Monday, 29 September 2014

'Fail again. Fail better.'

How often have you heard a student say 'I don't get it!', or 'I will never understand this language'? How often have you seen them do that puffy thing with the cheeks and shrug* their shoulders before going slumping in their seats?
There's always a point where it feels easier to give up rather than plod on, as in life as it is in English language learning. How many times have you felt as if you have reached the end of the line with something?
As you may have noticed, I'm on a bit of a Student Motivation streak in my writing at present, as it's been nagging at me as to why some learners persist and why others, well, don't. In part, it is derived from the fact that I'm trying to write consistently for a hundred days, and so I'm aware of the apices and nadirs within my own motivation from day to day - and hour to hour, in fact. And because I'm aware of it in myself, I observe it in others. Currently, I have a new student, who joined the class late and has quite a complex background. This person has had some severe difficulties in life, and has only just got back into some kind of routine, but has been out of mainstream education for a very long time (they are in their forties). Doing an exercise today, I noticed that while other students were getting on with the task, this person (let's call them 'A.X.') was sitting still. A.X. then shook their head, threw the pencil down, and said 'no understand'.
I intervened at this point, as A.X. really needed guidance. After a few minutes' work, A.X. got it, and carried on with the exercises with a considerable look of relief on their face.
A.X. is an example from the more extreme end of the 'I don't get it' spectrum, and one that will take a lot of coaching and coaxing over the months to come. If we're in a class with 30 students, however, how on earth can we give just that kind of support to each and every learner?
I think a  lot of what helps or hinders the English learner is not only their expectation of the experience of learning the language, but also how they react to problems in general. Put simply, the more 'rigidly' they view a problem, the more likely it is that they will fail to crack it. To give a simple example, some learners spend years trying to get their heads round the present perfect while others just dive in merrily, splashing examples of the tense all over the language pool, if you don't mind me extending my metaphor. Another issue is, of course, speaking: some students are so concerned with speaking without mistakes that they never open their mouths at all.

It seems to me that the learners most likely to get a block with language are those who, as it were, seek perfectibility - that is, they want the language to pop out fully-formed, rather than something that needs to be whelped into shape. At this point, we should actually look at what really confident language learners do. It is generally noticeable that these kind of students are more likely to be not afraid of making mistakes; that they do more reading; and that they are more likely to talk with people outside the classroom, to have better jobs, and to generally seem better-adjusted to living in a native speaker environment. In short, learners who are more resilient to problems and and for whom failure is just a step towards success are more likely to be better language learners and become more fluent.

It does give rise to an alternative idea, however: Should that statement be the other way around? Are better users of a language more likely to be more resilient in the face of problems?

In a way, this would make sense - the greater your fluency, the greater your capacity to verbalise an issue and find a way to deal with it. But of course, when it comes to adult language learning, it is probably a case of six of one, half a dozen of the other.

What I think is most effective, at least in the classroom, is to emphasise the fact that mistakes will be made - and in fact, that making mistakes is the  best way to experiment with and perfect the target language. As I say to my learners, 'You're here because you don't speak perfect English. If you did, you wouldn't be here, and I would be out of a job'.

Students should be aware that they are allowed to fail, and fail again, and 'fail' once more if necessary, because it isn't failing. It's learning.

*There's a whole book waiting to be written about the meaning of shoulder shrugs and to what extent different people indulge in them, from the cool Parisian mere wisp of a rise of one shoulder to the full on comical both-shoulders-hands-raised-lower-lip-pout found in Central Anatolia.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Ten things English learners find annoying, infuriating, or just plain weird about the English

Having to live abroad, for whatever reason, is a major challenge for anyone. It's all very well to talk about assimilating into the local community, but in practice it's often easier just to find people from one's own culture and skulk indoors, pining for familiar foods and TV programmes. Well, that's an ex-pat TEFLer's lot a lot of the time, anyway.
You may be familiar with the notion of Culture Shock: It's the series of emotions one goes through over a period of time as you become accustomed to living in a different culture, from surprise and charm ('Look at all these live animals in this open air market! I must Instagram this!'), to shock ('They're going to do WHAT to this dog?'), to disgust ('I am NOT eating THAT. But I'll Instagram it'), to ennui ('Oh for God's sake. Dog Stew AGAIN') and finally to acceptance ('Hmm. This dog stew could do with a little more pepper and chili. I'll Instagram it anyway.')
Wherever you go in the world, things are done differently - and it's often the seemingly innocuous things that are more likely to grate upon the soul.
What about students coming to the UK? What do they find most difficult to get their heads around? This isn't a definitive list by any means, but it's the things that pop up from my students all the time. In no particular order:

1) Saying 'Alright?' as a way of greeting, or saying 'How are you?' and not waiting for the answer

    Students are either bemused or infuriated by this, or both (befuriated, anyone?), and it simply comes down the fact that both seem to the language learner to be expressions of concern, rather than another way of saying hello. The stock responses, 'oh, not bad, not bad', and 'mustn't grumble' are also a good way of confusing students.

2) Saying 'Please' and 'Sorry' ALL THE TIME

    While most languages have cognates for both words, very few cultures use them with the same enthusiastic frequency that British people do. What is possibly the oddest UK trait is the tendency to say sorry for something that is very clearly someone else's fault, as in 'Sorry, you appear to have knocked one of my teeth out whilst you were enthusiastically waving your hand around', or 'Your pointy stiletto heel appears to have pierced my foot as you stepped back in this overheated, crowded lift. Sorry.'

3) Avoiding looking at someone you know until you're really close to them

    Students are perplexed at the habit of people who, when they sight someone they know at a distance, will then engage in a strange gavotte of movements that mean they never lock eyes on their acquaintance until the very last second, at which point they let out a slightly too eager greeting, such as 'Gosh! Hello! Fancy seeing you here!'

4) The intonation sounds false and actorly

     Ask students their opinions about the English and one thing that tends to come up sooner or later is that we are two faced. Partly this is to do with the way the average Brit hedges their bets when giving an opinion, e.g. 'it's quite good', i.e. it's bloody fantastic, or 'it was interesting', i.e. it was bloody awful. There's an awful lot of linguistic decoding necessary to work your way through this semantic minefield, and it's not helped by the fact that the range of intonation in English is remarkably wide. Our high notes, when expressing surprise, shock or just asking questions are very high, and our low notes, when bringing a sentence to an end or when Jeremy Clarkson wants to add an ironic coda to his sentences, are very low. To many non-native speakers, this can sound incredibly artificial.

5) The number of accents

I say! 
 This really is a problem for almost everybody who comes to the UK. Most language learners who began their English lessons ar school would generally only experience the kind of accent that you'd associate with a Chap from the 1950s in possession of a Brylcreemed head and a strangulated testicular hernia. Imagine the horror when they arrive here, ask a question such as, 'Excuse me, Can you tell me where is the station, please?' and are faced with the linguistic car crash of 'Aye hen, yasee ower thier, ye tek the lef, then hang a right asfaa as the busstop, do a rightdoon thastepsan go aboot tooorthree hundred yards thenyullseeyit'.
The UK is a truly extraordinary place in terms of the range of accents you encounter - just going along the M4 from London to Cardiff shows you how different the way we speak is.

6) Carpets in the bathroom

mmm, hygienic..
  The look of disgust and horror my learners' faces show at this strange quirk of ours says it all really. Seriously though, who ever thought that it was a good idea to have carpets next to a toilet?

7) Wearing shoes indoors

    Many of my learners are surprised by the tendency we Brits have to wear shoes indoors, until they try taking their own shoes off. They quickly realise that unless you have feet containing lava, you quickly freeze from the bottom up. Having said that....

8) Babies wearing virtually no clothes, even in winter

    Every single one of my students has commented on this at one stage or another. They look aghast at the fact that every baby they see on the streets seems to have as few layers on as possible. That and the fact that their mothers all seem to be 16 years old and overweight.

9) Needing a licence for a TV

Students are, at first, genuinely puzzled by this weird bit of legislation. I occasionally, for want of some amusement, tell them that they need to sit a test before they're allowed to watch TV. Some learners get genuinely annoyed, too, especially when I tell them that they still need a licence even if they're watching via their PCs or tablets.

10) GPs and Paracetamol

"Your leg's fallen off and you have TB-have some Paracetamol"
Almost every one of my students has complained about this at one time or another - 'I went to the GP, I had a cold, he said to me "take Paracetamol"!' A lot of students don't bother with registering at a surgery because of this - I have one learner who makes regular trips back to Paris to consult her own doctor. However, those who have had serious health issues have never had anything bad to say about the care they've received. I think it's just the frontline care they find a little difficult.

Friday, 12 September 2014

The calm before the storm

Blimey. I am knackered, and I haven't even started teaching yet. In the past two weeks, my three colleagues and I have seen over four hundred potential students and enrolled about 250 of those, with invaluable support from our administrator; we've thrashed out timetables, reallocated who's doing what and when, sorted out rooms, planned (sort of) what we're going teach and when, redecorated (sort of) the rooms and noticeboards, including having statutory Equality & Diversity motivational posters (namely 1x Gandhi poster, 1x Malcolm X poster, 1x Nelson Mandela poster per room: this apparently keeps OFSTED inspectors and managers on Learning Walks happy), plus posters that deal with Employability, Literacy and Numeracy. I'm sure there must be a single poster out there that beautifully summates all the above.

It struck me, as I ran around doing all this adminny stuff and not without some irony, that I'd probably be better off running my own language school, instead of working for FE. Yet here I am still.

On Monday, I will face my new classes for the first time, and that is always a moment of trepidation. Just before you enter the room, you take a breath, wonder what the year will hold, step in, and begin to change the shape of the world for the class within. That may sound bombastic, yet it is true - all teaching and learning leaves the world looking different in one way or another, and perhaps no more so  than for those who need to learn a new language in order to live in a new land.

Actually, I have to be honest here - My colleagues and I have been paid the most enormous compliment by having virtually the entire cohort of last year's students sign up (without bribery or coercion) for another year of study, something that happens not that often. However, they've also been joined by new students, so that'll be fun.

I have a clear idea of the direcion we'll be taking this year - I should after twenty years on the job - but not a clue about the routes we'll take, which alleyways and back roads we'll explore together, what stumbling blocks and hurdles we'll surpass, what surprises await us.

And that's what I love about this job - there really is always something new, even among the turgid dross of admin and official expectations. Once I've closed the door of my classroom, absolutely anything can happen. Most of the time, it's a series of little bits of magic and miracle, of watching light bulbs go 'pop' above someone's head as they realise something, or see that they understand a word, or phrase that just minutes before had been entirely alien. It's the moment where I tell a joke and they laugh, then laugh again at the realisation that they've understood the joke in the first place, and THEN they tell a joke in English, and other people laugh. It's seeing someone, who began a course crying with frustration at not being able to explain their predicament, crying with joy because they can explain and SOMEONE ELSE LISTENED AND UNDERSTOOD THEM. It's the joy of just being with people who actually want to learn, to get ahead, to make their lives better. The class is just a great place to be.

But then I have to leave this, return to the office, and deal with the dead grey hand of bureaucracy - the one that reduces humans to dessicated numbers and flicks these around like a ghoul with an abacus, lifting some here, dropping some there - and I wonder why it is that there are those who deem certain lives, and certain kinds of education, to be of so much less value than others. I know, that in many (but most certainly not all) cases, it's not any one  person who does this. It's just the way the whole system works, yet some participants of it are more enthusiastic for the workings of the machinery than others.

And yet for all the negatives, I prefer to keep in mind who it is I teach, and why I do it, and fight for their corner as best I can. I'm not here for the enhancement of some bean counter's reputation - I'm here for the students. I'm not here to let my college boast of how much they've saved in wages, or how many students they've enrolled or retained or got to pass an exam - I'm here for the students. I'm not here to make other people, or me for that matter, look like better people - I'm here for the students. I'm certainly not here for the money - if I were, I wouldn't have hung around when our wages got cut a couple of years ago.

And so, here we go again: the calm before the storm, the time to take a breath, open the door, step into the room and start weaving new shapes into the tapestry of other people's lives.

Enjoy your year, whether you're a teacher, or a learner, or both.

Monday, 8 September 2014

It's Monday! Flee for your lives!

Actually, Monday's nearly over, so never mind.....

The last post was all about capturing that Friday feeling, but a long-term reader of this blog* suggested that it might be an idea to have a companion piece that would, as it were, book-end the week.
So here it is.

I got thinking about why we get the Monday Dreads: what is it exactly that makes people look askance at the beginning of the working week? I think we'd largely agree that it is the prospect of returning to work that does it: the prospect of the next five days appears to be an interminable grey trudge, with the bright lights of Next Weekend blinking cheerily away in the distance. So, it is all associated with the return to a routine, a set programme of events that offers little in the way of stimulation or reward - or at least, instantaneous reward and stimulation.

However, without a degree of order, routine and control in our lives, we get nothing at all done, and this ultimately is even more dissatisfying. In order to enjoy the Fridays, we've got to endure the Mondays. What we need for a balanced system is both order and disruption.

Just going back a few centuries to demonstrate what a smartarse I am, I'll point out that the medieval Feast of Fools, or even the Roman Calends of January were one of the ways of doing just this: the miserable trudge of existence was leavened by having days of festival, where the traditional social order was inverted and conventions mocked. Zooming up to the early Industrial Revolution, many workers, having come straight from the farms and fields to the city, would attempt to uphold the tradition of Saint Monday, which was basically an excuse for another day off and added booze.

So why am I speaking about this subject here? Well, simply because I think we can apply this same thinking to language learning. As Jeremy Harmer, I believe, pointed out not too long ago, most language learning is just bloody hard slog. You have to learn your irregular verbs, practise your third-person -s in the present simple, get your head around phrasal verbs and so on. There is no magical panacea that will turn you into a fluent speaker of any language overnight. You've got to stick at it, and that can be a long trudge.

No wonder language learners can get a case of the Monday Dreads. And no wonder that language learning can be so demotivating, especially when you have someone who seems to get stuck at lower-intermediate level, or, to use my working week analogy, at about 12:46 on Wednesday afternoon.

I suggest that we need little 'disruptions' to break up the monotony.

It's well known that novelty is great for learning. What people tend to forget is that novelty rapidly becomes humdrum. You might remember the first time your teacher said, 'let's have the lesson outside today!', but not the second time; If you've ever seen a Prezi presentation, you'll know that the first time you see it, it's really a 'wow!' moment. By the third time you've seen one, however, it's more of a 'meh' moment, if not one of downright hostility. This effect is known as hedonic adaptation, or the hedonic treadmill, which is just as the name suggests: we are remarkably good at turning the special or the unique into the mundane and tedious. In language learning, this is not necessarily a bad thing: if a learner is producing the routine features of language accurately without thinking about it, then they have converted something that was once novel into something everyday. However, novelty tends to work only a few times at best, and any efficacy it has is relatively limited.

So what about these 'disruptions'? What I'd have in mind is something that either a) disrupts the routine of the class or b) disrupts the way the learner looks at what he or she is learning. In other words, it's a way to get the class looking at the situation from a different perspective, then bring them back into the routine and see what difference it makes, if any. It can also be a way of developing good language routines.

Here's an (old and easy) example: if you're teaching past continuous, get a colleague to interrupt the lesson fairly early on. After about 15 minutes, ask the students 'OK, what was xxx wearing? What was he doing?' etc.
Another one: give students a card at the beginning of the lesson. The card has an instruction on it that they must not show to anyone else - for example, 'You must use the word 'well' at the beginning of everything you say'.
It might be to get the learner to do their classwork or  homework in an unexpected way, or pushes their linguistic comfort zone.
And yes, I know that some of you out there might be tutting and saying 'but that's what I do anyway - it's called teaching!', but then again, the point of disrupting is that it highlights what we might consider the mundane and force us to reappraise it, which is what I hope I've managed to do here. One of the problems that long-term TEFLers get, just like any worker, is that we perhaps don't disrupt our own work patterns enough.
So, just for a change, do something disruptive in class next lesson and see what happens.

Friday, 5 September 2014

That Friday Feeling

Yay! Friday! What's not to like about it?
Well, everything actually, if you're a TEFLer in a private language school where the concept of a weekend has yet to reach.

I remember feeling apprehensive about the prospect of working weekends during my first ELT gig back in 1993. The prospect of delivering seven hours' worth of lessons on a Saturday and a Sunday didn't exactly fill me with joy. As it turned out, things weren't that bad, except for the Sunday afternoon class at 3:30. I still occasionally wake up in a cold sweat about that one. Wednesdays became my de facto weekend, which was fine, apart from the fact that 1990s Turkey was full of party-loving TEFLers, meaning that a) Tuesday evenings were ESPECIALLY wild and b) Wednesdays tended to be a bit of a blur, at best. Once My Friday Feeling Mojo had been reset to Tuesday evenings, it was all pretty easy.
And the one thing that I never, ever experienced was the Monday Morning Dread. I never had that ghastly sensation of grey horror that is experienced as you know that you have to drag yourself into the office for another deadening round of the working week. I may not have always enjoyed being in the classroom, but by and large I've never had that 'oh God....' sensation. And any job that doesn't have you wishing the week away has got to be good.
Me, when I worked in a call centre.
Anyway, segueing nonchalantly into the real subject of this post, is there a way we can engender that Friday Feeling in to our learners, especially those who walk into class looking as if a monthful of Mondays just just landed on their head? Keeping up learner motivation can be difficult, and it the degree of enthusiasm someone has for learning English can wax and wane for a variety of factors, even within the course of a single lesson. In a way, we don't need to worry about those students who act as if it's permanently the cusp of the weekend, people with so much motivation that it can be exhausting just looking at them. They will, regardless of almost anything, learn, and more importantly, learn well. We also can't do a lot with the kind of student who looks as if they carry a grudge against English into the classroom - if they've decided to be against learning (which is a bit like being opposed to food), then there is really very little a teacher can do without really deep intervention.
But what about those in between? How do we influence their moods and motivation? Many educators would say 'get them copying the behaviour of the really motivated ones.' Well, yes, but that is very easy to say, but not necessarily to do. Every single student is exactly that, an individual, and what may work for one person may not work for another. We may not know all the circumstances outside the classroom that each learner lives in, and whatever happens out in the 'real' world will influence what happens within the class.
It's one of our responsibilities as teachers to be aware of possible external influences and either encourage or mitigate their effects, depending on how they affect the learners' motivation. In this respect, I think we have to lead by example: there are many times that I have had a godawful day, or week, or whatever, yet I pride myself on leaving that baggage outside the classroom and go in there as Mr Positive Vibes.
In other words, we model an example of professional behaviour that we expect the learners to emulate. This doesn't mean being manically jolly - that would soon get wearing, to put it mildly - but rather being enthusiastic, positive and realistic about the work being done in class. I believe that a lot of a learner's motivation does stem directly from the teacher's own passion for the subject.
Of course, there are other extrinsic and intrinsic factors in motivation, but I'll leave that for a different post.
Have a happy weekend - even if you are teaching the 3:30 Sunday slot.....

Monday, 1 September 2014

How valid is your lesson?

Well, my nose is most firmly back to the grindstone once again, and I'm busy with the usual start-of-year rigmarole of assessing and enrolling, checking my SoLs, all while sporting the first head cold of the academic term.


Before long, I'll be getting down to the fun and games of lesson planning. As I've mentioned in previous posts, the degree of elaboration I've put into these has waxed and waned over the years, depending on what I'm doing, how often I've done it before, and if I'm being observed. Like many teachers with a similar number of years' experience, I have a store of lesson plans safely ensconced in my head, along with a more or less encyclopaedic knowledge of the various methods of delivery that we in TEFL love to fiddle with.

Now, I'm sure you've experimented, as I have, with all the available methodologies, from mainstream CLT to the dark arcana of Suggestopedia, or even my own Blockbuster Approach (see my post from July 2013 for that), and I suspect that you may have reached the same conclusion that I have: All these techniques are fine, but I wouldn't like to do them all the time. Again, as I've mentioned before, there is not a single piece of empirical evidence to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that one technique is better than another, so why should I bother with any of them? If Grammar Translation gets results, why not stick to it? If ELT Dogme floats your students' boats, why not go with that?

All this speculation has lead me to this question: How valid are my lessons?

By validity, I am of course referring to the concept of validity when it comes to exams. It strikes me that we can also use the term when we think of our lesson, or indeed our course. And yes, I know that it may sound as if I'm reinventing the wheel - surely a syllabus must have validity in order to be meaningful? - but I suspect that the reason why we're teaching a given lesson may sometimes get hidden beneath the need to complete, let's say, a course, or because we're using a particular methodology.
If we think of a lesson in these terms, we could ask the following:

A)Does it have construct validity?
 That is, does the construction of the lesson actually end up teaching what it's meant to teach?

B)Does it have content validity?
 In other words, does the lesson's contents (in terms of the methodology) lead to the desired outcome?

C)Does it have criterion validity?
 Does the lesson, within its constraints, demonstrate that the desired learning outcome has been learned?

D)Does it have face validity?
 In other words, does the lesson look, feel, taste, smell, and/or sound like a lesson?

Two things are obvious from looking at a lesson this way.

The first is that all lesson planning should be outcome lead. This is remarkably simple, yet it is remarkably easy to forget, especially if we're teaching our backsides off and only have time to copy Unit 4, page 35, or whatever.

The second thing is that A) and B) are the two questions that teachers should ask, while C) and D) are the two questions that institutions and inspecting bodies always ask.

I suspect that in the rush to make our lessons engaging and fun (not least for the teacher), our objectives can sometimes become lost, and this in not merely a problem for the tutor - the institution itself can be culpable, leading to lessons that may well be entertaining and full of activity, but which actually deliver far less than they potentially could.

Anyway, back to the grindstone....


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