Skimming, scanning and inferring

Written by: Philip Kerr, e-mail:
А teacher trainer and materials writer, whose projects include the coursebook series Inside Out and Straightforward. He lives and works in Brussels.
In a presentation at the 2008 Exeter IATEFL conference, Catherine Walter and Michael Swan suggested that the use of a number of familiar reading tasks in the L2 classroom may be a waste of time. Similar claims have been made by Scott Thornbury among others. The tasks coming under attack include skimming, scanning and guessing the meaning of lexical items from their context, and form the basis of reading lessons in the majority of published coursebooks (e.g. Headway) and are central to the presentation of the teaching of reading skills in the majority of teacher training manuals (e.g. The TKT Course).
The arguments employed by critics of these tasks are powerful and draw on a large body of research (see Reading in a Second Language for an excellent review of this research). Their arguments include the following observations:

  • L2 reading comprehension ability correlates very strongly with lexical knowledge. Classroom time, especially at lower levels, is better spent helping learners with vocabulary acquisition than it is devoted to tasks such as skimming and scanning.
  • Comprehension difficulties in L2 arise, not from problems with skimming and scanning, but from gaps in the learners’ knowledge of or familiarity with linguistic features of the text. Skimming and scanning will not compensate for these gaps.
  • Good L1 readers will use particular strategies (e.g. skimming and scanning) when appropriate. They will transfer these strategic approaches to L2 texts when they have a language threshold which allows them to do so.
  • Good readers do not typically guess the meaning of unknown words from context, because they do not need to. Research does not suggest that practice in inferring meaning from context leads to gains in reading comprehension

Perhaps the most eloquent commentary on skimming and scanning is the complete omission of these terms from the index of Grabe’s Reading in a Second Language. It would seem that our well-established classroom routines for reading lessons are in need of re-evaluation. Until learners reach a level somewhere around B2 with a lexicon of a few thousand word families (enabling them to decode about 80% of ‘everyday’ texts), we should, it seems, be focussing on activities that foster word recognition and on programmes that encourage extensive reading.
However, before we consign skimming, scanning and inferring to the dustbin of discredited ELT techniques, it is a good idea to pause for thought. Firstly, because the recent history of ELT warns us against reaching hasty conclusions. Explicit grammar instruction, translation and dictation are but three of the many classroom activities that have been discarded, only to be brought back into the frame of critical acceptability. Secondly, as Grabe points out, the classroom implications of reading research need to be tested in particular contexts.
There are at least four strong reasons, in my view, why skimming, scanning and inferring may be justified in some ELT contexts. These have little, or possibly nothing, to do with the development of learners’ reading skills. However, I would tentatively suggest that we may be doing the right sorts of things for the wrong reasons.

  1. A central part of a teacher’s job must be to promote her learners’ motivation: the motivation to learn English, in general, and the motivation to read texts in English, in particular. Among the many theories of learner motivation, there is general agreement that motivation contributes to success, and that success can lead to enhanced motivation. Skimming and scanning tasks in most coursebooks are, on the whole, neither particularly time-consuming nor particularly difficult. For a low level student, the sense of achievement that can be derived from successful task completion is something that we cannot afford to ignore. Well-designed skimming, scanning and inferring tasks (i.e. that are neither too easy nor too hard) can and should provide a very positive sense of achievement.
  2. Readers interact with a text to decode and construct meanings. Well-designed skimming, scanning and inferring tasks can help them in this process, and such tasks might be seen as part of a communicative methodology for language acquisition (rather than as tools to develop reading skills).
  3. It is generally accepted that a useful way of teaching language is to break it down at times into discrete items. It is also generally accepted that these items are best presented in context, and that means within a text. Thornbury suggests that we should treat classroom reading texts primarily as vehicles for language presentation. In reality, this is probably what happens most of the time. The skimming and scanning activities are often very short, dealt with quickly, before moving on to the ‘meat’ of the lesson: the language focus. Whilst these tasks may not offer much payback in terms of reading skills, they seem to offer a reasonably economical way of encouraging students to notice the context of the language that they will subsequently study.
  4. Many students in ELT classrooms may have little or no interest in becoming fluent L2 readers. They do, typically, have a desire to perform well in examinations, and it is common for English language examinations to have a reading component. In both international exams (e.g. the Cambridge First Certificate) and local exams (e.g. the Polish school-leaving test, the ‘Matura’), it is common for the reading component to include tasks which will be best performed if candidates adopt strategies of skimming, scanning and inferring. Classroom practice of these strategies can therefore be seen as psychological and strategic training for the exams.

The arguments of Walter, Swan and Thornbury are, I think, of considerable importance. The approach to reading skills in both coursebooks and teacher training courses (especially of the short, intensive variety) is in urgent need of a rethink, but I hope that the reasons I have listed above are sufficient to demonstrate that we should be wary of jumping to hasty conclusions.

  • Grabe, W. 2009. Reading in a Second Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Soars, L. and J. Soars. 1986 – 2009. Headway. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Spratt, M., A. Pulverness and M. Williams. 2005. The TKT Course. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Thornbury. S. 2006. The end of reading?
  • Walter, C. and M. Swan. 2008. Teaching reading skills: mostly a waste of time? in Beaven, B. (ed.) IATEFL 2008 Exeter Conference Selections. Canterbury: IATEFL

eTwinning and Comenius Projects in ELT

Written by: Tsvetelena Taralova, 88 School, Sofia, Bulgaria
Download: Presentation in MS PowerPoint .PPT format [8,2 MB]
There was the Lost Generation, The Beat generation and we are now the BBC generation. Let’ prove we can cope with the new challenges.
How did my story start?
I had been teaching for 3 years and I applied for a Comenius teacher’s methodology course in London. My application was approved by the Human Resource Development Centre Bulgaria BUT I wasn’t given a visa. I didn’t give up. I wrote to the embassy and I still keep their negative answer to show it to my students. And this was the first lesson of this kind in my life.  They say: “If something doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger”. Next year I could go to Dublin, Ireland to a similar methodology course. It was an enormous motivation to me. I had my first practical lessons in my life.
In the course report form I have to write about the other initiatives my school could participate, so I started reading about international school projects, found potential partners and went to a Comenius Project Preparatory Visit in Poland. I was quite shy at the beginning of the visit, but very soon I realized that the other people like me and trust me. It was a lot of cultural and social experience to me.
“Comenius projects are part of the EU Lifelong Learning Programme and seek to develop knowledge and understanding among young people and educational staff of the diversity of European cultures, languages and values. It helps young people acquire the basic life skills and competences necessary for their personal development, for future employment and for active citizenship”(
The main aims of the projects are:

  • To motivate students to use languages and ICT in real-life situations;
  • To promote culture, traditions, history, art and literature of the region and the regions of partner schools;
  • To enhance participants’ social and team work skills.

You can find more about Comenius projects on our National Agency website:
We got the grant for our project “Medieval Roots of Present Europeans” and about 50 students joined the project during the first school year. To create a team spirit we organized a tour round Sofia, participated in the school concert and students did their first activity, designing a profile of a historical figure from the Medieval Аges. Students used their History knowledge and creativity.
Then was the working visit in Portugal and explored Medieval Portuguese sites.We were special guests at the Medieval fair in our partner school in Penela, Portugal. The visit changed many things in our perceptions. Students still describe it as the most memorable event in their lives. We performed our national dances, saw many things about our partners’ cultures and improved many skills. It motivated us a lot. It was the first event of this kind to me, too. I realized what I am supposed to do as a project coordinator. We were a group, we had to be tolerant and everyone participated equally in most of activities.
Parents also noticed the big changes. According to one of them, “Our children left shy and not sure about what they know”. When they came back, they were completely different people, self-confident, motivated and surely creative.
Next year we were more experienced with the activities and with visits. Students used the language, made Medieval coin exhibition and wrote their story of old coins.
Organizing the Comenius visit in Sofia was the most difficult thing I had ever done. Over 40 students and teachers from 5 other countries said they were amazed by our perfect organization and repeated it during all the following working meetings later. Many colleagues got angry because they had to do something which is not paid, but our headmistress helped me a lot and that was a motivation to continue. We learned many of our strong and weak points. I personally started to express my opinion clearly.
A fashion show with a Medieval song was filmed in The National History Museum and we received similar clips form our partners.
A month later a group of 11 Bulgarian students and teachers visited our partner school in Gravina, Italy. During the visit we went to the medieval village of Arbellobelo and the nearest town Bary. Our students stayed with Italian peers and could see how Italians can enjoy themselves, and show a great respect for their teachers.
On the next year students wrote a Bulgarian medieval Story and made a Medieval Cardboard Castle. Now going back, I think I would organize this activity in a different way insisting on making a common product from the very beginning, not putting the different parts together at the end as we did.
In March 2008 we visited Turkey and in May we went to Romania. In Transylvania we saw the Hunyadi Castle, one of the Romanian heroes, who fought against the Ottoman Empire on the Balkans. On 9th May – the Day of Europe we had a competition between countries.
Meanwhile, it was September 2007. We all were shouting “Strike! Strike!” in the afternoons, but in the mornings, while many colleagues were at school wondering what to do, I started exploring the eTwinning site:
eTwinning began as an initiative of the European Commission in 2005. It is a non-formal-way to unable teachers to work together without responsibilities of long term relations. Its unique structure lies in the existence of free support offered to the teachers at the National and European Level. The assistance includes keeping an eye on the progress of the projects and organizing Teachers Professional Development Workshops.
eTwinniers are involved in a European-wide community of teacher practitioners who would like to give their students an experience of being in direct contact with other young people in Europe. Pupils can learn about other ideas and exchange opinions on all the topics which interest them. Teachers improve their own pedagogical skills, getting closer to their foreign partners and building a common European Identity.
I started my eTwinning project because I thought I would use it for my second Qualification Degree in teaching. Actually, I am going to use it as innovation in FLT for my First Qualification Degree.
I like the site, because the project participants have a special safe place – the Twin Space. Students can be in touch with the other project participants, write in the forum, look through the common products, upload pictures and files themselves. Each student has their responsibility while they are logged on with their own username and password.
First, I didn’t know a lot of details and decided to do a simple project with students from the 6th class, who wanted to join. The published space of the project we, Our school and our Town is:
A student, who is better than me at computers, made a logo and at the end of the school year students presented the project products in front of their parents and more and more students joined. The school received the National and later the European Quality Labels.
My first eTwinning project has had so big influence on me that I decided to do another eTwinning project: The Trees of Friendship, which is about ecology.
The Twinspace of the project is:
and the Twin blog is:
There is no money for eTwinning projects, but best teachers can go to Professional development Workshops. My good work was considered and in March 2009, I received a grant to participate in a PDW in Denmark.
And next year I’ll do another eTwinning project.
At the end I would like to show you some teenagers’ thoughts about motivation:

  • My mind is my last and only frontier.
  • I say try. If we never try, we shall never succeed!
  • Be part of our community of positive people making a difference!

Some Ideas on Classroom Management in YL Classes

Written by: Anita Kwiatkowska
Download: Presentation in MS PowerPoint .PPT format
During my career as an ESL teacher I have come across plenty of teachers who dread teaching children. Because they are naughty. Because they cannot concentrate. Because all they want to do is run around and make a lot of noise.
Having taught kids for a couple of years now I wholeheartedly agree with all the aforementioned complaints. It takes however a few things to bear in mind to make your YL classes work like magic.
Teamwork, games and the sense of competitiveness
Students love competitions and YL are no exception. The only difference is that they love them even more! Hence you should take every opportunity to turn any activity into a contest. Start up by dividing the class into two or more groups. Give each team a name e.g. oranges or apples or red and blue. Very YL tend to forget which group they belong to so use colored chalk to mark their desks. On the blackboard write each group’s name and give them an equal numbers of points for a start. Warn the students they you will erase their points if anyone from the group shouts, walks around, keeps talking, does not raise their hand etc. Tell them that points will be added if group members speak English or complete tasks successfully. Reward the kids for every positive thing they do. Keep in mind that rewards have a much more encouraging and motivating effect than any form of punishment.
Demonstration not explanation
Whatever your experience may imply, always remember that children are not adults. Consequently different techniques have to be used to explain the students what you require. Forget checking instructions and wordy explanations. As an alternative resort to demonstrations or ask a stronger student to explain what s/he understood to the other students.
Rules and routine
Children need order and quickly get used to routines and habitual activities. If you notice that e.g. blowing a whistle gets their attention, keep practising that. Try to start and end a lesson in the same or similar way or have some always repeating elements in it. For instance, a good starting point is dividing a class into groups and a good finishing point might be counting the points and drawing stars for all the group members on the poster.
Be strict about the rules you want the students to follow as well. For example, let them get used to the fact they you will give coloring worksheets only to the students who have already taken out their crayons.
Encouraging the usage of TL
Try to make students use TL from the very first classes. Expose them to the basic phrases and repeat these each time an opportunity comes up. Ignore the students who insist on using their mother tongue and they will sooner or later adjust to your behavior. Reward the ones who use TL by giving their group points, clapping or verbal praise.
Getting the students’ attention
YL classes tend to be noisy by definition so raising your voice or shouting has poor chance of success. Instead try using sound making objects – toy musical instruments (drums, maracas, trumpet), whistles, rattles, bells etc. Not only will you save your throat but you will bring some fun to the classroom as well.
Praise and rewards
Nothing works better for the students than a decent amount of praise. When it comes to kids however feel free to praise them all the time for the smallest things they do or say properly. They might not be able to understand ‘very good’, ‘great’ or ‘excellent’ but they will surely get ‘bravo’, ‘super’ or ‘perfect’. Thumbs up, clapping hands and a huge smile on a teacher’s face will definitely help the kids realize that they did a great job and made you pleased.
Create a way of rewarding your students as well. Draw smiling faces, stars or use stamps or stickers to show your appreciation. Put up posters on the walls with the students names to keep record of their good work.
Never stoop to bribery or material rewards. Sweets or mascots may make young learners do quietly what you order but once you forget the reward or want to quit the procedure a tragedy will follow.
Drama and acting
Do not be afraid to make a clown out of yourself. Teaching YL more than any other type of teaching requires acting skills. Make faces, use body language and your voice. While presenting new vocabulary and drilling it is possible to make kids repeat words even ten times only by changing the tone of your voice. Thus if you want them to repeat the word ‘papaya’ sound angry, quiet, interested, helpless, hopeful, surprised and so on. There is no way that they will not enjoy it.
A little fluffy helper
Sometimes course books offer mascots or puppets thematically connected to the topics covered by the book so do not be afraid to use them with. Otherwise find any old mascot of yours and bring it to the classroom. Give it a name and age and as the lessons proceed create its likes, dislikes, favourite food, color etc. Young learners get attached to mascots very quickly especially if you bring it to every class and let the students touch, hug and talk to it. My students love offering our puppet water and got very concerned when Boo (its name) got ill and had to go to hospital J
Young Learners have loads of energy that we – adults sometimes lack. It would be unwise not to use such a benefit though. Therefore make them move as much as you can. Think of games that involve running, races, coming to the blackboard. If you use songs or chants create movements to accompany them. Not only will it be a vent for the kids’ energy but it will also enable them to memorize the new vocabulary better.
Fast finishers
Always have an extra activity ready for the fast finishers. If kids have nothing to do they usually start walking around, talking etc which is something we should try to prevent from happening. The extra activity does not have to be a worksheet though. You might tell the student(s) to draw the teacher, the classroom or his favourite animal in his notebook for instance. They might also be asked to help you organize your materials before the lesson is over or clean up the classroom.
Problematic students
Problematic students are the nightmare of every teacher but there are ways to deal with them. First remember to praise any naughty kid for any good thing they do in front of all the other children. If necessary exaggerate! ‘Look everybody! Leyla has her notebook today! Well done! You are a very good student, Leyla! I’m proud of you!’ and so on. After a few weeks they will crave your praise and then feel free to use that. Make little naughty-no-more kids your helpers. Let them distribute the worksheets, play with the puppet etc.
Positive attitude
Smile! Hug! Pat the students’ on the heads! Whatever happens try to be positive and optimistic. Make an angry face when the students are naughty but don’t shout. Children have to know that you are also their friend. Love them and they will love you in return.

A little thought from each of us. A big difference for everyone …

Written by: Antonia Ivanova, e-mail:
Simona Bali, e-mail:
New Bulgarian University, Sofia
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Double Decker
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Poetry and Translation

Written by: Philip Kerr, e-mail:
А teacher trainer and materials writer, whose projects include the coursebook series Inside Out and Straightforward. He lives and works in Brussels.
A selection of poems that could be exploited for classroom use.

Yellow Butter
Yellow butter purple jelly red jam black bread
Spread it thick
Say it quick
Yellow butter purple jelly red jam black bread
Spread it thicker
Say it quicker
Yellow butter purple jelly red jam black bread
Now repeat it
While you eat it
Yellow butter purple jelly red jam black bread
Don’t talk
With your mouth full!
Mary Ann Hoberman

My Teacher
What’s wrong with my teacher?
Does he shout too
Does he give you too much
Does he keep you in too
Does he actually like
Suddenly it dawned on me,
Deepak Kalha

Wasps like coffee.
Dorothy Aldis

The Dog Lovers
So they bought you
And kept you in a
Very good home
Central heating
A deep freeze
A very good home –
No one to take you
For that lovely long run –
But otherwise
“A very good home.”
They fed you Pal and Chum
But not that lovely long run,
Until, mad with energy and boredom
You escaped – and ran and ran and ran
Under a car.
Today they will cry for you –
Tomorrow they will buy another dog.
Spike Milligan

Like A Beacon
In London
every now and then
I get this craving
for my mother’s food
I leave art galleries
in search of plantains
salt-fish / sweet potatoes
I need this link
I need this touch
of home
swinging my bag
like a beacon
against the cold
Grace Nichols

In class
by chance I glance at her answer paper
protective of her labour
my next-door neighbour
drops an accusing karate chop
across the page-top
to stop me from copying
as she writes
her name
John Hegley

Good Hope
I believe
There is enough food
On this planet
For everyone.
I believe
That it is possible
For all people
To live in peace.
I believe
We can live
Without guns,
I believe everyone
Is important.
I believe there are good Christians
And good Muslims,
Good Jews
And good not sures, I believe
There is good in everyone
I believe in people.
If I did not believe
I would stop writing.
I know
Every day
Children cry for water,
And every day
Racists attack,
Still every day
Children play
With no care for colour.
So I believe there is hope
And I hope
That there are many believers
There is hope,
That is what I hope,
And this is what I believe,
I believe in you,
Believe me.
Benjamin Zephaniah

The Lesson
Chaos ruled OK in the classroom
as bravely the teacher walked in
the hooligans  ignored him
his voice was lost in the din
“The theme for today is violence
and homework will be set
I’m going to teach you a lesson
one that you’ll never forget.”
He picked on a boy who was shouting
and throttled him then and there
then garroted the girl behind him
(the one with grotty hair)
Then sword in hand he hacked his way
between the chattering rows
“First come, first severed” he declared
“fingers, feet, or toes”
He threw the sword at a latecomer
it struck with deadly aim
then pulling out a shotgun
he continued with his game
The first blast cleared the back-row
(where those who skive hang out)
they collapsed like rubber dinghies
when the plug’s pulled out
“Please may I leave the room sir?”
a trembling vandal enquired
“Of course you may” said the teacher
put the gun to his temple and fired
The Head popped a head round the doorway
to see why a din was being made
nodded understandingly
then tossed in a grenade
And when the ammo was well spent
With blood on every chair
Silence shuffled forward
With its hands up in the air
The teacher surveyed the carnage
the dying and the dead
he waggled a finger severely
“Now let that be a lesson” he said.
Roger McGough

Best friends
It’s Susan I talk to, not Tracey,
Before that I sat next to Jane;
I used to be best friends with Lynda
But these days I think she’s a pain.
Natasha’s all right in small doses.
I meet Mandy sometimes in town;
I’m jealous of Annabel’s pony
And I don’t like Nicola’s frown.
I used to go skating with Catherine,
Before that I went there with Ruth;
And Kate’s so much better at trampoline:
She’s a showoff, to tell you the truth.
I think that I’m going off Susan,
She borrowed my comb yesterday;
I think I might sit next to Tracey,
She’s my nearly best friend: she’s OK.
Adrienne Henri

His heart’s in the wrong place it should be in the dustbin
the other night I went to see my brother-in-law for a chat
after five minutes he went and sat in the garage
after ten minutes he came back in saying
here John are you staying the night?
if that’s all right I said
then he was gone
up to the spare bedroom
to change the sheets
to put the dirty ones back on
John Hegley

This Is Just To Say
I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox
and which
you were probably
for breakfast
Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold
William Carlos Williams

Not waving but drowning
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.
Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
Stevie Smith

This be the verse
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
Philip Larkin

English as a lingua franca and some implications for English teachers

Written by: Penny Ur
Initial Concepts and Assumptions
Probably between two and three billion people speak English.
These may be defined according to Kachru’s three circles: inner, outer, expanding (Kachru, 1985).
But today the majority of English speakers are located in the outer or expanding circles, using English as a lingua franca (ELF).
It is used for: academic purposes; political negotiation; tourism; entertainment; business and finance; information; interpersonal relationships …
Most educated speakers of other languages are at least bilingual.
Both centrifugal and centripetal trends are developing: a proliferation of local ‘Englishes’, side by side with a generally comprehensible ELF.
Some general implications
The user of English as a lingua franca

May be either ‘native’ or ‘non-native’
Is typically bi- (or multi-)lingual, or bi-dialectal
Is likely to be skilled in communicative and comprehension strategies.
The fully competent speaker of English as a lingua franca
A speaker with a wide vocabulary, accurate grammar, easily understood accent. .
May or may not be originally a native speaker.
Perhaps it is more useful, therefore,  to define the three circles of users of English internationally simply in terms of their level of competence in the language rather than in terms of where they live and whether or not they are ‘native speakers’.  (Rajadurai, 2005).   In the centre would be the fully competent speakers, next the fairly competent, and on the outside the limited.
Some implications for English teachers worldwide
1. The language to be taught
Various options:

  1. One of the mainstream native varieties
  2. A ‘common core’ syllabus; communication is more important than accuracy
  3. Varied models: diversity
  4. A world standard model

A native model

  • Accepted by many teachers and learners (Timmis, 2002; Kuo, 2006)
  • Prestigious
  • Defined and codified
  • Clear basis for materials and tests


  • Not  used by fully competent speakers
  • Not appropriate for ELF contexts
  • Difficulty of deciding which native variety to choose
  • Full competence not normally achievable

(Cook, 1999)
A ‘common core’ syllabus
The argument: we need to teach for communication, and a lot of users of English as a lingua franca are communicating perfectly effectively with limited grammar and without standard grammatical usages.
So maybe we shouldn’t worry too much about such points of accuracy in our teaching (Jenkins, 2006).
What are our priorities?
Some applied linguists claim that many so-called errors are in fact ‘variant’ forms commonly used by many users of English as a lingua franca and therefore do not need to be corrected.
She go
The people which…


  • includes common ‘unproblematic’ variants
  • relatively easily achievable
  • universally comprehensible
  • at present being researched


  • not the variety used by fully competent speakers
  • not the most common forms used in ELF interactions
  • unacceptable to teachers, learners, materials writers and test designers

Diverse, flexible models

  • ideologically acceptable
  • allows for local variation
  • sidesteps need for codification and definition


  • no clear model or set of priorities
  • very difficult to teach
  • very difficult to assess
  • very difficult to design syllabus and materials

A standard variety
Based probably on one of the main native varieties, or a combination but eliminating specific local idiom, vocabulary, pronunciation, spelling, grammar and allowing variants that are acceptable worldwide.
Examples of local usages: fortnight,  ‘cheers!’, aluminum (Gupta, 2006)
Further illustrations: fall / autumn;  mad / angry; schedule (/sk/, /ʃ/); program / programme; zed / zee; rhotic/non-rhotic pronunciation; she just finished / she has just finished; do you have / have you got;
A standard variety;

  • comprises a range of acceptable forms
  • based on usages of fully competent speakers
  • comprehensible / acceptable worldwide
  • achievable


  • its existence is questionable
  • ideologically unacceptable to many: externally imposed standards
  • not (yet) defined or codified

Does it exist? Probably.  Evidence:

  • Similarity of formal written texts from all over the world: vary according to genre, not place of origin.
  • The fact that fully competent speakers can intuitively usually identify which features of their own speech are and are not internationally standard

Its ideological unnacceptability may be based on a post-modernist reluctance to accept ‘imposed’ standards and frameworks.
But standards are likely to be based on a consensus rather than imposed by a minority.
Agreed standards are not incompatible with diversity: on the contrary, they are arguably necessary for it.   You cannot diverge if you have nothing to diverge from.
As to codification: The present American and British English grammars and dictionaries can continue to be used, provided teachers and materials writers are aware of their limitations described earlier.  But sooner or later, someone has to write reference books dealing with internationally acceptable usages.
Possible solution: A wiki, which is based on consensus, has a large number of contributors, implies built-in change and updating, is constantly and readily available to teachers, learners, materials writers and testers
2. Culture and intercultural competence
Is English as a lingua franca a culture-free language? (Alptekin, 2005)
To a large extent yes, in that it naturally expresses the culture of its speakers, and is therefore may function as a vehicle for a wide variety of cultures.
It is arguable that in certain areas of behavior, an ‘international culture’ is developing, parallel with the development of ELF (hotels, dress, greetings, thanks and apologies, business letters, email formats, internet conventions …)
English needs to be used as a vehicle to raise awareness of three types of culture:

  1. That of those who are learning and using the language (the ‘home’ culture
  2. That of the English speaking peoples
  3. That of other people who use English for international communication (i.e. world cultures)

As part of their program of study learners of English need also to be helped to develop intercultural competence: the sensitivity to other cultural norms and the ability to adapt and function appropriately when interacting with people from other cultures (Alptekin, 2002).
3. The model English speaker
The native-speaker or the fully competent non-native?
Many teachers and learners today still prefer a ‘native speaker’ model.
But native speakers are often limited to their own local dialect, may not be aware of international usages; and many English speakers who were originally non-native are today ‘fully competent’.
Non-native fully competent speakers have the advantage of being an appropriate role model; and the language proficiency level of the non-native fully proficient speaker is, by definition, achievable.
The bottom line is that the argument about whether native or non-native teachers are better is rapidly becoming irrelevant.
What is important is the level of competence of the teacher in English, their teaching ability, and their intercultural competence.
4. Materials
Content: culture, situations, texts, characters …
Culture: ‘source’ and ‘international’, not just that of the English-speaking peoples
Situations: more international in character
Characters: more likely to be ‘international’ or ‘home’.
Texts:  more adaptations of international or local sources,  fewer ‘inner-circle’ ‘authentic’ texts or literature.
Language: based on international usages rather than any particular native dialect; more acknowledgement and use of the learners’ L1
To Summarize

  • The teaching of English as a lingua franca rather than as a foreign language
  • A change in the ultimate goals of English teaching: full competence rather than ‘native-like’ mastery
  • Acknowledgement of the place of the fully-competent user of English as a lingua franca as the model
  • A change in criteria for selection of language to be taught
  • A change in criteria for content of materials

References and further reading

  • Alptekin, C. (2002). Towards intercultural communication competence. English Language Teaching Journal, 56 (1), 57-64.
  • Alptekin, C. (2005). Dual language instruction: Multiculturalism through a lingua franca. In A TESOL Symposium on Dual Language Education: Teaching and Learning in Two Languages in the EFL Setting (pp.5-11).  Istanbul: Boğaziçi University.
  • Cook, V. (1999). Going beyond the native speaker in language teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 33 (2), 185-209.
  • Cullen, R., & Cho, I-Chun. (2007). Spoken grammar and ELT course materials: A missing link?. TESOL Quarterly, 41(2), 361-386.
  • Gupta, A. F.  (2006) Standard English in the world. In Rubdy, R., & Saraceni, M. (Eds.), English in the world: global rules, global roles (pp.).  London: Continuum.
  • Jenkins, J. (2006). Current perspectives on teaching world Englishes and English as a lingua franca. TESOL Quarterly, 40 (1), 157-181.
  • Kachru, B. B. (1985) The English language in a global context.  In Quirk, R., & Widdowson, H. G. (Eds.), English in the world (pp.11-30).  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kuo, I-C. (2006). Addressing the issue of teaching English as a lingua franca. ELT Journal, 60(3), 213-221.
  • Rajadurai, J. (2005). Revisiting the Concentric Circles: Conceptual and Sociolinguistic Considerations. Asian EFL Journal, 7(4), .
  • Seidlhofer, B. (2004). Research perspectives on teaching English as a lingua franca. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 24, 209-239.
  • Timmis, I. (2002). Native-speaker norms and International English: a classroom view . ELT Journal, 56(3), 240-249.

Applying the Lexical Approach while Teaching English for Medical Purposes

Written by: Valentina Angelova, Svetla Trendafilova, senior lecturers of English
Department of Foreign Languages, Varna Medical University

The teacher’s primary responsibility is response-ability
Peter Wilberg, 1988

The lexical approach (LA) was developed some 15 years ago and yet most of its major principles sound pertinent and appropriate for the English language classroom. It is extremely useful while working with students studying English for medical purposes.
The target groups of students studying medicine, dental medicine, nursing, obstetrics, etc., are usually mixed-level groups. Some of them have graduated from English language medium schools and have quite an advanced level of language proficiency. They have also studied biology, chemistry and some other subjects in English in high school. Others have extensively studied English for a number of years but they have not had the anatomy, chemistry, biology component in English. Last but not least there is a third group of students who are from false beginner to pre-intermediate level and they really need to invest a lot of effort to catch up with the rest of the students trying to learn both general English and ESP. Occasionally there might be a more homogeneous grouping in which most students are more or less at the same level, e.g.advanced or intermediate level. The logistics of organizing foreign language teaching at the university does not allow to stream students according to their levels. On the one hand from the point of view of students’ academic progress this is not a very good educational context. But on the other hand from an attitudinal point of view, students are getting used to ‘differentness’ in the level of proficiency. They learn from their peers and begin respecting different cultures, social background and educational systems.
Learning vocabulary specific for the medical profession is important for all ESP students and this is one of the main focuses of the teaching and learning process. We believe in using a wide variety of activities some easy and some quite difficult so that students of different levels could have a challenge and are able to cope with at least part of what is being taught.
Here are some of the important principles of the LA that we adhere to as they had been formulated by Michael Lewis in his book The Lexical Approach:

“Language consists of grammaticalised lexis, not lexicalised grammar. (Recently there has been a piece of advice on the Internet to focus on communication, meaning and understanding while teaching: ‘Don’t be a grammar snob!’)
The grammar / vocabulary dichotomy is invalid; much language consists of multi-word ‘chunks’.
Language is recognised as a personal resource, not an abstract idealization.
Successful language is a wider concept than accurate language.
The central metaphor of language is holistic – an organism; not atomistic – a machine.
Task and process, rather than exercise and product, are emphasized.
The Present-Practice-Produce paradigm is rejected, in favour of a paradigm based on the Observe-Hypothesise-Experiment cycle.”

Since students of medicine generally tend to be high achievers and ambitious motivated learners, and most of them have a scientific bias, the Observe-Hypothesise-Experiment cycle typical of scientific exploration is extremely fruitful in the context of ESP as well.
The better part of our students are genuinely motivated to learn English. They seem to understand that “A foreign language can be a valuable personal asset, liberating financially, culturally and emotionally.”
One of our major goals while teaching English at the Medical university and college is to establish ‘a terminology which provides a framework’ for students’ future work in English beyond the halls of learning in a real life situation where they have to use the language as competent professionals. The lexical approach involves ‘an increased role for word grammar (collocations and cognates) and text grammar (supra-sentential features)’. So we try to focus on presenting and recycling patterns with various degrees of generative power. “Recent research suggests that using lexical items as pattern generators is more helpful than restricting that role to grammatical forms.”
Here are some of the typical tasks that students have to do while acquiring and learning English for medical purposes. We have not followed a very strict hierarchy of activities and have not graded them according to difficulty but in practice we did a more difficult and an easier task alternatively which is a good teaching strategy as it keeps mixed level groups motivated.
Labelling pictures, diagrams, etc.
Teaching the different body systems: respiratory, skeletal, etc. we often use pictures that prompt students to label them. Students label them with separate words, but also with polywords and collocations. e.g.:
Label the diagram about the passage of air through the different parts of the respiratory system.
Pleural membrane
Nasal cavity
Oral cavity
To meet the different levels of language proficiency we would suggest to more advanced learners to try and label the diagram without looking at the words and collocations suggested while less advanced learners would look at the list of terms provided for support on the right. Thus varying the difficulty of the activity we try to keep it challenging enough for different groups of students.
Another typical task accessible to all level of students is matching. Matching terms and definitions develops both reading and understanding skills as well as it helps recycling terms in context.

Match the key terms of the respiratory system with their definitions.

1. Bronchi a. The tube through which food passes from the mouth down into the stomach
2. Pleural membrane b. Tube through which air passes from the nose to the lungs (also known as the windpipe)
3. Trachea c. Thin sheets of muscle between each rib that expand (when air is inhaled) and contract (when air is exhaled)
4. Oesophagus d. Covering the lung and lining the chest cavity, this membrane has 2 thin layers
5. Intercostal muscles e. The two main air passages into the lungs

This is just an example of what a matching task may look like and of course to make it much more difficult and challenging we may include many more terms, as many as twenty. Then the teacher may decide whether students could cope with the task indvidually or whether it would be a more fruitful activity if they work in pairs and negotiate the correct combinations. It is a good teaching strategy to allow the students to decide how they want to work on the task in pairs or on their own. At the age of  20 and above, most students have good awareness of their capacity for coping with a task. This strategy allows them to self-evaluate and make decisions on how to perform an activity thus helping them to become more autonomous learners.

An interesting activity for students of medicine is when they have to categorise or classify some polywords and chunks according to a given criterion. The focus is on reading comprehension and meaning so hopefully the word chunks would stick to the mind as an organic whole.

Read the list of some of the most common signs and symptoms of stress and try to classify them according to the effect on the following: systems, emotions, mood, behaviour.
Most common signs and symptoms of stress

1.  Frequent headaches, jaw clenching or pain 12. Forgetfulness, disorganization, confusion
2.  Stuttering or stammering 13. Trouble learning new information
3. Neck ache, back pain, muscle spasms 14. Difficulty in making decisions.
4. Frequent blushing, sweating 15. Nervous habits, fidgeting, feet tapping
5. Frequent colds, infections, herpes sores 16. Obsessive or compulsive behavior
6 Unexplained or frequent “allergy” attacks 17. Excessive defensiveness or suspiciousness
7. Heartburn, stomach pain, nausea 18. Rapid or mumbled speech
8. Sudden attacks of panic 19. Social withdrawal and isolation
9. Poor sexual desire or performance 20. Constant tiredness, weakness, fatigue
10. Increased anger, frustration, hostility 21. Frequent use of over-the-counter drugs
11. Depression, frequent or wild mood swings 22. Excessive gambling or impulse buying

The beneficial role of such activities is that they develop critical thinking skills as well as enhance language acquisition and reading comprehension. Also the task allows for varying its difficulty depending on the students’ proficiency language level.
Similar tasks for classification can be designed for categorizing types of diseases and other topics.

Mind mapping
Another useful activity to help long-term memorizing of medical terms is using the so called ‘mind mapping’ or semantic webs. The typical technique that goes with mind mapping is brainstorming students on a given lexical pattern thus encouraging them to  draw on their background knowledge. Another way is to explore a text while reading it and represent visually the way this pattern works.



This helps students remember highly generic patterns and is a good learning strategy for students with predominantly spatial intelligence. Students are frequently prompted to organize types of tissues, muscles, pain, etc. using this efficient way of displaying lexical models.
Gap-filling on a sentence level

Yet another typical activity is gap-filling with a focus on vocabulary and its accurate use. The difficulty of these activities may be controlled by changing the number of sentences, giving some support for the students or if they are more advanced prompting them to use their previous knowledge and find a suitable word or phrase that goes in the appropriate gap. This is an example of what such a task may look like:
Complete the sentences with the appropriate form of the nouns below.

bacillus bacterium
vertebra phenomenon
hypothesis nucleus

  1. _________________ cause severe infections which are treated with antibiotics.
  2. There are many _________________ for the origin of the human race.
  3. Nuclear energy is derived during the division of the _________________ of radioactive chemical elements.
  4. No plausible explanations have been found about _________________ such as telekinesis, hypnosis, telepathy, etc.

Gap-filling on a text level

A more challenging task which has a higher communication value is the gap-filling activity for derivatives or phrases. This allows learners to see the thematic progression in a text and follow the logic of its structure.
Each day doctors encounter ____________ that are an intrinsic part of medical practice. They work with intensely emotional aspects of life for which their training is grossly inadequate. Interacting with patients who may be frightened or in pain is itself ____________, as is dealing with their relatives who may be very anxious or even deliberately hostile. In addition, doctors often have to deal with the demand for certainty while medical science may not always have clear or easy answers. While many of us realize that ____________ is a medical problem, few of us realize just how ____________-prone doctors themselves are.
The Intruder/Odd man out

This typical activity for revising vocabulary and developing thinking skills is very useful in a context of teaching and learning medical English. Here is a task demonstrating what it looks like:

For each set of terms below, choose the one that does not belong and then explain why it does not belong:
__________________            thyroid gland, liver, adrenal glands, pineal gland
__________________            oxytocin, prolactin, epinephrine, ADH
__________________            cortisol, parathyroid hormone, epinephrine, aldosterone
__________________            aldosterone, estrogen, progesterone, testosterone
__________________            insulin, thyroxine, GH, prostaglandin
Activities of this type are thought-provoking and amusing for students as well. They enhance their reasoning skills and prompt genuine discussions between them.
Word searches
Wordsearch is a highly amusing technique for recycling vocabulary in a topic – based context. Medical equipment in the operating theatre, diseases related to a given system, names of medical wards or medical professionals, collocations describing pain, are suitable groups of words to be recycled in such a way.
Find at least six adjectives that describe various types of pain:


Common/medical terms
Another set of activities focused on vocabulary building and recycling is the one that combines the everyday common word or phrase with the corresponding medical terminology. Students are motivated to learn them because it stands to reason that in a real life communication with their patients they would need the common term or phrase rather than the scientific ones. Along with this in order to read and understand the latest developments in the sphere of medicine, dental medicine, etc., they would need the scientific terms too. Here is an activity of this type:
Look at the table below and give the medical term that corresponds to the common name of the diseases from the text. Give examples of diseases that belong to each category.

Common name Medical term or area Examples
diseases of the skin dermatological
diseases of the lung pulmonary
diseases of the stomach gastric
diseases of the heart cardiovascular
diseases of the head mental

Again for more advanced learners the last column is open for them so that they can refer to their background knowledge of medicine and English and fill in the respective examples. In case the group of students are not so advanced we may supply examples in a box and then what students have to do is infer their meaning and combine them properly.
Abbreviations / acronyms

Abbreviations are extremely useful as a mnemonic device for students of medicine, dental medicine, etc. There exist a number of activities focused on this way of helping students memorize the vast amount of necessary information for their future profession. For 1st and 2nd year students it may be a good strategy to start with a simple abbreviation they know from general English and give them its medical meaning. For instance, they have all heard of a CV, which in a medical context would be cardiovascular and not the well known curriculum vitae. Some abbreviations can be quite exciting for teachers too.
TPR is no longer the total physical response but temperature, pulse, respiration. MI in its turn does not stand for multiple intelligences but for myocardial infarction while stat comes from Latin statim which means immediately. Sometimes we may raise students’ awareness of such funny abbreviations such as ‘a gomer’ that comes from literary sources. ‘Gomer is an acronym for “Get out of my emergency room!”. Gomers are people who enjoy poor health. That is their hobby.’
Communication focus
Authors often claim that much native speaker language is formulaic and the native speaker has a ‘vast range of formulae’. That applies to a great extent to the doctor-patient communication and can successfully be used in teaching ESP. It is important to bear in mind that the integrity of multiword items should be preserved. Students find it motivating to learn such institutionalised expressions that enrich their pragmatic competence. Here is an activity that prepares students for typical doctor-patient encounters.
Look at the questions a doctor usually asks to find out about a patient in pain. There is a logical order in asking the questions. Match the labels to the groups of questions:

Duration                      Relieving factors                     Type of pain
Precipitating factors                Other               Frequency                   Location

1. Can you describe the pain?
What’s the pain like?
2. Where exactly does it hurt?
Where is it sore?
3. How long has it been bothering you?
How long does the pain last?
4. When do you usually get the pain?
How often do you get it?
5. Does anything make it worse?
Does anything special bring it on?
6. Is there anything that makes it better?
Does ………. help the pain?
7. Have you taken anything for it?
Have you noticed any other problems?

In the process of teaching and learning we have also come across some differences between British and American English, for instance, make rounds (US) and do rounds (UK). We wonder if this reflects the attitude to doctors’ work and whether in America it happens to be regarded as a more creative type of activity while in Britain it is more routine, or it may be that such a way of thinking is too much of a generalization and people use it alternatively nowadays on both sides of the Atlantic. It is a puzzle for a Bulgarian teacher and learner of English.
Methodology and Technology
Most of the activities discussed may be designed for computer-based work. In such interactive environment they could be even more interesting for learners since they would acquire the medical terms while interacting with the computer which is a natural way of learning for most young people today. The interactive ‘drag and drop’ labelling or matching activities are extremely pleasant when it comes to learning different organs or systems in anatomy and physiology or when students have to categorize diseases. There are video films available that describe a typical process (breathing or muscle contraction), a disease (AIDS, malaria), etc., that can be effective and memorable, and can imperceptibly develop students’ medical English at the same time. The problem here is insufficient technical equipment in some universities so that such activities could be used on a regular basis as an integral part of the teaching/learning process. As is the case today this can be done once or twice a semester with a lot of effort on part of the students and the teacher trying to organize the proper equipment and provide a good adequate interactive material.
The list of activities discussed above is by no means exhaustive but aims to point out some of the typical tasks used in an English for Specific Purposes context. They are very useful because they are based on critical thinking and provoke students to play with the language and make meaning. The mixed-level teaching environment is challenging cognitively and emotionally but it also develops invaluable social skills such as tolerance to people with lesser or greater knowledge and skills in English, so enriching the attitudinal aspect of the teaching and learning process is beneficial for the students. The language component is sufficient to scratch the surface of ESP but our aim is to encourage students to continue improving their English either autonomously for the fluent users or to join a course and further improve their English for lower intermediate or elementary level students. We tend to stimulate them to take certified test levels so that they have standardized evidence of their English proficiency.

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  • Pohl, A., (2003), Test Your Professional English, Medical, Penguin English Guides
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