An A-Z of ELT

8 12 2009

In 2006 I wrote An A-Z of ELT – an encyclopedia-dictionary of terminology relating to English language and English language teaching. As soon as it was published (by Macmillan) I was already planning an update. Hence this blog. Here I will regularly post articles relating to existing entries, or with a view to creating new entries, should the A-Z be revised. You can help me, by posting responses or making suggestions as to topics that you think should be included or amendments that should be made to existing topics. I’ll be dealing with topics in no particular order, simply as the mood takes me!
I support the round
Some of the most popular posts on this blog have been re-worked in the form of an e-book, called Big Questions in ELT, which is published by The Round.





A new beginning

23 08 2013

As promised, blogging resumes shortly… but in a new site and with a new format.

You can find the new blog here: it’s called The (De-) Fossilization Diaries, and charts the attempts I’m making to improve my faltering Spanish. Hope to see you there!

Según lo prometido, mis blogs se reanudan en breve … pero en un nuevo lugar y con un nuevo formato.

Se puede encontrar el nuevo blog aquí: se llama The (De-) Fossilization Diaries, y documenta mis  esfuerzos para mejorar mi español titubeante. ¡Espero veros allí!





The End

9 06 2013

So this is it, folks: I’m closing down the blog for the summer… and for good. After 3 years, 150 posts, nearly 7000 comments, and innumerable hits, visits, views, however you want to describe and count them, plus one e-book spin-off (but no sign of a second edition of An A-Z!), I think it’s time to call it a day.

But that’s not the end of blogging.  In the autumn (or in the spring, if that’s your orientation) I’ll be resuming with an altogether different theme and format, provisionally titled The (De-)Fossilization Diaries.  Watch this space!

At some point between now and then I’ll lock the comments on this blog, but it will hang around a little longer. If you think you might miss it if it suddenly disappeared, you could always buy the book! ;-)

Meanwhile, thanks for following, commenting, subscribing, tweeting… I have so enjoyed hosting this blog, not least because of the active and widely-distributed online community that has grown up around it. Blogging is my favourite medium by far, and, despite claims to the contrary by some curmudgeons, it seems to be very much alive and well.

bunyolsNow, to give you something to chew on over breakfast, I’ve done a quick cut and paste of some of the one- (or two-) liners that capture many of the core themes of this blog. (You can hunt them down in context by using the Index link above).

1. If there are no languages, only language, what is it that we teach? … The short answer, perhaps, is that we would facilitate a kind of creative DIY approach – semiotic bricolage, perhaps – by means of which learners would become resourceful language users, cutting and pasting from the heteroglossic landscape to meet both their short-term and their long-term goals. (L is for Language)

2. The tension – and challenge – of successful communication is in negotiating the given and the new, of exploiting the predictable while coping with unpredictability. To this end, a phrasebook, a grammar or a dictionary can be of only limited use. They are a bit like the stopped clock, which is correct only two times a day. (M is for Mobility)

3. Creating the sense of ‘feeling at home’, i.e. creating a dynamic whereby students feel unthreatened and at ease with one another and with you, is one of the most important things that a teacher can do. (T is for Teacher Development)

4. A reliance on the coursebook IN the classroom does not really equip learners for self-directed learning OUTSIDE the classroom, since nothing in the outside world really reflects the way that language is packaged, rationed and sanitised in the coursebook.(T is for Teacher Development)

5. The language that teachers need in order to provide and scaffold learning opportunities is possibly of more importance than their overall language proficiency (T is for Teacher Knowledge)

6. A critical mass of connected chunks might be the definition of fluency. (Plus of course, the desire or need to BE fluent). (T is for Turning Point)

7. Education systems are predicated on the belief that learning is both linear and incremental. Syllabuses, coursebooks and tests conspire to perpetuate this view. To suggest otherwise is to undermine the foundations of civilization as we know it. (T is for Turning Point)

8. If I were learning a second language with a teacher, I would tell the teacher what I want to say, not wait to be told what someone who is not there thinks I might want to say. (W is for Wondering)

9. Irrespective of the degree to which we might teach grammar explicitly, or even base our curriculums on it, as teachers I think we need to know something about it ourselves. It’s part of our expertise, surely. Besides which, it’s endlessly fascinating (in a geeky kind of way). (P is for Pedagogic grammar)

10. Every language divides up the world slightly differently, and learning a second language is – to a large extent – learning these new divisions.(P is for Pedagogic grammar)

11. The meaning of the term student-centred has become too diffuse – that is to say, it means whatever you want it to mean, and – whatever it does mean – the concept needs to be problematized because it’s in danger of creating a false dichotomy. (S is for Student-centred)

12. There is a responsibility on the part of teachers to provide feedback on progress, but maybe the problem is in defining progress in terms of pre-selected outcomes, rather than negotiating the outcomes during the progress. (O is for Outcomes)

13. Language learning, whether classroom-based or naturalistic, whether in an EFL or an ESL context, is capricious, opportunistic, idiosyncratic and seldom amenable to external manipulation. (P is for Postmodern method)

14. I have no problem with the idea of classes – in fact for many learners and teachers these can be less threatening than one-to-one situations – but I do have a problem with the way that the group learning context is moulded to fit the somewhat artificial constraints of the absentee coursebook writer. (P is for Postmodern method)poached eggs nov 2012

15. The idea that there is a syllabus of items to be ‘covered’ sits uncomfortably with the view that language learning is an emergent process – a process of ‘UNcovering’, in fact. (P is for Postmodern method)

16. This, by the way, is one of [Dogme’s] characteristics that most irritates its detractors – that it seems to be a moving target, constantly slipping and sliding like some kind of methodological ectoplasm. (P is for Postmodern method)

17. The ‘mind is a computer’ metaphor has percolated down (or up?) and underpins many of our methodological practices and materials, including the idea that language learning is systematic, linear, incremental, enclosed, uniform, dependent on input and practice, independent of its social context, de-humanized, disembodied, … and so on. (M is for Mind)

18. Is there no getting away from the fact that classrooms are just not good places to learn languages in? And that, instead of flogging the present perfect continuous to death, it might not be better simply ‘to take a walk around the block’? (A is for Affordance)

19. If automaticity is simply the ability to retrieve memorised chunks, this may result in a repertoire that is fast and accurate, but functional only in situations of the utmost predictability. Fine, if you’re a tourist – just memorise a phrase-book. But for a more sophisticated command of language – one that is adaptable to a whole range of situations – you need to be able to customise your chunks. In short, you need to be creative. Hence, creative automaticity. (A is for Automaticity)

20. Technosceptics, like me, happily embrace technology in our daily lives, but are nevertheless a little suspicious of the claims made, by some enthusiasts, for its educational applications – claims that frequently border on the coercive. (T is for Technology)

21. As edtech proponents tirelessly point out, technology is only a tool. What they fail to acknowledge is that there are good tools and bad tools. (T is for Technology)

22. Another bonus, for me, of the struggle to dominate a second (and third, fourth etc) language has been an almost obsessive interest in SLA theory and research – as if, somewhere, amongst all this burgeoning literature, there lies the answer to the puzzle. (B is for Bad language learner)

23. ‘Fluency is in the ear of the beholder’ – which means that perhaps we need to teach our students tricks whereby they ‘fool’ their interlocutors into thinking they’re fluent. Having a few well rehearsed conversational openers might be a start…. (B is for Bad language learner)

24. I’ve always been a bit chary of the argument that we should use movement in class in order to satisfy the needs of so-called kinaesthetic learners. All learning surely has kinaesthetic elements, especially if we accept the notion of ‘embodied cognition’, and you don’t need a theory of multiple intelligences to argue the case for whole-person engagement in learning. (B is for Body)

25. I agree that learners’ perceptions of the goals of second language learning are often at odds with our own or with the researchers’. However, if we can show [the learners] that the communicative uptake on acquiring a ‘generative phraseology’ is worth the initial investment in memorisation, and, even, in old-fashioned pattern practice, we may be able to win them over. (C is for Construction)

26. How do we align the inherent variability of the learner’s emergent system with the inherent variability of the way that the language is being used by its speakers? (V is for Variability)

27. The problem is that, if there is a norm, it is constantly on the move, like a flock of starlings: a dense dark centre, a less dense margin, and a few lone outliers. (V is for Variability)

28. Think of the blackbird. Every iteration of its song embeds the echo, or trace, of the previous iteration, and of the one before that, and the one before that, and so on. And each iteration changes in subtle, sometimes barely perceptible, ways. But the net effect of these changes may be profound. (R is for Repetition [again])

29. Diversity is only a problem if you are trying to frog-march everyone towards a very narrowly-defined objective, such as “mastering the present perfect continuous.” If your goals are defined in terms of a collaborative task outcome … then everyone brings to the task their particular skills, and it is in the interests of those with many skills to induct those with fewer. (E is for Ecology)

30. Teaching […] is less about navigating the container-ship of the class through the narrow canal of the coursebook/syllabus than about shepherding a motley flotilla of little boats, in all weathers, across the open sea, in whatever direction and at whatever speed they have elected to go. (P is for Postmodern method)

the-end-03





V is for Vocabulary teaching

2 06 2013

Slovenian girl and teacherA teacher educator in Norway reports on how she has used ideas from my book How to Teach Vocabulary (2002) on an in-service course for local primary and lower secondary school teachers. Mona Flognfeldt writes: ‘I have shared with my students a lot of input that I have learnt from you, and a lot of our students have put their new insights to immediate practical use in their classrooms. … As a part of their course, these students have also learnt to make their own blogs.’ These blogs have become the vehicles whereby they report on how they ‘have tried out various activities and types of tasks in their attempts to help their students enhance their vocabulary in English’.

Reading the blogs I am struck by the way these teachers have implemented, in their own classes, a reflective task cycle as part of their ongoing professional development. This has involved background reading and discussion, classroom experimentation, reflection and – by means of the blogs – sharing with their colleagues the insights that they have gained.

To give you a flavour, here is a sample of the kinds of activities these teachers tried. I have grouped them according to five guiding principles of vocabulary acquisition. (Apologies in advance to those whose blog posts I haven’t included, but readers who are interested can find them at the link below).

1. The Principle of Cognitive Depth: “The more one manipulates, thinks about, and uses mental information, the more likely it is that one will retain that information.In the case of vocabulary, the more one engages with a word (deeper processing), the more likely the word will be remembered for later use” (Schmitt 2000: 120).

I picked out 8 words from the text that I wanted my pupils to learn. Then I had my pupils identifying the words in the text. Task 2 was a selecting task where the pupils had to underline the words that were typical for India. They shared their work with a partner, explaining their choices. As task 3 they were matching the words with an English description from a dictionary. They also found antonyms and synonyms. Task 4 was a sorting activity where the pupils had to decide whether the words were nouns, verbs, adjectives or adverbs. Finally, as a ranking and sequencing activity I had my pupils rank the words according to preference, to decide how important they thought knowing each word was. They discussed their ranking with a partner. (Mette B.)

Slovenian  two girls2. The Principle of Retrieval: “The act of successfully recalling an item increases the chance that the item will be remembered. It appears that the retrieval route to that item is in some way strengthened by being successfully used” (Baddeley 1997: 112).

My Vocabulary activity was “Categories” … The students worked in groups of four or five. They were handed out a piece of paper where five columns were drawn up. Each column was labelled with the name of a lexical set: Food, transport, clothes, animals and sport. I called out a letter of the alphabet (e.g. B!). The students wrote down as many words they knew began with the letter to a time of limit which was around 2-3 minutes. The group with the most words won (I did not demand that the words were spelled correctly. (Gunn)

There is also pictionary, where you divide the class into two groups, and one member of each team goes to the SmartBoard. The teacher flashes them a card with a word, phrase or expression and the pupils have one minute to make their team say the word on the basis of their drawing on the SmartBoard; no other clues are allowed. (Vanessa)

 Slovenian boy student 023. The Principle of Associations: “The human lexicon is believed to be a network of associations, a web-like structure of interconnected links. When students are asked to manipulate words, relate them to other words and to their own experiences, and then to justify their choices, these word associations are reinforced” (Sökmen 1997: 241-2).

Make true and false sentences about yourself using eight of these words.

I believe this is a good activity for deeper processing of words, because the learners have to relate to the words and phrases personally. I have tried it out in class and found it a motivating activity both for me and for my pupils. We all got to know each other better by sorting out the activities they liked more and liked less. This was a concrete task, easy for them to relate to and to make up sentences from a given pattern. The activity guessing what is false and true is fun and easy to understand. They have to use what they already know about each other to decide whether the statements are true or false. (Anne Katrine)

 4. The Principle of Re-contextualization: “When words are met in reading and listening or used in speaking and writing, the generativeness of the context will influence learning. That is, if the words occur in new sentence contexts in the reading text, learning will be helped. Similarly, having to use the word to say new things will add to learning”  (Nation 2001: 80).

I showed them the list of words on the projector and introduced the task to them. Their first task was to translate the words and write them in Norwegian. … When the pupils had finished this, they were asked to use at least five words/expressions from each column to write a paragraph on US politics. The task had to be finished before the lesson the week after. This sentence or text creation task required the pupils to create the context for the given words and phrases. In addition to the meaning of the words, the pupils also needed to think about word tense, grammatical behaviour and so on. (Sturla)

Slovenian male teacher5. The Principle of Multiple Encounters: “Due to the incremental nature of vocabulary acquisition, repeated exposures are necessary to consolidate a new word in the learner’s mind” (Schmitt & Carter 2000: 4).

The class was supposed to work with reading comprehension, but before starting the reading, the pupils were given a pre-reading task related to vocabulary in the text. … After a while, the teacher went through the task with the class, asking for the matching words and the definitions. The teacher repeated the answers to model the correct pronunciation.

Then the class was instructed to read the article and use the worksheet on vocabulary while reading and after reading when they were asked to answer questions from the article. This way the vocabulary was met several times.  (Anette)

Finally, the last word goes to Mette B. ‘I have also had the pleasure of practising Thornbury’s ways of putting words to work this year. What amazes me the most is how positive even the pupils with elementary skills respond to these types of activities’.

Music to my ears!

Again, heartfelt thanks to Mona and her trainee teachers.

Slovenian girl studentReferences:

Baddeley, A. (1997)  Human Memory: Theory and Practice (Revised edition), Hove: Psychology Press.

Nation, I.S.P. (2001) Learning Vocabulary in Another Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schmitt, N. (2000) Vocabulary in Language Teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schmitt, N. & Carter; R. (2000) ‘The lexical advantages of narrow reading for second language learners’, TESOL Journal, 9/1, 4-9.

Sökmen, A.J. (1997) ‘Current trends in teaching second language vocabulary,’ in Schmitt, N. and McCarthy, M. (Eds.) Vocabulary: Description, Acquisition and Pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Thornbury, S. (2002) How to Teach Vocabulary, Harlow: Pearson.

Illustrations from Grad, A. (1958) Vasela Angleščina, Ljubljana: DZS.

Mona’s blog, with access to her trainee teachers’ blogs, can be found here: http://monaflognfeldt.wordpress.com/2012/11/05/vocabulary-acquisition-and-development/





G is for Gesture

26 05 2013
cruz the smallest grapes

“the smallest grapes”

A couple of weeks ago the University of Barcelona hosted a week-long course on Gesture and SLA, run by Dr Marianne Gullberg, Professor of Psycholinguistics at Lund University in Sweden. Marianne has to be one of the leading experts on gesture and language, having published and researched extensively on the subject. While it’s still fresh, then, here are ten things that I think every language teacher should know about gesture.

1. Gesturing with the hands is just one of the many types of non-verbal behaviours that we use when we communicate, others being voice-quality, facial expressions, eye gaze, head nods, body orientation, shoulder shrugs, and so on. But of all these, gesture is probably the bodily behaviour that is most directly tied to linguistic meaning.

2. Gesture occupies one end of a continuum of communicative hand actions, the other end of which is sign language. Pantomime occupies a point midway on this continuum. But, unlike sign language and mime, gesture doesn’t substitute for speech: rather it co-occurs with it. Nor is it a conventionalized system that, like signing, can be taught systematically.

Chilton cover3.  Near the purely gestural end of the continuum are what are called ‘emblems’: those gestures that have become conventionalised within a culture to represent certain meanings, such as the scribbling gesture that means ‘bring me the bill’ (in a restaurant) or the thumbs-up sign in many cultures. (The picture on the left is the cover of a book of Spanish gesture emblems [Green 1968]). Emblems are, arguably, teachable, but represent only a small subset of what most people do when they gesture while talking (despite the fascination that emblems have for amateur cultural anthropologists).

"in the middle of nowhere"

“in the middle of nowhere”

4. Most gestures are either ‘beats’ – rhythmic, often chopping, motions that act as a kind of ‘prosodic highlighting’ (McNeill 2012), or pointing of some kind, or (the most interesting from a psycholinguistic point of view) the metaphoric/iconic type of gesture, as when we make a wide arc with both hands (like Penelope Cruz in this pic) to represent ‘expansiveness’. Pragmatic gestures – such as indicating a question (‘How do you call it?’) – are also common.

5. Gesture is non-verbal but that doesn’t mean it is non-linguistic. In fact, speech and gesture are inextricably linked, forming an integrated (or ‘coupled’) system. As McNeill (2012: 31) puts it, ‘gestures and synchronous speech are … co-expressive but not redundant: they express the same idea each in its own way – often each its own aspects of it’. Thus, gesture is not just an ‘add-on’, a way of ornamenting speech. Gesture and speech originate together, and are precisely synchronized.

"How do you call it?"

“How do you call it?”

6. But gestures are more than simply communicative: we gesture when we can’t be seen gesturing, such as on the phone, or in the dark, or talking to ourselves. This suggests that gesture has some kind of self-regulating function, that it is a physical embodiment of thought, that we ‘think with our hands’.

7. While gesturing is a universal feature of speech, there are identifiable cross-cultural differences in gesture systems. These are mainly with regard to emblems (the ‘thumbs-up’ gesture, for example) and also in terms of the extent of ‘gestural space’. But, because gesture and language are closely linked, and because gestures are often representational, they can reveal ways in which different languages construe the world. Gullberg (2011) herself has researched the ways that ‘putting an object on a surface’ is differently represented in some languages, and how there is a close match between the semantics of the verbs in these languages and the characteristics of the gesture. Interestingly, cross-linguistic transfer effects have been observed in learners.

8. On the subject of language learning, there is evidence to suggest that language learners gesture more in their second language than in their first: this is largely because they use more pragmatic gestures (e.g. hand flapping) to compensate for disfluencies, such as when searching for a word. But, contrary to expectations, perhaps, learners only occasionally use representative gestures as a substitute for lexical gaps. Research (e.g. Gregersen et al 2009) also shows that the more proficient the learner, the more meaning-oriented are their gestures.

9. So, how does gesture aid language acquisition? In terms of reception, the gestures of others (including, of course, the teacher) may help make input comprehensible by, for example, ‘speech parsing’ – i.e. helping learners find ‘the words in the noise’. They may also help link language and cognition by activating mirror neurons: seeing you gesture makes me feel as if I’m gesturing, and hence I’m connected to the thinking that motivated the gesture.

10. The learner’s own gestures may also play an important role in language learning. It’s generally accepted that any kind of learning task is aided when the learner can ‘off-load’ the cognitive effort involved on to an external representation. Hence learners will gesture a lot when doing a speaking task, even when they are performing behind a screen and so cannot be seen. ‘It is possible that L2 learners’ gestures reflect their attempts to reduce the processing load of keeping words, grammar, and the relationships between entities in mind at the same time as planning what to say next. In this sense, gestures may help learners to keep talking’ (Gullberg 2008: 293). Moreover, gesturing while learning seems to improve recall, e.g. of lexis. And, very importantly, gestures help build rapport and confer on their users the status of a legitimate interlocutor. ’Learners who are seen to gesture are often more positively evaluated on proficiency than those who are not’ (ibid.)

Moral: if your students have a speaking test, encourage them to gesture.

Marianne Gullberg in Barcelona

Marianne Gullberg in Barcelona

References:

Green, J.R. (1968) A Gesture Inventory for the Teaching of Spanish, Philadelphia: Chilton Books.

Gregersen, T., Olivares-Cuhat, G. & Storm, J. (2009) ‘An examination of L1 and L2 gesture use: what role does proficiency play? Modern Language Journal, 93/2, 195-208.

Gullberg, M. (2008) ‘Gestures and second language acquisition,’ in Robinson, P., & Ellis, N.C. (eds) Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition, London: Routledge.

Gullberg, M. (2011) ‘Thinking, speaking and gesturing about motion in more than one language,’ in Pavlenko, A. (ed.) Thinking and Speaking in Two Languages, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

McNeill, D. (2012) How Language Began: Gesture and speech in human evolution, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The David Letterman interview from where the stills of Penelope Cruz were taken can be seen here:

 





R is for Repetition (again)

19 05 2013

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendos,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Wallace Stevens, ‘Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird’.

It’s spring and the male blackbirds are in full throat. I was listening to one for a good while the other morning, trying to track the way his little tune (what Wikipedia calls a ‘varied and melodious low-pitched fluted warble’) subtly changes with each iteration. Are these variations accidental? Is he perhaps not very good at holding a tune? Or are they intentional – improvisations on a theme, so to speak? Could these different inflections be the bird’s accent, as it were – the distinguishing characteristics that identify him to other (territorial) blackbirds?


Improvisation on a theme is, of course, a musical reference, and musicians have often been drawn to birdsong.  Preeminent among these is Olivier Messiaen.  ‘Birds are my first and greatest masters’, he is alleged to have said. According to the sleeve notes of an album of works inspired by birdsong (Samuel, n.d.), ‘as an ornithologist, Olivier Messiaen has always loved and studied birds’ lives and songs. Not only in a poetical way but very scientifically too: “They are the best musicians living on our planet”. With a pencil and a score and the musical tools of the western composer, he directly transcribes their songs or the spontaneous combinations of the songs and rhythms.’

Here is the man himself describing some of his musical renditions of birdsong:

And here is his blackbird:

But it’s less the spontaneity of birdsong that I am curious about than the repetition.  Hence, the musical connection, because, as Philip Ball (2010: 124) reminds us: ‘Music is extraordinarily repetitive. ….Around ninety-four per cent of any material lasting longer than a few seconds that appears in musical pieces of cultures ranging from Inuit throat-singing to Norwegian polkas to Navajo war dances recurs more than once – and that is only taking account of verbatim repeats.’ (Those of a musical bent might like to do the math on the Messiaen piece!)

But, of course – and this is the point – no repetition is ever the same: Ball goes on to quote the musicologist Leonard Meyer, to the effect that ‘repetition in music “never exists psychologically” – that we never quite hear the same thing twice. It’s clearly a different experience, for example, to hear a theme for the first time and then to find it returning sometime later.’

OK. So what’s the connection with language?  Repetitive practice is good for musicians and language learners alike? That would seem to be self-evident. But I’ve already blogged about task repetition here, and about drilling here, and about controlled practice here.

No, my current interest is in how ‘we never quite hear the same thing twice’, and, indeed, we never quite say the same thing twice. As Pennycook (2010: 43) puts it: ‘Repetition, even of the “same thing”, always produces something new, so that when we repeat an idea, a word, a phrase or an event, it is always renewed’. And rather grandly, he adds, ‘these ideas can be traced back to Heraclitus (540-475 BC), who insisted that change was real and stability only illusory, famously proclaiming that … “We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not”‘ (ibid: 42).

Diane Larsen-Freeman in action at TESOL

Diane Larsen-Freeman in action at TESOL

This was in fact the very point that Diane Larsen-Freeman, along with Sandra Silberstein, forcibly made in a spell-binding talk at the recent TESOL Convention in Dallas. After reviewing the history of repetition in language learning (pattern practice drills, rote learning, automaticity, and so on) she argued that the problem with this kind of repetition is its dogged obsession with form. As she points out in her contribution to Meaningful Action (Larsen-Freeman 2013: 194), ‘The major problem with repetition in audiolingualism … was that it didn’t necessarily require students to use language meaningfully. Repeating the form as precisely as possible was seen to be sufficient.’ Coming from the perspective of complex systems theory, she goes on to argue:

By way of contrast, there is another term, iteration, which I think merits closer attention. Iteration makes explicit the claim that the act of repeating results in a change to a procedure or system. In other words, what results from iteration is “a mutable state”‘ (2013:195).

Elsewhere (2012: 202) she explains: ‘In a complex system, what results from one iteration is used as the starting point for the next iteration. Thus, the starting point or initial condition is always different’.

If this sounds abstruse, think of the blackbird. Every iteration of its song embeds the echo, or trace, of the previous iteration, and of the one before that, and the one before that, and so on. And each iteration changes in subtle, sometimes barely perceptible, ways. But the net effect of these changes may be profound. This is what Larsen-Freeman describes as repetition’s capacity to generate innovation. ‘When we entertain a view of language as a complex adaptive system, we recognise that every meaningful use of language changes the language resources of the learner/user, and the changed resources are then potentially available to the user and members of the speech community (2013: 195). Or, as Pennycook (2010: 47) puts it, repetition is ‘a form of renewal that creates the illusion of systematicity.’

By means of this illusion of systematicity, iteration equips us with the wherewithal to cope with, and exploit, the inherent variability of real language use.  ‘What is learned through iteration are not simply meaningful patterns, but the process of shaping them appropriately to fit the present context’ (Larsen-Freeman 2012: 204).  Thus, ‘learning takes place not by repeating forms of a closed, static system, but by meaningfully playing the game while revisiting the same territory again and again’ (ibid: 206).

Like the blackbird: revisiting the same territory again and again.  But how can we do this in class?

Stevick coverReferences:

Ball, P. (2010) The Music Instinct: How music works and why we can’t do without it, London: The Bodley Head.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2012) ‘On the roles of repetition in language teaching and learning’, Applied Linguistics Review, 3/2, 195–210.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2013) ‘Complex systems and technemes: learning as iterative adaptations’, in Arnold, J., & Murphey, T. (eds.) Meaningful Action: Earl Stevick’s influence on language teaching, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pennycook, A. (2010) Language as  a Local Practice, London: Routledge.

Samuel, C. (n.d.) ‘The message of  Olivier Messiaen’ (translated by Julie de La Bardonnie), sleeve notes to  ‘Homage to Olivier Messiaen: the 80th birthday concert’. Disques Montaigne.

(Thanks to Ben Goldstein for getting me hooked on Messiaen!)





C is for (COCA) Corpus

12 05 2013

A recent ELT Chat on using corpora suggested that what might be helpful for teachers coming to online corpora (such as COCA- the Corpus of Contemporary American English) for the first time would be some kind of screencast, demonstrating some of the more useful functions. Since I’ve just been doing a unit on using corpora with my MA class, I put together, not a screencast, but a PowerPoint with voiceover, using the wonderfully simple Present.me software that Russell Stannard introduced me to.

Note: As wonderful as Present.me is, it can’t yet be embedded into a WordPress page, but if you click on the screenshot below, it will take you straight to the Present.Me site, where the presentation should open when you click on the Play icon.  In case it doesn’t, here’s the link: https://present.me/view/65217-c-is-for-corpus

Another note: Mac users might want to use Firefox rather than Safari.

Yet another note: it ends rather abruptly – a result of clicking forward on the last slide without realising it was the last!

present.me corpus





T is for Teacher Knowledge

5 05 2013

teacher ny 1920What you do need to know in order to be able to teach?

The question concerns not only teachers, but also teacher educators and methodology writers, since the way we answer it impacts on the design of training programs and their related materials. Do teachers need to know a lot about grammar, for example? Second language acquisition? Educational theory? Curriculum design? Developmental psychology? And so on.

Those who study these things have hypothesized a number of different kinds of knowledge that appear to be implicated in teachers’ decision-making, including subject matter knowledge, general pedagogic knowledge (such as classroom management skills), and contextual knowledge, such as knowledge of the curriculum, of the students, of their social context and so on. At the same time, this slicing up of the pie should not obscure the fact that, in the actual business of teaching, these knowledge bases are deployed simultaneously and interdependently, and constitute ‘an integrated and coherent whole’ (Tsui 2003 p.59). ‘It is the melding of these knowledge domains that is at the heart of teaching’ (op. cit.p.58).

Nevertheless, in the interests of teacher training and evaluation, and for the purposes of  course design, it is often necessary to tease apart these diverse domains and organize them into a structured programme.

One such attempt at isolating and itemizing the components of teacher knowledge in our own field is embodied in the Teaching Knowledge Test (TKT), a teaching award offered by Cambridge ESOL. Aimed primarily at teachers whose first language is not English, and in response to a perceived need for affordable training opportunities in a wide range of contexts, the TKT was originally ‘designed to assess English language teachers’ knowledge about teaching, including concepts related to language, language use and the background to and practice of English language teaching and learning’ (Harrison 2007 p.30).

teacher romania ndInitially conceived purely as a test of knowledge, the TKT did not at first include an assessment of teaching ability in the classroom. Yet there was evidence to suggest that, for some teachers at least, the TKT was perceived as being as much a test of ability as of knowledge. An impact study on the TKT in Uruguay, for instance, found that ‘even though TKT is a test of knowledge, 61% of respondents seemed to expect the test to have an impact on their teaching practice’ (Valazza 2008 p.22). This expectation may well derive from the widely-held belief that knowledge does in fact equate with ability and that the more you know, the better you teach — that, in short, the naming of parts is tantamount to being able to use these parts. But, as Freeman (2002 p.11) observes, ‘One needs the words to talk about what one does, and in using those words one can see it more clearly.  Articulation is not about words alone, however.  Skills and activity likewise provide ways through which new teachers can articulate and enact their images of teaching’.

Just as important, therefore, as identifying, naming, and describing the knowledge bases of teaching is understanding how they are proceduralized in practice and developed over time.  It is now generally accepted that learning to teach involves a dynamic interplay between knowing and doing. As Tsui (op. cit. p.65) puts it, ‘teachers’ knowledge shapes their classroom practices, but their classroom practices in turn shape their knowledge, as they reflect on their practices during and after the action, and they come to a new understanding of teaching’.  For this reason, teacher training programs, whether pre-service or in-service, ideally (some would say necessarily) involve some kind of hands-on practical component, where planning-for-teaching, teaching, and reflecting-on-teaching are integrated into a continuous developmental cycle.

To their credit, Cambridge ESOL have now incorporated a practical test, involving 40 minutes of assessed teaching, into the packet of core modules on offer as part of the TKT.  This can only be a good thing. But ‘core’ does not mean compulsory, and there is always the risk that, because of pragmatic and economic considerations, the practical component will be side-lined, and the ‘knowledge modules’ alone will be considered a sufficient measure of classroom teaching ability.

As publishers, training and examining bodies scramble to address the very real needs of language teachers worldwide, shouldn’t we be asking: What is the minimum a professional development program should offer teachers?

teacher mexico 1923References

Freeman, D.  2002.  ‘The hidden side of the work: Teacher knowledge and learning to teach’.  Language Teaching, 35/1.

Harrison, C. 2007.  ‘Teaching Knowledge Test update — adoptions and courses’.  Research Notes, 29, University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations.

Tsui, A, B. M. 2003. Understanding Expertise in Teaching: Case Studies of Second Language Teachers.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Valazza, G. 2008.  ‘Impact of TKT on language teachers and schools in Uruguay’. Research Notes, 34, University of Cambridge ESOL Examinations.

This post is an adapted version of a review of Jeremy Harmer’s Essential Teacher Knowledge (Pearson, 2012) that appeared in the ELT Journal, 67/1, January 2013.








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