What are we thinking in ELT?

24 Jun

If you were about to start thinking about a dissertation or thesis in ELT, what would you write it about?

There’s a number of ways of looking at this:

  • Practicality
  • Passion
  • Previous

Practicality – what’s easiest and most practical to write about?  How are you going to find the answers to your research questions?  Is it possible to find out what you want to know?

Passion – what do you care about?  There’s no point in being pushed into writing about a topic you aren’t interested in.  If you’ve been teaching for a while, there’s probably something you enjoy doing in the classroom more than the rest.  And if you’re going to read about it, research it and write about it for anywhere between three months and a year, you need to have a topic that can sustain you throughout that time.

Previous – has it been done before?  What other research has been done in the area?  Are you going to add to the general body of knowledge in the area or are you going to duplicate existing research?  What can you find to help and inform your own research process?

Climate-Change

It seems that a lot of ELT writing, research and conference presentation comes about because of a perceived lack in practice.  A writer or presenter has a belief about what an aspect of professional practice should be and sees that either in their own practice or in that of colleagues around them, professional practice is not as it should be.  These beliefs are therefore often highly personal and highly contextualised, but in writing about them or presenting them, the lessons learned from attempting to deal with the lack are shared with the wider ELT community.

This means that is it possible every now and again to get a snapshot of the community zeitgeist:

wordle

This word cloud (made with wordle) is from the presentation titles as given at the back of the IATEFL 2015 conference brochure.  In total, it works out at over 7000 words of text and in all honesty I’m not sure how useful it is, because the word cloud doesn’t recognise the collocations or noun phrases that are so common in session titles.  So I took the old-fashioned approach and skimmed through them to see what topic areas appeared most common.

My completely unscientific approach may well include my own personal frequency illusion bias, so interested readers are recommended to do the same thing themselves by downloading the brochure and referring to pages 249 – 270.

However, my thoughts are that in the ELT community we are mostly thinking about and writing about:

  • Action Research & Evidence based practice
  • Critical thinking in the classroom
  • Corpora research and using it in the classroom
  • The role of Coursebooks
  • Digital materials and learning technologies
  • The EdTech vs Humanistic approaches debate
  • Flipping our classrooms
  • Developing learner autonomy

Obviously, some of these are huge categories in their own right.  Learner Autonomy has something like thirty six separate talks listed in the IATEFL brochure.

Equally, some of these are perennial debates.  The role of coursebooks in the classroom, especially when contrasted with Dogme-style approaches, has been contentious since ever there were coursebooks.  Proponents of humanist approaches worry that Edtech supporters tend to lose focus on the person inside the learners, while the EdTech supporters worry that the humanists…..  actually I’m not sure what they worry about.  Possibly that humanist approaches aren’t easily replicable or applicable in wider contexts and therefore shouldn’t be taken seriously when developing larger scale policy?  Not sure.  Help me out readers – how would you characterise the debate?

Anyway – it seems to me that the community zeitgeist reflects a view of what we want our classes and our learners to be, what we try to engage with in our teaching, and that we actually have a new “standard model” in ELT:  digitally engaged, independent, thoughtful human beings who know what they want and how to go and get it.  And their teachers.

***

My thanks to Dr. Andrew Kerrigan at the University of York for asking me the question and thus inspiring the post – I’d be interested to hear alternative answers to Andrew’s original question:  What’s your take on some of the buzz topics in ELT writing and research these days?

Personalised Learning – IATEFL BESIG Workshop

8 Jun

Here are the slides from the BESIG weekend workshop I gave on the 7th June 2015.  I was very honoured to have been asked to run the workshop, particularly as I noticed it was the 50th such workshop that BESIG have run.

In the talk we touched on some of the evidence that exists to suggest a personalised learning approach is more effective – it is an instinctive thought and one most of us would recognise, but there is actual research data out there as well.

We looked at the importance of needs analysis and ways in which we can use Google forms as both a data gathering tool and for analysis purposes.

We also thought about course design and moving towards an iterative, cyclical, learner led process that is based initially on learner needs, but also on a feedback cycle going forwards.

Finally I presented three activities that use the students as the content creators within a teacher provided framework, as a way of modelling an approach to using the students as resource in the BE classroom.

 

My huge thanks to the IATEFL BESIG team for inviting me to run the workshop, and to Justine Arena for looking after me on the day and for all her hard work in organising the technical side of things so that I didn’t have to!

If you are a member of IATEFL and of BESIG, you should be able to view a recording of the workshop on the BESIG website.

IATEFL BESIG

PechaFlickr – exam speaking practice

4 Jun

One of the common complaints students have about exam speaking is that they never know what to say.  In practice sessions, I’ve had students dry up completely and embarrassedly freeze half way through a sentence, I’ve had other students refuse to talk about the topic saying that they know nothing about it!

About a month ago, Richard Byrne shared a post about PechaFlickr that I think can help with this.

silhouette-774836_1280

PechaFlickr is a web based app that displays 20 random images for 20 seconds each.  As the name suggests, the images all come from Flickr and are selected based on how they’ve been tagged – this adds the element of randomness that makes it such a great tool as you can never be entirely sure what you’re going to get.  I tried it with the topic “school” and got a a child crying in front of some ruins, a grinning child staring at the camera, what looked like a teachers meeting, a somewhat inappropriately dressed Japanese lady (but dressed enough for the sake of propriety), and some people holding a candlelit vigil.  I gave up at that point…!

In the advanced settings you can change the number of slides shown and the length of time they are displayed for, so you could easily adapt it to practice Cambridge English: First & Advanced speaking tasks, though it doesn’t practice the exam tasks in the sense that the tasks require comparison and contrast of two photos.

What it does help practice is thinking about what pictures represent and what they could represent, finding connections between images and topics and perhaps more importantly . quick thinking.

I think this could be a great warmer for any class with an interactive whiteboard and it could also be a great tool for students to practice at home – especially if they record and review their own performance.

Another alternative is to play a “Just a Minute” type game, possibly setting timing on each photo to slightly longer and adding more  pictures (depending on how long you want things to take), where as soon as the speaker falters or fails, they stop and another one has to take their place.

Any other suggestions?

Try it out here:

pechaflickr

 

Free Online #BESIG Workshop – Personalised Learning Programmes

1 Jun

It’s my very great privilege to be running a free online workshop for the IATEFL BESIG next Sunday – 7th June.

BESIG is the Business English Special Interest Group and they have been running their weekend workshop series since February 2011, when Pete Sharma gave the first one on what I think was Networking in English.  Since then 48 other fantastic speakers have also given workshops!

The workshop is running at 2pm GMT on Sunday 7th June (2015) – to find out when that is where you are just click on the world clock converter.  It is free to attend and anyone and everyone is welcome, though if you miss it, the recording is only available to BESIG members.

I’m going to be talking about the importance of personalising the learning process.  There’s been some really interesting research that has come out of North America in recent years that has looked at improving effectiveness in education and which I think has clear lessons for all of us in ELT.  I’m also going to review ideas in needs analysis and course design and to see if we can’t tweak some of these ideas with technology to make it a more streamlined, less labour intensive and more effective process, as well as looking at ways to work with the student as resource in the business English arena.

It is aimed primarily at the BE sector, which isn’t to say that non-BE teachers won’t find something to takeaway also!

To find out more – visit the BESIG website.

It has the full abstract, together with the when and where and details of how to attend.

Hope to see you there!

IATEFL BESIG

The Colour Coded Essay – #IHTOC7

13 May

With the introduction of a compulsory essay task in the Cambridge English: First & Advanced exams, it’s become quite important for learners to understand essay structure and organisation.

Here’s a ten minute talk I did for the International House Teacher’s Online conference:

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And here are the slides for the presentation:

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Check out all the other great talks in the IHTOC7 conference here:

https://sites.google.com/site/ihtoc7/

 

Free Teachers’ Online Conference – Friday 8th May #IHTOC7

5 May

The annual International House Teachers Online conference is taking place over this weekend and it’s a great opportunity for teachers to drop in and take part in this free event.

On Friday 8th, 10.30 – 16.30 (GMT) there will be a series of ten minute sessions from teachers in the IH network – twenty three different sessions in all, grouped loosely together under the headings; The Big Picture, Fabulous Feedback, Rampant Resources and Culture & Nurture.

I will be giving a quick ten minute talk on essay structure for the Cambridge exams – and showing how using a colour-coded essay template can help learners to make textual connections and strengthen the organisation and structure of an exam focused essay.

Saturday 9th, 10.30 – 15.15 (GMT) focuses on teaching modern languages, with IH teachers of Russian, German, Spanish and French sharing their ideas in a series of one hour sessions.

Click here for the timetable, with information about when everything is happening.  Links to the online conference rooms will also appear here on the day.

Click here for the conference programme, with abstracts and biographies of the speakers and their sessions.

Make sure you get the timings right!  All conference times are in GMT.

Image credit: Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig. Reproduced underAttribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) Licence.

#5TeachingChallenges

20 Apr

It is easy enough to get stuck in your classroom, and stuck in particular ways of thinking about your teaching and your learners and even of course – yourself!  Cambridge English have just launched what look like an interesting professional development programme – the #5teachingchallenges campaign.

In essence, you sign up, choose one of the options and then you get emailed short tasks to help you think about the area you chose.  Each challenge takes about five weeks and at the end of it you get a Record of Achievement for each challenge.  If you then want to do another challenge, you can.

I like that there’s a degree of personalisation in this and that you get to focus on the area that’s most important to you, as it makes a difference from imposed or pre-determined input and this can be quite liberating.

The five challenge areas are:

  1. Create a professional development plan that works for you
  2. Find new ways to motivate your learners
  3. Find new ways to identify, analyse and correct your learners’ mistakes
  4. Be more confident using digital resources
  5. Be more confident using English in class

So there should be something for everyone there!  There are additional extension tasks for more experienced teachers and each task is meant to take about one or two hours a week.

 

 

Good luck!

Reason to Read – a genre specific approach to developing reading skills

16 Apr

In my recent talk at IATEFL 2015, I argued that the standard approach to reading in ELT is ineffective and that tasks which reflect a broader range of genres and more realistic reasons for reading are preferable, and I demonstrated a few tasks which reflect this philosophy.

At the end of the talk I promised that I would post the slides and pdf versions of some of the tasks I showed – so here it all is:

Here is the first of the pdf handouts.  This is a task / process that you can use with pretty much any text, though it might need some adapting in the information extraction section, depending what kind of genre you use it with.

Teflgeek – Reaction Reading

Here is the second of the handouts.  This is a pdf of a task / process that aims to help students deconstruct the why and what of texts – why were they written and what should they do with them.  It helps students approach texts critically and with the ability to conduct a more in depth analysis.  It should work with any text type and at almost any level.

Teflgeek – Text Deconstruction Handout


Finally, a video of the presentation is available from the IATEFL Online website.  The presentation was part of a larger forum on approaches to developing reading skills and I co-presented with Peter Watkins of the University of Portsmouth and Mike Green of Kansai Gaidai University.  Peter spoke first for about 15 minutes, then I spoke for 15 minutes and finally Mike spoke for 15 minutes.  We then had about 15 minutes of Q & A, which is worth watching for some quite key follow up questions!

The link is here: http://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2015/session/forum-approaches-developing-reading-skills

And these are the abstracts for Peter and Mike’s talks:

REVISITING READING

Peter Watkins (University of Portsmouth)

This talk starts with the premise that the teaching of reading skills has changed little over the last few years, with a fairly predictable staging sequence to most lessons. We will consider not only what we do when we teach reading, but also why we do it. Alternatives to the presumed norm are then suggested.

PRACTICAL WAYS TO DEVELOP FLUENCY IN L2 READING

Michael Green (Kansai Gaidai University)

What do we mean by ‘fluent reading’ and how can we encourage it in the classroom? In this session, participants will sample a variety of simple exercises that develop the skills which form the foundation of fluent reading. These skills are applicable to all levels of L 2 readers in many different teaching contexts.

Dear Me – to my #youngerteacherself

30 Mar

Dear David,

It’s been almost fifteen years since you started teaching.  In fact I think at this point back in 2002 you were busy trying to complete the IH London CELTA pre-course task and trying to make sure you had enough cash for the course fee.  If I remember rightly, the original plan was about five years?

Well, here we are now and it’s been a bit longer than that.  I’m writing to you because, well, it’s mostly Joanna’s fault because she started it, but you can also blame Sandy as that’s where I saw the first of these posts; retrospective letters to our past selves – tips and advice across the years of experience.

I’m tempted to say “Don’t change a thing!”  I like where I am now and what I’m doing now and all of the people that I’m with.  I worry that my advice will act as a causality loop in the space-time continuum and that when I click “publish” on this post, that this iteration of me will disappear to be replaced by one where I am either ruler of the known Teflverse, or where I gave the whole thing up and went back to the office job I started teaching to escape.  Of course that would create a paradox in which I never sent you the advice in the first place – so we’ll probably be alright…

When I think back now to the things you struggled with on that CELTA course and in those first few years of teaching, there are probably a few things I’d suggest.

1) Take your head out of the books more.  You have a tendency to focus in on the material that’s in front of you, to look at the pages of the book and spend hours figuring out how to make it work.  Remember the 50% rule (which I think Nick K. will tell you in about six months) and try not to spend more than 50% of lesson time in the planning and preparation.  Also, just try to not teach the book so much?  You can use the book as a syllabus if you want, a guide to what language to teach and in what order, but you don’t necessarily need to teach the book.  After all, you are meant to be teaching the students.

2)  It’s OK to not know and it’s OK to tell the class “we’ll come back to that later”.  (As long as you do).  Especially if you’re being observed (and yes I am thinking of one or two very specific situations you’ll come up against soon).  Ignorance is not a crime, but refusing to acknowledge your ignorance is.  If a student asks you about the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation for modality – confess you have no idea what they’re going on about!  It will at least stop the tutor at the back of the room from holding his head in his hands and weeping…

3) Get out and about more.  This will be difficult in some places because of your timetable, but you are going to spend a lot of time in some fantastic places and you will regret it later if you don’t take advantage of them.

4) Do more of the things you want to do.  You will run around a lot thinking things like “I don’t have time for this” and “I can’t do that because I need that hour for something else.”  This is foolishness.  You still think like that now, but you’re slowly getting better at not doing it.  If you mostly do the things you want to do, you will find that the things you have to do get done anyway – probably to the same standard as they would have done had you given them more time, but with less procrastination involved.

5) Start blogging.  Now.  I mean it.  OK, I’ve just checked and WordPress won’t be released for another year and you are about to disappear behind the Great Firewall of China for two years, so you’re off the hook for now, but as soon as you get to Poland, you need to start blogging.  You will discover a fantastic community of ELT teachers, thinkers and writers.  You will find that writing about it helps clarify your own thinking on a number of teaching aspects.  Basically, you’ll really enjoy it…

There’s probably more I could say, but these things are really the only things that feel important enough to write down.  So it’s off down to the inter-dimensional post office for me, and if the world hasn’t melted by the time I get back, then we’ll know that either (a) time travel doesn’t really work, (b) time travel does work, but in so doing all you really do is add another layer to the multi-verse, (c) you didn’t listen to a word of it…..

Take care  (and don’t eat the sea cucumbers!  They’re disgusting!)

David

The_Persistence_of_Memory

Left Brain – Right Brain: This idea must die

23 Mar

The ever excellent Freakonomics podcast recently put out a podcast called “This Idea Must Die” in which they borrowed a concept from edge.org:  every year Edge.org asks a question and asks its contributors (high level thinkers, scientists, academics and nobel laureates) to write an essay in answer.  This year the question was “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?”

One of the contributors is Sarah Jayne Blakemore, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, and the idea that she suggested should die is that of the Left Brain / Right Brain divide.

divided brain

 

In simple terms, the divide does not exist.  In the podcast Blakemore states that the idea of left and right brain separation arose out of studies done in the sixties and seventies on people who had had surgery to divide their brains.  Snip.  In that scenario, the left and right hemispheres can no longer physically communicate with each other and some brain functions are inevitably degraded as a result.

For everybody else though?  No matter how analytical or creative we are being – we use both sides of our brains.  All the time.

My completely unscientific thought is that it’s probably a bit like arm-wrestling.  If you use you right hand to arm wrestle all the time then the muscles in your right arm develop more.  But this doesn’t mean you never use your left arm at all.  You use it all the time, you just don’t use it as much.  I doubt very much whether there’s much cold logical analysis that doesn’t take place without a little bit of creativity, just as pure creativity without some analysis going on in the background (even if it’s just a case of what looks better in an image – a splash of red here or there?) is unlikely.  If you do more analytical work, you probably get better at doing analytical work – if you spend all your time writing stories or painting pictures, you’ll probably get better at those too.

We shouldn’t however, be labeling people as left brain or right brain and we certainly shouldn’t be targeting our lessons at certain bits of brain.

 

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I thoroughly recommend the Freakonomics podcast to absolutely everybody – brilliant ideas, entertainingly presented and just long enough for a commute into work.

Sarah Jayne Blakemore has also done a brilliant TED Talk on the teenage brain and all its mysteries – if you teach teenagers it helps to explain a lot!!!

There’s a reprint of a New Scientist article ‘Right Brain’ or ‘Left Brain’ – Myth or Reality? which looks at research that in 1996 strongly suggested a left brain / right brain divide based on the idea of either a local focus (detail) or a global focus.  And how further work they did and an attempt to reproduce the original results found completely the opposite effect.

And it’s worth pointing out that if the idea of brain separation is a physiological impossibility and a neurological doubt, then brain gym is still a load of rubbish.

 

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