Iatefl Teasig Webinar branches out to do Facebook Discussions

IMG_0598What are the Iatefl Teasig Webinars?

If you look at the image on the left you may be forgiven for thinking that the Iatefl Teasig (Testing, Evaluation and Assessment Special Interest Group) is a bit of an informal affair, and actually you would be partly right. Testing, evaluation and assessment is often thought of as being rather dry or difficult to deal with, so why not bring a warm association of a “nice cup of tea” into the picture.? In our webinars Neil Bullock and Judith Mader, the coordinators of Teasig, with a little help from me, have tried to keep an informal but informative style, reaching out to members of the sig but also others who are interested in testing and who might, in the future, become members of our sig too. The aim of the webinars is to invite interesting speakers who have something to say about testing, evaluation or assessment, to discuss their topic in a one-hour webinar. These are held regularly every few months (For more information follow this link to the Teasig site) on Adobe Connect, and are generally well received. We have been fortunate so far in having had some excellent speakers who really reach out, embracing the medium of the webinar and include the audience in their discussions. The discussions, however, tend inevitably to be “top-down” in the traditional sense. The speaker presents his or her ideas and the audience listens, comments in the chat box and asks questions. Speakers then answer some of the questions at the end of the session, or if there is not much time they answer them in a feature in the Teasig newsletter.

This has been successful so far, but we have now decided to take the process one step further to allow for greater exploration, discussion and sharing of resources by the participants. How are we doing this?

Why use Facebook for webinar discussions?

In the C21 we actually have the chance to question things like discussions and use social media to do this in interesting new ways. In the past conferences and seminars have often been about listening to experts and asking questions, learning something new and then going home. Now we have the chance to take the discussion further to reflect and share our insights with each other drawing on the largely untapped resource of audience experience and insight.  Instead of just “going home” or rather switching off the computer and heading towards a bar for a Prosecco (in my case) this week we extended the discussion of  ‘Assessing and Marking Writing” by Clare Fielder to take things further on Facebook. Why use Facebook?

Well, Facebook is a space that many of us know and use all the time, which means that like a familiar room, we can meet there to discuss the ideas that have come up, just as we might do in a café, for instance. Being “somewhere” that we already know makes people feel comfortable and willing to post their own ideas and comments in a freer way than they might do in the actual webinar chat feed. An added adva

Looking at old things in new ways
A Space for Reflection

ntage of extending our event in this way, is that although the actually discussion itself was synchronous with me moderating it, the posts actually stay online so that all those interested in the event can go back to see them. In fact, some comments were added after the event itself, which means that a whole new asynchronous exchange starts to develop. One person, for example, Aimee Johansen, watched the recording (avaiable after the event itself)  and then commented on the Facebook Events page, that whe had found it interested and it had reminded her of some things and introduced her to other feedback methods that she would not have thought of but would like to try out. I then asked her what she would like to try in particular, so the discussion continues even a few days after the actual event.  Kent’s research about Facebook use in class discussions shows clearly that students, for instance, are happier to post on facebook than on official course discussion boards, and even though our discussions are professional and not part of a course I believe the same principle applies. As in real life there are those who like to post and others who like to follow the discussion “silently”. Whichever way you choose to use the discussion is up to you, and catering for different needs is all part of the show. For all these reasons, and particularly because Facebook is so well known, then, and many are happy using it, this was what we opted for. This was our first experience, it went well and I hope it will get even better in the future.

What happened in the Facebook Discussion?

We used the Teasig Facebook Page, which has been set up and managed by Ceyda Mutlu. Ceyda had already set up an event to advertise the webinar, as she always does and Participants were directed to this page at the end of the webinar. Some people, in fact had already accepted the invitation to attend the webinar and had posted questions and comments in advance. This meant that the discussion was already underway, in fact, before the webinar had even started!

On the evening of the webinar particpants were directed to the “Facebook Event” at the end of the webinar, and I posted the questions that had come up during the event here. Clare had been speaking about using Correction Codes to provide feedback to learners on their writing and there was a whole range of questions. I myself had quite a few including a question about how to include this kind of feedback in courses where time constraints are already an issue. Clare had outlined some of the disadvantages such as learner participation, which often comes about because learners receive a piece of written work corrected with a code that they do not understand. Time, then, must be devoted to familiarising learners both with the process and the code. I’m a big believer in learner centred teaching and developing online dialgogues with my learners, possibly becuase I tend to have very large classes, so here is a post I wrote after the 2015 Iatefl Conference which touches on developing asynchronous dialgues with learners to provide feedback and growth, so I wanted to know what Clare thought about integrating all these things into a teaching system.

We all discussed these and other ideas and shared resources and screenshots to explain what we meant, etc. This was our first “live” discussion, but which I mean that there was a moderator and participants knew that we were all “there” at that particular time, and I’m sure that things will only get better with practice, but as a first attempt it went well, so if you’r einterested go along to the discussion and have a look🙂.

 

Free resources and guides for corpora

A very useful post for any teacher wanting to start integrating corpora into classroom teaching by Jennie Wright.

teflhelper

Thanks to everyone who came to my IATEFL session on making trouble-free corpus tasks in less than ten minutes. Here are the free guides and resources from the session as requested. I’ll add more later.

The ultimate guide to freely available corpora: http://www.corpora4learning.net/resources/corpora.html

The most popular corpora:
The British National Corpus (BNC): http://www.natcorp.ox.ac.uk/
The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA): http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/
The British Academic Written English Corpus (BAWE): https://the.sketchengine.co.uk/open/
The British Academic Spoken English Corpus (BASE): https://the.sketchengine.co.uk/open/

Guides for using corpora:
Lamy, M-N., & Klarskov Mortensen, H. J. (2012). ICT4LT Module 2.4: Using concordance programs in the Modern Foreign Languages classroom. In Davies G. (Ed.), Information and Communications Technology for Language Teachers. Slough: Thames Valley University. Retrieved from http://www.ict4lt.org/en/en_mod2-4.htm
TheGrammarLab. (2012, July 12).

COCA 01: Introduction to Using the Corpus of Contemporary American English. [Webcast]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sCLgRTlxG0Y

COCA Bites: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9bvpERRkEIQ

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Celebrating Shakespeare and our Language

william-shakespeare-62936_1280400 Years since Shakespeare’s Death

 

 

This year marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death on 23rd April 1616, a day which, as Clarisse Loughrey in The Independent rightly says marked a day when ‘a man died but a legend was born.’ His legend, in fact, is still very evident in the very language we speak. He is a character who is very dear to our hearts here in Verona, so I decided to dedicate a blog post to him today.

Shakespeare and Iatefl Birmingham 2016

One of the things it was hard to miss at the recent Iatefl Conference in Birmingham was the centre stage in the middle of the exhibition area, where mini performances had been scheduled for the whole conference, an excellent idea.

One day when I was wandering around the book stalls and being handed cupcakes and sparkling wine (just thought I’d add that detail) I heard the amazing sound of Shakespeare as ‘hip-hop’. So I found out who was doing this amazing performance and it turned out that this was a group of people who, among other things, perform  educational events. They come under the name of THSC or The Hip-Hop Shakespeare Company. Check them out to hear Shakespeare as you’ve never heard him before. Here is a video to see what I mean: a comparison of hip-hop with Shakespeare followed by the hip-hop version of Sonnet 18:

Shakespeare and Our Language

Whether you like the hip-hop version or not is probably a matter of taste, but one thing is clear: much of the language we speak today (and this is true not only of English but others too) has been influenced by Shakespeare, partley because so many have read his works or seen them performed, but the pervasive nature of expressions that he coined is a tribute to the poetry of the language he uses itself, I think.

Yesterday, Sian Morgan, a friend of mine on Facebook shared an image of ‘Things we say today which we owe to Shakespeare” which is a picture of a notebook page written by 20-year-old Becky in London and published in September 2011 on Tumblr (See the link above).  It was simply an image of the notes she had taken of simple expressions from everyday language that come from Shakespeare’s work, but it very quickly went viral. Sian’s post reminded me of this image, so I have decided to celebrate the Bard by giving you all a mini lesson plan. It could be used as the starter to a lesson or as a follow up activity and may be related to:

Literature

Language

Linguistics

Personalty

Interculture

Poetry

Music

… and many more.

Here is the updated image and the original, which Becky generously gives her permission to everyone to use. (I actually prefer the original, spelling mistake and all!)

 

rescannededitedshakespeare

Mini Lesson Plan

  1. Project the image of the language without the heading and ask learners what the connection between these ‘chunks’ is or where they think they originate from;
  2. Ask learners to choose the chunk or saying they like best (this is best done quickly, instinctively);
  3. Ask them to write their saying on a slip of paper;
  4. Collect the slips of paper and redistribute them randomly to everyone in the class;
  5. Ask learners to ‘mill’ around the classroom and their aim is to find the ‘owner’ of the ‘saying they have been given. They can do this by asking questions or guessing but they cannot simply ask; did you write X? They could, for instance, for a saying like ‘vanish into thin air’ ask:
    1. Did you choose something about escaping/ superhuman powers?
    2. Did you choose an image related to ‘air’?
  6. Finally group learners in small groups (with their original slips of paper) and ask them to discuss why they chose their expressions with questions such as:
    1. Did you like the sound?
    2. Did you like the image?
    3. Did you like the idea?
    4. Did you like the language?
  7. Optional stages:
    1. ask them discuss what they think their choice says about the way they are feeling at the moment;
    2. ask them discuss the influence of Shakespeare on their language: do they recognise any of these expressions?
    3. ask them discuss the influence of similar literary figures from their own culture: in Italy an obvius candidate would be Dante, for instance.

I coould go on but I think that is enough for today. Any comments or more ideas would be very welcome🙂

 

The Online Corpus Symposium, at the Virtual Round Table 6th May 2016

Lexis is More than Words

words words and more words

As most of you know, I’m a great believer in lexis rather than words and also in corpora, when they are used in a principled way for teaching, so I was very happy to be asked to join the Online Corpus Symposium with Leo Selivan, Jennie Wright and Mura Nava  the Virtual Round Table Conference last night. For anyone who wants to watch the videos of our talks here are the links:

Jennie Wright: https://lancelot.adobeconnect.com/_a875817169/p2s18o3lv1t/?launcher=false&fcsContent=true&pbMode=normal

Sharon Hartle: https://lancelot.adobeconnect.com/_a875817169/p3lgecco8p2/?launcher=false&fcsContent=true&pbMode=normal

Mura Nava:https://lancelot.adobeconnect.com/_a875817169/p7a0zkkbqbg/?launcher=false&fcsContent=true&pbMode=normal

Questions and Answers: https://lancelot.adobeconnect.com/_a875817169/p5oyh6x9h9y/?launcher=false&fcsContent=true&pbMode=normal

The conference is going on today and tomorrow as well so you are still in time to take part🙂.

A Quick Overview

Jennie set the ball rolling with a very entertaining, interactive introduction to COCA   showing teachers just how easy, fun and useful it is to create materials from a corpus for their class. She included worksheets on collocation work and also “guessing the key term” in a concordance search. What was good about this was that many of those in the audience said that her presentation was taking the “fear” out of corpora, and people felt very enthusiastic and keen to give it a go.

My presentation, I thought, provided a nice contrast to this because I was focusing on encouraging learners to be more independent. I introduced SkeLL, which I have written about before. SkeLL, or the Sketch Engine English Language Learning web interface, differs from many freely available online corpora in that it has been designed specifically for language learners and so it provides examples which are already filtered for different meanings and parts of speech, and it has a wonderful “word sketch” feature, which groups collocations according to grammatical categories related to the word or phrase being searched for. For instance, if you search for “rush” you can see a word sketch for the noun and a different one for the verb. I showed how I use a scaffolded approach to sensitizing my B2 learners to SkeLL to help them become more aware of features of co-text such as verb patterns and collocations, as this enables them to recognise much more quickly which answer is most appropriate in cloze tests etc.

Mura introduced the BYU Wikipedia Corpus, developed by the same Mark Davies  of Bringham Young University who developed COCA as well. This is a new corpus which gives you the chance to create your own virtual corpus using Wikipedia texts on any subject you are interested in, and I still haven’t had time to try it out, but it looks great🙂.

I promised the participants that I would post my slides so here they are, together with the handout I used with my learners and talked about in my presentation.

Enjoy🙂

Here is my Powerpoint with the screen shots for anyone who is interested🙂

SkeLL for Use of English [2305843009213705779]

Exam practice use of English

 

 

 

Using Socrative

Introducing Socrative

http://socrative.com/

Since I’m doing a training session next week on using Socrative and Quizlet as part of a BYOD (Bring your own device) approach to teaching, I thought I’d share a little video with you that I made this morning just to illustrate the basics of the teacher dashboard.

Learner reflection, revision quizzes and a whole lot more

I use this tool mainly because I have large groups and it can be used in all kinds of ways. The description says that it has been designed to use quizzes, which might be tests, revision or practice etc. It can also be asked to ask questions, prompting learner reflection at the end of a lesson. I also use it a lot for writing asking, for instance, my advanced learners to summarise a text and then post it in the “Quick Question” function of Socrative, which I set up for them quickly in class. They can then read each other’s work and vote for the version they like best🙂

Records

Socrative, which was designed by educators for eductaors, also has an inbuilt record keeping feature. This means that any work my learners do, such as summary writing, can then be sent to me by email, or simply accessed from the site. I can look at this for further assessment, feedback or simply for my own reflection. It is a feature which I have also used to run informal impromtpu polls and surveys that can then be very helpful when designing courses, or simply lesson planning.

Sharing content

You can also share the content you create either with colleagues by sharing the number of the quiz etc. or by going to Socrative Share Garden where the community uploads content for everyone to use. You can then edit this content further to adapt it to your own needs if you want to. My colleague, for instance, created a very challenging Christmas quiz, which she then shared with me and my learners.

So, if you want a really versatile tool which is fun and lets your learners use their telephones and tablets in class, why not try it out…

 

Assessment is in the air at Iatefl Birmingham 2016

 
Formative assessment is all around us in almost every aspect of everyday teaching. 

 

 

Time for Tea: or testing, evaluation and assessment. 

I have been lucky enough to attend the Iatefl conference for several years now, and each year I like to select various themes to the sessions I choose to go to. This year, for the first time, I have been involved in The TEASIG webinars, and so one of my main themes for this conference was assessment. At the risk of seeming pedantic I am going to explain briefly what I mean by assessment in this article. My interpretation is perhaps a little broader than the more orthodox understanding of the term in the world of education. Testing, evaluation and assessment are often used almost interchangeably when it comes to exams but there is a difference: in a nutshell, a test is the practical method we use to measure our construct, the assessment is the whole process of measuring, which may include tests or other tools and evaluation, as it is often applied, is related to judgements about something, often before we use it , so that we might evaluate a digital tool to see if it is what we need to teach our learners to engage with lexis, for instance. The focus of assessment in our field is generally learners’ knowledge, skills and performance, but one thing that struck me in this conference was that actually teachers are surrounded by assessment, especially when it is a formative part of the learning process, they breathe it in every day in almost every interaction both with learners, teaching tools and with texts. In the PCE this year we touched on both formative and summative assessment but the main focus was what teachers need to know about summative test production and application. That is why I decided then to focus rather on the formative aspect when attending other presentations during the rest of the conference and I would like to share a few impressions about this with you here.

The PCE: What teachers need to know about assessment

The Teasig Pre Conference event provided us with a wonderful opportunity to discuss what teachers really need to know about assessment. Neil Bullock asked some searching questions that gave us all food for thought such as “If learning is so important why do assessment and teaching seem to dominate?” Or “why is so little attention paid to assessment on training courses?”, which was echoed on several occasions throughout the day. Neil works in the world of aviation and he also asked who would like to fly in a plane with a pilot who could not communicate with e air traffic control tower! This definitely gives you a very practical reason to advocate effective summative assessment.

Evelina Galaczi and Nahal Khabbazbashi followed on with a rich but practical session which provided us with six key questions when designing a test: “Why, who and what am I testing?”, “How am I testing and scoring and how is my test benefitting learners?” A key concept in this was that the test you design should not only be valid but also fit for the purpose you are designing it for. A perfectly valid test, for example, if used in the wrong context for learners who need to do something that that particular test does not assess, will be worse than useless for that purpose, even though it may be fine if used for the purpose it was designed for. Their focus was speaking and, to illustrate the point above, if your learners need to give formal presentations, then a general test that assesses conversation, interacting and giving opinions, may not be the answer for you.

Assessment Literacy

Later in the afternoon Vivien Berry and Barry O’Sullivan explored the concept of assessment literacy, which they said had been mistakenly interpreted to mean “testing for literacy”. Assessment literacy, however,in basic terms, means how literate you are when it comes to assessment. It is a very wide area and few of those present considered themselves to be at all literate but after the day’s discussions we felt that we were beginning to get an idea of what we didn’t know, which is, after all, the first step. Once again the feeling was that more training is required for teachers who are often required to develop tests of various types.

How educators feel

Speaking to various people at the conference I got the same negative reaction fairly often, which confirms the initial PCE idea that there is little training done on teacher training courses and despite this everyone needs to be involved in the assessment process at some level. Tests in fact,have negative associations for many of us, possibly because of our past experiences of stress related to high stakes test-taking.Throughout the conference, however, my initial feeling that assessment is in the air we breathe every day, was confirmed albeit indirectly by many of the discussions I took part in.

What about the rest of the conference?

When it comes to formative assessment the separation between teaching and testing i is by no means so clear as it is in summative testing, where, despite washback effects, the two processes are usually conceived of as being different. Formative assessment is inherent in methodologies where tools such as test-teach-test, or contrastive analysis are used, and teachers assess learner performance on some level every time they interact with them. Everyone attends different events, with a different focus, in a conference like this and my own focus tend to be related to lexis and corpora, so here is a taste of some of my impressions.

Looking at assessment in general and formative assessment in particular

On the first day David Crystal talked about language change, which led me to think that teachers need to assess the language they choose to focus on with their learners or to consider acceptable or appropriate for their needs. If many Internet users write “who would of thought it?” Does that mean automatically that this is an acceptable form for our learners or should we simply draw their attention to the fact that such changes are underway? Obviously teachers have to assess their learners and make sensible choices, but the question is when does a language change become an acceptable norm? Should discrete elements be assessed analytically in llearner production or should discourse be looked at holistically? Perhaps the answer is “both”.

Marcel Lemmens, who comes from a translation background, advocated an interesting approach to the formative assessment of writing. He held up a standard translation that had been marked, and was covered in red ink, saying, most of his learners would not even read the painstakingly detailed corrections, but would go straight to the mark. He called for the need to familiarise learners with the assessment criteria before dong the test itself And suggested a more holistic approach to marking an email, looking at stylistic features which would help learners to write more effectively, such as cohesion, register and perhaps choosing one or two specific language areas to focus on, such as the use of articles, so that the assessment would then be recycled back into the learning process, and the corrections would actually help learners to achieve their aims. Whilst this was thought-provoking, learner expectations also need to be considered. My learners, for instance, expect their tests to be “corrected” and any change which is introduced is generally better if it is gradual. So,for instance, this term,in one group, I introduced one assignment which was “corrected” in the traditional way, with a detailed correction code, followed by individual one to one interviews where the learner could discuss their self corrections with me. I also did activities that were labelled as discussions which were rated holistically and others where a general analytical scale was used that rated, task achievement, coherence and cohesion, clarity of lexical and grammatical expression, and comments were provided as feedback in these categories rather than detailed corrections. The beauty of work like this is that it can all be reintegrated into work being done in the classroom.

Diane Larson Freeman pointed out in her plenary that aspects of learning that are becoming increasingly sgnificant at this point in time are learner agency, relationships and interactions and the patterns that emerge from such complex interactions. By integrating the aspects noticed in formative assessment and reintroducing them into the classroom we are providing our learners, I feel, with exactly the sort of multiple affordances that will lead to different learners having the opportunity to exploit this work in different ways.

Corpora

Corpora and lexis are always areas that interest me so I attended several sessions on this topic and once again assessment in various shapes and forms kept rearing its head.Jenny Wright, for instance, gave an introduction to the use of The American Corpus (COCA) in the classroom focusing on such areas as adverb + adjective collocations, and providing a range of activities that teachers can produce very simply to sensitise learners to such areas and to practise them. Teachers may, for example:

1. Elicit learner intuitions abut the adjective collocate that follows various adjectives such as “bitterly”, “sincerely”or “deeply”;

2. Training can then be provided to show how to do a corpus search for colocation frequency;

3. Concordance lines can then be cut and pasted to provide a concordance line gap filler where the key word is missing.

 It is this activity which is interesting from the point of view of formative assessment as it is often seen as practice but what it is actually doing is testing comprehension or recall, particularly if it is done in a later lesson or part of a test-teach-test sequence. Activities such as this one are used in classrooms all over the world where they are considered to be practice… but they are part of assessment, in fact, since they provide tachers with knowledge about what learners can or cannot do.

To continue with the topic of corpora tools, Stephen Bax introduced his amazing tool Text Inspector, (http://www.textinspector.com/workflow). This tool assesses the difficulty of a text giving it a percentage score from zero to native speaker and a detailed analysis of the elements that make it so. It is freely available online and has been developed with links both to the English Vocabulary Profile which classifies lexical items with reference to the CEFR levels. It can also be used, of course, as a means of assessing learner written production, so once again, assessment enters the picture. Although Bax advised the audience to err on the side of caution, this is a tool which can be used both by teachers as an initial assessment of learners’ work and by learners who want to assess their own levels. This is an opportunity for learner oriented assessment in the purest interpretation of the term, perhaps, then, in that the individual learner can take assessment into their own hands and use it to develop their own power of expression.

Let’s not forget technology

Technology, of course, in the shape of corpora or many other tools such as the wonderful English Vocabulary and English Grammar Profiles (EVP and EGP)which are being developed to measure the level of various items with reference to the Cambridge Learner Corpus (for the EGP) and various corpora (for the EVP). This means that when developing reading tests, for instance, we now have tools to help us gauge the level of difficulty of lexical items, which in turn, can help us make mor valid and reliable tests. It is not only teachers, of course, who can use these tools but learners too and,in a world where user content reigns supreme, our learners can create their own “revision tests” or “progress tests” very easily and post them online to share with the rest of the class or even… with the rest of the world. So even though teachers do not seem to particularly warm to the notion of assessment, it seems clear to me that we are all talking about it and at Iatefl in Birmingham, assessment was definitely in the air.

The Cambridge English Profiles vocabulary and now… grammar!

IMG_0046Moving on from Lexis to look at Grammar

As you probably know I’m a great believer in the lexical dimension of language, particularly at higher levels, and I’ve posted quite a lot recently about the damage I believe an over-preoccupation with the rules of grammar can cause. ( See this post if you are interested). So it was really good today to hear Prof. Mike McCarthy talking about The English Grammar Profile and, in the trailer to this video, reassuring everyone that whilst grammar rules are important, they are important to be able to create meanings.He underlined the fact that grammar rules need to come out of a natural context and that a teaching approach to grammar should probably be cyclical, studying forms and then revisiting them in different ways.

What is the Grammar Profile?

The grammar profile is the new resource created by the Cambridge team, together with other institutions, and follows on the English Vocabulary Profile, which has been available for some time. The English Profile is, I think, a highly innovative resource which provides us with a description of what learners can do at different levels, innovative because it truly tries to put the learners at the centre of the process.When I first heard about the Vocabulary Profile in 2011, I was very excited about it and we started to use it here in Verona as a reference tool for various things such as, for instance, item writing for exams. If we were not sure whether to test a particular word at B2, we could look it up in the Vocabulary Profile and see at what level learners will use that item. If you look up the word “scramble” just to give an example, which we focused on in a text this week at C2 level, you will find that there is an example of a learner who produced that item on a Proficiency exam, so it is classified as a C2 level item:

Schermata 2015-10-16 alle 18.54.10This is what the screen shot looks like. Care has to be taken with this though as it may still be logical to test comprehension of an item like “scramble” in context in, say, a reading test at a B2 level as the English Vocabulary Profile is only describing productive skills.

One or Two Drawbacks

The project is extremely ambitious and the point is sometimes made that it only describes the language learners production, which causes problems like the one I just mentioned. To do this researchers have been analysing the Cambridge Learner Corpus, which is the language learners produce mainly during exams. This is a very large corpus with more than 50 billion items from written language and about 5 million from spoken language but the fact remains that it is still based on production in exams which may mean that the description is rather limited, and there is a big difference in size between the written and spoken compnents. Because of our own experiences and with an eye to item writing for receptive skills, in fact, I asked Prof. McCarthy if there were plans to develop a description that focused on “understanding” in a similar way and he said that there was enough data to do so, but that what was needed were funds… So, all those billionnaires out there, this is your moment!

Grammatical Polysemy

The Grammar Profile contines with its learner centred approach and describes the way learners develop an awareness and mastery of what McCarthy terms “grammatical polysemy”. He said that we usually think of lexis as being polysemous but that grammatical forms are as well, in that a grammatical form can have several meanings. I think of this as a layered process, where the more language you are exposed to the more meanings you can see being attached to different forms. In the video McCarthy mentions “imperatives” for instance, saying that initially learners use them to give commands such as “Don’t forget your ticket” or “Please come on time” but as time goes by they notice that imperatives may be used in other ways such as a compnent of conditionals, with the example “Go into any shop in Cambridge and you’ll see clothes made in China.” In this way the more you interact with the language the more meanings you will see. This reminds me of an idea that came up on a Celta course I was observing, and I’m sorry but I forget whose it was originally😦. The ideas was that learning a language is initially like flying over the countryside at a great height, so that you only notice very prominent features (not in a linguistic sense,, I hasten to add) like mountain ranges, or in grammatical terms, the present simple to talk about general, everyday events etc. As your plane starts to descend though you notice more and more until you are no longer looking at the overall “big picture” but focusing on the details that are closer to the ground: the present simple to tell stories or jokes, for instance. I’ve always liked this idea and I’m sure it’s true of me as a language learner, anyway.

Interacting with Meaningful Texts

The key here, I think, is what I will call the idea of interacting with meaningful texts. By interacting with language directly you can come to the rules by a process of deduction, or maybe you don’t even need the rule, you just remember the form related to the meaning. Many learners spend years grappling with the vagaries of perfect tenses in English and this is definitely true of my C2 level learners. Grammar forms can be explored as chunks in texts, though in just the way that lexical chunks can and perhaps taking the time to stop and look at what is behind an utterance or a sentence will help even more than studying diembodied rules. We were looking at a text I wrote a few years ago where I explained that I had found it very hard to do an MA and the sentence was:

“I’ve been thinking about doing this MA for quite a while now, but it was hard to decide because it was expensive, I wondered whether I wasn’t too old etc.”

Once the learners had heard and understood the message we came back to the form “I’ve been thinking about doing an MA for quite a while now” and I asked them to look at it as a chunk rather than as a rule. We analysed the meaning here, that:

  1. it had not been easy to decide;
  2. it was something that I kept coming back to over a period of time;
  3. I wasn’t sure about whether I wanted to do it or not.

I then asked the learners to think about their own lives and to come up with their own examples. You may think this would be easy for them, but, in fact as I walked round quite a few were just writing notes and not examples and said things like “I can’t think of anything”. I stopped and talked to them at this point about their lives and the things they’d like to do and kept thinking about but maybe couldn’t decide to commit to, because they couldn’t afford to etc. and then the ideas started to flow:

“I’ve been thinking about travelling right round the world”

“I’ve been thinking about takinng up a third language.”

“I’ve been thinking about buying a new car”

Discussing these very real examples then in small cooperative groups made it even more real, so that instead of studying the disembodied rules or asking comprehension check questions after I’d clarified the rules to them, we deduced those concepts from the piece of language itself and then the learners themselves experimented with them, until the grammatical form became part of their own repertoire.

Of course, we will probably need to revisit this again, but I felt that we were on the way.

Goodbye to Disembodied Rules: 3 steps to meaningful development of Grammatical Competence

Burning the candle at both ends
I’ve finally decided!

It’s not the rules themselves that I object to, as rules and explanations can help us to inderstand things, but what I think is essential to understand is that the rule is only the first step, and that if we can deduce that rule from language use in context it will be all the more meaningful rather than studying things like:

“The Present Perfect is often used with “never”   followed by an example such as ” I’ve never met the Pope”  which may well be natural but is not linked in any way to a real, meaningful context.

The next step after understanding how to shape an idea, is to use it for yourself in a meaningful way, by experimenting, seeing what works and what doesn’t and by using that language yourself.

The third step is to revisit that form because the more you see something the better you will be able to remember it and use it and you can add layers to your mastery of the language. The question of whether vocabulary or grammar is more important, to my mind, misses the point: we need them both to create our own specific meanings.