S is for Soaps

24 03 2013

first things first tvA friend and former colleague, Nick Bedford, is excited about the possibilities that soap operas offer for second language learning. He himself has been watching soaps in Russian for a number of years now, clocking up literally hundreds of hours of exposure. He comments:

The thing is you get to know the characters and their voices and you can predict their answers and even pet phrases. Also there’s lots of “real-life” dialogues which are delivered in a kind of wooden way that doesn’t render it ridiculous but at the same time isn’t like trying, say, to understand ring-side banter in a Scorcese movie. There’s something satisfying about the whole activity, like you feel you’re being equipped or kitted out with useful and natural language. I know my spoken Russian is the better for it.

There is some evidence to support Nick’s enthusiasm. In a recent study of six highly proficient English learners in China (Wang 2012: 341) the researcher found that the subjects ‘attributed their progress in English language learning to an intensive watching of [English television drama] and a careful study of its dialogue.’

One of the informants reported that ‘it’s full of real dialogues, very conversational. It’s about ordinary people and their everyday life. It’s the best channel to see people living with the English language. […] It’s the most dynamic learning resource’.

The authenticity of TV drama has been validated by researchers using the tools of discourse analysis. One study, for example, compared conversational closings in textbooks with those in a New Zealand soap opera and found the latter more consistent with descriptions in the literature on conversation analysis (Grant & Starks, 2001). More recently, Al-Surmi (2012) has analysed the lexical and grammatical features of sit-coms and soap operas (the latter consisting of ten seasons of Friends), and compared the results to a corpus of natural, unscripted American conversation. Both TV genres replicated many of the characteristics of naturally-occurring talk, although sit-coms come closer than do soap operas, it seems.

kernel tvVocabulary coverage in TV programs has also been the target of some recent studies. Webb and Rodgers (2009) for example, analyzed the lexical range in a corpus of 88 television programs of a variety of genres , including soaps, and concluded that, ‘if learners knew the most frequent 3,000 word families and they watched at least an hour of television a day, there is the potential for significant incidental vocabulary learning’. Children’s programs, sit-coms and dramas were found to make fewer vocabulary demands than news or science programs, unsurprisingly.

Nick Bedford can attest to these benefits: ‘I’ve noticed that students who follow soaps – and there are a lot of them, especially people in their twenties here in Spain – whose English is way better, in all respects, than those who don’t.’

Because of this, he has started posting small 8 minute doses of the BBC Extra English soap for his students to download onto their mobile phones. ‘The results are that students – even at lower levels – are talking to me ALL the time in English outside class and they even have a kind of new-found bravado!’

The Chinese study identified a number of strategies that the six informants had in common, and which might constitute worthwhile advice to learners wishing to exploit ‘the joys of soap’:

1. Select material carefully – don’t go too far outside your comfort zone

2. Repeated viewings – just once is not enough

3. Use subtitles – first in your L1, and then in the L2

4. Take notes, e.g. vocabulary, phrases

5. Imitation – assume the ‘voice’ of your favorite character, for example

6. Practice – recycle learned vocabulary and expressions in real-life conversations, if possible

7. Share experiences, tips, transcriptions, etc with peers as part of an online study group

donn byrne tvThe beauty of soap operas, of course, is that they have in-built motivational potential: once learners are hooked they are likely to stay hooked. In this sense, they are a far remove from traditional classroom materials, which is one reason that Wang (2012: 342) adduces for their appeal:

It seems that classroom teaching materials are primarily textbook-oriented and test-driven, with the focus on form rather than meaning and on accuracy rather than communication. Such standard teaching materials lack a realistic and meaningful context and fail to deal with contemporary issues that are relevant to learners’ lives, and therefore do not help extend English learning beyond classrooms.

Nick makes a similar point:

One thing I like about the issue is how people are pro-actively sifting and appropriating the language they feel they need from soaps. There’s something picaresque about it – as if students had got tired of hanging around for teachers and course book writers and had burrowed a tunnel into the vault.

References:

Al-Surmi, M. (2012) ‘Authenticity and TV shows: A multidimensional analysis perspective, TESOL Quarterly, 46/4.

Grant, L., & Starks, D. (2001) ‘Screening appropriate teaching materials: Closings from textbooks and television soap operas’, IRAL, 39/1.

Webb, S. & Rodgers, M.P.H. (2009) ‘Vocabulary Demands of Television Programs’, Language Learning, 59/2.

Wang, D. (2012) ‘Self-directed English language learning through watching English television drama in China’, Changing English, 19/3.

Illustrations from Alexander, L.G. (1967) First Things First, Longman; O’Neill, R., Kingsbury, R., & Yeadon, T. (1971) Kernel Lessons Intermediate, Longman; and Byrne, D. (1967) Progressive Picture Compositions, Longman.





P is for Postmodern method

13 05 2012

This comes from the teacher’s guide to a  well-known coursebook series: “By the end of Level 1, students will have learnt to express themselves simply but correctly in the present, past and future…”

And pigs will fly.

By the end of Level 1, any of the following might have happened: every Monday two or three new students of varying abilities will have been incorporated into the already diverse class; at least two students will have requested – and been refused – a level change; one student will transpire to be dyslexic and another will have hearing difficulties; three students will have dropped out;  eight students will have regularly used Google Translate to do their homework; two students will refuse to do pairwork together; one student (male) will always be the first to answer the teacher’s display questions; two of the students will have embarked on a torrid affair in which English is the lingua franca; one student will have memorised a 2000-item word list; another student will have attempted to read an abridged version of Sense and Sensibility; two students will be working illegally as kitchen staff where, again, the only common language is English; the teacher will have substituted several of the texts in the coursebook with photocopies of authentic material; one student will sit and pass her driving test in English; the teacher will have corrected the same errors a hundred times while completely ignoring others; during a flu epidemic a substitute teacher will teach the class nothing but phrasal verbs for a week…. And so on. You get the picture.

In short, whatever they have achieved, it will not be the ability “to express themselves simply but correctly in the present, past and future…”. Nor will the coursebook have had much to do with it.

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.

Yet advocates of coursebooks and of syllabuses share a touching faith in their capacity to impose order on chaos, uniformity on complexity.  Predicated on a unitary view of language and of learning, the coursebook/syllabus is enlisted with the task of bulldozing a path through the diversity, spontaneity, unpredictability and general messiness of the classroom jungle.  In so doing, it will ride rough-shod over the delicate eco-systems that inhabit that jungle. It’s a bit like shooting an arrow into a flock of starlings. You’ll get one or two, but that’s all. And, in the end, there’ll be no noticeable effect on the flock as a whole.

In this sense the coursebook/syllabus is very much a modernist phenomenon. Just to remind you, the ‘modernist project’ holds that knowledge is unitary, stable, objective and disinterested, and that, by extension, learning  is ‘a one-way road from ignorance to knowledge’ (Felman, 1987, cited by Mann 1999: 38). As a tool designed to leverage uniform ‘improvement’ on systems that are inherently unstable, the coursebook/syllabus embodies a ‘grand narrative’ mentality, in which ‘development takes place through linear progression and contributes to the greater good, which is emancipatory in nature, and passed on from one generation to the next’ (Mann 1999:37 – 38).  You only have to look at the portentous titles in the publishers’ catalogues, with their promise of ultimate consummation, to see how the current paradigm is framed in ‘grand narrative’ terms: Headway, Success, Horizons, Solutions, Outcomes, Open Doors, Way Ahead, Achieve, and so on.

An alternative approach – one that aims at exploiting diversity rather than taming it – is proposed by Michael Breen (1999), in a paper which pre-dates Dogme, but which might well have inspired it.

In order to cope with the inherent diversity and particularity of classroom life, Breen argues that “the classroom group needs to be a dynamic self-organising learning community”.  He adds that “a postmodern pedagogy locates experience as a core starting point and constant focus of attention.  Classroom work builds directly upon learner and teacher experiences.  The focus is on doing things, upon action, and interpreting the experience of, and outcomes from action” (p.54).

Language, in this pluralistic, multi-vocal context, emerges out of communal activity, shaped by the need to render experience into words.  (In an earlier paper, Breen [1985] had written: “‘The language I learn in the classroom is a communal product derived through a jointly constructed process”.)  Whereas, from a modernist perspective, education is all about the reproduction of existing practices (witness the supremacy of native speaker models), in a postmodern pedagogy, “a major objective for learners would be to acquire new voices and new ways of articulating experiences and ideas.  The culture of the classroom group would need to place high value on such diversity and multi-vocality and to assert it as a key attribute of the language class” (p.60. emphasis in original).

Way ahead of his time, Breen argues the case for the ‘porous classroom’, in which the boundaries between the classroom, the school, the society, and the world are weak and permeable: “In such a context, access to what counts as knowledge and its construction and reconstruction is likely to be rendered almost infinite because of the availability of technology.  The language classroom ceases to be the place where knowledge of language is made available by teacher and materials for learners and becomes the place from which knowledge of language and its use is sought by teacher and learners together; the classroom walls become its windows” (p.55).

Rather than being a transmitter of knowledge, either directly, or knowledge as commodified in the pages of the coursebook, the teacher is re-construed as a ‘cultural worker’, not only forming and maintaining the classroom culture, but also facilitating a research process “resembling that of linguistic and cultural anthropology” (p.57). Through engagement in language-based activity, the learners become researchers of the language themselves, propelled by their diverse (but not necessarily divergent) needs and interests, “and this process occurs largely independently of the intervention of explicit teaching, not least because different learners move at a different pace and have different preferences in how they go about the task. The essential ingredients, however, appear to be an input-rich environment, enthusiastic persistence, and the learner’s search for understanding and the wish to share more and more complex meanings with supportive others” (p. 60).

Teaching, in this paradigm, 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.

References:

Breen, M. (1985) ‘The social context for language learning – a neglected situation?’ Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 7.

Breen, M.P. (1999) ‘Teaching language in the postmodern classroom’, in Ribé, R. (ed.) Developng Learner Autonomy in Foreign Language Learning, Barcelona: University of Barcelona Press.

Mann, S. J. (1999) ‘A postmodern perspective on autonomy’, in Ribé, R. (ed.) Developng Learner Autonomy in Foreign Language Learning, Barcelona: University of Barcelona Press.

Illustrations from Hemming, J., and Gatenby, E.V. (1958) Absorbing English Book 1, London: Longman.





A is for Autonomy

23 10 2011

Autonomy is definitely the flavour of the month. As I write, preparations are well underway for next week’s Realizing Autonomy conference in Nagoya, Japan, which, in turn, celebrates the imminent launch of the collection of papers of the same name, edited by Kay Irie and Alison Stewart (and featuring a chapter by me, as it happens).

Also, shortly to be published in the IATEFL Learner Autonomy SIG Newsletter is a joint interview with me and Luke Meddings that arose out of the Teaching Unplugged conference in Barcelona in May, and which draws links between Dogme and the learner autonomy movement. And, on top of this, plans are being finalised for my participation in the Learner Autonomy SIG pre-conference event at the IATEFL Conference in Glasgow next March.

That’s a lot of autonomy for one week!

But what I want to talk about here is not learner autonomy so much as teacher autonomy. This was triggered by a lively discussion on the Dogme ELT discussion list last week, about the plausibility of such a thing as a ‘Dogme coursebook’. This in turn precipitated a number of posts attacking coursebooks in general, and, by association, coursebook writers. Uncharacteristically, perhaps, I felt obliged to rally to their defense.

Based on my experience observing classes in a number of developing world contexts, such as Palestine, I argued that, due to a lack of training and support, as well as uncertainty about their own English language skills, coupled with learner and other stakeholder expectations about the role of the teacher, “many teachers feel insecure and disempowered.” For teachers such as these, the coursebook is their lifeline. To suggest that they should abandon coursebooks and engage with the language that emerges from the socializing and communicative needs of “the people in the room” is simply disingenuous.

Classroom in Palestine

A similar argument was made my Ramin Akbari (2008) in a TESOL Quarterly article a short while back, where he argued (with particular reference to the Iranian context, but his argument could apply in any public sector context): “Teachers in many contexts are not different from factory workers in terms of their working hours; in many countries, a typical language teacher works for 8 hours per day, 5 or even 6 days per week… The financial and occupational constraints they work within do not leave them with the time or the willingness to act as iconoclasts and social transformers, roles that will jeopardise their often precarious means of subsistence” (p.646).

In my post to the Dogme list, I suggested that a parallel could be drawn with Abraham Maslow’s (1970) ‘hierarchy of needs’. If you recall, at the bottom of the ‘needs pyramid’ are the basic survival necessities such as food and shelter. A person cannot attend to higher needs until these basic needs have been met. Higher up in the pyramid figure community needs (‘a sense of belonging’) and still higher are self-esteem needs and finally ‘self-actualisation’ . But, at all levels, satisfying one’s needs presupposes that the lower level needs have first been met.

Using this analogy, I argued that teachers, too, need to satisfy lower level needs (such as simply controlling the class) before they can ‘graduate’ to a point where they are less dependent on coursebooks, for example, and better equipped to centre their teaching on the learners (and that’s where the notion of autonomy comes in). “We could argue,” (I wrote), “that dogme is what every teacher might (even should) aspire to, but, achieving this ‘state of grace’ means satisfying – and then outgrowing – the lower level needs first. In some contexts (e.g. small private language schools on the south coast of England) one might hope that this developmental trajectory would be fairly rapid and relatively painless. In others it might take generations”.

This is not to say that a Dogme-style approach to teaching is necessarily ‘late-acquired’, i.e. a prerogative of only very experienced teachers – just that it assumes a certain degree of freedom in the way one operates professionally, coupled with a lack of insecurity at the most basic levels.

How, then, can insecurity be reduced and autonomy leveraged, even in difficult circumstances? Serendipitously, in this same week a colleague sent me an article in which he argues for the ‘collaborative nature’ of teacher autonomy (Ding 2009), and adds that “there is a significant body of research examining the potential of technology and in particular ACMC [asynchronous computer mediated communication] to facilitate collaboration and autonomy” (p. 67). Put simply, this means that online communities of teachers can (theoretically, at least) provide the necessary support and motivation to help outgrow lower level insecurities, and achieve a measure of professional self-actualisation.

It just happens that the provision of this kind of collaborative online environment for professional development (and here comes a shameless plug) is one of the goals of the International Teacher Development Institute (iTDi), of which, proudly, I am the academic director, and which launches very shortly. You can read more about it here.

References:

Akbari, R. 2008. Postmethod discourse and practice. TESOL Quarterly, 42/4.

Ding, A. 2009. Tensions and struggles in fostering collaborative teacher autonomy online. Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching, 3:1,65 — 81.

Irie, K, & Stewart, A (eds.). 2011. Realizing Autonomy: Practice and Reflection in Language Education Contexts. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Maslow, A.H. 1970. Motivation and Personality (2nd edition). New York: Harper & Row.