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The last post

What can I say? It’s been emotional!

However, after over 60 posts, 50,000 visits and almost 1000 comments, I’ve decided to lay this site to rest.

Henceforth, all my blogging and efforts in general will be conducted over at my new joint venture: Lexical Lab.

Naturally, I’ll leave everything here as it is, so that generations of future visitors can stumble across it in years to come.

It just remains for me to thank everyone who’s swung by over the years and to say it’s not the end.

It’s just the end of the beginning.

Hugh

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There (and sort of) back again

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

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

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

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

Anyway, I’ve rambled on far too long.

Here’s Mumtaz in how own words . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I feel empowered again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collocations exercise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right, that seems like plenty for now.

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

Rethinking grammar

It’s been way too long since I managed to post anything here. The last few weeks have come and gone in a bit of a blur: new writing projects, a new term at work, a plenary at the wonderful Poland IATEFL conference and so on. Anyway, yesterday my co-author and partner in crime Andrew Walkley and I gave a talk at University of Westminster, where we both work. The talk was part of our ongoing series of Teacher Development talks and was entitled RETHINKING GRAMMAR.

Rather than write about it, I decided to make a video of the Powerpoint and narrate the thing more or less as we did it last night.

Hope you enjoy it and look forward to reading your thoughts and comments.

A guest post by Geoff Jordan: SLA Research – who cares?

A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to go to Seville to talk at the wonderful annual Spain TESOL conference. Outside of fretting about my own presentation and trying to ensure I deliver it as best I can, and away from the obligatory intensive socializing, my usual approach to conferences is to try to see a mixture of the big-name presenters and the plenaries (partly to keep an eye on what could reasonably be termed The Competition, partly because these large sessions are generally seen by most conference goers, and thus provide talking points as you chat to folk you’ve not met before) balanced out by rather more left-field kinds of things. When you’ve been going to conferences for a number of years, it’s easy to feel that you’ve heard it all before, so it’s always a pleasure and privilege to stumble upon something that pushes you, enlightens you, informs you, adds to where you’re at already or simply manages to entertain whilst also being highly informative. In all honesty, these days I feel lucky if I see two or three things per conference that really hit the spot for me.

Anyway, one of the talks I caught in 2011 was on Second Language Acquisition and its possible implications for ELT. It was delivered by a guy called Geoff Jordan, who’s I’m delighted to announce is now the second guest poster I’ve had here. Geoff has lived in Spain since 1981, working at ESADE, Barcelona for 28 years, first as a language teacher and then as Director of Studies. Since 2004, he’s been freelance, doing English immersion courses from home, working with post-doctoral students at the Universitat Politecnica de Barcelona and on the Distance Learning MA in AL and TESOL programme at Leicester University. Geoff also has his own blog, aimed particularly at those doing postgraduate work in Applied Linguistics, but surely of interest to anyone involved in teaching EFL.

I’ll say a bit about why this particular struck with me by and by, but now without further ado, I’ll let Geoff talk for himself!

There you go.

Hope you enjoyed that and found something of interest within.

If nothing else, it should’ve sent you reaching for a scrap of paper and had you jotting down bits and bobs to now go away and read!

From my point of view, firstly, it’s always good to see people who’ve clearly read a lot more than you have. As I’ve said before on this blog, I’m first and foremost a teacher; secondly a writer and thirdly a trainer. Whatever else I may be, an academic is not one of those things! I try to stay as informed as I can manage, but there are only so many hours in the day, which is why it’s great that there are people like Geoff out there who are able to distill a lot of reading and thinking  into a fairly viewer-friendly / teacher-friendly kind of format. On top of all that, of course, it’s also always good to see something overtly theoretical that chimes with your own beliefs and practice. Here are just a few random thoughts I had whilst watching the presentation again this time around:

– I love the driving analogy. It’s a simile I’ve used myself before and I feel that there are many many similarities between learning to drive and learning to use a foreign language. In both, we have to internalize, proceduralize and then automatize before we can trundle along with any degree of comfort or competence. The role of the tutor in encouraging automaticity is one I’ve touched on several times before.

– Then notion that interlanguage doesn’t simply emerge – or at the very least doesn’t fully flower into something more recognisable as fluent use of the second language – of its own accord is one we would all do well to bear in mind. Interlanguage needs regular honing and restructuring if it is to be polished into something less odd or singular and more in keeping with mainstream use.

– The example of What’re you going to have? being learned and used competently as a chunk before being broken down and analysed, and then eventually,after some stumbling and falling and backsliding, being reconstructed in a range of different ways chimes very much with the idea of teaching grammar as lexis at low levels. The traditional idea has always been that you learn the parts first and build up to the whole but very clearly you can learn the whole first – or maybe it’s more accurate to say A whole first – and out of this, then learn how to build further similar examples.

– The idea that the door on anything approaching native-like SLA closes very young – around 14 – and that adults thus end up using entrenched L1 processing habits is very much what I was getting at in a recent post here. What seems to counter this entrenchment is not simply further exposure and comprehensible input, as Krashen once posited, but knowledge being made explicit, formal tuition, which can then feed back into improved acquisition away from formal instruction.

I could go on, but I don’t ant to steal Geoff’s thunder.

Instead, I’ll simply throw things over to you now and leave it up to readers to comment on what most struck you about the talk, what you agree with, what you’re unsure of, anything you vehemently object to, and so on.

Talking Tech 1: Lingro

Like many of you out there, the institution I work in is engaged in a desperate – and at times highly unfocused – dash towards digital. We’ve invested quite heavily in Blackboard, an online learning platform that I’m guessing many of you will already be familiar with, and in order to feel that this investment was valid, there’s increasing pressure coming down from on high to ensure that Blackboard is somehow seamlessly integrated into all courses. In addition to this internal institutional pressure, there’s also obviously the external pressure on all language teachers these days to not only be excellent at dealing with language and dealing with students, and to know about and be comfortable with a range of pedagogy, but to also be teched-up, to be digitally literate and to be integrating tech in some way into everything we do.

I’ve blogged before about some of my concerns about the current state of affairs, and if I had to characterize my own attitude towards things at present, I guess I’d say I was skeptical, but curious. I think there’s a lot of snake oil being sold, there are plenty of administrators and bosses hoping (in vain) that tech will provide some kind of magic bullet and fast forward learning into some futuristic utopia and there are plenty of stupid and disparaging comments being made about the many excellent teachers out there who have not ’embraced’ technology in their classrooms, but who continue to deliver excellent classes to satisfied students. Personally, outside of a Coomber for playing audio CDs, I basically don’t use any technology in my actual classroom, and we’re moving increasingly towards a ‘No mobiles in class’ policy too, simply due to the perennially disruptive nature of the things, with students (and, let’s face it, ourselves also) increasingly hooked on being in constant contact with our friends out there – and texting furiously throughout lessons! That said, I’d like to be convinced that there ARE sane things going on INSIDE classes that utilise technology, and I do try and keep abreast of what’s out there and what other teachers are doing.

Also, obviously, I use technology outside of class for all kinds of purposes, both professional and leisure. I blog, as you can see; I’m on Facebook (twice! personal and professional profiles); I upload music onto YouTube; Andrew Walkley and myself are doing a university YouTube project, which I’ll say more about later; I occasionally use Twitter; I use Vocaroo with my classes; I’ve tried class blogs; my students have access to online workbooks that accompany the coursebooks we use; I send emails round after every class with links to things that came up in class, mostly of a cultural / global general knowledge ilk, and so on. Hopefully, I’ll be returning to some of these issues later on.

I also try to ensure I keep up with, as best I can, the many many recommendations for various tech-related sites that are out there. I subscribe to both Russell Stannard’s newsletter and also Nik Peachey’s, and I read whatever I can that comes by way via other gatekeepers of the digital realm such as Gavin Dudeney and Nicky Hockly. I feel grateful that I’m already fairly sensitive towards language and fairly au fait with methodology, because, as I’ve often quipped, one of my main fears for the language teachers of tomorrow is that keeping up with all the tech that’s out there, and developing critical faculties towards it, is so time-consuming that you really do have to wonder where they’re going to find the time to tackle language and classroom practice on top!


Anyway, to eventually get somewhere near the point, it seems to me that one real issue at present is that there amidst all the enthusiastic boosterism and the carving out of career space for the gatekeepers (and just to be crystal clear from the outset, I’m NOT knocking them for this. They clearly serve a similar function to the applied linguists who bring the results of their findings to the field and leave us as teachers and materials designers to unpick the implications), what’s sorely lacking is any real space in which teachers can discuss and critique the uses (and abuses) of particular sites and pieces of technology. There’s not enough critical engagement with what’s being touted – or if there IS, I’ve yet to see it (!) – and so what I’d like to try and do with this next ongoing series of posts is to explore and consider a range of different sites that I’ve spent time looking at after seeing them touted and praised.

To begin, I’m going to talk about a site I first encountered courtesy of Russell Stannard called Lingro. It modestly proclaims itself as “the coolest dictionary known to hombre“! And Russell himself was almost as enthusiastic, calling “this fabulous tool” “the best website” he found in 2011.

The basic gist is that it’s a site into which you can drag and drop other pages (in a range of different ‘mainstream’ languages) from the web, whether they be news sites, articles, blog pages, or whatever, and Lingro will not only provide a dictionary to help you understand them, but it’ll also give you the pronunciation and even keep a record of the words you look up, store them away and turn them into games for you to revise from later on. Surely the perfect site for our students to be practising their reading and developing their vocabulary! Sounds too good to be true, right?

Well, I’d argue that that is because it is! Below you can see a screengrab of the first time I tried to use the site. I entered a page from The Guardian’s website into Lingro, as I imagined my students might do were i to recommend the site, and started toying around. You don;t need to spend too long on the site to realise that whilst the dictionary may be ‘cool’ (even if it does say so itself), it’s also, to be frank, rubbish! I mean, look at what it tells you about WITHDRAWAL! Most students – and possibly many teachers – would actually need to use a decent learner’s dictionary in order to understand the definitions in 1 and 2, neither of which, of course, have anything to do with the meaning here. And as for the third definition, well it’s a piece of tautological genius! Slog through all three and you’re still no nearer understanding what on earth the word is being used to mean here, and have problem been sent off down all manner of random rabbit holes, guaranteed to derail your train of thought and your focus.

Let’s turn instead to a decent dictionary written by actual lexicographers that understand the way foreign learners process language and who write in a way that’s aimed at EFL students. Take the Macmillan Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, for example. The first definition you meet is this:

1 [C / U] the act of stopping something or taking something away

Their withdrawal of support forced the minister to resign.

1a the removal of an army from an area of fighting

Troop withdrawal will take place immediately.

Bingo! Even though it’s not as precise as the second definition, even the first gets close and gives a fairly clear indication of meaning and usage.

In the same way, the Lingro definition of delay used as a verb – to put off till  a later time, to distract – is nowhere near as transparent as the Macmillan version – to do something later than is planned or expected, and again there then follow a series of excellent parallel examples.

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Still not yet convinced of the sheer awfulness of the dictionary?

Well, thanks to Gavin Dudeney, I’m now using Camtasia at home and thought that as I’m writing about tech, I may as well prove I’m not a total Luddite by making a short movie of myself trying Lingro out this very morning. You watch the results below and chortle at my increasing disgust as I very quickly come up against the site’s (many) limitations.

So why is this happening? And does any of it really matter?

Firstly, the utterly appalling nature of the dictionary is down to the fact that it’s all based on Wiktionary. Wiktionary is the result of all of those sexy buzzwords that web-heads love to sling around: crowd-sourcing, networking, interactivity, the blurring of the lines between user and creator, all that . . . and it’s dreadful! And it’s not just me saying it. Here’s Jill Lepore writing in The New Yorker, back in 2006: “There’s no show of hands at Wiktionary. There’s not even an editorial staff. ‘Be your own lexicographer!’ might be Wiktionary’s motto. Who needs experts? Why pay good money for a dictionary written by lexicographers when we could cobble one together ourselves? Wiktionary isn’t so much republican or democratic as Maoist. And it’s only as good as the copyright-expired books from which it pilfers.” And there are plenty more such stinging critiques out there, should you care to seek them out.

Why this matters is partly because the craze and craving for the free, the online, the interactive is essentially – in this instance – a vote for plagiarism, for the mediocre, for a poverty of resources. On top of that, though, it’s also a nail in the coffin of real lexicography. All the major publishing houses are selling fewer and fewer dictionaries each year so every time you recommend any site that uses Wiktionary, you’re basically advocating the total amateur over the highly skilled professional. The longer this continues, the higher the risk of all serious lexicographers who’ve spent their entire working lives studying the language, discussing and debating how best to present the findings of their research. As if none of this was bad enough, you’re also encouraging an impoverished view of language, which will lead to students taking on similarly impoverished views themselves. I mean, this is a view of language which doesn’t even recognise phrasal verbs for God’s sake, let alone chunks, collocations, fixed expressions, idiomaticity, or the power of examples.

But wait, I hear you cry. What about the revision games the site makes? Surely that must be fun. And motivating.

Well, because my patience is wearing thin, I’ll spare you too many of the gory details, but here’s another screen grab of the kind of games it’s capable of making.

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So basically it can save the key words – and really ONLY words – and turn them into very very basic flashcards that you use to test your memory. You look at the words and – in the instance above – check you can remember the Spanish, click on the ‘cards’ and check your answers. Well, we’ve already seen how poor the site actually is at even giving basic definitions of single words, so why on earth you should trust it to give decent translations of the meaning of the word in the context that you encountered it in is beyond me!

Just for the record, by the way, I’m really NOT saying the flashcards like this are a bad idea. They’re not. It’s just that these ones are very very poor. I make my own when studying Indonesian, but by doing it myself I can add in pronunciation and word stress, extra examples, collocations and add translations for all of these on the flip side. I can also customize these over time and test myself with them, which I do.

Philip Kerr has written well about using vocabulary cards to revise language you’ve encountered and I think this can be very very useful. Now, obviously, there’s no real reason why this couldn’t be done using technology.

It’s just that Lingro isn’t the place where you CAN.

Avoid.

Now I am one!

On the 1st of April 2012 – almost exactly a year ago – I published my first modest blog post on this site.

Which means that now I am one.

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Someone has to say it, and it might as well be me:

Happy birthday to me,

Happy birthday to me,

Happy birthday dear me,

Happy birthday  to me!

Why, thank you!

Oh look, I’ve even got myself a cake.

Very thoughtful.

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Having long avoided the blogosphere, partly out of a fear for how much more of my life it would end up sucking up, partly out of a suspicion that it pandered to the loudest and crudest ends of the lowest common denominator spectrum, and partly due to the suspicion that a platform might turn me into an even more opinionated monster (never give a fanatic a soapbox, and so on!), a drunken conversation with Jeremy Harmer in a London pub one night led me to take tentative steps and test the water.

And once in, I’ve not yet stopped swimming.

Birthdays are always a good time to look back, as well as forward, so I thought I’d take this chance to pore over a few of the weird and wonderful statistics that the Interweb makes available to you once you embark on an endeavour like blogging. Here goes:

In the last year, there have been – to date – 20,197 visits to this site, which seems a fairly respectable number, I guess. A quick bash on my calculator tells me that that’s an average of 55 visits a day, which means more than two an hour, every hour. I’m obviously not hitting – and will never hit – the kind of numbers drawn like flies to a flame to Russell Stannard’s site or  Scott Thornbury’s, but hey, for a site which is essentially little more than a place for my to let off steam, voice what’s on my mind and talk – often at great (and possibly tedious!) length – to myself, it’s no mean feat.

Somewhat disturbingly, though, my best ever day was Thursday April 5th 2012, when 336 folk swung by.

It’s been all downhill ever since!

Where are all these viewers from, I hear you ask? Well, that’s a good question. Here’s the top five: 5,482 are from the UK, 1661 from Spain, 13777 from Germany, 1196 are resident in the US of A and 912 are in Poland.

More bizarrely, though, 10 have been from Ecuador, 6 from Iraq, 6 from Palestine, 4 from Yemen, 3 only from China – the same as Azerbaijan, Sudan, Libya and Trinidad and Tobago, and then I’ve had solitary visitors from Cambodia, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Namibia, Benin, Lesotho . . . and Vatican City!

Given that the official population of Vatican City is 886, I do wonder who on earth decided to come here – and wish the stats could tell me which search query led them to me, but alas we will never know! I’m secretly hoping they were the person who entered Japanese taboos (see below) – and got me instead!

In the year to date, I’ve managed 45 posts – including this one – and have attracted 597 comments, though given that I’ve tried to reply to each and every one, at least half of those must be my own! The most commented on post has been the Technology and Principles in Language Teaching post, which I guess is very much a zeitgeist kind of issue, having attracted 66 comments.

The most viewed part of this blog – by some distance – is unsurprisingly the home page / archive, which I guess serves as the portal here. After that, though, the most viewed post – with 908 views, has been Bridging the Culture Gap in the classroom. Slightly depressingly, the least viewed is one of the posts I wrote in praise of non-native speaker teachers, which has so far only attracted 115!

The ways in which people have found me here is also fairly interesting. Search Engines are obviously the main culprits, with 3,924 people arriving via the engine of their choice, but second is Twitter, thus confirming my suspicion that one of its main functions in ELT is to serve as a space in which if we shout loudly enough, we drag people away from, whatever it was they had set out to day for the day and over to our blogs instead!

The searches people have made to bring themselves here are also both entertaining and sobering. English culture has been the most popular gateway here, with 370 searches bringing bemused folk to my door. Fourth moist popular, though, has been former Arsenal legend, Freddie Ljungberg, who I mentioned – and included a picture of – in a post wherein I contemplated how football chants AND ELT terms come into being! God only knows what the Freddi fans made of the post.

Other unusual searches that led here included: Speak English or Die (9), Marge Simpson Mona Lisa (8), You Always Talk Such Rubbish (7), Traditional German Breakfast (4), Walrus John Lennon (3), How Old is Chia Suan Chong (3), Wahey Man Geordie Slang (2), Skinhead Cross Culture (2), Friendship Muslim Britain (2), Shy to Speak English (2) . . . and with one search each, the truly bizarre end of the web: Why is there a big line on my head? / The Road To Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions Dating / response to not being in the mood to entertain someone being coy / lobster claw machine 2012 / can’t hear when not listening / debate-in the era of instant gratification values have not validity / i am really struggling to keep up with conversations help / skirt for praising the teachers / using Mexican food to bridge the cultural gap in the classroom / bathwater Dogme / Jimi Hendrix passed out / Japanese taboos.

The only real conclusion I can draw from all of this random madness is that my own search entries are positively vanilla in comparison!

So there you have it. A year in mad numbers and statistics.

Thanks to all of you out there who’ve been coming here over this time, and who’ve found my ramblings thought-provoking, amusing, entertaining or infuriating! I’m honestly flattered to know you even exist.

So what’s next? Well, over coming months, there’ll be a post on how Dogme can help us coursebooks better; more on the twenty things I’ve learned in twenty years, which will include rants abut needs analysis, more on grammar, the curse of recipes in EFL, NLP and the like; I’m going to hopefully try and embed some more clips of actual classroom practice and comment on it a bit; there may be some dissection of tech sites I’ve sen touted and possibly even a heroes and villains feature.

Before that, though, I intend to take a week off from all this frenzied work and enjoy the early Spring, spend some time with my long-suffering wife and kids and have a life away from the web.

You could always try doing the same, you know!

Does my head look big in this?

As anyone who knows me will testify, I’ve long been very ambivalent about blogs and blogging. In an otherwise fairly awful movie I watched out of boredom on a plane last year, Contagion, there was one great line: Blogging? It’s just graffiti with punctuation. And let’s face it, the punctuation is only if you’re lucky!

Blogging has long struck me as being a kind of vanity publishing, and has led – at least in my line of work – not to a democratization of thought and opinion, but rather to a kind of tyranny of the loudest and most prolific. I’ve worried about what kind of lives people who blog regularly have – or are running from; I’ve worried about what kind of life I might end up with if I ever allowed myself to get talked into setting one up; I’ve worried about the fact that the last time I did actually try to do a blog I had no real ideas about what function it was to serve other than as a kind of store cupboard for talks I’d given at conferences; I worried too about the fact that hardly anyone seemed to read it!

As if that wasn’t enough, I worry too about the fact I seldom seem to have time or energy to bother reading many of the blogs of the people out there in the ELT community that I know or have met in various contexts. Finally, I fear that this may all make me ill-suited to setting up and running another of these ego-propagating, time-consuming monsters.

And yet here I am, on a school night, writing this to an imagined audience, daring to dream there might be people out there who give a toss about my thoughts and opinions. What gives, I hear you ask?

Well, if I’m honest, there’s partly a touch of ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’. There’s the ever-present frustration with the medium of facebook, where I help to run a fairly busy little page which works well within its own limited parameters, but which doesn’t really allow much room to spread out and talk at any great length, and which is geared towards fast turnover of posts and constant status updates. Then there’s the fact that I have been asked – repeatedly – if I have a blog by teachers that I’ve been lucky enough to meet or work with over the years. And finally, there’s something Jimmie Hill said to me many moons ago, and which has stayed with and almost haunted me down the years: every generation of language teachers has a responsibility to write down what it is they do, what they believe in and how they work.

What I hope – and aim – to do here is to post a lengthy post at best weekly, or else simply when the mood and inspiration strike, exploring things that have been on my mind, considering talks or books I’ve encountered – or given. There may occasionally be guest posts, I may sometimes go off on a lengthy rant and I may also sometimes heap praise where I feel that it’s due.

Looking forward to interacting with whoever may be out that curious to see where all this will lead. And if and when my head does look big in this, I’m trusting you all to tell me.

Deal?