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…

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IATEFL BESIG Dubrovnik conference, 2011

Photos by Mike Hogan and Chia Suan Chong

The BESIG Annual conference this year was held in the Grand Palace Hotel of Dubrovnik, Croatia, and most of the delegates were staying at the very hotel that hosted the conference. On a practical level, this made it much more convenient for speakers who did not want to lug their laptops around all day, but an unexpected effect of this was an overall feeling of warmth and familiarity that bonded the members of BESIG.  IATEFL conferences have always been a great opportunity to catch up with old friends and make new ones, but the BESIG Dubrovnik conference went beyond that. BESIG Dubrovnik was about letting our hair down and relaxing while getting to know old friends better and feeling like a family – a family that shared the same goals and beliefs.

The Welcome

Despite the delayed and missed flights due to the unfortunate strike at Zagreb airport on the first day of the conference, most delegates made it in time to see the beautiful coast of Dubrovnik twinkling in the evening lights.  After a wonderful buffet dinner and some plum brandy amidst conversations with like-minded friends, we retired to our bedrooms, ready to wake up and see the Adriatic Sea in daylight.

The Plenary

Speaking of the importance of raising our clients’ awareness of the different cultures as they use English in this globalized world, Jeremy Comfort in his talk ‘What’s culture got to do with business. Supporting our learners in a complex world’ explains how to help learners develop mindfulness – an ability to step back and observe. He briefly addresses the more essentialist notions of national culture, e.g. Hofstede’s taxonomies, but goes beyond that by broadening the view of culture to encompass conflicts that are caused by different personality styles and different attitudes to time and directness in communication, and talks of the development of ‘push’ (presenting, telling) and ‘pull’ (eliciting, getting participation) skills as tools to avoid and/or getting around conflict. He wraps up the plenary by reminding BE trainers to focus on cultural issues that are of benefit to our clients’ businesses rather than those of interest to the trainers. There is no doubt that the key to understanding other cultures is curiosity and openness.

Photo by Mike Hogan

The Talks

Vicky Hollett’s talk ‘Learning to Speak ‘merican’ was a brilliant lesson in the significance of pragmatics in our understanding of intercultural interactions. Challenging the traditional stereotypes that Americans do not share the British sense of humour, and that Americans are more direct than the ‘Brits’, Vicky cleverly uses many familiar and humorous examples to demonstrate how being indirect could make utterances less threatening and help avoid awkwardness, and this ironically allows British conversations to have much more cut and thrust since we can always use jokes to cover it up. While the Americans tend to try and maintain positive face (i.e. the need to be accepted and appreciated by others) and therefore pride inclusion even when telling jokes, the Brits are more concerned with maintaining negative face (i.e. by not intruding or get in people’s way because of their need to be free and not be burdened by others) and are happy to use the ambiguity of jokes at any time or circumstance to relieve uncomfortable moments or rescind our initial requests. Thus, what might seem sarcastic to American might simply be witty quips to the Brits.

This cross-cultural interaction theme was continued by several speakers, including my own talk about perceptions of politeness in cross-cultural NNS interactions, Richard Lewis’s ‘Cultural Factors in International Business’…

Photo by Mike Hogan

and Dr. Sabrina Mallon-Gerland’s talk ‘Case Study – Why the Germans are arrogant and the Americans are not committed’. Sabrina highlighted the cultural effect on linguistic use and suggested that we could teach students to use certain formulaic language but cannot expect them to feel comfortable using them if it is not something done in their own culture. She goes on to use concrete examples in a comparative case study, e.g. the German use of ‘The problem with that idea is…’ to signal an interest to take the idea further through discussion, but could be mistaken by Americans to mean ‘I find this idea problematic and am not interested in it’.  In order to prevent misunderstandings caused by such cultural differences, Sabrina proposes the use of meta-language to describe communication intentions so as to enable clients to explicitly define and discuss each stage of their communications, and not leave it to cultural interpretation to inaccurately understand the pragmatic intentions of the speakers.

This ‘training’ and ‘coaching’ aspect of the Business English teacher’s portfolio continued to take centre stage throughout the conference, and it was perhaps most appropriate that we ended the conference with Barry Tomalin’s ‘Teaching Business Communication in the 3rd Space’ Barry describes the ‘3rd Space’ as ‘the new phenomenon in globalisation’ where ‘managers’ reporting lines are internationalized and they are reporting to managers in different countries who they never meet…’ In order to overcome problems of unfamiliarity, Barry suggests several useful mnemonics to help clients make their communication more effective. This included the importance of signposting, summarizing key points, concluding and inviting questions when structuring a presentation, and training clients to give F.A.C.E time when interacting, i.e. Focus, Acknowledge, Clarify, Empathise.

Photo by Mike Hogan

The Publishers

Photo by Mike Hogan

Aside from the opulent amount of wine and plum brandy sponsored by the wonderful publishers (thank you, it was delicious!), it was wonderful to see the rich and innovative BE resources that were being presented at the conference and the exhibition area. Ian Badger’s ‘Listening’ (Collins ELT) must be one of my favourite as he makes use of authentic recordings from various real-life business interactions and offers not just listening practice, but thought-provoking, awareness-raising discussions through them. Co-writer for Grammar for Business (CUP) Rachel Clark continues to make her mark with her cleverly-written and –organised corpus-based grammar reference book, while Mike Hogan presents his new business series starting with Business English for beginners (Cornelsen Verlag). However, perhaps making the most waves is Paul Emmerson’s photocopiable resource book ‘Management Lessons’ which he has bravely published on his own through PaulEmmerson.com, making this the first BE book to ever be self-published. Judging from Paul’s previous successes with ‘Email English’ and ‘Business English Handbook’ (Macmillan), he wouldn’t have any trouble getting this one off the ground.

Photo by Mike Hogan
That's just me...

The Partying

Delicious seafood, colourful (but lethal) cocktails, and BE Trainers dancing to ‘Like a Prayer’ on what was an exclusively BESIG dance floor till the wee hours of Sunday morning. Need I say more?

The Goodbyes

For those heading home on the last day of the conference, there was a mere 3-4 hours of a quick city tour before making our way to Dubrovnik airport. For the lucky few who got to stay for an extra day, they were made luckier by a last-minute cancellation of what would have been a second strike at the airport. For those that were heading back to the UK, foggy weather meant that Dubrovnik airport saw a whole herd of more than 50 BE teachers hanging around nostalgically looking back at how wonderful BESIG 2011 had been…

See http://www.flickr.com/photos/irishmikeh/sets/ for more BESIG Dubrovnik photos by Mike Hogan.

Why are Business English Teachers paid so badly?

What is the difference between Business English Teaching and Business Skills Consulting? Business Teachers get paid about £25, 000 a year and Business Skills Consultants get paid about £300, 000. There must be something that differentiates these two services.

I attended Pete Menzies’s closing plenary for the English UK Business English Trainers’ Conference 2011, where he addressed this question that I’ve been asking myself for quite a while. After workshopping and discussing this with several conference delegates, these are what I gathered the differences were. (The opinions on this blog are my own…so feel free to disagree with me.)

Business English Teachers have language objectives. Business Skills Consultants have business-based directed objectives.

There is the belief that teachers go into class aiming to teach the present perfect, the first conditional for negotiations, or a list of agreeing/disagreeing phrases for meetings. The overall objective is to get their students to improve their grammatical and lexical abilities. Consultants, however, try to enable better communication so as to avoid wastes incurred in businesses.

Business English Teachers correct. Business Skills Consultants troubleshoot.

Teachers mark papers and deal with grammatical, syntactical and lexical mistakes, as opposed to looking at the language used by members of a firm that is causing breakdowns in communication. Consultants are aware of the linguistic impact on interactions and how shifts in the way we use language can contribute to waste management.

Business English Teachers rely on coursebooks and materials. Business Skills Consultants use students as a resource.

The multitude of Business coursebooks available seem to perpetuate this idea that Business language learning is about moving through the chapters of a coursebook usually defined by topics such as Global Trade, Marketing, Human Resources and Finance, each featuring different grammatical and lexical areas. Global Trade teaches us the 2nd conditional and functions of negotiation, while Finance teaches us the present perfect and trend vocabulary a la IELTS Writing Task 1.  Teachers are seen to rely on a syllabus.

But our clients already work in business. In specific areas of businesses. And they are not likely to have the need for Global Trade, Crisis Management AND Human Resources in 3 successive lessons. Instead, consultants analyse the areas they work in, the way they use English and who they use English with. They look at how their use of English affects the way they communicate. They work with emergent language. Consultants focus on needs analysis.

Business English Teachers know about language. Business Skills Consultants know about businesses.

One of the maxims that has kept me sane and prevented me from being reduced to a state of panic in my business English lessons has been ‘I am not an expert in their business. I am an expert in language.’ But how much business knowledge should the business English teacher have? Can a teacher with no business experience teach Business English? Should a teacher research their clients’ business models before a lesson? Is it important for a teacher to know their client’s area of specialty? Surely, it will not be possible to know a client’s business better than they know it? So how do consultants do it?

Arguably, it is the knowledge of general best practices in business and in management that consultants draw from when analysing a client’s communication techniques and business skills. Questions like ‘What is your business objective?’ ‘How are you going about achieving those objectives?’ ‘What is your best way forward?’, coupled with some fancy mnemonics commonly seen in management textbooks, gives consulting the value-added edge that teaching lacks.

But could one claim that such best practices are really about having common sense?

Business English Teachers teach. Business Skills Consultants coach.

Teachers teach. Surely that’s logical. They go into class and tell students what is right and what is wrong, and instruct students as to what they should do or not do. We say things like ‘That’s impolite in English. It’s not what we say.’

Consultants, on the other hand, help direct their clients towards arriving at decisions about the way they use language. They say things like ‘Would you like to add value to your organisation?’, ‘What impression would you like to create?’, ‘How can you rephrase that to make the impact you want it to?’ Like life coaches and psychiatrists, they don’t make judgements. They listen and ask questions to enable clients to make the improvements needed. Sawyer, in the US TV series Lost, says that the best conman leads their victim to think that the idea was their own. (I’m in no way implying that consultants are conmen.)

But are these descriptions fair of Business English teachers? Is this really what we do? Sure, we tell teachers to define their language aims on teacher training courses like the Celta, but in Business English teaching, don’t we analyse our clients’ needs, use our clients as the main resource, and deal with emergent language? Aren’t we already aware of the use of English as a lingua franca in business environments and don’t we prioritise communication and intelligibility over the mastery of the English tenses? Don’t we understand best practices in businesses from watching countless episodes of The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den, coupled with the reading of some management books and a good dose of common sense? Aren’t we already curious about our clients’ work and business environments? Don’t we already use questions to encourage classroom interaction and to determine our clients’ issues with language?

As a Dogme practitioner, the above definitions of a consultant seem to resonate with the principles of Teaching Unplugged. The traditional idea of what a teacher does, on the other hand, seems to be precisely what Dogmeticians are trying to avoid.

Perhaps these differences are in the expectations of what a teacher, as opposed to a consultant, does. Perhaps the differences are in the associations that these two labels conjures in the lay person’s mind. Perhaps the difference is in the way we package and market our product.

So what’s the difference between a good Business English Teacher and a good Business Skills Consultant?

Nothing. Just the rhetoric and £275,000.

Reflections on IATEFL Brighton and good teaching

After a hectic 4 days at IATEFL Brighton, followed by the come-down of those post-conference blues, I started to reflect upon the talks I had attended and the same message that seemed to be stressed and repeated again and again. And when I realised that I could no longer tweet these thoughts in 140 words, I gave in to the pull of starting my own blog, suppressing previous embarrasments and worries of the seemingly ego-centric nature of the extended airing of my own views and experiences online.

The conference started with Peter Grundy striking the perfect balance between humour, practical teaching tips and academic rigour as he spoke about the importance of Sperber and Wilson’s Relevance Theory and the creation of meaning through conversational implicatures.

The message: Communication is much more than literal meanings, for meaning comes from use.

In Dave Willis’s talk, he demonstrated the use of an authentic conversation used in a task-based classroom.

The message: Learners don’t systematically build up their grammar in the linear fashion that coursebooks would have us believe in.

Fiona James spoke about the use of visualisation to tap into the students’ imagination and inner lives and in doing so, develop the students intrapersonal skills, improve their self-concept, and most importantly for the language teacher, encourage lots of speaking and emergent language.

The message: Learners’ lives and imaginations are the most valuable resource that can be tapped.

Eugene Schaefer’s talk ‘Chuck the Book! Learner-generated Roleplays’ entertained the delegates with practical ideas and energised us with an array of drama-based activities.

The message (I got out of it) : A coursebook-less lesson could be filled with excitment and fun, and doesn’t have to resemble a chat in the pub.

Chaz Pugliese talked about using creativity in the classroom to motivate learners, reminding us teachers to have fun, or we might bore the students.

The message: Real-play, as opposed to Roleplay, allows learners to bring their own identity into the classroom.

Ultimately, they all point towards one thing. That good teaching is simply about supplying structures and frameworks that allow learners to bring themselves into the language classrooms, facilitating genuine interactions that put learners at the centre of their learning process, and providing opportunities for learners to encounter language in use. It is certainly not about letting coursebooks dictate which grammar point one needs to learn next, diverting learners away from what they truly want to talk about in favour of the perfect lesson plan we have created, or playing audio recordings of John and Jane Doe that learners do not care about in an attempt to enforce some listening practice. Ultimately, they all point towards a Dogme approach to teaching.

My conference experience was wrapped up appropriately by the Dogme Symposium, in which Luke Meddings, Anthony Gaughan, Candy Van Olst, Howard Vickers and Scott Thornbury talked about this conversation-driven, materials-light, and student-focussed approach to teaching. Amongst lots of laughter as we watched Luke drill us to say ‘Dogme’ in the Danish way and Anthony sing to get pairwork to stop, Candy hit the nail on the head when she said that we should let learners talk about what is meaningful to them as we learn to be the listener of stories rather than the storyteller. Why do we spend time contextualising our lessons, when the context is right there in front of our eyes? In Anthony’s words, why import interest into the classroom when we have real stories of people’s lives in the room?

During the gruelling Q&A session, less-convinced delegates started to question the effectiveness of Dogme in Business English classrooms especially for newly-qualified teachers, claiming that the teacher needed to plan the technical jargon that they were going to teach, and couldn’t afford to be caught out during the lesson. It took me a lot of effort to stop myself from yelling ‘In all my years of Business English teaching, I have never been asked by any of my students to teach them jargon!’ Most of my students know more business jargon than I do, and I see no shame in getting them to explain the concepts of their specialization to me. The most important lesson I had learnt when I completed my LCCI CERT TEB (a Celta-like qualification for Business English teachers) years ago was this: I am an expert in using English for business communication. I am not an expert in their business areas. Living by this motto has allowed me to humbly ask questions and listen to my Business English students tell me about their work and specialities. And in the process, I have learnt more about finance, marketing, human resources, sales, architecture, trade, law, politics, etc. than I could ever glean from a coursebook.

Ironically, Dogme is not a dogmatic methodology, as some might think, and as Luke Meddings said in his talk, isn’t new to teaching. Business teachers, for example, have been approaching their lessons in ways I have heard termed ‘Authentic Participation’ for ages. But the moment Scott Thornbury gave it the ‘Dogme’ label, it enabled us to start thinking about teaching in a different way. As Vygotsky would say, labels help us to process thought and concepts.

The message: Whether you call it Dogme or any other name (I will resist quoting the trite Juliet to Romeo speech here), it is simply about good teaching.