Let’s listen to the learners | IATEFL 2017 session summary

Brian tomlinson iatefl.jpg

Brian Tomlinson’s much needed talk was in a sense quite damning about how smug we often are about learner-centricity when we barely ask learners what they want.

He started off with three bits of research he’d been involved in:

  • In a study for a publisher on who selected textbooks, Tomlinson found the following figures across 12 countries: 85% by administrators, 15% by teachers, and 0% by students.
  • In another study, he explored what students and teachers wanted from textbooks. Sales folks who worked with publishers predicted that it would be grammar. In facts, students and teachers wanted interesting texts, particularly stories.
  • In the third study he referenced, he investigated why Headway was so successful. He discovered that it was because teachers felt it gave them everything but that they felt sorry for their students because it was boring.

You can tell a teacher but you can’t tell them much.

Tomlinson asked whether car designers would design cars that no one would want to drive and whether restaurants would cook food that their customers wouldn’t want to eat. And yet, he pointed out, we consistently develop coursebooks that learners don’t want to use.

We don’t listen enough to what:
• they have to say about life
• they have to say about learning a language
• they need
• they want

And yet:
Learners only learn:
• what they want and need to learn;
• when they want and need to learn it.

Tomlinson suggested that there was a lot of research to support this line of thinking, especially from psychological readiness theory. He went on to state that curriculum, syllabus and coursebook sequences were a waste of time and that we don’t know what learners want simply because we don’t consult them. He provided some recommendations for addressing the situation and what I really appreciated was that each strategy was linked to specific piece of classroom research.

By involving them in decisions about: 

  • their curriculum. For example, in Zambia, Tomlinson invited student representatives to sit on a curriculum committee to provide suggestions, Ottley in Iraqi Kurdistan co-designed curriculum with his students to meet their needs.
  • their coursebooks, In Namibia, Tomlinson was involved in writing a national coursebook called On Target, Students were asked by questionnaire what topics they wanted. Teachers predicted fashion, pop music and football. But in fact, students wanted drug abuse, domestic & marital violence and corruption because this is what they talked about in the playground and wanted to discuss htat in class as well. At a Japanese university, Tomlinson was required to use a particular coursebook. He asked students which units they wanted to start with creating their own sequence, subverting the existing one and omitting units which didn’t get votes.
  • their objectives. Some businessmen from Lyon in France enrolled in a course were sick of doing grammar for two years, They wanted communication, so Tomlinson developed a course with them where they shadowed British businessmen and did projects.
  • their class. In an example from Bell College of placement, all the students enrolled in the course were asked to self-select themselves into levels by going to different parts of the room where there were examples of student work and coursebooks, which they used to validate their decision. They then sampled classes over a week before deciding their final level.
  • what they do in class. Some Iraqi diplomats wanted poetry and song instead of ESP which they found familiar and boring.
  • their assessment

From a soon to be published anthology by first time action-researchers:

Thirty “seventh grade students (14 boys and 16 girls) of a government aided school in Karnataka, India” evaluated their coursebook and reported the following:

1. too much grammar

2. wanted activities as opposed to language practice exercises

3. wanted a lot more opportunities for listening and speaking

4. preferred to focus on one skill at a time

Modugala, M. (in press). Listening to children’s perceptions and experiences of English language teaching material. In B. Tomlinson (Ed.), Papers from the British Council English Language Teaching Research Partnership Award Project. New Delhi: British Council.

Apropos number 4, Tomlinson pointed out that he recommended that we listen but not blindly obey students. He explained that if your decision goes against what the students want, then we have an obligation to explain why and demonstrate the value of doing it differently.

By giving them opportunities to:

  • choose their own texts: An Indonesian teacher asked students if they liked the texts their coursebook and found that they didn’t. She divided students into 10 groups charged each group with bringing in English texts each week. In the second term, she asked students if they wanted to go back to the coursebook. They didn’t want to so she supported groups in developing their own lesson plans for texts they’d selected and guided them to teach these lessons to their peers. The other example Tomlinson referred to involved providing generic activities but for texts that students had selected themselves. Essentially, the teacher provides the activity (in this case focusing on the language of editorials) and the students provide the texts from the web. In a British Council project that covered 12 Sub-Saharan countries aimed at society leaders with different language levels, students were given a choice of graded texts in an activity. In each unit, there were three versions of the text, authentic, slightly modified, and much reduced, and students chose which version they wanted to work with.
  • adapt their materials
  • choose their own activities. Tomlinson’s example, drawn from his own teaching, involved getting learners to listen to a poem about an old lady sourced from The Happy Haven by John D’Arch and provide students with a selection of activities based on this text as stick-ups on the wall. Students then decide which one they want to do. Here are the activity ideas he shared:
  1. Learn to recite the poem in the voice of the old lady.
  2. Paint a picture of the poem.
  3. You are the old lady, your son lives in Australia, write a letter to your son.
  4. Everyday the old lady goes to a park and there’s an old man sitting on the bench where she normally sits. Write the conversation between them.
  5. You are the lady’s family, You are worried about her. You are having a meeting to decide how to help her.
  6. Plain vanilla comprehension questions (He explained that students never ever choose this option).
  • devise their own activities. For instance, in Singapore, Tomlinson used an affective text titled I’m a bully sourced from Brenda Tan’s Come into my world: 31 stories of autism in Singapore. The text is about a mother who bullies her autistic son. Students devise their own activities to process and respond to the text.
  • write their own texts. In Vanuatu, Tomlinson got his students to chuck their coursebooks and instead write a novel. He asked them think of their village and picture someone who was interesting in their village and see what they were doing. He told them that this was the first page of their novel. This is what they did in their lessons through the term. At the end of the term, they had written and illustrated their own novel. He tied this to the work of Erasmus+Project PALM (Promoting Authentic Language Acquisition in Multilingual Contexts) where children and teenagers develop authentic materials for other learners.

By encouraging them to 

  • express themselves. An example from India where learners were encouraged to maintain diaries.
  • personal response questions. Tomlinson often uses children’s books (such as Bumblebear, Not Now Bernard) with adults to do this.

By this time, he’d run out of time so the following strategies, unfortunately, weren’t support with examples but they’re mostly self-explanatory.

By encouraging them to:

  • communicate information (e.g. presentations)
  • be creative (e.g. stories, poems, novels)

By providing ways of giving feedback:

  • talking to learners about how they learn
  • inviting feedback on trial materials
  • task talk-aloud protocols
  • weekly forums
  • e-mails to the teacher
  • Research
  • Learner conferences (e.g. MATSDA)

I’m really intrigued by the MATSDA conference that he briefly spoke about. He explained that at this conference, all the speakers would be learners describing their needs and experiences to educators.

What a brilliant talk! Filled with insights from research, experiences from the classroom, practical strategies and the unsaid implication of the extent to which teachers like you and me are inadvertently letting the status-quo go unchallenged.



One thought on “Let’s listen to the learners | IATEFL 2017 session summary

  1. Pingback: IATEFL 2017 Part 3: The Limits of Reform: Tomlinson’s Plenary | CriticElt

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