A major challenge for any language teacher is how to facilitate retention. The average student, it is claimed, can only memorise between five and seven new words a day, and this normally by repetition.  Drilling, however, or similar means of reinforcement, can grow tedious and even prove counterproductive. Something else is needed, a lateral way of hooking a term into memory, and this could be the ‘ass’s bridge’.


Die eselbrücke, or ass’s bridge, is a German idiom, which refers to a mnemonic or aide-memoire that helps someone embed a new item of information in their memory. ‘Ass’ in this case has the sense, also found in English as in ‘the law is an ass’, of idiot. I first heard the term from a Swiss student who explained how he had only been able to retain ‘beating around the bush’ after learning that the idiom derived from the practice of hunters beating the ground around a bush in order to make the birds emerge.

Language is multi-faceted, frequently displaying a synergy that transcends the bare meaning of a word or phrase. Eponyms – words derived from the name of a person or a place – idioms, etymology and false friends frequently open up unexpected historical or social vistas: they have a story to tell. I had thought myself indulgent in preferring time spent on this more vivid approach to language to that devoted to grammar rules until it dawned on me that these apparent digressions could be fertile soil for a word or expression to take root in a learner’s mind.


It is a well-known fact that ‘sandwich’ derives from the eponymous eighteenth-century earl so engrossed at the gaming tables that he ordered a servant to bring him meat placed between two slabs of bread. Less celebrated is ‘boycott’, a word that seems to exist in every language (check with your students). This comes from Captain James Boycott who incited his Irish compatriots not to buy English goods. There is Monsieur Guillotine and Monsieur Silhouette, not forgetting Nicolas Chauvin, a member of Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, so renowned for his loyalty to the emperor that his name became synonymous with an excessive belief in the superiority of a race, gender or kind. For place, we have cashmere from Kashmir, denim from ‘de Nîmes’ (where the original cloth came from), and the cotton woven with silk called damask from Damascus. There is colophon, the name given to the author’s attribution of date and place at the conclusion of their work, which refers to the city in classical Italy whose cavalry were famous for its ability to come to a sudden halt. Explaining the origin of such eponyms can provide a bridge leading to retention.


Idioms can operate in a similar way. ‘On the fiddle’ baffles by seeming to imply a connection between violins and cheating. The fiddle, in fact, was the border on the square wooden plates used by Nelson’s navy: if food went on them, someone was having more than their fair share. A host of idioms, of course, derive from the navy and the sea: ‘to rub salt into the wound’, for example, or ‘too small to swing a cat in’ (presumably a cat o’nine tails). Even if there are conflicting accounts concerning origin, speculation can do no harm and provides a camouflaged means of reinforcement. ‘Cut to the chase’ may derive from the need to speed up the pace of Hollywood movies by signalling action. ‘Bite the bullet’ could come from the need to give a wounded soldier a piece of metal to clench between his teeth in the gruesome days before anaesthetic. What could be closer to hand than a bullet and what situation better describes surrender to the unpleasant? Sadly, ‘news’ is probably not an acronym for ‘north, east, west and south’, yet even if the speculation is wide of the mark, the fact we are reiterating a term in a real context empowers memory.


Words open the gates of history: the story of the Saxon ‘pig and deer’ sold at market, as opposed to the French-derived ‘pork or venison’ when served at court, neatly summarises three hundred years of English social division. It points as well to the fusion of a Germanic and Romance language, which led to the language we use today, with its vast vocabulary, abundance of synonyms, and issues raised by a manner of spelling that frequently has little bearing on the way we speak. ‘Disaster’ literally means ill-starred (dis- ‘away, without’ + astro ‘star, planet,’) opening up an entire astrological subtext. Many words possess historical, philosophical or religious dimensions that can help students commit them to memory.


Why words change meaning or assume fresh nuances when they travel is a mystery, but there are many false friends, especially for speakers of Romance languages, and a great deal of confusion can be cleared up (and sometimes hilarity provoked) if we are aware of where the problem lies. It is impossible in French or German, for example, to speak of  ‘a dramatic improvement’ because ‘dramatic’ is intrinsically negative, a bit like the English traumatic. The French terrifiant means terrifying or awful (which of course itself originally meant very good i.e. ‘awefull’) so we should not be surprised when French students tell us they are too sensible, that is ‘sensitive’, to see a ‘terrific’ film. Elaboration of the confusion implicit in faux amis involves reinforcement of the item and enhances the chances of their capture by memory.


Much the same could be said of those cases where an English word has travelled and taken on a new meaning, which native speakers would not understand. A Spaniard footin to a mitin would in fact be jogging to a political assembly. As in Russia, the English ‘meeting’ was adopted in Spain to describe a type of assembly proscribed by dictatorship. When speaking of ‘overhead’, a German speaker might be surprised to learn the reference is to a running cost. For him the English word can be used to describe the administration of a company. Tell a Japanese that someone is ‘moody’ and they will probably want to meet him or her. In Japan the word is used to mean exciting in a somewhat risqué way. Then there is the ubiquitous ‘mobbing’, adopted by many languages to mean bullying in the workplace. This seems a far cry from the Beatles pursued across the tarmac of American airports by a mob of screaming fans until we remember the secondary meaning of mobbing in English: a group of birds attacking a member of the flock. Exploring such differences can provide a conduit for memory.


‘Ass’ besides being outmoded may seem a derogatory term. Nobody would particularly relish being described as one. We are all, however, to a greater or lesser degree, asses when learning a language, victims of the word or expression that cannot be retained, no matter the effort, and the ingrained mistake that can only be corrected at the expense of fluency. We all need a bridge and in providing one we are doing students a favour. Indeed, such bridge building has a broader remit than that cited in the examples given. When a student is trying to grasp an unfamiliar word and we provide a context or illustration we are furnishing a way across. A student is puzzled by the word ‘guess’. Ask him to tell you what you have in your pocket, your mother’s maiden name, or your age if you’re brave. When he gets it, you have built a link to meaning without having had to explain anything. Even in teaching pronunciation there are frameworks that supply a shortcut, such as ‘one apple, two apples, three apples etc’, the neat way of memorising the rules of connected speech devised by Michael Vaughan-Rees.


In providing such bridges we help ourselves as well. One of the dangers of teaching is staleness: explaining relative clauses or getting bogged down in multi-part phrasal verbs for the umpteenth time can get wearisome – and what is stale for the teller becomes so for the listener. In remaining alive not just to the meaning of words but also to the fascinating dimensions so many contain, we become better bridge-builders and help our students make the new familiar.

This article appeared in English Teaching Professional (issue 76, September 2011)


Many words tell a story. The knowledge that “stentorian” derives from Stentor, a herald in Greek mythology, or that “maudlin” takes us back to Mary Magdalen, who wept at the empty tomb after the resurrection of Jesus, can prove a helpful key to lock such terms in memory. Neither word, arguably, is particularly useful to anyone apart from advanced learners, but “derrick” – from Goodman Derrick, a seventeenth century Tyburn hangman (presumably because the tower built over an oil well resembles a scaffold) – is a key term in the oil and gas industry. Similarly, “mentor”, the name of the adviser to whose care Odysseus left his son when he set out for Troy, is a buzzword in business today.

Words that derive from place names and those of people, both real and literary, are a rich seam of anecdote and history that can enrich life in the classroom. There will, of course, be students whose eyes glaze over at any mention of the etymology of such eponyms. Just as often, however, it is students themselves who have a notion of the origin of a term or are intrigued enough to ask where it comes from.


Idioms, as well, are a mine of information about history and vanished customs. They are also often one of the easiest things for students to get wrong or confuse with expressions in their own language: in English, for example, you “pull somebody’s leg” but in Spanish it’s the “hair”. Knowing the source of the phrase “daylight robbery” to be reputedly the eighteenth century window tax, which led to so many bricked in windows in houses of the period, can be a useful aide memoire. Similarly, it may help embed “at the drop of a hat” in a student’s memory if the derivation is explained as the signal used to start a duel. Or that “mad as a hatter” refers to the lunacy induced in hat makers by the poisonous fumes of a key ingredient in their work  — mercury.

One way to exploit this is to make a quiz. What, for example, connects ducks, unqualified doctors and quantum physics? The answer is “quack”, used to denote medical charlatans because “quacksalvers” sold useless cures and potions in Tudor streets. In Finnegan’s Wake James Joyce varied the sound emitted by his Irish ducks to “quark”, the name adopted for a new type of subatomic particle discovered in 1968. What word spelt backwards takes us from neutral to nasty? Try reversing “boy”. How does the name of David Beckham’s wife connect with the richest passengers on nineteenth century cruise ships? The best cabins were port out starboard home, which allegedly gives us “posh”.

Of course, care is needed with this sort of thing. I once told an artist friend “news” derived from “north, east, west, south”. It is a charming explanation but apparently hopelessly wrong: “news” being more mundanely the plural of “new”. Before I could correct things, however, he made a large piece consisting of four hares, one on top of the other, facing each of the cardinal points. The only excuse for this is “artistic licence”, an interesting term whose origin is well worth investigating.

This article appeared in Teachitworld Newsletter (March 2012) 


Early last year, I was teaching a young South American woman working in London. I asked her if she intended to make a life in the UK or eventually go back to her own country. In response, she burst into tears. As it turned out, her father had survived a heart attack a few days before but was still in a critical condition. She was grappling with the decision whether to go back home. I did not know if I should focus on her problem or steer things back to the lesson. In the end, I did a bit of both. 
The situation reminded me of a sketch a few years ago on Smack the Pony, the TV comedy series, in which a teacher corrects the grammar of a Spanish girl as she describes losing several family members in a car crash. Such opportunism is, of course, not what this article recommends.
The traditional model of English Language Teaching has the teacher marshal their students towards a set of pre-defined grammatical or lexical objectives that are happily mastered by the end of the class. Events, however, can easily conspire against this. My experience with the South American student made me wonder what sort of unexpected happenings had interrupted classes given by colleagues at the school where I work. So I asked them. 
Problems with technology were an obvious example: listening exercises that did not play, timetabled video links that had mysteriously vanished. Another was classroom equipment.  A whiteboard had fallen on one colleague, while another had been the target of the clock that was supposed to time the exam she was invigilating, after it dropped off the wall and hit her on the head.
Less dramatic but just as trying can be the scenario where crossed wires cause havoc, and here I am not talking about technology. I once gave a lecture to about a hundred students on “Life in the UK”. I was asked to prepare a quiz beforehand that their teachers could use afterwards as a means of reinforcing the lecture’s main points. I simply used the questions I interspersed the lecture with to make it more interactive. “How many hours’ TV does the average Brit watch weekly?” I enquired. Usually, this elicited a very uncertain response that ranged from “six” to “seventeen”. On this occasion, the entire hall trumpeted “twenty-six”, which was the right answer. It turned out that, due to a misunderstanding, my colleagues had pre-taught the answers. My wings were truly clipped, a state of affairs not helped by the fact that the OHP I was placing my transparencies on, in those bygone days, chose that moment to pack up.
On another occasion, I was giving a one-week special course for a Russian Ministry in Saint Petersburg. The location was an old, overheated, Soviet-era hotel with a ground floor comprised entirely of lecture rooms. Despite the fact that none of these was in use, I was informed that there was nowhere available to give the course and asked if the reception area would do. It would not. When I did finally manage to access a room, an even thornier problem presented itself.  My request for chalk to use on the blackboard was met by long faces and a great deal of head-scratching. Charming and diligent as the delegates turned out to be, they worked in a culture of delay and deliberate confusion, largely attributable to their miserable salaries.
At a conference for young lawyers in the Czech Republic, the computer contract roleplay a colleague was there to give, as a showcase of the school’s legal English courses, was scuppered by the fact that the delegates considered attendance optional. Those who had been primed for their roles during the pre-negotiation phase wandered off while others ambled in, totally at a loss as to what they should do during the bargaining phase. By definition, a roleplay needs to be carried out from start to finish. This was just a carry-on.
Unsettling as such incidents can be, they pale into insignificance beside situations where heightened emotions erupt. A colleague asked a student why she liked going to art galleries and was informed such places provided solace for the abuse she had suffered in her childhood. How do you follow that?
Most teachers must have come up against students expressing racist or anti-Semitic views that may be permissible in their own countries. The only opportunity there is to quickly stifle such opinions. However, Kate, another colleague adopted a different tack when she found herself with a class comprised of students who came from countries that traditionally disliked each other. So pronounced was the atmosphere of suspicion and prejudice that it completely disrupted the Business English course she was planning to give. She decided to confront the situation full-on and through discussion and pair work made the students face those demons and, at least partially, exorcise them.  
Sometimes we are the unwitting agents of our own downfall. One colleague played an old Cockney song called “A Mother’s Lament”, another showed a clip from “Deaf Old Bat”, an episode of Fawlty Towers, both of which excited tearful reactions from a member of their class. The song and the clip had revived painful memories: the former of a miscarriage; the latter of a friend’s fatal accident in the bath. This, of course, happens completely inadvertently and nothing can be done to prevent it.
Less ghoulish but just as potentially awkward, was the time I thought a Specsavers commercial might liven up a young business group. I couldn’t find the myopic shepherd shearing his sheepdog on YouTube but instead chanced upon a man and woman sitting in the front seats of a car. I clicked. The commercial was Scandinavian in origin and what ensued excited a great deal of sniggering and, no doubt, some misgivings about the moral probity of the teacher. The woman should have gone to Specsavers. (And so should I!). 
With the exception of Kate’s attempts at bridge-building, none of the above provides an opportunity for anything more than damage limitation. Emotional distress or vexatious opinions are territories that are probably best avoided. if they do crop up, a return to the planned lesson provides a welcome respite. There is, however, another way the unexpected can present itself which can be rewarding and opportune. 
Last year I had a two to one with Danish MPs. My school in regularly runs courses for members of Scandinavian parliaments, and there is a host of regularly upgraded material to choose from. One of the students sat on the Danish Parliament’s Select Committee for Taxation so we started on a simple worksheet that displayed the different types of tax in the UK. We never left it. Over five mornings this single sheet gave rise to discussions not only about tax itself but also about the issues those taxes related to: housing, wealth, inheritance, relative incomes and welfare. This was readily abetted by technology, for, with a couple of clicks, it was possible to find podcasts, news clips, diagrams and graphs that illustrated each theme. Of course, I was dealing with two fluent individuals with a high level of English and a sophisticated grasp of the topics at hand, and the ideas expressed here are largely confined to classes whose English is at a level where they can digress. 
Something similar, however, happened with a lower level student I taught in the same year: a German banker of Albanian extraction. I would hand over the material selected for that day. He would politely look at it, set it to one side and initiate a wide-ranging discussion that, with appropriate feedback, seemed to be of much more use to him than yet another gap fill. This also made the lesson much more interesting for me. With digression, it is not just the student who learns. It is the teacher as well. Another banker seemed far more interested in telling me about his farm in Normandy than the lending to agricultural concerns he oversaw in Eastern Europe. By the end of the course, I was in possession of almost everything you need to know about Calvados production.     
Teachers are understandably nervous about going off on such tangents. Digression needs to be managed carefully, and it is all too easy to leave some course participants behind, particularly if there are dominant individuals in the room. 
From time to time I have a dream where in which I am standing in front of a class with all material used, fifteen minutes to go, and absolutely no idea what to do next. Several of my colleagues have had the same dream. It seems to be an occupational hazard. As a result, I always like to take more material into the classroom than I will probably need. However, if the class digress, and everybody is comfortable doing so, I am more than happy to jettison the material, because what comes out of such impromptu journeys can be more valuable than the route that was planned.
A staged, prescriptive approach, with meticulous lesson planning, remains valid, particularly when there is a clear aim in view, such as with exam or tightly-scheduled ESP courses. Moreover, the bulk of courses in the centre where I work last one week, with a different teacher and new students joining stayers in the next. This makes syllabus-based continuity problematical. In such a scenario, classes come alive when a phrase, topic or anecdote opens up unexpected vistas. it is not what we take in that gets results, but what we take up and they take out. 
I was discussing this with a colleague, Jason Anderson, who provided a word for what I had been fumbling to describe: Affordance. An intriguing if slightly baffling term, Affordance means treating the classroom as a dynamic environment which “affords”, in the sense of providing, its own themes and subject matter. Jason has written a great deal about this in the pages of ELT magazines, grappling, for instance, with the challenging notion of an Affordance lesson plan and if indeed such a creature could really exist. What if you have a class with students from cultures that have a predominantly passive approach to learning, such as those from some Asian countries? What will such students afford? How can you plan for Affordance in advance, or know if it will be worth pursuing or just take you on a wild goose chase, exhausting for the teacher and counterproductive for the student? And, of course, there is the question of personality. Some teachers will never be happy with such a freewheeling approach.
Notice, nevertheless, the eagerness of a class when someone asks a question that sometimes has very little to do with the matter at hand. If you do not really know the answer, it is foolhardy to try to respond as you can easily come a cropper. It is wiser to postpone. But when you do get back to them, you often find their reception of the nugget you have scrupulously mined bordering on indifference. The moment spurs relevance, which suggests grammar and vocabulary can be more effectively taught as and when they arise, instead of being wheeled in like a cold buffet.  
The above may sound like a recipe for chaos. However, if there is such a spontaneous journey and it seems worth making, there is a way to impose form and direction. As a teacher accrues experience they can develop a repertoire of routines, in the sense that comedians give to the term. 
The simplest example of this is discussing people’s daily habits when teaching the Present Simple. Explanations of grammar and vocabulary give rise to narratives that develop over time and can be exploited with different classes. Discussing travel and holidays can teeter on the vague but focusing on worst journeys can yield dividends both in terms of arousing student interest and practising question and answer forms using the Past Continuous. 
Starting with your own worst journey brings this particularly alive (in my case a return ticket bought in Spain for a plane that did not exist). And, indeed, the more these routines are based on your own experience the better. More elaborate routines can be derived from unusual facts, historical, etymological, literary, geographical or cultural knowledge. English is littered with synonyms that do not neatly dovetail.  If “stocks and shares” come up you can spend a merry twenty minutes or so listening to the ingenious explanations of the difference your class suggests before deflating them with the fact that one is American English, the other British. Having an armoury of such routines at their disposal, the teacher can deploy them to give shape to whatever comes up.
Knowing what you are going to teach and providing a filter is, of course, part the job. You only have to experience the confusion that rapidly sets in if you have pitched your material too high, or the disenchantment if it is too low. Nevertheless, much that is teacher directed is a simulation of the real world, not the territory itself. By the end of a lesson, you may have provided a nuanced guide to the difference between “going to” and “will” but outside is Babel. The points students raise, their questions, and the diversions that these can provoke, may open a yawning crack in the lesson plan but can often lead to what they really need. That’s how the light gets in.
(This article appeared in the November 2018 edition of English Teaching Professional)
Writings on Grammar


The fact that the two verbs “make” and “do” are expressed by one word in many other languages presents a challenge to learners of English. The French just use faire; the Spanish, hacer. So, what is the difference? Is it more than a question of the word partnerships we call collocation, so you cannot speak of “strong rain”, as you can in other languages, but must say “heavy rain”? If so, is it a difference that can be applied to other areas of English?

Make versus Do

There is more than one way of looking at “make” versus “do”.  “You do some housework” but “make the bed”; you “do some phoning” but “make two calls”. In each example “do” is talking about something in the general sense, while with “make” you are being specific. Another way to look at the difference is seeing “doing the cooking” as describing an activity while “making a cake” as focusing on creation or result. This is sometimes described as process versus product, a difference which may provide a useful key to thinking not just about “make” versus “do” but also to other areas of the language.
Process versus Product: Tenses
One example of this is tenses. When we use the continuous tenses, we are speaking about process: “I am working”.  When we use simple tenses, we describe product or result: “I work every day”. Contrast, “he is playing football” with “he plays for a team”. Consider, “I have been reading George Orwell” with “I have read 1984”.  In each example, process versus product applies.

Process versus Product: Gerunds and Infinitives

Another example of process versus product as a helper is when we have to decide whether to use the gerund (“going”) after a verb or the infinitive (“to go”). The rules about this are quite complex and present another challenge to learners. Some verbs can be followed by both, such as “start” or “begin”. Some can only be followed by the gerund, such as avoid (=avoid doing); some by the infinitive, such as manage (=Are you managing to understand this?). Some by either the gerund or infinitive but with a change of meaning (=Meaning to lose weight means eating less).
            On the surface, the gerund looks to be the same as the participle used in continuous forms. What possible difference can there be between “reading” and “reading”? But when I say, “I love reading”, “reading” is a verb used as a noun which we call the gerund. When I say, “I am reading”, “reading” is part of a verb used in the continuous form i.e. the participle. Yet, perhaps in terms of function, the gerund and participle are more alike than different in that they both focus on process.
            When a trainer at the London School recommends to a client that he should try watching English or American films with the subtitles in English, he is talking process. The product or result will be improved listening which is what the client is trying to do. We experiment with things, we try doing them, often to achieve a desired result, the thing we are trying to do: process and product. In a little while, I am going to stop writing this. In other words, I will end the process. I will stop to watch TV. TV will be the result or product of my stopping this activity. 

The Richness of English  

The romance languages, such as Italian and Spanish, are largely derived from Latin while English has more than one source, which results in non-phonetic spelling, complicated grammar and the biggest vocabulary of any language in the world. There is no academy as there is in France or Germany so often it is easier for a trainer to tell a client what they cannot do rather than what they can. 
Once a professor at a German university wanted me to explain all the rules for the punctuation mark called the comma (=,). I explained that if you put a comma after “Dear Sir,” when starting a letter, you also have to put one after “Yours faithfully,” when ending it. But you can leave the comma out as long as you do so in both places. He looked at me in horror, probably thinking I was not a real teacher at all. In Germany, the academy had made new rules for the comma, so any writer in that language knew exactly how to use them.  
I had to explain that an academy is something speakers of English have to do without. Having a key, such as the contrast between process or product, that can be applied to different areas of the language can be helpful or, at least, help us make do when learning English. 
Versus (preposition): as opposed to; in contrast to.
Specific (adjective): clearly identified or defined.
Whether (conjunction): if, or not.
i.e. (abbreviation): that is to say (from the Latin id est).
Do without (phrasal verb): succeed in doing something without a benefit that others have or use.
Make do (phrase of make): manage with the limited means available.