The Python School of Language

One of the cornerstones of EFL teaching is eliciting. Essentially, it’s all to do with trying to draw out the knowledge that students already have. This is for a couple of reasons. Firstly, there’s no point teaching something that they already know. (Believe me: I’ve done that a few times, and it’s immensely frustrating.) Secondly, the reasoning is that, if they have to struggle to discover the word, they should (in theory, although it doesn’t *always* hold true …) retain the knowledge.

Students aren’t always keen on eliciting, and I’ve had to break some of the classes into it gently. This is especially true of children who have previously only been taught English by an Italian teacher, whose language skills may not be much better than the students they’re trying to teach. They’re very keen on merely diving straight into the dictionary, rather than giving me a chance to explain in English. This is bad for two reasons. One: it means that they put very little thought or effort into learning the word, and it’s likely to go in one ear and out of the other. Then two: as I’ve discussed in posts passim, Italian/English dictionaries are often not of the highest quality. Three: (ah, okay, there are *three* reasons) – THREE*: they’re not very good at using the dictionary. This results in frustrating discussions such as the one I had with an adult class the other day, in which one woman insisted that ‘wages’ (in the context of money) was a verb. “Um, no,” said I, in patient tones. ” ‘To wage’ is a verb, but ‘wages’ is a noun.” She wasn’t having any of it, though. “But it SAYS in my DICTIONARY that it’s a verb!” This is the moment when doubt in your own language sets in, and my smile began to falter slightly. However, I stuck to my guns, while racking my brains for what on earth her rubbishy dictionary had come up with. “Er – I doubt it …” Not in the least trusting the dictionary to be correct, I looked at the page that she was waving imperiously in my face. Vindicated, I smiled at her, meeting her snooty gaze head on. “Read the example. You can wage war,” (and by GOD I’d like to do that right now) “but ‘wages’, in the context of money,” (which is, after all, what we’re talking about, you dappy moo) “is quite definitely a NOUN. Right. Moving on …”

Eliciting can be done one of two ways: either you give them the word and try to draw out a definition, or you give them a definition and see if they know the word. I usually favour the second method, and can often be seen, at the beginning of a class, acting out little playlets for my students. For instance: ‘ooh, the other day I was walking down the street and I saw ROBERT PATTINSON!’ (Wait for shrieks of joy from the girls in the class) ‘However, I was really stupid: I didn’t stop to talk to him or get his autograph. What’s the name for that feeling?’ Sometimes, you get an answer pretty much straight away. That one worked well, and I got the answer I was looking for, which was ‘regret’. However, on other occasions, you are met with blank looks and insouciant shrugs, in which case it’s time to give them the word and move on. Then there’s the middle ground, where they shout out numerous synonyms for the word you’re actually trying to draw out of them. This can take a while, but is a great test of their vocabulary.  ‘No, not that one, *another* word. Go on!’ The other evening I spent 20 minutes eliciting four words from my teenage class. That’s WAY too much time, but they were being pretty slow about it all. Exhausted, I tried to move on to the actual exercise in hand. However, they had other ideas. “More! Vai, Kate, vai!” No, I think not. It’s time for you beggars to do some work now, rather than just watching me prance around like a performing seal, thank you very much.

On Friday night, Alex and I watched The Holy Grail for about the fifty-billionth time. I’ve always found it hilarious, but the witch scene suddenly took on extra significance, and we spent the entire scene absolutely wetting ourselves. This is *exactly* what it’s like trying to elicit vocabulary from some classes.

BEDEVERE: Tell me, what do you do with witches?
VILLAGER #2: Burn!
CROWD: Burn, burn them up!
BEDEVERE: And what do you burn apart from witches?
VILLAGER #1: More witches!
VILLAGER #2: Wood!
BEDEVERE: So, why do witches burn?
[pause]
VILLAGER #3: Be … cause they’re made of wood …?
BEDEVERE: Good!

Bedevere, you are an EFL teacher’s hero.

(click on the images to go to the videos on YouTube)

Bedevere and the Witch: Monty Python's Holy Grail

* Yes, I may have spent too much time watching Python over the weekend.  This is another brilliant clip, and they can’t count either.

monty python spanish inquisition

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About Kate Bailward

Kate Bailward is a cat-loving, trifle-hating, maniac driver. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+
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6 Responses to The Python School of Language

  1. Pete says:

    She made you doubt your language skills? And yet she lives on? Maybe you should use that as an example to make them think of ‘patience’ and ‘mercy’. ;)

    And I was, funnily enough, thinking of a python sketch today and chuckling away. It was the Thomas Hardy one, I love it!
    .-= Pete´s last blog ..Pushkin: With him, we dream. =-.

  2. Katja says:

    Haha! Poor Pete – you’ve definitely caught the rough side of my grammar geekiness at times. Still, you’ve got the lessons for free, whereas they’ve had to pay handsomely for them, so that’s an upside, right? ;)

    I can’t think which Python sketch you mean at the moment – off to YouChoob I go …

  3. hoverfrog says:

    And what else floats apart form wood?

    One must ask Miss how you came to be so wise in the ways of the world?

  4. Katja says:

    Bread.
    Apples.
    Very small rocks.
    Cider.
    Gravy.
    Cherries.
    Mud.
    Churches.
    Lead!

    How did I come to be so wise? I am Katja, Queen of the Britons, and I dub you Sir Hoverfrog. I like your piratey pirate hat.

  5. – A duck!
    – That’s right!
    – So that means if she weighs the same as a duck, she’s made of wood!

    I LOVE that movie and could watch it a million times. My favorite parts are that scene, and the French mockery scene.

  6. Katja says:

    PassagetoItaly: the Python team are just geniuses. I could happily watch their films forever, without getting bored. When I went to Nepal, aged 17, two friends of mine used to sing Python songs non-stop as we climbed difficult hills. It made the whole trekking experience bizarre, but very memorable! Eric the Half a Bee will forever bring back memories of Himalayan foothills for me …

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