TESOL Arabia 2013 Review

21 Mar

After thoroughly enjoying @michaelegriffin ‘s review of the Cambodia TESOL conference, I thought I would steal borrow his format (minus the pretty pictures) for my own conference review.

As this was my first conference in the UAE, I tried to see as much as possible, give a talk, and meet as many people as possible.  With all three goals I was somewhat successful…

Short Version:

A mixed bag.  Definite highlights and lowlights too.  Well worth it if you do your research beforehand.

Medium version:

  • Massive number of sessions across three days
  • Well organized, especially considering the logistics and sheer number of people
  • Self-realization that schmoozing is not my forte
  • Wide variety of presenters
  • Had a great time with a number of local trainers
  • Tons of publishers and stalls if you’re into that kind of thing

Long version:

Presentations I particularly enjoyed:

  • Carolyn Graham – Ok, so I know she’s given that same lecture/handout at least a 1000 times before, but it was still fun to clap and chant and get caught up in her infectious, crazy session.
  • Katie Davies @KatySDavies – A friend and colleague who gave an interesting session on increasing reading speed in academic English.  Unlike many of the talks, it was interactive, specific, and practical.
  • Some Pecha Kucha sessions – As to be expected, they weren’t all great (see below), but a couple of them, related to the free learning movement and aiding gifted learners, encapsulated exactly what I enjoy about the format: minimal text, concision, and a specific topic.

Giving a talk:

This was my first time giving a talk related to teacher training rather than ELT, and while it didn’t go exactly as planned (does it ever?), it seemed to go over pretty well.  The lack of whiteboard made me skip/adapt a couple of tasks and 40 people are a few more than I find comfortable for a workshop, but not a big deal.  A big thank you to everyone who did attend and also to those people who have since contacted me in follow-up.

Meeting people:

Overall, I didn’t get to meet as many people as I would have liked due to the format/my nature (see pet peeves below).  After my talk though a number of interesting trainers from the region came up to chat and I greatly appreciate the show of support.  As well, I did get to spend time with friends and acquaintances who I don’t get to see often enough.  I especially liked getting to know freelance trainier @AnnaHasper and hanging out with @ChrisOzog , @mickeywhist, and Irene Cruickshank.

Pet peeves:

1)      Death by powerpoint: A few sessions I saw had great titles, but upon arrival it soon became clear that the presentation meant reading huge swaths of text off of powerpoint slides.  45-minutes of this is pretty brutal, especially when the slides include a massive number of academic references and quotations.  Even the unintentional irony of Jack C Richards reading his powerpoint on ‘Creativity in Teaching’ did little to cheer me up.

2)      Vague research: I won’t say which talk it was, but if your months of research lead to the conclusion that ‘feedback for teachers is useful’, then you might want to reformulate your initial research questions.  Luckily  was there to ask hilarious/apt questions at the end (Wouldn’t it be demotivating if you received a 0 out of 5 for personality?)

3)      Number of people: Nothing to be done about this one I suppose, but with so many people, it was more difficult to meet people in the common areas than at other conferences.  It was like being in a busy train station.

4)      Rooms: The rooms in no way leant themselves to workshop style talks.  There were dimmed lights, no whiteboards, and crammed rows of sturdy chairs, making monitoring or grouping a challenge.

5)      Random Pecha Kucha’s – I like a strange topic or two, but why do a Pecha Kucha on how British banking practices and Greek drivers make you grumpy?  Really, the topic was ‘Things that make me grumpy’.  6 minutes and 40 seconds I’ll never get back…

6)      Missing the change to meet @tamaslorincz  @chucksandy  – Unfortunately I couldn’t attend the final afternoon and missed the chance to see some of my PLN in action.  A real shame.


For next year:

Do better research beforehand to decide what sessions to see, and try to see if I can do a Pecha Kucha presentation.

If you’re planning on going or have any suggestions for what to see, please let me know!


Friends, Romans, Kabayan…

25 Feb

I haven’t been blogging this year, but couldn’t resist when I saw this billboard in my metro station.  Can you guess what country this is in?  Who it’s written for?  What language it is? (Okay maybe the last one isn’t that tricky…)


If you do recognize this ad, then maybe you’ve recently been in the Dubai Marina metro station in the UAE.  And if you understood all the lexis in this ad, then you’re probably Filipino or familiar with the culture.  It turns out  that Kabayan is a Filipino term for countryman and adobo is the name of a popular Filipino dish (thanks Google).Adobo

So why did this ad make such an impression on me?

I suppose it’s because of the endless discussion and debate in ELT concerning English as a Lingua Franca, who English belongs to, what English we should be teaching, etc.  Outside of ELT, variations of this debate can be seen too, as evidenced by this recent article in the Guardian which came out about Singlish (English from Singapore).

Now, I don’t pretend to have any answers, or even particularly strong feelings on the subject, but it does seem to me that this ad does say a lot about the current state of world English.  After all,

  • it is written in English
  • it includes lexis for a specific non-native English speech community (Filipinos)
  • it is posted in a prominent spot, in an Arabic-speaking country in the Middle East

I’m not sure who English belongs to, but it certainly isn’t me (and that’s just the way I like it).

Freedom through Restriction

1 Oct

Well, I’ve had a bit of a hiatus from writing anything, and I’m not really sure why.  Hopefully this one will get me back into the habit, at least until the MSc work kicks in.  Thank you to the people who took the time to poke me and encourage me to get going again.

So what’s the funniest thing you’ve ever seen?


For most people, this question is very difficult or even impossible to answer.  Sure, we’ve seen a lot of hilarious things in our lives, but the funniest?  There’s just so much to choose from that nothing comes to mind.

Occasionally, while watching trainees teach, I suspect that something similar is happening to the learners.  In particular, it tends to be when the teachers are giving the learners ‘freer practice’ of a language point or ‘working on fluency’[1].  It’s pretty easy to see why too – the trainees, admirably, want to give the learners a chance to say whatever they want, without interference.  Intuitively, this seems like a great way to promote meaningful conversation, without any unnatural restrictions.

In reality, however, the speaking often dries up and the panic on the teacher’s face sets in as they realize that their 15 minute activity has lasted for only 3.  It’s at this point that I usually start feverishly praying (despite my agnosticism) that they don’t try to play hangman/cry/let all the students leave early/do painstakingly long feedback/ramble aimlessly until time is up.

So why does this happen?  Partly, the terminology, or at least the understanding of the terminology, may be to blame.  The word ‘free’ or ‘freer’ is often interpreted as meaning that the task itself is free, without parameters or a concrete outcome.  To my way of understanding, this is not the case.  Rather, ‘freer practice’ simply implies that there is no right or wrong answer and that the task can be completed successfully using a wide range of language.  The parameters of the task though may in fact be quite rigid and yet still allow for unlimited creativity.  To draw on examples from outside of the classroom, many genres of writing insist on strict adherence to certain forms, including haikus, sonnets, minisagas, and even tweets.  I somehow doubt that Shakespeare was not ‘free’ to write what he wished.

Looking at many classic ELT activities, this same type of built-in structure is apparent.  Take for example a desert island task where groups decide on the three most essential items from a list, or Alibi, wherein learners play specific characters, who have committed a specific crime, and must write and answer specific questions: I would argue that in such cases, not only do the guidelines not hinder the learners’ output, it actually encourages more creativity as they must wrestle with the requirements of the task using all the language at their disposal.

None of these thoughts are new of course, and truly meaningful tasks are promoted by most methodologies, but still it’s useful for trainees to be reminded now and again.  So the next time you see a plan including ‘a 20 minute discussion about pets’, maybe suggest a few tweaks.  After all, a bit more restriction might just lead to a whole lot more creative output.

[1] The inverted commas are to show my reservations about these terms!

Material-light Reading Tasks

2 Jul

As with the last post, this one is intended to become an article for a local journal that focuses on reading and has sections intended for teachers, students, and parents.  Before submitting it to them, I thought I would see what  people visiting the blog think.  All constructive criticism is greatly appreciated.


Not another gapfill!

As teachers, we’ve all created matching exercises, crafted carefully worded comprehension questions, or cut up the paragraphs of a text.  These are the things, we are told, that dedicated teachers do to help their students develop their reading skills.

But is there no other way?  While the traditional assortment of reading activities are all tried and tested, there are often situations or contexts when they are not a viable option.  What happens if there is no photocopier or materials available? Or a student brings an interesting article to class that you know would be of immediate interest and relevance?

Below I would like to share a few ideas that have worked for me in such situations and that might be of use to others as well.  Keep in mind that these are just reading activities in isolation – the contexts, lead-ins, and post-reading tasks are not included, but are of course an essential part of any reading lesson.

On to the activities…

Authentic texts are often more interesting and relevant for the learners, but don’t come with any handy accompanying tasks.  Here are a few which can be used at a moment’s notice, divided according to reading sub-skill.

Gist tasks – tasks to help the learners get the main idea of the text

  • Learners quickly read the article and write possible titles.  During feedback they can choose their favourite one.
  • Read the first paragraph of the text at normal speed and learners take notes.  Then in groups they reconstruct the text in full sentences and compare it to the original text (sometimes called dictogloss).
  • Prediction tasks where the learners are given the title, first sentence, etc. and they must guess what comes next.  They then read to check their predictions.
  • Write a list of possible topics on the board and the learners read quickly to decide which ones were mentioned.
  • Students read different sections of a text and summarize to their partners.

Reading for specific information – tasks to help the learners practice scanning

  • Learners create their own questions about contents of the text (short answer, true or false, multiple choice, etc.) for the other learners to answer.
  • Provide ‘answers’ and ask the learners to make the questions
  • Write words or numbers from the text on the board and the learners scan the text to find their significance

Detailed reading – tasks to help the learners develop a more in-depth comprehension of the text

  • As appropriate, learners create charts, diagrams, maps, or time-lines based on the information in the text
  • Learners create summaries of the texts which deliberately contain factual errors.  Their peers must then try to find the errors and correct them.

Inferring meaning – tasks to help learners read between the lines and work with context

  • Each learner chooses one unfamiliar word and the class tries to work out the meaning from context.  They can then check with the teacher or a dictionary to confirm their predictions.
  • Learners deduce and discuss the emotions of characters, the opinion of the author, etc. (any questions in which the answer is not explicitly stated).

Engaging with the text – tasks to help the learners interact with the text and express their own opinions

  • Don’t give the ending of the text and learners write their own, which they can compare to the original later.
  • Hold a debate or discussion about issues raised in the text.
  • Rewrite the text in a different genre, e.g. short story to newspaper article.

Other considerations

One text – On occasion, it may not even be possible to get multiple copies of the text.   True, this will make reading practice difficult, but the one text can be used as excellent stimulus for speaking practice.

  • If one student brings in an article which they have read, designate that student as the ‘expert’.  The rest of the class can then write questions to ask the expert, who tries to answer them, referring to the text if necessary.
  • Bring in a local newspaper and have them predict possible stories for the day.  Then, divide up the paper and have groups check their predictions before reconvening to compile their answers.  Following on from this stage, each pair can choose the article they found most interesting and give a report to the class.  The rest of the students then ask ‘the experts’ more specific questions.

Using student compositions – Sometimes, the best text to use is the one that students have created themselves!  Naturally, these texts won’t provide the same richness of language that an authentic text would, but on the other hand, the language will definitely be graded sufficiently.  Should the teacher choose to use student-made texts for reading comprehension, many of the aforementioned activities can still be adopted, and many students thoroughly enjoy creating comprehension tasks about their own writing for their peers.

Young learners – For teachers of young learners, many of the activities described here can also be adapted in order to incorporate an element of fun, for example, competitions, board races, treasure hunts, etc.

Further reading

Hopefully, the ideas presented here can be of use to anyone interested in developing learners’ reading skills.  As always in language teaching and learning, there is no one right way to do something, so it certainly helps to have as many teaching tools as possible at one’s disposal.  For many teachers, coming equipped with stacks of resources provides a sense of security, but sometimes it’s just not possible, and who knows, maybe going green and using the students themselves as a resource will in fact liven up the lessons.  It can’t hurt to try!

Trainee See, Trainee Do?

11 May

After only a cursory glance online at initial teacher training courses, one recurring selling point immediately stands out: “Learn by doing!”  As one website succinctly put it,

[Because] CELTA training is based on experiential learning, or “learning by doing”, teaching practice (TP) is at the heart of the course.[1]

And who am I to argue?  As a CELTA trainer myself, I have witnessed firsthand the value of teaching practice and reflection.  Lately however, I have been pondering the experiential learning of the trainees, not when they are actually teaching, but when they are receiving input sessions from the trainers.

So ingrained in ELT is the value of experiential learning that, as trainers, we are constantly demonstrating activities, employing ELT classroom management strategies, and in general getting our trainees to ‘be the students’.  And I get this.  ELT trainers are first and foremost EFL teachers, so it is only natural that we transfer our skills.  But have we taken this too far?  I suspect that many of us, myself included, may have.  Accordingly, in an attempt to be more conscious of my own training practices, I have compiled a few factors for consideration on future teacher training courses:

BalanceWhen is ELT modelling most useful?

Right off the bat I suspect.  Thrown in at the deep end, new trainees with no teaching experience need something tangible to latch onto.  At the outset, observing how the trainer gives instructions or elicits lexis can be invaluable and immediately applicable to teaching practice.  Certainly, it’s important that they consider the rationale for giving succinct instructions, but more important still is that they mimic their trainer and actually give succinct instructions right from the very first lesson.  At this point, the how is as, if not more, important than the why.

As a training course progresses however, and the trainees have (one hopes) acquired some survival skills, the need to see their trainer task check instructions wanes.  In fact, once the trainees get the point, is there any reason to be doing this?

The trainees Who benefits most from explicit ELT modelling?

Tied in with the previous consideration, it seems that trainers sometimes forget to suit their training methods to the participants.  Many courses stress the need for the trainees to cater to the individual learning styles, preferences and needs of their learners, yet this mandate is not heeded by the trainers themselves!

Likewise, there are, or at least should be, significant differences between a pre-service course for new teachers, and a group of experienced teachers taking an in-service course or other form of continued professional development.  Considering that seasoned teachers already have extensive experience to draw upon, would they not be better served analyzing and reflecting, rather than being flooded with more demonstrations of activities?

ReflectionWhat is the point of experiential learning anyway?

Sometimes it seems we get caught up in the most obvious aspect of experiential learning – the experience.  And yet this is only one of the steps of the Experiential Learning Cycle.  According to David Kolb’s model (1984), there are in actuality four stages:

  • Experience
  • Critical Reflection
  • Abstract Conceptualization
  • Active experimentation

Thus, for our trainees, the experience stage could be both their own teaching practice and their experiences in the input sessions.  Likewise, the final active experimentation stage is also their teaching practice, where they can put into practice their newfound knowledge gained from feedback and reflection.

It is the other two stages, critical reflection and abstract conceptualization, which are sometimes given short thrift in our eagerness to always be moving forward to something new.  Describing these steps in his summation of Kolb’s theory, Kelly writes that,

[w]hereas in the Critical Reflection stage we ask questions about the experience in terms of previous experiences, in the Abstract Conceptualization stage, we try to find the answers. We make generalizations, draw conclusions and form hypotheses about the experience.[3]

To my mind, it is in reality this crucial process of self-questioning and answering which is at the core of a teacher’s formation.  While there are obviously benefits to be gained from accumulating teaching experience, these gains are multiplied exponentially when accompanied by serious reflection.  All too often I observe experienced teachers whose lessons are brimming with wonderful activities drawn from a variety of sources, and yet their lessons lack any coherence or logic.  In contrast to these activity-driven lessons, there is always a palpable difference when watching a teacher who has really considered why they are doing what they are doing.


Teacher training optionsHow can we usefully promote experiential learning during input?

When trying to capture the benefits of both experiential input and reflection in teacher training, three techniques spring to mind; all have long been mainstays of teacher education, and with good reason:

Loop input

Pioneered by Tessa Woodward (1986), in a 2003 article she describes it as “a specific type of experiential teacher training process that involves an alignment of the process and content of learning.”[5]  Examples of loop input could include doing a dictogloss (the process) about dictogloss (the content), a series of reading tasks (the process) about teaching reading lessons (the content), etc.

So how is this different from the usual workshop activities?  Not only does this save time, but different trainees will derive greater benefit depending upon their learning preferences, either from doing the activity, receiving explicit input, or just from the reinforcement that this style of integrated input entails.  It is important to remember, however, that a post-task reflection stage is imperative in order to give trainees a chance to digest what they have just participated in.

Micro teaching

Having trainees teach mini-lessons or language points to their peers might seem a little stilted or unnatural, but in moderation it does have some unique advantages.  As with loop input, micro teaching allows for two simultaneous processes to take place. On the one hand, the trainee experiences semi-authentic teaching conditions and gains useful experiential practice.  Equally, it is possible for the trainer or other trainees to interrupt the ‘lesson’ and give real-time feedback rather than the typical post-lesson variety.  As Thornbury points out,

The trainer’s role, as silent, impassive observer, noting every move, and delivering the feedback retrospectively, seems to run counter to what we now understand about skill acquisition. Cognitive learning theory has long recognised that feedback in ‘real operating conditions’—i.e. while you’re actually engaged in a task —is generally more powerful and more durable than feedback delivered after the event.[6]

Handled in a sensitive manner, this process allows for immediate reflection and a chance to reattempt parts of the lessons (something most teachers have wished they could do at one point or another).  As a result, all four of Kolb’s stages of experiential learning can in reality take place within a single session.


Taking a slightly different tack, another experiential training technique is to demonstrate what not to do.  At first glance this may not seem to differ from a good demo in many regards, but I would argue that there is an appreciable distinction.  In addition to horrible demos usually being both highly memorable and entertaining, they also necessarily stimulate a far greater degree of reflection.  While it is possible after a good demo for trainees to perhaps pick up what the trainer was doing, memorize the stages, or intuit the rationale, this is by no means a given.  Conversely, following a bad demo, trainees are compelled to analyze why it was a terrible experience and how it could have been improved.  Based upon previous post-course feedback, it seems that these lessons learned about what not to do often leave the most lasting impression.

Final thoughts

In the end, the degree to which a trainer wants to model ELT in their training sessions is a personal choice.  For most, this will continue to be a balancing act between behaviourist learning theory (demonstrating and repeating the ‘correct’ way of doing things) and cognitive learning theory (contemplating and reflecting upon the process).  And of course to a great extent, the approach adopted should depend on the needs preferences of the specific trainees.  Whatever the decision though, it does raise the question, posed here by Anthony Gaughan:

Is it really as easy as all that to make such a close correlation between learning a language and learning to teach, and teaching to teach? [7]


Davies, Clara.  Learning cycle image.  University of Leeds.  Last downloaded May 2012 from http://www.ldu.leeds.ac.uk/ldu/sddu_multimedia/kolb/static_version.php

English Canada. Teacher Training: About CELTA.  Last downloaded May 2012 from www.englishcanada.org/teacher-training/index.php?topic=aboutcelta

Gaughan, Anthony.  2012.  Comments on Jemma Gardner’s blog: Lead by Example.  Unplugged Reflections.  Last downloaded May 2012 from


Kelly, Curtis.  David Kolb, The Theory of Experiential Learning and ESL. The Internet TESL Journal.  Last downloaded May 2012 from http://iteslj.org/Articles/Kelly-Experiential

Kurzweil, Joshua.  2007. Experiential Learning And Reflective Practice In Teacher Education. AYMAT Individual Thesis/ SMAT IPP Collection. Paper 5. Last downloaded May 2012 from http://digitalcollections.sit.edu/ipp_collection/5

Smith, M. K. 2001. David A. Kolb on experiential learning. The Encyclopedia of Informal Education. Last downloaded May 2012 from http://www.infed.org/b-explrn.htm

Thornbury, Scott.  2011.  P is for Practicum.  An A-Z of ELT.  Last downloaded May 2012 from http://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2011/07/10/p-is-for-practicum

Woodward, Tessa.  Key Concepts in ELT: Loop Input ELT Journal Volume 57/3 July 2003 OUP.  Last downloaded May 2012 from: http://eltj.oxfordjournals.org/content/57/3/301.full.pdf

[1] English Canada

[2] It can be argued that almost all new teachers already have experience in the language classroom, albeit as learners.  Although this previous experience is undoubtedly useful, it is highly improbable that many language learners are consciously analyzing their teachers’ pedagogical practices.

[3] Curtis 1997

[4] Davies 2012

[5] Woodward 2003:301

[6] Thornbury 2011 – It should be noted that Thornbury actually advocates this form of feedback during authentic teaching rather than as part of micro-teaching.

[7] Gaughan 2012

Up and running!

30 Mar

Well, we’ve finally gotten our Dogme Pura Vida action research project up and running.  If you’d like to check out our progress or see summaries of any of the classes, plese visit the blog at puravidadogme.wordpress.com

Thank you to everybody who has helped, either through contributing ideas, providing the space (Rosa  at Pi Plus Academy), visiting our blogs, or attending the classes.  Most importantly, this project never would have even started without my friend and colleague, @ChrisOzog, whose energy and ideas made it all happen.

Also, since I’ll be writing pretty frequently for the other blog, there probably won’t be anything here over the next few months.  See you at puravidadogme.wordpress.com!

What happens when EFL teachers use facebook…

23 Mar

A quick warning, if you find the conversation below funny, you may have a serious EFL problem.

At first, I whited out all the names but then @ChrisOzog told me he wanted everyone to know that the H next to a picture of Hernan Cortes is in fact him.  This has given me the courage to admit that B is in fact me.  It feels so good to come clean…

Also, for the sake of accuracy, I should point out that I erased a few comments from other people saying things like ‘You’re all losers’ and ‘I hate you all’.

Feel free to continue the story, anonymously or not.

(Just click on the image twice to enlarge it.)



Developing Tolerance to Ambiguity

31 Jan

Perusing my twitter feed the other day, I saw that Willy Cardoso had written:

“Developing tolerance to ambiguity” should be an interesting ELT article, talk, book, whatever…

I couldn’t have agreed more and off I went, happily spending my morning trolling the internet, reading articles and avoiding doing any real work.

And, after reading a number of interesting articles and papers, I came to two conclusions:

1)      I believe/have always believed in the importance of tolerance for ambiguity (AT) when learning a language

2)      I do nothing to deliberatelyraise my own students’ AT

This seemed (and still seems) like a serious oversight on my part, so I thought I would write a short blog post to see if anyone has any useful suggestions.

But first a little background (to set the mood of course)…

What is ‘Tolerance for Ambiguity’ (AT)?

As I understand it, AT in general refers to an individual’s ability to accept ambiguity, lack of structure, complexity, insolubility, etc.  Relating this concept to language learning, we are talking about learners’ ability to deal with unknown language, partially understood information, or unfamiliar situations.  It is precisely in these situations that a learner who remains calm and employs useful strategies will best be able to communicate successfully.  This definition comes in large part from an excellent paper focussing on the correlation between AT and reading competency which can be found here: http://bit.ly/w5LOO9 (Erten and Topakaya 2009)

So what does it mean for language learning?

Well, you can judge for yourselves – take a look at a list of these characteristics of someone with high AT.  Would you say that these were characteristics of good language learners?

  • Doesn’t worry about understanding every detail
  • Doesn’t overly rely on rules
  • Accepts that there isn’t always a solution to every problem
  • Considers various, possibly contradictory options, without dismissing them
  • Understands a situation despite incomplete schemata

Interestingly, the paper mentioned above suggested that too high a level of AT is also not a positive attribute, as it can lead to error fossilization.  This makes sense if you consider that high AT could indicate a lack of noticing and self-monitoring on the part of the student, especially of language accuracy.

If you’re interested, there are also a number of ‘Ambiguity scales’ available, complete with short quizzes to find out your own level of AT.  Check it out if you like at http://bit.ly/yj0uyj

Practical Ideas

I suppose the first question is really Can AT be taught? To be honest, I’m not sure, but I’m ready to find out.  My initial hunch would be that, while different people naturally have different levels of AT, it probably can be developed through learner training.  With that in mind, here are a few ideas that I feel lend themselves well to developing AT:

Using authentic texts

The paper mentioned earlier lists the following as possible causes of ambiguity:

  • multiple meanings
  • vagueness, incompleteness
  • fragmentation
  • probabilities
  • lack of structure
  • lack of information
  • uncertainty
  • inconsistencies and contradictions
  • lack of clarity

I don’t know about you, but nothing produces these elements like authentic material, especially unscripted dialogue between native speakers!  Possible tasks could then include deducing meaning from context, inferring speaker attitude opinion, or any other task that isn’t focussing on specific information.


One genre that relies heavily on multiple meanings and implicit references is humour.  So why not use jokes as a means to understanding subtext and culture?  Apart from anything else, it’s an enjoyable way to engage learners while dealing with useful, and often neglected, elements of communication.

Songs (or poetry if you’re so inclined…)

I have to admit that I’ve rarely used poetry in my classes, but use songs with regularity.  Many songs are perfect in that they are deliberately obtuse and require interpretation on the part of the listener.

With all of the genres mentioned above, the specific tasks themselves will determine whether or not it promotes AT, but at the very least they provide teaching opportunities.

Looking back over my very short list, what strikes me as not being helpful for developing AT is controlled mechanical practice of carefully selected grammar structures.  In fact, an overreliance on a diet of coursebooks/explicit grammar practice might be partially to blame for long-standing students with low AT (for the record, I’m not totally anti-coursebook, but all things in moderation…)

So, if anyone has any comments, or better yet, other suggestions, I would love to hear them.

Board with Aims

2 Dec

I just came back from a surprisingly interesting workshop about using the whiteboard effectively.  While I never did learn how to write in a straight line while facing the class, there was an interesting discussion about whether or not teachers should write up the aims of their lessons on the board.

I have to say, I’m pretty vehemently against it for a number of reasons but maybe I’m overstating the case and should just relax.  Anyways, here are my reasons against pre-boarding lesson aims and stages, and I’d love to know what other teachers think, especially those who find the practice useful.

  • Breathing space – I think most teachers would agree that lessons should be dynamic, have some degree of freedom/learner autonomy, and that lesson plans should be flexible (for many teachers this is putting it mildly!).  If this is the case, then why needlessly constrain yourself?  What happens if it’s more useful to spend longer on something at the start of class or to change the language focus?
  • Student reactions at the start – The other day I walked into my Spanish class and saw that we were going to be looking at Part 2 of the Reading Paper for my DELE exam.  Great.  This definitely dampened my enthusiasm right off the bat, even though I know that it’s necessary practice.  Would it have hurt to have led into it gradually?  A little mystery isn’t such a bad thing after all…
  • Student reactions at the end – Assuming you’re not a militant with a stopwatch and don’t quite make it to where you had expected, how are the students meant to feel?  They can see that there was something else planned and might well feel like they’re missing some crucial course content that never got covered (one of their grammar mcnuggets is missing from the box!).  I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer to avoid that scenario if at all possible.

I suppose the argument is that some students like to know in advance what’s being covered in class as it helps to organize their own notes and study habits.  Fair enough, but isn’t it possible instead of writing up the lesson contents and aims at the start to write them after having completed the stages?  This way whatever you decide to focus on is fine and the learners still end up with a written record of what went on.

So teachers, what do you do and why?  And what should I tell my trainees?

Random Spanish vocab at its finest

4 Nov

Here’s a serious linguistic test: take a look at my new Spanish vocab and try to guess what we’ve been studying in my weekly class (all bad translations are my own):

• Pezuña – a hoof

• El colmo de la chineazon n– ‘the pinnacle of being spoiled (pretty sure this is Costa Rica specific)

• De según como se mire – It depends how you look at it

• No es tanto que… sino que… – It’s not so much… as it is…

• Empedernido – something like ‘hard-line’ (adj.)

• Yo discrepo – I disagree (formal)

• Meter la cuchara – Get involved in somebody else’s business (another Ticoismo I think)

• Caballo de Troya – Trojan horse

If you guessed it was an exam prep class focusing on the environment and deforestation in Spain, then well done!

I guess what strikes me here, looking back at my notes, is that students really do learn what the want to learn and not what the teacher sets out to teach. Luckily in my case I take the class with my friend Chris who shares similar views on language learning and with my teacher Fernando who has been receptive to ideas regarding using emergent language.

In the past though, I’ve had classes were the teacher was insistent on presenting and practicing certain structures (usually involving the subjunctive!). In these cases I dutifully did what was asked of me, dropped out of the class, and then learnt some new vocab from my wife, the taxi driver, my bandmates, etc.

As normally happens, reflecting on my Spanish classes gets me to thinking about my own teaching practices and those of the staff here at the school. If I find the set material so dull, surely they do too? And while I know a number of the teachers are creative and open to emergent language and the students’ immediate needs, I’m also equally sure that there are a number of teachers who follow the coursebook from unit 1 to unit 12 without deviation. I shudder to think…