Z is for Zero Uncertainty

31 07 2011

Mr Grumpy Blogger

Here is a listening sequence that could be from any current coursebook:

Pre-listening: 1. What do you know about garden gnomes? Have you ever had a garden gnome? Have you ever lost a garden gnome? Etc. Scrum down and talk to your mates. [This is the ‘activating schema’ stage]

2. Here are some words you’d better know: toadstool, abducted, postcard, package tour, gnomic… etc. [= Pre-teach some vocab that may or may not be crucial to an understanding of the text]

3. Here is a picture of a man looking at a postcard showing his garden gnome in St Peter’s Square. Here he is again, being interviewed. What questions is he being asked? What answers is he giving? [= Activating predictive skills so as to make listening to the ensuing interview more or less redundant]

Listening

1. Listen to this [pretend] interview with a [pretend] person whose [pretend] garden gnome was nicked, and do this task.

Put the interviewer’s questions in order. (The first one has been done for you).

  1. And how does this story end?
  2. I hear you lost your gnome. Tell me about it. (1)
  3. So what did you do?

[= easy gist listening question – so easy you don’t actually have to listen to the text to do it]

2. Listen again, and say why these words are mentioned: Red Square; front lawn; the Great Pyramid of Cheops. [= deeper level processing – and this is as deep as it gets]

Follow-up

Imagine you are a garden gnome who has been kidnapped and sent abroad. Write a postcard detailing your adventure. [= er, follow-up]

Why do I have problems with this kind of sequence?

Well, apart from the naff content and the scripted nature of the text (why are 90% of all coursebook listenings still scripted?), I really can’t figure out in what way learners are any better off after the process than they were before it.

Can we say, hand on heart, that this very superficial treatment of spoken texts has improved their listening skills one jot? For a start, by activating their top-down processing skills (world knowledge, predictive abilities, etc) and by setting only the easiest of gist checking questions, the learners have been so cushioned against having to engage with the language in the text at anything but the most superficial level that it’s very difficult to see how such a sequence prepares them for real-life listening at all, let alone teaches them anything new about the language.

This is like looking at the target language from 30,000 feet. But that’s where the learners are already. They’re very used to not really understanding texts, so why should they want to not really understand them in the classroom, too?

While it may get students into a text (and compensate for the lack of visual information, in the case of audio-only listening tasks), an over-dependence on top-down processing (i.e. using background knowledge, non-linguistic and contextual clues, etc) may delude both learners and teachers into thinking that linguistic information can safely be ignored. Or that having no more unanswered questions about a text (a state that Frank Smith calls ‘zero uncertainty’) is not a realistic, nor even a desirable, outcome.

As a second language user, I hate having unanswered questions. I hate being in the cinema at an Almodóvar film surrounded by cackling Spaniards, and not getting the joke. I hate missing the plane because I misheard the announcement and went to the wrong gate. I don’t like 50% uncertainty, or even 5% uncertainty. I crave zero uncertainty.

Students transcribing (photo courtesy of Eltpics)

So, how would I improve the sequence? Simply by the addition of further layers and layers of questions that probe and probe and probe at the learners’ emergent understanding, until not a word has been by-passed, not a discourse marker ignored, not a verb ending overlooked, and not a question left unanswered. And the sequence would culminate in a word-by-word transcription task – not of the whole text, necessarily – but of a decent-sized chunk of it.

But, to withstand the weight of so much probing, I would need a text that was of much more intrinsic interest, educational value, and linguistic capital than one about abducted garden gnomes!

Reference:

Smith, F. (2004) Understanding Reading (6th edition). Lawrence Erlbaum.





C is for Coursebook writing

23 01 2011

I recently got the following email:

I’m writing to ask if you could steer me in the right direction towards writing an ELT student’s book. … I have eight years’ teaching experience and the Cambridge DELTA. I’m presently coming to the end of my master’s degree … I will very much appreciate any suggestions you are able to provide.

As you can imagine, I was amused on two counts. Firstly, isn’t the writer aware of my less than coursebook-friendly reputation? And, more to the point, isn’t it a little naive to think you can just break in to this highly competitive field without so much as a by-your-leave?

Gathering dust (good title for a coursebook?)

However, the request got me thinking. It’s not unreasonable, after all, having taught a bit and having got as qualified as you can get in this field, to consider a move into some related area such as training or materials writing. It was more or less the point that I was at, when I first got into writing. In fact, it seems to me, on reflection, that my own experience might be instructive here. (At the same time, the world of publishing, and of ELT publishing in particular, has changed enormously since I first started writing 20 years ago. So I’m not sure if any advice I can offer is as apt now as it might have been then).

So: it’s 1991. I have just finished my MA and I am asked, by a leading publisher, if I will review a new coursebook series that is in production. (The connection is not entirely fortuitous, I have to admit, since the writers are both friends of mine, all of us having worked and studied together). I write the review, and this leads to my being asked if I’d be interested in submitting a proposal to write the first workbook of the series. My proposal is accepted and thus begins my apprenticeship into ELT publishing. (I was lucky to have an extremely patient editor who was able to curb my enthusiasms without destroying my confidence).

One thing led to another: I wrote the two other workbooks for the series, and then was approached by another publisher with a view to my ‘finishing’ a coursebook series that the existing writer was too busy to complete. Again, I had to learn how to adapt my own ideals to the constraints imposed, not only by the publishers and their reporters ‘on the ground’, but also to the other writers in the series and their particular vision. One thing you learn is how to bite the bullet, but not at the cost of a fair amount of agonising, and copious phonecalls and meetings. (To my shame, my pig-headedness on an issue of syllabus sequencing reduced one editor to tears).

A teacher’s guide assignment led to yet another coursebook project – this time a co-written one (the first that was mediated almost entirely by email, as it happened). And so on. The rest is NOT, as they say, history. I was starting to realise that the tension between my own principles – as developed in my teacher training – and the demands of mainstream publishing had reached breaking point. But that’s another story…

Nevertheless, I think there are some pointers to be gleaned from this account:

1. Don’t expect to start ‘at the top’. Materials writing involves a fairly prolonged apprenticeship, usually doing a lot of the spade-work that the coursebook writers themselves don’t want to sully their hands with.

2. Make yourself known to publishers, by offering to report on new projects, trial material, and write supplementary materials (tests, resource packs, online content, etc).

3. Give presentations at conferences, where you might just get noticed by a passing publisher, and asked to submit a proposal.

4. Don’t waste your time writing the complete draft of a project and sending it off to the publishers: find out what it is that they want first; write a pre-proposal, summarising the gist of your project, and, if the response is positive, prepare a more fully-developed proposal (with some sample materials).

5. Curb your enthusiams! Publishers respond positively to energy and vision, but not to off-the-wall, totally unmarketable ideas. The EFL equivalent of The Naked Lunch will never fly!

Any other tips from you coursebook writers out there?





N is for Neoliberalism

26 12 2010

The following extract from a coursebook dialogue is fairly typical of the upbeat, self-actualising discourse we’ve come to associate with people in ELT texts. A Western male has re-invented himself as a successful pop star in the East, and is being interviewed:

Q. So, do you think you’ve made the right choices in your life?

A. Absolutely.  I’m having a fantastic time in Macau.  When you go back home, you see all of your friends doing exactly the same as 10 years ago.  I do things and have done things that most people could only dream of doing.

(English Unlimited, Elementary Coursebook, Cambridge University Press, 2010, p.159).

Here is another text, along similar lines, except in this case, the direction of migration is from East to West:

Admirable people

Admirable people

My neighbour Dien Tranh was born in 1959 in Vietnam, in the city of Hue. By the time he was 12, he had lost both his parents. Somehow he cared for himself and his younger sister. By the time he was 20 he had arrived in the United States as a refugee, and he had begun working two and sometimes three jobs at a time. Within five years, he had already saved enough money to help bring many of his relatives to the United States, and he had bought a small florist shop. By 1994 – 10 years after he bought that small shop – Tranh had expanded his business to include six stores and more than 30 employees.

(Gaies, S. and Ellis, R. 1999. Impact English. New York: Pearson Longman).

Two recent articles (Chun 2009; Gray 2010) firmly situate this kind of text in the rhetoric of neoliberalism, i.e., the belief in the sanctity and ultimate munificence of an unfettered market economy.  As Gray explains, “according to the neoliberal view, the role of government is primarily to guarantee and extend the reach of the market” (p. 717).  This agenda, in turn, is associated with such market-friendly practices as ‘customer care’ culture, communication skills training, and what Chun calls “discourses of self-actualisation and entrepreneurial choices” (p. 115).

Self-actualisation, Headway style

Gray looks at the way that self-actualisation, by means of work (including, of course, the learning of English) is a theme that permeates many current ELT materials.  This goes hand-in-hand with an obsession with celebrity, one of the more overt consequences of self-actualisation in the (media) marketplace, and a familiar motif in most coursebooks.  One coursebook that Gray analyses, for example, “includes a reading in which our (assumed) interest in celebrity is seen as inevitable, if not altogether healthy, and at the same time asks students to work in small groups and decide on ways of becoming an A-list celebrity” (p.728).

This “neoliberal discursive positioning of students as consumers and entrepreneurs of self and others” (Chun, op. cit. p. 118) is, of course, attributable to the fact that English, as a global language, is well-placed to serve the interests of a globalised market economy, and thereby to act as a vehicle for the fulfillment of learners’ aspirations. Coursebooks, like other forms of aspirational literature, such as self-help guides and travel brochures, project a typically upbeat and well-heeled lifestyle. Not only is the work-ethic celebrated, but so too are its rewards, in the form of leisure, travel and shopping. Seldom, if ever, are such practices problematised, or critiqued, although Chun reports ways that classroom discussions might be set up so as to subvert some of the more conspicuous neoliberal values that coursebooks enshrine.

Language school in Cologne

But I suspect there may be another reason why self-actualisation is a dominant theme in coursebooks, and that is that ELT itself is increasingly seen, by its practitioners, as an entrepreneurial culture, offering plentiful opportunities for self-realisation and, even, fame. Gone are the days of the doughty, do-gooder, internationalist English teacher working tirelessly in a shed in East Africa. He or she has long since been replaced, either by the gap-year, pleasure-seeking, backpacker, or by the disaffected professional (lawyer, stockbroker, school teacher, etc) who has downsized and embraced otherness, as part of an ambitious self-branding project.  When this palls, an obvious outlet is coursebook writing itself – offering an escape from the insecurity and tedium of day-to-day teaching – not to mention the low pay!

Even now EFL still has something of the feel of a ‘frontier’ culture about it – largely unregulated, somewhat disreputable, and inherently unstable – but where rich pickings might be had, simply by staking out a little bit of (intellectual) property, in the form of, say, a coursebook, a website, a game or – nowadays –  an app.  So, is the coursebook celebrity, toasting his self-actualisation in Macau, perhaps a projection of the coursebook writer’s own not-so-covert aspirations?

References:

Chun, C. 2009.  Contesting neo-liberal discourses in EAP: critical praxis in an IEP classroom.  Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 8.

Gray, J. 2010.  The branding of English and the culture of the new capitalism: representations of the world of work in English language textbooks.  Applied Linguistics, 2010, 31/5.





M is for Method

28 11 2010

I’m moderating a Diploma course discussion on methodology this week, so, for a change I thought I’d post a short video of me going on about it.

Seven key quotes on the subject of method, some of which I refer to in the video:

  1. “Methods are of little interest”  Kelly, L.G.  1969. 25 Centuries of Language Teaching. Rowley, MA: Newbury House, p. 2.
  2. “The development of language-teaching methods … has in fact been empirical rather than theory-directed. […] The fact seems to be that teachers have ‘followed their noses’ and adopted a generally eclectic approach to teaching methods…” Corder, S. P. 1973. Introducing Applied Linguistics. Harmondsworth: Penguin. pp. 135-6.
  3. “During the sixties and seventies several developments indicate a shift in language pedagogy away from the single method concept as the main approach to language teaching.”  Stern, H.H. 1983. Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching. Oxford University Press, p. 477.
  4. “The widespread dissatisfaction with the conventional concept of method has produced what I have called a postmethod condition.”  Kumaravadivelu, B. 1994. The Postmethod condition: (E)merging strategies for second/foreign language teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 28, p. 43.
  5. “Methods, however the term is defined, are not dead. Teachers seem to be aware of both the usefulness of methods and the need to go beyond them.”  Bell, D. 2007. Do teachers think that methods are dead?  ELT Journal, 61, p. 143.
  6. “I consistently use method to refer to established methods conceptualised and constructed by experts in the field ….  I use the term, methodology, to refer to what practicing teachers actually do in the classroom in order to achieve their stated or unstated teaching objectives.”  Kumaravadivelu, B. 2006. Understanding Languge Teaching: From Method to Postmethod. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, p. 84.
  7. “The concept of method has not been replaced by the concept of postmethod but rather by an era of textbook-defined practice. What the majority of teachers teach and how they teach … are now determined by textbooks.”  Akbari, R. 2008. Postmethod discourse and practice. TESOL Quarterly, 42/4, p. 647.




G is for Grammar McNuggets

18 09 2010

Photo: Frtiz Saalfeld

Stephen Krashen once said (only half-jokingly, I suspect) that, more important than having new ideas is giving old ideas new names. With that in mind, I was reminded recently that it was 10 years ago that I coined the term “grammar McNuggets” (in a talk at IATEFL Dublin in 2000). Essentially, there is nothing new in the view that grammar is artificially packaged into bite-sized chunks for the purposes of teaching: William Rutherford had used the term “accumulated entities” in a book in 1987, and who knows how long the term “discrete items” has been around? So, why “grammar McNuggets”?

What I wanted to capture was not just the discrete-item nature of the grammar syllabus, but the way that this is exploited, particularly by publishers, for the purposes of the global marketing of EFL. To do this, I drew on a construct, familiar to students of cultural studies, and first developed by Stuart Hall, called “the circuit of culture”. The circuit of culture is a construct for the analysis of cultural artefacts that has been applied to a range of objects, including the Sony Walkman. Du Gay (1997), for example, argues that

to study the Walkman culturally one should at least explore how it is represented, what social identities are associated with it, how it is produced and consumed, and what mechanisms regulate its distribution and use. (p. 3)

Applying this model to pedagogical grammar, I was curious to see how grammar is represented (e.g. in publishers’ catalogues), how it is produced — or better — reproduced, how it is consumed in the classroom, how it is regulated (e.g. by exam boards), and who identifies with it (e.g. what ideas and values are associated with an allegiance to grammar teaching).

With regard to its (re-)production, I was drawn to this text on ‘McDonaldization’:

A perfect example of a simulated product is McDonald’s Chicken McNugget. The executives at McDonald’s have determined that the authentic chicken, with its skin, gristle and bones, is simply not the kind of product that McDonald’s ought to be selling; hence the creation of the Chicken McNugget which can be seen as inauthentic, as a simulacrum. There is no “real” or even “original” Chicken McNugget; they are, and can only be, simulacra. (p. 10)

To quote from the text of my talk: “Much of what is taught as pedagogic grammar is of equally doubtful authenticity. The skin, gristle and bones of language have been removed such that “grammar exists independently of other aspects of language such as vocabulary and phonology” (Kerr, 1996: 95). Moreover, the findings of corpus linguistics in particular suggest that pedagogic grammars only loosely reflect authentic language use and that “some relatively common linguistic constructions are overlooked, while some relatively rare constructions receive considerable attention” (Biber, et al. 1994, p. 171). An enthusiasm for compartmentalization, inherited from grammars of classical languages, has given rise to the elaborate architecture of the so-called tense system – including such grammar McNuggets as the future-in-the-past, and the past perfect continuous, not to mention the conditionals, first, second and third – features of the language that have little or no linguistic, let alone psychological, reality. While attempts have been made to restore authenticity to grammar, such attempts have generally fallen on deaf ears. If some more recent coursebooks are anything to go by, grammar syllabuses are becoming less innovative and even more derivative”.

That was ten years ago. Is it still true?

References:

Biber, D., S. Conrad, and R. Reppen, 1994. Corpus-based approaches to issues in applied linguistics. Applied Linguistics 15/2, 169-89.

du Gay, P., Hall, S., Janes, L., MacKay, H. and Negus, K. (1997). Doing cultural studies: The story of the Sony Walkman. Milton Keynes: The Open University.

Kerr, P. 1993 `The role of language analysis on CTEFLA courses’ in Future Directions in Teacher Training: Conference Report International House, London.

Ritzer, G. (1998). The McDonaldization Thesis: Explorations and extensions. London: Sage Publications.

Rutherford, W.E. 1987 Second Language Grammar: Learning and Teaching. Harlow: Longman.





T is for Taboo

27 06 2010

What have the following got in common?

  • mother bringing sandwiches to father as he fixes the roof
  • father expressionless or relaxed in trying circumstances
  • mother comforting young children
  • modern Native Americans working on ranches, in menial jobs, or doing construction work
  • people in Africa wearing native dress or wearing westernised version of African costumes
  • Hispanic young people always working on second-hand cars
  • old ladies with twenty cats
  • modern Asian Americans wearing dark business suits and glasses

They are all images that a leading US publishing group advises its educational authors and illustrators to avoid, since they are likely to reinforce gender, racial and ageist stereotypes and thereby incur the wrath of government watchdogs.  Likewise, the following topics (among many others) are taboo in US textbooks: conflict with authority, controversial people (such as Malcolm X), creation myths, divorce, euthanasia, illegitimacy, and lying. This time, the prohibitions are motivated – not by a liberal multicultural agenda – but by right-wing attempts to promote and protect traditional American values. Either way, educational publishing is subject to massive self-censorship, due to a combination of “left-wing political correctness and right-wing religious fundamentalism”, according to Diane Ravitch in her (2003) book The Language Police: How pressure groups restrict what students learn. Ravitch documents the way that

…by the end of the 1980s, every publisher had complied with the demands of the critics, both from left and right.  Publishers had imposed self-censorship to head off the outside censors, as well as to satisfy state adoption reviews. Achieving demographic balance and excluding sensitive topics had become more important to their success than teaching children to read or to appreciate good literature.  (p. 96)

In ELT publishing the ‘verbal hygiene’ that publishers impose on themselves is motivated less by a wish to assert multicultural values than by the need to avoid offending potential markets. ELT publishers do have strict guidelines aimed at promoting ‘inclusiveness’, especially with regard to their treatment of women, and of different ethnicities and cultures. Nevertheless, the marketing imperative “means that the progressive and ethical dimension is all too often undermined by the perceived need to sanitize content” , as John Gray (2002) points out. The sanitizing process is enshrined in the lists of taboo topics that publishers provide their writers, such as the so-called PARSNIP topics: politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, isms (such as communism or atheism), and pork. It’s this ‘parsnip policy’ that, arguably, imbues ELT books with a certain blandness – what Mario Rinvolucri once characterised as “the soft, fudgey, sub-journalistic, woman’s magaziney world of EFLese course materials” (1999, p. 14).

Of course, there are other reasons that publishers (and teachers) might wish to avoid controversial subject matter: for example, that it might disturb, annoy or distract the learners. This argument is typically advanced by those who argue that the language teacher’s job is to teach language, not content. There are others who, like Ravitch, might counter that any censorship of educational materials “should be abhorrent to those who care about freedom of thought, to those who believe that minds grow sharper by contending with challenging ideas” (p. 159).

Given the competing goals of values education, language teaching, and marketing – is the content of ELT coursebooks as good as it will ever be?

References:

Gray, J.  2002. ‘The global coursebook in English language teaching’. In Block, D., and Cameron, D. (Eds.) Globalization and Language Teaching. London: Routledge.

Ravitch, D. 2003.  The Language Police: How pressure groups restrict what students learn. New York: Vintage Books.

Rinvolucri, M. 1999. ‘ The UK, EFLese sub-culture and dialect’. Folio, 5, 2, 12-14





C is for Curriculum

20 06 2010

I’ve been co-teaching on a curriculum design course these last two weeks, and the question has inevitably come up as to what’s the difference between a curriculum and a syllabus. The A-Z has this to say:

The terms curriculum and syllabus are often used interchangeably, but it is useful to distinguish between them. The curriculum is concerned with beliefs, values and theory (all of which may be captured in some kind of “mission statement”). The syllabus represents the way these beliefs, values and theories are realised in terms of a step-by-step instructional programme. The curriculum is, therefore, both larger than the syllabus, and more general.

The distinction seems to be born out in the corpus data. A quick check of their respective collocations shows that (in US English) syllabus very often collocates with course, whereas curriculum hardly ever does. On the other hand, curriculum collocates with school much more than syllabus does. In British English, syllabus is often associated with particular subjects (language, mathematics, sciences) whereas curriculum collocates with national, core … and hidden (more on that one later).

However, this distinction between the general and the specific, and between principles and practice, is not one that all writers on the subject adhere to.

David Nunan

David Nunan, for example, argues that the curriculum is the totality of what actually happens in an educational setting:

Traditionally “curriculum” is taken to refer to a statement or statements of intent – the “what should be” of a course of study. In this work a rather different perspective is taken. The curriculum is seen in terms of what teachers actually do; that is, in terms of “what is”, rather than “what should be.” (1988, p. 1)

According to this view, the curriculum is instantiated in classroom practice, whether or not this practice actually reflects the (often lofty) intentions of program designers and materials writers.   Douglas Barnes (1976) makes a similar point, with reference to mainstream education:

When people talk about ‘the school curriculum’ they often mean ‘what teachers plan in advance for their pupils to learn’. But a curriculum made only of teachers’ intentions would be an insubstantial thing from which nobody would learn much. To become meaningful a curriculum has to be enacted by pupils as well as teachers …  A curriculum as soon as it becomes more than intentions is embodied in the communicative life of an institution .. In this sense curriculum is a form of communication. (p. 14).

Applebee (1996) extends this line of thought to argue that we need to re-construe the concept of curriculum, not as disembodied ‘knowledge-out-of-context’, but  as  ‘knowledge-in-action’:  “A curriculum provides domains for conversation, and the conversations that take place within those domains are the primary means of teaching and learning” (p. 37). He adds: “If curriculum is approached in terms of the significant conversations into which students enter… the emphasis form the beginning will be on knowledge-in-action”. (p. 118).  This echoes Neil Mercer’s (1995) notion of teaching and learning as being a ‘long conversation’, as well  as being a key tenet of Dogme philosophy, i.e. that language teaching should be ‘conversation-driven’.

Nevertheless, the notion persists that a curriculum articulates an institution’s principles and goals, made operational through syllabuses, lesson plans, etc.  At this point you may be wondering what the curriculum of your own school or college is. Where is it written down? Is there a ‘mission statement’? Who wrote it? Who has access to it?  And, if there isn’t one, shouldn’t there be?

Of course, it is often the case that the curriculum is implicit.  In the case of public-sector schools, the curriculum of the school may simply be that of the education ministry itself, and it will be embodied in such things as acts of parliament, policy statements, and official bulletins. These in turn will determine the nature of public examinations and the way materials, such as coursebooks, are specified and prescribed.

In fact, examinations and officially approved coursebooks offer insights as to the real values that the curriculum designers espouse, irrespective of how these are actually articulated. This ‘hidden curriculum’ can often be inferred by “reading between the lines”. Thus the blurb on a coursebook – or the publicity for a language school – might profess a communicative methodology, but at the same time the small print will extol its ‘step-by-step grammatical syllabus’. Likewise, a school’s website might promote its internationalist and globalised values while elsewhere boasting that it employs only native-speaker teachers. The very fact that a school uses coursebooks at all might suggest that it subscribes to a reproductive, ‘delivery model’ of education, rather than a  critical or transformative one.   More insidiously, an institution may claim to be commited to educational excellence, but in reality be nothing more than a lucrative exam prep factory.

A useful exercise might be to ask your colleagues: What is our curriculum? That is to say, what is it that we value, and to what extent are our practices consistent with these values?

References:

Applebee, A. 1996. Curriculum as Conversation: Transforming Traditions of Teaching and Learning. University of Chicago Press.

Barnes, D. 1976. From Communication to Curriculum. Penguin.

Mercer, N. 1995. The Guided Construction of Knowledge: Talk amongst teachers and learners. Multilingual Matters.

Nunan, D. 1988. The Learner-Centred Curriculum. Cambridge University Press.