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From Can’t to Can: changing thinking about exams #iatefl2017

12 Apr

Recently I was lucky enough to run a workshop at IATEFL Glasgow on helping students in language exam classes feel more confident in their abilities.

As promised in the session, here are the slides from the session, which I re-titled as the slightly more pithy “Exam Whisperer”.  Apologies for any confusion that may have caused!

 

And for those that are interested, here are my notes and handouts.  I’m not sure how useful they are as I have used my own personal shorthand, but perhaps they might give a bit more information on the slides and how the whole thing hangs together…..

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And finally, I used tasks from the Cambridge English: Advanced handbook for teachers during the session.  You should be able to find that in pdf download from their website: http://www.cambridgeenglish.org/exams/advanced/

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.

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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?

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

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.

#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:  http://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2014/sessions/2014-04-05/plenary-sugata-mitra

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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: http://donaldclarkplanb.blogspot.co.uk/search?q=Mitra

Wiktor Kostrzewski presents a more balanced view of the positives that both students and teachers can take out of Mitra’s ideas here: http://www.16kinds.com/2014/04/05/1422/

And here’s Mitra’s TED talk here: http://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_build_a_school_in_the_cloud

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: http://blog-efl.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/iatefl-harrogate-online-sugata-mitra.html

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: http://blog-efl.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/iatefl-harrogate-online-sugata-mitra_7.html

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: http://adaptivelearninginelt.wordpress.com/2014/04/06/edtech-and-neo-liberalism-fragment-of-a-network/

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