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#APPI 2012: Nicky Hockly – Digital Literacies

27 Apr

This blog post reports from the APPI 2012 conference in Coimbra, Portugal.  The theme of the conference is “Motivated Teachers make a difference” – I’m updating as I go, so apologies for any typos, I’ll try and clear those up later.

Plenary Session:  Nicky Hockly – Digital Literacies

Again – some quotes from the abstract:  “Digital Literacies are key 21st century skills … we look at some of the theory underpinning them and some practical classroom activities that can make a difference to students”.

(Editor’s note: I’ve spotted the telltale “prezi” navigation buttons in the bottom right hand corner of the screen, so I’m expecting lots of looping and whirling!  Fair play to Nicky who’s still hobbling around on crutches after breaking her leg some weeks ago!)

So here we go:

With a completely straight face,  Nicky Hockly’s trying to get the entire audience to dress up in a lumberjack outfits and march in support of the Pacific North West tree octopus.  She’s almost got everyone convinced…. and has now come clean!

Essentially, we’ve just had a fairly typical reading lesson: prediction, schema raising, etc – but with the spoof website (as above).  The point being that one of the skills learners need is to be able to assess the veracity of websites on the internet, in particular by examining the different features of websites and analysing them:  e.g.  news / blog / hyperlinks / links to official orgs / other research / content tabs / url / layout, font, colours / images & maps / style of language / quotes.  The website is a parody, so it does contain most of these features, but as it is a parody, they don’t match our expectations of authenticity.  Learners need to think about these things and use them to approach websites critically – in other words we need to develop learners’ digital literacies.

Digital Literacies (after Mark Pegrum):

  • Focus on Language:  texting / hypertext / multi-media / mobile / gaming / tech & coding / print
  • Focus on Connections: personal / network / cultural & inter-cultural / participatory
  • Focus on Information: search / tagging / info
  • Focus on (re) design:  remix

See: for more information.

Focus on remix literacy:

Taking original information, re-presenting it and adding something new and original.  Similar to the idea of remixing music, but extended into an approach to accessing and processing information, possibly with the idea of provoking thought or subverting convention.

An example of remix literacy:  literal videos:  videos that de-construct original content and re-describe the action from a literal, and occasionally subversive point of view.  Exploiting them: or - get learners to redub / subtitle their own videos, using videos from You Tube.  Great examples of this include the parodies of Hitler’s tantrum from the film “The Downfall”.  Apparently copyright laws permit original material to be used for the purposes of parody.

Be careful with the distinction between copyright & fair use.

Implications of Digital Literacies:

  • integration into syllabus, using a web text instead of a paper text.
  • Digital divide – find out who in your classes have the access to the technology.  Technology use does NOT equate to digital literacy.
  • Student learning – use of technology needs to be principled, make sure you aren’t using the tech for the tech’s sake, but that there are clear learning goals involved.
  • Develop and keep up with development via a PLN
Nicky has links to all the talk resources and videos, plus further reading here:

And I’ve just found her Prezi for this session online:

#APPI 2012: Anna Uhl Chamot – How language learning strategies instruction motivates teachers.

27 Apr

This blog post reports from the APPI 2012 conference in Coimbra, Portugal.  The theme of the conference is “Motivated Teachers make a difference” – I’m updating as I go, so apologies for any typos, I’ll try and clear those up later.

Plenary Session: Anna Uhl Chamot – How language learning strategies instruction motivates teachers.

The abstract for this session says “Teachers’ motivation increases through understanding how their students’ learn and how to help them achieve success” – which I’ll admit to a certain amount of cynicism regarding.  Not that I don’t want to better understand how my students learn, but I’m not sure it increases my motivation per se.

Still, it’ll be interesting to see the strategies for making learners more effective learners!

So here we go:

Session aims:

  • Describe a model of motivation
  • Share examples of teacher motivations
  • Idenify importance of learner attributions
  • Define language learning strategies
  • Review research on effects of language learning strategies.
Model of Motivation:


Value is the value that you attach ot the thing you’re doing.  Expectancy is whether you think you’ll achieve your goals – we don’t like appearing weak or unsuccessful, so expectancy of success is important.  Attribution is – to what do you attribute your success?  What are ther easons for your success, are they internal, i.e. your own work or external – work done byothers.  Internal attribution is more motivating.

What motivates teachers:

  • Value – I love my subject
  • Expectancy – I want and expect my students to learn
  • Attribution – I know what I can do to help my learners become effective learners

Examples of value:  helping learners achieve goals  /  sharing knowledge  /  investigating and sharing passion for the subject.

Examples of Expectancy:  seeing learsner make progress  /  seeing learners get engaged in the subject  /  inspiring learners  /  helping learners make more of an impact on the world  /  seeingn learners apply the knowledge successfully

Examples of Attribution:  knowing learners have the skills and ability to succeed  / knowing that you know what you’re talking about / personal confidence

Student Motivation:

  • Value: Is English interesting and enjoyable?
  • Expectancy: Can I really learn English?
  • Attribution:  Why am I a good (or not) English learner?

Learner attributions types:  luck / ability / own effort.  Luck, belief that the grade on the test was a fluke – not really a valid thought process.  Ability – belief that “I just can’t learn language”, or that language learning is genetic… Own Effort – this is the one that we as teachers can actually influence and does actually impact learning.

Learning strategies:

  • thoughts and actions that learners use to help them complete a task
  • ways of understanding, remembering and recalling information
  • ways of practicing skills so that they are mastered more easily

Many learning strategies are invisible because they occur within the mind, but by talking to learners about these strategies we can help our learners be more aware of their own thinking and their own learning processes.

(Editors note:  this seems to correspond to the movements from Unconscious incompetence to Conscious Incompetence to Conscious Competence to Unconscious competence.  I forget where that comes from.)

Learning strategies are not:

  • fixed or permanent – they can be changed or evolve over time
  • teaching strategies
  • learning styles
  • used only by “good” learners
  • always good strategies – the same strategy can work in one situation, but not in another.

(Ed:  I conclude from this that learning strategies are context and learner dependent)

What the research says:

  • Using a variety of appropriate learning strategies is correlated to higher self-efficacy.  It’s important for learners to feel as though they can succeed at the task.
  • Successful strategy use correlates to motivation.  If learners believe they have the abilities or skills, they believe they can succeed, they are motivated.
  • Using and reflecting on strategies develops meta-cognition and self-regulation.  Better understanding of what helps you learn, helps you to control your learning process, thus making you a more efficient learner.
  • Strategy instruction improves academic performance
  • Instruction needs to be explicit, not implicit.
  • Learners need to develop meta-cognition.
  • Transferring strategies to new tasks is difficult, so needs to be taught.  Learners tend to think they need to start again from scratch and need to be made aware that skills are transferrable.
  • Learning strategy instruction may need some L1 instruction.  Some concepts require a certain language ability in order to be expressed and understood.

For more information on learning strategies for language teachers the following website: has handouts and more information.


Teacher Development: English Agenda from the British Council

7 Apr

The BC have just launched a new website aimed at language teaching professionals:  English Agenda.  Amongst the many things you can find there, two components  in particular caught my eye:

  • Research and Publications
  • CPD (Continuing Professional Development)

The first is a great resource for anyone working on higher level qualifications (e.g. DELTA or MA) with downloadable BC commissioned documents and reports, as well as directories of ELT related academic research.

The second is approached both from the point of view of teachers wishing to extend or continue their personal professional development, but also includes resources for managers who might need to provide such professional development.  Again, there’s lots to download….

All in all, worth taking a look at!

#eltchat summary: Time Management for Teachers

28 Mar

A long time ago, I suggested “Time Management for Teachers” as the #ELTchat topic – this was largely because I occasionally find it difficult to balance the varying demands of the job and I was keen to find out from everyone else how they felt about their jobs and basically – how everyone copes with it all.

Predicatably, having volunteered to write up the summary, things then got a bit hectic at work and it’s only now, about a month later, that I’ve been able to find the time to get down to it.

Day, n. A period of twenty-four hours, mostly misspent.
Ambrose Bierce

So here it is – thanks to all those who took part, there were some great contributions made.   I’ve not directly attributed the ideas mentioned to the contributors as there were just so many of them…   Possibly because the concept of time management is essentially a personal issue – which is to say we all have different skills, different responsibilities and different issues with time management – there were a large number of threads that ran through the chat.  I’ve tried to weave them together into a coherent whole, but apologies if I’ve missed anything!


Social Media:

The irony of a group of educators getting together to chat for an hour on twitter about how little time they all had, was mentioned early and the amount of time that people spent using social media was definitely an issue for many.  Managing social media use effectively can be difficult – the simplest solutions are usually the best and simply “turning off” twitter or facebook might be one approach, arranging “social media free time”, taking a technology free weekend  – or limiting participation to more quality based interactions, taking advantage of the opportunities that social media afford us, rather than becoming a slave to it.  So, using Twitter more to take part in events like #ELTchat, rather than attempting to spend every waking hour on it.

Ultimately, the key to managing social media use seems to be self-control…

What takes up all our time?

The problem of faffing about, seeking lesson planning inspiration, trying to decide on lesson content, selecting and preparing materials, creating documents and handouts seemed to be one of the biggest “problem” areas.  This isn’t helped by the wealth of information and resources that are out there – both on the resource shelves in the teachers’ room or in the list of bookmarks in your web browser – and quite possibly a predilection amongst teachers to always want to try and re-invent the wheel, or to build the better mousetrap.

Another area of concern was with the administration that seems now to have become part and parcel of the teaching trade:  registers, lesson summaries, feedback, assessments, form filling, reports on students, reports on teachers (a DoS issue?), marking and providing written/writing  feedback were all mentioned here.

It occurs to me as I write this now that the biggest time consuming area of a teacher’s job seems, on the above evidence, to be the teacher’s job…  I’m not sure what we can do about that!

There are however, things that we can do to help streamline the tasks we encounter in our working lives:


Most people felt that, by and large, the important stuff got done and that the problem was therefore in deciding what was important and what was not.  What was qualified as important included the planning and preparation, marking and assessment and teacher development.  What was given as not important was “the other stuff”.  Importance probably therefore depends on your role and your context, but people suggested a number of prioritization techniques that might be useful:

  • Dividing tasks into (1) Immediate  (2)  Next Week  (3)  Life goals
  • Categorising things into “Necessary”, “Should” and “Might be nice” and then deleting everything in the third column.
  • Using a piece of A4 paper quartered into: Urgent Action,  Ongoing Projects,  As & When, Talk to /delegate
  • Daily Planning – start the day by setting out what you hope to achieve in it.
  • Sticky notes and reminders
  • Diaries
  • Google Docs / Charts / Calendars
  • Smart Phone Calendars & reminders
  • The urgency / importance matrix (see below) – categorise your tasks according to their urgency and their importance.  Anything in the top left box should be done immediately, anything in the bottom right can safely be ignored or left for the time being!


In terms of attempting to cut down on the amount of time that we spend in the lesson planning and preparation stages, as well as the marking and feedback processes – there were again a number of suggestions and techniques people shared:

Less is More – don’t try to over control things.  Try planning with a pen and a bit of paper, away from the technology and you might find things go a lot quicker.

The 50% rule – don’t spend more time planning the class than you do teaching it.  If your class lasts for 60 minutes then you should only be spending 30 minutes in the planning and preparation.  This rule was also interpreted as “only plan half the class” and let the rest of the lesson emerge naturally.

Course Planning – by sketching out a rough plan of what you hope to be doing with the class over the duration of a course, you remove a lot of the “what am I going to do with them today” element – it’s already there in the course plan.  This can be quite useful if you’re working with a course book with more lesson content than you have lessons!

Keeping hold of your old lesson plans – no class is ever the same, but lesson content frequently is – if you’ve put the time an effort into a really great lesson that’s worked well – keep it!  Then when the language point comes up with another class, you’ve got something ready to go.


Providing feedback to learners on their performance can be very time consuming, particularly when it comes to feeding back on their writing.  Top Tips for making this easier on everyone include:

Involve the learners in the process – as much as possible.  Ask them to provide the corrections on homework tasks and to assess each other’s writing.

Try and avoid distraction – find a quiet room and get down to it.

Colour Coding – differentiate between error types and colour code them.  This puts the onus on the learners to actually do the correction, you’re just guiding their thinking.  This works particularly well with e-documents, for example if your learners email you a word document to correct.

Jing – a video recording screen capture device, this allows you to record you making your corrections to your learners’ work.  Works well with the colour coding idea.

Wikis – the open editing nature of the wiki allows learners to post their content / answers on the wiki and for the whole class to be involved with the correction, as well as the teacher.

Edmodo – a free online networking tool that allows you to create groups with your learners and has an assignment annotating tool / feedback channel as well.

Pre-Planned feedback forms:  by creating a form, for example with the assessment criteria for a writing task, you can jot down quick effective notes on learner performance in specific areas.  Just print them out, fill them in (or the other way round) and hand them back with the assignments.

Tech Tools:

(NB:  These are tools that people suggested during the #eltchat – the descriptions come from the relevant websites.  If anyone has direct experience of using these tools either successfully or unsuccessfully, it would be great if you could share them in the comments section!)

Summify:   Content aggregator that helps you collate all the information coming at you from social media sources, meaning you get to spend more time on the things that matter.

Evernote:  Note-taking and clipping tool that helps you keep track of all the stuff you find interesting on the web and in the real world – also lets you synchronise across devices.

Jing:  video recording screen capture tool – takes screen shotes and records up to five minutes of video.

Edmodo:  educational network provider / online learning platform provider.

Dropbox: online file storage for free, also allows you to share your documents etc with friends.

Doodle: a meetings scheduling tool – useful if you’re trying to set up meetings with participants with differing schedules.

Remember the Milk: task management software / app that has options or versions for a variety of different platforms and has a reminder feature and a share feature.

Toodledo: another task management software / app with versions for different platforms and what looks like a handy “scheduler” task that tells you what to do when you have a free moment.

Twiddla: a sign up based synchronous collaboration tool – multiple users working on one canvas.  Described as “team whiteboarding”.

A more holistic perspective:

Procrastination is indeed the thief of time and most of us would probably get more done if only we’d “just do it”.  Perfection is an impossible target that while we might constantly aim for, we should know our limits and accept that not everything will always be achieved to best effect.

Take some thinking time – or some “fresh air breaks” to go outside and not be in the office, change your location and change your perspective, step back from things for a moment before you once again step forward.

Build time into your day for the unexpected – it’s what we don’t expect that knocks us off track and stresses us out.  Add the Unallocated Necessary Hour to your day, and use that time for whatever emergency crops up that day.

Links & Further Reading:

Cybrary Man’s Lesson Planning Pages:

Cybrary Man’s Organisation Pages:

Russell Stannard training video on using Jing:

There were a couple of other links, which unfortunately, now seem to be broken.  Apologies.


#eltchat takes place on twitter every Wednesday at 12 noon and 9.00pm London time.

Simply sign in or sign up to twitter and search for the hashtag #eltchat.

For more information, check out the website.

The quiet one in the corner of the room

26 Mar

Take a moment to think about one of your classes.  Think back to the very last lesson you had with them.  Have you got them clearly in your mind?  Are they sitting in a horseshoe or are they at desks or tables?  Who’s sitting at the front?  Who’s at the back?  OK – now take a mental snapshot of the class in 3… 2… 1… CLICK.

Freeze that frame and sketch it out on a bit of paper – drawing a rough plan of the room and who’s sitting where.  Now think back again to that last lesson and give each student a mark out of ten for the following two things:  (1)  Contribution to the class  (2)  Amount of interaction.  I’m differentiating between the two here because the interaction that takes place in a classroom doesn’t always contribute to the lesson.  There’s gossip and catching up that goes on that may be off topic and while better teachers than I might take that gossip and develop it into something  pedagogically meaningful, I often just find it distracting.  But anyway….  have you given those learners a mark yet? Good.

Did any of your learners get a pair of tens?  Did anyone get zeros?  Should anyone have been given zeros but you didn’t give them the zeros because you felt a bit sorry for them?

Not every learner feels the need to contribute  to the level that we as teachers might feel is desirable.  Conversely, a lot of teachers probably feel that it isn’t desirable for every learner to contribute!  (I joke – but I bet you had a student in mind when you read that!)  The degree of interaction or contribution that we require from our learners might well vary depending on the lesson content, participants and our experience of that classroom.  I’ve had the fortune to observe lessons where the learners might not have said very much, but where they were clearly enjoying the experience and appeared to be benefiting from it.  I’ve also observed lessons where half the class were interacting very vocally, but not contributing at all, and where the rest of the class were doing their best to learn, but to stay out of the firing line…

The reason why I’ve been thinking about this lately is because of a learner in one of my classes.  “M” joined my class earlier this year, having transferred from another school, “M” was friends with another learner in the class and they would sit together, skip class together, be late together and snatch whispered snippets of chat together.  As a substantial number of the other members of the class were brasher, more confident, less focused and generally livelier and more difficult to keep on track – “M” didn’t stand out as particularly different – just quieter and less prone to making a contribution unless directly asked a question.  It turns out, via a discovery process that I won’t go into here, that “M” accidentally skipped a level, joining a group that was approximately one academic year ahead of where she should have been placed.  It only took me two months to notice…

I guess the point is that learners may well have good reasons for keeping quiet and not putting their heads over the parapet.  But one of those reasons might well be lack of understanding.  So, in an attempt to shut the door after the horse has bolted (“M” has now switched into a more appropriate class), I’m going to try auditing my classes for Interaction and Contribution – just to see who else might be sitting quietly in the corner – and why that might be.


If you’d like to try auditing your own classes, you can download a “self observation” task handout by clicking on the pdf link here:

teflgeek – Self Observation Learner Interaction & Contributions

It includes a basic procedure and two handouts to help with data gathering and results interpretation.

The Star Wars Guide to ELT

17 Feb

Well, it had to be written.  You can blame the excellent “Behaviour management: what can we learn from Darth Vader and Yoda?” – a post by Simon Thomas on for the inspiration.  Simon examines the lessons that the conflicting characters of Darth Vader and Yoda have to teach us, particularly as their wisdom and world views apply to classroom management.  As I read his post I wondered – what would it be like to be in a classroom with Darth Vader as your teacher?  And once you start thinking along those lines, it’s a slippery slope…

So without further ado – I present to you:  “Approaches to ELT Explained – The Star Wars Guide”


It is perhaps unfair on both the Emperor and on Grammar Translation to lump them together like this.  Neither deserve approbation for each others’ crimes (so to speak), but there is, rightly or wrongly, a certain degree of negativity associated with them both.  I’ve chosen to place them here together because I feel that they are both the main driving forces of their universes – everything else arises up around them, either because of them or in direct opposition to them.  What arises later defines itself by not being what came before.  Thus, in Luke’s rejection of the Emperor’s blandishements in Return of the Jedi we can see the rejection of the Grammar Translation method in every approach that has appeared since.

If the Emperor represents Grammar Translation, then Darth Vader must surely represent Audiolingualism.  Here, we’re not so much interested in creating independent linguistic beings as instilling a set of desired behaviours.  Mimicry and repetition, endless drilling and processes of input rather than exploration.  Positive feedback reinforces the desired behaviour and negative feedback corrects the behaviour.  Those still living learn from the mistakes of their peers….

R2-D2 goes through every single film without saying a word, affording all of those around him the autonomy to do as they wish, make their own mistakes and to learn from their experiences.  He observes all, knows everything that’s going on but doesn’t interfere – making only small, timely contributions to help everyone get where they’re going.  The only thing missing from R2-D2′s masterclass of the “Silent Way” is a set of Cuisenaire rods…


“Ability with language not paramount it is.  Sentences of Yoda good for correction they are.”  Yoda’s English language ability has been long noted for it’s word order and sentence structure issues – classic examples of fossilised errors…  However Yoda’s teaching style borrows heavily from the Task-based-learning stable.  “Try not!  DO!  Or do not.  There is no try.”  The emphasis here is on the practical applications and learning by doing, with a model demonstration of the task and subsequent analysis.  Prabhu would be proud.

C-3PO is happy doing role plays, interviews and surveys, is one half of the ultimate pairwork duo and possessor of the largest information gap in history.  He’s familiar with “over six million forms of communication” and if the purpose of Communicative Language Teaching is to develop people’s ability to interact with foreign language speakers, then C-3PO must surely be the poster boy.


“These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”  If ever there was a perfect example of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, then Ben Kenobi’s finger wiggling would appear to be it.  This is not to suggest that NLP is some form of mind control and while Obi Wan could possibly represent many different aspects of teaching, this seminal scene represents the ability to put yourself not only in the same shoes as the other person, but the same mindspace.  To know how best to help people to think and act the way you want them to.  Which isn’t so far away from NLP….

“Winging it elevated to an art form”?  Hans Solo typifies the Dogme approach. Let’s all just go with the flow and see what happens and I wonder if we can’t maybe tweak things to our best advantage?  At least on the surface.  A set of principles does exist under there somewhere, but few are prepared to delve that deep to find out what they are and nobody fully understands them anyway.



Purists are no doubt bemoaning the absence of some of their favourite characters here – Luke, Leia and Chewbacca not having made an appearance.  I must confess that within the metaphor of Star Wars as ELT I’ve always really seen Luke as the student in all this – encountering all these different teaching styles and trying hard to develop an identity of his own.  But if you disagree with any of these or have any additions to make – feel free to let me know!

#IHPortugal Training Day: Class Management

31 Jan

This is the first in a series of posts reflecting on seminars I attended at the recent IH Portugal Training Day.


Carol Crombie

IH Viseu

We all have classes that we think of in ….  less than glowing terms.  For whatever reason these are the groups where nothing ever seems to get done, or the whole experience is like herding cats – everyone wanders off in different directions and you’re lucky if you come out of it without scratches on your arms…

Carol’s session was an excellent reminder of how to approach class management and what to expect from it.  I should point out – this post doesn’t represent complete coverage of Carol’s seminar – just those aspects of it that feel most pertinent to my own teaching situation.

I think the most refreshing idea that came out of it was the point about matching expectations to reality – refreshing in the sense of making me think “oh yeah, I’d forgotten about that” – but also in the sense of me coming out of the session feeling ready to do something about some of those cat herding classes.

For example – do you expect your learners to put their hands up before speaking?  Do you expect them to switch their phones off before the class?  Do you expect them to enter and leave the room in good order?  Carol’s list of “ideal” classroom behaviours got me thinking about the difference between “desired” and “expected” behaviours – I think it would be lovely if all my classes did all of the things on Carol’s list (not chew gum, be respectful to each other, listen to the teacher etc) – but I don’t “expect” it, because, well – that’s the question – why don’t I expect it?  Have I just been worn down by them?  Do I have a jaundiced view of teenagers?

Possibly the reason why I have trouble with my classes is because, as Carol pointed out, the first rule of classroom management is to be clear in your own mind of what you expect from the class.  By setting clear boundaries, you’re signalling to the learners that it’s alright to work within those boundaries of what’s allowed and what’s not.  Teenagers are, as was once pointed out to me, professional students.  It’s what they do all day, all week and most of the year.  But they will push, just to see what they can get.  If, like me, you’re a theoretical disciplinarian (you know how it works in theory, but the practical applications are a step too far) – what happens is that the learners don’t so much push, but nudge.  A little here and a little there and pretty soon you find yourself running the class by their rules.  Set the boundaries and guard them vigorously!

Part of the difficulty is in what Carol referred to as “signalling your authority” – or “my room – my rules”!  How do your students enter the class?  All in a jumble, still nattering, texting, i-pods a-blazing,  scattering school books everywhere? (Yes, I have a class in mind as I write this!)  Entry and exit routines can help reinforce the idea that the classroom is not just an extension of their everyday surroundings, but that it is YOUR turf, they enter on sufferance and to remain they must abide by your rules.  So, asking them to wait outside until you arrive, and then asking them a revision question before they come through the door.  Or to add a word to the vocabulary category on the board (later students will find this more difficult, thereby possibly improving punctuality?).  Equally, exit routines, where there isn’t a mad rush for the door, but a tidy up, returning furniture to it’s proper place, collecting the homework task, another “exit” question – it all helps reinforce the idea that they’re leaving “your environment”.

It is important of course, to choose your battles wisely.  There must always be a line that is not crossed – but in some ways, choosing the battles that are minor and inconsequential are the most important.  Carol gave the example of students chewing gum in class.  This, she says, is her line in the sand and she will brook no disobedience.  I think I can see the point – for the students to give in on the minor things, which ultimately don’t matter to them one way or the other, generates the idea and the habit of submission to teacher authority, so that when a bigger issue arises, the habit is already there.  Also though, as Carol mentioned, when learners craftily sneak one past you (and quietly get away with chewing gum in the corner of the room) it satisfies the rebellious instinct.

So – back to my herd of recalcitrant cats…  We’re going to have a bit of a talk.  But I’m not going to tell them off.  We’ve probably done enough of that already and it hasn’t done much good except for set us against each other.  Instead I’m going to borrow Carol’s behavioural expectation checklist and edit it a bit and I’m going to ask them to use it to assess their own behaviour.  Do they think they’re doing everything they should?  (This was another of Carol’s great ideas by the way).  And I’m going to let them set the behaviour rules they think are appropriate for the class.  I’m going to pick four that are non-negotiable, and I’m going to let them choose another six from the remaining items.  And I’m going to see what kind of enforcement policies they think would work best.  There is a danger here, that they will think absolutely none of them are suitable….  and I’m anticipating them requiring a bribe of some kind….  but we’ll see.

I’ll try and come back to this in a couple of days with some feedback on how things went – but in the meantime I’m off to sit down and work out exactly what I expect from my classes.

Do learners know what they need?

27 Jan

There is a lot of talk about learner needs, needs analysis and learner centred lesson planning and course planning.  But do learners really know what they need?  Or do they just tell us what they want?

The difference between “wants” and “needs” is neatly illustrated by the image on the right – a want is something that is desirable but unnecessary.  A need is something you have to have no matter what!  And do we always know the difference?  I know that I often say I need to go and buy something, when the truth is, I can probably do without it!

In education the reliance on needs analysis worries me, as I fear it might be misplaced.  After all, we go to our doctors and describe our symptoms but we don’t tell the doctor what to do next – why should we as language teachers rely on the input our learners give us?  Surely as a professional I am capable of spotting the problems a learner is having, communicating those problems to the learner and working out a set of solutions.

But we don’t always notice and the doctor analogy is perhaps right – the learners come to us and say “I’m having problems” before we then think about what the causes and solutions might be.  So learner input is valid – but can it be trusted?

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Teaching beliefs & Teaching Style

19 Jan

Go on then – what do you truly believe when it comes down to it?  It’s quite a difficult question – and it can make a great lesson when you ask your class to challenge each others’ beliefs (see lesson plan for reason to believe).

The problem I have with the question is that I’m not sure something that is so fundamentally important as education should be left up to something as vague, wishy washy and ethereal as “belief” – educational research has quite an extensive background and language teaching research is at the forefront of this – shouldn’t we have some solid data on this by now?  Not that data always helps – belief trumps rationality every time and it is not only in education that a refusal to accept alternative suggestions is based solely on “belief”.

This blog post came out of a response to Mike J Harrison’s exploration of teaching beliefs, which was partly prompted by his Delta and partly by Brad Patterson’s blog challenge to find a quote that defines your teaching style.  Brad  quotes Khalil Gibran: “The teacher who is indeed wise does not bid you to enter the house of his wisdom but rather leads you to the threshold of your mind.”  Tyson Seaburn suggests “Knowledge is a social construct, never absolute; it must be continually questioned and challenged if it is to continue to be valid.”

Originally, when I started thinking about this the quote that sprang to mind was B.F. Skinner’s

“Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.”

I like the way it speaks to the ephemeral nature of education and the ultimate futility of what we do as teachers, and how it reminds us not to worry too much about it – it’ll probably be alright in the long run.

That at least is a surface meaning – there is a deeper meaning when you consider who Skinner was and his position in the history of ELT.  Skinner was a behavioural psychologist and a lot of his ideas related to the “stimulus-response” theory of behviour.  For every action there is a reaction.  In this view, language is just a quesion of pushing the right button to get the correct response.  Language learning is therefore a question of making the processes automatic – teaching set formulae like “Hello, how are you?” / “Fine thanks, and you?” .  In this sense the quote actually means that what we need to do as teachers is ingrain set behaviours until such time as the production of language becomes an unconscious process.  Which is not what I believe at all and which Chomsky demonstrated was rubbish anyway.

So on further reflection the quote I’m going to go with is a Thornbury edict from way back in 2001, at the dawn of dogme, and before I started teaching:

“Slavish adherence to a method is unacceptable.”

And this one I do believe – though I have no data to back up my belief!  To only admit one possibility is to reject a wealth of alternatives – many of which may be useful and relevant.  I think we owe it to ourselves to constantly challenge our viewpoints and to admit new possibilities and above all else – to avoid ending up doing the same thing day after day.

There is also a corollary to the quote – slavish rejection of a method is also unacceptable.  Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it!  There are features of many methods in existence today – aspects of drilling for pronunciation and chunking language arose out of Skinners’ behaviourism and it’s language teaching cohort “audio-lingualism”.  Use of texts to highlight target language points has its basis in grammar translation methodology.  Asking learners to talk together in pairs or small groups is a key tenet of the communicative approach.  None of these ideas should be discounted or used to the exclusion of each other.

We are language teachers – all is grist to our mill!

TEFL TESOL What’s the difference?

4 Jan

So you’re probably familiar with the acronyms TEFL and TESOL from the title to this article – Teaching English as a Foreign Language and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.  But do you know which you teach?  Are you sure you don’t teach something else entirely?  (Obviously, teachers of languages other than English who may have their hands in the air at this point – feel free to substitute your target language for the word “English” throughout this post!)

TEFL and TESOL aren’t the only acronyms out there though – here are all those that I’m aware of:

  • TEFL – Teaching English as a Foreign Language
  • TESL – Teaching English as a Second Language
  • TESOL – Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages
  • TELF – Teaching English as a Lingua Franca
  • TEAL – Teaching English as an Additional Language
  • TEIL – Teaching English as an International Language
  • TESP – Teaching English for a Specific Purpose
There are probably more that I’m not aware of – I’d like to avoid discussing all of the different “purposes” that can be covered in TESP, as I fear we’d never stop….
So a quick question for you:

And are these useful distinctions to draw?

TEIL and TELF possibly are, as these speak to the nature of the language being taught.  Some years ago Alex Tilbury gave a seminar on this, my notes from which are sadly lost forever, but the point is made that more people speak English than there are native speakers of the language, and the distinction between English as a Lingua Franca and English as a Native Language is worth making for that reason if no other.  I don’t particularly want to get into the “whose language is it anyway?” debate – anyone who’d like to look into this in more detail should take a look at these two articles (pdfs open in new window):

But to differentiate between TESOL / TEFL / TESL / TEAL is surely just splitting hairs?  A historical quirk relating solely to the evolution of the profession?

I understand why these distinctions have been made as they all relate to the starting point of the learner as they come into the classroom (so to speak).  There is a difference in the learner who learns in their own country or in a native speaker country or in a third location (e.g. a French person learning English in Russia).  Equally there is a certain presumption in assuming your learners’ have no other languages other than their mother tongue – one student I taught was a Polish, French, German and Russian speaker before I met them.

My question is not whether the distinctions are valid – just whether they are useful.  I don’t honestly think they are.  It is important to understand where your learners have come from in their linguistic and life journeys – but finding out about your learners is part of good teaching.  Labelling your learners or being so prescriptive as to label what you do and doing nothing other than that – is not.  And ultimately, the third conditional is still the third conditional, no matter what label you give the teaching.

What do you think?


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