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“Language Swarf” – what I learned in health and safety training this week.

June 17, 2013

Continuing Professional Development is, in my view, something that everyone should embrace. However qualified or experienced you may be at whatever it is you do, you should always be interested in getting better. If someone feels they are already good enough, or if they have no desire to learn how to get better, I would suggest that this person has reached such a level of complacency or disenchantment (or both) in their current career that they should probably be considering a move out of it.

Having said that, in my current job I do occasionally find myself questioning the value of certain CPD activity. This is mainly because, as an employee of a Further Education college where a wide range of subjects are taught, the training we are given tends to be very generic and not always easy to apply.

For example, as a manager of a department I am required to undergo training in health and safety management, and I am currently two days into a 4-day course in Managing Safely. Towards the end of June, when important tasks need to be completed before the end of this term and in time for the new academic year in August, it’s not the most convenient time to devote 4 full days to CPD.

Anyway, in the past couple of days I have found myself having to focus my attention away from things like this year’s results and next year’s syllabuses, and concentrate instead on deciding what control measures would reduce the risk of back injuries suffered by teachers while taking books off shelves.

The trainer on this Health and Safety course is very enthusiastic, and is full of amazing nuggets of health and safety-related information. Thanks to him and this course, I now know that the ideal angle for placing a ladder against a wall is 75º, or 1:4. I know that if a 15-stone man was to fall from a height of 6 feet, he would hit the ground with a 1-tonne force. I know that hardwood dust is carcinogenic. I know that in order to remove asbestos from a building, the exterior needs to be sealed and then the whole building is put into a state of negative pressure in order to suck all the spores out. I know that women who worked in match factories in the late 19th century suffered from “phossy jaw”, an illness brought on by the phosphorus from the matches which displaced the calcium in their bones, causing their gums to swell, their teeth to fall out and their jawbones to more or less rot away.

OK, I have also learnt some useful ways to conduct risk assessments and implement control measures in the workplace. But the trainer is, rightly, very keen to demonstrate how health and safety works in practice. The problem is that all his examples are very difficult to relate to my own working environment.

This in itself has led me to reflect a little on what learners may experience in my classes. Whatever the content of a lesson, there are large parts of it that each individual must find difficult to relate to their own situation. Similarly, there are probably things that I feel are not particularly useful to achieving my lesson aims, but which some students might find really useful and worth exploring further.

There’s another word I have learnt on this course – swarf. Swarf is the small filings or debris that come off a piece of metal or stone as it is being drilled or filed.


During a language lesson there must be all kinds of swarf flying around the classroom – extra bits that come out as a result of activity that focuses on achieving a different aim. Like with drilling, for example (how appropriate!) I might focus the students on rise/fall intonation patterns in lists by drilling this phrase:

We can go to the theatre, the cinema or a restaurant.

But while this is going on, one of my Polish students interrupts to ask why we use the definite article for “theatre” and “cinema” but the indefinite article for “restaurant”. This is not relevant to the purpose of the drilling activity, and focusing on it doesn’t help to make the teaching point more successful. However, the drilling activity has caused the student to raise this question. It’s an accidental by-product, thrown up by something else that was going on in the lesson. A piece of language swarf, if you like.

In these sorts of situations a teacher has a few options. I could ignore the student and keep the class focused on my intonation example. I could tell the student that this might take a while to explain and we’ll do it another time. I could stop what I’m doing completely and respond directly to the question with a brief explanation, and maybe follow it up in more detail at a later date. There are other possible courses of action as well, of course.

I’m not going to suggest that one course of action is better than another, as it would depend very much on the specific context. What I would say, though, is that this issue is probably stopping the Polish student from focusing effectively on the drilling activity I’m trying to do. Like an engineering lecturer in the workshop below my classroom, I need to at least acknowledge that swarf exists, that the student is right to be concerned about it, and ideally take steps to remove it as a potential hazard. I may also want to encourage my students to analyse the swarf to explore its properties beyond just being a piece of debris from a drilling activity. I would probably prefer to do this after the drilling has finished though.

So, language swarf is extra stuff that comes out of a classroom activity but is not directly related to, or useful for, the successful achievement of that activity itself.

Can you think of examples of language swarf in any lessons you’ve taught?

How do you tend to deal with language swarf? Do you just brush it onto the floor? Do you store it up and use it for something else later? What else could you do with swarf?

Is swarf a bad thing – a necessary by-product with no real purpose – or can we do something constructive with swarf as it is flying around the room?

  1. Ken MacDougall permalink

    ‘Swarf’ is a great Scrabble word.


  2. derek permalink

    Let the swarf fly! In a communicative classroom, floating debris is inevitable. But the question is what we do with it? Write it down for future remedial work, clarify it on the spot, suggest that ss note it down and think about it for homework? Of course, impromptu language explanation requires language awareness and confidence. How can we develop this skill?

    I had a student on a training course who was working as a teacher trainer in Malaysia; she did well on the course and was interested in developing as a trainer. Language awareness was a weakness for her (and most of her colleagues). I decided to experiment with TP feedback to address this inadequacy. I divided the TP group of 6 into two trios. While one group discussed trainee lessons, the other group noted down useful phrases used to give feedback (e.g. Your instructions were mostly clear, but you might consider demonstrating the activity). At the end of the feedback session, we looked at the emergent language and searched for generative patterns and useful chunks (e.g. you might consider + v-ing).

    Developing listening skills and noting down language is key to this process, IMHO.

    Thanks for sharing your experience.

    • Thanks very much for this, Derek. Very interesting to hear about how you got your trainees to pick up on emergent language and deal with it later. I imagine this is particularly useful because it highlights to trainees the amount of “extra” language that can come up other than what the lesson focus is. Not only that, but you demonstrated a way of capturing this swarf and using it for learning. Great stuff!

  3. Daljit Kaur permalink

    Today in my training I was reminded that questions from learners are always good. These incidences of language swarf should be dealt with at some point. Whether it’s on the spot or at a later stage depends on what we’re trying to achieve.

    I probably don’t take full advantage of swarf in my lessons, so it’s something I’ll certainly keep in mind for the future.

    • I think that’s a great point, Daljit – questions from learners are always good. Also, things that might seem insignificant to a teacher may be really important or useful to a student. One person’s swarf is another person’s etch-a-sketch!

  4. Hi Steve!

    We are 20 journalists and editors from Norway visiting Glasgow in the end of August. We’re all writing for magazines affiliated to the Union of Education Norway, the largest union for teachers and kindergarten teachers in Norway.
    We would like to get in touch with you to get some views on being a teacher in Scotland.

    I would appreciate it if you sent me an email, as I couldn’t find Yours.

    Best regards: Paal M. Svendsen.

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