Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Level of difficulty: ***


·         Think back on a time when you failed at something; what was your initial reaction?

·         Did your mood change in any way after a little time had elapsed?

·         In retrospect, do you feel this failure was useful in some way or was it a set back?

·         What is the correct attitude to failure in your view?

Your teacher will now read the first two pages of the text out loud to you in sections. These two pages include a lot of examples of failure and the consequences thereof. Discuss your views as you hear about each case. The questions below start at the top of page three of the print version.

QUESTIONS (from the top of page three: “We do know that learning is error driven…”)

1.       Read the information concerning Paul MacCready. What was his immediate reason for courting failure? What was his long term goal in courting failure?

2.       What overall generalization can we make concerning failure based on MacCready’s story?

3.       What does “it” in the phrase “it doesn’t make sense” in the last line of paragraph 2 refer to?

4.       What personality changes are brought about by failure?

5.       According to the information provided in paragraph 5, what does “equanimity” mean?

6.       Have another look at paragraph 5 and state clearly what advantage equanimity in a member of staff has for a company?

7.       Have a look at paragraph 6 and state clearly what you think “categorically” means.

8.       Read paragraph 7 and 8 carefully. The publication of the book “How to Get Divorced by Thirty” is proof that…………………………………………….. (There are two alternative answers; find them both)

9.       Read paragraphs 9, 10 and11 of this text. Now state what you think the most important advantage of failure is? (Be general)

10.   Which type of person, a ruminator or a resilient, controls his emotions, adjusts his thinking and recalibrates his beliefs? What do you think the words ruminator and resilient mean roughly?

11.   At the beginning of paragraph 15, the writer says “Pandolfini teaches his students this calming sense of perspective”. What does “this” refer to in this phrase and what does it enable the prospective chess players to do? Question suggested by Berna, Emre, Betül Sena, Sinem, Ayça, Serhan and Büşra

12.   Read paragraphs 16, 17, and 18. What view of intelligence would a ruminator hold? There is a positive correlation between resilience and ………………………………………………………………….. Question suggested by Sinem, Ayça, Büşra, Serhan, Güner, Kadir, Melih, Çağatay, Öykü, Tuna and Ferhunde.

13.   Read paragraph 19, carefully and state what you think “sweet pot” means in this context? Based on a question by Elif and Hakan.

14.   What does “This” refer to in the phrase “This is how we learn to solve problems…” in paragraph 20? Question suggested by Ayça, Sinem, Büşra and Serhan.

15.   Now read on as far as “Nine Ways to Fail Better”.  Why did Phil Schultz get such a positive reaction after the publication of failure? Based on a question by Kadir, Melih and Güner.

It is suggested that you stop at this point, discuss your answers and try and predict what the solutions are going to be.

 QUESTIONS (Page six: Nine ways to fail better)

1.       If an embarrassment has made for an entertaining story for someone, what has he succeeded in doing?

2.       Read the section titled “Join the Club”. People were only able to start posting productive hints once …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

3.       Read the section titled “Feel Guilt not Shame”. If you were the head of the planning department in a large company and the plans you produced resulted in failure for three consecutive years, what would you need to do?

4.       Read “Cultivate Optimism”. The quote by Hamlet seems to support the view that………..(Be very specific

5.       Margaret Evans said “This turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me”. What does “this refer to in this sentence?

6.       Read the story of Gilbert Brim’s father. How exactly did his father avoid feeling a failure?

7.       Read “Harness the Bridget Jones Effect”. In your opinion, what advantage of journalism may have helped the middle aged engineers who had lost their jobs find reemployment?

8.       Read don’t blame yourself. Is there a positive correlation or a negative correlation between depression and attribution?

9.       Read the section “Act”. What does “it” refer to in the sentence “Seize it”?


Published on Psychology Today; http://www.psychologytoday/print/29564

It is suggested that you read the first two pages out loud to the students, one instance of failure at a time, and discuss each one. This will enable them to predict some of the content of the text and thus iron out some possible problems. It will also be novel pre reading activity. The questions start at the top of page three (We do know that learning is error driven).  As you see from the question sheet, some of the questions have been written by the students. You could do the same. After all there is no rule saying the whole of a text needs to be handled in the same way. My thanks go out to the students who contributed.


1.       He wanted to perfect the aircraft he was designing or he wanted to learn; he wanted to win the Kremer prize.

2.       The brain feeds on failure or we are acutely sensitive to…( ask them to find both for a change)

3.       The term trial and success.

4.       One becomes tempered.

5.       We learn that trauma is survivable so we don’t plunge too deeply following setbacks. Nor conversely do we soar too high on our successes.

6.       They will perform but not get emotionally attached to losses.

7.       Complete, all encompassing.

8.       Guilt can be beneficial; guilt was actually productive.

9.       A shift from pursuing the kinds of happiness that flare briefly to the kinds of happiness that endure.

10.   Resilients. Ruminators wallow in self pity and resilients with stand failure.

11.   Putting the game behind them when they lose.  Succeed or to learn to play better.

12.   The view that intelligence is fixed. The view that intelligence is malleable or the view that the brain is plastic.

13.   Ideal balance.

14.   Facing or dealing with manageable risk.

15.   Because they had an entree to talk about it.

It is suggested that you stop here and discuss the answers thus far and discuss the possible solutions they think the writer might suggest before bashing on.


1.       Stepping back for fresh perspective.

2.       They had vented themselves out.

3.       Own the failure, see what you can learn from it and move on.

4.       Optimism is the most important of the seven learnable skills of resilience.

5.       Being let go.

6.       He lowered his sights when that was realistically required/ he revised his outdated goals. ( ask them to find both)

7.       The fact that it boosted social skills…

8.       Positive

9.       The opportunity


You might want to let this slide as they will have been obsessing with the text for ages but should you wish to, an opinion essay where they state to what extent they agree with the writer may be nice.

Friday, December 16, 2011


By Tom Geoghegan

Story from BBC NEWS:


Published: 2008/03/05 14:35:24 GMT


A speed reading exercise or a nasty search reading or a careful search reading! You have two minutes per question. Can you rise to the challenge? You should not exceed 20 minutes tops; if you do, you lose the challenge. Level of difficulty: ***

Answer the following questions:

1.      What seems to be the major criticism concerning the modern child?


2.      What does ‘that’ refer to in the phrase ‘The Boy Scout movement was founded to address that’?


3.      There is a major difference between the way adults treated their children in the Edwardian era and now. Parents and other adults no longer resort to _________________________ .

4.      ______________________________________________________________ partly to address the problem of child labour; however, it didn’t solve the problem completely.

5.      Pre-marital sex was not common among Edwardian youngsters for two main reasons.

a)      _________________________________________

b)      _________________________________________

6.      An example of the change in child-parent relations in the post-war period is that ______________________________________________________________________.

7.      a) The 60’s and 70’s are described in the text as ________________________________.

b) What were the two reasons for the above description?


8.      How was the communist threat countered in the 60’s and 70’s?


9.      What characteristic of ‘the more sexual culture’ of the 90’s creates anxiety?


10.  Read the section on the 80’s through carefully and decide whether the fact that 50% of parents believe that childhood is over at 11 is justified (The second paragraph). Prove your answer with information from the text and try to explain the reasons.


  1. The fact that children act like adults at an alarmingly early age.
  2. A moral and physical decline among the youth
  3. Physical punishment
  4. Schooling until ten became compulsory, and this was raised to fourteen in 1918.
  5. Social pressure and Lack of opportunity
  6. Children kept their earnings (rather than giving it to their parents)
  7. The age of mass consumption; There was a newly emancipated working class and young people had cash and optimism in abundance.
  8. By strengthening the family
  9. The fact that it was an aspirational not an educational version of sex.
  10. No. Home entertainment means kids are kept indoors; parents subsidize their children to a very late age. Dependency is a sign of childhood.

Sunday, December 11, 2011


By: Benedict Carey, July 5, 2010
Published: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/06/health/06mind.html?pagewanted=all

Level of difficulty *


1.       How often do you tend to lose your temper?

2.       How do you feel afterwards?

3.       What reaction do you get when you lose your temper?

4.       Read the title of text. What do you think blowing your top means?

5.       How can blowing your top be a good thing? Is the writer being serious or not?


Ask a UT Psychologist (Suppressing Emotions and Aggression) -- Art Markman



1.       Which of the statements below best summarizes the first paragraph?

*Both president Obama and businessmen are good at keeping their tempers.

* Both President Obama and businessmen should keep their tempers.

*Those working on oil rigs are too good at keeping their tempers.

*Keeping your temper is a very good thing.

*Always maintaining your cool isn’t such a good thing

          2. What is the potential downside of suppressed emotions? Use your own words.

          3. In the phrase “lose it”, what does “it” refer to?

          4. Read the quote by James J. Gross. What phenomenon are his words an explanation of?

          5. Why have untamed passions been mostly studied thus far?

          6. Which of the statements below best expresses the conclusion we can draw from p.4?

               * People exert too much self control which makes emotionally charged situations go wrong

               * The subconscious techniques people use in emotionally charged situations make things

                  go wrong.

               *People need to become better aware of the techniques they use in emotionally charged

                 situations to prevent problems.

           7   It is stated in the text that both……………………… and …………………………… help us to manage

                our temperament.

          8.   Read the Stanford University Study carefully. Were the people involved in the study adults

                or not? How do you know?  What seems to be the disadvantage of too much suppression?

          9.   Why exactly does too much suppression seem to make forming new friendships hard?


 10. Read the study conducted by Derek Isaacowitz carefully. Which sentence in this section best

    expresses the conclusion we can draw?

11.  Read the experiment about the video game. Why exactly did the subjects act the way they did?

12. Doctor Gross says expressing the real thing at the right time and at the right intensity is a

      a tough job. State two reasons why this is so.

13. What kind of people get into trouble socially? Be very specific.


After discussing the views expressed in the text, write an essay or paragraph explaining to what extent you agree with the writer


Benedict Carey; July 5, 2010

The text is a refreshing analysis of the benefits to all concerned of expressing you feelings – including anger and displeasure – openly. It also reiterates that such an attitude leads to more and better friendships and improved social relations. It is a little gem. My thanks go to Hamide Koz who sent me the text. For those of you who know the book, it is sort of beginning College reading 2 level- say after the first two chapters.


  1. The last one; if they have any sense they will see it clearly stated at the beginning of paragraph two; a logical place to look.
  2. People could take it out on loved ones.
  3. Your temper. Students need to use their own words.
  4. Emotion regulation.
  5. They define mental disorders.
  6. The last one.
  7. Growing up and the development of the prefrontal cortex
  8. Adults; they were adept at masking horror. Stress.
  9. Such people miss opportunities for friendship.
  10. Older people tend to regulate their emotions faster and are not as motivated to explore negative information, to engage in negative images as younger people.
  11. They were priming themselves to feel emotions they believed would be most useful to them.
  12. It means throwing the switch on two psychological systems at once. If that process interrupts expression even a little, people notice.
  13. The ones who are inflexible and stick to one of the three strategies: concealing, adjusting, tolerating


Alla Katsnelson

Published online 8 July 2010/ Nature /doi:10.1038/news.2010342

Level of difficulty **


1.       How important are hobbies, interests and excitement in people’s lives?

2.       How important is trying something new or taking on a challenge?

3.       How do the above make you feel?

4.       Do you think the effect is only physical?

5.       Read the title of the text. How do you think an interesting environment helps?


1.       Read the studies done with mice as far as “Unexpected effects” and answer the following three questions: What is the immediate conclusion we can draw from this study? What is the ultimate conclusion we can draw from this study? What is the take-home point about stress mentioned in this study?

2.       Look back at the section you have just read and explain in your own words what “enriched”, “restrain” and “reduction” mean. There are plenty of contextual clues so no dictionaries.

3.       Read the section titled “Unexpected effects”. What does “its” in the first line of this section refer to?

4.       During and his colleagues wanted to know “why the natural history of cancer differed so dramatically from one individual to the next”. What seem to be the two reasons according to this section?

5.       The two reasons stated above are closely connected. What is the connection?

6.       Read “The health challenge”. In the second paragraph in this section, John Hall says “This is a novel finding”. What is he referring to? Be very precise.

7.       What is the take-home point concerning tumor growth in humans gleaned from the findings concerning mice?

8.       Read the last paragraph of the text. What typical features of a concluding paragraph does it have? What phrases you personally start the conclusions in your essays is lacking. What is the take-home point in that case?


Now write a short summary of the text having discussed organization with your teacher.


Alla Katsnelson


You may be forgiven for being tempted to just turn to something else on reading the title. Doing so, however, would be a great mistake.  Despite not being a science graduate, I found the text riveting as it proves what we seem to know instinctively anyway. The text itself also lends itself to some serious comprehension questions, which is why I have given it two stars despite the relative simplicity of the passage. For those of you who know the book, it is sort of mid-College Reading 2 level. My thanks go to Hamide Koz who sent me the text.

  1. A mild boost in stress hormones seems to be what keeps the cancer at bay by switching on a molecular pathway that restrains tumor growth. / Making home more complicated increases stress in mice but keeps them healthier. / A little stress may be no bad thing.
  2. Made richer, control or inhibit, a drop
  3. Environmental enrichment's
  4. Reduced levels of the hormone leptin; a dramatic increase in the expression of a gene encoding the signaling protein BDNF.
  5. The action of stress hormones
  6. That enrichment can reduce tumor growth
  7. Humans could benefit from a more active life style – not just physically but socially and cognitively.
  8. Future applications of these findings. Phrases like in conclusion, to sum up and the like. These phrases are by no means necessary.


The discovery concerning an enriched environment/ what physical changes took place in mice in these environments / what exactly enrichment means / the significance of all this for treating cancer in humans.

Sunday, October 30, 2011


“One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time”

André Gide

It is easy to claim that when André Gide made the above observation, he was completely ignoring the survival value of staying close to the herd; a dictum deeply embedded in the psyche of any gregarious mammal that ever roamed the planet. Young zebras, for instance, trot around with their elders and betters in one swirling series of black and white stripes the hypnotic effects of which must be truly a pain for the big cats seeking their dinner. The only mammals that flaunt this dictum are those that can stand on their own feet thank you very much like rhinoceroses who are far too powerful to care about anyone else or orangutans whose habitats are completely inaccessible anyway – as they rarely descend from the canopy. Human primates, having neither the advantages of rhinoceroses nor orangutans, have not escaped the deeply embedded fear of the unknown seeking shelter in the company of their brethren and thus the familiar. It is this fact that has provided the strongest opposition to any form of change in society, but I digress.

There is one small problem with the truism discussed above: it does not, never has and never should apply to language learning. Foolhardiness or rashness is to be deplored in most areas of life but letting go of the crutches, leaving the confines of your cubbyhole, venturing into the garden the boundaries of which you can’t see for the sake of being able to get a complete picture is to be desired in this context. The cubbyhole a language learner chooses to inhabit is restrictive; there is, after all, a limit to the learning experiences possible in this setting. He is restricted in terms of vocabulary, lexical variation, reasoning skills and even grammar causing his self (and officially) imposed prison to become stifling after a while, engendering a deep tedium comparable to cabin fever – the feeling that the first settlers experienced imprisoned in their cabins on the prairie for the duration of the long harsh winters in the wild west. Boredom will, in turn, lead nicely to lack of concentration – a  fact for which one can hardly blame the poor captive – which will in turn lead to inordinately high failure rates as the tests a student eventually sits require intimate knowledge of the garden beyond, not the cubbyhole. Hurled in at the deep end come the end of the year, the student suddenly sees the light: he realizes exactly what has happened and consequently feels cheated and very bitter. He has, after all, lost a wonderful opportunity to broaden his horizons and there is no going back. He should, ethically, be able to sue his captures claiming mal practice; this not being possible, we, the teachers, need to help the language learners entrusted to our care to step boldly “where no student has stepped before”.

Getting to Know the Nature of the Beast

The Students

Those of you with small children will recall the first faltering steps your offspring took and how your heart came to your mouth as he waddled vaguely in the direction of the coffee table looking all the while as if he were going to fall flat on his face and possibly hit his head. For one agonizing minute you watch with bated breath and heave a sigh of relief as he promptly sits down on his well padded posterior. Another mother, faced with the same spectacle, leaps to her feat and grabs baby before disaster hits as she is sure it will. Baby howls with fury and frustration and this continues as mother’s well meaning efforts to avert “disaster” prevent him from exploring the coffee table with all the shiny ashtrays, the kitchen cupboards with those tantalizing saucepan lids, his dolly when he wishes to see what it tastes like. As he grows up in the confines of the nursery where mother can protect, guide and instruct him, he remains oblivious to the pleasure  of making mud pies, climbing trees, playing outdoors ( where mum can’t see and explain the pitfalls of the garden path). Any desire to visit a friend forms the basis of a family crisis involving interrogation that would put the most thorough secret service to shame and mummy delivering and fetching the victim (who may be visiting a friend living a block away).  The list is endless; mother’s nerves are warn to a shred and so are baby’s and later child’s; at least initially. Initially, because baby will eventually fall into a routine as he learns to fear the unknown and wait for mummy. Hence another dependent child is born. As already discussed in “An Elusive Quality: Motivation” (on my blog under papers http://theproproom.blogspot.com  and my academia page www.academia.edu ) paralyzing overprotection well into adulthood is a common problem and a terrible hindrance to all new experiences. I also discussed, in the same paper, the combined effect of such an upbringing and an authoritarian education system. If you remember, I explained that this is the team we need to work with. Having dependent subjects would have been fine in Stalinist Russia but it is fatal if you want students to actually think, assess a situation, evaluate an issue, form opinions and reach conclusions; all of which are necessary if they are to ever truly master a foreign language. A lifetime of overprotection, mollycoddling and spoon feeding – the latter being a feature of any authoritarian education system worth its salt – means that a lot of language learners in this part of the world at least will arrive in their prep year with the disease firmly entrenched; i.e. as dependent students if you like, who will cling to tenaciously to the familiar.

The Educators

This, however, is one aspect of the problem only; there is a second contributing factor: the teachers themselves. It is sad but true that one of the major obstacles to the failure to overcome low tolerance for ambiguity is the fact that teachers themselves, being products of the same system and now having taken on their adult roles of aiding the young in their education, have replaced that mother I described earlier who snatched baby up. I must hasten to add that the good intentions, diligence and even idealism of such teachers are without question; the fact that they are seriously misguided is not. Overprotection in the classroom is soporific besides being frustrating – never a good combination. Imagine reading a story about a young girl and a lad on a date; they hit it off really well. Eventually the lad says” Your place or mine?” and they arrive at the front door to find the latch key under a flower pot in the porch. A student with low tolerance for ambiguity will latch on to first “latchkey” and then “porch” and if encouraged by his teacher will learn the difference in meaning between the verb and the noun, what a porch is and how it differs from a veranda or a patio and even have pictures drawn for him. The student who has learnt to ignore unimportant details will gather very quickly that they got indoors and not having the patience to go up stairs, fell to on the couch. The student in shackles will eventually catch up and then start wondering what a rubber is in this context, look it up in the dictionary find eraser, scratch his head and bleat for teacher (mummy) who will kindly put it all on the board with sample sentences while our other student is on to the problem solution essay discussing teenage pregnancies and how to solve the problem, which is, after all, the point of the whole exercise. Does this look familiar? What is also familiar is the teacher’s reaction: the desire to instruct, to explain and completely clarify every minute detail, to leave nothing and I mean absolutely nothing to chance. Heaven forbid they get the wrong idea about what a porch is or what a latchkey is. “Whatever you teach, be brief” ( Quidquid praecipies, esto brevis) said Horace in Ars Poetica ( 333) and how right he was though I have sneaking suspicion he wasn’t referring to language learning. I must hasten to reiterate that the teacher’s good intentions are without question and a teacher’s desire to teach is just as powerful as that maternal instinct to protect yet both can be carried too far. The old adage – which reflects the same sentiment Horace was trying to convey – claims you can have too much of a good thing, and it is perfectly true. It should be obvious from test scores over the years on centralized tests that mollycoddling in the classroom only panders to a firmly rooted natural inclination which should not have been allowed to develop in the first place. When Judge Joseph Channing (in the BBC series Judge John Deed) refers to someone as “an oleaginous reptile”, how is knowing the fact that the word means fatty going to help the language learner? Surely knowing he was angry would suffice. Consider another example: The young lady, being of diminutive stature, was unable to reach the shot gun hanging above the fireplace and opted for the bread knife; an equally effective weapon in the hands of a woman scorned. Surely, the student should be permitted and encouraged to guess that she was too short to reach the shot gun and murdered her husband with the bread knife; especially if the focus is domestic violence and not obscure vocabulary.  Going back for a moment to the young couple we left to their own devices on the sofa, admittedly it requires willpower to desist and let the student work out that first the couple arrives at the front door and then ends up on the couch, ergo they must have got indoors somehow. The trouble is that most educators can’t resist vocabulary; it is like the proverbial kid and the cookie jar; particularly if the word is one they themselves don’t know either. What the teacher should tell himself is that he has managed very well without incorporating the word oleaginous in to his active vocabulary and the students ought to be able to as well.  Similarly, showing him he can just ignore the dratted latchkey is the greatest kindness a teacher can do for a student. That the responsibility rests with the teacher should now have become obvious. The teacher can help the student step bravely forth and really come to grips with a text both through the choice of material and pace; i.e. the syllabus, and his attitude in the classroom.

Help is at Hand: The Syllabus

The human brain is a wonderfully efficient super computer which aims to conserve energy and save time and effort should the need arise. This being the case, any task which has been performed since the year dot will trigger a signal: done this before a hundred times, know it like the back of my hand and switch, immediately, to auto pilot – a scientific fact I had always suspected and was delighted to find to be true. The task is then completed in record time, perfectly efficiently yet with no conscious thought what so ever. Throw a spanner in the works, in the form of a new step in the process hitherto absent, or try and concentrate for one moment and the process will be interrupted. One obvious example of this in the classroom is certain grammar exercises; after pages of drills or exercises the student will still make the most hideous mistakes come the text. After all, as one expert once said, one can’t learn whilst one is asleep as conscious thought and active engagement in the work at hand is required for synapses to form and new connections to be made. Autopilot mode is the closest you can get to being asleep without being flat out so to speak and the rule is the same for language learning; grammar, reading, vocabulary in fact all the skills (for more on how to teach grammar and reading, check out my papers  on my blog or academia page). The obvious first step, therefore, is to get the students to be actually fully engaged in the task they are performing at a cognitive level and this can’t be done by setting them tasks which they can perform with their eyes closed.

Whilst rectifying the problem described above, the natural inclination of “the dependent student” and “the teacher come mom” should also be kept well in mind. For the solution to the problem is obvious: the syllabus – including both material and the pace – requires a minor revolution. Trying to implement these changes is another problem all together. In his article in the October issue of Humanizing Language Teaching Magazine, “Tolerance of Ambiguity and Its Implications for Reading” (www.hltmag.co.uk ), Ruben Cardenas Cabello addresses the issue of low tolerance for ambiguity in great detail and very succinctly. The point I would like to add is that the major obstacle to radical change in the syllabus is often teacher resistance; a fact beautifully yet rather bluntly expressed by an irate administrator now deceased: “Getting them to do anything is like politely asking a herd of rampaging buffalo to turn left!” Crude and even crass I admit yet the sentiment is captured very successfully: change is bad, it is dangerous, it can have fatal consequences, what was good for our grandfathers is good for us, stick with what you know and don’t rock the boat; this despite the fact that the boat is taking in water and is about to sink – the end of year exam.  Let us imagine, for the sake of argument, that teacher resistance has been dealt with either with methods of persuasion or cajoling and “The Revolution” is nigh. What kind of material should be used to combat low tolerance for ambiguity and why? Moreover, what should the pace be like?

The obvious first step is not to fall into a rut or do anything what so ever to induce hypnosis; the latter can only be avoided by making the material being used both interesting and challenging. I have dealt with the choice of material in detail in my papers on the teaching of reading (Read in the Name of the Lord and How not to Teach Reading: Beware the Call of Functionalism on my blog and on my academia page) so I will focus here on the latter criterion: the challenge.  I remember reading in the famous quiz show host Anne Robinson’s biography a few years back the furore resulting from the decision to stop printing the daily crossword taken by a British daily. The server crashed and telephone lines were blocked as the paper was inundated with calls from irate readers. Naturally, the decision was retracted. The reason is obvious: people do, contrary to the widespread belief, enjoy a challenge; an inclination that can and should be exploited in the classroom. As already discussed, material that is too simple will cause a student to switch off; similarly, material that is too hard will cause him to give up in despair; neither bodes well for learning. The trick is to get the material just right so that the student can accomplish it if he rallies all his powers like in the case of the crossword. Naturally the level – just within reach rather than out of reach – should be determined correctly. After all, some consider the Times crossword a challenge like Morse in the Inspector Morse Mysteries (who is continually trying to get the daily mental challenge complete in under 12 minutes), while others consider this to be double Dutch and opt for the Sunday supplement. Material that is just possible to come to grips with will actually teach a student faster than simple stuff and save valuable time and effort in the long run. This is no mean feat as it runs counter to everything both the student and often the teacher have been brought up to believe. Breaking the deeply ingrained habits of a life time is a serious undertaking yet it must be done. Unlike my deceased colleague, I have great faith in the good will and idealism of my fellow teachers so let us proceed.

First and foremost, both teachers and students need to be disabused of the idea that everything in a text needs to be thoroughly understood; it doesn’t. Quite the reverse is true in fact as the students and teachers must learn to accept that there are key words in a text, for instance, which must be understood – by checking in an English to English dictionary; a skill to be encouraged – and there are those one can roughly guess from the context like the word adore in the case of the teenage couple we left on the couch earlier. Imagine he breaths “I adore you” in to her ear; knowing that the word vaguely means “to love” should suffice; details are unnecessary. Then there are those words which fall into neither category: they are neither key words, nor can they be understood from the context; they should just be ignored. It is the lack of this fundamental skill that left one of our students stranded on the porch and later scratching his head by the couch, as his less handicapped classmate  entered the room at a brisk trot and grasping the situation, moved on to the writing task. This latter skill can be fostered in language learners only if the material selected is of  an appropriate level of difficulty; i.e. if there is stuff that can be guessed and that which should be ignored. Once a text of the correct level of difficulty has been picked, the next step is to lead the students through it helping them to learn to ignore details, guess from context and thus see the whole forest rather than a couple of trees. My nightmare vision in a reading lesson is a student text with every unfamiliar word underlined and meanings scribbled in. If you feel, on looking at a student’s text, that you need to ask him where the text is – if you are unable to pick it out amid a dearth of notes – this student is in trouble and you, as the teacher, need to put him right.  

The Advantages of Stretching the Students

The first obvious advantage to be gained by such a choice of material is that students will be furnished with the skills necessary to be able to read texts that are slightly too difficult for them without panicking, and also continue learning; both of which are vital if they are doing a year of prep before commencing their studies at an English medium university such as our own. The second advantage is that they will learn to actually enjoy learning as true pleasure is only possible if all one’s senses and faculties are involved in the task at hand; so much so that all else is forgotten. The greatest compliment a teacher can receive is comments indicating that the students were unaware that the lesson had come to an end. There is a third advantage: students will, in fact, learn vocabulary faster and progress faster: provided there is adequate opportunity for practice and the syllabus is purposely designed (i.e. the pace, the selection of material and the order in which it is presented are all correct), the students will first roughly guess the meaning of the word, then grasp it at a deeper level and finally learn it or get very close to learning it ( recognition level); all without the teacher doing much other than the planning and setting of the task – presenting the texts in the correct order. It must be remembered that it is the reasoning skills that are ultimately tested on any good reading test and as a teacher, if you furnish your charges with these, you are home and dry. The three advantages of this method of teaching will also have a knock on effect on the pace: the syllabus designer or teacher will be able to increase the pace as the year progresses and students acquire the necessary skills thus enabling more learning to be achieved in a shorter space of time. This is the only way to prepare for centralized English Language tests that measure competence in a language such as IELTS or TOEFL or The Proficiency at our university in a relatively short space of time and hope for a measure of success. Keeping students on a lead will mean that they will be unable develop the reasoning skills necessary and their learning will fall far short of the desired target – the standard set by the centralized test. You may be forgiven for thinking that these reasoning skills can be explained to the students in the context of a simple text though I doubt that many of those who have been following me thus far still believe this.

The reasons are simple: firstly, skills of any kind can best be acquired if the student is allowed to draw conclusions; in short, if he is forced to work things out for himself. Active mental involvement or engagement in the task goes hand in hand with successful learning and remembering. The second reason is so obvious that I feel almost ashamed to have to point it out: the students are trying to increase their competence in a foreign language to a level which will enable them to follow lessons at university level for instance, like in our case, or to go abroad and do graduate work. What use is learning what previewing, predicting, skimming, scanning, reading for detail, main ideas, topic sentences are if the lexical difficulty of the texts he can cope with fall far, far too short of the standard required at the end of the year. It is mastery of the language itself that is paramount; a simple truth that is often forgotten in the selection of reading material for classroom use. When selecting a text or a text book then, the content, quality, level and appeal of the texts themselves should be of prime concern. The skills can easily be taught by a teacher who knows what he is doing. I will go further: my ideal student reader would only have the texts. All activities would be in the teacher’s book and could be photocopied and distributed as necessary. This would keep the students in suspense and therefore focused. It would also aid enjoyment of the text, which would in turn foster successful learning. As I have often said before, we, as a breed, are often mesmerized by various types of reading activities, charts, vocabulary sections and the like. The lengthier the activities, the more thoroughly hooked we become. This is a feeling comparable to any addiction – drugs, alcohol, nicotine – and should be crushed both for our own sakes and the students – who are on the receiving end of all this.

Should one allow oneself to be carried away by all those lovely activities and amble along like George the Galapagos turtle( a current resident of London zoo where he has been for the last couple of centuries if I am not mistaken), the end of the year will mean Erebus as students fail in their hundreds. When such a disaster hits, one can hardly just blame the students as the teacher is the team leader and master of ceremonies. After all George has no need to run or even trot; he can afford not to with his lifespan. We don’t have the luxury of a couple of hundred years to get from A to B; we often have eight months. We teachers stand alone with a few other professions in that our prime concern is to best serve our students; not material gain, contrary to current trends so all is needed to avert disaster is teacher training and good communication. The latter has, in this day and age, been greatly facilitated by technology. Thus, there is no need at all for the problem to persist. Our motto should be that of Dr Seuss’ when he said “Today is your day. Your mountain is waiting. So…. Get on your way” It doesn’t have to be The Matterhorn, at least not initially, but it most certainly must not be a couple of feet of garden path either.  

This article is dedicated to my good friend and colleague Oya Özağaç in the hope that it answers her question