Do Lines Need Drawing

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Over the last couple of weeks, a lot of my communication online and offline has been about English language education and the status, stage and purpose it occupies, for teachers as well as students. There are the usual gripes of coursebooks, which I am not going to get into here because I have looked at it before (on more than one occasion), and also the state of the industry/profession and the definitions of ELT, (T)EFL, (T)ESL, (T)ESOL (and Steve tweeted that maybe this is not actually the case now).

So, a bit of background out of the way, on to Mordor!

Us and Them

Most English teachers are, like most people, nice and just trying to go about their day. I’m not going to talk about the outliers who are just unpleasant. This is for the rest of us, and I’m going to talk about a few types of people and it gets political, actually. Sorry, but I’m not sorry.

English teachers generally tend to be a bit bleeding heart. English teachers generally need money to feed themselves and do nice stuff. We can kid ourselves that we are helping make the world a better place. However, why not indulge me and just consider the following questions.

  • How much do we dripfeed the subliminal message that English makes the world go round and anything else just is a bit substandard?
  • We need work, and if Chain Language School can offer enough work to ensure one doesn’t end up homeless even though they drive down wages by aggressive undercutting, is this a wise choice?
  • Do you teach people or content? I’m not even talking about methodology here.
  • Are we, as teachers, being enabled to use a book in a pedagogically sound way and being enabled to deliver content in a standardised way?
  • Are we thinking about how to enable language acquisition to take place?
  • Are we thinking about how to enable acquired language to be used to perform tasks or even speech acts appropriately?
  • Are we given time and resources to provide the best teaching possible?

While a lot of these questions have answers that seem obvious, I am going to say that a lot of us say one thing and do another – and I am holding my hands up here and saying I am not perfect but I try to be good. Eating requires money and so on. Luckily, I don’t require a fast car or designer clothes to feel good about myself. I do have a child and this means the earning of money and the teaching of language.

The problem is that other forces, basically capitalism/neoliberalism manipulate the environment and how easy it is to make wise choices all the time. I’ll go out on a limb and say that several of the larger publishers even obfuscate what a wise choice would even be, because it would actually cause the teachers and administrators who buy/order books to see that buying more books that are pedagogically unsound is, well, unsound and so they would stop ordering and the publisher would cease to exist.

The differences between us

Look, I don’t  want to be a snob (actually, even an anti-snob), nor do I want to be telling anybody how to live their life, but if people can’t actually see what’s at the end of their noses when somebody is pointing it out, I would have to say they’re wilfully blind.

  • Deskilled teachers.
  • Unskilled ‘teachers’.
  • Edutainment.
  • Marketisation of standardised tests of reading and listening used as a benchmark for communicative skills.
  • Use of a standardised test to assume someone can do a job when there are no similar instances of domain-specific language.
  • Book as syllabus.
  • Book as content.
  • E-‘learning’ of multiple-choice questions.
  • Making everything about jobs rather than edification.
  • Making everything about financial return for companies rather than value for money for students, teachers and education providers.

We have a whole culture of spending a month to do a course to get a credential to prove you can be in a classroom and not have chaos ensue. We have companies who will take bachelor’s degree holders and have them provide lessons and have essentially the same credential experience without the credential. This is seen as enough. This is seen as the terminal qualification, the furthest one needs to go, in a lot of commercial language education providers.

We have a culture of needing to move out of the classroom to make adequate money to raise a family. Time in the classroom is not rewarded. Unfortunately, this culture is being passed from commercial entities to schools and colleges. Teaching ‘only’ requires navigating content, providing it, and are we back at audiolingualism yet, because we have presentation of language, practice with behaviourist gap-fills and behaviourist CALL/MALL? Nothing moves on or needs to move on if money can be made.

We have experts and ‘experts’. We have people who have looked at learning, looked at other people’s studies of learning and tried to apply the findings. We also have people who have paid lip service to these studies, dismissed them because they don’t fit with what is convenient or what they have always done. We have providers of continuing professional development who are providing merely orientations to their products.

By any means necessary

You can’t fight cash fluid market leaders with merely a better lesson. You cannot provide lessons to everyone. What can be done is to show what you are actually doing. If you do good work, show it. Somebody might nick your idea. This is actually a good thing because this will raise standards. I mean, yeah, get pissed off that the idea thief didn’t do the legwork to be original or even helpful, but if the idea disperses, good stuff comes. If you have a better alternative to coursebook ELT, you need to have a tangible version of this. People are busy and they need, sadly, to just be able to print something, see what to do, and do it (I am working on something about this).

Standing on the other side of the line

I think we, as the critical wing of English teaching, need to define ourselves in opposition to the dominant idea and practice in English teaching, which usually gets called ELT (I’d say ELT Research Bites is far out of this dominant idea). As nothing bloody changes for the better and Silicon Valley gets lionised in society more and more with poor-quality MALL becoming more prevalent, we need to draw the line to stop frankly awful quality pedagogy in language education becoming the norm, stopping poor pedagogy being acceptable in language teaching, and stopping the rot. You can’t do this by just accepting it, doing your own thing and hoping that others will somehow see what you are doing and do it. We need to speak about the poor side of stuff when it dominates. We can see the rubbish – it’s in every bookshop, every catalogue you get sent, every commercial presentation at a conference, every pointless app that gets recommended for students.

Show your good stuff. The good will out. Now let’s change things.

 

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Against the Coursebook Flow for Better Listening

This post is informed by my own research (Jones, 2017), but isn’t exactly part of it. It was partly inspired by a eureka moment at the sink while washing the dishes. I was thinking about coursebooks, and particularly the flow, when the connection came to me. Anyway, more below.

Boom-Box@High

Take a moment to think about how a coursebook lesson flows. No prizes for guessing that it follows PPP. Usually it’s this: Schema activation (recalling and retrieving knowledge about a topic) activity from an image, perhaps some ‘Starter’ questions. Present language, using reading and/or listening text (usually alternating across a unit, with a reading sub-unit and a listening sub-unit). Move on to a grammar exercise or two. Finish with a ‘free’ speaking activity.

I’m going to look at this listening flow. I’m not going to say that schema activation is a waste of time at all but, does it need to be done every time listening is taught? I am going to say no because we don’t always know or have the ability to make reliable predictions about the upcoming content of conversations we are likely to be involved in or overhear. There is also the fact that in a survey I conducted with teachers about what they state their practices and beliefs to be (Jones, 2017), activating schemata massively negatively correlated with teaching bottom-up listening skills. Basically, teachers who say they activate schemata, say they don’t teach bottom-up skills and teachers who say they teach bottom-up skills say they don’t activate schemata. That bottom-up skills are neglected is not a given, however, but it is only the explicitly stated practice of a large minority. So less than half of the teachers I picked up through social media, the freaks who talk about teaching in their free time, teach bottom-up skills explicitly.

Why? “It’s not in the book” actually isn’t the answer. It is usually in the book, but it’s mislabelled as ‘pronunciation’. It’s a chance to practice what John Field (2008) calls ‘microlistening’ (Field, 2008, (ch. 5, p. 19/33), or decoding and practicing listening to features of connected speech in relative isolation to the rest of a larger text. It’s not always fantastic, but I bet, based on a study I did with Japan-based English teachers (Jones, 2016) on beliefs about pronunciation teaching, that it’s omitted by about 20% of teachers, and only taught at word level, with anything longer than phrase level being omitted by roughly half of teachers.

Why? I don’t have evidence for what follows, it’s just a theory, but I think the schema activation picture is a bit more attractive due to the nice flashy image, potentially with a vocabulary bank, compared to a half page made up of IPA characters to target aspects of speech such as weak forms or even scaffolding the decoding of unfamiliar lexical words. Unattractive books (or books that might look difficult due to a lack of images or actually using IPA) won’t be published for fear that they won’t sell, so learners and teachers who may want to use a book are left with the status quo. And the bottom-up listening masquerading as ‘pronunciation’ doesn’t get covered because it isn’t attractive, isn’t as easy to teach as a grammar exercise, and as Ableeva and Stranks (2013) state:

[T]he real purpose of many listening materials, then, appears quite clearly to be one or more of the following: topic extensions; exemplification of grammar; exemplification of functional or lexical items of language; lead-in to a learner speaking activity. All of these
are worthy and defensible aims, but they are not aims which are tied intrinsically to
improving learners’ ability to process spoken language.

(Ableeva & Stranks, 2013. p. 206).

So, it would be nice to have some teachers’ books to tell teachers to make more of the ‘pronunciation’ sections. It would be nice to have the ‘pronunciation’ sections labelled as ‘phonology’ or ‘listening’. It might just then join the dots for a lot of teachers, particularly novice teachers, to build learners skills to help them tackle longer listening texts with more confidence.

References

Ableeva, R. & Stranks, J. “Listening in another language – research and materials” in Tomlinson, B. (ed.) (2013) Applied Linguistics and Materials Development. London: Bloomsbury.

Field, J. (2008) Listening in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: CUP.

Jones (2016) Teachers’ Beliefs and Practices Regarding Listening and Pronunciation in EFL, Explorations in Teacher Development, 23, 1. 11-17 JALT TD SIG.

Jones (2017) English Language Teachers’ Beliefs and Stated Practices Regarding Second
Language Listening Pedagogy and Alignment with Research. Unpublished MA Dissertation. University of Portsmouth.

“This is gold!”

I’ve been using Saboteur with an adapted Kotoba Rollers framework by James York with my university classes. I want talking with authentic tasks, which games provide. There is also transcription of language used. It isn’t all fun and games though.

In the game, players are either good, hardworking miners or saboteurs. None of the players know the roles of the others but they hardworking miners need to work together to get the gold. The saboteurs need to ensure the pack of cards is exhausted before the treasure cards are reached. There are also action cards such as breaking tools, fixing tools, causing rock falls and checking maps for gold, which may lead to cooperation or subterfuge.

The published rules are a bit tricky to understand. I had set the reading for homework, figuring that if there were a lot of difficulties the students would use dictionaries or Google Translate. This means my students skim read them superficially and did not bother to understand the rules fully before game play. Dictionaries and Google barely got looked at.

However, the rules needed a bit of clarification. This led to some good negotiation of meaning (Long, 1983). There are cards used to destroy the mine path above or break other players’ tools but they weren’t always easily understood.

The transcription is the main part I changed. I ask students to write three parts.

What did your partner say? Did they say it differently to how you would say it? How would you say it?

This has been done pretty well and is usually the best part of my RPG-based classes’ sheets, too.

What communication problems did you have? Why?

This sometimes ends up being a wishy-washy “I need to speak more fluently” but a lot of my students have gone a bit deeper.

If you spoke Japanese, what did you say? How can you say it in English?

This has an obvious function but students do sometimes half-arse it and just use Google Translate one way without checking the translation in a (monolingual) dictionary or Skell.

Still the work got done and there was another game of Saboteur in the following lesson to review. I was satisfied with this little Kotoba Rollers cycle, and so were my students, though I needed to buy 4 lots of the game for my big class.

References

Long, M. (1983) Native speaker/non-native speaker conversation and the negotiation of comprehensible input1. Applied Linguistics, 4 (2) pp. 126–141.

Book Review: 50 Activities for the First Day of School

Walton Burns (2016) 50 Activities for the First Day of School. Alphabet Press. US $1.95 ebook. $6.95 pbk.

You know me. I am cynical. I am down on every kind of thing. I do not review products – I rail against the status quo. I only do Dogme and task-based teaching because of their cool, outside-the-mainstream-ness. I don’t do book reviews.

Didn’t.

I had never been asked before, and while I more or less knew that Walton Burns’ book would not be my kind of thing. His Alphabet Press indie publishing venture is an admirable thing; some say that self-publishing is vanity publishing but I think this is a myth put out by big publishers to avoid doing anything worthwhile but keep selling dreck. Anyway, he asked nicely, I said are you sure you want me to tear you apart and then stich you back together with gravel where your soul once was and he said he was sure this wouldn’t happen. I am trying to be less of a negative person, so I said yes.

Still, the book is not my thing really though there are some things I really like.

Things I liked

It is obviously rooted in practice. You can imagine that these activities have been tried and tried again. The variations of the activities are good, and usually more difficult than the original. Some activities are quite contrived but they get students talking. Though I say contrived, it’s no bigger a contrivance than the average EFL classroom. There is also a lot of moving around which can be good for young-ish learners. There is a very good activity about having learners talk about their strengths in the language. The time capsule activity is good as an activity to later compare to the baseline to see progress. There were rough time limits, too, and I’d think about making these subheadings (of which more later).

Things that weren’t for me

I knew the book wasn’t my thing. It’s very icebreaker heavy and I’m not an icebreaker kind of guy. I normally ask learners to find out about each other but not “five things”. Life isn’t constantly numbered.

I think the memory chain activities were rather over represented, too. Memory chains for names in particular. There could have been more for vocabulary (there are some, however).

The English names thing has always made me feel a bit uneasy as it’s often an excuse for monolingual teachers to get out of trying to actually pronounce real names. “Yasuhiro? OK: Joey.” Sometimes I think this is a (this specific) teacher annoyance more than a student one but I honestly don’t know. I’ve taught on courses where students were obliged to pick an English name and there were some amazingly bizarre ones, possibly picked as a piss-take.

The learning myths bit was a bit less student-centred than most other activities.

Would I buy it?

No. But I have been teaching since before my hair was grey. I have seen almost all of these activities before in one iteration or another in various in-house resource books in language schools or just from observing other teachers.

Would I recommend it to anyone?

Yes, maybe. If someone is new to teaching, fresh off a certificate or just on-the-job ‘training’ it might be useful and saves them reinventing the wheel, especially if they have a real academic year (unlike most EFL language schools who take all comers all year). I’d say the ebook would be useful for planning on public transport. There are worksheets available to download for some of the activities which might be nice for those with little experience.

So, I hope this was a fair review. If you write materials and have a desire to have your dreams torn to shreds you can always get in touch.

 

Resource: Appropriate Repetition

Hi, just a short post this time. I’ve uploaded a resource that I made a while ago. It works best with group classes. It’s a game-like activity. The students beat the teacher if they use all the strips (not crossed out) to get repetition but appropriately and not just grunting or commanding.

The top row of crossed out words and phrases are common among Japanese learners. Feel free to change it up. Give me some credit if you make a remix/localization and let me know and I’ll link to it here.

Anyway, the sheet is here as a PDF and Word document to edit.

#ELTchat  3 Feb 2016 Summary: Differentiation

Differentiation is, in the educational sense of the word, treating learners differently. Here is what the Twitter #eltchat (transcript) said about it.

What is differentiation?

“What is differentiation?” appears to be such a difficult question to answer that it only got directly answered by one short answer by Angelos Bollas, despite being asked by both James Taylor and Shaun Wilden. Angelos said it is:

“designing and/or assigning diff tasks for diff ss for the same lesson”

whereas Yitzha Sarwono said it is:

“giving students different works for the same subject discussed”

How people differentiate

Talken English remarked that there are always fast finishers that need extra work. Patrick Andrews stated that differentiation isn’t just mixed abilities but also “motivation, backgrounds, etc.” Sue Lyon-Jones also added that sometimes it is appropriate to “have a spread of abilities in one group”.

Patrick mentioned:

“levels are not the same as abilities.  – if someone has only just begun, they may be able but beginner”

And Sue Lyon-Jones added that such “‘spiky’ profiles” are common in ESOL.

Talken English said that at their school there is a large gap in ability.

Sue Lyon-Jones said that differentiated homework (such as pre-teaching vocabulary) is useful, and Yitzha said that she set difficult tasks to more able students and similar easier work to students with similar problems.

MariaConca said that differentiation was necessary to cater to different learning styles. Glenys Hanson then mentioned that learning styles have been found to lack any evidence backing them up. Rachel Appleby mentioned that using learning activity styles can be good to ensure learners get different activities that they might not usually choose to do. I said that this would be a good method to counter previous teachers’ labelling of students as things like ‘a visual learner’.

I mentioned that I often differentiate by outcome, to which Patrick recommended and old book by Anderson & Lynch called ‘Listening’. I was asked how I would differentiate by outcome and my example was:

“High: order food with pragmatic appropriacy. Mid: order food (formal lang). Low: order food – no L1”

I also mentioned that it can be worthwhile differentiating by mental states, too, and not just ability.

Patrick said he was thinking about using drama in his classroom and that students who didn’t want to perform could take other roles such as directing, etc.

I said that different roles could be set in discussions: overpowering students could be given quieter roles and weaker students could be set as leader to prove their ability.

Sue Annan asked rhetorically:

“can you differentiate the amount of work, rather than the work itself- choose 4 q’s to answer(?)

Problems with differentiation

Problems with differentiation that were talked about were:

“exposing weaker students. You don’t want them to feel uncomfortable.” (Talken English)

Glenys said

“Ts often project feelings onto students they don’t have. Respect weaker students & they’ll be OK.”

 

I also said some learners might think they are of higher ability than they really are if they are kept with others of similar but lower ability.

Cottage Industry as CPD


Working as a teacher gives you opportunities to have interesting conversations with people and have fun with language. Sometimes, though, you just feel stuck in a rut and want to change things. This could be the start of something beautiful.

You can look at what you might make better instead of having a moan. Are your materials crap? Make some. Turn yourself into a cottage industry within a larger industry. You might learn a bit about what makes good materials. If you do decide to make your own materials, I recommend Powerpoint as opposed to Word, because you can get your layout aligned more easily. Test your materials and refine them (Eric Ries lays out this process in The Lean Startup as Minimum Viable Product [and you don’t have to sell your products for money. Kudos is currency sometimes]).

You might also do a bit of action research. There is a lot of high-faluting imagery about this but what it comes down to is this:

  1. Have a think about something you want to change or want to understand the effect of.
  2. Think of one thing to change in your practice so you can observe it.
  3. Record it.
  4. Keep doing it for a bit so you know if you are fluking it or whatnot.
  5. Reflect.
  6. Maybe have another go.

This might lead you to new ways of working that are better for you. I would think so. Otherwise you might have other like-minded souls join you. However, some see things like this as too much work, rocking the boat or otherwise undesirable. Do it for yourself, not for gratification from others, else you will never see it through.

If you have a blog, why not show your work?

Stuff I’m working on at the moment is a beefed-up version of my TBLT board, and simple materials that can be used easily and widely for useful tasks. This will be coming up soon. But not very soon, so don’t hold your breath. I’m talking at least Summer.