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A class, two chats, and an interview

May 15, 2011 10 comments

Honestly, I hadn’t really planned to write a follow up to my previous post. However, things just seem to happen in a certain way and you have to do your best to adapt and make use of them to your advantage. I’m a strong proponent of meaningful and interesting conversation used to promote professional development. If you keep yourself open to learning possibilities, you’ll certainly see that people everywhere are dropping hints on how you can improve your game if you listen carefully. I had mentioned Jason’s participation in my class on my previous post, and students told me they enjoyed it so much that I could actually get a second guest teacher in that class. this time, it was Cecília Coelho, and we had a marvellous talk about assessment. Time was, again, an issue. Unlike Jason, who is in Australia, Cecília and I share the same timezone. Yet, our teaching schedules make it somehow hard for us to connect. I thoroughly appreciate Cecília’s effort dashing home to join the class – and I also thank the students for staying a bit longer than usual. It was definitely worth the while! :)

In addition to all of these wonderful co-teaching moments in my class, I’m also really happy with our #breltchat. In case you’re an English teacher in Brazil and you still haven’t heard of it, then you should pay a visit to our blog and join the conversation. #breltchat is the younger brother of #eltchat, a chat for English language teachers eager to discuss some issues we have to face on a daily basis in our profession. #eltchat takes place every Wednesday – twice! Currently, the first chat starts at 8:00 a.m. and the second one at 5:00 p.m. Brazilian time. This is a very successful chat on twitter, and 5 Brazilian English Language Teachers decided it would be a great chance for us to help Brazilian teachers develop and think about the particularities of our educational system. Bruno, Raquel, Valéria, Cecília and the one who writes you gave it a go and, fortunately, a wealth of Brazilian English teachers bought the idea and have made it a success. We hope it keeps growing from now on, and I’m sure the teachers who started participating in it won’t drop the ball now! :)

Anyway, our last chat was about Dogme and we decided we were going to try and interview some of the Dogmeists out there so that they could explain the concept better to teachers who still don’t know much about it. We also asked them about a couple of possibilities and suggestions that could possibly work in Brazil. Apart from Willy (interview coming up soon, hopefully) I don’t think they actually knew much about our educational system in Brazil, but they still agreed to help us think about some matters. You’ll soon be able to watch all 5 interviews: Fiona Mauchline, Luke Meddings, Scott Thornbury, Shelly Terrell, and Willy Cardoso.

Learning from a conversation? Well, I guess then these interviews are going to give you a lot to think about. On behalf of the #breltchat team of moderators, I hope you enjoy this interview with Scott Thornbury. Oh, and I hope you can get past my initial nervousness… trust me, it gets a lot better after the first answer! :)

http://vimeo.com/23712883

I’d like to, once more, thank Scott for his participation (and apologise for my poor introduction). I’m sure this interview will be helpful to many teachers out there. :)

I hope you’ve enjoyed this one. All 5 interviews will soon be available at #breltchat. In the meantime…

  • Watch Bruno’s brilliant interview with Shelly here.

Teaching writing

February 10, 2011 16 comments

If you haven’t had the chance to participate in this Wednesday’s #ELTChat, you may not know that we discussed writing and how to teach writing in our classes. One of the best things about these discussions is all the ideas it generates afterwards and the discussions that arise from it. In one of my tweets, I suggested that students are likely to need writing skills more than speaking skills. Fortunately, this didn’t go unnoticed and @ma_luv2teach sent me another tweet soon after the chat was over:

If you haven’t had the chance to participate in this Wednesday’s #ELTChat, you may not know that we discussed writing and how to teach writing in our classes. One of the best things about these discussions is all the ideas it generates afterwards and the discussions that arise from it. In one of my tweets, I suggested that students are likely to need writing skills more than speaking skills. Fortunately, this didn’t go unnoticed and @ma_luv2teach sent me another tweet soon after the chat was over:

The reason why I’m posting the conversation here is that we did exchange a couple of other tweets on the matter, but I believe neither could go on much further due to everything we have to do in our daily lives. Now, I really like it when there is some sort of healthy disagreement about a certain point of view and we can discuss it nicely. This was the case, and even though we finished (for now) our conversation by disagreeing on the writing vs. speaking focus issue, I’ve been thinking about it all day long and decided I could write it here and let others join the discussion and perhaps help me look at things from a different perspective. So this is what I have so far:
1. EFL learners need writing more than they need speaking:

My point here is that despite the use of technology such as skype, FaceTime, or any other voice communication software, most communication at work still have to be written. For one reason, most of the times, instrutions, memos, proposals, requests, or any other kind of document needs to be available at a later time. I won’t argue the importance of a nice chat in a business meeting, but I believe you will agree with me when I say that most learners will not be the ones in charge of upfront negotiations. Sure, some will, and these need to develop such skills, but most will be following instructions and trying to comply. They will probably be emailing foreign clients or suppliers asking for something, not calling them. It is much easier to sort out a mistake if you have written proof of what has been agreed on. Again, unless you record all of your phone calls, emails are likely to work much better.
In addition to this, we can also think of teenagers. No matter how easier it gets for them to speak to their friends, they do seem to prefer texting. For one reason, it’s much more private to text than to speak on the phone. Only those who are looking at your screen are able to read what you’re typing whereas anyone around you will have an idea of what you’re saying. Most people will only have a chance to practise their speaking skills when traveling for pleasure to Disney or going shopping in NY. I’d love this to change; I just don’t see it happening so soon, though.
2. Learning how to write is not an easy task

I’ll start this by quoting Harmer in his How to Teach Writing:

However long ago writing really started, it has remained for most of its history a minority occupation. This is part because although almost all human beings grow up speaking their first language (and sometimes their second or third) as a matter of course, writing has to be taught. Spoken language, for a child, is acquired naturally as a result of being exposed to it, whereas the ability to write has to be consciously learned.

Most students, especially these days, look for language classes that promise an emphasis on conversation. This means a lot of speaking practice and very little grammar – especially to the learner. If you allow me, I don’t think they are actually looking for conversation alone. I do believe what they mean is communication, and the reason why they dread sitting through grammar lessons is mainly because of the bad experience they had been through while studying in school. “Grammar lessons were not communicative nor engaging. Therefore, if a course teaches grammar, it will never teach me how to hold conversations” may be one of the things crossing a learner’s mind. When we ask our learners to write, we are going to correct them on their grammar sooner or later. It’s actually a good thing for the teacher as it might show him or her a couple of things that students need further practice in.

Learning how to write is time consuming, and based on the L1 teachers I talk to, it is something that students have difficulties with even in their L1. I have to be honest and say that it is exactly because of the fact that learning how to write is usually frowned upon by students that most language schools and teachers fail to emphasize it. This sometimes doesn’t even have anything to do with beliefs or lack of will, but it may just be a matter of how students see it. Language schools are, let’s not forget that, a business. In order to be able to exist, hire and pay teachers, they need students. If there is another school across the street that says students will be able to learn the language in less time and studying much less, many students will eventually go there, and now the other schools have two options – follow suit, the easy way out, or try to stick to its beliefs and hope that students will see they are right and come back. Whenever I think of this I remember the recurrent articles published every year about language courses that should be avoided. However, as long as people believe in magic solutions and are afraid of working harder than others to reach their goals, they are likely to buy it and go with the flow – if they turn out to have been fooled afterwards, at least they were not fooled alone.

3. Learning how to write will boost your speaking skills more than the other way around

OK, I could actually spend sometime talking about the difference between learned and acquired language, but as the difference is kind of blurry, I’ll just make use of another point. We need exposure in order to be able to reflect upon our sentences and utterances. This happens very fast when we are speaking and we hardly ever have the time to analyse what we are saying so that we can rephrase what we are trying to convey. However, when it comes to written language, it’s a lot easier for us to go through what we thought we were trying to say and be aware of different ways to say it. It’s much easier for us to be consciously aware of our production and remember it when using it in different occasions. Here I’d make use of Bialistok’s model for language learning:

I believe it’s much easier and faster for learners to refer to their explicit linguistic knowledge in order to progress than for them to base their learning experience on speaking practice alone. “Eh?! What happened to language being conversation driven, you dogmeist you???” Fret not, I’m a firm believer in the fact that language is conversation driven (at least until today). Written production may be an excellent source of input for learners and also an excellent source for them to learn about their own mistakes and be more conscious of them while holding a conversation. Let’s not forget that there are still many illiterate people out there who can even speak in public very well, but are incapable of reading and writing. Yet, I’ve never seen anyone – please, let’s not go into disabilities – who’s able to read and write but can’t speak. Much on the contrary, even in L1, it’s quite common for us to witness people becoming more proficient speakers once they start writing more. I really don’t think you’ll become a better writer by speaking more.

To sum it up, writing and speaking are both important skills that should be well attended to in class. My point, however, is that we tend to go from one extreme to another quite too fast. It is much more pleasant to talk to others in class than to write messages. You don’t walk around writing things on a piece of paper and showing others, but, IMHO, when it comes to foreign language interaction, writing is still a lot more common than speaking. A good example of it? How many voices do you know from the people in your PLN?

** A big thank you to @ma_luv2teach for helping me think more about this topic. I’m far from having this as my final word on it, and I do hope others (if they could put themselves to read this till the end) can also help me on this one.

Curse books?

October 5, 2010 22 comments

Sometimes in Brazil, when we want to poke fun at someone who’s struggling to get a computer to do something he or she wants we say that the problem lies in a piece that’s between the keyboard and the chair. Sometimes it takes a while for this to hit the listener, but it’s a good laugh once it does. It’s just a tongue-in-cheek remark to lighten up the situation, and we move on to help the friend in need. Could we apply the same saying to different situations? Well, I guess so. We can also say that there’s a problem with the thing between the steering wheel and the driver’s seat, for instance.

Photo by Patrick Correia

When I think about coursebooks, and whether they’re good or bad, I sometimes find myself at a loss for words. On the one hand, I have always studied in an educational setting that has in coursebooks the determiners of the syllabus and the curriculum. I can’t remember any of my classes, in any kind of class, where the teacher abolished a coursebook. The same is true for grades, but I won’t go there on this post. Ergo, thinking of a classroom with no coursebooks has always been hard for me. It’s definitely not something I’d never conceive of, far from being unfathomable, but, if I may say so, it always felt like something was missing.

On the other hand, if there’s one thing that I’ve learned throughout these years as a teacher, it is that learning is what counts in the classroom. And it’s a lot easier for learning to take place when you’re engaged in what’s going on in the classroom. And it’s a lot easier for you to be engaged if what’s going on is relevant to you, if it’s something you can relate to. In a nutshell, relevancy and personalisation might lubricate learning. And it is a lot easier for teachers to make learning meaningful, relevant, and personal if they come to the classroom without a set agenda of what’s going to be covered during the whole semesters, with the examples already chosen and ignoring any kind of contribution that may be uttered during the lesson. It does make a lot of sense for us to truly listen to our learners, and it’s paramount that we learn how to react accordingly.

Now some may argue brilliantly against coursebooks. Even though I agree with pretty much everything Karenne says in this series of hers, I still believe the main problem actually lies between the students and the chalk, white, or interactive board. Until very recently, I still had some of the coursebooks I studied with more than 15 years ago, which means I had the chance to compare them with today’s coursebooks. Yes, almost all coursebooks are still structurally organised, and have imprinted examples of grammar McNuggets in them. They’ve come a long way, though, to place more importance on vocabulary and lexical chunks. I’m also happy to see some coursebooks going beyond segmental features when it comes to teaching pronunciation. I still believe pronunciation, careful and consistent teaching of pronunciation, is ignored by many teachers for myriad reasons. It’s nice, then, to see that some authors made sure to include such features in their coursebooks and had in mind that teachers needed time to teach it.

I don’t believe in extreme views, and I definitely don’t think that coursebook authors only bear profit in mind when writing a book. Competition is stiff, and if a book hasn’t got sound principles behind it, it’s bound to be a failure. I like to think that publishers have already noticed that too. I obviously am not so naïve as to think that book writers have got freedom upon what to include in their texts, as publishers do have to make a profit. It’s business, and that’s what businesses do – they profit. Anyhow, there’s got to be some give and take – perhaps even a lot more give on the part of the writer – in the process of creating a coursebook. But I digress…

The view that coursebooks as a one-size-fits-all format isn’t what I have in mind when I work with one. What I have in mind is that it’s been written to help a large number of learners in their process of uncovering the language. However, no coursebook alone will suffice. It’s up to the teacher to make good use of the tools he or she has at hand. And this is what I’ve come to see coursebooks as. They’re yet another tool that can’t be overused nor misused by the teacher and the learners. I usually say that the coursebook is not the bible. It’s not supposed to be followed as if it’d been written on stone. It’s a guide. It’s there to help, and sometimes it will get in the way of what your learners really need. However, I don’t think it’s fair to believe that’s always the case. Many learners enjoy using a coursebook and can’t possibly imagine how they’d study if they didn’t have a coursebook. Heck, many teachers out there would have major problems if they were to devise a syllabus and implement a curriculum without using a coursebook.

Jason Renshaw asked on one of his blog posts about our approach to language teaching. I myself like the term Dogme to describe mine. However, this doesn’t mean against materials and technology. Dogmeists aren’t the Amish of ELT, as I see it. I just like thinking first and foremost of my learners and how to best help them. This means focusing on emergent language, it means using conversation to drive language, and it means only using the tools that are really necessary at any given moment. If a coursebook is needed, I’ll definitely use it. Once again, it’s not what you use in class, it’s HOW you use it that counts.

What takes it so long?

September 23, 2010 7 comments

The very first time I heard of #edchat, I thought it was the craziest idea ever. How could we possibly have a conversation trying to convey our message using only 132 (don’t forget the hashtag) characters? Well, not only did I find it possible, but I also started participating in more and more #edchat sessions. The idea of #edchat was so good and effective, that lots of other educational chats on twitter either: a) followed; or b) came to my knowledge. I don’t really know if #edchat was the precursor of all the educational tweet chats out there, and, to be honest, I couldn’t care less(sorry, but “I could care less” makes no sense, especially after watching the video below).

The latest educational chat I came across on twitter is #ELTchat. This past Wednesday, close to lunch time in Brazil, we were discussing whether or not online teaching would ever replace face to face instruction. Truth be told, I am of the opinion that we’re headed towards a blended system for many different reasons. Anyhow, the discussion went on to the idea of integrating technology in our current teaching practice. One of the many beauties of these chats is that you get to throw ideas at other educators who are willing to read and comment on your thoughts, so here’s a brief exchange of tweets I had when talking about this matter:

I truly do believe in that. If we listen to all tech gurus and experts we only hear them saying that, in the (relatively near) future, our children will find keyboards and mouses as archaic and will have a hard time conceiving such a barbaric interaction with gadgets. To my mind, this means technology will be a lot more accessible AND a lot more necessary for men. This tweet was followed by a couple of replies, and I’ll highlight here one of them, from Olaf Elch:

Granted! I might have been extremely hopeful to say that technology will soon be ubiquitous, and that it will soon be considered useless for people to discuss technology integrated with technology. “Hold on, Henrick! I don’t quite follow. What do you really mean, then?”

Well, I just mean that I do believe that technology will be everywhere, but, come to think of it:

Isn’t it funny that there are so many educators out there who believe our educational system is no longer useful to the way our society is currently organised, but still so little is done in practical terms? Why is it that when we discuss with people about the changes that should be made in education, they all agree, but they all seem to be afraid to let such change start with their own kids?

There’s a gulf between agreeing with something and actually taking steps to implement such things – and this seems to be particularly true for education. Regardless of how much our society values its teachers, it’s common knowledge that education is the most valuable resource you can give to your children. It’s also well known that knowledge opens doors and educated people have better chances to succeed in life. So why is it so difficult for people to understand that there are so many educators – serious educators – who have only our children’s best interest at heart and who are willing to take education to the next level and better prepare our kids to live their lives?

When it’s their child’s future at stake, parents seem to be the most conservative possible and not willing to take risks. Apparently, going with the unknown, the experimental, might mean jeopardising the entire future of their children – and which parent would willingly do that? I don’t think we take so lang to change education because we don’t want to. I think it’ll always take so long to reform or revolutionise education because many of the interested parts are too concerned and afraid to take the first step. Will this fear ever be gone? Unlikely, unfortunately. This is why we are likely to always see serious educators complaining about how dated the educational system is, and why schools might always be the last institutions to evolve.

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