Category: conferences

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 :-).

 

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

 

 

 

Looking towards the Future, in Venice: the IX National Aiclu Conference

Taking the time to reflect

IMG_2493

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:

http://prezi.com/1l6pf1rnhfjk/?utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=copy&rc=ex0share

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.

Whose Standards?

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.

Burning the candle at both ends

Technology

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

IMG_2491

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:

“Salute”.

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Post Manchester Iatefl Reflections

Post Manchester Iatefl Reflections

PhotoFunia-1430297325

My number one theme from the Conference

Two weeks have now slipped past since I came back from the Iatefl conference (How’s that for a Present Perfect?) and as time goes by certain things recur or fall into place in the somewhat fragmented jigsaw puzzle of my mind. I think the overall theme this year for me at the conference was the issue of where learning takes place, how muchof it is formal, tradional and how much, on the other hand, is informal, incidental, accidental if you like. The question that I keep asking myself is this: where does learning happen?

In fact incidental, informal learning was a theme that came up in the LTSig Pre Conference event where Agnes Kukulska-Hulme’s talked about it, describing the way some learners, who need to integrate themselves into new communities, with new languages, access the language they need for very specific contexts such as “going to a hospital appointment”. She discussed ways of encouraging this  technologically by means of various teaching apps being developed in the projects she is participating in.

The very first conference plenary also touched on this subject as Donald Freeman wondered whether we as teachers are “frozen in thought” driven by the myths of our profession, which, as he said, are not right or wrong but may be both useful in that they are th course we chart, but also limiting if we do not see that other things are going on outside that charted territory. He questioned two points related to the issue of learning in his presentation:

1) there is direct causality between teaching and learning: teaching causes learning;

2) The teacher has “sole” responsibility for the process;

Most of us would have our doubts about these, because we all see on a daily basis that what our students learn may be what we are attempting to teach, but very often is not. Most of us also subscribe to the idea of learner-centred teaching, but the point he was making is that what is taught is often chosen by the teacher, the course book, the programme or what is required to pass exams, and rarely by what the learner truly wants or needs to learn. Of course we all have to respect syllabi, and exam requirements but these could be our map and we can also keep our eyes open to see what is going on around us as we chart this course. Freeman talked about “managing what you can’t control” when you teach but perhaps we should go even further and explore what we can’t control or help the learners control what they want to.

In my Context

In my context, which is not one of learners seeking to integrate themselves into a new world, but rather one of large classes of university students doing lessons that are often held  in traditional classrooms, with a traditional syllabus and traditional expectations, I find myself increasingly asking the question I mentioned above: “Where is learning happening?”. Michael Wesch’s project in 2007 posed the same question in the YouTube video below, asking why learning was “up there” on the blackboard, rather than “down here” where the learners are actually sitting.

So much of what we do in class pays lip service to the notion of being learner centred, I think. But how learner-centred is it? Exams play a central role in the motivation and organisation of study in our university and, therefore, learning comes about often as a sort of by-product of exam preparation. In a world of continual cost cutting and shrinking course hours the focus is often on what is in the exam and what to do to prepare for it. This is almost inevitably a top-down process.

Added to this the belief in online self-access courses as a sort of general panacea and we are charting a route towards disaster rather than a real learning process. In my version of blended learning, as yoou probably already know, I believe in integrating the online work with the face to face work in what I hope is a smooth “blend”. Learners participate in the online classroom space developing online dialogues with each other and with me which help to direct our course along its charted path but without being afraid to stop and visit some fertile islands and sandy beaches along the way.

My own Beliefs

Despite the limitations of my own context I am a firm believer in learner centred classrooms and in empowering learners to help them towards autonomy, if that is what they want. One of the other things that I have brought back from the conference, for instance, is a renewed enthusiasm for the use of copora in class. My own learners often misunderstand why certain language choices just don’t work, and they will not always have their teacher there to explain things to them. To teach them how to be able to access a corpus, then, so that they can work these things out for themselves is an essential step in this journey towards autonomy and empowerment. This is easy to say but not so easy to explain so I’d now like to share one example of how we are doing this in class working on an error which is extremely widespread amony italian L1 speakers.

 

 

An example of Student/Teacher  Online Dialogue

In a recent piece of wPossibility collocations wordleork, for instance one student wrote:

” If anyone had the possibility of choosing their dream house…”

I questioned the use of “had the possibility” and this was the exchange that followed. It was an asynchronous dialogue that was developed over two weeks in the chat box function of our digital classroom, which is, in itself, a step towards more learner centred work, I think:

 

Me:

Possibility is the wrong choice here both because of the meaning and the verb/noun collocation . Why?

‘Chance or opportunity’ would both work better here. Check the verb patterns for these too.

Student 

I do not know why.
to have the chance to do
to have the opportunity of doing

Me

Yes, those verb patterns work, but what about possibility?

Student 

I guess “possibility of doing” as I wrote. I cannot figure out why it is not correct.

Student 

Why is it incorrect?

 Me

Because the meaning of possibility is related to negative things that might happen. It does not collocate with the verb “have” but often with “there is” or “there might be” and intellectual or “thinking/discussing” verbs. 

The verb pattern afterwards is right: of + ing/ or a verbal phrase. So an appropriate use of “possibility” is, for example: “there is a strong possibility that it might rain this afternoon”.

Enabling Learners to Answer their own Questions

 

As I answered this last question I couldn’t help thinking that it would be so much more helpful if that student (and his classmates) knew how to analyse language in a corpus for themselves as all these things are quite easy to see if you examine examples of “possibility” for its meaning and usage. You need to know, however, what to look for. So that is what we did in class, integrating the need that had emerged online into classroom work that would, hopefully, empower some students to use this tool for themselves independently.

Using Concordance Lines in class

Concordance lines are the examples limited to a certain number of words on each side of the word or phrase you are analysing. They can easily be found by doing a search of the BNC or the American Corpus, both of which are freely accessible, but I actually created a worksheet based on examples from The Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, which I include here:
Firstly we noticed that he had only really focused on the question of language forms and usage not on the meaning so we looked at what  “possibility” really means in English. This is a worksheet which guides learners through a series of questions to help them notice various aspects of the meanings and patternings related to “possibilty” and “possibilities” followed by the chance to make this Language their own, another crucial part of the process I think.
Some examples of the type of Language they produced after they had gone through this process were:
“There is a faint possibility that I might pass the French exam.”
“The government is considering the possibility of establishing diplomatic relations to solve …”
 “Nowadays, after recent events such as the Charlie Hebdo attacks, we can not ignore the possibility of an terrorist attacks happening everywhere.”
This is very impressive language use by any definition but what was almost more interesting was the fact that later on we were doing an activity which was not really linked to this but involved developing a questionnaire and interviewing different people in the classroom about their opinions. In this activity I noticed that quite a few people were asking questions like:
“Do you think there is a strong possibility that……….?”
It was one of those light bulb moments for me, when you think “Yes” and want to punch the air around you in triumph. I was fascinated what they were saying as it is not a pattern that these learners would normally use. I don’t know, of course, whether they were doing it intentionally because we had just studied this pattern or whether they will be able to use it this time next week, but I did feel that they had worked out their own meanings and were applying them to a common problem which had emerged from the needs of this particular group, and that the learning was swirling around the activities we were doing each person taking what they could or needed to from each part of the lesson.

Learning to Use Corpora Independently

 

 

Students in flow
The next step is to teach learners to use online corpora and to ask “their own questions” rather than mine. So we took some of their representative language problem areas from a recent discussion of social issues in our world and worked with a new site that I have already talked about in an earlier post: SkeLL, which is Sketch Engine’s latest very impressive English Language Learning site. This user-friendly site gives you 40 examples according to common meanings and provides a word sketch of common collocates (for single words) with syntax information as well. Here is the worksheet we used to learn how to use this resource:
What we found was that when it comes to understanding initial meaning dictionaries combined with the examples in the corpora are your best bet, but when it comes to looking at usage, collocations or patterns then SkeLL is a wonderful resource. We then went on to use it to look up kep words for an essay the students were going to write to find out useful language related to the register they needed as well as the lexical grammar of the single item. If you do a search for “government” for isntance you will find a completely different register to the one you would find if you search for “picturesque”.
We are in the middle of our jorney of discovery and I’m sure we’ll meet both limitations and insights along the way, but in any case it is a journey we are undetaking together as a group and in our group both the learners and the teacher are “learning” . Donald Freeman also cited George Pickering as saying “Minds work best like umbrellas, when they are open.” I hope that is what we are doing.
I still keep asking where learning is taking place but a glance at this photo of some of my students working together suggests that the learning is there with them and not up on an authoratative, scary blackboard. At any rate, I hope so 🙂

Experimentation Day

Pre- and Post Speaking: what goes on in your mind?

IMG_2748Yesterday was Day 3 at Iatefl, well Day4 for those of is who were here for the PCE as well. , added to which I was speaking today but not until 5.25 pm so the tension gradually built during the day and I had to do something to take my mind off it. I find that when I’m giving a talk, even though I’ve done it before, I rehearse it continually in  the hours running up to it, taking bits out here and adding comments there in my mind and, of course, the actual event was different again, when we got to it. I had opted for a 30 minute slot, which in hindsight was much too short for what I wanted to say, but in any case it worked quite well and there was a lovely atmosphere  in the group. When I actually arrived at my room, though, I discovered that Iatefl had decided to reinvent me and had given me a completely new name, as you can see in the photo. This was a bit confusing for some people who had been looking for the “old Sharon Hartle” instead of which the notice proudly procliamed a talk by Shanon Harper! Apart from that there were very few little hitches though.  What is undeniable however is that, for some reason, no matter how many presentations you give you always feel nervous on the day of the event. I decided in the morning that , because of this continual rehearsal process of my own talk, that goes on all day in my mind, I probably couldn’t focus on taking in a lot of new ideas, so I throught it would be a good opportunity to “do other things”  like interview a few people at the conference or do things that were a bit different from simply going to a series of presentations.

Experimentation Day

So how did I set about “doing something different”? Well, I started bright and early in the morning by going to the 8.15 pre-plenary session on writing for ELT Journal. These are “How to…” sessions that deal with various aspects of conferences and are often related to things like writing for Conference Selections, the Iatefl publication, or could be sessions to help those who are new to the conference. This talk was very interesting as we went through the mechanics of peer review and Graham Hall gave is all a series of useful tips for publishing articles in various journals. He was generally extremely encouraging, urging us not to “give up” even if we have our articles rejected as this happens to everyone. Even though this had meant starting the day with no breakfast, I was glad I’d made the effort to go.

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Then I gravitated to the exhibition centre where I looked in at the TELC stand. They were giving anti stress Telc men away (see photo) which I thought that was quite timely for me with my pre-speaker nerves. I used it all day, in fact. I talked to a few people who were relatively new to Iatefl and there were two main themes from these “interviews”. One or two said that they had been  struck by the international flavour of the conference, one, in fact, saying that she had expected native speakers and that it was incredible to be able to speak to professionals from all over the world, from Latin America to Nepal. Others said something that I found interesting which was that they would prefer generally not to do pairwork in talks, as they had come here to learn from the experts. I had been intending to a short pairwork slot in my own talk, but after this I decided to cut that, especially since my talk was at 5pm so people are generally quite tired by that stage. Anyway, it’s an interesting point which has come up before, so I was wondering what you think. Here is a short poll for people to vote on this:

Forum on Online Learning Platforms

I normally avoid events which last for more than one session as it means you miss all the parallel sessions from other speakers in two slots, but there was a very interesting forum on Moocs (Massive open online courses) which had come to my attention. This format included three speakers who spoke for 15 minutes each before taking questions which led to even more discussion. Peter Davidson gave us a short background of Moocs, Tam Connors-Sadek talked about managing a summer course from the administrational viewpoint using Google, and then Chris Cavey talked about the British Council Mooc “Exploring English:language and culture”. I have done quite a few Moocs, and I know that the quality varies considerably. One of the main questions is how to manage feedback and interactivity between intrusctors or moderators and the thousands of participants. Chris talked about how the participants supported each other showing examples of peer support in forums and the positive overall response that this had. This is something I have found too. On a good Mooc, if you ask a question in a forum the response comes from other participants and there are often varying degrees of expertise, so we all learn from each other, with the moderators interveining when they can. One of the questions from the audience was about feedback and peer reviews for writing skills on Moocs, and there again experiences vary, but it can be very rewarding for participants to beome reviewers, looking at each others’ writing from a different viewpoint and having their own work reviewed.

Designing Moocs is an ongoing learning process, though, and the downside is that it needs considerable motivation and drive to complete a Mooc so there is an enormous dropout rate. Gavin Dudeney raised the point that some are saying Moocs should become smaller and better moderator so could we not simply go back to calling them “online courses”? I don’t know that this is what matters particularly to me but what I think could be a good spin off effect is that universities may have to rethink their distance learning approaches and can learn a lot from some of the more successful Moocs.

Open Space

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An Open Space event at Iatefl is a sort of “conference within the conference”. I had intended to go to this last year, but it lasts for two hours, which means that you miss other things, such as a session on lexis that I wanted to attend.  This year, however, I decided to take the plunge and go for it. This was also because I was wondering if we could use this format in the local TESOL Italy group we’ve set up for the Val d’Adige.  It is a self organisation approach to conferencing, developed by Harrison Owen, and in our format the participants organised themselves into groups and each person selected an ELT related theme that was “on their mind” and that they were particularly interested in knowing more about. Of these two were voted as being of most interest to the small group and then a list was compiled. This process continued until everyone in the group could see a topic that was of great interest to them. The groups then reformed according to the topic they had chosen (as long as there were enough people to make it viable) and then discussed it together for 25 minutes coming up with a short summary at the end which was then presented and further crystalised into one question. The discussion was held not as experts exchanging their ideas but rather with a spirit of inquiry so that we could start to ask questions and push our boundaries of knowledge further. Adrian Underhill, who was moderating with Susan Bardhun and Ros Wright, emphasised this aspect and said it should be something that you feel you are “on the edge of”. I chose lexis and we discussed ways of introducing vocabulary to learners of all levels asking “Whatever happened to Michael Lewis?” since we had the impression that lexis is often a poor relation to grammar, even now in the C21 and this it is a fuzzy area that coursebook writers and educators have difficulty organising and that the clarification exercises available in coursebooks are often more akin to tests than teaching tasks. Our final question was how it can be systematically taught going beyond the single word to help learners “put it all together”.

This was an enlightening experience because it is, as Adrian Underhill stressed and “emergent form” where what happens is that the content comes from the participants and the discussion is transformational rather than transactional. Everyone takes part in a discussion that is of vital importance to them and the topics ranged from “Should we intervene in fluency? If so when?” to “Social Justice: what is the role of the teacher?”. By choosing the topic and then speaking to likeminded professionals about it, you can transform (or at any rate get the cogs turning) your own thought. It is an interesting approach that I will definitely come back to.

And finally, lexis again!

After my own talk there was still what the graveyard slot and I went to Jane Templeton’s talk on bringing coprora activities into the classroom. She described her own process of transformation from being initially very enthusiastic about data driven learning to an increasing awarness of its difficulty for learners. She then moved towards developing corpus investigation skills for learners where the corpus is used as a reference tool. This is much easier nowadays than it was in the past with tools like the popular wordsandphrases tool, part of the bigger American Corpus (COCA), created by Mark Davies. Learners can easily use this tool to search for collocations, as well as lexical grammar , register and connotations. Incidentally, Mark Davies has just introduced a new tool based on the general world of Wikipedia which I think is worth investigating for all those interested and I am very excited about the SkeLL tool, part of Sketch Engine, which has been developed with English language learners in mind and actually provides collocates in useful grammatical categories. I heard about this one last Friday in James Thomas’ talk and it is one of my Iatefl “discoveries”.

So, another packed day at Iatefl rounded off by a glass of red wine with a few friends.

 

 

The Dark Matter, or themes at the Iatefl Conference

 

Post Method EFL: a theme for this year’s conference

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As the sessions pass by and I go through the day at Iatefl I notice certain themes tend to emerge  within the conference, or perhaps what people say  simply reflects ideas I have somewhere in my own mind that are brought to the surface. Whatever the case it is a strange process that I notice happening every year, as one speaker takes ideas from another and weaves them into the fabric of his or her own presentation. As each day progresses I feel ideas and thoughts taking root and blossoming in the back of my mind behind any really conscious thought process. Anyway, this is starting to sound rather too esoteric so let’s get our feet back on the ground.

Going Beyond Limitations

On Friday, as I mentioned in a previous blog post, we rounded off the PCE session with a reflection on questions that may not be new but were related to our teaching practice as new technologies emerge. Diane Slaouti, whose focus was Theorising our Practice, cited Kumaravadivelu and his ideas about post method teaching and I would like to quote one idea from his 2003 publication Beyond Methods which is one of his goals to:

‘urge them [teachers] to go beyond the limited, and limiting, concept of method and consider the challenges and opportunities of an emerging postmethod era in language teaching.’ (p. 1.)

This is the idea I felt kept recurring today: the idea of going beyond limitations and exploiting opportunites. It began this morning with Donald Freeman’s plenary where he discussed the myths we believe  as teachers , and that may freeze our thinking. Our methods and beliefs, our instituational contraints our own fears, hopes and habits can all lead us to limit ourselves and the learning that might take place in our classrooms. He asked who takes responsibility for learning? Does the teacher take sole responsibility for learning? We were all thinking “Oh, no. My classes are learner centred” But how true is this? Who decides what is to be taught or focused on, when and how? How often do we think things to ourselves along the lines of: “Oh, I can’t do this. It won’t work with that class” which is a decision we are making as teachers rather than giving learning a chance to “happen”. So much of learning, which also came up several times on Friday, is informal or incidental, so it it worth asking where learning is happening and how we can leave space for it to happen in our own contexts.

Learners looking for information autonomously
What sort of question is a real question?

What Questions  do we ask?

 

This idea was taken up by Anrew Walkley who examined the questions we routinely ask in class, and who questioned the effectiveness of classic CCQs, in particular, both for grammar and lexis. Whilst I expressed my reservations about debunking these completely as these mechanisms grew out of a need to have feedback rather than simply asking “Do you understand?” before moving on as students smiled and nodded, even though some of them had not understood a thing! It is undeniable that when done badly CCQs or comprehention questions, as they were known initially, are worse than useless, and that they can only be used to check comprehension of a context for language use rather than focusing on the specific target language being clarified. Andrew illustrated this point very clearly with the use of nonsense language that he attempted to clarify to us. Here is my own invented example:

“Iatefl nisl Harrogate bret laa year.

CCQs

Is this the past?

Is this the present?

Is this the future?

Obviously you can only answer the question if you know the negative future form. The answer, for all those who want to know is “the future” as “nisl” is a negative auxiliary and “bret” is an infinitive so the translation is ” Iatefl won’t be in Harrogate next year. If you have already studied those forms, however, these questions may form a useful, quick check of comprehension. Andrew’s man point was that by asking and focusing on naturally ocurring questions in chat situations, and expanding learners’ repertoire of such questions, chat situations, which often pass under the radar in classes as teachers greet their classes with questions such as “What did you do at the weekend?” learners can focus on “real” referential questions (rather than questions designed simply for them to display their knowledge) and can develop the language they need to talk about topics that they choose, and that are relevant to them. Once again we come back to the idea of where learning is happening. Is it the teacher who decides the content or is it the learners?

Improvisation is not only in theatre and jazz

Looking at old things in new ways
Looking at old things in new ways

Limitations also appear when we adhere too closely  to our own, safe, familiar methodology, and our lesson plan can become a straightjacket that limits both teachers and learners rather than acting as a springboard for teaching, providing learning opportunites. Adrian Underhill also talked about an aspect of this with his session on the ‘dark matter’ of teaching, of the energy that appears when teachers depart from their lesson plans and improvise, identifying the best point to leave the lesson plan and to go somewhere else, to listen to what our learners are saying or what they need and to follow their lead. Lesson plans, in this way, might be considered to be the map which points the way whilst the lesson itself is the actual journey with all its delays, smells, dialugues and unexpected events. Lessons are social events with human beings and all their interactions which is what makes them messy but what also makes them wonderful and unique as , people open up their own thoughts and worlds to each other, and invite each other in. This is the point at which, as one person, who was sitting next to me said, “the magic happens”.