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.

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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.

ELT questions.png

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.

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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.

Teaching Business English with Snapchat | Webinar summary

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I use a fairly wide range of social media tools but Snapchat isn’t among them (I just don’t get it) so I was intrigued by Shelly Terrell’s recent webinar on teaching Business English with Snapchat. There’s something wrong with the audio in the middle bit of the recording so I sort had to decipher it using the slides and an accompanying article.

The crux of Shelly’s case for using Snapchat with learners is that it’s very popular and the number four app download (According to Forbes, it has 160 million users and reaches a plurality of users in the 18-24 segment in the US) and the fact it has lots of features that allow users to focus on the four skills: reading, writing, listening and speaking in a communicative way.

Snapchat features: adding friends, subscribing, photo chat, lenses, filters, stickers, draw, video chat, group chat, stories, snap map, custom stories, discover, our story

You can see where she’s going with this, but what about Business English? Shelly suggests that because Snapchat is international, learners can follow global events and look at snaps from people in a particular area and get insights. The example she shares involves studying non-verbal communication to get to know business stakeholders in Japan more effectively by exploring examples through people’s snaps.

She also believes that Snapchat promotes reading in segments with popular media channels like the Wired, Newsweek and Washington Post which apparently have interactive multimedia articles. Because of Snapchat’s format, media outlets are compelled to use small chunks of text with interactive images and video.

Some of the other benefits she cites include:

Learn from entrepreneurs

Study business culture in real time

Inside scoop on news and trends

Byte-sized authentic English

Understand the role personal branding

Connect with companies

Shelly references this article to suggest that following (some really obscure) business gurus on Snapchat might be a good idea but even the article introduces the topic by suggesting that well known business leaders like Elon Musk are unlikely to be on Snapchat. Some of the other things she suggests include how workplaces might be different, watching global conferences that business professionals you’ve followed may be sharing and exploring how organisations brand themselves on Snapchat. Shelly also touched on how HR Recruiters are using Snapchat to recruit potential employees – of course this is true for social media in general and not just Snapchat.

I tried to give Snapchat a go and attempted to follow some of the business-oriented media outlets such The Economist and WSJ that Shelly lists in her article.  I tried searching for these on Snapchat (which has an awful search function) but I couldn’t find most of them. So I tried looking for them in Google and adding them from there but this is the message I got:

Screenshot_20171018-111836

When I accessed the Discover feature within Snapchat, I got an extremely limited selection of generally tabloid-type media outlets to follow:

Screenshot_20171018-100223

I tried looking for Harvard Business Review, Strategy+Business, Deloitte, Bersin, Boston Consulting Group and Mckinsey but none of them seem to be on Snapchat. I did find a handle for Deloitte Singapore but it doesn’t look like it’s active.

I’m not convinced that Snapchat can be used to teach Business English or if it can, it’s still early days because there isn’t enough business content available on it yet. I see Shelly’s point about the immediacy of Snapchat content but it’s too random and unpredictable – it’s not like following a thought leader on Linkedin or a hashtag on Twitter. However, I think some of the Snapchat activities Shelly shares might be fun and effective in a General English course.

  • The T sets up a class account and gets students to add stories to it.
  • Students keep a vocabulary journal – Shelly’s idea is that they’d save snaps with Business English phrases but I think the probability of coming across those sorts of snaps is quite low. It might work for lexical items in general though. I’d adapt this idea to have students use vocabulary they’ve learnt in class by creating a snap that demonstrates real life use.
  • Annotation: Students can annotate a snap such as an article from CNN with text, emoticons, media etc. This might be an interesting way for them to process and/or respond to a news item. However, Shelly’s example with CNN wouldn’t work for me because like almost everything else in the Discover feature, it’s not available in my region.

From a first mover perspective, there are some interesting ideas in this webinar but I’m not sure how practical they are at the present moment. There are other apps such as Instagram which have similar features and have a stronger presence from the business community.

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

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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

Empowering teachers through CPD | IATEFL 2017 Plenary summary

Maggioli IATEFL

The full title of this talk is ‘Empowering teachers through continued professional development: frameworks, practices and promises’. The speaker, Gabriel Diaz Maggioli is from Uruguay and delivered this year’s opening plenary. 

Maggioli kicked off his talk with a quote from Dennis Sparks about professional development lacking focus/effectiveness which I suspect comes from Designing Powerful Professional Development for Teachers and Principals. He stated that he wanted to probe what had been going on in CPD in the last 20 years. He felt professional development was oscillating between individual development and the institutional development which is more about advancing the community. He perceived the former as piecemeal and the latter as more systemic. He went on to suggest that top down reforms usually don’t involve the teachers who need to be ‘fixed’ (he used this odd word often, perhaps on purpose) and as a result are not successful and that a better way to think about development and change is a learning community which is a group of individuals who come together because they have some mutual interests.

Maggioli described two diametrically different roles for teachers within professional development programmes: the teacher as a technician who just implements policy and the teacher as a transformative intellectual who propels the development of learning communities. He argued that professional development that was effective drew on targeted professional expertise (based on teacher needs), adopted structured peer support, and provided opportunities for reflecting on why something worked or didn’t work. For these reasons, professional development, he suggested, ought to be done in-house.

Professional development is inquiry oriented learning sustained over time. It requires the the use of tools and protocols that help create coherence, sustain learning and make evidence collection manageable. My favourite quotable quote was when Maggioli suggested that professional development should be done WITH teachers not TO teachers. In his own research, he discovered that teachers listed surfing the web to find ideas and free webinars as their top two professional development channels.  From the institutional perspective, there was only mandated INSETT in the list of responses but these weren’t focused on teacher needs and were often disconnected from the reality of the classroom. Respondents described INSETT as having the following faults: no follow up, too much talking very little doing, too short, a low level, and a lack of access to resources to apply this learning.

Maggioli portrayed traditional professional development as untimely and not tailored to the career stages of teachers because teachers are seen as having to perform a function which explains the manufacturing-style one size fits all approach. He spoke about he doesn’t perceive career stages as a continuum but a loop and that every time we move into a new role or context, we kick-start the loop again. He suggested that teachers need time, resources and support and that any kind of CPD in the absence of these three things was futile.

He then shared some approaches to CPD.

  • Mirror coaching – Teacher-initiated; a peer takes notes during your lesson. You are accessing your own behaviour from someone else’s eyes. Maggioli stated that this wasn’t the same as watching a recording.
  • Co-teaching: You and your co-teacher model behaviours and learn from each other. expert coach – not from  deficit perspective (easier said than done).
  • Expert coaching: The teacher is coached by someone who is acknowledged as an expert in the area that they’re getting feedback on.
  • Study group: A teacher shares something she did in class with her peers. They then ask her questions which records. The group then goes on a coffee break during which time the teacher prepares to answer questions which is what happens when everyone comes back from the break.
  • Collaborative action research: groups of teachers who plan and implement interventions.
  • Exploratory action research
  • Lesson study: This technique apparently comes from Japan.
  • Learning circles: Ad hoc professional development meetings that follow a structured process.

Learning cirlces

  • Mentoring
  • Professional portfolio

These activities sit within a simple but interesting framework for raising teacher awareness and also identifying those within the learning community who can share, coach and/or mentor:

Maggioli finally ended by exhorting the audience to commit to some actions:

While I don’t think there was anything new or revolutionary in what Maggioli was suggesting, it is I suppose food for thought given how often we talk about CPD, extol CPD frameworks and construct CPD plans. To what extent are these frameworks and activities effective and do they adopt a deficit approach to development?

Dennis Sparks’ book is available as a free download for educators from this link.

IATEFL 2017