Category Archives: Teacher training and development

A Dogme aproach to coursebooks: Part One

In 1995, two Danish film directors – Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg – created the Dogme 95 manifesto and said their vows of chastity. These were rules that they claimed they had introduced in order to stimulate a return to filmmaking based on traditional values of story, acting and theme. The idea was very much a rejection of the increasingly Hollywood-influenced approach that made liberal use of special effects and technology. Launched at an event in Paris intended to celebrate 100 years of cinema, the concept attracted a lot of publicity, with its insistence on a deliberate move away from post-production, from soundtracks and from visual trickery, generic predictability and so on. Dogme 95 promised nothing less than a way to reengage audiences sated and bloated by years of overproduction.

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It was, however, three more years until the first two films bearing the official Dogme seal of approval were released – Festen and The Idiots. Interestingly, neither film adhered strictly to the ten tenets suggested in the original manifesto and a mere five years later, after the 31st film was officially verified by the original board as Dogme-valid, the movement was essentially dead in the water. Today, filmmakers inspired by the original idea can submit a form online and tick a box which states they “truly believe that the film … has obeyed all Dogme 95 rules as stated in the vow of chastity”. In other words, the revolution has become merely an opt-in badge of convenience.

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You may of course be wondering what any of this has to do with ELT. Well, in 2000 Scott Thornbury launched his own attempt at revolution: Dogme Language Teaching. Initially intended as a partially tongue-in-cheek attempt to restore the communicative aspect to communicative language teaching and to reject the over-reliance on the seemingly endless material churned out by publishing houses, all of which were seen as a barrier to real communication between the social agents present in the classroom, Dogme has become the dogma that refuses to die – the methodological flag of resistance for countless teachers and the subject of much heated debate both in its defence and in opposition to its admittedly somewhat fuzzy precepts.

Scott Thornbury

Chief among these precepts are the importance of teaching being driven by conversation, the importance of a focus on emergent language and the importance of not allowing material to block the channels of communication between teacher and students. There is also a focus on interactivity, engagement and dialogue, scaffolding and what Thornbury terms ‘affordances‘.

In the 13 years since Scott’s original opening salvo, Dogme has come to mean many things to many people, perhaps unconsciously echoing the way Dogme 95 has ended up becoming an opt-in concept. Self-proclaimed dogmeticians blog furiously about so-called teach-offs where a teacher shackled by a coursebook struggles in vain against a teacher liberated from such chains and thus able to truly tap in to their students’ wants and needs. Apparently. Or is Dogme really about replacing materials with found objects and the conversations that may – or of course may not – emerge around them? Can Teaching Unplugged really involve plugging in and turning on? Are videos and Internet-sourced material allowed within a Dogme approach? If so, can some materials be deemed to be more Dogme-friendly than others? Or are all such approaches heretical and a digression from the one true path?

It has long been assumed that this approach – or group of sympathetically related approaches – is by its very nature anti-coursebook. Indeed, one of Scott’s original ten commandments insisted that “students and teachers are empowered by freeing the classroom of published materials and textbooks”, a statement that always struck me as slightly odd coming, as it did, from a man with his own name on several ELT coursebooks!

That notwithstanding, what I aim to do in this post, is not so much to pick holes in Dogmethat’s something I’ve already done in some detail earlier on this blog, after all – but rather to explore ways in which the main principles behind Dogme can actually inform both the way we use and the way we write classroom materials. I will be considering what a conversation-driven approach to teaching might potentially look like, how scaffolding might best be realized, what kind of affordances teachers might best avail themselves of, how and when we might focus on emergent language and how coursebooks can still be seen as materials light!

So let’s begin with the idea of teaching being conversation-driven. I think few people here would argue that in General English classes in particular it is the spoken language that is most desired by students and is most central in terms of placing students in the correct level. We’ve all met plenty of students whose written work or paper test scores may well be perfectly decent but who’s speaking condemns them to a lower level than maybe they’re happy with. The ability to speak and listen well is at the root of linguistic competence. However, in what might be termed a ‘pure’ Dogme approach, the conversation either emerges organically from the class and is then mediated by the teacher, who has to be incredibly alert and incredibly adept at paraphrasing, guiding, extending and so on, or else it develops in response to some kind of task – materials by default if you like – designed to get (or keep) students talking. The first strategy is risky and leaves the teacher at the mercy of the talkative or uncaring student who wants to discuss last night’s football match or engage in direct one-to-one with them; it also relies on endless reformulation and as anyone who does a lot of this knows, it’s all too easy to jump on something familiar when it comes up and then spin out a little teacher-driven section based on something we’ve taught before. The second strategy is bitty, gimmicky, recipe-driven and assumes that discussing, say, a sugar lump found on a chair is somehow more ‘authentic’ or worthwhile than discussing questions in a coursebook or a particular kind of conversation. And in both instances, the world is reduced to the here-and-now; students only get to learn how to say better things they need at the moment of communicating. There’s little going on that factors long-term needs or more abstract, less immediately pressing concerns into the picture.

None of which is to say that I don’t think we should be aiming to teach conversation. I just happen to think materials can help us do it better.  Interestingly, the Common European Framework also seems to be insisting far more of our teaching is focused directly on teaching particular kinds of communicative competences – or can-do statements – and thus provides us with a guide to what are widely deemed the most useful conversations students should learn how to produce and process at each level. When you consider that for A1 students, say (or Beginners, if you prefer) these conversations include things like ‘CAN understand straightforward explanations of the members of a host family and the layout of the house’ and ‘CAN go to a self-service or fast-food establishment and order a meal, especially where the food on offer is either visually illustrated or can be pointed to’, you realize that these conversations are highly unlikely to just develop organically, especially in classes of this level. As such, if we want our students to converse well and we want conversation to drive our teaching, material designed with these goals in mind can surely help us.

There are two choices if you want to go down the road of focusing on conversations like these: either you get students to try them first, then teach the gaps, then get them to try again – an approach some call Test-Teach-Test, that other see as Task-based Learning, but which has also been claimed as Dogme . . . or you write material – or use material that’s been written – to present core lexis and grammar that will be useful in these conversations, to present model conversations students can hear before attempting them themselves and so on. I know which one I think works better! If you believe, as Dogme‘s original tenets seem to, that scaffolded conversations are important, and that teachers and learners need to co-construct knowledge and skills, I’d argue that material can frequently offer superior scaffolding myself.

Now possibly a teacher could conceivably flip the kind of material that a coursebook can provide scaffolding with when trying to encourage conversations like this, and could build up to the final conversation through a series of teacher-led tasks that encourage students to generate language that is then reworked or reformulated, but it seems like a demanding, actually very teacher-centred way of doing things when material could carry some of the weight of this load for all concerned.

So, materials can clearly be conversationally driven and classrooms using materials can be too. However, if we’re serious about our teaching being driven by conversation, then I think we need to always be looking for opportunities to allow conversations that suggest themselves to take flight and to flourish. In a sense, we need to take on board Scott Thornbury’s sixth commandment, which he dubs affordances and describes thus: the teacher’s role is to optimize language learning affordances through directing attention to emergent language.

Now, in what you might call a classical Dogme sense, this has widely been taken to mean picking up on things students are trying to say and helping them to say it better – whether that be by immediate reformulation or via subsequent boardwork or even by noting student utterances down and later sending them individualized voice recordings or notes via email. That’s all well and good, and I’m all for teachers doing more of this kind of working from what students are trying to say when engaged in meaningful communication – and will return to this shortly. However, surely the notion of ’emergent language’ could be taken to mean NOT ONLY language – or gaps in language – that emerge as students engage with speaking activities or slots or tasks, call them what you will, but also language that ’emerges’ from materials; language that is embedded in exercises or texts that has the potential to come out and be explored and discussed if the teacher is perceptive enough and sufficiently focused on language to ensure this actually occurs. I’ve taken to calling this kind of language ‘ambient language’ because in the same way as ambient music is music that floats in the background of our lives and may only really be noticed if we force ourselves to actually pay attention to it, this is language that tasks don’t usually force a focus onto, but which can be brought to the fore should we so desire it to be.

By being aware of the ambient vocabulary that lurks within exercises, we can move towards two or three Dogme-friendly goals: we can take advantage of the opportunities to teach and explore new lexis that the material affords us, we can frequently engage the class in further speaking – speaking that relates very directly to particular items of language – AND, by ensuring that we exploit the language on the page in any particular exercise, we thereby end up doing more with less – rather than the less with more phenomenon that seems to have been one of the original things Scott was railing against, as teachers all around him found themselves drowning in a sea of supplementary materials, or else ended up hooked on an endless string of things-to-do without much aim. This, in turn, ensures that whilst our classes may be materials-light, in that we may not cover countless pages of photocopiables or even of the coursebook, we still operate in a language-heavy – or rich – environment!

Let’s just consider what all of this might mean in real practical classroom terms, then. Let’s look at a specific piece of material.

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The exercise you see here on screen is taken from an Intermediate-level coursebook, from a double-page spread that scaffolds and supports students as they learn how to better talk about their feelings. It’s exploring how we use copula verbs – like look, sound, and seem – to initiate conversations about feelings. On a very basic level, it’d be quite possible to ‘teach’ this exercise just by telling students to do it and by then eliciting answers and writing them on the board, before moving on to the practice sections in B and C. However, doing this makes us little more than glorified human answer keys and fails to take advantage of the many ‘affordances’ offered us here.

Firstly, there’s the ambient vocabulary: while the main focus of the task is clearly on the copula verbs and the adjectives used with them in 1-8, (adjectives which are all recycled from a previous vocabulary exercise) for me, when I’m planning a class, my eyes are also drawn to items like broke down, throw up, really behind with work, I don’t get, the spa, split up, upset and so on. I start thinking about what I’ll say about each one as I’m eliciting the answers from the class, whether I’ll add extra examples on the board, what I might ask students about each one – and which words might lend themselves to subsequent speaking slots.

With my current class, which is almost all female and quite well travelled and moneyed, I might, for instance, think spa is worth exploring. So I’d elicit Number 7? Right. F. I think her week in the spa in Prague really helped her. Yeah, what is it, a spa? OK, yeah, it’s like a health club where you can have beauty treatments and go swimming and that kind of thing. So, just quickly in pairs, three things you can get in a spa. Students then brainstorm ideas, which I listen to and try to reformulate onto the board, an act that in itself will recycle and refocus on grammar that’s already been touched on before, like have / get passives. As such, we might end up here with something like this on the board:

I spent the weekend in a spa. It was great.

I had a massage, which was very relaxing.

I had a body wrap. It’s supposed to make you look slimmer!

I had a body scrub to get rid of all the dead skin.

I had a facial.

I had my nails done.

The words I’ve underlined I would probably leave blank as I was writing these sentences up on the board, which I would do whilst listening to what the students were saying. After a few minutes of pooling ideas, I’d stop the group, say “OK, now let’s look at how to say a few things you were talking about better” and then run through the boardwork.

Obviously, students might also ask how to say other connected things, especially if they have experience of these places. Once we’d rounded up on all of this, I’d finish off by going through exercises B and C below and moving on. Obviously, this way of working the language that’s there takes longer and focuses on more than just the words present on the page. Its starting point is thinking about what students might want to SAY – or might heard said by others – using the words that are ‘floating free’ in the material. It works the content more deeply that simply checking answers (and maybe glossing or briefly explaining) words that crop up would do; it allows far greater recycling of grammar; it breaks the class up with lots of little bits of talking and it allows plenty of space for personalization and entertaining sidetracks, humour, anecdotes and so on to emerge.

So I’ve already talked a bit about how coursebook materials can themselves be conversation driven, and how teachers can utilize coursebook materials in a way that increases the potential for conversation in the classroom if they focus on emergent – or ambient – language in class. This latter approach will ensure that materials used in the classroom are explored more thoroughly, from a language point of view, and that the classroom becomes, therefore, relatively materials light. The language that’s already present forms the basis of subsequent exploration and exploitation, and students themselves are used as resource as a matter of course, thus minimizing the need for extra supplementary materials.

One other way in which materials can be exploited and conversation can be fore-fronted is obviously simply by the teacher using the speaking that is generated by materials as an opportunity to explore language on the periphery of what it is that students are able to say. The idea that somehow materials oppress students into silence or deculturalize them or fail to engage them in meaningful communication, and that somehow discussing found objects or photographs ensures more ‘authentic’, whatever that means, conversation in class is a pernicious one, I would suggest, and one that needs to be resisted. The questions we should be asking ourselves as teachers are much more to do with whether or not the conversations we do encourage students to have in the classroom are purposeful, interesting, related to the business of everyday life and – importantly – connected to other input they’ll receive across the course.

Take this exercise, for instance, from an Upper-Intermediate book.

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This has always led to fascinating exchanges of opinions and ideas and plenty of anecdotes, especially if I begin by modeling what I believe the answers to be for the UK. As my students talk in pairs, I pick up on things they’re trying to say, but can’t quite yet, or hear things that I think could be said better. I use their talking time to get boardwork up and we round up by looking at the boardwork, eliciting gaps, giving students time to record and ask questions about what they see. In Teaching Unplugged, Scott and Luke recommend ten strategies that teachers can use to help students engage with emergent language, especially once it’s been reworked or reformulated, and I see absolutely no reason why repeating, recording, researching, reviewing and recycling, for example, cannot happen with language that emerges in response to coursebook material. Here, incidentally, is what ended up appearing on my board the last time I did this speaking in class – and all of this then fed directly into what followed, which was a listening from the coursebook where students heard five news stories related to five of the topics they’d previously discussed.

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Much of what Dogme seems to have unleashed is a bitty, recipe-heavy smorgasbord of speaking activities and while speaking in class is all well and good, it seems to me at least to make more sense if the speaking is interspersed with other work on texts of different kinds – spoken and written, with connected language work, and if all of this can be made to cohere and hang together, both thematically and linguistically, thus ensuring greater coherence and continuity for students.

In this sense, there is clearly one of Dogme‘s original ten commandments that I find myself UNABLE to agree with or condone. The idea that students are most engaged by content they have created themselves seems spurious and unverifiable at best, and it’s hard to see how texts created by the students could be able to offer up language beyond their current level, unless they were reformulated by the teacher . . . which is exactly what students have already done here – created their own spoken texts BEFORE then hearing scripted texts slightly above their level – and, of course, they can then also be asked to record or write their own news stories or experiences later as well, which can uploaded to the Web or shared in class and so on.

Taboo or not taboo: it’s all in the questions

Following on from my recent post about allowing the supposedly taboo topic of religion to emerge at the end of a class one day, a great post on Steve Brown’s blog and a discussion about taboo language over on the facebook page I run with my co-author Andrew Walkley, it felt like the time might be right to revisit a talk both Andrew and I gave a few times many years ago, and to adapt it into a post exploring the whole thorny issue of taboos in the ELT classroom.

As has probably become obvious to most of you, both Andrew and I have long had an interest in teaching spoken language and observing the things we talk about. To this end, we once ran an optional lunchtime course at our university on topics you don’t find in coursebooks – and the language that goes with them. We had classes on swearing, bitching, drinking, smoking, chatting people up – and, more importantly perhaps, telling men to get lost – pregnancy, birth, old age, suicide and death, more bitching about people (let’s face it, we don’t spend half as much time on complimenting people), sarcasm, politics, illegality and the like. The lectures regularly attracted 50-60 students – and they came from all ages and cultural backgrounds. Of course, in this instance, students were able to choose this particular course. They knew what they were getting, so you could argue that these topics shouldn’t be what is in a coursebook.

However, this does not actually counter the fact that these students we attracted came from very different cultures. Many of them did not smoke, drink, bitch, chat people up, get pregnant or commit suicide, but nevertheless, these topics were all things within their range of experience. Also, unsurprisingly when we consider these are first and foremost language students, what they were really interested in was the language.

When a student sees or hears a word it does not mean that they actually like or believe something. Nor does disagreeing with an idea mean that you can’t use certain language. The vegetarian cannot really describe himself without using the word meat, the atheist without the word God and, from a foreign learners perspective, you can’t really know what swearing is or what’s taboo without hearing or seeing the word fuck. For me, a fundamental principle is that words in themselves as things to know the meaning of are not actually rude, offensive or taboo. It is what we ask students about this language and what we require them to do with it that can cause offence or break taboos. Knowing so–called taboo words may actually be very important: take, for instance, my Iraqi student who thought nigger was a socially-acceptable way of referring to black people or my Japanese student who asked me after class one day what prick-tease meant! These students would’ve been done no favours by me being coy and skirting round the words.

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There are perfectly sound pedagogical reasons for including words like nigger, slag and spazz in, for example, an advanced textbook. An exercise might require students to sort them – along with other words like idiot and slob – into two groups: relatively socially acceptable / far more socially unacceptable. Students could then be asked if they have ever heard anyone using any of these words – and in what circumstances.

This makes far more sense than, for example, having students fill the words in in a gap fill or asking them which ones they would use and why. The former approach allows for students to say they themselves have used them, but does not assume that they have, whilst the latter operates on the assumption that they either have or would want to use them. As with much of teaching, it’s all in the questions we ask!

However, I am no longer innocent enough to believe that such exercises will ever make it into print – even in a second edition of INNOVATIONS ADVANCED, should one ever come into creation! There remain strong impulses among publishers to avoid any possibility of offence. This is something I’ve found in the process of writing our coursebooks. For example, in Innovations Intermediate, we wrote a text about making mistakes when learning a foreign language and this text featured two true stories that had been passed onto us by students whilst discussing the area of embarrassing mistakes in class – one involved an Italian student asking his English host family “Where shall I leave my shit?” – the old shit / sheet joke in action! – whilst the other happened to a Korean woman who was learning Spanish and who inadvertently asked for fried penis (polla frita) instead of fried chicken (pollo frito) on a trip to Madrid!

Neither story seems offensive or abusive to me – and both came up in class unprompted. I’m afraid, though, publishers don’t see things like this. Of course, I can understand why – and I have no interest in unselling books I’ve spent a long time writing – but the problem then is that in removing language and stories such as these from a book, the whole balance of register about what is acceptable or slang then shifts.

A similar parallel is the way the Labour Party swung violently to the right once the far-left Militant tendencies were removed at the end of the 1980s!

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As a result, things which seem perfectly anodyne, childish even, end up standing out on the extremes. Thus, we had a reworked version of the aforementioned text questioned by a different editor because it contained the word bum!

Other words we have had fights and rows over include get pregnant and get addicted to drugs (both of which stayed), It sucks! (which had to go because of its apparently possible sexual connotations – go figure!), Damn! (which also bit the dust, to be replaced with Oh no! And this was despite our argument that Damn! in itself is an already softened version of what many of us would choose to say in the circumstances), burp and fart (the burping stayed, the farting didn’t!), You idiot! (it stayed, despite fears it ‘may be offensive in Scandinavia’, where apparently, the local version is used in the same way as You mong! or You spazz! is here in the UK – not that we were teaching Swedish, of course!! Nobody ever said such editorial meetings were logical!) and on the toilet. Long gone are the days when we struggled to sneak condoms and tampax into listenings covertly!

These arguments and the snipping of the censor’s scissors come as no real surprise. An incident that occurred a while back when Andrew was doing a version of this post as a talk should help to illustrate why. He was challenged by one teacher at the end of the talk and told that “some people” wouldn’t want any language like this in a class. He mentioned several instances where his own students had been more than happy to talk about such language, but was told, “Well, in London, that’s as may be, but in some countries they wouldn’t want to”. When he asked which countries and which students these might be, his nemesis simply countered “Some students” and then said an interesting thing: “Maybe it’s OK to talk about this language, but people don’t want their noses rubbed in it, (so to speak), they don’t want to see it written down.”

My personal view on this incident is that actually she herself – the teacher – was the one who wouldn’t want to talk about it. While publishers are most certainly driven by a fairly conservative forces – and are not about to change overnight – I feel that as teachers we have to begin to be more open in our discussions about what is acceptable to be taught in the class, and as teachers we need to be much more led by our students.

One common problem, as previously alluded to, is that teachers often do not let their students talk freely or away from tightly-controlled practice activities at all, whilst on other occasions they may actually be unwilling to provide seemingly taboo language for students – even when students themselves are asking about it or trying to express it (as I felt was the case with the facebook discussion mentioned above). As such, it seems important that materials at least leave spaces in which good teachers can exploit areas and get onto taboo topics briefly – if their students wish to take up the chase.

What I’d like to do now is to broaden the discussion of taboo out into thinking more about coursebook content. To do this, I’m going to look at a text which provoked a lot of heated discussion a few years back at INNOVATIONS’ editorial meetings. I think it usefully highlights the arguments publishers will put forward for editing out – and allows me to put some counter arguments.

We were writing a text for Unit 4 of our Intermediate-level book, a unit entitled Feelings, and our first draft included the following lesson and text:

Reading

Read the following text and see how the couple met.

Do you think they will stay together? Why / why not?

The day that changed my life

When I saw Abdullah on the news – Jim, as he was called back then – I didn’t recognise him to begin with. He looked really really thin and his hair was falling out. When I heard the reporter say his name, though, I looked a bit more closely and then I realised it was him. I just burst out crying. I was really surprised, because we were never really friends when we were at school together. He could be a bit loud sometimes and we were just very different, I suppose, but to see him there, looking so lost and alone, begging on the street!! Well, it was just so upsetting. It broke my heart, it really did!

The next thing I knew, I was ringing the TV station who’d run the report. I don’t really know why – I just did it on impulse. Anyway, they gave me the address of a hostel for homeless people. I went down there the following day and it was really depressing. It was filthy and the whole place stank! Half the people there were either drunk or mad – or both! One of the workers showed me to where Jim was sleeping. What really amazed me was that he recognised me at once and said “Oh, Fatime. It’s you.” His voice sounded so sad, but, at the same time – and I can’t really explain this very well – it was like I could feel something pulling us together. I really felt like it was Allah’s will. It has really strengthened my faith, and it obviously touched Jim as well.

I’d like to say that things have been easy for us since then and that love has run its true course, but life doesn’t work like that, does it? What happened to Jim when he became homeless was incredibly painful and he’s had to really fight to overcome his addictions. At first, my parents didn’t want anything to do with him and even since he’s converted to Islam, things have still remained tense. My mother says she’s not coming to the wedding.

We’ve had a lot of support from people who’ve seen our story in the papers, but we’ve also had lots of hate mail too. Also, the media have actually put a lot of pressure on us. I know Abdullah doesn’t see it this way, but even now it still makes me angry the way the papers and the TV people treat people. I just think back to that first story. Here was this completely broken man, living on the streets. They came along and did their story on him, and do you know what they gave him? Ten pounds and a cup of tea! That’s it! And then they got back into their big cars and drove off, leaving him to go back to that awful hostel. They do these stories, but none of them really care about people. I can’t forgive them for that.

Anyway, despite all that, we’ve managed to survive together. He’s a good man, and I love him with all my heart.

Now go back and underline any expressions which are new to you. Underline only whole expressions – not single words!

Compare what you have underlined with a partner. 

2   True or false

Decide if the following statements are true or false. Why do you think so?

a  Jim was living on the streets when he first met Fatime.                  T / F

b  Fatime thought carefully before ringing the TV company.                    T / F

c  Jim changed his name to Abdullah because he became a Muslim.                 T / F

d  Some people got angry when they read about Fatime and Abdullah.      T / F

e  Abdullah and Fatime agree that the media sometimes treats people badly. T / F

3   Speaking

Is there much homelessness in your home town? Why? How do you feel about it?

Do you ever give money to people who are begging?

Do you agree with Fatime that the media sometimes exploits people?

Do you know anyone who’s found religion? What happened?

Why do you think people sent Abdullah and Fatime hate mail?

Our editors were immediately touchy about the text and warned us that describing a Muslim as homeless could be offensive. When we pointed out the very obvious fact that when Jim was homeless, he was not actually a Muslim and that after he converted, he actually got his life together, we were then told that it was best not to run the risk of any Muslims possibly finding it offensive. We countered this by pointing out we’d both done versions of the text in class with students from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia and so on and no-one had ever found it even remotely offensive. Indeed, if anything, the opposite was true. One of my Iranian students had once come up after class and said how nice it was to see a positive story about Islam in class! Nevertheless, amongst our editors, some of whom had never taught – and had possibly not even met many Muslims – the stereotype of the touchy Muslim prevailed.

We were then told the text may cause arguments in class and that whilst we, as experienced teachers, could deal with this, some younger, less experienced teachers might not be able to. That’s what photo-copiable materials were for, we were told – to allow teachers to bring touchy subjects into class if they wished to! Yet again we countered: what was there in the tasks that could possibly lead to a row? And anyway, even inexperienced teachers are skilled at dealing with conflict in their day-to-day lives outside of class. We all come to class with years and years of experience of conflict management and avoidance. On top of this, if we fail to allow the odd conflict to develop in class, we deny ourselves the opportunity of ever learning how to get better at channeling it and turning it into language-teaching opportunities in class.

As a last resort, we were told we were pushing a political agenda – as if censoring and whitewashing were somehow apolitical activities! In the end, we compromised – or sold out, if you prefer (!) – and re-wrote this text as the tale of a rich girl who falls for a poor boy from a broken home with a jailbird dad, despite her parents’ better instincts!

Does it really matter that texts such as this – and words like tampax and fart – end up being edited out of classroom material? Well, in some ways, yes, it does. If we end up with materials in which even everyday words like pregnant have to be argued over, then we run the risk of denying good teachers the chance to ask students questions like ‘Do you know anyone who’s pregnant at the moment?’ and thus denying any students who might want to ask how to say have an abortion.

Despite all of this, I do also believe that a duty lies with us as classroom teachers to get at language like this through our interaction with our students and through letting them dictate where the class goes from time to time.

Below are five examples of language either Andrew or I have ended up writing on our whiteboards, giving students the things they themselves were trying to say.

1.      We were driving home from the north of the country to the south and we got ambushed by some guerrillas. They started shooting at us. I thought I was going to die, but some soldiers came to help us and there was a big fight and then the guerrillas ran off. A friend of mine got killed.

2.      I once passed out on the train home. I’d been drinking with some friends and I got really pissed and I passed out and missed my stop and ended up in the middle of nowhere. It was the middle of the night, so I had to call out my parents to pick me up and take me home. Before they got there, I passed out again in the street and when I came round I was in the car. I was convinced I was being abducted or something and so I started screaming at the driver to let me out of the car. It took my dad a couple of minutes to convince me it was him.

3.     AIDS isn’t just a gay disease. I think straight people can get it, can’t they, if they don’t practise safe sex or have anal sex or whatever.

4.      When I go to an important meeting, I should eat onions beforehand. Then, when someone says something I don’t like, I could fart and stomp out of the room.

5.      They were shagging

None of the language in 1-5 came directly from a discussion of the taboos themselves. It is also worth noting that the students trying to express the meanings above included a Somali Muslim (1), a young Japanese woman (2) and a middle-aged Chinese female civil servant (4). What follows is a brief summary of the starting point for each and how we worked together with our students towards the production of these final statements.

1. This was an Elementary class. One Chinese student was late and tried to explain – in very broken English – that he’d had problems getting on the tube because it had been really packed, and that, once on, he thought he was going to die because it was so full! Andrew paraphrased this, and noticed the class seemed particularly taken with the phrase ‘I thought I was going to die’, so asked them to discuss a time when they’d felt like this in pairs. The Somali student volunteered this story. He was asked if he wanted it re-written and up on the board and he said Yes, as he knew he’d want to re-tell it later.

2. The word ‘passed out’ had come up in a text. I’d explained it and then just quickly asked the class in pairs to talk about any time they’d passed out or seen someone passed out. This was one of the stories that emerged.

3. A Taiwanese civil servant in his mid-forties ventured this opinion during a very heated whole class debate sparked off by one Iraqi student asking, “Aids is caught by kissing, isn’t it?” We had arrived at this point after reading a text on Health and Illness which included the word ‘infection’. One student asked what it meant and then another asked what the difference between ‘infect’ and ‘transmit’ was. This led on to, among other things, ‘sexually-transmitted diseases’, which sparked the whole thing off.

4. The class had read a text about The Anti-Onion League – a web-based organisation dedicated to the downfall of the onion!! Among the reasons listed for why onions should be avoided was the fact that they give you wind. One Chinese woman in her fifties, a senior civil servant, became quite animated at this point and produced this gem!

onionface

5. The lexical item ‘I got woken up’ had come up in an exercise, and one student asked about it. I explained it and then asked the class what kind of things they might get woken up by – the usual suspects came up: a car alarm going off, the phone ringing – before a Korean man said he’d been woken up recently by the people in the next room – they’d been shagging!

At this stage, it is important to reiterate that I am NOT advocating the kind of confrontational exercises in student-baiting so popular amongst the recently-qualified, wherein learners arrive for their morning lessons only to be assaulted with questions like “So what do you think about abortion, Chie?” or “Hussein, how do you feel about Islam’s terrible record of human rights abuses towards women?”

The key point here is that all of the taboo-breaking and boundary-pushing utterances in 1-5 arose from actually very innocuous exercises or texts and arose without any undue prompting from the teacher. Rather, they came into being simply because students wanted to say them – and, as a teacher, I was happy to help them do so.

Hopefully, this post will encourage some more of you out there to feel happy doing something similar the next time the moment arise in your own classrooms! If, that is, you’re not doing so already.

Twenty things in twenty years Part Four: the way I was taught to teach grammar crippled my understanding of grammar!

I feel it best to warn you in advance that this is a post that could potentially spiral wildly out of control! It may also, I fear, contain themes I’ve entered into from slightly angles during other recent posts. This is down to the fact that this is a topic that’s exercised me mightily for a good number of years now, and one which shows little sign of reaching any kind of rectification or resolution in the wider ELT world as a whole, where demand for coursebooks that are based on and revolve around the presentation and subsequent unpacking of discrete grammatical structures shows little sign of abating. Indeed, where such demand remains so strong that publishers are generally reluctant to seek out and encourage those suggesting other ways in which language teaching might be conceived of and packaged. Or maybe that’s harsh. Maybe it’s simply that there just aren’t too many folk out there thinking along the same lines as me. Who knows?

Anyway, what is indisputably true is that the Murphy’s English Grammar In Use / Headway / English File template has long been – and will, I fear, continue to be – insanely popular and powerful within language teaching. The belief that mastering a language essentially remains a matter of being able to understand rules for a set of grammatical structures – predominantly tenses – that unfold in a predictable sequence, of being able to do form-focused exercises manipulating these structures, and of then learning plenty of single words to fill the empty slots in sentences generated by these structures is undoubtedly the dominant one within our profession, despite the fact it no longer has any theoretical validity and is thus deeply flawed, and in spite of other more theoretically valid approaches now being available.

The way many of us are taught to think about language is rooted in Chomsky’s ideas about Generative Grammar, perhaps best encapsulated in his meaningless – but possible – utterance Colorless green ideas sleep furiously. We are trained to see grammar as some kind of engine or machine that produces the bones or skeleton of our communication, with words being the bits we drop in to flesh things out, as it were.

Right from the very beginning of my career as a teacher, I was basically taught that what would make or break me as a teacher would be my ability to show grammar forms, explain their meanings – often in preposterously subtle (and spurious!) detail, a point I’ll return to in a later post – and compare and contrast similar but different usages. My understanding of grammar was based very much on the canon handed down to me on my CELTA and subsequently reaffirmed by the coursebooks I used, which generally saw grammar as essentially to do with tenses, with additional bits and pieces such as conditionals, passives, modals and so on tagged on. I was encouraged to base most of my grammar teaching around PPP lessons – Presenting the structure, getting students to practise it in narrow, controlled contexts (such as a Murphy’s exercise!) and then praying like hell they’d maybe be able to produce it in some slightly less controlled, but frequently still fairly contrived, speaking activity, which I’d listen to intently in the hope of hearing one or two slips with the structure so that I could round my hour off with a bit of form-focused correction. I’d then return to the staff room, talking about how we’d ‘done’ the present perfect simple, say, and gear myself to take on the present perfect continuous next lesson.

Many dialogues in many of the books I used to use were deliberately written to contain as many examples of one particular structure – in as many different shapes and forms – as possible, and far too frequently contained little if anything else. What follows is spur of the moment parody, but based on the memory of a text I’ve taught at least twice in the past:

A: So what’re you going to do for your holiday this year?

B: I’m going to go to Florida.

A: No, you’re not. You’re not going to go to Florida, because we’re going to change your holiday. We’re going to send you round the world on a cruise. You’re going to have the time of your life.

B: Wow! That’s amazing. So where am I going to go?

So where am I going with all of this? Well, the next big lesson I came to learn in ELT is that this way of teaching teachers to teach grammar is limiting, results in poor teaching and learning and cripples our understanding of how language actually works. I mean, let’s get real here: does ANYONE seriously believe any more that students actually learn how to use grammar in a wide range of different contexts by studying grammar rules and doing very narrowly-focused form manipulation exercises? And even if they do, what theories of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) is this mad idea based on? Despite all this, though, as I’ve said above, the industry continues as though this were God’s own gospel truth and that there is no deviation possible from this One True Path! And we wonder why extreme counter-reactions like Dogme have come into being?!

The bad teaching – and poor learning – that results from this approach to grammar boils down to the fact that acquisition simply doesn’t work like this. All the evidence seems to point to the fact that accuracy emerges slowly – and it comes in fits and spurts; it’s far more to do with repeated exposure to typical examples of commonly used structures in everyday use, along with the ability – or encouragement  t0 – notice and pay attention to these examples, to both the context of usage and the co-text that exists alongside the structures in question. By insisting on one big block of time spent on each particular structure, usually explored in isolation, we misunderstand – and misrepresent this harsh reality, thus making it far harder for students as they generally don’t get the chance to explore structures in use from one lesson to the next, unless we impose some of ‘communicative’ revision game on them that forces use of particularly problematic structures.  This problem is compounded by our insistence on teaching lexis as single word items – or at best without much gramaticalisation / exemplification, thus further reducing the opportunities students have to see structures in action.

The dominant paradigm also assumes that most error is somehow easily diagnosed as resulting from malfunctions with structures already presented, when the reality is far more complex. What, for instance, are we to make of errors such as these, which my students have made over the course of the last few weeks?

It is forecasted that there might be a tsunami in this area caused by the former earthquake.

The area has been deserted after a huge flooding 3 years ago.

His family is really big and there are something like twenty members in his family.

They nearly froze to death when they tried to catch the northern light in Norway.

This book is very interesting and the highlights exist in every part of it.

As if this isn’t bad enough, the way language is presented to students in dialogues such as the going to + verb parody above distorts the true nature of language, where we are perpetually asking in one tense and answering in another, or answering without really using grammar at all. Why did you decide to do that? we ask – and get told Well, I’d been thinking about it for ages, to be honest. Have you spoken to anyone about it? elicits the response Not yet, but I will. Don’t worry – and so on! None of these are freak exceptions. They are simply the way language is when we use it.

These dialogues also deny the existence of natural patterns of conversation. How can it be, for instance, that so many Elementary students learn the question Where are you from? without every learning that almost invariably the next question they’ll be asked is Whereabouts? Because one practises present simple questions, the other doesn’t . . . so their contextual closeness is avoided! In the same way, students rarely get told that one very common follow-up question to What did you do last night? may well be How long’ve you been doing that?  Again, it’s patterns of single structures that drive the car, sadly, NOT patterns of discourse / conversation!

So all of this makes us stupid and makes us make our students stupid too. But it gets worse still. The fact that we’re presented with a canon of grammar – the Murphy’s canon, if you like – means that it’s that much harder for us to think outside of the canon and to become more aware of other patterns – and other grammatical forms – that exist within the language. The list of things excluded from the canon is lengthy, so just a couple of examples will suffice here. There’s the use of SO before an adjective to introduce a cause clause, which is then followed by a result clause – perhaps the most common way of expressing cause and result in spoken English (e.g.: I was so tired I just went straight to bed as soon as I got home); there’s the marking of lateness implicit in the use of NOT . . . . UNTIL – as in He was a bit of a late starter. He didn’t have his first girlfriend until he was 21; there’s the fact we often produce long turns by talking about an action – the kind usually focused on in the canon (I went to Spain, I’m going to a conference, etc.) followed by a time phrase (last week, for a few days) and then a reason / result (to visit some old friends of mine / to give a paper). It’s grammar, Jim, but not as we know it – or certainly not as we’re TAUGHT to know it. Until training courses develop a broader perspective on how language works, the only real way to learn more about these kinds of patterns is to spend more time looking at – and thinking / talking about – real language in use.

In addition to all of this, the way we’re taught to focus on forms and basic meanings blinds us to facts about even the grammar we’re supposed to feel most comfortable working on – tenses and the like. We persist in insisting that similar forms are somehow interchangeable – all those mindless and pointless What will you do if you win the lottery? versus What would you do if you won the lottery? lessons, all those active / passive transformations that result in students coming to class and uttering lines the classic “I know the passive. I walk the dog. The dog is walked by me!” There’s also the fact that co-text is at least as important as the structures themselves if we want students to actually be able to use the language communicatively and not just fall into the grammar robot trap of answering mechanically in a kind of Have you ever been to Greece / Yes, I have been to Greece kind of way! To respond in a communicatively competent manner to such questions, students need to know items like Yeah, quite a few times, actually / Yeah, I went there last year on holiday / Yeah, I go there quite a bit for work, actually / No never, but I’d love to one day – and so on. Grammar is also far more limited by context and lexis than we care to acknowledge. Take the future perfect, for instance. Because of the fact that there really are only a small number of things we’re likely to talk about being finished by a fixed point in the future, the possible – or at least probable – utterances using it are so limited as to almost be learnable by rote:

I’ll have finished by tomorrow.

I should’ve done it by nine.

I’ll have left by then.

I’ll have been here ten years next month.

He’ll have forgotten all about it by tomorrow.

You won’t have heard of it

And not many more! The same limitations exist with many other tenses, and yet are rarely discussed or explored on training / development courses.

So there we have it. My whole training and development did little to help me deal with the complexities of the language. Outside of instilling the kind of grammar anxiety into me that I then instilled into my students for too many years, and outside of drilling in some basic grasp of form and function of a limited canon, I’ve come to see it did more harm than good. It’s based on an outdated model of both language learning and language itself and until it’s replaced en masse by something more rooted in reality, we’re doomed to repeat the circle of abuse!

What that something may be – or at least what I believe it to be – is what I’ll come on to in the next part of the ongoing series!

Opening the heavens: religion, reformulation and reasons to roll with it

So much of teaching is about the second-by-second set of decisions we make, whether consciously or unconsciously, and the decisions we make are shaped by intuition, which as we all know is the product of our cumulative experience this far – or expertise, if you prefer – rather than being some nebulous innate talent.

So anyway there I was, twenty-five minutes from the end of a class with my upper-intermediate group the other day, more or less at the end of a reading – a Chinese folk tale about money. I was just rounding up some vocabulary that students had asked about while reading, vaguely wondering if ideally wanted to rush on to the injected grammar (I wish with past perfect and past simple) or whether there might be some other more upbeat way of winding up when opportunity knocked.

One of the items that had come up was THE HEAVENS – as in He clung onto the rope and was lifted up to the heavens. I’d explained that it basically meant ‘the sky’ and had given another example – The heavens suddenly opened and it started pouring with rain – when a student asked what the difference between ‘the heavens’ and ‘the heaven’ was. I told the class we don’t use articles with heaven – or hell – and that aside from their literal meanings, they’re often used metaphorically: it’s my idea of heaven / hell.

Justin Bieber Sighting In London - February 25, 2013

There was some banter about how going to see Justin Bieber was one student’s idea of heaven, but everyone else’s idea of hell and then a Moroccan student asked “So what about paradise?” “That’s usually used to talk about a wonderful beautiful place, like maybe Bali or somewhere, that’s maybe sold as a tropical paradise” before the student then explained that for Muslims it refers to the highest part of heaven, where the prophet resides. The student then jokingly added that he wouldn’t ever reach such heights and would be lucky to reach the bottom part of heaven. Another student, a Spanish guy called Mohammed, suggested that hell was a more likely destination at which point Sosan, a Saudi woman, demanded he retract this and claimed you should never say this! I pointed out it was a common joke among friends in English and, curiosity piqued, put students in pairs to discuss whether or not they talked about heaven and hell in their own languages. Out of this the most interesting thing that emerged was a discussion about the differing concepts of angels on shoulders that seemed to exist in different cultures: the Christian notion of good angels and bad angels giving you advice – and the Muslim idea of an angel on your right shoulder recording your good actions and another on your left noting down the bad (but only after an eight-hour pause which allowed the chance of repentance and righting the wrong), all of which were to be weighed on Judgement Day. Mohammed noted that with his Spanish-Moroccan friends it was common to joke that the left-shoulder angel was compiling a library, which aroused laughter from most of the class and looks of slight shock from the more devout Saudi and Senegalese women in class.

maldives-sharia-paradise

The other thing that became apparent was that many students didn’t know how to ask ARE YOU RELIGIOUS (AT ALL?) and had gotten by thus far with their own bizarre improvised versions (“You have religion?” and the like!). For the next five minutes, students changed pairs and asked and answered this question before we rounded up with some board-based reformulation. On the board we ended up with:
She’s / he’s very devout.
He used to be Muslim / catholic, but he converted to Buddhism.
I was brought up Muslim / Buddhist / Catholic, but I don’t really practise.
All religions have lots of different branches.
I don’t really believe in God, but I do believe there’s some kind of higher power.

And that was that.

The grammar waited till the following day and students left the room still asking each other questions about each others’ beliefs.

So what, you may well be wondering? Why am I telling you all of this? Well, for a whole host of reasons, I think. Partly to illustrate how we ad teachers can take advantages of moments that present themselves – what Scott Thornbury has termed affordances – and how being alert to such moments can allow us to explore interesting , and sometimes less travelled, roads; partly to reiterate the fact that frequently the best way of doing this is via the exploration and exploitation of language that emerges from texts – what I’ve elsewhere termed ambient vocabulary. Partly also to remind the sceptics that a lexical approach to language – particularly one that takes on board the idea of working from what students TRY to say and helps them say it better, and one which reworks things in fully contextualised utterances, ensures far more exposure to – and far grater opportunities to engage with – grammar than traditional grammar-led approaches frequently do.

But maybe more controversially to demonstrate how similar people – and the languages they speak – actually are, whilst also acknowledging how fascinating the slight and subtle differences can be. Further to this, to show how different people within what are often perceived as monolithic cultural blocks (‘Muslims’) can be – and maybe most of all to suggest that supposedly taboo topics such as religion can actually be tackled in an interesting way.

Despite the almost complete absence of reference to the realm of religion in most published ELT material and despite the fact that many oublishers explicitly ban any mention if its very existence, no one died during this part of the class, no rows erupted, views were exchanged and whole sides if students’ lives not typically allowed existence within TEFL-ese were given space to emerge.

Not bad for an ad libbed, improvised closing flourish to a lesson intended to explore a totally different semantic – and lexical – realm.

Thank heavens for intuition! Where in God’s name would we be without it?

Twenty things in twenty years Part Three: kicking the grammar habit

In a sense, this post follows very hot on the heels from the one I managed to finish yesterday about teaching the probable rather than just the possible, and tackles similar issues. As such, please excuse me the repetition (though of course as anyone who’s ever graced the conference circuit will know, if a things’ worth saying, it’s worth saying again. And then again. And again after that. And eventually it may slowly start to sink in and make some small difference somewhere!). Hopefully, there’ll be enough here to make it worth your while ploughing through BOTH posts.

Anyway, on top of all that, it’s suddenly hit me that we’re already into the third month of the year and I’ve committed myself to twenty posts on pearls of wisdom I’ve gleaned in my twenty years in TEFL, so I’d better start getting a move on, and something that cannibalizes myself is better than nothing at all in such circumstances!

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned on at least a few occasions elsewhere, my induction into ELT via a four-week CELTA at Westminster College (and, indeed, my subsequent year-long part-time DELTA) left me with that very same affliction that so many of our students still find themselves stuck with a bad case of: Grammar Anxiety. The whole main thrust of the course was towards enabling us to blag our way through when we got bombarded, as we most surely would, with questions about grammar during the PPP lessons we were encouraged to perfect. Having studied English Literature at university, I was interested in language and loved using it, savouring it, playing with it, but knew little about its actual inner workings. While a degree in Literature enabled me to discuss metaphor and simile and rhetoric and the like, it did little to tutor one in the intricacies of the present perfect simple or the zero conditional. I subjected myself to the usual crash course in intensive grammar training that most novice teachers endure, which mostly meant memorizing the explanations at the back of the book and using these as a shield against anything students might throw at me during grammar classes the following day! Students seemed to expect – if not always exactly relish – grammar-based classes and as I slowly started getting my head round the basic concepts, learning my timelines and concept questions and so on, I started to almost enjoy such lessons myself.

I say almost because in fact there are only so many times any sentient human being can teach some particular exercises before the will to live starts to drain from the very fibre of your being. I don’t think I’m being overly-optimistic when I say that materials have quite possibly moved on somewhat since the early-to-mind 1990s (even if, the realist in me feels compelled to note, many teachers – and training courses – have yet to move with them!), but much of what I was given to teach with when I was starting out in the field – the old CEC English course, Headway, Intermediate and Upper Intermediate Matters and so on – was steeped in the study of mindless grammar for the sheer hell of it! The class and I would slog through exercises where the focus was on minutiae such as these half-remembered gems:

Work in pairs. Discuss the difference between these sentences.

1a Jim only spoke to Jane.

1b Only Jim spoke to Jane

2a Mike didn’t really enjoy the party.

2b Mike really didn’t enjoy the party

and so on. And on. Right up until the point of brain death.

I’d gamely get students discussing these things as if their lives depended on it, and I’d then run through the answers. “Yes, in 1a, Jim ONLY spoke to Jane, so he didn’t speak to anyone else. Just Jane. And in 1b, no-one else spoke to Jane. Just Jim” – you’ll notice that at this stage of the game, incidentally, I was blithely unaware of the fact that no two words operate as true synonyms across the board and was quite happy to treat JUST and ONLY as utterly interchangeable – “and 2a? Right, yes. he didn’t really enjoy it. It was OK, but not great. Well, not even really OK. Just not terrible. And 2b? Yes, right. It was terrible. He hated it!”

By the time I’d been teaching a couple of years and had done this exercise – or similar ones – a few times, the mind rot had started and I’d ceased to care who these imaginary characters had spoken to at which imaginary party – or whether my students grasped the subtleties of their phantom conversations! I needed a change, but had no idea how to bring one about, or in what shape or form any kind of change might manifest itself. Enter one of the most memorable students I have ever taught, and a man whose impact on me was almost certainly far greater than any minimal impact I may have had on him: Francesco, an Italian guy who was probably about the same age as me when I had my Damascene conversion – 25 or 26. He was in one of my Upper-Intermediate classes when I was doing my second stint at St. Giles Central, and was the kind of intelligent, thoughtful Italian student equipped with a disturbingly large vocabulary of grammatical meta-language that successive generations of native-speaker EFL teachers have come to fear and dread!

We were working our way through a revision exercise that focused on narrative tenses and students were busy dissecting such gems as:

The phone rang while I had a bath.

The phone was ringing while I had a bath.

The phone rang while I was having a bath

and

The phone was ringing while I was having a bath.

The discourse was riveting – “In this one, the phone rang and I had the bath at the same time. Is strange, but maybe it can happen. In this one, I don’t know. Is past continuous, so maybe the phone continued. Hmm. But in the first one too, it continued, so why here is past continuous and here is simple. I don’t sure” – and I was being propelled towards the exercise’s grim denouement by a nervous tension born of concern that I’d get my timelines mixed up, mess up my concept questions or fail to fully nail the subtle shades of meaning conveyed by these gems of TEFL-ese. I’d started on my round-up and was clarifying the fact that one sentence was emphasising the continuation, stressing the duration, whilst another was merely stating the plain facts, time-lining away and so on . . . when suddenly the look on Francesco’s face turned from engaged interest to exasperation and he blurted out something along these lines: “OK, OK. I get it. Many things are possible. Grammar is choice, Depends on perspective and intention. Fine. But . . . which one of these four should I learn? Which is most usual? Which one do YOU say?”

And in one fell swoop, I was off the grammar.

Just like that. No cold turkey to go through. No cravings. No cold sweats or dead babies crawling across the ceiling. Nothing.

In a moment, I saw the error of my ways and the path forward became clear.

“Which one would I say? Um. To be honest, none of them. Francesco. In fact, the only possible conversation about baths and phones I can think of (bear in mind, by the way, that this was in the days before most folk – certainly most EFL teachers – had mobiles they could drop in the bath!) is something like: Hey. I tried to call you yesterday, but you didn’t answer! / Yeah, sorry. I was in the bath. That’s it. Anyway, enough of all this. Let’s move on and do something more useful, shall we?!”

And from that day on, I’ve tried as far as humanly possible when teaching – and when writing material for teaching – to ensure that any grammar I look at (and I’m certainly NOT saying we shouldn’t be looking at grammar, just so we’re clear on that) is based on what it is I say, and other people say, and Francesco might want to say – or might hear said.

And not only do I feel cleaner and less soiled within myself, but you know what else? I’m happier in my teaching, my students seem to be too, the collective levels of Grammar Anxiety have plummeted AND they’re actually better at using the language to boot.

To paraphrase slightly the way that Renton puts it in a scene from Trainspotting:

Thank you, your honor. With God’s help, I conquered this terrible affliction.

Possibility, probability and (Raymond) Murphy’s Law: dodging stray grammar bullets

If Murphy’s Law didn’t already exist, it’d be the perfect name to describe the correlation between how much a teacher knows about language, how confident they are of their own grasp of grammar, and the likelihood that at some point in the lesson they’ll go off on one and start lecturing at great – and confusing – length about an obscure point they have only the most tenuous grip on. The fact is that at the first whiff of grammar, many students suddenly spark into life and start scattering the unwitting teacher with stray grammar bullets that only years of painful experience really help you dodge. Of course, the axiom that states that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong is not irrelevant here, but it’s actually more Raymond Murphy’s Law that teachers so often inadvertently bring into play in the classroom.

I know because I’ve been there! And lived to tell the tale. I was reminded of my former selves just yesterday when a brief piece of reformulation of something a student had been trying to say in response to a question in the coursebook asking what advice people would give to a guy they’d heard moaning about his new job. As students were talking, I wrote up on the board what they were trying to say and during my round-up elicited words like SHUT from HE SHOULD JUST S…….. UP AND PUT UP WITH IT,  STICK from HE SHOULD JUST STICK WITH IT and WAY from HE MIGHT BE ABLE TO WORK HIS WAY UP IN THE COMPANY. The board ended up looking like this:

Grammar Blog Post 1

As students were writing down what had ended up on the board, one student said she wasn’t sure about MIGHT BE ABLE TO. I explained that it meant maybe he can – and that it we often used it after modal verbs like MIGHT and SHOULD, so we say things like I CAN’T DO IT TODAY, BUT I SHOULD BE ABLE TO DO IT SOMETIME NEXT WEEK. This seemed to satisfy her, but then Raymond Murhpy’s Law kicked in and the questions came pouring forth:

“But be able to is also for the present, yes? That’s what my last teacher told me”

“And for the past. I wasn’t able to. I was able to.”

“Yes, And I am able to, like I am able to read.”

At which point I stopped the frenzy and said something along the lines of BE ABLE TO being possible in the present, but not really used much as CAN is much more common. You’d never tell anyone you can read, though, let alone that you were able to. The only thing you might say about reading is that someone CAN’T read – or that you couldn’t read the whole of a particular book – in the past – because it was too long or too boring. It’s much much more common to use CAN and CAN also refers to the future sometimes as well. I then wrote up on the board: I CAN’T MEET YOU TODAY OR TOMORROW, BUT I CAN DO SATURDAY. One student asked if COULD was also possible here, at which point other students shouted out “No! No! COULD is past”. I set them straight on this and said COULD was perfectly possible too, and was basically the same as CAN in this context – maybe a little less certain. One student asked if I’M ABLE TO or I WILL BE ABLE TO DO SATURDAY was OK. I said it was possible, but sounded weird and CAN / COULD were much more likely. I then wrote up an example using SHOULD BE ABLE TO as well, and we ended up with a board like this:

Grammar blog post 2

Students noted down what had gone up and we moved on.

The brief little episode did provide food for thought, though, and prompted a reflection on how earlier versions of myself might’ve handled this.

Both CELTA and DELTA instilled in me the belief that it was meanings and forms that were the most important things a teacher could make clear to students when tackling grammar. The whole trinity of meaning, form or pronunciation – or MFP for short (an acronym that for someone like me, who’s spent far too much of his life trawling second-hand record stores and charity shops, always recalled . . . with a chuckle . . . the Music For Pleasure label logo!!) – was pretty much all I considered when it came to handling anything grammatical for maybe the first six or seven years of my teaching career.

file

This, coupled with the obsession with the Present-Practise-Produce approach to grammar that these courses instilled in me meant that any incident such as the one I describe above would have once sparked major anxiety. “They still don’t get be able to”, I would’ve fretted. “I’d better build in a whole hour-long slot on it tomorrow – and give them a page on it from Murphy’s as homework.” Or else I may well have simply told them that yes, it can be used in the present. And the past. And then have written a few bizarre examples up, or perhaps simply have written up WAS / WERE ABLE TO + VERB, AM / IS / ARE ABLE TO + VERB, WILL BE ABLE TO + VERB and left it at that.

The single biggest thing that has improved my grammar teaching – and quite possibly my teaching in general (certainly the vocabulary part of what I do, for sure) – is getting my head round something I first read in The Lexical Approach by Michael Lewis: teach the probable, not the possible. Sure, tons of things MIGHT be said, but are they USUALLY? Yes, of course, be able to CAN be used in the present, but certainly not in the context the students presented it to me in . . . and generally only in fairly specific kinds of genres / contexts, none of which had particular pertinence here. Narrow things down to particulars. Focus on what’s typical. Give clear, concise explanations and examples. Move on. You’ll pass this way again sooner or later anyway, and accuracy comes in dribs and drabs. It seems fairly clear, also, that it depends more on the accretional impact of examples – or on priming, if you prefer – than on any particularly sophisticated grasp of the subtleties of rules.

Knowing these things are teaching with them ever present in the mind has allowed me not only to enjoy my teaching far more, and to feel less bogged down by pointless rambling meta-linguistic waffle, but also to feel I’m actually helping more – both by giving simple, easy-to-digest examples, but also by warning students off random friendly fire, by encouraging them to lay down arms and reduce the paranoia. And by doing this Murhpy’s Law can finally be thwarted.

What have corpora ever done for us?

Following a conversation over on the facebook page I use for talking about teaching and language, I’ve decided to post a talk I did at IATEFL many moons ago. I do remember, with a faint smile, that Dave Wills himself came along to watch this one, but at some point became overcome with either rage or tedium and flounced out, thus allowing me to make the cheap jibe about Elvis having left the building before carrying on. Were this post to generate even a tenth of that heady level of excitement, I’d be delighted!

Written maybe ten years ago, at the height of the corpora promo boom, it was intended as a partially tongue-in-cheek critical overview of corpora linguistics. And yes, for those of you that were wondering, the title WAS inspired by this rather splendid Monty Python sketch:

With that in place, here goes nothing . . .

The use of computers to store and help analyse language has obviously revolutionised many aspects of language teaching, and corpora linguists have become an ever-present feature at IATEFL and other similar conferences. Obviously, much good has come from this. We have had a whole new generation of much-improved dictionaries, all of which contain better information about usage, collocation and frequency; superb new reference books such as the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English have been made possible, and, perhaps inadvertently, corpora linguistics helped to launch the Lexical Approach and to thus help to move language at least some way back towards the centre of language teaching. Nevertheless, it seems to me that despite all these advances, corpora linguistics has also had several negative side-effects on the way teachers perceive their roles, and that they have actually enslaved us in ways which are not entirely healthy. I would like to move on to consider the ways in which I feel this has occurred.

The fallacy of frequency

Corpora linguists repeatedly promote their products with often highly-detailed reference to frequency counts and the idea that frequency is central has become a common one. However, should a Pre-Intermediate learner wish to be passed the salt over dinner, simply knowing the infrequent item ‘Salt’ will facilitate this in a way that knowing the far more frequent ‘Could’, ‘you’, ‘pass’, ‘the’ and ‘please’ would not. Generally, it’s not the most common words which carry core meanings; rather, it’s the far rarer items that do. Simply knowing the 800 most common words in the language makes you only able to say a lot about not very much. In the same way, failure to learn word which may well be low-frequency generally, but which are possibly much higher frequency within specific types of conversations condemns you to not being able to say very much about a lot!! Frequency tells us nothing more than what is frequent. It cannot tell us what’s useful, what’s necessary or even what’s teachable.

There are deeper problems here to do with the way in which frequency is actually calculated. Corpora remains word-obsessed and the process of lemmatisation compounds this. Hence, an idiom like ‘You’re a dark horse’ is entered not as a two-word idiom, but rather as one example of ‘dark’ and another of ‘horse, thus defaulting on two fronts.  Similarly, plural nouns are currently counted as other examples of singular ones, which is a rather major oversight. Is, for instance, the singular of ‘Many Happy Returns’ ‘A Happy Return’? ‘Meetings’ is not simply  the plural of ‘meeting’, and it collocates with different words. Finally, knowing that, say, ‘get’ is a very common word does little to help teachers know whether ‘get on with it’ is more frequent that’ Let’s get down to business’. Sadly, until corpora start sorting by chunk they will remain of limited relevance.

The fallibility of human endeavour.

That corpora need to be approached cautiously and with one’s intuition fully tuned is made apparent by a cursory glance at the word ‘thaw’ on several published CDs. Should one access the word, wishing to know whether snow melts or thaws, one would be surprised to learn that a far more frequent example of the word, and thus – if we follow the logic of corpora linguists – a more useful collocate for our students is actually John, as in John Thaw, the late, great British actor.

Similarly, I once saw a Jane Willis talk wherein she suggested that one of the most common three-word lexical items in the English language was ‘Princess of Wales’. It was only when pushed during questioning that she actually admitted that the corpora she had taken this data from was based almost exclusively on a couple of radio phone-in programmes. In the same, way, the actual construction of corpora-based materials – dictionaries and the like – also inevitably involve a degree of hammering out by researchers, often by means of a vote or a fudge. Corpora are by necessity human constructs based on limited samples of data, are easily skewed by input and thus are best viewed sceptically.

The limitations of what corpora can offer

While spoken language, conversation, may well form the basis – even the majority – of many corpora, what corpora can’t show us is what typical conversations look like. It’s not possible, for instance, to access ten typical conversations had by people talking about what they did last night or to look at the 20 most common ways of answering the question “So what do you do for a living, then?”. As such, if we want to present our students with models of the kinds of conversations they themselves might actually want to have, we are forced to fall back on our (actually ample) experience of such conversations in order to script them. However, I would argue that it is precisely because we have got such broad experience of such conversations that we do tend to know how they work and sound and look.

For teaching purposes. we need to be able to script conversations that aren’t so culturally and spatially bound as to exclude students; we need to ensure the conversations students are exposed to still somehow facilitate intra-class bonding. Input needs to be proto-typical and to include items which are easy for us to systematise and for learners to appropriate and assimilate. Corpora cannot do this for us.

Corpora and the non-native speaker teacher

It is often claimed – mainly by those who are employed to make, package and sell corpora – that corpora are an invaluable aid for the non-native speaker teacher. I would personally argue that the opposite is far too often true and that as they stand, corpora massively favour native speakers.

One understandable reaction many teachers, both native and non-native, have to the notion that they should teach more spoken English is the ‘but I’d never say this or that bit of language” response when faced with a spoken text. Ironically, written texts never elicit a similar “But I’d never write that myself” response, and there are several reasons for this, I feel. There is possibly an assumption that writing is a more creative realm where anything goes; there’s also the fact that the grammar and the lexis of the written language have already been codified and disseminated and are thus more familiar to teachers; thirdly, I think, there’s the fact that we pin our identities on our speech – our idiolect, our regional, class-based, age-oriented, in-group, gender-based grasp of lexis and grammar – far more profoundly than we do on what we write. We are so aware of differences in the way we speak that we usually fail to notice the massive similarities. A good example of this is the fact that every EFL book which focuses on the UK / US divide fails to note that the vast majority of the language used in both countries is remarkably similar, and instead frets over the present perfect, sidewalks versus pavements and the correct pronunciation of aluminium. Yet for every “It can out of the blue” / “It came out of left-field’ divergence, there must surely be ten other idioms we all have in common.

Given this, I personally feel it doesn’t take much to persuade non-native speaker teachers to stick to the already familiar, tried-and-tested formula of written texts and comprehension questions and structural grammar. By spending so much time pointing out relatively obscure quirks and neologisms, such as the fact that ‘like’ is being increasingly used to report speech (as in “He was like ‘Hi’ so I was like ‘Bye’) , corpora linguists are inadvertently making spoken English more of a foreign language for non-native speaker teachers than is perhaps wise for people who claim to believe – as I do – that spoken English should become much more a part of General English than is currently the case. Too relentless a focus on the new, the odd, the interesting, the different obscures the wealth of English that unites us all.

I also feel that it is not only many non-native speaker teachers who would never use ‘like’ in this way, but also many native speakers too. The vast majority of language teachers do NOT need corpora to tell us that this is a relatively unuseful piece of lexis, so long as it remains still relatively unused. Indeed, my own rule of thumb would be that if YOU don’t say it, don’t TEACH it. English as a foreign language is NOT English as the corpora knows it. If you believe, as I do, that the kind of model conversations coursebooks provide for teaching purposes should be better modelled on the information provided by corpora than is currently the case, then I find it hard to see how you couldn’t also support the idea that corpora specialists should concentrate more on insights which will be of direct use to coursebook writers and teachers alike. Indeed, given the problematic status of spoken language within the classroom at present, I’d go so far as to say assert that failure to do anything less serves to sabotage attempts to spread a methodology based on spoken language (and here, of course, I’m compelled to acknowledge my own interest in this area as a coursebook writer).

I find it particularly interesting to note that the constructors of corpora – or at least their backers – seem as yet very reluctant to work on a corpus of English as used by non-native speakers. Obviously, this would be in essence the same corpus, but with much left out. This is precisely the point : that which is left out by competent non-native speakers has no real place in most – and especially most pre-Advanced – teaching materials.

Animal Farm (or Beware of the oppressive tendencies of those who come claiming to liberate us!!)

It would be churlish to deny that corpora have provided us with some useful insights into such features of language as the fact that would is three times more common when talking about past habits than used to is, but at the same time it must also be added that the way in which corpora have been presented has all-too often intimidated us into pretending that we didn’t already know much – if not most – of what they confirm. For example, Mike McCarthy, at IATEFL Brighton 2001 spent half an hour blinding us with the statistics that showed – entirely unsurprisingly – that ‘take the mickey’ is far more common than ‘mickey-taker’ or ‘mickey-taking’. Surely any fluent speaker of the language could have guessed this (dubiously relevant) fact themselves, based on their own intuitions about the language.

The relentless emphasis on the finality of corporal truth no only denies the reality of the classroom practitioner who has to get in there each and every day and try to give their students information about the language being studied, but also refuses to acknowledge the fact that we all have heard and read millions and millions more words than any corpus will ever hold and thus have good hunches about words as a result. Sure, hunches about language can be wrong, but more often than not, they aren’t. I personally really resent the notion that not only are corpora useful for showing us the errors of our ways, but also for confirming when we’re right. The implication is that we are not right UNTIL we’ve checked! This way lies madness – and the deskilling of us all!!

Conclusions

Obviously, it is important that teachers do keep themselves up-to-date with corpora findings and adapt their understanding of the way language works accordingly. Here I totally agree with Ron Carter that one thing corpora has helped us become more aware of is the fact that grammar is much broader than sentence-based / tense-based grammar would seem to suggest. Words have their own micro-grammar and so lexis needs to continuously be grammaticalised in typical ways. Nevertheless, it is also vital that teachers are encouraged to believe that they can tap into and trust their own inner corpora.

If Carter and McCarthy can proclaim that the more students are encouraged and trained to notice, the more they actually will notice, then the same much surely be true for us as teachers. Indeed, the true sign of corpora-work well done is its own eventual redundancy. This really brings me to my final point – one of the great ironies of corpora is that they have actually unwittingly made teachers more intuitive, not less. What corpora have done is to place language back at the centre of classrooms and, as such, we all now have to think much more about how we actually use language.

To a degree, corpora and teachers exist in a parent-child relationship, and many teachers are now ready to leave home. Thanks Mum and Dad – you’ve done a great job, we may be back to visit every now and then, but we’ve basically already got the message!

However, lest we forget, corpora are bank-rolled by major publishing houses and have endless spin-off publications derived from them in an effort to recoup much of this investment. As such, maybe I’m expecting too much by asking those in receipt of the publisher’s pound to loose the reins on much of their power and place it back where it rightly belongs – back in the hands of the humble classroom practitioners!!!

Twenty things in twenty years – Part Two: troubling trouble when trouble troubles you!

There are plenty of things that you generally don’t learn on a four-week CELTA course: how bizarre many of the staff rooms you’ll later find yourself in will be; how rife the illegal photocopying of published material is around the world; how you’ll probably end up inventing Dogme by accident one morning as you stumble into class having not slept a wink and quite possibly with either an illegal or at least a severely impaired bloodstream; how sooner or later you’ll find yourself subjected to threats / bribes / tears / offers of sexual favours as students desperately try and blag attendance certificates or better test results or placement in a level they absolutely don’t deserve to enter. I could obviously go on and on here! However, the one thing that perhaps more attention should be paid to on initial training courses is the subject of today’s reflective post wherein I look back over what’s now twenty years of teaching and try to work out what the hell I’ve learned about the trade: the kind of trouble that can erupt – or fester – in EFL classes and how we as teachers might best tackle them. In other words, how to trouble trouble before trouble troubles you – and the class you’re teaching!

The moment that I came to realise the importance of developing strategies for doing this came unpleasantly early in my teaching career. I’m somehow managed to blag my first real paid teaching job at St. Giles Central in London and had a lovely Intermediate-level class that I was doing every morning. They were predominantly Asian, with students from a wide range of different countries. The first week or so went really well and then the evil effects of continuous enrollment reared their head the following Monday when the door opened fifteen minutes into class and in walked a medallion-wearing living breathing stereotypical Italian male, complete with unbuttoned shirt and such a copious amount of hair on display that I’m prepared to believe it may well have been a chest wig. “Francesco Celotto from Milano”  he announced, as though this in itself merited a round of applause. “Come in” I smiled, before adding “You’re late!” He then surveyed the room a couple of times with a look of increasing unease before uttering the immortal lines “Ma dai! But it is all the Japanese in here” It was at this point I realised we had what could only be termed a situation. It was one of those moments where you suddenly sense just how much is riding on what you decide to do next. Say nothing, and you’re essentially colluding with this ignorance. Come down heavy and you’ve got one very pissed-off new student who’s lost face and who now hates you. What to do? What to do?

In the end, I smiled and said “Not quite Francesco. This is Dilokpol. He’s from Thailand. And this is Henu, from Indonesia. This is Lily from Vietnam, and this is Chen Chen from Hong Kong. This is Agnes from The Philippines, this is Nan-Joo from South Korea and oh, this is Kenzo, who actually IS from Japan, so one out of seven. Not bad, not bad. And which part of Spain were you from again?” – a question which caused Francesco to look incredulous and to insist on his Italian origins. “Exactly”, I pointed out. “Where you’re from is important to you, right? And it’s the same for everyone else in the class, OK?” Firm but friendly smile tinged with just a tiny touch of menace. Move on.

I’m not sure how I knew to do this or what led me to make the choices I made in this instance. As I’ve already said, it certainly wasn’t anything my initial – and let’s face it. most CELTAs are VERY initial – training had prepared me for. There’d been no suggestion there that TEFL was going to be anything other than a constant holiday camp roller-coaster ride of great big neon FUN. I suppose I’d just developed – unconsciously up until this juncture – conflict resolution or deflation skills the way that most of us – by living! Life, whether we like it or not, comes with conflict in-built and whether it had been avoiding school bullies, recognising who not to stare at too long at football matches, working as a bouncer in dodgy London pubs whilst at uni or going through relationship break-ups, I’d somehow gotten to the stage where I was able to defuse this potential bomb in such a way as to show the Asian students in my class that I’d noticed the affront and wasn’t prepared to accept it, whilst also somehow keeping Francesco onside with a kind of firm humour.

This was one of the most crucial lessons I learned early o in my teaching career and, having survived this baptism by fire, I was set to be able to survive similarly testing encounters over the years to come. Now, I’m not suggesting that this was the only way of dealing with this situation, but it worked for me and the combination of stern / serious and kind / inclusive has stood me in good stead. Obviously, failure to develop ways of ensuring parity and equality in class; of ensuring students are not allowed to offend or abuse each other – or at least do not get to do so without being aware of the fact that this is what they’ve done; of ensuring that you as a teacher are in charge of the class and are able to meld its disparate elements into something resembling a cohesive whole can all lead to disaster . . . to lessons slipping out of your control; the factions developing; to outright mutiny; the upset and anger; to complaints and possible even dismissal. All of which ought really to suggest that we start taking our innate conflict-handling abilities a bit more seriously on initial training courses and at least allowing space for some discussion of how and when they might best be implemented.

As the years have gone by, I’d like to think I’ve honed the way I deal with conflict into an even more effective technique, which is essentially two-fold and involves (a) diffusing tension by turning arguments inwards towards new linguistic input and (b) if I think something is particularly wrong or offensive, politely saying that I disagree and explaining why. To wrap up this post, one quick example. A year or so ago, I was teaching a multilingual Upper-Intermediate group here in London. The word DISCRIMINATION came up in an exercise we were doing and one student asked if it was like racism. I explained it was kind of similar, though mainly limited to unfair treatment – rather than abuse or violence – and also mainly limited to the ability to get jobs, promotion, housing, and so on. I then said that in some ways it was also sort of bigger than racism as you could face discrimination if you were black or Asian, but that you could also FACE DISCRIMINATION or BE DISCRIMINATED AGAINST ON THE GROUNDS OF gender, so it’s harder for women to get some jobs; on the grounds of sexual orientation, so it’s harder to get work or housing if you’re openly gay and so on. At this point, a student said “Gay is like homosexual?” to which I replied “yes, but homosexual is quite old-fashioned and most homosexuals usually prefer to be called GAY”. The student then said something along the lines of “I hate the gays. They must die” – to generally fairly stunned / bemused / upset silence in class.

“Well, you’re entitled to think what you think, and I’m not here to change your mind”, I began, “but personally I think you’re wrong. I have plenty of gay friends and it’s not nice to think you want them dead. There may even be gay people in this class, for all you know. Anyway, you can think what you think. It’s up to you. In the university, though, if you say things like that can get you kicked out. You can be thrown off courses if you make HOMOPHOBIC COMMENTS.” I then explained the concept and wrote up on the board the following:

You can be kicked out of the university for making racist / sexist / homophobic / anti-Semitic / Islamophobic comments.

There followed a brief discussion of each of the concepts and a discussion about whether nor not similar rules applied in higher education institutions in their countries. Interestingly, and I’m certainly not claiming that this kind of thing happens all the time, at the end of the class this particular student came up and apologised and said he’d never had a discussion about any of these issues before and had never met anybody ‘who knows the gays’. We then had a further talk which took in things like ‘why the gays like men’ and the like – and no further comments of this nature were ever heard in my class again.

This defusing of potential heat by turning it inwards towards the teaching of new language has worked for me thus far.

Long may it continue to do so.

Twenty Things In Twenty Years Part One: Falling Into A Me-Shaped Hole

In much the same way as I once found it inconceivable that I’d ever suffer the indignity of reaching the terrifying age of 30, so it seems preposterous that this year marks the twentieth anniversary of my career in English Language Teaching! In acknowledgement and commemoration of this rather momentous life event, I’ve decided that over the course of the next twelve months I shall attempt to blog twenty pearls of wisdom I’ve gleaned during my years at the chalk face . . . and in publishing and on the conference circuit.

In April 1993, I stumbled onto my one-month CTEFLA course at Westminster College, having spent the previous two years (since graduating in 1991) doing everything from building site labouring to making sandwiches in a factory canteen, from demonstrating ‘the ancient Chinese game of Jenga’ (TM) in Hamley’s the Toy Shop to buying and selling old records in the legendary and indeed infamous Music and Video Exchange empire, all the while trying my darndest to enjoy the many and varied delights, shall we say, that London’s nightlife had to offer. I was 24 and reaching some kind of burnout point. A change I was most definitely ready for!

jenga image

As with many native-speaker teachers, a career in education was certainly never something I’d planned on. In fact, it was a fateful conversation in a pub in Soho with an old friend, the splendidly named Julian Savage, that pushed me on down the road I’ve been exploring ever since. A few years older than me, I’d first encountered Julian in Our Price Hastings and our initial bond was to do with the fact we both sported bowl cuts and loved The Byrds and The 13th Floor Elevators. Julian had himself wandered into TEFL a few years earlier as a way to facilitate his wanderlust and peripatetic lifestyle. Anyway, he was briefly back from a sojourn in Iran. Or was it Ethiopia? Or Indonesia? Anyway, we retired to a watering hole to catch up and shoot the breeze. At some point, I mentioned I was in need of a change of scene and was contemplating heading off round the works in search of thrills and pastures new – at which juncture a CTEFLA was suggested. “Why would I want to be a teacher?” I asked incredulously. “I hated most of my teachers at school!” “Well,” Julian countered, “that’s as good a reason as any for becoming a teacher! Look on it as a firm of revenge.” And thus my fate was sealed!

With a full set of negative role models to kick against, I stashed two grand away during a gruelling six-month stint working bars seven nights a week and embarked on a whole new adventure. Now, here’s the thing: almost as soon as I’d finished my first twenty-minute teaching practice, I had a strange and most singular feeling – here was some kind of work for which being me was not only no longer a profound disadvantage, but where it may actually be an advantage! In every other form of paid employment I’ve ever had, with the possible exception of second-hand record store work, at some point or other being me caused problems. I struggled to confine myself to the (often stark) parameters of the work; I struggled to keep my big mouth shut when confronted with idiotic rules and jobsworths; I struggled not to give in to the overwhelming desire to gouge my own mind out in frustration at the sheer tedium of so much of it!

In many ways, teaching didn’t feel – and to some extent never really has felt – like real work at al, certainly not when compared to trying to prevent the local apes from ripping each other’s faces off on a Friday night’s pub crawl down the Old Kent Road! As such, it’s probably worth considering why that might be the case.

Obviously, much of the early appeal, apart from (and let’s be honest here) the thrill of being in close proximity to so many beautiful and interesting young people from all over the world, was down to the space teaching allowed for whatever kind of demented (albeit well-intentioned) attempts to create my own lessons I could muster. It took me probably far too long to realise that not only were my students not massively interested in lessons based around David Bowie‘s God Knows I’m Good or A Clockwork Orange, but also – more crucially – that they weren’t teaching much of real utility.

clockwork_orange_book_cover

I was also slow to grasp that stumbling into class pretending to be drunk really wasn’t the best way of teaching the present perfect continuous, but I was still intoxicated by the freedom allowed me and by the plaudits of being ‘dynamic’ that students rained on me.

In retrospect I can see that a lot of poor teaching is excused – or possibly even validated – by a kind of pedagogical relativity, where we persuade ourselves that we teach as we wish to be taught, as though this justifies all, or where rampant experimentation is not only tolerated but actively encouraged. the point is, though, that teaching is a broad church and one that allows you to explore and work through all of this and more. Which is why becoming an English language teacher felt to me – and I’m sure to many many others – like falling into a me-shaped hole.

I later learned, of course, that the Subud quote on the back of one of the early Funkadelic LPs about freedom being free of the need to be free is profoundly true when it comes to teaching, and that it’s perfectly possible to still be both completely yourself in class and yet operate within clearly thought-out and even fairly narrow parameters.

But that, perhaps, is an area best left for another day!

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!