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Posts Tagged ‘Methodology’

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.

Unplugged or Dogme?

October 11, 2010 10 comments

I’ve been reading lots of excellent posts about teaching unplugged, dogme, coursebooks and others in the blogosphere recently. There are also a couple of challenges around that I’m looking forward to having the time to participate in. One of the things that called my attention was the focus that people have given to the name dogme. All right, I’ll have to admit that the very first time I heard the name it didn’t really strike me as something I’d be dying to get to know. The immediate association I made was with the word “dogma”, most specifically a religious kind of dogma. Needless to say, my initial reaction, prior to learning about the rationale behind it, the word dogme wasn’t exactly appealing. It’s also true that I hadn’t heard of the Dogma movement by Scandinavian film-makers, and if that had been the case, I’d probably have looked at it from a different perspective.

What's in a name? (photo by Andrew Fogg)

However, I don’t think we should judge a book by its cover – how about giving at least the very first chapter a chance to fend off any initial preconception? So, I did decide to give Dogme a chance to defend itself, and it was then that I decided to become an “active lurker” (is there such a thing?) in the Dogme Yahoo Groups. I must say that what I found enthralling about it was the discussions taking place regarding how to best cater for our learners need. This was what stuck me as the most interesting thing in dogme discussions – and not the current (heated) debate regarding coursebooks. I’ve already talked a bit about coursebooks in the previous post, and there are lots of great comments there in case you’d like to take a peek.

I have to confess that until a while ago I had only thought off doing away with coursebooks for private classes, or classes with very few students. You see, the thing is that I’ve always been taught by means of a coursebook. Looking back, many teachers did use the coursebook only as a resource, but it was always there as a reference for me, as the student, to feel a bit more comforted that if there was anything I couldn’t really grasp in a class with 50 other teenagers, I always had the coursebook author to enlighten me with his wisdom. It was in language classes, with fewer people in class, that I felt things were slightly different.

First of all, there’s the reason why we choose to study a foreign language. This has always been the same reason why the approaches and methods to language teaching have changed throughout the years. The minute it’s easier for people to actually travel abroad and engage in real conversation with foreigners, the more apparent the need for an approach that goes beyond reading and understanding what you’ve read. And so it’s been until we reached what’s known as CLT, and this is what still guides us in many of our principles relating the field. Where are we at right now? Well, if I had to choose anyone to quote from right now, I guess I’d go with Brown and say we’re headed towards an era of an ecclectic approach to teaching.

What’s the most important thing here? Is it the name or the set of beliefs that teachers have about language teaching and learning? I see language as a way to communicate, and I liked it when Jeremy Harmer cited both Karenne and Petra in his workshop in São Paulo (Braz-TESOL) when talking about what makes us feel that we can speak in the target language. how do we know we’re ready? When is it that we know that we’ve learned the language? I agree with the point mentioned regarding an urge to speak. This comes from within, when we’re exposed to certain situations that instigate us and makes our brain cogs rotate. This is why it is so important that classroom activities have some intrinsic communicative value. If I ask a Brazilian to talk about skiing, he might just answer it automatically using chunks from the book that will soon be forgotten once the lesson is over. On the other hand, ask pretty much any Brazilian to give their opinion about the national football squad during the World Cup and you’ll see a group of engaged people trying their best to get their message across and, why not, persuading the other people in their room of their opinions.

To be fair, I’ve said here that I like to think of myself as a dogmeist many times. This doesn’t mean I’m in favour of labels, nor does it mean I’m against technology, coursebooks and any other thing like that. I definitely don’t see Dogme as a solution to all that’s bad around the globe in the ELT world. It’s important for us to keep an open mind and a watchful eye for everything that’s taking place around us. Stephen Bax once mentioned that we should abandon CLT in favour of CBT – Context-based teaching. This makes a lot of sense, and I choose to take in whatever is good from that article and incorporate into my teaching. Nonetheless, what this shows is that we’ll always see people bashing current methodologies, pointing out flaws, and offering suggestions – and there’s no other way to evolve if this is not the case. If proper teacher training is something we should work on, then teaching teachers how to reflect upon their practices and also how to think critically about what they read should be at the top of the agenda.

Dogme, teaching unplugged, teching with technology, an ecclectic approach, CLT, the Lexical Approach, Audiolingualism, you name it. The important thing is that teachers really, I mean, really learn about these methods and are capable to keep an open eye to what’s going on in the classroom. There’s something good that can be used in any classroom at any given moments. I learned to like the word dogme, and I identify with the socio-constructivist view behind it. I also agree that language is conversation driven, and there are many different forms of conversation out there. I believe that being materials light means a lot more than coursebooks or no coursebooks. What I’ve noticed more often than not is that less is usually more when it comes to learning.

What really matters to me is that I know why I’ve chosen to do a certain activity in the lesson. And, yes, I don’t equate unplugged to unplanned. Much on the contrary. Planning means thinking about your learners needs and the lesson outcomes. The most important part of planning for me is thinking about objectives and reasons. WHAT do I expect them to learn, and WHY will I do / did I do this in class. Planning doesn’t necessarily mean having lots of handouts ready, and all activities sorted out before you actually meet the students. But carefully thinking about your learners and your learning objectives definitely help me teach unplugged and focus on emergent language a lot more easily than if I just come to the classroom completely unprepared.

Finally, I kind of learned to like the word dogme, but it’s not the label, it’s the rationale behind it that I find appealing. Has it always existed before the word was ‘coined’? To be honest, that doesn’t really matter to me. Does it have sound arguments to support its points? That’s what I care about. Is the the final answer to everything we may come across in a language classroom? I really doubt it. The real answer we should look for is for this question, “What is your personal view of language learning and teaching?” It is only upon answering this question that we can start unfolding other possibilities.

Minimum requirements for (language) teachers

August 27, 2010 9 comments

How do you know if you’ve met the minimum requirements to walk into a language classroom and teach? Is there such a thing as minimum requirements, to begin with? Shouldn’t teachers be ‘lifelong learners’ themselves if they expect their students to learn new things every day? Will I be able to really help my students learn? Have I got what it takes?

I’m pretty sure most teachers have already thought about these questions – even if it was only when they first started working. As I see it, if you decide you want to do something, you must make sure you have a shot at getting it. This means you should always think about what is it that you need in order to have the chance to actually do what you want to do. Just the other day, there was a nice discussion on Twitter about language level, certification, and other related matters concerning language teachers. What are the minimum requirements language teachers should meet in order to walk into a classroom.

I’ve already written a post or two on this blog – or many – on what I believe to be essential qualities and skills teachers should develop. I still believe ‘people skills’ is one of the most important skills that language teachers (or all teachers) must always strive to improve. However, when we’re thinking of language teachers, we mustn’t forget about one crucial point – command of the language. Now, bear with me for a moment, I’m not saying here that NESTs (Native English Speakers Teachers) are better than non-NESTs. This will have to be dealt with on a different blog post – in the meantime you could have a look at this post I wrote that touches this matter.

So, for the time being, let’s stick to non-NESTs and the kind of command of the language that is necessary for one to walk into a language classroom. In 2009 I attended a lecture by professor Jack C. Richards where he addressed “what a good English teacher is”. He mentioned nine core dimensions of teacher development:

  1. Acquiring appropriate proficiency level in English
  2. Acquiring content knowledge
  3. Acquiring Contextual knowledge
  4. Acquiring a repertoire of techniques and routines
  5. Developing learner-focussed strategies
  6. Developing pedagogical reasoning skills
  7. Theorizing from practice
  8. Joining a community of practice
  9. Becoming a language teaching professional

All of these are things English language teachers should worry about if they really care about their job and about their students. Professional development is paramount! Even though these are all core dimensions of professional development, I believe the very first one is what will allow for the development of the others. I do understand that context is key, and I very much agree with what Stephen Bax said in his text entitled “The end of CLT – a Context Approach to language teaching” (you’ll need to register to read the article – it’s free). Context is indeed very important, but, the way I see it, language level also has got to do with our own personal language teaching methodology. Our approach, and consequently our theories of language and language learning (Richards & Rodgers – chapter 2) will play a big role in defining what the minimum requirement is.

What's number one on your list?

As I see it, language, especially nowadays, language is a means for communication – spoken and written. If that’s the case, shouldn’t language teachers be able to prepare students for both kinds of interaction with the target language they’re working so hard to learn? And if, again, this is the case, I want to believe that there’s a minimum requirement in terms of Language level of teachers – and if we think in CEF terms, I’d say C1 is the minimum, which would be equivalent to a CAE certificate issued by Cambridge ESOL. I’m pretty sure there are a lot of other more important skills that teachers need to develop and possess. However, language proficiency is the one thing teachers should try their best to acquire even before they start teaching. It’s the one thing that will allow for the development of all of the other skills. Language proficiency is also the yardstick against which many learners measure their teachers’ teaching skills, and this might even account for how high students hold NESTs despite their teaching skills.

The discussion on twitter was really interesting, and I had the chance to talk to one of my old school teachers right after it took place. He’s also a language teacher, but he teaches Portuguese. I asked him the very same question I ask now “What is more important for language teachers – language proficiency or teaching skills?” We seem to see eye to eye on the matter. There’s a lot more to teaching than language level. Nevertheless, it’s much harder for teacher trainers to work on language proficiency than it is for them to work on other skills. Jeremy Harmer’s “How to teach English” also deals with the topic of good teachers. One of the most important characteristics of good teachers is willingness. And this is particularly true if you think about willingness to become a better teacher. All of the nine core dimensions listed by professor Jack C. Richards are important and have got to be pursued by good (language) teachers.

Can we consider being knowledgeable as the most important factor in a teacher’s life? Some may argue that there are lots of other skills that are way more important, that knowledge these days can be found in many different sources and that teachers should aim at being facilitators of learning. However, I still truly believe that being knowledgeable is the one thing that will make all of the others easy on the way of becoming a good teacher. What do you think?

Language and thought

August 4, 2010 23 comments

Does language shape thought? Or does our way of thinking is one regardless of the language we speak? Can we think of an object, or a concept if we don’t know the words to use for such? What happens then, when we know for sure we want to convey a thought but we don’t know the exact words to do so? These are all very interesting questions, or at least some people think so. Not so long ago, I read a text about a Stanford cognitive scientist called Lera Boroditsky (click here to read it) in which she it was said that the way we speak actually influences the way we think.

This is not communication (by mollybob)

In the same text, they talk about Chomsky and we can read that Noam Chomsky “argued that all languages share the same deep structure of thought and that thought has a universal quality separate from language.” Stephen Pinker, in his The Language Instinct: How The Mind Creates Language, mentions Mentalese, and says that “knowing a language, then, is knowing how to translate mentalese into strings of words and vice versa. People without a language would still have mentalese.” (Pinker, 2007:73)

Another article called my attention a couple of weeks ago. This time, it wasn’t an article written about Lera Boroditsky, but an article written by her (and you can read it here). Lera again mentioned Chomsky and the idea of Universal Grammar and explained a bit about her research. And if she’s right, would it make any sense to say that what we read in David Crystal’s The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language is very unlikely to be true from now on? Crystal (2010:15) says, “but in its [Sapir-Whorf hypothesis] strongest form, it is unlikely to have any adherents now.”

Now, if Lera Boroditsky is right, what would that mean to language teaching and learning? If Chomsky and his UG hypothesis aren’t exactly what happens, and if L1 makes a big difference in terms of reasoning and verbal thought, does this mean it makes much more sense for anyone to learn a foreign language with a non-NEST who thinks like his or her students? What, then, of the many theories of language learning and teaching which have been generalised to different languages, are they still true? Or, does this even matter at all? Should I be writing about it and should you be reading it? Oh, and do the words I’ve chosen to write as a Brazilian really convey my message to speakers of other languages?

There are just too many questions, and perhaps someone will eventually find more evidence to support such and such point of view. However, all these questionings got me thinking about the idea of the ‘inner voice’, or the rush to speak. Jeremy Harmer talked about this in his workshop at the Braz-TESOL, and he made reference to members of his (or our, as these two are also part of mine) PLN: @kalinagoenglish and @TEFLPet and gave them due credit during the talk. Getting our learners to have internal conversations might be extremely beneficial for their language learning. Scott Thornbury in How to Teach Vocabulary (and this had to be one of the books I haven’t got at the moment) also mentions some strategies that work to help students learn vocabulary items, and one of these is to give them time to silently pronounce the words in their mind before asking them to instantly repeat them.

There clearly is a link between language and thought, and, to quote Crystal (2010:14), “a simple answer is not possible”. But there are some things that spring to mind:

  1. Teachers ought to allow time for individual work and mental processing in class.
  2. The role of teachers who share the same language and culture with learners should be highlighted.
  3. By learning a second language, we’re also learning a new way of thinking and analysing situations we face.
  4. An integrative orientation towards learning a second language have much higher importance.

Lots and lots of questions and thoughts and questions about this topic. Before I hand it over to you, I’d just like to finish saying that learning a language is a lot more than learning the words and even the culture of where such language is spoken. Learning a language is a way of broadening your view of the world because it adds to your own mental structure and enables you to think differently.

Agree?

References:

  • Crystal, D. (2010), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language (3rd edition), Cambridge: CUP
  • Pinker, S. (2007), The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics
  • Thornbury, S (2002), How to Teach Vocabulary, Longman

Is there such a thing as THE method to learn a second or foreign language?

July 3, 2010 11 comments

I’ve been kindly invited to write a guest post for Mango Languages blog. If you still haven’t visited their blog, I recommend doing so. There are some very nice articles and insightful posts. I’ve decided to republish the post here after a couple of things I’ve observed in a couple of websites and some talks with teachers. I hope you enjoy reading it here if you haven’t read it there when it was published. Here goes…

How do you study languages? Many different methods and approaches have been used, and they all seem to come and go from time to time. Actually, they all seem to come and refuse to leave. If we think about the aged Grammar Translation way of teaching/learning a second or a foreign language and all that came after it, it might be shocking to see it’s still there. In regular schools in Brazil (where I live), for instance, it’s still the mainstream. Why is that? Well, for the very same reason that different approaches and methods have been created. Were we still living in a world in which there were very little chances to travel abroad, we’d probably be happy with such an approach.

But the world has changed (and has been changing). When people started feeling the need to actually speak foreign languages rather than simply being able to read a couple of disconnected sentences, it was clear that Grammar Translation wasn’t going to be of too much help. Hence, other methods came, and new ones kept coming for the past 100 years or so. As our need for collaboration and communication grew, people started taking second language learning more seriously. Some people tried comparing it to learning your first language, some methods advocated for the use of music, yet others claimed that mistakes were to be avoided at all costs. As usual, the many different methods rose and fell in popularity over time. Yet, they’ve all contributed something to the way we see Second Language Acquisition (SLA), and in particular English as a Second Language (ESL) and English as a Foreign Language (EFL).

Nowadays, at least in the Western civilization, Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) is considered mainstream. If you meet an English teacher and ask him or her about his teaching practices, you’re likely to hear something like, “I teach according to the principles of CLT.” Unfortunately, many of these teachers haven’t got a clue of what CLT means in terms of approach, design and procedures – they’re just doing what they were trained to do: repeating something. But this isn’t really the focus of this post…

In addition to CLT, the “modern” English teacher is likely to mention other methods as TBL (task-based learning), the Lexical Approach, and Dogme, which, by the way, has just turned 10 years old. If you add to these all of the other methods and the myriad language institutes which claim to follow methodology A, B, or C, you may wind up with a very big question mark floating over your head: What is the best methodology for one to learn a foreign language?

Methods (or methodologies) are created – hopefully – based on principles of SLA theories. There isn’t much we know about the way the brain works, but based on current research, we can attempt to take some guesses to answer the question. We’ve got three main views of SLA theories: behaviourism, cognitivism, and constructivism. Each one of these views present different perspectives towards language learning and teaching, and none should be discarded. Is there a better way to learn a second or foreign language? The answer can only be, “No, there isn’t.” If our answer is any different, we’re saying that we are sure all people learn the same way. We’re actually stating that we aren’t all unique and that one size does fit all. I’m one who does not share this view – an opinion formed both from personal observation and experience and from readings.

There’s still no magic pill or microchip that will make you speak a language instantly. However, there are things we believe will help you learn a foreign language. For instance, Krashen mentioned the hypothesis of comprehensible input (what is known as i + 1), and Swain mentioned the comprehensible output hypothesis. In terms of learning, any kind of learning, we tend to do better on tasks we learn by doing than the ones we learn by passively observing others. In language learning, we value input, and we know exposure is a necessary condition, yet definitely not the only one. And then comes learning strategies. The more you know about how you learn, the easier it will be for you to learn a foreign language.

To answer the question asked on the title of the post (again), I don’t believe there is such a thing as the method for language learning. There isn’t only one way for us to learn languages. But there are things I believe will always help. Interaction, negotiation of meaning, exposure, and authenticity will never, in my humble opinion, get in the way of your learning. Next time you wonder what method can help you learn a second or foreign language, start thinking about how you learn. This might lead you to the right answer.

Pronunciation, Grammar and Vocabulary

There are three things involved in knowing a language, and these have been called “the ‘what‘” by Penny Ur in her “A course in Language Teaching“. The three ‘whats’ would be pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. Needless to say, there are lots of things involved in each one of these topics. For instance, when we’re talking about grammar we can look at it from many different perspectives (Scott Thornbury has done a presentation on ‘7 ways of looking at grammar’, which you can watch here), and I myself like the idea of the 3 dimensions of looking at grammar (form, meaning and use). If we turn our attention to vocabulary, a lot has been said about it as well, and there’s even an approach that puts lexis on the spotlight. We know that there’s a lot more to learn about a word than just its meaning. Lots and lots of people have discussed/been discussing the importance of lexis in language learning these days, and grammar seems to still be the guiding principle of most curricula. What about pronunciation? (Just to make things clear from the start, I’m not talking about accent reduction, elimination or any other thing related to accents on this post. Accents are OK, but certain pronunciation problems really do hinder communication)

It seems to me there’s just so much teachers need to pay attention to that it’s easy to end up overlooking this leg of the tripod of language learning/teaching. We’ve arguably had more importance given to pronunciation these days – it’s more and more common for coursebooks to incorporate the IPA,  for example. However, it seems to me that whenever teachers have to sacrifice something due to time constraints or any other situation that may arise in the classroom, pronunciation gets it. Add to this the fact that language teachers are the worst listeners there are (well, we all try really hard to understand what our learners are saying, don’t we?) and there you go: the perfect scenario for lots of pronunciation problems. But why does this happen?

For one thing, we can look at teachers. Native speakers may sometimes feel it’s enough to model the correct pronunciation and learners will eventually pick it up, or they may simply not have been given proper training to work with those “greek” letters from the IPA. Non-native speakers, on the other hand, may not feel secure enough so as to correct learners as they themselves aren’t sure how that word should be pronounced. Oh, but if it were only the individual sounds. Teachers have to worry about supra-segmental features as well as segmental features when working with pronunciation. What if you’re teaching speakers whose rhythm of their native language is syllable-timed how to speak a stress-timed language? What I’ve noticed is that teachers tend to settle for anything they can understand and that’s it – no corrections are necessary. And right there we’re likely to have students making mistakes (which will be fossilised by the time they become aware of it) for a very long time.

Another problem might be the curriculum itself. If teachers are always pressed for time to do things, they’ll eventually have to choose to omit A or B, and guess what tends to be left out? Anyway, I guess the problem I’ve witnessed (and went through as a learner myself) is that teachers do not give pronunciation the importance it deserves in language teaching. It’s almost as if we took it for granted that learners would magically learn how to speak correctly as they progress. To be honest, I believe consciousness raising may help a lot in this regard. I’ve had many students who complained that native speakers spoke too fast or they couldn’t get any conversation in movies for the same reason, and I won’t even mention songs. But is that really so?

Having gone through this myself, I decided that the best way out would be to study. And this study is what enables me to tell my students to pay attention to how they should position their tongue in the mouth if they are to produce a certain sound correctly, or tell them which words are stressed and which are unstressed, and teach them a thing or two about elision, assimilation and intrusive sounds in connected speech. What I found out is that students from all levels tend to pay closer attention to these lessons than to vocabulary or grammar lessons – regardless of their level. (If you’re looking for a book on this, check Sound Foundations, by Adrian Underhill.)

So, if you agree that teaching a language is indeed teaching the tripod pronunciation/grammar/vocabulary, and if we’ve got a series of constraints that prevent us from doing all three as much as we feel we should at the same time, how does the following sound to you: we should work harder on pronunciation with beginners (A1/A2 students). This means we’d have to worry a lot more about correct stress and intonation. Grammar and vocabulary will also be taught, obviously, but these are rather simple at initial stages, especially these days when the English language is everywhere. Once we get students to pronounce things correctly and understand certain features of connected speech, they’ll have no problems listening to / speaking sentences in the “third conditional” (If I had spoken to my teacher, I would have been able to give you an answer.) when the time comes. After a short while (B1/B2), grammar becomes increasingly more complicated for learners. They need to learn more complex grammar structures to convey complicated messages so we shift our focus to the teaching of grammar. A while later, learners will know pretty much all they need to know in terms of grammar to communicate and we can then focus heavily on vocabulary (B2+).

Well, how does this sound to you?

Take care of the little things first

April 4, 2010 3 comments

I must say I was quite jealous when I read about this classroom here. It does seem to me to be the kind of classroom that surely enables learning. All learners are actively engaged in whatever it is they are doing, they’re “saving the trees”, learning life-skills, and all that with little interference from the teacher. I mean, isn’t this just wonderful?

But then, reality check – I still can’t have such a classroom in my teaching context for myriad reasons. So, instead of sulking, I’d better think about the things that I can manage to do in my own classroom. I’ve also thought about how other teachers I’ve observed manage their own classrooms in order to achieve what they want to by the end of the lesson. Here are a couple of things I’ve been thinking about:

  1. Seating arrangement does matter – if I want to foster communication in the classroom, I can’t expect that to happen naturally if learners are sitting in orderly rows. Jeremy Harmer is one of the authors who write about that and questions what is the rationale behing the seating arrangement of a classroom. Every time I walk into the classroom, I ask students to sit closer to me and to each other. “I feel lonely,” I usually tell them, and they do all the rest. However, I’ve seen many teachers simply letting learners sit wherever they want in the classroom. OK, learners are free to decide, but if I expect them to talk to a partner, or to share something in group, this will be more easily achieved if they’re sitting close to each other, or won’t it? By sitting far away from one another, with empty chairs between them, they’ll naturally share less with each other. Add to that the fact that they’re not allowed to talk in their regular schools classes, you’ll end up with a group of passive learners who will rely on you for everything in the classroom.
  2. Make sure they’re listening to you when you talk – Many times teachers have to repeat instructions simply because they didn’t notice students weren’t listening to them. If they don’t listen, they obviously won’t be able to do what you expect from them.
  3. Do not put students on the spot unnecessarily – I really don’t believe that all learners always want to learn and will only be disruptive if they are not interested in the lesson. There are times in which we all, children, teens, or adults, are simply focussed on something else, or we’ve just remembered a joke we were told, a movie we watched or anything else that will take our minds off the lesson. And sometimes the cause of this is the lesson itself – a single word may trigger many different reactions from our brains. What if students simply want to be disruptive, or challenge you because they “don’t like you” and never even tried to listen to you? Well, talking to them in front of the whole class is likely to give you trouble if you’re talking to a disruptive learner. And if you’re dealing with a student who’s just been momentarily distracted, you risk embarrassing that learner in front of everybody. What can we do? What about getting close to that particular student and touching him or her on the shoulder? They’ll certainly look at you and stop doing what they were doing.
  4. Walk away, not closer, when you can’t hear them – If you couldn’t listen to what a student has said, it’s likely the other students couldn’t either. If you get closer to the student, he or she will speak even lower. If you stay away and ask him or her to repeat, they’re likely to be heard by the other students as well, which will probably allow for questions and comments from other students.
  5. Truly listen to your students and respond to what they give you – This has been discussed here before, so I won’t say anything else but that.

If we look at the list, it’s made up of little things which are usually discussed in any initial teacher training course (or so they should, right?). These little things, however, are sometimes overlooked even by experienced teachers. And sometimes novice teachers simply forget about them because they’re too concerned about that activity they’ve planned. Nah… take care of the little things first. It’ll make your job much easier. Maybe you’re teaching in an environment which will not give you much freedom to change, but you may still make it effective. Hasn’t it worked before?

What other “little things” do you take care of or pay attention to that do make a difference in your teaching?

Why bother?

March 21, 2010 7 comments

Why should I know this if I won’t be teaching it to my learners? This is a question often asked by some of the language teachers I’ve recently talked to when discussing about grammar, phonetics and phonology, and different methodologies. Well, in my opinion, there are certain things teachers must know. Teachers are supposed to be knowledgeable in order to guide learners in their own quest of self-discovery. This doesn’t mean I believe teachers should do all the teaching while learners sit passively and simply listen to their teachers – much on the contrary. However, there are a couple of things I think language teachers should know. Here it goes:

1. Teachers should know advanced grammar

Even though I believe grammar shouldn’t be more important than vocabulary or pronunciation in the classroom, it has its importance. The fact that the teacher knows the subject matter well doesn’t mean he is going to give chapter and verse of every little bit of grammar that comes up in a lesson. Nevertheless, the more the teacher knows about grammar, the easier it is for him or her to find a different way to get his or her students to understand that they should have said “I would have read it” instead of  “I would read”. I believe that English teachers should be able to pick up mistakes and take advantage of correct utterances equally as fast as possible in class – especially the latter. If, on the other hand, the teacher is trying to teach only the grammar and not use it as yet another aspect of language teaching, i.e. if grammar becomes the focus of the lesson instead of yet another aspect of it, then, as Nick said in his post, it’ll confuse students more than it’ll help them.

2. Teachers should know phonetics and phonology

The same thing that applies to grammar is true to pronunciation. I don’t think teachers should bother all their learners with names as fricatives, plosives, soft palate and so on. However, in my view, the teacher who is versed in such matter has an edge over teachers who lack knowledge in the area. It’s much easier to understand what is happening inside the students’ mouth and, consequently, show them what is right and show them the right way to do it. I found that, more often than not, when teachers rely only on sound and drilling, without raising learners’ awareness to the correct position of the mouth, the mistake tends not to be corrected. On the other hand, once learners are shown the correct way to produce the sound, the easier it is for them to repeat it later, when there’s no teacher to correct them. I agree with what Adrian Underhill says, “we should try to make pronunciation physical.” If the teacher knows about manner and place of articulation for individual sounds, for instance, it’s way easier to correct learners.

3. Teachers should learn about language teaching and learning methodology

OK, I’ve said it before and I’m going to repeat it. I do enjoy the principles of Dogme, just as I like the principles of the lexical approach, TBL, and CLT – to name just a few. There’s no magic pill to lose weight, and there’s no one method “to rule them all”. Teachers should be resourceful, and different techniques can be used with different methods. Again, it’s only through knowledge of different learning strategies that a teacher can help students become autonomous and life-long learners. It might even be OK for novice teachers to be trained in this or that method, but as teachers become experienced, they need to keep an open mind and accept that, yes, there may be useful procedures in methods considered dated. It all comes down to the learners you have. If we accept that each learner is unique, why should we believe that A is the best method for all students?

I guess I could compare it to going to the doctor’s. When I see doctor, he or she doesn’t tell me what I have in medical terms, or, if so, I definitely ask for a “translation”. Yet, I expect my doctor to be able to make a diagnosis as fast as possible and treat me just as swiftly. If he isn’t knowledgeable about his or her area of expertise, I’ll probably be running lots and lots of exams – most of them unnecessary ones. Mistakes are part and parcel of learning, but teachers should have a very good idea of what they’re doing to help their learners when they make such mistakes.

Needless to say, this isn’t a comprehensive list. However, I’ve been thinking about these matters as they have been mentioned over and over by teachers I’ve talked to recently.

* The My ELT library series will continue, but I found out that it was preventing me from writing about different things I felt like writing.

My ELT library (part 3)

March 10, 2010 2 comments

After a long while without posting due to some new things that came up, I can finally resume my blogging activity. There are lots of things to write about, but I’ll continue the series of my ELT library and books I consider very important for any English teacher to have.

Books on vocabulary and teaching vocabulary

1. “How to teach vocabulary“, by Scott Thornbury. this is a book that’ll provide you with lots of information both on what’s important for you to know about vocabulary and on different ways to ensure vocabulary is taught appropriately. As most “How to…” series, this is an invaluable asset in any teacher’s collection.

2. “The Lexical Approach“, by Michael Lewis. As teachers and lecturers shift from Grammar to Vocabulary more and more these days, this book contains the background information you need to have in order to change the focus of your lessons from grammar to lexis. “Language is made of grammaticalised lexis, and not lexicalised grammar,” Lewis would say.

3. “Implementing the Lexical Approach“, by Michael Lewis. The logical progression after having read “the Lexical Approach”. To be honest, if you’re looking for something way more practical, you can go straight to this and the next one. However, I’d still strongly advise you take the time to read the first book.

4. “Teaching Collocation“, edited by Michael Lewis. This book contains a wealth of examples and practical ideas on using the Lexical Approach in the classroom. The author also (re-)visits the theory behind the approach. Definitely worth reading.

5. “Words in the mind: An introduction to the mental lexicon“, by Jean Aitchson. If you’d like to learn more about the ‘mental lexicon’, look no further. The book is a great source of information on how we learn words and organise them in our minds.

6. Norbert Schmitt’s “Vocabulary in Language Teaching” is also a good source of both theory and practice when it comes to vocabulary teaching.

7. Last, I’d advise you also check Stephen Pinker’s “The language instinct: how the mind creates language“. Even though it’s not as practical as the other books I mentioned on this list, it’s some serious food for thought. This book is definitely thought-provoking and it’ll (probably) make you reflect a bit on your own beliefs.

As I said before, this is not a thorough list, and I sure you can think of many other books to add to the list. Why not do that in the comments area?

Cheers!

My ELT library (part 1)

February 4, 2010 11 comments

I’d thought about publishing a list of ELT books I usually recommend to teachers I work with, but I’d never really got to doing it. There are lots of ELT lists of books for teachers on Amazon and other sites that I thought it wouldn’t be exactly helpful. However, after a very brief exchange of tweets with @thieddu and some talks with teachers I know and who have participated in training sessions, I decided it wouldn’t hurt to mention some of the books. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, and I do believe some readers can actually contribute a book or two.

I’ll start this series with some methodology books.

1. If you’ve been looking for a place to start, and have got little experience or reading, I’d suggest “How to Teach English“, by Jeremy Harmer. The book will cover the basics of teaching and learning, including suggestions for teaching the different skills. It’s also a nice book for teacher trainers depending on the level of your trainees. The Task files a the end of the book give you some food for thought during your training sessions.

2. If you’d like to learn a bit more about the different approaches and methods throughout the history of ELT, I recommend you check “Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching“, by Jack C. Richards and Theodore S. Rodgers. I highly recommend the first few chapters where the authors discuss some key concepts any language teacher should think about – theory of language, theory of language learning, approach, method, design, and procedure.

3. No methodology library would be complete without H. Douglas Brown’s “Teaching by Principles“. The book contains a wealth of information on many different issues in the field of ELT, and it also leads you to a way forward. In addition, the questions for discussions at the end of each chapter are insightful.

4. Another useful book for teacher trainers and teachers interested in learning more about their profession and grow as teachers is Penny Ur’s “A course in Language Teaching“. It also has good questions that will lead to discovery instead of merely showing the way.

5. If you’ve read the first book of this list, or maybe if you’re more experienced and read, Jeremy Harmer’s “The Practice of English Language Teaching” is a good choice. Harmer expands on the topics introduced in his “How to Teach English”, which make the book much more thorough. The videos of recorded classes in the new edition are a great addition to the book.

6. The last book in this post is David Nunan’s “Second Language Teaching & Learning“. Not only does Nunan provide his readers with practical examples, but there are also questions and tasks to be discussed in training courses. One thing that called my attention was the concept maps present at the end of each chapter.

Which books would you add to or remove from the list? I know there are two other books I’d add to the list, but one of them I haven’t read in its entirety yet (yes, shame on me – it’s Jim Scrivener’s “Learning Teaching“) and the other one I still couldn’t get hold of a copy in Brazil (Luke Medding’s and Scott Thornbury’s “Teaching Unplugged“). Nevertheless, these books would “close” the list.

I hope you find this first list useful. Feel free to criticise it. I’ll be continuing this series with books on other areas of ELT soon.

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