Real Alternatives Need Alacrity

It’s that old Corporate ELT is killing me slowly trope. Hang on to your hats, comrades, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

So, the coursebooks palaver came up again on Geoff Jordan’s blog. I have written on this before. The main change in my ideas is that instead of Dogme or Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT) being the utopia we should all aim for, what is needed to get teachers to go with something better than a textbook is an alternative.

In the aforementioned post, Steve Brown said that what is needed is not any other kind of alternative but for teachers to take agency: choose what the materials are, or choose to choose with the learners, or whatnot. He is right, but I think there needs to be a bit of handholding to get there.

I’ve seen comments saying that it takes bloody ages to plan a TBLT lesson, and it does when you first start. Similarly CELTA-type lessons take bloody ages when you first start. No qualifications? Think to your first week on the job. Lesson plans took forever. Anything takes ages when you first start.You need to think about whether the initial time investment will pay off or not. You are reading a blog about teacher development, so ostensibly you are open to this seeing as you are reading this instead of playing video games or trolling Trump supporters.

So, let the handholding begin. Or the push to start.

What can I use instead of a coursebook?

Have a think (always a good idea) about what your learners need. Asking them is often a good idea, though teenagers might tell you they need about 3 hours in bed and that they need to do gap-fills of A1 vocab. They don’t. Assess. What can they do? What can’t they do? What aren’t you sure they can do? The answers to this should rarely be “They can’t do the past tense with regular verbs” or something. Maybe “They can’t answer questions about the weekend” is better. Cool. That is something we can chuck into the syllabus, if we think that our learners need this. If they don’t, don’t put it in. But why did you bother assessing it otherwise?

With all this information, you can create a syllabus/course. Sequencing it is a bit of a bugger because you want to think about complexity, what is likely needed toward the start and middle to get to the end, recycling language and such. However, you and your learners have control. This is not the kind of thing to put on a granite tablet. If it seems to need a bit of something else, do that.

But what do I do?

Teach the skills you need to teach. Potentially this is all four skills of reading, listening, writing and speaking. There are books about ways to teach these. You might want to browse Wayzgoose press. Also The Round minis range has some very interesting stuff, as does 52. If you get a copy of Teaching Unplugged, I find it useful.

You and your learners can then source texts from the internet (which a lot of textbooks do anyway so you are cutting out the middleman), edit for length (nice authentic language) or elaborate and spend longer with (that is, put in a gloss at the side or add clauses explaining the language). You can create your own, too, which sounds time consuming but might not be the pain in the arse you think it is. You can also put in some stuff that is rarely covered in textbooks like pronunciation and how to build listening skills, microlistening, and more (a bugbear of mine).

There are also lots of lesson plans on blogs (including here). If you have some good lessons that have worked for you, they might work for others, who can then adapt them. With a book, there are sunk costs and learners will want to plough through the lot if they have bought it. If you have a lesson plan to manipulate, without having sunken money into it bar some printer paper, you and your learners get more control and hopefully smething more suited to them than something chosen by an anonymous somebody in London or New York.

If I’m going to use texts, I might as well use a textbook!

You could, but think of all the pages of nonsense you have to skip. Think of the time spent with learners focussing on pointless vocabulary like ‘sextant’ (thanks Total English pre-intermediate). You have an idea. You know your learners, or at least the context. There is also a ton of stuff on the internet. May I point you to the Google Drive folder at the top of this blog. All the stuff in there is Creative Commons Licensed so you can change it if it isn’t perfect, copy it for your learners, and because I already made it and was going to anyway, it’s free. There is also Paul Walsh’s brill Decentralised Teaching and Learning. There are also ideas to use from Flashmob ELT.

So

You have these ideas to use, modify, whatever and put into timeslots. You can move them around. You have the means, now, if you decide it’s worth a go, stick with it for a few weeks at least, so you can get into the swing of it. If you like it, leave a comment. If you hate it and I’ve ruined your life (and be warned that not all supervisors, managers and even learners are open to this at first. Check, or at least be aware of this. If your learners say they want a book they might just mean they want materials provided and a plan from week to week) leave a comment.

If you think I’m talking nonsense, I’d seriously love you to leave a comment. Tell me why.

If you want help with this, I’m thinking of using Slack for a free (yes, really, at least initially) course type thing, say an experimental three weeks, where I help you sort out how to go about things (together; top-down isn’t how I do things), help with any teething troubles and so on. If you’re interested, contact me.

Well, Sunday night, eleven o’clock and 1000 words. I’m going to bed. Let’s sleep on it.

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Coursebook Syllabus versus Needs Analysis

I have a class on Thursdays that have really let me get my teeth into needs analysis with them. It’s the first time I’ve taught a class and had ‘What do you need to learn?’ answered with something other than ‘English.’

One of my learners told me that a situation we did as an extended task has taken on even more relevance, seeing as he’s going to Europe with two classmates at the end of November.

The thing is, that task wasn’t in the book. It wouldn’t have been on the syllabus at all had I not performed a needs analysis through a class discussion on training and completing a task to analyse linguistic needs.

OK, Marc, so what’s that got to do with anything?

Well, if we have a look at the set texts, and then have a look at the needs analysis then we get to the stage where a Venn diagram or suchlike would be useful. Where is the overlap between the textbook and the needs. Ideally, the people in charge of selling the course would have nothing to do with choosing (or foisting) textbooks. After a needs analysis teachers should be able to see what they need to teach and then look to see what textbook, if any, best meets the needs of the class. What resources need to be gathered? There will always be other things cropping up in lessons that will require divergence and detours from the main syllabus but if the basics are down, everything else that needs to be rejigged on the fly can be done with a minimum of fuss.

However, if you’re working to a pacing of book pages determined by someone outside the classroom who doesn’t know the learners, whose needs are you meeting? Theirs, but their needs are only wants, and those wants shouldn’t matter.

Coursebook Palaver Rechurned

I was going to stay out of it but I think I’m going to have to jump into it. The coursebook thing has reared its head again. Thanks to Liam T, Steve Brown, Brad Smith and Hana Ticha for drawing me back in helping me to think about this.

I think I need to set out my thoughts first.

Global coursebooks are, with few exceptions, rubbish because they try to teach everyone but few actually learn what’s in the book in a meaningful way, mainly but not only because of a focus on grammar and lexical sets.

They are also rubbish because they are bland. There are the odd few with the odd reading passage I’d read for interest. Generally it’s just in there because it’s a carrier topic and in global books those topics have to be inoffensive, thus bland.

Coursebooks are rubbish because everybody speaks the same way. Completely unrealistic speech patterns, too slow and with a script that focuses heavily on presenting grammar points. Business coursebooks are usually more natural than general English coursebooks but that’s sort of like comparing death by hanging and firing squad; the result is the same: students find natural speech difficult to decode and it is difficult for them to anticipate problems with natural speech.

Not all coursebooks are terrible. Mainly business or ESP books are good. Unfortunately, people studying for specific purposes have plenty of motivation which would aid their learning. General English is often English as a School Subject and learners often learn through obligation with no clear idea about why they are studying other than because they need to.

Business coursebooks usually have more explicit discourse-level communication present than general English ones. Both are usually sorely lacking in pronunciation or phonology (even help for teachers to mine texts or audio for this in the teacher’s books is woefully absent).

What’s better than coursebooks is a good set of resources, ideally the kind of stuff with no copyright or with a Creative Commons license, or at least permission to photocopy so you can be sure there are no legal issues. These don’t usually focus on isolated grammar points but when they do they are not in a suggested sequence based on the hunches of someone completely unfamiliar with your learners. You might say that a load of these downloaded onto a USB drive or uploaded to cloud storage is a 21st century resource book.

I still haven’t found a book of resources I truly love because there are too many word searches and crosswords in some but I continue to live in hope. The execrable coursebook I have to use as a syllabus for the university I teach at for an agency does have a workbook with some great activities.

Objections to what I’m saying

  • Coverage/pacing of material is necessary because my boss says so.
  • I pay sufficient lip service to the book to say the syllabus has been taught. Usually it’s one reading done quickly with some vocabulary checks or retellings, else I do the listening as a listening skills mini-lesson,  but the rest is a task that might result in the language in the book being used. If not, that’s fine. Correct the language, reflect and probably trying the same task or a similar one again.

  • Students like books.
  • Fine. Are you a teacher or a bookseller? Is it necessary for them to use the book in a lesson or could it be used at home?

  • Teachers like books.
  • Great. If teachers find coursebooks useful then that’s awesome. I do find it difficult to believe that the same book can work across contexts to provide a sufficient footing for language acquisition to take place.

    Thinking about how to use a book is not the same as being on auto-pilot, plotting a course from page 4 to page 117 over 20 weeks. I think it’s fine to present the grammar for exposure. However, don’t expect it to be ‘mastered’ and beat yourself up or question student motivation or work rate if they can’t use it just because it’s been taught.

  • My students want me to teach the book.
  • They might want you to use it but have you asked them why? Who is the language teaching professional? You might ask how long they have used this method of study and whether it appears to be working. Sometimes you might use the book in ways that are different but as long as they are learning, I expect most students would be satisfied.

Coursebooks: the Thick and the Thin End of the Wedge

I have used some rubbish books in my time as a teacher. I have not used many great ones but I have used some half decent ones, the caveat being that those books were targeted at specific business skills or selected skills that learners needed (based on a pre-course needs analysis).

Anyhow, I have found myself dragged into coursebook debates a few times on Twitter and I am going to refrain from entering any more of them for one year after this post unless they end up being useful for my Master’s degree studies.

There are some excellent critiques of coursebooks: Geoffrey Jordan (1, 1.5, 2) and Rosemere Bard give well-reasoned takedowns (1, 2). The only defences I’ve seen for textbooks that seem to hold any weight are from Twitter people Anne Hendler and Tim Hampson, that teachers are worked too hard to plan several different lessons and select materials so having something to take in to class is a godsend, although the defences were nuanced and acknowledged that the materials were not perfect. The defences I’ve seen from materials writers are less rigid.

Mike S. Boyle posted a defence that focussed on the general sales pitch of coursebooks.

I’m going to look at these six points now.

1. You are a busy, overworked teacher and you don’t have time to prepare.

Possibly this could pass muster. However, the amount of time taken to mine a textbook text for useful language could be done with the newspaper or another authentic text on the way to work or within a few minutes. And by text I mean audio or video as an option there, too. You could also put the onus on students to bring in something they’d like to look at or set them homework to find out about a topic that interests them and report their findings (and/or further questions) to you. It’s going to generate some discussion at least, and if it is coming from the learners it is going to generate language about a topic or situation they want to talk about.

2. You are new to teaching, your school has given you little or no training, and you need obvious structure and guidance.

You had no training? Not even a ‘Teach Yourself TEFL’ book from the library before you boarded a flight? Well, perhaps the coursebook will appeal to you for the first couple of weeks until you bore yourself senseless with the same topics raising their head over and over again. And you’ll be repeating those lessons until your students get to the next level, which will lead you to supplementary materials and realia so you don’t have to look at the book again. If you are lucky enough to have a good book at a crap school that doesn’t care about its teachers then excellent, use it. However, if your school cares little about your training, they’re unlikely to care about your materials, are they?

3. Your class is huge and your students are either required to be there or do not seem to have clear goals for studying English.

If your class is huge, a book is of no consequence. The resources you have are the resources you have. Are you really guiding a class of fifty, sixty or seventy in lockstep through the present perfect? Or do you have several groups of four or thirty-odd pairs having a meaningful conversation about a topic that is likely to interest them and then talking to others in the class?

4. Your students are traumatized from junior high and high school English and are terrified of speaking and making mistakes.

This is unrelated to the book. You can help shy students prepare with offline planning of tasks by writing down what they want to say, asking partners for help and then have them negotiate meaning in a conversation. Yes, Language Classroom Anxiety is a real phenomenon, but having a grammar syllabus on the table is going to help nobody shake the anxiety, no matter how friendly and zappy the illustrations may be.

5. Your students have had a lot of prior exposure to English (though it may not have stuck) so you know you may need to jump in and out of the book a lot, skip over some things, and supplement other areas with extra stuff which you will need to find in a resource pack because you have no time.

If you need to skip over some things, students will start to wonder why they have had to pay between US$20 to $50 for a book that they haven’t covered everything from. Do you skip novel chapters? No, you do not, and a coursebook is a different thing but students want value for money and if they have bought a book they will want to cover it completely, whether it benefits their language development or not. This appears to be setting up some teachers for a fall.

6. At some point in the nearish future, your students are going to have to pass a life-altering high-stakes exam that covers a very specific set of skills, question types, language items, etc.

Yes, they may. Are they being tested on grammar? Then a grammar book is useful. Vocabulary? A vocabulary book. Everything? Then you need to focus on developing their use of language, which a structural syllabus fails to address due to it not taking into account what is learnable by the learners according to their interlanguage state. If they have the chance to learn language through communication and negotiated meaning, allowing them to test internal hypotheses, they are going to internalise the language much more easily than attempting to learn rote the example grammar in the language focus.

Hugh Dellar does acknowledge that a basis of structural grammar is of limited use and that cultural imperialism through the back door is an issue but he does not make a solid argument for the presence of the book in the classroom. I’ve read some well-argued stuff from Hugh regarding the Lexical Approach (which seems like it is an approach desperate to be tacked on to a methodology but this is not the time for that) but his argument doesn’t say anything this time apart from that he is trying something new (yes, he is).

So, now on to my own views.

Books are foisted onto teachers and learners. Generally. Not always, but generally. They are then assumed to be the syllabus for the class.

They strongly favour a PPP approach, and the presentation of grammar in a sequence, often with the presence of review units, frequently a collection of multiple-choice questions.

The listening and reading ‘tasks’ are often multiple-choice insults to intelligence at worst or shooting fish in a barrel at best. If there is an open question it is OK, but this helps to give lie to the status of the teacher or coursebook author dictating the questions that ought to be asked about a text. There are also tons and tons of display questions, which are rarely used in life other than as passive-aggressive rhetoric.

The listening is too often too stupid in that it is ludicrously slow, and completely unlike authentic listening.

There’s little discourse awareness given to learners, with fillers being thrown in occasionally but normally nothing about adjacency pairs or conversation management, the absence of the latter helping to nullify Boyle’s arguments for the book as a crutch for inexperienced or untrained teachers.

Lexically, in many of the structural syllabus coursebooks, there are sets and they are frequently unchallenging due to them being so familiar in students’ lexical landscapes an/or loanwords, so what is the point unless you are looking to separate the front and back cover to justify the price.

Phonemic awareness is given short shrift and even then, learners are given no guidance about what they need to do with their mouths to achieve these sounds (again, what does the fabled inexperienced teacher do here other than talk rubbish about it or hope for the best with magic and accident?). There are no sagittal diagrams or even explanations that diphthongs glide from one position to another so the mouth needs to move when you make this sound.

I think I have covered most of my gripes but if I have missed anything, do let me know by the 7th. Good night.

Teaching or Testing Listening?

Dear Me probably in even 2010,

You get a CD in the back of your shiny book. The shiny book that has a picture of a loudspeaker to show you the track number. You ask the preset questions underneath and you play the CD and there are the lovely voices of the polite English-speaking people, all waiting to speak enthusiastically, one at a time with a handy grammar point in their throats. They are all lovely people who speak in a standard (prestige) variety with as much of their regional accent scrubbed away as possible.

Then you wonder why your students ‘cannot listen’.

Did you teach them how to listen, or did you only check their (lack of) comprehension again?

Nobody taught me how to teach listening. I doubt that the in-house trainers that trained me ever received anything other than a quick mention to ‘make sure you do some listening‘ when they were trained as teachers.

Students learn to listen by metaphorically being thrown in at the deep end. Unfortunately, like swimming, it only works the first time for a few people. Nobody learns to decode at phoneme or syllable level. Sometimes there might be word-level listening but it’s magic and accident. ‘Listen for the word “useless”. What is it used to describe?’

If we want to give students listening practice, all well and good, but don’t call it teaching. Call it listening to the CD, which could be done at home. Teach some connected speech and have students listen for examples of it. Teach some intonation patterns and have students listen for speaker attitude and intention or even how many items they are listing.

You could even ditch the stupid CD, find something online that has real conversations about something the students are interested in (such as a podcast about video games or a YouTube video about a country they want to go to) and play that instead, having them listen for words stressed in the tone units and make sense of it that way.

But don’t press play and tell the students that you’re teaching listening.

Sincerely,

You

Lots of the key ideas here are not mine. Probably most of them come from:
Field, J (2012) Listening in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: CUP.
Prince, Peter (2013) ‘Listening, remembering, writing: Exploring the dictogloss task’. Language Teaching Research: 17(4) 486–500. London: Sage. Retrieved 9 October 2014.

Other #youngerteacherself posts at Joanna Malefaki’s blog.

Keep it real

Loads of teachers seem to think that using realia (real-life objects) is a pain. I think before the prevalence of the internet throughout everyone’s lives this was true; however, you can now source realia with only a search engine and your imagination. Transport maps, supermarket flyers, tourism materials… you name it!

Using these to support vocabulary, as prompts in a role play or as materials for a task-based lesson are all possible and will often take less explicit set up than using a textbook activity because with realia the function is often self-evident. Students can also practise using real-world items rather than overly dumbed-down examples from textbooks which can leave them with a sense of false confidence. If you want to ease your students in to using realia, you might use textbook versions of such material for controlled practice and then have students use realia as part of their free practice.

Model one or two steps of an activity and usually the students will do the rest of the work themselves. You can then spend time monitoring and thinking about what language students may find or may have found useful.

Turn a Reading Text into a Discussion Text

Everyone has experienced a boring textbook before. In this post on her blog, Nicola Prentis gives the essential tips for ripping the guts out of a long text to turn it into a discussion.

As mentioned in her post, it doesn’t work for everything, especially horrendously boring books so if you need to work to a syllabus based on a truly awful book, here’s what I would do.

1. Is the text too long? If so, use half, or even just a third, but make sure it is still relatively meaningful after ditching the rest.

2. Find the useful vocabulary. Take note.

3. Analyse the grammar. Do you have a ‘grammar point’ to teach? Do certain tenses or forms repeat? How can they be used in a meaningful or useful way?

4. Plan a couple of activities where students could feasibly and naturally use the language features (vocabulary and grammar).

5. Choose which activity is your energiser and which is your main event. You should know your students, put the activities where they need to be. Energise your junior high school students before a main event where they may need to be more thoughtful. If you are teaching the same students two lessons back-to-back or coming back to them later, don’t be afraid to have the students spend time thoughtfully first before you energise them ready for part two where you might repeat this process.