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A CELTA trainer recounted this story to me in amusement.

During a CELTA teacher training course, he had observed a trainee teacher in a practice lesson attempting to explain the word ‘steal’ to a group of low intermediate students.

Like the perfect trainee, she dealt with the meaning of the word ‘steal’ first, clarifying with examples, then asking concept questions and eliciting to ensure the students understood its meaning.

She then went on to deal with the form of the word, highlighting that the past simple of ‘steal’ is ‘stole’ and the past participle is ‘stolen’.

At this point, a student said, “Oh! ‘Steal’ is like ‘break’!”

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The trainee teacher looked confused, not unlike someone who’s just uttered “How are you today?” only to be greeted with the response “Russia is the biggest country in the world!

But she quickly recovered and said, “No, ‘steal’ is not like ‘break’. ‘Break’ is when something is smashed into pieces,” miming a person breaking something with force.

Continuing to mime as she spoke, she said, “’Steal’ on the other hand is when someone takes something…like if I take your pen and you don’t know, and I put it in my bag and walk away…

She had perhaps expected a glimmer of understanding as a result of her elaborate attempt to deal with the student’s query, but instead, what she got now was a sea of blank faces.

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Obviously, some of you readers out there would perhaps already know that the student who exclaimed that ‘steal’ was like ‘break’ was not referring to the meaning of the two words at all, but to the form. As the teacher was explaining that the past simple and past participle of ‘steal’ were ‘stole’ and ‘stolen’, it probably occurred to the student that ‘steal, stole, stolen’ sounded rather like ‘break, broke, broken’.


But how did it become obvious to you that that was what the student meant? Did you learn it in a book? In a teacher training course? Or through years of teaching English as a foreign language?

This teacher trainer who I was talking to believed that there were simply some things that a short training course could not possibly prepare you for and that nothing could substitute a good few years of teaching experience.

It was this line of logic that led him to be convinced that we should not expect too much of trainees new to teaching, that we should stick to the basics of the teacher training and help trainees best use the coursebooks and resources at their disposal. Spending time on helping trainees deal with emergent language and language correction or feedback was bound to be a waste of time in his opinion. These were things better left to experienced teachers.

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Before we make any rash decisions, let’s backtrack and go back to the moment when the trainee teacher misunderstood the student.

When the student exclaimed “Oh! ‘Steal’ is like ‘break’!”, there was a moment when the trainee teacher struggled to understand why the student would make such a connection. In her mind, she searched for the relevance of that exclamation to what she was saying.

According to Sperber and Wilson (2004) of the Relevance Theory, the search for relevance is basic to human cognitive systems, and when an utterance is made, interlocutors combine the input with the background information available to them, while using the least processing effort required, in order to derive meaning.

However, this background information available depends on one’s experience and forms part of one’s schema or mental framework of that situation. As the trainee teacher often saw issues with words in terms of problems with meaning rather than form, she wasn’t ready to notice that the student was actually talking about form.

Also in the schema that this teacher had of the situation was the assumption that teachers are there to provide answers and solve problems. The student’s comment seemed bizarre to the teacher and therefore posed a problem. In her attempt to solve the problem, she made certain assumptions to arrive at the conclusion that the student must be mistaken about the meanings of ‘steal’ and ‘break’.

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Yet the entire confusion could have been avoided simply with the question: “Why do you think ‘steal’ is like ‘break’?

Did the trainee teachers perhaps feel it was her job to know all the answers? Was she embarrassed to ask?

The teacher trainer was not wrong in saying that there are some things that come with experience, and it would be difficult to try and cover all these things on a teacher training course.

However, the ability to ask questions and know which questions to ask and when to ask them is perhaps one of the most important skills that gets the least coverage on most teacher training courses. Asking questions is often seen to be within the realm of what coaches do rather than teachers. But there is so much to be said for the use of questions by the teacher not just to elicit the correct answer, but to help guide students towards doing what they want to do better.

If we can help change the mental framework of trainee teachers and encourage them to see the teacher as not just one that provides answers, but one that asks questions and facilitates learning, perhaps dealing with emergent language in communication and giving language feedback might not be only something for the experienced teachers.

To boldly paraphrase the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss who was really talking about scientists,
The teacher is not a person who gives the right answers, he’s the one who asks the right questions.

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Sperber, D. and D. Wilson (2004) ‘Relevance Theory’, in Horn, L. and G. Ward (eds.) Handbook of Pragmatics. Oxford: Blackwell.

About English Teaching professional’s regular blogger:

Chia Suan Chong is a General English and Business English teacher and teacher trainer, with a degree in Communication Studies (Broadcast and Electronic Media) and an MA in Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching from King’s College London.

A self-confessed conference addict, she spends a lot of her time tweeting (@chiasuan/@ETprofessional), Skyping, and writing. You can find out more about her on her blogsite: