All Talk & No Action in ELT?

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Hamstrung by Money

This weekend was the TESOL Summit in Athens, and like many an ill-advised corporate venture, it was hashtagged to encourage (token) engagement from stakeholders to give (the illusion that) teachers have a say.

The problem is, the last time I looked Pearson isn’t a teacher, nor is Cengage: they are materials developers who make money from coursebooks and so have an interest in keeping teachers deskilled so that language-teaching organisations can implement a Fordist-Taylorist employment structure where any worker is immediately replaceable. If you will, it’s taking the skilled craftsperson and putting them at the same level as someone trained to tighten four bolts with a ratchet 75 times a minute. The British Council, a corporate entity masquerading as a quasi-governmental body (or the other way around) is one of the sponsors. The same British Council who implements observations of various language centres across Britain but also competes with other language centres overseas. (I’m not anti-BC teacher, by the way. There are great people work for the organisation. I’m anti-BC corporate operations. Why are they corporate when they are a branch of the British government?)

There’s a lot going for the TESOL organisation: they do come out and try not to sit on the fence about matters that concern teachers. To what extent are they hamstrung by their need to rely on sponsorship to gather large numbers of people together? That’s not for me to judge for you but for me to judge for myself.

An alternative to the talking shop?

So what can we do apart from have big groups like IATEFL and TESOL pretend to advocate for us teachers but actually advocate for people working for corporate interests that sponsor their grand events?

  • Direct action, as much as you can muster. I’m not saying drive a manure truck into the lobby of Pearson but there is a lot that can be done on a teacher-to-teacher level.
  • Subvert the notion of top-down training by organising your own CPD sessions. This can be meetings carried out the next time you have a free lesson, it could be a meeting over a coffee or beer. I’d go for the taking down time at work – it might be the only paid CPD you have the chance for. Pool skills. What are you good at and what are your colleagues good at? What do you need to help yourself as opposed to helping your bosses (not that bosses are always bad but their interests are not always the same).
  • Ask uncomfortable questions about the rationale of the materials that Oxford, Cambridge, Macmillan, Pearson, Cengage and other reps try to sell you in your own workplace. Can they talk about the psycholinguistic benefits of the way the lesson is designed to flow? Can you show that you have greater knowledge of the principles behind their products? Can they give any rationale at all? Can it be backed up by theory? Has the salesperson ever taught? Just because someone works for a company that is seen as an arbiter of what English is, doesn’t mean they talk sense. Question them as much as you would question me or any other ranting voice on the internet.
  • Talk about wages. Talk about how crap wages are and how they are being driven to the floor. Talk about your wage and your colleagues wages. Talk about how qualifications don’t always result in higher wages. Talk about how the grass is greener elsewhere. If you can find something better, go and tell your colleagues to accept better. Demand High of institutions, as it were.
  • When bullshitted to, don’t take it. If you need to like it or lump it, perhaps you grit your teeth and work to rule. Maybe you look for things you can do yourself or with a group of like-minded colleagues. It’s often a last resort but do you want to teach how you want to teach or teach how somebody in an office 300 miles away who did a degree in business studies and looks at footfall by metro stations as the primary factor in their operations wants you to teach?

Talk is cheap. Talking among teachers, is cheap. If we all talk to each other we can make the grassroots louder than the astroturfing of corporate ELT. Don’t let corporate interests treat you as a replaceable part. You and I, we are not cogs. I’m pledging to not just talk but to make simple actions to help reduce the bollocks in ELT. Who’s in? (And if you are, there’s also TaWSIG).

What happened on the #ELTwhiteboard? 

This whiteboard was for the second lesson of a course I am teaching based on Business Result Pre-Intermediate. The learners are six men at a logistics company. 

The flow

Check homework from the Practice File (gap fills for vocabulary review). 

First up was a game at the end of the chapter based on questions and answers. It gave me a chance to check question formation and adjacency pairs (speech acts that go together).

I was going to move on to ‘eavesdrop’ upon the listening on the previous page and transcribe the conversation with half the class transcribing the man and half transcribing the woman. I thought that the game went on too long to do the textbook listening so I moved on to the speaking activity. 

The speaking activity was the task at the top of the board:Introduce yourself; Targets: 80% native speed of response, 70% accurate vocabulary and grammar. They had to introduce their company, too. Matthew asked why I chose these targets. I figure that an introduction is really easy but an introduction with parameters close to what would be acceptable on business, generally, would be closer to the ‘real world’ and encourage more involvement than a task with no parameters. 

Kamila asked how I measure the speed. Basically, I wait till the preceding utterance finishes, mentally answer and count two beats from my point of answering. It sounds harder than it is. 

How I set it up was in threes, too talk one transcribes the first speaker only. This was to build accuracy in the first speaker. I read about it in this article by Skehan and Foster.  In the article, learners transcribed themselves but in this risk they transcribed each other. Conversations carried on for around seven minutes. I followed up with a focus on form. These were mainly about vocabulary or body language and a little bit on question formation with final prepositions. Advice was given based on the transcription and then the task was repeated. I then followed with pairs repeating a similar task but with a 2 min 30 sec time limit. The companies they chose to talk about were all fictionalised, hence ‘adult entertainment’. Homework set was a gap fill with ‘you’ or ‘I’ in questions. 

It went well, particularly with the weaker students in the class. Some things I wish I’d done were getting the students to record each other in pairs then transcribe themselves. This ended up being the end of the next lesson (make a podcast section to give an introduction to your company)  and homework (transcribe yourself, noting mistakes or things you would change if you did it again). Overall the lesson was quite good but I still am not totally satisfied. Maybe this is because I am still trying to figure out my rapport and how we gel. Maybe I feel it was a bit repetitive, though it was kind of a fun time. 

How I Plan Lessons

Massive disclaimer: plan like this and you will almost certainly fail certificates and diplomas. This is how I plan lessons in a task-based framework that’s a bit Long/Skehan-influenced. However, if you wish to reclaim time for leisure, read on. Many thanks to Kamila and Sarah for the spurring on.

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First thing, refer to your syllabus and notes from the previous lesson. What did you plan for in the syllabus? Does this need to change?

Syllabus: persuade people. (Authentically vague note). Remember a weakness in dealing with difficult people.

Next, what is your target task/exit task, that is what do you want learners to be able to do by the end of the lesson? How much time do they need to do it? How much time do you expect to need for reflection and feedback?
Task: Persuade a colleague to visit a disagreeable client. Estimate: 12 mins task, 5 mins reflection and feedback.

Regarding the exit task, can it be broken up into smaller components? What are they?

Greet, broach a difficult topic, hedge, point out advantages, bargain.

Would a text be useful as an example? Do you expect to do decoding, vocabulary, pragmatics, semantics, grammar, pronunciation or discourse work?

Yes. I’d love an authentic text. Unlikely though. Maybe something like a documentary or the BBC version of The Apprentice. Use an excerpt. Note time codes for difficult words/elements of connected speech. Likely 15-20 mins.

Can you cover all the smaller tasks and the text in one lesson or do you need longer, once the exit task is added to the end?

Probably in a 90-minute lesson. Greetings are fine. Broaching needs 5 mins + 5 minutes Focus on Form (likely discourse markers so prepare some corpus lines, perhaps). Hedging probably 3 mins FonF 2 mins, combine with broaching 7 mins and 2 mins FonF. Point out advantages – maybe 5, seems good for schema activation. FonF might be intensifiers. Bargaining, 6 mins with FonF around  7, possibly syntax with conditionals/modality. The FonF is just predicted. It might be totally different depending upon task performance. Component tasks may be cut as needed (see below).

What will you do to activate schematic knowledge? What about differentiation?

Brainstorm a list of advantages of talking to difficult people. Choose most persuasive three. 7 mins.

Put stages in order. 

Schema activation, 7 mins

Attempt task, 10 mins. FonF 5-10 mins. If task OK, add complexity.

Text work.

Decode these words:

tough /tʌf/

(the) first /ðə fɜːst/

I wanted to /aɪ wɒnɪtʊ/

Listen, summarise, check.

Till 13:09

FonF

Component tasks with FonF

Exit task, feedback, homework.

Gather materials.

Probably copy and paste the corpus lines (linked above) into a document, blank out the adverbs. Give it to my student if required.

Cheers, I planned my lesson.

“Are you seriously going to do that?”

I’ve been experimenting with board games in the classroom, sometimes in a bit of an impromptu way.

“Seriously, Marc? Aren’t you anti-game?

No, I’m not; I’m anti time wasting. I’m going to write a bit about things I’ve done with them below. Both, coincidentally, are by Oink Games. They are pocket sized, due to the boards being made up of chips. Both games require collaboration as well as competition, with shifts between both states. 

Troll

This is a game of guessing card values and ‘betting’ on the value in order to gain treasure. It’s simple and addictive. The game works by guessing the value of a Troll card only one player has seen and as a group being lower (or not being the individual or one of a couple of individuals that takes the total over the Troll card value) in order to win gems. 

I’ve played with children in small groups and in a big university class using teams, and this has tended to work well to encourage English use by penalising unnecessary Japanese use with a one-gem penalty. There’s a tendency to play risky but that’s the fun of the game. There’s negotiation among groups, as well as explanations of betting strategies. 

Deep Sea Adventure

This is Troll with movement and is difficult to win points from without a bit of restraint and cooperation. 

You go around the board as a diver collecting treasure but there’s an air ration, you only know the approximate value of the treasure and carrying it reduces your own movement and also reduces the air for everyone. Because of the game complexity, there is inbuilt need for communication, like “You can’t move five. You need to go back two because of your treasure.” or “you forgot to move the air meter.” My favourite utterances were a very ladylike “Oh, shit!” and “Are you seriously going to do that?” 

Never mind a deep sea adventure, it’s a deep adventure into stuff students never say to one another. 

Further reading

Rose Bard’s blog posts tagged with game-based learning.  

Japan Game Lab

The Line Between Hare-Brained and Useful

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I’ve had this post going on in my head for a while and probably the catalyst for getting it out of my head and into pixels is Sandy Millin’s Incomplete Thoughts post.

I was having a chat with a colleague yesterday and he said, “I don’t know where you get the time for all your ideas.”

“It’s a massive pain in the arse,” I replied, “because I can’t concentrate on other things when something pops up.”

I don’t know if this leads to a condition of not following things through properly, or even just dilettantism but a few things that have got me going all over the internet are:

Open Badges for Accreditation of Some Kind

This blog being about development (ostensibly, though probably more my own), actually having evidence-based accreditation for continuing professional development (CPD) would be a good thing in a landscape of expensive qualifications, cheap qualifications that mean nothing (20-hour internet TEFL courses) and absolutely nothing at all. ITDi provides this, with certificates available and whatnot, too. However, something that can also contribute to teacher-centred, teacher-led teacher development has bugged me for too long. Open Badges seem to sort if fill a gap in that people sit in webinars for certificates but there’s no real proof that they didn’t just leave the laptop on and play games on their phone. How about an open-peer-reviewed bit of writing that helps contribute to the community? Keep your eyes open at #TBLTChat.

Modular Materials

Again, with my Task-Based hat on (which is a beautiful purple crushed-velvet and Kevlar deerstalker), and my ‘I hate coursebooks‘ T-shirt on, how better to address a gap in materials availability than to actually get cracking and make some through refining them. Think less of a Minimum Viable Product than a ‘actually see if students react positively’ approach.

A Co-Op (ad)Venture

I am still investigating the possibility of sorting out a Tokyo/Kawasaki/Yokohama-based co-op of language teachers. Yes, inspired by Serveis Linguistics Barcelona. Viability? Time, Marc? It’s more the client liason that’s a problem but still something I’m looking into. Sometime in 2047.

Some Twitter Hashtags for CPD

So, how-to-use-Twitter-for-CPD articles have been a bit done to death (with some good ones being Lizzie Pinard’s and Sandy Millin’s).

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Image: Wikimedia

Anyway, it’s really good to use Twitter for CPD blah blah blah, personal learning network blah blah blah, but you can focus it more by following some hashtags.

In the ELT Bubble Sphere

#ELTchat is a fine wine that only gets better.

#ELTChinwag is the rave your friend’s brother went to while you were asleep.

#KELTchat is a chige, hot, spicy and full of nutrition.

#LINCchat is the poutine you never knew you wanted.

#AusELT is the beach barbecue that your cool friend took you to.

#TBLTchat is that chocolate chip rum and raisin cronut and espresso with mojito aperitif (though I’m biased!)

#tleap is the geodesic dome in the refectory built from breadsticks and cheese. 

These are all scheduled chats based on a topic. They occur from time to time.

#tleap is the Michelin starred restaurant with an open dress code and realistic pricing.

This is for English for Academic Purposes teachers, which may not be exclusively for second/foreign language speakers but also native speakers, too.

#ELTwhiteboard is the ice cream you just cannot resist.

This happens often. It is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

Over the fence next door

#edchat is mainstream education stuff. Often tech heavy.

#SEN Special Educational Needs. This is mainly about students with such needs in ‘mainstream’ education. We do not talk about this enough in ELT and we get freaked out when students with diverse needs are put in our classes (especially with little notice, and this happens in language schools as well as academia).

#MFLTwitterati is a hashtag where you can get ideas from people who teach French, German and Spanish (and possibly Chinese).

#langchat is something similar

Hopefully, this will be helpful in pointing out stuff that you didn’t know was there.