Geoff Richards

Small talk with big results

The art of teaching English forwards

I've known two people in my life that had to attend speech therapy: one who had developed a terrible stutter as a result of a medication that he had to take, the other who had brain damage after a major road accident. They were both dear friends, so helping them overcome their verbal communication problems was a laborious favour rather than a mind numbing chore.

Outside of this, I would avoid anyone like the plague who spoke like they did. Why? Because it's boring!

Here's a classic example of how conversations used to have to ‘flow' with my friends during their recovery:

"Hi, how are you?" "I'm fine thank you, and you?" "I'm fine thank you."

Now, where have we all seen and heard this longwinded, nigh on nonsensical way of communicating before?!

I'll tell you where you will never see/hear it:

1. When you're a young child forming your first words and sentences (imagine having to talk like that, you'd never get off first base and in the unlikely chance that you did, you'd never have any friends!)

2. When you're talking with family (because they'd tell you to speak normally or seek help!)

3. When you're talking with friends, colleagues and associates (because if you did, you'd very quickly find yourself a loner!)

And now I'll tell you where you nearly always (to put it mildly) see/hear it:

1. In the English as a second language classroom

2. In English as a second language courseware

3. In English as a second language gap fills and multiple choice tests and exams

Essentially, this is learning English backwards. Instead of starting off as you did as a child, free from the clutter of grammar, punctuation, perfect nouns and spelling, you're getting the whole caboodle thrust upon you all at once, minus proper conversation and pronunciation. Insanity!

So what's my point? Do it forwards instead! Teach English as you first learned it and have always spoken it to other native speakers and stop boring your students senseless.

Teaching forwards is widely practiced at my school because it works. Here's an example of a lesson on food that I delivered to my M2 classes:

What's your favorite Thai food?
A one name answer, in Thai, i.e. ‘Tom yum' and NOT ‘My favorite Thai food is tom yum'.

What do you prefer, brown or sticky rice?
Again, a one name answer, in English, and without repeating most of the question.

What's your favorite Asian food?
Any one of: Chinese, Japanese, Laos, Vietnamese, again without any of the question being repeated back.

What's your favorite Western food?
Any one of: pizza, hamburgers, etc., one name answers again.

Have you ever tried Indian food?
Yes, I have. / No, I haven't.

So, how to deliver this?



Yes, Simon. We are thinking along the same lines.

First person must be predominant, followed by the immediate second person and after that third person follows naturally.

Sadly, most textbooks assume it the other way around because many of them were designed for summer camps and slow students, semi-literate adult NES, and migrants to NES speaking countries.

How are you?

Well, I feel like I have malaria coming on, but I don't know how to tell you that, so I'm fine, thank you.


By Geoff Richards, Isaan (9th September 2012)

about the good morning students daily monologue
this is taught to the students day in day out
it borders on the insane
i do it a different way
it gets some response so i think its effective
it goes like this
good morning students how are you
and they always reply with standard i am fine
so i then stop them and try to explain meaning of this sentence that it refers to a one to one conversation
it should really be
i am fine
you are fine
he is fine
she is fine
they are fine
we are fine
try it out

By simonraksa, sisaket (8th September 2012)

@Roy - will do, thanks!

@Bob - me, too! Short = easy = remember.

By Geoff Richards, Isaan (26th August 2012)

@Del It was a girl who said it, by the way.

I don't know any universal idiom. Also there are both positive and negative idioms for most animals. I gave them some common American terms because, despite all my earlier protests, my mother insisted on giving birth to me in San Francisco, California, USA.

I do avoid confusing them with hood vs. bonnet and trunk vs. boot. When I brought my Thai wife to the US she couldn't understand animal idioms we used or phrases like, "here you go" and "over my head."

I am just an old auditor who found himself teaching English conversation to 700 kids in a town without a movie theater or Starbucks.

My experience with foreigners in the US, including many I have worked for, is that they are mostly able to communicate but rarely do they get their grammar or pronunciation accurate but they are able to get their point across. English is a very flexible language. My dream is to be able to sit down with my students and talk about any subject they want in English and not have them choke up, look to their friend for help or remain silent.

By Roy, Chiang Mai (26th August 2012)

Nice one Mr Richards.

This is how I speak Thai... or try to!

By Bob Maclain, Thailand (25th August 2012)

"a student called me a fox"
555 - Are you sure he said "FOX
Seriously though, if you want to teach idioms, try to teach your students something that will be understood universally (not just by U.S Americans). They will have great fun with phrases like "raining cats and dogs" and "a frog in my throat"

By DEL, Thailand (25th August 2012)

@Geoff. Same if you are in Chiang Mai. Thanks.

By Roy, Chiang Mai (25th August 2012)


LOL!!!! :o)

If ever you're in Isaan, let's go for a beer! (For REAL!)

By Geoff Richards, Isaan (25th August 2012)

@Del Thank you for letting know who is responsible for the fact that my Mat 3 an 4 students, with 10 years of grammar from non-English speaking grammar teachers, who are not able to carry on a simple conversation. I take full responsibility for my two months experience and how I have managed to bring my students down to such a level.
I did, however, teach them animal idiom this week, writing words like Rat and Dog on the wall and explaining what such creatures are in American lingo. That same day, a student called me a fox. How many students have called you a gerund? :-)

By Roy, Chiang Mai (24th August 2012)

Actually, I have attempted many times to engage my students and perhaps 1 in 100 can actually respond to anything more than their rote "I am ok and you?" I think of the scene from "Crocodile Dundee" where the Australian finds himself in New York City and attempts to G'day each person he passes, only to finally say, "oh shit."
I do engage students in conversation when they are willing to do more than run away giggling however in most of my classes I feel like I am talking to cats. Thus if I can get them over the hurdle of fearing that whatever comes out of their mouth in English won't be criticized, I feel like I have done my job.

By Roy, Chiang Mai (24th August 2012)

Lets be honest. After 8 years of studying English many, if not most of M2 students can't say more than a simple greeting. They have been taught arcane grammar rules only because their English teachers were unable to speak English. Even today most Thai English teachers can't hold a simple conversation in English. It is no wonder the students can only give one word answers as that is all they have been taught to say!

I'm lucky as I teach in an EP where the students are surrounded by English 80% of the day,everyday. This alone improves most of the students English skills. The lessons and interactions with the foreign teachers is invaluable in helping the students to gain confidence and new vocabulary not taught in dusty old tomes. As the old saying goes "experience is the best teacher" and this holds true with speaking and understanding English. By using English regularly on a daily basis the students can see real world applications of English and not just a subject to master to pass a test.

I applaud Geoff in his efforts to encourage his students to speak because at the end in of the day the students will be far better served speaking and understanding spoken English with ASEAN closing in then being able to dissect a sentence grammatically. English is the language of business and commerce and today's students will need these skills for their future. Of course reading, writing, and grammar will be needed but first and foremost speaking and listening skills have to top the list.

Keep them talking, Geoff. You're not alone.

By Dave, Not quite deepest Issan (24th August 2012)

Thanks Philip, I agree that this is not the place for personal insults. I know I just received one, but wasn't aware I had made any!

I just wonder now why Geoff bothers to write a blog if he can't take a little constructive criticism!

By Del, Thailand (24th August 2012)

Well Roy, I think you have unwittingly just answered the whole question of the article "Why can't Thais speak English!"

You said, "right now I just want them to open their mouths and realize they can actually respond to a question."

Such low expectations will inevitably lead to under achievement! That coupled with the fact that when students try to engage you in conversation, you just answer "okay" Not really good enough! Maybe you should try to challenge your students a bit more - you'll be surprised at the results!

By Del, Thailand (24th August 2012)



By Geoff Richards, Isaan (24th August 2012)

OK, let's call it all square with the personal insults. I don't think we want the comments section turning into a discussion forum.

By philip, (24th August 2012)

@Del. Your long-winded reply clearly demonstrates what a long-winded teacher you must be. And that must make you extremely tedious to learn with.

By Geoff Richards, Isaan (24th August 2012)

@Del. I get a Good Morning, Teacher Roy, How are you today? at least 100 times a day. The textbook answer should be something like, I am doing fine, thank you, and you? In reality, I just say, OK, and leave it at that. Frankly, back in the US, I rarely heard someone address me so formally as my students do and I think they would be laughed at should they ever land in the US for a visit. Polite but weird.
A typical conversation would be more like, Hi, howya doin? With a reply of, OK. Howabout you? Let them write their thesis for college, but right now I just want them to open their mouths and realize they can actually respond to a question.

By Roy, Chiang Mai (24th August 2012)

"Or do you also want them to stop asking “ Gin khao roo yang?“

Oh Del. Yes. Please. Please make it stop.
Whenever I get asked that question, I always wonder if I should answer with "yes, I had a very nice Thai omelette. Slightly greasy but obviously packed with fresh ingredients. To tell you the truth (leaning in a little closer( I don't eat omelettes all that often, but I just fancied one"

But most of the time I can't be arsed, so I just say "yes"

By philip, (24th August 2012)

Okay, so maybe your idea would have some merit if you were teaching in kindergarten - but encouraging M2 students (who have had at least 8 years of English) to give one word answers - you should be ashamed of yourself! I assume your approach is some misguided attempt to get your students to speak naturally, but actually it works the other way. Native English speakers often shorten their answers grammatically, but also tend to elaborate on their answers. This is the approach that I take with my students - to get them to anticipate the next question and give a fuller answer. This gives a more natural flow to conversation, instead of Q-A-Q-A-Q-A-Q-A, you have Q-Full A - for example:

Q- Did you go on holiday this year?
A- Yes, I went to Phuket with my family for 2 weeks.
Anticipating the questions Where did you go? How long did you stay? and Who did you go with? and thus avoiding a very unnatural conversation.

Maybe you've been in Thailand too long and have gotten into a stinted way of speaking (many foreigners do ) I'm pretty sure though that if you asked a friend or colleague if they went out last night they would never just answer "Yes, I did." They would tell you where they went and how it was! Otherwise you would think they are being an a**hole!

Please also think of the context your students will be using English in. More often than not it is going to be in formal situations where they are required to make polite conversation at work, with clients, university interview etc - so they will have to ask "How are you?" and answer "I'm fine thanks, How are you?" Despite your protestations, for the majority of us, that is how we greet each other. Or do you also want them to stop asking " Gin khao roo yang?"

By Del, Thailand (24th August 2012)

Thanks, Peter.

A teacher of your experience will find this approach a breeze!


By Geoff Richards, Isaan (23rd August 2012)

It had never dawned on me that I was teaching backwards.

After some reflection on my style and a glance at my lesson plans, it turns out that I have been.

There must be thousands upon thousands of TEFLers all over the world teaching backwards without realizing it.

So many things suddenly add up. I taught in South America for 8 years and Saudi Arabia for 1 year before I came to Thailand and students there have much the same learning challenges as they do here. Now I know why!

Thanks for this Geoff. I'm going to rewrite this semesters lesson plans over the weekend and start teaching forwards come Monday.

And I would suggest that you start your own TEFL training center!

By Peter Pearson, Ubon Ratchathani (23rd August 2012)

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