Cutting up an ox – metaphorically speaking

by Nick Hamilton

English Language Teaching has come a long way in the time I’ve been teaching and teacher training.  It’s not so long ago (but before my time) that a native speaker could travel around the world and teach English simply on the basis of their status as a native speaker.  That is thankfully no longer the case, and the dominance of the native speaker has been gradually replaced by the prevalence of the proficient user of the language.  But teacher training has always faced a similar dilemma: how to communicate the skills set of a proficient teacher to those wishing to enter the profession, or progress within it.  It’s one thing to be able to teach; it’s quite another to be able to teach other people how to do this.

My initial attempts at teacher training, on what was at that time still CertTEFLA, followed a well-established model of breaking this proficiency down into manageable chunks of procedures, activities, and techniques, which were demonstrated and practised, and then hopefully produced more or less appropriately in teaching practice.  It was all very clear and very logical.  It was also a relatively straightforward training process, being based on ‘sessions’ you could beg, steal, or borrow off other trainers.  But the problem seemed always to be that the bit you were doing on any one day was only relevant to a few trainees, while others immediately needed the bit planned for the next day, or week.  There was also a tendency for trainees to prominently display a particular procedure or technique in teaching practice, whether it was appropriate to what they were doing or not.  It could be very stressful, for both trainees and trainers.  I decided after a while that there had to be a better way of doing things.

The impetus for the change came after a few years, when I noticed that a gap had gradually opened up between my teacher training and my teaching; I wasn’t actually training people to teach as I taught, in other words I wasn’t preaching what I was practising.  Eventually, I reached the point where I had to abandon this way of doing things, throw out my course, and start again.

I started by demonstrating whole lessons, drawing directly on my classroom practice of teaching a range of levels and types of lesson, focusing not on procedures, but principles, showing the whole process without any reduction or simplification.  But I still needed to find a way to convey these principles to people learning how to teach.  I’d been doing a lot of background reading on English language teaching, and about this time I came across the ideas of Vygotsky concerning the scaffolding of learning, and the mediation of this learning through the tool of language.  Terminology it seemed was not just there to baffle the uninitiated, but it could provide an access point into experience and insight.  From the tyranny of the procedure checklist emerged a much simpler set of general teaching principles, mediated through key terms.  What follows is a list of some of these key terms and principles that have been significant in my teaching and teacher training.  Some of them are so familiar now that it’s hard to realise how radical they were when they first emerged; but all of them have had a profound effect on the development of my teaching, mediating new insights into the learning process, and I returned to them later to do the same in my teacher training.

Focus on Meaning (FonM) & Focus on Form (FonF)

A distinction made by Michael Long, highlighting the fundamental issue in language teaching of how to effectively balance these two options.  The basic principle behind Task-Based and Dogme approaches is that learning is based around meaning and the making of messages, rather than selected language forms in sentence structures.  This Focus on Meaning is achieved through the use of topic, text, and task, following which there is language focus and practice of relevant forms.  So the principle here is that FonM precedes FonF, that we work from the whole to the part.  The use of the word ‘meaning’, however, is not so clear, given the obvious potential confusion with the checking of meaning in language focus.  So on CELTA courses I refer to this as Focus on Message.


And not vocabulary!  Am I splitting hairs?  I don’t think so.  In my experience learners still associate vocabulary with single items, whereas the term ‘lexis’ can convey the idea of ‘words that go together’, whether in collocations, phrases, or expressions.  This, of course, has been the great insight of Michael Lewis’s Lexical Approach – prior to which nobody noticed collocation in text, despite knowing all about functions!  So the principle here is: no single words.  It also conveys the idea that lexis is the starting point of language analysis, rather than grammar.  And it’s lexis that a CELTA trainee is actually capable of teaching, when they haven’t a hope of teaching a grammar point that the learners know so much better than they do.


The idea of grammar as a verb, attributed to Diane Larsen-Freeman, and encompassing the long-held awareness that the acquisition of the grammar system of the language is a gradual process – not really accessible to a step by step presentation of the parts.  It also complements the awareness of language as lexis, by showing that grammar emerges out of the use of this lexis.  Learners can improvise messages using lexis, in a way that isn’t possible just with grammar, and the relevant aspects of grammar that emerge in this process can then be focused on and practised.  It simply and effectively reverses the traditional view of language as consisting of grammar to which we add vocabulary.


Another key idea from the Lexical Approach, to redress the balance from an obsession with grammatical errors to more of a focus on lexical gaps – from a critical model of language feedback to an empowering one.  Without this awareness most teachers will tend to go straight for the grammatical jugular and correct a learner’s language, rather than take the time to listen to what the learner might actually be trying to say, and help them say it.  And it’s striking how even experienced teachers will assess learners’ language only in terms of its grammatical accuracy.  It lies at the heart of what it means to work with emerging language.

5 Skills (Common European Framework descriptors)

As opposed to the original 4, making a very useful distinction between spoken production and spoken interaction, and focusing on what learners can do, as opposed to what they can’t – quite a shift.  The identifying of 2 distinct speaking skills, and the breakdown of the various genres of these, suggests an approach to developing the speaking skill that prior to this was only there for writing.  Working consciously with the different genres avoids the problem of certain learners dominating in speaking activities, and allows everyone to work on fluent spoken production of language in class.  Which they all need.

So some of the basic principles are: FonM before FonF; lexis before grammar; reformulation more than error correction, and working with what learners can do as opposed to what they can’t.  Unlike the prescriptive procedural nature of my early CELTA teacher training, this seems and feels much more balanced and realistic, and so much simpler.  And it makes the point that there is, of course, no one way of doing these things, but that there is a world of difference between a principled approach to teaching and one based on a ritualised use of materials and procedures.  It also puts the emphasis on what trainees can do as opposed to what they can’t.  And, most importantly, it takes seriously the process of spoken interaction as the basis of language teaching, and not presentation.

I have also come a long way in this process; and as I try to mediate these principles to trainees in their learning process, I’m very aware of how this happened for me.  Anniversaries are naturally times to pause, reflect, and acknowledge.  My experience of teacher training has been accompanied and enriched by so many wonderful colleagues on so many different courses.  Among the many things that have guided me in this process, a Delta reading group stands out.  Set up and run by Roger Hunt, former Director of Studies for Teacher Training at International House London, it mediated a lot of these things for me, including the introduction to the writing of Vygotsky that provided the access point for the shift in my whole approach to teacher training, on both CELTA and Delta courses.  So, many thanks, Roger.

Language mediates experience, in this case the careful and deliberate use of terminology to guide and illuminate, rather than confuse; and this has become a guiding principle in my teacher training.  But, as Vygotsky points out, it is only a tool.  Chuang Tzu, writing in the 4th century BCE, said that ‘when the shoe fits, the foot is forgotten; when the heart is right, for and against are forgotten; then you are free’.  Eventually, the terms are forgotten, and we are just open to respond to the experience in the moment; and then, as Vygotsky says, quoting the poet Osip Mandelstam, ‘my thought, unembodied, returns to the realm of shadows’.

Author’s Bio: Nick Hamilton works as a teacher and teacher trainer at International House London. He has taught and trained teachers in Germany, Turkey, Poland, Lithuania, and China. His interest in Chuang Tzu stems from the learning of Tai Chi Chuan.


Doughty, C. & Williams, J. 1998 Focus on Form in Classroom Second Language Acquisition. CUP

Merton, T. 1969. The Way of Chuang Tzu. New Directions

Thornbury, S. 2006. An A-Z of ELT. Macmillan

Vygotsky, L. 1962. Thought and Language. MIT Press

Williams, M. & Burden, R. 1997. Psychology for Language Teachers. CUP