The balance between teaching English and teaching the learning of English

The topic of acquiring language has always been of great interest to me. The arrival of my 16 month old son to my life has made this an even more fascinating topic, that I’ m sure will feature at the centre of some future blog posts. Last week while having a coffee (and attempting to appear engrossed in my own book) I couldn’t help but overhear a conversation between two people speaking English. Neither were native speakers but both were absolutely proficient in their English use. On discussing the process of learning second, third and fourth languages, one of them said, “the third language was very easy to learn, as I knew what to look for, what to focus on.” This comment really struck a chord with me. While a great deal of planning goes into curriculum design, topic selection and language components to teach, are we, as teachers, avoiding a crucial component of teaching: the teaching of how to learn language. Are we spending too long on teaching English and not enough time on teaching strategies to learn language?

For many Spaniards that I have taught in company over the years, the time spent in English class may contribute to almost 90% of their weekly contact with English speakers. Combined with the general low attendance levels that seems to plague classrooms and the lack of any attempt to complete any assigned homework due to home commitments, the ESL teacher is catapulted to a position of higher importance. Should we be using the precious contact time our students have with English to highlight learning strategies, rather than simply delivering classes sculpted around lexical or grammatical objectives?

The answer is most definitely yes. Our students must be made aware of the fact that the onus is on them. According to Weinstein and Mayer (1986, p.315), learning strategies can be defined as “behaviours and thoughts that a learner engages in during learning, intended to influence the learner’s encoding process” While a coherent definition, are our students even conscious of their own behaviours and thoughts during their learning process?

Throughout the years there has been much research about effective strategies to promote L2 acquisition. If we first consider lexicon, vocabulary is key in building language. Many teachers may use imagery and contextual examples to encourage self-discovery of a word. Scurletus (2009, n.p) states that imagery “can help students learn new words and can also aid in overall reading comprehension and retention.” While these are very effective teaching strategies, are students aware that they can apply similar processes to vocab themselves to aid retention? When our students read outside the classroom and learn new words, do they too conjure up a mental image in their heads to aid retention? Possibly not.

A google search will quickly yield results regarding learning strategies that can be used by students (trust me, the list is endless!)  It is our job to make them aware that such strategies exist. It is our job as teachers to explicitly educate our students about the processes that aid retention and acquisition. It is our role to inform students of the way in which their acquisition is dependent on their own abilities to implement these learning strategies. By students becoming more aware of the power that they possess regarding their own linguistic development, the more effective the language learning process may become.


A little food for thought for a wet and windy Hump Day here in Madrid!


 Scurletis, G. (2009) Visualization and Vocabulary Retention, retrieved 10/05/2017, from

Weinstein, C., & Mayer, R. (1986). The teaching of learning strategies. In M.C. Wittrock (Ed.), Handbook of Research on Teaching, 3rd Edition (pp. 315-327). New York: Macmillan.

Teaching emailing skills in a real life fashion

Last Friday I delivered a three hour ongoing professional development training session to a group of teachers here in Madrid. The topic of the session was Communicative Business English skills. Prior to entering the world of teacher training, I spent five years working in the high end corporate environment, developing and delivering courses with clients such as Real Madrid F.C, Johnson & Johnson and Bankia. Over the years I trialed, tested and experimented extensively with the skills of telephoning, emailing and presenting.

When it came to presenting some activities to enhance emailing skills within the English classroom, I set the following task. I asked all the teachers in attendance to close their eyes for 30 seconds. I asked them to picture a person sending an email and to consider the following:

  • Where they were
  • Their position
  • How they were writing
  • The length of the email.

Rather interestingly, of the twelve teachers who attended, eleven of them described a person sat at a desk, in front of a laptop or desk top computer writing a medium to long email. When I asked the teachers to consider whether this was a modern or traditional method of sending emails, I slowly saw pennies beginning to drop in terms of where I was going with the activity.

While people do still send emails while seated in front of a computer, a large majority don’ t. How frequently do we send emails from our phones? On a crowded metro? Whilst in a bathroom? The reality is that the way in which we send emails have changed. Email have become much shorter pieces of work. If our classrooms are to represent real life then it is important that activities are adapted to reflect this.

Text book favourites such as Business Express, Intelligent Business, Market Express naturally all explore the art of writing emails. Typical ESL activities include identifying the purpose of each paragraph found within an email, analysing formal and informal register and identifying order and sequencing. While all of these activities are absolutely essential in the construction of well written emails, they inevitably all lead to the same “production” activity; drafting and handwriting a fictitious email. Chiocchi (2016, n.p) states that “with expectations for quick responses increasing, business email is becoming shorter and more concise.” Given that mobile devices allow us to access emails from any given location, the turn around time for returning mail has been dramatically shortened. Therefore, it appears logical that classroom practice also encourages shortened, fast-paced emailing.

Therefore, as a potential alternative to the traditional “drafted and write an email” , I propose the following. This is an activity that I have conducted with numerous groups over recent years.


  • Divide Students into pairs and label them A and B. Both students are employees at local firms  who are trying to coordinate a business meeting for the following week.
  • Student A receives Student A timetable (which represents his/her schedule for the following week)
  • Student B receives their respective timetable.
  • Using their mobile devices, students are to email each other to find a date and time that would be appropriate for both parties. This process is likely to involve a number of exchanges. (The ONLY solution to the task is Friday between 11.00 and 13.00)
  • Teacher must be Cced into every email set in order to provide content for post task feedback (correction, register etc)

Students have always responded very positively to the this activity (as did the teachers who participated in the training session last week!) Not only does it truly represent the way in which the nature of email sending occurs, it also brings the primary devices used to conduct business into our classrooms.

Feel free to use the following attachment to give it a go. I’d love to hear your comments regarding its success!


* Chiocchi, P. (2016). Giving Thanks for Email: 6 New Survey Implications for B2B Marketers. Retrieved 23/04/2016, from