Friday, April 25, 2014

Balloon Debate

A balloon debate is a classic speaking activity that can be adapted in many ways. The original version is based on the idea that there are a number of people in a hot-air balloon which is losing height and will crash killing all the passengers unless the load is lightened by someone jumping out.

The people may be heroes and celebrities, in which case you should choose ones that the students will know something about, or let them choose for themselves. All their contributions to humanity will perish with them if they aren’t chosen to survive.

Alternatively, they can be ordinary people for whom you write profiles including their age, occupation, marital status and indications of their value to society. For example, one person could be a mother of two young children who is also a talented artist, while another is a wealthy seventy-year-old philanthropist.

Students each prepare a short speech taking on the role of the person they selected, in order to persuade the group that they should be saved. After preparing their speeches, they can split into groups of four to give their speeches, then each group votes on which of the four people must jump.

Each student usually takes on the role of one individual, but you could have all the students together debate their relative merits before reaching a group consensus. This can also be extended into a pyramid discussion, where small groups combine into successively larger groups and have to try to convince each other of their decisions.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

TEFL jobs websites

The TEFL Greece collection of links to websites offering TEFL jobs around the world.

Friday, April 11, 2014

What is Grammar?

"She was nice to be looked at by."
 Julian Barnes, Metroland, page 116

There are two approaches to “doing” grammar, the descriptive approach, which describes how a language is used, and the prescriptive approach, which prescribes how a language should be used. The latter raises the question of who has the authority to decide, a question which often has a political dimension, as in the conflict between demotic Greek and katharevousa. 

The desire to preserve somebody’s idea of “standard” English accounts for pronouncements such as the ban on double negatives, with its spurious appeal to logic in claiming that two negatives make a positive. By this logic, there’s nothing that Piaf doesn’t regret. Would the grammarians who reject “We never had nothing” be happier with “We ain’t never had nothing”? Ποτέ δεν ξέρεις.

A similarly specious rule is the prohibition on using a preposition to end a sentence with. Again, this is based on a false logic, which asserts that a preposition has to come before something else because that’s what “preposition” means. It’s claimed that violating such rules produces substandard language, although the quotation at the beginning of this article, from one of the most elegant living English writers, would indicate otherwise.

The origins of such claims can be traced back to the belief that English should conform to the grammar of Latin, as English is a degenerate form of this more noble language. This accounts for the prohibition on splitting the infinitive by the insertion of an adverb, as in the phrase “to boldly go”. As the infinitive in Latin is a single word, splitting it is impossible, and therefore shouldn’t be allowed in English either.

So does this mean that nothing’s sacred and anything goes? Not at all. Even if large numbers of people use a form, that doesn’t make it correct if it contravenes a genuine logical rule of English. A case in point is the use of “less” with countable nouns, as in “less people”. This is clearly wrong as “less” is the comparative form of “little”, which is used with uncountable nouns (“little sugar”), while “fewer” is used with plural countable nouns.

However, language is continuously evolving, and as teachers we should be aware of the shifts in usage over time. This awareness may give us a less pedantic and more practical view of what to focus on and what to correct. One “error” we very commonly hear is “the same with” instead of “the same as”. But reading texts written before the nineteenth century, we realize that this used to be standard English. So our students aren’t actually wrong, just a couple of hundred years late.

Instead of devoting time and effort to such insignificant issues, it would be more useful to focus our teaching on the errors that actually obscure communication. This means looking at authentic language in use and noting what language is appropriate in different communicative contexts. In particular, we need to realize that the grammar of spoken language is quite different from the grammar of written language, and adjust our teaching accordingly. For example, the insistence that students should answer questions with a complete sentence makes them sound very unnatural. We need to listen less to the “experts” who tell us what grammar should be, and listen more to the users of the language, who show us what grammar actually is.

 Peter Beech -

Friday, April 4, 2014


The dictionary is one of the most useful tools for language teachers and learners, so it’s well worth
spending some time familiarizing yourself with the different types of dictionaries that are available.

In choosing the right dictionary for each class, the first consideration is whether you want a bilingual (English – Greek) or monolingual (English – English) dictionary. Learners at lower levels may find bilingual dictionaries easier to use, but they may still encounter problems, so it’s important to choose the dictionary carefully and train learners to use it effectively. The results of my research into the problems that young learners of English have using bilingual dictionaries are available here.

Another basic distinction is the choice between electronic dictionaries and those published in book form. For elementary students, there are still more options available in book form including dictionaries for young learners. At advanced level, the major dictionaries each exist both in book form and online, but this is starting to change. For example, Macmillan announced last year that they are ceasing production of their paper dictionary. However, the online version has exactly the same content as the paper one and is free.

Free access is just one of the many advantages of online dictionaries. They are easy to search, can be updated frequently, and as they aren’t subject to restrictions of space, they can give lots of examples, which are especially useful in the case of corpus-based dictionaries such as COBUILD. You can also hear the word pronounced simply by clicking on it, doing away with the need to learn phonemic symbols.

However, just like paper dictionaries, online dictionaries vary in quality, as well as in their suitability for various types of learners. Check out our collection of links as a starting point for your explorations to find which dictionaries are best for you and your students.

 Peter Beech -