Category Archives: The state of our profession!

Elevenses

Just writing the word ELEVENSES makes me feel peckish. It has a lovely Pooh Bear quality to it, doesn’t it, redolent of hot buttered teacakes and steaming mugs of tea.

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But anyway, I digress. In case you’re wondering what on earth I’m on about thus far, ELEVENSES seems to have become almost a technologically-transmitted disease in ELT blogging circles over the last couple of months. Before Xmas, I started noticing the odd person whose blog I followed suddenly answering eleven questions and nominating others to do the same, like some kind of viral convulsion or online domino-chain.

I had been hoping to escape infection, but was recently nominated for all this by someone I follow on twitter and may or may not have met or even shared pub space with, the mysterious Secret DOS. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I figured answering some peculiar questions that someone else has come up with seemed like a fairly stress-free way to ease back into the world of blogging after a lengthy and much needed break from much of the Web over the Xmas period. Here goes:

1.  In your profession, what is the greatest myth that people still believe?

What a great question to kick things off with. There are so many myths that are still fairly common currency in ELT that it’s hard to know where to begin. Is this the time to have that long overdue pop at the snake oil peddlers selling us learning styles and multiple intelligences gobbledygook? Or the notion that a four-week course somehow prepares you for professional life? Or the idea that anyone anywhere can provide accelerated learning that gets students from Elementary to Advanced in a year or less?

I know. We really are spoiled for choice when it comes to fairy tales to cling onto! In terms of the GREATEST myth, though, it’d have to be the deeply ingrained idea that what makes learners better is essentially to do with the study of discrete grammatical structures. Or to paint in even broader brush strokes, the idea that grammar is at the heart of the language, that it’s what students need most, or that it’s even really teachable in any objective and global sense. A lingering myth that should have been killed off at least a decade ago, if not two, but that poisons so much of what we do to this day!

2. What is the single greatest truth that you think a language teacher should be aware of?

That language is at heart lexically driven.

And that learning any language to any serious degree of competence is bloody hard work!

3. If our cognition is located in our environment rather than in our heads, how should language teaching change? (One suggestion is enough!)

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4. What do you wish you didn’t know?

I’m assuming you mean apart from the fact that giraffes can kick the head off lions, that meat in southern China has been injected with dirty pond water in a bid to swell its weight and raise its price, and some unpleasant truths about myself, right? Well, I guess I’d rather not have known some of the politics and Machiavellian dealings that go on in both universities and also in the publishing world. I was probably purer and less tainted by knowledge of these things when I first set out in my own naive way to try and change the world with my first book, thinking good ideas would out simply because they were right, whereas in reality we all know that ideas become good when they come with added study trips to the UK, fridge freezers and so on. Other than that, I’m quite happy knowing pretty much everything I know about everything, as even the dark stuff is interesting and helps to flesh out the picture of the world and its inhabitants that I’ve been piecing together these 45 years!

5. The Michel Thomas method offers language learners the chance to go from beginner to confident speaker without books, homework or having to memorise anything – how likely is this?

The first thing I have to say in response to this question is that for people of a certain persuasion – and I include myself in this group – hearing mention of Michel Thomas – even without the A – leads to thoughts of one thing – and one thing only.

Now THAT, my friends, was magic.

Michel Thomas, sadly, is yet more proof, as if it were needed, that if you hype yourself strongly enough and make claims so big and bold that you seem mad to the sane person, plenty will buy into your dream machine and the bucks will surely fly. It takes little bits of Suggestopedia, little bits of Direct Method, little bits of self-help rubbish, little bits of Krashen and his affective filter, boils it all down to a dull, turgid muddy brown and sells it as The Best Thing Ever (TM).

Anyone who’s ever spent time trying to teach a language – or learn one – knows the claims are nonsense, and, for me, such total nonsense that I almost can’t be bothered trying to work out what it is within the hard sell that may actually be of value. Thomas benefited from having a remarkable life story that he could weave into a very salable narrative (not that I’d wish torture on anyone, of course!) and one that resonated particularly in Hollywood, where he built up a devastating client base. The whole privacy of his language school has the kind of cult effect Callan has, and is similarly lacking in any real theoretical grounding.

That said, I’m with him on the idea that anyone – or almost anyone – can learn a language and I guess I too do tend to see failure as a result of bad teaching rather than bad students. Interleaved learning – or mixing old stuff with new stuff – is also very sane, and what any decent teacher does almost automatically. Not totally bonkers, but as the last days of the Maoist commune in Brixton recently showed, cults are really no place to spend the next thirty years of your life.

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6. Does language learning have more to learn from the field of linguistics, psychology or neuroscience?

I’m really tempted to just sidestep this question by saying “Yes, it does” and be done with it.

The main issue for me here is that I’m honestly not sufficiently informed in all three fields to be able to comment with any degree of any authority on this. Language learning is generally very slow to learn from even the disciplines closest to, as can be seen from the depressingly limited impact the work of the greatest thinkers in our field, like Michael Hoey, have had thus far, so I think that to begin with, it’d be nice if language teachers learned more about language, which means linguistics, but there are also obviously lots of thins that we can all learn from psychology – and all good teachers pick up a lot of psychological insight on the job, even if they’re not conscious of having done so!

The benefits of neuroscience I, far less convinced of, personally, especially as it’s been used to dress up some of the multiple intelligence dribblings we’ve been subjected to! I’m wary of the way the new brand of folk neuroscience seems to be getting used to validate personal identity and subjective experience, and where the harder, purer stuff does get though, while it’s interesting, I’m not convinced it tells us a huge amount about what we should be doing in our classrooms.

7. What single small change would make a classroom a more effective place for learning?

The obvious answer to this would be a question – or two: which classroom? Where? If we’re just talking in very general terms, then I’m not sure I am able to narrow it down to one. There are three or four things that I think would make a huge difference: see language less as a machine or the linguistic equivalent of some obscure kind of algebra and start treating it – and using it – more as a means of communication that enables people to get to know each other better and to discuss a wide range of things of interest to them; work the language that is there in the classroom – explore and exploit it, and involve the students in this process; focus on whole language – lexis with grammar, and grammar with lexis – all the time; two steps forward and one back! Those four should start to make some kind of positive change in combination.

Perhaps.

8. Can language actually be taught?

Or only learned? I’m guessing that’s the sub-text here. If so, then I think it’s a false dichotomy as whilst in one very fundamental sense of course everything one learns to do has to be learned by the individual, teaching by another can help smooth the whole process and ensure the learning is more focused, more effective and more interesting. Things can’t ONLY be taught, but teaching can aid and assist learning in profound and remarkable ways.

9. Who has more to teach us: Tony Soprano, Jimmy McNulty or Walter White?

About what? About language teaching? Or about life? if the latter, all three shed light on many pertinent areas of the human soul and condition. If the former, I’m not sure any of them are particularly brilliant role models or mentors. If push came to shove, though, I guess I’d go with Walt, if only because watching Jesse Pinkman shouting “Yeah! Science, bitches!” as Mr White cooked up some new recipe or took out rival cartels with demented chemistry was testament to the fact that even the most unlikely students could be won over if he subject were to be pitched to them on a level they related to.

Incidentally, while we’re here, ever notice the marked similarity between Dominic West as Jimmy McNulty and my friend and co-author Andrew Walkley?

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When you add to this the fact that Dominic West also played mass murderer Fred West (no relation), it all starts getting very sinister indeed.

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10. If somebody doesn’t have what it takes, can they get it?

That all depends on what you think IT is, of course.

I’m guessing you mean in terms of being a teacher? Well, up to a point, I think the answer is yes. Every now and then, as any trainer will tell you, you do encounter trainees who struggle immensely during their early teaching practices and who seem destined for disaster, be it due to crippling shyness or nerves or whatever, but even these folk can learn the basics and get to a stage where they can function to at least the point of being employable somewhere. Once there, if they have the right contacts and colleagues and conversations, there’s no reason why they can’t push on and develop and get better. Having spent many years watching Tony Adams play football – a man of essentially limited capabilities who ended up excelling at his craft simply though sheer exertion of effort and willpower – I’m a firm believer in the notion that desire and hard work and focus can trump innate talent. And we can all think of examples of seemingly ‘naturally’ gifted folk who’ve got complacent or failed  to live up their potential for whatever reason, so yes I suppose is my answer here.

We’re actually in the middle of a methodology book that is an attempt to break down and define in step-by-step forensic detail what we think IT might involve, by the way, and how teachers can slowly go about acquiring it!

11. Is language learning a uniquely human endeavour? Are there any parallels to it elsewhere?

It clearly is not only uniquely human, but also, arguably, what MAKES us human.

Right. Well, that’s that, then.

Officially, what I’m now supposed to do is nominate eleven other bloggers to answer eleven questions of my won choosing, but I’ve never been much of a one for dumping work on others if I can at all help it. Add to that the fact that I’ve come to this rather late, and pretty much everyone I know who might’ve been interested in playing has already offered up their own version of this parlor game and you have my get-out clause! I’ll get my coat . . .

The final part I’m now supposed to add is eleven random facts about me, so here goes nothing:

1 My dad was once arrested for lobbing a Molotov cocktail through the window of Rhodesia House. And again for catching, killing and cooking a swan.

2 I went to school with Mary McCartney and used to see Paul around town and at parents’ evenings and the like.

3 I lost my virginity on my sixteenth birthday. Sort of by accident.

4 I spent a fair chunk of my teenage years writing for a fanzine called FREAKBEAT and now do a fair bit of scribbling for another zine called SHINDIG!

5 My Indonesian is pretty decent.

6 I worship at the shrine of Bo Diddley.

7 I have never knowingly refused a free drink.

8 Possibly my favourite ever novel is The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.

9 I sing in a rock’n’roll band called The Beatpack.

10 My house is home to over 8000 LPS and 2000 45s.

11 I get a monthly haircut, cutthroat razor shave, hot towel treatment and so on – the full works – done at my local old school Turkish barbers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jumping Through Hoops

Twenty things in twenty years part seven: input is more important than output

To say that the CTEFLA that was my gateway into the world of English Language Teaching encouraged me to be output-focused would be an understatement. Like many teachers who’ve come through the British ELT system, with its roots firmly in that bare minimum of twenty days of training, and teaching practice from day two of your course, I had bred into me a deep fear of Teacher Talking Time (I can’t be the only one, for example, that was intimidated with lunatic Mathematics along the lines of ‘70% of the talk time should be theirs, leaving you with only 30%!’). This quite naturally engendered a desire to ensure that my students were kept talking at any cost. Indeed, so desperate was I to ensure that I managed to keep my students talking that for at least a year early on, this particular tome was my Bible:

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It’s basically a recipe book full of activities designed to do what it says on the tin – keep student talking – and until tonight, I’d not looked at if for at least fifteen years. However, dusting my dog-eared copy down from the shelves, I see that I’ve highlighted several old favourites. There’s the aptly named MAD DISCUSSION for starters, which I believe I used to know as pizza or Paris, and which involves splitting the class into two teams, asking one member from each team to come forward and then have them talk about why their topic – picked at random from a bag – is better than that of their opponent. Pizzas or Paris, plastic spoons or zips, the wheel or detective novels, and so on. Then there was MAGIC SHOP, which involved each student getting three slips of paper, every one containing a different positive human quality (honesty, health, humility, adaptability, and so on). Students decide which qualities to keep and which to barter with others. They then get ten minutes’ bartering time before reporting back on which qualities they’ve ended up with and how happy this has made them! I could go on, but the urge to invent a time machine and go back and inflict serious damage on my younger self would start to become overwhelming.

Now, given the fact that a four-week course is never going to teach even the most remarkable trainee to really be able to do anything other than fake it, I suspect that much of the reason behind the relentless emphasis on STUDENT talking time is simply a fear that the novice teacher will start spouting rubbish given half a chance. I know for sure that I did, repeatedly, and I’ve seen plenty of other young teachers do the same, if not worse!

Instead, far better, the logic runs, to train the teacher to be some kind of all-singing, all-dancing entertainer who can magic fun out of anything available and who may not know much about language, but who sure knows how to get the party started. And once it starts ebbing, how to rekindle it and keep it burning all lesson long!

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However, in reality, the fact that novices may well spout nonsense is actually an argument for introducing longer, more comprehensive and more language-focused teacher training courses for those entering the profession, or – at the very minimum – an argument for more serious discussion of what KINDS of teacher talk may be valid and what be more problematic, and why – rather than an argument in favour of endless activities and talking for its own sake.

Another argument put forward in support of an output-dominated pedagogy is the notion that if not here, then where? In other words, if students don’t practise in class, then where will they ever get the chance to do so? Interestingly, even more recent critiques of the state of affairs we’ve gotten ourselves into such as the Demand High idea propagated by Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill still seems more focused on methodology and on what we as teachers can do in terms of classroom techniques to encourage our students to produce more and to stretch and expand their output.

The result has long been, continues to be and sadly will probably continue to be, for as long as CELTAs are still regarded as serious gateways into the profession, classrooms full of clowns with their bags of tricks, recipes, fun in large neon lights, and loads of hot air. Signifying very little indeed.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way at all, you know! It took me a while to work this out, but once I did, the blinding obviousness of the revelation almost . . . um . . . well, blinded me, I suppose. Anyway, here’s the secret. It’s this: students don’t actually learn language by chatting away using the language they already have, now matter how much fun they may have in the process. They actually learn language from language. Not images. Not blank spaces in coursebooks left in to lighten the visual load on a page. Not from running round the classroom in a  frenzy. But from language.

Whilst it’s possible that some of the interaction students engage in with other students during a lesson may expose them to new input or encourage them to produce for themselves things that had hitherto remained stuck in the receptive parts of the brain, we need to accept that it also may NOT. This isn’t to say that there are no good reasons for still doing pair work: there are obviously plenty. It’s simply to state that linguistic development and enrichment are NOT among the activity’s prime functions!

To really get over the Intermediate hump and to progress anywhere near to Advanced level, students not only to practise again saying what they’ve already learned to say. They need to take on board large amounts – huge amounts even – of new language. They need to tighten up on their ability to use grammar, sure, but basically they need a ton of lexis: collocations, chunks, fixed and semi-fixed expressions, and so on. They need to meet these things repeatedly, they need to have certain salient features of them brought to their attention somehow and they need to do something – possibly, actually, they need to do almost anything – with them. Given that the teacher alone cannot be expected – or, of course, in most cases (my own included, I hasten to add!) be trusted – to provide sufficient relevant input themselves, via correction and teacher talk, then the issue of INPUT becomes perhaps the most pressing one that teachers have to think about.

Given that we seem to be living through the days of increasingly shrill rhetoric about flipped classrooms and that we’re constantly being told that technology now facilities exposure to English 24-7-365, many might argue that now more than ever the classroom should be output focused, but I would turn this on its head – or flip it, if you prefer (see what I did there!) – and ask if not in class, then where – and, more crucially, when?! The fact remains that for the vast majority of students, class is the one place where they have a hope of getting input pitched roughly at their level, which can then be mediated, explained, expanded upon, explored and revised by a professional – that’s us, kids – and that’s because most students who wind up in EFL classes, especially those who come as adults, are essentially failures in varying degrees. The lucky few, those who can learn a foreign language via interaction, are skipping class in favour of going out there and learning language through interaction! The rest of us miserable wretches all know what we ought to do if we really want to learn a foreign language well, but Lord knows that doing right is the hardest work there is on God’s own earth – and that it ain’t nowhere near as much fun as doing wrong.

If you’re honest, you know that most students don’t do much outside of class to push on from where they’re at. They do what we all do – take easy options and short cuts. They may well do some interactive stuff online, which is fine, but it’s not tackling new input; they may well try and tackle some insanely optimistically graded text of some kind – The Guardian, perhaps, or a two-hour movie that contains accents and language even native-speakers may well struggle with in places; but what all but the most motivated and focused few won’t do is read graded readers, do an hour (or even half an hour) a day from decent self-study vocabulary books, and so on. It’s too much like hard work.

And the fact that we not only have such an expression in English, but that it’s such common currency says much about the age in which we live, I fear!

Anyway, to wrap up for tonight, this is where the choice of material becomes crucial. Material we select for classroom use needs to take the weight of all these issues on its shoulders. It needs to amuse and entertain, for sure, but also it needs to push and stretch as well. On top of that, it needs to guide and shape awareness both of how language works and also of what needs to be done to get to the next rung on the ladder of linguistic competence. It needs, in short, to demand more of its users. And if we as teachers are serious about demanding high, then making sure our classes are focused first and foremost on input rather than output is not simply an option, but a must.

Teaching grammar lexically

A week or so ago, I posted up my first experiment with narrating Powerpoint presentations, as i tried to run through a talk I did at our inaugural University of Westminster Lexical Conference. As promised back then, I’ve managed to make another similar kind of thing, this time using Camtasia and then uploading it directly onto YouTube, which this blogging platform then allows me to embed here!

Anyway, this was the closing plenary to the one-day conference, and is really a condensation of many of the thoughts I’ve had over the last twelve to fifteen years about why the way I was taught to teach grammar isn’t particularly useful or efficient – and how we might start to redress this and do things better henceforth.

It seems stupid to spend too long giving much of a preamble to a video where I get to talk for myself at, I’m sure some might say, considerable length, so I’ll cut to the chase and leave you to watch this yourselves. Hope you enjoy it – and I look forward to reading your thoughts and comments.

Twenty things in twenty years Part Five: there really is no need for Needs Analysis!

One of the more ridiculous notions instilled in me on my month-long CELTA course taken twenty years ago was the idea that via a scribbled sheet of paper containing a few topics and some grammar structures I might somehow be able to discern the ‘needs’ of my subsequent classes. In retrospect, it now seems almost as mad to me as a novice medical student with a few weeks’ study under their belt asking a patient what THEY think the root of their medical condition is – and then treating them in accordance with this self-diagnosis. I dread to think what would’ve happened to me when I first slipped a disc in my early 20s after a particularly heavy session in the gym and yet only became aware of the issue due to a throbbing pain behind my knee (which I now realise was the result of inflammation of the sciatic nerve, the root of which had been trapped beneath the lapsed spinal disc). Might I have been given knee strengthening exercises to do? Told to run more? God only knows, but one thing you can be sure of is that I would not have been well diagnosed and that the treatment I would’ve received would almost certainly have done more harm than good.

It’s not just my CELTA course that tried to foist Needs Analysis onto me, though. The edition of Jeremy Harmer’s THE PRACTICE OF ENGLISH LANGUAGE TEACHING that I read as part of the course also includes a section on the subject, albeit within the context of evaluating material that might be useful / relevant to students. We’re told to ‘describe’ our students by noting down their age, sex, social / cultural backgrounds, occupations, motivation/attitude, educational background, English level, world knowledge, and their interests and beliefs – and to then use these findings to draw conclusions about what material might best work. We’re then encouraged to get students to write the contexts and situations students will probably use English in at some future date, the order of priority for use of different language skills – and the percentage of classroom time that should be spent on each skill. Once you’ve collated all this information, you presumably do the maths – add up all the different percentages from all the different students in the class, divide by whatever number you have in the class and then divvy up your week’s plan accordingly!

Having spent at least the first few years of my teaching career engaging in this kind of deranged activity, I can officially report one thing with certainty: most students want to do more grammar! Even the really good ones who hardly ever make grammar mistakes still think they need to do more grammar. The endless study of structures – their forms and their meanings / uses – is still very widely seen as the yardstick by which students measure their own sense of progress. In addition to this, I can confirm that most students – and here I’m talking particularly about GENERAL ENGLISH students – have either very little idea of when and where they might end up needing to use their English, if indeed they ever will; or else simply know they’ll need to use it in their lives and that this could include any manner of contexts and conversations. As if this wasn’t already complex and confusing enough, there’s the fact that needs and wants may often be two very different beasts. A student may only NEED English in a very limited context – to read academic papers connected to dentistry, say – but their WANTS may include reading 19th century literature, chatting to foreigners they meet in the bar near where they live in Alicante, surfing websites connected to the Moorish influence on Spanish culture and understanding recipes in English! Take the overlapping, conflicting complexity of one individual and multiply it fifteen times and you have a normal class: one that it’s nigh-on impossible to assess or analyse the ‘needs’ of using any of these approaches!

Of course, if you’re teaching one-to-one or doing a very niche ESP or Business class, then maybe this approach works better. I still recall being sent out to teach in a factory  in Tanggerang – in the sprawling industrial suburbs of Jakarta – armed with my CEC English Course, which we slogged through for a few weeks before my students plucked up enough courage to tell me that really this wasn’t what they needed and that actually the only reason they needed English was to understand the vast Suzuki manual they had to plough through in order to do their jobs properly!

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Knowing this in advance would have saved us all time and stress, no doubt. Interestingly, in the edition of Jim Scrivener’s LEARNING TEACHING that I read as a novice, Needs Analysis is ONLY mentioned within the confines of a discussion about teaching Business English, which does make sense.

More recently, the concept of meeting students’ needs has formed a central part of the discourse around Dogme, as though simply doing enough talking with our students and plugging the gaps that emerge is somehow sufficient provision of language for all subsequent needs (as opposed to simply being an immediate finger-in-dyke-wall type operation)! The talking around any given task is in itself apparently the analysis and the recasting or reformulation of output, the meeting of the needs thus exposed!

Whilst there’s obviously much to be said for working from what students say and helping them to say it better, the claim that this meets needs seems to me only marginally less spurious than the idea that asking students which topics they wish to whizz through during their four-week stay at a private language school that has continuous enrollment – and which structures they most want to go over yet again in order to increase ever further their anxiety about them – helps us do the same.

My own teaching – and hopefully also my students’ learning – benefited greatly from  abandoning questionnaires of the kind outlined above (and of the kind still to be found all over the web as well!) – and finally recognising that one of the things students pay for is a more expert analysis of what they need to do in order to get to where they might want to get to – which, let’s face it, often just means to the next level up! As previously mentioned, students themselves, as a result of their own learning experiences and notions about language, tend to see progress very much in terms of grammar. I can count on maybe one hand the number of students I’ve met over the years who, in tutorials or just whilst chatting, have been astute enough to recognise that the main thing stopping them from moving up past Intermediate, say, is their lack of lexis! It’s a rare learner indeed who perceives that it’s only the drudgery of taking on board another one or two or three thousand collocations, chunks, expressions, words is at the heart of what will push them on to FCE and beyond! And that’s where we come in!

Because REALLY what your General English students need MOST is this:

– repeated exposure to as many of the most frequent words in the language, the two- and three-star words in Learner Dictionaries, as can be managed in the time you have with them.

– greater understanding of how these words work with other words, and how they work with grammar.

– advice on how best to shoulder the huge burden of having to learn this much language

– to put this advice into practice and to take some responsibility for this learning at home, whether it be by reading graded readers, making revision cards, doing vocabulary self-study books or whatever

– to read and to listen to appropriately graded texts across a wide range of social, academic and work-related topics

– to have space to discuss their own responses to these texts – and to tell stories / anecdotes using the lexis studied – in class . . . AND then to have the teacher help them say these things better

– to become more aware (via repeated work on this) of how language sounds when spoken: the linking, the elision, the assimilation, the weak forms, and so on . . . and to get the chance to hear a broad range of accents, both native and non-native.

– to sometimes be corrected when they do make mistakes with language (including grammar) previously taught and to be made aware of why what they said / wrote was wrong

– to spend some time either consolidating or extending what they know about how structural grammar works, but less time than they spend on lexis, as lexis is far more at the root of communicative competence than structural grammar is

– to have a teacher confident enough to explain these needs to them, to explain why what they think they need may not actually be what’s best for them, and to guide them towards ways of more fruitfully using the little time they have available for the study of English in more fruitful ways

And THAT is never going to happen if we continue to send inexperienced teachers out there into the big wide world armed with photocopied lists of unit titles and topic headings from Murphy’s English Grammar In Use, is it?!

 

 

 

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!

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!!!