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
Today I entered the hallowed halls of Manchester University, or to be more exact, the Ellen Wilkinson Building to be met by an abundance of coffee and cakes, Oh yes, and the LTSig organisers who had everything well under control. As we went into the lecture theatre, which true to the essence of technology had a sign up saying that it was equipped for “lecture capture” a new collocation that I hadn’t come across before, but then, we don’t do much capturing of lectures in my neck of the woods.
What followed was a whirlwind of “Mobile technology in action”, with three plenary speakers all of whom presented fascinating projects ranging from a project to assist language learning aspects of immigrant integration in the UK and other European countries, presented by Agnes Kukulska-Hulme from the Open University, to the “Digital Corner” project in Argentina and finally James Thomas introducing Hypal, software which he, with others, has developed at his university to annotate written work, to categorise errors and provide feedback and reflection.
The coffee continued to flow throughout and biscuits were readily available too, with the result that when lunchtime came I could hardly eat a thing, which was a crime as there was a buffet which can only be described as lavish. In the afternoon we had parallel 30 minute sessions where different people presented different technologies. I did a presentation on Socrative, which went down very well, particularly when we did a unicorn race. Iatefl participants are, of course, romantics at heart, shunning the rockets in favour of the more gentle, fabled beast.
I had the chance to go to another presentation by James Thomas on SkeLL which is the new software made available by Sketchengine, which is the well known corpus software, but the difference with SkeLL is that it is specifically for language learners, and can do single word or phrase searches. Its results are limited to 40 hits, but they are not simply the first 40 hits the programme finds but are sorted to provide different meanings and patternings. A fascinating tool which is well worth exploring. The final talk I went to was Vicky Saumell’s talk on Tellagami, a mobile technology tool I also use to send messages to learners on Facebook, from time to time, but she explored ways in which learners can use it and how inventive her learners are at “cracking the app” and making several short games, which can then be linked together into one longer video, as the free version limits you to 30 second recordings.
The day was rounded off by Diane Slaouti who works at Manchester University with Gary Motteram, thanks to whom we were able to be at the university, using the facilities. Diane provided us with a thought provoking end to the day asking if the questions we were asking were old ones or new ones, and whether the old ones need to be reassessed in the light of new technologies. For instance, one idea that emerged from Agnes Kukulska-Hulme’s presentation was the idea of “preparing learners for incidental learning” so the question that we need to ask is, perhaps how can we do this? How can we analyse learner needs so that we can prepare them well, with the language they need?
Another idea that struck me was the “mismatch between learner expectations and what teachers may want to do” which Diane mentioned with reference to Kumaravadivelu’s 2003 article Beyond Methods, which called for “principled pragmatism” in choosing what and how we teach. Not all, but some of our university learners, I feel, are not motivated to “learn” which is rather ironic since we call them “learners”. Some are, but many are motivated to get the piece of paper that says that they have completed a degree in the hope that it will help them find a job.
This is something, I think that we have to bear in mind, and the idea I took away with me, among others, was the importance of motivation, and how learning and therefore teaching starts with this. It is only be knowing our learners, talking to them and exploring their worlds that we can understand what is relevant for them and what we can do to help them want to learn. In our world incidental learning and informal learning are becoming increasingly common, so if we are the experts then the question is definitely how can we help learners use what is available to the best of their abilities in ways that will be fruitful for them. All in all, a lot of food for thought today, as well as the amazing food to eat. Well done LTSig :-)
So, now, in a Shakespearian frame of mind I’ll just say: put out the light… because tomorrow is another fine day here at the Iatefl conference and the adventure continues.
The annual TESOL Italy Conference has been going on this weekend, in Rome against a backdrop of blue skies and political agitation in an Italy characterised as ever by contrasts. Even being able to attend a conference like this is a privelege in theses times of economic crisis, and this is, I think, to some extent reflected in the quality of the content being presented and discussed here. This is a conference with a very friendly atmosphere where people felt happy to exchange their views with each other and by the end of the two days everyone seemed to know everyone else :-)
The Advantages of Physically Attending a Conference
Online conferences and webinars are a wonderful opportunity for people to share knowledge and learn in ways that were simply not possible in the past but if I can, I still prefer to attend a conference physically, so why is this? Well, here are a few reasons:
1. firstly, you get the chance to “take time out” from your daily routine which means that you probably focus that much more on what is going on at the conference;
2. You get to see a wonderful new place like Rome and breathe in a different atmosphere;
3. You can physically see the body language of people, communicate directly both during sessions and outside by smiles, eye contact and a whole range of signals that are difficult to achieve online, although there other advantages to the online spaces, but more about that later;
4. Most of all the whole event is an adventure and this one began when I was sitting on a high speed train being whisked through a whole range of autumn colours and landscapes. I could already feel myself relaxing and I leafed through the programme reading abstracts and deciding which sessions I wanted to go to. There were some names I knew already but there were a lot of sessions being held by people I didn’t know. They were simply names on a timetable, but then I arrived and went to the sessions and over a coffee or a Prosecco I got to know some of the people behind the names, their worlds, experiences, hopes and fears and they got to know me. Our worlds for these two days began to coalesce, and now that I’m back in Verona I have this warm feeling of having made a whole new group of friends and colleagues as well as catching up with some old friends too.
However conferences are mainly a great opportunity to learn and to share knowledge so here are some of the main threads that ran through this rich tapestry.
One of the key themes in this conference was inclusion which extends beyond the idea of special needs to encompass all learners with their various differences, seeing each person as someone unique with something to contribute to the group. Another key theme was CLIL which actually seemed to spark a rather stormy reaction from some of the audience, perhaps, as a reaction to some of the ministery’s less popular decisions and treatment of the topic in recent times. On the other hand, there were some high school students at the conference presenting their CLIL projects in an extremely professional way related to art and design with a project that took some teenagers to Aarhus in Denmark to investigate the architecture of living spaces and to participate in a design project themselves creating a bench. Another group tackled the complex topic of thermodynamic laws and the way in which household appliances create heat, which they did in a lively. entertaining presentation that was well choreographed and performed. I, for one, will never look at my fridge in the same way!
Lifelong learning and Professional Learning Communities were two more threads. Nowadays PLCs inevitably include the aspect of online professional development which I mentioned above but in her plenary, Deena Boraie also warned against those who seek to “stick a plaster” over a gaping need for development by creating portals with online content but no real support in using or learning from such resources. I, as eveyone knows, am very much in favour of technology and what it can add to teaching and learning but it doesn’t mean that I am blind to the abuse of resources. Like anything else, though, I don’t believe this is necessarily connected to technology itself but to the use people make of it.
Scott Thornbury made the point that the promises made by commercial technology are nothing new and that they are often mirages designed to sell. There is no reason to use technology just because of the “wow factor” if something else will do the job just as well. He cited Marcos Benevides’ “nightmare” experience with ebooks, when he tried to use them in class with students constantly losing their passwords or having technology problems, which makes me think of the “The dog ate my homework” syndrome to some extent and Made me smile. Marcos himself has created incredibly high quality ereaders and is one of their advocates, so coming from him these warnings are all the more poignant. and I agree wholeheartedly with all this, having attemptd to encourage my own students to download the ebook version of their coursebook, which was extremely complicated and we wasted a lot of precious classroom time trying to sort it out. There are also aspects to ebooks that may not be abvious and things that learners, or anyone else, need to know. When they buy an ebook, for instance, and not the paper book, they are paying for the license and not the content, which means that they will probably only be able to access that content for a certain number of years, so although just buying the ebook is cheaper it is actually probably better to get the paper book and then download the ebook as well.
These commercial concerns are real, and like anything else, a great deal of care needs to be taken with the tools we use.Technological resources are the same as any other resources, and it is always how we use them that makes the difference.
Leo Selivan and Anthony Ash also gave a great presentation of online platforms and they themselves are the embodiment of the good things about the online spaces. They had not actually met “in the flesh” until shortly before their presentation, although they knew each other well online. Despite this they gave a wonderful performance presenting their content in the form of a type of informal conversation where one seemed to be chatting to the other and asking each other questions in a seamless flow. One of the pros of online webinars which I love (never being one to hold back when it comes to commenting and asking questions, myself) is the chat stream in webinars where you can ask questions during the session itself instead of having to wait until the end when you may well have forgotten your question.
Creativity and Mindfulness
These were also threads running through this conference and John Angelori’s session on the mindful classroom was a small oasis of calm in the middle of the day. Elizabeth Evans also drew on some central tenets of mindfulness such as the need for moments of stillness, which I really liked. One of the pearls of wisdom she gave us was:
“Be still until the sunlight pours through and dispels the mists. Then act with courage.” ( Ponca Chief White Eagle)
I adapted this to apply to the principled use of technology in learning and my version goes like this:
“be still until relevance dispels the wow factor mists of technological tools and then act conscientiously with insight and courage.”
Making Assessment Relevant to the Learners
Sarah Ellis kicked off on Friday morning with her interesting talk on LOA (Learner orientated assessment) which is seeking to focus on the fact that formative assessment is an ongoing ingredient in the recipe which is teaching and learning and that summative assessment has to be the dish that we eat at the end of it.
I have to add here that food was another very important thread in the conference, being mentioned by more than one presenter and being sampled by everyone, in particular at the music and wine tasting on Friday, so it definitely wasn’t all work and no play.
Creativity and Assessment: combining the seemingly disconnected and making exam preparation more relevant for learners
Luc Prodromou took creativity up again on Saturday morning by reminding us that exams preparation needs to be relevant and memorable to our learners and that creavity can be described as connecting the disconnected, like the surprising combination of Alberto Sordi on the wall of a building in the amazing Garbatella area where the conference was held.
Luc gave us a whole range of creative activies including old Pligrims favourites and some new ideas too. Looking at exams preparation, for instance, might mean hiding song lyrics in emails that are written as exams practice. These emails can then be used in class as learners search for the Hidden songs”.
The last session on Saturday was well worth waiting for too, as Michela Romoli stunned us with her Introduction to Prezi and the prezi she had made itself, which is an excellent example of how effective this presentation tool can be. To see it follow this link:-)
All in all, the atmosphere at the conference was very friendly and inclusive and I certainly learned a lot as well as having the chance to catch up with lots of friends and make new ones. I also discovered an area of Rome: Garbatella (see the photo above) which is very interesting and as is the name itself which comes from a young lady who ran a hostelry in this area and was both “garbata” polite and “bella” beautiful: hence: Garbatella. There are some incredible buildings in this area which I find fascinating. So thank you Tesol Italy, for a lovely two days :-) Hope to see you all again next year.
Italy is a world of contradictions, sparkling aquamarine seas and dazzling snowy summits, barren areas of parched wasteland and green forests. Areas of natural beauty haphazzardly crossed by shaky looking electrical cables. It is the land that has produced Dante Aleghieri, Macchiavelli, Silvio Berlusconi, a whole series of creative industries such as the fashion world and of course the Mafia. This is a culture that is often portrayed in the media as an old civilisation with ancient, traditional values, where complex families live proudly in crumbling, but at the same time exquisite, palazzi. In the Twilight saga, to name just one popular contemporary film, the Italian family, the Valturi, is ancient and noble but it definitely stands for the old values and resists innovation or change. Venice is another popular image where beauty and decadence go hand in hand with a city whose inhabitants cannot afford to live there, and which is gradually sinking into the lagoon.
The Italian Education System
Language education in this world, then, is also fraught with contradictions: where the central figure in many school classrooms is still the teacher, whose role is in essence to provide knowledge and learning for the learners and to test them. This teacher has probably been told to teach communicative English but is also expected to develop an awareness of and appreciation of literature. There is widespread belief among teachers of the supremacy of a grammar centred approach when teaching a language no matter what communicative tenets they may pay lip service to. The language used to teach in in monolingual classrooms tends to be Italian, and group or pair work is relatively unknown, possibly because of a what is perceived as being the limitation of work in groups in large classes, or also the unwillingness of the teacher to abandon centre stage. In universities the trend continues with teacher fronted lecture theatres and some written exams butmuch more oral exams, which is the standard method of testing. Much of what students learn can be considered rote learning and oral examinations do not really give students much time to demonstrate much critical thinking even if it has been developed in class, or by learners’ independent reading. It is also contradictory in that learners are often left to their own devices to deal with huge amounts of material that they will then be tested on, but at the same time little time is spent in preparing those learners to work autonomously, so that they cannot really be considered to be independent learners either.
In Italy education is almost classical in tradition basing much of its content on vast ministerial programmes that are not imposed as such, since we have what is known as “La Libertà dell’insegnamento” (Freedom to teach) meaning teachers can choose how they want to teach. Constraints appear, however, puctually in the form of exams and one of the most important exams here is the school leaving exam known as the “Maturità”, the idea being that students who pass these exams are then “mature” although you might not think so when you see some university students in my classes :-)
In these exams, which have been taking place this week, external examiners may use ministerial programmes as a general syllabus to consult when deciding which questions to ask. This, of course, drives generations of teachers into a state of panic as they wonder if they have “covered” enough in class, and it drives generations of students into the reassuring arms of social media with sites springing up right left and centre to “help” them find their way. Students are mostly expected to memorize vast amounts of information rather than developing critical thinking in a way that is reminiscent of Medieval Church led education where texts were memorized to glorify God, but nobody was expected to interpret or question those texts.
“For the Middle Ages knowledge was an authoritative body of revealed truth. It was not for the scholar to observe nature and to test, question, and discover truth for himself but to interpret and expound accepted doctrines. Thus the medieval scholar might debate about how many angels could stand on the head of a pin, but he did not question the existence of angels.” Robert Guiseppi The history of Education, http://history-world.org/history_of_education.htm
The education system in Italy is, like many other sectors, beset by troubles, lack of funding, government reforms and constant burocratic requirements and the traditions, I mentioned at the beginning, which may or may not be fruitful or productive. Memory work, for instance, is essential if you want to learn a language, but it should be done in a meaningful way and not simply rote learning. Tests are also useful, in fact, we are constantly testing ourselves to see if we can remember where we put the car keys etc. This is a part of life, but if these elements become automated or are done out of a sense of paying lip service to guidelines that teachers do not really believe in, then the routines and rituals in schools and universities make it difficult for meaningful teaching and learning to take place, and the institution paradoxically gets in the way of the learning process. Difficult, but not impossible and here and there you can stumble across inspirational teaching. I was under the impression that my university language centre classroom was one of those places, but recently I have been questioning quite a few of my assumptions and beliefs.
Questioning my Assumptions
In Italian state schools,universities and private language schools most of the teaching is done by means of course books, and unless learners are preparing for specific exams like Toefl, for instance, the model tends to be British English, so much so that native speaker teachers whose L1 is a different variety of English, American, Australian etc. have been known to accommodate to the language rules they find in these coursebooks.
I spend a lot of time with advanced learners supplying them with strategies to help them become independent such as dictionary skills, ways of working on the internet, learning strategies and the like, but I always assume, somewhere, deep inside, that these advanced learners, whether they are university language students or adults who have reached a high level and want to maintain it, aim to master Standard English, but today I am increasingly asking myself whether that is true in our world, and what exactly Standard English is.
What do learners need?
The fact that there are different world Englishes is nothing new, and it makes sense, if you are studying in the USA, for instance to study the American model. If you are, in fact, living in a context where English is the L1 then your motivation is probably integrational in that you are aiming to be accepted by the community and, therefore, you are probably aiming to approach native speaker competence as far as is possible. In our world, however, where communication is increasingly transnational and more and more online communities are appearing which are also virtual, not limited by geographical boundaries in any way those using English to communicate for politics, business, academic and cultural purposes such as to study or attend international conferences or simply to listen to music, watch films or even read newspapers, will be using English in a different way. The motivation here is often instrumental, in that these individuals are using the language as a means to an end. Motivation is a complex thing, tied into our very vision of who we are, and our motivation may change as time goes by as well, but if what you want is to be able to use the language to communicate with others whose L1 is different to yours, then the language itself is a code used to weave meaning into the rich tapestry of plurilingual communication by means of English.
This takes us right back to the notion of what language is, and to take a very simplistic view, imagine what happens when you repeat a word or utterance ad infinitum. It generally loses all meaning very quickly and becomes simply a string of sounds. The same thing happens if you look at a word or sentence for too long. I remember how years ago, when I lived in Berlin, and was desperate to integrate myself into a German speaking world, for instance, I stopped seeing words in English. I walked past a bar, whose name was “Pipeline” every day on my way to the underground station, but it was only after about six months, that I realised that it was an English word and it then had meaning. Up until then I had been looking at the individual letters and pronouncing them in my mind in a syllabic way, as if they were German ( something akin to “Pipalina”, sorry I haven’t got any phonetic symbols here) and of course, that didn’t mean anything. This, to my mind, shows how the letters and sounds themselves are only signs, and it is the convention of the language speaking community that endows them with meaning. Something similar happens to me these days here in Italy because I have Sky T.V. which I usually set to the “original language”, mainly out of habit. At times though, if there is a storm or the lights fail, the system sets itself back to Italian, and I often find that I have watched a whole episode of a TV series before I realise that the language has changed back to Italian. What this means, I think, is that what interests me is the meaning, again: what lies behind the words rather than the words themselves. They are simply a code which transmits meaning, and meaning comes from the users of the language. I can almost here the cries of “Oh, but what about literature, poetry, the musicality, the intricate linguisitc patterns woven by a skillful wordsmith?” Well, I can only repeat that I’m not considering language here as an art form but simply as a means to communicate. When it comes to literary works and in particular poetry I agree, that I want to read these in the original language, and translation does alter meaning, and cultural references, but that is another discussion. Here, I am simply thinking of language as a code for communication, which is what many of our learners want to be able to use it for.
Models of Language: a personal experiment
The problem of models of language and which one to teach and assess, then, is a vicious circle, as. A third element which leads me to think that the words themselves are not as important as the people who use them is the general tolerance which most individuals show when communicating with each other. Here we could go back to Grice’s cooperative principles.
People who are communicating with each other generally want to understand and be understood, and collocations or lexical choices, for instance that may not be completely orthodox from the point of view of the Standard British English model are perfectly comprehensible when viewed in context. To test this theory, I did a small experiment the other day on Facebook, where 50% of my friends are native speaker English users. I posted this message after I’d been working hard to put together a new cupboard I had bought from Ikea ( an achievement in itself which is why I’ve put a photo here of the finished product :-)
“Guess how long it took me to mount my lovely new Ikea cupboard?”
I chose the word “mount” because I wanted to see what would happen. For Italian speakers it is very close to the ItaIian “montare” which would be an appropriate collocation here, but it is not quite right in Standard British English. We might collocate “mount” with a picture, meaning to put it on a card, or, and this is the perfidious bit, we can “mount” kitchen cupboards on the wall. So, we might conclude that in English “mount” something, has connotations of “putting something onto something else, which is then suspended, in some way.”
Most of my Facebook friends ignored this lexical choice completely and just guessed how long it had taken me to put the thing together, or they made admiring noises about the fact that I was doing this on my own at all! Finally someone noticed the word “mount” and commented that I’d obviously been in Italy too long! The point here, is that the choice of “mount” even though it was not “Standard English” in no way impeded my message, or was even considered worthy of note by most of the people reading the post. Even that last word “post” is an illustration of the way that what is important is the meaning individuals attribute to language. Not so long ago the way I am using it here would have been unintelligible, as the “post” was something that arrived through the postbox in the front door at breakfast time. Language is, in short, what its users make of it, and it is the users who create the meanings, not the words themselves.
How important is Collocation, for instance?
As I said, I spend a lot of time helping my advanced learners to work on lexical choice in the hope that I am helping them to express themselves more precisely and clearly, and enabling them to develop a greater awareness of complexity that will help them to write, communicate and ultimately be accepted in the big, wide world outside the classroom door, but the question I am asking myself after the “mount” experiment, is how important such things as collocations really are.
There are, of course collocational choices that make a difference. There is a difference, for example between “making breakfast” or “having breakfast” which could lead to misunderstandings, although even here, the context would probably make it clear which meaning was intended. When C1 learners use collocations such as to “give importance” to something, in their writing or presentations, I tend to correct them as they do not conform to the standard, and then show learners where they can find information about which collocations are the commonly accepted ones ( in dictionaries, corpora etc.). This however brings me back to the other question I asked at the beginning: which model do my learners need?
The coursebooks we generally use in Italy are produced in the UK, on the whole, as are the dictionaries and reference materials. Dictionaries include information about differing usage according to different varieties, but the model we are teaching is undoubtably British English. Having said that, though, all it takes is the click of a mouse to find models that are not strictly “British English” and are we really sure what that means these days. Here, for instance, is a lesson I did recently based on the Goyte song “Somebody that I used to Know”, if you want to see this lesson in action, follow this link to my digital classroom. We’d be very happy to see you. Given that Goyte is of Belgian extraction although naturalized Australian, the text of his song looks remarkably similar to British English to me!
Much depends, of course, on what your learners need to do with the language. Those, for instance, who want to publish articles in academic journals definitely need to know about complexity of language and collocation norms, so maybe all my hard work hasn’t been completely in vain. The bottom line, as usual, comes back to respecting learner needs and continually questioning your own practices and assumptions. This is the way, I think, to make progress.
So, what should we be teaching and testing?
I’ve concluded, after quite a lot of thought, that for my Italian students the British English model is “closest” to them and as such is a good place to start. Like anything else though the initial model is just that: a model, and it is then up to them to make it into their own “English” by choosing the expressions and structures they need and like, and by experimenting with creative ways of using vocabulary. One example of this is the word “overseas” which in British English is perfect for descriptions of students, for example who come from abroad as Britain is an island, so they literally come “over the sea” to get there, but in Italy this is not so obvious, but one non native speaker who has a wonderful grasp of his own brand of Italian English is the journalist Beppe Servignini (not to be confused with Beppe Grillo) who refers to this concept from the roots of his Italianicity as “north of the Alps”. This makes perfect sense when you are in Milan or Verona, and is the perfect way, I think, to make the language your own. What we should be teaching then is whatever our learners need, starting from the standard model and taking it from there. What we should be testing is another story which deserves another blog post but suffice it to say that I don’t believe it should be the Native Speaker standards of competence which are dizzying heights that are almost impossibile for learners to reach.
Since it’s the first Monday in June I thought I’d kick off the week with a Blog Challenge about models of English, which is something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot. Obviously, we all use English in different ways, depending on our needs, but is the model we are providing, and, above all, assessing the right one for our learners?
Which Model is right for Italian students?
I teach, as you know, in Italy, and our model tends to be Standard British English. The coursebooks used in state and private schools, and to some extent universities, are mass market globally produced books that come from the UK, on the whole. Even though there are some locally produed books, particularly for the eaching of literature, most of the books are not local, so how relevant are they to our context? Our learners, unless they are language students with a deep rooted interest in language, are motivated to study because they will use English, not to become part of a community where English is the L1 but to communicate in multilingual contexts. This begs the question of what we should teach them. If individuals with different cultural and linguistic backgrounds wish to communicate, of course they will need a model which enables them to understand each other, so, for instance, a local model which includes code switching between English and Italian or “Italian forms in English” will only work among Italian speakers, which rather defeats the purpose!
My take on this has always been to teach the standard British model, as we are in Europe, so it is arguably the closest one to us, and then to encourage creative use, such as adding local sayings, idioms and metaphors (in English) which enrich the language. So far so good. Students learn the basic model to the best of their abilities and then go off into the sunset using it as well as they can. The next problem is assessment.
When it comes to assessment I think we need to be using a different model. In recent years, with the implementation of the CEFR the move has been to recognise what individuals “can do” when they are communicating, with an emphasis on skills rather than the lexico-grammatical system, although of course the two are closely interconnected. This, however, is where beliefs and traditions die hard, and some find it very difficult to be able to change their perspective towards seeing these learners as people who are using the language to commnicate, and recognising what they can do, rather than simply focusing on the errors.
I have a lot of sympathy for examiners. It’s a complex job which involves judgments that combine the application of criteria (if that is the type of examining being done) with beliefs and traditional habits. For teachers, in classrooms, and this, in my experience is true both of NESTs and NNESTs, what we notice first tends to be error. It hits you between the eyes, if you like, and is seen as something “broken” and many see the job of the teacher as “helping learners to avoid error”. Is it realistic, however, to expect learners to achieve high, almost native speaker like, levels of competence and do they need to do this? I believe that assessment means looking at successful expression and teaching means facilitating learners so that they can develop their own voice and expression tools, to the level that is required by the use they will ultimately make of the language.
So, what about the challenge? Here it is: a few questions for you to consider about your context.
What context do you teach in?
What is the dominant model of English taught?
What is the dominant model of English assessed?
Does this meet your learners’ needs?
I’d be really interested to hear people’s thoughts :-)
We all know what the expression “Out of the mouths of Babes” means: that children often reveal the bare truth that adults might dress in the famous emperor’s new clothes. This is also true of candidates doing Cambridge Speaking exams, and one of the little gems that emerged from today’s exams came from a student, looking at photos showing relationships, where one photo showed a classroom with a very friendly looking teacher and a group of motivated looking g children group work of some kind. The picture above showed a group of people working in a team in an office. The student in the exam looked at the classroom image and immediately dismissed the notion that there could be any meaningful relationship between students and teachers by saying “Well, this one (the elationship) isn’t important because we know that between students and teachers there’s a war.” Then he moved onto the other image and said “This is more important because here people are working in teams, and this is good.” The implication then is that a) at school there is no group work, which is a bad thing, as cooperation leads to growth and productivity and b) that there can be no exchange between students and teachers. Both of these ideas probably reflect an alarming truth that exists in many classrooms and that we try to “dress in the emperor’s new clothes” by means of studies and statistics that do not tell us everything. If this situation is happening it is often not the poor, much maligned teacher’s fault but the fault of systems, programmes and expectations that put a whole series of constraints on teachers who are generally trying to do their best in the situation where they find themselves. How true is this divide? I don’t know. I’m sure that in some classrooms it is true and not in others, but what is worrying is that this candidate expressed this opinion as though it was a given and the other person in the exam nodded his agreement straight away.
To work in groups, or not to work in groups?
I keep hearing all kinds of reasons from teachers why group work is impractical in their classrooms, raning from the “I can’t move the desks” to “I can’t control the class” which usually hides a fear of losing control, because let’s face it. It is not an easy thing, if you have always taught frontal lessons, to hand over to your learners. For many it goes against one of the core beliefs that they absrbed when they were at school: the teacher is there at the front of the class, imparting knowledge. Although for some this may seem an antequated model of education with the “learners as containers to be filled” image, it is still a fact of life in many classrooms around the world, and, in fact, I personally think that there is definitely a place for frontal lessons, or frontal moments in a class, as well as pair or group work.
The next common excuse is that monolingual classes “won’t use English” in groups so the group is a waste of time. Well, on the subject of speaking the L2, let me refer you to my last blog post on the subject. However, the aim of group work, as the exam candidate above so eloquently said, is not simply to provide “language practice” it is also to provide a space for learners to explore ideas, to learn from each other and to reach conclusions by means of mutual support and exploration. For more on the idea of learners supporting each other see this post that I wrote following Sugata Mitra’s controversial plenary at the Harrogate Iatefl conference earlier this year.
Providing a Framework for Learning
Teaching of course is not at all the same as learning and the best we can hope for is often to motivate our learners to go out and take responsibility for their own learning. This also means providing choices in the classroom but also clear frameworks.
A confused learners, who doesn’t know what he “should be doing” or what his teacher expects of him may well become stressed of demotivated, so it is useful to discuss the things we are doing in class with learners and the different ways in which they learn. Knowing, for example, when they can use the task they are doing to work on their spoken English or when they can use their L1 because it makes more sense to do so, in error analysis, for instance. A lesson is more, in fact, than just a glorified “spoken language practice” and whilst it is far from ideal to have a whole lesson conducted in the L1, which also happens, it is also counter-productive, at times, to go too far in the opposite direction and insist on the whole lesson in English, because this means as Guy Cook says, wasting a resource, which is the learners’ L1 which can be used to provide reassurance, to build rapport and to give information about the language they are learning which cannot be given directly in the L2. In monolingual classes the L1 is a resource that should not be underestimated.
So, if our learners, like the candidate in the exam, recognise the need for group work to do much more than practise language, then I can see no reason why teachers shouldn’t do the same. Group work has been coming in for quite a lot of criticism recently, but this, I think is often misguided. A colleague of mine said recently that her university students were loath to give their presentations in front of the class. Well, this is hardly surprising, if you consider that these classes often have 60+ students in them. It takes a very confident person to stand up and give a presentation in another language in front of so many. I suggested she tried getting them to give the presentations in small groups, and she reported back that it had really worked very well, and far from “deteriorating into the L1” they had all taken the task very seriously and worked well. So here again we can see how the small group is a reassuring space inside the big one, and this was one more success story. So let’s move away from fixed ideas about what groups are for and challenge our own beliefs a but more, after all, it can’t hurt can it?
Most learners, if asked why they are studying a language, will answer that they want to learn to “speak that language”. In fact, in English we collocate the ability to use a language speaking when we say “I speak German” for instance. This is not true of various other languages which,whilst often having the “speak a language collocation” also have other ways of expressing language mastery such as “Knowing the language” or other “being able” etc.
This is just an anecdote, so before you all rise up to contradict me, I’m not suggesting that the English don’t take the written language seriously, I’m just wondering how important the spoken language is for most learners. I personally, when I study a language, want to learn to do everything, and if possible straight away, because I want to be able to put things into practice immediately, which is why I love modal verbs. All you have to do is to learn the modal verb you want and then apply it to a whole range of infinitives, and Bob’s your uncle! You can use the language to express quite complex ideas before you have even learned the general verb inflections.
What do learners want and what motivates us?
If I really examine my motivation, I think this is because I am fascinated by languages and their patterns and the power they give you to be able to express ideas. This goes some way beyond the socioeconomic motivations that are being bandied about at the moment by those who look at language use, and what is “required for the work of work” as David Graddol did in his recent plenary at the Harrogate Iatefl Conference, whilst asking the question of how successful the global study of English has been, among other things. Graddol was simply presenting the results of his research so I am not criticising this, but I think that language learning, like any other type of learning is driven by a whole range of factors and motivation is an intensely personal phenomenon. Learning and learning motivation, I think, and I am firmly convinced of this, is tied up, as Dornyei says in his work on L2 Identities with our view of who we are. This is why, when I recently decided to reactivate my ailing Spanish, I began reading again but I also decided to go to the tertulias, or parties,organised by the Italo-Spanish cultural association in Verona, where you can listen to Spanish and use it to speak to other people about interesting topics, over a glass of Cava, without having to go to a traditional course.
What happens in the classroom?
Ok, so am I, as a teacher, shooting myself in the foot here, by saying I don’t want to go to a course. I don’t think so, because when I don’t want to go to a course, the reason is that I have already studied the lexico-grammatical systems when I studied Spanish at university. I then developed this knowledge by doing skills work both in Scotland and in Spain and I remember my tutor at St. Andrews University Prof. Bernard Bentley, who introduced the idea of tertulias which were similar to the ones here in Verona, except that we tended to eat, drink wine and play boardgames, but the one cardinal rule was that we used Spanish all evening. The tertulias were informal but they were definitely events that provided us, as students, with learning opportunities. So teaching, I think, needs to provide both the cognitive study of the system, because, after all, if you do not know how to form a comparative adjective, you’ll be hard pressed to make comparisons, and the same goes for lexical and phonological aspects. Despite all the criticism of the poor, long suffering communicative language teaching approach, I still think that to teach learners to communicate with these rules in truly meaningful, and I mean meaningful, not just “meaningful on the surface”, frameworks, is the most logical way for us to work in our world. Classes are made up of individuals, who all have different needs, beliefs and desires (and this includes the teacher) and what happens in class is often a sort of “bargain” between teacher and learners, which is negotiated over a period of time and is not at all linear. But, what do learners really want? Are they like me or not?
What do learners want?
Obviously, the answer to the question above is “not” but on the whole most of my learners do want to be able to express themselves in English and to speak the language to communicate with others. This brings me to my second question: why don’t they speak English in class? This is a big one and I have been thinking about this for some time. Many, when faced with this problem, would blame the methodology: small groups don’t work in monolingual classrooms, discipline problems etc. etc. but I think it goes deeper than this and so let’s go back to the tertulias for a moment. As I said above, I haven’t used Spanish with any regularity for about 30 years, but even so it’s still there somewhere, and I can drag it out of the recesses of my brain, when I have to, which I noticed in Malaga in December, which is what made me want to reactivate it in the first place. So, on the way to the tertulia, I sit on the beus and think to myself in Spanish. I already know what the topic will be so I think about that in Spanish for a few days before I go (off and on of course in a very relaxed informal way) and I may even write a Spanish comment on the Facebook page. This is a mental and psychological effort and as I get closer to the venue all those feelings of inadequacy flood my mind. Will everyone else be better than me? Will I be able to say anything at all? I am motivated to speak the language though, so I grit my teeth and march onwards towards the bar.
Taking the plunge at the risk of losing face.
When I get to the bar I meet the next hurdle. This is a largely monolingual group. There are NS Spaniards and South Americans and it is fairly natural to speak with them in Spanish but there are also a lot of Italians and it takes a supreme effort to speak in Spanish to them, as everyone looks at each other in the eye, knows deep down inside that they can communicate much more safely in Italian, without risking either your intended message or your face, and so, to take the plunge and use the L2 has to be a conscious, risky decision. I, of course, am a language teacher, I know that I can take responsibility for my own learning, and I am not so interested in “face” in this informal group setting, nor do I feel threatened in any way, so I don’t care if I make mistakes. I just want to increase my “communciative competence” in Spanish (See how much Hymes has influenced us all.) so I take a deep breath and start using Spanish. Other people join in and we all relax until the final hurdle of all…In comes a newcomer who discovers that I’m English, and guess what? Yes, he wants to practise his English… I leave the rest to your imagination.
A question of motivation but also of habit
As this salutory little story tells us, it is not so easy to “speak English” in a monolingual group but it is possible if the learners are a) motivated and able to take responsibility for their own learning and b) establish the habit of doing so. To illustrate what I mean I want to take two different monolingual classes that I teach and to compare them. They are both groups of monolingual Italian speakers, but the cultural settings and age groups are very different. One is an adult conversation group, where the participants come because they want to, and do not see it as ‘institutionalized learning’. They have been coming for years, are friends and speak Italian outside the classroom, but as soon as they come in they use English all the time because a) they are at a B2+ level and can do this and b) they have established this use of “English” in the classroom over years of lessons. (That doesn’t mean, however, that we don’t use Italian if we need to.). The other group is a group of young university undergraduates who are studying language and who say that they would like to improve their spoken language and do not have much chance to speak English outside class, but who are very loath to do so in class. I have spent years, like many of my colleagues bustling round classrooms exhorting learners to “Speak in English” with only varying degrees of success, so I decided that it was time to give them the opportunity to face up to what was going on.
So I gave them this Powerpoint Presentation with a number of questions to reflect on (inspired by my own experiences at the tertulia combined with my observations of what happens in class). The stuents reflected on these questions and we discussed them at some length (You can see the answers in the full presentation below.) What they finally concluded was that they did need to make the conscious decision to use English, and that by doing so they would actually establish the habit of using it. My bargain with them was to make it clear in class when they should be using English in communicative group work and when the aim of the group work was different such as error analysis etc. so that the use of Italian was fine. So, of course things haven’t changed overnight, and now I go round the class saying “Make the decision now, that you’re going to use English’ but here’s the thing. It is working and the learners do want to do it, so, in my book, that makes it well worth carrying on with.