Oct 012016


john_fb-image2Sometimes making just a small tweak in our teaching can deliver big results.  But what are the tweaks we should be making? John Fanselow is a man who knows, in fact he’s written a book about it. Here’s just one of John’s many examples.

Mariko thought that when she gave dictations, all of her students wrote exactly what she said, because there were never any errors in their notebooks. However, when she looked at a video clip of her class, she saw that the students were erasing and writing while she wrote the correct sentences on the board. She had told them to compare what they wrote with the sentences on the board. But instead of only comparing, they were rushing to “fix” without time to process or question.

The next day Mariko asked them to keep their erasers in their pencil cases. After she said, “I like ice cream.” three times, she did not write the sentence on the board. The next time she checked the students’ notebooks, only 10 out of 40 students had written, “I like ice cream.” Instead, she read such phrases as “I cream; I ice; I spring; like ice.” After that, she asked the students to correct what they had written with a different colored pen. This would allow the students to compare their mistakes with what was correct later on and allow the teacher to find out what the students could understand and not understand.     

So a tiny change like using a coloured pen brought great results.  John is giving a course about many many more of the useful changes we can make in our classes. It runs on  iTDi all through this month.  Here is the course page: http://itdi.pro/bigresults . You can download the entire preface to the book there, and you even get the whole book if you join the course before it’s available for sale. But this is going to be a great course, even without a free book.


 Posted by at 9:45 pm
Nov 142012

ELT JournalThe October 2012 issue of English Language Teaching Journal was a special one looking back over developments in ELT over the last seventeen years under the editorship of Keith Morrow. Sadly Keith is resigning. He will be sorely missed but the good news is, to mark the event three articles are available free on-line at http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/content/current This link takes you to the contents page which will show you that the Editorial by Keith Morrow, Key Concepts in ELT by Graham Hall and Review of ELTJ reviews 1995-2012 by Alan Maley are all available free to read as HTML or a PDF. Just click and read!

 Posted by at 11:11 am
Apr 092011

Eleanor RoschAs many of you must have realised, the poll in my last post was inspired by the psychologist Eleanor Rosch. Back in the 1970’s she ran a series of experiments getting people to rate how prototypical of a category particular words were.

Here’s the start of some instructions from one of her experiments:

Think of dogs. You all have some notion of what a “real dog,” a “doggy dog” is. To me a Retriever or a German Shepherd is a very doggy dog while a Pekinese is a less doggy dog. Notice that this kind of judgment has nothing to do with how well you like the thing… You may prefer to own a Pekinese without thinking that it is the breed that best represents what people mean by dogginess. In this study you are asked to judge how good an example of a category various instances of the category are.

So in my poll I gave you pictures of a German Shepherd (Dog 1) and a Pekinese (Dog 2) and nobody chose the Pekinese as ‘the-doggiest’. Tony made me laugh by suggesting it was for dusting the furniture!  

Dog 1                                                                                     Dog 2

But several people chose the German Shepherd and Cat pointed out that it’s closest to a wolf which is a sort of dog prototype. It sounds like Clarissa was tempted to vote for the German Shepherd as well because it was brown, and it could well be that brown is a prototypical colour for dogs. Result: Eleanor Rosch is bang on target.

Dog 3

The third dog I stuck in the poll was a mut. Several people mentioned how hard it was to choose between Dog 1 and Dog 3. I think being a mix of many kinds of dogs is what eventually won dog 3 ‘the-doggiest-dog’ vote in the poll.  More on Dog 3 in a minute.

So what did Eleanor Rosch find out?  Here are some more examples from her experiments.  In a lot of them people had fifteen, twenty or fifty words to rank in a category, but to keep life simple, I’ll just give you three and it’s a little puzzle. You have to work out how well the words represent the category on the left. Are they good representations, so-so or a bit dodgy? (There’s one of each). I’ll post the answers in the ‘Comments’.

Furniture lamp, chair, telephone
Fruit orange, papaya, olive
Vehicle surf board, tractor, automobile
Weapon gun, shoes, whip
Vegetable bean, pea, peanut
Carpenters tools saw, wedge, scissors
Sport ice skating, cards, football
Toys fire engine, books, doll
Clothing stockings, pants (BrE trousers), bracelet
Bird robin, penguin, raven

The most striking thing about Eleanor Rosch’s research was how consistent the answers were. Time and again items would come up in the same or similar position in the list. She concluded that the more an item has attributes in common with other members of the category, the more it will be considered a good and representative member of the category.

However, she also found that the people she was experimenting on had persistent illusions about how the categories were working:

Subjects, upon receiving feedback from the experiment, and audiences, upon being told of it, generally argue that they feel positive that there are many attributes common to all members of the category even when they cannot think of any specific attributes for which there are not counterexamples.

So it seems we want to believe that there are necessary and sufficient conditions that apply to all members in a category, when in practice, as Wittgenstein has pointed out,  there aren’t. I think this worth remembering when we’re teaching. Students may be looking for clear cut meaning boundaries which don’t exist in practice. Maybe some little puzzles along the lines of the one above might help them with that?

I’m sure I’ve read somewhere that the word rankings varied across cultures. So American respondents thought a robin was the birdiest-bird, but when other researchers replicated the experiments in the UK, it was sparrows. We can expect those category boundaries to shift a bit across borders and cultures. No surprises there, I guess.

A very big thank you to everyone who took part in the poll. I’d love to hear any more thoughts on this, so please put them in the comments. I’m going to put the answers from the Eleanor Rosch research there too – click the red ‘Comments’ link at the bottom of this post to check them out.

The other thing I should explain is that we have a new addition to our family. His name is Carter and he is the mut in picture 3. His vocabulary is tiny compared to Chaser’s but he attracts a surprising number of  ‘What a wonderful dog!’ comments on walks when he’s not misbehaving – which he does all too often. I’ve been putting it down to Americans being more liberal with compliments (they’re commonly used as an invitation to talk here) but you’ve just helped explain it to me. It’s not that he’s a wonderful dog so much as a wonderful example of the prototype of  ‘dog’. Ha!


Rosch, E. Cognitive representation of semantic categories. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 1975, 104, 192-233

Rosch, E & Mervis C. Family resemblances: studies in the internal structure of categories. Cognitive Psychology, 1975, 7, 573-605

 Posted by at 10:24 pm
Apr 062011

Can’t stop thinking about dogs today. I find Chaser’s ability to understand superordinate nouns impressive. The thing is word meanings often have fuzzy rather than fixed boundaries. Take the word ‘cup’ for example. When exactly does a cup become a bowl?                 

It’s tempting to think that there are necessary and sufficient conditions that dictate where one word stops and another begins, but often there aren’t precise boundaries.

The philosopher, Wittgenstein, illustrated it beautifully when he talked about the word ‘game’.  He said:

Consider, for example, the proceedings that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? – Don’t say “There must be something in common, or they would not be called games, but look and see whether there is anything common to all. – For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships and a whole series of them at that. To repeat, don’t think, but look.

Look for example at board games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many features drop out and others appear. When we pass to ball games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost.

–Are they all “Amusing?” Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing, but when a child throws his ball at a wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis. Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared? And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear.’

I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way.- And I shall say: “games” form a family.

So there’s a family of words that go by the name ‘game’, but presumably we think some games are gamier than others – just as we might think some dogs are doggier than others (as Eleanor Rosch might put it).

So could you do me a favour and answer this question for me? Take a look at these three dogs. Which one looks doggiest to you? I don’t mean which one do you like the look of the most. I mean which one looks like the best representative of the class of things that we call dogs. Just click the poll, and of course I’ll be delighted to hear more thoughts in the comments. Woof!

Dog 1                                                                                     Dog 2

Dog 3


 Posted by at 10:31 pm
Feb 032011

When we need some help at work, who do we turn to? Well, someone competent who knows their stuff. I mean, we’d make sure to avoid the idiots who don’t know what they’re talking about, surely?
Wrong! It seems we’re much more likely to base our decision on how likable they are. There was a great bit of business research about it published in the Harvard Business Review about 5 years ago that you can read here. It found that given a choice between someone who knows a lot but is unpleasant and someone who doesn’t know much but is a delight, we generally pick the lovable fool over the competent jerk.

So there it is – empirical evidence that ‘we like to do business with people we like’. Useful stuff for us to bear in mind  in our business English classrooms perhaps…

 Posted by at 11:31 pm
Jan 162011

I had to reformat (and so wipe) my computer’s hard drive this week. Eeeek! Consequently I spent a good while on the phone to help lines in India. To my surprise and delight, each email and call ended with this closing: “Good karma”.

There’s an academic research paper about help lines in the Philippines that’s intriguingly called “I’d love to put someone in jail for this”: An initial investigation of English in the business processing outsourcing (BPO) industry”. It’s one of my favourite papers so I went searching for my copy tell you about it. But none of the files on my computer are indexed yet. Argh!  So I’ll store the thought away for later, and in the meantime, here’s wishing y’all jolly good karma.

 Posted by at 12:22 pm
Nov 182010

Forensic linguistics is a sexy field. If you’re trying to work out who sent a text message or ransom note, or made an obscene phone call or bomb threat, or if there’s doubt about whether the deceased really wrote that suicide note, these folks will look at the language and help you figure it out.

Here’s a 10 minute extract from a lecture by one of the world’s top forensic linguists, Professor Malcolm Coulthard.

(If you get hooked, a full version of the lecture -it lasts an hour- can be seen here at Aston University’s website)

There’s a popular detective show called ‘Bones’ on US TV about a forensic anthropologist who looks at human remains to work out whodunit. And in another called ‘Lie to Me’, the hero uses facial recognition to figure it out. Surely linguistics is a much more interesting and credible science?

Somewhere waiting to happen, there’s a hit TV series with a linguistic detective as our hero/heroine. They would need to be an engaging character though, and they’d probably need to interestingly flawed in some way. But how might a linguist be flawed? Any thoughts on what they could be like? Does anyone fancy writing it?

 Posted by at 5:41 am
Jul 272010

Inspired by Evan Frendo’s really interesting post on impression management (IM), I went hunting for research papers  in the University of Pennsylvania’s online libraries. Unfortunately there aren’t many linguistics papers to be found on IM, but there are stacks of social psychology ones. As I browsed through them, I came across this. (I kid you not!):

So in other words, talking to pretty girls impairs men’s ability to think. Well, fancy that! Do you have any favourite pieces of research?

 Posted by at 2:46 pm