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.
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.
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?
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!!
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!!!
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.
“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!
After my first effort at introducing new jargon into a field that, let’s face it, isn’t exactly crying out for more new terminology, you’ll be delighted to know that what follows is my second attempt at introducing new lexical items, nay new CONCEPTS even, into ELT!
As I’m sure you are all aware, for students to truly be able to say they’ve learned a new word to the point where they may actually start being able to use it, they need to know a whole host of things. To mention but a few, there’s pronunciation and / or spelling; word class (is it a noun, an adjective, a verb or what); collocations – the words with which it frequently co-occurs; register – the kind of contexts or genres or situations in which it’ll be most commonly used; related derivations – for instance, knowing that photographer is a derivative of photograph (or vice versa, of course, depending on how you look at things) and so on. However, perhaps the core elements of new lexis that students most need to have clarified for them are meaning – and more particularly the contextual meaning – and the contexts and co-texts of use. This means that whenever we are tackling lexis in class, which is surely in every single class the vast majority of us teach, we have a responsibility to ensure not only that students understand what words mean in the contexts they’re being presented / met, but also that they get to see the contexts in which this new language might be used along with language that may typically occur in these contexts. Exposure to the new lexis in these kind of embedded contexts helps to prime or condition students to expect the lexical items to work if not in exactly the same ways in future then at least in some kind of similar way, in a way that simply learning basic meanings never can.
So far, so obvious, I’m imagining, right? Well, the problem for teachers (and thus, by default, for students) is that the vast majority of coursebooks and classroom materials DON’T actually provide that much in the way of support with any of these key concerns, and particularly suffer from a lack of attention to (or interest in) common usage. Which is where my concepts for the day come in! Vertical and horizontal expansion of lexis is part of the added value that teachers can bring and part of what students can benefit from in their study of new language.
Let’s explore how this might work in the classroom. I’ve just picked a coursebook at random from the shelves behind and have come up with Just Right Intermediate, published by Marshall Cavendish. Unit 5 is entitled Home and contains a Vocabulary exercise called homes and houses. The exercise requires students see which of a set of words in a box match pictures, and features items like basement, block of flats, bungalow, cottage, fence, flat, first floor, garage, terraced house and studio flat. Once the matching has been done, students discuss which of the pictures is most like where they live and what differences there might be before explaining / writing which of the homes they’d most like to live in and why. An example is given: I’d like to live in the cottage because it’s pretty.
You may well wonder whether or not Intermediate students really need the word bungalow or the degree to which the example sentence really represents how students may actually use the word cottage – or even hear it used, but for better or worse here’s a set of lexis that requires teaching, if you’re using this particular book. Horizontal expansion lies in thinking about what’s said after – or sometimes possible before – by the speaker using the word, so take the word basement. Having lived in a basement flat myself for many years, the sentences around the word which immediately spring to mind are along the following lines:
I live in a basement flat. It’s OK, but it’s a bit dark.
We’re renting a basement flat. It’s quite nice, but the upstairs neighbours make a LOT of noise.
I don’t really get a mobile signal at home because I’m in the basement.
Vertical expansion is to do with thinking about what might be said before or after a sentence containing the lexical item by another speaker. In other words, thinking about how the conversation around this word might develop. So to stick with the same word – basement – I’d expect things like the following:
What’s the rent like?
> It’s not bad, actually. It’s a basement flat, so it’s a bit cheaper than it might otherwise be.
Well, that’s good, then.
I can’t hear you. You keep breaking up.
> Yeah, sorry. I’m in the basement and reception’s really bad here.
Now, once you start thinking about lexis in this way, you not only have a way of expanding upon what’s provided for in the material you’re using, but also of starting to create exercises yourself. In classroom terms, what it might mean is that whilst students are trying a task, you monitor, see which words they’re having problems with and get either horizontally or vertically expanded examples up on the board – ideally, with gaps – so that when you’re rounding up you can use these to both consolidate and expand upon what students know about the words being studied – and how to use them. For instance, whilst rounding up, I might say something like this:
So some of you weren’t sure about basement. Anyone? yeah, right. It’s the bottom floor of the house and it’s always a little bit or completely below ground level. (Turning to the board) Often, if you’re in a basement, because it’s petty much underground, you don’t get much light, so it can be a bit? yeah, that’s right. (write in the word dark to the sentence above). And if you’ve ever lived in a basement, you’ll know it can be hard to talk on a mobile down there because you don’t really get a signal, because the reception’s bad, so when you’re talking to friends, they might tell you that you keep MMM-MMM up. Anyone? No? You keep breaking up, so they can hear you, then they can’t, then they can, then they can’t. OK. I’ll give you a minute to write now.
In the same way, a better vocabulary exercise could be constructed, using the lexis mentioned above from Just Right, simply by operating on the same principles. Instead of simply having the lexical set and seeing which nouns were depicted, you could for instance, ask students which place was most probably being described in sentences such as these:
1 It’s a nice flat, but it’s pretty dark down there. We don’t get that much natural light.
2 Now he has problems with his legs, it’s much better for him because he doesn’t have to go up and down the stairs all day long.
and so on.
More words on the page, of course, but also far more support for students, and far more chance of them being primed not only in common usage, but also in terms of exposure to co-text and, of course, covert exposure to a wide range of grammar in action, which teachers can choose to draw attention to and comment on, or not.
Have you ever wondered how new terms come into use within ELT? I know I have. My sneaking suspicion has always been that they probably start out a bit like football chants: three mates in a pub after a game drunkenly hit upon a great rhyming couplet and vow to try their new invention out on the terraces the next home game; if the chant is any good, it gets taken up by others around them and eventually takes on a life of its own, maybe even passing into history as one of the club’s all-time greatest songs. I’m sure, for instance, that I can’t be the only in the part of London who, on hearing even the faintest hint of Andy Williams doing You’re Just Too Good To Be True, starts having flashbacks and grins a simple idiot joy of remembering Freddie Ljungberg’s many, many Arsenal goals!
Anyway, I digress. My point is simply that terms must surely come into being by first someone spotting a gap in the conceptual market and then floating a phrase to define it and seeing if it sticks. I’ve always thought it must be great to have come up, say, the phrase lexical priming or sound chunking (Michael Hoey and David Brazil respectively)! My first stab at introducing a new term into the field is far less grand, but does nevertheless represent something I’ve been thinking long and hard about whilst pondering the whole slippery nature of level of late. Ladies and gentlemen, I give to you ambient vocabulary.
My Macmillan Advanced Learners’ dictionary advises me that ambient is a technical word meaning ‘existing or present around you – as in ambient sound, whilst ambient temperature is the temperature of surrounding air. Many of you may also be familiar with the concept of ambient music: evolving both from the kind of muzak you might hear whilst trundling your shopping trolley around your local supermarket and out of avant-garde experiments in early electronica, ambient music blossomed in the early-to-mid 1970s, with its dominant artists perhaps being former Roxy Music man Brian Eno, who released his seminal Ambient 1: Music for Airports set in 1978, thus giving life to the term. Eno himself stated that ambient music can be either “actively listened to with attention or as easily ignored, depending on the choice of the listener”, and based his term on the Latin term ambire, meaning to surround.
Now, you’re probably wondering where on earth I’m going with all this, aren’t you? Well, fear not. The sense in which I’ve become interested in in the concept of ambient vocabulary runs parallel to Eno’s notions. I’m interested in vocabulary that can be actively brought to the attention of students – or just as easily ignored, depending on the choices made by the teacher . . . and I’d like to suggest that generally we’d all be better off bringing more ambient vocabulary to the fore rather than leaving it in the background, especially if we’re keen to up the level of the input we’re providing for our learners.
Ambient vocabulary is language that’s there in the background of any given exercise or text, but which doesn’t necessarily need to be focused on in order for students – and teacher – to complete the task. Let’s look at a concrete example to illustrate what I mean here. Here’s an exercise I watched one of my trainees deal with last week. It’s taken from a writing spread that looks at making requests and enquiries and originally comes from INNOVATIONS Advanced.
2 Stating your purpose
When we write e-mails to people we know relatively well, the language we use is very similar to everyday spoken English. Formal letters to people we know less well are much more likely to be more formal.
Choose the words in italics which are more appropriate for the context.
a Hi Jamir. You couldn’t just quickly send / forward me a note saying you’ve received that cheque, could you?
b I am writing to request / ask for a complimentary copy of ‘Practising English Writing’, as advertised in your sales brochure.
c I am writing to inform you of the fact / tell you that in a recent statement I was overcharged by thirty pounds / ripped off.
d I am writing to request that you reimburse / give me back in full the amount sent with my recent order from your company.
e Hi Mike. Just a quick one to ask if you could let me know / inform me how much you think the tickets will be.
f I am writing to request further information regarding / more info about the current situation in Sierra Leone and to see / determine whether the Home Office is currently telling people not to / advising against travel to the country.
g I would be most grateful if you could / Can you forward me details of your course fees and dates for the next academic year.
h I am writing to enquire about the chances / possibility of acquiring / getting hold of a replica of my birth certificate.
In essence, the bare minimum a teacher would need to check in order to ensure students that had successfully completed this exercise is the language in italics. On a basic level, a teacher could simply explain the task to students, let them get on with it, put them in pairs to compare ideas and then elicit answers by simply saying “OK. A? Right. It should be SEND. Is it more formal or informal? Right. Informal. Because it starts quite informally – Hi Jamir. And B? OK. Request. It’s more formal, right. Writing to someone you don’t know.” – and so on. Doing this is better than nothing, but not by much. In essence, this approach posits the teacher as little more than a glorified human answer key.
A touch more sophisticated would be an approach would tackled not only the correct answers, but which checked and extended upon wrong answers. In this approach, the teacher may well run through the answers more like this: “OK, so A? Right. Send. How do you know? OK, but what tells you it’s informal? Right. The writer says Hi. The writer uses first names – Jamir – instead of something like Mr. Ali or whatever. Anything else? Yeah, the use of just to make the request seem small and actually the whole chunk – You couldn’t just – could you – is pretty informal too. Well spotted. And forward is a more formal way of saying send, so you might write something like I would be most grateful if you could forward me your price list (writes this on the board) or I would really appreciate it if you could forward me details of training programmes and so on. OK. B? Yeah. Request. How do you know it’s formal? Yes, there are no first names. And they’re clearly writing to someone they don’t now, asking for something for free, so formal is better. And you might say stuff like (writes on board) I am writing to request . . . further information about . . . / a quote for . . . / permission to . . . / copies of . . . and so on. Ask for is usually with friends or people you know, so you might email a friend / colleague and write something like I just wanted to ask for your thoughts on something or I just wanted to ask for a bit of advice. OK. C?” This approach gives the answers PLUS and involves some real teaching, but still doesn’t really tackle the ambient vocabulary lurking behind the scenes in the exercise above.
So what exactly might this ambient vocabulary be and how might teachers alert students to its existence? Well, it’s basically anything there in the sentences that’s NOT central to the answers and that wouldn’t necessarily need to be covered when going through the answers, but which might still be new for students and which they might benefit from being exposed to. It’s language which will up the level of the input students get around the exercise and which will make even those who’ve raced through the exercise and who’ve got all the answers correct that they’re still going away from the class having been pushed and having learned something new. It’s language a sharp, lexically-minded teacher can focus on in addition to doing the great things involved in checking and processing the answers that I’ve outlined above.
In the exercise above, I’d suggest it means the following items: a complimentary copy, sales brochure, statement, (reimburse me) in full, the current situation, course fees and replica. Now, I’m not suggesting that I’d cover all of these items every time I rounded up the answers to these sentences, or that I’d do much more with some of them than check students have noticed them, gloss them, maybe ask one extra question about them. With the more useful words that perhaps have broader applicability (or, if you’d prefer higher surrender value) such as brochure and fees, I’d probably also get some extra examples of usage up on the board as well.
Here’s how I might bring the backgrounded ambient to the fore in just one sentence – B – above.
As I was going through the answers, I’d perhaps say something like the following:
“OK. B? Yeah. Request. How do you know it’s formal? Yes, there are no first names. And they’re clearly writing to someone they don’t now, asking for something for free, so formal is better. And you might say stuff like (writes on board) I am writing to request . . . further information about . . . / a quote for . . . / permission to . . . / copies of . . . and so on. Ask for is usually with friends or people you know, so you might email a friend / colleague and write something like I just wanted to ask for your thoughts on something or I just wanted to ask for a bit of advice. And did you notice here the writer requests a complimentary copy. What do you think it means here? Right. It’s like a free copy. In the same way, sometimes at big parties, like launch parties for products or whatever, all guests maybe receive complimentary samples or a complimentary drink, and sometimes frequent flyers get a complimentary upgrade to Business Class. OK, and did you notice here, the sales brochure. How many pages usually? Just one or more than one? Yeah, right. It’s usually like a small magazine, and it’s always for some kind of goods or services that a company provides, so you get (write on board) hotel brochures, travel brochures, holiday brochures, school or university brochures, and the expensively-produced ones are usually (write on board) glossy full-colour brochures. And if you just look quickly though one, you (write on board) flick through – or leaf through – it.
More Teacher Talking Time for sure, but that’s what teaching is, folks! I’ve never yet had a student complain that their teachers were trying to explain things in too much depth or giving too many examples! As the old adage has it, you learn language FROM language – and if we really want our students to feel challenged, and we want to make the most of the language that surrounds them then perhaps it’s time we started ensuring we focus more keenly on bringing ambient vocabulary to the fore.