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

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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:

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Exploring ELT as emancipatory practice | IATEFL 2018 summary

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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

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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

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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.

Where to get free education-related books … legally

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Many of the teachers I work with often ask me for recommendations for books to help them with lesson planning, activities, methodology, research and general professional development. I can suggest titles by the dozens but they are often not really affordable – a topic I’ve written about before.

So here’s a list of sites where you can get free education related books.

1. British Council’s Teacher Development Publications 

There are loads here but my favourites in no particular order include the following:

2. Chris Watkins’ publications

A veritable treasure trove. I could spend a year rummaging through all the free stuff and not even make a dent. Note that many of the files are articles or excerpts. However, the complete version of Effective Learning in Classrooms is available as a free download. This is a very accessible book for getting started on the journey to reflective teaching. I also found Classrooms as Learning Communities very inspiring.

3. ELT Council Publications 

This site currently hosts three free books: The image in English Language Teaching by (Ed. Kieran Donaghy and Daniel Xerri) -definitely worth a dekko, Creativity in English Language Teaching and The Learning ELT Professional.

4. Quick Cups of COCA by Mura Nava

If you’ve started using corpora, explore Mura’s useful little book on different searches you can run in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (CoCA). You can read my review of this book here.

5. Nik Peachey’s free digital books

Nik is always giving away free stuff. While the publications he’s well known for such as Digital Tools for Teachers aren’t free, he often offers huge discounts on these books and you might end up paying something between ₹50 and ₹100 which is an absolute steal for a book stuffed with practical ideas. You can get updates about discounts and free goodies from his Edtech & ELT Newsletter – to subscribe, go to his blog, scroll down and enter your email address in the box on the right that says “My free newsletter”.

6. 50 tips for ELT materials writers by ITDI (ed. Katherine Bilsborough)

7You are the coursebook – Lesson plans by Matt Purland

8. Phil Wade’s books on SmashWords – Lots of ESP and Business English booklets.

9. Free chapters by Zoltan Dornyei has written in a range of books. Dornyei is well known for his writing on motivation and dynamics in the language classroom.

10. Contributions to Creative Classrooms – a collection of activities put together by teachers who attended an ELTA-British Council workshop  in Serbia.

11. Enjoying books together: a guide for teachers on the use of books in the classroom by Joseph Nhan-O’Reilly – a beautifully illustrated book from the Rwandan Children’s Initiative

12. Publications from IATEFL’s Research Special Interest Group – I found Developing as an EFL Researcher: Stories from the field particularly interesting.

13. Articles by Jack C. Richard (suggested by Matthew Noble). While these aren’t books, there are excerpts and papers from books.

14. The Lexical Approach by Dave Ellis thanks to the University of Birmingham.

15. Books by Stephen Krashen including The Natural Approach, Second Language Acquisition and Second Language LearningPrinciples and Practice
in Second Language Acquisition and Summer Reading program and evidence. Many thanks to Marisa Constantinides for sharing these links.

16. Some free books on management and leadership from OReilly – potentially useful for Business English and ESP trainers. There are two titles – The secret behind great one-to-one meetings and Build to lead: how Lego bricks can make you a better leader, which might be interesting for a wider audience.

17. Teaching and Learning Languages: a guide is a free ebook funded by the Australian Department of Education.

18. Flipping the System is a free book from Routledge that explores ways of replacing top-down accountability with bottom-up support for teachers.

19. Getting started with Virtual Reality Guide by Monica Burns, the founder of  ClassTechTips.com

Suggestions for additions to my list are highly appreciated as long as they are related to ELT or education and of course legitimately free!

Image attribution: Free by Foomandoonian – Flickr – CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Upcoming webinars for ELT educators | Jun – Jul 2017

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My list is a bit spartan at the moment but I’m hoping to squirrel around and add some more. A *  means that you’ll need to register to attend.

Edtech 

Lesson planning

Materials writing

Business English 

Pronunciation

Other

Image attribution:  CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0)

 

Queering ELT: LGBT sessions at IATEFL 2017 | Some thoughts

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I was happy to see that there wasn’t just one, but two sessions at IATEFL 2017 that dealt with LGBT issues. Sadly, neither were recorded so this post is based on interviews with their presenters, Thorsten Merse and Angelos Bollas.

Thorston Merse (here’s the video) spoke about integrating LGBT issues into lessons through a focus on global issues. Coursebooks have no visible LGBT content but Merse explained that there are some coursebooks developed for Germany which have a few LGBT themes but that it’s really up to teachers to include LBGT-themed lessons.

Nik Peachey, the interviewer, mentioned that the coursebook industry is very conservative. In response, Thorsten suggested that even bad coursebooks could be rescued or subverted by teachers. He said awareness could be built through conferences although these cater to a privileged few. Teachers can also turn to publications and there is apparently a lot of literature on LGBT issues in ELT.  He recommended that open minded ELT teachers establish a global community for exploring practical ideas for ‘queering ELT’. I like the sound of ‘queering ELT’ but I’m afraid it seems a lot more radical than the halfhearted token gestures its going to translate into.

Nik then asked Thorsten about changes in Germany. As a policy, German state governments require gender and sexual diversity across the curriculum, not just for ELT. In practice, the implementation has been uneven with some states taking the lead. The process has been top-down but many teachers have also taken individual decisions about making their lesson content more inclusive thus enabling a bottom-up process to meet a top-down one.

I agree with Thorsten that we can’t wait for publishers to take ownership for inclusion. They’re always going to play a ‘blame the market game’ but at the same time most teachers simply don’t know how to introduce LGBT topics into their lessons. It would have been useful to discuss how these can be curated and made available as open-source materials (not sure if this was discussed in the actual session).

The second session by Angelos Bollas explored whether a lack of diversity in ELT materials has an impact on learning (titled ‘De-idealising the Heteronormative Self in the ELT Classroom’). Once again, there’s no video recording of the session but there is a recording of his interview with Scott Thornbury (here’s the video). His presentation was based on some research he’d done on whether the invisibility of LGBT identities in materials would adversely affect motivation and ultimately language learning. He apparently found that ELT materials, which are designed in a heteronormative way, do negatively impact the learning of students who identify as LGBT.

Thornbury questioned the relevance of the research given that the coursebooks Angelos had researched weren’t the latest editions. Angelos suggested that these editions were still in use. Thornbury also made a point about materials in the US being more inclusive because of the ESOL/ESL context and that this might be more challenging in an EFL context, where coursebooks are designed for the global market. Angelos’ initially explained that EFL students may come into contact with cultures like the US or the UK where sensitivity to LGBT issues may be important. This wasn’t a very convincing line of reasoning but he quickly expanded it to touch on the idea of social change within the students’ own cultures.

The discussion then moved on to what ought to be changed. Angelos seemed to think that it wasn’t necessary to introduce anything new in the coursebook but instead work with what was already there. Thornbury wanted to know whether this would translate into a greater and more equitable visual representation of LGBT individuals as has been the case with women in non-traditional roles, the disabled and women in headscarves. Angelos was against the compartmentalization of LGBT issues into a specific unit and instead spoke for representation within existing units such as for example a unit on family which portrays different kinds of families including an LGBT one.

Angelos rightly pointed out that pre-service training courses don’t equip teachers to deal with potentially controversial issues and that they may fear what might emerge in a lesson that broached such a topic and how they’d handle for example homophobic comments. However, he suggested that in his context, teaching is driven by coursebooks and so everything goes back to the coursebook. In response, Thornbury referenced a study from Japan where it was found that teachers were being overtly cautious whereas students were in fact more open and curious about LGBT issues.

Taking a page out of Thorsten’s book, I think it’s pointless to wait for publishers to take the lead on this. Thornbury used the phrase ‘banging on about this’ – in fact he wrote an article way back in 1999 titled Window-dressing vs. Cross-dressing in the EFL sub-culture. I quite like the idea of subverting coursebooks and we could potentially design a playbook for taking existing material and making it more inclusive. Now that’s something teachers can be trained on.

I believe English has a role to play in social change, whether through connections with people across the world or through exposure to new ideas. I know this is an area that folks particularly from the West, tread cautiously, lest they’re accused of trying to impose alien cultural norms in a renewed colonial endeavour. But as both Hillary Clinton and Ban Ki Moon asserted a couple of years ago, “LGBT rights are human rights” and no culture has the right to deny that.

Image attribution: Rainbow Flag by torbakhopper | Flickr | CC by NC 2.0