reflections

How sanitized is your coursebook?

Tut! Coursebooks with their PARSNIP policy. You’ve literally given me nothing this term – not even a shred of controversy.

First, there was that unit on travel and ‘responsible tourism’. As usual, full of affluent looking Westerners with aspirational lifestyles, backpacking around Europe or cycling at the Golden Gate Bridge. I mean, I guess the publisher did shoehorn in the odd reference to illegal trade in ivory, plus the dangers of plastic waste and the carbon footprint of tourism. But these are hardly ‘political’ topics. After all, it’s not as if I live in a country that has taken an active stand against the environmental impact of excessive tourism, by closing one of their most popular tourist attractions for the foreseeable future. Nope, no springboards for robust discussion here… (more…)

Insight into a synthetic syllabus

Views are my own in this post.

I teach from a synthetic syllabus at my school and the following attributes are true of it…

  • it’s a covert linguistic syllabus (notional-functional)
  • it’s task-supported (rather than task-based)
  • the tasks are built on structure-trapping rather than target tasks based on learner needs. However, learners can opt to follow a particular pathway (e.g. work, study) which helps ‘personalise their learning journey’ (to an extent)

You could level plenty of criticism towards the approach – I do love ranting about this myself sometimes. In a nutshell: it’s tblt with small letters, as Mike Long (2015) would put it, and with that his awesome book on TBLT (note the capitals) would pay it no further attention. The “tasks” are more like “situational language exercises” (Cunningham, in Ellis 2009), and would likely lead to “encoded usage” rather than “purposeful use” (Widdowson 2003). I’ve heard some teachers call it worse than that – “McDonaldsy” and “glorified PPP” being some of the softer terms.

I get the PPP thing. (more…)

My tree octopus fake news fail

Here’s one of my favourite things to write about – things that didn’t work! This is a request for ideas from Teacher James and others.

James mentioned using the Pacific North-west Tree Octopus site as a good resource for talking about fake news. There are a lot of lesson plans online for using this site – James himself has a good one (click here). Anyhow, I love the site itself and can certainly see how it would benefit learners to explore it and think critically about its content. Alas, I got it wrong…

I loosely followed Tomlinson’s text-driven approach (which I seem to do a bit too often these days but hey ho!). I’m sure I got a lot of these ideas from an existing plan – maybe something by Jamie Keddie but I’m not entirely sure… Anyway, things started off like this…

…then this…

And onto this…

(more…)

#ObserveMe

I really like the #ObserveMe movement (see Robert Kaplinsky’s post here or the hashtag). However, I’m going to have to tweak things to make it work.

Gone are the days of LTC Eastbourne. My two years at that school were highly collaborative and peer observation was commonplace. It wasn’t an open doors policy, but a fair few teachers were happy for me to drop in and observe at short notice, some extending the open invitation (like Sketch who blogs here). There was a time at LTC (admittedly when I had more time myself) when I’d observe another teacher at least once, often twice a week. Teachers welcomed feedback but, unlike much of the #ObserveMe tweets I’ve seen, I was rarely directed to focus on a specific feature or skill – ‘i.e. how do I vary interaction patterns?/How can I do a better job of keeping learners engaged?’ etc.

The ‘free-for-all’ approach had its perks for me – I could focus on whatever I wanted. I often focused on how teachers gave instructions and also on the correction techniques they used – that’s really interesting to observe in a language classroom. Whiteboard work was also a favourite! For the teachers I observed, I guess the feedback topic was a lottery. It’s not the most effective/focused way of doing things but hey, I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity of observing experienced teachers. Post-observation feedback still led to some interesting discussions – it was sometimes just good to download about issues that emerged during the lesson!

Fast-forward three years and my experience of observations has changed a lot. My two observed lessons per year (one developmental, one evaluative) are thorough and quite stressful. They are fairly by the book (i.e. this book!) and my performance is now linked to my pay, so giving the observer what they want is the priority, rather than giving the learners what the need. Sniff. I’ve frequently been the observed teacher in my current job rather than the observer. In my first year I was observed either formally or through drop ins about 12 times (!) by line managers, trainers and sometimes sales staff getting to know the products. Most observations were top down, which is sad. The only teacher who asked to observe me (rather than a manager who told me they were observing) has moved on, and I’m really lacking someone to bounce ideas off and who I trust to offer objective and informative feedback.

I want to change this, and to do so I think I need to change our teachers’ perception of observations. Given the formality and rigidity of our current observations, my approach here is the opposite. Complete freedom – no guidance, no specific focus (which I would have liked for my own benefit), nothing but allowing other teachers to come in, observe and comment. Breaking the invisible barrier between colleagues and just getting the dialogue going. It doesn’t matter what about to begin with, just… tell me what you think of my teaching and we can take the discussion from there!

Here’s the poster I’ve put up on my door. I hope someone pops in. *Anyone but the boss, ANYONE BUT THE BOSS!*

Feature image: TonyCrabbe

Pronunciation priorities

Uh-oh! Here comes a ‘Teacher Pete thinking something through out loud’ moment. Tut. I hate these…

Mark Hancock shared a good article on LinkedIn the other day called ‘Pronunciation Teaching Post-ELF’. It’s got thinking about my own attitudes towards pronunciation and what features of pronunciation should be addressed in class.

According to Hancock, what we need to teach is pretty much established:

I’ve seen these particular priorities outlined before in Gibert’s ‘Six Pronunciation Priorities for beginning students’. I asked him how he arrived at these essential features. Was it based on research, a certain model like the Lingua Franca Core (LFC), intuition etc? He commented:

‘Not research or LFC, and I don’t think it’s intuition either. I think it’s more or less by definition: features of reduction and simplification in the sound stream in connected-speech are speaker oriented, i.e. for ease of articulation – and the clue is in the label. Reduction. Simplification. Linking. Etc. Pretty much tautology then. The fact that there is some overlap between the LFC could be coincidental. Except that it probably isn’t, [the essential features] are found to be essential for intelligibility and for good reason!

Jenkins’ LFC highlights some similar priorities from a research-based perspective…

I understand the premise in general – equipping learners with these pronunciation features is essential for ensuring intelligibility in a global context. Some things confuse me though…

From Jenkins (in Walker 2010:143)

‘Essentially, then, the Lingua Franca Core consists of: most consonant sounds; vowel length (but not quality) distinctions; absence of word-initial and – medial consonant deletion; and nuclear stress. For ELF, all the rest is in the realm of ‘non-core’.’

I guess ‘non-core’ is kinda Hancock’s ‘superficial’. However, both authors highlight that teaching these non-core features is worthwhile for receptive purposes. Phonology and listening are obviously linked (I’m still on the Cauldwell bandwagon by the way), which makes Jenkins fleeting categorisation of features of connected speech as ‘inconsequential’ seem a bit strange to me. The priority really is, as Hancock suggests, whether we are trying to understand or be understood. Good point, but if it is to be understood then is it right, according to Jenkins, to go for such a narrow pronunciation focus? I like Wells’ response to this… (more…)

Evidence and (my lack of) accountability

Last ramble before I’m back to sharing lesson ideas.

I’ve been re-reading Russ Mayne’s blog on evidence based ELT. I remember being quite into it in the lead up to my diploma and agreed with (what I saw as) his main message. We can’t rely solely on our own reflections or those of so-called experts to validate the methods/approaches we use. We need more objective evidence. If there isn’t any then we should be skeptical, and if there is evidence (e.g. from research) then we should ensure that it is reliable.

Perhaps one reason I like Mayne’s stance is because I used to be more science-focused. My MSc was in cognitive psychology and I was working on experiments with large quantitative data sets. I chose that path mainly because my BA involved a lot of qualitative research which I found was often subjective or too easy to manipulate. I felt with quantitative data things were more objective and trustworthy – providing that I didn’t do something calamitous to my SPSS/Excel spreadsheets, which I often did!

The main effect my studies had on me was that I came to question everything. The trouble was, questioning everything didn’t seem to work well in teaching. By questioning everything, I essentially had faith in nothing. When I started out there wasn’t really one teaching method I truly believed in. Coupled with that, I was genuinely a crap teacher, so not only did I lack faith in the methods I was using, I was ridiculously hesitant and lacking in confidence. Jeez, my poor DOS back then. I must have been a nightmare. (more…)

Acoustic blur, soundshapes, speech streams

I’ve been thinking about an interaction I had in class last week. I’ve transcribed it roughly below. For a bit of context, the language point was going to for future plans, and the language had been presented through a listening. This was a controlled practice stage.

Here’s how things played out (well, with real student names obviously!)…

Student A : (quite slowly) What are you going to do after class?

Student B : (quite carefully) I’m going to meet my friends

Me: OK, cool. That’s fine…. *thinks*. OK, Student A – woye.gunne.doowaf.teclass?

Student A: Er…I’m going to eat

Me: weye.gunneet?

Student A: Sorry?

Me: weye.gunneet?

Student A: I don’t… understand

Me: That’s ok. What might I ask you? You said that you’re going to eat…

Student A: Maybe… where?

Me: weye.guneet?

Student A: Oh! Where are you going to eat?

Me: weye.guneet?

Student A: Maybe… Sizzler

Me: Nice. Good steak. (To Student B) Ask me.

Student B: What are you going to /

Me: woye.gunne.doowaf.teclass?

Student B: *laughs* woye…gunnerrr

Me: it’s OK. Try this instead: watcher

Student B: watcher

Me: watcher.gunner

Etc…

I find myself doing things like this more and more in class. I mean, if you were to pick this interaction apart, it’s not particularly good teaching to be fair. The whole interaction is staggered and unnatural, I’m modelling pronunciation with simple repetition, I’m leading the exchanges here too. But hey, I’m being honest about what happens in my class sometimes, I’m not gonna lie. (more…)