This is the first in Rod Bolitho's series of articles for TeachingEnglish. 

Over my years of learning, teaching and training I have become increasingly aware of the impact that teachers can and often do have on our learners, and their attitudes to English. Affective factors, such as attitude and self-esteem, are well known to have a profound effect on learners’ motivation and ultimately on their success or failure in learning.

Teacher-induced neuroses - methodology article - guest writers
Rod Bolitho

As teachers we need to take some responsibility for influencing these factors in a positive or negative way. Yet, time and again, when I observe classes and talk to learners I notice signs of near-neurotic behaviour in them, and in many of these cases pretty quickly realise that the source of the anxiety that leads to this behaviour is the teacher. In this short article and in the blogs that follow this month I will mention and discuss some of these common neuroses and suggest ways of overcoming them.

Error neurosis or ‘lathophobia’
Fear of making mistakes is the mother of all neuroses and almost certainly the most common source of anxiety in language learners in the public forum of a language classroom. I first became conscious of it as a learner in a Modern Greek evening class when the teacher-priest had the habit of pointing out our mistakes by drawing himself up to his full height and intoning lathos – the Greek for mistake – in a profoundly haughty and disapproving way which had us all believing we had committed one of the seven deadly sins. I lasted just one term in that class.

  • The notion of mistake as sin is very deeply rooted in educational cultures around the world, the more so since mistakes in any subject can be totted up as a means of giving grades and of distinguishing between strong and weak students. 
  • Learners are also often concerned about looking foolish and losing face in front of their peers if they make mistakes. Research into interlanguage and second language acquisition, so often irrelevant to day-to-day classroom concerns, did deliver a useful insight in this instance in the form of a useful distinction between types of error, and also of Krashen’s oft-cited assertion that errors may be seen as ‘stepping stones on the way to learning’. My own experience as a learner and a teacher backs this up, and I go along wholeheartedly with the notion that learners benefit from observing language, hypothesising about it, testing out their hypotheses by experimenting and working with the feedback they get from their interlocutors. We as teachers would do well to allow time and space for this kind of experimentation and to offer learners support rather than a scolding when they do make mistakes.

When I was trained as a teacher of English I was told that every learner’s mistake was ‘my’ mistake, the result of inadequate teaching. As a result, I beat myself up about my learners’ mistakes for years afterwards until I realised that for progress to be made they had to start taking responsibility for their own learning and that learning from mistakes is one important part of that process. That realisation lifted a great weight from my shoulders and helped me to be concerned much more with my students’ learning and less obsessed with my own ‘performance’ as a teacher, which was a big breakthrough in my career.

Verb tense neurosis
Teachers inspire many different grammar-related neuroses in their learners, but perhaps the biggest of these is the one about verb tenses. Its origins almost certainly lie in the hard-to-shake-off tradition of Latin teaching.  The syllabus in a typical Latin course was built largely around the verb tenses, a forgivable decision considering that Latin has a very formal and highly inflected system and is also no longer used for everyday communication (though I did once have a lively conversation in Latin with a fellow passenger on a train to Reggio in South Italy!).

English verbs are minimally inflected, subjects are clearly signalled through nouns and pronouns, and time is as often flagged by time adverbials as by the verb itself.

Consider these examples, all from recent authentic sources:

  1. What time do we start tomorrow, 8 or 8.30? (participant on a seminar in Austria last week)
  2. Are you coming to the dinner tomorrow evening? (phone call from a colleague today)
  3. I’ve just sent you an e-mail to tell you I can’t make it (reply to the previous question)
  4. I’m calling ‘cos I just got your message (voicemail message from my sister-in-law)
  5. If you don’t go tonight, I don’t (a friend, about a social event)
  6. She says she wants a DVD (me to my partner during a phone conversation with my daughter)

In the first four examples above, the time adverbials are crucial to the message. Without them, and with only the form of the verb to go on, the message loses its precision. In example 3 the speaker chooses present perfect whereas in 4 she uses the simple past. Both are OK. The real force of the messages is in the immediacy expressed by the word just. The speakers in example 5 and 6 ignore the rules which learners are all too often tortured with about the sequence of tenses in ‘if’ sentences and reported speech respectively, and simply say what they want to mean; in the first case it’s a kind of ultimatum and in the second the reporting refers to a conversation still in full flow.

My take on this is that we need to spend far less time on teaching the tenses and some rather dubious rules about the sequence of tenses, and a lot more on equipping learners with a good range of time adverbials and on liberating them to allow them to say what they want to mean, rather than teaching rules and then complaining that English is a badly behaved language with a lot of exceptions.

Still to come:

  • Phrasal verb neurosis
  • Article neurosis
  • The perfect pronunciation neurosis

In the meantime, your thoughts on any of these neuroses would be very welcome!




Dear A. Mazinanian 

Thanks a lot for coming back to me on this point.  It reminded me of Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs, which helps us to see how learning and development can only take place if certain basic conditions such as safety, absence of hunger and thirst, etc are met.  As teachers, we always need to keep this in mind.  You can't expect a scared or hungry student to learn!

 Very best wishes





Its really interesting to see your article on this important issue .At a time when teaching methodologies and strategies undergo enormous change there still remains a lot amongst us who are rather reluctant to accept that teachers need   just be a facilitator who could just guide the students .A teacher has to look in to many aspects..may be he a researcher .Your article is quite informative and it led me to realise specific issues that arise in the teaching learning context.

Looking forward to seeing more enlightening articles  


Dear Abdul,

 Thanks for contributing.  I agree totally that teaching has become much more challenging and that we have to play several roles in order to carry out our day-to-day responsibilities satisfactorily.  You spoke of 'enormous changes' and I guess you are feeling these in your context.  Would you like to write a bit about what you are facing and how you and your colleagues are coping with everything?  It would be good to hear more from you.

 Very best


Dear Rod,
It takes great courage to reveal and discuss Teacher's neurosis associated with English teaching.
Neurosis related to job is in every field and English is not spared but it vapourises by being authentic and equal command on learner's language.
I'm into EFL to hard core rural stuff of India and each day comes as a challenge and opportunity to learn.
Graduated in Phonetics and Linguistics has given an opportunity to teach and frame English Language  course for fellow Indians, the way I learned from different mediums and sources .
British Council’s site has proved to be  a learning platform for me.
I would be delighted to know solutions to the problems of EFL learners from you.

Dear Avinash,

 Thanks for your message.  Very good to hear from you as a teacher in rural India, and to know that you learn so much through your day-to-day experience.  It would be good to hear more about what you have learned fropm your students and what kind of students they are (age, background interests etc)

 Very best.


Do you have a recommendation regarding the most effective sequencing (to L2 english students) of past tenses. For example, would modal perfect (such as could have taken) precede past perfect (had taken), etc?


Dear DennisDeMenis,Thanks for your query about sequencing past tenses.  My criteria and decisions would be taken on the basis of communicative need in the first instance, and on underlying meaning as a second foundation.  Let me explain:The modality involved in 'could have taken'' is often closely connected with the need to communicate a notion of an unfulfilled intention or a regret.  The time dimension is 'built into' this notion.  The past perfect is generally used where it is important to distinguish between two points in past time, and has no modal dimension, though clearly it is often used in association with 'could have'/'might have'/'would have' constructions (which are strongly modal), in 'if' sequences and other expressions of hypothetical meaning.  I usually approach this rather difficult area of language in a sequence like this:1. I remind students of  'going to' as a means of expressing intentions, as in e.g.What are you going to do after you finish this course?2.  I then ask students to think of a turning point in their lives, when they were faced with a decision between two paths or courses of action.  I would give them an example from my own life:When I was 18 I had to choose between going to university and taking a job with a cotton company.  I was going to take the job, but my Dad stopped me and told me I had to go to university.The key here is the 'was going to' construction which I use as a conceptual platform for the next step:3.  I then ask them to address the question:What would/might have happened if you had..........eliciting answers such as:I would have gone to the USA.......etcI like to follow this up with Robert Frost's poem The Road Not Taken.Each of these verb forms slots intop a comprehensive view of time, with or without an element of modality, and would always use a conceptually simpler form as a step toward a more complex one.  I also find that if I start in the present, in the students' 'here and now', and work towards the past on the basis of personal experience, this helps.  This makes the simple past particularly important to enable them to tell their own stories and experiences.  I would also teach the past progressive from the conceptually equivalent launchpad of the present progressive:Q: Which book are you reading now?A: The Da Vinci Code.Q: Do you remember what you were reading this time last month?A: Yes, I was reading The Da Vinci Code.  It's a long book!Finally, in this response, I have always taught the 'used to' form in the same lesson or series of lessons as the present simple, mainly because they are conceptually related (far more closely than the link between simple present and simple past) and therefore there is no need to make a song and dance about 'used to' much later on in the course, and also because it makes the lesson much more interesting in terms of what students are able to express, e.g.I used to smoke 40 cigarettes a day but now I don't smoke at all.I don't know if this helps, and I realise that I have talked all round the question you asked.  In a nutshell, we need to be associating verb forms with the meaning they convey and the conceptual frameworks they belong in.  These meanings and conceptual frameworks exist in learners' L1 but may be realised in very different ways linguistically.Enough!Best wishesRod  

Dear Rod

Great thanks for sharing your ideas! I use something like this in my classroom, but  the activities you have provided are worth trying without any doubt! Thanks for the prompt! 

You are absolutely right that difficulties with grammar issues are greatly dependent on L1 of learners. My students have more problems with different ways of expressing Future and the 'mysterious' differences between Present Perfect and Present Perfect Continuos :).

I would be grateful if you find time to help me with a piece of advice, when you have time, of course.

Warmest wishes



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