the tricky bit for students.  It also shows us which part of the word sounds stronger.  Is it the first or the second part (syllable)?  If you look a bit closer, you’ll see that there is a small apostrophe after the /əˈ/ symbol.  The key is that, after the apostrophe, you say the next consonant and vowel stronger than the other parts of the word.  This softens the pronunciation of the rest of the word, but gives important linguistic information to English speakers.

Try to move it around.  If you say /ˈfonətɪk/ you might be understood as saying phoner tech.  What is that?  An on-call internet technician?  This is troublesome for many of our students.  Some are tempted to go straight for the written version of English (maybe it’s all they have access to) and to pronounce each letter as they see it.

(2) The second one tells us how the word was possibly said a very long time ago when French and English were fighting for top spot in world politics.  It takes us on a historical journey.  Fascinating though it is, its main purpose these days is to write.  Not speak.  It’s not a good system in my opinion.  But it’s an old system and it’s the one we’ve got.  From a student’s perspective, what can we do?  As an educator, we need to tell them to close their books for a while, tell them to close their eyes and let them listen to the language rather than seeing it.

A piece of advice.

As  educators we also need to develop some confidence in guiding our students with these hieroglyphics.  Start working on the /ə/ sound, it’s commonly called a schwa, but don’t worry too much about that, a student will rarely need to know that.  Try to locate it in relation to the apostrophe.  You may notice that more often than not, the stressed syllable does not contain an /ə/ sound.  If students can work on this sound first, it could help them to soften their pronunciation and improve their word stress awareness at the same time.

How can you find out?

Go to the dictionary before your class.  Just write down the phonetics for key vocabulary items in your class.  Start with just one or two.  Five or six if you’re feeling brave.

If in doubt, check out an online dictionary.  You can also click and listen to the word.  If you’re like me, if you think about the pronunciation too much, you might change it.  Here are a few useful free dictionary sites:

/ ɡʊd lʌk /  !


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Students go at their own pace – down a long and winding road…

Isn’t it strange that students don’t seem to learn what we teach them?  We might be said to spend a lot of time and effort moving through a list of items on the syllabus, focusing on lesson aims and deflecting questions which are ‘off the topic’ until the end of the class (if they are reached at all).  But maybe it is these questions which should be the focus of the class rather than the topic which may indeed be quite distant and out of touch with students.

There seems to be some truth in the suggestion that ESL students learn in a similar way to infants discovering the world for the first time.  They look at things in awe and try to work them out, based on their current knowledge of the world.

If you think about many interactions with babies in English (and probably in other languages), the concept of an object or person being “here” and in view and “gone” is very common.

“Where’s the ball?  Where is it?


“Yes!  Here it is!”

“Where’s the ball?  Where is it?”


“Yes!  It’s gone!”

In contrast, if we look at our teaching resources, and the list-like progression of many ESL syllabi, you could be forgiven for considering if it is all a little bit ‘upside down‘.

Let’s take “gone” for example.  Conceptually it is quite straightforward.  Something or someone is either here or not here.  But this is just one word, and may be frowned upon in a language classroom.  “Use a full sentence!” you might hear.  However, babies manage to say “gone” and their parents don’t mind.  In fact, they’re quite ecstatic.  “She said a word!”

However, if we analyse the desirable sentence, “he has gone (home/to work)”, we may latch on to the fact that it involves the infamous present perfect.

O oh!  It doesn’t exist in many of our students language.  So, don’t introduce it until late elementary or pre-intermediate classes.  They won’t get it!  They won’t be able to use it!

Babies “get it”, albeit in a simplified form.  This kind of linguistic hiding of language in the classroom could be said to slow students down and even confuse them later on when the item appears magically from no where.

Instead, have we decided that students should first use verbs without auxiliaries?  The ‘useful’ though often contextually void present simple, used to talk about “habitual actions” according to some textbooks, is the place to start.  However, in practice it is used to talk about pretty much anything, habitual or not, just as long as this grammar sounds good to us.

I always get up at 6:30.     [Habit]

I understand.                        [Now]

I’m getting up.                      [Now]

Information about when you get up and brush your teeth is an endlessly fascinating topic if you think about it.  I mean, wow, you mean you get up at 8am, and then you brush your teeth.  Wait wait, back up the truck!  After getting up, you brush your teeth, oh and then you shower.  Fascinating!  Thank you for sharing these monotonous details of your life.  Simply amazing!

Why don’t we instead take a look at our fascinating students – if we’re in a multi-lingual, – they’re often from quite diverse backgrounds.  I want to know the following:

  • What languages do you speak?
  • What food do you have in your country?
  • Which religions do you have?
  • Which language do you speak  at home?  At work?  At school?

What do you notice?  If we look at the above, we can take these two verbs and mould the vocabulary that students already have around them, and learn something useful and insightful in the mean time.  I suggest that we forget about brushing our teeth, and find out more about our creative and interesting students.

Similarly, we should look at the environments in which are students are interacting.  There are no toys, unlike the example of children learning above.  But maybe there are colleagues, other students, subjects and degrees to be studied.  Let’s look at this content, which is immediately relevant and accessible.

Maybe this way, students can guide us more about what they need to learn, then just maybe they can learn more of what we teach.  Fingers crossed anyway!

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English Unlimited – nice one!

English Unlimited is a wonderful new addition to the ESL classroom from Cambridge University Press.  There are already a few reviews on the interweb which talk about the features of the book.   As such, I’ll focus on some of my own perceptions.


If you look at the vocabulary in each unit, it seems to be the building block, around which the grammar is fitted.  In this vain, I have been hearing the catch phrase of “lexical approach” being bandied around our office.  It’s true.  This book is not a list of grammar points for students to learn one after the other, though there certainly is enough focus on grammar.  Rather, students are presented with corpus informed lexical items to help them sound more natural.  This appears to be a shift from other coursebooks on the market, which give students nice manageable amounts of grammar in quite controlled contexts.  However, I have had some higher level students complain that they know a lot of grammar, but are “vocab poor” at this stage of their language development.  I would suggest that English Unlimited avoids this eventuality, by providing more useful lexical input along the way.

I guess this post is overwhelmingly positive at this stage.  If I was to find a criticism, I would say that some of these lexical items are hard to explain in class.  They include many subtleties which enhance a speakers meaning.  I would suggest that this may be just the point.  As teachers we are often tempted to spend our time explaining everything to students.  Certainly as students approach the pre-intermediate level of their learning, we should be encouraged to explain less, and let the students’ minds do the work.  Again, I think English Unlimited gives us another push in the right direction to let students think about it for themselves.


Teaching approaches, such as listening for overall understanding and specific details, are implemented effortlessly using this series.  I would suggest that this is of great benefit to new teachers, who are still grappling with these techniques.  English Unlimited offers a guided approach for such teachers.  In fact, this is quite important with the listening texts.  If students attempt to understand the entire dialogues word for word, they may be demotivated.  They are certainly constructed in a way that they allow students to refine their listening skills, rather than attempting to understand completely what they hear.


In addition, the listening tracks contain some great examples of World English.  The authors have stepped into the proverbial “traffic” and used a collection of both native and non-native speakers.  Admittedly, the students find it tough and times to understand on first hearing.  However, I think the exposure to more accents is a brilliant opportunity for them.

Has anyone else used this coursebook?  I’d be keen to hear some other experiences!

Happy teaching 😀

Image Copyright: Cambridge University Press