The So Whats of “Exercise E on page 5”

Edit/Update: Sandy Millin commented on the initial ‘Exercise E on page 5’ post, and as usual she got right to the heart of the matter: 

“It never occurred to me to write about a single exercise in so much detail, and it’s a brilliant way to demonstrate just how many things are going on when we ‘do’ one exercise, both in our heads and those of our students. Show this to a CELTA trainee who doesn’t understand why ‘Do exercise e’ is not a sufficient level of detail for their lesson plan, and we’ll scare them all into submission!”

While I’m not likely to scare any trainees into anything anytime soon (I’m irretrievably harmless), the intention of that post is exactly as Sandy described: to illustrate how much lies beneath the surface of the simplest classroom activities.

This post is a bit tl:dr (as the kids these days say), but the idea is similar: it’s simply a demonstration of reflection on a classroom event, now, proliferating beyond the minimum and in multiple directions.


What I said I’d do at the end of April 27th’s ‘Exercise E on page 5’ post

In the next post I plan to reflect, analyze, unpack, contextualize. I might even cite a few experts and quote some folks.

I think I might quote and/or mention Adrian Underhill and ‘Demand High’, Thomas Farrell, the Lexical Approach maybe, teacher cognition and decision making, and…some other perfectly preposterous pretentiousness.

All that in the service of something very real and very important: understanding what in the world I’m doing when I do what I do as the teacher in the classroom.

In the off-handed sounding yet sophisticated language of tripartite reflection offered by this blog’s favorite CELTA graduate Anne Hendler: I’ll being engaging the so what and the now what (the above being the what) parts of a reflection cycle.

The extent to which what follows will turn out to resemble what I imagined above I truly don’t know, but I’m hoping it serves me as worthwhile reflective activity and also, in some way, you dear blog reader! 

It seems I can start off by referencing the ‘Demand High’ meme and fulfill at least one small part of the prophecy right off the bat

I’d describe what I did with exercise E on page 5 as ‘doing Demand High‘. Or…erm…Demanding High. Being Highly Demanding? Let’s just go with doing DH. But what does that mean? To me, the most basic sense, that simply means “proactively and conscientiously trying to make the most out of your materials and your time in class, so that learning is maximized”.

That sounds so bland and generic it approaches meaninglessness, though. It sounds a bit like an athlete saying “the key thing is, really, well, we’ve just got to go out there and give it 110%”.  

…make the most of what exactly?

Maybe: make the most of the learner’s interest – interest in being respected and being challenged and being engaged by the realistic difficulty, the manageable complexity, at the ‘edge’ of a) their knowledge and b) their effort. If the learner has some knowledge (they tend to) and puts forth some effort (they tend to if conditions are reasonable), you’ve got the seeds for your DH garden, and demanding high is how you water them. 


When I looked at exercise E on page 5, all I saw were two suggested ‘demands’ (task instructions): 

  1. Read the sentences. 
  2. Match the boldface words with the definitions. 


That’s nuthin’, muffin!

What the DH concept (Scrivener’s stuff on the more practical technique/techtweak level, and  Underhill’s writing on the more conceptual/philosophical level) urges me to do is look at all the space, the ‘fat’ space on the page around this ‘thin’ little exercise.

That space on the page can represent exercise E as it exists off the page, in the space of the classroom, in the mindspace, in the soil of all the potentials there. What happens in those space before, during, and after these very basic and limited on-page ‘matching’ actions in this exercise that makes it rich, even needed? How can these four little matching items be made somehow more “3-D” and buzzy? There’s certainly plenty of space for MORE. 

“Read the sentences”. Just that, eh? the sentences HOW? Scrivener might suggest whispered, then said, then shouted. Or said silently in the head, but listening (Underhill might interject) for the inner voice’s pronunciation. 

“Match the boldfaced words with the definitions”. Match, match. Match HOW? Maybe with pencils down first, and only once you’ve agreed with another student are you allowed to write something in. For each item, agree with a different student. And use a different phrase for agreement each time. 

The essential thing is to completely halt, cease, desist from putting any stock in a course book’s instructions as sufficient or even necessary. Perhaps, dear reader, that’s an obvious point to you. Perhaps not. Interrogate the too-thin simplicities of the materials you’re using, and inject some fat. We’re doing inverse-liposuction. 

Yes, perhaps, dear reader, that’s an obvious point to you. It wasn’t to me for a good while. I was never really prompted to harness and bring with me into those quiet concentrated moments of lesson preflection some sharper critical habits of mind. I find that the answers to the interrogating, probing questions above grant me exponentially more ‘teaching ideas’ than any teacher’s book (when I’ve got one) ever does. Certainly the instructions written into the task itself give me next to NOTHING. Except for a space and a reason to dig into into it with my questions and my demanding answers. The DH idea tells me to go for it in a way that no teacher’s book I’ve seen has ever clearly instructed me to.

Scrivener (2015) writes:

More and more people in positions of authority (including many people who should know better) are making the mistake of assuming that the course book is “the course” – and as a result – are prescribing that teachers must finish so many units in so much time e.g. “Complete the first three units by the end of next week”. As a result, a generation of teachers has felt pressurized into speed-paging: “just teaching the book” at a great pace, turning the pages and almost not noticing whether the turning of those pages has led to any learning or not.

In an environment where not using the book at all is not an option, a ‘DH approach’ to coursebook use works for me. A simple way to think about it is: treat every coursebook exercise a bit like a reading text and apply the old ‘pre, during, post’ technique. Come up with something to do before the task that primes it, something to do in the task – a way to do the task, a tweak, wrinkle, or challenging dynamic, and something to do after the task, like reflect on which items were the easiest/hardest, or turn the papers over and try to recreate the entire thing from memory, or come up with a logical bonus item for a classmate to complete. 

The simplest of gap-fills can be tweaked to high heaven, and both you can stop hating gap-fills.

In any event, that’s all the kind of stuff I was thinking to myself when thinking about what I might/should do with exercise E on page 5 before the class. 

Demand High Exercise

I wrote: 

That picture is of a photocopy I made of the teacher’s copy of the student’s book. This is a book that gets handed down from teacher to teacher when assigned to this class. It has the odd penciled-in note here or there, but it’s not really annotated, answers aren’t filled-in, nothing like that. I don’t like that – I don’t want the same thing in my hand as the student has in their hand. Hence the photocopying.

(All the text in the above ‘quote’ format in this post is from the original ‘Exercise E on page 5’ post. Boldfaced = my thoughts/associations looking back at it).

I always suggest to CELTA trainees that their very first step once they find out their pages/source materials for upcoming teaching practice classes should be to head off to the copier and run off at least two copies of all of it. A teacher’s copy for them to mark up during the planning process and at least one other copy to edit, cut up for resizing and/or reordering, insert more example answers, or anything else imaginable. Getting this first step done accomplishes at least two things, to my mind:

  • Gets you a bit further away (both physically and mentally) from the course book. The book is a) un-write-on-able b) relative to 5-6 sheets of paper, heavy c) vaguely imposing d) (too) sleek and slick e) the product of the man, possibly in cahoots with big brother f) in color, which your handouts won’t be unless you make them g) did I say un-write-on-able? h) complete with answer ‘keys’ in the teacher’s book but in static, sealed-off from the activity itself while the ‘key’ to a good activity is along the path to the answers, and the best answer keys sit pat right on the very same blanks and spaces the Ss’ will write in, and are the product of the hand of the very teacher who’ll soon guide others through, and the task itself as filtered through the teacher’s mind.
  • You get some practice with using the photocopier at a time maximally farthest away from the time the class you’re planning for begins. Let’s face it, you’ll likely be here near or at the end of this process. Start here, get to know this place and this tool.


Obviously the first reason is multi-layered and is a not just a bit more important than the second one, but both of those things are there. 

I need to be able to write ALL OVER the materials I’m using. Write, note, scribble, mark the paper in some way, releasing feedback-vibrations from my brain. I need to dig in. But with a light touch. Shouldn’t take more than a minute or two. I want to float through the exercises and probably have the answers in there is best, embedded into the rest of the tracings. Rather than in an answer key neatly laid out in another book. Written into mine, which is in my hand in the room, with the scribbles that connect this me and the me who saw this coming down the road. You see some evidence of all this above. That’s relatively neat looking compared to what I often do.

So am I saying I suggest or expect the trainee teachers I work with to be ‘scribble-thinkers’ like me? I’m not. What I want to be clear with them about is the need to preflect. I don’t use that word because it’s odd and a bit precious. What I usually talk about is the need for “pre-planning engagement” with the materials, or some variation on that.

At the most blunt, this means do the lesson yourself first. Keep your teacher-planner hat off for a while and sit down with your favorite spot with your favorite libation and the tunes of your favorite musician and enter the world of the lesson as it exists on/in/around those materials you’ve been given. Find the/a place to enter, move through it patiently, take in your surroundings as you turn the corners, and get thee to the spot which seems to be the intended destination. If it helps to take those notes or scribble those scribbles, by all means…at the very least, having done the thing you now have an answer key to those parts where written answers are elicited.


You may have noticed that you weren’t really sure whether to write in full-sentence answers for Task C or not. Ah! Waste not this confused cognition for it is not in the least trivial. This is the ‘flect in preflection. You are seeing the invisible lesson. Which is the actual lesson. It’s invisible because all the action takes place in the students’ minds. And so here you are, with the lesson in YOUR mind. That’s not planning, but preparedness (again, echoing Scrivener most recently but it’s clearly not a new distinction). 



Do you get the lesson IN your mind by simply jumping into planning it with your teacher hat on? Of course you don’t. I least I don’t. And over the last two years of observing two hours of teaching at work every day, one of the things I have developed a decent ability to identify is the extent to which the teacher teaching the lesson has actually SEEN the lesson before. No, not someone else teaching the same lesson; THIS lesson.

The best classes are taught by teachers who prepared for their lessons by taking the steps which involved seeing the ‘material’ of the class NOT as stages on a procedure page or exercises on a page but as a particular “mental adventure” for which they will act as guide. The activity isn’t ON the paper, it’s IN the paper. 

I sometimes want to use the term ‘third eye’ in this connection but I tend to hold off more often than not. But in honor of the late, great Prince I need to mention it here. The teacher needs to awaken and use a sort of ‘third eye’ (mind’s eye) to ‘see’ the lessons they teach. But it’s not mystical. I believe it has to do with awareness of a) self b) students and c) language. But all three of those aren’t givens, especially for novice ELTs. The kind of ‘preflective prep’ I’m on about above is approaching teaching lessons as a way of learning lessons.

Prince wore 3rd Eye Sunglasses!

This is simply an attempt to describe an internal process. In the post I’m following up on here, I said: “it’s something I feel I need to do in order to set the groundwork for the in-the-moment decision making that happens in class”. This suggests that it’s not a ‘whole’ process in itself. It’s a ‘priming’ process for later mental stuff. But the second processing is, I think, the stuff called ‘online’ processing and informs near/immediate action. I think it’s hard to pin down, but neither is it mystical (‘3rd eye’ talk notwithstanding). 


Okay. Next, I’m going to commentate (in somewhat riffing fashion) on the 13 turns into which I broke down that action. I’ll also sum up most of the 13 turns with a pithy ‘so what’ statement (with the help of the ‘so what’ master himself Mr. Miles Davis).   


After the previous task (detail questions on a reading passage) I had the student close his book as I told him that he’d done really well with the reading task.

I love praising my students. I’ll go right ahead and praise myself for praising them. Top flight, Matthew! Top drawer. 

I try to praise them in different ways, and make this rich material for them. I’m happy to report that it’s often salient stuff for them; they’ll often ask for further clarification. Probably because they view it as useful, attractive language to be able to use themselves. So I’ll say “Good job! You really knocked that one out of the park!” or “You did a killer job with that. Done and dusted, eh?”. I don’t remember what I said here, leading into exercise E on page 5. 

It may just have been “Good work, Frank”. His name’s not Frank, but that became my nickname for him after noticing the dramatic overuse of the word ‘Frankly…’ to introduce all kinds of statements that, frankly, didn’t call for that word at all! 

There may be times when students don’t really deserve praise. In that case, don’t give it. If you’ve established a good working relationship, a bit of honesty is best: “well, this one wasn’t strong by you”. Every time you praise students for work that doesn’t deserve it, you blunt the blade of all the praise you give (do you agree with that?). 

A recent article in EFL Magazine called “Teacher Talk Acts, Not Teacher Talk Time” identified praising/congratulating as one of many ‘valuable Teacher Talk Acts’. 

So what 1


I asked him “now that you read that article, what do you think is next? [+ wait…until S says ‘Um..I don’t know…read more?’]. Well, I think there were some words that you should look at more closely. So, you’re going to focus on some vo…vo….voooooo…” until the student said ‘vocabulary’, and maybe gave me a look. ;P

I really like asking the learners to tell me what they think is coming next in class. I want to use a big work here and say I think it’s a metacognitive thing. I think it’s good thinking for them. I don’t think the structure of my lessons or even more nuts-and-bolty stuff should be hidden away or thought of as ‘behind the curtain’. I think students are typically really interested in teachers’ methods and constructs and tools. And of course they are interested in the learning process itself. More Underhill: 

underhill quote
(I’ve lost track of the source for the quote above – I think it’s in Meaningful Action? The image is from a slide in a presentation I made at the Teaching House Boston Mini-Conference in 2014 called “Beyond the Japanese Fan: Making Task Feedback More Learning-Centered)

So there’s a) a shift to more focus on the mental activity in the learners (as far as we can perceive or at least predict it) and b) acknowledgement of the learners’ own attention to that stuff, the interior lesson, to which you and your lesson are an instigation, but are also “at a distance”…that is, until you show up closer in to it, leaning into the interior, as Underhill invites us to try. 

I like the idea of making the lesson a partial object of the lesson because it suggests that the lesson and the teacher are separate. The teacher and the learner can stand together, “hey, check out this lesson we’re doing! whoa. hey, what do you think will happen next? what do you think should happen next?” 🙂 

Hear that cool, foggy blue-grey muted trumpet phrase? That’s Miles, he’s back with his so what?

So what 2


I had the student open to the blank back page of the book and write numbers 1 to 4 and then I told him I’d dictate four short sentences.

I feel like I do dictations more and more these days. There’s really nothing I don’t like about them. I love bottom-up listening work these days, and dictations can get into/lead in to the nooks and crannies of decoding the speech stream very nicely. 

I’ve also never heard a student complain about or express negativity towards doing dictations. Have you? In my experience students grab their pens and jump right into it with gusto, as a rule. It’s funny that I used to see dictations as the ultimate in old-fashioned uselessness. 

So what 3


When he was ready, I said “Can you explain the rules to me?”, careful to say it in a completely relaxed, naturally paced, relatively quick manner.

See above re: decoding the speech stream. I’ve never done ‘slow motion’ dictations, I wonder if there’s any value in that. Or ‘from down the hall’ dictations (though I’ve done S-S dictations from across the room crisscrossing, you know, Ss trying to talk over each other, etc.). 


As you might imagine, he started writing a little bit and then looked up at me and said, “again, please?”.

He had that sort of incredulous look in his smiling eyes there, that look I’d put money down on you, dear reader, recognizing instantly. “Teacher, you can’t possibly expect me to be able to get whatever that was from your voice through my ears, into my brain, out of the pencil in my hand onto this paper here. Feed the needy, man. Feed the needy!” 

So what 4

^ specifically, I’m thinking, in terms of where ‘really hard’ meets ‘really fun’. That’s also something that applies to the CELTA course! Where’s that sweet spot? 

*I’d like to acknowledge here how terrible the writing is in that image above! My blog writing can be sloppy but…how did I manage THAT? 😛


First I shook my head, and my eyes said ‘no soup for you!’. His reaction to this refusal was a big ol’ laugh. Oh my god! Leally?! Back in my head, I was thinking no repetition would be nice, but in that moment I decided against it. I told him “Sure, I’ll say it one more time. And for 2, 3, and 4, I’ll say it twice. And you need to ask for the 2nd time. If you really think you don’t need it repeated, don’t ask!”. “Ok!”, and he dove back to the page, pen at the ready for dictation item #2.

I believe he DID ask, but I’m glad I set him up to take the initiative for it. This, I was thinking, would instigate more attention to what happened the first time, self-evaluate, that kind of thing. 

So what 5


So we did that, and I watched him closely, and he did pretty well. If memory serves what he ended up with was something like: Can you explain rules to me? I feel very uncomfortable. You made a lot of mistake on the test. All of great children respect him.

Do you find that the results of dictations like this are relatively predictable in where the missing pieces tend to be (I mean, not be)? Me too. 


Next, I had him guess which words in those sentences would be the vocabulary words. He identified these correctly.

I don’t think I’d ever done exactly that before. I like it and I’ll do it again. For one thing, if the student identifies some other items as potential target vocabulary, it may help tip me off to what else might be interesting for them. Of course, that could start to approach the old “are there any words in there you don’t understand?” chestnut if taken too far. 


I then had him compare his sentences with exercise E. He read those, looked back at his sentences, but didn’t immediately notice the gap. He also clearly wasn’t trying to fill it immediately with the answers from page 5. I was happy to see this, and I prompted him with thing like “a lot of is plural, so…what’s missing? it’s small, but it’s a MUST” and “WHOSE grandchildren?” in #4. He made comments like ‘oh, grand sound same as great for me!’. I tried to be patient and acknowledge these things. The little things that “come up” are JUST as important as “what we’re doing”. But I’m getting ahead of myself!

Why was I happy to see him ‘not trying’? In a word that people seem to like these days, “affordances”. This deserves its own post. 

So what 6


Next, we moved back to exercise E on page 5. I directed my student to read the definitions for himself once, then to me out loud. I told him to focus on his pronunciation when doing so. I gave some very immediate corrective feedback prompts in a handful of spots, most of which I’d predicted in my minute or so of looking at the exercise earlier.

The ‘reading aloud in class or not, ever, never’ controversy (that’s a controversy, right?) mars not my practice – the only issue, it seems to me, is the purpose/focus assigned to the thing. It’s usually pronunciation to me, or perhaps, in the case of pronunciation through/with reading, “phonics”…whatever that means. 😉 

So what 7


Then I had him read them out again. It was better and he corrected himself a few times. Me: “mm-hhm, mm-hhm”.

My favorite ELT person this month (it’s on a calendar) is a guy named Drew S. Fagan. Once of Fagan’s articles I’ve been able to get a hold of is called “Beyond “Excellent!”: Uncovering the Systematicity Behind Positive Feedback Turn Construction in ESL Classrooms” (available online here) and like some of his other work is a microanalysis of one expert teacher’s classroom practices utilizing the framework of conversational analysis. You end up with a wonderfully fine-grained picture of how one teacher provides positive feedback in the moment during lessons.

Interestingly, Fagan draws a clear distinction between giving positive assessment and implying positive assessment. Although what Fagan explores in terms of the latter is much more subtle and varied than my “mm-hhm, mm-hhm”, I’m going to use this distinction to identify and further explore my own ways of less-than-direct (“Good! Correct!”) feedback. 

When I listen back to recordings and watch classroom video of my own teaching, I notice that I do these ‘hum-phrases’ a lot. Come to think of it, there must be a name for those? This will be staffroom chatter later today. 


A colleague’s google search hit on paralanguage but I suspect there’s more to that story. Hmmm, with my training, experience, graduate degree, etc. should I know this? And I think I remember doing a lesson on this stuff at least once before! In any event, according to the products of my externalization devices (class recordings, peer feedback, etc.) I’m “paralanguaging” all the time throughout my classes.

And what I think I’m doing with it is finding efficiencies for feedback-giving. In particular, in order not to disturb or arrest the discourse while still providing relatively constant feedback. Rather than beyond excellent, this – more below excellent. Sub-talk stuff. 

So what 8


Finally I had him match them. As usual, we sort of did #1 together out loud, then he flew through the rest (this is a very short 4-item exercise!).

So what? So that Gandhi’s quotable can be invoked, of course: the before and the after are as important, if not more important, than the thing itself in and of itself. 


BTW: No, people who post quotes online aren’t, in fact, dumber than average. 😉


After confirming the answers, I prompted some brief discussion with questions like ‘have you ever said #1?’, ‘had #3 said to you?’, ‘what rules do you break most often?’, ‘who is the most respected person in your family?’, ‘what’s the most embarrassing thing you’ve experienced in the US so far?’.

It’s clear to me that using the vocabulary in a personal way (the highly technical term, I believe, is personalization) at the point of learning/clarifying is a good thing. 

That’s all. I didn’t mention Thomas Farrell. Until now. 

I didn’t mention the Lexical Approach and hearing Hugh Dellar chat with Marek on the TEFL Show podcast this morning, I’m not sure why I felt the need to capitalize that. Hugh does a nice job of demonstrating why it’d be best not to peg that as a very particular ‘method’. Anyway, I guess I thought something related to that might come up simply because in doing a bit more sentence-level stuff on the way to the single words in exercise E on page 5, it kind of had those vibes.

What Hugh brings up on the show about the quality of examples is great food for thought, though. Seems reasonable to think “explain” collocates very strongly with ‘the rules’, and that the plural of rule is likely much more frequent than the singular.

I have to admit that I’m still not comfortable actually using online corpora tools, even though I find the whole thing very attractive and interesting.  

What else do I want to say? I think I’m so whatted out. But all of this (the Miles Davis sponsored ‘so what statements’ specifically) lead to one more step: the now what. See you then! 

You’re supposed to finish blog posts with questions and prompts that would inspire your readers to consider interacting and/or feeding back by leaving a comment. I dunno, so I’ll just leave it to Miles to ask YOU:

blank so what

9 thoughts on “The So Whats of “Exercise E on page 5”

  1. This felt more Bird than Miles, but I digress.

    I love the stuff about learner agency here. I do think that a lot of learners (across subjects, not just languages) have been taught a kind of helplessness which is not actually representative of their actual ability.

    There is also much to like about going slow through materials. It should be a departure to Something Else but frequently leads to a bit more of the same.


    Liked by 1 person

    1. We should do an ELT/jazz meme thing. If Jack C. Richards is Bill Evans, Thornbury is Coltrane, and Underhill is Keith Jarrett, who’s X, Y, and Z…?

      Agree with the more Bird-like qualities of this post. Kind of Blue it ain’t!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I think Prince would approve. It’s time to start getting ‘in’ the materials again. I am a fan of DH and have written a fair bit about it as well. Preparing for those moments is a good idea. I’m off to the photocopier or maybe a photo and digital scribble over it, to save a few trees.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Matt,

    So much here to think about, and thanks for the mention at the beginning 🙂

    Possibly my favourite bit, because I find the same:
    “I’ve also never heard a student complain about or express negativity towards doing dictations. Have you? In my experience students grab their pens and jump right into it with gusto, as a rule.”

    I also really like your suggestions for lesson planning for CELTA trainees, though as Damien says, the environment might not. Soooo many trees must have been sacrificed at the altar of CELTA!

    Just out of interest, have you seen the Tessa Woodward talk on the Professional life cycles of teachers? I shared it on my blog a couple of days ago. I’d love to know where you feel like you are on the cycle. I’m in the 7-10 years stage at the moment, and think I’m doing a lot of the things she mentions, but I suspect you’re slightly ahead of me. Your posts always seem to have a lot more/better references than mine, and you lead me towards so many interesting things to research.

    Thank you!


    Liked by 1 person

  4. Your recent post about that talk brought me back to it…I had watched it before with interest and now have it cued up in a browser tab to play over again.

    I find it hard to ‘place’ myself on any kind of linear measurement career/development-wise. I think I’m just too squiggly. But maybe after watching her talk I’ll be able to objectify it better.

    I’m also glad to hear you’ve had the same experience with students and dictations.


  5. WOW!! Thank you so much for writing this!! It’s great to have all of these tips and reminders in one place to refer to!! I’m definitely sharing this, and bookmarking for future reference!! Good job! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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