What is SLA research good for, anyway? | IATEFL 2018 summary

Lourdes Ortega IATEFL 2018 Brighton.png

A couple of months ago I met someone who was completely dismissive of research. She questioned the validity of research on that grounds that researchers change what they say all the time! If only she’d watched Lourdes Ortega’s plenary talk which has a lot of  practical suggestions for teachers for interacting with research more meaningfully. I particularly liked when she said “we must recognise that all knowledge is contradictory, partial, potentially generally true while individually not always.”

I got a bit bored of writing summaries so I created this idea map which hasn’t really turned out the way I thought it would. Anyway, here it is:

Summaryy.png

Advertisements

Exploring ELT as emancipatory practice | IATEFL 2018 summary

IATEFL 2018 Steve Brown.png

I’ve been following Steve Brown on Twitter for sometime now and possibly not paying attention to the content of his tweets because I’d have never anticipated the direction this talk took – unexpected and thought-provoking. This is  going to be a short summary because there was lots of food for thought and I’d like to revisit and reflect on some of these ideas. Also, the audio on the live-stream wasn’t very good and I didn’t really catch it all.

Steve declared ELT a neo-liberal profession and he asked the audience to consider the purpose of the field. He suggested that there are four purposes which can plotted on a continuum, each of which has a specific impact on teaching behaviours and learners.

ELT as emancipatory  practice.png

He explained that education as empowerment is deceptively attractive because it ostensibly helps learners function more effectively in the real world, with skills to apply for a job. However, this happens within the existing systems of power and doesn’t involve any kind of transformation. Instead, it’s a means of developing the economic potential of learners, “allowing learners to become complicit in their own exploitation.” And the key  according to him, is to focus emancipation, which he says involves giving students the skills to effect change themselves.

ELT emancipation continuum.png

Steve suggested some ways of pushing ELT along the emancipation continuum but cautioned teachers about not falling into the trap of comfort radicalism which is doing something that you think is progressive but operates within existing structures and involves no change. Banking methodologies here refers to Paulo Friere’s notion of traditional education which sees students as containers into which knowledge needs to be deposited. I was curious to see the oft-abused term 21st century skills in this list but Steve called this out and said that critical thinking had been co-opted by vested interests but that it’s the responsibility of teachers to challenge this for example by getting learners to engage more critically with a typical coursebook text celebrating the achievements of billionaires like Richard Branson and Mark Zuckerberg by considering whether we need people like them.

ELT emancipation continuum steve brown.png

He then challenged the typical questions we use to evaluate our practice, criticising them for being shallow and for focusing on practice instead of praxis.

ELT questions.png

He shared some alternatives for reflecting more deeply. The first question is really quite simple but profoundly provocative.

Alternative questions.png

Steve concluded by saying that ELT was being used to “stifle freedoms and reinforce hegemony” and that the emancipation continuum could be used to recognise whether we are complicit in promoting this inequality and injustice and take steps to transform our practice.

Do some words matter more or the frequency fallacy? | IATEFL 2018 summary

IATEFL 2018 Brighton Leo Selivan.png

In this talk, Leo Selivan challenged the conventional approach of choosing what vocabulary to teach using frequency lists. He suggested that frequency has become so ubiquitous that it’s now included in dictionary entries and that we use these frequency lists for a number of reasons:

  • To grade and select vocabulary
  • 80% of English text consists of high frequency words
  • Frequency lists are used for defining vocabularies in learner dictionaries (core)
  • To counter the teacher’s intuition which may be wrong. For example, we overestimate the frequency of ‘blond’ and underestimate ‘arise’

The most frequently used words tend to be function or grammar words and it’s commonly believed that we can “learn 2000 words and then it’s all plain sailing.”

Leo argues that frequency is not the same as usefulness and analyses this through several areas of lexis.


Polysemy is a word with multiple meanings such as ‘aid’ (come to my aid, foreign aid, hearing aid). Words that have polysemous relationships can be close or distant in meaning. In the following examples, rough is closer relative to run which is more distant.

(1a) He runs 10 miles every day

(1b) She runs a restaurant

(2a) His hands were rough from hard work

(2b) I’ve had a rough day today

Leo asked the attendees to translate several words into another language that they are familiar with:  accident, (to) join, condition, to gain, business (I realised that I don’t know how to say condition in Hindi and I had to look it up in a dictionary). The actual learning from this activity is that the translation depends on the meaning we want: have an accident vs. by accident, join the club vs. join the army etc. This might in fact be an interesting activity for the multilingual classroom.

He then contrasted two schools of thought – Charles Rhul’s On Monosemy establishes the first one where there is a core primary meaning and all other words are seen as derived. The other school of thought which he subscribes to is embodied by John Sinclair’s Corpus Concordance Collocation which holds the view that meaning is established by collocation and that to truly understand what a word means, you have to look at co-text (e.g., by accident). Therefore he argues that advice focusing on meaning before looking at collocation is ‘dubious’.


Word families 

With some words, it’s easy to find other members of the word family because they follow specific patterns for example the suffix -ment in development and improvement signal nouns. However, this is not as obvious in other words such as the following:

name – namely

price – priceless

fish – fishy

parent – parenthood

It’s entirely possible that learners encounter the derivative form before the base form for instance, suddenly before sudden, crazy before craze, reveal before revelation, computer before compute and conventional before convene.


Relevance

Some words which are low frequency have a greater likelihood of being taught because of the context in which they may be used.

  • Classroom language: verb, vocabulary
  • Cultural terms: candle, mosque
  • Conceptual difficulty: admit, issue
  • Ease of learning: guitar, basketball
  • Elementary school needs: porridge, knight, wand
  • Personal use: brunch, sociable

I’m not sure what he said with respect to conceptual difficulty – perhaps he was contrasting it with ease of learning – that we are more likely to teach words with a lower frequency if they are easier to learn. Apropos personal use, these two examples are from Leo’s own personal repertoire. He was trying to suggest that learners might find low frequency words useful because of their personalities and preferences.


Phraseological argument 

With multi-part verbs such as ‘the plane took off’ and ‘stand by your friend’ and non-compositional chunks such as ‘take place’, meaning can’t be understood from individual elements. Some items need to be learnt as chunks for example ‘at your disposal’ and ‘to some extent’. The PHRASE and PHaVE lists are apparently two new lists designed to address this.


Lexical availability 

Called disponibilité in French, this refers to words that easily spring to mind when presented with a prompt. So if you’re asked to come up with words related to travelling, many of the words that you may generate are lexically available but probably low frequency such as luggage.


The bottom line is that frequency doesn’t translate to usefulness and vocabulary acquisition is incremental and non-linear. You can download his handout with the meta-language he uses from this link.

English assessment – the issues and how we might overcome obstacles | IATEFL 2018 summary

IATEFL 2018 Brighton assessment.png

This talk by Gaynor Evans and Jamie Dunlea is based on their research findings from Bangladesh and elsewhere. I met Gaynor at a workshop on language assessment design that I participated in last year in Dhaka. At the time, the Bangladeshi government was rolling out a speaking and listening assessment in their external board examinations for the first time and this was a topic that was often brought up and discussed by the other Bangladeshi workshop participants.

While I was curious about the impact of the new assessment in Bangladesh, the talk was less about Bangladesh and more about the gap between language learning outcomes established by policy and what actually happens. The talk was a bit rushed and I may have missed out some important details. Here’s are some of the key points I managed to note down:

  • In Bangladesh, the government is aiming to achieve communicative competence at an A2 level across all four skills for students in grade 10 but the majority of students are at A1.
  • Some of the common issues experienced in the context of implementing a speaking and listening assessment include class size, language ability and teacher pedagogic skills.
  • In a study by Dr. Rita Green (who led the workshop I attended) across 26 Bangladesh skills, teacher talk in English declined progressively from primary to higher secondary and English was rarely heard at higher levels.
  • What’s required is an an evidence based approach to planning and setting goals (this has apparently been achieved in Bangladesh).
  • There’s a lack of understanding of language learning outcomes and their interaction with the wider context and results in education reform.
  • Some of the possible approaches are apparently listed in this report – English Impact: An Evaluation of English Language Capability, and it recommends a strategy adapted from Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach originally intended in welfare economics as a way of looking at human development as ‘a concentration on freedom to achieve in general and the capabilities to function in particular.’ Here’s how the report describes its adaption to language teaching – I really don’t see how this differs from what governments have always purported to do:

This adaptation of English language capability can therefore be described in terms of the level of achievement, or proficiency, reached by a defined population; and the opportunities provided to them to achieve greater proficiency via teaching and learning practice derived from a policy or national guideline. p.9

  • Jamie spoke about a profile builder to understand the educational environment in the country – it wan’t really clear what this tool is or if it indeed is a tool. The report doesn’t mention a profile builder.
  • The CEFR is used increasingly outside its ‘home’ in Europe. However, it was never intended to be used as is but was meant to be adapted to the local context. The way it’s being applied now globally is as a very simplistic tool for setting policy goals.
  • Even in Europe, there’s a lack of correlation between learning outcomes and CEFR levels and there’s a gap between what governments want and what’s achievable. Across Europe, B2 is the goal for matriculation but in reality proficiency is far lower. For example, France is mostly below A2 in reading and listening.
  • Some countries have developed their own frameworks: CEFR-J in Japan and China Standards of English (CSE)
  • Planning & resources, goals and time horizon need to be taken into consideration to formulate an evidence based policy.

To summarise, I think the presenters are suggesting that governments need to set realistic goals which are meaningful within their educational contexts and this might require them to develop their own language proficiency frameworks, instead of arbitrarily imposing the CEFR.

Paring back | Paragraph blogging

AN00035363_001_l

I’ve been watching Civilisations, a lush BBC series about how art has shaped the human experience. In an episode on Japan, the viewer is introduced to Maruyama Okyo’s masterpiece from the late 18th century – Cracked Ice – a painted two-fold screen ostensibly intended for tea ceremonies. Its format and minimalism seem characteristically Japanese and yet elements such as the use of perspective and a vanishing point show the influence of the West. I reflected on this in the context of my teaching. I get very excited by ideas I encounter. I want to try everything but this sometimes results in overstuffed lessons and more critically, a strange pastiche that doesn’t really give learners a cohesive learning experience. As I acquire and adapt ideas and tools, I need to learn to pare back like Okyo and focus on what’s really important and let innovation emerge from what I haven’t articulated in my lesson plan, those  blank spaces I rush to fill.

Image attribution: Maruyama Okyo, Cracked ice, a 2-fold screen painting | British Museum | CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

True speech | paragraph blogging

Paragraph blogging.png

I’ve been trying to make a concerted effort to connect with my mother’s L1 – Tamil, a language that’s native to southern India and Sri Lanka. I’ve taught myself to read but I  can’t manage its extreme diglossia so forget literature, even newspapers are out of reach. I am building my knowledge of the language in other ways such as David Shulman’s sumptuous and erudite ‘Tamil a Biography‘. In it, he discusses a concept called ‘vāymŏḻi’ (the ḻ happens to be a retroflex approximant) or true speech which I’ve been mulling over this past week.

“One might think that truth is a universal concept not in need of further, local characterization. There is truth and there is untruth, and the difference between them is, we could imagine, clear in every culture. But in fact the notion of truth or truthfulness is always culturally determined. The Greeks called truth aletheia, a “nonforgetting” or “noninattention,” and linked it with unveiling, penetrating past the shimmering surface. Tamil conceptions of truth are quite different. They are, above all, dependent on ideas about the autonomy and integrity of the spoken, audible (musical) word that, once uttered, will always live out its life in the world independent of the speaker’s will. Thus truth is connected to sound—specifically, to the phonemes of the Tamil language—and what sound can do in, or to, a world that is itself made up of sonic forces, inaudible quivers, subtle buzzes.”

David Shulman

That’s of course fascinating, beautiful and lyrical but what got me thinking was this idea of speech becoming truth because it is spoken in a certain context. When you’re training teachers, particularly trainee teachers, I get the sense that your word as the trainer is accepted as the truth regardless of whether it is or not outside that room or platform. And when these ideas go out into the real world, they continue to evolve because they’re being implemented in some form or the other. I certainly experienced this on my initial training and acquired ideas that continue to influence my practice even today. These notions once utteredlive out their life in the world independent of the trainer’s will. That’s a proposition I find deeply unsettling.

* A big thank you to Matt Noble for prompting me to start paragraph blogging with his frigging paragraph blogging fecundity this month!

Image attribution: Jaffna, Sri Lanka by arileu | Flickr | CC BY-NC 2.0

When wo/men speak up | An evidence-based activity

men women speak up.png

It’s international women’s day and I just happened upon some management research into the differences in impact on status and potential leadership position between men and women as a result of speaking up. This research was cited in the latest Harvard Business Review (March-April 2018, p.24) but was originally published in the Academy of Management Journal, 2017 as The Social Consequences of Voice: An Examination of Voice Type and Gender on Status and Subsequent Leader Emergence, by Elizabeth J. McClean et al. It just goes to show that while some progress has been made, we’re still very far from equity and you don’t need to look beyond the article’s title to see what I mean: Men Get Credit for Voicing Ideas, but Not Problems. Women Don’t Get Credit for Either

Here’s an activity for business professionals designed around this text/research


  • Lead in by asking learners what the phrasal verb ‘to speak up’ means and whether there is a culture of ‘speaking up’ in their organisation.
  • Ask learners to then draw this matrix in their notebooks.

grid.png

  • Get the learners to individually decide if speaking up in each of the situations helps men and women gain (+)  or lose (-) status in the team or organisation. For example, if a man points out problems, is he likely to gain (+) gain the respect of his colleagues and increase his status or lose status (-). They can also decide that there’s no impact (=).
  • Put them in small groups and have them compare their answers.
  • Ask learners to then access the article on their phones. It’s quite short and the title (Men Get Credit for Voicing Ideas, but Not Problems. Women Don’t Get Credit for Either) says it all. Encourage learners to compare their guesses to the research.
  • Have them read the article again and identify what promotive and prohibitive voice mean and which one they tend to hear in their own team interactions.
  • Finally have them read the last line of the article and discuss what this might mean in terms of team dynamics, diversity, equity, innovation and productivity.

”The researchers say that their findings highlight an impediment to objective, nongendered evaluations of team members’ contributions.”

  • As a follow-up task, learners could come up with suggestions or guidelines for working towards ensuring that everyone’s inputs are valued regardless of who they are.

Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash