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:
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!
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.
He may well not remember this, but a long time ago, when I was first starting out on the great merry-go-round that is the ELT talks circuit, Jim Scrivener – the esteemed author of Learning Teaching, as I knew him then – once called me a Thatcherite. Well, to be more precise, he called my ideas Thatcherite!
To those of you lucky enough not to have been living in the UK during the reign of That Bloody Woman (as my grandfather insisted on calling her till his dying day!), this may not strike you as much of an insult, or even as an insult at all. However, where I come from, that’s fighting talk! Punches have been thrown for less. Having pointed this out to Jim, the ensuing discussion clarified what seemed to me to be some kind of generational fault lines. Jim felt that my talk – about the importance of teaching fixed expressions and collocations if we really want our students to become more fluent (and, I’d venture to add, accurate) – was crassly commercial (in his defence, the talk may well have ended with passing mention of a book I had out at the time, INNOVATIONS!), utilitarian and focused on outcomes and results, and was thus lacking poetry, creativity and soul.
The reason I mention this scurrilous piece of EFL gossip, apart from to simply hook you in, is because I was reminded of it during the debate which seems to have emerged of late about the many failures of Brit-centric, CELTA-rooted Communicative Language Teaching, and also when watching both Jeremy Harmer’s recent talk that I blogged about earlier this week and Jim Scrivener’s talk up at Glasgow IATEFL recently (incidentally, you can read many of Jim’s stimulating recent thoughts over on HIS blog – http://demandhighelt.wordpress.com). We seem to be hitting a moment where teachers of a certain vintage are reassessing their careers, thinking about where things might perhaps have gone slightly astray and posing questions for the rest of us to ponder. Here’s my take on all of this – and on how it connects to my recent post about focus and testing.
Much of what has become ELT orthodoxy has its roots in the late 1960s counter-culture. At his recent talk at my university, Jeremy Harmer said quite clearly that he was a flower child back in the day (and anyone who’s seen such Youtube clips as this one will testify that he was most certainly of the paisley-shirted and hirsute persuasion from a young age). The late 60s and early 70s was the cultural and political environment out of which many of The Grand Old Men (and they do tend to mainly be men) of TEFL emerged, and from which, in many ways, ELT as a globalised profession grew. This was a time of challenging authority, of the realisation that the powers-that-be were not always straight-forward and honest, of utopian daydreams, of free love, of experimentation, of screwing the system and standing up to The Man. And out of this developed a pedagogy rooted in caring and sharing in the language classroom, in humanizing the classroom (with the implications being, of course, that all classrooms before must have been neither caring, nor sharing nor even very human!). I would argue that what also developed was a generation of teachers – often wonderfully funny, warm, witty, creative (and, lest we forget, influential) teachers, it must be said – who felt vaguely uncomfortable about actually being TEACHERS; who preferred to be seen as facilitators or mediators or unlockers of inner excellence or guides, and so on. Anything but the dreaded T word.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing major against the 1960s. As anyone who knows me well will attest, a large chunk of my ever-expanding record collection derives from that very decade. Indeed, the title of the post comes from a ’68 pop hit by the wonderful and very underrated Andy Kim.
That said, I am not, and never can be, a child of the 60s in the way that Jeremy and Jim and Adrian Underhill and that generation are.
Whether I like it or not, I was formed as an adult during The Thatcher Years (or the post-punk years, as I prefer to remember them!).
I am also the product of the comprehensive school system, and the first from my family to go to university, and all of these things shape who we go on to become and what we go on to believe.
My feeling is that the 60s generation have shaped an ELT pedagogy in their own image for a long time now, and are finally starting to have doubts about where it’s got us. The simple dichotomy (I feel a Henry Widdowson moment coming on) of 60s = freedom / 80s = authoritarianism at worst, hard-headed pragmatism at best may be an oversimplification, but it’s one which contains a fair few grains of truth, not least in terms of the way that the 60s generation – and all those they have influenced so deeply – have come to see things, as evidenced by the story with which I began this piece.
CLT – and its close cousin, Task-Based Learning – has created a generation of teachers who think of lessons solely in terms of activities. The number of times I’ve sat down with teachers and asked what their goal is for the lesson they’re planning to teach only to be told what the teacher and students will be doing. On occasion, when I’ve said “No, that’s WHAT you’re doing. I want to know WHY you’re doing it”, it’s got so bad I’ve been told that I must be a bit slow and that the goal of the lesson is obviously – as any fool can see – TO DO A LISTENING. Or a reading, Or a speaking.
This has all been exacerbated by the tyranny of four-week CELTA courses, the easy entrance into our noble profession for the vast majority of native-speaker teachers (present company included: Westminster College, 1993). Given its ridiculous time restrictions, the CELTA is unable to help trainees learn much more about language than the names and basic functions of a fee grammatical structures – and how to find one’s way around a dictionary and the grammar notes at the back of the book. As such, the main focus falls on faking it: we end up pretty linguistically ignorant, but highly adept at manufacturing that magical quality, FUN! We may not know much about how language works, but we’re dab hands at a bit of TPR, we know good games for Friday afternoons and we can knock up a gap-fill based on almost any song you’d care to name.
And we wonder why non-natives are starting to distrust our infinite wisdom!
We have come to a point where teaching has become a dirty word, where FUN has become the be-all and end-all, where teachers are all-too often little more than automatons able only to string recipes, games and activities together, where testing creates terror (and has come to be seen as some kind of weird anti-educational cult-like behaviour indulged in by those crazy authoritarian Asians, whilst we in the Free West (TM) see ourselves as creative libertarians. We have come to a point where the hard graft and discipline required to learn not just language, but almost any kind of serious skill are in short supply. We now pin our hopes on shortcuts: technology will save us by facilitating a sufficient amount of meaningful exposure; DOGME will save us by freeing us from actually being teachers and having to make informed decisions abut syllabus, word choice, topics and themes, testing and assessment, and so on and instead will allow us to exist in Gurdjieff’s perpetual now.
And all the time we fail to get better at the one thing we’re all supposed to be doing: teaching language.
When I first read The Lexical Approach by Michael Lewis, as part of my DELTA reading, one thing that hit me hard was just how much language there is out there. Just take the word blog. We read and we follow blogs, we post on blogs, we maintain blogs, we upload stuff to our blogs; indeed, we BLOG. We talk about bloggers and the blogosphere. It goes on and on. And each word and each collocation has its own colligations – grammatical patterns it’s often used with – and its own co-text (words often used with – or around – it). There is a LOT of language out there – and students really need to start getting to grips with it.
Students know this.
Examination boards know this.
Employers know this.
University entrance panels know this.
It’s about time we all woke up to this harsh reality too and started to think about whether or not what we’re doing in our classes is getting enough of it to our students. Are we covering a broad enough range? Are we honestly covering the 750+ words needed to lift a student from one level to the next? Are we revisiting and recycling them? Are we testing how much our students are retaining? In short, are we making the teaching and learning of new language the absolute centre of our practice? And if not, then why not?
To wrap up this rambling ranting post, I’ll go right back to where I started from.
I am proud to call myself a TEACHER first and foremost. I am also, however, a man of The Left, hence my annoyance at the Thatcherite tag. I would argue all day long that having clear goals which can be stated before a student buys into a course, having high expectations of what my students can achieve in terms of language load, and giving students regular (soft AND hard) tests in order to help them see how they’re doing and what they’ve got for the money they’ve invested are acts of The Left as well. They are rooted in a desire for collective improvement and in a belief that the powers-that-be have a duty of care to those entrusted to them. These beliefs also, though, come with a clear-eyed acceptance of the long hard route to competence – and see little point in hiding this reality from students. To insist on the process over the product is to deny this reality, and to me is little short of professional irresponsibility.