This morning dawned bright and sunny and spring was in the air as well as in my step as I set of for the plenary. Walking along the King’s Road with the sea sparkling blue on my righthand side was a few moments of pure joy, which set me off in the right frame of mind for the conference. The plenary set the mood for the day and it was a mood of courage. Dorothy Zemach, in an extremely polished but down to earth presentation, stood in front of the audeince and described the situation in the world of publishing, and she told it like it is, with no embellishments, cost cutting which leads inevitably to cutting the money available for authors, which, in turn, leads to experienced authors leaving the profession as they find that they cannot survive on the fees being offered. As a result quality suffers. She said a lot more, and despite the harsh nature of her message remained positive, as she argued for quality writing and urged the audience to go to publishers and tell them what they want and need.
As a direct result of this I went to the Pearson stand and asked, once again, (I’ve done this several times before over the last few years) why they have removed the concordance line option from the digital component of the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. It is a dictionary that I like a lot and recommend to my learners because of several features such as the collocations section or the activator, an extremely innovative idea in its day. I, and my learners used to like the concordance lines option that you could choose on the CD Rom, when we still had such things, because it reveals language patterning so clearly and can be used to study or explore collocations, verb patterns, meaning over chunks etc. This time, however, I decided to appeal to the marketing department of Pearson, so I said: I’ve just given a talk where there was quite a large audience of educators all interested in corpora, so perhaps it’s time to bring the concordance lines back. It would actually enhance the product without raising the price as you would get two products for the price of one: a dictionary and a corpus interface so an exclusive focus on lexical usage that would be a unique selling point for the product. You get the idea? If you want to get a result you have to try to speak the language that will get you that result. They seemed to be interested and said they would pass the message on and get back to me. Fingers crossed. At least, I felt that I had been proactive, so thanks, Dorothy, for that.
Practice and more practice
Jim Scrivener was next on my list of appointments. He was speaking about the value of practice, and getting back to basics. Among many other things he said that “the essential learning experience is doing it yourself”, which is not new but is worth pausing to consider in more depth. Some of what he said was deliberately provocative such as “Teaching hardly matters, learning does.” This was provocative but led to quite a lot of thinking on my part, anyway. I thought about the fact that in a university context where undergraduates have what are actually quite short courses to cover a vast amount of content the ‘lecturing’ is often the starting point, and it is then true that students need to take matters into their own hands and read, think, digest information and put new skills into practice. Some of this is done in class, but not all of it. To say that the teaching hardly matters though is, I think, wrong. The teaching can, and does motivate and help learners scaffold learning and foster it, when it works, on the other hand it can also have the opposite effect, if it is not done well, leading to completely disengaged learners who are simply sitting in a lecture hall, physically, but their minds and souls are elsewhere.
Scrivener stressed the need for practice when learning a new language and speaking to a musician later on this evening, we were comparing language learning to learning how to play a musical instrument, saying just how important practice is if you want to be able to play that instrument. In the same way giving learners exposure and the chance to use language in a variety of meaningful ways is, I believe, fundamental, although I believe that mindless repetition is not effective as engaged learners experimenting with language in a meaningful way, such as putting language into a context which is meaningful for them.
Having said that, however, many of us are under time constraints to ‘cover’ a syllabus which is not of our own choosing and time becomes a luxury in class. The answer, I think, lies in motivating learners as far as possible or whetting their appetites for more. If you don’t have time in class, encourage your learners to take things into their own hands. The classroom can be a springboard to a whole range of language activities that can be done privately, at home, or on the train whilst commuting, thanks to the wide range of apps that are available these days, or with friends or the online community in games. Apps such as Kahoot, which is being widely used at the moment enable teachers to set games for their learners to play offline, or even simply providing spaces such as Padlets for discussion and feedback etc, can be invaluable.
What sort of blend do you like?
No, I’m not talking about coffee! Connected to the idea of motivating learners to extend their learning beyond the classroom, which is by no means new, are notions such as blended learning and the flipped classroom. I, personally, have blended my university classrooms for quite some time, partly because of the timetable constraints I just talked about but partly because I have large classes and many learners who live in different cities and sometimes miss classes for one reason or another. Blending the learning so that what we do in class can continue digitally online , which can then be integrated back into the traditional face to face classroom is very useful for many of my learners. Pete Sharma and Barney Barrett practically coined the term blended learning, at least as far as ELT is concerned, so I felt privileged to be able to go to their talk on best practices in blended learning to see what the state of the art is.
They actually said that there is no such thing as the perfect blend but that every situation can have its own special flavour. Traditionally more than 30% of the teaching being done online is considered to be blended learning but what is more important, they argued, is how those components fit together. The online components must complement the face to face ones and vice versa. I couldn’t agree more with this and those courses that provide extra online practice are doing just that: providing extra practice, which may be very valuable in itself but does not mean that learning is blended. Blending learning in a course means thinking carefully about which components it makes sense, in your specific context and for your specific learners or learning aims, to do face to face. Pete Sharma gave the example of a presentation course and said that fixed phrases that you might use in a presentation such as ‘This presentation is structured in three parts’ can be studied online perhaps, whereas it makes sense to do a dry run of the presentation face to face and then provide feedback, that might actually focus on helping learners with the phrases they had studied online and then put into practice in the classroom. This, to me, seems to be a very good example of a series of elements being blended together in a meaningful learning process.
Spring in the air
This was all extremely thought-provoking but today was a beautiful day and I have travelled quite a long way to come to Brighton. You know what I’m going to say next, don’t you? Yes, I took some time off from the presentations and went out for lunch with a friend and colleague, We sat outside at a pavement restaurant and enjoyed the sun and the sea whilst we discussed the sessions we had been to among other things. This is also what a conference is about, meeting colleagues, discussing ideas and extending the conversation whilst enjoying the place you are in. Brighton has always attracted innovation and has a quirky nature ranging from the Pavillion itself to the iconic West Pier and today I discovered one or two more examples of this in a pavement poet and a singeing barber as well. Take time out from the conference even though there is so much going on. Otherwise you will find that you can’t process everything and sometimes you just need to walk along the beach and read the pavement poetry :-).