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These sentences were not fabricated for a coursebook.

Have you ever written down one of your entire conversations verbatim? Probably not.  Now, when you read the dialogues in coursebooks outloud, do you think they sound like your conversations? Also, probably not.  Something’s off.  Determining the difference can be an interesting exercise, both for students and also instructors.  

I am always frustrated with how fabricated the coursebook conversations are when trying to demonstrate vocabulary or grammar in some sort of realistic context. They are very linear (speaker 1, speaker 2, speaker 1, speaker 2). They are grammatically straightforward.  How realistic… (I hear there’s been some attempt at improvement) but as an alternative, one day I copied some authentically written MSN chat messages between myself and a friend to try out in class instead.  Due to the nature of these chat situations, they resemble spoken dialogue.  However, like many entire conversations, they were also filled with backchannel utterances and stuff that would bore you to tears, so I picked out sentences that all have some peculiar constructions or colloquial usage that you’d rarely, if ever, find in a coursebook task.

Take this first one, for example.  See you if you can decipher much about it.

“I enjoy playing these two one after the other.”

What is the speaker talking about? What helped you realise this? What peculiarity within this sentence might perplex learners?

You probably figured out that the speaker is talking about either games or music. This is due to the verb ‘play’ and what’s collocated with it and because of the adverbial ‘one after the other’, it’s more likely something short where order can be remembered by the player, possibly chess moves or songs?

There are three different points you can get from most of the sentences:

a) Breaking them into manageable, meaningful chunks.

Doing this can help determine meaning of the chunks individually more easily than if looking at the sentence as a whole.

b) Look for contextual clues.

Certain words give the reader or listener hints as to what’s being discussed, even if what they read/hear is isolated from everything else. Critical thinking is a biggie here.

c) Identify peculiar points within the sentences.

Each of the sentences has some odd occurrence in it.  In this case, it’s the sequence of nominal nouns in a row. If I asked you to make a sentence with two numbers in a row, you’d be hard pressed to create one naturally I’m sure. Breaking language into chunks can help learners figure out how this happens.

I’ve used these sentences with higher level students both for language awareness and critical thinking.  Several a-ha moments ensued.  Of course, because it’s an unusual task, it took some modelling before they really figured out how to decipher them on their own.

  1. I enjoy playing these two one after the other.
  2. Who knows what I’m gonna need money for before Friday.
  3. She was so not into working for that company.
  4. There’s no way that I could ever think of doing what you think I’m capable of.
  5. I don’t suspect that the meeting will go down the way anyone expects it to since my boss and coworkers didn’t see eye to eye in the first place.
  6. I wanted to sleep in but I also wanted to get up early to get stuff done, but with someone ringing the doorbell at 8:30, the choice was made for me.
  7. When I was little, fishing always seemed too ‘dad’ oriented for me.  But, now I like it too.
  8. There are so many things possible to do this weekend that it might be the case that we do none at all.
  9. If nothing else, David Suzuki was a crusader for the environment before it was the ‘in thing’ to do.
  10. We have to take it outside, down the back stairs, into the rotty, dark, dingy basement of the building where there’s just one coin-operated machine for each load and then back up again.  If it was inside here, I’d be apt to do it.
  11. We should make a trip out to Halifax this summer.  Then again, as broke as I’m looking at being maybe that should wait.
  12. All of my cousins are either much older than I or their kids are much younger.  I’m sort of sandwiched in the middle.
  13. She wants to move to NYC and become an opera singer.  The girl couldn’t even move 5 miles away from her parents’ house.  I don’t know how she plans on pulling that one off.
  14. I’m glad you’re not saying I’m wrong despite your real feelings just to spare mine.
  15. We got two two weeks ago and they’ve grown heaps.
  16. You have 20 of the same picture.  Why can’t you bring yourself to get rid of three?
  17. It wouldn’t have been difficult had it gone the way I was told it would.
  18. Everyone missed the bus on that business opportunity.  Too bad for them.
  19. You say you’ll get the position like it’s a sure thing.
  20. I’d suggest not saying that as it would just come off rude.
  21. It’s not that that’s not expensive, but I’d rather buy it here than spend the next two hours shopping around for a deal. (NEW)

At request, I’ve recorded these sentences in as natural a tone of voice and speed as I could, just in case you want to use them. I love my recorded voice, not.

Unfabricated sentences by seburnt

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Great idea for the lesson! Here are some thoughts I’d like to share.

I think the main question is what kind of English our learners really need. There’s a difference between coursebook and real-life English, especially spoken by/between native speakers, no doubt about this. However, most learners I meet need a sort of International English, either for business, study or travel. And, while I do encourage my learners to submerge themselves into examples of real English (online or otherwise) I feel it’s mostly up to the teacher to do this, even if they are non-NESTs.

I don’t think coursebooks can, or should even attempt to offer this genuine English usage. Delving into this unpredictable, ambiguous and endless world of real-life English would be far too confusing for many learners (and many teachers, to be honest) to find in a coursebook. Also, most attempts at providing “real” English in coursebooks are equally embarrassing, artificial or unreal.

All in all, I think the activity is very useful for teachers who’d like to explore with students the nature of genuine English conversation. The book can remain boringly clean and normal, as far as I’m concerned.

Brad Patterson

MSN chats in class. EXCELLENT.

MY FAV: There are so many things possible to do this weekend that it might be the case that we do none at all.

Brad Patterson

yea… TRIPped me up too 😉


That’s great, Tyson!

I like the idea of bringing our own authentic communication into lessons. I haven’t done it much, only with emails, but your example motivates me to do more.

One thing I like, as I said in the post about writing the other day, is to have an online chatroom in the lesson and then pick up some language to focus.

Great post!

Antonia Clare

Hi Tyson – great post, and I think you’re right in that a lot of teachers, and a lot of students are looking for materials which are more authentic, and reflective of how people actually speak. They certainly need to focus on the skills and strategies that they need to deal with ‘real’ language outside the classroom, as this helps to give them access to all kinds of authentic material, like TV, songs and video material, which they can use for language learning. Most good coursebooks nowadays have a strong emphasis on authenticity in terms of both texts and language focus.
I also think students need to work on skills to help them communicate effectively in real time. Personally, I think there is still a place for clean, scripted dialogue at times. Certainly, it can help make the input more comprehensible at lower levels, but I think we need to keep an eye on the balance.
(Quick plug – in Speakout we use a lot of authentic BBC material, and also video podcast interviews of people on the street – nothing scripted there ;))
I love your activity with the text chat, and what makes it more interesting for the students is that these were real messages that their teacher sent. There is a personal relevance there, which helps with the motivation (like when you bring in your own photos to show to students, or tell a personal anecdote). That would be lost in a coursebook, though I think the genre (authentic text chat) could easily be used (and should be). Antonia

Antonia Clare

Thanks Tyson. I agree that it’s really hard to capture real conversation for the classroom (in fact, by recording it and bringing it into the classroom, in a sense it’s already lost its authenticity). Perhaps we should just focus on the genuine conversation we have with our students. 😉
I really enjoy doing ‘live listenings’ by bringing people into the classroom (other colleagues etc.) and having a conversation there and then which we also record. The advantage of using a colleague is that they know how to grade their language.
I love the work you’ve done with getting students to chunk the language into meaningful parts – I think this is a really useful activity to help students deal with authentic language.
Take a look at some of the Upper Intermediate video podcasts for an idea of the kind of thing we use in Speakout.

Advanced comes out early next year.

In my experience, materials for the US market tend to make more use of scripted dialogue, but that may be changing too.

Naomi Epstein

You could scaffold this for students who are a bit weaker. One possibility is to supply the same sentences in “coursebook English”, but not in the same manner. The students would find it easier to work out the meanings when the options are more limited.
I’m going to try this when we return from vacation.
I’m sure most of the students are fascinated by how “real people” speak.
You’ve put a lot of work into this already – small tweaks and you can use it with many more levels.
Very impressed that you offered the audio as well!

Naomi Epstein

I see your point.
You are right, of course.
I was thinking what I would do and forgot for a minute that most teachers don’t work in the format of a learning center. I turn almost all activities to ones that can be done independantly with teacher support given as needed (not as a whole class activity).

Naomi Epstein

Eh, Tyson – they are deaf, you know. Don’t do recordings! LOL!

These sentences were not fabricated for a coursebook. via @seburnt > text and audio ready to use!! great idea! #eltchat

I love @seburnt ‘s insightful #ESL ideas! So easy to apply and replicate.

These sentences were not fabricated for a coursebook. via @seburnt

Excellent post on helping learners to bridge coursebook English with real-life English in #elt: via @seburnt #tefl


Loved your collection of spoken sentences (though couldn’t find an odd occurrence in 13) and I see you keep adding to it! One way to expose students to natural English is of course using authentic films in class because as most of you observed above authenticity and coursebooks are not always compatible.

I happen to have a copy of Dave Willis’s Collins Cobuild Course from circa 1990 where they tried to include natural dialogues even for beginners but I guess it was too early for its time. A definite favourite of mine is Innovations (Cengage-Heinle) but if you teach in Canada you’ll probably find it too Anglo-centric.

I went to Antonia’s workshop at TESOL France but I haven’t yet checked out SpeakOut. I tend to agree with her comment about textbooks for the North American market tending to be more scripted when it comes to listening materials – that’s after experiencing Passages (CUP) and True Colors (Longman).

If you’re interested I blogged about the grammar of spoken English and its features some time ago:

Will use your examples of real-life English with a group of Up-Int students and report on how it went


Vicky Loras

Man how do you get all these super ideas?

I love it! Stealing it, pinching it! It’s amazing how many things you can take from these sentences. How many things you can do in class with the students. Now, to see which Skype chat I can rip off – lol!!!

Honestly, super post : )

Thanks Tyson,

Very interesting idea. I’ve done something similar with my own emails for pre-int business students, but I like the idea of using printed chats–authentic, in a format students ( especially teens and uni students) can relate to, and it’s personal. Should make for motivating material! I’ll have to try this out. Plus, I really like that idea about comparing the real versions with coursebook-style versions. But I also have to agree with Antonia–there is still a place for the coursebook (and their scripts) in some learner contexts. I think the key word here would be balance and variety. Think of it as a healthy input diet!


Here’s my report. I used these in class today with advanced students. I was afraid they might not see the point of it but they soooo loved it! We listened to your recording and then analysed them one by one – managed to go through almost all of them. Peculiar features that perplexed them:
8) It might be the case that we do – no will or going to to express the future
9) “If nothing else” – that was a tough one to explain
11) collocations with “dingy”: dingy basement / room / apartment / hallway. Dingy cemetery? – hmmm not really
12) “as broke as I’m looking at being” – strange way of referring to the future.

General reactions to the utterances:
6) “It’s a very gay way of saying it” – LOL 🙂
13) “Why is he comparing older cousins with their younger kids?” Then we realised that it’s probably about a family gathering where you have noone to talk to because all the relations are either older or younger than you.

My observation as a teacher: there is a lot here to point out to students, such as “the meeting will go down” and “get stuff done” – things that students even at advanced levels would not produce themselves. So I don’t see how it could emerge from them – it can only be taught by explicitly drawing students’ attention and encouraging them to incorporate these chunks into their own oral production.


Sylvia Guinan

Tyson, not only was it a great idea to exploit your own natural chat flows, but the way you’ve described it in linguistic/teach-speak terms is fascinating and immensely valuable to any teacher/learner.Adding the audio too – brainwave!!

Actually,a coincidence of sorts brought me to this page. A few days ago I enagaged in a discussion about globalisation with about six other teachers from around the world on facebook.As I was about to start a new proficiency topic on globalisation I decided to copy the whole discussion for my student to read & analyse, as something told me that the spontaneous interplay of opinion, mixed with diverse personalities and perspectives would give him multi-faceted insights that can never be replicated in a course book.
I shared my idea on the thread and Brad Patterson (who had initiated the topic) sent me here to see what you’re up to.

( That’s twice in one week that your articles have beckoned!!)

Anyway, apart from the liguistic emphasis you have described here, I’d like to add my view on what’s missing in course books.

Based on my example;

1) People express themselves according to their own filters, world view and ‘meta-language’….(to get psychological)….and this adds such colour and added depth to expression….giving students more food for thought, more to read between the lines, there is much more implied than stated directly…etc…etc..

I think that it develops the social/emotional side of language learning, a more humanising experience….

2)It would be great fun getting students to guess what kinds of people made which comment, even make up characters for the speakers, ‘cartoonify’

I mean, comments converted into speech bubbles would be very nice:))

This was the discussion!/groups/117190961658014/


Hi Tyson
Me again! 🙂
Used these with another small group of upper-int. students who were really puzzled by #16 and #17.
Even if he gets rid of 3 why does need 17 of the same picture? 🙂
Any clues?

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