Monthly Archives: October, 2012

Technology and principles in language teaching

Over the coming months, I’m going to try and start blogging about a whole range of different websites and technologies that I’ve been looking at and experimenting with in the classroom, and to offer up a critical eye on their usefulness.

To get started on this particular strand, though, here’s a guest post by my co-author on the OUTCOMES And INNOVATIONS series, Andrew Walkley, which draws heavily on a talk he did at Glasgow IATEFL this year and which frames where I think we both feel the whole discussion about technology in teaching should be headed.

Here goes:

“Technology won’t replace teachers, but teachers who use technology will replace those that don’t!” At least that’s what I was reliably informed by a rather stern and serious ex-colleague of mine about ten years ago. Now many of you reading this may well share her evangelical faith, whilst perhaps some may even believe tech WILL ultimately replace us all. We live in an era in which teachers are regularly pigeonholed as digital non-natives or as digitally illiterate, whilst British Council inspectors visiting schools in the UK often comment negatively on the lack of technology being used both within and outside of the classroom.

The aim of this post is to question these ideas – not out of any inherently anti-technology tendencies, but as a way to consider general principles of teaching – both WITH technology and without – and also to support good low-tech teachers, of whom there are many.

I’m going to be making six main points: using tech in and of itself means neither good nor bad teaching – and in a sense the discussion about the rise of technology has detracted from any wider discussion of principles; technology has created a burgeoning cult of the amateur – and the pseudo-democratic rhetoric that has facilitated this has the potential to ultimately backfire on us all; tech has ushered in a glut of so-called authentic texts – videos, websites, newspaper articles and so on – and I’ll be arguing that this isn’t necessarily a good thing; fourthly, I’ll ponder the problem of price. Even if you believe that tech and content CAN be welded together well, the issue of who pays – and how – is a huge one. Next up, I’ll be suggesting that technology isn’t INHERENTLY motivating. Any of you believing it to be so may well be better off developing other, broader, approaches to motivating your students! Nor, sadly, is technology any kind of magic bullet. It will not cure all our students’ ills – and can never hide the harsh reality that there are NO short-cuts in language learning and teaching! Finally, I’ll be suggesting that while we clearly DO need to find ways of increasing interactivity, Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs) are often NOT the solution. I then hope to round off with an overview of some principles that can aid and assist our pursuit of hi-tech classes, but which can also be used to justify the NON use of tech as well.

So let’s begin at the beginning and state that simply using tech does NOT mean good teaching – and, similarly, NOT using it does not mean bad! Bad teachers can be tech users! The tech-obsessed teacher that provided me with my opening quote was on more than one occasion described as ‘cruel’ – an astounding adjective for a teacher to be labelled with, if you stop and think about it! I’ve seen classes suffer slow death by Powerpoint and plenty of examples of students interacting with technology, but NOT with each other! Positive interactivity is in no way tech dependent! Indeed, tech can even get in its way!

The bottom line is that we are LANGUAGE teachers and should, by definition, ensure that first and foremost it is language we are teaching! We shouldn’t be teaching digital literacy because it’s a life skill any more than we should teach cooking. Teaching LANGUAGE to help students use facebook or to send texts in English IS our role, but there’s no essential need for use to be using to technology any more than students have to make dinner in order to learn language for talking about cooking.

Part of the problem is that the vast bulk of new technologies for ELT are based on OLD – and I would argue discredited – theories of language. Many of the sites recommended by gatekeepers such as Russell Stannard and Nik Peachey focus very much on grammar rules and lists of single words and their meanings. Now, whether it’s intentional or otherwise, there are hints of a theoretical approach to language implicit in such sites: grammar and vocabulary are generally seen as being separate; usage is relatively unimportant; lexical sets abound; skills are at least as important as language itself; learning should be ‘fun’! There’s a very restricted view of language and usage inherent in these sites, often predicated on a desire for – and a focus on – creativity. Technology fits this well. It also falls into the trap of believing that more means better: here are fifty-six vocabulary exercises for my students to do online. They’re fun! They’re free. Surely if they do them all, they’ll get better, won’t they? Well, not necessarily.

Part of the problem of course is that ANYONE can write stuff and stick it online. Indeed, it is the two-way relationship, this reciprocity, which is at the heart of Web 2.0’s appeal. Web 2.0 blurs the boundary between user and creator. As a result, all manner of material is written, uploaded and then downloaded and used. Even sites that we tend to see as more reliable feature material that’s clearly been neither edited nor critiqued.

This creeping amateurism is infecting all areas of our profession. Now, of course, you may well believe that none of this matters; that the benefit of this natural abundance is that the cream will float to the top. However, such a view is naive. At best, what this all leads to is a lack of course coherence, an absence of in-built grading and recycling, a bitty-ness, a poverty of materials: all in pursuit of a magical dream, the dream of a free coursebook infinitely malleable and tailored to each individual teacher’s and student’s needs. But let’s get real. A book with the staying power and influence of, say, HEADWAY will NEVER be free. There’s too much labour and craft and research and investment that goes into any coursebook for it to ever be gifted away – and perhaps we would all do well to be more appreciative of what we have, whilst we still have it!

Similarly, as dictionary sales continue to plummet year on year and more and more if us are happy to rely on online amateur knock-offs based on plagiarism and Wikis, we run the very real risk of inadvertently killing off real lexicography for good! To sum up, whilst dictionaries, corpora and – to some extent – coursebooks focus on the most frequent words and collocations in the language, and on how these items are used, web sources are inevitably ungraded, whilst vocabulary tools either give no indication of frequency or else lead students to learn vocabulary extremely inappropriate to their level. Furthermore, pressure for ‘currency’ means template-written exercises rather than crafted materials for learning. Limited training often means unfocused use of web sources and bad learning. So, in short, the cult of the amateur can undermine: expertise, the publishing process, course coherence AND language and learning principles!

The focus on grammar rules + words + skills is not new, of course, and it’s not too far-fetched to suggest that this is one of the reasons why the Web has been embraced. When you focus on rules, interesting contexts and ‘variety’ become more important than possible usage. When skills are separated from language, any text deemed ‘interesting’ will do, irrespective of language. practising the skills become the goal, but as Jim Scrivener pointed out recently, doing things is NOT the same as teaching. The Web is just an infinite range of stuff to do!

One final point to make here is that just because a text is taken from the Web it’s not necessarily any more useful, real, motivating or ‘authentic’ than a text written specifically for language learners. Henry Widdowson and Guy Cook, among a great many others, have questioned the still dominant view of authenticity that exists within ELT. A specially written text that supports language learning and promotes discussion, such as those often found in coursebooks, can be at least as authentic to learners are something sourced online before tomorrow morning’s class! Rather than thinking about texts as authentic or inauthentic, we’d be better off thinking about how we intend to get the class we’re teaching to authenticate texts we are using: using texts to teach language is, in a language classroom, an authentic use; we also need to consider the degree to which the language we are focusing on is relevant – both in terms of its frequency and in terms of the outcomes we are trying to achieve; do students get the chance to exchange ideas and feelings around the text and does it encourage them to relate to culture and / or diversity – and finally, do they get the chance to authenticate (or personalise) the language taught via the text. If so, then all is well and good.

Now, let’s move on to consider time and cost. Sadly, all too often, the time invested in learning about new sites that could be used, in setting things up on them and then running them – which may well involve also training students how to use them – is very much the teacher’s own. I saw a presentation by a young teacher at Spain TESOL last year in which she talked about her blog projects with classes. When questioned, she admitted she only found time to do all of this astounding work by sitting up late into the night and by working weekends. Now, it may well be that these Herculean efforts were met with enthusiasm and gratitude from students, but they nevertheless set all manner of unhealthy precedents: schools take it for granted that motivated teachers will do this stuff in their own time; teachers set themselves high standards they will have to continue to match time-wise to gain repeat satisfaction, and colleagues who DON’T want to invest these hours in tech are made to look bad in comparison – or, even more insultingly, are labelled technologically illiterate!

We need to be clear and vocal about the fact that in order to use tech, teachers need to be trained and need to practise. Writing good materials takes time and expertise. Extending learning outside the classroom often leads to an extension of the teachers’ working day! Advocates of tech often appear to be more or less workaholics, happy to do this for free. Are we really saying that a ‘good’ teacher is only one who is prepared to work overtime for free? On top of all that, there’s the issue of the use of classroom time. Time is often needed to set students up and get them running with tech. Tech breaks down and takes time to fix. These issues are often underplayed in discussions about the use of tech in teaching – and I would argue that we need to be asking whether this precious time could not be put to better use!

Next, I’d like to consider the suggestion that tech motivates. We’re frequently told we’re teaching screenagers, but our students are only screenagers when using facebook to sort out a meet-up with friends or to post comments on recently uploaded photos. They’re NOT screenagers twenty-seven / 365. Indeed, some recent research has questioned even our most basic assumptions about the so-called Net generation. In a report funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, Dr Christopher Jones from The Open University, claimed – and I quote – that “there is no clear link between the use of technologies for social and leisure purposes, and the ability to use them for educational purposes. Neither is there a clear link between using universal technological services, and the ability to use the particular services that students are required to engage with at university. Essentially, being able to use Facebook does not necessarily mean that you’ll be able to effectively search for a journal article. Things that students might do in their social lives do not easily translate into an educational context.”

Some argue that the use of tech is motivating in itself, but the fact that many students simply won’t use a tool or learn online unless it’s assessed suggests otherwise. There’s obviously also no evidence to suggest that students who make use of tech wouldn’t have been motivated to use non-tech solutions to learn in previous lives! Motivated students are motivated full stop.

Regardless of any of this, students do still need to make time to study if they are to learn. And we have a responsibility to ensure they are aware of this. Learning words from a notebook is no more or less easy than accessing them on a mobile. The choice still needs to be made to sit and learn as opposed to doing something more pleasurable or urgent to the person concerned. We might also ask why students come to class at all if technology is really so motivating. Why not just skip class and stay at home and use tech? I’d suggest it’s because they want to set time aside to learn, to have guidance to learning useful things and to have the opportunity to exchange ideas and feelings in English!

Disturbingly, plenty of recent research seems to be suggesting that our increased use of the Internet is actually hindering our attempts to learn better.  In a 2011 paper, Betsy Sparrow from Columbia University claimed Google is altering the way our memories work as we increasingly tend to recall location rather than content. Whilst there may be advantages to this in some fields, in language learning it’s clearly a definite downside! In a similar way, DeStefano and Lefevre, in a 2005 study into reading and recall found that students reading articles online or via Kindle-type devices scored significantly worse than those reading old-fashioned paper versions, both in terms of recall of content and also in terms of noticing of language. They argued that this may well be down to the fact that hypertext serves as a distractor and increases cognitive load. In short, we need to be very wary of assuming fun and easy = better and more effective!

Finally, there’s the myth that somehow technology makes our classrooms more interactive. The great hope has been that the optimistically entitled Interactive whiteboards will facilitate greater interactivity. yet far too often, in classes I observe, IWBs are simply used as giant held-up coursebooks, as another form of crowd control. Interactivity in the classroom has to happen between teacher and students – and among students themselves – not through technology! Partly we can achieve through asking interactive questions!

So there we go. This seems to be where we currently are – and if you’re happy with the status quo, then that’s fine. However, things don’t have to be this way. I’d like to move on to suggest that rather than worrying about tech or non-tech per se, we’d do well to first consider what our basic principles as language teachers are – and to use tech (or, of course, reject it) accordingly.

The Common European Framework suggests some eminently sensible core principles for language teaching, as you can see here. We need to teach towards the business of everyday life, to help students exchange ideas and feelings – and to understand other cultures better. In addition, we need to define worthwhile and realistic objectives, base teaching and learning on the needs, characteristics and resources of learners and develop appropriate methods and materials.

When it comes to principles for learning, I’d suggest there are essentially only five steps that are compulsory: you need to understand meaning, you need to notice language – both form and usage, you need to hear new language, you need to do something with it and then you need to repeat these first four steps!

This leads us on to some core principles for thinking about vocabulary: real usage is important; grammar and vocabulary are inter-dependent; vocabulary is ultimately more important than grammar; better skills come from a better knowledge of language; students’ wants, needs and current abilities should determine level, not a canon of grammar; and frequency and thought about outcomes should determine vocabulary input, rather than just convenient ‘sets’!

Out of all of this, we can extract some kind of mission statement about teaching. At University of Westminster, our ethos is as follows: we need to ensure our classrooms are language rich; that this language is useful; we try to use our students as resources; we encourage the exchange of ideas and feelings; we help students recognise and understand diversity and we make links to continued learning.

And finally, we have some principles for the use – or non-use – of technology: focus first on language and on outcomes; leave space for students; explore tech options, but always ask yourself if the results really merit the time spent on them and if a non-tech approach might not just as effective, if not more so – and don’t let workaholics be our role models.

There is, whether you realise it or not, more to life than teaching!

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Horizontal and vertical expansion of lexis

After my first effort at introducing new jargon into a field that, let’s face it, isn’t exactly crying out for more new terminology, you’ll be delighted to know that what follows is my second attempt at introducing new lexical items, nay new CONCEPTS even, into ELT!

As I’m sure you are all aware, for students to truly be able to say they’ve learned a new word to the point where they may actually start being able to use it, they need to know a whole host of things. To mention but a few, there’s pronunciation and / or spelling; word class (is it a noun, an adjective, a verb or what); collocations – the words with which it frequently co-occurs; register – the kind of contexts or genres or situations in which it’ll be most commonly used; related derivations – for instance, knowing that photographer is a derivative of photograph (or vice versa, of course, depending on how you look at things) and so on. However, perhaps the core elements of new lexis that students most need to have clarified for them are meaning – and more particularly the contextual meaning – and the contexts and co-texts of use. This means that whenever we are tackling lexis in class, which is surely in every single class the vast majority of us teach, we have a responsibility to ensure not only that students understand what words mean in the contexts they’re being presented / met, but also that they get to see the contexts in which this new language might be used along with language that may typically occur in these contexts. Exposure to the new lexis in these kind of embedded contexts helps to prime or condition students to expect the lexical items to work if not in exactly the same ways in future then at least in some kind of similar way, in a way that simply learning basic meanings never can.

So far, so obvious, I’m imagining, right? Well, the problem for teachers (and thus, by default, for students) is that the vast majority of coursebooks and classroom materials DON’T actually provide that much in the way  of support with any of these key concerns, and particularly suffer from a lack of attention to (or interest in) common usage. Which is where my concepts for the day come in! Vertical and horizontal expansion of lexis is part of the added value that teachers can bring and part of what students can benefit from in their study of new language.

Let’s explore how this might work in the classroom. I’ve just picked a coursebook at random from the shelves behind and have come up with Just Right Intermediate, published by Marshall Cavendish. Unit 5 is entitled Home and contains a Vocabulary exercise called homes and houses. The exercise requires students see which of a set of words in a box match pictures, and features items like basement, block of flats, bungalow, cottage, fence, flat, first floor, garage, terraced house and studio flat. Once the matching has been done, students discuss which of the pictures is most like where they live and what differences there might be before explaining / writing which of the homes they’d most like to live in and why. An example is given: I’d like to live in the cottage because it’s pretty.

You may well wonder whether or not Intermediate students really need the word bungalow or the degree to which the example sentence really represents how students may actually use the word cottage – or even hear it used, but for better or worse here’s a set of lexis that requires teaching, if you’re using this particular book. Horizontal expansion lies in thinking about what’s said after – or sometimes possible before – by the speaker using the word, so take the word basement. Having lived in a basement flat myself for many years, the sentences around the word which immediately spring to mind are along the following lines:

I live in a basement flat. It’s OK, but it’s a bit dark.

We’re renting a basement flat. It’s quite nice, but the upstairs neighbours make a LOT of noise.

I don’t really get a mobile signal at home because I’m in the basement.

Vertical expansion is to do with thinking about what might be said before or after a sentence containing the lexical item by another speaker. In other words, thinking about how the conversation around this word might develop. So to stick with the same word – basement – I’d expect things like the following:

What’s the rent like?

> It’s not bad, actually. It’s a basement flat, so it’s a bit cheaper than it might otherwise be.

Well, that’s good, then.

I can’t hear you. You keep breaking up.

> Yeah, sorry. I’m in the basement and reception’s really bad here.

Now, once you start thinking about lexis in this way, you not only have a way of expanding upon what’s provided for in the material you’re using, but also of starting to create exercises yourself. In classroom terms, what it might mean is that whilst students are trying a task, you monitor, see which words they’re having problems with and get either horizontally or vertically expanded examples up on the board – ideally, with gaps – so that when you’re rounding up you can use these to both consolidate and expand upon what students know about the words being studied –  and how to use them. For instance, whilst rounding up, I might say something like this:

So some of you weren’t sure about basement. Anyone? yeah, right. It’s the bottom floor of the house and it’s always a little bit or completely below ground level. (Turning to the board) Often, if you’re in a basement, because it’s petty much underground, you don’t get much light, so it can be a bit? yeah, that’s right. (write in the word dark to the sentence above). And if you’ve ever lived in a basement, you’ll know it can be hard to talk on a mobile down there because you don’t really get a signal, because the reception’s bad, so when you’re talking to friends, they might tell you that you keep MMM-MMM up. Anyone? No? You keep breaking up, so they can hear you, then they can’t, then they can, then they can’t. OK. I’ll give you a minute to write now.

In the same way, a better vocabulary exercise could be constructed, using the lexis mentioned above from Just Right, simply by operating on the same principles. Instead of simply having the lexical set and seeing which nouns were depicted, you could for instance, ask students which place was most probably being described in sentences such as these:

1 It’s a nice flat, but it’s pretty dark down there. We don’t get that much natural light.

2 Now he has problems with his legs, it’s much better for him because he doesn’t have to go up and down the stairs all day long.

and so on.

More words on the page, of course, but also far more support for students, and far more chance of them being primed not only in common usage, but also in terms of exposure to co-text and, of course, covert exposure to a wide range of grammar in action, which teachers can choose to draw attention to and comment on, or not.

The long shadow cast by the curse of creativity.

Pablo Picasso: The chief enemy of creativity is good sense.

Vivienne Westwood: It’s all about technique. The great mistake of this century is to put inspiration and creativity first.

Michael Lewis: There’s nothing as practical as a good theory.

Despite the fact that I still struggle with the medium, and particularly with the notion of holding hour-long chats about serious topics in a mind-bending sequence of Tweets of 140 characters or less, I was still quite flattered that #eltchat on Twitter decided to include my recent blog post, The Curse of Creativity, as a kind of featured text ahead of their debate yesterday. I’ve managed to slog my way through a transcript of the whole thing, which you can read here if you’re that way inclined, and it’s made me want to just blog a few final thoughts on the whole thorny issue of creativity. So here goes.

In terms of students being creative with language – or, more specifically, in terms of students being asked to be creative – my immediate feeling is that it’s NOT why most students are learning English. The vast majority of native speakers (of whatever language) pass through days, weeks, even months, without saying anything strikingly interesting, original or creative. The vast bulk of most language in use is generic, predictable, consists of used and re-useable ‘prefabricated chunks’ and is, if you want to be harsh about it, not much more than fairly mundane. This is the stuff of life. Certainly, few if any of us will ever be creative with language in the way that, say, Dylan Thomas was when he wrote:

It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
      And the mussel pooled and the heron
                  Priested shore
            The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall
            Myself to set foot
                  That second
      In the still sleeping town and set forth.

Students can be creative, of course, and some may indeed desire to be seen as such, though as I suggest when talking about my Turkmenistani student who ‘broke’ his brain, the only real way to be creative is to know the rules and the limits and to bend them to one’s own purpose. Creative use of language certainly shouldn’t be seen as a given, though, or expected as something that all students may wish to come up with. I also have issues with the way that some teachers cling on to ‘mistakes’ that students make in an infantilizing “Oh, don’t they just say the FUNNIEST things” kind of way, and feel that this, coupled with a certain post-1960s construct of creativity being to do with freedom and no rules or limits, gets in the way of sensible correction or reformulation.

I think it’s a good thing if exercises / material does sometimes leave space for students to try and be creative if they wish. However, frequently when doing such exercises students simply try to say what for them seems to be the most normal thing in the context. A case in point: in Innovations Upper-Intermediate, which I don’t have a copy of to hand, we have an exercise that first looks at fixed similes – things like He drinks like a fish, She smokes like a chimney, The tube system there runs like clockwork, etc. There’s then an exercise asking students to complete sentences however they want. The rubric even states that they can be as creative as they want. It’s things like: I’ve been really bust today. I’ve been running round like . . . .  . Now, obviously, students COULD if they wanted here say something like I’ve been running round like Usain Bolt with two firecrackers up his arse or whatever, but actually most simply translate whatever they’d normally say in L1 and ask things like “Can I say a chicken which has no head? Does that sound OK?”My point is simply that the overwhelming majority of students simply want the most normal ways of saying whatever it is they’re trying to say.

In the Twitter chat, it was suggested that simply getting students to personalise language is ‘being creative’. It’s not! It’s just getting them to personalise. The language they’ll use – or try to use – to do this is generally fairly predictable, generic and mundane. The stories and personal interest generated, though, are obviously anything but!

So what about teachers and creativity, then? Well, a few thoughts and clarifications: (1) the fact that CELTA courses continue to encourage trainees to make their own lessons remains one of my personal bugbears and pet hates. It’s like giving Nim Chimpsky a guitar and watching the chaos that ensues as he cuts his first LP! Why on earth we don’t recognise the reality for 99.9% of teachers is that they’ll be expected to be able to use a coursebook – and use it well – is beyond me. I’d always far rather see a young teacher who’s able to use a coursebook – any coursebook – well than a teacher who tries to constantly reinvent the wheel in a random, unfocused, chaotic and often fairly pointless way. (2) Using a coursebook ‘creatively’ really doesn’t have to mean starting with exercise 8, skipping back to exercise 2, doing an extended sidetrack on a newspaper article, and then a song that’s loosely thematically related before jumping back to exercise 1. It can also mean working and exploring the language that’s present in the material in a thorough and interactive way and being open to sidetracks that students may suggest in their interaction with what comes up, as well as reworking students’ output during speaking slots and exploring and building upon that. (3) We’re still plagued by this culture of recipes and quick fixes. Teachers are conned into believing that if they add to their repertoire of tricks and gimmicks, they’ll somehow become ‘better’ teachers. Being effective and principled and working from a strong root in theories of both language and learning will always get you further and make you a better and more effective practitioner. (4) teaching is neither art nor science. Instead, it’s far closer to craft. The longer I teach, the less I use tricks or gimmicks or even particularly vary my basic approach. I don’t need to. The mechanics of what I’m doing are ingrained, leaving me free to observe the road I travel and to be aware of language opportunities that arise. Teaching to me is thus more like folk music: there are songs we can all sing, with the same basic melodies and lyrics, but all open to personal adaptation and embellishment. The Henry Ford quote about the fact that if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got can only be used to justify all manner of whackiness with limited end product, but also masks the fact that what you’ve always got may actually be excellent and nothing to be ashamed of attempting to reproduce.

What still makes me chuckle most in this whole debate is the fear teachers have of somehow NOT being seen as ‘creative’. The concept has become so cherished and fetishised.

Me? Despite having written a whole series called Innovations, I’m happy just to tie myself to a tree with rots and work firmly within a tradition.

This doesn’t mean, though, never doing anything new. This term, for example, I’m busy experimenting with ways of using Vocaroo as a homework tool. However, my use of it and my experimentation is rooted very firmly in certain beliefs I have about both language and learning, as I said already. To my mind, this is the only way experimentation makes pedagogic sense.

Finally, it was suggested that “being creative is what keeps teachers interested” – a notion I found fairly depressing, I have to say. If being creative is what you most crave as teacher, go become a painter (though even there of course, you’ll find yourself shackled by what has been done before you!!). What should be keeping us interested is two-fold: the never-ending fascination of meeting new people and finding out about their worlds . . . and the never-ending fascination of learning more and more about language, and the way it works.

I’ll stop there for fear or replicating the monster post that started this whole outpouring of ideas, but would love to hear any further feedback from you all out there!