HI,

3

This blog is dedicated to criticism. It offers

  1. Critical suggestions and resources for those doing post graduate courses in teaching English as a foreign language.
  2. A critical appraisal of what’s happening in the world of English Language Teaching.

The commercialisation of the ELT industry (estimated to be worth more than $20 billion) and the corresponding weakening of genuinely educational concerns, means that today most teachers are forced to teach in a way that shows scant regard for their worth, their training, their opinions, their job satisfaction, or the use of appropriate methods and materials. The biggest single reason for this sorry state of affairs, and the biggest single obstacle to good ELT, is the coursebook.

Using a coursebook entails teachers leading students through successive units of a book. Each unit of the book concentrates on a certain topic where isolated bits of grammar and vocabulary are dealt with, on the assumption that students will learn them in the order that they’re presented. Such an approach to ELT flies in the face of research which suggest that SLA is a process whereby the learner’s interlanguage (a dynamic, idiosyncratic, evolving linguistic system approximating to the target language) develops as a result of communicating in the target language, and is impervious to attempts to impose the sequences found in coursebooks.

The publishing companies that produce coursebooks spend enormous sums of money on marketing, aimed at persuading stakeholders that coursebooks represent the best practical way to manage ELT. As an example, key  players in the British ELT establishment, the British Council, the Cambridge Examination Boards, the Cambridge CELTA and DELTA teacher training bodies among them, accept the coursebook as central to ELT practice. Worse still, TESOL and IATEFL, bodies that are supposed to represent teachers’ interests, have also succumbed to the influence of the big publishers, as their annual conferences make clear. So the coursebook rules, at the expense of teachers, of good educational practice, and of language learners.

By critically assessing the published views of those in the ELT establishment who promote coursebook-driven ELT, this blog hopes to lend support to those who fight for a less commercial, less centralised, more egalitarian, more learner-centred approach to ELT.

More on Mediation


Scott Thornbury’s post M is for Mediation  was his third bite at the same cherry. Yet again he asked: How is information communicated to teachers? , reminding us that

This is a question that I have been grappling with in preparing the new edition of An A-Z of ELT. I raised it again at the ELTRIA Conference in Barcelona this weekend.

Who can blame him for not mentioning that he’d already given the ELTRIA talk at the IATEFL conference in April. So anyway, in the blog post, he went over the by now familiar ground, and finished by asking

Would you consult/recommend/approve of a methodology text that made little or no reference to published research? 

To me, it’s the wrong question (surely we should ask whether it’s consistent with research findings, not whether it makes overt reference to them), and most of those who replied seemed to think so too, choosing to talk about the more general issues raised.

As usual, the discussion was interesting, and, as usual, Thornbury demonstrated extraordinarily nifty footwork, avoiding treading on anybody’s toes and somehow keeping a foot in every camp. He reminded me of those in the jewellery heist films who make their way towards the prize, all the while contorting their bodies in impossible ways so as to avoid the deadly laser beams.

I’d like to pose a slightly different question:

Are there any research findings about language learning and teaching that have important teaching implications, and if so, who should tell teachers about them?”

The argument that I’ve been trying to pursue recently is as follows:

  1. A very small subset of research findings on how people learn and teach languages has important pedagogical implications that teachers should know about.
  2. Mediators are needed to tell teachers about it.
  3. Methodology writers and teacher trainers currently do a bad job as mediators.
  4. ELT practice would improve if writers of methodology texts and teacher trainers encouraged teachers to critically discuss and evaluate the small subset of research referred to above.

1. A small subset of research has important teaching implications that teachers should know about

The example that I bang on about is research in the area of interlanguage development. This research suggests that there are stages all learners go through when learning a second language, and consequently that teachers can influence the rate but not the route of interlanguage development. It follows that basing ELT methodology on the presentation and practice of a sequence of grammatical forms is mistaken. (Note that research (see review by Norris & Ortega, 2000) also indicates that explicit form-focused instruction can be effective in promoting learning.)

A few more examples:

  • There is no evidence to support the view that matching pedagogy to putative “learning styles” has any positive effects.
  • By manipulating certain factors and conditions of oral classroom tasks, teachers can guide students to producing either more fluent or more accurate language.
  • Certain types of L1 use in the classroom help, while others hinder, vocabulary learning.
  • “Focus on form” has a better long term effect on learning than traditional “Focus on Forms”.
  • Non-salient features of the L2 are the most difficult to learn.
  • Extensive reading speeds up learning.
  • A negative attitude towards the L2 culture inhibits learning.

It’s surely a good thing if teachers are aware of research findings which have potentially important implications for what and how they teach. This is not to argue that research findings should in any way determine ELT practice, or even play a major role in it. I agree with Ur that the main way teachers learn and become good at their jobs is through classroom experience, discussion with colleagues, and feedback from students.  I agree with Scrivener that teaching is not a science, it’s an art, a craft. I agree with those who say that lots of / most of / nearly all applied linguistic research is obscure, badly-done, badly-reported, and contradictory. I agree with Thornbury that “research relevant to ELT only very rarely deals with pedagogical issues”.

But good ELT practice needs to be based on a certain understanding of how people learn languages: we can’t just ignore the question of which among the range of competing, contradictory views of language learning is the most reasonable. And isn’t Thornbury’s own outspoken criticism of grammar-based teaching, which he so tellingly caricatures as the presentation and practice of McNuggets, partly based on his view of language learning, which is in turn informed by his reading of published research? Thornbury agrees that “there are robust research findings” and says that he still holds a cognitive view of language learning, although it’s now more influenced by sociolinguistic factors. Isn’t this a recognition of the place that research plays in his understanding of language learning, and doesn’t it indicate that his critical evaluation of different research programmes influences his work as a writer of methodology texts and as a teacher trainer?

2. Mediators are needed to tell teachers about it

In my opinion, it’s unreasonable to expect teachers to keep up with research, and it’s reasonable to expect methodology writers and teacher trainers, who, after all, get paid for giving information and advice to teachers, to do so. Of course, teachers should make an effort to keep informed themselves, but I think it’s reasonable for them to turn to mediators rather than to academic journals, and to expect those who write methodology texts and those who organise and carry out teacher training to give them a well-informed and well-considered view of teaching which takes research findings into account.

How do mediators find the relevant research? Well, that’s their job, and individually they have to decide for themselves what to do. As the four writers who replied to Thornbury’s questionnaire made clear, there are different ways of keeping in touch, which include attending conferences, networking, using social media, taking advantage of meta analyses, reading a few “state of the art” articles, and keeping your ear to the wire, so to speak. The aim is thus to stay in touch with developments, have a general feel for what’s happening, and so be in a good position to dig deeper when necessary.

3. Methodology writers and teacher trainers currently do a bad job as mediators

The problem is that many methodology writers and teacher trainers don’t seem to share this view of their responsibilities. The impression given from Thornbury’s latest data, scant though they are, and from reading the methodology texts of his study’s participants, is that they don’t keep up to date with what research tells us about language learning, or about other areas of ELT. If this impression is an accurate one, then surely it’s regrettable, and what I find odd (though not surprising) is that Thornbury makes no criticism of what comes across as complacency. None of his participants, for example, discusses the research findings of interlanguage development in their methodology texts, or expresses any concern about not doing so. Thornbury, in contrast, has discussed these research findings more than once. If Thornbury thinks it’s important for him to keep in touch with research and to use research findings to inform his views on methodology, why doesn’t he expect the same of others? Furthermore, if Thornbury thinks that research findings call into question the assumptions underlying a grammar-based synthetic syllabus and the PPP methodology which implements it, why doesn’t he mention this when discussing his findings?

We get a hint from this exchange.

Luiz Otávio Barros: … it seems that a lot of what has been researched and discovered in the past 30 years is at odds with what teachers are expected to do in class. So, SLA research can keep telling teachers – till it’s blue in the face – that linear syllabuses, grammar mcnuggests and controlled practice with a view to proceduralization don’t work… The whole educational system is set up in such a way that these claims are hard to embrace.

Thornbury: Thank you Luiz (and lovely to be communicating with you again!) If I may quote Penny Ur here (an excerpt of which I used in my talk), because it seems to chime with your own sentiments, …….

The quote from Ur might have chimed with Barros’ sentiments, but it did almost nothing to address the point he was making. Once again, Thornbury deftly ducks controversy, choosing not to be drawn on the political issue raised by Barros, namely that “the whole educational system” has little appetite for research findings which seriously rock the boat. Moderators work for publishers and for companies. The bosses of these commercial enterprises dissuade employees from making any serious attacks on current ELT practice – witness Thornbury’s publishers making it clear to him that they’re “not interested” in his McNuggets views. Barros, rightly I think, suggests that the ELT educational system is set up in such a way that teachers are unlikely to hear about “inconvenient” research findings. They’re unlikely to hear, for example, about the research findings which indicate that a grammar-based product syllabus delivered with a PPP methodology is inefficient; or that coursebooks have serious failings; or that the Pearson Test of English is bulit on sand; or that the Common European Framework of Reference is, as Fulcher says “a prime example of in the way political and social agendas can impact on language testing, and how language testing can be made to serve those agendas”. And so on and so on. In brief, moderators, no doubt voluntarily and in good faith, tell teachers what the bosses want them to hear.

4. Open Discussion is Needed

We should fight against the way sweeping generalisations about the obscurantism of research and the practical nature of teaching are used to dismiss research findings which challenge established ELT orthodoxy. ELT practice would improve if writers of methodology texts and teacher trainers, plus bloggers and other interested parties, engaged with teachers in open discussion about well-conducted applied linguistics research dealing with, among other things, interlanguage development, task design, error correction, vocabulary learning, extensive reading, pronunciation teaching, and testing & assessment.

Reference

Norris, J. & L. Ortega (2000). Effectiveness of L2 Instruction: A Research Synthesis and Quantitative Meta-analysis. Language Learning 50, 417-528.

Two Very Different Plenaries: Norris and Thornbury

The Seventh International Conference on Task-Based Language Teaching, held at the University of Barcelona, kicked off on Wednesday 19th April with a splendid, critically acute plenary by John Norris. Norris examined a number of meta-analyses on TBLT and gave a “synthesis of syntheses” which combined a succinct, well-organised and well-presented summary of research findings with an insightful discussion of their implications for teachers. Very good, nourishing stuff!

(Note: I rely on Twitter feeds and 3 eye witnesses for this account.) The ELT Research In Action conference, also held at the University of Barcelona, spluttered into life on Friday 21st April with a lack-lustre, re-hashed, badly-considered plenary by Scott Thornbury. Thornbury asked how methodology writers mediate between researchers and practicing teachers. To “explore” this question, he asked four writers of teaching methodology texts to complete a short, poorly-designed questionnaire, thus collecting a meagre amount of vague data from which a few unremarkable yet dubious conclusions were drawn. The flimsiest “study” I’ve ever seen presented in a plenary shone the dimmest of lights on an important issue, and through the gloom one could just discern Thornbury giving an unexplained thumbs up to the motley views of his puny collection of participants. Very thin soup!

Norris on TBLT

I’m waiting for the slides of Norris’ plenary to arrive, and so I won’t attempt to give a summary of what he said (but I promise that I will soon). Instead, I’d like to sketch the background to his talk and then comment on how he went about it, because, in stark contrast to Thornbury, Norris gave a demonstration of focus, scholarship, critical acumen, and the ability to present and analyse complex data.  It was well-conceived, well-organised, well-considered, and well-executed.

The talk reflects an increased interest in meta-analysis, which was very much “flavour of the conference” , with a surprising number of presentations examining different meta analyses of TBLT research. Meta analyses gather together a collection of published papers on a particular area and synthesise the results. Given the growing number of published studies on various aspects of TBLT, it’s not surprising that increased attention is being paid to ways of accurately synthesising results. The Journal Language Learning is good at publishing meta analyses, and Luke Plonsky has a good review of Meta-analysis in Applied Linguistics.

When it comes to studying TBLT, as Skehan (2016) makes clear, you can take an inductive or deductive approach. Regarding the former, task features are identified and then explored in terms of their relationship with performance, which is typically judged by measures of complexity, accuracy, lexis, and fluency (CALF). For example, Foster and Skehan (1996) contrasted the effects of planning with personal, narrative, and decision-making tasks. The study indicated specific connections between personal tasks and both increased accuracy and increased complexity, and between narrative and decision-making tasks and increased structural complexity.

In contrast, Robinson’s (2011) cognition hypothesis is an example of a deductive approach. Robinson (2011) argues for a principled sequencing of tasks in a syllabus, from less to more complex tasks, so as to help L2 development. To that end he uses the construct of “task complexity” and proposes a distinction between resource-directing factors and resource-dispersing factors, with each of these overarching categories then leading to specific performance predictions. Resource-directing variables make cognitive conceptual demands (e.g. + intentional reasoning) which direct learner attention and effort at conceptualization in ways which the linguistic L2 system can help them meet. In contrast, resource-dispersing variables make performative procedural demands which increase task complexity but without directing learner attention and effort at conceptualization to any particular aspects of language code (e.g. – planning time). Just as an example, resource-directing tasks are likely to give more opportunities for focus on form.

Notice how many terms and constructs are in use here. To simplify, we can say that tasks are seen as complex or simple and that performance is judged in terms of CALF measurements. Then, we can distinguish between Robinson’s daring hypotheses (where the distinction between resource-directing factors and resource-dispersing factors is vital) and the more cautious inductive work of Skehan & Foster and others, where, particularly for Skehan, task conditions are key. Skehan claims that the more deductively motivated studies have tended to generate results that focus on task characteristics, but the results are not consistent and don’t give clear support to the hypothesis. In contrast, he says, the more inductively oriented studies, whether of tasks or conditions, have tended to produce more consistent results.

In brief, when we look at TBLT, if we want to assess the efficaciousness of a task or a sequence of tasks, we have to agree on measurements of key factors (CALF); articulate constructs such as task complexity; clarify what we mean by “complex”; and “task difficulty”, for example; pay more attention to task conditions; distinguish between performance and learning (immediate and delayed); agree on the size of Cohen’s d factor required to calibrate results; and other things besides. And then we have to agree on procedures for putting together meta analyses. All of which means that some TBLT studies are better than others, that there are some contradictory results, and that there are disagreements among those working in the field. Nevertheless, precisely thanks to the demands for clarity, common terms, rigour, etc., progress is being made, and, as Norris showed, meta analyses are a good way of highlighting that progress.

Norris was talking to an audience of academics: they all knew about Robinson’s hypothesis, and task complexity, and CALF and Cohen’s d measurement of effect, and all that and all that. But I repeat, it’s the conception, organisation and execution of the plenary that’s worthy of comment. What Norris did in his talk was to take a well-focused question (What does research tell us about the factors that influence the outcomes of different kinds of pedagogic tasks?), and then present the hugely complex and conflicting evidence in an unusually clear, well-organised way, which included his own well-argued analysis.

  • This, he said, is a synthesis of what research is going on in TBLT.
  • These are the measurements and terms and constructs that we use.
  • This is what we’ve found.
  • These are the limitations.
  • This is what we still don’t know.
  • This is what we should pay more attention to.
  • This is the pay off. If we further clarify our terms and methods, we’ll find out more about the effects of different types of task on performance and learning, and that will have important implications for syllabus design and teaching practice. We’ll be better able to provide an evidence-based and well-argued case for what works and what doesn’t in TBLT, and to give better advice to course designers, materials writers and to teachers.

Let’s look now at how Thornbury gave his plenary.

Scott Thornbury’s view from the bridge

Thornbury used the same presentation slides as those we saw at the IATEFL conference (you can get a pdf file of them at this link.). As I’ve already said, I wasn’t there on Friday, but I’m using Jessica Mackay’s report and the notes of 2 members of the audience to help me, and as far as I can judge, nothing much new was said the second time round.

So, having noted that most ELT practitioners don’t read about research in their field, Thornbury wonders whether those who write methodology books about ELT see it as part of their job to take responsibility for bridging the gap between researchers and teachers. This leads to his main research question:

“How do methodology writers mediate … between researchers and practitioners?”

To find out, he sent a questionnaire to 4 authors of books on teaching methodology. Here are the questions:

  1. How did you get into writing methodology texts?
  2. How important is it, do you think, to link research and classroom practice?
  3. How have you kept/do you keep abreast of new developments in research, e.g. SLA, corpus linguistics, neurobiology etc?
  4. Given that most research is somewhat inconclusive, how do you select from – and prioritize – the research findings that inform your texts?
  5. 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?
  6. If not (or even if so) do you attempt to be balanced/impartial/non-prescriptive? How do you achieve this?
  7. Does it concern you that you might be ‘dumbing down’ or otherwise misrepresenting research findings? How do you guard against this?
  8. To what do you attribute your success? (Don’t be modest!)

Note that Q.1 and Q.8 are irrelevant to the question, and that Q.5 and Q.6 are poorly articulated, overlap and in fact elicited almost no relevant data (check the pdf, file for yourself). At the IATEFL conference, Q.7 wasn’t even mentioned, but perhaps it was dealt with this time.

So the “findings” of Thornbury’s study consist of 4 people’s short responses  to 3 or 4 questions.

Here are their answers to Q.2:

  1. DH: Imperative! Teachers need to ground their teaching in research-based findings and assumptions. And, more importantly, teachers themselves should not shrink from engaging in their own classroom-based “action research.” It’s an all-important interaction.
  2. JH: I simply fail to understand people who deny the role of research in helping us understand our practice and improve it. Research is, after all, what all good teachers would do if they had the chance.
  3. PU: It’s sometimes a useful support and can provide interesting insights, but it’s certainly possible to write helpful and valid professional guidance for teachers with no research references whatsoever.
  4. JS: I’ve never found much formal “research” very helpful to my own classroom work. I am not “anti-research” but I do carry a suspicion of many statistical studies in teaching. … I more often look at the literature to see if it can help me understand what I have already noticed myself.

And Q.3

  1. DB I do university courses myself and I read state of the art articles.
  2. PU I’m sure I miss a lot but really important things get cited in stuff that I read, so I get most of the major stuff.
  3. JS Twitter has alerted me to interesting articles and websites.
  4. JH: Teachers journals, published books etc -though I fear that I do not have enough time to do as much of that as I should. […] The large number of teachers’ conferences and seminars that I attend […] News media, magazines and, increasingly, social media where news about new research often breaks.

And Q.4

  1. JS: Mainly, I think I write what I do and what I see other teachers doing. Informed ideas that may or may not work for others. These need to fit in with my own internal schema for how I think people learn, study, behave etc.
  2. JH: I go for what seems plausible to me. But I have to be careful (and suspicious) of my own unreliable instinct … There IS an element of fashion in this too, of course. Readers of a general methodology book need to know what is most ‘current’.
  3. PU: One criterion is, obviously, that I feel the research is reliable –well-designed and carefully executed, with convincing evidence and logical conclusions. Another is that it’s not on a trivial or very limited subject.
  4. DB: The selection of findings to inform my writing is based on degrees of (1) validity through triangulation of findings, (2) relevance of findings to pedagogy, and (3) practicality of those findings for classroom teachers.

From this, Thornbury summarises his findings:

  1. Methodology writers have an interest in keeping abreast of developments in research, but largely as filtered through their own experience and ‘sense of plausibility’.
  2. Methodology writers use research findings less to promote new practices than to validate existing ones.
  3. Methodology writers are sensitive to, and respectful of, prevailing trends, while, at the same time recognizing their inherent weaknesses.
  4. Methodology writing is not ‘applying linguistics’ so much as ‘particularizing theory’.
  5. Methodology writers present options rather than prescriptions.
  6. Methodology writers adopt a voice that is non- academic and practitioner-oriented.

In his abstract, Thornbury promised “to draw some principles that might guide others – such as teacher educators – who [play a similar bridging function]”.  Unless my informants misled me, the guiding principles were not actually “drawn”, rather, Thornbury simply recommended others to follow the good example set by his participants.

A Few Comments: 

  • On the basis of the data from 4 participants, Thornbury is not entitled to make any generalisations whatsoever about what methodology writers believe or do.
  • Mind you, given the vagueness of the 6 points in Thornbury’s summary, they could easily apply to everybody. It’s hardly surprising that his participants “have an interest” in keeping abreast of developments in research; or that they “try not to be biased”; or that they are “sensitive to, and respectful of, prevailing trends” (though I’m not sure there was much evidence of “recognizing their inherent weaknesses”); or that they use a non-academic style to talk to teachers; or even that they “present options not prescriptions”.
  • Even these blurred generalities come from a fairly liberal interpretation of the data. Thornbury smooths over the important differences among the 4, uses one single sentence in the whole data to support the generalisation that “Methodology writing is not ‘applying linguistics’ so much as ‘particularizing theory’” (whatever that might mean); and presents the 6 points as if they represented some fine distillation of the common wisdom of his participants.
  • Thornbury’s discussion of the answers given to Questions 2 and 4 is extraordinarily complacent. These are, in fact, the only interesting and significant glimpses we get into his participants’ beliefs and practices, and they suggest that at least two of the four writers care little for research findings, make scant use of them when writing their books, cherry pick the findings, and see nothing wrong with using research findings as a way to support their own hunches, feelings and beliefs about teaching. Thornbury offers no criticism whatsoever.

In brief, on the basis of the most cursory examination of a flimsy collection of data, Thornbury confidently concludes that methodology writers do a good job and that they serve as a model for others.

A Few Questions:

Why didn’t Thornbury ask a few more people to take part in his study?

Why didn’t he ask more focused questions about research? It’s mostly treated as some kind of homogenous lump, the only exception being when he refers to “new developments in SLA, corpus linguistics, neurobiology etc?” (BTW, “new development in neurobiology” is code for complexity theory; you know, like when a flock of birds part when approached by a predator and then they re-group. A new level of complexity arises, emerges, out of the interaction of the parts and a pattern emerges from the interaction of the parts. That’s just what happens in language learning. Not clear? Well, have you ever noticed how one bit of broccoli looks just like the whole plant? Cont. p.89 )

Why didn’t he ask them what they thought the most important research findings in instructed SLA research were and how teachers should be informed about them?

Why didn’t he check to see if there was any difference between what the participants said in reply to the questions and what they said in their books?

And what about his own case: Why didn’t he tell us about how he himself performs “the bridging function”?

  • How does he link research and classroom practice in his 4 books on how to teach grammar, and in his books on how to teach speaking, how to teach vocabulary, and how to get through the CELTA training course? How important does he think it is to act as a mediator between researchers and practising teachers? How well does he carry out this function?
  • How does he explain the contradictions between what he says in these books and what he says elsewhere about classroom practice based on teaching McNuggets?
  • How do his methodology books chime with what he tells MA students at the New School in New York about the classroom implications of Larsen-Freeman’s version of emergentism (grammar for free through the miracle of “Affordances” and other hogwash)?
  • How does he reconcile the advice he gives in these books with his passionate promotion of Dogme?

And finally, and crucially: Why didn’t he ask his participants if they knew about the robust findings that have emerged from 40 years of research into interlanguage development, which show that teaching can’t influence the route of L2 learning, and which thus challenge any methodology based on the presentation and practice of a succession of bits of grammar and lexis?

Which brings us to the two general questions:

  1. What should teachers know about research findings in applied linguistics?
  2. Who should tell them?

In reply to Q.1, first, they should know about interlanguage development; that’s without doubt the most important issue. All serious scholars of applied linguistics (including Larsen-Freeman last time I heard) agree that “the route of development (the nature of the stages all learners go through when acquiring the second language) remains largely independent of both the learner’s mother tongue (L1) and the context of learning (e.g. whether instructed in a classroom or acquired naturally by exposure)” (Myles,2009). If teachers really appreciated the implications of these findings, it could lead to a profound change in ELT.

Next, the concept of “focus on form” needs to be more generally understood. It’s generally agreed that second language teaching should be meaning-focused, but that it can be improved by some attention to form. This doesn’t mean a return to discrete-point grammar instruction, but that “focus on form…overtly draws students’ attention to linguistic elements as they arise incidentally in lessons whose overriding focus is on meaning or communication” (Long, 1991, pp. 45-46), and “focus on form often consists of an occasional shift of attention to linguistic code features–by the teacher and/or one or more students – triggered by perceived problems with comprehension or production” (Long & Robinson, 1998, p. 23).

Then there’s the work going on in the area of TBLT. As we’ve seen, it’s complex and complicated and “more research needs to be done” as they always say. But, nevertheless, information about the on going work can be made accessible to teachers and has the potential to greatly improve their practices.

Lots of other important work is also going on that can help pronunciation teaching, vocab. teaching, and teaching of the 4 skills.

Regarding Q.2, given that it’s completely unreasonable to expect most teachers to keep up with developments in the areas of research mentioned above, it’s obvious that methodology writers (among others) should act as mediators. These writers can’t be expected to read more than a fraction of the research, which is why reports of meta analyses are so useful. By keeping an eye on what’s going on in the journals, reading a few “state of the art” articles, and reading a few meta analyses, such writers can at least get a good general feel for what’s happening and then be in a position to dig deeper when necessary.

Pace Thornbury’s comfortable conclusions, it’s obvious that 3 out of 4 of his participants (not to mention him and various others) are not doing a very good job as mediators. If they were, there would be more widespread doubts expressed about the way ELT is currently practiced. Just for example, despite Harmer’s replies to Thornbury’s questions, his 500 page methodology book devotes more time to classroom seating arrangements than it does to discussions of how people learn an L2, and nowhere does it deal with the findings mentioned above. Douglas Brown comes out best, but even he fails to properly discuss the implications of the research findings on interlanguage  development.

As for Thornbury himself, his work continues to be inconsistent both in its quality and in its underlying principles. How can the man who slams “McNugget teaching”, who rails against coursebooks, who supports the mad rantings of Larsen-Freeman, and who proselytises the radical principles of Dogme, deliver this same threadbare talk twice in as many months? How can he claim that the 6 points he cobbled together from the limp replies he got from 4 people to a few poorly-articulated questions are sufficient evidence to persuade us that those “on the bridge” are doing a great job of mediating between researchers and practicing teachers?

References

Harmer, J. (2015) The Practice of English Language Teaching. London: Pearson. 

Long, M. (1991). Focus on form: A design feature in language teaching methodology. In K. de Bot, R. Ginsberg, & C. Kramsch (Eds.), Foreign language research in cross-cultural perspective (pp. 39-52). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Long, M., & Robinson, P. (1998). Focus on form: Theory, research, and practice. In C. Doughty & J. Williams (Eds.), Focus on form in classroom second language acquisition (pp. 15-63). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Myles, F. (2009) Second language acquisition (SLA) research: its significance for learning and teaching issues. Downloadable here: https://www.llas.ac.uk/resources/gpg/421 Note: Good References and links to some very good resources.

Plonsky, L. (2016) Meta-Analysis in Applied Linguistics. See http://oak.ucc.nau.edu/ldp3/bib_metaanalysis.html

Skehan, P. (2016) Tasks Versus Conditions: Two Perspectives on Task Research and Their Implications for Pedagogy. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 36 pp. 34–49.

Skehan, P. & Foster, P. (2008) Complexity, accuracy, fluency and lexis in task-based performance: A meta-analysis of the Ealing research. In Van Daele, S., Housen, A., Kuiken, F., Pierrard, M. & Vedder, I. (Eds.). Complexity, Accuracy, and Fluency in Second Language Use, Learning, & Teaching. pp. 207-226. Brussels: Contact forum.

Thornbury’s books can be viewed here: http://www.scottthornbury.com/books.html

Foreign language vocabulary: Effective practices for learning and teaching

(Here’s a PDF file of the Vocab. learning report: CASL Vocabulary learning technical report, 2012)

Below are three quotes from one of many “technical reports” published by CASL, the Center for Advanced Study of Language at Maryland University. My intention here is simply to draw your attention to this report on vocab. learning, and, maybe more importantly, to the website. It’s a great resource (Mike Long just told me about it); there’s a rich variety of all sorts of interesting, well-written, well-supported  stuff there, and, since it’s financed by US tax-payers’ money, it’s all available for free download.

Here are the quotes:

Storage and retrieval of FL words

“Initial encoding of new lexical items and repeated encounters leading to additional learning are not sufficient to support fluent language use. Students must be able to reliably store the new items in long-term memory and successfully and quickly retrieve them when needed. In order to understand the specific challenges encountered by foreign language students, it is useful to briefly discuss several critical issues related to bilingual memory and FL word retrieval. For the purposes of this review, FL students at early and intermediate levels of proficiency may be considered to be bilinguals who are much stronger in one of their two languages.

One of the most influential models of bilingual memory within a FL learning context is the Revised Hierarchical Model proposed by Kroll and colleagues (Kroll & deGroot, 1997; Kroll & Stewart, 1994; Kroll & Sunderman, 2003; Kroll & Van Hell, 2010). This model attempts to capture the findings from many empirical studies to explain how the relationship of the L1 lexicon and FL lexicon change in relation to one another, and to the conceptual system, as FL proficiency develops. As shown in Figure 4.3, this model of the development of the mental lexicon incorporates a level of lexical information that is connected to, but separable from, conceptual knowledge, which is argued to be universal in its basic architecture.

The arrows in Figure 4.3 represent the relative strength of connections among different aspects of a bilingual’s memory system, with thicker arrows (Concepts -> L1 and FL->L1) representing stronger, more established relationships, and thinner arrows (Concepts -> FL and L1->FL) representing weaker, or less well established connections that may be strengthened as learning proceeds. These differing connection strengths are employed in the model to capture specific findings from the research literature, such as: Students find it easier to retrieve the L1 translation equivalent when given a FL word than to retrieve the FL word when starting from an L1 word as a prompt.

Beginning learners may rely on the L1 lexicon as a “stepping stone” in order to access concepts when presented with an FL word. For example, a beginning learner whose target language is Spanish and whose native language is English, when presented with the word “casa,” may first retrieve the equivalent English word “house,” and then use “house” to retrieve all of the underlying meaning and associations present for that English word.

Since the publication of the original Revised Hierarchical model, further research from a number of investigators has provided strong support for parallel activation of both the L1 and FL mental lexicons during both word recognition and word production (Kroll & Van Hell, 2010). Because both languages are active by default in the bilingual, researchers have conducted further investigations of how bilinguals are able to function effectively in either the L1 or the FL without massive interference from the other language. The ability to manage this type of  interference is important as bilinguals reach higher levels of proficiency, to enable fluent comprehension and production. However, it may also be important for less-proficient bilinguals to allow them to function fully in either the L1 or L2 without intrusions from the other language. Evidence suggests that the executive control system is necessary to accomplish this task (e.g., Abutalebi et al., 2008; Hernandez, Martinez, & Kohnert, 2000; Isel, Baumgærtner, Thrän, Meisel, & Büchel, 2010). Executive control is an aspect of cognition that is closely related to the control of attention and to aspects of the working memory system (Wagner, Bunge, & Badre, 2004). While it is currently unclear whether or to what extent executive control may be important for word learning specifically, its importance for later stages of FL use, including switching between languages and managing interference, make it an important aspect of effective and fluent bilingual proficiency and word usage in real-world tasks.”

Five Principles for enhancing vocabulary learning

“Research in cognitive psychology and education has produced a set of general learning principles that may be used to guide instruction and learning strategies. As these principles have been derived from hundreds of studies of learning across many different topics, they should provide a solid foundation for adult learning within a school environment. Additional research may provide guidance in terms of which aspects of word knowledge are most likely to follow these general principles, and which aspects, in contrast, may rely on principles specific to FL vocabulary learning. Based on current knowledge, however, the FL instructor can feel confident that incorporating

  1. Dual Coding,
  2. Spacing,
  3. Testing,
  4. Feedback,
  5. and Desirable Difficulties

will provide students with a higher level of learning success and effective long-term retention.”

These five principles are all succinctly described and the case for why they help so much is clearly argued.

Quantitative Research Summary

“The overall pattern of results in this quantitative research summary provides valuable information for the design of foreign language vocabulary learning programs. First, vocabulary learning may be aided by explicitly drawing learners’ attention to specific vocabulary items. Second, vocabulary learning can benefit substantially from reading, and reading leads to greater gains in vocabulary than does listening (alone) or list study. In addition, reading-based vocabulary learning can be augmented significantly by providing learners with glosses so that definitions and/or translation of unfamiliar words can be readily accessed during reading. The results also suggest that while plain text glosses are beneficial, text glosses with pictures and/or videos may provide a small amount of additional benefit. Of course, the utility of additional visual information in glosses is limited to vocabulary items whose meanings are readily depicted in pictures and videos.

On the other hand, while the keyword method seems to lead to reliable gains in vocabulary acquisition relative to experimental controls, comparison of the keyword method to other methods (e.g., rote memorization, word study based on semantic grouping) suggests that at least  some other methods lead to larger vocabulary gains.

The results reported above also support the idea that providing explicit instruction with respect to learning strategies can be beneficial to anguage learners. However, given the small number of studies of this issue included in this descriptive summary, and the substantial differences between the approaches of these studies, it is difficult to draw any firm conclusions about which learning strategies should be taught. Finally, increasing the depth of processing of vocabulary items leads to substantial gains in word learning. Completing fill-in-the-blank passages leads to gains above and beyond gains acquired from reading, and writing sentences and/or longer compositions leads to larger gains than does completing fill-in-the-blank passages.

Hence, the results of this descriptive quantitative summary indicate that foreign language vocabulary gains will be maximized by the inclusion of substantial reading augmented by easily accessible definitions and translations for unfamiliar words and, where possible, additional visual ‘glosses’, as well as active processing of vocabulary items via associated writing exercises. Teachers can profitably draw learner attention to unknown or unfamiliar items, and direct teaching of learning strategies may be beneficial as well.”

P.S. If you can only afford one book on this topic, it must surely be Nation’s.

Nation, I. S. P. (2010). Learning vocabulary in another language (12th ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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Some Advice on Doing an MA Dissertation Part 1

Introduction

For an MA Applied Linguistics / TESOL you’ll be expected to write a substantial (15 – 20,000 word) piece of academic writing in which you:

  • Identify a clear focus and develop an area of interest in a coherent and rational way. This is a serious bit of academic work: it’s not journalism, or an opportunity to display your own prejudices and preconceptions!
  • Show a deep awareness and appreciation of other (academic) work done in the area, and have a point of view on it.
  • Demonstrate the ability to reflect critically on the area you explore.
  • Show you are able to collect, analyse and interpret empirical data (although a theoretical study is also possible).
  • Show you are aware of the implications of your findings, often, but not necessarily, for professional contexts.
  • Say something new – something that nobody has said before!

It normally involves a small-scale study but it can be literature-based, written predominantly as a result of reading and thinking. Universities prefer dissertations in MA TESOLs to have an applied perspective, wherever possible. By “applied perspective” most universities mean that the study should relate to a particular context and should draw on your professional experience. The application may be to the classroom, but this is not compulsory. For instance, a sociolinguistic investigation may have a wider application for a group of learners in a particular society. An SLA investigation could relate to a naturalistic setting, for example, a study of early child bilingualism. In each case, there may be implications for the TESOL classroom. As you have done with previous modules, you are expected to link theory to practical implications in a manner that is appropriate to your study. Dissertations should show in-depth acquaintance with the literature of the subject area, but should also be a vehicle for the expression of personal views.

I’m going to assume that you’ll do a small-scale study. More than 90% of all MA students do this and I strongly advise you to follow suit. If you want to base your dissertation on a literature review, you can do so, of course, but it’s really quite unusual and markers tend to be a lot more demanding of those dissertations where no study is involved.

 Deciding on the topic and the focus of the study

By the time you come to the dissertation part of the MA, you should already have some idea of what you want to do your research on. Play to your strengths; if you did a particularly good paper on any prior part of the course, then consider expanding on it, as long as you don’t use any parts of the text again. If you like grammar, or IT, or teaching young learners, or designing materials, or sociolinguistics, or whatever it is, then look there, and don’t think that you should do something you know nothing about, just to learn more

Maybe you already have a clear idea of what problem you want to explore, in which case, all you have to do is articulate the question and decide on the research tools. But if you’re still groping for a topic, then start with the “ball park”: what area, out of all those you’ve looked at so far in your studies, do you find most interesting? And inside this area, can you think of a problem, a knotty question, or a divise issue, or a weakness, that needs addressing?

Let’s say that you work in Spain teaching English in a primary school. You’re aware that results are poor: most Spanish children finish primary school with very little ability to communicate in English, as measured by results in the Cambridge PET and CET exams, for example. You believe that a contributing factor in these poor results is that most primary school teachers of English in Spain use a rather old-fashioned “PPP” (Presentation, Practice Production) approach to teach a grammar-based syllabus. A variety of issues present themselves here, but let’s say you focus in on the teachers themselves. Why are the teachers not embracing a more up-to-date, “Communicative Language Teaching” (CLT) approach?

Once you get this far, you need to consider your study.

  • What are your resources?
  • Can you use yourself as a teacher trainer or trainee in the study?
  • Can you ask teacher trainers and teacher trainees to fill in a questionnaire? How many?
  • Can you interview some of them?
  • Can you observe teacher training sessions?
  • Can you record them?
  • Can you get access to other data, like teacher journals?

Before you decide on the final Thesis Question, carefully consider what kind of data you can feasably collect in the time frame, and what your limitations are. Just for example, it’s unlikely that in 6 months you’ll be able to do a study where significant improvement in overall language proficiency is measured.

So, to return to your study, how can you investigate what you suspect is teachers’ resistance to CLT? Well, surely the best thing to do is to ask them. But ask them what, precisely? In order to make a questionnaire, and /or an interview template, you need to articulate an overall Thesis Question and then 2 or 3, more specific, research questions.

You could start with the question “Why don’t primary school English teachers in Spain adopt a CLT approach?”. For your own purposes here (and later because you’ll need to address the question more fully), you should be clear what you mean by “a CLT approach”. After that, you could generate these research questions:

  1. What are the perceptions of primary school English teachers in Spain of the CLT approach?
  2. What do primary school English teachers in Spain think are the obstacles to the implementation of the CLT approach?

No matter how you finally go about your study, you have to start by identifying a problem; not an interesting area, not a theme, not a subject, .. a problem! All good research starts with a problem. The problem then has to be articulated as a general Thesis Question, from which Research Questions follow.

These research questions must be formed in such a way that data collected in various ways can answer them. Finally, you have to decide what research tools you’ll use to gather data. It’s important to be clear about the distinction between qualitatitive and quantitative research.

Quantitative Research tries to be objective and is the preferred method of the hard sciences. It relies on empirical observation and it usually reduces the evidence from observations to numbers, focusing on counting and classifying features, and on constructing statistical models and figures to explain what is observed. It makes use of tools such as questionnaires, surveys, measurements and other equipment to collect numerical or measurable data.

Qualitative research, on the other hand, is primarily subjective; researchers often get subjectively immersed in the subject matter. It uses text rather than numerical data, and aims to give a complete, detailed description of the research topic. It is usually exploratory in nature. It uses data-gathering strategies such as individual in-depth interviews, structured and non-structured interviews, focus groups, narratives, content or documentary analysis, and participant or non-participant observation. The data is collected by the researcher himself or herself instead of through the inventories, questionnaires and other means used for quantitative research. This can be both a good thing and a bad thing. The researcher can gain an empathetic understanding of the behaviour of others, but the data collection is bound to be subjective and can even include bias.

For the last 15 years or so there’s been a lively discussion going on in the field of applied linguistics, and particularly in SLA research circles, about the best way to do research. The two opposing sides in this discussion can be seen as supporting predominantly quantitative or qualitative research programmes. In a special edition of TESOL Quarterly in 1996 devoted to ethnographic, subjective research in SLA, the contributors argued for a position totally opposed to the those who adopted a rationalist, empirical approach, and presented research papers that struck the rationalists they were attacking as being almost incomprehensible. In the Applied Linguistics journal, Block (1996) wrote a critique of the papers by Long, Beretta, Gregg, Crookes, and others which had appeared in a special issue of the journal devoted to theory construction in SLA (1993), suggesting that they were guilty of “science envy”, that there was no need to recognise accepted findings, no need for replication studies, and an urgent need for SLA researchers to throw off the oppressively restricting constraints of the “scientific” approach, so as to embrace a more relativist, more ethnographic approach.

Interesting though this debate is (I enthusiastically participated on the rationalists’ side), I don’t think it should bother you much as you prepare for your small study. Both types of research have their place in small studies, and very often quantitative data gathered from a questionnaire are combined with qualitative data from interviews. This is actually the path I will recommend.

Research Strategies

We usually distinguish between three research strategies:

  1. Experiment. Here we measure the effects of manipulating one variable (e.g. class size) upon another variable (e.g. results in an end of term proficiency test). The approach usually involves hypothesis testing.
  2. Survey. Here we concentrate on the collection of information in a standardised form from a group of people. The approach usually employs a questionnaire or structured interview.
  3. Case Study. Here we aim to assemble a detail picture, including in-depth insights, about a single ‘case’, or a small number of related ‘cases’. The approach may involve collection of information via a range of data collection techniques including observation, interview and documentary analysis.

Although these three strategies might look very different, in fact they don’t provide a logical partitioning covering all possible forms of enquiry, and there’s no need for you to agnonise about which category your study falls into. As I’ve already hinted above, I encourage you to use a hybrid strategy falling somewhere between these ideal types, e.g., some survey data combined with a small number of case studies, perhaps focusing on selected variables.   The survey provides a general, representative, picture; the case studies, chosen often on the basis of the survey, illuminate, enrich and bring to life the survey findings.

Questionnaires

By far the most popular and most frequently-used research tool for M.A. students is the questionnaire. A questionnaire is defined as “a self-report instrument used for gathering information about variables of interest to the investigator”. They are referred to as postal or email questionnaires. They consist of a number of questions or items which respondents answer by themselves. The questions or items can be structured or unstructured. That is, the categories of response may be specified or left unspecified. The key element in the self-completion questionnaire is that the researcher is not present when the questionnaire is being filled in. As Dornyei and Taguchi (2009) point out (Questionnaires in Second Language Research: Construction, Administration, and Processing, Routledge) questionnaires are used to gather three types of data:

  • factual (who the respondents are),
  • behavioural (what the respondents have done or are doing),
  • attitudinal (what the respondents think about things. In this, the most important category, Dornyei and Taguchi (2009) distinguish between attitudes, beliefs, opinions, inteterests and values.

The advantages of the questionnaire as a research tool are:

  • they make efficient use of time (the questionnaire can be completed by respondents in their own time and questionnaires consisting of closed questions allow for quick summaries and analysis of responses);
  • anonymity (the questionnaire provides the security of anonymity that few other research techniques offer);
  • standardised questions (in a questionnaire all respondents are presented with the same questions; there is no interviewer coming between the respondent and the question, but there is no scope for negotiating or clarifying the meaning of the question.

These are also the reasons why so much care should be taken drafting questions and why piloting is essential.

The limitations of questionnaires are:

  • they tend to lead to description rather than explanation
  • there is no interviewer to interpret or explain the meaning of questions, or to probe or explore answers
  • resulting information can be superficial. When designing a questionnaire :

These limitations can be overcome to somer extent by following a questionnaire with structured interviews to elicit further clarification.

When designing a questionnaire,

  • Keep it simple. Too many questionnaires are too long, too complicated, and too demanding of the respondent.
  • Make the questions specific. More general questions lead to a wider range of interpretations by respondents and are poorer predictors of behaviour. So, for example, the general question “What newspapers do you read?” should be replaced by the question “Which of the following newspapers have you read this week?).
  • Third, and this is by far the most important issue, use closed questions. Closed questions are often criticised because they force people to choose among stated alternatives rather than replying in their own words. But, precisely because closed questions give the response options, they are more specific and more likely to communicate the same frame of reference to all respondents. There will be times when open questions are preferable, of course, but if you use them,try to keep them to a minimum.

And when it comes to writing the questions, keep these ponts in mind:

  •  When in doubt, leave it out. When you finish the first draft of the questionnaire, go through it and ruthlessly discard any questions that are repetitive or redundant. Ask yourself “Is this question realy necessary?” Redundant items waste everyone’s time, mostly your own.
  • Be careful with the language level: questions have to be phrased in a way that matches the vocabulary of your respondents. Don’t use language that patronises or puzzles your respondents.
  • Be clear. Questions should be clear and unambiguous. Avoid double negatives and long-winded questions. Don’t ask double-barrelled questions. Categories of response should be clear so that the difference among categories is obvious to the respondents.

The Likert scale Questionnaire

The Likert scale questionnaire is the most widely-used questionnaire format among MA TESOL candidates. It was developed by Rensis Likert, a sociologist at the University of Michigan from 1946 to 1970 and is designed to measure attitudes. A typical item in a Likert scale questionnaire looks like this:

The president is doing a good job.       1  2  3   4  5

1 = Strongly disagree

2 = Somewhat disagree

3 = Neither agree or disagree

4 = Somewhat agree

5 = Strongly agree

To make a questionnaire that explores attitudes towards a defined construct (in this case, participants’ attitudes towards the president’s performance in office), you first generate items and then select from among them those that in pilots of the questionnaire proved to be valid, unidimensional (all measuring a common trait), and well discriminating.

The most important thing to note is that a proper Likert scale questionnaire measures the person’s attitude towards a given construct by combining (adding or averaging) their responses across ALL ITEMS. A Likert scale is NOT an individual item; it is always a set of several items, with specific format features, the responses to which are added or averaged to produce an overall score or measurement.

Many MA students make questionnaires using some response scale such as

1 = Strongly disagree

2 = Somewhat disagree

3 = Neither agree or disagree

4 = Somewhat agree

5= Strongly agree”

or

1 = Extremely Poor

2 = Below Average

3 = Average

4 = Above Average

5 = Excellent

using a variety of items that are do not explore the same topic. For example, an MA student used the 5-interval response scale “strongly disagree to strongly agree” in a questionnaire that asked teachers in Portugal to respond to 20 items which included

  • My boss is a good manager
  • My students are polite
  • My classroom is well-equipped.

While each item might say something about how satisfied the teacher is with his or her job, the sum of the responses to all 20 items can’t be used to measure anything very interesting.

So the summing or averaging across several items is essential for a true Likert scale questionnaire. In order to report on such a questionnaire, you sum the values of each selected option and create a score for each respondent. In the example above about an online software purchase, the scores can be from 4 to 20. This score is then used to represent a specific trait – satisfied or dissatisfied, for example – and to create a chart of the distribution of opinion across the population. For further analysis, you can cross tabulate the score mean with contributing factors. But it’s important to stress that for the score to have meaning, each item in the scale should be closely related to the same topic. I should add that the questionnaire can have different sections, each one a set of closely-related items.

Note several characteristics or features that define a Likert scale:

  1. The scale contains several items.
  2. Response levels are arranged horizontally.
  3. Response levels are anchored with consecutive integers (e.g. 1,2,3,4,5).
  4. Response levels are also anchored with verbal labels which connote more-or-less evenly-spaced gradations.

It is absolutely essential that you get a good understanding of Likert scale questionnaires, and of questionnaires in general. I recommend that you get a copy of Dornyei and Taguchi (2009) Questionnaires in Second Language Research: Construction, Administration, and Processing . This has everything you need andf more to design, write, administer and analyse a Likert scal questionnaire, or, indeed any questionnaire. Dornyei’s personal website http://www.zoltandornyei.co.uk/ is a great source for help on questionnaires.

Interviews

This is the second most popular tool used by MA students in their studies. They’re often used to back up questionnaire data, but they can be the main tool used. Interviews are commonly divided into three types

  1. Structured Interviews consist of a set of carefully-formulated of fixed questions which are both systematic and sequenced.
  2. Semi-structured interviews are much more open. Tthe inteviewer has some questions prepared on key issues, but feels free to follow other leads and to let the interviewee digress.
  3. Unstructured interviews, as the name suggests, are more like a conversation, where the interviewer goes with the flow. It’s quite likely that you will interview people you know, and if you do, you have to be careful to that this doesn’t affect or compromise your ability to remain impartial.

When conducting interviews, make sure your questions are clear and non-threatening ; don’t ask leading questions (ones that lead interviewees to respond in a particular way); show interest; and don’t speak too much – your job is to listen and probe.

Observation

In this MA, some students choose to do classroom observations, with the goal of recording the behaviour of the teacher, or of the learners, or of the interactions among them. The observations are done by the researcher, and a video recorder is often used. In order to count as a good research tool, the observation must be recorded systematically, related to well-articulated research questions, and subjected to checks and controls on validity and reliability; so this is really quite a demanding research tool. Observations can be structured or unstructured, both having their own advantages and disadvantages.

In unstructured observation, the researcher can be a non-participant observer, sitting at the back of a classroom taking notes, or a participant. Unstructured observation has the advantage of not imposing concepts or frames of reference, so that the researcher is free to record behaviour as it occurs, making special notes of ‘critical incidents. On the other hand, as with unstructured interviews, it is much more difficult to make organise and analyse the data collected, and it requires a great deal of the observer (validity vs. reliability issues).

In structured observations, the researcher must carefully define what behaviour is to be observed; for example, the number of times a teacher gives negative feedback, or the proportion of classroom time dedicated to explicit grammar instruction, or the turn-taking language used by students when engaged in group tasks. This implies that the researcher has a good understanding of of the phenomenon under study, so as to be able to determine, in advance of the observation sessions, what kinds of behaviour should be monitored to get the relavant data. Furthermore, a research tool must be individually devised for recording the observations – some sort of template or score sheet – and, if there is more than one observer, this must be used by all the observers, following the same criteria. So the tool needs to specify whose behaviour is to be observed and the categories of behaviour to be noted, and might also have to specify affective elements (attitudes), cognitive elements (intellectual components, learning strategies) and psychomotor elements (posture, gesture, movement); activity (repetition, etc.).

The problems of structured observation include inadequate definitions of what kinds of behaviour correspond to a given concept; lack of confidence of observers in their own judgement; and the possibility of observer effect i.e. the presence of the observer changing the environment.

Case Studies

A case study is not a method or even a type of research – it’s defined quite simply by its interest in individual cases. Whether there is only one case, or there are multiple cases, the crucial feature of a case study is the individuality of the case: it is not a sample and the numbers of cases which fall into any category is not important. The cases in question may be individual people, small groups, organisations, communities, classroom groups or events. An individual case study might look at a senior executive’s experience of classroom English in a Barcelona private language school; and an organisational case study might examine how the English department of a university in Boston tried to improve English language support over a four year period.

Case studies make no attempt to generalise; no hypothesis, or theory, or general explanation of a phenomenon is made (although they can be useful in the early stages of research on a subject, in suggesting hypotheses, and in providing a trial run for research methods). So why use them? First, intrinsic case studies are used when one is interested in a case not because we want to generalise from it, but because it’s interesting in its own right. The purpose of the study is is not theory building, but rather intrinsic interest in a particular case. Second, instrumental case studies are undertaken to provide insight into an issue, or to refine a theory. The case itself is of secondary interest. While It is still looked at in depth, the case is studied to help us pursue an external interest. In the context of an MA dissertation, the instrumental case study is thus not appropriate. So if you want to do a case study, you have to explain to your tutor what the intrinsic interest of the case is for you, and you then have to persuade him or her that it’s interesting enough to warrant the effort. Case studies use qualitative methods more often than not, unstructured interviews, observations, field notes, diaries, that sort of thing, They can be very interesting, but they’re actually very difficult to do well. It’s certainly not a soft option – only consider it if you’re really fired up about a case, and if you have a tutor who can guide you carefully through it.

Getting The Study Underway 

Let’s go through the process of starting a small study for your MA dissertation.

1) Decide on an area you want to study. Play to your strengths: choose an area you already know about, and maybe that you’ve already done well on in an earlier part of the MA. Recall that earlier in this chapter, I invented the example of an MA student like you who is an English language teacher working with young learners in Spain. You want to look at classroom methodology , an area you are particularly interested in.

2) Define the problem. Articulate a Thesis Question which focuses on a particular problem. As we saw earlier in the example, in your school, you’re aware that results are poor, and you have the impression from anecdotal evidence and things you’ve read that most Spanish children finish primary school with little ability to communicate in English, as measured by results in the Cambridge CET exam, for example. You think that teachers’ widespread use of the “PPP” approach to teach a grammar-based syllabus is a significant factor, and you formulate the question “Why are the teachers not embracing a more up-to-date, “Communicative Language Teaching” (CLT) approach?

3) Consider Your Resources

  • Can you participate actively (as a teacher trainer or trainee) in the study? If you do, does this mean your study will be broadly speaking qualitative?
  • How many teacher trainers, teacher trainees, and practicing teachers can you count on to participate in a questionnaire? Remember that you can use online questionnaires, so how many particiapnts can you get from your internet, social media, connections?
  • Who can you interview?
  • Can you observe teacher training sessions? Can you record them?
  • Can you get access to teacher trainer notes /teacher journals / learner diaries etc.?
  • What IT equipment can you get access to?
  • What software (e.g., SPSS) can you get access to?
  • Can you travel?
  • What’s the time frame?

4) Articulate Research Questions. Note first that you have to be clear about what you mean by “a CLT approach”. This will be an important part of the literature review, but you need to begin with a definition that you think you can work with, or define the term yourself. Next, you have to decide if you’re going to take a case study approach, or widen it a bit so that the study has some generalisability. Let’s say you decide that this is going to be a small study not a case study. OK, now you can write the research questions. Suppose you come up with these:

RQ 1: What are the perceptions of English teachers working in primary education in Spain of the CLT approach?

RQ 2: What do these primary school teachers think are the obstacles which stand in the way of the implementation of the CLT approach ?

You might also want to use one or two hypotheses to help the study stay focused. For example:

H 1: The teachers in the study claim to be favourably disposed towards the CLT approach, but feel insecure about implementing it.

H 2: The teachers think that resistance from superiors and parents is the main obstacle to implementing a CLT approach.

Obviously, there will a lot of other factors to consider, but these 2 predictions ,whether they turn out to be supported or not by the data, indicate the main thrust of your argument and help to position you.

5) Decide on the research tools. The most usual, and in my opinion, the best, tools to use for such a study are a Likert scale questionnaire and follow-up interviews.

6) Find examples of the chosen research tools that have been used in previous studies. Whatever your topic, it’s important that there is already a body of literature to consult. This literature will include studies, and it’s quite likely that one or more of the studies will have used a Likert scale questionnaire. If you can use a Likert scale questionnaire that has been used in a previously published study, this is a tremendous boost to your own study and will save you a great deal of work. It’s difficult to exagerrate the value of doing a replication study, but a full, faithful replication study is usually beyond the resources of MA students. Never mind – you can still use a published questionnaire, or an adapted version of it, and I strongly advise you to do so.

7) Design the questionnaire and the interview form.

8) Find particiapnts for the questionnaire and the interviews. Generally speaking, 50 respondents to a questionnaire and 6 interviews is fine.

9) Get the ethics permissions sorted out. You can’t ask people to fill in questionnaires or take part in interviews for a study without getting their permission and addressing ethical questions like privacy. Each university handles these matters in its own way, so make sure you comply with your uni’s requirements before doing any field work.

10) Show your tutor what you’ve done so far, get feedback and revise as necessary. You should be in regular contact with your tutor when doing the dissertation, and it’s really important not to take any major decision without consulting him or her. After some less formal consultations, you should finally write a dissertation proposal, which will be submitted to your tutor. The proposal will be 2 or 3 pages long and will include:

11) Write the Proposal

  1. Decide on a provisional title. Don’t spend much time on this; here the title is just to give a “ball park” indication of the diss.
  2. The background. A brief explanation of why you find this area interesting, and what particular aspect of this area you will focus on. This is NOT a literature review! You might mention a few sources, but the idea here is to tell your tutor what the area is, why you’re interested, and why it’s interesting.
  3. The Thesis Question which will inform your research. I think it is much better to articulate a question, rather than an “overall aim”, for example, because this is the
  4. Two or three Research Questions and hypotheses if you choose.
  5. Your research methods and participants.
  6. The value of your intended research. What do you think the results of your study will contribute to the problem that you’ve tackled?
  7. Ethical issues which arise from the proposal. If you intend to ask students or teachers or administrators for their opinions on colleagues, for example.
  8. References. Give your tutor an indication of the literature you will include.

Once you’ve got your tutor’s feedback and final approval, and once you’ve got the ethics issues sorted, you’re ready to start the field work, which I’ll discuss in Part 2.

Post Mortem IATEFL 2017 Conference

What happened, Jane?

You had to be there!

Jane Jones, let’s call her that, was paid by her school to go to Glasgow. She stayed in a nice hotel, she went to lots of sessions, she sat in the huge auditorium and watched the stars do their stuff, she went to a couple of parties, and she went home feeling that it had been really rewarding. Her enjoyment of the conference depended little on the plenaries;  it was more that she felt privileged to be there; that she was excited to be away from the work place and away from home; that she felt the buzz of the conference; that two or three of the sessions she went to hit a cord; that she dined out; and, more than anything, that she met new people, shot the breeze with them, and felt that they (not the plenary speakers) had made her think about her job.

What did the organisers do? They laid on baloney with shovels, they played to the sponsors, and, inevitably, they emphasised the gap between “them and us”. Invitation Only events proliferated, including a cocktail party on the top floor of a 5 star hotel where the lucky few who’d won raffles at publishers’ stands could rub shoulders with the ELT stars.

At this year’s IATEFL conference, judging from the British Council’s coverage of it that I watched, nothing much happened.

  • The commercialisation and commodification of ELT was celebrated.
  • The IATEFL organisation did nothing much to address the ever-worsening condtions of most of its membership.
  • No real challenge to coursebook-driven ELT was presented.
  • The publishers were more shameless than ever in their sponsorship of presentations.
  • The plenaries were all duds, with the possible exception of the last one by Tomlinson.
  • The stars trotted out their usual baggage on stage.
  • Boring interviews took place between the stars and the British Council’s uncritical interviewers. (But Horray for the guest interviewer Scott Thornbury, who did a splendid interview with Angelos Bollas!)
  • Nicola Prentis’ criticisms of gender inequality went unanswered.

Of course, there were a few gems.  There was an extraordinary, dead pan defence of absurd teaching practice in China by Wan Jung who replied to well-rehearsed questions by Jim Scrivener without even a hint of irony. It was weirdly fascinating, a great double act, and by far the most interesting thing I saw. But with the exception of this and no doubt one or two other talks, the real value of the conference, as always, was what didn’t get reported: it’s what happened to Jane that made it all worthwhile.

Which raises some obvious questions:

Q1: Why not do without the stars and the all the rest of the showbiz nonsense?

Q2: Why not give the membership of IATEFL a bigger say in the agenda of the conference?

Q3: Why not address the issues raised by the banned TaW SIG group?

Q4: Why not talk more openly about the false assumptions underpinning coursebook-driven ELT?

Q5: Why not challenge the CEFR?

Q6: Why not talk more critically about teacher training certificates?

The obvious answer to Q1 is that the stars and all the rest of the showbiz nonsense is the outward, necessary flaunting of the power of the ELT business today. We can’t do without it: it is, as we say in Spain, “lo que hay” – it’s the way things are. Being part of an industry with an $18 billion annual turnover (Pearson’s estimate), means that this kind of circus is expected: it’s the tried and trusted  way of celebrating might. The bigger the plenary stage, the more reinforced the stature of those who strut it.

And the answers to the other questions are that the IATEFL organisation is not democratic, not concerned with workers’ rights, and not willing to challenge its sponsors.

What’s the alternative? Is it an ashen-faced, sandal wearing, humourless group of ELT Vegans meeting in a candle-lit cave near Stonehenge to talk about Zen-driven ELT? Well, I don’t think so. The alternative is locally organised groups of teachers who link together in a federation which has a big annual conference where all the issues that IATEFL fails to confront are discussed and fun is had by one and all.

IATEFL 2017 Part 3: The Limits of Reform: Tomlinson’s Plenary

Brian Tomlinson’s talk Let’s listen to the learners highlighted the fact that learners are not consulted about the content of the courses that they pay for.

To quote from Adi Rajan’s summary , Tomlison says

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 then suggested lots of practical ways of involving learners more, which are well summarised by Adi.

Discussion

The problem is, yet again, the elephant in the room! Tomlinson didn’t challenge the coursebook itself. He didn’t, that is, recognise that ANY coursebook which is used to implement a product / synthetic syllabus is fatally flawed. And thus, I have to diasagree with Adi, who opines that it was

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.

Yes, right, but unless we get to the root of the problem, which is coursebook-driven ELT, we’ll never get what close to what Tomlinson wants ELT to be. To be clear:

There’s little point in getting learner input into a coursebook if the coursebook still does the same thing, i.e., guide a grammar-based, PPP syllabus.

It’s interesting to note that Tomlinson’s talk, despite all its criticisms of coursebooks, prompted many to see it as an endorsement of coursebook driven ELT. In a long exchange on Twitter, Marek Kiczkowiak suggested that Tomlinson’s talk supported the use of coursebooks, and replied to questions by saying that Tomlinson had given good references to support this claim. I doubt that Kiczkowiak had read the references, and anyway, his attempt to defend coursebooks finally fell back on the tired and irrelevant defence that teachers don’t have time to do any more than use coursebooks.

Let me deal here with the oft-repeated refrain “Coursebooks are not the cause, but merely the symptom of the problem.”

It’s true, of course, that coursebooks are the symptom, but they’re the essential symptom of the commodification of ELT. The cause is not, as Robert  suggests, bad training, but the political organisation of the whole damn planet. It isn’t training, Robert, it really is not. You’ve got it wrong, because you lack a political framework and a historical perspective. Long before you started teaching, in the 1970s and 80s, ELT went through a glorious phase in the West of mad experimentation, where teachers tried every which way to help their students learn. No CELTA course demanded that trainees show their prowess in using a cousebook because coursebooks hardly existed. Coursebooks flourished in the 1990s as the ELT industry boomed: they were what the market needed. It’s as simple and horrible as that.  So coursebooks, I suggest, will do very well as a focus for criticism of current ELT practice.

Coursebook driven ELT is a reflection of global capitalism. The capitalists, including the biggest capitalists of them all these days, the State, want things to be run for profit. And that means that the multi billion dollar ELT industry just loves coursebooks, because they package a product into, here we go again, McNuggets. As the daft remarks of Kiczkowiak give sad evidence of, people get misled into thinking that it’s all to do with convenience. Educational values get chucked out of the window and we all get further away from our real goals.

In order to get back to, and on with, good teaching, we need to get rid of coursebooks.

Tomlinson had a lot of good things to say. What his plenary lacked was a critical evaluation of the data he collected and an appreciation of the need to go beyond tinkering. Coursebooks don’t need to be tinkered with, they need to be abolished.

IATEFL 2017 Part 2: Thornbury The Apologist

One of the worst presentations I saw in the BC’s coverage of the IATEFL conference was Scott Thornbury’s Writing methodology texts: Bridging the research-practice gap.

First, it was a sales pitch.

Thornbury starts off by praising his publishers for the frantic efforts they made to get his books ready to be sold at the conference. This is just one example of the commercialisation of the conference that Steve Brown discusses.

Second, it was devoid of critical acumen.

Thornbury has a good idea: ask a few writers of “How to Teach English” books a number of questions:

  1. How did you get into writing methodology texts?
  2. How important is it, do you think, to link research and classroom practice?
  3. How have you kept/do you keep abreast of new developments in research, e.g. SLA, corpus linguistics, neurobiology etc?
  4. Given that most research is somewhat inconclusive, how do you select from – and prioritize – the research findings that inform your texts?
  5. 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?
  6. If not (or even if so) do you attempt to be balanced/impartial/non-prescriptive? How do you achieve this?
  7. Does it concern you that you might be ‘dumbing down’ or otherwise misrepresenting research findings? How do you guard against this?
  8. To what do you attribute your success? (Don’t be modest!)

He gives samples of their responses such as

PU: It’s sometimes a useful support and can provide interesting insights, but it’s certainly possible to write helpful and valid professional guidance for teachers with no research references whatsoever.

JS: I’ve never found much formal “research” very helpful to my own classroom work. I am not “anti- research” but I do carry a suspicion of many statistical studies in teaching.

JS: Mainly, I think I write what I do and what I see other teachers doing. Informed ideas that may or may not work for others. These need to fit in with my own internal schema for how I think people learn, study, behave etc.

Then he summarises his findings:

  1. Methodology writers have an interest in keeping abreast of developments in research, but largely as filtered through their own experience and ‘sense of plausibility’.
  2. Methodology writers use research findings less to promote new practices than to validate existing ones.
  3. Methodology writers are sensitive to, and respectful of, prevailing trends, while, at the same time recognizing their inherent weaknesses.
  4. Methodology writing is not ‘applying linguistics’ so much as ‘particularizing theory’.
  5. Methodology writers present options rather than prescriptions.
  6. Methodology writers adopt a voice that is non- academic and practitioner-oriented.

He concludes that their responses are a good guide to how teacher professional development should be carried out.

No critical assessment, not one word of criticism. Everything’s fine.

Look at Conclusion 2:

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

In other words, methodology writers cherry pick, looking for stuff that supports their own biases. They ignore the minimal criterion for a critical appraisal of evidence, a criterion which they hypocritically impose on those doing the teacher training course they all run.

Thornbury’s data show that those who write methodology books pay scant regard to research into how people learn languages. They “filter” research findings; they rely on Twitter or on what somebody told them; and often, well, they just haven’y got time to read the research. They “present options rather than prescriptions”, i.e., they refrain from any critical evaluation of conflicting methodologies.

Thornbury’s data is disquieting, to say the least. It turns out that the books which are recommended reading for the hundreds of thousands of people studying to get a qualification in ELT are based more on the authors’ biases, intuitions, feelings and what somebody else told them, than on any serious attempt to critically assess what research findings tell us about how people learn languages.

And this, says Thornbury, is a good model for professional development in ELT.

IATEFL 2017: JJ Wilson turns Radical Pedagogy into Dross

I was surprised, not to say dismayed, to see that JJ Wilson’s plenary got good reviews, even from those who are critical of current ELT practice in general and of IATEFL in particular. My opinion is that the plenary was slickly packaged, worthless dross. Here’s what he said, and I assure you that I am leaving out no important points, or any significant development of them.

Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed gave me the theory I need to talk about my teaching practice. It’s all about emancipating yourself. Freire characterised most education as implementing a “banking” concept of education and really education is about transformation. Freire talks about problem posing, questioning, dialogue. He say the basis of all education is love, and that means justice.

Friere talks about “conscientização”: critical consciousness of your place in society.

He was exiled because he tried to empower people.

“Praxis” is the bringing together of theory and practice, which comes from Marx, who said “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it”. An example is Julio Camarota’s workshops in prisons. The prisoners decided that education was the Number 1 reason they were in prison. So they petitioned for education in prison and they got it. That’s praxis.

What is social justice? It’s culturally specific and constantly changing. It affects all areas of our lives. Millions of people have no clear air or water.  Social Justice  = A world which affords individuals and groups fair treatment and an impartial share of the benefits of society.

What is the relevance of social justice to ELT? It depends on your view of the educator’s role in society. Teachers model social justice, but we don’t teach social justice, we must avoid proselytising, it’s an approach.

What might social justice issues in the classroom look like?

Do any of you make or create things. Do you make art or jewellry? Do you write for pleasure, do any of you make films? Do any of you make music? Put your hands up.

Wow! 62% of you! Fantastic! You are all involved in pushing the frontiers of human imagination You are all involved in seing beauty where other people don’t even look.

6 different ways of bringing social justice into the class

1, Images. Freire used images Take out a pen and paper and illustrate an issue that you’re passionate about. Next, talk to a partner about what you drew and explain how this issue is represented in your work . Now show your pictures to everybody.

Let’s look at photos of Sebastian Forgadu which show war and famine. I asked students to do presentations of one of the photos and talk about it.

Let’s look at photos of classrooms around the world. Everybody: please make sentences about them beginning “I wonder..” I did this exercise with teachers and turned the “I wonders” into questions.

  • What materials do they use?
  • What technology do they have?
  • What kind of school is it?
  • How is children’s education organised?
  • How are the classrooms decorated?

By discussing these questions, you’re bringing social justice into the classroom.

2. Poetry and literature. I’m going to read a poem. Listen and repeat

I remember

(Audience: I remember)

cutting snowdrops

(Audience: cutting snowdrops etc.)

angels kisses

I remember

VW Beetles

With windup windows

I remember

JFK

And JR

And who shot who

I remember

Thriller

And Michael Jackson

When he was black

(…….. and on and on.)

You can use this with students who write their own poem and then you ask “What has changed since you were a kid?” This is a very indirect way of bringing social justice into the classroom.

Here’s a poem my wife wrote. (Reads poem “I am from…” ) You can get students to write poems starting “I am from”.

  1. Theatre. Agusto Boal founded the Theatre of the Oppressed, then he started “Forum” theatre which looks at issues of oppression. It consists of short sketch done twice.; once with a resolution, second time leave it up to the audience to decide what the resolution will be. Boal also invented “spectators” and gamesercises to de-mechanise the self. I recommend his book “Games for actors and non-actors”.
  2. Community Projects use the method of anthropological enquiry. (Gave examples of a few IATEFL projects.)
  3. Teachable moments. (Tells story of a boy who asked his teacher about a landfill site and this led to a recycling project. Tells another story of a teacher who arranged a field trip to a beach to see a stranded whale. )
  4. Stories (Tells story about Nuclear waste. How to warn people about nuclear waste? Lots of bad answers. The best answer is: Start an atomic priesthood of elders who are going to pass on a legend not to go near the mountain and this legend will be passed on from one generation to the next and it might just last 10,000 years.) Stories are very powerful.

The End

To summarise:

  • Freire was a radical educationalist who adopted Marx’s idea of praxis. He was concerned with issues of social justice.
  • Social Justice = A world which affords individuals and groups fair treatment and an impartial share of the benefits of society.
  • You can bring social justice issues into your classroom by looking at and discussing photos, reading poetry, doing role plays, starting community projects, creating teachable moments, and telling stories.

Discussion

What’s the point of telling people who Freire was if you don’t make any attempt to use his ideas to critically examine ELT practice? Where in this incohesive succession of undeveloped catchy, candy floss suggestions was there any attempt to seriously engage with Freire’s ideas? Where is the analysis of “issues of social justice” that JJ Wilson is so “passionate” about? Why do millions of people have no fresh air or water? Why do millions of children have lessons sitting in the sand?

The list of pleasantries that made up JJ Wilson’s entertainment was about as challenging as a quick visit to Disneyland, and it did about as much to help teachers address issues of social justice.

Freire would have explained his view that teachers need a better understanding of the political and economic context they work in; that is, they should read enough of Marx, Gramsci, Althusser, and others to appreciate that capitalism benefits a small minority which doesn’t include them. He would have explained that to fight this oppression the first thing we need to do is to think critically and to question the ideology which supports the status quo. He would have then encouraged them to critically examine the ideological assumptions underpinning the activities of Peasons, Cambridge Examiners, the British Council, and the IATEFL organisation itself. Isn’t it the case that “the bottom line”, i.e., profit, is their overriding concern? To take just one example, what view of education leads Pearson to promote its “Global Scale Of English”? Is it not the most audacious example yet of the commodification of education, of what Scott Thornbury so memorably refers to as the McNuggets view of ELT?

And Freire would have encouraged teachers to think about practical ways of grappling with the consequences of global capitalism and the commodification of education. He would have told them that they must be critical, that they must simply stop believing what they’re told, and that they must change their practice.

He might even have suggested that they critically appraise the widening gap between their own deterorating social position and the position of those like JJ Wilson who sell coursebooks and training courses and receive awards from Her Majesty the Queen of the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and who talk to them at plenary sessions before flying off to their next well-paid appearance in the world ELT circus.

The Society of the Spectacle

The Situationists, particularly Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem, argued that workers in the capitalist production process have their powers ‘snatched’ from them; they create an abundance of products which come back to dominate them in an alien form—that is, as commodities. Spectacular society, in fact socially split between the small minority who benefit and the vast majority who suffer, achieves an illusory unity: everybody is part of the same community, consuming commodified goods and playing reified roles. It seems to me that the IATEFL conference is a good example of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle: passive consumers applaud JJ Wilson as he sells alienation back to them in the name of liberation: a perfect, awful example of reification.

The only way out of this mess is for us to think more critically, and then to organise and act locally. That’s not “praxis”, but it’s better than JJ Wison’s cosy little version of it.

References

Debord, G. (1967) The Society of the Spectacle. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith: New York: Zone Books, 1995. Also transl. Ken Knabb, London: Rebel Press, 2004.

Vaneigem, R. (1967) The Revolution of Everyday Life. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith: London: Left Bank Books and Rebel Press, 1994.

Hold The Front Page: Harmer Rejects “Grammar Syllabus”

In an interview at the IATEFL 2017 Conference in Glasgow today, Harmer struck the unlikely pose of innovator. Having spent the last 40 years defending ELT orthodoxy, it seems that Harmer has suddenly realised that change is inevitable. Here he is, “frightened but excited”, warning any complacent conference goers that these are turbulent times. He stumbles along with the usual stuff about the implications of technology, but then comes this bombshell, and I quote:

 The grammar syllabus has been there all my professional life, but there’s no evidence as far as I can see that that’s how people learn.

And there’s more! Harmer refers repeatedly to the threat of disruption. “We’re vulnerable to disruption”, he warms, and by “we” I suppose he refers to the ELT establishment. “We have to be match fit, ready to meet this disruption, not let it hit us on the nose” he says. The General English grammar based course is vunerable to disruption. Classroom teaching is vulnerable too.

In these times of change, Harmer says, what’s important is a willingness to challenge our assumptions. He went on:

And I don’t think we’re doing enough of that. If this disruption is coming towards us, we need to be ready for it. Now more than ever we need to challenge every assumption we hold. We really need to challenge more.

“And”, asks the interviewer, “have you put this into practice …. Have you been challenging yourself in your writing?

“Little bits and pieces”, replied Harmer. “I’m about to embark on a project where I hope there’ll really be some innovations.”

What? More than one???  OMG!!! What further surprises does IATEFL 2017 have in store? Remember – you read it first here! 

 

 

My time at LSE, Part 1

How many of we ELT old timers started our working lives thinking we’d end up teaching English? None of us, right? We were a motley crew to be sure, and we mostly fell into L2 teaching as an almost romantic option, a defiant “Up yours!”  gesture towards the beckoning careers offered by the professions.

But what might have been? We might have been contenders! In my case, I might have been an academic in the philosophy department of LSE. Here’s the story.

I started my B.Sc.(Econ) degree at LSE in 1963. I lived with 4 other freshers in a flat in Hampstead that Mick Jagger, LSE student, had just vacated. (Just BTW, Jagger later gave lots of money to pay for lawyers to defend those wrongly accused, including me, of the Angry Brigade’s daft doings.)

I  got through the first year exams, chose to specialise in International History, and quickly realised that I’d made a bad choice: too much emphasis on too many facts. So I asked if I could transfer to the philosophy department, even though they only took post grads. After some fairly difficult negotiations, I was  accepted. I was the first undergraduate ever to be admitted to the philosophy department of LSE.

Early on in my second year, I was busy doing non-academic stuff. I was President of Debates, President of the Jazz Society, and President of the Anarchists Club. Being President of Debates was great: I met lots of very famous people who came to speak, and I took them all to dinner afterwards at the Waldorf. I remember dining with Anthony Burgess (that’s him, above), Richard Ingrams, editor of Private Eye, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of Westminster. after a debate on “God is dead”. The dinner was awkward, to say the least. Once we’d shoved the archbishops into taxis outside the Waldorf, Ingrams, Burgess and I went drinking in the pubs in nearby Fleet Street. Ingrams was delightful company and so was Burgess, bless him. But Burgess was, I must say, just a bit too far gone too quickly. Burgess, dear messed up, brilliant Burgess,spent his whole life drunk: he  woke up drunk and reached for a drink. Just by the way, Hemmingway was nothing like the mad drinker he’s portrayed – I drink more than he did, and I’m nowhere even close to Burgess. Anyway, in my opinion, Burgess’ later stuff was terrible; he should be remembered not for the awful Earthly Powers, but for the much lighter, less pretentious, more enjoyable Enderby novels, and, above all, for Nothing Like The Son.  

The jazz duties were harder. Getting jazz musicians to turn up at mid-day events is notoriously difficult, and getting them to behave once there is even more demanding. We held sessions in the Shaw Library, a really lovely room on the top floor, and they were always packed out. The best session I remember was a very young Gary Burton on vibes, who played with 3 session guys and blew us all away.

As for the anarchist club, I invented it, appointed myself president, got a notice board put up alongside all the other society notice boards (more than 30 of them) and pinned on it the only 2 notices it ever had.

Notice 1: Comrades! The inaugural meeting of the Anarchist Club will be held on Friday 12th November, 1pm, Room E413.

Notice 2: Comrades! The first meeting of our club was a total success: nobody turned up.

LSE Philosophy Department 1964

The teaching staff of the philosophy department of LSE in 1964 comprised John Watkins, Karl Popper, Imre Lakatos, Joseph Agassi, Alan Musgrave, and a few others. Popper was a living legend and even though Watkins was nominally in charge, Popper ruled the roost like a sick old cockrel. He was old, ill, bad-tempered, rude, and paranoid. The only time I got on with him was when I presented a paper to him, Lakatos, Musgrave, Feyerabend, Bartley and a few others, where I criticised Khun (the paradigm man), stressing the difference between the sociology of science and scientific method. I made some cheap shots, and Popper loved them. In general, he made it clear that he didn’t like me, and deliberately ignored me.

Everywhere Popper went he was escorted by his secretary and a succession of people running behind him trying to record everything he said. The first time I went to a lecture of his, after about 5 minutes he shouted “Somebody’s trying to kill me!” This was in response to a student who had lit up a cigarette right at the back of the very big room he was lecturing in. The offender was pounced on, hustled out of the room, and Popper, once reassured, droned on. “No Smoking” notices and vetting of those who went to his lectures quickly followed.

I never heard Popper say anything remotely interesting – not once. He was a boring tyrant, the very last person you’d want to be around, unless you were trying to get ahead in the department. Even then university life was very political – it made working in industry look innocent. As a work place, there is nowhere more fiercely competitive, more ruthlessly self-seeking  than a university. I worked with some truly exceptional people, it was exhilarating  trying to keep up with them, but that doesn’t make me forget the back-biting crap, the culture of lies and deceit that permeated university life. I might add that, from what I see, things have only got worse.

Despite the fact that Popper himself had long since run out of interesting ways to spin his one contribution to the philosophy of science (there is an asymmetry between proof and falsification), and despite the numbing effect that his hopelessly ill-informed, ill-considred book The Open Society and it’s Enemies was having on Sociology departments worldwide, the philosophy department at LSE in 1964 was buzzing. And that was thanks to Imre Lakatos.

Lakatos was crazy, wonderful, brilliant. He was a powerhouse, a great antidote to Prof. Watkins, and it was Lakatos who gave the department its energy.  He was tall, thin, angular, always in a hurry: a nerrvous dynamo. It was great fun to walk with him as he moved like a nervous fox through the corridors of LSE, giving quick nods to those who said hello to him, talking incessantly. He was absurdly intense: everything was important.  Copernicus, well he got a lot more right than people realise..; Did you see her, my God what a bust, I mean really; Who the hell do these students think they are anyway?; How I hate sociology students, you notice how they’re all girls?, Because I mean how can Kuhn say that about Copernicus?  I loved him, and so did most of those who worked with him, even though he was prickly and often very rude .

Lakatos worked with Popper for years (showing unusual patience, I reckon),trying to rescue Popper’s work from mounting criticism, even before Kuhn showed up. Lakatos accepted that there were problems with Popper’s “Falsifiability Criterion”. Popper said, following Hume, that you can’t prove that a theory is true, but you can prove that it’s false. Critics said that if it’s allowed that a theory is refuted by a single instance of empirical data, then no theory would survive. In the history of science all major theories have been refuted time and time again (in the sense that they have contradicted the evidence of the day), especially in their early stages. The extreme version of the falsifiability criterion, where one instance of negative data is enough to refute a theory, became known as “naive falsifications” and is now generally rejected.

When I was with him, Lakatos was still wrestling with all this, and he was helped by the arrival of Paul Feyerabend, the finest scholar I ever met, and more about that later. In 1964, Lakatos was working on a theory of “research programmes”. His theory, never really complete, was published in various stages in the 1970s. It addressed the problem of theory choice: given two rival theories, is there any rational way of choosing between them?  Lakatos eventually suggested that Popper’s theory should be amended by shifting the problem of appraising theories per se to the problem of appraising a historical series of theories, which he called “research programmes”’, and by changing the falsificationist rules of theory rejection.

Lakatos called the essential theory under investigation in any research programme the “hard core theory”, and he named two different “heuristics” working inside the same research programme: a Negative heuristic, which essentially called on researchers not to attack the hard core theory, and a Positive heuristic which encouraged improvements to be made in the auxiliary hypotheses, which Lakatos referred to as “the refutable protective belt”. The research programme involved working on “the belt”, and leaving the core assumptions alone: you opt out of the programme if you attack the hard core.

When Lakatos published all his stuff about this in the 70s, he claimed that his work solved the problem of identifying the part of the theory that is responsible for the falsification (since it cannot be in the hard core), and at the same time, allowed for choice among rival theories: bold new hypotheses on the belt can be subjected to tests, and the better theories will be those that survive such tests. The essential criterion for assessing rival programmes is progress: the more progressive programme is better. If the modifications to the auxiliary assumptions result in new predictions, and if the predictions of novel facts are corroborated, then the programme is progressive.  On the other hand, a research programme is considered to be degenerating (as opposed to progressing) if those working on it do no more than add untestable ad hoc auxiliary assumptions in order to save its core, and that these merely account for already known facts.  When a stage is reached where one research programme is degenerate, and another is making good progress, then the degenerate programme must be jettisoned.

But it doesn’t work, does it!

Let’s leave a discussion of why it doesn’t  work, and go back to the LSE. We move to 1965 and the Kuhn versus Popper confrontation in London. I was in the second row. The background below is from my book (Jordan, 2004)

Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) argued that most scientific activity takes place under the domination of a theory which define the domain of research in a particular area, the procedures researchers should follow in their experiments, and the criteria by which they test and evaluate the theory. Kuhn labels this dominant theory, and the set of assumptions it generates a “paradigm”, and he refers to those periods of time where a paradigm dominates as “normal science”.

But, Kuhn argues, there are also periods when science enters into a revolutionary period, and there is then a “paradigm shift”.  One clear example in the twentieth century is when relativity theory and quantum mechanics replaced Newtonian physics to become the new paradigm.  In revolutionary moments the research methodology of scientists is very different from that of “normal science”: it is chaotic, contradictory and fragmentary, but on the other hand these are often very exciting times to live in.  Sooner or later however, the new paradigm is established, and scientists go back to their work, which is more mundane perhaps, but usually more productive.

Kuhn mixed a historical analysis with an epistemological one, and, while it is part of Kuhn’s argument that the two are mutually dependent, it is important to be aware of the two strands.  Kuhn argued that Popper was prescribing what scientists should do, and ignoring what in fact they actually did.  While, said Kuhn, Popper was right to criticise the Vienna circle (right, that is, to say that scientists were not in the business of simply observing things), he was wrong to say that they tried to refute theories.  What scientists do, according to Kuhn, depends on the historical moment.  In periods of normal science, they work in a more or less inductive way, using empirically-based studies, experiments and tests, looking for confirmation of the dominant theory, seeking to expand its reach, repairing problems that experiments turn up, etc..  In revolutionary periods scientists work in confusion, often swayed in their choice between those rival theories fighting for paradigm status by totally irrational considerations, and rarely, if ever, following the methodology proposed by Popper.

During a period of scientific revolution there is typically a conservative group who try to stick to the old paradigm, often because, having used it for a long time, they are comfortable with it, and a rebel group, often much younger, whose thinking has not been moulded by the old paradigm. Again, one is strongly reminded of the current dispute going on in SLA research, and it is hardly surprising that the “rebels” see themselves as progressive, or that they should emphasise the political nature of the conflict.  But the crucial consideration for Kuhn, and the key argument for the relativist camp in SLA and elsewhere, is that this conflict cannot be rationally resolved: the claim is that the old guard will just die out and fail to attract new adherents.  In Kuhn’s opinion, the process by which the new paradigm is established is irrational.

Unlike Popper, who sees a cyclical development in the history of science and is convinced that this ensures progress, Kuhn says that the new paradigm is established in a completely open-ended way that has nothing to do with rational choice or with a respect for, or even awareness of, progress.  There can be, says Kuhn, in the periods of paradigm shifts, no rational reasons for preferring one theory over another.  As Kuhn puts it: “There is no higher standard than the assent of the relevant community.” (Kuhn, 1962: 98)  Hence, Popper notwithstanding, there is no continuity, and no progress in science.

Kuhn’s account of the development of science culminates in his notion of the incommensurability of theories which are formulated under the umbrella of different paradigms. Theories formulated under the new paradigm are so different from the older theories that there is no justification for saying that the new theories follow on from their predecessors.  Different paradigms are not, according to Kuhn, commensurate – Newtonian physics is not commensurate with Einstein’s Relativity theory, for example.  When Newton and Einstein speak of matter, energy, time, etc.,  they are speaking about different things, and thus there is no rational way of choosing between them.  The suggestion is that the researcher’s observations, experiments and tests on so-called empirical data are crucially affected by the theories they believe in, that is, most of the time, by the paradigm theory.  Kuhn gives the example of chemists’ acceptance of Dalton’s atomic theory, which at first was in conflict with some experimental results.   Not only did they ignore the negative evidence, they reported chemical compositions in different ways (as ratios of integers rather than as decimals) and, in Kuhn’s words “beat nature into line. …. The data itself had been changed, and the chemists were now working in a different world” (Kuhn, 1962: 135).

So now here comes the confrontation, in 1965, when Popper gets his stuff together and Kuhn falls apart.

Actually, I think that’s enough for now. To come in Part 2: Who won the Khun versus Popper debate? Lakatos invites Paul Fererabend to give a series of lectures at LSE; Feyerabend struts his stuff and gives the best series of lectures ever witnessed in the Old Theatre of LSE;  we all get drunk;  Feyerabend persuades me to stop revising, go fishing and let Heather take the finals in my name; Lakatos’ programme bites the dust; Laudan thinks he has the answer ; and lots more.

I see no ships: Scrivener’s blind eye

In the Battle of Copenhagen (1801), British hero Vice Admiral Nelson put his telescope to his blind eye and announced that he couldn’t see the signal calling on him to retreat. He’d been ordered by his boss, Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, to turn back, but he ignored the order, carried on with his action, and won the day. He didn’t actually say “I see no ships”,  but it’s not a bad way to paraphrase his attitude.

“I see no ships” characterises the attitude of Jim Scrivener. Like Nelson, he’s well up in the ranks of the establishment, and, like Nelson, he can’t be accused, as so many others of his rank can, of slavishly obeying orders, or of incompetence. Scrivener has often been described as “the thinking teacher’s Jeremy Harmer”, and one can see why. In stark contrast to Harmer, Scrivener deserves a certain amount of respect for his scholarship, his writing, and his ethics. On the other hand, he seems to be as blind and as arrogant as Nelson when it comes to any critical appraisal of current ELT practice. A flotilla of small ships has already set sail in defence of an ELT world gravely threatened by profit-hungry publishers and related exam boards,  training  providers and teachers organisations, but Scrivener will have none of it: he sees nothing that he doesn’t want to see.

In Scrivener’s opinion, coursebooks have never been better: they continue to improve, they’re wonderful and they deserve their prominent place in ELT. Furthermore, Scrivener makes no public criticisms of the Cambridge Board of Examiners in general or the CELTA certificate in particular; or of the Pearson Global Scale of English; or of the British Council’s activities; or of the work done by any other pillar of the ELT establishment. He makes no effort whatsoever in his public pronouncements to critically evaluate any of this, preferring to focus on the failings of teachers.

Lulled by the false dictates of a badly defined CLT model in ELT, teachers have, says Scrivener, grown complacent. Teachers now prefer to entertain their students rather than teach them; they engage their students in careless conversation; they go through the motions of tired “communicative” routines to the extent that they’ve almost fallen asleep on the job. What we need, says Scrivener is for teachers to make more effort, to demand high.

So round the planet Scrivener goes, blinkers firmly fixed, trying to put things right. “Up your game!”, he tells teachers. “Do this” and “Don’t do that”. Upgrade the planning; tighten the control; tweak the feedback; don’t let mistakes go unnoticed, and on and on. As if the devil were in the detail; as if motivation sprang from technical prowess; as if a better, more demanding attitude and technique could fix it all. As if nothing were rotten in the state of ELT.

I don’t doubt Scrivener’s sincerity for a moment, but I question his judgement and I deplore his lack of critical acumen. To go back to the original analogy with Nelson, why is he so blind? How can he ignore the bigger picture? What makes him think that if teachers use a coursebook but demand high, everything will be well? What makes him think that the best way to solve the problems facing classroom ELT is to suppose that a coursebook-driven syllabus is ideal and that all we need to do is work on its implementation?

Scrivener suggests that teachers should polish and extend their box of tricks as they go through the sequence of PPP set out in the coursebook. Each unit of the coursebook should be treated in some kind of heightened way. Teachers should pay more attention to the concept questions that follow the presentation of some grammar point; they should pick up faster on this or that response of students to an artificial prompt; they should check students’ comprehension of some awful, messed-up, culturally bound written or oral text more carefully; they should organise their whiteboard display of The Three Conditionals, or Mr. Jones’ Garage, or Who Get’s the Job?. more attractively, etc., etc.,.

Scrivener’s brief is to train teachers to do the wrong thing better. He roams the world telling teachers that the skilful use of the coursebook is the key to good ELT practice. That’s his message. It’s hopelessly myopic and disgraceful in its refusal to face well-founded criticism of coursebook-driven teaching. There’s no room in Scrivener’s Teacher Education scheme for teachers to be presented with the research findings of SLA research which reveal the false assumptions that underpin the coursebook-driven syllabus, and there’s no room for the view that teachers should have the chance to engage in a well-informed critical evaluation of their classroom practice. Scrivener knows what’s best for ELT, and blow me down, as Nelson might have said, before Trafalgar at least, if it doesn’t exactly fit what’s best for the publishers.

Take a look at The Demand High website. The latest post is Where are we now?

“Now” is actually more than 2 years ago, and where they are now is this: they’re lost in their own perpetual attempts to reinvent themselves. They have nothing forceful to offer. Their latest invention is Learning-Centred Teaching. Geddit?  “Learning” not “Learner”. In other words, rather than invite the learner to participate in decisions about the what and how of their course, the teacher’s job is to impose learning, even though using a coursebook and its PPP methodology precludes the possibility of students learning what they’re taught.       

How can’t Scrivener see that the world of ELT is now dominated by commercial interests that pay scant respect for the educational values he claims to hold? How can’t he see that most ELT teachers are exploited? How can’t he see that the coursebook stifles the work of teachers and inhibits the progress of learners? How can he urge teachers to demand high, while at the same time stubbornly refusing to comment on the fact that coursebook-driven ELT makes such demands unrealistic and unfair?

You might say that encouraging teachers to demand high is a good thing to do whatever the circumstances, but that’s nonsense. The circumstances under which teachers do their job are far more important than any general exhortation to do your best, and Scrivener surely knows that. When will Scrivener stop pretending that everything’s OK?

By the way, Nelson’s flagship was HMS Elephant.

Update on Long’s TBLT

Long’s comment on my original post deserves a supplementary post.

First, for help with identifying target tasks in the occupational sector, he points us to the revised, free, on-line version of the Dictionary of Occupational Titles.  It’s tremendous! More than 1,000 jobs described in detail. Here’s what I got when I put in

Human Resources Manager:

Tasks

  • Serve as a link between management and employees by handling questions, interpreting and administering contracts and helping resolve work-related problems.
  • Analyze and modify compensation and benefits policies to establish competitive programs and ensure compliance with legal requirements.
  • Advise managers on organizational policy matters such as equal employment opportunity and sexual harassment, and recommend needed changes.
  • Perform difficult staffing duties, including dealing with understaffing, refereeing disputes, firing employees, and administering disciplinary procedures.
  • Plan and conduct new employee orientation to foster positive attitude toward organizational objectives.
  • Identify staff vacancies and recruit, interview and select applicants.
  • Plan, direct, supervise, and coordinate work activities of subordinates and staff relating to employment, compensation, labor relations, and employee relations.
  • Plan, organize, direct, control or coordinate the personnel, training, or labor relations activities of an organization.
  • Represent organization at personnel-related hearings and investigations.
  • Administer compensation, benefits and performance management systems, and safety and recreation programs.
  • Provide current and prospective employees with information about policies, job duties, working conditions, wages, opportunities for promotion and employee benefits.
  • Analyze statistical data and reports to identify and determine causes of personnel problems and develop recommendations for improvement of organization’s personnel policies and practices.
  • Prepare and follow budgets for personnel operations.
  • Maintain records and compile statistical reports concerning personnel-related data such as hires, transfers, performance appraisals, and absenteeism rates.
  • Analyze training needs to design employee development, language training and health and safety programs.
  • Conduct exit interviews to identify reasons for employee termination.
  • Oversee the evaluation, classification and rating of occupations and job positions.
  • Prepare personnel forecast to project employment needs.
  • Study legislation, arbitration decisions, and collective bargaining contracts to assess industry trends.
  • Allocate human resources, ensuring appropriate matches between personnel.
  • Develop or administer special projects in areas such as pay equity, savings bond programs, day-care, and employee awards.
  • Negotiate bargaining agreements and help interpret labor contracts.
  • Investigate and report on industrial accidents for insurance carriers.

Technology Skills (5 of 23)

  • Accounting software — AccountantsWorld Payroll Relief; Intuit QuickBooks Hot technology ; New World Systems Logos.NET; Sage 50 Accounting Hot technology
  • Document management software — Atlas Business Solutions Staff Files; Microsoft Office SharePoint Server MOSS; PDF readers; WinOcular
  • Enterprise resource planning ERP software Hot technology — Deltek Vision; Oracle PeopleSoft Hot technology ; SAP Hot technology ; Tyler Technologies MUNIS
  • Human resources software — ADP Workforce Now Hot technology ; Human resource management software HRMS Hot technology ; UniFocus Watson Human Resources Manager; WhizLabs
  • Time accounting software — ADP Pay eXpert; Kronos Workforce Timekeeper; Soft Trac Microix Timesheet; Stromberg Enterprise

Knowledge

  • Personnel and Human Resources — Knowledge of principles and procedures for personnel recruitment, selection, training, compensation and benefits, labor relations and negotiation, and personnel information systems.
  • Administration and Management — Knowledge of business and management principles involved in strategic planning, resource allocation, human resources modeling, leadership technique, production methods, and coordination of people and resources.
  • English Language — Knowledge of the structure and content of the English language including the meaning and spelling of words, rules of composition, and grammar.
  • Customer and Personal Service — Knowledge of principles and processes for providing customer and personal services. This includes customer needs assessment, meeting quality standards for services, and evaluation of customer satisfaction.
  • Law and Government — Knowledge of laws, legal codes, court procedures, precedents, government regulations, executive orders, agency rules, and the democratic political process.

Skills (5 of 20 displayed)

  • Active Listening — Giving full attention to what other people are saying, taking time to understand the points being made, asking questions as appropriate, and not interrupting at inappropriate times.
  • Management of Personnel Resources — Motivating, developing, and directing people as they work, identifying the best people for the job.
  • Social Perceptiveness — Being aware of others’ reactions and understanding why they react as they do.
  • Speaking — Talking to others to convey information effectively.
  • Coordination — Adjusting actions in relation to others’ actions.

Abilities

  • Active Listening — Giving full attention to what other people are saying, taking time to understand the points being made, asking questions as appropriate, and not interrupting at inappropriate times.
  • Management of Personnel Resources — Motivating, developing, and directing people as they work, identifying the best people for the job.
  • Social Perceptiveness — Being aware of others’ reactions and understanding why they react as they do.
  • Speaking — Talking to others to convey information effectively.
  • Coordination — Adjusting actions in relation to others’ actions.
  • Critical Thinking — Using logic and reasoning to identify the strengths and weaknesses of alternative solutions, conclusions or approaches to problems.
  • Reading Comprehension — Understanding written sentences and paragraphs in work related documents.
  • Judgment and Decision Making — Considering the relative costs and benefits of potential actions to choose the most appropriate one.
  • Negotiation — Bringing others together and trying to reconcile differences.
  • Complex Problem Solving — Identifying complex problems and reviewing related information to develop and evaluate options and implement solutions.
  • Monitoring — Monitoring/Assessing performance of yourself, other individuals, or organizations to make improvements or take corrective action.
  • Persuasion — Persuading others to change their minds or behavior.
  • Systems Analysis — Determining how a system should work and how changes in conditions, operations, and the environment will affect outcomes.
  • Systems Evaluation — Identifying measures or indicators of system performance and the actions needed to improve or correct performance, relative to the goals of the system.
  • Time Management — Managing one’s own time and the time of others.
  • Active Learning — Understanding the implications of new information for both current and future problem-solving and decision-making.
  • Writing — Communicating effectively in writing as appropriate for the needs of the audience.
  • Instructing — Teaching others how to do something.
  • Service Orientation — Actively looking for ways to help people.
  • Learning Strategies — Selecting and using training/instructional methods and procedures appropriate for the situation when learning or teaching new things.

Work Activities (5 of 31 displayed)

  • Communicating with Supervisors, Peers, or Subordinates — Providing information to supervisors, co-workers, and subordinates by telephone, in written form, e-mail, or in person.
  • Resolving Conflicts and Negotiating with Others — Handling complaints, settling disputes, and resolving grievances and conflicts, or otherwise negotiating with others.
  • Establishing and Maintaining Interpersonal Relationships — Developing constructive and cooperative working relationships with others, and maintaining them over time.
  • Making Decisions and Solving Problems — Analyzing information and evaluating results to choose the best solution and solve problems.
  • Evaluating Information to Determine Compliance with Standards — Using relevant information and individual judgment to determine whether events or processes comply with laws, regulations, or standards.
  • Detailed Work Activities (5 of 25 displayed)
  • Negotiate labor disputes.
  • Liaise between departments or other groups to improve function or communication.
  • Administer compensation or benefits programs.
  • Analyze data to inform operational decisions or activities.
  • Advise others on legal or regulatory compliance matters.

Work Context (5 of 22 displayed)

  • Electronic Mail — 100% responded “Every day.”
  • Telephone — 95% responded “Every day.”
  • Face-to-Face Discussions — 86% responded “Every day.”
  • Duration of Typical Work Week — 82% responded “More than 40 hours.”
  • Freedom to Make Decisions — 64% responded “A lot of freedom.”

That’s just a sample for one search item! As Long says, it “provides a handy preliminary source for understanding what an occupation involves — the target tasks”.

Long continues:

“Having identified the target tasks for a group of learners using O*NET and other sources and methods, the second step in a needs analysis (NA) is the collection and analysis of genuine samples of target discourse, i.e., the language used by native speakers to accomplish those tasks successfully. This is not as onerous as is sometimes assumed, but in any case, is necessary if LT is to become a serious undertaking.

We presumably want to make sure we are exposing learners to realistic samples of the tasks and language they will have to deal with — something English for Nebulous Purposes (ENP) commercial textbooks are spectacularly bad at, whatever the publishers claim. Doing so has always seemed to me to be no more or less than matching the expectations we have that purveyors of other services (physicians, lawyers, nurses, architects, engineers, etc.) will provide what we need, and not simply dish out the same product to everyone. Physicians, for example, decide on a course of treatment only after identifying what ails us. That typically involves running tests and arriving at a medical diagnosis — roughly, the medical equivalent of a needs analysis. It is encouraging to see that the field as a whole has increasingly been taking responsibility for the quality of its work. For example, an increasing use of NA, and steady improvements in NA methodology, over the past 30 years is documented in Serafini, Lake and Long (2015)”.

(Note: I hadn’t read the Serafini, Lake and Long (2015) article; highly recommended.)

You do not have to be an advocate of TBLT to believe relevance to students’ needs is important. Writing in TESOL Quarterly over 30 years ago, Auerbach and Burgess (1985) pointed out how damaging it can be for learners to be fobbed off with unrealistic dialogues typical of most commercial textbooks — even textbooks marketed as being designed for the very group of learners in question. All the studies I am aware of since then that have compared genuine language samples with LT materials supposedly designed to prepare learners for the same tasks, but on the basis of the author’s intuitions, have found the textbook models to be highly misleading, sometimes risibly so, even when the target discourse pertains to everyday “public” tasks with which most of us are familiar (or think we are). See, e.g., work on restaurant reservations (Granena, 2008), doctor-patient communication (Cathcart, 1989), and service encounters in coffee shops (Bartlett, 2005). Studies have been published on the language of business meetings, sales transactions in duty-free shops, and on other kinds of service encounters, as well as a vast amount of work on English for academic purposes. Bartlett (2005), incidentally, is another case, like the work of Stephen O’Connell on police traffic stops that you summarized, where the researcher (an MA student at the time) demonstrates how to move from the analysis of genuine samples of target discourse to prototypical models usable in task-based materials.

A legitimate concern often raised about NA in general, and analysis of target discourse in particular, is the workload involved. The answer is that NAs certainly involve some front-end heavy lifting, but are not rocket science, pay huge dividends, and do not need to be re-done every time a course is offered! They are best conducted at the program level, by specialist needs analysts and/or trained teachers given release time for the purpose, and well in advance of a course’s opening day — by which time it is far too late to find out what students need and select and/or write the required materials.

NAs are always desirable, but are especially valuable in large, tertiary programs with stable student throughput, e.g., University EFL programs. The work done this year will be usable next because we already know the students will be much the same. They are best carried out by a cadre of trained, experienced teachers, used to working cooperatively and, preferably, in control of their own workplace, whereupon pride in one’s work comes naturally.

In my experience, NAs are usually interesting and fun, and provide the crucial input to designing the pedagogic materials teachers and students need, but which commercial textbook writers and publishers are loathe to provide. They tend to prefer one-size-fits-all textbooks that can be sold to unsuspecting masses via their “international” lists”.

Let me emphasise what Long says about the dividends you get from undertaking his kind of NA. Yes, it involves “some front-end heavy lifting”, but it’s worth it: it pays big dividends, and it doesn’t need to be re-done every time a course is offered. The more you look at it, the more feasible Long’s approach is. There’s a great deal of work done already, and the “front end” bit is such a worthwhile investment in quality ELT that it seems to me to be an irresistible argument. I reckon that you could produce a TBLT syllabus of the kind Long proposes for local use in less than 200 hours.

I think I should say now that my Process TBLT model is a distraction: we should concentrate on Long’s proposal.

Imagine what would happen if the resources currently dedicated to producing and promoting coursebooks were devoted to producing and promoting Long’s TBLT.  Millions of dollars are currently spent on producing and promoting a single series of coursebooks of the sort Pearson manufactures, and that series is then used by teachers all over the world in a one-size-fits-all, grammar-based, PPP approach that we know is hopelessly inefficient. Not just inefficient, but an insult to our teaching profession. Coursebook-driven ELT robs us of our trade; it shackles us, it restricts us, it suffocates us. We can’t do our job properly and our students suffer the consequences. It’s as if our training does no more than help us to use a crutch, the effing cousebook, that we never throw away and so we never get truly healthy and free. We work like cripples, hobbling around in a confined space, using all our ingenuity to circumvent as best we can the oppressive rules we’re forced to teach by, and we never actually do the job as well as we’re capable of.

Harmer’s defence of the coursebook is incoherent, and so is Dellar’s. Scrivener doesn’t even try, so convinced is he that all the teacher has to do is demand higher. Nobody, but nobody from the ELT establishment has offered a good defence of coursebook-driven ELT; they all fall back on limp arguments of “convenience” that do absolutely nothing to respond to the rational, evidence-based  arguments put forward by Long and others against coursebooks.  In the end, I think it’s safe, not cynical, to say that they have too much invested in keeping things the way they are to critically evaluate the alternatives. The argument in favour of coursebooks is the same argument that Ragnar Redbeard (a wonderfully invented pseudonym) suggested in Might is Right: power wins over moral right. To put it another way, it’s a fait accompli, a done deal, the way things are. Which, by the way, is Scott Thornbury’s disappointing stance: he says coursebooks are terrible, but they’re here to stay. Where would any movement that fought for progress have got with an attitude like that?

How much better would it be if the resources currently spent on making and promoting coursebooks were spent on designing the type of course that Long so persuasively and meticulously describes? What if the hundreds of millions of dollars currently spent on coursebook-driven ELT were spent differently? What if Pearson invested in helping local ELT schools all over the world to offer locally produced courses that met local needs? What if they made their business helping to identify target tasks, collecting and analysing genuine samples of target discourse, and producing materials to support the pedagogical tasks that flow from them? What if they supported locally trained teachers with local, national and international events that helped them to better take charge of their own courses?  Imagine Joe, a bright-eyed, young go-getter executive in Pearson suggesting this business plan to the board. How much would profits suffer, Joe?

Imagine:

  • The British Council is stripped of its privileges and told to get the hell out of ELT.
  • The Cambridge Examiners bosses are all sacked and replaced by people who, having read and grasped the works of Fulcher and others who understand testing, turn testing over to teachers.
  • Teachers are not bamboozled by the drivel that Harmer and other ELT gurus spout.
  • Everybody cancels their subscriptions to IATEFL and TESOL (organisations far more interested in sucking up to publishers and preserving the status quo than looking after the interests of their members).
  • CELTA certification is scrapped.
  • ELT publishers stop producing coursebooks.

The whole edifice of the ELT industry, including its coursebooks, its conferences, its training programmes and its exams would go, and leave the way free for something better. Something local, vibrant, relevant, learner-centred, and EFFICIENT. For this to happen we need a groundswell of local action, and it would also help if people like Scott Thornbury got off the fence.

I should hastily say that Long has nothing to do with these remarks. I feel almost unhinged when I talk about all this stuff; Mike always keeps his cool, even though he’s committed to radical change.

We really must take Long’s principled, practical, proven approach more seriously. It’s by far the best way I’ve seen to rescue ELT from the hopeless state it’s in. As Long says, the kind of NA he advocates, and the follow through to a well-designed course is “no more or less than matching the expectations we have that purveyors of other services (physicians, lawyers, nurses, architects, engineers, etc.) will provide what we need, and not simply dish out the same product to everyone”.

We hide behind so many well-rehearsed excuses: It’s too complicated; I’m too busy; We’re too busy; The boss won’t let me and her boss won’t let him; The students won’t like it; Things aren’t so bad, we have wriggle room; I like order, you like order, we all like order; etc., etc., and we take what we mistakenly see as the easy way out.

So on it goes. The establishment figures of ELT, that awful crew of aging, unscholarly, elitist men and women who block up the hall and just won’t get out of the damn way are soon to parade their jaded wares at the upcoming big conferences. There, they probably won’t even try to spin their familiar message, the one they’ve been trotting out for 30 years now, that coursebook-driven ELT is just fine and dandy. Well, it isn’t. And there is now, thanks to Long’s evolving work, a splendid alternative. Once again, the times they are a changing.

Here’s Long’s References list.

Auerbach, E. R., & Burgess, D. (1985). The hidden curriculum of survival ESL. TESOL Quarterly 19, 3, 475-495.

Bartlett, N. D. (2005). A double shot 2% mocha latte, please, with whip: Service encounters in two coffee shops and at a coffee cart. In Long, M. H. (ed.), Second language needs analysis (pp. 305-343). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Cathcart, R. L. (1989). Authentic English and the survival English curriculum. TESOL Quarterly 23, 1, 105-126.

Granena, G. (2008). Elaboration and simplification in scripted and genuine telephone service encounters. International Review of Applied Linguistics 46, 2, 137-166.

Serafini, E. J., Lake, J. B., & Long, M. H. (2015). Methodological improvements in identifying specialized learner needs. English for Specific Purposes 40, 11-26.

Two Versions of Task-Based Language Teaching

This is a written report of a talk I gave to members of the SLB last month. There’s quite a lot here; it’s a bit “staccato” because it’s based on the slides I used in the talk; and it doesn’t do justice to Mike Long’s version of TBLT. Good, positive start, eh!

Both the syllabuses presented here are alternatives to a coursebook-driven syllabus, so let’s begin with a quick reminder of why alternatives are so sorely needed.

All over the world, coursebooks are the most widely-used tool for organising classroom-based ELT today; indeed, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the global ELT industry today is coursebook-driven. The question of syllabus design is resolved at a stroke by the decision to use Headway or English File, or something similar. Teachers use the coursebook to lead students through a sequence of lessons which are based on the presentation and practice of discrete items of English grammar and lexis. The approach consists of first presenting and explaining bits of the language, thus instilling declarative knowledge (i.e., conscious knowledge about English), and then moving on to practice those bits of language, on the assumption that, through such practice, declarative knowledge  is converted into procedural knowledge (i.e., conscious knowledge that , becomes unconscious knowledge of how to use English in real communication). But the assumption is false; actually, it involves three false assumptions.

False Assumption 1: Declarative knowledge converts to procedural knowledge through classroom practice. It does not. Knowing that the past tense of has is had doesn’t mean that with a bit of classroom practice you can use had fluently and correctly in real-time communication. L2 learning isn’t like studying geography or biology, where declarative knowledge is primary, it’s more like learning to swim. .  .

False Assumption 2: SLA is a process of mastering, one by one, accumulating structural items. It is not. All the items are inextricably inter-related, and there’s no evidence of items being learned one at a time, or of any item being learned linearly. As Long (2015) says: “The assumption that learners can move from zero knowledge to mastery of negation, the present tense, subject- verb agreement, conditionals, relative clauses, or whatever, one at a time, and move on to the next item in the list, is a fantasy”.

False Assumption 3: Learners learn what they’re taught when they’re taught it. They don’t.  L2 learners follow their own developmental route, a series of interlocking linguistic systems called “interlanguages”. The route is not affected by L1, learning context, or teaching method. Teaching affects the rate but not the route of SLA.

I’ve already expounded on all this, (see here for a summary of the arguments) so let’s move to Long’s TBLT.

Mike Long’s Task Based Language Teaching (TBLT) is very different from other forms of TBLT, because it’s based on identifying Target Tasks from which Pedagogical Tasks are derived. All that follows is taken from Long’s (2015) excellent, highly recommended book, SLA and TBLT. 

Unlike other ELT scholars, Long defines a task using the ordinary meaning of the word to refer to “the hundred and one things people do in everyday life, at work, at play, and in between”.

A task is a piece of work undertaken for oneself or for others, freely or for some reward.

Examples of tasks are:

filling out a form, buying a pair of shoes, making an airline reservation, borrowing a library book, taking a driving test, typing a letter, weighing a patient, sorting letters, making a hotel reservation, finding a street destination and helping someone cross a road.

Target Tasks

Target Tasks are what students need to be able to do in the L2. Long insists that the best sources of information on target tasks are “Domain Experts”, or “insiders”: professionals (practicing lawyers, accountants, doctors , bankers, academics, …) tradespeople, Human Resource managers, foremen, and so on. Linked to these domain experts are authentic documents that they use in their respective fields. So you have to talk to the experts and ask them for the documents and texts that they use most.

There is also some useful published literature in our own field, and I would particularly recommend Brown’s (2009) book Foreign and second language needs analysis and the Foreign Language  Program Evaluation Project, published by the University  of Hawaii (2011). see here: http://www.nflrc.hawaii.edu/evaluation/ .

A third useful source is government publications. Long points out that the U.S. Dictionary of Occupational Titles gives Task-based descriptions of 12,000 occupations, and his book makes special reference to a Soldiers Manual of Common Tasks.   

Examples of Target Tasks

One example of a target task is provided by Gilabert (2005) English for Catalan journalists. Examining the overall task “Journalist interviews a source”, Gilabert identified these tasks:

  • Deciding on the decision-making process
  • Contacting the source
  • Documenting the interview
    • gathering different information sources (previous interviews, documents, Internet items, etc.)
    • selecting materials for questions
    • producing a set of questions
  • Arranging the interview
  • Dong the interview
  • Translating the transcript or interview for publication

(That’s my brief summary of Long’s more complete discussion. In “Documenting the interview”, I’ve added sub-sections, but in fact Gilabert identifies sub-tasks for most of the main tasks.)

Another example of a target task is Negotiate a Police Traffic Stop as described by Long 2015, (ps. 279-286).  This is an interesting and revealing account of a project carried out by CASA de Maryland’s ESL programme in 2009. Recently arrived Latino and African migrant workers in the USA often got stopped by the police while driving to work. O’Connell (2012) set about gathering genuine sources of target discourse and, through cooperation with four police departments, he was given scripts of police stops, recorded various actual stops himself, and inverviewed police officers who made traffic stops. From his data, O’Conell produced a scematic represenation of a traffic stop

From there, O’Connell devised prototypical dialogues, and, building on this work, Long subsequently suggested a module in the course consisting of six Pedadogical Tasks (PTs).

PT1: Intro (Schema Building)

PT2: The Real Thing. Recording of the stop

PT3: What Happened?

PT4: Reading Along

PT5: Role Play 1

PT6: Role Play 2: The Exit Task.

An important element of Long’s TBLT is the transition from Target Tasks to Pedagogical Tasks. Here are the Steps:

(Long, 2015, p.204: Figure 8.1 Steps & Processes in TBLT syllabus design)

Sequencing Pedagogical Tasks

There is then the question of how to sequence the pedagogical tasks. Long discusses criteria for making decisions about sequencing which include

  • Valency: the communicative value, reach or coverage of the task
  • Frequency
  • Learnability: what students are capable of processing
  • Complexity and Difficulty.

These are interesting matters, and I really can’t do justice to them here; I urge you to read Long ‘s discussion of them.

Analyzing Target Discourse

Long devotes a complete chapter to this key step in his TBLT process. It consists of collecting target discourse samples through recordings and written texts, and involves the kind of work O’Connell did with the target task “Negotiate a Police Traffic Stop”. Once the samples have been collected, they have to be analysed. Long (2015, 187-203) gives 5 cases of target discourse analysis. He concludes:

The primary focus of language analysis in TBLT is the dynamic qualities of target discourse – how language is used to accomplish tasks – not simply the linguistic features of static texts. Once target tasks have been identified, samples of language use surrounding their accomplishment are mined for anything likely to facilitate task performance. However, the focus of an Analysis of Discourse is not on achieving an exhaustive, generative model of the kind sought in a true Discourse Analysis, but, again, on dimensions considered important for successful task completion.

Samples of genuine language use are thus another key ingredient. Long says that analyses of such samples reveal many common properties that are rarely modeled in commercially produced pedagogic materials. Language use, even in relatively formal situations, is often more colloquial than that found in coursebooks, usually because, unlike coursebook models, it is context-embedded. Conversations are also typically less self-contained and more open-ended than contrived textbook “dialogs.”

Those characteristics, in turn, allow use of other devices rarely found in pedagogic models, notably, extensive ellipsis and intertextuality. Finally, even fairly simple, constrained tasks, such as service encounters, whose focus is usually thought of first and foremost in terms of referential communication, are facilitated by the use of “small talk”.

Materials: Input Simplification and Elaboration

Long next considers task-based materials, and here, his use of “Input simplification and elaboration” is the key. Having pointed out the problems found in the artifical discourse found in textbooks, and the problems surrounding the use of so-called “authentic texts”, Long argues for a special treatment of the texts selected, involving simplification and elaboration. Again, I can’t myself give any satisfactory quick summary of how Long suggests materials are confected in this way (and, again, I refer you to the clear explanation and examples  found in Chapter 9), but  here’s one example of an elaborated text.

Based on the schematic representation of moves in a police traffic stop, stripping away idiosyncratic moves and topics, incorporating language from the genuine originals, and given differences in the two events, O’Connell produced 2 prototypicial dialogues for a traffic stop;  one resulting in issuance of a warning, the other resulting in issuance of a fine. This is the first dialogue.

Elaborated Dialogue 1

The warning officer: Good evening ma’am. I’m Officer Smith with the Pleasantville Police Department. Can I see your license and registration please?

Driver: Sure, here they are. (Gives officer documents)

Officer: Okay. And is this still your current address?

Driver: Yes, it is.

Officer: Okay. Now, I stopped you because one of your brake lights, your rear left brake light, is out. Were you aware of that?

Driver: No, no I wasn’t.

Officer: Okay. Please stay in the car and I’ll be back with you in a minute. (5–10 minutes pass)

Officer: Okay, ma’am. I’m giving you a warning on the brake light. (Gives driver warning) You need to get that fixed, though, as it’s a violation that you could be cited for. Okay?

Driver: Yes, sir, thank you.

Officer: And here’s your license and registration. (Gives driver documents)

Driver: Thank you.

Officer: Have a safe evening, and be careful pulling out here.

The 2 elaborated texts were recorded and the oral and written texts were part of the materials used in the 6 pedagogical tasks that were mentioned above.

Summary

Stages in Long’s TBLT

  1. Needs analysis to identify target tasks
  2. Classify into target task types
  3. Derive Pedagogic tasks
  4. Sequence to FonF task-based syllabus
  5. Implement with appropriate methodology & pedagogy
  6. Task-based, criterion-referenced, performance assessment
  7. Evaluate programme

Long’s TBLT is, in my opinion the best described and best justified syllabus currently available in ELT. But it’s very demanding on the course designer and teacher. The design of Target Tasks and Pedagogical tasks, the analysis of target discourse, and the elaboration of materials that use Long’s ideas of input simplification and elaboration, requires a lot of time and expertise. We’ll return to it at the end, but for now, let’s look at a Process TBLT syllabus.

Process Syllabuses

Breen (1987) summarised the differences between what he refers to as Product and Process syllabuses (Long follows Wilkins (1976) and calls them Synthetic and Analytic)

A Process Syllabus is based on this rationale:

  • Authentic communication between learners involves the genuine need to share meaning and to negotiate about things that actually matter and require action on a learner’s part.
  • Meta-communication and shared decision-making are necessary conditions of language learning in any classroom.
  • The Process Syllabus empowers learners and stresses the vital role of the teacher.

A Process TBLT Syllabus

I tentatively propose a Process TBLT syllabus based on this rationale:

  • Problem-solving tasks generate learner interaction, real communication, the negotiation of meaning, rich comprehensible input and output.
  • There is a focus on the processes of learner participation in discourse.
  • Tasks are sequenced on the basis of addressing learner problems as they arise, thereby overcoming sequencing limitations of conventional syllabus design criteria
  • Learners work on all parts of the sylllabus, including input and materials design

Methodological Principles of Process TBLT syllabus

  • Promote “Learning by Doing” (Real-world tasks)
  • Provide rich input (Realistic target language use)
  • Focus on Form (not FoFs)
  • Provide Negative Feedback (Recasts +)
  • Involve learners in decision-making
  • Respect Interlanguage Development.

Needs Analysis and Tasks 

Needs Analysis consists of:

  • Pre-course questionnaires
  • Interviews
  •  Planning sessions during course

Task:

  • Meaning is primary
  • Focus on outcomes
  • A real-world relationship

We distinguish between Macro and Micro Tasks

Macro tasks: Solve a well-defined problem. My suggestion is that a macro task, involving 6 to 15 hours class time forms the framework for micro tasks, and that it is framed as a problem. Examples:  

  1. How can we re-organising the banking sector, post 2008, in Country X so as to avoid a repetition of the 2008 collapse, provide individuals with cheap, efficient, reliable services, etc. etc..?
  2. How do new sophisticated statistics software packages affect house / car / life / …. insurance in Country X?
  3. How can parents deal with teenagers’ use of mobile phones?
  4. The Reinvention of Danone: planning for continued growth.
  5. How can we ensure the continuation of Newspaper X in Country X?
  6. What is the best model for primary & secondary education: Finland, Poland, or UK?
  7. How can the problems of water scarcity in Country X be tackled?
  8. How can traffic problems in City X be tackled?
  9. How can discrimination (race, gender, age, ..) in Industry X or Sector X in Country X be tackled?
  10. How can tourism in Location X be promoted?

Micro tasks: Each Macro Task is broken down into a series of Micro Tasks. Here is a suggested sequence, not definitive.

  • Understand the problem
  • Suggest Tentative Solutions
  • Gather information
  • Present information
  • Analyse and Assess information
  • Test Tentative Solutions
  • Propose Solution
  • Discuss Solution
  • Make decision
  • Report

Implemenation

The teacher takes charge of the first section of the course. At the end of Section 1, there is a Feedback / Planning session. Students fill in 2 short questionnaires and then put together a plan for Section 2. They tell the teacher what topic or topics they want to work on, how they feel about help with grammar, vocab., etc., and how they want to work. The teachers uses their feedback and their plan to design Section 2 of the course. The teacher then leads students through Section 2. At the end of the section, there is a new Feedback / Planning session, the students have learned from the first 2 sections a bit more about how to use the planning session to their best advantage, so they do a better job of planning Section 3, the teacher puts the plan together, and on it goes. A 100 hour course will consist of 8 to 10 sections.

An Example: General Business Course for adults

  • Type of Student: Adult
  • Number of Students: 12
  • Level: Mid-Intermediate (CEFR: B2).
  • Course Duration: 100 hours; 6 hours a week.
  • Main Objectives: Improve English for business purposes. Priority: oral communication.

First 12 hours: Section 1

Before the course starts, students fill in a NA and are interviewed. The teacher designs and leads the first section of the course by leading work on a suitable Macro task, chosen on the basis of data gathered from NA and interviews. To carry out the Micro Tasks, materials from a Materials Bank are used: worksheets, web-based material, videos, oral and written texts, articles, newspaper reports, …

While carrying out the tasks, the teacher attends to grammar through negative feedback and focus on form; attends to vocabulary building and lexical chunks in vocab. sessions, includes some written work in class, sets homework of various types, establishes a website for the class, provides a mixture of group work, pair work, whole class work, and in general gives students a taste of what’s possible.

First Feedback / Planning Session

Tool 1: Feedback Sheet

1= very bad   10 = excellent

General feeling about course so far:                      1 2 3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10

My participation:                                                       1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10

My progress:                                                               1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10

Teacher:                                                                       1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10

Activities:                                                                     1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10

Use of time:                                                                1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10

Level of difficulty:                                                      1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10

 

Best parts of the classes:

 

Worst parts of the classes:

 

Too much / too little time was spent on:

 

General Comments:

…………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Tool 2: Planning Sheet

What should be the Topic/s for the next Section of the course?

 

Class Work: What proportion of the time should we work

  • individually,
  • in pairs,
  • in small groups,
  • as a whole group?

Activities   Name activities yu want to do. Be as detailed as possible.  

  • Listening (video / audio / etc.)
  • Reading (texts, internet searches, etc.)
  • Writing (e-mails, reports, etc.)
  • Speaking (discussions, meetings, stories, presentations, etc.)
  • Grammar work
  • Vocabulary work
  • Pronunciation work

What other recommendations do you have?

Prepare a report giving your recommendations for Section 2 of the course.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Students are given the 2 questionnaires which they fill in individually.

They then get into groups of 4 to discuss their answers, reach consensus on the plan for Section 2, and prepare a report to give to the whole class. During this first planning session, it’s important for the teacher to encourage everybody to make specific, focused suggestions. My experience using this type of syllabus is that students will tend to say “We liked Section 1 well enough, you carry on, just let’s have a bit more of this and a bit less of that.” You have to insist that they give more input than this.

The whole class meets to hear reports from each group. The teacher records this meeting. The teacher listens to the feedback comments and makes no attempt to defend himself/herself against any criticism. The groups then report on their plans for Section 2, after which the class discusses the reports together and reaches  final decisions. The teacher promises to present the plan for Section 2 in the next class.

At the next class, the teacher presents the plan for Section 2. Exactly how much this reflects the students’ plan will depend on the context, but in any case it’s the teacher’s job to explain the plan, and to make sure it sufficiently reflects the students’ suggestions. Then Section 2 begins.

In Section 2, the teacher leads students through one or more Macro tasks, chosen in line with the students’ decisions on topic. The Micro Tasks involve activities involving the 4 skills, and are again chosen to reflect the students’ comments on where they want to concentrate. The materials for these activities come from a Materials Bank, and it’s obvious that this Materials Bank plays a very important part in the delivery of this type of course. In the SLB cooperative, we’re currently working on materials that are coded according to topic, skill, level, grammar point, vocabulary area, group / pair / whole class work, etc., etc., so that if members want to do a syllabus of this type, they can quickly assemble the needed Micro Tasks which make up the Macro Task.

 At the end of Section 2, the 2nd Feedback/Planning session is held. Students fill in the same questionnaires and go through the same group and whole class discussion phases. They do it better this time; and they’ll do it better the 3rd time.

Variations in Process TBLT

The basic idea is that the syllabus is divided into sections, and each section does macro problem-solving task(s). Each section preceded by a planning session. The variable elements are:

    • Number of Sections
    • Content of Planning Session (how much students decide)
    • Materials: (from Materials Bank to Coursebook)
    • Nature of tasks
    • Nature of vocab. and grammar work

Summary

The Process TBLT syllabus is very sketchy and open to lots more criticism. The NA is open to all the criticsms Long makes of it, and so are the tasks themselves; but on the other hand, students engage in messy work of learning and directly affect decisions. It’s also very adaptable.

Both versions avoid the false assumptions made by product syllabuses, both are learner-centred, and both are likely to be more rewarding for all concerned than coursebook-driven ELT.

This skeleton outline indicates 2 Very different views of TBLT. Long’s TBLT is, in my opinion, much better all round. It’s better thought through, more principled, better informed, more thorough, more focused. But is it practical? I fear too many will think that it isn’t, and fail to appreciate that it makes a lot of sense for all those teachers who have to put any kind of ESP course together or who, working as autonomous teachers, can design courses specially for their clients.

Breen, M. (1987) Contemporary Paradigms in Syllabus Design. Part I   Language Teaching Volume 20, Issue 2

Breen, M. (1987) Contemporary Paradigms in Syllabus Design. Part 2   Language Teaching Volume 20, Issue 3

Breen, M., & Littlejohn, A. (Eds.). (2000). Classroom decision-making negotiation and process syllabus in practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brown, J. (2009) Foreign and second language needs analysis. In Doughty, C. and Long, M.,   Handbook of Language Teaching Wley

Long. M. (2015) SLA and TBLT. Wiley.

University of Hawaii (2011) Foreign Language  Program Evaluation Project.). see here: http://www.nflrc.hawaii.edu/evaluation/ .

Wilkins. D. (1976) Notional Syllabuses. OUP.

Willis, D. and Willis, J. (2007) Doing TBLT. Oxford University Press

The EFL Magazine

It calls itself “The magazine for English language teachers”. It publishes articles that consistently ignore findings in the field of SLA and pander to the worst prejudices of current ELT. It disallows comments that it doesn’t like. It’s a rag, it’s the Daily Mail of ELT.

Whatever the EFL Magazine touches turns to dross. Critical acumen is nowhere to be seen, bland baloney is everwhere. Search the back numbers of the EFL Magazine and you won’t find anything that makes your heart sing: nothing, nada, nix.

The EFL Magazine is devoted to middle of the road, badly crafted, mind numbing platitudes. It has nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, to offer anyone who wants to know what’s really going on in ELT. It’s the worst, most boring, most conservative, most profoudly empty magazine ever published. It’s the zenith of dross, the bottom of the pit, a repository of mediocre mumblings lost in their own tedious vacuity.

I challenge anybody to find an article in the EFL Magazine that has made any significant contribution to our understanding of ELT.

You want evidence of just how bad this awful rag is? Read it!

You want to make a comment that the editors don’t like? Try it. I’ve made various comments and they’ve all been censored.

 

The Work of Jeremy Harmer

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In the last 20 years, Jeremy Harmer has been an invited speaker at more than 200 conferences all over the world, and shared “Top Billing” as a plenary speaker at more than 100. According to his blog, he has also published the following books:

  • • Essential Teacher Knowledge. Pearson ELT 2012
    • The Practice of English Language Teaching: 5th edition. 2015
    • How to Teach English: 2nd edition. Pearson ELT. 2007
    • How to Teach Writing. Pearson Education Ltd. 2004
    • Advanced Speaking Skills (with John Arnold).
Pearson Education Ltd 1978
    • Advanced Writing Skills (with John Arnold).
Pearson Education Ltd 1978
    • Teaching and Learning Grammar.
Pearson Education Ltd. 1987
    • 6 different sets of coursebooks, totalling more than 20 books.

In all this time, as far as I know, Harmer’s work has never been subjected to any serious criticism; he has simply come to be accepted as a leading figure in the ever expanding ELT world. I find this absence of criticism surprising, given that, in my opinion, Harmer’s work
1. shows a woeful lack of scholarship and critical acumen;
2. is unoriginal, poorly expressed, and lacking in coherence and cohesion;
3. has made no significant contribution to the huge progress that’s been made in ELT.

 

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I’ve previously made some comments on Harmer’s work, but here, I want to bring things together in a slightly more measured way. We can begin by looking at Harmer’s magnum opus The Practice of English Language Teaching, now in its fifth edition, and start with the question of style. As Griffin says, two key elements are required in any effective writing style. The first is readability: the use of words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs in such a way that facts and ideas are clearly and concisely communicated. The other is elegance: the use of appropriate and interesting words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs to produce graceful, unobtrusive prose that will keep a reader’s attention and interest. Good style communicates effectively, allowing the reader to move along easily and enjoyably; bad style hinders communication; making reading tedious and often confusing.

In my opinion, Harmer’s writing scores badly on both readability and elegance. Here are a few short extracts from the first 20 pages of Practice of Language Teaching, mixed in with some other bits of “Harmer Speak” from his other books

There are many different ways to teach English and places where it is taught …

Teaching may be a visceral art, but unless it is informed by ideas it is considerably less than it might be.

English migrated to other countries … such as the USA, Canada, New Zealand, … and many other corners of the globe. And it didn’t stop there. It has morphed and spread to other countries too.

There is nothing wrong (and everything right) with discovery-based experiential learning. It just doesn’t work some of the time.

English sometimes seems as if it is everywhere, but in reality, of course, it is not.

Where we can identify what our students really need, ….we will have clearer aims and objectives for our lessons than we sometimes do for more general contexts.

Without beliefs and enthusiasms, teachers become client-satisfiers only — and that is a model which comes out of a different tradition from that of education, and one that we follow at our peril.

The constant interplay of applied linguistic theory and observed classroom practice attempts to draw us ever closer to a real understanding of exactly how languages are learnt and acquired, so that the work of writers such as Ellis (1994) and Thornbury (1999)—to mix levels of theory and practice—are written to influence the methodology we bring to language learning. We ignore their challenges and suggestions at our peril, even if due consideration leads us to reject some of what they tell us.

A problem with the idea that methodology should be put back into second place (at the very most) is that it threatens to damage an essential element of a teacher’s make-up —namely what they believe in, and what they think they are doing as teachers.

If, for example, the students need to say things like “water evaporates”, then we will help them to say this. But this does not mean that we have to spend days teaching the present simple (as we might do in a general English course); instead we may help the students with just enough of the present simple to talk about evaporation, but nothing more.

One school of thought which is widely accepted by many language teachers is that the development of our conceptual understanding and cognitive skills is a main objective of all education. Indeed, this is more important than the acquisition of factual information (Williams and Burden 1997:165).

Yet without our accumulated knowledge and memories what are we? Our knowledge is, on the contrary, the seat of our intuition and our creativity. Furthermore, the gathering of that knowledge from our peers and, crucially, our elders and more experienced mentors is part of the process of socialization. Humanity has thought this to be self-evident for at least 2,000 years.

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Whatever words spring to mind to describe this writing, I doubt “elegant” is among them. In my opinion, the writing is vague, clumsy, pretentious, and self-indulgent, continuously spoiled by the literary equivalent of musical tone deafness. Like the famous Florence Foster Jenkins, so brilliantly played by Merly Streep in the recent biopic, Harmer, I suggest, can’t “hear” his own voice, and, since nobody has put him straight, he remains blissfully unaware of just how bad his writing is. So on he goes: his propensity for wandering off track remains unchecked; his proclivity for stating the blindingly obvious is allowed free rein; his unabashed predilection for clichés and sentimentality is boundless. In short, The practice of English Language Teaching is the work of a writer drawn to banality like a moth to the flame.

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As to readability, the coherence of Practice … is severely weakened by it’s failure to stick to the point. The over use of brackets, asides, hedges, and unnecessary comments often results in a simple point being dragged out for several pages. Right at the start of the book, it takes Harmer six pages to make the point that English is currently used as a lingua franca by around 2 billion people. Cohesion is even less in evidence. The text is superficially well-organised, but it fails to properly sequence the discussion of the topics it deals with. For example, in the Theories of language section, issues of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation are raised, and then they’re raised again in the Teaching language and Teaching skills sections. The problem is that nowhere are the issues of grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation properly dealt with in a coherent and cohesive way. On more than 50 pages where these issues are discussed, the reader is referred to other places in the text, where whatever point is currently being made is added to, repeated, modified, or even contradicted. In Chapter 2 we are told about lexis, corpora, collocations and word families, but none of these terms is adequately discussed. We meet them all again, of course, from time to time, here and there, but the book’s account of them is unsatisfactory, partly because it’s incohesive. The cohesion of the text is further let down by the absence of any overarching argument informing it: it’s a motley collection of bits and pieces. All of which makes reading The Practice of Englsh Teaching feel like wading through a tangled bog at midnight in an unmarked wasteland under a black, moonless sky.

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And so to content. Magpies skilfully take what they need from other birds’ nests; Harmer is less adept. Witness, for example, how the new edition handles theories of language and language learning. Chapter 2, Describing English, fails to clearly describe any of the main theories of language, fails to explain Saussure’s distinction between langue and parole, or Chomsky’s distiinction between competence and performance, or Halliday’s theory of systemic functional grammar. It similarly fails to give even a minimum overview of recent developments in corpus linguistics, which have had such a big impact on our view of the relationship between grammar and vocabulary, or to explain the main thrust of Jenkins’ arguments about English pronunciation. The discussion of language learning is even worse.

In a book of 500+ pages, 17 pages are devoted to how people learn languages. It’s interesting to note that the chapter on seating arrangements in classrooms has more pages. Among the important issues in language learning currently being discussed, we could perhaps highlight challenges to Chomsky’s UG; new theories based on emergentism, such as those being developed by N. Ellis and Rastelli; continuing developments of a cognitive-interactionist theory of SLA; new studies in interlanguage development; work on Hoey’s priming theory; and Dörnyei’s L2 Motivational Self System. All these developments have important implications for the practice of English language teaching, but none of them is discussed with even the most rudimentary respect for scholarship or even the facts in Chapter 3, Issues in language learning. While ignoring most of the important issues, the chapter manages to seriously misrepresent the work of some of the scholars cited, including, notably, Krashen, Pienemann and Schmidt.

To summarise, the 5th edition of The Practice of English Teaching

  1. fails to demonstrate a good command of subject matter
  2. fails to give a well-informed description or competent critical evaluation of current views of the English language, L2 language learning, teaching methodology,or assessment
  3. is entirely derived from the works of others; it develops no original or innovative ideas ot its own
  4. makes tedious and unrewarding reading.

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There’s nothing in this book that isn’t more succinctly and more interestingly covered in other books, for example, Scrivener’s Learning Teaching. I disagree with Scrivener’s view of teaching English, but he writes well. Learning Teaching is a pleasure rather than a struggle to read; a model of coherence and cohesion; a disciplined, focused, well-argued treatise; a book that does what it says on the tin as they say nowadays, and one that you can easily dip into to find what you want. Try doing that with Harmer’s book! If you get the two books side by side, and directly compare the way they deal with the same thing, you’ll begin to appreciate just how bad Harmer’s book is.

Now for Harmer’s conference presentations.

IATEFL Chile, 2016

At the 2016 Chile IATEFL conference, Harmer gave a plenary entitled Back between the covers: should coursebooks exist in a modern age? Here’s how he summed up, at the end on an hour long talk:

  1. Everything that happens in the classroom is all about students. I, the teacher, don’t mean a damn.
  2. We know that if students use their brains with volition, if they’re prepared to put some brain work into it, it’s going to be better for them.
  3. We know that when students try to produce language and try to produce language as well as they can it’s really good for them because the thought processes that are going on in their heads is part of what learning a language is all about….. Thinking is really good for you if you’re a language learner. It’s much better for you than not thinking……. Predicting is a really good activity becuase it brings you back to the classroom. It really works. And guessing is really good because it makes you, …guess.
  4. We know that we live in a digital age which is very different to 1980.

Harmer began by pointing out that “in this digital age”, computers can now deliver learning materials made “just for you”, and continued by reminding the audience about what Thornbury had said in his plenary earlier about Dogme. So computer-based materials and Dogme were the challenges that perplexed him when he was considering returning to coursebook writing. How, he asked, might teachers respond to these dilemmas? In answer to the question he said “We’re going to be talking for the rest of this session about music.”

  •  First, talk to the person next to you about how important music is to you in your life.
  • Then, here’s a list of musical instruments. Choose an instrument, but don’t tell anybody else. Now turn to somebody and mime playing the instrument.
  • Next who are these people? (Photos on the screen) They’re musicians. With a partner, guess where they from and what instrument they play
  • Next, choose one of them, find them on your mobiles and listen.
  • Next, watch these videos of a rock band and a pianist.
  • Next, stand up and talk about what musical instrument you’d like to play.

After that, Harmer talked about using Google on mobile phones, and there was a brief mention of coursebooks: “Almost no text in a coursebook is so boring that you can’t do anything at all with it.” Then it was time to wrap it up. Before the summary, he just had time to say:
What we know about language learning, and what we forget at our peril, is that good language learners use their … er memory is an absolutely critical element of language learning and everything we can do to train our students’ memory is a really good thing to do. And not only that but stories really matter, And what do we do with stories? We tell and re-tell them.

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IATEFL International, 2015

At the 2015 IATEFL conference, Harmer gave a presentation with the title An uncertain and approximate business? Why teachers should love testing. It was held at prime time in the biggest room in the conference centre, and streamed live on the conference website.

Harmer begins by listing objections to testing:

  • Tests don’t measure creativity
  • Chomsky says “testing is an anathema.”
  • Some people on Facebook don’t like testing
  • Testing 4 year olds is weird
  • Testing is only a snapshot
  • Some people are good at testing, some aren’t.

None of these points was developed and no coherent argument to support them was attempted.  Harmer then gives reasons why teachers should love testing:

  •  He got a Grade 1 in playing the tuba because there was a test, and he performed badly in a concert because there wasn’t a test. Testing is thus a powerful motivator.
  • Neurosurgeons and pilots must be tested. So we need tests.
  • Tests tell us where students are. ”A test if it’s well done will tell you how well your students have done.”
  • Tests are getting better. “The Pearson test of academic English is bloody wonderful. I’m saying that because I believe it, not just because they pay me.” The designers claim that their speech-recognition software evaluates speech “as reliably and accurately as any human being can. And I have no reason to doubt that, because the research behind it is er.., er.., massive.”
  • Lots of tests are bad. If you want to change testing you can moan or do something; so learn about tests and do something. .

That’s it.

TOBELTA 2015 Online Conference

Harmer’s second presentation on testing was a videoconference given as part of the 2015 TOBELTA Online Conference. Harmer asked Should teachers love tests or hate them? and began by confiding that the question is so knotty that it drives him “to schizophrenia”. Harmer said that while he agrees with Luke Meddings that testing is badly-affected by big business, and that the commodification of language is a bad thing, he still thinks that neurosurgeons and pilots should be properly assessed. He also said that in his opinion teachers need to become “test literate” experts; they need to know about concepts of validity, reliability, and test item types because knowledge of the two “profound concepts” of content validity and construct validity is vital if teachers are to “get inside the test.” Finally, he said that students and teachers should “discuss together what it is they need to do and want to do with the full understanding of how a test works.”

Harmer concluded:

How do you stop a huge corporation dominating the testing world? How do you stop tests being designed that are absurd and ridiculous? And, guess what? I have no easy answer to that… but I know perfectly well that there’s no merit in, or virtue in complaining about this in private, and, by the way, I say this absolutely genuinely, the reason why listening to Luke and others is so important is that it was not a private event, it was a public event and the more of us who are public about what we think, the greater the opportunity is that, er, things might change.

When you sit through any Harmer presentation, you suffer. As he lurches around the stage, it quickly becomes clear that he’s got absolutely nothing interesting to say, and you realise that you’re listening to empty noise. You’re about to waste a precious hour of your life, an hour, what’s more, which will seem like an eternity: did ever a clock tick slower than during a Harmer plenary! On and on he goes, never doing more than scratching the surface of his chosen topic, piling one platitude on top of another, tossing in “Oh, and by the way!”s every now and then, declaring all the while how much he really really sincerely believes whatever ill-considered point he’s struggling to make, somehow sustained by the belief that “Being Jeremy Harmer” is enough to see him through.

Brexit: Stop the Press: Enlightenment is dead

What more fitting way to round up this quick review of The Maestro’s work than with his response to Brexit. As one commentator on this blog remarked: “I experienced such vergüenza ajena I curled up in a ball and rolled under my bed”.

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Conclusion
Harmer’s published books and presentations have nothing (sic) original to say, and are, in my opinion, an affront to scholarship, to critical thinking, and to our profession. His work is a remarkable phenomenon: a moronic miscellany of prating drivel, the most singular example of sustained, puffed up baloney in the annals of ELT.

The Second Coming

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We’re living in very troubled times. Nobody wants to give serious consideration to the suggestion that human beings’ relatively short time on this planet is coming to an end, but there is at least a growing feeling of unease about how we’re managing an increasingly global economy, more and more conflictive political and social relationships, and the accelerating depletion of the world’s resources. It sometimes feels like we’re on the edge of something truly calamitous, or at least that we’re coming to the end of a particular epoch in human history. What more can governmental control of capitalism do to stop it getting out of control? How much longer can the rich keep the poor from their gates? What will we do when Nature strikes back in earnest? The new search for “strong leaders” reflects near panic. Thomas Pynchon has one of his characters ask “What is the tag end of an age, if not that tilt towards the more devious, the less forceful?”

My favourite poem, The Second Coming, seem to talk to all this. It’s so beautifully written, so powerful, violent, frightening, mesmerising. It’s a very famous poem, loved by millions, and yet it’s terribly obscure, almost impossible to understand. Someone said of it “It is safe to say that very few people who love this poem could paraphrase its meaning to satisfaction”. I choose not to give much importance to a Christian interpretation, but I’m not among those able to “paraphrase its meaning to satisfaction”. So here it is, and I hope you enjoy it, however many times you’ve read it before.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

William Butler Yeats, 1919. Source: The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (1989)

Up The Summit

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Lesson Plan

Aim: To Deconstruct the TESOL Summit Conference

Type: General English

Level: B

Materials:

  1. Video of  Futurology: Guiding Principles Session at TESOL Summit Conference, February 2017.
  2. TESOL Summit website
  3. Play Doh

Implementation:

A. Warm Up:  Show this photo  

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Ask students these questions:

1. How would you describe the scene?

2. What do you think is happening?

3. How long do you think you could stare at that carpet before you passed out?

Get Feedback. Then explain that it’s Session One of the TESOL Summit conference.

B. Watch The Video Explain that they’re going to watch parts of the Opening session on Futurology.

According to the Conference Programme, Futurology offers “a broad, holistic perspective that is essential for understanding the English language profession both today and in the future”. The presenters are asked to address the question:

What are the mega-trends (political, economic, social, intercultural, legal, and digital) and how do they impact English and English language education?

You might like to explore what “Futurology” is; what “a broad holistic perspective” might entail; or what the question means. Point out that this is a good example of “Summit Talk”, and that a more honest, clearer question is “What’s your guess about what lies ahead?” You can then ask students what they would expect to hear in talks about the future of TESOL.

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Sue Garton’s presentation on The Future of Inquiry in TESOL

Play Minute 2 to Minute 15 of the Guiding Principles Session.

Comprehension Questions:

1. Ms. Garton talked about the mega-trends for 7 seconds. What did she say?

2. In Minute 9 Ms Garton says

In the UK now all research projects have to show that they have impact. And by impact that means they will reach the people who will benefit from them. So that’s quite a good sign.  

How do you think all research projects in the UK comply with this new requirement? What government department do you think checks compliance? Is this an example of the further dilution of the impact and vibrancy of the word “impact”?

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3. In Ms. Garton’s slide we can see (clockwise from top left): A researcher; Policy Makers; Students; A teacher. In the middle is a Head Teacher.  These are the main stakeholders in English language education. Well, actually they aren’t because, as Ms. Garton explained, she didn’t have room in the slide to include them all. Which stakeholders did she leave out?  What do you think all the arrows mean?  What does this have to do with how mega-trends will impact English language education?

4. How does Ms. Garton suggest that TESOL should “broaden the notion of inquiry”? (Answer: To involve everybody.)

5. What should “Inquiry” mean? (Answer:  The act of asking questions in order to gather or collect information.)

6 What should TESOL concentrate on? (Answer: gathering and disseminating practical professional knowledge.)

7.  Ms. Garton asks: “How do we spread these inquiries across the profession?” How does she answer the question? (Answer: Ms. Garton didn’t answer it. The question was her final contribution to the session.

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Asmaa Abu Mezied’s presentation on The Future of Equity in TESOL 

Before asking students to watch this clip, give them a bit of light relief.  Tell students that Ms. Abu Mezied presents herself as “a global shaper”. Give out the play doh and ask them “How would you shape the globe if you had the chance?”

Play Minute 34 to Minute 46 of the Guiding Principles Session.

Comprehension Questions

1. How does conflict affect children?  (Answer: 124 million can’t attend school regularly.)

2. Are there a lot of people in the world who don’t get the chance to go to university? (Answer: Yes)

3. How can we solve these problems? How can we bring English to those who live in areas of conflict? How can we provide greater access to higher education?  (Answer: improve digital identity for displaced persons and follow the example of the Jesuit Worldwide Learning partnership which organises university courses in refugee camps.)

D. The TESOL Summit Website

Go to the website and then ask students to search it for any (further) information that addresses the question:

What are the mega-trends (political, economic, social, intercultural, legal, and digital) and how do they impact English and English language education?

Don’t take too long on this, because there isn’t any. Extraordinary, but true: there is absolutely nothing of substance there. Point out to the students that the website doesn’t give a full summary, and that if they can sustain their interest until March 2018, they can read the summary and commentary of conference proceedings which the organisers have promised to publish.

E. Footnote For Teachers: The Other Issues Covered at the Summit Conference

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Reimaging English Competence

A rare moment of clarity came when David Nunan made a short contribution at the end of the Summary Session. The rest is just a confused re-hash of stuff much better expressed elsewhere.

 The Profession as a Change Agent

The conference set out to find ways “to empower each member of the TESOL profession to foster positive change within a risk-tolerant culture”. The presentations provide a rich source of material for teachers interested in exploring pseudo-academic baloney, business jargon and generally empty posturing.

English in Multiculturalism

How can the multilingualism of students of English and TESOL professionals (particularly nonnative-English-speaking teachers) be recognized as an asset in advocacy, innovation, policy, and practice?  How can linguistic diversity be leveraged while teaching English, and what best practices allow teachers to incorporate the languages of their students into their daily professional practices? Pretentious questions, to which answers came there none. Teach the modern idiomatic injunction “Don’t go there!” and don’t go there.

Scott Thornbury and CELTA

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The CELTA Trainee Book by Scott Thornbury and Peter Watkins is the first book to appear if you search for books on CELTA at Amazon.

Scott Thornbury is also the co-author of Meddings, L. and Thornbury, S. (2009). Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching.

The obvious question arises: How does Scott Thornbury reconcile the views expressed in these two books?

Let’s look at CELTA.

Young students working on an assignment

CELTA = Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults

It’s a product of Cambridge English and, according to them. “The essential TEFL qualification that’s trusted by employers, language schools and governments around the world”.

More than 100,000 people did the CELTA course in 2016. There are more than 800 Approved Centres in more than 60 countries.

International House offers CELTA preparation Courses. Cost: 1,450 pounds sterling. Duration: 4 weeks. One of the recommended book for the course is The CELTA Trainee Book by Scott Thornbury and Peter Watkins.

The CELTA Syllabus is as follows:

Topic 1 – Learners and teachers, and the teaching and learning context

  • 1.1 Cultural, linguistic and education backgrounds
  • 1.2 Motivations for learning English as an adult
  • 1.3 Learning and teaching styles
  • 1.4 Contexts for learning and teaching English
  • 1.5 Varieties of English
  • 1.6 Multilingualism and the role of first languages.

Topic 2 – Language analysis and awareness

  • 2.1 Basic concepts and terminology used in English language teaching to discuss language form and use
  • 2.2 Grammar – grammatical frameworks: rules and conventions relating to words, sentences paragraphs and texts
  • 2.3 Lexis – word formation, meaning and use in context;
  • 2.4 Phonology – the formation and description of English phonemes and the feature of connected speech
  • 2.5 The practical significance of similarities and differences between languages
  • 2.6 Reference materials for language awareness
  • 2.7 Key strategies and approaches for developing learners’ language knowledge.

Topic 3 – Language skills: reading, listening, speaking and writing

  • 3.1 Reading (basic concepts and terminology, purposes, decoding meaning and potential barriers);
  • 3.2 Listening (basic concepts and terminology, purposes, features, potential barriers)
  • 3.3 Speaking(basic concepts and terminology, features, language functions, paralinguistic features, phonemic systems)
  • 3.4 Writing (basic concepts and terminology, sub-skills and features, stages of teaching writing, beginner literacy, English spelling and punctuation)
  • 3.5 Teaching (key strategies and approaches for developing learners’ receptive and productive skills).

Topic 4 – Planning and resources for different teaching contexts

  • 4.1 Principles of planning for effective teaching of adult learners of English
  • 4.2 Lesson planning for effective teaching of adult learners of English
  • 4.3 Evaluation and lesson planning
  • 4.4 The selection, adaption and evaluation of materials and resources in planning (including computer and other technology based resources)
  • 4.5 Knowledge of commercially produced resources and non-published materials and classroom resources for teaching English to adults.

Topic 5 – Developing teaching skills and professionalism

  • 5.1 The effective organisation of the classroom
  • 5.2 Classroom presence and control
  • 5.3 Teacher and learner language
  • 5.4 The use of teaching materials and resources
  • 5.5 practical skills for teaching at a range of levels
  • 5.6 The monitoring and evaluation of adult learners
  • 5.7 Evaluation of the teaching/learning process
  • 5.8 Professional development responsibilities
  • 5.9 Professional development support systems

There are two components of assessment:

Teaching Practice

You will teach for a total of six hours, working with classes at two levels of ability. Assessment is based on your overall performance at the end of the six hours.

Written Assignments

You will complete four written assignments: one focusing on adult learning; one on the language system of English; one on language skills; and one on classroom teaching.

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Some questions about this syllabus:

  • Why is the question of “How do adults learn an L2?” not more prominent?
  • Why is PPP the dominant teaching method?
  • Why is it assumed that using a coursebook is an acceptable way to teach?
  • Why is it assumed than learning an L2 is a matter of mastering “The 4 skills”?
  • Why is it assumed that presenting grammar points in a pre-determined order will lead to their being learned in that order?
  • Why is teaching vocabulary treated as distinct from teaching grammar?
  • Why isn’t more time devoted to criticising a PPP methodology?
  • Why are the criteria for assessment of teaching practice based on a PPP methodology?
  • Why is only one of the written assignments on teaching?
  • How much can be covered in a 4 week course?

Evaluation

In my opinion, as I hope the questions above indicate, the CELTA course is based on a false view of how adults learn an L2 and on a teaching methodology which flies in the face of SLA research. The structure of the syllabus is unbalanced and gives no overt declaration of the principles of ELT on which it’s based. The course attempts to cover far too much and fails to give any serious consideration to how adults learn an L2. The instruction on the language itself, and the teaching practice, encourage an out of date approach to both. It is, in short, a crap course, a piece of commercial, well-marketed dross. Education relies heavily on teachers, and the CELTA course is an affront to teacher education. For all the high fallutin baloney of the syllabus, the course is an ill-considered, backward-looking, inadequate, badly-administered disgrace.

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So what about Scott Thornbury’s book?

If I were doing the CELTA course I’d find the book infuriating.  It’s main part consists of 40 Units where every bit of the CELTA syllabus is examined in a “Think For Yourself” format . Warm-up activities are followed by the Main Question (How would you classify Learner Styles?), and then more questions meant to make you think. Instead of just telling you what you need to know, the book leads you up a series of garden paths. If I were a newcomer, I’d throw it out of the window very quickly and read anything, anything else, like Parrott on grammar, for example, or Scrivener’s Learning Teaching, which, for all the matters that I disagree with him about, is well-considered, well-organised, and, as always, very well-written. The 40 Units of Thornbury’s book faithfully mimic the CELTA syllabus without the slightest hint of critical evaluation or any appreciation of the newcomer’s ignorance of ELT. The whole book is appalling, right up there with Natural Grammar, and evidence that Thornbury , rather like another hero of mine, Ridley Scott, has at least as many badly-conceived duds to his name as he does good works. He’s erratic; you can’t trust either his style or his judgment.

And What About Dogme?

Quite apart from its failings as a book, the most obvious question to ask Thornbury about his CELTA guide is “Why did you write it?” Why did he decide to help novice teachers through a course which so evidently contradicts his published views on ELT?  Thornbury is, after all, the inventor of Dogme, the man who so famously talks about McNuggets; the man who adopts the view that learning languages is best explained by emergentism; the man who so passionately argues the case against the current domination of coursebook-driven ELT; the man who, in short, stands out among the leading lights in current ELT as “The Voice Of Progress”. Why did this man write a book, albeit a really bad book, aimed at helping people through one ot the most inadequate training courses ever devised?

 

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Getting Feedback on Your Teaching

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Here’s a question for those of you whose professional life is mostly devoted to classroom ELT:

In the past 12 months, how much time have you spent getting feedback about your teaching?

My guess is that it’s less than three hours. And I further guess that any feedback you got came from a trainer or a superior. If I’m right, then you have almost no recent experience of examining data about what you and your students actually do in class.

Leaving aside the evaluative, judgemental kinds of feedback you’ve had during training courses, or when a superior observes your class with the aim of assuring that you’re doing what they consider to be a good job, you’ve probably spent little or no time whatsoever on looking at real data about what’s going on in your classes. And yet, examining recordings of your classes with colleagues or with your students can do wonders.

In this first post, I’ll look at feedback sessions with colleagues.

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Getting Feedback From Colleagues On Recordings of Classes  

In a review article in 2014, “El Maestro” John Fanselow says:

Not once during fifty years of interviewing teachers for jobs have I had a positive response to this question:“Have you recorded any of your classes?” A few said they had done so for an assignment for a course, but none kept it up once they started to teach.

And yet,

the easiest and most powerful way to understand what we are really doing in our classrooms … is to record, transcribe and analyze what we and our students say and do.

The best ELT course I’ve ever attended was a two-week workshop with John Fanselow in Barcelona in 1994. It consisted entirely of transcribing, analysing and discussing recordings of four different teachers (three of whom participated in the workshop) who had previously agreed to video their classes in the month before the workshop took place. In preparation for the workshop, I liaised with John, who stressed the importance of videoing the whole class and not training the camera on the teacher. I sent him (by post!) sample video recordings of the classes, and he phoned me a few times, asking me to record specific activities and sometimes to focus on specific things – “point the camera at the students’ legs” he requested on one occasion. By the time the workshop started, we had about 10 hours of recordings to work with.

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The Fanselow Workshop

The two golden rules during the workshop were:

  1. Leave your pre-conceived notions about good or bad teaching at the door.
  2. Observe, don’t judge.

We were all encouraged to “look at the data as children might look at something for the first time.” As Fanselow says in his 2014 article,

Analyzing video clips and transcripts of classroom interactions are the “ABC’s” of learning to observe yourself and your students in the classroom. Attaining this skill, which will help you to understand what you and your students are really doing, can profoundly affect your teaching.

Fanselow urged us to learn a descriptive system he invented called FOCUS ((Foci for Observing Communication Used in Settings), which is “a kind of shorthand to describe what everybody’s doing”, but we all found it too complicated to use without his help. For a full treatment of FOCUS, see Fanselow (1984) Breaking Rules, but for now, enough to say that, in essence, Fanselow’s framework makes no distinction between teacher and learners, (there are, that is, no separate categories for teachers and learners); instead, it uses general categories to define five characteristic of communication in settings:

  • Who communicates?
  • What is the pedagogical purpose of the communication?
  • What mediums are used to communicate?
  • How are the mediums used to communicate areas of content?
  • What areas of content are communicated?

The most important thing, though, is to watch the recordings with an open mind, to forget about what you yourself might or might not have done if you’d been the teacher, and to try to understand what kinds of communication were gong on.

During the 2-week workshop we watched a succession of usually short (2 to 5 minute) recordings; we transcribed them (helped by John), then we watched them again, sometimes 3 or 4 times, focusing on different questions, gaining more and more insights into what was going on, and then we discussed everything we’d seen and heard – not that things happened in such a linear way, of course. We looked at teachers’ body language, tics, gestures, affirmations, recognitions, challenges, clichés, blind spots, quips, empathic moves, asides, use of time, use of materials, timing, crisis management, coherence and cohesion, and on and on. And we looked in John’s way; he helped us see the value of this deliberately non-judgemental way of examining our work. Look, listen, observe, and then reflect generously, openly, inquisitively. Don’t judge: learn.

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But we spent most of the time looking not at the teacher but at the learners – at how they themselves communicated with each other and with the teacher.

“Look at that. See the way she looks away? We’ve lost her.”

“He’s on a roll. He’s got it. He needed longer, didn’t he.”

“What are they doing with that hand-out? Why do they keep quoting that bit?”

“ She helped Jose there. That’s a first”

Who was doing what with whom? Where were the high energy points? What new language was being used? Who picked up on error correction, and when? And so much more besides.

I was particularly taken by what I saw (how people moved, eye contact, patterns in groups,  fidgeting,  day dreaming, students always returning to “their” seats, a teacher who spent 85% of the time in the top left part of the room, ..) because I’m not usually very aware of visual stuff, but John was particularly keen to have us transcribe and analyse who said what to whom in what ways, to what communicative ends.

I can’t tell you how much we all enjoyed it: it wasn’t a blast, it was a hurricane of fresh air, a cyclonic invigoration, a huge affirmation of the fun and satisfaction that teachers can get from their jobs once they connect.

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An aside.

Section 8 of the Fanselow 2014 article quotes three teachers who reflect on what Fanselow helped them to observe, and it makes very interesting reading. In the same section, one of the teachers comments about other training courses he’d attended:

I was shown some video clips of teachers that were produced alongside methods books for the course. The teachers and the authors sounded like cosmetics salespeople. They were absolutely certain of their claims, but there was no evidence in the videos. The camera focused primarily on the teachers and just occasionally panned the students. I could not hear what they were saying or see what they were writing. This prevented me from evaluating the outcome. Without seeing results, how could I accept or verify or believe the author’s assertions?

Fanselow cites another of the 3 teachers who says that she now uses the transcriptions she makes of recordings of her classroom teaching to help plan her lessons, and that planning based on what she had actually asked her students to do and on the results was less time-consuming than her former lesson planning. Fanselow suggests that teachers make a regular feature of transcribing, sometimes alone and sometimes with their students, one to three minutes of a class, or enough interaction to fill one sheet of A4 paper. He stresses

you cannot just do this only once a term. You have to do it regularly and often in order for you and your students to learn anything from it – a couple of times per week, as a minimum.

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And here’s another aside. I know that Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill feel the same way about ELT and believe in the same approach as Fanselow. I know that “Demand High”, for all the criticisms I’ve made of it, wants exactly the same things as Fanselow wants. It’s no coincidence that Fanselow’s 2014 paper can be freely downloaded from the Demand High website. Whatever my criticisms of their marketing and their support for coursebook-driven ELT, I salute the way Scrivener and Underhill encourage teachers to look at what they do through the Fanselow lense.

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Implications

At the end of the workshop, we had a party. Everybody agreed: that was some session! Last thing I remember is drunkenly hugging John and his saying “You’re standing on my foot again Geoff: bad habit.”

Each of us learned different things about ourselves and about our learners, but all of us went away determined to make observing and analysing classroom recordings a regular, on-going feature of our work. For myself, I found a friend at work who was even more of a Fanselow fan that I was. We recorded ourselves doing classes right the way through the term, and we spent a couple of hours a week watching the recordings together and analysing them. In our viewing sessions, a habitual refrain was “Stop judging!” We were lucky to be in a school that encouraged such stuff, and we lucky to have each other, but anyway, it’s difficult to overestimate the positive effect those sessions had on our motivation and, I dare to say, our teaching.

If you want to do your own recording feedback sessions, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Involve the students. Tell them what you want to do and why. Never record anything without their permission.
  2. Try out different places for the recorder in the classroom when nobody’s there. You know better than I do about the techy stuff, but I understand that modern video recorders can be placed just about anywhere. Make sure you record the students, not just you.
  3. Play down the fact that you’re recording.
  4. Choose somebody you like and trust to watch the recording with you. Of course, it could be a group.
  5. Limit the clip to 10 mins. max.
  6. Watch the video recording a few times without comment.
  7. Talk about things in general and then decide what you’re going to focus on. Vary the focus in different sessions. I know it’s not really in line with John’s approach, but I recommend you look at Jack Richards Chapter 7 Classroom Observation in Teaching Practice (just Google it to find a free download), which gives a very good summary of areas to focus on.
  8. Don’t just do it once! 
  9. Emphasise John’s golden rules.

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Footnote:

I had lots of disagreements with John about how people learn languages. I was more of a scholar (I don’t say a better scholar) than he was, more influenced by SLA findings about the limitations of explicit instruction than he was, more sceptical about his didactic imperatives. In particular, I didn’t agree (and still don’t) with most of the items on his famous “Ten Things you Should Never Do” list. I still think that we should teach the language, not about it, and that we should engage learners more in decisions about the “what” and “how” of classroom practice.

Regarding looking at recordings, I never used his FOCUS framework properly; I never got the hang of transcribing bits of recording as he would have it; I was sometimes judgemental and often used the data to spin hypotheses about classroom learning in ways that I know he would not have approved of. But never mind. John Fanselow has forgotten more than I’ll ever know about the art of ELT and I’m enormously grateful, as are thousands of teachers, for his help. We really should listen more carefully to what John Fanselow has to say about ELT.

See this link for info. on John Fanselow: http://ltprofessionals.com/johnfanselow

Slouching Towards Seattle

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PAY NOW, REGISTER LATER       EXHIBITORS: SELL! SELL! SELL!      MEMBERS: SIGN UP TEN GULABLE FRIENDS AND WEAR THE SPECIAL PLATINUM MEMBER TINSEL BADGE!      CONVENTION BAG INCLUDES PLAN OF ALL EXITS 

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OPENING KEYNOTE Fony Glare: “Private Education in a Post-Truth Era: Profiting From Pragmatism”

Yes! He’s Here! We couldn’t be more excited to have Time Magazine’s “Fifty Third Most Important Man in the World” give the opening address. As he so famously says: “The single most important two things we can do are education, education, education”! Power without principle is barren, but principle without power is futile. ELT is at a crossroads, which is why we need a third way, a pragmatic way. The advantages of creative accounting, score adjustment in high stake tests, pyramid selling, zero hour contracts, smarmy sales pitches, telling lies, and crossing your fingers behind your back when making promises will all be examined.

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LE DEERS SPONSORED PLENARY : Prof. Ravin Loonan: Taking Coursebooks to The Next Level

Widely-respected Professor Loonan, who has done so much to line his own pockets, will explain how new independent studies sponsored by a consortium of leading ELT publishers demonstrates how tethered sheep, fed only on carefully selected and sequenced lexical chunks from leading ELT coursebooks, achieved “well above average”, “statistically significant” scores on specially-adapted versions of the Pearson GSE bank of tests, thus providing convincing evidence for the utility of coursebooks. He will then discuss his own daring new coursebook series “Business English For Millionaires” printed in gold leaf on Giza 45 Egyptian sheets, each copy signed by the Top Ten Billionaires in the Forbes List.  A $4,000 white tie buffet supper in the Seattle Space Needle will follow.

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MORNING PLENARY Prof. Farcen-Parodi: Patterns in the toast; Shadows on the wall: Where am I?  

Professor Farcen-Parodi has been changing her mind about how people learn languages for the past 50 years. Occasionally unaided by real scholars, she has declared: It’s the input! It’s the output! It’s input and ouput! There’s no such thing as input!

Here she brings her exciting voyage of discovery full circle by returning to Heraclitus: It’s flux!

Prof. Farcen-Parodi will disorganise (sic) her plenary by tearing up her notes, throwing them into a bin, and then picking out random samples to act as cues. In this way, the different components of one complex system (the prepared talk) will interact and give rise to another pattern (the talk itself) at another level of complexity.

Prof. Farcen-Parodi has asked that, to help disengagement from the positivist paradigm that so perniciously pervades current thinking, members of the audience wear blindfolds and fit ear plugs (only $10 when pre-ordered from our helpful Convention staff).

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CLOSING KEYNOTE Larry Farmer: The ELT is Full of Truly Wonderful People And I Honestly Really Mean That

Larry Farmer, one of the most widely-respected TINSEL ambassadors in the world today gives his own passionate defence of the ELT profession and explains just why he loves everything (really, absolutely everything) so very, very much.

The talk will be content-free, and Farmer’s renowned practice of leaving the stage so as to walk among his fans will be enhanced by attaching him to a special harness, designed by his colleague Spat Raspberry, an expert in dodging flack while appearing radical and in the related skill of bungee jumping in New Zealand. Thanks to the harness, Farmer will spend equal amounts of time on each of the three floors of the auditorium.

The session will end with Farmer, accompanied by the Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra, performing his recent masterpiece: Brexit: Enlightenment is Dead,  which includes the immortal line I Phoned My Brother on the Telephone, Just to See What He Would Say, and the rousing chorus We Will Sell Porky Pies Again!     

WELCOME TO SEATTLE!

As you wait for one of three buses lurching through the torrential rain, soak up the truly unique atmosphere of Seattle! It never rains but it pours here – specially in March!  That’s why you’ll need

  • Our special price TINSEL 2017 CONVENTION UMBELLA 
  • Our bargain basement WATERPROOF CONVENTION PROGRAM COVER
  • Our fantastic cut price ANTARTIC SLEEPING BAG if you’re one of the happy throng of convention goers sleeping out.

PRE-CONVENTION EVENTS

  • Updated Guide to The Celebrities; Includes 3 new rising stars, all under 80 years old   
  • Can you Teach Without Morpeme? (Is this right? Ed.)
  • Members Support Groups: Includes Women Teachers who have to drive to work in Saudi Arabia

DURING THE CONFERENCE

JOBS FAIR: No, not fair jobs, silly, but the chance to search our extensive data base of appalling jobs with absolutely no guarantee that they exist for the special Convention fee of $59.

BAD TRIPS TENT: Feeling queasy? Can’t take any more?  Last year, this tent was a huge success – in fact, the biggest venue of the convention! Seek help here. For just $34 an unqualified nurse will pretend to listen.

SEE YOU SOON!