Monday, August 30, 2010


Cicero, Tusculanae Disputationes 1,2,4.
You may be forgiven for considering this frightfully amusing and completely irrelevant as what is at issue here is student essays. If this dictum were to be applied or taken seriously, after all, we would have to give up all attempts to get students to write properly and revert completely to ticking boxes. Some would argue that this is already becoming the case as more and more exams forgo essays and papers. Part of the reason for this is the sheer numbers involved; there are large numbers of students taking tests and it is simply too impractical to require them all to answer essay type questions. It would take armies of teachers a month of Sundays to complete the corrections. Technology aids and abets this trend by making test type questions easy to administer, answer and correct. Plus, of course, is it really fair to require students who have not really done any serious essay writing to suddenly start at eighteen. Yet fortunately, universities continue to require students to write essays, papers, dissertations and theses as there is nothing like a well written essay to reflect the depth of knowledge, grasp of the subject, insight and true metal of a student as written work. This being the case, the teaching of writing proper in one’s own native language – the logic is after all universal – should start when the students are tiny tots, and why it doesn’t is a mystery. This, however, has nothing to do with the issue at hand. Having recognized this need, administrators of all widely accepted exams have serious writing components. In the case of the TOEFL, students have to read a text, listen to a passage and the write an essay related to the topic; in the case of the ABITUR, students have to write three essay type answers to three serious comprehension questions related to a text they have read or a section out of a book, the whole of which they are supposed to have read. They are told to write no more than 1200 words; that is about five pages and is not something you can just rattle off. The resulting essays are then graded for content, quality of English and organization. Understandably, the modern student is, for the most part, terrified of such exams. Maths and science pose no problems but ask the modern student to express himself in writing and he goes weak at the knees. A lot of teachers would be quick to blame the student for his ineptitude; but is this fair? Considering the falling standards in essay writing worldwide, one would have to assume entire generations are completely incapable of writing “with clarity and charm”. Entire generations? Really?

Samuel Johnson refuted…

When Samuel Johnson famously said “Language is only the instrument of science, and words are but the sign of ideas”, he certainly wasn’t thinking of what student essays have currently become; he was referring to the ideal, the logical and the common sense! The fact that it is possible to produce words, string them together to form grammatical sentences, bring the latter together to form structurally accurate paragraphs – albeit devoid of meaning or rational argument – and finally bring the latter together to form what, at first glance, looks like an essay has been proven by students in many parts of the world. The problem has become so entrenched that teachers at the institution I work at, at least, have given up demanding anything other than a piece of writing similar to the one described in this paragraph. The teachers are right not to penalize such drivel for the simple and obvious reason that the students are not really to blame; you can’t punish someone for a misdemeanor he has no control over – especially if he has been taught that what he is doing is right. Students write in this way for the simple reason that they have been taught to do so by their teachers who then turn round in surprise and horror to blame them for doing as they are told!

Enter the formulaic approach to teaching writing!

As a species, we love to “pigeon hole”, to categorize, to make order of what appears to be chaotic. This admirable tendency lies at the root of the current approach to the teaching of writing. How, you may wonder, can an activity such as essay writing be reduced to a formula or a prescription where one recipe fits all? It can and it has; what is more, the approach has been made widely popular thanks to the numerous writing books on the market. Open even the very best and you will be confronted with a plan for writing, persuasive essays or problem solution essays, or cause and effect essays for example. Take Virginia Evans’ famous series of writing books for example: on page one the “formula” is provided; what follows are sample essays all written according to this formula and smacking of TV dinners. The students are then given the second major ingredient of the ideal essay: transition words and essay writing jargon. To the modern student, everything is now as clear as day. What he must do is simple:

1. Look at the title and consult “the handbook” (I must hasten to add here that Virginia Evans’ books are only one example; she is certainly far from being alone in feeding this frenzy).

2. Select the appropriate formula.

3. Factor in the major arguments.

4. Mix in “the jargon”.

5. Sprinkle liberally with transition words.

6. Serve hot or cold!

I don’t need to tell you what the resulting essay reads like: you know, you read them all the time and ironically, complain about them! I really fail to see any reason for the surprise, the horror and disgust a lot of teachers evince on being confronted with such drivel as the students are only doing as they are told. The state of affairs described here defies all logic: why persist in an approach to teaching which is so counterproductive? The reason is very simple really; the student body in this part of the world certainly, has never been taught to think. Rational thought, critical thinking and reasoning skills have been studiously avoided throughout their education – more details about which can be found in the papers on this site. Instead, they have learnt to reduce everything to simple formulas; an activity which is automatic and can, I am sure, be done by a suitably programmed robot. A lot of experts argue that at eighteen, it is too late to suddenly change horses and revert to “critical thinking” so they give them more of the same. It is this latter view that I would like to challenge as it is by no means too late: I know because I have been doing it for years and it works.

Freedom of thought and freedom of expression

Having established that a lot of teachers and authors of writing books unwittingly continue the process of intellectual castration that forms the backbone of many students’ early education, we need to look at what can be done to remedy the situation. First and foremost, every scrap of material that “talks about writing” needs to be discarded. Formulas are out and reasoning is in; transition words – which most native speakers don’t, in fact, use much – and “jargon” are out and good English is in; clichés are out and ideas are in. When this is done, the piece of writing the students produce can be truly called an essay. This brings us neatly to our most important obstacle to the teaching of writing proper: a lot of teachers believe that this cannot be achieved at the ripe old age of 18! I beg to differ for the simple reason that I have disproved this notion time and time again, year in and year out, with countless students. The first step is ideas for without them, no writing is possible contrary to what is taught in the formulaic approach to writing. A good writing program can’t exist in a void unaccompanied by a good, informative, motivating and enlightening reading program the details of which will build the students’ arsenal of knowledge, ideas and eventually individual opinions. The utmost care should be devoted to feeding the students the knowledge they require to formulate opinions, and that in turn requires looking beyond what exercises a text will lend itself to when selecting material as is often done. Teachers should not be blinded by vocabulary they would like to analyze or sentences they would like to dissect for what they believe is the students’ benefit, and focus on the message and actual content of the text too. The appropriate input of ideas will, in time, merge with budding opinions which will ripen as they are aired and discussed, and develop further as the individual turns them over in his mind. It is this state of mind that produces good essays so “cast your bread upon the waters”. Without reading, listening or viewing, therefore, ideas are not possible. How about the tools; i.e. the English I hear you exclaim; how will students acquire mastery of the mechanics of the language – the structure – without careful analysis I hear you cry. The answer is simple: analysis is not necessary for learning to take place; analysis has its place certainly but like all good things, too much constitutes a handicap. As already explained in detail in the teaching of reading, structures do have a way of floating in along with the ideas and are ingested very satisfactorily thank you very much. This might make some teachers feel as if they are not really doing their jobs but nothing could be further from the truth. The most painless way of learning which requires the least possible effort and plenty of pure enjoyment is surely the best.

We have established so far that the students have to be provided with the opportunities to develop ideas of their own, and provided the reading program is appropriate, structures will also get ingested. Some may still be wondering about those lists of transition words and clichés writing books are full of. I would like to reiterate that this approach is one that aims to teach writing all by itself, in a void and therefore feeds the students the lingo to make their writing look like essays. How miserably this approach fails has been proven time and time again on tests in our university. I, personally, never distribute lists of transition words and avoid the jargon like the plague. Without mastery of the language, the latter stick out like soar thumbs!

Getting down to brass tacks: the writing lesson proper

I am one of those people who believe that all writing is basically argumentative so let us take the teaching of the argumentative essay as an example. The principles described hear will, naturally, apply to all forms of essay writing. The first thing we need to pay attention to is the reading program for those weeks: the texts need to be controversial, open to debate, thought provoking and of course well written. By the latter I mean good, formal written English rather than a more conversational style; the latter can come later when the learning is complete. Dealing with such texts as described in the papers on the teaching of reading will enable students to soak up the logic which is after all very basic: defend your own view and refute the counter arguments. They will also discover that there is more than one way to do this and it doesn’t matter which they choose. A couple of texts tackled in this way, and those dreaded organization problems are mostly dealt with. Then what I recommend you do is throw your topic in to the ring in the form of a short text, a film or a listening passage and let them get their teeth into it. I usually put the title on the board, elicit a discussion and work through the text allowing plenty of give and take of opinion while also putting the main points on the board. When the study of the text is complete I ask the students where they stand and tell them to put pen to paper. I remind them of the general principle that they can’t leave their opponents a leg to stand on and they usually nod without even looking up at me – they have ingested the organization remember. When you return home and settle down to correct the essays, I guarantee that there will be no organizational mistakes and the pieces of writing will look like essays. This is what I did last year, for example, and went home to find all the standard ways of writing argumentative essays with some equally good and original extras. I then photocopied some good examples so that the students could see the various ways of completing the task and we took it from there.

Stand back and let them learn!

I can almost feel some colleagues throwing their hands up in horror and disbelief! Let the students get on with it? Stand back? Whatever next; how on earth can students learn without a teacher? That is not, however, what I said: there is a difference between guiding and hovering; between grabbing the pen or the chalk and writing down all the conclusions, and allowing the student to reach them himself. As a breed, we are control freaks; we are never happy unless we are cracking the proverbial whip and actively controlling every ounce of grey matter involved in “the learning”. Yet I am sad to have to inform you that although you may exhaust yourself physically and reduce your nerves to shreds working this way, the actual learning that takes place at every level will be much less than if you were to stand back a little and let the students do the work. People learn much better through being actively involved rather than being fed servings of “knowledge”. This fact is the major obstacle to success in the classroom: not something the students do but a wrong approach to teaching – however well-intentioned. All this is true for writing too as described above, and it works like a dream. So be brave, bite the bullet and take the plunge; you’ll never look back.


There are very few areas of language learning where emotions run so high as in the case of homework. The enthusiasm with which it is assigned and the fury with which failure to comply is met, brings to mind emotions akin to those of Simon the zealot or other Biblical characters. The death penalty can’t be applied to those who fail to hand in homework but the reaction received by the miscreant is certainly similar to that received by a serial killer facing the public. Those on the receiving end, the students, develop a healthy loathing for homework starting very soon after setting foot in the trenches. The reasons are really very straightforward: homework is often deadly dull, seems pointless, is terribly time consuming and soul destroying, and half the time fails to achieve much. The reason for the latter, by far the most important consequence, is that students naturally go on auto pilot. Failing that, they devise shortcuts with no educational value. I remember the daughter of a friend of mine being told to write a few pages of “John played ball” for homework; the child, who had learnt how to write some time ago, turned her exercise book on its side and wrote “JOHN PLAYED BALL” in huge block capitals across the page. Her homework was over in seconds which naturally made my friend suspicious. After a brief discussion during which she defended her endeavor manfully on the basis that it was a page, she relented. When my friend came back to see what she was doing, she found her writing columns of John, played and ball all the way down the page; far quicker than writing full sentences. She was in first grade and she had already learnt that homework was rather like cod liver oil and childhood was certainly not the happiest time of your life. The methods of the assigning and completing of homework do not change as the years go by; the only thing that does change is that due to the tough competition, students develop more self discipline and suffer through their homework. Yet does it have to be so?

Do we need homework?

The answer to this question is affirmative for most people as timely consolidation will combat forgetting; however, everyone does not need the same amount of homework and there are some who don’t need any at all as they learn in class and do not ever forget. I remember the son of a family friend who arrived at the end of the summer some years ago and wanted coaching for the Matura. There was, to my mind, far, far too little time left, and I felt it would be unethical to take him on. This I explained to him but he told me he would be fine and wanted to go ahead; upon which I did. He turned out to be the most exceptional student I had ever seen in my 35 years of teaching: he would come in, loll about on a chair with his eyes half closed and absorb information like a sponge. Everything that passed my lips made a bee line for his long term memory and stayed there. It was like a minor miracle. Naturally, he did very well indeed and went to the university of his choice in Austria. He is, I am sure, not alone and there are others like him who don’t need teachers hassling them with homework. As the mother of an exceptionally bright child who had a lot of trouble with the system, I feel we need to be more flexible, and give students the responsibility, quite early on, to do as much or as little as necessary. People are not the same; they never will be, contrary to what a lot of educational systems would like. There will be those for whom the penny will drop immediately and those who will have to put in a lot of work to reach the same standard. Students should be given a yardstick with which they can measure their learning and given the responsibility to decide for themselves – and we don’t need to wait until the child is 18 to do this; we can start quite early on. The advantages of this approach in terms of personality development are enormous. However, handing over the reins to the students, who are pictured as vessels to be filled with knowledge, good values and rules of conduct, is something a lot of teachers and parents will find very hard. The reason is that this approach constitutes a radical about turn in our approach to teaching. Students aren’t going to learn to take responsibility as a result of constant policing; all they are going to learn is that they don’t need to worry at all as someone else is doing it for them. Taking responsibility is learnt through taking responsibility. It must be added here that it is a lot of teachers and parents who have the problem. All this is worth thinking about. After all, the teachers can keep tabs on the students through quizzes and tests according to the results of which revision can be assigned. This is the approach I mostly follow with my students. I make it quite clear to them what extra work they can do, I give them plenty of sources, I also give them answer keys and let them get on with it. Grammar revision can very well be handled in this way. The teacher will need to keep his eyes on the ball and advise the misguided about their work but this is much better than going all Old Testament on the students. This approach has an additional advantage: when the teacher actually assigns something to the whole class, students will comply like lambs – this has been my experience for years. For more on grammar homework please refer back to the paper titled “The Lord Said Let There Be English Grammar and There Was Much Rejoicing”.

Getting creative with homework

A lot of teachers will go to great lengths to plan interesting lessons: they will read, do research, use teaching aids and worry about it. Yet they are quite happy to dish out the most tedious homework imaginable on the principle that the only thing necessary for doing homework is self discipline. Why different principles should apply to learning at home and learning in the classroom is something I, personally, fail to be able to grasp. A little thought and planning devoted to making homework more enticing could work wonders and wouldn’t really be that hard. It is to the issue of more interesting but equally useful homework involving reading and writing to which I shall now turn.

In two previous papers, I discussed The Cornell method and reaction essays. There are two further applications of these skills which I would now like to focus on. The first is an activity I have named “Research Writing”. This activity should not be attempted until making notes from a reading text has become second nature. What I do is this: I select a topical issue or a current problem that will interest the students but which they don’t know about, and give them a week to read up on it and make notes from the texts they read. I ask them to bring their notes to class a week later on which day they are given a topic which they can reasonably write using their notes. They are not allowed to produce the texts at all; only their notes. It works like a dream. The topics I assigned last year were as follows:

1. Citizen journalism ( They wrote about the advantages and disadvantages)

2. Mobbing in the workplace ( They wrote about the effects)

3. Multiculturalism in Europe ( They wrote about the causes or effects)

4. Street children( They wrote about the causes or effects)

5. Obama’s health care bill ( They argued for or against it)

6. Modern surveillance techniques ( They argued for or against them)

7. GM crops ( They argued for or against them)

8. Counterfeit and generic drugs ( They discussed causes or solutions)

9. The parliamentary versus the presidential system.( They compared them and made a choice)

10. The oil spill in The Gulf of Mexico ( They discussed the effects or the long term use of fossil fuels )

Before we started the activity, we had already spent a term writing summaries and reaction essays as described in the previous papers and students were completely on board. I don’t feel this activity will work without this background and if no effort has been made towards motivating students in the long term and team building. Students will just arrive without notes, not having done the work. All the methodology suggested in these papers should be taken as a whole. If you work towards this goal though, it will work. Last year, at the end of the term, I only had two students not complying who in fact later failed the proficiency test. This is not the only further application of The Cornell method; there are also papers or projects and it is them that I would now like to discuss.

As soon as we have dealt satisfactorily with The Cornell method, I give them a choice of topical issues to write papers about. The topics I gave them last year were as follows:

1. The Rwanda Genocide

2. The Darfur Crisis

3. The Stolen Generation of Australia

4. The Apartheid Regime and how it ended

5. How the EU was established ( Second term)

6. The Anti globalization Movement (Second term)

7. How India gained its independence ( Second term)

8. The Chinese Revolution (Second term)

After they had decided on a topic, I sent them off to do their research and let me know which texts they were going to read and how they were going to approach the topic. When that was done, they were given a fortnight to read the texts, make notes on them and bring me copies of the notes and the texts. These I kept so as to be able to compare them to the papers they would write using them. Last of all, they were given a further fortnight to write up their notes. One word of advice, I would recommend that you ask the students to turn in handwritten work so that you can really see what they are made of, and not accept any papers if you haven’t seen the plan and the notes first. In our university, students sink or swim on the final; the tests they take during term time only give them the right to enter. So when students were given this project to do, they knew there would be no grades and that they were only doing it for themselves. Nevertheless, all but two complied. This activity was possible because of all the motivation building accomplished since the beginning of the term.

The sky is the limit

The two activities linking reading and writing I described here have one important consequence according to my observations: they help develop a permanent reading habit. With the focus on current affairs and all the reading, discussion and writing, a habit is formed: halfway through the second term, I had students tell me about exciting current events before I had even heard about them. One incident I recall from 2009 is when one of my best students, Batuhan Tellioğlu, arrived in the second block saying he had overslept. He had gone to bed at three o’clock as he had been watching the UK elections. He was the first person to tell me that some people had been unable to vote as there hadn’t been enough ballot papers. What ensued was a lively discussion during which I discovered that at least a third of the class had been following the elections. This was by no means an isolated incident and when they happen, you want to scream for joy! The reason is that you have won; they are interested, they care, they always will and you, the teacher, have managed to achieve this. What is more, you have been working with a bunch of students who, until that point, hadn’t even looked at anything but the sports pages. It is this that I feel constitutes our main purpose in reading and writing lessons; not stuffing some soul destroying text down their throats. It is for this reason that motivating students is the single most important duty of the teacher. Once that is achieved, the rest just falls into place.



The pure, unadulterated joy exhibited by students on discovering that they can not only have opinions, but actually voice them and defend them is something to be seen. The gusto with which they will discuss an issue, when the purpose is the writing of a reaction essay, should not really surprise anyone; after all, they are at least ten years too late starting such an activity! It is like the storming of The Bastille: once the floodgates are open, there is no stopping the torrent and why would you want to anyway? What could possibly give a teacher more pleasure? There are the students enthusiastically debating a point, turning round in their seats to better answer opponents and then buckling down and producing their reaction essays without a murmur. It is not very difficult to achieve such an atmosphere in the classroom because the activity itself, reaction essays, has such potential but this does not mean there are no rules to be followed.

The material

One reacts, by definition, to something that is controversial; that is extreme, or completely novel or even mad. One has to be able to hardly sit still and contain oneself; to be clinging to the chair so that one doesn’t leap to one’s feet, to be biting one’s tongue so that one doesn’t cry out in protest. On has, eventually, got to burst out with some comment or other. This is the kind of material that reaction essays are based on; not some tame article about the advantages of boarding schools for instance. A distinction should be made here between any text- based, or text related, writing task and a reaction essay. If we didn’t make such a distinction, we would end up calling most essays reaction essays as most are related to a text – others may have the purpose of contextualizing grammar, still others may be follow-ups from listening. Writing, after all, does not, contrary to what a lot of people think, exist in a void. It always comes last, when all is said and done. It is the very last brick in the wall but we will deal with essays in general in another paper. There is one additional function the choice of text will serve and that is getting students who, after all, have never taken to the stage to actually forget themselves and get up and speak. Let us turn, once again, to the matter in hand: having established that the material on which a reaction essay can be based needs to be riveting, controversial, confrontational, or off the beaten track, we need to focus on what this material is. The first obvious choice of material is an article, paper or essay, the second is a listening passage of some sort – perhaps a talk, a lecture or something off the internet – the third is films. Locating texts to serve the purpose is easy as most journalists share the teachers’ motives of desiring to shock people; the media is full of stuff. A bill has just been passed in Argentina, for instance, legalizing not only gay marriage but also adoption for gay couples; a brilliant potential topic. The beauty is that there will be extremes of opinions but students will also have to maintain decorum and listen to people they disagree with in a civilized way. Where else are they going to learn that everybody should have their say before the same audience, and people should listen to contrary opinions and discuss them in order to attain the truth? This is one of the fundamental precepts of democracy that universities champion and is a lot more important than the reaction essay.

Texts are not, by any means, the only possible basis for reaction essays; films and the internet can be used as well but the rules are the same: the film must have a controversial message one can’t help reacting to. Take a film like “Capote”, for instance, which explores the issue of capital punishment. This form of punishment is now banned in most developed democracies with the exception of the USA and its abolition is a condition for joining the EU. The film “Capote”, is the story of the writing of Truman Capote’s famous murder mystery and at the end, when the murderer is about to be hanged, you look into his eyes and feel you could not possibly be the one to send him to his death despite the fact that he has, undoubtedly, murdered the victims. The film is a brilliant attack on capital punishment and never fails to lead to plenty of discussion as wherever it has been abolished, capital punishment has been banned despite public support. Another good example is “The Straight Metal Jacket” which portrays the effects of war and military training on soldiers. There are many brilliant films being made every day and when I need an expert opinion I consult the following blog: . There is an additional advantage of using films for reaction essays: students get into the habit of watching stuff in English with English subtitles and this is wonderful for their listening and for picking up colloquial English.

Having selected the text, the teacher should work through it as with any reading text as outlined in the papers on the teaching of reading but the emphasis should be on discussion. One reminder here: it would be a good idea to ask the students to put notes in the margin of the text as you work through it as they will need to make a summary later. To go back to what I was saying, the title and subtitle should be discussed; students should be asked for their opinions on what they know so far and be asked to revise them continuously as they learn more. This will encourage plenty of previewing and prediction, and therefore help deal with vocabulary. The teacher can help matters along by playing the devil’s advocate and disagreeing with the general opinion in the class to egg them on. There don’t need to be any written questions or vocabulary exercises as this detracts from the pleasure of reading, which is after all paramount. If it is a film that is being used, there should be pauses for discussion along the same principles but not enough to ruin the film. An activity such as this has one additional advantage: it goes a long way towards helping to develop a long term reading habit which is, or certainly should be, our major aim as teachers.

Putting pen to paper…

The actual writing of the essay presents no problems at all; my experience has always been that the students have been impatient to get started; especially as they are encouraged to voice their opinions and use strong language if they wish to. The introduction should follow the general rules of introduction writing starting with something more general than the specific topic and narrowing it down to the text. If the film “Capote” were the basis for a reaction essay, for instance, one would start with a reference to crime and punishment, then move on to violent crime and capital punishment. Paragraph two is a summary of the text, which they now know how to do thanks to the Cornell method they have learnt. The reasoning is that it makes sense to outline what, exactly, is being reacted to. Paragraph three is the writer’s opinions and justification; the part of the essay they learn to love! Last of all, paragraph four is the conclusion. Often, a restatement is the most appropriate form of conclusion; another bridge the teacher will have to cross with the students. I have found the best way to sort out this little problem is to demonstrate. The internet, fortunately for us, is full of articles with no conclusions. Look closely and you will be amazed! I select articles and ask them to write restatements after doing a few with them on the board or laptop. The penny soon drops.

When all is said and done

I have found that the activity outlined above is by far the most rewarding and also most popular one a teacher can engage in with the students. The fact that the students derive so much pleasure from it means that they learn and remember. It also helps lay the foundations for a reading habit and teaches them not to hesitate to voice their opinions. They learn that others may disagree and that they may disagree with people too and that that is alright. They learn though that despite this they have all got to listen to each other. The reaction essay, which in turn followed on from the summary, can lead to other more complex writing activities which will be the topic of the next paper.


In this part of the world, long stories are not cut short; they remain long. What is more, short stories are suitably drawn out; this is what is drummed into students starting form a very early age. Being longwinded is cultivated as an art form in class and during regular exams throughout the year; all official exams, however, involve ticking boxes. Anything in between is studiously avoided. What is more, there is an additional golden rule: parroting is in and individual answers or comments are out. If, for example, you were to ask a secondary school student to recount the effects of a particular event in history, you would get everything the student has heard about this event ; what is more it would come gushing forth at a 100 miles an hour – vociferous being the key word here. You would be completely incapable of stemming the flow – best compared to floods in China during the typhoon season – until it had run its course. If, on the other hand, this student’s German peer were to do the same for some insane reason, he would have to kiss goodbye to the gymnasium. On reading tests in this country, the students are required to use their own words when answering a question; they get no points for parroting the text. One guess as to which student would be better able to put together a decent summary!
The dreaded summary:

Summary writing is perhaps the most challenging reading and writing activity a student can be asked to do; the reason being the complex critical thinking skills that come into play. When Descartes, after much deep thought, reached the conclusion that he thought and therefore he was, I am pretty sure he didn’t include the zombies the system churns out in this part of the world – or in others which have a similar education system. It is tragic that the individuals who compose the student body in systems such as ours are more akin to human tape recorders, yet we have to work with them; a fact we need to remember. We cannot, as has been done in the past and continues to be done today, treat them like their German peers, for instance, and assume that what works with the latter will work with the former. Here, then, is our dilemma: how do we teach a student body such as this to successfully master a reading and writing activity that presents such a mental challenge? Teach we must as they have never been taught to do such a piece of writing, and at university, people expect them to suddenly undergo a transformation and develop critical thinking skills. This is ironic in itself as one would assume that such being the case, some sort of restructuring would have taken place in primary and secondary education; however, I digress. The fact remains that our team has to learn to think fast so how do we go about it?

Common sense would dictate that what we don’t do is require them to think too much, for the simple reason that they can’t. This is such basic commonsense that I have always failed to be able fathom why the practice of giving the students a text, and what to them must be a completely incomprehensible set of instructions, we command them to write a summary. Ideally, it would be good if they were to set off along the path of critical thinking while at the same time learning to summarize; two birds with one stone so to speak. I found the first reference to such a method of summary writing on the web page of The Dubai Men’s College of all places: the Cornell method. The more I read, the better I liked it and the more satisfied I became as to the merits of this method of summary teaching.

The Cornell method and how it works

The Cornell method revolves around a universal habit of good readers; something we all do as we read not only scholarly works but also novels and poetry: making little notes in the margin. These notes organize the reader’s thoughts; reduce the main points to a nice succinct bite sized chunk and serve as a brilliant reminder when the text is next referred to. All the student is required to do is this; the only difference being that he puts pen to paper. The first thing to do is select an appropriate text, which is easier said than done. There are three golden rules that need to be followed at this juncture and they are as follows:

1. The text must be suited to the students’ level lexically.

2. The first couple of texts that are used must not require reorganization when summarized

3. The degree of reorganization needed must increase gradually as this part of summary writing will constitute by far the greatest hurdle.

When the appropriate text is found, it is a good idea to requisition a laptop to demonstrate note making skills. The students should be asked to fold their pieces of paper in half lengthwise; i.e., the paper should only enable the writing of words and phrases but never sentences. Then the teacher needs to demonstrate to the students by putting down a short title and one word or a few words as notes. At this initial stage, it is not a good idea to leave anything out; one needs to remember that the students’ little grey cells have been dormant for a long time. When notes have been compiled on the whole text in this way, students will end up with a piece of writing that is long and narrow; there will be no sentences at all. The next thing to do is direct the students’ attention to the laptop and determine the main focus of the article and the details. As details are pinpointed, they should be deleted leaving students with notes on the main points of the text. The next thing to do is to ask the students to put away their texts and just use their notes to put together a summary joining ideas together in terms of causes and effects, or facts and explanations as much as possible. They should be encouraged to avoid short little simple sentences and focus on saying as much as possible with as few words as possible. The beauty of this system is that with most students, who are after all by no means the idiots they may appear to be to the uninitiated, the penny drops the first time round. The teacher will need to work through a few such texts with the students, gradually introducing small amounts of reorganization of the notes. I can safely guarantee that after two or three such exercises at the most, the problem will be solved. What is more, the dreaded problems of copy pasting, parroting or plagiarism will also be dealt with. After all, the chances of the students coming up with the same sentences the writer used are one in a million.

Props to accompany the Cornell method

The summary writing activity described above can be helped along by the use of various tactics discussed in the paper on the teaching of reading. Students should get into the habit of providing one sentence summaries of paragraphs or assigning subtitles to paragraphs thus perfecting their summarizing skills. It is also a good idea to start quite early on by doing what I like to call sentence squeezing exercises which involve providing a brief and to the point summary of a couple of sentences. Also, it is a good idea to ask students to make notes in the margins of texts as they read silently. This will also catch on pretty quickly as they realize how much better they understand reading passages when they work like this. No activity that the teacher does should remain ensconced in one area of class work; there should be lots of overlap whenever possible. This will provide the much needed consolidation.

What now?

The summary writing skills thus learnt provide the basis for reaction writing and later for papers and projects thus enabling students to see how learning in one area flows into another continuously becoming more complex and developing in the process. The time the teacher invests in teaching the Cornell method will lay the groundwork for seriously sophisticated reading and writing activities which will be dealt with in another paper. In short, the students will acquire those critical thinking skills they were so carefully denied.


When thus commanded to read, the prophet Mohammed exclaimed that he was illiterate; whereupon the Archangel Gabriel once again told him to read in the name of the Lord, and that worked just fine as Gabriel had God to back him, enormous powers of his own and a very willing and able student: the prophet Mohammed. If things were this “easy” in the classroom, the great squares of world capitals would be teaming with wonderful statues of teachers but alas, the reality on the ground is very different indeed as teachers aren’t archangels, they are supervised by assistant directors or principals not God and the students, aside from being human primates, have no resemblance to Mohammed. This being so, one needs to come down to earth, cease dreaming and face the reality that getting students to read is a Herculean task. A few days ago, I was chatting to a colleague, who is also a dear friend, and she explained she had told the students she wanted them to read a novel of literary worth during the summer school. The summer school at our university is organized for prep students who fail the proficiency test. Another colleague and I sort of looked at each other and shook our heads; especially when she said she thought “The Catcher in the Rye” would be a good choice. This, I feel ,is a noble ideal but not really in keeping with the realities on the ground as students these days are, unfortunately, used to bite sized chunks of anything and everything: information (in tests), the answers to said questions (a box or a sentence if you are lucky; although due to the obsession with short answers, they can’t manage that either), emails, text messages in text speak, TV programs broken up into nice fifteen minute morsels with ten minute breaks for commercials… The list goes on and on. I remember years ago Michael Parkinson used to have one guest for a whole hour now it’s three or four and the conversation is punctuated with songs. I once told a class all this during a discussion and they stared back at me with wide eyed amazement: “Weren’t you bored?” they inquired and were flabbergasted to discover we weren’t. Students have chronic attention deficit hyperactivity disorder brought on by their primary and secondary education, fed and aggravated by the media, technology and modern life which can best be compared to the 100 meter dash. The former, their primary and secondary education, is one of the major culprits with the emphasis on endless tests – not papers; Heaven forbid! Technology comes next; the internet and the world of computers, with the emphasis on speed, are not conducive to concentration for any length of time. Then there is life itself were everything needs to be done yesterday. The modern student is a product of this world yet teachers have to teach them to read, understand, analyze and also appreciate reading, as language learning would be impossible without it. It is a mammoth task not to be underestimated, requiring strategy and subterfuge the details of which are the subject of this paper. This paper is dedicated to all those teachers who feel that “The Catcher in the Rye” is the best first step for the modern student.

The inappropriate

By far the most important obstacle to reading in the modern classroom is inappropriate reading material. Whatever activity the teacher devises to accompany it, the unsuitable text will fall flat; in short, get this right and you are ready to rock and roll as the saying goes. How should one go about selecting reading material for a generation of students who don’t read much and have no real desire to mend their ways? What must not be done is pretty obvious: the classics and all those wonderful immortal works of literature are out unless the aim is to guarantee that nobody will ever read anything again – and that includes The Catcher in the Rye. I was talking to a young Serbian couch surfer staying with us who was reading Michael Bulgakov’ s famous work “The Master and Margarita” a while back, and he told me he had first been assigned the book in secondary school and had, not very surprisingly, thoroughly detested it. Unlike many of his peers though, he was rereading it at 26. Another couch surfer, an Aussie this time, informed me that “To Kill a Mockingbird” had been forced on him at a similar unsuitable age and this had been followed by Macbeth, a work I personally truly appreciated while reading it for the umpteenth time after the age of thirty. He dealt with the first assignment thanks to the film, which his teacher eventually showed the whole class in despair. Of all the authors, Shakespeare suffers most due to this misplaced zeal leaving the average person with the unfortunate misconception that his works were created specifically to torture modern day students. Assigning reading material the sentiments, language, characters and even the plot of which is beyond students is a very common fault of teachers. As discussed in the previous paper on motivation, the zeal and over enthusiasm of teachers to get students to adore works they themselves are moved by adds fuel to the fire, hastening the demise of a wonderful means of communication. I remember once explaining to a class during a discussion on the role of technology in entertainment that it was common in the 19th century for people to sit together in the evenings listening to someone read out loud; needless to say, they thought this was very weird and wondered if it was perhaps a freak occurrence. The details of the education students are subjected to, not only in the Middle East but in many other parts of the world as well, have been analyzed in previous papers – An Elusive Quality: Motivation – and won’t be gone into again here. Suffice to say that students are fed a diet of what is deemed good for them, rather in the fashion of a 19th century nursery with the nanny in charge, resulting in a natural loathing for reading. Rekindling the flame requires stealth rather like the enemy agent slipping, unawares, into the ranks of the unsuspecting army. It also requires the teacher to be flexible and be ready to back pedal should the need arise. Like a good chess player, the teacher may have to take his time, never taking his eyes off the queen. Crying “Checkmate” five minutes after sitting down at the table is often not possible. The teaching of reading, like chess, requires patience. After all, even the best take their time: Gabriel’s delivery of the Quran took 23 years and he had the advantage of working with a riveting text.

Not everyone has the advantage of God’s word so what should we poor mortals do? It might occur to you – talking of books – that reading books hold the key but you would be wrong. There are various problems with reading books currently on the market, the foremost being that the passages in the books don’t get progressively harder and if, on rare occasions, they do, this doesn’t happen fast enough. Reading books often come in sets of three or four starting with the elementary and ending with intermediate or upper intermediate. The idea is that they get covered over a period of two or three years. The writers of these books must be tucked away in a parallel universe where everything moves at snail’s pace for nothing happens that slowly in the current climate; the language needs to be learnt in a year; sooner if possible. That means unit two needs, lexically, to be harder than unit one and unit three needs to be more challenging than unit two and so forth. What is more, all this needs to happen at decent trot! We, as an institution, have been looking for such a book for years, rather like the quest for the Holy Grail, but have thus far been unsuccessful. We do use books to a limited extent but we get through them fast and don’t drag them out, moving quickly on to handouts we ourselves prepare. The second problem with a lot of reading books is the choice of text: there is often no wow factor. As stated in the paper on motivation, before starting out to work with a team, the leader needs to acquaint himself with them. The writers of many reading books assume the team to be composed either of young professionals in the private sector or children, which is not, strictly speaking, right. There are a lot of language learners between the ages of 18 and 20 who are not the least bit interested in issues of the modern business world for instance. A lot of reading books don’t have the content to interest this group, which is our focus at Boğaziçi University. The solution is simple: the content needs to be such that it appeals to young people and young professionals alike; more all encompassing if you like.

And the appropriate

In order to discover what the universal favorites are as topics, the popular haunts of modern man need to be studied. These include papers and magazines, computers and the internet and the entertainment industry in general. When one does so, certain facts leap out at one besides the obvious one that everything takes place very fast; one discovers to one’s surprise, that little has changed since the Middle Ages. The most popular forms of entertainment back then were public hangings, the gruesome details of which we don’t need to go into here, jousts and games. All this is still popular only it has all been transferred to the web; so is news about daring feats, murders, stories of bravery and shocking news on the whole. Murder mysteries such as “Criminal Minds”, “Law and Order”, “CSI”, “Cold Case” and the like; futuristic films and series such as” V”, “Flash forward”, Battle Star Gallactica and the like; vampire films such as True Blood, Vampire Diaries and the like; medical dramas such as “House”, “Grey’s Anatomy” and the like; and soaps involving regular people in their everyday lives are spawned by television companies at an alarming rate. In the last couple of years, it was “House”, a medical drama, and “Dexter”, the story of a serial killer with more than a couple of screws loose who is nevertheless made to seem appealing, that won Golden Globes. It is pretty obvious that that is the rout one needs to take as it is most likely to get the readers engaged. This does not mean one needs to give up on one’s dream of getting students to read publications like The Scientific American, The Economist, Psychology Today, The Guardian, the Times or the Observer; quite the reverse, postponement is a much more effective means of achieving that aim. The concept of “reading” needs to precede all those publications that we have on a pedestal. A good teacher has to swallow his pride if needs be for the greater good, and do the unthinkable as I had to do some years ago. I had a class who, try as I might, I could not get to cooperate. In the end, I put my cards on the table and confronted them: read we had to so what was it to be? They answered that they would be fine with The Cosmopolitan. I took this blow to my pride bravely, without a murmur; one does occasionally lose the battle but never the war. We did read The Cosmopolitan and I still have a few copies lying around, but we did get round to those five star magazines and papers and even books, just not immediately. The best thing was that when we did, the whole class was with me.

All time favorites

One does, over the years, get a feel for texts that will always take off no matter who the readers are, and it might be a good idea to look at a few examples here. I can’t stress often enough how vital it is to get the text right; when one does, the students will want to read and then all you will need to do will be to stand by and man the door while knowledge and skills go floating in. Keeping in mind the areas of interest listed above, I have trawled the internet regularly for years and built up an archive of suitable material one of which is “Overdose Kills Right-to-Die-Man.” It is the tragic story of 21 year old Vincent Humbert who is left completely paralyzed and blind after an accident. From the text, the reader discovers that he is a model citizen and has written to the French president to ask to be allowed to die – he can move his right thumb and like all his peers knows the computer keyboard off by heart. The request, it is discovered, has been refused whereupon his mother has put an overdose in his drip three years to the day after his accident. The text, which I have covered in class on numerous occasions, goes like a dream: there is a lot of excited discussion with students interrupting each other and yelling across the room, the writing task gets done in record time without a murmur and in the meantime vocabulary, critical thinking skills and the like get practiced too. Another text I use is titled “The Ethics of Climbing Everest” and combines excitement with an ethical dilemma. Mark Inglis, a double amputee, has climbed Everest with a team of 40 climbers. During the ascent, quite close to the summit, the team discovers a seriously injured climber who has been abandoned by his own team and left to his fate. Mark Inglis’ team does the same, not interrupting their race to the summit. This text too has never failed to fly; the ethical dilemma is obvious and many arguments and even scenarios are possible all of which are guaranteed to be dealt with noisily by any class. There will be some who will sympathize with the climbers, others who will quote the Bible and the Good Samaritan and still others who will say they should at least have stayed with the man and until he had died. With students focused so completely on the text, you can teach them pretty much everything: outlining, summarizing, vocabulary, you name it. From a text like this, you could move on to something like “Chad Child Kidnapping Angers Sarkozy” which concerns a charity organization which tried to bypass the red tape and take a hundred Darfur orphans out of the country to be adopted by French families. Were they orphans though? Where the motives of the charity pure or were they kidnapping children for the sex industry? Why did the families, who we discover exist, not turn up to receive the children? Finally, what is best for the children; to live their lives in a Chadian orphanage or with French families, who it turns out have paid through the nose for them? I am sure you have noticed the slow movement towards current dilemmas; a hop and a skip and you progress to dilemmas like “Instead of two states side by side why not one superimposed on the other?” which is a brilliant essay published in the Guardian outlining a novel solution to the Palestinian conflict. By playing into students natural inclinations, the teacher can, eventually, get the students to read and enjoy texts about more serious political issues as well. What one should never do is present the Guardian text first, Catcher in the Rye style, despite its quality. If this is done, perfectly good material will be wasted and students’ basic belief that all long texts without pictures are for nerds will be confirmed. The conclusion to be drawn from all this is that “When” is as important as “What”.

Waiting is hard though and impatience to just get on with that wonderful text out of The Economist on the Crusades, for example, will be eating at one; yet, desist one must. This only means that the Crusades need to be shelved temporarily while the ground is prepared for the edifice to follow. One possible first building block is a text off the bbc website called “The Origins of the Swastika” which explains the completely innocent and rather surprising origins of the symbol. In the current climate, as one might imagine, it goes like a dream. Like in most things in life, the starting point is the conceptually simple and palatable; the complex must come last. In Europe, democracy followed from the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, the Industrial revolution, the French revolution, even the English Civil War. It is a form of government one needs to grow into so to speak; which begs the question why so many intelligent people, who should know better, are experimenting with nation building in Afghanistan but I digress. One needs to grow into reading in much the same way. The problem is that syllabus design should not just involve one particular period in a student’s life but the whole of their education. This, however, is beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice to say that this process of growing into reading needs to mimicked in the classroom with the students throughout the year. The syllabus needs to be designed with this in mind. The reading passages aspired to – the end result in terms of reading – need to be determined, and then the reading passages that will lead the students to this point need to be placed in the syllabus. If the order is got right, students will be reading whatever the teacher wants them to and enjoying it to boot come the end of the term. What is more, the students will even develop a lifelong reading habit, a feat secondary education fails to accomplish. In the second paper on reading, how the actual task should best be tackled will be addressed.


Once the most formidable task, i.e. that of selecting the correct reading passage, has been accomplished, half the work is done; the rest is, as the saying goes, plain sailing. However, navigational skills are still vital; so what are some of the tricks of the trade? Although an attempt shall be made here to provide a straightforward explanation of how a teacher should go about dealing with a reading task, it must not be forgotten that none of the theory provided will truly fall into place until it is practiced in class. This requires patience and a willingness to learn for without these qualities, a truly great teacher cannot exist.

First things first: sell it to them!

A good teacher, like a good salesman, needs to sell the reading passage to a group of – in some cases actually hostile – students. The teacher is, however, in an advantageous position: he is armed with the correct weapon: a text with potential that the students, although they don’t yet know it, will love. Over enthusiasm on the part of the teacher should be curbed here and that insane longing to hand out the text and tell the students how much they are going to love it should be pushed to the back of the mind. In order for the students to really play along, they need to discover that the text is interesting which means the teacher has to wet their appetites first. It is at this point that an active imagination and creativity come in handy for there is no one magic sales pitch; in fact there are as many different kinds as there are texts. This brings us neatly to our first problem: a lot of people think that all this is a waste of time and go straight for the jugular with disastrous results; working with that wonderful text with so much potential becomes like pulling teeth. The teacher leaves class not being able to fathom how such a text could possibly engender so much yawning, rowdiness and pleas to leave early. The teacher only has himself to blame though. Ten or fifteen minutes spent whipping up enthusiasm would have done the trick, and students would have been surprised to find the lesson over. Taking this unnecessary shortcut will negatively impact the teacher and in turn the quality of the lesson as well as the teacher himself also becomes more engaged while working the crowd; it is, to my mind, one of the most truly enjoyable parts of the lesson.

Texts and introductions; some examples

Preparation the night before means the teacher has to put his thinking cap on. Luckily, today there are many more avenues to explore thanks to technology: YouTube, the internet, music, pre reading questions… the sky is the limit. For instance, let us imagine that the text being read is the bbc text “The truth about torture” – an old favorite with which you can’t go wrong. The text is an argumentative one imparting the views of torturers as to the inevitability, in some situations, of torture as the only and quickest way to get information. The text lends itself to a decent reaction essay when all is said and done too. One of the methods of torture described is water boarding, in accompaniment to The Beatles’ famous song “A yellow submarine”. What the teacher can do is ask the students what use music can be put to. They will come up with a lot of answers but they will not think of torture. Then, the students should be given the opportunity to listen to the song, which is a very happy, carefree one in case you don’t know it. Then and then only must the text be produced; one minute into the text and they will see exactly what use the song is put to, and the teacher will have successfully sold the text to the students. After this point, all my classes have always cooperated like lambs and actually lost track of time despite doing a whole manner of activities they might, initially, have felt to be boring. Let us look at another example: say, for the sake of argument, that the text being read concerns the effects of war; a very popular topic. What I do here is introduce the students to two famous war poets: Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brook. I have two of their most evocative poems on tape read by two good actors. The effect of listening to and working through the poems just enough, mind you, for the students to get a feel for them is profound. One would have to be made of stone not to be moved by Sassoon. The beauty of this introduction is that two birds have been killed with one stone: the students have also been shown that they can understand and enjoy some poetry! Any text concerning the effects of war follows nicely from here. Another sales pitch that works well is posters, pictures or websites shown via a laptop and projected onto a screen. Imagine that the reading passage is the one referred to in part one of this paper titled “Chad Kidnapping Angers Sarkozy”. With a text like this, an appropriate website full of pictures of malnourished or starving children works fine. The pictures could be discussed, how far students would be prepared to go to help these children could be determined – with the teacher egging them on to save the poor children – and then the text with all the suspicions surrounding it could be produced. Failing a laptop, posters or pictures will also do the trick. The obvious conclusion to be drawn here is that teaching aids involving a surprise factor are very useful at the start of a lesson. A word of warning though: it is very unwise to get into a rut with introductions; the lurking zombie mode should not be forgotten. This is also true for the unhealthy obsession with pre reading questions, which have now become a basic ingredient in the recipe of how to tackle reading. To reiterate what was said earlier, novelty and the resulting excitement is the key.

Keep them guessing; suspense is good!

Once introductions are over and perhaps before the students have got their hands on the texts, it is a good idea to read out the subtitle, the few lines in bold following the title or the first few lines of the text and invite comment. Notes concerning the speculation could go on the board; especially if there is a writing task to follow or the text is hard. Only at this point can the texts be distributed. The teacher could continue reading the first paragraph out loud substituting synonyms for key words only. Some words can be guessed from the context and others don’t really matter; this is assuming the level of the text is right. The teaching of ways of guessing key vocabulary, some of which depend on basic logic, should be considered an ongoing process; when it has been going on long enough, the penny will drop without the students being put to sleep by lists of rules and examples. A vocabulary book we used to use, Lexis, did the latter remarkably successfully guaranteeing extreme tedium. In fact, the same can be said for most vocabulary books despite which fact, teachers of all stripes seem to love them. It must be admitted that a desire to meticulously dissect sentences and words is a weakness shared by teachers and students alike. The misconception is that the more thorough the analysis, the more complete the understanding. Sadly for people who devote so much time to such a pass time, the reverse is true: the more we analyze a text, the less we are able to see the complete picture. Not being able to see the forest for the trees, in other words, is the inevitable result, and this is of no help in reading, where understanding the whole text is paramount. Remember the dreaded grammar translation method? What I have just described is its application to vocabulary teaching and should be avoided. Vocabulary is learnt best in the context of a reading passage or a listening exercise; i.e. in context where it should be allowed to float in along with all the joy and excitement engendered by the reading passage provided, of course, the teacher has played his cards right. To get back to paragraph one, which our hypothetical teacher was dealing with, on completing the reading, the students should be asked to summarize the paragraph in one or two sentences, give it a subtitle if it hasn’t got one, find the main idea and then discuss, with the teacher, what they expect will come next. This continual previewing and predicting will prevent boredom, keep students focused and interested and also ensure that everyone is working at a uniform pace; the latter becomes very important in classes where there are differences of level between the students. If there are questions, and there is a question on that paragraph, that could also be done. The teacher can then ask the students to read another section on their own; the length will vary according to the plan of the text, which the teacher will naturally have studied the night before. If, for instance, the next three paragraphs deal with the effects of germ line genetic engineering, they could be asked to read three paragraphs; if only one paragraph is devoted to the topic they should read one. This should be followed by the same exercises stated before. Finding subtitles and one sentence summaries serve the same purpose and can be alternated. Meanwhile, the teacher can start putting the subtitles and the paragraphs they include on the board thus building, for the students, the plan of the text. When complete, the plan will also help the students in their own attempts to tackle similar writing tasks. A few texts covered in this way and the basic reasoning involved in essay writing in general and the ways of writing that type of essay in particular will be painlessly ingested, leaving the teacher to drift happily into a writing task related to the text.

The ultimate reading exercise:

This brings us to the five star reading activity which must round off any reading lesson: the text related writing activity. The students can only truly be said to have understood a text if when all is said and done, they start thinking about where this all leads, what the implications are or what conclusions we can draw. In the case of an accomplished reader, this will be automatic: the brain will start wiring, posing the questions listed above and coming up with answers which the said reader will soon be dying to impart to others. If the teacher has done a good job, the students will have reached this stage as well and as they can’t all be given half an hour each to hold forth, they should be asked to write. This writing activity can, therefore, be very pleasurable to write as well as serving an educational purpose. Because it is enjoyable, learning will also be more successful.

An alternative approach:

The danger of falling into a rut has been mentioned many times before and the same is true for the teaching of reading. This means that alternative ways of tackling a reading task should be explored. One such way is asking the students themselves to write the questions to a text. However, as in anything, preparation is necessary; one can’t just ask them to produce a sheet of paper and write questions if they are to truly benefit from the activity – learn all the skills they would have learnt if the reading task had been tackled the traditional way. What the teacher should do is ask the students to read the text carefully and underline all the main ideas. The text selected for this exercise needs to be shorter than the ones normally read. When this has been done, the students need to be encouraged to formulate questions targeting these main ideas. When doing this for the first time, it is a good idea for the teacher to check the main ideas students find by perhaps producing the list via a laptop. Then, the students could be asked to write their questions in pairs after which the teacher could again produce questions he wrote concerning those main ideas so that they can compare questions. The second time round, two texts can be used with half the pairs working with one and the other half with the other. When the students have completed their work, they can be asked to switch texts and questions and answer their friend’s questions. Lastly, students can check each other’s work from answer keys which they should also be asked to prepare. When all is said and done, the students will have a good outline and summary of the text thanks to having focused on main ideas. As anyone who has ever written questions for a text will know, actually writing questions enables complete in depth comprehension of the text.

There is no rest for the wicked!

It must now have become obvious that teaching reading is, contrary to what some may feel, a very active process indeed. As explained in a previous paper on motivation, the teacher needs to be at the coal face with the students if they are to learn anything. If a more peaceful vocation not involving so much activity is desired, rethinking career plans might be a good idea. I can’t help feeling that it is immoral not do one’s best when shaping people’s futures. Laziness and negligence are, I feel, inexcusable.


The satisfaction derived from getting all the nitty gritty of a particular grammar point on the board in tabular form, with lots of examples, with multicolored chalk – we may as well push the boat out – and eulogizing about every detail provides a high, to some, that is better than alcohol, drugs or even sex. The chosen few in this case – for so they are in proportion to the rest of mankind – are English teachers and I will go so far as to say that I have a sneaking suspicion that this euphoria may be linked to a gene mutation somewhere. This, however, is yet to be proved. To their captive audience – students – the experience can be likened to going to hell in a handcart. It is deeply tragic that generations of teachers who are bewitched by the subjunctive or see a subtle magic in minute differences in meaning between various past forms of modals fail to notice that students are nowhere near as carried away as they are by the whole exercise. They continue to hold firmly to the belief that the method here described is the best, the only and the most effective way of imparting information to the students despite the fact that this belief is not borne out by facts on the ground; i.e. exam results or the random question directed at students. At the end of such a long session, the teacher may turn to what she/ he feels is the rapt class and ask the English grammar equivalent of the following question: “What does e equal?” She fully expects a chorus of voices yelling “e=mc2”. Instead, a dazed looking student says “e= 2” hoping that he has, by chance, hit the nail on the head. What he does manage to do is give his poor teacher a coronary.
You are healed; get up and walk – only he isn’t!

The trouble with this approach, already outlined in the previous paper on motivation, is that the poor unfortunate recipients – the students – who ought to have been absorbing those tables like the proverbial sponge and riding the swell with the teacher, tuned out way back when the tables, lists and rules first started taking form, and the knowledge so lovingly imparted entered the “knowledge- wafting- past- consciousness- mode”. It is obvious what this means from the previous paper: hypnosis true and proper. They wake up with a start when they hear “What does e equal?” Students, by nature, are conditioned to respond to questions so someone mumbles two or three or sixty-two as it would look foolish not to say anything. This answer sends shock waves through the teacher’s body; she feels the blood pumping in her ears and is about ready to explode. A teacher I know, a friend of my father’s from his student days in Scotland, says he once picked up the eraser and hurled it across the room at the poor unfortunate speaker. The victim of this brutal attack had had plenty of practice with a Frisbee and was therefore a much better shot, which led the teacher to rethink his style of teaching.

Scenes like this have been and continue to be played out in classes across the globe and some of the courses I took were no exception. I remember one course I took at university and the teacher – a very well -meaning and genuinely nice person – who taught us. The lesson was scheduled for one thirty; i.e. directly after lunch in what is now the Arts and Sciences building. Our teacher would position himself at one end of the board on the dot of one thirty and start droning and writing in rather spidery writing with no change in intonation or manner of address. Ironically, he was trying to teach us prospective teachers how to teach English grammar. His ghostly presence and soft, monotonous voice, combined with coal fired central heating and a carbohydrate loaded lunch was deadly. I defy any of his former pupils to get up and claim to have been able to stay awake and learn anything in his lessons. At the time, three friends and I decided to take it in turns going to class and taking notes as there was, thankfully, no attendance requirement. The victim was not allowed lunch and prepped on Turkish coffee after which he was required to stay awake and copy everything on the board. We would get together and figure out what everything meant later. Fortunately, our teacher wasn’t the “What does e equal?” kind of teacher, so he survived the experience of teaching us and retired, convinced of his abilities as a teacher.

What is fascinating to me is the fact that throughout his long career, he never noticed the reaction of his students to his manner of teaching and never once questioned his methods. He is not alone: the blindness of the true believer is a problem that is almost insurmountable. This is especially ironic when one recalls that it is teaching - which involves working with people - which is at issue here and not experiments in some God forsaken lab somewhere.

Welcome to the chainsaw massacre: the grammar translation method

The reason why a lot of teachers cling so ferociously to the method of teaching outlined above is the deep passion they feel for the grammar translation method, whatever they claim to the contrary. Many will pay lip service to those new fangled notions like the student centered classroom, an interactive approach, contextualizing grammar, games and the like but will frequently, and a little guiltily, revert to the “everything-on-the-board-while-I-explain” or the “look-at-the-table-in-the-book-while-I-explain” method. They will then emerge from class and boast proudly that they have been explaining the past perfect, for instance, for the whole of 90 minutes. They won’t stop for a minute to wonder whether it was in fact right to have been “explaining” for the whole block; it feels right - remember my theory on genetic mutations – so it must have been right. We know how shaky that line of reasoning is when we run through, in our minds, all the possible evils that could be justified thus. Experts in the field of education will tell you that you need to observe the expression on a teacher’s face as he leaves the room to determine what kind of teacher he is; I beg to disagree: the said experts forgot the widespread addiction to the grammar translation method. The group of teachers I have just attempted to described leave the class looking positively ecstatic but contrary to what experts say, have nothing to be proud of for the very simple reason that they have not only failed to teach anything properly but have also guaranteed that students will not focus next time either. There is a lot to be said for classical conditioning- Pavlov should have worked with these students instead of dogs but there you go - and students, unlike teachers, are fast learners.

Forgive me father for I have sinned; I have bored my students witless

So far, we have ascertained that obsessive use of the blackboard is a cardinal sin – gluttony – claiming to be able to interact with students while one’s back is turned, while one is cowering behind a desk or barricaded behind a laptop is a barefaced lie and continuing to claim that students can actually learn while listening to you droning on for 90 minutes is a delusion. It is also pretty obvious that going all “old testament” on the students won’t work and neither will sitting through the lesson, so the best thing a teacher can do is invest in a pair of sensible shoes and resign herself / himself to the fact that s/he will eventually develop varicose veins. The teacher, as team leader, needs to get down in the trenches with his /her team and actually work with the students; this is the only way any learning is going to take place. Most importantly, the attachment to the grammar translation method, which can best be compared to the bond that is formed between a three- year- old and his blanket, must be broken. “How are we going to teach grammar if we don’t do any of this?” I hear you cry; the answer is simple: a good teacher needs to be devious when it comes to grammar as the latter can best be compared to a good hot curry and we all know what happens when we have too much of that. The grammar has to slip into the student’s long-term memory without him noticing; I will go further: he must enjoy the experience. So how to you achieve this if the person hates chili?

The silver bullet: commonsense as usual

In order to help the students gain complete mastery of English grammar, the teacher must be disabused of the idea that grammar can exist in a void – in tables and lists set out on the board however lovingly – but as the building blocks of speech, reading, listening, writing- in short, communication. The first thing to do in that case is to observe the beast in his natural environment: in listening, reading or even speech. Observing and copying the masters or the experts is the natural first step when acquiring many different skills for the first time and there is no reason why grammar should be an exception. The most common and also easiest place to start, therefore, is with a reading passage but what reading passage? The selection needs to be meticulous; remember the hot curry and the lack of fondness for chili? The principle that the teaching of grammar needs to start with “a context” of some sort is very well known; what is not so well known is the fact that the selection needs to follow some rules. The said passage needs to fit all the criteria of a good, well organized and interesting text with the added bonus of having plenty of examples of the particular structure being introduced. To be precise, it needs to have a clear beginning, a development and an end and thus lend itself to analysis, outlining, summarizing, vocabulary study and the like but also have, imbedded within it, the grammar points you wish the students to be surreptitiously made to ingest. “Surreptitiously” is the key word here; so the teacher should not say or do any of the following:

1. Make statements like “Let us observe how non defining relative clauses have been used in this text” or “Let us underline all the relative clauses and label them as defining or non defining”.

2. Fill in the table on page two with examples of relative clauses from the text.

The list could go on and on but the point is obvious: the grammar translation method is out, dead, finished, gone. Instead, the text should be tackled like any reading passage- the details of which will be covered when dealing with reading. The standard procedures, all of which don’t need to be used at once, are: regular outlining, the assigning of subtitles, sentence squeezing, summarizing, making notes, answering questions, focusing on vocabulary and plenty of discussion. One may wonder why one seems to pay nothing but the most limited attention to the grammar point being studied; that is, after all, the purpose of the whole exercise. The desire to do so will be like an itch which demands immediate attention but the good teacher will resist this temptation as he will know that as the building blocks of language, the grammar will be internalized by the completely mesmerized student with minimum effort from the teacher as it constitutes the links in the chain that form the reading passage. The student will be busy enjoying the text and attacking the reading tasks the class is working on; the curry, meanwhile, will slip in quite unawares – contrary to what is widely believed, he doesn’t need to be “aware” to learn the grammar. A few texts covered in this way and your problem will be solved; the students will also have benefitted from a truly fruitful reading lesson. This, in itself, is invaluable as we, as a breed, love killing numerous birds with one stone. For example, during the weeks I am teaching students to write argumentative essays, I only use various argumentative texts, all with a wow factor, smoking hot in other words and all organized slightly differently. I never open my mouth to lay out formulas of organization or mention subject specific vocabulary. Students absorb the logic, the reasoning, and the means of expression painlessly as we read about Che Guevara or The Crusades for example. The topics are so very interesting that anything you serve up with them is gobbled up happily. If your two year old wants to put chocolate sauce on his carrots, why should you mind? You can’t lose; he ingests the carrots; the principle is the same. You may be wondering if this same system will work while teaching a pretty mundane grammar point like, for instance, the past perfect or the present perfect. The answer is, of course, yes, most certainly. One of the texts I use for the purpose of introducing the past tenses is, for example, an account of an accident from the BBC website titled “Fatal five minutes led to tragedy”. I spied this text while trawling for material one day and felt this sudden rush of pure joy when I saw it contained wonderful examples of all the past tenses, active and passive, not to mention a nice selection of those narrative structures. Since then, I have found numerous similar texts, one of which is titled “The Wave that Destroyed Atlantis”. A text like this is gripping as the students are intrigued and if you work with them feeding the suspense, the past tenses float gently in to their systems rather like eating oysters. Teachers develop the knack, with practice, of spotting, at a glance, the potential of various reading material out there. One must, initially at least, be prepared to put in the time to go fishing for reading as those passages will take time to find. One piece of comfort is that with practice, it will take less and less time to see the use to which you can put a text. This is the method that has worked like magic for me for years. So my suggestion is that you invest in an external hard drive along with those sensible shoes we referred to earlier.

Vary the introduction: listening, speaking and songs

Reading is the most widely used method of introducing grammar but it does not need to be used in isolation: a listening activity may precede it, adding a lot of color to the lesson. By listening I don’t mean you droning on, unless it is a riveting topic. Songs, carefully selected for the purpose, help get structures embedded in the consciousness. It is necessary to select those where the lyrics are easy to follow so that discussion and eventual learning can take place. I have used Elton John, Sting, Simon and Garfunkel, songs from musicals like West Side Story, Chicago and many others. Songs have the same advantage jingles for commercials have and stick in the mind. CD’s, DVD’s and YouTube can also be used .The teacher needs to be imaginative, dedicated and open to new ideas. If you glance back at the title you will notice that speaking is also included but this will only work if the teacher is up for a bit of fun, play acting and even clowning around.

I have, on occasion, introduced reported speech, for instance, with conversation – as can be imagined the subject lends itself beautifully to this. I will walk in to class; the students will be getting in to their seats, saying good morning to each other and so on and say something like: “There is a serial killer loose in the building” to the student nearest to me. Now, I prefer to give students aural directions as I have no great emotional bond with the blackboard; a fact my students know very well. There is a slight ripple in the room and I repeat softly “I said there was a serial killer loose in the building”. By this time, students are nudging each other and asking in loud whispers what I just said. Someone in the front row eventually turns round and repeats my second comment to those in the back – speaking anything other than English is also a no-no and all my top students are always right under my nose in the front. I will then continue the conversation with lurid details – this generation enjoys lurid – before switching to another introductory activity. The same introduction will work for many other topics but the teacher will need to vary this form of introduction as the dramatic impact will, eventually, wear thin. This brings me neatly to a last point that needs to be made about introductions: it is a mistake to get into a rut and start every lesson the same way; “predictable” translates into “trance” and the teacher can kiss goodbye to learning. One experienced teacher once told me she didn’t consider it her duty to entertain students; she couldn’t be more wrong. Students learn best when they are having fun just the same as anyone learning any skill anywhere in the world.

Getting down to brass tacks: the introduction is over

Like all good things, the introductory section of the grammar lesson will, eventually, come to an end and the teacher will have to face the inevitable exercises. If this initial stage has gone well and the students have remained interested, alert, focused and involved, they will cooperate fully during this second stage. If the teacher spies signs of boredom, he needs to rethink the introduction; not blame the troops. It must be remembered that the customer is never wrong and the teacher has got to sell them the product. Starting this second phase with the students tuned in is not enough; they have to remain tuned in and that can only be achieved if a few simple rules are followed. If you recall, subtlety was advocated for the introduction; pussy footing continues here as well. The teacher needs to crush that urge to reach for the chalk or marker and start saying things like “The present perfect tense is used when…” In order for learning to be affective and the students to remain focused not only in that particular lesson but in future grammar lessons as well, they themselves must be allowed to deduce the rules. However impatient the teacher feels, he must restrain himself; the “Aha” experience does eventually come to all. What the teacher needs to do is to speed up the process; after all, they are half way there so how hard can it be?

Teaching grammar the inoffensive way

The exercises laid out before them should, ideally, not have directions like “Put the verbs in brackets in the present perfect”. Any type of exercise which is conducive to autopilot moments should be studiously avoided. The exercise should, instead, present a challenge, a puzzle; in short, something to be worked out and should, upon completion, help the students realize what the rules are. The teacher need never open her mouth. One of my favorite examples of an exercise for students who keep confusing the three past tenses is composed of three pictures and three sentences. It comes out of Sue O’Connell’s “Focus on Advanced English”. The first picture shows the man looking longingly after the disappearing bus, the second shows the man running alongside the bus and hopping on and the third shows the bus just pulling out of the stop as the man reaches it – and fails to board it. The pictures need to be matched with three sentences describing each and showing, with glaring lucidity, what the differences between the three past tenses are. It is so simple, so beautiful and so quick. The penny drops at once. Another exercise I use to actually introduce the past perfect – as we seem to be on the topic – starts with three pictures and three sentences once again. Before you say anything, this is purely coincidental and you don’t always need “three pictures”. In the first picture, you see a man called Sam and a caption “Sam wanted to buy a jacket”; then in the second picture you see the shop with the beginning and end dates of the sales clearly visible. In the third picture, you see Sam in front of the shop a day late and the caption “Sam wanted to buy a jacket in the sales but when he arrived at the shop, the sales had finished”. Then you have five more groups of three pictures with similar little tragedies, by the end of which the students will have had their “Aha” experiences and will even do a proper old exercise like lambs. There are various wonderful books of this sort on the market and another is “Third Dimension” and its follow up “Fourth Dimension”. Each unit in these books will start with a discussion or a listening activity; continue with an appropriate reading exercise – with a wow factor – which is followed by a grammar section. The grammar section will, for instance, have a pair of sentences including points that are often confused and be followed by two sentences interpreting them. For example, “John must have killed the man” and “John might have killed the man”. This is followed by something like “Which sentence means the speaker is almost certain John killed the man and which sentence means he is not quite so sure?” With this kind of exercise, which follows hard on the heels of an appropriate introduction, no additional explanation is necessary. The beauty is that those dreaded trances will be avoided as well. Students learn very quickly that that is all the explanation they are going to get and focus thus putting an end to any disruptions during the lesson. Thus, while all hell is breaking loose next door, your lot will be working like angels and learning to boot. When you leave the class with a broad smile, you will, unlike the teacher referred to earlier, have good reason to be proud of yourself.

Is it necessary to do it all yourself?

Some may be wondering what need there is for all this as there are so many good course books on the market which do the job. Sadly, this is not strictly true: English language teaching is certainly much commercialized but this is far from meaning all the books measure up; a lot don’t. Here I must add that the move away from the dreaded grammar translation method is gathering momentum: I recently had the pleasure of acquiring, for example, the fourth edition of Betty Azar’s famous book, “Understanding and Using English Grammar”. The book has reinvented itself with all the contextualization one could desire in a way I would never have thought possible; my apologies to Ms. Azar. The listening, reading, technology and web site have led me to advocate its use at the prep division at our university. Yet there remain a lot of books on the market which are caught somewhere in between the new approach to teaching and the dreaded grammar translation method; in short, there are gray areas. You might be forgiven for thinking: “What is the harm? After all, the book is basically on the right track.” You would, however, be very wrong indeed as by far the hardest task of a teacher is keeping the students motivated and focused throughout the lesson and indeed the year. Boredom or zombie mode is acquired very quickly; a few lessons of boredom and the audience have learnt and won’t forget, not ever, that those grammar lessons are worse than cabin fever. Continue along the same lines and the mood will spill over into everything else being done rather like a massive oil spill poisoning everything in its path for many lessons to come. If you recall what kind of background students come from, the reason for this rapid progress from “engaged” to “sleep walker” will become clearer. In this age of technology, where it is really so easy to put together one’s own program, there is really no excuse I can see for continuing to use material that doesn’t measure up. The fact that something has been published by a reputable company doesn’t mean it is perfect; a simple fact that is often overlooked. My general advice is not to compromise; if there is an appropriate book, it is good to use it, if not; the teacher just needs to strike out on his own. Almost all books, even the best ones, will need a certain amount of padding; one needs to know, therefore, how to go about it and most importantly, have the courage to go about it. One needs to be prepared to invest in a library and make sure one has a good internet connection.

We are up and away!

This brings us very nicely to the last and most crucial phase of the grammar lesson: the writing activity. All good grammar teaching needs to be rounded off with a “grammar related writing activity”, which all course books worth their salt are full of, as it is the only means by which students can prove to themselves and to the teacher that they have learnt the points being studied. The teacher will also be able to ascertain which difficulties, if any, require ironing out and plan his next lesson accordingly. If correct procedure has been followed thus far, there is often no need to worry; the writing activity will go like a dream, the students will feel pleased with themselves and the teacher can gloat! Eliminating this phase, which is by far the best grammar exercise that can be devised and during which the facts being learnt are committed to long term memory, will negatively impact everything that has been done with the students that day far more seriously than one might imagine. Why, in that case, is this stage so often conveniently forgotten? The basic reason is that a lot of teachers are loath to read papers. Unfortunately, there are no short cuts to be offered here; papers go with the territory and trying to avoid them can best be compared to the case of a solicitor who won’t read case files. There is no way out of it. Peer correction, group writing and also more dubious methods like the teacher claiming s/he circulates and reads papers as the students write have been tried yet it must be admitted that nothing works as well as the expert – the teacher in this case – getting involved. It is perfectly true that students are more likely to notice mistakes in their friends’ written work than their own but they will never pinpoint them all, which means that the buck still stops with the teacher. This is a fact that must be faced up to. One piece of comfort is that grammar related writing takes far less time to read and one will speed up with practice. The methods of providing feedback on writing and details of teaching writing will be dealt with more fully in the next paper. Suffice to say that the best approach to my mind is correcting papers with correction symbols and asking students to write a second draft, thus giving them the opportunity to become engaged in the activity, correct their own mistakes and hopefully not make them again. The obvious conclusion to be drawn from all this is that a good teacher must resign herself/ himself to the fact that s/he will be doing some paper work every day; teaching is, contrary to popular belief, a full- time job. On the plus side, there is the satisfaction of seeing, first hand, that you and you alone have managed to impart this piece of knowledge to them; the pleasure this brings to the dedicated teacher can be compared to little else.

It isn’t over yet: the dreaded issue of homework!

Unfortunately, teaching human beings isn’t like downloading a program; things won’t just “stick” when one teaches them: it is the teacher’s job to see that information stays put. Research indicates that two thirds of what is learnt is forgotten in the first twenty four hours, which means the teacher and the team has a problem and there is only one way to address it: homework; i.e. consolidation. A stitch in time saves nine as the saying goes and the stitch in this case is appropriate homework to jolt the memory and help information get committed to long term memory. Homework is a very sore subject with a lot of students in Turkey and the Middle East due to years of having to suffer through senseless, mind numbingly boring, completely useless work after hours. Homework is a form of torture, according to its victims, that sadistic and frustrated teachers enjoy inflicting on poor innocent students they have at their mercy. The beautifully choreographed and played out lesson is in serious danger of floating away into the unconscious mind unless the students are persuaded to do some homework, so how do you destroy their demons and get them to work? The first thing to do is to explain all this to them as well; they are intelligent adults, a fact that is often conveniently forgotten, and they are the team. Having an actual conversation with students will raise the odds that they will cooperate. Teams cooperate and communicate; orders are for the army or prison. Putting one’s cards on the table has always worked for me; I also often commit Ebinghouse’s famous curve of forgetting to the board to show them our predicament. The next thing to do is to never ever assign useless or boring homework. Boredom is learnt and leads to listlessness and we all know what that leads to. I remember my daughter having to copy out math’s problems for homework before actually solving them. I am sure the teacher meant for the students to read the problems carefully before attempting to solve them. However, in my experience, math’s problems can’t be solved without reading the problem in any case; get the answer wrong a few times and any fool realizes he has got to read. Copying out the problem creates intense boredom, hatred of the subject and even unnecessary mistakes as students go on autopilot. There are a lot of grammar exercises and vocabulary exercises which will produce the same reaction in students for the same reason and also guarantee that the students won’t even look at the homework next time. The basic principles followed in class are valid for homework as well, contrary to common practice. The rule of thumb is as follows: no homework is better than bad homework.

One second point that needs to be remembered concerning homework is that it should involve consolidation, revision and practice, not the learning of new facts not covered in class. A teacher must see that the learning takes place in class under his/ her supervision and some of the practice takes place at home. Most course books come with their workbooks for this reason but there is nothing to stop the teacher being innovative. The principle is the same: keep the students engaged as far as possible.

The end is in sight and so is the next stretch!

Twenty four hours have now passed since the new grammar points have been introduced and covered in class; homework has also been done but this does not mean that the teacher can shelve all this and move blithely on to something else. The reason is that the danger of forgetting, although reduced, still exists. Revision needs to continue but so does new learning and this is achieved through syllabus design. The new learning must involve revision of past structures to enable progress and prevent slipping. This is the reason why the modals precede the conditionals and both are preceded by the tenses. The continual cycle of contextualization, practice and homework coupled with a good syllabus will guarantee learning. Syllabus design is a complex and demanding job and will be dealt with at length in a future paper.

The moral of the story is…

The general principles one needs to walk away with are, in fact, remarkably simple: keep the students interested, engaged and focused. Make sure that they don’t want to daydream, get rowdy, zone out or fall asleep. Make sure they see the point of everything being done with them and are convinced that it is beneficial. In short, motivate them. As the team leader, it is down to the teacher to achieve this. In its absence, failure of varying degrees is inevitable; this is a simple fact that a lot of the best and most well- meaning teachers will often overlook. I know a lot of teachers who, over the years, have got stuck in a rut covering things in much the same way year in and year out. Although I can see how this could happen, it does mean that the teacher is on auto pilot; how, in that case, can one possibly expect students not to reciprocate? These people need to join the revolution and should, as Bob Dylan so aptly said, not “Stand in the doorways” or “Block up the halls”. Adopting this new approach to teaching will probably feel like being tossed into the ocean with its crosscurrents without a life jacket – as one would be out of one’s comfort zone – but all one needs to do is take the plunge. When it becomes obvious how phenomenal the pay back is, one never looks back.