IATEFL 2017 - Day Two: 'Be Overt not Covert!'

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This workshop title today, ‘Be Overt not Covert!’, caught my attention for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, I believe as a teacher I am ‘Overt‘ in my style.  Secondly, It’s something that in our school we encourage teachers to make a conscious effort to be, in every lesson. So I went along! Mark Heffernan (Queen Mary University of London) and David Byrne (EC London) tackled the question of whether or not we need to be overt and presented their reasons why this should be so.

They then looked at techniques teachers can employ to make teaching more overt so students are aware of exactly what they are doing and why.

David started by explaining that this idea came about from observing teachers and speaking to students.

‘What teachers thought was happening and what students thought was happening was very different.’

As a Director of Studies, David would have students coming to his office to complain that ‘the lesson was too easy’ when it simply wasn’t the case.  He told a story of how once a student came to complain about a highly qualified and experienced teacher to say ‘I don’t think she really knows the grammar rules for the Passive because she only told us about one and I know there are more.’  – a perfect example of how teachers have a tendency to ‘hide’ information from students, not intentionally…..but because they make assumptions about their students.


Mark then went on to explain that the actual definition of ‘covert’ on dictionary.com is ‘Not openly acknowledging or displaying.’ and that teachers tend to sneak sub skills in and hide grammar until the big reveal at the end.  Students now eventually find out what the teacher’s plans were…..or even more worringly, there is no reveal at all and students are left thinking ‘I’m in the wrong level.‘ and make their way to the Director of Studies office…

The Assumptions Teachers Make:

Assumption 1: 
  • students don’t want to know ‘why’ they are learning something; they are passive learners.

Assumption 2: 

  • Students already know why we’re doing something and what we’re doing (but if they do, why don’t we as teachers engage with that knowledge and use it for discussion?)



A reading text entitled ‘Life in the Countryside’ which David and Mark designed is now projected on screen for delegates in pairs to discuss the following questions:

What do you think the aims of this lesson could be?

What would students think it is?

What level is this for?

And like good students we got to work in our pairs.  Delegates came up with a wide variety of answers: grammar structures such as ‘used to’ and ‘wish’, ‘past tenses’.  Students might think it’s to learn ‘countryside vocabulary’!  Level high intermediate/upper intermediate.

HOWEVER, The focus of the text was not on grammar at all; it was on deducing meaning of vocabulary from context to encourage autonomous learning.

When students were asked what they thought the lesson objective was, they said:

‘To improve skills (reading, writing, vocabulary, grammar)’

‘Learn a new vocabulary about life in the countryside.  About narrative tenses.’

A practical task like this one clearly tells us that we need to explicitly inform our students at the beginning of the lesson what the clear aims and objectives for that lesson are and to continue to refer to the aims and objectives for every related task. These students had no idea they were being trained in how to become autonomous learners and that learning the vocabulary for ‘pigpen’ just happened to appear in the text, like it would in real life when such a skill like this would be required.

Why Pair Work?

Mark and David surveyed 3 groups of students asking them why they thought teachers put their students in pairs to work.  Here are the teachers reasons which we all know and can relate to:


















And here are the students responses:

  • to practice more and make mistakes
  • to know people
  • to improve speaking and listening
  • to practice speaking and use language

Why not be just as explicit or ‘overt’ with your students as to ‘why’ you are asking them to work in pairs or groups when setting up your next activity and inform them it’s not just to hear them make mistakes but for all the other reasons too which they will not be aware of.   It may prevent students from making complaints such as:

I don’t want to learn from my partner’s mistakes

They have bad pronunciation and I don’t understand them

I only want to speak with native speakers


Do you feel that you always know what your teachers aims are?

In their survey, David and Mark asked students the above question; 79% said yes and 21% said no.  It may seem like a high enough number, however it still means that 2 students out of 10 don’t.

And that’s still too high!!

As they said, if a student leaves the classroom believing the aim of the lesson was to learn vocabulary such as ‘pigpen’, there is a problem!

So basically…..


Overt Teaching?

  • Provide aims/objectives
  • Relate tasks throughout the lesson
  • Connect to the real world
  • Give effective feedback (and receive)
  • Establish a need for your aims/objectives


Mark says we as teachers need to ‘labour the point’ so there is no lack of awareness or understanding of the aims and objectives of the lesson and not only that but we should also welcome feedback on how interesting/useful the lesson was.

Here’s an example of how ‘overt’ you can be at each stage of a lesson.  Don’t let your students leave the room believing you have covered the ‘past simple’ with a group of B2 students when that was not the objective of the lesson.














An excellent session and one that has really made me think about the discrepency between what learners believe they have learned from a lesson and what teachers believe they have thought…

2 Responses

  1. And an excellent article! Thanks for sharing Aoife. It shows just how important it is to ‘wear your lesson on your sleeve ‘!

  2. Hi Aoife, thanks for your kind words. Really glad you enjoyed the session and that you got something from it.
    Mark (& David)

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