Archive | February, 2015

Complexity Theory and ELT – Manchester Roundtable

21 Feb

The idea of complexity theory and it’s relationship to language and language learning is something that I’ve been starting to read into a bit more deeply recently.  There’s something about it that seems intuitively right, which usually means that I don’t understand it enough.

I was, therefore, very excited to catch Achilleas Kostoulas’ post of an event happening in Manchester around the time of the upcoming IATEFL conference.  And then equally depressed to realised that I had booked my flight home for the day before the event.

For more information on dates and times etc, take a look at his original blog post.

Hopefully a lot of the ideas and talks will be shared online somewhere!

 

 

 

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Words with Multiple Meanings

19 Feb

Here’s a nice infographic from the Kaplan blog about words with multiple meanings.  I can think of three immediate ways to exploit this with a class:

(1) Prediction – give students the keywords.  Students then think of as many phrases or uses of the keywords as possible and then compare their ideas to the infographic.

(2) Identifying parts of speech – black over the labels on the colour coding key, and ask students to look at the phrases in provided and get them to come up with the categories.

(3) Make your own posters – either you or the students choose your own set of keywords and they then create their own phrase based multiple meaning poster / infographic.  This would be a perfect opportunity to introduce learners to working with corpuses – like corpus.byu.edu.

I can see this working particularly well with exam classes – and in fact if you combined all three activities, you would probably have the basis for quite a nice lesson!

words with multiple meanings

The TEFL Blame Game – redux

16 Feb

So we take a look around us and we see that everything in the world of TEFL is not good.  We ask ourselves, how did we ever get into such a sorry state? Who is to blame?  Who can we rant and rail against?  Who can we throw cream cakes / pies / rocks at?

So here are three scenarios:

(1) Francis pays 150 euros and gets online access to a TEFL training course.  He completes the assignments and is awarded a TEFL certificate.  He uses the the website jobs boards gets a job teaching in Asia and off he goes.  The school he works at pays him €800 a month with an immediate start and a ten month contract, but deducts part of that salary for accommodation costs and makes him pay a materials fee deposit, which he probably won’t get back.

(2) Hadley pays €1500 euros for a 4 week CELTA course.  She completes the assignments and passes the teaching practice.  She has a few issues during the course and has to resubmit once or twice but comes out of the course with a C grade.  She talks to the tutors at the centre and gets a job at a language school in bailout Europe at €1000 a month (on probation) on a nine month contract.

(3) Andriy did an undergraduate degree in English with his university and went on to do a Masters in linguistics.  He applied for a language teaching job but was then told he needed to do a CELTA (or equivalent) which he did.  Total cost is somewhere around €10,000 – but it’s difficult to be precise.  Andriy is now on the equivalent of a zero-hours contract at a rate of €10 per hour.  He probably works around six hours a week on average – at least in that particular school.

Which of these people would you hire?  Now take a look around your teachers’ room – what proportion of these people can you see in your staff room?

(Caveat – all of these scenarios are set within the private language sector and don’t consider the millions of people who teach English within their state sectors.  Sorry.  It’s not to exclude you exactly, and if you’re reading this and want to let me / us know what it’s really like for you – please do!  I would welcome the input and insight.)

Alex Case identified a quite considerable set of people who are to blame for the state of ELT in his original post “The TEFL Blame Game“.  And in so doing prompted this post….   (so you know who is to blame…!)  But he in return was reacting to the discussion that followed on from an ELTJam post about the state of ELT.

The ELTJam post was provocative.  Basically it said – don’t bother doing proper training to be an ELT teacher, you probably don’t need it anyway and it’s not worth it unless you’re sure it’s what you want.  It generated quite a lot of comment from quite a lot of people who think a lot about ELT.  Guys, you got suckered.  You were the wasp’s nest and you got poked with a stick.  But also – fair play to ELTJam for actually calling us all out; we are the emperor and we are not wearing very much!

What neither ELTJam nor Alex Case mention is “the market”.  And it is the market that is ultimately to blame for all of this.  We can argue from here to eternity about whether a native speaker has the same value as a non-native speaker.  We can argue about the value of standards and the extent to which qualifications are important, but because we are talking about the private language school sector, we are talking about market forces.  And as such, none of our much vaunted professionalism matters.  What matters is supply, demand, price and quantity.  This is economics, not education.

supply-demand

If my school does not have enough students walking through the door and signing up for lessons, then I have no job.  My school wouldn’t be able to afford me.  Schools brand and market themselves based on the product they seemingly deliver.  I have been in a teachers’ room, planning lessons and have been interrupted by the school director showing potential clients around.  The message on the surface was “And this is where our teachers work” but the subtext was “look, they’re all English!”.  We were being branded as high quality, professional language teaching provision (we were wearing ties).

There are any number of reasons why the TEFL game is unfair.  Probably, chief amongst them is the erroneous belief that we are a profession.  We aren’t.  When a school markets what it provides – what do you see on the advertisement?  We are the product – not the classes we teach, but us.  The teachers.  And if we are the product, then this helps to explain the shocking lack of parity between the highly qualified Andriys of the world and the Francises.

Like many of you reading this, I find this realization somewhat depressing.  I quite like the idea of myself as a highly qualified professional.  I believe I have a value beyond that of my salary.  I believe that I give extra value to my students as a result of my years of experience and training.  But the sad truth is that I could quite easily be replaced tomorrow.  Actually, my DoS might need a week or so to find a suitably qualified (CELTA +min. 2 years experience) candidate, but they would be cheaper than I am and they would probably have more to prove.

To go back to our original scenarios:

The school that hires Francis isn’t interested in the quality of his teaching.  What they want is a native speaker who knows just about enough not to damage the students and who doesn’t know enough to be able to complain about the working conditions or materials.  One former colleague who was freelancing told me that the only question he ever got asked by some of the schools he worked at was “Do you have your own materials?”  His reply was “Yes, do you have a working photocopier?”.  This is the “pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap” model of language teaching.  Offer lower prices, don’t market the quality but market the foreign teacher, get enough students through the door and milk all concerned for as much as you can for as long as you can.

Hadley is probably luckier in as much as the school that has hired her clearly has an interest in the quality of language teaching that they provide.  As such, they have an interest in helping her to improve the quality of her teaching and no doubt she is subjected to observations, development courses and regular seminars.  Hadley is an example of the attempt that TEFL makes to be professional.  The industry found it had a problem with too many people teaching English without any idea of what that entailed.  Schools that believed in delivering high quality language provision came to realize that this meant they had to train their teachers to teach effectively.  Thus in 1962, John and Brita Haycraft launched the International House Certificate, which eventually became the CELTA.  But make no mistake, what is now a “professional standard” has its roots in quality control.  What the CELTA offers is not necessarily any better or worse than any other language teaching qualification, the content of the courses is probably mostly the same, though delivery modes might vary.  What the CELTA offers has nothing to do with the teacher holding the certificate, because the certificate isn’t for the teacher.  It’s for the Director of Studies who wants to employ them.  The CELTA is a guarantee of standards – it says that the bearer knows these things and can do those things.  It meets tests of validity and reliability that other qualifications might not.

It is Andriy that you have to feel sorry for.  Andriy started learning English when he was ten and went on to dedicate six years of his life to learning all about English – he can parse a sentence in a heartbeat and can describe the sociolinguistic appropriacy of a rogue collocation at the drop of a hat.  All this knowledge doesn’t let him teach English though, for that he needs a CELTA.  So having sat through four weeks of native speakers not knowing the difference between “must” and “have to” and having passed the course, Andriy then finds that because he’s not English, he can’t get a full-time job anywhere within the private sector.  For the record, I would like to categorically state that if you have the qualifications and experience then I see no reason why the nation of your birth should make any difference.  However, I have yet to see that in practice.  Mostly, I see non-native speakers either co-teaching classes with native speakers or only teaching lower level classes.  Non-native speakers get a very raw deal in the private language sector – to find out more about how you can help change that, visit http://teflequityadvocates.com/.

Andriy and Francis are opposite ends of the scale, but both point to the reason why TEFL has no right to call itself a profession.  No matter how professional people within TEFL try to be, it is a business, it is an industry, and it operates according to economic principles, not pedagogical ones.  And as long as students pay money to come to classes, that is unlikely to change.  So if you really want someone to blame for the state of ELT?  Blame the market.

 

 

 

More Educational Mythbusting

11 Feb

“We have had all kinds of rubbish thrown at us over the last 10 to 20 years,” he says. “We’ve been told that kids only learn properly in groups. We’ve had people claiming that children learn using brain gym, people saying that kids only learn if you appeal to their learning style. There’s not a scrap of research that substantiates this, and, unfortunately, it is indicative of the really, really dysfunctional state of social science research that exists today.”

This quote from a recent Telegraph article is from Tom Bennett and is thankfully yet another voice calling for a more rigorous critical evaluation of educational trends and theories.  In this case, Tom Bennett is unfortunately mostly being a bit self-promotional, but his central argument  – that teachers need to question the research behind the “theories” that they are being asked to engage with and that teachers need to be ready to actually drive the research and help build the evidence one way or the other – is a good one.  A better read is his denunciation of educational neuroscience for the New Scientist.

It is not to say that these theories are completely wrong, just that the claims that are made for them are unproven.  I have said elsewhere that I find learning styles unconvincing and that most of what I have read suggests teaching to a particular learning style makes no difference.  I doubt very much whether categorizing learners as kinaesthetic or logical-mathematical helps them learn vocabulary much faster.  The only contribution that I think the concept of learning styles has made to education is that it has forced teachers to consider delivering their lessons in modes and with activities that they otherwise might not have considered.  My traditional view of language education (mostly recalled from my GCSE french lessons) is that of rote repetition and grammar based activities in the book.  Moving around the classroom, encouraging the association of visual to linguistic, communication between classroom partners – these were all absent.  I believe including them makes my classroom a more interesting place to be and gives the learners a change of pace from the mundane.  But that is principled selection of a activity for other reasons – not because one of my students might be a “visual learner”.

 

 

The WHY Game – for practicing clauses of reason and purpose

4 Feb

 

This is an activity I did with with an intermediate group of young learners – who absolutely loved it.  It led to what was easily the longest conversations they’d had in English all year.  It probably wouldn’t take much to adapt it to higher levels or older classes.

This came as a freer practice activity after we’d already dealt with the input – in this case we’d been working with:

  • to + infinitive
  • in order to + infinitive
  • so (that) + subject & clause

I asked the class to write down five things they’d done today and five places they’d been to recently (but not today).

I then asked them to build these out into sentences with time references.  e.g. “This morning I brushed my teeth.”  /  “Last weekend I went to the park.”

Once they had their sentences I picked one of the stronger students and asked him to tell me one of his sentences.  Our conversation went like this:

  • John, tell me one of your sentences.
  • Uh.  OK.  Last week I went to the theatre.
  • Why did you go to the theatre?
  • It was a school trip.  I had to.
  • Why did you have to?
  • Because the school made me,
  • Why did they make you?

…..  and so on.

You may have noticed this modelling didn’t lead to much production of the target language.  But at this point the rest of the class knew what was expected of them.  I drew their attention to the target language and told them to try and use it.  I also told them they would get one point as soon as their partner gave up, said “I don’t know” or told them to shut up (or similar).  I then put them into groups of three and off they went!

 

whyAs I said, the class loved it.  They really went for it and some die hards were still on their first sentence after about five minutes.  I noticed some students were using the target language, some weren’t, but they were all speaking English and were really on task and engaged.  I think in future I’d set a time limit per sentence of two or three minutes, after which the victim wins a point, to try and avoid one student over-dominating the group.

Clauses of reason and purpose and result come into a lot of exam books, so this could be a nice change of pace for some of those classes.

Enjoy, try it out and let me know what you think!