Six ‘useless’ things foreign language teachers do

The Language Gym

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  1. Recasts

Recasts are the most frequent form of feedback that teachers give students in the course of oral interactions. They consists of utterances by the teacher that repeat the student’s erroneous utterance but ‘fix’ the mistake(s) without changing the meaning in any way. Example:

Student: hier j’ai allé au cinéma

Teacher: je suis allé au cinéma

Recasts, according to research (e.g. Doughty, 1994) are extensively used in the classroom representing up to 60 or even 70 % of all teacher feedback on oral performance. An interesting finding by Doughty is that recasts tend to concern themselves with minor errors rather than big problems.

As several studies have clearly shown, recasts do not really ‘work’ as they are not noticed most of the time. Havranek (1999) investigated to what extent learners recall corrective feedback from the teacher or their own or their peers’ mistakes. She found that less than one third…

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What Brexit Means for TEFL in Europe

I’ve never liked the idea of people splitting up. This is no doubt some unresolved childhood trauma surrounding my own parents’ separation. Being the Anglophile I am, It came as a relief then, when The UK decided it was ‘better together’ back in 2014. Now, as an in/out referendum looms for Britain in June, I’m starting to get separation anxiety once again. This time however, the prospect of a divorce has never seemed so auspicious.

Britain leaving the EU will have major implications for anyone currently or wanting to teach in Europe and for the first time, Britons may yet have to prove their worth when it comes to working in their own back yard.

There are several scenarios, should the UK decide to leave The Union, but let’s start with what we know.

If Britain leaves, The Republic of Ireland will be the only native English speaking country in the EU.

Both scenarios depend on how the UK restructures its relationship with the EU (i.e. by staying in the EEA [European Economic Area] like Switzerland and Norway). One scenario is British teachers of English being on equal footing with teachers from the US, Australia, and Canada when it comes to competing for jobs on the Continent. Without the reciprocity agreements for work and living in member states as granted by the EU, British citizens jeopardise their preferred status in hiring. They too would have to go through the bureaucratic hell what so many non-EU citizens go through when looking for work in Europe.

Take a look at this screenshot from tefl.com:

 

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Notice the little EU flag next to each advert?

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By preferred, they generally mean “we can’t hire you if you don’t have the right to work in the EU.” Expect a lot of doors suddenly closed to you because of this.

Another scenario would see Brexit as a boon for European non-native English Speaking Teachers (NNESTs) who, thanks to Europe’s extremely restricted labour market, will be in much higher demand as language schools may not want to go through the lengthy and expensive work visa application process. This prospect interestingly enough may remove any locus standi for European NNESTs facing discrimination in hiring abroad as they will have they luxury of working visa-free in at least 30 countries in Europe while the rest of us can only dream of working there.

In sum, it’s up to the people of Britain to decide whether they are in or out of the European Union. But those that want out should think carefully about what life is like on the outside. Unless the EU changes it’s rules on immigration (and in light of the tragic events in Brussels and the ongoing refugee crisis, I don’t foresee this happening) British teachers may well have to look beyond the fortress of Europe to practise their craft.

 

March: NNEST Competitiveness in TEFL and the Fetish of Nativity

 

“All borders are explanations of identity. We construct borders, literally and figuratively, to fortify our sense of who we are; and we cross them in search of who we might become. They are philosophies of space, credibility contests, latitudes of neurosis, signatures to the social contract, soothing containments, scars.”

Frances Stonor Saunder [LRB]
British Journalist and Historian

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This month we’re re-visiting a perennial hot topic in ELT, which is, Native (NESTs) vs Non-Native English Speaking Teachers (NNESTs). I think March is a good month for this debate as it was originally dedicated to Mars, who was the god of war, competition, and glory. The main issue that we come across is that NNESTs are not seen as competitive on the global market as NESTs. I want to address why that is, and also why the discourse around “Native Speakerism” and authenticity have failed to make any headway– We see the same re-hashing of why one is better than the other and vice versa, without any concrete resolution. We’re not going to resolve this here (or any time soon) but a large part of that is because the debate has thus far been relatively insular and myopic. That is to say, we’ve run this idea through the same channels and with the same voices.

This isn’t an issue specific to ELT though. It’s part of a broader anthropology of education and that in itself really resists the kinds of technicalities we as English professionals want to impose on the subject in terms of skill sets and who brings what to the table. So, perhaps the conversation continues to be re-hashed because it hasn’t been framed correctly. The competition between NEST and NNEST isn’t a competition of competing skill sets but the commodification of the western teacher (who is generally speaking, white and Commonwealth). We should consider that language schools (and other LTOs) and their clients aren’t paying for skill, they are paying for an authentic experience, and for many of them a white teacher, a native speaker, is the closest they will come to experiencing the Western world. So instead of an evaluation of of who is a better model for pronunciation or has more extensive knowledge of phrasal verbs, we should be looking at this debate from an interdisciplinary perspective. This issue encompasses the philosophy of aesthetics, i.e. what an English teacher should look like and what they should sound like and also, the cult of fetish that has grown up in the industry around these ideals. Both of these must be explored through the legacy and lens of post-colonialism, history, and the performance of identity.

In this article, I’m going to focus on the NNEST issue as it relates to Europe rather than Asia. Mainly because Europe is really the genesis of this debate yet most of the attention has been focused on European NNESTs struggling to gain access to Asian (including Middle Eastern) markets than vice versa. Also the most prominent voices of the TEFL equality movement are coming from European/EU Academics and teachers at the moment. TEFL Equity Advocates (TEA) is one of the organisations at the forefront of the NNEST equality movement. And while their work is respectable, I find it slightly problematic in the global discourse given that despite their “Non-native” status, the are privileged in the EU/EEA in terms of priority in employment .

On Competition

Everything starts with Empire. Mars was a major figure in the Roman Empire (especially in the Western regions) and rather than being an agent of destruction, he was seen as a stabilising force, bringing peace and stability through conflict. (Think Orwell, “War is Peace.”) And so the idea of competition as an exercise of peace in Europe and the West  is very much ingrained in western narratives. In the West, competition is still considered as a good thing. The evolution of European politics, society, and economics has been a game of one-upmanship for centuries. This narrative though is seemingly at odds with those in the East, which generally place a much higher value on harmony. Unsurprisingly, Asia seems to be the major bone of contention for NNESTs in terms of competitiveness.

“To give just one example, many countries have strict visa restriction whereby only citizens of 7 countries are classified as NES: the US, the UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Such visa restrictions legitimize native speakerism and racism, giving the public and the ELT community an impression that discrimination is legal and thus acceptable. They also legitimize the false belief that English is primarily spoken in those 7 Inner Circle countries. That it is their English that NNES students and teachers should imitate. Mind you, there are over 50 countries where English is the official language, and the country with most English speakers in the world is not the US, but India. While on the other hand, only about 5% of South Africa’s population are NES.”

-TEA Website (link to full article)

The author here is completely correct. Visa restrictions by nationality are completely superficial and do little arbitrate the calibre of those teachers who are allowed in. What this fails to take into account is that both NESTs from the United States and Commonwealth countries are essentially locked out of the EU labour market as well despite being native speakers. By law, a company must be able to justify hiring a foreigner over a citizen/national of that country and then the whole of the EU. There are ways around this of course, but most companies don’t want to bother with the paperwork involved or the hefty sponsorship fees. Have a look on any Tefl job board advertising positions in Europe and you’ll see “EU Nationals perferred” or “We can only accept applications from those with the right to work in the EU.” That right to work requires a job offer, which is a nice little catch-22 to get around the fact that they simply will not hire a non-EU citizen. So while I sympathise with the plight of the NNEST trying to find work abroad, they too must acknowledge that they are privileged in many ways. I am, myself, a native speaker, with a Masters Degree, CELTA, and almost 10 years experience in teaching. Yet an NNEST from Italy or the Czech Republic would be given first consideration for a teaching job in the EU since I hold an American passport. If European NNESTs want to have a moral standing in this debate they should be willing to fight against the restrictive labour laws in their own backyard. We should remember that empires, both ancient and modern, don’t fall because of  external competition; they usually collapse under the weight of their own moral failings.

On Nativity

 

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What constitutes nativity and specifically the performance of being native is part of a very extensive and nuanced narrative of identity for almost a millennia. The native has always been contrasted against mainstream society as the “exotic other” and in times of empire that otherness was always fetishised. By fetishised I mean the fantasy that the native embodies, e.g. the idea of the noble savage, whose curious yet primitive ways are mythically and morally superior to and uncorrupted by the mainstream/dominant civilization. This too applies to our industry. The white male is automatically perceived as a more authentic choice for an English teacher, and for us teachers it is a mystery as to why that is considering there are just as many qualified teachers who are of colour, who are female, and who are LGBT. The irony here is that in previous eras, the native was always brown-skinned and dark haired under the auspice of a white hegemony whereas now it’s an Aryan aesthetic that is very much sought after in predominately ‘coloured’ societies. Anyone that has lived as an ethnic minority anywhere, of any colour, can attest to this idea that your otherness imbues you with some kind of innate talent and to make that judgement based on a visual aesthetic is specious. The Native English teacher of today has become a commodity to be fetishised over and as much as we can see it as a position of privilege, it’s still racism.

English is a global and inclusive language, our industry should be too.

We have the responsibility to use our privilege in our classrooms, in our schools, in our adopted homes, and in our own countries to challenge perceptions, break down legal barriers, and educate our learners about the diversity of English.

 

 

 

Delta Module 2: The First Week

I‘ve just finished my first week of Delta Module 2 at IH Wrocław. I have to say it’s not what I’ve expected but no less challenging! Our students are all young, professional Poles with a very good level of English. They’re very cooperative and eager to learn but most importantly eager to apply what they’ve learned– which is not something accustomed to after a stint in Saudi Arabia!

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Students discuss agreeing and disagreeing during a TP

So far all of the candidates in my group (total of six) have completed a diagnostic lesson and a developmental lesson and received feedback. Our next (or first depending on how you look at it) is our LSA (Language Systems Assignment). This is a longer, more in depth analysis of a particular language system (lexis, phonology, grammar, functions, or discourse) of no more than 2500 words and an accompanying lesson plan.

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Mr Alex Tilbury, main course tutor

As in the CELTA, the problem isn’t that the work and assignments are particularly difficult or challenging, but that it’s a lot to manage in a short amount of time. A typical day includes teaching practice (TP) feedback, 2 input sessions, an hour break and then 2 hours of teaching practice/observation. As you can see there’s not a lot of time during the day to plan lessons, and/or work on assignments, let alone have lunch! Good time management and organisational skills are essential, and I think it’s interesting how Cambridge has worked this element of professionalism into the course.

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Mr Anthony Guaghan, co-tutor for the Delta course

I have to say our tutors are quite supportive and knowledgeable and this is something you should definitely consider when choosing where you do your Module 2. It would be nice if we had more time to reflect on the input sessions but this is par for the course.

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Input Session

Aside from not having enough time, the only issue I have is with the teaching practice. Specifically the students. They’ve all done similar courses at IH (one of them has been coming for 6 years!) and more or less know what to expect. They’re used to getting up and moving around, working in pairs/groups, being able to speak at length at a moments notice, etc. From my experience, many students aren’t really prepared for this kind of classroom management and can be quite hostile to these approaches. My main challenge for after this course, but something I’ll need to think about at present, will be how I’m going to translate these techniques into different contexts. How does theory hold in the face of praxis?

Delta Course 2015

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So, I’ve arrived in beautiful Wroclaw, Poland to start my Delta course. Over the next 8 weeks I’ll be talking about my experiences here at IH Wroclaw, LSA’s, and a lot more. I’m looking forward to adding a few more tools in my teaching belt as well as working with some other candidates with much different experiences than mine. Also our course tutors Alex Tillbury and Anthony Guaghn are quite active in the ELT community.

I’ve decided that for the course, I want to focus on Phonology, Lexis, Writing, and Listening. I’ve chosen these because the systems and skills complement each other and, more importantly, they aren’t things I’ve really dealt with in my 8 years in the classroom. But I’ll be going into more detail as these lessons come up.

Watch this space for updates and insights into the Delta course.

How Important Are Lesson Plans, Really?

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There’s been a lot of talk lately in the tefl twitter and blogospheres about the importance (or unimportance) of lesson planning. For many of us that have been in the game for awhile we develop a sort of ‘automaticity’ to planning lessons. We know from experience what works, what falls flat, and how to set it all up. We know how to activate schematas, which display/concept/instruction check questions to ask, we can anticipate, more or less, what will be asked of us, etc. So for the experienced teacher, do we need to plan lessons every day? No. Every week? Probably not. However, I do think even experienced teachers should be doing a lot more planning than they are now (which let’s face it, isn’t much).

When I was preparing my application for my DELTA course I was asked to design an activity around an authentic text. I thought back to lessons I had done in the past and spiced it up a bit with some activities I read in “Games for Language Learning”. However when the interview came, I was floored when the course tutor asked about my aims. Apparently “because that’s what works” isn’t a good answer. The truth of the matter was that I hadn’t had to think about aims really since my CELTA. But I’m beginning to think that this was a mistake and something I should have been more conscious of all these years. And that’s what lesson planning does: It calls into question why do the things we’ve been doing for years.

After I got rejected the first time, that word ‘aims’ was burned into my brain for weeks. It still gives me the chills. After a few days of self-pity, I hit the books. “Planning Lessons and Courses” by Woodward seemed a good place to start. At the very beginning she lays out what a lesson plan is and what it isn’t. Mainly that it does “NOT mean the writing of pages of notes with headings such as ‘Aims’ and ‘Anticipated problems’ to be given in to an observer before they watch you teach” (emphasis hers, not mine). Rather she understands it to mean “considering the students, thinking of the content, materials and activities that could go into a course or lesson, jotting these down, having a quiet ponder, cutting things out of magazines and anything else that you feel will help you to teach well and the students to learn a lot, i.e. to ensure our lessons and courses are good.”

The keyword here is thinking—forethought. I see it every day. An amalgamation of materials clobbered together from the teacher’s library or a quick search on Google for “present perfect activities” 5 minutes before the next class. These lessons, though usually mediocre at best, do get the job done and a good teacher can make the most mundane activity come alive. But they also inevitably leave something to be desired. The transitions between stages/activities could have been smoother or more coherent; activities could have been more fleshed out or better contextualised; could I have done some phonology work with that exercise? There is a thought process that goes into properly planning a lesson and it usually shows. It shows an awareness of technique, theoretical underpinnings, and the why. A thorough lesson plan does not always guarantee a successful lesson but I think there is a positive correlation between the planning and the execution even though these two are not mutually exclusive. Whether we like it or not, it’s an awareness of the above as well as their conscious application that separates an OK or just coasting teacher from a good one. It’s not enough to just do, but to know why, and a lesson plan gives us the space and framework to consider possibilities. There’s a reason we spend so much time during our CELTAs on lesson plans even though we don’t use them nearly as much as we thought we would. It makes us think systematically about all of the elements that contribute to the success of a lesson. After we go into the big world of TEFL, we can take off the training wheels and start experimenting with those elements.

That being said, I don’t think it should we should plan every lesson, every day, down to every detail. But every now and again we do need a shake up. We need to sharpen our teaching blades after going through oh so many of those 45-90 minute motions. Having a lesson plan is also an invitation for critique, evaluation, and collaboration. It’s always interesting for me, to see how other teachers weave together different activities and approaches to create a coherent experience. I don’t always enjoy observations personally, but I’d rather things go not to plan than have no plan at all and just kind of see I can come up with (as exhilarating as it may be!). Even if things go pear-shaped, it’s interesting to know the rationale behind the intent.

I would agree that teaching is not “managing the delivery of a lesson plan.” We shouldn’t see them as a constraint, however, but a framework from which we can alter and deviate from as necessary. Like Howard says, “They’re not legally binding. We don’t have to stick to them come hell or high water. They are to help us shape the space, time and learning we share with students.”

Check out:

Are Lesson Plans A Waste of Time?: https://teflreflections.wordpress.com/2015/06/07/lesson-plans-a-waste-of-time/

Observations and Paperwork:  http://eltblog.net/2015/06/05/observations-and-paperwork/#more-900

Authentic Materials and the Classroom

This post was written as part of my application for the DELTA course at IH Barcelona.

What are the pros and cons of using authentic materials in class?

Scott Thornbury has written extensively on the importance of authenticity in the EFL/ESL classroom. He and others in his school of thought argue that, the classroom, generally speaking, may act as too sterile an environment to facilitate the kind of spontaneity one would actually encounter in the real world.  To counter this, teachers should make the classroom as close to “real-life” as possible. This is achieved through the use of realia, simulacra, and in this case authentic texts. I believe this to be true, but whereas using constructed, modified or graded texts don’t allow for creativity or affordances for learning outside of the text, authentic texts must be chosen and used discriminately and appropriately in relation to the level and needs of the learner(s). Here, I will attempt to weigh the benefits and disadvantages of using authentic texts in the classroom.

As stated earlier, contemporary discourse in ELT tends to favour the use of authentic texts. There are many reasons for this.  One reason is that it is naturally embedded in a context. Whether it is a menu or bus timetable, these texts are readily accessible to the teacher and relatable for the learner. And because the text is not synthetic, it allows for affordances for learning that would otherwise not be possible when using artificially constructed or graded texts. For example, recently I did a lesson on Cajun food with a group of elementary learners. After introducing them to 4 specific dishes and eliciting surrounding vocabulary (soup, rice, spicy, etc.), I told them we were going to New Orleans and I brought up a menu on the interactive whiteboard for a Cajun restaurant to look at before we left. It was a rather dense menu, full of text, no pictures. I asked them to find the 4 dishes, I had introduced to them earlier, on the menu. Then I asked them to choose 2-3 dishes they would like to have. Next, I had a student come up, and with the help of his classmates, take a red pen over all of the foods they couldn’t eat because of their religion (I teach in Saudi Arabia so pork and fish without scales are forbidden). After this, I informed them that I had a vegetarian friend joining us, so they needed to highlight all of the things our new friend could eat (being a Cajun restaurant, there weren’t that many options, sadly). In all, we managed to practice and develop multiple subskills (scanning/skimming/decoding/etc.). The kind of activities we were able to would have taken a considerable amount of time to do on my own. Further, I would be too conscious of target language and the limitations of my students to produce something as comparable or organic. There was an aspect of discovery learning on my side as I noticed things I hadn’t previously considered when I had selected the text. The main strength of using authentic texts, then, is the affordances for learning they offer. The spontaneity texts like these can generate creates more opportunities to exploit emergent language and pushes the students to develop their skills with something visceral.

Of course, no aid is perfect.  Authentic texts have their disadvantages. One important thing to consider when planning any lesson is the appropriacy of your tools. Often, we come across authentic texts we think would make for a good lesson purely by happenstance. This is either from our own personal reading, or on recommendation from a colleague. When we find a text we think might make for interesting class/lesson, there are a lot of things we must consider before we employ them. Usually the language presented is too colloquial or technical, or is culturally irrelevant or inappropriate. Adapting a wild text takes considerable time and creativity. When using textbooks or teacher-made material, however, we have the benefit that the texts are always level appropriate and there is a definite focus on the target language. We have the advantage that the material in front of us was created and reviewed with the learner in mind. Many of the textbooks on the market today have a range of pre-planned activities that pair more or less seamlessly with their materials.  In short, ‘inauthentic’ texts are easier. That being said, though they may seem to sacrifice quality for the sake efficiency and convenience (if we consider ‘an authentic experience’ to be tantamount to quality), I wouldn’t go so far as to say they are somehow wholly inferior to authentic texts. They are often times polished and fit for purpose and can be adapted if need be. They also free the teacher to focus on crafting other activities for free/communicative practice.

In summary, the use of authentic texts, while ideal, isn’t always necessary. Realia can be an amazing tool, offering that elusive organic experience most of us strive for in ELT. Textbooks afford us a readily accessible wealth of information and activity. However, they are just that: tools. Is it the sign of a good craftsman that he or she have many tools at his or her disposal? Or that he/she be able to make the most of the tools he/she has? When it comes to classroom aids, whether they are organic, authentic, or prefabricated, its performance often has more to do with the wielder than with the material itself.