Archive for the ‘My thoughts on ELT’ Category

Accountability: the teacher and the learner

March 6, 2014 8 comments

On my last post, I suggested that the best way to focus on students’ learning is by focusing on teaching. The rationale behind this is that we can’t control someone else’s actions or thoughts, but we can control our own. This means that if we pay attention to what we can actually do in order to make learning more effective, we’ll end up being a lot more helpful to our learners than by trying out many different techniques and methods just because they are (or have become) mainstream. We still can’t fully understand how we learn, what really happens in our brains apart from the synapses and all the wiring in the brain. We may come to the point in which data, not guesses (even educated ones), will be the driving force behind our actions. However, until then, we might be better off by thinking and reflecting on our teaching practices and on what happens in our classrooms, with our learners, than by trying out the next big thing. The first thing teachers should learn is that what they do matters. If teachers don’t believe this, they’re in the wrong place. But just how much does it really matter? How can we measure educational success? Neil Mercer says that,

The educational success students achieve is only partly under their own control, and only partly under the control of their teachers. This is where the sociocultural concept of ‘scaffolding’ … is useful. The essence of this concept, as developed by Bruner (1986), Wood (1988) and others, is that an effective teacher provides the kind of intellectual support which enables learners to make intellectual achievements they would never accomplish alone; and one way they do so is by using dialogue to guide and support the development of understanding. (Neil Mercer – Language for teaching a language)

Scaffolding is what allows learners to grow. But each learner may need a different kind of scaffolding. Can you figure it out? | Photo on Flickr by Anthony Shemmans

Scaffolding is what allows learners to grow. But each learner may need a different kind of scaffolding. Can you figure it out? | Photo on Flickr by Anthony Shemmans

Apparently, the concept of conversation-driven lessons and scaffolding goes a long way. But who would have argued against that? It is not hard to think about our own learning experiences, the ones in which we had a good teacher by our side. This, by the way, is one of the topics that sparks teachers’ interest in training sessions – reflecting about their own learning experiences. When we think about our own learning experiences, when we have the benefit of hindsight, it’s a lot easier to see what has truly made a difference and what was only fun. How many  are able to think back of a funny teacher whose teaching didn’t really stick, or a funny teacher whose lessons are so ingrained that you find it hard to separate the person from the classes? It’s not humour that is the defining factor for successful or unsuccessful teachers. At the end of the day, what truly matters is how much effort and attention you’ve put into that lesson of yours, and how thoughtful you’d been when planning the lesson for those specific learners. What matters is how often you reflected on the activities that you tried out in classes and the effect these activities had on each one of those students sitting there in front of you – or next to you if you’re that lucky.

This is one of the most important lessons I’ve learnt as a teacher. Being a teacher means caring about the time and effort your students are putting in by being there in front of you. I may not be the sole responsible for their learning, but I can’t shun the responsibility of being partly responsible for their learning. When this thought dawns on new teachers, they stop asking questions such as, “but why would I do that when most students just don’t seem to care?” or “why don’t they learn it if I taught them?” We do what we do because we are aware of our role and we are to be held accountable for all the things we choose to do in a class. And if students don’t seem to learn what you’ve taught them, perhaps it’s time you started reflecting a bit more about what you could do to help them instead of asking questions you can’t possibly answer.

Being accountable for what we do also means coming to terms with our own shortcomings. This is the moment you start thinking about developing and becoming a better professional. Accountability can do many things for you – one of them is helping you decide what kind of a teacher you want to be. Are you the kind that looks for excuses elsewhere, or are you able to look into your own world and find out what’s wrong? Are you capable of teaching the same subject differently to better help each group of learners, or will you simply do things the way you’ve always done and blame students for their not learning as effectively? Being a teacher means being on the move. How far are you willing to go?

*Neil Mercer – Language for teaching a language – in English Language Teaching in its Social Context

Do conversation-driven lessons make any sense? (Part 2)

February 9, 2014 12 comments

Language is quite a complex system – one which we try to organise according rules and norms. One of the common ways for us to think about such organisation is prescriptively, the way many of us were taught a second or a foreign language. If we look at what David Crystal says about prescriptivism, we will see that it “is the view that one variety of the language has an inherently higher value than others, and this ought to be imposed on the whole of the speech community. The view is related especially in relation to grammar and vocabulary, and frequently with reference to pronunciation.” And here we have the three pillars of what we learn when we study a language. If we don’t learn vocabulary, we won’t be able to get our message across as other speakers of the target language won’t know what we’re saying. However, if we only know the vocabulary of a language and lack any understanding of what glues the pieces together, a.k.a. grammar, we’re likely to be unable to convey more complex thoughts and communicate something that may require further, more complex thinking. Finally, there is pronunciation, which is not the same as accent. Pronunciation is needed should you want to speak to other user of the language you’re learning. But why teach a language prescriptively? In a nutshell, it is much easier to teach something that has a fixed structure, and to a certain extent, there seems to be some logic in saying that it is easier to learn something that has a rigid structure.

There's no fool-proof sequence that will allow you to jump head first in the sea of conversation | Photo on Flickr by Felipe Skroski

There’s no fool-proof sequence that will allow you to jump head first in the sea of conversation | Photo on Flickr by Felipe Skroski

Perhaps we mistake learning a language for learning any repetitive process, which leads to the belief that a structural sequence will make things easier. Yet, memorising processes and formulas is actually more difficult than really thinking about them. But we don’t follow this pattern simply because we don’t want to uncover a more effective way – we constantly repeat the processes we’ve gone through in life simply because, well, it’s worked for us. How can we claim that something that has worked for (many of) us won’t work for students when we ourselves are living proof of the success of the current system? But let’s not forget that most people who managed to succeed did so because they were so interested in the subject that they’ve actually chosen it as a career. This is not true for most language students, who may not be motivated enough to go beyond the basic rules that prescriptive grammar teaches. Thus, they are unable to grasp the subtleties of everything they’ve learned and how it overlaps with new content instead of simply add to it; they have a hard time thinking about language more abstractly. I believe that motivation has a major role in learning per se. As Jeremy Harmer said, “one of the main tasks for teachers is to provoke interest and involvement in the subject even when students are not initially interested in it.” However, Harmer reminds us that motivation comes from within, and we can only hope that our actions and words will lead students to start prioritising the subject we’re trying to teach them.

How have we been teaching them? We think of the least expensive way to teach and learn something – following guidelines and rules. In language teaching, this takes us back to prescriptivism, which makes it easier for teachers to judge right from wrong and allows students to have something to hopelessly cling to when they try to make sense of something that they simply can’t for lack of the development of an ability to look at language from a more holistic perspective. Such need for rules is a double-edged sword as students, after a certain stage, will be unable to find them as neatly written as they have grown used to. At this stage, they can only stop grappling with the understanding of language if they’ve developed the ability to think about language more as an organism – one which does have its rules and regulations, but one where these rules and regulations should be a bit less prescriptive and a tad more descriptive – if even that. By thinking so hard about the language, students end up making it harder for them to acquire the fluency level they initially hope to achieve.

If we consider what Daniel Kahneman says about this, we realise the problem lies with the laziness of our brain. Kahneman tells us that there are two systems in our brains. Roughly speaking, System 1 is the intuitive response, the system that doesn’t really think about the events; it takes into account the experiences we’ve been through to respond to external stimulus. System 2 is where thought really takes place. This is the system that rationally validates our actions. We fool ourselves by thinking that we’re much more likely to use our System 2. We aren’t, and this passage should show you why he states this:

The defining features of System 2 … is that its operations are effortful, and one of its main characteristics is laziness, a reluctance to invest more effort than is strictly necessary. As a consequence, the thoughts and actions that System 2 believes it has chosen are often guided by the figure of at the center of the story, System 1. However, there are vital tasks that only system 2 can perform because they require effort and acts of self-control in which the intuitions and impulses of System 1 are overcome.

By focusing on prescriptive rules, we’re getting our students to focus their attention and effort on rules that should allow them to tell right from wrong regarding their speech. What happens when you are put in a stressful situation? Instead of thinking about the rules you have learned through grammar exercises, learners tend to lose the capacity to let their monitor system, as Krashen calls it, regulate what they’re saying. Stress is an indication of a threat, so their brains will instinctively respond to this by putting their System 1 in charge. We’ll then see two kinds of students: those who don’t care about what others might think of them and will speak freely, without worrying much about proper language, and those who will simply be unable to carry out a basic conversation because they are unsure if they should use the simple present or the present continuous, or if they should use the word good or fine. I’m pretty sure most EFL teachers have had the chance to work with both kinds of learners, and my personal experience is that adults lean towards the latter.

This is where a conversation-driven lesson might help, yet again. If we encourage our students to engage in an effortful activity in class that is not simply related to answering grammar questions on a sheet of paper, we might just end up fostering their ability to allocate less energy to the daunting act of speaking through practice. As Kahneman says:

As you become more skilled in a task, its demand for energy diminishes. Studies of the brain have shown that the pattern of activity associated with an action changes as skill increases, with fewer brain regions involved. [...] A general “law of least effort” applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion. The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs.

When we think about skills in language learning, we usually list four: reading, writing, listening and speaking. By practising speaking more frequently, you should be able to develop the three pillars of a language (grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation) for this skill in particular. This means you won’t need to make a lot of effort to both understand what happens in the process of having a conversation and trying to get your message across. You can now focus on the message, which will already require a lot from memory. As Kahneman says, “effort is required to maintain simultaneously in memory several ideas that require separate actions, or that need to be combined according to a rule.” I cannot help but think that there’s a lot more into play in an exchange of ideas between two people than grammar rules and vocabulary.

When we have a conversation with others, we need to focus on both the verbal and non-verbal cues if we are to fully understand the message. We need to be able to understand sarcasm and irony, for instance. We need to listen to what our interlocutor says and then respond. This involves a lot of effort. As teachers, we need to show our learners that they are capable of doing such things in their L1 already, and that this ability can and should be transferred to their L2 self. However, if we insist on getting them to focus on rules without actually getting them to put the rules into use, it’ll be harder for their System 2 to realise that not all that is involved in having a conversation should require so much attention and effort. By focussing on discrete items of the language, we end up teaching our learners a tendency to focus on rules instead of putting the rules into use in order to communicate. As a result, the former takes precedence over the latter and most learners freeze when they need to hold a conversation with a native speaker.

This is not the same as saying we should focus on fluency rather than accuracy. I strongly believe accuracy is paramount to the development of fluency. What I question is the way we’ve been trying to get our students to learn. It seems we’ve been repeating what has been done for the past 20 or 30 years because either because it’s easier to explain logically the steps we’re taking (first we learn this, and then we move to that, once that has been mastered, we’ll then step forward to that other topic on our list) or because this is how some highly motivated individuals have managed to learn. It may even be very logical, but who said that there’s no structure or rationale in conversation-driven lessons? And, as I said previously, there’s a huge gulf between a conversation-driven lesson and a simple conversation. If we consider the way our brains work, conversation-driven lessons might actually be a lot more logical than a structural curriculum.


Do conversation-driven lessons make any sense?

February 2, 2014 10 comments
The age of conversation | Photo on Flickr by Kris Hoet

The age of conversation | Photo on Flickr by Kris Hoet

The short answer to this question is a resounding ‘yes’, and I could base my answer on experience – mine and also the one’s from lots of colleagues. However, we should all be wary of such things as “it’s worked with all my groups,” or the converse “it didn’t work with any of my groups.” These comments per se should not be the sole reason for us to jump to a conclusion as we do not really understand what’s happened in each one of these experiences. This leads us to the step of reading and trying to understand a bit more about the things we end up doing as educators. I’ve come across the following passage from Cozolino’s The Social Neuroscience of Education, and I guess this will be a good starting point for us to analyse the success of conversation-driven lessons:

The interactions we have with others directly affect the receptivity of the brain to take in new experiences and learn from them. If we are not receptive, we cannot learn. (Cozolino)

Conversation-driven lessons facilitate bonding

We all like it when we are heard. It is actually of the sentences new teachers are likely to hear a lot in training sessions: you should ask genuine questions and be actually interested in the answer. If we look at a conversation-driven lesson, these genuine questions are likely to be the very trigger we need to teach something we had established as an aim for the day. Not only will your lesson be more meaningful to your learners because they might end up talking about something that came from them, but paying close attention to the opportunities these answers give teachers in class a chance to help students socialise and learn from each other.

The human brain is a social organ of adaptation. By an organ of adaptation, I mean that the brain has evolved to interact with and learn how to navigate its environment. And by a social organ, I mean that humans have evolved to be linked to and to learn from other brains in the context of emotionally significant relationships. Therefore, the brain has evolved to learn within a naturalistic setting in the context of meaningful group and interpersonal relationships. (Cozolino)

This certainly helps me understand the importance of having a real conversation with learners in the classroom and how it helps me build rapport. By being genuinely interested in what my learners have to say, I can come up with questions and comments of my own that might lead towards the learning objectives of the lesson. This certainly helps me with scaffolding, and it builds trust. We need to understand how important trust is if we expect learners to accept what we are telling them as something that is worth their attention and effort. We need to work hard in building rapport and creating relationships. As a matter of fact, one of the most important aspects in the teaching-learning environment, in my opinion, is rapport.

Relationships are our natural habitat. From birth until death, each of us needs others to seek us out, show interest in discovering who we are, and help us to feel safe. We all yearn to be understood, recognized, and appreciated. Regardless of age, it is vital for us to feel a part of, participate in, and contribute to our “tribe.” The inabilities to connect, contribute to others, love, and be loved result in anxiety, depression, and alienation. This is just as true for principals, teachers, and school board members as it is for our students. (Cozolino)

A conversation-driven lesson is not just a conversation

I’ve also constantly heard teachers saying that they enjoy teaching advanced groups because students are able to carry out a conversation. Even though this is true, we need to understand the differences between a conversation-driven lesson and a simple conversation among friends. Students don’t come to lessons because it’s pleasant and just because they like their teacher’s company. This might be one of the results of being able to successfully connect to your learners, but it is not the primary objective of a lesson. Suppose you yourself decide to enrol for a course. What would you like to have achieved at the end of the course?

a) a better understanding of what you applied yourself into learning; or

b) a new friend – your teacher – even though you haven’t really learnt much about the course’s objectives.

The social neuroscience of education

At the end of the day, it is our ability to focus on our aims that count. An aim may or may not be achieved in one lesson or two, but not in the whole course. The fact that students who are already advanced learners of the language are able to hold conversations does not mean that they should be there just to practise what they already know. In any course you take, there should be learning. Perhaps, it is our inability to realise that there is more to learn – even for quite fluent speakers – that blinds us to the problem that the plateau of upper-intermediate learners. This might lead us to yet another conundrum: who should set the final aims of a learning activity?

If someone has decided to enrol for a language course, they do so because they expect to go past their current level of understanding and production. And this is exactly where I take issue with the claim that what matters is your ability to communicate. Learners can communicate at an A2-level in the common European Framework, and they are considered independent user of the language at the B level. Perhaps what we should do more often is asking students exactly what their objectives are and help them visualise what they need to achieve them. This is why I believe we should focus on the words driven and lesson when  we think about conversation-driven lessons.

You can demand high and still build rapport – actually, you should!

If we understand that our role as a teacher is not one of either being too much content-oriented or being too focused on the affective part of learning, we’ll understand that balance between both is not only desirable – it is a requirement. You cannot expect learners to thrive in an environment of competitiveness and stress.

Brains grow best in the context of supportive relationships, low levels of stress, and through the creative use of stories. While teachers may focus on what they are teaching, evolutionary history and current neuroscience suggest that it is who they are and the emotional environment in the classroom they are able to create that are the fundamental regulators of neuroplasticity. Secure relationships not only trigger brain growth, but also serve emotional regulation that enhances learning. [...] The activation of both emotional and cognitive circuits allows executive brain systems to coordinate both right and left hemispheres in support of learning, affect regulation, and emotional intelligence. (Cozolino)

It is, then, a matter of finding the right balance between how much you should demand from your learners and how you do it. As Brown argued, the very first feedback we give our learners is the affective feedback. If we send them a negative message, they’ll simply block your cognitive feedback. However, if we do not give them any kind of cognitive feedback, they’ll fail to see that they aren’t really learning what they should be and mistakes will be fossilised.

A conversation-driven lesson might be just the key that is missing if we are to strike this balance. Instead of coming up with a whole bunch of tasks or content-oriented questions, how about developing your ability to actually listening to your learners and mastering the art of adapting your questions or being able to pinpoint elements that will be useful in your lesson’s objectives?


- The Social Neuroscience of Education

- Principles of Language Learning and Teaching

Translating machines and (Language) Teaching

January 9, 2013 10 comments

On January 5, 2013, the magazine The Economist published an article on simultaneous translation by computers and one of the first questions it asks readers is

How long, then, before automatic simultaneous translation becomes the norm, and all those tedious language lessons at school are declared redundant?

The very first thing that sprung to mind was how old the writer was. The second question was where exactly he went to school. The reason for the very first question is to find out whether he (I don’t know why I decided to call the writer a he, though) learned foreign languages through Grammar Translation or the Audio-lingual method and if all his language classes were a mixture of drills and meaningless translations. It’s been quite a while since I had my language lessons, and although I did find them boring in school where we did have to “learn” through GT, I can’t say the same about my language classes in language institutes.

It was still pretty much a structural perspective, granted. Yet, there was something else beyond the language. It was actually fun to go to a class where we were allowed to talk and to communicate. Looking back, I’m pretty sure I can say the reason for that was only clear to me after I became a teacher, and it may very well be the very reason I fell in love with teaching languages when it was supposed to be simply a way for me to try my hand at teaching before becoming a History teacher.

But the question remains dangling there. If we are ever able to devise a machine that will allow us to communicate with other people from all over the world, will the job of the language teacher be made redundant? As many professions before ours have already seen their end with the advent of technology, could this ever be the end of language teaching, or at least most of it? If we think about it, many who study English do so because they want to communicate. Well, if that truly is the case, then why would these people keep studying a foreign language when they would already be able to communicate?

Fortunately, learning a language gives you a lot more benefits than simply allowing you to communicate with others. It’s a sure fire way to keep your brain sharp, and according to some researchers, it might even lead to a different way of seeing the world. Some have already said that learning a new language is like acquiring a new soul, but that might be considered simply as too mysterious for some people out there who are just trying to communicate.

Don’t we also know that learning to play chess is also a fantastic way to exercise the brain and that it also allows you to see the world from a different perspective? Don’t we know that reading is also a much better way to exercise your imagination and creativity? I also remember reading somewhere that Sudoku may prevent Alzheimer’s. Nonetheless, I don’t see that many people playing chess or learning how to play it, or people choosing books instead of TV, and apart from very few people I know, not that many people doing their Sudoku puzzles unless they’re waiting in a queue and don’t have a smartphone on them. I’m sure you understand that I’m talking about the average joe out there, and not some high-brow scholar.

Are people really that lazy and they will eventually end up choosing the easy way out? I most certainly know quite a few people who are quite happy with working very little and simply doing nothing, and I mean, nothing for the rest of the time. I’m talking about working as little as 6 hours a day or even less, and then simply doing nothing. And it’s not just for a month or so…

A series of announcements over the past few months from sources as varied as mighty Microsoft and string-and-sealing-wax private inventors suggest that workable, if not yet perfect, simultaneous-translation devices are now close at hand.

Just because we can't clearly see the final destination, we shouldn't fear getting there. | Photo on Flickr by sudeep1106

Even though we can’t clearly see the final destination, we shouldn’t fear getting there. | Photo on Flickr by sudeep1106

The question we may ask then, is just how close at hand they actually mean. But before spending too much grey matter on the topic, I guess we could go back to something all teachers who are a tiny bit into edtech already know – technology will not replace teachers, but teachers who can’t use technology will be replaced by those who can. This will only be proven right or wrong in a couple more years. What if more teachers were able to do as some Harvard and Stanford teachers have done when they taught more that thousands of students at once? Would there be enough students for so many teachers?

But this is all too gloomy, isn’t it? The challenges of computerised simultaneous translation are still far too great for it too happen as fast as the article might get us thinking in its very first lines. A bit further down, it states:

In the real world, people talk over one another, use slang or chat on noisy streets, all of which can foil even the best translation system.

This doesn’t mean we won’t be able to get there one day or another, but it might be as far-fetched in reality as flying cars were for those living in the 60s. Sometimes science-fiction eludes us and makes us wonder if things are as close as we’d like them to be.

Teaching a language is a lot more than simply teaching the words and grammar of the language. Learning a language, especially on this day and age in certain parts of the world, is, indeed, opening up to a world of possibilities. The language classroom might as well be the one place people are encouraged to speak their mind and have the chance to learn how to participate in a debate. Being in a language classroom where language is conversation-driven helps even the shyer students to work on their social skills and realise that they’re also entitled to an opinion. There’s just a lot more that a language classroom can provide to learns than the mere capacity to communicate. This is, as a matter of fact, why I do believe we need to make sure that learners are always pushed in our classes – it’s about a lot more than simply being able to get a message across.

The one thing that technology is able to do as of now is meet language learners with exercise drills and grammar explanations with automated correction and explanation. If all your teaching can be summed up into new grammar items and vocabulary, it’s very likely you’ll be replaced by a computer quite soon. Language teaching is education, and any challenge language teachers will face in the near future are no different from the challenges teachers of other subjects are likely to face.

If you’ve already bought the idea of life-long learning and you are able to adapt to changes and you embrace them instead of fearing them, then there’s no need to worry about what’s yet to come. Besides, it seems that the news trying to be more and more worried about coming up with stories that seem to come out of a crystal ball than to do what it’s supposed to do: inform readers and get them to reach their own conclusions.

But that might just be the proof we need to truly see that the way we’ve been teaching no longer suits this day and age. If those who get through school are more inclined to follow what’s linked to our emotions rather than to reason and make sense of things, question, analyse and critically think about whatever is presented to them, then we seriously need to rethink our practices. If all you’ve been doing in language teaching is teaching the language superficially, if the coursebook is your master and you do all it asks of you, if you’re compelled to distribute tons of handouts to your students and if you think that time well spent in class is the time when students do exercises individually and quietly, you’ve been doing your share to automatising teaching and then I do hope you’ll soon be replaced by a computer.

If, on the other hand, you’ve already understood that times they are a-changing and there’s the need to be constantly learning in order to teach, how about sharing this concept with the teacher next door? Oh, and the automated translation star-trek gadget… Just leave it be and worry about what truly matters in your profession. Teaching, my dear friends, has finally been evolving. It’s up to us to make it a swift and smooth transition into what it’s to become, or simply wait for all the bumps and moan in the corners about what it should be. Which road do you want to take?

Purposeful communication

February 21, 2012 16 comments

Language teachers are constantly on the lookout for mistakes that may or may not impede communication. Nowadays, it’s common for us to read and hear that what matters most is communication, and that learners of a foreign language should not strive for perfection or flawless language production. What, however, is communication? And does this work for all levels? For instance, do we classify successful communication at the same standard for people who are applying for a position in a multi-national company to work as a spokesperson and for someone whose aim at learning a foreign language is travelling to a foreign country and be understood when ordering food? Most importantly, should we, teachers, be the ones to judge how accurate and, narrowing it further, how appropriate our learners will need to be in their language use?

This week’s blog posts at the iTDi blog are on error correction, and you may read what Scott, Barb, Chuck, Cecilia, Yitzha and Steven have to say on the matter. In addition to that, there will be a live webinar on March 3rd that will deal with the matter of error correction, and I highly encourage all those who can participate to do so. Therefore, I won’t spend much time discussing error correction in this post. Instead, I’d like to shift the focus to one of the things I felt, as a language learner, that teachers did not spend much time on, and one thing that I still feel teachers tend to overlook – in addition to pronunciation. If we’re talking about communication, the first thing we should do is look at language from a broader perspective, not forgetting that language should be seen from a discourse perspective. I’d like to reflect on something more closely related to language in use, namely the pragmatic features of discourse and the importance of explicitly teaching it to our learners.

Certain aspects of language in use are commonly referred to as the pragmatic features of discourse. Pragmatics is a branch of study related to, but separate from, linguistics, because it purports to explain aspects of language and communication that have not been – or cannot be – explained by linguistic studies. [...] When we learn a language, we gradually learn to recognize and name a set of discourse events that are common in the social circles we move in. [...] Part of our socialization is gaining familiarity with a range of discourse types or genres. Some of these we may acquire through exposure and others have to be taught.

(Bloor, M. & Bloor, T., 2007 in The Practice of Discourse Analysis – An Introduction, Hodder Arnold, p. 19)

Whenever we attend seminars, a lot of attention is given to vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation through the four skills, but rarely will you see someone speaking about the pragmatic use of the language at length. Is this less important than the other features? Or is this far too complicated for most teachers to touch as it is far more complex and there are not that many prescriptive rules? We do deal with communication, and many teachers nowadays claim to abide by the rules of the Communicative Approach. If that is the case, shouldn’t we also turn our attention to the interaction that takes place between the listener and the speaker? How easy is it for teachers to assume that what they have said is what their learners actually understood? Even worse, how easy is it for us to let learners get away with something they said that does not sound right to our ears? Are we able to understand the exact meaning that learners are trying to convey simply because, well, as language teachers we are trying as hard as we can to fully understand what our learners are trying to say? 

A speaker may utter a sentence which is, for example, a positive, active statement, expressing a particular content. The listener may, however, interpret the sentence as a threat, or warning, as advice or contradiction. These interpretations are pragmatic meanings. In addition to the content expressed, the listener interprets the speaker’s purpose in uttering the sentence.

(Lewis, M., 2002, in The Lexical Approach, Thomson Heinle, p. 82)

The problem becomes even more apparent when learners reach an advanced level, and mainly in interactions between native and non-native speakers of language. The point is, if we don’t teach and, from time to time, make sure our learners are capable of going beyond basic language use, we may actually be doing more harm than good. What happens is that we need to make our learners aware of how they say things, not only what they say. Vocabulary does take up a lot of our teaching when we reach advanced levels, say B2+ onwards, but vocabulary expansion by itself will do very little to help learners, as the passage below supports. 

However, in situations of contact between native and non-native speakers of a language, pragmatic errors are insidious in that they often lead proficient speakers of a language to misjudge the intentions of less proficient speakers. Particularly if the speakers are fluent and accurate, listeners do not realize that a pragmatic error has been committed, instead misconstruing what was intended by the speaker and sometimes judging the speaker harshly as a result.

(Larsen-Freeman, D., 2003, in Teaching Language: From Grammar to Grammaring, Thomson Heinle, p. 37)

But is it even possible to make our learners aware of pragmatic mistakes, or misuses of the language? I’ve always believed so, and, to be honest, once I was able to understand how serious this may be, I’ve always wondered why we don’t do this more often. Instead of writing on the matter with my own words, and as this has been a post filled with quotes and extracts from books, I’ll add one more extract. 

For a long time, it was assumed that second language classrooms could not provide appropriate input for learning how to realize many speech acts. This was particularly the case with structure-based approaches to teaching and in particular, in teacher-fronted classrooms where the dominant interaction pattern was ‘teacher initiation – learner response – teacher feedback’. In communicative, content-based, and task-based approaches to second language instruction, there are more opportunities not only for a greater variety of input but also for learners to engage in different roles and participant organization structures (for example, pair and group work). This enables learners to produce and respond to a wider range of communicative functions. Furthermore, research on the teaching of pragmatics has demonstrated that pragmatic features can be successfully learned in classroom settings and that explicit rather than implicit instructions is most effective (Kasper and Rose 2002). This is particularly good news for foreign language learners who do not have extensive exposure to conversational interaction outside the classroom. Thus, the question is no longer whether second language pragmatics should be taught but rather how it can be best integrated into classroom instruction.

(Spada, N., and Lightbown, P.M., 2006, in How Languages are Learned, 3rd edition, Oxford University Press, p. 103-104)

Next time you’re walking around the classroom, or if you’re collecting samples of students’ language, make sure you focus on something that goes beyond form. Go further. It simply makes sense, to me, to focus on emergent language and on a conversation-driven approach to language teaching – as long as you’re doing it right. The problem lies in trying to do something before you really know how to do it.

L1: to use or not to use?

November 1, 2011 18 comments

Trying to come up with a right or wrong answer for this question is just like trying to get to the right place following this sign... | Photo on Flickr by Eric Kilby

On my previous post, I wrote about the use of L1 regarding the proficiency level of the learners, and I did say there would be another post on the matter. I’ve been thinking about the situations in which I believe L1 can be used effectively when it comes to learning, and so far this is what I got:

Using L1 in the classroom is a much more than mere translation of words and phrases per se

I guess one of the reasons why so many teachers still frown upon the thought of using translation in the classroom is the fact that they equate any use of L1 to the boring lessons based on Grammar Translation that they had in classes. If teachers use L1 as a way to simply translate words and phrases and instantly become a walking-talking bilingual dictionary in class, there’s something wrong with the use of L1 in the classroom.

In his How to teach vocabulary, Scott Thornbury says that the more informed decisions and the more we know about a word, the easier it is for us to retrieve it. I guess this applies to anything else that is being taught. If we make use of L1 to help students make a contrastive analysis of L1 and L2, if we use L1 to illustrate differences and similarities between L1 and L2, and if such use helps a learner make things more personal, then it might be a good idea to use L1 in the classroom.

One of the uses I have already found to be effective is when we use L1 to compare sayings and idioms. I do enjoy using humour in the classroom, so you’d more often than not hear me saying silly things in class. I’ve already noticed students, quite often, remembering something because of one of the silly jokes or anecdotes. There’s nothing new there, I suppose. For instance, one day during an exam prep class, students had difficulties in one of the items that asked them to change VIABLE into a noun. When we were correcting it, I just told them that you should be rooting for your abilities. In Portuguese, we’d say “Vai, someone” when we want to encourage or support them. On many other occasions when they were asked to write the word, they made no mistakes.

Literal translations of expressions can also be used if you ask them to find the correct equivalent in L2. The point is whether or not the idea is more important than the words themselves, that’d be good use of L1.

L1 should be seen as yet another resource in the teacher’s toolkit to generate understanding

Before we think about banning or using L1 in the classroom, I think we should look at it for what it is: yet another resource we have available to help learners understand what is being said in L2. Just like any other resource we have at hand such as images, mimes, drawings, songs, videos, limericks and what have you, L1 is yet another resource than, just like all others, can be used poorly or effectively. Just as we’re trying to keep up with all the new technological advances in order to teach people who are more and more dependent on technology, we should stop awhile and reflect on how to properly use L1 in the classroom.

Analyse your aims and allow yourself to use L1

One of the comments to the last post, Andrea’s, were exactly about this. If you have decided that your learners should talk for 10 minutes of the lessons, and you are asked a vocabulary question while they’re doing the activity, you have to decide on how to deal with this doubt. Well, if you expect THEM to do the talk and there’s an allotted time, and you know it’ll take you quite a while to explain the word(s), it makes a lot more sense for you to simply translate it outright. In 2 seconds, students are ready to continue with their talk, and you won’t have got in the way of their stream of thought. Needless to say, it’d be nice to find a way to go back to these vocabulary questions later on so as to recycle, revisit, retrieve… well, what we usually do to help them with vocabulary.

Your learners can’t get used to speaking L1 and getting an answer

In a monolingual class, and when the teacher shares the L1 with the learners, it’s quite easy to hear what students are saying in L1 and reply. I honestly think teachers should train themselves not to respond to what learners say in L1 on most occasions. More often than not, students use L1 to make remarks which are unrelated to the topic of the lesson, or it’s something that they have already learned how to say in L2. We can’t, obviously, simply become completely oblivious to any L1 utterance in class. The point is being able to correctly judge whether or not that’s something that really needs an answer or if it’s something that learners are saying just because they don’t want to participate in the class. Are they being lazy, or they really can’t say what they are trying to say in L2? I’ve already seen students who can clearly understand what their teachers say in L2, but can’t say the same things in L2. Comprehensible input is important, but comprehensible output is equally as important. If you don’t require them to use what they’ve learned in L2 from the very beginning, this is likely to become fossilized, and it’ll be harder and harder for them to use L2 as structures become more complex.

It’s somewhat complicated to prevent learners from sharing opinions in their L1 among themselves, but we can get there by showing them we’re paying attention to our surroundings and listening to instances of L1 in the classroom.

Is that all?

Absolutely not! This is not meant to be a comprehensive list – it’s just a couple of thoughts regarding the use of L1 in class that I wanted to share with you and perhaps hear what you’ve got to say. I always try to keep an open mind when it comes to receiving criticism, and if by any chance I have to come back here and contradict everything I’ve said thus far, no problems! Fortunately no one is the bearer of the ultimate truth! Just like with anything else, use your common sense when it comes to use of L1 in the classroom. This means that you ought to be actively listening to your students and teaching according to their reactions. Fortunately, there’s no definitive guide to the classroom, and I don’t there’ll ever be one! :)

Categories: My thoughts on ELT Tags: ,

L1 vs Proficiency Level

October 30, 2011 19 comments

I admit that when I started teaching English I had more willingness to learn how to do it than actual knowledge of how to actually do it. Most of what I did in classes were things that I had to do in the classroom as a student, and I tried my best to remember what those teachers I thought to be outstanding did in class to help me learn. Furthermore, there were a couple of rues that were so deeply ingrained in my mind that it was hard for me to allow for some flexibility and to see any kind of benefits for learners. One of these rules was the rule of “Portuguese (my L1) is forbidden in class”. As I studied English in an EFL setting, which means all learners shared the same L1, this rule made me believe that L1 was the bogeyman that would come to you and steal all English you may have learned in a class.

Use of L1 goes way beyond mere translation | Photo on Flickr by africatrip2039

Based on this experience, it was only natural that I frowned upon any remark that was in favor of L1 in the classroom. I didn’t really care much about how it was being used – it was definitely the worst thing that could happen to a student in a language class. Soon enough, after I was sure that I wanted to be an English teacher, I (fortunately?) had the chance to study about teaching and learning, and my perception of use of L1 in a classroom where all learners speak the same L1 changed quite a bit. There are many things I’d like to share with you regarding use of L1 in the classroom, but  I’ll start with only one in today’s post. This means a part 2 is definitely on the way, and who knows even a part 3. I’d love to read your comments on whether you agree or disagree with what I have to say, if possible. The main thing to keep in mind is that use of L1 in a classroom goes way beyond translation, and I hope to get to that in subsequent posts. So, shall I begin?

Use of L1 and Proficiency Level

As I’ve learned English quite a while ago, I’ve always felt like remembering what it was like to start learning a foreign language from scratch. I was lucky enough to have the chance to take German classes – a language I have never really had the chance to be in contact with. One of the things I noticed, as a student/researcher in the classroom was the fact that the teacher only spoke German in the class. This was actually good for me, as I could clearly see what a true beginner felt like in my classes. I tried my best to do everything I always tell students to do – I was always a volunteer in class, I took part in debates, group and pair work, I did my homework, and I studied regularly at home, and I didn’t skip a single lesson. It turns out this actually worked and I could understand most of what the teacher said in class. After our third test, I felt confident enough (and had already got good enough grades to pass) to try and do what some students do: I spent a week without attending lessons, I didn’t touch my books and notebooks, and I deliberately avoided any contact with the German language that could come my way. For one week I have done that…

Upon returning to classes, I was flabbergasted by the fact that I couldn’t understand anything that was said in class. It was as though I had been thrown into the class on that very same day. To make matters worse, the teacher was constantly asking me questions as I usually jumped at them. She soon learned that I couldn’t make head or tail of what she was saying.

Thinking about this situation and comparing it with what I experience in English, I could clearly see lots of differences. I can easily spend a week, a month, and even more without speaking English and still feel comfortable using it after this period. This has helped shape the use of L1 in the classroom by my learners. It’s much harmful for beginners to speak L1 in the classroom than it is for, let’s say, FCE students. The less we know a language, the more important it is for us to be presented with it in terms of input and the more important it is that we are asked to speak it. This is not an easy task on the teacher, though.

It’s the teacher’s role to be able to properly create communicative activities that will foster conversation in class at an appropriate level for the learners so that there can be effective scaffolding. If we accept that language learning is conversation-driven because we tend to engage in conversations that are meaningful to us, and that we learn best things that are meaningful to us, this means the teacher is responsible for creating activities that will do exactly that – allow learners to engage in meaningful conversation using whatever limited command of the language they may have.

The problem is how often I hear from students, parents, and even teachers that it’s OK for beginners to use L1 in class because, well, they’re just beginners. Just the same, I find it just as worrisome that these people also say that advanced learners can’t speak L1 because, well, they’re advanced learners. To be hones, I feel it should be exactly the other way around. Obviously, it’s much easier for teachers and for students to speak only in L2 once learners have become independent users of the language. However, it’s much more important for them to speak English only when they are still not independent in the target language.

When it comes to use of L1 and proficiency level in the target language, I believe it’s much better for learners to even be allowed to use L1 once they’ve become able to express themselves in the L2. If they’re still taking the first steps towards learning the target language, use of L1 is not forbidden, but teachers should be much more careful about it. Just as anything we do in class, L1 can be used to help learners. It should never, though, be used just to make the teacher’s life easier. If so, this might come at the learners’ expense of long-term learning and independence in the target language. L1 one is yet another tool available for the teacher – learning when and how to use this tool can make or break a lesson.

Truth be told, we make many decisions in class on the spur of the moment. Nevertheless, I do feel that having some guidelines can help us make better informed decisions and lead us to further reflection once the class is over. In a nutshell, I feel that I should try much harder to avoid L1 with beginners that I should with advanced learners. How about you?

Categories: My thoughts on ELT Tags: , ,

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