Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Linguistic hierarchies: presentation from the English UK Teachers' Conference

Well, better late than never.
Here's the presentation I gave at the English UK Teachers' Conference back in November. I think that it's pretty self-explanatory, but I'll be writing up more on this idea later. Enjoy.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

This is what I do and why I do it.

I had tutorials this week. These are occasions to meet up with students individually and discuss any issues they have and review or set academic and pastoral targets, or do risk assessments, or get their latest news. With our ESOL students, these can sometimes be pretty tough: we've had a wave of young Afghan lads having their asylum applications turned down recently, and often they're going back to situations where they are likely to be either killed or used as footsoldiers for the various clans, druglords, Taliban groups, Mujahideen groups with grudges to settle, or often a combination of all these. One lad was forced to watch his father being shot, and then his uncle was bombed. He spent a year and a half trying to reach the UK - now the government is keen to wash its hands of him.
We also get people with mental health problems, domestic violence victims, students with doctorates and great work histories who can only get jobs as cleaners, motivated people who get spat at because they wear hijab, or they're the wrong colour, or they speak in a funny way, or because they walk the wrong way - and I'm really not making that one up. I'm actually quite fortunate - I generally don't have to deal with the real horror stories, but we all have to accommodate these students, these real people, these non-statistics. We act as confidantes, unpaid social workers, and we have to be concerned but dispassionate, and above all hold in check our anger at the utter shittiness that some people get dealt.
Then again, there are bright spots. This is what a student said to me this week, and while in one way it seems dark and disturbing, in another way it is a little bright ray of light.
A. is a devout Muslim from Pakistan. He holds a British passport, works in the local mosque, drives a minibus for disabled people and works nights as a security guard. He sends money back to his family in Pakistan and regularly goes back there, determined to fight Islamist Extremism. He would like to take a chaplaincy course so that he can work on university campuses and prisons. He is a gentle, soft-spoken and deeply kind man with a sense of humour that often catches people by surprise. And, being a devout Pakistani Muslim, he wears what is generally seen as traditional muslim clothes, a beanie cap and a beard. A few weeks ago, he flew to Chicago to celebrate Eid with some relatives. I'll paraphrase his words slightly, while trying to keep a flavour of the original, but this is what he told me about going through US Passport Control.
"We came to passport control, and this man from the FBI took me to one side, and also some African men, a Chinese man and a muslim man, I think from Saudi. He told us we will have an interview before we can go through. I said to him, I don't speak good English, can my wife come with me and be interpreter? He said no, and took me to a room. I was very very nervous, because I thought I can't understand his questions. Usually when we travel, my wife translates. I waited in the room five minutes, then the man came back. He looked my passport, my British passpor, and he said, 'how much did you pay for this?' I told him I'm a British citizen, and he said 'you're a liar'. I told him I was born in Pakistan, but I got my citizenship three years ago, but he didn't want to believe. He asked me 'how close do you live to Afghanistan?' I told him where my family live is quite near, he asked me 'Did you visit Pakistan for military training?', I told him my job, he said 'I can send you straight back home', I said 'it is your choice, it is your country'. He asked me questions for 45 minutes, same questions, different questions. I was very worried, but I answered him.
And do you know? At the end, he said 'why did you lie? You speak very good English' and he smiled, and he let me in. Then I knew that my English has got better, and it is because of my teachers. I was nervous, but I could answer him by myself, and I couldn't do that last year.
So, I said a prayer of thanks for what you and the other teachers have done."

It says a lot about passport control security and a lot about him. He realised that he had the ability and the confidence to deal with the situation, and he'd got that from learning with us.

This is what we teachers do. We make a difference.

So to hell with all you bean counters who reduce all human life to a number. I do something that you can never do - something good.

Monday, 6 December 2010


Sorry, bit of a hiatus.
To put it mildly.
And why? the frenetic pace of work, lots going on, plus, with regard to this blog, a total sense of inertia.
So, what's going on/has gone on in my ELT world?
1) my place of employment has changed owners;
2) because of this, everyone's worried that they're going to lose their jobs;
3) the new owners have done nothing to assuage this worry by doing a legal, but entirely unethical, 'consultation' to reorganise the various curriculum areas in the college that means that they can get rid of a lower echelon of management within 30 days;
4) the impression they give that they regard the place as a business rather than an educational institution;
5) on a brighter note, I gave a presentation at the English UK teacher's conference;
6) I developed a STONKING enrichment activity involving a tent.
right, three subjects I will put on here:
a) a write up of my presentation subject - a linguistic hierarchy of needs, as I began to outline here in earlier posts;
b) a language ability graphic profiling system I developed;
c) a extraordinary suggestion I have that may give an insight into why we use language in the way we do when we're learning, or for why bilinguals seem to prefer one language over the other.
And here's the video of me preparing for my enrichment activity:

Friday, 2 April 2010

Mind the Gap.

Here's a question for you - what do the following all have in common?
  • A cryptic crossword puzzle
  • A cloze (aka gap-fill) exercise
  • A sudoku puzzle
  • A grammar exercise where you have to write the correct form of the verb
  • An algebra exercise
  • one of those team-building things where you have to work out how to cross a river using a piece of string and two dead dogs or something
  • a reading task asking you to identify words and phrases in context that mean the same as a given set of synonyms
That's right, they're all problem solving tasks.
So why am I bringing it up?
The point is this: do the ones about language actually test a knowledge of language, or do they in fact only test an ability to solve a problem? In other words, it strikes me that many of the tasks in student workbooks are not real tests of language knowledge whatsoever, but exercises in learning skills.
Let me give an example task to you.
Here are three rules.
If a sequence of numbers is 3 digits and ends in 9, follow it with 12.
If a sequence of numbers is 3 digits and ends in 7, change the 7 to 9 and add 12.
If  a sequence of numbers is 4 or more digits, it must be preceded by 21.
and here are some sequences:
  1. 329
  2. 5437
  3. 777
  4. 919
  5. A427
  6. 3424245539
Easy, isn't it?
Now change the rules to those describing how to make comparative adjectives in English.
The simple fact is that many of the exercises we do with our students do not in fact test their understanding of language, but their cognitive and problem-solving capacities. Someone who can understand a logic problem, as long as the problem and a model solution is clearly presented, should be able to solve any given issue. Now, while it may be useful for someone to comprehend a given set of rules, it does not necessarily follow that that person is in fact capable of using the language in a way that is comprehensible, simply because languages have a nasty habit of not following their own laws. This is why, whenever we do level testing, we should always look at a suite of abilities rather than rely on the good old grammar test prior to deciding a language level. It also explains, by the way, why EFL students tend to score higher on formalised language tests which are generally problem-solving based tasks, than ESOL students.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Is there such a thing..... a linguistic hierarchy of needs?
This is following on from the last two posts, and I'm just trying to formulate ideas behind motivation, or perhaps more accurately, demotivation in language learners. This also, I think, segues rather neatly into a piece of research I did last year, namely a brutal piece of statistical number crunching I did with ESOL students' results that showed how people moving from intermediate to upper intermediate experience a far greater drop-out rate than should be expected. It also churned up the shocking stat that nearly two-thirds of ESOL students fail the Adult Literacy exam at Level One in their first attempt, a real indictment of its efficacy and usefulness. If you want to read it, it's over here on Scrib'd.
OK, my thinking goes like this. Just as Maslow has the different needs, so do language learners. So far, so no brainer. Well, what about 'peak experience'? What do students consider to be their aim? If you look at the questions I asked my two groups last week, you'll see that this was something I was trying to tease out of them, albeit not to any great extent. What is also signifcant is the fact that the learners felt inhibited about talking in a 'deep'/'satisfying' way about subjects that they felt deeply about, and about which they could communicate highly effectively in their own languages. In other words, they perceived a disparity between what they wanted to express and what they felt they could communicate. OK, well, duh, obviously.
But is this perceived disparity a genuine, objectively measurable one, or is it in fact a highly subjective thing? When we talk about things that genuinely interest us, what we should notice is that the language is arguably highly descriptive, but not necessarily grammatically difficult.
Let's go back to Maslow. Now, here is what I propose to do: I'm going to match the type of functional language and grammar forms we might expect to teach our students onto the hierarchy of needs, then compare it to what we actually teach people at elementary level etc. What I suspect this to show is that, for a student who lives in an English-speaking country, they actually need to be far more proficient in certain grammar forms in order to express their most basic needs, than they would do to express 'peak experience' ideas. In other words, in order just to fulfill their simplest physiological and psychological needs, an adult requires language skills far above what they actually would need to express themselves fully in a 'deep' conversation.
This disjuncture, I would argue, leads to a profound sense of demotivation. Indeed, I would say that it is a leading reason for a typical ESOL/ESL student becoming essentially 'diminished' in a way that an EFL student (who is studying the language as a subject, rather than as a medium through which things are learned) does not experience.
This may suggest that they way in which English is taught may need a rethink, certainly for ESOL students. While the Skills for Life materials do, in some respects, attempt to do this, they are rather feeble.
This also suggests that we may be able to talk about a 'hierarchy of language needs' - that is, optimal levels at which a student requires particular things and ways to express him/herself. This, though, would look very different from the mapping of language skills mapped over the Maslow hierarchy, as to some extents it would be informed by the student's own perception of need. What I would would then like to do is map it against statistics for achievement and levels of achievement against exam results and learner progression, in order to see if the hypothesis matches real-world results.
Could be interesting.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

More on depression and speaking

Yesterday's post, and the ideas behind it, has prompted quite a bit of interest among my colleagues and over on one of the discussion boards I frequent, and got me thinking further too. This morning, I did a bit of thoroughly unscientific research with my L1 (that's an intermediate-upper-intermediate level) and E3 (pre-int - int level) classes. I asked them, first 'does speaking in English ever make you feel depressed?'
The answer was almost unanimously 'yes', except for one student who just giggled. Mind you, she does tend to giggle at pictures of kittens, handbags, passing clouds and occasionally while staring blankly into space, so...
I then asked 'why?'
You can probably guess the types of answer - embarrassment, fear of mistakes, frustration, etc.
I then asked, 'are there any situations which make you feel particularly embarrassed?'
Here the answers were varied. For a significant portion, it was talking on the phone: others mentioned more formal social situations such as going to the bank or talking with their children's teachers. A few of the more confident students said that they couldn't answer colleagues back in more formal meetings.
I then asked 'What situations/things would you like to talk about, but feel you can't?'
Here the answers were varied, ranging from talking to the council about housing benfits, to discussing schoolwork with a teacher, up to talking about politics, environmental issues, dance and music.
Lastly, I asked 'do you sometimes feel as though you are disabled?'
A unanimous 'yes'.
and 1 giggle.
The finding that most interested me was the one about which things people would like to be able to talk about. It shows, I think, that the level at which students would consider a conversation 'deep' and 'satisfying' vary enormously. It's no wonder that language learners do get so demotivated.
It's also set me off on what may turn out to be a rather exciting tangent of thought, but I'm going to have to put in a bit of research first. More later.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Speaking foreign makes you depressed, innit?

I know, I know, far too long, far too busy, but it's time to kick this old corpse out of its coffin and bring it lumbering back to life...

Is it possible that speaking in a foreign language can actually make you depressed?
It might seem a somewhat bizarre notion: After all, learning languages is supposed to be an incredibly liberating thing, allowing you to communicate with new people and new cultures, to open your eyes to another way of seeing the world.

That's what language teachers say, anyway - after all, they have only their jobs to lose.

But consider this report on a piece of research. The basic findings are that people who spend more time engaged in chat and gossip are significantly more likely to be depressed than people who engage in 'meaningful' discussions.

Now consider what we do with our students in class and what kind of topics are used - do these count as 'meaningful'? It strikes me that it is possible that the type of topics, along with the limitations of a student's level of language and their ability to express their ideas, may collude to be massively demotivating. We already know that students get frustrated at not being able to say certain things, but if we are also making them depressed by getting them to talk about, let's say, collections and hobbies to express the notion of habitual behaviour, then we are ladling on the problems. When we also consider that many students tend to drop out of English study round about Intemediate level - when their level of language is just emerging into an increasingly more sophisticated level of complexity, but the topic matters used are frequently banal - then we may have one of the (many)reasons why the dropout rate is so high.

Of course, it's all about keeping the students interested, curious and open-minded, but let's face it, unit 5, exercise 3 (listen to Brian talk about his dead pet hamster) probably isn't going to cut it. This is where getting to know our students as individuals, their hobbies, interests, likes and dislikes, is so important. It's also important to consider the fact that one person's notion of 'meaningful discussion' may not be the same level as another's. Matey in the corner might only satisfied with a weighty talk on Wittgenstein, while someone else will be thoroughly satisfied discussing puppies and shopping. It's all about the differentiation in class.
However, I suspect it may be difficult to find a text about Wittgenstein shopping for puppies.


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