Are you an English educator, a teacher or a trainer? This is a blog which will point you towards my work, discussions and thoughts among other things that you can read and comment on too. You can look at ways of teaching English. You can share your ideas with us and you can spread our ideas to others. This is the basis of this EFL community
Well, I’m back from Iatefl, and am gradually settling back into my normal Italian life. One of the highlights of the week, last Wednesday was a lesson I did on ‘Intellectual Property’ with my advanced C2 class, who have to do presentations as part of their final exam. Many people use resources such as prezi or emaze to do this, which are public, open platforms, freely accessible by the world and his wife. As we live in a world where remix is the norm and images, video, music and other media are shared at the speed of lightening, often without much thought for ownership, it is important, I think, every now and then, to stop, take a deep breath, and question all this.
I have added a photo credit to my own image above, which I would probably not normally do, (This is my photo, by the way, ) in a rather ironic way to make the point, but for many taking time to think about who owns ideas and content really did seem to be a wake up call, that meant looking at their practice, if not their lives, with new eyes.
What did we do?
Part One: Discussion and Reflection
The lesson began with reflection and the discussion of these two questions:
“We live in times of theft, intellectual theft. When you can download just about everything and make it your own what incentive is there for artists to create any more?”
“A remix is actually an original reworking of someone else’s idea, so as long as credit is given where it is due, it belongs to the remixer.”
This gave rise to various points such as the distinction between piracy and theft, which was not immediately clear to everyone. There is also a fine line between plagiarism and intellectual theft which we also explored, and it seems, at times, for some to be difficult to distinguish between expressing their own ideas and expressing someone else’s. This may seem obvious but when does an idea become so commonly accepted or shared that it is no longer necesary to cite its author? We, obviously, cannot cite everything so in our comunity, for instance, we refer to ‘scaffolding’ because everyone knows what it means, without having to cite Vygotsky every time we do this.
Part Two: So, in practice?
So far, this was all rather theorectical, however, so the next stage reinforces what this actually means in the way we use technology. I had created a Facebook exercise for the Student Group (which is a closed group on Facebook), with an image I had created by adding special effects to my own photo of an art installation, inspired in fact by J.J. Wilson’s plenary at Glasgow Iatefl.
During this motivating plenary one of the things he asked the audience to do was to look at differnt classrooms and create ‘I wonder……’ ideas with each other. I asked my learners to do the same, (and there are prizes for the most ‘liked’ ideas). This time, though, I asked the class to look at this video and to say whther or not they thought it was intellectual theft. (I had added a link to an article about the original installation as well, both for those who were interested in reading about it and to give credit to the author.
The class decided that this was not intellectual theft because the installation was in a public space and I was using my own photo, not claiming that the installation was mine. The power. however, of this exercise, I felt, was that it really made people think about how they use Social Media and the content they post. Some went away from that lesson looking rather worried and talking about closing accounts, a reaction that they would probably not have had from simply taking part in the discussion.
So, why is all this important?
Well, reflecting on what you do before you do it is a skill that often needs to be relearned in our world where everything can be shared at the speed of light, by the click of a mouse. I personally believe that respecting other people’s work, ideas and insights is etremely important and I hope that they will respect mine too. When you have experienced your own work being plagiarised or stolen in some way you will know how hurtful it can be. Why do we need to steal other people’s work when we can give them credit for it, ask them for permission to use it or…actually, even better, use our own work? Oh, and by the way, the reflection image above is my own photo taken in Glasgow, just in case you were wondering :-).
The conference finished yesterday and I was, like everyone else I met, “all conferenced out” so I went for a walk around the Kelvingrove area of Glasgow and the West End, partly to vlear my head and partly to be outside for a while. The area around the university was a lovely place to wander, look at the spring flowers and take in the greenness by the water, which was lovely. During this time I decided to write a blog about ten interesting points from my conference experience. There are thoughts that I wrote down during the sessions and which have made me think. So here are my ten pearls, (even though these are sctually only some of the pearls.)
Pearls of Wisdom 2017
Gabriel Diaz Maggioli: “we are experts at routinising our tasks”: he went on to point out that what starts out as innovative quickly becomes normal or even boring, so that teachers meet a new technology or idea and integrate it into their classroom but both teachers and learners soon see it as predictable. My thoughts on this one are actually mxed. In fact, I think, the more innovative ideas you meet and integrate into your teaching repertoire, the richer the whole process becomes, and whilst some things are repetitive, repetition can be reassuring and learners recognise little rituals that occur in the lessons that are actually a welcome structuring of their nlearning process, which is often not at all structured. It is true, however, that the continual search for new resources, new ways of doing things, new apps, new activities can become a destructive spiral if the “wow” effect is the only thing determining it. Most teachers, however, I think, and especially those who are searching for innovation, do reflect about their practice and integrate the new with the tried and tested into a meaningful code of practice which may be eclective but is still meaningful and varied enough to appeal to a whole range of differeing learners with their differing needs.
Sophia Mavridi: “What do people associate with you when they see you online?” A simple question but one that we don’t always stop to ask ourselves. I recently asked a colleague what he associated with my Facebook use, thinking he’d say that I posted too much that was realted to teaching, but what he actually said, was that I posted beautiful photographs. 🙂 So, I suppose, the message is to see yourself through other people’s eyes and to reflect on what they tell you. I recently looked at someone else’s Facebook Page, and it was what might be termed as “showing off”: a whole seies of this person with VIPs in photos, so the message I got from this was “Look at me and how important I am.” It was not a very positive impression, at least from my point of view, because I like to think that online use is an exchange or sharing of impressions and ideas, and I cannot learn very much from self aggrandizement. Each person, of course, projects only certain aspects of themselves online, but it is worth thinking about which aspects e re going to post, which ideas e are going to share and which moments, emotions and insights we are going to invite othrs into.
Peter Medgyes: “the proper use English affords privileges” This was said, I think, although I’m not quite sure of this, with reference to the Berlitz coastguard ad. which I blogged about earlier in the week. It underlined an idea that I think is prevalent in those who choose to study English. The language is often a means to acceptance indifferent communities, a passport to a better life and better job opportunities. “Proper” English, in my view, is not the use of a whole range of idiomatic phrases but an awareness of how to use language to express yourself in the best way you can. Language, no matter which one, empowers its user, because if you can express yourself articulately you can share your understanding of life with others. We are living in a world where knowledge and information are at a premium and I would actaully say that using any language “properly’ affords privileges.
Several speakers: “the wow effect is not enough.” This is a theme that comes up often in conferences and there had been a marked move away from those presentations of technology aimed at simply showing people how to use new techniques and tools, simply because they are ‘cool’. Cool tools are still great but there was a lot more emphasis on thinking skills and routines being developed by means of these cool tools. This is also a sign of the times, where technology has become such a normalised part of our lives it makes sense to ask yourself: is this the best way of accessing content or thought? This is not only true of technology but also of common classroom techniques. One of these is, for instance, cutting up pieces of paper with parts of a text on them that then have to be reassembled. Now, I would be very surprised if you have never done this (That is, if you are an ELT teacher). I have and still do, but I am very much aware of two things:
Make sure that the different parts match very clearly, so perhaps divide your text in the middle of sentences rather than at a fullstop, so that it is very clear which parts go together. If you don’t you will see learners trying to match up the way you have cut the paper rather than looking at the language. I know because I have resorted to this myself! After all, the aim is to put the pieces together correctly, however you do it…. isn’t it?
Be aware that if learners are doing this they are actually analysing the language and NOT reading the text. It is quite possible to put a whole text together and not read it at all. I have seen trainees on teacher training courses do this, with a txt about reading skills, and at the end nobody had actually understood the content of the text. So make sure that you have a very good reason for doing this. (I often do it to highlight lexical grammar items on Quizlet, such as “The reason……..” “…..why I sat this is”. If you do ask learners to put a jumbled text together, for whatever reason, then give them the chance to read it through for meaning as well, with enough time to do so.
Marcos Benvenides “Extensive reading simulates what good readers do (read all the time and for fun.)” This is an important one, I think. Marcos made the point that “smart people read” and for whatever reasons this tends to be true, but often learners (and their teachers) feel that they should be focusing on great literature or what the teacher suggests. (I am guilty of this myself, as I have set books for my university classes). Encouraging learners to read whatever they want to and to stress the fact that it is the habit of reading itself, and aiming for a regular reading habit, that brings benefits. Of course, there has been a lot of research on the subject and this seems to suggest that you should be reading something which you find very easy to understand, and it should be something that you want to read, whatever it is, which means it should probably be your own choice rather than your teacher’s.
J.J. Wilson: “compliant students answer the teacher’s questions but engaged students ask their own?” This is another interesting one, because it made me think of those students who I sometimes get mildly irritated with because I want to make one point in class and they ae going off in a whole new direction, on their own tangents. It is however, those tangents that may lead them off to the stars. So, I try to take a deep breath, not be irritated and to spend ten minutes or so with these learners, who generally are asking something because it has occured to them, and which means they are engaged. Some of these people, incidentally, are the ones who are still following my Facebook Student Group years after they have graduated.
“I wonder…” This also came from J.J.Wilson’s plenary. He showed us images of different classroms aaround the world and asked us to complete the thought “I wonder….” for each one. We did this in pairs or small groups and what I noticed ws that the more we did it the further we went into both the observation of the images and the ideas, which began by being quite simple but quickly ranged from the facetious to the philosophical and it reminded me of work done in art education by museums, which explore the way we look at images and all the different aspects, thoughts and knowledge cultural or otherwise that we bring to this activity.
John Field: “we draw on our knowledge of the world AS we listen not beforehand.” John Field dismantled the “traditional” procedure when approaching listening of doing pre-listening work whether discussion of pre teaching of vocabulary. He said, quite rightly that neither of these are sub-skills of listening and that we should perhaps spend more time on helping learners with precisely those parts of the texts that are causing them trouble, if we want to lead them “out of the fog” of listening in a second language. I agree in part, though, though because I see listening as part of an integrated skills approach, which are hard to separate one from the other. I may watch a TED talk about something I know little about, but I still have expectations and discussion in advance is meaningful in itself, although I agree that too much scaffolding is not actually helping learners deal with potential listening difficulties.
Gad Lim: “we are social creatures who like to interact with each other.” This was related to understanding new language, and the fact that frequency of exposure is key. The more you are exposed to a phrase, the more memorable it will be to you. He went on to say, however, that it is also the quality of that exposure that counts so that babies whose mothers talk directly to them are being exposed to language in a more memorable way than if they were simply hearing the language on TV and he cited studies to back this up. This made me reflect that we are social creatures and the quality of our exchanges does determine how memorable they are. I’m not sure what this means for classroom exchanges but if anyone has any insights I’d be really interested to hear them.
Sharon Hartle: finally here is one from me: “keep putting yourself in the shoes of your learners.” In a conference like this we are often asked to do things in the same way that we may ask our learners to and it can be a very salutary experience. If you ask your learners to answer a question or to discuss something, give them enough time to do so. If you cut things up and ask them to reassemble things do it for a reason which is very clear to all concerned.
Anyway, that’s it from me today. I have to get to the airport now and then… back home again. So, goodbye Iatefl2017 and Glasgow 🙂
I can’t believe we are already half way through the conference. So far, in fact, it has lived up to its reputation of being a whirlwind of events, learning, meeting old friends, working and networking. Yesterday was the first day and there were various sessions that I attended, In fact they were all inspiring. I went to an extensive reading presentation by Marcos Benvenvenides, which I liked because I have long been a fan of reading and need to remind myself from time to time of how useful just ‘reading for fun’ at a non demanding level, can be for everyone, and particularly for learners.
I also went to a lovely session on ambiguity by Jonathan Marks, talking about punctuation in the tradition of ‘Eats, shoots and leaves’ but many other aspects of language that go to create ambiguity. In the end he concluded, however, that the context of use determines the meaning and that most of us deal with ambiguity n practice with no trouble at all, no matter how funny we may find such things in jokes.
Both of these talks were informative and fun, but I would like to write about two different sessions in more detail here. The first of these was a session by Sophia Mavridi who was speaking about ‘Portraying Yourself Online’. This was of particular interest to me, not as a teacher who portrays herself online, although that is true as well, but rather for my undergraduate and post-graduate students who are tying to enter the world of work. Her session provided me with several interesting points that I can pass on to my students to consider:
Your Digital Footprint
Sophia talked about the digital footprint each of us leaves behind us in our daily trek through social media, what we post, how permanent it may be and how unwary posts can come back to bite in the future, Examples of this were things like:
posting yourself drinking alcohol
posting yourself in a swimming costume
posting unguarded thoughts and opinions
The point was also made, however, that at times others may post images of you in a swimming costume, for instance, and the nature of socila media means that this is largely beyond your immediate control.
On the other hand she also talked about the things you can do to make sure you leave a postivie digital footprint:
posting comments to other people’s posts that go beyond the ‘great post’ level and actually say something more like ‘great post! I enjoyed it because….’ so that those who read can learn something from you as well.
Drawing a fine line between showing off and showcasing your skills
Creating an eportfolio on sites like ‘linkedin’ etc.
In any case, and Sophia did not prescribe her views of what was or was not apropriate but left it for us to decide, the talk provided food for reflection for both me and my university students.
The World of Elf
The second event that made me think, and is still making me think aday later, was the ELTJournal Debate about the motion:
“ELF is interesting for researchers but it is not important for teachers and learners.”
Peter Medgyes spoke for this motion saying that ELF is something that has been created by what he called ‘elfies’ who have invented their own ‘elfiology, which bears little resemblance to the English that learners aim to learn in order to express themselves in the ‘real world’. Alessia Cogo, on the other hand said that “Applying ELF in the classroom is a challenge but it is a challenge worth taking up”. The members of the audience had several comments to make on the subject including my own. I said that I feel the subject to be a complex one and three issues that come to mind are:
the language you teach depends on the audience you are teaching. If, for instance, you are teaching Academic English writing to PhD students who would like their work, perhaps, to be published, you would be doing them a disservice not to teach them a model of English that is accepted in that world. I could add, that whether or not it is fais, those preparing for external certification also need to conform largely to native speaker standards in the ‘Use of English’ sections of the exams they take. Jennifer Jenkins may claim that countable or uncountable nouns ar eon the way out, but if you use ‘informations’ instead of ‘insformation’ in an exam, you will prbably still be penalised. Of course, there are other factors to take into account. (I said it was complex) and most speakers, in actual practice. will willingly accommodate to each other if they want to communicate, this is not necessarily true of assessment criteria.
I said, in fact, that I think a distinction needs to be made between teaching and assessment. Whereas, I truly believe that assessment in the C21 needs to take Elf into consideration and could easily, partularly in speaking tests, take elements such as negotiation r accommodation, into account, it is more difficult when it comes to teaching. There is a danger of an ‘anything goes’ approcah being adopted at one end of the spectrum, where accuracy is not taken into consideration at all. This is also a disservice to learners, because whereas it is true that I can understand you if you do not use the third person ‘s’ in the present simple, it may be helpful for you to know that it exists, and that you may well have to understand it when it is used by others.
I also mentioned the issue of non native speakers, which I know is another subject, but which I thought was worth bringing in. Here I think that many excellent non native speaker teachers are pensalised around the world for their status, which I personally consider to be both unfair and unwarranted. Many of these teachers are in a unique position to help their learners precisely because they have gone through the process of learning the language themselves, so that they know where the pitfalls may be. These teachers, however, have also started from a native speaker model and this is the model that they teach to their learners.
Ultimately, I think it is unrealistice to expect our learners to aspire to native speaker standards when they use the language, but what we teach them has to at least start from a native speaker model. I may be wrong, and, in fact, at the end of the debate the voting was even on both sides. I voted against the motion, however, this was not because I believe that ELF should be taught but because I believe that English is being spoken as a global language and this does affect the way people use it so our assessment of use must evolve to reflect this, but not perhaps the initial models that we teach.
Yesterday I talked about various elements that I want to emphasise this year in my teaching so I decided today to explore one of these in more detail and the first one was “joy”
What is Joy?
A glance at the similar words, identified by SkeLL https://skell.sketchengine.co.uk/run.cgi/thesaurus?lpos=&query=joy in a search for joy as co-occurring with the noun the most frequently, show that the sensation of joy is more than happiness it is a sensation and is extreme, a synonym of delight, passion, enthusiasm, for instance. If we take a look at common collocations we can see:
tears of joy
fill with joy
sheer, pure or even unbridled joy
All this suggests that joy is a sensation that liberates us, it gives us a moment of release, where we feel such pleasure in something that it moves us to tears or laughter. The moment itself may be short but the memory of the emotion stays with us and perhaps brings a smile to our face when we think of it. How can all this translate to everyday life and the classroom in particular? Well I want to choose the elements of liberation and passion, which means going beyond the conventional, or received, breaking out into something innovative that you really believe in.
University, Exams and Breaking away from Basic Tasks
My learners are university students who are concerned with their exams and their grades, but to study just to pass your exams is missing the point. Sometimes it is important to remember what it is that drew you to this particular degree course, what it was that made you want to develop it further, and what your real motivation is. In short, where is the joy in the subject you are studying? What new heights can it take you to? These are very personal questions and the answers will differ for each one of us. I can only answer for myself.
Taking the first steps, walking and then running.
As a student I was motivated to pass my exams initially because qualifications are a key that may unlock doors in the future, but if I am honest, on some level I also craved the approval and acceptance of those I looked up to. As I have grown older I have learned that the criteria people use to evaluate students in exams is not always objective and that sometimes the most important thing is to live up to your own expectations of yourself. Those who do best or get the most out of a university course are those who go far beyond the basic requirements of a course, and who are passionate about what they are studying, the curious, the motivated, the ones who are brimming over with questions. In English exams students are often asked to write and speak and some do this as if they are following a basic recipe. Dictionaries contain guidelines for “problem/solution” essays for instance and show learners how to structure their writing. Whilst know these things is a crucial first step, it is just that, a first step. I don’t mean to belittle this first step as to know how to structure your thoughts or writing is essential, to know how to put words together to be able to express yourself well is also important, but learning is rarely a linear thing so we don’t often progress in a straight line and the fictional, structural aspects can be combined with other aims. This is when simply doing an exercise becomes transformed into the joy of a ride on the merry-go-round.
Spreading the Joy
Those who study languages supposedly want to use that language to communicate rather than simply going through the motions. Those who communicate best are the ones who speak or write because they have something to say, rather than just because they want to impress someone, or “do the exercise”. I find joy in language, for instance, when I express an idea well, or put together an utterance succinctly and clearly. I love language for the power of expression it gives me and the way it takes me to places and thoughts that I can explore like whole new worlds. I love reading other people’s thoughts too, and travelling for a while with them and then moving on, taking some of their wisdom with me on my journey and spreading it around for others as well.
Time Travel: One Example of how this works in Practice
To return to the ideas of liberation and passion, I think that liberation may well mean breaking through the confines of mechanical interpretation, particularly when it comes to classroom tasks. Passion means expressing something that is truly meaningful and relevant for you. I tell my learners, for instance, not to stop at the requirements for the exam but to set their own requirements that are even higher. So, for instance, if you are a B1 level student who is being asked to describe where you think you will be 5 years from now, close your eyes and visualise that situation with all your senses:
Where are you?
What is the situation?
Are you alone?
What can you see?
What can you hear, smell, feel etc.?
Are you talking, thinking, listening etc.?
Are you going somewhere or are you already at your destination?
By asking learners to really put themselves in the situation and to “time travel” the whole exercise goes beyond the requirements of the “exercise” and may create an experience where learners express their own “journey” in individual ways that tap into personal depths that they had not imagined possible. These learners may need help with the language they need to express these things but that is the beauty of the activity, and this is what brings an element of joy to learning. This is a classic visualisation process that may have different stages:
1) Visualise by listening to the questions and silently visualising the answers. (I don’t insist on people closing their eyes if they don’t want to.)
2) Preparation phase where learners write notes/ ask for vocabulary etc. rehearse their stories in their own minds.
3) Describe your experience to your partner(s) and ask each other questions about details.
4) Look at the exam question: in this case it was “tell your partner where you think you will be five years from now”.
I am constantly amazed by the experiences that emerge from exercises like this which are meaningful and relevant as well as taking my learners to exotic destinations in their own imaginations. Getting into the habit of wanting to express this in English is just part of the fun.
I was thinking that this is a new year and that I would like to start by blogging or writing in an attempt to get back into things, so I decided to look at the ingredients I would like to mix into my teaching recipe for 2017.
Survival in the Desert
Whilst we would all like to be working in supportive environments where our efforts are recognised, encouraged and we can truly flourish, this is sadly not always the case, and quite a few of us are working long, underpaid hours in difficult environments. At times it can be hard to keep the enthusiasm, energy and positive thinking up, particularly in the political, socioeconomic climate of our world, where so much is based on fear and frustration: the idea, for instance, that you should consider yourself lucky to have a job at all! Each working environment will have its own twist on this and I don’t want to dwell on it too much as what I want to do is to reflect on the way in which incredible flowers can bloom in the middle of a desert, so incredible teaching and learning can take place in the middle of negativity as
My own environment has its ups and downs too but I do consider myself lucky to be able to do a job I love with students who mostly support what I am doing. I wanted to take a little time today though to consider the ingredients I’d like to emphasise this year to make a heady didactic brew.
My first one is joy, and by this I mean feeling happy when you get up in the morning to go to work and to be able to interact with groups of individuals who can enjoy the learning/teaching process with you. This is one that I have to remind myself about otherwise it can become a case of getting up in the morning and focusing on the six hours of straight teaching that I have to do, becfore I crawl home exhausted. It is a question of how you look at things. I find that if I think about the individuals in my groups and what we are going to be doing together, it often brings a smile to my face, and whilst six hours of teaching are still tiring it is a creative tiredness, that comes from investing energy into something worthwhile. The second aspect to joy is that it can be an indgredient in the teaching itself. If the things you are doing fill you with wonder and joy, this will probably be communicated to your learners as well. It is the difference, I think between giving feedback on an exercise by saying:
“What’s the right answer to qusetion ‘2’?”
“Yes, what’s the right answer to question ‘3’?” etc.
“What’s the right question to question ‘2’?”
“Hmm, do we all agree? Do you think this is the only answer? When would you say this? What else could you say?” etc.
Basically, by taking basic exercises, and making them meaningful and natural for your learners in their own contexts and lives, we can take the most meaningless feedback check and transform it into a classroom conversation on all kinds of levels. As soon as content is relevant then there is enjoyment or engagement and agency.
You may think this is similar to joy, but recently came up against strong prejudices against “fun” and “games”. I was in a meeting about Academic English, where someone scathingly complained that his students had been on an English course during the summer where they “never did anything” and “spent the whole time using songs”. I didn’t say anything at the time, because I neded to work through this one in my own mind. Whilst it is possible that if you are studying engineering and need certain types of language to do th
is, singing songs may not be appropriate, I still can’t see why there was such a strong reaction to “songs”, and even if you are studying engineering I think that songs could be used in all kinds of profitable ways. There are so many ways in which music, rhythm and rhyme can help the memory as well as being fun, or a springboard to discussion etc. that what I finally concluded is that the problem was the idea that having fun is often seen as being a waste of time or childish. It is not part of the “adult business” of studying engineering or whatever the subject is, so the accepted thinking goes, although many may disagree. Einstein comes to mind, for instance: “Creativity is intelligence
having fun”. The prejudice against “fun” runs deep in our grey world of adulthood, but those who dare to think outside the box and have fun doing so often achieve surprising results. Creativity is also looking at things in new ways and “playing with the accepted wisdom” questioning things and thinking critically. Our brains like to play rather than be subjected to crashing boredom, or even just the expected and routine. My lessons this year will be full of fun and laughter in a very serious way.
I rather unfairly linked ‘grey’ to bordom above, whereas, actually grey is one of my favourite colours, if it is combined with others. The problem is when everything is the same colour and this could be grey, black, red, yellow or whatever, monotony leads to boredom and ultimately disengagement. I want my lessons to include unexpected moments that dleight us all. iIwant my learners to be there on the edge of their seats waiting to see what will come next, and not just from me or from the materials we are using but from each other as well. One of the most successful activities we do is ‘presentations’ and this is initialy because they are seen to be useful but then somewhere along the way the magic is cast and they become more than just useful, they are the chance ofr learners in small groups to share their own worlds with each other and the quality of what is communicated is astonishing. Colour means variety in som many ways, but it all has to be blended in a tastelful way. Too much and it becomes disorientating, the steps in the process need to be clear, leading to destinations that we all want to reach.
We all need love in our lives and we can build this by listening to each other. We can listen to what our learners want or need, work on the topics they have chosen or the language that they want to work on as far as our syllabus allows, and we can ask them to help us build our programmes, where this is possible. This may simply be in small ways, by giving them choices, or, depending on what you can do in your context, by asking them to help build the programme itself. Love is also the love of the language you are teaching and your learners are studying, by asking them what they like about certain collocations or phrases, which words they love to pronounce etc. What new ideas English can give them and how introducing metaphors from their own languages can enrich their English, for instance. You don’t have to love English to be able to use it, but if you don’t it become a code you use and not a language you live. Love, it must be remembered is the opposite of hate, and in a world where hate seems to be so prolific, perhaps a return to kindness, tolerance and growth is no bad thing.
Looking at a beautiful landscape of image, listening to uplifting music or finding the best aspects to a difficult situation: these are all examples of what I mean by including beauty among my ingredients. We could spend a lot of time discussing problems, particularly when it comes to learner eror analysis, or university essay writing, but we can also celebrate the language that learners are proud of producing, the beautiful turn of phrase, that someone has notices when reading/ listening/viewing etc., or has used themselves. We can celebrate the best solutions to a given problem, and masters of this are the Zanders in “The Art of Possibilty”. Benjamin Zander talks a lot about these mindsets and how positive solutions are simply a question of the way we look at things. He begins the talk about the transformative power of music in the video below with the example of two shoe representatives sent to somewhere in Africa to explore the market and one writes back saying there is no hope here as they don’t wear shoes. The other wrote back saying that there is a wonderful opportunity here as they have not seen shoes yet! To see more about the magic of classical music and other things see below:
Beauty is about transformation, I think. If you look at a sunset over the sea and feel lifted that is beauty, and the same thing can happen in the classroom when the language lifts the learners to a new level, and the teaching lifts the teacher too.
And so we come to the magic of it all. In fact, magic is not really an ingredient in the mix, it is what happens when the ingredients work together and are transformed into something totally new. This is what I want to happen in my work this year. I want to work together with my learners to produce an ongoing process which is magical. Oh, and if their English improves along the way we’ll all be happy too!
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.
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:
… 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!)
Mini Lesson Plan
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;
Ask learners to choose the chunk or saying they like best (this is best done quickly, instinctively);
Ask them to write their saying on a slip of paper;
Collect the slips of paper and redistribute them randomly to everyone in the class;
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:
Did you choose something about escaping/ superhuman powers?
Did you choose an image related to ‘air’?
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:
Did you like the sound?
Did you like the image?
Did you like the idea?
Did you like the language?
ask them discuss what they think their choice says about the way they are feeling at the moment;
ask them discuss the influence of Shakespeare on their language: do they recognise any of these expressions?
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 🙂
Since I’m doing a training session next week on using Socrative and Quizlet as part of a BYOD (Bring your own device) approach to teaching, I thought I’d share a little video with you that I made this morning just to illustrate the basics of the teacher dashboard.
Learner reflection, revision quizzes and a whole lot more
I use this tool mainly because I have large groups and it can be used in all kinds of ways. The description says that it has been designed to use quizzes, which might be tests, revision or practice etc. It can also be asked to ask questions, prompting learner reflection at the end of a lesson. I also use it a lot for writing asking, for instance, my advanced learners to summarise a text and then post it in the “Quick Question” function of Socrative, which I set up for them quickly in class. They can then read each other’s work and vote for the version they like best 🙂
Socrative, which was designed by educators for eductaors, also has an inbuilt record keeping feature. This means that any work my learners do, such as summary writing, can then be sent to me by email, or simply accessed from the site. I can look at this for further assessment, feedback or simply for my own reflection. It is a feature which I have also used to run informal impromtpu polls and surveys that can then be very helpful when designing courses, or simply lesson planning.
You can also share the content you create either with colleagues by sharing the number of the quiz etc. or by going to Socrative Share Garden where the community uploads content for everyone to use. You can then edit this content further to adapt it to your own needs if you want to. My colleague, for instance, created a very challenging Christmas quiz, which she then shared with me and my learners.
So, if you want a really versatile tool which is fun and lets your learners use their telephones and tablets in class, why not try it out…
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 🙂
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…