An “old dog” and “special tricks” (by David Deubelbeiss)

hands Over the length of my teaching career, I’ve changed in many ways. I think my journey mimics that of a lot of other ELT teachers.

1. I have slowed down my delivery and instruction considerably. I used to just screech and scream through content. Now, I relax and pause a lot. I take time to enjoy the spaces together. I’ve realized students need things “a lot” slower and this leads to much more effective learning in the classroom.

2. I risk more, I try different things more. Yes, that would seem against the grain of time and tradition. Aren’t old teachers supposed to be “old dogs” without “new tricks”? Not teachers that have really kept developing and learning on the job. I now understand more deeply, how each student needs to learn in their own fashion and way. That’s why I have to deliver content in different ways and modify content much more thoroughly. In my beginning years, the whole class was a “glob” and I taught that “glob” in one way – my way. Now, I use a multi-modal approach and am much more conscious of hitting all the skills and allowing students to reach the objectives in their own way.

3. I repeat content more often. Even explicitly (there is usually a groan!). I’ve realized the value of this and where I used to just assume students had mastered something, now I assess and if they haven’t “learned”, we repeat, in a different manner.

If there are any “old dogs” out there – I’d like to know if your growth curve has been a long the same lines?

But my development as a teacher isn’t the only thing I’d like to write about today. Rather, it is the shadow cast by my own realization that my development is based upon some sound principles. Throughout my years, I’ve become very interested in special needs and how special educators teach. Mostly because I truly and deeply believe that other than with very young children, we are working with “disabled” students when we teach a language. And we can learn a lot by listening to special needs teachers and the instructional techniques and approaches they use.

One of the epiphanies for me came upon reading Kenneth Dinklage, who as a counselor at Harvard, was stunned how many high performing students were atrocious at learning language. He wondered why these brillant A+ students and “brains”, just squeezed by with Ds in their compulsory foreign language courses. So he set out to get to the root of the problem. It wasn’t anxiety or lack of motivation or even study skills. It was the instruction! The students had a deficit in their L1 which caused problems learning a second language. Once Dinklage applied some of the techniques used by special educators – their language learning blossomed.

Ganschow and Sparks extended Dinklage’s research and identified the Linguistic Coding Deficit Hypothesis (LCDH) stating “that difficulties with foreign language acquisition stem from deficiencies in one or more of these linguistic codes in the student’s native language system.” Brown has since labeled it the somewhat generic, SLAAP (Second Language Acquisition Associated Phenomena). I’ve written about this in detail with some practical advice,  HERE.

To me, what it all meant was that I began to see many of the difficulties my students (and I!) experienced in learning a language, as something that could be overcome if I borrowed many of the “ways”  of  special educators. In part II, I’ll be discussing one such technique – the use of repetition. Stay tuned!


Dinklage, Kenneth T. “The Inability to Learn a Foreign Language.” Emotional Problems of the Student . Ed. G. Blaine and C. McArthur. New York: Appleton, 1971.

Ganschow, Lenore, and Richard Sparks. “Profile of the Learning-Disabled Student Who Experiences Foreign Language Learning Difficulties: Curricular Modifications and Alternatives.” (Revised title: “Impact of the Foreign Language Dilemma on College Bound Students with Specific Learning Disabilities.”) MLA Convention. Chicago, 28 Dec. 1985.

Note: This article by David Deubelbeiss originally appeared on Teaching Village, and is licensed under a Creative Commons, Attribution-Non Commercial, No Derivatives 3.0 License. If you wish to share it you must re-publish it “as is”, and retain any credits, acknowledgements, and hyperlinks within it.

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11 Responses

  1. Barbara says:

    Thanks, David. I think that many of us “old dogs” will see ourselves in your own journey. I also notice that I have fewer “rules” about teaching than I used to.

    Thanks for introducing me to Dinklage, Ganschow, and Sparks. I’m definitely going to add them to my reading list.

    And, I’m looking forward to the second half of this–repetition is one of my favorite topics 🙂

  2. Marisa Pavan says:

    Great post, David! I’ve felt identified with you in my growth as a teacher. I’ve slowed down my teaching pace and I’ve become aware of the fact that no all the students learn in the same way. As to risks, I’ve introduced technology in the classroom and I use blogs and wikis to upload material for my students. It must be a natural consequence of gaining experience, which makes teaching much more enjoyable. Now I’m even considering teaching online!

    • David says:

      Go for it Marisa!

      That is one of the “rich” things about teaching quite a few years. The fruit you are on the vine is much more sweeter!

      I’ve always been so skeptical about the adage that older teachers don’t innovate. I find that as you “age”, you are much more settled about so much else in your teaching toolkit that you are apt to risk, try new things, innovate. It takes confidence, quiet confidence to innovate and I think experienced teachers have that in spades in many cases.

      My rule though for innovation is to always experiment with your “good” classes! That’s an important rule of thumb.

      Barb: the second half is a lot “meatier” and I’ve probably left out a lot. But well have time to “repeat” it and get it right.

  3. Eric Kane says:

    Very good points. I can especially relate to slowing down in the classroom. Silence and pause create anticipation in learners. The become more focussed and, especially when teaching younger learners, better behaved. Thank you!

    • ddeubel says:


      Good points also. It is true, like the taoist philosophy – sometimes less is more. I’ve seen it so many times, how older teachers, seasoned professionals are very slow and deliberate in the classroom – giving students time to process things and follow along….


  4. Kevin Cozma says:

    Thanks for the article. The point about slowing down really hits home. I have done this myself, but only recently. Since I teach English conversation classes out of my home, I try to move the classes along fairly fast to cover more information because the students only come once a week for 1 hour.

    Recently I started studying Japanese from a teacher. Until recently, I had studied it by myself. The teacher comes to my house and teaches a friend and me. Sometimes she moves a little too fast, and I realized that I often do the same thing. I have adjusted my teaching speed and I find it is not only good for the students, it is good for me, too. It gives me a little time to think about the class while I’m teaching it.



  5. David says:


    Thanks for confirming I’m not just an old dog! You highlight the same thing I’ve felt and like yourself, it became so much more apparent upon reflection of my own second language learning experiences.

    I think one of the most damaging things, especially as it happens in Asia with so little out of class exposure to English – is the rush , rush through material. Students learn so much, they learn nothing – that seems to be how it works.

    There is a “slow” dining movement why not a “slow” teaching movement?

  6. Kevin Cozma says:

    Slow teaching movement? Well, I’m going to try it this week.


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