On tall tales in class

This is how I started class the other day:
Hello folks, good morning! I hope everyone is doing well. It’s 9 so let’s get right into it. Today’s start is a bit different as I’m going to ask you for some help. Maybe you don’t know this but I don’t have any classes tomorrow. I’m actually giving a talk at The Asia Society, on the topic of North Korea.  For some reason. I am far from an expert but I was asked to talk to a group of American businesspeople about this topic. I am quite worried because of my lack of expertise but also because I am not accustomed to giving long speeches like that. I’m also worried that my style is a bit too informal or off-register for the setting. Again it’s a group of American businesspeople.  I think they are quite unfamiliar with Korea and North Korea and the whole issue on the peninsula. By the way, the Asia Society is an NGO that is focused on promoting mutual understanding between the US and Asia. I have this big fancy talk there tomorrow.  I’ll wear a tie and everything. I guess it’s a big deal. Can you help me with my intro? Thank you! I’ll read what I have so far, and please let me know if there is anything I should make more formal. This is what I have so far…

mg trumpIt was pretty fun and my students (who are future interpreters) did a nice job finding examples of extreme vagueness as well as things that were off-register. They helped me rework my intro. It went pretty well and I was happy to see what they changed and how they changed it. This process brought up a whole new batch of issues and questions. I was generally pleased with the idea and execution.

An interesting part of this activity was the students uncovering my lie. As you might have guessed by now there was no talk. As the questions mounted and it became more clear there was no talk, one student asked, “Was anything you said true?” Another asked if The Asia Society exists. It does. Another student asked if I was going to wear a tie the next day and I informed her this was extremely unlikely. I will admit to basking in the glory of being praised for my acting ability and lying skills.

I was pleased with how things went but had an ever so-slight bad feeling about the subterfuge which lead us to the (imo) useful practice. They seemed so excited about my talk and perhaps a bit let down that it was not happening. I can’t say for sure but maybe a few of them felt like they’d devoted their energy for something completely made up. At the same time I don’t really feel too bad because it was useful practice any my tiny little lie was helpful to build up motivation.

When I think about teachers fibbing, I’m always reminded of David Deubelbeiss who suggested in his “7 Sensation Sins of Great English Language Teachers” that a great teacher tells tall tales and spins yarns in order to motivate. He writes, “A great teacher twists the facts of his life and gets the students interested in ‘the story.’ When teaching, I would tell my students fantastic stories of my day, my life. I kept them engaged with the language, who cares if it wasn’t ‘fully’ true? A great teacher lies — tells their students things to motivate, damn the truth! Think about it – we do this, so let’s admit the sin and come clean.” Please be sure to check the link above for the other 6 “sins” as that post is well-worth a read.

And, in typical blog post fashion, let’s finish with some questions:

  • Do you ever feel bad about telling tall tales in class?
  • If so, how do you justify it in your mind?
  • Under what circumstances would you feel uncomfortable selling tall tales?
  • Do you see any downsides to such fibbing in class?


  1. Marc

    I have done similar things. While I strive for authenticity, you can’t all the time, can you? I do tell the truth eventually.

    As a student, I once convinced a housemate that aeroplanes run on coal because it is lighter than liquid fuel. I felt kind of good and bad.

  2. englishwithkirsty

    The students are there to learn, but I would feel bad if they felt their genuine interest or willingness to help me with something had been exploited. If someone begins to doubt that you’re telling the truth, it’s hard to prevent that in the future. I would probably use the exercise, but make it clear that it’s a roleplay or imaginary situation.

  3. robertjdickey

    I *Really like this post!
    I always tell my students “It’s English time. You can lie, just practice your English. I might lie too! But I won’t lie if you visit my office, or ask something important that is not just about me.”
    On the other hand (having just written an entry on “Ethics in TESOL” for a forthcoming Encyclopedia), I should point out that there is a body of literature (and large group of teachers) who argue that honesty is part of the role-modeling required of teachers, along with citing sources and using only copyright-free materials in the classroom.

  4. M. Makino

    I lie by omission and commission pretty frequently. When I lie by omission I typically just leave out any qualifiers or hedging I would normally put in, for example saying “I surfed when I was younger” without adding that I only did it a few times and only because I had relatives who enjoyed it. In this case I just wanted to point out that “surf” was a verb. Lying by commission is usually moving things around in time to create a more intuitive story, like “my dog got attacked by a corgi, so now I get nervous around corgis” rather than the truth, which is that I never liked corgis and the attack just provided post-hoc justification for my preexisting animus.

  5. Kyle Dugan

    I really enjoyed this post. On one hand I’ve never felt comfortable with or even done the sort of activity I remember hearing about early on where you ask your students to guess what you did at the weekend and then answer in the affirmative only if their question is grammatically well-formed, producing, I’d imagine, some sort of prescriptively-faultless bullshit Frankenweekend. On the other hand, I love a good traveller’s tale, and like any good storyteller I’ll embellish or embroider depending on the audience, even if it’s for purely pedagogical purposes. I wouldn’t feel too bad about making stuff up – students do it all the time when writing example sentences or Cambridge exam tasks. I usually have to spend a lot of time convincing students that writing about their real life and experience is a better bet than just inventing stuff when you’ve got time pressure to finish. And “true-for-you” sentences give us a lot more to talk about than another sentence about Bill and Mary and their weekend routine. But the more I think about the more I doubt if I really know anything about my students – and how much is just a performative classroom self.

  6. Stefan Gagnon

    As you go deeper into it we see there’s another issue involved…. Ultimately we’re all just trying to motivate them and so it’s a bit of a desperate measure to get them to work on something they’d otherwise just pass off as unimportant. Why is that? If something doesn’t bring immediate gratification, we’re prone to just tune out because we’re all basically hard-wired this way. So bending the truth comes into play. After a while you can imagine that they’ll never believe you and you’ll be back at square one: find another motivational tactic or …they have to find the enthusiasm within themselves for themselves to complete the task properly, and get something from it.
    I have a hard time believing people (my or a lot of other people’s students) opt for #2. I haven’t got an answer for this conundrum. If anybody has, please let me know, I’ll appreciate it assuming it’s something I haven’t already thought of.

  7. timothyhampson

    I may have farted in class and then successfully convinced 8 Korean teens that waygookins are physiologically incapable of farting and that only Koreans did that. This may or may not have been best practice.

  8. Genevieve sylt

    Thanks for the post. I have certainly embroidered the truth…but I haven’t told a lie without making sure the ss knew it was all just for fun/learning. I have a way of using my face/gestures (thumb forefinger to chin) to suggest to ss that I am not telling the truth which I make sure they recognise and understand qt early on. I think lying for play is perfectly ok, as long as no one is deluded. Best.

  9. Ryan OLoughlin

    This is pretty good! I see nothing wrong with fibbing as long as the students learn and they know the truth eventually — not just for the sake of lying! It also makes you seem more human to let the lighter side take over in class once in a while. My school used to have speaking tests and the kids would stress over them for the weeks leading up to the test. Once, on April Fool’s Day, I came in and told them the speaking test was that day. (It was a week later). I convinced some of them, the look on their faces was what I’ll remember most. Then I told them I was kidding and we got on with the lesson but it was a fun moment to mess with the students a little!

  10. Pingback: It finally happened | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

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