Lesson:How to turn the English language into a living hell (and vice versa)
In my short career as an EFL teacher in Russia, I came upon many students who knew all theory about the English language, but got hopelessly entangled in it. This kind of student can usually write pretty well, yet is unable to finish a sentence in speech. You'll get something like this:
"The homework, which you gave me last week... contained a third sentence... which was giving me quite some problems... having not finished... we should maybe take a look... at the homework... это домашние задание, да?... which you gave, uhmm told us... I mean the exercise... упражнение?... though I prefer writing essays....do you understand.... (sigh) я не могу... why you no understand?"
The mistake this student makes is that he or she tries to speak in overly complicated sentences. The student has all the knowledge for complicated speech, but not the experience to make it fluent. And the result is that he or she gets completely entangled in his/her own constructions. Students with this problem come from a education system that does not develop anything, only corrects. No book targets this particular problem, because they all suppose a western education system that treats the English language as what it is: a means of expression. But in more retarded education systems, the English language is no means of expression: it is a set of facts that people have to know in order to pass an exam. And that exam is designed to make them fail if they do not know those facts. That teaching system bombards them with extremely difficult texts, and they never even get to actually speaking normally. For students with this particular problem, there is this lesson. It uses a test-teach-test approach and lots of group work.
For me, this lesson works best when I create an over-the-top atmosphere with maniacal laughter and lots of shock-and-awe drama. The students should know we are going to the edge of insanity and back. It is part of the learning curve. I prefer to start my lesson by ostentatively closing the door and watching my students as if I am a homicidal maniac. "Some of you students think that English is a language. That you can use it to have a conversation or to write letters. Well, it's not. English is not a language. It is a torturing device. Welcome to MY English class"
For dramatic effect, the teacher writes the name of the lesson on the board:
"How to make English into a living hell"
The teacher focuses the attention of the students on this name and asks the students how to do it? How do we make English difficult? Probably some of them have some ideas. A giveaway is "use difficult words". If they don't have any ideas or they don't understand, ask them what problems they have in learning. Collect at least one idea on the left half of the board, so you know they understand the idea of the following assignment.
In order for the students to answer the question on the board, the teacher hands out a set of difficult texts. Here are the ones I use:
The assignment of the students is to tell what makes these texts difficult. NOT to understand them. It is practically impossible for even advanced students to understand these texts because there is no context. This is a new kind of exercise for students, so you have to make sure they are on task. Keep talking to them and gather ideas on how to make a text difficult immediately. Otherwise you run the risk that they start reading the text and get discouraged. Ideally your introduction flows unnoticed into this assignment. Encourage them to discuss.
The teacher collects guidelines for making a difficult text on board. This is the list I end with, all on the left side of the board.
How to turn English into a living hell
- Use difficult words, terminology.
- Use passives.
- Use long sentences, clauses.
- Use conditionals.
- Use hypothetic speech (would, could, should, might).
- Use complex tenses.
- Put vital information at the end of the sentence.
The teacher erases the title of the lesson. Maybe even unlocks the classroom door. The teacher writes a new title on the board: How to make English easy
On the right side of the board, we can collect the opposites of our list. Here they are:
How to make English easy
- Use simple words, avoid terminology.
- Write in the active voice.
- Keep your sentences short. Do not use clauses. Start a new sentence instead.
- Avoid conditionals.
- Avoid hypothetic speech (would, could, should, might).
- Stick to present simple, past simple and present perfect.
- Put the words with the vital information in the beginning of the sentence. Put the sentence with the vital information in the beginning of the paragraph. And while we are at it: put the paragraph with the vital information in the beginning of your text.
Two of the texts in this lesson are quite important pieces of literature. These are works of art because they use difficult language. This can be useful to note to the students. There can be good reasons to write or to speak in difficult English. Maybe because somebody wants to bring across difficult information. The purpose of this lesson however is to use easy language. For simple pieces of information.(Noticed how I avoided a conditional there?)
Hand out the following exercise. This one is great for pairwork, because you want your students to discuss. If they have difficulty, you can explain the activity in steps. First find what difficult constructions are in the sentence. Second, take those difficulties out. Note that it is inevitable that information gets lost. As long as students try to minimise that loss, they are doing a good job.
Can you say it in a simpler way?
- My head has been being broken over this problem all night.
- I would have to answer that question negatively.
- He said he had returned the book on Friday.
- Despite having a more accessible sound, it was still difficult to present the album “Hairway to Steven” to a larger audience, something that might also have been due to reluctancy of radio and television station to air music from a band called “the Butthole Surfers”.
- You could have used a conditional here if you wanted to make things more dificult to understand, but I am glad you didn't.
Possible answers for exercise 1
- I have broken my head over it all night.
- He said he returned the book on Friday.
- A band called "the Butthole Surfers" made an album called "Hairway to Steven". They tried to sound more accessible to a larger audience, but their name scared off quite a few radio and television stations.
- I am glad you didn't use a conditional there(, because it would have made the sentence more difficult to understand).
This section is optional. If there is no time, skip to the next activity or make this homework.
Here, students simplify a short text in groups. It is quite appealing to take a very difficult text, but don't do that. Students have already quite some difficulty with texts that are simple to us. If you're working with advanced level students, the Lovecraft excerpt used above is quite okay. And it is from the wonderful age before copyright existed, so it is in the public domain. Otherwise, take a news article from the trashiest section of the Daily Mail. Because the subject matter is so utterly stoopid, the journalists there try to boost the pretention of the text with difficult constructions. Take one paragraph, not more. It is more than enough.
Here's an example that could easily take 20 minutes or so:
Lindsay Lohan has been told in no uncertain terms she will face jail time if she pleads guilty in her grand theft case. The actress appeared in court today for a hearing on a felony charge alleging that she stole a $2,500 necklace from a Venice jewellery shop last month. The 24-year-old actress, who is free on $40,000 bail, was charged February 9 with grand theft involving the necklace that was allegedly taken from Kamofie & Company on January 22. Lindsay, whose skin-tight Kimberly Ovitz dress was deemed inappropriate for court by fashion critics two weeks ago, this time swapped a high hemline for a low neckline. She strutted into the Los Angeles Airport Branch Courthouse just before the 8.30am hearing wearing a plunging Chanel top, white pants, YSL heels, Lanvin clutch and Tres Glam jewellery. Her hair was tied back in a ponytail.
Up till now, we have been keeping this lesson on the safe side. The students now know the difference between difficult language and easy language. But it is still written language. They talked about the sentences they worked with, maybe they even pronounced a complete sentence, but there was always that sheet of paper as a safety net. In the last exercise, we are going to take that safety net away. We are going to use a role-play. Here are some I work with:
For more role-plays see the category below.
In this role-play, the teacher should try to note the sentences in which students get lost. The teacher writes these sentences down on a sheet of paper and completes them. At the end of the lesson, the teacher collects the sentences on board and students correct them in open class, the same as if it were a normal exercise about grammar, vocabulary or lexis.