This will be a quick blog. I am on my way to Buenos Aires shortly, to participate in the FAAPI Conference (Federación Argentina de Asociaciones de Profesores de Inglés) in Buenos Aires. I haven’t done many conferences so far this year, and I’ve done even fewer outside Brazil. When I got off the plane in São Paulo in February, I did not want to sit in another bucket seat for a good few months. But now we’re getting back on the horse. We’ve got FAAPI in BA this week, and another in Vilnius, in Lithuania, in less than a month’s time.

I largely enjoy conferences. My first English teachers’ conference was a TESOL Scotland event in the mid-1980s. I was one of a small team working at Stirling University at the time, and the conference was a sudden means of access to other people with similar interests, similar problems and better solutions. I realised that I had been feeling lonely and hadn’t realised it. And so I joined the Scottish association, and have been taking minutes in different places for one group or another, in some capacity, ever since.

Obviously, now, I get different things from conferences. One is simply to connect again with old friends whom I mainly only meet at conferences now. One nice thing about regular conferences is watching little explosions of pleasure here and there, as people recognise each other, yelp, and fling themselves into an embrace. Another more commercial reason for attending conferences, as an author, is to publicise your work and get useful feedback from those who are actually teaching with it. And yes, I do get a kick out of book signings. But what do I get from sitting in the audience now?

This question is raised, indirectly, in one of my favourite campus novels, Small World by David Lodge, which updates the plot of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to the present day. Instead of going on a pilgrimage, his hero attends conferences – but the entanglements, misunderstandings, stories, and humour remain remarkably similar. Lodge writes:

“The modern conference resembles the pilgrimage of medieval Christendom in that it allows the participants to indulge themselves in all the pleasures and diversions of travel while appearing to be austerely bent on self-improvement. To be sure, there are certain penitential exercises to be performed – the presentation of a paper, perhaps, and certainly listening to papers of others.”

I did once go to a conference presentation that attempted to answer the question, “What do we get out of conference presentations?” The answer (the speaker’s detailed investigations seemed to suggest) is: “Not much.” The presentations themselves, he argued, are not the main thing about conferences; people don’t remember them in any great detail, it seems. The main thing is the social and professional networking in the spaces between the presentations – the discussions, arguments, gossip about the next big thing, and the opportunity to share opinions with informed and enthusiastic fellow professionals.

Perhaps that is true. Certainly some conference presentations I’ve been to recently by major figures in the ELT have come to resemble polished pieces of performance art rather than reports of research-based struggles to come to new and helpful understandings of the language and how to teach it. The best presentations (for me) combine a little of both. And I do remember ‘eureka’ moments of good conference presentations – an idea to take away and try myself, something to adapt, an article to follow up … an assumption questioned. The illumination I get from a good conference presentation is not always immediate: an issue that a presenter raises nags at the back of my head for a while, and then surfaces later, perhaps to change the direction my professional life is going. And of course bad conference presentations are also good. You learn what not to do. You gain confidence: “I can be as good as that,” you think, often foolishly.

And conferences, too, are changing. My email inbox is clogged with rather frightening invitations to join Virtual FAAPI and follow the conference proceedings in hyperspace as well as in the physical world. (I have avoided opening those emails up.) I am abashed by watching co-presenters tweet as they juggle their powerpoint slides or prezis. My Facebook pages are equally clogged by friends tweeting in real time from conference presentations they are attending. David Lodge writes, in another of his novels, that “Information is the religion of the modern world.” Sometimes I feel we have too much of it. When I am presenting, now, I have to suppress the idea that someone in the third row is simultaneously keying into a smart phone: “Fatter& greyer than his program pic. LOL!”

So I’m back on a plane tomorrow and looking forward to being in Buenos Aires again, meeting up with old friends and making new. There is a small knot of folk interested in intercultural language education, many of them orbiting erratically around the extraordinary ball of energy that is Andrea Assenti del Rio, my co-organizer of a Facebook group on that subject. It will be good to put some faces to the names, so do say hello. To finish with a last quote from David Lodge, again from Small World:

“Intensity of experience is what we’re looking for, I think. We know we won’t find it at home any more, but there’s always the hope that we’ll find it abroad.”

See you in Argentina.

FAAPI 2013: http://www.apiba.org.ar/faapi13

Intercultural Language Education SIG (Facebook): https://www.facebook.com/groups/250536458398597/




Wherever I am, I haunt second-hand bookshops. There was a time I could navigate most cities I visited by their second-hand bookshops: Charing Cross Road in London, Homer Street in Vancouver, Leninski Prospekt in Moscow, Otago Street in Glasgow, Spittal Street in Stirling…

Probably the bookshops I fondly remember have long gone, but I’ve now found a cluster of them, sebos as they’re called here, in Sao Paulo, just along from FNAC in Pinheiros.

So I spend happy hours browsing. And last week I picked up a dog-eared, black-covered paperback called “A Primer of Visual Literacy”, written by someone with the unlikely name of Donis A. Dondis, and published by MIT Press in 1973. God only knows how it ended up in Sao Paulo, but that is the beauty of second-hand bookshops. The books have a mysterious history.

I’ve been reading “A Primer of Visual Literacy” with considerable interest and pleasure. This is a little surprising, since academic books of this nature tend to go out of date quickly. My publishers tell me they expect my textbooks to have a shelf-life of about three years, so finding something of relevance and use in a 40 year-old textbook is remarkable. But in fact some of the interest in the book is Ms Dondis’ prophetic instinct, in particular about the way photographs will change our means of communication:

“[The camera] forms the final connecting link between being able to see, and the external capability to report, interpret, express what we see, without having to have special talent or training to effect the process. There is little doubt that contemporary life style has been influenced, and crucially, by the changes enacted on it by the fact of the photograph. […] Print is not dead yet, nor will it ever be, but, nevertheless, our language-dominated culture has moved perceptibly toward the iconic. Most of what we know and learn, what we buy and believe, what we recognize and desire, is determined by the domination of the human psyche by the photograph. And it will be more so in the future.” (p.7)

This passage was written several decades before the advent of the internet and the smart phones that would allow everyone (without ‘special talent or training’) to chronicle their everyday lives, and those of their dogs, cats, children and lovers, and post them on Facebook or Instagram or Flickr, with just a truncated message or a symbolic smiley to indicate an attitude or a comment. We now spend much of our days navigating snapshots and ‘selfies’, images endlessly created and recycled, forwarded and then no doubt quickly forgotten. Donis A. Dondis’ view was that some basic training would improve the quality of our reception and production of images, and that this kind of training was becoming increasingly urgent. If that was true in 1973, it is surely even truer now. The importance of the visual in English Language education is evident in the interest shown in the upcoming Image Conference in Brasilia (which I would love to attend but doubt if I’ll be able to: see https://www.facebook.com/The.Image.Conference for details).

As her manual continues, it is clear that Ms Dondis takes a psychological – we would probably now say a ‘cognitive’ – approach to the processing of images. She considers how, across different cultures, the viewer tends to begin looking at the top mid part of an image, the eyes tracking down to the lower left before swinging back up to the right. This fundamental interaction with the image determines things like the flow of information, context and novelty, and (she argues) a sense of pleasing balance versus displeasing irregularity. How we compose elements of an image, either representational or abstract, is affected by this basic mode of engagement with the page, canvas or computer screen.

The book, unsurprisingly, is full of advice on achieving harmony or contrast by arranging the elements of an image. The notion of combining elements of an image into a meaningful whole is, of course, a grammatical one, and we can consider the manual a little descriptive (or even, at times prescriptive) grammar of visual communication; however, at one point in her discussion, Ms Dondis alludes directly to the subversive power of language teaching:

“There is a Berlitz approach to visual communication. You don’t have to learn to decline verbs or spell words or learn syntax. You learn by doing.” (p.37)

In other words, the learner does not necessarily acquire visual literacy by reading about symmetry, asymmetry, flatness, depth of field, perspective, distortion or colour saturation. The learner acquires visual literacy by picking up the phone (or the camera, or indeed the pack of crayons) and making images.

And yet, here I think, in visual literacy as well as in language education, there is much to be learned from the appropriate use of models. I’ve also recently been reading about the classic ‘street photography’ of Robert Doisneau, the French photographer who captured iconic images of Paris, particularly from the 1930s through the 1950s. There are numerous debates about the ‘authenticity’ of Doisneau’s images, and the extent to which they were constructed or composed, but there is little doubt that they feel spontaneous, and that they capture a world that now looks distant, even to those of us familiar with the French capital. The past, as the author L.P. Hartley observed, is also a foreign country.

The images of photographers and artists can be used to help learners begin to make their own visual images – not, as in the audio-lingual method of language learning, to specify rigid ‘products’ to be mimicked, but, as in more communicative approaches, to provide a resource that supports the ‘process’ of learning how to compose, balance, and present the image.

For example, anyone teaching in a school might look at Doisneau’s photo ‘Les Doigts Pleins d’Encre’ [Fingers covered in ink], which shows one schoolchild seated at his desk, writing tablet before him, staring thoughtfully into space while his neighbour peers across at what he has written. How can that image be ‘translated’ into the context of another classroom, in another culture, today? Would the learners still be seated in rows? Would the neighbour be stealing a glance at a writing tablet, or a digital tablet, a laptop screen, or a smartphone? Our own learners can be invited to recreate the image and compare theirs with Doisneau’s – at this point, the vocabulary that Dondis A. Dondis teaches us about symmetry, focus, scale and subtlety might come into play:

* Are the two learners in sharp focus against a slightly unfocused background.
* Is there a contrast in, for example, the hair colour of the angelic, blond dreamer versus his darker-toned, cheating neighbour?
* What is the point of view of the person holding the camera – teacher, fellow-pupil or just someone who wandered into the classroom, off the street?

This kind of activity makes a virtuous circle of visual interpretation (describing Doisneau’s original), practice in production (recreating Doisneau’s image) and theory (using Dondis or another theorist to help compare the original and the recreation). The recreation and updating of the image force us to notice things we might otherwise take for granted. And the verbal description of the two images – giving an account of the differences and similarities – extends both our learners’ visual and verbal literacies.

So go on: get your phone out. Become an instagrammarian.


Dondis, D.A. (1973) A Primer of Visual Literacy. Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press

Rose, G. (2001) Visual Methodologies. London: Sage



Every so often, I realise that I am an old fossil from a different era. In particular, I realise that my educational formation took place at a time when things like lectures were quite different from the way they are now. For example, at some point in 1977 or 1978, in my first year as an undergraduate student at Glasgow University, I attended the final lecture in an introductory series on English grammar. The lecturer was a dapper gentleman called Les Collier, who wore the customary gown to keep the chalk off his dark suit. His lectures referred to a text-book based on early Hallidayan grammar, written by what seemed to be a team of Australian solicitors: Scott, Bowley, Brockett, Brown and Goddard. As a climactic flourish, Mr Collier spent the full hour of the final lecture using the grammatical model to analyse the first sentence – only the first sentence, mind – of John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. If you know the poem, you’ll know it’s a long sentence, a Latinate period, no less, harking back to the opening of Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’, and the analysis was a tour de force. I remember furiously trying to copy his step-by-step reasoning into my handwritten lecture notes, while a voice at the back of my head was saying, ‘Why? Why are you doing this?’

I later called on my English Language tutor, an equally nice man called David Murison, who was a distinguished lexicographer of Scots, to ask him for help in understanding the finer details of the analytical model. He looked at me with the bemused expression of a man just about to retire, and said, ‘Son, there are three things in life you should never chase. A woman, a number 9 bus, and a new grammatical theory. There’ll be another one along in a minute.’

Education often happens in unexpected ways. I am reminded of Les Collier’s lecture as a consequence of participating, over the past weekend, in my first ever webinar. There were two reasons for this: the first was that the webinar was hosted by IATEFL BESIG on the topic of using literature to develop intercultural reading strategies, and it was given by a good friend, Claudia Ferradas, with whom I have collaborated on several British Council sponsored events over the years. And the second was that I’ve recently been invited by Cambridge Brazil to deliver one of their first webinars, probably around the end of October – and I said yes. So I wanted to find out how a webinar works.

There was a slight problem in that, on the day of the webinar, my wife and I had decided to escape to the countryside of Sao Paulo, to a farm that has no internet or phone connection. And so just before 11 am local time, I was dropped off in the small, rural town of Piracaia. I made my way to a LAN House, where I logged onto a pc at the cost of one Brazilian ‘real’ per 20 minutes, put on my headphones to baffle the noise of passing mopeds and horse-drawn carts, and joined the webinar.

The hour shot past. Claudia sat at home in Buenos Aires, the moderator introduced her from Austria, and my forty-odd fellow participants dutifully identified themselves as being from places as distant as Peru, the USA, the Netherlands, and Israel. While Claudia delivered a polished lecture, illustrating it with powerpoint slides and videos, my fellow participants and I kept up a synchronous commentary in a chat-box – praising, querying, joking, adding personal experiences, and just expressing thanks for being there. Claudia was talking about reading and rewriting literary texts to enhance language development and explore cultural values, and to her own evocative examples others added their own suggestions. She used, for example, a video of Benjamin Zephaniah performing his poem, ‘Talking Turkeys’, to which one participant responded that she had compiled a whole set of worksheets on Zephaniah’s work. Email addresses were quickly shared.

As well as the lively chat room, there was a second box for more serious questions that Claudia had been primed to respond to, but out of the 40-odd participants, only I used that facility (and that was probably because I was partly logging in to test the webinar’s functionality). Claudia later told me there were other interactive options that I’d missed – and these also hadn’t been used by other participants. And Claudia had answered my questions anyway, before she even got to the discussion part of the webinar.

It was a long, long way from that lecture-hall in Glasgow, where, with specks of chalk-dust suspended in the air, Les Collier had performed his scale and category analysis of rank-shifting in ‘Paradise Lost’. So what did I learn from the interactive webinar, apart from the useful tips about intercultural reading that Claudia shared? One was that no matter how the Internet collapses time and space, to enable someone like me to talk to Argentina, Peru, Israel and the Netherlands while sitting in rural Piracaia, we still like our geographical points of reference – or at least, our Austrian moderator did, as she regularly intervened to ask participants to add their location to their name. I queried this at one point, wondering whether we should give something like our favourite colours rather than our locations, but it seems, curiously, that we like to know where our fellow participants are situated physically, as well as virtually. And I am not immune to that desire myself.

Secondly, I was interested in how supportive the back-channelling was in the chat room. A constant stream of love and encouragement flowed – quite rightly – in Claudia’s direction. I wondered if Les Collier would have enjoyed the same, thirty-odd years ago. For some years, I found myself in the curious position of having inherited his first-year grammar lectures at Glasgow University, and, though the Hallidayan grammar book had long been dispensed with, for a while I toyed with the idea of reviving the ‘Paradise Lost’ theme of the final lecture, before reluctantly giving it up. Even so, I had to stare into the eyes of 400 students who were new to the subject, and explain to them how to recognise phrases and clauses that were intricately embedded within complex sentences. Would I have benefited from a synchronous feedback loop? Or would that have sent me screaming from the lecture hall? Claudia later told me that the biggest challenge of delivering the webinar was keeping one eye on the chat interaction while remaining focused on the delivery of the content – I can imagine that it was like spinning plates on poles, and she did incredibly well not to let them tumble and smash.

The third thing that occurred to me was that, despite its jolliness, there was little real depth to the webinar interaction. There were hints, yes, at a deeper hinterland in the participants’ engagement with the content of the lecture – the reference to the worksheets on Benjamin Zephaniah was one such clue. But the chat was largely chat – deeper probing of the issues Claudia raised seemed, well, impolite, and perhaps even a contradiction of the still-evolving norms of cross-cultural participation across several continents by relative strangers in a free learning event designed for their professional development. And very probably it is too much to ask of a lecture or webinar audience to grasp and formulate a considered response to the implications of a presentation the instant it is delivered – we need to go home, as I did thirty years ago, with my copy of Scott, Bowley, Brockett, Brown and Goddard, and my copy of ‘Paradise Lost’, and spend some time just thinking and worrying – trying to answer for myself the question ‘Why?’ that plagued me during the lecture.

No doubt other webinars are different – and perhaps in the one I plan to give for Cambridge Brazil there will be awkward participants, questioning the basis of my every claim, with deeply considered theoretical challenges that they will formulate within seconds of my spouting some nonsense. For the sake of my own fragile self-esteem, I rather hope not. Still, if you would like to participate in the webinar and if you have any ideas about topics you would like me to cover, do email me by early October of this year. And watch out for the event on the Cambridge Brazil website.

After all, now we have interactivity, we need to learn to use it.


Scott, F.S.,C.C. Bowley, C.S. Brockett, J.G. Brown and P.R. Goddard (1968). English Grammar: A Linguistic Study of its Classes and Structures, London: Heinemann Educational Books.

IATEFL BESIG Webinars: http://www.besig.org/events/online/default.aspx

Cambridge Brazil: http://www.cambridge.org.br/news-events

Mindful Listening

Mindful Listening

I have been thinking a lot about listening, recently. Partly this is because I still have a lot of problems understanding the Portuguese around me – particularly the rapid fire of everyday conversation. I still spend much of my interactions with a face like a constipated horse, furiously trying to make out the content of the animated speech being sprayed liberally in my direction, knowing in the back of my mind that I should be back-channelling some minimal response, if only to sound polite, or even alive. I quickly learned that the token ‘mesmo’ is quite useful if you say it in a neutral way. It’s a little like English ‘quite’, which similarly can signal absolute agreement or sarcastic scorn, and if you say it without much stress or intonation, your conversational partners can read into the word whatever they like. But I’ve been revisiting the topic of listening partly because, with Peggy Lu, I’ve just been co-writing an article on medical English for the Brazilian teachers’ magazine ‘New Routes’ – it’ll be coming out in September.

When exploring English in medical education, one of the things that struck me most forcibly was how complicated listening is, much more than our textbooks usually admit. Yes, the textbooks give practice in the subskills involved: e.g. how to recognize words from the real-time stream of syllables that people produce; how to use stress, intonation and discourse markers to negotiate the structure of someone’s talk, and to engage with your interlocutor’s stance (‘…and the funny thing was…’); and how to use your inferencing skills in situations where what is said is not actually what is meant, as in the stock example:

A: What do you think of the dress?
B: I love the shoes.

We know all this. And we know from the textbooks that there are different reasons for listening. Michael Rost in his concise guide to the subject provides a handy checklist: transactional listening (mainly for information you need); interactional listening (mainly to maintain relationships); critical listening (to separate facts from opinions, and to probe the basis of persuasive speech); and recreational listening (for enjoyment and relaxation). But many of these apparently discrete types of listening are necessarily combined in certain high-stakes situations where listening becomes crucial. In doctor-patient interactions, for example, the listening doctor needs to obtain information while maintaining a delicate personal relationship in which he or she must also separate the patient’s facts from opinions – or infer useful content from what might at first seem like irrelevant information. Another stock example, but a telling one, is given by Rita Charon, a doctor who uses literature to raise the cultural awareness of medical students. She recounts an interview between a doctor and a patient whose liver disease is partly due to alcohol abuse:

Doctor: And how long have you been drinking heavily?
Patient: Oh, since my wife passed away.
Doctor: Ah, and how long ago was that?

It is interactions like this that might account for the common criticism that health professionals ‘just don’t listen’, and, in such contexts, teaching effective listening clearly acquires a new urgency. However, high-stakes listening also extends beyond the medical professions to occasions of intercultural conflict, and even to everyday conversations when our emotions or deeper feelings are called into play. One of the best pieces of advice given to me when I became head of a university department, in a former post, was that when colleagues called on me to complain about this or that, they did not necessarily require me to solve the problem in a flash. Sometimes, they simply wanted a sympathetic ear. It is often better, then, to shut up and listen. But how?

There are several possible approaches to high-stakes listening, that is, listening when emotions are aroused or there is the possibility of conflict and distress. Rita Charon advocates ‘close listening’, that is, using techniques appropriated from literary studies, to reflect not so much on what your interlocutor is saying but how they are saying it. In the doctor-patient example, given above, the patient expresses a time frame using his wife’s death as a point of reference. This should be a clue to the doctor of the significance of the event, and its possible relationship to the patient’s alcohol abuse. Charon also advises listeners to give speakers the time and space to tell a story in their own way, and to pay attention to the sequencing of events, and to the metaphors and any other figures of speech used.

A related approach is ‘mindful listening’, a concept taken from Buddhism and applied by the language educationalist Stella Ting-Toomey, to situations of intercultural conflict. She informs us that in the Chinese alphabet, the character used for ‘listening’ (as opposed to ‘hearing’) embodies ‘attending to the other person with your eyes, ears and heart’. The act of patient and deliberate listening is a sign of generosity, and an acknowledgement that you are taking the speaker’s needs seriously.

But how can we train second language learners to demonstrate that they are listening to other people with ‘eyes, ears and heart’ when they find themselves as listeners in high-stakes situations? Some possibilities can be drawn from interpersonal counselling. Ursula Stickler recounts some basic techniques used by teachers who adopt the role of counsellor in sessions in which learning plans are being negotiated with students:

• Allow the speaker to express what he or she needs to express. Keep an open mind.
• While the speaker is talking, backchannel by mirroring the speaker’s words and attitude, echoing key words that seem important to the speaker. (This is a little more challenging than saying ‘mesmo’ or ‘quite’ but it is not too different.) Do not be judgemental.
• When the speaker has finished, paraphrase and summarise the speaker’s words, first to check that you have understood what he or she has said, and also to give the speaker a chance to review and perhaps modify his or her position.

Once the position has been agreed, you can begin negotiating with the speaker – but the speaker will be confident that you have listened to and understood his or her concerns.

Ultimately, of course, there is no formula for mindful listening – a sincere predisposition to listen to other speakers and acknowledge their concerns is a personal quality that needs to be cultivated over time and modified through the richness of experience. But we can begin the process by giving our learners opportunities to practice listening in (perhaps simulated) high-stakes situations as well as in lower-stakes transactional, interactional, critical and recreational ones.

Charon, R. (2006). Narrative medicine: Honoring the stories of illness. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Rost, M. (1994). Introducing listening. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Stickler, U. (2001) ‘Transcultural Counselling and Inter-cultural Awareness Raising.’ In D. Killick, M. Parry and A. Phipps (eds) Poetics and Praxis of Languages and Intercultural Communication, Vol II. Leeds: Leeds Metropolitan University, pp. 187-195,

Ting-Toomey, S., (1994). ‘Managing intercultural conflict effectively’. In L. Samovar and R. Porter (eds) Intercultural Communication, 7th edn. Belmont, CA: Wadswarth, pp. 360-371



On the ‘Intercultural Language Education SIG’ group on Facebook, recently, Shaun Dowling posted a set of maps that show Europe and the Americas from different stereotypical perspectives. You can guess the kind of things that are shown: Argentinians are drama queens, and, at least from the perspective of the French, England is where they slay virgins. The comments on Shaun’s posting were generally positive; members commented that raising and challenging stereotypes are good ways of addressing intercultural topics in the language classroom.

Well, yes – I agree that stereotypes are a rich source of materials for intercultural language learning, but like many such materials, they have to be handled with care. This is evident from the comments to the original website, which range from uncritical amusement to borderline racism.

In my early days of wandering around Eastern Europe and South America, participating in workshops on intercultural language education, I often came across the idea that one of the functions of ILE was to abolish stereotypes. That always seemed to be an unrealistic goal: as has often been pointed out, stereotypes simplify complex social categories, but while they consequently distort reality (not all English people slay virgins), they also make the world more manageable. We navigate by stereotypes. We also share them. I once observed a video-linked session between Glasgow and Curitiba whereby students in each city were invited to share aspects of their culture. It was interesting to see how quickly each group indulged in self-stereotyping: the students in Scotland’s industrial heartland introduced the topics of whisky, mountains, and the Loch Ness monster, while the students in southern Brazil cavorted around to samba music, like true cariocas. In a debriefing amongst the teachers afterwards, we worried about this, perhaps unnecessarily. Maybe stereotypes are where we start our intercultural conversations from … we have to acknowledge (and perhaps even celebrate) the shared perceptions before we begin the slow process of unfolding the less stereotypical reality.

The problems arise when stereotypes are the product (as they often are) of prejudice and social friction. The Scots, for example, were historically a relatively poor people, and after the Treaty of Union of the early 18th century opened up employment opportunities in England and the Empire, the stereotype of the ‘Scotsman on the make’ developed, accompanied by the image of the canny, thrifty or downright mean Scotsman. This stereotype has persisted, particularly in North America, where ‘The Thrifty Scot’ became a popular brand of bargain foodstores and cut-price motels. Even in Europe the image survives in popular culture, popping up, for example, in an early ‘Headway’ English textbook that reprinted a Scandinavian advertisement for two-for-the-price-of-one train fares, that showed a kilted Scotsman hiding in an overhead luggage rack. I was teaching in Scotland when that edition of ‘Headway’ was published, and I remember the inclusion of the advert provoking both resigned amusement and deep indignation amongst my colleagues. And of course, the ‘mean Scotsman’ stereotype is alive and well on the Web, where many jokes are based on this image. My favourite is:

— How many Scotsmen does it take to change a light bulb?
— Och! It’s not that dark!

While stereotypes, then, can certainly be used in the classroom, teachers need to take care that (a) we do not inadvertently give offence and (b) we do not simply use stereotypes to encourage uncritical mockery of others. This is easier said than done – we cannot always predict how our learners will respond to stereotypical images – so we need to have strategies ready to encourage critical cultural awareness of what stereotypes are and how they can be used and abused. Lies Sercu, in a paper suggesting ideas for in-service training for intercultural language educators, suggests ‘humorous irony and pleasant exaggeration’ can be employed to acknowledge, refashion and undermine stereotypes. She advocates, as a starting point, looking line by line at the following poem, ‘Himmel and Hölle’ (‘Heaven and Hell’), revealing it line by line and encouraging learners to predict what comes next:

In Himmel sind:
die Engländer Polizisten
die Franzosen Köche
die Deutschen Mechaniker
die Italianer Liebhaber
und die Schweizer oranisieren das Ganze.

In der Hölle sind:
die Polizisten Deutsche
die Köche Engländer
die Mechaniker Franzosen
die Liebhaber Schweizer
und die Italianer organisieren das Ganze.

‘In heaven:
the English are the policemen
the French cooks
the Germans mechanics
the Italians lovers
and the Swiss organise everything.

In hell:
the policemen are German
the cooks English
the mechanics French
the lovers Swiss
and the Italians organise everything.’

Lies suggests inviting learners to replace the nationalities with others, including their own – and perhaps changing the attributions. The poem clearly works best in Europe, though I have heard South American jokes that are also founded on stereotypes. A provocative one is the Brazilian definition of an Argentinian: ‘Someone who is Italian, speaks Spanish and thinks he’s English.’

The use of stereotypes in intercultural language education works best, I think, in the following situations:

• when a negative perspective (eg ‘Scots are mean’) can be balanced against a more positive one (eg ‘Scots are economical’);

• when complexity can be added to the mix by giving counter-examples (the Scots-born philanthropist Andrew Carnegie is a good example of someone who embodied a mixed set of values; e.g. he encouraged people to devote the first third of their life to getting an education; the second third to accumulating wealth; and the final third to giving their money to charity);

• and when the development of stereotypes can be put into some social or historical context. For example, we can ask why popular images of certain groups have emerged as they have. Who is in control of the popular stereotypes of certain groups – the group itself, or other (perhaps rival) groups? What role does generalised personal experience play in maintaining or challenging stereotypes? What role does the media – including the internet – play?

There are widely differing opinions of stereotypes. As Shaun said in his post – the maps will either make you laugh or get angry. Some of us find them attractive and we are reluctant to let them go: my earliest experience of Brazil was watching old Carmen Miranda films on television, and marvelling at her banana-filled headdress. I’m still fond of that image, despite never having met any Brazilians who have made a hat out of fruit. But some find them intensely irritating, refusing to inhabit any space determined by someone else’s distorted simplification. If we are going to use them, we need to find strategies in the intercultural classroom for negotiating both views.


Sercu, Lies (1998). In-service teacher training and the acquisition of intercultural competence. In Michael Byram and Michael Fleming (eds). ‘Language Learning in Intercultural Perspective: Approaches through drama and ethnography.’ Cambridge: CUP, pp. 255-289




One of the things I presented to the volunteer teachers on the Cidadão pro Mundo project that I mentioned in my last blog was a listening and reading activity that I’ve been using on and off for over 20 years, ever since I saw Ray Mackay presenting it at one of the first TESOL Scotland conferences I ever attended. It is based on a poem by the Liverpudlian poet, Roger McGough, ‘My busconductor’. Like many short poems, it is good for learning vocabulary, building confidence, exploring cultural comparisons (and now, cultural change) – but most of all it is a poem that invites an emotional response. I stopped using it for a while for that very reason, as I’ll explain – but first I’ll set out how Ray taught his audience to use the poem.

The learners are probably around intermediate level. The teacher tells them that they are going to hear a poem about a bus conductor, and gives them a simple vocabulary list:

busconductor kidney
strike bus ticket
texture single
rose child
gas meter quips
factory drunk
stop bedroom
pubs glasses
sky deep
deserted bus shelter
clock on clock off

The learners are invited to copy these words into two columns, one predicting which expressions will appear in the poem, and one predicting which will not. The teacher can check at this stage if the learners do not understand any of the items. The teacher then reads the poem aloud to the learners, and they cross out the words in their two columns, if they hear them. They then check with their neighbour to see who has achieved the more accurate prediction.

The poem goes like this:

‘My Busconductor’ by Roger McGough

My busconductor tells me
he only has one kidney
and that may soon go on strike
through overwork.
Each busticket
takes on now a different shape and texture.
He holds a ninepenny single
as if it were a rose
and puts the shilling in his bag
as a child into a gasmeter.
His thin lips have no quips for fat factorygirls
and he ignores
the drunk who snores
and the oldman who talks to himself
and gets off at the wrong stop.

He goes gently to the bedroom of the bus
to collect
and what familiar shops and pubs pass by
(perhaps for the last time?).
The same old streets look different now
more distinct as through new glasses.
And the sky
was it ever so blue?

And all the time
deepdown in the deserted busshelter of his mind
he thinks about his journey nearly done.
One day he’ll clock on and never clock off
or clock off and never clock on.

The learners quickly realise that the activity is a gentle fraud: all the words in the original list appear in the poem. At a very superficial level, this tells the learners something about the register of poetry: it is unpredictable, in ways that a weather forecast, say, or a business news bulletin are not.

The teacher then shows the poem in full for the learners to read and make sense of. They should know most of the vocabulary by now. The poem is about the transformation of the ordinary: a bus conductor is suffering from a kidney disease and knows he may soon die. His everyday journeys, therefore, become magical – a ticket becomes a rose, and he recovers a childish delight in putting money into his bag. (The poem incidentally teaches us grammatical elision: a Russian learner once asked me why anyone would want to put a child into a gas meter.) The usual irritations – drunks, old people – do not bother him any more as he performs his duties. One day soon, he will go to work, and never go home, or go home, and never go back to work.

There are obvious cultural references – now quite dated – and comparisons that can be made. The double-decker London bus is still a cultural icon, but bus conductors have largely disappeared, along with shillings. In the UK, the driver takes the money as you enter the bus. In Sao Paulo there are bus conductors, but they are behind a kind of metal barrier, and they are seldom in uniform, and not always, well … friendly. They are not always awake. (This perhaps makes sense of the strangest line in the poem, about ‘the bedroom of the bus’ which most learners interpret as upstairs in a double-decker.) But learners can talk about the kinds of behaviour expected on buses around the world – who you pay, how your ticket gets validated (if you get one), and what happens if an inspector gets on.

But that is not really the main reason for using this poem, I think. The main reason is – it’s sad. As the learners puzzle out the implications of the final lines, usually you hear ‘Aaaawwwwhhhh.’ We don’t expect to be sad in an English class – in the UK we are actually trained to act like jazzed up game-show hosts, always smiling through gritted teeth. But a little sadness varies the mood in an English class, as does an intimation of our mortality.

Or does it? I stopped using this poem for a number of years after a summer school in Stirling, in which there was a slightly more mature Spanish student. He obediently worked through the tasks with the group, then after the class was over, asked where he could buy a volume of Roger McGough’s poetry. I was pleased, and told him about the Mersey Poets anthology, and asked him why he liked the poem so much. Well, of course, it turned out that he himself suffered from a kidney disease – actually, he’d had a number of transplants that had not worked too well, and one of the reasons he was on the summer school was that he wanted to get as much travel experience as he could before he … clocked off. I was shocked by this revelation, and immediately started apologising for raising the morbid topic, but no – he stopped me, and insisted that he loved the poem. He wanted more.

But I didn’t dare use it for a while after that. Then I started again, cautiously, with more of a wary eye open for anyone who might be unduly affected by the content. I started using it because I realised that the idea that you can be emotionally affected by a text in a foreign language is often forgotten. We often think of texts as packages of information, clean and sanitized, that we pass from teacher to learner, and learner to learner. But releasing the emotional force of a text can be a powerful learning tool – in many more ways than just linguistically.


Roger McGough, ‘My busconductor’ from D. Goodwin, ed. (2002). ‘101 Poems That Could Save Your Life: An Anthology of Emotional First Aid’, Harper.
See also http://podist.blogspot.com.br/2012/12/my-busconductor-roger-mcgough.html
For more information on Cidadão pro Mundo, see: http://www.cidadaopromundo.org.br/

And with thanks to Ray Mackay.

Classroom cultures

Classroom cultures

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to do some work with a group of around thirty volunteers who give their time to Cidadão pro Mundo, a non-governmental organisation that seeks to increase equality of opportunity through the teaching of English. I heard about the organisation at the Cambridge Day last week, and offered to help out.

‘Great,’ they said. ‘We have a training day next week. You can do 90 minutes with the veterans.’

‘Great,’ I said, suddenly feeling a little apprehensive. Who were these ‘veterans’? I had an unnerving vision of a hard-bitten group of volunteers, with tattoos and eye-patches, comparing the scars earned from their battles to empower learners through English.

Happily, it turned out to be a very enjoyable experience. The ‘veterans’ are a group of friendly volunteers who are already teaching, but who have little or no formal training. We were mainly covering some very basic classroom techniques for elementary students, and reflecting on the components of the language learning task: what your learning goals are, different types of input, the activities that the learners are engaged in, the diverse roles of teacher and learners, and how to vary the pace of classes through the use of different settings, from individual work through pairwork and groupwork, to whole-class activities. We covered some supplementary grammar and dialogue activities, and then we looked at a listening and reading activity, using a poem as input. And we finished off with some ideas for intercultural projects as possible homework: exploring how English is used in the local community.

The morning took me back a few decades to memories of my own initial teacher training. Like many British EFL teachers I came through the equivalent of the Cambridge CELTA course, which in my day was called the Royal Society of Arts Preparatory Certificate in TEFL. I still think it was one of the best things I’ve done – like the volunteers, I had no previous teaching experience and the four-week crash course gave me a set of practical skills and, most important, the confidence to go to Italy and work in a language school for a year. That was the role of these four-week crash courses, after all: to provide fodder for the commercial language schools that had sprung up over Europe, particularly Italy, Spain and Greece.

The course was intense, and in the early 1980s, the teacher was, still, very much the focus of classroom activities, though that was just beginning to change. We drilled, we chorused, we mimed, we marshalled our pairs and groups, we transferred information and we made damn sure authentic communication occurred (at least in the final stage of our ‘presentation-practice-production’ cycle). We tried to cut down on our ‘teacher-talking-time’, though for me that has remained a serious challenge. What we didn’t realise at the time was that we were coming to embody a particular type of teacher in a particular type of classroom. It hardened into the stereotype of the teacher as a kind of game-show host, or even stand-up comedian … at teachers’ conferences, now, I see the most accomplished educationalists of my generation doing extremely polished routines on the stage, in front of hundreds of fellow professionals who have come to expect entertainment as much as education.

But how many of our assumptions about ‘the good lesson’ and how much of our understanding of ‘professional skills’ really do transfer to different teaching situations? One of the best – and most honest – accounts I know of professional development is Adrian Holliday’s ‘Appropriate Methodology and Social Context’, which reflects in part on his failure to be an effective teacher-trainer in Egyptian universities. He came to the conclusion that the problem was not that Egyptian and British teachers had different expectations about teaching. It was that the university system and the commercial language school system (that gave birth to the ‘communicative language teacher’) were culturally miles apart. Egyptian universities shared with British universities rather conservative assumptions about status, hierarchical authority, the supremacy of disciplinary knowledge and the appropriate behaviour of professors and students. Egyptian commercial language schools had embraced the ethos of the teacher as facilitator, even as the servant of the learners, the primacy of skills over content, and the idea that learning might be fun, all concepts that those in universities (both students and professors) saw as trivialising. When Holliday tried to take the insights of the commercial language schools into the university system, his success was limited – and he realised over time that, to effect educational change, he had to begin to understand the values of the system in which he was teaching.

Over the past 30 years I have taught in commercial schools and – mostly – in the universities, and I’ve enjoyed both systems. Each educational culture is still quite distinct – though there are tensions within each and overlaps between them. University language departments still uneasily negotiate the tension between the teaching of skills (= low value) and content knowledge (= high value), while commercial schools still generally privilege skills over content.

The slightly scary 90 minutes I spent yesterday with the folks from Cidadão pro Mundo was my first, hesitant, engagement with the voluntary sector in Brazil. I’d like to do more, but I realise, like Adrian Holliday, that to be more effective, I need to become an educational ethnographer. I need to loaf and lurk around some classes and do some observation, and actually meet some of the learners. I need to find out what they want, how they work, and what they value. Then I can begin to rethink what appropriate training for this particular set of learners and volunteers might be.


Holliday, A. (1994). Appropriate Methodology And Social Context. Cambridge University Press.

For more information on Cidadão pro Mundo, see: http://www.cidadaopromundo.org.br