Friday, February 28, 2014

The Book is not Read by Mary

“The book is read by Mary” was an example sentence in a lesson on the passive voice that I observed last week. Although we are used to seeing similar examples in coursebooks, this one struck me as so unnatural that I searched for it on Google to see if any writer on the Internet had ever used it. The search produced only eight results, mainly from ESL worksheets. By way of comparison, the sentence "The light bulb was invented by Thomas Edison" produces fifty-seven thousand results. So why do coursebooks continue to use such improbable examples?

 The essential problem is that these examples are based on attempts to introduce passive structures using simple lexis to describe common processes that are familiar to young children. But the passive is not normally used in this type of discourse, and in fact is rarely used at all by children with English as their first language. According to Horgan (1978), it is not until the age of thirteen that English children correctly produce complete passive sentences including the agent using “by”.

In contrast, ways in which the passive voice is typically used by competent writers are illustrated by  the following extracts from What is Madness? by Darian Leader.

“Delusions are almost always preceded by a period in which the person feels that there is some kind of meaning in the world, although it remains imprecise and elusive.” (71)

“Delusions tend to fall into two groups: the transitory attempts to find meaning, which don’t endure for too long, and the more methodical systems, built up over time, which are often more solid.” (72)

Alternating between passive and active voice enables the writer to begin both sentences with the word “Delusions”, giving prominence to the most important word by making it the theme of each sentence.  The ability to choose between active and passive also contributes to the thematic progression between sentences, enhancing the cohesiveness of the writing. The reasons for the selection of active and passive respectively are complex, and interwoven with the context in which the sentence occurs.

In the first example, the agent “period” is post-modified by a long relative clause in a way which would not be possible if “period” were at the beginning as the subject of an active sentence. Active voice is used for  the second verb (“the person feels” rather than “it is felt”) because the desired focus is on the person experiencing the feeling. The other two verbs in this sentence, “there is” and “it remains” are intransitive, so there is no question of making them passive.

In the second sentence, although the main verb is active (“Delusions tend”), passive is used in the reduced relative clause “[which are] built up over time”. Again the combination of active and passive contributes to the clarity and concision of expression.

The passive voice characteristically occurs in certain types of writing, so our lessons should draw on these as a source of authentic examples. For example, a quiz game could be devised in which students would match the three sections of split sentences like:

The light bulb was invented
by Thomas Edison
in 1879.

The telephone was invented
by Alexander Graham Bell
in 1875.

Transformation activities should be avoided, as these are generally not possible when the active and passive voices are each used appropriately in a natural context, as the extracts from What is Madness? show.

Use of the passive in spoken English is very limited, and almost non-existent in the L1 speech of children, so there is no reason to try to teach it to children learning English as a second language. On the other hand, there are a few phrases of high utility which contain the passive voice. Adult learners in particular are likely to want to say things like “I was born in the UK but I got married after I moved to Greece”. Such phrases can be introduced as chunks in communicative activities and taught without analysis at an early stage of learning.


Horgan, D. (1978). The development of the full passive. Journal of Child Language, 5, 65- 80.

Peter Beech -

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Speaking and Listening - The Cinderella Skills

“Every normal person in the world, past infancy in years, can and does talk.”
- Whorf 

In his 1940 publication Science and Linguistics, Benajmin Lee Whorf (joint author of the infamous Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis) points out that speaking is a skill that we all naturally acquire. We’re not concerned here with the conclusions that he goes on to draw from that remark, but it’s worth reflecting on the significance of the fact that speech is a skill that we all acquire in the course of natural development, just as we acquire teeth or the ability to walk.

In our methodology textbooks, all four of the language skills - reading, writing, listening and speaking - are given roughly equal weight. But in the coursebooks we use in the classroom, there generally seems to be a lot more reading and writing, and a lot less speaking and listening. A coursebook designed for around 120 classroom hours over the course of a year may well only have a couple of hours’ worth of listening material on the accompanying CD, while speaking activities are generally regarded as an optional extra at the end of the lesson and are often omitted, particularly in schools with large classes. Of course, the relative emphasis given to each of the four skills varies depending on the style of the book and the level for which it’s intended.

More significant differences are often noticeable in the respective weight given to the language skills on the one hand and the language systems – pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar – on the other hand. Exam preparation tasks often dictate a balance that is heavily weighted towards learning about grammar, ignoring the fact that this explicit knowledge about the language does little or nothing for our learners’ ability to actually use the language in communication. Perhaps also because of exam requirements, there is often a strong emphasis also on writing, including many types of texts which our learners will probably never need to write outside the classroom.

This approach to the teaching of language skills overlooks the radical difference between the way the skills are naturally developed and used in real life. Throughout history, speaking has always been the primary means of human communication. It’s only in relatively recent years that most societies have become literate, with the majority of people knowing how to read and write. And however desirable this is, we should recognize that most people most days read very little and write even less, while their day is filled with conversation and other oral interaction.

 Reading and writing, even in our first language, are skills that need to be taught and learnt through study, while listening and speaking are things that we naturally do. This radical difference should be reflected in the approaches that we take to teaching each of the four skills, in order to equip our learners with the ability to be able to succeed in the situations where they will actually use the language.

Peter Beech -

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Employing a Native Speaker Teacher of English

In the current economic situation, it is more important than ever for your school to be distinguished by the quality of the services that you provide. One simple way to stand out from the crowd is to employ a native speaker teacher of English.

A native speaker is a constant source of authentic language, and when all the classroom interaction takes place through the medium of English, the students absorb a lot more language. They are using English to talk to an English person, and so they are motivated by the constant opportunities for genuine communication. As they struggle to find the right words to express themselves, they are engaged in an effort to get their meaning across. This effort is the key to developing their communicative competence. Every lesson is a rich source of opportunities for the development of language skills. And the parents are enthusiastic because they know that with a native English speaker their children are really using the language to communicate.

As long as your employee is from the UK or Ireland, members of the European Union, the procedures are no more complicated than if you hire a Greek national. We will provide you with clear and detailed information about all the necessary procedures for your dealings with the Ministry of Education, the Directorate of Employment and IKA. And the hourly rate of pay determined by the Ministry of Labour is exactly the same whether you employ a native speaker of English or a Greek teacher.

All of our teachers have a university degree and a TEFL qualification. Many of them have undertaken their TEFL training with us, and so they have a good knowledge of the materials and methods that we use in Greek schools of English, and they have already had observed teaching practice with Greek children. In addition to those who come to us for their training, we also receive applications from hundreds of teachers each year who are already qualified and who want to come to teach English in Greece.

So finding a native speaker teacher to suit your requirements is now just as easy as finding a Greek teacher. In the current difficult economic circumstances, students and parents are increasingly looking for a guarantee of quality. The question is no longer whether you can afford to employ a native speaker of English, but whether you can afford not to. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Free accommodation offer

We are offering free accommodation for the March 17 - April 11 TEFL course in Corinth. The offer is for free accommodation in a double room when two people enroll for the course together. The offer must be claimed at the time of enrolling and cannot be combined with any other offer. Accommodation is provided from Saturday March 15 to Saturday April 12.