Moodle MOOC 4 on How to Teach with Technology

Looks interesting :-)

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English Learning in Italy: models for C21 learners.

 IMG_1300Welcome to Italy: a world of contradictions

Italy is a world of contradictions, sparkling aquamarine seas and dazzling snowy summits, barren areas of parched wasteland and green forests. Areas of natural beauty haphazzardly crossed by shaky looking electrical cables. It is the land that has produced Dante Aleghieri, Macchiavelli, Silvio Berlusconi, a whole series of creative industries such as the fashion world and of course the Mafia. This is a culture that is often portrayed in the media as an old civilisation with ancient, traditional values, where complex families live proudly in crumbling, but at the same time exquisite, palazzi. In the Twilight saga, to name just one popular contemporary film, the Italian family, the Valturi, is ancient and noble but it definitely stands for the old values and resists innovation or change. Venice is another popular image where beauty and decadence go hand in hand with a city whose inhabitants cannot afford to live there, and which is gradually sinking into the lagoon.

file0001662874096The Italian Education System

Language education in this world, then, is also fraught with contradictions: where the central figure in many school classrooms is still the teacher, whose role is in essence to provide knowledge and learning for the learners and to test them. This teacher has probably been told to teach communicative English but is also expected to develop an awareness of and appreciation of literature. There is widespread belief among teachers of the supremacy of a grammar centred approach when teaching a language no matter what communicative tenets they may pay lip service to. The language used to teach in in monolingual classrooms tends to be Italian, and group or pair work is relatively unknown, possibly because of a what is perceived as being the limitation of work in groups in large classes, or also the unwillingness of the teacher to abandon centre stage. In universities the trend continues with teacher fronted lecture theatres and some written exams but much more oral exams, which is the standard method of testing. Much of what students learn can be considered rote learning and oral examinations do not really give students much time to demonstrate much critical thinking even if it has been developed in class, or by learners’ independent reading. It is also contradictory in that learners are often left to their own devices to deal with huge amounts of material that they will then be tested on, but at the same time little time is spent in preparing those learners to work autonomously, so that they cannot really be considered to be independent learners either.

The Living DeadBecoming Mature

In Italy education is almost classical in tradition basing much of its content on vast ministerial programmes that are not imposed as such, since we have what is known as “La Libertà dell’insegnamento” (Freedom to teach) meaning teachers can choose how they want to teach. Constraints appear, however, puctually in the form of exams and one of the most important exams here is the school leaving exam known as the “Maturità”, the idea being that students who pass these exams are then “mature” although you might not think so when you see some university students in my classes :-)
In these exams, which have been taking place this week, external examiners may use ministerial programmes as a general syllabus to consult when deciding which questions to ask. This, of course, drives generations of teachers into a state of panic as they wonder if they have “covered” enough in class, and it drives generations of students into the reassuring arms of social media with sites springing up right left and centre to “help” them find their way. Students are mostly expected to memorize vast amounts of information rather than developing critical thinking in a way that is reminiscent of Medieval Church led education where texts were memorized to glorify God, but nobody was expected to interpret or question those texts.

“For the Middle Ages knowledge was an authoritative body of revealed truth. It was not for the scholar to observe nature and to test, question, and discover truth for himself but to interpret and expound accepted doctrines. Thus the medieval scholar might debate about how many angels could stand on the head of a pin, but he did not question the existence of angels.” Robert Guiseppi The history of Education, http://history-world.org/history_of_education.htm

The education system in Italy is, like many other sectors, beset by troubles, lack of funding, government reforms and constant burocratic requirements and the traditions, I mentioned at the beginning, which may or may not be fruitful or productive. Memory work, for instance, is essential if you want to learn a language, but it should be done in a meaningful way and not simply rote learning. Tests are also useful, in fact, we are constantly testing ourselves to see if we can remember where we put the car keys etc. This is a part of life, but if these elements become automated or are done out of a sense of paying lip service to guidelines that teachers do not really believe in, then the routines and rituals in schools and universities make it difficult for meaningful teaching and learning to take place, and the institution paradoxically gets in the way of the learning process. Difficult, but not impossible and here and there you can stumble across inspirational teaching. I was under the impression that my university language centre classroom was one of those places, but recently I have been questioning quite a few of my assumptions and beliefs.

Confusion

Am I just feeling stressed?

Questioning my Assumptions

In Italian state schools,universities and private language schools most of the teaching is done by means of course books, and unless learners are preparing for specific exams like Toefl, for instance, the model tends to be British English, so much so that native speaker teachers whose L1 is a different variety of English, American, Australian etc. have been known to accommodate to the language rules they find in these coursebooks.

I spend a lot of time with advanced learners supplying them with strategies to help them become independent such as dictionary skills, ways of working on the internet, learning strategies and the like, but I always assume, somewhere, deep inside, that these advanced learners, whether they are university language students or adults who have reached a high level and want to maintain it, aim to master Standard English, but today I am increasingly asking myself whether that is true in our world, and what exactly Standard English is.

 

What do learners need?

The fact that there are different world Englishes is nothing new, and it makes sense, if you are studying in the USA, for instance to study the American model. If you are, in fact, living in a context where English is the L1 then your motivation is probably integrational in that you are aiming to be accepted by the community and, therefore, you are probably aiming to approach native speaker competence as far as is possible. In our world, however, where communication is increasingly transnational and more and more online communities are appearing which are also virtual, not limited by geographical boundaries in any way those using English to communicate for politics, business, academic and cultural purposes such as to study or attend international conferences or simply to listen to music, watch films or even read newspapers, will be using English in a different way. The motivation here is often instrumental, in that these individuals are using the language as a means to an end. Motivation is a complex thing, tied into our very vision of who we are, and our motivation may change as time goes by as well, but if what you want is to be able to use the language to communicate with others whose L1 is different to yours, then the language itself is a code used to weave meaning into the rich tapestry of plurilingual communication by means of English.

This takes us right back to the notion of what language is, and to take a very simplistic view, imagine what happens when you repeat a word or utterance ad infinitum. It generally loses all meaning very quickly and becomes simply a string of sounds. The same thing happens if you look at a word or sentence for too long. I remember how years ago, when I lived in Berlin, and was desperate to integrate myself into a German speaking world, for instance, I stopped seeing words in English. I walked past a bar, whose name was “Pipeline” every day on my way to the underground station, but it was only after about six months, that I realised that it was an English word and it then had meaning. Up until then I had been looking at the individual letters and pronouncing them in my mind in a syllabic way, as if they were German ( something akin to “Pipalina”, sorry I haven’t got any phonetic symbols here) and of course, that didn’t mean anything. This, to my mind, shows how the letters and sounds themselves are only signs, and it is the convention of the language speaking community that endows them with meaning. Something similar happens to me these days here in Italy because I have Sky T.V. which I usually set to the “original language”, mainly out of habit. At times though, if there is a storm or the lights fail, the system sets itself back to Italian, and I often find that I have watched a whole episode of a TV series before I realise that the language has changed back to Italian. What this means, I think, is that what interests me is the meaning, again: what lies behind the words rather than the words themselves. They are simply a code which transmits meaning, and meaning comes from the users of the language. I can almost here the cries of “Oh, but what about literature, poetry, the musicality, the intricate linguisitc patterns woven by a skillful wordsmith?” Well, I can only repeat that I’m not considering language here as an art form but simply as a means to communicate. When it comes to literary works and in particular poetry I agree, that I want to read these in the original language, and translation does alter meaning, and cultural references, but that is another discussion. Here, I am simply thinking of language as a code for communication, which is what many of our learners want to be able to use it for.

IMG_0546Models of Language: a personal experiment

The problem of models of language and which one to teach and assess, then, is a vicious circle, as. A third element which leads me to think that the words themselves are not as important as the people who use them is the general tolerance which most individuals show when communicating with each other. Here we could go back to Grice’s cooperative principles.

People who are communicating with each other generally want to understand and be understood, and collocations or lexical choices, for instance that may not be completely orthodox from the point of view of the Standard British English model are perfectly comprehensible when viewed in context. To test this theory, I did a small experiment the other day on Facebook, where 50% of my friends are native speaker English users. I posted this message after I’d been working hard to put together a new cupboard I had bought from Ikea ( an achievement in itself which is why I’ve put a photo here of the finished product :-)

“Guess how long it took me to mount my lovely new Ikea cupboard?”

I chose the word “mount” because I wanted to see what would happen. For Italian speakers it is very close to the ItaIianmontare” which would be an appropriate collocation here, but it is not quite right in Standard British English. We might collocate “mount” with a picture, meaning to put it on a card, or, and this is the perfidious bit, we can “mount” kitchen cupboards on the wall. So, we might conclude that in English “mount” something, has connotations of “putting something onto something else, which is then suspended, in some way.”

Most of my Facebook friends ignored this lexical choice completely and just guessed how long it had taken me to put the thing together, or they made admiring noises about the fact that I was doing this on my own at all! Finally someone noticed the word “mount” and commented that I’d obviously been in Italy too long! The point here, is that the choice of “mount” even though it was not “Standard English” in no way impeded my message, or was even considered worthy of note by most of the people reading the post. Even that last word “post” is an illustration of the way that what is important is the meaning individuals attribute to language. Not so long ago the way I am using it here would have been unintelligible, as the “post” was something that arrived through the postbox in the front door at breakfast time. Language is, in short, what its users make of it, and it is the users who create the meanings, not the words themselves.

How important is Collocation, for instance?

As I said, I spend a lot of time helping my advanced learners to work on lexical choice in the hope that I am helping them to express themselves more precisely and clearly, and enabling them to develop a greater awareness of complexity that will help them to write, communicate and ultimately be accepted in the big, wide world outside the classroom door, but the question I am asking myself after the “mount” experiment, is how important such things as collocations really are.
There are, of course collocational choices that make a difference. There is a difference, for example between “making breakfast” or “having breakfast” which could lead to misunderstandings, although even here, the context would probably make it clear which meaning was intended. When C1 learners use collocations such as to “give importance” to something, in their writing or presentations, I tend to correct them as they do not conform to the standard, and then show learners where they can find information about which collocations are the commonly accepted ones ( in dictionaries, corpora etc.). This however brings me back to the other question I asked at the beginning: which model do my learners need?

20120413-210933.jpgWhich model?

The coursebooks we generally use in Italy are produced in the UK, on the whole, as are the dictionaries and reference materials. Dictionaries include information about differing usage according to different varieties, but the model we are teaching is undoubtably British English. Having said that, though, all it takes is the click of a mouse to find models that are not strictly “British English” and are we really sure what that means these days. Here, for instance, is a lesson I did recently based on the Goyte song “Somebody that I used to Know”, if you want to see this lesson in action, follow this link to my digital classroom. We’d be very happy to see you. Given that Goyte is of Belgian extraction although naturalized Australian, the text of his song looks remarkably similar to British English to me!

Much depends, of course, on what your learners need to do with the language. Those, for instance, who want to publish articles in academic journals definitely need to know about complexity of language and collocation norms, so maybe all my hard work hasn’t been completely in vain. The bottom line, as usual, comes back to respecting learner needs and continually questioning your own practices and assumptions. This is the way, I think, to make progress.

So, what should we be teaching and testing?

I’ve concluded, after quite a lot of thought, that for my Italian students the British English model is “closest” to them and as such is a good place to start. Like anything else though the initial model is just that: a model, and it is then up to them to make it into their own “English” by choosing the expressions and structures they need and like, and by experimenting with creative ways of using vocabulary. One example of this is the word “overseas” which in British English is perfect for descriptions of students, for example who come from abroad as Britain is an island, so they literally come “over the sea” to get there, but in Italy this is not so obvious, but one non native speaker who has a wonderful grasp of his own brand of Italian English is the journalist Beppe Servignini (not to be confused with Beppe Grillo) who refers to this concept from the roots of his Italianicity as “north of the Alps”. This makes perfect sense when you are in Milan or Verona, and is the perfect way, I think, to make the language your own. What we should be teaching then is whatever our learners need, starting from the standard model and taking it from there. What we should be testing is another story which deserves another blog post but suffice it to say that I don’t believe it should be the Native Speaker standards of competence which are dizzying heights that are almost impossibile for learners to reach.

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Monday Morning Blog Challenge: which model?

file0001662874096June Blog Challenge

Since it’s the first Monday in June I thought I’d kick off the week with a Blog Challenge about models of English, which is something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot. Obviously, we all use English in different ways, depending on our needs, but is the model we are providing, and, above all, assessing the right one for our learners?

Which Model is right for Italian students?

I teach, as you know, in Italy, and our model tends to be Standard British English. The coursebooks used in state and private schools, and to some extent universities, are mass market globally produced books that come from the UK, on the whole. Even though there are some locally produed books, particularly for the eaching of literature, most of the books are not local, so how relevant are they to our context? Our learners, unless they are language students with a deep rooted interest in language, are motivated to study because they will use English, not to become part of a community where English is the L1 but to communicate in multilingual contexts. This begs the question of what we should teach them. If individuals with different cultural and linguistic backgrounds wish to communicate, of course they will need a model which enables them to understand each other, so, for instance, a local model which includes code switching between English and Italian or “Italian forms in English” will only work among Italian speakers, which rather defeats the purpose!

My take on this has always been to teach the standard British model, as we are in Europe, so it is arguably the closest one to us, and then to encourage creative use, such as adding local sayings, idioms and metaphors (in English) which enrich the language. So far so good. Students learn the basic model to the best of their abilities and then go off into the sunset using it as well as they can. The next problem is assessment.

What is lexical grammar?

What is lexical grammar?

Assessment

When it comes to assessment I think we need to be using a different model. In recent years, with the implementation of the CEFR the move has been to recognise what individuals “can do” when they are communicating, with an emphasis on skills rather than the lexico-grammatical system, although of course the two are closely interconnected. This, however, is where beliefs and traditions die hard, and some find it very difficult to be able to change their perspective towards seeing these learners as people who are using the language to commnicate, and recognising what they can do, rather than simply focusing on the errors.

I have a lot of sympathy for examiners. It’s a complex job which involves judgments that combine the application of criteria (if that is the type of examining being done) with beliefs and traditional habits. For teachers, in classrooms, and this, in my experience is true both of NESTs and NNESTs, what we notice first tends to be error. It hits you between the eyes, if you like, and is seen as something “broken” and many see the job of the teacher as “helping learners to avoid error”. Is it realistic, however, to expect learners to achieve high, almost native speaker like, levels of competence and do they need to do this? I believe that assessment means looking at successful expression and teaching means facilitating learners so that they can develop their own voice and expression tools, to the level that is required by the use they will ultimately make of the language.

So, what about the challenge? Here it is: a few questions for you to consider about your context.

  1. What context do you teach in?
  2. What is the dominant model of English taught?
  3. What is the dominant model of English assessed?
  4. Does this meet your learners’ needs?

I’d be really interested to hear people’s thoughts :-)

 

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Out of the mouths of Babes…

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We all know what the expression “Out of the mouths of Babes” means: that children often reveal the bare truth that adults might dress in the famous emperor’s new clothes. This is also true of candidates doing Cambridge Speaking exams, and one of the little  gems that emerged from today’s exams came from a student, looking at photos showing relationships, where one photo showed a classroom with a very friendly looking teacher and a group of motivated looking g children group work of some kind. The picture above showed a group of people working in a team in an office. The student in the exam looked at the classroom image and immediately dismissed the notion that there could be any meaningful relationship between students and teachers by saying “Well, this one (the elationship) isn’t important because we know that between students and teachers there’s a war.” Then he moved onto the other image and said “This is more important because here people are working in teams, and this is good.” The implication then is that a) at school there is no group work, which is a bad thing, as cooperation leads to growth and productivity and b) that there can be no exchange between students and teachers. Both of these ideas probably reflect an alarming truth that exists in many classrooms and that we try to “dress in the emperor’s new clothes” by means of studies and statistics that do not tell us everything. If this situation is happening it is often not the poor, much maligned teacher’s fault but the fault of systems, programmes and expectations that put a whole series of constraints on teachers who are generally trying to do their best in the situation where they find themselves. How true is this divide? I don’t know. I’m sure that in some classrooms it is true and not in others, but what is worrying is that this candidate expressed this opinion as though it was a given and the other person in the exam nodded his agreement straight away.

Group workTo work in groups, or not to work in groups?

I keep hearing all kinds of reasons from teachers why group work is impractical in their classrooms, raning from the “I can’t move the desks” to “I can’t control the class” which usually hides a fear of losing control, because let’s face it. It is not an easy thing, if you have always taught frontal lessons, to hand over to your learners. For many it goes against one of the core beliefs that they absrbed when they were at school: the teacher is there at the front of the class, imparting knowledge. Although for some this may seem an antequated model of education with the “learners as containers to be filled” image, it is still a fact of life in many classrooms around the world, and, in fact, I personally think that there is definitely a place for frontal lessons, or frontal moments in a class, as well as pair or group work.

The next common excuse is that monolingual classes “won’t use English” in groups so the group is a waste of time. Well, on the subject of speaking the L2, let me refer you to my last blog post on the subject. However, the aim of group work, as the exam candidate above so eloquently said, is not simply to provide “language practice” it is also to provide a space for learners to explore ideas, to learn from each other and to reach conclusions by means of mutual support and exploration. For more on the idea of learners supporting each other see this post that I wrote following Sugata Mitra’s controversial plenary at the Harrogate Iatefl conference earlier this year.

Providing a Framework for Learning

Teaching of course is not at all the same as learning and the best we can hope for is often to motivate our learners to go out and take responsibility for their own learning. This also means providing choices in the classroom but also clear frameworks.

Confusion

Am I just feeling stressed?

A confused learners, who doesn’t know what he “should be doing” or what his teacher expects of him may well become stressed of demotivated, so it is useful to discuss the things we are doing in class with learners and the different ways in which they learn. Knowing, for example, when they can use the task they are doing to work on their spoken English or when they can use their L1 because it makes more sense to do so, in error analysis, for instance. A lesson is more, in fact, than just a glorified “spoken language practice” and whilst it is far from ideal to have a whole lesson conducted in the L1, which also happens, it is also counter-productive, at times, to go too far in the opposite direction and insist on the whole lesson in English, because this means as Guy Cook says, wasting a resource, which is the learners’ L1 which can be used to provide reassurance, to build rapport and to give information about the language they are learning which cannot be given directly in the L2. In monolingual classes the L1 is a resource that should not be underestimated.

So, if our learners, like the candidate in the exam, recognise the need for group work to do much more than practise language, then I can see no reason why teachers shouldn’t do the same. Group work has been coming in for quite a lot of criticism recently, but this, I think is often misguided. A colleague of mine said recently that her university students were loath to give their presentations in front of the class. Well, this is hardly surprising, if you consider that these classes often have 60+ students in them. It takes a very confident person to stand up and give a presentation in another language in front of so many. I suggested she tried getting them to give the presentations in small groups, and she reported back that it had really worked very well, and far from “deteriorating into the L1″ they had all taken the task very seriously and worked well. So here again we can see how the small group is a reassuring space inside the big one, and this was one more success story. So let’s move away from fixed ideas about what groups are for and challenge our own beliefs a but more, after all, it can’t hurt can it?

 

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Do learners want to speak English… or not?

20131002-221141.jpgDo learners want to speak English… or not?

Most learners, if asked why they are studying a language, will answer that they want to learn to “speak that language”.  In fact, in English we collocate the ability to use a language speaking when we say “I speak German” for instance. This is not true of various other languages which,whilst often having the “speak a language collocation” also have other ways of expressing language mastery such as “Knowing the language” or other “being able” etc.

This is just an anecdote, so before you all rise up to contradict me, I’m not suggesting that the English don’t take the written language seriously, I’m just wondering how important the spoken language is for most learners. I personally, when I study a language, want to learn to do everything, and if possible straight away, because I want to be able to put things into practice immediately, which is why I love modal verbs. All you have to do is to learn the modal verb you want and then apply it to a whole range of infinitives, and Bob’s your uncle! You can use the language to express quite complex ideas before you have even learned the general verb inflections.

 

What do learners want and what motivates us?

If I really examine my motivation, I think this is because I am fascinated by languages and their patterns and the power they give you to be able to express ideas. This goes some way beyond the socioeconomic motivations that are being bandied about at the moment by those who look at language use, and what is “required for the work of work” as David Graddol did in his recent plenary at the Harrogate Iatefl Conference, whilst asking the question of how successful the global study of English has been, among other things. Graddol was simply presenting the results of his research so I am not criticising this, but I think that language learning, like any other type of learning is driven by a whole range of factors and motivation is an intensely personal phenomenon. Learning and learning motivation, I think, and I am firmly convinced of this, is tied up, as Dornyei says in his work on L2 Identities with our view of who we are. This is why, when I recently decided to reactivate my ailing Spanish, I began reading again but I also decided to go to the tertulias, or parties,organised by the Italo-Spanish cultural association in Verona, where you can listen to Spanish and use it to speak to other people about interesting topics, over a glass of Cava, without having to go to a traditional course.

What happens in the classroom?

Ok, so am I, as a teacher, shooting myself in the foot here, by saying I don’t want to go to a course. I don’t think so, because when I don’t want to go to a course, the reason is that I have already studied the lexico-grammatical systems when I studied Spanish at university. I then developed this knowledge by doing skills work both in Scotland and in Spain and I remember my tutor at St. Andrews University Prof. Bernard Bentley, who introduced the idea of tertulias which were similar to the ones here in Verona, except that we tended to eat, drink wine and play boardgames, but the one cardinal rule was that we used Spanish all evening. The tertulias were informal but they were definitely events that provided us, as students, with  learning opportunities. So teaching, I think, needs to provide both the cognitive study of the system, because, after all, if you do not know how to form a comparative adjective, you’ll be hard pressed to make comparisons, and the same goes for lexical and phonological aspects. Despite all the criticism of the poor, long suffering communicative language teaching approach, I still think that to teach learners to communicate with these rules in truly meaningful, and I mean meaningful, not just “meaningful on the surface”, frameworks, is the most logical way for us to work in our world. Classes are made up of individuals, who all have different needs, beliefs and desires (and this includes the teacher) and what happens in class is often a sort of “bargain” between teacher and learners, which is negotiated over a period of time and is not at all linear. But, what do learners really want? Are they like me or not?

What do learners want?

Obviously, the answer to the question above is “not” but on the whole most of my learners do want to be able to express themselves in English and to speak the language to communicate with others. This brings me to my second question: why don’t they speak English in class? This is a big one and I have been thinking about this for some time. Many, when faced with this problem, would blame the methodology: small groups don’t work in monolingual classrooms, discipline problems etc. etc. but I think it goes deeper than this and so let’s go back to the tertulias for a moment. As I said above, I haven’t used Spanish with any regularity for about 30 years, but even so it’s still there somewhere, and I can drag it out of the recesses of my brain, when I have to, which I noticed in Malaga in December, which is what made me want to reactivate it in the first place. So, on the way to the tertulia, I sit on the beus and think to myself in Spanish. I already know what the topic will be so I think about that in Spanish for a few days before I go (off and on of course in a very relaxed informal way) and I may even write a Spanish comment on the Facebook page. This is a mental and psychological effort and as I get closer to the venue all those feelings of inadequacy flood my mind. Will everyone else be better than me? Will I be able to say anything at all? I am motivated to speak the language though, so I grit my teeth and march onwards towards the bar.

Taking the plunge at the risk of losing face.

When I get to the bar I meet the next hurdle. This is a largely monolingual group. There are NS Spaniards and South Americans and it is fairly natural to speak with them in Spanish but there are also a lot of Italians and it takes a supreme effort to speak in Spanish to them, as everyone looks at each other in the eye, knows deep down inside that they can communicate much more safely in Italian, without risking either your intended message or your face, and so, to take the plunge and use the L2 has to be a conscious, risky decision. I, of course, am a language teacher, I know that I can take responsibility for my own learning,  and I am not so interested in “face” in this informal group setting, nor do I feel threatened in any way, so I don’t care if I make mistakes. I just want to increase my “communciative competence” in Spanish (See how much Hymes has influenced us all.) so I take a deep breath and start using Spanish. Other people join in and we all relax until the final hurdle of all…In comes a newcomer who discovers that I’m English, and guess what? Yes, he wants to practise his English… I leave the rest to your imagination.

A question of motivation but also of habit

As this salutory little story tells us, it is not so easy to “speak English” in a monolingual group but it is possible if the learners are a) motivated and able to take responsibility for their own learning and b) establish the habit of doing so. To illustrate what I mean I want to take two different monolingual classes that I teach and to compare them. They are both groups of monolingual Italian speakers, but the cultural settings and age groups are very different. One is an adult conversation group, where the participants come because they want to, and do not see it as ‘institutionalized learning’. They have been coming for years, are friends and speak Italian outside the classroom, but as soon as they come in they use English all the time because a) they are at a B2+ level and can do this and b) they have established this use of “English” in the classroom over years of lessons. (That doesn’t mean, however, that we don’t use Italian if we need to.). The other group is a group of young university undergraduates who are studying language and who say that they would like to improve their spoken language and do not have much chance to speak English outside class, but who are very loath to do so in class. I have spent years, like many of my colleagues bustling round classrooms exhorting learners to “Speak in English” with only varying degrees of success, so I decided that it was time to give them the opportunity to face up to what was going on.

Speaking in class

So I gave them this Powerpoint Presentation with a number of questions to reflect on (inspired by my own experiences at the tertulia combined with my observations of what happens in class).  The stuents reflected on these questions and we discussed them at some length (You can see the answers in the full presentation below.) What they finally concluded was that they did need to make the conscious decision to use English, and that by doing so they would actually establish the habit of using it. My bargain with them was to make it clear in class when they should be using English in communicative group work and when the aim of the group work was different such as error analysis etc. so that the use of Italian was fine. So, of course things haven’t changed overnight, and now I go round the class saying “Make the decision now, that you’re going to use English’ but here’s the thing. It is working and the learners do want to do it, so, in my book, that makes it well worth carrying on with.

This is the full Presentation

Who’s afraid of…_

 

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A Comment for Lizzie Pinnard and David Petrie’s Discussion of the Bleak future for ELT

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Photo Credit: bigal101 on Morge File Free Photos

I have just finished reading David Petrie’s bleak vision for 2034 English language learning, and Lizzie Pinnard’s reply to this. David’s vision is of a bleak world (for language teachers at any rate) where learners are totally directed by what is available on the Net and left to their own devices to do placement tests and decide on courses, with no help apart from their computers. Lizzie counters this with her own discussion of how the social side of learning is  so attractive to many learners. I was writing my own comment, but as it seemed to be developing into something a bit longer than a comment. I thought I’d share it here as well. So here goes:

Adrift on the story Cyber-waves

As I read David’s provocative piece I felt quite sad for poor Monica cast adrift and at the mercy of the cyber-ocean waves that buffeted her to right and then to left. This all reminded me of the days when, in the nineties, companies tried to jump onto the self access centre bandwagon, or even earlier, when they all wanted to push language labs. The school I was working in in the eighties invested a huge amount of money in its language lab, which quickly became a white elephant, as have many self access centers around this planet. This is probably because learners generally need direction of some kind and if they are left alone like Monica in the blog post their learning will most probably be materials directed which means as Tomlinson said:

for many learners their experience of self-access materials has been restricted to basically closed activities requiring a narrow left brain focus and little utilization of prior personal experience, of the brain’s potential learning capacity or of individual attributes or inclinations.’ (Tomlinson 2011 Kindle location 8278-8284.)

Technology combined with Humanity

This is because, as you so rightly say in your title, Lizzie, I think, learning tends to be social and people need to communicate. This is why, when some friends and I recently set up a book club in Verona, and I mentioned it on Facebook, there was an immediate call for a group on Facebook where others could read the books and take part too, even if they couldn’t physically come to our meetings, or even as an added support if they could. This is technology and the Internet at its social best where people support and create learning rather than the bleak predictions for 2034 where learners are left to their own devices with no support or interaction. At the moment social learning sites such as Fixoodle are doing well precisely because people meet up on them and help each other to build their knowledge of language together.

English, holidays, cards and a fifteen-year long relationship

I personally have some learners who have been coming to class for more than fifteen years, and the English is only part of the motivation. They are now very class friends and also go on holiday together and meet to play cards. This is what happens when Holliday’s classroom “small culture” becomes a real “small community”, and what happens in that community is meaningful and socially constructed. A far cry from the $400 dollar online course, and the sad vision of mediators scrabbling for as many students as they can in call centre mode. The day education is reduced to this is the day that I’ll leave it.

 

Reference:

Tomlinson, B. (2011) Introduction. In: Tomlinson, B. (ed) Materials development in language teaching. Cambridge: CUP. pp. 1-24.

 

 

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Blended learning as a Social Process, Sugata Mitra at Iatefl and the Aftermath

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Blended Learning: face to face interaction with support from the digital world.

If you look at this image, you will see the essence of what I think of as learning in action. It isn’t a mill drill, it is meaningful discussion going on in the F2F component of a blended learning approach to teaching.

Learners interact with each other and with the teacher who encourages them to find their own paths and is there providing encouragement and direction where needed. I’m not going to cite all the people who advocate learning as a social phenomenon but I’d just like to mention Mike Harrison, who, in a recent blog post, reacted to Sugata Mitra’s vision of children huddled round computers interacting with machines in a wounded but dignified way and  said that the social interaction is one of the major aspects of what he thinks of as teaching, and I agree completely with this.

This is not a new idea, it is the essence of constructivist views of learning where knowledge is built socially and in my classrooms, at any rate, learners and the teacher work together to develop the process building a community which acts as a framework within which meaningful communication and learning may, hopefully, take place.

Why was there such an outcry after Mitra’s plenary?

The Plenary

The Interview


Sugata Mitra’s plenary, on Saturday 5th April at the end of the Iatefl conference, seemed to be suggesting that the teacher was an element that was no longer necessary. In his question and answer session that was held yesterday (April 19th) it seemed clearer to me that he was focusing on the learning process and was particularly concerned with areas of the world where teachers are not available, and how to promote learning in these places, rather than saying that teachers were obsolete, although his implication was that in the future the role of teachers must change. He advocates children organising their own learning with challenging question being asked that they can then answer or not, and with “granny figures” who provide support and admiration from afar. A key element, he said, was that the grannies should be amazed by what the children tell them and what they have learned. The teachers, then would become the grannies, as far as I can see, which is not too far removed from the role of “facilitator” which has already been widespread for quite some time.

Although there has been the whole gamut of emotions in the outcry to his presentation the question and answer session yesterday, which should soon be available as a video for all those who missed it, was interesting both for the answers Mitra supplied to the questions we asked him and for the discussion that went on in the chat box, which raised other issues.

I still have a few qualms about all this which I’d like to share with you. I’ve left it until now to publish as I wanted to hear what he had to say in the webinar first :-)

Watching the Sugata Mitra video and the interview made me think that:

Do Learners need or want direction or not?

Actually, he isn’t an educator and doesn’t claim to be (although he is Professor of Educational Technology…). In the interview he said that the role of teachers was something he was thinking about. However, he compares a SOLE  (self organised learning environment) session with a ‘lecture’ and the key word here is lecture, as this seems to be his impression of what teaching is. This may be true in some contexts but not all, and there are many educators who already work with both Internet- webquests and group work.

My thoughts on Non directed Learner Autonomy

In the webinar he said that a SOLE differs from a webquest because a webquest is learners interacting alone with computers to go to specific web sites provided by teachers, but this is quite a narrow view of what a webquest is. Guidance may be provided, but there is no reason why webquests cannot be done in groups and sites provided when asked for but learners do not need to be limited to these sites. I mentioned, in the webinar, my experience with learners who, when left to their own devices, are not necessarily autonomous, and may, in fact, be directed by the materials they find.

They often, for instance, stop at the first online dictionary they find, rather than comparing different ones, and yes, I admit it, they are the ones that I suggest to them. I have quite a lot of experience of online dictionaries and can tell them what I think is good or bad about them, and then leave them to make up their own minds.

It is also, I think,  something of a utopian view to think that everyone, when provided with materials, will magically become a successful independent learner. In fact, in the ELT world we have seen after years of experiments with such things as self access centres, that most learners are NOT able to direct their own learning as successfully as Mitra implies. Learners will go into a self access centre and their learning will be determined by the materials, which is a completely different thing from using materials in the guidance of an expert teacher in a supportive classroom, where learners can experiment, ask questions and teachers can adapt the materials, tasks, topics etc. to the needs of their learners.

I realise that this is not what happens in many classrooms, unfortunately, and I feel that my own context in Italy is a long way away from the experiments in India, where there were few, or even no, teachers available, but I simply don’t think that findings from contexts like these can then lead to generalised statements about teaching. What we need to do is to ask ourselves what the components were that “worked” and how these elements can be adapted and combined with successful teaching in ELT contexts, if we are not already doing this, albeit in different ways.

What are the Key Ingredients in Mitra’s SOLEs ?

The key ingredients are directed peer learning, with challenging questions and affect both the fun the learners are having, their motivation and curiosity and the support provided in the admiration that comes from the granny figures. This all seems, dare I say it, fairly standard for the elt world, but is it standard for mainline schools? The emotive comment of “factoring out the teacher” could perhaps, and I say perhaps, because I’m trying to be objective here, mean factoring out traditional top down teaching and the cognitive focus on lower order skills, or dumming down of learners, which has been changing in our field for many years. This is not true, however, of education authorities who insist on, as Mitra says, ignoring the Internet and banning its use from the classroom.

There are, of course, reasons why this is done too, and working s a teacher who has to juggle institutional constraints, aim for good exam results and promote motivated learning as well is no easy task. The criticism, I feel, however, should be aimed more towards the ministerial programmes, the systems that look at learning as a matter of ticking the boxes, and testing systems which are archaic and do not perhaps meet the needs of learners in many parts of the world.

So… I conclude that what he is saying, as many people have protested over the past two weeks, is not particularly new, on the one hand and an emotive response driven by fear for our jobs may well make us throw up our hands in horror, when what we need to do is think about how to organise our own systems and in particular our testing systems as the washback from these inevitably affects our teaching.

Finally, I still think Mitra was speaking more as a researcher, even though he said he was ‘trying to find a way for children to learn where there would not be a teacher’ so he did not give the children in India any help, but we are educators and we can give our learners help. We, as educators can focus on how to direct their learning so that it is fun, constructive and challenging, just like the image at the top of this post, where learners experiment with different ways of learning until they find what suits them best, in a supportive, meaningful community that is created in the classroom…. I think that’s the positive message, and many of us already do this, don’t we?

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An Energy Dip: approaching high demand teaching (Part One)

imageAfter all the excitement of Iatefl last week, I hit reality back in the classroom this week, and what with all the to do about Sugata Mitra’s ideas and the need to make up a whole series of lessons I suddenly found myself in a very dark professional place. I am teaching a group of learners, or rather, trying to help them, prepare for the Cambridge Advanced Exam in June this year. However, do we have an academic year to prepare for this? No, we have 7 lessons, and now, due to Easter and various national holidays we are about to have a three week break. This, as is understandable, has caused a certain amount of panic both for the students and for me. Far from following high demand teaching, something I truly believe in, we have been focusing on exam strategies and they have been doing practice tests at home, independently.

Learning or Devouring exercises?

Focusing on exam strategies! Good idea, I hear someone say. Well, yes, that is what I thought too, until I realised that what they are doing is trying to do as many tests as possible, swallowing entire volumes of tests, emptying the library and then coming back for more. They are definitely motivated, but my energy dip and depression came from the realisation that this is all very shallow, and that I really have no idea if they are actually learning anything at all. I had just finished gong painstakingly through two exercises designed to make them aware of the need not just to focus on single words but to focus on words and the other words they collocate with. It was an exercise where they had to look at sentences, which were examples of candidate errors in the Use of English exam, and decide where the preposition errors were. I went over the activity and they got the answers right with very little trouble.

I knew I was in trouble, though, when I saw someone checking “something” could it have been a train timetable? on her phone. This activity was so far away from engaging these learners that they may as well have been on the Moon.

Time to stop and Reflect

So, what did I do? Well, I said, “OK”… and they were already focusing on the next exercise, when I said “No, let’s think about this.” The smartphone was put aside for a minute. I said. “Yes, you can identify the prepositions very well but can you use these expressions? Will you remember any of them five minutes after you have walked out of this door?” This was said humorously and so greeted by  nervous laughter but I then took pity on them, smiled, and said “So how can you remember new language?” This was familiar territory and someone, with a rsigned expression said “write sentences” and I replied that yes, they could do that, but today we were going to do something different.

Mechanical study or “Meaningful” study?

Stage 1: Cognitive Study

I then asked them in two groups to take one exercise each and paraphrase the phrasal verbs and expressions( these were things like I congratulated him on getting a new job. Absolutely not memorable for these students or anyone else for that matter) I asked them to think about the context the expressions were being used in, and monitored. It soon became clear that there were several problem areas. What could you set up, for instance? Could you only set up a business or could you set up a committee as well? This led us naturally into dictionary work, and they found out how to use these expressions in a lot more depth. They then mixed the two groups and shared their findings, and by this time the questions were coming thick and fast. The smartphone was being used for the dictionary app and the train timetable was a thing of the past.

Stage Two: personalisation and experimentation: making the language your own

Then I asked them to choose five of the expressions and to make them into questions to interview someone in the other group. This was where the meaningful action came as they asked “real questions” and created content that neither I nor the traditional exercises could have predicted. “to congratulate someone on something” was transformed into “Has anyone ever congratulated you on passing your exams? Much more meaningful for these students as was the reply: “Yes, my parents have… when I deserved it.”

Before long we were involved in a discussion about Starbucks and why the concept probably wouldn’t work in Italy. This was communication and, I think, it was definitely demand high teaching.

Reflection again

At the end I asked them why we had spent 30 minutes of our precious lesson on two exercises. They answered that it had helped them to really understand this language. At that point I felt that the energy dip had passed and I was back on track. I agreed with them and warned against mechanical exam practice without going into the language in depth and sent them of with a series of things to do over the three week holiday including the idea that they should “Make the exercises they do really work for them”.

I’m quite excited to see what they bring back with them :-)

 

 

 

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So, what do you think?

merry go round

All the fun of the fair

Hi everyone,

I decided today that rather than give the highlight of the sessions I went to I’d talk to people at the conference to find out their thoughts about the conference. I aksed the people I spoke to just one questions:

“What has this conference made you think about?”

So, it’s only fair if I start the ball rolling myself and tell you what I think.

A Fantastic Roundabout of ideas and meetings

I’m actually exhausted at the moment, but in a positive way, and I’m fully intending to get my second wind and go to the Pecha Kucha soon. What I have to say though is that this conference has been packed with inspiration for me. last year was not so good as I hobbled around on two broken ankles (Yes, I know you’re tired of hearing about it but it feeds my martyr complex :-) ) so it was all a bit of a haze. This year has been one of the best conferences I’ve attended for ages, and I’m sure that when I get back these incredible ideas will begin to fall into place, so watch this space for more blog posts. But the social aspect was also really important and I’ve caught up with so many people here this year and connected with others who I only really knew through distancelearning or ELTChat.

So, I went to the Pecha Kucha, which was fantastic and caught up with more friends along the way, rounding the evening off with Yorkshire Sausages in Betty’s. (If you haven’t been there yet, make time to go before you leave, if only for a cup of their lovely tea.) Anyway, here are a few of the things people said to me, which are anonhymous, but I’ve specified the place these people are working in. I’d love to hear from you as well, so please add your answers to the question in the comments space below if you’d like to. :-)

 

The Social Side of things

This of course got some positive comments despite the hangovers that were walking around this morning after the CUP party last night:

The world is a very small place. (Jersey)

It’s about seeing people and catching up. (London)

The organisation

I admire the organisers and I’m enthusiastic about the whole project which is Iatefl: it’s quite unique. (Germany)

Inspiring! Everyone is always so supportive and the mentoring system works really well. Everyone’s friendly and the audiences are supportive. (Germany)

Thoughts about language, teaching and teacher training

ELT teachers are not following the Edtech trends easily which is not the case with secondary teachers, who are applying the technology. (Dubai)

It made me think how far the DELTA is behind the current thinking and what people are saying here. It also made me think about levels after David Graddol’s plenary when I was talking to people in India at a call centre for help with my mobile phone, and was passed along a chain of people with different levels until I reached somoeone with high levels who had enough language to be able to reassure me.  (Leeds)

The principle behind lexical priming is so beautifully simple. (Dublin)

There is a long way to go to bridge the gap between what is being discussed here and what happens in the classroom. (Russia)

I realise that there are many different routes open to me and that it’s easy to branch out. Culture can be an asset in the classroom and I got lots of practical classroom activities too. (France)

Organising your time at the Conference

Collaboration, communication and development. Sharing and networking (Rumania)

It’s really important to know how to choose what to go to and what not to go to. My conference has been a bit more hit than miss this year, and it was better last year when I had very specific aims about what I wanted to see. (Germany)

So there you are: a quick taste of what different people are taking away with them. :-)

 

 

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The Demand keeps growing higher, and higher…

Confusion

Am I just feeling stressed?

Quality teaching means helping the learners to learn without feeling stressed.

The theme of High Demand has stayed at the back of my mind all day today, beginning with Katherine Graves’ plenary this morning, when she spoke very eloquently about the way that what is often perceived as an inefficient use of classroom time in ‘bureaucrat speak’, where the key is efficient, cost effective outcomes, actually means quality teaching; to my mind this is an application of Adrian Underhill and Jim Scrivener’s “demand high teaching” meme that I was talking about on Tuesday. What it means is that classroom feedback does not stop at merely eliciting an answer and moving on, regardless of whether the learner has really understood all that it might imply. Katherine Graves’ example came from a mathematics class where learners needed to know the technical term “perimeter” but said something like “goes all the way round” and the teacher accepted this, as the concept had been communicated, but did nothing to help the learner come to terms with the word “perimeter”, which they would need to know for their school work. In the same way in a language class, it is not enough to go round the class merely eliciting answers and replying “Good” even when the answer is not particularly good, which does not help the learner. What helps the learner is to respect the fact that he or she is having trouble with something, finding out what that is and helping them to work through the process of understanding and producing the language, or understanding the problem, without feeling threatened or belittled along the way.

Words or Phrases?

My other main focus today was lexis, and Michael McCarthy’s presentation was as memorable as ever, as he discussed some of the data from the Cambridge Learner Corpus that shows learners have trouble with delexicalised verb + noun phrase collocations. He gave a series of examples which occurred across the board ranging from B1 to C2. What was interesting was that the same problems occurred, just that the word choice tended to become more complex as the level increased. With the example of “make” and “do” being mixed up, for instance, at B1 learners might say “make sports” at B2 “make work” at C1 the instances of confusion were fewer but they were still there with example like “make business” and at C2 “make wonders”. Some items occurred from B2 to C2 like “make research”. His point was that, as he said, when quoting Sinclair, that collocation is not fringe and although he did not really go into the teaching side of all this the implications are once again that it makes no sense to teach single words. Learners need to be focusing on collocations, phrases, and chinks as single units, right from the start.

What is lexical grammar?

What is lexical grammar?

The Lexical Approach or the Lexical Dimension

At the moment, grammar is still probably king with lexis coming second and being fitted into the lesson around the grammar. Michael Hoey will probably tell us tomorrow, in fact, that this is the opposite of the way we use language where it is the grammar that seems to be generated as a result of lexical choice. Michael Lewis also wrote about chunks, collocations and precisely the problems that were mentioned today but the problem of his “Lexical Approach”, which generations of teachers have tried to apply, is that it is not systematic enough for educators to build a curriculum around. Materials and teaching approaches need to be developed along systemic lines and based on sound principles, and whilst the principles here are sound, in my opinion, the system is lacking. This is why Ivor Timmis article in 2008 in the Modern English teacher was such a breath of fresh air to so many of us, because he put down in words what we were all feeling but couldn’t find the words to express. He said that what we need is not to radically change the syllabus we are teaching but to add a lexical dimension to it. This again brings me back to the demand high teaching theme, because what it means is that is not enough for learners to look at single words, which is still so often the case in the materials that are commonly available, but to look, as McCarthy said at “the company they keep“, to look at the collocations and the chunks and to work with them.

Collocation, of course, varies from one language to another, but, to come back to Katherine Grave’s point of respecting the learner and their language, this could actually be used as a resource rather than a problem, working on contrastive analysis in class, and playing with this phenomenon.

It’s quite late and I fear I may be rambling now, so I’m going to have a cup of tea and leave you until tomorrow, when the day starts with Michael Hoey’s plenary. I want a good night’s sleep so that I’ll be bright eyed and bushy tailed for that. (there are a couple of lovely collocations to sleep on :-) )

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