Archive | April, 2014

The Future of Language Teaching – a reply to my critics

30 Apr

divided brain

About a week ago, I wrote a piece on “The Future of Language Teaching” for the Teaching English blog.  It seems to have been slightly controversial.

In it, I tried to paint a picture of what language learning might look like in twenty years’ time, drawing largely on themes and ideas I had come across in various talks and presentations at the IATEFL conference, as well as my own experiences as a teacher and learner.  In short, I argued that students of the future won’t need to learn languages at a language school as they’ll be able to do it all online.

You can read the full piece here: “The Future of Language Teaching – a case study from 2034

It was a deliberatively provocative piece which I wrote with the intention of opening up a debate on where we think language teaching should be going, rather than prescribing its demise.  Nonetheless, some of the comments and criticisms made, suggest in some cases a misunderstanding of my original post, or in others possibly the positing of a point of view without actually having read the subject matter at hand…

At the other end of that spectrum is the informed and ever eloquent Lizzie Pinard, who questions the role of the social side of language learning, and the lack of it as described in my post.  And she’s right.  I don’t mention it in my post, but that isn’t because I don’t think it’s important, it’s mostly because the picture of how my mythical student, Monica, was learning, was largely in my head and I just didn’t express it clearly enough.

Lizzie mentions three things that I’d like to pick up on:  (1) the social and communicative nature of language, (2) Young learners and the state school system (3) creating a classroom culture (after Holliday).  These are also things that arose in the different comments and discussions that arose on the Teaching English Facebook page after Lizzie and my posts were featured there.

So – point by point then:

(1)    I certainly didn’t mean to imply that language is anything but social or used for anything other than a communicative purpose.  I don’t see, though, how this belief mitigates against learning in an online environment.  People do, after all, communicate quite effectively online.  We are doing so now.  The conversations, discussions and chats that occur through social media sites like facebook and twitter are a testament to how technology, far from destroying the communicative imperative, has in fact enabled people to communicate with like-minded individuals around the world.  I didn’t describe this kind of scenario in my original post, but I don’t think it is beyond the realms of possibility for my fictitious employer, Camsonford ELT, to create forums and chat rooms for their students to socialise in.  I have a number of friends on facebook and twitter that I have yet to meet in person and I communicate with them well enough.


(2)    Young Learners and the state school system – fun in the classroom.  Like Lizzie, I work for a school that prides itself on the combination of fun and learning that we provide to our young learners and I think we broadly succeed in our goals.  And I agree that there are additional benefits to young learners learning in a classroom than purely developing their language skills.  And, like Lizzie, very few of our students are “remedial” – most are incredibly bright, switched on kids who aren’t in our classes because they are behind, but because they are ahead of the game.


But I don’t think this suggests a flaw in my premise, just a shift in the current dynamic.  Lizzie is right to point out that much of the business in young learner teaching is in making up the shortfall (perceived or otherwise) between what the state school system provides and what the private sector promises.  But the state sector is reaching across that gap and this is in part driven by better access to better teaching materials which are being pushed into the state sector by companies like my imaginary Camsonford ELT Ltd.  How many state schools still teach using grammar translation based materials?  I’m sure that in some countries, some teachers are still required to use such materials, but this is changing, and as the quality of state provision of language teaching increases, there must be a corresponding drop in demand for private sector services.


(3)    Creating the classroom culture.  Again, I don’t disagree with the point being made, but I don’t see why this can’t also happen online.  One of my more recent learning experiences was doing an online course and I felt it was actually one of the best collaborative learning experiences I’ve had.  All of us came together for a shared purpose and I felt that the way in which we helped each other to forge an understanding of the material was the first real demonstration of how the “Communities of Practice” principle actually works in the real world.  Now obviously, this is only one experience amongst many, but it demonstrates to me, at least, that it is possible to develop a shared communal culture in an online environment.


Other Points that arose in the various comments – both on Lizzie’s blog and in various places around Facebook – and my somewhat cursory responses:

  • Technology replacing teachers:  I don’t think teachers will be replaced, but I think the role of the teacher in 20 years will be quite different to that of today.  Also, I don’t think there will be many teachers left working in language schools
  • They said that back in the (insert decade here) about (insert technological innovation here).  And I’m sure they’ll say it again about something else!!!  Just because a technological innovation doesn’t bring the changes that were predicted doesn’t mean change did not occur.  Think about the ways in which we interact with other today and ask whether we did that ten years ago…
  •  Schools will never die.  Probably not, governments need to keep the kids off the streets somehow otherwise they might start thinking.  Language schools on the other hand? 
  •  Students gain confidence from talking to each other.  True.  And they can do this online quite happily, possibly even more effectively as they don’t have the embarrassment of making mistakes in front of people they know.
  •  Babies learning sounds from real humans, not the TV.  Child directed language is how babies gather their first language, this is true.  And as the commenter pointed out we’re talking about adult learning of L2, not infant acquisition of L1.  I don’t mean to suggest that computers will replace the role of caregivers in L1 acquisition, but I think it is a viable mode for L2 learning.
  •  You can’t get speaking from an online course:  Are you sure about that? Vocaroo is an online voice recorder, but live video and audio chat functions are also now a large part of social media trends, for example Google Hangouts, Skype etc.
  •  Focusing on students’ needs.  In many respects, an online course where the learner can choose exactly which parts of the syllabus is most relevant to them and interact with like-minded people from all over the world, as opposed to being forced into a compromise with imposed materials and content, focuses more accurately on learner needs than a school based class ever can.
  •  Being part of a neo-libertarian agenda.  I don’t know what that means, so I looked it up on Wikipedia and I’m not sure that isn’t the definition of every language school ever?  But in terms of promoting a free-market / laissez-faire capitalist ethic, I fail to see how my post gets anywhere near that.  Perhaps the commenter could clarify.
  •  Learners need guidance and direction.  And why should an online course not provide that?  Being online does not mitigate human contact, it just changes the parameters of how you define human contact.  Equally, anyone who’s used a course book will know that very frequently the materials provide a certain amount of guidance and direction, but online courses which involve mediators (or teachers) should also be in a position to provide such help as the learner needs.


But to come back to the problem of the baby and the bathwater,  I think any parent knows what the real procedure is:  you take the baby out of the bath, dry her off, blow raspberries on her tummy, fit a clean nappy and dress her back up – and you do all of this before you go anywhere near the bathwater.

The baby is the most important thing in the bath.  It’s what you love and hold dear to yourself, it’s what you choose to protect above all else.  What goes down the plughole is all of the stuff you don’t need.  Perhaps as we all negotiate our way into an uncertain educational future, what we need to do more than anything else is decide what it is that we wish to hold close and what we’re prepared to let drain away.

Update notes:  Updated 30/04/2014 to fix broken links, correct a comment on “babies learning L1” and add content to “You can’t do speaking online”.

Write and Improve: An Online writing helper

22 Apr

Writing is probably the most difficult area for learners to improve on by themselves.  Writing demands an audience and if you have no-one to tell you how successful your efforts are – or not – then you are doomed to repeat your failures into eternity.

Cambridge English have, however, just released a beta version of an online, browser based writing helper.  Currently free to use and requiring only a facebook login (or email registration), the service allows learners to input their answers to one of the five questions provided (or submit a piece of writing of their own choice) and to get feedback on their efforts.

write and improve 01

In the screenshot above, the highlighted text at the bottom of the image is the submitted text.  The colour coding represents the program’s opinion of the learner level the different sections of the text represent.  The deeper the green, the closer to B2 level (or above) the text is – the more furious the reds, the closer to B1 level (or below).

You’ll also notice the “tabs” under the heading Detailed Feedback  these are meant to provide a closer look at what errors the writer has made and give suggestions for improving them:

write and improve 02

It’s worth remembering that this is still in the stages of testing and ironing out initial problems – and there are quite a few things that I think need improving!

As it stands, the feedback it gives is primarily linguistic and syntactical.  In other words it looks at the grammar of the sentences and makes suggestions.  And it doesn’t currently catch everything – as in the third sentence above; “I the town you can…” or the fourth sentence “You can go to the shopping”.

The text itself was an answer to a question from a Cambridge English Preliminary paper from a student studying at Intermediate level.  There is a lot of repetition in the text and very limited grammatical range.  The student has also some word choice issues – again there is a lot of repetition (a lot of which is repeated from the input) and some vocabulary inappropriacy.  The task was also a letter (replying to a penfriend) and there are a couple of genre features missing, though in fairness to the system – it didn’t know that as this was submitted to the free writing section.  Overall though, this is a piece of writing which I think is close to B1 level, but which is nowhere nearly sophisticated enough to achieve B2 level, as the system suggests.

I had some fun writing an error strewn letter of application for a summer camp job, just to test whether it does pick up on these things.  It doesn’t.

So who should use this tool?  It’s unfair to judge it too harshly at this stage of development but I don’t think the target audience of B1- B2 are actually the people who should be using it.  Students hoping to achieve a B2 certificate need to consider a much wider range of things to improve on and if this tool is to be useful for them, then it needs to more accurately reflect the things they’re being assessed on.  However, I think students who are at B1 level or below may well find it useful, as they will get to see the improvements they make to their texts improve their scores – as long as they don’t mind seeing their work highlighted in quite a lot of red to start with!

I have yet to try it with a class and I’m curious to see how useful students think it is, so that’s the next obvious test!  But in the meantime, why not check it out and see what you think:

write and improve04



#IATEFL 2014: The Sugata Mitra Debate

8 Apr

Well.  This one was controversial.  In some respects what Sugata Mitra said in his plenary on Saturday morning doesn’t even matter anymore, such was the debate it sparked and which still continues via facebook and twitter.

Mitra, it is clear, has his devotees and his detractors.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone receive a standing ovation in a talk that people actually walked out of half way through.  Do a Twitter Search for Sugata Mitra, and you’ll see what I mean.

So what did he actually say?  Well, if you know anything about him or his work, you’ll find that it actually wasn’t anything new – it was just a restatement of the research he’s done into self-directed online learning.  In a nutshell what he said was:

Kids in crap places don’t get good scores and this is because no-one likes to live in crap places, so the only teachers who stay in crap places are the ones who aren’t good enough to get jobs in good places.  Kids aren’t scared of computers and don’t worry very much about breaking other people’s stuff and if you leave a kid next to a computer for long enough they learn how to do things.  If you give them a challenge, they rise to it.  Therefore, do kids need teachers or can we just give them all computers?

I’m paraphrasing here obviously.  You might also begin to see why this provoked some strong reactions to an audience of educators.

I bumped into Mitra at Harrogate train station while we were both on our way home and I sat down and asked him about it.  This was not a formal interview, but he was nice enough to take the time and talk to me and answer a few questions:

I asked him why people had such extreme reactions to what he was proposing.  He said he thought it was because people saw it as the end of the teacher and that people thought he was saying there was no more need for them, and that they feared this outcome.  So in order to clarify this I asked him what he thought the role of the teacher would be and he said that this was what his research was focusing on now – where do the teachers take these new ideas.  He is experimenting, as he mentioned in the plenary, with a number of schools in the north east of England and some of the teachers are incorporating what he calls SOLES (Self Organised Learning Environment) into their curricular work, while others are using it extra-curricular.  It occurred to me at that point that it was better suited to content classes (e.g. physics / history) than language classes, but he said that language was the first thing to develop, even in native speakers who showed the same incremental increase as non-native speakers.

What I didn’t ask him, and should have done, was how that incremental increase was measured – was it only vocabulary or grammatical resource?  And I got the distinct impression that he sees no need for specialized language instruction.  I repeat that this is my interpretation, but in all his experiments the language development has been largely incidental and where language development was the focus (pronunciation) in one experiment, the kids performed well – but is this perhaps because pronunciation is not a creative aspect of language?  It is largely a question of the mechanics of speech and doesn’t require language, only mimicry.

It also, sounds terribly similar to Prabhu’s “Bangalore Project”, or the Procedural Syllabus, which Prabhu published in his 1987 book “Second Language Pedagogy” and which formed the basis of Task Based Learning.  I put this to Mitra who thought it might have some similarities but that he preferred to think of it a research based learning.

Or as Gavin Dudeney pointed out on facebook – webquests.

Watch it and decide for yourself – here’s the link to Sugata Mitra’s IATEFL Plenary video:


Further Thoughts and reading on this:

The Donald Clark Plan B blog has some fairly harsh criticisms of Mitra’s methodology, research design and on the state of things now:

Wiktor Kostrzewski presents a more balanced view of the positives that both students and teachers can take out of Mitra’s ideas here:

And here’s Mitra’s TED talk here:

Finally, Graham Stanley has an extensive overview of the debate, and has managed to gather together a lot of differing viewpoints from various social media platforms – you should definitely read his take on it all:

Update:  more voices added to the mix:

When Graham Stanley wrote the piece listed above, he hadn’t actually watched the plenary, he was more collating, analysing and assessing the different viewpoints other people expressed.  He has now watched it and gives us his take on what Sugata Mitra said here:

Phillip Kerr looks at who’s doing what in Ed Tech and draws some interesting and unsettling links between some of the big players – including Sugata Mitra .  here:

If you know of any others – please post them in the comments section!


#IATEFL 2014: Together in Electric Dreams – Pondering the Future of EdTech

5 Apr

Gavin Dudeney’s talk took a quick look at the possible future of technology in ELT – pulling out a number of technologies and trends and asking the audience to think of them in terms of whether they represented a Strength, a Weakness, an Opportunity or a Threat.  Towards the end of the talk we then compared our ideas before he opened things up to the floor.

He mentioned the following areas:

  • Self study
  • Personal publishing
  • Disruption
  • Learning Analytics
  • The Digital Divide
  • Resusable Learning Objects
  • Teacher Collectives
  • PLNs, Connectivism and crowdsourcing
  • Digital Skills teaching
  • The Flipped Classroom
  • Wearable Technology
  • Multi-Sensory Computing
  • Internet Freedom
  • SOLES (Self Organised Learning Environments)

All of which are quite complex ideas, concepts and technologies that require a lot more time and exploration than was available in the talk – so Gavin ended up giving us quite a brief overview of what each one entailed.   If you want a bit more detail on what he said, be sure to check out the recording of his talk:

I was interested in his off the cuff claim that the Interactive whiteboard has already had it’s day – on reflection I think he’s probably right.  The IWB seems to be mostly used as a display function and really has only limited interactivity.  Why, when students can bring their own devices to the classroom and everyone can interact synchronously, do you even need an IWB?

I also appreciated the SWOT analysis approach that he took to the talk, because it did give us a framework for our discussion, and for some contexts it is possible to see these things strictly within this sort of framework.  But.  Imposing a framework like this is quite limiting in some respects and it would have been nice to be able to think about these things in more detail.  Not that there was much time for him to fit everything in.

Threat and Opportunity are, in this sort of context at least, two sides of the same coin.  Mostly I think that what all of this new technology represents is a threat to the established order – this is a natural evolutionary process and also represents an opportunity for the new way of things to get a foothold and become the established order for the next generation.  The key skills here for the individuals and organisations affected by these changes are flexibility, adaptability and agility.

Gavin Dudeney’s slides for this presentation are available to download via this link – they also contain clickable links which take you to further reading and additional websites with a broader overview of the topic areas discussed:


You can watch his talk here:

If there are any problems with the video, just follow this link:



#IATEFL 2014 Talk: Chalk and Cheese – Equivalency Issues with IELTS and TOEFL

3 Apr

So this is the talk that I gave today – thanks to everyone who attended – I hope you enjoyed it!

For anyone who wasn’t there, here’s the blurb for this talk:

IELTS and TOEFL are widely used as equivalent determinants of English language ability by higher education institutions.  This talk reviews equivalency research and draws on a contrastive analysis of the two exams to suggest that the disparities between them mean we should avoid viewing them through the same lens, and questions using them for the same purpose.

And here are the slides from my presentation.  They should be available to download via slideshare if you can’t see them clearly:  some of the slides have quite a lot of data on them.  And I’ve just noticed that slideshare clearly doesn’t support the font I used and has replaced it with something quite different…

And here, in the second slideshare box below, is a pdf copy of my slide notes / a transcript of pretty much what I said, though it might not be exactly the same, the main substance should be there!

If you have any questions or would like to know more about this talk, feel free to contact me or leave a comment below!




#IATEFL First Impressions

1 Apr

It’s been an interesting day.  I’ve learnt a lot about things you should and shouldn’t do with regard to conferences.

One of the things you shouldn’t do is pack your suitcase literally as you’re walking out the door to get into the car and go to the train station.  I have no idea where my phone is – I hope that geeklet number two took a liking to it this morning and has carefully stowed it with the other toys.  But I can’t say for sure.

This leads me to the second thing you shouldn’t do with regard to conferences – involve toddlers in any way shape or form.  Getting from geek central to Harrogate has been a four day event in itself which had two main highlights:  geeklet number one refusing to sleep the night before we flew, resulting in geeklet number 1 and myself traipsing down to the hotel bar, which was then used as an impromptu obstacle course for approximately an hour and a half before geeklet number 1 announced that she was tired.  She duly fell asleep ten minutes before we had to get up.  The second main highlight was geeklet number two’s refusal to wear a seatbelt during the landing from the Gatwick to Newscastle portion of the trip and the stewards’ somewhat pointed announcement “Passengers are reminded that they should remain seated with their seatbelts fastened and that parents of small children should ensure their children do the same.”  As the parent of the only toddler out of their seat, screaming fit to burst and attempting to launch himself over the back of the chairs and charge the cockpit, I rather felt this may have been directed at us.  Stewards are reminded not to be such sarcastic sods and should ensure toddler valium is readily available in the event it is needed.

One of the things you should do is write your presentation well in advance.  I had hoped, of course, to get it done months ago, but here we are with the conference due to start tomorrow and as yet my talk remains unfinished.  I’m led to believe, through careful questioning, that I may not be the only one in this particular boat.  When I say “finished” what I mean is “written” – and I really shouldn’t be writing this post right now, I should be writing the presentation.   But it’s late so…

One of the other things you should do is put yourself about a bit.  This is my first IATEFL and while I know a lot of the people here, I only know them through social media connections, mostly being Twitter and Facebook.  I am however, fortunate to be good friends with the inestimable Andreas Grundtvig, who has this amazing technique of actually introducing himself and talking to people!  Whereas I tend to hover on the periphery thinking to myself “Is that so and so?  It looks a bit like them, but maybe it isn’t so perhaps I shouldn’t bother them.”  Andreas just says things like “Hi” and “I’m Andreas”.  This is a revelatory technique and one I hope to adopt in full force tomorrow.

Three things I learnt today:

(1)    Not to drop your laptop in front of 500 people queuing for a free lunch.

(2)    You can take the teacher out of the Young Learner classroom, but you can’t take the young learner classroom out of the teacher.  Carol Read’s welcoming comments this evening were a masterclass.  I think she could convince us all to go to war for her.  You know,  just in case TESOL invade or something.  You can watch an interview with her here:

(3)    Everyone here is genuinely trying to help.  I mean everyone really, really, really wants to make tefl better.  At least I think everyone I’ve met so far does.  Tomorrow of course, we get into the violent disagreements as to how….

Finally – it looks like the online portion of IATEFL 2014 is getting up and running – I think some of the sessions are going to start going up tomorrow, but check out the interviews with some of the key speakers that have already been done and posted on the website: