Productive skills in ESL – accuracy, fluency & creativity. Do we need a rethink to help learners flourish by Steve Nugent - Profesor de inglés

Productive skills in ESL – accuracy, fluency & creativity. Do we need a rethink to help learners flourish

“Ever tried, ever failed, no matter, try again, fail again, fail better” – who wrote that & what does it mean? That was the task set in my video clip. A variation on that could be who wrote that a/. David Bowie? b/. Bono? c/. Samuel Beckett? & what connects all three? The answer to that second part can be found in this video (25 mins in).


The exercise encapsulates a little of what I am about as a teacher & more importantly what I’d like to be more like a learner. I picked up on the quote from the excellent Independent Thinking series of pocket-sized books  – I specifically got a lot out of the editions by David Didau & Phil Beadle Both operate educational consultancy pages & Didau’s blog The Learning Spy occasionally gets ‘ blog bombed’ by his sparring partner, more often than not causing irreverent mischief, warning that Beadle’s About referencing his  namesake who showcased practical jokes on an unsuspecting public on a popular TV show.   I worked in a neighbouring east London school to Phil Beadle & shared a flat with one of his teaching colleagues & so became well aware of his growing legend.  Garnered with numerous teaching awards & more importantly loved & respected by his students despite of, or because of, his questioning of orthodoxy in the educational ‘establishment’.  Smart enough also to acknowledge in his book on creativity – Dancing About Architecture that a good deal of the best teaching practice in challenging environments emanates from the Drama department where exceptional teachers often gravitate towards, & allow their students to be empowered to better participate in,  & help shape performances,  to get their creative juices flowing in all aspects of the show.   

What  are we most of us passionate about – relationships, cultural connections, learning? & how do we become fluent, articulate & engaging in any language?  At Oxinity & beyond how do we deliver a class where the students might be ‘into’ music, literature, cinema, sport, politics, philosophy, psychology, linguistics, science….many of them highly gifted & talented  & some of them high achievers or at least that is the direction of travel that they want to go in…   

Swiss tennis champion Stan Wawrinka, alongside a plethora of Silicon Valley tech innovators, has taken the Beckett quote to heart or rather had it etched into his skin – a tattoo on his forearm! When asked about it he said:

“It’s my vision of my job and my life in general. In tennis, as you know, if you are not Roger or Rafa and Djokovic or Andy now, you don’t win so many tournaments and you always lose. But you need to take the positive of the loss and you need to go back to work. It’s that simple.”



But also consider an alternative methodology. Do you prefer this approach? Who do you think that it has been attributed to? 

1. The game is won by the team who commits fewer errors.

2. Football favours whoever provokes more errors in the opposition.

3. Away from home, instead of trying to be superior to the opposition, it’s better to encourage their mistakes.

4. Whoever has the ball is more likely to make a mistake.

5. Whoever renounces possession reduces the possibility of making a mistake.

6. Whoever has the ball has fear.

7. Whoever does not have it is thereby stronger.

Answer: According to Diego Torres – this is the gospel of a famous & successful football manager. Sports fans & players would probably prefer to see tactics that are more attacking, expansive & ambitious, less negative, reactive & cynical. A game-plan to win yes, but also to get maximum enjoyment out of the spectacle or the taking part.

Relating these methodologies to language learning  which would you prefer to follow? Taking risks or is ‘all this talking is only bravado’? Should we avoid overcomplicating things?  Fluency & verbal dexterity as tika-taka – meaning, form, accuracy & objectives lost in the chit-chat or the ascetics…

Imagine then a speaking part of an English exam (FCE, CAE, CPE etc) & you have been instructed to expand on your likes & dislikes, hobbies & interests. It’s an invitation to show off your grasp of synonyms including collocations where you have to avoid being tripped up by those pesky prepositions – I enjoy, I have a passion for, I’m passionate about, I’m crazy/mad about, I’m interested in, I've got a soft spot for, I get a kick out of,  I (really) love, I adore, I have a thing about, a moment of bliss for me is….& I’m into..  Trying to paint as detailed a picture as you can in the time allowed.  From what follows you can easily guess what floats my boat as a fellow lifelong learner.

Assessing Productive & Receptive Skills – Have you got the  ‘Gift of the Gab

Let us divert our attention to some colossal bibliophiles - possessing vociferous receptive skills, enhanced & prolific productive skills including a gift for the gab?  Driven by communication, enquiry, language,  context, , nuance, allusions, outsiderdom or communion? “One but not the same”? “Same old thing in brand new drag”? “I can’t go on, I’ll go on”…

Director Nicolas Roeg on the film set of The Man Who Fell to Earth in 1976 on seeing Bowie’s traveling library that consisted of hundreds of books packed into touring flight cases remarked: “Your great problem David, is that you don’t read enough”.

Bono’s contemporary Michael Stipe of REM once reflected on how when he finally got to meet David Bowie he couldn’t get a word in edgeways as Bowie launched into a succession of divergent monologues relating to an end of millennium psychosis which manifested itself, Bowie said, with young people’s penchant for expressive body art & mutilation – piercings, tattoos, & mad haircuts…

I remember reading an interview with Bono quoting actor-playwright-author-screenwriter-director Sam Shepherd: “right in the centre of a contradiction is the place to be”.  Around the same time Michael Stipe offered up the following in REM’s most famous song: “I think I’ve said too much, I haven’t said enough…”  Can we, somehow, display learning & skills in fewer, more carefully chosen words?

Bono in possession of that fabled Celtic trait of wide-eyed, engaging, storytelling recognised the same in (half Irish)  Bruce Springsteen’s induction speech for U2 into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame. Springsteen joked about the U2 singer’s linguistic & arithmetic skills - “uno, dos tres, catorce?”

Fellow Dubliner Samuel Beckett had been in the orbit of James Joyce in Paris apparently had an epiphany on the futility of trying to keep up with such a wordsmith. Ostensibly a playwright he then retreated into a style based on brevity & minimalism – less is more, more or less… He commented on the unreliability of language – even with his immense craft.  

The Pain in Spain – problematic ‘Spanglish’ constructions

Spanish in translation from English always seems to be a bit long-winded, less concise. I’ve been teaching for around 8 years in Spain -  ‘Spanglish’ is to be expected, even encouraged sometimes  but what to do with those elongated Castilian sentences?  Teachers might wonder if productive skillsSpeaking & Writing  for non-native speakers of the English language should at first be pared back, as not to confuse meaning? New expressive & expansive forms can then increase in time with student confidence.  Latter day Beckett, a master in French & English preferred a rhythmic & staccato flow. Speculation has it that he had established a kind of ‘cordon sanitaire’ around Spain & so never got around to visiting, despite, or because of, having close Spanish friends in Paris exiled from Franco.     

Advice attributed to native Spanish speaker Jorge Luis Borges went further: “No hables a menos que puedas mejorar el silencio”- “Don’t talk unless you can improve the silence” – I swear I saw that on a billboard during on a road-trip around the States in ’91. Silence will, of course, not impress your teachers & fellow students however enigmatic, so this has to be advice on working towards making our words count, to be more engaging, to hit the (sweet) spot.

Someone else I look up to  – the late great Mark Hollis would concur in musical terms. No noodling. The journey travelled by his band Talk Talk 1982 – 1991 from new romantic also-rans to an avant-garde ensemble with a penchant for Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain, showed a shrewd confidence in knowing what to leave out – fewer notes became no notes & then silence.  By their final songs they achieved unsurpassed pastoral beauty with economy. Two quotes: 

“It’s quite often the mistakes that are the best things, & that’s why so much of the LP (Laughing Stock) would be hard to create.  The best mistake was a bit where Friese Greene (Producer-collaborator) walked into the studio & tripped over a guitar. It sounded like a class piece of playing.  Dissonance is important – where your ear bends…(Record Mirror, 1991)

“Before you play two notes, learn how to play one note, y’know. And that, it’s as simple as that really. And don’t play one note unless you’ve got a reason to play it” (Danish TV, 1998)

How do we interpret the nuance? If we conflate musical & cultural dissonance - ‘an uncomfortable sense experienced by people in the midst of change in their cultural environment’ – this might describe the state of mind of ESL students as they enter an exam room. Mark Hollis seems to be counselling us on mastering the fundamentals of communication - including silence, before striving for truth & beauty even if uncomfortable on the ear at first. The confluences might arrive through application or by accident. 


Examiners – language custodians or ‘burly’ Bouncers fending off creativity?

Advice from ESL examiners for speaking exams at lower levels might suggest that students keep it simple & functional so to avoid mistakes. As they advance they might be encouraged  to spread their wingsshowing off of lexical range & complexity with grammatical forms; but are still warned against use of obscure idioms (learn to play one note first..)


But here lies another dilemma – a benchmarking &  testing culture has left creativity in curriculums under fire – an agenda  often seen as driven by the ‘big bucks’ of hard-edged competition & capitalism. However teachers on language immersion courses will testify that students, given the opportunity, greatly enjoy & achieve at end of course group performances even when asked to step outside their comfort zones.  

What of alternative visions championed by a couple of British national treasures. The evergreen TED-talk guru Ken Robinson is clear - ‘creativity in learning is as important as literacy’:

“ will take a chance, if they don’t know they will have a go, am I right? They’re not frightened of being wrong. Now I don’t mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative, But, what we do know is that if you are not prepared to be wrong you will never come up with anything original. If you’re not prepared to be wrong; & by the time they get to become adults most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong & we run our companies by this. We stigmatize mistakes & we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst things you can make, & the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities. Picasso once said this, he said that all children are born artists – the problem is to remain an artist as we grow up…”

Whilst the mellifluous polymath Stephen Fry also advises against pedantry & caution in language production. He shows us that language is always evolving & that new vocabulary is embraced more enthusiastically in English than say in the conservative Spanish & French National Academies. On the Johnathan Ross Show he draws upon analogous & idiomatic gems such as ‘higgledy- piggledy’ & ‘mongrel-mouthful’ to compare & contrast the shared histories of both the English & French language & the urban morphology of the capital cities – London & Paris.  Sticking to the rules here just isn’t as much fun. Relax & chill has become ‘chillax’ in the minds of a new generation. Stuffy old pedants & conservatives of old, as always, can take a run & jump – ‘I’d rather jack than Fleetwood Mac’.       


Linguistics & further complications - Maxims of Quantity, Relation & Manner  

Some fnal nuance from such a buttoned-up tradition -  students of advanced linguistics. Did you know that against type, they seem to have spent inordinate amounts of time studying a famous French detective? Focus on the clip featuring Inspector Clouseau – played by genius British actor Peter Sellers & an exaggerated comic French accent. He arrives in Switzerland posing in not-so-deep disguise as a Guy Gadbois – a visiting professor & Medieval Castle authority from Marseilles.  He attempts to converse in English: “Do you have a ‘reum’?” but his pronunciation is problematic for the aged hotel owner-receptionist – played by his good pal Graham Stark. Clouseau looks up ‘room’ in his German-French/German-English dictionary & pronounces ‘Zimmer’.  He then gets distracted by a dog lying in the hallway & perhaps not recognising the English idiom let sleeping dogs lie, asks “does your ‘durg’ bite?” From the unexpected consequences we get a lengthy discourse referencing Philosopher Paul Grice (1975) & the Co-operative Principle with its Maxims of Quantity: Information & Truth, a Maxim of Relation: Relevance & a Maxim of Manner: Clarity.

Gifted & talented & high-flyers take note...or pick a card!

Should we be overly concerned about exam English?, or look instead at the role models who like Icarus, or even Dumbo are ambitious high-flyers who run the risk of a spectacular fall?  To  paraphrase Brian Peter George St John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno – another polymath, non musician & fellow traveller & collaborator to some of the above: ‘a couple of mistakes, pretty soon can be reinterpreted as a new arrangement’. One of his first inputs on Bowie’s work was ‘not to normalise’ what became the stand-out track Sound & Vision - stick with the wordless introduction until half way through the song.  Eno’s infamous ‘Oblique Strategies’ – packs of cards developed with painter Peter Schmidt to help (& confound) musicians & other creatives, so that they could more easily think outside the box, have included a card that states:  “honour thy error as a hidden intention”.


What lessons then can we take from the Performing Arts world for the ESL world?

Here endeth the ‘lesschon’? - a term thought to be popularised since 1611 by successions of preachers wrapping up their interpretations of readings from the mighty King James Bible.  Appropriated around 1987 for Sean Connery for ‘The Intouchables’, a film set in the depression era Chicago & most notable for his supporting role return to the big league of cinema .  Connery, introduced here as a tough, streetwise Irish cop on the beat,  gets it right as always, by getting it wrong - never losing his singular 'Scottish brogue' & with a slight suspicion of collusion with scriptwriters so that they  include as many  schwa sounds in his dialogue as they can. The world’s most  appealing or sexiest accent? - a  subject worthy of a 50 page dissertation from Stockholm University.  What might those working on the film take as the principal lesson from say the bestselling book by Jordan Peterson’s  12 Rules of life in relation to ESL work?  Certainly Number 9   - ‘Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't’? But given Connery’s undoubted charisma & pulling power they  would have to acknowledge that  no 10 - ‘Be precise in your speech’ is too prescriptive for anyone without received pronunciation or BBC English Try this on for size - & see if your schwa sounds are up to scratch & follow the dialogue as 'Malone' here.

“You just fulfilled the first rule of law enforcement: make sure when your shift is over you go home alive. Here endeth the lesson"

Imagine then that proverbial dinner party, or in this new reality, a  dialled in Zoom conference including personas (some non-gratas) who are, or were, at the top of their game (alive or passed away). They would be graded in order of importance by ‘Beat’ Poet Gregory Corso as the (merely) talented, then geniuses & then those so exceptional that they have reached ’the ball game divine’. These experts, sages,  gurus & tsars - all but ignored in the age of Populism could, of course, be educationalists, theorists, linguists, literary lions, elite sports people, philosophers, record producers, musicians (& non-musicians), world renowned French detectives, Medieval Castle enthusiasts, comic sidekicks, wise Irish cops with Scottish accents, or indeed polymaths & their aggressive dogs. Whatever the topic of conversation many, or most, might still get it ‘wrong’ because of the complexities of perception & interpretation.


Should we not then encourage our ESL learners to aspire to be poets? – the top appellation according to Corso, or performers? as in all cultures non-verbal communication is paramount & before Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences we had long known that students at any age learn effectively through kinesthetic activities or movement.  Poets & many revered actors & singers might say that it is quite simple – truth, it is said, is not the same as accuracy & we are advised to aspire towards the former.  We will have some role-models, champions or influencers along the way to help us with our guided discoveries. These champions need not only be ESL teachers & board examiners.  If we think outside the box – why not integrate performance in its truer sense & tap into the inspirational motivational energies of learning mentors, literacy, life & performing arts coaches? These game-changers are prevalent in L1 literacy programmes like Get Lit in Los Angeles & Project Voice in New York. Young people tasked as natural subversives  enabled by Growth Mindsets as defined by Professor Carol Dweck, & in mind of Gandhito be the change you want to see in the world’.  Young people embodied here by Zariya Allen, Rhainnon McGavin & Belissa Escobedo (age 15-16) on the Queen Latifah Show:



“When we were writing, we tried to find things that we were all care about, that all 3 of us were passionate about like the educational system & how corrupt it is, a lot of people don’t know, don’t know how many books are banned & what we are not allowed to say, what we don’t learn & what we do learn & probably don’t really wanna learn, it’s just something that I feel needed to be said & who better to say it than us.”

“As teenage girls, if we have a creative & emotional outlet because, like if there is a problem that is bothering you & you’re able to put it on paper in a poetic way & then memorize it & perform it in front of a bunch of strangers, then that problem won’t bother you any more & as teenagers.. most people don’t want to listen…its where we are reclaiming our space in the world”

Standard ESL level productive skills assessments via monologues, dialogues & functional writing exercises are not able to accommodate the flow of creative juices inside their rubrics & marking schemes.  As well as Relational Learning, why not then integrate more effectively core Content & Language Integrated  Learning (CLIL) methodologies such as Active Learning where students are encouraged to drive learning content, as in the emerging curriculum area of Global Perspectives, where collaborative research & both spoken & written delivery is assessed. ESL students could develop their own spoken word narratives from triggers like ‘What’s your Beef?’ in formats resembling a poetry slam or LAMDA exams. Increased skills & learning outcomes are easily evidenced here as inherent in the collaborative process, the value added, the orthodoxy goes  includes greatly enhanced self esteem for participants. ESL Brains, for example, has produced flipped classroom material on the right track based on an inspirational TED talk by Sarah Kay where she also tackles tricky conditionals with  If I should have a daughter  


Why not then join our emerging learning community at Oxinity? This includes a fair few inspirational teachers moonlight as champions of the performing arts (or vice-versa) - so that we can learn from each other; or as Aristotle would have it human flourishing or ‘eudaimonia’: (shared) ‘actions that we perform which we desire for itself’ bringing happiness & wellbeing (in English) in any work, study or in social situation.  

You could also become well practiced in the dark & immersive arts of phrasal verbs, idiomatic phrases – idioms, aphorisms, maxims, proverbs, accents, dialects, cultural reference points & potential culture clashes, pitfalls & nuances in the spoken & written word including in lyrics of popular song, in film scripts & on blogs.  All obstacles to be  overcome through determination, (planned) accidents, resilience & grace under fire in an emerging learning community where triumphs & setbacks are shared, welcomed & celebrated as an inevitable part of the crooked road of the journey travelled. Mistakes might happen in any performance but could improve the spectacle. Revision for exams is a lonely drag, but rehearsals for a performance are collaborative fun  - the show must  go on…&  in this community you cannot let down anyone including your grand selves.



























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