Friday, February 10, 2012

Mozart, Thornbury, and Me


When I was a child we had very few movies on VHS.  My mother bought most of them and they reflected her taste.  For example, I spend hours watching Amadeus, which is a semi-fictional biography of Mozart.  Years later, when I had my own family and we were building a small movie collection for our living room I found a Blu-ray copy of this movie in the shopping cart.

In the movie there is a sense in which Salieri helps Mozart compose his requiem while the greatest musical mind of all time lies deathly ill in bed.

I could apply this situation to ESL in several ways.  First, we can examine the student-teacher relationship.  If I am Mozart, are my students simply copying my requiem?  If so, how do I change this?  Second, not knowing the terminology of music, I have a hard time fully understanding what Mozart is saying and Salieri is writing.  Are my students lost in the terms of ESL like ‘collocations’, ‘lexical chunks’, and ‘the present perfect continuous’?  These are all valid questions but we will leave those for another day.

What I found most important was the way in which the beautiful requiem is built on the simple blocks of notes and stanza; the tenor, the violins, the trombones.  Alone they are uninspiring, but together they take the listener to another world.

Thornbury’s Tenses

So what does this all have to do with Scott Thornbury?  Well, in 2009 he wrote an article about the verb tenses and the true meaning or feeling they produce.  He argued that this is really not all that hard to understand.  I started listening to my students in a different way.  I went to the A2 classes and they were all using the present simple and past simple, with the occasional continuous mixed in.  Not bad, but their stories were not engaging.  It was like listening to a symphony with only three instruments.

Then I had a one-to-one lesson with a B2 student and surprisingly, there were not many more layers to the conversation.  I thought, “He knows many more tenses, he understands the MFP, why isn’t he using them?”   Mr. Thornbury’s article helped me realize he didn’t “feel” the tenses, so he wasn’t helping me “feel” his story.  Time to develop a lesson.


First, I thought about how to structure all this.  I decided to keep the lesson simple, focus only on the present tenses and let the student find the difference in feeling.  So, I drew three boxes on the board.  Facts, context, and engagement.

We then watched a video on you tube of a doctor responding to questions about trends in the medical profession at a trade fair.  The video came from the company and was shot at the booth my student designed. 

Reference:  His job is to plan and coordinate trade fairs for a medical technology company, including the marketing strategy.  He then must ‘sell’ the strategy to the international sales people who work the booth.

For him, the video was relatively easy to understand and we were able to fill the boxes with information from the video.  (e.g. Imagery is a high priority.  Great progress.  Offer a wide range of options, etc.)  At this point we still did not have the tenses, only notes.

Then we watched again and listened for the sentences.  This time we changed the board to include the entire sentences.  But wait… sometimes continuous tenses appeared in the fact box!  “Why?” I asked.  I pointed to the engagement word.  “Because it is more engaging if he uses the –ing form?” Bingo.

We then started work with his presentation to mix the tenses (we didn’t have much time) and put context where needed and engage the audience.  Of course, the fourth box fits perfectly to make a diamond and suddenly you have “context + engagement” and we are finding the present perfect continuous.

Take all four boxes and shift them to the left and right and you have the past and will forms.  With a little focused practice we suddenly have a symphony.

A week after the class, he wrote me an email and thanked me.  He said it was a little strange at first, but after a few days listening to English and noticing the tenses he could ‘feel’ it.

Thanks to Mozart, Mr. Thornbury, and you for critiquing my lesson.  It is only a first, risky attempt.


  1. Super article, awesome concept. Absolutely loving this! I think when you can engage the learners feelings, bring their emotions into the classroom and connect them to language...Bingo! I have read numerous times and I truely believe that English is a language of feeling and emotion. It is not a language of rules and explanations. There are just to many exceptions and variables to English to say these are the rules so follow them. Also I have read a few books recently that claim studies show - knowing the rules of a language has no beneficial effect on language production. Food for thought!

    Reading your article I can't quite fully get my head around the whole concept and process. I certainly would like you to put some time aside for me to go through this one step by step.

    See ya next week

  2. A little update for readers. Karl Dean and I have been talking about this method of teaching verb tenses a lot recently and trying out some methods to get the feeling across.

    Most recently we discussed showing the effect of continuous tenses on the engagement of a story by asking the learners to describe an image, then describe a movie clip. The learners were then asked to evaluate which was more 'moving'. The learners naturally used more simple tenses in the photo, "He is sad." and more continuous tenses in the video "He is feeling sad." Of course, the goal of all this is to break the time rules for the tenses and enable the learners to feel the differences.

    Karl taught this lesson and I am looking forward to feedback from his learners after they ponder the idea. I also made a 10 minute video for learner's but I will need to change the rights from internal use only. I hope to do it soon.