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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