1: Neatter and Boreder

1: Neatter and Boreder

How to deal with unexpected problems and the need for teachers.

Teaching was turning out much better than Jeremy had expected. Having finished university with a reasonable degree but not feeling like joining the rat race, he had decided to postpone making decisions about his long-term future by taking a year 'off' to teach English in Greece. He had taken a one-week TEFL introductory course at a price that seemed exorbitant given the amount he had learnt from it, and answered some of the classified ads in The Guardian. He was now reasonably close to his idea of paradise - living fairly lazily on a Greek island.

The teaching part of his life had initially worried him, but now with three weeks' teaching under his belt, he found he quite enjoyed it and was gaining confidence all the time. Lying on the beach, a bit bored with the novel he was reading, his mind turned to Monday's lessons. He was a bit surprised at how conscientious he was turning out to be. Even though he didn't start teaching on Monday till after lunch, he had already prepared his lessons. Nearly all the courses at the private school Jeremy worked at followed a coursebook, but the Director of Studies encouraged the teachers to adapt and supplement the materials. Last week, she had given Jeremy a couple of tips on how to add a bit of spice to his lessons, and he planned to try them out on Monday.

His first lesson on Monday was a group of schoolkids. He liked them for their enthusiasm and determination to have fun, and he had found that, if he played along with them a little bit, he enjoyed himself too. Monday's lesson concerned comparatives. The coursebook started with a rather dry conversation comparing city life and life in the country. The Director of Studies had suggested that he use a couple of the outspoken boys in his class, get them to come out in front of the class, and ask the class questions like "Who is taller?" and "Who is older?" Jeremy thought that this would be fun, both for his outgoing students and for him.

On the Monday, the students seemed even chirpier than usual. Jeremy chose two of the fashionable, assertive boys to come to the front. He started asking questions to the class about the two boys, and the class eagerly shouted back answers. Soon, a couple of the two boys' friends at the back started shouting out "Who is stupider?' and "Who is uglier?" Jeremy was actually quite happy with this. He knew the two boys at the front wouldn't mind too much and he was pleased that his students were producing sentences using the target language without prompting.

After a couple of minutes of near uproar, Jeremy quietened the class down so that he could explain the language. On the board he wrote:

Nikolas is taller than Dmitri.
Dmitri is older than Nikolas.

He explained that two people or two things could be compared by adding -er to an adjective followed by than, and highlighted the relevant parts of the sentences on the board. Jeremy didn't particularly like giving explanations, especially with these lively teenagers, since they interrupted the fun in the lesson. He wanted to move on quickly to getting the students into groups to write up silly comparisons, but he was stopped by Adriana, one of the more serious girls, who asked:"The book have City life is more expensive than country life. Why not expensiver than?" Jeremy had to think quickly. He remembered there was something about this in the teacher's book, but he found the teacher's book boring and hadn't paid any attention to it.

"OK", he said, "some adjectives use -er and some use more", hoping he could now get on with the groupwork.
Adriana, however, was persistent. "Why? How you know?"
Jeremy was forced to think on his feet. "Well, long adjectives use more. Short adjectives use -er."
Sensing that Jeremy was unsure of his ground, the students set up a barrage of questions.
"What about narrow?"
"Um, narrower."
"What about friendly?"
"What about unfriendly?"
"But unfriendly is long word."
"What about quiet?"
"What about clever?"
"More clever."
"What about stupid?"
"Um, more stupid."
"Why hotter have two Ts?"
"Er, because the T is after a vowel."
"What about neat?"
"N-E-A-T-T-E-R." Jeremy felt this was wrong, but wanted to be consistent.
"What about bored?"
"Er, more bored."
"But bored is short word."
"OK, boreder then." As soon as he said this, Jeremy prayed that his students would forget it.
"What about easy?"
Adriana, who had started the whole thing off, now brought it to a close. "What is the rule?", she asked.
Jeremy didn't know what to say. He couldn't think of a rule for comparatives. "Well, it's very difficult. It's easier if you learn word by word." He carried on with a few illustrations on the board, and thankfully after a couple of minutes he was able to move on to the long-awaited groupwork.

In his break after the lesson, Jeremy thought back over what he had told the students. He was sure some of it was wrong. He checked in the teacher's book, found the rules, but even they didn't explain all of the students' questions. What should he do in the next lesson? Should he humbly admit his mistakes? But he didn't want to lose face and worried about the students' respect for him. Should he forget it and hope that the students would also forget what he had taught them? But what if they didn't? It might come back to haunt him later. Should he just tell the students the rules from the teacher's book? But he felt that these rules weren't enough, and some comparative adjectives he was certain about broke the rules. Should he try to formulate his own rules? But he wasn't confident enough about his own knowledge, and what if the rules he gave the students were wrong? That would be worse than giving a few incorrect examples. Jeremy was at a loss for what to do, and went into his next lesson less than his usual cheerful self.


1. One possible reason for Jeremy's problems is that his planning for the lessons was inadequate. Although he may have prepared sufficiently concerning his teaching techniques, he clearly did not consider the content of the lesson adequately. In addition to teaching techniques and content, are there any other areas that a teacher should prepare for while planning? How much time do you think a teacher should spend on planning? How important are plans to the success of a lesson?

2. If Jeremy were to prepare for the lesson again, one hopes that he would prepare himself in terms of the content. Where can teachers find information about grammar points such as comparatives? If you have access to several sources of information, which provides the most helpful information? Why do you think this source is the most helpful?

3. One of our responsibilities as teachers is to be knowledgeable about the content of our teaching, in our case, knowledge about language. This is termed language awareness. When you were reading the case study, could you formulate the rules for using -er and more in comparatives? What about the spelling rules? Do your rules explain all of the words which the learners asked Jeremy about? Are there any areas of English grammar which you find confusing and nearly impossible to explain? How can you develop your language awareness in these areas?

4. The case study states that Jeremy finds the teacher's manual boring. Do you share his feelings or do you find teacher's books helpful and interesting? If you were writing a coursebook, what information would you include in the teacher's manual? How would you present this information?

5. Jeremy's self-image as a teacher and his relationships with the learners affect how he tries to overcome his lack of knowledge. When Adriana asks him for a rule, Jeremy avoids the question. Why doesn't he answer "I don't know"? Do you think teachers should admit when they don't know the answer? How will this affect teacher-learner relationships?

6. Similarly, Jeremy considers admitting his mistakes, but is worried about losing face. How do learners react to a teacher who admits his/her mistakes? Is there a danger of losing learners' respect? Can you think of any ways that you might admit your mistakes and build relationships with the learners at the same time?

7. What do you think Jeremy should do between now and his next lesson with the same class? What should he do in that lesson? Why do you think this is the best approach available to him?

Further reading

Introductions to lesson planning can be found in Cross (1991), Purgason (1991) and Watson Todd (1997). Tips on how to prepare yourself while planning are given by Medgyes (1994), and Bailey (1996) contrasts planning and dealing with the unexpected. Planning is also the concern of Case Study 1. Many grammar books provide information about language useful for both teachers and learners. Books designed for learners but of use to teachers include Murphy (1985) and Willis (1991). Of the grammar books for teachers, among the most accessible are Celce-Murcia and Larsen-Freeman (1983) and Swan (1995), while Quirk and Greenbaum (1973) and Quirk et al. (1985) are massively comprehensive, if a little technical. Language awareness is clearly explained in Sharwood Smith (1994), and Thornbury (1997) is an interesting collection of tasks and activities aiming to raise teachers' langauge awareness. Teacher's books are considered in Cunningsworth (1995), Nunan and Lamb (1996) and Werner et al. (1995). Lastly, teacher-learner relationships are discussed in Head and Taylor (1997) and in Wright (1987) from the perspective of roles, and Bailey et al. (1996) examine how learners perceive teachers.