Monthly Archives: April, 2012

Some foggy notion? Dogme in ELT

Today I’m pleased to present my first guest blog post, written by an old friend of mine called Simon Kent.

Simon is a teacher at London Metropolitan in north London, but may perhaps be better known to some of you as one of the authors of both the Market Leader and Language Leader series. What follows are his thoughts on the Dogme trend that’s been sweeping hipper circles of ELT these last few years. I’ve plenty to say on the matter myself, but thought this might serve well as an opening salvo.

Take it away, Simon . . . .

Much has been made of Dogme in ELT since Scott Thornbury’s initial article in 2000. It now counts as a ‘movement’ in ELT , with a discussion forum, conference papers  and  its own very well attended symposium at last year’s IATEFL conference In Brighton. Followers and more recent converts also have a holy text in the award winning ‘Teaching Unplugged’   (Delta publishing 2009). But, what does it really offer?  If I understand correctly, in essence Dogme (like the Danish film movement it derives its name from) is all about a return to basics, originally a focus on the uncluttered purity of film making, or in this case, teaching.  Set free from the tyranny and excesses of the modern course book, the idea seems to be that this will herald a new age of awareness among teachers and students.

Although at first glance these ideas may seem attractive, underneath there lurks another agenda, or more reactionary subtext.

1 It is Anti teacher

As the Dogme proponents themselves say, the three guiding principles are that it is (a) conversation driven, (b) materials light, and (c) focused on emergent language. Well, I take this to mean that teachers need to engage with, and talk to, their students, and listen to what they say, and deal with the results. Well, what’s new about this? Isn’t this what any sensible teacher does, and what goes on in classrooms anyway? No material, course book or otherwise, is unmediated. The teacher is a conduit. Where are all these teachers who blindly follow course books without reference to themselves or the students sitting in front of them? The assumption to me seems a bit insulting. Can the world really be full of unprofessional teachers who spend hours after hours slavishly following course books without reference to their students’ language needs, interests and desires. All teaching is a voyage of discovery for student and teacher alike. It’s a bit like what my friend Hugh Dellar said to me about a class some years ago: “I never thought I could have anything in common with someone who likes Phil Collins.”

In fact ‘Teaching Unplugged’ is chock full of activities which any teacher worth their salt should have at their disposal, but which are not really enough on their own. The Dogme proponents seem to be saying to teachers who may use a course book, “you’re not doing it right”.

2. It is Anti student

The ideology is really pretty unmediated. Underpinning the three principles is the notion that somehow the students are fully formed in terms of their ideas, opinions and thoughts, and simply lack the language to express them. I would suggest that some students fall into this category (perhaps particularly, though not exclusively, in a Business English environment), but that many people are in a language classroom for much more than just language. They are there to learn ‘stuff’’, develop an aesthetic, interact with others, and expand their knowledge of the world and the way they feel about it. Some students even attend language courses as a way to sort out their personal lives, and indeed their motives are far removed from pure language learning The idea that all students lack is the language they need to communicate what they already want to say is absurd. Part of learning is language but also exploration of things not seen, heard or thought about before.

In some cultures the idea that the student ‘teaches ‘ themself is seen as confusing, contradictory and a dereliction of duty on the part of the teacher. Materials may be seen as a key part of the learning process. In some parts of the world the idea of developing a conversation in front of a class of people is simply alien. I can imagine a new teacher bounding into a class of Japanese students head held high and saying “ right, we’re going to have a real good time together- let’s have a conversation.” It’s almost inviting the teacher to fail.

3. It is Anti industry

Now, I’m no apologist for the EFL publishing industry, quite the opposite in fact, however it is part of the lifeblood of the profession. Who sponsors and helps pay for many of the key industry conferences and events? It is not perfect, far from it, but there is probably enough good stuff coming out each year to indicate a vibrant industry. This is important. It is a sign of health that all sorts of courses and books are coming out.

It is easy to see course book writers as the lackeys of publishers, as most EFL publishing these days is market- driven. With their focus groups and research questionnaires, publishers are loath to do anything without prior market approval. However, it all comes down to teachers in the end.  In my experience publishers rarely listen to anyone other than the markets (teachers) about anything. Dogme is a negative approach in the sense that it sees publishing as corrupting rather than aiding teaching. It seems to see published materials as trying to come between student and teacher rather than helping to bridge the gap.

The image which is invoked by the self-styled Dogmeticians is an MTV one of being Unplugged (see above), so at the end of last year there was an opportunity to see a ‘Dogme’ lesson by Luke Meddings ‘live and unplugged’ at the British Council, London. Filmed for posterity, it was a 45-minute class with a group of 13 students from the Wimbledon school of English.

(See link below)

http://englishagenda.britishcouncil.org/seminars

It began, a little unfortunately, with squalling ‘ White Light/ White Heat’ era Velvet Underground feedback noise, due to microphone problems. To teach a live lesson is to be admired, but really what we saw was the information gathering part of the Dogme approach. What would have been more interesting would have been to see the following class and how the raw material provided by the students was developed into teaching material. There wasn’t much ’ conversation ’. The students were asked how they felt, and predictably “ nervous” was the almost universal one word response. A series of communicative tasks were then built around this single piece of information. It was all very nice, if quite teacher directed. However, the students didn’t seem to actually learn anything new. At the end, when someone in the audience asked what it was the students had got out of the lesson, and they were asked directly- one Japanese girl gave the biggest shoulder shrug I’ve ever seen- I thought her arms were going to come off.  Ironically, the only new word learned by the students was ‘feedback’, (rather than ‘horrible noise’ as one student called it.) They did, understandably, all look a bit horrified when, at the end , Luke slipped into the more  usual  teacher use of the word and said “Now , let’s have some feedback! ”

Conclusion

I confess that I do have some sympathy with the Dogme proponents in the sense that there does seem to have been a concentration on fewer and bigger courses by publishers. Where we differ is that, far from discouraging teachers from using coursebooks, we should be encouraging teachers to demand more of, and from them, their publishers, and writers. After all, these days publishing is “market driven”, full of focus groups and research teams hell bent on re-purposing content, and ‘offerings’. The point is publishers cannot do it alone – they need input from teachers i.e. people at the coalface, to produce lively stimulating and relevant material.

Finally, to return to the musical analogy, the title ‘Teaching Unplugged’ also seems misplaced. It obviously comes from the series of MTV concerts where musicians played their songs ‘unplugged’ and acoustically. However, as many of these performances were not actually acoustic, the title is more about the atmosphere, intimacy and perhaps purity of the experience – i.e. unfettered by technology. The point is ‘plugged ‘or ‘unplugged’ you need some songs to play. Dogme to me is a bit like bad jazz. It seems to elevate technical ability over ideas, virtuosity over original thought, at worst a directionless self-indulgent meandering, mainly for the practitioner’s benefit.

So, to conclude, I’m not really sure what Dogme is offering teachers and their students. Although, at first glance there is an attraction, it is at best an illusion, an idea that is all presentation but which lacks substance- a ‘foggy notion’.  To use another musical analogy, what I’ve always liked about the Velvet Underground is the fact that their songs were much better than their own ability to play them. Dogme in ELT seems to me to be the opposite of this.

Advertisements

Language without culture

Last weekend I was at the TEA conference in Salzburg, Austria, where I gave a talk entitled BRIDGING THE CULTURE GAP IN THE CLASSROOM. One of the claims I made was that in the vast majority of circumstances, the kind of language we teach in EFL classes has no particular geographically located cultural sub-text. As teachers, we generally have to deal with meanings pure and simple. of course we DO need to be clear in our explanations of what things mean and make it clear to students how they’re used, give extra examples, and so on, but generally cultural information is irrelevant and beyond the realm of what we do.

At the end of the talk a young native-speaker teacher working in Austria asked me whether or not I was claiming that language could be taught to a high level without really dealing with culture, whatever that might mean, at all. I answered that up to Cambridge Proficiency level, I think it’s quite possible yes, and that just a brief look at the kind of language students get tested on at CPE level is enough to prove how irrelevant ‘culture’ is to the understanding and processing of meaning. I mean, here’s a random sample from the first CPE test book I could lay my hands on this morning:

Much as I dislike her, I still . . .

An argument broke out . . .

It didn’t live up to my expectations

As far as I’m aware

He had to be restrained

It’s been earmarked for preservation

It has come a long way since . . .

The country is lagging behind

I could go on, but clearly none of this language is ‘cultural’ in the sense that it requires local knowledge in order to be explained.

The teacher who’d asked the question looked slightly deflated on hearing this and gave a very specific example, which I’ll paraphrase here:

“The other day with my Upper-Intermediate group, I wanted to teach the expression little white lies, so I began by asking the class – they’re all young adults – how I looked. I have to say, I was totally shocked by their brutal honesty. They ripped me to pieces, commenting negatively on her hair, outfit, weight and so on!”

She was so taken aback that she told the class how rude and blunt they’d been, to which they replied ‘Well, you did ask us!’

Now, personally, I think if you want to teach LITTLE WHITE LIES, there are less risky ways of doing it! I think you just set up a situation where, say, your beloved gets a nice haircut which you think looks terrible and they ask you what you think, you say how good it looks and that it really suits because you DON’T WANT TO HURT THEIR FEELINGS, so decide it’s better to TELL A LITTLE WHITE LIE. Nothing cultural there, as far as I can see.

But . . . but . . . but . . IS there perhaps something in the way certain people express negativity (or politeness) that’s somehow inherently cultural? Is the problem in the exchange between the native-speaker teacher and the brutally honest young Austrians actually the problem of the native-speaker filter? if the Austrians had been talking to Russians, say, or Germans or maybe even Indonesians, would there have been less shock and offence?

A few examples here to clarify what I mean.  My wife is Chinese-Indonesian and despite the fact we’ve been together for nigh-on eighteen years, we still have the odd row sparked by what I subconsciously process as rudeness. It’s usually something to do with requests, where maybe she’ll say ‘Pass the remote control’ or something and I’ll snap ‘Please!’ Her business partner, however, is German; they both speak incredibly good English and have lived here for many many years. When talking to each other, they’re fine and don’t process each other as rude in any way. The problem is the native-speaker filter. They both seem very conscious of this as when writing emails, for instance, to natives, they know how to, as my wife would say, ‘tart it up to keep English people happy’!

I’m reminded of the many times students have looked sort of bemused when I’ve presented chunks like I WAS WONDERING IF YOU COULD POSSIBLY . . .  and asked why on earth you don’t just ask CAN YOU . . . ?

Another German woman came to a version of the Bridging the gap talk that I did at IATEFL this year and at the end told a story about how she’d come to work on London in the hotel trade after graduating and was very upset that people complained about her being rude. What bothered her most was the fact that no-one made it clear to her for a long time that much of this was just to do with the choice of certain direct styles of asking or relating negatives rather than using more indirect variants which were more palatable to . . .  yep . . . the native-speaker filter.

There was a big story here maybe ten years ago when a leading chef said he wouldn’t be employing any more Eastern European service staff as they were, and I quote, ‘rude’. I often wonder if this was essentially a similar issue.

Which brings me to my main question, really, and it’s this: is the fact that some people deal with conflict or negotiations more or less directly or indirectly relevant to language teaching? If so, in what way?

Bridging the culture gap in the classroom

Just a brief look at how English is used is enough to suggest that CULTURE seems to permeate the way we process the world in a wide range of ways. We talk about arts and culture; we have the Department for Culture, Media and Sport; we discuss company cultures and youth culture and subcultures; we make generalizations about French or Spanish or Polish culture; we fret about high and low culture, popular culture and celebrity culture; we are told – at least in England, we are – that there’s a culture of yobbishness and violence on our streets and that we live in a culture of greed and self-interest. We talk about things being part of – or not being part of – our culture. We debate cultural values, our cultural needs, cultural shifts and the cultural dominance of the USA.

And, of course, culture seems to have started permeating the way we think about our job as teachers of English as well. We’re constantly told at conferences that we need to be thinking about culture when teaching language – and that without intercultural competence, whatever communicative competence students may develop is basically meaningless. Here are just some of the preposterous claims about the relationship between language and culture that I’ve heard being made at conferences over the last couple of years:

  • Language without culture is like a finger without a body.
  • Culture and language are intimately related. They go hand in hand during the teaching-learning process.
  • Language and culture are not separate, but are acquired together, with each providing support for the development of the other.
  • The person who learns language without learning culture risks becoming a fluent fool.

Now, I often feel with culture that the nearer we get to it, the more we look at it, the more elusive it becomes and the more it slips away from our grasp. I freely admit to finding much of the discourse around culture in language teaching both confused and confusing, and if I feel like that, as a native speaker supposedly steeped in the culture of the language and who teaches multi-lingual students in the UK, whatever that may mean, then how much more confusing must all of this be for the countless non-native teachers around the world, teaching predominantly monolingual groups who may well be using their English far more frequently with other non-natives than with natives?

What I want to do in this session is to explore a few key questions and suggest a few tentative answers. Firstly, I’d like to ask what is it we actually mean by culture anyway. In general, I think there are two main ways we can consider culture. One is culture as PRODUCT, where culture equals the arts – music, painting, the theatre, and so on – along with history, cuisine, festivals, etc. Seen from this view, here are a few images that one might see associated with English culture.

This is essentially a STATIC view of culture.

Then there’s thinking about culture as a PROCESS, with culture as social practices and processes. Culture in this light is a site of change and conflict and revolves around the variety of languages operating within a society – the language of gesture, of clothes, of sexuality, of race, of gender and so on – and the ways in which reality is represented or constructed through a range of communication divides. In this definition, of course, you can take PRODUCTS – a skinhead haircut, football, mobile phones, a crown, a cross – and read meanings into them through an analysis of their relationships with other products, with social participants and with the products themselves in past incarnations. Looked at this way, jokes, newspaper articles, myths, archetypes, TV shows, advertising, films, street art and so on all give you windows into a culture – none of them representing a REAL culture, but all of them driven by particular cultural agendas – the writer or teller’s desire to perpetuate stereotypes in order to maintain order – as with woman driver jokes, etc. – to raise social consciousness, to whip up patriotism, to challenge long-held attitudes or stereotypes and so on. Seen this way, perhaps THESE images tell us something interesting about England:

Given all of this, some core points about culture surely emerge:

1          Culture is not static. It is fluid and dynamic.

2          Culture can basically mean almost anything and everything.

3          The notion of unified national cultures is a myth. Everything is in dispute.

4          With English, this is of course complicated by its status as global lingua franca

Now, before anyone here has an attack of rage, I should add that culture is clearly located geographically and nationally IN SOME WAYS, yet within that we’d do well to bear in mind the fact that we are all unique and we all participate in globalised cultures and orient ourselves to all of this as individuals in our own way. Ultimately, developing ourselves as inter-culturally competent and globally oriented people surely has to involve being able to word our own worlds – and being open to learning about the worlds of others – and of course this latter may involve rethinking our own assumptions, withholding judgments and becoming aware of the fact that the view contains the viewer. Realizing that we are all different, but we are also all the same.

I’ll move on to consider what this might mean in the classroom in a while, but first I want to explore one more common assumption – that teaching English must automatically mean somehow also teaching the CULTURE of England or the UK or the US – or of the people for whom English is a mother tongue.

I’ve gathered together a sample of linguistic items from a variety of big-selling global English coursebooks – Upper-Intermediate and Advanced level – and just consider to what degree you feel they are CULTURALLY rooted; in other words, to what degree would they need to be explained with reference to specific cultural phenomenon of the UK – or US.

She wanted the ground to open up and swallow her.

I can’t stand being the centre of attention.

I think I’m quite a level-headed sort of person.

Compulsory military service should be abolished.

I spent a lot of the holidays just roaming around the countryside, exploring.

She has no qualms about giving her child a head start.

That film has had a lot of hype.

They fell on hard times.

The kidnappers released him after his family agreed to pay a ransom of $100,000.

He swore under oath that he’d spent the evening at home.

Hold your breath and count to ten.

I had an interview for the job, but I blew it.

Now unless I’m missing something, there’s absolutely no cultural baggage attached to these sentences and they can be explained with reference to wherever your students happen to be – or nowhere at all. This isn’t to say that nothing in English ever requires cultural background information. Clearly to deal with any of these sentences here –

Shoom span a Balearic mix of Detroit techno, New York garage and Chicago house.

Nationalist murals started springing up in areas like the Falls Road when IRA inmates of the Maze prison began a hunger strike.

The NUT has long been run by hardcore members of the Loony Left.

– you’d need to know a fair bit of unusual cultural information – but these ARE not – and should never be – EFL material, in much the same way as students don’t need to know about presidents of the USA or the kings and queens of England.

Language can obviously be used to represent culture and sometimes certain phrases may even encode certain things that are more dominant in certain circumstances than others. Take for instance the phrase EVEN IF I SAY SO MYSELF and its close cousin EVEN IF YOU SAY SO YOURSELF. These are both relatively fixed expressions used to undercut oneself – or someone else – when you think there’s some slightly big-headed boasting going on, and this may or may not be a ‘cultural phenomenon’. Whilst these expressions may be interesting, they’re really not what most students need to get better as speakers of English as a medium for international communication.

The main point here, though, is that while language can represent culture (and particularly personal culture), it does NOT encode it. There is NO culturally correct way of doing things within English itself. Norms vary, in linguistic behaviour as in any other kind of behaviour!

So what does all this mean for what we can – or should – be doing in our classrooms?

Well, it’s pretty clear that the traditional concept of culture in English language teaching, which far too frequently involved facts and figures about Britain – though in reality this usually meant England, and a rarified upper-middle class slice of English cultural life at that – is no longer valid! The world has moved on from a time in which students could be sold visions of Windsor Castle and Bath, Stratford-upon-Avon and Stonehenge and perhaps given the occasional extract from Dickens or Shakespeare.

I think that for culture to work in the classroom, it has to be done with some basic principles in mind. It has to:

1          be a two-way process

2          be global in perspective

3          include language

4          allow space for the personal

Students are now in a situation where they are likely to travel and met people from many different corners of the world; they’re also in a globalised world where they may be eating Japanese food, watching Mexican movies, listening to Swedish music, reading Danish novelists and so on. As such, the UK – or US – should receive no higher priority than anywhere else, though I guess we do always have to bear in mind the expectation of SOME students – and, perhaps, some parents and even teachers as well – that learning English WILL involve a focus on ‘the homes’ of the language.

In addition to this, though, is the more complex reality that the vast bulk of students around the world will nevertheless be learning their English in classes that are monolingual. I hesitate to add ‘and mono-cultural’ because the simple fact of sharing a nationality doesn’t mean that students will necessarily share any particular thoughts or experiences or opinions. Students will operate across a range of micro-cultural worlds – or sub-cultures – unique to themselves. Indeed, in many ways, I think it’s important for students to realize and to recognize the diversity and complexity of their own local and national cultures before they can hope to understand similar issues with regard to other nations and cultures.

That notwithstanding, it still remains the case that the real way students get to develop intercultural competence is to travel, meet people, build friendships and relationships with people from more radically different backgrounds to themselves than their classmates. Given this, if students are to get the chance to think about how they would represent their own realities to others from around the world, then the materials used in the classroom have a responsibility to bring the world to them. This means looking to use cultural products and processes from around the world partly to simply teach students about the world, but also – crucially – to provide points of comparison, to serve as a springboard for cross-cultural comparisons and evaluation. There needs to be, if you like, global input but local outcomes.

So let’s explore some ways in which all of this can work in our classes. In an ideal situation, it should be possible to combine all of the areas I’ve just mentioned into one scheme of work. Let’s look at both a reading and a listening that have cultural content from around the world, that focus on some useful language and that allow plenty of space for students to respond from both a national and an individual perspective. Both these examples are from a Pre-Intermediate book, so for A2 students moving towards B1. First up, a listening-based slot from a unit called EDUCATION.

Listening

You are going to hear an interview with an English girl, Rebecca, who has a Spanish mother and an English father. They moved to Spain when she was 11 (she’s now 13) and she now goes to a Spanish school – and so does her younger brother.

A         Before you listen, discuss in groups which of the following things you think are good about school in your country:

  • the relationships between students
  • the class sizes
  • the amount of homework
  • the subjects available
  • the resources
  • the textbooks
  • the approach to teaching
  • the parent-teacher relationship
  • the school hours
  • the holidays

Next students listen to the interview with Rebecca and process it for gist – and then process it in more detail. Finally, they hear Rebecca’s father talking and process this for gist before finally having the chance to compare what they have heard with their own realities, to give their own opinions about what the dad says – and to voice their own thoughts and feelings about their own school system. Here’s the basic material:

B          Listen and find out which things in exercise A Rebecca talks about.

C          Discuss in pairs whether you think these sentences are true or false.

Listen again to check your ideas.

1          Rebecca and her brother made friends straight away.

2          She needed help with Spanish.

3          She had to do the last year of primary school in both England and Spain.

4          There are fewer years of secondary school in Spain.

5          In primary school, she had several different teachers in Spain, but not in England.

6          The approach of the teachers was different.

7          She didn’t have to do much homework in England.

8          Her friends in England seem to like school more.

9          In both England and Spain, students sometimes have to repeat a year.

D          Now listen to Rebecca’s father talking and answer the questions:

1          Which of the things in exercise A does he mention?

2          Is he positive or negative about them?

E          Read the audioscript on page 142 to check your answers.

F          Work in pairs. Discuss these questions.

  • Which system sounds more like your country?
  • Do you disagree with anything the father says? Why?
  • What would you like to be different in schools?
  • Is/was there anyone from another country in your class at school? What is/was their experience of school? ?

 

Finally, this all leads into some vocabulary that helps students discuss their own school experiences better next time around.

Vocabulary: students and teachers

A         Add the nouns below to the groups of words they go with.

assignment      class               school                         subject

textbook          test                  approach                        course

1          choose an optional ~ / study eight ~s / my favourite ~

2          do an ~ / set an ~ / hand in my ~ / mark some ~s

3          buy a ~ / read from the ~ / copy from the ~

4          have a ~ / study for a ~ / pass a ~ / set a ~

5          do a Maths ~ / design a ~ / fail the ~ / teach on a ~

6          give a ~ / go to ~ / pay attention in ~ / control the ~

7          leave ~ / the head of a ~ / enjoy ~ / go to a state ~

8          have a good ~ to learning / take a traditional ~ / change your ~

B          Which of the collocations above apply to teachers and which to students?

The language work can also precede culturally oriented texts, of course. Here’s the start of a lesson from a unit called Dates and History that begins with some core vocabulary for describing historical events.

Vocabulary: historical events

A         Complete the fact file about Britain with the correct form of the words in the box.

end                              become                       be defeated

invade                         gain                             be crowned

join                               rule                              be founded

*      London 1…………………. by the Romans two thousand years ago, during their occupation of Britain.

*      The Vikings first 2………………….  Britain in 786. They continued to attack the island for years and occupied half the country.

*      Britain briefly 3………………….  a republic after a civil war between Royalists (who supported the king) and Parliament. The war 4………………….  in 1649, after the Royalists 5………………….  in the Battle of Preston and the king’s execution.

*      At the height of its empire, Britain 6………………….  a quarter of the world.

*      The United States was a colony of Britain until it 7………………….  independence in 1776.

*      The longest-ruling British monarch is Queen Victoria. She 8………………….  in 1837, when she was just 18, and died 64 years later.

*      Britain didn’t 9………………….  the European Union (or EEC as it was then called) until 1973.

B          Find the nouns in the Fact File which mean:

1          a war between two groups in the same country.

2          the time a foreign power lives in and controls a country.

3          the act of killing someone for doing something wrong.

4          a short fight which is part of a longer war.

5          a royal leader such as a king or queen.

6          a large group of countries controlled by another country.

Again, the UK features, but certainly isn’t the main focus of this particular lesson. That comes next and is introduced via this short text:

Reading

You are going to read an article from a newspaper series called Around the world in 300 words.

A         Read the introduction and discuss the questions in pairs.

1          Do you know anything about the country? What?

2          Why do you think UK people don’t know much about it?

Ask most people on the streets of the UK what they know about Kazakhstan and the only thing they can say is “We played them at football.” Ask where it is, and they may mention it’s near Russia, but that’s all. Yet Kazakhstan is huge – the 9th largest country in the world and the size of Western Europe. We think it’s time people got to know it better. Oh, and yes, it is near Russia – they share a border of 6846 kilometres!

This then moves into the main comprehension questions and the text itself.

B          Read the article and answer these questions.

1          How many years have people lived there?

2          How has the Kazakh lifestyle changed?

3          When did the country finally become independent?

4          What’s the main industry?

5          What’s the most interesting information for you?

6          If you know the country (or know about it), is there anything important that isn’t mentioned? Would you change anything in the text?

C          Discuss your answers in groups.

 

Around the world in 300 words…

Kazakhstan

People have lived in the region since the Stone Age. The society was nomadic – Kazakh comes from a word meaning ‘free spirit’ – with different groups living off seasonal agriculture and animals such as goats, sheep and horses, that fed on the steppe grassland. For many centuries, the Silk Road trade route went through the region, which led to the founding of cities such as Talaz, now 2000 years old.

Islam was introduced by the Arabs in the 8th century, and Genghis Khan’s Mongol army invaded in 1219. Over the next 200 years, a distinct Kazakh language, culture and economy emerged, although still based on nomadic life.

This traditional lifestyle changed during the 1800s, when the country was occupied by Russia. The political and economic changes and a growing population caused by people settling in the region resulted in hunger and tension. It eventually led to fighting in 1916, followed by a civil war.

In 1920, Kazakhstan became part of the communist Soviet Union. Over the following decade, the last Kazakh nomads were forced to live on farms or work in industry. Other people within the Soviet Union, including Germans, Ukrainians and Koreans, were also sent to work there.

After gaining independence in 1991, Kazakhstan’s economy grew rapidly. It’s now the 11th largest producer of oil and gas as well as an exporter of many other natural resources.

Population: 16.4 million.

Capital: Astana (changed from Almaty in 1997)

Place to visit: The Charyn Canyon.

Big building: The Pyramid of Peace, Astana. The cultural centre aims to bring together all the great religions.

Special day: 22nd March. Nauriz celebrates Spring, friendship and unity. It was banned during Soviet rule.

Firsts: The horse was first tamed in this region.

The oldest and largest space launch site in the world is Baikonur Cosmodrome. It is leased to Russia.

Next week: Kenya

There’s then some grammar work that derives from the text –

Grammar: prepositions and nouns / -ing forms

Prepositions go before nouns. If we need a verb to follow a preposition, we use use an -ing form to make the verb into a noun.

After gaining independence in 1991, Kazakhstan’s economy grew rapidly.

Some verbs are followed by particular prepositions.

Economic changes … resulted in hunger and tension.

It eventually led to fighting in 1916 followed by civil war.

A         Match the verbs to the prepositions with nouns or preposition -ing forms.

1          lead                             a        from the Stone Age

2          result                          b        on support from the king

3          depend                       c        of corruption

4          date                             d       to a revolution

5          be accused                 e       in people leaving the country

6          be opposed                 f         for joining NATO

7          be caused                   g        to joining NATO

8          be involved                h            people from playing music

9          ban                              ij           in the independence movement

10        vote                             jl           by economic problems

B          Write five true sentences about events or people in history, using verbs and prepositions from exercise A.

and finally a task that has a local outcome again.

Speaking

Work in groups. Discuss the following:

A         What you would put in Around the world in 300 words for your country?

What would be the most important events?

What places would you mention? Why?

What would go under the headings Place to Visit, Big Building, Special Day and Firsts?

With these kinds of tasks, there’s obviously a large degree of flexibility in terms of how teachers exploit them. They can just be discussions in class time, with maybe some time built in for individual planning; they can be homeworks – with web searches encouraged – that lead into presentations; they can be blog entries on a class blog, and can include pictures, videos even, and can even be shared with other schools around the world if the teacher is class-twinning in some way with other international classes.

The notion of project work is something I’ve become much more enthused about as a teacher over the last 12 months or so, and is something that the Internet makes much more manageable. Whether you’re just using something relatively simple to set up like a class blog on wordpress or blogspot or whether you’re using something more sophisticated like voicethread, which allows you to place all kinds of texts, images, videos and documents online and to have conversations based around them, these kinds of sites allow students a real opportunity to practise wording their worlds, to develop their ideas and cultural ideas in the privacy of their own homes and in their own home, and to dig deeper into issues that we simply don’t have time to explore more in class. At their best, they also allow for the beginnings of the kinds of cross-cultural interaction that would have been unimaginable in a pre-Internet age.


ELF – and other fairy tales!

As the use of English as a Lingua France – or as an International Language, take your pick – spreads, and as more and more people around the world come to speak at least some degree of English, so the arguments about appropriate norms and models for the classroom – and about the relationship between language and culture – has rages long and hard.

The main thrust of these arguments, as they have been put forward in varying ways by Luke Prodromou, Jennifer Jenkins, Barbara Seidlhofer, Vivian Cook et al is that as more conversations in English are now held between non-native speaker and non-native speaker, the imposition on English language teaching of a tyranny of NATIVE SPEAKER norms, standards and cultural values is no longer appropriate or justifiable. Instead, we all need to be teaching Globish – Global English – or EIL – English as an International Language or even ELF: English as a Lingua Franca.

Now, personally, I stopped believing in Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy when I was a kid, and my belief in ELFs is also non-existent. And I suspect I am not the only one, for the bulk of the arguments that have dominated conferences over recent years is founded on a series of myths and misrepresentations of reality, and it is my aim in this post to strip away some of the misconceptions surrounding the subject, explore the damage they can do and suggest some alternative ways of viewing the inexorable spread of English.

The idea that native-speaker English somehow exerts a tyrannical hold has become increasingly popular over recent years – and yet where is this dominance reflected? Are our coursebooks really full of Cockneys saying ‘Cor Blimey Guv’nor’ and Geordies saying ‘Wa-Hey man’?  Now, of course, the majority of actors who record EFL CDs and cassettes for a living are indeed native speakers, and many of the biggest-selling coursebooks are both written and published by native-speakers, but speaking as a native speaker myself, I can honestly say that the vast majority of EFL material is many, many miles away from the English I frequently encounter in exclusively native-speaker-only contexts. I mean, have the people who rant about native-speaker dominance ever actually been in a classroom and taught from the dominant coursebooks? What, for instance, is native-speaker like about this little exchange?

Your surname’s Jones, isn’t it?

> Yes, it is.

And you’re 27, aren’t you?

> Yes, that’s right.

You weren’t at home last night at 8, were you?

> No, I wasn’t. I was at the pub.

But you don’t have any witnesses, do you?

> Yes, I do. My brother was with me.

Your brother wasn’t with you, was he.

> How do you know?

Because he was at the police station. We arrested him last night.

Or this?

It must be very strange to be back home after such a long time.

> Yes, it is. I . . . I mean, it’s lovely to see everybody and I really appreciate my bed.

Let’s have a look at these photos, then.

> Well, they’re all mixed up at the moment. I’ve got to sort them out.

Um, this looks nice. Where is it?

> Where do you think it is?

Ah, well . . . it must be somewhere really hot. It looks like paradise. I suppose it could be Thailand or Bali, or it could even be India.

> No. I’ll give you a clue. It’s an island in the Pacific Ocean.

Hawaii.

> No, I didn’t go to Hawaii.

Oh right. I thought you’d been everywhere. It’s probably Fiji, then.

> That’s right. Oh, it was lovely. This man wanted me to marry his daughter. She was beautiful.

EFL material is littered with similar examples and those of us who have been teaching long enough develop very good radar for sensing the exact points at which normal, native-like conversation ends – and grammar-dominated nonsense takes over. Now, I am NOT saying that EFL materials SHOULD be based completely on native-speaker norms – and that’s a point I will move on clarify in due time – but what I am saying is that the accusations of native-speaker norms dominating ELT are really not borne out by the evidence.

The screeching about the dominance of native-speaker English has had a seriously detrimental effect on the way teachers view their jobs. In his book World Englishes, Andy Kirkpatrick claims that he feels “sorry for poor learners of English who spend hours of classroom time trying to master the RP sounds of /th/ and /th/, as these are difficult sounds to learn if they do not exist in your own language and, it turns out, they are not used in many varieties of English anyway.” My first thought on reading was where on earth are these classes where students spend HOURS trying to learn these things. In most classes I observe, you’re lucky if you see any pronunciation at all being taught, let alone whole hours devoted to minimal pairs! So, again, I feel, the nature of reality is being distorted here to suit a particular kind of argument. My second thought, then, was how easily these kinds of comments can lead to teachers feeling it’s simply not worth the effort. That there’s no point bothering with all manner of aspects of English as students “might not need it anyway, especially in conversations with other non-natives and that, besides, some natives don’t even bother with this stuff at all.” At heart, I fear much of the current debate about ELF has an anti-teaching sub-text close to its core.

Obviously, these are slippery slopes for us to start to go down, but ones I think many teachers find themselves on and I see evidence of it all over the place. At a recent conference I attended in Poland, I heard someone put forward the notion that “in international contexts, the simpler, the better”. It put me in mind of Orwell’s monstrous Doublespeak, the language imposed upon us in some parallel or futuristic totalitarian world where words are to kept to a purely functional minimum and where we end with ‘good’, ‘ungood’, ‘plus good’ and ‘doubleplusgood’. A world few of us really want to inhabit, surely.

This desire to simplify and strip away the language we teach runs deep among the ELFers – and, of course, at lower levels we obviously do need to ensure that things are kept simple for students – and that we don’t end up teaching things with only limited utility when items that are more useful, items with broader surrender value, are available instead. However, it seems to me that one of the most problematic areas for the proponents of ELF or Globish lies in their attitudes towards level – and what should be taught at each level. Jennifer Jenkins writes of an Advanced-level French student who uses the word ‘chill out’ instead of ‘relax’, and she suggests that this is a “native-like” form. She claims that this student may well be rewarded in exams for use of such language, but that in the real world, when he engages in conversation with other non-natives, he’d be at a disadvantage as he would not be accommodating himself to the listener, who might well not understand the expression. Similar arguments have cropped up again and again in recent years. Luke Prodromou has argued that as corpora based on conversations between non-native speakers shows far less use of phrasal verbs and idioms than corpora based on the language of NATIVE speakers, these areas of the language have no real place in ELT materials. Such ideas were echoed by a teacher at a school I did a talk in last year who said “I see in your Advanced-level book, you have some idioms. Well, what happens if my German student learns, say, “I felt like a fish out of water” and uses it with a Greek speaker who doesn’t understand him?”

What happens in the real world is exemplified by a conversation I overheard in Istanbul airport last December. My flight got delayed and I was killing time when a German man approached the counter near where I was sitting and asked the woman on the desk “Excuse me. Is there an ATM machine near here?” The woman looks slightly scared and said “Please?”. The German guy tried again “A cash machine? To get money?”. “Sorry. I no English” came the response. At this point, the German guy took his card out and acted putting it into a cash machine and asked once more “Money?”. At this, the woman replied “Oh! Yes! Yes!! Go there” and waved with her arm.

Now, this conversation was clearly an example of English being used as a Lingua Franca by two non-natives in order to conduct a transactional exchange. What can we conclude from this exchange? Should we deduce that the German guy has somehow learned too much English and is adopting too “native-like” a model of English? This would seem to be the conclusion that many of ELF’s proponents would draw. If we follow the logic of Jennifer Jenkins’ claims, a seething can of worms opens before us. If an ADVANCED student should use ‘relax’ instead of ‘chill out’, are students also wrong to use – and are we as teachers, by extension, wrong to teach – items such as “great”? Surely “very good” will suffice! And what about “boiling”? Why bother when you can just say “very hot”? Let’s forget about “Do you mind if I?” with its strange positive response of “No, not at all” – and let’s just stick to “Is it OK if I . . .?”. Let’s purge the syllabus of “I can’t stand it” and “I love it” and stick to “I don’t like it” and “I really like it”!! Whole areas of the lexicon can go as they are essentially other ways of saying simpler concepts: so it’d be goodbye to ‘SPARE time/key/room’, no more ‘I overslept’, forget ‘sort out’ and why worry about ‘unemployed’ when you can just go for ‘He doesn’t have a job!’.

Obviously, there is an absurd reductionism about such arguments and it leads to a kind of Basic English no-one in their right mind would suggest would be sufficient to allow non-natives to carry out all the many and varied conversations they may wish to have amongst themselves!

I would suggest instead that perhaps we should admire the German man’s ability in this instance to accommodate himself to his listener, to paraphrase his meanings and grade his language down when required to – and I would deduce that perhaps it’s the Turkish woman here who needs to work on her language.

The point here surely is that whether we are native OR non-native speakers, when talking to others, we HAVE TO start from the assumption that they speak English at roughly the same level that we do. To do anything other than this is to patronize the person we are talking to. What would Jenkins and co suggest the German man should do in this conversation? START by just asking “Money?” What would YOU think if he started like this? Presumably you’d assume that HE couldn’t speak English! And how would you THEN feel when you discovered that he could? Talked down to, at the very least!

Starting from the assumption that the people we are talking to speak English at roughly the same level as ourselves doesn’t mean we will necessarily always be understood, but it does suggest that if we find that we AREN’T, we are all capable of grading down. In fact, I would suggest that in general fluent NON-natives are often better at doing this than many NATIVE speakers! In general, the more language we know, the better we are at paraphrasing and stripping our language down.

There is, however, a wider – and more complicated issue that also arises from Jenkins’ comments about ‘chill out’ and that is that the difficulty students face with language – and the degree to which they perceive items as idiomatic or “native-speaker-like” depends to a considerable degree on the learner’s own first language. In French, for example, I am reliably informed that “chill out” is actually used – as a loan word that has become very common. On top of that, “chill out” has also become an international word through music. In other words, the French speaker, far from trying his hardest to be a native speaker, could well have just been using the word which came most naturally to him in the circumstances!

To complicate this matter further, whether we are aware of it or not, students themselves often seek out idioms and colourful expressions in English. All languages contain idioms, expressions and metaphorical or unusual ways of saying things, and learning equivalent ways of saying these things in English is part of what makes language learning fun and interesting. In a recent Pre-Intermediate level class, one student arrived late – and left the door open, letting a draught in. One of my Chinese students became very animated and asked “How to say in English? In Chinese, have expression: How long your tail!” “Oh yes. I know what you mean. We usually say “Were you born in a barn?” I’ll write it up on the board.” “Oh. Very useful.” In this instance, of course, the idioms were quite different from one language to another, but in many, many cases, as with “I felt like a fish out of water”, for instance, you find that the expressions are very similar in Arabic, French, Spanish, Chinese, English . . . which is always nice to know.

An additional problem revolves around the fact that students often simply translate directly from their own language and don’t realise that things are not always the same in English – and this occurs even when they are talking to other non-natives. What would the anti-“native-like” teachers do, for instance, when a German student shouts to a Japanese “Huh? Do you think I have cucumbers on my eyes?”. Even if this sentence is intelligible from context, which wasn’t the case when this happened in one of my Upper-Intermediate classes, there’s then the risk that the other student will think this is the actual ENGLISH expressions and learn this, when they’d be much better off – if you believe that students should be learning things that have maximum utility among fluent users of English, the expression “Do you think I was born yesterday?” or “Do I look like I was born yesterday?”

One ELF argument has been that a student who uses an expression like “Do you think I have cucumbers on my eyes?” or, say, “He drinks like a horse” is somehow being creative or else expressing their cultural identity and that to correct these utterances is to stifle both identity and the creative impulse. For me, this is to willfully misunderstand what creative means. There is nothing creative about simply translating an idiom word for word from L1 – or to misuse a common idiom such as “eats like a horse”. Creativity surely comes from KNOWING idioms and expressions in the first place and THEN subverting them. Anything else is simply interlanguage!

Note, by the way, that I am NOT saying here that I believe that idioms like “Were you born in a barn?” or “Do you think I was born yesterday?” should necessarily form part of coursebook material or be in the syllabus at these low levels. Simply that there are often times when as teachers we are forced by circumstance to make principled decisions about them in the classroom.

The next issue to address here is the fact that the French student who used “chill out” was an ADVANCED student! One of the major problems that ELF / Globish people face is the whole issue of vocabulary. Who gets to decide that something is “native-like” and who gets to say what is supposedly more “neutral”? If we are teaching ELF, should we just never teach “chill out”? If so, what DO you teach at Advanced level? And how do our students ever get to be like the non-native speakers such as Barbara Seidlhofer who speak incredible English? How do they end up becoming like the any number of businessmen or politicians such as Javier Solano, Ban-Ki Moon or Kofi Annan – or other high-fliers such as Pedro Alonso or Arsene Wenger? As an Italian guy said at a conference I attended recently, “You must remember, International English is what you speak when you are trying to speak something else!”

To move closer to the heart of what models are most appropriate for our students, let’s consider the notion that the majority of conversations our students engage in will be with other non-native speakers. Despite the fact that this may well be true, it certainly doesn’t mean they will NEVER talk to native speakers. Take Spain, for example. Over 1 million Americans and SEVENTEEN million British people visit Spain on holiday every year – and obviously many tens of thousands of Spaniards travel to Britain or the States. Every year, around 100,000 British people leave the UK and join the 1 million-plus Brits already living in Spain, whilst the UK hosts around 100,000 long-term Spanish residents. Now, all of these movements of people are bound to result in people talking to each other! When you start doing the maths, that’s several million conversations a year in which non-native Spaniards will find themselves engaged in all manner of conversation with native-speakers, conversations which will cover all manner of subjects and which are bound to be both transactional AND interactional – and obviously the better the Spaniards English (and, of course, the better the native-speakers ability to grade language down, where necessary), the more smoothly these conversations will go.

Add to this the fact that many, many Spaniards themselves already speak something approaching native-like English – and that they may well often engage in conversation with other non-natives who speak similarly excellent English – something that happens all the time at conferences like this one, for example – and you do really have to start questioning exactly what kind of English ELF fans would like us to teach.

One of the many problems I have with ELF / Globish proponents is that it is never entirely clear whether they are actually arguing for greater tolerance of variation from Native-Speaker norms or some alternative model. My hunch over the last few years has been that it’s the latter. Andy Kirkpatrick, in World Englishes, argues that the variations in Native Speaker English make it invalid as a model and many other writers have suggested that far more attention be paid in classrooms to World Englishes – or Emerging Englishes as they are also often called. However, as I have already suggested, whilst the fact that English is used a global Lingua Franca is beyond doubt, the notion that there might be such a thing as ELF is far more contentious. Any attempt to define ELF as an entity distinct from native-speaker norms is doomed from the outset. If native speakers are no longer to be the model, who is? Kofi Annan? Angela Merkel? You non-native speaker teachers out there? And, if so, then WHICH of you? Or is the Nigerian security guy at my university who almost none of my students ever seem to be able to decipher? Or is it the Somali cab driver I had drive me to the airport last week, who spoke broken pidginised English? Alternatively, as some suggest, should we just be exposing our students to all of the above and more, liberally sprinkling Singaporean English, Malay English, Nigerian English – whatever these labels may mean – and so on into our classroom stews – and leaving our students supposedly free to decide which they wish to copy?

Ivor Timmis, who works at Leeds Met, has carried out some quite extensive research into the attitudes of both non-native students AND teachers around the world. Intriguingly, but perhaps not that surprisingly, he found that the vast majority of both – though especially of STUDENTS – see native-speaker competence as their goal, regardless of their ability – or lack of – to reach such lofty heights and also regardless of whether they envisaged themselves in the future talking to natives OR non-natives. Of course, such research does not go into what we actually mean by NATIVE-SPEAKER English, but there is no doubt that for almost any serious student of any foreign language, the educated native speaker remains both the desired model and also the ultimate goal. Much as well-meaning liberals may pretend that all versions of the language are equal – honestly! – if only we weren’t all so prejudiced – the reality is that that some forms are more equal than others and it is useful for our students to learn the models which most grant them insider-status!

Similar arguments to these have flared around the issue of how best to teach working-class kids in the UK and African-American kids in the US. In the 60s and 70s, there was a well-meaning, but severely misguided, attempt to teach working-class British kids in their own dialects, whilst the Ebonics movement in the US had similar aims for black Americans. This idealistic dream led black activist and politician to claim that there was a conspiracy afoot which was both “foolish and insulting to black students throughout the United States” and that the result was “teaching down to our children”.

My feelings about ELF are very similar. Whilst Jennifer Jenkins may well be correct that certain sounds are not necessary in order to be understood whilst speaking English in an international context, and whilst Barbara Seidlhofer may well also be correct when she notes that communication is not hindered if students drop such “nativised” grammatical annoyances as the 3rd person -s or if they confuse who and which, add redundant prepositions, use definite and indefinite pronouns differently or warp the use of tag questions, we have to ask ourselves is merely “being understood” what students want in the word of globalised English. Last term, for instance, I had an Indian couple in my Proficiency class, Manooj and Praena. They both spoke exceptional English and had been using the language since they were children. They were planning to go back to India after a six-month stay in London. When I asked why they felt it necessary to continue studying a language they already spoke so well, Manooj looked at me like I was crazy and said “I do not want to sound like a curry shop waiter! If I can sound more like you, it will be very good for me and my career back home”.

Obviously, there is a huge difference between haranguing students for making these grammatical and pronunciation mistakes and imposing endless correction on them (which I personally believe happens very infrequently) – and deciding to consciously not teach them. I feel that a lot of the ELF rhetoric has come about simply as a response to bad teaching. If there really are teachers out there who spent hours on /th/ and /th/, then they should stop it! If you do what one of my elderly colleagues used to do with her Elementary students and lecture them for half an hour on the difference between ‘bath’ and ‘bathe’, then don’t! If you spend hours and hours at the same level fretting about whether or not students use the third person -s in all given contexts, then you’re wasting both their time and your own.

Clearly, we only have a limited amount of time to spend in class, and we all do need to make decisions about what we think is useful for our students. As such, it’s seems sensible to ensure that what we teach is language which is as widely used as possible. This means that raw native-speaker data is not actually that useful. Rather, we need to be informed by educated native speaker usage and to make decisions about how best to ‘cook’ it for students’ consumption based on informed intuition. If that means, for example, that we end up teaching I’m meeting a friend tonight instead of I’m meeting up with a friend tonight . . . or I just need to finish some work instead of the more native-speaker-like I just need to finish off some work, then that’s fine by me – especially at Pre-Advanced levels. In the same way, I would personally always opt for teaching a standard range of question tags over the lower-class London standard one-size-fits-all tag of ‘Innit’. And I would tend to prefer “There ARE lots of problems” over the increasingly common “There’s lots of problems”.  There may well be aspects of native-speaker speech you decide not to teach – perhaps because they’re too high level, perhaps because they’re regarded as too lower class, or perhaps because they’re regionalisms. This may be especially true if you’re teaching in a non-English speaking country. Does this mean, however, that such items should be completely removed? Even at Advanced and Proficiency levels? I am not so sure. In the end, of course, I can only decide what goes on in my classrooms and what goes into my coursebooks. It is the educated, often non-native speaker, teachers who then have to make the decisions about what to teach in their own classes. I hope that what I have done today, if nothing else, is to make the choices teaches face just a little bit more principled and informed.

Quick fixes, ELF and dumbing down in ELT!

In his 2009 book, Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell claimed that around ten thousand hours of deliberate practice makes a superstar. Failing that, at the very least, 10,000 hours of practice is the key to mastery – and putting the hours in is far more important when it comes to creating – or realising – success than any innate talent. As you’d expect, Gladwell provides plenty of pop culture examples – The Beatles played together in Germany for nearly 10,000 hours before they emerged seemingly fully formed to conquer the world; Tiger Woods had put in his 10,000 hours on the golf course before he was even old enough to learn how to drive a car,  and so on.

Now, I have no idea how valid the research Gladwell bases his claims on is, nor any way of – or interest in – counting the exact number of hours The Beatles spent playing to drunk seamen on the Reeperbahn, but there’s surely something in this claim: the notion that nothing comes of nothing, and that any degree of success in anything requires a considerable amount of hard graft!

Yet how counter to much of our contemporary culture such claims run! We live in an age of instant gratification, of the belief that money buys us access to whatever it is we most desire, of shortcuts and of blagging. You see it everywhere, from the Pop Idol wanna-bes who crave fame for simply being themselves, and hope for a career in music without first having done the long hard hours learning their craft and gigging out on the road, to the folk who’ve learned a bit of Photoshop and think this makes them a graphic designer and in the desperate CVs we get sent at work from people who’ve not even done a CELTA but have instead done a two-day taster course somewhere and yet who think this entitles them to teach English in a university (I’m reminded here of the applicant a few years ago who, on being informed that we usually only took on teachers with DELTAs as a minimum requirement, spat back at us with “But I don’t want to be a teacher trainer or anything. I only want to teach!”). Examples are easy to find almost everywhere.

And the English Language market has been quick to capitalise on the myth of instant success. The web is full of courses that promise that you too can learn English in ten days – or effortlessly or even in your sleep! Published material and even schools are also quick to make such rash promises in search of student dollars. Naturally, students themselves are desperate to buy into these quick fix ideas. We’ve all met the students who think that simply working through Murphy’s English Grammar In Use (often for the third of fourth time!) – or translating and memorising random lists of single words – will unlock the door to fluency, or the students who arrive at Pre-Int level demanding IELTS 6.5 by the end of the term, and who are very very resistant to the message that increasing just 0.5 in the exam will take a MINIMUM of 150 study hours!

And when the industry is not busy promising the world, we as teachers are all too often simply downgrading our standards and hoping that getting by with less will become the new fully fluent! As I’ve already said elsewhere, I think the roots of this are complex and socio-culturally and historically rooted, but I do also feel that much of the debate around Globish / English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) over the last decade or so has inadvertently fed into a latent laziness on the part of many (frequently native-speaker) teachers! How can it be that such a well-intentioned (but I would argue misguided and flawed) project can have had such an impact?

Well, by attempting to list the elements of speech which are deemed to be non-essential to international communication (the third person -s, say, or the different /th/ sounds in mother or theoretical) and by stressing the fact that much use of English in the modern world will be between non-natives, the ELF theoreticians have inadvertently created a monster, feeding directly into the ‘why bother’ school of thought that afflicts teachers for whom teaching still sits awkwardly with their sense of self. Why bother correcting grammar if I can already understand what students are on about? Why bother with idioms or awkward sophisticated bits if lexis I’m not sure of myself if they’re only going to be talking to Greeks or Chinese or Germans? Why bother with the endless corrective drills of /th/ sounds? Let’s just focus on acceptable communication and activities and fun and be done with it. So the cries go up! And so the goals and targets that we teach towards go down!

I’ll be blogging more about ELF and the pernicious influence the whole debate surrounding it has had in the week to come, but hope there’s enough here to spark at least some kind of a debate.

I’d like to know how YOU feel about the value and purpose of the ELF project, the degree to which you think it’s been harmful / beneficial to the field and whether or not I’m right in my paranoid assertions that students are becoming more desperate in their hunt for shortcuts to success.

Activating memory in the language classroom

Or testing, in other words!

After my last couple of posts, I have a horrible feeling that I’ve probably painted myself as some loveless, joyless evil testing freak whose students do little else apart from get made to feel inadequate about failing to fully recall all the meaningless nonsense they’re forced to parrot-learn for the endless assessments. Nothing could be further from the truth (I hope!)

For me, when I think – and blog – about testing, it’s far more to do with the endless number of ways we as teachers bring back taught language and check the degree to which it has been retained. This is something I spoke in detail about at IATEFL Brighton 2011, and I thought it worth reproducing the talk in full here, so that folk can get a clearer idea of what kind of (soft) testing I’m suggesting we ought to be doing if we’re really going to help our students learn language better. Here goes . . .

How many of you are familiar with the musical CATS? And how many of you have seen it? OK, how many of you are familiar with the song MEMORY, one of the highlights of the show, apparently? Now . . . how many of you have heard that song more than once? More than twice? More than ten times? Yeah, me too – more than a hundred perhaps, and that’s despite me hating the song and having never seen the show! Final question – how many of you can remember the lyrics?

Me neither. Apart from “Memory / All alone in the moonlight” – and that’s the case for the vast majority of folk, apart from perhaps the odd Andrew Lloyd Webber fanatic here and there. Yet presumably most of us here understand the bulk of the words when we hear them – and we’ve clearly all heard them many, many times!

So what’s going on here? I’m reminded of something one of my Chinese students very perceptively observed a couple of years ago. “Understanding English,” she said “is very easy, but remembering it,” she continued, “is very hard.” And ain’t that the truth!

Hearing – or reading – something and understanding it is obviously a prerequisite for learning to occur, but by the same measure, it’s clearly not enough! For things to move anywhere our long-term memories clearly something else has to occur. What that something else might be seems to have something to do with NOTICING – and then to do with repeat exposure (and repeat re-noticing).

On discovering that my main foreign language is Indonesian, my students often ask me if it was a hard language to learn – to which I reply that learning it fifteen years or so ago was easy, but keeping it fresh in the memory is the killer. It seems to me that we do not place enough stress of memorizing in class – and we do not talk enough about the sheer memory load that studying a foreign language places on the learner, or about what we can do as teachers to ease this burden on our students.

The amount of language a student needs to come to terms with if they are to become even relatively proficient is terrifying. To get close to B2 / C1, you need something like three or four thousand of the most high frequency words as well as a whole slew of other less frequent items as well. With around 15,000 words you should be able to understand around 98% of all texts you encounter – though of course it’s far more complicated than simply knowing the words; you need to know the multiplicity of different ways in which those words interact with other words. An educated native speaker, though, is estimated to have acquired considerable information about the various uses of around 20,000 words by the time they leave college. In classroom terms, most coursebooks have between 12 and 20 units. Let’s say they have an average of 15. That must mean we need to aim for FIFTY new items per unit at the very minimum – and that even if we achieve that target, we’ve still only covered 3000 by the time students enter Advanced!

And really we need to do more than simply REMEMBER the language we meet – we need to internalize it and proceduralise it and make it part of our automatic behaviour. In much the same way as when we drive a car, we’re not really REMEMBERING what to do – we’re simply doing what we’ve trained ourselves to do automatically over many many repetitive encounters with car and road, so with language we need to move it from new and understood to noticed and then to learned and patterned behaviour.

I’m sure all of you will be familiar with the sinking feeling you get when you encounter words or phrases that have a familiar feel to them, but whose meaning seems to have escaped you! As teachers, I believe we have a responsibility to intervene in this process of forgetting. Research seems to suggests that the bulk of any forgetting we do happens soon after any learning session, and after that first major loss any subsequent losses occur more slowly. However, spending time on encouraging memory and getting students to ‘perform’ memorization in class, which is really the main area I’m interested in exploring here, is complicated by the fact that memorization has almost become a dirty word in ELT. Little stress is placed on it during training courses and concepts such as learning things by heart are becoming ever more unfashionable – and this is despite the fact that the ability to remember and access language under the pressures of real-time communication is clearly at the heart of what makes good language learners good!

Where memory IS discussed in ELT circles it is mainly with regard to ways we can encourage students to remember language outside of the classroom – tips about approaches to learning vocabulary studied of the ‘put Post-It notes with new words on different thins in your house’ / ‘Re-write your classroom notes every day in a new vocabulary notebook and re-order the language in a way that best suits you’ variety – and I’m not saying these are not useful things for us to suggest students do. Indeed, in a week or so I may even post up the ten top tips we give our students at University of Westminster to encourage them to take a bit more responsibility when it comes to trying to shoulder the burden of remembering.

Perhaps the other common way we’re encouraged to think about memory is via revision and recycling games that we might begin classes with: the one step back that we take in the first fifteen or twenty minutes of our classes before pushing on with the two steps forward. Again, I’m not saying these activities are wrong either. They’re clearly a central part of teaching and anyone who doesn’t do at least some of these kinds of activities is inadvertently committing what they have previously taught to the dustbins of memory.

However, neither or these areas are really what I want to focus on today as I think they’re at least occasionally discussed within ELT circles. What I want to explore instead is ways of activating memory in class – or, if you prefer, ways of encouraging students to demonstrate – or perform – what they’ve already learned, in non-threatening, fun, motivating, affirming kinds of ways, but also in ways that send the message to students that noticing and remembering is central to what learning a language is all about.

So, the first area I want to look at today is what we do as teachers when we are leading students into – and then rounding up from – speaking tasks that our students do.

Have a look at this SPEAKING practice activity that comes from OUTCOMES Intermediate. It follows on from some work on reported speech and a subsequent presentation of and exploration of the patterns that often follow common reporting verbs – and is designed as a personalised practice of the language just studied.

C            Work in pairs. Discuss these questions. When was the last time someone you know:

  • offered to do something for you?
  • promised to do something?
  • insisted on doing something?
  • persuaded you to do something?
  • told you (not) to do something?

Now spend a couple of minutes thinking about how YOU would set this up if you were in teaching it to one of your Intermediate-level classes.

OK, I’m now going to try something I’ve never done before and which I hope doesn’t come across as arrogant in any way as I’m certainly not suggesting this is the only one in to this exercise – or even that I’d always do it in the exact same way every time I was teaching – but here’s a little clip of me with my class last autumn doing this exact exercise. I just felt that it was slightly odd that we spend so much time discussing classroom practice and yet so rarely actually ever get to see any occurring online (or in conference talks, for that matter), so here we go:

Now I’m guessing many of you also had the idea of not only setting the task up, but of also modeling it – and if you did, then it’s always nice to hear your own ideas validated by someone else; but I think that modeling is actually one of the great unheralded arts of teaching – and also that it lays a central role in activating memory in class.

The model I gave here was based on something one of my Japanese students in the class, Take, had mentioned much earlier on, at the start of the lesson, when students were chatting about their weekends, so there was already some recycling there, as well as some obvious expansion. It seems simple on first inspection, but is actually achieving three or four ends, I think: firstly, it’s giving students a clear idea of exactly what kind of turn you want them to now take when they attempt to relate tales from their own lives – and it’s validating a culture of story-telling and anecdote-sharing within the group. Secondly, and more pertinently for the purposes of this post, it’s exposing them to plenty of useful lexis and grammar, both language that I know they’ll have encountered before, and also language that they might now be more able to use themselves in their own Student Talking Time.

As you get more experienced at doing these things, you use your voice more consciously to draw attention to language, and you become more adept at ensuring the language is not only graded correctly, but also contains plenty you’ve already taught before, thus forcing it back into students’ consciousness, and this is what I’m doing when I’m saying:

He needed to buy a ticket to get into town

He had no idea how to work the machine

The couple behind him asked him if he spoke German

They offered to help him, they offered to buy the ticket for him

It’s a kind of verbal prompt to notice, to pay attention, to remember, to listen, to process.

I’m sure many of you are aware of Stephen Krashen’s acquisition hypothesis, where he puts forward the theory that students need to be fairly consistently be exposed to what he terms i + 1. Well, cunningly, he never really goes into much detail about what the i might involve. I’d like to suggest that this kind of modelling – where you take language just studied and explored and then use it to tell an anecdote of a very similar kind to the one you’re then asking students to tell – might well constitute something approaching this formulation.

So, this is one, perhaps relatively indirect, way of bringing taught language back to students’ minds. As we’ll see, what I’m going to suggest should be done FOLLOWING on from student talking time is a more interactive way of doing something similar.

Again, to lead in to the clip I’d like to show, just think about how you usually round up speaking slots: what you say to end things, what kind of round up you usually conduct, whether or not you use the board, if so – what for, etc.

OK, you’re going to see a brief two-minute round-up that followed on from a speaking students did in response to a little speaking activity from the same unit of OUTCOMES. Students had studied some vocabulary for describing accidents and then had to choose one of four cartoons showing various accidents occurring. They pretended they were one of the people depicted and explained their accidents to each other in pairs. Here’s the round-up that followed:

Now, this way of rounding up by focusing NOT on errors as such, but rather on providing better ways of saying things the students had been trying to say  – and on how the conversations may actually develop in terms of responses and follow-up comments not only brings the focus of the classroom back to the teacher and back to language after a speaking slot, but also it’s a chance for students to show what they’ve learned already, and for this learning to be validated by the teacher. With the second piece here, the thing about having stitches and sympathising by saying You poor thing and showing your scar, this is all language I know we’d previously looked at in an earlier class and that students could come up with up here, thus consolidating their knowledge. At the same time, it allowed covert recycling of HAD TO and I KNOW – an important response phrase for my Japanese students who tend to translate I THINK SO directly from Japanese.

The first piece here, the beehive, came directly from something students had been trying to say and so was something I perceived as an immediate need in this context – as opposed to something I’d been consciously planning to teach. In this instance, it wasn’t something students knew, though without asking, I couldn’t have known that of course, but by taking them to the place where it was needed, it’s still satisfying to then be able to provide it for them – whilst also getting to covertly recycle MUST’VE and SOMEHOW – as well as CHASE and STING in my talk around these examples.

Obviously, this kind of language-focused whole-sentence / extracts from conversation round-up doesn’t have to ONLY occur after speaking slots; it can also happen as we’re going through the answers to exercises the students have been working on. The teacher elicits answers from the class and, through the judicious use of questions, both explores and expands upon the language that’s been studied. Here’s a quick example of what I’m talking about, where as a teacher you provide MORE THAN just the answers.

Here’s a short round-up after an exercise where students were practicing language for describing cause and effect in relation to diseases and illnesses – and had been talking about the following:

C            Work in pairs. Use the patterns in exercise B to talk about what you think are the causes/results of these medical problems:

asthma                                    migraines                                    diabetes                                    rash                                    malaria

sneezing                                    insomnia                                    stress                                    HIV                                    upset stomach

Again, it’s EXPLICIT revision of things like transmit and run down that had come up earlier in the course, as well as covert revision of the present simple passive and the present perfect continuous.

With this kind of round-up, you basically win on both fronts: either students know the language and feel good about being seen to remember it – and you get to use the democratic, open access process of asking the whole class for language – and using the stronger students to feed the weaker ones, in a kind of Robin Hood style, whilst also giving them whole sentence, fully grammaticalised input that has covert revision purposes as well – or else you create the need for the language and create a feeling of completion by then providing it.

Obviously, to get good at doing this takes time and needs practice. Working out which language to focus on – and being able to choose words which are the only plausible answers – is hard. When I look back at some of my early attempts to do this, I can sadly recall such gems as the following:

I’m lucky, because I’ve got a really ……………. job.

I have quite a lot of ……………., which is great.

so I’m not saying this is easy – and I’m not saying it means students automatically remember everything, but research into how memory works does seem to back up these kinds of approaches.

Research into how we remember things best seems to suggests several things:

– things that are stored together tend to be retrieved together, so the mind tends to automatically ‘chunk’ memories in terms of relationships

– distributed practice – exposure over time interspersed among other items – tends to result in more effective memory retention that massed practice – numerous consecutive exposure to an item

– sentences are easier to learn if the student meets them in a meaningful context, possibly because such contexts require more complex processing and therefore greater engagement with the items in question

– we seem to learn best when there’s not only meaningful engagement, but also a strong personal stake

One thing you might want to try and do, if this kind of reformulation is not something that’s part and parcel of your everyday teaching yet, is CHEAT! The way you do this is BEFORE you get students doing a speaking task in class, you sit at home – or in the staff room – and predict what students might say in response to the task. Actually say – or write – what you imagine might be said. Then select some choice vocabulary – or grammar you want to just briefly go over again – from all of this and SCRIPT your boardwork in advance. You then lead into this by simply saying OK. STOP THERE. THAT WAS GREAT. LET’S LOOK AT HOW TO SAY SOME OF WHAT YOU WERE TRYING TO SAY BETTER. I HEARD SOMEONE SAY . . .

So let’s move on to consider another way in which we can encourage the remembering and repetition / performance of chunks and wholes – TEST AND REMEMBER. This is something we’ve tried hard to build into the classroom material we’ve written for both the OUTCOMES series and also for INNOVATIONS, but is, I suppose, something that could be adapted and used with any material, though I think it does work best if you’re asking students to try to recall whole sentences / responses.

Basically, all that happens is students do an exercise in a coursebook that involves maybe matching questions and answers or statements and possible responses . . . or else perhaps the beginning of sentences with the endings or verbs and possible collocations, or matching descriptions of an event or thing or crime, say, to the actual names of the things. The teacher then goes through the answers, working on any language that’s caused any problems, asking questions about it, providing extra examples and maybe writing up some extra boardwork to consolidate all of this. Then, quite simply, give students a minute (or two minutes) to remember the language from the exercise; then put students in pairs – As and Bs – and tell B to close their books. A reads out their sentences, B tries to say the correct responses – and A corrects them if needs be. After a couple of minutes, stop the students and change the pairs round, so this time B is testing and A is trying to remember.

There are several advantages to this kind of activity: firstly, it helps you deal with mixed-level classes in that in every pair, you can always make the stronger student of the two Student B – the one that closes their book FIRST – meaning Student A gets more time / support before they’re out on the spot. It’s also something students can test themselves on at home – and that can easily be recycled the following lesson, either in pairs again or simply with the teacher playing the role of Student A and the whole class shouting out the responses that B said the lesson before.  Finally, yet again, it sends subliminal messages to the students that it’s not enough to DO exercises, practise them in class and move on: they have to notice and try to remember the language, and this process can extend over time.

One final thing I often do in class is probably worth mentioning here is re-eliciting texts that students have read – or listened to. It’s often a nice way of rounding off one section of a lesson – or a lesson itself – and is yet another language-focused hassle-free way of allowing students to show you what they can remember. All you do is basically put students in pairs and tell them to compare what they remember about the last text you did in class . . . and then elicit the thing from the whole class, but insisting on correct lexis and grammar, so for instance, in the class you’ve watched extracts from, the class heard a conversation about an accident that happened during a cycling holiday. At the end of the class, I run through the stages already outlined and then start to elicit, targeting things I want to go over again, so for example:

Ss: They went round a corner

T: Yeah, OK. so the accident when they were going round a . . .  not a corner, but a ….? A BEND, yeah, and if it’s the kind of bend you can’t see round, it’s a very MMMMM bend – TIGHT BEND. OK, so they were going round a tight bend and then what?

Ss: The guy went from the road and to the bush.

T: OK, yeah. He went OFF the road and INTO some bushes and HURT HIMSELF pretty badly.

This kind of group re-telling essentially attempts to disrupt the students’ interlanguage and bring it face to face with language a step up from there; it removes them from the comfort zone of being able to report things understood in language already learned – and instead pushes them to start to try and take on some of the new language and appropriate it fro their own purposes.

Once you do this kind of thing a fair few times, students start to realize that not only do you want them to pay attention to and try to recall CONTENT, but that you want the language as well . . . and students generally get much better at reflecting upon and then resurrecting this in the classroom, much to everyone’s satisfaction.

One final point to make here about the nature of memory is the fact that research seems to back up the notion that not only can people learn more language from our classes at a faster rate than perhaps more conservative commentators have previously suggested, but that teachers beliefs about how much – and how well – learners are capable of learning also seems to have a fairly sizeable impact upon how well they do. In short, if we believe that our students are capable of doing the kinds of things I’ve been talking about, then they may well become so. If, on the other hand, we don’t, then we may well be damning them with our low expectations.

How’d we ever get this way?

He may well not remember this, but a long time ago, when I was first starting out on the great merry-go-round that is the ELT talks circuit, Jim Scrivener – the esteemed author of Learning Teaching, as I knew him then – once called me a Thatcherite. Well, to be more precise, he called my ideas Thatcherite!

To those of you lucky enough not to have been living in the UK during the reign of That Bloody Woman (as my grandfather insisted on calling her till his dying day!), this may not strike you as much of an insult, or even as an insult at all. However, where I come from, that’s fighting talk! Punches have been thrown for less. Having pointed this out to Jim, the ensuing discussion clarified what seemed to me to be some kind of generational fault lines. Jim felt that my talk – about the importance of teaching fixed expressions and collocations if we really want our students to become more fluent (and, I’d venture to add, accurate) – was crassly commercial (in his defence, the talk may well have ended with passing mention of a book I had out at the time, INNOVATIONS!), utilitarian and focused on outcomes and results, and was thus lacking poetry, creativity and soul.

The reason I mention this scurrilous piece of EFL gossip, apart from to simply hook you in, is because I was reminded of it during the debate which seems to have emerged of late about the many failures of Brit-centric, CELTA-rooted Communicative Language Teaching, and also when watching both Jeremy Harmer’s recent talk that I blogged about earlier this week and Jim Scrivener’s talk up at Glasgow IATEFL recently (incidentally, you can read many of Jim’s stimulating recent thoughts over on HIS blog – http://demandhighelt.wordpress.com). We seem to be hitting a moment where teachers of a certain vintage are reassessing their careers, thinking about where things might perhaps have gone slightly astray and posing questions for the rest of us to ponder. Here’s my take on all of this – and on how it connects to my recent post about focus and testing.

Much of what has become ELT orthodoxy has its roots in the late 1960s counter-culture. At his recent talk at my university, Jeremy Harmer said quite clearly that he was a flower child back in the day (and anyone who’s seen such Youtube clips as this one will testify that he was most certainly of the paisley-shirted and hirsute persuasion from a young age). The late 60s and early 70s was the cultural and political environment out of which many of The Grand Old Men (and they do tend to mainly be men) of TEFL emerged, and from which, in many ways, ELT as a globalised profession grew. This was a time of challenging authority, of the realisation that the powers-that-be were not always straight-forward and honest, of utopian daydreams, of free love, of experimentation, of screwing the system and standing up to The Man. And out of this developed a pedagogy rooted in caring and sharing in the language classroom, in humanizing the classroom (with the implications being, of course, that all classrooms before must have been neither caring, nor sharing nor even very human!). I would argue that what also developed was a generation of teachers – often wonderfully funny, warm, witty, creative (and, lest we forget, influential) teachers, it must be said – who felt vaguely uncomfortable about actually being TEACHERS; who preferred to be seen as facilitators or mediators or unlockers of inner excellence or guides, and so on. Anything but the dreaded T word.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing major against the 1960s. As anyone who knows me well will attest, a large chunk of my ever-expanding record collection derives from that very decade. Indeed, the title of the post comes from a ’68 pop hit by the wonderful and very underrated Andy Kim.

That said, I am not, and never can be, a child of the 60s in the way that Jeremy and Jim and Adrian Underhill and that generation are.

Whether I like it or not, I was formed as an adult during The Thatcher Years (or the post-punk years, as I prefer to remember them!).

I am also the product of the comprehensive school system, and the first from my family to go to university, and all of these things shape who we go on to become and what we go on to believe.

My feeling is that the 60s generation have shaped an ELT pedagogy in their own image for a long time now, and are finally starting to have doubts about where it’s got us. The simple dichotomy (I feel a Henry Widdowson moment coming on) of 60s = freedom / 80s = authoritarianism at worst, hard-headed pragmatism at best may be an oversimplification, but it’s one which contains a fair few grains of truth, not least in terms of the way that the 60s generation – and all those they have influenced so deeply – have come to see things, as evidenced by the story with which I began this piece.

CLT – and its close cousin, Task-Based Learning – has created a generation of teachers who think of lessons solely in terms of activities. The number of times I’ve sat down with teachers and asked what their goal is for the lesson they’re planning to teach only to be told what the teacher and students will be doing. On occasion, when I’ve said “No, that’s WHAT you’re doing. I want to know WHY you’re doing it”, it’s got so bad I’ve been told that I must be a bit slow and that the goal of the lesson is obviously – as any fool can see – TO DO A LISTENING. Or a reading, Or a speaking.

This has all been exacerbated by the tyranny of four-week CELTA courses, the easy entrance into our noble profession for the vast majority of native-speaker teachers (present company included: Westminster College, 1993). Given its ridiculous time restrictions, the CELTA is unable to help trainees learn much more about language than the names and basic functions of a fee grammatical structures – and how to find one’s way around a dictionary and the grammar notes at the back of the book. As such, the main focus falls on faking it: we end up pretty linguistically ignorant, but highly adept at manufacturing that magical quality, FUN! We may not know much about how language works, but we’re dab hands at a bit of TPR, we know good games for Friday afternoons and we can knock up a gap-fill based on almost any song you’d care to name.

And we wonder why non-natives are starting to distrust our infinite wisdom!

We have come to a point where teaching has become a dirty word, where FUN has become the be-all and end-all, where teachers are all-too often little more than automatons able only to string recipes, games and activities together, where testing creates terror (and has come to be seen as some kind of weird anti-educational cult-like behaviour indulged in by those crazy authoritarian Asians, whilst we in the Free West (TM) see ourselves as creative libertarians.  We have come to a point where the hard graft and discipline required to learn not just language, but almost any kind of serious skill are in short supply. We now pin our hopes on shortcuts: technology will save us by facilitating a sufficient amount of meaningful exposure; DOGME will save us by freeing us from actually being teachers and having to make informed decisions abut syllabus, word choice, topics and themes, testing and assessment, and so on and instead will allow us to exist in Gurdjieff’s perpetual now.

And all the time we fail to get better at the one thing we’re all supposed to be doing: teaching language.

When I first read The Lexical Approach by Michael Lewis, as part of my DELTA reading, one thing that hit me hard was just how much language there is out there. Just take the word blog. We read and we follow blogs, we post on blogs, we maintain blogs, we upload stuff to our blogs; indeed, we BLOG. We talk about bloggers and the blogosphere. It goes on and on. And each word and each collocation has its own colligations – grammatical patterns it’s often used with – and its own co-text (words often used with – or around – it). There is a LOT of language out there – and students really need to start getting to grips with it.

Students know this.

Examination boards know this.

Employers know this.

University entrance panels know this.

It’s about time we all woke up to this harsh reality too and started to think about whether or not what we’re doing in our classes is getting enough of it to our students. Are we covering a broad enough range? Are we honestly covering the 750+ words needed to lift a student from one level to the next? Are we revisiting and recycling them? Are we testing how much our students are retaining? In short, are we making the teaching and learning of new language the absolute centre of our practice? And if not, then why not?

To wrap up this rambling ranting post, I’ll go right back to where I started from.

I am proud to call myself a TEACHER first and foremost. I am also, however, a man of The Left, hence my annoyance at the Thatcherite tag. I would argue all day long that having clear goals which can be stated before a student buys into a course, having high expectations of what my students can achieve in terms of language load, and giving students regular (soft AND hard) tests in order to help them see how they’re doing and what they’ve got for the money they’ve invested are acts of The Left as well. They are rooted in a desire for collective improvement and in a belief that the powers-that-be have a duty of care to those entrusted to them. These beliefs also, though, come with a clear-eyed acceptance of the long hard route to competence – and see little point in hiding this reality from students. To insist on the process over the product is to deny this reality, and to me is little short of professional irresponsibility.

The force of focus . . . and the terror of tests!

Last week my university – University of Westminster in Regent Street, in the centre of London – had its inaugural session for what we hope will become a series of teacher development talks by various TEFL celebs. Jeremy Harmer came down from Cambridge and did a session called The Myth of Multi-Tasking and the Force of Focus. Knowing – and liking – Jeremy from the conference circuit, I was both amused and intrigued to see he’d chosen such a title, as one of my abiding images of him is as a man singularly unable to focus firmly on a talk, preferring instead to tweet, retweet and so on throughout, a trend which seems to blight almost every talk I ever go to these days. Whatever happened to the good old days, you hear me asking, when none of this used to happen, and we all just whispered bitchy comments into the ears of whoever had the misfortune to be sat next to us?!

Anyway, after a fairly rambling first half-hour (or ‘discursive’, if you’d rather), the talk really got going and Jeremy started connecting his theme to the language classroom. He did something which I found very interesting: showed three teachers from different backgrounds and working in different contexts either teaching or talking and teaching and posed some key questions about one.

I’ll come to these questions in a moment, but first the three teachers: there was a young Irish guy working with (presumably – and, let’s face it, hopefully (!!)) an Elementary class of multilingual students. He got the students up and stood them in front of the class, and then gave each one a piece of paper with a word on it, a word the class could see but they could not. The words were Marianne’s / was / wedding / Yesterday / anniversary. The class has to shout out instructions to move the five students around until they stood in such a way that the sentence was complete. First they went for Marianne’s wedding anniversary was Yesterday – but then the teacher pointed out that Yesterday had a capital letter. After a lot more faffing around, they finally got into the correct positions and the sentence read Yesterday was Marianne’s wedding anniversary.

Next up was a very bouncy young Mexican teacher who talked about a web quest she’d been doing with her class. She asked the class to imagine they were going on holiday to Europe for a week and asked them to use the web to research where they wanted to go, and what they wanted to see and do while they were there. They had to find out where they’d stay, how they’d get about, and schedule each day’s sightseeing and activities. They also had to try and sort everything out on a very tight budget. They did all this at home and then next class, had a big discussion based on what they’d found out.

Finally, there was a German teacher who simply said that every week she gave her students four pages of vocabulary to learn and then every Thursday there was a test. The test might involve writing examples or definitions, giving synonyms or antonyms, or even giving translations.

The first thing Jeremy asked for was a show of hands for who really liked each idea, who quite liked and who didn’t like it. The first exercise got a fair few really likes and likes, and I was in the minority for not liking it. The second one proved the most popular, and I was very much in the minority for not really liking it very much. The third and final one was the part that stunned me though. Jeremy asked who like it and – in a room of over one hundred people – I was literally the only person who raised their hand!

We’ll come to the train of thought that this weird moment set in motion in a few minutes, but what was most interesting for me was the next question Jeremy asked: Now think about focus. Which of the lessons do you think was most FOCUSED. Tell a partner.

Now clearly, the first lesson had some kind of focus – syntax and possible options for word order in simple sentences. Watching it was fairly painful though, and brought back bad memories of the way one-month CELTA courses taught me to come up with long-winded and slightly infantilising ways of doing basically pretty simple things, all in the desperate name of FUN (in big screamy neon capital letters!) The second had a communicative goal, sure, but in terms of focus ON LANGUAGE, there was nothing transparent in anything the teacher had said to suggest this occurred. The third one, however, was surely by far and away the most focused in terms of language and goals and outcomes. Students were given a clear target, fixed times by which they were expected to have learned this by and a regular routine to provide a sense of progress. Now, I mean quibble about the exact nature of the tests used, especially with what sounded like an over-emphasis on single words / word lists and on the use of synonyms, etc. but as a general principle, it’s one I like and am down with.

What followed was a fascinating, but ultimately fairly depressing, exchange of thoughts around the audience. What seemed to emerge was two things: (1) a general belief that ‘fun’ is motivating and that tests, by definition, could never be and (2) a sense that progress in a language was better measured by simply being able to DO things, being able to achieve some kind of communicative task (no matter how badly!) than by acquiring new items. In fact, several comments seemed to almost suggest that learning for tests was a bad thing. “just because you can reproduce something in a test,” went one response, “it doesn’t mean you can use it in practice.” now obviously this is true, but as I pointed out, it also doesn’t mean you definitely CAN’T. And I’d bet the student that remembers the language for a test is more likely to later to be able to use that language than the student that fails to remember and reproduce it under test conditions.

I was reminded of a not-uncommon response I had to a talk I did last year called Activating memory in the language classroom (or, in the soft sense of the word, testing!) Anyway, I was talking about a technique I’ve been doing for years, where I get students in pairs to re-tell texts we did in previous classes and then elicit the texts from the whole class. Usually students remember content but forget language and what I try to do is interrupt this process of forgetting by forcing them face to face again with the actual language the meaning came wrapped in. I told a story about an amazing Chinese student I once had who became known as The Memory Queen in my class as she had a remarkable ability to remember texts almost word for word.

When I told this tale, there were always folk in the audience who saw this not as something to be admired, but somehow dangerous. “Just because she could parrot learn” they opined, “it doesn’t mean anything.”

Well, except of course that it does!

It means she’s not afraid of – and actually embraces even – the one hardest, truest and most unpalatable fact of learning a foreign language: progress is achieved word by word, collocation by collocation, chunk by chunk . . . and given this, surely one of the teacher’s main responsibilities is to make students aware of this harsh reality and to (first TEACH them and then) test them (in both a soft and a harder way) day after day after day to ensure progress is attained.

Over the ritual post-talk pint  I had a lengthy and sometimes quite heated discussion about all of this with an old friend of mine, Simon Kent, whose coursebooks (Market Leader and Language Leader) both feature double-page spreads which are loosely task-based and in which the communicative goal takes precedence over a focus on specific linguistic items in every unit. Simon seemed appalled – and shocked – that I was advocating testing, and seemed to somehow see such notions as authoritarian, controlling, anti-student even.

I was left wondering where we have gone so wrong – and when and how did testing (and the structured continual acquisition of discrete pieces of knowledge it implies) become so despised.

This seems plenty long enough for a first real post, so I’ll leave it here for now. In coming posts, I’ll write more about how I think the current state of affairs came into being – and about signs of a slow sea change that I think are appearing. I’ll also post about ways in which I try to activate / test memory in my day-to-day teaching as well.

In the meantime, I’d really like to read your thoughts on anything I’ve written here.

Does my head look big in this?

As anyone who knows me will testify, I’ve long been very ambivalent about blogs and blogging. In an otherwise fairly awful movie I watched out of boredom on a plane last year, Contagion, there was one great line: Blogging? It’s just graffiti with punctuation. And let’s face it, the punctuation is only if you’re lucky!

Blogging has long struck me as being a kind of vanity publishing, and has led – at least in my line of work – not to a democratization of thought and opinion, but rather to a kind of tyranny of the loudest and most prolific. I’ve worried about what kind of lives people who blog regularly have – or are running from; I’ve worried about what kind of life I might end up with if I ever allowed myself to get talked into setting one up; I’ve worried about the fact that the last time I did actually try to do a blog I had no real ideas about what function it was to serve other than as a kind of store cupboard for talks I’d given at conferences; I worried too about the fact that hardly anyone seemed to read it!

As if that wasn’t enough, I worry too about the fact I seldom seem to have time or energy to bother reading many of the blogs of the people out there in the ELT community that I know or have met in various contexts. Finally, I fear that this may all make me ill-suited to setting up and running another of these ego-propagating, time-consuming monsters.

And yet here I am, on a school night, writing this to an imagined audience, daring to dream there might be people out there who give a toss about my thoughts and opinions. What gives, I hear you ask?

Well, if I’m honest, there’s partly a touch of ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’. There’s the ever-present frustration with the medium of facebook, where I help to run a fairly busy little page which works well within its own limited parameters, but which doesn’t really allow much room to spread out and talk at any great length, and which is geared towards fast turnover of posts and constant status updates. Then there’s the fact that I have been asked – repeatedly – if I have a blog by teachers that I’ve been lucky enough to meet or work with over the years. And finally, there’s something Jimmie Hill said to me many moons ago, and which has stayed with and almost haunted me down the years: every generation of language teachers has a responsibility to write down what it is they do, what they believe in and how they work.

What I hope – and aim – to do here is to post a lengthy post at best weekly, or else simply when the mood and inspiration strike, exploring things that have been on my mind, considering talks or books I’ve encountered – or given. There may occasionally be guest posts, I may sometimes go off on a lengthy rant and I may also sometimes heap praise where I feel that it’s due.

Looking forward to interacting with whoever may be out that curious to see where all this will lead. And if and when my head does look big in this, I’m trusting you all to tell me.

Deal?