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).

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.

Who are you? Teacher Identity

This is a post that was meant as a sort of reply to Tyson’s brilliant one and equally brilliant ones by Matthew and Mark. You need to read those. Please. Now or later. 

So, who are you or what’s your professional identity

I’m the one with the chip on my shoulder about my background. Class-conscious but bleeding-hearted. The non-metropolitan. I was a freak at school and it made me feel self-conscious pretty much all the time and the only time I don’t feel like that is when I’m in the classroom.

I grew up the son of a coal miner in a Co. Durham town where ambition meant just living in a bigger house in the same town. My dad left mining after the miner’s strike and then tried a couple of other things before being an oil rigger. 

My dad is a man’s man and I am not. I don’t know when we both got to accept that but we didn’t always. Now we do. 

My mother would prefer me to live in England but accepts that Japan is home for me now. 

Other than this, I got over not being a famous experimental indie guitarist, poet, novelist or bon vivant. 

Wow. Sounds like Freud would have a field day.

Quite.

So, what’s your teaching philosophy?

Crikey. Students should learn. Sometimes people can’t be bothered to learn so try and coax them into it. Try not to be an arse about it. I sometimes fail at this last point, if I’m honest with myself.

They say that you teach how you were taught. In that case I think Mrs. Hobley had the biggest impact on me. Constantly demanding us to do our best, being overly strict about it sometimes but being unapologetic and explaining that she got results. I think I do this sometimes with “Your way is not working for you. Try my way because it has worked for me.”

You always sound so nice elsewhere on your blog. 

Hmmm. I’m not sure whether I like nice. It seems a bit airy fairy. Like I said, I try not to be an arse. 

What are the things that have made you? 

Probably not having support as a newly qualified primary teacher and then losing my job made me more tenacious to prove myself. Fatherhood led me to get higher paid work, then freelancing, then getting competitive led me to my DipTESOL which I think was beneficial because it made me question myself and the industry. 

Ooh! Hark! 

Really. How SLA theory barely gets a nod and a wink in classrooms here. How listening and pronunciation are hard to teach so loads of institutions don’t encourage teachers to actually teach them. How teachers are not provided with development opportunities but institutions are keen as hell to take advantage of a developing teacher. How nobody really gets paid for what they work.My MA I’m studying makes me even more idealistic. 


Are you this negative all the time? 

No. I love that I help people with their hobby and/or real communicative needs. That I help people do things that they didn’t think they could do. That I have letters in my drawer from students who say I made them realise that they could get better at English and that it wasn’t impossible. 

Are you taking the credit for that? 

No. I’m taking the credit for helping these people see what they are capable of by using my knowledge and experience to point them in directions they might never have explored otherwise. 

Oh, OK. 

Look, I know it’s not earth-shattering but it’s what I think.

At least you’re honest. Any advice for other teachers?

Read. Ask questions. Listen to people who seem credible and have evidence as well as opinions. 

#CorpusMOOC Week 2

The heat got turned up this week and we looked at keywords, looked deeper at collocation and colligation and then semantic preference and discourse prosody.

As somebody always about in the internet and reading blogs about teaching, I have kind of got sick of the definition of collocate as ‘the company words keep’. It doesn’t really mean very much, and it could even apply to colligate, too.

Collocate: words that statistically occur together.

Colligate: words that have a statistical affinity for grammatical classes.

Then we get onto semantic preference. This is really interesting. These are basically  collocate groups. For example, in a search of the BNC for ‘encounter’ as a noun there are a collocations with: this, first, last, final, after, second, before, every. I would say (and I could be wrong) that this forms a semantic group of chronological markers.

What this means for teachers is that if you plan to teach ‘encounter’ as a noun, you should probably consider teaching it in contexts with these markers, probably as part of a story. This could be part of a prior reflection on words likely to arise as part of a task in a syllabus or, if you’re teaching using literature, that you might want to bring in some other materials if these collocates don’t appear (although there are also collocates with ‘casual’, ‘sexual’ and ‘thrilling’ for all you risque teachers).

Getting on to discourse prosody, which is the meanings and discourse usually associated with words, this basically has sociolinguistic implications in that how a word is used within a corpus (especially one taken at a specific time/place) tells you about the cultural values associated with that word. Again, in the BNC, if one searches for ‘elderly’ that it appears they need care, particularly health care and that they are vulnerable, which is also backed up by collocations.

elderly

For teachers, this means you might look at this word (for recycling especially) when teaching lessons based on health, or talk about health and infirmity when talking about age (and whether these should be taken as a given, of course; always question discourse!)

I haven’t had much time to play with AntConc this week because I want to make a better corpus to mess about with. Still, interesting stuff.

 

#CorpusMOOC Week 1 notes

I joined the Futurelearn/Lancaster University Corpus MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) this week to supplement the module on technology and corpus linguistics I’m studying for my MA. 

So far, so good. I’ve managed to watch all of the video lectures and I’ve done a good deal of the reading. It’s just a bit of a dip of your toe in the water this week but it was useful to read about different types of corpora as well as how to read the frequency data and so on (spoiler: think of source material and how wide it is). 

One thing that did come up that I wanted to reflect upon was something said in one of the lectures:

Corpora may be used by language teachers to check frequency of occurrence so they may decide to teach their learners more high-frequency items. 

It sounds right but then what about sequences of acquisition? Sure, single words, especially simple nouns or verbs might be chosen, but could it be the case that some high-frequency structures are acquired later than less frequent ones? I think I have more reading to do!