C is for Conversation

8 05 2011

A core tenet of the Dogme philosophy is that classroom learning should be ‘conversation-driven’, and that, out of the language that emerges from this conversation, language learning episodes can be co-constructed.

But what do we mean by ‘conversation’?

In a recent comment on Diarmuid Fogarty’s blog, Luan Hanratty wrote:

Conversation is the word we really need to define. Jack Richards wrote that interactions fall into three basic categories: small talk, transactions and performances. For me, small talk is the most important because it constitutes a difficult social skill that is often least practised among learners. But small talk is too mundane to base a whole class around, hence the need for materials.  Dogme has the danger of becoming like the people who tweet about what they had for lunch. Pleasant but not very inspiring, especially in an learning context. Surely we can do better by giving more time to transactions and performances, i.e. speech acts rather than coffee chats.

This is a fair criticism, especially if we construe conversation as being synonymous with ‘chat’, which by definition is largely interpersonal in terms of its function, and local – even trivial – in terms of its field. If learning opportunities are based solely upon this fairly restricted register, it’s unlikely that most students will find their communicative needs are satisfied – especially if these needs include more formal registers, such as academic or technical writing. (At the same time, it’s worth noting that even written registers are becoming increasingly ‘conversationalized’, especially since the advent of digital media).

So, effectively, a classroom conversation needs to be more than chat. And it also needs to be more than the teacher-led question-answer sequences that characterised Direct Method courses, and which are so easily ridiculed: How many fingers do I have? Do I have a nose on my face? Is this your neck? etc.

Causeries avec mes élèves

Incidentally, one of the prototypical Direct Method courses was called Causeries avec mes élèves [Conversations with my students, 1874)]. Its author, Lambert Sauveur, describes the first lesson: “It is a conversation during two hours in the French language with twenty persons who know nothing of this language. After five minutes only, I am carrying on a dialogue with them, and this dialogue does not cease.”

While this dialogue might, in many ways, not have resembled natually-occuring conversation (the first five lessons of his course dealt with parts of the body), one principle that Sauveur rated highly was coherence, his intention being “to connect scrupulously the questions in such a manner that one may give rise to another”. As Howatt (1984) comments: “This principle probably explains his success in communicating with his students better than anything else. They understood what he was talking about because they were able to predict the course of the conversation” (p. 201).

Conversation is predictable, because one turn follows from the other. At the same time, because it is locally assembled, and takes place in real time, it is unpredictable. This tension between the predictable and the unpredictable makes conversation – real conversation –  an ideal medium for instruction.  As Leo van Lier (1996) argues, “learning takes place when the new is embedded in the familiar, so that risks and security are in balance… Conversational interaction naturally links the known to the new. It creates its own expectancies and its own context, and offers choices to the participants. In a conversation, we must continually make decisions on the basis of what other people mean. We therefore have to listen very carefully… and we also have to take great care in constructing our contributions so that we can be understood” (p. 171).

At the same time, for such conversations to provide a site for learning, there need to be strategic interventions on the part of the teacher – interventions that distinguish normal conversation between peers from what has been called ‘instructional conversation’ (Tharp and Gallimore, 1988):

The task of schooling can be seen as one of creating and supporting instructional conversations… The concept itself contains a paradox: “Instruction” and “conversation” appear contrary, the one implying authority and planning, the other equality and responsiveness. The task of teaching is to resolve this paradox. To most truly teach, one must converse; to truly converse is to teach” (p. 111).

The notion of instructional conversation has been further developed by scholars such as Neil Mercer (1995), who writes of the ‘long conversation’ that constitutes the dialogic curriculum, and Gordon Wells (1999), who calls it ‘dialogic enquiry’.    In fact, dialogue may be a better term than conversation, not least because it echoes Paulo Freire’s insistence on putting dialogue at the heart of pedagogy: “Whoever enters into dialogue does so with someone about something; and that something ought to constitute the new content of our proposed education” (1993, p. 46). In a similar manner, Sylvia Ashton-Warner yielded to – and exploited –  the hubbub in her infant classroom: “I harness the communication, since I can’t control it, and base my method on it” (1963, p. 104).

Individual presentations

So, really, conversation stands for all the talk, the dialogue, the communication (both spoken and written) that is generated by the people in the room, and that is shaped, scaffolded, supported and signposted by the teacher. It could take the form of formal debates, individual presentations, small group tasks, or a plenary discussion. It could be mediated by means of an online chat function, or Twitter, or SMS messages, or pieces of paper that are traded back and forth across the class. In the end it is simply the ‘stuff’ (to use Ashton-Warner’s phrase) out of which learning episodes are moulded. In its most basic, common-or-garden form it is simply conversation – the most natural form of communication we know.

Formal debate

And, as Gordon Wells concedes, “conversation may not be perfect as a means of information exchange… but when engaged in collaboratively, it can be an effective medium for learning and teaching. In any case, since there is no better alternative, we must do the best we can” (1987, p. 218).

References:

Ashton-Warner, S. (1963, 1980). Teacher. London: Virago.

Freire, P. (1993). Education for Critical Consciousness, New York: Continuum.

Howatt, A.P.R. (1984). A History of English Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mercer, N. (1995). The guided construction of knowledge: Talk amongst teachers and learners. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Tharp, R.G., & Gallimore, R. (1988). Rousing minds to life: Teaching, learning, and schooling in social context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

van Lier, L. (1996). Interaction in the language curriculum: Awareness, autonomy and authenticity. Harlow: Longman.

Wells, G. (1987) The Meaning Makers: Children learning language and using language to learn. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Wells, G. (1999). Dialogic Inquiry: Towards a sociocultural practice and theory of education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.






T is for Technology

1 05 2011

The ELT Journal Debate, IATEFL 2011

There was a good deal of whooping and hollering after the ELTJ debate at the IATEFL Conference in Brighton a couple of weeks ago. And, in the face of Alan Waters’ well-argued, but somewhat lacklustre critique, Nicky Hockly deservedly won a healthy round of applause for her feisty defence of educational technologies.  But many of the comments from the floor seemed to reflect a wilful misunderstanding of the nature of the debate (admittedly, the motion – Twitter is for the birds… – was not helpful). Instead of arguing about the merits of integrating technology into (language) education, it became a free-for-all about technology in general (“I wouldn’t have been here if it hadn’t been for Twitter”, “If you are unable to follow a Twitter-stream you are soft in the head…” etc). Comments like these seemed to be largely irrelevant to the matter in hand, i.e. the uses (or abuses) of technology in language education.

There are good reasons for integrating technology into language education, and there are bad reasons. But the debate never seriously addressed them. Instead, the general view seemed to be that, if technology is good for laundering clothes or photographing Mars, it must, ipso facto, be good for education. QED.

Nicky Hockly and me: poles apart?

Moreover, by framing  the issue as an either/or one (inevitable, unfortunately, for a debate), the event served only to perpetuate the division between so-called technophiles and so-called technophobes, obscuring  the wide range of possible stances in between. One of these stances is that of the technosceptic.  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: If you don’t use technology in your classes you are unprofessional/ irresponsible/ old-fashioned/ in denial, or even (as one blogger put it) “a tad rude”.  And, as Hal Crowther (2010) wrote recently: “Coercion is not just interpersonal but societal, and pervasive. The word ‘Luddite’ which we used to wear with defiant pride, has become an epithet like ‘Communist’ or ‘reactionary’” (p.109).

Uncritical acceptance of any innovation, whether it be interactive whiteboards or multiple intelligence theory, needs to be subjected to a dose of level-headed scrutiny. And, as far as I am concerned, until the following four problems have been satisfactorily addressed, an ounce or two of scepticism regarding ‘ed tech’ seems well advised.

The delivery model problem: Despite the enormous potential technology has both to facilitate communication and to foster creativity, a lot of educational software still seems to be predicated on a delivery model of education. I.e. the more information learners have –  and the quicker –  the better.  As a consequence, many publishers seem to be responding to the demand for language learning apps by simply re-issuing existing reference works in mobile-friendly formats, a well-known grammar self-study book being a case in point. But, to paraphrase (the sainted) Neil Postman, if learners are having problems learning to speak English, it is not through lack of information!

"Let's check out this Murphy app"

The theory vacuum problem: In a review of the film ‘The Social Network’, Zadie Smith (2010) commented to the effect that, “in France philosophy seems to come before technology; here in the Anglo-American world we race ahead with technology and hope the ideas will look after themselves”. As evidence, not a day goes by without someone tweeting to announce a blog or website that offers ’20 things to do with Wordle’, or ‘100 ways of using Twitter in the classroom’ and so on. Rarely if ever do you see ‘7 tools to help students with listening skills’ or ‘100 apps that facilitate vocabulary acquisition’. That is to say, rather than the learning purpose determining the technology, it’s the technological tail that seems to wag the pedagogical dog. What theories of learning underpin the claims being made for educational technology? We deserve to know!

The attention deficit problem: A good while back, Aldous Huxley warned against the dangers of ‘non-stop distraction’. More recently, commentators have noted that a state of ‘continuous partial attention’ characterises the kind of engagement that digitial technologies induce. As Nicholas Carr writes (2010), “When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.  It is possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards” (pp. 115-16).

If you accept that a degree of higher order thinking and sustained concentration is a prerequisite for learning, then you have to be worried about these effects.  (Do those who deny that multi-tasking is  a problem also condone the use of cell phones while driving?)

The added value problem: At a recent presentation on the educational use of mobile technology, the presenters quoted a survey of teachers in which the majority said that they didn’t anticipate using mobile technology in their classrooms. The presenters glossed this as meaning “…because they don’t know how”. Was I the only member of the audience who was thinking that the more likely reason was “….because they don’t see the need”?

As long ago as 1966, Pit Corder warned that “the use of mechanical aids in the classroom is justified only if they can do something which the teacher unaided cannot do, or can do less effectively” (1966, p. 69). This would still seem to be a useful test of the value that technology adds to education, not least when one factors in the costs – not just in terms of the initial outlay, but in terms of training, maintenance, upgrades and eventual disposal. (Crowther, op. cit, notes that “Americans alone discard 100 million computers, cell phones and related devices every year, at a rate of 136,000 per day” and adds that “it takes roughly 1.8 tons of raw material… to manufacture one PC and its monitor” [p. 113]). Confronted by any new tool or application, the discerning teacher should be asking: Is it really worth it?

Coincidentally, while preparing this blog, I discovered that at least two other bloggers were addressing the same theme. Here’s how Luan Hanratty , for example, responds to the added-value problem, a good deal more eloquently than I can:

My own philosophy of teaching barely includes technology because if teachers understand the proper principles of language learning, informed by psychology and other fields, then technology is mostly superfluous. It’s not that I don’t like it, it’s just that I don’t really need it. There is more immediate stuff out there in the collective consciousness and more beneficial techniques to employ than the more-is-more approach of jumping on the latest bandwagon.

Of course, I ought to say what I think technology is good for, but this post has already exceeded the word count, so I’ll reserve that discussion for the comments.

References:

Carr, N. 2010. The Shallows: how the Internet is changing the way we think, read and remember.  London: Atlantic Books.

Crowther, H. 2010. One hundred fears of solitude: The greatest generation gap. In Granta, 111.

Pit Corder, S. 1966. The Visual Element in Language Teaching. London: Longman.

Smith, Z. 2010. Generation Why? Review of The Social Network. New York Review of Books Nov 25 2010-12-09.





A is for Aims

24 04 2011

Ready, aim.... (Vital Imagery Ltd)

“Yes, but what were your aims?!

This must be one of the most frequently voiced questions in the discussion that follows an observed lesson. The trainee – with little or no idea of how language learning is managed – is pitted against the trainer, convinced that learning can be manufactured according to precise specifications, and with the reliability of a Swiss watch.  It’s all about planning, anticipating, predicting and pre-empting.  Hence, the need for aims, and hence, the kind of advice on lesson planning of which the following is typical:

“To write an effective plan the teacher needs to think carefully about what exactly the aim of the lesson is. What will the learners learn?” (Watkins, 2005). 

Yes, but what will the learners learn? Will it be someting entirely new or simply consolidation of existing knowledge – in which case, will the improvement be perceptible? Will all the learners learn the same thing, and at the same pace? And what does ‘learn’ mean here? Is this conscious or unconscious learning? Are we talking about the acquisition of inert, declarative knowledge, or is this knowledge available to be proceduralised, and, if so, how can such proceduralization be realistically achieved in the space of a 45-minute lesson? And how, in the end, do you measure it?  How do we know when someone has learned something? And so on and so on.

The concept of aims seems to be based on the fallacy that language learning is the incremental accumulation of discrete-items of linguistic knowledge. But, as Diane Larsen-Freeman (1997) reminds us, “learning linguistic items is not a linear process – learners do not master one item and then move on to another. In fact, the learning curve for a single item is not linear either. The curve is filled with peaks and valleys, progress and backslidings” (p. 18).

Not only that, the classroom – being essentially a social organism –  is a complex dynamic system, where small effects may have unintended consequences, and where major interventions may produce only trivial results. As Dick Allwright (2005) points out “What learners get from a lesson is not predictable merely from what is taught in that lesson and certainly not just from the teaching points covered… We cannot now sensibly measure the overall success of a lesson simply in terms of the percentage of teaching points successfully learned because the learners may have learned little from the teaching points and a lot from everything else that happened in the lesson” (p 12).

Hence, it might be better to start with the assumption that learning cannot be programmed, in any deliberate sense, and that, as Leo van Lier puts it “it might be a good idea to design … lessons as if they formed a small organic culture (or an ecosystem) in themselves, where participants strive to combine the expected and the unexpected, the known and the new, the planned and the improvised, in harmonious ways” (van Lier 1996, p. 200).

What advice should we give trainee teachers, then? Allwright suggests that we should not abandon the idea of planning, but that we should replace the notion of ‘teaching points’ with that of ‘learning opportunities': “I see planning as crucial to language teaching and learning,  but planning for richness of opportunity and especially for understanding,  not planning to determine highly specific learning outcomes” (op.cit, p. 10). That is, rather than defining the aims in terms of pre-specified outcomes (typically grammar McNuggets), trainees should be encouraged to think in terms of the desired learning opportunities, or what van Lier calls ‘affordances’.

Moreover, evidence from research into expert teachers’ planning decisions suggests that effective teachers seldom start their planning processes with a clear conception of an ultimate aim. Rather, they start with a somewhat fuzzy notion of what will feel right, for this class, at this stage of their learning, at this time of day, and given such-and-such contextual factors – what I call ‘fit’.  I now tell my trainees to try and esatablish a ‘fit’ for their lesson, and work from there, while at the same time incorporating plenty of elasticity into the design. And I tell them to be prepared to adapt or even abandon their plan in light of the response of the learners.

A coursebook

Such an approach, of course, sits uncomfortably with the ‘teaching point’ culture imposed by coursebooks. But coursebooks (mercifully) consist of more than simply a syllabus of teaching points. They include topics, tasks and texts – all of which, with only a little ingenuity, can be usefully detached from the teaching point that might originally have motivated them. If trainees can be encouraged to see the ‘affordance potential’ of coursebook tasks, for example, they may be some way towards designing lessons that maximise learning opportunities, even within a coursebook-driven paradigm.

In the end, as the man said, we cannot cause learning; we can only provide the conditions in which it may occur. And maybe, therefore, we should learn not to fear unpredictability, even to celebrate it. As Stenhouse put it, a long time ago now, “Education as the induction into knowledge is successful to the extent that it makes the behavioural outcomes of the students unpredictable” (1975, pp. 82-3).

References:

Allwright, R. 2005. From teaching points to learning opportunities and beyond. TESOL Quarterly, 39, 9-32.

Larsen-Freeman, D. 1997. Chaos/Complexity science and second language acquisition. Applied Linguistics 18.

Stenhouse, L. 1975.  An introduction to curriculum research and development. London: Heinemann.

Van Lier, L. 1996. Interaction in the language curriculum: awareness, autonomy and authenticity. London: Longman.

Watkins, P. 2005. Learning to Teach English: A practical introduction for new teachers. Addlestone: Delta Publishing





Guest blog: H is for Homework

17 04 2011

This week’s post comes from my friend, Rob Haines in Oregon (USA). Rob is currently a curriculum designer and ESL instructor for a program serving low-income scholars and community leaders from Latin America and Haiti in Oregon.  He  has an MSc TESOL from Aston University (UK), and co-moderates the Dogme discussion list where he periodically posts descriptions of his materials-light, learner-centred classes. Rob kindly contributed the following post, where he starts by asking:  Is homework really necessary?

“As a language teacher one cannot escape the feeling that language lessons in and of themselves are not sufficient to bring language learning about and to lead to eventual proficiency” (van Lier 1996, p. 42).

If you agree, then you’re likely to supplement classroom learning with homework, that is, tasks to be completed between classes. Van Lier (and others) would maintain that “between-class-learning” should complement classroom learning, particularly if learners attend classes only a few hours a week, so that the time in between classes affords further learning opportunities. As van Lier (1996) puts it:

“If the lessons – whether they are once a week, once a day, or more frequent than that – are the only occasions on which students are engaged with the language, progress will either not occur or be exceedingly slow. The students’ minds must occupy themselves with the language between lessons as well as in lessons, if improvements are to happen” (ibid.).

What sort of tasks are best?

Assuming you are not obligated to assign specific tasks, the kind of homework you set is probably up to you. As if by default, homework often becomes the set of exercises at the end of a course book unit. Understandably, busy teachers might tend to rely on prefabricated assignments for homework. But saving time this way all too often fails to connect what happens in class with students’ lives in ‘the real world’.

Rather than reaching for a course book or a ready-made handout, a better resource might be the learners themselves. Working within the parameters of your context, while respecting learners’ attitudes towards the role of the teacher, you can facilitate, organize, and coax as necessary to involve learners in the design and execution of homework tasks.

Here are a few tips:

  • Turn homework into a peer-teaching opportunity by asking learners to read and check each other’s work
  • Discourage learners from simply copying information off the Internet by setting tasks that are highly personalized, such as preparing a presentation about their families, making a list of their favorite foods, describing the flat, house or dormitory where they live, etc.
  • Pair learners into ‘study buddies’, so that they can work on a homework task together
  • Arrange ‘scavenger hunts’ or similar tasks with an element of mystery and surprise
  • Develop personalized learning plans that allow learners to set goals as well as demonstrate and assess their progress
  • Maintain and utilize a collection box where learners can store vocabulary, grammar questions, and ideas they have gathered outside class
  • Ask learners to keep a journal
  • Have learners design quizzes

If you’d like to come up with your own tasks, Steve Darn, over at the British Council Web site http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/think/articles/homework, lists a set of principles to guide teachers through the process of creating meaningful tasks beyond the classroom.

The take-home message

Considering how research underscores the need for social interaction and engagement with our immediate surroundings, homework that affords language learners opportunities to explore and investigate English (or any other target language) through meaningful tasks are likely to be most effective and enjoyable for all.

Reference:

van Lier, L. 1996. Interaction in the Language Curriculum: Awareness, Autonomy, & Authenticity. London: Harlow.





M is for Memorization

8 04 2011

What lessons can psychology teach us about second language instruction?

In a recent book on the psychology of second language acquisition, Zoltán Dörnyei (2009) draws six practical implications from current research findings, one being that instruction “should be meaning focused and personally engaging” (p.302). Nothing surprising about that, perhaps, but what about his claim that instructed SLA should incorporate an element of rote learning?

Reviewing this book in the latest ELT Journal, Steven McDonough asks “Surely he is not suggesting that learners should learn grammar rules by heart?” (McDonough, 2011, p. 195). Since I don’t yet have the book, I have no way of checking. But in an earlier work on the same subject, Dörnyei (2005) traces the history of rote learning and its relation to aptitude, starting with Carroll’s (1981) claim that language aptitude comprises four constituent abilities, one of which is “rote learning ability”. This is “the ability to learn associations between sounds and meaning rapidly and efficiently, and to retain these associations” (Carroll, 1981, p.105). Accordingly, the Modern Languages Aptitude Test (MLAT), which Carroll had a hand in, includes a rote learning component: “Students have a total of four minutes to memorize 24 Kurdish/English word pairs. Retention is tested by means of a multiple choice test…” (cited in Dörnyei, 2005, p. 37). (Easy if you’re Kurdish, of course!)

Subsequently, Skehan (1998), in his own model of language aptitude, retains an important role for memory, and notes that “memory, although traditionally associated with the acquisition of new information, is also concerned with retrieval, and with the way elements are stored… Fast-access memory systems… are what allow output to be orchestrated into fluent performance” (p.204). It’s not enough to know a lot of words, obviously. You have to be able to retrieve them, and at speed.

Skehan also reviews some case studies of exceptional language learners, and concludes: “To be exceptionally good at second or foreign language learning seems to require possession of unusual memory abilities, particularly the retention of verbal material. Exceptional L2 ability does not seem to rest upon unusual talent with a rule-based aspects of the language, but rather on a capacity to absorb very large quantities of verbal material, in such a way that they become available for actual language use” (p.221).

If memorizing large quantities of ‘verbal material’ is a characteristic of exceptional learners, can less exceptional learners be trained to get similar results?

In a fascinating study of three Chinese learners of English, all of whom were rated as having achieved a high degree of communicative proficiency, Ding (2007) tracks the role that the rote-learning of huge quantities of text played in their linguistic accomplishments. As the abstract reports, “The interviewees regarded text memorization and imitation as the most effective methods of learning English. They had been initially forced to use these methods but gradually came to appreciate them.” What they memorized, as part of their conventional schooling, were entire coursebooks (New Concept English by Louis Alexander, in one case) as well as the screenplays of whole films: “Some of them said that when they speak English, lines from movies often naturally pop out, making others think of their English as natural and fluent “. As one of the subjects reported, “through reciting those lessons, he gained mastery of many collocations, phrases, sentence patterns and other language points”.

Now I have to declare an interest here: my conviction that the role of memory – including memorization – in language learning has been sorely neglected led me to commission a title for the Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers (of which I’m the series editor), and I’m pleased to say that the book has just been published. It’s by Nick Bilbrough, and called Memory Activities for Language Learning. I have to say that the book has exceeded my expectations, and triumphantly fulfils its back-cover promise: “Memory Activities for Language Learning explores the cognitive processes of memory and provides a bank of activities to facilitate their development”.

I’m hoping that Nick’s book will (re-)awaken interest in the crucial role that memory plays in second language learning.

References:

Carroll, J.B. 1981. Twenty-five years of research in foreign language aptitude. In K.C. Diller (ed.) Individual differences and universals in language learning aptitude. Rowley, MA.; Newbury House.

Ding, Y. 2007. Text memorisation and imitation: The practices of successful Chinese learners of English. System 35: 271-80.

Dörnyei, Z. 2005. The Psychology of the Language Learner: Individual Differences in Second Language Acquisition. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Dörnyei, Z. 2009. The Psychology of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McDonough, S. 2011. Review of Dörnyei (2009) in ELT Journal, 65/2, pp. 194-6.

Skehan, P. 1998. A Cognitive Approach to Language Teaching.Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Illustrations from Hamilton, J. 1946. Método de Inglés (Tercer Libro) Mexico, D.F.: Editorial Progreso.





E is for ELF

3 04 2011

Alistair Pennycook's plenary, TESOL 2011

At last month’s TESOL Convention in New Orleans the topic of English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) (and/or English as an International Language (EIL) or Global English), was definitely the flavour of the month. There were plenaries by both Alistair Pennycook and Jennifer Jenkins, plus talks and colloquia by the likes of Andy Kirkpatrick, Ryuko Kubota, and Ramin Akbari, all on aspects of ELF or EIF – or both.

This last was interesting because, as a representative of the expanding circle – i.e. those parts of the world where English is neither spoken by the majority as their native language, nor granted the status of an official language – Akbari made a good case for rejecting the ELF model in places like, for example, his native Iran.  His reasons were partly political: the suggestion (coming typically from inner circle academics) that expanding circle teachers should ‘lower the bar’, and show greater tolerance of ‘non-standard forms’ (otherwise known as errors) would  – he argued – serve simply to perpetuate the second-class status of expanding circle English, its users forever condemned to speaking a sort of pidgin of the ‘Me Tarzan, you Jane’ variety.

But more interesting – to me, at least – was his argument that ELF represents a case of ‘linguistics applied’, whereby the insights from researchers and theorists drives classroom practice, rather than the other way round, as would be the case if the needs of teachers (and learners) were allowed to inform the research agenda. We have already seen this happen with corpus linguistics, where discoveries at the level of language description are incorporated into materials and syllabi, un-predigested, as it were, and bearing the hallmark of authority as examples of ‘real English’.

There’s little doubt that the widespread use of English as a form of communication between non-native speakers is influencing the way people speak it. The problem comes when this sociolinguistic fact is invoked by proponents of ELF to argue the case for new curriculum goals, different materials, a different methodology, revised standards of accuracy, and so on. (Or so, at least, is the perception). This is ‘linguistics applied’.

Akbari argued that – from a pedagogical point of view – the case for ELF raises more questions than it answers. For a start, if you remove or otherwise discredit inner circle norms on the grounds that they are no longer relevant, by whose standards are learners to be judged? If the standards are those of other (successful) ELF users, what qualifies as success,  and where are these standards codified? And what kind of pedagogy should you adopt? How, for example, would you model pronunciation? Finally, how do you deal with the expectations – and aspirations – of both teachers and learners, who may well feel disempowered if the goal-posts are shifted? For Akbari (and many others, I suspect) ELF is all theory and no praxis.

Of course, in one sense the problem goes away if you re-construe the goals of instruction as being those that are defined by the learner and driven by the learner’s needs, rather than being predetermined by the curriculum designer or the coursebook writer.   If you take an ESP approach, for example, and, start off by identifying the kinds of contexts the learner is going to operate in, with whom and for what purposes, using what kinds of texts and registers, at what degree of intelligibility, in combination with what other languages, and employing what kinds of skills and strategies, you don’t have to label the goals as EFL, ESL, ESP, ELF or EIL – or anything! Leave the labelling to the sociolinguists!

You say tomahto, I say tomayto...

Put another way, if we devoted more time and energy to teaching the learner, and less to teaching the language, we might be better off.

It is the learner, in the end, who must decide what code best serves his or her needs, and what is achievable in the available time and with the available resources. For most learners, the arguments as to what constitutes the global variety are academic. As an article in a recent TESOL Quarterly put it, “To learners in developing, resource-poor EFL settings especially, it matters very little who says tomahto and who says tomayto.  Knowing the word tomato is achievement enough” (Bruthiaux, 2010, p. 368).

Reference:

Bruthiaux, P.  2010.  World Englishes and the classroom: an EFL perspective.  TESOL Quarterly, 44/2, p.368).





H is for Humanistic approaches

27 03 2011

Crescent City Books, New Orleans

While attending the annual TESOL Conference in New Orleans last week, I took some time out (as is my wont!) to look for books.  In this second-hand bookshop in the French quarter (left), I came across a copy of Gertrude Moscowitz’s classic text on humanistic teaching techniques, Caring and Sharing in the Foreign Language Class (1978) – a title that clearly evokes the ethos of the period, but which, in these more hard-bitten times, elicits not a little gentle mockery, or even, dare I say, derision.

This book was a core text in our Diploma (now DELTA) library back in the ’80s, and even then many of its suggested activities were rated as having a high ‘cringe factor’. Here’s one, taken more or less at random:

I LIKE YOU BECAUSE…

The students are told that there are many positive qualities about others that we are aware of but often do not take the time to express.  Tell students that today they will have the opportunity to let each other know what some of these positive thoughts and feelings are.  Instruct the students to tell the partner they are facing some positive things they like or feel about each other.  After about a minute, have the students move to a new partner and continue the process until each student speaks with a number of different students.

(p.80)

While appreciating the good intentions of an activity like this, most experienced teachers will be alert to its potential problems and risks. First of all, will the students have the necessary language to do the task? If not, what kind of preparation will they need? What is the intended outcome of the task – an oral or written report, or just a general sense of well-being?  More importantly, perhaps, will they know each other well enough to find things to say? Will they be both cognizant of, and comfortable with, the aims of the activity? What happens if a student is unable – or reluctant – to voice a positive sentiment? What impact will the learner’s cultural background have on the task? And what is the teacher’s role in all this?

Even this one taster is enough, I think, to indicate the assumptions on which the book (and humanistic teaching in general) is based. These are spelled out in the introduction:

  • For learning to be significant, feelings must be recognised and put to use.
  • Human beings want to actualise their potential.
  • Having healthy relationships with other classmates is more conducive to learning.
  • Learning more about oneself is a motivating factor in learning.
  • Increasing one’s self-esteem enhances learning.

(p. 18)

While we might accept that these claims are self-evident, we may be less inclined, nowadays, to construct a pedagogy around them. Nevertheless, as I revisited this book, I couldn’t help but be struck by the fundamental soundness of many of the principles on which it is based – principles that are somewhat obscured by its relentlessly upbeat and touch-feely tone.  Take these statements, for example:

Connect the content with the students’ lives

By connecting the content with the students’ lives, you are focusing on what students know rather than what they are ignorant of.  From the learner’s standpoint, there is quite a psychological difference in dealing with what is familiar to him rather than what is unknown. …

Use students’ responses in the lesson

As the exercises you develop take form, plan to make use of the responses of students.  Have the students note similarities and differences in each other’s reactions or experiences and refer to them in processing the activity.  Since the students will be sharing of themselves, utilise what they share by asking the class questions relating to what has been exchanged in the interaction. …

Yours students have ideas, too

Don’t overlook an important resource of ideas for humanistic techniques.  Who can tell you what interests them better than your students themselves?…  Bringing the students’ lives to the content brings life to the content!

(pp. 197-200)

“Bringing the students’ lives to the content brings life to the content” might well be a Dogme slogan. Certainly, the notion of incorporating learners’ contributions into the fabric of the lesson – not merely as personalization, but as the core content –  is a mainstay of the Dogme philosophy. This makes me wonder to what extent I was – consciously or unconsciously – influenced by the ‘humanistic turn’, as popularized by Moscowitz and others, in the development of my own philosophy of teaching.

And it also makes me wonder if it’s not time to put aside some of our postmodern cynicism and to re-visit these seminal texts in search of the good sense that they have to offer.

Reference:

Moskowitz, G. 1978. Caring and Sharing in the Foreign Language Class. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.








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