Stories and anecdotes from the ELT Classroom

‘I can’t do down my jacket!’

‘What time does your plane take down?’

These are two examples of expressions I have heard students say in the classroom, and I’ve needed to think about the meanings before understanding the logic behind their mistakes. Or were they mistakes?

We can say ‘switch on’ and ‘switch off’, as well as ‘warm up’ and ‘warm down’; so why can’t a plane ‘take down’, if it can take off, and why can’t you ‘do a jacket down’ if you can ‘do it up’?

Another irregularity that frequently causes consternation is the use of countable and uncountable nouns. How is it possible that we can count vegetables but not fruit? We can say ‘I bought some vegetables’, but not ‘I bought some fruits’. I often have students raise their eyes when I correct them because the rules are so illogical. Consider the word ‘people’ – I once spent an entire lesson explaining the concept of regular and irregular nouns such as child/children, mouse/mice, person/people, and how the former can only be used in the singular form, while the latter is only used in the plural. Following this successful lesson, myself and the students left the classroom together and took the lift, inside which there was a sign that clearly stated there was a maximum capacity of no more than ‘15 persons’! It was a struggle to explain without sounding inept that this is one of many exceptions, but generally what I tell them is factually accurate.

English is certainly not the most logical language! How do you teach rules for a system of communication that is constantly evolving, and has developed in such an inorganic manner? Even after teaching for 13 years, I still feel like I am blagging it half the time, and that I am going to get caught out for not really knowing the rules myself.

Teaching English to someone who doesn’t speak English can feel like trying to explain the concept of ‘red’ to someone who has never seen different colours before. Sometimes a student asks me a question and I want the ground to swallow me up as my explanation sends them into even further confusion because of the vocabulary I have used.

Or after spending half an hour explaining the concept of short sounds and long sounds, such as hit/heat, ship/sheep, fit/feet, only to be told by a student, who seems to have finally got it, that they have a pain in their chick – or was it cheek?

To us native speakers the two sounds are unique, but to students of English the difference can be frustratingly subtle, and they can feel ridiculous saying the words ‘peeeeace’ or ‘feeeeet’, and we have to keep a straight face while telling them that they sound natural not ridiculous. Sometimes it can feel like you have created a monster. Natural pronunciation and an acceptance of the irregularities comes with practice and an exposure to the language – at least this is what I tell myself when I feel like some of my explanations are not entirely comprehensive.

Martin Wilson has been working as a teacher of English to non-native speakers for over 13 years, since qualifying from St. Giles International College, London, in 2004. His Trinity Tesol Certificate was followed shortly after with a Masters Degree in Linguistics and Philosophy from The University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Martin’s experience within the various fields of ELT has been plentiful, and has involved teaching children and teenagers in Thailand, as well as asylum seekers and refugees throughout Europe, and university students and business professionals in London, UK. In this series of blogs, Martin aims to share his insights into the world of ELT, including tips and tricks for students and teachers alike, in addition to observations and reviews regarding current available material and resources. Martin can be contacted at

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