Rituals vs Principles in ELT

The message of day one of DELTA is made very clear: what you learnt in CELTA will be completely quashed, redrafted and refined in DELTA.

To begin this process, the first area to focus on is the basics of classroom teaching. CELTA courses prepare teachers to enter the working world with some basic teaching procedures. DELTA Series ImageAs these procedures are often laid down as the law, the principles behind them are usually overlooked. The idea is that the teacher will eventually look into the principles behind their teaching during their Continued Professional Development.

However, the case is usually that these procedures become somewhat fossilised and ritualised in our teaching – a bit like learners who make the same mistakes again and again. We do them because we know they work, yet we fail to ask ourselves why?

So, which procedures tend to become ritualistic? How can we revisit them and reconsider their place in the classroom, so that they become principles rather than simply rituals?

Below are a set of CELTA-esque statements. Consider whether you still do these quite regimentally in the classroom or apply them rather more lackadaisically:

    1. always check your instructions
    2. always use concept check questions
    3. always elicit, never tell
    4. use pair and group work as much as possible
    5. alway do lots of controlled practice and drilling of new language items
    6. always pre-teach unknown vocabulary
    7. personalise wherever possible
    8. Teacher Talking Time is a major sin
    9. Learners must know language formation rules
    10. Always ensure constant learner activity in the classroom

Some of these will now be discussed below.

Instructions Checking instructions is quite an artificial process: some teachers seem to embrace it to the point it becomes second nature; others just do it for CELTA and then forget it. One of the issues of checking instructions is that very often the language for checking is more complicated than the instructions themselves. For example, you instruct an elementary group to work in pairs and you check this by asking “are you now working individually?” The instruction was fair more simple and clearer.

So, what is the solution? The most obvious is to allow the activity to begin and simply observe whether they are doing the task correctly or not. If your instructions have been understood, they will get on with the task, and if not, then difficulties or misunderstanding will quickly arise, which you can then deal with.

I think the biggest advantage to this approach is that it truly checks whether your instructions are effective or not. Furthermore, if most of the class is getting on with the task at hand correctly, then it allows you to deal with the one or two anomalies who didn’t quite understand the instructions.

CCQ’s As with instructions, concept checking questions tend to be more elaborate than the actual concept themselves. This then leads to effectively not checking the concept but rather checking language. For example, when teaching ‘pen’ and ‘pencil’ the teacher checks by asking “which one has ink in it?” If the learners don’t know pen and pencil, then every word in that question is probably beyond their knowledge.

Taking a non-verbal approach, as outlined in the instructions section above, the simplest solution would be to ask the learners to point, nod or shake their heads when you say or show pen/pencil.

What is important to highlight here is the necessity to begin with the notion, which are universal to all humans such as feelings, things and abstract ideas, and the move towards the noise that the learners need to express that notion in the foreign language. This can be neatly summed up as the following:

Notion —> Noise Theory*

Eliciting This is a key CELTA procedure and it is terribly over applied. What is the purpose of eliciting? To extract something from the learners. What do we elicit? Well, it seems for most teachers the answer is absolutely anything; however, in reality we can only elicit that which:

  • is already in the minds of the learners   If they don’t know it, they can’t give you it
  • lends itself to eliciting If you hold up a pen with an intermediate group and ask what it is, the most natural thought in the minds of the learners will be “surely he doesn’t mean pen.”

I think eliciting is best reserved for content ideas and possible vocabulary but only when it comes together as a clear lexical group.

Pair and Group work Given that the Communicative Method is based around the key facet of communication, it comes as no surprise that teachers place a strong focus on exploiting every opportunity for pair and group work, under the premises that this leads to increased Student Talking Time.

Although pair and group work has its place in the classroom, it can definitely be over-applied. Language learning is a complex process which requires a high degree of cognitive processing. For this processing to take place, learners really require allocated time not only at home but also during the lesson to engage with the target language.

This would suggest that individual work has its place in the communicative classroom and pair and group work should be reserved for truly communicative purposes.

Controlled Practice, Drilling and Rule Formation When tackling new language, teachers often put the learners through stages of choral and individual drilling as well as a number of practice exercises. However, this only works on the assumption the learners are dealing with language which is truly new to them. All too often teachers ritualistically drill language which learners are able to produce neigh perfectly on the first go. This would suggest the learners already know the target language, which means controlled practice and drilling would not be of much necessity or use.

It is standard for teachers to elicit or present rules and formulae for manipulating aspects of grammar. Given that language is used for communication, be able to produce formulaic rules about language is perhaps more often than not a demonstration of the teachers knowledge about the language rather than the learners’ ability to use it. In fact, it is perfectly feasible that a learner might have mastered a language point and is able to use it perfectly, yet they are unable to explain the rues of application.

All in all, there are many areas to English Language Teaching which have become very ritualistic in the classroom, yet the principles behind them have long been overlooked. The mantra here is to come back to the drawing board and ask oneself: why am I doing this at this stage? Once the why is understood, then it can be allowed to drive the what in the classroom.

*This theory is courtesy of Beth Grant

10 thoughts on “Rituals vs Principles in ELT

  1. Thanks for a great article. I almost failed Celta because of this, Having had 25-year experience in teaching I knew I was right not to succumb to those – aptly named- rituals. I remember one CCQ from a model video we watched on the course: “So where do you drown?” How idiotic can it get? Well, personally I often drown in my bathroom though I’ve drowned in a lake a few times.
    All the experienced teachers who just needed the certificate had a miserable time and didn’t do particularly well.
    Looking forward to more

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for this great response Alicja! It’s great to hear there are plenty of experienced teachers out there who recognise the uselessness of these rituals.

      The best example I’ve had so far, is a teacher teaching watch and clock and then asking “which do you wear on your wrist?” If they don’t know watch, then how will they know wrist?!

      Please feel free to follow my blog and comment wherever you like 🙂

      All the best!


  2. As someone who’s just started imparting these nuggets of wisdom as a CELTA tutor, I do try to temper them where I can:
    – Check potentially difficult parts of the instructions, e.g. on a two-stage exercise where you match numbered pictures to adjectives, then adjectives tothe opposites, check students know where/what to write
    – CCQs are not the only way to check meaning. Ask SS to point to someting, draw something, tell you the opposite, use negative checking (Can you cook a salad? was an interesting one I head last week!)…don’t spend hours writing CCQs for something that can be checked in other ways.
    – Try to elicit where you can, but don’t be afraid to provide the answer if the SS don’t know.
    – Drill new language as much as possible, especially in sentences, becausethis will aid memorsation and improve the studentsconfience, espcially at lower levels. However, use your monitoring to inform your drilling, and don’t waste your time on things it’s clear the SS already know.
    – With pairwork and groupwork, it’s mainly to reduce th urge for the teacher to fill the silence. If the SS are talking, it’s harder for the teacher to gie in to the verbal diarrhoea urge (not a grea reason, I know!) There should be space for individual work too, but quite a few trainees are so scared ofthe silence that they won’t shut up and let the SS get on with it! We also encourage peerchecking before group feedback stages to give weaker and/or quieter SS the opportunity to join in with feedback, because otherwise they have a tendency to get left behind as the stonger/louder ones dominate.
    Don’t have any counter points for your other arguments, but I hope these ones help 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fantastic read and looking forward to more! And Costas, thank you for that link. I’ve got a LOT of new quality reading material now.


  4. Great post, thank you 🙂 An interesting point about eliciting which has got me thinking. One of the most prominent comments I received recently was that I do do much “telling” and not enough “guided discovery”. “Eliciting” as a term wasn’t mentioned, but I interpreted it in a similar way as guided discovery (perhaps I am mistaken). Personally, I totally agree with you when you said about not being able to elicit if the item in question is not in the students’ existing knowledge. Or perhaps that applies more to lexical items, whereas “guided discovery” is more possible when it comes to grammar? I feel this is a huge obstacle I need to overcome…
    Look forward to the next update and good luck!


    1. Hi Alex! Thank you for the comment.

      I think as teachers go down their route of development, some end up either relying on eliciting far too much and try to elicit what cannot be elicited (the expression ‘drawing blood from a stone’ comes to mind here!) and others simply leave it out of their teaching repertoire.

      Baring this in mind, I think the easiest approach is this: when you go to give something to the learners (information, not hand-outs), stop and ask them first. For example, don’t begin by telling them what the Present Perfect is: instead write a sentence on the board and ask them which tense is used.

      As far as Guided Discovery is concerned, take a look at this article and let me know if it is of any use: https://ashowski.wordpress.com/2013/07/29/discovering-guided-discovery/

      All the best 🙂


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