Tell me about it!

I like the way language works in real life; I like how people often say something but they mean something completely different. Consider the following situation:


A married man comes home late at night. He’s just checked out of the local motel where he spent a couple of hours with his mistress. He creeps into the bedroom where his wife is sleeping (at least he thinks so):

Wife: “What’s her name?”

Husband: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Wife: “Do you think I’m stupid?

And this is what they actually mean:

Wife: “I know you are cheating on me. I don’t care about her name – I know already who she is anyway; I just want you to know that I know the truth”. 

Husband: “Damn it. You know indeed. Now I need to gain some time to find out how much you actually know and/or to make up a lie”. 

Wife: “I don’t think you think I’m stupid. I know you know I’ve figured it all out. So, for god’s sake, stop lying to me”. 

Back to the classroom now. Something similar applies to phrases like tell me about it.

A knowledgeable language learner will use the phrase appropriately, i.e. when saying that he or she has the same experience, and/or will resist the temptation to elaborate on it when somebody uses it. However, a student who isn’t familiar with the idiom may embarrass themselves in a situation like this:

Student A: Mondays are terrible. 

Student B: Tell me about it. 

Student A: Well, you know we have so many lessons in the morning plus I have a piano lesson in the evening and …

Student B: Yeah. Tell me about it. 

Student A: I told you already! 

But how and where do our students learn useful idioms? From coursebooks? Sometimes. From the teacher? Maybe. Sometimes they are over-exposed to a phrase in its literal sense but never learn about its metaphorical sense.


So what can we do as teachers to help our students become more competent communicators? And when (at what level of proficiency) should we start dealing with idiomatic language?

Here’s a list of 12 phrases which mean something different to what you might think they mean:

  • You don’t want to do that!
  • He can’t help himself
  • Shut up!
  • Go away!
  • I see!
  • See where I’m coming from?
  • You may want to…
  • I don’t buy it!
  • I’m looking forward to…
  • Tell me about it!
  • It doesn’t hurt to…
  • How do you find this…?

If you go to the CEFR Profiler, you’ll get an interesting result: only one word falls into the B2 category, while most of the words are A1. Ironically though, one of the phrases learners are likely to encounter in coursebooks very early on is the most ‘challenging’ one: I’m looking forward to … Methinks: Could this possibly be substituted by I can’t wait to …


If you think about it, from a grammatical point of view, the structures above are far from advanced too. However, I dare say their figurative meaning is beyond the A1/A2 level. This is a serious mismatch and I think it’s one of the reasons why we sometimes avoid teaching what our students actually need to know. In my teaching context, for example, lower levels usually equal younger age. So it’s not really surprising that metaphorical language is reserved for later. This inevitably creates a sort of artificial language environment and some of the dialogues my students are supposed to drill from the coursebook literally drive me up the wall.

Luckily, our students are smart and they soon become autonomous language learners. They start reading English books and watching YouTube videos. As a result, they eventually make up for the sobriety of the classroom language. And then it’s us, their teachers, who actually need to catch up (see my previous post).

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Binge-watching as Continuing Professional Development

In this post, I’d like to make a confession: I’m currently doing a lot of binge-watching. My personal record is something like four episodes of the same TV show in one sitting. I know some people are much better at this than I am, but I have a family, you know, so I have to bridle my passions.


To appease my guilty conscience, I always choose to watch stuff in English because then I can label binge-watching with a much fancier term – I can call it continuing professional development. Although I can read books and all sorts of online stuff in English, as far as spoken language is concerned, what I hear on TV is sometimes all I get.

If your mother tongue is different than English, you know what I’m talking about. Being a non-native teacher of English, one simply needs to keep step with their students language wise. It’s not always easy though. Teenage students have more time and fewer responsibilities (and younger brains) so they can absorb non-coursebook language at a much faster rate. And the difference shows. Sometimes a student uses an expression (usually a colloquial one) that I have just learned from a movie. Phew! Call me ridiculous but it’s always a small victory for me.

But there’s also a downside to this all. Sometimes students are not able to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate language. They think that if something is used in an American TV show, for example, they can then use it in any context. So you get get a bit of a shock when reading a piece of writing in which a student uses a rather offensive term for sexual intercourse.


Now, the question is how to teach L2 learners about inappropriate language. It goes without saying that what happens in an L2 classroom is different from the L1 situation. An English speaking child will develop this kind of sensitivity to what is appropriate and what is not because their parents and/or teachers will let them know very early on – sometimes even without having to say anything explicitly. However, if you want to teach an L2 learner what is appropriate, inevitably, you will have to utter the inappropriate (or at least point to an offensive term implicitly).

To be completely frank though, I realize that I myself can’t always tell with an absolute certainty if the line has already been crossed. Or, to be more precise, I’m not always sensitive to language inappropriacy in specific contexts. I once asked my Australian friend (an author of several publications about broadcasting and a former TV presenter) if I can use the word bloody on Twitter. He explained to me that it depends on how I want to present myself and that under certain circumstances, even such a mild expression can sound inappropriate from my ‘mouth’. Go figure.

Anyway, I came across this list of the 47 naughtiest words and phrases and what Ofcom thinks about them. Should I point my students towards such a learning resource or not? Should they study it on their own or should we discuss that in class? I’m sure they’d love to have a lesson on offensive language but is it appropriate?

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Conference reporter: what’s it all about?

As some of my Facebook friends already know, I’ve recently been asked to be a reporter at one of the local conferences. I’m probably expected to say that I’m all excited. However, what I’m really experiencing is a mixture of contradictory feelings which, ironically, stem from the same source. On the one hand, it sounds exciting to me because I’ve never done anything like this before. On the other hand, exactly due to my lack of experience, it also sounds pretty daunting. I’ve always suspected that something like a roving conference reporter exists but apart from a few fleeting encounters with photographers who popped in and out of workshops to take photos of the buzz of the conference, I’ve actually never seen a real, independent conference reporter on the spot – at least at the conferences I’ve been to.


But, although I have still to learn what the job is all about, deep down I already feel I’ll handle things well. First of all, I’m confident enough to claim that I know a lot about ELT. I’ve been in the field for ages (for god’s sake!) and I’m hyperactive on social media, which is a big bonus. I’ve attended quite a few local conferences and I also took a peek behind the scenes so I kind of know what to expect. Having said that, I don’t know too much about the backstage and I have no working relationship with any of the stakeholders, which I think will help me to keep my distance and remain objective – if that’s what’s expected of me. Haha.

Anyway, I asked my PLN about their experience with this role. Here are some of their answers so far:

Don’t be shy to take pictures and look for workshops that will give follow up discussions. Famous or not famous presenters, choose diversity type of talks and take the break to talk about the conference and networking. It really worked for me! Good luck! Priscila Mateini


Well, it seems this job involves much more than I originally expected. For example, it didn’t cross my mind that I would be taking high-quality pictures, conducting interviews with some of the speakers (let alone ELT gurus), asking participants for feedback, drinking with the gurus hitting some after-conference parties, visiting stands, and talking to publishers and testing agencies. Having to tick the last two items would probably mean for me to go against the grain a bit.

Anyway, no matter how daunting all the duties appear, diversity, follow-up discussions, networking, and honesty are definitely words that sound like music to my ears.

So, we’ll see.

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My selfish method of teaching


How do you choose material for your lessons? I’m not talking about coursebooks but extra reading material, for example. My guess is that you probably make choices on the basis of your students’ interests, needs, and/or their level of proficiency. Well, to be completely frank, I’m a little selfish in this respect – I mainly bring what I like (and what I think my students might like too).

The other day a friend of mine sent me an interesting story via Whatsapp. I loved it and immediately thought it would be a great idea to share it with my students. But although I’m a little egotistical, I am also professional. So, I asked myself a couple of burning questions: What shall I do with the story? (methodology?) How shall I present it? (form/technique?) What do I want my students to learn? (input/output/experience?)

Before I spoil it and explain what I did in class, I’d like to provide a little bit of thinking space for the reader. Here’s the story:

A man is driving down the road and his car breaks down near a monastery. He goes to the monastery, knocks on the door, and says, “My car broke down. Do you think I could stay the night?”

The monks graciously accept him, feed him dinner, and even fix his car. As the man tries to fall asleep, he hears a strange sound. A sound unlike anything he’s ever heard before. The Sirens that nearly seduced Odysseus into crashing his ship comes to his mind. He doesn’t sleep that night. He tosses and turns trying to figure out what could possibly be making such a seductive sound.

The next morning, he asks the monks what the sound was, but they say, “We can’t tell you. You’re not a monk.” Distraught, the man is forced to leave.


Years later, after never being able to forget that sound, the man goes back to the monastery and pleads for the answer again.

The monks reply, “We can’t tell you. You’re not a monk.”
The man says, “If the only way I can find out what is making that beautiful sound is to become a monk, then please, make me a monk.”

The monks reply, “You must travel the earth and tell us how many blades of grass there are and the exact number of grains of sand. When you find these answers, you will have become a monk.”

The man sets about his task. 


After years of searching, he returns as a gray-haired old man and knocks on the door of the monastery. A monk answers. He is taken before a gathering of all the monks.

In my quest to find what makes that beautiful sound, I traveled the earth and have found what you asked for: By design, the world is in a state of perpetual change. Only God knows what you ask. All a man can know is himself, and only then if he is honest and reflective and willing to strip away self-deception.”

The monks reply, “Congratulations. You have become a monk. We shall now show you the way to the mystery of the sacred sound.”


The monks lead the man to a wooden door, where the head monk says, “The sound is beyond that door.”

The monks give him the key, and he opens the door. Behind the wooden door is another door made of stone. The man is given the key to the stone door and he opens it, only to find a door made of ruby. And so it went that he needed keys to doors of emerald, pearl, and diamond.

Finally, they come to a door made of solid gold. The sound has become very clear and definite. The monks say, “This is the last key to the last door.”

The man is apprehensive to no end. His life’s wish is behind that door!
With trembling hands, he unlocks the door, turns the knob, and slowly pushes the door open. Falling to his knees, he is utterly amazed to discover the source of that haunting and seductive sound……………………….

But, of course, I can’t tell you what it is because you’re not a monk. 



At first, I wanted to turn the reading into a jigsaw activity. I would have put students into groups of 4 and I would have given each student a different part of the story (hence the broken lines above). Then I would have asked them to share the information and put the pieces of text in the correct order in their groups. Also, I was planning to withhold the last line and reveal it triumphantly after they all finished.

But then I considered how I felt when reading the story and I decided to change my approach completely. I thought it would be too distracting for me if the story was mixed up. As the plot evolves in a linear manner, any unnecessary interruptions and distractions would steal away the pleasure of reading. Also, one needs to get to the point rather quickly. During the jigsaw activity, the reader would gain enough time to spoil the story for themselves (by having an opportunity to discuss the plot with others an thus possibly guessing the ending too early). Although I believe prediction is a process occurring naturally when one reads any type of text, here it would be a hindrance. By the way, I’m very good at predicting endings but this time, the twist really surprised me.

Anyway, this is what I finally did:

I did cut the story into 4 parts but I handed out the first part only. Each student read silently at their own pace. After everybody had finished, I quickly checked if they understood the highlighted expressions. This was a way of providing a bit of thinking space for everybody to absorb what they had just read. I ‘served’ the second part of the story and waited for everybody to finish. Again, we briefly checked the meaning of the words in bold. Finally, after the fourth part, I triumphantly handed out the closing line. Some students frowned with disappointment, others smiled. This, based on my experience, is how the ending actually affects people in real life too. Then we discussed the story a bit more but that was it.

Would you do it differently? What did you think when you read the story? 🙂





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Mind the gap fills

By writing this post I’m making a mental note to remember this: multiple choice clozes can be very useful learning materials if exploited to the fullest.


This is what I did:

Topic of the lesson: Sport

I found two multiple choice gap fills – one was a short article about the history of football (let’s call it Text A) and the other one was about yoga (Text B). Both texts contained 12 gaps. To fill in the gaps, students could choose from four options (A-D).

  1. After a brief discussion about the benefits of football vs. yoga, I handed out the gap fills. Student A got Text A and their partner got the other text. I asked them to fold the handouts back so that they couldn’t see the options below the text. First, I asked them to read the texts for a general idea of what they are about.
  2. They swapped the gap fills and read the other text too (still without looking at the options).
  3. I asked them to unfold the handout, look at the options and fill in the gap fills.
  4. Then they swapped the clozes back and each of them re-filled in the one their partner had completed before. They used a different color to indicate any changes or to fill in what their partner had left out.
  5. We checked Text A together (both students looking at it). We discussed all the options. Then we checked Text B and explained the answers.


My observations:

  • My aim was to get the students fully concentrating on the task. However, it’s not always easy to win their attention after a lively chat, for example. So, having two different texts helped them fight the temptation to cooperate with each other and thus they were less distracted during the early stages.
  • Although each student knew both texts, there was still this kind of information gap element in the activity. This made it more engaging.
  • I believe this activity is great for a mixed-ability group. I felt that once both students in the pair were strong, they inspired each other and they were competitors too – particularly when they didn’t agree on the same option. On the other hand, a weaker/slower student benefitted from the fact that they were paired up with a fast finisher. They were under less pressure, especially after Stage 3, when all the answers had been answered by the fast finisher, in most cases correctly. However, the stronger student benefitted too because they had more to do in the end (they were busy completing the missing answers or ‘correcting’ the answers given by their partner).
  • Last but not least, I saved paper by not printing both gap-fills.


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The after-FCE syndrome


The after-FCE syndrome is something that has been bothering me recently. In case you are wondering what the hell I’m talking about, it’s a label for a type of mental state and/or negative behavior which is typical of a person who has recently obtained an FCE certificate but still studies with other students who haven’t (yet) been lucky/motivated enough to go for it (#newcoinage).

It’s a bit like the phenomenon called the intermediate plateau:

Learners often reach the plateau at the intermediate or advanced level. It is a time when the rapid, satisfying progress one experienced as a beginner levels off, and progress begins to feel slower and harder to come by. Learners’ communication skills are decent, but fluency still seems like a distant goal.

The after-FCE syndrome is different in that fluency is no longer a distant goal. Also, the students’ reading, listening and writing skills are pretty decent because they practiced a lot to master them at the desired level. Obviously, the victory felt sweet at first. But the rush of adrenaline they experienced before, during and shortly after the exam has gradually worn off. Now they are back amid the crowd again. Oftentimes, they end up sitting next to the ‘average’ student who trudges towards a much smaller goal – the final state exam. As the final exam in English is a level lower, motivation and enthusiasm slowly fade too. Questions like “Why do we have to take the state exam when we’ve proved already that our level of English is high enough” pop up. “Why should we bother? We have other things to do.” Boredom and tiredness start to creep in and their best friend, frustration, is knocking on the door.

Well, exams have always sucked. For many reasons. First of all, they are stressful. Sometimes they are totally unfair or useless. But most importantly, they take away one’s joy of learning. Students are either too busy studying for an exam and, after they have passed it, they suddenly feel idle. And some of them get this crazy idea that somebody should make them overcome their laziness. As a result, and quite ironically, they either blame the teacher that they are too demanding or they accuse them of being too lenient. More specifically, they either complain that they get too many tests or they want more tests. Either way, most of them have this mindset: if you don’t threaten me with tests, you won’t make me learn stuff. Mind you, they often do this indirectly and inconspicuously, by comparing you with other teachers, for example.

Not that I don’t get it. It’s all quite understandable. The pressure they once felt is long gone. Now they can take a well-deserved rest. But here comes the dilemma: I know I should celebrate their success. And I do. Still, it feels a bit frustrating for me as a teacher. I feel guilty for failing to engage them the way I used to. I rack my brains to make the lessons interesting but I know it will never be enough for them because I need to keep the others’ goals in mind too.

Apart from making the teaching more demanding, the FCE exam, or the moment when a certain number of students succeed in it, marks a divisive line in the class. It creates a certain type of dichotomy – the FCE holders versus the non-FCE holders. In other words, there are the ones who still have to work hard to achieve an external goal and those who think they needn’t or rather can’t force themselves to work hard anymore. The division is invisible yet you can sense it on many occasions.

On a more positive note, there are still those gems whose intrinsic motivation and love for languages prevent them from stagnation. These are the ones who help me keep the show on the road and who push the level and the quality of the lessons up. 🙂



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This lesson


This usually happens when you are temporarily resting on your laurels. You feel absolutely safe and things seem to be under control. So, as a result, you either slacken off a bit or to the contrary, dare to go a bit too far beyond your (or your students’) comfort zones. But no, in teaching nothing can be fully under control all the time and you can’t take a nap in the middle of the day.


Rewind to yesterday. Towards the end of this lesson, I realized we still had some time left so I asked the students to read a couple of quotes at the back of the magazines we had been working with. The quotes were about race, gender, and equality so I gathered they would generate a nice discussion. Based on my experience, it’s not a potential taboo topic for my students so I felt safe on this ground. To make it easier for them during the follow-up activity, I provided an example of what I thought they could do – I expressed my view on one of the quotes.

At first, my students thought I was playing the devil’s advocate. I went out of my way to reassure them I didn’t just want to shock and that I really meant what I was saying. We had a short discussion when one student exclaimed in utter frustration: “It seemed we’ve been discussing the same topic over and over again for the past six months!” Unfortunately, at that point, the bell rang and we had to say goodbye.

In what follows, I’ll first try to defend myself and then I’ll do a bit of penitence. For one thing, I checked the class register: no, we hadn’t been doing the same topic for the past six months. It might have been mentioned here and there throughout the course but I’d call it an occasional occurrence. Also, this student is no milksop – he loves controversy and he’s never scared to come forward and ask thought-provoking questions, which, I should add bitterly, we always patiently deal with in class. So, inevitably, one of my first emotions was ……. a feeling of grievance (and embarrassment too).

But wait, my self-pitying self! You are taking things too personally here plus he may have had a point. Although there is hard evidence that I haven’t been riding my hobby-horse for the past few months, for some reason, this boy feels this way. And this must be taken into consideration. I mean, something touched a cord there. Either the topic is too sensitive for him or it just bores him to death. Add to that the fact that it was a Friday afternoon and the students are having a rough time now towards the end of the term. Also, some students tend to react emotionally once they feel they don’t understand something. This may well have been the case. Either way, it was my fault. I should have been clearer and less provocative.

I felt really bad about the whole situation. Luckily, three other students came to me after the class and kindly asked for clarification. I explained what I had meant and secretly hoped they would pass the information to the aggravated student (I may well be overreacting here – maybe he wasn’t that mad at all).

Anyway, I’m going to create a list of uncontroversial topics which I could use safely in class for conversation activities. I’m going to ask this particular group of students to help me make that list based on their likes and interests. The trouble is that controversy is inherent to almost every topic – it’s just a question of who brings up what and under what circumstances. So, in the future, I will try to monitor my students’ reactions to the potentially dangerous topics more carefully.


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