IATEFL Part 1 – Mike Hogan on How to be a successful freelancer

Mike Hogan starts this year’s IATEFL with one of the three ‘How-to’ sessions just before David Crystal’s opening plenary with the very useful topic – ‘How to be a successful freelancer’.

He first looks at ‘Organisation’. Many of the talks and workshops tends to be about what happens in the classroom and ‘in-training’ ideas, but sometimes there’s less focus on the organisational side of being a freelancer. Essentially, as a freelancer, you are a one-person business, and so it’s important to think about the way you budget your finances. Consider the lifestyle you have now and the lifestyle you want to have and how much that would cost you per month/year, bearing in mind that as a freelancer, you don’t get paid for holidays or sick days. Mike recommends that the freelance teacher learns basic accountancy and the use of Excel so as to reduce the stress levels when dealing with taxes and year-end accounting.

Balancing out when and where the income is coming from also means looking at alternative sources of income, e.g. teaching online, writing, etc. It’s important to know where your most stable income is coming from and to guarantee this ‘bread & butter’ income before scheduling the unlimited holidays that you might think freelancers get. Think of yourself as a company and plan your annual budget and do not just live from day to day/month to month.

When getting work, one must not forget the marketing strategy one employs or intends to employ. Know your product and know what you are selling. Be clear about why clients should choose you over other competitors.Consider how you can get the contract by either offering a lower price or adding value to your product. Find out what your competitors are doing and what the going market rate of what you are trying to sell. And where can your clients find out about you?

At this point, Mike emphasises the importance of CPD (Continual Professional Development) and how the CELTA is merely the beginning of one’s career development. If you are trying to get work, ensure that you professionalise yourself first by looking the part. Find out what everyone else in the company wears and try not to overdress or underdress. Practise the skills that you are teaching. If you are teaching students to present, get as much experience presenting yourself so that you can add value to what you offer. If you are teaching students to negotiate, go out there and try and get some negotiating practice in the shops or with your mobile phone service provider.

When talking to your client, be aware of possible unrealistic expectations and clients who try and treat language training like any other commodity, e.g. wanting the same results with fewer contact hours. You therefore need to be creative when putting together your training packages. Also remember that different people have different needs and so it is important to carry out a needs analysis to tailor the course to suit the individuals and not simply roll out a ‘one-size-fits-all’ course.

Be realistic and do not try to take on every kind of course. Know your specialisation and know how your product differs from the other competitors. Do not be afraid to say no to a client that wants something you can’t offer and do not hesitate to recommend someone else who can do the job. As they say, pay it forward!

This summer, the European Profiling Grid is to be published. A tool for mapping and assessing language teaching competencies internationally might change the way clients buy language training and so it is important to keep up to date with what the industry is implementing.

Finally, Mike finishes off with the importance of reflecting on the relationship between quality and reputation. If someone mentions your name at the coffee machine at work, how will that conversation run? What will they say about you?

 

 

Influencing Second Language Learning – Personality Factors

This is a repost of a previous blogpost I wrote for ELT Knowledge (see here).

I thought it would be good to get a discussion going on the following topic and so here it is again:

A fellow teacher told me about two learners in his class – one, he says, is a better learner than the other. Which one do you think that might be?

 

Liliana is a university student from Argentina. She is shy and insecure about her English ability. She feels stupid when she speaks English, and is afraid of making mistakes. She loves travelling and meeting people from all over the world but prefers speaking English to ‘native speakers’ from Britain or America because they speak ‘correct’ English. For Liliana, the ultimate compliment would be if someone asked her if she were English.

 

Jochan is a manager of an important department in a multinational company based in Germany. He is talkative and confident, and used to being in control. A good team player, he enjoys participating in group activities. He has had a few bad experiences with some of the Americans and Brits, and so have his friends in Germany, and Jochan has decided that he does not like the American or British culture.

So, who do you think is the better learner?

(a)   Liliana – Her love and respect for the British/English culture and native speakers would propel her to learn the target language and she would seek out opportunities to speak English to ‘native speakers’, whereas Jochan’s status in his company might mean a lesser ability to relinquish power and therefore be more resistant to correction and being adventurous with language. In addition, Jochan’s distaste for the American and British culture is bound to affect his motivation levels as well.

(b)  Jochan – He’s confident and therefore would not be averse to taking risks. This should mean that he would be adventurous with language and not be afraid of making mistakes. His talkative nature also means that he would get lots of speaking practice. He’d be motivated because he can see how useful English is at his workplace. Liliana, on the other hand, is shy and this would lead to her not wanting to practise speaking and using the language.

(c)   This is just silly. I can’t decide based on the above descriptions. Doing so would be stereotyping and putting people in boxes. People’s personalities and behaviours change and evolve depending on the situations they are in. After all, Jochan’s confidence in his job does not mean confidence in language learning, and Liliana might just be shy in the classroom but not when she’s with her friends.

If you picked Jochan (b) as your answer, you perhaps believe that the personality of a learner has a large part to play in one’s success in language learning, and that these innate characteristics are biologically determined, and therefore some people make better language learners than others. It’s all in the genes.

If you picked Liliana (a) as your answer, you might think that one’s culture and experience of life moulds the way we learn to see the world, and that our view of the target culture of the language we are learning can largely affect our motivation, and therefore, our success rate. Loosely categorised as social structuralist or constructivist in outlook, you see external influences, such as social variables, as shaping the language learning process.

If you picked (c) as your answer, you probably are balking at this blogpost right now and wondering how anyone could make sweeping statements about issues as complex as Second Language Learning abilities and learner identity. Taking a more post-structuralist stance, you know that we play different roles and display different personality characteristics depending on the situation and community we are in, and the people we are talking to. And you are angry that some teachers blame the learners’ personality for failure in language learning.

Theories about how different factors could lead to success in the second language learning process have been a core part of studies into second language acquisition for decades. This is a series of blogposts attempting to categorise and summarise research that have been done in these different areas, and we start today with more biologically deterministic approaches, with a look at the different characteristics of a learner’s personality that are said to influence learning.

Individual differences among learners, such as personality variation, have long been seen as the cause of different learning abilities, and researchers like Gardner and Lambert (1972) have focused principally on the individual’s internal influences on Second Language Learning. There have been disagreements over the categorisation of affective variables, and although some might admit that personality variables are abstract concepts that are difficult to define, and that the validity of psychological tests that attempt to measure them are often challenged and criticised, their categorisation is still necessary to understanding the Second Language Learning process.

Self-esteem 

An important variable included in much SLA research, high self-esteem, or self-confidence, is believed to be an important construct for success in Second Language Learning. Often taken to be relatively stable in adults and resistant to change, a person is seen to either have high self-esteem or low self-esteem, regardless of the situation they find themselves in.

However, Malinowski (1923) provides a different view of ‘self esteem’ seeing it as the reflection and acceptance of oneself in interactions with others, which presumably vary depending on the different interlocutors and social networks.  Self-esteem was thus divided into three types: global, situational/specific, and task (Brown, 1994).

Nevertheless, it is usually assumed that global self-esteem is an intrinsic personality trait that improves proficiency, and not much focus was given to situational- or task-based self-confidence.

Inhibition

Learners with low self-esteem are believed to display more inhibition, leading to the building of defences and alienation from the target culture, as they are less able to tolerate threats to their existence.

The process of Second Language Learning could pose internal threats, such as learners judging themselves harshly for their mistakes, and external threats, where learners perceive others as judging them.  However, the emphasis on what learners ‘perceives’ seems to suggest that threat was not necessarily real, thus making learners wholly responsible for their learning.

Thin ego boundaries are believed to allow learners to be open and tolerant of ambiguity, and therefore more creative when learning a second language, and it is commonly believed that by lowering inhibition in the language classroom, we can promote freer communication and a willingness to learn from trial and error.

However, this call for learners to simply ‘remove their defences’ suggests that inhibition is purely intrinsic and does not take into consideration the social factors that perhaps contribute to a learner being inhibited.

Moreover, learners of far-eastern backgrounds might value the judgements of others highly, and might be brought up to believe that mistakes are detrimental to learning. Such cultural factors are often neglected when considering individual affective variables.

Risk-taking

A fear of ramifications of mistakes made could deter one from taking risks with the language. Although some assume that good learners are high risk-takers (Ely, 1986), Beebe (1983) finds that highly-motivated learners are often moderate risk-takers, preferring to make intelligent guesses. It is widely assumed that learners with high global self-esteem take more risks, that fossilization is due to unwillingness to take risks, and that teachers should encourage risk-taking behaviour (Brown, 1994).

However, such overgeneralisations do not take into account that the willingness to take risks, especially outside the classroom, depends largely on what the individual stands to lose from being perceived negatively by his interlocutors and the costs of making mistakes.

Anxiety, Extroversion and Empathy

Anxiety, or the tendency to worry, can be seen as either a personality trait or a state due to a prevailing situation or event. Anxiety caused by a competitive environment can be facilitative or debilitative to success in Second Language Learning, but it is unclear why different effects are produced or what the optimal level of anxiety is in promoting Second Language Acquisition.

As abstract as the concept of anxiety is that of extroversion. Debunking the myth that extrovert learners are good learners, Brown (ibid) states that extroverts need their self-esteem reaffirmed by others and tend to have thick ego boundaries and less empathy.

Empathy is the ability to make accurate assumptions about state of the people one is talking to, thus leading to effective cross-cultural communication. This, again, makes the learner accountable for understanding the culture of the target language and interpreting non- and para-linguistic cues, on top of having to cope with interacting in an unfamiliar language.

Krashen (1981) mentions these personality factors as affecting learners’ affective filters, stating that a confident, secure and outgoing person who lacks anxiety would have low affective filters, thereby allowing comprehensible input to reach the language acquisition device, resulting in acquisition. However, there has been much disagreement about Krashen’s understanding of how these variables interact with social contexts (Norton, 2000).

Ultimately, the learner should not be made solely responsible for his or her learning.  Putting the onus on the learner to be motivated and to find opportunities to increase their exposure to the target language can be just as extreme and as unhelpful as blaming their failure entirely on the people around them.

Bibliography

Beebe, L. (1983) ‘Risk-taking and the language learner’. In H. Seliger and M. Long. Classroom-oriented research in second language acquisition. Rowley, MA: Newbury House, pp: 39-166.

Brown, D. (1994) Principles of Language Learning and Teaching (3rd Edition). New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Ely, C. (1986) ‘An analysis of discomfort, risktaking, sociability and motivation in the L2 classroom’. Language Learning, 36, pp: 1-25.

Gardner, R. and W. Lambert. (1972) Attitudes and Motivation in Second Language Learning. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.

Krashen, S. (1981) Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Pergamon.

Malinowski, B. (1923) ‘The problem of meaning in primitive languages’. In C. Ogden and I. Richards. (eds.) The Meaning of Meaning. London: Kegan Paul, pp: 296-336.

Norton, B. (2000) Identity and Language Learning: Gender, Ethnicity and Educational Change. Essex: Pearson Education.

Thank you for your support!

Thank you note

First of all, thank you for nominating my post ‘Things students say that break my heart‘ for the Most Influential Post for the Eddies 2012 and making it one of the finalist entries.

Special thanks to Brad Patterson, Aysun Günes, and several other wonderful PLNers for nominating me for Best Individual Blog and Best Teacher Blog.

TESOL France 2012 Closing Plenary
TESOL France 2012 Closing Plenary

Also, thank you for being there for my closing plenary both at the English UK conference, and TESOL France 2012.

Some of you have been so kind as to write a summary of my plenary talk.

Here are the links to some of them (if I haven’t included yours, please feel free to contact me and let me know):

Chia Suan Chong on Principled Eclecticism – by Hancock McDonald.

The Principles of Principled Eclecticism according to Chia Suan Chong – by Leo Selivan

My TESOL France Review – by Sue Annan

Thanks for playing along with me during my plenary talk!
Thanks for playing along with me during my plenary talk!

Most of all, thanks for voting…(mwa hahahaha)

And if you haven’t, here’s the link!

http://edublogawards.com/vote-here/

Select the category ‘Most Influential Post’ and vote everyday! ; )

Hope you’re having a great December!

Once again, thank you everyone!

Things students say that break my heart Part 3

This was first published on the ELT Knowledge website.

In the last two blogposts, I looked at some of the statements that I have heard students say, and the reasons and beliefs about language learning that lie behind these statements.

In the process of writing up these posts, I started to ask the questions, “How much time do we devote to exploring learner attitudes towards language learning in the classroom?” How much do we know about their beliefs? Do we know enough about the language acquisition process ourselves to help our learners become better learners?

I was then reminded of these heartbreakers:

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What students say: They say I have an accent. They say I need to get rid of my accent.

What’s really happening: The ‘they’ in the above statements could be previous teachers, native speakers that they have encountered, or even fellow non-native speakers who speak English better than the student does.

‘Accent-less English’ does not exist. Everyone has an accent. What ‘they’ mean is ‘You have an accent that is not like that of the standard native speaker’.  But this opens up a new can of worms. Who is the standard native speaker? Even BBC newscasters can be seen speaking in a variety of accents, ranging from Scottish to Mancunian to Estuary English from the South East parts of England.

‘But what about RP?’ I hear you say. RP, or Received Pronunciation, characterised the BBC’s programmes in the 1970s, and was considered by actors and broadcasters as the most ‘colourless’ and ‘stripped of regional influences’, and therefore the most ‘standard’ of all British accents. But search for any BBC clip from the 1970s and listen to the presenter speaking RP, and I am sure you would agree with me that it is hardly ‘colourless’.

So, is there such a thing as a neutral accent? I’m afraid not. What ‘they’ really mean is ‘You have an accent that is not the norm to me,’

An accent often denotes one’s geographical and family background, and even one’s social class, and is inextricably tied to one’s identity.

Telling someone to get rid of their accent is as prejudiced as telling someone to change their skin colour, yet it is still considered acceptable when under the guise of helping someone improve their language skills.

A focus on being intelligible, however, can help our students become more communicatively competent. Robin Walker’s book ‘Teaching the pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca’ highlights the pronunciation features that teachers can help students to work on in order to improve mutual intelligibility in a world where English is now a global language.

 

What students say: I feel afraid that people would laugh at me when I make mistakes.

What’s really happening: Speaking in a foreign language often leaves one feeling like a child again, defenceless and susceptible to criticism. For those who are used to being secure in their own language or those who are intolerant of ambiguity, being plunged into an environment where one is stripped of control of the ability to express oneself can be confusing and frightening, leaving one feeling vulnerable.

The teacher has the capability of making the classroom a safe and friendly environment where everyone in the learning process feels comfortable making mistakes and therefore less likely to judge each other’s language errors.

I often tell my students this:

Mistakes are good. Mistakes are important. Mistakes help you learn.

But most importantly, if you don’t make mistakes, I don’t have a job.

 

What students say: How long does it take to learn English?

What’s really happening: The student is seeing the process of language learning like that of learning to drive a car: where there is a definite end point – the moment where you say ‘I can drive’. And in order to arrive at this end point, the learner must master different skills e.g. learning to use the clutch and coordinate that with the use of the accelerator, learning to brake, learning to reverse park, etc. An accumulation of these separate skills collectively results in the ability to drive.

So it seems that many students (and some teachers) think that if they are able to master each grammar point and learn all the words, it would collectively result in the ability to ‘know’ English.

Although the use of language does include the automatic motor skills that are similar to those of driving a car or playing a piano, it doesn’t stop there. The acts of listening, understanding, formulating responses, and taking part in the fluid and dynamic process of conversation involve social and intellectual skills that go beyond the repetition of mindless formulae, and can vary from interaction to interaction.

A similar question I sometimes get from students is ‘How many words are there in English?’ When I tell them that it depends on how we define a ‘word’, and how if we included phrases and collocations, we would then have quite a large number, the student sighs and says, ‘How can I ever learn them all?

So I tell my students that learning a language is not like learning to drive a car, and that one never stops learning. I remind them that there are many words in their language that they don’t know, and probably do not need to know. I emphasize the fact that language is a tool for communication, and they will need the language to effectively communicate in the situations they will encounter.

Most importantly, I remind them that learning a language is not like running a race. There is no goal of reaching a fixed finish line, as such. Just the goal of becoming better communicators with every single day.

____________________________________________________________________________

The first day of my courses have always focused on conducting a detailed needs analysis and a negotiation of the course syllabus. On my recent courses, included in the needs analysis is now a chance to discover the learners’ beliefs about second language acquisition through discussions about their learning preferences and an exploration of how languages are best learnt.

For learner training and the promotion of learner autonomy is as much about giving learners the tools that can facilitate better language learning, as it is about providing them with a better framework through which they can better understand their learning process.

Their beliefs and attitudes is what will affect their intrinsic motivations, and after all, motivation is crucial to successful language learning.

Things students say that break my heart Part 2

This is a post I wrote for ELT Knowledge a month ago.

Click here for Part 3 of the series.

Photo from ELTpics by @vale360
http://www.flickr.com/photos/eltpics

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The learners who come to our classroom are most likely to have been students before at some point in their lives, and therefore have observed and evaluated other teaching professionals in action, formulating their own views of how learning should take place. After all, the average student would have spent around 13,000 hours in direct contact with their classroom teachers by the time they finish high school (Lortie, 1975).

Such a phenomenon, known as ‘The Apprenticeship of Observation’, suggests that most students watch their teachers ‘frontstage and centre’, like an audience watching a play, and are not privy to the thought processes and the justifications for the classroom decisions that the teacher makes (ibid).

Although, the Apprenticeship of Observation is often a term used in teacher training to describe teachers who teach the way they have been taught, I believe that it also clearly demonstrates why students often have fixed views about the language learning process and the reasons behind their expectations of themselves and their teachers.

The learner’s views on learning and teaching would without doubt also be influenced by cultural conventions and expectations as education systems round the world differ. Some might place more focus on information transmission and memorisation, while others might place focus on the importance of analysis and exploration. Education cultures and conventions aside, the 13,000 hours of contact with teachers of course also include the observation of how subjects other than languages are taught. A lack of understanding of the processes of language acquisition might lead them to think that learning a language is like learning Mathematics or Chemistry, and therefore, end up judging their own abilities and their progress too harshly.

In my last blogpost, I wrote about four things that students say that break my heart, and looked into the probable reasons behind these statements, in an attempt to better understand and help students be aware of language learning processes.

In this blogpost, I hope to look at a few more heartbreakers, and explore the things we can say to help students understand the reasons for the classroom decisions that their teachers make.

 

Photo from ELTpics by @JosetteLB
http://www.flickr.com/photos/eltpics

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What they say: I can’t produce the language my teacher has taught me even after we’ve practised it in class.

What’s really happening: The learner is thinking of language acquisition as a linear process, not unlike the way we’d practise the use of a mathematical equation until we can solve mathematical problems with ease. The typical PPP (Present, Practice, Produce) lesson shape seen in many coursebooks and classrooms seems to cement the idea that language can be broken down into pieces which are then presented, learnt, practised and incorporated in the brain, ready to be produced.

We did the first conditional today. Now, you’ll practise it, and go forth and use it. Because tomorrow we’re doing the second conditional.  So you’d better be ready.’

Is that what learners think their teachers are thinking?

Perhaps the last ‘P’ (Produce), by nature of its label, has had a lot of bad press.

Perhaps we don’t really expect learners to master and produce the language point by the end of the lesson.

Then why is the final section of every chapter in Face-to-Face called ‘Get ready…Get it right’?

It is no wonder that the student thinks that they are expected to readily assimilate and use a language point covered in class that day, even though most language acquisition theories would tell you that that just isn’t how the brain works.

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What they say: Everyone in the class is better than me.

What’s happening: In a communicative classroom, not only the teacher is in a ‘frontstage and centre’ position. Some students, especially the more outgoing and chatty ones, often get to be under the spotlight, and spoken fluency is often the quality that gets held up as being most celebrated, and therefore most desirable. From the point of view of the shy or less extroverted students, this might seem an impossible goal to try and achieve.

But spoken fluency is not the be all and end all. Students need to be made aware that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, and some strengths are simply get more ‘air time’ in a communicative classroom than others.

While some students might not be good at speaking confidently and fluently in open class, their language abilities in other areas such as their communicative competence in smaller groups or pairs, their lexico-grammatical range and/or accuracy, their written fluency or their cultural sensitivity, might prove to be better.

 

In pairs, discuss…

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What they say: Why do I want to talk in pairs/groups? I don’t want to learn my partner’s mistakes. I want to talk to the teacher/a native speaker.

What’s really happening: The student here is focused only on the end product (the bits of language he/she might acquire from talking to their partner) and the cognitive functions that will have been developed (e.g. a brain that can think in English, or use certain lexico-grammatical items with ease).

Yet, it is a focus on the process (and not the end product) that would aid language acquisition.

Pair/group work provides conditions that are conducive to the language learning process, and it is through the dynamic interactions and collaborations with other students that one activates the skills of meaning negotiation (paraphrasing, meaning clarification, and drawing upon all the lexico-grammatical resources that are available to communicate effectively).

There is plenty of theory to back this up. While Long (1996) was the one who articulated the Interaction Hypothesis, saying that interaction and communication are key to language acquisition, Krashen (1985) stated that the comprehensible input could be more effective when meaning negotiation is being practised. But it is probably Vygotsky (1978) who first suggested, in his theories of ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development), that such organised learning could speed up cognitive development through interaction and socialization, and help provide the scaffolding that facilitates language acquisition.

So, to these learners, I say:
Lots of scientific (soft science, nevertheless) research has proven that you can still improve in your English, whether you are practising your English with your partner or your teacher.

When you are trying to explain what you mean to your partner, language learning is happening.

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What they say: I wrote my email by looking at a writing sample and copying the phrases. I think I am cheating.

What’s happening: The natural instinct of a learner is to go ‘bottom-up’ and attempt to understand individual words strung together to form phrases and sentences, both when reading and listening. We spend time ‘activating their schema’ by doing lead-ins and prediction tasks, we get them to notice collocations, we provide opportunities for skimming and scanning before any reading for detailed understanding…and we do all this in hope that they will process texts in a top-down fashion. But how much of this do we apply to productive activities like writing?

Evidently, the terms ‘bottom-up’ and ‘top-down’ processing are often applied to receptive skills like listening or reading, but using each and every word as individual building blocks to form sentences in production can also be taken to be a ‘bottom-up’ strategy. The Lexical Approach (1993) gives legitimacy to a grammaticalised lexis where phrases, both fixed and semi-fixed, and language chunks are seen as not only valid, but an effective way of producing language.

Perhaps what’s most important for the teacher is to let students in on how decisions are made in the classroom, inviting them to see what happens ‘backstage’. What’s important is not just the setting up the classroom activities themselves, but showing learners how these are judicious decisions based on sound reasoning, rather than going about in a mysterious ‘teacher-knows-best’ kind of way.

Perhaps then, students, as the Apprentices of Observation, would be better able to understand the approaches they can take to learn more effectively.

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Bibliography

Krashen, S.D. (1985), The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications, New York: Longman

Lewis, Michael (1993) The Lexical Approach.

Long, M. (1996) “The role of the linguistic environment in second language acquisition”. In Ritchie, William; Bhatia, Tej. Handbook of second language acquisition. San Diego: Academic Press. pp. 413–468.

Lortie, D. (1975) Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study. London: University of Chicago Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1978) Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, and E. Souberman (eds.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

 

 

 

Not Ready to Make Nice

Bullying is seen across all cultures;

Bullying is omnipresent;

Bullying is prevalent in all walks of life and is not limited to school settings.

While some are targets of physical violence or threatening words, others are face the possibility of being ex-communicated from social groups.

Bullying is a topic that is familiar to people of all nationalities and can be a springboard to many a meaningful discussion in the language classroom.

The American country band Dixie Chicks made a comment at a concert in London in 2003, and quickly became the target of bullies in their home country. The bullies started acting as a mob, as they often do, and soon, Dixie Chicks were receiving death threats in the mail and were banned from country music radio stations.

Picture taken from dixiechicks.com

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In response to the bullying, the band started to write an album. However, when it was suggested to Natalie Maines, the lead singer, that perhaps the songs should be about how everyone ought to just get along, she found herself unwilling to back down and instead produced the hit single Not Ready to Make Nice.

The song went on to win 3 Grammy Awards, and the album Taking the Long Way ended up winning 5 Grammys, perhaps all a sign of support for the girls who have been the target of bullying.

Being a song very close to my heart, I have felt it appropriate to create a lesson around it. However, unlike most receptive skills procedures seen in more recent approaches, this lesson takes a more bottom-up approach to listening, allowing students to use their linguistic knowledge to piece together the lyrics of the song.

In what way do you think a bottom-up approach to this lesson could make a difference to the usual top-down approaches?

(Notes for teachers are in brackets.)

Lead-in:

Picture taken from http://www.safenetwork.org
Click on picture to read more about bullying.

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(Elicit lexis: Bullying, a bully.)

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Discussion questions:

  1. Why do people bully others?
    .
    (Possible Answers: insecurity, jealousy, prejudice, etc.)
    .
  2. Where can bullying occur?
    .
    (Possible Answers: at school, at the office, online, etc.)

    .
  3. What kind of things might a bully do?
    .
  4. What can we do if we are being bullied?
    .

Pre-listening

(Hand-out)

Fill in the gaps with the appropriate word. Use your knowledge of language and rhyming words to help you.

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Forgive, sounds good

Forget, I’m not sure I c_____

They say time heals e_______

But I’m still waiting

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I’m through with doubt

There’s nothing left for me to figure o___

I’ve paid a price

And I’ll keep paying

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Chorus:

I’m not ready to make nice

I’m not ready to back d____

I’m still mad as hell and

I don’t have time to go round and round and round

It’s too late to make it r_____

I probably wouldn’t if I could

‘Cause I’m mad as hell

Can’t bring myself to do what it is you think I s_____

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I know you said

Can’t you just get o____ it

It turned my whole world a______

And I kind of like it

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Bridge:

I made my bed and I sleep like a b____

With no regrets and I don’t mind sayin’

It’s a sad sad story when a mother will teach her

daughter that she ought to hate a perfect st________

And how in the w______ can the words that I said

Send somebody so over the e_____

That they’d write me a l______

Sayin’ that I’d better shut u__ and sing

Or my life will be o____

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Chorus (x2):

I’m not ready to make nice

I’m not ready to back d____

I’m still mad as hell and

I don’t have time to go round and round and round

It’s too late to make it r____

I probably wouldn’t if I could

‘Cause I’m mad as hell

Can’t bring myself to do what it is you think I s_____

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Forgive, sounds good

Forget, I’m not sure I c_____

They say time heals e_______

But I’m still waiting

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Listening for specific information

Listen to the song and check your answers.

(Note: the teacher might use the feedback stage to clarify some of the more useful or crucial lexical items)

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Forgive, sounds good

Forget, I’m not sure I could

They say time heals everything

But I’m still waiting

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I’m through with doubt

There’s nothing left for me to figure out

I’ve paid a price

And I’ll keep paying

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Chorus:

I’m not ready to make nice

I’m not ready to back down

I’m still mad as hell and

I don’t have time to go round and round and round

It’s too late to make it right

I probably wouldn’t if I could

‘Cause I’m mad as hell

Can’t bring myself to do what it is you think I should

.

I know you said

Can’t you just get over it

It turned my whole world around

And I kind of like it

.

Bridge:

I made my bed and I sleep like a baby

With no regrets and I don’t mind sayin’

It’s a sad sad story when a mother will teach her

daughter that she ought to hate a perfect stranger

And how in the world can the words that I said

Send somebody so over the edge

That they’d write me a letter

Sayin’ that I better shut up and sing

Or my life will be over

.

Chorus (2x):

I’m not ready to make nice

I’m not ready to back down

I’m still mad as hell and

I don’t have time to go round and round and round

It’s too late to make it right

I probably wouldn’t if I could

‘Cause I’m mad as hell

Can’t bring myself to do what it is you think I should

.

Forgive, sounds good

Forget, I’m not sure I could

They say time heals everything

But I’m still waiting

.

Reading for Detailed Understanding

Read the lyrics again, and answer the following questions

(Note: There are no right and wrong answers here. Every question offers a chance for the student’s own interpretation to come through.)

  1. How does the singer feel about being bullied?
    .
    (Possible Answers with song lyrics in quotations: Angry, ‘mad as hell’, and not ready to forget. But she feels that her conscience is clear and she knows she has not done anything wrong because she says ‘she sleeps like a baby’.)
    .
  2. What kind of things do you think the bullies did?
    .
    (Possible Answers with song lyrics in quotations: They wrote her a letter to tell her to ‘shut up and sing’ or they’d kill her.)
    .
  3. Why do you think the bullies did that?
    .
    (Possible Answers with song lyrics in quotations: She said something the bullies didn’t like. ‘And how in the world can the words that I said send somebody so over the edge’)
    .
  4. Does she blame the bullies?
    .
    (Possible Answers with song lyrics in quotations: No, she blames society. ‘It’s a sad sad world when a mother would teach her daughter that she ought to hate a perfect stranger’)
    .
  5. What is she going to do?
    .
    (Possible Answers with song lyrics in quotations: She is not going to blame herself but she is not going to give up fighting against the bullies. ‘I’m through with doubt. There’s nothing left for me to figure out’; ‘I’m not ready to back down’)
    .
  6. What do you think the mood of this song is?
    .
    (Possible Answers: Angry? Sad?)

.

Follow-up Productive Task

(This follow-up task requires students to have access to the internet. They could either make use of their mobile devices, i.e. smartphones or tablets, or this could be conducted in the Self-Access Centre, where students have at least one computer per group)

In groups of 3, use of the internet to find out more about this song and the band, Dixie Chicks.

Answer the following questions.

Report your findings back to the rest of the class.

(Note: the answers can be found on Wikipedia pages on ‘Not Ready to Make Nice’ and the lead singer ‘Natalie Maines’)

  1. Is this song based on a true story?
    .
    (Answer: Yes)
    .
  2. Why were the band targeted by bullies in the 2003?
    .
    (Answer: The vocalist made a comment at a concert in London, UK, on the eve of the Iraq invasion that they were ashamed that their President George Bush was from Texas, where they are from. This angered a lot of Americans.)
    .
  3. Why did the band write the song?
    .
    (Answer: They wanted to write their reaction to the bullying mob.)
    .
  4. What kind of things did the American public do to the band?
    .
    (Answer: They were banned from many country music radio stations and received death threats in the mail.)
    .
  5. How did the lead singer Natalie feel after writing this song and the album?
    .
    (Answer: She felt that the album was like therapy and helped her to find peace with everything and move on.)

.

——————————————–

When presented with a reading or listening text, students can either utilize a bottom-up processing approach and use their knowledge of words and grammar to build up an understanding of the text, or attempt a top-down approach where they make use of their knowledge of the genre, the situational and cultural context, and the background knowledge about the topic as clues to comprehension (Thornbury, 2006).

Many argue that the tendency for students when reading in a foreign language is to cling on to the individual words of the text and try to decipher its meaning, and therefore it is the responsibility of the teacher to encourage top-down processes through the use of activities that activate content schema, such as prediction and gist reading tasks.

Upon examining the current approaches to teaching reading and listening in ELT, from CELTAs to the design of activities in coursebooks, there is perhaps enough evidence to show that the focus is largely on using top-down approaches, before integrating bottom-up approaches for detailed understanding.
Have a look at the following ‘receptive skills procedure’ that is often seen on CELTA courses and in coursebooks.

  1. Lead-in and/or Prediction Activity (Activating the Schema)
  2. Skimming (Gist) and/or Scanning Tasks (Extensive Reading)
  3. Reading for Detailed Understanding (Intensive Reading)
  4. Follow-up Productive Task

It becomes apparent that the Extensive-to-Intensive, Big-Picture-to-Detailed-Information, Top-Down-to-Bottom-Up approach to reading and listening has not only gained a strong foothold in ELT, but has also been taken for granted by some in our field as the best way of integrating the top-down ‘higher level’ skills with the bottom-up ‘lower level’ skills to form an integrated approach.

But is this necessarily always the best way of integrating the two?

While the use of top-down processing approaches is certainly a valid and useful way of integrating the two, it is also perhaps important to occasionally offer practice of bottom-up processes where learners are able to practise making use of their existing linguistic knowledge to try and make sense of a text.

In this sample lesson, I took the song, Not Ready to Make Nice, and get students to use their linguistic knowledge (bottom-up data-driven text-based processing) to fill in the gaps in the lyrics, after a short lead-in to contextualize the general topic.

Through piecing together the lyrics (and learning some new collocations and phrases along the way), they start to gain a detailed understanding. This understanding would hopefully generate interest in getting more information about the interesting background story to the song.

In a song like this one, the focus on bottom-up processing could create suspense and perhaps be more interesting for students when the story reveals itself as they re-construct the text.

Are there any other times you would choose to use such a bottom-up approach to reading or listening?

References

Thornbury, S. An A-Z of ELT. Oxford: Macmillan.

Further Reading:
Nuttall, C. (2005) Teaching Reading Skills in a foreign language. Oxford: Macmillan.

Silbersteing, S. (1994) Techniques and Resources in Teaching Reading. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Things students say that break my heart

This is a post that I wrote for the ELT Knowledge website a  month ago.

Click here for part two of this post.

 

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Learning a language is hard work and requires copious amounts of patience and determination. Its process is a complex one that, despite prevailing research into SLA (Second Language Acquisition) and Psycholinguistics, most still struggle to fully understand.

Yet many have fixed ideas about the language learning process and judge themselves harshly when it comes to their language experiences and expectations.

Undoubtedly, learning to speak a foreign language is an emotional experience that at times can be daunting and make one feel like a child, void of control over the simplest forms of communication.

And such emotions can be overwhelming at times.

I have heard different learners say similar things prompted by such emotions, and I feel for them each and every time. And perhaps the best thing is to understand why they are saying these things, and to make them better aware of the processes involved.

Here are some of the heart-breakers:

What they say: I feel stupid when I have to think and hesitate when I answer a question.

What’s really happening: When asked questions like ‘What’s your name?’ or ‘Where are you from?’, students are less likely to hesitate when answering. That’s only because they have been asked these questions a million times and no longer need to think before they answer. This also means that there is no thinking or complicated mental process needed to formulate these answers. The needed language has already been learnt and no more language learning is taking place.

When students have to think and hesitate, this indicates that they are finding ways to construct the sentence by drawing on all the lexicogrammatical and discoursal resources they have, paraphrasing, looking for synonyms and antonyms, making use of cohesive devices and trying anything to get their meaning across. Complex mental processes are activated while meaning negotiation and accuracy and fluency practice are being carried out.

I love it when students hum and haw. That’s language acquisition happening right before your eyes!

.

What they say: I feel embarrassed and insecure when I have to speak English in front of native speakers.

What’s really happening: Native speakers are often seen as target role models that students would like to emulate, and this no doubt comes from the fact that people traditionally learnt foreign languages in order to speak to native speakers and to get to know the target culture.

But in an era where English is now the lingua franca, and more and more are learning the language to further their career prospects and to travel, the target interlocutors and target culture are no longer simply those from the UK and the US.

Furthermore, the fact that one is biologically a native speaker is no guarantee of their abilities to speak eloquently or write clearly, and definitely no indication of adeptness at effective communication with other non-native speakers. In fact, it is not uncommon to find UK businesses employing trainers to give their British employees English workshops so as to enable them to successfully communicate in a global environment.

Alternatively, students might say the above because they have had a bad encounter with a rude or impatient native speaker. If this was the case, I just tell them this: They can’t sympathise with your position because you speak two languages (or more), and they probably speak one. You should feel sorry for them.

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What they say: My last teacher said ‘I need more grammar’.

What’s really happening: There is a traditional belief, rooted in the tradition of the way Latin and Greek were taught, whereby learning a language was equated to the learning of grammar. One could even go so far as to argue that with most European languages, morphology and verb inflections make up the foundations on which the languages are based. While vocabulary acquisition has always been thought to be a simplistic matter of memorization, the ability to string the lexis into a syntactically correct and coherent sentence is a mental process that few understand.

So, telling a student ‘You need more grammar’ is more like saying ‘You need to know more about the English language’.

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What they say: I felt like I was improving at first, but now I feel like I am deteriorating.

What’s really happening: For students on an intensive course, what might be happening is that they started out feeling motivated and were taking on all the learning opportunities offered to them, and therefore felt like they were improving.

However, this also means that they have started to notice the gaps in their knowledge and become more aware of their mistakes and the things they can’t do. Unlike before the course, the student is now paying extra attention to his/her language use and feeling self-conscious about it. This naturally leads to a feeling that they are deteriorating.

In actual fact, they are improving.

Because awareness is the mother of all progress.

For students on a long-term programme, this issue might simply be a lack of motivation and a feeling that they would never arrive at their destination.

The novelty of learning a new language has worn off and ‘Mid-Int-initis’ has set in. Their improvement curve seems to have stagnated. And there is still so much more they don’t know.

If this is the case, perhaps it is time to review their goals. Set specific performance-related mini-goals that could be met in shorter time frames and flag up the fact that no one knows everything and every word in a language. It is being able to do the things one wants to do with the language that counts.
Besides, we know that embracing the journey is sometimes more important than the destination. And we as teachers are at liberty to make that journey all the more enjoyable.

Perhaps hearing students say these things might break my heart, but if I can give them the confidence to never need to say them again, I’d consider my job half done, don’t you think?

The CELTA Trainer’s Diary Part 7 – Correcting Students’ Mistakes

Where to timetable the input session on ‘Correction and Dealing with Student Errors’ is a tricky one and often reflects the trainer’s beliefs about teacher training and teaching.

Some trainers leave it till Week 3, preferring to focus on lesson structures where the target language is presented and then practice of that target language is given.

This could be based on the belief that language lessons should take on an input-output structure where teachers aim to teach a particular pre-decided lexico-grammatical item.

Or this could be based on the belief that teacher trainees on a CELTA are not ready to handle the clarification and correction of language that emerges from student output as they are new to the profession, and are better off having the chance to research and prepare to present a language item.

Of course, there is also the fact that the CELTA criteria expects trainees to articulate the aims of the lesson (e.g. By the end of the lesson, students will have been introduced to and given practice of the use of the present perfect for life experiences in the context of talking about countries they have been to) and show through the stages and procedure of their lesson plan how they are going to go about achieving that aim.

This naturally suggests that the other CELTA criteria regarding the ability to clarify meaning, form and pronunciation of language in Teaching Practice refers mainly to the clarification of the target language stated in the lesson aims.

Hence, in order to best equip teachers to deal with Teaching Practice, the first two weeks of input are often spent understanding the input-output lesson shapes like Present-Practice-Produce and ‘Language from a Text’, and demonstrating how to systematically clarify MFP in such lessons.

Being a Dogmetician, and a believer in the importance dealing with emergent language, I decided to deliver my input session on correction on Day 6 (Week 2, Day 1). After all, if it’s going to be difficult for trainees, they might as well start getting practice of it as soon as possible.

Photo from virtualtourist.com

Let us first start by looking at some sentences spoken by my students.

Decide where the mistake lies, whether it is a problem with lexis, grammar, pronunciation or usage, and why you think this mistake was made.

How would you correct the mistake?

Here are some examples:

1)   She want some tea.

2)   He saw a dream about winning the Olympics yesterday.

3)   I am not agree with you.

4)   I lied down on my bed when I got home.

5)   He seed a film at the cinema last week.

6)   I read a new about Team GB’s gold medals this morning.

7)   If I am you, I will go home.

8)   Last month, I had seen this film.

(1) is a grammatical issue where the student has dropped the third person ‘s’ in ‘wants’. A seemingly simple grammar rule to remember, new teachers are often surprised to find fairly advanced students of English still making this mistake. This is often not because the student is unaware of the rule, but simply forgot. If repeated often, the mistake becomes habitual (or in some literature, ‘fossilized’).

Not surprisingly, the third person ‘s’ is a late acquisition item even among children who speak English as a first language. This could be due to the similarity in the pronunciation of ‘want’ and ‘wants’, and the fact that there is hardly any impact on meaning if the ‘s’ is dropped.

Although (2) is a mistake with lexis and collocation, while (3) is a grammatical mistake, they both are a result of L1 interference, i.e. translation from the student’s first language has caused the mistake. The speaker of sentence (2) is Japanese and the collocation ‘to see a dream’, instead of ‘to have a dream’ is the norm in the Japanese language. Sentence (3) is a mistakes typically made by Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and French speakers, as ‘agree’ is an adjective, as in ‘Estoy de acuerdo’, ‘Sono d’accordo’ or ‘Je suis d’accord’.

Number (4) and (5) feature the same grammatical mistake of using the regular verb past tense ending ‘-ed’ with an irregular verb.

However, the student who said (4) simply did not know the past simple of the irregular verb ‘lie’ and might have confused it with the regular verb ‘to lie’ (as in ‘not to tell the truth’).

The elementary student who said sentence (5) had been able to say ‘I saw’ previously. But when taught the rules for forming the past simple of regular verbs, the eager student over-applied the rules to the irregular verbs as well. As first glance, it might seem like the student has deteriorated. In actual fact, he/she was experimenting with a rule that was taught.

And without experimentation, there can be no language learning.

Sentence (6) also features an over-application of a rule. The student understood that plural nouns often take an ‘s’ in English, e.g. one medal, two medals. The student also knew the word ‘news’ and has assumed that it was a noun in the plural form. He then deduced that one piece of news must be ‘a new’. Very clever!

Sentence number (7) sees the first conditional, instead of the second conditional being used. This could be due to several possible reasons : (a) the student hasn’t had enough practice of the structure and isn’t ready to produce it, (b) the student forgot (c) the student has never come across this structure or hasn’t been taught it (d) the student was taught this in class but misunderstood the teacher and thought that ‘If I were you’ referred to a past time.

Sentence (8) is another example of a student experimenting with the tenses they have learnt and perhaps going a little overboard with it, and overcomplicating the sentence. The past simple would have sufficed.

Photo by @pigletruth from http://www.flickr.com/eltpics

To sum up, here’s why students make mistakes

  • They forgot.
  • It’s a habit.
  • L1 interference
  • Lack of knowledge
  • Lack of confidence
  • Lack of practice
  • Not ready to produce it
  • Misunderstanding the teacher
  • Over-application of a rule
  • Experimentation

But students want to have their mistakes pointed out and corrected. Many of them feel that this is what they are paying the teacher to do.

A director of studies once told me that the most common student complaint they got was that their teachers were not correcting them enough.

Photo by Chia Suan Chong

But can we correct every mistake we hear?

That would not only disrupt fluency to the point where real communication would be made nearly impossible, but would also affect the student’s confidence.

Instead, deal with issues that are

  • Affecting meaning and interfering with communication;
  • Recurring mistakes;
  • Mistakes made by several members of the class;
  • Mistakes made concerning the target language that you focused on in this lesson or in previous lessons.
Photo from nitawriter.wordpress.com

What are some different ways we can correct a mistake in class?

On-the-spot

(1) Reformulation/Recasting

Student: “I go to the cinema yesterday.”

Teacher: “Oh? You went to the cinema yesterday?”

This involves the teacher simply repeating the student’s sentence back in the correct form. In some arenas, a distinction is drawn between ‘reformulation’ and ‘recasting’, with a suggestion that ‘reformulation’ is when this is done as in a delayed language feedback slot.

However, I find such terminology unhelpful to my trainees and choose to use the term ‘reformulation’ both for on-the-spot and delayed correction.

(2) Elicit by indicating there’s been an error

Student: “I go to the cinema yesterday.”

Teacher: “I go?” (with raised eyebrows and rising intonation)

This works with students who already have been exposed to the language point but have simply either forgotten or have made the mistake a habit.

If students are unable to self-correct, elicit from the other students in the class.

(3) Explicitly tell students what the mistake is

Student: “I go to the cinema yesterday.”

Teacher: “ Yesterday is the past but ‘go’ is the present tense. What’s the past tense of ‘go’?”

 

or even more explicitly,

Teacher: “Yesterday is the past but ‘go’ is the present tense. So we should say ‘I went to the cinema yesterday.”

 

Other ways of correcting include using

  • finger highlighting,
  • identifying the type of error e.g. ‘tense?’ or ‘preposition?’
  • gestures to indicate word order,
  • using the board and writing up the phonemic script,
  • clapping out the stress pattern of a word or sentence, etc.
Photo from MyFunnyWorld.net

Delayed Language Feedback (Delayed Correction)

After an activity is over and feedback on content has been conducted, language feedback can be conducted.

In one-to-one lessons, it could be helpful to have a sheet of paper divided into two section – ‘What you said’ and ‘What you could have said’. During the spoken interaction, I write on this sheet frantically. In delayed language feedback, I cover the side that says ‘What you could have said’ and get the student to self-correct. I then gradually reveal my reformulations.

In a class, I would write the sentences containing student errors on the board. I would then put students into pairs to correct the sentences. The person who made the error remains anonymous, but every so often, students giggle and admit that the sentence came from them.

After giving students ample time to discuss the sentences, I elicit the self-corrections from them in open class and we learn from the mistakes together.

If you still use OHP projectors, you could write the sentences straight onto the acetate when monitoring, and flash it up on the wall during delayed language feedback. This would save you time writing it up on the board, but this means that you have to pick the sentences you’d like to focus on as you hear them.

Photo by @pigletruth from http://www.flickr.com/eltpics

Rather than an input-output model, a focus on error correction earlier on emphasizes the fact that learning is not linear, and that some of the best learning takes place when the teacher helps the students to notice the gap in their knowledge and how it could affect communication.

It might not be easy, but just like language learning, the more one practises dealing with language errors and emergent language, the better one is bound to get at it.

After all, why do we encourage our learners to make mistakes, yet feel like we have to protect our teacher trainees from making them?

As James Joyce said, ‘Mistakes are the portals of discovery.’

Devil’s Advocate vs Evan Frendo on Specificity & ESP

This series is inspired by a conversation between Mike Hogan and myself about examining the controversies in ELT. We wanted to consider the different positions taken by different members of the industry. However, to do so, we’d need a debate, a disagreement of sorts. And it became apparent that we either tend to agree with members of our PLN (flying creatures of the same feathers and all that), or would keep an open mind and be fairly polite and supportive of one another (that is why we tweet and blog). Seeing that, the only way to get a real debate going was to actively play Devil’s Advocate (DA).

The following debate took place as an Instant-Messaging Chat on Skype. The statements of here are of the DA and in no way represent my beliefs about teaching. This is merely a tool to spark a dialogue between you, the reader, and all those involved in this project. You can find previous instalments of DA here.

To celebrate our tenth installment of DA, we have Evan Frendo.

Evan Frendo is a freelance business English trainer, teacher trainer and author based in Berlin. A frequent speaker at conferences, he also travels regularly in Europe and Asia to run courses or to work as a consultant. Evan has published various books over the years, including “How to teach Business English” (Longman, 2005), and most recently, four books in Pearson’s new Vocational English series. To find out more visit his blog, where he discusses topics and issues relevant to anyone involved in business English and ESP.

Chia: I am extremely excited about having you on DA today, Evan!

Evan: Hi Chia – good to be here 🙂

Chia: The expert in how to teach Business English and ESP himself!

Evan: LOL that’s a nice way to start. Shall we stop now so I can quote you?

Chia: Hahaha…I quote you ALL THE TIME!

Evan: I’d prefer if you just tell people to buy my books, to be honest.

Chia: That I do too…

But I’m here in the position of DA today, and so you must forgive me if I am not so cordial for the rest of this conversation.

Evan: Ok.

Chia: So, Evan, aside from books for teacher training, you also write books for ESP, don’t you?

Evan: Yes that’s right. I started off writing ESP materials for corporate clients, and  nowadays I also write for various publishers.

Chia: But isn’t that a contradiction in terms? ESP suggests a needs-analysis-based tailormade English course…So how can you write one-size-fits-all coursebooks for ESP students?

Evan: Haha. That’s a quote from one of my talks, where I discussed this very question. Yes, you’re right, it can appear to be a contradiction, but only if you see the coursebook as setting the syllabus. If you use it as a resource coursebooks can be very useful.

Is the ESP coursebook like these pinafores?
They are specifically for children, but does the one size fit all kids?
ELTpics: Photo by @fionamau

Chia: And what are these books a resource for? Is it not just focusing on the industry-specific lexis and terminology needed?

Evan: Yes, they’re a resource for the teacher and students to use.  ESP is not only about lexis and terminology. It is also about genre and context and getting an insight into the discourse communities that the learner wants to become effective in.

Chia: But that’s just it. Aren’t the discourse community and the genres and contexts specific to that community too specific to be covered in a published-for-everyone-in-that-industry coursebook? Are you sure the book isn’t just a resource for a general industry, and not a specific discourse community?

Very often, we use labels like EAP (English for Academic Purposes) or English for Oil and Gas or English for Business, and we call it ESP. But they are merely generic labels and do not really represent the discursive variation within the specific discourse communities.

Tate sells clothes to the young & trendy and Face Shop sells cosmetics to women.
Having a target market do not make them specialised shops with niche markets.
Photo by Chia Suan Chong

Evan: Yes, absolutely. As in so much in ELT, it really depends on your teaching context. For some courses, such as pre-experience learners in tertiary education, an ESP book / general business English coursebook may be quite a useful window on the world they aim to work in.  For others such coursebooks may be quite irrelevant.

Chia: Are you admitting that such books might be over-generalised and only useful for pre-experience learners who don’t yet know about the discourse community they are about to enter and so we can pull the wool over their eyes and feed them some generic lexical chunks which they might or might not encounter in their discipline/target situation?

Evan: No, not at all. That is a cynical view of coursebooks. The thing is, teachers and learners need some way to access the target discourse. Often in ESP the reality is that the teacher is not an expert, and nor is the learner.

So the course book is simply one way of accessing that target discourse, in other words, of providing ways to work with the sorts of language and contexts that have been identified in a needs analysis as most relevant to the learners. The point is that if we don’t have some way of accessing this target discourse we could end up focussing on things which are not necessarily a priority.

Windows into different discourse communities?
Photo by Mike Hogan

Chia: That is all good on paper. But in actual facts, how does one first of all identify the kind of language and the target discourse that is most relevant to the learners? How can we ensure the reliability of the Needs Analysis instrument? And how can we then satisfactorily match a coursebook to the needed language and discourse?

Evan: Yes, that is actually the key point. People in our profession have been talking about needs analysis for years, but I think the reality is that we don’t do it very well. On one hand, the profession is still developing the tools and techniques that will help us really analyse what our learners really need. On the other hand, a lot of teachers pay lip service to needs analysis. There is a lot that can be done which isn’t being done.

Chia: So what do you think a good needs analysis for ESP purposes should contain then? What do you think is often not being done?

Evan: I think there are two main issues:

First of all, we have too many teachers who have never actually done any discourse or corpus analysis, and really don’t know very much about how communication works or how to analyse the language that the learners might need. Performance-based testing is rare. Without these, we cannot really claim to be doing a needs analysis. So we need to train teachers better.

Secondly, we need to become more persuasive at explaining to our clients exactly what can be done if we have proper access to the workplace. Too many clients (and teachers) think of language learning as something which takes place in a classroom, yet there is so much evidence to suggest that learning takes place in the workplace as well.

Learning does not necessarily have to take place in the classroom

Chia: First of all, can you explain what you mean by ‘performance-based testing’?

And second, what exactly can be done if we have proper access to the workplace? Are you suggesting that teachers record and analyse the conversations and communications that go on in our clients’ discourse community, do a discourse/genre analysis on it, in order to train our clients to become better communicators?

Evan: Ok, what I mean by performance-based testing (or task-based assessment) is that we need to be able to test our learners’ ability to do their job, i.e. to perform. Of course as English teachers we would be focussing on the elements of the job which require English.

So, for example, if someone says they need to present in English, we ask them to do a presentation, and then work on areas that can be improved. It might be language related, or it might be skills related. In other words, we need to be able to work out where they are now so that we can compare it to where they need to be.

And to answer your second question…

Yes, I mean that teachers need access to the workplace in order to understand the target discourse, but also to provide feedback in context, as it were. Sitting in the back of a meeting room taking notes, and then later providing specific feedback to the learner will be much more focussed than any role-play in the classroom. What I am talking about is learning on the job.

‘Performance-Based Learning’
Photo by Mike Hogan

Chia: It seems to me like what you are asking the teacher to do is not only extremely time-consuming, but requires a fair bit of expertise in both genre/discourse analysis and the client’s discipline. I mean, to really assess our learners’ ability to perform in their job, we need to know the target situation and target discourse community well. One sitting is not going to give us what we need to know.

Let’s take your example of presentations for instance. A presentation in an Applied Linguistics academic conference is very different from a presentation at a Civil Engineering academic conference (and I am not just talking about lexis and technical jargon here), which is again very different from a presentation at a board of director’s meeting for Siemens, which is again very different from a presentation pitching new solar equipment to clients in Abu Dhabi.

We can reel off the usual ‘What makes a good presentation’ lesson from ‘Presenting in English’ or whatever the latest coursebook on presentations is, but that isn’t really focussing on their discourse community and their ability to do their job, is it? It’s just paying lip service to the needs analysis.

Academic presentations are a different kettle of fish altogether.
Photo by Mike Hogan

Evan: Yes, maybe you’re right. But it’s still a lot better than what is being done now, where teachers really have no idea of the discourse communities that the learners need to operate in. As you say, it requires expertise. And it is already happening in many corporate training contexts, where people are beginning to recognise that staying in the classroom is extremely limiting.

Chia: I must say that is an interesting idea – having the teacher/trainer in the workplace observing and providing feedback. But surely that can only work in one-to-one training? And subject to the clients’ company allowing such an ‘intrusion’?

Evan: Well, it’s quite common if you have an in-house trainer working full-time in a company.  It’s not seen as an intrusion, but as part of the job. In-house trainers can do much more than someone who simply pops in from time to time to run English classes.

Chia: Ah, okay. So if you are an in-house trainer, I suppose you would have sufficient time and exposure to the clients’ field to be able to familiarise yourself with that specific discourse community. But most teachers/trainers don’t have that kind of luxury, Evan. Yet they pay lip service to a needs analysis which they never really use…and if they do, they simply do it in a generic ‘Let’s look at phrases used to ask for opinions in meetings’ sort of way…

Evan: Yes, I think you’re right. Many teachers are handicapped by their teaching context – no chance to do a proper needs analysis, and no requirement to develop the skills either. Maybe this is a consequence of the way the industry has developed over the years, particularly in the private language school sector. People are willing to pay for teachers to do a job which they are not really trained to do. But that’s another topic …

Chia: Many teachers/trainers feel that their area should be English language teaching. Discourse analysis and the specialisation needed to really deliver true ESP is just way outside their scope, and they are simply not paid enough to deliver that sort of content. Let me throw in another argument here. Most teachers would also argue that a grasp of General English should be enough for learners to negotiate meaning and figure out the conventions of their discourse community on their own, that there are really not enough variations in lexico-grammar to justify a ESP approach.

Is the exchange rate just simply not worth our while?
ELTpics: Photo by @acliltoclimb

Evan: Well, maybe that’s where we disagree. For me the whole point of ELT is to help people communicate in the real world. So the more we can find out about that world the more focussed and more effective our teaching will be. There is never enough time to do everything, so we need to compromise and make priorities. Without some sort of needs analysis this is not possible. I think that every teacher does this anyway – all I am saying is that we can get better at it. In answer to your point about General English, this has been a debate in the industry for many years. Is there a core language that we can teach before we move on to the specific contexts people require in their real worlds? I am not convinced. Language only has meaning in context, and if we remove that context we are left with very little.

Chia: I’m definitely not advocating that we remove the contexts, and I do think that sometimes the difference between ESP/BE and General English is just a matter of contexts. e.g. In General English, we teach students to introduce themselves in the context of meeting other students in a classroom or a party. In BE, we teach students to introduce themselves in the context of meeting new colleagues at an office. But the linguistic devices for both contexts are not that different from each other…We could therefore conclude that there is a core language and generic skills that cuts across disciplines, wouldn’t you say, Evan?

Isn’t specificity only possible at higher levels?

Is there a core at the heart of it?
ELTpics: Photo by @thornburyscott

Evan: Yes, in those situations the language might be similar. But I am not sure how many of those situations you are going to find. Even a simple task like answering a telephone is quite different as soon as you go into a workplace context – and I would argue that it makes more sense to focus on the workplace conventions if you have business English learners.

Regarding your point about specificity at higher levels, yes, I think this is a good point. But that it is not to say we cannot be specific at low levels as well. For example, low level business English learners often learn lexis to describe departments and responsibilities – this is specific to business English and would not be covered in a General English course of the same level.

Chia: So you are saying that we can teach Business English even to beginners then? :-)

Evan: For sure

Would I dare say otherwise?

Chia: You present an irrefutable argument here, Evan. I hate balanced people like you…they are just so difficult to put up a fight against!

Evan: Heh heh. Does that mean you’re now going to rush out and buy all those low level business English books you don’t already have? 🙂

 

Time to rush out a get a copy of Evan’s ESP book for the oil industry
Photo from Amazon.co.uk

Chia: Just the other day, someone in my staffroom saw me holding a coursebook and tried to take a photo of me…and now you’re telling me to BUY one? ROFL

Evan: I’ve heard some people just photocopy the bits they need …

 

But I’m sure Evan would rather you not photocopy his books!
Photo from Amazon.co.uk

Chia: For the sake of great coursebook writers like you (and all those who wrote the coursebooks featured here on today’s DA), I hope everyone buys the books and not just copies them!

…despite the fact that these books clearly aren’t THAT specific to the needs of the students by nature of the fact that they are published coursebooks…of course.

Evan: Heh heh. No, not at all. That is a cynical view of coursebooks. The thing is, teachers and learners need some way to access the target discourse. Often in ESP the reality is that the teacher is not an expert, and nor is the learner. So the course book is simply one way of accessing that target discourse, in other words, of providing ways to work with the sorts of language and contexts that have been identified in a needs analysis as most relevant to the learners. The point is that if we don’t have some way of accessing this target discourse we could end up focussing on things which are not necessarily a priority.

Hang on. I’ve said that already. You just weren’t listening …

Chia: And here was I thinking ‘Deja Vu! I thought he said that already!’

But seriously, there are some arguments for and against specificity that are really worth examining…and I’m really glad we managed to touch on some of the issues today, and hopefully this will propel readers to reflect on their own practice more and explore this area more.

At the end of the day, specificity versus general aren’t two mutually exclusive concepts, and probably exist on a continuum, don’t you think?

Let’s not overgeneralise! Even Essex has 50 Shades…
ELTpics: Photo by @pysproblem81

Evan: Yes, all good things in ELT exist on a continuum. It’s one of the eternal truths about the profession.

Just like the answer to all questions about teaching is “It depends”.

Chia: Wise words, Evan! Thanks for spending time with me today, and for allowing me and the readers to explore the controversies and debates surrounding ESP and specificity.

Evan: I have to say your DA column is great fun. And a great way to think through some of the issues. Thanks for the invite, and keep up the good work. 🙂

Evan’s talks are unmissable!
Photo by Mike Hogan

Epilogue: Evan’s opinions are his own and do not represent any organisations he is associated with. Chia was only playing DA, and truly believes that every teacher should hone their expertise within their field at every opportunity possible. Chia and Evan are still friends, although Evan never fails to remind Chia of the times she failed to come to his talks…but that’s a discourse for another time…and another genre…

Death by Idioms

This is a blogpost I wrote for ELT Knowledge – home to the journals English Teaching Professional and Modern English Teacher.

As English confirms its position as the global lingua franca and the language of international trade, business and tourism, there has been more and more talk in the English teaching world regarding the necessity of teaching idioms.

Seidlhofer (2004) warned of the dangers of unilateral idiomaticity, whereby the use of idioms by a speaker could result in incomprehension on the part the interlocutor who is less acculturated to native-speaker norms.

In other words, the use of idioms could be to the detriment of mutual intelligibility and serves no purpose except to perpetuate the native-speaker’s target culture, which is usually taken to mean the American or the British culture.

Now, before you get up in arms about this and start bellowing, ‘But my students want to be taught English idioms!’ from the rooftop of the nearest language school, let me reassure you that I am not entirely comfortable with lumping all English idiomatic expressions together and damning them all at one go.

So first of all, let us consider this. What is an idiom?

The online dictionary www.dictionary.com defines ‘idiom’ as ‘an expression whose meaning is not predictable from the usual meanings of its constituent elements’, while the Oxford Advanced Learners’ Dictionary defines it as ‘a group of words whose meaning is different from the meanings of the individual words’.

Both dictionaries then proceed to give examples of idioms such as ‘to kick the bucket’ and ‘to let the cat out of the bag’.

The meanings of these fixed expressions are clearly far from the meanings of the words themselves (‘to die’ and ‘to tell a secret by mistake’, respectively), but are idioms always so easily defined?

Look the following dialogue for example. Can you spot the idioms?

Rachel:           Hey, why are you feeling so down?

Michael:         My pet hamster passed away last night.

Rachel:           Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that. I know, how about some retail therapy to cheer yourself up?

Michael:         I can’t. I’m broke. I blew all my money on this tiny hamster coffin. It cost a bomb.

Rachel:           I’ll treat you to something nice. Come on, let’s go.

Michael:         I can’t. I’m knackered. I stayed up all night last night mourning little Lord Nelson.

Rachel:           Look, at the end of the day, you can’t beat yourself up like that. You’ve got to get over it.

Michael:         I can’t. I’m dying inside…

Rachel:           Alright then…whatever.

You could comfortably categorise ‘it cost a bomb’ as the same kind of idiom that ‘to let the cat out of the bag’ is.

But how about ‘passed away’, ‘cheer yourself up’, ‘blew all my money on ~’, ‘stayed up’, beat yourself up’, and ‘get over it’?

 

Are you arguing that these are phrasal verbs?

But don’t most phrasal verbs have meanings that are not derivable from the individual meanings of its constituent parts?

Are phrasal verbs naturally idioms then?

How about ‘feeling down’, ‘retail therapy’, ‘I’m broke’, ‘I’m knackered’, and ‘at the end of the day’?

Arguably, these are expressions that might have started out as idioms, but through common and frequent use, have earned a place in our cognitive processes as directly representing a different meaning to its linguistic origins? Most teachers might not even consider ‘broke’ an idiom, and would take its meaning of ‘without money’ to be simply another homonym of the word ‘broke’.

Another example of this is the above adjectival past participle ‘knackered’ (meaning ‘tired’). Originally meaning ‘to kill’, sending your horse to ‘the Knacker’s Yard’ meant that your horse was due to be slaughtered due to old age. However, even in late 1800s, ‘to knacker’ had already taken on its idiomatic meaning of ‘to tire out’.

But would English speakers from the USA, Jamaica, India or Singapore understand/use the word ‘knackered’ when they want to say that they are ‘tired’?

The online etymology dictionary www.etymonline.com states that the word ‘idiom’ was first seen in French in the late 1500s to mean ‘form of speech peculiar to a people or a place’, and in Latin and Greek to refer to ‘peculiarity in language’ and ‘peculiar phraseology’.

This suggests that the original concept of idiom referred to a type of colloquialism or code used amongst a particular group of people. This code-specific characteristic is clearly seen in the word ‘knackered’, where the target culture is closely tied to the idiomatic expression. The same can be said of the following idioms:

  • to be full of beans’ (‘to be full of energy’ – UK),
  • drinking the Kool-Aid’ (‘people who conform without questioning the belief or argument, displaying a lack of critical examination’ – US),
  • came out of the left field’ (‘unexpected, unusual, irrational’ – US baseball idiom)
  • catch no ball’ (‘didn’t understand a thing, wasn’t able to grasp the concept’ – Singaporean English idiom resulting from a direct translation from the Hokkien dialect)
  • the equation has changed’ (‘the relationship has changed’ – Indian English idiom resulting from a direct translation from Hindi)
  • She’ll be apples’ (‘everything will be alright’ – Australian English)
  • box of fluffy ducks’ (‘everything is going my way’ – New Zealand English)

If the above idioms are used by a particular speech community and is code-specific to those peculiar to a place or country, then should we teach these idioms to our EFL students?

If your answer is yes, which ones? And why?

Would you teach these idioms only for receptive purposes or would you encourage your students to produce them? What are the dangers of this?

How do you decide which idioms to teach?

How about the use of the word ‘Whatever’ in the dialogue above?

It doesn’t really mean ‘anything that…’; nor does it mean ‘no matter what’.

It carries the illocutionary force of ‘I don’t care’ or ‘That’s your problem, man!’ to show indifference or dismissal.

Although it started out as a code-specific slang word, it is now used globally, perhaps due to the dominance of Hollywood.

Could any of the above code- or community- specific idioms gain international recognition too?

Please go here to do my little poll on idioms and share your ideas and beliefs on teaching them.

.

Allow me to end this blogpost with this little piece of irony for us all to chew on as we go to bed tonight…

 

When asked, many of my learners say that they want to learn idioms because it makes them sound more native.

But more often than not, idioms are either used inappropriately, inaccurately, or simply overused.

 

Case in point: When John McClane in Die Hard 3 hears the building supervisor saying that it was raining ‘dogs and cats’, he immediately susses out that the building supervisor was not Amercian, thus leading him to conclude that he was German and belonged to the villain’s gang.

 

In trying to sound more native, learners end up sounding less native.

What a dilemma!

 

References

Seidlhofer, B. (2004) ‘Research Perspectives on Teaching English as a Lingua Franca’. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 24, pp:209-239.