Monthly Archives: November, 2013

There (and sort of) back again

Here’s only the second guest post on this particular blog.

This time, it’s a post by a wonderful teacher I’ve been lucky enough to meet via the MA TESOL I work on at University of Westminster. Mumtaz Ayub  has been teaching for the past 13 years and currently spends most of his time teaching ESOL in an FE college in Westminster.  He lives in East London with his wife and two children – and here he is in action!

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This post arose out of a discussion we had a few weeks back and is featured here for two reasons, really. Firstly, I’ve long been interested in teachers’ stories and the narratives that we construct for ourselves to explain how we got from where we once were to where we now find ourselves. Obviously, within any transition, there are a hundred tiny events that impact on us and push on in one direction or another: conversations with colleagues, things we read, stuff that happens in class that we later reflect on through the filters of our current state of mind, conferences we attend, and so on, and out of this slow accretion of experience, we weave a narrative thread that makes sense to ourselves. We condense the multitude of experiences into easy-to-understand signposts along the road. This in itself is always interesting. There’s more, though.

The second thing that drew us together was a shared feeling that we’d moved very consciously away from a grammar-driven approach out of frustration at the fact that it wasn’t rally – or certainly wasn’t DIRECTLY – helping our students achieve the outcomes we felt they most needed to be working towards. In addition to this, i was interested in the fact that Mumtaz works predominantly in the British ESOL sector. In many ways, an artificial wall has been erected between EFL and ESOL, yet what Mumtaz’s story seems to me to illustrate is that teachers on both sides of the great divide are essentially grappling with very similar issues.

Anyway, I’ve rambled on far too long.

Here’s Mumtaz in how own words . .

“I usually tell people I became a teacher by mistake.  I’ve always studied whatever interested me from science and martial arts to Arabic and politics.  When the time came to choose a career, computing seemed a good bet, so I started working as a software engineer, eventually becoming an IT manager for an investment bank.  It was interesting in its way and the pay was good, but I didn’t have time to breathe, let alone live.  Our young daughter was growing up fast and I just wasn’t seeing her enough, so I took drastic action.  I left my job and we moved abroad for a year. Within a few months, I found myself teaching science in one of the better schools in our area.  It was amazing!

With all due respect to my friends in banking, I felt like I had finally found something useful to do for a living.  There’s just something so powerful, meaningful about being a teacher.  In fact, I was so strongly moved by this experience that, on my return to the UK, I decided to retrain as a teacher.  My interest in communication and the relatively painless CELTA lead me to choose ESOL.

I was lucky enough to be trained by an inspirational teacher trainer at my local FE college and was soon working as a full time ESOL teacher at the same institution.  I loved interacting with my students and giving them the language and skills they needed to access our society.  I felt enthused and empowered; life was good!

Over time, however, things started to change.  Ofsted requirements were interpreted as lists of dos and don’ts. Staff would be observed and yet the criteria for assessing them seemed opaque.  I tried to understand what was required of me, but could never quite get to an answer.  Managers and senior lecturers would talk about the elements of good practice but I could never work out exactly what they were talking about.  To me, all they were doing was giving me lists of activities that were deemed appropriate for teaching, but with no explanation as to why.

After several of years of this, I eventually came to the conclusion that it was just too difficult for me to understand.  Over time, this lead to a major change in my psyche and my teaching practice: I essentially began to teach what other people told me would work.  There was almost no creativity or confidence and, instead, my lessons became little more than a series of activities that were roughly on topic and kept the students busy.  I am ashamed to say that I would dust off and teach practically the same set of lessons every time inspectors came.  This was simply because I knew they would be well received.  But I didn’t know why!  My teaching had become ritualistic.  This, I suppose, was my stagnation phase.

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At this point, I had to make a choice: leave teaching, move into management or try again to understand how to teach a good lesson.  I was fortunate enough to be offered a job teaching at a university in Saudi Arabia and I accepted.  Working in Saudi gave me plenty of time to think and it didn’t take long to realise that I needed help and that that help needed to come from outside the world of FE.  I decided to do a Delta at International House, London.  I started with module 2 (the teaching element) and the experience was transformative.  The way I describe it is that I had had a fair amount of knowledge of language teaching, but it wasn’t structured.  As a result, I didn’t know what to use and when and, thus, I began to blindly follow the advice of ‘experts’ on what to do without really knowing why.  My time at IHL changed that completely.  My knowledge now had shape and I was also exposed to a number of ideas that were new to me, ideas which I have continued to research and add to due to a new found desire to read all things ELT.

Materials became tools to allow students to communicate with whatever language they had at their disposal and then to compare that with better versions before trying again.  Task-based approaches appealed a lot to me as did grammaring activities and work with prosody and pragmatic features of language choice.  I would capture learner errors wherever possible and incorporate them throughout my planning and teaching.  As for specifics, I began to survey learners to find out where they use language and based my topics broadly around the results.  I then chose or produced texts as uncontrived as possible, often based on my own recordings, and then analysed them for useful lexis – usually common phrases and fixed/semi-fixed expressions.  I would then produce lexical exercises based on this analysis and use them in class to go through meaning, form and pronunciation as appropriate.  Thus, materials are there simply to facilitate this journey from meaning to form, hoping to produce opportunities for experimentation and thinking about language.  They give just enough to get us going and sometimes they help keep us on track.  But, of course, it’s in the interaction where everything really happens.  It’s a never-ending, flawed and experimental process, but based on principles that I have engaged with and make sense to me.

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I am now more able to immerse myself in student language and try to understand exactly where my learners are on their path to proficiency.  I am again enthusiastic about my work, but this time my engagement is at a deeper level; much more closely linked to each learner’s journey and informed by theory as well my own experience.  In short, my practice has moved from ritualised activities to principle-based teaching.  A recent Ofsted inspection went well, I’ve had some teacher training opportunities and I’m now doing an MA to dig deeper into concepts covered in the Delta.

I feel empowered again.

My journey continues, but now at least I feel I have the tools I need to help steer a course”.

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Building on shaky foundations: China, IELTS and the dash for cash

In 2008, a devastating earthquake measuring around 8 on the Richter scale hit the Chinese province of Sichuan, killing over 70,000 people. Despite their initially sterling work in responding swiftly to the disaster, the government soon started to come in for stick as details emerged of the thousands of inadequately engineered schoolrooms that had collapsed when the quake hit. The Chinese themselves coined a new phrase that translates as tofu-dregs schoolhouses to convey their disgust at the death traps that had claimed so many young lives. Parents around the province accused local officials and builders of cutting corners in school construction, citing that after the quake other nearby buildings weren’t damaged anything like as badly. In the aftermath of the quake, many local governments promised to formally investigate the school collapses, but little official word followed.

The artist Ai Weiwei started posting the names of dead children on his blog until the content was officially ‘harmonised’. He later made a heart-wrenching installation entitled Remembering on the facade of the building where a retrospective show was held in Munich. It was constructed from 9000 kids’ backpacks and spelled out the sentence “She lived happily for seven years in this world” in Chinese characters – a quote from a mother whose child died in the earthquake.

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A year or so later, a film called DISTURBING THE PEACE emerged and is now available both on DVD and online. The film follows Ai Weiwei’s attempt to attend and protest against the trial of Chinese activist Tan Zuoren, who was charged following his research into the collapse of schools and into student casualties. Should you be interested, you can watch the whole thing here.

Now, you’re doubtless wondering why I’m telling you all of this, aren’t you? Perhaps this is a crass and clumsy metaphor, in which case I apologise in advance, but the issues of cutting corners, building on shaky foundations, purported fast tracks that turn out to be dead ends, the dash for cash and China have all been on my mind of late as my place of work has had a bunch of Chinese students fail their eleven-week pre-sessional courses, be denied access onto the degree courses they had been hoping to take and find themselves instead on General English courses. I’m teaching some of them; colleagues of mine are teaching more. And what’s most notable about them is the fact that they’ve so clearly been hot-housed to pass IELTS that they’ve experienced the linguistic equivalent of stunted growth. Seemingly fed from the very onset of their language-learning careers with the academic word list and Chinese equivalents for each item, along with endless memorised blueprint examples of writing for the different possible permutations of the writing section, they can more or less string groups of abstract nouns together and produce answers to the Writing 1 part of the exam that might just about scrape a 4.5 in the exam, but cope so poorly with everyday English that the bulk of them have ended up in Pre-Intermediate and are having to come to terms with the fact that they’re facing at least a year of intensive General English before they’ll be anywhere near ready to take the test again.

At this stage, I should state categorically that I teach lots of Chinese students and for the most part, love doing so. I’ve learned a lot not only about China, but about life in general from teaching them; I’ve been made to laugh uproariously on more than a few occasions by them; I’ve socialised with them, been to their houses and had them come to mine and stayed in touch with them after they’ve returned home. That’s all by the by.

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The crux of the matter is this: now that British universities have introduced fees that exclude large numbers of home students, there’s a dash to attract more foreign students, and obviously this ideally means more foreign students with cash. This in turn means increasing pressure on the institution itself to gear up to processing students through the language training part of their studies so they can get onto the more lucrative under- and post-graduate courses. Inevitably, this means there is at least a temptation to try to force lower-level students through the system. If you add to this the fact that there have been repeated questions about the validity of many IELTS scores, then it should come as no great surprise when institutions such as London Met find themselves in hot water for being unable to produce “proper evidence that the students’ mandatory English levels had been reached”. It’s a slippery slope and if you work in higher ed in the UK, one you’re doubtless also on.

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At the same time, schools have emerged around the world – and I’m certainly NOT, by the way, suggesting these issues are in any way unique to China. It’s simply that our latest cohort originate from there – offering short cuts and easy routes to academic success. One of my older Chinese students was telling me recently that many schools advertise themselves as being able to get students from IELTS 0 to 4.5 in a short period of time. However, this is clearly not simply a speedy route to somewhere useful down the line; rather, it’s leading students into dead-ends from which they struggle to retreat.

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In much the same way as teachers who have experience in, say, rough inner-city secondary schools and who then embark on CELTA courses often struggle more than the fresh-faced raw recruits simply because they have to unlearn much of what has become ingrained before they are even at the starting point the others begin from, so too this new breed of learner at some point has to come face-to-face with the facts and realise they’re miles from where they need to be, and that to go forward, they first need to go back (to basics) and learn, for instance, that we say DO you enjoy it, not ARE you enjoy it because ENJOY is a verb not an adjective.

Anything that we as teachers can do to dispel the notion of quick fixes and magic bullets and to gently break the news of the long, hard slog ahead to the already disheartened can only be for the good.

As the old saying has it, the road is made is walking.

Ways of exploting lexical self-study material in the classroom part three: beyond personalisation

In the two previous posts in this little mini-series, I have talked firstly about how I might tackle any given piece of vocabulary-based / lexical self-study material that you bring into class in terms of what I’d do, say, ask and write whilst checking the answers, and then in the second post I looked at ways we might get students to connect more personally to the language that emerges from working with an exercise in this kind of way – and what we might then with the output they produce.

In this post, I intend to just briefly outline three other ways you could get students to do more with what’s there on the page – or, as is more likely to be the case in this instance, on the photocopied handout (just make sure you’re all aware of the 5% rule and that your institution is signed up with the CLA!). These are all things Andrew Walkley and I will be exploring and discussing in more detail in a methodology book we’re slowly plugging away at, so i don’t want to give away the whole secret recipe, but a taster never hurt anyone now, did it?

In case you’ve forgotten what we’re talking about here, I’ll insert the piece of material i selected to base things on:

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Now, the first thing you can get do students to do is to develop what’s there either horizontally or vertically. All too often with sentences in coursebooks or exercises, students tend not to see them as anything other than dead objects to be completed, checked and then discarded or progressed on from, so anything we can do to help them engage further with what’s there can only be a good thing. The idea of getting students to think about how the examples that are there could be developed in discourse terms is one way of doing this. It also gives the teacher the chance to help students both grammaticalise and lexicalise their ideas better and deals with student output and ideas in a holistic way.

By horizontal development, I mean thinking about what might be said by the same speaker / writer immediately afterwards – or possibly even immediately before. Vertical development is more to do with how a dialogue or conversation featuring the example might then progress, how another person might respond to what’s been said.

In classroom terms, all I’d do, once I’d checked the answers and worked the language that was there, is simply tell the students to look at the six sentences again and, with a partner, decide (and write – this makes it easier for the teacher to see what students have come up with, which in turn makes it easier to build up towards feedback) what was said or written immediately after – or maybe before each sentence. It could be what was written / said by the same person or by another person. I might go through one with the whole class to model the task, so I’d ask, for instance: OK, with number 1, do you think it’s more likely to be the same person or a different person who speaks next? The same? yeah, me too. Why? Right. It sounds like a speech or something, doesn’t it? Or maybe an essay putting forward a particular argument. So what’s the next line, do you think? yeah, probably one idea about what we can actually do to address the issue of alcohol abuse. For instance? Yeah, raise taxes on alcohol. So it might be something like this: Well, firstly, the tax on alcohol could be increased. I’d make it passive here because the raising of the taxes isn’t done by the speaker, but by someone else, like a government person. Plus, it puts emphasis on the tax increase more.  OK then, so like this. For all six sentences, what’s said afterwards – or maybe before.

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As students worked together, coming up with ideas, I’d then go round, check what they were coming up with, help out, correct, question, comment and so on. As ever, I’d also be looking for ideas I could rework on the board to base some kind of feedback on. As I came across ideas I liked, I’d write things up on the board, with gaps left in, to come back to once the majority of pairs had more or less finished. Of course, if I failed to see anything worth picking up on, I’d simply invent stuff based on what I think might be said next – or before! In the end, the board might have things like this on it:

Less developed countries end up being d……………… on richer ones and never have the chance to develop their own in……………….. for dealing with these kinds of things.
Shops were looted, cars were stolen, it was awful! It took the police days to re……………. c…………… of some the worst-affected areas.
In the w……….. of these latest attacks, community leaders have made a plea for calm.

I’d then simply paraphrase the missing words (dependent, infrastructure, regain control, wake) in order to elicit them. For instance, I’d say something like: OK, so some of you were saying that one of the problems with aid agencies always providing emergency relief is that it kind of makes countries lazy; they feel they can always rely on other countries helping them, so they don’t develop all the systems needed to tackle disasters. They come to rely on other countries, they end up being MM-MM-MM on them. Right. Dependent on them.

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Let’s move on. Another thing teachers can do to encourage some kind of deeper engagement with content is what we’ve dubbed read, remember, cover, say and check.

As I said earlier, all too often for students completion of an exercise becomes the end goal and once the answers have been checked, they don’t always do enough to pay attention to – and attempt to learn – the language contained in the actual exercises. We can counter this by telling students to read the sentences again and to try and remember as much as they can. Then put students in pairs. All the A students should close their books (or turn their handouts over!), while the Bs keep their open. Student A then says each of the sentences in the exercise as accurately as they can. After each attempt, B either corrects or else says it was fine. As teacher, you could model the task by closing your own copy of the coursebook and saying what you remember of the first sentences – and then checking your answer! It always helps if you get it right, but not 100% right, so the students see your own humanity!

There are simple twists you can make to this exercise – and things you can encourage students to do at home as self-study. For instance, you could ask students to read, remember and then write individually what they remember. They could then compare with a partner, see if they can agree a final version and then check by opening their books. They could also do basically the same thing, but instead of writing, simply say what they remember and then check.

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One final thing we can do to encourage students to pay more attention to the language and to notice how things work in English is two-way translation. Now, I’ve written before – and at some length – about translation and its many uses, but I feel it’s still a very under-used and under-appreciated technique / approach.

When students have finished an exercise, either tell them to translate all of it into their own first language or else select a few sentences to be translated. If you teach monolingual groups and speak the students’ L1, you can put students into pairs and tell them to decide on the best translation and then check ideas with the whole class. In multilingual classes, you may still be able to put groups of students who share the same L1 together to help each other. Even if you don’t speak your students’ L1, they’ll generally be able to translate so long as they understand the sentences. Tell students to ask you if there’s anything they are unsure of the meaning of.

Next, either collect the translations or tell students to keep the translations somewhere safe. Tell them you will return to them at some point later. In the next lesson or at some other later date, tell students to look back at their translations and – without looking at the English sentences they originally translated from – to write what they think the correct English is. Tell them to compare their translations in pairs and to discuss any differences. Let students compare their translations with the English originals and then discuss why any differences might have occurred. Ask if they can now see any differences in the patterns between the two languages.

Right, that seems like plenty for now.

Hope it’s given some of you a few more ideas on how to get more from less.