Twenty things in twenty years part eight: there’s nothing as practical as a good theory

In the early years of my career, I was at one with many in my profession in that I suffered from an insatiable hunger for recipes. I devoured the resource books that were available in the staff rooms of the schools I was teaching in, and spent much of my hard-earned cash on investing in further similar tomes. I rushed through all manner of tricks, techniques, activities and games like a demented fusion food fanatic. The words “And here’s something you might want to try in your class on Monday morning” were music to my ears – and I prided myself on being an innovative, progressive teacher. The only problem was, of course, that I had little – or no – idea as to what all this endless innovation was actually FOR, apart from to pave a road to who knew where, to facilitate what I saw back then as ‘development’, and to ensure my classes were filled with ‘fun stuff’ for my students to do, ideally – as previously stated – stuff that kept students on a potentially endless riff of speaking.

Now, it may seem odd – willfully perverse even – for someone who’s co-authored a series called Innovations to question the value of innovation. After all, there I was just a few weeks back, gratefully quaffing the British Council’s free booze and hobnobbing with the great and the good at the annual ELTONs awards night, wherein the BC “recognises and celebrate innovation in the field of English language teaching”. Wasn’t griping then, was I, eh! Well, it’s not that innovation per se is necessarily a bad thing. It’s just that it’s also not necessarily a GOOD thing, despite the way the notion of innovation is almost invariably used to describe positive developments in English – and despite the fact that its dictionary definition is simply ‘a new idea, definition or piece of equipment’. Nevertheless, the fact remains that for many of us the very idea of innovation suggests the thrill of the new and conjures up images such as these:

telok131faceunlockwave-ev-innovations_100180135_mme-and-bina

In classroom reality, though (and of course this is only something that has become clear with the benefit of hindsight), most of my early innovations had far more in common with the kinds of madness depicted below – familiar and yet twisted, entertaining and yet utterly pointless, transitory, fleeting, once tried and soon forgotten.

japanese_inventiondumb-inventionscrazy-japanese-invention-3

And I’d dare to venture that the vast majority of recipe-driven teaching out there falls into the same trap, sadly. Method ends up being valued over knowledge of the very thing we’re supposed to be teaching – language! The harsh fact of the matter is that unless it’s rooted in a theoretical view of both language and learning then innovation is simply change for the sake of change and is destined to result in teaching that’s of (often severely) limited practical utility to learners ninety-nine times out of a hundred. There’s an inverse correlation here that’s maybe less discussed too, though, and it’s that once you do have a theory of language and of learning that informs and feeds into your teaching, you will almost inevitably becomes LESS experimental, less driven by the need to find new things to do in class, and perhaps more static, more fixed. Yet out of this solidity can emerge the real wonder of the craft. It’s almost as if the disciplines you impose on your practice create something semi-routinised and thus then allow the mind to pick up on and notice what’s happening on the peripheries: the students’ interlanguage, the content of their output, the problems they encounter with the material they’re using – and the reasons for these problems, etc.

For me as a teacher and – later – as a writer and trainer, the thing that really allowed me to forge forwards and focus my classroom practice clearly and with precision was  getting my head round the findings emerging from corpora research that suggested that language was often more fixed than we’d perhaps previously realised, that collocation was a key factor in fluent usage, that grammar and vocabulary existed in a complex intertwining, that co-text was at least as important as situation or context. Later, my ideas of what was important to be doing in the classroom were consolidated and further clarified by grasping the idea that competent usage emerges not – or at least only rarely – from a study of grammar rules and forms and of single words, but rather from having one’s knowledge, whether that be implicit or explicit, expanded via encounters with language in use, each and every one of which prime us to expect language to operate in certain ways again.

Which brings me more or less to where I am today: in a place where I believe that the main job of the language teacher is NOT to search out The Five Main Reasons To Use YouTube In Class or to feel somehow inadequate if you’re unable to recite in order The 12 Ways That Technology Can Enhance Your Teaching, but instead to continue first and foremost to learn and to think about language and the way it works and is used – in order to then be better able to teach students at least some of these insights. Our role is class is primarily to ensure students meet, whether through reading or listening, language that may be of use to them (and we do need to have thought about why – and, indeed, whether – what we’re teaching may be useful), to make sure it’s intelligible to them (explaining and exemplifying where necessary), to help them notice salient features of whatever language it is that comes up and to then ensure they use it in some way – and get to revise as much of it as possible at a later date as possible.

Of course, you can do all of these things and still try out new techniques and technologies.

But at the same time, you really don’t have to.

And if you don’t, you may well still be an excellent teacher who gets good results from their students.

Maybe this seems obvious to you. If so, it may simply be because the very fact that you’re hearing reading yet another post on my blog means you are by definition one of the converted. I’m preaching to the choir, as our American cousins would have it.

However, it may also be the case that by now you’re actually feeling guilty about the irrepressible desire you still harbour yourself for recipes. You may be starting to question where that thirst leads you and what function it serves. You may even be asking if the uses you’re making of your precious and limited free time are actually the best if you’re seeking to really facilitate advancement.

My suspicion remains that many teachers – though, of course perhaps not those that find their way here – will fall into the latter camp quite simply because so little emphasis is placed on language development in TD circles. When was the last time you saw a conference talk or a journal paper that focused primarily on language, and in particular on language as seen from the point of view of a language teacher having to deal with the kinds of questions language students ask as they process and digest what they’re given? Never could well be a safe wager!

Why bother with such deeply unfashionable notions when there are new gimmicks to flog, new hoops to get teachers to jump through, and new recipes to fill yet more ELT cookbooks up with?

Jumping Through Hoops

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4 responses

  1. Great post and very comforting. When I started out I too used a huge variety of resources and materials, I now get by on very few and have sometimes wondered if it’s because I got older, more stale, less innovative. So it’s nice to get some validation! You have to admit though that that butter stick looks very useful. Out of interest what do you mean when you say “co-text [is] at least as important as situation or context”?

    1. Ha ha. Well, I also sometimes have those thoughts and I suspect many others do as well.
      I’ll be there at a conference watching something hip, young and sexy on Video Telling, say, and half of me will be thinking that maybe I should give it a try and that I must be missing out by not attempting to integrate it into my repertoire. Then I’ll actually focus on what’s being taught – rather than how it’s being done – and relax!
      Which isn’t, of course, to say that nothing useful could ever be taught this way. Just that we shouldn’t assume we’re failing simply because we’re not trying out this week’s new thing – and that this week’s new thing doesn’t automatically result in better teaching than what you or I may have been doing well for many years.

      What I meant with the co-text comment is that if learners are really going to take new language on board, then it’s not enough to know, for instance, that we often use the word BOTHER when we’re interrupting someone, or even that we often use the chunk SORRY TO BOTHER YOU when we’re interrupting someone – maybe in the street, maybe at work. Instead, you need to know the kind of things that you might then say – and how these differ depending on context. So the co-text for using BOTHER in the street may well be something like this:

      Sorry to bother you, but do you know . . . where the museum is?
      Sorry to bother you, but do you know . . . if this is the way to the river?
      Sorry to bother you, but do you know . . . what time it is?

      whereas the co-text at work might be more like this:

      Sorry to bother you, but I just need . . . to make a quick announcement.
      Sorry to bother you, but I just need . . . a quick word (with you / with one of your students)
      Sorry to bother you, but your wife’s on Line 1.

      and so on.

      In the same way, if you learn the verbs ARREST and CHARGE, it’s not anywhere near enough to know that the situations they’re are often used in are connected to describing legal responses to people who’ve committed crimes. You need to know different ways of ending this chunk, for starters:

      He was arrested and charged with . . ..

      and once you’ve learned a range of different crimes you can add there, you may then need to know how to say things like: IF HE’S CONVICTED, HE COULD FACE UP TO TEN YEARS IN JAIL / HE’S PLEADING GUILTY, SO HE’LL PROBABLY GET A MORE LENIENT SENTENCE and so on.

      Co-text.
      Without it, you cannot ever really use the language you learn the meanings of in any kind of meaningful way.

  2. HaHa! I probably have a lot of those same “recipe resource books” gathering dust on my shelves as well. Though I must say they served me well when I was starting out. I also had to learn the hard lesson that “having a fun discussion” was not the be-all, end-all of teaching a language. This doesn’t mean that I NEVER use those ideas anymore, but probably in a different way.
    I used to have an in-company group that, once we had done all the businessy stuff, wanted to carry on as a “conversation class.” But they still wanted to feel like they were learning something and making progress, so just chatting about holidays and so on soon began to pall. So what I did was assign them seven vocabulary words (using a word frequency list) a week to look up in their (English) Learner’s Dictionaries. I then created worksheets that contained lots of collocations, idioms, connotations and so on. We used to spend the whole hour just talking about the words, how they could be used in context, and even just discussing ideas and sharing experiences that the words made us think of. Believe it or not, the class really enjoyed this way of working and so did I. I’m sure they don’t remember 100% of those words that we had in class, but i am certain that they know a lot more about how words work, and that this helped them in their language learning.
    Turned me into a total convert of the lexical approach!

    1. Yeah, I still have a small library of those old resource books as well, all well thumbed and highlighted throughout.

      I think my real worry here is less that they do active harm in themselves, and more that we allow ourselves as a profession to somehow get duped into believing that they are somehow the very essence of what it means to develop.

      Interested to read your example of how you first started switching your teaching – and both your talking time and your students – to something far more input-oriented and language focussed.
      And totally unsurprised to hear that this lead to a huge amount of speaking all the same!

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