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…_