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.

IATEFL 2017

Integrating plurilingual practices in ELT in a superdiverse world | IATEFL 2017 session summary

Angelica Galente

Angelica Galante opened her talk with a question that I’m all too familiar with, “Where are you from?” Said with a particular intonation, one tends to ponder over its intention. Students want to adopt the behaviours and language of the host culture, particularly in the tertiary setting when they are away from their home countries for prolonged periods of time. Galente was interested in whether plurilingual identities could be promoted instead of a focus on acquiring an ‘English’ identity.

The rationale for plurilingualism is that bringing the diverisity of the real world into the classroom prepares the learners for that real world. Plurilingualism considers all the language and cultural experiences people have had in their lives. Galente suggested that people’s lives were not like a pre-fabricated puzzle that you live with one language or one culture so even when you may think you are monolingual, you may in fact have a plurilingual identity.

Some of the benefits of plurlilingualism include the following:

Enhances metacognitive skills (Bono & Stratilaki, 2009; Psalter-Joyce & Kantaridou, 2009; Vorstman et al., 2009)

Has positive effects on motivation and self-esteem (Bernaus, Moore & Azevedo, 2007; Corcoll, 2003)

Awareness of individual plurilingualism is seen as an asset for communication (Marshall & Moore, 2013; Prasad, 2014)

Mediates the process of additional language learning (Payant, 2015)

Learners who speak 3 or more languages are more open-minded, have more cultural empathy (Dewaele & von Oudenhoven, 2009), and

Plurilingual posture towards language learning (Jeoffrion et al., 2014)

In ELT, practices such as an English-only classroom have hampered plurilingualism. Some of the other barriers include:

Plurilinguals are unaware of their full plurilingual potential (Oliveira & Ançã, 2008)

Plurilingual ESL teachers have more positive attitudes towards their students’ language learning process and plurilingual strategies compared to monolingual teachers (Ellis, 2013)

Lack of teacher education in plurilingual pedagogy (Ellis, 2013); teachers who are unaware of learners’ linguistic repertoire see their plurilingualism as an annoyance (Pauwels, 2014)

Gap between policy that promote plurilingualism and classroom practice (Göbel & Vieluf, 2014; Pickel & Helót, 2014; Pinho & Andrade, 2009)

English-only policies create barriers for classroom plurilingual practices (Abiria et al., 2013)

Galente recommended strategies such as translanguaging, code-switching and crosscultural awareness to build language & cultural awareness, validating identity, agency and inclusiveness. She described several tasks to achieve this.

Task types

  • My plurilingual identity: Students draw their own body placing languages and cultures they have learnt on different parts of their body. Students can also include their future languages or cultures which intend to learn or experience. Students then explain their rationale.

Angelica Galente.png

  • Code-switching: Students work in groups of three and come up with a situation where they code-switch. They prepare a one minute skit.  Their peers try to identify the type of code-switching (from one sentence to another or mid-sentence), the languages/dialects used, the reasons why they code-switched.
  • Idioms in different languages: Students try to figure out the meaning of an idiom and then identify an equivalent idiom in their first language or dialect.

Angelica galente 2.png

  • High and low communication styles: Students are presented with different scenarios and they decide if they would prefer to use a direct or indirect utterance. Students develop an awareness of the characteristics of the two styles and reflect on how people in their own lives communicate and how they could adapt to a style that’s different from their own. They then discuss situations where they had issues communicating with people with different styles and they get peer feedback on how they could deal with this.

Angelica galente 3.pnghigh and low communication styles.png

Galente studied the impact of tasks that promote plurlilingualism in a university context and found that the results were positive both from a student as well as an instructor perspective. She believes that students have started to shift from trying to camouflage their identity to accepting their pluri-identities.

More information on this project is available at Galente’s site.

Living as I do in a super-diverse country where plurilingualism is the norm, I’ve always wnated to try out code-switching with my learners but have never been able to identify an appropriate and manageable way of introducing it. These are some interesting task types but there’s only one that explicitly requires students to use L1. Galente mentioned ten tasks types in her research – I’m going to write to her and see if she can share any others.

IATEFL 2017

Easier said than done: using mobile phones for a test | IATEFL 2017 session summary

iatefl 2017.jpg

This talk had a lot of promise but unfortunately didn’t live up to it. I suspect partly because the presentation lacked specificity (perhaps for proprietary reasons) and partly because in actual implementation, the idea of taking a test on a mobile device isn’t revolutionary at all, it just replicates test formats from a computer with some adjustments for mobile UI.

The speaker, Adrian RapRaper and Sean McDonald from ClarityEnglish and TELC explained that this pilot was in response to the challenge of providing a placement test to 2000 students at Asia University in Taiwan. They had to work with a smaller screen size, and move away from true or false and MCQs but ensure reliability and validity.  They suggested that new devices enabled new types of interactions and new items which you can’t do on paper including cross-skills testing. They were quite vague about these new test types and only explained one in detail: moving a word into a right place in a sentence, which is a fairly conventional digital activity and not all that uncommon in assessments. They described a reading test where candidates can look at the text and questions by flicking between the two but again this was described quite superficially.

Much of the presentation dealt with the security issues that come with using mobile devices such as the fact that candidates could go into Google if they’re using their own device. They suggested that the two ways of dealing with this is through a time limit and through question type. They claimed that the item type that involves moving a word into the right place in the sentence is fairly cheat proof. I really doubt that – Google can show you sentence patterns with a general search.

The way it works is that the candidates download the assessment app before they come to the test centre. At the centre, they are given a code to access the test. In case of poor connectivity, the app puts answers into a queue similar to how Whatsapp operates but the upload sizes are only about 23kb which is really tiny. The other issues they touched on were more interesting such whether the type of device has any impact on performance, the latest iPhone vs. an older smartphone. They are are collecting data about this in their pilot. They don’t currently offer gap fills or writing item types because of the problems associated with typing: auto-correct and the default language on the device which might not be English.

IATEFL 2017

In one ear and out the other: does feedback work? | IATEFL 2017 session summary

Loraine Kennedy IATEFL

Having reflected loads on feedback while shadowing the CELTA, I’ve been continually pondering over its effectiveness. So I was immediately drawn to the the sub-title of this talk was ‘why bother?’

The speaker, Loraine Kennedy, suggested that we’re drowning in feedback, particularly in demands for feedback (e.g., from service organisations). Kennedy was inspired by a management article titled ‘Feedback doesn’t work’ by Jan Hills. The article references research from the 90s which apparently found that one third of feedback has a positive result, one third has no result at all, and one third has a negative result. She also referenced Deloitte, incidentally my ex-employer, who’s doing away with performance management systems in a bid to eliminate ineffective feedback.

Feedback is information provided by an agent {boss, teacher, peer, book, parent, experience) regarding aspects of one’s performance or understanding.

John Hattie & Helen Timperley

Feedback is about eliminating the discrepancy between the current standard and the goal.

Kluger and Denisi (1996)

Kennedy explained that no one was questioning whether feedback done the right way was important for development. But there’s something broken in the way we deal with feedback and it’s worth reviewing our thinking about it. However, she did reiterate a couple of times that the feedback she was referring to was targeting growth and professional development and not for teachers who are performing poorly or in pre-service training situations.

This might require us to reconsider our conventional notions about feedback. Hattie, for instance, suggests that reading books from your field and drawing on your experience are forms of feedback.  The traditional way of giving feedback using the sandwich approach is concerned with positive and constructive feedback and how much to give of each. Literature on the topic often talks about dialing up constructive feedback based on whether the teacher is novice or experienced. Kennedy, however, suggested that we need to be thinking about whether the feedback recipient has a growth or fixed mindset (receiver mentality), and what he or she wants from the feedback.

She also recommended reframing feedback with feedforward (a bit overrated in my opinion) or insights into working performance (now this is interesting) and refer to feedback meetings as coaching conversations. These coaching conversations could begin with starting questions such as ‘What aspect of your work/lesson/students’ development would you like to talk about?’ It might also be worthwhile to encourage teachers to ask questions of their peers and observers such as “What would be your one suggestion so I could tweak and make my lesson better?” which makes the feedback incremental, manageable, and solicited. This led her to discussing the importance of self-assessment which we assume that people can do automatically but that teachers need to be trained in these skills.

Coaching conversations can also be used to explore teacher beliefs about teaching and learning and what good teaching is. The focus ought to be on development as opposed to evaluation. She also suggested that collaborating on teaching behaviours & standards rather than imposing them on in a top down way. These could be structured around areas such as the following, linking them to impact on student progress and confidence:

  1. Content knowledge
  2. Quality of instruction
  3. Classroom climate
  4. Classroom management
  5. Teacher beliefs
  6. Professional behaviours

Kennedy also recommended flexibility in observation practice, using audio and video and training peer observers on giving and receiving feedback. The Sutton Report identified this as a gap; that only when peer observers are trained to give and receive feedback does it become productive.  Finally all of this needs to be validated in light of feedback from students which teachers collect very little of both formally and informally.

For a judgment about whether teaching is effective, it must be checked against the progress being made by students.

Sutton report 2014

I haven’t seen this report but it sounds really interesting. It apparently has some research to support the fact that what’s seen in one lesson is not indicative of the teacher’s ability to teacher.

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Writing methodology texts: Bridging the research-practice gap | IATEFL 2017 Plenary summary

Scott thornbury iatefl 2017.jpg

As engaging as Scott Thornbury is, you can’t help but head into his talks with a sense of deja-vu, mostly because he’s been trotting out similar stuff on methodology for the last few years. This talk, though, was different. Perhaps even revealing, not particularly about himself but about some of the others who (whether they like it or not) make up our de facto pantheon, i.e., Messrs Harmer, Scrivener et Brown, & Mme Ur.

Thornbury started off by declaring that teachers’ don’t read research. He cited three reasons for this: irrelevance, inaccessibility (both in terms of actual access to the research and the ability to understand it), and lack of time.

‘A lack of time is the predominant reason cited [for not reading research]… A perceived lack of practical relevance was also a common hindrance, as was the inaccessibility, both physical and conceptual, of published research.’

Borg, S. 2009. ‘English language teachers conceptions of research.’ Applied Linguistics, 30/3, p. 370.

He went on to suggest that research articles don’t seem to be a good means of communicating insights to teachers.

‘Studies of teachers’ consumption of and attitudes towards academic research articles show that such articles do not seem to function well as a mechanism for communicating information for teachers.’

Bartels, N. 2003. ‘How teachers and researchers read academic articles.’ Teaching & Teacher Education, 19. p. 737.

He asserted that this trend wasn’t unique to ELT. Of the 1.5 million peer reviewed articles that appeared (I think he said last year), 82% of them never got cited in subsequent articles, and only about 20% of articles in the humanities are ever read. He added that SLA research was often inconclusive or didn’t fit teachers’ ideas of plausibility.

He then quoted Penny Ur who also believes research plays second fiddle to classroom practice.

‘For the ELT practitioner the main source of professional learning is classroom experience, enriched by discussion with colleagues, feedback from students, and – for those teachers with the time and inclination – input through reading, conferences and courses, of which research is one important component. Research is not the primary basis of ELT knowledge for the practitioner, but it is a valuable supplement.’

Ur, P. (2012) ‘How useful is Tesol academic research?’ The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2012/oct/16/teacher-tesol-academicresearch-useful

So how does the researcher communicate with the practitioner or consumer? An idea borrowed from agriculture is of a country agent who mediates by bringing news from the science establishment. In our context, methodology books take the place of the county agent. Thorbury stated that this mediation was influential therefore imbuing it with some responsibility. To explore, this he posed eight reflective questions to Ur, Harmer, Scrivener and Harmer.

Now these responses were mighty revealing. Have a look at what Scrivener has to say in response to the question ‘How important is it, do you think, to link research and classroom practice?’

JS: I’ve never found much formal “research” very helpful to my own classroom work. I am not “antiresearch” but I do carry a suspicion of many statistical studies in teaching. My teaching is not applying linguistics. Rather, it is about tuning in to people and attempting, moment by moment, to help create a space where learning can happen. I more often look at the literature to see if it can help me understand what I have already noticed myself.

And have a dekko at what Ur has to say in response to the question ‘Do you feel you have an ‘agenda’, i.e. a bias towards a particular theoretical (or a-theoretical) position? If so, do you think this matters?’

PU: I really try hard in my own writing to be as objective as possible. The problem arises when a researcher’s data seems to contradict my own experience-based opinions: so then I have to read the research very carefully, re-examine my own experience, and try to decide who is right, or how they might both be.

The responses make for a fascinating read – the presentation can be accessed and downloaded from this link.

Thornbury makes a number of conclusions but two really stood out for me:

Methodology writers have an interest in keeping abreast of developments in research, but largely as filtered through their own experience and ‘sense of plausibility’.

Methodology writers use research findings less to promote new practices than to validate existing ones.

This throws up some critical questions: how much of what we read in books that we consider seminal in our field are the products of confirmation biases and lenses with a particular world view? And what impact does this have on our practices, beliefs and development as a professional community?

IATEFL 2017

A round-up of IATEFL 2017 Pre-conference interviews

IATEFL 2017

Here’s a round-up of some of the pre-conference interviews that were conducted on April 4, 2017

Jim Scrivener: Scrivener talked about a recent study he conducted in China where he observed over 50 teachers teaching English lessons and concluded that the lessons were largely teacher-led with passive students, taught in L1, and with a focus on learning definitions. This is of course nothing new. What’s interesting is that during the conference, Scrivener is going to be contrasting his ‘Western’ views about effective learning with a Chinese counterpart who will talk about the historical and cultural basis for the way teaching and learning takes place currently in China. There’s been lots of criticism of CLT particularly from Asia where I recall someone describing it as a Western ’boutique’ approach. I haven’t heard the Chinese take on this so this symposium if livecast will be worth watching. The question is whether he and the audience will truly be open to understanding an approach that contravenes the established norms of what we perceive as ‘effective learning’.

Jo Gakonga: Well-known for her CELTA videos, Gakonga is currently engaged in research into feedback and has been looking at it through the lens of Brown & Levinson politeness theories in how teachers provide feedback to other teachers particularly in mentoring relationships. Her rationale for using Brown & Levinson is that it’s a framework for thinking about how you give feedback so the recipient can take it on board.  Politeness theory has two aspects: positive and negative. Positive politeness is about making people feel wanted and a part of the group and negative politeness is about making people feel that you are not telling them what to do so you decrease the possibility of rejection. Gakonga suggested that teachers could audio-record their feedback, transcribe it, and do some discourse analysis on it in order to reflect.  This seems like a really simple technique but I have to confess I’ve never used it. She also mentioned that some people find it natural to reflect on their practice and others don’t – an observation I too made on my CELTA tutor-in-training program. My supervisor and I discussed whether this could by caused by cultural factors and differences in education systems but that’s a topic to explore in another post.

Carol Read: Read is going to be talking about values education with children during the conference. Understanding values education requires us to unpack what values are (cognitive, affective, behavioural dimensions), whose values they are, and whether we are imposing these values on children or using a model of influence where children make decisions. She spoke about a gap between a child getting an awareness of values and putting it into practice in their daily lives e.g. children may understand fairness and justice but do they apply these behaviours in the playground. Read pointed out that we are never just language teachers with children but more holistic educators. In her conference workshop, she is going to be covering life skills. She thinks the most important are the ones listed in the UN’s core skills framework: critical thinking, creative thinking, problem solving & decision making, communication, empathy, relating to people and resolving conflict. She believes that using everyday classroom activities such as stories and topics could enable teachers to encompass life skills training as well as language, potentially enriching language curriculum.

Pete Sharma: Sharma is one of the big names in terms of tech in ELT and incidentally he was interviewed by Nik Peachey, another tech evangelist. They discussed the potential virtual reality has for things like role play but suggested that it would be presumptious to say that something is definitely going to be the next big thing. There was an interesting aside on how tech evolves from its original intended use: Youtube was intended for dating videos and Twitter was a way for children to let their parents know where they were. With the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI), there’s a risk of translation devices entirely disrupting our industry. Peter argued that AI may not do away with language teaching entirely because technology may not enable you to engage with culture or literature more deeply. Peachey, however, pressed on with the question that if technology translates for you, why would you want to learn a language to which Sharma reiterated his point about both (technology and teaching) co-existing but ended with an ominous “I hope”.

Marek Kiczkowiak: Kiczkowiak is the untiring voice behind TEFL Equity. He stated that 88% of job ads in the Middle East were discriminatory. In the EU, adds now deceptive words like native-like or native-level to mask their real intent. He suggested that there was an urgent need to address these issues on pre-service courses like the CELTA. Jason Alexander who did a study with native and non-native CELTA trainees found that their needs were different. Non-native trainees often came to the course with language and teaching qualifications. He also suggested that we need to talk about the international nature of English on pre-service courses and that by not doing it, we aren’t preparing teachers for it who in turn aren’t preparing students for it. This was something I was wondering about as well while I was getting trained up on the CELTA. Kiczkowiak also touched on the lack of diversity in marketing materials which sets the wrong expectations and that there’s a need to influence the agents who are responsible for recruiting teachers and pitching courses to students.

You can catch the livecast of the IATEFL 2017 plenaries here.