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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:
This 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!
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:
it had not been easy to decide;
it was something that I kept coming back to over a period of time;
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
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.
On Mushrooms and Saunas… Yes, that’s right, and no, I didn’t know what it meant either!
Not seeing the meaning for the rules
There are times when you just feel like hiding away from it all or putting your head in your hands and this week was one of those times, I’m afraid. If you cannot understand the title of this article you are in the same situation as I was on Wednesday. I had been looking over exams with students at the university with the idea that by looking at the work they had done, they would be able to see where they needed to focus their energy in preparation for the next exam, or, if they had done well, they could see what had been particularly successful. All was well for the first half hour or so, until the door opened and in came a student who had failed our B1 written exam (It was not the first time this had happened to her, of course, and we’ll see why in a minute). One of the parts of this test involves sentence translation, not to see how proficient learners are at translating but to see if they can express B1 level messages in English. I will not bore you with all of this but here is one of the sentences that was on this paper. If you speak Italian, this is your chance to stop and translate it into English for yourself:
“Non mangerei mai dei funghi raccolti nel bosco perche’ forse non sono buoni.”
You may wonder how releveant this is to the learners, but if you live in the north of Italy mushrooms do tend to figure every so often on your radar and quite a few people pick them, but,anyway, that would be another discussion. OK, so have you translated it? Well, if you have you’ve probably written something like this: I would never eat mushrooms picked in a wood because they might not be edible/safe to eat (At a B1 level even “good” would be acceptable here.) What you would not do was to write what this student had written:
“I have never eaten it mushroom taken in sauna, no good.”
The problem, of course, is that there is no real meaning here, so there is very little communication taking place. When I asked here why she had written “I have never eaten”, instead of a conditional she replied “because ‘never’ takes the present perfect.” In fact she showed me how she had studied all the rules, and had pages and pages of sentences that she had practised with. I then asked her about the ‘sauna’ and she shrugged and said she didn’t know the word for ‘bosco’ so she’d put another one!! It soon became quite clear that she didn’t know other words either such as ‘look for’ or other quite basic items, and this was the point where I started to get a headache and felt like hiding away behind my Iatefl programme. Later on, though, two things becamse very clear to me. Firstly, she was a victim of this pervasive belief in the infallibility of basic grammar rules, that tends to be reinforced all the way through school and then even university, with a real focus on form to the detriment of meaning, and secondly, her total disregard for choosing the right lexical item was also probably the result of a system that prizes grammar rules above lexis. So, what it made me think was that in this case, and evidently many others, the we in the education system had failed our students.
What should we be able to do at different levels
The CEFR was a breath of fresh air, as far as I’m concerned, in that it moved away from this type of structural syllabus to focus on what you ‘can do’ at the various levels, and it seems to me, reading between the lines, that what we are aiming for as we move up from one level to another, at least as far as the productive skills are concerned, is more articulate, specific expression. Let me give you a quick example of what I mean (This is only an idea and not at all scientific so please feel free to tell me what you think) . Here is an utterance that might change in complexity and therefore become more ‘communicative’ the higher the level is:
A2: I like Verona.
B1: I like Verona because it’s a beautiful city.
B2: Verona impresses me because it has lovely architecture and there’s a great atmosphere in the town centre.
C1 I love the town centre atmosphere and the mix of colours and styles in the buildings, as I wander along the romantic, old, city streets of Verona.
C2 I can’t get enough of the lovely Veronese town centre, and I love soaking up its atmosphere and breathing in the unique mix of colour and light you get as you wander round the city.
Ok, do you get the idea. I think what we are aiming at is expressing ourselves as clearly and specifically as we can, and obviously the more we are exposed to language and the more specific lexis (by which I mean words and their patterns) we learn, the more articulate we become. At the A2 level an utterance such as ‘I like Verona’ does not really give us much insight into what the speaker really means or wants to communicate, but the more language we can use the more clearly we can say or write what we mean. This is what I think we need to be aiming for in our world where English is being used by so many different people from different backgrounds. If we want to be able to understand each other we have to be able to see what we mean.
So, the next time I go to the sauna, I’ll be sure not to pick any mushrooms :-)
Following the patterns: colligation and the necessity of a bottom-up approach to grammar
This Saturday I attended High Dellar’s webinar, which should be available as a video on the Iatefl site. He described the phenomenon of colligation clearly and called for more focus on patterns rather than rules in English teaching. At the same time there was an illuminating discussion going on in the chat box, where various opinions were being expressed and I was playing the devil’s advocate, questioning whether or not an over sophisticated focus on native speaker patterning was justified when so many learners do not really need it in our world. So, just in case you’re wondering: what is colligation all about?
What is Colligation?
Colligation means different things to different linguists but in teaching we often adapt the purely linguistic definitions to something this is more significant, or practical for classroom teaching. Michael Hoey, in his influential book Lexical Priming develops his theory of priming both when it comes to collocation and also in other cases, explaining, to try to put it in a nutshell, that the reason words collocate, or we feel so comfortable with certain collocations is that we are “primed” to expect them, having been exposed to them so much as native speakers. Hoey demonstrated this with a comparison of collocation that works in Bill Bryson’s writing Neither Here nor There and a similar version where the collocations are “unnatural”:
“In winter Hammerfest is a thiry-hour ride by bus from Oslo, though why anyone would want to go there in winter is a question worth considering (the original)
“Through winter, rides between Oslo and Hammerfest use thirty hours up in a bus, though why travellers would select to ride there then might be pondered.” (Hoey’s version with unnatural collocations) (Hoey, M. op cit. p.5)
Hoey explains linguistic priming as the way that we would expect certain words to follow others naturally. In his example, for instance, he says that a listener who had heard the word ‘body’ would be quicker to hear the word ‘heart’ than if the former word had been something unrelated like ‘trick’. In this way hearing one word primes you to understand another related word more easily.
So, you may wonder why I’m talking about priming and collocation when the heading of this sub section is ‘What is Colligation?’ Well, bear with me. Hoey goes on to say that priming occurs in other ways as well and one of those is colligation:
‘Every word is primed to occur in ( or avoid) certain grammatical functions; these are its colligations.’ (Hoey, M. op cit. p.13)
In a Nutshell
In ELT we have simplified all this a bit so that we think of collocations as those words that tend to co-occur, often in particular grammatical couplings like verb/noun collocations: to have a shower, to catch a train etc. and the colligations are the way specific words (with specific meanings) co-occur with grammatical features and patterns such as:
to depend + prep. ‘on’ + noun: He depends on his car (This was included in the webinar but actually I think it’s the collocation with ‘of’ that causes trouble. In any case it is a question of patterning and so interesting for that reason :-) )
to find + pronoun + descriptive adjective like ‘interesting’: I find it interesting to see how the novel develops.
to want + personal pronoun +to + inf. : I want you to think about this carefully.
These patterns are very obvious to native speakers, but not at all obvious if English is your L2 especially because you will have been primed to use different patterns in your first language which is why Italian speakers find it very difficult to remember not to say ‘ He depends of his car’ or ‘I find interesting to see how the novel develops’, or ‘I want that you think about this carefully’.
Some of these seem to worry teachers more than others, but they are all examples of the same phenomenon which is simply not choosing the correct colligational pattern, either because you, as a learner, have never thought about it, or, which is possibly more likely, because your own L1 colligational priming is so strong that it overrides something that feels unnatural to you in the L2.
Does this matter?
The next question, of course, is whether this all matters or not. In the discussion the question of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) arose, and that is only natural. In a world where as Crystal, for instance said in his book English as a Global Language, in the early 2000s English was already being spoken by 1.5 billion people, many of them are not communicating with native speakers, or rather they may be communicating with native speakers as well as with everyone else. This means that the use being made of English does not naturally refelct native speaker norms, and basically, does it really matter whether they use the “correct preposition” or “pattern” or not? I played the devil’s advocate in this discussion, by asking whether we are justified in spending a lot of time insisting on native speaker patterns from our learners, when they will then go out into the world and survive quite happily without them. Shouldn’t we be concentrating more on negotiation or accommodation skills to help them when they are doing that?
This was partly provocative but these are questions that plague me and I have often, like many others asked myself which model of English we should be teaching. Ultimately, however, and I’ve said this before, I think that not alerting students to patternings like these colligations and collocations means doing them a disservice. Learners are usually quite intelligent enough to be able to decide themselves what is important and many of them ‘want to know’ how these things work.
I think Sue Annan’s comment in the webinar discussion about it being a question of what learners need and expect (or words to that effect. Sorry, Sue, I can’t remember exactly :-( ) hits the nail on the head. The question of models, in fact, is perhaps missing the point. Our learners need to be exposed to English of all kinds, and they will then develop their own. It is not, perhaps so important to choose a specific model as to familiarise them with the things they need to know, allowing them to read the texts that are of interest and are relevant to them, and enabling them to produce the language they will need and want to produce.
The question of ‘wanting’ is very important too. You may only ‘need’ to use a certain type of English at work, but that does not mean that you are not interested in learning other things too. Even if you don’t use those patterns, or can’t remember them, the fact of being exposed to them or alerted to their existence gives you as a learner more choices.
Being articulate means reaching out to others
The more you notice language, and this is just as true of your L1 as your L2 or L3, the more you read, listen and play with words and their patterns the more articulate you become. The more you learn to listen to others and to negotiate meaning with them or to accommodate to their language the more meanings are created and the more links are forged between people and ideas. This can only be a good thing, so instead of getting worked up about models of English I’m going to teach my learners about language, by means of my own model of English which was once Yorkshire but has now resided in Verona for so long that it may well have lost its identity. What I mean is that the model is only the starting point but the language you use and it is the meanings you create that are the power in language use.
Since it’s officially summer, although you might not think is from the way we were all shivering around an aperitif last night here in Verona, I’ve decided to tell you about my novel. It’s actually a children’s story but adults who have read it say thry loved it too. It is basically the exciting story of Haggis, who many of you already know and love, but I bet you didn’t know that when she was a kitten she saved the world…
Today I’m in Venice, to be exact sipping an aperitif at a bar on the Fondamente Nove in what has to be one of the most elegant cities in the world. Floating as it does on its very own lagoon, with music waiting round every corner and art and architecture to die for, almost heaped carelessly around, as if Venice does not need to make an effort, it is, and as it weaves its magic around you, that suffices.
I arrived yesterday for the National AICLU (Italian University Language Centre Association) Conference, and despite the heat, found myself immediately absorbed into the atmosphere of both the city and the conference. For, I think, the very first time in my life, I was the first speaker after the opening addresses and plenary, which meant that I could then relax and enjoy the rest of the day, knowing that I’d done my bit. My presentation was a description of innovation in advanced productive skills teaching, with examples from my C2LM group. I stressed the need in blended learning to foster autonomy and to do this by means of a blend of online and f2f work where what is done in one of these contexts is then reintegrated back into the other. If you would like to see the Prezi, here it is:
As usual, though, I like to discover themes that run through conferences and this one has not disappointed with very interesting, thought-provoking work emerging from Italian language centres.
Assessment meeting learner Needs
The first theme which wound its way round most of the excellent presentations that I went to yesterday, was English as a Lingua Franca, but I’ve noticed that this is a field which is evolving. The emphasis here was not so much on a description of this phenomenon but it was more a discussion of how to cater for the real needs of our learners who have no interest in becoming native speakers or necessarily of communicating with them, but do need to be able to communicate with others in a common “lingua franca” and this, I think, is a very common sense use of the term. Despite the lip service which is paid to “Englishes” by major examination boards, as David Newbold pointed out, the other “Englishes” provided are all to often limited to Native Speaker varieties.
I have said before that when it comes to teaching I think the English model presented must be initially standard, and for us in Italy, this probably means British English, but if our learners are then going to take their own ownership of this English, then our assessment of them needs to adapt as do the objectives and proficiency expectations that we set up. There comes a point where to expect learners to reach native speaker proficiency is little short of impossible. We have all heard the anecdotes about how difficult the C2 level is and how even educated NSs find it difficult,so what chance do our learners have, and why should they be penalised for not attaining these heights?
The concept of “proficiency” is one that seems to be in the air. It came up at the Iatefl conference in April this year too, as Donald Freeman questioned the goal of native speaker proficiency as being adopted, almost without question. Many criteria for assessment reflect native speaker proficiency aims, but, as Luke Harding recently said in an Iatefl webinar, new criteria and descriptors would be very useful for the assessment of our learners. One example that he gave was related to interactive communication. In non native speaker interactions there is often a lot of mutual support, for instance, which is a skill that could be assessed. David Newbold echoed this when describing the University of Venice, Ca Foscari’s collaboration with Trinity, reminding everyone that the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference) was originally drawn up as a guideline, and may be adapted to suit local contexts. He illustrated this by showing how certain tasks can be adapted to meet the requirements of the university student context, in particular exchanging constructs such as creative writing, which external examination boards often aim at a slightly younger age range to writing tasks involving critical thinking that are more suitable for undergraduates. He brought the idea of what is difficult for learners home to us by telling us that a survey of students from the University of Venice showed that one of the most difficult English accents for learners to understand after Chinese was American English: what does that imply for assessment?
Who are our Learners?
Our learners, who move from one country to another and study abroad as well, are not necessarily monolingual groups. Erasmus exchange students, among others, together with the Italian nationals make for a heterogeneous group that may well use English to communicate with each other. Our learners also live in the age of digital communication and I would add notions of digital literacy that need to be explored and taught to learners.
Manuela Kelly Calzini, when talking about the proposed changes to Trinity exams also presented ideas that are very much line with the ideas above, although in this case related to Academic English. She cited Flowerdew’s recent article “Whose Standards?” looking at the sort of criteria commonly adopted for the assessment of writing and concluded that we are expecting our university undergraduates (both native speaker and non native speaker) to become academics , writing to a standard that might be required if they were intending to publish, when most of them simply want to “get their degree” and graduate. She also called for new standards and new aims that would take into account factors such as:
developing your own voice
showing what you have understood from your reading
show some progression in your learning
show that you can express your ideas coherently
show that you can evaluate information objectively
Once again the idea behind this is to put the learners at the centre of the process and look at what their real needs actually are, rather than expecting them to conform to a set of somewhat arbitrarily devised constructs.
EMI (English Medium Instruction)
This was another important theme which is also linked to the idea that learners and teachers move about and need or might need to be able to use English for work or study purposes. EMI is not tin fact CLIL, but refers to university teaching of courses in another language (usually English). As a result of the Italian university reform universities are keen to internationalise themselves, which means that both the ‘local’ university teachers and visiting ‘university teachers’ are using English for some courses. Some universities are actually providing incentives such as allowing more hours for preparation etc. These lecturers often need support both for the language and for teaching methodologies that go hand in hand with working in a new language. Katherine Ackerley and Suzanne Cloke gave a fascinating account of their English for University Lecturers course and their advisory service: two different approaches to provide more choice for these lecturers. What emerged, and this was confirmed by colleagues who had done similar work in Florence and Urbino was that lecturers need to work on their English but also need to work on their methodology and learn a considerable amount from being observed and from the feedback that they receive on these courses.
This talk led to a considerable amount of discussion, and was taken up again in the plenary by Mary Carmel Coonan, this afternoon, who asked what the role of language centres will be in this process of internationalisation.
Technology, of course, was also part of the conference, and there were very interesting presentations by technicians such as Filippo Caburlotto and Federico Simionato from Ca Foscari, who talked about their experience with Moodle, its limitations and how they intend to develop other platforms which can then be integrated into Moodle. Blended learning from this point of view is not blending f2f with online contexts but rather, blending different types of systems such as Voicethread and Open Eya, with Moodle, for lecture capture, and mixing these with other types of online content management. It was interesting to hear the technician’s point of view and more discussion between technicians and teachers would be a useful development as was clear from some of the questions asked. Technicians maybe need to understand the need for teachers to be trained to work in blended contexts and teachers need to learn more about the technical ins and outs.
Technology, as Filippo pointed out, is not a magic answer to all of our problems, and I would add that the technology, as always, is only as good as the teacher who is using it. This is just as true of that amazing piece of technology, the blackboard, as it is of Moodle.
Lunch in the Language Centre’s shady garden
As with any conference so much depends on the people who attend and the discussions and networking that goes on at an informal level as well as in the presentations. The Language Centre in Venice is a delightful place, with a shady garden where we had our coffee, aperitifs and lunch today, with “risotto with Prosecco and Parmesan cheese” as well as a series of other lovely foods. Catching up with friends and colleagues is an essential element of it all, and relaxing in a campo over a coffee while mulling over some of the presentations, ideas, or just what is going on in your language centre is as much a part of it all as the presentations themselves.
A discordant note
I couldn’t help noticing, though, and I was not the only one, that there were far fewer participants at this conference than at past National Conferences such as the one held in Parma in 2007. Is this because so many language centres have been closed? Is it because of a lack of funding or is it a reflection of the general feeling of insecurity and disillusionment that many are feeling. In Italian language centres we are not even considered to be teachers but have the ambiguous title of CEL (Expert Language Collaborator) and the line we walk is often a diplomatic tightrope suspended over dizzying drops into surrealism. We teach but are not teachers. Our contracts are anomalous, and our role is often unclear.
I have, as usual, learned a lot from this conference, and as I said above, the general standard of the presentations was excellent. I don’t want to finish on a negative note so let’s come back to the Fondamente Nove as the sun goes down and I sit here sipping my Spritz in the warmth of the evening:
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.
The 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.
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.
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, nut 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.
Models 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 ItaIian “montare” 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 cunning 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?
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.
It’s exam time again in Verona. Well, to be honest, it is often exam time, but this is one of the big sessions. We had 2,200 enrolments for English on Monday last week for our written tests, which makes for a considerable amount of marking. Our approach to marking written work in sessions like this is threefold: 1) we use a criterion referenced approach to each level which describes in general terms what each area means so that a band 3 mark (and we allow for half marks as well) on C1 writing as far as task achievement is concerned would be awarded to a candidate who is able to produce: “an adequate answer to the question, the meaning is always clear although some parts may require further development and where the style is generally appropriate for chosen genre.” Our learners do not have the exact grids that we use but they have their own descriptions provided in a more learner friendly way to help them develop the skills they need. Extending ideas, for instance, at C1, which is one of the requirements of the Common European Framework (CEFR) generally needs quite a lot of work as many learners are not used to developing ideas and arguments about particular ideas, and tend to list ideas or summarise their reading. That, however, is a topic for another day. Let’s get back to the examiner’s viewpoint. 2) The second step is to hold examiner meetings at each level to standardize our approach to correction where questions such as what does “adequate” actually mean, and how different is it from “good” etc. This stage is essential if our marks are to be valid. 3) Since we have so many candidates we cannot guarantee double marking of all of them so we choose random samples to double or triple mark. So far so good, you might think. This is a logical, systematic approach to the whole process which is doing its best to be a fair, valid system for the candidates taking the exams, but what is interesting, I think is what happens next. Can’t see the language for the errors Once you, as an examiner, have standardized with the others it is just you and the script… or is it? No, actually, it’s you, the script, your everyday concerns, your prejudices and beliefs etc. etc. do you see what I mean? Well, let’s take the classic example or “errors”. Even in the 21st Century there are still those, who despite all the standardization in the world still count errors to come to their conclusions. In a way, it’s natural. What hits you in the face when you read a text is what is wrong with it, but actually, as most of us, in fact, know, there is a lot more going on in that text.
Errors or Mistakes?
The first point to be made here is whether examiners are looking at errors or mistakes; a distinction which is often swept under the carpet as being too technical, but which I actually think is essential. Mistakes are slips or the wrong production of something you really know and they are thought to be related to problems with retrieving information rather than not knowing something. This happens with a slip of the tongue for instance, and is often easy to correct. In fact, people often correct themselves on the spot. Mistakes may not even, then be related to your linguistic competence. I might say “I got to the airport at 8pm” instead of “I got to the station at 8pm” and they happen for all kinds of reasons such as tiredness or stress etc.
An error, on the other hand, is generally linked in our field to your knowledge or lack of it when it comes to language. This may come about because of something that you have not yet studied, so a B1 level student would probably not have studied complex rhetorical structures like “No sooner had we arrived...” If a B1 learner tries to use this and gets the word order wrong it is something that, in my opinion, should be given credit as the learner is trying to use complex language to express their thoughts. It should definitely not be penalized simply because “No sooner I arrived“, for instance is “wrong”. This would be too simplistic. Another occurrence of error is the result of not having internalised grammatical rules yet. This is related to something a learner has studied perhaps or heard, read, but cannot actually produce perfectly so a learner may have seen the expression “It’s worth fighting for freedom of speech“. (It was on the C1 question paper with reference to Charlie Hebdo, so you would hope most people read it, but that learner, then, in the composition writes womething like “Freedom of speech worths to fight.” This is an error but once again the question is should we be giving learners credit for trying to use more complex language or should we be penalizing them for “getting things wrong”? My own personal take on this is that it is a matter of common sense. If a learner is doing a C1 exam and there are so many errors, many of which occur in simple rather than complex language, then that individual is unable to express their thoughts clearly and, to go back to the descriptor “the meaning is not always clear” (although there may even be some discussion of “always” here too and “clear”. This is the problem with words :-) ) If, on the other hand the candidate uses generally clear language and is attempting to use more complex forms, but produces the occasional error like the example above with “worth” then that candidate should be given credit. This means that the item, in this case, worth, is now in their interlanguage and presumably, with enough exposure and use, which is crucial, will probably correct itself. The issue of exposure and use is key here too, but that again is another topic. So, when an examiner sits down with a script it is really important, I feel, to differentiate between mistakes, errors and whether they impede meaning or not. OK, you may well be saying, but what about the language and the trees… oh, sorry I meant “errors”? Well this is my next point. Not only do we need to differentiate between mistakes and errors but we also need to look at what the learners actually can do and not just be swayed by what they can’t. This is the guiding philosophy behind the CEFR and yet how often do we really apply it?
Looking for the Language
Consider this example from a learner script: “In the long run these problems will continue to be common in the society .” What hits you on the nose about this? Yes, there is an article error “in the society”. In fact the use of articles is extremely problematic for learners and often features on error classification systems. I wonder, though, how many people notice the perfectly correct use of the article in the expression “In the long run”. This is what I mean by not seeing the language for the errors. This learner may well have acquired the correct use of the article here as part of the “phrase” in the long run, but very often we are so busy looking at the errors that we simply don’t see the correct usage. It is apparently easier, of course, to assess error and to determine which errors may correspond to, although there may well be disagreement of this too. The third person ‘s’ which is taught at an early stage but often not acquired until much later, is one common example. What, howeer, is much harder is to assess successful language use and to assign a corresponding level to it. Tools such as The Vocabulary Profile might help us, and I have personally foound it to be very useful. It is a corpus informed description of the words and sometimes phrases learners produce at different levels, but even so, this can only be considered to be a guide.
Look at the text not the sentence
My own final conclusions on this at the moment are that it is as always important to look at the whole text as well as simple examples of language and to assess as fairly as possible the learner’s capacity of expression over the whole stretch of a text both holistically and in more detail. Our descriptors are guidelines but the process should always include discussion, standardization and the awareness that we are not perfect. Finally there is the candidate whose personality shines through these scripts, and we need to remember that each of these answers was written by someone who is doing their best to use the language they have learned to express themselves, but that they are doing so under exam conditions and we can sometimes perhaps allow for this too.
Heaven or Hell
It all makes me think of the parable of Heaven and Hell with long spoons, which I first came across in “Dictation” by Paul Davis and Mario Rinvolucri (CUP 1995 edition p.72) It is actually a parable though and it goes like this: do you know the difference between Heaven and Hell? Well in Hell everyone has long spoons and tries to eat out of the same bowl of soup but cannot get the spoons into their mouths so they starve. In heaven everyone has long spoons and tries to eat out of the same bowl of soup but cannot get the spoons into their mouths so they feed each other. This, I think is a principle we can apply both to teaching and examining. By discussion and helping each other, and giving clear guidelines to teachers and learners we can help to take some of the stress out of the process for everyone. Tests, and all the stress they involve, both for learners and teachers, are part of our world. What we. As examoners can do is to help learners by giving credit where it is due.