Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Blimey! A post!

Apologies for the long lay-off. A catenation of foul circumstances has hit me, making it difficult to keep my blogs on track at the moment. Since one of these foulnesses is a legal issue, I've felt it better to keep out of sight for the time being.
I'm going to post, as soon as possible, my presentation on Global Englishes and the Language City Paradigm to the English UK Teachers' Conference in November, but it'll take a little time to do the blurb I want to add to it, so I'll leave that for later. I'll also say what I thought about this year's conference, but for now I'll just limit myself to saying that I saw Luke Meddings, looking incredibly grumpy in a duffel coat, heading towards the exit after his presentation.
For today, I just wanted to add an interesting thought about classroom interaction I've just had. Does classroom interaction follow a power law distribution? I read this fascinating article by Alok Jha in The Guardian about it, and it has got me wondering - does the 80/20 law (i.e. 20 % of the participants contribute 80% of the output) also work in 'meaningful' oral exchanges in class?
In theory, of course, it shouldn't. We should expect each and every student to make an equal amount of contribution. In an ideal world, were we to plot every student's contribution, we should expect a graph to exhibit a nearly straight horizontal line, showing equal distribution. However, in reality, I suspect this is not the case. We all know that certain students try to hog all the speaking time and attention, and it is one of the TEFLer's skills in classroom management that curtails this. But when you factor in Teacher Talk Time as well, what happens?
I would anticipate that with a newbie teacher, the Power Law Distribution holds up pretty well as a reliable way of showing the distribution of who contributes most. By the way, I'm limiting myself to oral interactions here, rather than reading and writing, as with these there's far more likely to be an equal distribution of  'meaningful' work. With an experienced teacher, one would expect the distribution of who contributes what to be a much flatter line.
There's only one way to find out however: you'd need to video a series of classes, at different levels, with different instructors, over the course of, say, 150 hours of instruction, or the amount we'd expect students to progress a level in their language comprehension - let's say A2 to B1, as that's a good level to monitor, along with a B2 to C1 control group. You would then need to transcribe and time each and every student's oral interactions as well as every time the teacher speaks, then plot it on a power distribution curve. I bet you get a classic power distribution with new teachers and a flatter line with better classroom managers. I suspect that different methodologies and approaches may also yield different results.
Who'd like to try it?

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Citizens, Denizens, Commuters and Tourists

What's the difference between the above-mentioned groups of people? Think about London on a busy day: Let's say somewhere just off Leicester Square or something. A native Londoner might scoot through confidently, knowing his or her own way, more or less on autopilot. A denizen might behave in a similar way, or avoid certain roads, streets, alleys, and paths; A Commuter will confidently negotiate their way to work, but put them just one street along and suddenly they're lost. A Tourist, however, wanders around, gawping, taking photos, and paying attention to the things that are pointed out to them.
OK, let's talk about World Englishes.
It's now very late in the evening, and I may come back to edit this post or write it bigger and better later, so I'm going to keep this brief. As starters, I'll point you to this short but decent overview of World Englishes on Wikipedia. The one particular model of the different types of world English I'll point out is Kachru's Model of Circles of English. Basically, he says you have an 'Inner circle' of English - that is, the 'original model', followed by the second and third circles. Can you see the problem with this? Yes, totally elitist, isn't it? It raises the uncomfortable assumption that the 'Inner Circle' is the 'purest', 'best' form of English.
Unfortunately, other models of World Englishes that have been proposed don't particularly help matters - they still tend to imply that British or American English are somehow the best, most proper types of the language. Certainly, language learners can feel extremely anxious about their language knowledge when interacting with someone they consider to have a 'better' kind of English than they do, even if they have passed exam after exam in the language.
So, here's my model of World Englishes, or indeed, any language: The Language City Model
The key point of a Language City is that there are four basic ways that people interact with it. They are:
  • Language Citizens
  • Language Denizens
  • Language Commuters
  • Language Tourists
Let me explain in brief (possibly to be expanded in a later edit), using English in this context:
Citizens are people for whom English is either their L1 or one they use commonly and, importantly, comfortably. An Indian who uses Indian English is a Citizen, because they use this form of English with ease and communicate effectively. However, the Citizens of English do not always necessarily understand each other - just as a person who lives in one part of a city may be entirely comfortable in his or her local area, but somewhat uncomfortable in a street on theother side of town. They're still citizens of the same place, but they don't always recognise all the features of the place they live in.
Let me skip over Denizens for a moment.
Commuters are people who use English for professional purposes - they 'enter' the city, and work within it, but withdraw from it once the task they are employed  in has been completed. A typical Commuter could be a student working towards a Cambridge exam, or someone who needs to use academic English, What is comsidered to be a typical EFL student could be seen as a commuter.
Tourists are those people who have only a passing interest in or need of English. A schoolchild might be a tourist, especially if they're learning Englsih in a large class with poor resources. It could be someone who decides to study English for a term or two at a language school, but doesn't pursue it further. It could be the seller of tourist souvenirs who needs only a few phrases.
Denizens are the most interesting group. These are the people who, for one reason or another, have to use English because they are required to function within it. This could be immigrants living in the UK, for example, or a student who has to study in English ( notice that a commuter can become a denizen - there is some degree of flexibility in these descriptions). Whatever, these language users have some kind of compunction - they are not citizens of the Language City, even though they might have been using it for a long, long, time: They are still an outsider in many ways.
I'm going to write more about this later, but I hope I've got my main idea across. It's far too late to write down everything yet.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

mini lightbulb moment

...and a mini entry. I'll write something more substantial soon, honest! I was just talking with a colleague about how you end up not noticing half the things you do in your job once you've been doing the same thing for ages. You know what it's like - you automatically fill in forms, give enrolments, write up stuff, and virtually forget that you've done it at all.
It suddenly struck me that this is precisely what happens in acculturation and fossilization in adults in an L2 environment. It is not merely that they are 'stuck' in their language learning: rather, they have acculturized and fossilized to their entire lifestyle. This would explain why adult learners tend not to progress with language learning - they've simply got used to doing the same old things in the same old way, just because the same old things in the same old way work well enough for them in the way of life they've got used to!
So, what approach could we take to rouse them from their slumbersome routines? Something like a Buddhist bell might work - a sudden 'chime' to bring somoeone back to mindfulness.
Personally, I favour cattle prods.
More on this later.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

By Popular Demand...

My English Tense Poem!

I’m really feeling rather tense.
These English verbs - they make no sense!

I know there are these grammar rules,
But the speaker always seems to choose
How he or she sees the action,
I’m afraid it’s giving me a nasty reaction.

Look at the future, please do!
Can you explain it to me, you?
These strange tenses, all snaky and sinuous,
Don’t get me started on the future continuous!

I understand ‘will have been’,
But what’s this ‘will have been being’
I’m seeing?

You think the present’s easy?
I tell you, it makes me queasy!

I think ‘I get up at 6 every day’
Is alright, it’s OK,
But ‘I arrive at 6 tomorrow’?
No, no, no –no way!

The present perfect leaves me confused.
Have you ever seen all the rules?

I know I saw him yesterday.
So why can I say
‘I’ve seen him’, eh?

Now, modal verbs – you must be joking!
Must, may and might leave me choking.

I can write, ‘He could be home’,
But ‘He can be home’
Only makes my teacher groan.

‘But ‘could’ is past, isn’t that right?’
‘We can use ‘could’ to be polite!’

As for conditionals-well, I’d like to explain
But honestly, they’re a right pain:
So ask me, please don’t:
I would if I could, but I can’t, so I won’t.

So now I’m going to do what I should have done first –
Learn French – I’m sure it can be no worse….

Copyright © Paul Gallantry 2005.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Provider or Manager?

This post was originally going to be about using authentic texts with Intermediate/Upper Intermediate students, but after some reflection, I'm going to extend it somewhat, although it'll still be anchored in reading skills.

I've been doing some research and refreshment over the past few weeks on reading skills, and how to make text-based lessons more interesting to our learners. A lot of students don't really enjoy doing reading in class, as they think it's something that doesn't actually teach them any English per se. In fact, I suspect quite a few teachers think the same - it's quite a tempting thought when students have their heads down in a text, reading silently (or possibly dozing and dribbling onto the page) - there doesn't appear to be anything going on, and both the instructor and learner end up having the same uneasy sensation, that possibly there should be something apparently happening. The chances are that our students don't actually do as much text-based work as they should, and this is a shame - research shows pretty conclusively that language learners who read more are better and faster at language learning.
However, this also suggests two things - first, that the students who read  more are more likely to be avid readers and, importantly, readers of a wide range of things, in their L1, and that they are motivated to do language-based activities outside the classroom. What we don't, or possibly can't, know is whether the reading drives the motivation or vice-versa, or there's some weird feedback loop thingy going on. Anyway, it seems clear that we should motivate students to practise their English outside the classroom, doesn't it? After all, if we motivate them, they will seek down each and every opportunity to use their ninja-like English skills in new and exciting ways, yes?
Or, possibly, there's something else going on, and it very much depends on the context in which we teach, and how we teach it - hence the title of this post.
I've taught in both a monolingual environment - in this case, a private language school in Turkey - and in a native English speaker context, i.e. my current job in an FE college in Deepest Berkshire. Let's imagine that we have the same student going to both places, learning broadly the same syllabus, and moderately motivated. We'll also imagine, for the sake of things, that he's had some kind of ghastly accident involving a copy of Jeremy Harmer's finest, causing him to lose his memory of his previous English learning, and he wakes up in an ESOL class in Reading at the same level he started off in in Turkey. Well, it could be worse: he could have woken up in Slough. Anyway. Our Turkish student in Turkey, if he is sincere about learning English outside the classroom, must actively seek down opportunities to speak, read, write and listen to the language. Now, of course it is relatively easy these days to do that, but our learner, being an average chap, has a thousand and one things to do outside class as well, and to be honest, English studies are really going to drop down the list unless he is a) motivated and, crucially, b) his teacher is motivated enough to be on his case, and does things such as actively suggest where to find information, things to study, where, how and when to practise etc.
Now our hapless student has his bizarre mishap with Mr Harmer, and suddenly he's in the UK, and doing the same kind of studies. And the difference? He doesn't have to actively seek English: He's totally inundated by it. I use 'inundated' correctly, I believe: it's an uncontrollable, unstoppable, tumbling, reaving, crushing, horrid tsunami of words, phrases, attitudes, assumptions of prior knowledge, in-jokes, requests, demands, persuasions, dissuasions and god knows what else. So what is the teacher's duty in all this? After all, we don't need to persuade the learner to hunt out opportunities when they are all around.
In fact, we should first consider it from the learner's point of view. It is natural, in this context, to not engage with the language: it's so overwhelming, that you just want to run away somehow - culture shock, anyone? Look at ELT practitioners the world over - how many of them form expat groups? there you go, it's the running away from the language and culture. Of course, culture shock covers more than language, but from an ELT view it's something we should be clearly aware of, even when the student has been living in the UK/USA or wherever for years and years. A lot of their language engagement may actually be embedded in avoidance strategies - and if you're an ESOL/ESL practitioner,I bet you've seen that more than once, haven't you?
The point I'm trying to make in my roundabout way is this. Depending on our teaching context, we have to deploy different language motivation strategies. If you work in a monolingual/NNES environment, you have to be a language provider - that is, you need to give the materials in class, and provide ways, methods, links, techniques through which the learner can step outside the classroom and actively use English. In a Native English speaking context, however, the teacher is not so much the provider as the manager. In other words, we need to contextualise, parse and manage the flow of information that the learner has to deal with, and render it in such a way as to make it manageable for the student, who after all has to deal with it anyway, regardless of how many lessons he or she has. Only by showing the student that the information is actually manageable can we hope to motivate them, otherwise they will reach a point where they simply switch off, and just don't want to engage with the world around them.
So, are you a provider or a manager, or both? And what do you do to motivate your learners beyond the classroom's Fourth Wall?
I'll deal with methods and practice behind this in another post, as it's getting on the late side now, and I still have to motivate myself through a torrent of student essays.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Suspicious of Unplugged?

once again,  I find myself not writing as much as I'd like to, simply because of work, work, work. I've already mentioned a few details previously aof what is going on in my workplace, and right now I don't feel at liberty to divulge more, as my position is rather precarious at present. So allow me to go on about something completely different.
I think I've already spoken before about my scepticism regarding Dogme, or ELT Unplugged, as I suppose we should now call it. Certainly, I've mentioned it during the weekly twitter debates on #eltchat, which I thoroughly recommend to anyone who hasn't participated as yet, and also over on David's ELT World, which is far better than Dave Sperling's increasingly tatty and authoritarian ESL Cafe. Yet I, as an ELT practitioner of 18 years, should embrace this particular approach, especially seeing as I do it half the time anyway, and seeing as I currently teach ESOL students, for whom this democratic, empowering approach could, and should, have been designed.
So why do I still regard it with suspicion?
I think, first of all, is the fact that I can't honestly see any difference between Dogme and 'Strong' CLT, in terms of the actual practice of each within the classroom. Krashen and Terrell say pretty much what Thornbury and Meddings say in many respects. This leads me to suspect that Dogme is just a 'sexed up' version of CLT, and I am naturally suspicious of any and all advertising - after all, as Thornbury somewhat ruefully admits, he spends a significant amount of time flogging the Unplugged Approach, and Luke Meddings I suspect will only have Dogme wrenched from his cold, dead hands.
However, this approach to this, er, Approach, has been spectacularly successful - just look at the number of CELTA, DELTA and MA essays on Dogme, to the point where teacher trainers and lecturers have an almost Pavlovian urge to beat something to death whenever they see the word Dogme. Of course it's appealing - communitarian, embracing, materials-light, student-centred - who wouldn't love it? The trouble is, of course, that a lot of people will misunderstand it, in particular newbie TEFLers, hence my second doubt - the teacher's approach to the Approach.
Any fool can walk into a classroom. Any fool can stand in front of a whiteboard and say, 'I'm the teacher'. Any fool can write things on a board, and play a CD, and get students to follow from a book; Hell, a good fool can even get their students to write some stuff down. Only a Teacher actually makes a difference, and becoming a teacher is something that, in all honesty, takes far longer than a CELTA or DELTA (for our profession, anyway) actually gives.Dogme is a dangerously attractive approach, simply because it suggests that anyone can simply walk into a room, say something, and call it teaching. I would like to know how many people have claimed to be teaching Dogme-style, when in fact they are doing something that has (somewhat unfairly) been levelled at Dogme, namely 'winging it with a label'. Certainly, I have watched a video of someone proudly claiming to be doing an Unplugged lesson that in reality consisted of the teacher simply feeding vocabulary to students, completing their utterances, writing down his thoughts on the board, speaking a bit more, and never attempting to check what the learners can actually produce (I'm deliberately not going to post a link to it here, as I don't want to embarrass the teacher) - in other words, it looked like a totally winged lesson. The teacher might want to engage this approach, but unless teacher and learner work together, how can it work? Which leads to suspicion three - motivation.
I suggest you read Chiasuanchong's excellent blog, especially the post about making student-centred teaching student-friendly, before reading this bit. The impression one gets from teachers who employ the Unplugged Approach is that it unfailingly works. Reading various journals, blogs and tweets about it suggests that students are enthusiastic about it. It also suggests that students are highly motivated - look at the blog post I mentioned above for examples, such as transferring notes from one book to another. It seems to me that a lot of the work in Unplugged is actually about motivating students to learn, rather than teach language itself. As study after study has shown, motivated students learn faster and better than ones who do not feel any particular impetus - in fact, Krashen called it the 'affective filter', which is, of course, a pretty discredited idea these days, yet seems to be a key factor in Dogme. So, does Dogme make the motivation, or does the motivation drive Dogme? And if you took the same degree of motvation but with a different approach, would the students learn equally as well? And, in order to motivate students, the teacher must also be not merely motivated by their desire to teach English, they must be immersed in it - fully cognizant of the range of learning needs that may appear in their classroom, but also of the full range of skills the learner needs (or wants) to acquire. This leads to the question - how can a teacher doing 24-30 contact hours per week, plus all the tutorial and pastoral work that surrounds it,  stay motivated enough to guide a student-centred syllabus?
Which leads to a serious point that is somewhat overlooked. Meddings and Thornbury, through ELT Unplugged, make it very clear (albeit somewhat unwittingly) that ELT is perhaps the grossest example of commercialization in education. Ever since the rise of the concept of teachable standards, and of standardization of teaching systems, and of standardization of quality in language schools, we have actually been witness to the effective industrialisation of ELT. Now, schools must be of a certain, measurable, standard; Now, students must have a certain, quantifiable, testable standard of English; Now, teachers of English must have certain, quantfiable, testable qualifications; And to assure all this, you have institutions like Cambridge ESOL, and exams like CAE, IELTS and TOEFL, and to feed all this, publishers like OUP and Pearson, all of whom profit from what is in reality a semi-created addiction to learning English.
For this reason, ELT Unplugged should be thanked - it's a reminder that we TEFLers aren't (or at least, don't want to be seen as) corporate, buttoned-up shills. It appeals to the rebellious spirit of the person within us who was once captivated by a newspaper advert to 'Teach Your Way Around The World!!'  Which all goes to show: never trust an advert that uses exclamation marks....

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Is my day more interesting than that of a three-legged cat?

I was so inspired :) by this story of a photoshooting three-legged cat that I thought I'd take some photos of my own day. I'd say it's a toss-up as to who had the better day.

First lesson of the day.

my 2nd work station - moderately tidy

Students waiting for the fun to kick off...

students! moving about! engaged in activity!!

bit of board work: students working on 'used to'.

nerve cerntre at work. messy, post-lesson.

the nerve centre at home. lunchtime.

time to make dinner before going back to work - chilli con carne (-ish)

arrrgh! evening traffic! why I hate using cars to commute

back to lovely,lovely work.

evening class time!
student work-features of a narrative

student work - features of articles

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

All chatted out!

I'm feeling rather frazzled. Not only by the ongoing stress of work, or the pace and work requirements of the DELTA, but also by participating in the #eltchat regular thread on Twitter. It's exhilarating and rather exhausting at the same time.
I have to say, however, that it has been an excellent reminder of why I'm still in this job and enjoying it, and it's brilliant to see quite how much enthusiasm, ideas, work and research is going on out there. Being able to bounce ideas off other people to see what happens has been really interesting. This lunchtime, for example, the chat topic was one I proposed - why do so many adult learners never get past intermediate level? Apart from feeling chuffed with myself for having my topic chosen, it was also heartening to see what other people thought on the subject, and helped me formulate an idea which relates back to something I've posted on here before about difficulties students face when moving forward. It's this:
Intermediate students can handle a language. Students at higher levels can manipulate it.
Therein lies the difference. At lower levels, students are taught how to function in English - in other words, they can handle it, even if they handle it clumsily. We could say that they cope with the language. Higher level students, however, manipulate it - in other words, they can alter and change their language to suit their needs, rather than have to handle formulaic systems and phrases. It is this gap between handling and manipulation that many students either cannot, or do not want to, bridge.
I'm going to write about this in more detail later, I think, as it ties in very well with what I've said before about 'fuzzy' understanding as well.But for now, I've got me some reading to do - largely thanks to #eltchat!

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

One egg, one lesson.

so, how do you turn this:
into a lesson?
The group: an ESOL Entry 3 class, pre-intermediate/intermediate level. 9 students out of 18. They did an exam on tuesday, and this was their last lesson before the holidays.
write 'holidays!' and 'Easter' on the board. give students some time to think of vocab associated with the words.
feedback from class, write words on board. explain any vocab. find humorous picture of chocolate rabbits.
next, put one small Cadbury's Creme Egg on the table in front of the board.
Ask questions: what does this mean? what do you think about these?
Give students a couple of minutes' thinking time, but not discussion time with others.
Place students in groups to discuss what they thought.
Run a quick feedback on ideas, adding any new vocab to board.
Next, in groups: what question would you like all the class to answer? students in their groups brainstorm some questions, then decide on one question they would like to ask.
students come up and write their question on the board. Here's a chance to do any necessary correction, eg use of auxiliaries.
groups explain why they chose their question.
whole class then votes on which question they would like an answer to.
after vote, they give their ideas in a turn-taking discussion. One student can act as scribe for vocabulary/ interesting ideas.
conduct final feedback on session - conclusions, ideas, feelings.
return to vocabulary and/or any grammar issues.
I ended up with my IWB looking like this:

the question my students wanted to answer was 'why is the egg a symbol for Easter?' which led to a fascinating discussion about Lent and Ramadan, different Easter traditions, how spring is celebrated in different parts of the world and in different religions, what fasting means, the advantages and disadvantages of fasting, and why Spring is important in some parts of the world and not in others. With the vocab, I asked my students if and how they would use the new words, and how they usually record vocab. Finally, we looked at the structure of a passive question.
See? Cadbury's Creme Eggs. A whole lesson in a yummy mouthful.

Monday, 4 April 2011

quick thinking point...

...just based on a bit of reflection. Like most British people, I endured the hell that is French at school: 30 students in a class, lined in rows, sharing textbooks and listening to a tinny little tape recorder* saying 'ecoutez et repetez. Ou est ma singe? Ma singe est dans l'arbre'. It's no wonder so many Brits don't learn another language.
Amazingly, however, some of my French actually stuck, and I can still read a French text and get at least the gist meaning. What I can't do is produce it, apart from a few lexical chunks.
A bit like my E3s, in fact. I was doing a reading exercise with them the other day, and it was very clear from how they interacted with it that they understood it. What they couldn't do was express the answers to the comp questions absolutely accurately. In other words, it was as if they were looking at the language 'fuzzily'. Or, possibly, they couldn't activate the language.
Here's the thinking point: We all know about active and passive vocabulary - the words we recognise and use, and the words we recognise but don't use. What about an active and passive grammar? Going back to me and French, I can't just read the text, I can generally also identify features such as tenses fairly accurately. But, again, I'd be lousy at producing it. So, is this an example of passive grammar knowledge? And how could this concept be tested in a group? Chew, digest, consider...

*for the kids out there - tape recorder: an analogue linear recording device, recording to a bilateral magnetic medium. Like your iPod, but you can stick a pencil through one end and spin it round.

Friday, 1 April 2011

Hiatus, again.

Perhaps I should rename this blog 'Paul's very occasional ELT Journal', as that would be more accurate. Actually, I haven't been too active over on main my blog either. Reason? I could say work and study, which would be true, but I have to admit it's also a healthy dose of torpor as well.
Anyway, work. situation: not good. As part of the government's ongoing campaign to support toffs by squeezing every shred of money out of the poor - sorry, the sensible and vital austerity measures - The college looks like it's going to lose at least half of its ESOL cohort, simply because they won't be able to pay for it. Not only that, but our college, thanks to some spectacularly fucked-up decisions by previous administrations, is now about £3m in the red, and one of the ways of tackling this is to have everyone re-apply for their jobs for about 11% less pay. Joy. I'm not even sure that I'll have a job after summer.
Next, study. In a pleasingly ironic gesture, the same college that may be telling me I don't have a job has actually funded me to do, finally, my DELTA course. Now, I know what you may be thinking - 'what? you haven't done your DELTA yet???' The truth is, I haven't had the combination of time, circumstance or money to be able to do it - finally it's here, and I may end up never using it in the end! Nice one, Fate!
Well, let's live in the moment for the time being, if you'll forgive the pun. I'm atually finding the course hugely enjoyable, depsite not being able to devote as much time to the studying as I'd like at the mo. Just completed an essay, and in doing the research on it, something struck me: why is language regarded as essentially a linear object? Why don't we consider it as something with dimension?
Think about it. Language is the output of a series of inputs - visual, aural, kinaesthetic, the whole VAKOG thing, basically. Language, in other words, is a medium, or device, used in order to make sense and relate these inputs. since these inputs constitute dimensions, shouldn't langauge also be seen as something three-dimensional?
I'm maybe not explaining myself too clearly here, but it struck me that we can regard a lexical item in terms of, for example, its register, style, deployment in a given situation, grammatical use, and intonation. In other words, we apprehend it almost as a physical object, with facets of meaning. And in fact, when we look at the tense system in English, doesn't the fact that we rely on aspect so much tend to suggest dimension rather than a simple linear transaction? What I' suggesting is that rather than look at lexis or grammar as something that is 'flat', we need to regard them as somethng with 'shape'. Well, it's something to work on, and I haven't a clue how you would begin to desribe it in simple terms. Yet.


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