Category Archives: Grammar and Vocabulary

Controlled oral practice in ELT – what happened to drilling?

[This article was originally published as What happened to drilling? in the BELTA Bulletin in October 2014. It’s available on-line for BELTA members here. It’s reprinted here with the permission of the editor.]

As communicative language teachers we are told that drilling is bad. We’re told it is pointless, uncommunicative and deprived of any meaning. It also makes our classes teacher–centred.

Before you jump on the bandwagon and continue the rant, I’d like you to pause for a moment and ask yourself whether drilling really has to be so horribly boring and uncommunicative as we are repeatedly told. I hope to show you with this article that, no – drilling doesn’t have to be boring. It can actually be fun, meaningful, effective and rewarding for the students.

In this article I’m going to first look at eight common criticisms of drilling and controlled oral practice (COP) and show why they are not all together accurate. Then I’ll describe a couple of COP activities which you can use in class, and offer some final tips on using COP.

Let’s then look at the criticisms.

  1. Criticism: Too much emphasis put on accuracy, hindering the development of real communication skills. Rebuttal: It is true that these exercises focus on accuracy. CLT does not. And this is why a little bit of COP can do your students a lot of good. By no means should COP become the main focus of all your lessons. It’s only part of the diet, like broccoli. And even though we might not like the taste, we still eat it every now and then, because we know it’s good for us. The same rule applies to COP.
  2. Criticism: Only useful when practising language students have just encountered. Rebuttal: Usually COP is seen as a prelude to the real icing on the cake, that is, the free speaking activity. But why not use it as a quick revision to address fossilised errors, or give students quick extra practice in something they are struggling with?
  3. Criticism: COP is only applicable and valid when teaching lower levels. Rebuttal: Why should that be? COP can and should be used at any level. It helps students automatise the language they might already know but still struggle to use confidently and naturally, or eradicate fossilised errors.
  4. Criticism: COP does not promote learner autonomy and is teacher–centred. Rebuttal: That would be true if your class were to consist entirely of COP. If done judiciously, it is actually empowering since students will get more comfortable with the language, and are more likely to use it later on in more communicative activities. And it does not need to be teacher–centred. Put them in pairs. Put one student in charge of the drill. There are a number of options which allow you to disappear.
  5. Criticism: Usually only word or sentence–based, decontextualised and very restrictive. Rebuttal: Whenever possible, use real–life situations. Set the context and make it meaningful. Try to implement natural features of the spoken discourse into your drill. Use drills which allow for more than one answer, and which are more flexible.
  6. Criticism: It goes against some styles of teaching, especially the role of the teacher as a facilitator. Rebuttal: Give it a go. Once you and your students get comfortable with it, COP can become an important part of your facilitative approach. Just don’t overdo it. Too much of anything is never good. But if done correctly, COP can be really enjoyable for the students. It can also nicely change the focus and pace of the class.
  7. Criticism: Being able to repeat in a parrot like fashion does not mean the student will remember or be able to use the language in real conversation. Rebuttal: That might be true. But then if they don’t repeat the language a few times in a safe and controlled environment, will they be more or less likely to use it in a real conversation? Probably less. Plus, what they are trying to memorise and automatise, are not the examples they are drilling, but the language patterns embedded in them. COP can also help with avoidance.
  8. Criticism: The course book writers ignore it, and so should I! Rebuttal: Since the advent of CLT, drilling has been heavily put down, and course book writers responded by ignoring COP in their materials. It’s like switching from only eating meat to being a vegan.

Having dealt with some of the most common criticisms, let’s look at examples of COP.

Photo by Rob! under Creative Commons from:
Photo by Rob! under Creative Commons from:

Substitution Drills:

This is probably the COP I’ve used most often myself, as it’s readily applicable for almost any language point. The basic idea is that the learners repeat the modelled grammar using the new information given, e.g. “I’ve been reading for two hours”.

T: midday

S: I’ve been reading since midday.

T: she

S: She’s been reading for two hours.

Make sure the examples lead to meaningful and probable sentences. Once you and your students get comfortable with this drill, consider some of the below variations, which aim to increase the cognitive difficulty and make the COP more natural and meaningful.

Multiple Substitution Drills:

Instead of substituting one item, students substitute two. So with the example from above:

T: he/drinking

S: He’s been drinking since midday.

Progressive Drills:

The difference between this one and the classic substitution drill is that you don’t come back to the original sentence, but continue from the last. If you do it as a whole class, it causes other students to listen carefully to what the previous student has said as they’ll have to pick up from there.

T: play football

S1: He’s been playing football since midday.

T: two hours

S2: He’s been playing football for two hours.

Open ended Drills:

Students repeat the modelled language, or finish a sentence, making it logical or true for themselves. The idea is they have to manipulate not only the grammar, but more importantly fill in the content in a very short time, which cognitively is of course much more challenging then a classic substitution drill. At the same time, it is arguably more natural. For example, to practice “in order to/so that” for purpose:

T: Why do birds have wings?

S: In order to fly./So that they can fly (or anything else that makes sense)

True/False drills:

Students manipulate the content of the sentence to make it true or false for them. They are more challenging cognitively and require the learners to process the language at a slightly deeper level. They are also more meaningful than classic substitution drills. For example, to practice “used to”

T: play football

S1: I used to play football as a child

S2 I didn’t use to play football as a child.

Mumble/Silent drills:

The teacher models the TL and the students repeat it quietly. It’s less intimidating then doing it out loud, and the students can be told to repeat the same phrase a few times under their breath, which gives them more practice and increases their confidence (I also assign it to my students as a ongoing HW, i.e. speak to yourself quietly or in your mind and repeat the language you have problems with.


A sentence is built from the end by adding short (between eight and ten syllables), natural chunks of language. Each chunk is modelled by the teacher and repeated by the students.

  1. the test
  2. for the test
  3. for the test
  4. should have
  5. should have studied
  6. I should have studied
  7. I should have studied for the test.

As Chris Ozog suggests in his article (see references below), we should focus on natural chunks of language, i.e. it would have been odd to drill have studied as a chunk. He also points out that back-chaining “also serves to promote noticing of features of connected speech” and “may help the students recognise fluently delivered English better”.

Jazz Chants:

They involve repetition of short, multi-word phrases at a consistent rhythm. They were popularised by Carolyn Graham, and here you can see video of her demonstrating how to create your own jazz chant.

Photo under Creative Commons from:
Photo under Creative Commons from:

To sum up, any good COP should fulfil one or all of the below aims:

    • to establish new habits and minimise or get rid of the bad ones, some of which might be deeply ingrained (e.g. fossilisation, avoidance)
    • boost learners confidence with language by practising it at reasonably natural speed
    • to increase spontaneity, i.e. to facilitate making the quantum leap from having to think about it very hard, to simply saying it correctly without thinking (Wilson, M.)

You might consider making these aims clear to your class. Students often want to know why they are doing what they are doing. And if they understand that the purpose of the activity is to improve their speaking, they are much more likely to give it a go, despite some initial reluctance.

Read up and continue drilling:

Aspects of contemporary English – TESOL Italy 2015 talk by Jon Hird


IMG_20151114_133837This is the fourth of the series of posts on the talks I attended at TESOL Italy 2015. You can read the previous ones here:

  1. ELF and TESOL: a change of subject? plenary by Henry Widdowson
  2. Learning to teach listening: students’ and teachers’ perceptions. by Chiara Bruzzano
  3. ‘How to join communicative pressure and cooperation in a speaking or writing activity’ by Paolo Torresan

The session started with prompts for questions from which we had to formulate correct questions to ask our partner. Afterwards, we had to try to remember the information we heard, and check with our partner it was right by asking tag questions. This can be seen below:


But why bother with the complexities of the ‘correct’ question tags, if we can simply use ‘innit?’ in all cases. Or can we?

Of course, many would argue that ‘innit’ as a question tag is uneducated, uncultivated, vulgar and – worst of all – ungrammatical! But is it? Jon Hird’s talk aimed to question the prescriptive attitude to the language, and through vivid and hilarious examples of language (mis)use show that any language, especially one as extensively used as English, is a living thing which never stops evolving and changing.

However, attempts to dictate and prescribe what is ‘correct’ English are by no means new. Already a few hundred years ago Jonathan Swift was convinced that attempts must be made in order to ‘ascertain’ and ‘fix’ the English language forever. A very often used argument to support this is that otherwise the language will inevitably decay, and that ‘vulgar’ forms will become the norm, while the ‘cultivated’ and ‘correct’ ones will be forced into oblivion (you can read my post about what is ‘correct’ English here, and a listening lesson plan on a similar theme here).

Despite such claims, there is of course no evidence that this might have happened in the past or might occur at any time in the future. Interestingly, as far as English is concerned, there are only a few dozen grammar features that are considered non-standard. So in the next part of the talk, we look at some examples of non-standard English.

The first example is by Jagger: “Come off of it”.

The second one is now spreading very rapidly (as a grammar plague?), not just in English, but also in other languages (it’s definitely the case in Polish and Spanish, and a teacher sat next to me said that Swedish was one of the victims of this grammar ‘vulgarism’ too). So, many English speakers now use less both with countable and uncountable nouns. It has become so common that we hardly notice it any more, unless a grammar pundit points it out. This results in famous companies making grammar ‘mistakes’ in their ads. For example, British Airways might tell you that there are “less than 10 seats left”. If you’re thinking of grabbing a quick coffee, go for Starbucks, because they are a green company, and as they put it: “Less napkins. More plants. More planet”. Can’t argue with that.

Next comes the example of the infamous tag question we already saw at the very beginning, innit? The tag is so widespread, that it’s well bad, innit? It was wicked, innit? He’s not coming, innit? And so on. Just stop by and listen to how people speak. There’s no more room for the ‘correct’ question tags. They’re too cumbersome. Too long. Too varied. Innit?

Another example of non-standard English is teenspeak. One of the examples that entered ‘adultspeak’ and became quite widespread and popular a few years ago was chillax. What a brilliant word! I remember hearing it for the first time, and it was almost a revelation. Now you could chill and relax at the same time. And you had a word that described it! Well bad, innit? Unfortunately for the teens, as soon as they found out the word was spreading among adults, they had to drop it. It wasn’t wicked any more.

But if we had to choose a word in English that was by far the most widely spread and used more frequently, it would have to be ‘like’. Jon shows us a transcript of his teenage son speaking which very clearly illustrates that ‘like’ is everywhere now:


One more example Jon gives is LOL. First used on the Internet, it’s now started an exciting and adventurous linguistic life of its own. In short, it’s gone completely out of control. So now you can say: lol at you! Lols! That’s so lols!

I literally lolled when I saw these examples.

For some, this is a clear indication that language is going to the dogs. And if this decay is to be prevented and reversed strict measures need to be taken. For example, banning certain words from use:


One aspect of English that tends to drive some grammar pundits up the wall is the uncanny ability of the English language and its speakers to turn any word into a verb. Even LOL is now a verb. Anything can be a verb. As Humpty Dumpty put it, the only question is, who is to be the master. And verbing, as it’s sometimes called (yes, apparently ‘verb’ is a verb too), has been going on for centuries. According to Pinker, “It’s what makes English English”.

But of course, certain people don’t like the way in which this process ‘impacts’ the English language. For example, BBC went as far as banning the use of ‘impact’ as a verb. We can only see how this might ‘impact’ the English used by BBC reporters, but looking back at the history of English, ‘impact’ as a verb is there to stay.

There are many other more interesting examples of verbing words in English, though. For example, if you’re on Twitter, you can ‘favourite’ others’ tweets. No one questions that now you ‘google’ things. However, you might want to ‘wikipedia’ it too. And if you’re playing Angry Birds, well, you can angrybirds it up, yo!


So, did you have a good time conferencing? I certainly did. And Jon’s talk was well bad, innit?

PS The issue English teachers are faced with is whether any of the above uses of language should be taught in class. They’re incredibly widespread, and students – especially the ones studying in an English-speaking country, or watching a lot of TV and films in English – are bound to come across them sooner or later. Would you teach ‘innit’, ‘like’ or verbing to your students? Why (not)? Let me know what you think in the comments section.

TESOL Convention 2015: ‘A commonly overlooked aspect of teaching verb tenses’ by Cynthia Zocca De Roma and Jelena Runić


In this report from the TESOL 2015 Convention that took place two weeks ago, I’ll summarise the presentation given by Cynthia Zocca De Roma and Jelena Runić. For more reports from the TESOL 2015 convention, click on this link.

The aims of Cynthia’s and Jelena’s presentation were to show the participants that:

  1. we’re more familiar with the lexical aspect then you think
  2. lexical aspect is only mentioned in grammar books in passing, but should be talked about more explicitly in class

The speaker also pointed out what this workshop wasn’t. First, it wasn’t about Lexical Approach, which is different from lexical aspect (read my post on Lexical Approach here). It also wasn’t aimed to be a rant on textbooks.

2015-03-27 09.36.27

Finally, in the talk the presenter focused mainly on [present perfect simple (PPS) and present perfect continuous (PPC).

First, we were shown 9 example sentences which used either PPS and PPC. * means that the sentence is grammatically incorrect.

  1. I’ve eaten a sandwich
  2. I’ve been eating a sandwich
  3. I’ve worked here for 10 years
  4. I’ve been working here for 10 years
  5. *I’ve met John since 2002
  6. I’ve been friends with John since 2002
  7. I met John in 2002
  8. I was friends with John in 2002
  9. I’ve met a lot of people since I arrived in Toronto.

2015-03-27 09.58.38

In view of the above definition, we have two options to explain the difference between sentences 1 and 2, and 3 and 4, as well as 9. Option 1 is to do this on a case by case basis. However, many exceptions weaken the predictive power. Option 2 – expand the rules, which more often than not can cause more confusion.

Fortunately, there’s an easier way out, because the differences between the examples above, as well as the mistake in example 5, don’t come from a misunderstanding of tense, i.e. the grammatical aspect; but from misunderstanding the implicit meaning of each of the verbs, i.e. the lexical aspect.

First, though, what is tense and what is aspect?

2015-03-27 09.38.02 (1)

The grammatical aspect helps us locate events in time relative to a moment of reference. On the other hand, the lexical aspect:

2015-03-27 09.38.58

I agree with the presenter that while the classification of predicates might be clear for teachers and linguists, it is definitely too detailed and complicated for English language learners. As a result, a simpler division was proposed by the speaker:

  1. Stative – e.g. love, like, hate
  2. Habitual – performed habitually, e.g. live, study, teach
  3. EPISODIC – performed at specific moments, e.g. graduate, eat, start, move

Bearing the above classification in mind, we can now come back to our 9 examples to see how it can help us explain them in perhaps a simpler way than standard grammar explanations.

Using episodic verbs with PPC or PPS yields different interpretations, e.g. examples 1 and 2:

2015-03-27 10.01.28

On the other hand, using the habitual aspect with PPC and PPS doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence (examples 3 and 4).

As we saw above, explanations in grammar books of PPS and PPC can be a bit conflicting. For example, when learners encounter PPS, they’re told it’s used for actions that started in the past and continue until present. Then, when they learn PPC, they’re told exactly the same thing, which can be confusing to say the least.

On the other hand, we could try to make the lexical aspect slightly more explicit to show the learners why examples 1 and 2 are very different, whereas 3 and 4 essentially the same. Similarly, the lexical aspect helps us understand why sentence 5 is wrong, but 7 correct, i.e. because ‘to meet’ is an episodic verb, incompatible with the PPS or PPC.

Interestingly, the aspects can be different in different languages, something which wasn’t pointed out in the workshop and which I didn’t get a chance to mention in the Q&As. For example, in Spanish, French and Portuguese the verb ‘to know’ (conocer, connaitre and conhecer, respectively) can be both episodic and state verbs. This leads to students producing sentences such as:

  • *I knew John two years ago (to mean – I MET John two years ago).

Knowing this and pointing it out to students, can potentially help them improve their command of grammar. Yet another reason to learn another language, colleagues! 🙂

So taking all this into account, how can we help students notice the lexical aspect?

  1. explicitly mention lexical aspect with grammatical aspect
  2. practise classifying verbs stative vs habitual vs episodic
  3. point out the role of the verb tense and the context in constructing meaning – simplifies the description of each tense

Finally, the presenter concluded that the awareness of the links between grammatical and lexical aspect can be beneficial for students.

What do you think? Would you also use lexical aspect to explain the differences between the 9 example sentences? Or would you do this differently?

Would love to hear your comments.

TESOL Convention 2015: ‘Building bridges between online corpora and grammar textbooks’ by Ashley Hew

One of the sessions I attended on Thursday morning after the one on apps and websites for teaching pronunciation, which I described here, was about teaching grammar in EAP settings using academic corpora.

In the workshop we looked at how Michigan Corpus, or the MICUSP, can be used in EAP classes to teach grammar. MICUSP consists only of academic essays written by students at the university of Michigan. Usually there are senior or graduate students and their work has been selected based on their academic achievements. The samples contain both native and non-native English speakers work.


If we compare it to COCA then, the samples are much more limited (i.e. only students work). However, when teaching university students, this might prove to be an advantage since the answers we get will be much more focused and relevant to the students context. MICUSP is also much less complicated to use, especially for students. While MICUSP is only written English, its equivalent of spoken English is MICASE and can be found here. They’re both free to use.

All the activities that Ashley showed us during the session can be found on her blog here.

Some of the questions you might want to ask yourself when preparing activities using MICUSP are:

  • do the samples fit the grammar explanation in the book?
  • dos sts need pre-teaching vocabulary?
  • should I pre-teach any cultural references?
  • should I focus on a particular discipline (e.g. engineering) or have a wider sample?

You can narrow down the search by discipline, NS/NNS, paper type, level, textual features and student level.

Let me and Ashley know if you use any of the activities on her blog or create your own using MICUSP.

Learning vocabulary with Memrise – my response to the critics

memrise header

In one of the very first posts on this blog – ‘Mem up your memory’ – I wrote about my language learning experience using Memrise, a free on-line software which can help you learn new vocabulary. If you’ve never used it before, I encourage you to read the original post to get an idea of what Memrise is about. In short, some of the strengths and features of Memrise are:

  • create mems – they’re mnemonic devices, such as pictures, sounds, rhymes, etc., used to help you create a vivid mental association and learn the word more quickly. For example, c56db-memseethe










  • create your own courses – there are thousands of courses already on-line, but the real learning starts when you create courses with words you or your students are learning
  • leaderboard – you can connect with other users and see their learning progress. For a teacher this can help track how well your students are doing, while for them it adds a competitive edge, because they can see how many points other learners are scoring
  • ignore button – a nice feature if you’re using courses created by others, which might often contain many words you already know, or simply don’t want to learn. Click on ignore and the word won’t appear in your learning/reviewing sessions any more
  • free app for Android and iOS
  • spaced-time repetition – to me, this is by far the biggest advantage of Memrise over other similar websites as it provides a solid learning and revision structure. The software reminds you when you should revise certain words, depending on when and how many times you’ve reviewed that item and on your previous performance, i.e. the words you find more difficult to memorize will come up more often

In this post, however, I wanted to give a long overdue response to the most common criticisms of Memrise, some of which were already pointed out by Hugh Dellar back when I wrote ‘Mem up your memory‘ (which you can read if you go to the comments section of that post).

  • Criticism #1: The definitions are wrong, poorly graded, or otherwise inappropriate

Since the courses on Memrise are created by other learners, it is inevitable that they will contain mistakes. However, it’s not an integral fault of the software, but rather of those who use it. Consequently, as teachers, when we  create courses for our learners, we can ensure that we not only provide appropriate definitions, but more importantly: examples and collocations.

  • Criticism #2: You learn single words, rather than chunks:

Again, this depends on how you set up the course. For example, instead of isolated items, we can provide 2-3 word chunks or even whole sentences. For example, in this course I created students practice question formation. The ‘definitions’ are the prompts on the right and the students have to type in the question on the left:

memrise 2



memrise 1

  •  Criticism #3: the words are random, irrelevant, too easy:

This is definitely true in many of the courses available as they were created by users to fit their educational needs. And this is where, in my opinion, the true power of Memrise lies. If you look at some of the courses I created for myself – for example, this one – I’m sure the list will look really random. You might also find many of the words useless. To me, however, the list makes perfect sense. It just reflects the things I was learning at the time in French, the new words I came across that I wanted to learn. It is random, because it’s personalised. If you create a course for your students with the words that come up in class, I’m sure they will find them far from random. In addition, there’s the ‘ignore’ button, which I referred to above and which you can see in the picture below:

memrise ignore items

When you tick the box to ignore a word, it will stop coming up in your learning and review sessions. You can also ‘unignore’ it:

memrise ignore items #2


  • Criticism #4: there’s no pronunciation:

Unfortunately, unlike Quizlet, Memrise doesn’t have a built-in engine that would automatically read the words in the course. As a result, you have to add them yourself. This, however, is very easy and quick. You can do this in the ‘edit’ mode by clicking on the ‘record’ button as shown in the picture below:

memrise record


  • Criticism #5: the ‘mems’ are weird:

They have to be weird! The more personal and bizarre, the better. We’re all different, so it’s logical that the mems other users create, mightn’t appeal to us (think back to my mem for ‘seethe’). The most important thing, though, is that YOUR mem helps YOU memorize the word.

  • Criticism #6: words in review sessions come up randomly:

This is true. But if they came up in order as they are on the list, you could possibly respond correctly because you remembered the order, not the meaning. In multilevel courses, you can reduce the randomness of review sessions by clicking on a particular level and only reviewing those words.

  • Criticism #7: you’re not tested on usage:

I’d definitely welcome a change in this respect. Especially, when it comes to courses which only involve one to one translations or word/definition, which tells you little about how you can use this word. Having said that, there’s nothing stopping you from setting up the course so that students learn chunks or functional language, or that the definitions provide example sentences or typical collocations, like in the picture below. The new word is on the left and the definitions students are tested on are on the right:

memrise 4

 Finally, you should still review the words with your students in class to check if they can use them correctly and to provide some communicative context.

  • Criticism #8: it gets boring and repetitive:

Unlike for example Quizlet, the learning and reviewing modes in Memrise can get very repetitive after a while. It’s either multiple choice, putting words in the correct order, or typing them. It’d definitely be great to see a few more game-like options to increase engagement and motivation. However, I wonder if making it more game-like does actually help you memorize the words. When I used Quizlet, I had the feeling that sometimes I was paying more attention to ‘winning’ the game and scoring points, rather than to the words on the screen. Still, it would be nice to have the option of a few other learning and revision modes.

  • Criticism #9: more work for the teacher:

Yes and no. I imagine most of you keep a record of vocabulary that comes up in class, anyway. The only thing you have to do then, is to transfer it to Memrise. I usually do it right at the end of the class, and it only takes a couple of minutes. Also, I encourage you to get your students involved. For example, a different student is responsible for adding the words after each class. You’ll still have to check it for mistakes, but you’re killing to birds with one stone: you have less work and students become more independent learners.

All in all, I’m not trying to argue that Memrise is the best or the ultimate solution to quickly expanding your vocabulary. My and my students’ experience suggests, though, that it does work pretty well. However, you will still need to use the newly learned words in context. And to experiment with them, making a few errors on the way. Otherwise, the words will slowly fade away.

In the next post I’m going to share with you some practical tips about using Memrise with your students.

For more articles on Grammar and vocabulary click here. If you’re interested in learning languages more effectively, you can find articles with tips here.