How not to teach English

Here are some of the things that still happen in many classrooms in Greece – do they also happen in other parts of the world?

  1. The teacher and the students talk to each other mainly using the students’ mother tongue.
  2. The teacher asks the students to read a text aloud. Then the teacher asks the students some questions.
  3. The teacher asks the students to translate the text “to understand it better”.
  4. The teacher analyses and explicates the text word by word and phrase by phrase.
  5. The students listen attentively and copy the examples or formulae from the board
  6. The vocabulary is copied with its translation and sometimes the pronunciation in the mother tongue
  7. The teacher dictates some sentences to the students. The dictation is then collected, corrected and marked by the teacher.
  8. Or the teacher calls out vocabulary from the ‘companion’ in the mother tongue and the student writes them down in English.
  9. The students’ notebooks are then collected, and the spelling is corrected and marked by the teacher.
  10. Then the teacher reads the rules from the grammar book. The teacher reads the examples and explaing the grammar rules in detail.
  11. Then the students do some exercises from the grammar book or the companion.
  12. There are many exercises in the grammar book and the teacher asks the students to do them at home and bring to class next time.
  13. Then it’s time to do some listening from the cassette. The teacher plays the tape first and then asks the students to look at their book and answer the questions.
  14. Sometimes the teacher asks the students to write a composition at home so as not to waste precious classroom time.
  15. Sometimes the teacher and the students have a discussion. The teacher asks each student in a turn a question. Each student answers, usually giving a short sentence. Then the teacher explains their own opinion using as many words as possible.

The steps above can be followed in a different order, too. The model is very flexible. In fact, it does not really matter at all which order you follow in this model of teaching.

Results of the ‘method’

The students know a lot of vocabulary by heart and they can tell you the rules of ‘usage’ of many grammar patterns. The students cannot communicate in the real world when confronted by native speakers – or if they can (and there are always exceptions to every rule), they sound very odd, almost like a grammar book talking at you. Very often the teacher does not know this; or if they hear this type of conversation, they are unaware that it sounds odd to the native speaking ear because it may well be the same type of talk they produce themselves.

Is this how you teach?

If you recognise yourself in the model of teaching I have described above, there are various possibilities

  • You have never followed any teacher development programmes
  • You are not familiar with any other techniques of  teaching
  • You are not aware of the range of creating and productive activities available
  • You are replicating the way you yourself learnt English (or other foreign language) more than 20 or 30 years ago
  • You are not even aware that this model of teaching is following the footsteps of the Grammar-Translation Method, used before the 40’s (in the previous century…)

or You  have followed a teacher training course which taught you some techniques but

  • your course was not practical enough; you had a lot of theory or your tutors lectured a lot
  • you did not learn how to use the techniques and make them part of your teaching
  • you did not have teaching practices with real students
  • you use none of the techniques you learnt because you work too many hours or you don’t think you get paid enough to also have to prepare your lessons
  • you are not convinced that these techniques work
  • every time you tried any techniques you learnt  they didn’t work; you do not know why and cannot fix it
  • your director of studies is against those “new-fangled” techniques and won’t let you use them anyway

Resistance & Denial

The reason why teachers do not see the need for professional training and development is firmly embedded in the way any local set up hires without high educational standards, avoids encouraging professional development, or even actively discourages it,  the reason being that untrained and unambitious staff is and will remain cheap labour. Even trained teachers are put in a position where their training is made to seem unnecessary; hence why pay them better if they are discouraged to use any novel, innovative techniques and methodologies? From the mouths of employers with beautiful life styles, you hear sad sobbing stories about how they cannot make ends meet, so therefore, teachers should be paid next to nothing and the untrained teacher is an easier victim to poor pay and less than poor working conditions.  Trained teachers will want stuff anyway; they expect to give photocopies to their students (in some schools, teachers find themselves actually paying for photocopies out of their own pockets). From the mouths of employers who have no background in pedagogy but found this be a lucrative business you hear: “So what is wrong with the way I teach? That’s the way I learnt and I learnt well” “We cannot pay teachers more than X amount because they have attended a teachers’ course!”. God forbid!!! These are the educational leaders whose only evidence of leadership is in determining to keep teachers in as lowly a state as possible – so they cannot complain or demand more than they are given.

Is this how you are being taught?

If the lesson I have described reminds you of the way you are being taught either at a languge centre or by a private tutor (face-to-face or online) my advice is: “Do something better with your free time”. You can do far better by following a language exchange where you give someone oral practice in your own language and someone else helps you practise your English!


… discussion to be continued

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39 replies

  1. Sounds terrible. I know of many non-English speakers who are learning the language via Skype. They chat to their English teacher about whatever subject areas are most relevant to their personal or professional lives. And they can do this whether they’re in Vladivostok or Valparaiso. They pay via paypal.

  2. I recently asked a 23 – year -old Greek girl I know socially what her future plans are. She said: ” Well, I’m graduating from the Philosophy Department of Athens University ( with this degree, one can teach Greek Literature, Modern Greek etc) this month, then I’m taking a crash course in order to sit the Cambridge FCE exam in December 2010 and then I’m going to start teaching English”.
    When I pointed out that you need at the very least the CPE in order to be allowed to teach English in Greece, she replied:
    ”No, no due to the fact that I will be a Philosophy Graduate all I need to teach English is a B2 certificate. Anyway, what’s so hard about teaching???? you just walk into a classroom and …. say things.”
    the above did happen – it’s all true. I swear.
    so, judging by this the situation you describe above is very likely to continue at least in Greece.

    • It’s really a very difficult situation to change and not just for the private school sector. I was talking to one of the School Advisors for English in Athens earlier today and, despite the fact that she does her best to offer the teachers in her area (she has to work with 500 teachers!!! ) only a very small percentage is willing to change from this model of teaching to anything else.

      You know, the beauty of this model is you don’t actually have to prepare….

      • I think that things do not change in the private sector and that kind of ‘teacher’ continues to work that way because for some reason parents are involved in teaching. I had some of them asking me why I do this and that in the classroom, they were amazed by the fact that homework wasn’t exercises from the ‘workbook’ but projects in multimedia with sound pictures etc.
        It was all new to them at the beginning of the year, but now you’ll see my J.Bs’ working on the IWB as professionals.
        It’s up to us to innovate and change the way and model of teaching.
        (It’s a lot easier for me since I teach in my own school)

        There are a lot of schools in my area that still use obsolete methodology and books as well.
        When I asked a colleague why she hadn’t attended any seminars,workshops etc she answered : Why pay that amount? I don’t need it, I can download 2-3 pages fron the internet.
        It is obvious to me why she’s still teaching as described above.

  3. I think this style of teaching is actually globally more common than we would like to believe. over years of meeting and watching teachers in all sorts of weird places i have come to the conclusion that we can draw a parallel with the beliefs and superstitions about the body and how it works (and some people still think you catch cold from being cold, going out with wet hair etc) which were current for far longer than modern knowledge has influenced the way we manage our health – with the very obvious result we mostly live longer!
    We must assume that everything a teacher does in the classroom is based on some fundamental belief or assumption, even if these are unexamined (very interesting work by Simon Borg on this subject). I speculate that the underlying belief here is connected to traditional views of education as a body of knowledge which must be committed to memory, sometimes linked to religious practice and background, because traditionally that’s where educated and wise people were mostly to be found.
    I also think that there are socio-economic factors at work here – in my school days teaching was one of the few professions open to educated women, a situation which has fortunately changed for educated women. As economies have opened up and created all kinds of new jobs and professions and specialties never dreamt of a few generations ago, teaching is no longer the only route for an educated person and in fact its rewards being relatively limited, it doesn’t attract the wide range of highly educated and intellectually sophisticated people it ought to. Of course anyone reading this is an exception to this!
    So I guess what I’m saying is that this view of teaching, which I believe to be far more prevalent than we would like to think, is linked to society and its development in broad general ways. This is not to say that we have to improve society before we can improve education, just that it’s something of a barometer. Perhaps in fact the reverse can be true – improve education and you will improve other aspects of society! but it isn’t just about Greece – it’s about human beings.

    • Hi Sue,

      I think you are absolutely right about this one, it is the underlying very strong values and beliefs that we really have to battle with, most often unexamined, as you say.

      It is a rather sad testimony you bring to this post, that in fact this is the prevalent mode globally. As you well know, in the Greek local context, becoming a teacher of English is really so very easy, well, so long as you can get yourself a Proficiency in English Certificate of some kind, you are given licence to teach.

      The university graduates do not fare that much better. All reports support the fact that graduates are not trained to be teachers, there is no compulsory year in a teacher training college of some kind, and they do not even have to be present for lectures; just appear on the exams and pass.

      Again, memorization of content…..

      Unfortunately, the kinds of change that will improve the quality of this educational system are not in anyone’s agenda, at least at present. The public sector is populated by a generation of teachers who don’t just follow my model to a T; they also think they’re doing a great job.

      This is really depressing stuff; society cannot change by being educated by people without the appropriate education and training; and the results are all too evident, at political, economic and social levels.

      You can love Greece for its beauty but it can also drive you up the wall with the mentality that thinks you can make omelettes without using any eggs.

      I guess I was asking for it but something has to give….

      Thank you for stopping by and leaving your thoughts on this topic.


      P.S. Last year millions of euros were spent to buy notebooks for all the students in the first gymnasium. Has anyone trained the teachers to use them or are they gathering dust in the school cupboards?

  4. Thanks, Marisa, for these reflective thoughts on teaching. I don’t know what happens in other language schools in my country. In the language school where I work, we teachers, are encouraged to be creative. This year I’ve been surprised. I decided to use classroom blogs and wikis because I think they´re highly beneficial for the learning process and encouraging for my students. I’ve done it without expecting a financial reward. That is I’ve done it as part of my classes planning but the language school director has decided to pay me extra monthly money to me for using technology in the classroom and for organising these blogs and wikis for my students to go on working after class.

    • Marisa,

      That sounds like a great director although I know you would keep doing this anyway without expecting to be paid extra. But it’s great to be appreciated in this or other ways. Great teachers don’t just work for the money.

      The other Marisa 🙂

    • Marisa Pavan, you’re lucky! I believe classroom time is never enough and students learn more in a social environment. I joined a popular social network for young people, so I could talk to them (in my own unpaid time) but when the school found out, they explicitly forbid me to speak to these students out of school hours (even by email) because they’re under-aged!

  5. Sad but true in a great too many many cases. Those that do the job well are struggling to convince parents that there are other ways of teaching and that communication is involved in the equation.

    • Exactly, Barbara, having to justify good practices is sometimes equally frustrating, but I suspect this is much more common in the private sector and not in the state school sector. Have a look at the end of this short piece on my other blog.

  6. I sometimes think that this is the way in most parts of the world, and WE are the oddities. My students from Saudi Arabia, Libya and other Arab countries are used to this kind of passivity as learners. They like to quote to me an Arabic saying: ‘the teacher is a prophet!’ meaning he (usually a he) is not to be gainsaid – even if he knows bugger all about teaching languages. Along with this style of teaching there comes a lack of critical thinking, a belief that any written source is unimpeachable simply because it IS written, and a belief that the finished product (an answer, an essay, a presentation) matters far more than the process from which it results. Indeed the process is usually completely ignored.

    I’ve been pleasantly surprised by our recent intake of students from China – they are a remarkably clued-up and pro-active bunch and their study skills put the Arabs in the shade. Not sure how many of the Arabs have actually noticed this yet!

    • It is disappointing but I am beginning to suspect that what you say is true, Steve. I guess it is just the most voluble members of our community that we get to hear, teachers or teacher educators interested in professional development.

      We may have underestimated the numbers of those who are silent and do not participate in any conversations about teaching….


  7. You could substitute ‘Greece’ for ‘Japan’ and still have an accurate description of a commonly-found classroom. What I say below refers to my experience of the situation in Japan and is based on extended discussions with many Japanese teachers of English about their methodology.

    I suspect that the grammar-translation method (GTM) is used because the professors actually believe that it works. It did for them — they insist — and they can see no reason why it shouldn’t for their charges. What they fail to realise is that they have put in hundreds or thousands of extra study hours and have learnt the language often in more communicative environments than they set up in their classrooms. The more self-aware teachers tell me that the GTM served two key purposes in their lives: It gave them a motivation to study English more deeply, and it provided them with a structural understanding of the language which aided their independent, communicative self-study.

    Certainly for Japan, their argument to use GTM *seems* to hold water. Most folk will never need or use English for their lives and (so the argument continues) the GMT weeds out those who have neither aptitude nor ability in English. The added plus that marking exams and final grading becomes a synch is not lost on them, either. I find this narrow attitude such a pity as I feel that a lot more types of learner are being lost and with that the joy of foreign language learning is an impossible dream for most.

    The real issue is that without a direct knowledge of other methods of instruction (including the eventual effects of said instruction, the hows of classroom management, access to effective and immediately useable materials and many more. . . ) GTM teachers will never see a reason to change.

  8. Even though this isn’t how ESL/EFL teachers are taught to teach in American graduate schools, this IS mostly how foreign language teachers in the US teach. (There are exceptions, but they’re few and far between.) I’ve taken classes in several languages and several levels, from elementary school through graduate school, and nearly all of them boiled down to something like the above. (The only one that was much different was taught by a Japanese graduate of SFSU, who had essentially a MATJSOL.) It’s horribly depressing.

    The language teachers are invariably nice people, but they rarely have any training in language pedagogy. At least two of the college-level teachers I had were simply native speakers of their language who happened to have master’s degrees in English literature. That’s…useful. They taught the way they remembered being taught English (even though I suspect they’d actually learned English from being here and from reading) and by leaning heavily on (terrible, awful, horrible, no-good, very bad) textbooks. Quite a disaster.

    • Falling back on how you were taught is only normal and very very human.

      We should also be blaming school leadership, which does not have the knowledge or desire to educate future teachers or encourage practising teachers to develop.

      I agree with you, Clarissa. This is a dire picture and more widespread than I imagined.

  9. It is sad, but this horrendous version of Grammar translation method still exists in Greece…It is also sad that there are unqualified teachers but not as sad as there are teachers with no common sense-which for me means completely unsuitable for teaching. I’m sure a shift is already happening as learners become more and more autonomous and they have more opportunities for authentic communication via online social networking. This new breed of learners will be able to distinguish and ‘expose’ the untalented teachers more easily than in the past when the teacher was the unquestioned knowledgeable authority.
    one more excellent post.

  10. This is certainly the classroom experience of most of the students I now teach at a British University, who come from China, Saudi Arabia and Libya. Chinese students in particular expect to sit passively and never to be asked to participate. This year I have had quite a lot of resistance to my efforts to get students talking. One student said that he’d had it dinned into him by his father and grandfather that sitting in silence in class was the only way to show respect to the teacher. Most of the students realised what we exected of them, but it went so strongly against the cultural grain that they couldn’t participate without feeling they were being disrespectful. It’s been along summer…

  11. I agree, Marisa, that the strategies you describe in this post are ineffective and should not be used. However, I often wonder how so many people who were exposed to a foreign language through the grammar translation method became proficient users of the language. Was it despite the method (i.e., they were just gifted language learners, or else they did something in addition to their class, like living in the foreign country or reading a lot in the target language)? Or is it that some people can learn a language however they are taught? Or is it that the method worked, at least for some people, and simply became outmoded? Think of all the people living 100 or 1000 years ago who had no chance to learn languages using modern methods but who were proficient nonetheless? I wonder…

    • Hi Nina and welcome to this blog.

      There may some truth in the statement that ‘many or some learners will be able to master a foreign language no matter what method is used”. In that sense, they are learning despite and inspite of but not because of the method of instruction.

      It’s very hard to verify such statements though, as you may well appreciate. Research into the success, or otherwise, of any approach or method is fraught with difficulties; there are so many parameters that organised researchers cannot control that to me it seems next to impossible.

      So, what happens, is we often rely on our experiences; mine suggest the following:

      The hundreds of adult learners I have come into contact with in recent years and who study either in our paid or our free English language classes have the same story to tell:

      “I followed a language programme for 3-4-5-8-9 etc years but I cannot communicate- I know a lot of words but I don’t know how to use them. I know a lot of rules but I am unable to decide what to use when I am put in a situation where I have to communicate in the real world”.

      When queried further, they all report the methodology I have described above.

      So I do have some informal, but to me significant, empirical evidence.

      And it looks like there is an urgent need to stop teaching those who would learn even if you taught this way and start teaching those for whom the right choice of approach, method, design, will and does make a difference.

      Thank you for the comment which provoked this discussion.


  12. Very nice post Marisa! I believe the things described are not only part of Greece’s reality, but probably everywhere. You mentioned something that is so tru: sometimes teachers give their lessons the same way they were taught decades ago and what is worse is that, depending on the age of the students, they themselves expect the teacher to teach in the old-fashioned way. Once I was talking to a dear friend (an adult) who has recently decided to learn English in a language institute and she was very dissatisfied because of the teacher’s approach. Her teacher explained that they had to learn inductively, that they should together discover the rules and come up with solutions. My friend complained to me ” I don’t want to discover anything, I am in the class to be told the rules. Her approach is not right!!” So ,we teachers sometimes need to help students break free from old concepts and approaches. It is not an easy task and we might undergo a lot of criticism before we educators are properly undestood.

    • Thanks Marisa for this great post. And I totally agree with Lemos. Whenever I try to teach something inductively in class, my adult students expect the point to be explained in detail and don’t even try to understand the rules of usage or anything related to the language. They believe what matters is passing the exam and using the language should happen by itself without any real practice of it. They insist on talking in Turkish (L1) in spite of me talking in English. Of course these shouldn’t be excuses and tried to be overcome, but I can say that it is not encouraging for the teacher at all. Trying to make a change in a fossilized class can be very consuming and it requires support of the administration and testing and materials departments.

  13. What a great post Marisa! Apart from methodology issues and overlooking significant aspects of teaching, I’m afraid mentality plays the greatest role in shaping a class environment. Unfortunately, teaching is not only seen as a piece-of-cake thing that all ECPE/CPE holders can do, it is also seen by many as a profession of dominance and control. I’ve often heard fellow teachers bragging about how they were able to control their classroom in a way that produces results (?) and isn’t time consuming. I realize that time has become of the essence since it is the Greek social setting that demands fast and effortless results but If teachers aren’t willing to let go of their sense of control over their class, I don’t think that we can expect things to change a lot.

  14. So nothing’s changed… Here (stop me if you’ve heard it before) is an actual exchange I wrote down while observing a class in Kalamata in 2003:

    Kid: Μα κυρία, τι σημαίνει;
    Teacher: Δεν μας ενδιαφέρει τι σημαίνει, μας ενδιαφέρει να το κάνετε σωστά!

    • Of course!!!! What did you expect?

      Translating your mini exchange for non-Greek readers – somewhat freely – correct me if I’m wrong pls

      “Kid: But, miss, what does this mean?
      Teacher: We don’t care about what it means, we’re just interested in you giving the right answer!”

      • That pretty much sums up the most widespread approach. And presumably in these thin times, teacher training is lower on most people’s to do lists than ever.

      • Some years ago in Germany I was the parent/teacher representative for my son’s class and he and some classmates were having problems with their English teacher (German) who kept insisting that he (British) was pronouncing everything wrongly and using the wrong words. When I took it up with the principal he said ‘Tell your son that he has to forget that it is a language and just think of it as a subject like any other which he must pass.’

  15. I do agree with what is said in the article but… how about some tips on how to change that scenario?
    Something like… Instead of doing number 1, how about… ?
    People are resistant, and criticizing (only) won’t do much good. If we can show some “better possible” ways, it could motivate who work like that to look for teacher development programs.

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