Something(s) I wish I had been told

Chris Mares

Something(s) I wish I had been told
by Chris Mares.

 

The thing about teaching is… you learn through experience. You have to put in the time. You have to feel embarrassed when you can’t answer a question and you have to get all hot and sweaty when there is a technical glitch that you can’t fix. That is how you learn. And it takes years. In fact, it’s a never-ending process. I’ve been teaching for thirty-eight years and I’m still learning. 

A true teacher is always a student. Richard Feynman, the famous American theoretical physicist once said, “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t.” A similar thing might be said of teaching, “If you think you have arrived as a teacher, you haven’t.” It is an art and an ongoing process. 

So, is there something I wish I had been told? Or perhaps things, even. I was certainly told a lot. However, a lot of what I was told created a tremendous amount of stress in me. I had to prepare rigorous, minute by minute lesson plans. I was castigated for going over time in my warm-up activity and berated for not following my lesson plan to the letter. 

The answer then is yes, there is something I wish I had been told. Forget about present, practice, produce. Sure it has its place, but what is more important is what I am about to tell you. 

Teaching is theatre. It’s drama. Think performer and audience. Think improv. Think stand up. 

Someone should have told me that so I could have immediately given myself permission to be me and get on with the show. Stagecraft is all about schema-raising, engagement, and storytelling. These are the things that excite and motivate students. 

And now the genie is out of the bottle, there are a lot more things someone could have whispered in my ear. For example, “Don’t just stay in your comfort zone. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Take risks. What’s the worst thing that could happen? Come on? What? A minute of mild embarrassment, or the class laughing at something you failed to do or got wrong? Big deal.” 

Am I being clear? No? OK, let me put it like this. Just because you can’t sing is no reason not to sing. Giving it a shot is the key. Students love that. And you can bet there’s someone in your class who can sing. The same goes for drawing, or dancing, or playing the guitar. 

I have got swirled up in my own enthusiasm, so I will slow down, in order to clarify. Generally speaking, teachers tend to teach how they were taught, or not how they were taught, or how they were trained, or not how they were trained, or any combination of the above. 

One of the other things I wasn’t told is that the process and practice of teaching is about our students, not as a hypothetical demographic with their requisite needs and interests, I mean as living, breathing human beings with lives and histories. It is these students as humans who we must connect with and engage. We must enthrall them with what we do and also with us and themselves. Needless to say we do this with intentionality and purpose. We recycle and give meaningful feedback. We note down what we have actually done and we point out to students what they have actually done, in terms of language practice and development. 

Students want and need a teacher who is passionate, engaged, perceptive, responsive, and reliable. 

I wasn’t told that. But I learnt it. And I try to spread the word to my trainees and mentees. 

Be you. The rest will come in time. 

 

It takes a year…

Anne Hendler

It takes a year…
by Anne Hendler.

 

Two months after my university graduation, I found myself teaching in a kindergarten – the same ten kids, five days a week, four hours a day. It was frustrating. I wasn’t trained. I didn’t know how to teach or manage a classroom. The recruiter had told me that the school would train me. The first thing my predecessor showed me was a game where he sits in a chair and the kids run around the room as fast as they can and try not to get caught by him. The second was one where the kids rearranged all the furniture in the classroom and made it into an obstacle course and tried to avoid getting caught by him. I observed his class for one day and then I was on my own.  

Slowly over the first year I built up the skills and confidence to be effective. I learned to adapt the curriculum to the kids as I got to know them. I learned classroom management skills that didn’t involve throwing a temper tantrum worse than the kids’ one. I learned to use repetition and set routines. I learned that just because kids don’t get something the first time doesn’t mean they’ll never get it or aren’t interested in it. I learned that kids change a lot in a year.   

At the end of the first year, having invested so much of myself in the school, the curriculum, and the kids, I didn’t want to leave. I stayed for five more years.  

Fast forward ten years. When I took a new job in a new country and a new context, I expected to walk in as the expert teacher that I felt myself to be when I left the kindergarten. What a humbling experience the reality has been. And once again it has taken a year to get comfortable with the curriculum, the students, the attitude towards English, the way language is learned in conversation schools, the expectations for students and teachers, when and how English is used in and outside of class. All these things factor into a very different experience. I wouldn’t dream of calling myself an expert now, or even thinking I might feel like one in five years. 

This year we have a new teacher starting at our school. She has never taught kids in Japan before, and my coworker and I were assigned to train her. And one of the things I want her to know is that it will take a year. A year to get to know her students. A year to get to know how best to manage the classroom and use the curriculum. A year to begin to understand the bigger picture of young learner conversation school teaching in Japan. And a year to feel comfortable. But we will help as much as we can. We will listen and learn from her new ideas and suggestions. We will all share our successes and failures and help each other out because we are better together.  

The Impact of ELF on Teachers and Materials Writers

Katherine Bilsborough

The Impact of ELF on Teachers and Materials Writers
by Katherine Bilsborough.

 

Where are all the ELF books? 

If you write “ELT books” in the search box of a well-known online bookstore, you’ll get pages and pages of suggestions, from grammar books to resource books, course books to methodology books and everything in between. The same is true for “ESL books”, “EAP books” and “ESOL books”. But type in “ELF books” and, perhaps unsurprisingly, you get a range of elf-themed picture books for very young children. And while “101 Things to Do with Your Christmas Elf” looks quite charming, it has nothing whatsoever to do with English as a Lingua Franca.  

A few questions about ELF from a teacher’s perspective …  

How does the growing acceptance of ELF impact on the role of a teacher? Do we have to focus on different aspects of the language? How do we know what we need to teach and what we don’t need to teach?  

 … and from an author’s perspective 

What kind of things might need to change in teaching materials in order to make them appropriate for an ELF context? Do teachers need specific ELF materials? If not, how might they use traditional resources differently? Which aspects need to change? And how? Is there a need for self-published ELF materials to supplement resources that teachers create themselves?  

A teacher’s focus 

If I was working as a teacher today and my students were going to be mainly using English as a Lingua Franca, I’d probably start each new course with these three steps. 

Step 1. Conduct a simple needs analysis and include a question asking your students who they think they are most likely to be using their English with in the future. In all likelihood you’ll have at least some students who think they’ll be mainly speaking English with people whose first language isn’t English either: students collaborating on joint university research projects from around the world, businesspeople at international conferences where English is the official language, or even would-be travellers who see English as a language of communication in destinations from Scandinavia to Patagonia.  

Step 2. After establishing that your students will most likely be using English with other speakers of English as a second language, set up a class discussion with a list of statements or questions to make them think about what would be helpful and what might be a waste of time.  In my experience, students don’t always realise what it is they need. They just remember and repeat what they’ve heard others say over the years. This means their reasoning can be underpinned by a spurious premise. Some will be passionate about grammar. Others will insist on learning lists of vocabulary. And for many the goal will be to speak English like a native English speaker – whatever that might be.  

Some suitable discussion questions could be along the lines of: 

a) Which is greater – the number of people who speak English as a first language or the number of people who speak English as a second language?(More than a billion people speak English as a second language, while around 400 million speak it as their first language.) 

b) How many different accents are there in your language? Are some better than others? Should a learner of your language try and adopt a particular accent?(When students think about people learning their language, they are able to step back and see learning English from a different perspective.) 

c) If communication is the ultimate aim of a language learner, which skills are important to develop in your English lessons?(Hopefully, a discussion will help students realise that some things, like having perfect grammar, are less important than, for example, developing their listening skills so as to be able to understand a range of accents. While they need to learn how to speak clearly, they certainly don’t need to have any particular accent.) 

 

Step 3. I’d look for the best possible materials for my students. This might mean checking the audios that come with traditional course books to see what kind of speakers have made the recordings. I’d choose the one with a variety of accents and reject the ones that only include native speakers of English. I’d look at the pronunciation sections in the course book and see what kind of things are being taught and focused on. If I wasn’t sure which features of pronunciation were important for speakers to communicate intelligibly, I’d find out! The “Lingua Franca Core” (LFC) has, along with a lot of other interesting content, a list of these features and it’s a useful list for teachers to familiarize themselves with if they really want to help their students become competent communicators in English. You can find out some of the key points from the LFC and read more about it in a post on Katy Simpson and Laura Patsko’s Elfpron blog here. Robin Walker’s book ‘Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca” is another excellent resource and a practical guide to the LFC. It comes with audio recordings of non-native speakers and lots of classroom suggestions.  

 

An ELT author’s perspective 

  1. In general, many of the teaching materials we write are based on native speaker models of English so parts of them might not be relevant for ELF. 
  2. There is a need for Listening materials with a variety of accents in the audio components.  
  3. We should write pronunciation materials after consulting the Lingua Franca Core to ensure that the aspects of pronunciation we are teaching are the most useful. 
  4. Digital materials might be better than print materials for ELF teachers because they can be more easily adapted for more specific needs.  
  5. There might be scope for writing “wrap around” materials that can be used alongside existing videos and audios1 with speakers from different countries speaking English well. Some of these could be generic, others more specific. 

 

As the number of people who speak English as a second language continues to grow, it’s inevitable that a growing number of teachers and students will turn to ELF as the most appropriate form of English to teach and learn. It’s my belief that in a few years time when we write “ELF books” in the search box of that well-known online bookstore, we’ll start finding the kind of books we’re looking for. 

My Priorities Teaching in an ELF World 

Michael Griffin

My Priorities Teaching in an ELF World 
by Michael Griffin.

 

“Well, personally I only teach correct English.” 

“I’m not gonna teach some sort of bastardized English.”

“Why would I dumb things down for my students?”

“My students expect me to teach them English and not some made-up and impoverished language.”

“It’s insulting to students to assume they can’t learn proper English!” 

Do these sound familiar? The above are some of the statements I’ve heard related to ELF (English as a lingua franca) from a variety of teachers. I’ve heard quotes like this from teachers chatting casually in pubs to teachers speaking at conferences. I’ve heard similar lines from inexperienced teachers just starting out in the field and from published experts alike.  

While it might be interesting, I won’t use my amateur psychology skills to analyze those who might utter the above quotes. Nor will I use my beginner sleuthing ability to create a passable theory about the origins of such thinking. I’ll also spare you my basic historical explanation of the term lingua franca.  I’ll even overlook sticky questions over what “correct” and “proper” mean in this context. In this brief post I’d just like to share how I view ELF and how this view tends to shape my English language teaching. 

I don’t think of ELF as a language, new or impoverished or otherwise. I think of it as a fact. To me it means these days English is the preferred language of communication around the globe. Even those who would not consider themselves proponents of ELF would have a hard time disagreeing with the notion that English language students are likely to use English with others who do not use English as a first languageI suspect and hope that’s a pretty uncontroversial statement. If we start here, perhaps some of the ideas and practices we’ve previously assumed to be self-evident can be re-evaluated. If we think the end goal for our students is not always to sound like or impress “native speakers”, it might change some of our teaching practices or at least our priorities.

Image credit https://www.flickr.com/photos/jonasb/2876165381  

For me ELF is not about overtly teaching sentences like “She go to the gym every Thursday” (as I have heard suggested), but rather considering this to be a minor mistake and choosing to focus on other things. I believe that a big part of teaching is about setting priorities. So, when I consider ELF in terms of correcting students it’s often about making a choice to look the other way on certain types of mistakes and errors. I think of ELF as a justification, and in fact impetus, to re-assess the importance of what I teach and what I correct. If we hear something in class that doesn’t sound quite right but is unlikely to prevent a listener from understanding, we can choose to ignore it.  I assume many teachers are already doing this anyway without considering ELF.  To my mind, the reality of ELF can just help us as we set our priorities. We might ask ourselves, “Does this really impede intelligibility?” We might consider the degree to which we are emphasizing or even over-emphasizing “native speaker norms.” We might step back and consider if our expectations for students are reasonable or practical or even helpful and needed.  

Another area where I feel that thinking about ELF helps me or causes me to re-prioritize is with the language of idioms and slang. If I step back and consider that my students are going to be speaking with interlocutors other than “native speakers”, it becomes easier for me to de-prioritize unnecessary and rare idioms and slang. I find that even asking myself “Are students likely to need or want this idiom for international communication?” and “Will those my students speak with be likely to know this idiom?” can help my decision-making process. When I  ask myself these questions I often choose to focus elsewhere.  

As we de-prioritize certain things, we will also probably want to prioritize others. The first thing that comes to mind in this regard is clarification strategies. This might mean helping students to be certain they have heard correctly (“B as in boy?”), as well as practice with things like paraphrasing and seeking clarification on more complicated points and opinions. In my mind, this shift calls for more collaborative work where there is not exactly one correct answer but students have to come to a joint understanding (and perhaps conclusion) on something.  

I believe considering some of the questions I’ve laid out above will enable us to be more attuned to our students’ needs and might help us prioritize what is most useful and helpful to our students. I think when we consider ELF a lens through which to view our teaching it can help us make better decisions.  

I’d like to state that the above is just my personal take on how ELF influences my own teaching. While I hope it’s helpful for you, your mileage may vary. Also, your students might have specific reasons for using English and might want to sound as close to “native speakers” as possible. They might be obsessed with idioms and slang and expect you to provide a bottomless supply of idioms. Your students might have work or personal reasons that cause them to desire sounding as native-like as possible. I am not suggesting as teachers we ignore these needs and wants. I’m just suggesting that English students in the future speaking with other L2 users of English is the reality for most.  

I’d also suggest that acknowledging ELF and using it as a lens for examining our teaching doesn’t necessarily mean we have to make a drastic change in our teaching. For me it’s just something else to think about as I plan lessons and courses and make decisions in the flow of class. It’s something that helps me to set priorities and evaluate my choices.  

In this post I have barely scratched the surface on the implications of ELF for teachers of English.  If you are interested in learning more about ELF and these implications for your own classroom, I might recommend taking Katy Simpson’s upcoming course on this.  

English Without Borders: Communication in a Connected World

Katy Simpson

English Without Borders: Communication in a Connected World
by Katy Simpson.

 

In many ELT classrooms, learners have little intention of ever stepping foot in an English-speaking country. So why are they learning English? Whether they have heard of the term or not, an important motivation for many is that English is the world’s Lingua Franca – a common language between people who do not share the same first language. So, how can we prepare our learners to communicate successfully in this way? In the following four videos (all filmed in Japan), we hear ideas and inspiration from teachers who believe in equipping learners with the tools to communicate clearly.

Who are your learners using English with?

 

Before we can begin to help our learners communicate successfully, we need to find out who our learners use English with. There are many reasons they might be using ELF. English is not only used as a Lingua Franca in the commercial world; it’s used to share ideas in academia, to enable sports teams to travel, to build bridges in the world of NGOs, to facilitate the meeting of minds between artists, and many more. Just this week, I watched Danish musicians perform at a concert in Kobe, Japan. At the end, they stayed around to chat to (Japanese) members of the audience – all in English. What does this mean for us as teachers? In this video, Anna and Nicky give us a flavour of an ELF-aware classroom:

  • Anna mentions the importance of relevant role models. How do you think this is connected to ELF?
  • Nicky explains that his learners use English with people from a range of countries. In what ways might the learners’ interactions with North American speakers differ from their interactions with other Asian speakers of English?

 

What skills do our learners need to use ELF successfully?

 

Much of the ELT industry still operates as if people study English for the same reason I’m learning Japanese; in order to integrate within a specific community. Coursebooks still usually defer to so-called “native speaker” accents in their pronunciation sections, and audio materials are filled with “native speaker” accents. Examinations often use “native speaker” pronunciation as a benchmark in descriptors, and it is still common to see the phrase “native speaker teachers” slapped proudly across the marketing of some schools. But in this connected world, where English is a communication tool across borders, are “native speakers” really as relevant as some parts of the ELT industry would have us believe? To meet the needs of most of our students, I strongly believe there needs to be a shift in the industry; we need to move away from judging a learner’s success based on how acceptable their English is to a “native speaker.” Instead, we need to prioritise clear communication in international context. As individual teachers, we might not be able to change the world of publishing, examinations, and marketing! However, we all make decisions in the classroom – and even the smallest of changes can help to empower learners as international communicators. So, what are the key skills that learners need? In this second video, three teachers talk about their classroom priorities:

  • Nick talks about the difficulty of persuading learners that successful communication does not always have to be grammatically accurate. Why do you think some learners find this concept challenging?
  • Mike talks about the dangers of making assumptions. Have you ever experienced the kind of communication breakdown that Mike describes, either inside the classroom or outside it?
  • Parisa describes the importance of pronouncing /r/ and /l/ clearly. Why do you think consonant sounds are so important when using ELF?

 

What types of activities can develop our learners’ ability to use ELF?

 

Many of the skills described in the second video are easily achieved through many of the communicative activities we already use in class. That is to say, addressing the needs of ELF users does not require a dramatic change in classroom practice. Information gap activities, for example, are ideal for developing skills such as paraphrasing. In this third video, we look at some more specific examples of classroom activities aimed at promoting successful communication using ELF:

  • Chia describes a fun speaking activity. Could this work in your classroom?
  • Kevin and Anna talk about the importance of the Internet in developing learners’ ability to use ELF. How else can we use the Internet to develop learners’ skills to help them use ELF?

 

How can we develop learners’ confidence communicating in ELF contexts?

 

One of the key issues for learners in any context is a lack of confidence. This is often compounded in an ELF context because of the range of first language backgrounds involved. This particularly impacts pronunciation. In this last video, Barbara, Atsuko, and Chad all focus on the importance of accents:

  • Barbara talks about building learners’ confidence listening to a range of accents and encouraging learners to choose relevant pronunciation models depending on their own accent. Do you try to familiarise your learners with a range of accents in your listening lessons? If so, please share suggestions for audio resources in the comments box below!
  • Atsuko suggests that communication is a two-way process, i.e. it is not only the speaker who is responsible for successful communication, but also the listener. Hence, learners need to be familiar with a range of accents. She also talks about the issue of “native-speaker deference” among so-called “non-native speakers.” How do you think we can help learners to take pride in their accent, wherever they come from?
  • Lastly, Chad stresses the importance of awareness-raising. What types of activities might promote this?

 

Indeed, it is fitting to end with Chad’s words because awareness-raising was a common thread throughout the videos. By helping our learners to understand the hurdles they might face when using English internationally, we can enable them to begin working on solutions. To find out more about these hurdles and solutions, check out our online course starting in February: Creating an ELF-aware classroom. Also, don’t forget to share your thoughts in the comments below, and a big thank you to everyone who was interviewed for the videos.