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Teaching Tips 203



There was a time when it was thought that the way to teach the language was to contrast English with the learners' language, assume the similarities between the languages were transferable, & teach the differences. It seemed to make a lot of sense. This 'contrastive analysis', coming from behaviourist ideas of learning, was found to be full of holes; for example, problems were found where there were similarities & likewise, no problems were found where they were expected.

These interlingual errors were put on the backburner & intralingual errors, those within English, were given prominence with categories such as overgeneralisation, incomplete rule application & overcorrection.

However teachers have long recognised that transfer is a significant factor & it is slowly being recognised more & more in ELT literature. Negative transfer is easier to spot than it is for positive transfer as it is easier to see the error than it is to attribute correct production to transfer from the mother tongue. The inclusion of positive transfer helps us talk more of performance analysis, than error analysis.

As teachers when we plan our lessons, we make assumptions about what the learners may know that we can build on, & we also try to anticipate any problems they might have, together with solutions if they arise. Within these two areas we take into account the transfer from the mother tongue & the effect it will have on what we are teaching.

For example, when teaching 'used to' for talking of discontinued past habits & states to Spanish learners, it is usual to point out that 'used to' is only used in the past & the present idea would use 'usually'. In Spanish there is the one verb 'soler' that covers both. This is preempting a problem of negative transfer.

Another example is with false friends. When teaching the word 'library', we need to point out that 'libreria' is not the same as this is 'book shop' in Spanish. For a list of Spanish false friends & an activity:

On the other hand, a knowledge of positive transfer can speed up the process; 'going to' is similar enough in Spanish to be useful so a presentation that uses this can work as a shortcut, leaving more time for practice & focus on phonology.

With multilingual groups this is more difficult to incorporate but books such as 'Learner English' by Swan & Smith (CUP), plus numerous websites easily found on Google, help us see how our learners' language deals with a similar aspect.
To see a review of 'Learner English' by Swan & Smith (CUP)
To buy the book from To buy the book from

There are difficulties with a contrastive analysis approach but, at the same time, it can be a useful tool in both the day-to-day planning of our lessons & when correcting some of our learners' problems.

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word cards

Keeping track of it all

How do you keep track of the vast amount of vocabulary that is either presented or crops up in the lessons? There's just so much of it that is vital to a student's progress & if it isn't recycled then it's lost. So it's up to you to help organise the students with their notebooks & give them strategies to recycle language.

In the class a nice idea to stay on top of the vocabulary is to write each word that comes up on a card. The word, stress & phonemic script is on one side & the meaning on the back. These are collected in a box with the most recent put at the back. Each lesson you can choose the activity - warmer, cooler or filler - to do with the next six/eight words at the front of the box. After the activity these six cards are then put at the back of the box, so the cards continually rotate.

Here are a couple of ideas on using the cards each lesson:
- students give definitions & others guess words.
- students in small groups think of how all six words could be linked together into a story, they then tell to each other.
- students have a conversation & have to use them naturally in the conversation.
- same but each student has one of the words, the others must guess which is each students' given word at the end of the conversation.
- students discuss the contexts in which the words came up in class.
- if appropriate vocab, students get a point each time one is used naturally during the lesson, points counted up at the end for the winner.

After a while of doing different activities, you could get to the point where the students decide on which activity to do that day.

It means that you have to be disciplined each lesson & make sure you don't forget. Better still, you could get the students to write the cards! The cards also provide you with a record of the vocabulary to draw on for progress & end of term/course evaluations.

It is also a good idea for you to have a notebook for each group you are teaching, to note down the vocab that crops up & the students' errors. This provides an invaluable source of information for deciding on directions to take with your classes, as well as helping you design reviews & progress tests, & generally recycling language.

An organised approach to what can be a chaotic & unmanageable area.

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Among the features of spoken discourse that need attending to is the adjacency pair. The 'Longman Dictionary of Applied Linguistics' defines this as:

‘a sequence of two related utterances by two different speakers. The second utterance is always a response to the first.’

In the following example, speaker A makes a complaint, & speaker B replies with a denial:

A: You left the light on.

B: It wasn’t me!

The sequence of Complaint-Denial is an adjacency pair. Other examples are Greeting-Greeting, Question-Answer, Invitation-Acceptance/Refusal, Offer-Decline, Complaint-Apology.

Adjacency pairs are part of the structure of conversation’

An additional aspect is that usually there are two different responses to the first utterance. These are called ‘preferred’ – the polite expected response, & the ‘dispreferred answer’, the unexpected response.

We usually deal with the preferred answers in coursebooks, dialogues, matching pairs. The following task is fairly typical:

Match the following pairs:
Would you like a drink? Every half an hour, I think.
Lovely day, isn't it? Don't worry, No harm done.
What time does the bus come? Here you are.
Oh, I am sorry. Yes, beautiful.
Could you pass the salt, please? Yes, please. A pint of bitter for me. Thanks.

But what of the dispreferred answers? These are more difficult to produce as a degree of sophistication is needed to be appropriate. They might also mean more language as reasons might be needed.

So how to develop these with our students? A couple of ideas:

1. Listening & more listening – pick up on this aspect in the text analysis stage - noticing. If you had the following:

A: Could you give me a cigarette, please?

B: Sure, here you are.

ask the students to storm as many alternatives to the second utterance as they can think of. Eg.

  • I’m afraid I’ve only got a couple left.
  • You really shouldn’t. It’ll make your cough worse.
  • That’s rude. Why don’t you buy your own?
  • Etc...

In the feedback, discuss the situation of each. eg. the last one is culturally inappropriate in the street in the UK but not in Spain.

2. Using the matching task above, first get the students to match up & then they think of other ways to respond, together with the situation.

3. Develop the manipulation of the language through spontaneous roleplays. Give out the first part of adjacency pairs. The student with the utterance says the sentence & the partner has to respond immediately & carry on the conversation for a couple of minutes. Have a different starter sentence for each student in half of the class. After each conversation rotate the starters to different people.

That’s my seat you’re sitting in.


Do you mind!

Would you leave me alone?


4. A slight variation on the Train Compartment activity in that you give out sentences & the student has to try to make the other say the first utterance that is in response to their utterance. So say one has ‘I’d rather not.’, this student has to either simply wait to say the utterance at a suitable time or direct the conversation so that a request is made by the other. Try to encourage the proactive approach. Tricky but fun.
For the Tip 'Stranger on a Train':

5. Choosing the Correct Response. In the excellent book Conversation by Nolasco & Arthur (OUP) there is the activity ‘Do you come here often.’ (No. 11) The students have rolecards & choose the best option to respond with. Students are given the following rolecards:

A: You are by the swimming pool of an exclusive club. You start the conversation:

A: Do you come here often?

B: .....

Now choose the best reply in response to B

Strange, I’ve never seen you here before.
Are those the people you’re with?
Oh, just curious. It’s always nice to see a new face.


Well perhaps we’ll see each other again.
Oh, how fascinating. I’m an artist.
No, but I’d love to meet him.


B: You are by the swimming pool of an exclusive club. Choose the best reply to A.


Why do you say?
Yes, I’m a member.
No, I’m here with friends.


No, they’re inside, Do you know Sir Charles Stutton?
Well, I’m afraid I must go. My friends are waiting.
I don’t have time to come too often. I’m a model.


Well, come on in & join us. I’m sure Sir Charles would be delighted to meet you. What’s your name?
That’s funny, my husband’s as artist too. Here he is now. Hello, John.
I doubt it.

Easy to design your own rolecards.

Conversation by Nolasco & Arthur (OUP)

6. Use lots of flow charts, a very underused activity, see the Tip ‘Going With The Flow’:

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