You are doing it wrong. Maybe

This is a page for explorations, thoughts and discussions related to my presentation at the 2014 KOTESOL National Conference.

Please jump to the end of this post to see what was actually talked about in the presentation(s)! 

It is a presentation I have been dreaming about doing since I first started teacher training 5 years ago and I am very happy to have the chance to try it out.

Here is the abstract:

While on teacher training courses there are many “no-nos” trainees quickly learn to avoid. What if these habits are not so bad? What if there is a time and a place for them? What if some of the habits might actually be helpful for students? In this interactive session we will explore, re-examine, discuss and even defend some of these practices. A typical example of these behaviors is teachers (not) asking students, “Do you understand?” The session will begin with analysis of such teacher moves. With an emphasis on getting away from the simple and simplistic dichotomies of good and bad we will examine the reasons these moves are typically considered bad and then move on to considering reasons they might not be so bad and when they might be suitable or helpful. This session is intended for teachers of all experience levels as well as those involved with teacher training and development. Participants will ideally walk away with a sense of freedom to do consider using what are known as bad habits in class or at least a stronger conviction to avoid the “bad” behaviors.


Some ideas I have so far include: 

  1. Asking, “Do you understand?”  (Along with its cousins like, “OK?” and “Did you get it?”
  2. Teacher talking time
  3. Grading the text not the task
    (meaning: Altering reading/listening material to make it easier for students instead of simply making the tasks easier)
  4. Giving reading/listening comprehensions after listening.
    (Are there any good reasons not to do this?) 
  5. Use of  Ss’ L1 by the students or teacher in class.
  6. Ignoring Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences
  7. Ignoring ICQs and shunning frumious CCQs.


Some nicely crowdsourced ideas:
(with Twitter handles where available)

  1. Putting similarly leveled students together (thanks to  
  2. Translation (
  3. “You MUST never spend more time talking than your students.”  (via )
  4. On the spot correction (  below in the the comments) 
  5. Finishing sentences for students
    (Are there times when this might be good or helpful or ok?)
  6. Your idea here.
    Thanks so much to those of you who shared ideas! I appreciate it.
    Any comments (including suggestions about what should be included) and questions welcome!



Photo and artistic direction by @michaelegriffin



What was actually talked about

I had occasion to deliver a version of this presentation 3 times within the last month. I am not sure how not sure how helpful it is but here are my Powerpoint slides from the first time: KOTESOL doing it wrong (1). It was different each time (different audiences and contexts and such) but there were a few themes that emerged and some similar points were raised. I enjoyed doing this presentation (read: workshop/discussion) for a variety of reasons and one of them was how the audience was very heavily involved and seemed to be taking stock on their beliefs in each of the sessions. It was even better when the received wisdom and accepted bad things were called into question. Below I briefly share some thoughts on how certain things discussed might not be soooo bad.

Asking Do you understand?”
Well, it might not be the best or more efficient way for teachers to find out information about students understanding what has been said but it is a usual question in English, right? It is a normal and natural way to ask in non-classroom settings. If the teacher asks this question about an activity they will find out soon enough if students have understood. My new thought on this one is that there has been more hand-wringing, self-flagellation, fear, and negative trainer feedback and requisite discussions and defenses on this one than required. Of course it it not super useful or efficient but it is not terrible.

Oh the dreaded TTT. Teacher Talking Time. To paraphrase (from memory) Hugh Dellar, “If TTT is so bad why are people at the front of the room at a conference telling me about how bad it is?” Surely they should be conveying this message in a different manner if talking is so bad. I think TTT has (perhaps justifiably) gotten a bad rap but I also think it is just too simple and simplistic to make blanket statements about all TTT all being bad. Of course there are different types of teacher talk and maybe we should be considering QTTT (quality teacher talking time) and not being overly prescriptive and simple about this. We might also consider the teacher’s (potential) role of providing input as well. While we are here, where did this “80% of class should be STT and 20% max should be TTT” rule? How does that even make sense without accounting for context or anything?

L1 in class (from either students or teachers)
In all the talks I did this one didn’t seem controversial, meaning everyone thought it was fine and has been improperly labelled as bad. Some (mostly non-Korean) teachers mentioned they are expected by admin to use English only but seem to say they thought it was fine to use Korean as needed and warranted. I was expecting a bit more pushback on this but everyone I talked to considered this to be a useful tool at times and something valuable when used in moderation. Maybe times are changing?

“Hot” Corrections
My thought here was that as teachers we are often overly concerned with “face” and embarrassing students and students want, need and expect feedback from their teachers. One idea I heard a few times was about not interrupting during fluency tasks but being sure to correct things that have been taught or are very important or related to the target language of the day. Another interesting idea from discussions on this was about students not really remembering such corrections well. I made the argument this might not really matter and just the fact the teacher is giving corrections (and thus listening) might impact student performance in the future. In the sessions there was a lot of talk about the manner in which corrections are given as well as the rapport between teacher and students, and perhaps more importantly students and students. Lots to think about here and hopefully the takeaway is/was that hot correction can be fine.

Echo, echo, echo….
I couldn’t mount a very strong defense of echoing, the teacher repeating what a student said. I think it is often a habit teachers develop. I said sometimes it might not be so bad and depending on the situation the teacher might choose to say loudly what one student had said rather than insisting the student say it louder for the benefit of all the other students.

Forgetting or Forgoing ICQs
A while back I wrote a post called, “The Cult of ICQs” that says pretty much what I’d like to say here.  I think it can be very easy to get wrapped up in the thought instruction checking questions are a requirement each time instructions are given and not just a pretty good way to check if students have understood instructions. I have heard and asked a boatload of crappy ICQ questions when it seemed the teacher was asking questions because he/she had to rather than using the questions to gather information.

The consensus seemed to be that silence is not bad at all and is often good and necessary. It also seemed like the fear of silence is the root of a lot of teaching acts teachers don’t want to be doing. For example, teachers talk more than they want to in order to fill the silence. This might include repeating or restating their instructions or questions because they don’t like the feeling or Sound of Silence.

Teaching Grammar/Using Grammatical Terms or Metalanguage
The concept of this stuff as bad seems to have some pull. Maybe it is more common in Korea where students get a very full diet of grammar anyway so many teachers are looking to step away from this. Just a thought. The other thought something about the teachers known as native teachers being intimidated by grammar and thus deeming it bad and a waste of time. Again, just a thought.

Some topics that came up that might be worth considering in terms of lack of badness include, Translation Tasks, PPP (this is a nice article on PPP by the way.) Some topics I had no intention of defending were corporal punishment, and PowerPoint Overload (of course these are different in terms of the impact and degree of badness!).

Finally, I’d like to share and comment on some thoughts from two different attendees. After the session on attendee said something like, “It is all very general, isn’t it? It all depends on so many things so it is very general. Thanks anyway, I enjoyed it.” I wondered about the use of the word “general” here because my take is that context is very important and the simple rules against such teacher moves are not so helpful after a point. I’d say it’s the opposite of general and that is part of the reason moving beyond these rules is important. I think the problem is that the rules are general and we need to make our decisions. Tools get interpreted as rules and prescriptions are made without considering context  and this is the problem. Another participant (in a different session, actually) said, “It seems to me that if everything is ok in class and rapport is good and you don’t base your whole lesson on one of these bad things then it is not really going to be a big deal to do them once or once in a while.” I couldn’t agree more.



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  2. Zhenya

    I agree: a fantastic, topic, and I would love to hear how it goes! Personally, I so much believe in ‘dos’ rather than ‘don’ts’ (and I love your ‘maybe’ in the blog post title) For example, I think I heard so many people asking ‘Does it make sense?’ instead of ‘Do you understand?’ (and even did so myself) 🙂

    • mikecorea

      I am sure I heard a great trainer from Ukraine say, “What questions do you have” instead of “Any questions” and this had a profound effect on me. It is a separate issue but maybe somehow related.

      When I say, “Do you understand?” I get a sort of weird burning sensation in my face like I AM DOING SOMETHING VERY WRONG and I think that is not really so cool. Maybe sometimes it is ok, depending on some factors.

      I like your point about “Does it make sense?” and wonder how that relates to other questions, like “OK?” and so on.

      I am glad you like the topic and I will hopefully be returning to this space in the next week. Thanks for the comments and support.

  3. livinglearning

    One thing that comes to mind for me is about correction. I left my TESOL class knowing that it is absolutely wrong to correct students directly when they make a mistake. Instead I should collect errors and put them all on the board at the end of class. I had been doing it wrong!
    (Update: I tried that for a few weeks. The direct way seems to result in more uptake, especially with young learners. This was not a scientific study.)

    • mikecorea

      Oh wow, great comment and point.
      *adds this to the master list*

      Another point I am thinking about is the fact that students are often paying for corrections (read: feedback) and don’t want to wait till the end so regardless of what works or doesn’t in scientific or other studies (in terms of uptake or learning or whatever) i think this sense of showing you are listening in the moment and ready to intervene is key.

      Thanks for the insightful comments that got me thinking.

      • ljiljana havran

        I agree with you that it is not absolutely wrong to correct students directly when they make a mistake, but I’d like to point out here that we need to think hard about whether, when and how to correct students. In my opinion, different learners within the same class may need to be corrected or not, depending on their level of confidence, for example. I also feel that sometimes (particularly in fluency activities) it’s better not to pay attention to students’ errors so that they can experiment with language and have an opportunity to develop their confidence and fluency.

        When speaking about corrections (i.e. feedback) I’ve read recently on the Net: School bans teachers from using red ink because it’s too mean! What do you think about red pen corrections, and what colour do you use when you give feedback (I’m wondering:))

    • Matthew

      “The direct way seems to result in more uptake, especially with young learners. This was not a scientific study” 🙂 Though if you do look at the studies (Panova, I., & Lyster, R. (2002). Patterns of corrective feedback and uptake in an adult ESL classroom. TESOL Quarterly, 36, 573-595. etc. etc.) your sense that more direct corrective feedback results in more uptake is certainly borne out (the important thing, beyond that fact, is to look at and compare specific TYPES of CF prompts and begin to build a principled approach to the whens, wheres, whos, hows, and whys of their use. (Yeah, I like this stuff :))…

  4. Hana Tichá

    Once again, it seems you are trying to shatter the conventions of the ELT field. 🙂
    What about open-ended vs. closed-ended questions:
    I was always advised by my trainers that in order to promote students’ creativity I should ask ‘open-ended’ questions. However I think closed-ended questions can also be very useful under certain circumstances. They may even save someone’s life. Recently I attended a first aid training where the presenter (paramedic) asked a tricky question and gave us two alternatives. I chose the answer which seemed logical, but, although admitting there was some logic in my answer, the paramedic showed me that the other alternative was more logical and thus correct. By allowing a follow-up discussion about this closed-ended question, he made it more memorable for the trainees. My point is that it’s not just the nature of the question that is crucial, but also what we do afterwards in the classroom – when the actual answer is uttered.

  5. Matthew

    A few things my colleague and I just brainstormed up rapidly here at @teachinghouse/@IHBoston:

    – Unnecessary teacher-centered post-task whole-class feedback (answer reporting, etc.) Known here as ‘the Japanese Fan’..
    – Reading aloud (just because, or thinking it was productive speaking practice, etc.)
    – Bad board-work (back to the class etc., often comes down in the form of ‘don’t do’ without much focus on board-work practices
    – Giving only verbal instructions w/ no scaffold/backup (and without ICQs:…big no no)
    – On the other hand: Unnecessary/pointless/condescending ICQs (and CCQs for that matter)
    – ‘gin and tonic’ pointless monitoring (like wandering ’round a cocktail party)

    Some may be repeats of earlier contributions…

    I will say that for me personally, I would never tell my trainees not to do/try immediate corrective feedback. I noticed some mention of so-called ‘hot’ error correction above. I would rather trainees leaving thinking “I should never NOT do some kind of immediate corrective prompting..because my students need and expect it!…and with a smile!”. But that’s just me. That said, so far as a trainer I’ve found that this is a toughie. Most trainees tend to go in for delayed EC if they go for any EC at all in Teaching Practice sessions while on the course.

    What a great presentation this shall be, I’m psyched for it and I’ll be on the other side of the planet!

  6. Paul Ewels

    I remember getting feedback after every task was pretty dogmatic during my CELTA course. As you say, this is probably a good idea but it isn’t necessarily a good idea in every situation like some sort of EFL universal law of nature. Also the horseshoe seating arrangement seems a similar article of faith for many. I’ve always thought the concept of of opportunity cost applies pretty well to the classroom and if you analyse your everything through that lens, it can be helpful.

  7. anthonyteacher

    Sitting down to teach. One of my classes is in a very small seminar room, and sometimes I sit down when I teach. This always feels awkward. A teacher should stand up and deliver, right? They should be the center of attention. But this is not right, and I’m sure there are lots of valid reasons to sit while teaching.

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  9. mikecorea

    Thanks so much for those that responded here. I had a crazy week and didn’t seem to manage to respond individually but I really appreciate your contributions. Thanks!

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