Category Archives: ESOL

“Mum, why were swear words invented?”

My eight year old daughter is, in my opinion, a bit of a prude. Not just a bit, actually, she would give Mary Whitehouse a run for her money in her constant outrage over use of what she deems “bad language.” Cut your finger while drying a knife and complain that you have got the tea towel all bloody and you will hear sharp intakes of breath followed by a hand covering the mouth of my little darling in horror at your use of “the B word.” A female dog can only be referred to as just that. You can talk about the possibility of the existence of heaven, but not the other place. Even describing something as “crap” meets with strong disapproval. She can only refer to her vagina in hushed tones and, while proud that she is still using the word at all and not some weird made up thing, it saddens me greatly that she attaches such embarrassment to her body parts. Ironically’ the other day she got upset by me talking about “boobs” instead of “breasts.”

How did this happen? Before I had kids, I swore fairly frequently. I enjoyed swearing. I tried not to swear in front of my parents – my mum has often told me that she never swore in front of her mother (who died 33 years ago) and so I tried to emulate that out of respect for her wishes. She has since sworn many times in front of me and I in front of her. We have even sworn at each other. I remember my dad taking me to a football match in my early teens and being shocked by his use of swear words. He swears, I swear. He did pick me up on my “taking the lord’s name in vain” – he is a Mormon – and so, again, out of respect I don’t do so in front of him or anyone I know to have similar convictions. I don’t think I have ever sworn in front of my husbands’s parents.

I have, since having kids, generally abstained from using swear words. However, on the occasional night out with friends, out of earshot of my kids, I have, again, enjoyed swearing. Unlike before, when I am in that situation, I relish each swear word I hear and every one that passes my lips. My son is now ten and my daughter eight and I had started to feel that I need not be so cautious in my use of language. They hear other kids swearing. They hear other adults swearing – especially those many adults that don’t have kids (which includes three of their uncles and two of their aunts – though i know they have also heard the aunts and uncles that do have kids swearing – I have a big family.) As a result of this relaxed attitude, I have thrown in the odd swear word – not in speaking to them, but in conversation with my husband or when I stub my toe, for example. The result has been total and utter outrage on the part of my prudish eight-year-old daughter and, I suspect, a decrease in the respect given to me by my son.

My daughter posed the question,”why were swear words invented?” Judging by her tone, she could equally have been asking, “why was slavery invented?” Or “why were weapons of mass destruction invented?” I was so thrown by the despair in her voice, I couldn’t answer at the time. I still haven’t answered her because I don’t know how to. I feel I have a good grasp on why swear words were “invented” and how they are used, but how do you communicate that to a prudish eight year old? I know that it is socially, let’s say, “frowned upon” for an eight year old girl to use swear words, at least within earshot of adults. At the same time, she will hear other people swearing and I don’t want her to immediately judge them negatively as a result. I think only ignorant people say that only ignorant people swear. She may or may not want to swear. If she, as others, choose not to, she, like them, will only end up using substitutes such as “sugar,” “blooming heck,” and so on. She does so already. When she hears swearing it offends and frightens her because her associations with swear words has always been negative. We tell her she shouldn’t swear and we don’t swear in front of her.

Swearing is often used in anger and so I can understand the negative associations. But swearing is also used to emphasise any strong emotion. Swear words can be used to degrade but they can also be used to upgrade. They can be used both as an insult and as a compliment. Like all use of language, swear words are a matter of discretion, appropriacy and choice.

Of course, like anyone learning a new language, my kids often ask “what does x x x x mean?” This is always a difficult question as the literal meaning bears little relation to how it is used, but it may go some way to explaining why we shelter anyone who is learning English, from such words. “You lucky bastard,” for example. Define this in literal terms and it makes little sense. Say something was “fucking amazing,” and what would you say when asked what “fucking” means? In the phrase “acting like a prick,” how do you define the word “prick?” If we offer our children the literal meaning, it does not match how the words are used. it would be equally unhelpful if we offered speakers of other languages a direct translation of these words. At the same time, is it enough to say that “fucking” is the equivalent of “really” or that “prick” means the same as “fool?”

So how the fuck should we deal with swear words??!!

As teachers of English to speakers of other languages, how do we deal with swearing? More on this in my next ******* blog!


Seeing the trees

We’ve all heard the expression “can’t see the wood for the trees.”  A useful expression to illustrate how we should look towards the bigger picture in order to make things clearer and easier to manage. As teachers, we have honed this skill to the extent that we are no longer able to see the “trees” or individual members of the collective class or “wood.” We talk about types of “trees” and how best to manage them. We suggest ways in which some “trees” can facilitate the growth of others if placed appropriately. We encourage research into the needs of individual “trees” and then make decisions on how to nurture them based on what will serve the majority or the stronger of them.

Ok – clearly I know nothing about trees or their management. I used the metaphor because it made for a good title but I can’t sustain it any longer. I think it’s function has been served.

My point is that we are continually failing the individuals in our classes. As adults, our students are placed according to level of ability and yet we all have classes where the levels of ability are diverse. Some are there because they have scored highly in speaking skills though their written work is weak. Some score highly on paper but struggle to communicate verbally (often, as a result of the “communicative” teaching method that is widely promoted these individuals are penalised: i.e. placed in lower levels,  as they are unable to participate in the kind of verbal activities favoured in this kind of teaching environment.)

Young learners, however, are placed largely (if not solely) based on age, and yet these classes seem to function on a practical level. Why is this? Perhaps it is because, at a young age, the needs of the students are more in tune. As a group they may well have more in common; music, world knowledge, life experience, fears etc. As adults, our students are far more diverse. I have had seventy year old students in the same class as eighteen year olds. No one could argue that their life experience could possibly be comparable or that they are likely to have the same interests, attitudes, applicable life skills and so on. That is not to say that they did not work well together or learn from each other and benefit from being in the same class, but it was only through focusing on the individuals in the group, that this was achieved.

In fact, it is often in the groups that have been the most noticeably diverse that I have seen the most progress in learning. This has mainly been as a result of the acceptance and the ability to embrace different needs and interests encouraged by allowing individuals to focus on things that are relevant to, and interest them, and then allowing space to share what they have learned.

In classes where students seem more homogenous, there is a danger that the stronger, more vociferous, or needy students dominate. The majority of the class seems happy and engaged   in the activities. It is assumed that all the students’ needs are being met because no one is complaining. Do we judge the “success” of our teaching by keeping the majority happy? Are we even meeting the needs of the majority or do they simply happen to enjoy and perform well in the tasks we set? Have we, by placing them in that class, at that level, set them up for success rather than considered and attempted to meet their needs as individuals?

I understand the economics behind teaching learners in groups. I also believe there is a huge benefit to learning anything in a group rather than in isolation. I, personally, have always found group learning of any subject, to be more beneficial and enjoyable than learning in isolation.

My most enjoyable and successful learning has  been in groups where the learning goal was the same, or at least the qualification, and yet abilities and motivations were extremely diverse. The syllabus taught to us was the same but we all got different things out of it. We often worked individually, to report back to the group later. We also worked in small groups with shared goals. Sometimes we worked on the same tasks at the same time and reached different outcomes. We came to the course as individuals, maintained our individuality while benefiting from the camaraderie of the social group, and left, most of us, achieving our individual goals.

As teachers, we should always see our classes as a collection of individuals, we should not be blinded by the group. Nurture the individual trees and the wood will flourish.


What to teach: who knows best?

Blimey – a difficult question when you really think about it – go on, think about it!

Are the publishers in the best position to judge? After all they must do loads of research into what works best – they use the European framework that surely is based on years of study into how people learn languages and what is needed at different levels / stages of learning and they must only hire the most qualified knowledgable people to write materials. And those writers. They must have so much teaching experience and background knowledge to come up with, like A WHOLE BOOK.

So how come, even on entry training courses, teachers are encouraged to adapt material? I don’t know anyone – please give your own examples to fill the gap – who has passed any teaching qualification by teaching a lesson “by the (literal) book.” So does that mean “the teacher” knows best? What are we there for, after all, but to impart our expertise? Aren’t we the ones who select what to teach and how (and how!)? Don’t we do this based on our own experience, mounting qualifications and our knowledge of our particular group of students? Surely we are in the best position to judge.

Ok so we are bound by restrictions imposed on us by time, management, time-management, assessment criteria, paperwork, inspections, evidencing requirements and so on, all of which we tend to see as getting in the way of us being able to do what we do best – which is be the best judge. But hold on. All of that stuff getting in the way is what goes towards our students being able to fulfil criteria which will enable them to get the qualifications they need to, well, live their lives in the “real world.” Remember the “real world?” I know that, outside of teaching, we all live in the “real world,” and we try to make our activities more authentic and thereby motivating, by basing them on “real world” situations but are we not making judgements on what “real world” means to our students? (note to self: topic for another blog entry.)

Oh, yes. The students. Nearly forgot about them in considering all of those really well-learned, well-qualified, well-experienced-in the-art-of-teaching-English folk we’ve been focussing on (and buying books from and adapting materials from and discussing how English is learned according to a framework that is mapped-out…) Ah, the students. You know, the ones who are actually learning the language. Our customers, if you like.

At the end of the day, we all know who knows best. The customer ALWAYS knows best. There are no exceptions. They know what they want to learn and why – sometimes contrary to what we think they should learn and how. Those are the frustrating students because they just can’t see how “right” we are – right? Wrong! If they are not listening to you or following your advice, it’s because what you are telling them does not ring true for them. Yes, it was true for him and her and those guys, but not this person standing before you now. Students might be limited by what is on offer but if they have signed up for a course, they have seen something in that course that they believe will get them where they want to go. Mostly, that will require them fulfilling certain requirements in order to evidence achievement.

Curriculum for excellence seems to be unique in allowing students to do so in a way that is relevant to individual learners. It will be very interesting to see how this works out. As ESOL providers (which I feel is a much better title than ESOL teachers) I feel we should be involving learners / students / customers in lesson planning and syllabus design. What do your students think?